Dr. Rebecca Weintraub of the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California: “Communication as the process”

Communication as the process. My colleague, Professor Patricia Riley, has been studying something she calls [email protected] for Communication at the Center. Organizations tend to think of communication as the purview of the people whose job entails communicating with stakeholders. In point of fact, that is just communication as a function. As a part of my […]

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Communication as the process. My colleague, Professor Patricia Riley, has been studying something she calls [email protected] for Communication at the Center. Organizations tend to think of communication as the purview of the people whose job entails communicating with stakeholders. In point of fact, that is just communication as a function.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rebecca Weintraub.

Rebecca Weintraub, PhD is a Clinical Professor of Communication and Director of the online Master of Communication Management Program at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California. Dr. Weintraub has spent more than 40 years in the field of communication, facilitation, change management and organizational behavior. She teaches strategic communication classes in the Communication Management program and provides communication and facilitation consulting services to organizations in the public, private and non-profit sectors. Prior to coming to USC, Dr. Weintraub worked in communication at both Hughes Electronics and Towers Perrin Consulting.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

After a career in corporate communication and consulting, I was ready for a change, but did not know in what direction. My husband reminded me that the Director of the Annenberg School of Communication, Dr. Patti Riley, had been asking me to teach a course as an adjunct. I had not been able to because of my intense travel schedule. But, at his suggestion I reached out, expecting to teach one class. Instead, Dr. Riley and the Dean, Geoff Cowan, decided to hire me full time and I became the Director of the Master of Communication Management Program. I envisioned this as a two-year corporate sabbatical but 21 years later, I am still at USC!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company? NOTE: I do not lead a company, I am a professor and a master’s program director.

In 2001 I met a young woman at a conference in New York where I was recruiting for the master’s program. It turned out she was from Southern California and wanted to get her master’s degree. She was a brilliant student and graduated in 2003. Since then I have been both mentor and friend. She has risen in the corporate world to CCO and CMO for Fortune 200 companies. The best part about this is she has focused a lot of her hiring for both interns and full-time employees on Communication Management students and graduates. I may have had a small roll in her career trajectory, but she has had major impact on the trajectories of my students. In fact, we now partner with her communication team in my Strategic Corporate Communication course. The student has definitely become the teacher!

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

My writing partner, Steven Lewis, and I are writing a book on Incredible Communication. It is a business communication book focusing on building credibility capital. We look at this through a number of lenses including communication culture and content. We have developed a conceptual approach to organizational communication culture that can both help change the communication culture of an organization, but more importantly, help people navigate any kind of communication culture with credibility. The book includes a communication self-assessment. We use those results in a workbook section of many of the chapters to enable people to personalize the material. For example, in our chapter on storytelling, we discuss how to identify the most powerful and impactful stories given an individual’s communication assessment results. This gives people insight into what they likely do, what they should do and what they should probably avoid. In summary, the book provides foundational understanding of what goes into credibility capital, substantive content around major elements of communication, and coaching for how to be the most effective and credible communicator possible.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high? Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

The research is pretty clear: Employees who are disengaged, unhappy and frustrated cost organizations in productivity, profitability, and their own health and wellbeing. Survey after survey, organizational communication and behavior studies, interviews and focus groups all indicate there is a direct correlation between engaged employees and organizational success. Yet, despite saying the opposite, organizational leaders tend to look at employees more as cost than an asset. It is pure, unadulterated self-sabotage. When leaders match their actions to their words and treat their employees truly as their most important asset, the workforce responds in kind.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture?

Leaders at all levels of an organization need to understand five critical elements of work culture.

  1. Communication as the process. My colleague, Professor Patricia Riley, has been studying something she calls [email protected] for Communication at the Center. Organizations tend to think of communication as the purview of the people whose job entails communicating with stakeholders. In point of fact, that is just communication as a function. More important is communication as the process by which things get done. Executives tend to think they have many levers with which to drive results — financial, operational, R&D and the like. The reality is that none of these work without communication. But it is like water to the goldfish. Goldfish have no conception of water until it has gone bad or isn’t there. So, until the lack of communication has started to create major problems, organizations tend to ignore it. Things may work for a while in a kind of benign neglect. In times of change, however, the lack of attention to the communication process inside the organization will exact a devastating toll.
  2. Listen, listen, listen. The bigger the organization, the more important it is to ensure you have your finger on the pulse of the organization. Listening tours are more important than town halls or all hands meetings.
  3. Trust people to do the right thing. Organizations are always driving forward by looking in the rearview mirror. There was a major problem that happened. So, to make sure it never happens again, new processes, procedures and protocols are put into place. This happens over and over and over. In truth, if they think the problem might be repeatable, explain and train. Taking away people’s degrees of freedom turns smart, thinking people into rule followers and box checkers. Don’t do it.
  4. Invest in management education. Give supervisors and managers education and development on what makes for superlative leaders. People are always promoted on the basis of what they did before. So moving into supervisory and managing roles may mean they do not have the necessary skills and knowledge. Note, I said education and not training. Training gives people the ability to do particular things. Education gives people an assortment of ideas, research, and insight that enables them to best support and engage their employees. Organizations do too much training when they should really be providing education.
  5. Educate employees. People want to know how what they do impacts the company’s success. I once worked on a large consulting engagement that involved major organizational change and impacted the workforce all over the world. When I proposed an educational initiative to help people understand the stressors affecting the company and how the changes would make the company more successful, I was met with outright ridicule. The CEO explained that employees had no need to know anything more than how to do their job. Anything else was superfluous. Was it any surprise that the change effort failed?

