A fish rots from the head: reputation needs leadership

A fish rots from the head: reputation needs leadership

Selina Jardim

Selina Jardim

Over the years I’ve had the privilege of engaging with a number of major tech bosses to get their views on reputation, but one insight that came through strongly in my conversations was that “when it comes to reputation, a fish rots from the head.”

This makes sense: leaders have the greatest power in a company, and when we think about the biggest companies on the planet – Apple, Meta, Tesla and Microsoft, for example – their leaders are inextricably tied to their company reputations, good or bad.

Leaders are expected to serve the multiple stakeholders of employees, customers, partners, the community and the environment as well as the traditional model of shareholders. But managing a company or brand’s reputation is rarely simple. There are nuances and differences in attitudes, even within the technology sector.

Trust as a currency

The primary currency of great leadership has always been trust. Gaining a reputation for absolute integrity and adherence to the highest standards of trust and privacy are critical. It’s safe to say then that trust is intrinsically tied to reputation. This trust influences more than just purchasing, permeating all aspects of the company almost as if it were a chemical element created by the synergy of the leadership team and the employees themselves.

A gold-standard reputation can delight staff, build shareholder confidence, attract top talent, and establish solid customer relationships from the get-go. Employees love coming to work and competitors mimic and envy your success.  

What’s your flavour?

For the most part high-quality organisations believe in reputation, there’s no doubt about that. But it’s also about understanding the ‘flavour’ of your reputation, which ties into your commercial strategy. You can be the best, the cheapest or the fastest, but not all three. For example, some companies are built around being the fastest, and therefore need to build a supply chain to accommodate that. This may mean driving staff in a way that would incentivise speed over quality.

The commercial strategy of an organisation dictates its reputation, and it’s important that people know what they’re getting in for, or you risk building mental tension and stress. If a company strategy serves up a strong hoppy IPA when staff are expecting a light fizzy lager, then problems can arise.

Reputation: The CEO’s Burden or Their Greatest Ally?

Although reputation might often seem like a matter of seeking out problems, it’s not all doom and gloom. Doing good and being a responsible leader is important, but so is having fun. Having a tough project is acceptable but if you can have fun with your team and come away smiling, then your reputation as an employer will be greatly enhanced. And if these seem like broad-ranging issues, then that’s not an accident – as any established CEO will know, the remit of a leader, whether in a small early-stage startup, or a large international firm, will include a huge portfolio of operational, commercial, personnel and other stakeholder issues. Whilst some of it might seem negative in nature, leadership is not only one of the most varied and nuanced roles, but also one of the most rewarding. Steering an entire company through the bad times and the good, leaders are at the very helm of company reputation itself, and if that’s not a satisfying experience, we don’t know what is!

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