The Public Relations Strategist

In the C-Suite: The Makings of Great Leaders

July 25, 2016

Being the leader of any organization today can be a daunting task. There are many constituencies to satisfy, whether the organization is a large corporation or a small nonprofit. These can include investors or donors, boards of directors, the news media, employees, the government, customers and the general public.

That’s a pretty awesome list. But at one time or another, a leader’s challenges will require the support — or at least the goodwill — of one or more of these constituencies. The best CEOs excel at handling all of them.

Advances in technology have made the position a lot more difficult in recent years, especially for those heading big companies. Bad news whips around the world instantly on social media, as do gossip, innuendo and false accusations. Anybody with a smartphone and a grudge can catch an executive in a clumsy moment and send a video viral. Television outlets will now use grainy or blurry video if it’s sensational enough, especially if it’s damaging to a public figure. And for big issues and controversies, people want answers directly from the mouths of leaders, not from news releases. So it’s hardly surprising that in this environment, communication skills are playing an even greater role in leadership success.

What goes into the making of a great leader — one who gets results, commands respect and eventually leaves the position with a positive reputation?

Here are some of the most critical elements:

1. Straight talk

Nothing builds trust and credibility like giving simple, candid, direct answers to questions. Too often, executives ramble on and on and end up looking evasive or indecisive when an issue could have been dealt with quickly and simply.

Here’s an example: The CEO of one of the world’s largest banks, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, was once asked if the organization was planning any mergers or acquisitions. He responded:
“Forgetting the business logic and the price, there will be options down the road there. I would answer your question about capable and that we weren’t really quite capable yet because our army was doing all the other stuff we had to do, particularly the systems conversions. The army will be capable to do other stuff sometime next year, which is reasonable. Doesn’t mean we will.”

His answer could have been this clear and simple: “Not now; we’re not ready. Maybe later.”

Seven words versus 66. With more clarity.

2. Listening

Everybody wants to be heard, from the richest investor to the lowest-ranking new hire. Smart leaders listen. It makes the other person feel important and often provides invaluable information.

Bernard Ferrari, dean of the Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University, emphasized the importance of good listening skills in the title of his 2012 book, “Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All.” Ferrari wrote that many people think they listen when they really don’t. They’ll sit quietly and nod their heads but pay little attention to what is being said. He says productive listening means asking the right questions and absorbing useful information. Good listeners have a better chance for success than tuned-out head-nodders.

3. Executive presence

Why do some people exude executive presence and others do not? There are several things that go into looking, sounding and acting like a leader. 

Here’s a brief checklist:

• A pleasant demeanor, highlighted by a warm, friendly smile.
• Good eye contact. Looking people right in the eye, especially when they’re speaking, is essential to sending a message that you are open and involved.
• Good posture. Watching videos of yourself stepping up to the lectern or entering a conference hall will tell you whether you are walking erect or in an image-sapping slouch.
• Proper attire and grooming. People who dress well and look neat are more highly regarded than those who do not.
• A well-paced, well-modulated voice. Get vocal coaching if this is a weakness.

4. Employee relations

The best leaders make employees or volunteers feel like partners. A loyal, motivated workforce tends to be a lot more productive and suffer less turnover than one that is under-recognized and underappreciated.

The late Glenn Britt, CEO of Time Warner Cable, dedicated a lot of time and effort to visiting the company’s many facilities and meeting employees. He told me: “People just like to see you in person and do Q-and-A. I think there ultimately isn’t a substitute for just getting out and seeing people.”

Obviously, such opportunities are limited for people who head large global corporations. But there is nothing to stop any CEO from recording and posting regular internal videos that speak directly to employees, point out their successes and tell them what’s going on in the company. It’s a great way to build loyalty and teamwork by making employees feel appreciated.

5. Visibility

Great leadership involves being seen and heard, not just by co-workers but by people outside the organization’s walls.

Here are some key areas of focus:

• Public speaking: Nothing is more persuasive than a live speaker who addresses an audience and then answers questions face-to-face. Speaking before the right groups is essential to the image of both the leader and the company. But it’s also critically important that the leader be a strong, well-trained speaker.

• Media interviews: Too many executives overlook the power of the news media to shape the public’s view of a company or industry. A limited number of well-planned, well-rehearsed and well-executed interviews in selected outlets is an essential part of the leader’s job. And media training is a must, both to prepare for planned interviews and to teach the executive how to cope with sudden, unexpected media confrontations.

• Community involvement: This means being active and visible in the headquarters city or key cities in areas that mean something to people who live and work there. I once told the president of a Florida firm that he was putting his company at a disadvantage because he wasn’t active in the community. He responded indignantly, “Not so! I’m a member of the Yacht Club.” I suggested that the Boys and Girls Club might be a better venue for displaying his caring nature.

6. Humility

UPS is a great example of a company with a team culture and CEOs who demonstrate real humility.

A few years ago, former CEO Mike Eskew offered me a ride to the train station after a day of rehearsing for an important presentation at the company headquarters near Atlanta. I expected his car to be parked right next to the building in the executive section of the company garage. But there were no spaces set aside for executives; it was first-come, first-served. After a lengthy walk, we got to his car. That said volumes about the company’s culture and Eskew’s humble, successful, team-oriented management style. 



5 Habits of Great Leaders

• Recognizing that communication skills are at the heart of successful leadership   
• Working to excel in public speaking and media interviews
• Sharpening listening skills
• Treating employees as valued partners
• Staying humble  — V.S.
 

Virgil Scudder
Virgil Scudder is the author of “World Class Communication: How Great CEOs Win With the Public, Shareholders, Employees, and the Media,” which received an Award of Distinction as one of the best business books of 2012. Email: virgil@virgilscudder.com.

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