By Sonia Hota
At the recent International Conference in Montreal, John Finney was inducted into the IABC Class of Fellows, an honour reserved for communications professionals of the highest calibre. Finney has a long history of volunteering for the IABC, as Treasurer, Program Director, Secretary, Chapter President, District Director, and International Chairman, and attributes the growth of his professional career to his involvement in the IABC. Although he now lives in Windsor, John began his professional career with the IABC London Chapter.
Last week, John agreed to participate in an interview with me, to share his experiences and wisdom.
A Stellar Start
After graduating from York University with a Honours Bachelors Degree in Political Science, a job with the Royal Bank of Canada brought Finney to London. He went on to complete a Master in Political Science at York University, and his interest in government and media relations led him back to London to complete a Master in Journalism.
When asked how he began his career in communications, John said, “I was in the right place at the right time when opportunity knocked. Dawn Snow, the wife of my broadcast journalism professor Peter Snow, had recently been hired to manage the official opening and launch the first Miracle Network Telethon for the Children’s Hospital in 1985. She offered me a job to plan the broadcast, recruit the volunteers, develop the behind the scenes systems, and help with fundraising.”
The telethon raised over $326,000, with over 80 speaking engagements. After the telethon, Finney was hired on full-time in the communications department of Victoria Hospital, where he continued to assist with the telethon and first became involved in the IABC. His boss at the time, John Burke-Gaffney, was a strong IABC supporter, and insisted that John and his fellow colleague, Laurie Lashbrook, join the organization.
“I learned so much from attending those sessions – it was like earning a real-world education. It really gave me a solid grounding in the best communication practices and technologies of the day,” Finney claims. “However, there was a catch – a quid pro quo. Burke-Gaffney also insisted we “get involved” with the chapter, and serve on the board. In hindsight, this was as much, if not even more, beneficial to my career in communications.”
John remained at Victoria Hospital for 11 years, doing employee communications and media relations and eventually becoming the Director of Communications, all while taking various positions on the IABC London Board. During his tenure at the hospital, he dealt with several communications challenges including: a Canada-wide interest in the youngest liver transplant recipient, wearing a pager and providing media updates nights and weekends for trauma cases, having six hours to plan the announcement of the merger with University Hospital, and helping manage the communications and community consultation in the creation of the London Health Sciences Centre.
After the merger, John accepted a position as Communications Director, at Windsor Regional Hospital, which he held for two years. It was during this time that he was asked to put his name forward to become the International Chairman of IABC – a one-year voluntary role, which he successfully filled from 1996-97.
“It gave me the opportunity to travel the globe – from London, Ontario to London, England, Thunder Bay to Johannesburg and Miami to Manilla,” said Finney, “to speak to members, business leaders and media and to promote the value we bring to employees and organizations as professional communicators.”
At one such IABC Regional meeting, John encountered an IABC leader who worked for Watson Wyatt (now Willis Towers Watson), a global Human Resources consulting firm, who arranged a dinner meeting with their Communication Practice Leader in Detroit. Three months later, the practice leader was transferred, and John was offered the job.
An Impressive Career
For the next 19 years, John crossed the border to Detroit to work as a practice leader, and later senior consultant and director for the communication and change management practice.
Over those years John had the opportunity to work with many Fortune 50/500 companies helping develop strategies and implementation plans to communicate compensation and benefit changes, mergers and acquisitions, new employee self-service technologies, and organizational change initiatives.
“While I have only worked for three organizations during my 32-year communication career, I treasure the variety of experiences I have enjoyed in working in both Canada and the United States in the public and private sector and for community-centred and global companies.”
Now retired, Finney reflects on both his professional career and his involvement in the IABC.
“Joining and volunteering for IABC was the best career decision I made. The knowledge I gained through the chapter, regional, and international professional development programs gave me an opportunity to bring new ideas to my workplace and to excel in my job. That in turn led to other opportunities both within IABC and in other lines of business.”
In spite of all the changes in technology over the years, Finney sais that the three things that haven’t changed are knowing your audience and customizing your message to their needs, focusing on outcomes vs. outputs, and having face-to-face communication. Measuring the hard metrics, such as behaviour change, and desired action, are key to recognition for the profession, and ongoing funding support. Personal interaction and reaction helps minimize misunderstandings, and builds buy-in.
Being honest and ensuring that clients have all the information to make informed decisions is also important for successful communications. Finney also encouraged clients to answer the following questions in all their communications: What is the business rationale for the change? What does this mean to me? What do I need to do differently to be successful? What are you going to do to help me succeed? Where can I go if I have questions or concerns?
When asked about his personal success habits, John says he always does the following:
- Returns all calls/emails within 24 hours or less
- Has no more than 20 emails in my inbox
- Be a mentor not a boss
“I believe in the rule of three – namely that people will remember three things. So in my communications, I always tried to focus on three key messages and to repeat those consistently for retention.”
His advice to new communicators:
- “Don’t just join IABC – get involved and volunteer. All my jobs came from contacts, not want ads. IABC is great for networking.
- Find a mentor or two to give you advice and feedback – it can be invaluable, and pay it forward when you are successful.
- There are lots of different jobs in the communication field; don’t be afraid to explore different roles or industries.
- Consider the rule of three: every three years evaluate if you are advancing your skill set, and career, and whether it’s time for a change.
When asked what becoming an IABC Fellow mean to him and his profession, John said he is humbled by the honour.
“I look at the designation as a life-long obligation to continue to advocate for the value we provide to employees and to our employers, and to continue to give back by mentoring members, so they can be successful and enjoy their careers ride as much as I have enjoyed mine.”