It’s a reasonable enough question, and one JLA receive frequently. And why not? Any organisation would want the kudos that comes with someone who has not just changed their industry, but arguably the world as a keynote speaker at their event.
Many big business figures are frequently seen speaking on stages around the world – at high profile tech expos like CES in Las Vegas, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, on university and college campuses, or at events like SXSW.
When it comes to more conventional conferences, even with a hefty budget and a prestigious company name, however, the answer is almost always ‘no’.
There are four main reasons why the likes of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Larry Page, Tim Cook, Jack Ma, Satya Nadella or anyone who leads a global company won’t take on paid speaking engagements. And they apply to these titans of modern tech as much as they do to many less well-known senior figures in business.
It’s a full time job – and then some
Simply, these people don’t have the time. All the books and coaching on productivity and time management won’t mean someone responsible for people, strategy and ideas worth billions will easily fit an extra speaking commitment into their day. Preparing for a speech, travelling to an event, delivering something that reflects well on the speaker and that‘s right for the audience simply takes too much time.
Money isn’t a factor
These people are often some of the wealthiest people in the world, or at least the most highly-paid in business. If they were to speak at an event, it would be for reasons other than personal financial gain. Even significant six-figure sums won’t necessarily compensate for the inconvenience that taking on a speaking commitment would entail.
They can’t/don’t want to commit
When you’re running a multi-billion dollar company, your diary is constantly in flux with multiple competing priorities. Committing to a one-off engagement becomes almost impossible. No one more than a CEO knows the importance of following through when you make a commitment. So faced with the possibility of committing to something they might then have to pull out of, they opt not to do so in the first place.
They’re not allowed
CEOs are committed to putting their company first. Anything that might detract from that, anything that might even look a little like breaching competition lines, anything that might suggest they are enriching themselves instead of running the company, could be a major problem. This, added to the fact that CEOs are salaried staff and outside earnings can create legal and tax issues that are more hassle than they’re worth.
So why are these people seen as guest speakers at CES, Davos, TED and so on? Usually it’s because the event serves a wider commercial or personal goal where conflicts, payment and contracts aren’t an issue. Such appearances will usually be unpaid and uncontracted, possibly arranged via a personal connection. They’ll be combined with other, long-planned activities and the speaker is more easily able to justify the time because of the exposure and connections it offers them, their ideas or their company.
JLA are committed to getting the right speaker for an event. We have an extensive list of contacts well beyond those speakers we regularly work with and if a global CEO is what’s right for the event and there’s any chance they could do it, we’ll do everything we can to make it happen.
There are a few current, and a few more former, business leaders who have been able to work around these restrictions. One of the most obvious names is Richard Branson, who will at least consider such engagements, although his diary can be as complex as any of his peers. And there are the likes of Steve Wozniak or Marc Randolph, the co-founders of businesses that are now amongst the biggest in the world. Or chief execs from the likes of SAP, BP or Dyson.
What really matters to an event and its audience is not the familiarity of the name but the content they deliver. There are key figures from the likes of Netflix, Tesla, Google, Facebook and Amazon, who may not have started the company, or even been the big boss, but who have vital lessons and insights to impart and an engaging style in which they deliver them. Everyone knows the big names, but it takes an expert to advise on which individuals shaped cultures, implemented ideas and specialised in crucial areas of the business.
Some of our speaker bureau competitors continue to suggest they can book the likes of Page, Ma, Musk or Zuckerberg, but take it from us; they can’t. To suggest they can is misleading and lazy. Our website refers to just a small sample of those we work with, but we can and do book all of them and we can tell you a lot more about they have to say.
Simon King is JLA’s New Talent Manager and author of Predictability: Our Ongoing Search for Certainty in an Uncertain World