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The challenges of helping C-level executives communicate with rank-and-file employees

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A few weeks ago, Josh Bernoff made a post that talked about a recent communication from Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, to employees about a recent series of layoffs.

If you read Bernoff’s blog with any regularity (as I do), you probably picked up on the fact that he wasn’t a big fan of the language Nadella used in the communication. He describes the memo as using language of a victim like “impacting” and “reductions.”

Clearly, the Microsoft corporate communications team helped Nadella develop this message. Rarely does a CEO or senior leader write an important message to employees on his/her own. The corp comms team is almost always involved.

Satya

And even with a number of communications pros involved (including most likely the senior-level communicator for Microsoft), the message still came across as unclear and full of corporate speak.

And herein lies the challenge for every corporate communicator when helping an executive develop an employee communication.

In fact, having spent 10+ years in corporate communications roles myself, I see a few key challenges:

Executives speak a different language than rank-and-file employees

Just look at the background and education of any C-level executive. They’re usually a career C-level exec. They have advanced degrees from places like Harvard, Stanford and Wharton. And, they’re usually locked in meetings all day with other C-level and high-ranking officers of the company. The result? They all speak the same language. And, it’s a language FULL of the corporate buzzwords and lingo most of us typically scoff at. Meanwhile, most employees speak and read at an 8th-grade level (in fact, 21 percent of Americans read BELOW a 5th grade level) So, you have an executive with a Harvard education who reads and writes at a 19th-grade level trying to compose a message to an audience comprised of people who have a 5th-8th-grade reading level. Do you see the problem here?

Executives control our futures

You know that layoff communication you’ve been working on? Who do you think made the tough decision to can those 5,000 employees? The CEO–the very person you’re working with. So, it’s a little challenging for us communicators to stand up to, and challenge, these executives when they control our very future. I’m not saying communicators don’t challenge executives from time to time. I’m not even saying they shouldn’t. But, I am saying this is most likely an issue. After all, we all want to keep our jobs/work, right?

Warning: Massive egos at play

For those who have worked with high-ranking executives, you’ve probably run into one or two who thought fairly highly of themselves. It just comes with the territory. You don’t get to be a CEO without having a little self-confidence. And, in many ways, it’s a good thing. But, when it comes to crafting a communication together with an executive, egos can frequently prove a problem. After all, everyone fancies themselves a writer. Execs are no different. And  when putting together employee communications, they can often bulldoze the communicator simply because they think they know best.

So, what’s a communicator to do?

I don’t have a list for you today. But, I do have one word: Trust. That’s what’s at the heart of this whole deal. If you can work to develop the outright trust and goodwill of your executive partners, it makes the process of developing tougher communications with employees that much easier.

photo credit: Satya Nadella via photopin (license)

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The challenges of helping C-level executives communicate with rank-and-file employees

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