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Posted: March 14, 2011

“I struggle to find any truth in your lies”

That lyric makes me think of CEOs who can't communicate

Sherry Law

When I heard that line from a Mumford & Sons song for the first time recently, my mind didn't leap immediately to deceitful lovers or overly aggressive sales reps. Instead, it leapt to thoughts of CEOs. (You can't control where your mind goes.) Not all CEOs, of course, but to the ones who simply can't, or don't, communicate well. The ones who, effectively, leave their organizations without leadership.

One in particular comes to mind from my own history: an absolutely charming man in person, who would look people in the eye and make all sorts commitments and promises, then break them one by one. Employees watched as the company failed under his tenure and was eventually acquired in bankruptcy. The CEO? He moved on to create a leadership vacuum at another company.

Effective communication is an essential trait for leaders and a critical factor for business success. It helps increase efficiency, improve morale, create productive working relationships, generate employee loyalty, and inspire customer and shareholder delight, among other things. And it can be learned.

The motivation to miscommunicate

CEOs whose communications are inconsistent-or unclear, evasive, slippery or downright false-usually control companies where productivity is lower; trust and morale are lacking; and employees are biding their time until they find a better place to work.

Why, when effective communication offers so many benefits, do many CEOs choose to miscommunicate? Often, it's insecurity, a lack of experience or an ineffective leadership style for the culture or phase of company development. It can also be an attempt to protect a troubled brand (or a large ego) or a misguided effort to protect employees from bad news.

I have yet to meet a CEO who doesn't believe in the value of communication, but instead of considering what they are communicating to employees, and why and how, they stay "focused on the business." But in business communication is everything. It's the only way for CEOs to express their vision; and it provides the critical links between core functions and people throughout an organization.

Avoid the usual communication pitfalls

Effective leaders communicate confidence and control, authenticity and feelings, purpose and passion, trust and connection. (Everyone knows that by now.) But even some of the best communicators get hung up by these common assumptions that can undermine the message:

I know it, so everyone knows it.
If you haven't deliberately told everyone, or told your managers to tell their people, others don't have the information. Take control; don't leave a communication void.

There's not a problem, so there's nothing to communicate.
Management's focus is typically on solving problems. Communication, in the form of a continual dialogue, heads off problems, keeps problems from becoming crises, and fosters innovation.

I said it, so they heard it.
Every one of us interprets what we hear and see from our personal perspective. And we tend to listen selectively. Add to that workforce diversity, and you really have no clue about what employees hear you say, unless you ask them.

They have all the facts they need.
Unless you are putting information in context (why, when and how) and asking for feedback, you are not really communicating. Raw data and simple information do little to motivate employees to do their best.

Every company deserves a leader

The bottom line is that every company deserves a leader who understands how vital communication is to both people and outcomes-and communicates effectively.

The CEO of one large company I worked for in the long ago past was never visible to the rank and file except for the annual holiday party where he gave out awards and clowned around on stage. Never a word about the company direction, the financials, the overall strategy-ever.

Years later, and at the other end of the spectrum, I worked for a CEO who was determined to share every detail of the company's financials with every employee in frequent long, boring meetings that resulted in high, regular turnover.

Somewhere in between the extremes there's a place where people don't have to struggle to find the truth.
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Sherry Law, Evergreen Communication, helps executives communicate effectively with employees, customers and other stakeholders, from strategy through execution. Reach Sherry at: and 303-494-5326.


Sherry Law, Evergreen Communication, helps companies communicate effectively with employees, customers and other stakeholders. She can be reached at: and 303-494-5326.


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Readers Respond

I agree with Jim and John. The type or style of communication, marketplace as watchdog, and employee engagement all contribute to the success or failure of any business; large or small. It's the ability of the CEO to work with a diverse workforce by walking his/her language across the many "cultures" within the business to engage employees and then out to the customer/community it serves in one clear message. A tight rope act? You bet! The point is an effective "CEO" knows how to communicate the business he/she is in to his/her employees, main street, and wall street. Lack of communication is only one facet of larger communication problem. This does not always rest at the foot of the "CEO," we also need to look at the entire executive team; hence qualitative and quantitative analysis. Today's workplace requires more than one leader.Todays successful business has a team of Leaders. By Sean Moore on 2011 03 17
No one is going to disagree with your premise about the importance of communication from the top. The problem does not lie in the lack of communication; it is the type of communication used by most executives that falls short. A true leader does not just communicate - he/she engages with employees and creates a culture of success where everyone believes they are a contributor to that success. Sorry - out of allowed space to comment further. By Jim Kast on 2011 03 14
I agree with most of what you said, but I'm not too worried about such CEO's because the market takes care of them. It's always been that way and always will be. It's part of the process for Capitalism. The large majority of CEO's know better which is why small businesses are usually one of the highest respected positions in the country. By john wray on 2011 03 14

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