Purpose is our lodestone, but how well do we connect our purpose to our communications?
A way to focus on purpose is intentionality. Know what you want to say, why you are saying it, and how you are saying it. “I am so passionate about this because so often people are talking or communicating without any real sense of purpose,” says Sally Susman, executive vice president for chief corporate affairs officer at Pfizer. Susman’s awareness of intentionality became more urgent when her company rolled out its Covid-19 vaccine. Communication had to be clear, coherent, and responsive to all those seeking information and clarity about the vaccine.
Intentionality also applies to interpersonal communications. “When I’m talking to my parents, I say before each call, be patient, be patient with them,” Susman told me recently. “If I’m talking to my adult daughter, I say, don’t be judgmental.” She also applied that sense of intention during our interview. “Even before speaking with you, I took a moment and said, I hope that I can engage your listeners in some provoking thoughts or insights that enliven their day.”
Evaluating what, why and how you express yourself is a key theme in Susman’s book Breaking Through: Communicating to Open Minds, Move Hearts, and Change the World. “It’s a big mistake to relegate your communications as a soft skill. I argue that it’s a rock-hard competency. It is as important for leaders as any other discipline they may have [such as] sales, marketing, inventory, [or] finance.”
Reading Susman’s book, you will get a window into her career in ways that reveal more than her professionalism. According to Sally’s mother, perhaps too much, who read the book and said, “‘Sally, this is not a business book. This is a memoir of all your greatest and most embarrassing mistakes.’” She and her mother had a good laugh. As Susman explained, “That was very meaningful to me because I have made a lot of mistakes. And through those, I’ve learned so much, and I hope that I have built my resiliency.”
A theme of the book, says Susman, is to demonstrate that recovering from mistakes builds resilience. It also does something more. “People rally to you when they see you trying very hard, or when you have the strength to share your vulnerabilities.”
Susman tells a story about a former boss, Kenneth Chenault, who became American Express’s CEO shortly before 9/11. Its corporate headquarters in lower Manhattan had been damaged in the attack, so the company brought people together in Madison Square Garden. More than a thousand employees showed up.
Chenault had a prepared speech, but when he looked into the audience, he noticed that people were visibly shaken; some were even crying. Out went the speech. Chennault spoke extemporaneously, wading into the audience and occasionally hugging individual employees. His message was that the company would see better days. “Great leaders are purveyors of hope and optimism,” says Susman. Their pitch – as she calls it – resonates like music – with harmony and poetry.
Gratitude is fundamental to Susman’s approach to work and life. Every morning she reviews her calendar from the previous day. “Even if you’ve had a hard day or a stressful day, there’s probably something or someone in yesterday that you’re thankful for.” She then writes a two or three thank you cards to thank people for what they have done. “It allows me to be reflective. It puts a hopefulness that every day has something that you can be thankful for.”
Find the joy
One of the four values at Pfizer is joy. “We talk about joy. We know laughter is good medicine, too. We take our job seriously, but not ourselves.” Humor reinforces the humanity in each of us. “I have something in my team called Open Mic Night where we stand up and share our biggest goof,” says Susman.
Communication is most effective when it intrigues the mind, stirs the heart, and inspires the soul. Doing so, as Susman does, facilitates something more profound – the connection one to one and one to many. For good and for better.
Note: Click here to hear the full interview with Sally Susman.