Since everyone -- President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Kurt Anderson and Jeff Immelt, among others -- is using the word "reset," I thought I would join the club by declaring that it is high time to begin resetting CEO reputations. If you did not know already, reset is the next fashionable business term that is rapidly gaining ground. Use of this trendy term has risen 67% from 2006 to date in the global business media, and BusinessWeek now offers a regular upfront feature on the Reset Economy.
You may ask why "reset" and why "CEO reputation"? Definitions first. Wikipedia defines reset as a computing term for clearing any pending errors or events and either bringing a system to normal condition or returning it to its original state. Think about resetting your iPod or Zune.
As to how CEO reputation relates to reset, well, the perception of CEOs has been bruised beyond recognition and needs recalibrating or, in other words, resetting for us to get on with improving this economy and creating jobs. Sadly, only 14% of American executives hold a positive view of chief executives according to a poll by Weber Shandwick with KRC Research. This estimate is probably even lower among the general public. If we can reset CEO reputations and put them back on track, we can begin restoring confidence in business leadership and move this economy forward.
The good news is that there are some early signs or "green shoots," another popular business term, indicating that CEOs are recognizing the urgency of repairing their reputations and symbolically demonstrating leadership.
First, there is an increasing and noticeable shift to greater CEO engagement and visibility. The drought of CEOs seeking visibility over the past 18 months appears to be giving way to a profusion of CEO interviews, features, thought leadership and social media appearances. Although the spigot is still not fully turned on, CEOs are stepping out from the shadows by writing op-eds ( Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent, "Coke Didn't Make America Fat," Wall Street Journal), posting articles (IBM's Sam Palmisano, "Shining Cities on a Smarter Planet," Huffington Post), appearing on the world stage (Kraft CEO Irene Rosenfeld, Leading Transformational Change, World Business Forum), hosting live chats (GM CEO Fritz Henderson, gmreinvention.com), authoring books (HSBC chairman Stephen Green, Good Value: Reflections on Money, Morality and an Uncertain World) and appearing at magazine events (Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein at a Fortune breakfast). A few Fortune 500 CEOs are blogging (Marriott International chairman and CEO Bill Marriott) and many more are communicating internally or at least talking about it. Although business magazines are no longer thirsting after "CEO as God" covers as recently noted by the Wall Street Journal, CEOs are turning to less ceremonial and more temperate venues and channels to get their company messages out. Boards are also starting to pressure publicity-shy and skittish CEOs to get out there and differentiate the hell out of their companies before the reset economy names its year-end winners and losers. The prognosis for 2010 CEO and executive conferences looks healthier than ever and the next World Economic Forum does not seem any the worse for wear. Such undercurrents of CEO life may be faint but collectively a pattern of CEO re-engagement is making an appearance.
Second, and perhaps surprising to some, nearly one out of two executives (49%) surveyed by Weber Shandwick report being interested in becoming CEO one day, virtually unchanged from similar aspirations when times were better. The fact that there is a talent pool willing to lead the next generation of corporate titans is good news considering the immense challenges facing these top dogs -- intense scrutiny, executive pay restrictions, encroaching regulation, poor job security, minimal work/life balance and entrenched public cynicism. CEO reputations may have hit rock bottom over the past two years but the next generation of rising stars is still after the gold ring.
Another factor that suggests the reputation of CEOs could mend over time, is that reputation, like politics, is local. Nearly nine out of 10 executives in the cited study rate their own company CEO's reputation positively. CEO royalty may have lost their crowns in 2008 and 2009 but individually they still have their loyal if not quite adoring subjects. Hopefully, with fewer layoffs ahead, more ethical behavior and promising signs of economic stability, our home-grown CEOs can rely upon this loyal base and return the image of CEOs to the more respectful levels of previous years.
Am I betting on CEOs' redemption in 2010? No way. Reputation recovery for CEOs, companies and just about everything else tied to our economy will take time. Our research has found that it will take an average of 3.5 years for the collective reputation of CEOs to fully recover. That would be around 2013. But it is now time for CEOs to stand up and start rebuilding reputations, thereby resetting the path to future economic progress and moral authority.