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Memo To the Great American CEO: Just Shut Up Already

Is it just me, or do major CEOs seem less interested in talking about their businesses these days and more interested in talking about themselves, or pretty much anything else that's not entirely related to their companies?

Last week, we saw the furor over a leaked memo in which Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer announces that the company's teleworkers will be rocking a desk at work once again come June. As much as I'm an ardent fan of working from home, it's her decision and the chips will fall where they do. We'll see how it goes.

But that's so last week, because in this week's installment of "What Did Marissa Say Now?" we'll be debating Ms. Mayer's feelings on feminism. In the PBS/AOL documentary series Makers she reveals that she wouldn't consider herself a feminist. "I don't, I think, have sort of the militant drive and sort of the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that," says Ms. Mayer.

Okay, stop the presses because instead of talking about how she's going to rebuild Yahoo! we're suddenly going to be talking about knocking batteries chips off of shoulders. Journalists live for these moments, since they make for easy, tired, "she said, she said" stories that have been written a gazillion times but still somehow generate web hits. Ms. Mayer's PR team must be very, very busy.

Somewhere along the line, major CEOs have stopped being the stable, quiet leadership of major companies and started trying out for the Real Housewives of the Fortune 500. After Ms. Mayer's plan to pull the company's teleworkers back in-house went viral, Virgin Group's Richard Branson publicly disagreed with her, while Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg ran to her defense. Former CEO-turned-author, commentator, and founder of the Jack Welch Management Institute, Jack Welch, took to Twitter.

Hold up, guys. Why are you busy inserting yourself into another CEO's story line?

Meanwhile, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has a new book coming out this month called Lean In: Women, Work and the Will To Lead, in which she tells women with a baby on the way to work even harder even though their heads are down the loo due to morning sickness. Her new book is apparently modeled on her famous TED talk. She also wants to start a new women's social movement through Lean In Circles where women can, according to the Washington Post, "share success stories, view webinars and learn how they can rise to the top of their careers without forsaking 'self-fulfillment.'" Throw in book-related speaking engagements, and one wonders when Ms. Sandberg has time for other things, such as being the COO of Facebook.

The C-suiter-as-celebrity phenomenon certainly isn't a new thing -- remember the Lee Iacocca days and the dot-com era? -- but today's CEOs have far more outlets for promoting their views on everything that's not directly related to the running of their businesses. From social media to hardcover books to magazine covers to Barbara Walters Specials to 60 Minutes to CNBC interviews to being featured on PR vehicle an episode of Undercover Boss, the boss is most definitely out of the office today.

He or she might be mixing business with politics, too. First there was Papa John's CEO John Schnatter blaming the Affordable Healthcare Act for raising his company's pizza prices and revealing that he might cut employees' work hours to get them below the 30-hour-per-week cutoff required to be eligible for healthcare benefits. Mr. Schnatter tried to walk it back, but consumers' reaction was swift and immediate. Now the CEO of Subway, Fred DeLuca, is sandwiching himself into the fray.

Oy, vey. Today's CEOs need to hold their tongues, and then hold the lettuce.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was arguably the most famous modern celebrity CEO ever -- he had that rock star quality about him -- but whenever I heard him speak, he was talking about industry trends or Apple's products. Or he was dissing Bill Gates and Microsoft. But it always came back to the technology -- how to make it better and how to get the consumer jazzed about Apple's latest offerings. Mr. Jobs was constantly selling us on his business vision, not on his business acumen. He wasn't getting into the weeds publicly on the major political issues of the day. To the very end, for all his fame, Mr. Jobs managed to exude a sense of mystery. Most importantly, he seemed to know when not to speak, and what not to speak about publicly. Can you imagine Mr. Jobs jumping right into the middle of Yahoo's telecommuting decision? Me, neither.

Major CEOs need to get back to where they once belonged. That is, selling us on their business vision instead of their personal opinions, book release dates, proposed social movements and 30-hour-per-week healthcare coverage cutoffs. Tell us why we should buy your products instead of your books. Tell us how your company is better than the competition instead of telling us why we shouldn't have voted for that guy. Whenever you speak, speak on behalf of the entire company instead of on your own behalf. Put the product first, and yourself second. Be a job creator, not a creator of controversy. Be less of a celebrity, and more of a C-suite manager. Strive to be less of a societal role model and more of a research and development key player. Less talk, more rock. Please?

This refreshing approach is what I long to see in these days of thoughts rolling off the fingertips in the spur of the moment. Of course, I can't speak for anyone else, but I will say that you'll never see me writing an entire post dedicated to a major CEO's latest management book, because that's just so much foo-foo celebrity and, more often than not, pandering pablum. No, I'm much more interested in what these CEOs have done for me lately, both in terms of great product design and making sure the company remains viable and a great place to work over the long run. Hearing their thoughts on innovative strategies for creating a few million well-paying, new jobs here in the States would be a breath of fresh air, too. Yes, let's hear about those things and only those things. Keep your personal opinions to yourself. To turn a phrase from the actor Robert Conrad: Go ahead CEOs, I dare you to knock this off.


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