By Gloria Lombardi

Leading.2The theme, Leading in the Age of Transparency, explores how the digital world blurs the lines between internal and external communications. With the rise of social media, leaders cannot control the reputation of their business as they might have in the past; tactics have to change.

To explore the issue in detail, Ketchum Change has studied consumer perceptions of leadership in organisations over the last five years. Kieran Colville, Director at Ketchum Change, presents some headlines from the study in the Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor, which goes out once a year to 25,000 consumers around the world and covers 22 industries. This comprehensive study shows a link between the way leaders engage employees and the impact on the consumer experience – essentially, whether consumers buy more or less from an organisation because of their leadership.

Breaking through persistent barriers to leadership

The Leadership Communication Monitor considers two fundamental questions: What do people think of leaders as communicators and role models? And, what can leaders do to build more trust?

A consistent trend emerges from the survey: Less than 25% of people believe that leaders are effective. In 2016, only 31% of respondents say leaders are communicating effectively, and just 17% have more confidence in leaders for 2017.

“That is having a damaging impact on the bottom line,” Colville points out, “65% of people said that they stopped purchasing or purchased less based upon negative leadership behaviour over the last year.”

There is an interesting trend across different industries. Typically some sectors seem more effective in terms of their leadership – for example, technology, tourism, and hospitality. Some industries seem less effective, including oil, gas, and banking – generally, there are some endemic issues in those industries that impact on consumers’ perceptions and bias.


So, what is it that people are expecting from leaders? What do consumers ultimately want?

officeIt is not about the person in the corner office, the senior leaders of a business, it’s about everybody in the organisation. When the survey asked, ‘What determines whether you buy more from an organisation?’, the third most popular answer was ‘Employees who I know’. The ‘senior management’ answer came in at 13. “People are not necessarily looking for strong leadership just from the CEO and senior management,” explains Colville, “they are looking for strong leadership across the whole organisation.”

This idea of the employee as a brand ambassador, who can communicate the vision and mission of the organisation and who can represent the brand, is captured in the notion of titleless leadership. It is a concept that many leaders understand – they need front-line employees who are empowered ambassadors who engage consumers in conversation every day – this has been a standard practice for at least the past ten years. Yet, Colville likes to remind us that, in this age of transparency, it is about how the single individual is engaged and aligned.

employeeEmployees increasingly have access to social media before, during, and after work – and will, perhaps unconsciously, represent the organisation in some shape or form. “Even without thinking about it, they will blend their personal and professional life.” The influence employees have is not tied to a customer facing role, but potentially influential across time zones and geography.

As well as being influential, employees are influenced by social media, as Colvill explains, “Employees often hear of things that are going on in the organisation not from the leaders of the organisation, but from the media and external parties. They need to be armed with the ability to separate the myth from the fact; to see the truth while being able to represent the organisation in a believable and authentic way.”

Top attributes people seek in individual leaders

The study looks at what leaders can do to ultimately get employees engaged and aligned with company values and goals. Five attributes stand out: leading by example (70%), communicating in an open and transparent way (68%), admitting mistakes (66%), handling issues and crises calmly and confidently (66%), and making tough decisions (65%).

As Colville puts it: “Leaders who foster co-creation, who walk the talk, who face up to crises and confront the brutal truth.”

The study also looks at gender differences. Female leaders are reported to be better at leading by example, communicating in an open and transparent way, and admitting mistakes. Male leaders scored higher in handling issues and crises calmly and confidently, and making tough decisions. Now, there is room for debate on whether or not we feel those results represent the actual behaviour or merely perceptions. But, as Colville says, the data could be used “to adopt a more balanced leadership style.”


The Liquid Change approach

Building on the levels of leadership effectiveness explored in the study, Ketchum Change has developed the Liquid Change model, a measurable framework that identifies four essential behaviors for leadership success in changing environments.

Transparent: communicating with clarity and authenticity. “This is a capability associated with creating openness and encouraging openness in others,” says Colville.

“Aligning different people from different businesses and areas around a common goal. Creating a compelling vision and communicating it in an engaging way.”

Pioneering: promoting curiosity and supporting risk-taking. “Pioneering is about break-through thinking. Innovation. Continuous improvement and measurement as well as developing capabilities and talent in the organisation.”

Dialled-in: creating strong connections and foster co-creation. “It is about listening to the marketplace, understanding the themes and trends that are coming through and then being able to use that information to create strong networks and alliances.”

Agile: driving forward and seizing opportunities in real time. “Agile is about looking at multiple, different strategies. Always staying ahead of the curve. Getting through bureaucracy, and coming up with an overarching plan that takes the pros and cons from different components.”


As they developed their Liquid Change model, Ketchum Change created the Liquid Change web app – a smart and simple way to help leaders with their personal and team development in regard to critical business change. The app can be used individually for leaders to assess themselves or their teams against the Liquid Change model; and individual scores can be combined into a team profile to help with team development.  It is in English only, and available on desktop or mobile.

Access the app at for insights and practical action suggestions.