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Op-Ed: On Fast & Furious, A Mike McQueary Moment

“You don’t want to be the outsider who betrays the institution; whistleblowers are always the weirdos.”

“And it’s really easy for us to overlook how our inaction to step up and do even the simplest thing leads to profoundly destructive consequences in our society.”

These are the words of Harvard Law School Professor and child sex abuse survivor Lawrence Lessig, victimized as a teenager in the 1970s.

Maureen Dowd cites this quote in her op-ed about the Sandusky trial, “Moral Dystopia.”

She notes that Lessig went on to sue the school on behalf of another victim in 2004, and won.

I have often heard it said that in the Watergate scandal, the worst thing wasn’t the burglary, but rather the cover-up. 

Because the cover-up, as David Goodloe writes,

“was mostly about continuing to conceal all the other, more serious things that had been going on in the Nixon White House.”

In the case of pedophile Jerry Sandusky, Mike McQueary walked in while the rapist was actually committing the crime. He testified:

What would a normal person have done? I can imagine a range of responses – yell “Stop!” (since he knew the attacker). Run and call the police. Freeze, in the moment maybe, then get the police right after.

Instead McQueary let the attack continue. In his own words, as Dowd reports, he was “shocked, flustered, frantic.” This although lthough he literally “met their eyes.”

So he waited overnight, then told Penn State football god Joe Paterno. A sports idol the players worshiped, who unfortunately was not as good at morality as he was at winning football games.

Paterno testified later that he waited too, to tell Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and campus police overseer, Gary Schultz of the accusations:

But then again why should we expect more of Penn State officials than Sandusky’s own wife, Dottie?

In her own words, Dottie’s hearing is

But then again, as one victim recalls, she may not have heard anything. Dottie

Maybe that’s why the sounds of her own foster son being assaulted didn’t register.

Now, after 15 years(probably more like 30 or 40, since Sandusky may have started Second Mile in 1977tofind and recruit victims), the monster has finally been convicted

But the people who covered up for Sandusky – the wife, university officials, athletes - did they not in a way conspire to enable a predator? If they knew, and did nothing, isn’t that a crime?

Sandusky essentially admitted what he did to Bob Costas on NBC:

“Every” young person?

Where is the accountability for the co-conspirators?

Consider a separate incident in Texas. A father catches an attacker in the act of molesting his 5-year-old daughter. The father immediately intervened to stop him physically, then called 911 to make sure the attacker received medical attention. (A grand jury decided not to indict the father for homicide.)

Commented a neighbor:

Upon learning that a French diplomat was accused of repeatedly raping his 3½  year old daughter. France refused to give him diplomatic immunity.

But not before the toddler had been raped for more than two years because his wife did not report it:

The mother was emotionally torn:

Every situation involving a scandal is emotionally charged, on both sides.

In the case of Penn State, students riotedwhen they learned that Joe Paterno had been fired for his failure to act. They loved “JoePa.” How could this happen?

We are in the throes of a parallel situation, in the case of “Fast & Furious.”

Something terrible has happened. A thing that has brought the integrity of our government into question. It is highly charged; it’s an election year; and there are charges of “witch hunt,” “gun nut delusions,” racism, conspiracy(on both sides), etc.

But Democrats and Republicans alike agree on one thing: the importance of the rule of law in a democratic society.

All parties agree: We want to know who knew what, and when, and how far back does it go?Especially now that executive privilege has been asserted.

The people who brought this issue into the forefront are not partisans on a witch hunt. They are government employees.

They were made to subvert their own duties. Their oath to the public trust. They were told, “If you want to make an omelet, you’ve got to scramble some eggs.”

Per the Congressional report (these citations have been quoted widely in the blogosphere):

Page 27: [Special Agent John Dodson, the original whistle blower]

“Well, every time we voiced concerns…But every day being out here watching a guy go into the same gun store buying another 15 or 20 AK-47s or variants or . . . five or ten Draco pistols or FN Five-seveNs . . . guys that don’t have a job, and he is walking in here spending $27,000 for three Barrett .50 calibers …and you are sitting there every day and you can’t do anything…”

Page 38: [Dodson, speaking about ATF supervisors in Phoenix and their disregard for lives lost due to Fast & Furious]

“[T]here was a prevailing attitude amongst the group and outside of the group in the ATF chain of command… I was having a conversation with Special Agent [L] about the case in which the conversation ended with me asking her are you prepared to go to a border agent’s funeral over this… because that’s going to happen. And the sentiment that was given back to me by both her, the group supervisor, was that…if you are going to make an omelette [sic], you need to scramble some eggs.”

