What to do if your CEO struggles on the comms front

Lessons on internal communications often pop up in the most unexpected places. I was watching the BBC’s excellent War and Peace series the other week, when I was treated to a fascinating example of great leadership communication by Napoleon. (I’ll come back to that in a minute!)

It got me thinking about some of the leaders I’ve worked with in the past, and how not all were as gifted as Napoleon when it comes to rousing the troops. In this post, I’ll share a few of my experiences and pass on some tactics you can try if your leader is more likely to annoy the battalions than inspire them!

I’m also happy to be able to pass on some tips from guest contributor Liam FitzPatrick, director of Working Communication and co-author of the excellent CIPR book Internal Communications: A Manual for Practitioners.

Back to Napoleon…

So, there he was, about to go into battle with the Russians. Readying himself in his tent, he dictated a rousing speech that was swiftly printed onto sheets on a press right there in his encampment and dispatched to the heads of his various battalions, to be read out to the troops.

Whether this kind of thing actually went on I’ve no idea. (If there are any experts on the history of internal communication, perhaps you could let us know in the comments below!) With all the logistics involved in heading off to war, how interesting that our televised Napoleon made sure to pack a printing press. It tells you all you need to know about the importance he attached to reinforcing the mission for his troops at the critical point of heading into the fray.

But what do you do if your leader isn’t quite Napoleonic in his or her ability to engage with the troops? Whatever type of organisation you’re in, your people need to hear from the leader about the most important things affecting you all, and the direction you need to go in. I once worked with the head of an organisation who was well respected for his executive capabilities, intellect and fantastic, dry sense of humour. Unfortunately, he lacked the ‘common touch’ and made employees feel like they were in front of the headmaster.

If you’re involved in communications inside your organisation and you’ve a CEO who turns staff conferences into school assemblies, what do you do? Firstly, let’s be honest… it’s difficult. Very few people will be comfortable passing on advice to the boss about something so personal as how they communicate. Giving your professional opinion about the strategy for selling Widget X is one thing, but touching on his or her personality and style is a whole different matter.

The first question to ask is whether you should do it at all. If you’ve got a leader like the one I’ve mentioned, there’s no doubt that something needs to be done, but should it be you? That really depends on your role in the organisation and, importantly, your standing.

If you work in internal communications and you’ve gained the trust of the CEO, then perhaps you are well placed. If you’ve got the role but not the standing, then you’ll need to work through others who are in a position of trust. (I’ll touch on offering advice to a senior leader shortly.)

Here are a few tactics you can try:

1. Play to strengths – for now

Identify the types of communication the CEO does well and focus on those – until you can start to address weaker areas. If, for example, your CEO isn’t great at meeting the masses, how about these options:

  • video interviews
  • less formal engagement with smaller groups (some advice from Liam on this, below)
  • online Q&A sessions (The CEO I’ve mentioned was extremely good at these – a quick, clear thinker.)
  • written updates, such as an all-staff email, blog and articles in the staff magazine on important issues

Liam explains how he’s managed this with the many CEOs he’s worked with throughout his career:

“I’ve always tried to have a range of tactics up my sleeve for different people or different scenarios. I had one CEO who needed to answer questions about his outrageous bonus structure so we developed a “back to the floor” programme, where he would do a day of purposeful work.

“Over the course of a day he’d get into conversation and his real personality would come out, with positive results. Word soon got around about what he was saying on these days. We never did loads of internal publicity about them. The word of mouth element added to the authenticity of the exercise. Best of all, he got valuable feedback about the challenges of doing the job on the front line and it raised questions about quality among other things.”

Sometimes it’s not just communication skills that will make you choose one type of comms over another for your leader. Liam recalls working with one senior director whose health issues preventing him from doing anything too physical.

“We developed a focus group session, when a member of the comms team facilitated a conversation about a business problem and ensured suggestions got followed up. We also came up with a coffee break session, when people were invited in small groups to come for cake with a member of the executive team.”

