Jack Modzelewski Show Notes Page
Jack Modzelewski had to be the advocate for what had to be done and the counselor, but also a peacekeeper in the room when the CEO turned combative and argumentative. It was time for speed and reassuring the public and customers they were going to do the right things.
Jack grew up in a Chicago suburb with his working-class parents and two older brothers. His father worked for in security for General Electric. His mother, a Polish immigrant, came to the U.S. before WW II. His parents wanted him to be a teacher. But Jack had larger ambitions when he graduated from the University of Illinois with a bachelor’s degree in communications.
Jack’s early job experience started at age 11, first delivering newspapers and caddying and then clerking in a wholesale goods business. As a teenager, he wanted to be a journalist, like one of his older brothers. He worked as a reporter on his high school and his university newspapers, and also college summers for a local newspaper.
After college his first job was an account executive for a prestigious New York ad agency founded by men who went on to serve as a governor and a U.S. senator, respectively. But Jack found the Mad Men world of advertising limiting, so he pursued his first love – journalism. He earned a Master’s degree in Journalism at Northwestern University. He then worked as an award-winning reporter covering government and politics in Illinois. During that time, he also hosted a public affairs radio show on a Chicago hard rock station.
He made the transition to public relations when he accepted a job thinking he would “try PR” for a year. That was the first of his 33 years working for international public relations firms and advising dozens of clients. Jack spent the last 26 years of his agency career with Fleishman Hillard, a leading global communications firm.
Most recently he was president of the Americas with responsibility for FH’s largest group of regions and its 1,800 people. Earlier in his FleishmanHillard career he spent years as president overseeing its offices in Europe. At FH his teams won many prestigious awards, including a Gold Lion with client General Motors at the Cannes Festival for Creativity, and Global Agency of the Year from PRWeek. Jack has attended five World Economic Forums in Davos, Switzerland, and has spoken at WEF conferences on four continents.
Jack is now chief executive of JackKnifePR, which provides communication advisory services to corporations, start-ups, and non-profit organizations. In his book Talk is Chief – Leadership, Communications and Credibility in a High-Stakes World, Jack shares with current and future leaders his life-long experiences advising organizational chiefs on messaging, media, marketing, crisis management, and stakeholder relationships.
Jack also serves his community as the board chairman of the Better Government Association and is a co-chair for Northwestern University’s capital campaign. In 2015, he was inducted into the Medill Hall of Achievement at Northwestern.
Quotes and Mentions
“I don’t think leaders really think in those terms that 90% of their day is spent talking and communicating.” – Click to Tweet
“In a major leadership position, people pay attention to what you say every day.” – Click to Tweet
“Leadership communication is so important, especially in this day and age because it is so transparent.” – Click to Tweet
“If people listen to someone talk for 20 minutes and they tune out, then the communicator failed.” – Click to Tweet
“People have to take a look at their own communication style and methods and practices and be judged by others that they’re trying to communicate with.” – Click to Tweet
“In these times, people expect information very fresh right after things happen.” – Click to Tweet
“Leaders and their organizations can prepare by making sure that a lot of people are vigilant about things that could happen.” – Click to Tweet
“Often a crisis starts out as a smaller issue that’s been ignored or neglected.” – Click to Tweet
“You have to keep calm and make decisions and make them as quickly as you can with the best information you can and just keep going.” – Click to Tweet
“Communication on a daily basis is important. It’s a management function. It’s a strategic function of organizations.” – Click to Tweet
“When someone says, well, you know, you’ve got to communicate better, they kind of take that for granted.” – Click to Tweet
“These days there are high expectations on organizations from their constituents on what is their purpose and are they really delivering on it?” – Click to Tweet
“What’s in our DNA that makes us a little different from that company, is something that a lot of organizations struggle with.” – Click to Tweet
Hump to Get Over
Jack Modzelewski had to be the advocate for what had to be done and the counselor, but also a peacekeeper in the room when the CEO turned combative and argumentative. It was time for speed and reassuring the public and customers they were going to do the right things.
Advice for others
Stay calm in times of crisis.
Holding him back from being an even better leader
Time. We’re all constrained by time and I’m the type of person who likes to stay on top of so many things and it seems like there’s not enough time in a day to do that.
