For the first time in history, chief executives have the opportunity to connect in a meaningful way with their customers and clients
There was a time when a chief executive just had to run the business. In 1955, Fortune described the “successful American executive” as someone who spent almost no time on politics, drank moderately, and only attended cultural events “because they must”. These chief execs weren’t household names or familiar faces. They could hide away in their office. They could take the train home without being recognised. And if they wanted to, they could segment their audiences, “optimising” what they said for each group, from the public to the staff to the regulator. If they weren’t consistent, no one would know. No one would remember. And no one would be able to do much with the information anyway.
Fast forward to today. It’s been fifteen years since Michael Bloomberg became mayor of New York and proved you could be both a corporate leader and a politician. Donald Trump is in the White House. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has spoken loudly on gun control. Outside of politics, company bosses feature in ads, lifestyle magazines and reality TV shows. Social media, the leveller of the modern day, has given the public a direct line to the company boss, and that boss is expected to cooperate. If your Virgin Train is late, why bother with customer service? Now you can tweet Richard Branson.
This constitutes an opportunity. For the first time in history, chief executives have the ability to connect in a meaningful way with their customers and with the wider public. They can pull back the curtain on the brand and show the human behind it. People buy from other people: if organisations don’t leverage the power of their CEO, they’re missing out. But the benefits go far beyond the commercial. When crisis strikes, a CEO who has put time and effort into forging a relationship with their customers is more likely to get a fair hearing. And that’s just as well because now, as ever, the buck stops with the CEO.
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This is what successful people have in common
If you order a pizza in a restaurant and the pizza arrives uncooked, who do you blame? You might vent some frustration to the waiter, or you might take aim at the chef. But sooner or later you’ll say those magic words: I’d like to speak to the manager. The manager didn’t cook the pizza and the manager didn’t bring it to you, so why them?
Because there is an understanding that the senior person is responsible for those beneath them and has a duty to make amends. The same is true of any business: the person at the top is ultimately in charge of everything and everyone below him or her. If crisis strikes they may not even understand exactly what took place, but like the pizza manager, they have to show empathy, make a commitment to finding out what happened and then pledge never to allow it to happen again. Most of the time, that’s all a CEO can do.
But you’d be surprised how often CEOs don’t do it. I often tell the chief executives I work with that in a crisis situation, you can’t hand the reins to the lawyers and you can’t hand them over to people like me. The CEO has to take responsibility, and that doesn’t mean making a statement full of slippery legal language or “corporate speak”.
Take the United Airlines case, for example. In April last year, the airline was the subject of widespread criticism after a man was violently removed from a flight by aviation police officials. In a statement, the airline said that the flight was ‘overbooked’, and that no passengers had agreed to voluntarily give up their seats. They said one of four passengers, selected randomly, was forcibly removed. The now-infamous video showing a passenger being dragged down the aisle of the plane quickly showed that explanation for what it really was. Enter Oscar Munoz: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United,” he said. “I apologise for having to re-accommodate these customers.” Wrong answer.
What Munoz should have said is that he was appalled that the incident was allowed to happen, and though he wasn’t sure what exactly had taken place, he would find out and make sure it never happened again. He should have expressed his very deepest sympathy to the man in question and to the traumatised passengers. He should have said “sorry”. It’s a common misconception than an apology constitutes an admission of wrongdoing. Section 2 of the Compensation Act 2006 is clear: “An apology, an offer of treatment or other redress, shall not of itself amount to an admission of negligence or breach of statutory duty.”
Munoz might have learned from Nick Varney, the CEO of Alton Towers owner, Merlin Entertainments. When the Smiler crashed in June 2015, Varney humbly accepted responsibility and expressed his sincere apologies. His authenticity came through. Even a combative Kay Burley didn’t throw him off course. After their interview, a petition was launched to have her sacked, not him.
The modern day presents all kinds of challenges and new responsibilities for the chief executive – but also opportunity. If CEOs open themselves up to the public, they can start to build a real connection with them, and that connection has numerous benefits. It also transforms mysterious faceless organisations into entities built by ordinary people and run by ordinary people, and that goes a long way to maintaining a strong, healthy relationship between the public and the world of business.