CEO Alert: Think Like Mona Lisa

Want to develop your CXO mindset? Listen very carefully to Mona. Hmmm.

At first glance, it doesn’t seem possible that she can put syllables together let alone help a business leader with executive thinking. But she DOES talk, and quite loudly. And executives the world over can take a lesson from her playbook.

Say the words, “Mona Lisa” to almost anyone, and in a nanosecond, they get a mental picture of the enigmatic lady with the quirky smile. The mention of her name forces us to see her picture in our mind. Smart Mona! (and word on the street says she does not even have an MBA!).

Nothing is more powerful than an arresting image, especially coming from business leaders communicating to their teams. Using powerful verbal pictures can increase your clout as a communicator and make your ideas memorable. Learning to think in terms of imagery should be in every leader's communication handbook.

So how does
a business leader use verbal images or pictures? By creating relevant analogies or metaphors (comparisons between two things). A rare economic occurrence could be compared to “a hundred year flood” or the ups and downs of the stock market to a “rough mountain bike ride.” Think Martin Luther King’s, “I Have a Dream.”

The metaphors can not only be verbal pictures but a call to action, as in Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point. Or William Cohan's, House of Cards.

Analogies can be educational tools that help us understand complex topics or come to grips with difficult issues. Randy Pausch got a nation to understand how to prepare for tragedy in his famous, The Last Lecture.

But analogies and metaphors can also have a touch of whimsy and make us smile.

A recent post on Copyblogger by James Chartrand used a great verbal image: Forget The Tao of Pooh. How about the Blog of Pooh? James' tips on blogging via a Winnie the Pooh analogy are memorable and a great example of verbal pictures (can't you just see the Pooh toiling over a keyboard writing pithy poohisms?).

Just make sure your verbal pictures are fresh. Gyrations in the stock market described as a “roller coaster ride” is too hackneyed a phrase to be relevant. The key is to be original. Rule number two: don’t over-use analogies. A strategically placed verbal picture can be powerful. Too many and you can come off as a comedy king. Don't abuse the power!

See-Through CEOs

I was listening to an old Bonnie Raitt song the other day, ‘Have a Heart.’ And the lyrics really hit home in terms of executive thinking and communication (clearly NOT Bonnie’s intended audience). Check out her opening lines: “Hey! Shut up. Don’t lie to me. Hey! Mister, how do you do? Oh pardon me I thought I knew you. Would you stand back baby cause I want to get a better look.”

Here's a novel take: interpret the lyrics in light of what AIG’s CEO Edward Liddy said to Congress, and Bonnie’s words take on a WHOLE new lig
ht! Instead of "Have a Heart, " how about, "Have a see-through communication strategy." Well, that's not catchy enough for a Grammy or an MTV music video, but such a strategy might garner major kudos for an executive from his/her core constituents.

With Enron as a backdrop, and our current economic troubles, we now have a new landscape that demands disclosure and transparency of all business leaders. And not just windows into executive compensation, options and bonuses, but windows into CEO activities, initiatives, vision, strategies and major decisions. Let's get inside their heads and see how they think!

Let's call this new era, The Saran Wrap Age--a major see through into executive actions.

So how does an up-and-coming business leader become a "See Through" CEO and incorporate communication transparency into her/his daily activities? Does it mean opening the kimono to ALL executive business decisions and actions? Not necessarily. But for starters, we can follow the lead of CEO David Fox.

Jeff Elliott in his article, David Fox: Transparent Executive, highlights Mr. Fox's efforts to be a transparent leader. Mr. Fox is President of Good Samaritan Hospital in Illinois, and he is so committed to transparency that he publishes how well his own activities align to stated hospital goals. Performance metrics at saran wrap levels! Employees can actually track his job performance on their internal web site. Hats off to Mr. Fox and his dedication to communicating measurable performance objectives. Imagine if all executives did this!

This is a perfect starting point for all leaders who want to add more visibility into the C-level suite. Let your employees see how you measure up to your organization's stated goals or objectives or how you are aligning to you board's stated vision. Communicate your report card quarterly, as well as your plan for improvement. Don't your investors deserve this insight? It's not a plan for the weak of heart or those shy on principles. But it is a plan for leaders who want integrity to be their legacy. Let the saran wrap challenge begin!

