Category Archives: Current Affairs

Captains and floozies

On Monday, I wrote in the weekly newsbrief about how we can find talent on our teams in the unlikeliest places.  How project leaders who discover and promote talent can trust them to take work to innovative places.

These project leaders generally have the foresight, strength and confidence that equip them to let those they lead to excel — to enter and capture the spotlight — to extend the project message in other interesting, often unplanned ways.  The story of Oscar nominee Barkhad Abdi serves as the case study.  The man was selected without any acting experience by a director who taught him as well as hired him and knew a good line when he heard it.  The ad-lib heard around the world is showing all of us, not just Hollywood, how to be delighted by the unexpected.  Not threatened by it.

By Tuesday evening, I was enduring the remarks of a so-called expert in talent who fretted that “token floozies” in companies like Twitter are not truly women of the tech workforce.  Who then refused to explain what he meant.  For two days now.

You see, he expects only to pontificate.  To not answer questions unless they are posed in a way that flatters his ego and sustains his superiority, both in the asking and the answering.  Should this man be challenged, watch out.  He cites Duke University, Stanford University, Singularity University, WASHINGTON POST, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL and startup Trove as the stars in his CV, and so far, they see no need to call for an explanation, either.  Rumor has it he has a book coming out about how women are leaving tech employers in droves.

If tech women are leaving anywhere in droves, it’s for two reasons.  First, for being expected to behave, code and program in the manner of the teen tech stars who have captivated Silicon Valley for the first decade of this century.  Second, women leave because guys like this appoint themselves gurus of all things female and feminine without working — hard — with the founders and teams who are actually building companies, products, services and customer lists.  There is not a conspiracy to prevent women from succeeding.  But there is money to be made selling books that tell us there is.

Guys like this think the only good women are the ones who have multiple degrees in engineering related disciplines.  Guys like this think that women who write stories or build customer communities are not really women of tech.  Guys like this believe Minimum Viable Products spring forth unaided from engineers who need marketing, accounting, sales and legal experts only to serve them, not advise them or stand beside them as founders.

At least this is what I assume.  Because in the absence of a real clarification from Mr-Women-in-the-Tech-Workforce, I can only conclude he’s like a few, not the majority, of the guys I’ve encountered in my decades of experience:  suspicious of anyone in heels, assumptive that mascara and brains do not go together, and convinced he knows better than anyone else, including women, what they need and want from a career.  He’s a misogynist.  And the only woman he can begin to trust is one with a pure engineering pedigree.

Well, even the women with those kinds of pedigrees don’t tend to believe that.  In fact, one of the great things about women in the workforce is that we understand the importance of being open to the possibilities, wherever they emerge and from whatever corner.  I’d rather see this guy write about that than feather his own nest with nasty diatribes against the producers — like Twitter, Facebook and Google — who are hiring women and creating open opportunities based on merit, not gender.

Whether the talent was once a limousine driver or is a woman with a BA, we have to celebrate the people who are inviting them to the talent pool.  And we have to celebrate the talent.  Because even the business-side floozies deserve their moment in the sun when they engage users and customers in technological marvels.

By the way.  First rule of PR:  acknowledge your own missteps.  Second:  assume the questioner is sincere and respond with clarification, even if you think it’s a “mindless rant” [his words, not mine].  That’s the only way you get in front of your own mistake.  Own it and explain it or you’ll never move beyond it.

It’s in these stitches

What a nice evening:  the good fortune to visit the wellspring of the great Anne Lamott’s perspective. Funny and profound. As drawn in a lively conversation by the wonderful Fran Moreland Johns, who does a bit of remarkable writing herself.

Anne has a new book: Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair. The theme resounds on so many levels, not the least of which is the sewing. Two generations of our family made a living stitching. In Big Stone Gap, where I grew up, quilters create stitched wonders. And in another bit of serendipity, Anne’s editor at Riverhead Books is none other than Jake Morrissey, friend of Adriana Trigiani and the family and a major writing talent himself.

As it says on this gem’s cover flap, “It’s in these stitches that the quilt of life begins, and embedded in them are strength, warmth, humor and humanity.