Best Leadership Advice
No matter what happens, especially in bad times, maintain your confidence, keep smiling to your people around you, keep challenging them and make sure that, they never look at you and say, wow, you know, this is the end.
Secret to Success
I’ve always been fairly direct with people.
Best tools in business or life
The opinions of others. Having those relationships where you can bounce your ideas, your feelings about things off of other people.
Contacting Jack Modzelewski
Resources and Show Mentions
Show Transcript:Click to access edited transcript
Jim Rembach: (00:00)
Okay. Fast leader Legion today. I’m excited because we have somebody on the show today who is going to help us with something that is at the core of what we do in leading right ourselves and others.
Jim Rembach: (00:11)
Jack Modzelewski grew up in a Chicago suburb with his working class parents and two older brothers. His father worked in security for general electric. His mother was a Polish immigrant and came to the U S before world war II. His parents wanted him to be a teacher, but Jack had larger ambitions when he graduated from the university of Illinois with a bachelor’s degree in communications. Jackson early job experience started at age 11 first delivering newspapers and caddying and then clerking in a wholesale goods business as a teenager. He wanted to be a journalist, like one of his older brothers. He worked as a reporter on his high school and his university newspapers and also college summers for a local newspaper after college. His first job was an account executive for prestigious New York ad agency founded by men who went on to serve as a governor and a us Senator respectively.
Jim Rembach: (01:01)
But Jack found the mad men world of advertising limiting, so he pursued his first love, which was journalism. He earned a master’s degree in journalism at Northwestern university and he then worked as an award winning reporter covering government and politics in Illinois. During that time, he also hosted a public radio affairs show on a Chicago hard rock station. He made the transition to public relations when he accepted a job thinking he would try PR for a year. That was the first of his 33 years working for international public relations firms and dozens of advertising clients. Jack spent the last 26 years of his agency career with FleishmanHillard, a leading global communications firm. Most recently he was president of the Americas with responsibility for FH, his largest group of regions, and it’s 1800 people. Earlier in his Fleishman Hillard career, he spent years as president overseeing its offices in Europe.
Jim Rembach: (01:56)
At FH, his team’s won many prestigious awards including a gold lion with client general motors at the con film festival for creativity and global agency of the year from PR week. Jack has attended five world economic forums in Davos, Switzerland and has spoken at WEF conferences on four continents. Jack is now chief executive of JackKnifePR, which provides communication advisory services to corporations, startups, and nonprofit organizations. In his book talk is cheap leadership, communications and credibility in a high stakes world. Jack shares with current and future leaders, his lifelong experiences advising organizational chiefs on messaging, media marketing, crisis management, and stakeholder relations. Jack also serves this community as the board chairman of the better government association and as a co-chair for Northwestern university’s capital campaign in 2015 he was inducted into the med Hill hall of achievement at Northwestern. Jack currently this in Chicago with Susan, his wife of 41 wonderful years. Jack Modzelewski are you ready to help us get over the hump?
I sure am. Jim.
Jim Rembach: (03:06)
I’m glad you’re here and I’m really excited about what we’re going to share, but before we do that, I’ve given my Legion a little bit about you, so can you share with us what your current passion is so that we can get to know you even better? Well, my current passion remains being involved in society. Uh, you mentioned that I’m chairman of the better government association. I’ve always had an interest in, uh, not just politics, but government issues, problems all around us that government is trying to solve. And that’s why I’ve been involved in this organization for almost nine years. Uh, we just had a very big event where we had the mayor of Chicago and some other major speakers there. But in addition to that, I still love, uh, counseling clients of all kinds, especially a start up in emerging organizations where communication and marketing is just so vital to their future.
Jim Rembach: (04:05)
Well, and talking about vital in the book, you know, you mentioned something that to me, I had to stop and really ponder that for quite awhile. And you were mentioning how communication takes up as much as 90% of a leader’s day. And even when you started talking about politics and the societal issues that we have to deal with, these are big problems and communication and effective communication is at the core of all of them. But 90% Jack?
Well, think about it. So, uh, the average leader gets up in the morning, probably is tweeting, looking at emails on the phone with colleagues, uh, customers, uh, key stakeholders throughout the day. They’re in meetings where they’re constantly communicating or they’re on the phone or they have speaking engagements or they’re on television or they’re talking to people on wall street. So I don’t think leaders really think in those terms that 90% of their day is spent talking and communicating.
