Your Silence Speaks Volumes

Let’s say you’re a C-suite executive and a new CEO is on the way. You’re a strong performer, and the numbers support it. Still, you might feel really nervous—does this upcoming change affect your position within the company? Are you in danger? In our opinion, yes, you are.

You might be thinking of horror stories like Bed, Bath, and Beyond. After only weeks on the job, new CEO Mark Tritton fired all but one of his C-suite.

While this scenario is farm from the norm, it is common for a new CEO to take a hard look at the team she inherits. She needs to prove her worth, quickly, or she’ll be the one on the way out. Studies show that this is especially true when CEOs come from outside the company, which can double involuntary departures.

So if you’re a top exec with a new CEO – or, for that matter, anyone with a new boss — what can you do to survive?

Harvard Business Review studied CEO changes of over 1000 companies and interviewed a number of new CEOs. Their accounts support something we tell our clients:

Not communicating IS communicating.

There are many reasons people fail to communicate.

  • You don’t yet have what you think you need – the information, or a firm decision to convey.
  • You feel like the evidence speaks for itself, and you don’t need to add anything.
  • You’re not ready for questions, because you don’t have firm plans. Maybe you feel like so much is going to change in the near future that your plans might be moot.
  • You think someone else is better suited to deliver the message. It’s not your strength, or it’s not your place.

Whatever your reason, it’s not good enough. Because people will hear something, even if you’re not speaking. When they have gaps in their understanding, they WILL fill those gaps in some way. All you’re doing, through your silence, is giving up control over what they will think.

So what does this mean for you, if you have a new leader? Say something.

Communicate, even if you feel it’s unnecessary.

The HBR interviews revealed what you’re really saying when you stay silent.

  • Early impressions are important, but they aren’t based on the information you might think. New CEOs won’t ask their predecessor about you. And even when they get input from valid sources, they don’t place much stock in it. They want to make up their own minds. One big mistake: not enough face time, to help them form the impression. CEOs told HBR of a variety of ways their executives missed opportunities to fill in the blanks, from ill-timed vacations to over-focus on customer relationships. Face time is critical when the new boss is forming impressions.

What you’re saying with your silence: “I won’t be there for you when you need me.”

  • One CEO told HBR, “Virtually no one came to see me to ask how they could help.”CEOs are in a naturally hostile environment. They’re in survival mode, trying to quickly figure out who’s with them and who’s against them. CEOs told HBR that they did not equate lack of disagreement with support. In fact, without strong, clear agreement, the CEOs draw their own conclusions: you’re not on the same page. CEOs reported firing executives because of misaligned priorities, even though those executives had never once announced their opposition.

What you’re saying with your silence:  “I don’t agree with you and I won’t support you.”

  • New CEOs who deliver positive outcomes for their organizations in the first year tend to keep their jobs; CEOs who don’t tend to get fired. So it’s essential that the new CEO delivers on their first-year agenda. They say executives should actively confirm that they understand and support the plans of the new boss. And, beyond simple agreement, it makes sense to clarify what the CEO is doing and what you, specifically, can do to support those outcomes.

What you’re saying with your silence:  “I won’t help you succeed.”

  • It’s hard to fault an executive for painting a bright picture of their function or division to the new CEO. But resist that temptation; it will backfire. As one CEO said “I don’t have time to sort out trust issues. If you don’t show me the negatives, I suspect that either you don’t know them or that you will try to hide things from me.”

What you’re saying with your silence: “You can’t trust me.”

  • CEOs have enough challenges without trying to twist their style to fit their new team. So, of course, they want executives to match their style. You can do that the hard way – many months of observation, trial, and error – or you can do it the easy way. Ask them. One new CEO had a direct-report who others assumed would be fired, but “He…asked how I wanted him to disagree with me. What kind of facts cause me to change my mind — stories from the front line or statistics? Could he disagree in public or only in private? Once he had made his case and failed to convince me, should he try again or just accept that the decision was made? How did I feel about his subordinates or peers knowing he disagreed with something?” His direct and thoughtful conversation literally saved his job and set him up for long-term success with his new boss.
    What you’re saying with your silence:  “I won’t make this any easier.”

We often tell our clients that saying nothing tells employees, ”We don’t know” or “We don’t care.” Or both. That’s the very last thing you want your new boss to think. Say something.

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