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

Changing culture is difficult enough in an organization — changing it in the nation is going to be a long process. I do think, however, that there is a growing realization that much of how organizations think about and manage their workforce is rather dysfunctional. We know a lot about human motivation. We know that one size fits all does not work. Research around intrinsic motivation — how people’s behavior is driven by what is naturally satisfying and rewarding to them — is pretty clear. People who are doing work in which they experience accomplishment, challenge, and a chance to grow toward their potential is a major driver of employee engagement and satisfaction. This is in contrast with extrinsic motivation which involves earning rewards or avoiding punishment. If and when organizations begin to focus on identifying and leveraging employees’ intrinsic reward systems rather than relying solely on extrinsic ones, I think we will begin to see a substantive change in workplace cultures.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I would classify myself as a coach. I feel my job is to help anyone I work with succeed and achieve their career goals. In the university setting I have no direct reports as I did in the corporate and consulting jobs. I do have many faculty colleagues who teach in the program I direct. I see my role with them very simply — to ensure they are satisfied with their job. I want them to see there is advancement potential, they have development opportunities and assignments, and that they have someone who is always in their corner. I practice what I preach. I focus on their individual intrinsic motivators and do my best to support them.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have been fortunate to have had many mentors during my career. In my corporate career I began in the Hughes satellite manufacturing division and the Division Manager was a man named C. Richard Jones. He understood the importance of communication and assigned me to work it with him. I learned how important it is for employees to feel connected to their leaders. This was back in the dark ages before any kind of social media or the internet for that matter and every communication was either face to face or on paper. We divided up the workforce by management level and designed a different communication mechanism for each. For first-line supervisors we invited six of them to a 6:30am to 8:00am breakfast in the cafeteria every Wednesday — which was a standard start time for the boss but extremely early for me! I took copious notes, but specifics were always unattributed. For managers, we had a monthly lunch. Additionally, once a month we spent a day in a particular part of the organization. Non-management employees were our tour guides and we had lunch with the day’s tour guides. I often had a photographer with us, but no photos were published. Rather, the boss signed a note that went out to each of the people who were photographed with him. All of these mechanisms provided insights into employees’ perspectives, issues, and concerns. In fact, when we returned from a walkaround — we called them Listening by Walking Around — I would almost always get a call from the Laboratory Manager asking what we heard. I gave them all the same answer from Jones: After you have done your own walkaround let us know and we will schedule a shared debrief. It didn’t take long for the lesson to sink in. I took these lessons with me when I was promoted to Director of Corporate Communication for executive and employee communication under C. Michael Armstrong. He also understood the importance of communication and we did similar kinds of activities.

I learned something immensely powerful out of this. When your boss talks with you, that is dinner table conversation for a day. Your boss’ boss? Maybe a few days. The big boss? A month! People remember and feel valued. These activities were many years ago, but I still receive the occasional note on my social media from people who recall meeting me with “the boss.”

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

For 21 years I have been a professor of communication. I have had thousands of students — both domestic and international — go through my program and hundreds in my classes. These people understand communication as both a function and a process and they bring that knowledge into every sector of society. These graduates are making public companies, NGOs, local and national governments better, more participative and engaged. They are the ones bringing goodness to the world. I merely facilitated it.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Years ago, pondering how easy it was to expect that everything would be perfect once this happened or that stopped, I wrote a saying to put up in my office. It read “Life is a series of obstacles strung together by the occasional good day.” I still have it. To me it means that it will never be perfect. Change is constant. Doggie caca happens. Expecting that someday everything will be smooth and satisfying is to live in perpetual disappointment. Instead, revel in the chaos. Do what you can when you can. Be optimistic. Remember that life and human beings are messy. Get that and you actually create the space for the periodic miracle of perfection.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could, I would inspire people to live in the present. Learn from the past. Anticipate the future. But live today. As the survivor of an extremely aggressive breast cancer, I discovered that my life lived in my planner. If something was written down it was real, it wasn’t the future. Once I understood that future is now, is now, is now, is now — I realized that all I really had was my present. I could not predict the future. In fact, I discovered something that should have been rather obvious: the future exists only in language. That frees us in so many ways. We make the future up, so make it up powerful. Live today to its fullest. No one is promised tomorrow. So take big, huge, delicious bites out of today — even if today is filled with difficulties. Make it yours. The future will become today without any help from you.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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