In Search of the Authentic Voice

We are living in a time when confidence in leadership is lower than a Dachshund’s belly; we distrust our politicians, we distrust our bankers, and we distrust the bureaucrats who regulate them. But as the spectre of joblessness looms, most of all we distrust our bosses as we wait for that tap on the shoulder and the ominous cardboard box. This article is an attempt to define what is the authentic voice by using examples of famous CEOs who either have it or don’t. I also conclude with my 10 top tips for cultivating the authentic voice in your organisation.

There are three league divisions of CEOs we distrust; those who are criminally culpable, those who are morally bankrupt and those who have lost the confidence of their staff. Those in the first two leagues are beyond the help of the most talented comms professional, but the vast majority of CEOs are in the third category and they are the ones you can save.

In the first league step forward such heroes of deceit as Klaus Zumwinkel the one-time CEO of Deutsche Post, who way before the recession imploded was preaching to staff the company’s core values including acting with integrity both internally and externally. Unfortunately he did not apply the same principles to himself as in 2007 he sold 2.2 million euros’ worth of share options, just after Deutsche Post shares had jumped on news that a minimum wage would be approved for the postal sector. The pocket-stuffing may not have been illegal, but it was the first slip in a precipitous fall.

In February 2008 Zumwinkel’s private bank account in Liechtenstein came to light and a scam to avoid paying almost a million euros of income tax was bust wide open. After an 18 year career leading the giant postal business from state to private hands Zumwinkel was kicked out – his reputation in ruins. He was lucky to avoid a prison sentence. The effect on German business confidence was dramatic; even the German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized the CEO’s silence on the matter.

In League Division Two we cross the English Channel to find Fred Goodwin – another titan of industry who built the Royal Bank of Scotland into one of the UK’s biggest banks through acquisition and ruthless cost-cutting that earned him the soubriquet ‘Fred the Shred’. Fred’s hubris was to buy ABN Amro at the very height of the market and leverage his bank with the financial acumen of a gambling addict. The once-mighty bank collapsed owing £24bn, the taxpayer had to step in and thousands stood to lose their jobs in the mayhem. And while everyone else’s pensions declined as confidence plummeted, Fred’s pot was doubled before he would resign dishonourably. Although there was nothing illegal in this pay-off it polluted the reputation of any senior banker taking a seven figure salary.

Credibility before credit

The vast majority of leaders fall into the Third Division of Infamy; they have done nothing wrong; it’s just that the recession has interrupted their business strategy and the fluent words they have been using about growth, security, quality products and services are now turning to dust in their mouths.

Yet many successful businesses grow through recession, just look at Microsoft in the ‘90s and Google during the dotcom bust at the turn of the century. The particular problem we all face today is that it’s the lack of trust and confidence that has propelled the economies of the world into the current abyss in the first place. The credit side of companies’ balance sheets will not start to improve until each CEO can rebuild their credibility in the eyes of their employees and their customers. And this is where the authentic voice comes in.

The authentic voice can be defined as the ability of a CEO to be believable in the eyes of her staff. It does not mean that she is liked, loved nor necessarily admired; it means that she rings true; that she is consistent in the words that she uses, the way that she looks and the choices and actions she performed.

Many British voters abhorred the politics of Margaret Thatcher, but they recognised her authenticity; you knew where you stood with her.

I want to demonstrate those key qualities that build the authentic voice in organisations by considering three pairs of leaders; Steve Jobs versus Alan Sugar, James Dyson versus Richard Branson, Martin Sorrell versus Robert Maxwell. The contrasts between each pair reveal the communication styles that set the authentic apart from the fake.

Then I will give you my top 10 tips for preserving and promoting the authentic voice in your organisation.

