CEO communications

3 Questions Every CEO Needs to Understand to Communicate with Investors

Communicating with investors is one of the most important tasks CEOs need to master. But strong CEO communications might not be beneficial only for the reasons you expect.

All companies want to hire charismatic leaders with strong communication skills. What you might not realize, though, is that a CEO’s communication style and presence can actually impact corporate value. According to a 2020 study, companies led by a CEO who communicates effectively, better withstood the initial negative share price impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of course, communicating with investors takes a special touch. Investors are a tough audience. The most successful investors approach new investment opportunities with healthy skepticism. And how CEOs respond to skeptical investors is key. Investors look for authenticity, authority, and credibility.

In our article for the Harvard Business Review, Audacia Strategies Partner and CEO of Green Room Speakers, Sarah Gershman and I distilled our advice from 20 years of experience working with executives and investors to three core questions. Here, let’s look at strategies CEOs can implement to better connect with investors.

1. Is the CEO confident, without being overconfident?

Investors want to see a CEO who has confidence in their company without being blind to the real challenges they are facing. We like to call this “reasoned confidence.” An overly optimistic presentation runs the risk of losing credibility. As one investor put it, “Don’t be a LEGO-movie leader telling us that ‘everything is awesome.’”

Reasoned confidence is especially critical during specific types of CEO communications, especially crisis communications. Feeling overconfident during a crisis can lead to over-promising or what I like to call the Top Gun Problem: “Your ego is writing checks your body (or in this case, your business) can’t cash” (and with the release of the new Top Gun: Maverick, this reference is more relevant than ever).

To avoid over-promising during a crisis do the following:

  • Triage: You can’t put out all of the fires simultaneously. Instead, you need to prioritize carefully and make hard decisions about where to distribute your attention. An investor relations professional can help you with this.
  • Be transparent: It’s important to set expectations with investors – and other stakeholders! – during a crisis. But if you try to do this in a way that could be perceived as a cover up, you’re digging yourself deeper. Be honest and up-front about issues and what you don’t know.
  • Continue to monitor the situation carefully: Your initial statement is only the beginning. You next need to implement the crisis plan and follow through on your commitments. The absolute worst outcome after a crisis is for a new crisis to develop as a result of mishandling the original crisis.
  • Keep internal communications open: It’s critical to maintain an open dialog within your company, especially during a credibility crisis. In addition to stabilizing the team when they can feel in freefall, employees are your frontline communicators to customers and business partners. 

2. Is the CEO a straight talker?

In addition to being overconfident, CEOs may overcompensate by trying to gloss over the truth or talking in circles. Say it with me: More words does not equate to better outcomes. We often work with CEOs to ensure that they use plain language and give the news to their investors straight. 

Further, while strong preparation is crucial for investor presentations, it is possible to over-rehearse, over-polish, and completely forget about connecting with your audience. An overly polished presentation can leave the audience wondering whether you’re simply telling them what they want to hear.

Investors want to feel seen and heard in a way that sounds authentic and credible. It’s time to get human. Here’s how:

  • Think like a reporter: Journalists are trained to give the who, what, where, when, and how of a story in the first sentence or two when reporting on a story. Replicate this tactic by getting your communications teams together (or go outside of these departments for a different perspective) to brainstorm.
  • Dump the buzzwords: Buzzwords do more than whitewash the stuff we don’t want to talk about. They also obscure your message and make your organization seem less authentic. If you confuse investors with jargon or industry terminology, they will ignore you.
  • Get vulnerable: If you’ve faced a genuine struggle that has made you rethink your company, now may be the time to pull it out and share what you learned. Don’t be afraid to step back from the spreadsheets and share your bigger vision with investors.
  • Step away from the webinars: The formality of webinars can result in investors feeling totally disconnected. Consider how you can incorporate less formal discussions, roundtables, open mic Q&As, etc. While it may make sense to give a short written statement or update to kick off an investor meeting, listening to written remarks being read for any longer than 10-minute intervals is probably too much to ask from those on the other side of the camera.

