The two most important words a CEO needs to learn

They can be an under-used part of a leader’s vocabulary, but Glenn Elliott believes they’re the most valuable.

Around this time two years ago, the unthinkable happened to KFC. They ran out of chicken.

You might recall the backlash and even have wondered yourself how it could have been possible. It’s 90% of what they sell. It’s in their name, for goodness sake. 

But what had the social media trolls nodding in approval was how they handled it. KFC took out a full-page ad in national newspapers with not just an apology but a creative rearrangement of its logo, cheekily spelling out “FCK”. They explained the problem and promised it wouldn’t happen again.

The word “sorry” is often one of the most under-used in a CEO’s vocabulary. When it is used, it can sometimes come across as shallow and insincere or passing the buck for the blame. 

In KFC’s case, the shortage of its most crucial product was due to changing logistics suppliers. But they didn’t mention this in the apology ads. They simply owned up to the mistake and promised they were on top of fixing it. They then directed people to a specific website for updates on when their local branch would be up and running again. 

Mistakes in business are inevitable, especially when you’re scaling fast. You can be sitting on an enviable net promoter score of 80, but things you couldn’t make up are going to go wrong. Because the world of business is complex, unpredictable, and of course, human.

Taking the next step to tackle the root cause

It happened to me back in 2015 when I was still CEO of Reward Gateway. We had two customers in the mobile phone sector – Vodafone and Three. Every Friday, we would send all staff of both organisations an email of news and updates in their benefits programme, all in their employer’s branding. All was going well – until we accidentally sent Three staff their email but branded as Vodafone. That was really embarrassing. 

Imagine – all your staff get an email about your company news. Purportedly from you, but branded in the logo and livery of your arch-rival. Could it get worse?  Yes, it could. A year later, we did it again. I had failed to tackle the root cause – too many manual elements involved in getting the email out. 

While a heartfelt, personal apology smoothed things over the first time around, I had to approach things differently the second time. I held up my hands and accepted it was time to let the account – and £50,000 worth of business – go. To do the right thing and invest further in the relationship with that individual, I released them from their contractual obligations and let them move to one of our competitors. 

It was hugely painful, but it showed empathy and understanding for our customer – the HR Director who had dealt with the humiliation not once but twice in front of her entire workforce, colleagues, peers and her boss, the CEO. This paid off a few years later. That same HR Director then hired us again in their next role, confident we could be trusted to do the right thing – even if we weren’t perfect.  It also sent an important message to my team at Reward Gateway – that our corporate value of “Delight the Customer” meant something, and doing what was right was more important than short-term profit.

The thing about being good at apologies is you have to really mean them. Like KFC realised, it’s not about a blame game, or sounding like a robot and trot out something about policies and procedures that weren’t followed. That’s not a genuine apology.

I know of a company that regularly makes the same mistake with their customers. Their answer is to fire the person whose fault it is. But if you end up doing that every month, which they seem to be, it means the root cause is not human error. It’s more that people are being asked to do something which is too complex and prone to error, so it keeps happening.

Owning transparency and humility

Being human as a CEO is one thing. But it’s also worth remembering this is an opportunity to show what it means to be transparent and humble as a business. As a CEO, I want people to know this is how we should behave when things go wrong. That’s a really important way of helping your whole organisation understand exactly who the customer is, why we do what we do for them, and how much care and thought we need to put into building our products and services in the future.

Making a heartfelt apology that is genuine, and not reserved in any way, is a sign of strength, not weakness. You’re going to make mistakes as you grow. It’s impossible to have 100% customer perfection. It just isn’t compatible with scaling. So there will be times when you need to just suck it up and say sorry. Sometimes they might be big public apologies when you screw up for everyone. Sometimes they will be one-on-one when you screw up for just one customer. But when customers see you’re honest, and you have empathy and understanding for the situation you’ve put them in, they will trust you more, not less. 

The power of thank you

The other word I found very powerful and often underused is “thank you”.  Sometimes people worry about saying it too many times and devaluing its power. But congratulating someone on a job well done or a great effort put in is not something you should worry about. In my view, it’s the most powerful form of recognition. 

People often get caught up in thinking recognition is about monetary rewards, like prizes or trips away. But a phone call or message from a company leader can be much more impactful. It’s about what you say and how you say that you see someone’s work. There’s an old school of thought that salary is for your work and “thank yous” are for exceptional results. I think that’s wrong. I believe people are exceptionally motivated by you thanking them for their input all along the journey. 

I remember a situation where one of my senior salespeople did three sales pitches in a week, even flying to the US to support a colleague. I wrote them a thank you note (and I did include a monetary voucher). The CFO questioned what I was doing, as none of the pitches had resulted in a deal yet. But my rationale was if they show that kind of commitment and work that hard consistently, they will get great results. So that’s why I feel it’s important to reward and thank the effort, not just the results. 

What’s interesting is what that connects these two words – the perception they’re both attached to weakness. But only strong people can be vulnerable enough to own their next steps when they’ve done something wrong. And saying thank you is a powerful motivator and loyalty generator, as well as a stepping stone to paving the way for constructive feedback later on.

So have a think about your vocabulary – are these two words you could do with using more?


Glenn Elliott

Glenn Elliott

Glenn is a serial entrepreneur with over 20 years of CEO experience. He sold his last business, Reward Gateway, to PE three times. His skills are in product, engineering, sales and marketing, and his passions are leadership, company culture, employee engagement and social justice. In 2018, he wrote the Amazon HR Bestseller, Build it: A Rebel Playbook for World-Class Employee Engagement.
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