What Executives Value in Their CEOs

March 20, 2015 by ahmed

Originally posted on HBR by Leslie Gaines-Ross

A CEO’s reputation is a key part of a company’s success.

Few would disagree with that. But how about specifics? Weber Shandwick conducted new research with KRC Research, The CEO Reputation Premium: Gaining Advantage in the Engagement Era, among more than 1,750 executives in 19 markets worldwide. We sought out the perspectives of those closest to the CEO, those in the best position to judge.

We found that nearly one half of a company’s corporate reputation (45%) is attributable to its CEO’s reputation. Similarly, 44% of a company’s market value is attributable to its CEO’s reputation. Tellingly, one-half (50%) of the global executives we surveyed report that they expect CEO reputation to matter even more over the next few years.  Global executives also say that a positive CEO reputation attracts new employees (77%) and helps to retain them (70%).

We found that executives value a few key attributes more than others. Among them:

1. Humility. Only one out of four CEOs in our study were described by their executives as being humble. Yet we found that highly regarded CEOs are nearly six times as likely as less highly regarded CEOs to be described as humble (34% vs. 6%, respectively). While there are still some well-known celebrity CEOs out there, today’s CEOs have to demonstrate their humility, not their celebrity, and make it clear that the company, not themselves, is their focus.

Humble CEOs motivate and empower those around them, share employees’ values, and listen well. They use their reputations on behalf of all.  They rely on their senior teams to validate strategy.  They build cultures that are about the collective whole, not individual rising stars.

This is a nascent trend that will undoubtedly continue to grow. Global media coverage of humble CEOs has spiked 200% in the past year and mentions have risen 70% in a Google search.

2. Visibility. While it’s important to be humble, a successful CEO can’t be a wallflower. A hefty 81% of global executives believe that for a company to be highly regarded it is important for CEOs to have a visible public profile.  In addition, admired CEOs are four times more likely to be skilled at engaging the public than those with less admired status (50% vs. 13%, respectively).  When engaging the public, CEOs are the purveyors of the company’s narrative. It is this narrative that must stand out amidst the informational deluge that besets the public. The CEO therefore must attend to the clarion call, standing up and standing out so as to tell the company’s story.  Given the glut of competing information bombarding society, however, standing up and standing out is no easy task.  It is immensely difficult to get the story of one’s company not only heard, but also recalled and shared.  All of which leads to our next finding.

3. Persuasiveness. The CEO must convey the company narrative and satisfy the marketplace’s demand for content and transparency through both traditional methods of storytelling (such as media interviews) and newly developed digital channels.  Which of the many communications channels are most important?  The majority of global executives (82%) believe speaking engagements to be most beneficial when engaging external stakeholders.  Industry-specific speaking engagements are more important than non-industry ones. Other important external CEO activities are building relationships with the media, using the company website strategically, and identifying compelling thought leadership platforms. Social media participation is also viewed favorably.  A full 43% of respondents deem using social media a worthwhile CEO activity to demonstrate the company’s forward-looking ideas and clear vision for the future and, of course, to elucidate the company story.

Along with public visibility and engagement, however, comes some risk.  When asked whether CEO visibility positively or negatively impacts company reputation overall, an equal number said it improves reputation (41%) as said it can either improve or harm reputation (41%).   Just 10% said visibility serves only to harm a company’s reputation. So the smart CEO takes advantage of the positives but is wary of the negatives.

Global executives today are luckier than ever — a rich ecosystem of channels exists to promote the company’s business strategy, greater purpose, and company story. Customers are ready to engage with the CEO, and conferences with receptive audiences are exploding.

CEOs now generally accept what has long been apparent:  like it or not, they are public figures.  By virtue of digital communications we all have in some sense or another gone public.  It is just that some of us, CEOs in particular, are more public than others. There is no turning back. It’s time to embrace engagement — but in a most humble way.

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