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Archive for the ‘courage’ Category

The unfortunate yet necessary business of getting punched in the mouth

You learn a lot about yourself during your first fist fight. Especially when you know for a fact that the other guy is going to mop the deck with your face just because he can.

And that’s just the thing: It’s one thing to get into a fight you’re pretty sure you’ll win. It’s another completely to get into a fight even though you’re pretty sure you’ll lose, and still find the courage to stand your ground and see things through.

Close your eyes and hold that thought. We’ll come back to this in a sec.

Okay, so I know… this may seem like an odd topic for a blog that deals mostly with brand management, social media, business strategy, etc., but as I found with my “21 things” blog last week, there is a deeply human side to making inspired business decisions that we need to start focusing on a little more (not just here – in general). Why? Because business decisions don’t happen in a vacuum. People make these decisions. Human beings, with good days and bad days, filled with courage and plagued by cowardice, swelling with passion and weighed down by apathy. People as imperfect and flawed and riddled with self-doubt as you and I. Yes, the Steve Jobs, Jack Welches, Henry Fords, Walt Disneys, Bill Gates, Richard Bransons and Julius Caesars of the world are just as human as the rest of us, with their own problems, their own doubts, their own insecurities and their own challenges to overcome. But one of the things that separates them from the majority of people is their willingness to step forward even when the odds are squarely against them, and risk taking a very public and humiliating beating if things don’t turn out as they had hoped. But even they can come to a professional impasse if their “education” along the way skipped the essential rite of passage known as the boyhood brawl.

The first thing you probably need to get from this post is this: Because decisions cannot be divorced from the people who make them, who we are as human beings impacts those decisions at least as much as what we do professionally: A CEO is a role, not a personality trait. A general is a rank, not an emotional profile. A manager is a job description, not an indication of natural leadership. In other words, don’t let the cover story fool you: a title printed on a business card doesn’t reflect an individual’s ability to lead, inspire and show cunning any more than the size of their bank account or the make of their car.

What does a title really tell you about someone? If you live within a regimented corporate or military culture, it tells you something about where they stand in the pecking order and what power they yield over you and others, but that’s really about it. In matters of leadership, courage, integrity and mental fortitude, a job title doesn’t really tell you a whole lot about someone’s mettle. More to the point, a job title doesn’t tell someone a whole lot about themselves and what they are capable of when the chips are down.

The importance of dangerous tests and contests

Back in not-so-ancient times, boys were routinely tested as they grew up: Going into the woods alone for the first time. Climbing the tallest tree. Swimming across the river. Diving to the cold dark bottom. Catching your first fish. Killing your first fowl. Standing your ground against the older village or neighborhood kids. Tribal rights of passage. By the time a man reached adulthood, he knew exactly who he was. He knew his own strengths and weaknesses.

And the rest of the community did as well.

Via regular social tests and challenges, stars rose, stayed stagnant, or fell from grace. There was no hiding from it. The pecking order in human communities was always in flux, with the smartest and strongest leading, and others following, hoping for their chance to prove themselves someday and improve their position.

Only now, it seems that such personal tests, the ones that cemented not only reputations but confidence, self respect, courage and wisdom have fallen mostly by the wayside. Just for the record, graduating from kindergarten is not a rite of passage. Landing a 20% off coupon isn’t either. Neither is unlocking a fifth level prestige badge in COD Modern Warfare 2 on X-Box Live.

Here’s an observation. It isn’t a judgment. Just an observation: None of the people I have ever worked with or worked for while I was in the corporate world had ever been in a real fight. None had ever fought back when the bully shoved them in a locker or stole their lunch money. None had ever stepped in to help someone being mugged. None had ever finished a fight that some drunk jerk forced on them or one of their peers. And… coming from France – a country where little boys haven’t yet been taught that getting into the occasional fisticuff is a sign of deplorable behavior – I found this both surprising and unfortunate. Not because I find fights to be particularly edifying (I don’t enjoy them a whole lot, especially since I am not Chuck Norris), but because fighting – which mostly amounts to dealing with fear, confrontation, pain and the social pressures not to quit or lose – has been part of young mens’ “education” for tens of thousands of years. Like it or not, fighting each other is baked into our DNA. Men need these types of experiences in order to move from childhood to adulthood. Sport can be a decent substitute for some time, martial arts as well, but ultimately, nothing can truly take the place of actual combat. By creating an entire generation of men who have never experienced the fight or flight gauntlet of a knuckle duel, I am not certain that we are properly preparing young men for the types of mental and emotional challenges required of them in high stakes leadership positions.

Asserting yourself in a business meeting, negotiating a settlement, managing a takeover, speaking to investors, presenting to a crowd of bloggers and journalists, convincing banks to back your next venture, these things don’t go well unless you have a certain level of quiet confidence about you, the kind of confidence that frees your mind to get the job done rather than worry about whether or not you’re up for it.

Reassuring the American people that the country is safe, customers that it is still safe to bank with you, drivers that your cars won’t accelerate out of control and explode, investors and employees that your company is still a sound bet, and the public that you have the oil spill under control can’t be left to folks who haven’t tested themselves to find out what they are really made of.

Remember Michael “Brownie” Brown, the guy in charge of FEMA during the Katrina crisis? His impeccably pressed, perfectly white dress shirts? Not a hair out of place while the people of New Orleans drowned and starved to death? Nice guy, I’m sure. Smart too. Probably great with the whole IAHA Arabian horse thing, and corporate luncheons and country-club brunches, before being appointed to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Except… Wrong guy for the job. Why? Hmmm. You tell me.

Now put a military officer – especially an Iraq or Afghanistan combat veteran – in his place to do the same job and see what happens. My bet: Night and day. The difference between both men? One made a point to put himself through the gauntlet time and time again. The other, not so much.

Rites of passage matter. They matter a lot.

Fight Club is only a novel. This is real.

If I am starting to sound like Fight Club’s Tyler Durden, so be it. There is a reason why Chuck Palahniuk’s novel struck a chord when it came out. As much as the novel itself may be an unapologetic exaggeration of the death of masculinity in modern times, its message is dead on target. And the impact that a generation of untested men in leadership positions has already had on the corporate world may be in great part responsible for some of the trouble we are in: Enron. Wall Street. The massive oil spill in the Gulf: All arrived at by decisions made by not by incompetent men, but rather untested, socially and emotionally incomplete men.

Think this is a stretch? Possibly. But consider that mid-life crises tend to happen to men riddled with complexes and self-doubt. Far more than an overcompensation or an indulgence brought about by professional success. Any decent Jungian psychotherapist can explain the link between mid-life crises and a common mother complex in men: Adult in form but not in heart. Boys whose bodies grew up but whose souls didn’t. The erosion of significant, terrifying, often violent rites of passage from childhood to adulthood, particularly when it comes to my gender, is a problem that doesn’t only impact divorce rates and Porsche sales in the US, but also the business world and the economy as a whole: A man who isn’t whole cannot effectively lead. He is a Fisher King, an impotent, lame-duck regent whose wound infects his entire kingdom and drags it down with him. When captains of industry are drawn drawn from among the ranks of untested men rather than those who can and should lead, the system breaks down: Exploration, experimentation and progress come to a grinding halt. Strategic planning takes a hit. Appearances begin to overtake substance. Nepotism prevails. Good old boys networks take root. Mediocrity, hypocrisy and corruption begin to poison corporate and political cultures. The safety of artificial comforts replaces strife. Warm cocoons of denial begin to form and thicken.