3. Do they know how to listen? 

Sure, as a CEO, you likely know how to talk. It’s tough to become a successful leader without having the ability to communicate your vision with others. But, how good are you at listening?

Listening is one of the most undervalued skills of CEO communications and a CEO who lacks the ability to listen happens to be one of the biggest red flags for an investor. For CEOs who master the art of listening, however, answering questions from investors can be a great way to boost your credibility. Every question expresses a need, and your answer should show that you hear what’s behind the question. 

A question about your research and development investment strategy, for instance, may actually also be about whether an investor can trust you with their money. If you can’t suss out the deeper need, then you may need to ask for clarification before attempting an answer.

One way to make sure to prioritize listening is to run a murder board before the presentation. To make sure you’re prepared for investors, you’ll want to call in your toughest internal financial analysts and encourage them to live out their wildest inner Shark Tank dreams. Assemble your investor relations murder board and have them begin coming up with “tricky” questions regarding different angles on your message and the numbers.

For example, suppose your firm calls for 10% year-over-year growth. That sounds amazing to your team, unless your biggest competitor comes out with an expected 15% growth rate. Now you’re behind in an investor’s eyes. What does it mean for your business and key competitive differentiators?

This type of preparation can remind you to listen closely to the question and its intent, focus on the facts and not speculation, and practice answering in a way that connects with the audience.

There’s no doubt investors are a tough audience. We have found that the best investor presentations happen when CEOs stop focusing on their own performance and instead speak to investors using reasoned confidence, straight talking, and masterful listening.

For more tips about how CEOs can prepare to answer these three core questions, read the original article in the Harvard Business Review. And if you’d like to learn more about how Audacia Strategies can help you prepare for your next investor meeting, schedule an initial consultation.

Photo credit: Professional Woman Standing In Boardroom Giving Speech To Team by Jacob Lund Photography from NounProject.com

rebuilding corporate trust

Rebuilding Corporate Trust: 4 Ways Business Leaders Can Bring About Real Change

As we slowly leave the pandemic behind and enter the rebuilding period, let’s not forget our responsibility for rebuilding trust in public institutions. With all the highfalutin talk about rebuilding society and cultural norms coming out of the pandemic, it’s tempting to point the finger at the government, NGO’s, and the media.

But we are at a unique crossroads where business leaders are positioned to bring about real change both inside and outside of their organizations. Want evidence? Look no further than corporate reactions to measures tightening voting accessibility. Just over a week ago, hundreds of companies and executives signed on to a new statement opposing “any discriminatory legislation” that would make it harder for people to vote. 

This type of overtly public engagement has become increasingly common over the past few years as corporate executives step into the trust gap vacated by government organizations. 

Earlier this year, global communications firm, Edelman, released its 2021 Trust Barometer and the results are revealing, especially when it comes to rebuilding public trust:

  • Business has a 61% trust level globally (that’s higher than any other institution)
  • 86% of respondents believe that CEO’s must lead on societal issues
  • 68% say CEO’s should step in when governments fail

We can point the finger at others, or we can embrace this as an opportunity to reshape relationships and build new communication paths providing benefits that will long outlive the current moment. Edelman’s Trust Barometer makes it clear which choice your customers and employees want you to make. So let’s look at the why and how of rebuilding trust.

Rebuilding Corporate Trust in Response to the Epidemic of Misinformation

How did we get here? If you were an alien landing on Earth today, you might expect to find people turning to governments and other long-standing institutions for guidance as we restart the global economy. However, the way governments handled the global health crisis has not engendered confidence in people.

Time Magazine nicknames the findings of the Edelman report the “Epidemic of Misinformation.” In the first half of 2020, public trust of governments did rise. Early on, both U.S. and Chinese citizens deemed the government to be the most fit institution to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. However, by May 2020, China and the U.S. saw significant drops in trust by 18 and 23 points respectively.

