Friday, February 28, 2014

Which is Better -- Great Leadership or Great Management?

Image by DonkeyHotey via Flickr

Neither. What you need is a brand. 

But since most people don't think of branding as a business tool, here is the logic in traditional business terms.

The positives:

--With great leadership, the energy around the vision gets people excited. They want to follow the light. The leader is the light. You may not know exactly what things will look like once the vision is realized, but you want to be on the plane that takes you to that faraway place.

--With great management, the natural need of an employee for stability, predictability, order and fairness is supported. You wake up in the morning and you pretty much can plan your day. That's a nice feeling.

The negatives:

--Leaders tend to put their vision ahead of the people who work for them. This is the natural way of a leader. They are cognitively focused on the end state, not on what they think of as "handholding." This can be brutally painful for staff who want very much to be "managed in" to the vision.

--Managers tend to be unimaginative and uncaring about moving the needle. This is also natural. The job of a manager is to keep the trains running on time, not to build a new form of transportation. If the workplace is dominated by managers, employees lack inspiration.

The ideal state of course is one in which leaders and managers not only work together, but have a kind of mind meld about what kind of work they are doing and how it should be done. There is a clear distinction between the role of each, an appreciation for each, and an integration in the daily work flow that makes sense to employees.

A problem arises when leaders and managers are not working in sync, or worse than that, when there are contradictory visions of leadership within which the leader and the manager must operate. This is where the brand becomes extremely important, and communications as a subset of that.

The function of the brand is to organize the workforce around a shared set of principles -- yes, vision, mission and core values -- and to serve as a kind of law enforcement mechanism when those principles are broken.

The organization that looks at branding in a superficial way, like colors and logos and flashy billboards, is missing the point -- and thankfully those days are pretty much over.

But we have still not arrived at a place where branding is "operationalized" the way management consultants would have it done. Ideally the brand is the law of the land - the secular religion of the workplace. Everybody knows what it is, everybody knows what it means, and it takes very little to explain it to a newcomer.

Brands thrive on logic, clarity and simplicity. Therefore, they cannot work well when the workplace is organized around stopgaps, turf battles, or warring personalities. 

Great leadership and great management are part and parcel of every brand. It is only the fool that focuses on technical prowess alone.

* All opinions my own.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Breaking The Coding Glass Ceiling

Computer programming is one of those skills we should all learn from birth. Photo by Graham via Flickr.

In the checkout line today, the cashier made a comment about how her job left her brain-dead.

I said, "In college I was a cashier too. I was so poor I ate Balducci's muffins for breakfast, lunch and dinner."

She said, "I'm an English major, so what can you expect, right?"

"Learn to code," I responded.

She said, "I minored in Japanese."

"Well then, your other choice is to join the CIA."

Personally I don't know how to code. I keep telling myself to learn, but unfortunately I'm too busy blogging.

Seriously, knowing how to code is critical to getting your foot in any door. You may never even use it. But lacking the literacy puts you at a major disadvantage.

For a lot of reasons women avoid learning code. It's the same as financial literacy. We have the vote, we have a checkbook, we have access to education, but it's almost like we shoot ourselves in the foot.

And then we see the price of groceries...or get hit with some other shock, and we wish we had taken the time to learn while we could.

So - learning to code does not make you "a guy." It does make you one very smart cookie.

If you're interested in learning more, these are some online and DC area resources that may be helpful.* 

Note: If anyone wants to sponsor a daytime event or meetup locally, or has expertise they're willing to share with someone in the process of learning, leave a comment. Some of the options available (meetups, free training requiring travel) aren't workable for moms who need to be with the family at night.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

10 Ways To "Think LinkedIn" At Work

The first part of this post deals with the "why" of internal networking, as in why is it important. The second part goes to the "how." 

I. Why To Do It

A. To Do Your Job Better

You wouldn't know it to see me at work, but in truth I am a huge introvert. Mostly I live in my head thinking creative thoughts. The necessity of dealing with other people can actually be painful.

Which may be great for writing. But it's not great for working. Because -- particularly in the knowledge/slash collaboration enterprise -- your value comes not only from what you do, but how well you understand the actual needs of the team and contribute to those.

Notice that I said "actual" -- at work you have to listen with your "third ear" for what is really wanted and needed. For example: 
  • Customer service means identifying areas of frustration that the customer does not express.
  • Project management means getting organized but also knowing the team dynamics, sensing trouble spots and pulling out the right tool. 
  • Environmental awareness means that when you become aware of a job request, you mentally scan the rest of the organization to see if it is really a symptom of something else, someone else's workaround, or a legitimate job in and of itself. 
Think about how pet dogs protect their homes. They sense trouble early and respond vigorously, because they are one with their owners.

That's how you want to be at work. To get there you have to know what's going on, but you also have to know people. 

B. To Prepare For Your Next Job

Nowadays, no person stays in one job, one department, under one boss, for the rest of their lives. But it is possible to rotate jobs in the same organization, or to move up.

That is why it's important to lay the groundwork for future opportunities by making an effort to get out there and meet people who can mentor you, and from whom you can learn.

