Our take: Executive & CEO positioning

Executive Positioning: This Big Mistake Catches Most CEOs Out

Many companies are starting to leverage executive positioning & CEO positioning – but how do you make sure that your profiling campaign is successful, and what can go wrong?

Executive positioning and CEO profiling is a powerful tool. When used effectively, it can support the growth of a business – and also accelerate the careers of the executives at its helm.

But if it's used badly. Yikes. It can go badly wrong. Not only for the company, but for the executives too.

CEO positioning as a new trend

Executive profiling has been in vogue over the last 12 to 24 months. And for very good reason. Many companies (and other organisations, in fact) are starting to recognise that people connect with... well... people.

So, if you're a company and you want to attract new recruits, or new customers, or new investors it's a very good idea to put your leadership team front and centre in your communications activity.

It gives your organisation a more human, more personal face.

And, that's what good executive positioning is all about: putting a human face (or faces) on your business, with a view to connecting with audiences – to either raise awareness of your business or change perceptions of your brand.

It is also, of course, about positioning executives themselves for success. More on that later.

Many companies have simply jumped on the 'executive positioning' bandwagon, without any understanding of how to do it right.

Jordan Greenaway

But as with (almost) all new techniques, many companies have simply jumped on the 'executive positioning' bandwagon, without a proper strategy, without any understanding of how to do it right, and without knowing how to navigate the pitfalls.

And, then, they're sorely disappointed in the results.

That's a damned shame because I think all companies – big and small, public and private, start-up and corporate – can benefit from executive positioning in really quite dramatic ways.

So, with that in mind, what's the biggest mistake I see?

Undoubtedly, it's the mistake of thinking it's possible to 'position' or 'profile' your executives effectively without them actually saying anything concrete.

This is what I call the mistake of staying at 40,000 feet.

What actually is CEO positioning?

But, before we look at that mistake in more detail, let's take a step back: just what is CEO and executive profiling?

Well, that's easy enough.

Executive positioning is the process of positioning your senior leadership team or an individual member, such as the CEO, in a certain way in the minds of your most important audiences.

For example, imagine that you're an exciting, innovative, disruptive start-up. You might (understandably) care how investors perceive your business and brand. You want them to invest in your next funding round, preferably at a nice valuation.

In that case, you might put in place a strategy to position your founder, CTO, and other senior leaders and CxOs as innovative, fast-moving, experimental people – who aren't afraid to take big risks.

Hang on. Don't all executives want to be positioned like this?

No. Not necessary. Let's look at another example.

This time, imagine that you're a 200-year-old investment bank. You're based in a historic office with lush red carpets and mahogany furniture. You might (again understandably) care how potential customers perceive your business. You want them to give you their money to manage, preferably a lot of it.

In that case, you might put in place a strategy to position your CEO, CIO and other senior leaders and CxOs as serious, thoughtful, considered people – who are always trying to manage and avert risks.

That executive positioning is almost the complete opposite to that of the brash start-up.

Setting your executive positioning strategy

That's a long way of saying: Different executive positioning strategies are required for different businesses. It’s not possible to find and execute a ‘cookie cutter’ solution – a one-size-fits-all executive positioning programme, so to speak.

Executive positioning is the process of thinking through how you want to present your senior leadership team to the world.

Jordan Greenaway

So, as you start to think about your executive positioning strategy, the first thing you should ask yourself is: where does my business and its executive team fall on this spectrum?

Which adjectives feel the most relevant and natural to the executive that you're seeking to position? And, perhaps more importantly, which adjectives would appeal most to the audience that you want to target?

You might want to pass your eyes over this list of (definitely not exhaustive) words:

  • Adventurous

  • Bold

  • Caring

  • Compassionate

  • Creative

  • Decisive

  • Energetic

  • Established

  • Experienced

  • Fierce

  • Imaginative

  • Logical

  • Modern

  • Precise

  • Reliable

  • Serious

  • Spontaneous

  • Stable

  • Understated

Write down the words that jump out to you most. Look them up in a thesaurus. Find more words that sound even closer to what you're thinking. Keep going until you find 5-10 words that feel like a perfect fit.

Repeat this process for other members of the executive team. Different executives will probably need slightly different positioning. You might want your CEO to come across as a visionary, while you might want your CFO to come across as pragmatic and grounded.

There might be a few adjectives that apply to all members of your executive team. This will usually indicate what sets your company apart. Brainstorm. Sleep on it. Keep going until you're happy.

Taken together, then, executive positioning is the process of thinking through how you want to present your senior leadership team to the world (serious vs. funky vs. experimental vs. 'a safe pair of hands') – and seeing those executives as part of the 'outwards-facing' communications strategy for your business.

Turning that into an executive positioning plan

The information above is all very theoretical and strategic. Which begs the question: how do you move beyond a bunch of adjectives on a sheet of white paper? How do you actually start to position an executive effectively?

Well, you need to move beyond executive positioning strategy – and start building an executive positioning plan.

