Every now and then we hear of gaffs by politicians, celebrities, and other public figures that thought they were speaking privately when, in fact, their off-the-cuff comments were recorded for the world to hear. Similarly, the paparazzi is everywhere, snapping pictures of anyone or everyone that is, or might be, famous. The reality is that public figures must always be conscious of the fact that they are always on stage. So are CEOs. Even behind closed doors, a CEO is still on stage. The mere fact that their door is closed creates an image for others who probably think the worst.
Although you may feel the same before you took on the role of CEO, others will view you differently. You are no longer a “regular” guy or gal. Whether you like it or not, everyone in the organization is counting on you to make the company and them successful. Every action that you take and every action that you don’t take will be carefully examined. Think of the comments made about the President of the United States. Simple comments, pictures, and even glances that they make end up in the media with so-called experts interpreting the deep meaning of these “events.” Based on the commentators pre-conceived ideas, biases, or agendas the picture or comment can be interpreted in completely different ways. Social media gives everyone, qualified or unqualified, a voice, and their message is often repeated. It is not too far a stretch to find someone criticize a person that has found a cure for cancer by saying, “If they hadn’t taken vacations, they could have found the cure sooner and saved more lives.” On a much smaller scale (thankfully), every CEO is in the exact same position, their actions are subject to the same scrutiny, and they can be equally unjustifiably criticized.
Not only are actions and comments scrutinized, they are always subject to different interpretations by individuals. The “half-filled glass” analogy is a good example: some will view the glass as half-full, while others with view it as half-empty, and others will view the glass as being twice as large as necessary!
A CEO is always “the elephant in the room.” It does not matter where you sit quietly in a corner or at the head of the table. It doesn’t matter if someone else is speaking, everyone is aware of your presence, your body language, your facial expressions, and certainly any comments that you make or don’t make. An innocent yawn, caused by a sleepless night worrying about some aspect of the company, can be interpreted as your lack of interest in the subject that is being discussed. Similarly, simply taking a quick peak at your smartphone screen can have the same impact.
A quick off-hand comment, perhaps made in attempt to add some light-hearted humor, can be remembered, repeated, probably out of context, and spread like wild fire through the organization. Often, simple comments, promises, or idle threats are interpreted as “commands” made by CEO that must be followed. As mentioned in the article in this series, “The Buck Starts Here,” a comment may have the same impact as depicted in the movie “The Ten Commandments” in which the Pharaoh, played by Yul Brynner, made a comment followed by a drum roll and the proclamation, “So let it be written, so let it be done.”
Even more surprising are the repeating of statements that you have not made! Others will commonly use your name such as “Fred, our CEO said that…” to justify some action or position that they have taken. Probably in most cases, their use of your name is made without malice or ill-will. They simply are telling others what they think you want to have done or a position that you have taken. Sometimes they may be right, but sometimes they will be wrong. When the mistake is uncovered, do not be surprised for some people to think that you have changed your mind! As often stated in these articles, you must go out of your way to think about what others will hear and not what you to say.
A positive example of how a simple comment can have an impact on an organization was made by John Mitchell, a past President and COO of Motorola, Inc. Among many other things, he was one of the primary drivers behind the development of their cellular business. When you would pass John in the hall at Motorola’s giant Schaumburg, Illinois facility and made eye contact with John, occasionally he would stop, shake your hand, step very close to you, look you straight in the eye and say, “China, India, and Brazil” and then walk on. Today, it is obvious that John was talking about third world country opportunities. However, these interactions took place in the mid-1970s, long before most US executives and virtually all employees were thinking about global markets. John’s simple four-word comment spread like wildfire throughout the organization.
Not only are you on stage, but the stage itself and your attire are also under constant scrutiny. If your office door is often closed, and there is no window on the door, people’s imagination about what is going on inside can quickly be spread as fact. If you have a grandiose office while others are in small cubes, and you talk about the need to be frugal, the message may be very hollow. Like it or not, your dress, your office organization, your promptness, and even your actions while getting a cup of coffee from the breakroom will be watched by others. The articles in this series “Set the Tone” and “Be Visible” discuss other aspects of your “stage performances.” Overall, the best approach that you can take is to assume that you are an Olympic athlete with every move being watched by critical judges and being recorded for posterity by cameras from many angles. Each judge will be grading you on what they think they see and not on what you are actually doing. There is no back stage or warm ups. You are the leader and the role model for your entire organization. Your team and their families are counting on you and are inspired by you. They will reflect what they see.