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Mar 14, 2019

How to be a Business Leader and Remain Human

CEOs are under more pressure than ever to communicate “authentically” across a wide variety of social platforms. How can they do so without revealing too much and damaging their reputation or their company’s share price?

The advice comes in all parts of our lives these days: “Just be yourself,” a friend or business associate will advise. Or, to use the modern buzzword, be “authentic.”

That can be easier said than done, particularly for business leaders who are under more scrutiny than ever while simultaneously being pressured to show their human side, both inside and outside work. The top post has always been a pressurized job, but social media has created a new level of risk for business leaders, along with the opportunities.

Compared to today’s business leaders, we knew relatively little about great American industrialists such as Henry Ford and Walt Disney. Yes, there were media articles and press announcements. But we knew little about their personal views on social and political issues and what made them tick outside of work.

It was much easier to segment their communication to different audiences—the press, regulators, customers, employees and the public—compared to that of today’s leaders, who typically don’t have the same professional distance. Everyone will read their social media posts and blogs—and the rise of superstar CEOs such as Steve Jobs and Elon Musk has taught us there is more interest in the personalities of leaders than ever before.

While this openness is in part a good thing, it has led to irate customers tweeting CEOs directly when their customer service departments aren’t up to scratch, or even as a first resort. They will complain to Richard Branson when their train or plane is delayed, or tag James Dyson in an Instagram post when their vacuum cleaner blows up.

Like politicians, business leaders need to strike the right balance between comments on social media or to the press that aren’t bland or full of corporate jargon (and therefore appear “inauthentic”) but aren’t so controversial that they create a media feeding frenzy and cause their company’s share price to tank.

WHY IT MATTERS

People can tell if a CEO’s PR advisor has written something under his or her name. It’s often vague, cautious and instantly forgettable. Whatever your views of President Trump, few doubt that his tweets are written (or at least dictated) by him. His views are clear, even if they’re incredibly polarizing. If you think you could get yourself in hot water by being toohonest, use a trusted advisor as a sanity check (“WTF! Do not publish that!” or “Why don’t you rephrase that?”).

According to research published last year, one in three U.S. consumers say they would purchase more from brands whose CEOs demonstrate transparency (being clear, open and honest) on social media. Some CEOs, such as T-Mobile’s John Legere, who has more than six million Twitter followers, use social media skillfully to highlight their enthusiasms and thought leadership credentials while also building their company’s brand. Spending less time reading and sending business emails (CEOs spend about 25 percent of their work time on “electronic communications,” namely email, according to research by the Harvard Business Review), could create more free time for more productive and interesting communication.

Many PR advisors to CEOs are scared of their CEO giving an opinion that may offend some people. I advise radical candor. Relax. If your opinion is backed up by facts and made lucidly, most people will respect you for it even if they disagree with what you’re saying. That may sometimes mean ignoring the advice of your public relations team, who are typically defensive in their view of your communication with the media. By defensive, I mean that they only see the potential risks of a business leader talking to the press or customers (making a dumb, throwaway joke that is misinterpreted, etc.) which could create a media storm and customer backlash. Yet everyone—journalists, your employees, customers—expects you to comment on big stories and be the face of the business.

Learn from the changes in politics in the last three years. Love them or hate them, populist politicians such as Trump have broken the political mold. They’ve risen to power partly because millions of voters saw them as authentic communicators who say what they’re thinking and aren’t afraid of upsetting people who have different opinions.

HOW TO DO IT

If you commit to creating a public-facing persona, don’t Google yourself. As someone once said, it’s like walking into a room where everyone hates you. No matter how saintly your behavior or stellar your career, the negative comments and news stories about you will always feature more heavily than the positive stuff in the first few pages of Google rankings.

The same goes for getting dragged into lengthy online conversations with irate customers—just don’t do it. Direct their complaints to the appropriate person in your business. Tell the customer that you’re sorry to hear that they’re disappointed or angry with your business and someone from your customer service department will contact them to try to fix their problem as soon as possible. I’ve known some very polite CEOs who get drawn into long conversations on Twitter about a minor customer complaint the details of which they can’t possibly be expected to know. That’s madness!

Say you’re the manager of a small pizza restaurant in Ohio. A customer has a complaint about a pizza. If you’re the business owner, the customer knows you likely didn’t cook their pizza but does want a genuine apology from you and a sense that you feel their pain, anger or disappointment. So if you say, “I’m so sorry that this has happened. I don’t know what went wrong but I’ll do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of it and fix the problem,” then, nine times out of 10 the customer will calm down and let you deal with it. The same principle applies to a global multinational business.

Be authentic while setting some boundaries that will protect the reputation of your company, your career and your well-being.

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