A client recently asked me to help with some quick benchmarking, “How are other organizations handling CEO communication?” My client was about to put the final touches on a communication plan for her CEO and she wanted to be sure the plan covered all the bases. 

I went into research mode and collected several examples of CEO communication plans that we’ve worked on over the years. After a quick review, it hit me. Among a few great ideas, I saw a bunch of ho-hum communication tactics. Here’s my theory: most CEOs (and the communicators who advise them) are hesitant to try new communication methods or out-of-the-box ideas. It’s tough to push senior leaders out of their comfort zones. 

But if the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s worth taking a risk with new communication approaches that break through and resonate with employees.

Here are six strategies to consider when it’s time to work on an internal communication plan for the CEO (or a member of the senior leadership team):

1. Provide inspiration. Develop an inspiring story(ies) about the vision/plan that the CEO comes back to again and again.

Here’s an example: When the leadership team at a pharmaceutical company decided the R&D team needed to sharpen its innovative edge, they started a change initiative. As a first step, we developed a visual metaphor to explain the innovation process: the innovation garden. 

2. Encourage interaction. Find opportunities for the CEO to interact with employees rather than speaking to them, such as involving employees in identifying and solving challenges, and asking employees questions (versus answering their questions). 

Here’s an example: During the first 100 days of a CEO’s tenure at telecommunications company, he conducted a listening tour. During each session, he asked employees seven questions—consistently. The tour generated 2,000 responses that were used as inspiration for future communication and to develop priorities.

3. Be approachable. During the early days of the pandemic, many senior leaders fell into a less-corporate, matter-of-fact communication style, which employees appreciated. How do we keep up that momentum? Coach leaders to be more personal and transparent about deep issues, such as financials and challenges.

Here’s an example: Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) sessions have become a go-to tool during the Zoom era as a way to demonstrate openness, empathy and reassurance. 

4. Go unscripted. Include impromptu and (what feel like) spontaneous moments. Employees regard these moments as authentic and that authenticity builds trust.

Here are examples: Plan formal tactics that include unscripted elements, such as hosting brainstorms on hot topics or open discussion sessions. And include informal approaches, such as walking an office (after COVID, of course) or responding to random social posts.

5. Define her/his communication role. Articulate how the CEO’s communication role is different from and works with members of her/his leadership team. 

Here’s an example: If the CEO’s role is to articulate the vision and plan, then members of the leadership team are responsible to share what the vision/plan means for their organizations. 

6. Gather feedback. Collect feedback from employees. How do they rate the CEO’s communication? Use the data to shape content, refine tactics and garner support for changes to communication.

Here’s an example: At a manufacturing organization, two members of the senior leadership team were responsible to tour the country and meet with employees in townhall-style meetings. After each session, we asked employees to rate the senior leader. The key piece of feedback? Employees said they wanted to hear from senior leaders more often. 

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