Business leaders need to act human for the sake of ‘brand business’ – though it obviously depends on the human in question

I feel slightly guilty at bringing this up when I am sure he would rather it got lost in the post, but honestly, the clip of Mike Coupe singing “We’re in the money” when he thought he was off-camera just made me smile so much.

And, also honestly, not for the obvious reason of ‘business leader making seemingly tactless Freudian screw-up when he’s about to make millions’, teehee/tut tut, etc.

Clearly, it was a bit of a ‘Gordon Brown’s hot mic’ moment (when the then PM, thinking he was ‘off air’, was unpleasant about a woman who had told him of her worries about immigration).

“There was nothing nasty about Coupe’s faux pas. He looked (and sounded) all too human”

Except, except. There was nothing nasty about Coupe’s faux pas. He looked (and sounded) all too human. And it was actually rather charming in a funny kind of way.

As were his, and Sainsbury’s, comments afterwards: “This was an unguarded moment trying to compose myself before a TV interview… I was relaxing at the time – this is an incredibly stressful day and maybe it was an unfortunate choice of song.” 

And: “As many of us do, [Mike] was singing songs to himself to clear his mind. He recently saw 42nd Street… we all know these songs stay in your head. To attach any wider meaning to this innocent, personal moment is preposterous.”

Preposterous or otherwise, it’s inevitable that this incident will come up again when it suits his detractors and those objecting to the merger.

But it’s not career-ending, because he wasn’t either stabbing at the heart of what people value about Sainsbury’s, or behaving so badly that it was difficult to justify staying loyal to the brand he represents.

Whereas… step forward Travis Kalanick. On top of the toxic stakeholder relationships which had been building up with drivers and influencers, he was recorded as ranting to a driver: “Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit. They blame everything in their life on somebody else.”

Mmm. Not cool, and not clever. That has contributed to more costs, more hassle for the company and no guarantee of repair for the Uber brand despite the resignation of Mr Kalanick.

You can also look at any number of other chief executive incidents which have shown contempt, dishonesty or just a total lack of authenticity. It’s only terminal if a) it shows dishonesty (eg, VW) or b) strikes at the core of the customer offer (eg, Ratners). And c) if enough people get to know about it; that’s a slam dunk in a digital world.

The Ratner mistake was a (legendarily) fundamental one which insulted customers, and even though it was made in a more analogue world, it managed to do the rounds and bring him (and the business) down – in 18 months and two years respectively.

So long? In a digital world, everything is immediately visible, so everything counts. There’s no such thing as a private email or a private conversation any more. Or, indeed, private singing. Added to all this are ‘always on’ social media (yes, cock-ups even while you sleep!) and things like Glassdoor acting as a trapdoor for reputation.

And then things happen at a scale and speed that will take your breath away.

Get real

Is the message from all this that everyone has to be on guard at every waking moment in case they say something that can at any point possibly be construed as tactless/offensive/cynical, etc? Or that you need to have a lawyer at your shoulder 24 hours a day? Well, that’s a yes and a no.

Yes, you obviously do need to be thoughtful and take care over your words, and engaging communications and a generally appealing demeanour are a core chief executive skill. Around half of people’s impressions about a company are driven by the personality of the chief executive.

“Mega-mergers can always be seen as inhuman. Time for a duet, perhaps?”

Good to build up a head of steam on this in advance of really needing it. No-one is perfect all the time.

And no, talking like a legal document gets in the way of what needs to be heard, and how it needs to be received by real people.

So, good on Mike talking (and singing) like a human being. More of this in business please, all round. It’s a good insurance policy personally and professionally. And good for business with a small and big ‘B’.

But, above all, a genuine belief in the shared future business, heartfelt delivery of the brand and, well, being nice and decent to all stakeholders is never a bad idea.

Sainsbury’s and Asda will need all this and more. Mega-mergers can always be seen as inhuman. Time for a duet, perhaps?