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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Yet Another Good Idea at the Time

A year after he retired from a long career in public relations, I asked my former boss and long-time friend what was occupying his days. He replied that he was mostly saying no to good ideas at the time. In his work over the years, he said, he had devoted too much too often to what seemed like worthwhile proposals that later proved worthless.

Now, in retirement, if he was complimented and enthused by, for example, the church music director telling him that he had vocal talent and inviting him to join the choir, he would say simply, kindly, and quickly, thank you but no thank you. He was not withdrawing into retirement, just being highly selective with the one, somewhat controllable and yet diminishing resource he had: time.

Can you identify and commiserate with my friend? You can:
  • if you are a victim of ideas-gone-wild that failed to produce enough value, say, for a corporate communication department to withstand budget cuts and layoffs, including maybe your layoff.
  • if you lost a part of your life and savings with a start-up business led by an inspiring, idea-twirling, self-proclaimed entrepreneur. And he was your friend, at least he was prior to the crash -- your crash, that is, not his.
  • if you have looked around your overstuffed office at the stacks of start-and-stop projects initiated by you or clients that once looked so promising but now look like so many wasted trees.
How do we let ideas get us into such messes? What causes us to say yes when we should say no to seemingly good ideas? How do we stay open-minded and adventurous and yet pragmatic and not stupid?

I’ll jump in with three observations and five thoughts to help you launch your own Wasteful Idea Prevention Program, which, I hope, will not be just another good idea at the time.

3 Observations

1 Affect vs. effect
The mess starts when we open the door of apparent opportunity just slightly because we don’t want to offend the idea-generator. He or she might be:
  • a vice president, to whom saying no would be risky;
  • a reliable consultant-friend, to whom saying no would be awkward;
  • the new hire with a track record of accomplishments from her previous company, to whom saying no would contradict what you “promised” in your verbal job offer.
Not to entertain their suggestions would make you appear uncooperative, overly cautious, and – good heavens! – maybe even a late adopter.

But then, here’s what happens:
  • The door of opportunity has opened enough for you to slip in half-way. You realize that, though the idea doesn’t feel quite right, everyone around you is enthused, especially younger staff members, and you don’t want to appear like an old man in a sea of zealots. Besides, you tell yourself, you cannot argue definitively that the idea won’t work. When you try to speak your voice of reason, logic falters.
  • You’re now in the room. The group is pressing, “C’mon. Let’s at least try it.” You don’t know how to respond. To suggest looking at the budget sounds limp. How much could trying cost? Not to support giving it a try would look like you’re stuck on the tried and true. You give in. The door closes. You’re committed.
What I just described is the evolution of affect – that is, emotions conjured up by the idea and that require some kind of resolution. Being affected is natural and you shouldn’t be apologetic. Simply know that emotions are transient. Only when they extend into lasting passion, and passion into long-term commitment and follow-through, do the initial emotions have impact. Affect must become effect.

2 Default vs. Decisiveness
Let’s assume that you are the boss and have relented to letting someone’s idea move to the next step. What seemed like a good idea at the time now breaths, walks, and requests time and a little spending money. You trick yourself into thinking the idea is still exploratory, and consequently default to one of two delay tactics: committee or report.
  1. Form a committee comprising the idea-initiator as leader, a couple of younger enthusiasts, and a trusted departmentalist. The group is likely to have the next meeting at a bar, ferret out a few other likely supporters in the organization -- perhaps an executive -- and come back at you with a sizable project scope, a hefty budget, and a recommended advisory committee. You feel the heat of all the Klieg lights on you.
  2. Request a report. This could doom the idea because few know how to convert enthusiasm into rationalism. Yet rationalism is not always the best model for success, some creative types might credibly contend. The report writers could load up with anecdotal support and media clippings on trends. How does one argue against the loosey-goosey?
The alternative to delay is to decide immediately. Either:
  • Kill the idea, take your lumps, and save the organization time-consuming, expensive make-work, or
  • Give the idea a fighting chance to survive or die on its own.
You can do that by assigning follow-up to the most open-minded, productive member of the staff who has no time to take it on.Tell him or her to shake down the concept. That could mean going it alone or forming a skunk-works team. He has only four weeks to give it a thumbs up or down and to present his recommendation convincingly to the group. And the assignment has to be done in addition to his regular chores.

Guaranteed, if you choose the right person, he or she will tell you if the idea was worth his sacrificial time and, consequently, should warrant the organization’s limited resources.

