7 rules for CEOs to live by, whether at a small start-up or global corporation

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As president and CEO of the world's largest independently owned public relations firm, Edelman, Richard Edelman has come to understand the key attributes employees want in CEOs: "Trust, confidence, ethical, transparent and decent. What's not in that list? Visionary, deeply exciting, rockstar."

"They just want someone who will do a good job," he says.

Edelman's annual Trust Barometer shows a gaping divide in the trust of executives, especially CEOs, who are now seen as a class, not individuals. The survey shows 70 percent of the U.S. educated elite express trust in business, while only 51 percent of the general population does — a gap of nearly 20 percent.

This gap means employees are increasingly skeptical of their leaders, and as a result, less engaged. They believe their businesses and leaders can and should earn profits while making communities a better place to live at the same time.

At a meeting of The Executives' Club of Chicago, Mr. Edelman shared several behaviors and traits CEOs must master today to have an ounce of hope in gaining employees' trust.

1. Be a recognizable face.  Increasing demands on leaders to stabilize their business and position the organization to succeed was heightened by and since the recession. However, a closed-off leadership style impedes success. When people don't know who their leader is, they tend to fill the void of information with their own perceptions and interpretations of their actions. "It's our hypothesis that there are so many CEOs who have kept their heads down since the recession," says Mr. Edelman. "It's time for CEOs to lift their heads and get back out there and lead."

More importantly, a CEO's humanistic qualities are lost on employees when he or she is absent. In addition to establishing a strong presence in the organization, the CEO must also clearly communicate the values to which they attribute the highest importance, and those which they expect their employees to emulate. "People aren't going to follow you if they don't know who you are or what your values are," says Mr. Edelman. "You must also share your stories with them. Employees are a critical group in the world of peer-to-peer discussion. If you don't tell your employees what you're doing, you're missing out on the best possible advocates for your case."

2. Understand the magnitude of the value of trust. Of all leadership traits, trust is by far the most essential. While reaching the top spot of an organization requires solid business acumen and a strong ability to lead, these skills do not automatically garner a CEO his or her employees' trust. "Trust in institutions is no longer granted on the basis of hierarchy or title. It has to be earned," says Mr. Edelman. "To earn trust, you have to do something. It must be substantive, tangible and real. It has to be done in the context of your personal values as a leader. It must be expressed by your employees, not just by you and your executive team."

Mr. Edelman pointed to Oscar Munoz, president and CEO of United Airlines, as a prime example. After his first month on the job, Mr. Munoz acknowledged that the execution of the airline's strategy when merging with Continental Airlines has been subpar. However, he made it clear that he would do everything possible to support the company's employees to empower them to build better relationships with customers. "That level of self-awareness, personal leadership and taking on the responsibility for the change he saw was necessary to succeed has made him iconic among employees and customers," says Mr. Edelman.

3. Recognize the correlation between trust in leaders and employee engagement. Leadership connotes influence. However, Edelman's trust barometer shows the average employee is far more trusted than a CEO or a government official, creating a separation between authority and influence. It follows that employee engagement is difficult if a CEO is not trusted as a peer. Trust has to be earned by directly engaging employees in peer-to-peer discussion or town hall-like meetings. When employees feel their voice is heard and their opinions matter, they have a stake in the company and are much more likely to be engaged in work.

"When you don't talk to your kids, you have a breakdown in the family. It's the same notion that should be considered by executives," Mr. Edelman says. "When you place employees last in the order of who you talk to for substantive information, that's also a complete breakdown in trust. Smart companies are putting employee communications in a strategic advantage category."

4. Lead on public issues. A crucial part of becoming a good leader lies in the difference between gaining name awareness versus preference. It is not enough to be known among employees. To gain trust and influence, CEOs must also be likeable. While this may seem obvious, it can be difficult to establish preference from the top-down. According to Mr. Edelman, one of the best ways to do this is to share a bit about yourself and your core values. This goes beyond philanthropy. CEOs must truly champion a cause, rather than simply throw money at it.

Mr. Edelman gave the example of Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who took up the issue of teen unemployment by launching a campaign to hire 100,000 young Americans. Other notable efforts include Allstate Chairman and CEO Thomas Wilson, who has been recognized for his efforts to help victims of domestic violence and financial abuse, or Citadel Founder and CEO Ken Griffin's commitment to early childhood education by helping create a charter school in Chicago.

5. Understand the distinction between leadership and management. Leadership and management are not interchangeable terms. "[M]anagement is a skill you learn to make numbers — to satisfy shareholders and directors," Mr. Edelman says. "Leadership is a skill you learn through hard experience. It applies to a broader population: employees, communities and customers."

Mr. Edelman stressed that when managers become CEOs, they have to be prepared to graduate to a higher level of leadership. It's far from easy, but understanding the difference between the terms will lead to myriad benefits, including a more innovative business structure and a better supply chain.

Above all, leaders do exactly what Mr. Edelman emphasized throughout his presentation: They share their story. Employees follow leaders — rather than managers — because they're willing to share their story and their values.

6. Get comfortable with the media. Plain and simple, the majority of CEOs aren't fans talking to the media and reporters. "They think it's all risk and no reward," Mr. Edelman says. "They also don't like being asked the hard questions."

But answering these hard questions is important, according to Mr. Edelman. While many CEOs stay under the radar, it's time to change that. "[G]oing through the ordeal of the media is part of your job," he says. Without transparency, CEOs cannot gain trust. CEOs have to talk to the media and let their voice be heard.

In addition, frequent discussions with employees falls under the category of transparency. "It's also part of your job to have direct channels to your constituents and to have frank conversations with your employees," Mr. Edelman says.

7. Find your own ways to be authentic and have fun. Most of the general population sees CEOs through a certain lens: as a class of people. But as leaders, CEOs must strive to be seen not as a class, but as human beings. To achieve this, CEOs need to tell their story and become more authentic. One problem with CEO trust "is that no one knows who you are because you don't talk because you're afraid to talk," Mr. Edelman says. Instead, "[y]ou need to put your head over the parapet and tell people who you are, what you do and why," Mr. Edelman says.

Overall, people look for a few key attributes in CEOs, including trust, competence, ethic, transparency and decency. They're not looking for a rockstar — they simply want someone who seems real and genuine.

There is no playbook for how to be genuine — executives have to take risks and find what works for them and their teams. Mr. Edelman shared his secret tip for boosting trust: He takes a selfie with employees at every office he travels to. Sometimes he stands in front of a group of individuals, and other times he climbs a ladder to get the perfect shot. Utilizing techniques like this results in myriad benefits. "It makes you human," Mr. Edelman says.

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