Thursday, August 25, 2011

CEO Behavior in Trying Times

I had the good fortune of hearing Richard D. Parsons, Chairman of Citigroup, talk about CEO behavior in trying times at an Arthur Page conference I attended several months ago. Dick made some considered points about how CEOs should act in public … whether or not they are comfortable serving as “face of the company.” Here are a few questions asked and the answers he gave:

Q: Why is there a tendency among CEOs to go dark — from a communications standpoint — when things are not going well?

A: They are people, just like the rest of us. Many CEOs come out of finance and the engineering side of the house and are not especially communications-oriented. In communications, you have to put your face on the problem — it’s part of the job. Ducking it will not make it go away. It’s like my grandchild putting his hands over his eyes and saying, “You can’t see me!” Some CEOs are not comfortable in the communications space, and they need a surrogate.

Q: What are the most important rules of the road in a crisis?

A: #1 -- Don’t lie. Everything will ultimately be known.
#2 -- If you don’t know, don’t say. The CEO inevitably becomes the embodiment of the problem and people will ask themselves, “Do I trust that person or not?” What do you do when you are being truthful and people don’t believe you? Tell them the reason why you have confidence in what you are telling them.

Q: How do you measure progress in trying times?

A: My best indicator is how people inside the organization feel. I like to walk around and ask people how they feel. You can get a lot from that. Are people happy, nervous, etc.? Go out with them, and they will see the leadership is okay — then they will be okay. If you can’t get a problem “settled down” inside, you have no chance of resolving it on the outside.

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