News Articles

Change Is Happening

Posted on Fri, Apr 30, 2010

How Will You Speak, Win Buy-In, and Get People Behind You?

By Suzanne Bates

A number of new research studies clearly reveal that today’s CEOs have innovation on the brain. Recent findings from the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business say that after years of focus on cost reduction and efficiencies, today 75% of CEOs say profitable growth is their top priority. And, according to a recent IBM survey, 65% of CEOs plan radical changes at their companies over the next two years. The IBM data is based on in-person interviews with 765 CEOs and business leaders of small, mid-sized, and large companies.

Why innovate now? According to CEO Notes, an online newsletter, 61% of CEOs from the IBM survey say they fear their competitors are making radical changes in their own business models.

They feel they must also make changes just to avoid falling behind.*

Innovation requires creativity and a well thought-out execution plan. It also requires excellent communication from the top down. The changing times require leaders to look long and hard at how they will deliver their individual message. They have to articulate a clear vision of where the organization is going as well as why it must go there. Winning buy-in and getting people behind you can sometimes be more challenging than coming up with a strategic plan.

Case Study: The New CEO

A brand new CEO earned the top job after milestone achievements that moved the company forward. Change was essential in a competitive industry where the company had lost market share, and he had already developed a clear idea for the company’s new strategic direction.

As he prepared to kick off the radical new tactical plan, he wondered how he could convince everyone in the organization it had to be done. The company was stable, and most employees beyond the top echelon did not perceive the threat that was looming on the horizon.

As we worked with the CEO, he came to realize that in order to win buy-in he had to paint a clear picture of his vision of what the company would look like in the future, and he had to provide a real, compelling reason to change. Stability was highly valued in this organization so the strategy would require some painful, short term disruptions.

The first part of his presentation painted the CEO’s picture of the future and explained why his vision would benefit the company as a whole. The second part outlined the change that would be required, punctuated by stories meant to illustrate and inspire. He had many stories of individuals who had already contributed great new ideas. They had been leaders in the change process. He also talked about the history of those who had brought innovations to the industry. He even told a few stories from his own experience that demonstrated how he learned to handle change.

The presentation was an unqualified success.

Paint a picture for others to help them see what you see, and you are well on the road to winning buy in. People want to be part of something successful. They yearn to contribute to the solution.

They want to give their talents to the effort. When you communicate effectively, your employees feel good because they know they own a piece of the company’s success.

What if the change is radical? Remember the most important word in persuasive communication is “why.” Why does the company need to change? If there is a big enough reason and that reason touches your employees in an important way, you can win hearts and minds. The job of the leader is to find the why and articulate it clearly to all.

Adapt both the message and the style to the target audience. Convey the benefit to those you hope to persuade. In The Art of Selling Your Ideas, a Special Report published by the National Institute of Business Management, you’ll find this advice: No linchpin, no sale. “Your idea’s central benefit to the listener is the linchpin of your sales effort. If this point gets lost, no idea will win approval---no matter how strategically it is packaged or presented.”

Bates Communications uses a process called “180 thinking” to help our clients clarify the “linchpin.”

180 thinking is simple: you sit in their seats, think as they think, ask the questions they would ask. Once you are asking the right questions, you can answer them. This makes for a persuasive presentation that is audience focused and on target.

Even if the reasons are obvious to you, they may not be clear to your audience. If you have lived with an issue and worked on the solution for a long time you may assume others know or understand what you do. Take the time to do your homework. Say what is obvious to you in a way that is relevant to them. In times of change, taking these steps to communicate effectively is more important than ever.

*Source CEO Notes newsletter

Tags: Strategy to Execution, Executive Communication

Tuning The Voice of Leadership

Posted on Wed, Apr 21, 2010

The true test of success for leaders is not the amount of money they make, the price of their stock or the size of their businesses. Success is determined by how effectively they are able to communicate their vision and apply their experience to their enterprise. To meet the demands of business—and have a lasting impact on their organizations—leaders must speak with clarity and win the trust of others. When they know how to do this, they have what we call the voice of leadership.

