EXCEL award winner John H. Johnson communicates success.
John H. Johnson rose from the welfare rolls of the city of Chicago to become the only black man listed on Forbes' list of America's 400 wealthiest people. He is owner and publisher of Ebony magazine, with a circulation of 1.3 million, the largest black-oriented publication in the world. His publishing empire also includes books and two other magazines, Jet and EM (Ebony Man). He engages in other businesses as well, including Fashion Fair Cosmetics; Supreme Beauty Products; Radio Stations WJPC-AM, Chicago; WLNR-FM, Chicago-Lansing; WLOU-AM, Louisville; and Ebony/Jet Showcase television program. He is chairman and chief executive officer of Supreme Life Insurance Company, where he began his career as an office boy. He has been an advisor to world leaders, and serves on the boards of many business corporations and is a contributor and participant in various philanthropic, civic and cultural activities. His honors and awards are numerous, and he has been granted honorary doctoral degrees from 20 colleges and universities.
Johnson is this year's winner of IABC's Excellence in Communication Award, the highest given to a nonmember. The EXCEL award is bestowed on business leaders, frequently CEOs, who have developed and used communication techniques to help their organizations achieve their goals in an exemplary manner.
CW: Obviously, you are a success as a communicator. How did you develop your communication skills? Did you use "communication" as a specific method of obtaining success, or does it come so naturally to you, that you unconsciously incorporate it as a part of your overall strategy?
JHJ: My management style is based on the art of communication. For communication is an art, not a science. It is an emotion, not a statistic. And the best communicators know instinctively that to communicate effectively you must bypass intellectual centers and tap into the deepest fears, hopes and emotions of your audience.
I'm a hands-on, hands-in, hands-wrapped-around manager, and I believe it's impossible to separate good management from good communication.
Almost all of my time at Johnson Publishing Company is spent communicating with senior managers who are expected to transmit my messages to the employees in their divisions. All day long, from nine to five, executives and senior employees come to my office with details, reports and communication problems. I tell them if there's a problem they can't solve to bring it to me, and I'll solve it. That's my job. Everything in the company is supposed to be done by somebody else. The only job I have at Johnson Publishing Company is to tell other people how to do their jobs. My job, in other words, is teaching, training, selling, persuading--communicating, as I indicated in my new book, "Succeeding Against the Odds." And I believe it's impossible to separate good management from good communication. For the best manager is the best communicator.
I developed my communication skills as a technique of survival. I was born in poverty and spent two years on the welfare rolls, and I learned early that I had to communicate or die. And so I talked my way out of poverty--I communicated my way to the top.
As a high school student, I sharpened my communication skills by practicing conversations and selling approaches before a mirror in my room. Then I went to school and forced myself to stand up and communicate. My fellow students laughed at first but they soon started applauding because I was changing minds and influencing people.
During the same period, I read and re-read books on self-improvement, success and communication. The most important lesson I learned from these books is what I call "other focusing." This means, among other things, that if we want to communicate with employees, managers and even competitors we must ask ourselves not what we want but what they want.
This rule made me a millionaire. For the only way I got to where I am today was by persuading thousands of blacks and whites, some of whom were very prejudiced, that the only way they could get what they wanted was by helping me get what I wanted. All the law and prophecy of communication theory can be found in that formula.
CW: Have you encouraged or developed formal communication plans in any of your business ventures or activities?
JHJ: I spend almost all of my time creating and refining communication plans that will reach and sell advertisers, subscribers and corporate managers.
CW: How does your management style affect the way people communicate in your companies?
JHJ: My management style affects every employee in my publishing, cosmetics and insurance enterprises. I'm a one-on-one manager, and I expect my managers to be one-on-one managers.
CW: Do you think a formal communication program is more important for a publishing venture than another type of business (e.g. an insurance company)?
JHJ: A formal communication program is obviously more important to a business that specializes in communication. If a communication business can't communicate, it cannot demand respect or revenue from friends or foes.
CW: What are the toughest business issues you've had to communicate?
JHJ: The toughest business issue I had to communicate was the importance of the black-American consumer market. It's customary today for corporations and advertising agencies to place messages in black-oriented media. But when I started out in 1942, major corporations didn't advertise in black media, and there were no black advertising specialists. There wasn't even a single black, not even a secretary, working for white advertising agencies. I helped change all that by developing--some say I invented--the Black American Consumer Market. How did I accomplish this? First of all, I recruited and trained a staff of black advertising specialists. Secondly, I organized and pressed a 15-year campaign that helped make Ebony and the Black American Consumer Market integral parts of the marketing and advertising strategies of corporate America. To do this, I had to communicate four points: 1) that black consumers existed; 2) that they had disposable incomes; 3) that they bought brand-name products; 4) that they could and would buy additional products if they were appealed to directly and personally. That campaign was so hard that I hate to think about it, even today. To give you an idea, I sent an advertising salesman to Detroit, Mich., every week for ten years before we broke our first major car account.
CW: How much time do you spend communicating? Internally? With government? Media? Speeches and public appearances?
JHJ: I spend 60 to 70 percent of my time communicating internally with my managers and employees. I spend the rest of my time interacting with corporate leaders on Fortune 500 boards and communicating with clients my executives can't sell. I never ask employees to solve problems I can't solve. I never ask them to sell people I can't sell. I know that I can get in to see people they can't see. But once I get in, I'm on my own. The big advantage I have then is that I have a lifetime of experience in changing no to yes. I love to sell. I sell even when there is no monetary advantage in selling. I sell for the sheer joy of selling, for the sheer joy of changing minds and communicating.
CW: Do you have any advice to give communicators that will help their CEOs, and their businesses become more successful?
The fundamental problem we face is a failure to communicate externally and internally. This is surprising, for our society has created the most effective communication machine in the history of the world. And the challenge before us is the challenge of returning to the fundamental principles of American business. The first principle, without which all other principles are useless, is to identify with consumers. This means, among other things, that you must put yourself in the consumer's shoes, to see what he sees, to feel what she feels, and to want what he or she wants.
Somebody said once that "in order to get lion's cubs, you must go into the lion's lair." The same rule applies in communication. You must go into the target community and study the history and psychology of the consumers. You must do this not in one survey but in a continuous survey.
This applies, I might add, to everyone from the CEO on down. I told a story in Ebony's fortieth anniversary issue of the woman I met in a community supermarket. She was surprised and shocked to find me pushing a cart down the aisles and taking food off the shelves. She asked me why I didn't have an aide to do the shopping. And I told her, "I do it because I like to do it." I could have added that I do it because there's no other way to keep your finger on the pulse of the public.
CW: Any thoughts on how people of differing cultures can communicate better?
JHJ: Here again we are called back to the basic rules of our trade. For we know from communication theory that the transmission affects and colors the message transmitted and that the medium, as the pundits say, is the message.
I have been involved primarily in publishing black-oriented magazines. But I discovered early in my career that it's impossible to publish a successful magazine for one general audience without awareness of all general audiences. This meant, as a practical matter, that I had to be sensitive not only to the aspirations of blacks but also to the aspirations of other ethnic groups. And I believe this stereoscopic vision is a precondition for communicating in the multi-colored markets.
We must learn now to think in living color. We must see not only blacks and whites and Hispanics but also women and youth and the new and undefined markets of tomorrow. We must reflect all the colors and fragrances and rhythms of our vibrant and pluralistic world.
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|Date:||May 1, 1989|
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