The guy who first got me interested in the profoundly unsexy subject of employee communication was Larry Ragan, my first boss. Larry wrote about the subject in a kind of a hard-assed, unsentimental way—which is why people liked reading him. He always came down on the pragmatic side of most issues, and when questions arose like, “Is it worth quitting your job over a principle?” Larry would inevitably say something like, “An unemployed communicator isn’t any good to anybody.”
Larry also had a pessimistic view of just how much communication could achieve all by itself, and often poked fun at communicators who seemed to believe communication was the solution to the corporation’s ills, or to society’s for that matter. Larry would have cast a jaundiced eye at the title of my book, An Effort to Understand, though I believe he’d find in its pages the very tough-minded realism he tried to teach his young writers.
No sooner had I absorbed Larry’s philosophy (and mixed it the best I could with own youthful idealism), I became acquainted with Roger D’Aprix, who was by then known—this was the mid-1990s—as the father of modern employee communication. He had captained a really progressive employee communication program at Xerox in the 1960s and 1970s, seeing its workforce through the company’s zenith and its tragic fall. He’d taken all that wisdom to consult with many of the Fortune 500. And he’d written several books, all aimed at transforming employee communication from a glorified company booster program to something much more meaningful to employees, and strategically useful to management.
Roger wrote a regular column in a magazine I launched at Ragan, the Journal of Employee Communication Management. We launched that after Larry died—partly because Larry would probably have been bearish on its prospects, not trusting employee communication practitioners to write long essays filled with anything but the most self-important bullshit. And Larry would almost certainly not have put up with our pretension in promoting it as, “The Harvard Business Review for employee communication.”
But Roger did believe that better employee communication could make a big difference in corporate life—and that if you did that, you’d make a big difference in the life of the nation. Roger had a book out around that time called Communicating for Change, in which he said that the first responsibility for any CEO or employee communication pro was to “turn all eyes outward,” and get employees focused on the marketplace, with a deep understanding of their organization’s place in it. “The temptation for leaders is to focus on what actions they propose to take instead of why they are taking them. This focus on what rather than why will help employees understand the bits and pieces of the leaders’ action plan, but won’t give them a clue as to why the trip is necessary in the first place, which is their real question.”
I got to know Roger through our correspondence, and we met for drinks when he was in town. During one of those sessions, Roger confessed to me that Larry had hurt his feelings once, by calling him “idealistic” in his philosophy. Or was it “moralistic”?
Well, we’ll find out next week, when I interview Roger, with whom I’ve corresponded but haven’t spoken with for maybe 20 years, on the EE Voice podcast, with Sharon McIntosh. As we prepare ourselves for the Executive Communication Council’s Employee Communication Summit we’re holding in June, Roger will take us on a brisk tour of employee communication past, bring us up to employee communication present, and lay out his vision for employee communication to come—and what role our leaders must play in taking us there.
At some point, I’ll remember to thank Roger for encouraging a young writer’s belief that communication was a cause worthy of a good soul’s lifetime devotion.