Rearranging the Furniture

Every six months or so, my dad rearranges the furniture in his house. He has always done this. He did the same thing to his office when he was still working. He declared that a change in perspective is good for the soul.

The same is true in other aspects of our lives. I guess that’s why people change hair styles, eyeglasses, cars, houses and, unfortunately, sometimes spouses. (I’m not advocating the latter; in fact, healthy changes within a marriage can make it exciting again.)

I’m about to rearrange the furniture of my career. After nearly 12 years as an independent consultant, I’m rejoining the ranks of full-time corporate employment. I’ve accepted a job as employee communications manager with a Fortune 500 company based here in Richmond, Va. I’m not mentioning the name of the company in this blog because I don’t yet know what the company’s social media policy says about such things. But it’s a global business and a strong company with great people, as far as I can tell.

I’m excited about this new chapter in my life. Yet, it is bittersweet. Anyone who has poured their heart and soul into a business they’ve built from scratch knows what I’m talking about. It’s like saying goodbye to one of your kids.

I’ll write more about this change in the days ahead. That will help me process what is happening and, hopefully, will give you some things to think about, too. I don’t blog now nearly as often as I’d like, but I hope to continue even after my start date of January 3, 2012.

For now, I’m going to sit in the rearranged furniture and try to get used to it. I’m sure I’ll see some things that I haven’t seen before.

 

Remembering a Communicator’s Dream Boss

Today I learned of the death — seven months ago — of a woman who had a profound impact on my career in employee communications.

Dory Yochum was an extraordinary woman and a communicator’s dream boss. An odd experience 19 years ago cemented that impression of her in my mind.

First, some background on Dory: She was a single mother in her early 40s who had climbed the executive ladder in a variety of assignments at AT&T when she came to Richmond to become chief operating officer of the company’s printed circuit board factory here. (The plant no longer exists; it became part of Lucent Technologies, then was sold to a group of investors who finally closed it. A shopping center stands in its place today.)

She came to Richmond, she didn’t move here. Rather than uproot her kids from New Jersey, she spent three or four days a week here. In a story I wrote for the employee newsletter, she said, “My difficult schedule and time away are, of course, hard for me and my family. I deal with the practical side of this problem, the care of my children, by having a live-in housekeeper who is there to be sure they are safe and have adult supervision.” The children’s father also stayed with them while she was away. “The emotional side of being there is harder to handle,” she added, “and I try to manage this by spending individual time with each child to talk and relate. All of my time out of work is devoted to them.”

Her ascension into the executive levels of AT&T — a traditional company with mostly men at the helm in the early ’90s — drew the attention of Life magazine, which ran a pictorial essay on her in its August 1990 issue.

Dory believed in communication, and as a result, she gave this young communicator a lot of room to be creative and to try new things. She valued my perspective and my role, which greatly boosted my self-confidence at a crucial time in my career, just a few years after leaving news journalism for the corporate world.

Dory Yochum, 1991

In the summer of 1992, the plant was preparing for a downsizing — not an unusual occurrence in the world of manufacturing, and especially in the printed circuit board industry. A group of employees at the plant took sport in speculating who might be let go and created a “hit list” of likely layoff victims. When Dory heard about this, she hit the roof. She had worked hard to establish an open and supportive culture at the plant and she viewed this activity as antithetical to the company’s values.

So she fired off a memo to employees and asked me to review it and give her some feedback. The language she used was uncharacteristically strong and I told her it would likely cause a ruckus when employees read it. That’s exactly what she wanted, she said. And she sent it out.

Two sentences about the “hit list” stirred people up: “I consider this act of speculation to be as repulsive as watching buzzards attack a weakened prey. When we feed on the misfortune of others, we are no different than buzzards.”

The newsletter I edited had a regular letters-to-the-editor feature that was remarkably candid, thanks to the freedom Dory gave me in running it. When the memo went out, I received numerous angry letters from employees — some of which couldn’t be published due to the language, but some of which were quite well written. “We do not appreciate being called a bunch of buzzards,” said one. “In the future, Ms. Yochum should choose a more business-like manner in which to convey her message,” said another.

