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COMMUNICATION SECRETS FROM THE CORNER OFFICE
I have a confession to make—I’m thinking of writing a book. And I thought I’d take advantage of the fact that I have a captive audience of communicators to get some advice. Here’s my idea. It’s my job to send all of the four and five year olds in Ontario to kindergarten full day, with a new play-based learning curriculum, so I thought I’d write a memoir about my own kindergarten experiences.
Here’s my working title: 50 Shades of Play.
Actually, I attended kindergarten in Aylmer, Quebec, and the only English-language kindergarten was an all-girls’ school in the Catholic convent. So 11 other five year old boys and I went to the convent every day. A small part of the schoolyard was designated for us boys, behind a 20-foot-high fence, while the girls had the run of the rest of the school grounds. I remember the experience vividly.
From there, with my father in the Canadian military, my family moved to a different location around the world every year, so I quickly learned the power authentic communication. I learned the importance of very quickly making connections with my new classmates, especially those who arrived, as I did, mid-way through the year.
The early lessons of my kindergarten experience continued with me into university. I earned my tuition as a drummer and singer in a rock band, and I planned to be a dentist—like my grandfather. Then one day a friend asked me, “Do you want to spend your life staring down people’s throats?” and I realized the answer was “No!” When I thought about what I did want to spend my life doing, I realized all my interests and summer work experiences had pre-destined me to work with children and educators.
Although I started my career as a junior high school teacher, the kindergarten world was never far away. My wife Sharon is a kindergarten teacher. And my children Susan and Scott both grew up to be kindergarten teachers as well. So, in 2009 when I was invited to take on the role to lead the implementation of full-day kindergarten for all four and five year olds in Ontario, along with the modernization of child care—well, clearly it’s where I belong.
In my mind, it’s our partners—the early learning educators and parents along with the school board and municipal senior staff and political leaders and First Nations partners—who are deserving of awards, much more than me. I see this great honour as recognition on their behalf as much as my own.
When I was thinking about my remarks to you this morning, I really sat myself down and had a brainstorming session with myself.
I really wanted to share observations and thoughts that come from my personal leadership experience with these wonderful people—not to mention all the time I spend with young children. We could be here all day if I started talking about my experiences with the amazing kindergarten children and their teachers and educators. I do want to share some things I’ve learned about communication along the way.
And I really had to think carefully about what I could say to you that you don’t already know. Because, you look like a thoughtful, experienced, well-informed audience. From mingling earlier during the networking time, it’s clear that I could learn a great deal from each of you.
So, despite appreciating the incredible honour of the “Communicator of the Year” designation, I recognize that you’re professional communicators, so you clearly already know more about communications than I do. Hence the title of my remarks this morning—”communication secrets from the corner office.” Or, The CEO and the Chamber of Secrets.
In my brief time with you this morning, I plan to share some thoughts from my vantage point in the corner office. In the process, I expect I might challenge what you understand to be some core communication practices and principles. I hope you’ll feel free to challenge me and to ask me frank and provocative questions that you might not feel comfortable asking your own CEO.
There were many things I wanted to talk about this morning, but here are the three topics that I narrowed it down to:
• The importance of communicators being “at the table”
• Creating made-to-stick messages
• Understanding your audiences
As communicators, I know that you’re always being told that you need to be at the table. To be in a strategic role, you need to have a voice at the table. Well, I’m here to tell to you—not only is it not essential to your strategic ability to be at the table. There is no table.
Well, I don’t mean it quite like that. There is a table. Of course, there’s a table. Some places, like government, there are lots of tables. But, as a senior leader and experienced CEO, I’m here to tell you that, if you’re on a holy grail search for the seat of organizational decisions, for the most part, they’re not made at the decision-making tables. Where do we decide things? In passing conversations in the hallway. Over coffee. Over dinner or lunch. Now, I want to be clear. I’m not talking about the old-boys-behind-closed-doors-deals or the “19th”-hole-of-golf-green.
But, in real life, it’s all about real human relationships and we naturally develop ideas and iron out problems when we talk to each other in many informal settings. Here are some quick examples:
• Dinner with an important partner got issues sorted out, so they will be able to positively contribute advice at the next formal ‘table.’
• Regular informal small group chats with members of the staff where the only questions are: “What brings you joy?” and “What gets in your way?” Such sessions reveal the kernels of strategic initiatives designed to engage and improve.
• In my world, spending a day a week actually in the classroom with educators and children and bringing along policy staff is far more effective in strategic planning than dreaming about what might be good for the province’s schools sitting behind a desk on the 24th floor of 900 Bay Street.
So, if you are at the table—if you are part of the formal decision-making structure of your organization—hallelujah. But you need to realize two things. First, that’s not where decisions are made, for the most part. So, you need to understand how decisions are made in your organization, and find ways to influence the process when and where it is happening. Second, understand that simply being “at the table” doesn’t make you strategic. Throughout my career, I’ve known communicators who managed to arrive “at the table” but who were not at all strategic in their contributions. I have also known others who were not “at the table” who are astonishingly strategic and impactful.
My point—be strategic where you are. How do you do that? Well, you can tap into the true decision-making structures of the organization. As well, find a communication champion—like me—who’s “at the table” if you’re not there. A strategic communicator is always positively subversive and provocative. In the blog questions, I compared communicators to teachers. In kindergarten, the ECE and teacher are provocateurs—through play-based learning, they challenge each young child to extend and expand their thinking and learning. I think that communicators need to be the provocateurs of the corporate world.
