This post is dedicated to Scott McNealy, with all due respect and great admiration for his accomplishments. And his potential.
During a late lunch break on November 10, I turned on the television to watch CNBC. They were running a clip of an interview with Scott McNealy, one of Silicon Valley's technology thinkers and CEOs, a real success story. When asked what he thought of the Occupy movement, Mr McNealy said, "get a job."
While I happen to have even stronger feelings than McNealy about what we should do with the anarchists and arsonists who have hijacked the Occupy movement, I was flabbergasted that someone as smart and quick as McNealy couldn't think of a better way to answer the question — or to capitalize on it. He could have said something equally arresting without appearing insensitive to how the problems afoot in the United States, culturally and commercially, are affecting the rest of us. It was the perfect opportunity to explore what's back of Occupy, and in McNealy's case, maybe even demonstrate how his new startup can help connect people in an age of gated neighborhoods and the disintegration of the middle class. Or maybe just to say something more inspired than, "get a job."
And that's when I realized that our leadership problem runs much deeper than I ever imagined.
Can it be that the astronomical financial and personal success of our business leaders has isolated them so much from the rest of their fellow citizens that they don't realize just how difficult it is to get a job or build business, get a living wage or project fee, or get paid at all?
Yes, it can be. But I think it's more than that. I think even the self-made guys are turning into elitists. After all, their investment bankers parcel out IPO opportunities. The elitist training begins early. Many CEOs seem to be disconnecting from the rest of the populace to the degree that their positions are not about leading organizations and innovating but strictly about their own wealth.
I hope this is not the case with McNealy. I hope this is just one gaff. But the gaff pulled me up short and made me acknowledge that the wealth gap is merely one aspect of a larger gulf: the growing absence of management finesse.
Finesse is often a natural gift. Whether instinctive or acquired, finesse is a need-to-have, not a nice-to-have. It's the ingredient that gets messages heard and inspires action.
Finesse is nurtured by study and a personal emphasis on empathy. We all stumble. CEOs, though, have access to a key tool for learning and practicing management finesse to the degree that it can mitigate the stumbles. The corporate communications function. A need-to-have, not a nice-to-have. Like anything else, it's all in how you build it.
Get your finesse on
The very best of the traditional American business canon gives us example after example of leaders who had experienced, legitimate communications advisors and who listened to them. It's difficult for any human being, much less one with corporate power, to remain human without at least some institutional emphasis on keeping things real. Corporate Communications should be the one place the CEO can turn whose only ax to grind is seeing the CEO set a clear path for the organization.
Many of today's CEOs are surrounded by yes men and women who take orders instead of tell the emperor he's not wearing any clothes. Instead of a Merlin, they have court jesters. Or worse. These leaders would rather get up and read something a remote underling or PR agent wrote for them than spend time thinking about what they believe and how they can use their positions to lead us out of this mess. [Which includes speaking up about how we got here in the first place — not just blaming Washington or Wall Street.]
If Jack Kennedy had developed his messages this way, we might never had heard his voice or known what he thought. His process alone should be enough of a template for today's CEO to follow in crafting and articulating messages of insight and intellect.
CEOs: Owning your message is the price of entry to leadership
You aren't interested in or comfortable with setting aside time to work on your messages and deliver them? Not acceptable.
CEOs, thinking about your messages gets you in the habit of exploring every option in front of you. Of listening. And of thinking before you open your mouth, helping you find the words to say something enlightening, enriching the conversation because you were in it. I refuse to accept any thinking that excuses you from participating relentlessly in the creation of your messages. It is part of your job. Like riding herd on financials or helping to win a big account.
Most important: every opportunity to communicate should serve the purpose of reminding you that being a leader is as much about service as it is about lordship. Owning your messages can help bridge the gap between the solitary burdens of your office and all the stakeholders in the enterprise's success. It can help you put your own problems in context. It can remind you that you're part of something larger than yourself.