There is something missing in a man who hasn’t pushed himself far beyond what he thought were his own limits. Something we look for in leaders. Something without which our faith in a man cannot ever be truly realized. We all felt it in the school yard. On the playing field. In boot camp. And yes, in the board room. A phony is a phony. The real deal, however, walks wrapped in the knowledge of who he is as a man, because at least once in his life, he walked deep into the dark recesses of his cave and found what really lurked there.

Growing up in France in the 70’s and 80’s – and having been raised in a family of combat veterans and citizen soldiers – making it to adolescence without a few black eyes and busted knuckles wasn’t an option. Not that I was pushed to go looking for fights, but let’s say that certain circumstances were occasionally brought up around the dinner table as acceptable reasons to find out what I was made of. For many little French boys, playing cowboys, cops and musketeers wasn’t just play. It was preparation for an inevitable school yard confrontation that would determine much about the types of men they would later become.

A quick word about the French and silly stereotypes

Not that the French fight a lot or win a lot of wars, or anything. Aside from the Foreign Legion (mostly composed of foreigners at that) and a few key Police and military units, French culture isn’t exactly known for its warrior spirit. The Gauls were pretty solid warriors, but the Roman legions dealt with them in the end. Twice in the last century the Germans cut through our borders like a warm knife through butter. So yeah, sure, we invaded England back in the day, we’ve had bloody revolutions, and Napoleon helped us unlock our very own bloody conquests badge on Foursquare, but in general, the French are relatively well-behaved anti-violent people. Even our soccer fans are pretty tame compared to England’s. We also aren’t particularly fond of violence in sports and entertainment (Americans, in contrast, like their sports and movie heroes to be full-contact – while tennis doesn’t exactly require helmet and shoulder pads). We don’t really like guns. The French, as people of the world go, are not high up on the socially violent list.

Yet, in sharp contrast with many of my American peers who grew up on violent entertainment and a glorification of rogue warrior tales, my childhood and early adult years were not without incident. Starting with a few kids at my school trying to work the pecking order to their advantage to street thugs in downtown Brussels looking to score my wallet, from angry boyfriends looking to save face to drunk French soldiers aiming to prove themselves by knocking out a few sailors, I’ve had to deal with unfortunate contests of the knuckle-to-face variety a number of times. Before I go on with my tales of clumsy hand-to-hand combat, let me make it clear that I didn’t always prevail. I am not Jean Claude Van Damme. Quite the contrary. My roundhouse kick is weak. My karate chop is clumsy. My punch often misses the mark. So by default, the lessons in this post have nothing to do with winning or beating the odds. We’re talking about something else altogether today.

Which brings us back to that mouthful of blood thing. You learn a lot about yourself, shaking off the pain of a punch to the mouth. It’s a simple fight or flight reflex: Stunned and dazed, your blurry surroundings spinning around you, searing pain flashing across your face and a dull ache spreading deep into your skull, you are at once confronted with two conflicting emotions: The first – back off and hope the punishment is over. The second – get back on your feet and feed the other guy a Royal McKnuckle-with-Cheese sandwich out of principle, even if it earns you another trip to the cold, hard deck.

Fight or flight: DNA, tens of thousands of years of evolution, and the importance of not running away

Fight or flight. It’s a simple choice. And, as my friend Ben Schowe would say, “it’s just science.”

In terms of personal tests, this goes well beyond the simple (yet grueling) act of surviving boot camp, completing your first 5K, passing the bar, or completing an Ironman triathlon. In fact, in a very real way, getting into a fist fight teaches you as much – if not more – about yourself as summiting Everest or swimming across the English Channel.

Why? Because there is a huge difference between walking to the sidelines and running from a fight. You can quit Ranger school. You can quit an Ironman. On a mountain top, you can stop and turn back to base camp. But walking away from a fight once the first punch has connected, that’s a very different thing. It’s fight or flight in its purest form. It’s the difference between a dog baring its teeth and having another go at some melee carnage… or lying on its back with its tail coiled up between its legs.

In war, you can hold your ground and engage the enemy or you can throw down your guns and run away. Same thing. Except for most people nowadays, at least in the Western world, war is something other people get paid to deal with. It’s something that happens overseas and on TV. There’s no draft anymore. Violence is being erased from “civilized” civilian society. It has become entertainment. A stylized fantasy. You get to see the moves and hear the sounds, but you don’t get to feel the pain. And yet the pain has something to teach.

Like I said, you learn a lot about yourself during your first fight. And your second. And your third. What you learn is – what you learn first, anyway, is – whether or not you have any real fight in you. When that first punch in the face hits you and your eyes flash just as what feels like a brick flying at 500 miles per hour turns the entire front of your skull into a flaring, throbbing strobe of pain, you get your first glimpse of who you are. Before you even land on your ass, your brain is already trying to decide if you will simply lie down and hope the fight is over, or spring up and hit the guy back twice as hard and see how he likes it.

What my first fight taught me

I remember my first fight vividly: Second grade. Parc Monceau. The biggest kid in my class decided he was going to use the smallest kid in the class (me) to cement his Alpha status for the school year. Words were exchanged, shoves ensued, and next thing I know, we were rolling around in the dirt, scraping our knees and elbows, trying land a solid hit on the other. Planting a solid punch at that age would have surely ended the fight – to the delighted cheers of our classmates – and would have secured immediate popularity for whomever emerged victorious. As it turns out, neither one of us did. But the other kid, desperate to break free from the scuffle, accidentally head-butted me in the face, knocking me clear off him. I remember hearing the ugly thud sound of his skull bouncing off my cheek, my head snapping back, and my little French behind landing squarely on the hard-packed dirt. The other kids immediately fell silent and stared at us to see what would come next. I tasted blood in my mouth, from where I had bitten my tongue. I was surprised by the taste… And by the fact that I was more excited than scared.

Up until that moment, I had imagined that being on the receiving end of a head-butt would be the worst thing in the world. Yet there I was, realizing that the other guy wasn’t as strong, as mean, as dangerous or as invincible as I thought he was. And, equally important, realizing that perhaps I had more of a fight in me than I originally thought. Fighting back tears of pain and fear, I got back up, swallowed a mouthful of blood, and threw myself at him. Though he was a lot taller and bigger than me, I tackled him and knocked him to the ground. The rolling around and wild kicking and punching resumed, but before either one of us could land a solid punch, the fight was broken up by our teacher. We were both sent to the principal’s office – the dragon-like Mme Gomez – and sat there for about fifteen minutes before she finally called us in.

Those fifteen minutes were invaluable: The entire time, not once did the other kid dare return my stare. After a quick inspection of my knuckles and clothes, and after having pondered what punishments would follow both at school and at home, I looked over at him and caught him quickly blinking away. Feeling that I was still staring at him, he didn’t look up again. It was at that moment, not before, that I realized I had won the fight. Not because I had beaten him, mind you – I hadn’t. What I realized was that, for me, the real fight wasn’t against him. It was against myself: Fight vs. Flight.  Flight lost. I wanted more. Test passed.

