Effective leaders communicate like a boss! Compassion, precision, and frequency of communication are just a few of the values that CEO Jill Nykoliation exemplifies and that she encourages others to embrace. This is part 1 of a 2-part interview. The 2nd episode (#76) includes a summary of both episodes.



 Jill Nykoliation

Jill Nykoliation & Andrea Wojnicki communicate like a boss

Jill Nykoliation & Andrea Wojnicki

Talk About Talk & Dr. Andrea Wojnicki

Talk About Talk with Dr. Andrea Wojnicki podcast cover art

Talk About Talk with Dr. Andrea Wojnicki



Dr. Andrea Wojnicki: Thank you so much, Jill, for joining us here today to talk about leadership and communication skills.

Jill Nykoliation: It’s such a pleasure to be here, Andrea, thanks for having me. 

AW: My first question is a big one. What is your leadership philosophy?

JN: My leadership philosophy. I would sum it up as, don’t lead through a rear view mirror. Yesterday’s behind us, I tell my team all the time – Notice what’s ending and let it go. Notice what’s emerging and step into it.

AW: Wow. So perspective, and being proactive, but also internalizing what has happened?

JN: What has happened and letting go is a big part of leadership. I’m really big on let it go. You can’t step into the new when you’re pulling all the baggage of the past. And we have to move so quickly. Everything’s changing so quickly, that the less baggage you have, the less attachment you have to past ideas, or past identities, the faster you can move into the future. So I tell my team all the time, is just notice what’s ending and let it go.

AW: I love that metaphor, I can actually imagine a team climbing a mountain, and they’ve got this big, heavy baggage.

JN: yes. 

AW: And their leader’s saying, drop the bag, drop the bag, like why are you carrying this uphill?

JN: You’re actually making me think of this, I think it’s the movie Ants. They were going to a new anthill. And one of the ants asks, why are we carrying all this crap? Aren’t we just going to get new crap when we get there? And it’s true. It’s like, why are we pulling all this crap from one anthill to another? And my daughter and I laugh about it. Don’t bring everything forward, let things go and be grateful, is a very Marie Kondo. Thank you. You’ve served me. Well, I’m gonna let you go.

AW: I love it, you’ve served your purpose. That’s what she would say, right?

JN: You’ve served your purpose and be really grateful. And I find when you say thank you to things, whether its business models, or its team members, or processes, you leave the animosity, and you leave the resistance, and you leave the fear of letting go. You just consciously open up your hands and drop it. 

AW: Do you have any specific examples?

JN: Yes, I lead an advertising agency and communication is changing all the time. And so for us, letting go, let’s say of production methodologies, where it used to be big and polished, etc. It’s okay, sometimes you need that. But most times, we need a piece of content that’s going to be relevant for, I don’t know, three days. And so let go of the process that made a great big Superbowl ad, and actually let it all go. What do we do to create this content that only needs to be relevant for three days? That’s a lot freer, it’s a different budget. So instead of taking what you had and whittling it down, drop it in, create a whole new process. Or advertising used to always be you start with the insight, which is more of an ethnography type of understanding. But now data leads. And so let that go, don’t resist that. Going, actually, what if we got a brilliant team of data scientists in here? And then we’ll look for insights. So letting go of the way it used to be done. When you and I grew up at Kraft, it was all about the insight. Now it’s data leads. But again, let go of the way you learned things.

AW: So as you’re describing that, I’m thinking of two things. One is that having this philosophy and encouraging your staff to adopt the same philosophy is enabling them and you to pivot – which is such an overused term.

JN: … it really is. But we really are! I think pivot is overused, and people are just making steps. But we know we literally pivoted in COVID. We launched two new divisions, and our business had our best year ever. In COVID when advertising is being stopped, we had our best year ever. Because we truly pivoted into the new.

AW: And the other thing that came to mind as you were describing this example was a growth mindset. So you’re also I think implicitly encouraging yourself and your staff to think of what’s next and what’s coming forward and what you can learn and first we need to keep in mind the consumer insights for example, right?

