The Changing Face of the Corporate Leader

Posted: 01/04/2018 - 05:31

We’ve come a long way since the 1955 issue of Fortune which described the ‘successful American executive’ as someone who spent almost no time on politics, drank moderately, and only attended cultural events ‘because they must’. With a businessman in the White House and heads of Fortune 500 companies regularly appearing in the media as trendsetters, opinion formers and pundits, discretion is no longer the better part of valour.

It’s fifteen years since Michael Bloomberg became Mayor of New York and demonstrated that you can be a corporate leader without being politically vanilla. On the back of President Trump’s success, we saw Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, contest the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. CEO Howard Schultz has spoken loudly and often on gun violence and race relations. Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce, fought the ‘religious liberty’ bill in the state of Georgia. Qantas boss Alan Joyce was quick to give his opinion during the campaign to legalise same-sex marriage in Australia. It is more common than not that CEOs will continue to actively engage on the wider stage. 

Away from politics, company bosses feature in ads, lifestyle magazines and on reality shows. That turnaround has partly been fuelled by the rapid growth and change driven by technology, and the youth of today’s business leaders and their companies. It is the curiosity of the Zuckerberg generation that has created a marketplace as well as a home-space that is visible to all. The transparency that enables the sharing of knowledge and information has also provided a peephole into the workings of business. The entire culture of a company, embodied in the words and behaviours of the corporate leader, is now under scrutiny – a scrutiny that has unleashed worldwide campaigns around everything from living wages to gender equality and places of safety. 

Today, the likability of the CEO can make or break the image of the entire business. Despite his undoubted professional brilliance, Travis Kalanick, formerly Uber’s CEO, didn’t just take his company to the brink of implosion: he made the entire organisation seem aggressive and unrestrained in the eyes of the public. 

What are the implications of this transparency for recruitment and overall success? If, for example, the CEO is not seen as making diversity and inclusion important, the culture of the company is likely to reflect that. The hullabaloo and the high-profile complaints and campaigns after the BBC in London’s disclosure that male stars received higher fees than their female counterparts, has sown disharmony across all media as well as the corporation itself. It has spread beyond arguments about presenter salaries to encompass all roles and all grades. How does this impact the expectations of tomorrow’s BBC workforce, and the calibre of person who will apply for jobs across the corporation? 

These are top-end examples, but across all levels of business it is more important than ever that CEOs work closely with HR, to not just talk-the-talk but walk-the-walk. They need to demonstrate value in two directions. Firstly, their own value as a leader, as someone who is not only taking the business in the right direction but who embodies all that is good about a company - it’s outlook, it’s vocabulary, it’s culture. Secondly, the value they put on their employees as diverse individuals with different skills and concerns, all pulling together to create a cohesive whole. Why? Because surveys suggest millennials do not judge a role by salary alone – a truth which holds for most generations today. The traditional measures of professional satisfaction are no longer enough. People want choice, flexibility and a positive experience at work. 

It is no longer enough for corporate leaders to charm the shareholders and ignore the stakeholders. They cannot retreat to their offices and assume everything will happen by magic, or that it does not rise to a level of important for them to care. CEOs are the face of the company and must show leadership internally. They must work closely with their people leader to define, promote and protect a healthy and productive corporate culture. And, most importantly, that positive image must be apparent – not just to their employees – but through their employees, to the wider public.


About The Author

Rita Trehan's picture

Rita Trehan is a multi-award-winning HR expert and corporate strategic advisor, who counts the CEO and MD of Australia’s largest energy company among her clients. At global companies including Honeywell and AES Corporation, both as a senior executive and CHRO, Rita led major organisational and business change to strengthen values, increase profit and encourage innovation. Over her 30-year career, she has developed a distinctive approach and business philosophy that she outlines in her first book, Unleashing Capacity: The Hidden Human Resources.
Rita is a Fellow of the RSA and Founder and Chair of the HR Original Thinkers awards, which honours young, forward-thinking talent in the industry. She is also an advisor to the Board of EveryLayer, which brings affordable broadband to emerging markets in Africa.