Author(s), Title and Publication
Men, L. R., Chen, Z. F., & Ji, Y. G. (2018). Walking the talk: An exploratory examination of executive leadership communication at startups in China. Journal of Public Relations Research, doi: 10.1080/1062726X.2018.1455147

Given its impact on public relations, organizational outcomes, and organizational infrastructures, leadership has long been considered one of the factors that determine the effective operations of an organization. This study explored the under-researched topic of leadership communication in the context of startup companies in China. More specifically, the authors examined the roles CEOs/executive leaders play in shaping organizational culture and, more importantly, the primary leadership communication purposes, strategies, and channels of startup companies in China. In-depth interviews were conducted with 25 entrepreneurs who were executive leaders in their companies.

The study revealed that the character and management style of startup leaders shaped the culture of the organization. Many interviewees believed that the character of the startup founders or CEOs were the DNA of corporate culture and determined what they do and say and how they get things done. Five major corporate culture types in startup companies were discussed by the interviewees: innovation/adventure, openness, inclusiveness/participation, supportiveness, and aggressiveness/competitiveness. The CEOs/founders often serve as informal public relations agents, since many startups companies lack an established public relations department in their early stages. Many interviewees referred to two-way information flow, listening to and addressing employees’ feedback, fostering trust, mutual understanding, and balancing interests and power, which are important attributes of symmetrical leadership communication when discussing the communication strategies of leaders. While interviewees recognized that transparent leadership communication built employee trust, they also suggested that leaders should withhold some information in certain circumstances. The interviews showed that most startup leaders were unaware of the ethical implications regarding “strategic transparency” as determined by leaders, which in fact revealed an overall transparency problem at startup companies in China. At the same time, interviewees generally believed that employees desired authentic leadership communication, which was seen to contribute to positive employee outcomes, such as trust and engagement. Startup leaders valued visionary communication as an additional leadership communication strategy, which emphasized the value and contributions of the company for high purpose in a broader social, economic, and political context. Finally, interviewees agreed that leadership communication channels, such as face-to-face communication, mobile messengers (e.g., WeChat and QQ), emails, and phones, were the most effective and commonly used.

Implications for Practice
Startups should (1) be aware that their top leaders play an important role as informal public relation agents and contribute to organizational strategic communication, stakeholder engagement, and employee-organization relationship building, (2) understand that leaders need to portray the blueprint, create a shared purpose of the organization among stakeholders, be authentic, and (3) address the need for Chinese business communities to raise their standards to achieve increased transparency.

Location of Article
This article is available online at: (abstract free, purchase full article)

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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