The Crucial Role of CEOs in Leading Change Communication

Destruction of various aspects of people’s lives from the coronavirus catastrophe will persist for years in every society around the world. Every organization is being forced to review all aspects of their business and make dramatic, fundamental changes. For instance, even while the virus impact in the US was in its comparatively early stages, the New York Times observed in March 2020 that “Scary Times for U.S. Companies Spell Boom for Restructuring Advisers” – and “Corporations across a wide swath of industries and in vastly different financial straits are being forced to stretch their cash, cut costs, avoid loan defaults and prepare to potentially reorganize their businesses.” These  corporations are seeking to negotiate new terms with “lenders, vendors, employees and other parties.” Massive change is underway, and you need to turn to your CEO’s key role in leading change communication, especially in tougher times.

Change is difficult

Change is a difficult path for nearly all people. Even in normal times, a significant proportion of employees feel uncertain: “Half of American workers (50%) say they have been affected by organizational changes in the last year, are currently being affected by organizational changes or expect to be affected by organizational changes in the next year,” according to the findings of a 2017 Work and Well-Being Survey conducted for the American Psychological Association. “American adults who have been affected by change at work are more likely to report chronic work stress…Change is inevitable in organizations, and when it happens, leaders often underestimate the impact those changes have on employees.” Just imagine the huge rise in worker stress caused by the repercussions of the coronavirus! As a response to this, CEOs need to take even more care with their change-communication strategy because CEOs have a key role in leading change communication, especially in tough times.

Globally, people don’t trust CEOs much

However, the business sector and organizational leaders globally still have to convince the wider population of their worth. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer survey findings found that CEOs are not greatly trusted – only 44% of people around the world rate CEOs as ‘credible’ or ‘very credible,’ as shown in the chart below:

Image: Chart from 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer global survey.

Strategic change role for CEOs

A frequent problem is that leaders focus too much on changing policies, and not enough on changing minds. In other words, they usually don’t get onto the wavelength of the average employee – the unnoticed invisible fears and insecurities that keep people locked into behaviors, even when they know rationally these behaviors don’t serve them well. Add to that the anxiety that nearly all people experience in the face of change.

The role of the CEO is unique because they stand at the top of the organizational chart, and all other members of the organization take their cues from the chief. To successfully lead significant organizational change, your CEO needs to take several actions. Communication is a key element of these actions – and communicating change is a complex subject, so it needs to be strategically based.

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 their personal style as leader. Top management has a profound impact on how well employees grasp and support strategy…far greater than expected, researchers Galunic & Hermreck (2012) concluded after analyzing more than 60,000 confidential responses to an employee-satisfaction survey conducted by a global corporation:

“Senior leaders should have a unique understanding of their company’s strategy; there may be no equal substitutes when it comes to communicating and discussing it. And their position at the top is powerfully symbolic, giving them more credibility and authority than others have. With these considerations in mind, companies need to find ways to bring senior management closer to the workforce.”

Leading change

To maximize the chances of a change program succeeding, McKinsey international management consultants advocate CEOs playing a lead role by:

  1. Making the transformation meaningful by constructing a powerful change story – to communicate what is changing and why. They need to communicate what the change is trying to achieve, and the desired outcome. And they need to engage others openly, and to spotlight successes as they emerge.
  2. Role-modeling the desired mindsets and behavior
  3. Building a strong and committed senior management team
  4. Relentlessly pursuing impact – rolling up their sleeves and getting personally involved.

For organizational messages about the change, employees want to hear from the CEO or their equivalent. These messages include why the change is happening, the risks of not changing, the customer or competitor issues causing the change, why the change is happening right now, how the economic climate played a role in the change, and the alignment of this change with the organization’s vision and direction. When it comes to the all-organizational messages, the voice for change should continue to be the CEO or their equivalent. Employees want to hear from the top person about these issues. We can’t overlook the CEO’s key role in leading change communication.

‘Leveling up’

To Level Up means to fulfill the role and responsibilities of your leadership level rather than one level below, according to US business consultant Leigh Bailey (2020). Many leaders fail to fully understand the deliverables of their level of leadership, especially if they are newly promoted into the role. This is one reason why organizations are often over-managed but under-led. It is also why leaders have a hard time getting out of the weeds and thinking and acting more strategically. CEO’s have a key role in leading change communication in these uncertain times. Leveling Up for CEOs means:

  1. Setting the direction (vision and strategy) for the organization
  2. Building an aligned executive team
  3. Acting as a role model for a healthy and effective culture
  4. Using effective communication skills to inspire and align the organization around a shared purpose and vision [and to lead change strategies].

McKinsey consultants say the change factors that matter most start with the right leadership style: “Organizations that excel at implementation foster a leadership style that sets bold aspirations with clear accountability— emphasizing the challenging and supportive dimensions of leadership over the authoritative and consultative qualities that may be effective in other situations.”

At the same time, CEOs need to be very aware that ‘command-and-control’ leadership rarely creates sustainable change. “It rarely generates respect for the leader; it is usually fueled by fear,” states change management consultant Dr Jennifer Frahm, who goes on to say in her 2017 book, Conversations of Change:”

“People revert to previous practices, attitudes and values until the next threat of consequence comes down from on high. Implementation of successful change and the realization of benefits will always benefit from consequence management.”