I asked Dory what I should do with the letters. “Print them,” she said. So I did. She opened the door to a debate that lasted another month or two. Dory met with employees and talked openly about the list and about her reaction to it, about whether or not she had gone too far in her memo, about the values that guided the company and about the culture she wanted for the plant community. She never apologized or backed down from the language she used in her memo, but she got the desired effect. People were talking about things that never were seriously discussed before: how we treat one another, how we work together even when we don’t agree.

It taught me a lot of lessons that I have carried with me through my communications career. Mostly I learned that there are leaders out there who understand the vital role communication can play in an organization and who are willing to do the hard work of fostering that communication.

A year before the “buzzard memo,” Dory said in an interview in my newsletter: “If you tell people you want to hear what they think, you have to be willing to listen to things you don’t like to hear. Then you must try to act to correct things that need to be better, and decide if there are things that people want that you just can’t change.”

It’s never easy being a leader, and especially one who is brave enough to promote a culture of open communication. Dory Yochum was the bravest leader I’ve ever known.

She died in December of breast cancer at the age of 62. Sadly, I had lost touch with her in recent years, but a few years ago I tracked her down and wrote her a note to let her know that working for her was one of the highlights of my career.

A Wild Ride in the Communication Business

Today marks the 11th birthday of my consulting business, Holland Communication Solutions LLC. The Virginia State Corporation Commission document is dated June 21, 2000.

Being in a bit of a sentimental mood, I’ve been thinking back on what a wild ride the last 11 years have been. I’ve learned so much and I’ve had the privilege of working with some outstanding clients.

Invoice #0001 was billed to Ragan Communications, the publisher of resources and producer of conferences for communication professionals. Actually, I owe a lot to the folks at Ragan. Not only were they my first client, but in my previous corporate life, I learned an awful lot about this business by reading their newsletters and attending their conferences. They’ve also published a lot of my writing and allowed me to take the podium at many of their productions.

I’ve done hundreds of jobs for scores of other clients, too. And I’ve done some things I never dreamed I would do:

  • I learned the ins and outs of a machine that packages poultry products so I could write the script for a training video about the equipment.
  • I wrote a booklet for an obscure trade association about how to succeed in their business after interviewing a dozen of their most successful members.
  • I spoke about effective communication to a roomful of engineers for a defense contractor in the desert outside Las Vegas.
  • I helped a multinational company in the nuclear power industry figure out how to overcome their communication barriers.
  • I produced a brochure explaining the dangers of radon gas for a one-man business that helps homeowners get rid of it.
  • I helped a church market its Sunday evening coffeehouse program.
  • I’ve consulted with some of the best-known brands as well as one-person shops just getting off the ground.
  • I’ve spoken about communication in some interesting places — Las Vegas, Chicago, Orlando, Pittsburgh, Washington D.C., Charleston, S.C., the Tuskeegee Institute, a U.S. Naval Base, beautiful mountain resorts and bland corporate conference rooms.

The purpose of all this is not to boast, but to reflect on just how fortunate I have been to do such a variety of things — some of them fascinating, some exasperating and others utterly fulfilling — all with the goal of improving communication among people in the workplace. I can’t think of many careers I’d rather pursue.

If you’ve been one of my clients over the years, thank you. I don’t take a single one for granted and I always learn something from each.

VCU Football: Undefeated Since 1968

I’m ecstatic about VCU’s run to the NCAA Final Four. As a graduate of VCU’s School of Mass Communications – which right now is the university’s third-largest undergraduate degree program — I’ve never been so proud of my alma mater.

A lot has been written about VCU in the last week as a curious sports-watching nation has discovered this Richmond, Va. gem. The fact that VCU doesn’t have a football team has largely kept it off the map. What kind of school is VCU? What kind of people study there? What kind of culture does it have? What’s it known for?

A banner spotted by a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter at the team’s send-off to Houston just about says it all: “VCU Arts is proud of the Rams. Good luck in the Super Bowl.”

Here’s All I Can Say About the VCU Rams

I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of something profound to say about the VCU Rams’ victories in the NCAA Tournament and what this Final Four team has to say about communication.

It’s difficult because I’m too caught up in the excitement. Not only is VCU my alma mater (Class of ’85, School of Mass Communications), but I’m also on the adjunct faculty there. This is the farthest VCU has ever made it in the Big Dance and — despite what some naysayers will tell you — we’ve had some pretty good teams in the past.

