x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Colourful language at the top can paint the wrong picture

Akbar Al Baker, the chief executive of Qatar Airways, lit up this year's Dubai Airshow with a string of colourful comments, but is it confidence or misplaced arrogance?

Akbar Al Baker, the chief executive of Qatar Airways, lit up this year's Dubai Airshow with a string of colourful comments. Ben Stansall / AFP
Akbar Al Baker, the chief executive of Qatar Airways, lit up this year's Dubai Airshow with a string of colourful comments. Ben Stansall / AFP

Akbar Al Baker, the chief executive of Qatar Airways, lit up this year's Dubai Airshow with a string of colourful comments.

After a cancelling a signing ceremony for a multibillion-dollar order, he ripped into Airbus, claiming the company was "still learning how to build airplanes". The two made up just a few hours later, with Mr Al Baker confirming a US$6.4 billion (Dh23.5bn) deal.

The night before, he'd made waves at an industry awards ceremony by turning on European airlines. Mr Al Baker denigrated their complaints about state subsidies to Gulf carriers.

His musings on the planned European carbon tax for air travel have been similarly forthright (let's just say he's not a fan).

How should we react to this novel approach to corporate communications? Some say Mr Al Baker is breath of fresh air - a welcome antidote to the bland chief executive-speak we've come to expect from big business leaders.

He certainly got a hearty reception from regional aviation executives at the awards bash. Others take a dimmer view. They see his outbursts as petulant arrogance from a man emboldened by huge backing from the country with the world's highest per capita wealth, but who has yet to publish a set of audited financial accounts.

Whatever your view - and most people I speak to fall somewhere in the middle - it's clear that what the chief executive says matters. Particularly chief executives of listed companies. And given that Qatar Airways is mulling a stock market listing, both in Doha and on an international bourse, Mr Al Baker should take note.

A recent global study by FTI Consulting shows the reputation of a chief executive influences 32 per cent of all investment decisions.

He or she may have only a limited impact in getting investors to buy a company's stock; just 15 per cent of investors say they will buy on the basis of a chief executive's reputation.

But the chief executive can sure do a lot of damage. Some 39 per cent of investors said they would be prepared to sell a stock purely on the basis of the reputation of the person at the top. If and when Mr Al Baker does take Qatar Airways public, the FTI study suggests he may need to change his tune.

In recent weeks he's grabbed headlines for his comments on events and issues outside the company: a supplier (Airbus); the performance of competitors (European airlines); and international tax issues (the European carbon levy).

But when he is the head of a listed company, investors will want to hear his views on internal issues.

"New CEOs must align their organisations to respond to change by setting the vision and strategy, establishing the appropriate expectations across stakeholder groups, and then engaging with stakeholders through new and diverse communications channels," says FTI.

This may not grab as many headlines or raise as many cheers, but it's what the market wants to hear. And investors and analysts can be pretty brutal if they don't get what they want.

Take Léo Apotheker, parachuted in as the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard (HP) late last year after a stellar career with SAP. Instead of a clear vision and strategy, investors got mixed messages about his plans for tablet computers and PCs, as well as an unconvincing pledge to boost HP's services offering with a $10bn deal to buy the British software firm Autonomy.

In a single day in August, the stock fell 20 per cent, wiping $12bn off HP's market value. During his short reign, the shares fell 45 per cent. Mr Apotheker was ousted after less than a year in the job.

To be fair to Mr Al Baker, he scores well in the category that really counts: delivering results. Some 80 per cent of investors and analysts rank "execution of strategy" as the most important measure of effectiveness for a new chief executive - with only 9 per cent citing financial performance.

When Mr Al Baker took over Qatar Airways in 1997, it was a small regional carrier with four aircraft. Today, it flies to more than 100 destinations and was named airline of the year last year by Skytrax.

These achievements could be overshadowed if he's busy picking public fights with plane makers, rivals and governments - all key stakeholders with which a global listed company must engage, like it or not.

Newspaper editors and conference delegates may miss his outspoken rhetoric if he tones it down as boss of a publicly traded company. But bland chief executive-speak may be the price he pays to win over the notoriously fickle investment community.

Richard Dean hosts Tonight on Dubai Eye 103.8 FM and is the author of Sink or Swim? How to Stay Afloat in Tough Economic Times: Business Lessons from the UAE