Mark Schumann, Chair IABC International

By Marc Wright

A new Chair of the IABC (International Association of Business Communicators) is elected each year so a huge variety of them will pass by during the span of your own career as a communicator. They tend to be knowledgeable and expert and of course they are all brilliant communicators. But when you meet Mark Schumann he really does stick out. It’s not so much his greying long locks that make him look the part of a bearded and accomplished professor. What is unique about Mark is that he is such a genuinely nice, polite and solicitous human being, who loves his fellow communicator.

”I became fascinated in people who labour inside organisations. We have the most important calling there is – that is getting people to feel engaged in their work.”

Schumann’s early interest in employee engagement started with his thesis on how the CEO influences the culture of an organisation, which he wrote as part of his degree in business communication at the University of Denver in Colorado.

After a period working as an advertising copywriter of the back of cereal boxes he managed to get closer to his first love when he became Head of Employee Communications at Frontier Airlines.

“I worked for a CEO who had an instinct about connecting with people, much like a politician. Watching him and travelling with him I saw how he worked the crowd. He could explain anything. I realised then that communication is essentially about relationships, more than media and channels.”

In 1984 Schumann left the client side – not least because the airline went bust – and went into consultancy.  He joined Towers Perrin, the company that recently merged with Watson Wyatt to form Towers Watson.  Schumann took to consultancy like a fish to water and he has stayed as a consultant ever since.

Reaching new altitudes of engagement

One of his early clients was that textbook study in employee engagement, Southwest Airlines based in Dallas, Texas. It has been the most consistently profitable airline in the world and their customer service and sense of fun is legendary.

“Southwest Airlines is one of those companies that got where it was because it spent very wisely so we had to be creative with every dollar we spent.  So much of that work that we did at Southwest is the origins of what we call now ‘employer brand’”.

Schumann recalls, “Southwest Airlines had a fun approach to flying in order to differentiate themselves from every other airline.  The fun approach to working became a natural requirement, because if we are going to be a fun brand on the outside, we need to be doing something similar on the inside.  They coined the phrase ‘we are serious about having fun’ and I always thought that captured them perfectly because they are so serious about their precision and their safety that it gives them a permission to then have a good time – not the other way round. It’s much more complex than people give it credit for, more than a tagline, it’s how you create a reputation of a place to work.”

Many years after helping them build their employer brand Schumann and the Head of HR at Southwest, Libby Sartain, wrote a couple of books Brand on the Inside and Brand for Talent, which helped define a new industry around employee engagement.

“I have always seen myself as a behind the scenes thinker, contributing behind the screen. I remember when we created the recruitment experience – people coming in to a dull room and filling out boring forms. We asked ourselves how we could dress this up and turn this into a fun experience. We created whacky videos, and the Southwest shuffle.

“We did the same thing to the on-boarding experience and created this karaoke experience that took on a life of its own.We decided how wonderful it would be that other employees should welcome them in store. We re-wrote the lyrics to hundreds of songs and gave staff 30 seconds to prepare before the camera started rolling.  It was from that that I really learned the power of a brand was not from its tagline but it’s in how it influences every stage of (employees’) experience from the time they first hear about it as a place to work to the moment that they leave,” Schumann remembers.

Up close and personal

Schumann worked with a plethora of large American companies such as Exxon Mobil, American Express, Yahoo, Kimberley Clarke, Doubletree, and Hilton. His work spanned from mergers and acquisitions to helping CEOs raise their personal game in the communication stakes.  He has travelled extensively with the job and spent a year and a half in Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific before they and Hong Kong were acquired by the Chinese.  Over the years he has seen a circularity in communication styles.

“It’s come back to where it started.  My original time was with leaders who strongly believed in their personal approach. They could walk into a room and connect with anyone.  Then there was a time when different media were introduced to take the place of that –  first they could send a videotape, they could email, they could sign an article they had not written, they could delegate the need to connect.  I think we saw leaders starting to get away from those personal strengths.  It’s now with the growth of social media that I find the CEOs I work with are coming back to much more of a personal approach.”

“Blogs are so personal and they do what a medium should, they take you somewhere you haven’t been – inside someone’s mind – and when a leader uses a blog to say ‘this is how I see the world, and this is how I see the competition, and I drove up to such and such a facility today and this is what I saw’.  Well that is so powerful because you are having a conversation with someone’s inner thoughts.  So now what I think media has done is to make it personal again.”

According to Schumann, “The smart leaders are those who make the investment to build the channels knowing that at some point they are going to need them.  They don’t wait until something happens.  There is nothing that is less satisfying to employees than a CEO who only communicates with them when there is a problem.  We have to be very aware that we train our listeners. If we only talk to them when there is a problem, they will avoid listening to us.”

Workers as more than employees

Schumann believes that engagement was originally thought up by leaders who defined it as something they could understand, but over time it has shifted to workers who have now decided whether they are going to engage.  He argues that if you look at workers as customers – as consumers of work – it’s a very different way of looking at someone who just draws a wage.

“Consumers make choices, and engagement is a series of choices; either I choose to work there or not, I choose to wake up early or to lie in bed, once I get to work I choose either to contribute or lag.  We have to understand these choices that these consumers make and that is the new engagement; to help frame and shape choices.”

These new rules of employee engagement (and that is what Schumann’s next book is likely to be called) are being driven by two things in his view, which he admits could be a perfect storm for communicators.  On the one hand he points to the arrival of Gen Y in the workplace, but on the other he is concerned about the vast number of people of all generations who feel disappointed by poor leadership during the recent economic downturn.

We all have to reinvent a little and let go

Schumann has been travelling around the world nudging his audiences into backing off from managing communication to helping others communicate.  It’s a hard lesson that many may fail to learn, but Schumann’s non-confrontational style hides a certainty that professional communicators have to change.

“One of the things that makes communicators special is that we try to make lemonade out of lemons. No matter what the world hands to us we try to find what’s good, what works and what we can do with it.  I think we sometimes need to let go of that and not always try to be solving a problem, because real insight is not trying to collect a small bit and then trying to solve it which is our natural tendency.  Real insight is to let it sit, and trusting that if we follow what people tell us then that will provide a direction in which we should go.  So I think we have to be more patient sometimes rather than react to every little bit of information that comes our way.  And I think that is a challenge for us, because we are so eager to please and to respond and sometimes we might not need to do it so quickly.”

Schumann is retiring from Towers Watson to be an independent consultant and he is starting also to look at measurement from a new perspective.

“What I see is a world in which we have constant feedback of information from people, rather than a snapshot – a point in time – when they have to complete a survey.  Maybe in the future we would be better off having a human sample that we track throughout a day, a month, a week, a year to monitor how engaged they are at any given moment, rather than when the survey comes round.  We need to use some of our creativity to find out how we can find out from all these different ways how we can understand truly what they are thinking.  And part of that should be from what they say on social media.”