The CEO: The Modern Day Housekeeper

A layman’s view (not an architect)

I have probably read thousands of historical novels and history books. It occurred to me that in some ways my work life and my fictional life have a similar cast of characters. Many of the books I read have butlers and housekeepers. The butler is the gate keeper and the housekeeper is the one who runs everything. In the classic Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, she tells us that the housekeeper is, “Second in command of the house…the immediate representative of her mistress.” Like many leaders, she should understand finance, how to keep her people fed and make sure, “…everything is progressing satisfactorily.”

In my work life, I have had the privilege of being able to provide advice to CEOs. It strikes me in many ways that CEOs are very much like housekeepers.

Stay with me for a second.

If we see the Board, somewhat aloof, leaving the detail work to someone else, as the mistress of the house, then the CEO is the housekeeper and the person sitting outside the CEO’s office is the butler guarding the door.

My random connection sprang from hearing someone complain about CEO pay and a recent spat on the Freakonomics podcast on the role of CEOs including one where they chatted about the role of CEOs in cleaning up other people’s messes. It occurred to me that, cleaning other people’s messes, is like the housekeeping staff at a hotel, one of the least paid positions in the workforce, and the traditional role of the housekeeper as described by Mrs. Beeton.

Then I came across the January standard: an article harping on CEO pay; the link is to 2018 from Huffington Post but similar info exists for 2019. It made me think: maybe we should have a rational discussion about CEO pay. I would love to suggest that they be paid the same as the average employee but we have to recognize that they are held much more accountable for other people’s work and often take the biggest risk by starting a business. Maybe 5 or 10 times the pay of the average employee makes sense, not the 200 being reported.

I have heard it said that in the days when people had household servants, the housekeeper was the best paid. Humanity loves a hierarchy. Today where we are servants to the Boards and Shareholders of the world it makes sense for our housekeeper, the CEO, to still be at the top of the pay pyramid. It’s also unlikely that CEOs have some special skill or je ne sais quoi that makes them worth 200 times more than the average worker and we may want to recognize that they are the modern equivalent of a housekeeper: worthy of more, and still a servant.

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