Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar"

Niceness is a curse. You can be a nice person -- you can treat other people nicely -- but never fall into the trap where you **need** other people to call you that.

When men are powerful, decisive and stand their ground, they are "strong."

When women do exactly the same thing --and somebody disagrees with them or wants to take away their power -- get ready for the "B" word.

I used to be afraid to be called a "B." But one day I realized - "B's" have more fun. We get things done. We laugh loudly. We swing our arms with joy.

We don't need to always look pretty and shiny and sweet.

Some people take the "B" thing too far. But my thing is, who am I to tell them so? Liberation means you can do what you want - and be judged equally to a man when you act badly.

Not all "B" words violate the rule of politeness. It also stands for "barracuda." I am proudly one of those.

One day I hope that all women wake up and embrace our inner "B" word. If we did, I think we'd be a much happier, less repressed, and less passive-aggressive group.

The Suze Orman of Personal Branding

Whether you are describing a product or introducing a person, always relate them to something familiar.

"She works in Company X. That's kind of like the Google of B2B."

"It plays movies on a little screen. Kind of like a personal DVD player on a notebook."

People fear the unfamiliar. Sometimes they reject it outright, just because it's new.

To gain acceptance, associate new things with old things as if the old thing got a fresh coat of paint.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

10 Reputation Mistakes You're Making Right Now

1. Ignoring gossip: By its nature you cannot hear it, but it affects you whether you are listening or not.

2. Waiting for complaints: People attack in packs. Early intervention means seeking out customer unhappiness while they are still too timid to "make trouble."

3. Making excuses for no metrics: Google Search is a metric. Twitter js one. Social is free and easy to understand. It costs you nothing.

4. Avoiding the details: Details are not exciting to big-picture types. But a little nail can puncture your tires. Check the fine print.

5. Not communicating to employees: Communication means listening and talking. You can convey confidence and stability just by creating a space for interchange. Nothing new need be said. You can always collect questions.

6. Surrounding yourself with yes-men: It amazes me that anyone still does this. A friend told me my pin was ugly today. Thank you!

7. Avoiding social media: In 2013 if you still can't find your way around LinkedIn, please pay someone to do a profile at the very least. And connect with at least 50 people.

8. Understaffing the PR function: Call us flacks, hacks or spin-meisters. I really don't care. Someone has to translate the simplistic outside view for people internal to the organization who simply specialize in other things.

9. Devaluing sympathetic audiences: Life is like high school - we chase people who disapprove of us, so we can join the cool clique. That is understandable. But it is also a bias and a potentially fatal mistake. Never take your supporters for granted.

10. Overinvesting in the Web: Oh, your castle. Where you have your couch set up just so, and the bookshelves from Ikea. Guess what? Nobody wants to make the trip to your house! See #7: Get thee a specialist in social media engagement.

Reputation management is for every day. It is like brushing your teeth, or getting on the scale. Make sure to weigh in regularly - before you have to take out your pants.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Authenticity Is Overrated

Scenario 1
"Come over here, Mommy. I have to show you something."
"What? I'm working."
"It's _____. Look at this post on Facebook."
I peered over my computer at hers. 
"There he goes again, trying to be cool."
Sometimes you just want a teacher to be a teacher. 

Scenario 2
A month ago, in the hallway, we bump into The Artist.
"How are you?"
"Oh, I'm fine."
It is twenty degrees outside and snowing. She is dressed for the beach.
It's none of my business; I focus on the elevator, waiting for it to hit the ground level. But looking at her was jarring.

Scenario 3
The end of a great interview, a few years back.
"So if you got this job..."
Sounds good.
"...and if you had a demoralized workforce..."
Oh. That's interesting, that they would say that.
"...and almost zero when it comes to resources..."
A-ha. O-kay.
"What would you do?"
I responded directly.
"As good as I am, I don't make miracles."
And there's that look in their eyes: "Don't let the door hit you on the way out."

Thoughts Re: Branding
In each of these scenarios, the actor was trying to be "authentic," a norm that did not exist in the past.
  • Before social media, it was obvious to all that there is a time and place for everything - and that you definitely should not always "be yourself."
  • Rather, the norm was "situational appropriateness." You should be that aspect of yourself that is called for in a specific time and place.
  • Along with appropriateness there was "consistency" - that is, you behave relatively the same way in specific kinds of situations. Dependability mattered a lot.
Situational appropriateness + consistency are indispensable to building a brand, whether it's personal or organizational. Because in order for me to trust that your brand is real, I must know that you are in touch with what is expected and that you will deliver on that.
(Really we are talking about customer service here.)
How do you get to the point where people can actually deliver?
First there is that attitude adjustment - the ability to think outside-in and the willingness to deliver. The culture.
After that, two other skills are required, foundationally:
  • One of them is technology: You must be able to learn the tools that will enable you to deliver customer service quickly and easily.
  • The other is project management: You must know exactly what it is that you are providing (it's not a single phone call answered, or a single installation, but the whole interaction with the customer around a specific instance). And you must think in terms of delivering  on time, on budget and to spec as part of a team. 
Situational appropriateness + consistency = culture of customer service.
Culture of customer service + technology + project management = foundation of brand.
When you have that foundation in place you are walking - after that you can start to run, and then fly.
Do you see how insisting on "authenticity" can block this?
Because basic capabilities such as the above are "boring," not sensational. Yet they are key to delivering professional service.
There are a few people - the Steve Jobs' of the world (RIP) - who can be unpredictable, spontaneous balloons of creativity and those people should always be "themselves." Even if they do tend to rant and rave a little.
But for the vast majority of us - those who are not spouting genius with every word - it is far more important to be audience-aware and consistent.
People who know what the customer wants and can deliver on that are well-situated for success.
A quick way to think of all this is "McDonald's french fries."
They may not be the best in all the world - I can think of about ten places that do steak fries greasier, saltier and crisper and with a better sauce - but wherever you get them, you know they will be good, and they will taste exactly the same. That, alone, is a satisfying experience, and it's why if you don't know where to go - you will probably head to Mickey D's first.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Rethinking The Typical Office of Public Affairs (Updated Jan. 27 2013)

