Every Leader’s Real Audience

Every Leader’s Real Audience

by Rosabeth Moss Kanter  |   2:53 PM January 30, 2014

You deliver a big public speech to a group of potential investors who can make or break your results. You prepare it knowing that it could be a milestone in the turnaround of your institution. But who else is listening most intently? Your own team of implementers. They couldn’t care less about ringing rhetoric quotable by future generations. They want to know whether to update their resumes or renew their commitment to the work.

U.S. President Barack Obama is a larger example of the position faced by many turnaround CEOs who must sell their agenda to stakeholders through public communications. They must rally their own troops first, before the promises they present have a prayer of coming true.

Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address was delivered before Congress and watched by a global audience.  He emphasized opportunity — the minimum wage, education for job skills — and U.S. competitiveness (manufacturing centers, and transportation and infrastructure investments). Regardless of whether you agree with the content, I was struck by the possible impact of the speech on turning around a demoralized executive branch. The true test of the speech’s effectiveness is not the public critiques immediately afterwards, but what its impact will be on his immediate team and thousands of key public servants. The speech had to lean toward them anyway, because his “Year of Action” is designed to bypass Congress. But if they did feel motivated by the speech, their energy and determination as they hustle to take action could even have an unanticipated, counter-intuitive consequence: Positive results, however small, could end up garnering enough public support to influences members of Congress to get back to work with related legislation.

Regardless of a leader’s level of influence (President of the nation, founder of a new venture, or head of a business unit) or the scope of the communications forum (a national television broadcast, a Q&A with reporters, or an advertising campaign), leaders must speak to the people who aren’t there in person but are hanging on every word.

These are the people who will carry out your agenda, and their motivation rests on what you say to the public. They must explain it to their family and friends. Their reputations are at stake as well as yours.

The best leaders convey four key messages to associates with their public communications:

“I care about your work. Your work is important.” Obama did this for his implementers by affirming, not denigrating, public service. Keeping the focus on employees’ work is why new General Motors CEO Mary Barra will talk only about cars, not herself, and The Weather Company CEO David Kenny returned science to the center of the company.

“I won’t give up, and you shouldn’t either.”  This is a variant of the tongue-in-cheek mock-Latin saying, “illegitimi non carborundum”  (don’t let the bastards wear you down). Opponents and barriers must be put in perspective: they exist, but they can’t stop everything. This is the message Obama was sending to his team when he said of the Affordable Care Act, with a bit of a laugh, “Let’s not have another 40- something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans like Amanda. The first 40 were plenty.” In the audience, you could see Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius appreciating that message.

“Even in the worst circumstances, there’s something we can do.” Obama said in his speech, “America does not stand still, and neither will I,” of his plan take whatever actions he can that don’t require Congressional participation. Even if these actions are relatively small, I have proposed often that any action is better than none. Keep moving, and change is possible. Even small wins keep people motivated.

“I stand behind you. My job is to make yours successful.” This message is subtle, but it is implicit in the resolve that a leader projects in stating a plan that will work. Leaders must turn a long-term vision into a practical set of short-term steps that are credible — that’s the essence of turnarounds, as I show in my book Confidence.

There’s a little nuance to these statements. One mistake leaders can make is to act as if big public communications are all about themselves. It’s the Carly Fiorina trap: she put herself in HP ads soon after becoming the first woman CEO, while long-time employees fumed. The team takes the opposite position — they often think that communications should all about them. They will be sensitive to the number of “I’s” versus “we’s” that the leader uses.  Yet – and this is paradoxical – teams also want their leaders to be forceful and decisive in taking responsibility for improving the situation. This requires a few strong “I’s,” like “I will.” In this speech, President Obama, who has often been criticized for expecting that Congress pick up and flesh out his broad ideas, was a forceful user of “I will” — a good sign for the implementation of his agenda.

So how do you know when to use “we” and when to say “I”? It’s important to use “we” when describing positive accomplishments, and “I” when taking responsibility for stumbles and indicating resolve to make changes. The people on your team know the difference, and they’re listening carefully.

Leaders have been learning (though not fast enough) that their ostensibly private utterances and emails can break their careers.  Leaders also must understand that their public utterances can make their careers — if they remember their real audience.

More blog posts by Rosabeth Moss Kanter


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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