To explain these sharp decreases, Richard Edelman points to China’s use of censorship and U.S. officials’ touting of “miraculous cures” that were discredited while simultaneously diminishing the efficacy of mask wearing and social distancing in favor of reopening businesses. Edelman’s recommendation: it’s time to declare information bankruptcy

As trust in governments has diminished, trust in businesses has only grown stronger. Given that trust is the glue that holds society together, especially during trying times, leaders must take the initiative to rebuild corporate trust.

How Our Clients are Rebuilding Corporate Trust

Even before the pandemic, many CEO’s appeared to be heeding this call and stepping into their roles as “America’s new politicians.” In 2019, 181 of the nation’s top CEO’s agreed that “driving shareholder value is no longer their sole business objective.” This is a significant break with the past profit-above-all-else mentality.

And this shift, spearheaded by Business Roundtable Chairman and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, reflects growing pressure from employees, social media, and customers to do more than increase stock prices. The pandemic and recent political events have only accelerated this shift.

At Audacia Strategies, we’re fortunate to have a front row seat to see this change in action with our clients. Here’s how our clients are stepping up to rebuild corporate trust one organization at a time:

1. Looking deep into the “soul” of the organization

Our clients are looking deep into the “souls” of their organizations to tap into their purpose. They’re asking: Why do we exist beyond profits? And what value do we add?

They’re also recognizing that often rebuilding corporate trust requires reaching out to customers and employees to ask for help. They’re initiating Voice of the Customer and Voice of the Employee studies to really take the pulse of their key stakeholders.

In many cases, though, rebuilding trust is perpetually aspirational. This applies not only to startups, but also to long-tenured companies. As the world changes, how we leave an impact can and must evolve too.

2. Knowing credibility matters

Employers are recognizing this moment for the opportunity to be a credible voice and to provide clear, unambiguous information for employees to follow — whether it relates to corporate strategy, benefits changes, or societal changes.

When organizations look at employees as humans, as opposed to money-making machines, they see beyond increasing productivity, profitability, and financial performance. They see how having empathy for what their employees have experienced in the past 12 months can open doors for the organization.

In the current climate, employees are exhausted from having to parse through health messages online, in their inboxes, on television, and in the media. Misinformation and disinformation have created a void leaving many without an orientation point from which to believe anything at all. Operating in such a gray area is exhausting and demoralizing.

Companies focused on rebuilding trust recognize the chance to fill this void for their employees (and customers) and gain credibility as a result.

3. Believing consistency is king

The quickest way to blow your credibility when it comes to communications is to broadcast inconsistent and sporadic messages. The old 7×7 rule is still a good starting point — but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. 

For our clients, we encourage a message architecture that ties every communication back to the organization’s purpose and vision

Overcommunication is key… but not via an avalanche of emails. Instead, use multiple channels and — most important — use live events whether structured town halls, small group roundtables, regularly scheduled staff meetings, or just chatting before the next Zoom call. All of these are opportunities to reinforce a consistent message. And that leads me to…

4. Proving trust is not a one-way street

Employees must also have a voice and provide feedback in real time.  And although annual engagement surveys can help, these shouldn’t be the only means of listening. Some ideas:

  • Hold open Q&A sessions
  • Use your internal communication tools like Yammer, Slack, or Google Hangouts to solicit and facilitate feedback
  • Share pulse surveys
  • Voice of the Employee (VOE) research 
  • Have an open inbox/phone line/door for receiving and sharing feedback

When your employees feel heard, they trust that you’ll share with them what’s working and what’s not in a constructive way. They trust that you’ll share the questions and suggestions you receive. And they will trust you to create a roadmap forward and share your progress regularly. 

Rebuilding corporate trust is hard work. It’s sticky. It can be emotional and truthfully, it can be exhausting for the leader who often says, “but I’ve said this in the last 5 meetings — let’s move on.” Remember, though, consistency is credibility and credibility is trust. 

