How comms can shape perceptions and drive positive outcomes
A new CEO faces an unprecedented level of scrutiny. They are under constant observation, as internal and external audiences try to interpret their every word and action. What are their plans for the future of the company? Who and what influences their decision-making? What’s their communication and leadership style?
There’s this notion that the initial 100 days in office decide the fate of a leader. The phrase ‘les Cent-Jours’ was first used to describe the time between Napoleon’s return from exile on Elba and the second restoration of King Louis XVII. Napoleon’s bold attempt to reclaim power was unsuccessful – it ended with his defeat at Waterloo.
More than a century later, Franklin D. Roosevelt coined the term of the ‘first 100 days’ for modern times. Delivering on his campaign promise of prompt action, his administration presented Congress with a wide range of measures intended to boost the economy. 15 major laws were enacted between 4 March and 11 June 1933.
Since then, this initial period has taken on symbolic significance. It has become a benchmark to measure the success of chief executives – not only of countries, but also of businesses.
How a CEO is judged in these early weeks will depend on perceptions, but also on hard outcomes. Communication plays a key role in both regards. It’s essential when it comes to positioning the new CEO as a leader and highlighting his or her successes. It also helps build alignment within the leadership team, supports the development of a new vision, and enables managers and employees to get behind and implement the new corporate agenda.
For communicators, this is the chance to prove the strategic relevance of their function and make themselves indispensable to their new boss. There are four areas that should form a programme for the CEO’s first 100 days.
- Understanding – take time to get it right
Whilst it may be tempting for a new CEO to go full FDR with a focus on immediate actions and quick results, this is a risky approach. Early decisions are hard to take back. And moving too fast means acting without securing the necessary buy-in of the leadership team. The time it takes to connect with the business – from the front-line to the board – is time well invested. There are valuable insights to be gained which will inform the development of a vision for the company as well as a plan for executing it effectively.
Even in this phase of listening and learning, the actions of the new CEO will shape perceptions: Which public figures and external stakeholders are they meeting – or not? Which leaders and employees do they speak to – and in which order?
Comms needs to manage this process. With their knowledge of the organisation and stakeholder landscape, communicators can set up an initial engagement plan with formats and tools that have proved most effective for their audiences. In addition, quantitative and qualitative analyses help to ascertain current perceptions of the company, determine the need for change, and identify possible drivers and barriers in company culture and structures.
- Alignment – unite leaders behind the CEO’s agenda
FDR’s success was helped by the fact that Congress was mostly compliant. One central mission of the early weeks in office is to win allies for the CEO’s personal agenda and create acceptance for them as a leadership figure.
Consistency in communications is more important than ever. Thanks to digital and social channels, what is said in one part of the world travels across geographies in real time. Disjointed messages by leaders in the markets and different parts of the business will not only be noticed but will create room for rumours and conspiracy theories.
It’s a comms task to provide formats that foster leadership alignment on the future course of the company. Internal comms also needs to support leaders in communicating with their people – first by providing content that is relevant to them and second by enabling them to tailor the centrally devised strategic narrative for their businesses and markets while staying true to core messages.
- Direction – provide a vision for the future
People will look to their CEO for direction. Not just for guidance on immediate next steps, but for context and the bigger picture. They need to know whether what they are doing is meaningful and important.
One challenge for new leaders is to balance stability and progress; ensure continuity and coherence while being their own person and realising their own agenda. How do they want to shape the company narrative? Do they have a clear vision for the future of the company? Which impulses do they want to give for a new leadership and corporate culture?
It comes down to the importance of language and writing. Comms needs to crystallize the strategic thinking of leaders. Slides prepared by management consultancies must be translated into a narrative that resonates with their stakeholders.
By the end of the first 100 days, the new CEO doesn’t need to have a finalised vision for the business, but the general direction should be clear. This time should also be used to develop a comms plan that defines next steps to further develop and put the detail around the strategic framework – for instance, leadership principles, corporate values – with the targeted involvement of internal stakeholders. Then, strategy must turn into action. Comms should provide formats that enable leaders and their teams to operationalise the strategic agenda at every level of the organisation.
- Visibility – build credibility and trust
Roosevelt was known for his ‘fireside chats’ – radio sessions where he addressed the nation directly to explain the actions of his administration. The introduction of this format was revolutionary, and the carefully planned presentations are credited with his ongoing popularity.
In today’s ‘reputation economy’, stakeholders favour business leaders who are willing to engage with the wider world and who can empathise with their consumers, employees and fellow citizens. Leaders need to speak authentically and without embarrassment about ideals, values, and responsibility.
When it comes to internal audiences, one shouldn’t underestimate people’s need to connect with the new CEO. They need to know if they can trust this person. It’s important that leaders share stories that give insight into their character. These need to be developed and delivered with a purpose, linking to relevant strategic themes.
Comms can distil a personal brand for their CEO: What makes them different from and better than other leaders? What are the drivers that focus their work and personal life? This narrative will form the basis for deciding on the right strategies and tactics to elevate the CEO’s profile both internally and externally, with the ultimate aim of furthering the company’s mission.