Leadership communications at EuroComm

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It is often said that you cannot lead if you cannot communicate. But, as Björn Edlund points out, it is also true that you cannot communicate with impact unless you can lead. He asks:

  • What is communications leadership?
  • What are the traits of a successful communications leader?
  • Is the function different to how its leaders need to behave in order to galvanize their teams, as well as their C suite colleagues?

Here’s his opening keynote at EuroComm 2015, the conference for members in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa of IABC, the International Association  of Business Communicators.

Björn Edlund shares experiences from nearly 20 years as Chief Communications Officer in three multinational corporations, working for 11 CEOs through external and self-created crises and deep corporate transformations.


At the heart of much of the discussion at day 1 of the IABC’s EuroComm Conference in London was the changing nature of the environment in which communicators are working.

Not only is technology changing, and the expectations of executive teams, but the nature of communicators’ expectations of their senior managers is also developing.

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Are communicators natural players in the C suite?

Björn Edlund, formerly of Royal Dutch Shell and now a communications consultant and owner of Edlund Consulting, believes that communicators must be respected as a valid member of the C Suite in organisations.

“We must be, in order to be effective. And we ought to be, because at its most ambitious, public relations is truly and completely about how to lead. It starts by helping our C Suite colleagues find the words and imagery – the narrative – that best express their strategic intent.”

Mr Edlund referenced one of the key themes that cropped up several times during the Eurocomm conference – the matter of trust, and its importance for communicators:

“A facilitator leads through competence and inclusion, often the best way for a functional expert to wield power. Trust will enable you to nudge the rest of the C Suite team along in a shared direction.”

How do we help leaders lead?

It’s simple enough to outline how we need to act within organisations – support leaders in their messaging, engagement and communications – but how does one move tactical work to a strategic level?

The starting point is to see the value of your involvement. As Björn Edlund puts it:

“It is the No. 1 job of PR to help business leaders recognize and meet a deep-seated human need, of both individuals and groups, to be included, inspired, engaged and rallied towards a common goal. It is our job to lead C suite discussions away from the false certainty and comfort of Excel spread sheets, customer analyses and market projections to thorny explorations of distrust, dissent, conflict and controversy – of why people and communities may be closing not only their doors, but also their hearts and minds – and their wallets – to us, and how to engage them constructively – ideally on their terms.”

CEO as storyteller

Björn Edlund referenced a seminal time in his working career, at ABB in a time of great crisis, when he was reporting to CEO Jürgen Dormann in 2002.

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Coaching Body Language in the C-Suite

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The senior vice president of a Fortune 500 company is speaking at a corporate communication conference. He’s a polished presenter with an impressive selection of organizational “war stories” delivered with a charming, self-deprecating sense of humor. The audience likes him. They like him a lot.

Then, as he finishes his comments, he folds his arms across his chest and says, “I’m open for questions. Please, ask me anything.”

Suddenly, there is a shift of energy in the room – from engagement to uncertainty. The audience that was so attentive only moments ago is now somehow disconnected and unable to think of anything to ask.

I was at that event. As one of the presenters scheduled to follow the executive, I was seated at a table onstage with a clear view of the entire room. And the minute I saw that single gesture, I knew exactly how the audience would react.

Later I talked with the speaker (who didn’t realize he’d crossed his arms) and interviewed members of the audience (none of whom recalled the gesture, but all of whom remembered struggling to come up with a question).

So what happened – how could a simple arm movement that none of the participants were even aware of have had such a potent impact?
And what does this mean to the executives you coach?

In preparing for an important meeting most executives concentrate on what to say, memorizing crucial points, and rehearsing their presentation so they will come across as credible and convincing.

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How to present as a CEO

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When CEOs stand up and talk, they have the power to lift or lower the mood of their audiences. Too often, they lower it. Sometimes they even alarm or alienate people. This is not, of course, their intention. But it happens when they misunderstand some of the basic ground rules about communication. In this article I’m going to share ten top tips to help the world’s CEOs spread more light, understanding and engagement when they speak inside or outside their organisations.

