Why are Australian CEOs so out of touch with consumers?

The abrupt resignation of Woolworths CEO Brad Banducci should come as no surprise. There is a widening disconnect between Aussie corporate elites and citizens who are trying to get by. Banducci exited following a trainwreck interview about long-running supermarket duopoly concerns and price gouging in a cost-of-living crisis, but his downfall brings to mind recent scandals toppling senior leaders at Optus, AMP, etc.

The question is: why do Boards insist on appointing extravagantly paid CEOs who show little to no empathy for the customers, employees, and communities enabling their privileged lifestyles? Their narrow executive mindset obsessed with inflating profits, margins, and bonuses has led to leadership that holds contempt for working Australians battling rising living costs.

Woolworths chair Scott Perkins praised Banducci's "outstanding leadership". But his chosen CEO’s unwillingness to address competition concerns or offer price relief exposed the company’s callous indifference to hardship in the community. That tunnel vision typifies how CEO and board key performance indicators fuel executive greed over ethical service or even empathetic customer communication.

Banducci's petulant walk-out when grilled on price gouging allegations is a prime example of the prevailing C-level attitude. We saw a similar level of hubris when Optus CEO Kelly Bayer Rosmarin swiftly resigned after a major network failure. Yes, Optus had been rewarding her with millions in pay and bonuses. But Bayer Rosmarin’s leadership proved profoundly lacking when disaster struck, impacting millions of customers. She publicly laughed at and mocked a hard-working small business owner for relying on Optus's technology to run his salon.

In both cases, a ruthless corporate focus on protecting profits showed utter disdain for communicating openly or compensating those impacted. The leaders came across as defensive and out-of-touch when engaging on issues eroding public trust.

These debacles reveal gaping blind spots in ethical judgement amongst those reaching the top of Australian corporations. Where are the strong directors prepared to challenge cosy self-interest amongst fellow board members and executives? When will independent directors start asking tough questions on CEO pay and performance?

Rapidly expanding CEO salaries highlight where executive priorities truly lie. Average Australian wages are barely keeping up with inflation. Household budgets face ever-increasing costs for basics like food, fuel and housing. Yet CEO pay has skyrocketed over 100 times higher than average full-time earnings. This obscene disparity marks a morally bankrupt system - enabled by directors happy to rubber stamp record remuneration deals paid for by consumer dollars.

Even Australian company boards and shareholders should be dismayed at their CEOs' inability to handle basic public scrutiny with credibility. The latest awkward media appearances and subsequent leadership departures continue to embarrass. Despite paying record multi-million dollar executive salaries, it seems too much to expect basic PR competencies when pressure is applied. The lack of transparency, empathy, and composure remains startling, given the scale of remuneration lavished on attracting supposed "world-class" business talent. When the crunch comes, these Masters of the Universe freeze like rabbits in the headlights rather than lead. One must ask - where is all the genius and leadership nous boards insist justifies granting messiah pay packets ultimately funded by long-suffering customers and shareholders?

These perceptions of executive greed and insularity fuel public contempt toward big business elites. They tarnish Australia's reputation as an egalitarian economy where hard work is rewarded. More concerning, they hint at a cultural tolerance for selfishness over community-mindedness amongst our most powerful.

Boards must reform governance processes to enforce rigorous, independent oversight – protecting long-term shareholder interests alongside consumer welfare. Companies must also develop a leadership understanding of customer priorities beyond personal status or financial enrichment.

Without re-setting corporate priorities towards balanced community service, Australia will continue lagging on economic fairness and social advancement. Countries leading global rankings understand business success depends on societal health.

The recent procession of Australian CEOs exiting in disgrace shows current standards are failing citizens. And it has to change. Australia needs business leaders who earn our respect and do not demand it through hubris, threats, or regulatory manipulation. Their performance must be judged on consistently delivering affordable products and services supporting prosperity.

Looking at the conduct of our corporate elite, any enlightenment feels far away. But public outrage is mounting and can no longer be ignored. The backlash against business power and greed will only intensify until CEOs and directors can show an understanding of community concerns and adjust their behaviour accordingly.

These are uncomfortable conversations. And they need courage from those at the top. Demonstrating moral fortitude to address challenges in the national interest is exactly what Australians expect from well-compensated, powerful leaders. If existing CEOs feel unwilling or unable to display it, then much tighter regulation reining in greed must follow.

The choice is clear - either business leaders reconnect with the customers and staff, sustaining their success, or they will face an inevitable decline in community trust and legitimacy. The days of unchecked corporate excess are over. Australian CEOs must adjust or make way for a new generation that is in tune with community expectations. Their current conduct suggests too many remain arrogantly out of touch with the people.

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