The Character Traits and Skills of the Successful CEO — Communication

Big Red Car here.  Looks like the rain may be done with the ATX but who really knows?  We loved the rain and the cool temps — Hell, it was 71F yesterday afternoon.

Well, yes, it was raining at the time.  But still — 71F in mid-July.  Well, that’s a bit of “all right”, no?

So The Boss is talking to one of his CEO clients and they get on the issue of communication between a CEO and his company.  Interesting topic.

When the CEO talks, people listen

As the CEO, understand that your folks want to hear your voice.  You may have been a nerd in high school and the cool kids did not find you to be cool, but, Madam CEO, you are the IT GIRL now, Baby.  [Hey, Big Red Car, rein it in.  You can’t call women CEOs “baby”.  Get it together, Big Red Car.]

And, folks want to hear your voice — in writing, in words and by your example.  They will believe you more than anyone else in the company.

They want to read your words, hear you speak, answer questions and project a bit of sanity all at the same time.

Your communication, or lack thereof, is the lens through which they view the company and their investment of their lives in the company.

Outsiders, other stakeholders including your Mom, have the same desires but a different need.

What are you supposed to say?

The first thing that any CEO has to be able to communicate is the Vision for the company.  The CEO’s Vision for the company.  Remember that a Vision is a dynamic concept and “sell by dates” and “shelf life” are concepts which are applicable to the Vision.  A Big Red Car thinks that the Vision of a company has a shelf life of approximately three years before it needs to get the roots touched up.  [Haha, hair tricks, Big Red Car?  Really?]

The folks want to be constantly reminded and assured that the Vision is intact, workable and they have the current version.

A CEO cannot repeat this too many times.  Have you ever heard of “spaced repetition training”, beloved CEO?  Well, you should and you should do it.

Communicate the company’s plans, their strategy, staffing changes, the accomplishment of critical objectives, press reports, the financial position, promotions, huge triumphs, shortcoming, mistakes (particularly boneheaded mistakes by the CEO, they really love that stuff), big new customers and things that are of interest to the entire company.


Answer questions.  Solicit questions.  Force folks to ask questions.  Refuse to adjourn company meetings until you get three good questions and then disqualify one of two to get a few more.  This is one of The Boss’s favorite tactics.  He used to threaten his folks with a speech about the status of the Middle East if they did not ask any questions.  Boy, that got the questions flowing though he did make a few speeches about the Middle East.

Conduct an anonymous Company Survey and answer the questions in that survey at a company meeting.  The Boss is a huge fan of annual company surveys.  Never failed to learn something of vital interest.

Consider questions as the company setting its own agenda for what they want you, CEO, to talk about with them.  Do not fail to solicit and answer questions.

If you don’t feel like you are getting the right questions sometimes, then make them up yourself and ask them to yourself.  Answering a question well is more powerful than just communicating on that topic because the questioner owns the topic rather than the CEO.  That is subtle but powerful.  Know it.

When and where do you say it?

CEOs can communicate through written words, widely distributed memoranda, a blog, company meetings and video calls.  Every so often, why not take the entire accounting department out for some tacos or fajitas or BBQ?  No agenda, feed them, listen and answer questions.

The written communication may not be obvious at first.  It may take the form of a booklet that outlines the company’s Vision, Mission, Strategy and Values.  This is a powerful communication and should be the first real communication that every new employee receives.  And, why not, Big Red Car?  Why not?

Hold formal company meetings and informal company meetings.  Go to Costco and buy a grill and make the Controller cook hamburgers for everyone.  There is something very powerful when an unlikely individual is given the chance to showcase their skills.  Who knew the Controller was such a grilling maven?

These gatherings should be of a nature that the communication is natural and yet, in a very crafty way, is subject to a clear agenda fashioned by the CEO.  The informal nature of a communication lends to its authenticity and makes the communication less stressful.  [Pro tip:  Get some veggy burgers.  Oh, yeah, veggie burgers are essential, Big Red Car.]

Hold meetings on both a well scheduled basis and with a degree of formality.  Lunch meetings are great and who does not want to celebrate National Pecan Pie Day?  Who?  Yes, Old Sport, you do want to pay homage to pecan pie and you know it.

A CEO should have an editorial calendar in which she plans out the baseline for communications over the entire calendar year, just like an editorial calendar for a magazine.  It is a communication strategy and should take you less than an hour to make once a year.

Some things are rhythmic with time — financial results?

Take every opportunity to communicate including the tail end of meetings.  Five minutes well spent.

How do you say it?

