David and I have known each other for many years. He first came to my attention when I heard him speak about his work in internal communications and leadership development at McDonald’s. In the following conversation, he talks about a variety of interesting topics and ideas, particularly his intellectual and professional commitment to developing authentic leaders in our profession.
David is someone you will want to get to know. Please reach out, make contact and become a student and admirer of his work, energy and commitment to deepening the leadership potential of the public relations profession. You too can become a follower and student of David’s, as I have become.
Jim: What made you want to get into Communications and Leadership Development?
David: Growing up, I watched way too much TV. My Saturday morning favorites were Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, HR Puff ‘n stuff, Scooby Doo, and the Super Friends with its famous Justice League of America. I was always rooting for the hero and wanted desperately to have a superpower! Being the good guy or hero and making a difference was always important to me. Helping leaders be better and get the results they want is a way for me to make a difference, and it’s hugely rewarding.
Jim: Can you tell us a story about a leader or situation that continues to influence you today?
David: At one point in my career, I worked for a SVP who was known to be moody. I typically would check with his assistant before meeting with him to determine which way the wind was blowing so I then could adapt my style appropriately. All too often she told me it was cloudy with a chance of showers. On tornado days, she’d suggest re-scheduling our meeting.
He didn’t realize the impact he was having on others – that he made the weather. Imagine if he would have been able to use his power for good!
Most managers don’t even begin to recognize the impact they have on their employees. In the workplace, how we lead (both what we do and what we say) can prevent disasters, and even better, can create an environment where people do great work and feel terrific about what they’re accomplishing. As the song in the musical Hair celebrates, we can let the sunshine in.
We have a significant amount of control over what happens with our team. The choice is whether we learn to create great weather that’s conducive to an inspired and engaged team, or miss the opportunity and let the winds blow as they might.
Leading can be a crap-shoot, too, if we’re not purposeful and open to learning what we’re doing well, and how we can be better.
Sometimes, we – as leaders – might be rained on, or it might feel like we’re getting poured on without an umbrella (and then hung out to dry!). In that case, it’s our job to dry off, reflect on what happened, and make great weather for our team as only we can.
Jim: What’s your communications philosophy?
David: Everything communicates. In fact, “You can’t NOT communicate.” (I hear there’s a good book on this topic!)
Here’s what leaders don’t realize: They are already communicating whether they want to or not. It is human nature for others to read into our actions based on their perceptions. So if that’s the case, and we communicate with or without intention, we might as well get better at it!
Jim: What message do you share with all of your clients?
David: The main message I share with all my clients is simple: Communicating effectively gives you tremendous power to transform your company and your team, not to mention your relationships and your life.
Communication really is a way to make a difference. At its simplest, you can use communication to make things easier and more effective and efficient. You also can use communication to make others feel good about their jobs, to be engaged and excited, to help someone who’s having a hard time get through a rough patch, or to inspire a team moving through changes or difficult times.
You can use communication for high impact by coaching and mentoring someone, by influencing others who may be tentative or uncomfortable in a new role, or by helping develop a young person to be his or her best self.
In the same way, you can prevent the skeptics and naysayers from spiraling into a negative pattern, or help a struggling individual find the courage and the map to make real change. Lastly, you can use communication to make substantial changes that aren’t just about helping a company or team go from “Good to Great” but instead create a lasting legacy through a new strategic direction. And so much more.
Jim: In your work with leaders, you help them understand the power of storytelling. Can you tell us more about that?
David: Growing up, I asked a lot of questions. I was the kind of kid who wanted to know how and why and what. I drove most adults crazy with my questions. Now that I have kids (I have a 3-year-old and a 6-year old going on 12), I’ve realized that payback is hell! And that in many cases I am wholly unprepared for the questions my girls ask. I love that they’re curious; I often wish I had better answers. Parenting is the toughest job I’ve ever had; it’s also the best job.
I share this with you because we all tell stories naturally that illustrate who we are as a person, what we do, what we believe in. Yet at work, something happens. Stories get lost, and pie charts and copy-heavy slides take over.
