I write about the things that matter to me. All opinions are my own.

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Saturday, March 29, 2014

"Hand Raised In Worship" by KOREphotos via Flickr

Imagine you want to start a business for customers who aren't buying anything except satisfaction. That is exactly the model for creative project crowdfunding site Kickstarter, which just reached the $1 billion mark in pledges.

Cofounder Yancey Strickler explained the motivation for participating in an interview with Charlie Rose for Bloomberg Businessweek. It's not about money, he said: "There is no financial upside to these things. It’s not an investment."

Well then what is it? In short, a calling:

"From the very beginning we decided—my co-founders and I—that we would never sell, never go public. We viewed Kickstarter as a public trust....a living, breathing cultural institution that’s there to represent the interests of everybody."

Any activity can be a calling. It can be your family, your job, your weekend hobby. It it is what gives your life meaning.

This week I took a project management class on a seemingly mundane topic: risk management. The instructor the most seemingly boring job in the world - risk management for petroleum companies.

The way he talked about his job, it was clear that excellence in project management was his calling. And he said as much. He viewed it as an act of leadership, and:

"Leadership is learning. Leadership is life."

In our day-to-day work lives it is easy to separate mentally from what we read on LinkedIn and Harvard Business Review and The Wall Street Journal and Fast Company.

It's just a job, right?

But it is not just a job - it does not have to be one.

Whatever you do, you can elevate. Your calling is yours, and you make the call.

* All opinions my own. No endorsement or non-endorsement expressed or implied.

Friday, March 28, 2014

By Tognopop (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There is a new baby in town. He cries day and night.

Somebody stays with that baby to feed him, rock him and sing him lullabies. To watch the sun dance across the lawn. To walk to the park and sit in the grass, just sitting.

In school there is a child that can't sit still in class. Lectures are boring - she's rather play video games and build rocket ships. A teacher adjusts her other lessons accordingly. "Suddenly" a scientist is born.

A couple moves in together, and there are all these little things to decide. Who will do which errand and when? How long can friends stay over? What are the limits of my money and yours? Where do we go on vacation? It's a dialogue over time...it takes time.

A new employee shows up for orientation. She pulls up to the front door alongside a veteran of the company. She is greeted with balloons and brochures. 

He is greeted with...well, nothing.

It is 9:00 sharp as he sits down at his desk. What is to look forward to? What is new to do, that hasn't already been done a million times?

It is just at that moment that he glances as his boss's door. Is that door open or closed? Is someone waiting there to talk to him, to find out what's going on, to serve as a sounding board or to provide a new and more challenging assignment?

Or would it be considered rude to knock?

* All opinions my own.

Thursday, March 27, 2014



A kid asks, "What Is My Teacher's Problem With Me," and there are dozens of answers on Quora already.

Many of us are saying the same thing - she's an abusive person, stay away - but there is more to it than that.

The genuineness of the question, the detailed nature of its context, the story and the drama - this is real life and the audience is hooked.

It matters because the future of advertising is not advertising at all. It is community.

Community is very hard to infiltrate. It is by nature suspicious of outsiders.

But if you can somehow make your way through, the payback is huge.

What keeps this scenario from being mercenary is that the rules of social media are known.

That is, we go online to give and to get.

Sometimes the transaction is commercial. Sometimes it's social. Sometimes it's just a shoulder to cry on.

Often it's a mix of all three, or more.

But the fact that such incredibly compelling content exists in one place, makes any boring, cliche-ridden stuff alongside it pale in comparison.

* All opinions my own

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Meme via Buzzfeed (I could not locate the original meme at the location cited in BF)

I'm not as smart as I'd like to be. Often it's like I can see a glimmer of the meaning of a thing, but I can't figure it out all the way to the bottom.

That's the way it is with postcolonial theory, or with any kind of theory or 'ism. I don't understand all the details, the jargon and the arguments between the players. 

But I do see the big picture. I "get" that Whiteness is a "situated thing." And that Caucasian is not the default stance but rather one among many. 

I am so glad that in this generation we finally turn "normal" on its head. We find out that it's a spectrum, a fracturing, a rainbow carnival parade where each of us is a wholly valid representation of something singular and yes, Divine.

Situatedness is the idea of text and context. It's your picture inside a frame. Whoever makes the frame, in a sense makes the picture. 

If I look at your photo through a sepia Photoshop, I get a way different impression than through the boosted color setting.

Diversity Studies (feminism, for example) are a way of critically analyzing the text by looking at the context. There is no such thing as "how women lived" unless you understand the historically imbalanced power relationships between women and men over time.

Same for countries like India, which were essentially invaded and their identities "turned" as a form of social experiment. And then the post-colonial withdrawal, and the struggle to parse out which is "us" and what was "them," and have they changed us forever.

Working in an archive you get a very clear picture very quickly that there is no text without context. You see that there is effectively a water-hose on the one side, a pressure to make as much as possible available to the public as quickly as possible to facilitate the access to history that rightfully belongs to them.

At the same time there is an equally powerful cautionary mindset that is intrinsic to the archival professional. They understand that the order in which the records were received, their place and organization among the other records, is inseparable from the items themselves. There is great concern that the images and documents not be stripped of description and identity and simply dumped into the maelstrom.

It is against that backdrop that I read "Digital Culture Is Mass Culture" with interest. One day soon this debate may well become academic as we cannot stop the artifacts from flying around unhinged, from being mixed and matched without proper context.

* All opinions my own.







Screenshot of President Barack Obama's Quora profile accessed March 25, 2014

You can agree or disagree with the Affordable Care Act. (I personally think that few of us understand it.)

But there is little doubt that the President's incredibly powerful social media machine is pushing government-to-public engagement tactics to new heights of the stratosphere. Even when he makes some serious mistakes, as I will talk about in the case of Quora, he pushes the envelope for the rest of us.

But first a look at risk-taking and success. I think it was completely brilliant that the President took to Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis. It is so insane to do that, to be part of that incredibly rude, disrespectful and popular show. Phenomenal virality. Fearlessness.

But then the President went on Quora. He made a mistake not in using it, but in the way he did it. I've been on there for awhile and know the culture a little bit. Propaganda is a matter of disgust there, and the President's communication methods tend toward the slick, commercial and propagandistic.