3 The Grandstander, the Hypothesizer, and the Nerd
Turn now from being trapped by an idea to cultivating an environment of innovation. What are the sources of fresh ideas that can produce organizational value? Actually, the question is who can produce organizational value? Consider three sources: the grandstander, the hypothesizer, and the nerd.
    The grandstander is a bit off-putting. He’s better on delivery in a meeting than delivery of results and a bit scornful of laggards, but he’s smart, worldly, and a category-changer. That’s his value: he makes you think against your will. Listen up, but don’t assign him to follow up, and know that when the dust he kicks up settles, a doable idea could appear, though it’s more likely to be an offshoot idea from someone else, someone who can and will execute.

    The hypothesizer thinks that the way things are should not necessarily be the way they ought to be. She is unsettled and unsettling. She is motivated by ideas that have zest, stickiness, and common-sense. When she presents her thoughts to a group, she looks for those colleagues who will like her concept but challenge it, ask rhetorical questions, raise “what ifs,” and stretch it into interesting shapes. Make sure you always have a hypothesizer on staff.

    The nerd appears innocent enough, but he’s exceptionally uncanny when it comes to what will work and what won’t. He loves new technology but is skeptical of fads that purport to introduce next-generation thinking. Consequently, when he formulates an idea, it’s well researched, checked out with online buddies, and tested out on his own time. He prefers to present the idea one-on-one, usually to the boss, who will take time to understand and not be dismissive of his quirkiness.
Having disassembled the ideation process, here are some final thoughts on reassembling it more effectively.

5 Thoughts
  1. Again, consider the source of the idea. If he or she has generated value from previous initiatives or saved the organization time and aggravation, don’t hesitate to support her latest proposal.
  2. Know that all ideas require time that no one seems to have. Taking on something new will require dropping something old or giving up time with family and friends.
  3. Write the projected results of your good idea as an actual accomplishment on the evolving draft of your year-end report and on your resume-in-progress. If the results look achievable and impressive, give the idea a try.
  4. If you understand the definition of risk as having no chance of success -- well, maybe a very slight chance -- then you will have a realistic view of when an idea will work and when it won’t.
  5. If the idea looks like a solo flight, assume that success is likely to launch the individual into his or her next job while the rest of you in the support group will be left behind. Are you okay with that?

Richard Skaare 01.29.09

Monday, January 19, 2009

Looking For Your Writing Voice

Writing is a crapshoot these days. Never has the opportunity to express oneself publicly been greater. The blogosphere, Twitter, self-publishing – they’re readily available outlets.

Yet, the chances of getting heard are slim, getting read even slimmer. A guesstimated 200 million bloggers are competing for public attention. Lightning-rod marketer Guy Kawasaki may be “following” your comments on Twitter, but that's what 49,728 others are thinking too. A reputation-boosting response from him is unlikely. And self-publishing rarely catches the eye of critics and promoters.

Yet we keep writing. Writing is compulsive for many of us. We’re trying to find a voice -- our voice -- a voice that makes sense of the soul-searching scratchings in our journals, a voice that resonates with our blog audience.

How do you find that voice – that way of expressing what is distinctly, perhaps uniquely you … that has your name on it? I’m going to give you three ways to find your voice and five exercises to train it. But, first …

Let me say something that may sound a bit dumb about knowing when your voice emerges. Ready? You will know your true voice when, after writing, you involuntarily say “Hmmh!” That’s right, “Hmmh.” Not “okay, done” or “good enough,” but “Hmmh.”

That grunt will be a blend of surprise, joy, and release. You will see before you in your work someone you know. That someone looks confident, likable, authentic, clear-headed, open-minded, uncluttered, and, most important, appealing to readers.

The voice:
  • emerges from some inside vault not from all the advice you received and writing courses you took – though they were contributors.
  • arises unpredictably, at odd times, usually when you least expect it: for example, after hours of writing dribble followed by a half-hour of crafting something magical.
  • comes often when you write less, not more.
  • arrives when you hear yourself mumbling and humming; and
  • comes out when you stop trying to force it out.
Okay, how do you get to “Hmmh,” to that special voice?

3 Paths to Hmmh

1 Clear your mind’s throat
Finding and expressing your voice is not a matter of writing mechanics but of … well, clearing the mental flem that clogs your thinking: unsettling memories, self-doubt, fear of being exposed in writing and watching others laugh at your nakedness.

Certainly writing is therapeutic, but it’s purpose is not therapy, especially if you share it with others, say, on a blog. Frankly, the audience lacks the credentials, time, and interest to heal you.

