When Communicating Bad News, Real Leaders Take Ownership

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At your next corporate event, consider how best to leverage the CEO’s role during the presentation. Delivering only upbeat messages — while side-stepping any touchy subjects – is surely not the best choice. Real leaders take ownership of difficult announcements.

After the CEO speaks out first, to break the difficult news, a sequence of follow-up presentations, from several speakers, may be orchestrated to support the company’s storytelling. But the CEO has a unique role to play in the overall choreography of speakers. Shielding him or hear from carrying difficult topics, while farming to other speakers, can send an unwelcome message about leadership at the company – ‘passing the buck’. It’s up to the CEO to take ownership of difficult announcements, while trying to connect with the audience, to lead them forward.

Whether the audience consists of employees, shareholders, or potential investors, connecting with them during a presentation is crucial. Working backwards from an audience’s needs and expectations is the best way to generate audience engagement. Be empathetic. What does the audience fear, what does it aspire to? Put yourself in their shoes and try to address their concerns head-on.

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CEOs have a unique opportunity to shine, and to lead, when the news in bad. Resist the temptation to hand off difficult topics to others in the organization. In business, when the sea is smooth, even an inexperienced sailor can captain a ship. Real leaders tend to emerge, and be forged, during challenging times.

The Covid-19 pandemic is one of those challenging times that revealed the strength of some leaders, or the weakness of others. Consider the effective crisis leadership in New Zealand, or the lack thereof in the United States or the United Kingdom, during the same period.

Some business leaders have stood out, by responding immediately to the challenging environment. Adam Silver, NBA Commissioner, shut down the basketball season in March, while GM and Ford transitioned their automotive factories to making ventilators. The strong leadership skills exhibited here include facing a crisis head-on, acknowledging health risks, and facing up to economic losses. These business leaders did not make excuses or try to sweep underperformance under the rug. They took ownership of a situation, even when it was dire. If you are spending too much time shifting blame, making excuses to explain underperformance, the posture itself becomes the message – i.e. to use an anatomical metaphor: when you point a finger, your fist has three other fingers pointing back at you!

Honesty is the Best Policy

It may be tempting to bury negative performance reports in the middle of a presentation, hoping no one will notice. Warren Buffett said, “The most important thing to do if you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging.” In communications work, to stop digging means to tell the truth, simply and effectively, so you can move forward, or, up and out of the hole. Many communications professionals are hired to help spin or hide ant unpleasant messages. The West Wing television episode titled, “Take Out the Trash Day” showed the press secretary planning to offload potentially embarrassing announcements on Friday, to feed them into the less viewed weekend news cycle, hoping to go un(der)reported.

However, strong leaders do not deny or hide when faced with negative news to announce. Leaders cut to the chase, and we consider them leaders precisely for doing so. A technique to remember is BLUF: Bottom Line Up Front. Or alternately: KISS — Keep It Short and Simple. These approaches to messaging remain best practice in all circumstances, regardless of message content. “We thought X would happen. Y happened instead.” Audience reassurance comes first from acknowledging reality rather than denying it. As listeners, we are open to hearing explanations and analysis of why results differed from expectations if, and only if, the speakers seems honest, transparent and accountable – three other attributes of great leadership. Maybe the company is “on the right path, showing growth, but aspect X needs more time”. Continue to tell your story in short sentences, with no jargon. The storytelling approaches listed above will build more trust from your audience..

Strong Leaders Keep Moving Forward

Keep in mind that results, whether positive or negative, are already behind by the time we are in a situation to report on them. We can never change the past. Therefore, rather than crying over spilled milk, a better use your time in front of an audience is to pivot your storytelling to the future. As CEO, lead your employees and your investors forward. To quote leadership coach Brian Tracy: “Followers think and talk about the problems. Leaders think and talk about the solutions..” Use your presentation to press the reset button, and build a new point of reference from that moment on, to maximize the next phase of your growth trajectory.

CEOs, as leaders of their organizations, play a key role in delivering messages about company performance, both internally and externally. Unfortunately, and often through no fault of their own — simply because of the ups and downs of the business cycle — not all CEO announcements can be rosy. However, by engaging with their audiences, and addressing concerns head-on, and then pivoting our storytelling towards the future, leaders may be able to ensure that negative messages stay contained in the past.

Source : https://www.forbes.com/sites/adriandearnell/2020/12/21/when-communicating-bad-news-real-leaders-take-ownership/?sh=3f067c5e210e

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