September 30, 2014
I took a sabbatical from blogging. Actually, I never quit writing. I just quit posting.
“We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.” – Cecil Day Lewis
When I began blogging more than half a decade ago, I gave myself permission to post when I had something to share, and to refrain when I did not. That has worked well for me. Now that I’ve returned to blogging, I’ll still adhere to that rule.
I often write my unedited thoughts in a private journal where they can incubate. Journaling helps me to sort things out, especially during times of transition and confusion. At least ninety percent of my writing is done only for me. I write to understand, and therefore I’m usually the exclusive audience. Although I am a professional communicator, only a small fraction of my writing is shared with others.
In a noisy, cluttered world, we sometimes need to be comfortable with our own solitude and silence. In a fast-paced society that demands immediate results and constant production, we sometimes need to stop and catch our breath.
We need sabbaticals to replenish our energy. We need downtime to incubate ideas. We need periods of silence to nourish creativity that would otherwise wither in the arid atmosphere that permeates where we live and work.
April 22, 2014
I really wish you had been with me in the mayor’s office.
I was in Darrington, Washington, the small logging town hit hard by the March 22 mudslide that destroyed much of the nearby community of Oso. The slide buried about a mile of the highway connecting many of the 450 families in Darrington with their jobs, their grocery shopping and even the shipments to and from their lumber mill.
Though I wasn’t there on vacation, I did enjoy the breathtaking scenery.
On disaster assignment for the American Red Cross, I went to city hall with our district operations manager to talk about our work in the community. When we entered his office, the mayor rose from his desk stacked high with papers and gave us a hearty handshake. He wore a ball cap and flannel shirt – just what a Midwesterner like me would expect to find in a lumber town quietly tucked away high in the Northern Cascades. A faint smile on his unshaven face, however, failed to mask the strain of his mayoral duties.
“Initially we had concerns about giving up space,” he said, referring to the many outside groups that came wanting to help. That’s a typical response from those living in rugged, close-knit and self-reliant communities. “The Red Cross is neutral and I appreciate that,” he said. “Your work here has been stellar.”
While pleased to receive the compliment, I pushed to uncover unmet needs where we could help. “What advice would you give to us at the Red Cross?” I asked. (Here’s where I especially wish you’d been with me.) Without hesitation, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “Keep taking good care of my people.”
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March 27, 2014
“A leader is a dealer in hope.” Napoleon Bonaparte
Hope inspires us to believe that better, brighter times are yet to come.
Last week I participated in three days of intense training near our national headquarters in Washington, D.C. I left filled with hope and optimism after I’d met with some of the top leaders in our organization, (the American Red Cross).
On my flight home, I began thinking about my renewed hope, and the quote from Napoleon Bonaparte pushed its way to the forefront of my mind. “A leader is a dealer in hope.”
I thought about the leaders I’ve admired. They instill hope in others because they have:
- A vision. Leaders know where they are going. They envision what success will look like, and they paint a vivid picture so others can share in that vision. On the final day of last week’s training, our senior vice president for communications sat at my table in the dining room. As I asked him specific questions about the monumental changes occurring within the organization, he responded by saying, “I have a dream.” He then painted a picture of our yet-to-be-realized future. I could see it! I wanted to be part of it!
- A plan. Not only do great leaders know where we are going, they have a plan for how we’ll get there. They may delegate much of the navigation to managers who will guide us through the treacherous terrain, yet they always have a plan.
- Situational awareness. I don’t trust leaders who have a Pollyanna-like optimism. I want to follow someone who comprehends the complexity and challenges of the situation, yet is not daunted by that reality. Good leaders are fully aware they will face obstacles such as the scarcity of finances, the machinations of political opponents and the stubbornness of skeptics. Yet they press on.
- A team. Good leaders know they cannot achieve success alone. They recruit, train and empower competent team members. Like Moses, they have an uncanny way of reminding their followers that we’re all in this together. Although we may spend time wandering in the wilderness, our leaders create teamwork by reminding us we are headed towards the Promised Land that flows with milk and honey.
