Progress – one shared story at a time

London, April 12-14, 2015: It is often said that you cannot lead if you cannot communicate. But, as Björn Edlund points out, it is also true that you cannot communicate with impact unless you can lead. He asks: what is communications leadership, what are the traits of a successful communications leader? Is the function different to how its leaders need to behave in order to galvanize their teams, as well as their C suite colleagues? Here’s his opening keynote at Eurocomm 2015, the biannual conference for members in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa of IABC, the International Association of Business Communicators. Björn Edlund shares experiences from nearly 20 years as Chief Communications Officer in three multinational corporations, working for 11 CEOs through external and self-created crises and deep corporate transformations.

Leadership Communications

Monday, 13 April 2015
By Björn Edlund

Great to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

When I started preparing for this speech, I wasn’t sure whether I should do as Americans do, and begin with a joke or two, or be more European and quote some ancient wisdom. It became an easy choice, because I don’t have any suitable morning jokes. So let me kick off with a light-hearted but pretty serious quote.

Looking at communications and leadership, I particularly like this old Chinese saying: “Leading an organization is like frying a small fish. You spoil it with too much poking.”

And I treasure greatly what the late management guru Warren Bennis said: “Leadership is the wise use of power. Power is the capacity to translate intention into reality and sustain it.”

Our leadership tool box is communications or public relations. With that tool box, we can help leaders in our organizations translate intention into reality. We help them use their power wisely, and make sure that they – and we, as communicators – don’t spoil things with too much poking.

We often hear that if you can’t communicate, you cannot lead. I believe the obverse to be just as true – if you can’t lead, you won’t be able to communicate with any real impact.

And why would you want to communicate unless your communications helped inspire people and groups; helped engage and include them, and rally them behind common goals?

Here is a challenge. Let’s ask ourselves: Am I, as a functional leader, and are we communicators as a profession, natural and respected players in the C Suite?

We must be, in order to be effective. And we ought to be, because at its most ambitious, public relations is truly and completely about how to lead. It starts by helping our C Suite colleagues find the words and imagery – the narrative – that best express their strategic intent.

I came to communications via journalism. I freelanced on a national paper while a student of political science and history in Stockholm. I then had a five-year detour into teaching when I moved to Switzerland in 1972 in order to get married. My career really began in 1977 with United Press International, as a Nordic staff correspondent back in Stockholm.

I had always wanted to write, ever since I realized that stories could change people’s behavior.

Early on, I grasped something I can only now, 50 years later, even begin to explain. Stories, our own stories and the stories of others – and how we engage over stories – serve a profound human need for connection, belonging, structure and guidance.

To me, shared story-telling – creating and evolving with others an open and inviting narrative – is probably the most refined form of leadership. Another Chinese saying explains just how and why: “Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will care”.

Right there is the gist of my talk. Let me now share some more reflections on communications and communicators, and on leadership and leaders.

My perspective is that of a head of communications. In that job, you face an array of challenges.

You will need knowledge, experience, integrity and courage – and key traits such as creativity and sound judgment. With that, you build trust with your colleagues in the C Suite., through a mixture of expertise and diplomacy, and sometimes some soft bullying.

We need trust in order to play the role of facilitator. A facilitator leads through competence and inclusion, often the best way for a functional expert to wield power. Trust will enable you to nudge the rest of the C Suite team along in a shared direction.

To me, at the enterprise level, the principal contributions of a Chief Communications Officer are these:

  • We manage brand and are the stewards of reputation;
  • We are listening and mindful story-tellers;
  • We evolve a narrative compelling and open enough for others to join;
  • We tear down walls and build bridges;
  • We find, for our companies, shared value with its stakeholders;
  • We help nurture culture and values;
  • We help shape behavior.

This is a tall order. On some days, your brimming email inbox or petty infighting will determine your actions, not lofty values or agreed brand attributes. But it is these ambitions I cite that truly make the CCO job a leadership opportunity, and enable us to bring our C Suite colleagues along, and to help them master their own communications challenges.

I was lucky to arrive in PR with some managerial experience – along with a little chutzpah, deep insights into how things work differently in different cultures, and a deep conviction that it pays off to focus more on getting stuff done than on being right.

From the age of 27, I spent 12 years with two global news agencies, first UPI and then Reuters. I covered whatever of note happened where I was based, or sent out on stories, in Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America and briefly the Middle East. With a license to inquire, and poke around a little, you can learn a lot if you keep your mind open.

My foremost lesson was, as you will understand, that storytelling matters greatly in human affairs. And that news has a very special place as a sense-maker in our world.

In his great book “The News – a User’s Manual” Alain de Botton quotes the philosopher Hegel, who said that societies become modern when news replaces religion as our central source of guidance and our touchstone of authority.

