Building a Strong Corporate Reputation: Why We Need Leadership at the Speed of ‘Now’

October 13, 2015

[hocus focus studios/e+/getty]
[hocus focus studios/e+/getty]

Leaders no longer have the luxury of time. Customers, regulators, shareholders, investors, employees, citizen journalists and communities don’t want to wait for a leadership committee to make decisions and then have the information trickle out from the center to the edges of the organization — they want it now. Rapidly changing situations and opportunities often outpace the speed and capability of communication in today’s complex and global organizations.

Based on the findings from this year’s edition of the Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor (KLCM), people don’t have much faith in leadership to make this happen. Ketchum polled 6,029 people across 12 countries and five continents on their views of effective leadership and communication, and the link between the two.

Globally, only 24 percent of respondents believe that executives are leading successfully. Today, amid unprecedented volatility and continuous expectations of immediacy, the world demands leadership at the speed of “now.”

However, this ongoing leadership crisis also represents an enormous business opportunity. Data shows that more than half of consumers will take their money elsewhere when disappointed by an organization’s leadership; to the adapter go the spoils. For organizations that can build a new leadership and communication framework that helps rapidly transform ideas into the products, services and actions that delight customers and exceed expectations, therein lies corporate nirvana.

Against this backdrop, the results of our fourth-annual KLCM uncovered — above all else — a few clear perceptions about 21st-century leadership. Here are five key findings:

  1. The era of hierarchical leadership is over, and a culture of title-free leadership is on the rise.
  2. Communication methods and operating systems must advance rapidly and continually.
  3. The world is looking to business leaders to rise to the challenges of our time.
  4. Perception of leadership effectiveness based on gender continues to be a complex discussion area.
  5. In leadership communications, “earned” trumps “paid.”

Let’s take a look at each of these.

Command and control are out.

“Title-free leader” articulates the rising support for the concept of shared leadership and underscores Ketchum’s findings that leaders no longer reside only at the top of an org chart, nor do they necessarily possess traditional leadership titles.

Data reveals that 41 percent of respondents believe leadership should come mainly from the organization and all of its employees, compared with only 25 percent who believe leadership should come solely from the CEO. The study clearly shows that the top-down style of leadership has lost favor among many respondents in this constantly connected world and has instead shifted to a “leadership by all” approach to management.

New communication operating systems are required.

As communicators and leaders, we live in an age of great paradox: We exercise the least control over our brand and corporate image, yet we have access to more platforms for communicating and engaging than ever before. In today’s hyperkinetic environment, there are too many variables, too many influencers and too many stakeholders with power and resources who cannot be controlled. But these stakeholders can be engaged and inspired.

Organizations that rely on the top tier of a pyramid-shaped org chart for decision making, information sharing and the best ideas are on their way to becoming irrelevant. We must evaluate our organization’s ability to align senior leaders’ vision and direction with individual employee behavior and commitment, surrounded by high-quality, innovative products and services that reinforce the character of a company.

Creating a culture of dispersed or expanded leadership does not mean anarchy or complete democratization of the leadership function. There is still much organizational value for a well-functioning system that delivers control, consistency, accountability and predictability. But we must constantly be vigilant about the tradeoffs of bureaucracy juxtaposed with the speed, adaptability and personalization required to win the hearts, minds and wallets of today’s consumer. We must create an expanded leadership culture and organizational blueprint that clearly values every individual so he or she can perform his or her role in the organization with maximum effect.

Simply put, at no point in business history has the demand been greater to build organizations and communication systems that are demonstrably more nimble and empowering than the ones we have today.

Business, NGO, political, community and union leaders are all lacking.

Business leaders have put themselves in a comparatively good position by being more adaptable to volatility and to the demands for new leadership styles. Their improved performance suggests that these leaders know they must do more to meet customer expectations, and they must do so at the speed of “now.” Those best at this will reap rewards from an impatient and highly mobile marketplace.

Business leaders rate seven points higher (31 percent) on effectiveness than the global average (24 percent) for all types of leaders, especially in high-growth economies such as India (54 percent), China (43 percent) and Brazil (43 percent), which demonstrates the greatest belief in business leaders. Struggling European economies feel this far less, with only 11 percent of the French, 18 percent of the Spanish, 21 percent of the British and 27 percent of the Germans giving business leaders top marks for effectiveness.

Political leaders, while still below the total average at 22 percent, are up 5 points — or a whopping 29 percent — from 2014. And there appears to be a growth in faith in political leadership in the coming year — 41 percent have less confidence in political leaders in 2015, versus 50 percent in 2014.

Local community leaders and union leaders brought up the rear, with just 21 percent and 20 percent rating them effective, respectively.

Clearly, there is both an opportunity and responsibility for businesses to seize the advantage, meet expectations and help solve some of the world’s most intractable problems.

Women are rated best to demonstrate leadership traits.

As women are increasingly encouraged to “lean in” to positions of leadership, the world continues to discuss important issues around gender gaps and diversity.

