CEO Fears

I always wonder what makes CEOs scared. Who wouldn't? The impression they give is that they are always up to the task. This research from Vantage Hill Partners just appeared in HBR's weekly bulletin and describes what CEOs are most afraid of. It is based on interviews with 116 CEOs and other executives and provides some fascinating insights. Roger Jones who wrote the piece and is CEO of Vantage Hill completed 27 in-depth interviews and writes that the most frequently mentioned fears were "losing their reputation, underachieving, and dying, both literally and in their career, and how it inspires a fixation on status, appearing youthful, and making money." On the same day I read this I was on my way to work and read about Dennis Kozlowski, former CEO of Tyco, who was convicted and served time in prison for "looting the company." In the interview with Kozlowski who symbolized the Celebrity CEO era and who is now free, he admits "I was piggy. But I'm not that person anymore." His big luxury today is having a fresh avocado whenever he pleases. That's a big change from his days of "Deal-A-Day Dennis." The fixation on money does feed into the downside of CEOs and leads to big problems. 

However, stay tuned. We are coming out with some new research on CEO reputation and it's anything but celebrity these days.

Cybersecurity reputational risk

Just recently heard that our first US homeland security chief Tom Ridge is helping to launch an insurance product that specializes in corporate cyber security policies. In the article, I read that the global economy has lost more than $400 billion annually due to these cyber breaches that seem to be coming at us like a tsunami. Moreover, only one in four companies, if that much, have some form of cyber attack coverage.

I also learned awhile back when we did our Employees Rising survey on how employees were using social media to champion and possibly sabotage their companies, that one of the reasons that companies have chosen to train their work forces about being responsible social citizens was to caution them about how cyber hacking often occurs. And that is from employees themselves who can be unintentionally loose with passwords, clicking on errant links or not understanding well enough the safeguards of protecting confidential documents. Again, another reason for formal social media training at work and recognizing the importance of internal employee communications. 

Cyber breaches are clearly hurting the reputations of companies that find their customer data let loose online from hacking. This has become a major reputational issue and one that companies have to get smart about or they will be joining the ever growing long list of the largest data breaches. Plus the background stories in the media often reveal that companies and their leaders had some forewarning or were lax about privacy controls which only makes matters worse. Need I even add that CEOs have lost their jobs over cyber breaches! This is becoming a reputational issue of epic proportions.

High cost of reputation loss in China

Reputation loss is everywhere. Just saw this article about reputational issues in China and the importance of building trust in products and services and providing a foundation built on social responsibility. "According to official data, corporate trust failures in China are causing economic losses of around 100 billion U.S. dollars each year. Companies' abandonment of corporate social responsibility in search of maximum profits clearly hurts not only the individuals operators, but China's economy far more broadly." The article advises companies to build reputation or else their sector will be hurt with "irreparable loss."

One has to wonder why Chinese companies do not recognize the downside of reputation failure. I thought this was universal. Here is why: "Feng Zhongsheng, an official at the National Development and Reform Commission, said that the major reason for widespread consumer distrust is because companies or individuals pay a very low cost for their misconduct."  However, even if there is no formal punishment for misconduct such as fines or lost sales or bad media coverage or CEO ousters, a company's values and code of conduct should be enough to guide corporate reputation-building and navigating the thorny issues facing businesses today. 

The article in Xinhua News says that the central government intends to change this outlook on reputation and that there are signs that responsible companies will be asked by the government to explain who they are, how they intend to build trust and positively reflect on China's national character. They mention that companies may be required to stand up to what is in their annual reports and provide contact names and more information than has been made available up to now.

Change will come.

Reputation in Malaysia

[Sorry for the delay in writing. Long story, short. The short story is that I am back after weeks of traveling and saving my posts.]

I have been traveling far and wide co-presenting our super new research on Employee Activism. It has definitely struck a chord as companies are increasing interested in finding those pro-activist employees that will go to the mat for them. Harnessing the power of your employees is without a doubt an essential reputation builder. If you read the article in the recent New York Times magazine section on Why You Hate Work, you will see that how people feel at work profoundly impacts how they perform. Our research found that leadership can play a critical role in cultivating engagement.

