Originally posted 4.23.2009
President Barack Obama visited CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia the other day to speak to CIA employees. In doing so, the President was doing what every senior leader needs to do in times of crisis: be seen and be heard.
People of good intention from all sides of the political spectrum have different views of the CIA, but inside the agency, employees have been feeling beleaguered and demoralized.
Therefore, in some ways, what has occurred at “The Company” is akin to what is occurring in many companies. It fell to the President, as it falls to all senior leaders, to rally the troops. While debate will continue to swirl around the CIA, what the President said and did at Langley is worthy of study for leaders seeking insight to communicating in tough times.
Come to them. When Director Leon Panetta introduced the President, he noted the employees’ enthusiastic response, “This is a very loud welcome [laughter] to a group that is supposed to be silent warriors.” Employees love it when top officials visit their location. It sends a powerful signal when the leader comes to your workplace. It demonstrates that what you do matters.
Affirm their worth. “You are on the front lines against unconventional challenges,” said the President as he itemized the work the CIA does to “support our troops,” “disrupt terrorist’s plots,” and help “destroy terrorists’ networks.” Therefore, the President said, “You should be proud of what you do.” Employees never tire of hearing their good work praised by people at the top, and need to hear that the work they do is consequential.
Stand with them. Knowing that many in the CIA are feeling under siege for the release of information on the torture memos, the President accepted responsibility for their release. But he made it clear that he would “protect your identities and your security” adding that he “will be as vigorous as protecting you as you are vigorous in protecting the American people.” Employees need to know that executives have their back because all too often when things get hot it is employees who suffer the heat first.
Do not pull punches. The President was explicit in expecting CIA to uphold the values of the U.S. Constitution. By contrast, “Al Queda’s not constrained by a constitution.” He noted that it may seem as if the U.S. is “operating with one hand behind our back.” No matter that CIA has “the harder job.” The President emphasized, “we will defeat our enemies because we’re on the better side of history.” Leaders need to have explicit standards, values and behaviors. Such things reinforce the culture and leaders need to endorse them.
Tough jobs in tough times demand solidarity from top to bottom. Leaders need to iterate what they feel and why they feel it.
Experienced leaders know that speeches may make headlines, but employees do the work. It will be up to the President through his appointed CIA director Leon Panetta to ensure that the CIA adheres to Administration aims when it comes to intelligence gathering. Showing respect for its work is a good first step; what happens next will matter to history.
Leaders can never assume that employees do not want to see and hear them, especially in tough times. What Obama did at Langley, senior leaders need to do in their own shops. Make the personal visit. Shake some hands. Give a pep talk. Take questions. Listen to what people are saying. And when possible, promise a return visit. When times are tough, the leader’s presence is an affirmation that what employees do matters.
First posted on HBR.org on 4/23/2009