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Pat Benatar & "The Survivor's Club"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* All opinions my own.

One Team, One Principle, One Fight, One Brand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* All opinions my own.

What Is A Brand, If Not Your Logo?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* All opinions my own.

The Thought Police...They Live Inside Of My Head

The difference between diplomacy and political correctness?

A diplomat thinks freely, but chooses their words carefully.

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

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

The diplomat is a strategic communicator.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* All opinions my own.

The Bad Advice Feds Get About Branding

The best advice is simple advice:

To build a great brand, oversimplify the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Put another way, your brand is:

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

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

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

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

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

As follows:

Obstacle #1: Technical bias

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

Obstacle #2: Legal bias

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

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

Obstacle #3: Humility Bias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* All opinions my own.

Healing Time

How does your family handle fighting?

When I was growing up we used to not speak to each other for days at a time, even weeks. That's right, not speak.

We would argue, hash it out, and then you'd think it would be over. But no. The fight would hang on in the air, forever it seemed, until we had all forgotten about it and moved on.

Conflict never feels good. Emotional conflict hurts as badly as a fistfight, maybe worse. There is literally no way to rip that pain out of your gut.

Organizations are like families on a hugely compounded scale. They are comprised of individuals, who walk in self-protective tribes, organized in units, cross-pollinating with other folks like-minded and less so. 

In a sense we are ecosystems, and at times we collide with one another like atoms as we bounce around the walls. There's no avoiding it.

But there are ways to handle conflict that are more mature than my family of origin. Over time I am learning them. They feel unfamiliar, like I'm walking around in a different country. I like what I see, but I'm scared nevertheless, just because it is such a change.

One of these ways, strange as it sounds, is to create a kind of mental space in your head where you are prepared for the fact that conflict will occur. And you will accept that it is there, and it is real, and you will not run from it. 

Sometimes it is the discomfort of not wanting to fight, that makes the anxiety around conflict even harder. 

When you have that piece of real estate -- I suppose we can call it mental peace -- you walk into the room more sedate and centered. And when stuff comes up, you might even find the capacity to look around the room, look at the others who are feeling that same conflict in that very same moment, and actually laugh. In relief. 

Goodness gracious: We "cried!" And nobody died!

It's a good feeling when conflict stays good. It's a better way to live your life.

* All opinions my own.

Gathering The Courage To Speak Your Truth

Someone once told me that she used to speak to her dolls growing up.

"Every time I opened my mouth, they told me to shut up," she said of her family. "I knew that my dolls would listen to me at the very least."

I remember how amazing it was to watch Oprah on TV. In my home, my school, my little community we did not talk openly about anything controversial. If there was a problem, the response was "shhh."

But Oprah was the most courageous human being I had ever seen. She actually was able to talk about it. Her pain, the pain of others...she got the world to open up and realize that emotions are real and that the pain waits for you.

I remember her saying that over and over. You can run, you can hide, you can deny, but the pain waits. You have to deal with it.

In graduate school and beyond I studied the pain of the organization. I really liked marketing a lot, in fact I love branding as many of you who know me know. But I kept on getting dragged into organizational behavior, dynamics, employee communication and the reasons for the lack thereof.

Here is what I learned.

People are not hard to reach. They spend many hours at work, they bring their brains and bodies to the effort, and they have opinions they want to share. If the organization can tolerate an extended adjustment curve -- based on my experience, at least 3-5 years -- there is a very good chance that a new norm can take hold.

The social media expert Shel Holtz once gave federal communicators a great piece of advice about engagement. He said this in a training session I attended:

"Always go as far as you can and then stop and explain you can go no farther."

Every shred of evidence I have accumulated on credibility suggests that Holtz's advice was accurate.

We are living in a new age of transparency and openness, whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, whether it feels good or not.

When we speak our truth with courage, within the limits of professional courtesy and appropriateness, we are serving the community. 

I hope to always do that, because it's what gives my career meaning.

* As usual all opinions are my own.

They're Just Not That Into You (The Employees, That Is)

Image of "He's Just Not That Into You" movie poster via Your Entertainment Now

Coinciding with my umpteenth viewing of He's Just Not That Into You, I watched the episode of Sex and the City where Carrie and Jack Berger break up.

It is a little-known fact that Berger, in character, is the driving force behind that movie. On one of the episodes of SATC, Carrie's friend Miranda asks for a post-date analysis. Jack says simply:

"He's just not that into you."

The remark spurred a self-help book that then spurred the movie.

It's an odd thing. Hollywood characters spend endless amounts of time deconstructing their actual and potential love interests. They try different things to see what works, dropping behaviors that don't work and adopting new ones. This is the entire premise of both the movie and the TV show.

But in real life, companies don't have this attitude toward their employees - at least not yet.

They say that employee morale is important, but only AFTER the real work of the organization has been done.

As part of a training module I recently saw a video clip from Dave Taylor, a leadership consultant and author. He said,

"Employees aren't are greatest asset. They are our only asset."