- Resources. Too many people wallow in inertia, waiting until they are given ample resources. Early in my career a mentor said, “Resources flow to achievers.” That concept stuck with me. Early victories often are achieved with meager resources, but as momentum builds and success becomes a way of life, resources will follow. After all, wise investors want to entrust their resources to leaders who promise a great return on investment.
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February 9, 2014
Paul McCartney shows his guitar to host Ed Sullivan before the Beatles’ live television appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in New York, Feb. 9, 1964. *
Sometimes out of the clear blue, something unexpected happens. You didn’t see it coming. You didn’t fully understand it at the time.
Yet in retrospect you realize you have experienced a watershed moment, an event when everything changed.
Fifty years ago tonight I saw something that had historic significance, though as a young boy I had no idea what was happening.
I was only half watching the TV when Ed Sullivan announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles!” Suddenly, the black and white tube became a magnetic force that drew me closer.
I remember two things about that night.
First, I loved the music. I’d never heard anything like it. At that moment, I became a life-long Beatles fan.
Second, my parents and their friends hated the music. In retrospect, I think they reacted negatively because they were merely unable to comprehend what was happening. After all, the culture at that time looked and sounded nothing like those iconic lads from Liverpool. (Years later, my mom admitted that the Beatles made some pretty good music.) Read the rest of this entry »
January 14, 2014
If you hope to succeed as a professional communicator, you must spend up to half your time engaged in office politics.
I didn’t say it was your fault.
I said I was blaming you. *
I recently gave that advice to a starry-eyed idealist new to her job. That was not what she wanted to hear, though. As a young professional, she dreamed of rising above the political fray and focusing on pure communications. (Oh, what they don’t teach you in school!)
Success in communications requires that you be a savvy politician. Politics, by my definition, is amoral. In other words, it’s neither good nor bad. Politics is how things get done. When you engage in workplace politics, you can either build or you can destroy. Your choice.
Here are several ways I attempt to use office politics to help me succeed as a marketing communications professional:
- Create necessary alliances. Business thrives on partnerships and collaboration. I always want to work on important projects that are much bigger than I can accomplish on my own. Success requires that we align our resources and work together to create the synergy to get the job done.
- Think win-win. If one of us loses, we all lose. I look for ways to help others succeed, though I’m not shy about establishing boundaries and defining what a win looks like on my side of the equation.
- Focus on projects worth doing. I’m only human and can never accomplish everything. Therefore, I must prioritize my work. Negotiating during the prioritization process is very important. Call it politics, if you like, but I try to build a consensus among my co-workers and especially my boss regarding what projects are most important. Read the rest of this entry »
January 1, 2014
In reviewing the past year, I realize I’ve frittered away too much time looking at boring, useless PowerPoint presentations. I’ll never get those hours back.
A presenter and an audience should have real, authentic conversations. Such conversations almost never involve a PowerPoint presentation.
PowerPoint presentations might be helpful when someone is sharing graphs, pictures or other visual content. Too often, though, PowerPoint slides are overcrowded with text that stifle communications, especially when the presenter reads aloud—word-for-word—the endless prose projected onto the screen.
I believe fewer PowerPoints would make this world a better place in which to live, to learn and to work. Do you agree?
Towards that end, I hereby resolve that during the coming New Year I will become a better communicator by minimizing or even eliminating the boring PowerPoints that threaten to clutter my life. Are you with me? Will you join me in this important revolution? Here’s what I commit to do.
When I’m presenting, I resolve to:
- Use PowerPoint only when it is the best option for communicating. Contrary to popular opinion, not every workshop or training session requires a PowerPoint. When I’m in front of an audience, I’d much rather talk with people rather than at them. I want to create an atmosphere where we have an authentic conversation. Yet I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had a real conversation that included a PowerPoint presentation.
- Never create a PowerPoint using bullet points. Okay, there’s a slight chance I’ll break this resolution if I’m trying to explain a hierarchy of ideas. Wouldn’t it be better, though, to create a separate slide for each bullet point? That would make things cleaner and would also keep the slides moving faster.