From then on, I knew I would never again be too afraid to stand my ground. That moment of clarity is something I have taken with me into every difficult, stressful situation since.

Going through something like this, as simple as it may seem, is a defining moment in a man’s life, and one that far too many boys today never get to experience, to their own detriment, and that of society as a whole when they eventually join the workforce.

To this day, I don’t remember a thing about what the principal had to say or what my punishment was. I grinned from ear to ear the rest of the day, beaming with pride and excitement at the realization that there was more to me than just pretend courage. Later, what I remember from being walked to my mother’s car by my angry teacher wasn’t the fear of punishment or the embarrassment of the public escort, but the looks of awe I saw in the other kids’ eyes. Still grinning at my scowling mother after my teacher explained what had happened, I hopped into her Autobianchi and told her my side of the story: He started. It wasn’t my fault. I was only defending myself. He got what he deserved. I took a skull to the face and it still hurt a lot, but it was okay. She lectured me all the way home, but I know that behind the stern threats of being sent to Jesuit boarding school if I couldn’t behave, was a quiet pride that I hadn’t punked out. Later that afternoon, my father  inspected my swollen black eye, obviously amused by the entire incident, and probed me for details until my mother reminded him that the brawl wasn’t something to be proud of. Yet it was, and all three of us knew it.

The kid never bothered me or any of my classmates again. I don’t even remember his name anymore. It doesn’t matter.

Contests of this type happened again over the years, each one teaching me a little bit more about myself, until I graduated to the more subtle and underhanded type of political combat favored by many corporate types.

Leadership from the outside-in: Understanding the mechanics of the pecking order

Here’s the thing, and be sure not to underestimate the potency of the metaphor: We are all either lions or lambs. Men walk into a conference room, a basketball court, a bar, a gym, the first thing they do is size each other up. Hierarchies are established before anyone takes the initiative to speak. Body language, stress hormones, eye contact and behavior help determine the social order in a matter of minutes if not seconds. Before the lions begin to fight for the top spot, the lambs aremarked and set aside. Few of us ever talk about it, and for many men, the process is completely subconscious, but it happens everywhere men go. This has probably been going on since long before we lived in caves.

Care to see a fine example of the process? Watch the first twenty minutes of Ronin, John Frankenheimer and DavidMamet’s tale of trust and betrayal among intelligence operatives. In any group of men, a pecking order must be established before the group can function. Though the process now takes into account job titles and artificial leadership, lambs are not lions. A leader in title only is a liability to himself and the group he is responsible for.

Riddle me this: How can you earn the trust and respect of a company of professional soldiers if even one of them thinks he is more qualified than you to lead them all? If he thinks he is a better soldier, a better leader? Stronger, faster, tougher?

While you ponder the question, here’s something to think about: How is a group of men in uniform any different from a group of men in suits? Each culture may emphasize certain leadership qualities differently, but the principles are the same: If a leader is imposed on the group rather than arrived at by mutual selection, then the leader must prove his worth, or his tenure is doomed from the start. If the guy in charge, when sized up by the rest of the men in the room is found… wanting, you are looking at a dangerous level of inevitable dysfunction that will result in disaster somewhere along the road.

The weakest guy in the room can’t be the leader. Regardless of what his business card says, it just doesn’t work that way. You can’t get rid of thousands of generations of evolution just because we’ve decided to trade spears for pens and caves for cubicles. It may seem silly, but it’s also true and well worth acknowledging.

The true value of a mouthful of blood

I know this is going to sound strange, but a CEO who has put himself through the gauntlet – whether it was a fist fight, a combat tour in Iraq or a wrestling match against a great white shark knows how to be fearless in the face of uncertainty. He can look his competitor in the eye, say “bring it,” and mean it. He can look at an economic crisis as an opportunity to prevail against adversity and cement his company’s reputation by taking market share rather than merely hoping to hold on to what it has.

A man who has the confidence to stand his ground in the face of adversity, a man who has learned the value and excitement of fighting for something he believes in, a man who knows that no amount of pain or fear will weaken his resolve, this kind of man can lead any company away from defeat, towards success.

The guy who has never been punched in the face doesn’t yet know how tough he is. That man doesn’t know if he should get up or beg for mercy when his lip gets split. He doesn’t know what he is made of yet. Take him by surprise, upset his routine, put him in the hurt locker, and he sits there wondering what he should do next. He sits there stunned, gagging on a mouthful of his own blood, wishing he weren’t in so much pain. For precious seconds, he hesitates, not yet knowing what to do. Indecision: The antithesis of leadership.

The CEO, the Senior VP, the Director of this and that, untested, are all liabilities. Lamb playing at being lions.

The truth of it is this: What you learn fighting off bullies in your childhood, learning to stand your ground and take real hits comes back to either serve or haunt you later in life, when faceless enemies set their sights on your endeavors. Knowing that you can overcome physical adversity and survive your fear of the unknown arms you with the ability to make intelligent decisions in the heat of the moment. It teaches you to keep a cool head when everyone else panics. It teaches you not to retreat unless you absolutely have to, but to instead make your way through the storm and find calmer waters waiting beyond it.

The real beauty of it is that once the people who look to you for leadership realize that this is the type of leader you are, they will follow you anywhere. Their loyalty, their dedication, their support will be assured. And that, when it comes to building strong brands, isn’t something you can either buy or do without.

So parents, teachers, law enforcement personnel and passers-by, consider this: Next time two little boys decide to brawl, don’t stop them right away. Let them throw a few kicks and punches. Let them sort it out on their own, even if only for a few seconds. What they discover about themselves in those short, precious, terrifying moments could help shape them into formidable leaders someday. I know it sounds pretty weird, but trust me: They need to put themselves through it, black eye, mouthful of blood and all.

Cowards make lousy leaders. Give your kids enough space to learn not to be.

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Speaking at LikeMinds

Speaking at the #LikeMinds conference in Exeter, Devon, UK

Hang tight, kids. I’m trying to figure out what topic to open up with after my epic 10-day trip through the UK and France. I have hundreds of pages of notes bouncing around in my head and topics flying out of my… moleskine (what did you think I was going to say?) so it may take me a few hours yet to figure out where to start. And that isn’t even factoring in the pictures and videos I need to upload and edit. I am still in email management mode, and it may take a few days to sort it all out. 75 emails per day x 10 days… Yeah. I need interns.

Several things are certain though: Things are going to change around here.

First of all, expect less musings and more practical advice. The last thing the world needs is more abstract dreameries about brand management, new marketing, business 2.0, social media and the types of topics covered in this and other blogs of its kind. There’s plenty of that on the internets already and the last thing I want to do is add to an already overabundant pool of personal opinions.

Second, now that I have spent the better part of my stay in Exeter and London with some of the brightest minds in  business, brand management 2.0 and the Social Web (from Sky News, Edelman, Nielsen, the BBC, WC Group, 4 Walls and a Ceiling,  WorldEka, Limenoodle,  Red Cube, iLevel, tweetmeme, FreshNetworks, Sinuate, Optix Solutions, and Aaron+Gould, to name but a few on a list as long as it is brilliant) I have a much clearer understanding of the level of dicussion businesses need when it comes to preparing themselves for the next decade, particularly in the US, where the army of social media “guru” we’ve been lamenting about has been reaping a harvest of shameless crap on the backs of their unsuspecting clients.  For shame. Seriously. For shame. I hope there’s a special circle of hell for you if you fall into that category of a person.