1) Think about the audience

This sounds obvious, but too many CEOs prepare generic speeches and presentations that they give to many different audiences in many different places. Before writing or assembling a presentation, ask yourself first of all how your audience are likely to receive it. Will it contain information which is new to them? Will they benefit from hearing it? If so, how? Do you want them to do or think something different as a result of hearing you speak? If not, there’s probably no point delivering your presentation.

2) Build a bridge

As the salesmen say, people buy people first. In other words, before accepting your product, advice, information or point of view, they make a judgment, often subconscious, on whether they accept you as the kind of person they listen to – whether they like you, trust you, admit you to their group, find you interesting, funny, authoritative and all the rest. All in the blink of an eye. So start your presentation with something that (a) they can relate to and (b) says something about you. The words you say may be trivial – a joke, a pleasantry, a story, a compliment to the host – but they must signal that you deserve their attention, and that what you are about to say has something in it for them.

3) Keep it simple

The best and most intelligent writing can be understood by primary (elementary) school pupils. Long words, convoluted sentences and jargon only confuse. It is actually harder to write simply, but it repays the effort. And the simpler your language, the more people you will reach. Don’t patronise, but don’t assume too much knowledge of, or interest in, your specialist subject. Avoid subordinate clauses, in-jokes and humour based on language or cultural assumptions.

4) Structure your presentation

Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you’ve told ‘em. Don’t labour this. However, the audience will feel more comfortable if your presentation has a beginning, a middle and an end, and both you and they know where you have got to in the structure. It’s best to schedule questions after the body of your presentation but before the very end. Give a time limit for questions and remain in control. After questions, end on something uplifting.

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Listening – in one ear and out the other…

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We all listen right?  We listen to Ted talks, we listen to the radio, we listen to our kids, our families and our friends. We listen to the people we work for, the people who work for us. But my question to you is, do we listen in the same way to all of these? Do our ears get bigger depending on how important the topic is for us? Do we HEAR what people are saying when they’re talking, or do we just pick out the bits that suit us?

It’s a complicated set of questions. Because I bet we would all say that most of the time we are really good listeners. That we have empathy and can really respond in a way that shows we’ve been tuned in. but do we? There has been loads of research done that says we pick out the bits we want to hear, the bits that are relevant to us. So when someone tells us something that is happening to them in their lives, we find the bit that is relevant to us. It makes sense right, it means we can relate to it, can understand what they’re saying in the context of ourselves. It is in fact what makes a big contribution to a conversation.

So why talk about listening?

Well, I think that there are many opportunities lost when we don’t really listen to people. I think that wars could be stopped, that religions can live together, that governments and people could realise they want the same things, but from different perspectives. I think that if we were able to listen, really listen, hear and not let our prejudices get in the way, that we might find ourselves living in calmer times, less bloody times, less prejudiced times.

When I look back over the last two decades I can mark very clearly times when listening has been key.

There are trite times, when I was a young and excitable music journalist having to really listen to what artists were saying about in the interviews to try and portray accurately whatever mystical message they were trying to get across. It’s really good training on how to listen when you have to report back what has been said, when you not only have to hear the words, but understand the essence of what people are trying to get across.

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Five things CEOs want from communicators

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Get a seat at the table, influence senior leadership and get the skills you need become a trusted business partner. All wise recommendations. Recent posts by Stephen Welch and Michael Ambjorn, have great ideas on how to navigate that challenge.

While reading them, I started wondering: what happens once you get there? Say you’ve made it into the idealised board room… then what? A lot of what I read focuses on what we want from the company. What if turned the question around?

It seems at least one company already has. The fifth IBM Global CEO Study interviewed over 1,500 CEOs and found three common imperatives for business: empowering employees through values, engaging customers as individuals and amplifying innovations through partnerships. All three goals that could be well served by the skills we champion at IABC. The research did not revolve around communications, but I can’t help but see the value we could bring to those goals.

Inspired by these findings, I had a chat with Anthony Hodge, President of ICMM –  the organisation I work for – on what CEOs look for in a communications professional. He routinely deals with 21 of them and leads a team of communicators. Together we came up with the following. What do you think?

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