Back to part of my trip. I found myself in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  In Asia Pacific, it seems to be affectionately referred to as KL so I started using that abbreviation as well.  At this stop, I was asked to talk about reputation management, my favorite topic of all. Considering the horrific tragedy over the missing MH370, I knew that I had to think about how reputation impacts country reputation.  After some thought, I’d say that my message was that reputation loss is the new normal. In Malaysia and for the airline itself, it became clear to me that Malaysian people are not accustomed to be being so front and center and under such intense scrutiny by the world at large. Who would be? However, when you think about some of the most visible reputation crises of the past few years – BP for one – you can’t help think that this is the new game we are in. I know I have said this a few times now but it’s nearly impossible to name the companies whose reputations have not taken a hit of some sorts in recent years. As I have also said, every company, leader and country gets their 15 minutes of shame along with their 15 minutes of fame. Although Malaysia’s reputational hit is lasting far more than 15 minutes, it would have been out of the news if there had been some closure. And there just has not been any finality as the search continues to this day.  I found it hard not to be reminded of how Americans were glued to their TV sets and smartphones watching the video cam of the BP oil spill for what seemed like months.

So my ultimate insight into the Malaysia situation was yes, this crisis has affected your reputation but you’ve just joined a large unexclusive club of organizations and entities that have watched their reputations get battered about. Just hang in and repair will soon come.


The Reputation Stumble Rate Stumbles

Weber Shandwick’s annual calculation of reputation loss – the “stumble rate” – finds the lowest rate of reputation leadership loss since we began tracking this rate in 2010. During 2013, fewer than four in 10 of the world’s largest companies lost their esteemed status as their industries’ #1 most admired company during 2013. This is good news.

Each year Weber Shandwick measures the rate at which companies lose their #1 most admired position in their respective industries on the Fortune World’s Most Admired Companies survey. We call this the stumble rate. Between 2013 and 2014, 35% of the world’s largest companies experienced a stumble, down from last year’s 46%. For those companies that fell from their perches, there is likely extensive introspection and remedial action plans being discussed as I write this post.

The good news is the non-stumble rate of 65%. This means that about two-thirds of the industries in the Most Admired survey boast companies with durable reputations.



In addition to calculating the stumble rate, we also dig through the data, including the nine drivers of reputation, to glean some interesting insights about stumblers and non-stumblers. A stumbler is an industry whose top company last year is no longer the top company this year. What is interesting this year?

  • 19 industries (out of nearly 60, give or take depending on the year) have never had a stumbler since we started monitoring the stumble rate in 2010. The most admired companies in these industries have been stalwarts of reputation: Automotive Retailing, Building, Materials-Glass, Computer Peripherals, Consumer Food Products, Electric & Gas Utilities, Electronics, Entertainment, Household & Personal Products, Property & Casualty Insurance, Internet Services & Retailing, Metal Products, Mining, Crude Oil Production, Oil & Gas Equipment Services, Pipelines, Newspapers & Magazines Publishing, Railroads, Semiconductors, Diversified Retailers, Food & Grocery Wholesalers.
  • Two industries stumbled for the first time during 2013: Information Technology Services  and Office Equipment & Electronics Wholesalers. This must hurt.
  • The Energy industry is a chronic stumbler. No Energy company has been able to hold the #1 spot for consecutive years.  In the course of six years, there have been five different Energy leaders.
  • Five industries have stumbled four times since 2010. The most volatile industries are: Airlines, Life & Health Insurance, Medical Equipment, Motor Vehicle Parts and Health Care Wholesalers.
  • Six industries have a first-ever number one: Diversified Outsourcing Services, Food Production Information Technology Services, Medical Equipment, Mega Banks and Electronics and Office Equipment. Interestingly, the new leader in Medical Equipment is also new to the industry, having ranked #3 last year in Pharmaceuticals. This probably has to do with a change in their business mix.
  • For most of the stumblers, the People Management driver declined. The biggest drops in People Management (one of the nine drivers) were in Mega Banks (-3 ranking positions) and in Soaps and Cosmetics (also -3 spots).  In 2013, the Mega Banks stumbler experienced a crisis-riddled year that pointed to lack of leadership oversight of personnel.
    • The Soaps and Cosmetics stumbler decline might not be reflection of its own management troubles, but rather strides made by the competitors.  In one case, a well-respected CEO came out of retirement to replace his successor on an interim basis. One of his top priorities is to prepare a lineup of executives who will eventually replace him.
    • The other competitor announced – shortly before the Fortune survey was distributed to respondents – it was rolling out a supply chain collaboration platform to make its manufacturing more responsive to shifting customer tastes. This agile manufacturing process is expected to help add 1 billion new customers.