The 2004 presidential campaign is an opportunity to see how important the voice of leadership is. Clarity and trust are the critical elements of any political campaign. Interestingly enough, when voters are interviewed about a candidate, they give you an impression—which may seem like it’s based on little that is tangible. How do they arrive at their conclusions? The fact is we base these impressions on very real elements—what we see and hear. Successful candidates have to project ideas with clarity, and have to be seen as trustworthy, or they cannot win. The long, grueling nature of a presidential contest gives us voters a chance to weigh information and decide.

You may not be out to win votes, but if you want to lead, you must project an authentic voice of leadership, too. This year, we are devoting the pages of the Credibility Report to voice of leadership stories, insights and practical advice—everything you need to develop an authentic, powerful “voice”. Our goal is to provide information about how to assess your voice, develop new skills and enhance your leadership through better communication.

First, let’s define the voice of leadership. It is an authentic, powerful way of communicating—unique to each of us. There is no formula for the voice of leadership—no two leaders are the same—but all good leaders have certain assets and competencies that determine the effectiveness of their voices.

Effective leaders have two powerful assets that provide the foundation for their overall success:

They have vision—the ability to imagine, conceptualize and articulate future hope and opportunity.

And they have experience—the skill and talent acquired by doing.

But vision and experience are not enough. There are two factors that determine how effectively leaders will be able to communicate their vision and apply their experience:

Trust—the most critical element in producing positive human behavior is willingness. If people are unwilling, they will not give their unwavering support to leadership initiatives. Trust is a basic building block of willingness. If people trust their leaders and believe the information provided by their leaders, they will be willingly to follow.

Clarity—if the message of leadership is not clear the team will not know how to do the things leadership asks of them. Confusion will dilute effort and desired results will be diminished.

Trust is a firm belief in the reliability, truth or strength of a person or thing. When people trust you, they have a confident expectation about you. A person in a position of trust has a responsibility arising from that trust. In fact, when we trust people, we give over power to them; that’s why we call a property legally entrusted to a person a “trust.” We refer to a person who holds and administers property in trust for another is a “trustee.” People who are trustworthy can act, administer, and move forward with the full cooperation of others. Trust allows a leader to do what needs to be done, with the support of those who need to do the work.

Clarity is the act of making something clear, or easier to understand. In a lab, when you want to give clarity to a liquid, you remove the impurities such as fats through a process of heating. The process of achieving clarity in communication is comparable. To express an idea with clarity, we begin with an intellectual exercise, where we “cook” an idea until the impurities are removed.

What is left is transparent thought. Ideas that are transparent are easier to express, and more readily understood. Clarity is usually achieved when we begin with an intellectual process—observing, considering, reasoning, comparing and contrasting, reflecting, then articulating and communicating a pure message. A transparent idea is easily understood; the truth behind it is easily perceived. It is clear and unmistakable.

When Eliot Spitzer first went after mutual fund companies for trading practices that cost consumers billions, people didn’t really understand—most of us didn’t know how fees were set or care about how trades happened. Spitzer succeeded in building credibility because he was so good at explaining what happened and why it was wrong. He proved you don’t need an MBA to understand corruption in financial services. Once he laid out the case in simple language and stark terms, the press and the public got it. His investigation caught and it became too big to ignore.

Clarity and trust are the keys to tuning the voice of leadership. Over the coming months, we hope you’ll read and find useful information that will help you tune your voice—develop a total package of skills that help you articulate your vision and bring unity and focus to your organization.

We welcome your questions and comments and hope you will let us know about communication topics that will help you become the best you can be.

Tags: Strategy to Execution, Developing Leaders, Executive Communication

How Leaders Develop and Communicate a Vision

Posted on Mon, Apr 19, 2010

How do leaders develop and communicate a vision?

vision eyeglasses iStock-519711436-2.jpg

The first step is to understand what vision is, and the second step is to create a process for identifying and articulating a vision.

Understanding this process will help you articulate your own vision and values, and will help you assist the leaders of your organization to do the same.

