CEOs, from innovative entrepreneurs to industry leaders, are taking the lead on the most important conversations of our time. Being visible to important stakeholders has become a duty of their role, not just a diversion, and stamping themselves on discussions of the issues important to them and their company is vital in putting their best foot forward.
We’re increasingly seeing the rise of a new type of business leader: the CEO activist. These are CEOs who are taking to public spaces, traditional or digital, to take the lead in conversations, whether they are industry-specific, on wider business trends, or of national and international importance.
Being visible is becoming an important part of the role of a modern CEO and is central to building connections, understanding, and loyalty not only with customers but also employees, investors, and many other stakeholders.
Executive profiling: how we got here
In the past, the CEOs who took newsworthy public positions on topics of industry or national concern were exceptions to the rule. Industry leaders like Bill Gates and Howard Schultz made waves by becoming outspoken advocates for causes and ideas they believed in, setting themselves apart.
Today, more consumers expect influential leaders of companies of all shapes and sizes to have a voice. They recognise that a CEO’s voice can carry great weight on a national or even international stage. It may soon be the case that even CEOs of relatively under-the-radar corporations will hamper their own success and their company’s if they don’t get on the front foot, and start thinking about how they can leverage their voice effectively.
This is not to say engaging in just any activism is good. It is not enough to follow the crowd, as this is more likely to lead to accusations of jumping on the bandwagon that has already left than commendations of bravery and insightfulness. Instead, CEOs need something distinctive, compelling and differentiated to say.
It is also not necessary for CEOs to wade into big moral discussions of the day. For many CEOs, adding their voice to the debate might simply be a matter of predicting what their own industry will look like in 10, 20, or even 50 years, and showing how their business is not only preparing for that future but seeking to drive the sector towards it in a unique, compelling, and engaging way.
When leaders really think strategically, they can exert real influence and stamp themselves prominently on any discussion of an issue. Bill Gates remains the best example of this: even on novel issues where other leaders will generally be of the same mind, such as with the importance of the international vaccine rollout, he manages to be visibly leading any charge he is in, rather than simply being carried along.
Executive profiling: It’s not only consumers that matter
Perhaps there are some CEOs whose companies are not overly visible to consumers who do not feel it is necessarily their place to help steer conversations. They may think they can neglect this side of the role of a modern CEO. But, the assumption that having a differentiated take only matters to consumers, misses the point.
In fact, boards, investors, partners, and employees increasingly expect their CEOs and business leaders to have a voice too. For example, many boards are imposing environmental and sustainability expectations or requirements on company executives and investors will now often look for this behaviour in companies before engaging with them. It is a warning sign to many investors if a company’s CEO has not made their ESG policy clear – or communicated with stakeholders about their Net Zero strategy.
It is no secret that people want to work for companies and individuals with good reputations. People want to work for businesses led by people who are innovative and are driving future industry conversations. For companies to stay competitive in the war for talent, they must ensure they are appealing to potential employees by presenting such an image. People will not follow a leader they perceive as simply coasting along, even if in reality that leader is full of great ideas. Feeling that they are part of something exciting leads employees to feel more engaged in their work, which in turn leads to greater productivity and company loyalty.
The world of business is defined by creative destruction. This is as true for the nature of the role of business leaders as anything else. As society and technology have evolved, so too has the job of leading a company.
The CEO of the 20th Century has been destroyed and in its place a new kind of CEO is appearing: one who needs to think more about being visible, whilst driving their sectors and societies ever forward. Calls for dynamic and decisive leadership are now coming from inside companies and out. Ultimately, it is no longer a choice of whether you speak up, but of what you say and on what topic.
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