From boardrooms to happy hours

Executive reputation

Putting a leader’s image and reputation on the back burner can be just as detrimental as poor performance. Executives with unfavorable results may always have an opportunity for recovery, while a tarnished reputation is seldom fully restored.

With the incredible penetration of social media into private lives, it’s no longer possible to compartmentalize professional, social, and family life separately. Everything has become interconnected, and worse, public.

Reputational damage

The example of Stefano Gabbana (of the Dolce & Gabbana brand) is typical. In 2018, his personal messages on Instagram leaked, containing derogatory comments about China. This led to a massive uproar on social media, resulting in the cancellation of a major company fashion show in Shanghai.

Another example is Brian J. Dunn, former CEO of Best Buy, who resigned amid an internet-virilized investigation into “misconduct.” The internal investigation later confirmed that he had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with an employee. It was a grave failure in protecting personal image at work, and social media amplified the impact.

One of the first pieces of advice I received early in my career was that if you are with someone you work with, you are working, no matter the location or setting!

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In places like gatherings, happy hours, and lunches with colleagues, it’s all work. True disasters can happen, and your image is built on any occasion.

I recall a situation when I was developing a promising marketing executive. During an international meeting cocktail event, he overindulged in alcohol and made highly inappropriate political comments about the host country, followed by anti-Semitic remarks. This was enough to ruin his career.

Another case that comes to mind is that of an international vice president of human resources visiting Brazil. One night, he was taken to a nightclub by one of our employees. His behavior and actions that night tarnished his reputation, to the extent that it made his continued global role untenable.

Instilling responsibility

Naturally, one could blame the employee who took him to the venue, but each person should be responsible for their own actions.

Just recently, a city councilor in São Paulo had his mandate revoked for making racist comments, unaware that the microphone was live. Work is not just about what is said on the microphone. It’s all the time.

Often, executives’ actions, in pursuit of immediate results, don’t consider future consequences or implications after leaving the company.

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As I write this article, Qantas Airways of Australia announced that its former CEO, Alan Joyce, retired prematurely after a regulatory lawsuit accused Qantas of selling tickets for thousands of canceled flights.

In the 2023 annual report, it is stated that Joyce earned the equivalent of $13.7 million US dollars. Most of this was in the form of share-based incentives, collected after the vesting period.

The company will withhold part of an additional bonus for Joyce, awaiting the outcomes of two legal cases that could result in substantial fines. Actions and decisions like these not only destroy an executive’s reputation but also cause significant harm to the companies they lead.

On the other hand, there are hundreds of successful CEOs whose personal reputations are reflected in the trust the market has in their respective companies. 

Names like Warren Buffett, Chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, Annika Falkengren, former CEO of the Swedish bank SEB, and Akio Toyoda, President of Toyota Motor Corporation, have become icons of good reputation and ethical behavior.

Imagine the headlines

During my time at GE, there was a simple guideline for ethical dilemmas. The same recommendation can be applied to any executive’s behavior: “If you are unsure of the repercussions of an act, imagine it making headlines on the front page of the newspaper the next day. If it passes this test, go ahead.”

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Care for personal image and reputation must go hand in hand with a focus on results. Some realities are clear: it’s illusory to think that a leader’s integrity grows with the title of their position. In fact, it remains the same size. The role simply gives visibility to that integrity or highlights its insufficiency.

Another point is that reputation, often, spreads faster than good performance. Therefore, it’s not just a job for Public Relations or advertising. It begins from the start of a career, with the same level of care as a CEO, where actions should not only be integral but also give a clear perception that they are.

The number of leaders who believe they project one image of themselves while the external perception is entirely different is considerable. Passing the consistency test is imperative.

This is as old as Abraham Lincoln’s saying: 

“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Abraham Lincoln