Whoever is behind this thing, the public needs to know.

The quest for transparency is not a conspiracy of any political persuasion. It is fundamental to our society. It makes us who we are.

Wherever this trail leads, it is time to release the documents.

(Note: as always, all views are my own.)

Leadership Is NOT A Conversation - Yet

nick showing off at his parent-teacher-student conference - DSC02539
Photo by Sean Dreilinger via Flickr

Father to son: “Why are you banging your head against the wall?”

Son: “Because it feels so good when I stop.”

The joke is old but the problem is fully contemporary.

Employees have trouble getting, understanding, and sharing the information they need.

They don’t know where to look.

They don’t know who to call.

They are afraid to ask any questions, or complain.

And so it is not surprising that people spend hours of time completing a task that could have taken five minutes. Or none at all, actually – had they known that someone else, in some other department very close or far away, had already resolved the issue.

Why do we continue to accept poor corporate communication? We’re in the workplace ourselves, right? We suffer from the effects every day.

And yet we refuse the medicine that could cure the throbbing migraine.

Why is this?

Even if we don’t instinctively know what to do, there is no excuse for ignorance. Leadership after leadership book, article, blog exhorts us to improve the quality of our communication.

A new article in Harvard Business Review,Leadership Is A Conversation,” is a perfect example.

It lays out in painstaking detail the meaning of “old-style” (top-down) vs. “new-style” (interactive) communication at work, the multitude of reasons why, the step-by-step as to how to do it.

It isn’t going to make a dent, at least not yet: Leaders will still want to communicate primarily in a monologue. And employees will continue to accept this.

Here are three major reasons for this:

1.   Power: Leaders gain it by gaining scarce information from an elite circle of contacts. They maintain it by choosing which information to share, with whom, and when. Opening up that circle exposes them to enemies inside and outside the organization. The risk of losing the loyalty of lower-level staff, who can after all be replaced in a competitive market, is lower than the risk of being supplanted by a powerful competitor.
2.   Culture: The expectation persists that someone in a leadership position will speak in a monologue, from on high. Watch the movie “Elizabeth” and see how an ordinary girl is transformed into a leader of the people – traditionally a man’s job - by virtue of accepting the cultural expectations that surround leadership.
3.   Psychology - The Unconscious: The theory of “repetition compulsion” states that we will continue to recreate familiar situations PRECISELY BECAUSE the dynamics they contain are painful to us. Notoriously, children of abusive parents become abusive themselves. It is our way of trying to repair the damage, first by making the crisis occur and then trying to resolve it. Thus a workplace where communication flowed freely and openly would not feel like “real work” either to boss or employee.

What will it take to turn things around? To transform corporate communication to a default setting where information is shared rather than withheld? A reversal of the factors above, specifically:

1.   Replace “power” with “influence”: Bosses tend to underestimate the extent to which employees operate as “free agents” and seek to leave unfulfilling work situations. Even in a bad economy, they are mobile. Second, they underestimate the inventive capacity of people to get things done through their own channels of communication. Both of these tendencies are magnified exponentially with the proliferation of social media and mobile “smart” (connected to the Internet ubiquitously) devices. What this means is that if you restrict yourself to “elite conversations” you are out of touch with what’s going on. Therefore it pays to engage multiple audiences as a participant, not just as a dominating force, in order to gain social capital – connectedness, credibility and trust – and find out what’s really going on.
2.   Replace the traditional hierarchical single culture with deliberately collaborative and sometimes competing multiple cultures: The goal in an army is to move like a family of ducks crossing the street, one following the other. The goal in a knowledge- and collaboration-based workplace is to move like a colony of ants, coordinated but not always in precisely the same direction. The goal is shared but the method of achieving it is always internally contested, and leads to competition to improve.
3.   Engage people emotionally in undoing the ways of the past:It is Darwinian survival logic that people will prefer to be treated well and not badly. Accepting mistreatment is not something they do voluntarily, but rather something they have come to accept as “just the way it is.” If you can model a better, healthier way – no, better yet if you can show that you are committed to struggling for that better way – commitment, productivity and the retention of good people will follow.

In the end it’s not ivory-tower platitudes that will take us from where we are now to a better place of communication. 

It is going back to "All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten."

It is going back to before we learned about bullying in the playground.

Remembering when every little thing we learned was exciting, and fresh, and new, and we couldn't wait to share it with our loved ones.

