I recently sat with a communications professional who was lamenting the poor working relationship he has with his CEO. “He’s overbearing and impatient,” he shared. “He sees me as nothing more than an order taker, and has no appreciation for what I bring to the table.”
And then he positively bristled when I asked what he was doing to resolve it.
Building influence and trust with a senior leader—especially one with a challenging style—takes both time and intentionality. It requires learning about the leader’s goals, perspective and hopes, and being responsive to the demands and realities he and the organization faces. It takes knowing yourself and knowing your stuff. And it means being willing to say some things to your CEO that just might make you both a bit uncomfortable.
Here are four:
- “I don’t get it.” If you, as the internal communicator, aren’t understanding a strategy, decision or the related context or rationale, how will you ever articulate it to others? There are any number of reasons why you might not be grasping what you’re hearing. It may be that your CEO’s explanation is simply clumsy. Perhaps the issue is particularly complex, technical or unfamiliar. Or it could be that the strategy or decision truly doesn’t hold up under careful scrutiny. Have the courage to admit there are gaps in your understanding (or the strategy). Ask questions and mirror back what you hear. Pick the brains of subject matter experts in your organization. Do some research and reading. You can’t help others connect to the news or message until and unless you get your head around it.
- “My recommendation is...” This seems like a big fat duh, but I see too many internal communication pros walk into the C-suite to address a communication issue without a well-thought-out viewpoint or solution. Instead they wait for direction (and then gripe about not having strategic standing in the eyes of the CEO). By all means, explore options with the CEO and be willing to flex—but don’t make her do the heavy lifting.
- “They need to hear that from you.” The senior leader must set the tone for the organization, articulate a compelling vision, establish priorities and clarify expectations. Nothing absolves a CEO of these core communication responsibilities.
- “Great job.” Avoid being overly critical of the CEO’s communication capabilities. Instead, focus on creating opportunities and forums that play to her natural style and strengths. Be specific in your feedback so that she knows exactly what it is she should keep doing: I saw the light bulb switch on when you said... Employees appreciated your candor about... That story you told was particularly helpful... Children and puppies are taught through positive reinforcement; it goes a long way with leaders too.
For internal communication pros to earn an influential, strategic foothold in the C-suite, they must have the courage and confidence to say the things that must be said.