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Archive for July, 2010

“I will tell His Majesty what a king is. A king does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A king does not dine while his men go hungry, nor sleep when they stand at watch upon the wall. A king does not command his men’s loyalty through fear nor purchase it with gold; he earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a king lifts first and sets down last. A king does not require service of those he leads but provides it to them. He serves them, not they him.”

- Xeones, speaking about Leonidas, king of Sparta, after the battle of Thermopylae – From “Gates of Fire,” by Steven Pressfield

All of the precepts of leadership are listed above. Embrace this ethos, and your organization will be on its way to doing great things. Reject it, and the road ahead will be strewn with disappointment and strife. Before we tackle this specific point, let’s take a step back and get our bearings.

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at how and why organizations fail. We talked about myths of success and cultures of failure. We talked a bit about troubled leadership and “fisher kings,” who poison their organizations from the top down by infusing their culture with their own dysfunctions.

Today, we’re going to talk a little bit about what motivates people to excel, and in the absence of motivation or drive, what sets them up to fail.

I am so full of proverbs and sayings and clichés, right now, I don’t even know where to begin.

Alexander, Richard Branson and your boss: A tale of love and leadership

“There are no bad boat crews. Only bad leaders.” – Navy SEAL saying

I just started reading the The Virtues of War, by Steven Pressfield. (Yes, the guy who wrote Gates of Fire, which I quoted at the beginning of this post.) It tells the story of Alexander the Great, from his childhood to the end of his campaigns, a man who conquered most of the known world before his thirty-third birthday. I am only forty pages into it, but already, it’s fascinating to consider that at only 16, he led 1/3 of his father’s army into battle, his squadron facing Greece’s fiercest warriors (who crushed even the Spartans), and won the day against men better equipped, better trained and just as valorous as Leonidas’ famous 300.

At 16, I couldn’t have led a street gang, much less generals and an army. So aside from being the son of a king, how did he do it? How did he get these men to trust him, to have faith in him, to surge into battle with him and fight until the day was won, instead of simply letting him ride along and take credit for his generals’ work?

One of the answers the book explores is the fact that – aside from being charismatic, clever as hell and already a master tactician before hitting puberty – his men loved him. From his generals to the rank and file, they just loved him. They respected him. Had faith in him. They followed him into battle because they trusted his genius, admired his courage, and felt elevated to be at his back.

Think about your favorite person in the world. Someone you admire above all. A politician, a military commander, an artist, a CEO, an agency principal… Whatever. Whomever. Think about the person you would kill to work for or serve under.

Apple’s Steve Jobs?

Virgin’s Richard Branson?

President Obama?

Ford’s Scott Monty?

Steven Spielberg?

Insert blank here.

Imagine your first day. How it would feel waking up that morning. How it would feel at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, when things suddenly quieted down for a few minutes and you had time to reflect on where you are, living the dream, actually BEING there. How it would feel that evening, sitting at home, thinking back on your day. The smile on your face. The excitement pulling at every fiber in your body.

Now imagine your hundredth day. Your 500th. Your 1000th, still working for the one person you admire the most in the world. Someone whose trust and respect you’ve earned by now. Someone who seeks your advice and opinion, who puts your ideas and insights forward. Someone who inspires you to be the best that you can be, and makes you feel like your work is important and valuable. Every day.

Imagine waking up every morning filled with a sense of purpose as warm to the soul as a sunny spring afternoon.

An organization filled with people who feel that way cannot fail. Morale, not technology, not tools, not training, wins the day. Morale is everything.

Morale creates the difference between good boat crews and bad boat crews during BUDs (a weeks-long grueling SEAL selection process), and as we now know, “there are no bad boat crews. Only bad leaders.”

Now imagine working for someone you dislike. Someone who doesn’t inspire you. Someone who wouldn’t miss you if you were laid off tomorrow. I am not even talking about being forced to work for a sociopath, here. Just someone who doesn’t really care about his or her staff all that much. Someone who would be hard-pressed to inspire loyalty from anyone under their authority.

Imagine your 1000th day working for this person. Imagine the quality of work you and the rest of the staff would be in the habit of producing.

If there’s a clue in this discussion, it is this: You are the same person regardless of your boss. Same personality. Same upbringing. Same skills and wants and needs. It could even be the exact same job in the same office at the same desk. The only thing that changes is the boat leader. Your boss. Your captain. Consider the difference in both motivation and effect between the leader who inspires you, and the one who does not. The one you could be loyal to, and the other.

Consider then, the importance of love in the equation, and furthermore, the importance of certain key human qualities – of human virtues – in leadership. I’m not kidding. Pause. Sit back. Take a few minutes.

Now consider the reasons why you selected your hypothetical dream boss at the beginning of this discussion. What qualities do you admire in them? What draws you to their legend? What makes you love them enough to name them as your ideal boss?

The virtues of leadership, mind you, don’t always include kindness.

The young officer and the veterans

I “earned” my lieutenant’s bars at 21, and on the first day of my very first command, standing before an assembly of curious petty officers, I swiftly arrived at the conclusion that didn’t know shit. This was my first practical management experience: Being the new acting XO for a company of Fusiliers Marins (French Navy Marines), whose rank and file all knew their jobs much better than I did.

Which wasn’t hard, since I was fresh out of OCS.

So here I was, my bags yet unpacked and still in my dress uniform, addressing a group of grizzled, rotten bastards who were there at least as much out of sordid curiosity as professional courtesy. To them, I was new meat. Nothing more. They stood there, sizing me up, wondering who among them would do the honors of explaining how things really worked. The “No offence, Lieutenant, but…”

I knew the score.

It occurred to me, as I was about to address this assembly of cutthroats, that nothing in my training had prepared me for this. Nothing. Crawling in the mud, sure. Shooting at paper targets, definitely. Driving attack boats at high speed, boarding ships in the dark, fast-roping out of helicopters, blowing up tank carcasses and storming fake towns, absolutely. But I had no idea how to get these guys to respect me, to trust me, to work for me for any other reason than that they had to. They weren’t going to make it easy for me. These men were mostly there because they were head cases. Discipline flunkies. All decorated veterans, brave men with more guts than sense, but too clever and independent and difficult to manage even for a corps like the FUSCOS. This was the assignment I had requested, out of misplaced bravado and contempt for some of my glory-chasing classmates, and the full reality of it now stood before me, smirking like two dozen hungry hyenas in on a private joke. I was, as they say, fuckered.

So here’s what I did. I sat down and invited them to sit too. I introduced myself, and asked them to introduce themselves as well. We went around the room, and then I told them something very close to this:

“J’ai tout a apprendre…” Oh, hang on. Let’s do this in English.

“I have everything to learn, and I came here specifically to learn it from you.” I pointed to my beautiful new épaulettes adorned with my brand new gold bars. Some scoffed. I nodded. “I’ve been an officer for less than a day. The reality of the thing is that I won’t truly be an officer until you’ve made me one.  All of you.” I paused and looked around the room. “I won’t be an officer until you, to a man, have made me your Lieutenant. I came here because you’re the biggest assholes in the Navy, and if I can’t get you lot to make me into a half way decent officer, then I’m beyond help.” I looked around the room to see their reactions.  “Any questions?”

They were stunned. Many of them laughed. I even saw in the eyes of a few of them a glimmer of what might have been acknowledgment and respect. I only won over a few of them that day, but that was more than I needed. It was a start.