You can learn more about how you, your job, your department and office are perceived by others. You can learn about what the trends are in the organization, and in the community surrounding it. Some of this can come from your immediate circle, but work groups can fall into groupthink. 

It's good to get the kind of challenging thinking that comes from people at work who have a different agenda, and evaluate that against what you're hearing "at home."

You also want to talk to people who have been there a long time and who have so seen it all that they just say the truth without a filter.

The people you network with can also serve as a reference for you later on.

C. To Build Your Personal Brand

Networking internally also enables you to identify your career strengths and weaknesses. For example, I've learned that I mostly add value as a big picture thinker with sharp insight and a near-total obsession with results.

The way I get to those results is not through special technical knowledge but by finding the people who can solve a problem and getting them into a room. Investing in their development not just using them.

I've learned that I have an unusual Myers-Briggs "P" and "J" combination in that I need to be constantly creative but also have an equally strong need to get stuff done. Nobody can start so many projects and bring them to closure at 100%, and with a staff one has to watch out for burning them out with this kind of tendency.

In general, you have to step back from yourself to understand your skills, but this is impossible to do all the time. The reflection you get back from others at work, if you really pay attention to it, tells you what you should be saying about yourself on your resume, because it's true.

II. How To Do It

There are lots of ways that anybody on the planet who wants to network, can network. I have seen people extremely early in their careers do this. A lot of it comes from confidence, but even if you don't have it naturally you can build up to it over time by acting first, then feeling confident later.

Here are 10 ways to meet folks and to encourage others to meet you:

1. Attend educational events at work - the "lunch 'n' learns"
2. Stay in touch with people you meet in training
3. Get to know your customers, when you work for them on a project
4. Offer to help someone else with a project
5. Join an existing organizational task force
6. Participate in a charitable drive or special heritage day event
7. Simply introduce yourself 
8. Reach out to someone with a good reputation for a certain skill, and ask for a meeting
9. Do an on-the-job training detail for part of the time 
10. Offer internal training on a subject you feel very comfortable with

Networking is what it's all about nowadays. You don't only have to do this on LinkedIn. The connections you need are very often right under your nose.

* All opinions my own.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

First, Fire All The A*******s

Photo via Flickr by daveynin

Yes, really, let's just call them what they are, OK? 

Like skunks, you can spot them by their distinctive white stripe, combining:
  • Sociopathic lack of feeling for others but exaggerated feeling for oneself
  • Actual or convincing technical skills
  • Chameleon-like ability to blend in anywhere
  • Mastery of suckup-ness
  • Advanced sense of entitlement
These people pretend to be a huge advantage for the organization, but in fact they come at quite a cost, because people know they're "trouble" and avoid them like the plague, leading to:
  • Workarounds, meaning loss of time - it takes twice as long to get stuff done
  • Duplication of effort, meaning loss of money - because people stay away from this person, but they both need to do the same thing
  • Demoralization, meaning loss of staff either physically (they quit and take institutional knowledge with them) or emotionally (they check out and act like drones).
  • Chaotic, inefficient systems, meaning inefficiency on the ground. This is because the toxic team member is not only non-collaborative, but actually is willing to throw anybody under the bus in order to advance themselves. The result is a "Wild West" where it's "every man for himself" (or woman for herself) -- e.g. a tangled web of operational functions, branding decisions, IT architecture, on and on
  • Lack of strategic direction, meaning actual organizational failure to achieve its objectives. As a leader, the person serves only herself or himself, and so decisions are made based on personal criteria, not rational objective ones what would actually move everybody forward.
We were watching this scene on Game of Thrones last night. The head warrior is telling a follower how he got the seven clans in the army to get along, since A hates B, B hates C, C hates D, and everybody gangs up on E. 

"Unless we get south, we are gonna die, and everybody knows it." 

There's no time for playing games, no time for hating on each other and promoting ourselves.

Shortly thereafter, one of the guys trudging along fell down in the snow. He was very overweight, and his friends came back to help him.

Someone in the group, seeing the delays, says, "Leave him here. He's too fat. We can't afford this."

Immediately that person is told, "Now you're responsible for his welfare. If he doesn't make it, I promise, neither will you."

A successful organization cannot tolerate excessively self-interested sociopaths. It doesn't matter how smart they are, how much experience they have, or how well they seem to play with others. 

On the radio today, Ryan Seacrest was talking about this Swedish band, "NONONO," which has this really great song out, "Pumpin Blood." Seacrest explained the meaning of the name, according to the band: It's about rejecting everything negative in life. 

If we want our organizations pulsating with life, we have got to eliminate the human toxins who grind everyone else's energy into dust.

* All opinions my own.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Management By Listening

Photo via Flickr by Leonard John Matthews

Your entire job as a manager is to listen. Your entire job.

The reason you listen is to find out what is really going on, sufficiently that you can repeat it back as if you were expressing those very same sentiments.

The purpose of listening is not to solve problems other people can solve. 

The purpose of listening is not to do therapy. 

It's not a schmooze-fest.

Managers listen to improve productivity. Where are people wasting time, or duplicating effort? Why are they working that way, when there is another way so much easier? 