JN: Yes, exactly. And so for me growth mindset – so many people have heard that, but they don’t actually know what it means, because they go: but I’m afraid to grow. And so finding other words, less buzzwords. Like just notice what’s ending and then … I’ll do this in a staff meeting. What do we think? Sending it into the chat. What do you guys see is ending? That’s interesting to see … Oh, yes, then they’ll go – this is ending. Okay. What do we see that’s starting? And then so … And meanwhile, you’ve got them in a growth mindset. Most people aren’t actually actively growing and those of us who embody it, we can throw the shorthand at people, but short hands aren’t clear for a lot of people.

AW: I agree. cliches are powerful and dangerous at the same time.

JN: Right, exactly. 

AW: So if that’s your leadership philosophy, I’m curious if you may also have a communication philosophy.

JN: Yes, I do. Funny you should ask. (haha) I’d say there’s three things. One is precision. And that’s the big one. I love to spend time on that.  There’s precision, compassion, and frequency. Those are the three I’d say, form my signature style, which I have found to be quite effective, especially in this moment, where we’re all virtual.

AW: Can you describe or define what each of those elements are?

JN: Yes. So precision with words, we need to be specific with our words, because our words form a narrative. And then we work to make that narrative true. And so if we’re lazy with our words, we blanket things like, I’ll never crack this. Like, really? Never? Like, never? Really? Are you sure? Like, are the clients always like this? Or this process is always so screwed up. Always. Never. The question I ask my team a lot, my daughter too, is, Is that true? That’s interesting. Is that true? It’s never like never gonna happen. Or always. So I don’t like extreme words, because it will rarely ever..

AW:  hyperbole is dangerous

JN: That’s exactly it. All this is on my shoulders. Really? You’re the only one? There’s no one on your team that could absolutely can help you with that? We have a very familial, very collective culture. So when people say that, I go, oh, okay, is that true that it’s all on you? It might feel that way. But is it true? And is that the expectation? I use precision a lot.

AW: And that’s obviously very powerful and important when you guys are creating copy.

JN: Yes that’s true. We need to be precise when they’re writing words for a client. But it’s like the shoemakers, kids, when you use it for yourself, you get sloppy. So another thing is to be pithy. That’s something that I learned back when we were at Kraft, we had this facilitator, his name was Cavis and he had a rule. He said, Tell me the headline, and then you can talk as long as you want. And then when you had a crisp headline, you actually didn’t need to talk that long. But when you weren’t clear in what you wanted to say, Boy, you had a lot to say, walk it around, and people like, where are they going with this? And so again, when I try and write or when I speak, what’s the headline? So for example, I was on a panel the other day, and someone said to me, so, how’s your business doing? And I said we had our best year ever. And they go, why do you think that is? And my answer was, because catastrophe require sharpshooters.

AW: Brilliant, wow.

JN: This is a catastrophe moment, business wise. And my team is a team of sharpshooters. And I actually call them ninja navy seals, because I can’t decide which ones they are. So I put together navy seals, we are the elite team. Basically, you’re in a crisis. What our clients are saying is: get me out of this. We’re that team. So we’re doing extremely well in a catastrophe because this is the caliber you want. But that answer catastrophe requires sharpshooters, three words – it just said so much. So that’s what I mean by headlines. And then I can talk as long as I want. But I don’t know if I need to once you hear that.

AW: I’ve told the story, actually, in some workshops, I learned that the hard way. When I was a doctoral student, and I had the opportunity for the first time to present my academic research to my peers and some faculty members. And I got up and I spent all this time with my script and my slides. And I started talking. And about 15 minutes in, one of the senior faculty members stood up and said, Andrea, why are we here? I was thinking, I don’t want to tell you because there’s a punch line. No, no, no, no, I learned that I really learned the hard way. Right there. And then and I use it now, whether it’s a podcast, whether it’s a workshop, even when I’m writing newsletters, like you tell them what you’re going to tell them, and then and then go,…

JN: I was just working on this with one of my teams yesterday. When you work on a Keynote or PowerPoint, whichever form you’re using, Do not make the headline, a label. “Context.” “Agenda.” “Design system.” And like no! “The design system will evolve from last year in two specific ways.”

AW: Oh, brilliant.

