The present brouhaha surrounding TikTok is as much a narrative about retaining a level of corporate serenity and shrewdness under fire as it is a reflection of the modern dynamics of international business and politics.
This corporate sangfroid appears to come primarily from TikTok’s CEO Kevin Mayer, as much as it comes from any native backbone that exists within the business itself. Mayer, who came to TikTok from Disney earlier this year, and in all probability was rubbing his hands at the prospect of growing the video-sharing social networking service which has taken the world by storm, has instead been sucked into a battle concerning US security.
Astutely conscious of the fundamental ‘Sphinx with no secret’ absurdities of the situation he finds himself in – he is, after all, in fact in the midst of political imbroglio that is an ill-concealed continuation of the trade war with China – Mayer has carried on, demonstrating a sure hand in whatever he does. For example, he is managing proprietorial matters with dignity as a number of companies, notably Microsoft, are touted as future owners of TikTok’s services in the United States, as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and now, quite possibly, the UK. In the midst of these negotiations US president Donald Trump has waded in with the comments that it is “probably easier to buy the whole thing than to buy 30 per cent of it”, and has issued an executive order requiring parent company ByteDance to complete a sale of TikTok’s US operation within 90 days.
In the middle of this flurry of business negotiations and political rhetoric, TikTok has announced plans to build a $500m (£375m) data centre in Ireland, where it will store videos, messages and other data generated by European users from the short-form video-sharing app. Mayer has also issued an 800-word defence of the TikTok which stated that without the platform, US advertisers “would again be left with few choices”, dismissing Instagram Reels, a new video service from Facebook that will launch in the US in early August, as a “copycat product”. More recently, Mayer has been instrumental in allocating a $200 million fund to support “ambitious American creators who are seeking to turn content creation into their livelihoods”, adding that the fund is likely to grow to a staggering $1 billion in the U.S. over the next three years, and will total more than $2 billion globally within that timeframe.
All of which demonstrates the kind of coolness under fire that has rarely been exhibited since the days of FDR and Churchill during the darkest days of World War II.
While popular myths about successful leaders being neurotic, unstable and odious abide, a number of studies have suggested that most successful leaders are in fact emotionally stable, a quality that Mayer has in significant reserve. Top leaders are also capable of the element of surprise, thereby exhibiting inner resources and depths which can be drawn upon when needed. For example, while there was perhaps little surprise that Mayer would want to leave Disney after failing to become CEO, his move to teen sensation TikTok was considered left of field given the outré nature of the app. However, given the startling potential for even greater growth, Mayer’s move to TikTok is starting to look very Sun Tzu.
Moreoever, it is the way Mayer has handled flak within the political asymmetry that defines the Trump era that truly surprises and impresses. Mayer’s not dealing with the most rational of opponents after all; the fault lines in the policies associated with the pursuit of TikTok are not hard to find. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently played his most decisive card to date, declaring, post the Trump administration’s earlier denouncement of Huawei, that he wants US companies to stop dealing with “untrusted Chinese apps” such as TikTok. The non sequitur that discredits any argument that the US government might put forward, is the simple thought that no self-respecting business leader, military/security services personnel, or senior professional is ever likely to use TikTok. After all, who in their right mind would use such platforms to store or convey sensitive business, government or security related information?
Leaks of information related to national security, or matters of commercial confidentiality, have come about in the past because of whistle blowers, spying or, accidentally, owing to unsecured, or malfunctioning software. There has surely never been instance of leaked sensitive information thanks to the ill-advised recording of a pop video by senior civil servants, leading scientific researchers or politicians.
And if Mr. Pompeo’s pursuit of a “clean network” concerns the personal data of young people, well TikTok has previously fallen under the scrutiny of the Federal Trade Commission. In this respect, TikTok is not the only livestreaming app that has attracted the attention of organisations such as the FTC and the UK’s The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). As some commentators have observed, TikTok may, at times, have been unfairly singled out for attention due to the lack of adults on the platform, adding that it is no worse than other apps.
And yet, in the midst of all these issues, Mayer’s tough-minded shrewdness continually comes to the fore, sailing over the melee, ignoring the illogical, and the doggedly political nature of the situation he finds himself in. Meanwhile, with seeming effortlessness, he achieves the most logical, pragmatic and lucrative outcomes.
Kevin Mayer certainly cannot take all the credit for executing such an elegant waltz around these bellowing political matters. Parent company, ByteDance, has made a number of creditable moves in forming its senior management team in the past, and is very good at making clever picks like Kevin Mayer. That said, the most recent, sure-handed behaviour exhibited by TikTok must be credited to Mayer, and provides clear insight into a classically successful CEO who accurately reads the runes, acts adroitly and shows every evidence of possessing a personality which meshes well with the existing top management team at TikTok.
Whatever TikTok’s fate, the (so far) successful manoeuvres of the company may point the way to just how far-sighted and, dare one say, byzantine international companies will need to be in order to succeed in the third decade of the 21st Century.
Meantime, the clever Mr. Mayer powers on.
About the author
Randall Peterson, Professor of Organisational Behaviour; Academic Director, Leadership Institute at London Business School. Randall’s current research activities include investigating: how CEO personality affects top management team interaction, board dynamics, leading diverse teams, conflict management in teams, and the effects of member personality on group interaction and performance
Research by Chris Moseley, senior PR and Public Affairs Manager, London Business School