Steve Jobs versus Alan Sugar

Both men built their careers in IT. Steve Jobs needs little introduction; from the first Apple built in a garage to the iPhone he is the driving force behind Apple’s success and an iconic figure around the world. But it has not all been plain sailing for the man who was listed by Fortune Magazine as the World’s Most Powerful Businessman of 2007. He has fought back from losing control both of his company and of his health. Successful in the former battle, still battling on the second, his reputation among employees and customers is probably the highest of any CEO alive.

Alan Sugar hit the big time back in the 80s when his Amstrad word processors replaced typewriters in thousands of offices and homes in the UK. A trader by heart he went on to build his personal fortune through astute property deals. But his reputation depends on an artifice; he plays the role of a successful businessman in the British TV version of The Apprentice. He plays the role brilliantly but his office is a fake studio set and he sold his company in 2007.

So what gives Jobs an authentic voice?

Jobs is no saint. Just read John Sculley’s book From Coke to Apple to get a partisan but illuminating view of Jobs when he was at his most capricious, unreliable and downright rude. At the time suppliers would joke “What’s the difference between Apple and the Boy Scouts of America? At least with boy scouts you get adult supervision.”

It was partly this behaviour that lost him the company. But then came the success of Pixar and his triumphant return to Apple and the emergence of a new communication style. Steve Jobs had found his authentic voice. What sets him apart from the Alan Sugars of this world is that he has an unshakeable belief in the products he sells rather than in himself per se. Whatever else you might think about the man you know that he is more interested in the quality of an iPod than the quality of his pension plan or his chauffeured limousine. Perhaps because he has lived through the twin horrors of losing his company and facing death from cancer he is a CEO who transcends wealth. He is interesting not because of his vast fortune, but because of his vast passion for Apple products.

Just look at his communication style as he announced the launch of the iPhone at Macworld Expo 2007. He resembles a proud dad at his daughter’s graduation rather than a CEO at a multi-million dollar product launch. He dresses casually to match the style of his audience. His body posture is open; shoulders back, great use of his arms. The emotion he embodies is enthusiasm.

Compare this with Sugar’s style: the Rolls Royce, the sharp suits, the frowning lieutenants whose only role is to enhance Sugar’s status. He sits behind a huge desk, arms crossed or hands held in front of him. His language is aggressive; a parody of command and control that went out of fashion a decade ago. The trademark catch phrase “You’re fired!” His performance has put the reputation of people management back 20 years.

What saves Sugar is that he knows it’s a performance; his eyes twinkle occasionally to reveal he is acting. Every element of his style is created for a TV role that he loves because Sugar now gets his kicks from building a role rather than a company, and to give the man his due; he’s brilliant at it. He is a fake who is extremely clever and self aware, but that’s not enough to make people want to follow him.

The apprentices of the TV series are after the exposure and the money not the lure of working at his vague organisation. Apple employees equate Steve Jobs with Apple – his is the blood that runs through the corporation’s veins. And when he announced his partial retirement when the cancer fought back the shares slumped.

James Dyson versus Richard Branson

James Dyson is the inventor of the Dyson vacuum cleaner and CEO of the fastest growing manufacturing company in Europe. Compare his authentic voice with that of Britain’s favourite entrepreneur Richard Branson. What’s interesting about Dyson is that he is a monomaniac; what you see is what you get – a man obsessed with better design in consumer products. During his business career which has gone from near bankruptcy to outstanding commercial success he has stayed the same man driven by the same values. You know where you are with James Dyson; he’s a fanatic. Like Edison, he cannot give up on an idea that he believes in. For example his first modest product success was the Ballbarrow; a wheelbarrow with an inflatable ball at the front. It is more manoeuvrable and better on soft earth than the traditional model. Well now, 30 years later he is still extolling the virtues of the ball – but this time built into the latest version of his astoundingly successful Dyson cleaner. He just will not let an idea lie; even those the market doesn’t appreciate.