Without getting too far into my little war stories, here’s what I learned during my time as a young officer: The men who loved me went the extra mile. They excelled because they wanted to. Those who didn’t went nowhere. This was a lesson well learned, and one we will revisit before we’re done here today.

Beyond this, the facts of my service as an officer were this: Reenlistments doubled. Aptitude scores skyrocketed. We began to be invited to train with elements of the Foreign Legion’s 4th Regiment, which was no small feat. I was reprimanded by my superiors both within the FUSCO and the larger base itself more often than I can recall for all sorts of shenanigans. I constantly broke the rules – or at least stretched them. My direct superior’s assessment was that I was too close to my men. The base commander’s general assessment was that I was a pain his ass… but that I had the virtue of being interesting. In spite of our difference of rank, we became good friends. Even with all this turmoil, I managed to find myself decorated in the summer of 1993, less than a year into my military service for what the Navy called “exceptional service,” though to this day, I have no idea what I did to deserve that medal except cause trouble.

Case in point: I had a petty officer under my command quietly removed from my unit. A guy with twenty years of service. A veteran of Lebanon and countless campaigns in Africa. A war hero, once. But (there’s always a “but”) he had a temper and abused his men. My men. Whatever kind of man he had been in the past had been replaced by something else altogether. I suppose peace can be hard on a man who lives only for war. Good warriors don’t always make good leaders. There is more to the business of soldiering than courage under fire and a propensity for violence. For months, I tried to steer him in a different direction. I failed. We had an altercation. He moved on. There’s a lesson in this too, one of humility and resignation, and we’ll also revisit this story before the end of this post.

But the story I want to tell you now, is how on a sunny summer day, because I hadn’t yet done enough to distinguish myself as complete screw-up, I told off a full-bird colonel, because  like my troubled petty officer, he was taking a dump on my men. And that, my friends, was not okay with me. The honor of being a pain in their rumps fell to me and me alone. (Don’t worry, there’s a lesson in this too. A big one.) Here’s what happened:

The barracks incident

The colonel wanted to move his reservists into our barracks and make my men sleep in tents. We were about to begin two weeks of maneuvers with a reserve unit from the Army, guys who in time of war would be called upon to put on a uniform, gather around the base to defend it, and then surrender at the first sign of the enemy.

Let me clarify a few things before I go on, so you don’t think I was being insolent for the sake of being difficult. My men could have slept in tents for a week without trouble, (they were all used to far worse) but it was the principle of the thing: The colonel didn’t understand how territorial men in a military unit can be. He came in on their turf (our turf) and treated very well trained men like rabble. What he did showed a dangerous and insulting absence of respect for men who were not even under his command. Although his rank far exceeded mine and his operational authority overlapped my own chain of command, his “insult” couldn’t go unanswered. I set him straight. It was as simple as that. But the consequences of this act, as witnessed by my men, proved to be of some importance.

Back to our story.

The reservists – there by law, mostly against their will – were a problem. They clearly didn’t want to be there, did not enjoy military life, and had a vicious disposition towards my men, other naval personnel on base, and especially women in uniform. My men were under strict orders from me to avoid any and all confrontations. To ignore insults and taunts, to back away from challenges, and to be as cordial to each and every reservist as if they were foreign dignitaries. It was difficult given that my men were proud and intolerant of disrespect, but this, they did. For me.

The reservists, actually, were more than just “a problem”. They were hooligans of the worst sort: Weak of mind and body, petty, rude and completely undisciplined. Those among them who might have been okay fell in pace with the agitators among them: The loud-mouthed jokers who know how to seize the attention of impressionable men looking to be included in a pack. It didn’t help that the Army officers in charge of managing them were afraid of inciting a mutiny by enforcing proper discipline. We treated the reservists like brothers, in spite of everything. We trained and drilled with them all day. We took them on night patrols to teach them the ropes. We slowly but surely started to make them into soldiers again. As much as we could anyway. By the end of the two weeks, we had started to form bonds with them. The animosity, the negativity, the lack of respect… All of it had been replaced with the seeds of camaraderie, professionalism and what the Greeks called dynamis: The will to fight, or the fighting spirit. We might have made warriors out of them yet. (A few months with us, and who knows?)

(There is a story within the story about the final exercise in which a small detachment of my men and I fought against these two companies of reservists and half of my Marines, in which I got in pretty serious trouble for kidnapping the base commander in the middle of the night and scaring his wife half to death. I won the exercise and received the biggest arse chewing of my career, but that is a tale for another day.)

A week before the exercise, half way through the reservists’ training, arrived a colonel who oversaw the deployment and command of every reserve unit in the Army’s Mediterranean theater. This was the man I would offend.

Half way through the afternoon of his arrival, I noticed my men moving all of their gear from our barracks and into the reservists’ field tents. Confused, I asked one of my squad leaders to tell me what was going on. He explained that he and the other petty-officers had been ordered by the colonel himself to swap bunks with the reservists. They were to take over the tents and surrender their barracks to the colonel’s pet monkeys. No one was particularly happy about it, but orders were orders. I told him to order the men to grab their gear and put it back where it belonged: In their barracks. There would be an inspection before shift change. He stared at me in silence, not daring to say anything. I knew what he was thinking. I repeated my order. He nodded and relayed the order to the rest of the men, who stopped and stared at him, then me. I called to one of my men, a K9 specialist who was on duty that day to fetch the colonel.

Moments later, the man emerged from the officers’ mess and greeted me with all the contempt he could muster: Me, a mere lieutenant. What could I possibly want? I saluted him and nodded towards the tents of the reservists, where my men were now busy removing their belongings and his were busy moving back in. I let him take in the sight, and asked him what he saw. He answered that he could see my men disobeying his orders. He was furious. I calmly watched my men and his, busy setting things right, and told him he was wrong.

“What you are seeing is my men obeying my orders,” I explained.

He turned beet red with rage.

I calmly explained that my men, unlike his, had a mission to perform, that our unit and the base itself were operational (one of only two naval bases in France, in fact, with such a high level of security and strategic priority), and that under no circumstances would their mission be jeopardized by his reservists because they were too soft to sleep in tents. I went on to remind him that, charged as I was with this mission, that because it superseded all else and we were not under his authority, with all due respect to his rank, my men, under my orders, would not sleep in his piece of crap army tents while his miscreants slept in comfortable beds they hadn’t yet earned.

Sensing that something was happening, my men edged towards us to try and hear what we were talking about, but a stern look in their direction made them keep their distance.

The colonel started yelling. He gave me very mean looks and flailed his arms about while he went on about ending my career and having me dragged before the President himself. I crossed my arms and listened until he was done. I then told him that if he wanted to discuss it further, he could take it up with the base commander whose authority I was actually under.

He did.

Within the hour, I was summoned. Phone calls had been made to Headquarters. Someone at the Ministry of Defense had even called from Paris to find out what was going on. You think old women spread gossip fast? You haven’t seen anything until you’ve been in the Navy. Our little tent and barracks incident was the talk of the fleet.

The dressing-down that followed was epic. The base commander, shadowed by his XO – the Marine Company commander, my boss – spent a good fifteen minutes yelling at me in his office. I stood there and took it, as was expected. Fifteen minutes was somewhat of a record for him. I started rooting for him after about ten or eleven. I am sure his clerks outside were keeping track of the time as I was, only grinning ear to ear from the safety of their offices.

