Briefing the CEO

CEOs are busy people who don't have or take the time to prepare for important communications assignments, which is where the trusted briefer comes into play.Many occasions call for the CEO to speak on behalf of his or her organization. While communication skill levels vary, it is essential for CEOs to be briefed so they avoid dumb mistakes that can occur because of hubris, carelessness or simply a lack of preparation.

Men and women who reach the top perch get there in part because of strong egos. But an ego isn't a substitute for thoughtful preparation, whether the occasion is to announce a layoff, new product or reorganization. Even impromptu moments with employees, customers or stakeholders demand forethought. 

Smart CEOs recognize the need for a little help and don't view briefings as demeaning. CEOs are supposed to be focused on organizational strategy and high-level outreach, so there is nothing humiliating about some coaching on how to deliver a talk or make appropriate comments.

Even when a CEO is the "expert," briefings are imperative. Just because you know a lot about a subject doesn't automatically mean you know what to say at any particular moment or in a specific circumstance. That's where more than one head comes in handy.

For CEOs of publicly traded corporations, there is no greater test than the quarterly analyst conference. Some CEOs brush this off as just another chore. But savvy CEOs realize this is an opportunity to gain new respect, to showcase an innovative or daring strategy. And, if there are grave doubts about performance, the conference is a chance to reassure analysts — and ultimately, investors — that you have the boat headed in the right direction. 

Many CEOs disdain talking to the media. This is a PR mistake that can be overcome by solid preparation. To get where they are, CEOs usually have to be engaging personalities, so a key is to summon some of that charm in talking with reporters and editors. Like most humans, reporters and editors find it fascinating to talk with the top dog rather than an underling, so when CEOs make themselves available for interviews, they have a home field advantage.

Those who do the briefing need to be flexible, tolerant and patient. You are telling the CEO what to do or say, which requires some finesse and sensitivity. It helps if the CEO trusts your advice and is comfortable with how you dispense it. 

Being CEO isn't always a sweet golf cart ride at the country club. There are lots of pressures, from competitors, quarreling managers and testy vendors. They don't always have the time, energy or focus to prepare for an employee chat, a customer meet-and-greet or a special ceremony. Those often require more than perfunctory performances and the best way to assure they rise to the appropriate level is to be briefed.