OP-ED: More CEOs realize humility is a key factor to success

Your jaw doesn't drop, if you've been around corporate PR any time at all, when you read headlines like, "Under fire from regulator, insurance company chief turns humble" - recounting yet another example of a corporate executive in trouble, publicly abandoning the appearance, if not the fact, of personal arrogance toward stakeholders.

Your jaw doesn't drop, if you've been around corporate PR any time at all, when you read headlines like, "Under fire from regulator, insurance company chief turns humble" - recounting yet another example of a corporate executive in trouble, publicly abandoning the appearance, if not the fact, of personal arrogance toward stakeholders.

As a counselor to company management, you know that at the end of a corporate game gone badly in the era of transparency and accountability, if there is any chance of realigning with vital stakeholders, humility is the public persona of last resort.

The question, "What's personality got to do with it?" - posed eight years ago in a Harvard Business School study about personal demeanor as a factor in executive leadership - is settled.

The answer, you know very well, is essentially everything.

Hardly anybody in corporate communications argues with Jim Collins that executive personality is a central force in the DNA of companies built to last and moving from good to great.

Now there are hopeful trends for those who wonder if Collins' model of "level 5" leaders with the perfect personality for corporate success - basically a humble guy with the reasoning of Socrates and the consistent authenticity of Abraham Lincoln - is history or emerging.

Michael Porter and colleagues who run a Harvard workshop for new chief executives report that freshman CEOs, either waiting to take office or within the first few months of tenure, leave the two-day interaction with colleagues with a clearer understanding that success requires reining in their personalities.

An example of comeuppance sharing at the Harvard school was the new CEO who told his peer classmates his reality "surprise" - that marginalizing managers can carry a heavy penalty.

This CEO said when he joined his new company in the top job, he sent a signal that he would get directly involved at any point in a proposed project that struck his interest. One of his early moves was to send the plans for a well-advanced advertising campaign back to the drawing board.

Stunned managers, accustomed to a culture in which they took process responsibility, began lining up to bring the new head man their projects in early stages, to avoid problems later. Projects fell behind. The culture lurched. Morale was affected. A division manager, the one that had been overruled by the chief on his advertising plan, resigned from the company.

This chagrined CEO confessed to his fellow neophytes at Harvard that while his ego delighted in the generated conversations about all sorts of things he could lead, he saw the light in time to turn things around, reassuring managers that he respected them and making sure his vision and agenda were clear to his senior team.

He adjusted his behavior to a culture of performance - presumably before having to face stakeholders in addition to confused and enervated employees, such as boards and investors demanding an explanation for performance default.

The executive epiphanies at the Harvard school, reported in Harvard Business Review last month, fairly shout the communications opportunities.

New CEOs know now they can't "run the company" by themselves, they're not the ultimate bosses (e.g., there are boards and investors), they don't always know what's going on, pleasing investors is not their only goal, they are always sending "messages" to stakeholders whether they intend to or not, and giving orders can be perilous to their corporate health.

As Arthur W. Page demonstrated at AT&T more than 50 years ago, the core responsibility for people in PR who gain status as counselors to management is to help create and sustain the consent of stakeholders in an open, attentive democracy.

The task of aligning private and public interest has become manifestly more difficult over the years, as stakeholders have been aroused to judgment and intolerance, facilitated by proliferating communication channels.

Corporate communicators must move toward the alignment goal that builds lasting, ultimately great companies by correctly interpreting both internal and external stakeholder interests, and by influencing open, honest information flow and consistent management performance.

Prospects for achieving outcomes are brighter where CEOs generally have the word (even if they have to go to a basic-training camp with peers to get it) that a consistent, cooperative, communicative personality is conducive to job survival, as well as to the sustainability of the enterprise.

The good news for communications counselors is that, for whatever the reason - Sarbanes-Oxley; energized regulators, lawyers, and judges; preponderant studies and how-to-manage books; or simply the natural course of human enlightenment - emperor executives ("I don't need you until I get in trouble") are becoming so rare that they make news by appearing contrite.

  • Bruce Harrison is a former corporate PR officer and the first executive director of the Arthur W. Page Society.

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