In Era of ‘Radical Transparency,’ Leaders Must Act, Communicate With Authenticity: UVA Darden Leadership Communication Council

By Jay Hodgkins


The most effective antidote to challenges in leadership communication driven by rapid transformation and disruption is to lean on organizational values, a deep sense of purpose and authenticity, according to members of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business Leadership Communication Council.

Convening at the Darden School for the second year, the council — comprised of senior communications professionals and academics studying the field — met in October to share insights on trends, challenges and best practices in the real world of leadership communication and use those insights to design the future of the Management Communication curriculum at Darden.

The council kicked off with a panel discussion, Leadership Communication Amidst Transformation and Disruption, in honor of the late Professor James Rubin, former head of Darden’s Management Communication area. Rubin’s book Reset: Business and Society in the New Social Landscape, was published posthumously with support from co-author Barie Carmichael. The panel set the stage for discussion that centered on how social media, digital communication and technology-enabled connection have created an era of radical — sometimes painful — transparency for businesses.

“Communication is a new core competency,” said panel moderator Eric McNulty, associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard University and author of the upcoming book You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When it Matters Most. “When handled well, communication creates transformation. If not, you get chaos. If you think about the work we are doing with education for the next generation, we have to equip people to navigate turbulent times and communicate amid disruption, if they are going to be able to marshal organizations toward positive outcomes.”

 

All of the panelists — which included McDonald’s Director of Internal & External Communication Artemis Hiss, White House Writers Group Managing Director Clark Judge and Darden School Executive-in-Residence Steve Soltis — agreed the best means to communicate successfully given the disruptive state of constant transparency is to align communication with action.

In essence, radical transparency requires an organization to be authentic. If an organization claims to act sustainably, it better act sustainably and have sustainability in its core values.

“We needed to understand the landscape and think about ways we can challenge ourselves,” Hiss said about McDonald’s. “We focused on using our scale for good, then we were able to rearticulate our commitment to society in a very meaningful way to stakeholders.”

Soltis said he had been hired to work with a soon-to-be-launched agricultural business to help it build a purpose-driven story that would motivate employees and stakeholders to “buy in.” The agribusiness settled around a narrative that it is “our mission to feed the world,” Soltis said, but the narrative achieves authenticity through the business’ efforts to partner with nonprofits and others to be more environment and climate friendly than other large agribusinesses that are often the target of environmental groups.

Aside from consumers and observers driving companies toward authentic actions that match communication from leaders and marketing departments, Judge noted that the generational transition toward a millennial workforce is also driving the increased focus on organizations communicating their purpose and meaningful values.

“Employees are seeking purpose,” Judge said. “Purpose is an attraction for my company and all employers. That is what is driving the current wave of well-educated people coming into the workforce.”

Council member Dean Foust, director of executive communications for UPS, said authentic commitment to and communication about issues impacting society is one of the only ways to build “a Hoover Dam of trust,” which company’s need in an era of transparency and disruption.

“In this age of social media when it’s possible to crush a brand in minutes, it’s critical to have that Hoover Dam of trust.”

Following several breakout sessions and networking opportunities, the council concluded with a session focused on incubating the next generation of Management Communication (MC) curriculum at Darden.

“We’re honored to have top corporate communicators and academic colleagues convene at Darden as well as commit time throughout the year to work with MC faculty to ensure that our curriculum changes align with the needs of business,” said Professor June West, chair of the Leadership Communication Council.

Council members currently practicing in the field said, in order to communicate successfully as leaders, the next generation of MBA graduates must be critical, creative and agile thinkers who are able to ask the right questions, operate with high emotional intelligence and continue to learn.

With so much focus on improving so-called “soft skills” in order to create better leaders and communicators, Soltis suggested the term “soft skills” itself might need to be rebranded as “leadership skills.”

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D. and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.

 

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