Obama's small step repair strategy

Leadership is very messy. I was asked the other night at dinner why President Obama was not coming out slinging on the repair of the healthcare website. Why was he not saying anything? And why were his advisors not telling him to speak up and put a stop to the constant naysaying? Well, for one, I think the reason is that there is nothing to say until it is fixed.  He apologized and put a bookend on the mess for now. That was the right strategy. Now he should say nothing until it has been resolved. Why keep it in the headlines by saying something? No one wants another BP oil spill where the headlines went on for weeks regarding how much oil was spilling into the Gulf. I read the New York Times columnist Bill Keller's to-do list for President Obama on how tosalvage his reputation now that it has stalled. Keller basically says that now is not the time for "grand new initiatives."  True. He goes on to say, " It’s not that I want the president to think small; by all means, address the threat of climate catastrophe and push ahead on early childhood education. But he needs to get a few wins on the scoreboard."  Absolutely. Now is not the time for the big speeches, big sweeping initiatives, big words. Now is the time for small, incremental steps that change the conversation and get him back on track. I also found it interesting that Michelle Obama chose this time to release news that she is going to focus on higher education for low-income students. Clearly, a great policy decision but the timing is not coincidental. The White House needs some positive news to overshadow the constant barrage of negative sentiment surrounding the White House. Everyone loves Michelle and who can argue with her for coming to the rescue. Wonder if we will be seeing more of the kids now.

However, this too shall pass. Maybe we should spend more time focusing on the devastation in the Phillipines and what we can do.

Reputation forgery

Case-Studies-Dealing-With-Handwriting-Forgery Fake commentary. This weekend I received constant fake commentary to my blog -- every minute. I deleted over 1000 or more in the end. I just could not believe that anyone cares enough to assault my blog like that but apparently wordpress has been having these robo-attacks which affects its users. Very annoying.

On the subject of fakery and forging online reviews, this morning I read about the proliferation of fake reviews online. It is estimated that by 2014, nearly  10 to 15% of social media reviews will be fake. The problem with this is obvious to all -- reputations are won and lost by such phony reviews. How many times have you turned away from a product because a review was scathing or negative? And how often has that bad review made you think less of the company behind the brand or anything else that company sells? This causes reputation doubt.

Some of our research at Weber Shandwick has found that online reviews were becoming nearly as important as professional reviews. For example,by more than a margin, consumers pay attention to consumer reviews over professional reviews for consumer electronics products (77% to 23%). They read 11 online reviews on average before purchasing products. Online reviews surely affect the bottom line. New York's Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who is leading a crackdown on companies in the business of creating false online reviews, gives good reasons as to why this is more than an annoyance:  "Harvard Business School found that increasing a restaurant's review score by one star on could boost business up to 8 percent. Cornell researchers found an extra star on Travelocity or TripAdvisor could translate into an 11 percent increase in a room rate." So there you go. Fake reviews destroy reputations and profitabilty.

Many of these firms hire people in other countries who get paid $1 up to $10 to write one negative review. Luckily, our attorney general in New York is trying to get rid of them and is giving out large fines to keep them from continuing this bad behavior.  Reputations deserve better than this.