If you want them to listen, speak their language

CEO communication: if you want them to listen, speak their language

Greg Crowther

What keeps your leaders awake at night? The increasing demands of stakeholders are probably causing them many sleepless nights. Among the challenges facing CEOs and other leaders are fostering individual thinking and innovative actions, while simultaneously ensuring that mindsets and behaviours are aligned.

The role of an in-house communication executive or external consultant is crucial in helping a CEO achieve these outcomes. Leadership behaviours, including communication, are primary enablers. By applying skills in communication planning, messaging and execution, you will help the organization achieve its imperatives and cement your position as a trusted adviser.

The environment in which we operate provides its own set of tensions. For example, someone has hit the turbo-boost button on communication in the workplace. Meetings (real and virtual), voice mail, e-mail, text messages, newsletters, e-bulletins, pamphlets and proposals are bombarding many of us. Is more communication leading to effective communication?

As a leader, or communication adviser to a leader, ask yourself these questions about stakeholder communication:

* Is my face to face, electronic and print communication effective?

* Do my stakeholders perceive me as credible?

* How do I stay in the credibility zone?

If a leader drifts outside the credibility zone, the consequences can be swift and dramatic. We have all seen examples of misplaced words and incongruent action leading to a loss of support, trust and action. The challenge to our leaders is to remain in the credibility zone. As an adviser to CEOs and other organizational leaders, check that they are applying Rogen’s “4Cs”:

1. Context. Manage expectations up front so that your audience is tuned to what you are going to say and not left frustrated about what you didn’t say. Make it a habit to begin your communication (face-to-face or otherwise) by setting the context, and give your audience a “What’s In It For Me?” reason to pay attention.

2. Clarity. Make sure your messages are tuned to the audience’s needs and issues. Your messages must be persuasive or compelling. Draw on the benefits, consequences and pieces of evidence that mean something to each stakeholder or stakeholder group. Indicate why your statement is relevant now. Make it specific enough to be measured.

3. Congruence. In business communication today, what you see and experience can be more important than what you read or hear. Make sure that the tone and nonverbal elements of your delivery match the intent of your messages. This is the point where you’ll either bring your words to life or suffocate them. Some of the observable behaviours to pay attention to are gestures, movement, facial expressions and voice.

4. Channel. Ask yourself these questions: Am I communicating to inform, to engage or to persuade? What are the communication preferences of my audience? Information sharing can be done quickly and efficiently via e-mail and other electronic tools. When it comes to engaging a stakeholder, lead with face-to-face and reinforce with electronic and print.

If you want people to listen, you need to speak their language. This means demonstrating your interest in an audience and its issues. You can do this by setting the right context, having compelling messages, being congruent in words and actions and delivering the messages using the right mix of channels. Each of these elements needs to be applied regularly. Doing so helps keep leaders credible as communicators.


Imagine this situation. Your company is an international business in the fast-moving consumer goods sector. It is publicly listed and operates in extremely competitive markets. Market share and earnings have been squeezed for more than 12 months. Analysts, institutional shareholders and the media are starting to lose patience. Questions are being asked about the company’s future. You joined the company as CEO just four weeks ago, and you need to announce the company’s third profit warning in six months.

How would you feel? Your feet have barely hit the floor. How do you maintain your credibility (and stakeholder support) in such an environment?

This was the situation a CEO client found himself in recently.

The starting point was to understand stakeholder perceptions. Specifically, what were they expecting to hear? And what gulf had appeared between their expectations and what the company had communicated in the past?

Mindful of corporate governance commitments and stock exchange listing rules, the CEO prepared his messages about the profit warning. He carefully avoided the danger zones of “too much” or “too little.” His mantra: Set a platform for the future. Ensure credibility. Slightly under promise.

The CEO led the communication effort. He got face-to-face with analysts, employees, important shareholders and customers and the media. His messages were reinforced electronically and in print.

He consciously conveyed the right messages through nonverbal skills. In particular, he got the rational and emotional balance right. He needed to reinforce the perception of a leader who acknowledged the need for lots of hard work yet was upbeat about the company’s short and long-term prospects.

He could not give detail, but he could give direction and purpose.

Guiding the CEO’s actions was his desire to restore the reputation of the company for open communication and to ensure that he, as CEO, remained credible in the eyes of his shareholders, employees and other stakeholders.

The results: The market did not savage the company’s share price as it had when previous profit warnings were announced. The media acknowledged the new CEO as someone with the experience and track record to turn around the company’s position. Employee-tracking research showed an increase in levels of respect and confidence in the new CEO.


For many companies, consistent profit growth, a steady stock price and solid asset growth would be sufficient, even enviable. For an Australian publicly listed diversified property group, they were the foundations for growth. Members of a new leadership team refined their communication skills to strengthen relationships with employees, shareholders, customers and strategic partners. This contributed directly to higher levels of confidence in the company and its people.

About 18 months ago, the newly appointed managing director identified a need to sharpen the leadership communication skills of his management team. The skills were regarded as an enabler of business growth.