Download from Slideshare here, or see below. It's pretty self-explanatory, given my general approach to communications, but please ask me any questions you might have. Obviously the main difference is the word "engagement" - it's all about the interaction. - Dannielle Blumenthal

Looking at this you might be thinking - what do we do with the Web? 
I envision that it would become part of an interagency portal, much like
The portal is an IT function and thus would be administered by the Federal Chief Information Officer. Each agency would be deputized to contribute to this portal. 
Generally each individual agency public engagement function would answer to or be part of a larger interagency task force, group or committee - whether it's FOIA, social media, media relations, writing and so on. This is the concept of shared services as applied to citizen communications as well as the concept of a customer-centric organization organized from the outside-in.
The Amazon storefront is an example of a portal that pools individual vendors who retain control over their presence into a highly customer-centric virtual storefront. (In the real world it is akin to a mall storefront.) The vendors cooperate with Amazon's standards to be there, but are individual presences as well.
The first thing you see on the Amazon portal is a search bar. You can search any "department" you want. In the government's case you could search any agency or subagency (you could mouse-over the agency and have the sub-agency be a set of choices within it - similar to USAJobs).
Of course every Agency is concerned that it have an opportunity to tell its story its way. Which is why each would get an Amazon-style "storefront."
Finally of course there is the "help" function, which would be an interagency function. That way if I ask a question I don't have to think about which Agency would answer it. It's the job of the individual Agency help desk to participate in the system and ensure a response.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Missing Discipline - The Missing Mother

                                                                               Remember that movie "Not Without My Daughter" with Sally Field?

A long time ago, in a smallish apartment on the Upper West Side of New York, I shared an apartment with a noted psychologist who did couples counseling.

It was curious to me how a noted psychologist getting a divorce could do couples counseling. But then again I am not always clear when I communicate. And my profession is to help other people do this very same thing.

So perhaps we spend our lives in the dogged pursuit of excellence in what we're bad at.

In relation to this, let's talk about corporate communicators for a bit. Because we're trained to actually write things, get feedback on things, strategize and measure. Yet we spend too much time playing a role we aren't trained for and that is outside our scope to carry out - that of organizational development (OD) specialist.

This is the missing discipline in most organizations. One that is not covered by communication, or human resources, or training. It is organizational development as a discipline that performs the mothering function analogous to what takes place in families. The OD expert helps explain outside logic to people on the inside - creates a safe emotional space to heal and adjust to reality - so that the communication and every other function can proceed.

OD as a discipline reminds me of my Grandma. She was fabulous for so many reasons. Most of my memories involve talking to her while she made food. There was Grandma frying noodle kugel in a cast iron pan. Chopping vegetables for soup. Grinding liver in the big metal grinder, with eggs (so gross, right? Delicious!) Grandma made chulent with meat bones so big the entire family fought to be the lucky one to grab it. We looked like the Flintstones fighting for those bones. She used to make a variation on Wishbone salad dressing, and to this day I've never had anything so good.

Grandma was the one we ran to when we made the trip upstate. She stood there at the top of her rickety brick steps. Hands on her hips and polyester pants and her trademark dimpled smile. "Grandma, Grandma!" we used to yell as we flung the car door open and ran to her.

Grandma was a mother to all of us, to her children and her grandchildren. And we did not need another when she was around. Her children - my mother and her sisters and brothers - they went to the city to learn a trade and earn money at a very young age. There was no funding to support them. With that generation the concept of a full-time, stay-at-home mom who had nothing to do but mother - well that died.

This is not a diatribe about how sad it is that women work. Not at all. Believe me. And I am well aware that for many women, sitting at home and watching the kids was a luxury they never, ever had. But still - there was a concept of full-time mothering, as a job, that was respected at one time. And when that went away I do think something was lost. The daycare generation never had that mother figure, who had nothing better to do than simply take care of them.

Today we work in the modern organization. Which as always is emotionally vacant - neutral - "professional." But the pain of that Switzerland-like neutrality is worse because there is no Grandma, or mother, sitting at home waiting to put a Band-Aid on your knee. That uncritical empathic listener who only exists to give you a hug.

It is politically correct to say that mothers should pursue their dreams, belong at work, and are actually better at parenting when they're occupied outside the home. Plus we need the money. But at the end of the day the truth is not so simple. The mothering function - whether it's performed by women or men - is completely irreplaceable. And it hasn't yet been replaced by an equivalent function at work.

We communicators feel this as we go about the business of the day. We want and need to focus on conveying information. But the basis of this function is a certain emotional centredness. There must be a person or department hired by the organization whose entire job it is to be the mother - to help the organization adjust and cope with the events of the day. (If you recall "Star Trek: The Next Generation" - this would be Deanna the ship psychologist.)

You may tell me that internal communications fulfills this role. Or that people can see the EAP (employee assistance program) staff when they're troubled. But that's not what I'm talking about.

In order for any corporate communication to be effective, there has to be a more foundational level of communication that engages employees at the emotional level, to hear their concerns and provide a safe place for collective feeling, celebration and even grieving. That is the missing discipline we need - the capacity we should foster - and the OD function very much fits the bill.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

"Social Media Is A Waste Of Money" - What To Say

The role is really citizen engagement and the set of tools includes social media. 

Done properly you are building the infrastructure - culture of openness, accessible tools, and policy - to enable everyone and anyone to engage. 

I too have seen wasteful spending on flashy outreach with dubious results. But a lot of executives like that. They think glossy billboards means we did something. They can be argued down from that particular tree. 

