The Secret Sauce for Organizational Success: Communications and Leadership on the Same Page

  • Published

The Secret Sauce for Organizational Success: Communications and Leadership on the Same Page by Tom Jurkosky. Air University Press, 2020, 148 pp. 

The Secret Sauce for Organizational Success is a monograph that infuses case studies with personal anecdotes, reflections, and practical takeaway, ultimately being highly beneficial for readers hoping for curated, practical insights, and recommendations for organizational leadership. Its basic premise is simple: leadership makes the difference of whether organizations can weather challenges and overcome emergencies.

Tom Jurkowsky has a long career of working in communications, offering a longitudinal view of the media industry. He served in the navy for more than 30 years, was a public affairs specialist, and worked as the Navy’s chief of information and chief spokesman. After retiring at the turn of the century, Jurkowsky served as vice president for media relations at Lockheed Martin. After working with public company, he joined the US Treasury Department, returning to federal service. He leverages his long and diverse career history to his advantage in the book, presenting a curated series of stories to illustrate his points.

His extensive experience further convinces him that there are four constants that organizational leaders’ representatives should always focus on to enhance transparency and reputation: being responsive to the media, providing access to the media, ensuring good working relationships with the media, and always maintaining one’s integrity. Jurkowsky is adamant that leaders must take responsibility and understand their place at the head of an organization, providing numerous contemporary examples, in addition to his historical cases.

The Secret Sauce for Organizational Success is a relatively short book (less than 150 pages) divided into fourteen short chapters, each one averaging less than ten pages. This makes it effective to consume in small bites or to be used in exerts for workplace or organizational training workshops, book clubs, or reflections. Each chapters serve as an independent case study, interconnecting effectively to create holistic recommendations and a strong sense of continuity. Each concludes with a summary section that ties together the holistic narrative and provides specific recommendations and suggestions for confronting particular leadership challenges and failures. Many of these takeaways have to do with changing perception or changing organizational framing.

Critically, throughout the book Jurkowsky frames leadership and representative roles as privileges, not rights, as individuals in these roles are held to high standards. Thus, this is very much a book about ethics in addition to strategy. None of the takeaways or recommendations are paradigm shifting things; they are all rooted in ethics. In that way they are incredibly straightforward and simple—but simple does not always mean easy.

Jurkowsky does not shy away from talking about negative events and bad periods in organizations’ histories. For example, Chapter 3 focuses on the Navy’s Tailhook scandal. The author calls it the navy's #MeToo movement, and does not shy away from evaluating how leadership “failed miserably.” Yet this case study also shows where some more detail could have been beneficial. In talking about the Tailhook scandal, he writes that that leadership decided not to pursue any of the potential solutions or strategies to mitigate or eliminate negative behavior;  however, it is not clear if all proposed strategies were dismissed, or an alternative strategy was adopted that ultimately ended failing. The difference between a bad choice and inaction is crucial, and there are several opportunities where this distinction could have been further discussed or emphasized for readers.

The Secret Sauce is an incredibly concise yet valuable evaluative tool. Possibly its most valuable content is on page 66, where Jurkowsky poses reflective questions to ask of journalism to determine whether it was done unfairly, or whether it just contains a message to which the reader objects. If the questions are not appropriately answered or are inaccurately communicated, there is reason to be upset; however, if the portrayal is due to communication team choices, it identifies organizational failures. This is one of many digestible takeaways about good leadership and interacting with the media. One theme readers may face with skepticism is the repeated portrayal of communicators who keep their emotions in check as the ideal. Emotions can be useful tools; discomfort prompts us to acknowledge the need for adjustment or ethics reevaluation.

That book emphasizes organizational partnerships with media partners, but readers should also think about the lessons as they apply to community partners. Organizations have responsibilities to communities, which can be considered kinds of knowledge dissemination outlets unto themselves given their roles in word-of-mouth and reputation development. The book, in the context of field literature, adds very interesting and valuable perspectives to communication, integrity, and leadership (particularly as the latter contrasts with simply ‘being a boss’). Few books in the field are able to draw on such depth of experience, or be able to personally account the transformation of public communications over 40 years. Books that rely on this longitudinal approach often use history and literature reviews; what makes The Secret Sauce special is its use of lived experiences. It also stand out in its considerations of universal values and lessons, even while drawing from diverse fields as private, public, military, and government experiences. Even as it is borne of diversity, what distinguishes The Secret Sauce is its intended universality.

Dr. Ellen A. Ahlness

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."