Finally, he couldn’t keep a straight face anymore and broke into laughter. He told me he thought the colonel was a prick too. So did half the Navy. I wasn’t in trouble at all. He just wanted to see me sweat it out.

The colonel was gone by the time I returned to my men. Back to his headquarters he returned, no doubt bent on having my head delivered to him on a platter. (It remained, to his chagrin, very much attached.) The reservists were quiet. My men, smirking, saluted me with a little more zest than usual. I told them to cut it out. It didn’t help. The damage was done. To mark the occasion and ensure there wouldn’t be too much resentment over the incident, I took them all on a night march, Marines and reservists, explaining that this whole adventure had all been for naught since no one would be sleeping in barracks or a tent that night anyway. They didn’t seem to mind.

Things changed after that day. Not because I was a great officer (I was actually a pretty lackluster officer), not because I was a badass warrior (I was a wuss) or the best shot or the fastest runner or the most charismatic guy on base. I was none of these things. All I had done was stand up for them in a way that perhaps no one ever had, and that I had done so for something as insignificant as beds and a roof over their heads didn’t hurt.

Imagine your boss standing up for you the way I stood up for them. Imagine how you would feel about him the next day, when he smiled at you and asked you how you were doing. Imagine how much you would be willing to give when he next asked something of you.

Now imagine that to top it all off, your father, assuming you had even grown up knowing him, had never stood up for you either. (Most of my men were under the age of 20, and at least half came from broken homes.)

But this isn’t the lesson yet. This story isn’t about me. I am just the one telling it. There’s more.

The wisdom of old warriors, and the secret of leadership

A month and a half later, the commander of the naval special forces (COFUSMA), during a surprise inspection of our unit, took me aside and asked me how I had managed to turn the unit around. I told him I hadn’t done anything except train the men as ordered.

He grinned and told me I was full of shit.

His right hand man, a guy who without his uniform and his rows of decorations would have looked more like a Belgian antiques dealer than the badass super soldier he was, later invited me to walk with him. For once, I didn’t disobey a direct order, he noted. I was making progress. There may be hope for me yet. All of those commando old-timers were smartasses.

We chatted for a while. He asked me where I was from, what I wanted to do with my life, the countries I wanted to visit… It went on for a while. At one point, when he was satisfied that we were well beyond the need for small talk, he stopped and turned to me, and asked me the same question COFUSMA had asked me before: How had I managed to turn the unit around? A year before, it had been a dump for discipline cases. It had the lowest morale scores in the Navy. The least amount of reenlistments. Interventions and readiness scores were mediocre. Yet on this day, before COFUSMA and his staff, the unit had been tested and retested, and our scores exceeded those of the top Marine units in the country. Morale was higher than in any other unit he had visited so far that year. More of my men were returning to commando units than from any other Marine unit unit in the Navy. How had I managed to turn things around? A rookie. A 21-year-old kid with a cracker-jack bar on his shoulder, no command experience whatsoever and a knack for getting in trouble.

What I wanted to say – and what I still firmly believe – was “luck?”

He stared at me for a long time and smiled. As it turns out, he knew the answer to the question even if I didn’t. “I’ll tell you,” he said. “Every other guy who comes here to do this job, for as long as I can remember, he goes to Lorient, he gets his bars, he comes here, he leaves, another one comes and takes his place. That’s it. You too. But the difference is this: You care about them more than you care about you. And about these.” He gestured to my bars.

I protested. I told him that wasn’t the case. He put his hand on my shoulder to quiet me and continued. “Not all the time. Not even most of the time. But when it matters. When it matters, you put yourself last. And they notice.”

I didn’t know what to say. I felt like a fraud. The reason why I wasn’t afraid for my job was because I knew I wasn’t in for good. This wasn’t going to be my career. I didn’t care if I never got promoted. Besides, I still had my share of enemies on base, people rooting against me, hoping to see me fail. He told me he knew all that. That all of my predecessors had been in the same boat (forgive the pun).

“Your men aren’t indifferent to you, Olivier. They don’t mock or resent you, the way they mock and resent other officers from the EOR program. They love you. Not all of them and not all of the time, you aren’t that good, but enough of them and when it matters. That’s the bond you have with them. They’ll always be loyal to you because you’re loyal to them. And just like you only show them that loyalty when it counts, so do they only show you theirs when it counts. They know they can depend on you, and that’s rare. That’s how it works. Leadership is a handshake. It’s a quid pro quo of respect, empathy and honesty. You give and they give back in kind. That‘s the secret of leadership.”

Then he said this: “What you probably don’t see, however, and something you should be careful about, is that you crave their approval the same way they crave yours. It’s a double-edged sword.” With this, he taught me temperance. He reminded me that there is a line between leadership and friendship. That seeking the approval of your men, of your staff, can be dangerous.

I thought back to my first day with the petty officers.  The speech I gave them. He knew where my mind was at that moment. He had come up in the ranks with several of them. They stayed in touch. Some of my closest allies on base had turned out to be lifelong friends of his. He knew everything I had done since taking my command.

I asked then what I should do. He grinned and clapped me on the shoulder. He told me to keep doing what I was doing. And that was that.

I left military life behind at the end of my tour some months later. Part of me always regretted it, and it’s fair to say that I still miss it every day, but I don’t think I was meant for military life. Not in France, anyway. Too many generals and not enough action. Never a good combination.

At any rate, 18 years later, here I am, finding the same lessons spelled out in Steven Pressfield’s books about Leonidas and Alexander, and suddenly compelled  to write these long ass posts.

The lessons then, and what this has to do with the psychology of failure

And now, the lessons:

(I know. You could have just scrolled down to this paragraph. Sorry. I forgot to mention that.)

Leadership is love.

That’s it.

Okay, but seriously?

Yes. Seriously. And here’s what’s else:

The way you engineer a culture of failure is by doing the exact opposite of everything I wrote about in this post. Here’s how it’s done. This is how it starts (Sorry, SP, I took the liberty of turning one of your paragraphs into the opposite of what it actually states):

I will tell His Majesty what a fool is. A fool abides within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A fool dines while his men go hungry and sleeps when they stand at watch upon the wall. A fool commands his men’s loyalty through fear and purchases it with gold; he never earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a fool assigns others to lift in his stead. A fool requires service of those he leads without ever providing it to them. They serve him, not he them.

– (What Xeones might have said if asked to speak about the exact opposite of a good leader.)

Leadership is not an entitlement. Cultures of failure, the psychology of failure in organization begins with the opposite of love: It begins with fear and selfishness. It begins with the word my.

My bonus.

My promotion.

My project.

My office.

My job, and no, you can’t have it.

What is mine, I can lose. It can be taken away from me. This puts me at odds with everyone else because it puts my self interest above everyone else’s. My brothers now become a threat. I begin to regard everyone with suspicion. Silos emerge. Whips appear.  The illusion of control replaces dynamism. Before you know it, the organization begins to turn against itself from within.

I am reminded of a group VP I once worked for, who before every quarter-end would fire staff if her P&L showed she came shy of her bonus.

This is poison.

When leadership ceases to be about entitlement and perks, about bigger salaries and nicer offices, when it becomes service instead of power, it returns to its pure and effective form. Not that any of these things need to be removed from the equation, mind you. It’s just that they don’t matter. They’re the surface, not the substance.

Another thing I learned during my time in uniform, and what was later confirmed in every position I’ve held since is this: People will shine if you give them a reason to. And everyone, yes everyone can shine.

