If someone asked you to name the top-performing CEO in the world, chances are the name Lars Rebien Sørensen wouldn’t pass your lips. Sørensen, who has since stepped down, topped the Harvard Business Review’s 2015 and 2016 lists of the best performing CEOs in the world.
HBR considered both a company’s financial performance, and its environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance to provide a well-rounded picture. But if you bring up Sørensen’s name in casual conversation, you’re not likely to get much of a reaction.
On the other hand, Zuckerberg, Musk, and Jobs have become household names. We know that Facebook’s CEO wears the same shirt every day to eliminate “frivolous” decision-making. Robert Downey Jr. reportedly modeled his portrayal of Iron Man on the Tesla and SpaceX founder.
And Apple’s late founder and creative genius? Well, he’s reached near-mythical status.
So how do some CEOs achieve fame while others lead successful, but private lives as the top dog?
1. Staggering Net Worth
Let’s get the easiest one out of the way. Sometimes, CEOs become household names because they also happen to be wildly wealthy. If you wind up on enough lists of the world’s richest people, the public is bound to remember your name – especially when there’s a number with many digits right after it.
So it’s no surprise that some of the world’s most well-known CEOs and former CEOs (Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos) happen to be in the top ten of Forbes’s list of the world’s richest people.
2. Revolutionizing an Industry and Establishing “The Essential”
Bill Gates built his fortune and legacy by founding a company that revolutionized an industry by bringing computers into the homes of everyday people. He managed to successfully execute the sale of personal computers and software in a way that Apple (and Xerox before it) didn’t. Today, we tend to take for granted the availability of personal computers, which in part explains why Gates is so rich and famous. Microsoft introduced something that became essential, and Gates’s name is now synonymous with it.
It’s this same mentality that drives Mark Zuckerberg, and as a result, Facebook. The social media company is not focused on being the sexiest, coolest social networking site, but on making Facebook an essential service. Facebook eased people who were hesitant about the internet onto the web, and now we connect, communicate, and even authenticate online with the platform.
3. A Strong Personality and Clear Vision
The words that come to mind when people think of CEOs like Elon Musk are bold, persistent, ambitious. And that’s only to be expected if you’re charging forward to revolutionize multiple industries and colonize Mars on an optimistic timeline. So it’s no wonder that Musk has become a household name, considered a crazy man by some and a visionary by others.
The same can be said for Steve Jobs whose death led to the kind of public grieving one doesn’t usually see for CEOs or product developers. Jobs had a clear vision for what products should not only do but what they should look like as well. This translated to a phenomenal experience for users that arguably turned Apple into a cult. Researchers found that the ability of Apple products to meet certain psychological needs may have fed into the number of grief consumers felt around Jobs’s death.
There’s a Difference Between a Great CEO and a Famous CEO
Of course, a famous CEO isn’t necessarily a great CEO. You could come up with an amazing product or service, gain some fame, make your fortune, and still not be the right person to lead a company. Famous, but successful, CEOs with stories and personalities ripe for Hollywood blockbusters usually have the technical knowledge, leadership skills, and business acumen to back the hype up.
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