When former software engineer James Damore released a memo criticizing Google’s diversity initiatives back in July 2017, the tech giant’s reputation took a turn for the worse. But the standing of its chief executive officer didn’t follow suit: After the contents of the memo came to light, CEO Sundar Pichai addressed the controversy head-on, firing Damore, denouncing discrimination in a company-wide email and returning early from a family vacation to guide his organization through the crisis. As Google fell from the public’s good graces, Pichai’s reputation grew stronger.
“Google believes in ‘doing no evil,’ and he is the manifestation of that,” says Stephen Hahn-Griffiths, chief research officer of the Reputation Institute, a reputation measurement and management services firm. The Institute, known for its annual reports on corporate reputation, has just published its first-ever study of chief executive reputation, the Global CEO RepTrak. At a time when everyday people are increasingly looking to heads of businesses for leadership, the institute thought it was time to recognize the CEOs working to make a difference.
“We’ve seen, in the last two to three years, an absence of leadership in the world,” says Hahn-Griffiths. “There was a time and a place when we’d look to political leaders in society, and that era is gone.”
To create the CEO RepTrak, the institute surveyed more than 28,000 individuals in 15 countries during the period from January to February 2018. All 139 CEOs considered were required to lead companies that have familiarity with at least 50% of the general population. The CEOs themselves were required to have familiarity with at least 10% of the general population. All are listed alphabetically, with the exception of the executive who earned the top spot.
Perhaps the most significant insight to emerge from the study is just how much the role of CEO has evolved. It’s no longer enough to drive financial results like Jack Welch or to develop innovative products like Steve Jobs. Today’s CEOs must be activists. “They empower and enable world-class products, but more importantly, they always do the right thing by society,” says Hahn-Griffiths. “CEOs who take a stand, who align with important public policy issues—especially related to measures about citizenship and governance—rank disproportionately higher.”
So it’s no wonder that Pichai claimed the CEO RepTrak’s No. 1 spot with a score of 81.4. Since rising to the top of Google in 2015, Pichai has been revered as a creative thinker, one who has encouraged the already innovative company to break new ground, whether with tried-and-true Gmail or up-and-coming Waymo. More importantly, though, he is a transparent leader, both on the grounds of the Googleplex and on the world stage.
“He speaks out on issues he believes in and doesn’t just preach—he practices,” says Hahn-Griffiths. An advocate for diversity and inclusion, the Google CEO, who was born in India, has condemned discrimination inside and outside the workplace, voicing his support for fellow immigrants following the Trump Administration’s attempts to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and thanking transgender troops for their sacrifice after the White House moved to ban transgender people from serving in the U.S. military. Pichai is also a humanitarian—pledging, on behalf of Google, $3 million to support natural disaster relief efforts in South Asia, Mexico and Puerto Rico—and is outspoken on the subject of climate change, tweeting about his disappointment with President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement and exploring the potential of artificial intelligence to transform clean energy. “He is truly a CEO with humility, but with conviction and a desire to drive action and change,” says Hahn-Griffiths.
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