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Charm school pays off for Sony CEO

CEOs used to make a lot of news. Michael Eisner would regularly be declaring war on someone (often within his own organization), Rupert Murdoch would be launching a hostile takeover and Ted Turner (remember him?) would be instructing the UN on how to create global peace.

But now everyone has become numbingly corporate. CEOs limit their appearances to investor conferences where they read speeches hyping their stock. Rupert doesn’t give free-wheeling interviews anymore, Redstone has become Sumner the Silent and Dick Parsons hasn’t said anything quotable since his bar mitzvah.

When his top lieutenant, Jeff Bewkes, mumbled a semi-incoherent remark last week about how companies should strive for “adjacencies” rather than “synergies,” the Wall Street Journal got so excited it turned it into a page one story.

Perhaps that explains why, everywhere you look, magazines and newspapers are running another portrait of Sir Howard Stringer. The Sony chieftain likes to talk, and he is both witty (a first among CEOs) and articulate — traits that were exhaustively reiterated last week in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall St. Journal and other outlets.

The famous Stringer “charm” (a word used repeatedly in every Stringer profile) was on full display in the New Yorker story, as he dodged, parried, even obfuscated (charmingly), but still avoided telling us what was really going on behind the scenes at Sony.

Mind you, it’s not hard to understand why Sir Howard is a bit evasive. He is but one year into his job at Sony and, while the stock is up and costs are down, it’s really too early for Stringer to land his jet on an aircraft carrier and proclaim “mission accomplished.” It isn’t even clear as yet whether any corporate monolith of its size and structure — Sony makes everything from batteries to foie gras — can be molded into a manageable entity.

Stringer has emphasized he wants to focus on his “champion brands” rather than scattering his energies, but at the same time, he is caught between conflicting sets of expectations: By Western standards, a turnaround is defined by how many jobs are cut, while by Japanese criteria, a turnaround constitutes how many are added.

Stringer’s genial diatribes are all about Blu-ray formats and bigger and better PlayStations. But staring him in the face are competitive forays from the Microsofts, Apples and Toshibas of the world.

The movie business initially represented Stringer’s safety net, but that was before “Stealth” went south and “Geisha” proved a cultural as well as a fiscal embarrassment.

To be sure, we all know why the Stringer story seems enticing. Having been the first Brit to run CBS News, he is now the first Westerner to become a Japanese hierarch. Hence, he is more than a CEO: He is an ambassador at large, and he’s brilliant at it; he’s even found a way to tell jokes that make Japanese engineers laugh. (Mind you, I personally have never seen a Japanese engineer laugh).

Since he hasn’t had time to realize his objectives, however, Sir Howard cringes at the massive outpouring of articles and puff pieces. No one who’s really witty likes to see these qualities described ad nauseam, lest every quip be judged more harshly and every occasion evaluated for its charm quotient.

But with every other CEO hiding in his bunker, there’s no one else to write about. That leaves Sir Howard stranded out there, searching for adjacencies and settling for a few random synergies. And all the time reminding us that corporate stewardship can also embrace corporate statesmanship.

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