The excitement the Rams’ success has brought to Richmond, Va., is beyond belief. Students poured into the streets after VCU’s victory over No. 1 seed Kansas. (Police reported no incidents or injuries.) Thousands of fans attended a middle-of-the-night rally when the team arrived back on campus. Folks around the country are getting to know what a great city Richmond is (except for Kansas’ Marcus Morris, who doesn’t know where the city is). Applications to attend our 32,000-student school are sure to spike.

This opportunity is too good to pass up. So here’s the best I can do at drawing out relevant points:

  • Be ready for the next crisis, even if it’s a good one. I wonder if VCU Athletics’ public relations office was ready for the onslaught of hundreds of media calls after the team made it to the Sweet 16 for the first time. When we think of crisis communication, we usually think about bad things. Good news can also put communicators into crisis mode and the best time to prepare for it is before the good news happens.
  • Remember who you represent. Like it or not, everyday people in your organization can be thrust into the limelight quickly. It’s fortunate for VCU that everyday people like Shaka Smart, Joey Rodriguez and Jamie Skeen take seriously their roles as the face of VCU to millions of basketball fans around the country. The entire team has handled their sudden stardom with grace and humility.
  • Nothing works like teamwork. It’s fascinating to watch the Rams work together during a game. Rodriguez shows true leadership, directing his teammates when he’s supposed to and setting them up for successful plays at the most unexpected times. Rodriguez especially is a selfless player who puts the team’s success above his own. The team’s ability to come together and pool their talents when the chips are down is one reason they’re headed for Houston.
  • The stories you tell can be powerful. Amid all the stories about how VCU didn’t belong in the tournament and how each team they’ve met so far was going to be their last, these guys listened to a different story from their coach. Over and over, Smart has told the story of a team that is capable, confident, prepared and skilled enough to win each game. What story are you telling employees about your organization?

That’s all I’ve got. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to the celebrating.

Japan’s Pain is No Laughing Matter

It seems some people just don’t know when to shut up. And in the communication professions, that trait can be treacherous.

Gilbert Gottfried, one of the least funny comedians still getting work, lost his job as the voice of the Aflac duck (who knew that was Gottfried all this time?) after he tweeted some decidedly crass comments related to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. He wasn’t alone. Dan Turner, spokesman for Mississippi Gov. (and presidential hopeful) Haley Barbour was fired for the same reason.

Both Aflac and Barbour did exactly the right thing. Spend a few minutes watching the horrifying footage coming out of Japan and you quickly realize there’s nothing funny about the catastrophe.

What really bothers me is that anyone would question whether or not the two spokesmen should have been fired. Yet comments on blogs and at communication websites like Ragan.com indicate people — even communicators — push the line between funny and tasteless to the outer limits.

It really makes me wonder what has led us to this point of accepting callousness, especially in the wake of one of the worst human tragedies of our time. Americans were pretty well united in our feeling that there should be a moratorium on wisecracks and gallows humor following 9/11, but the same rules don’t apply for a culture halfway around the world that we really don’t know or understand.

Pondering the reasons why caused me to recall a study I read about recently that found 75 percent of today’s college students report being less empathetic than previous generations and that the trend toward decreased compassion began about 30 years ago.

That sounds about right. I don’t need a study to tell me that people today generally think more of themselves, their needs, their rights, what happens to them than they think about other people. An entire generation (or two?) has been told how special they are, how they are all winners. This mindset yields Gilbert Gottfried making Japan jokes and Charlie Sheen selling out a “show” based on his narcissistic rants following his firing by a TV studio.

My 14-year-old son told me of a classroom discussion at school about the Japan tragedy. He said several guys in the class said they didn’t care what was happening in Japan; it’s half a world away and doesn’t affect them.

The study on students’ lack of empathy suggested that one cause might be the fact that students read less fiction today. Another study finds that reading may be linked to empathy; the number of stories preschoolers read predict their ability to understand others’ emotions. Adults who read less fiction say they are less empathetic.

We corporate communicators might have something to contribute. Perhaps the stories we tell in our organizations help our fellow employees to be more empathetic toward the people with whom they work. It’s certainly worth a shot.

Will Naked Mountain Be Clothed by PC Police?

Is Naked Mountain, Va., too risqué for families to visit? Should access be restricted to adults only? Or should it be renamed to something less objectionable, like Partially Clothed Mountain? Perhaps Au Naturale Mountain would be obscure enough so as not to incite impure thoughts.