Consider this excerpt from his wooden, scripted-sounded language on one question. We know damn well he didn't write it. And the commenters are all over him:

Q. "How will ACA affect career and job choices of young people, and their lives in general?"

A. "Today, thanks to the health care law, young adults can stay on their parents’ health insurance until they turn 26....In fact, seven in ten single young adults without insurance now may get covered for under $100 a month through the Marketplace." 

Here is an excerpt from the President's answer to another one:

Q. "Why has ACA enrollment accelerated so much over the past few months?"

A. "Now, it's no secret to anyone that we had some issues with the website at launch. But that was months ago. Thanks to a team of experts who worked around the clock to get the site working back then, response times on Health Insurance Marketplace, Affordable Care Act are faster than ever....And more than 5 million people have already signed up for coverage -- with tens of thousands more signing up every day."

As they said in the movie Valley Girl, "Barf me with a spoon" at the false familiarity and inflated-sounding numbers.

Not everything the President has done on Quora is badly executed. Consider his response to a basketball question, which does in the end tie back to ACA. Everyone knows he loves it, and I'll bet you ten dollars he wrote the first part himself or at least edited it very carefully:

"What's it like to play basketball with President Obama?"

"My hair's getting grayer, but I'd like to think I've still got a decent jump shot. And whenever I play pickup games with my staff or friends and family, I make sure they know not to go easy on me. A couple of years ago, I got elbowed in the lip pretty hard and needed 12 stitches, so even the President isn't immune to injuries."

Here's another great thing about the President's participation in Quora - his professional "headline." It reads:

"Dad, husband, and 44th President of the United States."

Smart. Human. Real. (When I did this on my LinkedIn headline I was actually terrified of sounding unprofessional. Now I can say the President did it.)

The point here is not really to discuss the ACA at all. Rather it's about communication tactics. Be extremely careful in social media. You can trip easily and there are a million ways to trip in front of an unforgiving spotlight.

Think geography: Beverly Hills is not San Francisco. Queens, NY is not Brooklyn. South Beach, Miami is not Jacksonville. Know where you tread and tread lightly until you get your feet wet. It's embarrassing to be so high-profile and not look like you know what you're doing.

* All opinions my own.

Monday, March 24, 2014


Today's Wall Street Journal has an incredibly important article, "Advertisers Use Social Media to Promote Brands in Real Time; Advertisers Watch What's Trending—and Craft Content to Match." 

Essentially, advertisers first go where the people are, i.e. they watch for what's trending. Then they produce content placing their brands in the center of the action.

This builds on already-established best practice:

1. Go where your customers are (don't force them to your website)
2. Declare who you are
3. Speak in their language
4. Follow cultural norms
5. Actually contribute something to the community 

This strategy is so smart and it's very much like how you network at a party. Go up to a group, find out what they're talking about, and then say something about that, working a mention of your brand in.

The analogy for me is sports. I will never understand the Super Bowl or March Madness, but I know enough to know that they could come in handy every now and then.

* All opinions my own.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


Screenshot of TV character "Barney" via Mid-East.info

Here are 10 mass-market brands that grew over the past 10-20 years to communicate to a mass audience in a very personal way. They include:
  1. Barney, the '90s children's TV character
  2. Disney, an entertainment empire
  3. The Kardashians, the stars of a reality series currently on TV
  4. Eminem, a rap singer
  5. Miley Cyrus, a singer
  6. Apple, a consumer electronics vendor
  7. Amazon, an online vendor
  8. Starbucks, a coffee and related foods purveyor
  9. McDonald's, a fast food seller
  10. Harley-Davidson, a motorcycle gear seller
As a general rule, these brands have employed the following kinds of tactics:
  1. Communicate using visual media
  2. Go for an authentic-seeming, even intimate, emotional connection
  3. Speak to a customer who is clearly envisioned
  4. Dominate a single channel, e.g. in-store, on TV, or Instagram
  5. Tell a story that evolves
  6. Keep the elements simple, basic, and dramatic - for global appeal
  7. Reach the customer during formative years or during times of vulnerability
  8. Offer multiple channels of customer response
  9. In responding to the customer, talk
  10. Create a community in which the story is knowable to all, but "insider knowledge" to the loyal
New brands can appear and become powerful personas almost overnight. The key to creating them is to understand that ultimately it's all about reaching out to the lonely in a frequently friendless world.

* All opinions my own.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Image via fullbellysisters.blogspot.com

When I was a little girl one of the topics we fought most furiously about at the Shabbos (Sabbath) table was Jews who cheat in business but are still treated as respected members of the community. Honored in synagogue and at community events.

My mother used to say, what a chillul Hashem (disgrace of G-d's name). How can those people even be considered religious? How can they go to shul? (synagogue)

As I recall it my father thought her views were simplistic. His mother was in Auschwitz. Members of her family shot in cold blood. His father was in a Romanian labor camp. The scars were fresh and government could not be relied upon to enforce the law after the Nazis got away with raping our people, murdering them, beating us in the street and stealing everything down to our gold teeth.

But he did not say she was wrong, either. Rather he would say that you should quietly do what was right. I am not sure how he felt about Jews trying to survive financially, who were scarred by what government officials had done to them.

I also remember that my dad would not let me go to the rallies to free the Soviet Jews. He did not want the FBI taking my picture and putting it in a file. That's how deep the fear goes.

To cope with the issue of internal "law enforcement," Hasidim have their own way of handling people who step out of line. There is a word he would say occasionally, "chaptzem." It literally means that you are seeing a Jew being mugged on the street, and you call out to others to help (as religious Jews live close together, because they can't drive to synagogue on Sabbath.) But the way he said it, it meant that Jews would take some sort of action against other Jews, to keep them on the straight and narrow.

There is a Jewish community watch group called the Shomrim, which patrols the streets of New York to keep religious people safe. They also have been known to engage in hate crime, which is why self-regulation cannot be totally free.

Sometimes the lines are blurry. Do you remember the case of the rabbis in Monsey, NY who would use cattle prods against husbands who refused their wives a divorce? That is a good example. When they were arrested, a friend was so upset, because due to the insular nature of the community and the way in which its religious hierarchy is structured, such rabbis were the best hope they had. "And now the evil bastards are laughing."