There was a shift in who respondents said will most likely guide us through the challenging times of the next five years, with 61 percent of the total global sample choosing men and 39 percent saying women. That is a seven-point shift from 2014, when 54 percent selected male leaders and 46 percent said female leaders. Voting along gender lines also tilted toward men this year — the percentage of men who selected male leaders is up 9 points year-to-year, while the percentage of women expressing confidence in female leaders is down 5 points.

Although men were seen as more likely to lead than women (61 percent vs. 39 percent), female leaders were rated to best demonstrate three of the top five traits of an effective leader: admitting mistakes, communicating openly and transparently, and bringing out the best in others.

These seemingly contradictory beliefs — that women exhibit more of the top traits, yet men are perceived as more likely to lead us through challenges in the coming years — align with the ongoing global debate about gender leadership and communication styles.

It is a complex issue and one prone to typecasting. Stereotypical thinking about gender and age will harm an organization; it is far more efficient to focus on developing leaders at all levels, independent of their gender or age, and helping them act and communicate in ways that help the organization. Corporations with a distributed “leadership by all” model will find there is an important role for everyone to engage and lead in today’s always-on, liquid organizations.

Regardless of gender or age, here are the top five behaviors associated with effective leadership:

  1. Leading by example (63 percent)
  2. Admitting mistakes (59 percent)
  3. Handling controversial issues or crises calmly and confidently (58 percent)
  4. Communicating in an open and transparent way (61 percent)
  5. Bringing out the best in others (58 percent)

None of these attributes belong solely to the C-suite. Anyone in an organization can demonstrate them and win respect and authority as an effective leader. A call center worker can handle a crisis calmly. A line employee can communicate openly and transparently. Any co-worker or manager can bring out the best in others, if enabled and empowered to do so.

Earned is better than paid.

“Earned” trumps “paid” in leadership communications. Social media channels as influential sources rose across the board when it came to impacting public opinion of company leadership: Company blogs rose to No. 9, company social community sites rose to No. 10 and other company social media is up 6 points, to No. 12 out of 19 sources. This tells us that people want to hear how leaders communicate directly or through news media and social channels, rather than seeing a marketing or advertising message that has been paid for.

Feelings and relevance matter. People make decisions based on how they feel about a person or organization. Do they like it? When they believe the source, they feel better about it. They believe you when they can see and hear you for themselves consistently over time. They don’t fully believe leaders’ social posts until they are able to confirm the posts are validated by other media and observable behaviors and actions.

Leadership and communication are the future.

The world is looking for leaders to behave differently. KLCM 2015 tells us definitively that top-down leadership is dead. There is still a valuable organizational role for leaders, but to own the hearts and minds of the marketplace, organizations need to act faster, smarter and more openly. The companies that do this best will create a network of dispersed leadership that understands the organizational values, has clear alignment with the strategy and vision, and is empowered to act in support of them, no matter where in the organization they are.

We are at a critical time for communications leaders to serve an important role in helping to orchestrate the best experiences and full character of a company at every point of contact. Facing relentless scrutiny and the continuous demand of “now,” leaders can improve their individual leadership performance by developing the attributes people value most, and establish a leading organization by building a culture and supporting an operating system that recognizes the need to enable all employees as leaders.

The organizations that do this will be rewarded — by more votes at the cash register or polling station, greater employee and stakeholder engagement, deeper customer loyalty and more positive online experiences. But most important, if they do this well with the right operating system and culture, then they will have the ability to sustainably turn ideas into new products or services that are consistent with their values and brands, while enjoying competitive advantage and a strong corporate reputation where leadership by all is expressed in both words and actions.


Vicki Black says:

Tyler, This is a very strong piece; thank you. While I can't disagree with your statistics, I believe a few of your statements remain highly aspirational. While women have ranked higher than men on many leadership traits, for decades now, men still occupy the vast majority of senior leadership roles in organizations of every description. Yes, we can all lead from where we are. However, given the gender disparity at top levels, we see which leadership behaviors are recruited and rewarded, and those are the characteristic behaviors of male leaders. In terms of the death of hierarchies, I think that in actuality, hierarchies are alive and well, even over here in Silicon Valley. Certainly there are more voices in the mix of leadership, but the 1% are large and in charge. And what's interesting is, considerable data exist that say millennials want little to do with leadership. In order to take their role as leaders in situ, they need to exhibit the passion and courage to express their voices. So far, I don't see it. I see more energy in the areas of work-life balance. Stay tuned to see how organization behavior shifts in the future. Or not. As a person who believes flatter organizations will be smarter, more productive organizations,and the sooner the better, I still see hierarchy everywhere I look. Boards will have to change, the way we pay executives and the remaining 99% will have to change, the way we hold our colleagues accountable for results will have to change in order to push the pyramid into organizational history. In terms of "top down leadership" being definitively dead, I might say it's directionally dead. Guys like Tony Hsieh are still revolutionaries but they've started the revolution. Let's see if holacracies become established ways of working and communicating. I'm curious to see how structures evolve, and in turn, shift the voices in our organizations. Fascinating topics and thank you for the very thought-provoking piece.

Oct. 18, 2015

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