In the same way, people will fail if you give them a reason to. It goes both ways.

There are no bad boat crews. Only bad leaders.

Two last little bits, and I’ll let you go.

1. The first is this: If I sometimes shone as an officer – and not everyone was of the opinion that I did – it wasn’t because I was wise enough to be popular with my men, whether by accident or design. The truth is that I looked up to several of the petty officers I met on that first day. How could I not? I was 21 and they were in their late thirties. They were badasses: Confident, experienced, great at their jobs, they were everything I wanted to be. After my little speech, a group of them took me under their wing. They mentored me. They blessed me with the courtesy of their respect and exemplary behavior before their men, putting aside pride and personal feelings of scorn for an officer so young, and treated me as if I were worthy of their best salutes… which I wasn’t.

There are lazy salutes and there are snappy ones. You learn to know the difference. These guys snapped to as if I had been Charles De Gaulle himself. That, more than any other thing, inspired me to be the officer they thought I could be. It set the tone for the rest of the unit to give me a chance to serve them with the gratitude and awe they deserved.

It was them. It was always them.

And it didn’t hurt that the base commander himself, by granting me his affection and protecting me as he did, gave me license to be the officer my unit needed in order to get back on its feet.

The more I gave, the more it gave back. The more it gave back, the more I found myself compelled to dig even deeper and give more.

Leadership is a trust.

2. Here’s the last one, and it speaks directly to failure. My failure. It deals with the petty officer who left my command under what could best be described as unfortunate circumstances. He had been a good man once. Probably. At least a good soldier. As a section leader in my company though, he had become poison. It had begun long before my time, but as an officer, his officer, I failed him. There are no bad boat crews. Only bad leaders.

For months, I tried to reason with him. He scorned me. The man had no more respect for me than he did for his men. He wasn’t alone in his dislike for me, but he was the only one who expressed it openly. Nothing I tried worked. I simply couldn’t get through to him. I spoke to his peers and asked for their advice. They tried to settle things among themselves, which failed as well. He was a bully. He was angry with everything. He didn’t want to be there. As the entire unit fell into place, he made himself a wedge and pushed back. He taunted me. At every turn, he challenged me. My men didn’t have to say what they thought. I knew that I couldn’t let it go on: My authority was at stake. My very ability to command. If I allowed him to defy me any longer, I would lose their respect and loyalty, no matter how much they liked me. No matter how many colonels I stood up to. And there was the other issue: That it was my job to protect them, and if I couldn’t do that, what good was I?  At only 21, I didn’t know what to do. I eventually ran out of options and it came to a confrontation. It’s what he wanted and it’s what he got.

The outcome was this: He left. I stayed. By morning, workers had already patched up the walls of my office and repaired the broken glass of the windows. The desks and chairs were returned to their proper place. It was as if nothing had happened. No one spoke of it openly outside of the official inquiry, which was itself swift. He was transfered, then offered early retirement. I made sure his record wasn’t tarnished by his undistinguished final years in uniform. A man’s life work shouldn’t be invalidated by only a fraction of it.

The immediate problems of morale, abuse and my ability to command were solved that day, and his departure was as if a weight had been lifted from the entire unit’s shoulders. His friends did not become my enemies. I was told I had done the right thing. My mentors offered to buy me a round of drinks. But I never saw it as a win. Neither did my superiors, who expressed their disappointment in me. The culture of the Fusiliers was such, though, that in the absence of a better course of action, only this one remained: A good old duel. Two rams locking horns. The dumbest form of problem solving on the face of the earth. In the end, it came down to that, but I wish it hadn’t. This also is not a great way to resolve management problems in the civilian world, by the way (though there, transferring or firing people can be a bit easier).

Cultures of failure are resilient. They grab hold of the ground like a weed and don’t let go. If you allow them to take root inside an organization, they grow and eventually take over. In the best of worlds, you find the wisdom not to fight them, not to defeat them, not to allow them to brace themselves against you and become an enemy. In the best of worlds, you can inspire them to turn themselves around, you can win them over with reason and affection and virtue. Sometimes though, as I found out in this instance, no such luck. But you still have to do what you have to do. Leadership is also about having to make hard decisions in impossible conditions, about having to choose between two bad solutions when no good one is available. Sometimes, leadership is as much about minimizing failure as it is engineering wins. It isn’t for everybody. It’s tough on the nerves and hard on the soul, but for those who want it, it’s there, at once beautiful and terrible, elating and terrifying, infinitely rewarding yet relentlessly unforgiving. You never quite figure it all out, but as long as you press on, the wind tends to stay mostly at your back.

Thanks for sticking around to the end. I felt like telling stories today.

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On madness, models of failure, and the mythology of past successes

I have been thinking a lot about success and failure in business this past week, and about behavioral patterns and common cultural factors I invariably find in organizations that breed either one outcome or the other. I will dive deeper into this topic over the coming weeks, but for now, today, I want to show you something. Something that, at first glance, I found funny. Not knee-slapping, LOL-inducing haha-funny, mind you. Something funny yet tragic, because it illustrates not only the stupidity of the way some organizations cling to anachronistic models of failure, but the absurdity of it in its whole.

We’ll get to that in a minute, but let’s just say that what I received today, what prompted this post, made me wonder about the sanity of the person who thought it wise to send it to me. And this made me think about why some managers insist on never letting go of strategies and tactics which they know don’t work.

Point #1: Knowing full well that a method, tool or model no longer yields the desired outcome (assuming it ever did), some organizations will continue to bet on it, in the hopes that the laws of the universe will shift in the night and miraculously turn a completely ludicrous project into success.

The partial email I will share with you may make many of you chuckle, as I chuckled when I read through the first few sentences, but in truth, there really isn’t anything funny about it, and here’s why: As extreme as this example of stupidity may seem, the principles which guided the hand of a business to drive this campaign, to assign resources to it (writers, staff, computers, software licenses, chairs, desks, office space, electricity, lights, etc.) are no different from the principles that guide tens of thousands of companies to also cling to their own proven methods of failure.

That organizations, then, would cling to such ill-advised models in the face of logic, in the face of common sense even, I can almost understand. Not every organization or department is helmed by the sharpest mind of its generation. I get that. But more shocking to me is that this type of absurd behavior – this level of abject stupidity when it comes to discerning between effective and ineffective models – occurs in face of facts, and by that, I mean hard data and history, ignored, pushed aside in favor of a mythology of past successes.

Let the notion sink in for a moment. Mythology of past successes. The myth that the organization was once successful, and the further notion that the methods it employed then, if employed now, will restore it onto its successful path. A past success, mind you, that more often than not only exists in the minds of those who cling to its dream, therefore invalidating the very methods which they so revere.

Point #2: Imaginary past successes and glories are potent illusions – they aim to set the stage for future ones after all – but as poisonous and lethal as memories of painful lost loves: Embellished over time by the mind’s gentle healing hand, polished to a high sheen that grows brighter in magnificence with every passing year.

A man, in the embrace of weakness, can find himself trading the inconvenience of reality for the comfort of such an illusion, and as the mind is trained to do in order to help us survive tragedy, begin to turn the pain and reality of failure into something seemingly beautiful and pure. Faced with the prospect of further failure, facts go out the window. Reality seeks to be disproved. The mind begins to look for safety and comfort.  All that eventually remains is the legend of “the good old days,” and the notion that a higher power (even in the form of abstract “business cycles”) will come and make things right if only one perseveres in holding on to the past long enough.

