CEOs have long been considered the grand architects of firm strategy. Research not only supports their pivotal role in strategy making, but also suggests that CEOs directly influence outcomes of strategy. CEOs are often blamed for corporate failure and credited for corporate success. What is less clear is how CEOs influence strategy. Although research attributes the CEO’s influence on performance to demographics, personality and previous experience, how a CEO influences the firm’s strategic trajectory over time is less clear.
This research investigates the role of CEO strategy narratives on the firm’s trajectory. Grounded in organizational path dependence theory, the thesis analyzes how CEO narratives, produced for both internal and external consumption, influence strategic direction.
Organizational path dependence theory argues that the future is influenced by the past and that, over time, through a series of incremental decisions, options are reduced and outcomes are constrained. Core to the argument is the theorized existence of rent-seeking self-reinforcing social processes that may eventually lead the organization towards rigidity and an inefficient locked-in organizational state.
Narrative in strategy is considered a primary means of sensemaking for organizational stakeholders. Narratives both represent and construct organizational reality by giving meaning to the past and setting expectations of the future, while creating and reinforcing organizational identity through the communication of norms, values, and beliefs. Strategy narratives focus on creating a discourse of direction to represent the past and influence the behaviour of organizational members.
This thesis joins theory on organizational path dependence and strategy narratives to investigate the influence of CEO narratives on strategic lock-in. Through a historical document analysis, the thesis presents a case study of a Canadian-based multinational firm (Nortel) using strategy texts authored by the company’s four Chief Executive Officers from 2002 to 2010. The texts include public documents (shareholder letters, news releases, media articles, and analyst conference calls) along with a unique data set consisting of 168 CEO all-employee emails.
Findings indicate that, collectively, CEO narratives act as a self-reinforcing process that encourages the adoption of other firm-level processes. CEO narratives represent a discourse of direction and a discourse of behaviour, to encourage both the understanding of firm strategy and the implementation of associated processes. Although the CEO narratives initially create benefits, over time they are constrained by what was said in the past and contribute toward the persistence of the firm’s organizational path.