Your success as new CEO may come down to how adept you are at using the mislabelled ‘soft skills’.

Everybody in leadership roles understands the value of good communication. You may not have gotten to where you are without it.

In this article, you will learn why you need to get out from behind your desk, prioritise relationships, and be adaptable. By following the guidelines here, you’ll establish yourself as someone that everybody is happy to follow.

But first, the hard reality.

The CEO’s role is mostly face-to-face

In an age where we have unlimited means of communicating with people, the clearest winner is still face-to-face. If this is something with which you are uncomfortable, take a deep breath and find a way to make it comfortable.

The people with whom a CEO spends his or her time is a signal about who and what is important. You’re watched much more carefully than you may realise. If you don’t spend any time with your front-line people, that says a lot (to them) about how you value their work.

In one of the most significant studies of how CEOs spend their time, Michael E. Porter and Nitin Nohria explained that your time spent with people, or in video calls, allows you to:

  • exercise influence
  • learn what’s really going on
  • delegate to move forward multiple agendas
  • best support and coach the people you work closely with.

Why is email a problem?

Email seems excellent, because it seems like it would save time. However, it more often turns into a time-sink.

‘…e-mails from the CEO can create a downward spiral of unnecessary communication and set the wrong norms, especially if the CEO sends them late at night, on weekends or on holidays,’ Porter and Nohria write. ‘It then becomes easy for everyone in an organisation to fall into the bad habit of overusing electronic communications.’

Cautionary tales about email abound!

Here at Red Wagon, we’ve seen over and over again situations where CEOs have tried to fight fires by email. It’s faster, simpler, and more effective to deal with difficult issues face to face because it stops people from feeling safe to engage negatively while sitting behind the ‘security’ of a computer screen.

More importantly, prioritising face-to-face communication makes sure that you don’t operate in a bubble. If you want to see and act on the daily reality of your organisation, you have to get out from behind your desk.

Which is why spending time on relationships is a good decision

In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Neal Kissel and Patrick Foley make this bleak statement:

‘Close to 50 percent of chief executives say that the role was “not what I expected beforehand”.’

Why? Because these CEOs didn’t value the time spent in building relationships. The authors even suggest that nearly all CEOs who don’t do this find themselves later on wishing that they had.

Good communication is core to good relationships. It’s not just about giving the right information to board members or stakeholders. It’s also about being available and interested, valuable to the other party, adaptive, and honest.

I’ll show you what I mean. Here’s a story from an interview in Forbes.

In that interview, John Flannery told Carmine Gallo about the letter he sent GE’s 30,000 employees on his first day as CEO.

Among other things, Flannery stripped his key message down to just three points. He gave his employees a simple and clear option for remembering them. That option? To remember just one thing: Focus on the customer.

By doing this, Flannery proved that he understood two things:

  1. The principles of communicating important messages
  2. Human behaviour; Flannery knew that people can’t remember more than three or four things at a time.

Demonstrate that you know how people listen, learn and remember, because it allows you to be understood quickly and easily by everybody. I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s a requirement of every good relationship.

Strive to achieve harmony with the existing culture

Approaching your new role from the perspective of adaptation and harmony allows you to build a good reputation and solid credibility with the organisation. It doesn’t mean you can’t change it; but it will allow you to get buy-in more easily.

One of the myths about being a new CEO is that you need to move fast to reshape and “fix” the organisation. I suggested in this article that a research mindset will help you achieve success much faster, and more sustainably.

Taking an organisation on a journey—even a wildly different or new journey—isn’t about imposing a new way of working. Change requires you to understand both sides of the existing culture, good and bad. You can only do that when you observe, think, and adapt.

Consider how your own leadership and communication styles might need to change in order to adapt in a harmonious way.

Specifically, ask yourself how you can:

  • adapt your leadership style so that you’re working in harmony with the existing culture?
  • establish yourself as a leader who values two-way communication?
  • How can you establish yourself as a leader who develops others?

Your success as a CEO relies on your ability to lubricate your networks and more easily forge the relationships that will help you to find success. Harmony is one of the best oils there is.

This loops us back to where you started reading, because harmony and good relationships begin with good communication.

In Summary

To be successful in your new role as CEO, the mislabelled ‘soft skills’ are critical. They will help you to build relationships, create buy-in, and become the beacon of light that everybody is happy to follow.

You won’t achieve that by charging in and making broad-sweeping changes. But you will achieve it by working out how you fit, adapting where you need to, being an outstanding communicator in every regard, and establishing yourself as someone who develops others.

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