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They’ve typically been cast as secondary characters, and almost always as awful managers. But more recently, CEOs are taking center stage on the small screen, and perhaps more surprisingly, some of these bosses are actually pretty good at their jobs. Indeed, modern-day CEOs might enjoy watching the highs and lows of their in-the-spotlight TV counterparts. “A good story is much more memorable than a set of facts, so a great way to drive home a message is through a good story,” says Carter Cast, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and author of The Right—and Wrong—Stuff: How Brilliant Careers Are Made and Unmade.
We recently binge-watched some network and cable TV and discovered several series that feature CEOs and other business bosses front and center.
This satire-drama follows patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox)—who critics say bears some resemblance to a certain media mogul from Down Under—and his attempts to keep control of his media conglomerate, sometimes working with, but often against, his own children. Roy mirrors an archetype Cast calls “Captain Fantastic,” an ego-driven character whose rise to the top builds overconfidence and hubris. “Captains Fantastic believe they have the answer, so they stop listening to the people who are the closest to the business problems,” Cast says. At a minimum, the show will teach real-life executives and board directors that the value of having a clear, transparent succession plan is priceless.
Undercover Boss (CBS)
Each episode of this reality series features a different company leader working in disguise in an entry-level job at his or her firm. The companies are often billion-dollar businesses, and over eight seasons, senior-level managers and CEOs of Waste Management, Norwegian Cruise Lines, and Chiquita Brands have shown up. Often, they learn firsthand of workers’ personal and professional struggles. This show captures Cast’s observation about the best TV portrayals of executives: “There isn’t just a villain, there’s a saint in there, too,” he says. Each week, the CEOs are reminded of the value of being in touch with their employees and customers, keeping employees engaged, and setting goals that serve a purpose, not a process.
Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
In this 1980s period drama, three former IBM employees set out to make their own “IBM clone” computer, eventually launching a tech giant. The enigmatic leader, Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), is mesmerizing, giving real-life leaders who watch the show a glimpse of the power of charisma. But the show is really about the tsunami of changes brought about by digital transformation. MacMillan and his colleagues struggle to shape—or at least not be swamped by—personal computing and the internet. The tech may be different 30 years later, but the need to effectively harness the power of technology is still a challenge for all CEOs today.
Loosely based on the battle between the federal government and hedge fund manager Steve Cohen, the show is a great example of learning agility. Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), the hedge fund manager, didn’t go to the “right” schools but is constantly learning new techniques, skills, and strategies to outperform his competitors (and stay ahead of the feds). The show also provides an entertaining focus on game theory as every character tries to best the others.
Silicon Valley (HBO)
Created by the writer-director of the workplace comedy Office Space, this lampoon of the fast-paced, ever-evolving world of tech start-ups has lots of in-jokes for industry players. Led by anxiety-filled coder Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch), a small group of programmers faces situations and dilemmas that are all too familiar to anyone who’s worked at a start-up or a giant tech firm. One of the best lessons involves choosing your business partners. Early on, the main characters are figuring out how to finance Hendricks’s idea without giving up control. On the show it leads to some hilarious results, but the lesson of finding and maintaining the right partners is anything but silly.