In the end real communication is about joy - the joy of connecting with other people. Together coming up with more than what you could ever dream up in your own head.
Have a good Friday and a good weekend everyone, and good luck!

I'd Rather Be Immature

Immature people are dreamers. Naive enough to believe.

Immature people laugh out loud.

Immature people don't lie well. They tell it like they see it.

Immature people hate being bored and so they work fast, to get it over with.

They also make work exciting so as to pass the time well.

Immature people waste time to get back their energy.

Immature people are creative.

They readily toss traditions that make no sense.

Immature people feel things. They cry without feeling like a crybaby.

Immature people cling to their loved ones like glue.

They also fight for what they believe is right.

Immature people never get old.

All things considered, I'd rather be immature.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

"No Talent" Is A Brand In Itself: The Kardashians

"The show is our platform. The show is our best commercial." - Kim Kardashian to the Wall Street Journal

I continue to be fascinated by the Kardashians. I cannot figure out how people can simultaneously be so fake, and so real at the same time.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the sisters insist that that their brand is really about fashion.

But I don't see anything all that special about the way they dress.

What I do see is that they use a TV show to offer a window into what seems like family life, but is professionally produced and scripted. 

Nothing in these womens' lives seems off-limits to the cameras. Not even - especially not - their personal relationships.

The Wall Street Journal recently posted a blog dissecting the relationship between Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. It had this comment attributed to Russell Simmons:
"I know Kim and Kanye. They are both hopeful people, but cautious....Every public move they make is dissected."
Today amid all the talk about authenticity, one axiom remains: Branding is in the end an illusion.

An illusion we are willing to pay for.

And that is why this relatively untalented family is able to pull of a $40 million contract with E!.

Because one thing they can do well is fool us, even as we know we are being fooled. And for a few minutes entertain us away from real life.

I'd say that's worth the price of admission, and it teaches me a lesson or two about marketing as well.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

The Whistleblower's Brand Paradox

Martha Payne's lousy school lunch, via her blog, Neverseconds.

Conventional communications advice is to "stay on message."
It is as if leaders have a script (wait, they do - it's called "talking points") and they're supposed to read from it. Like an actor in a play.

In real life things are not that simple. People don't believe uncritically anymore, if they ever did.

Today a leader's pronouncements are viewed as just another text to "deconstruct."

Resistance to and subversion of formal "messaging" takes place on a continuum from active to passive, for example:

* Investigative blogging
* Commentator blogging
* Tweeting or retweeting
* Posting on Facebook
* Recording a YouTube-type video of oneself voicing an opinion
* Taking a photograph
* Sharing a link directly from the Internet
* Forwarding an email containing a link

Not everybody in America is wealthy. But it doesn't take money to follow your conscience. Only a thinking mind, the ability to communicate, and access to a means of distributing one's sentiments.

Because Americans respect honest people, we connect with them, we tend to appreciate the fact that they speak out. Even when we disagree.

Therefore, promoting honest speech enhances the brand. Yet organizations continue not only to script leadership talk, but to punish the very whistleblowers whose honesty can build the organization's reputation if allegations are addressed.

Examples of such punishment are everywhere, including the front page of today's New York Times (June 18, 2012), an expose on the Albert M. "Bo" Robinson Assessment and Treatment Center in Trenton.

The worst thing about this halfway house isn't the poor conditions there.

It is the allegation that workers knew about those poor conditions and reported them over and over again, only to be rebuffed - pressured to change their reports.
"Bronislaw Szulc, a former senior state official in charge of investigating conditions at halfway houses, said he had filed reams of reports....(he) said top officials in Trenton had often ignored his reports, rarely held the halfway houses’ operators responsible and demanded that he soften his critical findings."
Sometimes whistleblowers were even dismissed:
"Community Education soon fired several senior staff members at Bo Robinson, including Mr. Brumbaugh, the deputy security director and former correction officer, who had earned a reputation as a whistle-blower because he had highlighted problems there."
I read a similar article in The Miami Herald just last week, "DJJ Watchdog Ousted After Criticizing Boss' Friend":

"Last week, Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters informed Gov. Rick Scott that she intends to fire her agency’s top watchdog. Inspector General Mary Roe Eubanks had held the job since 2004, and was a nearly 25-year state employee, with 10 years in state agency investigations. Eubanks was placed on administrative leave, with pay, while the termination was being approved."

