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CEO communication with employees unimportant? Heretic!

It’s an idea that disturbs many communication professionals. They spend time, expend political capital and spill blood to convince their CEO to interact with employees through town meetings, road shows, blogs, podcasts and videocasts.

And then T.J. Larkin brazenly tells them as he told VSOTD recently—and as he has told legions through his book Communicating Change, his classic Harvard Business Review article “Reaching and Changing Frontline Employees,” his white papers and keynote speeches—“CEO communication with employees is not very important.”

That’s right, says the employee communication consultant and researcher: “CEOs are not employees’ mostdesired sources of information (supervisors are); CEOs are not the most credible sources (supervisors are); and CEOs rarely say anything that changes employee behavior (communication with supervisors does).”

We decided to engage the controversial Larkin in a conversation, exploring his ideas and asking him the next question: What’s a CEO, and his executive communication professional, to do about it?

What research do you use to back up your claim that CEOs should communicate less with employees, rather than more?

For example, Professor Phillip Clampitt, University of Wisconsin, asked employees for examples of communication that caused them to do their jobs better—70% of employee examples involved informal conversations with their supervisors, 2% of their examples involved messages from their CEOs. Research from The Hay Group shows it is four times more likely that employee will support a corporate change if they hear about it first from their supervisors compared with hearing it first from a company executive. There is a mountain of research showing that what your CEO says to employees is almost irrelevant compared with what employees’ managers say.

You realize what you’re saying is heresy to communicators, and even to many CEOs. How could so many people be so wrong?

Business books on leadership are responsible for most of the goofy ideas about CEO communication. Business books are full of images of charismatic CEOs motivating and inspiring their employees. These books describe CEOs so eloquent that employees—as if struck by lightning—are zapped with a new passion for customer service, supply-chain efficiency or manufacturing excellence. That’s crazy talk.

Turn away from the business books and listen to the sociologists and you’ll get a completely different picture. Most sociologists believe that “charismatic leadership” is exceedingly rare and usually not good. Charismatic leaders mostly provoke unpredictable, uncontrollable and dangerous crowd reactions. Max Weber, the sociologist most responsible for the term “charismatic leadership,” thought that history showed only a handful of good examples of charismatic leaders, mentioning only Socrates and Jesus—more recent sociologists often include people such as Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Do you really think your CEO is cut from the same cloth as Socrates, Jesus, Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela? And if your CEO doesn’t belong in this group, then he or she probably cannot inspire thousands of employees to change their behavior by the sheer force of their words.

Well, what about people like Lee Iacocca?

Great, Lee Iacocca saved Chrysler in 1978—the only example they can think of (a CEO saving a company via personal communication) is 30 years old!

But just because most CEOs don’t effect dramatic culture change with every utterance—surely it’s not a bad thing for them to get in front of the troops.

When looked at as an investment, CEO communication with employees offers the smallest return. If your CEO’s time is completely booked, then every additional minute spent communicating with employees is a minute taken away from communicating with your biggest customers, biggest investors, biggest suppliers and powerful politicians. Because these other audiences are so much smaller, it is possible for CEOs to develop real relationships and consequently deliver real change. However, employees number in the thousands, real relationships are impossible, and consequently real change is not going to happen. Employee communication delivers the smallest return for your CEO’s time investment.

So employees should never see or hear their CEO?

Of course I am not saying that. Instead, follow the example of the British and use your CEO as they do the royal family. Bring out your CEO in times of disasters, celebrations, major events and awards ceremonies. But understand what CEO communication can and cannot do: It can play an important ceremonial function but it does not change the behavior of thousands of frontline employees.

Say a CEO comes to agree with your assessment of the limited power he or she has to directly affect hearts and minds—but who nevertheless needs to move cultural mountains through communication. What should he or she do?

This does not mean that CEOs cannot affect communication. Selecting frontline managers as the company’s top communication priority is the most valuable thing any CEO can do for communication. CEOs can dramatically improve communication by directing everyone’s attention to frontline managers: don’t approve any large capital expenditures without evidence that frontline manager advice was considered; don’t approve any operating changes without specific plans for informing and training frontline managers; don’t promote anyone who doesn’t have a reputation for responding to frontline managers’ concerns. CEOs can force their companies to listen to and value the opinions of their frontline managers.

Your ideas here go so much against the prevailing grain in the communication field—where collaring a CEO and helping him or her communicate authentically and effectively with employees is almost a form of heroism—that you’ve been accused of simply being provocative for the sake of being provocative.

I am not trying to be provocative, it’s what I believe is true. CEOs, I think, are normal people, just like you and me, with normal talents, except perhaps for huge capacities for work. They are not super-human possessing skills unavailable to the rest of us.

To read more about Larkin’s ideas, check out his Sandar’s white papers, downloadable for free at their website, www.larkin.biz. And to weigh in on the issue, see a related item on the Vital Speeches blog.