In 25 years of talking to people who write speeches and provide other communication counsel to CEOs, I guess I’ve seen the whole range of ways that people without power interact with people with it.
When I was very young, I once passed a note to PR legend Fraser Seitel while he was in the middle of giving a speech at a conference. The note said, “Call David Rockefeller. Urgent.” Seitel thanked me and went on with his speech.
Speaking coach Virgil Scudder told me about the time a CEO client told him, “You’ve got 10 minutes.” Scudder replied, “I bet you don’t tell your golf pro that.”
CEO portrait photographer Rodney Smith, who died this month, told of a CEO who demanded that Smith make a photo session as brief as possible. According to The New York Times:
“I ask him quickly to stand in one place, to look directly at me, and I take one frame and put my camera down and announce to him that he is finished and can now go,” Mr. Smith wrote on his blog. Asked by the executive if he was serious, Mr. Smith recalled telling him that he had “a competent picture equal to the effort” that the man had “put into the experience.” Without more time, he said, one shot was enough.
Goddamn, I love stories like that. Those are stories of communicators who are sufficiently confident in the knowledge they have and the value they bring that they can speak, not necessarily truth to power, but just plainly to power. Which is usually good enough.
That’s why I’m especially excited about a particular session at the CEO Communication Summit, which the Professional Speechwriters Association is putting on at the John Molson School of Business Montreal June 13-14. Erie Insurance strategic communications VP Kathy Felong will interact in person with her former CEO, a big, bold Chicago-style boss, Terrence Cavanaugh. They’re going to talk about how “she had to help him acclimate to the culture while challenging the status quo and strengthening the bottom line. At stake: The foundation and future of a 90-year-old company with a legacy of success. Luckily for Erie Insurance, the two established a candor and rapport early, and built a relationship that endured through one of the company’s most profitable growth periods. Together, they’ll reflect on the rocky and just-right moments in an eight-year change journey.”
What Felong and Cavanaugh say will be interesting, I’m sure. But how they interact with one another will be instructive, to all people in the difficult but potentially invaluable position of providing confident counsel to powerful people, who need it whether they know it or not.
So join us in Montreal, where in addition to the Felong/Cavanaugh conversation and many other sessions and strategy meetings on executive communication, we’ll hear directly from CEOs themselves, who will reveal their own attitudes about communication via an original study commissioned specifically for this one-of-a-kind event.