CommonSense Blog

Why the CEO’s Voice is More Important Today…and It’s Not What You Think

By Gary Grates | Jul 15, 2013

Much has been written and discussed over the last few years on the waning influence CEOs have in their organizations and that employees tend to wield more influence in this social age.  The thinking goes that CEOs have lost credibility over the years hitting  a nadir during the financial crisis of 2008.

This so-called “insight” has led companies to pull back on CEO commentary and visibility inside the four walls, much to the detriment of organizational clarity, behavior, and discourse.  In working with companies globally in diverse industries ranging from healthcare, consumer, technology, automotive, and consulting, our experience indicates that the exact opposite is true.

In many respects, CEOs often communicated internally to fulfill what they believed was their “responsibility” or duty. So much of the resulting rhetoric was neither interesting nor relevant.  Truth be told, CEO communications were created by the Communications Function as part of cookie cutter checklist to ensure key topics were addressed each year.

No more.

Today, having a CEO regularly and consistently engage the organization in meaningful discussion results in a number of tangible and intangible benefits:

  • Provides people with the company’s state of mind
  • Reinforces priorities and reiterates vulnerabilities
  • Opens up thinking
  • Offers new knowledge
  • Creates air cover for major initiatives
  • Directs people to new ways of interacting, collaborating and integrating
  • Seeks feedback and new ideas to spur innovation
  • Burnishes trust

It starts with a Communications function that is informing the CEO commentary, not being its proxy.  That is, Communications should be infiltrating the CEO’s agenda with what is being accumulated via analytics and multiple inputs or channels from employees, customers, and other stakeholders important to the business.

Further, it’s about comprehending the employee worldview – how people think – and using analytics to discern the personas and archetypes comprising the workforce so as to develop content and context that resonates with and is relevant to the right internal communities – those that are driving change and growth.

At the center is the CEO, the catalyst for discourse internally spurring conversation and debate to focus behavior and obtain the right solution. Successful organizations employing an effective CEO internal communications strategy exhibit the following characteristics:

  1. Content is Provocative – This is key!  High performing companies expect commentary from the top to challenge, not cheerlead.  In one example, a CEO recently prodded his organization by asking in his weekly commentary – “Why are we Losing?”  – causing significant feedback inside, which led to a breakthrough in commercial development.
  2. Context is Deep – Digging deep into a subject allows for more rich discussion versus the typical superficial blather that neither informs nor motivates action.
  3. Cadence is Weekly – or more – CEOs with a regular and consistent commentary inside enjoy a more free flowing, open relationship with employees and, as a consequence, gain a unique vantage point on the realities of the workplace and the business competitiveness.
  4. Platform is Consistent – Making it easy for people to find and respond
  5. Format is Diverse– PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi often employs different formats – video, blog, slides, etc. – for her regular commentary, providing employees with new experiences while unlocking fresh and novel ideas and insights.
  6. Socialize – All CEO communications internally must be socialized, providing employees the ability to share, connect with each other, comment and become one with the subject and the author.  Doing so increases collaboration and confidence that leads to engagement.

The CEO who works hard to establish a strong voice among employees is actually doing so – as former Schering Plough CEO Fred Hassan suggests –  to “unleash the power of me.”   That is, to make the entire enterprise more purposeful, thoughtful and performance driven.  Today’s CEO has the ability to coalesce people around principles, policies and value creation like never before.

Honing that power through a smart communications effort fueled by analytics and reinforced by relevant content, context and cadence is a competitive differentiator.

So, when was the last time someone listened to your CEO?