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A conversation with EXCEL award winner, Jack Sinclair.

The Excellence in Communication Leadership award (EXCEL) is given by IABC to a non-IABC member who leads the way in fostering -- and participating in -- good communication. EXCEL winners support communication and public relations and their organizations reflect that support in their outstanding communication work. The EXCEL award is the highest award given to a nonmember who is frequently a top executive in a major company.

Jack Sinclair assumed the role of executive vice president, Ontario Region, Bell Canada in 1988. He had joined the company in 1958 and held positions of increasing responsibility over the years. He instituted an open communication policy, and knew many of the organization's 30,000 employees by name. "Teamwork" became much more than just a word under Sinclair. He advocated risk taking and encouraged employees not to be afraid of trying new methods to solve problems. Under his leadership, he revitalized the public affairs team and promoted taking Bell Canada's message directly to the community, to the news media and to various levels of government. He believes that business networking begins on an individual basis, by supporting and attending both community as well as corporate endeavors.

During his tenure, he was instrumental in enhancing the Bell image in the areas of community involvement. With a deep personal commitment to volunteering he gave new meaning to philanthropy by making employees feel good about volunteering and supporting charitable organizations.

GG: Did you have any formal communication training or have you developed any particular strategies you have applied in formulating your own style of communication?

JS: We had an internat public speaking club in the company which I joined early in my career -- on the model of the Toastmasters Club. I was a member for about eight years and learned the techniques of effective public speaking. My particular strategy in communication is singular -- honesty. I have found that is the most effective way of getting the message across, sprinkled where possible with some humor, which helps to take the edge off even a difficult situation. Beyond that, it seemed to happen naturally.

GG: How do you feel you communicate most effectively -- one-on-one, small meetings, large meetings, the written word?

JS: There is no question in my mind that the most effective communication is done face-to-face. Large groups, small groups make no difference. Face-to-face contact coupled with a good amount of time to respond to questions and answers in an honest and forthright way makes the communication easier and more satisfying for everyone. it gives you instant opportunity to clarify, correct or expand on issues and concerns.

GG: I noted that you used video to reach all employees when you first stepped into a top executive position at Bell Canada in 1988. Was this a fairly uncommon method of reaching employees at that time? Do you feel video is as effective as other communication methods such as those mentioned in the previous question?

JS: We were beginning to use video cassettes more as a vehicle to inform our far-flung staff about a variety of company, customer and employee events. This was one of the first uses of this by an executive. The scenario was that we had just concluded the longest strike in our companies' 108-year history -- our craft and operator services people were out four months. Management personnel were pressed into service and successfully maintained customer service but at the loss of summer vacations, and they put in a lot of overtime. Clearly there were stresses as the workers began to return and we felt it necessary to talk to all our managers and get their feelings sorted out to avoid any unnecessary acrimony. We were under very rigid timing, so the only possible vehicle was the video tapes, recognizing the matter was too "touchy-feely" to be committed to paper.

Interactive video was introduced last year and has proved successful because of the ability of the audience to ask questions of the senior officer who is presenting. It is the most practical answer when you have an organization that is spread around and cannot be brought together in any practical way. It carries a lot of the attributes of face-to-face dialogue. Its only apparent down side is that the timing for a showing is rigid and is not long enough for totally effective dialogue.

GG: How do you encourage open communication between you and your employees, as well as external publics?

JS: By doing it! People respond to open communication if you set the tone --relaxed, honest, don't-have-all-the-answers-but-will-do-my-best, and with a little dose of humor (not jokes, but humor that occurs in most settings). I made it known I was available for big meetings, little meetings, whatever --ask and I'll come -- and they did and I did!

GG: Do you have any special methods of measuring the effectiveness of your or your conpany's communication efforts?

JS: Personally, effectiveness has been mainly conveyed by verbal feedback after the event.

The company uses employee surveys and Bell News [company newspaper] surveys to see if particular approaches were useful -- also 800-number phoneins with comments on specific events.

GG: What special pipelines do you have for listening to employees?

JS: These continue to develop. My main one was the feedback from face-to-face dialogues. One-on-one feedback in an informal way was also useful, as was feedback from managers.

There are "call-the-top" phone numbers to get a response where other methods have seemed to fail.

GG: Have there been any particular problems that you've had to deal with that required your communication skills above and beyond your management skills?

JS: Can't separate the two -- an ability to communicate is, in my view, a necessary management skill.

GG: What are the toughest issues you've had to communicate?

JS: The telecommunications business in Canada is undergoing massive change as we enter more and more into the competitive and international environment. There is a great need for us to change the way we do business, change the way we deal with customers, change the way we deal internally in a company of 53,000 employees. To explain the need and sense of urgency to change is probably the toughest issue to communicate because you are trying to communicate a change in thinking and style to employees who have been very successful over the years doing it "the old way!"

GG: What do you consider your single greatest communication success?

JS: In 1977, I was appointed an officer and took over a department of some 1,700 people. For a variety of reasons, it was internally demoralized and, within the company, viewed as an "enemy" rather than part of the team.

