The Curse of the Boring Leadership Blog & How You As A Communicator Can Fix It

Too often blog posts are only a token item on the leaders' busy and important agenda, and as a result people inside and outside the organization fail to understand what they're trying to accomplish. While media interviews can provide some visibility, only the unfiltered lens of social media can really allow the leader to share their priorities with the world.

Here are some thoughts on the leadership assumptions that perpetuate the problem, and how communicators can help to remedy it.

7 Faulty Leadership Assumptions

  1. Communications is not important, the work is (read: any time spent on this is truly wasted; that's what I pay communicators for; I'd rather say in my comfort zone, which is technical mission execution).
  2. If we do communicate, we're talking to our "primary audiences" (read: the people we usually talk to, the ones whose names we know) and they can "decode our jargon" (read: normal people don't have to understand).
  3. Senior executives have to sound important (read: diplomatic rather than human).
  4. All negativity is bad, including -- offending anyone, sounding negative, or getting negative press (read: it's better to speak in a confusing and unclear way than to be direct, admit problems and mistakes, and possibly generate bad headlines).
  5. People hear from us so rarely that we can pretty much write whatever we want and it's all good (read: we're not accountable to the audience, because what do they care about one blog post, anyway?)
  6. Silence is usually golden (read: Whose stupid idea was this blog in the first place?)
  7. Even if we did care about blogging, you can't prove what a good one is or who has time to read blogs? (read: The communicators aren't giving me metrics that make sense to me and nobody in the senior staff meeting is interested in whether I blog or not.)

10 Ways To Ensure All Web Content Is Better

UK's The Guardian published an excellent blog on this subject by Rob Weatherhead, head of digital operations at MediaCom: "Say it quick, say it well – the attention span of a modern internet consumer." Weatherhead writes:

"In a world of instant gratification and where an alternative website is just a mouse click away website owners need to find ways to firstly grab the attention of a user, and then keep it for long enough to get your message across. If you don't, their cursor will be heading to the back button and on to a competitor in the blink of an eye."

Here are his topline tips for writing engaging web content that apply 100% to blogs:
  1. Grab the user's attention -- to me this means a strong headline
  2. Bottom line up front and easily understandable
  3. Keep the word count short and hyperlink to secondary pages as needed
  4. Take them through your argument logically - beginning, middle, conclusion
  5. Focus is key - you don't need to tell the audience every aspect of the issue -- what do they need to know right now?
  6. Use bulleted lists, people follow them
  7. Use very descriptive subheads
  8. Include videos, slideshows, graphics, etc. for those who prefer them
  9. If there is an action you want the audience to take, make that easy and clear
  10. And for goodness' sake use any metrics you can to determine how many people viewed, shared, and interacted with the content and how long they spent reading it.
Of course what makes a blog different from other kinds of web content is that it's a human voice. On that note here is some advice from a variety of experts interviewed for a recent article in Federal Computer Week, "How to Write a Great Government Blog," and from a related post at FCW on the worst government blogs.

5 Tips For Great Blog Writing
  1. Have a strong and distinctive voice for the blog - it should sound like a person.
  2. Strike a balance -- you don't want to be so mission-focused that it's dry and boring, but then again you should avoid being so conversational that it sounds inappropriately "fluffy" or personal
  3. Respond to the concerns of your audience rather than just saying what you want to say
  4. Of course you should allow comments, and moderate them
  5. Keep to a schedule. It doesn't have to be the most frequently updated blog in the world, but it should be somewhat predictable.
In an age where we seem to come up on a new technology for communication every day, blogs are an enduring, simple, free and powerful tool for senior leaders. They show that there is a thinking, competent person at the helm of the organization. And they translate what are frequently abstract goals into language that the general public can comprehend.

Yes, very often if you talk in a real way the public will take issue with you. That is part of the process. It is actually helpful. And there is no way to communicate around that.

* All opinions my own.

So You Have A Dead Intranet, Now What?

Yesterday's post on Intranets focused on control issues and how to resolve them. It consisted of notes from a keynote presentation at Drupal4Gov featuring a three-year case study on this subject.

For the sake of focus I left a very important piece of the talk on the cutting room floor, and so will expand on it a bit in this post. This is the implementation portion of the engagement piece: How do you go from a website nobody visits or uses, to one that engages the workforce?