“The right buzz” is also important. Great implementers also create the right buzz around change by engaging the broader organization. They recognize that few employees have any interest in their employer’s share price, let alone its return on equity. Rather than spamming everyone with generic communication materials, leaders instead methodically cascade a compelling change story through the entire business. It’s a difficult balance, because the core message must be meaningful to as broad a range of the workforce as possible yet also be personal and relevant to the specific audience.

CEOs need to understand the change mentality at all 3 levels

Business consultant, Tony Schwartz, observes in a 2018 Harvard Business Review article that business transformations are typically built around new structural elements, including policies, processes, facilities, and technology. Some companies also focus on behaviors — defining new practices, training new skills, or asking employees for new deliverable. But:

“What most organizations typically overlook is the internal shift — what people think and feel — which has to occur in order to bring the strategy to life. This is where resistance tends to arise — cognitively in the form of fixed beliefs, deeply held assumptions and blind spots; and emotionally, in the form of the fear and insecurity that change engenders. All of this rolls up into our mindset, which reflects how we see the world, what we believe and how that makes us feel.”

Shwartz believes the result is that transforming a business also depends on transforming individuals — beginning with the most senior leaders and influencers. One of the most effective tools to address this is a series of provocative questions Shwartz and his team ask leaders and their teams to build a practice around, asking themselves:

  • “What am I not seeing?
  • “What else is true?”
  • “What is my responsibility in this situation?”
  • “How is my perspective being influenced by my fears?”

Strong strategy remains key to transformation, but successful execution also requires finding out and continuously addressing the invisible reasons that people and cultures so often resist changing, even when the way they’re working isn’t working. It is especially important for CEOs to play a key role in leading change communication as COVID-19 and its variants cause havoc around the world.

Image: Wendy Hirsch, change consultant.

Making the transformation meaningful

McKinsey findings

  1. People will go to great lengths for causes they believe in. 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.
  2. 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 the 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.
  3. 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 their teams created for them.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Most CEOs work hard to visibly and vocally presenting the transformation story. 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 an Italian bank chief.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

Role-modeling desired mindsets and behavior

  • Successful CEOs typically embark on their own personal transformation journey. CEO 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.
  • Communicators need to review what the CEO says and does to ensure the signals given out by their comments and actions are appropriate. The chief should take symbolic actions such as visiting a productive team.

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. These decisions underline the CEO’s key role in leading change communication.
  • Senior managers must support the chief throughout. Some of the change communication activities should be based on the senior managers.

Relentlessly pursuing impact

  • There is no substitute for a CEO to roll up their sleeves and get 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.

Essential to include the head of change communication in planning and implementing change

  • When your organization is undertaking a change program, it is vital for the CEO to include the head of change communication in both the planning and the implementation, because communication is central to the success of the program. Interestingly, the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer survey found that employer media are the most believable out of several sources, which must be a truly heartening result for internal comms people! Check the Edelman chart below:

Above image: Edelman Trust Barometer global survey 2021, page 26.

From the start

At the start of the change program, the CEO needs to start communicating at the organizational level. Proactive communication can minimize resistance and make employees feel like they are part of the process. The change communication should ensure the needs of people at the 3 levels shown in Wendy Hirsch’s diagram, above, are addressed.

Of course, the CEO should start the process by communicating about the vision and future of the organization. Too many senior leaders then fall into the trap of continuing to communicate exclusively about vision and the future of the organization, but firstly they should address the most relevant questions employees have about the change. Several of the key questions to be answered at the beginning of change include:

  • Why are we changing?
  • What are risks of not changing?
  • What’s in it for me?
  • How will I be impacted?
  • How will my team be impacted?

CEO needs to start communicating sooner

Communication is most effective when it starts early in the project lifecycle. Early communication is more proactive and can reduce the negative consequences that occur from failing to engage employees, such as misinformation and rumors, which can be devastating. This misinformation can breed resistance and it creates large barriers to overcome later in the change cycle. Jennifer Frahm’s Twitter message on ‘Principles of Change Management:’

“Communicate what is known, what is unknown, and when you expect to know more.”

Even if your CEO hasn’t developed all the details of the change, the known information still needs to be communicated to employees. For instance, the CEO can still share information about the need for change and the risk of not changing. Even communicating that not all the answers are known, and giving employees a date to expect answers is more effective than remaining silent. This is an important indicator of the CEO’s key role in leading change communication.

Early communication lays the foundation for engaged employees and successful change. Jennifer Frahm says that stakeholders are already listening and observing, so you need to actively keep them in the loop as early as possible. Therefore, when the project reaches the ‘go-live’ point, employees have the information they need to become involved in solutions. Conversely, when communication starts late, there is an uphill battle to share the necessary information and dispel misinformation and rumors.

Key questions that enable CEO change communication to start effectively

Answers to these questions will enable you to understand the size and complexity of the changes so you can prepare effective communication activities for the CEO and the change process generally. Running through these basic questions is a good way to get leaders to think more widely about the people aspects of change. These questions are based on a 2014 Gatehouse/CIPR guide to communicating change to employees.

