Critical takeaways:

  • Strategic communicators will need to find ways to keep their CEOs leading while always communication and visible to people who matter
  • Humility, generosity and engagement are crucial leadership characteristics in this time of COVID-19
  • Great strategic communicators need to think like CEOs so their CEOs will be great communicators when they’re needed most

During times of crisis and uncertainty, corporate reputations are best maintained when their CEOs are front and center, always communicating. Some of the very best responses to the COVID-19 crisis I have seen were delivered by CEOs themselves. Smart communicators know how to leverage their CEOs as both the messenger and the message. They know how to put CEOs into positions where they are leading while always communicating. 

Thinking Like a CEO

Back in 2017, I was asked to share my thoughts on what makes a great communicator. Great strategic communicators must be dynamic leaders trained to look around corners, consider holistic enterprise goals, and keep an eye on the bigger picture. In short, communicators must think like a CEO.

Three years and a global pandemic later haven’t changed my belief that the best strategic communicators possess a CEO’s mindset. Indeed, my views of this have gotten more focused, and now is a good time to revisit this topic.

Leading while always communicating requires a CEO to be:

  • Humble, not just making decisions but willing to listen and take input from others
  • Generous with their time, information and empathy – and in some cases cash.
  • Fully aware of the situation they’re in and the risks and opportunities for their organization’s reputation
  • Fully engaged with their people (and customers) – not just the C-suite peers – by getting to know them and learning from their perspectives; and
  • Taking a mountain-top view, always looking at the bigger picture and the way forward to the next peak.

Three of the most important qualities CEOs need to be exhibiting right now are humility, generosity and engagement. Great communicators should be thinking about how their CEO can best demonstrate these values to people who matter most.

Humility

On March 19, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson spoke directly to his employees in a nearly six-minute video the company shared on Twitter. In it, he matter-of-factly says COVID-19 is “having a more severe and sudden financial impact on our business than 9/11 and the 2009 financial crisis combined.” Hospitality properties continuing to operate at “substantial economic losses and risking permanently their ability to reopen” is simply unsustainable, he said. 

He doesn’t start with that dire news. Instead, he begins by alluding to his own health issues unrelated to COVID-19 and acknowledging associates who “are dealing with [COVID-19] as a patient, a parent, family member or friend.” He also demonstrates a willingness to make sacrifices by declining to accept a salary for the rest of the year. 

But it is when Sorenson is at his rawest and most real (beginning at the 4:40 mark) that his humility shines. His voice cracks slightly as he discusses there being “nothing worse than telling highly valued associates – people who are the very heart of this company – that their roles are being impacted by events completely outside of their control.”

It was a compelling, transparent, authentic video that set the stakes about some coming difficult decisions. 

Generosity 

Allstate has returned more than $600 million in premiums back to customers who are driving less because of  COVID-19. In a short video recorded in what appears to be his dining room, Allstate CEO Tom Wilson described his company’s long history of helping its customers “overcome catastrophes.”  He announced the “shelter-in-place payback” to give their customers “help in these challenging times.” He added, all customers would receive free identity protection because “so much of our daily lives are now spent online.”

In early March, before most of us were aware of the true threat of the novel coronavirus, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told tens of thousands of employees to work from home, becoming one of the first CEOs to adopt a massive remote working policy. That decision left a deserted campus and idled the 4,500 hourly employees who supported it. Told how much it would cost to continue paying those workers, Nadella said, “By all means, go.”

CEOs’ generosity to customers and particularly employees will be remembered. “Shareholders come last” during the pandemic, Mark Cuban said to Just Capital. Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, continued to pay arena workers while the league’s operations were suspended. His message is, we will only come back stronger if companies focus on supporting their employees and all the other stakeholders critical to their business growth. 

Engagement

Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia College in Central Florida, epitomizes leading while always communicating. He remained deeply engaged with his leadership team and faculty as the school rapidly converted more than 4,000 classes and nearly every other operation of the college to an exclusively online setting. Then he went ever further. He and his leadership team split up a list of 40,000 students enrolled in spring classes and called each one of them personally.

Activision CEO Bobby Kotick encouraged his employees to reach out to him, literally. In mid-March, “we sent out an email from my email address with my phone number and we encouraged every single employee that has a concern that relates to their health care to just contact me directly,” Kotick told CNBC’s Becky Quick. “We’re definitely feeling from our employees that the extra investment, the extra attention, is appreciated.”

The Communicator’s Role

We will continue to surf the choppy COVID-19 waters, even though everybody is just over it, for the foreseeable future. Strategic communicators need to find ways to keep their CEOs visible to audiences who matter. CEOs leading while always communicating will get through this with stronger companies, more loyal customers and employees, and a greater growth potential than those who don’t. 

When great strategic communicators think like CEOs, their CEOs will be great leading while always communicating and visible when they’re needed most.

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