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Author: Liz Olech

With unemployment at its lowest in eight years and 73 percent of CEOs reporting concern about the availability of key skills, the war for talent rages on.

To attract the best and brightest minds, organizations need a strong employer brand — but crafting one isn’t as simple as it once was. Long gone are the days when it was up to one talent acquisition specialist to compose an employee value proposition and steer the brand. In 2016 and beyond, a strong employer brand will become an increasingly important C-level priority. Based on the findings of Universum’s 2020 Outlook report, which surveyed 2,000 senior executives, it’s clear that employer branding does not just lie with HR: 60 percent of the CEOs surveyed said the responsibility belongs with the CEO, and 40 percent of marketing leaders agreed.

Senior leadership is now more responsible than ever to attract and retain top talent. What’s more, it’s clear that this generation is looking for guidance from the top. According to Universum’s global 2015 survey on millennial career preferences, the vast majority of students (nearly 70 percent) prioritize becoming leaders in their future careers. In North America, respondents cited opportunities to influence the organization as the number one most attractive component of a leadership role. Clearly, making their mark on an organization is important to the next generation of talent.

CEOs are the faces of the brand

Company leaders set the standard of what it's like to work at their Organization. “When you become a CEO, you become a sort of famous person,” says Larry Johnson, a corporate culture expert. “Whether you like it or not, there are many dinnertime conversations about you. You become a leader, and you have to practice what you preach.”

In recent years, many of the world’s most successful companies have been synonymous with their famous leaders. Apple and Steve Jobs. Tesla and Elon Musk. Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. The list goes on and on. But what is it about famous CEOs that gives their brands such a boost?

At the core of a good employer brand is a CEO who understands that employees are the company’s greatest asset. Johnson recalls a part of The Living Company, written by a former Shell executive about what makes a company last over time: “He found that many of the oldest companies viewed their employees not as resources but as assets. He compared it to a freight ship: You can look at the cargo as your asset and the sailors as your resources, or the other way around. The companies that last the longest tend to treat their sailors, or employees, as their asset.”

How CEOs lead by example to boost their organizations' brands:

They prioritize employees

We’ll start with the most obvious example: Google, which has topped students’ lists of most desired workplaces for years. Google’s former CEO (and current CEO of its parent company, Alphabet), Larry Page, has been quoted in Fortune magazine saying, “My job as a leader is to make sure everybody in the company has great opportunities, and that they feel they're having a meaningful impact and are contributing to the good of society.”

They’re transparent

One CEO who exemplifies transparency in the workplace is Zappos leader Tony Hsieh. Hsieh was one of the first CEOs to jump on the social media bandwagon, and regularly posts about the inner workings of his company. His enthusiasm for social openness extends to employees: Once onboarded, all Zappos employees are encouraged to tweet about what they’re working on and share resources that customers may find helpful. Hsieh’s tweets give great insight about what it’s like to work at Zappos (and in turn, with him): He shares employee emails he’s sent, riddles created by the Zappos team, and live streams of their company meetings.

But transparency is not all about social openness. When Zappos transitioned to a radical self-management system, Hsieh was up-front about the change, and gave employees the option to accept the new work style, or take a severance package. He lost 18 percent of Zappos's workforce. "We could've just as easily not given any offer and then just said, 'This is what we're doing,' but we've always prioritized company culture and how we treat employees," Hsieh told Business Insider. And despite the exodus, Zappos's reputation as a quirky and fair employer allowed the company to rebound quickly: One year later, they were back to about 1,500 employees.

They inspire innovation and a sense of purpose.

At the end of the day, many employees feel fulfilled when they’re working on important, creative projects.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been coined the “space cowboy” of tech for good reason: Besides leading the electric car company, he’s been at the helm of innovative organizations such as PayPal and SpaceX, and is known for his futuristic ideas, such as the Hyperloop, OpenAI, and SolarCity. He inspires excellence in his employees, even after failed missions like the Falcon 1 rocket launch. One former SpaceX employee recalled that because of Musk, the failure went from despair to renewed determination in five seconds. Musk’s commitment to meaningful, thought-provoking work attracts the brightest minds in the industry — Tesla shot to Universum’s top five employers for U.S. engineering students in 2015 and 2016.

"You have to have a very compelling goal for the company,” Musk told Business Insider. “If you put yourself in the shoes of someone who's talented at a world level, they have to believe that there’s potential for a great outcome and believe in the leader of the company, that you’re the right guy to work with. That can be a difficult thing, especially if you’re trying to attract people from other companies."

Leading the next generation of the workforce

A company’s inspiring purpose was the number one most sought-after attribute by undergraduate students this year, according to Universum’s Talent Survey. This generation wants to work for something greater than itself. When it comes to inspiring a workforce, strong leaders who act as the face of the brand will attract like-minded and motivated individuals. Leaders who value and empower these employees will be better positioned to attract, and retain, top talent to positively shape the future of their organization.

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