The social imperative for CEOs

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CEOs are waking up to the importance of social media in managing their personal brands as their company’s success may depend on it, writes business psychologist Dr Hamira  Riaz

Reputation is the public part of our personalities. If identity is the way a person thinks about themselves, then reputation is the ways others think about that person. We know positive reputations confer social status. Brain research studies suggest human beings place as much, if not more, weight on social status as monetary reward.

Public figures have long understood that the perception of who they are is as important as reality, and surrounded themselves with experts at building reputations. Social media is the latest weapon in the popularity contest. Commentators disagree about the value of this ‘like’ culture. On the one hand, social media popularity can endow a person with a cloak of credibility at lightning speed. But the existence of global ‘click farms’ makes it difficult to know when the star-making is bogus.

Many people chuckled over their breakfast cereal last April as they followed the rapid rise and fall of ‘Santiago Swallows’. Described as a celebrated guru and great thinker, he was later outed as a work of fiction by his creator, Kevin Ashton. The British technology expert made Santiago up in a few hours, then used him to show how easy it is to manipulate the views of people who revere social media as a guide to finding out who matters.

Compared with the spin-doctored worlds of celebrity and politics, those at the top of the corporate ladder tend to let results speak for themselves. But studies show CEOs account for up to 14% variance in a firm’s performance and a CEO’s personality has a big influence on company culture. And now the power of social media to make or break reputations in other spheres is acting as a wake-up call to senior executives.

When Lord Browne exited the St James Place HQ offices of BP at the end of 2008 everyone marvelled at the elegant way he managed his reputation under heavy fire. This was brought into sharper focus when his successor, Tony Hayward, was publically hung, drawn and quartered for the way he handled himself in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Unsurprisingly, CEOs are increasingly calling upon the services of discreet advisors, to help them navigate the murky territory of personal reputation.

Cult of personality

Perhaps the trickiest challenge for advisers of business leaders relates to the cult of personality. This is probably why CEOs are often counselled to project a moderate public image that neutralizes distinguishing features of their style in favour of a more rounded persona. The problem with this approach lies in the insatiable human desire to dissect the inner workings of those deemed by society as ‘having it all’. And there is plenty of research to indicate that our concern with social status intensifies as the gulf widens between life’s high and low achievers.

Post-financial crisis, the public debate over salaries, bonuses and pensions, is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the scrutiny facing CEOs. Social media fills the gap between what successful people choose to tell us and what we really want to know about them. Our research in partnership with Soshio, who specialize in Chinese social media analytics, suggests people are curious about eminent CEOs in much the same way we are about celebrities. We chose to look more closely at Ma Huateng, Robin Li and Dong Mingzhu because they had more social media coverage than all their Chinese CEO peers on the Forbes Asia ‘Fab 50’ list put together (see inset).

Social Imperative Info Graphic for web copy

So, here are some key messages from the psychological study of 21st century leadership:

Reputations are self-fulfilling prophecies so that, for example, a reputation for power brings more power. This means CEOs must craft their personal brands with precision. Because leaders receive more attention than the average person, there is a stronger relationship between their reputation and behaviour. So CEOs must ensure they act in way consistent with their story.

In the digital age, a leader’s reputation is strongly linked to the ‘second-hand’ perceptions of remote receivers of information. CEOs must cast the net wide when managing their brand. In times of change, people in the system will use a leader’s history of behaviour to reduce uncertainty. So, a CEO must stay alert to what their reputation says about their attitudes to risk, doubt and the unknown.

Finally, it is a psychological truism that people weight ‘bad’ information more heavily than ‘good’ information. So, just a single instance of negative behavior needs to be balanced by at least 5 positive incidents. CEO’s should consistently apply the 5:1 rule.

Please share your experiences and views in the comment section

PHOTO CREDIT: Great Deku Tree from flickr

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Dr Riaz is a psychologist, aesthete, straight-shooter, provocateur, writer and adventurer with 25 years of truth-seeking experience in clinical, corporate and creative environments. Her private practice is informed by the cross-fertilisation of experience from the fields of clinical and business psychology. Hamira is also a qualified Chartered Clinical Psychologist and an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society.