Arthur W. Page Society

Are We There Yet? New BP Leader Faces the Slippery Slope

A company’s stakeholders, particularly its investors, must seem to some chief executives like the pesky kids in the backseat asking the universal question of kids in the backseat, “Are we there yet?”

Here’s the difference: backseat kids don’t have a clue how to drive the car and they may have even forgotten where they’re going.

Stakeholders, on the other hand, have access to your road map and your gauges and most of them are perfectly capable of getting out of your vehicle and into somebody else’s.

BP’s chief executive, Robert Dudley, knows his backseat of passengers and critics are not only asking if the giant oil company is back on safer ground after the disaster in the Gulf. They’re asking, are you the guy to get us there? Can the American who took over from the Brit who suffered through the oil-spill’s human, physical and financial shock and failed its leadership communications test (more on that shortly) be trusted to lead its followers?

Dudley gave a no-nonsense answer in his first public speech to a major US audience this month: “BP is sorry. BP gets it. BP is changing.”

As our fellow professional communicator Jon Iwata of IBM stated at a Page Society “Future Leaders” gathering, the leader’s job is to create believers. If the corporate dynamic with its stakeholders is built on belief and trust, BP’s year of challenge brightly lights the communications characteristics that define and test trust: context, content and tone.

The context of the information flow managed by BP’s senior people was exceptionally dire circumstances including death and disaster. Content bore down on responsibility and recovery, kept alive 24 hours a day through a website that showed the size, shape and color of the escaping undersea oil.

The tone—the sound, the feel, the perception—of the leadership communication mattered immensely. It had to be heard as “we’re on it,” “we care” and “here’s proof.”

Optimum tone was interrupted at times—early estimates of the impact of the spill seemed to show less caring—and lost when CEO Hayward, in a camera interview made the matter-of-fact statement that he wanted his life back.

Setting up the chief executive as the ultimate spokesperson is both risky and necessary.

There is one certain killer of planned leadership communications: a dis-serving comment from The One Undeniable Source. A slip at the top is a slide toward communications hell.

And yet, when backseat followers want to know, the CEO has to show. Which brings us back to CEO Dudley’s turn driving BP’s future value for its stakeholders.

The Houston speech was in my view a masterpiece. I don’t know whether it was written here or at headquarters in London, but I imagine it was a combination of the best thinking at both, and I would guess, based on what I’ve observed on television of Dudley’s ability to speak clearly and cogently, that he was involved more than a little in preparing the speech.

Here’s what the speech did:

- Took responsibility, apologized, thanked everybody who helped.

- Shared lessons learned toward positive outcomes.

- Gave specifics on what the company is doing, spending, achieving now.

- Described a new organization to drive safe, compliant operations.

- Challenged others on “collective responsibilities.”

- Pledged to do everything expected, promised and learned about handling and avoiding crises.

- Gave specifics on drilling in deep water.

- Looked at big-picture of oil supply, risks and the Middle East.

- He concluded with his vision—or mission statement—to be part of the future bringing “energy to our customers and value to our shareholders, safely and sustainably.” And he added that rat-a-tat, memorable leadership language, about getting it and getting there.

This link takes you to the BP website where the full speech appears. It is an entry in the company’s growing record of aggressive transparency, and an easy entry in the files of communicators like me who hoard good leadership speeches.

E. Bruce Harrison
Chief Executive Officer
EnviroComm International

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