A visible CEO is now more essential than ever

May 18, 2020


Nobody knows how long exactly this crisis will last, what the “new normal” will look like or the new ways we will work together. It is a huge challenge to be responsible for the continuity of business operations in these strange times and at the same time stay connected as an organization, team and colleagues. There is currently a huge demand among employees for the visibility of their employer. A survey by McKinsey[1] shows that 65% of employees expect a daily update related to COVID-19 from their employer. More than half even state that they trust their employer as a source of information more than, for example, the media.

Good and visible leadership from the CEO helps organizations keep things together. Moreover, it offers the opportunity to show the person behind the leader and show his/her commitment to their own employees. Below we list four tips with concrete examples and inspiration from clients in our network.

1. Don’t just stick to the facts and be sure to recognize the importance of emotion.

When communicating with employees, the focus often lies on sharing updates and explaining the choices made. It’s logical that you want to inform them and keep them up to date on everything that is going on. Yet the way you communicate is at least as important as the content being communicated. Employees want to know that you hear and understand them. Personalize your message and create empathy by showing the person behind the CEO more often. This is a trend that has been going on for a while but, like many other trends, has accelerated due to the COVID-19 crisis. We see the following with our clients and with other organizations in this area:

  • CEO visits: the CEO drove to production facilities to thank employees for their contribution during the crisis (1.5 meters away, of course). Colleagues working from home all received a video message to thank them. What we also see often with smaller organizations is that the CEO or the management team goes door to door to give employees a small gift (again with distance).
  • “Coffee with Jeff”: every Friday morning the CEO of leads a session in which he shares his company vision from his home workplace. He also shares a personal anecdote about his family and shows a photo of something he experienced during the past week. He encourages others in his team(s) to do the same.

2. Find a balance between what you want to say and what employees want to hear.

Organizations often want to speak up internally in order to stay in touch with employees. The pitfall here is that what they want to say often takes precedence over listening to what employees want to hear. Team leaders and managers play an important role in this as they are close to the teams and can actively retrieve any questions there may be. And don’t forget, they too are just people who have questions and uncertainties. They may not know what to communicate or not to communicate. So listen to them and equip them with the right information and tools to start a conversation with their teams. Once you have that information, you can fine-tune the communication and find ways for a good conversation where employees can also make their voices heard. What we see in this area with our clients and other organizations:

  • Voice of the employees: this organization has designated a “voice of the people”. This is a senior (but not a member of the leadership team) who has undertaken the task of always knowing what employees want to know, prioritizing these questions, and relaying them back to the LT. He/she collects questions through a Q&A platform and ensures that they are answered.
  • #askmeanything: CEO dialogue in a worldwide broadcast town hall where the agenda has been completely handed over to employees. This also works for smaller meetings or via the intranet. A senior discussion leader organizes an open platform for employees to ask their CEO questions in an informal setting. Questions can cover any topic, from favorite books and sports teams to organizational excellence and insights into the challenges the industry faces.
  • Facilitate digital co-creation: use virtual platforms to conduct a group dialogue. For example, focus on specific themes for 48 hours, such as values, ways of working and the like, in order to involve employees in the development of strategy, approach, back to the office plans, et cetera.

3. Be honest about ‘the good’ and about ‘the bad’. CEOs and leadership teams often face complex decisions and typically only share the outcome with employees. Because employees do not always understand the underlying process steps and considerations, it is possible that there is not always immediate understanding regarding the choices made. If you communicate about dilemmas and considerations as they happen, you can take people along with you and they will better understand the outcome. Take them seriously and remember that “no news” is also news that you can share.

  • A behind-the-scenes video: The CEO is followed for several months as the company went through a challenging time (not during the current crisis). He showed employees what was on his plate every day, what went through his mind and what choices he had to make. This gave his team the context around the decisions and created more understanding.

4. Go to your employees and find the contact wherever they are. These times offer a great opportunity to contact employees in other ways. Think beyond the orchestrated communication through formal channels and let employees start the conversation.

  • Connect with employees on LinkedIn: the CEO of this organization regularly responds personally to LinkedIn posts from his employees. His focus is on looking for interaction, rather than being the “super user” himself.
  • Share the voice of your employees: an employee wrote a post in which he described the challenges of his work in the current situation in a good way. The CEO shared this post with his larger network, commenting on the employee’s courage and included a word of thanks for his contribution to the business.

These times make clear the importance of a visible CEO who is well connected with his employees. CEOs who take that opportunity now increase employee engagement, improve reputation and support for business priorities.

[1] 2 McKinsey, A leader’s guide: Communicating with teams, stakeholders, and communities during COVID-19

Photo by Markus Spiske via Unsplash.