Tuesday 11 June 2019 5:20 am

CEOs take note: No one knows what you actually do

In an age when the leader of the free world promotes himself as the CEO-in-chief and the New Establishment leaders of Silicon Valley appear like celebrities in the public consciousness, it would be reasonable to assume that society understands the role of those who lead business.

On the contrary: over half of UK workers admit to understanding not at all or only slightly what a CEO does.

According to new research commissioned by Montfort Communications and carried out by Opinium, a majority of workers believe, for example, that CEOs only work an average of 42 hours a week, and that their main role is to attend to administrative tasks and sit in meetings.

This presents a worrying perception gap between workforce and leadership at a time when society’s attitudes towards authority have fundamentally changed.

Part of that gap is down to communication –  in fact, workers in the survey cite communications skills as one of the chief characteristics they want from a CEO, along with interpersonal skills and vision. Surprisingly, few workers believed that their CEO had these qualities.

Surely the CEO doesn’t need to worry about that? What matters is delivery: results, profits, growth.

This is what has always mattered, and of course it still does today. Yet it is clear that the workforce wants more. The research backs up a trend that is increasingly making the front pages: there is a perception that CEOs are not contributing to society beyond wealth creation.

And workers want that to change: 60 per cent of those surveyed believe that CEOs have a duty to contribute to society beyond merely in a financial way, and half would like to see bosses take a stance on social issues.

It appears that gone is the time when a CEO could be content to inhabit the boardroom and the corridors of power, occasionally stepping forward to give a profile interview to a Sunday newspaper. CEOs are now public figures in a way that they have never been before, and held to a higher expectation like other leaders in the public sphere, be they politicians or football managers.

Since the financial crisis a decade ago, business leaders have been moved out of the comfort of the “pink pages” and into everyday public consciousness. As a result, society wants more from them. It wants to understand them better; their motivations, aspirations, and personalities.

This, coupled with the changing workforce dynamic, means that the issue of leadership reputation matters more than ever before.

Communication strategy has become a key boardroom issue in the past decade, seen as vital to an organisational licence to operate.

But the pressure on leadership reputation requires a new approach – cultural and behavioural. It requires an engagement strategy that connects the workforce – and broader society – with business leaders to deliver positive outcomes.

Business is overwhelmingly a force for good. Without successful businesses, led by conscientious CEOs, the economy would grind to a halt. But CEOs cannot and must not be complacent. We live in fractious and often febrile times. The need to build consensus is ever greater, and CEOs have a valuable role to play in that.

Too often, society’s view of CEOs is shaped by the negative – failure makes the headlines, whereas everyday success and decency rarely does. Those few who behave badly tarnish the reputation of the many who do good, leading to a sense that the best thing a CEO can do is keep their head below the parapet.

But what this research shows is that CEOs may need to be braver in public life, sharing their vision, and demonstrating the contribution they make to their workforce and beyond.

Perhaps if they can do this, society will have a better appreciation of what they actually do, and that can only be a good thing.

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