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CEO Communication: Are You Talking Too Much? (Or Does It Just Seem That Way?)

Everything a CEO says gets amplified – the “CEO megaphone” effect. How can CEOs keep the team from overreacting?
COLLABORATORS Simon Calver
CEO communication strategies
photo by Roadside Guitars

Some CEOs are “fantastic visionaries and seem to have a constant (often what feels like endless!) stream of ideas flowing from their brains,” wrote venture capitalist Seth Levine on his VC Adventure blog. “And because they’re often gregarious people they’re not shy about sharing this idea stream.”

So what’s the problem? “Often this idea flow isn’t accompanied by any metadata and the lack of context can sometimes lead to companies zig-zagging around as managers react to the most recent meeting they’ve had with their visionary boss.”

Levine’s term for this effect is the “CEO Megaphone” – and he defines it thusly: “When CEOs talk, their voice is amplified by their position in the company….Since a CEO can’t turn off the megaphone, it’s important that she/he recognize the amplification effect it has.”

This “amplification effect” can grow exponentially worse, depending on how many subordinates you have. On the Harvard Business Review blog, Schaffer Consulting’s Ron Ashkenas cited a span-of-control study stating that when a manager goes from four to five subordinates, his potential interactions with them increase from 44 to 100 over a given period; and going from seven to eight subordinates raises the total interactions from 490 to 1080. Imagine, then, the amplification effect of your megaphone when you’re using it for 1080 interactions – as opposed to 490, or just 100.
How can a CEO limit the damage? Ashkenas offered a few tips:

1. Spell out the context. Make sure your employees understand the urgency level of your ideas and their impact on the business as a whole. You don’t want them to think that your latest rant is just one more item on their to-do lists…unless it is.

2. Try to empathize – with everyone. “The first lens that everyone uses to understand a message is: ‘What does it mean for me?’” notes Ashkenas. The rub here is that your subordinates will all hear the same words, but come away with different reactions. The better you are at gauging those reactions, the better you’ll become at limiting the amplification effect.

As an example, Ashkenas describes an executive visiting a manufacturing site to announce that the plant would be gradually shut down. Awful news for everyone, right? That was what the exec thought. But it turned out not to be the case. Some employees were psyched about severance pay and early retirements. Others chose not to think about something so far in the future. “Because this executive didn’t have personal relationships with the plant workers,” writes Ashkenas, “he was not prepared for their reactions.”

How can you develop those personal relationships? In a video on BVO, Simon Calver, CEO of LOVEFiLM, Europe’s largest online DVD rental service, suggested:

• Speak to the people actually doing the work – the front line – as opposed to only the leaders and your direct reports.
• Have informal lunches with staffers of all levels. It provides information for you and gives the staff a morale boost.

And if you’re worried that grabbing a sandwich with Joe from shipping will make Joe’s manager feel undermined, you shouldn’t be. “It’s perfectly within your right as chief executive,” asserted Calver, “to speak to anybody in that organization to find out what’s going on.”

THE PLUS

Responsible journalists wouldn’t normally refer you to Wikipedia, but we have to admit: the Wiki primer on the span-of-control concept is excellent.

And if Calver’s thoughts on communicating with the frontlines intrigued you, be sure to check out all of his videos on BVO.com – among the subjects he addresses are creating a customer-centric organization, innovating without fear of cannibalization, and how to find your passion if you haven’t found it yet.

As for Levine, the coiner (as far as we know) of the “CEO megaphone” phrase, there are plenty of other white-hot takes on his “VC Adventure” blog. His post on personal efficiency is a must-read for those with over-brimming inboxes.

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CEO Communication: Are You Talking Too Much? (Or Does It Just Seem That Way?)

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