Jim Rembach: (05:07)
And so when you think of it that way, you would probably say to be most effective to optimize that time every day. I should probably try to think about this a little bit more, be as prepared as I can have the best people around me helping me with it. And I will probably at the end of the day or at the end of the year, be a more effective communicator driving performance in my organization.
Jim Rembach: (05:31)
Well, you know, even as you’re saying that, I’m starting to think about, well that that’s really at all levels of an organization, you know, and even if correct line dealing with customers, I mean that that communication component for some could even be higher than the 90%.
Oh, certainly. Certainly. And I’m sure there are people who spend 100% of their time communicating. But at the leadership level, I mean, if you’re at the top of the organization, it doesn’t have to be just a chief executive.
It can be anyone in a major leadership position. It’s even more important because people pay attention to what you say every day and whether there is any change in direction or whether they’re picking up on trendlines or nuances that might change how they do their jobs or the direction in which the organization is going. So that’s why, um, leadership communication is so important, especially in this day and age because it is so transparent. Uh, there was a time, and I worked during that time back in another century, in the 20th century where, uh, leaders may occasionally give a speech. They might occasionally send a message or an email around to the organization. And that didn’t happen very often and leaders weren’t very visible. Today they’re constantly visible.
Jim Rembach: (06:52)
Well, and even as you’re talking about that, I mean there’s a couple of things that stand out for me and one being is that even when you start looking at people’s resumes, for example though, everybody will, you know, say and self-disclose, you know, that they’re great communicators, both written and verbal communications. However, that just can’t be true. We know it’s not true. So what are they missing in their own self assessment?
Jim Rembach: (07:15)
Well, it’s always on the receiving end. So, uh, I think it’s incumbent on people. I had to do this in my own career and I still do to ask the people that I’m communicating to, did I make my point? Did you understand what I was trying to communicate to you? What did you take away from it? You know, whether we’re watching the news or watching a movie or engaged in a conversation with friends or colleagues, we always walk away saying, what did we take away from that experience? And I think that’s the key part of communication. Uh, if people listen to someone talk for 20 minutes and they tune out, then the communicator failed. Um, but if people come away with, gees, that person said two or three very compelling things that I can use in my own life that I can use in my own job, that I can invest in, whatever it might be, then they’ve communicated effectively. I’m a self assessment standpoint, people have to take a look at their own communication style and methods and practices and be judged by others that they’re trying to communicate with.
Jim Rembach: (08:30)
Well, even as you’re saying that, I start thinking about, well, there’s a whole neuroscience behind this, then.
There is, and certainly I would never pretend to be a neuro scientist, but I have read some books on it. I have paid attention to, you know, the cognitive abilities of human beings. And what makes this more, most important today is that there are so many distractions around us. As you know, uh, people sit at their desks and they have all these options. They can do work, they can communicate with friends and colleagues. Taken shop, if they’re a company, policies, allow them to shop online during the day. Tremendous distractions all the time. People are constantly on their phones, uh, tweeting, doing Instagram and so forth. So this is what people are competing with when they’re trying to reach people. Um, and you know, that’s why, uh, leaders have been trained and the ones who are really best know how to be very concise in making their points and trying to get it down to a soundbite of, you know, 10 or 15 or 20 words that people were actually going to remember.
Jim Rembach: (09:47)
Well, as you were saying that too, there’s something you mentioned before that I think is kind of a, a risk. And you talk about, you know, risk in a lot of different ways in the book, but we talk about transparency, the need for transparency. However, transparency can often be a very, very slippery slope. So where are mostly are falling when it comes to transparency?
I believe they, uh, they have a problem with transparency, not because they’re trying to mislead people or not give them the complete information, but sometimes there’s a big disparity between what people on the outside of an organization think and know about that organization or even inside the organization. And sometimes the leader is ahead or sometimes the leader is aware of turbulence on the way or problems that only a small group of people know about. And um, obviously maybe they’re trying to solve these problems before they come public, but that’s usually where they have transparency issues where someone says, well, wait a second, how long did you know that we were going to have a major sales decline in the third quarter? Or how long have you known about this problem in one of our production plants? Um, where, you know, we’re going to have to shut down the plant and fix it or make changes or those types of things or that, you know, we are about to lose a major contract with one of our customers. So I think, um, in these times, people expect information very fresh right after things happen. And when there’s a time gap, I think that’s when people perceive and accused leaders of saying, well geez, you weren’t transparent enough with us. So it, it, it’s a big responsibility on leader.