An executive positioning plan can end up getting complicated, with multiple different moving parts, stages, phases, and elements. But, at its most basic, an executive positioning plan will have two core parts.

  • Content creation plan: A plan to translate your positioning (i.e., the adjectives) into tangible content. This content will actually do the job of positioning your executives in the right way.

  • Content distribution plan: A plan that specifies how you get this new content into the hands of your most important, relevant, target audiences.

In essence, then, here's how executive profiling works:

  • You determine how you want your leadership to be positioned (positioning phase).

  • Next, you start creating lots of content to position them in just that way (content creation phase).

  • And, then, you get that content into the hands of your audience (content distribution phase).

That's it. I think there's a temptation among PR, communications, and executive profiling agencies to over-complicate this process (and make it seem mystical), but actually the process is fairly simple and easy to understand at its most basic.

Execution is difficult, of course, but understanding what we're actually doing is pretty easy. Don't over-complicate it.

How to create and distribute content for executive positioning

Before digging into further detail, I should add that when it comes to the content creation stage, there are lots of different forms (and types) of content that you might want to produce.

For example, if you want to position your founder as an 'innovative' leader, you might want to get them to write an article about how start-ups can be more innovative. This is a pretty bad example, but hopefully you get the idea.

Here's an (incomplete) list of all the content that you might want to consider creating:

  • Short videos for social media

  • Long videos for elsewhere

  • Blog posts

  • Op-eds or comments articles

  • Press releases

  • Whitepapers

  • Interviews

  • Social media posts

  • Surveys or research papers

  • Podcasts

  • Photographs

And when it comes to the content distribution phase, again, there are lots of ways to get this content out into the world.

Again, here's an (incomplete) list of ways to get this content into the hands of your target audience:

  • Social media advertising

  • Newspaper advertising

  • Podcast advertising

  • PR & media engagement

  • Email newsletters

  • Native content

  • Events

  • SEO

  • Organic social media, especially on LinkedIn

Some of these distribution channels are paid (like advertising) and some of these are free (like organic social media). Usually, you’ll need a good blend of both.

Hang on. Does CEO positioning add value?

If you've got this far, you might be starting to worry that this executive positioning business sounds like a lot of hard work. (It is.)

So, does it actually work? Does it actually add value to a company? Is it worth the time investment?

In fact, one concern I hear a lot is: Isn't this all about the executives' egos? Wouldn't it be better to just focus on marketing the business brand itself?

Executive positioning is the most powerful way to drive growth, connect with customers, attract new hires, and raise investment.

Jordan Greenaway

No. Definitely not.

Of course, any marketing and communications strategy needs to use a blend of different techniques: not only executive positioning, but brand and corporate communications as well. Executive profiling isn't a (total) replacement for conventional communications, but a very powerful additional tool.

But, that said, executive profiling is (in my humble opinion) the most powerful way to drive growth, connect with customers, attract new hires, and raise investment.

Why? Because audiences are much more likely to listen to a message ("Hi, we're a great company!") if it's in the voice of an executive rather than a company.

Let's do a thought experiment.

Imagine that you're scrolling through LinkedIn (or leafing through a newspaper, if you prefer): are you more likely to stop to read a post on Coca-Cola's corporate LinkedIn account, or a post on the CEO's personal LinkedIn account?

If you said the latter, then you're like the vast, vast majority of the public. (If you said the former, you're in a tiny minority.) For some reason, content is more engaging, interesting, and enticing when it's published in the name of an individual with a face attached.

This isn't just instinct. There is strong academic research to back this up too.

As humans, we like listening to people. And, we don't like listening to brands so much.

In other words: executive positioning is one of the most powerful and effective ways to raise the profile of a company (and connect with a target audience) quickly. People notice the content of executives more than the content of companies.

It helps with brand positioning too

But there's a secondary benefit too. Executive positioning is also a very powerful way to reposition a company. If you want a company to come across as serious and conservative, then the best way to do that is to position your executives as serious and conservative.

This shouldn't be too surprising: ultimately, a company is just composed of a lot of individuals. So, surely, the only way a company can have certain traits is for a company's team members to exhibit those same traits.

In short: the positioning of your executives provides a 'halo effect' over the wider business, making your audience think in new ways about your company.

Of course, I should add that this whole process is very valuable for the executive (or executives) as well. It gives them credibility, gravitas, and positions them for personal success.

Don't dwell too hard on positioning strategy

This, then, brings us the most common mistakes, pitfalls, or challenges I see when watching people (and communications teams) pull together executive positioning campaigns.

First, some myth busting: most people think that the most difficult stage is defining the positioning in the first place.

You hear communications teams getting incredibly anxious about this stage, and saying stuff like: "How can I know that I'm positioning our leadership in the right way? Should we pick 'innovative'? Should we pick 'serious'? What if we make a mistake?" Etc, etc.

If you want to position your executive in a certain way, they need to say something that a different type of executive would not say.

