I like to call it “tuning into Radio Station WIFT (What’s In it For Them?).” Unfortunately, many CEOs seem to get poor reception on this station, especially when it comes to giving town hall state-of-the-union talks to their employees. After seeing too many CEOs botch this wonderful opportunity to build rapport with clear and inspiring communication, I felt compelled to write an article on the topic. CEOs: Read This Before You Open Your Mouth appeared in the May 3rd edition of the Harvard Business Review Blog Network.
Are you a CEO preparing to give a town hall state-of-the-union talk to your employees? Whether you’re a new CEO or one who’s been sitting in the chair for some time, keep reading.
An awful lot of planning, time and resources go into these town halls. They’re frequently big productions beamed via satellite to offices around the world. Employees take time away from their jobs to attend. Yet, incredibly, there is so much wasted opportunity.
Take a look at your speech.
- Have you spent time thinking about what’s in it for them? Do you know why you’re really giving it — aside from your Communications Director or head of HR telling you to that you’re supposed to update the troops and it’s another box you have to check off?
- Have you asked yourself: What do you want your people to feel, think and do when you are done? (If you’ve left that part to the speechwriter, don’t.)
- Have you addressed the elephant in the room? Bad press, layoffs, elimination of benefits, product recall, weak earnings, downgraded rating, takeovers, even widespread perceptions of you that might be less than flattering?
Employees are sick of pep talks that say nothing and do nothing but leave them guessing both about the state of the company and their Chief Executive. When it comes to their leaders, employees want and need a feeling of intimacy — the ability to see into them and to connect with them. They want to know who their leaders are — their background and experience and why they took this job. They want to understand their leaders’ style, their values, hot buttons, vulnerabilities, what keeps them up at night, what they plan on doing and what they expect from people. Yes, they want to be motivated and inspired but they can’t be either if you’re just a talking head.
In an era where building rapport and clear and inspiring communication is so critical, it always surprises me how many CEOs still get it wrong, like one from a bio tech company last week. In a half hour speech to his new employees, without ever referencing the company’s massive layoffs two weeks prior, the CEO asked, with a straight face, “Does anyone have any questions?”
Hint to Bio Tech CEO: The question your employees really had on their minds was: Am I next on the chopping block? Are you going to continue to cut healthcare benefits too? Is the plan you just outlined in 15 minutes really going to turn this situation around? I wonder if your proclaimed open door policy is really just that or do I have to run it up the typical chain of command? Are you another CEO who doesn’t really ever read his e-mail or anything over five sentences? And what can I do specifically to help the company thrive?
Mr. Bio Tech and others rarely think about their audiences’ emotional temperature. What are people’s thoughts and feelings as they enter the room and sit down?
Of course, it’s important to motivate your audience and tell them how delighted you are to be leading them and the company in such exciting times and how much you look forward to working together, but if you don’t bring your head and heart to the stage, then all they see is someone spewing platitudes and generalities, and not the leader they want to follow.
For one new CEO this meant explaining his trajectory on Wall Street not because he was the smartest guy in the room but because he realized early on that while he was smart, he couldn’t ever compete with the intellectual wizards coming out of Harvard or Princeton. A first generation Hispanic American from a poor Mexican family, whose parents still struggle with English, he knew the only way he could succeed, especially beyond his Ivy League counterparts, was by working harder and being more attentive to his clients’ needs than anybody else. For the last twenty years that’s what he did, and that’s what he expected from every one of his 20,000 employees who he was addressing for the first time.
For another, it meant making clear to the troops that she didn’t want just feedback, but solutions. She reminded them as well how much she appreciated hearing good news noting, “Why doesn’t anybody come and tell me about the good things that are happening? I want to hear the good as well as bad. If it’s because you fear that your colleagues will think you’re sucking up, please don’t let that stop you. I really want to hear what you have to say — the good, the bad and the ugly!” She even admitted she preferred short e-mails with thoughts distilled into a few key bullet points — a small detail that later proved immensely valuable to her team who were used to bombarding her predecessor with lengthy e-mails that more often than not were simply ignored, causing major frustration and work delays for everyone.
Communicating in a way that connects with your audience is critical not only for town hall gatherings but in every situation. Don’t be the CEO who ignores or underestimates the importance of doing so genuinely with both head and heart. Make sure that reaching out to a broad group of employees from different levels and departments doesn’t translate to dull and impersonal “one size fits all” communication. And, don’t be tempted to wing it because of the demands on your time. A successful town hall state-of-the-union speech takes significant preparation and thought on your part, so remember what many leaders learn the hard way: you’re only as good as your last speech.
Hope you enjoy it, and as always, please feel free to email me any feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.