News, it has also been said, is important stuff made interesting, and journalism is the first draft of History. A History, which, as we know, is written by the victors. That usually feels true whether you’re reporting or being reported on – especially if you are in trouble, as a company or a public figure in the news. Most news makers are in some kind of trouble.

Another fine observation about discourse in society – and that is what we’re talking about here – comes from Epictetus, a classical Greek thinker. He said that “it is not facts that govern our societies, but opinions about facts”.

In a few words, Epictetus thus explains why journalistic scrutiny, often painful for those being scrutinized, is indispensable to a functioning society. And he also lays the foundation on which stands the very opinion-laden cousin of journalism, our profession: public relations.

Journalism gave me a grounding in how to work either alone or in teams. It gave me insights into how the world turns, how power works and how the powerful tick, how disputes arise and play out in groups and societies. And most importantly, journalism gave me an ethical and professional compass.

Journalism, in short, gave me a backbone I might otherwise not have found, invaluable for my later jobs as PR head in large global corporations, with their own pressures and politics, their big egos, and their external and internal problems – so many of their own making.

Here are a few things I found I could usefully apply in corporate PR:

  • How to be a boss.
  • How to keep my eye on the story.
  • How to plan ahead without knowing what was about to happen.
  • How to help others navigate uncertainty.
  • How to listen for what was not being said, and to see what was not being shown.
  • How to say what no one really wants to hear, but they need to hear.
  • How to use the process of writing as a way to think through problems.
  • How to keep a sound distance to folk in power.

And by doing what reporters do, namely observe and reflect, I also learned that any group – any group – wants to be led.

That said, my key point on leadership and communications is this: It is the No. 1 job of PR to help business leaders recognize and meet a deep-seated human need, of both individuals and groups, to be included, inspired, engaged and rallied towards a common goal.

With that in mind, how do we as heads of communications, and our teams, help leaders lead?

First and foremost, by helping them think things through. We add context, depth, nuance and contrarian views to often very linear decision-making processes.

It is our job to lead C suite discussions away from the false certainty and comfort of Excel spread sheets, customer analyses and market projections to thorny explorations of distrust, dissent, conflict and controversy – of why people and communities may be closing not only their doors, but also their hearts and minds – and their wallets – to us, and how to engage them constructively – ideally on their terms.

Our PR work lies squarely in the force field of our corporations’ societal interaction. There are many moving pieces, much uncertainty and many notions that need definition, in terms of both facts and opinions, through clear thinking and clear writing.

I can’t overemphasize the importance of writing. And I mean complete sentences, not the intellectually sloppy hop skip and jump of PowerPoint slides, or the one-two-three lists that so many bosses like, or even the soaring, engaging rhetoric of skilled speakers. As the German literary critic Walter Benjamin stated: “Speech conquers thought. Writing commands it”.

Writing things out will help expose inconsistencies and other weaknesses and let you develop arguments better. Writing things out, that is, in clear sentences without clichés, corporate BS or managerial jargon or any of those long words with – ize at the end.

Thinking things through also means that we help shape the strategic intent into a narrative, which in turn will help us build and nurture the relationships our corporations need.

So if our job is to help leaders think things through, what is the core of leadership itself?

From a communications perspective, a useful definition by Henry Kissinger goes like this: “The most important role of a leader is to take on the burden of ambiguity inherent in difficult choices.”

At ABB, when we were in deep trouble, threatened by bankruptcy and beset by uncertainty, with morale at a real low after two former CEOs had been forced to repay half of their pensions, a true storyteller became our CEO – and he took on the burden of ambiguity with great skill and sensitivity.

It was Jürgen Dormann. As an independent board member, a year or so earlier he had already been made chairman of the board as our former leadership constellation unraveled and we were, as I described it then, “the glue-less led by the clueless”. Fun words, not a fun situation for 100,000 people – our employee base – to be in.

In September 2002, Mr. Dormann also took on the job of CEO, knowing that he needed to change the culture as well as seek to sustainably restore ABB’s economic health by renewing its strategy.

I worked closely with him, to use his leadership communications

  • To create new meaning for our people where there had been despair and distrust.
  • To create community – or even communities of purpose – where there had been strife.
  • And finally to try to make our employees advocates for ABB.

The tool we used was a CEO letter published every week. It was posted on our Intranet in English on Friday afternoon, and by Monday it was out in 12 languages. The tone was blunt and direct – yet at the same time by turns caring and avuncular. The letters put every week to bed, for the 112 weeks he was CEO. From the outset, he had publicly given himself until the end of 2004 to sort out the company’s problems.

The letters, which he called the Friday letters and the organization talked about as the Dormann letters, filled a leadership vacuum and created a worldwide conversation in ABB.