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Stitching

 

A leadership secret: Communicating with finesse

This post is dedicated to Scott McNealy, with all due respect and great admiration for his accomplishments.  And his potential.

During a late lunch break on November 10, I turned on the television to watch CNBC.  They were running a clip of an interview with Scott McNealy, one of Silicon Valley's technology thinkers and CEOs, a real success story.  When asked what he thought of the Occupy movement, Mr McNealy said, "get a job."

While I happen to have even stronger feelings than McNealy about what we should do with the anarchists and arsonists who have hijacked the Occupy movement, I was flabbergasted that someone as smart and quick as McNealy couldn't think of a better way to answer the question — or to capitalize on it.  He could have said something equally arresting without appearing insensitive to how the problems afoot in the United States, culturally and commercially, are affecting the rest of us.  It was the perfect opportunity to explore what's back of Occupy, and in McNealy's case, maybe even demonstrate how his new startup can help connect people in an age of gated neighborhoods and the disintegration of the middle class.  Or maybe just to say something more inspired than, "get a job."

And that's when I realized that our leadership problem runs much deeper than I ever imagined.

http://www.everystockphoto.com/photo.php?imageId=4525966&searchId=777a9b8fb43ab0af98ab97282b6093bb&npos=51The art of management finesse

Can it be that the astronomical financial and personal success of our business leaders has isolated them so much from the rest of their fellow citizens that they don't realize just how difficult it is to get a job or build business, get a living wage or project fee, or get paid at all?

Yes, it can be.  But I think it's more than that.  I think even the self-made guys are turning into elitists.  After all, their investment bankers parcel out IPO opportunities.  The elitist training begins early.  Many CEOs seem to be disconnecting from the rest of the populace to the degree that their positions are not about leading organizations and innovating but strictly about their own wealth. 

I hope this is not the case with McNealy.  I hope this is just one gaff.  But the gaff pulled me up short and made me acknowledge that the wealth gap is merely one aspect of a larger gulf:  the growing absence of management finesse.

Finesse is often a natural gift.  Whether instinctive or acquired, finesse is a need-to-have, not a nice-to-have.  It's the ingredient that gets messages heard and inspires action. 

Finesse is nurtured by study and a personal emphasis on empathy.  We all stumble.  CEOs, though, have access to a key tool for learning and practicing management finesse to the degree that it can mitigate the stumbles.  The corporate communications function.  A need-to-have, not a nice-to-have.  Like anything else, it's all in how you build it.

Get your finesse on

The very best of the traditional American business canon gives us example after example of leaders who had experienced, legitimate communications advisors and who listened to them.  It's difficult for any human being, much less one with corporate power, to remain human without at least some institutional emphasis on keeping things real.  Corporate Communications should be the one place the CEO can turn whose only ax to grind is seeing the CEO set a clear path for the organization.

Many of today's CEOs are surrounded by yes men and women who take orders instead of tell the emperor he's not wearing any clothes.  Instead of a Merlin, they have court jesters.  Or worse.  These leaders would rather get up and read something a remote underling or PR agent wrote for them than spend time thinking about what they believe and how they can use their positions to lead us out of this mess. [Which includes speaking up about how we got here in the first place — not just blaming Washington or Wall Street.]

If Jack Kennedy had developed his messages this way, we might never had heard his voice or known what he thought.  His process alone should be enough of a template for today's CEO to follow in crafting and articulating messages of insight and intellect.

CEOs:  Owning your message is the price of entry to leadership

You aren't interested in or comfortable with setting aside time to work on your messages and deliver them?  Not acceptable. 

CEOs, thinking about your messages gets you in the habit of exploring every option in front of you.  Of listening.  And of thinking before you open your mouth, helping you find the words to say something enlightening, enriching the conversation because you were in it. I refuse to accept any thinking that excuses you from participating relentlessly in the creation of your messages.  It is part of your job. Like riding herd on financials or helping to win a big account.

Most important:  every opportunity to communicate should serve the purpose of reminding you that being a leader is as much about service as it is about lordship.  Owning your messages can help bridge the gap between the solitary burdens of your office and all the stakeholders in the enterprise's success.  It can help you put your own problems in context.  It can remind you that you're part of something larger than yourself.