Sounds ridiculous, I know, but no more ridiculous than what’s really happening in the Maryland state legislature. State Sen. Lisa Gladden and eight other lawmakers put forth a proposal that would create a commission to suggest new names for two mountains that, according to Gladden, have objectionable names: Negro Mountain and Polish Mountain.

Negro Mountain is thought to be named in honor of a heroic 18th century black man. An effort some years ago to rename it Black Hero Mountain failed because a commission found the name Negro Mountain was not intended to be derogatory.

Nobody knows the origin of Polish Mountain’s name, but apparently being called Polish is offensive. Even if you’re from Poland.

Words, even those used as proper names, have meaning. Especially when words are used as names, they should be chosen carefully and deliberately. However, we also should acknowledge the context in which they’re chosen and used. (See the recent attempts to revise Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.)

Names tell a story, whether or not those names fit into the politically correct sensibilities of subsequent generations.

If this proposal passes in Maryland, I’ll bet it’s a matter of time before some of my beloved Virginia mountains suffer the same fate:

  • Sugarloaf Mountain will become the more healthful Aspartame Mountain.
  • Poor Mountain will become Economically Disadvantaged Mountain.
  • Whitetop Mountain will become Caucasiantop Mountain.
  • Chicken Mountain will become the vegan-friendly Soy Mountain.
  • Bald Mountain will become Follically Challenged Mountain.

I hope this trend doesn’t spread to other states. Otherwise, the folks in Intercourse, Pa., had better start thinking now of a new name. And keep it clean!

The Weight of Our Words

Two seemingly unrelated events in the news combine to illustrate the significance of choosing carefully the words we use to make our points.

The mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., caused a lot of discussion about the tone of political discourse in the United States today. While I don’t believe the gunman committed his despicable act directly as the result of fiery rhetoric, I’m convinced that the environment in which our discussions take place has contributed to a more hostile society. And I believe politicians, cable TV and radio personalities, people who spew hatred via social media and even some clergymen birthed this toxic condition and feed it with their daily infusions of vitriol.

We consumers of mass communication are complicit, too. The Glenn Becks and Keith Olbermanns of the world stay in business because of us. We are the reason they’re unlikely to change the tone of their diatribes anytime soon. They’re in a contest to see who can out-zing the other and many of us are on the sidelines, egging them on, all the while boosting their ratings.

A related event in the news is the decision of a publisher to release an update of Mark Twain’s classic “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” that replaces the offensive word nigger with the supposedly more acceptable slave. The argument goes that a cleaned-up version of the book will free it from banishment in school libraries across the nation and open it up to a new, more sensitive and politically correct audience of students.

Subjecting Twain’s masterpiece to editing 125 years after the fact robs Twain of his creative license as an artist and robs the audience of its freedom to either choose or reject Twain’s message. More than that, it represents a total misunderstanding of Twain’s statement in support of human dignity and the personal growth that can happen in the hearts of even the most ignorant people (Huck, not Jim).

Each event demonstrates the weight of our words. Those who participate in the heated political rhetoric of our day have little to no appreciation for the power of words. They don’t think through the consequences of what they’re saying and they can’t see the destruction their words are causing. Those who would edit Huck Finn also have little to no appreciation for the power of words. They don’t understand that Twain was deliberate in his choice of words as a reflection of the society of his day and a reflection of the prejudice in people’s souls.

Words carry a lot of weight. That weight can either crush us with its impact or it can make us stronger as we lift words to a higher purpose.

RELATED UPDATE: In a CBS News poll, 57 percent of respondents said they don’t believe heated political rhetoric was a factor in the Tucson shooting. Of course they don’t. It’s like asking a drunk, “So, do you think your drinking has anything to do with your life being in a shambles?”

The Soup Strategy

Today is a rainy, cool day in Richmond, Va. and I’m not feeling particularly well. Nothing serious, just out of sorts.

It’s the perfect day to make a pot of soup and that is what I’m doing. Right now my house smells like Italian chicken soup. All those herbs are getting cozy with the chicken stock in a slow cooker. Later I’ll add the diced tomatoes, mustard greens and egg noodles.