Why are they taking those assignments, when they're outside of scope?

What is happening at all those theater-stadium meetings, that take up so much of everyone's time?

Who is feeling frustrated, disempowered, blocked from doing what you're paying them to do?

What are the interpersonal conflicts?

People, and relationships, are not a small thing at work. They are huge.

You listen to improve the quality of relationships on the team.

You listen to monitor and improve employee satisfaction.

Listening is a big job. You cannot rely on what limited sources tell you. You cannot rely on email. You cannot rely on the people who make you feel most comfortable.

Yes, it is true that your job has other components. Decision-making. Trend-scanning. Strategy-setting. Project work. Administrivia.

But your job as a manager has only one key performance indicator: the quantity and quality of your listening skills.

Which you then reflect back to staff, colleagues, boss, and customers inside and outside the enterprise.

And leverage for exponentially better results than anyone ever thought possible.

Which, in the big picture, is what your job is all about.

* All opinions my own.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

5 Reasons Your Change Communication Plan Sucks

Photo by filedump via Flickr

1) You're Perceived As Out-Of-Touch.

Most people aren't executives, yet executives are the one doing the change communication. That's why, other than the CEO, mostly non-executives should be doing the explaining. The change team should be working privately to coordinate what gets said and how.

2) You Tolerate Infighting & Turf Wars Among The Executive Team

The older you get, the higher on the career ladder, the more mature, right? Wrong! No way! Completely no way! It is really eye-opening how people earning in the six figures and more tend to act like six-year-olds fighting over the last scoop of ice cream. What's funny, and sad, is that they think other people don't see it. Believe me, they see it. And when executives are not unified, the message is not unified, and the staff ignores all of it.

3) You Ask For Opinions When It's Too Late To Change Anything, Or You Don't Really Care What People Think In The First Place

Once you're about to deploy a change effort, you don't really want anyone's opinion, right? Because you're not going to change anything. So don't ask. 

I remember once passing by an office where an executive was crafting an e-mail to employees. The email ended, "If you have any questions or want to share feedback, contact X." The executive was laughing out loud about what would happen to those responsive emails - nothing. 

4) You Can't Tolerate Passionate Critics

Guess what people? It's 2014...not everyone agrees with you! And they may work for you, or not work for you. Those people are often influencers. Sometimes they have a certain bias against you from the very start, but that doesn't have to get in the way. A great article on this is "How to Get an MBA from Eminem," by James Altucher (hat tip to the staff member who shared it with me).

5) You Don't Listen To The Experts

Aren't you paying people to help you with change, organizational development, human capital, and internal communications? You're paying them a lot of money, right? So why do you hire them, and then overrule everything they say? Believe it or not - they actually went to school to learn this stuff. And there are volumes of books, articles, and case studies that apply to your situation. Trust your staff.

Change is a natural part of life, nobody likes change, and we all have to learn to flow with it. But getting out of your own way is the first step to getting it right. 

* All opinions my own.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Workplace Bullying Is A Form Of Domestic Violence, Counsel Victims Accordingly

Photo by Corey Seeman via Flickr

The Workplace Bullying Institute has a wealth of resources online for anyone interested in studying the phenomenon of workplace bullying, or advocating on behalf of victims.

And we need to advocate for them. Because people who are currently in the process of being bullied at work are suffering on so many levels, it's not realistic to ask them to fight back right then and there.

Just like when someone is getting beat up at home, you don't tell them to put up their dukes while they are still in the same home as the abuser. And under their control.

WBI notes that there are three parallels between workplace bullying and domestic violence:

1. The motive is control and domination, and nothing else. It's not about work, it's not about love. It is about treating a human being like a plaything, a thing. Dehumanization.

2. Surrounding parties tend to stay away from the situation, especially if they don't personally see anything that can be directly and exactly classified as abuse. Not my business, they can handle it, she or he couldn't possibly do that or allow themselves to be treated that way.

3. The surrounding institutions (workplace, police) avoid responsibility if they can. They say there's nothing we can do, it's up to the victim to report it, etc.

Workplace bullying exacts a devastating toll on people. I've been bullied at work, and it killed my self esteem for a long time. It was horrible. But like most things in life, it's a very complicated animal and simply "going after" the perpetrator doesn't get you anywhere. Unless they did something absolutely visible and insane, the system will most likely cover for them; it will not advocate for you.

And while we're talking about this, let's blow up that stereotype that abusers are men, and victims are women; either gender can play either role.

I do think we should get the bullies out of the workplace, just like they shouldn't be at home. But the most important thing is that the victims of these sadists survive -- professionally and personally -- long enough to fight back later on.

* All opinions my own.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

10 Things The Government Must Come To See About Itself

Photo by haglundc via Flickr

My older daughter is taking a class called Visual Rhetoric. This is a fancy way of saying that photos can be interpreted differently, depending on the perspective you bring.

I was in the new Safeway Saturday night, the one by the mall. They have a health checking machine that gives you an eye test.

I got a lot of the test wrong. 

