These CEOs Are Dividing Opinions in 2021
If you have the title Chief Executive Officer slapped next to your name, you’ve probably heard a lot of opinions about your performance and even your character over the years. Powerful people tend to be polarizing by nature. It’s been that way since before Jesus turned the water into wine. (Talk about polarizing!)
The point is simple — CEOs will never please everyone. Still, these CEOs have made decisions that divided public opinion a lot more than their peers (so far) in 2021.
Adam Neumann, WeWork
No Neumann has attracted more vitriol since Jerry Seinfeld’s pesky mailman/neighbor wreaked his unique brand of havoc in the ’90s. You may have seen Adam Neumann in the headlines recently, as the former CEO of WeWork received a reported $1.7 billion buyout.
Neumann co-founded the once successful company, but he was also the mastermind behind its rapid spiral from a trendy startup with a rumored valuation of $20 billion to a company skewered as little more than a real estate scam. Critics argued that Neumann was being rewarded for failure. His fans said Neumann is nothing short of a genius (ye jealous haters).
Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos
Elizabeth Holmes is the most notorious CEO since the Enron guys contributed to a national financial crisis. She was brash, she wore a black mock turtleneck like Steve Jobs and she was supposed to revolutionize the healthcare industry. She turned out to be revolutionizing little more than false methods of self-promotion.
Holmes was fired as CEO of Theranos in 2018, but 2019 saw a bevy of Theranos-related documentaries, books and podcasts that kept Lizzy very much relevant. If you still aren’t aware of who Elizabeth Holmes is and what she’s about, you’ve got some homework to do.
Kevin Burns, Juul Labs
Juul was once the hottest vape on the market. If there was ever an effective campaign to get kids not to smoke, Juul was it. The flavors…the clouds…the Juul — but let’s not get sidetracked marketing Juul.
Juul’s former CEO, Kevin Burns, resigned this year amid a “cloud” of awful PR. Although Burns is not directly responsible for the “vaping crisis,” as some have dubbed it, he had to know the health risks to users when he accepted the position. Would you have taken the job without knowing every detail about the most popular vape on the market?
Harald Krueger, BMW
It’s not always the case, but when a CEO steps down, it’s often because the company isn’t thriving. Harald Krueger was employed by BMW for the better part of three decades, ultimately ascending to the role of CEO, a position he held for four years.
But all good things come to an end, and Krueger’s time at the top of BMW was largely defined by sweeping changes in the automotive industry — namely, a trend toward the production of electric vehicles. Electric vehicles are not BMW’s forte, and Krueger ultimately took the fall for it.
Kevin Tsujihara, Warner Bros.
As society has become much more focused on speaking out against sexual harassment and punishing the culprits, it was inevitable that Hollywood types like Kevin Tsujihara of Warner Bros. would pay the price. Tsujihara recently resigned from his position as CEO, although he hasn’t been convicted until the formal legal process unfolds.
That said, allegations suggest Tsujihara promised acting roles to at least one actress he sexually harassed. A resignation isn’t a confession, of course, but it isn’t the best look when maintaining your innocence. These types of allegations garner controversy, to put it mildly.
Hiroto Saikawa, Nissan
You may believe that CEOs are grossly overpaid, but apparently former Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa embraces a different train of thought. He was one of the most prominent names to fall from grace after he admitted that he and other Nissan executives intentionally overpaid themselves.
If you had the power to overpay yourself, it might be hard to resist — if you’re completely lacking in moral character. Otherwise, you would have to embrace the role of disgraced CEO, just as Saikawa did. He probably thinks it was a good run while it lasted.
Rupert Hogg, Cathay Pacific Airways
If you’ve been paying attention to the controversy embroiling the NBA regarding the Hong Kong protests, you may have realized that the topic is quite polarizing. LeBron James isn’t the only one who has been swept up in the controversy. Rupert Hogg (great name), the former CEO of Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airlines, lost his job over the matter.