The first need was to restore confidence in the employees, and I set up "Issues Seminars" where I would meet with groups of 30-40 employees a couple of times a month minimum, to dialogue with them about our situation and our future. This was the first time I had used this dialogue technique to speak honestly to the troops. They would typically last two to three hours. It proved to me without question the value of face-to-face meetings as I was able to both get the message across clearly about our role and dispel the many myths that had arisen regarding the department's goals and general modus operandi.

GG: You have devoted a great deal of time to volunteer agencies. How are you able to find time in your busy schedule?

JS: I do it because it's like a hobby to me. I enjoy volunteer work-- it is a release for me from the normal day-to-day business activities, and yet at the same time I'm able to bring to it the same attributes or discipline that I've learned in business. My involvement in volunteer work tends to be in the administrative side as opposed to that of a one-on-one basis with a person. I do volunteer work because I believe I have gained more from the society than I have put back in. I believe that working with the volunteer sector as well as in business helps both. And Bell Canada very much encourages all employees, executive or otherwise, to be active in the community where they work.

GG: Do you feel that your volunteer work has ever conflicted with your duties on the job?

JS: I guess one would have to be truthful and say that if you are going to do a job in two areas you're going to have to rob Peter to pay Paul. But I never have felt, or it has never been brought to my attention, that somehow the job has suffered. I think you learn to schedule your time better because you must.

GG: What are the most dramatic changes that you've seen in communication in the years you've been active in business?

JS: I think what has happened over the last 10 or 15 years is that senior people have recognized that being on the top floor of a building and working by decree or by memo just isn't satisfactory. It was that way when I joined the company in 1958. We scarcely ever saw a senior executive; in fact I recall the only time we saw the vice president was at Christmas. We would straighten all the desks and put our work materials away and he would come down and wish us merry Christmas and that was it--unless you saw him in the elevator. I think what has evolved is the fact that this type of management is no longer acceptable; it's no tonger a good enough way to communicate. People just won't accept that. Managers and CEOs have to have a much stronger identification working with employees. I think they need to see the whites of their eyes.

GG: You were involved with both internal and external communication. How would you advise new communicators coming into the business today? Where do you think they should put their efforts?

JS: I think you almost have to look at what the company situation is. I could see it varying with the focus being more external more than internal, depending upon what sort of pattern that the company is moving toward. I would say look internally first and then try to decide if you're doing enough there, then you can start to look out to your external marketplace. Doing one without the other would be a failure. I think you must have a good mix for success.

GG: Would you like to predict the future for communicators?

JS: I think in our company, it's going to be limited. We are experiencing our second recession in the time when most of us have been managers. We learned a lot from the first recession, and we are surprised at how long this one has lasted. I think if we were cautious after the first one, and we were, then we should be even more cautious now. So I think we are going to find less of everything. There is a need for better and more effective communication as the order of the day, but that's not necessarily going to mean more communicators. It's going to mean finding more effective ways. I think markets are going to remain tight. Communicators are going to have to focus on how they can effectively communicate either internally or externally with perhaps fewer bucks, fewer people and yet meet the demand to do it better, faster and more effectively. I don't think, by the way, that's specifically a phenomenon for just communicators, it's a general phenomenon that we all are facing.

GG: Do you see an upsurge in companies that have downsized using consultants?

JS: I'm on the side of large companies maintaining an in-house communication ability. You have to understand big corporations, and I think it's difficult for people to come in and quickly understand what's going on. However, that doesn't exclude the possibility of an in-house communication group that would do a great number of things, but might use a consultant on a contract basis for specific advice on needs that arise. I suspect that you will see not as much in-house, but more likely. a combination of the two things.

I think one place that a communicator might want to look seriously is in the not-for-profit sector. These groups have one hell of a communication job to do, and some do it reasonably effectively and some don't. The reason is that their whole existence depends upon discovering money. and getting it from the public donation box. The only way you to do that is by communicating the needs of that particular organization, whether it's multiple sclerosis, the cancer society, or heart association. I think that some of these organizations are in the learning stages, and need a different kind of communication that is more thorough than what they've had in the past -- something more professional and better developed.

GG: Is there a specific area that you'd like to address that you feel would help communicators?

JS: I am going to talk a little about one thing that communication does in the one-on-one area. I think that one-on-one eliminates fear. I've sensed this fear in both large and small organizations between lower-level people and the executive. The lower level people seem to feel that there are some God-like people up there that you better obey or else! My sense is that it is absolutely essential that we work to eliminate that fear and build team work. And I don't know how to eliminate fear except by showing people that you're not the ogre that you are either positioned to be, or that you are perceived to be, simply because you have whatever title you have.

GG: What do you think is the most serious problem affecting managenwnt today that you believe communication could help solve?

JS: Uncertainty created by the changing times. The general economic environment coupled with the clear emergence of global competition and the need for business to respond to those changes has resulted in great uncertainty in peoples' minds. The need for companies to change their way of doing business, the need for leaner and more efficient work forces, the need for constant retraining and updating, the pressure on quality and productivity, all have left people in a state of uncertainty as to their future -- even if they accept the need for such change. If ever there was a need for honest and constant communicating, it's now! People need to be reassured of why companies are doing what they're doing and what the future holds. Uncertainty breeds discontent. Communication breeds understanding.

Gloria Gordon is editor, Communication World.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
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Title Annotation:Excellence in Communication Leadership award
Author:Gordon, Gloria
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:Interview
Date:May 1, 1992
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