Executive over-presence: a double-edged sword?

KAMAL KARANTH | Updated on August 29, 2018 Published on August 29, 2018

When you have a larger-than-life CEO or Founder, do you celebrate it or dread it?

When Elon Musk recently tweeted that he would take Tesla private, he got 100,000 reactions on Twitter and the stock tanked 14 per cent in a day. Paytm’s founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma got heavily trolled for his donation to Kerala floods tweet, which was perceived as publicity for his company, but this also ensured crores got collected for the CM’s relief fund.

Elon Musk, co-founder and CEO, Tesla


Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder of Paytm

Both instances have one thing in common; the strong influence their acts had on their firms. Tesla’s stock is yet to recover from that tweet but Paytm yet again has surely understood the impact of its Founder’s presence. Would I rather call it Executive Over Presence? Not surprisingly, in a Gartner Survey, Executive presence was second amongst top 20 leadership traits. Several CEOs — whether of start-ups or established firms — have an overbearing presence on the brand. In the pre-social media era, Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Narayana Murthy enjoyed cult-like status. Those days what they said and did was exaggerated by their followers and media. It mostly worked to their advantage as they built business and brands aided by their executive presence.

The PR Machinery also needed stories beyond the organisation success. Heroes of the organisations made for a better narrative. So, the CEOs and the brands became synonymous with each other in many such cases.

Enter social media

Social media took this CEOs+Brands association to another level. Last week, LinkedIn announced the names of people who had maximum profile views. At one level it’s a great publicity to the individuals and the organisations they work for. However, at another level, it puts great stress on these individuals and the organisations they belong to. Everything they say or do will be under the scanner. There are immense benefits to the brand when their Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram or FB handles go viral. Certainly, their employers/board will also be nervous that they might be one tweet away from a damage control situation.

As much as social media has allowed organisations to raise their employer brand, it also has kept them on tenterhooks in a few situations. Hence, many organisations have social media gags for their CXOs to prevent their extempore expressions from harming their carefully built brand. Now you know why CEOs of some of the well-known brands are unusually quiet or missing on social media.

Organisation presence

It’s not just the CXOs’ external presence in events and social media that gets overbearing. Many organisations have their entire organisation dynamics built around their CEO which can lift or weigh them down. Some start-ups also build their venture around themselves knowingly or unknowingly. Few even name the business after the founder, making it even more obvious on the founder influence. In these circumstances, even the VCs talk more about the founder than the organisation. Even in start-ups that have CoFounders, one tends to dominate, taking the limelight. It’s the larger-than-life personalities of these leaders that creates a halo effect.

To be or not to be

Some of the marquee brands have got built without any influential founders and many organisations continue to flourish without them. Can Executive presence be engineered to build a brand?

I believe you either have it or don’t. It’s difficult to create it even if it helps build the brand in some of the industries. It’s the natural persona and inclination of the leader to be omnipresent that decides the so-called Executive Presence.

When some of them try to do it just because competing firms have charismatic leaders, they fall flat. Their social media handles amplify this disconnect and they come a cropper in social settings.

Many organisations even have training programmes for C-Suite executives on executive presence. But this is one trait that cannot be manufactured, you are either born with it or grow up with it.

I remember once doing an orientation session on Executive presence, to my senior managers. We listed a host of factors leading to an Executive presence, like confidence, composure, charisma, attire, mannerisms, communication. By the time we ended it, we realised that we needed unique personalities of different people to be seen in a single person for it to be called Executive Presence. It’s rare to get that combination in one individual. Even as one can pick up the surface grooming, get trained in communication, it is natural traits like decisiveness, connecting and influencing that are difficult to learn.

A practical approach to executive presence is to increase self-awareness of CEOs. It is essential to show them the mirror frequently. It’s a tough task as their egos are their strength as well as weakness.

Kamal Karanth is co-founder of X-pheno, a specialist staffing firm

Published on August 29, 2018
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor