Spare a thought for the leaders of today

Paul Blanchard
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Financial Times columnist Andrew Hill has been experiencing an uncommon emotion. He said that when he thinks about the chief executives of established publicly listed companies, he feels sorry for them.

He admits that sympathy isn’t what most feel when they think about super-wealthy leaders whose decisions can have adverse effects on the lives of thousands of others but rarely their own. But regardless, Andrew Hill feel sorry for them. Why? Because ‘these days, chief executives are pestered and pursued as never before.’ He’s not wrong.

According to Andrew Hill, chief execs these days have to carry out broader and more complex tasks than their predecessors. And, they have to do this during a time of rapid change and in an environment of constant pressure and competition from well funded, privately held start-ups. But Andrew also forgets something, and it can make or break a business: reputation.

Businesspeople are increasingly taking centre stage in politics. That doesn’t just mean people like Michael Bloomberg, Carly Fiorina or the most infamous of them all, Donald Trump.

It also means Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who has been vocal on gun violence and race relations. It means Qantas boss Alan Joyce, who made himself a loud voice during the campaign to legalise same-sex marriage in Australia.

It includes Salesforce founder Marc Benioff, who fought the ‘religious liberty’ bill in Georgia. Peter Shield. Elon Musk. Business and politics are now tied, whether business leaders or politicians like it or not. And this comes with all sorts of risks.

But politics isn’t the only way to divide your customers or clients. The appearance of being likeable, interesting or engaged is on the modern list of criteria for ‘How to judge a leader’, even though for many CEOs (and I’ve worked with a lot), these things are foreign territory. For many CEOs, ensuring their business runs well is what they’re good at. How they come across to the wider public hasn’t ever really crossed their minds. But of course nowadays, the two are linked. Ask the CEO of United Airlines

Moreover, Edelman’s Trust Barometer is showing year after year that trust in CEOs is declining. They concluded: ‘CEOs have to take care of their reputation because it will directly have an impact on their organisation’s standing and on their business performance. Leaders can’t hide forever and rely on the fact people will not care. People do care and they will publicly condemn leaders who do not have an appropriate attitude.’

It’s much easier to paint a positive picture of yourself when you take a proactive approach. If, as a CEO, you wait to be approached or questioned you’ll find yourself on the back foot and potentially off-guard.

It’s in those kinds of situations that people say things they regret. But you can define how others see you if you give yourself the air of approachability by, for example, using social media. Even if you don’t actively look to blog, speak publicly or appear on TV or radio, doing this suggests you are friendly and open and are happy for others to come to you.

There are numerous other ways to portray yourself in a positive light. And there is some good news for the more media-shy and more guarded CEOs out there. Owler CEO Jim Fowler said Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, was a ‘legendary asshole to work for’ but had created such a successful and likeable company that there was ‘almost a national day of mourning when he died’.

Found a company that defines a generation, and maybe you can have a free pass when it comes to likability. But that’s unlikely. And as someone who works in the reputation management game, I appreciate it’s in my interest for CEOs to be forced to take more of an interest in how they’re perceived by the wider public. But that doesn’t mean I, like Andrew Hill, don’t experience an unusual emotion when I think of the CEOs of today.

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