There is a fear and distrust of the government within the Hasidic community and more broadly within the religious Jewish community there is tremendous sensitivity to embarrassment. The proclivity to shame is one of the reasons that the community hushed up child sexual abuse, preferring instead to "deal with it" internally.

Of course that did not work and there is a growing understanding that such cases must be referred to the authorities and a movement from within the rabbinate to help and support the victims. (Read about a groundbreaking community event in New Jersey, the reporting of Hella Winston in the Jewish Forward, or follow the blog Failed Messiah.)

I think I have become unshockable, but sometimes the cases shock even me. Like when I read that a Brooklyn, N.Y. Orthodox Jew is allegedly part of the "largest child porn ring in history." If that is true, how disgusting can you get? Is that for money? For some kind of sick satisfaction? What? Does he go to synagogue on Friday night and Saturday and then "it's just business" during the week?

Financial crimes are less surprising but no less sickening, and scary from the perspective of anti-Semitism. Members of the Jewish community are very sensitive about being identified with Bernie Madoff (this is a running theme in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine - the son leaves Harvard out of shame and runs away to a place where "money doesn't count," so to speak) We identify with the Assault on Wall Street rage of the common man who has lost everything to a greedy character just like Madoff.

Here is the problem though. We live in a money economy. And right now there is not enough money to go around, to pay for the things that everybody wants, to deliver the kind of status that everybody thinks they need. That is a problem extending within and way beyond the Jewish community.

In a capitalist country, where people need to pay the bills, the survival requirement shapes behavior in a work environment. It's the idea that "in business, anything goes."

The dramatic way to depict this concept is cutthroat corporate stuff, like in the classic Oliver Stone 80s movie Wall Street. But I'm not talking about that. Rather it's the concept behind social networking in a social economy, that you make connections because you may need someone in the future.

Is that ethical? To support others, because one day they may support you? It seems to me that we hear that advice a lot, that it is treated as essential. And I was uncritical about it myself, for a long time.

Until somebody said to me: "You don't do anything without thinking about what's in it for you."

And that sounded really wrong.

What do you think about it? Where does the morality lie in social networking?

Is it OK, because everybody knows it's just business?

* All opinions my own.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Many people think that social media is sort of easy, like, just send a Tweet out or write a blog and it's done.

The fact is it's so much more complicated than that. What works for one audience does not work for another. For example after five years I decided that I liked Facebook. My youngest kid, who introduced me to it, has now decided she hates it and uses other tools where the kids talk to each other and the parents cannot find them. No, not even Snapchat. There are these Q&A boards, and kids register, and then other kids can ask them anything they want.

It's complicated!

So how do we effectively reach and engage with our audiences using social media? Now, and in five years from now?

A presentation now on Slideshare has excellent information about the current trends. These are things I sort of vaguely knew about, but Eric T. Tung really has put them together in a neat and useful way.

Reviewing the 78 (yes, 78) slides, a lot of it is more pertinent to a private sector marketers, so I've modified/adapted/expanded on the slides so that the information is pertinent to government.

Note: Actual implementation would require careful coordination to make sure all applicable laws, regulations and policies are adhered to.


Reading through this list I realize that more than a few are "old hat" to people who have been doing social media for awhile. But there is a big difference between knowing something conceptually, and implementing it in practice. These trends reinforce that the need to change our mindset is very real.

1. The average Facebook user age is 42, not 21. This is not to say that Facebook is dead, only that you should have the information before you do a Facebook campaign.

2. We already know that print media are dying (no more newspapers soon) but did you know that regular TV is dying too? More and more it's about 1 source of information: The Internet.

3. Going forward, web-based email will likely decline in importance
as a communication tool. For everyone except people age 55+, use of web-based email decreased between Dec. 2009-Dec. 2010. It may work now; it won't work forever.

4. Social media only amplifies word of mouth, which has existed since forever and is the best marketing tool you can imagine (a little editorializing there). The concept now is "word of mouse." When you write content, it should be shareable. But more importantly, the place you put it should facilitate sharing too. With a single click, on many platforms.

5. Twitter for customer service: It is not an official CRM system. But it works because it shows responsiveness and generates good PR.

6. Set up live events so that people can hold up their iPads and smartphones and record what's going on. Do not restrict this activity.

7. People appreciate services that enable them to connect without actually having to interact. This is not new, but there is a need to go beyond the same old same old in this respect - to connect hyper-specialized interest groups over social media.

8. Forget about controlling the message. Focus on finding out where your audience lives in the social media world. Then find a way to reach and engage them there. Also not new, but are we really going where the Agency audiences are, finding out what their consumption habits are, and providing engaging content in a way that is not "astroturfing," that respects the culture, and so on?

9. The tech giants are gobbling up social media channels.
The main impact is cross-posting. This means that every piece of content you post should be shareable across many platforms. Little is big.

10. It is important to gather up the little bits of data from social streams to find out what people are saying about you. There are automated tools that do that. It's not just about a Twitter search anymore, a news clip search, or a quick review of the top blogs.

11. Crowdsourcing is a way of solving problems by getting help from the public in little bits. It is huge and only going to grow in importance. Everything you do, can be crowdsourced - designing a logo is just the start.

12. We are entering the age of the sharing economy. If before it was agriculture, then manufacturing, then service, and now experience, the future will be about helping others and getting help yourself. (Not just information, but literally opening your home to guests or sharing your car.) What physical things might we share? What services?

13. Big data, metrics and analytics cannot be overestimated in their importance. It is critical to understand who exactly you are dealing with and what their preferences are. The right tools can help you go through a sea of content and drill down to what really matters at the finest level of detail.

14. The quantified self: People are becoming obsessed with tracking their health and other information using connected devices -- this is way beyond the pedometer. Can we offer them a way to connect with "their" government services on a credit card - almost like a store credit card?

15. This one is not mentioned, but it is worth bringing in - "the internet of things." How can "smart" devices interact with social media to deliver access to desired records in a way that is easy, seamless, and even fun?

When you work in social media it is easy to get stuck in the day to day. But the real fun, and productivity, lies in looking 5-10 years down the road, and making that reality a part of your actual work world. 