Developing and Communicating a Vision

There is actually nothing mystical about vision. A vision is a picture of what an organization could and should be.

A hallmark of great leaders is that their vision includes big ideas. Big ideas get people excited.

Nobody wants to do something small. Leaders want to feel motivated about coming to work, because what they do matters.

Some examples of big ideas that most of us are familiar with are Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and President John F. Kennedy’s vision for the space program, “We choose to go to the moon . . . not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”

Great business leaders also know how to paint a vivid picture of the future. They make it look easy. However, most of them have worked hard to develop and articulate their powerful thoughts.

The creative process of developing a visionary statement consists of four steps: Observe, Reflect, Write, and Speak. Here’s what I tell my executive clients about these processes:

Step One: Observe

In order to determine a vision, you must become an astute observer of your world. You have to immerse yourself in watching, listening, and wondering. Pay attention, ask questions, probe, discuss, and gather information.

Step Two: Reflect

Now you turn inward. For example, you look at important events in the company, or important events in your life and career, and ask yourself: What did I learn? What is this telling me?

During reflection, you come up with stories and examples that form your vision and clarify your values. These stories enable you to speak authentically from your own wisdom and experience.

In this reflecting stage of the process, it’s better to have someone listening and asking questions. A coach or trusted advisor can help you talk through a story or idea and find the significance of it.

Personal stories are a rich source of material that can crystallize a vision. When searching for personal stories with a client, we look at broad categories, both positive and negative, that usually yield some interesting images and help to communicate the vision and values that are important to the client. These include, among others: personal challenges, major changes, new experiences, lost opportunities, awkward situations, failed attempts, turnarounds, last-minute saves, inspiring people, remarkable achievements, and memorable events that may have occurred in a client’s life.

Some people are uncomfortable with the idea of talking about themselves in business speeches.

However, by weaving personal stories into their speeches, leaders connect with people. Their experiences are interesting to an audience, because they say so much about the leader.

Step Three: Write

Because we live in a fast-paced world, with little time for reflecting and writing, many people want to skip this step. That is a mistake. When you write, you discover how to say precisely what you mean. Many executives ask why they can’t just speak off the cuff. That is an important skill. But when you are articulating a vision, writing it down is a critical step in the process.

One of my clients, the president of a college, was preparing to give his inaugural address. It had been “word-smithed” by an outstanding, talented speechwriter. But as he read the speech, we realized something was missing—himself! He had graduated from this school, worked on Wall Street, retired, and served on the college’s board of directors, who then drafted him for the job.

But nowhere in the speech was there any information about why he accepted the position, what made him want to do this at this stage in his career, what his education at the college meant to him, and what his vision was for the college.

As I interviewed him, we were able to identify two or three great stories that would tell people who he was and what he stood for. As he practiced the new speech, what came through was a leader and a person committed to the college’s success.

Step Four: Speak

If you have followed the process, speaking and communicating your vision is a natural outcome.

A leader is far more powerful and effective when he or she gets up to speak because of this process. Then, the speaking must be scheduled. It does no good to create a vision without a plan to speak about it in many venues over a period of time. It takes several repetitions for most people to truly hear and remember the message.

Speaking well requires practice. All the preparation in the world will not wow an audience if the leader cannot speak fluently and confidently. There is no magic wand that will make a speech great if the speaker has not rehearsed so that he or she looks and sounds like a leader on the platform.

The activities of observing, reflecting, writing, and practicing a speech are not usually on an executive’s calendar, but they should be. A powerful vision, well-articulated, attracts people to an organization, motivates them to take action toward progress, and drives business results.

For more on vision check out our blog: Bringing Vision into Focus: Five Tips to Tackle Leader' Weakest Link

Tags: Strategy to Execution, Developing Leaders, Executive Communication

For Women Executives: Business Is A Lot Like Politics

Posted on Sun, Feb 28, 2010

How do you communicate leadership?

