2016 Reputation Trends to be Mindful About

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 5.15.39 PMLeslie Gaines-Ross is Chief Reputation Strategist at Weber Shandwick and the architect of groundbreaking, award-winning research into CEO and corporate reputation, and more. Leslie’s blog can be found at reputationXchange.com and you can follow her at @ReputationRx

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Once again, it’s time to gather my year-end thoughts on where the field of reputation is headed. This year’s predictions, however, will veer in a slightly different direction. For 2016, I am focusing on the changing role of the CEO in building, preserving and protecting reputation.

Leadership today is far more complex than in days past. It requires setting a tone and being inclusive. It requires being authentic and collaborative. As leadership becomes more complicated, establishing a leader’s reputation necessarily becomes more complex as well.

Here are nine trends for 2016 regarding CEO reputation…

Don’t Take it Lightly. CEO Reputation is Fundamental. The U.S. presidential election is a potent reminder of the importance of leadership and its impact on citizens’ sense of safety and security. The same goes for the individuals who lead a company and their role in creating a workplace where employees feel that they belong and fit in. In our recent study undertaken with KRC ResearchCEO Reputation Premium, we found that global executives attribute nearly half of a company’s reputation (45%) to its chief executive. Notably, one out of two executives (50%) expect a CEO’s reputation to contribute even more to a company’s reputation in the next few years. Even though the CEO is only one of many who contribute to an organization’s success, the enormous disproportionate influence of a CEO should never be underestimated or neglected.

Employees First and Always. Getting employee communications right remains of prime importance to any CEO. To compete successfully in today’s world, CEOs must work at getting employees to internalize corporate strategy and align their values with those of the company. CEOs need to be eye to eye with their employees. That means CEOs must use as many communication channels as possible to reach out and engage employees and speak in a language that is relatable and meaningful.

Getting employee communications right is essential to shaping enviable and reputable employee cultures. We’ve all seen what happens when employees are disengaged and culture deteriorates. Under such circumstances, employees look the other way, retreat from raising difficult topics with their managers and find unethical workarounds to meet near impossible goals. Without effective two-way communications and a constant read on the employee pulse, a company’s reputation on Glassdoor slides or does not get a rating that keeps the company off the Worst Places to Work list. Monthly reads of employee satisfaction might soon become de rigueur to be reported straight into the CEO’s office or onto the company dashboard along with financial metrics.

Stay Alert. Activist CEO Ahead. A new breed of chief executive is emerging — the Activist CEO. A handful of CEOs are standing up and standing out on some of the most polarizing issues of the day, from climate change and gun control, to race relations and same-sex marriage. Despite the risks, such CEOs are rejecting the time-honored refrain: “we take no public position on issues not directly affecting our business operations.”

Don’t think for a minute that CEO activism is a flash in the pan or a mere fad. More CEOs will be banking their reputations on today’s thorniest and most pressing social, political and environmental issues. People expect it. They are looking to CEOs to jump in with solutions where government has failed to do so. To quote the CEO of Salesforce, Marc Benioff: “One thing that you’re seeing is that there is a third [political] party emerging in this country, which is the party of CEOs.”

 CEO Wallflowers are Out. We used to hear repeatedly from CEOs that they were not interested in talking to the media or building visibility. Their reputations would build organically. This stance has changed significantly. Years ago and perhaps understandably so, CEOs and those around them confused CEO visibility with CEO celebrity. Today, it is not about CEO celebrity, but building CEO credibility and trust.

Now we hear CEOs asking what more can they do to build their company’s reputation? How else can they amplify their commitment to sustainability, educational reform, smarter cities, better living, and so on. Global executives overwhelmingly report in our CEO Reputation Premium study that CEOs need to engage externally (81%) to be highly regarded. Dow’s chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris said it well: “The CEO has to be ubiquitous and in person.” Today, CEO engagement means having a greater presence, but this time, with greater purpose.

H is for Humble. CEO Version 7.0 is here. We started out at the turn of the last century with the Industrialist CEO and the Organization Man, moved on to the Celebrity CEO and the Dot Com CEO, and eventually found ourselves with the Recession CEO and the Smart Creative CEO. Now, making an entrance is the seventh reincarnation of what it means to be a successful chief executive: the Humble CEO.

