October 21, 2011
Suzanne Bates is the author of “Discover Your CEO Brand: Secrets to Embracing and Maximizing Your Unique Value as a Leader.” She is CEO of Bates Communications, a national consulting firm that has been coaching top leaders of Fortune 500 companies on communications skills and strategy for more than a decade. She is also the author of “Speak Like a CEO,” and was previously an award-winning TV news anchor and reporter. Here, Bates speaks about releasing her new book, helping today’s leaders navigate the changing marketplace, approaching social media and creating your own brand.
What was the most important thing that you learned from coaching top executives at Fortune 500 companies?
[I found] that many of them had star quality when it came to their business and technical skills. Yet they got to a level in their careers where communication became the most important skill. And many of them had not had the opportunity to develop those skills at the leadership level.
I found that those business and technical skills will take you pretty far in your career, but the leaders who rise to the top are the ones who can communicate in a powerful way.
Many of the top CEOs — those who have powerful brands, are influential in their companies and their organizations, drive value into their businesses — know how to communicate and embrace the role of communicating with employees, stakeholders, investors, analysts and the media.
Are CEOs better or worse at communicating today than in the past 10 years? Are they becoming more transparent?
The trend today in business is that CEOs have to be more transparent and accessible than ever before. They also have to be more savvy about using the communication tools that the rest of the world is using.
There are many CEOs who get it. They understand the importance of connecting, being accessible and being more transparent. There are few CEOs who blog today because there are so many risks, especially when you’re a public company, [but] you are seeing a slow growing trend of CEOs who blog.
The CEO of Raytheon, Bill Swanson, answers every email he gets from employees. He wants employees to know they have access, and he wants the news that he needs to hear to bubble up to the top of the organization.
How does storytelling help us with our branding?
Storytelling is an essential leadership skill. I like to say that there are a treasure trove of stories that you can use not only to understand who you are as a leader, but to communicate that and drive those values into your organization.
When people hear a story, they remember the story and then they remember the point and then they remember you. And organizations are recognizing the tremendous value of storytelling to leaders.
In the past year or two, I’ve noticed a huge uptick in interest from companies that recognize that their leaders need to learn to tell stories.
How can we best establish a strong leader brand?
It starts with embracing the idea that you have a brand, and that the brand has power and that you can harness it or leverage it to drive value into the business.
So the first step is to embrace it. Leaders focus — as they should — on running their businesses, managing their companies and making good decisions. But there’s this other aspect of leadership that’s important: When people look to the leader, they need to know who you are and what you stand for. And they need to connect with you in an authentic way. That’s what motivates and inspires people to drive a business result, when they feel that connection to the leader.
What are the most important traits and values that a successful CEO should have?
To know who he or she is. [And] if you make a laundry list of qualities of CEOs, what makes a leader unique? What makes that leader fit with that organization is that their brand is aligned with the company brand. What they believe in aligns with the company values or what the company needs right now.
So think about somebody like Larry Page at Google. He stepped aside as CEO early on, and Eric Schmidt, who was a business guy, built Google into this multibillion-dollar global brand. The perception about Google was that it was losing its innovative edge and that it was vulnerable to a social media [platform] like Facebook. So the decision was made this year to put Larry Page in charge as CEO. Why? His brand is about innovation. He invented the Google architecture. He and his partner came up with this way of indexing the Internet.
So what’s most important is for a leader to know himself or herself, and to have a strong brand. Organizations choose leaders at certain times because their brands align with the company brands or what the company brand needs right now.
What is keeping CEOs up at night, and what’s top of mind?
If you’re the CEO of a company today, your focus is and always has been creating shareholder value, and along with that, building the brand and reputation of your company to deliver bottom-line results. That is harder. It’s more complicated than ever before.
There are many factors involved today in building a great company. The world is more complex. There are more regulatory pressures. [CEOs are] in a global environment, so that’s changed how their companies operate. And communication is more complicated than ever before.
One thing that is important to understand is that for these CEOs, communication is paramount. The ability to communicate their business strategy, approach, philosophy and brand values is more important and more challenging because they’re operating in a global environment with everything from regulatory pressures to competitive pressures. And the world’s moving faster, so the expectation has always been that you’ve got to deliver quarterly results. That’s still there, so being a CEO today is not an easy job at all.
If anything, over the 10 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve come to appreciate how challenging it is to be a great CEO.
What advice would you offer an aspiring executive?
To invest in your own professional development [and] to take the time to learn what you need to know to get where you want to go. You can go along and be buffeted by the day-to-day challenges of leading an organization, but if you don’t take the time to learn the skills you need to learn and surround yourself with people who can help you, you’re not in control of your career.
I’m a strong believer in surrounding yourself with people who can make you look good. And that includes your internal communications team, your external communications team and others who are going to help you communicate in an effective way with your important audiences.
It’s too important to leave it to chance, and you deserve to have the best team you can around you.
Amy Jacques is the managing editor of publications for PRSA. A native of Greenville, S.C., she holds a master’s degree in arts journalism from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Georgia’s Grady College and a certificate in magazine and website publishing from New York University.