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.


One Response

  1. Great piece, Robert.

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