You can be smart, hard-working, competent, strategic and blessed with superior vision for your company’s, your state’s or your country’s future, but if you cannot communicate all that effectively, chances are you’ll fail to capture the leadership position. That’s true in politics, and true in business.

In fact, a recent study conducted by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation demonstrates how this holds true. The Foundation, a progressive organization whose mission is to promote women in politics and the arts, analyzed voter perceptions of ten women who ran for governor in 2002.

The results indicated that personal qualities and performance often outweigh substantive issues with voters.

The study, entitled “In Cracking the Code: Political Intelligence for Women Running for Governor,” also found that women candidates are often judged more harshly than men seeking the same job. According to the study, “the candidate’s personal style—clothes, hair and communications skills—is more closely scrutinized than a man’s.”

Barbara Lee, founder of the Foundation, sums up what many women are thinking: “Of course, we would like to think that experience and qualifications always triumph, but that isn’t necessarily the case.” However, the evidence, according to Lee, demonstrates how “the initial impression that a female candidate makes stays with voters longer and is less likely to change than voters’ impressions of male candidates.”

And women in politics are not the only ones who can benefit from this vital research. Women who are business leaders—or want to be—can learn. “The feedback we’ve received has told us that it is applicable to women in all fields who want to be successful,” says Lee.

So what’s a candidate or business leader to do? Lee shares a few of her tips.

Prepare, prepare, prepare.

“A candidate who is prepared, practiced and relaxed will come across as confident and capable,” says Lee. Not only that, but you’ll feel prepared, confident and relaxed—which is equally as important.

Hire the professionals you need to strengthen your image and message.

Whether it’s a wardrobe consultant, make-up artist, media trainer or public speaking coach, the goal is to create a strong first impression. Leaders must know how to command a room or a debate stage from the beginning. They need to get ready for critical presentations or debates by practicing on videotape. When they review their performance, they have to pay particular attention to posture, facial expression, tone of voice, and body language. And of course, their messages must be conveyed powerfully and succinctly.

Add a little humor.

Lee found that candidates, like all leaders, need to show decisiveness—but also not be afraid of a little self-deprecating humor. It helps diffuse tension and makes the candidate or anyone appear more human. “One of my favorite examples of this comes from Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan,” says Lee. “As a candidate, she was asked about the time she appeared on the television program, The Dating Game. She responded, ‘Well you don’t want a boring governor do you?’ Her retort ended that line of questioning once and for all!”

See which of these additional findings can apply to the work that you do.

• A candidate who is less “tailored”, both in the way she carries herself and in her manner of dress, is perceived by both male and female voters to be less of a leader and less professional.

• Misspeaking plagued several of the candidates. However, successfully recovering from public mishaps also demonstrates a particular confidence.

• A confident attitude conveys many positive qualities: intelligence, competence and authority.

• The importance of a well-planned, but controlled schedule cannot be over-stated.

• Successful candidates paced themselves and were fresh for their most important public events.

• Successful candidates also left the job of managing the campaign up to the campaign manager, rather than involving themselves in the micro-management of staff.

• Voters used debates to learn a candidate’s stand on the issues, but more importantly, voters wanted to gauge a candidate’s quickness, toughness and decisiveness.

• Voters lose confidence in candidates who display insecurity during critical moments of engagement. For this reason, preparation for debates, forums and press events is particularly important.

• When a female candidate is prepared and practiced, voters notice. When she isn’t, it’s hard for them to forget. 

If you would like to download a copy of “Cracking the Code: Political Intelligence for Women Running for Governor” visit

Tags: Strategy to Execution, Developing Leaders, Executive Communication

Are You Ready To Save Your Company?

Posted on Mon, Feb 22, 2010

How To Have A Smart Approach In The Event of Crisis

Even the best-run companies in America know that they have to be prepared for a crisis. The time and effort your organization puts into this preparation can mean the difference between recovering and closing your doors. Savvy executives know that if you fail to plan crisis communication procedures, it will quickly spiral out of control, and your chances of recovering greatly diminish.

