By Marian Salzman, Wednesday, July 25, 2012, at 9:00 am.
This is the eighth in a series of 10 posts about different aspects of CEO branding.
There’s a lot to be said for a CEO who manages to keep things on track with measured stewardship. Even in good times, when the media are all jazzed up with tales of business derring-do, there’s something heroic about a CEO who steers a business with a cautious, steady-as-she-goes hand on the tiller. Regularly generating solid profits, keeping customers happy and providing decent livelihoods for employees are admirable achievements in any business environment. Needless to say, it applies in spades in troubled economic times. No wonder many business leaders today are playing it safe.
But playing it safe isn’t the stuff of dreams—especially American dreams—and there are plenty of business leaders and commentators who believe a recession is a great time to take chances: Start a new venture, open new lines of business and generally turn up the entrepreneurial moxie. When others are hunkering down, there’s more headroom for the brash and the bold to spot chances and move in, to zag when everyone else is zigging.
So what’s it to be, caution or adventure? All business leaders have to decide where they and their company want to live on the line that stretches between stolid restraint and entrepreneurial audacity, between guarding against threats and seeking opportunities. This partly comes down to personality—some people routinely default to the safer option because that’s what feels right to them; some consistently go for the riskier choice because it excites them and they would regret not taking it.
On the business front, playing it safe (keeping tight control on costs, reducing debt, improving productivity, building up a cash reserve and focusing on core business) might well be the best way to avoid getting into trouble. Even playing it safe, however, is not without risk. Any part of the business (e.g., suppliers, customer, staff) could be tempted away by a more adventurous competitor. If the strategy is too defensive, the whole business might be vulnerable to a hostile takeover or to new developments in the market. Pretty much the whole music industry of the 20th century, for instance, is a cautionary tale of apparently smart people trying to hang on to business as usual and losing out to new technology and adventurous entrepreneurs.
Of course, getting more entrepreneurial involves running more business risks; it means deliberately introducing more uncertainty into the mix. That’s why even in the United States, it’s the exception rather than the norm. Still, being entrepreneurial doesn’t necessarily have to involve going totally radical and betting the farm. Strip away the hype, and it’s not such a huge step from what many business leaders aspire to be doing: looking out for opportunities, developing new ideas to address them, generating enthusiasm and support for the ideas, then bringing them to life. If you’re the type who tends to default to safe options, it’s worth making a commitment to pause before every decision and ask yourself three questions:
As you’ve probably guessed, my head and heart are rooting for more business leaders to get bolder and become more innovative. I’m dismayed by how much fear is spreading, paralyzing smart people and their businesses. I’m disappointed by the way great ideas are too often halted from ever reaching the mainstream because big decision makers are fearful of anything that feels overly provocative, challenging or risky. If you’re not careful, you can get caught up in a culture of fear that saps courage and is the biggest threat of all.
When everything around us is changing fast and daring businesspeople are breaking new ground in exciting ways, CEOs who stick to a steady strategy don’t attract much attention. Admirable though it might be for the needs of the company, there’s a limit to how much the media and the public can be interested in “Acme Corp. Still Riding Out the Recession by Doing What They’ve Always Done” or “Times Might Change, but It’s Business as Usual for Acme Corp.” So if you and your business aren’t prepared to get more entrepreneurial, your advertising and PR partners will need to find or create fresh angles to keep you and your brand on the radar.
From my perspective as a PR professional, brand specialist and CEO, my advice to any business leader is to move farther along that line from cautious toward entrepreneurial. You don’t have to do it all on your own if you’re strategic in choosing the people you spend your time with. You need people who support your entrepreneurial energies, people who fire you up, people who challenge you to stretch that little bit more, people who have a different take on the world but share your ambition. Plus, you need at least one person to keep you grounded. You’ll find that getting more entrepreneurial will not only enliven your business performance; it will also give you a lot more brand traction.