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Ensuring your CEO's effective communication role in leading change

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

To make an organizational transformation succeed, your CEO needs to take several actions. Communication is a key part of these actions.

The role of the CEO is unique because that person stands at the top of the organizational chart and all other members of the organization take their cues from the chief.

International management consultants, McKinsey & Co., have found that to maximize the chances of a change program succeeding, the CEO of an organization needs to play a lead role by:

1. communicating its significance;
2. modeling the desired changes
3. building a strong senior management team;
4. getting personally involved.

It is difficult to generalize about the winning formula for change, as there is no single formula for success. The CEO’s role will be affected by the size, urgency, and nature of the transformation; the capabilities and failings of the organization, and the personal style of the leader.

However, McKinsey consultants have found the CEO who successfully guides change has four major roles – and there is a major communication component in all of those roles:

1. Making the transformation meaningful

People will go to great lengths for causes they believe in, and a powerful transformation story will create and reinforce their commitment. The impact of the story depends on the CEO’s willingness to make the transformation personal, to engage others openly, and to highlight successes as they emerge.

Transformations require extra energy – employees must rethink and reshape the business while continuing to run it day to day. A great source of this energy is a powerful transformation story, which helps employees believe in the effort by answering their big questions, which can range from how the change will affect the organization down to how it will affect them.

CEOs who take time to personalize the story of the transformation can unlock significantly more energy for it than those who dutifully present the PowerPoint slides that their teams created for them.

Personalizing the story forces CEOs to consider and share with others the answers to such questions as “Why are we changing?”; “How will we get there?”; and “How does this relate to me?” For instance, the CEO of a US health care company stressed that every employee was or would be a patient in the health care system and that ‘this larger purpose’ made a difference.

As a communicator, your best role would be to get some one-on-one time with the CEO to talk through with him or her about the stories that would best fit the purpose. Then you would coach the chief on presenting the story to the best effect, preferably with the story based on values or beliefs because deep down that is what employees best relate to. 

Openly engage others. When the CEO’s version of the transformation story is clear, success comes from taking it to employees, encouraging debate about it, reinforcing it and prompting people to color it with their own personal meaning.

Most CEOs work hard to visibly and vocally presenting the transformation story. The head of an Italian bank led the way in getting the story out to its 60,000 employees by traveling throughout Italy. He said, “It’s a long process, but you have to put your face in front of the people if you want them to follow you. “

Once the story is out, the CEO’s role becomes one of constant reinforcement. “Excruciating repetition and clarity are important – employees have so many things going on in their daily business that they don’t always take the time to stop, think and internalize,” said the Italian bank chief.

From a communication standpoint, you would arrange itineraries for the CEO to present the story in person. Reinforcement should emphasize the positive rather than the negative. Research has shown that positive reinforcement produces twice the results compared with focus on avoiding mistakes.

A powerful way to reinforce the story is to highlight the successes. For instance, high-performing teams could be invited to make presentations to the other employees. Celebrating the successes of individuals and teams is fundamental to the success of the change effort. Communicators should focus hard on organizing recognition activities for employees who are good role models.

2. Role-modeling desired mindsets and behavior

Successful CEOs typically embark on their own personal transformation journey. Their actions encourage employees to support and practice the new types of behavior.

Whether leaders realize it or not, they seem to be in front of the cameras when they speak or act. Every move they make, everything they say, is visible to all. Therefore the best approach is to lead by example.

As a communicator, your role would be to review what the CEO says and does to ensure the signals given out by their comments and actions are appropriate. You can also recommend the chief take symbolic actions such as visiting a productive team.

3. Building a strong and committed top team

To harness the transformative power of the top team, CEOs must make tough decisions about who has the ability and motivation to make the journey. Senior managers must support the chief throughout. Some of the change communication activities should be based on the senior managers.

4. Relentlessly pursuing impact

There is no substitute for CEOs rolling up their sleeves and getting personally involved when significant financial and symbolic value is at stake. The chief and senior managers should be prepared to leave the executive suite to get personally involved in areas where the organization may be grappling with a problem. Then they should celebrate the success in solving the problem with the employees from that area.

Your change program

When your organization is undertaking a change program, it is vital for you to insist on being involved with both the planning and the implementation, because communication is central to the success of the program. Be prepared to get out of your comfort zone and push to be included in those meetings. And when you are included, insist on one-on-one meetings with your CEO to shape the communication strategy in support of the transformation and to guide the CEO in implementing the strategy.

- via McKinsey Quarterly, February 2007.


About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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