Remarks to Public Relations Society of America Central Illinois Chapter April 28, 2016
Jack Modzelewski Global President, Business Development & Partnerships FleishmanHillard
Thank you, John (Lyday). I appreciate you and your fellow PRSA board members inviting me to speak here today.
In addition to the business professionals in the room tonight, I also appreciate the educators and students here from some of our great universities, including my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Where, by the way, I switched majors twice before finding my proper home in what was then called the College of Communications.
As I arrived earlier I noticed many official vehicles in the parking lot driven by fire department chiefs and marshals from various cities in Illinois who are meeting here. Seeing their vehicles triggered a memory – actually an embarrassing story – I associate with Peoria. In the 1990s I came to Peoria many times to do work with our client Caterpillar. One of the projects was updating the company’s preparedness for a crisis or catastrophic incident. At that time I generally stayed at the famous Pierre Marquette Hotel. And like so many road-warrior consultants, after a day with Caterpillar I would eat dinner – often alone – in the hotel restaurant.
I was having such a solitary dinner one evening while reading a newspaper, when suddenly I smelled smoke and wondered if there was a kitchen fire. As I looked in the direction of the kitchen, I saw a few waiters rushing toward my table with towels and a water pitcher. That’s when I noticed my newspaper was … on fire! I had ignited it by inadvertently dipping it into the candle on my table. Imagine my embarrassment as a waiter extinguished it with his towel, then escorted me to another table while they cleaned up the mess. Fortunately, there were only a few fellow diners, and so I gave them my best yes, I actually set my newspaper on fire shrug and sheepish grin. I could just imagine what would have happened had I set the restaurant on fire: a Peoria Journal Star story under the headline “Crisis Expert Torches Pierre Marquette.”
But you didn’t come here tonight to hear my old stories. I hope you came to hear about our professional roles in leading change..
I wish that I had been able to foresee long ago all the changes that have disrupted and reshaped the communications profession. But like so many others, I have been a journeyman in this business and – despite an intuitive sense for trying to look around corners to see what’s coming next – I, too, have had to adapt to change year after year. That is why I believe that leading change is hard work. Perhaps even endless work.
My speech title tonight – Change is a Full-time Job — comes from a 20th century Illinois leader and statesman: Adlai Stevenson II. He was a governor and two-time Democratic presidential nominee. His grandfather was a Vice President of the United States under President Grover Cleveland.
And the actual quote from Mr. Stevenson during his 1956 run for the presidency came during a campaign stop in Miami, when he said: “Change for the better is a full-time job.” The part I would like to underscore are the words “for the better.” Change clearly can take us in different directions. Good and bad. Change for the better is what we and our organizations strive for every day on behalf of all our stakeholders. But the obstacles and counterforces to change have never been more complex.
Several years ago, FleishmanHillard (FH) — the firm where I have worked for nearly 26 years – – was at an inflexion point where we saw the new directions in which our business was heading. We knew we needed to change and adapt more quickly than ever. Among the questions we asked ourselves were: What business are we in? Are we in the public relations business or the change management and communications business? While relationships will always be at the core of what we do, communicating what is new and different – using the latest communication technologies and social platforms to do so — is also at the core.
So we focused some of the strategic creativity and GPS mapping we offer clients on our own organization. Once we pointed a strategic compass to our future destination, we knew that we needed to show our people the path we would pursue and also the reputational benefits we could derive if successful.
I can tell you from experience there will always be plenty for work for those who know how to manage, interpret, communicate and lead others through organizational change. Yes, we’re in an era of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, virtual reality, interstellar travel, autonomous driving and enterprise computer programs taking on more and more human responsibility in the workplace. Yet I believe that it is ultimately humans who create change — and humans who must manage the consequences of it.
So how do we lead change today? Before I come to that, let’s look at some of the forces buffeting organizations and compelling constant reaction, rethinking, and recalibration.
First, competition at every level — horizontal and vertical — is coming at companies from all directions. And just when you thought you had all bases covered, a new competitor pops up, or a known one changes the game. No wonder we feel some days like this [soldier] in a foxhole dodging incoming fire while trying to maintain our sights on longer- range targets.
Global competition — and opportunity — means we are working simultaneously across time zones. Global organizations now work 24/7, meaning that every hour of the day someone is working in some time zone of the world. We have people at FH working in at least 13 time zones each day. I can ask someone in Asia a question at 5 P.M. Central time here and potentially get the answer within an hour from someone typing on a smart device at 7 A.M. in Singapore. Yet it’s hard enough trying to affect change in one location, or one country. For multinationals it is very difficult as language and local operational differences add complexities to the job of communicating new directions.
