Who's Listening?
Publication
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 17 Mar 1983, p. 280-288
Description
Creator
Taylor, Claude, Speaker
Media Type
Text
Item Type
Speeches
Description
Canadians missing an awful lot of what we're saying to each other; paying a very high price for that non-communication. Four basic factors which, for the speaker, underscore the need for us all to communicate more clearly and effectively: fragility, commitment, speed of change, and expectations. A discussion of each. Understanding the kind of messages we should be sending. Understanding who is listening, and what they're receiving, or why they're not. Suggestions of ways in which we can start listening more effectively. A personal thought on finding the happy medium in communication. The atmosphere we've created for communications in our companies, or ministries. The question of whether everyone has the opportunity and the mechanism to be heard as well as to be talked to. The situation at Air Canada, and in other organizations. What Air Canada is looking for in terms of communication. The onus on management to be candid and open at the same time as they are trying to be positive and aggressive. Handling the changes which Canada is undergoing. Better communication as a major component of managing that evolution.
Date of Original
17 Mar 1983
Subject(s)
Language of Item
English
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Toronto, ON, M5J 1E3

Full Text
MARCH 17, 1983
Who's Listening?
AN ADDRESS BY Claude Taylor, PRESIDENT AND CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER, AIR CANADA
CHAIRMAN The President, Henry J. Stalder

MR. STALDER:

Distinguished members and guests, ladies and gentlemen: Real joy comes not from ease or riches or from praise of men, but from doing something worth while, from serving a cause. Our guest of honour, Claude Taylor, is one of the foremost representatives of our service industry in Canada. Exemplarily, he is not only talking the talk but also walking the walk as is shown by his career in Air Canada, where he has risen from the rank of Reservation Agent to become President and Chief Executive Officer. He is not preaching identification, devotion, and team spirit--he lives it. In this capacity, he was awarded last year the Achievement in Communications Award from the International Association of Business Communicators.

Claude Taylor was born in 1925 in Salisbury, New Brunswick, where he went to public and high school. Then, he attended Robinson Business College and finally, he graduated as a Registered Industrial Accountant.

He is a Director of Guinness Peat Aviation, Ireland; and I would like to stop here for a moment to wish all our Irish friends a splendid St. Patrick's Day. All those in our membership who claim Ireland as their home origin are well represented on our board by Monty Larkin, who keeps the colour in good standing. But let me get on with our guest of honour. He is a Director of the Concordia Centre for Management Studies, and Honorary Director of the Aviation Hall of Fame and the CNE. As well, he holds an Honorary Doctor's degree of Civil Law from the University of New Brunswick. Now, after all that, who would not listen? Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Claude Taylor, President and Chief Executive Officer of Air Canada.

MR. TAYLOR:

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. You know, I sometimes wonder, in the press of trying to run a profitable airline, why I would agree to risk giving a talk on something as nebulous as "communications." Why not get Pierre Berton or Adrienne Clarkson ... or Peter Worthington or Francis Fox? That's their business! But, aside from the fact that my "fee" is infinitely more reasonable than most of theirs, I can't escape the fact that communication is my business, too! When I mentally strip away the electronic and avionic miracles that help Air Canada carry twenty-five thousand passengers a day, I'm overwhelmed by the enormous reliance we have to place, in our company, on the simple interaction of real people accurately understanding what other real people are saying to them! But there's much more to it than that.

When a list of possible topics presented themselves to me for this Empire Club platform, the title "Who's Listening?" jumped out at me, because I'm increasingly concerned that on a broader level, and with broader issues, we Canadians seem to be missing an awful lot of what we're saying to each other. And I'm increasingly concerned that we're paying a very high price for that non-communication. Now, this isn't to suggest that there aren't a great number of people out there talking and writing and reading and tuning in. But I can't get rid of the impression that we're all at some vast, ongoing cocktail party, smothering in a blanket of white noise and disconnected fragments of ideas. To stretch the cocktail party metaphor one step further, I suspect that all we're remembering from the party are the guys wearing lampshades, trying to attract our attention for a passing moment.

What I'd like to do in the next twelve minutes or so is touch on the kind of messages we should be communicating and then look at "Who's Listening?" in the context of the economic and organizational world we're all familiar with.

Before getting into that, however, let me try first to establish four very basic factors which, in my mind, underscore the need for us all to communicate more clearly and effectively. They are fragility, commitment, speed of change, and expectations, and I suggest they set the ground rules for everything else to do with communicating.

The first is the fragile nature of our organizations, which are faced with economic and social factors that have moved beyond our control. For example, we used to think we could regulate our markets, and expand at will. What we didn't realize--or listen to--was the fact that we were all moving full speed ahead in the same direction, through almost three decades of unprecedented growth.

That's all changed. We're not all going the same way, and we're certainly not all moving at the same speed. You don't have to look much further than Oakville or Buffalo Airport to see how susceptible we are to offshore manufacturers or brash new commuter airlines.

