The Authentic CEO

October 30, 2018

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The pressure on CEOs has never been greater. No more is it enough to be cheerleader-in-chief for the company’s stock, visionary to its people, or strategist and coach to the leadership team. New research by FleishmanHillard finds that we expect chief executives of the companies we do business with to stand with us on the issues of the day. We live in an era when a CEO is judged not just on how he or she speaks, but the action they take on social and political concerns.

Our latest Authentic Insights report, Navigating Zero Gravity, makes clear what’s at stake.

We’ve entered the era of the “Authentic CEO” — where victory will go to those leaders brave enough to strip themselves of the protective clothing of legalese and corporate-speak, so people can see, hear and understand their positions on the issues that matter to the world.

So what does this all mean for today’s executives?

First, Authentic CEOs must be open and honest about why they are taking a stand. A full 90% of the engaged consumers we surveyed said they perceived that companies sometimes or often wade into social issues primarily for their own benefit¹. As a result, more than half of engaged consumers said they feel less favorable toward those companies. If a CEO is going to speak or act in the service of a higher purpose, she or he must be clear and credible about why the issue matters.

Secondly, the Authentic CEO must recognize that, even though there’s no way of pleasing everyone, staying out of the debate or sitting on the fence risks offending everybody. Like a sky-diver in freefall, the Authentic CEO needs to be comfortable with the terrifying reality that any action they take may hurt, but doing nothing is fatal. As a case in point, across all age groups polled, more than 40% of people said they expect companies to take a stand on a range of issues as varied as data privacy, racism, unemployment and acceptance of religious diversity.²

Finally, the Authentic CEO must be visible in the right ways. As our recent Authenticity Gap report revealed, what the CEO says and does is critical to the way a company is perceived³. More than three-quarters (78%) of those we questioned strongly agreed that the behaviors and integrity of the CEO reflected the behaviors and integrity of the company he or she leads. (Being captured on video smoking a joint on talk radio reflects poorly on the whole enterprise, who knew?)

Not every engaged consumer will agree with the stand the CEO and company are taking, of course. But we now have clear evidence that consumers expect companies and their leaders to demonstrate true commitment to the causes they embrace — whether that means developing new products and services to help solve the issue or using their influence and financial muscle to bring about desired change.

Taking a leadership position in this increasingly polarized world has rarely been more difficult.  But for, those CEOs prepared to be bold, decisive and authentic to the values of the business and its customers, it is an extraordinary time to de-position rivals and deliver long-term brand equity and financial returns.

To find out more about our latest report, please click here.

12TRUE Global Intelligence. Authentic Insights Survey. 2018. https://fleishmanhillard.com/
3 Authenticity Gap, 2017, https://fleishmanhillard.com/