 

Nine ways you can help job hunters and boost your own marketing

This morning's news — that the recovery from the recession is weak and people still cannot find jobs — prompts this post. 

Here's how to help if you are in a position of financial and/or professional strength.  And how to consider your help an actual tactical step for positioning your company — and your own reputation — now and in the future.

Tahoe pine

  1. Recognize that if you have a friend or former colleague who's looking for work, she is vulnerable.  Be positive yet candid.  Do not shine her on about opportunities that are not there or how quickly you're hiring, but do remind her that you will do whatever you can to help.  Then actually put some time to the task.
  2. Keep an eye out for what's available in your company.  If you're on LinkedIn, post it to your contacts there.  Spread the word.
  3. If someone approaches you to help him pursue an open job listing in your company, connect him and stay on top of your HR people.  Keep following up with HR and stay in close touch with the applicant.
  4. If you're in HR, for heaven's sake, reply to phone calls and emails.  Even if all you have is bad news.  Even if all you can manage is a robo-email.  There is nothing more disrespectful — and unkind/inhuman/rude — than ignoring people.  For HR, it is nothing short of unconscionable.  You are, after all, being paid to deal with a key corporate resource. And in this age of email, it is inexcusable to leave people hanging.
  5. If you're a marketing executive, make it company policy to be communicative, professional and kind to people who approach your company for a job.  Recognize that not returning calls or following up is bad marketing.  Encourage your HR people — indeed, all your people — to exhibit only the finest of manners to all who cross their paths.  Some day, someone your company has rejected or ignored may be in a position to buy your products and services or influence the decision to do so.  You must look at any sort of job negotiation or communication as another avenue of marketing your enterprise.  I predict that once this nasty era of business is over, people your company treated well will remember it and become at least an ambassador, if not a customer.
  6. If you're a CEO, start hiring now.  Follow the example of Howard Schultz of Starbucks.  Stop looking to Washington.  Make some sacrifices, because millions of your fellow citizens are living on sacrifice.  Oh.  And cut a few hundred thousand from your own paycheck and hire a couple of people.
  7. If you're a hiring executive and you know you're going to transfer someone internal into a new or open position, suspend the practice of posting the job outside the company unless you are seriously looking.  You are wasting everyone's time by making people think they have a chance of employment — the candidates', HR's, yours.  And tell external candidates that they have internal competition and where they rank in the queue.
  8. If you know someone needs cash and you have more than enough, give someone a gift.  At least pick up the lunch tab.  If no one in your circle is hurting, find someone who is.  Ask your coworkers, your religious leader, your friends.  Keep it private and put cash directly in the hands of someone who needs it. 
  9. Be kind.  It's easy, it's free, it's helpful.  My mother used to be the taskmaster in one area of our school report cards:  what was called "deportment," at least in Big Stone Gap, Virginia.  She used to tell us that the easiest thing to do was to behave.  Same principle here:  the easiest thing to get right is to remember that if someone is asking you for help, he deserves your respect and attention.

The economy is in recovery.  Innovation is happening, and this crash is going to help in the long run.  Position your company for that long run.  Even if you don't believe in karma, or you don't think it's your responsibility to help others, the very best kind of marketing for your enterprise is based in relationships.  Show the world that you know relationships are key to commerce.  And that you know the key to good, sustainable relationships is the personal touch.

Beyond bookmarking: Sharing five articles I Stumbled, Google-read and stored

One of the best aspects of living life digitally is being able to share what I read in a millisecond.  I remember copying, faxing and mailing articles to clients.  Then I remember emailing them.  The tools we have now are an article clipper's dream.

Today, I use StumbleUpon and Google Reader both to catalog my favorites and to share them with followers on those sites.  I'm starting to do more on Facebook and LinkedIn as well, mainly through a standing link from my Twitter feed to those networks.  My goal is to wean myself off saving things to my computer.

As part of this process, I'm attempting to share five articles, saved and shared to my various networks, here on the blog every week, too.  So here they are.