Our study found that highly regarded CEOs are nearly six times more likely to be described as humble as were less highly regarded CEOs. Google mentions of humble CEOs has soared 460% since 2014. It had only increased 28% from 2013 to 2014. Something is definitely afoot. Humble CEOs are more highly indexed on openness, accessibility, caring about others, community-mindedness, being good listeners, collaborative and sharing employee values. The “ME” CEO of years past has now been replaced by “WE.”

Yes, I am aware of Donald Trump, Republican primary candidate and a CEO himself. A ME CEO if there ever was one. But he is the antithesis of humility. He is an outlier. I do not expect Trumpian CEOs to proliferate in the coming year.

Zero Percent is Not Good Enough. According to Weber Shandwick’s proprietary analysis and report on gender equality in the executive ranks, not one of the world’s 100 largest companies has a gendered balanced senior leadership team. Only 12.5% of the most senior leaders of the world’s 100 largest companies are women. Only 39% of global C-level executives report gender diversity in senior management as a high business priority, ranking seventh among 10 priorities.

Notwithstanding such shocking lack of progress over so many years, gender equality is now on the brink of becoming a powerful driver of reputation. Media coverage of the issue has grown exponentially as data about the lack of women in the C-Suite has become increasingly accessible. CEOs will be held accountable.

Social networks and search engines help job candidates assess potential employers on their gender equality practices. “Best of” rankings are flourishing (Fortune and Forbes issued their first Best Workplaces for Women lists in 2015) and it is likely that there will be more of them in due time.

A new web site, for example, emerged this last year called FairyGodBoss. The site makes it easier for women to uncover the scoop from other women about companies and jobs. Think of it as Glassdoor for women only. The writing is on the wall for future reputation-building just like it was for corporate social responsibility years back. To be reputation-proof in the years ahead, senior leadership needs to be better at being gender balanced.

Female CEOs Need a Fighting Chance. When it comes specifically to female CEOs, the news is mixed. According to Fortune, as of February 2016, only 21 female CEOs will be running Fortune 500 companies — down from 24 in 2014. A paltry number to be sure but there are also some positives upon which we can build.

The reputation of female CEOs is directly related to the number of women who seek the top corporate job. When female executives work for a female CEO, their interest in one day becoming a CEO climbs. Also, the increasing role of social media in business seems to favor female involvement and influence. Seventy-six percent of the women in our Most Powerful Women audit were social, a figure on par with the Fortune Global 50 CEOs we examined in terms of Internet sociability (80%). Perhaps the business of business will now be told not only by men but by women as well.

Don’t Mess with the Company Brand. Parent and product brands are inextricably linked. A large 70% of global consumers report avoiding making a purchase if they don’t like the company behind a product. Radical changes caused by the Internet, globalization, NGOs/third parties, a more demanding general public and increasing social activism have all created a new dynamic where the company behind the brand is becoming as or more important than individual product brands themselves.

The crucial importance of the reputation of the company behind the brand has been well recognized by none other than chairman and CEO Warren Buffet and vice chairman Charlie Munger. Research by David Larcker and Brian Tayan at Stanford Graduate School of Business surveyed the CEOs of approximately 80 Berkshire Hathaway subsidiaries and inquired what it would take to get Buffett or Munger, known for being outrageously hands-off, riled up enough to place a phone call to them. “An event [that] impacts the parent company’s reputation” was one of only two scenarios that would cause Buffett and Munger to interfere. The most admired corporate leaders in the land do not look kindly on anyone messing with the reputation of the parent brand Berkshire Hathaway.

In with the New – Holographic CEO Communications. If CEOs are expected to show up at all those Town Halls scheduled around the globe, communication teams are going to have to get creative. The Hologram CEO might just be the way. Move over virtual reality — forget those funny glasses, headgear and cardboard boxes. Diffracted light that results in your CEO’s image might just do the trick.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was not the only leader to employ holography to reach others. A Parisian-based CEO of a management-consulting firm showed up in Chicago via hologram to address employees.

Instead of stretching a leader too thin with constant travel across multiple time zones, it just may become commonplace to use holography. Remember, that “talkies” were once considered by some to be a “fad” and cinema has never been the same since. Holography may similarly change the way business meetings are conducted, especially by leaders of cross-border companies. Rather than spending eight hours on a plane, CEOs might find it a blessing to be home for dinner at eight.

Here’s to a meaningful 2016 and a good reputation for all.