CEO Musing Causing Confusion?

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Artwork by Joshua Uterstaedt

“I tend to keep things in my head until I make a decisive move,” said Brian Clark, the Founding CEO of the very popular copyblogger platform and parent company Rainmaker Digital, on my recent podcast episode.

He further explained, “What I have gotten much better at…is to put some stuff out there so people have an idea of what I am thinking about even if it turns out that we don’t go in that direction.”

This was a curious exchange. This is not the most common CEO communication challenge I often see. Brian’s comments caught me by surprise. Normally, one of the common Founding CEO communication challenges I encounter have to do with CEO musings causing confusion.

Common Scenario

Here is a ficticious, but realistic, example from my work as an Executive Coach.

I conduct a 360-degree feedback evaluation with a CEO client. Either through interviews or online questionnaires, the CEO receives feedback that their communication causes confusion and lacks clarity. The CEO is perplexed.

The CEO and team allow me to observe the CEO in action during meetings.

“So, what do you think about adding these features to the platform? I’ve seen one of our competitors add these feature with much success,” says the CEO, Chris, thinking out loud to a group of employees on the product development team.

“Hmmm, that’s interesting,” replies the CTO, Emily, who is internally asking herself why the CEO wants to make more changes when the latest 2.0 changes were just released.

In that meeting were some of Emily’s project managers who left the meeting and told their colleagues that the CEO is not confident that the latest 2.0 product features will be enough to capture the attention of their finicky customers. They get started on making new changes.

“The unintended outcomes of these impromptu brainstorming sessions include false-steps as employees try to respond to what they believe is direction.” writes Tom Searcy’s in this 2012 Inc. Magazine article on the topic.

I agree with Tom, this is spot on. It happens all of the time.

One of the nicest things to see as an Executive Coach is the modern day Founding CEO working as part of their team rather than outside of their team. There is much to be gained by assuming the role of team member rather than the CEO when you are working through challenging issues. It’s my sense that modern Founding CEOs can handle this pretty adeptly. Brian Clark from my recent podcast interview, is a great example.

The challenge comes in when your out loud CEO musings begin to be construed as something other than it was intended…thinking out loud…brainstorming…sharing in the creative problem solving process.

It becomes more important to be intentional with your communication as your company grows beyond 10-12 people. So, what is a Founding CEO to do. Tom Searcy’s article has some great tips.

Tips You Can Use

Here are mine:

  • Hat Trick: Sometimes its helpful to tell people that you are taking off your CEO hat and putting on your ____ hat (creativity hat, team member hat, brainstorming hat). Even that physical gesture of taking off a pretend hat sends a clearer message that you are not making a pronouncement or directing.
  • End Zone: You may want to reiterate that your thoughts were musings and not actionable directions at the end of the meeting or session. This reminder in the “end zone” of your conversation will hopefully prevent them from reprioritizing, gossiping, or communicating your musings as if they were directives.
  • Another Receiver: If you are anything like most of he Founding CEOs I meet, you may have an overriding urge to stare your visions, ideas, musings, thoughts, and future products. That’s great. Sometimes it may be better to find a peer CEO, friend, confidant, mentor, spouse, or even a white board to get your thoughts out. At the very least, maybe there is one safe person on your team that understands this need and will understand when you say…”I’m just thinking out loud.”

Brian Clark’s reminder to share CEO thoughts is a very important point. Just make sure you are very clear about your intention with your words.

What techniques do you use to avoid CEO musing causing confusion?

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