In short, you, my readers, and companies wanting to improve their situation and their customers’ lives in the process all deserve better, and we’ve wasted enough time bleeding philosophy about market leadership, what social media XYZ is or isn’t or the value of effective measurement. We’re going to get down to brass tacks and talk about things that will make a real difference in your business.

Third, well… Hold on to you socks. We’re about to see how fast this V12 can really go. I have some pretty exciting announcements to make over the coming weeks.

Back in a bit with more. In the meantime, if you haven’t already done so, you need to go check out all of the incredible content from the #LikeMinds Conference I attended in Exeter, England, including some solid videos and photos of several of the presentations.

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donaldson0012s

Okay, I don’t usually borrow post titles or topics from other people, but today I’ll make an exception. Amber Naslund (@ambercadabra in the Twitterverse) just posted a remarkably honest, human and pretty personal post on her blog in which she asked (and started answering) a very simple but important question: What won’t you compromise?

Well, I thought it would be fun to follow her example and a) pose the question to you guys (in case you missed Amber’s post) and b) answer it for myself, albeit a little more loosely: Instead of just things I won’t compromise, I also added a few things I won’t compromise on (which is a little bit different).

Here we go. In no particular order:

Professional integrity.

I have worked for two companies that employed deceptive practices. Once when I first started out in the business world, and again more recently. In both cases, the amount of time between the moment I was made aware of the shenanigans and my departure from that job was remarkably short. I don’t play those games.

I could have rationalized that the deceptive practices weren’t mine, that I didn’t even touch that side of the business, that it really had nothing to do with me. I could have also rationalized that I had mouths to feed, bills to pay, nice toys to buy, but excuses are just excuses. Excuses are compromises. You can rationalize your way into a world of shameless douchebaggery if you aren’t careful. Just don’t go there. Not even a little. Ever.

Trust.

Either I trust you or I don’t. It’s really that simple. I don’t have to like you, but I have to trust you. In friendship, in business, in cooking, in war… trust isn’t gray. Oh, and trust is always a two-way street. It’s the only way it works.

Sushi.

Old Japanese proverb: Beware yesterday’s sushi.

Loyalty.

I’m kind of like Amber on that one. I grew up watching musketeer movies and old Starsky & Hutch re-runs, so the buddy mechanics are burned into my brain. Loyalty is something I value above most virtues.

By loyalty though, I don’t mean easily given loyalties – like the ones expected of you by an employer or a coffee shop. I mean real loyalties. Ones that last. People looking after each other-type loyalties. I’ll come rescue you if you get kidnapped by the Taliban type loyalties. If you earn that level of loyalty from me, consider yourself lucky. I’ll never let you fall and I’ll never sell you out. There’s no compromise there.

Food.

You are what you eat. I’m not doing myself any good by putting crap into my body.

Effort.

I get paid the same whether I spend ten hours half-assing a project or ten hours rocking it like nobody’s business, so why in the world would I not go for the option that will produce the best possible outcome, make the client deliriously happy and make me look like a god? I have a reputation to preserve.

Heck, I have a reputation to purposely smash regularly and rebuild like Oscar Goldman did Steve Austin: Better, faster, stronger. If anything is worth doing, it is worth doing exceedingly well. (Or as Gary Vaynerchuck would say “crush it.”)

Clarity.

Say what you mean. Mean what you say. That is all.

Manners.

Either you have manners or you don’t. If you treat waitstaff like crap, you and I aren’t doing business. If you are rude to me or anyone in my circle, ditto. If you make fun of the French (for real, not just to mess with me), d-i-t-t-o.

I am pretty uncompromising when it comes to people acting like self-important pricks. Manners matter a lot to me. It’s the little things.

Olive Oil.

Extra virgin. No mas, no menos.

Goals. Targets. Objectives.

Once set, they’re set. You don’t lower them. You don’t stop until you achieve them. When it comes to hitting a target, there’s the bull’s eye, and then there’s not. People who sold you on the bull’s eye but then tell you why less is just as good when they can’t seem to hit it are full of crap.

If this is an area of frequent compromise for you, either learn how to set them, or learn how to hit them. Either way, there’s no alternative to delivering on your promise once you’re in play. Compromise can’t live here. Ever.

Running shoes.

They either work or they don’t. I don’t care how cool they look or what logo they sport. Once you’ve developed ITBS, you learn not to screw around with running shoes. Even when that cool blue pair is 50% off.

Seatbelts. Helmets. Eye protection. Body armor. Brain-Mouth filter.

Taking risks doesn’t mean being an idiot.

The English Language.

If I can become fluent, anyone can. And should. Grammar and spelling are not optional. (Inventing new words though, is perfectly acceptable. Recommended, even.)

If a language is worth speaking, it is worth speaking well.

Jeans. Suits. Dress shirts. Overcoats. Couture of all origins.

They must fit just right. There is no compromise here. (Not just saying that because I’m French. Style knows no borders.)

Credibility.

Like your virginity, you can really only lose it once. Credibility is one of the most underrated and overlooked elements of a reputation, yet… without it, nothing else matters: Not talent, not work ethic, not intelligence. Once people start second-guessing your insights, your motives, your decisions, you’re done.

Quality.

If I pay for it, I expect it. Likewise, if someone pays me well, I fully intend to give them their money’s worth.

The family honor.

Many died fighting for it. It isn’t crashing and burning on my watch.

National security.

Note to the TSA: Boarding a plane with a 4.6oz tube of toothpaste doesn’t count.

The blood feud you don’t yet know about.

There’s no compromise in a blood feud. Only escalation and the sweet sweet taste of revenge. (Kidding!!! … But… maybe not.)

Knots.

If you’re a sailor and/or a rock climber, you know this too. You just don’t half-ass knots.

Toilet paper.

This one should require no explanation.

My good name.

Actually, no… wait… Scratch that. Everyone knows I’m a scoundrel.

Self respect.

No job and no amount of money is worth allowing someone to treat you poorly. Getting yelled at and dragged through the mud is fine if you’re in the military. You volunteer for that and it’s part of the fun. But in the business world, if someone treats you badly, don’t you dare let them get away with it. Once it starts, you’re screwed.

Success.

(See “goals, targets, objectives” above.) Status quo outcomes are never successes, no matter how many mediocre managers and business executives try to convince you otherwise. There’s no compromise here: Success has a smell, a flavor, a feel. Success rocks. Success feels like a million bucks. Success is a slam-dunk high-five that makes everyone look on with envy. Success makes you feel like a kid on Christmas morning. Success is real and it’s earned and it doesn’t come to you without a hell of a fight. Compromise there, and you’re a chump. (One of the many reasons why measurement is important. It keeps bullsh*t at bay.)

Vision.

If you imagine the best, why settle for average?