But the real task is to help leaders see who they need to engage, segment these publics into target audiences with a high level goal for each, and empower organizational ambassadors accordingly. 

As far as cost, it is minimal:

  • You can get an army of ordinary frontline employees to proselytize on Facebook just by giving them permission. Cost - $0. 
  • You can train anyone to do a rotation at the customer service chat desk. Cost - in-house training and time away from regular duties. 
  • You can also empower subject matter experts to talk about complex and controversial issues affecting the agency from their own perspective - not representing the agency. You have to trust your people and let them disagree sometimes though. Cost - $0. Impact huge. 

The risk we are taking is not so much financial as cultural:

  • How much do we trust our people? 
  • How educated are they about the mission? 
  • How well does information flow internally and from the outside in? 

Yet investing in the above is not an option, but a requirement. They are capacities we MUST build in order for our organizations to survive. They are the basis of engagement. 

When it comes to government or any social institution, the public will not accept a bunch of bobbleheads swaying to the latest propagandistic tune. They want facts, they want access, they want something true and beautiful to believe in. 

We can't afford to deliver anything less.

All opinions my own.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Doppelganger

This is Lena Dunham, the creative genius behind HBO's hit TV show "Girls."

Screenshot via Business Insider"How Lena Dunham Went From Unknown Filmmaker To TV Star In Less Than A Year"

This is my niece Yaffa.

Screenshot via The Billfold, "Setting The Record Straight"

Yaffa and Lena are both writers, both Jewish, both in their twenties, both New Yorkers, and both love food.

I had no idea who Lena was when I read the following in Yaffa's blog, "Living on a Latte and a Prayer," August 8, 2012:
I had the fortune of meeting a Nora Ephron disciple, a.k.a. my doppleganger, a.k.a. Lena Dunham there a few short weeks ago, and well, cliche as it may be, my life has never been the same.
And then for some reason I decided to buy the first season of "Girls" on HBO, because there was just nothing to watch on TV.

As I watched I could not watch. Because there was Yaffa, my niece. No it was Lena. They didn't just look alike. They were freakishly alike. So I tweeted, on Jan. 15:

At the time I did not know that an article had appeared on Jan. 13 in the New York Times, "The Unaffordable Luxury of Food," in which Yaffa had been interviewed. Supposedly it was about what it's like to be a footloose and fancy-free millennial in New York who likes food.

If you read between the lines though it was not just a profile but rather a pretty nasty slam at the "Girls" generation, using Yaffa as the stand-in for Lena. Writes Ginia Bellafante:
Every generation of young New Yorker finds its own way to squander its meager earnings, and this one seems content to spend the money it makes on expensive, curated food with little sense that it is really squandering anything at all.
I happened upon the article by stumbling upon Newsle, which tracks your friends' mentions in the news (I just started browsing it, so not totally clear to me yet.)

Newsle actually took me to Yaffa's rebuttal of the piece, which appeared in Billfold, an online magazine. There, she breaks down her spending bit by bit, demonstrating clearly what I knew all along about her: There is probably no twentysomething on this earth more responsible than Yaffa. Who works not one, not two, but three jobs to pay her own way.

(And if you have ever spent any time in New York you know that food is extremely expensive. Even a bottle of water runs you $2.50.)

I thought Yaffa's strategy was totally brilliant. Not only did she turn around a seemingly negative story, but this relatively unknown young woman managed to make the Times look foolish, petty and irrelevant.

Here are some of the Tweets that came out in support of Yaffa after the article ran:

The bottom line lessons for me from this whole thing:

1. When you're young, it's better to be notorious than unknown.

2. The moment you're under the microscope is the best time to turn it around into a spotlight.

3. The best way to defend yourself is simply to lay out the facts wholesale.

4. There is a certain advantage to playing David against the Goliath.

5. It is entirely possible to become famous for something completely irrelevant and accidental as versus your own hard work and uniqueness.

Congrats to Yaffa for a job well done - she really taught me something with this one.

Never Abandon Social Media (Just The Opposite)

The following is adapted from a comment I made on in response to the question of whether an organization should cease its social media activity due to a lack of interest among the public.

Don't walk away from social media. Lack of response just means the organization is implementing it in a way that misses the target.
What people want from organizations, government specifically is as follows:
1) To gain benefit - e.g. be connected to the services they are paying for with their tax dollars
2) To not get in trouble - e.g. be informed as to how to follow law and regulation administered by that agency
3) To have a voice - e.g. to be able to influence what the agency does or at least be heard
The best way to address all of the above is social media, supported by a platform that makes pure data easily accessible (e.g. Open Government) and mashable - no bells and whistles.
This is why the function of public affairs is obsolete and should be morphed to social media completely.
The CIO can handle the rest, which is simply open data.
The Public Affairs + Open Data CIO team should be housed in an Office of Citizen Engagement that handles solutions for both.
If we had such a combination, we would have instant chat on every single government website to answer people's questions.
We would also have massive texting as this is how people communicate nowadays when they're on the cell, which is all the time.
A fused office combining Public Affairs and Open Data would administer a social media form of communication that is equally applicable externally and internally.
It would not be the job of these specialists to actually create the information but only to facilitate its distribution.
A key part of the picture is that employees would be freed - through a simple sensible policy - to talk about their work through their own personal social media platforms.
The bottom line is this:
  • Organizations to be credible and relevant must step out of the driver's seat and let the passengers take the wheel.
  • This means that they only guide the conversation, do not dominate it, and make sure they are meeting the legal requirements with respect to transparency.

