5 Steps for Persuading Execs to Improve Their Communications

Howard TombI’ve never seen anyone play golf with a hammer. But year after year, I work with senior executives who try to address major communications challenges with blunt instruments. To put it politely, they have too much faith in the power of their own words.

They tend to believe, for example, that their employees trust them. Some of them spend their lives so far from the front line that they think employees admire them. They think the same of vendors, customers and shareholders.

Well, what’s wrong with an abundance of self-confidence?

A lot. It leads to underperformance, for example. If the competition is playing with a full set of clubs, no amount of charisma or bluster will make up for the fact that senior management is teeing off with a hammer.  

“I’m happy with this hammer,” I’ve heard chief executives say. (I’m paraphrasing.)  “I’ve worked with it for half an hour, and I can swing it just fine now.”

Overcoming stubbornness that profound may seem impossible, but I’ve found a way to help supremely confident leaders look beyond their blunt instruments—all the way to the flagstick. I start with a question: “What are we trying to accomplish?”

Their answer often refers to a tool. “We need an organization-wide memo,” they’ll say. “Let’s pull some slides together for the town hall,” or “I’ve got to deliver the keynote address.”

Focusing on the tool might be fine if the goals are within easy reach, such as “getting a chuckle or two and some polite applause,” or if we simply need to share information. We might have a new toll-free phone number, for example, or Billy Bob might have earned a promotion to vice president.

But communicating real change—the kind that improves an organization’s performance for the long term—is about much more than informing people. It’s about changing the way they think and act. No single memo, slide show or speech can do that.

Effective strategic communications can move investors, customers, legislators, regulators, voters, Greenpeace, a ruling junta, a sales force or a jury pool. Even teenagers, if the effort is brilliantly planned and executed.

To be sure, a handful of middle managers in a typical organization will change their behavior after a couple of memos or a town hall presentation. They listen keenly to every pronouncement of senior management and repeat the latest catchphrases like parrots. But the rest of us will need to hear the “change story” repeatedly from people we trust and admire before it begins to sink in. And even then we’re likely to need new incentives before we genuinely and permanently change the way we think and act.

So how does effective change communication unfold? 

Step 1: Set clear, measurable goals. Examples include “improve customer satisfaction ratings by ten points in six months,” “reduce out-of-stocks by 50% this year,” “get at least one positive analyst report after the next earnings call,” or “stop the sales force attrition.”

Defining and agreeing on explicit goals like these can bring even the most confident executives into the real world.  They know that nothing that they say, by itself, can move their audience all the way to “the new paradigm,” “Vision 2020” or whatever they’re calling it. 

Step 2: Understand the audience. Before we can move people, we have to know where they are now. That knowledge can come from formal and informal survey data, focus groups, conversations with their immediate supervisors, and so on. Nearly every audience has distinct segments; the attitudes of salespeople in California may differ from those in New Jersey, for example, while lab technicians have their own take. Top-tier customers may have a more positive view of the company than those who get less attention. We will need to tailor our messages, and choose our messengers, accordingly. 

Step 3: Determine how to move them. What could we say or do that would make a certain audience begin to believe that our organization is changing? Or that they should work harder, work smarter, or accept fewer resources from us? That our $1 billion cost-cutting program is really about improving service? 

Most seasoned executives insist on getting bad news promptly and without varnish. But when it’s their turn to deliver bad news, many of them become highly sensitive. Some tell me that the truth is a downer and that they don’t want to discourage people by revealing it. But adults can handle bad news, and it’s usually not as grim as what they’re hearing at the water cooler. Honesty also helps to build trust.

Step 4: Choose the right messengers. Workers have doubted the wisdom of their senior executive since they hauled blocks for the first pyramid. And they’ve always trusted their immediate supervisor most of all. He or she spends more time with them—and understands their work, hopes, fears and motivations—better than anyone else in authority.

And, unlike most senior leaders, the supervisor can have informal, candid, two-way conversations with people on the front line—and then share the views of the front line with his or her superiors. 

Step 5: Listen. Communicating change is an ongoing conversation, not a series of memos or a town hall meeting. Employees, customers and shareholders can be motivated, but they want to be heard. Few of them respond well to orders.

If the lines of communication run from the C-suite to the field and back again, the brass has a fighting chance of knowing which messages are getting through and what’s happening out where the carpet is not as thick.

Listening is also how we prove that we value teamwork and mutual respect. With firm, consistent training, even the most confident executive can be persuaded to put down the hammer. 

Howard Tomb is a corporate communications advisor. 

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About Howard Tomb

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