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How to be an outstanding business leader in turbulent times

"Communication is a path to survival, recovery and growth. It is a means to extinguish the flames..." Kevin Warren, Chairman of the Board and CEO of Xerox Canada

I am sitting in a room jam-packed with over a thousand communicators from across the globe, miles from Jamaica attending the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) world conference in Toronto, Canada. It is not strange that as I rubber-neck to spot a familiar person or face with a familiar hue -- I am not lucky.

So imagine my great and glee when the speaker on the platform for the general session, and more importantly the winner of the IABC's Excellence in Communications Leadership (EXCEL) Award (a.k.a. the Pulitzer prize for business communications) is Kevin Warren, the Board Chairman and CEO of Xerox Canada, someone who decidedly looks like I do.

It is important to understand the importance of the EXCEL award to communicators. This honor is made to business leaders, frequently CEOs, who have embraced the importance of communications in their executive role. The award winners are those CEOs "who support, encourage and practice exemplary communication and whose organizations reflect that philosophy and standard of their communication work", says IABC. Past EXCEL winners have been: Brian J Dunn, president and chief operating officer, Best Buy Co Inc, (2009); and J W Marriott Jnr, Chairman and CEO of Marriott Int Inc. (2008)

Kevin, the son of a career English teacher, is himself is no slouch. He began his Xerox career in 1984 as a sales trainee in Washington DC and held sales and sales management positions with increasing levels of responsibility, including manager of sales operations, solutions manager for the DC commercial marketplace and vice president of federal sales for the United States. He led the successful integration of Global Imaging Systems, a US$1.5 billion purchase, into Xerox. Now he is responsible for the business operations of Xerox Canada. He has a bachelor of science degree in finance from Georgetown University in 1984 and recently graduated from the Harvard Business School's Advanced Management Program. He was named one of Black Enterprise magazine's "100 Most Powerful Executives in Corporate America."

Most of us who work with business leaders know that some of them do not understand/like/ or care for the role of communications. There are some (I am not calling any names) who think we are glorified typists or man/girl Fridays or their personal spokespersons with nothing to do but trumpet their personal goods deeds. If there are no good deeds on record, it is recommended that we 'make-up something'.

Many of these 'never-see-come-see' CEOs were elevated to the upper ranks through dint of hard work in their field, perhaps accounting, finance or IT. Oft times they neither rate the work of the communicator nor the act of communications as a legitimate part of business processes. Those who don't run screaming at the very thought of communicating with employees, are dismissive of the value-added that the communications role bring to an organization. Then there are those who have perfected the art of lying, subterfuge and hiding as their personal ammunition in the communications cache. A typical exchange with the latter perhaps sounds like this: "Shall we communicate with the staff members about the round of lay-offs that are coming up this year, Mr Big?" Blank stare, followed by this response: "HR will send out letters to them."

It is therefore a distinct joy and pleasure to work with a business leader who understands the importance of communications to the business process. Any professional communicator who is so lucky to strike gold will perhaps never have to explain to his boss, the importance of employee communication to an engaged workforce or regular staff and management meetings to productivity. That lucky devil will probably never have to take up a dictionary and explain to the CEO that effective media relations do not entail calling the media to regularly cuss them out when news reports are not to their liking.

Now back to the real 'big-man' Kevin who in his acceptance speech explained to the audience how he came to the position of Board Chairman and CEO at a precarious time in that company's history in 2007. By 2008 when he took over he said Canada's economic indicators had turned south and customers were definitely not buying. What was his strategy, "I led with my ace and used my communications card". Seeing the oncoming clouds of staff lay-offs and benefits-cut, he said that he tried always to remain upfront with the employees about the likely effect of the recession of their jobs and the industry. "Communications is not a solo sport, it is teamwork and we worked with our executives and team-managers to coalesce trust. I always assured our team members that things would get better and painted an optimistic yet realistic picture of the future."

I am sure it was not everyday that Kevin went to work that he held hands and sang 'Kumbaya' with the employees. No doubt there were dog days. But he has lived to tell the tale as Xerox revenues rebounded in fourth quarter 2009 and he has been able to put back some suspended employee programs.

Xerox Corporation's 2009 Q4 earnings saw $986 million in operating cash during Q4 and $2.2 billion for full year 2009. Elizabeth Miller, a manager at Xerox nominated him for the award with these comments: Kevin likes to get a little bit more personal and creative when it comes to thanking employees for their hard work. One event that he and the senior leadership team hosts is an annual pancake breakfast for employees in Toronto. At this event, Kevin rolls up his sleeves and personally serves employees a catered breakfast. He uses this opportunity to provide a quick business update and express his thanks for a job well done."

Of course there can be only one Kevin. But I live for the day when more of our CEOs will take, not a chapter or a page, but just a sliver of understanding of the book that Kevin read and the practices he embraced on his way up the ladder.


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