In the government, where money is tighter than ever, such innovation is essential.

* Originally posted by me in an internal blog at my agency. References to the agency have been removed. Government produced work is public domain. So are all of my personal blog posts.

The brand master understands the three basic rules of decision-making:

* It's about emotion not logic.
* It's preferable for things to feel good.
* It's painful to have to stop and think.

There are times when marketers use numbers objectively. For example, to bolster credibility. Or if they can get sued for saying an untruth.

The rest of the time, they are using numbers to tell a story. That story can be very close to reality. Or it can be a force-fit, designed to say what they want to say at any given moment.

You can think very broadly about what a "marketer" is. It's not always a brand manager at Procter & Gamble. Rather the marketer is anyone who must influence others, persuade them of the veracity of an idea.

I have very little faith in numbers. I know they can be twisted around and around. They are useful to compare to other numbers. But I always ask myself, who has an interest in putting these numbers forward? What is the context in which they were gathered? What is the methodology? What do the competing numbers say?

Personally I prefer qualitative research: watching people, talking with them, and simply breathing the air that they breathe. But that has biases of its own.

In the end it is not so important whether this number or that number is true. Rather that we think critically about who has an interest in the number. And how they may be trying to turn a complicated set of findings into evidence upon which a brand is based, pushing you in the direction of the purchase.

It's like those commercials for housecleaning products, where they show the germs and then how the product eliminates them. Do you need to buy the product, or should you simply get some distilled vinegar and wipe the dust really well? Or maybe get an air cleaner...or move to a less polluted town.

Numbers can give you a head start. But neither they nor their spokespeople can give you the whole story.

* All opinions my own.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014



You could say that Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was a Jewish self-help guru. He taught that one must avoid depression at all costs, even if it meant acting silly. Depression was distance from the Divine. Which was death to a Jew.

Breslov was a serious person. He knew the law. He starved himself, too, and regularly walked alone in the woods. His devotion was extreme and ascetic.

Still, he took the people as they were and loved them. He could handle the heavy stuff. They could not. He carried the load for them and simply asked them to feel joy in return. Joy does the rest.

Joy can be achieved through silliness. Fools feel free to be silly. Laugh, tell a joke, crack a smile.

Fools are limber. Their minds are relaxed enough to believe. Not inherently closed off, like skeptics and pessimists.

Thus Breslov wrote that fools are actually better off:
"It is better to be a fool who believes in everything than to be so clever that you do not believe in anything.

"If you believe in everything, some of your beliefs may be foolish but you will also believe in the truth.

"However, when a person is too clever and does not want to believe in anything, he may begin by ridiculing falsehood and folly but can easily end up so skeptical of everything that he even denies the truth."

- Sichot Haran #103
I am not advocating that we act silly all the time. I am simply suggesting that we not dismiss foolishness as a tactic. Sometimes it gets you closer to where you need to go.

* All opinions my own.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Photo by Handmade Stuffs via Flickr

One of my favorite movies is Working Girl. I never fail to cry, rooting for good-hearted, hardworking, honest Melanie Griffith against the stuffy, scheming, not-too-original Sigourney Weaver. 

It is hard to pick my favorite scene. Is it where Sigourney gets her comeuppance, and she can't remember the idea she stole from Melanie that got her so much kudos? Or is it when Melanie gets her little lunchbox from Harrison Ford, who has packed her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to take to work?

Doesn't matter. The movie pointed up the importance of feelings. Melanie, Harrison and the other good characters in the movie represent the idea that you can't and shouldn't leave your heart and soul behind when you pull into the corporate parking lot.

Senior executives truly understand the concept of heart at work. But the people who work for them -- that is to say, the upper management ranks -- has a lot of trouble with it. They persist in defining professionalism as the absence of emotion at work.

They would not tell you this. But in talking to them, you get the impression that they think we're supposed to be robots of a kind. We should get things done using only cognitive skills. Emotions, insofar as they exist, are really like dirt -- they get in the way.

Of course this is not only stupid but sexist. Very very subtly, it tells you that the basic, superior, elemental individual against whom all others are judged is the one who exhibits no emotion. 

Traditionally, the stereotypes say, women are the nurturers. We mother. Men are the protectors and the killers. They are taught to be expressionless at will, "Like Toy Soldiers."




Fortunately times have changed. In 1995, the publication of Daniel Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence began to shift the leadership conversation away from pure technical and cognitive skills and toward the interpersonal ones. Finally, a respected man was talking about the importance of emotion at work.

Let's ignore the fact that ten years prior, in 1983, that Arlie Hochschild's The Managed Heart had already portrayed a workplace in which emotional skills were becoming absolutely critical to employment. Which makes sense in a service economy. And even more sense now, in a collaborative one.


In 2013, brand expert John Gerzema's The Athena Doctrine came out, arguing that women and those who "think like them" will soon be dominant.


The point of all this is not to argue that women are superior to men, that women are inherently more feeling, and so on. That is nonsense. 

Rather it's about starting a conversation about what kinds of beliefs are implicit in the workplace around emotion. Is it really true, as many seem to believe, that there is no place for feelings at work? That serious business people do not exhibit emotion? 

Of course not!

Multiple intelligence is all the intelligence that we have. It's bringing all thought, all feeling, all spirit, and all sense and sensibility to bear.

* All opinions my own.


They say the greatest luxury in the world is time. But another one is personal space. The time and ability to think and reflect. Without it, you spend your entire day focusing on minutiae rather than the big picture, a waste.

Reflection means that you think to yourself about stuff. And you don't necessarily share everything you think. But if you do, it is important that others respect your right to privacy.

This weekend we went to a Purim party in Baltimore, at my friend Penina's house. This is Penina's beautiful family, which runs the Jewish Collegiate Network locally and has dedicated their entire lives to religious outreach.

It is OK to share the photo because they've put it online as part of the outreach effort.



They also put a Purim photo and assorted videos online, publicly as well. It's all about drawing people into their home to learn about how to practice observant Judaism.

After we left I wondered to myself, how can they live under such a microscope? They have photos and video of the family out there for the public to view. They write about the kids. They fling open the doors of their home to complete strangers - everyone is invited to join them for a Sabbath. But don't they deserve some privacy too?

