Being The CEO: Challenging times call for calm, considered and concise communications

Katie Whirledge, Papillon Communications

It seems slightly trite to wish any of you a ‘happy new year’ right now – but I would like to start by wishing  ‘a better 2021’ to you, your staff and your pupils.

Our January post was going to be about looking forward, planning ahead, and embracing change; but in light of the ‘national lockdown’ announcement and the mayhem on social media, I thought it was prudent to change tack.

As CEOs we recognise that if ever there was a time for leaders to lead, it is now. Amidst frustrations, exhaustion, upset and general dismay, there are people looking for – well, counting on – sound leadership for their own reassurance and stability.

As tempting as it is to get caught up in a wave of Twitter unruly unrest (well, it’s more like a tsunami at present) I would always urge clients to press pause. In the words of Charlie Kaufman, “Constantly talking isn’t necessarily communicating”.

This is a time where communication really counts and every word will be devoured, digested and recounted. Easier said than done, but with all principles of communication it is largely about staying true to your values. Those that are tempted to throw caution to the wind and vent in the name of integrity or justice are often disappointed in the outcome.

This isn’t about ‘putting up or shutting up’ or playing the victim. It is about leading your people through yet another period of uncertainty and turmoil. It’s also important to consider that all of your stakeholders will be watching and listening, not just your staff.

With this in mind, I thought I would reflect on just a few coping strategies I put in place, as a naturally verbose and passionate type – it helps me to stay true to my better self. So here goes:

  1. Rewind, remind and reset

Have you thought about your communication strategy recently? Looked at your mission statement, your vision, your goals?  Have you reviewed your social media policy? Do you comply with your own rules? Do your staff, your governors, your board comply? Do you check? Reviewing and adapting your communication strategy and policies is especially important during challenging periods and it’s vital that all your staff are kept up to date with any changes and new staff are made aware as part of their induction.

  1. Check your response

When we are faced with huge challenges (like a government U-turn on a Friday night), it’s totally understandable that our immediate response will be frustration. We’re all wired in a crisis to give a stress response. But as CEOs it’s important to remember our role and the emotional cues we deliver. ‘Shooting from the hip’ can run the risk of whipping up emotions amongst already apprehensive stakeholders. During times of turmoil and uncertainty, it’s impossible to deliver cast iron certainty. But it is possible to create calm and build confidence with considered, informed responses that feel familiar; simple instructions that feel achievable; and sound advice that feels inclusive.  As Tony Robbins reminds us, “identify your problems, but give your power and energy to solutions.”

In terms of any political response, as a CEO it’s imperative you consider all of your stakeholders viewpoints and ensure your reactions encourage and include rather than divide and alienate. 

  1. Clarify and simplify One of the biggest challenges for leaders during a period of turbulence is finding the time and energy to process the mountain of information and misinformation. Then there’s the added complication of showing compassion for varying emotions and viewpoints. 

The first lockdown – as traumatic as it was – has hopefully given some of us a blueprint for how to (and how not to) deliver effective communication. If not, the essence is to provide clarification where possible. We know many of our staff are mentally and physically exhausted. The need to simplify has never been greater. Transparency wherever possible will build trust. Think about what you need to communicate and what can wait. There is enough negativity out there in the world so it would be great to focus on positive thinking and forward planning. Adversity will always present learning opportunities and optimism is infectious. 

  1. Reflect and adjust 

We know when our backs are against the wall and our stress levels are tested to the limit, we are less likely to see opportunities – in fact everything feels like we’re pushing water uphill and this negative energy is as infectious as optimism.

During challenging times, as leaders it’s important to find a way to deflect away from negative patterns and encourage discussions around things that are going right and other potential positives. Changing perspectives on issues by working through a range of different possibilities and scenarios is key. 

  1. Energise 

Balancing work, rest and play is always pretty hard.  In times of crisis, it’s nigh on impossible. Used correctly, social media is a powerful communication tool for leaders. But keeping up with twitter alone can zap the energy of the fittest. Again, it is imperative to think about how best to use your time and which platform to use for each stakeholder. 

Being the CEO in a crisis like Covid-19 is a great responsibility and the pressures can be extremely stressful. And yet it is also an incredible privilege. It’s not about being right every time. If you are under that illusion or pressure, it’s time to step back. Remember, effective communication is a two-way process. Exploring opportunities with your staff, rather than dwelling on uncertainties and disappointments, will lift spirits and help to keep everyone focused on a brighter future.

I’m really looking forward to hearing all about the sterling efforts your Trusts are making to ensure our young people come through this next phase with resilience and confidence. Please know that I’m always at the end of an email or phone if I can help in any way. Papillon PR is a midlands based communications company focusing on lifelong care and education and is Forum Strategy’s communication partner. Do get in touch if you would like to create, review or improve your communications strategy, social media policies or need crisis support. Papillon is also  always on the lookout for engaging stories that show exemplary education in practice, as part of their commitment to change the narrative for Academy Trusts.

I’m sure you will be brilliant.

Papillon Communications is Forum Strategy’s partner for media and communications. Katie Whirledge is an experienced media and communications adviser to CEOs of leading education and care organisations.

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