Fisher Kings, organizational dysfunction, and engineering cultures of failure

This is something a C.E.O. told me years ago, when he and I were discussing the future of his company: “This is how we’ve always done it. It’s always worked for us. We’re not about to start doing it differently now.”

Except it hadn’t worked in twenty years, everyone knew it – as I suspect he did as well – yet there he was, defending the sanctity of a model that had already begun to fail a full generation ago and showed no promise of deliverance whatsoever. Embattled and failing, the company yet refused to let go of a past it had turned for itself into legend. Religion, even. This man, this grown man, clung to the safety of a myth of success the way an anxious child in the face of uncertainty clings to the hand of his mother.

The reality of the company’s past “success,” (the basis, in his mind, for the inevitable return of fortune as foretold by his internal narrative – the myth he created for himself over years of wishful thinking) was that the company had never, in fact, been all that successful. It had struggled, as all companies do, for market share, for growth, for loyal customers. What success it had enjoyed for a time had been hard-earned and modest at best.  There had never been glory. There had never been true sustained market leadership. The man sitting across from me was operating under a spell of denial which he had – over time – infused into his organization. The Fisher King retold.

One doesn’t have to be clinically insane to act like a madman but this one, afflicted as he was by his fears, by his bitterness, by his anger, by his own inner demons of self-doubt and shame, in retreating into a world of make-believe, was in fact acting like a madman: Working against all reason and common sense. Rather than steer his ship to warmer waters and favorable winds clearly discernible just ahead, he chose to keep to the murky, brackish waters he now believed had once been a glorious ocean. He painted himself the C.E.O. of a successful company, whose brand would someday regain dominance. A dominance to be regained again as its birthright, or so the tale went inside his head. This in spite of inaction, of denial, of stupidity and a surprising level of arrogance.

The places we allow ourselves to drift to and die, out of fear and out of shame. Both one and the same.  (If you hate your job, consider this a tap on the shoulder: How long do you intend to wait there in misery?)

This was the company I had been hired to rescue. I almost did, but only almost. I don’t always succeed. I managed to drag it back from the brink, to show them the way, even to pave it for them, but the last step, they had to take for themselves: Making the decision to change. To let go of their ghosts and commit to a fresh start.

Not everyone, though, has the courage to unfurl their sails.

The Greek perspective, and methods of failure

If I were an ancient Greek, I would talk about fear and anxiety in terms of spirits and possession. Not spirits as in demons, the way we think of them now, but the spirits of love, anger, hatred, fear, cowardice, envy… Emotions given life and will and power over our lives by us, their willing vessels.

The Spartans believed that blood lust in the middle of battle, for example, was possession – and something to avoid at all cost. Despair can be possession. Fury. Jealousy. Terror. Love. Enthusiasm. Every type of feeling can take us over. Overwhelm us. Crimes of passion are the result of possession. Brawling with fans of a rival football team is the result of possession. Understanding this is understanding something about human behavior, not just 3,000 years ago but today as well. Perhaps especially so.

We yet have much to learn from the Greeks.

Looking at human behavior from that perspective, whatever spirit possessed this man, this unfortunate C.E.O., I have met many times since. Different offices, different cities, different letters on the doors and the lobby walls and the business cards, but always the same madness. The same visceral need to create then cling to myths of success, and along with them proven methods of failure: Decisions and actions that led to their ship remaining in irons, year after year, in the false safety of a cove that in fact had become its grave. Cultures of failure start here. In this manner. Engineered by the dysfunctions of an individual ill-suited to lead an organization.

When mediocrity and failure are hailed as glory and success, take a bearing: Relativism doesn’t apply to victory. It only serves to paint defeat into something more palatable. It is the fuel of denial. Flipping success and failure on their heads so that one suddenly becomes mistaken for the other is madness as well.

Point #3: Failure in organizations, in business, in projects and campaigns isn’t always the result of luck or fate or circumstances. Sometimes it is (though I would caution against looking at obstacles and challenges, even the most seemingly insurmountable odds as anything but opportunity), but just as often, failure is engineered, constructed from within, given birth to and shaped, fostered, nurtured, encouraged and fed daily – like a creature.

The truth of failure, true failure, is that it lies not in circumstance but at the intersection of weakness and method. In the weakness that drives some men to shun the fight and the challenge which are the price of both success and victory, and to instead embrace illusion, relativism (characterized by endless strings of excuses) and the type of insanity that makes them act against their own best interest: Ignoring facts. Declaring success when none exists. Continuing down a clear path of failure. Adopting failure as a method.

Symptoms vs. Disease: Digging beneath superficial absurdity to find its cause

However extreme the following example may seem to us, scores of companies insist on clinging to equally ridiculous and completely ineffective methods of conducting business, albeit not quite as spectacular in their awfulness. Yet… outside of execution – or the manifestation of this type of nonsense, as seen below – compulsive adherence to methods of failure is in no way different in its path to what led to this example, and remains equally absurd.

Here it is, the first paragraph from an email like millions of others just like it, which we consider spam, yet someone, somewhere considers marketing:

I sincerely ask for forgiveness for I know this may seem like a complete intrusion to your privacy
but right about now this is my best option ofcommunication. This mail might come to you as a
surprise and the temptation to ignore it as frivolous could come into your mind, but please
consider it a divine wish and accept it with a deep sense of humility. This letter must surprise you
because we have never meet before neither inperson nor by correspondence, but I believe that,
it takes just one day to meet orknow someone either physically or through correspondence.

Ridiculous? Of course it is. It’s spam – and bad spam at that. But you know what?  The company that paid for it thinks this works, that this utterly ludicrous bit of email content is the best way to get me to click on a button or surrender personal information. And while we laugh at the stupidity of it, wondering in the backs of our minds what kind of manager or business owner would believe, in this day and age, that something like this is a method of success, it is in no way different from a manager or business owner in Kansas City, Charlotte, London or Chicago believing that their own brand of ineffective, outdated, business development method will somehow yield better results than it has until now.

Point #4: The absurdity of embracing methods of failure is not measured by the depth of stupidity characterizing their execution – like really awful copy, as seen in the above example,- but rather by the fervor with which failure-blind managers cling to their own delusions in spite of everything they know.

It’s tragic.

I don’t say this lightly. It is soul-crushing to see professional men and women – not organizations but human beings of flesh and blood, like me – so blinded, so possessed by layer upon layer of bullshit that they are no longer able to tell up from down, right from wrong, smart from stupid. Confused and lost in the wilderness of a world that has outpaced them, they cling to a made-up version of it, one they can feel comfortable and safe with, even if it doesn’t actually exist.

In this world, what they know, what they believe, even if it is completely absurd, holds more truth for them than the reality they refuse to accept. This shielding mechanism, this search for comfort and security in an idealized version of the past, of the “good old days,” makes every new idea alien and dangerous. A threat. They begin to regard progress at best as suspect, and at worst as a betrayal of their “ideals.”

In the same way that children invent for themselves imaginary worlds in play, adults sometimes invent for themselves worlds in fear. We see this with religion and politics, with extremism. We also see it in the business world: Some of these adults apply this mechanism to their professions, often with dreadful consequences.