As leaders, we don’t have the luxury of passing the buck here. Rebuilding public trust starts with us. If you’re ready to boldly step into this new era of radical transparency and corporate trust, your partners at Audacia are here for you. Contact us to discover how we can work together. 

Photo credit: Group of happy people working together in an office by Flamingo Images from Noun Project

crisis management strategy

Your Crisis Management Strategy When You Need to Walk Through the Fire…and Keep Walking

Your company can’t seem to make money, your executives are constantly in the news for the wrong reasons, and your plane still isn’t flying. Yeah. It’s been a rough few weeks/months/years. 

Recently, I talked about what to do at the onset of a crisis, but what happens if you can’t immediately get a handle on the crisis? What is your crisis management strategy for living through the day-to-day of a crisis that seems to go on forever? The initial response with employees and customers requires getting to the ground truth quickly and relaying as many of the facts as you can, while taking action. 

Some of these same elements continue to be relevant in dealing with the fallout of a long term crisis. But what’s crucial for an effective crisis management strategy is being perceived as a company that is moving forward and not one hoping that maybe after enough time passes, everyone will forgive or at least FORGET. When facing damage from a crisis that just will not die, you need a plan for resolution and rebuilding.

Putting Out the Fire vs. Leading Through the Fire

One of the most challenging tests of a great leader is how they deal with a crisis. To pass this test, it takes two skills: knowing how to put out fires and knowing how to lead through fire. 

Every executive has to deal with surprises and being in business likely means you’ll have to put out some fires eventually. Especially as your company expands, those fires will seem bigger, or at least the potential for fires gets bigger. When it comes to putting out the fire of a PR crisis, the name of the game is regaining control. 

For example, you may remember that back in 2016, after the shooting in San Bernardino, the FBI demanded that Apple build a “backdoor” giving the authorities the ability to circumvent Apple’s data encryption and unlock any iPhone. In response, Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, effectively took control of the story writing this letter: ”A Message to Our Customers.” Tim Cook knows how to put out fires.

However, there are times when you cannot expect to turn things around so quickly or the fires you thought you put out actually continue to smolder. In these cases, leaders must develop a crisis management strategy for continuing to lead even through the crisis. 

Here are some tips for moving forward through the fire: 

1. Continue to focus on transparency and the truth.

While it can be tempting to say whatever you believe will finally put an end to this crisis, resist the urge to “whitewash” the truth. Keep in mind that following your gut and making quick, impulsive decisions is not a valid crisis management strategy and won’t likely get you through this crisis any faster. Impulsive decisions often result in a further loss of power.

Instead, you’ve got to slow down. It will be uncomfortable to tell the truth and only the truth. The media, your employees, your stakeholders, and your customers will likely push for more information. This is difficult to deal with, especially day in and day out. But if you haven’t worked out all the details, do not speculate. Remember that you are engaged in a game of chess here—not rock, paper, scissors. 

2. Work with your team to identify how the firm is preparing to resolve the crisis and (hopefully) prevent another in the future. 

One way to relieve the discomfort of having to stick to the facts, when you don’t have many facts to offer, is to take action so that you have more to talk about. Of course, I’m not suggesting you take any random action that comes to mind. Again, impulsive decisions are almost never the right move.

Instead, work closely with your team to come up with new policies and processes that help your company is ready to move forward. If new training would prevent a similar problem in the future, take steps to implement new training programs as part of your crisis management strategy, for instance. Also, consider what would improve both internal and external communications in the future.

For example, Stanford University recently changed their leave of absence policy for students facing a mental health crisis in the wake of a class action lawsuit alleging discrimination. In her message to students, Vice Provost for Student Affairs, Susie Brubaker-Cole, said, “my colleagues and I have learned from our conversations with you, and our campus community is stronger because of your advocacy.” She went on to say, “together, we are making significant progress, and this new policy is a critical component.”

