A field guide for identifying bad CEOs

If the top guy talks stocks, back away.

Time and time again you hear the same maxim: it's the people, not the technology or the products, that determine whether a company sinks or swims.

Intel's growth over the last four decades, or Oracle's relentless expansion in software, are pretty good examples of how leadership and management decisions can greatly impact a company's history.

But how do you identify the buffoons and poseurs? The guys who are lucky to be there and probably destined to slip?

One clue is if the company displays its current stock price on a screen in the lobby or on a terminal on the CEO's desk, said Michael Moe, founder of , a San Francisco investment bank.

"If you see a stock quote on a CEO's desk, run for the hills," he told a breakfast audience at presentation held by the Churchill Club this week. "And when you have the CEO talk about the stock price instead of the business, it's not a good sign."

Another warning sign: too many "yes" men. "It's good to see if they have a balance, and do not surround themselves with princes that will do their whim."

Moe said he had a good feeling the first time he visited Starbucks several years ago. The company only had outlets in Seattle and Chicago, but it seemed focused and energetic. He became one of the first analysts to identify the company as a growing threat (which he chronicled in his book Finding the Next Starbucks).

Another bit of advice Moe offered the crowd is to watch demographics: a surge of old people or youth will create markets. Bond guru Mike Millken focuses on them relentlessly, he added.

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About the author

    Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.

     

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