Or, to be scientifically more accurate, I'm myopic in at least one eye. (I don't know which one, because I held up my hand to my face just the way the avatar showed me to...except now I'm not sure if I should have held up the opposite hand, or the one on the same side.)

Either way, I can't see right, at least not totally.

In real life I tend to have the same problem. Things that are far away from me, that I don't care about, I can analyze to a T. I can tell you how J.C. Penney should reorganize, or how the Kardashians can reinvigorate their brand. I can deconstruct the federal government.

But things very close to me, feelings and people and relationships, I tend to mess up because I cannot be objective. 

And my own feelings, pfah! I have given up any hope of insight.

The government -- specifically, the civil service in the United States -- is very much the same way. It's broken, so very broken in many ways. And the people inside the government know that. But once you are on the inside, the closer you get and the higher you go, the harder it is to really see it, especially if you're in a particular agency.

People outside the government, who study us, can be thought of as opthalmologists. All they do all day is check our eyesight, and they are trying to give us glasses.

Not to take away our power. To help us to see.

At this point, an important distinction. Two kinds of groups (academics, nonprofits, etc.) study government:

* Some study a discipline that a particular government agency carries out - for example secure borders, trade, foreign assistance, and so on.

* Others study government as a discipline in and of itself - a discipline in its own right.

It is the second group that I am concerned with. Why do we not leverage the insights they give us so routinely?

Here are just a few examples from the Partnership for Public Service's August 2013 study, "Building the Enterprise: Nine Strategies for a More Integrated, Effective Government."

1. The concept of an enterprise-wide approach to the federal government. This doesn't mean creating a central "blob" for every mission function, like a central hub. It does mean thinking in a unified way. Why must their be so much customization, such a proliferation of offices and programs and systems for items that are essentially offering the same thing? Let's face it - HR is HR and it should be handled consistently.

2. The concept of building a leadership cadre capable of moving a program portfolio forward. The distinction here is between leaders who move their agenda forward, and leaders who move the enterprise forward. We are all familiar with leaders who come into an Agency with a certain philosophy and approach, and they are very effective at implementing that - with the unfortunate consequence that anyone who doesn't agree, doesn't believe, or isn't part of the "thing" just waits it out until the next Administration. Leaders have to go a level higher.

3. The concept of an independent evaluation office that assesses various federal agencies' performance. Without independent, public evaluation there is no accountability. Instead, we get reams of paper with masses of numbers touting activity after activity, with no clear linkage between activity and result. A lot of people thrash around while they're drowning - that is activity too.

4. Management of information technology as a governmentwide resource. If IT investments were viewed from a governmentwide perspective rather than on a case-by-case, agency-by-agency basis this would no doubt bring greater scrutiny on individualized spending and result in cross-cutting savings. I am always amazed at the reasoning that certain investments and systems are "obviously" needed when commercial off the shelf software can do much the same thing and with little or no customization required.

More important though than specific recommendations is the approach we take to a thing, because our approach dictates the behaviors that follow. Deloitte University Press recently came out with a study, also in August 2013, "The New Government Leader: Mobilizing Agile Public Leadership In Disruptive Times," that highlighted 6 areas of necessary improvement* -- I agree with all of the below 100%.

1. Siloed thinking. What government needs now is "agile integration," which "recognizes the complexities and interdependencies of public, private, and nonprofit missions." Essentially - leaders bring related people and organizations with common cause together, even if they don't do exactly the same thing.

2. Needing all the answers first before speaking. Rather, government should adopt "quiet transparency," that is to dialogue with various audiences without having all the information first, and to adapt while working in public view. It's not about being the first or loudest, but it is about being out there with nothing to hide.

3. Lack of digital networking skill.  It is really high time to use "digital aikido," i.e. to be present on social networks, listen to the conversation, and respond to what is being said. Rather than to observe dumbly, or to put out feel-good propaganda that only makes one's credibility worse.

4. Failure to think broadly to anticipate opportunities and threats. Government thinkers tend to focus narrowly on a particular mission, discipline or subject rather than to look broadly, doing "horizon scanning...across disciplines and environments and test-ing assumptions about current and future trends." This requires a creative combination of educated guessing (even "contradictory hypothesizing), questioning, and so on as a means to aid inquiry.

5. Insistence on full-scale rollouts. In today's day and age it is much smarter and more efficient to use "rapid prototyping," i.e. small pilots where you can benefit from a small-scale launch and adapt the product or system to arrive at the one that is most useful. The idea is to constantly test and question rather than invest a lot of time and money in a potentially hulking, mammoth failure.

6. Conformism. Leadership in government requires "rebel rousing," not more vanilla ice cream sandwiches off the assembly line. "Contrarians" who operate in the interest of the government save a tremendous amount of time and resources because they bring to light problems before they turn into disasters.

*  I was one of the interviewees for the Deloitte study. No endorsement of any party mentioned in this blog is expressed or implied. All opinions my own.

Snobbery = Insecurity In Disguise

When I was a little girl I remember learning to read on Cinderella. I stumbled over the syllables, and as I grew to understand them, got angry on Cinderella's behalf. Why should she be scrubbing floors while her evil step-sisters mistreated her?