Yet Penina and her husband Efy have dedicated their lives to that kind of openness. They know it's strange. But they also know there is no other way to draw others in besides offering the atmosphere of an observant Jewish home. They've sacrificed something.

I respect their commitment and total life focus. But for me it points up even more the importance of giving others the space to be who they are, outside the public view. It is not "hypocritical" to have a public and a private presence. It is called being human.

* All opinions my own.

Monday, March 17, 2014


Unless you have been hiding under a rock for the past 15 years at least, you have heard of the term "personal branding." (Here is the classic 1997 Fast Company article by Tom Peters.)

And then came Naomi Klein's No Logo in 1999. Branding was more important than counter-branding, but slowly a backlash built, fueled by the concept and technology of social media. And the online publication of The Cluetrain Manifesto in 2000.

Nowadays it is fashionable to be completely revolted at the thought of selling yourself like a product. The ultimate symbol of such understatement is the hoodie. Whether Mark Zuckerberg wears it or Eminem does, the message is the same: Why are you trying so hard? People who "force it" have nothing real to offer.

And so we talk about "authenticity." Authentic skills, authentic survival gear, bows and arrows, dystopia, The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, Game of Thrones, Vikings, The 300. Urban Decay makeup. Steampunk. Antique. Heritage. A world of sepia now.

There is now an entire TV show dedicated to arm wrestling. It is all about "being real."

It is difficult to "do authenticity." Take work clothing and "business casual" -- what an impossible concept! Whereas most of us know how to wear a business suit, it is harder to know exactly which clothes are just a level up from sitting at home on the couch, yet not so refined that you look like an overdressed dork. (Two words: "Banana Republic.")

What about good manners? The rules used to be so simple. "If you have to cry, go outside" was the career advice in the book of the same  name by Kelly Cutrone. (An awesome book.) And never curse, obviously.

And yet just a few days ago, Adam Levine goes on the Chelsea Lately show to commiserate about the bad rap the F-- word gets. And the President and other political leaders openly cry in public.

Apologies are becoming more common too, instead of silence or defensiveness. This January, the dean of the Harvard Business School apologized for its second-class treatment of women.

There is more. Blogs are becoming more real. My favorite blogger, Penelope Trunk, writes about hating a fellow self-help guru (Tim Ferriss), not to mention her experiences of domestic violence, mental breakdowns, anger fits, problems driving a car, and oh yeah, Asperger's.

Plus she is a homeschooling mom on a farm in Wisconsin.

None of it detracts one bit from her popularity or effectiveness as a blogger, a coach, a career adviser and a serial entrepreneur. Because she is real. Penelope may write under a pen name, but the research is solid and her stories feel like the truth. I trust her. (Disclaimer: We occasionally email so I consider her a friend.)

Last example: President Obama on the Zach Galifianakis web series "Between Two Ferns." This is a form of entertainment (not sure what to call it) in which the host is totally, totally rude to his guests. So much so that they walk off the set. The President appeared on this show and got into it with Galifianakis, all to promote Healthcare.gov. And from my perspective, it totally worked -- precisely because the show has that reputation for being "real."

The director Ron Howard is a very good example of rough edges. So is the investor guru Warren Buffett, and management expert Tom Peters is the same. Chelsea Lately. Roseanne Barr.

These are the people you want to emulate now. Not the ones who seem slick and over-polished. The ones who get a cup of coffee at McDonald's, show a scuff or two on their shoes, and don't over-think whether their earrings match at all.

Note, it's not about being careless. It is about showing that you're trustworthy and confident. And that you hate the idea of putting on airs.

Mad Men is outmoded. Nowadays, top talent lets the real self shine through. And doesn't rely on shells, shills and manipulations to get the message across successfully.

* All opinions my own.





Sunday, March 16, 2014


Over the past few weeks a few folks cautioned me that I should not speak so freely on my blog. I took the coward's route out and removed a couple of posts. But looking back at the content, I believe it is wrong to self-censor. I've put the posts back and changed the headlines slightly.

We cannot let the thought police get inside of our head: It is a free country and we are all entitled to our beliefs.

* All opinions my own. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

"Uncle Sam" is an example of an implicit normative figure. 
So is Santa Claus - the Caucasian male against whom others are "different."

The hidden premise of diversity programs is an imaginary figure (the normative figure) who sets the standard.

This is never articulated outright. And we don't even like to admit it to ourselves.

But it is there, and it's why messages around equal employment opportunity are often so out-of-touch and stale.

In the protective sense, i.e. in the interest of ensuring the employee is not prevented from enjoying equal opportunity, diversity messaging should emphasize that:

* Nobody is the "norm" -- we are ALL diverse, even if you can't see it on the outside

* There are endless categories of diversity -- way beyond the protected groups in the EEO statutes

* Within categories, there is substantial variation -- e.g. the Jewish community is relatively tiny, but incredibly diverse

In the productivity sense, i.e. in the interest of enlightening the organization, diversity messaging should emphasize that organizations too often leave money lying on the floor because they don't know how to leverage diversity well.

Here's a great and very simple example. Childbirth and the raising of children, rather than being treated as a "time-out" or "other activity" could be integrated into the workplace with:

* Private wellness rooms not only for lactation, but also for a quiet time-out
* On-site childcare, open to any caregiver of a child
* Community area in the cafeteria so parents can spend time with kids during the work day
* Work/life support group for caregivers
* After-hours care line for referrals to support providers of working parents

To fully do this means to get away from the false dichotomy between "us" and "them," the "regular person" and the "different one," the "able-bodied" and those for whom "accommodations are made."

Long way of saying, in a truly diverse workplace, all of us are "freaks and geeks" -- and none of us are.

* All opinions my own.

Things that get us tied up in knots:

1. Interactions demonstrating that men "naturally" hold authority -- at work, at home, at school. Men speak up, men write, men are the heroes in the movies, men act. We may SAY different things, but the messages come from what they WITNESS through interaction. For example, the media did not know what to do with Hilary Clinton as First Lady because she was clearly every bit as much the politician as Bill. However, they are very comfortable with Michelle Obama, because of her "feminine" role promoting nutrition. (Of course, both of these women will kick your ass.)