It's that last part that gets every organization's leadership worked up.
Because if success means that you try to control every aspect of your image, your day to day life as a Public Affairs office will consist of "correcting the record" - i.e. putting out fires - and "getting our story out" - i.e. controlling the narrative. 
This leaves so much opportunity on the floor. Because what people want to read about and hear about is usually precisely the thing that is most shocking and embarrassing to you. Not because they hate you and want to trash you, but because they can only relate to the human factor.
Let me be clear: This is NOT to advocate that every agency run its public affairs like the Kardashian PR machine.
As we can see from the gossip magazines - which I do follow, yes, religiously and unapologetically - the family is falling apart because they have no privacy.
There is a certain amount of space that an organization needs in order to be deliberative. To build trust. You can't live your life under glass all the time.
At the same time, the organization is not real and believable if it acts forced.
Therefore the idea is to engage the public in your story to the point where you are credible, forgivable and beloved.
Do you want to know who does this well? VP Joe Biden! What did he say in that video - "I am proud to be the President" (oops) - and everybody just roared with laughter and went, "Oh, Joe." 
It is no mistake that the Vice President came off so well in his Presidential campaign debate. Because his humanity makes him more engaging. He speaks with passion rather than making every issue dry and boring.
The social media guru Shel Holtz once said in a training class - "Say as much as you can say, and then say - 'I can't say anymore'." That's pretty much the rule to live by.
If you want people to care about your communication you have to speak as if you are a person not a machine (read "The Cluetrain Manifesto," which is available free, online.)
My niece Yaffa Fredrick is currently enjoying her 15 minutes of fame because she was the subject of a New York Times trend piece on how millennials spend all their money on food. (Literally this is the caption beneath her photo.) The article itself is horrifying to me as her aunt because it's totally unfair. Yaffa can balance a checkbook in her sleep. But the reporter used her words against her. 
Yaffa is pretty smart and she went online to do an interview countering the New York Times piece. Now everyone is out there (including me) defending her and saying that the NYT was way out of line. (My take is the reporter hates the show "Girls" and Yaffa was the excuse, because Yaffa bears the most striking resemblance to Lena Dunham, is the same age and is also a writer living in NY).
This is a case study in contemporary communication, in a nutshell. You own the story not by controlling it, but by living it and interacting honestly with those who are interested in you. The fear of making mistakes is not exaggerated, but even the best and most controlling Public Affairs machine won't keep you "safe."
So given all of the above - why would we shut down social media? We should only try to get better at it. 
Note - all opinions as always are my own. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Why You Should NOT Focus Your Blog Content

Some people think blogs are irrelevant in the age of super simple instant gratification visual type modes of interactive communication. Specifically:
  • Tumblr 
  • Pinterest 
  • Webstagram 
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
However your personal blog is actually more essential than ever - both for work and your personal life - and contrary to the conventional wisdom you should NOT focus it on any one particular thing. Because a serious blog functions like a recruiter, reference, publicist, friend and security tool all at once:
  • Recruiter: Establishes that you are "normal" - i.e. thinking, stable, relatively consistent personality
  • Reference: Tells us what kind of person you are - better than any phony application or profile essay
  • Publicist: Proves that you have the kind of skills you say you have - e.g. nobody can talk about the complexities of code for ten paragraphs unless they actually know something about writing it
  • Friend: As long as you are somewhat artful and avoid the TMI factor, you can confess your fears and insecurities (oh, please be careful about this!) and get a lot of respect in return for your self-confidence. Not to mention camaraderie. (Nothing like a good personal struggle.)
  • Security: This may sound a bit odd or extreme, but forgive me as I am a helicopter mom who has started to work more and more with rootless millenials. And it occurs to me that if you don't have many personal connections but do write a lot on the web, if anything should ever happen to you and you stop blogging, people will notice and ask about your whereabouts. (More so than in the world of microblogging, because it's easier to miss someone's silence amid the noise.)
Now to the question of why you should avoid trying to focus.

Recently I read an apparently popular article to the effect of "Why isn't anyone reading my blog?" and the author argued that for people to read you, you have to optimize the content by keeping it very narrow. The logic of this argument:

1. Your blog exists to promote your business
2. Your business is based around your personal brand
3. Your personal brand gains credence as you demonstrate a skill base
4. If you write things that distract from your skill base the reader will search for someone more focused
5. The more diffused your blog, the less clear what your brand is and the lower your value.

However, this is a fallacious argument, for all the reasons listed above, in the bullet points. You have to look at your social media story like a Facebook timeline. No matter what you say you specialize in today, people are going to find your entries online going back many years. To believe that you are trustworthy at any point in time, they need to see a consistent story.

Now consider that most people occupy multiple identities at the same time (e.g. myself - wife, mother, blogger, brand thinker, writer, sometime adjunct, communicator, government worker, American, Jewish, female, Gen Xer, geek) as well as over the span of their lifetimes (yeshiva graduate, sociologist, adjunct professor, feminist theorist, marketer, government worker, caregiver, retiree). 

That's quite a lot, right? 

If you never talk about anything other than computer code in your blog - there will come a time when you outgrow it. And you need to start a new blog to cover whatever you're working on now. Which means you will have a break in your timeline that is unclear, unexplained.

For this and for the simple reason that it's just easier to be yourself, I strongly argue that your blog should be as unfocused as most people normally are. You should write about what interests you at the moment, what you are passionate about. The only limit being the recognition that you are writing in a public space, and that whatever you put out there, lives forever.

I hope this has been helpful, I recognize it's a bit longer and more wordy than my usual spare style. But it's an important topic and I wanted to show you the logic of the advice rather than just throw it out there.

On a personal note, I just want to wish good luck to President Obama and the Administration on this historic day. May Inauguration Day be the start of a peaceful and productive four years.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

5 Ways To Counteract Those DC Stereotypes

Photo of the National Archives Building by WallyG via Flickr

For those of us in the metro D.C. area, it's sometimes hard to see ourselves "outside-in." As in outside the Beltway, in New York or California or Florida or the Midwest.

You might not actually care about perceptions of Washingtonians naturally. Except there are a few reasons to do so. For one thing, bias against the federal worker ("lazy, overpaid, incompetent") means automatic negative judgment when budget times get tough.