On a superficial level, the book was about the jealousy that ugly people feel towards the fair. (Ugliness is represented as physical ugliness, which isn't fair.) But more deeply it is about how bad people try to keep good people down.

You can see this everywhere in life, any time you have a group of people getting together. Where there are people, there is always negative rivalry, and hatred of the gifted by those less so. This is a universal truth.

What is less universally known is that hatred frequently takes the form of snobbery. The hater presents their opinion as an axiomatic fact, knowing that the recipient's reasoning is equally as valid - or perhaps even superior.
  • It happens in families, which are supposed to be about nurturing kids.
  • It happens in schools, which are supposed to be about training young minds.
  • It happens in business, which we know already.
  • It happens in religion -- even in the most hallowed halls of the most seemingly spiritual places on earth -- this fact can be particularly upsetting.
  • It happens in higher education, which is supposed to be about advancing the collective knowledge of the human race.
  • It happens in politics and the civil service, which are supposed to be about serving people.
Snobbery is not in fact the assertion of superiority by A over B. Rather, it is a fearful power play.

Someone is weak, and they are trying to hold on to turf.

The way to end it?

Just call it what it is.

* All opinions my own.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Barbie Dolls? Or Blue Ribbons?

Strategy Is Life from Dannielle Blumenthal

Leaders are constantly saying that "people are our most valuable asset."

But if you look at where most leaders spend their time, it isn't on mentoring people.

Rather they are looking at strategy. Formally and informally, planning how to get to goal. Setting out the big ideas and the major methods. Adjusting, adjusting, adjusting along the way.

For organizations, strategy is life - it is all-important - because it gets us out of a very dangerous realm: people for people's sake.

In this kind of model, people have forgotten that the outside world places any kind of demand on the organization - on them, personally.

Caught up in the "bubble" that is the day-to-day functioning of the organization, they forget the outside world and focus instead on "getting along." Shushing conflict, indulging quirks and whims, soothing ruffled feathers.

Soon enough we are back in high school - and the popular kids rule.

Strategic focus gets us out of the cult of personality.

Do we really want organizations full of Kens and Barbies?

I'd rather we achieve Blue Ribbon status.

* All opinions my own.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Outsiders & Inbreeders: A Marriage Of Necessity

They're both right, of course.

At the one extreme, the outsider sees the organization as a sum of component parts. S/he isolates and evaluates the value of those parts against a desired framework. 

For example:

--The "big data" specialist asks: Given the people, processes and technologies in place right now, how do we synthesize and analyze it so as to arrive at useful insight on demand?

--The marketing specialist looks at these same elements and asks, where is the unified narrative we can call an identity? How can we make it comparable to or distinct from other entities claiming to do the same?

--The human capital specialist studies the place and wonders, how we can make the most of the talent that is there - to make people most productive?

These filters are like different kinds of eyeglasses the outsider wears. None of them are right or wrong. It's just a matter of knowing when you need sunglasses, bifocals or 3-D.

Of course the head of the organization should integrate all the above and more -- budget, facilities, contracting, and so on  -- and be able to wear one or multiple hats as needed. 

In short, leaders and experts employed by the organization must be able to think like outsiders.

On the other hand.

Inside the organization there is a built-up well of culture that is normally impenetrable to the outside. 

Once within the castle's walls, sure you can learn pretty fast what to say and how to say it so as to "pass" as one of the group.

But it is only through an extended period of immersion that you really become an insider.

And the more time you spend in the confines of the culture, the more you socialize with others inside it, the more your mental models are shaped by its axioms and priorities, the deeper you go.

At some point you may only hang out with people from the inside. Which would make you an inbreeder.

Outsiders and inbreeders typically dislike one another, or at least have a healthy disrespect for what the other represents:

--To the inbreeder the outsider lacks character (loyalty) and brains (intellectual depth).

--To the outsider the inbreeder lacks character (judgmental) and brains (provincial).

But the only way an organization can move forward, especially during times of external disruptive change, is for the inbreeders and outsiders to form an alliance.

--The inbreeder admits that they don't know all there is to know in the world and that at least some people "grown" outside the community can be trusted to help them.  

--The outsider admits that a certain amount of "inside baseball" is critical to knowing how to actually do any work on the ground.

The outsider is the anthropologist. The inbreeder is the tribe.

As long as the outsider acts in good faith, and the inbreeder provides a supportive environment for the outsider to acclimate,  the "marriage" can work very well.

The product is ideally a next-generation version of the original organization. One that has shed its worst failings, adopted new features that promote its mission, and reinforced its protection against destructive outside (and inside) forces.

Every ecosystem has its mutant tulips. The trick is to remember that their perspectives are often key.

*All opinions my own. Photo by Steven Begin via Flickr:

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Toss the Bad Apples, Save the Strategy

My daughter had a school assignment where she had to write conflict. The ending was not working. I said, "Where's the struggle? That's what the audience wants to see."

In a healthy organizational culture, people struggle every day toward a clearly envisioned result.

In an unhealthy culture, nobody knows what the destination is. 

Because every sign points to somewhere else.

Photo source here.