CEO Chimps

Did you ever meet a big-wig from some ever-so-important, is on the cover of Fast Company type of organization, who thinks his leadership is spot on? But he never once asks a question about you, your company or what YOU do. He hardly even listens to you. It's all about his blah, blah, blah. I call these executives "Chimp CEOs." They're deaf, mute, and blind to anything that does not relate to them. If you go to industry confabs a lot, you hear a lot of this simian chatter.

Hardly an example of a leader who thinks like he or she belongs in the C Suite.

And in today's economy, it's not just an annoying act of hubris, it's a disastrous strategy, especially where your customers are concerned.

The best CXOs listen as much as they talk. George Colony, CEO of Forrester Research in an earlier ZD Net article, talks about the need not only to listen, but to have a conversation.

And a CEO who takes listening and having conversations with customers to the next level is Anne Mulcahy, Xerox's CLB (Chief Listening Babe).

In a recent Fox News piece, Mulcahy talked about the need to really listen to her customers. And Xerox is listening hard as customers tell Mulcahy about their need to reduce the number of copies they produce. Her response might surprise you. Sell them more Xerox copiers? Infuse their supply closets with Xerox ink products and toners? Nope. She's teaching customers how they can cut down on the copies they make! She saved Key Corp $1 million a year. And in the process, Xerox's services business is going like gangbusters.

What I really like about Mulcahy is that she realizes the best strategy a savvy executive can take these days is to follow the dictum, "Lips Together, Ears Open." Listen more. Really listen to what your customers are saying, and find a solution that enables you both to grow. True CXO thinking.

Now that's a stimulus plan every CEO should follow.

CEO Top Ten Communication Best Practices

Thinking like a great CEO. What does it really mean? It means being able to communicate those great thoughts and rally people to action. It's combining speaker and thinker.

ho are the best of the best executive communicators, those with best practices other leaders want to emulate? Not in the CEO suite of the West Wing, but in the C-level suite of major companies. I'm sure we could all conjure up a few favorite names—leaders like Jack Welch and Steve Jobs for example. But can you pinpoint their favorite communication strategies and the communication best practices they deploy?

When I think of the best communicators I've worked with, they all have replicable communication strategies. Strategies that enable CXOs to rally their troops, win-over customers and create a strong executive brand. Here's a short list of communication best practices I've observed over the years:

1. LESS IS MORE. Say what you have to say, and then step down. Information overload in any communication is NOT the way to show you're thinking like a CEO.

2. STORIES ENGAGE. Captivating an audience depends on your ability to tell a story—one that the audience can relate to. Use universal themes that can inspire any listener.

3. DATA DUMPS BORE. Even for a techie crowd, talking about data all the time can be boring as $#&(!!, so use data to back up an idea, but NOT be the backbone of your communication).

4. THINK "WHAT DO THEY NEED TO HEAR"? Master communicators don't just talk about what they want to say. First and foremost, they consider what does this audience need or want to hear?

5. DON'T MEMORIZE. Get as comfortable as you can with your material--practice and know your ideas like the back of your hand, but never memorize word for word. The minute you rely on rote, you sound canned and over rehearsed.

6. HAVE A CONVERSATION. No matter if you are delivering a PowerPoint presentation, a prepared speech or an off-the-cuff comment, talk in a dialogue with your listeners. No one likes a pedantic lecturer.

7. USE EXAMPLES. We learn and remember via examples. Great communicators use them to make a concept real or help explain a complex idea. Barack Obama's Acceptance Speech had many memorable examples that rallied the crowd and the nation.

8. BE PASSIONATE. Let your passion for your ideas come through loud and clear--in your voice, your gestures, and your commitment to whatever it is you are communicating.

9. USE SILENCE. Good communicators know that effectively using a pause or moment of silence can be a dramatic way to accent an idea or gain attention.

10. HAVE AN AUTHENTIC VOICE, (WARTS AND ALL). You're not Bill Clinton, never will be, so get over it. The best executive communicators find a voice that is their own and perfect it.

