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Why CEOs Should Prep Communications Like A Politician

Businessman at podium in front of American flag
Being authentic doesn't mean forgetting the weight of your words, and while you may want to improvise, solid preparation will serve your mission better.

Being in a new CEO role is akin to a politician making a public statement—every day. Nailing the first day memo is just one of many early interactions that you’ll need to get right. And as you may know by now, there’s little room for error.

Everything you say and do as a CEO is heavily scrutinized; when you are the new CEO, unfairly so. Some describe it as feeling like you are constantly being filmed, with every action and word recorded. Taking a manager out for coffee, the inflection of your voice, things that you say you like or do not like all carry enormous weight. Especially early on. People will latch on to everything. You may have been well-known previously, but now you’re the main attraction. For some, this can feel overwhelming.

There’s another side of this challenge, which Ron Williams, the former CEO of Aetna, described well:

“Pay attention, 100% of the time,” he said. “I know that sounds like an impossible task, and it probably is. But if you say ‘yes’ in a casual conversation, nothing happens. If you are the CEO, and you lapse for 15 seconds, next thing you know you have approved expenditure of $20 million dollars.”

“You may not even be cognizant that’s what you just did. So paying attention is one of the most critically important things you can do. Otherwise it will come back to haunt you.”

In my work with CEOs, I see time and again how communications missteps in your early days can linger and haunt the rest of your tenure. You may (like many before you) find that you need to work hard to make amends for comments or actions you made in your first few weeks and months that triggered a negative or hostile response.

One way to mitigate this is to ‘prep like a politician.’ It’s good to have an almost political like series of responses to the many questions you will get asked for your opinion and views. If you do not, it is likely you will get caught out. You are someone who has an opinion and are used to giving it. When pushed without a ‘go-to’ response, you might end up saying more than you want.

Before you start, you’ll want to prepare your narrative for the business and the market. Even though there may have been numerous media releases about your appointment, do not assume that everyone in the organization understands why you were selected and what your mandate is.

Being clear on your early messaging is vital. Many of the people I have advised have resisted this saying that they’ve always been good on their feet, or they know what they want to say, or that they don’t want a script as it will make it inauthentic. They are also often naïve about the amount of grace they will have, believing that people will be quick to forget. “I’m sure I won’t say anything too bad and if I do people will forgive me for being new.”

No they won’t—and they don’t.

A ‘good on my feet’ first-time CEO joined a turnaround situation in a very well-regarded brand, loved by many, but that had lost its way. He was the right person to take on the role, having worked in the industry his entire career—he was ready for his first CEO role.

Early in his transition he ran an all-hands meeting in the head office. He and I prepped for the session and as much as I encouraged him to plan his open and close, he was worried about sounding scripted and rehearsed. He wanted to ensure he was authentic. Confident in his ability to think on his feet, he went ahead knowing the key points. He invited me to attend, which I did.

He started well and spoke passionately about the rebrand. The audience was engaged and excited about the journey ahead. But as he got further into the presentation, he relaxed, too much.

He went past the point that he’d planned to stop at, and began to talk about people and culture—a tough topic for the business. He finished the presentation, with a nicer version of FIFO (fit in or, well, move on): “So basically, if you feel it is going to be too hard then this is probably not the place for you and you should make that decision.”

While this was a valid and an important message, this was not the appropriate forum, and it left the crowd suitably stunned.

He came up afterward and asked what I thought, to which I said, “Do you know what your closing statement was?” He was shocked and disappointed. He had certainly come across as authentic—he had told people exactly what he thought.

Fortunately, he took the time to reflect. And at the next event—an all-staff conference—he was disciplined not only about how he opened his presentation, but also how he ended it.

Another way to mitigate early communication mishaps is to have a communications plan as part of your transition planning. A good communications plan will cover your key messages and the medium of communication. It will give you clarity about what you will say, to who, and how. (Communication is such a fundamental aspect of being CEO that beyond the transition period, many CEOs have a rolling communications plan to ensure that they are maximizing this aspect internally and externally.)

“Your communication plan needs to be super sharp,” Intertek Group CEO Andre Lacroix told me. “It’s one thing to write your strategy, to have your operational plan, to set your goals, to analyze your risk and financial projection, but it’s quite another to be able to extract the meaning of what you’re trying to do in simple terms and explain it concisely to all stakeholders.”

As part of his communications plan, Andre decides the three to five key messages that he wants to get across during his first 30 days—both externally and internally. (He is clear that you need to accept that what gets discussed internally also gets discussed externally and vice versa).

Then, he moves onto the next 30 days, ensuring that no internal or external communications are made that don’t align with his plan, particularly in the media.

“There are very few leaders who can really improvise on the spot effectively, so the rest of us have to be very well prepared,” he said.

Once the messages are set, it’s then a question of making sure they’re understood and absorbed. “As CEO, you need to repeat the key messages so often that you get tired of them,” Lacroix told me.

Or, as another CEO I interviewed joked, the CEO title should really be CRO—Chief Repeating Officer.

Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from The New CEO: Lessons from CEOs on How to Start Well and Perform Quickly (Minus the Common Mistakes) by Ty Wiggins, Ph.D., Russell Reynolds Associates. Copyright © 2024 by Russell Reynolds Associates, Inc. All rights reserved. 


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