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Learning from CEOs

Remember how Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F) CEO, Mike Jeffries sparked a social media controversy over his attempt to exclude unattractive customers from buying A&F clothes? Or BP’s former gaffe-prone CEO Tony Hayward’s famous tactless remarks on the disastrous BP oil spill in 2010? These CEOs attracted significant media attention for all the wrong reasons.

Unfortunately, the concept of “virality” in traditional and social media carries both positive and negative connotations. Social media in particular enables news to spread like wildfire within a matter of minutes. Today's leaders are expected to understand the weight and impact their words and actions have in these social media conversations, and be equipped to deal with them professionally. Here, we take a look at the actions of three CEOs that have made waves online and reflect on what we can learn from them.

1. Making a difference

In April 2015, Dan Price, Founder and CEO of Seattle Payment Processing Firm, Gravity Payments, pledged 90% of his 1 million dollar salary to raise his employees’ minimum wage to $70,000 annually for the next three years. He took this significant pay cut to help bring about greater income equality to his workforce and ease the pressure on their rising living expenses. This is a good example of an extraordinary gesture a CEO has undertaken to make a difference in the lives of his employees, who in turn were more motivated to provide better quality services to their clients and customers.

2. Showing empathy

Air Asia CEO Tony Fernandes was praised for his timely and authentic social media responses to the AirAsia flight QZ8501 crash in December 2014. As an active Twitter user with nearly a million followers, Mr. Fernandes quickly took to the popular social media channel to express his shock and sympathy directly to the stakeholders who mattered most, sending out heartfelt tweets such as:

“My heart bleeds for all the relatives of my crew and our passengers."

“The warmth and support from the people of Indonesia has been incredible. Everywhere I go. Nothing but pure support.”

Mr. Fernandes effectively harnessed the power of social media to communicate his every move to the public, and ensured his messages were always conveyed with an empathetic and personal touch. By taking centre stage in the midst of this major crisis, he demonstrated his and AirAsia’s commitment to provide full support and immediate care for those who had lost their loved ones. Crisis management scholars and business leaders considered his actions as an excellent crisis management response strategy.

With a simple action of a CEO, a company’s brand image, attractiveness as an employer and employer branding can be greatly elevated.

3. Creating conversation

Last year, Sir Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin gave his 170 employees unlimited vacation time in the hope of boosting morale, productivity and creativity. He joined one percent of companies including Netflix, Zynga, Groupon, Glassdoor, Evernote, VMware, HubSpot, Ask.com, Motley Fool, Eventbrite, ZocDoc, and SurveyMonkey that all offer employees unlimited leave arrangements. This vacation “non-policy” created conversation in the media on the future of such rules in organisations. Sir Branson made a bold step towards providing truly flexible work arrangements for his employees. His actions show that he trusts them to take ownership of their work hours and manage the expectations of their team members when taking leave.

What can we learn from these leaders?

1. Thoughtful gestures can be a panacea for brand or staff engagement issues

Mr. Price garnered generous support from his employees who welcomed a pay raise. As a result, Gravity Payments is now recognised as a company where values and employee happiness are regarded as a top priority. With a simple action of a CEO, a company’s brand image, attractiveness as an employer and employer branding can be greatly elevated.

2. Courageous actions may not always be popular

Not all initiatives by leaders of large corporations are well received by the business community. Organisations refrain from vacation “non-policies” because they fear that employees might abuse the freedom they receive to manage their work schedule. However, Richard Branson is paving a new path in the flexi-work scene. He has established a set of rules that assume good faith amongst his employees, an approach that is more likely to encourage the desired behaviour, according to New York University scholar, Clay Shirky.

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