Jim Rembach: (11:39)
Well, you know, okay. So I think there’s also yet another issue because we’ve gotten into this whole attack first world. Uh, and when we have all these social connections, it’s, it’s so easy to do that and the whole fake news thing and all of those components. So, so, I mean, how can a leader actually be more mindful and cognizant, you know, of these types of things and prepare for them because crisis is going to happen. However, I think it seems that most people don’t prepare for the crisis to happen. Uh, they just kind of let it happen and then they try to react. And by that time, like you were mentioning, it’s just too late. So how can people prepare better so that they don’t have that gap and they don’t stumble when it comes to a responding?
Well, two things I’ll talk about real quickly. One is that in any organization and smaller organizations, I think struggle with this. But the larger organizations who can afford to have people listening to whatever social media is occurring around an organization, that whole ecosystem, um, those people have the responsibility to tell their leadership, you know what, we’re hearing about something out there and it’s not good and people have the wrong perceptions about what we’re doing or a new product that we introduced or something, you know, that we didn’t do in, in their minds. So that’s good information for the leader to say, okay, if that’s the perception of us right now, I’m outside in the external world. It’s probably also the perception inside the company. So we have to do something about that. We have to change that, that we have to address, that communication can be part of addressing, but action is also part of it.
You know, do we have to change our strategy? Do we have to shift something internally? Um, in terms of preparing for something that can really be a bad event, maybe even a catastrophic event for a company normally call the crisis. The other way in which leaders and their organizations can prepare is to make sure that a lot of people are vigilant about things that could happen, that have a high probability of happening. They can look at other organizations around them in their own industry or other industries and say or ask, can that happen to us? Do we have that same problem? Because often a crisis starts out as a smaller issue that’s been ignored, neglected. You know, human beings have a tendency to say, well geez, maybe this will go away or maybe I can fix this before my boss and his boss knows about it. And so you want to have the kind of open environment where people are willing to tell leaders, you know, I see a problem here, I see a potential crisis for us. Let’s get out in front of this. And then it’s the leader’s job to organize people to try to resolve that before it turns into a really serious problem. And that’s often the things that we, in the media that turn into big blow ups, many of them could have been prevented.
Jim Rembach: (14:58)
Well, and in the book, I mean, you talk about the 10 commandments of crisis management. And if you can, I’d like to run through those real quick please. So you have the truth always surfaces and you alluded to that a second ago. Own the crisis and demonstrate progress. Um, you know, you can never gain friends and how wise and have a kid during a crisis only before. So you always have to be doing that preparatory work, control the communications agenda as much as possible. Uh, and then you talk about never make predictions or raise false expectations about anything out of your control. Speed matters. You talk about that too. Reputation is a corporate asset and employees can be in the best position to spot those trends. You mentioned that as well and it says avoid finger-pointing. Uh, and then cover ups kill companies. And we’ve seen all of these things play out just within the past probably 12 months. Uh, in a book you just have a slew of both positives and negatives of people who’ve actually managed these 10 commandments. But when you start talking about, you know, communications, you mentioned that it could be a weapon. What do you mean by that?
Well, communications is very powerful and in this day and age with all the platforms and all of the technology that organizations have at their, at their availability, and the most sophisticated organizations today are very active in social media, both listening and talking to their many stake holders. They’re very active, uh, in television, in podcasts. Um, they’re just out there all the time. Um, so many organizations have millions and millions of people paying attention to them. They may not just be employees and customers, they might be investors, they might just be interested parties out there, government officials and so forth. So talking to them on a daily basis or on a regular basis in good times and bad times, I think becomes a very powerful asset for an organization because organizations are often criticized for not communicating enough or not communicating the right things or not opening up lines of communications as they say.
