This year has been a tough one for everyone to navigate, including business leaders: The economic climate has been volatile, disruptive technologies have burst onto the scene and difficult post-pandemic conversations have continued around topics like remote work. Yet, despite these challenges—or, often, because of them—some executives have built stronger reputations in 2023.
How have they done it? Signal AI’s cutting-edge AIQ technology, which applies artificial intelligence to take in and make sense of over 5 million pieces of news and social content each day, reveals that executives have earned more positive sentiment and gained a greater share of voice by addressing a handful of timely topics. Specifically, reputation has been fueled by five key drivers in 2023: innovation, artificial intelligence, growth, sustainable manufacturing and the future of the workplace.
Innovation: The engine powering exec reputation in 2023
Compared with the other core pillars of executive reputation—purpose and performance—innovation delivered a significantly better combination of share of voice and sentiment in the first half of 2023. Put simply, it has been the engine powering the reputations of some of the highest profile business leaders this year.
And while there have been many notable innovations in 2023, none has come close to AI in terms of attracting attention. Following the public release of ChatGPT at the end of last year, generative AI has permeated the zeitgeist and forced businesses to adapt. As consultancy McKinsey put it, the technology has rapidly “captured the imagination of people around the world” and “could unlock trillions of dollars in value across sectors” in the years to come.
The centrality of AI can be seen in the fact that the top three executives associated with innovation are all Big Tech leaders: Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft; Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google; and Andy Jassy, CEO of Amazon.
Artificial intelligence: Different leaders, different paths
Artificial intelligence has had a huge impact on the reputations of Nadella, Pichai and Jassy, boosting their combined positive sentiment by more than a third in 2023. That they’ve all been intently focused on the technology isn’t surprising, given the AI gold rush. However, the three leaders have set themselves apart by navigating the boom in very different ways, highlighting that innovation is often defined by being willing to do things differently.
Nadella drove the conversation early on by embracing generative AI from the start and evangelizing the technology. Under his direction, Microsoft has made a massive $13 billion dollar investment in OpenAI (the developer of ChatGPT) and quickly integrated generative AI across its suite of products.
Pichai has been more measured, cautioning that Google is “approaching [AI] innovation responsibly.” This meant taking reputational hits at the start of the year as the company focused on quality control, before being rewarded with praise as it rolled out AI integrations. Jassy has gone even further, declaring that while Microsoft and Google are engaged in an “hype cycle,” Amazon is in a “substance cycle” in which it is focused on positioning itself to be a major player across the entire AI supply chain.
Growth: Navigating post-pandemic expectations
The COVID-19 pandemic affected different sectors in profoundly different ways, with some industries soaring and others plummeting. This created higher and lower baseline expectations that many executives are still grappling with. Given that, it’s not surprising that the three leaders who’ve seen the biggest jumps in reputation in 2023 have all focused on growth.
For Pfizer CEO Albert Bouria, the question has been how to maintain the momentum the company built during the pandemic. To do so, he’s created a sense of urgency—calling this the “the most important 18 months in the history of Pfizer”—and aggressively sought growth through acquisitions. Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH, has had the opposite experience: Following a precipitous drop in demand during the pandemic, business has surged and he’s ridden the wave to become the richest (or sometimes second-richest) person in the world.
Meta head Mark Zuckerberg has experienced the full range of highs and lows over the past few years: A pandemic-driven swell in advertising and stock price was followed by a rapid ebb, and his pivot to the metaverse went far from smoothly. Now, he’s skillfully positioned the company for growth by revisiting its costs and strategy in 2023: As part of his “Year of Efficiency,” he’s cut headcount, shifted focus to AI, streamlined processes and stabilized ad revenue.
Sustainable manufacturing: Goodbye greenwashing, hello substance
Although the term “sustainability” has been in vogue for a while, its use by executives has often been more style than substance. Now, that may be changing. As The Atlantic notes, after years of “meaningless humbug” the world “is finally cracking down on ‘greenwashing’,” with leaders increasingly facing pressure to disclose clear goals and outline how they actually plan to achieve them.
This has spurred some notable execs to take a hard look at their manufacturing processes. Tim Cook has been one of the most visible, with the Apple CEO championing a continual environmental review of everything the company does, from how it works with suppliers to the materials it uses in its products.
In the auto sector, GM head Mary Barra has stated that sustainability must become “core to our operations” and Jim Farley of Ford has declared that environmental focus must encompass “modernizing and decarbonizing” the industrial system. Elon Musk has taken things to the next level (as he tends to do), with Tesla releasing a master plan to achieve sustainability for the entire global economy.
The workplace: Hard conversations about the state of work
Share of voice for conversations about the workplace increased in the first half of the year, highlighting that this continues to be a hot-button topic. However, the nature of the discussion has changed: Whereas layoffs were front and center in late 2022 and early 2023, the focus is increasingly on how work is structured and rewarded.
The conversation around the state of the workplace has been far ranging, covering everything from how to better upskill workers to the benefits of pay transparency. The major flash point has been remote/hybrid work, with many employees saying they still value being able to work from home and many employers pushing for more time spent in the office.
A number of the business leaders who’ve seen big reputational gains in 2023 have been at the heart of this debate, including Andy Jassy, Mark Zuckerburg and Tim Cook. Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase has been particularly vocal, saying that “pandering to employees” shouldn’t drive work-from-home decisions. While this combativeness hasn’t always resonated (especially with his workforce), it showcases that hard conversations are often part of reputation building.
To learn more about the factors that drove reputation in 2023, check out the Signal AI 500, a global reputation ranking of some of the world’s most prominent companies.