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CEOs: Fire off that quick e-mail at your peril

The following is a book excerpt from The Virtual Executive: How to Act Like a CEO Online and Offline (McGraw-Hill, April 27, 2012) by Debra Benton

Part of being an effective CEO is being an effective communicator regardless of the audience or medium. For example, a communication gone wrong occurs at a medium-sized international company I will call XYZ. The CEO of XYZ decides to be the one to announce an updated system to the current conferencing format the company was using to co-ordinate with its transcontinental teams. It is an opportunity to roll out a new format and motivate and re-engage stakeholders (employees, customers, board members, and investors). The announcement is done in a way the CEO is most familiar with, via e-mail.

After the normal welcomes and kind biddings, the CEO jumps into his message:

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"We have upgraded our antiquated screen-shot-only remote conferencing capabilities to a new system called Skype. This is a format that offers group videoconferencing along with the ability to instant message during a call to an individual or the group as a whole without interrupting the conference. The use of this software application by all within XYZ will offer a cohesive brand internally and externally. An online training session will be offered on Monday and Tuesday for our friends who still prefer a typewriter to a computer. The new system is now accessible, and the old software will no longer be available for your use after the first of the month."

The presentation was six paragraphs long with detail about the training times and places and how cutting edge this new videoconferencing will make XYZ.

Do you see the faux pas? One error is in the method of communication and judging that all stakeholders will receive, use, and respect a letter from the CEO in e-mail format. Another is the segregation by age and the assumption that the elder generation, that once perhaps used a typewriter, is less knowledgeable about videoconferencing systems. Additionally there is an assumption that the younger audience members do not need training. And the CEO is assuming that the Skype format is an enormous upgrade that will bring the company closer together. However, many technologically savvy personnel of diverse ages and experiences are familiar with even newer systems and perhaps feel Skype is antiquated by today's standards, thus not cutting edge at all. The challenge is that this e-mail will be recorded in history, and it will frame future discussions about technology and age bias in the workplace.

One potential solution to addressing a diverse audience with which you are unfamiliar is to vary the media used to correspond. Possible outlets could be a combination of a newsletter, bulletin board, central broadcast, staff meeting, corporate blog such as Socialcast, along with an e-mail and a videoconference. It is also important to avoid jargon but to still explain why the change. For instance, a leader could report "We have chosen this particular system because ..." and then explain that the upgrade to live video from screen shots and audio is supportable and used industrywide for greater accessibility by all, rather than focusing on it as "cutting edge."

Finally, no references to age or technical ability need be included. A much less controversial lead-in to the training would be to explain that although many employees may already be familiar with Skype and do not need training, for those that are not, or would like a refresher, training is available.

So when you don't know anything about your audience and it is up to you to present as the leader of an organization, it is better to assume nothing, present in a manner fitting diversity, use multiple forms of communication, and invite questions. By doing this we overcome synaptic connection diversity. Whether one is a digital native, digital immigrant, or is in digital denial, we can open the communication channels and avoid the communication issue so many of us face as best described in the statement by Robert McClosky: "I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."

Debra Benton is founder of Benton Management Resources, whose clients include GE, AT&T, American Express, Pepsi, United Airlines, Time Warner, McKinsey & Company, Verizon, Dell, Novartis, Kraft Foods, and NASA. She is the bestselling author of eight previous books including How to Think Like a CEO and Secrets of a CEO Coach. Find out more at:

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