In A New C-Suite Role? Your Communications Style Sets Tone and Culture.
- Posted by Don Robinson
- On January 2, 2018
- 0 Comments
- corporate culture, Leadership, structure
First Impressions Create Lasting Impressions
When new executive leaders transition into their roles, the entire organization tunes in. How messages get delivered internally is an important choice to which newly-anointed executives should pay close attention.
The “right” mix of communication channels and styles to the organization is not a one-size-fits-all proposition – the needs and goals of a CEO will be different for an executive elevating to the CEO role after many years in the organization, versus someone either completely new to the organization or who has been a CEO for years. One’s own style and the existing or desired corporate culture will also influence choices about how to communicate.
A key goal is to enable all employees to get to know your authentic personality, style, and – maybe most importantly – your leadership priorities. All of these may be new to the organization. Additionally, as a transitioning executive, you may consciously (or unconsciously) adjust style, priorities, and approach to problem-solving based on the demands and realities of the new role. Even for internal candidates promoted into a new role who have history with the organization, this creates a need to to connect with all employees, including those with which you are already familiar.
Finally, employees will try to ascertain how personality and leadership style will shape the organization’s culture. Will this impact how we make decisions? How information flows within the organization? How, if at all, will our overall values shift?
What, how and when the transitioning executive communicates can accelerate this understanding and build trust levels. In fact, a recent study by Edelman (2014 Trust Barometer) confirms that employees believe communicating clearly and transparently is the most important action a CEO can take to build trust.
Trends in Executive Communications
With the advent of new channels, shorter attention spans and the availability of more information to digest, there have been several trends in the ways and channels that executives leverage to communicate with employees.
- Shorter, targeted messages. One trend is toward creating shorter, smaller digestible chunks of communication that can be delivered faster and are more responsive to issues impacting the business.
- Example: An internal blog for new a VP at Lockheed Martin. He made a weekly post of 2-4 paragraphs about a single issue (made additional posts as necessary). Topics, outlines and proofreading furnished by communications function but the VP wrote posts in his own style and voice, which helped him connect with employees.
- Less packaging. Younger employees like Millennials and Gen Y employees are more suspicious of over-packaged, corporate-sounding and over-produced communication; they desire transparency.
- Example: An internal video blog by CEO at Adobe. These have an average production value that varies by episode (he may use an iPhone to capture a conversation with a customer). Employees see enormous value in seeing his personality and feeling his passion for the topic; he comes across as a real person, not an actor.
- More authenticity. Include personal details when appropriate to demonstrate transparency. Many successful CEOs are known internally for their hobbies (boating, hiking, skiing, etc.), which provides an informal communication opportunity to connect with individual employees.
- Example: The CEO of NIC Solutions rides his motorcycle to quarterly town hall meetings at different locations. Because he was an avid rider (and it showed), this was perceived as an endearing personality trait, not a publicity stunt.
- More channels. Use channels preferred by employees. Many companies spend time understanding where employees get their information (both internally and externally) and communicate there accordingly.
- Example: Many / most all-employee emails at GE are posted on LinkedIn. The company found that many employees got their information about GE through news and posts on LinkedIn – posting the emails there gave the CEO more credibility (both internally and externally).
- Two-way dialogues. Interaction is essential. Having the opportunity for dialogue quickly builds relationships, credibility and comfort. Almost all social media channels, as an example, provide the opportunity for moderated comments.
- Use of Twitter (or Slack or other social platforms). Many CEOs are beginning to embrace using social media, especially Twitter. Research confirms that social media creates the impression of a personal relationship – every tweet includes a photo of the CEO, making these updates feel like a personal connection to the CEO. It is important to remember that the public platforms like Twitter are channels to both internal and external audiences. For something more targeted, an internal platform (e.g., Slack) might be a better option.
- Example (from MIT’s Sloan Management School study): One high-profile Twitter user is Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors Inc. and SpaceX. Musk typically tweets numerous times a month, and his tweets sometimes contain new and exciting information. On March 30, 2015, he tweeted that a new, major Tesla product line would be unveiled the following month and that it was “not a car.” Musk’s tweet generated a lot of attention; the news wasn’t announced through any other communication outlets. And there was intense speculation about what the new product would be. (It turned out to be a battery for powering homes that charges using electricity generated from solar panels.) Many media outlets joined in the discussion.
Many CEOs tweet more than once a day and have thousands of followers.
**Source: CEO.com: https://www.ceo.com/social_ceo/fortune-500-ceos-on-twitter/
Additional Suggested Tactics
Even with the growing popularity of social media, CEO and executive communications are still most often augmented by seemingly traditional channels. Some examples include:
- Quarterly Town Halls. In-person and virtual for those in other offices. Record and post so employees can listen on demand. Include 20 minutes at the end for Q&A (encourage questions to be submitted prior to the event). Opportunity for you to lead with a story about you, your family, or other part of personal life that will help connect with employees.
- Monthly Employee Voicemail. At least once a month provide an update on an issue, initiative or industry news / event. Give thoughts on it and then thank employees for their efforts.
- Monthly Employee Roundtables. Invite 10-12 employees to a breakfast or lunch. (More employees than that becomes too big for candid conversations where all can participate.) Agenda is as follows:
- Invite list can be from different sources. 1) departments each nominate a different person to attend each month; 2) random drawing; 3) start with change champion network; 4) communications / HR select participants as people who will engage and carry messages back to their teams.
- Communications host kicks off and starts introductions
- Business update from CEO (financial or operational performance)
- Upcoming events / opportunities
- Other hot topics
- Q&A (leave at least 20 minutes for this). The CEO should also have a few questions for employees in case they don’t ask any. Capture the FAQ and post on company intranet (or other visible location) so all employees can access. This reinforces that you are transparent in your communication. Even though this only reaches 10-12 employees a month, word quickly spreads that you do them, which builds credibility that you want to connect with employees.
- A Weekly CEO Blog. Write 2-4 paragraphs on a topic – internal or external – that may or may not have been covered in other media. This is your opportunity to talk about your point of view so employees can see how you think through various topics.
- A Monthly VideoBlog or Podcast. Create an electronic media each month where employees can hear your voice, see your personality and feel your passion.
- Weekly Rounding. Walk the floors and talk to employees. Ask them about their work, family and hobbies. Be visible.
- Use Twitter (or other social media platforms). Start slow and easy by tweeting press releases or other public statements and evolve to more commentary on industry or company events (trade shows, etc.).
- Resource: This article shows first tweets of several CEOs: https://www.business2community.com/twitter/social-ceo-15-top-ceos-started-using-twitter-0846126#xhWID45fPbwIqcqc.97
So what is the estimated time commitment for internal communications with employees? When considering the demands of strategy, customer communications, investor communications and the day-to-day rigors of operating the business, it is not small. But it pays.
Based on our experience with executives, here is an estimate of the time investment required:
Weekly activities: 2 to 3 hours per week
Monthly activities: 2.5 to 4 hours per month
Quarterly activities: 2 to 4 hours per quarter
In the end, choosing the messages and channels when you transition to a new executive role sets the tone for leadership action and behaviors down the road. Choose thoughtfully. Here are a handful of questions to help you think through the best approach and channels.
1) How much of my “communication dollar” do I want to spend focused on each stakeholder group like investors, the board, my team, all employees, customers? How will my focus vary over the course of the coming year?
2) What are my expectations of my direct reports for supporting or conducting communications activities internally and externally? How will we maintain consistency as messages are cascaded?
3) What channels should I choose to highlight my natural communication strengths? What is my preferred direct channel for broad employee communications?
4) How much of my time each week do I need to dedicate to communications planning, development and delivery?