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C-Level Communication

by Carrie Beckstrom     Dec 12, 2022 12:04:08 PM

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The world is changing, and so are stakeholders’ expectations for communication from the C-suite. Today, employees, customers, and partners demand a new level of authenticity, transparency, and engagement from business leaders.

Early in my career the executives I observed from afar had a very polished, scripted communication style loaded with corporate jargon completely devoid of infallibility and personal insights. I found this to be especially true of the very few female execs I had the opportunity to observe. 

This was a time of overcorrection. A time in which women tried to dress and act like men. Yes, I know, I’m dating myself; but hopefully, at least some of you can relate. 

Part of me tried to emulate them as I aspired to advance in my career. Yet, I had this inner voice tugging at me. How could I possibly lead and be fulfilled if I wasn’t being my authentic self? 

Over time I chose to pave my way despite the norms. Now, I confess I feel a bit of validation that my instincts are finally in vogue. 

There’s no doubt things are changing.

We’re seeing organizations becoming flatter, younger, more diverse, and virtual—and that’s creating new expectations of the C-suite. Operational and financial expertise are no longer enough. Social skills like empathy, active listening, and transparency are now just as crucial.

I had a fascinating conversation during a recent PowerSpeaking Live! monthly forum with two leadership development and communication experts, Andrew Blotky and Brad Whitworth. We kicked off the conversation by looking at what’s driving the new expectations of business leaders. . .

So, our digital tools and changing perspectives are creating a paradigm shift in how leaders need to communicate. Employees and stakeholders want more say in how a company operates—and more honest, heartfelt, effective communication from and dialogue with executives.

Great leaders build trust, create alignment in working toward a common vision, and empower people to do their best. In this blog, we’ll look at the seven key leadership communication practices that make all of that possible.


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Authenticity: The quickest route to trust

More and more studies and surveys are showing that employees want authentic, meaningful communication from leaders. 

During the same PowerSpeaking Live! conversation I mentioned earlier, Andrew offered some great insights about what he calls “the power of vulnerability,” which gets to the heart of what it means to be an authentic leader . . .

One of our Executive Coaches, Ralph Wolter, has worked with senior leaders who struggle with how best to communicate in a transparent, authentic way, especially during uncertain times. 

“Many leaders don’t feel comfortable saying ‘I don’t know,’” he says. “But authenticity from company executives is more important now than ever because there are so many uncertainties. The economy, the wars, and even the lingering effects of the pandemic.

Most senior leaders I’ve coached understand the need for more authenticity.  What they want help with is how to work new behaviors and communication skills into their daily routines. The truth is, for many executives it just takes practice.“

As a CEO, I’ve experienced the powerful effects of being authentic. And Ralf is right; for some, especially those groomed to take a more buttoned-up approach, it's a behavior that takes practice.

Active Listening: The best decision-making tool

To make the best decisions, leaders need the best data. To get the best information we need to seek out and listen to perspectives from across the organization and from other stakeholders. 

And when we listen, we need to listen well. 

Early in my career as a leader one of my staff members gave me an hourglass as a joke (so she said) for Christmas. She gave it to me because I evidently would always glance at my watch during one-on-one meetings with her. I was mortified! I truly wasn't conscious of the fact that I was doing that. 

I kept the hourglass on my desk from that point forward as a reminder to provide my undivided attention when interacting with others.

Don’t make the same mistake I did. Give the person in front of you your full attention and listen deeply to what they’re saying. Ask open-ended questions like “tell me more” or “explain that for me.” Paraphrase to make sure you’re hearing them correctly. If they’re focusing on a problem, ask for their recommendations on what’s needed to fix it. Take notes, and follow up in a meaningful way.

The added benefit of being an active and empathetic listener is that we build stronger relationships.  When we truly listen, we’re saying, “I care about you and what you’re saying.”

Transparency: Empower people with the truth

Remember the scripted, impersonal communication style I observed early in my career? I think that approach stemmed from senior leaders feeling the need to control more. Today, they need to connect more. And that requires transparency.

People can see through any attempts to avoid reality. Plus, if we aren’t transparent, they will imagine much worse.

During a PowerSpeaking Live! earlier this year, the panelists and I talked about how to communicate a painful change. Sandia Ren, Chief Transformation Officer at Vitech Systems Group, gave this clear-eyed advice . . .

If leaders and management teams are transparent—about how the business is doing, changes that need to be made, and what people need to do to meet new expectations—they create a more positive, energized environment. 

Clarity: Foster understanding—no matter the audience

Being simple and clear has always been a best practice. But it’s even more important now, in this diverse, global world in which we’re all living and working.

Andrew described the need for and challenges of keeping leadership communication clear and
simple. . .

