There comes a time when the thoughts of every successful businessman turn to how history will remember them. That is usually the point when most would happily exchange all their worldly wealth for a reputation and legacy that won’t have their great grandchildren queuing up at the deed poll office.
Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and once the world’s wealthiest businessman, understood this at a time in his career when he had more to give. Today, he dedicates much of his life, energy and wealth to doing social good through his Foundation while Microsoft continues to operate profitably.
Media magnate Rupert Murdoch, on the other hand, might understand Gate’s thinking much better after the last few months of having to wash News International’s dirty linen, ironically in the full gaze of the media.
Murdoch’s performance at the Leveson inquiry this week was that of a man fighting for the reputation – not of News International or the News of the World, but of – Rupert Murdoch. When he said that he wished he’d closed it [the News of the World] years ago,” I’m sure I heard his eyes whisper that he wished he’d “stepped back from this years ago.”
Sometimes, it’s better to stop chasing the dream when you’ve been enjoying it for decades. There is a time when everyone needs to call it a day and pass the opportunity to someone else. If you run a successful business for long enough, eventually the wheels are going to come off. If you’re the main driver when they do, then your name is on the can you have to pick up and carry. Ask the former directors of Arthur Andersen, Marconi, or Lehman Brothers, among many others.
This is a conversation that few CEOs will ever have with their communications lead, no matter how trusted the relationship between them. They will discuss, frequently and at length, the CEO’s ‘today’ reputation. The ‘tomorrow’ discussion seldom comes up.
Everyone wants to exit at the height of their powers. It’s a matter of recognising it when it happens and ignoring the call of the next challenge. I had this discussion with the former CEO of a business that imploded on their watch a few years ago. After a career of successfully running major industrial organisations and a peerage from the Queen, he was left holding the can when the music stopped unexpectedly.
“I didn’t need it. I kept telling myself that I’d do just one more job and then I’d put the shoes away and the slippers on.” His Wikipedia entry leads on that last role, his only business failure in a lifetime of remarkable commercial achievement.
A good communications department can build and manage a CEO’s reputation because it is a few steps removed from the personal ambition that fuels the persona behind it. That objectivity is as good a reason as any for a well-established CEO and their comms guy to have a different conversation the next time they meet.