3. Do NOT stop communicating, either internally or externally. 

No matter what crisis management strategy you ultimately choose, remember to continue communicating as much as possible. Hiding away and hoping you can weather the storm without facing questions from your employees or the public will only cause more problems. 

Instead, keep your leadership visible and ready to answer questions. Have top leaders communicate internally through regular town hall meetings, Zoom meetings, pre-recorded videos, manager talking points, or even just walking through the cafeteria. 

By the way, communicating does not mean you have to take every accusation “on the chin,” but certainly continue to address the issue(s) with employees via your identified channels. Also, be sure to proactively offer appropriate updates to customers, regulators, investors, etc.

Communicate, both internally and externally:

  • What’s the latest 
  • What has changed 
  • What remains the same

Remind your leadership team not to say anything to employees that they wouldn’t say outside the company. This can be controversial, but it’s a reality. Memos leak. Video and audio can be shared. Be transparent and be prepared for what that means inside and outside the company.

4. Focus on sharing your strategy—value proposition. 

This final point is perhaps the most important aspect of any crisis management strategy: go back to the heart and soul of your company wherever possible. It’s a good idea to look at this crisis from a 360-degree angle. Remind your customers why you do what you do and emphasize that you are looking at this issue as only a blip on the radar. 

The point is not to dazzle or distract from the crisis, but to provide context about what your firm does, why, and how you remain committed to that strategy/mission. Ideally, any new processes, policies, actions are in support of continuing to advance the vision of your organization. With surgical precision, you are removing an imperfection and you will be stronger following this recovery. 

Keep this message close at hand, no matter how bleak things look. And always know that every crisis comes to an end eventually. I know that cliches sound so empty when you’re standing in the middle of the chaos and I know you’ve heard them all, but maybe you can take comfort in the words of one great American entrepreneur, Henry Ford, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” 

If you’re standing in the middle of a crisis right now, don’t go it alone. Find your tribe. Gather your advocates. And build your crisis management team. Fear might leave you feeling paralyzed at the moment, but you can trust the experts at Audacia Strategies. We’ll help you find the right crisis management strategy. Chaos is our brand, so you can bet we know how to walk through the fire. Contact us and let’s get to work!

photo by Authentic Images

leadership success

Apply This One Behavior Change Today and See Big Results Tomorrow—Show Up.

This summer, I’ve had the pleasure and amazing opportunity to work with a stellar leader as he steps into his new role as CEO. His core message of leadership success to his team and employees? Show up.

How powerful, right? Show Up.

  • Don’t just lurk online or in the back of the meeting room.
  • Don’t smile and nod and then forget the conversation (the equivalent of a Facebook “like” or an Instagram “double-tap”).
  • Don’t walk by your coworkers without making eye contact like you would on a city street (heck, don’t do it there either!).
  • Do engage with your coworkers. Take a real interest in them, in their challenges, and in how you can work together.
  • Do take the time to get to know your team as people.
  • Do ask for help and offer help in return.
  • Do remember that work, life, being a human being is hard. We can’t do it (successfully) alone.

We all know what showing up looks and feels like when we encounter it in our lives, but let’s consider some of the specific benefits for leadership success and how it can apply to our communications.

How to Show Up InfographicBenefits of Showing Up.

We all know that actions speak louder than words in life and in business. This is what makes showing up and being present so powerful. Now, let’s focus on the benefits for your team and for you.

For your team…

Showing up empowers them to own their work. Having you there and feeling your presence gives your team an increased sense of ownership over their work. And by “there” I don’t necessarily mean that you must be physically co-located. Many of us work with geographically diverse teams and we have to lead, contribute, and coordinate in virtual environments. This makes it even more important to show up, check in, and maintain open lines of communication to achieve leadership success.

Of course, I’m not saying that you have to cyberstalk or hover over your team. If you make it clear that you are there to offer input when they have questions or concerns and communicate a willingness to receive feedback about what would make their work easier, that’s not being overbearing—that’s being supportive. By contrast, if you always forcefully intervene on your own terms, your team will get the impression that you prefer minions to honest team members.

