By Bill Coletti, CEO, Kith
When you work in crisis communications, you’re never in short supply of interesting stories to tell. Each of us has tales of overcoming seemingly impossible obstacles, cringeworthy missteps or any other number of crazy things that can happen when you work in crisis. But when you’ve worked in this industry as long as I have, you find that all of those interesting anecdotes ultimately serve you well, because you learned something from each one of them.
When it came to developing my latest keynote speech, I found myself reflecting on some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years and how they’ve shaped me as a professional. For this particular keynote assignment, I had been asked to share my thoughts on what makes a great communicator. I’ve always believed it’s not enough to simply be a great communicator. In this corporate climate, 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.
I came to this conclusion from my own experiences in working alongside CEO’s in a variety of industries. To be clear, I’ve learned a great deal from communications executives I’ve met throughout my career, but I believe to be a truly great communicator, you must think outside of a communicator’s brain. I believe that communicators can begin thinking more like CEOs in three ways:
- Take a view from the mountaintop
- Lead with humor and humility
- Remember wrong is never right
To take a view from the mountaintop, I think back on my time in the mountains of West Virginia. There, my team and I were working with a coal mining company. We had been asked to help create the company’s first corporate sustainability report. Over the next eight months, we worked to gather assets– facts and figures, photos, stories– and prepare a thorough report. I was proud of our team for what we had created. The report highlighted the company’s commitment to its employees, its community, the planet– all the things that a good CSR report should do.
Yet when we presented the report to the CEO, we were met with questions. Actually, we were met with one question: Where is the section denying global warming?
You see, the CEO wanted a full-throated rebuke of global warming, saying that misinformation about climate change was allowing unnecessary government interference with business. He believed that the evolving political climate including the election of President Obama meant change was on the horizon for companies like his, and wanted to stake a defense early. For the CEO of a leading coal mining company, confirmation of global warming was in direct conflict with his organization’s interests. We needed to take a big picture view, he said, if we were going to defend the coal industry in this new era.
No communicator is particularly excited about being a situation like this, one where their client is asking them to do something in direct conflict with facts or values. Unreasonable request aside, that CEO reminded me of a key tenant of CEO-thinking that I believe communicators should adapt: Take a view from the mountaintop.
Some of the best CEOs are lauded for being “big picture thinkers.” Every decision they make and every action they take is considered in light of how it supports or hinders their organization on the biggest of stages. This is a trait that comes naturally to many leaders, and it serves them well. Communicators, on the other hand, tend to excel in the details. Execution and implementation are a critical part of a communicator’s job responsibilities, and attention to detail is not only viewed as a valuable skill but a required one.
There’s nothing wrong with communicators being detail-oriented. In fact, it’s incredibly valuable. But if communicators wish to truly change their mindset — that is, think like a CEO– they need to embrace both methods of thinking. Most people are naturally more skilled at one or the other, but being able to do both is a learnable skill. It could be as simple as asking yourself “Does this (insert your task here) contribute to, align with or advance the company’s vision?” before completing a project. Each story you tell, whether it’s a product launch, an updated company policy, or even a reactive statement in a crisis should be told within the scope of the larger business and where the business as a whole is headed. Is it true to your mission?
Communicators should not lose sight of the details. After all, it’s what makes them good at their jobs. But in order to to be truly great, adapting this style of CEO thinking is a requirement.
Kind of in an odd way, the CEO of the coal mining company was right. He had given us a vision about the big picture that he wanted. While it was rooted in falsehoods, there was value in his directive for the vision he sought to execute upon. He expected us to keep this big picture in mind when we assembled the CSR report. When we didn’t, the CEO saw this as a failed assignment.
Recognizing lessons to be learned from the not-so-great CEOs can be challenging. Learning from the great CEOs is considerably easier. I’m fortunate in that I’ve worked with several talented CEOs that have taught me a great deal about leadership, but have also taught me, whether wittingly or unwittingly, how to be a great communicator as well.
Frank Blake, former CEO of Home Depot was a talented CEO that I learned a great deal from. In order to illustrate this story properly, I need to set the stage. Picture yourself as a CEO that has to deal with the following:
- A rabid fox jumps through the open window of a contractor’s pickup truck in a Home Depot parking lot and bites him in Portland, Oregon
- The body of a missing woman is found on the roof of a Home Depot in Farmington Hills, Michigan
- A couple in South Carolina is arrested for having sex in a Home Depot display shed
- A man in West Covina, California tries to saw off both of his arms inside a Home Depot using a hacksaw
- The credit card data of 56 million customers is stolen
Any one of those issues would be a challenge for a CEO, but Frank and the Home Depot team endured all of those challenges during his tenure.
