CEOs in the Hot Seat in 2015: Where Are They Now?

Chris OlsenBy Chris Olsen

ceosinthehotseat2015What do Amazon, Target, Volkswagen and Yahoo have in common? Over the past year, the CEOs of these high-profile businesses were in the spotlight for a variety of reasons. Here is a look back at some of the issues that gained these leaders and their companies a great deal of attention—and notoriety—in 2015.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon

Then: Last August, the New York Times reported on Amazon’s dysfunctional workplace culture—an environment said to foster harmful relationships and an unhealthy work-life balance. The story led many to question CEO Jeff Bezos’ leadership. Bezos followed up with a memo to employees stating he did not recognize the workplace portrayed in the article and encouraged staff to communicate issues with human resources or email him directly.

In October Amazon fought back, claiming New York Times journalists did not fact-check or verify sources for its August story. The Times stuck by the reporting, noting that more than 100 Amazon employees had been interviewed over a period of several months.

Now: Amazon’s profits continue to rise, which has greatly benefited Bezos who is an 18 percent shareholder of the company. His net worth increased by $32.1 billion in 2015 making him one of the richest people in the world. But the financial health of a corporation and the wealth of its CEO are not the only measures of success. Winning companies recognize the importance of creating positive work environments in order to attract and retain the best employees.

Though Amazon does not appear to be the recipient of any “best place to work” honors, more than 10,000 reviews on Glassdoor and Indeed show the company has not necessarily missed the mark—both listed above-average ratings from employees. Additionally, of more than 7,400 reviews on Glassdoor, 80 percent of Amazon employees approved of Bezos.

Brian Cornell, Target

Then: When Brian Cornell joined Target in August 2014, his hands-on style took some by surprise. The first CEO recruited from outside the company, Cornell visited stores on his own and solicited shopper feedback before he moved into the role. But rebuilding the iconic Minnesota-based brand would require a lot more than collecting consumer intel. Critics wondered if Cornell was right for the job and noted his lack of experience in apparel and home goods—the “cheap chic” categories Target was once known for.

Cornell hit the ground running, addressing a major data breach, downsizing the corporate office and shuttering its Canadian stores. Amid lawsuits, layoffs and closings, innovative store formats were launched in urban areas. New leadership was deployed and $1 billion was invested in infrastructure to support improvements in Target’s supply chain, technology and guest experience.

Now: In third quarter, sales of Target’s signature items in home, baby and wellness grew two and a half times faster than the company’s overall sales. Though year-end financials have not been released, slower-than-anticipated growth in online sales resulted in a drop in Target stock in November. Later in the month, Target reported that sales had gained momentum heading into Black Friday weekend.

Wall Street investors want more evidence that Cornell can get the job done, but he seems to be gaining employees’ confidence. One long-term corporate staffer who was laid off last spring and later rehired in a new position said Cornell is doing what needs to be done to keep Target competitive in a volatile market for the long term. He and his colleagues believe Target is a great company that will only get better as Cornell’s plan is fully implemented.

Martin Winterkorn and Mathias Müller, Volkswagen

Then: In mid-September, after reports from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Volkswagen admitted that 11 million of its diesel vehicles were equipped with software designed to provide false emissions readings. Many speculated that CEO Martin Winterkorn was involved and suspected his job was in jeopardy. Just days after news of the scandal broke, Winterkorn resigned from his position, denying any personal wrongdoing.

A statement came the following day announcing Porsche CEO Matthias Müller would oversee all of Volkswagen Auto Group. Müller demanded resignations from at least two of the company’s top engineers including the chief engineer for Audi and the research and development chief for Porsche, both of whom were said to be key allies of Winterkorn.

Now: Volkswagen’s U.S. sales were down nearly 5 percent in 2015. At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit earlier this month, Müller read a prepared statement expressing regret for Volkswagen’s violations. He later undermined the apology, suggesting a misinterpretation of the law was to blame. During an interview with an NPR reporter, Müller claimed Volkswagen “had some targets for our technical engineers, and they solved this problem and reached targets with some software solutions which haven’t been compatible to the American law.”

The same week, Volkswagen presented U.S. regulators with a plan for recalling more than 430,000 affected vehicles. The California Air Resources Board rejected the proposal and the EPA appeared to do the same, saying only that it would continue to work with Volkswagen to find a solution. The automaker has not yet fully regained the trust of American officials or its once brand-loyal consumers but has said it is committed to doing so.

Marissa Mayer, Yahoo

Then: Last fall, after Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced her plan to return to work two weeks after the birth of twins, her leadership style and the company’s culture made headlines. Some said the announcement sent a message about expectations and weakened Mayer’s earlier goodwill effort with employees—she had doubled parental leave after abolishing Yahoo’s work-from-home policy. Others commended Mayer for making a personal choice that suited her family.

Throughout Yahoo’s attempts to rebuild, Mayer has identified employees as her primary concern. Despite efforts to create a better work environment by providing perks like fitness trackers and smartphones, Mayer has struggled with downsizing the staff. Some say multiple rounds of mishandled layoffs led to an atmosphere of mistrust and an exodus of epic proportions—more than a third of team members have voluntarily exited the company within the last year.

Now: Mayer’s efforts to reorganize Yahoo and make it relevant continue. She enlisted the support of a management consulting firm and offered financial incentives in exchange for long-term commitments from key staff members. On Dec. 9, Mayer announced a new vision for Yahoo’s future that included pulling the plug on the spinoff of a major asset and outlined her role running the core business.

Analysts have said Mayer is back where she started when she accepted the position with Yahoo three and a half years ago. Some stakeholders have noted her lack of clarity and certainty and questioned if she is the right person for the job. The board of directors continues to support Mayer in the role.