More specifically, Hogg refused to expose the employees at Cathay who had participated in pro-democracy protests, despite pressure from the Chinese government. Apparently, this decision created enough tension that he “resigned,” which undoubtedly means he was forced to leave, in his case.
Richard Plepler, HBO
Richard Plepler is what some in the entertainment industry would refer to as a “lifer.” He was a fixture at Home Box Office, more commonly known as HBO, for 27 years. After he was promoted to Chairman and CEO, he oversaw a period of growth that cemented HBO as a staple in the popular culture lexicon.
When a company moves to new management, there is always a chance the cultural values won’t mesh. That was apparently the case when AT&T purchased HBO in 2018. Plepler reportedly lost some autonomy as a result of the acquisition, so he chose independence over power.
Timothy Sloan, Wells Fargo
Wells Fargo’s public reputation has been so heavily battered and bruised that anybody who becomes the face of the company is going to face some big challenges with the public. Sloan took over the CEO post in 2016 with a mandate to clean up the beleaguered bank’s reputation.
Sloan had worked for Wells Fargo for 31 years, so he was never really viewed by most critics as the outsider the company needed to turn its reputation around. He ultimately stepped down, perhaps after reaching the same conclusion himself.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook
Mark Zuckerberg has become a cultural icon, and he deserves a lot of praise as a businessman. As everyone knows, he took a clever idea conceived in his Harvard dorm room to its current status as one of the bedrocks of Silicon Valley. But has Zuck ventured too far out of his lane?
His critics believe that Facebook’s foray into politics, healthcare and several other fields beyond “social” illustrate just how power-hungry Zuckerberg has become. Others continue to praise his genius, foresight and ability to tackle new arenas. It’s the classic recipe for a controversial CEO.
Elon Musk, Tesla and SpaceX
What can you say about Elon Musk? Well, how many other CEOs have smoked pot on the most popular podcast on the planet? How many other CEOs have sparked investigations from the Securities and Exchange Commission based on a series of tweets? That’s right, zero.
Musk is hailed as a one-of-a-kind visionary who intends to have humans living on Mars in no time — at least by his supporters. Critics are quick to classify him as an entitled egomaniac who is long on bluster and short on results. Which is it — nut job, con man or complicated genius?
Jeff Bezos, Amazon
There’s no denying that Amazon provides perhaps the most reliable, useful consumer service known to man. Want the latest bestselling novel the day it comes out? Amazon. Run out of hand soap or baby food and need more tomorrow? Amazon. The company gives you access to almost anything you want without ever leaving your couch.
In a convenience culture, Amazon is considered a godsend. On the other hand, Amazon also collects more user data and knows more about the details of consumers’ lives than practically any other site not named Google. This makes Bezos a highly controversial figure.
Bob Iger, Disney
Disney is inherently a love-it-or-hate-it company. Some point to the company’s acquisition as ESPN as the turning point that led to the demise of the channel’s policy of exclusively focusing on sports. Various opinions also exist on the cultural impact of Disney and its ongoing effect on the youth of the world.
As the face of Disney, CEO Bob Iger enjoys the high of the pro-Disney praise as well as the low of the anti-Disney hate. Throw in that Iger was paid approximately $66 million last year — stupid money — to run Mickey Mouse Corp., and the haters only have more fuel to throw on their contemptuous fire.
Satya Nadella, Microsoft
When you take over a company formerly run by someone as famous and admired as Bill Gates, you better expect your every move to be heavily scrutinized. Microsoft’s Satya Nadella embraced some sky-high expectations when he took the job as CEO, but thick skin doesn’t make the criticism any less real.
Nadella has his fair share of supporters, and Microsoft remains one of the most prominent and trusted brands in computing, gaming and several other sectors. In fact, most computer users couldn’t carry out essential tasks without Microsoft. Still, the nature of the brand he works for makes Satya Nadella controversial at times.
Hock Tan, Broadcom, Inc.
