After reading about Panera Bread’s CEO shopping for himself by using the SNAP food stamps program, it struck me that it was a rare story. CEOs always seem to be on stage presenting new products, on TV being vilified by the media for making too much money, or writing letters to shareholders about the latest quarter. In other words, they’re largely inaccessible. Of course, for example, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is a household name with his books and outspoken progressive policies, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he is accessible. (Don’t get me wrong, I greatly admire him.)
On the other hand, I know for a fact Panera’s CEO shopped at a local, low-cost supermarket and knew exactly what it’s like to follow a budget. Not to mention he followed the guidelines of the food stamp program.
It’s rudimentary to know a CEO is the leader of a company, but that’s not necessarily so for governments. The US has only one leader, who is both head of state and head of government. However, the UK has a friendly and mostly ceremonial head of state (currently Queen Elizabeth II) and a head of government who actually makes decisions (currently Prime Minister David Cameron).
Clearly, I’ll never recommend that a CEO be exalted like royalty, although Steve Jobs probably came close on his own. Robes and scepters aside, companies do need to correctly position their executive leadership. Panera’s CEO, with this move, is acting like a head of state: public, friendly, and for the people, but he also must act like a head of government when he’s in the office. This is the balancing act a CEO must carry out.
Companies with CEOs who are not interested in the spotlight or making themselves quite so personally open have a choice to make. If a CEO with a “head of government” personality is in charge, should the company appoint or elect someone to be “head of state”? Two CEOs probably isn’t a good idea, but perhaps the CMO or vice president should assume the public position. Companies would be wise to reflect the diversity of their customers when choosing this candidate.
It would also be important to ensure this person was more than a figurehead but less than an authoritative leader. Walking this fine line may not work for all companies, but I do think Panera’s CEO is a case study other brands shouldn’t ignore. Make your CEO, CMO, or VP a public star, and the public won’t forget you. Just ask Apple, Starbucks, or Berkshire Hathaway.