Before publishing what’s in your head, you first have to stand up to the false voices jostling for attention in your head. Don’t let one of them take over your writing. For instance, don’t allow anger to persuade you that he’s your voice. The best writers may give anger at least a hearing and then write satire; for most, however, anger’s false voice is whining.

Avoid letting narcissism speak up and forcing you to write, “I’ve been so busy lately that I haven’t had a minute to blog. I apologize for causing you concern.” Narcissism says, understand me, look at me because I don’t know how to talk about you, the reader, never mind listen to you.

And about nakedness. You will never get beyond your fear of being shamed publicly if you dress up your writing in someone else’s clothes. Stop copying the boring constructions, styles and clich├ęs of safe writers. It’s all dull writing. (Sorry, my anger voice just shouted) You don’t have to blend in. Trust yourself, trust your voice. Admit that you are not what people think you are; you’re actually better!

2 Get in shape
Editing – tedious editing – is not optional for at least two reasons. Hard-nosed self-editing removes what we refuse to admit is waste in our writing and, second, it gets our first-draft voice arguing with our true writing voice.

Writing creates a lot of by-products: some are recyclable, others are trash. You need a folder for those writing fragments you might use in a later piece. But you also need a dumpster.

Be careful, however, that you don’t throw away something valuable like the very pregnant friend of mine did when she tossed bags of trash into a dumpster in an isolated area and also tossed in the car keys. She carefully climbed onto a box, maneuvered her way up, over, and down deep into the dumpster and miraculously found the keys. However, she then realized she had nothing solid to stand on to get out. She was rescued by two locals who heard the dumpster’s voice crying faintly for help. Imagine what she could write with that voice.

If we don’t do the hard work of editing – and I’m talking three drafts – a shrill voice emerges and tries to persuade us that the burst of inspiration that splashed eloquent prose across your screen merits publication. Wait! Don’t trust that voice. What you produced may have been the result of an emotional spike, a weariness to just get the project done, or a vision that said, “look at me, I’m a writer.”

If you hear a voice telling you to go back to editing because you’re almost there, but not quite, stay with it, and listen because that’s your writing voice.

3 Give it a rest
I have two thoughts on how long to wait until you find your writing voice and when to let it speak.

First, if you believed me when I said that your voice is not found in an inspired gush of prose and also believed me when I said you have to talk tough to yourself in the editing process, you must now believe me when I say that you have to write at least an hour or more almost every day for the next several months before you will hear the voice.

Perhaps your voice will take a month to surface, but maybe a year. Be patient. Along the way you will produce some good writing. What’s more important is that you will have generated writing that will talk with you if you keep rereading it. You will hear your voice in the distance getting increasingly louder as you remove the padding that's muffling it.

When you hear that involuntary "Hmmh” that comes from your true voice, should you declare your work done or do you back off and let it settle for awhile. I vote for waiting 12 hours. I talked about holding back in an earlier post called “Regret Writing." I’ll repeat what I said there:

My 12-hour rule says, after you write passionately about something, hit the Save and then Shut Down buttons on your computer not the Send button. After a good night’s rest, read what you wrote – grimace and groan -- and you will know how the recipient would have understood it had you sent it. Then, either Edit and Send, or Delete. Even when you have found your writing voice, it can be raspy and still not easy to understand. Give it a rest.
5 Voice-training exercises

  1. If emotions are clamoring for attention as you think about writing, type quickly, even mechanically for 15 minutes. Most of them will get bored and leave. The one or two that hang on want you to say something about them in your writing. Offer a sentence or two, then close the door behind them. You will hear them knocking at times. Don’t let them back in.

  2. Reading lots of good fiction is the best way to understand the concept of voice. I think John Irving’s voice is exceptionally and consistently clear.

  3. If you are convinced that your voice spoke very late one night in a rush of poetic wordiness, wake up your spouse or roommate and ask him or her to read what you wrote. If it doesn’t make sense to a half-awake person who has little interest then it probably won’t work with a half-asleep person the next day who has little interest.

  4. Editing is like dieting: the more fat you can cut out and the more strenuous the exercise, the better you will ultimately look.

  5. Try trimming this blog post by 300 words without losing my voice.

Richard Skaare 01.19.09

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Back Off So We Don’t Communicate

You step into an empty elevator in a public building with two of your friends as you continue talking and laughing. The doors close … almost.

Someone jabs in a hand, the doors retract, and the obese guy steps in. You’re feeling a bit crowded. The joking stops. Right behind him comes an exceptionally attractive young woman. Keeping your eyes off her is difficult. Then enters two foreigners speaking their language, followed by a homeless person, and finally an elderly woman with a walker.

