A Postcard From the Liminal Space

"We’re potentially on the verge of a golden age” in communication, said Leadership Communication Council co-founder Steve Soltis, at a recent meeting at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business.

Four years ago, I was honored to attend the inaugural meeting of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business’s newly formed Leadership Communication Council, in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

I summed up the gist of that momentous meeting then by writing, of the top communication executives in attendance: “Two days of conversation left them humbled by the near-impossibility of defining today’s roiling market realities, let alone practicing effective communication management at this disorienting moment in American history—or preparing young people to practice it.”

Last week, after missing several annual meetings in the meantime, I tried to find my way back to the fall of 2017, gingerly walking back time past the Capitol riot, George Floyd, a yearlong COVID winter, The Business Roundtable’s New Purpose of a Corporation … and, of course, the Charlottesville riot.

And so here, we found ourselves again, many of us enjoying our first in-person meeting in a long time, at Mr. Jefferson’s University. University rules dictated that masks had to be worn indoors. In almost all cases, meeting participants followed the guideline gladly—grateful and joyfully energized for the chance to gather in person once again.

Together in good humor, we took stock, and tried to chart a practical way ahead.

We did a better job of taking stock.

The Workplace of the Future? Not This. But What?

Though the Chatham House Rule forbids me from quoting any but the official speakers at this meeting for attribution, I can say that communication execs share a strong sense that that company cultures and the relationships that make them, are weakening after almost two years on Zoom.

Many discussions went back to a simple keynote observation by former U.S. Army Judge Advocate General Charles Pede. 

“COVID created a sense that we can survive through transactional relationships,” Pede said, in an opening address in Jefferson’s Rotunda itself. “And we can’t.”

Darden School of Business leadership communication instructor (and meeting founder) Steve Soltis and his Darden co-organizer June West brought in a pair of executives paid to build the future of work in their organizations. They sounded at once smart and thoughtful, and also a little “woo-woo” as my Boulder, Colorado-based sister likes to put it.

The situation is this, said Desmond Dickerson, Microsoft’s Director, Future of Work: 40% of American employees are strongly considering leaving their employers within the next year. But how to make them happier, when 61% love the flexibility to work at home, but 63% miss working in the office? “The hybrid paradox,” Dickerson called it.

Though they feel more productive at home, workers are burned out from the grind. “How can we make work regenerative again?” Dickerson asked, rhetorically.

Among panelists and audience alike, this session contained lots of talk of “design thinking” and quotes like “the neurological impact of [workspace] design is fundamental,” and calls for building in, on Zoom calls, time for “mindful chatter,” to bond employees with one another personally. The imperative, Dickerson said, is to create a “ROWE”: a Results-Oriented Work Environment.

Which sounds like something out of the 1950s or earlier—not something from this moment, when employees demand flexibility to come and go as they please, and yet also yearn for a sense of deeply committed human solidarity.

I mean, it’s exciting to hope that innovative workspaces and strategic scheduling will accommodate employees’ simultaneous need for max flexibility and tight camaraderie, but you’d have to be dosing on ayahuasca to bet on it.

If Past Isn’t Prologue, It’ll Have to Do Until Prologue Gets Here

Speaking of the 1950s, perhaps the most invigorating drumbeat at this conference was that expressed most feistily by Darden’s June West, who forbade herself and everyone else to use the word “unprecedented,” on account of, history has much to teach us about everything we’re facing—from pernicious pandemics to profound political discord.

Corporate archivists from Ford and McKinsey gave a lecture about the purpose of keeping track of corporate history, because as Ford’s archive mission says, publicly remembering the past helps “build trust in our ability to lead in the future.” McKinsey leans on a quote from one of the firm’s fathers, Martin Bower: “Our heritage is the ideas that have always guided our destiny.”

Both men are working hard to inject relevant corporate history into recruiting, on-boarding, training and communications with all stakeholders to “instill and reinforce our culture,” McKinsey’s archivist Paul Lasewicz said. As so many social and economic circumstances threaten to pull organizations apart, it’s paramount to strengthen corporate ties, Lasewicz said, and the strategic use of archives is “one tool in this fight.”

But What About the Stubbornest Problem of All: Lack of Trust in Modern Institutions?

Steve Soltis abruptly put this question to me, citing the wisdom that can be found in my new book, An Effort to Understand: Hearing One Another (and Ourselves) in a Nation Cracked in Half.

After nearly spitting out my coffee, I responded not with an answer provided by my book, but rather with something that sounded a lot like this passage from my account of the first meeting of this Council, four years ago:

And to whom are people turning for principled leadership and cultural compass points? Of all things, corporations and other large institutions. With an erratic president and a discredited intellectual elite, people need someone to trust, someone to know the responsible, sensible, sustainable “corporate” view on gun control, transgender restrooms, gay marriage, Confederate monuments, immigration, Black Lives Matter, Obamacare, tax reform, kneeling during the National Anthem and climate change.

What social activists long decried as amoral self-interest in corporations is now treasured as impartial interest in sustainability. “Trump can pull out of Paris,” said one participant. “But UPS can’t.”

The guy who uttered that UPS quote, CEO communication coach Dain Dunston, was sitting right next to me when I regurgitated it last week. I think we were both a little discouraged that we were still chewing the same cud four years later, but it’s true as ever, despite our more sedate chief executive.

Much more true, in fact.

With bomb-throwing politicians wearing “Tax the Rich” dresses and pushing “Defund the Police” slogans on one side, or threatening not to raise the debt ceiling and banning mask mandates on the other, corporate CEOs and other institutional leaders are still the grownups in the room.

They’re weary of it. They’re ill-suited for it. Their statements are sounding like word-shrugs. 

How will their communicators help guide them toward a more sustainable public policy stance, so they can reset their organizations on a sane course, edified but not paralyzed by the madness of these last few years?

“We’re potentially on the verge of a golden age” in communication, said Soltis, pointing out that communication has been “front and center” for the last two years—before adding that it’s unclear whether communicators will meet the next moment, helping their leaders take their institutions to the other side of the current liminal space, to a better place.

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