Showing up gives you the opportunity to model professional behavior. Remember that your team watches you carefully for cues as to how they should behave around clients, executive leadership, investors, and even vendors. Is being on time to meetings and events an important part of your industry’s culture? Model the behavior.

Showing up encourages team work. When the leader of the team engages—really engages—the team is complete. It’s easier for everyone to work through challenges and sets the tone in the office for working together.

For you…

Showing up makes it easier to develop authentic relationships with your team. Regular team interactions create bonds. And tight teams are productive teams.

Keep in mind that interaction cannot feel superficial or forced. Authentic leaders know how to be relatable and in tune with their employees’ needs. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be pals with your team members to gain leadership success. You can maintain professional boundaries, while building strong relationships. Even if you can’t always deliver on employee requests, as long as you take the time to connect, human-to-human, and explain your reasoning, you will earn the respect of your team members.

Showing up makes it easier for you to understand individual strengths. If your only interactions with your team is during group presentations or meetings where there is time for everyone to prepare their remarks, you are only getting one narrow set of data points.

You learn much more about an individual’s strengths watching her work on a daily basis and make decisions on-the-fly. In the midst of a high pressure situation, it becomes clear who possesses leadership success qualities and who could use some additional training to really shine.

Showing up develops transparency in your team communication. Often, we can feel that we have to pick the “right” words or we can’t share the context of our decision making. But when we are part of a high-functioning team, that information isn’t just important, it is part of the daily conversation that enables team members to assess, prioritize and make clear decisions about the best next steps to achieve the team goals.

When it comes to demonstrating true leadership success qualities, the first rule is the most important. If you don’t show up, you can’t be present.

Show up. Engage.

It’s a simple concept but startling in its clarity and potential impact. I’m taking the challenge. I’m ready to show up. Are you?

This September only, Audacia Strategies is challenging you to show up and crush your 2017 goals. We’re offering 25% off of our most popular service, the customized market insight report. Hurry! There are only a few more days left for you to grab this offer!

Photo credit: racorn / 123RF Stock Photo

talking points

Successful Leaders Stay on Message—Here’s How They Do It.

The term “talking points” gets a bum rap. Often, using talking points is perceived as encouraging “robot-speak” or as a shady technique for dodging tough questions. We can probably blame this bad press on politics (which seems like an especially fashionable thing to do these days).

But rather than running away from talking points altogether, can we instead acknowledge that there are better and worse ways to use them? Yes, some of those ways get (rightly) labeled as lazy, stale, or simply uninformative. Others are absolutely essential for strong communications.

The reality is that we all use talking points in our daily lives. A couple quick examples come to mind: if you have a meeting with your boss, you go in with an idea of the key points you want to express; if you go out to dinner with friends, you generally know what you’ll talk about when they ask, “what’s new?” Whenever we organize our thoughts, whether we realize it or not, we are using talking points.

In IR, we see talking points as an essential tool in any CEOs toolkit. And coming up with these compact bundles of key information is really an art and a science. So let’s talk about what you can expect if you enlist the help of an IR expert to organize your remarks.

What are talking points? Why do they work?

First, let’s dig deeper into the concept of talking points:

1. Talking points are one way of organizing and remembering the main points of a discussion, argument, policy, investment case, etc. Importantly, they can also act as guardrails—defining what you are not talking about can be as important as defining what you are discussing. For example, during a meeting with investors you likely want to stick close to your investment thesis—this is not the time to discuss non-public strategy deliberations.

Raising information that falls outside of your guardrails, i.e., the main objectives of the meeting, press conference, or conference call, not only could confuse your audience, but it also might raise questions that you are not prepared to answer. There’s nothing worse for a CEO than finding herself in the weeds, panicking, and answering tough questions off-the-cuff. Talking points help avoid this nightmare situation.