JN: So reading the page is optional. If I just go through and read your headlines, I’ve got what you’re saying.

AW: Brilliant.

JN: Anything else is context. If you want people to get the point, then say the point.

AW: It’s respectful to your audience, whether they’re listening or reading, whatever, it’s respectful of their time, right?

JN: Yes. So that’s precision. Another communication philosophy I have is compassion. And I would say I lead from the feminine. I didn’t always do that. And it was brought to my attention four years ago. I made a structural change, and my coach whom I learned so much from. He was like, you know, Jill, now that you’re restructuring, it’s time to step into your natural style and which is… he goes, but you’ve been leading from the masculine. Because I grew up in a family of three brothers, you know, lots of boys in the house, the language of business is typically masculine, and an advertising is ultra masculine. And he said, “you’ve learned that’. That’s a learned language for you. But it’s not your natural language. And it was an epiphany for me, right? I’m not, that’s not my natural language. I did some really deep work to go, “Well, how do I show up naturally?” And once I gave myself permission to come as my whole self, my leadership took a whole new level. But also I dress differently, I show up differently. And my team just like, oh! And then my team’s performance went up to level two, because I came in my whole self, which means – because you know that people watch what leaders do. All of a sudden, I’m showing up as myself, which automatically signals they can show up as their selves. And then vulnerability just happens.

AW: Wow, I have to say what you just shared with me, I’ve got the shivers, I, I’m working a lot right now on personal branding. And I’m encouraging people to step into what makes them unique. And I feel like if I had been a fly on the wall, when your coach shared that with you, and you said that you kind of had an epiphany, and you had to do some work, to figure out how to show up, that I have a saying that I share, which is unique is better than better. And so you were you grew up in a household, and then you were working in industries were better meant masculine.

JN: Yes. 

AW: And now you’re embodying your true, authentic, unique self. And, again, I got the shivers. It’s like your superpower.

JN: Yes. And then advertising is very in-person. It’s a team sport, we put things up and we build and we touch. And now we’re doing that through screens…  You really need to reach into the screen and be compassionate through the screen. So a couple of examples that you say of compassion. I know you talk a lot about listening. And I love that, and how I phrase it, I kind of amp it and go, can you hold space for someone? Because a lot of people go Yes, I’m listening. They’re actually hearing. They’re not listening.

AW: Yes.

JN: And I love how you’ve talked about the two to one ratio, you have two ears and one mouth, and that’s the ratio you should use. So I use my phrase, holding space. Because those words mean No, hold the space, you’re going to hold a container. Really? And how did you get to that conclusion? How did that make you feel? Truly let them get it off their chest, and dimensionalize it. If you’re listening, you notice, you’re often listening to respond. But if you hold space, you know, my job is just to hold the space is just to keep everything from interrupting you, including myself. And I actually have a container. It’s right here.  Actually, it’s a clear container. Sometimes I go, Okay, put it in the box. Look at that thing. Let’s just talk about and I literally put it in the box for some people like no, no one’s touching it, we’re just going to hold space for it. And that helps some people understand what I mean. But when you hold space, and people feel heard, often they just go, do you understand what I’m saying? Is the client saying, I don’t like this for XYZ? I literally hold space. When you hold space, then you can get a clear picture. And then what you say back is so much more informed. You have a full picture. When someone doesn’t like what I’m what we’re presenting, I can hold space, because I’m so confident in what it is. But I can wait. I can hold my point. I can hold it for 20 minutes if you want.

AW: So one question about compassion. And this may link back to what you were saying before about avoiding buzzwords and using a different word that may define what you really mean. What’s the difference between compassion and empathy?

JN: Empathy for me is I literally I can feel what you feel. 

AW: Okay.

JN: And compassion is more Wow, I’m observing how you feel, that must feel horrible. Tell me more about it. Not everyone is empathetic. I am. I have to protect that because sometimes I don’t need to feel what everyone’s feeling.

AW: Right.

JN: But I also made an assumption that everyone can, but it’s like sympathy versus empathy are not the same thing. One is literally I can walk a mile in your shoes. Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh.

AW: And then that’s a bit of a burden.