The basic idea is to think of your job as starting a conversation. "Encourage participation and don't interfere...start a discussion, build momentum."

You may think that not enough people are participating in the space but it takes time for people to work up the courage. Peltzer suggested the 1-9-90 rule: 
  • 1% are the talkers
  • 9% are the commenters
  • 90% are the watchers
"Whatever happens on user generated space, everybody will be watching."

But how?

It starts with the user profile: Make it extensive and make it consist of things that are both useful and easy for people to post -- not to mention conversation starters.
  • Skills
  • Hobbies
  • Colleagues
  • Projects
  • Experience
Expanded user profiles aren't just a nice-to-have but a way to build a Linked-In style database so that people can connect with other people who have the skills they need for a particular project. So make sure these functionalities are in place:
  • When the user posts something online, it should link back to their profile page so that peers can get an expanded sense of who they are, what they do and what they're good at.
  • Endorsements (voting), just like in Facebook. The fact that people can add "likes" is not trivial though it "may seem insignificant and small." The rationale is that "not everyone is brave enough to blog or add a comment, but a crowd of people is willing to vote." 
  • Skills pages - e.g. you can note that you are an expert in project management. Important: Link those skills to an aggregate page where you can find all the individuals who have tagged themselves with the same skill. 
  • Opt-in mentoring - on the user profile include a checkbox next to the individual's skills so that they can indicate whether they're willing to mentor others in it. That way when you visit the skills page, all of the people willing to provide in-house training at no additional cost are listed at once.
It's important to show stats on endorsements, said Peltzer, so that people get credit for popular content:

"Pride is a big motivator - give credit and visibility to those who share their ideas. they want to know people are listening, makes them want to post even more."

It took a long time for "confidence to build" in the intranet project: "People wanted to see, where is this going to go....started seeing that it wasn't that bad."

At the end of the day the point of the Intranet content + connection:
  • "Content is connecting people"
  • "Connecting people around your mission. Project, services, corporate activity, all the mission activity is documented and there - networking overlaid on that. Connecting people around your mission. Increase collaboration."
Having a system that facilitates collaboration helps to overcome the negative associations people have with collaboration, said Peltzer: Traditionally "collaboration is a dirty word."

The problem is not the technology: "Lots of tools exist." Rather, it's finding and recruiting the right collaborator: "I was in government for 13 years. All of my ability to pull off projects is because I know who to call when something goes wrong." 

  • "If we can give this capability (collaboration) to everyone in the organization, that's where collaboration is going to thrive."
  • "The web itself can provide this functional type of collaboration that can't be found in some other tools."
  • "It has to be available to all - merit based - and self-organizing."
  • "If we try to force people to work together, we rarely successful but if we can self-organize and those who contribute the most get recognized, you'll have the most success."
  • "It's about engagement."
  • "People want to be part of a common purpose and make a difference."
  • "By creating together you can achieve what's impossible on your own."
And so the ultimate business case is:

"Integrating corporate content with user-generated content leads to strong corporate engagement and keeps collaboration focused on the mission."

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

The #1 Intranet Problem That's Already Been Solved

Intranets are somehow not communicators' favorite project but they are critical to collaboration and communication among knowledge workers.

Today's opening keynote at Drupal4gov was a multi-year (2007-2010) case study with Jayson Peltzer, founder of U7 Solutions on building an intranet, based on his experience at the National Defence (sic) of Canada.

For the purpose of this post I'd like to highlight just one item from the extensive talk -- the #1 issue that keeps executives from sleeping at night and the one that, when resolved, allows the rest of the Intranet to flow:


Executive worry about:
  • Employees publishing unauthorized material about their functions.
  • Excessive socializing.
The core of the issue is this:
  • Executives want to control who says what. But the more barriers and censorship, the less engagement. "People need to believe they will be able to do the things they want, even though it's built by corporate."
  • To work, employees themselves must take ownership. This depends on the employees having control: "If you let people create it they will take ownership and make sure it's always up to date."
The way to solve the problem:
  • Passive content moderation: "Flag as inappropriate"
  • Published netiquette guidelines, & netiquette committee
  • Expiration date on old content, with warnings
The bottom line concept is:
  • "You have to trust your employees" BUT
  • Be ready for bad behavior, which "will happen, but not as often as you think." AND
  • "If it does happen, it's not the end of the world."
If you want to understand the process step-by-step, the full presentation and screencast with audio is available here and my notes with some audience edits are on Hackpad. It's well worth studying if you're working on an Intranet project.