They set the tone for all leaders in ABB, and an expectation of a no-nonsense approach to solving problems. We built real dialogue, with the whole C suite showing the way by taking Mr. Dormann’s cue and following his lead.

Employees could write directly to him on the application we built, and Mr. Dormann would read all feedback. He took up their themes in subsequent letters, but he never ever interfered in the line, and made clear early on that he wouldn’t. The Dormann letters soon became known externally, due to the fact that we leaked them to the local papers at our main sites, in order to take both surprise and ambiguity out of the ABB recovery story.

This period, the 112 weeks when I spent every Friday writing for my CEO and with him, was my most satisfying professional experience in PR. We had found a way to engage, involve, listen to and rally our employees. Luckily, we had a CEO who was just as allergic as I was to corporate speak, excuses, finger-pointing and spin.

Mr. Dormann also embodied something I have later come to call societal intelligence.

I believe company leaders need three forms of intelligence – business smarts and a good IQ, and a superior EQ (or emotional intelligence). But, also a well-developed SQ (societal intelligence) that lets them see and act on their company’s purpose and role in society, and build better connections with all stakeholders.

He really knew how to listen, as did other thoughtful leaders among the CEOs I worked for.

I found counseling and helping CEOs to find for themselves how best to manifest their leadership through communications, authentically, humbly yet with great clarity, a fabulous part of the job.

This is where the CCO’s two perhaps most important traits, sound judgment and creativity, fully come into play.

I closing, let me touch on the leadership job in the PR function. To be successful, people and structure, processes and work culture are key. I was empowered to hire in new people and change team structures and processes each time I became CCO, possibly because I was brought on board at a time of crisis or of great need for change.

I would look for people who had a cultural crossroads somewhere in their biography, people who could do things I couldn’t do in PR, with deeper expertise than me. And I avoided hiring people who would play politics and poison the atmosphere, and I would stamp out such behaviors. As one of my CEOs said about his team players, I guess I wanted “why notters” and not “yes butters”.

I would encourage my team to be leaders, too; to be visible, to step out in front and point out the direction, and to challenge me. But I would remind them, and myself, that ever flattening hierarchies mean that we all need better listening skills in order to encourage our teams – all empowered individuals – to perform better and to embrace change.

I actually even had my own leadership rules. In rare moments of bravery I would share them with my closest team members, and ask them to rate me on them.

Mr. Dormann and I worked on these 10 Leadership Rules from a list I had assembled and amended over the years – and that I kept pinned up next to my computer screen at ABB. They were the core of his last Friday letter as CEO.

To me, the 10 Leadership Rules have both command and collaborate writ large, along with care, a little poking and a clear view on power and its uses:

1. Operate with complete integrity. Keep your word, and do the right thing – even if you are the only one who knows you are doing it.

2. Become an expert in your field. “Expert power” provides one of the major sources of authority because people follow those who “know their stuff.”

3. Tell people what you expect. Use clear language to describe goals, values and expected behaviors. Develop a plan, and act on it. Listen for feedback that may signal the need for a change in tactics, or even in strategy.

4. Mean it when you commit. You’ll inspire people if you show them you accept the risks that commitment brings. You do that by sticking to your path in adversity and solving problems that seem impossible to others.

5. Expect the best. Maintain a self-confident vision of what you want – success – not a negative view of what you don’t want – possible failure. Positive thinking has power, but only if you fuel it with enthusiasm.

6. Care for those you lead. Put their needs at the top of your priority list. If things go wrong, “take” two things – charge and responsibility. And when things go right, share two things – the recognition and the rewards.

7. Put others first. Think of those you lead before yourself. Celebrate their success by giving them as much credit as possible. And share their pain even if it is inconvenient, difficult or costly in time, money or other resources.

8. Do what the word “lead” implies – get out in front. If you’re not willing to do what you ask your people to do, don’t ask them to do it.

9. Play to your own strengths, and learn how to compensate your weaknesses. Let your team members understand how you rely on them, and why. Don’t assume you know everything, or that you are always right.

10. Keep a sense of perspective. Strive for broad-based solutions. Take the time to resolve differences. No one gains if you leave only wreckage in your path.

So, instead of poking around and risk damaging and tearing the fabric of the organization, leadership communications through storytelling is wholly about removing ambiguity, and about how to apply power wisely – with respect and kindness, clarity and humility.

We should all aspire to leadership, to test and develop ourselves and to help make our world a better place – one shared story at a time. I urge you to do so. But also I would also urge you to be mindful of what you wish for. Leadership is hard work, and there is no off switch for a leader.

It’s like in Hotel California, the old song by the Eagles: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

Thank you.