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The CEOs We Love and Loathe

Two new lists identify leaders with the best and worst reputations.
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If business leaders were movies, Tony Hseih would be American Hustle and Donald Trump would be The Hangover Part III. So suggest two new rankings of the 10 most- and least-respected CEOs. ReputationManagementConsultants.com, which helps business and political leaders keep their digital personas rosy, has for several years used surveys of business readers and analysis of social media and other online data to compile such lists for its clients. This year, for the first time, it is making the rankings public. The company's chairman, Eric Schiffer, discussed the C-suite's good, bad, and ugly with Inc. editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan.

I notice that all but two CEOs with the best reputations are entrepreneurs, and just two of the CEOs with the worst reputations are entrepreneurs. What do you make of that?

This country was founded on rugged individualism and the ability to build on our own dreams. People admire people who have actually achieved that. Entrepreneurs are heroes. That's compared with the distrust of people in larger corporate environments. People distrust the corporations themselves, and the CEOs get a piece of that.

Do any of the names on either list surprise you?

No. There are no curveballs here. It's consistent with the data we've been seeing for some time.

So how do CEOs get on these lists? Is it because they've been in recent headlines? Or are people's feelings of admiration or hatred more deeply engrained?

Much of it is news-cycle based. It's who are people seeing in their lives at this time? Who is in front of them, arresting their attention, influencing them on an emotional level positively or negatively?

How much of their appeal, or lack of appeal, is based on who they are as opposed to what they've done?

It matters a lot. When you look at Richard Branson, people react to the fact that he has not only been successful but that he comes across as such a genuine person. He enjoys people. He celebrates life. It's not just the brand. It's him. He embodies what people would like to think success can be. You don't have to be all serious and stressed. You don't have to be a shark. You can win by treating people with respect. By being a good fellow citizen. It's a great message. The same with Tony Hsieh.

What about Mark Zuckerberg? Not so much warm and cuddly there.

I think that one is more a virtue of the company. People feel connected to Facebook. It's become part of their families. And Zuckerberg helped make that happen. They see him as trying to make the experience better for them. And, of course, he also personifies success.

I presume Steve Jobs used to be on the best-reputation list, maybe even at the top?

And if he was alive he would still be on it. Tim Cook benefits from the passing of the torch and the fact that, under him, Apple is still a relevant, quality product. And unlike Jobs, there are no major negatives about him. People like him. You don't have these stories where he's a genius, but he irritates everyone. He personifies leadership in the classical sense.

Elon Musk made it on there pretty fast.

I think Musk benefits from this movement in society to greater levels of sustainability and energy independence. He's been an archetype for that transition and also an archetype for a guy who takes big risks and had them come through. Yet at the same time, he seems fairly humble and grounded. People like people who are able to keep their success in perspective.

I notice a few CEOs on the worst-reputation list whom I'm betting would once have been on the best reputation list. Jamie Dimon is the obvious one. And maybe Ronald Johnson?

Johnson was not on the best list, but he came close. He is an example of how making bad choices and not being close enough to the ground can hurt you significantly. Dimon was one of the best and had almost a mythical mystique about him as a financial genius. Then people saw that this guy might not have had the best controls on his organization and participated in some really bad decisions. Business readers are savvy. They see through what people are trying to project, and they can lose respect fast.

Is Martha Stewart still paying for the Imclone scandal?

I think it's more that people feel she has not mastered the business end. She struggles with her own brand financially. While it is ubiquitous, the financial results don't necessarily support a great CEO. The stock has struggled. The company has struggled. Savvy readers are clued into this.

Speaking of Martha Stewart, I see three women on the most respected list and two on the least respected. Is that fairly typical?

This year's seems to be a more testosterone-laden set of results. Recently there's been more coverage of male players that has resonated strongly with business leaders. In the past, we've seen more women, like Oprah and [Sara Blakely], the founder of Spanx.

Is Trump's position at the top of the worst-reputation list testament to the maxim, "There is no such thing as bad publicity"?

Trump's biggest asset--his ability to call attention to himself--is also his biggest liability. As successful as he has been, I think people are turned off by him as often as they are inspired by him. America has changed over the years. In the time when he was building his fame and his notoriety prior to The Apprentice, brash wealth and overt, ostentatious displays were in vogue. It was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous time. Now we're in a period of austerity, and that kind of style becomes less relevant.

For entrepreneurs looking at these lists, what are the lessons?

It's OK to be an individual. It's OK to be yourself. To be a genuine person. That's how you maintain people's respect and your reputation. And if you are going to lead, you have to be consistent and stay honorable. And if you do make mistakes or have problems, you have to dig yourself out.

When you were doing these lists just for your clients, did anyone ever climb from the least respected to the most?

Yes.

Who?

Sorry. I can't disclose that.

IMAGE: Gallery Stock
Last updated: Feb 14, 2014

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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