Can you feel your anxiety rising, your emotions bouncing? What’s happening? In brief, physical proximity to the unknown, the uncomfortable, and the unwashed creates contradicting cues. You want to be gracious and open-minded but at a distance. You have no distance in the elevator.

3 observations on distance and communication

1 Getting close to someone close
The better we know an individual, the more relaxed we are when close to him or her. Makes sense. But let me restate that: the more positive we feel toward an individual at any given time, the more relaxed and uninhibited we are when close. Talking encourages good feelings, which leads to laughing, which encourages affection, which can lead to hugging, which can lead to … well, you know.

Tension between two people reverses that process. After an argument with our spouse or best friend, we’re not much in the mood for hugging. That’s obvious. But is the reason so obvious? It’s because such an upheaval confuses us and makes us uncertain about how to respond. We can’t be physically close to the person we are normally closest with because our anger won’t let us.

Consequently, we tighten our muscles, climb into our mind to draw up a battle plan, and move our bodies away from the perceived source of our discomfort. Even shaking hands with a colleague we’re angry with would confuse us. How could we not like this person right now and yet the physical contact of a handshake would say we do?

The irony of these situations, of course, is that understanding and resolution will come not from our mouths or our heads at a distance but from simply being close to the “enemy” and feeling disarmed. Closeness causes communication.

2 Getting close to colleagues
Desks and conference tables are more than flat writing surfaces. They set the comfortable distance between participants for intellectual, structured exchanges of acceptable information at a certain volume – in other words, business talk.

By contrast, confidential or personal information generally is shared informally while standing close to each other using hushed voices. Distance defines the type of communication; the type of communication defines the distance.

Even the way we position ourselves around a desk or table is revealing. If someone stays behind his desk (his territory) when meeting with you in his office -- close to his computer, papers, telephone, and other information sources -- he is in control while you, on the opposite side without such tools, are the supplicant. He reflects a certain comfort and power that you likely don’t. In this situation, communication usually is rigid.

Likewise, in a group meeting in a conference room, we rarely sit beside someone with whom we routinely disagree. The physical proximity would unnerve each individual and likely make both hesitant to comment because it is awkward to disagree with a person so close. Additionally, sitting across from someone with opposing views typically results in one person contributing ideas and the other dismissing ideas. Communication goes haywire.

One more example of distance. I deciphered a pattern when I worked for a major public relations firm years back. On accounts that involved multiple agency offices, the further geographically a group billing on that account was from having to explain an invoice to the client face-to-face, the more money they billed.

3 Getting close to yourself
About to join the health club or about to lose 10 pounds sometimes seems as real as actually exercising and dieting. If we can convince ourselves that something will happen – actually might, could, should happen – then our minds seem satisfied while our bodies still suffer.

Now, think of the times you stayed on an exercise routine and dropped a few pounds. What did you tell friends? Probably, “I have never felt so much energy and focus.” Why is that? Simple.

When we’re out of shape, overeat, over-caffeine, under-sleep, and over-work, our minds separate from – rather discard – our bodies. Living in our minds requires less maintenance than taking care of our deteriorating shells. Yet, a physically sound body, connected to an alert mind, and all on a sensible schedule opens up new possibilities for productivity, learning, and achievement.

5 Close-up Tips
  1. Agree with your loved one that someone will initiate a hug within 5 minutes following an argument. Even asking, “whose turn is it to initiate?” will lead to chuckles and snuggles. As my blogger friend Seth Simonds says, "We fight for the win when a win on either side means a loss for the whole"

  2. Approach someone you have wronged and, without even thinking, tell him you’re sorry and extend your hand. If he refuses, put your hand calmly in your pocket; don’t clench it. You might have another chance later.

  3. Deliberately sit in a meeting beside someone with whom you don’t see eye-to-eye. Create small talk before the session starts. Do this exercise at three meetings and you are likely to discover some common ground.

  4. Have coffee with someone associated with a group you disagree with and have strong feelings about. Sitting near each other and talking may not change your mind, but it could affect your heart.

  5. Exercise your body and mind by walking for 30 minutes three times a week while listening to a novel on your iPod. Congratulate yourself each time. Give yourself a hug. Then take a shower.
Richard Skaare 01.13.09

  • One of the seminal works on space and communication is Robert Bales’ “Interactive Process Analysis.”
  • Seth Simonds’ blog offers some wise and practical advice on “getting close to someone close.”

Credit: Graphic by The Gold Guys

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Navigating Web Caves ... How To

Did you hear the one about the two Saudis and an American who go into a cave with 25 Europeans and a Dutch guide holding a lantern? Of course you haven’t because it really happened, and I’m going to tell you about it.