If employees were our only asset we would treat them better. We would spend more time thinking about what it is that they want and need to be successful. We would ask them for input before we do things. We would fire people who treat them badly. We would train them to be be successful within the organization and help them find jobs elsewhere if they can't contribute where they are.

Employee morale is not a stagnant abstract thing sitting somewhere "out there" in space. You can't command the executives to improve it.

Rather it is in the heart. It is a kind of marriage in the workplace, between each individual person and the whole of the culture that the leadership has institutionalized.

Just like you can't ignore your spouse all the time and say "I love you," you can't pay lip service to employee morale and then say that you care.

And you definitely can't be surprised when your lack of effort shows in a lack of results.

* All opinions my own.

Sarah Palin, Considered As A Political Brand

Photo via Wikipedia

remember when they said Hillary Clinton was a "shrew."

And Michele Obama was "angry."

But stereotypes and labels dissolve in the face of reality. We know from lived experience over many years that Hilary Clinton is a gifted stateswoman. That Michelle Obama is passionately committed to causes that lift us all. That the anger is not flimsy but righteous.

Sarah Palin, too, has not allowed sexist putdowns to define her. She is the manifestation of what I studied and wrote about in my dissertation: "cultural feminism." This is the "Legally Blond" model of empowerment --  the embrace of traditional gender qualities. 

(Hillary Clinton embodies liberal feminism, the idea that men and women should be viewed as functionally the same. Michelle Obama, represents radical feminism or the idea that sexism/racism/classism is built into the system and so the system must be fundamentally rebuilt.)

From the perspective of brand, what people remember is what you do. It is your actions accumulated over time. Not what you say, what anyone else says, not what anyone expects. (See graphic)

Palin's speech yesterday at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was an experience that totally captured her brand. (Click here for video.)

Palin actually decried branding in the speech. But she brilliantly positions herself as a unique and relevant alternative to the President and the GOP alike: 

1. Focus

Palin understands that the audience cares about the strength of America as a country, both actual and perceived. About growing and protecting our wealth. About taking care of our families. About standing up for certain values even as we love those who "sin." About defending the weak and defenseless, particularly in the womb. About the right to own a gun to protect yourself against a potentially tyrannical government. About G-d and the right to practice religion. She gets it, she is laser focused on it, she is unapologetic.

2. Strength

She not only criticized the President, but also mocked him - openly. She made him, and the GOP for its weak protestations, seem like a wimp compared with her. I stood there watching and cried at how strong she can off versus how weak and inferior so many women have been taught to be.

3. Women 

Palin is unapologetically female and feminine. She went on the offense and attacked Democrats for treating women like a "cheap date" they buy off with promises of free birth control and big government to protect them and don't worry your pretty little heads about economic policy. On abortion, what about protecting our "little sisters" in the womb? 

All of that works. But here is the problem. As Palin said, she is not into branding as a communications thing. It has to be about substance. And if she is to be a mainstream candidate here are some substantive issues she will need to tackle:

1. The perception that she is an idiot. 

The grasp of the big picture is good. folksy style is good, the pop culture is good, but Palin does not use numbers enough to balance her dramatic style. I don't doubt she has the numbers, but I sense she is not comfortable with them. That would be a problem especially in a debate.

2. The mud-wrestling factor.

By dividing women into camps Palin detracts from the feminist cause. First, there is a kind of unspoken sexual thrill the media gets at putting women against each other as if they are in an X rated show as opposed to a serious political debate. So now it's Palin vs. other female politicians instead of Palin against all politicians without regard to gender.

3. Extremism

To focus on feminism for a minute, there are times when women need big government (sex offender registry, worldwide human trafficking cooperation, stalking) and times when we need a flexible approach (abortion is a personal decision but the state has an interest in protecting life). And equal pay is even more complicated. There is no one size fits all.

To be a viable mainstream candidate, Palin will have to show that she can back her assertions with facts. That she can fit her "Mama Grizzly" worldview into "MSNBC feminism" and make not only peace but synthesis and greater good through the union. She will have to moderate her tendency toward extremism and talk about a more flexible approach to Big Government without seeming wishy-washy.

But her biggest problem in 2016, if she decides to run, will be the Big Message that equally extreme Democrats throw at her. And if I had to guess, I would say that it will be about civil rights, along the lines of racial and sexual equality. 

I am willing to bet that the Democrats will say, sure we screwed up a lot of stuff, but slat least our hearts are in the right place. Are you sure you can trust these Conservatives to do anything more than roll the clock back by a century?

And if Palin and the Democrats can't anticipate and prepare an offensive message on that right now -- one that goes way beyond token representation in the ranks -- any defensive response won't work.

On that score I go back to the idea of coalitions. There are many brilliant conservatives across the spectrum of sex, race, culture and religion. For a Sarah Palin to succeed she would need both backing and connected, layered messaging that speaks to many different identities at once.

When it comes to politics, like anything else, a deep understanding of how branding works -- what it is and what it isn't -- is essential to success.

* All opinions my own. Not an endorsement or non-endorsement of Sarah Palin or any political party or candidate.