Behind the brand or next to it? On positioning the CEO

CEOs don’t have it easy today. Whereas the MDs of the old school genuinely ‘pre-sided’ their brand or company, CEOs these days frequently step back behind it. As the Germany weekly DIE ZEIT found: „Company directors are being replaced by company brands”.

So what? Doesn’t that even make sense? In many ways, CEOs today are a company’s “top supporter” rather than “top figure-head”, and the relationship between management and company has been transformed into one of identification rather than representation. It is widely agreed that a CEO should not just be a spokesperson for a company’s key messages; he or she should actually embody the company’s values and personify the organisation. A number of experts even go as far as demanding that the CEO’s personality and the company’s brand should come together in some form of symbiosis in which person and brand provide mutual benefit.

Whatever of these CEO models you prefer – spokesperson, personifyer or integrated benefactor – they all have in common that the CEO is seen as servant rather than regent of the company and brand.

It is time then to challenge the total reciprocity between CEO and brand, which was strongly embodied, for instance, by former Apple-leader Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs was Apple, and Apple was Steve Jobs. It remains to be seen to what extent his successor Tim Cook will succeed in representing Apple’s brand without emulating Steve Jobs in one way or another. So far, Cook seems to be remarkably successful in beating his own path – an indication maybe that the match between brand and CEO does not need to be a total one after all.


Constructing the authentic

‘Authenticity’ usually involves a process of radical selection – at least when it is applied as a marketing concept. As Cindy Crawford once said:  ”Even I don’t look like Cindy Crawford early in the morning“.  For obvious reasons, she has also kept any such early morning pictures to herself as they would undermine the “Cindy Crawford” brand.  In a similar vein, the authenticity of Steve Jobs will have been a result of a particular positioning process which Jobs underwent as Apple’s CEO .

Depending on whether a CEO sees himself as a spokesperson, personifyer, benefactor or even servant of his company, his appearances and communication tend to be carefully staged in accordance with the role he prefers. As CEOs step behind their brands, they also strive to avoid anything that could shift the spotlight onto themselves and away from the brand. That sounds logical, doesn’t it? But is it also clever?

The CEO and the brand environment

According to a Burson-Marsteller study on CEO positioning, opinion leaders firmly believe that a CEO shape the public image of his company to more than 50 per cent:

Did you know that opinion leaders attribute more than 50% of a company’s image to the way they perceive the CEO? This is confirmed by numerous global – and also Swiss – CEO surveys.

There is certainly widespread agreement that a CEO’s reputation impacts directly on the stock value of his or her company. However, analysts and other stakeholders expect a CEO to create and maintain value. He is required to understand a brand, but not meant to disappear into its shadow. It is worth considering also that, at times, a brand identity offers very limited scope. A CEO is expected to lead a company and its brand, not vice versa.

As the current example of a large mail-order company shows, a CEO’s total ‘fusion’ with his brand carries an inherent risk: A brand as such does not speak on management matters like, for instance, criteria and conditions of employment. A brand value may be described in terms such as “fast, flexible, cost-efficient, simple, or service-oriented”. However, it is still down to a particular management to ensure that these values are not produced at the expense of others.

In order words: Management and the CEO require a meta-perspective which perceives a brand and its requirements in context, questions the surrounding conditions and shapes the brand based on the analysis of these factors. In doing so, a CEO does and must not converge with his brand. Instead, he is asked to support it. He poses questions, and by questioning, he leads. And in doing so, he leaves the shadow of his brand.

This post was first published in German in my blog


Im Markenhintergrund? Zum richtigen Standort des CEO

We are the company – the interconnected CEO

The company is me. This statement – in the vein of Sun King Louis XIV – claims absolute leadership. Whether it was ever actually realized, of course, remains another matter.

But whether it was or not, such leadership models are certainly outdated today. “Sole rule has become a hindrance,” Boris Grundl maintains in a recent book on the ‘man of action’ management model. The reason? The industrial age which was based on the notion of plannable and predictable growth has been superseded by the complexities of globalisation, he argues. The new order of business economics requires new capabilities of both managers and employees: In particular, flexibility and the ability quickly to respond to market developments are key criteria for success today.

So far, so good. However, agility and flexibility are in no way qualities which some people happen to have and others not.  To assume so would mean to ignore the conditions which make successful, adaptive behaviour possible in the first place.


Placing trust in self-management

What enables human beings as well as organisations to adapt to changing complex scenarios in an agile fashion? The answer to this question is often described in a series of opposites: Network instead of hierarchy, openness instead of instruction, development instead of pre-design, flexibility instead of persistence, agility instead of reactance … The wordings indicate nothing less than an organisational transformation. Companies have to develop a new culture of management and cooperation to facilitate innovation, collaboration and flexibility. They have to tackle their own internal structures and processes to remain successful in an age of increased unpredictability and uncertainty. Promoting self-organisation is key: The knack is to allow employees not only to be co-workers but co-thinkers who take charge and contribute to shaping the company – responsibly, appropriately and effectively.


Walk the walk

A transformation of this kind also changes the role of the CEO. Ideally, he or she is the one to kick off or trigger changes within the organisation. The CEO has to embody the change he wants to see happen within the company. Above all, the CEO should not merely outline strategies for development to succeed in an ever-changing complex world. He also has to adapt the organisational framework of his company to allow change to happen in the first place. He has to convince and reason, show why change is needed and act on his beliefs, too. He has to walk the walk. And he has to keep up the dialogue with the people that make up the company.


