Scaling your CEO by using a dimmer-switch approach

Scaling Your CEO for Better Crisis Response

July 30, 2020

Over my career, I’ve seen CEOs rise and I’ve seen others stumble during a crisis. It often comes down to what they focus on. 

CEOs can be one of the most important assets a strategic communicator can deploy when responding to a crisis. Scaling your CEO ensures they can focus on critical decisions and be the face of important communications. 

Your CEO should not handle – and should not feel like they must handle – all crisis communications. Smaller issues should be communicated by and delegated to others. In my experience, CEOs need guidance about when they’re needed and when they can delegate. Scaling your CEO is an important skill for strategic communicators to have in your arsenal. 

Facing Enormity

Crises can be overwhelming. When we’re overwhelmed, we take solace in being able to solve small problems. But that can mean ignoring, and ultimately failing to solve, bigger issues.

In a 1979 profile of former President Jimmy Carter, his former speechwriter James Fallows portrays a chief executive who was still very much the CEO of his rural Georgia warehouses. Despite the enormity of the many issues facing the country and the amount of big-picture thinking their solutions required, Carter was distracted by something more familiar: minutiae.

“If there is any constant in the literature of presidential performance, it is that the President must husband his time. If he is distracted from the big choices by the torrent of petty details, the big choices will not get made,” Fallows wrote. “Details would have to pass by if he was to use his time well, but his preference was still to try to do it all, … to act nonetheless on everything that reached his desk.”

Carter’s presidency was steeped in crises, some inherited from previous administrations and others new on his watch. Stagflation, an energy crisis, the Cold War, Middle East peace negotiations and a hostage crisis in Iran beset his presidency. He had some successes, but other priorities failed when Carter became mired in the details. 

Strategic communicators can keep this from happening to their CEO.

Operating a Dimmer Switch

I’ve been using the metaphor of a dimmer switch frequently In this season of COVID. Strategic communicators shouldn’t think in terms of the lights being on or off. Crisis response is much more about finely adjusting the lights to be brighter or dimmer to meet the day’s needs.

A CEO who handles all crisis communications is like a light that is always on. Scaling your CEO means adjusting that dimmer switch to have them fully on when they’re most needed. The rest of the time, turn the dimmer down to a lower intensity.

A few things to keep in mind. 

While the CEO is the most important voice in a crisis, scaling your CEO means surrounding them with other credible voices. The CEO should not be the only one talking. It’s important that operational leaders, other executives, board members and perhaps a general counsel have a voice to talk to those that matter most and their constituencies. 

Consider the message, the intended audience and how they will respond to it when deciding if your CEO is the right messenger. I’ve previously highlighted Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson’s excellent video message as an example of an effective crisis communication. In it, he matter-of-factly foreshadows significant job reductions as a difficult but necessary result of the pandemic’s impacts on their business. 

This is exactly the kind of message a CEO needs to deliver during a crisis. Delivering the news to a specific employee whose job is impacted is not an effective use of the CEO’s voice. As a general rule, the bigger the issue, the more appropriate it is for the CEO to address. Smaller, more granular issues should be handled by other credible voices.

Managing Inputs and Outputs

An additional important aspect of scaling your CEO is effectively managing inputs and outputs. We’ve stood up many crisis communications war rooms. At its core, what we’re doing is simply managing inputs and outputs. We use a fixed agenda to ensure that we manage all of the required issues that come in. We stay disciplined to keep the CEO informed of only the most important.

Inputs are information reported by various departments, press inquiries, social media, stakeholder reactions and information regarding remedies that are put in place. Outputs are the messages that you’re sharing internally to your people and externally with the public. As a collective team, we synthesize the information and share only the critical inputs and outputs with the CEO. That way the CEO is not mired in details and messages that aren’t appropriate to their leadership level. 

Think of the dimmer switch. The war room team has the light turned all the way up so we can see every detail. We dim the lights for the CEO so they only see the most important things.

Keeping Focus

The second thing that is helpful to stay away from the minutia is to keep your CEOs focused on mission and values. 

Scaling your CEO improves reputation using Kith's Equation for Crisis Success

Kith’s Equation for Crisis Success posits that mission and values plus chain of command equals speed, and speed is the key differentiator between good and great crisis communications. Giving your CEO the appropriate outputs to review, evaluate and understand lets them to focus on mission and values. Through this lens, they can align their decisions and actions with what matters most from a mission and value standpoint. This also gives CEOs a clear head to make sure that the right people are involved, which is what we mean by chain of command. 

If your CEO is focused on minutiae – like President Carter scheduling the tennis courts – then speed in responding will suffer, and reputation along with it.

Scaling your CEO means using a dimmer switch: reserving them for the right messages, managing inputs and outputs, focusing on mission and values and then finally being clear on your chain of command. Scaling your CEO keeps them out of the weeds. This enables them to make the best decisions and be the leaders that they need to be in very difficult situations.

Critical takeaways:

  • Scaling your CEO ensures their appropriate involvement in communicating and leading your response to a crisis.
  • Take a dimmer-switch approach to using your CEO as a crisis messenger.
  • Manage inputs and outputs so your CEO can focus on the big issues, not the minutiae.


Filed under: Crisis Response


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.