I’m following my late mother’s recipe. Whenever I smell or taste Italian chicken soup made from her recipe, I think of her, so the comfort quotient on this particular pot of soup is sky-high.

Food is a powerful communication vehicle. It’s a folk art, bridging one generation to the next.

As I pondered that fact, I thought back to a visit I paid my maternal grandmother not too many years before she died. Visits to my grandmother’s house always included her biscuits and gravy for breakfast. There was something unique about her biscuits. They had a tender shell to them, not quite crunchy and not at all dry. According to my grandmother, she achieved this distinctive trait by running the pre-cooked biscuits through some form of fat — either liquid Crisco or bacon drippings or maybe even lard.

My mom used my grandmother’s biscuit recipe when she baked them for us, but the result was not the same. Mom’s biscuits were great, but they were quite different from my grandmother’s. So on my visit I asked my grandmother to share her biscuit-baking technique with me so that I might achieve the same delicious success when I baked them.

She sat at the kitchen table and talked me through the entire process. Step by step, I did everything she told me to do, exactly as she told me to do it.

My biscuits didn’t turn out anything like my grandmother’s. Nor my mother’s for that matter.

I was disappointed, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the shared experience among my grandmother, my mother and me. What matters are the memories, the connection and, yes, even the values evoked by the experience of using a recipe that was handed down from my grandmother to my mom, and from my mom to me.

In my work as a communicator, I often am called upon to carefully craft messages so that they convey exactly what my client wants to say, whether it’s a marketing piece, a speech or an employee communication. Words are important; they carry a lot of weight. But what the audience will remember most is the shared experience, the connection that you make, the values you emulate through the communication. That’s why a face-to-face event is such a rich communication tool. That’s why branding is defined as the experience a consumer has with a product or service.

Call it the soup strategy or the biscuit factor or something. If we can get our audiences as invested in some organizational goal as I was in wanting to replicate my grandmother’s biscuits, we’re really getting somewhere.

Oral Traditions

My favorite event of the year happened this weekend and, once again, it did not disappoint. The Richmond Folk Festival drew a record crowd (190,000) and featured performers from Iran, Brazil, India, Haiti, Siberia and many other countries as well as all corners of the United States.

The Richmond Folk Festival is a communicator’s dream. The entire premise is communication — the passing along of songs, dances, stories, food and craftmanship from one generation to the next. And then those oral traditions cross geographic boundaries, helping audiences learn about and appreciate the uniqueness of cultures as well as the things that bind us together.

My favorite performance this year — and my 14-year-old son’s favorite, too — was called “The African Influence: Rituals & Roots.” It featured a jazz musician from New Orleans and performers from Brazil, Haiti and Iran talking about the influence of African culture on their music. After each performer shared a sample of their music, they engaged in a jam session that brought hundreds of spectators to their feet.

Every year, I come away from this festival with an even greater understanding of the power of communication — especially through music — to span generations and bridge diverse cultures.

This year, however, I witnessed something that unexpectedly caused me to think about an oral tradition of a different type. As my son and I roamed the festival grounds, we ran across several people that were just plain grumpy. Couples sniped at each other over silly things. One fellow who was in a hurry griped to his wife about how long it was taking to funnel through a narrow staircase festival-goers used to get up and down a hill. A few parents fussed at their children who clearly were tired of all the walking in the 80-degree heat.

Now, for the record, I’ve been there. I’ve had my share of grouchy moments. But in an otherwise joyful and positive environment, these few grumps stood out. It caused me to think about how we communicate messages about ourselves to unsuspecting people in the most unexpected places. Since most of the nasty exchanges took place among couples, it also made me think about how much our personal communication styles determine the direction of our relationships.

The happiest relationships I’ve seen are those in which each person respects the other enough to speak with kindness. Of course, it takes two to really make it work, but if both people decide they’re going to communicate with civility, respect and kindness — even when they disagree — then the positivity spills over into every other aspect of their lives together.

I might have simply caught these people at bad moments. We all have those. But I’m guessing most of what I witnessed were the symptoms of greater unhappiness. The grouches were communicating their unhappiness for everyone around them to see — most importantly, their spouses and children.

Oral traditions aren’t just about passing down songs, dances, stories, foods and crafts from one generation to the next. They’re also about passing attitudes and spirit from one person to another, and that happens when we’re least aware of it.

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