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

A Call To Gov 2.0 Drupalers

Upstairs at Drupal4Gov2013 there were donuts and coffee aplenty to fuel the work going on downstairs, where the Drupal community is working on a way to help government agencies post open data sets quickly, easily and consistently. Photos by me.

It's Day 2 at Drupal4Gov 2013 and one of the most important sessions taking place today is not actually a session but rather a collaboration aimed at helping federal agencies post their data sets more easily on the free, open-source Drupal website platform. 

The all-day event is called "Project Open Data Code Sprint" and it was led by some Drupal community volunteers who also work at Acquia, who apparently brainstormed with New Amsterdam Ideas (no endorsement etc. etc.) All are welcome to help out, whether onsite today or virtually tomorrow or anytime.
  • The goal is to create a "module" (building block) in Drupal that agencies can use to catalogue their data sets to meet the requirements outlined in the May 9, 2013 White House Executive Order and accompanying OMB memorandum. 
  • The benefit for the many federal agencies that use Drupal is that such a module would make life much easier as they could simply snap it into their website (like a Lego piece, as someone said) and start adding information about the datasets.

How will the module work? Very simply, easily and at no cost. It will have standardized fields that meet the government's requirements for the kind of information that has to be catalogued and released. It can do this in one of two ways:
  • If it has a data catalogue function already: Simply add on to an existing Drupal site.
  • If it does not: Add it, but connect the new module with the old system using a "bridge" module that allows them to speak to each other.
If you're not a techie all this sounds like a bit of a yawner but you have to understand the vision to really get excited about it. Because we are looking at true participatory democracy here.
  • In the past the government assumed certain roles on behalf of the citizen and generated data in the process of doing so - then held the data - and it was difficult for the original citizen-owner to get back.
  • In the future the the government will be operating with its intestines literally turned inside-out. Data will be stored with future use and re-use in mind, not just internally but by other agencies, by organizations outside government, and by private citizens.
It gets even more exciting.

Agencies are required to put their own data sets catalogues, and data, on their own pages. But once the information is made available in a standardized way, citizens will not only be able to find datasets more easily and download them. They will also be able to aggregate multiple datasets across agencies to create a comprehensive catalogue.

In the future, we can look for the data itself to become standardized, enabling citizens to compare information across agencies and also create "mashups" comparing different types of data. This will require:
  • Common fields, or information categories.
  • Common taxonomies, or definitions of the same word.
It is an exciting and important project and hopefully there will be people reading this who want to help out. You don't need to be a Drupal genius, just willing to assist. Join the community "sandbox" by clicking here

* This blog is intended for educational purposes. All opinions are my own. No endorsement expressed or implied. 

Fitting People Into The Open-Source Equation: Observing Drupal4Gov 2013, Day 1

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." 
Ferris Bueller

I wanted to try and write this while the experience was still fresh in my mind. So I hope that you'll forgive me if the words seem raw and unpolished. It's my way of respecting what is going on in the world of government, technology, and open data: Everything I thought I knew is not-so-slowly going by the wayside.

There isn't a big crowd here this year. I'm actually surprised that there aren't more people (especially when you consider that there is free food). It's probably because we're in Bethesda at the NIH, rather than in midtown DC like last year (at Commerce). But the energy level is very high. It's like a drumbeat charging slowly and steadily throughout the place.

Not only that. The geekery is truly amazing. I like to think that I am geeky. In the normal world this is true. But observing the interchange here is something else. The banter is just going to a whole other level. I can follow it conceptually. But the speed at which people seem to be thinking and conversing back and forth is much faster than even last year. Something is happening.

It's about the meta-conversation. 

Take one talk, "White House API Standards," with Bryan Hirsch. It was critical subject matter but for me the essence was not the subject matter. It was the President joking "What the heck is an API?" and then making the White House a platform for throwing open the gates to even the most seemingly esoteric computer wizardry.

Nobody owns this house, but everybody owns it. Once you open the gates, you can't close them up again. The people have the power.

