The last year has been an epic one for leadership stories: A combative, unrestrained, ego-driven president in the White House. A divided, dysfunctional Congress with little to show -- other than this week's likely tax reform bill -- for a year that was supposed to bring substantial change. A watershed workplace moment with the wave of sexual harassment. A reckoning in the C-suite as some lost their jobs -- while many others spoke out more on current social issues.
These stories and more captivated our interest in 2017. Below, a look back at 10 highlights and lowlights of a monumental year for leading in Washington and managing America's workplaces. Short edited excerpts of each story follow.
As a staggering wave of women and men divulge unwanted advances and illegal behavior in what seems like an epidemic of sexual harassment allegations, employers have been searching for solutions. From Hollywood to the halls of Congress, the topic of harassment training has taken center stage. Employment lawyers said they’ve heard from clients in droves who want to make sure their training and coaching are up to speed. “We’ve definitely had an uptick in requests for this kind of work in the last couple of months,” said Kevin O’Neill, a principal at the employment law firm Littler Mendelson who leads sexual harassment training.
Yet researchers don’t have much evidence that sexual harassment training is effective at certain key goals: reducing the number of incidents in a workplace; or helping to shift its culture toward one that takes the issue seriously. “In most cases, employers are creating these policies more to protect themselves than to protect employees,” said Lauren Edelman, a professor at the law school of the University of California at Berkeley. “We don’t know when harassment training is effective, and we have reason to believe that maybe it’s counterproductive in some cases.”
Federal Reserve Chair Janet L. Yellen earned widespread approval for her term at the helm of the U.S. central bank, a singularly powerful job in the global economy. On her watch, unemployment fell sharply, inflation stayed subdued, wages began to rise, and she managed a gradual start to the Fed's unwinding of its $4.5 trillion balance sheet, a tricky task that could have undercut growth if mishandled. Yet despite all that, Trump said he would not name Yellen — the first woman to hold the post — for a second term when her tenure expires at the end of January, an unusual break with tradition.
His decision also, according to some female economists, sends a message to others who may want to follow in Yellen's footsteps. "She set the bar so high, and as a result of her hard work she was ahead of the curve on so many things," said Julia Coronado, president of MacroPolicy Perspectives and a former Fed staff member. “Despite that, she’s not getting the job back. What is a young woman economist supposed to make of that? That I can work harder than anybody else and be smarter than people around me and get fired? That’s a tough message."
It was a high-stakes moment for a company 10 years after it released what was its most revolutionary product of the century: the original iPhone. In September, Apple introduced its 10th anniversary model, as tech enthusiasts and business analysts alike looked for a glimpse of Apple’s future. It was a test of its consumer tech dominance as it faced a bevy of challenges: Samsung had resumed its smartphone momentum with the new Galaxy Note 8, Apple trailed competitors such as Google in the home hub space, Siri’s artificial intelligence wasn't as advanced as others, and it was losing to Amazon.com as an entertainment innovator.
Apple’s disruptive reputation was famously first forged by Cook’s predecessor, Steve Jobs, whose showmanship turned such product announcements into glimmering spectacles of consumer technology. While Cook’s tenure at Apple’s helm has been characterized by considerable financial success, many were -- and still are -- asking: Will this be the moment Apple reclaims its mantle as tech’s top innovator?
President Trump’s relationship with the American business community suffered a major setback in August as the president was forced to shut down his major business advisory councils after corporate leaders repudiated his comments on the violence in Charlottesville. Trump announced the disbanding of the two councils amid a growing uproar by chief executives furious over his decision to equate the actions of white supremacists and protesters. According to people familiar with the CEOs' thinking, those groups had already decided to dissolve on their own.
The dissolution was a remarkable moment for Trump, who had made his corporate experience and ability to leverage America's business potential one of his chief credentials. It also marked a rapid descent for a president who has alternatively praised and attacked the decisions of corporate leaders, sometimes making unverified or false claims, and whose policy choices on issues such as immigration and climate change have been criticized as anti-business. He lashed out on Twitter at the first CEO to resign, Merck chief executive Ken Frazier; Frazier's resignation was followed by a wide range of CEOs, including JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and Campbell Soup's Denise Morrison.
AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson was hardly the first corporate leader to have also been national president of the Boy Scouts of America. Secretary of State and former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson held the role from 2010 to 2012. The CEO of Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream, Rick Cronk, did so in the mid-2000s.