Faulty strategy is not usually the problem. Our desks are littered with analyses, most of them sound.

The root of the problem is toxic people, who get in the way of a real struggle to move things forward. Generally these fall into three categories:

* Fearful. Scared of making a mistake, scared of looking bad, scared of other people who are scared, their philosophy can be summarized as "Better to be silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt." They always need to put on a good front.

* Power-hungry. These people want to be in charge, and they think that if they talk about problems it makes them look weak. Weakness is not acceptable in their world. They don't talk about issues unless it somehow helps them to get to the next level - i.e. they're all too willing to get someone else into trouble if it moves them up the ladder. They operate in secrecy.

* Lone Rangers. These people don't trust that anybody else understands what needs to get done, or they believe that others tend to be incompetent. They would much rather go it alone, and if they admit problems to you, then they know you're going to mess up their stuff. So they pursue what they think is right, but in a manner that's closed off to the world.

All of these people may have good reasons for acting as they do. But the problem is that we don't work in a vaccuum. Other people don't believe what you say, they watch what you do. And when they see the group pursuing an agenda that seems scattered, isolated, confused or uncoordinated, they ultimately are left to figure out what to do on their own.

No great strategy can survive leaders who act like cowboys, who seek power for power's sake, who live their lives hiding under the bed. Strategy requires leadership based on trust:
  • The constant flow of communication, before, during and after a crisis.
  • Honest, meaningful communication.
  • Timely admission of mistakes.
  • Use of mistakes as a learning opportunity.
  • Use of oneself as an example.
If you want to know why a strategy is going badly, look for the bad apples who are spoiling the bunch. It is usually their behavior, not a lack of intellectual analysis, that's getting in the way.

* All opinions my own.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Chirpy Communications & The Orwellian Enterprise

One time, in a foul mood, I yelled at my daughter as we were getting in the car after grocery shopping.

And then, when I had calmed down, I was prepared to forget the whole thing. Except I couldn't cook up any "spin" for dinner.

She had put on her iPhone and taped me ranting. 

Now, let's say my daughter was an employee of mine, and I had to figure out what to do about it from a corporate communications point of view. Not able to ignore it, I might come up with a snooze-worthy version for the newsletter that reads something like this:

"Complex and sensitive subjects are no barrier to parent-child closeness in the Blumenthal home."

Or I could get more daring, more first-person and say,

"We had a slight generational conflict in the car." 

Yawn, yawn, yawn.

Let's say my daughter were to suggest actually playing the viral video, over and over on the TV monitors in the lobby near the front hall.

There I'd be, in the parking lot, all haggard from an hour of shopping in a maze of aisles. Fed up, and a little bit cranky. At the slightest provocation, yelling,

"Blah blah blah blah blah." (Insert whatever parents say when they're ranting for no good reason.)

Staff would pass by that monitor and go,

"Wow, I can't believe it. Blumenthal. Isn't she an executive or something? Goodness gracious."

Knowing that, what should I do? Me, the corporate parent?

Let's be honest. I, like 99% of executives, would never see it as any sort of opportunity - I might even think that video could be used as blackmail!

Even though it could be helpful to talk about how to handle conflict in a better way, and to use myself as an example.

No matter what it says in the cool articles in Fast Company, most executives are not gonna get onstage in hoodies and brag about yelling. Communications are supposed to make us look good, not bad - right? ("Why give them ammo?")

Thus the majority model of corporate communication remains "chirpy." Like a bird, it sings a beautiful song, but there's little of any meaning behind the melody.

Phony talk accompanies the Orwellian mindset in which not only are people supposed to go along with the mold, they're supposed to change their thinking so that they actually believe what they're reading has meaning.

The organizational dynamic works something like this:
  • Designated "shamers" - people with power - keep people in line, formally and informally. They use nice techniques (happy, pretty, glossy brochures) and not-nice techniques (marginalizing, punishing, even firing) to spray "fumes" at those who threaten to mess up the narrative.
  • Some people understand the lack of transparency, and some of those people may speak up, but most get tired of resisting the system after awhile and stop trying. They tune out. (They see the bland corporate newsletter but they don't even see it anymore.)
  • Leaders see that "most people are just fine" and are fearful of "upsetting the applecart" even if they sense that communication is not all that helpful or compelling. 
  • The combination of leader reticence and popular tiredness changes the collective consciousness. People consciously manage their dress, demeanor, etc. so as to fit in and subconsciously manage their thinking. They know that in a toxic culture, where honest conflict cannot be aired, to betray even a hint of disagreement is a mark of disloyalty, so they curl up into a ball.
  • The result is a culture of robots, and we wonder why "nobody is engaged" or "why there are no good new ideas around here."

Occasionally we hear about a mistake of the "hot mic" - when a leader says what they really think. I don't mind those mistakes so much. I actually prefer them to the rehearsed appearances that most leaders do.
When it comes to communications, I think most people agree. Give people more of the real deal and less of the phony grin. Chances are, they'll love you for it. Because everybody appreciates a leader who opens minds, rather than closing doors.
* All opinions my own.

