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CEO Best Practice: Executive Communications

Executive Tools

  • Executive Summary
  • Self Assessment Checklist

Expert Practices Articles

  • Communicating Change
  • Strategic Communications
  • Communicating the Vision
  • Talking to (and with) Employees
  • Overcoming Communication Barriers

Case Histories

  • The Most Important Thing You'll Ever Say -- Your Name

Tools & Analysis

  • Ten Commandments of Leadership Communication
  • Turn Heads and Increase Your Influence with Powerful Presentations

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Communicating Change

In times of change -- which these days means pretty much always -- the leader's role calls for imparting clear, informative communications. Unfortunately, say Vistage Communications experts Ron Arden and Paul Batz, not all CEOs come equipped with built-in communications skills. Some know what to say and how to say it purely by instinct; most have to learn. Others resist counseling and assistance, thinking it's enough for them alone to know what's happening in the company. They generally leave the communication side of things to other people.

"This attitude can be a major disadvantage these days," Arden says. "For all organizations, it's become an absolute necessity for the leader to communicate effectively with anyone who has a stake in their company, whether they be staff, shareholders, clients, the board or potential investors. When things are changing, staff needs information and motivation to keep up, to know what's going on, to meet changing objectives, to make decisions that will ultimately affect the bottom line and the well-being of the organization."

"A chief executive needs to make change personal because it's personal to the people who are being asked to change," Batz notes.

Context is crucial, say the TEC communications experts. Regardless of the project or initiative, it's vital to address the broader elements needed to achieve success, including:

  • What are the reasons behind our proposed change?
  • What are our goals?
  • Who does the change affect?
  • What are the likely repercussions of change throughout the organization?
  • How will we all benefit from change?

The goal is always reducing ambiguity and uncertainty. "Think of communication as a pre-emptive strike against rumor and gossip," Batz says. "By sharing truthful information -- in a complete and timely manner -- you diminish the hurtful effects of the grapevine." And make no mistake about it: your company has a grapevine. Every company does.

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Strategic Communications

"Think of the assumptions you carry into any exchange. It's unlikely that the other person walks in with the same preconceptions -- hence, the almost inevitable misunderstandings that so often occur in the workplace. In conversation, therefore, try to clarify and confirm what you believe to be true and then determine if others see things the same way."

When is face-to-face communication most appropriate? According to Batz, these situations apply:

  • Significant news. Any information that significantly affects the audience (layoffs, merger, etc.) should be shared in person.
  • Emotional circumstances. Handled properly, a difficult or potentially explosive situation can be defused through a rational face-to-face exchange of views. "Thrashing a problem out in person offers both individuals to vent frustrations, cool down and hopefully build a bridge toward understanding," Batz says.
  • Influence and persuasion. You stand a better chance of converting others to your position when you're in the same room with them -- talking, listening, clarifying specific points, emphasizing others.

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Communicating the Vision

The mandate for CEOs, Batz adds, is to spend time making sure that their vision gets communicated to people in a clear, coherent manner. "Sometimes the dots have to be connected," he says.

The golden rule: If people don't understand you, it's your problem, not theirs.

Perhaps most important, the vision must be communicated consistently. "When the leader keeps saying the same thing long enough, employees will eventually come to believe and accept it," Arden says. "Staying focused and consistent sends the message that you're fully committed to the company's direction. Messages that change frequently only lead to confusion and disorder."

Some tips from the Vistage experts:

  • Make sure all employees are aware of the vision.
  • Reassure stakeholders that the proposed change is justified, properly managed and moving forward.

  • Praise individual contributions that boost progress.
  • Address and resolve any problems that occur.
  • Keep people informed as change progresses through the organization.

"Strive to fully explain the why behind your vision," Batz advises. "People want to understand how their individual efforts contribute to the larger objective."

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Talking to (and with) Employees

How can a CEO expect employees to make meaningful contributions to the organization if they lack accurate information about business plans, goals and strategies? Without information, they can't play a part in long-range planning or in efforts to improve products and services. They can't offer input on enhancing work processes. Most important, they can't change the way they conduct business in response to changing marketplace conditions -- factors that could prove crucial in a company's economic survival.

For this reason, the Vistage communications experts say, a company should strive to eliminate as much unnecessary bureaucracy as possible -- anything that might stifle messages coming through upward communication.

Arden asks: "Do employees in your company find numerous check-points they have to fight through to get a message to you? Are you aware there might be uncooperative and insensitive layers of corporate bureaucracy getting in the way? If so, it's hardly surprising when employees throw in the towel and senior management has little knowledge or understanding of what's happening at ground level."

Effective communication builds morale and boosts productivity. But, says Batz, this shouldn't be confused with "pep talks," which are often just puffery and never a factor in genuine morale building.

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Overcoming Communication Barriers

In the cacophony of messages that assault us all in our day-to-day lives, it's easy to forget that communication is a two-way street. There's talking and there's listening. Without both elements, the Vistage communications experts note, you can't have an effective exchange of ideas and information.

"A common mistake is not creating the right environment for listening," Batz says. "We send the wrong message by reading a memo while others are talking, interrupting, answering phone calls in the middle of a conversation and so on."

Instead, he urges leaders to manage by "walking around, sticking your head in peoples' offices, ask them what's happening with their work, what's exciting, what's challenging." The simple act of sitting down in their space, not yours, shows that you care about them as individuals.

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