Ever looked at the transition between concept cars and production cars and wonder… “what happened?! That concept car was cool! This thing looks nothing like it! “

Yeah, that’s the effect that compromise has on vision.

Do you think the iPhone’s design was a compromise? Do you think that a Canon L-series lens is a compromise? Do you think that a Moleskine notebook is a compromise? A Cartier Tank? An Yves St. Laurent blazer? A Cervelo bicycle? My grandmother’s chocolate mousse? The Virgin Airlines experience? The screenplay in a Pixar film?

Should vision be adaptable? Sure. Should it be fluid? Absolutely. But there is an enormous difference between fluidity and compromise. Some of it deals with the outcome, but a lot of it has to do with intent. And purpose. And relevance.

Compromise is sometimes necessary, even good – especially in matters of public policy – but in business, it often sucks. It’s interesting, when you think about it, that the larger the number of people affected by a compromise, the more benign its impact, but narrow your focus down to individuals, and compromise almost always ends up in the negative column.

A compromise basically means that you gave up on getting the full monty and settled for less than ideal. Next thing you know, your diet is a compromise. Your relationship is a compromise. Your job is a compromise. Your car. Your wardrobe. Your career. Everything from your Saturday afternoon to your political beliefs, they all become compromises.

Some things are too important. Some things deserve champions, not compromises. Some things deserve to be seen through all the way, no matter how hard, no matter what the obstacles. And yeah, everyone can be a champion for something. Everyone should be. An idea, a product, a virtue, a cause… It doesn’t matter. It’s up to you.

Cultures of compromise typically don’t breed much aside from maybe mediocrity.

Chew on that for a few minutes. It’ll be well worth your while.

So… what’s on your list?

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“Making it work” : Lessons from the real world of “do or die.”

Sometimes, even the best laid plans just go awry.

Call them cliche, but those sayings about finding the silver lining and making lemonade when life hands you lemons, they aren’t just hot air.

When I was in the French Fusiliers Marins, the unspoken motto, the underlying mission imperative was always “make it work.”

The intelligence is wrong? It doesn’t matter. Make it work.

The insertion routes are compromised? It doesn’t matter. Make it work.

You got dropped 15 miles off target? It doesn’t matter. Make it work.

Nobody ever had to say it. Nobody ever had to bark the order. From day one of training, it was pounded into us:

Make it work.

Make it happen.

Find a way.

(If you don’t, people will die.)

The first officer I served under, 1st Lieutenant Rannou, had a saying: “There are no problems. Only solutions.”

He was right.

Sometimes, everything just clicks and works perfectly the first time. You don’t have to do a thing. You might as well be on autopilot: From start to finish, your project, your law suit, your surgery, your product launch, your hostage rescue mission, your ad campaign, your theater production, it all goes well. The planets are aligned. The cosmos is on your side. Everything goes so smoothly that you wonder if you aren’t dreaming.

Most of the time though, things don’t go your way. The unexpected happens. Gremlins. Ghosts in the machine. Flies in the soup. Whatever. The cosmos has a way of throwing obstacles your way at the most inopportune times.

That’s just a given.

A butterfly beats its wings in Buenos Aires, and a week later, your stamp machines in Taiwan are down for a month.

A health crisis in East Africa forces the cargo ship carrying the first shipment of your brand new product to spend three extra weeks at sea.

Your new boss is an self-serving imbecile.

Or in the case of teammate Jay Hewitt (photo above), you lay your bike down going 30mph at mile 51 of a Half-Ironman distance triathlon.

What do you do?

No… really. What do you do?

Murphy’s law isn’t an anecdote. It’s an engine of predictability. Use it.

Let me take a quick break from the full list of mishaps and just say that – in case you hadn’t guessed – skin + gritty pavement + speed don’t feel great.

Imagine getting thrown out of a car moving at 30mph, wearing nothing but your underwear.

Not fun.

Now imagine brushing yourself off, getting back on your bike, finishing the ride as fast as you can, switching out the cartridge in your insulin pump, and then completing a very fast half marathon.

Why? Because no matter what happens, there’s still a finish line to cross. A reputation to preserve. A project to complete. A movie to finish shooting. A new product to launch. An essential part to manufacture.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a military officer, a product manager, a movie director, a chef, a fashion designer, a newspaper editor or a CMO. This is something you can be absolutely certain of: Though sometimes, everything will click and flow smoothly as if by divine intervention, most of the time, obstacle after obstacle will get between you and your goal.

Call it Murphy’s Law. Call it whatever you want. It’s just life.

And in real life, shit happens. No matter what you do, something almost always goes wrong.

The more complicated or ambitious your endeavor, the more likely it is that obstacles will find a way to get between you and that golden finish line. Expect that. Plan for it. Train for it.

Heck, embrace it.

You might as well.

Still, I notice that most people freak out when their plan goes awry. They panic. They lose their cool. They suddenly find themselves feeling… lost. They make everything come to a grinding halt while they regroup.

Why?

Poor planning. Lack of training. They didn’t take the time to plan for failure. They didn’t think to come up with contingency plans.

Most of the time though, it just comes down to one simple thing: Lack of experience.

So for those of you who don’t quite know how to manage cool, crazy, ambitious projects, here’s a little bit of advice:

The Ten Basic Rules of Project Management

Rule #1: Never expect things to work right the first time. (If they do, great.  Just don’t expect them to.)

Rule #2: Expect everything to take at least twice as long as you know they should.

Rule #3: Expect the unexpected.

Rule #4: When everything is going well, worry. (You probably missed something.)

Rule #5: Find out what doesn’t work before your customers do. (That’s what prototypes are for.)

Rule #6: You learn more from how and why a product fails than how and why it works the way you expect it to. (So push your prototypes to failure as often and in as many different ways as possible.)

Rule #7: “Design By Committee” never works.

Rule #8: Trust your instincts.

Rule #9: Listen to the people who will use your product. Their opinion matters more than anyone else’s.

Rule #10: Have fun.

Why experience matters: A simple list.

Back to Jay: Jay has crashed in races before. Jay knows how broken bones feel. Jay knows that even with no skin on his shoulder, he can keep racing. He’s been there. He’s done that. He has already faced and concquered pretty-much every obstacle in the book when it comes to endurance racing. As a result, when problems happen, his resolution time is almost instantaneous. He doesn’t have to spend thirty minutes wondering if he’s badly hurt or just in pain. He doesn’t have to seek professional advice. He doesn’t have to weigh the pros and cons of anything. Knowing where he stands allows him to make the right decision in the blink of an eye: Keep going.

Experience builds confidence. Experience breeds forethought and insight. Experience takes doubt, uncertainty, and fear out of the equation. Jay knows that if he crashes, he can probably still finish the race. He knows how to fix a flat. He knows how to repair a broken chain. He knows a dozen ways to fix problems on his bike or with his body, and the ones he doesn’t know how to fix, he can probably improvise if need be.

There are no problems. Only solutions.

Simple enough.

More often than not, projects that appear to have gone smoothly from the outside didn’t go smoothly at all. Every day brought a new hurdle. Hundreds of fires had to be put out. Thousands of split-second decisions had to be made. Course adjustments. Quick fixes. A folder-full of improvised solutions. Personel changes. Vendor replacements. Timeline adjustments. Budget attrition. Whatever. The list never stops growing.