Looking to role models for inspiration is fine, but don't imitate the voice of others. Great communicators also recognize that the warts are part of your authenticity.
Just be yourself. The great CEO that you are.

CEO Robots?

I recently read that Japanese Robot makers have created a "robot teacher." She can bark commands like, "be quiet," and "stop talking"! Hmmm. That got me thinking about CEO Robots.

Seems American industry is inundated with them. CXOs who just prattle off the same old jargon as if they are programmed to say the same words each quarter. Not a very good example of executive thinking. More like Unthinking. Turn on the vocabulary autopilot and turn off original thought.

Over the years, predictable CXO jargon has littered the corporate landscape. How many times have you heard "stay the course", or "our key differentiation is..." or "crush the competition" or "think outside the box"? Vapid vocabulary.

The hallmark of a real leader is using words and ideas that are authentic--being true to yourself and your style. Authentic communication. I really admire executives who speak from the head and heart and not from the hackneyed phrasebook. Remember JFK's totally unique, 'Ask not what your country can do for you..."phrasing? How about more corporate inspiration like that? And to all CXOs who say, "But I'm not JFK..", no, you're not. But every word his speechwriters used IS in your vocabulary, too.

Especially in today's environment, I'd love to hear a unique, heartfelt and inspirational speech from a CXO. Not in twitter speak, not cloaked in predictability, but genuine and authentic.
Realspeak, not robotspeak. Gauntlet down. Any takers?

Leaders Should Just Lead

One has to wonder what business leaders are thinking sometimes when they utter things that they have to know are going to send waves throughout the universe.

The iconic Warren Buffett opened up his mouth yesterday and turned the financial world on its head. Hopefully his comments do not show executive prescience. They clearly don't highlight executive presence or reflective CXO thinking.

In an interview, Mr. Buffett chose to express his views of the current economic times by saying, “this is an economic Pearl Harbor” and equated the current financial situation in the United States to “falling off a cliff.” These comments may seem innocent enough. But coming from a financial executive who has changed a whole generation's view of finance, these words are quite devastating to a country that is already reeling. Buffett's words carry weight in arenas that we would not normally consider. The ripple effect can be staggering.

As a seasoned executive, he should have chosen his words a bit more carefully.
While few might disagree with what he is saying, there are better ways to put it. Thoughtful ways that would make us aware of the situation AND build a little confidence that we can get this thing turned around.

That's what a CXO mindset is all about. A leader knowing when to bite her or his tongue or when to advance an idea. Sometimes, being a great CEO means biting your lip more than flapping it.

Advice to up and coming executives: having the mindset of a real leader is not always about speaking your mind and sounding pithy. It's about knowing when and how to package a concept. Just because an idea pops into your head, it is not always prudent to let it find a pathway to your mouth.


Dull CEO Thinking

There’s a big void in CXO thinking these days. Grey matter that is truly grey. Thinking that is sometimes boring and totally uninspiring.

Having been an executive coach for a number of years, I’ve seen up close and personal the mental workings and machinations of many Fortune 500 leaders. Cool, innovative, kick-ass thinking. But lately, what I’ve heard in the public forum is pretty depressing blah blah stuff. It’s doom and gloom like, “There’s a great deal of uncertainty among our customers.” DUH! Or how about the executive who says, “The economic situation is pretty dire” Talk about depressing!

Inspiring CEO Thinking

Note to CEOs: cardinal rule of being a CXO is that true leaders are inspiring and motivating. They raise our spirits, not raise our hackles. They find ways to drive our ambitions, not drive us to happy hour at 3pm. They look for ways to innovate, not ways to state the obvious again and again. Think inspiration.

Case in point, our new Chief Technology Officer, Vivek Kundra.

Mr. Kundra has said, “Why is it that we can’t of the biggest problems in the federal government is that process has trumped outcome...nobody is thinking about innovation and how to drive change in government.’

All Executives: Inspire or Shut Up!

Spot on! Innovation and change—you just can’t say these words enough these days.
But it's not just those words, it's the attitude of inspiration and "let's get it done" that makes Kundra's comments noteworthy,

So all Denizens of the C Suite, if you can’t let optimism shine through, then shut up! Take a page out of the West Wing’s playbook, and start saying, “Yes, we can”!