2. In school, children reinforce gender messages in ways large and small. Girls make fun of girls who aren't "feminine" (i.e. sexualized) and boys make fun of girls who are "bossy." Boys who are "sensitive" are targeted as well. Teens who have gender identities along the spectrum, whether gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender become the object of speculation and derision because kids begin "going out" even before junior high.

3. Sexual violence against girls is rampant, and not only are girls not supported by peers, but they are videotaped while being attacked, blamed for provoking the attack, and endure grueling questioning about how the attack came to happen. The overwhelming majority of sexual assaults occur against girls and women, and are committed by someone known to them, whether a family member or acquaintance. Thus girls who report are frequently seen as "betrayers" of "relationship ties," and the inner torment this causes can and does last a lifetime.

4. Popular culture reinforces the message that women, even when they do what they "naturally" do, are are weaker and less effective then men (with a few exceptions of "extraordinary" women who are "just like men.") Here is an example. There is a Buick commercial on TV where the stay-at-home mother can't get the toddler to stop crying and eat. The father comes into the kitchen, all freshly pressed and ready to go to work, and makes the zoom-zoom sound to the kid, and immediately the kid shuts up. Cut to a picture of the car -- the car is better, the workplace is better, the mother is inadequate even when she chooses to do her "natural" duty regarding childrearing.

5. The standards for women's appearance are absolutely impossible for any normal person to meet. Whereas men are not expected to be good-looking, women are, and guess what, most of us are not good-looking! And even if we are, it's not for very long, if you consider how people look over the span of an approximately 85 year lifetime. Plus you're supposed to be skinny, but not too skinny...the endless preoccupation with weight.

6. The standards for behavior are impossible to meet. Whereas men are expected to get loud, angry, and physical when their rights are violated, women are expected to hope that someone will rescue them. Whereas men are expected to assert authority, women are expected to submit to authority. Women who act just like men are respected, but also seen as deviants. And there is an invisible "balance" or "middle line" that people keep talking about, but that I rarely see in practice.

7. I do not have statistics on this, but I suspect that the impact of caregiving still takes a greater toll on women than on men. Women care for the children, for their husbands, for their parents, and for their husband's parents. It's not just appointments, but also shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry, and of course serving as the emotional glue of the household.

8. When women occupy positions of authority at work, they experience gendered resistance from men to having a female "boss them around." Similarly, male colleagues can oppose them simply because they are women and it is demeaning to be occupying the same table. Opposition can be demonstrated in ways explicit and implicit.

9. Women in authority at work are expected to be impassive and emotionless (otherwise they look weak) yet to demonstrate care and compassion. This is an impossible standard to meet.

10. Women have been taught to put everybody else first, and if they pursue their own career, there is something "selfish" about that. Of course you cannot advance unless you take an active interest in your own development.

All of these factors would drive anybody crazy. I suggest we think about how we treat half the universe, and give the women in the room a little more care and compassion, for the benefit of everyone, including ourselves.

As the lady said to me and my husband in the store on vacation, "Happy wife, happy life!"

* All opinions my own.
Screenshot via NY Post; also see the NY Daily News story

In a nutshell, here's what happened --  based on several news reports of the incident, and analysis at Failed Messiah:

On December 1, 2013, at 5 a.m., a black, gay, male student named Taj Patterson left a party bus in Williamsburg on foot. Williamsburg is home to a lot of people, including some from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Hasidic community. He was jumped by a group of white, male Hasidic Jews who proceeded to beat him so badly that his eye socket was broken and his retina was torn.

What was this group doing walking around at five in the morning? According to Failed Messiah they "appeared to be part of a street patrol, probably Shomrim." That would make sense, as Williamsburg does have such groups to protect the community. 

But why would they attack Patterson, if he didn't do anything wrong? You could say that it was pure racism, as the attackers were white, and the person being attacked was black. (The New York Police Department's Hate Crimes Task Force is investigating.)

So we may have a case of an insular community's street patrol gone awry. Perhaps.

But then why did they shout anti-gay slurs at him? According to one account, citing the Daily News, they told him to "Stay down, f----t!" 

Setting aside the question of how they knew he was gay, why would this fact bother them so much? Again, perhaps they're just insular and intolerant -- we know that Judaism strictly forbids men from engaging in homosexual practice.

But I have another theory. Hasidic people are part of a culture in which sexuality is repressed and the genders are separated. Increasingly it has been reported that this leads to homosexual practices (and pedophilia) in religious school and beyond. Reportedly (NSFW) Hasidim have been known to go outside their communities as well, seeking satisfaction that is not permitted on the "inside."

My belief is that Taj Patterson was an innocent sacrificial lamb to people who could not confront their own impulses.

The New York City Police Department has plenty of evidence of this crime. There are eyewitnesses including the bus driver who stopped the attack. There are photographic images. Patterson was drunk, but the evidence speaks for itself. The political response by Brooklyn Assemblyman Hikind, that the accusation sounds "out of character" and "bizarre," is ridiculous on its face.

I hope the NYPD prosecutes this crime and that Hasidim realize the world, including their Jewish brothers and sisters, are watching.

* All opinions my own.

Saturday, March 15, 2014


"Most men lead lives of quiet misery." - Henry David Thoreau

Recently I ran into an old acquaintance. She told me some stuff about her life that I did not know before. It was horrible and I wondered how she had endured it. And never a hint of self-pity or sorrow on her face. Always such a practical person, always bent on doing some kind of community project or the other.

On the way back I was doing the errands and again, I saw someone I recognized. Not exactly an acquaintance, not really a friend, but a familiar face and we've exchanged pleasant conversation several times. This person too has suffered unbelievable pain in her life. But she didn't refer to it this time. I just hugged her. Because I just did.

As a kid I had a manner about me. I really used to piss people off. Especially people in authority. I suppose I was the spiritual child of Emma Goldman, the anarchist and activist who emigrated to the U.S. from Russia. Emma knew what the all-powerful state could do, and she advocated for the right to live and breathe free.

My real mother did not mind that I was a free spirit. But she warned me from a young age that I would run into trouble. You have a gift, she said, and you are easily misunderstood. Be patient with others and don't take it personally when they don't get it.