  1. The obituary of Edward Stobart in The Economist.
  2. How to hold attention, by the brilliant John Hagel, with John Seely Brown, on Harvard Business Review.
  3. Figuring out where your buyers are, from the blog by Content Marketing Institute.
  4. The backlash against the academic Mafia [my phrase!], in The Atlantic.
  5. Mitch Wagner's take on Don Tapscott's view of capitalism, on The CMO Site.

Of King Coal and Cleopatra, and icons and leaders

Geraldine Ferraro.  Pinetop Perkins.  Lanford Wilson.  The gifts they, and many other Americans, have shared are almost too much to ponder.  Their presence and passing through this age?  A reminder to appreciate the many forms leaders take and the elements that turn them into icons.  

One look at Elizabeth Taylor and those elements were abundantly clear.  Or so one thought.  It turns out that things went a bit deeper than incandescent looks and a lust for life that shot through every performance.  There were loyalty and empathy, two traits that can, but should not, be hard to come by in a leader or an icon.  

As a young Virginian exposed to Miss Taylor's charisma during a whirlwind political campaign, on a night when it seemed every man left every woman's side just to catch a glimpse of her, I witnessed not just the power of glamour but the pull of celebrity.  Standing in front of her, though, I wondered what she was thinking about all of us.  Turns out that evening was probably one of many during which she sacrificed her own comfort to support her spouse.  Yet Miss Taylor not only made it look easy, she seems to have put this quality to use later in evangelizing the importance of compassion for others.

Sacrifice is not an element usually associated with stardom, God-given beauty, serial monogamy — or being a corporate CEO.  When it is, though, it's noteworthy.  

The March obituaries told us the story of another onetime Virginian who had as elite a pedigree as any of today's CEOs, if not moreso, but chose to hone his leadership style from the ground up.  Literally.  

Ted Leisenring was the easy heir to the mighty Westmoreland Coal Company throne, but he worked as if that throne were someone else's to steal.  Upon his graduation from Yale, he headed to Big Stone Gap, Virginia, to labor underneath the ground, side by side, with the people who would be his employees.  Years after that, Mr Leisenring represented the coal companies in a long labor negotiation with the miners.  

My guess is that, for someone who respected the union, Mr Leisenring's negotiating position was reached with clarity of conscience and purpose.  According to Dan Rottenburg, author of In the Kingdom of Coal, Mr Leisenring dedicated the company to opening the lines of communication inside it after the strike was over.  He didn't revel in the victory over wildcatters, he sought to anticipate the concerns that gave rise to action which hurt the miners as much it hurt the companies.  The miners were not remote entities or heads on a spreadsheet; they were people, like him, who had a job to do.  

Here's to the leaders who don't try to be icons.  And the icons who lead.

 

 

 

The seven business books I believe are right for right now

These books, which I've read or am reading, are works whose content can inform business life. 

The Power of Pull:  How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in MotionJohn Hagel III, John Seely Brown, Lang Davison.  Aptly describes the change that is afoot and how anyone — and any business — can sustain relevance and connection.

Team of Rivals:  The Political Genius of Abraham LincolnDoris Kearns Goodwin.  Shows how competitors can collaborate when their leader is clear about the objective and recognizes how their motives can help reach the goal.  [Side benefit:  I found the description of the actions of biased journalists soothing.  If this country survived a civil war and those reporters, it can survive anything.]

The Divine ComedyDante Alighieri [The John Ciardi Translation].  Amazing that despite every other kind of growth, the human character really never changes.  Very useful.

I Hate People:  Kick Loose from the Overbearing and Underhanded Jerks at Work and Get What You Want Out of Your JobJonathan Littman, Mark Hershon.  The authors do an outstanding job of categorizing every personality you can encounter in the workplace.  The psychology and the comedy of pathological behavior.

Delivering Happiness:  A Path to Profits, Passion and PurposeTony Hsieh.  Sometimes nice works. Here's how to do it and prosper without becoming a patsy.

Power:  Why Some People Have It — and Others Don'tJeffrey Pfeffer.  How to get comfortable with power and decide whether you want it.

Overlook Much, Correct a Little:  99 Sayings by John XXIIIHans-Peter Rothlin, editor.  The musings of an enlightened mind, these thoughts inspire action that benefits every stakeholder in an organization — most especially, oneself.