Narrative, narrative, narrative: a CEO imperative

Nearly 25 years after someone first showed me Roger McGough’s powerful poem on leadership, I still hear his message clearly:

I wanna be the leader
I wanna be the leader
Can I be the leader?
Can I? I can?
Promise? Promise?
Yippee I’m the leader
I’m the leader

OK what shall we do?

With CEO appointments in particular, there can be so much build-up to the appointment itself, but often too little thought about what comes next. This is particularly true with regard to narrative, both internal and external. Frequently, newly appointed CEOs get swept up in the process of their appointment and the company-wide agenda.

For many new CEOs, thinking about their personal communications can sometimes appear less of a priority, especially during the all-important first few months of their tenure. But upon exit – when tables can turn, and communication agendas often diverge – these same CEOs are left poorly equipped and unprepared to tell their own story at a critical inflexion point.

In today’s leadership landscape, thinking deliberately about personal and corporate communication strategies – about what to say, and how and when to say it – should top the list of priorities for CEOs. Paddy Harverson is an expert in this field. After spending his career as a journalist for the Financial Times, Director of Communications for Manchester United, and then a decade as Communications Secretary shaping the narrative of our now King, Paddy co-founded the global communications and strategic advisory consultancy Milltown Partners in 2013. There, he and his team of 120 consultants based in London, New York and San Francisco advise a range of corporate clients, as well as high-profile business leaders on how to tell the right stories to cultivate and protect reputation.

Headshots of Paddy Haverson, Co-Founder (L), and Dan Sacker, Director (R), Milltown Partners.
Paddy Harverson, Co-Founder (L), and Dan Sacker, Director (R), Milltown Partners.

Last week, I caught up with Paddy, and his fellow Director at Milltown Partners, Dan Sacker: “We help people navigate the public sphere,” summarised Paddy. “In particular, we advise prominent entrepreneurs who now occupy a space in public life that stretches beyond that of a founder, and business leaders seeking advice at important milestones, such as entries and exits.”

While historically a chief executive’s responsibilities began and ended with financial performance, today’s leaders are tasked with building company reputation, protecting stakeholder relationships, role modelling to the rest of the business, and acting as a public ambassador for their brand.

For leaders with their sights on future CEO positions, there are ways to lay the foundations of a strong personal brand – long before an eventual number 1 role. “I think about it as leaving a trail of breadcrumbs,” said Paddy. “Once appointed as CEO, it can be valuable to have an existing body of work to demonstrate achievements and values.” For those one or two moves away, thinking carefully about your online presence, for example, or building a roster of interviews in relevant trade presses can go a long way.

But once appointed as CEO, where to start? “It’s best to think about the two stories you’re going to tell,” reflected Paddy, “the one about yourself, and the one about the company.” These stories should be carefully aligned, the first detailing your journey and how your past has prepared you to take on the job, and the second communicating the business vision and ambitions for the future. “Getting these stories right is especially critical if you’re succeeding someone with a very different leadership style, or if there’s a new set of business challenges to face,” said Paddy.

“It’s best to think about the two stories you’re going to tell – the one about yourself, and the one about the company.” – Paddy Harverson, Co-Founder, Milltown Partners.

Carefully-crafted speeches and statements are just one piece of the puzzle. Leaders who step up as CEO must commit to changing their mindset – especially if communication has not been a primary focus in previous roles. Indeed, most COOs or CFOs (the roles often typically feeding into CEO) will not be experts in public speaking or crafting word-perfect messages, and most won’t be accustomed to spending large portions of the week considering strategic communications. In many ways, communications is a skill-set that first time CEOs need to learn from scratch.

“Harvard Professor, Ron Heifetz, wrote about the theory of adaptive leadership, and the distinction between the dance floor and the balcony,” explained Dan when we discussed this. “When you’re on the dance floor, you’re in the weeds, in the detail, in the day-to-day. But when you’re up on the balcony, you’re concerned with vision, you’re an ambassadorial voice, and you need to articulate your company values to an external audience. Too many first-time CEOs aren’t used to being on the balcony, and aren’t equipped with the tools to take a step back and really project a corporate vision.”

Barack Obama speaking at an event in 2009
Leaders such as Steve Jobs and Barack Obama (pictured) were renowned for their compelling communication styles.

Getting up on the “balcony” – early, and frequently – is critical to success. And once you’re there, it is possible to cultivate a more compelling communication style. Clearly, not everyone will be Steve Jobs or Barack Obama, but there are techniques leaders can use to improve their public speaking. Dan recalled working closely with one leader, for whom spending just ten minutes analysing and marking up the speech text had a transformative impact on delivery. And of course: practice, practice, practice.

