Honesty is the Only Policy for Great Leaders

Early in my corporate communications career, when I was still learning what the job was really all about, I did something that probably seemed brash and in retrospect looks brilliant. I only wish I could say it was an original idea, but I was simply drawing from the best practices I read about in professional journals.

I suggested that the leaders of our business should communicate honestly.

No spin. No selective communication. Just tell employees the truth, even when it hurts.

They didn’t always take that advice, but most of the times they did. As a result, I believe employees grew to trust senior management more than they used to.

When a layoff loomed, business leaders explained why it was necessary and how it would work. When major changes were coming to manufacturing operations, leaders met with employees in face-to-face meetings to explain them. When business declined, senior management talked about the reasons why and the plan for turning it around. Employees asked tough questions. Leaders responded to them.

This seems like common sense, but even in today’s hyperconnected business environment, many leaders choose to mislead employees rather than to be honest with them. (Daily Voice, anyone?)

Still, many business leaders get it. Last month, Groupon founder and CEO Andrew Mason wrote a refreshingly honest memo to employees about why he was leaving the company. “I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family,” he wrote, using one of the most common cliches in business communication. He quickly added, “Just kidding – I was fired today.”

Mason went on to give the reasons for his firing. “As CEO, I am accountable,” he wrote. Then he set up his successor for success: “This leadership change gives you some breathing room to break bad habits and deliver sustainable customer happiness – don’t waste the opportunity!”

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, leadership John Kotter tells of another CEO who departed with honest words. It wasn’t because of anything wrong Jack Ma had done as the leader of Chinese web company Alibaba, however. In this case, Ma was a popular and successful leader who knew employees would have a difficult time adjusting to a new CEO. Acknowledging this was not an act of inflated ego, Kotter says, but rather an honest assessment of the situation.

“We want the truth from our leaders,” Kotter writes. “But we have become cynics, accustomed to twisted messages from politicians and company marketing communications so wordsmithed that they lack meaning. These things do not inspire us, or pull us toward someone in a leadership position, with an attitude of wanting to help. They do the opposite. Great leaders have the ability to surprise and reassure people with their direct and honest communication. This is an essential part of what makes them great. And it is especially important in times of big change and uncertainty — such as CEO transitions — where it can smooth the way for the incoming leader.”

In good times and bad, honesty is the way to go. Great business leaders know this.

 

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Great News! CEOs Still Don’t Like Us Very Much

Public relations and communications professionals might be gaining some stature in the eyes of their CEOs, according to the latest Generally Accepted Practices report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The biennial survey included 620 PR and communication professionals in private and public companies, government organizations and agencies.

About 60 percent of the respondents said they’re invited to attend executive meetings while nearly 70 percent said their top executives take their recommendations seriously. Fifty-six percent said their CEOs believe PR and communications contribute to their company’s financial success.

That’s good news because PR and communication functions are like the runts of the litter, always having to fight to get fed and constantly vying for our executives’ attention and appreciation. The fact that more than half report their CEOs feel they contribute to the bottom line is encouraging indeed.

However, it begs some questions: Why do the other half of the CEOs keep communicators around? If they don’t believe PR and communication add any value, why do they keep funding the roles? What about the 40 percent who never get invited to executive meetings and the 30 percent whose recommendations are waved off as frivilous? No CEO in his or her right mind would hang on to a corporate function they don’t believe in or value.

I believe the truth is they do believe in PR and communication. They do value us. They’ll just never admit it.

If we’re doing our jobs right, CEOs will never be in love with those of us in PR and communication. That’s because we’re challenging conventional wisdom in our organizations. We’re pushing our executives to change the nature of their conversations as well as their tone. We’re advocating for the audiences who, more than ever, see through corporate crap and demand that CEOs be real and authentic no matter what they’re talking about. If we’re serious about providing value, we’re a burr in our CEOs’ sides most of the time — but all for the sake of helping our organizations do and say the right things. It’s all about helping our organizations — and leaders — succeed.

CEOs don’t like us very much and probably never will. But they know they need us.

 

Answering the Why

While consulting with a Fortune 500 consumer products company, my client and colleagues and I conducted internal and external research as the basis for an internal communication plan. As we talked with employees in focus groups, one theme kept reappearing. Employees didn’t just want to know where the company was headed and what decisions management was making. They also wanted to know why.

Answering the why is probably one of the most overlooked — and one of the most powerful — aspects of employee communication.

We might do a great job of communicating strategic messages on behalf of business leaders. These might include new products the company is launching or new markets it’s entering, investments the company is making and policies that are changing.

We might do an even better job of telling compelling stories about a team’s innovative approach to solving a problem, an employee’s passion for her job or the unique culture at one of the company’s plants.

These might make for interesting content. Employees might enjoy reading these stories on the intranet or hearing the CEO talk about them in town hall meetings. Leaders might believe they’re doing their part to create an environment of open, transparent communication. And they might be right.

But ask employees what’s missing from the information they receive about the business and often they’ll say they want to know the reasons behind company strategy, leaders’ decisions and changes in company policy and procedures.

Why is the why so important? Because it strengthens employee engagement. Sharing lots of information about the business is a good start toward engaging employees, but you can knock the ball out of the park when you start to talk about why. It helps employees put the pieces of the puzzle together and to make sense of the organization’s complexities. It helps them establish “line of sight” between what they do and what the business is trying to do. It helps them understand the reasons for business decisions, even if they don’t like those reasons.

Why is the company acquiring this seemingly unrelated business? Because it provides an entry point into an adjacent market.

Why does the company have such a stringent social media policy? Because it has a strategy when it comes to engaging with consumers and it wants to speak with one voice.

Why is the company laying off 100 people at this plant? Because bringing its cost structure in line with competitors is in the company’s long-term best interest.

Many business leaders forget that employees are investors, too. Even if they don’t invest their money in company stock, they do invest their time, energy and skills in the enterprise. Business leaders would never communicate a major business decision to investors without explaining why they made that decision — at least, if they want investors to continue investing. The same is true of employees. If you want them to continue investing their discretionary effort in your company, answering the why is essential.