When I hear a C.E.O. scoff condescendingly at Social Business, aiming to belittle and ridicule it as “something the kids do,” something legitimate businesses don’t need, a waste of time, a fad, a pile of crap, I don’t feel frustration anymore. I feel pity. Pity for the man, pity for the organization, pity for its future. Hell, I feel sadness because I know the fear that lives at the heart of the attitude that nurtured the opinion behind the comment. More importantly, I know instantly that the organization “led” by this person is crippled by methods of failure. And because the pattern of such dysfunction doesn’t deviate all that much from company to company, I can start mapping it out on paper without having to hear another word.

Point #5: When you understand a leader’s weakness, you know how his organization is failing.

Organizations that shun rather than embrace progress, whose default position is to embrace new ideas in meetings but somehow never manage to implement them, organizations that refuse to acknowledge or enable change from within or without, these organizations are all the same. Every single one. Identifying them is the first step. Understanding them follows. Beyond that, expect a bumpy ride.

Word to the wise: Not everyone is cut out to be an agent of change. If you can visualize your career, imagine the path of least resistance. Now imagine the complete opposite. More often than not, change is war.

Time to revisit the definitions of insanity and failure

It’s been said that the definition of insanity is to repeat the same action over and over again, expecting a different result each time.

I disagree.

Perseverance, then, would be insanity. Tenacity also. I reject that definition. Conditions change: The same action repeated enough times can and often does yield different results, and we intrinsically know it. From adaptation to probability, we know that results may vary. We put it in fine print on just about everything.

The exact same spin of the ball in a game of roulette will have it land on a different number each time. The same lotto numbers played week after week will yield a different relationship to the winning numbers arrived at elsewhere. The same degree of effort on the field of practice will result in physical and mental changes over time. And so it goes. Because conditions vary, repetition in the face of failure alone does not constitute insanity. What I propose instead is this, that the definition of insanity is to repeat the same action you know cannot yield the desired outcome over and over again, expecting a different result.

Insanity is deliberately choosing a method of failure over a method of success (or even an infinite range of experimental methods) because in spite of all logic, it fits within a world view -an ideology – borne out of anxiety and false nostalgia rather than experience and reality. THAT is insanity.

Failure – systemic failure, that is – is engineered. It is built from the ground up, much like success, one broken brick at a time.

Point #6: Just as surely as a culture of success can take root in a company (Zappos, Apple, BMW, Google, and many more) a culture of failure can take root as well: Characterized by internal dysfunction, the utter absence of loyalty among its staff, low morale, a poisonous work environment and an absence of fire and passion even at the helm, cultures of failure are tough to turn around. And you know what? they are as tough to rescue as a drug addict who, while begging for help, still clings to the needle and the gutter as if his life depended on it. It’s heart breaking.

What I do: Light, shadow and the need for both

Helping businesses succeed is often a lot of fun. It can be easy. You come along at the right time, get to know them well, give them a little push, and there they go: Back on track, rocking it out. Those are the good ones. The ones that make me feel like a million bucks. The ones in which everyone clicks and has fun. It doesn’t even feel like work. I secretly wish that all of my clients were like this, but I know that this is weakness as well. For every perfect client, I need an imperfect one. We all do. We wouldn’t be professionals if all we did all day constituted play.  We wouldn’t learn much. We wouldn’t improve. Delight is possession as well.

Just as often, helping a company succeed begins by teaching its management to stop failing. To stop mistaking mediocrity for success. To stop acting against their own self-interest. In some cases, the process boils down to dragging them out of their predicament, kicking and screaming the whole way. I’ve been insulted, threatened and even fired by clients who promptly offered to re-hire me the next day, only to fire and rehire me again. I’ve endured abuse at the hand of awful little children in adult bodies. What I do isn’t always pretty. It is intervention, pure and simple.

Dealing with a C.E.O. or manager possessed by the form of madness we’ve discussed today is no different from dealing with an addict fighting for his soul.

Point #7: Whatever we like to call “personal demons,” they destroy businesses too. As surely as what brought about a mid-life crisis can destroy a marriage or career, so can it shatter a business. It isn’t something we talk about much, but we should.

We can’t not talk about this. Companies don’t get fixed. Companies don’t win or lose. People do. What I end up doing, more often than not, is fixing people. Helping them find their way and be whole again.

Bad marketing and bad business decisions often find their roots in more than incompetence and accidental human error. In order to make sure they don’t happen again – or never happen at all – you have to go a little deeper than that. “Best Practices” are only the surface. Stopping there isn’t enough. You can’t stick to the edges and hope for the best. Sometimes, you have to go deep. Sometimes, you have to go all in.

What has been on my mind lately: Some clarification before we continue

I’ve been giving this and a dozen other related topics a lot of thought this past week, and how my chosen profession fits in all of this. How experience, knowledge, talent and insight have led me to become not only an advisor and educator, but also now a confidantz and a friend to individuals who don’t understand why their companies are stuck, unable to move forward as quickly and fluidly as they know they should. The human element to it above all questions of processes and best practices and clever ideas. How important to me this has become. The problem with becoming emotionally vested in something like this, in trying to effect real change, is that it consumes you. Theres no way around it. You have to let it.

While it sometimes seems that my job consists of coming up with cool ideas and helping companies divine insights from the fog of business, the reality is that I am more often than not a therapist. A business therapist, one might say, but there is no such thing: A business is a dream brought to life by a company of men and women who form its limbs and organs, and whose love for what they do is its lifeblood.

When I am called upon to help a company, an organization, a business, I end up helping people. Why? Because every dysfunction at the root of a problem with a business invariable finds its own roots in a personal dysfunction – sometimes, clusters of personal dysfunction.

In order to do what I do – and do it well – you have to be ready for that. You have to be ready to know when to bear the weight of it all, and when not to. You have to know your way around the human mind and the human heart. You have to know exactly what to do when someone with a serious problem tries to draw you into their drama. It can be emotionally exhausting. This line of work is not for everyone.

And I guess that is why I don’t like to call what I do “consulting.” Now I know why the term never sat well with me: “Consulting” is only a small portion of what I do, just like R.O.I. is only a small aspect of what I help shine a light on. Calling myself a consultant just doesn’t work. I don’t yet have a name for what I do, and I’ll admit that it’s a bit annoying.

I am telling you this because over the course of the next few weeks, I may write more about the role that human nature plays in adopting “best practices,” pursuing excellence and creating cultures of success than I have before, and I want you to know where all this is coming from, why these topics even matter, and how I came to want to discuss them from this unusual perspective. My mind is behind the curtain this week. Under the surface. I am looking directly into the nature of leadership, courage, curiosity, insight and the spirit of victory, which are at once timeless and very specifically connected. And if we are going to make any headway, it’s time we stopped focusing so much on the superficial aspects of business and brand management, and turned our attention to some pretty core elements without which Twitter, Facebook and all of the things we love to discuss here and on other blogs are little more than salon chatter.

And I hope this helps give you a tiny little glimpse into what makes me tick, why the way in which I approach certain topics might seem a little different from other blogs. Ultimately, everything comes down to people: Understand people, and you understand everything. It’s where every one of my blog post begins. At the core of every discussion we have here about brand management, Social Media, communications, R.O.I., etc. is human behavior in all its reality and relevance.

More to come.

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Before I begin, here are links to the three events mentioned in the video:

July 17: Americas Mart International Gift Show – Atlanta, GA

July 20 (not July 21, as I wrongly stated in the above video): Gaspedal’s Supergenius conference – New York, New York

July 27-28: ADMA Forum 2010 – Sydney, Australia

Okay. Now we can begin.