Never have CEOs had more pressure to speak up. This is especially true in the consumer-facing sector, where customers are looking to buy from brands which reflect their values and have a voice on topics like sustainability, diversity and social justice. But for Paddy and Dan, knowing when to stay silent is just as important as knowing when to be vocal. “We advise leaders not to opine on every issue that crops up in public conversation,” said Paddy. “Think about the relevance to your business, your employees, and your community. And then think very carefully about what you’re going to say and what scrutiny that could bring.” It’s impossible not to think back to 2020, when countless businesses made bold statements denouncing racism, but failed to follow up with meaningful action.

As such, the CEOs that make the best communication judgement calls are often those who make their internal audience their first priority. “CEOs should establish a consistent line of communication with their employees, and not just speak up in times of crisis,” said Dan. “And then when issues do arise, those within the company feel more involved in the conversation.”

“CEOs should establish a consistent line of communication with their employees, and not just speak up in times of crisis.” Dan Sacker, Director, Milltown Partners.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen the pendulum swing towards a far more authentic style of leadership. Today, it’s not uncommon for CEOs to speak openly about their mental health, their families, their past trauma, or missteps they’ve made. Striking the right balance here is paramount. “I think context is so important,” said Paddy, “both for the company you’re leading and the person you are. Authenticity works if you’re at the helm of a consumer-facing or public-facing business. But it might not be necessary in other corporate settings. And it’s also about the person. I’d never encourage someone to share something personal to keep up with the current leadership playbook. It has to come from a genuine place.”

“You’ve also got to consider the impact of authenticity on those around the leader,” offered Dan. “CEOs aren’t just business leaders, they’re individuals with families, children and communities around them. Sometimes revealing something personal can make a bigger impact on those around the CEO than on the CEO themselves.”

a crowd listens to a public speaker in a conference hall
Key to success for any CEO is an ability to communicate clearly and effectively to those they are leading.

Perhaps the most important moment to have your story straight is during an exit. Outgoing CEOs must build a narrative which not only illustrates reasons for leaving, but also positions them well for their next role. It is at this stage that many CEOs choose to bring in professional advice – especially if their interests have diverged from those of the company. As Paddy reflected: “Examples where a beloved leader is saying farewell after a great run of success are quite rare. More often than not there is either some underlying tension – or worse – and then the corporate comms team stops representing the leader and has to start telling a different story, sometimes at odds or even hostile to the story of the outgoing CEO. But really, it’s in both parties’ interest to put on a united front.”

Key to success for any CEO is an ability to communicate clearly and effectively – from before an appointment to after an exit. Today, too many CEOs assume that communication is a job for their Comms Director or their Head of External Affairs, and fail to invest enough time and headspace into effectively telling their own story. But in our current media and leadership landscape, those not proactive about their reputation will have it defined for them by others. Communication is a learnt skill, and it is never too late to build your expertise or bring in external support – doing so will reap huge benefits for you personally, and for the companies you are leading.

5 top tips for CEOs:

1 – Walk, don’t run: “One of the things people in comms say today is that you have to move quickly because the media moves quickly. While there are times where speed is of the essence, it would be wrong to think you always have to move fast – even when it comes to crisis comms. Sometimes, you have more time than you think, and rushing to make a statement can demonstrate panic, fear and a loss of control. If necessary, use a holding line to buy time to fully establish the facts and determine the correct response.”

2 – Lean on your network during moments of high intensity: “Utilise your network during emotional moments. Find someone who can absorb your emotion and help you see the situation in a rational way, before acting or speaking in a manner that you’ll regret.”

3 – Seek professional guidance during entries and exits: “When negotiating a departure from a high-profile role, more leaders should secure funding for external, professional advice on communications as part of their exit package negotiations. For leaders starting new roles, get advice and think carefully about what and how you will communicate – and start as you mean to go on.”

4 – It’s never too early to start: “Many individuals don’t know they need to tell a story about themselves through communications (external and internal) until it’s too late. If you have realistic leadership ambitions, start thinking in advance about your professional and personal narrative and how it can play a part in the way your story is told and received on arrival at the summit.”

5 – Manage your privacy: “A generation ago you could be passive about this. But now you need to think strategically about how you manage a public profile alongside your private life. As a leader, the media (and public) may take an interest in your personal and family life – so consider carefully how to deal with that scrutiny, and act and communicate accordingly.” | @TheMBSGroup