In a recent interview with McKinsey & Company in April 2014, Richard Edelman used the term “chief engagement officer” to describe a Chief Executive Officer’s (CEO) new role, when discussing how today’s leaders can regain public trust. Rather than merely formulate policies, CEOs must step forward, meet communities both internally and externally, establish personal relationships, and genuinely listen to people’s concerns. I cannot agree more!
CEOs and their organizations are naturally linked together. CEOs, especially those who are also founders of their organizations, define corporate DNAs such as corporate character, mission, goals, purposes, culture, and values. For example, consider Apple’s innovative and ruthless culture under Steve Jobs and Facebook’s ‘hacker’ culture under the leadership of Mark Zuckerberg. From a public relations perspective, CEOs serve as the “face” and spokesperson of their companies, shaping their firm’s corporate image in the eyes of their external constituencies. Moreover, as the top leaders and symbols of power within an organization, CEOs can support and participate in communication programs, set the tone for internal communication, and create communication systems that can be managed effectively.
More importantly, CEOs can act as “chief engagement officers” and directly interact with their employees through leadership and executive communication. This is particularly relevant in today’s social media era when communication hierarchies have been blurred by the interactive, personal, democratic, empowering, and relational features of social media tools. Thus, the power distance has been reduced, bringing CEOs into life and allowing them to communicate with their employees in a friendly, authentic, and informal manner. Before coming down to the question how CEOs should communicate internally—which I will tackle in my future blog entries—we should ask ourselves: why does this matter? In my recent study, I surveyed 545 employees from different organizations and industries in the United States regarding their attitudes and experiences with CEO internal communications. Several interesting findings were revealed:
- CEO communication quality influences CEO credibility. When employees perceive CEO communication as excellent or satisfactory, their perception of the CEO improves. They view their leader as a highly credible, dependable, and reliable expert with an advanced level of skills and knowledge.
- CEO credibility builds internal reputation, which in turn boosts employee engagement. Employees who perceive their CEOs as highly trustworthy, credible, competent, and qualified tend to like their company more, express more confidence toward their organization, and have a more favorable assessment of their organization’s reputation. Such employees tend to have a higher level of engagement, dedication, absorption, and loyalty to their organization.
- Effective CEO communication empowers employees. Effective CEO communication with employees – that is two-way, open, responsive, sincere, compassionate, and respectful – can instill in the employees a sense of empowerment and appreciation. Such communication efforts create an empowered workforce that is happier and more committed to the organization, which eventually contributes to the organizational performance. Moreover, such employees identify more with their organization and are more willing to walk the extra mile, express their opinion, and make a difference in the organization.
- Effective CEO communication makes CEOs better leaders. Leadership is enacted through communication. Hence, effective communication is the key to achieving an effective, transformational, charismatic, authentic, and participative leadership style. When employees perceive CEO communication as excellent and satisfactory, they tend to rate their CEOs as transformational and authentic leaders.
Indeed, effective or not, CEO–employee communication influences the perceptions of employees toward the top management and employees’ morale and attitudes toward their workplace.
A simple checklist
In today’s social era, public relations professionals must harness the power of the CEOs as the “chief engagement officer.” Here’s a simple checklist to help you start.
- Educate CEOs about their vital roles in organizational internal communication. CEOs should be fully aware of how their style and quality of communication can influence organizational perceptions, employee morale, and engagement.
- Assist CEOs in developing a suitable, unique, and consistent communication style, which is congruent with CEO’s personality, character, and leadership style, and organizational culture and climate.
- Prepare CEOs with key messages that are aligned with business goals and objectives and tailored for each target audience (e.g.,C-Suite, middle/lower-level management, staff/line managers, and non-management employees).
- Equip CEOs with effective communication tools. This includes traditional tools, such as face-to-face channels, print publications, email, and phones, as well as new technological tools such as blogs, intranet, social networking sites, instant messengers, and video-/tele-conferences.
- Encourage CEOs to be open-minded, embrace changes, and build a prominent and visible social media presence. CEOs should be encouraged to personally interact with their employees via social media and proactively listen to them.
- Develop metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of internal CEO communication, diagnose problems, document success, and set clear direction for future efforts.
Rita Linjuan Men, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of public relations at Southern Methodist University and assistant research director for the Institute for Public Relations’ Organizational Communication Research Center.