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Idea: Not Every CEO Should Be Communicator-in-Chief

At various times, every C-level executive is called on to be the voice of the organization. However, in this era of unlimited media opportunities, how much time should those responsible for running a business devote to being a spokesperson, industry thought leader, blogger, videographer, social media guru and so on?

One thing is certain: You can’t do it all with excellence. Typically, a person is comfortable communicating with a few media tools and not so comfortable with others. For example, Steve Jobs mastered the performance art necessary to become the undisputed rockstar of major product presentations. In other settings, an elevator ride, for instance, his communication skills were less inspiring.

Two current biographies, David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers and Ashlee Vane’s Elon Musk, provide insight into the communication strengths and challenges of two inventors and business leaders whose creations and contributions will be remembered well into the future: Wilbur Wright and Elon Musk. (Wilbur Wright, the older brother, handled most of the business-related responsibilities after Orville’s and his invention evolved into a business.)

IdeaEmailElonElon Musk, the intense and enigmatic entrepreneurial polymath who is CEO of both SpaceX and Tesla Motors, and chairman of the board of SolarCity, is portrayed by Vane as hypersensitive to how his companies are covered by the media. He has “burned through public relations staffers with comical efficiency,” Vane writes. “He tends to take on a lot of the communications work himself, writing news releases and contacting the press as he sees fit.”

Yet when it comes to presentations, Musk’s attention to detail is nowhere to be found. “Musk does not rehearse his presentations or polish speeches. He wings most of the announcements from Tesla and SpaceX.”

IdeaEmailMcCulloughWilbur Wright possessed none of the out-sized ego of Musk or Jobs, yet he was still obsessed with controlling what today we’d call the “brand voice.”

Some of his communication choices meant that it would take five years for the world to actually believe the Wrights had accomplished what they claimed. The brothers’ obsession with secrecy also led to a quirky event in the history of journalism, something equivalent to an Apple or Tesla sharing their company’s story with the world exclusively through an obscure weblog. Wilber decided that the first full story of the Wright brothers’ invention would be published in a beekeeping trade journal called Gleaning in Bee Culture, published by an Ohio beekeeper named Amos I. Root.

Despite not being skilled at public relations (although he would improve over time), Wilbur handled his own speech writing with such precision, style and insight that his speeches were quoted for decades in aviation, physics and other scientific journals. While he wasn’t formally trained in any of those subjects, his writing skills can be attributed to his being, like Musk, a voracious reader while growing up.

Bottom line: While communications is a key part of the job for C-level leaders, even great communicators can’t master all media and every situation. Know your strengths and work on mastering them. Even more important: Know and accept your weaknesses, and find ways to work around them. The easiest way to demonstrate that you aren’t proficient in something is trying to fake that you are.

Photo: Library of Congress

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