Another talk, "Growing Communities Around Your Code," featured GitHub's Ben Balter talking about how to foster growth rather than "manage" it (i.e. shut people down). Everything about the discussion showed how far and how fast we have come in such a very short time. Old-fashioned blogs are so uncool just like telling people what to do is. 

We have to figure out how to grow people. There are new challenges associated with a work environment where some people get paid to do open-source work during the day while others are laboring deep into the night for not a cent, just contributing. And all the variations of work arrangements in between.

There are no models for these discussions, at least not that I am aware of. 

(You can see the whole thing online here in Prezi and I encourage you to check it out.)

Everyone seemed pretty happy here today. I felt good just being around this vibe. It made me want to learn more, and I truly felt my age and my ignorance. I don't mind admitting to being a beginner of sorts in this brave new world. I'd rather admit it, start from where I am, embark on an unpredictable new journey.

* All opinions are my own.

5 Ways To Crush A People-Hating System

The other day, I was headed out the door when I heard a woman's voice in the hallway. Her voice was muffled but she was clearly yelling. I heard a child's quiet voice in response.

Didn't want any trouble and it did not sound like there was abuse going on, so I quietly left when the hallway got quiet. But there they were, downstairs. A little toddler not more than three, and an angry and frustrated caregiver. "Get off that curb!" "Stop it now!" "I'm warning you!"

They weren't words of love. The woman was spewing hatred at that child and it made me sick to my stomach.

Another time, in the nursing home, I was walking past a semi-closed door. Heard two people talking to each other inside, and a resident talking but being ignored. Stopped and listened, and the employees were talking to each other about other patients. They said almost nothing to the resident at all.

In my heart I felt what was going on - contempt - and again I felt that terrible feeling.

Children and the elderly can't help themselves, and the people they rely on for the most basic things so often treat them without the most basic shred of human decency.

The situation is no different at work. We think that employees are adults and that they should know how to act with basic human decency but unfortunately adults at work often treat one another sadistically. A 2010 study commissioned by the Workplace Bullying Institute (carried out by Zogby International) showed that more than 1 in 3 workers, or 35%, have experienced it directly.

And yet - we do not live in a perfect world; there is no such thing. Bullying by caregivers and employers is clearly not the norm. And statistically, any bucket of people will have good apples and bad apples alike.

So what can we do to fix it?

Go a level higher. Go to the social structure within which people operate. Fix the structure and the individual behavior will improve.

For example, corporate America. So far there are 203,000 views of Bruce Kasanoff's slideshow "Profits Before People" on Slideshare. Last week it was among the top 5 presentations viewed. It's nothing new, but it's something to see. The extent to which companies use, churn, and dump people out for the sake of the almighty dollar.

If you set up a structure that puts money first and people second, it is inevitable that the individuals operating within that structure will treat people accordingly.

We can change our social institutions so that it pays to treat people better. Here are 5 principles for change, offered in very general terms:

1) Leadership By The People, For The People and Of The People 
  • Old way: Look to the top for a single leader to set direction.
  • New way: Direction should be distributed among self-organizing cells aligned against a central goal (the mission/brand). 
2)  Embrace Holistic Strategy Through Cross-Sector Integration and Partnerships
  • Old way: Isolate organizational function in one sector (e.g. business, government, education, healthcare)
  • New way: Situate function across multiple sectors of society (e.g. make the workplace child-friendly and make the school system a place for teaching workplace skills from the youngest age)
3) Transparency Through Release Of Data and Key Performance Indicators
  • Old way: Hold, massage, and then release selected "dead" information with your framing of the context or narrative
  • New way: Make the data available for others to consume, absorb and re-display in a way that suits real analysis and customer need
4) Opportunity For Employees To Engage and Be Rewarded
  • Old way: Hire good people and then hold them in place till you need them
  • New way: Hire good people and then get out of the way while they seek opportunities to contribute to the bottom line; point and reward system through 360 peer and customer review
5) Technology To Make It All Possible, Simply
  • Old way:  Buy multiple expensive technology products and services without understanding them, and then avoid training and change so as to use the "old-fashioned" stuff as long as possible
  • New way: Begin with the premise of the automated workplace and hire, train and retain people to use technology simply and intelligently. Reduce clutter and leverage available tools. Set employees up to work independently of supervision as much as possible by collaborating virtually and without undue censorship.
The fundamental problem of society today is the power imbalance between the lone individual and the continued streamlining and consolidation of its "big" institutions, one of which is "big data." Such a system is inevitable for a lot of reasons - cost efficiency and personal security among them. 