When making a formal communication such as an update to your Vision for the company, don’t be afraid to be a bit formal.  Use a Power Point presentation, if you must.  [The Boss does not have any bone to pick with PPT.  It is how you use it that is important and it is a friend to effective communication.]

Jot down a quick list of notes and when the burgers or pizza or TexMex are settling, hit those topics.

Again, answer questions.  Topics developed from questions can sometimes be a surprise — really, Big Red Car?  No, a good CEO will anticipate these things.  You know what folks really want to know.

Engage in a two way conversation, do not lecture.  Well, unless they opt for hearing your views on the Arab Spring, Big Red Car.  Haha, Big Red Car, you crack me up.

How often do you communicate?

An effective CEO is going to find a formal or informal communication opportunity likely twice a month.  Not every communication is going to be company wide or the delivery of the Magna Carta.  Sometimes, it’s just taking all the guys out for BBQ around the time of the Big Dance.  [WTF, Big Red Car, what is the Big Dance?  Uhhh, Grosshopper, that’s the NCAA basketball championship tournament, one’s only real reason for living sometimes, no?]

How about celebrating the vernal equinox?  How about Cinco de Mayo?  How about the Big Red Car’s birthday?

Find your time, CEO, and make good use of it.  But don’t fret, everything does not have to be the Super Bowl.

Engagement is a two way street

You know what I am going to say before I even say it, right?

Learn to listen hard and accurately.  When you think you have heard something important — repeat it back for clarity.  Make it into a tattoo.

“OK, let me make sure I have this right.  Let me repeat back to you what I heard you say.  Did I get that right?”

In this manner, a CEO can use the folks as a mirror and a magnifying glass to amplify and enlarge the key points made during the exchange.


The Wisdom of the Campfire

In approaching this entire subject of communication, perhaps it would be useful to think of it as a campfire.  You have finished a long day’s work and are at the edge of a fragrant, cozy and warm fire reliving the lessons of the day.  Chatting about the best practices of your industry and the company.  Trading in the folklore of the company.  You are passing from the old timers to the new folks the story of the founding of the company.

As you company grows and its culture takes root, the new folks will always envy how the company was first founded, grown and prospered.  They want to hear the founders tell the story.  They want to hear it again, and again, and again, and again.  It will never ever grow old because you will keep adding new folks as the company grows.

Stoke that fire.  Tend it carefully.  Bask in its glory and effectiveness.  Good companies have strong and consistent campfires that never, ever go out.  This is the CEO’s job to start the fire and the to tend the fire and to ensure it never, ever goes out.  Get lots of help, CEO, because it is an important job.

Word of caution

So there may be some CEOs who say — bah, humbug, Big Red Car, you are full of crap and I do not have to do this.  How dare you lecture me on communication.  I am the CEO and I can do whatever I want to do.  Screw you, Big Red Car.

Well, dear CEO, you do have to do this because when you fail to communicate the vision of the company you betray a certain insecurity in your own ability to have fashioned a compelling Vision, you give off a flop sweat perfume of insecurity, you diminish your ability to lead — nobody wants to follow Silent Sam or Samantha.

You cannot lead if nobody will follow.  An Army needs a beat to march to.  Your communication is that beat, dear CEO.

Hey, CEO, if you can’t communicate, you can’t provide a Vision, you can’t lead.  You are really not a CEO.  You are a punk ass bitch posing as a CEO.  You, dear former friend, are a poseur.  A fakir.  And you will be a failure.

An effective leader has to be an effective communicator.  Sorry, no easy way out here for you.  Screw up your courage and do it or stop posing as a CEO.

[Damn, Big Red Car, you’re brutal.  Brutal.  Sorry, ya’ll, but the CEO-ing business is not for everyone even if you have an MBA.  You have to do the work and lead to be a CEO.  You cannot bluff your way to the Promised Land.]

Hey, don’t do this — EVER

There is some stuff you should never, ever do under the guise of communication.  Some of it is obvious, some is not.

1.  As the CEO, never complain about the difficulties of getting maintenance work done on your BMW or the high cost of private pre-school.

2.  Don’t tell stories about your three week trip to the Amalfi Coast.

3.  Never, ever complain about the Board of Directors to the folks.

4.  Steer clear of politics, sex and religion.

5.  Don’t tell the folks how efficient it is for you to work from home on your laptop at your pool.  Trust me on this one, please.

You’re getting the idea, right, Old Sport?  Deal with it.

The most powerful communication

Drum roll, please.  The most powerful communication mechanism you will ever use is your personal:


OK, that’s all for today.  Madam CEO, go communicate.  You can do it.

But, hey, what the Hell do I really know?  I’m just a Big Red Car.