A CEO’s Other Role: Chief Communicator

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A chief communications officer at a Fortune 100 company recently told me, “Our CEO considers himself to be the chief communicator.”

I’d never heard it put quite that directly, but that CEO is spot on. If companies are ships, their chief executives are the captains—they chart the course and steer the ship. But they’re also the figureheads—the faces of the company, the chief communicators—that represent the brand and reputation of the organization in every critical setting.

What’s more, the CEO’s communication style and ability sets the tone for communication throughout every department and every level of the company.

Motivation, reputation, valuation, engagement, productivity, and performance all start with the CEO’s communication.  

A such, a CEO is constantly under pressure to set the tone and shape the company’s reputation and standing with key stakeholders, including customers, employees, investors, and community members. And the way the CEO communicates with those stakeholders drives their perceptions of the company as a whole.

So why is this responsibility often overlooked?

The Misconception of Communication as a “Soft Skill”

Let’s face it: CEOs have a lot on their plates, and it often seems as though every responsibility is the number-one priority. So despite the obvious importance of communication for maintaining the company’s reputation and overall health, this so-called “soft skill” is often the first to slip through the cracks. Usually because communication training feels like a huge investment in time and money with very little clear ROI.

And we get it. Executives are accustomed to making their most important business decisions based on hard data and quantitative research into the bottom line—not on subjectivity or opinion. When the resources are tight or the schedule is too packed, the “softest” initiatives are the first to go.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, and in fact, it shouldn’t.

Yes, communication has traditionally been considered more of an art, and it’s a field that’s long been lacking in analytical tools like behavioral analytics, psychology and neuroscience, and statistics. But with the right tools in place, communication training can become a precise, predictive science with clear value and demonstrable ROI.

Transforming Communication from a “Soft Skill” to a Strategic Focal Point 

Peter Drucker once said, “What gets measured gets improved.” My perspective, and my motivation, is that if we can transform communication from a soft skill into a measured outcome, similarly to the way marketing has evolved over the past decade, we can help organizations tackle one of the final frontiers of performance and productivity.

How do we create this organizational change? My favorite summary of these strategic initiatives is from Walter Montgomery in an opinion piece he wrote for Knowledge at Wharton, excerpted below:

  1. Clearly and repeatedly, through both words and actions, send the message that effective communication is essential for business success and career advancement: It’s important for everyone to know that the CEO takes communications very seriously. This is a powerful, indispensable message. But it requires consistent, hard-nosed follow-through […] 
  1. Inject science into your communications strategy: Neuroscience and behavioral analytics, in addition to the best polling and statistical techniques, have opened vast new areas of knowledge that communications professionals can use to their advantage to heighten their credibility and increase the effectiveness of their messages. […]
  1. Mandate a holistic assessment of the communications status quoin your organization: In this assessment, don’t be limited by the traditional definition of “communications.” Review both the verbal and non-verbal ways in which the organization projects an image of itself through its various activities […] from the body language of a customer service agent to the treatment of laid-off employees, to positions on sensitive public-policy matters, to the design of products and services, to the public visibility of the CEO, and so on. Along the way, remember that communication is a two-way street […]
  1. Make sure that any person at any level who has responsibility for some form of communication (verbal or non-verbal) can do it well: The CEO should develop a solid understanding of what constitutes good communication practices and insist on training initiatives to ensure people have the ability to carry out their communications duties effectively. […]
  1. Redefine the traditional top communications job, giving it increased breadth, depth and sophistication: CEOs should expect — and allow — senior communications executives to take a truly holistic approach to their jobs, with responsibility for assessing and helping to improve verbal and non-verbal communications throughout their organizations. […]
  1. Use communications to build the organization’s culture and values with a focus on a small number of clear, sincerely embraced messages and values: Constant investment in sound, well-communicated values is priceless protection against all kinds of potential future losses. Values such as trust and the freedom to challenge authority are prime candidates to form the bedrock of a corporation’s value system. […]

– Walter Montgomery, Knowledge at Wharton

As captain of the company ship, A CEO wears many hats. But perhaps the most important is Chief Communicator, responsible for shaping the company’s reputation with both internal and external audiences. And now, thanks to advancements in research and technology, communication development is no longer an elusive “soft skill,” but an objective, quantifiable strategy.

Let’s take leadership communication into the twenty-first century.