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  • Writer's pictureSutherlandGold

Leadership Communication at Different Stages of Growth

Effective leadership has always been intertwined with effective communication, but the stakes — and demands — are higher than ever for the C-Suite. In the past, executives were spokespeople for their businesses with polished thought leadership programs for sharing their opinions, insights, and ideas with the media. Today, leaders are walking, talking, zooming, tweeting, podcasting representations of their brands’ values, purposes, and behaviors. Leadership communication is what leaders think AND how they engage.

As Carol Tomé, who came out of retirement to take the helm at UPS during the pandemic, recently put it bluntly, “[our jobs] have changed a lot, because we’re expected to be out there with comments and points of view on almost everything.”

In 2020, we spent several months documenting the visibility, engagement and leadership communication efforts of ten influential CEOs of high-growth companies to understand how they were adapting in a remote world. We noticed consistent patterns around how executives leverage different channels for different activities at various stages of growth. This helped us develop four personas that executives can use to map their leadership communication objectives, style, channel priorities, and benchmarks to measure performance.

Since introducing our Leadership Communication Scorecard, we’ve received an influx of requests from companies at every growth stage seeking help with raising executive profiles to attract funding, talent, and investment. The three most common drivers of this need are:

  • Funding. Exploding investments in healthcare, fintech, and edutech as a result of COVID.

  • Recruiting. The increasingly competitive war for talent against the backdrop of a shift in workplace culture emphasizes company values.

  • Public readiness. In a word, SPACS.

As we steer our clients through the constantly changing communications landscape, our strategic counsel is informed by active data tracking the performance of leadership communication activities. Here is a sample of how we track, optimize and measure leadership communication. This dashboard is based on the Changemaker persona.

While evaluating and measuring the performance of your communications is essential, it’s equally important to stay laser-focused on the most salient storytelling objectives for your company’s size and trajectory. We developed the following framework to help guide leaders at different stages of growth.

Startups: Seed to Series A

When you’re an early-stage startup, your communication priority should be focused on attracting the next round of investment and establishing your brand story and position in the marketplace. Leaders must have a strong investor deck in the early investment stage that tells a compelling brand story, new products/services, high-profile executive hires, and customer success stories to share with the media.

  • Objective: Establish your brand story, positioning, and differentiators. Build relationships with key media/influencers, develop awareness for your brand, increase your share of voice among competitors, and create content to introduce your company and its role in the market.

  • Goals: Land coverage in one or two business media outlets and secure top-tier trade media/influencer mentions. Increase website visits, gain a larger share of voice among competitors and increase social media following all by about 10%.

  • Audiences: Investors, customers, influencers, media, employees

  • Strategic Priorities: Your brand story is your most strategic asset for your business. Most companies at this stage focus on the founder and origin stories. Media targets typically include business, trade, and technology media. Leaders should establish a profile on at least one social media platform based on their target audience and commit to consistently sharing their company’s progress, network, and vision. Most technology companies also invest their time creating in-depth articles on Medium to share their thinking and reach investors.

High-Growth Company: Series A to acquisition or IPO

In the high-growth phase, sales and customers begin to accelerate — and so does the need to attract the best and brightest talent. Executives at this stage are more visible than ever. The focus is on communicating the brand’s growth story and engaging audiences in conversations on why it matters or how it impacts society, culture, the economy, the environment, or industry.

The days of standardized quarterly updates are gone. Social media is reshaping leadership culture by pushing executives to engage more frequently with their employees and stakeholders as their market share expands. Leaders are expected to communicate definitively in response to current events and broad sweeping socio-political movements, and remaining silent can cause employee protests and even resignations. They also need to communicate swiftly and with clarity to new, existing, and potential customers.

  • Objectives: Taking a leadership position, standing for something, expressing values, and communicating a vision for the industry.

  • Goals: Increase number of media mentions, increase share-of-voice amongst competitors, grow following, proactively respond to cultural events and shifts.

  • Audiences: Media, policy makers/regulators, customers, investors, partners, employees

  • Strategic Priorities: Companies at this stage need to focus on explaining the company’s impact on society. Your leadership’s audiences expect a certain level of transparency and should be encouraged to ask questions.

Mature Enterprise: Post-acquisition or post-IPO

When a company reaches the maturity phase, your product will reach the upper bounds of its demand cycle. Further spending on advertising will have a nominal impact on increasing demand. Conversations about your company are happening across many applications like Slack and Whats App and platforms such as Twitter and Gmail. As communications become even more fragmented, leaders need to be more aware of the context of these conversations, communicate with clarity and brevity, and have a deep understanding of their varied audiences.

  • Objectives: Be a conduit for company values, vision & purpose

  • Goals: Establish thought leadership and respond to “big questions,” foster a unique voice among peers

  • Audiences: Employees, customers, shareholders, media, policymakers/regulators, partners

  • Strategic Priorities: Companies at this stage should focus on maintaining and communicating their values as well as sharing the contributions they’ve made to society.

Today, a company’s reputation can hinge on a single sound bite, a not-quite-off-the-record remark, or a misguided tweet. Conversely: storytellers-in-chief who express themselves clearly, concisely, cohesively, and authentically in every arena more easily attract media attention and top-tier talent.

We hope this framework helps you approach the new communications landscape with clarity and confidence.

As we continue to investigate leading practices, our Leadership Communication Scorecard will focus exclusively on female leaders this year. Stay tuned for our analysis of women who have successfully leveraged their unique communications styles and strengths on behalf of their companies.


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