Dylan Farrow's Suffering Will Help Bring Darkness To Light, L.A. Times

I was dismayed to read Robin Abcarian's article about Dylan Farrow's public accusations against Woody Allen.

She blames New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof for the public resurrection of the charges, which -- it should be emphasized -- never were proven in court.

However it should also be emphasized that sexual predators of 7-year-olds rarely get prosecuted.

Also that child victims overwhelmingly keep quiet rather than "make this stuff up."

Finally that it is implausible at best to believe a mother can "coach" a nearly 30 year old to spend a lifetime being traumatized.

Sadly, victims are disbelieved until they are believed, while alleged perpetrators enjoy the opposite privilege.

It is not surprising that a writer at the LA Times -- situated as it is in the home of fantasy, exploitation and image -- regrets the indelicate nature of all these allegations and counter-allegations.

After all they spoil the illusion that is Woody Allen. The one Diane Keaton tried so hard to maintain at the Golden Globes.

Woody Allen the filmmaker has given the world a rare and precious gift. (Even though one could psychoanalyze his portrayal of women in film...the feminists who are too neurotic to love, the underage girls who are overly mature, the evil ex-wife who must suffer.)

But Woody Allen the person has left some real human wreckage in his path. Whether or not the accusation of sexual abuse is true (and there are those who make intelligent arguments against it) he clearly way violated appropriate adult-child sexual bounds (though he didn't think so) by marrying his adoptive daughter, Soon-Yi.

We were not at the house that day with Dylan, in the attic.

But too many children unfortunately are, and in the age of rampant human trafficking, continue to be.

I believe Dylan Farrow 100 percent. And I urge other survivors, past and present, to come forward.

More importantly I urge their families and friends: If you see something, say something to somebody immediately.

No child should ever have to sleep in their parent's bed.

* All opinions my own. Photo by me.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Linking Brand To Business: USAID's New Mission Statement

It was great for me to hear that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) had finally come out with its new mission statement and core values. It's a project I helped launch and worked intensely on throughout the research phase last year.

Here's the mission, which is almost lyrical. Truly, it is so simple and beautiful and accurate:

Source: USAID website

At Devex, Michael Igoe analyzes the mission statement and its implications fairly accurately. He revisits what he calls the old statement:
“On behalf of the American people, USAID is helping to accelerate human progress around the world by reducing poverty, advancing democracy, empowering women, building market economies, promoting security, responding to crises, and improving the quality of life through investments in health, agriculture, and education.”
As I recall there were several old statements, none of them recognized as the "real" old one. That is why, when we renovated the website, the mission statement was an issue. Nobody was sure what to put there. 

I do know that one was the worst of them. We referred to it as "#2," i.e. #2 out of 3 when we went around the room talking about possibilities. I remember that I wrote something up early on and we used it as a baseline. 

That project was delightful for me, because it was branding, organizational development, management, leadership and business all rolled into one real-life seminar. There could not have been a better way to learn on the job.

Success Factors

At the time I wanted to write down all the things we were doing, because I could feel that they would one day be a case study. Now that it's done, I will share briefly the elements that I believe made it work:
  • Head of the agency was 100% behind it as a business objective - i.e. it wasn't just fluffy words. It was clear that having a focused, simple, clear reason for being would help people commit and recommit to the job and would help when it came to allocating resources. It would also serve as an ongoing rallying point for leadership, a central and aligning theme.
  • It was spearheaded by a seasoned, about-to-retire executive who was respected throughout the Agency. Being about to retire, he posed no threat to anyone. Being extremely experienced, he had street cred -- not some overpaid outside consultant who would be perceived as being out to make a quick buck. Low-key, diplomatic, an asker of questions - who wrote down and remembered what people said in response. An incredible recall of that information. Friends in the Agency, everywhere.
  • A deliberate qualitative methodology that seemed spontaneous, but was repeated over and over again. It was really the executive's approach, and he refined it but also stuck with the formula - giving people pre-reading, inviting them with a distinctive email font (blue comic sans), having them comment on simple documents while they were there, dividing the session into short digestible highly interactive bits. Keeping the group small.
  • There was a sense of urgency about it. USAID is a small agency, with many different kinds of people who work there, multiple generations, and many different sub-missions. It was critical to get matters in hand and get everybody singing from the same song sheet. Or even to know what song they were singing.
  • Total empowerment of me and very clear role definition for my part in the project. I know what I do well, and that is to quietly use technology to bust open the walls. I didn't try to mouth off about branding theory or facilitate the discussion because those are not my strong points. Rather, I took out my computer and typed exactly what the people in the focus groups said and transplanted those words to Google docs parked on a simple but wide-open (internally) collaboration site. Without this executive's support, I would never have been able to get away with this kind of a plan.
  • Quiet grassroots operation, not a big microphone. We didn't make a big thing of sending daily updates announcing this focus group and that. We started with one, and then another, and then another. We posted one set of transcripts, asked for comments, posted the next. An email was sent back and forth. Shhh.
  • Total honesty was asked for and accepted. To get to a mission statement and core values set that means something you have to talk about people's honest feelings. Honesty often means negativity, frustration, even anger. People invest their whole lives in one Agency. They give up other careers. They want it all to mean something. That honesty was respected as far as I could tell. (Who knows, maybe someone got beat up when they got back to the office and their boss saw what was on the collaboration site...I don't know. But it didn't seem like it.)
  • The presence of Google Apps, with Sites and Docs included. The setup was very simple. It made it easy to collaborate in a way that was seamless and user-friendly.
  • A fairly brand-savvy crowd. It wasn't really necessary to educate people about what a mission statement and core values were or why they were important. They walked in knowing, like mini-consultants themselves, and there had already been previous branding, mission statement and core values efforts in the Agency.
Of course a statement is just a statement and words on paper can mean nothing if your actions contradict them. 