For another, it just doesn't feel good to be laughed at. Hey - we Feds are people too!

It occurs to me that maybe we government employees don't know how to fight those stereotypes. It's not - to me - about saying what we're entitled to but rather proving our worth every single day. A totally different paradigm than what people are used to hearing from us.

Here are a few ideas:

1. Think private sector. Dress & think corporate. Get that MBA or at least read the business journals.

2. Air things out a little with partnerships. Federal, state, local is only part of the story. We should be working with the private sector, engaging entrepreneurs, bringing in the interns. D.C. should be an open door for the rest of the country to get engaged in government.

3. Make customer service our #1 priority. We are paid by the taxpayer, we serve the taxpayer, we ought to be delivering on what they need. Similarly inside our Agencies we ought to be falling all over ourselves to help out our colleagues - let's get the work done. No more "I don't handle that" type of talk. If you get called about an issue, it becomes your issue, even if only to direct someone to the person who really ought to help.

4. Be a living brand ambassador for good government. There are always going to be things going on you disagree with. You're a citizen too. But that has nothing to do with your commitment to doing public service the right way. In every interaction take the time to explain what you do. Do this in terms that make sense to the person you're talking to. You don't have to proselytize for Administration policies but rather for the concept of a highly functional civil service.

5. Be yourself on social media. All of us government employees are specialists in subjects that have both public and private sector applications. Yet we are all part of a special family as well. (Don't laugh when I say "special" OK? I hear you.) It's important when you're out there "branding yourself" to establish your professional expertise, that you also are unafraid to stand up as a proud member of the civil service. Of course you have to follow the law and ethics rules - you don't ever want to speak for your Agency, for example, unless you are a designated representative. And you should use a disclaimer - "all opinions my own." But nothing prevents you from making it clear that you have a lot of value to contribute. Go ahead and do it, in a positive and direct way.

There will always be snots who throw those "Walmart is more efficient than government" emails your way. But a lot of that has to do with jealousy and frustration.

If you are a "govie," hold your head high. You're worth it.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Toughen Up

That's right. I'm tough. Like Hilary Swank in "Million Dollar Baby.

Once when I was a little girl I scraped my knee and started crying.

"Turn off the waterworks," my mother said. "Toughen up."

As a tween I went to a new summer camp one year and got bullied.

"I want to come home," I sobbed into the phone. "I HATE these people. They're horrible."

"Forget it," said my mom. "You're not sitting in your room all summer. Handle it."

I had a boss once who was particularly cruel. "I'm going for that promotion," I told a coworker, referring to a job opening we both knew about and were qualified for. "I deserve it after all of this."

"Oh yeah?" the coworker responded. "I've been here for thirty years putting up with that crap. Get in line."

All of us fall, all the time, every day. And we figuratively punched in the face too. By people who sense weakness and respond to it with blows.

It stinks but at some point all of us are ignorant, or innocent. And somebody else makes us pay. "Open your eyes or open your wallet."

What can we do to protect ourselves? Or to recover after the fact?

I saw a friend the other day. She said, "How's it going?"

"Fine," I said. "Why?"

"Because last time I saw you, you had me worried."

"Oh," I said. "Which crisis was that?"

And then I explained why I seemed so serene.

"This thing that was worrying me," I explained, "I had nightmare after nightmare about it. Literally."

"And then what?" She leaned in close.

"And then I woke up one day and I just didn't care anymore."

It was true. I just reached the end of my worrying capacity. I was free.

"Wow. I've got to try that."

"Yeah, well I don't think you can bring on nightmares like homeopathy."

"Nah. Probably not."

And we sat back and reflected together.

"How come you never eat anything at lunch? It makes me uncomfortable."

"I'm worried I am gonna get fat."


Have a good weekend everybody. Stay cool.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Unit of Work Is The Project (Email = Dangerous Crutch)

Even the most creative solo endeavors are really projects. Photo via Wikimedia.

Just wanted to take a minute and share briefly the kinds of conversations I'm having lately, about how the nature of work is changing.
Basically there seems to be a growing recognition that organizing your work around email is not the best way to go.
This is because email, in government, has become a kind of crutch for communication. Think of all the things it does:
  • It documents conversations in case there is an argument later
  • It gives us a kind of dashboard where we can see all the fires we have to put out for that day
  • It enables us to communicate without having to go through the labor of listening (as most people prefer to talk than have to sit there while someone goes on and on)
At this point, in the government, it does not seem that the faster mode of communication (instant chat) or the more efficient one from a knowledge management standpoint (Sharepoint and the like) have caught on. For the following reasons, again this is just my observation:
  • Younger people (e.g. Millennials and Generation Z) have Baby Boomers for bosses, mostly, and Boomers intensely dislike chat. Intensely.
  • Sharepoint seems cumbersome compared with the speed of email - this is true for everyone.
  • Project management software and Gantt charts are intimidating.
  • There is near-universal lack of literacy with the principles of knowledge management. People don't think about tagging their data, for example, archiving and indexing it...the more advanced among us tend to create file folders in the collaboration space, containing documents that we hope others can access later.
There are of course solutions where you can integrate chat, social networking, document management and knowledge management but this is not yet part of the mainstream discourse at government agencies. It's all sort of theoretically interesting, but puzzling both in terms of the thinking (work is fun?) and the policy (how would we write it)?
Complicating everything is the new world of mobile. Many of us already live on our devices, but whereas the Blackberry model was linear and simple (answer your email, it's saved in Outlook) the iPhone/iPad model gets more complicated, simply because you can do a lot more things on the technology and there is more crossover between work and home if you're using your own device for work.
The main thing I'm trying to communicate to people in this transitional time is that you can master your time by changing the way you think about work. Instead of focusing on answering the email as so many of us do - simply because there is an urgency to everything - focus on treating each instance of work as a project. 
Don't think that you can't understand Microsoft Project. Nobody can.
Rather, think about work the way consultants do. As follows - and thanks to KM expert Margaret Harrelson for helping me to figure this out and especially #5, which is the key to the whole thing:
1 - Who are your clients
2 - What are your clients asking you to do
3 - Each time your client asks you to get something done it's a project
4 - Every project gets a dedicated "task" line in a shared environment (like Sharepoint)
5 - The "task" line is associated with a file folder in a shared environment - and contains a hyperlink to it
6 - You work in your own personal environment as usual most of the time
7 - Documents for circulation are posted in the shared environment and the hyperlink to the document shared
8 - Comments and changes go directly into the shared document
9 - Someone is the keeper of the task, and that includes the shared docuent
10 - Once a week or so, at significant milestones or at the end of the project you archive the work - by subject, month, year.
This is of course a very broad sketch that depends on a lot of telephone and in-person communication and collaboration to make it real. But the essence of it starts with a change in thinking.
Hope this is useful and please share any comments or tips.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

