How important is personal reputation for today’s CEO?

This coming year looks set to be a very public battle of personal brands
Nikki Scrivener
Stock image of a CEO
How is your personal brand?

We all know that a company’s reputation can be hard to build but easy to damage. And, as leaders, CEOs have to take ultimate responsibility for that reputation – even when circumstances are beyond their control.

Reputational risk comes in many shapes and sizes, from bad customer service to employee misconduct, a badly judged advertising campaign to serious malpractice. The rising prevalence of ESG on boardroom agendas also highlights how important social value and sustainability is becoming to a company’s reputation. Businesses that are genuinely prioritising purpose and the planet, alongside profit, are reaping the benefit of everything from improved recruitment and retention to increased customer loyalty. For those perceived to be ‘greenwashing’ the opposite is true.

Authenticity and transparency are seen as essential traits in a modern business - for investors, employees and customers - and this can feel daunting for CEOs who don’t feel confident in the spotlight.

That’s why leaders are often wary of embarking on a personal brand campaign, for fear of getting it wrong. Plus, an individual’s brand that eclipses the company isn’t usually the desired outcome, nor is it in the comfort zone of more introverted leaders.

There’s no right or wrong answer as to whether a CEO should build a personal brand to benefit their business. While it’s true that it can be hard to separate a leader from their company, you don’t have to make your profile a priority and it is possible to decide how visible you want to be. Essentially, there’s a huge sliding scale between the shy, reluctant figurehead and Elon Musk.

In the battle of political personal brands, we’re likely to see some wildly different styles this year, and a few more examples of what good and bad looks like. But here are a few things to consider before you launch your own campaign:

1) Decide how visible you want to be

Leaders should live and breathe the values of their organisation and ensure that those values are embodied throughout the company. But that’s about leadership, not brand. If you want to start talking about those values publicly and make them a thing that you’re known for, like Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard and its current CEO, Ryan Gellert, you have to be confident that every stakeholder’s experience of the business matches the story you’re telling from the top. Any misalignment can shake people’s faith in a brand, and it will ultimately damage the reputation of the business.

2) Be clear on why you are trying to raise your profile

‘My marketing team have told me I need to be more visible’ is not a sufficient reason to start saying yes to media interviews and speaking opportunities. If you’re planning to work on your personal brand in 2024, treat it like any other strategic plan for the business – how will it help you to achieve your overall business objectives, what do you need to do to achieve it, how will you execute the plan and measure it? This is obviously where you can pull in additional help and resource, but you have to start with why.

3) What do you want to say?

This is where you have an opportunity to inject your own personality into a personal brand campaign. Are there subjects that you feel particularly passionate about? That can be broad issues such as social impact or diversity and inclusion in the workplace, or more niche topics related to your sector. You can build a platform on which to speak, but you have to really care about what you’re saying and have a depth of knowledge that others will find valuable.

4) What don’t you want to say?

You should spend as much time considering what you won’t talk about as what you will. This is another fine line between being free to express opinions that don’t have anything to do with your business, while not saying anything that could damage or draw unwanted attention to it. Again, this will be particularly pertinent in 2024, ahead of a General Election. Many companies have policies around what employees can post on social media posting in the build up to an Election, for example – and you have to lead from the top on what’s off limits.

5) What will you do if something goes wrong?

Sometimes things go wrong, and it’s not always within your control. But forearmed is the best policy when it comes to reputational damage, from both a personal and company perspective. Your crisis communications plan should contain potential scenarios and processes for responding. The same principles of crisis comms remain, around establishing the facts, agreeing how information will be cascaded, how you will respond and how you will move forward. But they should be considered from an individual and company wide perspective, and you should try to determine how much one will impact the other.

Raising your profile can be hugely beneficial to you as a CEO, helping to establish you as a thought leader in your industry, attracting people to work with you, demonstrating your values, engaging investors and wider stakeholders and showing that you’re about people, as well as profit. With careful planning, execution and measurement you can make a real difference to the perception of your business. And keep an eye on how the politicians play it in 2024, for more tips on what and what not to do. 

Written by
Nikki Scrivener
Written by
January 5, 2024