I’d add that the best way to be clear and promote understanding is to consider the audience, then tailor the content and delivery to their needs.

Who are you communicating with? What do they need to know? What circumstance—location, culture, language, etc.—should you take into consideration? How will your news or message impact their jobs? What’s in it for them? 

Next up, the importance of consistent communications from leadership...

Consistency: Preserve the power of your message

Another aspect of clear leadership communication is the cadence and form of the message. 

As Andrew points out in this clip, it’s wise not to dilute your message or create confusion by constantly changing the way you deliver it . . .

Andrew also told a story about an executive at Facebook who for years sent out a Monday-morning message to all employees, giving news about the business and other insights. 

One week he had to deal with a family emergency and didn’t have time for his Monday message. That innocent, one-time break in the consistency of his communiqués was noticed—big time. Employees’ reactions were more or less, “What happened? Is something wrong?”

So, consistency matters, whether we need to deliver a series of communications over six months regarding an organizational change, or start a weekly video message.

Empathy: We’re all in this together

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, researchers Bill George and Zach Clayton paint a vivid picture of the caring and engagement employees now expect from senior management. . . 

“These days people will not engage their full selves—mind, body, and spirit—until they believe their leader cares about them. They seek a personal connection with their leader before they will invest themselves wholly in their jobs. That requires leaders to provide a level of access, openness, and depth that once was taboo.”

It’s easy to get lost in task mode focusing on products, targets, and results. Yet what matters as much today are the people behind all of those designs, sales presentations, and quarterly numbers.

As leaders, we need to stay connected to our humanity. 

I can think of no better example of the importance of empathy and empathetic communication than when actions need to be taken that adversely affect some within the organization.

Layoffs are once again in the news, and with them, some wildly different examples of how companies handled them. 

Consider Elon Musk at Twitter. Some people were summarily told to pack up and leave. The rest were given a hardcore ultimatum to either commit to working ‘round the clock or leave. No compassion, no regret, no support. 

Contrast that approach with the open and caring communications delivered to employees by CEOs at Airbnb, Meta, and Stripe. These leaders admitted mistakes, expressed a genuine regret for the job losses, and provided information and support to help laid-off employees get through the crisis. They even thought to outline support available for employees who would keep their jobs, knowing that layoffs hurt everyone.

Empathy is good for business, and good for humanity.

Social Advocacy: When it’s the right thing to do

Probably one of the most radical changes taking place among employees these days is the expectation that their companies take a stand on social issues.

These Gartner research findings, cited in a 2021 Forbes article, are pretty stunning . . .

“ … three-quarters of employees expect their employer to take a stance on current societal or cultural issues, even if those issues have nothing to do with their employer … Demands have only become more urgent during recent protests demanding social equity and justice.”

“68% of employees would consider quitting their current job and working with an organization with a stronger viewpoint on the social issues that matter most to them.”

Back to that leadership communication PowerSpeaking Live!, Andrew offered some valuable advice to leaders who are considering if, how, and when it makes sense to take a public stand . . .

I especially appreciate the point Andrew made about selecting issues for which there exists a genuine connection. Whether that connection is the nature of the business, its vision, or the leader’s experience, it’s an authentic, credible tie to the issue that will make speaking out ring true.

Final Thoughts

When the pandemic hit and the world was turned upside down, I had been with PowerSpeaking for two years. 

As its CEO, I was grateful for the culture the company’s founders and leadership team had created over the decades—one of honesty, authenticity, and empathy. That foundation, and my commitment to it, set us all up for success in rising to meet a terrifying, uncertain time. 

In the end, we not only survived the crisis, we thrived—and continue to.

The best leaders build trust, empower people to do their best, and inspire them to work together toward a common vision. From where I sit, I know the best way to rise to that gold standard is to be real, be willing to show your vulnerability, and commit to transparent, timely, empathetic communication.

Our employees, stakeholders, and communities now expect no less of us—and that’s a good thing.

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Tara Bergan

Tara Bergan

Master Facilitator and Coach, PowerSpeaking, Inc.

About the Author

Carrie Beckstrom

Chief Executive Officer, PowerSpeaking, Inc.

Carrie is passionate about leading the PowerSpeaking, Inc. team in helping organizations—at corporations like Genentech, eBay, Autodesk, and Gilead Sciences—develop powerful communication skills that inspire people and get results. “Our purpose is to make great people even greater at what they do every day. That includes becoming effective global communicators who build positive relationships and drive business forward.”

Prior to joining PowerSpeaking, Carrie enjoyed more than 30 years’ experience in the learning and development industry, where she led award-winning teams.

Topics: Leadership communication

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