corporate comms
corporate comms

Bank of America, Uber, Seven West: on leadership

Recently I was asked to run a workshop for communications professionals on the topic of leadership and engaging executives. I thought, easy peasy. Have been there, done that, for over a decade.

In a comms role, even at the start of your career, you give advice to senior leaders. Whereas junior salespeople or bankers have several rungs to climb before getting exposure to the C-suites, the minimal hierarchy in communications departments means twenty-somethings get valuable face time with leaders.

As I got into the guts of my own talking points, it became apparent that simply presenting a grab bag of stories on conversations with CEOs was lazy and the audience deserved a more coherent presentation, based on solid academic theory.

Here are the key takeaways from that presso. If you’re in a comms role, I hope some of these observations and tools are helpful. If you’re not in comms, the observations on how CEOs communicate might nonetheless resonate with you.

1. Leaders are becoming authentic – they really are

And so are their comms. Some of the internal memos on President Trump’s travel ban were so heartfelt, they were tearjerkers. Case in point, the one pictured below by Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya, who referred to his background as an immigrant looking for opportunity and empathised with ‘what millions of people around the world must be feeling’.

Several tech CEOs were also forthright in their criticism of the travel ban. Apple CEO Tim Cook, the son of a Syrian immigrant, said the company did not support the policy. Coke was similarly clear with communicating its position, calling the policy contrary to its core values. In stark contrast was the carefully balanced statement from the Bank of America’s leaders, which to me reads like it has been thoroughly reviewed by the legal team: they were ‘carefully monitoring’ the situation and ‘connecting’ with teammates. The company decidedly sat on the fence, with good reason.

Corporate comms on the Trump travel ban

Screen Shot 2017-04-06 at 3.30.26 PM

Want to see more? CNN’s compilation of corporate responses is an insightful snapshot on corporate leadership and culture.

As an aside, what to make of the fact that these corporate comms (some of which were leaked internal memos) were of such interest to the media and general public? My gut tells me that since there is an absence of effective leadership from the leader of the free world, people are looking elsewhere. If government fails to deliver, why not look to the private sector.

2. Culture begets leadership

This culture model, straight out of the MBA program at UNSW, resonated with me as soon as I saw it because you can plot just about any company on it and the resulting shape tells you the company’s predominant culture and values.

Adapted from Robert Quinn and Kim Cameron

Adapted from Robert Quinn and Kim Cameron


I’d hazard a guess that QBE’s organisation is predominantly hierarchical (respectful of rules and order, as evidenced by the CEO’s pay being docked half a million for poor conduct), Chobani’s is clan-like (judging from the very personal memo from the CEO on Trump’s travel ban), Uber’s is definitely an adhocracy (start-ups might be innovative but chaotic) and Seven West’s culture is market-oriented (throw money at a problem and it will go away).

Many banks, such as the Bank of America, are also market-oriented. In BA’s case, it was in their best interest to stay on Trump’s good side, who was about to loosen the shackles that were placed on Wall Street post-GFC, aka the Dodd-Frank rules.

3. Leadership styles change – and so should the comms

Leaders can often be pigeonholed – for example, as a visionary, democratic or authoritarian leader. However, their style might and can be changed to suit the situation, and so should the comms. Another useful model for thinking through how to react in certain situations is below.
comms conference Six-leadership-styles-goleman-mbaknol

For example, leaders (and their comms advisors) know that in a situation where a racist travel ban impacts the freedom of its employees, an affiliative leadership style is called for, hence a lot of the comms produced were empathetic and put people first.

4. Comms people are leaders, so act like one

Comms people often have the ear of senior management, and through experience and affiliation, are leaders themselves. The more modest comms professionals might shy away from taking a fully fledged leadership role, others grab the opportunity.

Regardless of where you are on the corporate ladder, as a comms person, you are in a special position of influence. While some are natural born influencers, others may find the diagram below useful for conniving ways to manipulate people.
Yuki van fleet flowchart