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The Perks of Having a CEO Who's a Wallflower

Editor’s Note: Workspan will be reproducing a monthly Compensation Café blog post for the benefit of our readers and to encourage further discourse on topics vital to compensation professionals. New to WorldatWork? Please feel free to join the discussion in our Online Community or send your thoughts to workspan@worldatwork.org.

I compared notes on how to handle compensation communications at a local compensation association meeting. One of the questions that came up was, "How can you make any inroads with a CEO who doesn't believe in communication?"

I'd bet money that there were many others in the room facing the same limitations with their execs. It's a far too common dilemma. And, it’s especially worrisome when you know that employees are hungry for insight. Even though it’s a challenge, I believe my questioner will be able to make inroads. I've seen it happen. When you are determined, you can make headway even though CEO reticence is a sensitive issue.

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Generalization alert: Many executives who are against communications are poor communicators or inexperienced communicators themselves. As a result, they have a strong conviction that any communication effort will have dismal results. They don't realize that there are ways to plan for outcomes, and they surely don't understand the limits they are placing on business results. They are speaking from real experience, though — their own.

But you know better. That’s why this tough situation can offer perks. You know, from experience, how much can be accomplished by listening and responding. That's why there is a great opportunity here for human resources to build a deep and important relationship with executives, if you have patience, determination and a strategy with goals that can deliver slow but steady progress.

The strategy should have all the hallmarks of a communication strategy. First, analyze your audience. What type of information does your CEO find most influential — research, case studies, competitor practices? All of those are easy to find.

Because you want to try to change a deeply held opinion, make sure you combine your data into a clear, crisp set of key points. Willy-nilly data sharing, no matter how potent the data is, is not going to change anyone’s mind. You need to fashion a “message platform” of three to six key points that you can reinforce with solid data that you can inject during conversations about business priorities.

What milestones do you want to use to measure progress? Because we’re talking about a sensitive process, you’ll want goals that you know will be successful and will be counted as accomplishments by the CEO. The better you get to know the CEO, the more insight you’ll have into where success can come. For example, a video may be an effective medium for an executive who is not a confident public speaker. It can be edited, and audience reaction is more muted and more constructive for someone who is building their abilities. You may want to start with an interview on the executive’s favorite business issues rather than HR topics.

What about working with other executives, perhaps one of those who has the most influence on the bottom line? How open — or eager — would they be for increased employee communications? Division heads may be more open to “beta tests” of your communication ideas than you think. If you start to make progress, the division head may be willing to verbalize their support for communications in closed leadership meetings.

If the word “communication” causes a knee-jerk reaction, don't use it. Instead of presenting design and communications plans separately, integrate the two. Discuss “implementation,” “project steps” or “work processes” — whatever the correct terminology would be for your organization.

Odds are progress that has real impact on employees will take a year or two. But, if you start with a formal strategy to build the CEO’s insight, confidence, awareness and support — and you, too, refuse to live the life of a wallflower — you will make progress.

About the Author

Margaret O'Hanlon Bio Image

Margaret O'Hanlon, CCP, is founder and principal at re:Think Consulting and a founding contributor of Compensation Café.

First published at Compensation Café on Oct. 26, 2015.


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