We had the honor of working with Home Depot to help them navigate through the 2014 data breach. In our time there, we quickly learned a common phrase uttered by Frank and members of the communications team: “Just another day at the Depot!” While many teams may be overwhelmed or discouraged by frequent, unpredictable issues like the ones mentioned above, the Home Depot team took an approach of humor. This is undoubtedly due to Frank’s leadership.
In addition to having a sense of humor, I also observed leadership humility from Frank. The data breach of more than 50 million customers’ credit card information occurred shortly before Frank’s planned retirement date. Not ideal timing. With the breach so close to his retirement, it would’ve been easy– and understandable– for Frank to pass the buck onto the new CEO and retire as planned. However, Frank took responsibility for the breach itself and the response, allowing the new CEO to handle day-to-day operations. While he could’ve been planning his first retiree golf outing or fishing trip, Frank was instead spending hours in the Incident Response Room on the 20th floor of Home Depot’s headquarters. Frank’s actions in response to the data breach are now regarded as some of the best practices in crisis response.
Communicators can and should incorporate humility into their actions if they want to think like a great CEO. Like many communicators, I’ve been placed in challenging situations, but I make it a point to remain humble: I only know what I know, and will provide the best counsel I can with the information that I’m given. Beyond being humble in client service, communicators can incorporate humility into their storytelling. When communicating a statement about a product or a policy change, or even a social media post or CSR commitments, incorporating humility about the impact that this change humanizes your organization, allowing you to connect with your target audiences.
The last lesson I learned from a CEO was initially taught to me by my parents, but this lesson was reinforced when I returned to work with that CEO of the coal mining company.
Despite our differences on the CSR report, we were asked back to assist in crisis response related to one of the deadliest mining disasters since 1970. Once again, we were working alongside a CEO with very firm ideas of what he wanted and how he wanted it. This CEO wanted to tell a clear story when it came to global warming when we had worked together before, and we’d soon find out he had a story he wanted to tell in the aftermath of this tragedy.
One of the coal mining company’s mines was the scene of an explosion resulting in the death of 29 miners. Following the explosion, the mine was a turned into a crime scene controlled by the FBI and federal regulators as they sought to investigate the cause of the explosion.
Before the investigation had even begun, the CEO of the company had a theory for the cause of the explosion that he wanted told far and wide. He believed a sudden crack in the floor released a massive amount of methane, leading to an explosion. The CEO felt that the crack occurred because of government’s requirements regarding how mines were ventilated. Had the company utilized his plans for ventilation rather than the government’s required plans, he thought the explosion could have been avoided.
This theory wasn’t completely out of left field. In fact, it was initially supported by several respected university-based geologists and explosion consultants. But as the investigation progressed, it became clear that the CEO’s suggested theory was wrong, and that the company’s negligence was to blame. When confronted with this information, the CEO would have none of it. He demanded we continue to tell the story in which the government was to blame, not his company.
It was at this critical moment that I was reminded of the lesson my parents taught me: wrong is never right. While the CEO, a paying client, was instructing us on what he wanted to do, we knew it was wrong and could not comply. We were fired for choosing to do what we thought was right. While it’s never the desired outcome to be fired by a client, I lost no sleep over being fired for choosing to do what was right.
As communicators and storytellers, we’re often asked to spin every now and then. We change stories about being half empty to stories about being half full. Occasionally we have to tell a story with bad facts. For me, those are all in bounds. The truth is never wrong, and when the truth is the truth, we have an obligation to be vigilant and ruthless in our advocacy for that truth. Wrong is never right, and the best communicators and CEOs recognize this fact and put it into practice.
To recap, here are three things I think communicators can do in order to think like a CEO, and as a result, be better communicators:
- Have a view from the mountaintop. Take a big picture view. Understand how the stories you are telling fit into a broad narrative of what your enterprise is going to be for the long term.
- Use humor and humility. We as communicators get to do some incredible things. You get to tell great stories for a great American institution, but do it from a position of humility. Empathize with the folks that are getting and receiving your information, and never lose sight of the fact that you are here but by the grace of God or whatever creator put you in this position in order to do that.
- Lastly, wrong is never right. If someone asks you to do something, you need to trust your gut. If it feels wrong, say something because it often is.
I often think long and hard about what I do, and how I do it. In these reflections, it’s been made clear to me that some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned have come from CEOs both great and not-so-great. I truly believe if communicators begin to incorporate CEO thinking into their daily activities, they’ll grow not only as communicators, but as leaders as well.
I’m excited to be able to expand on these thoughts in my latest keynote address. If you’re interested in working together, you can learn more here.