The role of the CEO is ever-changing and one of the most notable evolutions is the expectation that a CEO be a visible leader. Some of the world’s best-known brands just wouldn’t be the same without their visible CEOs or founders. Ambitious companies from startup through IPO can take some cues from these leadership examples. With everything that a CEO has on their plate, why would they focus on thought leadership? Thought leadership checks off the optimal business outcomes from PR from increased brand value to easier recruiting, from investor awareness to consumer adoration, the reasons ambitious CEOs stay visible are clear:
60% of decision-makers will pay a premium because thought leadership shows deep thinking and other virtues important to them.
People who follow both a company and one or more of its executives are twice as likely to purchase from that company.
71% of decision-makers agree: thought leadership is one of the best ways to get a sense of the type and caliber of an organization’s thinking.
81% of consumers say CEOs should be personally visible.
Today, CEOs of public companies and private companies alike are finding creative ways to keep their company in the news and remain the face of the brand. Savvy leaders are looking for ways to weigh in on social or business issues that impact their customers or clients. Leaders are driving purpose and speaking about it openly, they’re weighing in on newsworthy items, and they do it without ever pitching or selling their products or services. The Wall Street Journal won’t be a brand’s shill, but it will cover remarkable ideas and perspectives – and CEOs tend to have those. Dollar for dollar, the time invested in thought leadership PR pays off handsomely.
Steve Jobs: Thought Leadership Pioneer
An early leader in thought leadership strategy was, of course, Steve Jobs. With his signature black turtleneck and visionary ideas, he kept both Apple customers and the media hanging on his every word.
We may never know why Jobs, who was famously persnickety, embraced a more public persona, but the outcomes were undeniable. Because Steve Jobs stood in front of the press, he was instantly more credible when he delivered high-flying ideas about how his newest Apple products would change the world. Jobs’ presentations always had a restrained flair of showmanship, but showmanship nonetheless.
Another advantage for Jobs? After Apple ousted him-HIS OWN COMPANY-being the face of the brand made him indelibly connected to Apple. Firing Jobs would have been much harder to do the second time, but because he embraced thought leadership, there was also less reason to do so – Apple products did very well. To this day, Jobs is inextricably tied to Apple’s brand.
Richard Branson: Innovating with Public Failures
Richard Branson’s key message is crystal clear: innovation. Branson walks the walk. several times, Branson took to the skies in a hot air balloon, risking his own life to set world records and at the same time, creating opportunities for people to talk about Virgin Airlines. This stunt paled in comparison to the ultimate flight into space he took with Virgin Galactic.
According to LinkedIn: [Branson is] popular with everyone from entrepreneurs to HR professionals and in industries ranging from tech to construction. The only continent where he doesn’t have a single follower is Antarctica. This kind of broad-based appeal is almost unheard of, but Branson has pulled it off because he has one other secret to success: authenticity. He is actively involved with his own press.
At one point in his native England, Richard Branson was famous for being famous. The press actually heckled him for his publicity stunts – but they never failed to cover them and Branson took it all in stride, knowing that his stunts appealed to consumers who would appreciate the distinct spin Branson put on the Virgin brand and its products. Branson also weighs in on topics popular with his audience, like income inequality and universal basic income, which he called for in 2018. Should UBI ever come to be, Branson will be able to say he was the first CEO to advocate for it, and if it never does, it’s not his fault. It’s a brilliant PR move.
Thought leadership is more important today than ever before, and yet there are PR landmines for CEOs everyone where. Don’t rush thought leadership, be strategic and purposeful. Positioning yourself as an expert is best done in stages as it takes time to find the right cadence and the right rhythm. Be prepared to spend some time developing your own personal brand in conjunction with your thought leadership PR agency. Taking the time to develop your own brand will create authenticity and trust – both essential elements of a successful thought leadership strategy.
For all Branson’s attempts to make history, there is one founder here who did it well before he did.
Sara Blakely: From Scrappy Sales to History Maker
From the start of Spanx, Sara Blakely took complete control of her reputation, and she knew what set her apart could be a differentiator for the brand, too. From startup to IPO, PR was always on Blakely’s mind.
One of my favorite Blakely stories is when she bought Olivia Newton John’s famous Grease pants at auction. Her target market, feeling slightly nostalgic for the days when they could have rocked those pants, celebrated the move – even as it was an extravagance, it was one that made her relatable to her target market. She got a ton of press on it, and she never even had to talk about Spanx – the press did it for her every time they said “Sara Blakely, CEO of Spanx,” and the purchase was so on brand, it was difficult to ignore the brand. But that move was only one of a thousand steps Blakely took to control the narrative. She positioned herself as a thought leader by leaning into her differences as a woman CEO. She told, retold, and retold the story of how she founded Spanx without apology for its humble beginnings.
Blakely’s willingness to be the face of Spanx paid off with the ultimate metric: she is the world’s youngest self-made billionaire.
Whether your goal is to make history or maximize achievement, thought leadership for CEOs have never been more important than it is now. You’ve already done the hard work of becoming an expert – why not leverage it?