Plank Legends & Leaders: Joanne Bischmann


Before retiring, Joanne Bischmann guided Communications for Harley-Davidson Motor Company as well as oversaw the Business Aviation and Travel and Meeting Services functions for the company. Her team was responsible for shaping stakeholder perceptions and created advocacy for the company through targeted communication of the Harley-Davidson story globally. This included all external corporate communications as well as employee, dealer, supplier, shareholder and community relations communications.

I graduated with a degree in Communications, I really was interested in marketing. That’s where I started, I started in an ad agency and I love advertising. I loved helping clients solve their problems through advertising. And then one day I got a call to come look at Harley Davidson, because they were looking for a Manager of Advertising and Promotions. I really wasn’t interested in going over to the client side because agencies are so exciting, you work on so many different types of clients. But, I went on the interview because I thought, it is Harley Davidson after all. I started falling in love. Every interview I had with every person was so exciting and they offered me the job and I took it, that was 28 years ago.

I made most of my career in advertising and marketing at Harley Davidson. I spent 16 years in the marketing department, starting Manager of Advertising, then I moved to Director and then I moved to VP of marketing and I did VP of marketing for 10 years. I moved over to our business side and ran our licensing division, which is a lot of marketing as well. It’s taking the brand and deciding where we want to put the brand. It was a great way of understanding, kind of, how to run a business. And from there, I had the opportunity to come to communications. Which is what I started in my field, I graduated with a Communications degree and low and behold I found that I love communications, it’s where my home is. I love telling the story of the company and solving the problems that get thrown at us every single day. From issues and crisis to what’s going to happen next in the world and how does the company react to it? So, I have had a variety of things at Harley Davidson to work with and I’ve loved every minute of it.

Leadership in public relations I think, is no different than any leadership. Leadership is everything. To me, leadership is about putting forth a vision, a goal, and getting others to be interested enough in that goal to follow it, to inspire people and bring others along with you. That is easier said than done, it takes unique qualities to actually get others to follow what you’re setting out to do.

The most important leadership qualities, in my opinion are, integrity and honesty, which is part of integrity. Curiosity is probably an undervalued trait in leadership, always thinking about what could be, not what is. Being collaborative, having relationships and knowing how to build relationships is the hands-down key to having strong leadership.

I think the best leaders are innate leaders. I think there’s a quality that is within leaders that it isn’t something that you can learn. That said, I think leadership can be developed. I think everybody has the capability to lead. At what level they’re going to lead, really depends on the qualities that you have within you.

It is really hard to pick one outstanding leader, even two. I admire so many people in the profession that I have the pleasure of working in today. Particularly, a lot of the women that are in my field. These women are leading, particularly in the agencies, they’re breaking new ground. So, there’s Merrill McDonald and Dr. Barbara Hines. People that are really creating the next wave of what communications are, and I am a huge fan of theirs. Margery Crouse has been doing this for so long. These are the type of people that I really admire because they’re changing the world every day. They’re keeping up with it and they’re understanding where communications is going to go.

I think anybody who is entering the field or growing in the field of communications, must continue to be curious, number one. Two, do anything and everything. I don’t care if it’s in the communications field, I don’t care if it’s in the marketing field or any field. Be willing to step up and what I call, ‘fill the gap’. You see something that needs to get done, don’t wait to be told to do it, do it. Number one, you’ll learn something. Number two, people will respect you for stepping up and not being asked to do it but to really just see something that needs to get done and to do it. I think when you’re in that growing part of your career, doing that really brings visibility and a great learning experience.

I don’t think there’s a shortage of great leaders in the field. I am constantly amazed at the people I meet, the people that continue to teach me. These people have such capacity to give to this field. I think we have an amazing group of leaders in the field today. That said, I think we owe it to continue to care about this industry, care about the people that are coming into it and give back. That is what I hope I’m doing, and I think that I see everybody else that I work with, doing the same. So the organizations, The Plank Center, Arthur Page Center, all these organizations that are looking for programs to seek out and be mentors and find programs to continue to develop, I think that’s extremely important.

