How do you handle an awkward CEO?

If you’re saddled with a leader or client who’s a poor communicator or a stilted speaker, there is hope. Here’s how to play up strengths and minimize glaring weaknesses.

How to handle an awkward CEO

CEOs are often the face, conscience and voice of the company.

Unfortunately, our lofty corporate leaders are, um, not always an ideal fit for that global spokesperson and ambassador role.

Some are aloof. Many are abrasive and intimidating.

Others, meanwhile, feel they are “natural communicators” who don’t need any input or training. These are the folks who feel compelled to say or do whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they want.

That can cause any number of nightmares for communicators, such as:

  • The town hall that devolves into a shouting match (“I WILL FIRE ALL OF YOU!!!”)
  • The press interview gone sideways (“WHAT KIND OF QUESTION IS THAT, ANDERSON COOPER? &%$# THIS I’M OUTTA HERE!”)
  • The late-night tweetstorm of dubious content (“WHAT IF THE EARTH IS REALLY FLAT???”)

Of course, execs who are lousy communicators can cause more prosaic, everyday headaches, such as:

  • Failure to provide feedback, input or direction
  • Poor or nonexistent email etiquette
  • Painfully awkward interactions with staffers

Do any of these sound familiar? Sure they do. Now, let’s dive into some sound advice on how to handle that oddball CEO of yours.

Expert guidance on executive comms

It’s all about establishing clarity and expectations—and repeating yourself—according to NYC-based publicist Jon Salas.

“Repeating back what you understood allows you to confirm if what you understood was accurate and also allows you to give them a chance to react before you take action,” Salas says. In other words, don’t assume that what you heard is what she meant. Confirm, repeat, and get those takeaways in writing.

Ashley Fisher, who owns Wonderland Media and says that her job “is to teach crappy communicators to get better,” and she advises using video.

“Set up a mock interview set, and record the leader as they answer questions,” she says. “This will allow them to visually see tics and habits that they may not realize they have. Using filler words, over-gesticulating and making weird faces are the three most common ones to overcome.”

Breaking down gaffe-filled video requires humility and vulnerability—which some leaders will vehemently object to—so you must earn trust and build a bottom-line case for this activity. If your leader is into sports, remind him or her about the importance of analyzing game day film to see where and how teams can improve.

David Gil Garcia of Find Courses says communicators should take on a bolder, more direct role in helping honchos develop as communicators. Help your CEO home in on individual strengths, and put your leader in workplace settings where she’s likely to succeed. For some, that might mean more one-on-one meetings. Others might excel in small groups, or perhaps short video messages is the way to go.

Garcia also recommends “personalizing communications,” which can be as simple as a leader sending an email that praises specific employees.

Either way, communicators must summon the courage to challenge leaders to identify personal communication weaknesses—and to help them find workarounds that cater to their strengths.

Janice Booth offers a view from the other side of desk. A nonprofit CEO for more than 20 years, she admits that many leaders fail simply because they never take the time to “understand their communication style” and adapt. She offers a “communications K.I.T” as a remedy:

Knowledge. Discovering your primary communication style: how it drives you and how it holds you back.

Insight. Learning how to recognize other communication styles and the particular strengths they possess.

Tools. Using new ways of interacting with other communication styles in order to get the very best from them.

What about media relations? Should you just do your best to hide your awkward CEO from the press?

PR pro Wendy Agudelo advises seeking out trusted “media friendlies” who might be willing to do an interview or “desk-side briefing” for a bit of practice. Student reporters from a local university are another option to help your boss “become more comfortable with being asked, and answering, questions.”

Practice might not make perfect, but extra reps could help prevent a major PR debacle down the road.

Managing the game with what you have

Having a boss who’s a bad communicator can be a big business disadvantage, but it doesn’t mean you’re doomed to fail.

Just as certain football teams can win with shaky quarterbacks, it’s all about how—and when—awkward execs are strategically used. Don’t put too much pressure on them to perform in forums where they’re likely to flop.

Delegate certain tasks to more capable communicators who can ease the spokesperson burden. Don’t force CEOs who loathe speaking in front of big audiences to lead the town hall. If your boss is terrible on camera, find someone else to do the interview. Spread the ball around to other superstar players.

CEOs have risen to their rank for a reason—unfortunately, that reason is not always “dazzling communication skills.” The onus is on you to find out what they do best and to set them up for success.

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