The Gist

  • Building trust. Effective communication relies on intentionality, authenticity and candor to build trust and credibility.
  • Strengthening connections. Curiosity, creativity and graciousness foster innovation and strengthen interpersonal connections.
  • Communicating successfully. Preparation, harmony and adaptability enable successful communication across various situations and audiences.

I tend to review books that are at the cusp of strategy, transformation and customer experiences. However, through my years of interacting with CIOs, I have learned that the smartest CIOs lead with intention and as a part of this, they are great communicators and storytellers.

Given this, when I got the opportunity to review "Breaking Through: Communicating to Open Minds, Move Hearts, and Change the World," I jumped at the chance. The book is from Sally Susman, chief corporate affairs officer at Pfizer. Without question, the challenges of communication are great, and any business leader can glean valuable lessons from reading the book.

"Breaking Through" is an incredibly personal tale of communication successes and failures. To be authentic, Susman shares significant and personal stories from her life as well. Although we've never met, I left the book feeling as if I had just had a deeply personal discussion with a long-lost friend. But don't let this dimension hide the fact that the book shares incredible insights about being an effective communicator.

The Importance of Reputation

Susman starts her book with a compelling story — Pfizer’s response to Ukraine and taking a "path less traveled." With this, Susman digs into why reputation is an organization’s most precious asset. Amazingly, the CIOs I work with share that not all companies get this. Otherwise, cybersecurity and tech debt would be much better managed.

For Susman, what a company says is synonymous with what it is and what it believes. For this reason, she says leaders need to carefully consider the issues in front of them. She suggests that taking courageous positions is a new corporate standard — whether the issue be geopolitics, rising inequality or climate change. Put simply, she says today’s business leaders are expected to have a viewpoint on social issues.

For this reason, Susman declares communication is no longer a soft skill. The ability to drive the public conversation is a personal competency. This requires the right mindset to build an organization’s communications muscles, and includes storytelling, narration, dialogue and constructive debate. With this, the book lays out 10 tenets for effective communication.

Related Article: Want to Improve Internal Communications? Pay Attention to These 2 Key Moments

1. Channeling Your Intention

Susman claims that intentionality plays a major role in both communications and leadership. Fortunately, she says it's easy to recognize those who are driven by singular intention. You see it in their eyes. You hear in their voices. There is nothing false — not a shred of marketing or public relations. For Michigan State University CIO Melissa Woo, “This is why I have always brought a strategic communications function into the IT organization and flagged it as one of the most important groups supporting the CIO and the entire organization.”

2. Mustering the Courage for Candor

Susman believes candor requires courage and clarity. It requires sticking your neck out. Importantly, she says organizations should use candor when they are in doubt. Being good at candor involves committing to active listening, not being ashamed of vulnerability and co-creating solutions. For this reason, corporate communications express the true depths of company character.

Manhattanville College CIO Jim Russell agrees when he says, “Communications while intentional need to be authentic and consistent. Authenticity matters for all leaders, especially today. The consistency I use as a tool against fraud.” Susman believes this is a time for bravery and showing care and respect. This includes having the know-how to cut through the clutter of a noisy world. Companies that do this stand for something and are straight talkers.

Related Article: Create a Positive Emotional Connection for a Better Customer Experience

3. Staying Curious. Be Creative

Breakthrough communicators, according to Susman, are relentlessly curious. They want to know things outside themselves. They are virtuoso listeners. To do this effectively, they ask probing questions but also listen mindfully to the answers.

Accuride CIO Paul Wright finds this is critical to innovation when he says, “I think that having a reputation as a curious listener is incredibly important for your team. You will make them more focused on creating innovative solutions if you are willing to listen and implement their ideas.” Former CIO Joanna Young adds, “No business leader knows everything, and the decisions we need to make are hard, with broad impact. So do the basics! Listen more than you talk. Invite questions and feedback. Seek 460 degrees of input.”

Likewise at a cultural level, Susman believes in cultivating curiosity. This allows team members to find new perspectives and to be comfortable questioning the unknown. At the same time, they see the connection between curiosity and creativity. To do this well, Susman says you should wake up early, scan the news, move and suspend reality. About this point Susman told a heartfelt story after seeing the movie “The Intern.” I am leaving the story to Susman, but my heart honestly skipped a beat here. Is there room for senior interns in your organization?

4. Being Gracious and Kind

For a long time, my wife has extolled the virtue of handwritten thank you notes. Not surprisingly, Susman stresses to never underestimate the power of your pen. A heartfelt letter to employees and other stakeholders carries great weight when it is candid and courageous. When writing, she says take time to reflect, be specific, make it matter and know it is never too late.

She goes on to suggest that graciousness breaks defensiveness and allows other people space. Russell says, “Communication as an empathetic connection should be a goal. The right message and medium for the audience. Inviting, including and affirming feedback.”

Learning Opportunities

5. Taking Time to Pause and Prepare

Susman is candid in saying almost every big mistake is the result of rushing. Honestly, this is true for me personally. To avoid this, she says understand what is at stake, weigh the risk and reward of participation, and know mistakes and misstatements happen. For this reason, Susman believes in the power of the pause. She says that breakthrough communicators use silence strategically. They take a moment to let a thought sink in with their audience. She says go wisely and slowly. At my recent company, we said, “slow down to go fast.”

Susman goes on to say beware when reporters use silence. You do not need to fill every minute of a conversation. Blurters give away the store. I learned this personally in doing business with the Japanese. Every leader should prepare for every engagement. Here Susman says that it's important to build a framework. This should include a crisis checklist.

6. Perfecting Your Pitch

At any time, a leader needs to be able to give their best pitch. Susman says the perfect pitch is rich and nuanced to bring about the most effective human encounters. In terms of judging it, she says that it is as simple as a smile, reflects a positive attitude, aligns with corporate culture and ends on a high note.

7. Disarming With Humility, Empowering With Truth

Who has not had a difficult situation to deal with? The last couple of years have polarized us.

However, to be an effective communicator how do you win over a difficult person? Susman says it starts by committing to hearing other points of view. This establishes empathy. The goal should not be to fight with facts but move hearts with emotion and empathy. You cannot succeed if you bully or intimidate. Instead, you need to understand and embrace questions and doubts people have.

8. Delighting With Humor

As someone that works at humor, I was surprised there is a business case for humor. Susman claims humor can move hearts in ways that make lasting change. She says that it is important to know a sense of humor makes all of us more human. It can also enable workplace harmony by easing isolation, creating community and removing shame. It can even help us to sell our products and services.

9. Reflecting and Honoring

Susman suggests organizations understand their lineage and history. This means being able to call on corporate triumphs, speaking to how you overcame defeat and hardship, and chronicling the impact of the communities you served.

She stresses that smart organizations in this process do not count success in dollars and cents but how your product or service improves the lives of the people it serves. Doing this makes your message more authentic.

10. Seeking Harmony

Susman describes the difficulty and importance of intentionally prioritizing bridge building. It takes courage and candor. You need to have curiosity about people with different perspectives. Doing this well involves a willingness to pause and prepare to lead in a complicated world and seeking harmony amid discord.

Parting Words on Communications

Rarely does a business book impact me personally. However, I left Susman’s book wanting to make some personal changes and reconsider how I approach difficult situations.

For those who want to improve their communication skills, including the vanguard of CIOs and CMOs that I have the privilege to work with, her book is a worthy read.

fa-solid fa-hand-paper Learn how you can join our contributor community.