Bob's Gutsy Leadership Blog

How Strong Leaders Communicate

Back in the early 1990’s, the past CEO of Hughes Aircraft, Malcolm Currie, was about to retire.  Hughes was a defense-focused company with a history of promoting top engineers and scientists.  Employees were abuzz about who would be Currie’s successor.

Surprisingly, in February, 1992 Hughes selected C. Michael Armstrong, then the #3 executive at IBM, for the CEO job at Hughes.  Neither an engineer nor a scientist, Armstrong had a track record of success in marketing and sales.  Hence, Currie realized employees could become confused and concerned by the selection.

Wisely, at the time of the announcement of Armstrong’s appointment, Currie first reminded employees that Hughes’ current strategy was to turn itself into a better balanced high tech company by the end of the decade, with a goal of its revenue being 50% from business versus the current 15%.   He then announced Armstrong as the new CEO and described the selection as an acceleration of the existing strategy rather than a radical departure from Hughes’ government contracting past.

Currie went on to explain why Armstrong was the right person for the job.  He pointed out the significant commercial opportunities for Hughes and that in order to capture them, a new emphasis on marketing and an improvement in business skills was clearly necessary; all of which the new CEO Mike Armstrong could supply.  Clearly Currie was positioning the selection of Armstrong consistent with the current goals of Hughes and laid out a definition for success and presented a timetable for achieving it.

This masterful communication by the outgoing CEO has the following three qualities which we all need to remember as we communicate changes to employees:

1.) The Message Should Be Specific and Meaningful – We need to get as detailed as possible as to the nature of the change that is occurring.  The more information we can supply, the less the employees will speculate.

2.) Put the Change in the Context of the Current Situation – It’s important to remind employees where things stand currently and why this change will be a meaningful and positive evolution and improvement.

3.) Create Excitement Via Enthusiasm and Naturalness – Employees don’t want to be lectured to and they want to feel as if the speaker has their best interest in mind.  Humanness, authenticity, and enthusiasm are terrific motivators and they need to be integral to any communication to the employee base.

The more responsibility a leader has, the more important these principles become.


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