Dan Frommer, Business Insider
By Linda ForrestSteve Jobs. Mark Zuckerberg. Bill Gates. Jeff Bezos. Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie. Larry Ellison.
I probably don’t need to tell you with what companies these executives are affiliated because they’re such well recognised ambassadors for their respective brands.
Some of these execs, as you likely also know, have had their share of bad press thanks to their behaviour either on or off the record. The media’s fascination with the online indiscretions of an unfortunately named U.S. congressman has reminded all public figures that their activities in the age of social media are never truly private. Leaders’ personas and personalities, good or bad, are tied to their organisations’ reputations in the marketplace.
At one time, behemoth companies such as RIM, Facebook and Apple were startups, perhaps just like yours. The difference is that now, with social media so pervasive in both our personal and professional lives, it’s more important than ever to appreciate that business partners, shareholders, prospective customers and investors could be watching. Today’s indiscretions or meltdowns could be tomorrow’s headlines. Or even headlines years from now.
CEO DNA = business success but jeopardizes corporate reputation?
It’s undeniable that there’s something exceptional about these CEOs who have become so closely associated with their brands in the marketplace. What is it that sets them (and you?) apart from the rest?
Earlier this month, noted author Malcolm Gladwell spoke of the traits that he sees as being the key to Steve Jobs’ (and others’) success as an entrepreneur:
The traditional view of entrepreneurs as those that are fearless in taking risks is slightly misleading and should be revised, Gladwell said.
He argued successful entrepreneurs are those who minimise operational risks but take enormous social risks.
Steve Jobs was raised as a prime example of this. The personal computer by Apple, the Macintosh, which uses a mouse and a simple graphic user interface (GUI) was actually a concept Jobs “borrowed” from Xerox’s innovation centre in Silicon Valley.
The Macintosh was a success but Jobs was reviled in Silicon Valley, a place which prides innovation above all else. The act of appropriating his idea from Xerox meant Jobs risked his reputation for a product that worked.
Jobs was confident the Mac would be a hit, which meant he took very little operational risk, but to put his reputation on the line indicated he was very willing to take that social risk. This lethal combination was, according to Gladwell, key to a successful entrepreneur.
“When you think of Steve Jobs in his career, you realise he’s done this again and again; he has taken the operationally risk-averse yet socially different pat,” he said. “He’s never been a trailblazer; he wasn’t the first to come out with an MP3 player nor was he the first to bring out the smartphone, but he waited until he was sure these technologies worked before bringing out his own products.
“He sacrificed any claim to be an innovator.”
Gladwell pointed out the trait to be risk-averse yet socially indifferent is a rare and difficult combination since humans are hardwired to crave social acceptance.
“It’s really easy to be operationally risky and socially risk-averse because we are surrounded by a world that rewards the combination of traits that we don’t want,” he said. “What we want to do to encourage entrepreneurship is the opposite.”
The way to foster these traits in businesses is to bring in a truly diverse group of people, Gladwell claimed.
This insight is an intriguing one and perhaps the tie that binds these high-profile CEOs – in the name of success, they’re willing to sacrifice their social reputations but not the well-being of their organisations. The success of these business leaders speaks to this as an effective strategy, whether it’s a conscious one or not. But from a marketing perspective, the attribute that may reveal their reason for succeeding in business may just be their biggest hurdle to overcome from a reputation standpoint.
Have brands been damaged by leaders’ personal behaviour? Maybe. Watching the media crucify Congressman Anthony Weiner for his personal shortcomings would suggest yes. When Balsillie or Ellison throw a tantrum or when Jobs requires time off to deal with health concerns, does that impact the stock price and public reputation of their company? Undeniably, yes. Consumers, and I would argue that enterprise consumers especially, don’t want to be affiliated with scandal, bad behaviour, and volatile personalities. In the case of B2B, this can result in millions of dollars of lost business.
As this MSN article points out, visionaries hate competition and tend to hire implementors rather than other visionaries. This can be a serious misstep when it comes to marketing.
With strong personalities involved, especially those leaders that like to have their hand in all the pies, and without a visionary marketing leader who builds a company’s image around a strategic focus rather than just reacting to whatever volatile activities the CEO shares with the market, companies can find themselves faced with a bad reputation. The degree to which this impacts stock prices and revenues varies with each instance of course, but it’s integral to maintain a positive image with your marketplace for long-term success.
As a leader, and more importantly, media spokesperson for your company, how can your marketing executives guide you to success?
The role of marketing in crafting an image for your brand ambassador
recognising the personality traits of your leader and levering the good parts, while having a plan for lessening the negative impact of the bad, is an important part of the marketing department’s role. In addition to having all of the basics on hand, including high-quality and high-resolution headshots, approved biography, talking points, briefing notes and so on, it’s also marketing’s role to define how and when the leader engages with the media marketplace. That leader should be media trained, something that is increasingly complicated in direct proportion with ego size. Limiting access might just be the best approach in the case of volatile personalities, but when tempers flare, peccadilloes surface or crises happen, marketing should be prepared to act on its crisis communications plan.
The danger of tying an organisation’s success to its CEO
In most cases, current company leadership expects and hopes that its organisation will outlive its involvement. As such, succession planning becomes a significant issue in organisations where the CEO is inextricably bound to the brand. Many question the future of Apple without Steve Jobs, should his health problems get to the point where he can no longer lead the company.
Marketing departments at organisations may spend significant time building up their CEOs to be perceived as “godlike” rock-stars, says Marshall Goldsmith, author of “Succession: Are You Ready?“
These efforts generate a lot of positive news coverage. All the attention builds momentum among consumers and investors alike.
But the benefits vanish quickly if a company doesn’t have another superstar waiting in the wings — which is usually the case.
In fact, the former CEOs sometimes seem to be waiting in the wings to return, even though that may not rekindle the magic. It hasn’t happened at Dell or Starbucks yet — though Jobs, pushed out in 1985, brought Apple back after his return in 1997.
If your organisation is to survive and thrive after its founder or well known leader leaves, the organisation’s reputation in the marketplace has to be based on more than just the leader’s personality. It has to be based on the business case for your technology.