Jordan Greenaway

There is no doubt that this is a real challenge, but usually I find that teams invest a huge amount of energy, time, and cognitive resource in this stage. They know it's difficult, so they spend a lot of time on it.

The senior leadership and communications teams get around the whiteboard, brainstorm, and game plan different adjectives and traits. Of course, you might not end up finding exactly the right positioning, but I find that most teams get it (very) roughly right.

Most teams are good at identifying the rough direction in which they want to position their executives. And, honestly, that's usually enough to get started and have an impact.

Look, this isn't an exact science – and as long as you know the rough direction, that's enough. Don't overthink it.

The mistake of staying at 40,000 Feet

No, the big problem comes at the next stage.

Teams spend hours, days, and, even, weeks(!) putting a list of adjectives against different senior leadership team members' names... and then end up churning out the most generic, platitudinous, and agreeable content I have ever read.

You. Do. Not. Want. Agreeable. Content.

Let me repeat that: You do not want agreeable content.

What do I mean by agreeable content? I mean content that any executive would be willing to put their name against.

Here's the rub: if you want to position your executive in a certain way, they need to say something that a different type of executive would not say.

Let's take an example.

You've decided you want to position your CEO as innovative and future-orientated. Great. So, you decide to start churning out content with the message: "Technology is important" or "We think a lot about data".

You start writing blog posts for the executive about the importance of technology. You get the executive on camera talking about the importance of technology. You even get them to post on LinkedIn about the importance of technology.

Now your executive is positioned as innovative, right?


This is agreeable content. Every CEO would say that technology is important. Literally every CEO.

Even a CEO in the most non-innovative industry (packaging, perhaps? Maybe I'm being unfair to packaging?) would say that technology is important. It doesn't make your CEO sound innovative. They're not saying anything that another CEO wouldn't say.

If anything, the observation is so generic and agreeable that it may, in fact, backfire – and make your CEO sound the opposite of innovative.

The problem comes from the fact that the content is much, much too high level. It is not specific enough. It sounds like your CEO is in a plane at 40,000 feet, pointing out the rough shapes of things that everyone can see.

Executives might be able to fly above the business. But if you want to position them effectively, they need to talk about day-to-day issues in a concrete, tangible, and declarative way.

CEO positioning requires you to really get in the weeds

No, effective executive profiling requires you to create executive content that is concrete, tangible, and – dare I say – disagreeable.

Let's go back to the example of the CEO above.

What about if they said: "Every company should invest at least 30% of their revenue in R&D and academic partnerships." That's much better.

You're no longer in the clouds. That's much more specific, tangible, and concrete. It's also something that another executive might disagree with – and that's a good thing.

It's a good thing because it showcases how your CEO is different, and not just following the crowd.

It helps the audience think stuff like: "Wow! The CEO of another company wouldn't have said that." It helps your audience position your executives on an axis between innovative and pragmatic.

Of course, another CEO may pursue a positioning strategy that is the total opposite.

They might say: "We don't invest in innovation. We have a product that has existed in the same form for the last 100 years. We just focus all our energy on getting it to our customers at a low price."

That's fair enough!

There's no point in pushing out content with bland messaging because it doesn't move the dial at all on your leaders' executive positioning

Jordan Greenaway

Look, don't get me wrong, I can see why senior management and communications teams end up pushing out very high-level, agreeable content. It's easier and it's more comfortable.

The discussion usually goes like this: "Hey, we want to position our executives in a powerful way... but it's all a bit risky to get them to actually say anything... so, can we just get them to say generic stuff."

Or, to put it another way: it's easier to get sign-off for content that says something like "Tech is great" rather than "We need to invest 30% of revenue in tech".

But, ultimately, there's no point in pushing out content with bland messaging because it doesn't move the dial at all on your leaders' executive positioning.

If everyone can say it, then it simply doesn't succeed in strategically positioning your executives.

Or, actually, it does position them: it positions them as a generic, amorphous executive who is prone to platitudinous management-speak. And you don't want that.

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What is executive profiling?

Executive profiling, or CEO profiling, is the process of building the profile of an executive or a wider executive team through a blend of media coverage, social media activity, and multimedia content. This is usually done as a means of securing coverage for a company or supporting executives in their professional aspirations.

Why is executive profiling important?

Executive profiling is a very powerful way to support the growth of a company or organisation. In fact, independent research has shown that organisations with well-known, well-recognised leadership teams grow faster, hire better talent, secure more investment, and even command higher valuations.

How does executive profiling work?

An executive profiling campaign will usually involve creating a blend of content in the executive's name and, then, getting this content into the hands of the executive's target audience. The content will usually take the form of written, video, or social media content, and it will be distributed through a blend of public relations, organic social media, and paid advertising.

How much does executive profiling cost?

Building the profile of an executive will usually take at least 6 months to start delivering consistent, strong results. The price for such a campaign will vary depending on the scope and intensity of the campaign, and campaigns at Profile start from £4,500 per month.

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