If you thought the $52 million FleetCor’s CEO made this year was exorbitant and the $66 million Bob Iger netted as CEO of Disney was obscene, then wait until you hear about Hock Tan. Broadcom’s CEO is loaded.
Hock is apparently hawkish when it comes to raking in the dough. He made a reported $103 million in 2017 for running the semiconductor infrastructure company. Most people have never even heard of Broadcom, which proves the most influential (and well-paid executives) often remain behind the scenes.
Les Moonves, CBS
Sure, it’s 2021, but people don’t forget sexual crimes. We’ve touched on many of the most scandalous CEOs of this year, but the lingering odor of the CBS sexual harassment scandal revelations made in 2018 still linger for many. Former CEO Les Moonves was at the heart of the harassment allegations and was even accused of assault.
CBS ultimately denied Moonves the $120 million he believed he was owed as severance. Today, Moonves and CBS have moved on, but his thoroughly tarnished reputation hasn’t faded, earning him a spot on this list.
Hugh Grant, Monsanto
If you want to find chief executives that court controversy, start by looking at the companies that attract the most critics. Monsanto is considered by some to be the equivalent of the evil empire, putting small farmers out of business and developing products that have been found to be unsafe.
The leader of Monsanto was destined to be a polarizing figure, which is why Hugh Grant made his way onto this list. Monsanto definitely does good, but Grant’s critics believe the bad outweighs the positive impact. Maybe the company’s acquisition by Bayer will change all that.
Mark Hurd, Oracle
A sure-fire way for a CEO to become a hated figure is to make a lot of money. That is the primary gripe that critics seem to have with Mark Hurd, who is the co-CEO of computer software giant Oracle.
Mobs tend to break out the torches and pitchforks when they hear that somebody in town makes approximately a gazillion times more money than they do, and this reaction has become increasingly trendy in recent years. It’s easy for some to view super-wealthy CEOs like Hurd, who raked in $108.3 million this year in salary alone, as an Ebenezer Scrooge type.
Safra Catz, Oracle
Safra Catz is the other co-CEO at Oracle, and she is paid just as handsomely as her male counterpart, Mark Hurd. And handsomely, if you remember, means $108.3 million in salary per year.
When you run one of the largest, most profitable and arguably most important companies in the world, perhaps you will take home an annual paycheck in the nine-figure range. Many say we get paid what we’re worth, but critics of Catz have a straightforward gripe: Nobody could possibly be worth that much. Nine-figure salaries definitely tend to divide opinions.
Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo
As society is becoming healthier and healthier, more and more people take issue with the CEO of what is essentially a soda company making nearly $25 million per year. Although Nooyi stepped down in 2018, she made waves with a series of public comments that essentially said it’s not her job to regulate the public’s diet.
She’s not wrong, but plenty of people took issue with the tone of the message as well as its content. When you’re making $100 million every four years, you could at least pretend to care about the obesity epidemic, right?
Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase
Bankers may forever get a bad rap after the financial crisis of 2008 ruined countless lives, and the banking industry was exposed as playing a significant role in the crash. Jamie Dimon seems to be a decent guy, but he’s a banker, which immediately makes people suspicious.
For that reason, he’s got plenty of detractors. Additionally, his willingness to speak on a broad range of issues on very public media forums makes him something of a lightning rod for controversy. Dimon would probably tell you that controversy comes with his position as CEO of a major bank. He would be correct.
Brian Roberts, Comcast
Are you a Comcast customer who is less than satisfied with the price and/or quality of your cable or internet service? Want to know who you should blame for your displeasure? It’s Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast!
That line of thinking probably isn’t fair, but as one of the top-five highest-paid CEOs on record, Roberts gets paid more than enough to shoulder all the blame for his company’s shortcomings. Wouldn’t you be willing to take a little bit of flack if you were raking in nearly $33 million per year? Sounds like a pretty fair bargain.
