The humble, helpful CEO

No, the headline is not an oxymoron!

In my long years of working, I have been privileged to work with a few CEO’s who have been humility personified, and who have helped out whenever I have reached out to them.

The bigger challenge, in my view, is for even a senior consultancy partner resource to ‘reach’ the CEO. It is almost as if a ‘wall’ has been erected between him and the partner by those who handle corporate communication in many companies.

As a client, even I have practiced this on a few occasions, and am not proud of the fact.

The challenge is compounded by the fact that very often the head of corporate communication in a client company does not have a ‘seat at the table’, but instead has to navigate her/ his way around the corporate hierarchies that prevail.

I was fortunate that I have more often than not, had direct access to the CEO. Simply because we as a firm were ensuring that the client’s business goals were being met!

Take the example of the MNC CEO, who had told us that Bharat, and not India, was their key market. He wanted us to help build the brand, which was very metro/ urban centric, into a more acceptable one in semi urban and rural India. And when, using regional media, we managed to help the company meet their business objectives, he was delighted.

Mind you, he was an expat – not even Indian, so for him to allow open door access to my directors and me, was something remarkable. Naturally, he used to do monthly, if not fortnightly meetings with us amidst his busy schedule. A large part of the credit for ensuring this was the corporate communication head of that company.

The meetings were brief; there were no ‘sirs’ being used. We used to refer to him by his first name, and the other way around.

This particular CEO in fact almost never took on the role. He, with his wife, were in India to see if he should take on the assignment. They were staying at the iconic hotel at the Gateway of India when the Mumbai attacks took place. They both survived and must have been scarred in some way after the ordeal, but he never flinched. He just took it as another challenge of the way India is.

He was also an extremely forthright person, who called a spade a spade. And thanks to this, he was never shy of being critical of the policy changes that were taking place in the industry category his company was working in. That made him excellent copy, and we leveraged this in the media. Soon, he became the face of the industry, but it never took away his sense of humor, or his directness.

I recall the time India’s largest business daily wanted to do a full-page piece on him. He readily agreed.

After the interview, the journalist requested him for an outdoor photo shoot. He agreed.

What took him a bit by surprise was that the journalist and the photo editor wanted him to eat ‘paani puri’.

He demurred for a brief moment, and said, ‘I have been told by my wife not to eat street food. A photograph like this would get her really mad.’

He still went ahead with the shoot, and in the picture, we had him taking the paani puri up to his mouth, but not eating it.

That article was loved by everyone who saw it, and he became known as the ‘approachable CEO’.

When he was transferred back to HQ, we at the agency were feeling quite low. But we decided to have a farewell party just for him a few days before he left the country.

Irrespective of his packed calendar, here was a person who agreed to spend an entire evening with us – his PR partners. Once again, no formalities.

During the ‘farewell’, he made a brief speech. It boiled down to just one message.

‘Your firm has been outstanding for my organization. And you are no longer just partners. I am proud to have most of you as friends. Please know that if you happen to be in the city where I will be based, just call me – for anything’. As a matter of fact, I did reach out to him on a few occasions and he was always his welcoming self.

I miss his words of wisdom and calmness under stress a lot even today.

There was another incident with another CEO, which is particularly close to my heart.

I bumped into him at 2am one morning in the international departure section waiting to fly to his hometown.

‘Hey Atul, what are you doing here’, he asked. I told him that I was on my way to London where I used to be visiting faculty at a leading liberal arts University. He said that he would be visiting London for a few days. I asked him if I could call him to figure out his calendar, so that we could catch up over a coffee.

He nodded and said that he would love to.

A few days later, I did call him up, but it was not for a cup of coffee. I wanted to ask him if he could spend 3 hours speaking with my students about the challenges facing large global firms in India, particularly in his sector.

He thought for a moment, and immediately agreed. I had kept it as a surprise, and what a surprise it turned out to be for the students.

The majority were amazed that such an eminent figure had agreed to spend time with them. And believe it or not, the conversation got so interesting that this CEO actually ended up spending almost 6 hours with the students!

I was also blown away. Because there was no protocol, and no excuses involved. I just asked, and he agreed.

Interactions and relationships like these are always to be cherished. For it is not often that most people in PR Consultancies are granted the privilege of having the CEO of a large company granting you open door access.

Mind you, this does not come easy. You have to prove your abilities and get the person to trust you, thanks to the value you deliver.

But once the trust is established, there is no looking back.


  1. There are CEO’s who are very humble and approachable. Find a way to reach out to them.
  2. Deliver value consistently. It is the only mantra for continued success.
  3. The value delivery will help you get the corporate communication on your side and they will help open the doors to the CEO’s office.
  4. Try and build up a relationship with the CEO at the earliest opportunity. Understand the person, and his deliverables, and proceed to deliver them.
  5. Even in front of the CEO, express your opinion on matters in an upfront manner. Do not ever become a ‘yes man’.

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Atul Takle
German interpreter. Advertising executive. Client. PR partner.

Lintas. Indian Express. RPG. TCS. Accenture. Future Group. SKS Microfinance. Adfactors PR.

International guest lecturer. Avid Traveler.

Pet friendly. Music friendly. Movie friendly. Book friendly.

Generally friendly.

Covid times cook. All times a foodie.

Mad about soccer. Mad about F1 racing. Mad about cricket.

Mad with Trump.

Sometimes writer.

2 Comments on "The humble, helpful CEO"

  1. Shruthi Bopaiah | January 27, 2022 at 11:08 AM | Reply

    Completely relate to this Atul . Having worked with many CEO’s , I agree with you on speaking your mind, building that relationship, being useful . The one thing I always tell everyone , CEO’s are also people like us , so you can and you must reach out to them if you believe you have an idea, want to interact ( for a useful purpose), so don’t hold back and make that effort to connect with them .

    And lastly, don’t be a ‘ Yes man ‘ or ‘ Yes woman’ or rather someone who just agrees to everything because the big boss said so 🙂

  2. Svetlana Pinto | January 28, 2022 at 10:46 AM | Reply

    Lovely post Atul. My experience with expat CEOs has been by and large extremely positive. I have found them to be more open to experimentation and very open to meeting anyone. Don’t be a ‘Yes man’ really depends on the CEO – there are some who thrive on having ‘Yes people’ around them.

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