The Saudis are my clients, and I’m the American consultant. We’re in Maastricht, Netherlands for a round of video interviews with their European leadership. The interviews will turn into content for the learning portal I’m helping the company build.

It’s the weekend, and I decide an outing at a popular tourist attraction might be fun for all. The St Pietersberg Caves there are famous. Approximately 2,000 passages comprising 125 miles, the caves were formed from centuries of mining marl, which was used primarily in constructing area buildings. Napoleon visited the caves, Rembrandt’s paintings and downed American pilots were hidden there from the Nazis … many stories. So, why not go there?

The three of us board a boat for the 30-minute trip down river, then a 20-minute climb uphill, followed by a 10-minute walk down inside the mountain. Before we descend, I discover that the cave tour is conducted only in Dutch. I approach the tour guide hoping that he excelled in English in school. He says curtly that, if I stay close to him and if he has time, he will translate for me from Dutch to English the information he just told the group. I will then convey his comments to my Arab-speaking clients, whose English, fortunately, is quite good.

When we arrive in the cave’s first large chamber, whose rock walls are adorned with paintings and stories, the crowd gathers around the guide. I position myself on a nearby ledge up against the cave wall to watch his body language and not block the view of children. The first words out of the guide’s mouth are directed to me in English: “Don’t touch the walls of the cave.” My companions slip into the crowd to avoid being associated with the culprit.

Think about that experience. You are trusting someone you never met to lead you where you have never been, explaining in a language you don’t know about unfamiliar writings and designs on walls in chamber after chamber. And what if your guide was to turn off his lantern and you were standing there in 50° blackness without a flashlight? How would you make your way back out?

Now, think about the website, intranet, or portal you’re building. You’re leading people who don’t know you, down paths they have never been, to rooms of information where you use terminology that is yours not theirs. Fortunately for them but not for you, if they get lost and panic, they simply click out.

Of course, good web designers and user experience experts know the standard tricks for helping people navigate sites. They can logically explain to you how those techniques will work. However, that doesn’t excuse you, the site originator and manager, from the process. Quite the opposite. Your role is to be the human in that process, the user.

Long before getting user testing underway – you will be doing user testing, right? -- you have to be the user. When your consultants and colleagues are saying, “they’ll (users) figure it out,” or “after they read all the information …” you should be thinking, “I don’t want to have to figure it out,” and “I probably would skim and grab information, not read it all.”

So, step aside from the others, realize that you’re on the tour alone, walk around the passages and chambers of your prototype site, and monitor your thoughts and feelings. Let me put you in the right frame of mind. Think cave.

3 Directions

1 Moving vertically
The homepage is the orientation center. You will spend only 30, maybe 60 seconds here. No time for hype. You’re busy, and you came to this page for a purpose: to get an annotated map. If the map is too difficult to decipher, you simply will find your own route using the search function. You have a search function on the site, right?

As you, the visitor, make your way down through a passage from the homepage to the information chambers, you should drop some breadcrumbs that show you how to get back. And you know what breadcrumbs are on a site: they’re the string of categories found consistently near the top of the screen that serve the same purpose as a “you are here” map. The highlighted “crumb” indicates where you are in relation to each step along the path. Click left on a crumb and you are back at a higher level. Keep the crumbs simple: they’re crumbs, not bread slices.

2 Moving laterally
Each chamber in the St Pietersberg Caves has distinct content. Some contain wall paintings, some plaques, and one has baking ovens that once fed people in hiding. No matter how different the content of the rooms, common to all is rock -- rock walls, rock floors, rock ceilings. Wherever tourists are, rock tells them they’re in a cave.

Diversity is good. Yet, taken to extremes on websites by organizational family members who want to establish their own identities -- often meaning separateness -- visitors who wander to those places can get confused and lost. Unless politically impossible, make sure all parts of your site share at least the rock ... that is, share common design elements and structure -- colors, type fonts, heading styles, whatever -- that visually tell users they are in the same cave, just different chambers.

Sometimes a departmental intranet was up and running before you decided to launch the central site. For example, the Supply Chain group has its own wiki-type site, which includes a learning management system and training courses. However, you have planned for a learning section on the main site for centalizing all training. Supply Chain wants its staff to link to your learning options but is unwilling to give up what took so long to build.

You can think territorially about this and wage a battle, or you can think like an employee who, frankly, doesn't care who owns what. Easy access and minimal clicks are all that matter. Consequently, build a transitional page that visually signals users coming from or to the main site that they are about to move into a different zone.