That’s how it really works.

Perfect illustration: Below is Jay at the finish. From the right side, he looks fine. His injuries are out of sight. He looks like a guy who just breezed through a Half Ironman the way most of us breeze through a Taco bell drivethrough.

To an outsider, a bystander, he had a flawless, fun race.

To someone with inside knowledge, he finished despite a horrible bike accident that could have cost him a whole lot more than another medal.

He crashed. He got up. He quickly assessed the situation. He got back on his bike. He finished the race. He added the experience to his knowledge bank.

He made it happen.

If that doesn’t perfectly illustrate the way a project is driven forward, I don’t know what does.


Project manager. Triathlete. Adventure Racer. Creative Director. Platoon Leader. Customer Service Rep. Design Engineer. Toolmaker. Sous-Chef. Football Coach. It’s all the same.

Project/Program Managers are wired differently. Hire and promote with that in mind.

Great project managers aren’t just natural multi-taskers. They’re also natural strategic masterminds. Improvisation kings (and queens). Crisis jugglers. Fearless creative acrobats. Their job (their nature) is to constantly find and implement solutions to problems, foreseen and not. Their job is to embrace hurdles and obstacles, because each one brings them one step closer to their goal. They thrive on making things happen. The more untraveled the road, the better. The more complex the gameboard, the better.

It takes a special kind of person to be able to a) do that kind of work well, and b) love every minute of it.

It isn’t for everybody.

Excuses and blame don’t exist in our little world. Neither does bullshit. At the end of the day, there’s only what you did and what you didn’t do.

Sometimes, even the best laid plans just go awry.

For most people, that’s not a good thing…

…and for some of us, that’s when the real fun begins. (And we do like our fun.)

Have a great weekend, everyone. 🙂

(Hat tip to Tamsen McMahon/@tamadear at Sametz Blackstone for pointing out that this should be a manifesto and not a primer)

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Seattle, by Olivier Blanchard - 2008

Check out these great bits of advice from Dave Lorenzo’s Career Intensity blog:

“Deciding: ‘Familiarize yourself with common decision-making errors—such as going along with a group choice to maintain cohesion. Watch for tendencies within yourself to commit such errors.’

Leaders make bold decisions. They see them through, and if they aren’t working out, they make new decisions. The worst thing you can do for your career is make no choices or let your choices be made for you. Taking a passive approach to your goals is unlikely to result in success. Even if you make a bad decision, it’s better to mess up and learn from it than to remain stagnant. Failures are great opportunities to learn more about yourself and the world. Move ahead by choosing wisely and boldly.”

(If you’re asking yourself… yeah, cool career advice, but… what does this have to do with branding, hold on. I’m getting to it.)

“It takes someone who believes in herself and her ideas to challenge the status quo. These are the people who shake things up and change them for the better. You don’t have to be contentious to challenge. The best way to suggest changes is not to bash the old ways, but to offer new and positive ideas.

If you are part of a team working on a project that you believe could be going more smoothly, step up and present your ideas. Most likely, everyone will be excited to approach the work from a new angle. And you will begin to earn a reputation for innovation.”

Still not catching on? Okay… Let’s try one more:

“In the famous words of Einstein, “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.

What separates the dazzling winners from everyone else is that they are able to envision a grand future. What turns them into winners is that they are able to leap into that future and do the hard work necessary to make it great.

Particularly for die-hard realists and people who have been trained (by parents, friends, or spouse) to be ‘responsible’ and ‘stable’, indulging in imagination can be difficult. For every idea that’s even mildly revolutionary, a little voice chimes in, ‘Impossible. You can’t do that. That’s stupid. It’ll never work.’ Quiet that voice and spend some time ruminating on your wild, far-out, fanciful ideas. Great leader do things that no one before them has done.”

Still no? Tsssk… Okay. I’ll give you a hint: Substitute “brand” for “career”. Everything that Dave so brilliantly recommends is exactly the kind of advice that you can put to good use in building strong brands – from ‘brand you’ to the next retail darling, iconic consumer good or dazzling web application.

Brands aren’t built in a vacuum. They aren’t built by functionaries. They do not thrive in stagnant bureaucracies. Brands are built by empowered visionaries. Brands are built on enthusiasm, conviction, and courage… Or they are doomed from the start.

You are the heart and soul of the brand you represent and serve. If you want your brand to be a market leader, you must be a leader in your job as well. Your qualities are your brand’s attributes. Your weaknesses are its flaws. Everything you are, everything you do, affects its success and future.

So… don’t ever let anyone turn you into a tool. Challenge everything. Question every assumption. Wage war on routine and bureaucracy. Accept no compromise…

… and read Dave’s blog. It’s a good one.

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Via OrangeYeti, from AdPulp, here is a little bit of an interview given by Maurice Levy (Publicis Groupe) to Scott Donaton (of Ad Age). If you’ve ever worked for a company that was so set in its ways that it had grown stale, you’ll understand what Levy is talking about:

“I have never stabilized an organization. Crystallizing an organization is freezing the energy. In chemistry, instability is very good because it creates some combinations you don’t expect.”

“Without change, there is fossilization,and that’s the worst thing that can happen.”

“Ideas,are so fragile, so tenuous, that managers must destroy layers that can obscure or damage them. If you have an organization that is too administrative, you are just killing the ideas. As we say in France, when you ask a committee to draw a horse, you get a camel.”

Read the full interview here.

So there you have it: As a business leader, look for flux. Look for tangents. Look for the unexpected. Recruit adventurously. Give your people the freedom and flexibility to contribute in the most personal, passionate of ways. Eliminate silos and procedures when it comes to the sharing of ideas. When it comes to dialogue. When it comes to cooperation. Decentralize “meetings”. Deconstruct the project ideation process. Empower your people to set the stage for extraordinary new products, business improvements, and creative work.

If you can’t trust your people enough to empower them, to literally give them the keys to the place, then you aren’t hiring the right people. Your job as a leader isn’t always to “lead”. Most of the time, because you aren’t there to bark orders or stand over everyone’s shoulder, it is simply to create an environment, an ecosystem, that allows your team, your army, to do the best possible work they can. It is to create a culture that makes them want to be a part of something greater than the sum of their job description. That makes them proud to be, even.

Ideas are fragile.

Without change, organizations die.

These are the two little mantras you should keep chanting every time you pick up the phone, or a magazine, or your TV remote. They should be in the back of your mind every time you shake someone’s hand or invite them to have a seat.

Embrace instability. Welcome change. Engage uncertainty. Welcome the unknown and love it for all of its infinite number of possibilities.

And they truly are infinite.

Chew on that. Have a great Friday. 😉

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This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post on adopting a leadership attitude. (If you can’t see the above image on your RSS reader, click here. The picture pretty much IS the post.)

Okay, so… Check out the two boxers in the image. Which one do you want to be? Which one are you most acting like today?

Be honest now.

I know that everyone wants to be the guy on the right… but are you actually acting like the guy on the right? Are you thinking like the guy on the right? Are you running your business like the guy on the right? Have you connected the dots between the image and the words?