The velocity of change has also accelerated, making it seem as though it is continuous, with no end point even if end goals have been achieved. Because when your organization is shifting, so may be your competitors. Or maybe regulators are enacting new laws. Or new disruptive technologies are posing threats. Or consumer attitudes about your products are in disfavor. Or all of the above. Nothing stands still while we make our strategic moves. It is always a multi-dimensional chess match.
Of course, what we do for a living — communications — is the nerve system of change, stimulating all parts of organizations to work together and sensing pain points and systemic roadblocks. But the old ways of doing things and communicating about them now face limitations. Town hall meetings, webcasts and the like still have their place, but information and rumor sources outside the organization via social media channels now have considerable influence over employee sentiments and mindsets.
Nothing has accelerated the use and experimentation of social media in the ways that politics, sports and celebrity culture have. We are no longer content as consumers of news and information; we want to be part of the story, or commentators blogging about it. We want to be in the picture. Literally. So presidential candidates, prime ministers, athletes and celebrities of all kinds now are obligated to pose for countless selfies every day. Even the Pope has joined the Twitter and selfie world. And the breathless pace of political campaigns has demonstrated how rapidly messages and even policy positions are adjusted to seize opportunity or quell threat. Does the name Trump come to mind?
Perhaps few events compel organizational or industry change like a crisis. They overwhelm the company that is in the bulls-eye as well as the many other players caught in its wake. Financial crises force government regulators and policymakers to rethink conventional economic wisdom that no longer fits a global economy behaving asymmetrically. Major data breaches cause intelligence and public service agencies to question their firewalls, protocols and risk management programs. Food and health crises shake the foundational beliefs of scientists and medical authorities.
We all remember Rahm Emanuel’s quote in 2008 “that you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” What many don’t remember was the context. He was about to join newly elected President Obama’s administration as White House chief of staff. With the U.S. in the midst of a Wall Street meltdown and the threat of a disastrous global economic recession, Emanuel mentioned that the 1973-74 energy crisis in America had been an opportunity for boldly rethinking how to address the nation’s longer-term energy needs. But it takes unusual leadership – and a full-time attitude and will about leading change – to pivot a crisis into something positive.
In the middle of our client General Motors major ignition switch recall in 2014, CEO Mary Barra saw the crisis as a platform for accelerating change. She told Forbes magazine: “We want to do the right thing and serve the customer well through this — but it is also an opportunity to accelerate cultural change.”
Organizations that try to merely survive a crisis are making a mistake. It is the perfect time for both recovery and discovery, for examining what went wrong while taking those lessons forward into positive initiatives that the whole company can embrace and make happen.
Another force compelling changes in how we lead others to change is the challenge of managing as many as five generations of employees working alongside each other. Today, it is not inconceivable for some companies to have workers who are in their teens or in their seventies working with Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials. Hollywood has already captured this theme with films like The Intern starring Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway.
Leaders today must account for generational differences among their employees and associates. But they also must know what binds and connects individual employees of all ages, gender and demographic differences. Businesses generally strive to be better servants to their customers. But to perform better for customers and end users, businesses first need the collective commitment of their people. Without that, change for the better is impossible or at least improbable. And there we enter the realm of human performance psychology. What
motivates people? What do our workplace colleagues really want? Well here are just a few of the most common employee needs:
• Employees want a sense of shared purpose to find passion and meaning in their work.
• People want clear direction about the end goals of the company and the performance measures on which they collectively will be judged.
• They expect to be judged on shorter-term metrics, but want the long-term context, too, about their contributions to the greater good.
• If the company grows, they expect personal growth and career ascension, especially if their performances warrant it.
• And money — competitive pay and benefits – matters.
Recognizing where generational needs of employees may differ is also a challenge. Millennials already exercise power over social mores and values, public thought, product design, style and fashion, payment choices, and a host of other things. In the workplace, millennials want to fulfill their talents completely, seek mentoring, have time to pursue personal innovation and development or community service, and expect immersive learning experiences. Our Gen Xers want some of those courtesies, too, as well as promotions and upward mobility, skills retraining, and a voice in company direction and policy. Baby boomers want to conclude their careers as successfully as possible, and seek professional reinvention to allay premature retirement anxieties. And all of these generations are now participating and competing in the so-called gig economy as independent contractors.
