Add another episode to the saga of the overworked modern chief executive: Akzo Nobel announced on Tuesday that Ton Büchner, appointed to the Dutch company only in April, will take a “leave of absence” having been “diagnosed with temporary fatigue“.
It is all reminiscent of Lloyds Banking Group’s decision to give António Horta-Osório, the UK company’s chief executive, a rest last November, to get over insomnia and exhaustion. The Portuguese CEO has since recovered – sufficiently to trounce the FT’s banking editor at tennis a couple of months ago.
Politicians would like to think that Stephen Hester’s decision to give up his bonus marks the start of a mass renunciation of “excessive pay” by private sector bosses. It is certainly time the UK corporate and political world moved on and refocused on what is really important: i.e. how to restore growth. But far from starting a trend, the Royal Bank of Scotland CEO’s case is unique. Here are three reasons why:
Speculation about António Horta-Osório’s condition will not end now that Lloyds Banking Group has announced the “full recovery” of its ailing chief executive and heralded his return to the job on January 9. Sir Win Bischoff, chairman, told journalists on Wednesday that the cause of the CEO’s sudden enforced departure in November was physical – overwork, sleep deprivation and exhaustion – but “certainly not stress”. Each director has met the chief executive separately and judged him fit to return, as have independent medical experts.
Asked how Mr Horta-Osório seemed to him now, Sir Win replied: “Very well, very well, very well. Bushy tailed. Terrific. Big smile.”
In other words, just as he seemed – to me, to other commentators, and probably to Sir Win - when he was appointed last year. For directors, and shareholders – which include UK taxpayers through holding company UKFI – the important thing is to ensure that Mr Horta-Osório does not suffer any relapse. Sir Win said on Wednesday he was confident his CEO was fit, but if it turned out he wasn’t, he intimated that his own job as chairman would be on the line.
I have two immediate reactions to the shock announcement that António Horta-Osório is temporarily stepping aside as chief executive of Lloyds Banking Group because of stress. One is frivolous, one serious:
1) His predecessor – the eerily impassive Eric Daniels – must have the constitution of an ox, given that he led the big UK bank through the credit crunch, a controversial merger with HBOS and the 2008 government recapitalisation. (Mr Daniels is a smoker, which I suppose may have helped calm his nerves).
2) The rarity with which top executives admit to suffering stress must mean boards are underestimating the occurrence of stress-related illness at the top – with potentially dire consequences.