What you don’t get with James Dyson is spin. When he closed down his manufacturing plant in the UK and off-shored production to Malaysia he did not go all mealy-mouthed about the competition, instead he explained that it gave him greater flexibility, higher quality and lower costs. He embraced an unpopular message and said it like it was. The upshot is that Dyson now employ more people at Malmesbury in the UK than ever. All of them are in higher-skilled, better-paid jobs. Most are scientists and engineers. They contribute more to the local economy.

You might not like his decisions, but you have to respect him for his consistency; and it is results that count. What staff do not like is surprises; a CEO who sends out one set of signals only to change his spots as he buckles under a new set of external pressures. The CEO has to stand for something solid – a clear set of values – which will carry the company through the bad as well as the good times.

Contrast Dyson with the even more successful UK businessman, Richard Branson. First of all Branson is famous for being himself rather than the creator of his products. Richard Branson is the Virgin brand and he has successfully extended that brand from music to airlines, to trains and media. But it’s the wrapper that is more important than what is inside.

Contrast Dyson’s communication style with Branson’s. Dyson’s is the voice of the engineer; based on facts, on detail and continuous development. His tone is blend of authority (he knows more about vacuum cleaners than any man alive) with passion (he wants you to enjoy the product not the badge on the side). Branson’s brilliant but flashy communication style runs ahead of his companies – puffing up the promise even when the delivery isn’t there. No one does this better than Branson; he is always ahead of the game in spotting fantastic sponsorship and PR opportunities. And the man himself is revered as a beacon of entrepreneurship.

But the problem about forever talking up your company is that before long you get into competition with yourself. Each launch, each publicity stunt that Branson devises and stars in has to be even more camera-friendly than the last. It’s a communication strategy that means that eventually you will end up landing on your face – or on your backside.

Martin Sorrell versus Robert Maxwell

Martin Sorrell is CEO of WPP the huge advertising and marketing services group – and a former boss of mine. Robert Maxwell was a publisher who owned – among other titles – The Mirror and MacMillan. He infamously died in 1991 when he fell from his luxury yacht off Tenerife. For two 2 years previously I had the misfortune of having him as a client. Both men use money as the basis of their reputation, but whereas Sorrell’s pronouncements are an authentic bell weather for economic conditions, Maxwell was a liar and a fake who used the illusion of money he did have to borrow more from credulous bankers.

Sorrell was the Finance Director of Saatchi & Saatchi back in the 70’s a role that must have been an accountant’s nightmare in the heady days of advertising excess and exuberance. The Saatchi brothers won their first account by faking their offices and at the summit of their success the brilliant admen Charles and Maurice, who could do no wrong, self-deluded themselves into making an offer to buy Midland Bank (part of what is now HSBC). They then declined and lost control of their eponymous company. Sorrell had left four years earlier and bought an obscure maker of shopping baskets Wire and Plastic Products which was his vehicle for building what is now the largest marketing services agency in the with famous names such as Ogilvy, JWT and Y&R.

As a CEO Sorrell is neither a particularly inspiring speaker nor a marked motivator of men. But he is the most believable man alive in marketing today. This is because his communication style is based on facts and numbers. Although his companies trade in the soft areas of emotion and creativity, WPP has financial reporting systems that put many banks to shame. He is famous for keeping a very tight rein on the monthly operating figures of all WPP group companies, which means that all surprises are small ones and he can spot trends early. Sorrell has a direct line to global business confidence because he is the bean counter of the world’s marketing spend. Before anyone else in the world he can track the world’s corporate optimism. So when Sorrell talks, the world listens.

Maxwell – on the other hand – was a brilliant communicator who lied about the money he made in order to make more. Like Madoff he lived every day with the knowledge that his much vaunted millions in a Lichtenstein vault were in fact a bunch of mortgaged assets; at the centre of his world was a great gaping hole of debt. His communication style was to bully the world into believing his own hype. I remember producing video after video of Maxwell rushing round the globe exhorting investors to sink money in his printing and publishing businesses; using endorsements from senior politicians whose allegiance he would buy with cheques that were rarely fully honoured. His particular skill was to find the weakness that lies in any man, whether greed, vanity or cowardice and exploit it. When the fall came it was swift; one day we were making videos and staging conferences about his latest deal, the next I was opening our video vaults to Tom Bower, the investigative journalist who knew before most that Maxwell was a fake.

