The transformation of elite paths and profiles

For decades scholars have posed questions concerning the attributes of individuals who make space for themselves at the top of elite circles. Recently, Cappelli and Hamori (2004; 2005) generated interesting results about the changes affecting the routes to senior executive positions in US business organizations between 1980 and 2001.4 They collected information about demographical attributes, educational background, and career histories. Their analysis reveals significant differences in the attributes and experiences of top managers over the past two decades. In short, by the early 1980s, the principles and channels of recruitment of top executives were mostly similar to those in use from the 1940s or the 1950s. During these peri- ods, the US economic elite came overwhelmingly from elite sons who attended elite colleges, strengthening the picture of the American elite as composed largely of white Protestant males (Temin 1999). In other words, elitism was fundamentally related to the restriction of recruitment channels, and to the self-perpetuation of narrow oligarchic circles of power (Bourdieu 1996).

Even narrow oligarchies can become more pluralist. Cappelli and Hamori’s (2005) results support the hypothesis of a general progressive transition, between 1980 and the early twenty-first century, from a ‘classical’ elitist perspective towards a more pluralistic and, so to speak, a more fragmented picture of the corporate elite in the US. In short, compared to 1980, top executives in 2001 are younger, more likely to be women, and more likely to be educated in public institutions. To the authors of this study, these changes are more attributable to transformations in the organizational mechanisms of career management and control than to changes in the underlying populations in the two periods (2005: 31). Several dynamics are at the heart of the rejuvenation of elite production systems between the two periods:5

  • Executive career paths are slightly different, which suggests that the skills and abilities tested are different as well. For example, selected individuals who get to the highest and supreme positions typically hold fewer jobs today; thus, having had tenure in one single company is much less important and the path to the top is significantly faster than was the case.
  • Outside hiring is much more frequent among top More than half of top executives now come from outside, despite the existence of strong and well- established internal career policies based on internal labor markets.
  • A very significant gender dynamic is also Female elites are much younger than their male counterparts (47 vs 52), are less likely to have been life- time employees (32 percent vs 47 percent for men), will have held their previ- ous jobs for a shorter period of time (3.4 years vs 4 years for men), and will have got to the top faster (21 vs 25 years) (2005: 33).

How far these results can be predictive of an enduring trend is difficult to specify.6 But overall, we might risk several hypotheses pertaining to underlying power dynamics shaping the subsequent form of the corporate elite:

  • The current globalization of the business world might be combining with the ‘small world’ phenomenon to force organizations to gain tighter control over their In other words, the persistence of interpersonal forms of relationships in use in inter-organizational networks of different types necessitates companies to off- set consecutive ‘externally produced’ influences by endogenously shaping patterns of authority. Corporate leaders would then be groomed both within the corporate leadership nurseries and within the scattered external circles of power.
  • Globalization might be encouraging the creation of a ‘profession’ of corporate The growing influence of MBAs, for instance, as the key for entry to the managers’ job market and the decline in organizational tenure might signal the current construction of a ‘profile’ of top executives, based on common edu- cation and common types of inter-organizational experiences. A global job market of professional corporate leaders might therefore be emerging, largely monitored from the manifold elite networks surrounding organizations.
  • By and large, these hypothetical trends underline the effects of the fundamental interdependence of organizational power structures and of global economic structures of It is not evident that organizations today are as capable of producing internal power elites as once was the case. The diffusion of new types of behaviors regarding mobility and identity affects the composition of elite membership, as they strive to acknowledge and incorporate the growing influ- ence of external actors and networks. A new oligarchy is emerging unobtrusively – one that is produced less in the shadows of class differentiation and Ivy League colleges than by application of the official standards of educational systems and in the rejuvenated shadows of pluralist interlocks. A pluralist and homogeneous corporate elite power seems to be emergent, at least in the US.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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