How to coach CEOs who think they already communicate beautifully


We had a three-office conference call yesterday to talk about crisis management and media training and a question arose about a CEO who refused to accept coaching. He, in this case, thinks media “training” is beneath him.

We won’t say which office or client because we like the work, and because this is truly an issue that could arise with any client.

This came the same day that I spent some workout time with a CEO of a prominent Buffalo company. He’s relatively new to the position, having moved up from COO about six months ago. I asked him what had changed. He thought for a moment and said that he’s the same person he was as COO, and he feels his decision-making process and leadership qualities are similar. But now, he said, everyone defers to him and makes it seem like he’s right all the time.

I relay that little story because it bears on the problem at hand. The drive to the top requires many attributes, among them ego. If you can’t envision yourself leading people in to battle — be it war, business, sports, government or innovation — you probably won’t make the sacrifices to get there.

It’s therefore understandable that some CEOs would not want to listen to coaching on how they speak, deal with the media, present to stockholders and analysts and/or come across to their immediate team and to company employees.

This view of the world can be particularly sensitive in the midst of a crisis. We generally suggest that if a company is in crisis, the CEO should be out front if at all possible. If that’s the plan, the CEO better be trained and prepared not only in technique, but facts. No one can fake it in a crisis. Emotions are raw, media is camped at the front door, big stacks of chips sit in piles waiting to be won or lost.

Back to the original question. How do you coach a CEO who thinks he or she is uncoachable? [Unmentioned here is that everyone is coachable, and anyone with even a whiff of self-awareness has to realize experts can help make them better.] But let’s say a CEO thinks he nails it every time. How to change that?

1. Let the out-of-town media/crisis consultant tell the CEO he/she needs more training and give specific reasons and examples why.

2. Show video clips of prime-time players who sucked shoe leather in a particular interview and warn that this could happen to you.

3. Offer a practice session during which likely media questions are asked, and hope the shock of some of the questions and the CEO’s unpreparedness to handle them effectively demonstrate the need for better preparation and training.

4. Media or crisis train the C-level team and keep your fingers crossed that the CEO will see that there are others on his team handling the same questions with greater effect and aplomb than she did. Build on that to teach the CEO and maybe have her defer to the more qualified EVP or communications director.

It’s a prickly problem. Sometimes a so-so CEO is better than an expert communications person simply because of the authority with which the CEO speaks.

I doubt he’s ever been media trained, but watch a video of Warren Buffett some time. He’s the ideal CEO because he speaks to the media and analysts and U.S. presidents as he does if you bumped into him on the street. I’ve had the pleasure half a dozen times one-on-one or in small and large groups to hear him disassemble life’s absurdities. His discourses are fact-based, unvarnished by attempts to cover blemishes and delivered with a light-hearted or humorous tone that cloaks the dagger he stuck in someone’s ribs.

If steps #1 through #4 fail, show your reluctant CEO a Buffett interview and tell him or her you want to train them up to Buffett standards.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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