5 Components Of A Good Awards Ceremony

                                            Generic photo of employees posing with awards by ZSRLibrary via Flickr

Today I attended my first annual awards ceremony at work.

It was great to be recognized but what surprised me was how good the actual ceremony was.

Let me quantify that with specifics:

1. Leaders' speech was spontaneous, and sincere - engaging people, boosting morale by lending meaning to the day-to-day work.

2. Speakers gave remarks full of substantive information about wide-ranging aspects of the organization - good training.

3. There was extensive inclusion of the field offices through video - very unifying.

4. Leaders took time to praise employees in specific enough terms that we learned what behaviors are valued - good training.

5. There was appropriate humor sprinkled throughout - keeping it real. This builds a bond between leader and led without crossing the boundary into overfamiliarity or buffoonery.

I walked into the event expecting a self-congratulatory waste of time, like many corporate events. I walked out joyous, uplifted, more educated about the mission, and appreciative that my own professional brand is linked with that of my employer.

(Note: This is a personal blog - as always all opinions my own.)

Monday, January 14, 2013

What's Hot Right Now

1. Webstagram

2. Playing games on iPad

3. Remote controlled toy helicopters

4. Massage chair recliners instead of couch

5. Seaweed flavored like potato chips

6. Monster diet lemonade - energy + vitamins + taste

7. Neon sneakers

8. Mary Janes

9. Fringe


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Profitability In A Facebook Economy (Why You Can't Afford To Be Antisocial)

Today, people do business with their friends. Friends are a known commodity. Strangers may have the technical skill but are un-trusted - unless highly recommended through word-of-mouth.

At a coffee shop I overheard this conversation:

"So what are we going to do for dinner tonight?"

"I don't know, I'm sick of Chinese."

"After this next interview, let's just get out of here. We have to check the house."

The walls have ears, and those ears in the coffee shop were me: Was this a couple I was listening to, or the co-owners of a computer repair business?

From the sound of it, the answer was "both."

The concept of "the clubhouse" is as old as time. As little kids we built them literally, or turned back-to-back chairs into living room forts. High school kids form cliques, that morph into tribes. Friends become romantic partners, then live-ins, and sometimes marriage. Men withdraw to man-caves and other female-free hangouts; women go to coffee, lunch and the mall. Mother and daughter - shopping partners, confidantes, friends.

But in the past we did not go into business so incestuously.

Sure we had work connections. We segmented ourselves into mini-groups of allies. Like on the show Survivor, we would physically keep watch and mentally watch each others' backs, because nobody can survive alone.

That same dynamic is even more intense now.

In the past - unless you were in a family business - there was an invisible line. There was "work" and "home," "my professional self" versus "my family self," and "me." There used to be "work spaces" and "eating out spaces" and "home."

Now it's all one big blur.

Our workmates are our friends. Not only for professional survival. But actual friends.

Our friends become our roommates, our business partners, co-parents.

Our homes are partially workspaces, and work happens everywhere, anytime and all the time. Before bed, and the minute you wake up: check the email.

Coffee shops are centers of commerce: I can't count the number of meetings and interviews I've seen take place at various Starbucks' and Paneras.

Our companies exist internally, in the mind: Everyone's a self-made success, the "CEO of my own life."

This isn't a social commentary. It's business advice: Introverts are at a vast disadvantage, because 75% of your professional capital rests on interactions with others.

Today, you need people - you must be able to listen to their words, read what they have written, get along with them on a team, socialize with professional contacts. Because each and every one has a wisdom or a skill or a connection you cannot possibly have mastered. A knowledge base you will never duplicate.

Physical strength - useful then, not so much now, mostly irrelevant.

Technical mastery - meh, it's alright. Computers can do almost everything.

The one thing computers cannot do now is socialize intelligently. Identify a range of data sources, human and mechanical - to develop the kind of insight that enables strategic navigation toward a focused goal.

And change the social grid as the focus changes.

The goal today is influencing people to the point where you are identified as an expert, and recruited to join a team. Normally temporarily.

(Power today is NOT overpowering people as in the past and then declaring acquiescence.)

The movies show genius like Russell Crowe in A Brilliant Mind - isolated man in an isolated workplace thinking isolated thoughts that nobody else can think.

The real genius is more like the stay-at-home mother. Who typically combines appointments, shopping, housecleaning and the like; homework/homeschooling; get-togethers with friends, family outings; PTA; telecommuting and/or freelancing; running her own business, selling real estate or catering, etc; studying for a certificate or degree; and helping husband or partner in his own business.

We are living in the Facebook economy - where the capital flows to professional friends.

(Photo by me.)

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Right Discount Dynamic To Preserve Brand Equity

It's the classic branding problem:

  • The better your image, the better your brand equity - the higher the margin between your stuff and a commodity. 
  • But if your merchandise isn't moving, offering discounts is a short-term fix that leaves you leaking brand equity like the Titanic.