From many to many

Let’s have a look at strategy design. According to the Sun King model of management (“I am the first and the ultimate…”) the lone ruler also claims to be the sole cause, facilitator, innovator and maker of success. The interconnected CEO acts differently: He or she is a team player even at strategy level. Rather than trying to assess his company’s ever more complex market scenarios unilaterally, he enters into an early dialogue with and actively involves the company’s top management, high potentials and employees. The interconnected CEO knows and appreciates that success has many fathers and mothers. And that it has to be won collectively again and again. Companies which rest on their laurels put their future performance at risk. They often have stopped asking important questions and listening to the many who can contribute to the right answers.


“It’s good that we talked”

 The ability to communicate well is a core competence for business leaders.  However, the interconnected CEO has an even more fundamental affinity to dialogue and exchange. Communication is ‘what he is about’ and in radiating this quality he comes across as authentic. As a result, he seeks dialogue across the company – whether face to face, or web-based – and he invites questions and is happy to give answers.

Of course, communication and the exchange of information – the key resource of today’s knowledge economy – is not an end to itself.  Yet it is the precondition for successful action: Communication implies that the better argument can win. That makes successful effective in a way that should not be ignored!

Surprisingly, many CEOs have yet to discover the power of Social Media. Yes, the global connectedness achieved by Social Media is a blessing and a curse at the same time: CEO statements can prompt waves of support as well as waves of disagreement. An ambiguous tweet can send share prices falling, alienate customers, and annoy employees. But: Good news can also spread like wild fire.


A CEO profile – or a CEO who stands out?

Given the power, e.g. of Social Media, interconnected CEOs are well advised to be aware of both the opportunities and the risks of communication – whether in relation to strategy design or the implementation of messages, issues and commitments, events and presentation forums, or formats like speeches, chats, videos and photos.  Positioning a CEO and setting his public stage is way more demanding than jotting a four-line caption for a stamp-sized photo in a company brochure.

This post was first published in German in my blog


Wir sind Konzern – Zur Rolle des vernetzten CEO

CEO and storytelling: Leading by content

Brand products and services often resemble each other. Unfortunately, CEOs do so, too. Many value propositions may sound good – we have all heard terms like “innovative, competent, high-value, transparent, cooperative, customer-friendly, and service-oriented” a thousand times – but they still remain abstract. Again, the same applies to CEOs. Even where CEOs are genuinely “competent” or “decisive”, such descriptions ultimately do not convey much as they are used anywhere and everywhere. And extended wordings – e.g. “X is a strong business personality”, “Y is a visionary manager” or “Z is a driver of success” – mostly do not do much better. They may serve to differentiate a manager from other CEOs and – justly or not – set him or her apart for specific traits, values or competencies. However, if such claims are not filled with tangible qualities, they will ring hollow and not help much to communicate a leader’s particular values and unique capabilities. Equally, a CEO’s strategic position has to be seen and felt to truly come across. How to achieve all this? The solution is to apply narrative branding techniques to communicating a CEO’s profile. This also means: CEO-communication is not about marketing a ‘product’, it is about managing relationships.


Marketing is no longer about monologues

Today, it requires an integrated dialogue with consumers and other stakeholders (B2B, Investors etc.). Sales processes and other brand decisions occur in the course of interactions between brands and their consumers. In other words: They involve a relationship and this relationship is constantly developed by means of stories, anecdotes and myths. It is storytelling which serves to maintain and permanently rekindle the relationship between consumer and brand. And storytelling does not just invoke the brand – this would quickly be repetitive and boring in the long run! Instead, it creates stories around it.


Coca Cola calls this concept ‘dynamic storytelling’: It integrates a multiple of consumer-product interactions within a “brand experience”, and it actively embraces the fact that the brand experience cannot be controlled as stories develop their own dynamic effects. The corporation intends to manage its shift from “Creative Excellence to Content Excellence“ by 2020. Intended ancillary effects include: increased customer loyalty towards products, stronger leads, better ideas and an effective Corporate Social Responsibility.


Tell me your story! Don’t sell me a brand!

This new branding paradigm also impacts upon the CEO communication. Eulogies which spout brand or product messages according to the classic sender-receiver-model are outdated. Or at least they should be; remnants of this old model are still around. However, as CEOs seek to position themselves successfully through appearance and communication, they are advised to pay heed to the new paradigm which is based on storytelling and managed relationships. As an invitation, “Tell me a/your story”, certainly has a stronger appeal than “Sell me a/your brand!”.


A CEO will certainly continue to ‘stand for’ certain topics and a particular agenda, but these aspects alone are no longer enough in defining his interaction with audiences. A CEO will need content and speaking occasions which invite and facilitate dialogue and exchange. Depending on his own self-perception and the stories on offer, he will decide on the role that story-telling can play as part of his management style. And depending on whether he sees himself as his company’s top columnist, chief editor, general publisher or curator of brand-related content, his story will radiate differently both inside and outside of the company. By prompting public dialogue through story-telling, he will increase his personal and the company’s reputation. And within the company, employees are effected and invited to extend the culture of storytelling.

This post was first published in German in my blog

Leading by content – Storytelling des CEO