I received a lot of emails, tweets and comments about this yesterday, many from business owners who were a little stressed out by the outcome of the presidential elections, so I think it is important for everyone to take a deep breath and take inventory of what is and what isn’t: Fear of what may come – any kind of fear for that matter – is not something business leaders can afford to fall prey to, especially now. Fear is distracting. Fear distorts reality. Fear immobilizes. Fear is the enemy of progress, innovation and growth. Fear is the enemy of success. Your success. Don’t let fear, especially fear of the unknown creep into your brain. Just don’t.

Repeat after me: “Fear, go away! Go on now, shoo!” 😀

When in doubt or cornered, focus on what you can control. Focus on what you know. Focus on what you can see and affect NOW: Bringing more value to your customers. Increasing traffic to your website or stores. Improving customer service. Improving employee morale. Building strong user communities. Finding better ways to engage with your customers, boost customer loyalty, and build the foundations of a stronger brand. There are ways you can cut costs without cutting corners. There are ways to cut costs and keep all of your staff employed. There are ways to cut costs and actually grow your business. Find them. Every problem facing your business today is either an opportunity for you to leap ahead tomorrow, or an excuse to fail. Do not let your fears and worries distract you. (And if you have to stop listening to talk radio for a few days, by all means, do.)

Keep your focus. Feed your confidence. Dare to be bold. Take all of the things that have made you successful until now and use them: All of your strengths. All of your skills. All of your knowledge. Making your business successful in the coming year is going to require the kind of commitment, focus and courage that turns ordinary people into champions, soldiers into heroes, and managers into leaders. This is your challenge, and as long as you truly embrace it, you will not fall short. I promise you.

None of us can afford to be distracted by negative thoughts about what may or may not happen a year from now. Be in this moment. Work in this moment. Kick ass in this moment. Then let this moment stretch into the hours, days, weeks and months ahead until either a) the economy is healthy again, or b) you’ve realized that the economy doesn’t matter because you are not at its mercy.

Look up at the boxers one last time. The choice you are facing is simple: Be the guy on the right side of the image, and you’ll do great. Be the distracted guy on the left, and you won’t. The choice is 100% yours: Stay focused.

Have a GREAT day, everyone!

Incidentally, for those of you who inquired over the years as to when the brandbuilder would finally become more than a blog, guess what: With so many small businesses reaching out these last few months, the time has finally come for me to roll up my sleeves and help companies build better futures for themselves full time. More details on the what, how and when very soon, but yeah, I am VERY excited.

My name is Olivier Blanchard, and I approve this message.

Original photo: Doug Benc/Getty Images

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Republican business owners and managers, read this post. (Democrats too.)

Whatever side of the aisle you may be on, the die is cast. The democratic process has worked. Americans have elected the next President of the United States of America. #44, by last count.

Many of you are probably pretty excited that your guy won today. Many of you are probably also angry that your guy didn’t. All of you are probably worried about what will come next: The simple “okay, now what?” question. Will I still have a job in six months? Will my company continue to prosper in the next year? Will I be able to hire new employees this spring, or will I have to let people go? And on and on and on.

My advice to you: Chill.

If you are among the Obama/Biden supporters, I am going to guess that your outlook today is pretty positive. You’re looking at a bright 4-8 years ahead. In your mind, this will probably be the best time to start a new business venture, to travel abroad, to partner with great people and companies.

If you are among the McCain/Palin/Joe The Plumber supporters, your outlook is probably pretty gloomy. You’re looking at what may be disastrous 4-8 years ahead. In your mind, this will probably be the worst time to start a new business venture, travel overseas or partner with great people and companies.

Funny how your perceptions – and ONLY your perceptions – affect the way you envision your business’ outlook in the next few years.

So my advice to you again: Chill. Take a deep breath. Seriously. What happens next in Washington won’t affect you all that much at all. Relax.

Unless you’re big like Exxon, Walmart and at&t, whomever happens to be sitting in the Oval Office really has zero bearing on your business’ success. None. You may think it does, you may have come up with a list of reasons why McCain would have helped you be more successful and why Obama will kill your profits, but you’re wrong. The success of your company depends entirely on you: The CEO. The CMO. The salesperson. The customer service rep. The franchisee. The cashier. The designer. The IT guy. The PR manager. The product manager. The greeter. Success or failure are entirely yours to own.

Likewise, if you voted Democrat, having Barack Obama in the White House won’t make your business successful either. His presidency won’t miraculously cure the ills of our society and restore the market to its pre-crash bubble days. The truth is, regardless of who sits in the White House and who owns the Senate and House of Reps, we have some rough terrain ahead. We’re all going to have to be smart, innovative and resourceful if we’re going to be successful. Neither Obama nor Biden will do anything to help you make payroll, attract and retain customers, or launch the next game-changing product. They have bigger issues to deal with than you – even if you’re the coolest, smartest, hardest working person on the planet.

Reality vs. imaginary dragons: Focus on what you know, not on what you don’t.

What the next 4 years have in store, nobody knows. Higher taxes? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. Best case scenario: Our taxes won’t change much. Worst case scenario, they will increase incrementally. As in: Not enough to make much of an impact on anyone, rich, poor, or somewhere in the middle. Even if I were in the $250K+ bracket (which I am clearly not), watching my taxes increase a little more to help ease our embarrassing trillion dollar deficit would be a small price to pay. What’s done is done. Let’s fix our mess, learn from our mistakes, and move on.

I only mention this to point out that whatever happens with taxes next year… or the year after that – or whenever – should be the least of your worries right now. Possible tax increases are not threatening your business right now, and won’t anytime soon. Get your mind back on the present. On what obstacles you are faced with today. There will be plenty of time to worry about next year’s challenges twelve months from now.

In other words, before we start speculating about the next four years, we might all want to start thinking about the next six months. What problems are you really facing between now and next spring? What are the immediate problems you need to find solutions to? These are the real questions you should be focusing on.

You may not be completely aware of it, but your emotional outlook impacts your success. Yeah, I know, it sounds like I’m spewing self-help bullshizzle right now, but it’s a fact: Believe in success, visualize it, map it out, and you will have a much greater chance of making it happen than if you instead convince yourself that your business will fail. Positive attitudes win races, win deals and win business. Positive attitudes win.

Negative attitudes don’t.

Have you ever been around someone who is just soooo negative? The sky is falling, nothing is going right, the world is coming to an end? After a few minutes, you start to feel the same way. Their negativity starts to affect you. It’s a natural thing. We all feed off each other’s moods and dramas. In the same way, as a CEO or business manager, if you’re negative, that mood affects everyone you come in contact with, starting with your employees and ending with your customers.

Consider this: Your positive attitude can infect your customer touchpoints in such a way that one short encounter with them tomorrow morning could set the stage for an afternoon of wonderfully positive interactions with hundreds of customers. Like the happy cashier at the checkout who makes you feel great about your shopping experience, because their day started with a wonderful experience at work. Likewise, your negative attitude might affect your customer touchpoints in such a way that a brief, negative encounter with them tomorrow morning might make them worry about their jobs, about whether or not they are seen as valuable employees and whether or not they even enjoy working there. What kind of interactions do you think they will have with the hundreds of customers they touch that day?

Your attitude affects the direction and success of your business every single day.