And when it happened, and I was bullied, I fought back like a cat. I cried bitter tears each time. And I would pick up the phone and call my mother, and she would say, "You are a survivor. You always have been, and you always will be, and you will survive this too."

My husband's mother, may she rest in peace, used to say something similar when you would enter her home and ask how she was. "Well," she would say, "we belong to the survivor's club," as if that were the answer all in itself.

I guess that's why I loved the music of Pat Benatar in the '80s. All of best songs are about survival: "Heartbreaker," "Fire & Ice," "Invincible," "Hell Is For Children," "Shadows Of The Night," "Promises In The Dark," and more. Her music was featured in the movie "The Legend Of Billie Jean," which was in essence a survivor's tale about an underdog.

Life isn't easy for anyone, and all you have to do is spend five minutes with someone to find that out. The question is, who will fall by the wayside, and who will survive intact? Part of that is our decision, and part of that is up to G-d's mercy.

* All opinions my own.

"What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man.  That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it." - Rabbi Hillel
For the past few months, with the help of several business interns, I've been mapping out success metrics at work. We are very close to understanding the full alignment between work goals, management goals, office goals, agency goals, and a larger and very intricate functional analysis we've done as an agency.

Seven months into this new management position, the picture is finally coming together. And I am starting to see how the pieces fit together both on paper and in terms of the larger culture. But the whole thing has made me realize that success is not only about putting goals on paper. It is about finding the essential principle according to which the organization operates. That is what one needs to carry out every day.

For my agency, The National Archives, that principle is making America's records accessible to the public. And the leadership challenge, from the inside, is to convince employees of the singularity of that principle, because many have historically been focused on preserving and protecting them. 

Many federal agencies have this problem. When I was at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol vehemently resisted being lumped with the Office of Field Operations (CBP Officers), and the Office of Air and Marine had its own culture and ethos. We tried to convey "One Team, One Fight" but that sense of singularity was so absolutely critical to them that the challenge was extremely difficult. 

When you're putting together a strategic plan for an organization, it is important to dot your i's and cross the t's -- that is, to get the details right. But it is more important to convince the staff that a single principle ties them together. 

Don't get me wrong. This is not about forcing people to toe the party line. Or worse, only hiring people who will mouth it in the first place. 

Rather, it is about engaging diverse professionals inclusively, in an ongoing dialogue. It literally never ends. 

In the strong organization, just like in a strong family, everyone comes to the table to hash it out. And everyone, or at least most people, emerge feeling heard, validated and respected, while also understanding what the direction of the organization is. 

Not everyone is going to be convinced. And that is a leadership and management problem much more significant than any operational risk. 

Consider this parallel: a sports team. It has one coach and team members have assigned roles. Every role is important. The rules are known and the object of the game is clear: to win. If the team members are rocked by internecine arguments, they will not be able to put their focus where they should. 

It is fortunate therefore that federal agencies and private companies alike are focusing on employee engagement. What they now need to do is develop the learning capacity of the organization, such that communication becomes as much of a two-way street as possible. 

Not to toot the horn of my own place, or to say that we've got it perfect, but since I brought us up, I feel compelled to mention the progress my own agency is making here. 

We have a social intranet with a dedicated community manager (in my shop), a dedicated employee communications function, and ramped up training for managers and supervisors (I am biting my nails waiting for the 360 results.) 

While progress always comes in fits and starts, we go back to the idea of having an operating principle generally. With employee communications, leadership has to set a clear course -- and then invest in bringing the rest of the organization along.

* All opinions my own.

Friday, March 14, 2014


This week a few people shared with me how they got into government. More often than not it was accidental. It was the same with me. I did not plan to be here, and yet it's been more than a decade.

Nobody likes their job all the time. And it may seem odd that an "out of the box" person would be happy working inside the box.

So why do I like it here, in the federal government that is? Why do I stay?

The answer has to do with brand. Not logo. Brand. And these are two very different things.

A brand is nothing more or less than experience. It's that feeling you get when you go to Starbucks and that "whoosh" hits you, a time-out. It's the solicitousness of the customer service staff at Nordstrom. It's that happy-welcome-smiley thing they do at Disney.

When a lot of people experience the same kind of treatment from a particular vendor, and they are willing to pay extra money to get that treatment, then we say that the vendor has a "valuable brand."

From the perspective of a government agency, or any workplace, the brand is what employees and other stakeholders actually experience through interaction. Over time I have experienced -- not read, not heard from others, not seen on TV or in the movies, but experienced -- consistent treatment from the government as an employer:
  • Structure, though it can be hard to learn and to navigate, and though it may be disregarded at times.
  • A belief in fairness, although some people are not fair. A belief in justice. Fighting for justice when the principles of justice are violated.
  • Belief in the importance of process, although reality makes mud of our desire to "do process" at times.
  • Mission-centricity, to the point where people get extremely angry when they think the mission is being compromised. Patriotism. Gratitude to be an American who gets to serve.
  • A central dedication to actually helping people. A desire to cut through the red tape to make results happen.
  • A wacky, wry, sly and sarcastic sense of humor that you are lucky to see when you see it.
All of these are elements of the Federal brand. You will find them wherever in the government you go. And they form who we are - our moral code.

Which leads me to the conclusion. What is a brand, if it's not your logo? It is exactly that - your moral compass. Your operating principle of behavior. When your moral code is clear and consistent your behavior will be, too.

The logo, the naming system, the way you communicate, all of that other stuff is only an extension of your brand, the same way that your clothes are an extension of your personality, not a replacement for having one.

The problem with branding comes up when people use the external symbol to say it all, and forget that the brand has to come from the inside.

When people see that you deliver the same experience over and over again, they come to trust what you will deliver.

But when you say one thing and then do another, they do not know exactly what to think. And having a logo has absolutely no point.

* All opinions my own.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014


The difference between diplomacy and political correctness?

A diplomat thinks freely, but chooses their words carefully.

The politically correct think only what they are told to think, say what they are told to say, fearful of any idea outside their little box.

The diplomat conveys meaning clearly and with a full appreciation of the complexity of the circumstances. This person does not run or hide from the truth. They simply do not find it useful to be confrontational about it all the time.

