CEOs and Apologies—Why and How to Say You’re Sorry

From late Apple CEO Steve Jobs and current Apple CEO Tim Cook, to General Motors CEO Mary Barra and BP CEO Tony Hayward, many CEOs have apologized for a myriad of incidents and personal gaffes over the past few years. And while it may not seem the case at first blush, CEO apologies do more than help to save face with shareholders and the public; they benefit companies—and their leaders.

GettyImages-462905137-compressorApologies from the CEO can strengthen organizations by encouraging managers, too, to “admit when they’ve made mistakes and make every effort to right them,” rather than blame others and/or sweep things under the rug, doing more harm in the long run, according to the Ivey Business Journal.

Apologizing can also be a powerful tool for leaders—actually increasing legitimacy and, when practiced regularly, helping to “build a culture that actually increases solidarity, innovation, openness to change and many other positive features of organizational life,” Forbes said.

Moreover, openness to the idea of “being wrong” and apologizing for it makes leaders more creative and innovative, spurring them to take more risks, explore more paths with unknown outcomes, and, in turn, build better organizations, reported Kathryn Schulz in her book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.

“Some companies are good at reinvesting in employees, but it’s about helping them become better employees.”

However, apologizing won’t have these effects unless it’s done correctly. The longer you take to admit your mistake (or your company’s), the more likely anyone to whom you’re apologizing will turn a deaf ear. “Business leaders need to understand that if, in the end, it is going to be disclosed that they have erred, it’s better to own up as quickly as possible to have a hand in making repairs,” the IBJ said.

A CEO’s apology should be:

1. Unconditional and excuse-free. No CEO-issued apology should include the word “but” or any verbiage that attempts to justify the occurrence or situation that merited it, according to an advisory by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Any apology that does will be considered insincere.

2. Personal. CEOs must demonstrate that they take the problem for which they are apologizing quite seriously, and that they realize “the buck stops at the top,” consultant Evan Carmichael told MarketWatch. Acknowledging that “it’s not just your company’s problem; it’s your problem,” is also important, he said.

3. In content. Tell your story and put the problem in context, comparing it to competitors or the challenges your company is facing, Forbes advised.

4. Forward-looking. Share as many details as you can about the measures you and your company are taking to fix the problem, PwC said. It increases shareholder and customer confidence in you and your organization.

The Forbes column cited the example of an apology by Apple’s then-CEO, Steve Jobs, when news broke that consumers who had purchased the newly introduced iPhone 4 were dealing with poor reception and dropped calls because of the device’s malfunctioning antenna. In a press conference, Jobs admitted that Apple was “not perfect” and announced that consumers would be given a free iPhone case to prevent them from touching the phone in the wrong place and interfering with antenna performance. He then compared the iPhone’s performance (“favorably, of course,” according to Forbes) to that of its competitors, noting how many iPhones had already been sold (3 million) and how few iPhone 4 buyers had either complained about the device (just 0.55%) or returned it to the store (under 2%).

“Jobs used the occasion of a presumed apology to do what he always did—sell the company and its products,” the editorial said. “He did this by articulating a narrative that placed the situation in the most favorable light” for himself, the company, and designers of Apple products.

Ensure that the context in which the apology is offered supports its content.  For instance, PwC notes that the CEO of a vehicle manufacturer that apologized for past quality control issues while assuring car owners that their vehicles are safe should not be seen driving a car made by a rival firm.

Issuing an apology isn’t always easy, but a properly worded one will always bode well for companies—and their CEOs—alike.


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