3 Moving out
Bailing out of a site is simple. Once again, think like a user. What would make you do a u-turn and linger just a bit longer, then return soon and often? Of course, the content must be engaging and applicable. Assuming that's true, you the user would want to do something with that content such as:
  • rate the value of what you read or heard;
  • bookmark a page using your preferred service: Delicious, StumbleUpon, etc.;
  • capture and store information from various pages (e.g., Google Notebook);
  • share information with others by clicking on email, print, ShareThis, and various social networking options; and
  • receive email or SMS cellphone alerts on items of interest.
5 Moving Tips
  1. Flash motion can add personality to pages, but sometimes that personality is narcissistic. A revolving header screams, “look at me because I’m more important than what you’re looking at."

  2. Moving images -- video, animation, etc. -- add entertainment and a human touch to content. Use those formats increasingly but let the site visitor choose to turn them on.

  3. The canned message on the homepage from your CEO probably won't move visitors. It's rarely read and never read on the second visit. Save the real estate.

  4. Keep the user stationary by integrating all media into pages rather than separate windows.

  5. Construct the homepage as a map, but realize that many, if not most visitors will move from another site directly to a page of specific interest on your site.

Richard Skaare 01.11.09
Credit: Photo by Luke Redmond

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Beware: What You Create Could Own You

Writing, designing, producing -- anything creative – can easily turn from imaginative to seductive. Our mission was clear and exciting when we started the article or graphic. Yet, at some point, after hours of brain-wrenching thinking and redrafting, we lost our way and what we were creating began to own us.

I know this dilemma well, as illustrated by this story.

The first speech I wrote in the first month of my first corporate job years ago had the industrial-strength title of “The Economics and Politics of Human Rights.” The title was mine. In fact, most of the thinking and all of the crafting – organizing, writing, and tuning – was mine. Or so I thought as I finished the first draft.

My hazing as the new guy was to write a speech for an executive vice president who had been invited to present at a prestigious business school. Other executives were quite comfortable talking at Rotary Club luncheons in plant communities about the company’s exploits. My client wanted to take on ethical issues. Eager to prove myself, I readily took the challenge.

I met briefly with the EVP who sketched his thoughts on the topic. I didn’t ask many questions because I was eager to frame up my own ideas, show him the finished piece, and then convince him to buy in. I wrote a draft quickly, hammered it endlessly, and gave it to the bosses on the three rungs above me. Two days later, they replied.

The cover memo was glowing. I glowed. They even used the “unique” word. Then I turned the page to review specific comments on the text. The margins were cluttered with critiques, some harsh; whole paragraphs were crossed out; summary criticisms were added at the end. Whoa! Panic attack.

By the third review of the massacre, I was getting somewhat objective. Perspective was returning. I realized that the more emotionally-laden comments were less about writing quality and more about the critics’ own enthusiasm for the topic. They were acting out the speech in their minds: envisioning it being delivered by the executive, watching the audience’s reaction, and anticipating questions. From that came their changes.

I could disagree with their specific alterations, but I could not disagree with their passion to make this unusual speech even more penetrating. I realized that the phrasing, the texture, and the substance were still mine, but the final speech was a composite of the three seasoned communicators and the novice.

After judiciously incorporating changes, I sent it to the EVP and subsequently met to discuss it. This time I listened. He liked the speech a lot. Much more important, however, he got talking comfortably and deeply about the impact on developing countries when their resources ran out and the metals company exited.

Hearing his heart-felt reflections, I knew I had to rework the speech at least once more. He had added a dimension I had overlooked as I rushed ahead to create what I knew could be an outstanding portfolio piece for me. He had humanized the topic. And he had reminded me without ever saying it that the speech was his not mine.
Remember the ring in JRR Tolkien’s trilogy? Everyone who possessed it was possessed by it. Similarly with our creative work, we are exhilarated by its power and sometimes overpowered by it. We flinch at suggested changes, restrict access to the work; position ourselves as authorities on it. Our pride blinds us to the ultimate purpose. In short, we mistake the means for the end, which is communication.

How does this happen?

3 Thoughts

1 We view communication as proprietary, not open-source.
The open-source concept, long fostered by software developers, is simple and uncomfortably counter-intuitive: give away your work to increase its worth. You come up with an ingenious original, but rather than protecting it as your property, you share it with others so they can add to and benefit from it. Your reward is that you started the value-adding chain.

