Guest AuthorHema Ravichandar

When the CEO communicates

Source | The Mint – Hema Ravichandar

Team leaders and section head aside, when the numero uno of the organization speaks directly to the employees, it provides a different impetus to organization building

It is vital that the CEO fulfils promises made from the podium.


Photo: Illustration by Raajan/Mint

The board meeting had been stormy, the annual general meeting that followed witnessed an unusually heavy flow of comments and questions. There was the investor call to follow and some media interactions. But what the chief executive officer (CEO) really looked forward to was his employee connect—his quarterly reach-out to employees. This is when he really came into his own. He inspired, cajoled, chided sometimes and envisioned the future, sharing the wins of the last quarter, the challenges ahead, where the organization was and the trajectory that it should take. With technology his close aide, he could reach out to employees across locations, real time. He could invite questions, seek comments and address concerns, all the while speaking to many and addressing the concerns of the individual.

This initiative had been started in the organization just a few quarters ago, a low-hanging fruit in a bouquet of solutions, aimed at engaging with the employee more robustly. Cynics called it lightweight, waiting for it to peter out quickly. But the impact it was having on the organizational psyche was slowly becoming apparent. There was marked improvement in the health of certain key indicators that the company was tracking—connect with senior leadership, clarity among employees on organizational goals and purpose, and, most importantly, greater alignment of employees with organizational intent.

The importance of a robust internal communication framework in organizations is well known, but the case in point is slightly nuanced with the focus on the tremendous impact that a strong direct connect with the CEO brings. Of course, it is important to cascade messages down the organization, get first-line managers to stand up and address their teams, even have regular updates of happenings and developments in different parts of the organization. It is great if different leaders take turns to speak. It demonstrates the depth of the leadership pipeline. And it gives employees perspectives from the vantage point of different specializations and functional heads. But when the No.1 in the organization speaks, it is a different matter altogether. Because it is the numero uno who apexes all stakeholder interests, the customer, the investor, the employee and even society. The buck stops right there. Her message rightly gives a cross-stakeholder perspective and organizational bird’s-eye view, which no single functional head can normally provide; or lend as much credibility to the organizational message. No wonder then that impactful CEO communication provides a totally different impetus to organization building or rebuilding, as the case may be.

“The charm and pull of a face-to-face with a charismatic CEO is heady. But in the real world this becomes virtually impossible with large and dispersed workforces. Smart leaders then leverage technology to address this challenge,” said a veteran change management consultant. The change can be startlingly apparent when a great orator CEO succeeds one who either was not a good public speaker, or was loath to speak. Unfortunately, the vice versa is also true, draining organizational energy at an alarming speed. I am not being simplistic about this. Employee speak in various organizations will actually bear me out. Not just in the corporate world, the case holds true for real politick as well. Take the case of the great oratory of former British prime minister Winston Churchill. His famous words, “…we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender….” at the height of World War II had the ability to energize an entire nation from the slough of depression it was steeped in and was in itself a call to arms and courage. In more recent times, the strong oratorical overtone of our national election struck a similar powerful chord in the electorate and reinforced forcefully the strength of hearing the leader speak.

A leader’s speech in any form is welcome—whether it is of the podium kind, the virtual bazaars or even brown bag lunches with informal groups. But the power of great extemporary communication (of course, with well-researched messages) is indeed unbeatable. And when such speeches are peppered generously with both data and humour (even of the self-depreciating kind) the wow effect enhances.

Leaders are indeed blessed if they are born with such oratorical skills. But I have seen that it is by no means impossible for them to train to become good orators, to transform from the proverbial goongi gudiya (dumb doll) to attention-capturing, charismatic orators. The transformation cannot be an overnight one and requires painstaking effort—communication coaches who tend to the tone, manner and even mindset, with undivided focus on content to keep the message simple, direct and clear. Brian Tracy, the entrepreneur and author, got it right when he said, “Communication is a skill that you can learn. It’s like riding a bicycle or typing. If you’re willing to work at it, you can rapidly improve…”

Communicating is important, but then so is living up to promises made from the podium. “Record commitments, follow them through” is the mantra that a charismatic CEO who has mastered the art adopts. This needs working on especially, given the rather cavalier approach in meetings these days to the small matter of actually documenting key decisions, responsibility holders and due dates for delivery. A leader I admired always started the Q and A session of his speech with all the commitments made in the last communication and where he and the respective responsibility holder stood on those commitments. This showcased beautifully the intent to honour previous commitments and hold responsibility holders to hard deadlines.

So leaders please put aside your inhibitions, your other calendar conflicts and reach out to your employee base and see how the “vitamin of leader speak” really invigorates organizational spirit. And if like our CEO protagonist above, you embrace this on your calendar right there with the investor and media speak at crucial times like the annual and quarterly results, then more power to you.


Hema RaviHema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations. She was formerly the global head of HR for Infosys Ltd


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