From solo operator to corporate front: The evolution of manufactured Social Media expertise in 2010

I guess it was just a matter of time before we had to revisit the issue of bogus Social Media “experts,” so today is as good as any to do just that. This time though, rather than drop the hammer on the latest Social Media certification scheme or outrageous Social Media R.O.I. equation/calculator, let me just speak in more general terms. Not that I particularly feel obliged to protect the guilty, but we can do this without pointing any fingers. Actually, for this topic, it works better if we don’t.

What I want to shed a light on today isn’t the lone “Social Media Expert” who tried his hand at being a day-trader, then got into SEO, then found himself out of a job for a few months and finally figured he’d try his luck as a Social Media consultant… because hey, how hard can it be, right? *sigh* We’ve already been down that road and I can’t think of anything to add at this juncture. No, today, I want to bring up another type of “Social Media expert” altogether: The kind that earns his or her validation from the company they work for, mostly as a marketing ploy engineered by said company.

Consider a scenario for a moment (and I am not making this up, so pay attention): Consulting Firm XYZ realizes that there is big money in Social Media consulting and services, say in the enterprise space. Every single one of their big clients is asking them for help on the Social Media front, first in terms of research and fact-finding, then in terms of strategy, then integration and training. They need to act fast or they might not get that business. What to do?

There are two ways of going about this: The first – Putting together a team of people with actual experience in these matters. Identify them internally or hire them as needed. The second – Grabbing the handful of consultants who did your initial research and fact-finding when it comes to Social Media, and change their respective titles to reflect their needed “expertise” in light of their new client-facing roles. One is the right, ethical, smart and professional way of getting into the Social Media consulting business. The other is the complete opposite of that.

Intelligent and ethical choices designate the winners in the long run

Let me be clear about this: Many firms and agencies choose the first of these choices. Companies like Edelman, Ogilvy, Radian 6, Deloitte and New Marketing Labs have already snatched up some pretty solid names in the space – an indication that they are taking their task and their clients’ well-being seriously. These companies would tend to fall into the good category. Sadly though, not all consulting firms and agencies have chosen the same path. More and more, I keep running into firms that knowingly appoint people with no experience or savvy to “Social Media Director,” “VP Social Business” and other such roles, then aggressively market them to their unsuspecting clients in order to secure lucrative consulting contracts.

Not that some consulting firms haven’t been doing this with other disciplines for decades, but this one hits a little closer to home. Besides, until now, internally manufactured experts at least had some semblance of experience. At worst, they received a decent degree of training before being thrust into their clients’ unfortunate laps to learn their craft as they went. Now though, when it comes to Social Media integration and program development, not so much. It’s like the bar has been lowered a few more notches, and that isn’t something we should turn a blind eye to.

How to manufacture a bogus Social Media expert for your company in 10 easy steps

So here’s how the process of manufacturing internal Social Media expertise works:

Step 1 – Identify the pigeon: the individual who isn’t really good at what s/he was hired to do, but is someone’s protegé within the organization and could fit into this role well enough. “Let’s see… Who fits that description… Ah yes. Jackson. Someone call Jackson in here. What?… Yes, tell him to bring his pencil.”

Step 2 – Send Jackson on a two-week fact-finding mission to find and browse through every study, article, report and policy ever written about Social Media. (We’ll come back to this in step 4.) “Yes, Jackson. Google. With a G.”

Step 3 – Build Jackson a personal website and a blog. Tell him to get a Twitter account started. Better get on Facebook too. Oh, and LinkedIn, just for good measure.

Step 4 – Remember all of that research Jackson did for Step 2? Yeah… Get the web guy to create a page that agglomerates all of those “resources” on his new website. A) It’ll look like he really knows his stuff. B) It’s great for SEO. C) With a resource like that, we’re sure to attract a few bloggers and e-journalists.

Step 5 – “Get the PR team rolling. We need to get our man some speaking gigs and a few key quotes in industry pubs.”

Step 6 – “Call our print people. We need to make sure Jackson gets published asap. Pull some strings. We need this.”

Step 7 – “Mortimer, make sure jackson blogs once per week. Yes, make him if he doesn’t want to. Same with Twitter. I want a daily tweet from him, with a link to something we own. Wait… on second thought, never mind. We’ll let Legal handle all that.”

Step 8 – “Make sure that Jackson’s personal website looks nothing like ours, but throw in an easy-to-spot disclaimer that clearly identifies him/her as our employee. No sense throwing bait without the hook. Yes, our company name needs to be italicized.”

Step 9 – “Call the PR team again. Let’s make sure everyone knows we’ve named Jackson VP of Social Business. Yeah, contact all the big bloggers too. Some of them might share the info with their networks. Oh, and email our clients. Yes, all of them.”

Step 10 – “Book a few rooms for SxSW and Blogworld. Jackson needs to be seen. Let’s see if we can sponsor a party while we’re there too. We have some leftover marketing money from that thing last month anyway.”

Voila. Before you know it, someone with zero background in the space as of three months ago is suddenly an expert working with Fortune 100 clients for a prominent consulting firm. Just. Like. That.

Smoke, mirrors, and the proverbial wool in the age of Google: Wrapping it all up with a simple job title

Now imagine you’re a company looking to build a Social Media program, and you don’t know where to start. The consulting firm you work with comes to you with a Social Media consulting package. They introduce you to their “expert,” Their VP of Social Business, with his own team of social media consultants. You google the guy. You find his website. You find the extensive list of resources he linked to on his website, along with a handful of quickly drafted $150 reports done internally by research interns last summer. He has a twitter account, a Facebook profile and even a blog with a good dozen posts on it you can’t really understand, but they’re filled with links. Looks good, right? Why should you doubt any of this? Seems legit enough.

After all, why should you doubt marketing from a company looking to generate millions of dollars in Social Media consulting fees after an investment of less than $10K in web design and PR? Hell, they didn’t even need to staff up. All they did was shuffle a few consultants around then printed them new business cards to reflect their new… expertise. Bam. Instant new service offering.

This isn’t theory. It isn’t a what if scenario. This is all too real. This actually happens, and it happens within very large, reputable firms as well as small fly-by-night ones.

All of this to say: Be cautious. Do your homework – not just on the firm itself, as it might otherwise have a stellar reputation and an impressive list of clients, but more specifically on the “experts” your consulting partners bring to your table. Just because a company you hire to help you tells you their experts are indeed experts doesn’t make them so. Do your homework. Research the “experts.” Don’t let well-designed websites and fancy titles fool you.

7 simple ways to separate legitimate  professionals from manufactured experts

Here are some things to look for before you throw your money away on a complete disaster:

1. EVERY person worthy of occupying a Director or VP level position in the Social Media, Social Business or Social Communications space has been involved in some sort of social/digital publishing for 3-5+ years. Typically, this manifests itself as a blog. Case in point: NML’s Chris Brogan and Keith Burtis, Francois Gossieaux, Geoff Livingston, Valeria Maltoni, Orange’s Yann Gourvennec, Neville Hobson, R6’s Amber Naslund, Ford’s Scott Monty, Seth Godin, Brian Solis, Jeremiah Owyang, Edelman’s David Armano, Ogilvy’s John Bell, … All have been actively involved in the Social Web for years. They didn’t get into it six months ago or just last year. They have been in it from the start, and as a result, they know what they’re talking about. These folks are respected in the space because they helped build it. They are the caliber of people consulting firms should look for in a hire. Period.

