Jack Welch on the Vital Role of the CCO

April 13, 2015, Arthur W. Page Society

“Chief Communications Officers used to be firemen and firewomen," Jack Welch said as he took the stage to close out the 2015 Spring Seminar. Through his 60 plus years in business, the former Chairman and CEO of General Electric—and now Executive Chairman of the Jack Welch Management Institute—is very much in tune with how the role of the CCO has evolved over the years.

“The role is changing an incredible amount. More than ever. Being a CCO is no longer about putting out fires. It's much more forward looking than that. It's about making everyone around you smarter."
One way to do that, Welch notes, is through data analytics, though he cautioned communicators to not fall into the trap of assuming that data is necessarily synonymous with actionable insight. As he put it, “companies today are drowning in analytics. Too often CCOs and their teams are using these big data tools simply because they exist, rather than chasing tangible business outcomes."

According to Welch, when CCOs look to leverage data analytics, they should be thinking about two things: 1) how can I use these insights to make everyone around me smarter? And 2) how can we use these data to gain a competitive edge and affect the organization? “Big data only matters if there is an outcome that you can act on."

And that's the key: outcomes. Not just with big data, but with everything CCOs do. As Jack notes, they need to be asking themselves: “What is the outcome? Why are we chasing these data or this idea? How can we change the game with this?"

When asked by discussion moderator Pam Wickham, Vice President, Corporate Affairs and Communications for Raytheon, about the most important thing for CCOs to understand as their role evolves, without hesitation Jack said:

“Truth and trust. Authentic truth-telling and emotional investment. [CCOs need to understand that] you can't tell a story through 'legalese' and phony charts. You tell it through truth and emotion, building trust in the process. Spin slows companies down. But when you get the spin out and truth on the table, you can act."
Trust and truth was also a key theme when the discussion shifted toward the relationship CCOs share with CEOs and the rest of the C-Suite.

“CCOs and CEOs have a unique relationship. There's got to be total trust…The CCO's relationship with the CEO has got to be closer than with anyone else on the staff."

And for CCOs, managing the balance between the CCOs relationship between the CEO and the rest of their peers in the C-Suite is a tough thing to do. According to Welch, total transparency is key. CCOs must be forthright with their peers about what they're communicating to the CEO, and make sure they're providing transparency from the top to all employees of the company.

Of course, the audience was also interested in what's different about being a CEO today.

“A CEO's job today is harder—and it's faster moving." As Jack explained, one thing CEOs struggle with is that they manage people, such as data scientists, whose work they don't understand because they were never in the role—or because that role didn't exist when they were coming up through the ranks.

But similar to Jack's advice for CCOs, if CEOs can focus on managing the outcomes associated these new roles, they'll be just fine.

Welch concluded his discussion by again underscoring the importance of the CCO. “Proving to CEOs and other senior leaders that the outcomes communications can provide are indispensable to the company will ensure that that the role continues to grow and evolve now and in the future."

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