- Never use complete sentences on a PowerPoint slide. If the audience needs the exact wording of something for future reference, I can provide that in a handout. Otherwise, a couple of keywords or images on the screen will be enough to focus our attention and prompt me to say—in my own words—whatever idea I’m trying convey. Read the rest of this entry »
December 19, 2013
During the past five years I’ve been fortunate enough to meet with hundreds of job seekers and others interested in networking. I value these interactions, and will almost always accept a networking request.
As I think back on those interactions, though, some individuals I met with were more memorable. I best remember those who did the following things:
- They had a purpose for meeting. Knowing why provided purpose and focus for our conversations. Of course, I never expected anyone to develop a detailed, comprehensive agenda before they requested an appointment. Just hearing them say, “I’m in a job search and want to brainstorm ideas” was a great starting point.
- They did not do all the talking. Occasionally, I’ve done all the listening, never having the opportunity to add any value to the conversation. In those rare cases, I just assumed the other person needed moral support as they unloaded their burdens in a stream of consciousness.
- They did not expect me to do all the talking. I never do well when the onus is left entirely upon me to do all the talking. I’ll do what I can to make a conversation lively, but let’s not forget that one hand clapping makes no sound. Read the rest of this entry »
November 25, 2013
Every good writer needs a good editor. The skills required for each are usually contradictory, though. Writing requires creativity whereas editing demands critiquing what has already been created.
Sometimes it works well for a writer to also serve as his or her own editor, though it’s nearly impossible to do both simultaneously.
My daughter is a strong communicator and often edits my blog posts. Recently she suggested this topic, and she even emailed me the following tips on how to edit your own writing:
- Give yourself time to write and then revisit it later. With fresh eyes and a new perspective, it’s usually easier to reword or rewrite the rough draft of your earlier writing.
- Read and then reread. Skim the draft to get your overall reaction to the coherence and flow of the writing. Once it reads the way you want, then go back and edit for spelling and grammar.
- Read your writing aloud. Words sound different when read out loud. Make sure your writing has a certain rhythm and melody.
- Read your writing from the reader’s perspective. When read through the lens of your target audience, does your idea make sense? Is it relevant? In a world full of distractions, is it even interesting?
- Have someone else edit your work. Two minds can collaborate and create something that neither can do as effectively on his or her own.
That’s what my daughter and I did on this post. We both wrote and we both edited. Thanks, Jennifer.
November 6, 2013
I‘m at a new place in my career, somewhere I haven’t been since my first years out of college.
My new reality is that I no longer supervise paid staff. My entire team—except for me—is made up of volunteers.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. Actually, I’m humbled to be surrounded by such an incredible team of people. I even feel a new surge of energy as I look towards the future.
Working with volunteers, though, is different than working with paid staff. For one thing, volunteers are typically motivated differently than employees. Volunteer work schedules require greater flexibility. Creating synergy among a virtual team of volunteers also requires greater creativity and demands that we use innovative ways of communicating with each other.
Things are different now and I need to rethink my entire approach. Read the rest of this entry »
October 16, 2013
During the seven years I’ve been with the American Red Cross, my co-workers and I have weathered many reorganizations. These changes have directly affected each of us. Next week as yet another wave of change crashes ashore, another handful of associates will be washed away.
Change is never easy, yet there are valuable lessons to be learned during a transition. As I have observed organizational changes, I have realized that:
- An employer is not a parent. No one—especially an employer— is going to take care of us unconditionally and look out for our best interests. Perhaps our fathers or grandfathers had that kind of relationship with their employers, but those days are long gone. (On a political side note, I never want to get comfortable with the naive notion that my elected officials will take care of me.)
- Wise people dig their wells before they are thirsty. Networking and personal branding are things that too many people begin doing once they find themselves between jobs. Granted, everyone has to begin sometime, but it’s best to expand your network and build your professional reputation when you are not in a free fall after a job loss.
- Protectors of the status quo are most at risk. Those who are deeply vested in the status quo are most likely to resist change. Change is inevitable and even necessary. As the great basketball coach John Wooden once said, “There is no progress without change,” Of course, he also went on to say, “Not all change is progress.” Granted, not all reorganizations move an organization forward, but any true progress ultimately requires that things be done differently. Read the rest of this entry »