The Battle of the C’s: When Context and Contrast from a CEO Cause Confusion for a Company

I have a friend named Diana Adams. Diana, like myself, is a Key Opinion Leader for several companies, including Huawei Technologies, LTD., the company with which we both spent the past week in China. Neither of us are paid by the company, but they do fly us to various events, including Mobile World Congress, and this past week, the Huawei Analyst Summit in Shenzhen, China.

Why do I bring Diana up? Well, Diana has a very special voice, one that you’d never mistake for anyone else. She’s truly a good friend, so she won’t take any offense when I tell you that listening to her speak is like listening to someone have a conversation with a really cute Poodle. Their voice gets higher, they’re all smiles, and they’re saying things like, “Oh, isn’t this the cutest thing in the whole WORLD!!!” Add in the fact that she’s from the southern part of the United States, and it’s the perfect storm of a voice. I LOVE listening to her.

Except if I haven’t had coffee yet. So imagine my complete and utter thrill (sarcasm so ridiculously intended) when I woke up in my hotel Friday morning in Hong Kong and made my sleepy way down to the breakfast buffet on my hunt for my first cup of coffee, only to be greeted by Diana, who in a more “talking to a poodle voice” than normal, told me how a question I asked Huawei’s rotating CEO Eric Xu during the analyst summit was the leading story on over a dozen business sites and counting.

Yeah, that made my quest for my first cup of coffee just that much more important. Grabbing her phone out of her hand, I looked, and sure enough, I was the “analyst” to whom the CEO was responding when he noted that he doesn’t see the point of smartwatches when we already have Smartphones.

Normally, a CEO saying “I don’t see the point of smartwatches” wouldn’t garner a lot of news, unless of course, it’s said by the CEO of a company, who, you know… MAKES SMARTWATCHES.

My question was innocent enough. I stood up and asked Mr. Xu the following: With smartwatches, smart glasses, smart tech being built into clothing, did he at all fear the potential possibility of cannibalization of Huawei’s smartphone business?

He responded that he personally didn’t see the value in smartwatches, and he doesn’t wear one himself. His point was that all things should be able to be done by one device. It was a funny comment, juxtaposed by laughter, first from the audience that spoke Chinese, and eight seconds later, from the english-speaking audience who heard the comment via translation.

I laughed, as well. But about a minute later, it hit me. Did the CEO of Huawei, a company that’s BLOWING UP with year over year over year growth in all of their business lines, including handsets and smart wearables, just say that he doesn’t believe that smartwatches have a future??

I put it out of my mind, figuring that anyone who was there would understand the context in which the comment was made, like I did. Mr. Xu isn’t the demographic of a smart wearable. Additionally, The very fact that Huawei employs Rotating CEOs – meaning that there are a few different CEOs, each running the company for several months at a time before handing over the reigns to another, makes it quite possible that while the company as a whole has specific goals and targets, each CEO can choose different ways to reach them.

I made the mistake of assuming that if I know how the company runs, (with openness and level of self-reflection that allows for different leaders to think in different ways, (i.e., Mr. Xu not believing in Smartwatches, but the other rotating CEOs having more of a positive view of them,) that everyone should know how the company runs. Of course, that’s not the case at all.  Openness and self-reflection are great attributes, and a great way to run a company – But if a journalist doesn’t know that, it won’t even enter the conversation. And that, of course, can be a problem.

So, two days later, before I’d had my coffee, Diana Poodle-voiced me. All of sudden, Forbes, Mashable, South China Morning Post, you name it, were all talking about how the CEO of Huawei didn’t believe in smartwatches. “Answering the question about smartphone cannibalization posed by an analyst,”

And there we were.

I’m not going to get into the point of whether Huawei is giving up on Smartwatches. I personally don’t believe they are, but that’s neither here nor there.

The bigger issue for anyone in communications (like most of us,) is this:

Context is everything. If you’re a CEO, you need to be very aware not only of what you’re saying, but the context in which you’re saying it. Had Mr. Xu simply started his comment with “while I personally don’t wear a smartwatch,” all the rest of his comments would have been funny, at worst.

1. Remember that just because something is corporate culture within your ecosystem, doesn’t mean the rest of the world understands it. Huawei believes in openness and self-reflection, two key components of the heart of their business and their people. They say what they mean, and it’s expected that people to whom they’re talking will examine all sides. Unfortunately, in the 24-hour news cycle in which we live, that’s not always a given. So the second the words came out of Mr. Xu’s mouth, the reporters in the room took it at face value, and a story was born.

2. Humor rarely, rarely translates when it hits the media. Be very aware, when you’re on stage, that anything you say can and will be repeated, and usually at your disadvantage, if at all possible, by the media. Be careful with jokes, be careful with one-liners, and yes, be careful with self-deprecation – “I don’t wear a smartwatch,” WILL translate into “Rotating CEO of Huawei: Smartwatches are dead.”

3. Finally, the majority of incidents occur during unscripted moments. This is a problem, because it stands in direct conflict with the best CEOs. See, the best CEOs are the ones who are open, who are willing to talk to their audiences, who are willing to engage in dialogue and go back and forth in any conversation. Those CEOs are real, they’re human, and they show empathy, something sorely lacking in the majority of today’s corporate world. But, the downside is that context can often be lost when translated by the media. I encourage openness from CEOs. But I also encourage the CEO to know what could be easily misconstrued in an online news article before said CEO is even off the stage.

In the end, this one-off line won’t hurt Huawei in the slightest – The company consistently shows growth in all four of their core business units, and their consumer division (handsets, wearables, etc.) is growing at a rapid pace.

But, my poodle-calling morning should be a great reminder to all of those who are in charge of crafting, disseminating, and sharing their company’s corporate message: Leave no room for ambiguity, and make sure that off-script doesn’t result in confusion.

(Disclaimer: As a KOL for Huawei, I’m often invited to take part in various corporate events both produced by Huawei, as well as by the telecommunications industry as a whole. While Huawei covers my travel expenses to these events, I’m not a paid spokesperson for Huawei, and nothing I say is in any way required, nor forced by Huawei in one direction or the other. My opinions of the company and their products, both positive and negative are mine, and mine alone.)

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