Politicians have a very clear sense of the political cycle and how it works. So let’s think specifically here about the CEO life cycle. Most CEOs can expect to enjoy a mere three to five years in office. Three years! A mouse will live longer, or a fish. With so little time to make a difference, a new CEO needs to understand his or her own life span and map out a speaking program and strategy accordingly.
There is usually that delightful honeymoon at the outset, and in the glow of all the media and staff goodwill there will be a temptation to offer a feel-good version of leadership. But the speechwriter must urge a judicious balance between inspirational hope and cold realism.
Any tough measures should be signaled as early as possible, which may cut short the honeymoon but will undoubtedly strengthen the newcomer’s leadership credentials.
One CEO for whom I wrote insisted upon boldly optimistic initial speeches, boasting that he would regenerate the company through the transformative use of technology. Two years later he demanded that all those speeches be taken ‘off the internet’ because the results were falling sadly short of his overblown promises.
After the honeymoon comes the slog, and sometimes the letdown, of corporate marriage. I worked with a CEO who felt shocked when the media turned on him. Pointless to remind him that it always, always does, and he should just get on with it, trusting that the approval would return. But he felt burned, and was inclined to retreat from giving speeches, and shelter within his grand office where everyone was nice to him. He had to be persuaded that continuing to explain his strategy clearly and without defensiveness in the public arena would, over time, win back his supporters and even more respect.
The middle period of leadership is marked by the seasons and rituals of CEO life. There are the AGMs, full-year results and half-year results that provide the framework dates of the annual calendar. These obligatory financial reporting sessions became opportunities to reinforce strategic priorities. They draw the trajectory between yesterday’s decisions, today’s results and tomorrow’s outcomes.
And this is often the period when the speechwriter really earns his or her keep. Because things will go wrong. That major project won’t get regulatory permission. The currency will move in the wrong direction. Wage costs will blow out. Whatever happens, the speechwriter needs to help the leader control the narrative – explaining what has changed, and why, and how it will be managed. This is when apparent – if not actual - coherence and consistency is vital. Even big changes need to be explained within a stable, broader framework that respects the history of the brand and the business and projects towards a future that is consistent with the leader's strategic plan.
How leaders choose to spend their time is as important as what they say. The CEO diary may include any number of launches and openings, charity appearances, employee awards ceremonies, and corporate customer events. The events the CEO chooses to attend will be revealing; they will disclose the leader’s real values and real priorities.
Many of the speeches at these occasions will be ceremonial speeches – formal events where the speech will mirror the emotions of an audience rather than provide new information or direction. They should not be underestimated or undervalued. They can be powerful opportunities to show the leader’s humanity, values and ideals.
Even within their short lifecycle, nearly every CEO I have known goes through at least one slump. It’s a weary business, being the leader. That’s when the diary is a friend, because it keeps up the discipline and the routine of leadership during those periods when the heart isn’t engaged.
Deep into their tenure a canny CEO, mindful of her own moth-like mortality, will use some occasions to promote himself for a future role in life, whether it’s another CEO role, on the director circuit, or the not-for-profit sector.
And then there’s the final valedictory phase of the CEO life. That’s the time for the artistic final blossoming, the late period when all that accumulated wisdom, experience and knowledge can be put to its best use.
It’s also the time to be brave, to be a good citizen, to say the things he or she was afraid to say when trying to win and hold onto friends - or avoid making enemies.
Most of all this is the time, not so much to list the achievements, but to define the terms by which this particular leadership tenure should be measured, and therefore judged by history to be a success.
The life of a CEO is in many ways, nasty, brutish and relatively short. It’s also lucrative, privileged and creates an unparalleled opportunity to make change.
And one thing is absolutely clear. Anyone who thinks there is a big gap between what leaders do and what leaders say doesn’t understand leadership at all. There is no category separation between words and deeds. For leaders, the words very often are the deeds.