Business Alignment

So, as the Devex article points out, USAID is doing more to align its actual programming against its stated mission and prioritize - looking for activities that produce results in the most-needed areas and focusing on those. 

Specifically, the Agency is using an Administrator's Leadership Council to guide decision making. Branding professionals will recognize this as a classic Brand Council, which is really a business management council, although Agency folks tend to think of the word "brand" as strictly meaning a logo.

The ALC is supported in its decision-making by an "open-access, internal database to catalogue all of USAID’s various initiatives in a way that tracks their respective contributions to a common set of extreme poverty-related goals to help determine where funding can be most effective."

Core Values

I don't want to neglect these. They were deliberately chosen as words, followed by bullets that elaborate as to what they mean (the below is copied verbatim except I added numbers):

1. Passion for Mission
  • We come to work to foster sustainable development and advance human dignity globally.
  • We each contribute uniquely in advancing our mission, whether by working in different sectors or by supporting global operations and management.
2. Excellence
  • We strive for efficiency, effectiveness, and meaningful results across our work.
  • We aspire to lead international and US Government efforts to advance the economic, political, social, and environmental well-being of the world’s most vulnerable people.
  • We continually seek to improve our operations and increase our impact.
  • We take pride in our work and our accomplishments.
3. Integrity
  • We are honest and transparent, accountable for our efforts, and maintain a consistently high moral standard.
  • We are ethical in all that we do.
  • We are fair with colleagues, partners, and those we serve, building relationships of trust.
4. Respect
  • We demonstrate respect for one another, our partners, and the people we serve in communities around the world.
  • We recognize and acknowledge the strength that comes from diversity.
  • We value all people equally and treat others as we would like to be treated.
  • We consistently demonstrate professionalism and respect in our communications and in our behavior.
5. Empowerment
  • We elevate all voices striving for global economic, environmental, and social progress.
  • We seek to ensure that all voices are heard.
  • We strive to strengthen the voices of the marginalized and vulnerable.
  • We value every team member and seek to ensure everyone can fulfill their potential.
6. Inclusion
  • We value our differences and draw strength from diversity.
  • We support programs that engage people across societies and benefit whole communities and countries.
  • We value every member of our team, learn from their experience, and foster their active engagement.
  • We advance equality, foster equal opportunity and address inequality within our Agency and in our work.
7. Commitment to Learning
  • We seek to improve ourselves and our work continually through reflection and evaluation.
  • We design and assess programs with an eye towards constant improvement.
  • We recognize that professional development is fundamental to team satisfaction and success.
Branding Is A Business Activity

USAID offers a case study on how to approach branding initiatives: See them as management activities that begin with employees and end with data.
  • Engage employees in focusing the brand
  • Distill that into mission and values
  • Funnel that up to a leadership team that administers the affairs of the organization
  • Establish a database that can be used by the leadership team as a basis for objective decision making. It helps answer the question: Given the things that are most important to us to do -- and given all the activities we're engaging in and their return on investment -- which should we continue to fund?
Communication is very serious - not something to be manipulated or treated as insignificant. While no person and no Agency is perfect, everyone can learn from the example USAID is setting about the connection between identity, communication, collaboration, decision-making, and an orientation towards results.

And I can honestly say that from what I observed during my time there, everything in the mission and core values reflects genuine reality as well as the Agency's intentions and aspirations. 

* All opinions my own.

That's What Feds Are For

Most people think of the federal government as a nameless faceless bureaucracy, and it often can be.

But federal employees are not the same as the buildings they work in.

Feds as a rule are very motivated to help. A few years ago a family member up North told me about someone who helped her son get his passport on time to he could make his trip overseas. 

The employee went above and beyond just explaining - the person literally took him through the process.

It is routine for my staff to spend hours researching a single inquiry from the public. It's not just because it's their job. It's because they actually care, maybe too much.

Federal workers have made our family celebrations happier, and our more painful times more bearable. They have generously welcomed us into their homes, and offered advice and a professional support network that people outside mostly never get to see.

They have even helped me heat up blocks of frozen kugels on a moment's notice. 

I remember serving on the annual charity drive with federal friends, and how one person spent her entire weekend prepping at work for a Monday bake sale - and took the entire family with her.

There are so many stories I could share. But that is not really the point.

Before you judge the federal worker, get to know what they really do, and talk to those who have interacted with them.

* All opinions my own. Photo by Roy Blumenthal (no relation) via Wikimedia/Flickr.