The biggest lesson I have taken as a communicator from working for both Sorrell and Maxwell is that the greater the bombast the less credible the message. As a young video and events producer I mistook activity for authenticity. Sorrell taught me the importance of facing up to the brutal facts and telling it like it is.

10 Top Tips to cultivate the authentic voice

  1. Forget everything that you have learnt about presentation. The more professional you make a piece of print, a video or an event the less believable it becomes. I call this the Communicators Paradox. We are now so much a part of the problem that we have to change ourselves before we can help our CEOs or our clients. A badly shot video on YouTube with a genuine message from a customer or member of staff will always be believed ahead of that glossy DVD.
  2. It’s about what they think not what you say. Listen, listen and then listen some more to what your audience are saying about the messages you are putting out. Appoint an audience panel – a cross-section of people throughout the company whom you can poll at an instance to find out what the mood is really like.
  3. Be ruthlessly patient. Patient because trust takes time to be built or rebuilt; years in many cases. A CEO who does what he says will be ignored the first time, the second time he delivers on a promise he might get the acknowledgement that it was a lucky fluke. The third time staff will start to give him the benefit of the doubt. By the fourth time he will start to build advocates. But it can take years and is an incremental process. But although it takes years you have to be ruthless every minute of the day about every message that’s in your control; the moment you spin a story your credibility as a communicator is shot and it will take you months of hard work to recover.
  4. Stop using actors and professional presenters to front your messages; you are just laying yourself open to charges of faking the message.
  5. Measure and record data around the tough messages. It’s much harder for a senior manager to shoot the messenger (i.e. you) if you can back up your advice with hard facts.
  6. Don’t lie. I know it’s hard, but if you know that a message you are expected to deliver is untrue make it a resigning issue. As communicators we are what we eat, and during my time helping to propagate Maxwell’s lies I became a worse communicator – and probably a worse person. No fee or wage is worth doing that to yourself.
  7. Create a rebuttal channel. When the media or anyone outside the organisation makes a false accusation, nail that lie. You can use external forums or the intranet to set the record straight. People will respect what you say provided you are proved right in the long run. However, if what is being levied against you happens to be true, keep quiet and let the audience come to their own conclusion. This technique was used inside the BBC to build credibility in the internal channels such as the house newspaper Ariel.
  8. Stop polishing and editing. I know it is painful when the CEO splits an infinitive in her blog or misspells an important manufacturing process. To err is human and with each deft correction you make you whitewash out a little bit of that authenticity.
  9. Have two desks; one in the communications unit and another in a part of the operational business, then split your time between them. Stay at your comms desk when you are publishing and at the other desk when the organisation is receiving; walk in the shoes of your audience whenever the messages are out there.
  10. Trust your audience. Taken as a whole your colleagues know more about what’s true and what’s right for the business than any individual. Don’t despair when someone posts a malicious response on the CEO Forum; publish and let the goodwill of others set the record straight. You are not the mouthpiece of authenticity, you are its curator.

2 Comments

  1. Useful post with useful examples and insight. PRs love to talk about corporate responsibility, but the hardest thing to achieve is to keep corporates honest. Enron was big on CR and non-existent on honesty, for instance. But authenticity is not about dropping the corporate voice altogether or pretending that everything is from the heart and personal. Perhaps you might wish to look at the discussion on corporate blogging between Neville Hobson, Tom Murphy and me here:

    http://paulseaman.eu/2009/07/corporate-blogging-now-its-personal/

    An off-beat observation perhaps, but we should remind ourselves that the Dogme collective’s film-making was just as contrived as Hollywood’s for all its emphasis on authenticity.

  2. Pingback: PR Conversations » Authentic CEOs

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