The diplomat is a strategic communicator.

The politically correct do not fully understand what it is that they say, and cannot defend it either. They are ideologues rather than full of ideas. The ideology must hold together, or they themselves collapse.

When you challenge a diplomat, they simply smile quietly, and say "Fine." And they might respond, or they might wait another day to have the conversation.

The politically correct get very angry, and it's personal. They do not argue apples-to-apples (idea to idea), but rather seek to target the speaker personally. And then to eliminate them from the conversation.

Because to the politically correct, it is very important that ideas be homogenous. It is akin to a moral belief. Thus they will always say that the deviants are part of a dangerous movement -- one that must be hunted down and stopped.

Political correctness happens everywhere, on every side of every issue, no matter where you go. Someone in the crowd has to play this role. But the opposite of P.C. is not divergence. Rather, it is respectful dialogue.

In this day and age, the Putin model of leadership -- "we make our enemies disappear" -- is obsolete. Americans don't, or shouldn't, shout down law-abiding people whose ideas scare us.

To do that is to shut off the very diversity that we claim to want. The freedom that is the foundation of our social contract.

* All opinions my own.

The best advice is simple advice:

To build a great brand, oversimplify the story.

Federal agencies shoot themselves in the foot (and are shot there) by the bad advice they get and by their confused way of thinking about branding.

For example The Washington Post recently ran a story called "Building A Brand For Your Federal Agency." They interviewed the Partnership for Public Service rather than a brand consultant for this piece, which is inexplicable to me. And got this definition of a brand:

“The essence of who you are, who you want to be and how you want people—in this case potential job seekers—to view you.”

Huh? How does this even line up? Is the brand the current reality (who I am), the desired reality (who I want to be) or the image I want, which may or may not be the desired reality (how I want to be viewed).

Listening to this, most people would be completely confused as to what it means or how to implement it.

In fact, defining a brand is very contentious even for brand experts. At the consultancy Brand Expressions, the founders recognize this by asking viewers to weigh in rather than trying to offer a single monolithic answer (see screenshot).



That openness to various ideas is itself an expression of branding on the part of the company.

At the same time, these are experts and they can say something pertinent to feds. Writing elsewhere, one of the founders of the company, Mark Gallagher, explains a brand as "an experience that lives at the intersection of promise and expectation." (See graphic)


Put another way, your brand is:

  • the actual experience that your customers have --
  • in the context of what you've said about yourself, and 
  • in the context of what they expected to experience.

And further, the act of "branding" is your attempt to "manage expectations" so that they match what people actually experience.

That is a great definition of brand, and great advice about branding, because it allows you to actually do something with it.

Understanding what branding is, however, is only the first step.

For federal agencies to truly undertake branding they would have to admit and overcome a number of other obstacles. This is doable, if they can ignore bad advice telling them that these obstacles don't exist or are irrelevant.

As follows:

Obstacle #1: Technical bias

Federal agencies tend to tell their stories in very technical and complex terms because they don't want to "oversimplify." (I cannot count the many times I have been called a "USA Today" type in so many words.) People do not as a routine read white papers before buying toothpaste. You have to tell a big, simple story. As in: Bad people tried to attack us, we took out our guns and shot them dead.

Obstacle #2: Legal bias

Federal agencies formulate their communication plans using legal thinking rather than PR thinking. From a legal perspective, the less you say the less trouble you can get into. The problem with that is, the public deeply mistrusts the federal government because they think we're always trying to hide something. Many a time I have been frustrated that we had such a good story to tell, but I was not allowed to tell it.

Consider that Jamie Dimon, CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase, got a 74% pay raise for 2013 ($20 million pay for the year) despite a $2 billion trading loss on his watch. His continued success is undoubtedly linked to his "forthright" crisis communication style which has been called "a model" for others. (Here is his written testimony to Congress.)

Obstacle #3: Humility Bias

In the case of J.P. Morgan Chase, a federal employee actually witnessed Dimon trying to stem the flow of information from the bank to the government. Scott Waterhouse, a senior regulator at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (disclaimer: I am a former employee) testified to this. As The New Yorker relates:
"One of the witnesses at the meeting, Scott Waterhouse, a senior regulator at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, recalled how, at a meeting in late 2011, just months before the trading scandal blew up, Dimon berated Douglas Braunstein, Chase’s Chief Financial Officer, for giving regular profit and loss reports to the O.C.C. Here, courtesy of the Huffington Post, is part of what Waterhouse said: 
Levin: So apparently he [Dimon] had decided to stop the reports? 
Waterhouse: I took it that way, yes, sir. 
Levin: So he would be the one to restore the flow? 
Waterhouse: Yes, sir. 
Levin: Did he raise his voice? 
Waterhouse: He did."
While federal agencies are not allowed to engage in "puffery" or propaganda, they are allowed to educate the public about what they do, to ensure that the public makes use of the services available to it, accesses its own information, and so on. Sharing successes also builds confidence and trust in the government, which is essential to the social fabric. 

So when agencies get in front of the microphone and tout success, they are only doing their jobs. (Sometimes in law enforcement we see the opposite bias, where everybody tries to get the credit -- but in the overall scheme of things that is rare.)

If Federal agencies want to improve their brands, what they need to do is very simple:

1. Clarify and simplify the mission based on its relevance to the customer -- and nobody else.

2. Invest in communication and over-communicate rather than under-communicate.

3. Consider that "everything communicates" and look at communication from the outside-in, rather than the inside-out. Very often technical experts will think that external communications are oversimplified and "dumb," which is why communication for the general public should be kept away from technical experts -- except for verifying the information is accurate.

4. Invest in a brand architecture (a strategy to determine if different brands should co-exist under the main agency) so that if there are different "looks" to the agency there is sound reasoning behind this. Sometimes one part of the agency needs to present a different image than the rest.

5. Consider that employees are first audience rather than the last audience. They don't just carry out the mission, they are the mission.

As in the private sector, the chief branding officer should not be the head of communications but rather is the head of the agency. Communications in the strictest sense is only one expression of a model that flows throughout the organization, including operations and mission support.

Defining a brand may be complicated, but understanding branding really isn't, and neither is getting the job done. You just have to have the will.

* All opinions my own.