How a New CEO Can Communicate Openness

With stakeholders wanting more of a role in how an organization works, an exec is now more of a collaborator-in-chief. Which makes communicating your ideas even more critical.

A new CEO arriving at an organization can get a little fixated on abstract questions: What’s my leadership style? How will I demonstrate my commitment to the organization’s mission? What tactics will I consider in executing its strategy? Meanwhile, the staff and members may simply be wondering: Who the heck are you?

We write a lot here about how CEOs and volunteer leaders can kick off their relationship in a positive way; my colleague Tim Ebner reported earlier this year about how a number of first-time association CEOs launched their tenures by building close relationships with their boards. At the top of the must-do list is a willingness to communicate, often and deeply. That can clarify who you are—and clarify what everybody’s expectations are from you as a leader.

Who I am and what I do involves transforming talent into teams.

But that’s just as true for staff and members, who increasingly feel that they ought to have a voice in the direction of the organization. So there’s more pressure for you present yourself not just as a leader, but also as a collaborator.

Leadership is a team sport,” author and facilitator Larry Robertson recently wrote in Inc. And, he adds, leadership “thrives best on a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives, especially in fulfilling another ubiquitous need: the need to be adaptable and capable of innovating perpetually.” That doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice the authority you have in the corner office, but it may require that you be more visible in the early going to members and staff.

Cheryl Kreider Carey, CAE, took that to heart when she became the CEO of the Society for Imaging Informatics in Medicine in late 2017. Since she began, she’s upgraded the reporting structure for SIIM committees, made a point of conducting face-to-face meetings with members at their businesses, and generally made herself more open to collaboration.

“Who I am and what I do involves transforming talent into teams,” she says. “That means the staff operations team as well the board and staff collectively.”

One smaller—but, I think, valuable—piece of that inclusive approach is a series of videos that SIIM has produced of Carey in conversation with SIIM’s current board chair, James T. Whitfill, as they casually discuss current issues and upcoming events at the association. There’s nothing flashy or high-tech about the videos themselves, but the existence of the videos alone sends a signal that different parts of leadership are working together and open to discussing their accomplishments publicly:

And, Carey adds, “it gives members a chance to see me, the new person, and hear from me in a way that isn’t just a written update.”

There’s some research that supports the value of being willing to share openly as a leader. “Empathic workplaces tend to enjoy stronger collaboration, less stress, and greater morale, and their employees bounce back more quickly from difficult moments such as layoffs,” Stanford professor Jamil Zaki recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review. And, he adds, leaders who emphasize a culture of openness and collaboration are likely to see its effects throughout an organization.

“At any moment, some individuals in an organization are acting kindly while others are not,” he writes. “Some are working together while others are competing. Empathy often belongs to a quiet majority. Foregrounding it—for instance through incentives and recognition—can allow employees to see its prevalence, turning up the volume on a positive norm.”

Showing that you’re open to collaboration isn’t, in itself, a guarantee of success for a new leader. But it may go a long way toward helping address the who-are-you question for your most critical stakeholders and generate the trust that’s necessary to create the kind of culture you’re looking for.

How have you communicated with stakeholders during your first days as a leader? Share your experiences in the comments.

(Kritchanut/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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