So how do you offer a markdown without seeming "cheap?" Target the method of discount to your audience. As follows:

  • Premium: Distribute fancy print cards, in person, to the luxury shopper who has already paid full price; provide fee-based credit card with discounts to loyalty club.
  • Semi-Premium: Mail "specials" to members of your loyalty club; provide no-fee loyalty card enrollment program
  • Mass market: Leak promo code virally, online; offer app-based discounts
  • Neighborhood market: Print coupons in the Sunday paper and/or neighborhood newsletters; tear-offs in the local Starbucks

The bottom line: Discounts are not inherently deadly to your brand. But thoughtless discounting is. If you customize the discount in a way that looks well-thought out and even exclusive - not desperate - your brand desirability may even increase.

In addition, as Killian Branding points out, if you have to do a discount, "avoid getting into the cycle of frequent deep discounts" and "if you are in it, get out." It's one thing to generate excitement with a promo. It's another to live your life waving people down from the clearance aisle.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Government Critics: A PR Opportunity

If you haven't heard of Alex Jones before you probably know the name now after the epic TV battle between him and Piers Morgan.

As of today,


people have watched Piers Morgan and Jones go at it over gun control.

I've been reading Jones' and similar blogs for a few years now, roughly since the Fast and Furious scandal broke (2010).

As a Homeland Security component employee working in public affairs (I joined another agency last year), this should have been laudable. After all from a communications perspective there were so many factors involved that almost required such attention:

  • An agent - a fellow employee - murdered, and deep concern among the workforce
  • Relatively closemouthed agency - information shared internally based on "need to know" culture 
  • Insistent and persistent criticism from the blogosphere 
  • Speculation on public but not publicized employee social media boards about what was happening
  • Relative silence in the mainstream media

While the subject matter was very complicated, it was clear to me that there were opportunities for government to say more, and I urged them to do so. As the communications expert Shel Holtz once advised us in a training class (paraphrasing):

"Your job as a communicator is to go to the very edge of what you can say, and then say, I really can't say any more - then hold the line."

Nevertheless, the people at Homeland Security hadn't taken that class. The overriding impression that I got was:

  • Silence feels safe to leaders, but it creates the impression of guilt to one's audience
  • In the void created by silence, people are driven to tell a negative narrative, if only to self-soothe
  • They will use whatever documentation they have (or think they have) to develop that narrative
  • Social media has a way of attracting voices of negativity, drama and conspiracy theories
  • There is a self-fulfilling cycle at work where criticism from the public creates fear and the urge to "hunker down"
  • Law enforcement culture is deeply hierarchical (obviously) and therefore averse to upward feedback (e.g. criticism from the bottom of the chain upward)
  • People who speak up (internally or externally) are seen as troublemakers
  • Real communication seems to take place informally among peers
  • Written communication is perceived as potentially litigious
  • Culture change is incredibly slow, almost glacial.
If these observations are accurate it would follow that external critics of the government would be considered troublemakers. If you don't let your own employees have their say, then why would you welcome negative external feedback at all, especially from someone who is not fully aware of the facts?

I worked for a component of DHS for seven years. I worked in Public Affairs. I did not see a vast conspiracy to strip people of their rights. I did see the normal politics and infighting. I also saw people who were beyond dedicated to their mission. I interviewed an officer who had nightmares about being the "weak link in the chain" - the cause of another 9/11.

I travel frequently enough to deal with the Transportation Services Administration (TSA) with some regularity. I don't see them doing evil things. Well, once I saw them pull aside a pretty girl in a short skirt for questioning. Stuff happens, people are stupid, and some are even criminal. But the reality and the paranoia are two very different things.

That doesn't mean there are no problems - or that critics are wrong - or that any suspected wrongdoing should not be investigated. Only that in the absence of communication between Agency and critics, both sides get their hackles up, and mutual paranoia ensues.

Yesterday I met a veteran of the Customs Service - the agency that existed before U.S. Customs and Border Protection. We knew a lot of the same people. I stood in awe of the dedication of this person. I won't share the stories I heard. But again, the overwhelming impression was - the vast majority of government employees - civil service employees - are good people trying to do a good job under imperfect circumstances.

It's hard for me to understand the resistance to feedback that I see in government. It's like a terrible fear: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. The worst kind of monster is the one that's hiding under your bed. Just talk it out, hold a town hall, let people share what's bothering them. At the worst you'll find out that corruption exists - but isn't that the best thing?

It's never a good thing to make situations black and white. Most of life is pretty gray. I'd like to see more engagement between people who hold diametrically opposing views. 

From the views of that YouTube video, it seems like many other people would, too.

*Note: As always, ALL opinions are my own.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

10 Things I Love About America - The Scene At An Airport

1. Nathan's cheese fries (no bacon :-) and Dunkin' Donuts coffee with cream. Red Bull x 3 due to early morning flight.

2. Hasidim and Muslims crowding around the same gate, completely oblivious to each other. Hearing so many different languages.

3. Plug-vultures hunting for a charge and I got there first!

4. Watching "Homeland" with free airport wifi.

5. Reading "OK" Magazine.

6. Geeky sweatshirts and mug.

7. TSA explaining that Scotch is, indeed, a beverage and can't come through the X-ray scanner.

8. That feeling of adventure.

9. People-watching.

10. Appreciating home.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Right Person for the Right Job: There Is A Better Way

There are some "old-fashioned" Jewish traditions I agree with. One of them is the concept of a matchmaker.

This person knows the boy's family, knows the girl's family, interviews each, and by the end of the day can tell whether a first date would be worthwhile.

