THE WORLD OF the CEO is a world of competing priorities. Clients must be kept happy, new work must be won, and employees attracted and retained. They also may need to engage with audiences that do not necessarily like them.
The one thread that ties these disparate business strands together – and makes them work in unison – is communications. Knowing why, what and how to communicate, internally and externally, is the CEO’s most powerful asset.
Understanding its power requires understanding how the world of business has changed over the last decade. The internet has brought the commercial world closer to the consumer, creating new relationship dynamics.
The clothes shop, the pharmaceutical company and the whiskey distillery no longer simply ‘sell products’ but join us in conversation, promote causes, and take stands in social, cultural and political matters.
The economic picture is radically different too. Ireland is no longer a fiscal basket case but an internationally envied example of recovery and rejuvenation.
That’s not to say businesses aren’t without their challenges. There are thousands of unfilled vacancies for highly skilled, high-paying jobs and planned expansions by Facebook, Salesforce and others will intensify a raging war over an extremely limited supply of talent.
Employees are clued in. They know the market value of their skills and follow trends in the workplace and the economy. They seek more from their employer than just a salary. Younger professionals in particular want to work for companies with vision, ambition and purpose.
What hasn’t changed is the fact that companies still need a committed workforce to drive innovation and revenue growth. For CEOs to achieve this goal in such a changing, competitive economy, they first need to cultivate a loyal, passionate staff that truly believe in their company and objectives. But how?
The CEO isn’t just a businessperson
The first step is for the CEO to acknowledge that they are no longer just the suit at the top of the food chain.
In a post-Steve Jobs world where a monthly payslip isn’t the be-all and end-all, CEOs are visionaries and leaders as much as they are business people. They are “scene-setters” and “culture-shapers”, and employees look to them for information, guidance, and inspiration.
The New Times, New Leaders report, published by PR360 this month, shows that 82% of the 1,000 employees surveyed think regular, company-wide communications from their CEO is important.
Of that number, 89% say that CEO communications are good for morale and productivity.
However, while many CEOs get the basics of communications right, many lack an overarching communications strategy. This, and weaknesses in how CEOs engage, is harming morale and productivity, especially during times of change.
As many as 38% of employees have heard or read a story about their employer in the media before the news was announced internally, while 40% say that, in general, their CEO rates only ‘OK’, ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ for their communications ability.
The best employees value good leadership and direction. When the CEO doesn’t lead or avoids dealing with challenges and crises, these employees grow disillusioned and look elsewhere for work.
In an extremely tight labour market full of opportunity, a confident, proactive CEO is often the only thing keeping a good employee from jumping ship.
When the CEO keeps their door shut – 45% of employees say theirs isn’t visible to staff and discourages people from dropping into their office – they may even be harming innovation. Some 40% of employees say they don’t feel comfortable approaching their CEO with a new business idea.
How to improve
Change starts at the top. The CEO must foster understanding. CEOs are decision-makers. Decisions often divide, particularly in tough or complex situations. The CEO should always seek to explain to employees, in person and with content that resonates, why decisions are taken. In doing so, they earn respect and trust, while building a culture of open communication.
Second, during a challenging period, the CEO needs to frame the conversation early so the narrative doesn’t run away with itself. Without the CEO to conduct what can be a noisy symphony of internal and external news stories, negative developments spiral out of control and positive developments get overlooked. Ambiguity leads to speculation, and that means more time is spent explaining than pursuing strategic objectives.
Third, to achieve sustainable, long-term success, the CEO must prioritise communications and fully integrate it into every business department. No decision should be made without a plan to communicate it, be that to a select group of internal stakeholders or to the general public. There is a direct, causal relationship between how much time and money the CEO invests in communications and increased employee retention, stakeholder engagement and revenue.
Getting communications right impacts the bottom line. A successful organisation is built on successful communication, which in turn is only made possible by a successful organisational culture. It’s the CEO’s job to lead from the front and own the role of the culture-shaper.
Dan Pender is managing director of PR360, which recently published its New Times, New Leaders 2019 CEO communications report.