I once handled PR on the West Coast for the most-hated man in Hollywood. That would be Ted Turner, founder of Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. and the visionary behind such now-ubiquitous brands as CNN, Cartoon Network, and TCM, among many others. While Ted was revered and respected by most of his employees and partners at the time, he was shunned by Hollywood because he was an outsider who bought the treasured MGM library of film classics but then decided to colorize them. (Suffice to say that he knew what he was doing—but let’s not rehash that old controversy!)
Today, of course, Ted is acknowledged as a true pioneer in the entertainment industry, but back then, he was a pariah—which means he would have been highly unlikely to make the top ranks in the CEO Likability Survey conducted by Owler, a crowd-sourced competitive intelligence platform.
Owler surveys its community of more than 1 million active business professionals about CEOs across 25 industries and 50 cities, then produces its list of most-likable CEOs. (Spoiler alert: Craig Jelinek, CEO of Costco, was rated #1 overall.) When broken down by industry, Media & Entertainment ranked 20th out of 25 industries in CEO likability—kind of ironic for an industry that desperately wants audiences to like its product!
“CEO likability has become a crucial issue in this new era of visibility, where CEOs are subject to reviews as if they were a restaurant on Yelp,” Jim Fowler, founder and CEO of Owler, told Philadelphia Magazine.
But the survey and its results made me wonder: How important is likability, really? Ted Turner didn’t care whether he was perceived as “likable” or not (although his vice president of communications did, which is why I was hired!). Isn’t it more important to be “effective” or “inspiring” or “visionary”? I decided to ask Jennifer Musselman, a former entertainment executive-turned-licensed therapist and executive coach, who works with CEOs in the entertainment, tech, and financial industries.
Q: How and why is CEO likability so important in today’s entertainment industry?
A: Technology has disrupted the entertainment industry in every way possible, yet at its core, it's still fundamentally rooted in relationships. Being likable as a CEO matters in the entertainment industry—but don't confuse likability with being “nice.” We like characters who behave badly in movies and television shows as long as we can see the good qualities in them too; think Ari Gold from HBO's dramedy Entourage. We accept flawed CEOs as long as we can see their value or goodness to the business or to our personal goals or values.
Q: I would argue that respect for a CEO is more important than likability. For instance, Ted could be difficult, but I still respected him and his brilliant vision for the company. So can you respect a CEO and not like them?
A: People want to buy into a CEO's ideology to give their own work purpose and meaning, but they don't have to want to grab a drink with him, too. It’s about business. For some people, it’s actually worse to work for a CEO they like but whose business acumen they don't respect. When you respect leadership and actually like them too, it's illuminated in employees' commitment to the company. That's the perfect cocktail to accelerate business.
Q: If we buy into the philosophy that likability is important, what are some tips for CEOs who need to improve their ratings?
A: Often CEOs think they are expected to know everything, to be infallible. Showing a little humility and vulnerability during uncertain times can win over the harshest of critics. Also, CEOs need trustworthy people who get them and who can support them—not just agree with them. When I work with CEOs, I often use a psychometric measure that assesses for performance gaps in core competencies such as decision-making, vision, strategy, communication, composure, integrity, self-awareness and more. These competencies are critical to a CEO’s success.
Q:Owler rated 182 CEOs in entertainment but only listed the top 19—and there’s not one woman and only one minority male on that list. Is it harder for a female CEO to be perceived as “likable”?
A: Though concerning, it's not surprising that this list doesn't include one woman CEO—diversity at the top is sparse in entertainment, tech, and finance, and even in the health and beauty industries. It's especially true in the entrepreneurial space. A 2012 Stanford Graduate School of Business study described the double bind women find themselves in as leaders: When they appear too feminine, they may be liked but they aren't seen as leaders; if they don't temper their “masculine” traits, they won’t be liked and may be called names. Men, on the other hand, are far more tolerated and even respected when they present as more aggressive.
I don't like the unconscious "work rules," but in order for a woman to be successful and meet her personal goals, she will need to learn how to navigate a predominantly male leadership style. This includes getting buy-in from other women, who often pass judgment on each other as much as men do! Still, we're tasked with challenging evolutionary psychology, so I encourage women to push boundaries today in a way that works within the company culture but that meets their personal goals and values.
(I should end by noting that after 12 years in the position, I can say that I actually did like Ted Turner.)