Why the Forbes List of 100 Most Innovative Leaders is a Disappointment

The 2019 Forbes list of the 100 most innovative leaders has landed with a big thud.  Not that I was waiting for the list. It’s one of those lists that I don’t really think about in my day to day life, but when it rolls up in my social media timeline or in a subscription email - I pause to look it over.  

As a list-lover myself, I am often thinking about what I can learn from these lists.  After all, most of us who subscribe to or read Forbes, probably do so because we are looking for new ideas, new ways and new approaches.  We like the breadth and range of issues they cover and of course, who doesn’t love the daily quote.

Well, to the surprise of many of us, the list of the 100 most innovative leaders was shockingly homogenous.  Here were some of the data points that struck me and left me with a sinking feeling:

  1. Of the 102 people listed, 101 were men.

  2. Only one woman, Barbara Rentler, CEO of Ross Stores, made the list of the 100 most innovative leaders.  Yes. One. Uno. Une. Unus.

  3. The list had zero (0) innovative leaders who were African American.

  4. Barbara Rentler was represented in the 75th position, not by a photograph of her, but by a silhouette of a woman in the online version.

  5. They further overdosed on men by squeezing in two pairs of men: Larry Page and Sergey Brin into spot #10 and George Yancopoulos and Leonard Schleifer into spot number #20.  

  6. While the innovative leaders each had up to 4 bullets under their photos, giving some detail about their careers, Ms. Rentler’s silhouette, had no such information.  

  7. At least 11 of the men on the list of the 100 most innovative leaders had companies with negative sales growth in the last 12 months, yet they still made the list.

  8. In true homage to testosterone, there was not a #1 and a #2. There were two #1’s as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk couldn’t outrank each other for first place.

  9. Jeff Dyer and Nathan Furr were the 2 male business school professors who researched and crafted the list.

  10. Curtis Lefrandt was the 1 named male consultant who worked on the list. Not sure if they saw any issues of concerns.

Dyer and Furr themselves explained their methodology this way:

Since we couldn’t rank every leader, our sample of leaders includes the founders or CEOs (or CEOs who have become chairman of the board within the past year) of: (a) U.S. firms with greater than $10 billion market value, (b) the 50 largest private U.S. firms to go public over the past five years and (c) U.S. firms within the top 100 companies on our most recent Forbes Most Innovative Growth Companies list.  This list is currently focused on U.S. companies because our measures of media reputation for innovation and social capital were only available for leaders of U.S. companies.

The bottom line is that when you set out to use criteria that already leaves women out, it’s not surprising that the list came out the way it did.  I am almost waiting for Forbes to use that as a backhanded way to highlight the problem with the lack of women in executive leadership roles.  The criteria just compounded the problem and it’s not clear that we expect Forbes to do anything about the environment from which these lists emanate.

More importantly, we probably should consider the purpose of our list culture anyway.  I mean how many lists do we really need if the same names just keep emerging?  

The issue here isn’t even just the list, but the fact that Forbes went to publication without an image or any career biographical information on Ms. Rentler.  What happened there?.

The answer is not more lists. The answer probably lies somewhere in changing the landscape that allows the best of all of us to rise.  In the meantime, as women, we have to keep using words like - misogyny, sexism, inequity and homogeneity - to addresss these types of situations.  Even if we don’t want to - we have to.

I believe Forbes will do better for having made this misstep.  I can only hope.