I think it’s helpful to remember that we follow leaders because of how they make us feel. And stories are one of the most powerful ways leaders can make an emotional connection with employees. In fact, neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have found this to be true: A fact wrapped in a story is 22 times more memorable. So I say, don’t get overwhelmed by the data and statistics. Stories rule.
Jim: What’s one wish you have for the future of the workplace today?
David: That everyone is more authentic in a respectful way. Respectful authenticity for me is about 1) knowing yourself, 2) being yourself, and 3) having quiet courage as you deal with others.
Authenticity matters. Authentic people get better business results, have healthier work lives, and excel in real, meaningful relationships. They have high ethical and moral compasses because they know themselves and are outwardly focused, and sleep better at night.
Employees feel more comfortable with an authentic leader. There are fewer question marks about what’s on the leader’s mind because employees know what to expect, and that’s hugely motivating. People like them. They follow them. They’re influenced by them in a way that’s seamless. In the end, authentic leaders create fundamentally different relationships with the people that they lead and their peers.
Every person could benefit from being more authentic today. Every team could benefit from members who are more authentic. Every organization could benefit from employees and leaders who are more true to themselves.
With the significant focus on diversity and inclusion inside workplaces today, this is possible today for the first time. Imagine a workplace:
Jim: How did you get started?
David: I worked since the day I could get a job permit because as a teenager, all I wanted was to have my own car. My friend, Richard, started working at our local McDonald’s and helped me get a job there, where I worked through high school and in the first few years of college.
I loved the structure of the job and McDonald’s commitment to standards and processes. As a teenager who was somewhat rigid in my style, the job was the perfect fit. I always wanted to work a cash register, and I was good at it. The bucks weren’t bad, too. I could have skipped the polyester uniforms, which I think I wore in almost every color of the rainbow, including florescent green. I was promoted regularly and became a swing manager, overseeing hiring and training, which I loved.
I learned life skills at that job and became enamored by McDonald’s commitment to give back to the communities in which it operates. Most restaurants are owned by franchisees who live in the community and take seriously their commitment to better their community, including supporting Ronald McDonald House Charities. I liked the idea very much of doing well by doing good. That concept spoke to me personally. And that also was my launching pad for my desire to work for McDonald’s Corporation. I was offered a full-time management job at my restaurant in college, but I knew I wanted to get my degree and remember saying, “I hope I’ll be back.”
At UW-Madison, I studied broadcast journalism and public relations. I thought I wanted to work as an on-air anchor and interned in a newsroom at a local station. That’s when I realized that the newsroom environment wasn’t the right fit for me. So I thought about how I could take all the skills I had learned and use them productively. I dabbled with the idea of starting a video production business, and then realized that a job in Corporate Communications would make use of the skills I had, including my ability to ask great questions. My ultimate goal at the time was to work for McDonald’s Corporation.
After an amazing first job in Corporate Communications where it felt like I did a little bit of everything, I went back to grad school, and then focused on trying to get a job at McDonald’s. I was fortunate to get a position at Golin/Harris working on Ronald McDonald House, and then helped start two new client areas – field communications and internal communications. While I loved the marketing/PR work, I was frustrated often that even when we did our best work, an event or campaign could fail because of other things happening in the media. At the same time, I was doing bench-marking with some top companies in internal communications and was taken by the potential to impact the business. Add my experience working with leaders as a journalist, and seeing the need to help them be better, I was sold! This was the path for me.
I helped evolve the publications function at McDonald’s into a world-class internal communications function, and knew there was potential everywhere to help leaders be better and drive business results. And there definitely is!
David Grossman, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA helps leaders drive productivity and get the results they want through authentic and courageous leadership communication. He’s a sought-after speaker and advisor to Fortune 500 leaders. A three-time author, David is CEO of The Grossman Group, an award-winning Chicago-based strategic leadership development and internal communication consultancy; clients include: Astellas, Eastman Chemical Company, Health Quest, Lockheed Martin, McDonald’s, Motel 6 and Wyndham, to name a few. His newest book, “No Cape Needed: The Simplest, Smartest, Fastest Steps To Improve How You Communicate By Leaps and Bounds,” was published in the fall of 2015 and recently won the Pinnacle Book Award and the Beverly Hill’s International Book Award in the “Best in Business” category, along with the Beverly Hill’s President’s Award.