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Why today’s chief executive needs to be the company’s missionary

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella was appointed in 2014. Since then, Microsoft saw its market value grow by $250bn as he inspired the workforce and led the company through a period of enormous transition and innovation.

Nadella wrote a book about it, Hit Refresh, in which he describes the trials and tribulations of that period at Microsoft, but also of his private life, looking after a son suffering from severe cerebral palsy. His frank, open insights into his life endeared him to many, not only as the chief executive of Microsoft, but also as a human being. That period showed him the power of empathy as the key to involvement and commitment. The way he included this in his leadership, above and beyond his highly visible presence on social media, has undoubtedly contributed to the successful turn Microsoft has taken.

People today love leaders who show themselves. A whole new generation, grown up with social media and its endless exchange of likes and hearts, has introduced a new approach to the way they relate to brands and businesses. They want brands and businesses to care about their society and their planet as much as they do. They want engaged companies, trying to do their damnedest for the greater good, led by people who share their convictions and ideals and who are not afraid to express them in public. The chief executive of old, totally businesslike and financially driven, is on the way out. Today’s CEO is no longer chief executive officer; today’s CEO is chief empathy officer and a different person altogether.

The new face of trust

“Today’s chief executives must be activists. They empower and enable world-class products, but more importantly, they always do the right thing by society,” says Steve Hahn-Griffiths, chief research officer at the Reputation Institute, a reputation measurement and management services firm. For more than a decade, the institute has published the US RepTrak 100, an annual study of corporate reputation in America. For this year’s edition the institute surveyed more than 52,000 individuals from January to February 2018, most of them involved with businesses reporting revenues in excess of $3bn and with a brand familiarity with at least 30% of the US general population.

“We see an erosion of trust,” says Hahn-Griffiths in a Forbes article on America’s Most Reputable Companies in 2018. “It’s not enough to just have a high-quality product and deliver results on Wall Street. Social activism, aligning with communities, what you do to make the world a better place – that’s the metric. Chief executives who take a stand, who align with important public policy issues – especially related to measures about citizenship and governance – rank disproportionately higher.”

Businesses and brands have to make friends, now more than ever. They have to earn the trust of those they pursue and preferably of anybody else they can reach as well. And that is the hardest thing to do in a world full of fake news, spin and framing, rumors and hearsay, serious doubts about privacy and personal data sold for profit.

This is one of the main reasons why old school business chief executives will be – are being – replaced by leaders with a greater sense of the new reality people in which people find themselves. The new chief executive is the company’s spokesperson number one, the best in house. Not just a figurehead who is dug up from the boardroom as a last resort in times of dramatic crisis (hello Volkswagen), but someone who is out there in the trenches on a regular basis, living proof of the transparent approach now demanded by the 24/7 online society.

Personal branding, corporate standing

Does this mean the chief executive needs to become bigger than the brand or business s/he represents? That would be overdoing it. However, I don’t think today’s chief executives can afford to look away from the rising demand of society (and thus their markets) for more personal involvement with the perils of the age. If a company is truly willing to contribute to society or the environment or both, what better way to get this message across than through the personal engagement of its top executive?

Of course, there is always a corporate message to relay; there are always opportunities to develop corporate campaigns and engage influential people to get the message through to the public. As efficient as that is and as effective as it can be, it will always lack the sincerity people are looking for now. They want to feel more than hear that a company is honestly driven to do something about issues that need attending to. This is when the chief executive needs to get out and connect, truly connect, with the world outside the C-suite. Is it a lot of extra work for a chief executive? No, because it isn’t extra work, it is fast becoming the chief executive's main job.

A lot of high-performing chief executives and their companies have already become amazingly successful just by expanding their social engagement. In a study on the social chief executive in the US by the Ruder Finn agency high-performing chief executives turned out to be more socially engaged than their low-performing counterparts. Whereas 50% of high-performers have more than one social media account, only 28% of low-performing executives do.

Successful chief executives are also more engaging on social media. Roughly 21% of high-performing chief executives posted on personal subjects, vs 14% posted by low-performing executives. The positive effect of a chief executive's personal and publicly shared engagement with society’s worries is undeniable. In a world of diminishing trust in anything people might call “an institution,” it is vital that these “institutions” develop an attitude that will turn them into people of flesh and blood, with a good feel for what is happening around them and genuine interest in people’s lives. The chief executives that take up that role will outperform their faceless competitors.

Thank you for understanding

“We have reached a critical time in communications where a chief executive's leadership style must evolve to stay current,” said Ruder Finn chief Kathy Bloomgarden in an article by Holmes Report. “Chief executives must find ways to leverage the power of social media as a means to bring their story to life and connect with customers, investors and other audiences.” It does pay to go out there and unfold who you are as a chief executive and spread views your company likes to share. The most visible chief executives in the marketplace have been making the most of social media.

Popular for his columns on LinkedIn, Virgin founder Richard Branson personally checks social channels every morning. He shows that he is more than just an involved company executive and businessman, as he regularly shares his views on social issues and emotional stories about people he encounters around the world. Some would call him a pop star, but to millions he is someone approachable, easy to like, and this is reflected in the way people look at the Virgin brands.

Another chief executive worth mentioning is Air Asia’s Tony Fernandes, who has 1.5 million Twitter followers and gained considerable praise for his open approach following the loss of AirAsia Indonesia flight QZ8501 in 2014. The fact that he already shared a lot about himself before the drama unfolded helped enormously, as his personal involvement couldn’t be written off as just another byproduct of crisis management.