But we don't need, don't want and can't allow a system to arise in which the power of the individual is crushed. 

We can use efficiencies of scale to purposefully establish a "big" system that balances the weight of its individual players, promotes individual freedom and development, and institutionalizes accountability. The first step though is to decide on our top priorities for society. 

For most of us, the #1 requirement is that we use the power we have to take care of each other.

* As always all opinions are my own.

Some Thoughts On "What Does The Boss Want" - 5 Things

1. See things from boss's point of view - yes!

You don't have to drink the Kool-Aid but try to understand their perspective.

2. Communication - yes, qualified. 

Boss wants to know where you are getting stuck. Boss wants status of project. Boss especially wants to know about crises and how you are managing them.

3. Passionate - not so much. 

Boss does not need your passion so much as your absolute motivation and engagement to deliver results against what THEY are passionate about.

4. The stepping stone issue

I take it for granted that any employee is looking to advance and so the key is for employees to align their ambitions with the boss' success. 

For example of you want to be chief editor of the magazine, show how you can get the writing team organized without exercising direct authority. Boss will be happy to let you take on that responsibility - one less thing to worry about - feather in your cap.

That said - the boss is the boss. You should never try to undermine them or steal the limelight.

5. Stay positive even in bad times.

Joel Osteen gave a great sermon today about the woman who said "all is well" even though her son was dead. She was speaking in faith. She believed that G-d could resuscitate him. Believe that the workplace can be revived. Don't spread negativity.

I love these two positive words from those who do work for me:

"Will do."

Saying "will do" shows that you are a loyal soldier. Be a loyal soldier and your boss will help you further your own career down the road, by mentoring you, inviting you to meetings and to join projects, and giving you that critical reference letter.

* All opinions my own.

On Slideshare: "Internal Branding: Does It Improve Employees' Quality Of Life?"

Telling Your Story In A World Of Half-Truths

This week I read a wonderful blog by Penelope Trunk called "How To Tell A Tidy Story Of An Untidy Life." (Google it please, as I am writing this on my mobile.)

She concludes her post, which as always mixes apples-and-oranges self-observations, with this:

"I am still that girl who wants a friend, and a job, and a place that feels safe. That’s my story."

Reading that line brought tears to my eyes. Deep down inside aren't we all the same. It is so simple but how quickly things get complicated, and then later we can't quite put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

This is of course the essential branding question too. Given that...

--we are judged by what people see of our behavior (the partial view, the half-truths)

--we are complex beings

--we play different roles in life

--we evolve over time

--circumstances sometimes force our hand do we explain our personal or corporate brand (mission+values) simply, coherently and compellingly?

On a broader level, how do we give context to the corporate or agency narrative when the world is quick to make judgments? And those judgments can easily become part of reputation,whether true or not?

This is not a small question nor an irrelevant one. In many ways, your reputation is all that you have. Without it nobody will willingly interact with you in any significant way -- because all significant interactions involve trust.

The answer I think is to insist on telling your story a little bit at a time, over an extended period of time. A book will not do it. This is blog material, Tumblr time, YouTube. And even traditional media interviews. 

And you talk when times are both good and bad. You never try to act mistake-free. You emphasize that the journey is to learn.

The point is to show your underlying consistency, even as you may do different things. People do not care whether you have a perfect story. In fact I think the opposite is true, that as the saying goes, "only a cracked vessel lets in the light."

Fine. But if you have no social persona, it can be hard to make clear how your zigs and zags are all part of a master plan.

If you take the time to build a coherent and consistent presence in advance, the result is a personal or corporate brand narrative that makes sense. 

Your brand is an insurance policy. It is there for you when bad headlines strike, because your audience asks, "Is X person or organization really the type to do this?" (Hopefully those headlines are wrong - branding cannot keep the lipstick on a pig.)

No matter who you are, or what you have been through, you have a consistent story. You have journeyed from Point A to Point B. You should not shy away from telling it.
* As always, all opinions my own.

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