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Between Ford and Zuckerberg, the role of executive has changed

In the early part of the 20th century, the developed world experienced a major transition from a basic agrarian economy to an industrialized society. Technology began to focus on the mechanization of the production of consumer goods and improvements in communications whilst transportation widened the external perspectives from localized issues to national, and even international concerns.

This transition paved the way for Henry Ford, the American founder of Ford Motor Company and the father of modern assembly lines and mass production. With the introduction of the Model T automobile, he truly revolutionized the transportation industry as well as the lives of the American people. He had a global vision driven by global consumerism which saw him become arguably the industrialized world’s first and most famous business executive, with his company amassing a net worth of over $188 billion in 2008.

Today, one of the world’s most recent and famous company executives is Mark Zuckerberg, a 25-year-old Harvard University graduate thought to be worth in excess of $2 billion. And why is he famous? He is the co-founder of social networking website Facebook.

The evolution of the executive role

The story of these two men is a perfect example of how the role and profile of the business executive has evolved over the last century, however what’s also interesting is how some things have stayed the same.

To start with, let’s look at what many of the world’s most successful business leaders have shared; Henry Ford, Hugh Heffner, Bill Gates and even Mark Zuckerberg can all be considered innovators who have come up with products that have turned out to be industry game changers – Ford brought cars to the masses, Gates sought to place a PC in every home, Zuckerberg connected people around the world, be they old school friends or business partners, and Hugh Heffner made erotica mainstream.

All have given us things that we previously never knew we needed, but now can’t imagine life without. Whether you personally use the products or not, one cannot deny their global impact and success. However many of the world’s most successful executives have not needed to rely on one sole product, and have chosen instead to diversify their investments thus multiplying their chances of success.

Entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch have all made their fortunes by spreading their business acumen across a vast range of industries and products ranging from airlines, media networks and even contraceptives.

Right place, right time

Of course, many executives will tell you that a lot of their success has come from being in the right place at the right time… essentially luck. While today, not many people have an Amstrad in their home, Sir Alan Sugar’s fortune was built upon the success of his Amstrad computer which entered the electronics market at a time when personal computers were just taking off.

Today, whilst Amstrad has been overtaken by the likes of Microsoft and Apple, Sir Alan has managed to continue his business credentials by expanding his enterprises and diversifying his investments. Whilst not all of them have been successful (i.e. the video phone that wanted to charge people for emails), his broad investment portfolio has ensured that he is still a successful businessman to this day.

The celebrity executive

In the past few decades, we have seen the age of the celebrity executive with some even becoming brands in their own right. Donald Trump has become a television personality with his show The Apprentice, only serving to lift the profile of the Trump brand, and one of the most successful women to have ever lived, made her name as a television talk show host. Today, Oprah Winfrey is founder and CEO of Harpo Productions, the multimedia company that produces her TV show.

People like Ford and William Randolph Hearst could not rely on the far reaching mediums of television and the web to spread their various companies and products, but in today’s technologically advanced world of communication and interaction, Warren Buffett has proven the old-school business exec can still compete with the new kids on the block.

He has built his $37 billion wealth without ever having a computer in his office, and rumour has it he has never even sent an email.

The role and profile of a business executive has evolved, of that there is no doubt. The internet has perhaps been the biggest influence on the way CEOs have changed, with the story of YouTube serving as a perfect example of how billions can be made from a simple idea that lots of people like and then selling it on.

The Attention Economy

It’s not just the role of the executive that has changed though, it’s also the face of business. In Ford’s time, it was all about manufacturing and production lines, then in Gate’s it was all about information, but today money and profit comes from getting and holding consumer attention.

This form of ‘attention economy‘ has seen a soar in platforms that allow companies to reach their customers on a much more personal level. Controlling these platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, is the key to mass profits – at least, that is what Zuckerberg and Evan Williams are hoping.

However, through all this there is one constant; unless you provide the customers with something they want, profits will not be forthcoming. However as Zuckerberg once pointed out, sometimes consumers don’t know they want what you have, until it’s in front of them – “There’s lots of stuff none of us have ever seen before. That’s good in some ways, but limiting in other ways.”

After all, Ford had thousands of critics wondering if his ‘horseless carriage’ would ever take off…

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