By all accounts, President Obama is a master communicator. Regardless of how you feel about his politics, the president's speaking skills have served him well, from his 2004 DNC keynote to the 2016 State of the Union address.
So it might surprise you that when NBC's Matt Lauer asked 54-year-old President Obama what he would go back and tell 47-year-old President Obama at the opening of his first term, his answer involved communication:
I think the most important thing I would say to an earlier version of myself would be to communicate constantly and with confidence to the American people. Because this place has a tendency to isolate you. You recognize that, particularly during times of stress, the American people need to hear from their president in terms of what it is exactly that we're trying to do.
I've written before about the similarities between the roles of CEO and POTUS, and Obama's statement directly echoes one of the most common comments I hear from new CEOs: they didn't realize how much constant communication the job requires, or how much employees need to hear from their leader on what the plan is.
When you're a CFO, CIO, CMO, or other functional leader, communication is much less important, because people in your group work closely together and generally understand what their colleagues within the department do. Step up to the CEO role, however, and it can be more like the Tower of Babel. Your consistent, unifying communication is the glue that holds the organization together, especially through crisis and change. In Tuesday's SOTU address, Obama acknowledged his regret that "rancor and suspicion" between the parties had worsened; the organizational equivalent--siloed functional groups that don't work together--can arise in your company when people don't hear from you regularly.
Here are five ways to take Obama's advice on constant, confident communication and apply it to your organization.
1. Not Silver-Tongued? Don't Worry
You don't need Obama-like rhetorical finesse or extensive media training to get your message across to employees. Tailor your delivery to your strengths. Maybe a monthly town hall feels best to you, or maybe you prefer to do a weekly written CEO update via email or Slack. Whatever the case, put more emphasis on hitting a steady rhythm, on being clear about your plans for the future, and on being honest than on saying the exact right words.
2. Get Comfortable With Repeating Yourself
There's no such thing as overcommunicating in the CEO role, especially when you are reinforcing your vision and strategy for the company. You might feel a little senile repeating the same lines to the same people, but it takes repetition for the message to sink in. CEOs should be terrified by consistent research showing that very few employees understand company strategy; constant communication is the best antidote.
3. Give the People What They Want
Don't doubt that your people want to hear from their chief executive. CEO.com found that 79% of executives and 74% of general employees want to hear from the CEO on at least a monthly basis. Are you meeting that benchmark? If so, are you telling people--to use Obama's words--"exactly what we're trying to do"?
4. Recognize How Isolating the CEO Role Can Be
"This place has a tendency to isolate you," Obama said above, referring the highest office in the land. In this regard, the corner office is a lot like the Oval Office. What might seem perfectly clear in your fortress of solitude may not be clear at all to the rest of the company. Constant, confident communication is the solution to such misalignments.
5. Acknowledge That Free Flow of Information Starts With You
Towers Watson research revealed that organizations with "highly effective internal communication strategies" are 3.5 times more likely to significantly outperform industry peers than organizations that do not communicate well internally. No company can achieve effective internal communication if the CEO isn't setting the pace and consistently talking to the company about the overarching plan. By getting communication right, you set a strong example for everyone else in the organization, and you establish a framework for day-to-day communication to take place within.
No matter where you sit on the political spectrum, consider taking Obama's advice to his younger self. Better to get in the habit of constantly and confidently communicating with employees than to find your house divided at the end of your tenure and wish you had done it differently.