Randall Stephenson, AT&T
Who doesn’t have a complaint about some aspect of their cell phone provider? Seriously, no one is 100% satisfied with all aspects of their service. Randall Stephenson is one of the few mobile company CEOs remaining, which means he bears the brunt of many complaints.
For one thing, phones have become unreasonably expensive. What was once a $300 device (at worst) with no strings attached has somehow become a $1,000-plus monstrosity that you can only buy if you sign up for a lifetime contract and put your children up as collateral. No wonder Stephenson, who makes roughly $29 million per year, is a controversial figure.
James Gorman, Morgan Stanley
To be fair, we are essentially listing the highest-paid CEOs at this point on the list. These people didn’t do anything particularly upsetting, but in a time when people are struggling under the weight of astronomically high prices, highly-paid CEOs are easy targets.
That said, we hope that James Gorman is big into philanthropy, because there is no way he and his family go through the $28-plus million salary he makes each year. It would be his right to keep it all, but being a cheap millionaire is never a good look.
John Milligan, Gilead Sciences
Biotechnology seems to be a noble cause. Coming up with cures for HIV, AIDS, hepatitis and other deadly diseases provides a great service, especially to those who desperately need those treatments. Still, what could you possibly do on a daily basis to warrant an annual salary of $26 million?
It’s not cool to hate on the rich because they are rich — or is it? Plenty of people dislike Gilead Sciences CEO John Milligan for no other reason than his annual salary. It just goes to show you that if you want to court some controversy, just make a lot of money.
Tim Cook, Apple
Who is going to willingly walk in the shadow of Steve Jobs? Tim Cook, that’s who. The current CEO of Apple walked head-on into one of the tallest tasks in the modern business world: not dropping the ball on Jobs’ massive tech empire.
The reviews of Cook’s job performance are somewhat mixed, and that is precisely why he is on this list. There was no way that Tim Cook was ever going to receive hulking praise when measured against Steve Jobs’ revolutionary legacy, but he’s got lots of fans for very good reasons.
Michael Corbat, Citigroup
A little tip: If you want to be universally loved, don’t go into banking. Another tip: If you don’t want to be loathed, do not become the CEO of a massive bank like Citigroup. Apparently, Michael Corbat isn’t interested in the concept of being universally loved. He just wants to serve as the CEO of Citigroup.
That role will garner him more than $24 million this year, more than most professionals make in a lifetime. Obviously, jealousy is a factor in the Corbat hate, but is any of it justified?
Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing
Boeing is one of the most important companies in the world, so you could understand how its CEO would make a pretty penny. But $23 million is one very pretty penny! Some might even say that penny is way too pretty.
This sentiment becomes even stronger when you consider that Boeing has undergone its fair share of controversy this year. CEOs tend to absorb the brunt of any bad PR, and with such a high salary, you would expect Muilenburg to take the bad publicity head-on. That doesn’t mean he has to like it, though.
Larry Merlo, CVS
Pharmacy-retailer hybrids like CVS and Walgreens are struggling, and it’s no secret why. With massive stores and a relatively inexplicable business model — we could just order the stuff on Amazon, right? — these types of outlets are predicted by many to go the way of the dinosaurs.
Yet, as workers at these chains have their hours cut to save money, the CEO makes nearly $22 million per year. His fans say he deserves it for keeping the ship afloat, but his critics disagree, pointing out that a salary like that should come with innovative ideas to salvage the company by taking it in a modern direction.
Mary Barra, General Motors
Is American automotive manufacturing back? Optimists may answer with an emphatic “Yes!”, but critics point to CEOs like GM’s Mary Barra, who makes almost $22 million in salary, claiming it’s the same old top-down power structure that has plagued the American auto industry for decades.
Her supporters have well-crafted arguments for why Barra deserves the compensation, but at the end of the day, anyone making $22 million per year is a tough sell for the common man. For that reason, Mary Barra is one polarizing CEO. What do you think?