The matchmaker assesses whether boy and girl would like each other based on:
  • Status factors - rabbinic lineage, degrees, looks
  • Technical criteria - religious observance level and knowledge
  • Cultural criteria - "two Jews, three synagogues" means there are as many cultural combinations as for a Starbucks latte, and
  • Psychological criteria - if "he's nuts" and "she's nuts" in sort of a similar way it could work :-)
You may tell me that this sounds a bit obnoxious but I would counter that it's actually very rational to filter people on the factors that matter rather than the ones that don't. 
Imagine if people had to fill out a federal government application before they went out on a date:
  • Question 1. Have you dated this person or the equivalent for 1 year?
  • Question 2. Please describe your level of experience interacting with individuals residing in a suburban community of 50,000-150,000 in the state of New Jersey between the years of 2000-2005. 
  • Question 3. In the box below, describe in which relationship you obtained the above listed experience. Provide narrative that shows you have the following competencies: emotional intelligence, event scheduling, and dusting ancient window blinds.
Who exactly are you going to recruit but the person who left that exact job to go somewhere else because it didn't work?

Imagine we got a matchmaker/recruiter to fill jobs for us instead. But instead of having one person do the job, we'd always get a cross-functional panel - to reduce the likelihood of bias.
A system like this might seem complicated and unscientific, but I think it could actually work. It would be like The Walking Dead - we could pick team members that might actually help us survive a zombie attack.

Seriously - we do need to rethink how we approach government hiring. Because -- to put it in IT-speak -- if you can't be clear about your business requirements going into the hiring process, then you'll pay for it down the road with a project (employee) who can't do the job and who can't be gotten rid of all that easily.

Poor hiring practices lead to dysfunctional teams. Especially in today's knowledge and collaboration-based environment.

Let's have the guts to admit pseudoscientific initial screening makes no sense. And instead replace it with a system based on initial resume screening followed by intensive and wide-ranging peer interviewing. 

Committed relationships are the basic building blocks of society. This is true at home and at work. We ought to respect the reality of the situation, and not throw imaginary criteria at the wall and hope to emerge with winners.

Monday, January 7, 2013

How To Get Out Of Your Own Way

The other day I spotted a friend, standing a few feet away. She was just past the security turnstile at work. So happy to see her, I practically ran through.

Only problem - the two or three people right there. Who I was blocking with my big hug. They couldn't exactly squeeze by.

Politely my friend pulled me over. A pitying look on her face.

"Sorry," I imagined her saying to the ebb-and-flowing crowd, "my friend has no spatial perception."

It's true. Getting out of a cab, I'll hit my head. I do bump into people, trying to figure out which way to walk in oncoming foot traffic.

Sometimes I have trouble getting out of my own way too.

As a little girl I said once, to my mother, "I'm happy." My dad and my aunt were in the room.

Immediately three forefingers stood poised at attention, slicing at imaginary oncoming swords.

"Shhhhh," they collectively said. "You're going to bring on an ayin hara!"

In Hebrew "ayin hara" means "evil eye" and my parents disagreed about everything except precisely this: G-d's punishments come to those who are happy. There you are, swinging on the swing at the playground, then thwack! 

Just because you laughed, you'll break your ankle.

Post-Holocaust, they told us, just keep everything to yourself for good measure. The sticking-out nail gets flattened.

Happy, sad, good, bad, trouble, not trouble - whatever. Don't make noise. Just keep it down. (It's like we're all Anne Frank, still hiding in the attic from the Nazis.)

In eighth grade we took a class trip to Monsey. We were studying the religious way of life.

The only thing I remember? No pictures in the house. "We don't take photographs - of anything."

Photos were a form of idol worship, they said. Where you stared at the image endlessly.

Thirty years later I know the problem: Photos make us happy. And the fear is that when happy, we will forget to think about and serve our Creator.

How many times has this happened to you? A friend says they have had it:

"I'm going on a diet right now," they will exclaim. "I mean it. I'm gonna keep it off."

Literally - sequentially - directly after the previous sentence, a pause, and then:

"I could really use some ice cream right about now."

Most of us are scared of formal public speaking. In my version I get a frog in my throat.

It seems the more I look around the room and realize I'm next, that the microphone is headed my way - the worse that very real croaking.

But if you get me to talk on the spot, it's fine.

A really good childhood memory is skiing.

Disembarking the ski lift, I panicked at first. To the instructor:

"I changed my mind. Next ride down please."

Laughter, immediate. "There is no way back down."

"Go!" my classmate said.

And she pushed me, just like that.


The feel of the wind. My freezing face. The silent clacking of skis against snow.


It's 2013, for heaven's sake. Doomsday can still come. Lots to worry about for sure.

But worrying isn't the solution.

Tonight if you can't sleep, try this instead of solving problems in your head: Just do nothing. 

Before you know it it's the morning.

And you can choose to have any mood of your own making.

The Art of the Question - The Art of Listening

"Good questions can move your business, organization, or career forward. They squeeze incremental value from interactions, the drops of which add up to reservoirs of insight. Of all the skills innovators can learn from journalists, the art of the expert Q&A is the most useful." - Fast Company, Dec. 17, 2012
According to Shane Snow at Fast Company, questions are "the one conversational tool that will make you better at absolutely everything." He offers this advice for asking the kind of questions that yield insight:
  • "Don't ramble on--terminate the sentence at the question mark."
  • "Get comfortable with silence."
  • "Start with "who, what, when, where, how, or why" for more meaningful answers."
  • "Don't fish for the answer you want."
  • "Stop nodding if you don't understand--ask a follow-up instead."
  • "If you get a non-answer, approach it again from a different angle."
  • "Rephrase the answer in your own words."
  • "Don't be afraid to ask dumb questions."
Most of us probably know that questions are important yet do we really use them to the fullest? Often our ability to listen is blocked by:
  • The tendency to "wait for our turn to talk" rather than to interact
  • Approaching dissent as a threat or attack
  • Tuning out before the other person has finished speaking
What are some ways you've learned to increase your effectiveness as a questioner, and/or as a listener?