And going back to one of my 10 commandments, it’s absolutely true that, um, if you think you can just sail along in life as a person or as an organization and think that once you get into your own crisis, you can suddenly rally around you to your support. When you haven’t been doing that for years and years, you’ve got a big problem. You know, you don’t have those relationships in place. And that’s why I think that, uh, the really sophisticated organizations out there, they could be global, they could be national, but they’re constantly paying attention to communities. Okay, who do we need to have relationships with? How do we do that? Who meets with them? Who talks to them? What kind of communications channels do we have? What kind of content are we sharing with them? And I think they’re the ones who stand to have a better experience if they actually get into a crisis situation where more, more people give them the benefit of the doubt, they’ll trust them. Trust can go away really quickly though, if you’re doing the wrong things in a situation.
Jim Rembach: (18:41)
Well, and I’ll ask it as I was going through this book, it stood out to me for several hours, you know, in several different instances. And you were talking about the whole employee engagement thing. Um, you know, the, the customer, you know, engagement elements, um, you know, several different factors associated with growth, disruption. I mean, there’s all of these things are we see displayed out, you know, in, in, in our economy. Uh, and, and you then you go back to this whole communication is that the root of all of this, you can’t have a good culture. You can’t have good employee engagement. You can’t have good customer engagement. You can’t have a good reputation without the communication element.
Right? And I believe that, uh, today’s modern leaders of many of them do understand that, but I think that, uh, they underperform a bit in that obligation. Some are better than others. And one story I like to tell that’s in the book is, uh, I was speaking a few years ago to a business class in New York city at New York university. And at one point I asked the class, you know, how many of you want to be entrepreneurs? And a lot of hands went up, how many want to work in financial services and so forth. And then I asked how many of you want to work in communications? And one lady kind of shyly put her hand up. And my answer was you’re all going to be in communications. You may not know that now, but no matter what you do, um, in your career, in your profession, you’re going to be communicating every day and you better do it. Well now business schools don’t necessarily emphasize that some do more than others but most haven’t as part of their curricula. So I think it’s very important for people to understand that it relates to everything. You know, as you mentioned, reputation, culture, trying to be a high performance organization, trying to be believable and trusted by consumer basis, all of that.
Jim Rembach: (20:35)
But in addition to what you were just saying right there, um, when I start thinking about the full communication element, uh, is that you, you are, there is a very important element that we often see happens and that is, and I’ve been talking about this a lot lady is a disconnection between the head and the feet. So in other words, you know, the very, very top of the organization, uh, and by the time all of this stuff gets filtered down to the front line, it’s very different, very different intent, very different interpretation, you know, and it’s that old drill and things start getting disconnected. So how, how can we ensure that the alignment takes place and gets filtered from the top all the way to the front line?
Well I think that’s where modern communications tools come in. But then there’s some old old fashioned methods as well. I mean there was a time where they used to talk about cascading a communications where I would start at the top with the leadership and then it would go down level by level, supervisor to employee and so forth. And you know, there was a lot of theory that uh, people trust their supervisors with information a lot more than they trust the CEO or the top of the company, uh, because those are the people who, uh, hire them, pay them, supervise the amount of daily basis. But the best way to do this and a lot of CEOs I think have perfected this is really in two ways. One is the less personal way of talking to an organization at the same time video streaming. So you have 40 locations all around the world.
You try to deliver the same message repeated over and over and make sure that the people on that particular, um, streaming or you know, town hall meeting or wherever are hearing it directly from you and then they’re hearing it directly from their supervisors. They’re getting the same message, the same direction, the same information. Obviously people add things to it, they nuance at, they’ll say, well, the CEO might’ve said this, but you know, our job is really to do that. That’s always going to happen. But I think that is one way of doing it. The other way of doing it frankly is, and this relates really to culture, our leaders who do it by walking around their organizations and doing it in person. And that’s really a time consuming job obviously, because that means that if you have many stores, many locations, uh, you, you have a big corporate headquarters, you could be spending all your time doing that. But spending some of your time doing that is very useful and productive because not only are you having a chance to meet with your people, but they’re telling you things that, and they’re offering insights to you that are very important to the organization because they’re hearing it from the front lines and you might not be.
Jim Rembach: (23:32)
Yeah, I think that for me, you talk a lot about, um, you know, really the emotional intelligence aspects of all of this. And you talk about empathizing with the customer, empathizing with the employee, empathizing with your audience. I mean all of that about really heightening, you know, your whole emotional intelligence and all of this. And so when you start going back to the whole neuroscience and all of that, while yo