  1. Why is the change taking place? (a) What prompted the need for this change? (b) Are there any consequences for not making this change?
  2. What is the current environment and history for the impacted areas?
  3. What are the business objectives for this initiative?
  4. How will you know if you have achieved your objectives?
  5. What measures are already in place or going to be put in place?
  6. Communication is only one part of a change program – what other pieces need to be in place to make this initiative a success?
  7. Who is directly or indirectly impacted by the change? (a) What specifically do these groups do? (b) Are their skills in demand within our organization and sector?
  8. How will communication help to achieve the goals of the initiative or mitigate some of the anticipated negative outcomes?
  9. What do you need people to think, feel or do for this to be a success?

Announcing the change, CEO needs to get the content right

At the start of a major program of change, the CEO needs to proactively get the broad content right in their employee communication, as stated in the Gatehouse/CIPR guide quoted above:

  1. Clear explanation of context and rationale – why the organization is committing to the change and these are the factors  that have prompted it (economic environment, competition in the marketplace, etc).
  2. Essential to address the now, and present a clear vision of the future – what will tomorrow look like and how will it be different/better? Another vital piece of content is around timing and milestones – what is going to be happening when?
  3. Clear summary of the nature and scope of the change – but be careful not to obscure the negative consequences (e.g. redundancies).
  4. “What does it mean for me?” Ensure the communication covers this top question for employees  – so be as clear as possible about the likely impact of the change on your audience.

Change communication checklist

Prosci change management consultants have developed a change communication checklist, which you can use as a guide for your change communication activities and your role in supporting your CEO. This will help to to clarify the CEO’s key role in leading change communication.

  1. Use the preferred senders to deliver communications in your organization. Benchmarking research shows that employees prefer to hear messages from two people in the organization: (a) The sponsor of the change (CEO or other person at the top of the change) about the business issues and reasons for change. (a) Their immediate supervisors about the personal impact of the change
  2. Answer the questions, “Why is this change happening?” and “What is the risk of not changing?” When employees learn of a change, their first question is, “Why is this happening.” Senior leaders tend to focus on the vision of the future state, and project teams tend to focus on sharing their great new idea. However, the first communication about a change should focus on why the change is happening. Don’t forget to continue and reinforce the ‘why’ throughout the entire project, especially if time elapses between your first communication and the start of implementation. Other key questions to be addressed: “How will I be impacted?” and “How will my team be impacted?”
  3. Answer the question, “What’s in it for me (WIIFM)?” Making a change is a personal choice, no matter what senior leaders believe. Communication about change must resonate. To be effective, communication must focus on what an employee cares about and their values. To gain their support, you must provide a compelling case for how they will be better off or what they get out of engaging in the change. Answer WIIFM (“What’s in it for me?”) early and often in your communication.
  4. Resist the urge to communicate through the project team. Employees prefer to hear messages from two people in the organization, and neither is the project leader. One of the biggest and most common mistakes you can make is to have a project team sending all of the communication.
  5. Use face-to-face communication. Face-to-face communication was identified as the most effective form of communication. While it is more time intensive, do not underestimate the value that face-to-face communication creates.
  6. Repeat key messages 5 to 7 times. It is important to repeat those messages several times. The first time you announce a change to employees, they are often wondering how it will impact them and not focusing on the details of what you are communicating about. Repeating key messages ensures that what you want to get across is heard by employees. People communicating a message may be uncomfortable with doing so multiple times. They may say, “but I’ve already told people this.” Nevertheless, hold strong and be prepared to be accountable for communicating multiple times with customized messages. Also, remember that you can fine tune each message in several ways so it remains reasonably fresh in the minds of the receivers.
  7. Create opportunities for two-way communication. You need to craft and plan for two-way communication. Give employees the opportunity to share their concerns, provide their feedback and ask questions. Two-way communication creates buy-in and provides answers in real-time.
  8. Prepare the communicators to deliver effective messages and have the necessary conversations. One of your key roles will be to prepare the preferred senders (such as managers and supervisors) of change messages. This includes sharing with them the important messages that need to be delivered, creating alignment between different senders, and planning the delivery sequence. It also includes educating them on how to deliver key messages.
  9. Find effective ways to reach your audience. A holistic communication plan uses numerous channels to reach employees. This could include meetings, one-on-one conversations, newsletters, presentations, brainstorming workshops, lunch and learns, Intranet Q&A forums, digital media, CDs, screen saver messages, etc. Be creative in how you communicate and gather feedback from employees.
  10. Use assessment tools to evaluate the effectiveness of communication messages. Communication can’t be viewed as an activity that is planned, delivered and then checked off the ‘To-do’ list. You must find ways to ensure employees are hearing and interpreting the messages you are trying to send. Assessment tools will help you identify when you haven’t communicated effectively, or when the message is being misinterpreted, so you can continue to correct and refine your communications.

This image relates to item 8 above. It is from Prosci, based on employee surveys.

In addition

You can read more about the role of communicating effectively to employees in tough times in my article on the topic.

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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