A textbook case of how it can go all wrong is the way the Boston Archdiocese’s handled the revelations about pedophilia among priests. While the Church made many mistakes, it was their shocking evidence of the archdiocese’s cover-up that ultimately destroyed credibility. While the crimes were horrific, the church’s complicity with the criminal acts and hiding the evidence were what really outraged the public. When thousands of documents detailing Cardinal Bernard Law’s knowledge of the priest pedophilia plaguing parishes were finally uncovered, the crisis that had began almost a year earlier erupted with new force, resulting in the long-awaited resignation of Cardinal Law.

Because the situation was so disturbing, the focus of the Catholic Church story has largely been on the horror of the events, but the importance of examining this case in terms of crisis management is undeniable. What we witnessed was a devastating lack of the fundamental rules of crisis management. By evaluating a situation of this magnitude from a crisis management perspective, we can learn how to prevent any business crisis from spinning out of control.

A helpful way to view the crisis is to think of it like an illness. “Like a cold, if we take correct preventative action, we can avoid a crisis,” says renowned crisis communications author Stephen Fink. And just like a cold, when the germs are too strong to fight, you may still get sick.

But if the situation is handled correctly, the crisis can be nursed with care until the situation is remedied, so it is shorter and less debilitating.

Here are some crisis management tips every corporation should practice:

1.Take immediate action if a problem arises, either internally or externally.

This is why companies have and fully utilize crisis management plans and experienced PR teams: press releases and conferences communicate what to avoid the appearance of a coverup.

What should have been managed properly and promptly by the archdiocesan personnel was swept into file cabinets and ignored. No matter how much power it yields, an organization cannot subscribe to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy. Remember, the longer something is covered up, the deeper the grave the company has dug for itself in the end.

2. Keep employees in the loop.

GEICO Auto Insurance learned this lesson the hard way in its early years, when the management communicated only with the media during a bankruptcy crisis, and left their employees reading about the company’s status in the morning papers. Soon, their own employees doubted them more than the media did. While communicating with the press is definitely key to coming out of a crisis on top, management must also remember to keep their employees informed to maintain a culture of trust, understanding and support. Utilize internal memos, meetings, and the company intranet to keep employees updated.

3. Admit your mistake.

If your company has made a mistake, admit it. If you’ve been wrongly accused, state your innocence and be able to back it up. Always tell the truth, because if you weave a web of lies, it will come back to you tenfold. Complexity of the situation cannot be an excuse; Enron’s complex web of deceit was still ultimately uncovered and understood. Even if your company has done something to seriously injure its credibility, companies that offer a public, heartfelt apology are more likely to earn back respect and credibility than companies who continue to shift the blame elsewhere. Consider the Exxon Valdez oil spill: the CEO and other members of the top management refused to take the blame that was obviously theirs and ended up with a disgruntled and angry public.

4. Resignations are an option.

The importance of Cardinal Law’s resignation from the Boston Archdiocese should be a model for other organizations undergoing a similar destruction of reputation. A resignation—forced or voluntary—should not be seen as a cop-out, but rather as a necessary step in a recovery back to credibility. Think of it as damage control. How could a company move on with the same management that caused the loss of credibility in the first place?

Let’s say for a moment you have a dead tree in your yard. Even if the tree is well-rooted in the soil, and has had a history of flourish and plentitude, when it becomes dead wood, it becomes a hazard to your property. To reduce that hazard, you have the tree uprooted. The weakened soil is cultivated until it becomes fertile enough to plant again. Resignations are very much like a removal of a dead tree—you directly uproot the problem from the company, tend to its damaged culture, and start fresh with a new leader.

5. Write a communications plan.

Be sure that every key person in your organization knows who to call, who to bring into the situation and what the plans are in the event of a crisis. Give those who will be dealing with the media, employees, investors and other key constituents full access to decisions as they are happening and be sure everyone is in the loop on your goal for appropriate full disclosure.

Lawyers, outside consultants, key decision makers and others have to be on the same team before any crisis so there is no question about who is in charge or what your highest values are if it ever happens.

