Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Is your CEO's message inside-out? When your out-front person uses an inside voice

When your CEO, board president or other leader gets out in front with an external audience--media interview, speech, blogger, small group talk--does she go small and inside baseball, or is her message as big as all outdoors?  In other words, is the external message more internal than external? Is she using an "inside voice?"

It's a message misstep I'm noticing with more and more leaders, from corporate CEOs to top entrepreneurs and nonprofit or government executives: They're putting out front words, facts and discussions that, for a variety of reasons--legal and otherwise--should be left inside.

When NPR fired commentator Juan Williams, the CEO made comments that weren't appropriate, inside or outside. A New York Times editorial described the CEO's response this way:
The explosion in the blogosphere was compounded when Vivian Schiller, NPR’s chief executive, rashly declared that Mr. Williams’s remarks were best left “between him and his, you know, psychiatrist.” A regretful Ms. Schiller, a former general manager of NYTimes.com, came to agree that a more measured, less sensational approach to Mr. Williams’s dismissal would have been better. Congressional conservatives were not mollified.
The situation doesn't need to be that dramatic. I've seen CEOs handed an open-ended question about raising funds who chose to describe in mind-numbing detail the goals of their capital campaigns--in a way that would put off the best-intentioned donor. Others drill so far down that you're gasping for air.  You'll often observe this phenomenon with someone who's a longtime number 2 who gains the top post--someone who's used to handling the behind-the-scenes work. Can he switch from provost to very public president, from executive VP to CEO? His words will tell the tale.

The solution? Have that discussion about "inside voice" and "outside voice" and related messages. Taking the time to discern and discuss the goals of what your top spokesperson's saying, internally and externally, is a basic. Ideally, make this part of the training you offer to a new leader, early in her tenure. If I can help you strategize or train a new leader on her perspectives--inside and outside--email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.

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