The leadership skills development program was delivered through a variety of workshop sessions, feedback tools, one-on one coaching and off-site leadership team meetings. These various activities focused on:

* Developing a deep understanding of, acceptance of, and responsibility for how the leaders’ behaviours and actions affect the culture of the business they lead and ultimately the sustainability of employee performance.

* Shaping the leaders’ ability to communicate the new vision, values and divisional goals with passion and conviction.

* Building the leaders’ competence as coaches as they implement the change agenda, break down barriers to change and drive continued performance.

* Creating heightened awareness of the need to align consistent messaging of vision and the change imperatives, and planning and executing a message cascade process to achieve this consistency.

Twelve months on, the results are encouraging. Business growth has accelerated. The new divisional structures have stabilised. More constructive leadership behaviours and actions have been observed at all levels. Staff turnover remains below industry averages.

Enhanced cross-divisional understanding and collaboration are now producing tangible commercial dividends. Teams are coming together more frequently to design and successfully pitch integrated client solutions.

In the words of the company’s CEO, “By having the fundamental skills of leadership communication as one of the major areas we are working on, we know what it takes to align the hearts and minds of people at all levels. We are seeing a new, more constructive and engaged culture emerge. At the same time, the business metrics are exceeding benchmarks. Effective communication across the business is an important part of our success story.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Leadership communication for breakthrough business results.

What is the task of leadership communication in aligning mindsets and behaviours? As in the game of ring toss (quoits), the organizational goal is to bring all the rings in line with the core, as shown in Figure 1. The leader’s task is to align leadership, strategies and employees with the solid pillar called vision and have them anchored on a firm foundation of values and culture.


In your organization, are the essential elements of vision, leadership, strategies, employees, culture and values scattered and blurred, or aligned, clear and effective?

There are eight critical steps for achieving aligned thinking and behaviour:

1. CLEAR VISION, VALUES, STRATEGIES AND ACTIONS. Articulate what the organization wants to become, why it is important, what it needs to achieve and how it will do this. The communicator’s task is to help the leadership team in its planning and development of these crucial statements of intent. The foundations of organizational effectiveness are outlined in Figure 2.


2. COMMUNICATION STRATEGY AND PLANS. Prepare these documents to assist the leadership team in understanding the strategic role of communication and to track the tactical rollout of communication events and activities.

3. COMMITTED AND SKILLED LEADERS. Facilitate a forum to consolidate the leadership team’s commitment. Provide opportunities for leaders to sharpen their communication skills. Offer individual coaching to fine-tune messaging and delivery skills for specific events.

4. COMMUNICATION CHAMPIONS IN PLACE. Identify communicators or opinion leaders in the workplace to help mobilize employees. Once they are selected, ensure that they are equipped with the skills to deliver tailored messages, prompt open discussion and provide timely and honest feedback. Regular acknowledgement will help keep the communication champions motivated.

5. SUPPORTING COLLATERAL. Reinforce the messages with electronic and print materials. Remember the visual, auditory and kinesthetic needs of your audiences, as well as their rational and emotional needs. Adopt consistent branding and don’t forget to keep it refreshed.

6. ORGANIZATION-WIDE ENGAGEMENT PROGRAM. Initiate a broad program to help employees understand the vision, values, strategies and actions (from Step 1) in terms relevant to each employee. Use this program to link employees to the bigger picture and show them how they contribute from individual and team perspectives.

7. IMPLEMENTATION OF OTHER COMMUNICATION/ BUSINESS INITIATIVES. Support the rollout of the engagement program through a range of face-to-face and other initiatives (e.g., team briefings). Provide regular opportunities for leaders and communication champions to be role models for the desired behaviours. Make sure communication is embedded in the organization’s performance systems.

8. MEASUREMENT, FEEDBACK AND ADJUSTMENT. Understand how and where your communication is going, because it is crucial to bringing about sustainable changes in attitudes and behaviours. Adopt measurement and feedback mechanisms that ensure you get timely, useful and cost-effective advice on the clarity of messages and the responses of stakeholders. Adjust your messages and delivery in accordance with the feedback and the rollout of your communication strategy.

As for measurable outcomes, applying these eight steps should result in

* a clear and compelling statement of the destination/ vision and the principal strategies/actions for achievement

* a context for employee energy, focus and effort

* planned assessable interventions to build momentum and commitment

* organizational values with clear meaning and purpose

* visible, credible leaders who inspire, listen, empower and build trust

* engagement of employees to take actions that are aligned and results-oriented.

Deliver these steps successfully and your organization will be on track for breakthrough results.

Greg Crowther, head of Rogen Internationals strategic communication practice in Sydney, Australia, is a member of the IABC Research Think Tank and a board member of the IABC Australia (NSW) Chapter. In 2001, he co-wrote “Face-to-Face and E-mail: Getting the Balance Right in Business Communication,” the first international study on the impact of e-mail on business communication. He can be reached at gcrowther@rogen.com.

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