Read the story of Nathan and David in the Old Testament, 2 Samuel 12 and see what happens when a trusted advisor tells the CEO what he doesn’t want to hear.
That’s one of our roles as strategic communicators. If we’re going to keep earning our place in the C Suite, we must be willing to challenge decisions or popular thinking. We have to be willing to question our colleagues and the boss. That doesn’t mean we’re full-time court critics; others around the table should stand up when needed. Effective CEOs get it. Weak ones don’t.
Part of being an effective advisor is developing good relationships with senior leaders who know what’s going on within the organization and are willing to spend time with you to help you understand how it works. This additional insight helps the communicator find more good news stories and potential bad ones. In my career, I’ve been fortunate to have colleagues in operations and finance who did just that. From my science writer days, I recall the Nobel laureates and researchers who took the time to explain their incredibly complex work in ways I could then present to the public.
Effective advisors don’t have to know everything. But they have to know when things aren’t quite right, and they must know with whom they can share their concerns. This requires advisors to always be learning about their organizations. They must distinguish among fact, fiction and fantasy. Everyone comes to the CEO with an agenda. The CEO doesn’t need to hear from you unless you’ve got your facts in order. It helps if you’ve got the support of others when having that conversation.
Philosopher Peter Koestenbaum says the essential elements of leadership: ethics, vision, reality and courage. Looking deeper into executive actions requires some parts of each element.
Many of us have been in situations where an executive wanted to start a new project, but the funds weren’t in place or couldn’t be found. “Trust me” doesn’t balance the books. Moving forward despite that reality may create a crisis communication problem. One would like to think they won’t have to challenge the ethics of their colleague or boss, but consider the words, then actions, of Richard Nixon: “We could do that, but it would be wrong, that’s for sure.” Poor ethics, or incompetence, must be confronted. An advisor challenging ignorant or unethical thinking may need to draw on his or her personal and professional courage. But even if the actions are ethical and can be supported with facts (reality), the advisor should measure the action in question against the organizational vision. Does it advance the organization’s goals or reputation?
Communicators likely cannot know all of the implications of the action, but they should be able to identify the potential impact to the organization’s reputation. Remember the original Google mantra, “Don’t be evil?” Some years later Google decided that didn’t matter. As the feds are beginning to investigate some of their actions, it’s reasonable to ask how that decision is working out for Google executives. Their corporate communications team is going to be really busy for a long time.
Nathan did his job. He called out David. He couldn’t change the outcome of David’s behavior, but he could advise him about the inescapable consequences. Even if we can’t stop something we know is wrong, or just dumb, it’s our job to stay at the table, give the best advice possible and prepare to deal with the outcome.
Morgan Lyons is owner of Lyons Strategic.