By the same goes for me. Not all my senior leader colleagues always embrace communications, and I have to be subversive—but in a good way—to push the communications agenda:
• “Great leaders stand tall, tell the truth and take the heat.” Max De Pree, Leadership Jazz
• When you think there could be a bad news story—there will be! So get the facts out immediately.
• Never confuse a memo with reality.
• Pre-survey audiences to find their real concerns and answer them in the speech.
• The highest praise a leader can ever receive—”You really listened to me.”
The second core communication practice I’d like to crack open a bit this morning is the art of crafting key messages. I’m a big fan of the book Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath. I know you’ve been trained to develop key messages whenever you start a new communication plan or initiative. But I have to challenge the value of most of those key messages.
Do you ever have key messages that look like this:
“The goal of the multi-year, multi-phased 21st century teaching and learning initiative is to develop a coherent policy/strategy for 21st century teaching and learning in Ontario, including innovative use of technology to support student achievement and defining a 21st century skills framework to guide provincial and local priorities such as curriculum ongoing review and implementation and professional learning.”
Or do they look more like this:
“There is a proven return on investment in early learning of 7-to-1.”
We’ve tested this second key message. Every time I speak to an audience, we do a pre and post survey. And this message sticks. I use it so much that recently I almost dropped it from a speech I was giving recently to school board trustees, because they had heard the message before, and I thought they would have message fatigue. Turns out, I was the only person with message fatigue. In the end, I left it in—as a lead-in to what I thought would be a new “made to stick” message. Through my whole speech, they were tweeting about 7-to-1—it was the sticky message.
By the way, Twitter is a great way to test what’s sticking. Monitoring what people are tweeting from your CEO’s speech, for example. I’ll certainly be interested to see what you’ve been tweeting about my remarks this morning!
So, every communication, every single time out, every speech, every letter, every memo, every web page, we need to ask ourselves—what’s the made-to-stick message?
Unless your key messages are sticky, you have no key messages. And if you have a page of key messages—or as I once saw, 13 pages of key messages—you don’t have any key messages at all!
So, now I’m going to test your ability to spot a sticky key message. Imagine you were my speechwriter and I said I wanted to put one of the following ideas into my next speech, which one would you recommend I use:
• Pearl Jam song Wish List (“I wish I was a messenger and all the news was good”)
• Animal caregivers dressed as pandas
• Children being sent through the mail
• Dirty windshield art
• Self licking ice-cream cone
• Robot day care
Actually, I’ve used them all. These have all been proven made-to-stick ideas or images that have resonated with audiences.
Finally, I know as communicators, you are all about identifying your target audiences. Are they primary or secondary, internal or external. Well, I see things differently. I certainly agree that you really need to know your audiences. But I contend that there is no such thing as external communication. There’s only internal.
Now, before I have all of you asking for a refund on the price of admission, let’s take a minute to see if I can’t convince you. That every audience who matters to you is some degree of internal. Let’s try it out with my work. So, there are the staff in my division—I think you’ll agree they’re an internal audience. And staff in the rest of the Ministry. And the rest of government.
Okay, what about school board and child care staff? After all, my staff and I don’t directly educate or care for a single child. If teachers and ECEs are not part of our internal audience, our initiative to roll out full-day kindergarten and modernize childcare is not going very far, is it? And what about the parents? How many of you in this room are parents? Do you want to be treated like an internal or an external audience? Like a partner or an outsider?
What about the children themselves? It wouldn’t really make much sense for me to travel across the province visiting kindergarten and childcare classes from Red Lake to Renfrew and only talk to the adults, would it? Because, I can tell you I spend as much time sitting on the floor, eye to eye with the one year olds and three year olds and five year olds. A lot of the time, I’m thinking: I sure hope I can stand back up again! But I can tell you, until you’ve seen a four-year-old engaged in play in a kindergarten classroom, you haven’t lived.
So, who else should be counted as an external audience? What about “stakeholders?” We don’t call them that. We call them partners. And that’s how we think of them.
Here’s the idea I want to share with you—and it comes from many years of experience. Every audience, every person, who is important in some way to your organization or your communication initiative, is really an internal audience. It’s just a matter of degree. Like the game. Six degrees of Kevin Bacon. Except this is degrees of internal communication.
It’s a matter of having an internal communicator’s mindset. And while I’m on this topic, because I’m the diversity champion for the Ministry of Education, and because I believe so passionately, we need to have a diversity and inclusion mindset. Whenever you think about your audiences, I encourage you to think from a diversity and inclusion lens.
Culture, language, race, religion, age, differing ability, gender, sexual orientation, family type—these are just a few of the inclusion lenses to put on the communication work you do every day.
So, my subversive, made-to-stick, internal, inclusive communicators, I want to thank you for this rare opportunity to spend time with you this morning. You are like Cirque du Soleil performers—you make the most astonishing feats of bravery and talent look effortless and inevitable. Over the years, I’ve learned to be a better writer, a better speaker and a better leader thanks to the communicators in my professional life. The same is completely true of the communicators in my personal life who have taught me to be a better husband, son, father and now grandfather. And if, for this year, I am able to count myself as an honorary communicator, I am humbled, honoured and well pleased.