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Does your CEO think the world smells of fresh paint?

Imagine the situation.  It’s 9am on a Monday and you receive an e-mail from the head of your department:

FROM: Joan Jones, Head of function

Subject : CEO Visiting area at 11:00

Dear All,

Please be aware that Stacey South, the group CEO will be visiting the office today.  She will be touring the building, and is due to visit our department at 11am.  Please ensure your desks are clean and tidy, and that all walkways are clear.  Coats and jackets should be placed in the cupboards and not on the back of chairs.

Stacey often asks questions, please ensure you respond appropriately and positively, and please refer to your manager if you are unsure. Remember, your response could reflect badly on our department, so please refrain from being controversial.

Thanks in advance,


Clearly a fictional example, right?  Well… maybe!

I’m surprised at the number of people I meet who say they’ve received e-mails of this nature during their career.  Whilst it is completely understandable that one would want to make a good impression to a CEO (or any other visitor for that matter), it’s more important that senior stakeholders see and experience the authentic working environment.  In particular in our role as professional Change Practitioners, we should not be reticent in stating our concerns and laying out the “cold hard facts” for our stakeholders to see.

Paint Brusg
Painting over the cracks helps no-one...

Treating visits from the CEO as “royal visits” encourages the wrong behaviour and value-set.  It reinforces the belief that senior stakeholders are inaccessible, special, and far too important for the likes of you or me.  This kind of behaviour subverts genuine concerns; if the CEO is royalty, so are the board.  Project members may be reluctant to raise genuine issues or concerns for fear of being perceived as negative.  After all, if the CEO can’t even cope with seeing a stack of papers on a desk, how will they react when they find out their £20 million project is severely behind schedule……

In my view, as Change Practitioners, we have a duty to respect senior stakeholders by being authentic.   Executives are interested in the success of projects, and we should feel empowered to raise and escalate issues to them.  Whilst it might not always be an appetising message, at least they will have time to take corrective action. Bad news does not get better with age! Business Value and Customer Value should be our mantra at all times, and we should relate our concerns to these metrics.  It isn’t a popularity contest, and we should feel empowered to have difficult conversations when necessary.

Fundamentally, we should avoid the temptation to treat appointments with executives as “royal visits”.  By all means, tell your teams that they are coming, but don’t expect them to behave differently. Encourage them to be honest, authentic and transparent (whilst remaining diplomatic and appropriate). As an individual, feel empowered to raise appropriate concerns where necessary.  Whatever you do, don’t put up a fresh coat of paint just because a senior stakeholder is visiting.

After all, surely any smart CEO will smell the fresh paint a mile off.  And if they don’t… then it’s time to get out (quickly!)


I hope you’ve enjoyed this article.  I’d love to hear your views — please go ahead and add a comment below. And if you enjoy my blog, be sure to subscribe!

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