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February 19, 2013, 9:01 am

2013 Will Be Brutal for CEOs

Originally posted on CNBC.com.

I recently came across some survey data that suggests 2013 will be a tough year for CEOs—or, at least, many of them believe that it will be. Now that the economy’s “green shoots” of recovery are starting to bud into potential blossoms, expectations are up in terms of performance.

It’s no longer possible to justify poor performance by pointing out that you’re not doing any worse than anyone else.

But the future is still murky, and there’s no clear path for anyone to follow. Questions of strategic direction feel more urgent than ever—and answers even more elusive. Plus, stakeholder activism is at an all-time high, now that consumers, suppliers and employees have all the tools of social media to share their opinions and do their due diligence, and transparency is not only expected but also demanded.

All this is happening at a time when the lines between the personal brand of the chief executive and the corporate brand of the company are blurring.

Where does Richard Branson end and Virgin begin? Or Tony Hsieh and Zappos, or Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, to name just a few examples?

Even if your profile isn’t that high, if you’re a CEO, you need to know that your personal brand is an integral part of your business’s identity. It’s also important if you have—as everyone should these days—an eye on your next move: You need to be constantly reinforcing who you are.

With all that in mind, I found the data from RHR International’s 2013 “CEO Snapshot Survey” very telling. Business and executive development firm RHR International enlisted Harris Interactive Service Bureau to conduct an online survey in November and December of last year to explore the opinions, sentiments and concerns of 100 chief executives at a wide array of public and private companies.

RHR CEO and chairman Dr. Thomas J. Saporito, who has consulted for 20-plus years with many chief executives on their leadership style and effectiveness and advised them on strategies for building their personal brands, parsed the results.

His two key takeaways related to brand building:

  1. “Coming out of the recession, CEOs and their stakeholders have refocused on investments in growth. The previous economic environment was just not conducive to that approach. Now that the possibilities are greater, CEOs and stakeholders must act in concert. Well-managed companies embrace their stakeholders, rather than try to manage their expectations.”
  2. “We are now in a time where increased transparency is part of the social contract businesses have with their stakeholders. Moving forward, we will continue to see CEOs be more open regarding the processes that make up the organization.”

It was clear from the results that CEOs and boards of directors are feeling pressure from increased stakeholder scrutiny and higher standards. Twenty-two percent of the CEOs surveyed cite “failure to perform to stakeholder expectations” as the current greatest threat to their tenure, compared with just 12 percent in January 2012. Plus, 57 percent say they expect to be driving a change in company strategy this year.

The other survey finding that struck me was that CEOs are starting to redefine their brands as more fallible and more, well, human. Even though today’s chief executives are better informed than ever—they have to be in order to keep on course in this whirlwind environment—they want their employees to understand that they don’t have all the answers. They want to dispel the myth that they always have the correct solution to every problem.

Behavior and management experts Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter discuss something similar in their 2011 book, Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World. Their argument is that by innovating management—making it more human and less mechanical—leaders can become more agile and build real engagement with their workforce, thereby increasing their ability to withstand and manage disruption. Grant and Notter identified the principles that led to the exponential growth of social media and created a 15-minute online assessment that offers leaders an immediate custom analysis of how human their organizations already are.

What’s interesting is that the traits that they’ve identified as crucial for a brand to have in order to be relevant in the 21st century are characteristics that have long seemed more like personal values and virtues.

In other words, it’s impossible for a corporation to have these attributes unless the individuals who make up that corporation—especially in senior roles—have and abundantly display those attributes themselves. (Plus, in our connected, transparent world, 45 percent of people surveyed by the authors “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they are concerned about the lack of social media involvement among leaders at their organization. Clearly, any CEO who wants to enhance his or her personal brand inside or outside the organization would be wise to step up their social media game.)

“The authority of the role of the CEO will always be there,” says Dr. Saporito, “but one of the things the CEO can do to relieve that pressure is build senior teams that share some of the responsibility.” In other words, the successful CEO brand for 2013 and beyond will be someone who recognizes that business is a team endeavor.

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