There's power in consistency of communication. Every three or four weeks, a small number 10 envelope arrives in my mailbox at Stanford containing an 8 ½ by 14 newsletter entitled The Life of the Mind. It's the brainchild (sorry for the pun) of Dr. John Peterson who was one of my undergraduate professors and deans. It's typed on a typewriter (not a word processor), folded in quarters, and slipped in an envelope with a stamp. Its simplicity is its charm. Copies of other periodicals pile up around my office, but TLOTM (for short) always gets read.
In September, with little fanfare, Dean Peterson noted that it was his last issue and thanked us all for reading. The final issue contained rich stories about his experiences as an emeritus professor and his memories of his own role models who'd retired before him, yet remained active on the campus.
He had produced 467 issues of this little monograph over a 28-year period. That's an average of a newsletter about every 21 days. The subtitle, "An Insignificant, Irregular Vehicle, Dedicated to the Stimulation of the Intellectual Process, The Promotion of Dialogue, and the Exchange of Ideas on Any Topic of Interest to the Active Mind," captured his vision for the publication. The content ranged from recounting trips to Australia, to expert treatises on fungi (his area of expertise), to humor, to updates on former colleagues, neighbors, and students. His mailing list was extensive, numbering several hundred of us, and he charged nothing for the service.
I wasn't the best student John Peterson ever had. He taught Great Books of Western Civilization and led the honors program at Emporia State University when I was an undergraduate in the mid '80s. I tried my best, but many other "priorities" got in the way of me submitting stellar schoolwork. I was given some of the early TLOTMs as a student in the honors program, but after I graduated and moved on I had no idea the publication continued. About five years ago, I found out that the Dean was still writing and asked if I could be placed back on the mailing list. He was at issue #382 at that point.
When he celebrated issue #400 I found the one and only working typewriter at NYU's Stern School of Business so I could type him a note of congratulations. He appreciated my gesture, but pointed out my improper spelling of the word occasionally as occassionally in TLOTM #401 or 402. Over the years these monographs came to represent more to me than the anecdotes on the page. I saw the lifetime commitment of an educator who enjoys teaching years after retirement. And the stack of TLOTMs growing on my desk reminded me of the kind of educator I aspire to become: committed to my teaching and connected to my community. His efforts, which are herculean compared to the ease of an email distribution list, blog post, or twitter feed, remind me of simpler times.
Now that I've begun to write an occasional (thanks MSWord for correcting that for me) blog post for HBR.org, I'm learning yet one more lesson from Dr. Peterson: the power of consistency. It takes so much less effort on my part to reach so many more people. Yet I strain to return emails and answer comments from readers in a timely fashion. The draft of this blog sat in my laptop for weeks before I finished it and sent it on to my editor. It's a privilege to have a conversation with others, and I hope by following Dean Peterson's example I can do better in this space and in others where connections matter.
What does consistent communication mean for you? It depends. The easy place to start is to set a few simple goals, like responding in a timely way to emails, or using old-fashioned thank-you notes, or making one phone call a week to acknowledge a colleague or employee. Maybe it's simply forwarding this blog to somebody in your own life, like Dean Peterson in mine, whose influence was meaningful to you and who you'd like to thank.
Next, evaluate how you do with that goal, perhaps on the first of each month (or quarter) and renew your commitment or set a new goal. How we communicate, and how consistently we communicate, becomes a part of our reputation as leaders. My little stack of The Life of the Mind will grow no taller with Dean Peterson's decision to stop writing and sending them. However his influence will continue to grow as I set and meet goals for my own consistency of communication to others.