The words CEOs use | Brunswick Group

The Brunswick Review hears from four CEOs on terms they use and phrases they avoid

All leaders have similar sets of words at their disposal – no matter what the language – but how they wield those words and for what effect varies greatly. A CEO’s words can move markets, encourage or discourage customers, and motivate or demoralize workforces. In interviews with four CEOs in a variety of industries, we uncovered  similarities as well as novelties about the kinds of words these leaders use – and why.

Simpler is better, but don’t skimp on emotion. Shabbir Dahod, CEO of TraceLink, a cloud-based tracking and tracing service for life sciences supply chains, started his career as an engineer. When he founded TraceLink in 2009, he knew he had to change his communications style. “In the past, I felt it was very important to explain things precisely and with rigor – the way an engineer is accustomed to communicating,” he says. “But as CEO, I’ve learned the importance of communicating with emotion. It’s what motivates and convinces people. Now I may still be factual, but I focus on emotion and passion.”

Jay Brown, CEO of Crown Castle, the US’s largest provider of cellular infrastructure, agrees. “I came out of finance and was CFO before becoming CEO. My language was too muddled with technical jargon, particularly financial jargon. Now I try to speak more directly and draw analogies to things that are commonly shared experiences,” he says. “For example, if I’m talking about a financial matter, I relate it to people managing their own checkbooks. Also, I try to get my team to forgo bigger words when simpler ones will do. It’s great that people might be impressed that we have a big thesaurus, but it’s wasted if they don’t know what the words mean,” he adds.

The power of positivity. Michael Watras, CEO of Straightline, a global strategic branding firm, says “I believe in optimism and don’t have a lot of time for negatives. I avoid using the words ‘can’t’ and ‘impossible’ because with the right people alongside you, all things are possible. It’s my job to convey that.” For Jeremy Levin, CEO of Ovid Therapeutics, a company that addresses rare neurological disorders, he communicates that “the purpose is the patient” to keep employees focused on what matters. But Levin was once taught a lesson about how positive expressions can cut both ways when he told a team “we can do better,” and it backfired. “I meant it as a call to action,” he says, “but instead it came across as a criticism or that I was disappointed. It was a sharp reminder that how you say things matters a lot.”

Crown Castle’s Mr. Brown says his favorite word in any language is “excited.” “It’s a hopeful word and it’s not very limiting. It conveys an energy, a sense of what’s to come and a sense of hopefulness about what will be – without being so precise as to define exactly what it is. As CEO, I have to communicate a sense of energy and passion around the subject matter, and show that what we do is something that matters in the world.”


We asked these CEOs what words they’d hope people would remember them for:

Jay Brown, Crown Castle: Steward, faithful, caring

Jeremy Levin, Ovid Therapeutics: Patients, purpose, products

Shabbir Dahod, TraceLink: Integrity, innovation, trust

Michael Watras, Straightline: Genuine, responsible, pops (the word he uses for going out for drinks)

There is no I in team. In addition to choosing positive words, the CEOs we spoke with make a point of avoiding the words “I,” “me” and “my.” Brown “will always use ‘we’ and ‘us,’ particularly when my comments are forward-looking. If it’s backward-looking or in recognition of something we’ve done well, I use ‘you.’ The exception is when I’ve made a mistake that I need to own and personalize – then and only then will I use ‘I’ and ‘me.’”

Tracelink’s Mr. Dahod agrees. “I like to use words like ‘team,’ ‘we’ and ‘us.’ It’s important to convey shared accountability and teamwork. I tend to avoid words that I think of as “hero” words that convey success depends on a superhero individual rather than a team.”

The lasting power of words. Straightline’s Mr. Watras learned this lesson the hard way when he said “that’s good” to his hair stylist. “I hadn’t heard what he’d said and just responded automatically,” Mr. Watras says. “It turned out he was telling me his father had recently died. I was understandably embarrassed and it was a reminder to always listen, and never assume you know what’s being said.”

Mr. Dahod also talks about the value in not changing language just to appeal to younger employees. “It can be divisive to use different words with different groups in the organization. I prefer to communicate with everyone in the same way.”

Ovid Therapeutics’ Mr. Levin adds “the biggest challenge when communicating to younger employees – and other colleagues for that matter – is not the choice of words but rather the loss of quality, clarity and human interaction that comes from the emphasis on texting and shorter forms of communication.”

“I really enjoy the idea that words matter,” says Mr. Brown. “The time invested on words has a far greater impact than people realize. Preparing and being thoughtful about the words we use as leaders can – and often does – have great impact.”

Finally, all four CEOs were passionate on one additional point: Words set leadership direction, tone, and framework, but what’s decisive is how the leader acts on them.

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