In October 2002, John Chambers, then chief executive of Cisco Systems, reported a US$1 in salary with no bonus, and gave back 2 million of the 6 million stock options he was granted for the financial period of 2002. Chambers was not the first, but followed similar moves by some of his peers in the beleaguered info-tech industry.

In difficult times, such gestures are largely symbolic, but provide a powerful resonance with employees and managers in these companies, since many such companies have laid off waves and waves of employees with increasingly difficult financial periods and trickling sales.

Actions: Elevating the CEO reputation

In the state of lackluster economies, corporate fraud, and unjustified corporate bankruptcies, what are some of the ways to elevate a CEO’s reputation?

We call it B.A.C.K. (branding, accountability, coaching and kindness), which is how CEOs can B.A.C.K. (or support) their people and their reputation through ethical means.

1) Branding. The “personal branding” of CEOs is critical in the wake of corporate scandals, and many other multinational corporations facing accounting fraud or reinstatement of earnings. The branding of CEOs should result in an above-board, pristine personal quality that provides complete transparency. No amount of disguise can give off light if you are hiding in a shroud of darkness.

2) Accountability. Should there be monkey business beneath the CEO, the CEO should be accountable and responsible for the errant lieutenants, and be prepared to punish, ostracize and denounce these lieutenants, quickly fixing the situation, and answer to the public and the media with complete PERSONAL responsibility. By pushing the responsibility to the errant lieutenants, the public and the media lose respect for these CEOs, since CEOs are supposed to take complete responsibility commensurate with the highest remuneration they receive.

3) Coaching. CEOs should bind their people tightly together, and be ready to provide answers, no matter how painful, and be able to articulate answers truthfully, promptly, and sensitively. There will always be difficult answers, difficult questions, and difficult solutions, during difficult times. CEOs should not be overly paternal or maternal, but should be sensitive and be ready to mentor and educate. The CEO as mentor is an excellent internal branding that can provide employees with an unshakeable pillar of strength and inspiration to draw on. It is sad if employees do not find any inspiration, strength or even love, for their top management. Then the only thing that separates these employees from leaving is the availability of the next better job with the fatter pay packet. People bind, money doesn’t.

4) Kindness. Employees do not become disgruntled unless there is a trigger or stimulus. I have not heard of employees who intentionally turn deviant or criminal because they wanted to in the first place (rarely). However, conditions, business processes, peers and bosses, may become contributing triggers and stimuli that slowly but surely push the employees to the edge. Rather than simply punish without resolution, CEOs should learn to seek the truth, and be sensitive and wise enough to probe to the bottom to get the real answers. There are always convenient shortcuts, and then there are difficult but ultimately more rewarding ways.

As with the ancient Chinese general who went without water together with his troops, and rallied with them by pointing out that there were plum trees ahead. The soldiers marched on, and eventually reached a destination where food and water were available. Such is the hope that drives people on, and the creation of hope is the power of CEOs over his or her team.

These are some writings we did in 2003 (published as “DotZen”, a paperback book that was widely publicized), and we extracted some which are still relevant today, in the areas of branding, marketing, sales, publicity, and business improvement. If we find some time outside that of helping our clients grow and taking a rest, we will try to write some more.

Copyright©2003 Seamus Phan & Ter Hui Peng. All rights reserved.