Harley Davidson had been led for the last 100 years by people that had been with the company for 20 or 25 years. About 10 years ago, we went outside for our first CEO and that was a huge transition for Harley Davidson. I happened to be In leadership at the time. So, Keith Wandell had come in and been the first leader in almost 100 years to lead the company as an outsider. That was a shock to our organization and what he really had to do was to challenge things that we’d always done before. I saw him demonstrate true leadership in asking questions. Not just, why do we do things the way we do, but, why should we do them that way? And maybe we should stop doing things, and more importantly being decisive about things. Changing our manufacturing processes, changing some of our product development and more importantly, even closing a business.

We owned Buell at the time, and making the decision to say, “Buell is not going to continue with Harley Davidson because it is taking so much of our resources away from our core business, which is Harley Davidson.” That was tough. That’s like saying one of our children is not going to be with the family any longer, it was tough. Watching him do that was demonstrating true leadership with how it was done, and I greatly admire that and I learned a lot from it.

First, there are so many leadership books, that you could go bonkers, you can even narrow it down. I did a lot of work on branding and I did a project on Brand Books.  There were so many different ways to look at branding. I’m going to go to the high level and there is a book, and it’s an easy read, it’s called, “Lincoln on Leadership”, and it’s a really simple, high level kind of look at leadership qualities through the eyes of Abraham Lincoln and I recommend it to everybody. “Lincoln on Leadership”

The world is so much more complicated today. It is complicated because of technology. It’s complicated because the political environment we’re in, it’s complicated because frankly, business is much more complicated than it ever has been. The key to success in business is really having people all aligned. To get people aligned is communications, and when you think you’ve communicated enough, you have to communicate again. When you thought you’ve communicated enough then, communicate again. The key to all of that is making sure that you’re organized through communications and I think that’s why the communications profession and communication expertise is so important in today’s world.

If you’re just starting to get out into communications through a search of a job or even going into the field through your education, I think you have to understand if you like agility, to be able to jump from thing-to-thing because, that’s what communication’s is. If you like that, be willing to work hard.

It is a 24/7 job. It never stops. You have to be prepared at all times, to be willing to jump in on an issue, never have all the facts, be decisive. So, really know that that’s the kind of life you want to live. If you want 9 – 5, if you want to know that you can take a vacation when you planned your vacation, this is probably not the profession for you. But, if you want to be excited by what’s coming every single day, this is definitely the profession for you.

I look for well-rounded people. I was taught years and years ago by someone who was one of my mentors, that the best people are people that have a broad background. They can understand everything from history to English, to mathematics. Because of this, they can interact with all types of people and they can understand all types of problems and situations, that’s what I look for. I look for people who are interested in a lot of different things, and have that broad background. They can really handle themselves in all different types of situations. I look for curiosity, I look for people that are looking at what could be, not what is.

I look to the University educators to make sure that they’re educating the next profession, on really what to expect. The world is not organized as well as it should be, and probably not as organized as it is in the academic world. Preparing them for that, helping them to understand that these are our basic principles, but it won’t work like this in the real world. Helping to understand that there is the basic business of communications in Public Relations, but you’ve have to work in a very agile environment and be prepared. And, help them to excited by that, don’t be flustered by that, but that’s the reason we all do it every single day because, we don’t know what to expect. We stick to the foundations of what we know about our business and the foundations and principles of communications in PR. That’s what guides us, but you have to be willing to work on the fly. If the educators can prepare them for that and not be flustered by that, we all appreciate it in the business world.

The world is not homogenous. The world is made up of all different peoples from all different viewpoints and that’s what we are always dealing with in communications. So it’s so important that we, as communication professionals, bring that into our thinking. The only way you can bring that into your thinking is if you bring different, diverse viewpoints in and your team needs to be made up of diverse viewpoints. It’s not good enough just to go out and research different viewpoints, you need that thinking on your team.  It’s really important in our world to make sure that whether it’s my team or those that help us in agencies or consultants, to have a diverse thought base, diverse backgrounds. So that we are taking into consideration all the different viewpoints that we will be communicating and making sure that we’re presenting that in the best solutions possible.