Find out how long your consulting firm’s “expert” has been blogging. Less than 2 years? Proceed with caution. Less than 8 months? Look for expertise elsewhere.

2. Read their blog. What do you find? Crap content just to fill a page 3x per week and provide search engines with carefully chosen keywords, or is the content actually helpful, well researched, shrewdly analyzed and intelligently presented? Does this person care about what they do, or are they just doing what they need to in order to “be in the game?” Does their content give you ideas or just regurgitate someone else’s articles and content? Speaking of original content, how much of what they blog about is THEIR content? (Hacks like to borrow and appropriate content. Get a sense for whether or not this individual really knows their stuff or is merely a parrot with a fancy title.)

3. Blogging isn’t everything. Lots of people have been blogging for 5+ years but couldn’t manage a Social Media practice if their lives depended on it. Who have they worked with? What have they done? What is their background? What relevant mix of experience do they bring into the role? Were they an SEO expert a year ago? And a day trader before that? If so, be careful.

Note: Though there is no clear path to Social Media management savvy, the individual’s story has to make sense. Maybe they were a corporate marketing guy who fell in love with the Social web and started incorporating it into their company’s activities. Maybe they were an artisan who used Social Media to tap into communities and figured out how to apply those lessons to business.  Maybe they were a tech or a baker or a PR manager or a Customer Service manager who realized how Social Media might change the game for their discipline and have been tweaking the model ever since. Everyone capable of functioning at the Director or VP level in the Social Business space has a story to tell about how they came into the space that involves passion, an idea, and a very specific path. Look for it. Ask to hear it. Conversely, the manufactured “experts” don’t have a story. They just showed up a few months ago because the time was right to jump in. It’s a simple litmus test, and one that usually works quite well.

4. How do they handle themselves on Social Channels? Do they ever respond to comments? If so, how? Are they using Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn as mere broadcast vehicles, or do they actually care enough about the space and their role in it to engage, respond and participate in discussions? How fluent are they with dos and don’ts of various Social communications platforms? Have they demonstrated on these channels the ease and fluency that you would expect from someone with real experience under their belt, or are they merely “there,” kind of floundering?

5. Who outside of the organization and its clients can vouch for them? Don’t ask their boss. Don’t ask their HR person. Don’t ask their other clients either. You might as well ask their mom while you’re at it. Find validation outside of their immediate circle of interest.

6. In their initial meetings with you, do they speak more than they listen? Do they lead with a 5-step “program” or a “P.L.A.N.” rather than trying to see how to organically grow a program within your organization? Do they make you wait for even the most basic feedback rather than discussing possibilities and ideas right there and then? Red flags all. Once the sale is made, then what?

7. Do they care? This is a simple gut check. If they’re into it, if they are passionate about the space and what you might do together, you’re probably on the right track. If they aren’t passionate about any of this, then be very careful where things go. Social Business management without genuine passion is like a folk singer without stories to tell: It won’t go very far. Look for passion. Genuine, burning, infectious passion. Yes, even in a consultant.

Caution for now, but expect clear skies eventually

So again, be cautious. This line of work hasn’t been around long enough for professionals to be able to establish themselves as clearly to outside onlookers and prospective clients as, say, plumbers, designers, attorneys, restaurateurs or journalists. Nobody was a Director of Social Communications ten years ago. Five years ago, even. This line of work is still fairly new, even to those of us who have been involved with it for the better part of a decade, and in some cases longer than that.

Five years from now, the waters won’t be as murky. Hacks will have fallen by the wayside and those with a real aptitude for this type of activity will have emerged as clear professionals in their field. But until then, proceed with caution. Do your research. Don’t confuse a job title, a neat website and some fractal Social Networking activity for anything more than just good marketing.

Cheers.

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You might be surprised to know that I don’t just read blogs and e-articles. I mean… I do. A lot. And below is a list of blogs I have been reading pretty religiously this summer, but I also read books. Real books. Sometimes in analog format (you know… paper, ink and whatnot) and sometimes in digital format via my Nook, which is quickly becoming my trusty companion on long trips and the occasional quiet morning on the beach. (At $149 now, it’s too good to pass up.)

So anyway, without further fanfare, in case you were wondering, here is what my summer reading list looks like:

Blogs (long):

http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/ by Jeremiah Owyang

http://www.livingstonbuzz.com/ by Geoff Livingston

http://www.conversationagent.com/ by Valeria Maltoni

http://www.brasstackthinking.com/ by Amber Naslund

http://aarongouldagency.com/blog/ by Scott Gould

Blogs (short):

http://www.chrisbrogan.com/ by Chris Brogan

http://sethgodin.typepad.com/ by Seth Godin

http://kriscolvin.com/ by Kris Colvin

http://3angelsmarketing.com/ by Karima-Catherine

I read lots of other blogs too, but these are the ones I am visiting most often lately.

Magazines (Print, not digital):

Esquire (UK), GQ (France) and Fast Company (US) – or as I call it, the triumvirate. When I can buy enhanced versions of all 3 on iPad, I’ll know that iPad is ready. Before then… Eh. We’ll see.

Here are links in case you want to subscribe:

http://www.gqmagazine.fr/magazine/http://www.esquire.co.uk/http://www.fastcompany.com/

Other occasional reads: Wired, Dwell, Men’s Health, Men’s Vogue, Inc., Runners’ World, Triathlete, GQ (US), National Geographic, ID.

News:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/

http://www.lemonde.fr/

http://www.lefigaro.fr/

I keep it simple. Other occasional sources of news (aside from radio and TV): CNN.com, Yahoo, Google.

Books (Print):

Business: Sally Hogshead’s Fascinate, Chris Brogan and Julien Smith’s Trust Agents, and Brian Halligan & Dharmesh Shah’s Inbound Marketing (They’ve been sitting on my desk for a while, waiting to be read. It’s time.)

Fiction: (see images below) Ben Kane’s The Forgotten Legion and The Silver Eagle.

Books (Nook):

William Napier’s Attila trilogy: Attila, The gathering of the Storm, and The Judgement (to be released)

Simon Scarrow’s continuing Eagles series: The Eagle’s Prey and The Eagle’s Prophecy (Not exactly literature, but pretty fun and relaxing beach or poolside reading. Scarrow does a pretty good job with this series. I’m a fan.)

Chuck Palahniuk’s Pygmy: Because a reading list without ChuckyP isn’t much of a reading list.

Mira Grant’s Feed: Zombies and bloggers. Need I say more?

Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games: I hear good things.

See? It isn’t all Marketing and Social Media, is it? (I spend all day working with business stuff, marketing, brand management, communications and Social Media, so when I unwind, I like to unplug from the work stuff and read well-written fiction that has nothing to do with twitter, facebook, customer retention and corporate communications.)

Though to be fair, there’s more to it than escapism: The Attila Series are solid leadership books, and so well written that they are already helping me become a better writer. Ben Kane’s stuff deals with the nature of the human spirit and is also superbly written. The rest, I don’t know yet, but I’m sure each book will inspire me to write a few dozen blog posts at least. And there’s something to be said for just turning off the TV, ungoogling yourself, and sitting down with a good book for a few hours.

I will probably be adding more books to this list, but that’s how it’s shaping up so far. Have a great summer of reading. :)

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