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Innovators and icons -- the high-profile face of the tech CEO

Doug Gross
  • In tech industry, CEOs become the high-profile faces of their companies
  • Bill Gates, Steve Jobs are among leaders who became almost synonymous with their products
  • Fast-moving tech world requires innovative and motivating leaders, observer says
  • Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, with "The Social Network," will become more famous

(CNN) -- Who's the CEO of Coca-Cola?

How about General Motors? General Electric? General Mills?

Got nothing? Well, try this: Who's the guy in the black mock turtleneck who runs Apple? Or the richest man in the United States, who started Microsoft before turning to a life of philanthropy?

If you're like us, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates weren't tough to figure out. (Sorry, Muhtar Kent, Daniel Akerson, Jeff Immelt and Ken Powell; most people would have a tough time picking you out of a lineup.)

In ways that aren't usually so pronounced in other industries, the technology world tends to revolve around its leaders.

Whether it's internationally known icons like Gates and Jobs or the 20-something head of an indie internet startup, the people who run consumer technology companies are usually a visible and crucial part of their brands.

Often, they become nearly as familiar to their customers as they are to the people who work for them, which is rare in other industries.

"I think it's part of the technology culture to have iconic leaders," said Robert Hohman, co-founder and CEO of Glassdoor, a job-review site that ranks CEOs based on employee reviews. "It really is just kind of baked into the culture."

One of those iconic leaders, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, will be catapulted to a new level of fame this week with the release of "The Social Network," a fictionalized version of the Facebook story.

Along with the movie, which casts Zuckerberg in a negative light, a high-profile (and conveniently timed) $100 million donation to schools in New Jersey is sure to further link the massively popular networking site to its creator -- for better or for worse.

Hohman knows a little about high-profile tech CEOs. He worked for Microsoft under Gates before launching a site of his own.

He said that, in the technology world, it takes more than a pencil-pusher or number-cruncher to make a splash.

"Often, successful companies in tech are successful because they're highly innovative," he said. "Innovation is hard. Innovation often takes a really strong leader who is capable of seeing a vision and guiding a large and complex company toward that vision."

Although other industries can sometimes afford "caretaker CEOs," it's virtually impossible to successfully stand pat in the tech world, Hohman said.

In other industries, "it might be OK to change direction over the course of five years," he said. "In technology, those five years might be compressed into five months. Because of that, you need that strength of character."

In an online environment where opinions and ideas flow at hyper-speed, customer loyalty to tech brands can be fierce.

You're a Mac or a PC. You love your iPhone and make fun of people with BlackBerrys. Or you love your Google-powered Android phone and make fun of people with iPhones.

The personalities behind those brands are inevitably part of the the battle.

"Some of the most successful tech companies have marketed and positioned their products as life-changing innovations," said Hugh Forrest, director of the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, an annual event where hip new tech personalities try to make names for themselves. "If so, is it any wonder that the CEOs of these companies are seen as rock stars?"

Without rock-star status, how else to explain the waves Jobs causes on the internet every time he answers a customer's e-mail? Or for that matter the fact that people, including several mainstream news organizations, jumped on reports that he might secretly be a ninja?

And not only is Zuckerberg is the subject of a movie; how many Fortune 500 CEOs can also claim to be the star of a comic book?

If their employees' opinions are any guide, the tech bosses who are the most high-profile and innovative tend to fare better than their more tame contemporaries.

On Glassdoor, the site where employees rate their bosses, 97 percent of Apple employees approved of Jobs, Google's Eric Schmidt got a thumbs-up 96 percent of the time, and Zuckerberg was approved of by 95 percent of the Facebook employees who responded.

In contrast, Steve Ballmer, in the unenviable position of following Gates as Microsoft's CEO, scored a 51 percent, Yahoo's Carol Bartz had 53 percent approval, and Interactive Corp's Barry Diller hobbled in at 31 percent.

"What happens is that there is an unmatched kind of enthusiasm and excitement that comes from a leader that paints a clear vision and then lets you chase it," Hohman said. "These guys, Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg, Schmidt -- there's a clear vision, and they're saying, 'Go get it, guys.' "

Forrest, who has hosted many of the tech world's biggest names at the annual festival, predicted that their cultural relevance might not be fading any time soon.

"I imagine we think about Steve Jobs today the way our grandparents thought about Henry Ford 90 years ago," he said.


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