I think that whether it’s 2030, 2040 or 2050, CEOs are going to have the same expectations as they have from communication professionals today, and that is to bring a sense of honesty and truth about what is happening. Whether it’s with your customer base, your employee base, your supplier base, your distribution, what is happening in the world and how do you need to address it? That sense of integrity and truth saying that communication professionals have as a role, is so important and will continue to be important going forward.

I think the wakeup call has already happened and it is technology. We’ve always wanted to control the message. With controlling the message, you have your messages, you put out your channels and then, you get your feedback and there’s no controlling any of it anymore. It moves at the speed of sound. Technology has changed everything in communications. We have to understand that it exists, it’s not going away. It probably is going to move even faster, that’s the wakeup call that has happened, will continue to happen. We have to just slay that dragon.

My leadership tip is, you’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with; my mentorship tip is, have confidence. There’s no one that is any better than you are. My networking tip is, never burn a bridge. My go-to news source is Google News.

Every leader is trying to be better. The lesson that took me the longest to learn is that you can’t save people from themselves.

The habit in my daily routine that either, strengthens my leadership skill or just keeps me sane is, I walk every morning at 5:30 with my best friend. We leave on our walk and we talk about all the world’s problems from politics to our children and husbands and friends.  We finish the walk and everything is solved. We have solved all the world’s problems, our kids are the best, our husbands are wonderful, then I start my day.

The communication team at Harley, its first and foremost objective is to be transparent and to share information with our employees, our dealers, our investors and our suppliers. Particularly with the employees, it’s to be honest with them and give them the information they need to do their jobs. When our employees have the information, they need to do their jobs, and feel that they’re connected to the purpose of the company, we get higher engagement.

We are so blessed at Harley Davidson to have 115 years of attributes that are emotional in our brand, we connect to it. This isn’t a brand that anybody feels sort of wishy washy about. You connect with it. At Harley Davidson, we have so many different ways that you can be engaged and we work hard to give our employees and our customers ways to interact with it. Whether that’s through events, or whether that’s through ways to personalize your motorcycle. Or in employee’s cases, there’s ways to either, actively work with customers or learn to ride a motorcycle. We give them all those opportunities to be engaged.

We expect all of our employees to develop at every level. Each of them has to have a development plan, that development plan is primarily a kind of, on the job. Not just taking a course or a class, which is certainly something you can do; but, what are doing in your job to develop? That’s providing them with opportunities for stretch assignments, putting them on different teams, engaging with our customers, going to events, learning about the products and riding the product. Going on a long journey if you’ve never done an overnight on a motorcycle, being part of that and being part of the team that leads it. So developing you as a Harley Davidson Ambassador, as well as developing you in the areas that you chose in your career. Those are all things we expect in your development plan and we update every single year.

I have a small but mighty team at Harley Davidson. It’s important that each of them can do each other’s jobs. Everybody has their area of expertise, but you have to pitch in. That also helps us to be a better team because, you don’t take for granted that you may need help or you may reach out for help and that, we can rely on each other, that makes us a stronger team.

I recognize that research and reports may say there’s a shortage of women in leadership, in communications, but I don’t see it. Particularly in my team, we have a majority of women in our team and leading our team. We’re doing our part to bring women into leadership roles and developing them. I think that women have a capacity for communicating and listening and understanding and problem-solving that there’s no stopping women in this field.

I am a mother of four boys and I would give women the same advice I give my four boys and that is, to succeed in this career or any career, work hard. Be curious and have fun, you know? Don’t take it all so seriously, really enjoy it, have a sense of humor. Everything probably is not going to come tumbling down tomorrow as much as you feel it will at the moment. The sun does come up and there will be another challenge around the corner.

Recorded: July 2017

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