My second point is the "commitment" we have to our constituents--whether we ever intended it or not! And by "constituents" I mean our employees, customers, suppliers, and shareholders--plus our families and communities. There are a lot of lives tied up in any organization today. In our huge, interdependent businesses in our huge cities, we've moved ourselves up and away from the traditional bases of personal survival, and I believe, in the face of this, that corporations have to accept a moral responsibility for their people's well-being and, to a certain extent, their peace of mind. If we don't accept that, I have no doubt that government will step in and force us to--on their terms, not ours.

The third element in my supposition is the speed of change. In the organizational world, we've all seen corporations merging, splitting, or introducing new policies and technologies at an awesome rate. Companies like Braniff shut down overnight, with wholesale layoffs. We can't rely on the old, formal "information trickle-down" to get the word out--or even the rumour mill. They're too slow and inaccurate.

All of which leads me to the fourth and probably the most important factor, which is the nature and expectations of the people who make up our component parts. On the one hand is a younger group: more demanding, inquisitive, and cynical; while on the other hand are the older, more settled workers and customers. Overriding all of this is the public's growing sense of "its right to know." What we have, in effect, is a lifeaffecting business drama, of a highly volatile nature, with an anxious, concerned audience. And I believe that if people like you and me don't begin communicating better, then something else will fill that "theatre" of ours.

Let me suggest to you that, in effective communications, neither "good intentions," nor performance skills, nor frequency are enough. All we end up with is what the late Nelson Rockefeller used to refer to as "bomfog," when he lost his place in a speech--"Brotherhood of Man, Fellowship of God"--good for at least five minutes, I'm told.

First and foremost, we've got to understand what kind of "messages" we should be sending. The medium may be the message for some, but I believe the message itself is pretty damn important. Secondly, we have to understand who is listening, and what they're receiving, or why they're not.

In my industry, and every other field I can think of, the most important, formal messages these days inevitably relate to change, and that's no surprise. In fact, directly or indirectly, most human communication is about change. It's just a little more threatening these days. At Air Canada or, for that matter, at Ontario Hydro or the Bay, or up in Ottawa, we're all talking about the new things we're doing, and why and how. We're writing articles or giving talks about how changes are going to affect our customers or employees or voters. We're doing films about what's happening to the world around us, and how that relates back to us. Some of us are spending a lot of time and money on it, too. But it doesn't seem to be working as well as we'd like. Our various publics don't seem to be listening.

That worries me. Right at the time we've got to manage some of the most dramatic changes in our organizational histories, significant parts of our publics have tuned us out, switched channels, buzzed off. So, who, in fact, is listening? Where are those inquisitive, demanding audiences I mentioned a minute ago? Well, I think they're still there. And I think they do want to know what's going on, perhaps more than ever before! They certainly do at Air Canada.

It's more than likely that normal, human resistance to change is at work, and partly to blame. These aren't particularly "comfortable" times for most employees, or voters, or consumers. Few of us watch The National without at least one or two shudders per newscast.

But I don't want to dwell on the "great out there" this afternoon, because in the context of organizational communication, which I'd like to stick to today, the real culprits may be us! Senior managers and mandarins are all too often guilty of sounding like Oscar Wilde, who, when asked about his latest play, replied, "The play is perfect, the performance is perfect. ... Now, it's up to the audience to be perfect!" Regretfully, few of us can back up our arrogance with the wit and insight of Oscar Wilde.

I would suggest that "Who's Listening? " like charity, should begin at home, or at least at head office. It's not purely by chance that most headquarters are referred to as Ivory

Towers, or Fort Fumbles, or Fantasy Islands. It has been demonstrated with embarrassing regularity that the higher one climbs up the organizational ladder, the more inaccurate one's assessment of the public taste and temper becomes. That's as understandable as it is appalling.

Let me ask this audience two questions which Toronto futurist John Kettle puts to his executive seminars: "In the last six months, how many of you have taken the bus? And who among you have had a conversation with a teenager (other than your own) in that same period?" Perhaps you begin to see my point about losing touch. And yes, I do fly Economy ... but then, 1 knew about the question. Now, I'm sure there are innumerable reasons why this loss of contact occurs, and, to be fair, perhaps it always has, in structured societies. But when we compound the problem with the fragilities, commitments, speeds of change, and new expectations I mentioned earlier, well, someone or something has to start changing--at the top. We've got to start finding out, "What is it that the unions really are saying to us? Why are our customers so disloyal? Why is the press always on our backs? Why don't the Liberals understand business? Why are the Americans so annoyed with us--and we with them? And why doesn't the public love and respect us?" You know, it's not as if there aren't answers to these questions!