6. Train your spokespersons.

Whether your executives or your public relations director are handling the brunt of communications, nothing is more important to rebuilding credibility than handling the media and the public in a crisis. You can make all the right decisions, but if you don’t communicate effectively you may still lose the battle for hearts and minds. Make sure the people who are handling the calls, dealing the public and talking to the press are well-trained.

A crisis can be an opportunity to build credibility if you handle it correctly.

Remember, like a cold, you can prevent a crisis: if you keep a watchful eye out for its signs, you can have control of its destructive forces. And if you find yourself tumbling in the depths of an unavoidable crisis, recall the tips above. With care, you could just save your company from those scathing newspaper headlines.

Tags: Strategy to Execution, Developing Leaders, Executive Communication

Giving Speeches: How To Be Funnier

Posted on Fri, Jul 11, 2008

Turn Embarrassment and Mistakes into Audience Laughter

The brilliant comedian Mel Brooks once said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.”

As speakers we know it’s better to be funny. The question is…how do we find the humor?

One answer is to look for disaster.

When bad things happen to good people, it often becomes the best material for a speech.

People love to laugh, and if you can find what’s funny about a difficult situation, you make everyone feel better.

Mishaps happen to everybody. They happen every day. If you start to look at the other side of an irritation, disappointment or misfire, you’ll see endless opportunities to entertain people.

This kind of humor scores big points with the audience. Good humor relaxes the audience, lightens up even the dullest topics and makes you look like a genius.

Speaking is also a lot more fun when your audience is laughing and smiling. You enjoy being there and want to go back for more.

I hear what you’re thinking. “Sure, it’s great to be funny. But I’m not funny.” And I’m not suggesting we’re all Robin Williams. Yes, humor can miss the mark. Many speakers miss the mark when they make jokes at the expense of other people. That can be worse than not attempting humor. You can lose credibility.

So how do you make sure you get a room full of laughs rather than a room full of blank stares?

A client shared a story about a conference where he spoke. He had a terrible trip there. He suffered through a three hour flight delay, car service to the wrong hotel, and a room next to 40 high school kids on a field trip. After a stressful trip and a bad night’s sleep, he just couldn’t focus.

He started his speech and couldn’t remember key lines. He reverted back to his notes. The audience became agitated.

So he made an unorthodox decision. He stopped and talked about his travel mishap. The udience roared. Several had been on the same flight. He turned it around. The audience forgave him for being a little “off.”

Is it challenging to find those funny slices of light comic-tragedy? Not when you start thinking of bad news as good speaking material! Once you get into the habit of seeing what’s funny in a mistake or a mishap, you’ll find yourself thinking “This is great material!” before you’ve finished suffering.

A few months ago, I decided to have my hair straightened. The effect was not what I had intended, at least at first. I looked like broom Hilda – I couldn’t wash my hair for 48 hours, and it was flat as a pancake. In places, I looked like I was going bald.

My timing couldn’t have been worse, because the night after my day at the hair salon, I was scheduled to emcee an event. I couldn’t spray, curl or even touch up my hair; and in the audience that night would be many prominent business executives I knew.

I briefly considered canceling, or calling in sick, but discarded that idea; it was out of the question to let them down. So I thought, how can I turn this into something funny?

When it came time to introduce myself on the panel of authors, all of whom were talking about their books, I decided to say something about what I knew was on many of their minds; why I looked so strange. So, I said, “I’m Suzanne Bates, author of Speak Like a CEO. Before I wrote the book, I had curly hair.” The audience got a good laugh out of that!

What was perfect was the humor was at my expense; one of the rules of business humor; it’s always better to laugh at yourself. Self-deprecating humor can really turn things around – and it also empowers you. Once you’ve addressed an issue it’s off the table and you can move on to the topic at hand.

One thing I’ve learned – audiences will forgive you if you forgive yourself. Have a little fun at your own expense; make light of embarrassing mistakes. Nobody’s perfect, we all know it, and when we can acknowledge it we win kudos.

Tags: Strategy to Execution, Developing Leaders, Executive Communication


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