But Stephenson was almost certainly the first to find himself in that role while the president of the United States made a political speech at a Boy Scout event at a time when his company faced a Justice Department antitrust review. At the time, AT&T was awaiting word on its proposed $85 billion takeover of Time Warner — putting Stephenson in a potentially difficult scenario as many parents and former Boy Scouts called for an apology about Trump's speech. In November, the Department of Justice sued to block AT&T’s $85 billion bid for entertainment conglomerate Time Warner, setting the stage for one of the biggest antitrust cases in decades.
General Electric said in June that its longtime chief executive, Jeffrey R. Immelt, would retire, closing out a 16-year run at the helm of the industrial giant, which included a vast overhaul of the conglomerate's portfolio but also an underperforming stock price that trailed well below market indexes and competitors.
On Immelt's watch, GE, the only remaining member of the original Dow Jones industrial average, was the Dow's worst performing stock among companies that hadn't gone bankrupt or left the group of blue-chip stocks. His inability to move the stock price — it fell by more than a quarter during his tenure — was thought by many to be his undoing. "Why the change? Two words: stock price," said Ivan Feinseth, chief investment officer at Tigress Financial Partners. “There is no question. The board and shareholders have given Jeff Immelt a long time. He was CEO for almost 16 years in one of the biggest upmarkets cycles in history and the stock has underperformed."
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump never shied away from touting his business skills, running as the outsider whose supposed management acumen would bring executive sensibilities to Washington. As a result, one of the most popular genres for political and business news and op-ed writers has been the Trump-as-CEO comparison. But in May, following a stunning week of upheaval and self-inflicted crises in the White House, those comparisons were taken to their logical next step. Not one but two publications asked whether the CEO president was performing in a way that should let him keep the corner office.
"If Donald Trump were a CEO, he'd probably be fired today," blared the headline of a story in The New Yorker. And Bloomberg News editor-in-chief John Micklethwait, writing in the cover story titled "If America were a company, would you keep this CEO?," suggested the White House was "more like a court than a company, with the king retiring to bed with a cheeseburger and spontaneously tweeting orders.” The CEO-as-president analogy, in other words, has not worn well.
The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one. And in March, then-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick did just that, making an unusually public call for help after a dashcam video of a heated exchange with one of his company's drivers went viral online. "This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it," Kalanick wrote in a post on the company's web site to employees, titled "A profound apology."
In the weeks and months that followed, Kalanick's cry for assistance, a rare admission of vulnerability from the top of a booming start-up, can be seen in hindsight as a warning sign. The company lost a slew of top-ranked executives, found itself under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, fired 20 employees after a workplace investigation turned up harassment and bad behavior, and as a result, committed to 47 changes suggested by investigators. In June, Kalanick took a leave of absence, and resigned shortly thereafter.
More and more, consumers and employees expect the companies they buy from or work for to take a stand on social issues. And increasingly, CEOs have responded. American companies emerged as a force for social change earlier this year and were among the most vocal critics of Trump's executive order to temporarily ban migrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. In the days after Trump’s travel ban was issued, more than a dozen top executives at rival companies in Silicon Valley traded a flurry of candid emails to discuss the response. And although Silicon Valley led the opposition, companies as diverse as Chobani, Nike, Ford, Goldman Sachs and MasterCard all said they were against the order or expressed concerns about it.
The risks for companies in speaking out can cut both ways. Doing so can alienate consumers who disagree with the company’s views. But not doing enough doesn't work either. “Silence used to be the default posture,” said Duke University professor Aaron Chatterji, but political polarization, Facebook and Twitter have changed that. “It’s a choose-a-side mentality. The middle is harder to occupy. And with the proliferation of social media, it’s kind of like a microphone that’s always on. If you’re not speaking out, it’s more conspicuous.”
Inaugural speeches tend to be remembered for their soaring rhetoric aimed at unifying a nation after it's endured the divisions that emerge in a campaign season. And indeed, until Trump's inaugural address -- one that sounded to rhetoric scholars more like a stump speech to his campaign supporters -- that has been their most common purpose, to articulate shared values in a democracy.
But the outside world is another audience for the inaugural speech that often gets less attention. Unlike the State of the Union address, presidents have used their inaugural speeches to send a signal to the world community about the new presidency. Trump did not shy away from that audience, speaking to the broader world not only with his opening, but with a thread of nationalism that ran throughout his campaign and his speech. He derided the enriching of "foreign industry at the expense of American industry" and subsidizing "the armies of other countries" in the speech. "Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families," Trump said in the address. "We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American."