I recently talked with a CEO about the emerging expectations that the Board had for her.
She spent the bulk of her energy over the past two years leading a very successful merger. Now with this critical work mostly completed, the Board expressed that she now needed to shift her focus. As the chair of the board said to her, "We now need you to be the face of our company in the market." They wanted her to play a more active role speaking at conferences, networking with key stakeholders and customers, doing more media interviews, and dramatically increasing her presence on social media.
In our conversation she expressed how she struggled with this new expectation. She’s been so internally focused, it’s a significant shift. She also admitted to being an introvert and really didn’t like being in the public eye.
This is a common issue arising for many leaders today—the expectation to be the face of your company to the world. But I find this expectation isn’t just for CEOs. All leaders must be effective ambassadors for their companies.
Many companies are asking their leaders to step up and act as ambassadors. Take the recent example of Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon.
He leads the world’s biggest retailer. The company has had its fair share of challenges in recent times. It’s been critizied for its low wage levels and the quality of its merchandise. So, the CEO decided it was time that people heard directly from him. It was time to put a face to this large company.
This past fall, McMillon appeared in a 30-second commercial called “Opportunities” that aired widely on television and social media. In the ad, McMillon functions as a brand ambassador for Wal-Mart. He introduces himself simply as “Doug” and talks about the money Wal-Mart is investing and how the company is “committed to taking care of the people that take care of you.” He’s become the ambassador of Wal-Mart to its millions of customers worldwide.
McMillon is hardly the first CEO to take this approach. Former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca appeared in dozens of television commercials in the 1980s as his company attempted to fend off challenges from European and Asian car makers and a growing sense that American-made automobiles suffered from lower quality.
In the 1990s, the Wendy’s burger chain gained ground on larger competitors with a series of advertisements featuring founder Dave Thomas, an affable every-man selling a burger with homespun charm.
It’s an interesting strategy to bring out a corporate leader into the limelight of advertising and social media. Sometimes it is done to address problems that a company is facing, or repair a damaged brand, or even to proactively forge a new one when necessary.
Probably the most dramatic example occurred in 2008, after 22 people died of an outbreak of listeriosis at the Maple Leaf Foods Toronto deli meat plant. Michael McCain, CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, took to the airwaves to reassure his customers. His personal and public appeal is largely credited with helping Maple Leaf, one of North America’s largest food processors, regain customer confidence. McCain acted even against the advice of his own internal legal team. But he knew at that moment customers and the public at large needed to hear from him. He needed to be the ambassador and face of the company during this crisis.
These days, it’s very difficult for anyone in a leadership role to remain hidden in the background. Customers, investors and employees expect that good leaders are heard, and not just seen. And there are growing expectations from the general public that business leaders weigh in on important social, economic and political issues. I think most people respond positively to hearing and seeing a top business leader advocating for their people and their brands.
But being an ambassador occurs in more subtle ways. How do you represent your company when you attend external events? Do you make your company proud? Do you effectively reflect its core values? What has been your experience? Let me know.
This week’s Gut Check question: are you an effective ambassador for your company?