2. Talking points are intended to be the broad strokes of a message. By knowing these broad strokes, you can fill in the rest of the picture with confidence. Here are a few good suggestions for going deeper too. Without an outline, additional details—stories—can just sound like disconnected messages. Have you ever had a friend tell a long rambling story? That’s indicative of a lack of talking points.

Talking points give presenters and the audience something to go back to. While it’s great for the report or presentation to be conversational, within those guardrails we talked about of course, the most compelling communications also have a clear organizational structure. Try to stick to three main themes that tie everything together.

3. Along those same lines—talking points allow you to get to the point quickly. For example, many of the investors I’ve spoken with have ZERO patience for long-winded answers. Investors are busy people, they want you to cut to the chase. Get to the point, give your support for the point, and move on.

It can be disheartening when we stop to consider how much the Internet has influenced us to have short attention spans. (Believe me! Those of us in communications fields are constantly shaking our heads at this trend.) But you aren’t going to stem the tide during this one meeting. It’s best to go with the flow here and give investors short, sweet points they can use.

The big picture: talking points enable better conversation. With your key messages top of mind, you can have a better discussion because you know the extent of your message/topic and you can easily transition between “color commentary” and specific data to be communicated

What talking points aren’t.

Talking points are not meant to be taken as the full message and recited verbatim (although there’s usually someone who does this every week on the Sunday morning talk shows). This behavior:

  • (a) sends the message that the speaker has no idea what they are talking about and can’t articulate an original thought;
  • (b) makes the message sound completely inauthentic to the listener; and
  • (c) doesn’t encourage engaging conversation… it’s just a one way spewing of information. And that’s just boring.

The right IR expert will coach you on how to expand upon the talking points in ways that feel authentic to you. Ideally, CEOs and any other leadership tasked with talking to the public will be involved throughout the process of distilling information down into crucial talking points.

Surely, we communications experts and those whom we advise can do better than the talking heads trying to keep up with the 24/7 news cycle. Investors deserve better when they are making educated decisions about where to add value to the market.

Finding the best talking points to keep your investors informed and give you the scaffolding to build your complete message is at least as much art as it is science. At Audacia we love to organize and package thoughts into authentic messages that resonate. If you love to talk about all things corporate communications, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s talk!

Photo credit: andreypopov / 123RF Stock Photo

 

authentic leadership

Authentic Leadership: Save the “Game Face” for the Squash Court

One of the best-kept secrets in the corporate communications world is that you can’t teach great leadership—not really. But you can coach leaders to be more authentic and authentic leadership is one of the hallmarks of being great.

Part of the reason you can’t teach leaders to be great, is that there is a big difference between communicating and “messaging.” Yes, I can help a new CEO walk her company through a complicated reorg with beautifully timed and carefully worded messages. But it’s not all about the message.  

It’s the way you deliver the message that makes the difference between communicating and “messaging.” And delivery falls into the category of authentic leadership. So, let’s get real.

Authenticity: The Magic

Authentic. Authenticity. Such an important part of communicating and it pains me to see it recently hijacked to become one of the most overused “woo woo” terms. It’s right up there next to “organic” (and no, I’m not talking about the organic tomato variety).  

What does authentic even mean? Quick. Take 15 seconds to think about what it looks, sounds, and feels like when you engage in an “authentic” conversation. Step outside of the corporate context for a moment. Maybe you see yourself chatting casually with friends; watching a captivating TV or political or entertainment personality; reading a really inspiring OpEd; or listening to someone tell an important story. What makes that discussion—regardless of the venue or channel—feel “authentic?”

Off the top of my head (no thesaurus.com today!)—when I think of authentic leadership, I think: Real. Genuine. Not fake. True. Natural. Honest. Direct. Candid. Connected.

Authenticity: Unlocking the Magic

That feeling that we just identified? The “realness” that makes you sit up and engage? That’s the magic in true communication—the kind that builds relationships, awareness, and interest. It can’t be created or manufactured, but it can be uncovered, enabled, and encouraged.