In the federal government as well, there is no shortage of employees speaking out about problems in the workplace, ranging from minor to major (GovLoopFederal SoupCleanup ATF). It defies logic that people would place their livelihoods in jeopardy simply to report wrongdoing, especially when they haven't done anything wrong. They could look the other way and nobody would judge them badly.

But it's just the opposite. Over and over again, one runs into examples of people who put their careers and reputations on the line, only to do the right thing.

Sadly, when they do, it is often not the organization that gets questioned, but the whistleblower. In fact, if persecuted, the whistleblower rapidly develops a personal brand - spelled t-r-o-u-b-l-e.

...Hold on a minute. If it's true that whistleblowers are immediately branded as "trouble," "muckrackers," "crazy," and so on, how can they be good for the organization's brand?

The answer has to do with contradictory survival instincts inside and outside the group.

  • Inside: A critically thinking individual is disruptive because they resist the flow of "groupthink." Unless the organization is unusually self-reflective or under intense pressure to reform, it will favor those who "won't get in the way." Because most groups are dysfunctional. And indeed, as the famous Milgram study showed, they can find plenty of people who will go along with "whatever" when authority says "just do it" - even when it means they have to inflict incredible pain.
  • Outside: Organizational stakeholders rely on the group or organization to be highly functional. They expect excellence and are inconvenienced by dysfunction. No kindergarten teacher can afford to make up for a parent's neglect; a community can't channel its faith through people who abuse the parishioners; citizens can't sit up at night worrying that police are in cahoots with organized criminals; we can't afford doctors who see elderly patients for five seconds then charge Medicare $250 for a full-fledged visit; and so on.

From a communications standpoint, the intractable problem is that what looks like "trouble" from inside the group - a whistleblower - is completely the opposite from an outside perspective.

Indeed, when whistleblowers step forward to tell the public what is going on - such as the brave girl in Scotland who photographed her lousy school lunch in an effort to get healthier food - the public applauds.

And they wait to see what the organization will do.
From a communication perspective the answer to this riddle is pretty simple. Organizations ought to build in robust reporting mechanisms for fraud, waste and abuse. Those mechanisms should be easy to access and easy to use. And they should provide for no reprisal (just the opposite, some kind of reward) for the whistleblower (assuming that person is not just engaging in malicious slander).
If wrongdoing is discovered internally first, the organization has an opportunity to investigate and fix it, then report transparently about these activities. It's a chance to prove that whatever trust it has, is warranted.

If wrongdoing leaks externally, the organization can claim the problem and again, investigate it, fix it, and report on it quickly, without undue delay. In a way that is just for all concerned.
A balanced reputation management like this - really, a form of brand management - allows the organization to put equivalent of money in the reputational bank. Capital that can be drawn on later, in the event of a crisis. Capital that can prevent good employees from leaving, and that can encourage them to turn in "bad apples" who sour a basically good organization to all.

It is unfortunate that this prescription - which I know I have seen in various forms before - has until now largely gone unheeded.

How many times will we have to see a "scandal" break in the news, when the simplest and most basic of reputation management programs would have prevented it in the first place. And would have kept incredibly valuable people engaged with, and passionate about, the organizations where they spend much of their waking time.

Think about it - have a good day everyone - and good luck!

Misunderstanding Our Dads

My actual Dad

"It is easier to be a dad than to become one."

Or something like that was a quote I ran across on Twitter yesterday.

It occurred to me, as it has many times in the past, that my dad became "dad-like" only as he neared retirement. 

Growing up, I actually did not know him very well at all. Most of the time he was out, working or traveling for work. Or - well where was he? I can't say that I know.

My dad dresses funny to us American folks. He wears a business suit, minus the tie on Sundays, at all times. 

He talks in a very formal way, like someone who isn't comfortable with English. (He's not - my dad was raised with Yiddish.)

Who is my dad? My favorite memory is of going with him to the Hess truck stop on our trips to visit his parents in Canada. He delighted in the model trucks they had for sale, all lit up. He bought me one.

My dad has a mug collection.

I know my dad through his things. I know he likes to take photos, pretty badly actually much like myself. (Instagram is our mutual friend.) He takes a ton of them.

When you get to know my dad you realize he's basically a good guy with a big heart. He is from Eastern Europe - Cluj, specifically - a town on the boundary between Hungary and Romania (which we pronounce "Rumania.")

Yesterday I met a lady from there, out of the blue. She spoke, acted, dressed exactly like him! It was almost unbelievable. 

