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New CxOs often struggle to put in place a leadership communication strategy that can help influence stakeholders and achieve objectives; communications support is scarce and, when available, lacks a systematic approach. Here’s a simple model to help new C-level executives create and execute a communications program aligned to their core objectives.
As a C-level executive taking on a new role, it’s important to quickly establish or elevate your communications program. The higher you go, more people within the organization will want to know what you will be doing and how you will be doing it. You may have inherited hundreds or even thousands of staff distributed across the world, to whom you may need to communicate renewed mission, strategy, or brand objectives. Furthermore, there may be numerous other stakeholders outside of your company that you have to communicate to (for example, investors, bankers, customers). As first impressions matter, a transition is a good time to step back and create a communications program to help you influence stakeholders and achieve your objectives.
While many executives in our transition labs recognize the importance of communications, we find few have access to sufficient or capable communications support in their companies. Often, when communications support is available, it lacks a systemic approach, and there is considerable variance in the quality of this support. Given the complexity of modern multinational organizations, the number of stakeholders a CxO must connect with, and the competition for attention across channels, it is essential to execute a disciplined communications program to get across the critical message to key stakeholders without it being drowned by the noise or lost in translation.
This article frames a simple model to help C-level executives proactively create and execute a disciplined communications program that aligns to their core objectives. This communications cascade requires incoming executives to establish clarity around nine key elements of their communications program: priorities, audiences, audience-specific objectives, messages, packaging, channels, delivery, frequency, and feedback.
Given the adage a picture is worth a thousand words, packaging also means considering how messages will be conveyed—through infographics, videos, and other formats that are impactful to audiences.
Another aspect of packaging is to carefully consider the language and cultural fit of the examples and stories you will use. In modern global companies, where significant operations are located in countries that speak a different language, you may also want to have a local manager either translate or communicate on your behalf, and ensure your messages and stories are culturally appropriate.
The communications cascade above provides a systematic approach toward building a communications program. You can use it to ask an insourced or outsourced communications professional to shape a communications strategy for each of your individual priorities and audiences, and an overall program for you early in your transition. Given that attention is a scarce resource, it is important for the communications professional to design an overall program that is respectful of the different audiences’ and your time.
A good communications program also helps you assess how much effort and time you will have to put into communications. It will clarify your messages and ways of engaging critical stakeholders. An authentic and credible communications program can help persuade and inform key stakeholders on your intentions and successes, and this in turn can accelerate your impact on the organization.
Conversation versus communication
The communications cascade may seem like a hierarchical structured template for one-way communications from you to an audience. It does not have to be so. You may have positions and viewpoints you communicate through conversations and dialogue with other stakeholders. Indeed you may modify your positions and viewpoints based on the dialogues with stakeholders. Conversations are part of the communications process, useful for establishing mutual understanding and revising priorities and messages. The cascade, while appearing linear, is not meant to be a one-time effort. Instead it should be a dynamic process with feedback that is reviewed and reshaped every six months or so to be relevant, timely, and effective.
Beware of the inauthentic and inane
Today there is a proliferation of electronic communications channels within and across organizations—Yammer, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and so on. As a leader, you may be counseled to be present on these channels by your marketing and communications staff; they may even write messages for you to disperse on these channels. Some even directly send messages on your behalf. Do not feel compelled to post communications on these channels just because they are available—doing so without care makes you look inauthentic and inane. For example, I often get recommendations on so-called thought leadership pop up on my LinkedIn feed from executives—with a one liner such as “Great article on the future of X.” When you open the article and find it to be lame, it simply makes you think the executive who endorsed it is inauthentic or inane. They probably never read it (thus inauthentic) and probably left it to someone else to formulate their post. These new online channels are useful tools when you are authentic and credible in using them to effectively connect with key stakeholders. But beware of serial endorsing and other such online communication behaviors. Your name may appear frequently online but also adversely undermine your credibility. If you endorse a piece, say why it personally resonated with you and at least read it before endorsing it. Be discerning in your online communications and choose to be credible and authentic by truly personalizing them.
All too often, senior executives underestimate the communications effort required to influence and make a difference in their organization. Frequently, internal communications support for senior executives is either unavailable beyond the CEO’s office or, when available, is ad hoc and not systematic. Working through the communications cascade early in the transition with a good communications professional can help you clarify your asks of them, and both frame and execute a systematic communications agenda efficiently to achieve your organizational objectives.