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EXECUTIVE INSIGHT: Six Actions for CEOs to Adopt a 21st-century Approach to Communication|Knowledge@ Wharton

The best corporate leaders make it a priority to communicate effectively as they navigate this hyper-connected, digital era. They realize that every word and deed is vulnerable to public scrutiny and intense criticism. Yet, paradoxically, communications is an undervalued, lightly regarded discipline in the theory and practice of corporate leadership, considering it too ‘soft’.

Chief executives need to focus on communications as a management capability much more seriously than they typically do.

In this opinion piece, communications expert Walter G. Montgomery explains the steps executives must take to ensure their organizations survive and thrive by using best-of-class practices.

Communications is an undervalued, lightly regarded discipline in the theory and practice of corporate leadership.

Whether a company succeeds or fails in navigating a crisis, completing a merger, avoiding regulatory blunders, or executing everyday operations depends heavily on skillful communication.

 

A Strategic Instrument

If a CEO seeks to make communications all it can be — an instrument of strategic and tactical navigation — I believe there are several actions to consider, some rather unconventional:

  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, including compensation incentives that promote good communication practices.
  1. Inject science into your communications strategy: Neuroscience and behavioral economics, 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. Sophisticated research grounded in science is an excellent tool for developing strategies and messages that move people to desired actions. For instance, it has shown extraordinary results in leading individuals to make wise decisions about their saving and spending habits, building an organizational culture of trust and predicting consumer behavior.
  1. Mandate a holistic assessment of the communications status quo in 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. Include a study of every internal and external constituency that presents exposures and opportunities for the organization. Assess how it creates relationships with those constituencies, 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, so it is essential to evaluate the organization’s ability to identify problems and opportunities and then reliably report that information through feedback channels up the hierarchy, all the way to the CEO. Further, the assessment work should be done in an integrated manner, managed strategically from the top, not siloed into different departments. Such an analysis is a critical type of risk management.
  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. The CEO should lead by example, refining his or her own skills as a communicator.
  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. The lack of such comprehensive strategic oversight of the ways a company communicates results in unseen vulnerabilities, missed opportunities and unfortunate surprises for senior management.
  1. Use communications to build the organization’s culture with a focus on a small number of clear, sincerely embraced 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. Certainly, both of these values are essential to a healthy communications environment, where people can adapt to continual change, work together and not be fearful of surfacing ethical and other problems they see. If these two values are ignored or betrayed, they can undo an organization, generating cynicism, a survivalist mentality, suppression of hard truths, rationalization of bad behavior and a band of “yes men” around the CEO.

Chief executives need to focus on communications as a management capability much more seriously than they typically do. They should lead a thorough rethinking of what communications does and should do, subsequently transforming it into the constructive force it can be Twitter . We live in the 21st century, yet communications still operates within a 20th century mindset. This severely constricts its potential for delivering full value to many areas of corporate endeavor.

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Montgomery, an advisory partner at Finsbury, is the retired CEO and co-founder of its predecessor firm, Robinson Lerer and Montgomery.

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