Words With Care: Leadership & Communication Challenges

The other day I was scrolling through Harvard Business Review podcasts when an interview with Muhtar Kent, CEO of Coca-Cola came on. He was talking about doubling the size of his company, but what amazed me was his double-speak: soda became a “full calorie beverage.” The nation’s obesity problem became an opportunity for philanthropists to promote “energy balance.” The content of the interview was normally something I’d skip, but I found myself transfixed by Kent’s style in answering the tough questions he was being asked about water supply, the environment, obesity and his first years as CEO. It reminded me of the story of how Steve Jobs lured John Sculley from Pepsi, saying “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or do you want to come with me and change the world?” What can those of us who want to change the world for the better learn from a CEO of Coca-Cola?

One thing that came to mind while I was listening was that we might learn the art of answering tough questions. Here in San Francisco I’ve seen more than a few arts administrators (myself included) flail and founder when asked to explain a mistake or a difficult decision, particularly in the first year as an executive director or interim director. Conversely, there are numerous longtime directors I admire for their ability to always speak of their work in a way that is focused enough to seem “real,” but grand enough to be inspiring.

It is hard to see good people get tripped up because of personal style rather than substance. New CEO’s at large corporations have image consultants who help them moderate their vocal inflection, shift negatives to positives, and speak in generalities. New executive directors at nonprofits rarely have access to that kind of resource. But the smaller size of our organizations does not lessen the number of tough questions we receive when we take on a leadership role, or the challenges we face in answering them.

At the end of the interview, Kent was asked if he had to shift his style when he became CEO, and to my surprise he said no, there was no shift in style, but that he had to communicate more carefully. In his words:

“You have to be much more careful about the words you use and how you use them, and when you use them … sometimes the language you use as a CEO whether it’s with a bottler or whether at town hall meetings is something that needs to be in a different context, and that’s something that I learned the hard way.”

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