This woman was effusively warmhearted and friendly to me, a complete stranger - to an American it comes across as a little fake. But I think she meant it.

She was dressed very simply, but expensively, a bit overly formal for the occasion. No prints, no colors, no fussy accessories. She could have been in New York, or DC, or Europe, or anywhere.

The warm, generous, outgoing talk versus the stark, subtle dress.

Just like my dad! I wanted to hug her.

Sometimes I talk to my dad. He seems to listen a lot more than he used to. He has said that he is sorry he wasn't as good a dad when I was growing up. He is ever the workaholic - a gene he passed on to me - I doubt that he could ever be the type to sit home and play cards. 

Though he does brag about making a mean omelet. And lately also about being "Mr. Mom" when my mom had a bit of a virus.

Point being, we misunderstand our dads. As an adult, I think that has a lot to do with how much effort we put into understanding them. 

Fatherhood, just like motherhood, doesn't happen biologically at all. It happens because two people try to connect across about a thousand bridges that could lead to permanent misunderstanding.

I'm glad to have met that random lady, because she reminded me of how important my dad is in my life. And how much I value his personality, even though most of it still remains a mystery to me.

A belated Happy Father's Day everyone...happy "back-to-work Monday," and good luck!

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Private Equity and Venture Capitalists: The New Brand Champions

Vulture in Tree
"Vulture in Tree" by Howard Ignatius via Flickr

Branding is a fascinating phenomenon because it's the ultimate social experiment. I see it as a sociologist and as a marketer so look at two angles at once:
  • An internal effort to create the ideal corporate culture for the desired kind of productivity
  • An external effort to create the ideal image for customer loyalty at a premium price

In the U.S. at least, modern branding - that is, branding that goes beyond the external image-building side - can be traced roughly back to four publications all released approximately at the turn of the 21st century:
Over the past decade or so people have gradually come to accept the incredible importance of branding to the value of the organization and an entire sub-industry has arisen around the attempt to quantify this.

The problem is that such attempts are still unsuccessful.

Although there is wide acceptance that brands are important to business success, misperceptions persist, such as:
  • Branding = marketing, advertising, logo, tagline
  • Brand = "What I say" and social media is "dangerous"
  • Brand = temporary campaign, instant gratification, something I can buy
I believe that yet another Fast Company article, recently published, may change all of this. It's called "The Next Phase of VC Strategy: Bringing Branding Into The Earliest  Phases."

It sets up the problem neatly:
"While few would dispute the value of branding, in a business dominated by the bottom line, off-balance-sheet considerations are often treated as afterthoughts--secondary undertakings undertaken only after the critical initial decision to invest is made." 
In a capitalist society, if you want to know what people value, follow the money.

A great illustration of this principle happens in the movie The Devil Wears Prada. The heroine and her boyfriend argue over her job, and how it has taken over her life. She interrupts the argument to take a call from her boss, at which point he says:
"In case you were wondering - the person whose calls you always take? That's the relationship you're in. I hope you two are very happy together."
Similarly, if branding is to happen from the inception of the business, in a comprehensive way, it has to be championed by those who control the purse strings - and often those people are venture capitalists.

The way to champion branding, suggests the article, is for VC firms to hire branding experts full-time -just like any other in-house expert - "from biochemists to tech specialists--to help them not only maximize their investment but also to identify potential targets."

If this hasn't happened yet, the article suggests, it's because:

  • Misconceptions of what branding is (see above) and therefore "bringing on agencies after the fact to address specific branding-related concerns" because "they think of branding as something to be attacked piecemeal."
  • Misconceptions that branding is not a real area of expertise, and therefore "branding is a discipline that everyone thinks him or herself an expert in."

From a practical point of view, these two misconceptions are incredibly costly. Companies leave untold billions on the table because they make these mistakes. Just over the past couple of years I've predicted things that any highly attuned brand expert could tell you:

Yesterday a career expert told my daughter, "The way to succeed is to be who YOU are, and move forward with YOUR unique talent." Similarly, the way for a brand to succeed is to be authentic, and to move forward with providing solutions within its area of expertise that customers want. 

The problem is that normally, people inside the organization can't see what its real competency is, and people outside the organization are either not skilled enough or engaged enough, or not engaged at the right time, to provide it with the right guidance.

In the end, branding is really nothing more than an extraordinary level of self-consciousness - the ability to know who you are, know what the market wants, and find a match between the two. Private equity and venture capital firms ought to take advantage of that, and so should the rest of us.

Good luck!