That’s our job as creative types. We originate, collaborate, appropriate, and then let go. In other words, I created a speech, my more experienced bosses perfected it with me, the executive adapted it to his style, and the audience walked away with a different perspective that they can share with others. I am proud that I started the process flowing. If I demanded we do it my way, if my superiors demanded the corporate way, if the presenter had demanded that he knew better, communication would have been lost.

The best writers, designers, and other creative types I have known:
  • spend time walking around an idea or assignment;
  • agonize over approaches;
  • suddenly get inspired by an angle;
  • mash it up with other angles;
  • develop a love-hate relationship;
  • toss out the initial version;
  • and then yank it out of the recycle bin the next day and make it work.
They like the finished piece -- sometimes too much. They run it by others and try to keep quiet when feedback is unpleasant. But eventually they come to their senses, knowing that the value of what they incubated flowed partially from others and mostly from their own imagination. They also know that, ultimately, the value of their work will be determined by the people who receive and use it. If those people “get it,” it’s really good.

2 We view communication as standalone forms and job descriptions.
We know that the function – the purpose – of our communication work is to transfer what is in our heads – or our management or client’s heads – into the audience’s heads in ways that will shift their attitudes and alter their behavior. Yet we seem to be more addicted to the forms than to the function: the blog we write, the website we design, the event we organize.

Why wouldn’t we? Form gives us an immediate confirmation of accomplishment. It says we are doing our jobs producing publications as the publications manager or websites as the webmaster. Executing is what we get paid to do, isn’t it?

But is the publication or website communication? Actually, no, not in itself. It’s a piece of the puzzle. We probably agree on that point. But who is putting the pieces together? Isn’t that the job of anyone who calls himself or herself a communicator? Are we not integrators rather than separatists?

The point I think is obvious. Nothing we create should be a stand-alone. Our creations are nodes on a communication network. Together, we build that network.

3 We view communication as a support service not a business function.
I wrote about this issue in a previous blog post (Want to Communicate? Don’t Call the Communication Department). Summing up what I said:

Management views communication as strategic and part of their responsibility, primarily for two reasons:
  • Their personal communication skills, they believe, helped get them to where they are. They understand communication better than anyone, they think.
  • They confuse communication with information, which they consider something they originate, regulate, and approve.
Management views communicators as tactical.
In part, that’s because they have met few professional communicators who are anything but implementers. However, they typically think that more tactics will correct the organization’s weak communication.
Affirmation, appreciation, and respect for communicators can get skimpy in many organizations. We all moan at times about management’s failure to understand our work.

But switch places with an executive. Could she not complain that we lack an understanding of the business? If we want our work to have a greater impact on the big picture, we have to put on tri-focals to see that big picture, the medium-range plans of the organization, and the daily interactivity of various functions.

Finally, as if all of what I have said is not enough to overload your mind, here are ideas to help you reconsider ownership of what you create.

5 Ideas
  1. Read Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral & the Bazaar.
  2. Convert your next article, say on a profile of an ambitious employee, into three points that a salesperson could readily incorporate into a sales pitch he is making to a top prospect.
  3. When sending or presenting a creative work to your employer or client, have everyone in your group sign it.
  4. Identify the best communicator in the organization outside the communication department, and have him teach you communication from the outside in.
  5. Remove your title and those of your staff from business cards or call yourselves “Communicator.”

Richard Skaare 01.06.09

Friday, January 02, 2009

How to Win the CEO’s Ear and Trust

Should Jane Klaviter switch careers from prompter at the Metropolitan Opera to executive coach, I would strongly recommend her to my clients.

Klaviter sits in a cramped, three-sided box at the edge of the stage and hand-signals or calls out instructions to singers, even divas, who forget lines or miss the pitch. Pointing her finger up says, “sing higher;” down mean “go lower.” Holding her hand up means “stop,” usually because the singer has jumped ahead of the orchestra.

I could have used that last technique when a CEO I worked for was sitting thigh-to-thigh with too many presenters on a low-rise stage at an outdoor dedication ceremony. I saw him about to move his chair backwards for more room, at which point a raised hand might have prevented him from tumbling off the platform, which he did. I quickly passed my resume to the president of the ad agency next to me.

The Met performers trust Klaviter because she has answers, is not intimidated by the powerful, and can prevent public embarrassment. And that’s the same three factors that get CEOs to listen and trust us.

3 ways to get the CEO to listen and trust

Be smart, but not smarter than

You are the best at what you do, right? Did I hear an “amen” or were you choking? If you don’t consider yourself highly proficient – with lots of room for improvement, of course – there’s no need to read further. The CEO may like you personally but not trust you professionally if you are insecure about your know-how.

