The Case of the Clueless CEO

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I have worked up close and personal with a great many CEO’s.  Some were great, some were not. I’ve observed how they manage (or mismanage) their operations. I’ve taken note of the degree of alignment between their word and their deed. I have assessed whether they are true leaders of people, or egotistical, duplicitous bags o’ wind.

A CEO of the second ilk, once hired me to help him craft his Annual State of the Company Address.  He was having some PR problems and wanted me to help him come across as more down to earth, or in his words, to help him “appeal to the common man.”

My first encounter with this guy should have sent me running. He left me waiting outside his office for 45 minutes. I overheard him berate his assistant, cut people off in mid-sentence, scream, swear and slam down the phone. Oh yeah…this was going to be fun!

The good news is, while I was waiting, I had the pleasure of meeting his HR Director, Jorge. Jorge was a class act. Soft-spoken, impeccable in manner and dress, an all-around A-Player. He made apologies for his boss, something I’m sure he did often. I pretended to understand.

Fast forward, I help this CEO craft his speech, we cull his message to three compelling points, we add several humanizing personal stories and craft some business-relevant humor.  We put together a good speech and he is pleased.  I decide to attend the meeting to watch him in action. He delivers the speech. He is coming across as somewhat human and all is going well, until…

The Q&A Portion.  This is the part of the speech for which he has no script.  He starts taking questions from “the common man.”  A woman raises her hand:

“Sir, I have a question. 

Fine. What’s your name? 

Doris.

How long have you worked for us Doris?

33 Years.

So, what’s your question?”

BOOM!  In one fell swoop, this CEO has negated his entire Keynote message, about the importance of “being a team” and “working together as a family.”  He has demonstrated to his people in real-time, that after 33 years of service, he can’t even be bothered to learn your name. The reaction from the audience is palpable.  I watch people lean back in their chairs, cross their arms and roll their eyes. There are no more questions and the meeting ends on a very sour note.

Here’s the kicker!  This CEO is TOTALLY CLUELESS as to what has just transpired. He walks out of the meeting patting himself on the back for a job well done, while “the common man,” scurries to avoid eye contact.

Then…we go to Starbucks next door and he asks me for my honest opinion.  This is what I tell him:

“Here’s what I’ve observed.  Your original stated intention to me was that you wanted ‘to better connect with your people.’ Then, I watch in horror, as you miss a golden opportunity to connect with Doris, an employee of 33 years, while alienating the rest of the room in the process. This leaves me to surmise, that ‘creating connection with your people’ is either;

a) Not something you are naturally capable of, or

b) Not something you are sincerely interested in doing.

Either way, here is my heartfelt advice to you:

If you want to lead this organization effectively, then close your office door. From this point on, do not speak to anyone in your organization directly, unless absolutely necessary.  Your disinterest in people can not be disguised, so stop trying.  You should lead as a ‘behind-the-scenes’ CEO. Stick to planning and visioning, to guide and grow the business. Leaving all actual human contact, to your exceptional HR Director, Jorge. Is that helpful feedback?”

The guy’s probably still sitting at Starbucks with his jaw open.

As a leader of people, your word and deed have impact.  Make sure it is the impact you intend. It is imperative that your messaging be aligned with your mission, and that you stay aware of how both you and your message are being received. One of the key lessons I continue to learn from coaching leaders is;

 WHO you are, will always speak louder than your speech, no matter how well written.

Karyn Ruth White is a nationally recognized Keynote Speaker and Public Speaking Coach. She works with leaders who intend to connect and engage through a professionally crafted message, and she helps professional speakers who want to tighten their talks.  She is the First Place, National Winner of The Jeanne Robertson “Comedy with Class” Competition. She  delivers Funny Keynotes across the U.S., helping business to thrive and have fun doing it! She is the owner of Laugh and Learn Productions, LLC, an enterprise helping people to stress less and work happy.  Visit her at www.karynruth.com, on LinkedIn or on Twitter @karynruth.