In the remaining three or four minutes, I'd like to suggest a couple of ways in which we can start "listening" more effectively and offer a personal thought on finding the happy medium in communication. I think we have to begin that process with a number of assessments, and perhaps the best place to start is with an assessment of our subordinates (or your bosses, if that's more comfortable for you). We have to ask if they're feeding us what they think we want to hear, to the exclusion of the real story. Are they filtering out the bad news to us, or from us, or covering their "exposures?" And equally important, are we in fact encouraging them to do so? Do we allow them to argue with us without jeopardizing their careers?

I know we have to assess ourselves: can we accept bad reviews from the audience without shooting the critic? On a more personal basis, does our own "life-style" bear any resemblance to that of our front-line employees, or customers, or voters?

On a more erudite level, how informed are we or how exposed are we to the broad changes around us? Do we ever watch TV these days, or have we become media snobs who only listen to CBC radio or read The Financial Post? Have we taken the time to read (or even skim through) Toffler's Third Wave, or Drucker's Turbulent Times; Kettle's Big Generation; the excellent books on Japanese management; or, most recently, John Naisbitt's Megatrends? And if we have read one or two of these books, are we absorbing any of their authors' thoughts into our own working lives?

For flowing out of these questions comes an assessment of the society around us. I wonder if many of us here today have any appreciation of the anxieties in the workplace--where, for example, it has been predicted that robotics and computerassisted manufacturing will threaten up to 75 per cent of jobs in the goods-producing sector. That's a very significant chunk of the North American labour force. Now, forgive me, but I suspect that that projection has not created too many twinges of job-loss fear in this room ... and that may be a problem in itself.

Moving from the general to the more specific, I wonder about the atmosphere that we've created for communications in our companies, or ministries. Does everyone have the opportunity and the mechanism to be heard as well as to be talked to? At Air Canada, I think it's beginning to happen but I'd be naive if I didn't realize that there are still pockets of rigid resistance in certain management and union groups. And, based on our experience, I must warn you that a good atmosphere, particularly for internal communications, doesn't blow in overnight ... or even in one or two years. It takes a great deal of patience and listening, with no small investment in human and financial resources, and it evolves through many different approaches--some successful, others which don't work at all.

What we're wrestling with all the time at our organization is finding the "happy medium" between two basic polarizations. At one extreme is the hard-nosed school of thought which says, "Keep on feeding the blunt, bare-bones facts: don't pull any punches, it's the only way we'll ever get them to change." The implication, quite obviously, is that fear is a great motivator.

The other extreme, popular in a great many organizations, is a polarization around the idea of telling our audiences only the good news, based on the belief that that's all they want to hear. A variation on that "give 'em what they want" theme is the pollster-driven development of policies, which is very popular in political circles. Ronald Reagan's initial economic programs and our own federal energy policies are good examples. I don't think I'm just sitting on the fence when I propose that we have to find a happy medium between the polarizations. There is little doubt that the general level of concern in Canadian society has created a deeper public sensitivity to economic and work-related issues. But I don't believe that adding to those fears does much to motivate people! Nor do I believe any organization can sell its people on an idealized world, when so many indicators around us suggest "something is rotten in the state of Denmark"--or the province of Ontario!

What we're looking for at Air Canada is that constantly shifting point where our various constituencies will hear what we're saying to them--in terms of what they already know about the world and the business around them. We don't see our communication, our messages, as being delivered in a vacuum! They have to complement and bear a significant relationship to what those "real people" of ours see on TV, or read in the papers, or intuitively understand from their daily lives.

This places a formidable onus on us, as management, to be candid and open at the same time as we're trying to be positive and aggressive. It's a very fine line, and we're not there yet. Few organizations are, but I don't think any of us here can take much refuge in that. I believe we can successfully handle the changes which Canada is undergoing, and I'm convinced that better communication within our society will be a major component of managing that evolution.

But I suggest to you that, in the not-too-distant future, the answer to "Who's Listening?" will have to encompass a far wider range of Canadians than it does today. What we have been doing here at the Empire Club today is an incremental process. No one's noon-hour remarks will turn the trick. But I do thank you for inviting me, and I thank you--for listening. It's a good beginning.

The appreciation of the audience was expressed by John A. MacNaughton, a Past President of The Empire Club of Canada.

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Who's Listening?


Canadians missing an awful lot of what we're saying to each other; paying a very high price for that non-communication. Four basic factors which, for the speaker, underscore the need for us all to communicate more clearly and effectively: fragility, commitment, speed of change, and expectations. A discussion of each. Understanding the kind of messages we should be sending. Understanding who is listening, and what they're receiving, or why they're not. Suggestions of ways in which we can start listening more effectively. A personal thought on finding the happy medium in communication. The atmosphere we've created for communications in our companies, or ministries. The question of whether everyone has the opportunity and the mechanism to be heard as well as to be talked to. The situation at Air Canada, and in other organizations. What Air Canada is looking for in terms of communication. The onus on management to be candid and open at the same time as they are trying to be positive and aggressive. Handling the changes which Canada is undergoing. Better communication as a major component of managing that evolution.