You will always be trying to prove yourself with him or her. So, figure out what’s causing your uneasiness – it’s probably not a lack of information – by getting help from a mentor, coach, or therapist. I did when I was younger.

Assuming that you’re head-smart confident, equally important is to be street-wise competent. In short, you have to be long on emotional intelligence. And that means, to borrow from Dan Goleman:
  • understanding what the CEO is feeling because you know what you are feeling;
  • keeping the executive calm in stressful situations because you are in control of the facts;
  • broadening the scope of the CEO’s understanding because you are always aware of what is happening throughout the organization.
  • sharpening the CEO’s decision-making ability because you know how to communicate with him so he “gets it.”
All of that is to say that you need to function as a leader who support his/her leader.

There is a caveat, however. You can let your insightful advice flow freely in private with an executive but not always in public. Upstaging an executive in public can makes him/her feel less important, less in charge, and less kindly toward you.

For example, I had a difficult one-on-one discussion with a regional president during which I told him diplomatically that his bullish promotional campaign contradicted the corporate communication initiative I had launched to wake everyone up to the dour financial outlook for the company. I would not have done that in a group meeting.

However, once I participated in a meeting with a CEO, my boss, and outsiders during which I made several comments, judiciously timed I thought, that brought clarity to issues. Afterwards, my boss called me into his office and said that, “sometimes, you can be too intelligent.” It sounded like a compliment. It wasn’t.

Avoid upward delegation
A CEO who is outspoken, command-and-control, or exceptionally smart can be intimidating. That can cripple risk-taking and decision making.

Stand tall. Don’t be bullied into sacrificing your expertise and authority by checking out all your ideas and decisions with the CEO. He delegates to you, not you to him/her.

Don't worry about job security. Think more about integrity and your long-term career than job security. Besides, the CEO may shout but is unlikely to fire you for standing up to him. All he can do is say no and hurt your feelings. Big deal. Over time, he will respect your fortitude.

You have a professional (and ethical?) responsibility to present solutions -- not merely suggestions -- to the senior executive. But do so efficiently. One page with the problem/solution defined in the first paragraph beats a tome. A one-on-one discussion with the CEO beats PowerPoints during a staff meeting where some players waste time posturing.

In my experience with him, Al Rockwell, former CEO of Rockwell International, had an amazing ability to bring out efficient solutions among his advisors. In a meeting I attended with other advisors – lawyers, financial experts, etc. – he briefly described the problem he faced. Then, without an agenda, instructions, or pecking order, each advisor succinctly framed the issue and offered solutions from his area of expertise. At the end of the session, Rockwell extracted the best of the comments and declared the single solution he wanted to pursue. Meeting over.

Prevent embarrassment
A senior executive gets embarrassed when he/she does not know something, does not know someone, or does not know the truth. You can help prevent that awkwardness, first, by disciplining yourself to pay attention to details, even minute details (see Details, Details).

To illustrate, a designer who was related to the CEO of the company where I headed communication recommended a gray speckled paper for the annual report. I was sure the CEO would like it a lot. However, I thwarted that possibility – and potential embarrassment -- by pointing out to the designer that those specks might turn up as decimal points in the wrong places in the financial section. Having the New York Stock Exchange stop trading in your stock because of confusion is not an embarrassment a CEO takes well.

Make sure your CEO knows who will be at a particular event and receives a written one-liner about the key attendees that he/she can read en route. The people he greets with that knowledge will be very impressed, and the CEO will be very pleased with you.

The executive needs to know the truth about a situation. If you play the blame game along with others, you do your boss an injustice, not to mention those whose livelihoods will be affected. Untangle the situation, identify contributors, even malefactors, but, again, advise on a solution that prevents over-reaction and executive embarrassment.

5 specific suggestions
  1. The CEO is your best challenge, not your best friend -- even if he invites you to a party at his home.
  2. When your CEO embellishes or distorts the facts in a presentation and glances at you for a head-nod, avoid eye contact.
  3. Spend more time with the people the CEO wants to influence than with the CEO.
  4. Overloading the CEO with reading materials shows that you don’t understand his/her time constraints.
  5. Don’t take your CEO-linked power seriously. As Bob Dylan sings, be kind to the people you see on the way up because you will see them again on the way down.
Information about Jane Klaviter comes from “She Prompts Opera Stars,” Secrets of New York City, by Marjorie Palmer, pp 19-21, ©2002 by Silver Lining Books.

Credit: Photos by Ed Rombout; photo design by Camagine. I highly recommend both professionals.