JN: Yes, it’s a burden. 

AW: Yes, it is.

JN: My empathy can be …I think all of us have superpowers that can have negative sides.

AW: Absolutely.

JN: Okay. And then the third part of my communication philosophy is frequency. Frequency is important because just because we say it once doesn’t mean people absorbed it. We have to have full context. And so repeating things. So frequency of make sure you say things, you’re consistent. Second by frequency, what I mean is I literally get in front of people often. This is new for COVID times. We talk to our team every single Monday morning for half an hour. Without fail. Never miss. I personally talk to the team every Thursday, without fail, never miss. And knowing that we have that drumbeat is really important. Professor Tom DeLong at Harvard drilled into us that ambiguity is always perceived negatively. And that’s what we do as humans – if I don’t know what’s happening, oh, why aren’t they telling us this? Like, I don’t know. I didn’t think you needed to know or I thought you already understood. For frequency, we literally get an ever go more than a few days. I go. Hi. There’s not much to share with you this Thursday. But I promised you I’d be here every Thursday. And here’s what I got. And so even if I have nothing to say I don’t cancel, I can say there’s no news No changes. So they can have assurance. What we do every Friday, we call it Pulse –  get the pulse. Every Friday, we text our entire team and say how did it go this week? Good or bad? Any comments? And then every Friday they have a platform to anonymously tell us how things are going. They can communicate to us. How’s it going? Could be oh my gosh, shout out to this team. Or you know what, my home chair is really uncomfortable. Is the company going to upgrade our home chairs? It could be anything. And then we share it Monday morning. We literally put the comments up. Okay. Okay, how are we trending? Here’s the thumbs up comments. Here’s the thumbs downs. And here’s the asks. And everybody shows up, because it really is anonymous.

AW: Wow.

JN: Criticism is a gift. Even if it comes out as – like someone said to me, or came up through the feedback. Jill’s positivity is toxic.

AW: Oh, wow.

JN: Right. Oh, but then I thought … okay, is it true? No. We talked it through. What is toxic positivity? And why am I positive? Like as a leader? I don’t think you need me to come up here on Thursdays and say this is really hard. That’s not helpful. It is hard. I’ll say that, but I won’t stay there. But what I said to them, I’m grateful that you said it. Behind every criticism is a wish. I’m finding this really hard and I’m overwhelmed. Jill’s making it seem like everything’s going well, it’s not. I don’t know how to ask for help. And I feel like I’m the only one. And then I leaned in and I said okay, everyone has my cell phone number. But let me give it to you again, everyone, grab a pencil, text me, call me. I don’t know who you are. I’m going to wrap my arms around you. Everyone, energetically let’s wrap our arms around each other. Give yourselves a big hug that what we’re doing is so hard. And one of us, some of us are struggling. Look into your circles, find out who they are and help them. So I literally talk that way. That’s compassion. But frequency, you never go more than four business. You can say it to your boss anytime. But if you find it something you can’t say, either it’s too small, or it’s too frightening for you to say ,you have the anonymous ,we call it pulse. I can’t imagine running a business without it. Now we’ve been doing it for a year.

AW: So I was just listening to a podcast WorkLife with Adam Grant. And 

JN: I love that! 

AW: It was the interview with Brené Brown. And he talks about you know, in companies, they often provide for customers a suggestion box. Right now we need to have an internal complaint box, an issue box. 
JN: And we have one! That podcast was fantastic. 

AW: It is. So I wanted to ask you more about buzzwords. But before we do that you mentioned you know the effects of the pandemic and COVID and working from home a few times and and it sounds as if you had many of these philosophies and exercises and structures that you had created for your organization before COVID and maybe COVID. And the whole experience of working from home has reinforced the significance of these things. But is there anything that’s changed in terms of your leadership and or communication philosophy?