I think there is a danger that senior leaders assume that they have to be good at doing big events and so keep doing them. You don’t need to speak to lots of people at once. Just a few gets the message out. – Liam FitzPatrick

2. Prepare ye well

Notwithstanding the points made above, employee conferences are part of the internal comms mix in most organisations. Done well, there’s no doubt they can offer a large number of employees the chance for real face-to-face discussions on the big stuff. You can help your CEO with some advance preparation:

  • If your CEO isn’t a great speaker, try to influence their presentation. Can you help them produce interesting slides with lots of photos and short quotations rather than bullet points, for example? How about including a short video? Maybe their speech could include a few minutes from guest speakers – members of staff who are experts on a particular point the CEO’s addressing.
  • Prepare the CEO well for the questions they’re likely to get from employees. If you’re involved in internal communications, you should know the workforce better than anyone. You should know what’s troubling people and topics that employees are particularly interested in talking about. Share your workforce intelligence with the CEO, so that he/she has an opportunity to think in advance about the answers they’ll give, rather than being caught on the hop.

3. Gather and pass on feedback

Some CEOs I’ve worked with eagerly awaited the results of evaluation after events like employee conferences. It makes life a lot easier for an internal communicator if your leader actively wants to know how their performance was viewed and is keen to work with you to improve aspects of it.

“The big challenge,” Liam says, “is that comms people don’t always feel that they have the ability to provide advice.”

It’s a topic he addresses in his book, noting that providing the CEO with data such as audience feedback after an employee event could lead them to ask for your opinion, giving you an opportunity to make suggestions. He also points out that if the boss has asked for your advice, they are more likely to listen to it. That’s certainly been true in my experience. While building up a working relationship with the CEO, passing on quantitative stats like this has helped open the door to a wider discussion.

If you’ve arranged for the CEO to visit a team or you’ve held an employee conference, ask employees for feedback afterwards. I gave out feedback forms at employee events, asking them to rate each speaker (including the CEO) as well as other aspects of the session. Phone up or drop in with teams the CEO has visited, to ask how it went.

If the CEO asks you for suggestions, make sure you’ve got your thoughts ready. To quote Liam’s book again: “One of the first rules of giving advice is to be invited to do so. When you are about to touch on someone’s performance as a communicator, it is a sensitive area that should be handled carefully.”

Offering advice to a leader is a discipline in itself. Liam recommends the book Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows by Richard Hytner, which explores what it takes to be trusted advisor.

4. Initiate coaching

Lots of leaders have coaching to help them improve their presentation and engagement skills. In my experience, it’s rare for this to come from within the organisation, despite the fact you might have an in-house learning and development team with very skilled trainers. Some CEOs might appreciate you supplying a selection of coaches in your area to use as a starting point.

5. Cast the net wider

If you don’t think your CEO will be receptive to private coaching, consider whether development for the management team as a whole could be a possibility. I’ve seen this type of group development work well in one organisation that was introducing a new employee engagement methodology.
The chosen approach to improving engagement focused heavily on management style and began with the top team. An outside consultant led a programme of peer review followed by private feedback to help the directors understand how they were perceived and to identify their strengths and weaknesses.

In conclusion…

CEOs (like everyone) come with their individual strengths and weaknesses in engaging with employees. Get to know your CEO and you’ll soon get a sense of what they’re best at and what they struggle with on the comms front. This isn’t about trying to change their personality – your job is to make sound judgements on the best forms of communications for them, and finding ways to help them develop over time.

Remember what you’re trying to achieve with leadership communications… it’s about giving your CEO ways to inspire employees to want to come to work and do the best job they can, and giving the leader a means of understanding what’s happening at the coal face by hearing from employees.

A few helpful resources

You’ll find lots of books and online resources on leadership communications, but I’ll just highlight two here for now:

Liam FitzPatrick and Klavs Valskov’s CIPR book, Internal Communications: A Manual for Practitioners, includes an excellent chapter on working with senior leaders, with very helpful, practical advice.

Rachel Miller of All Things IC recently published a great blog post with lots of tips on CEO comms in general: http://www.allthingsic.com/king/

Last, but not least…

A very big thank you to Liam FitzPatrick for sharing his insights. You can reach Liam through Working Communication.


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