Activism is clearly a forceful instrument of change. We are seeing a lot more activism directed at institutions as well as some advocated and energized by the institutions themselves. Activism is commonly used to oppose or to change something: policies, leadership, governance, cultural behavior or structure. The tools to express activism and coalesce public support are well familiar to communications professionals: rallies, protests, public petitions, tweets and other social media commentary, litigation, and talk show call-ins.
But one interesting trend to watch is activism initiated by corporate CEOs. No longer do CEOs hold back their opinions or their companies’ marketplace clout on social issues. Examples include the stands taken by various CEOs on everything from government threats on personal privacy to laws proposed in states impacting individual liberties. Take the backlash against anti-LBGT laws in North Carolina and other states during the past year. It shows how quickly social activists can mobilize not only public sentiment, but corporate and institutional power to reverse proposed laws not viewed in the interest of all of society.
In addition to being active on matters important to society, we also expect our leaders to be authentic. Some of you may be familiar with the signature methodology FH has been implementing for several years called The Authenticity Gap. Here are a few key insights from our recent The Authenticity Gap study – themes we have already addressed tonight — that may help you think about making your own organizations and brands more authentic:
• Our expectations today are shaped by many different stakeholders and sources and vary dramatically by geography and industry. To be relevant and authentic, leaders must keep in touch with rapidly shifting expectations from customers, employees and other stakeholders.
• How management behaves and a company’s relationship with society overall may matter as much as the quality and utility of a company’s products and services.
• Our expectations for management to do the right thing are on the rise, but our experience is on the decline. In this age of growing mistrust of institutions, organizational leaders become de facto chief credibility officers, and so must appreciate the often difficult challenge of sustaining trusted relationships by behaving authentically with stakeholders.
Around every good intention and action to keep employees well informed lurks the threat of hackers and data thieves preying on doors left open by human error or poorly regulated internal controls. That has become the practical and ideological struggle between Apple and the government in the battle of privacy versus national and community security, prompting CEO Tim Cook to declare “privacy as a fundamental right.” Yet, the conundrum is this: the more information organizations collect and share with their employees, customers and business partners, the more vulnerable any private or privileged information becomes. And that’s because e-commerce is now a way of life.
“The Internet will rapidly become ubiquitous, integrated into our everyday lives, often in invisible ways,” wrote Steve Case in a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. Case is co- founder of AOL, CEO of Revolution LLC, and author of a new book called The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future. He knows a little bit about change, and went on to say in his op-ed that a ubiquitous Internet “will challenge industries such as healthcare, education, financial services, energy and transportation – which collectively represent more than half of the U.S. economy.”
I know that many of you in this room work in those very industries, and have already been coping with the pressures of rapid change in an economy becoming more digital by the day. It’s a bit scary, as has been noted by your fellow professionals. As Steve Barrett, editor of
PRWeek, recently said: “The PR industry is going through a time of intense change and permanent evolution that makes it the most exciting time to be in the profession – but also a little frightening.”
Personally, I find these times more exciting than frightening, because we as communicators can be difference-makers in our worlds. We can be architects of plans and programs to lead change. I like what Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer of Procter & Gamble (a FleishmanHillard client), once said about communication programs that drive desired outcomes: “Forget the labels. Give me communications that makes things happen.”
So let me leave you with some advice that we at FleishmanHillard have learned from much experience working on clients’ change management endeavors, and sometimes in partnership with leading management consulting firms like McKinsey, Booz Allen Hamilton, and others.
If you are working closely with your leadership team to pursue a program aimed at changing the organization from its present state to how you wish it to be positioned and perform in the future, first you need to examine the enterprise’s strengths and weaknesses. Then propose necessary structural changes that will best enable the change you seek. You should define a unifying purpose and create with organizational leaders – and with representative employee input – the new goals and strategies of the change campaign. All of this has to work within the culture you have now but with foresight about the cultural changes you are trying to direct.
The plan needs leaders to drive it, and who may not necessarily be functional or business unit leaders but others chosen because of their unique skills to both shape and implement the plan. Key Performance metrics will define success and accountability, especially when measured by internal enthusiasm for the change program and customer experience resulting from it. You have to measure mindset and actual behavior changes impacting performance.
Pressure testing the plan in smaller groups is also advisable before rolling it out across the organization. Leadership by example is crucial, and communication should be frequent, interactive and feature compelling stories of progress being scaled across the enterprise. Rewards and promotions must be aligned to financial and operational performance, and also to encourage the most desirable cultural behaviors. And to quote a CEO I once worked closely with on his organization’s change campaign, the most important six words in a transformational change campaign are “follow up, follow up, follow up.”
Thank you again for inviting me to speak and now I will try to answer any questions you have about things I said tonight.