JN: Yes. So I’d say I turned it from like a dial of 4 to like 9.5 Yes, we would have the Mondays we never had Thursdays too, and they’re different. One is Mondays is report back what you said, and Thursday’s is super personal. Thursday’s are intimate. I never did that before. I had everybody physically with me. And I never met them every Thursday, I have to say every Thursday, Why would they come? And I never got so intimate. They see me without makeup on. I actually I’ve talked about some ways how I’m coming in. I’m like, Okay, I’m coming in and I’m a four right now. And I’m but I’m here. I lost my energy today. And so, but we’re here, I let them see me not at my best. But I’m like – but we’re here and I’m gonna pull energy from you this afternoon because sometimes  you pull energy from me and I’m gonna pull energy from you … I was up all night helping my daughter with a biology exam and I’m like, I don’t know, I’m taking grade 12 biology all of a sudden, I’m exhausted. So I see my level of compassion is way up. Vulnerability way up. Frequency, I turned that up. And it’s going back to vulnerability. I named things. For example, one time I said to my team, alright, coming in like five today and I said, we went through the stage of adrenaline. Then we went to endurance. And now we’re in monotony. I think this is a late fall last year . We were in monotony. My executive team texted me and said, don’t name it! I’m like, no, I’m naming it.. So we’re going to talk about how do we stay inspired through monotony? My meals have gotten sloppy. I’m not dressing up for you guys anymore. I said, I’m just sinking into monotony. And I said, but people hire us to be creative, inspiring. So we cannot sink to monotony. We can’t. Our job as sharpshooters is to create brilliantly creative, persuasive answers. So how do you be creative when you’re bored, and you’re scared, and you’re numb? Maybe you’re feeling that too? Alright, let’s name it. And we can’t let ourselves go there. I never used to talk this way.

AW: Do you tell your staff regularly where you are on a scale of one to 10? Like Brené Brown?

JN: Yes! She said she comes home to her husband like, oh, we’re both at seven. Oh, we have a 30% gap. So I do. And I do that with my executive team. We meet every single day at 230. We never did that before. So nothing goes longer than a day. Yes.

AW: I’m hearing a lot of inspiring messages for leaders. And for everyone, frankly, Jill, I’m really inspired by your self-awareness. And I’m really inspired by your vulnerability, as you call it. And as I’m sure as apparent to the people that you’re with, and then that has so many positive benefits for your organization, and then for your clients. And you said turning up the dial, and I am seeing a dashboard with all these dials with all of these philosophies that you’ve talked about. And you can turn them up and down. And right now, a lot of them are being turned up.

JN: Yes. 

AW: So there are so many leadership and communication buzzwords out there, right? We’ve talked about authenticity, but there’s resilience. There’s servant leadership, there’s inclusiveness, there’s optimism, there’s transparency, there’s a growth mindset. How do you as a leader navigate all of this advice and rhetoric? Because I know that you’re reading and you’re listening, and it’s really overwhelming. How do you decide what matters?

JN: Such a good question. As we talked earlier, buzzwords are helpful short hands. But they also give us places to hide. And so what I try and do is not use them if I can. Again, back to my point about precision. Buzzwords usually aren’t precise. They’re fat words. They catch a lot of things. They’re bulky. And so I like to use plain language. And I learned this from my CFO at an agency I was at before I started this one. She wrote like no other finance person. She used such plain language. But I remember thinking, I so appreciate the way you’re writing. And she said, because I’m writing finance for creative people to understand. And so that imprinted on me to go What’s the clearest I can be? So short answer: I try to avoid buzzwords because they’re actually lazy. Precision is something I say to my team. There’s the butter knife. The steak knife. The scalpel. We are the scalpel.

AW: Okay, Jill, I have to say that your metaphors are blowing my mind. Oh my gosh.

JN: I say that, literally. And so we launched our precision marketing firm, we called it The Scalpel. And I say to my guys, this is called scalpel. We’re always pushing ourselves to be the scalpel. So let’s just call it that. Let us be the scalpel. But that’s what I mean by being precise. Buzzwords are rarely a scalpel. They’re usually butter knives.

AW: It’s true. Like you said, use plain language.

JN: Plain language. They say, Oh, we should be vulnerable, we should show up as our authentic selves. And it doesn’t seem vulnerable … Their mistake is they think that means being personal. Right? And vulnerability and personal. They’re two different things.

