CEO speaking to crowd in park

When Your CEO Makes it Difficult to Communicate

We hear a lot about the ‘boss’ in our line of work. We help busy people create and deliver stories about important and complex subjects, and as you already know, that’s harder than it sounds. Our clients have tough jobs sometimes, so if the boss is part of the problem when it comes to delivering those messages, sooner or later we’re going to hear about it. But here’s the surprising thing: Most of the time, these people think that their boss – usually the company’s CEO, but sometimes another senior executive – is a genius, an inspirational leader, and a person they admire – even if they wish they didn’t make their job so hard. So, what’s up with these complaints, and why do they occur so often?

A CEO’s view of the world can often be very different than the view held by the audiences they need to persuade

The answer lies in the very things that often make the CEO, the CEO. In a surprising number of cases, he or she really is a genius, but can’t see the world through anything but their own eyes. A CEO’s view of the world can often be very different than the view held by the audiences they need to persuade, often because there is a huge imbalance between what the CEO knows, and what their audience knows. Because of that, these brilliant, highly respected, well regarded leaders often become an obstacle and a ‘person to manage’ when it comes to successfully telling a company’s story to the very audiences most important to the company. In our experience, this happens for three main reasons:

The CEO is the expert but can’t ‘dumb it down’

We often see this in companies led by a founder CEO, who may have been the lead researcher, inventor, or developer of the company’s core products. These individuals know that it’s the science or technology that got them this far, and that if they compromise on that, the company is lost. And they’re right! But what they fail to realize, or often know but don’t yet have the skills to change without some help, is that they’re operating at the PhD level while most of their audience is stuck in junior high, in terms of their understanding of the CEO’s area of expertise.

In these cases, we often work with our client to help the CEO understand this situation and build new skills to improve their communications (CEOs actually love to learn when they see the need, and tangible results). It takes work, but after a previously ‘unreachable’ member of the CEO’s most valuable audience tells them that they finally ‘get it,’ it’s amazing how willing most of these senior execs are to receive future coaching, both from our team and from the person that connected us to them.

People are afraid to speak truth to the CEO

Oddly enough, this happens just as often with incredibly charismatic, likable CEOs as it does with tyrants. In fact, sometimes staff members are more afraid to speak truth to a CEO they really like and admire than they might be willing to ‘unload’ on the tyrant, because they don’t want to hurt the feelings of this senior person they admire. In these situations, it can sometimes help to have a skilled, experienced third party available to help break the ice with the CEO about the things they need to change in their message delivery.

We’re frequently tasked with that role, in part because our principals are often viewed as either a peer, for older leaders, or as a senior advisor, for younger founders. ‘Truth speaking’ is one of those things a successful organization needs to figure out how to accomplish if it wants to connect with its most important and valuable audiences and starting with having truth spoken to – and listened to – at the most senior levels, is vital to building trust and ultimately the success of an organization.

The CEO lacks focus

Most people think of CEOs and other senior leaders as driven, dedicated, almost single-minded individuals who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals. We know some CEOs like that, but just as common are the brilliant leaders who got to where they’re at in large part because they have about a million ideas per minute, and one or two of those ideas just happened to stick.

These individuals are frequently inspiring and brilliant, but they can wreak havoc on a messaging campaign, because they tend to throw every idea that pops into their brilliant mind into the presentation or storyline instead of staying on message. When we encounter the ‘Gregarious CEO,’ or the CEO that wants to throw the proverbial kitchen sink at the audience, we know that working with our client to keep them on track and on message is job one, so we deploy tools that help him or her maintain focus, above all else.

Ensure the outcome that everyone wants: Clear, simple, and effective communications that engage and educate a company’s most valuable stakeholders

There are other reasons that otherwise successful CEOs and senior leaders can get in the way of a successful communications effort, but in almost every case it’s possible to use the individual’s strengths to help overcome their weaknesses. It’s not always easy, but if you’ve done it enough, it’s not as hard as you might think. There are tools, techniques and experts like us who can quickly assess what’s going on and help remedy the situation to ensure the outcome that everyone wants: Clear, simple, and effective communications that engage and educate a company’s most valuable stakeholders.