OPINION: Having spent 15 or so years writing about business and technology for publications all around the world, I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with some high-profile business leaders.

While having dinner at billionaires’ houses has done little more than making me utterly committed to never becoming a billionaire (having private security guards and PR people in attendance 24/7 must be a total drag), it’s also given me some interesting insights into how people at the top level of business think.

As I’ve spent the past few years moving out of writing for a living, and into the more satisfying (for me, anyway) role of sitting around various boardroom tables, I’ve seen other aspects of leadership and gained a bit of sympathy for why business leaders (and their army of communication professionals) are so sensitive.

And yet, I’ve never quite understood how hubris goes so far to influence the way these people work.

The other day I was reflecting upon some leadership interactions I’d had, one historically and one more recently, and on how they were a telling indication about both positive and negative leadership traits.

The first interaction was back in the days when I used to spend my time flying around the world attending conferences and doing consulting gigs. I was writing thousands of words a week about different topics and, because of that, I got the attention of one particular big-company CEO.

The said leader was pretty friendly and we shared business conversations on a regular basis. I had written a few articles about said person’s organisation – some positive and some constructively critical.

However, those critical articles seemed to flip a switch in said executive’s mind. I went from being inside the tent, and someone to have robust conversations with, to being utterly shut out.

It was like this exec – who employed up to 20,000 staff and had to wade into battle with unions, board members, government agencies and the like – had such an incredibly thin skin that the merest utterance that questioned their exalted status would send them into paroxysms of self-doubt.

In my second, more recent, example, I interacted with another high-level executive who is also helping to lead an organisation with about the same number of staff.

In this instance, I was also both positive and sometimes constructively critical, but this individual didn’t take offence to the critical parts. Rather, they continued to engage, explored my point of view, and showed sufficiently robust self-assuredness to not be consumed by a single negative tweet or article.

I’ve been scratching my head wondering what it is about these two executives that makes them so different. I feel it is a huge oversimplification, and a case of succumbing to gender preconceptions, to put it down to the fact that the first example – the one with the monstrous ego and susceptibility to bruising of that ego – was in fact a man.

My second exemplar, the one who could see the bigger picture and take the thrust and parry of critical words, was a woman. I’d prefer to not think it’s as simple as a case of a gender difference.

Could it be that the person in the first example came from a marketing background, and seemed highly invested in building his own brand as much as he did the brand of the organisation he led?

By comparison, the second person had more of an operational focus and was less concerned with her personal brand.

Whatever the reason, I believe there are key take-aways here for executives across the spectrum who have to deal with people from the outside opining about them and their organisations.

Modern media, and the ascendence of platforms like Twitter, have resulted in anyone having the opportunity to have a public voice. The ability to control the message and carefully curate a public image no longer exists. Everything is, for better or worse, out there these days.

Given this fact, it’s time to build business relationships that, much like relationships in the personal sphere, have ups and downs. Accept that sometimes individuals will say things that bruise a little, they’ll call our metaphorical babies ugly, and they might just suggest that our core business strategies are misguided.

We have the choice to engage with those people constructively and to help them see a broader narrative. Alternatively, we can shut them out and virtually guarantee that they’ll double down.

I know which one seems like the smarter strategy to me.

– Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. He sometimes has a thin skin but is trying hard to not take offence.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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