People want the chief executive to tell them what’s up, not some unknown face with a toothpaste smile, a suit and the onscreen caption “company spokesperson". This is even truer of employees. They like their chief executive to share his or her views actively, online and offline, internally and externally. It fits changing attitudes towards work and career: for the new generations, the workplace has to offer a sense of belonging. Today’s employees like socially active, recognisable leaders; they feel that leaders who are not afraid to venture out on social media platforms must be people who understand their world and have an eye for what’s happening in society and in people’s lives. It radiates interest and understanding: important characteristics for great modern leadership in the eyes of new generations.

Watch over your privacy

As a chief executive, it requires serious consideration to take the step and get actively involved. There is, for instance, the not-so-small matter of personal privacy. As a chief executive becomes a more visible public figure, out there in full view of potentially millions online, how can s/he express personality without showing glimpses of private life? This is something to be reckoned with, an important question that has to be answered before launching into online exposure. Personally, I’d say that “family” is a no-go area, but this is a private decision that every individual chief executive will have to make.

Can you be a personable, involved, engaged citizen and at the same time leader of a billion-dollar company? It will always be a fine balance between a chief executive's two lives, the private one and the public one. What fits where is sometimes hard to say. Can you mention your wife’s birthday in a tweet, for example? Does showing you are a family man or woman heading a warm household add to the company’s reputation? I think it depends on what feels natural, the platform you use, and the frequency with which you choose to communicate.

The bottom line is and will always be whether you feel comfortable not only being a chief executive leading a great company, but also being a great, authentic person who is not afraid to shine in the media. I leave you with 10 tips that may help you to feel comfortable with the role of today’s media-friendly chief executive.

1.Outline your personal content strategy. Although you are you, people encountering you on social media will always see you as the chief executive of your company. Therefore, it is essential to decide first what kinds of issues you can comment on and which ones to leave alone. Ideally, you are the personal touch over and above the corporate content, not instead of it. So define why you’re gong to be out there and how you want to represent your business there.

2. Know about the company’s other social efforts. Turning the chief executive into an essential part of the overall content strategy is a team effort. Surround yourself with people who update you about what is happening on social media concerning the company. Have the responsible social media executive coordinate your social activities with all other social media efforts.

3. Be human first, chief executive after. If the boundaries are set clearly, it will help you move freely on the social media most useful to the company’s overall content and communication strategy. You need to be relaxed to be authentic; the moment you’re afraid to share a picture of yourself sporting a cowboy hat or sailing togs, it would be better to forget about being company’s face and voice on social media. Let them see all of you or nothing at all.

4. Don’t try to be popular. You can be a socially engaged chief executive without trying too hard to be one of the guys or girls. People will burst that balloon very quickly. If you’re a serious guy or gal by nature, fine. Stay true to yourself. There is nothing wrong with a serious man or woman who is able to voice serious concerns about issues that matter to people. They will like you better for it, and it will create the feeling that the company is led by sensible people.

5. Be modest, not shy. In popular lingo, the chief executive is often referred to as the top dog. It paints an image of someone who’s annoyingly self-assured – if not full of him/herself. Whatever you aspire to be as a spokesperson, that’s not on the menu. The threshold may differ from country to country: in some cultures, people appreciate strong characters; in others, they frown on overly opinionated leaders. In general, though, people tend to like top managers who make them feel they could sit down and have a discussion together.

6. Pick your platforms. Being comfortable is important for every chief executive who seeks to enter the public arena through social media. Therefore it is best to choose which form of messaging suits you best, which platform, and even how often you post. Virgin’s Richard Branson is quite successful with his posts on LinkedIn, while Tim Cook is virtually absent on social media. When he does make an appearance, however, it seems all the more impressive and exclusive.

7. Get a ghostwriter. Many a chief executive holds views that are worth more in-depth media exposure than tweets or short public appearances on radio or TV. Views that reflect your company’s mission and strategy could make for great reading as a whitepaper, a series of blogs, an essay or even a book. It pays to get in touch with a ghostwriter you can trust to put your views into the right words – preferably someone with a critical mind, who can also act as a sounding board for new ideas. A good ghostwriter will help you make your point in a way that will get picked up by traditional or social media.

8.Have a human profile. Looking up chief executives on LinkedIn can be a surprisingly disappointing experience. Sometimes there is so little information about them, you would think they were working for the CIA. You don’t have roll out your whole life on Facebook, LinkedIn or Wikipedia, but don’t underestimate people’s eagerness see what kind of person you are. CV, education, experiences, a particular view on life, hobbies, books you like to read, films you’re interested in – it doesn’t hurt your privacy to show more of yourself than just “current position: CEO.”

9. Test the waters. The tech-savvy generation of chief executives and other, younger CEO-entrepreneurs don’t need to be told how to use and behave on social media. For a generation of chief executives for whom being interviewed by the financial press already made for a sweaty experience, it is a great idea to start slowly and set up a test account. Social media have their own rules and many of them are not written down anywhere. With a test account under another name you can get a feel for what it means to post, earn followers, get into discussions and deal with blunt comments – or compliments. It will certainly set you up to feel comfortable when the time comes to join the crowd.

10.Enjoy it or don’t do it. Being in the public eye has never been easy, but in today’s arena it can be downright daunting. As a chief executive, yes, it is your responsibility to represent your business and do everything you can to contribute to its great reputation – but if you don’t feel totally OK with joining the jungle of the online world, you’re better off not doing it. Because it will always show if your heart’s not really in it. You will always look like someone being pushed on stage to sing and dance while the last thing you want is to sing and dance in public. Leave it to a VP who loves this stuff and limit your role to dealing with more traditional media appearances.

Corporate campaigns will still be made, and content will still be rolled out for all it’s worth. But it will never benefit the company’s reputation like a chief executive who really shows s/he cares. The communicative, socially engaged, authentic chief executive will soon be a standard and essential part of corporate and brand communication. Because there is nothing as powerful as the human touch.

Erik Saelens is founder & executive strategic director of Belgium's Brandhome group