Why I like T.J. Larkin’s dangerous ideas about executive communication

As the editor of a journal and a website for executive communication people and the leaders they serve, it seems almost my professional duty to rebuke the notion expressed in the heretical Executive Communication Forum (under Featured Content), in which T.J. Larkin expresses the notion (and then at my goading, elaborates on it) that “CEO communication with employees is not very important.”

But I must admit, I’m not really up to the job. Actually, I’m more inspired to say why I find Larkin’s provocative ideas valuable.

They help explain the chronic complaints I receive from executive communication professionals: My CEO isn’t charismatic, doesn’t connect with employees. He/she is very smart but doesn’t connect with people.

They say this as if they’re jealous—of all the other communicators with CEOs who communicate like Martin Luther King. Well, all the other communicators are dealing with mumblers and verbal fumblers and well-meaning shy types as well. And—keep this between us— there’s only so much we can do to transform a reticent communicator into a brilliant one.

Look, let’s face it: Many CEOs are out of touch. Larkin says he thinks CEOs shouldn’t be expected to be any more charismatic than anyone else because they’re just regular people. I’d take him one further and add that many chiefs have a particularly hard time connecting with the rank and file because their social status is so different— and because employees perceive it as being so different.

CEOs and workers are actually a little bit afraid of each other. That’s why CEO/employee interactions, with their number-heavy opening remarks and subsequent tooth-pulling Q&As, often do more harm than good.

Larkin’s ideas mesh with our leaders’ own instincts. Communication professionals spend so much time thinking their executives just “don’t get it” when it comes to communication that they occasionally forget to notice there are times when the CEO does get it, and understands perhaps better than their communicators their own limitations in changing culture through speeches and written words. If the CEO thinks it’s more valuable to talk to investors than employees, maybe the communicator ought not argue. Instead, why not spend your energies finding clever ways to capture the content of those investor meetings for use in employee communication.

Larkin’s critics doth protest too much. Not surprisingly, T.J. Larkin has become a lightning rod—the man actually argues for less CEO communication!—for communicators’ lightning bolts of rage.

And none struck harder than another noted employee communication consultant and writer, Shel Holtz, after Larkin’s keynote address at the 2005 International Association of Business Communicators’ 2005 international conference. Larkin brought the house down. And then Holtz, in a blog post and in a public argument that followed, attempted to bring Larkin down. In short, Holtz called Larkin’s conclusions “leaps of logic,” his research “questionable” and his fans gullible. Holtz expressed his fear that Larkin’s standing, cheering IABC audience would react to his remarks by abandoning broad executive communication efforts that set the context that makes supervisory communication work.

That fear, it seems to me, is unfounded. Larkin makes an important point and he makes it provocatively. If in response, his audience devotes new energies to making sure managers and supervisors have the information they need to communicate to their charges—even if it comes out of the big budget for the CEO’s road show—I really can’t get myself worked up into a massive lather about it, and I question the judgment of people who can.

I like Larkin’s ideas about CEO/employee communication because they reek of the real, not the airlessly ideal. Yes, I believe the very best companies are those in which the CEO has big ideas and shares them across the organization and everyone from the c-suite to middle management to frontline supervisors to rank-and-file employees understands them and buys into them as a galvanizing context in which to work. I also know that’s not the situation at the typical roofing-tile manufacturer or rental-car chain. In most places, you’re better off following Larkin’s realistic, humanistic ideas about what kinds of communication really make employees tick, (Mon)day in and (Fri)day out.

Don’t you agree?

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