AW: Yes, it’s orthogonal. So Jill, as I was sharing with you, I’ve been asked so many times what I think the number one most important communication skill is and I used to say quite easily listening. But over the last couple of years, actually, even before COVID started, I was hearing things from my coaching clients and from my podcast listeners that made me really think about this, I guess more completely and it’s not just listening. So now I say there’s three superpowers. Listening, storytelling and communicating with confidence. And there’s different reasons why each of those show up on my list, but I’m wondering, what do you think about this list?

JN: Okay, so I love your list. And the way I hear those things, so listening we talked about I say that as hold space. Truly listen, so that that means like listen for it with a capital L. Hold space. Confidence, I love.  I would say that’s pretty much precision. Confidence builds when people talk with precision. You’re very confident. When you’re not confident you use lazy words, because you’re not really sure. You’re coming in like a butter knife. So I agree with confidence. Storytelling. Absolutely.

AW: Yes, an advertiser, of course.

JN: But you think about way back to the cavemen, they drew pictures on cave walls. And they told stories. Why? Because that’s how we remember things. We don’t really remember data points, but remember, you string them in a story we remember, or even my metaphor of a butter knife sticking your scalp like I say, \\ you should be precise with your words. Yes, when I put it in  a metaphor of like, a butter knife isn’t really cutting much. It’s a butter knife. It spreads things, you spread peanut butter. You’re actually not cutting much. When something needs cutting, you get the steak knife. And then, you know, I’m getting heart surgery, I want that guy to have a scalpel. I want them to be really precise. So I’d say storytelling, metaphors are helpful. Personal experience relevance. So putting yourself in a story.

AW: universal truth.

JN: So relevance is really important to storytelling, but I love your three, you said listening, confidence and storytelling.

AW: Oh, gosh, I could I could talk to you about each of those three for an hour.

JN: But I think each of those is a skill that you could do a whole deep-dive lesson on in communication. How many people listening on this podcast have actually gone to school on how to hold space for somebody?

AW: Yep, exactly. You actually just made me think of something which is recently I’ve been talking to some tech entrepreneurs, and they’re talking about how the leaders of organizations that they’re talking to the tech leaders are saying that the skills that are needed in the workplace most are these interpersonal and communication skills, right?

JN: So well, because it’s how you get the most out of everybody. And what my job is a leader is to communicate the vision. And but it’s also to make people feel safe. Because you can’t be brave, if you don’t feel safe. You can’t take risks. It’s hard to innovate if you don’t feel safe. I realized as a leader, when people feel safe, they go out and do extraordinary things. And then I take that as a big responsibility is how do I in this environment, all environments, but this one particular is like, Oh, yes, you’re right. I am studying, I am going to school and things because the softer stuff, gets people gets their guards down. It makes innovation happen. It makes collaboration smoother, because if we don’t trust each other, and we don’t feel safe, we don’t show up. Here’s a dumb idea. I’m not going to say that if I feel like I’m being judged, right? The CEO gets up and says, guys, I made a huge mistake. Or what I did, I snapped at somebody … I was just so frustrated. I waited a few minutes. I said, Okay, I have to stop the meeting. I was short with you. I’m so sorry. And they’re No, no, it’s okay. I said no, it’s not okay. Please don’t dismiss it as okay. I want to apologize to you. I want to apologize to everybody on this screen. That wasn’t kind, it was unnecessary. And it wasn’t anything you did. It was me. My frustration came out on you. And then on my Thursday, huddle, I talked about it – hey, I had this thing. And I threw my frustration on to somebody, and I apologized. And we thereby want to make sure everyone here knows that. I know it happens. I did it too. Let’s make sure we have it. We’re going to do it. Make sure we apologize as quickly to the incident as possible. Because we’re human. We’re going to do it. But that’s also like showing them It’s okay,  we can make mistakes. It’s not okay to do that. It’s okay to apologize. 

AW: Wow, you’re creating an environment. That’s just so psychologically… I’m trying to avoid buzzwords when I’m around you. But it’s psychological safety.

JN: That’s a motivator for me. Yes. 

AW: So I have a prediction Jill. You’re going to be flooded with resumes after this.

JN: We’re growing.  So I don’t mind. 


THANKS for READING – and Talk soon!






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