What CEOs Have to Do to Survive in 2017
Jim Fowler on Owler’s 2017 CEO Likability Study
By Abbie Stutzer
Courier Magazine recently interviewed Jim Fowler, founder of Owler, a company that crowd-sources information and has built a large database of company and executive information. Owler has more than a million users to date.
Fowler explains what CEOs are doing to remain likable and command great leadership in 2017.
Courier Magazine: Tell us about how you’ve honed your CEO leadership strategy.
Jim Fowler: I have a really eclectic background for a tech founder. I spent four years in the U.S. Navy as both a Diving and Salvage Officer and a Naval Officer, where I first learned about strong leadership. One of the most important things I learned in my military days was “lead from the front.” You should never ask your people to do something that you’re not willing to do yourself; don’t demand from others things you would not do yourself. Essentially, lead by example.
The military also taught me not to complain about those above me. Great leaders are also great followers: you have to understand how to follow before you learn how to lead. Never complain downward about decisions that are made above you. If you don’t like the decision that your superiors make, it’s your job to fight it. But once it’s finalized, it’s your job to have a good attitude and push it down as if it were your own.
When I got out of the Navy, I ran a small ski area. I was a snow farmer in North Idaho for four years at a small place called Lookout Pass, which was where I learned the ins and outs of running a business. In any business, cash is paramount to your ability to function. If you run out of cash, your business will crash and burn, leaving you unable to pay the people who depend on you to feed their kids, pay their mortgages, and live their lives. In those days, I made a lot of mistakes around cash flow, and even ended up failing at it. It was a great experience—and if I could do it again, I would—but my partners and I were not successful snow farmers. However, I did learn how to run a business, or in this case, how not to run a business.
But where I really learned how to lead a company was as a salesperson in tech companies during the first Internet boom. In essence, everything you do as an entrepreneur is selling: whether it’s setting the vision of your company, hiring a team, raising money, or making sales. Being a good salesperson is a critical to your ability to lead as a CEO.
Lastly, good leaders take complex things and make them clear; they make order out of chaos. You need to translate your vision into something simple and clear that people can get behind.
Courier Magazine: Explain what CEO likability is, and why people care more about this issue in 2017.
Jim Fowler: We asked the question: rate this CEO. However, I believe that the Owler Community is really rating that CEO’s product or company. Think of Steve Jobs. He was known for being difficult to work with, going so far as to make his employees cry on a regular basis. Yet, Apple (and Jobs) still had and continues to have a wide and loyal fanbase. In the end, what really mattered to the public was Jobs’ persona as a product visionary and his ability to create technology that people fell in love with. So while Jobs himself may never have been the ideal CEO to work for, his penchant for product has secured his legacy as a revered leader.
Another great example is Costco. People love shopping at Costco—they feel like they’re getting good products, for good prices, all rolled into a pleasant experience with lots of samples. That love of brand benefits the CEO, who is also positively perceived.
On the other hand, United’s “product” is hard to like to begin with: air travel is uncomfortable, unpleasant, and expensive. Then, the public sees a customer’s bloodied face, which further tarnishes their brand name and likability.
But sometimes, even a great product isn’t enough. Today, consumers are increasingly conscientious of company conduct and ethics. Brand loyalty isn’t just built on quality and name anymore, but on the way that company interacts with employees, customers, and the world. And typically, “that company” refers to the CEO, board, and executive team.
For instance, Uber has faced a deluge of negative press in the past four months or so. From sexism in the workplace, to intellectual property theft, to mistreatment of drivers, and more. Now, their founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick has resigned his leadership position, a move meant to help the rideshare company improve relationships with its constituents.
Ultimately, the CEO is responsible for everything that happens at his or her company, and he or she is the face of the business. CEO Likability isn’t simply a popularity contest: it yields tangible consequences for companies and the business world.
Courier Magazine: Tell us what transparency and accountability mean to you.
I believe that fear of the unknown is far worse than fear of the known. Hire a team of great people because they’re better and smarter than you are, especially at their particular area of expertise. So, if these people don’t understand what the problems are, you can’t expect them to solve them. Your team is smart—they know what’s going on. To be opaque about your company’s issues is, in my opinion, madness. At Owler, we share our financials with the entire team because we want everyone to know exactly what our cash position is, where we are, and what problems we’re facing.
Reasonable people, when presented with the same set of facts, draw the same conclusions. So, you have a problem when you have unreasonable people at the table. There are a number of causes for unreasonableness, but in my experience, it usually comes down to politics. By playing politics, unreasonable people do what’s right for them individually, rather than what’s in the company’s best interest.
It’s important that you have a culture where it’s okay to fail and you can raise your hand and “jump on the grenade” when there’s a problem. By taking more than your fair share of blame, you create a safe space for people to fail. That willingness to admit and accept failure is what sets tech companies apart from all other industries, as well as why American companies lead the world. It’s okay to fail, and it’s important to admit fault.
Courier Magazine: What’s the future of CEO leadership look like?
There are both internal and external forces that affect transparency and accountability. As we watch the public unraveling of Uber and United Airlines, it’s apparent that companies can’t get away with the stuff they used to get away with. Today, information is much more free. For instance, you have video: we saw footage of Travis Kalanick berating an Uber driver and of a United passenger getting dragged off a plane. This indisputable evidence of misconduct sparked widespread outrage, and the public is holding these companies accountable for their actions.
I’m an optimist: I believe that this transparency of information makes the business world a better place by leveling the playing field and by forcing CEOs to be decent human beings.
I don’t think that any of the principles about what makes a great CEO have changed: you need to be a charismatic, visionary leader with lots of energy. You need to be able to get people to march in a straight line together as a team. You need to inspire that team to build great products and work together productively. Rivers of ink have been written on what makes a great CEO, and those foundations haven’t changed. What has changed is the level of scrutiny that leaders face, so people who can’t function with integrity won’t last in today’s business climate.
About the Author
Abbie Stutzer is the Editor of Courier Magazine.