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Communication from the CEO’s perspective – an Underestimated Challenge?

  • August 2011

Now more than ever before the public image of any organization is defined by how its CEO appears in public and personally expresses and embodies its corporate communications. At the same time the challenges facing corporate communications are ever more complex: not only are the requirements in terms of reporting obligations and transparency increasingly stringent but public interest in the CEO as an individual has also grown significantly in recent years. Meanwhile new communications channels and formats are constantly emerging, steadily accelerating the pace at which communication happens. In this environment CEOcommunications have long since become a crucial factor in a company’s success. Yet how do these leading players on the business scene, the CEOs themselves, experience the role of communication in their everyday leadership function and the various tasks it involves? What importance do CEOs assign to communication in corporate leadership? What do they expect of their Chief Communications and Public Affairs Officer? How do they handle the accelerating pace of the media and the rigorous legal and social requirements in terms of transparency? And to what extent are they prepared to engage visibly in the wider social debate?

These were the core questions posed by Egon Zehnder and Markus Will, senior lecturer at the University of St. Gallen, in discussions with the CEOs of leading German businesses. The results of these conversations, summarized in German in the study “Communication from the CEO’s perspective – an underestimated challenge?” offer an insight into the experiences of German CEOs in this area.

Personal experiences and communication strategies

“The difference between a board member and a Chief Executive Officer is that your every word and gesture is subject to scrutiny.” “What has surprised me more than anything else is the complexity. Another thing that’s completely different is external communication and how important this is.” “I had to learn that in interviews however much you prepare you can still have moments of weakness. I’ve come to see this as part of my authenticity.”

The CEOs interviewed admit to having been surprised by the communications requirements in some respects. The difference from their previous roles, they say, is that as CEO their entire personality is in the communications spotlight – for the press, in particular. As a rule the CEOs do not feel they have been adequately prepared for these communications duties, regarding media training courses they had undertaken previously as insufficient for their current role. These CEOs had not anticipated becoming public property – with “every gesture and every word” exposed to scrutiny – nor were they prepared for the voracious public appetite for information they would have to satisfy.

The study shows that CEOs not only allocate an unexpectedly large amount of time and attention to corporate communications (as much as half of their working day) but also acknowledge its key strategic significance: they emphasize the growing importance of communication in terms of overall corporate strategy. The days when communication was first and foremost about strategy presentation and information policy are gone for good. As these CEOs see it, communication has itself become part of the strategy and therefore a core business management function in its own right.

According to these chief executives, successful CEOcommunications call not just for a high degree of authenticity but also for a certain innate talent. Unless a CEO has a gift for communicating or at least takes pleasure in talking to people they will not be able to cope with the demands placed on them personally by the role.

Working with the Chief Communications and Public Affairs Officer

“Theoretically the CCO should know exactly what I’m thinking – because while s/he communicates without me, I hardly ever communicate without him.” “Being an outstanding communicator isn’t enough on its own – s/he has to be able to manage, too, in order to do the job properly.” “I can definitely imagine the communications chief subsequently taking charge in a different sphere – after all, the great thing is that s/he knows the company inside out.”

As the study shows, CEOs expect their CCOs to bring more than just a high level of specialist expertise to the table – they also expect management and strategic competencies, above all. Almost without exception the CEOs questioned say that they want their CCO to be a kind of sparring partner. A solid basis of knowledge about the business is very important here. Only as an insider and an experienced manager in his or her own right would the CCO be in a position to offer advice to the CEO on an equal footing, and to develop and effectively represent an independent opinion. The CCO – say the CEOs – is a spokesperson, minister of external affairs and adviser. Sometimes the CCO is even described as the CEO’s alter ego. To fulfil this role effectively calls for a self-confident personality – ideally, perhaps, someone who is more extrovert by nature. The CEOs don’t want “yes men” as their CCOs – they want individuals who can contradict them and sometimes say “no”.

Another key issue for the CEOs is the CCO’s network both within and beyond the company. This network provides the basis for reporting moods, trends and emerging issues to the CEO. The CCO builds bridges between the business and the public, as well as between the CEO and the workforce. With his finger on the pulse of the outside world, s/he tells the CEO what the public and the media are thinking and what they expect.

Of course the CEO and CCO also need to harmonize as personalities: the “chemistry” has to be right. A very close relationship of trust with the CCO is the prerequisite for a successful working partnership, the study reveals.

Transparency and speed

“Transparency helps. The secretiveness of the old days always bothered me, especially as it was always misinterpreted from outside.” “The challenge of transparency is ongoing and brings stress with it. You have to be able to shoot from the hip. If you need to consult first, you’re generally too slow.” “You need to beware of things getting on top of you to the extent that you no longer have time to think or reflect.”

The CEOs surveyed are fundamentally positive about the public requirement for greater transparency. Yet they also point to the challenges and risks of implementation here, in conjunction with the accelerated pace of communications and the media appetite for publicity: decisions, they say, have to be communicated (too) rapidly and without prior consultation. The scope for action is limited as a result and the clear distinction between internal and external communications is disappearing.

What is emerging overall, as the CEOs explain, is a corporate landscape which increasingly obeys the rules of a media-driven society – a world in which Corporate Communications set the pace. We can infer from this that the interviewees would like to be able to retreat from the media spotlight, needing a space in which they can develop ideas for the future, allow decisions to mature over time, prepare and consult on strategies. At any rate they point to the danger of neglecting the organization’s primary mission while serving the dictates of a dominant communications agenda.

Participating in the wider social debate

“The social themes must be appropriate for you personally, and for the culture and values of the company you represent.” “I think that as a CEO you should also have the right not to have an opinion on a subject as CEO.” “Education, research, and also issues like globalization, are subjects I want to say something about publicly as the CEO of an international corporation.”

All the CEOs questioned see it as part of their role to take part in the wider social debate. Yet as a rule these CEOs limit this participation to issues directly or indirectly relevant to their organization – subjects such as education and research, demographic trends and globalization, or public debt levels. However they combine this willingness to participate with a need to steer clear of very public, high-speed media formats like talk shows, preferring to present their views in traditional media with a specialized thematic focus and audience: in specialist magazines or conferences. They see the effects of other media as being relatively unpredictable, presenting risks they cannot fully evaluate. So they tend to keep their distance from these media, to avoid being drawn into a vortex of fast-moving social debate where they might lose control of how their statements are interpreted.


The survey reveals that many business leaders only get to know the terrain in which their personal performance is so decisive – with obvious knock-on effects for the company they represent – after beginning their tenure. They are determined to satisfy the strong public and media demand for personal communications, transparency and reactivity. And they depend on a close partnership with their CCO to provide the necessary support, enabling them to communicate not just reactively but also strategically as a core discipline of their management role.

Special thanks go to co-authors Matthias Fritton and Philipp Fleischmann, both formerly with Egon Zehnder, and Markus Will.

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