Make Your Case: Use Research to Help Convince Your CEO of the Value of Communication

Article excerpt

Tamara Smith had a challenge. As the director of employee communication for a global industrial company, Tamara (I've changed her name and other key details for this article) knew that the CEO and other senior leaders should be communicating more actively with employees. After all, compared with the CEOs of competitors, her CEO was practically invisible. Other than "writing" a quarterly email message (which Tamara's boss, the vice president of communication, actually drafted) and occasionally being interviewed on video, he rarely showed up in communication channels. And he almost never had face-to-face contact with employees.

This particular CEO wasn't neglecting internal communication because he was so busy doing media interviews. Tamara's boss bemoaned the fact that he didn't do much external communication either. The reason? He said he was too busy running the company to "spend a lot of time talking about it."

In terms of building employee engagement, Tamara was well aware of the importance of senior leader communication. She had read the 2010 Right Management white paper that shows a statistically significant correlation between how employees view leaders and how engaged they feel--and that cites "effectively communicating my organization's strategy to employees" as one of the four critical factors in employees' confidence in company leaders. She worried that unless her company's senior leaders communicated more, employees would become as disengaged as those surveyed by Maritz Research in 2011. That survey suggests that in the United States employees' trust in leaders is eroding; in fact, only 7 percent of those surveyed said that senior management's actions are consistent with their words.

Tamara had drafted a comprehensive communication plan for the CEO and key members of his executive leadership team. But although her boss thought the plan was sound, he worried that the CEO wouldn't buy in to it.

"He's a smart guy," her boss said. "But CEOs at this company have never been very visible. In fact, he communicates more than his predecessor did. So it will be hard to convince him to act differently."

Her boss had another concern. "Results from last year's engagement survey were pretty good," he said. "And you know what the CEO always says: 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' The only way that he will agree to your communication plan is if there is a compelling case for change.

"If you can make that case," he continued, "I think you could sell him on your plan." He smiled. "And if you figure it out, share your secret with me. I would love to convince him to do more media interviews, speeches and other external communication."

Research makes the case

What does Tamara need to convince her CEO to invest his time in communication? The answer, of course, is research. She must find evidence-quantitative and qualitative data--to provide context, establish a need and support her approach.

Without such evidence, we communicators find ourselves in a discussion where effective communication seems subjective--that is, my viewpoint versus the perspective of someone who has a higher title and more authority than I do. Evidence, on the other hand, levels the playing field. I no longer enter the room alone: I've got data from hundreds or even thousands of others to support my position. Remember, CEOs and other leaders are used to making fact-based decisions, so they're more likely to take your advice if you have data to back it up.

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Consultants like me are well aware of the power of evidence. We're influential not only because we offer an outside perspective, but also because we bring compelling research to the conversation. We share stories of how leading companies have addressed issues. We conduct studies that generate statistically significant data. And we uncover qualitative evidence through interviews and focus groups. …