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What Does HBO’s House of the Dragon Teach Us about Executive Communications?

Matt Panichas

Early on in House of the Dragon, King Viserys Targaryen, the monarch of Westeros, faced with a difficult decision, opts to name his daughter, Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen, heir to the throne. This is an unpopular decision. After all, in Westeros, there has never been a female ruler, and with that comes skepticism, opposition, and an outright threat to the Targaryen’s power. While this scenario is confined to George R. R. Martin’s prodigious imagination, there are parallels between House of the Dragon and executive communications -- and more specifically, leadership succession communications. 

For any newly-hired, or appointed, business leader -- whether a CEO, partner, or division head -- audiences want to know more about this person, their vision, their plan, and, ultimately, how it will impact them. Employees want to be inspired and engaged. Customers want value and reliability. Investors want a steady hand that will deliver returns on their investments. And communities want socially and environmentally-conscious leaders that will bring good to the community. 

Let’s dig in. 

Three communications approaches to help ensure a smooth leadership transition 

1. Get smart about what your competition and peers are doing. While competitor activities shouldn’t define a leader’s vision and approach, understanding how they are communicating with audiences, what issues they’re communicating about, and the forum in which they’re communicating will help to shape, inform and solidify insights. In turn, these data-driven insights can help drive competitive differentiation, especially in highly saturated markets. 

For instance, in professional services, companies like EY, KPMG, Deloitte, and PwC offer similar services and have similar capabilities. But, upon closer scrutiny, one can see clear differences relative to the hot-button issues on which they are commenting, their message to investors/customers on strategy and growth, and, more broadly, the long-term value they deliver to the communities they serve and society, as a whole.

2. Lean into your authenticity and be bold with your vision. Today’s business environment is hyper-competitive and interconnected, compounded further by a scarcity of attention. Add to that mix balancing the new demands of flexible, hybrid work models, shifting consumer demands and expectations, activist investors, and a more aggressive regulatory environment. 

However, with those risks come tremendous opportunities to have an influential voice on the most pressing issues facing employees, customers, and investors. Each industry and business have its own unique challenges and opportunities. A CEO coming in to lead a global fashion brand is materially different than a CEO taking the reins at an international insurance brokerage (or a dragon queen ruling over a kingdom). 

Stakeholders demand trust and credibility. Leaders who are able to communicate a vision and platform that adheres to well-articulated company values and purposes will be in a much stronger position to engage high-priority audiences and inspire action.

3. Put your plan into action. What will you accomplish in the first 100 days? This is where the rubber hits the road. It’s important to communicate your vision and the concrete steps that you will take to drive and scale change. While different channels -- earned, owned, social, and paid -- are used in myriad ways to communicate with different audiences, it’s critical to remember that all channels, working in tandem, can complement and amplify your message. 

So whether it’s using a global town hall meeting to talk about your customer strategy, or holding 1:1 sessions with employees to explain how you will accelerate DEI initiatives, you are showing, both in large and small settings, how you are working to get things done. 

Westeros may exist in a fantasy world, but it holds important lessons for executive communicators

If and when Princess Rhaneyra ascends to the throne, she will face both a hopeful and skeptical public. The same holds true for any business leader coming into a CEO or other executive role. Both must have a firm grasp of the environment in which they’re operating. Both must understand deeply the issues that are most important to their stakeholders and how their vision ties these elements together. And both must show, tangibly, how they will execute this vision, in short-order. 

In the meantime, kick off your shoes, grab your beverage of choice, throw on some popcorn, and let’s see where the fate of Westeros lies.