If authentic leadership is what we’re after, let’s discuss how to encourage and enable real, engaging conversations in the boardroom, on earnings calls, and even in blog posts.

1. Who is your executive, really? Unlocking authenticity requires a bit of soul searching and a lot of honesty. What is your executive’s style? Introverted? Extroverted? Detail-oriented? Big-picture? Funny? Sarcastic? Dry? Often the tone of the organization takes on a bit of the personality of its key spokesperson or executive. (See: Apple and Steve Jobs).

Rather than asking your executive what tone she prefers, do a bit of homework here. As you observe your executive interacting with investors in meetings, pay close attention to her tone of voice and watch how she engages with the discussion. Often, smaller-group discussions and meetings provide keen insight into how an executive prefers to interact.

2. Encourage your executive to be “real.” You’ve done the research and you have a good sense for how your executives prefer to engage. Now take that style and use it to your advantage. Often we feel like we have to put on our “game face.” While getting psyched for an event is great, putting up a facade or a false persona isn’t.We can all tell when someone is faking it, right? (See: Founder and former Lululemon Chair, Chip Wilson’s infamous apology).

Got a detail-oriented executive? Make sure that your quarterly earnings call script reflects her passion for the details of your firm’s technology or business model. Got a wisecracking executive? Embrace it and give her a few opportunities to release some (appropriate!) humor in their public engagements. Which leads us to…

3. Know your bumpers. One plea for caution here: Keeping it real doesn’t mean anything goes. You will want to give guidance on where the boundaries are. Discuss how many details are too many. Offer concrete examples as a guide to using humor effectively. Consider what challenging questions might come up and where the law requires a more matter-of-fact approach.

This is where professional media training can be really helpful. I strongly recommend that ANYONE who communicates externally (or heck, even internally) goes through media training and has the experience of presenting—both formally and informally—on-camera. Then sit down together to watch the replay and debrief. This is critical to understanding how our communications “quirks” and nervous habits can interrupt the connection with our audience and interfere with communication.

4. Give as good as you get. Keep in mind that communicating is a two-way street. It’s just as important to listen as it is to speak. And, it sounds simple because it is. Everyone wants to be heard. I remember watching in horror during a meeting with one of our largest investors when my CEO couldn’t stop “messaging” and just listen to the investor’s feedback. No amount of redirection could help. We lost that large investor within the month.

We can’t simply be in “outbound” mode all the time. We have to receive information to learn. You know those executives who have an innate pulse of their organization? And those who build teams that will follow them to the end of the earth? It doesn’t happen by accident. These authentic leaders demonstrate respect through listening and meaningful engagement.

So, if you want to help your executives give as good as they get, encourage active listening, i.e., fully concentrating and engaging. You’ll be amazed at how much this can help. The Center for Creative Leadership provides some excellent tips for building these skills in executives too.

5. Be consistent. It’s tempting for all of us to fall into the trap of “putting on our game face” for a big meeting, presentation, or conversation. However, if our “game face” is not consistent with our personality and the characteristics discussed above, it can come across as confusingly inconsistent at best and downright untrustworthy at worst.

Again, your observations of your executive come into play here. If you notice that your executive has certain triggers where she tends to put up walls or get a little defensive, point it out and train her to anticipate those triggers. Authentic leadership is as much about knowing yourself as it is about listening and reading others.

Authenticity: Back to Basics

We all interact with people in corporate jobs who put up walls (and I don’t mean along the border) and treat their work interactions as completely foreign from their non-work interactions. Let this post be a little reminder to get back to the core of all communications: connecting, engaging, and building relationships.

At its foundation, authentic leadership is all about finding subtle ways to be ourselves within the boundaries of our industries. Not sure what that looks like for your c-suite? Contact Audacia and we’ll help you figure how to keep it real!

Photo credit: macniak / 123RF Stock Photo