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Inside the C-Suite: the Most Likable CEOs in America

As employees, shareholders and consumers, we've invested a lot in our corporate leadership. But do we like them?
Inside the C-Suite: the Most Likable CEOs in America
Image credit: Wikimedia

Thanks to the internet and the battalion of social media platforms it’s spurred, people now have unprecedented power to share information that holds businesses accountable.

Related: 10 Habits of Ultra-Likable Leaders

Yelp has made it so restaurants that peddle bad food and poor service can’t keep customers walking in the door. TripAdvisor helps travelers determine the right hotels and attractions to invest their hard-earned money in, for their next vacation. Angie’s List alleviates the stress of finding a reliable service provider for our home repairs, health and pet care.

And, when it comes to the corporate C-suite, this same level of transparency is just as, if not more, important.

As a CEO -- the person responsible for employees’ livelihoods and the company's success at meeting revenue goals and earnings targets -- public perception matters. In an era when executives are subject to regulatory scrutiny, performance-based compensation and the potential for their mistakes and innovations alike to go viral in minutes, it’s important to know how our industry leaders measure up.

The National CEO Likeability Study, aimed to do exactly that. This new report serves to provide a true market view of CEO ratings based on over a quarter million inputs from community members of Owler, the business professionals platform. The study breaks down the country’s most-liked CEOs by industry and city, across public and private organizations.

What we found

Here's a shocker: The leaders of Silicon Valley darlings like Facebook and Google don’t even crack the top 10 of best-liked public CEOs. Instead, the upper echelon of popular public company CEOs includes a balance of B2C and B2B names across various sectors.

Costco’s Craig Jelinek and Marriott’s Arne Sorenson took the top two spots, while Capital One’s Richard Fairbank, Graybar’s Kathleen Mazzarella and Hyatt’s Mark Hoplamazian rounded out the favorites list. Notably absent from the top 10 were familiar tech leaders, including Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai and Jeff Bezos.

The study also found that public company CEOs’ average rating was slightly lower than that for CEOs of private organizations. This difference could be attributed to the pressure on public executives to hit earnings numbers, limiting the time they put into building goodwill with employees and customers.

Music City Nashville and the Midwest have the highest concentration of beloved CEOs. Quantity apparently doesn’t always mean quality. Surprisingly, bustling corporate hubs like Los Angeles and Chicago aren’t home to the greatest volume of most liked leaders. Instead, Nashville comes in with the highest average CEO likeability score, followed by Miami, Columbus, Kansas City and Minneapolis. Although New York just made the top-10 cut (ranking ninth), tech industry epicenters like San Francisco and Silicon Valley came in at 23rd and 26th, respectively.

Related: Why Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes Should Be Banned

What's more, the marketing/ creative agency sector trumped tech and airlines in CEO appreciation. When it comes to executive leadership likability, not all industries are created equal. Marketing and creative agencies, automotive, insurance, travel and artificial intelligence are the top five sectors where you’re most likely to find great CEOs.

Out of 25 total industries, tech made the 16th spot, with on-demand economy, SaaS and airline organizations filling out the bottom three.

Echoing the industry rankings, the short-list of most disliked CEOs included a handful of major tech and airline leaders. HP’s Dion Weisler, HPE’s Meg Whitman and (now former) Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer were three of the lowest-rated public company CEOs, attaining just under one-third of the average scores of Costco and Marriott’s chief executives.

Given the airline industry’s recent string of widely publicized customer service incidents, it came  as little surprise to the study's researchers that American Airlines’ Doug Parker, Southwest’s Gary Kelly and United’s Oscar Munoz earned some of the lowest likability scores.

Men and women

When it came to gender differences, more attention, apparently, doesn’t translate to higher approval ratings for women CEOs of public companies. Reaffirming the fact that the corner office is still predominantly male territory, only 5 percent of the public companies we analyzed had women in the chief executive spot.

Despite that imbalance, women CEOs of public organizations received 58 percent more feedback from the market than their male counterparts. But this added attention didn't necessarily mean a more positive perception: Women CEOs at public companies earned an average approval rating of 62.5, compared to 67.1 for men.

Ultimately, the lack of female CEOs in public companies has made it so individual performance holds greater influence over perceptions of female leadership. Low ratings for leaders embroiled in PR disasters -- like Marissa Mayer or Mylan’s Heather Bresch -- could have an outsized impact on the broader sentiment toward female CEOs.

Before Twitter, Facebook and the 24/7 news cycle, even the most unsavory CEO behavior could go unnoticed. While research like the National CEO Likeability Study doesn’t define what makes a business leader truly “good” or “bad,” it does illuminate who’s getting it right – and where there’s room for reflection and improvement.

Related: Marissa Mayer Has Resigned Now That Verizon Purchased Yahoo. Read Her Farewell Letter.

As employees, shareholders and consumers, we have a lot invested in our corporate leadership, be it tangible dollars or invaluable trust. The more transparency we have into CEO performance, the easier it is for us to measure these cmpanies' returns.