It’s not a complaint one often hears about CEOs. But when it comes to CEO communication, it’s true: CEOs don’t know what they want.
I know this now.
And it’s useful knowledge to have.
I spent two straight days (and two serious nights) with some of the leading executive communication thinkers, practitioners and researchers at the CEO Communication Summit, convened by the Professional Speechwriters Association last week in Montreal.
I saw that Fortune 500 and prominent nonprofit CEOs differ dramatically and dither dangerously on issues that you’d think would be long settled at this late stage in the evolution of corporate communication.
The meeting was off the record, but the survey that was commissioned in conjunction is not.
What don’t CEOs know? A lot, judging by the conversations that corroborated the results of “The CEO Communications Audit,” prepared for the Luc Beauregard Centre of Excellence in Communications Research at Concordia University:
- CEOs are all over the place on social media. They disagree on whether they should use it personally, or whether it’s worth the risk for the company to engage in it at all. “Social media is the greatest opportunity and the greatest equalizer,” said one of the 33 CEOs interviewed. Said another, “In the past year, it’s been an upside, but I’m always afraid something can happen.” “I’m on social media because no one wants to be the ‘old dog that can’t learn new tricks,’” said a third. And a fourth said he’s not on social media because “the most important element is the brand not me.”
- CEOs don’t know where to focus their communication energies. Though CEOs say communication is a hugely important part of their job—two told researchers it is 90 percent of what they do—“most business leaders we spoke with were reluctant to say that any specific aspect of corporate communications was less important,” said the researchers. (When pressed, CEOs decided 60-40 in favor of internal communication over external communication.)
- CEOs don’t know whether to take stands on public policy issues, or why. “I avoid talking about policy in an aggressive way,” said one CEO. Many CEOs felt they should advocate on issues, but only in ways that aid the brand. Others still “were open to having their companies advocate on issues that were not tied to their business interests.” And some CEOs felt they owed it to society to participate in the public conversation because, as one put it, “We are losing social cohesion in part because business people are absent from the debate.”
- And perhaps most immediately relevant, CEOs don’t agree on how hard to lean on their communication advisors. Some see themselves as the top communicator in the organization (and thus presumably see their communicators in support roles). Others feel their top communicator should report to the “chief strategy officer” in the organization. And some do want a chief communication officer reporting directly to them.
A CEO who attended and spoke at the Summit did give me permission to quote his response to questions about what he wanted from his communicators. Texas Capital Bank’s CEO Keith Cargill said he wanted his people to remind him of the long-term goals of the organization because he had plenty of people in his ear stressing the importance of short-term financial targets. (He added that his fiduciary duty to maximize profits requires long-term vision to which cultural health—made possible by thoughtful communication—is key.)
Asked how communicators might be more helpful to CEOs based on his experience, Cargill said that the trouble CEOs have is they’re placed in a communication vacuum. Employees want to protect them from issues or time-consuming conversations they think they shouldn’t need to worry about, or assume they already know. He said he thinks CEOs would benefit from communicators spending time to develop deep relationships with frontline people all over the organization, so they might synthesize those perspectives, and tell him the things he needs to know, but probably doesn’t.
Encouragingly, the researchers said that the CEOs they interviewed for the study did seem engaged by the conversation, many of them expressing a desire to see the final report to get a sense of what their peers think about communication.
In order, obviously, to figure out what to think themselves.
But what this report really tells us is that CEOs need strong guidance from their communicators, who of course are developing their own sense of strategic executive communication in the social media, real-time, post-truth landscape.
And maybe the first step is understanding the source of the current indecision—by acknowledging that perhaps we’re not in a late stage of CEO communication after all, but rather in the disorienting first phase of a profoundly new stage.
“My father was a CEO back in the 70s,” recalled Dain Dunston, a communication advisor to Keith Cargill, in a conference-closing session that he also gave us permission to share.
Before I came, I called him and said, “Hey Dad, tell me about your speeches, how did you get your speeches done?” He said he wrote his own—mostly just bullet points on a card. Didn’t use a speechwriter. So, what were the speeches about? He said, mainly, what are we going to do about third quarter inventories of aluminum billets and stuff like that. Deadly boring. He said it would have been a lot more fun doing what I do.
What’s different in this moment of history is this: CEO’s can’t just live in the “business world” anymore, like my dad could. They have to live in the real world. They have to be responsible for their footprint in the real world. The first part of that is understanding that you do have a footprint, a footprint that extends far beyond your balance sheet. It’s economic, it’s societal, it’s historic.
And if the boss ain't up to it, my communication professional pals, then it’s largely up to you.