What’s interesting is that most of the time, positive an negative attitudes are entirely self-created. The world around you is the same from day to day. You make the choice to see it either in a positive light or a negative one. Whomever happens to be sitting in the Oval Office, the world essentially is the same today as it was yesterday. Only your outlook has changed. If you have concerns about your business, if you have real problems to solve, then focus on finding solutions for those specific concerns and problems. Don’t waste time and energy worrying about “what if” questions that may never turn into real issues for you. Even if you are a hard-core Republican, understand that President-elect Obama’s policies, beliefs and actions will not have a direct impact on your business anymore than if you had voted for him. Unless you are a Fortune 100 company, the who the President of the United States happens to be has pretty much zero impact on your business. Your fears in regards to what Obama will do in office are still in the realm of imagination. Until something actually happens to affect your business, you are worrying about nothing.

It’s kind of like this: You’re a knight and around you is a small band of foot soldiers looking to you for leadership. Ahead of you is a dark forest you have to cross. You’ve heard that the forest is teaming with enemy soldiers and ambushes, but your mission is to get to the other side. What do you do? Do you figure out the best way to deal with the problem at hand, or do you sit there and worry about other things that may or may not come to be someday that have zero bearing on your immediate situation? You’re letting dragons and ogres (imaginary creatures) distract you from your real issues. Pretty silly when you look at it that way right?

Focus on what you can control. Focus on what you know. Focus on what you can see and affect now: Bringing more value to your customers. Increasing traffic to your website or stores. Improving customer service. Improving employee morale. Building strong user communities. Finding better ways to engage with your customers, boost customer loyalty, and build the foundations of a stronger brand. There are ways you can cut costs without cutting corners. There are ways to cut costs and keep all of your staff employed. There are ways to cut costs and actually grow your business. Find them. Every problem facing your business today is either an opportunity for you to leap ahead tomorrow, or an excuse to fail.

There will always be obstacles in your path. The odds will always be against you. The world will always conspire to make you fail. Cheaper imports, bigger competitors, better tools somewhere else, better tax breaks across the river, lower rent down the street… There will always be dark woods ahead filled with unseen enemies. Get used to it. It’s just how the world works. New elections, the economy, competition, new technologies transforming your industry, all of these things are part of the game. Your attitude will determine whether or not these obstacles and challenges help you build the next chapter in your company’s fascinating success story, or its sad conclusion.

Leadership Lesson: Taking the initiative always gives you a tactical advantage. The alternative (letting someone else decide your fate for you) is no alternative at all.

Great leaders aren’t usually characterized by uneventful tenures and comfortable lives without challenge. Great leaders are people like Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Ghandi and Susan B. anthony, who in spite of overwhelming odds, in spite of the entire world conspiring against them, in spite of being faced with very dark moments of self doubt and despair, managed to embrace the impossible challenges of their times and come out of the woods transformed, cleansed of their fears, and most importantly: victorious.

As a business leader, you will be tested in the coming months. No question. The coming year will probably be the most trying of your entire career. You may work harder than you ever have before, risk more than you ever have before, and want to quit more often than ever before. But you know what, as long as you keep your wits about you, keep your focus on addressing your immediate challenges and keep your eye on making it through, you will. Not only that but you will come out ahead of your less focused and enthusiastic competitors. When you’re old and gray, you’ll be able to look back on this time and understand how it helped define you as a human being and as a leader. And chances are that every ounce of success you enjoy once the economy recovers will lead straight back to the decisions you made during this challenging time in your career. This moment in time WILL define you. How is up to you.

Now that the election drama is over, it’s time to get your head back in the game and give some serious thought to how you can turn immediate challenges into serious opportunities. If you didn’t vote for Barack Obama, don’t let yourself be distracted by negative thoughts and irrational fears. Your future and your company’s future are 100% in your hands. Not Washington’s. Let’s all put politics aside now and get back to the business of getting the economy back on track, starting with you.

So tell me: What is the biggest problem facing your business today?

How can those of us who know how to help businesses grow and prosper (my blogroll is only the tip of the iceberg) help you get through thee challenging times? Come on. Talk to me.

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Robert Killick on the need for intellectual curiosity and courage in the face of “unknowns” in today’s business leaders:

Risk was once seen as a catalyst for competitiveness, innovation and change in enterprise culture. Now it is seen as a negative barrier to be avoided with all sorts of precautionary measures. ‘Risk consciousness’ is the order of the day, but the preference to always dig up the dark side of humanity betrays a lack of faith in human reason. Curiosity and foolhardiness are often derided as irresponsible and egotistical traits, but the great heroes of the past have taken personal risks that benefit all of us.

Today, research and experimentation that does not have a measurable ‘positive effect’ is seen as irresponsible. Yet it is precisely through experimentation, risk – and, yes, mistakes – that some of the major scientific breakthroughs and technological inventions have come about. Without risky experimentation, and without individuals willing to take those risks in the pursuit of knowledge, we wouldn’t have aeroplanes, penicillin, MRI scans or X-rays.

The ability to handle risk – though technology, human ingenuity, reason and resilience – is a measure of modernity and it can only be achieved through more experimentation, not less. The hard won freedoms to creative expression, communication and to technological innovation should be treasured, and the twenty-first century should be when we take them even further.

Risk-adverse/risk-paralyzed leaders aren’t leaders at all. At best, they are followers promoted or appointed to positions they should have had enough common sense, integrity and professionalism to turn down.

Fact: Leaders “lead.” They take their companies in a specific direction and make sure that course corrections occur as needed along the way. Standing still, ignoring emerging market trends, rewarding business-as-usual strategies, waiting for competitors to make a move before testing the waters, or building protective walls around organizations are not examples of leadership.

No one is advocating making rash decisions of course, but in order for companies to be successful, their leaders must possess certain key personality traits – among them the essential combination of vision, courage and an unbreakable pioneering streak.

Bear this in mine when placing your bets on a company, new boss or potential candidates for an executive-level position.

Have a great week, everyone!

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From Seth’s blog:

I’ve seen it before and I’m sure I’ll see it again.

Whenever a business cycle starts to falter, the media start wringing their hands. Then big businesses do, freelancers, entrepreneurs and soon everyone is keening.

People and organizations that have no real financial stress start to pull back, “because it’s prudent.” Now is not the time, they say. They cut budgets and put off investments. It’s almost as if everyone is just waiting for an excuse to do less.

In fact, they are.

Growth is frightening for a lot of people. It brings change and the opportunity for public failure. So if the astrological signs aren’t right or the water is too cold or we’ve got a twinge in our elbow, we find an excuse. We decide to do it later, or not at all.

What a shame. What a waste.

Inc. magazine reports that a huge percentage of companies in this year’s Inc. 500 were founded within months of 9/11. Talk about uncertain times.

But uncertain times, frozen liquidity, political change and poor astrological forecasts (not to mention chicken entrails) all lead to less competition, more available talent and a do-or-die attitude that causes real change to happen.

If I wasn’t already running my own business, today is the day I’d start one.

Yep. Investing in your business during uncertain times isn’t so much a question of courage as it is business savvy. When would you rather spend money to stand out and gain market share: When your competitors are gunning for you full bore, or when they’re cowering in their holes, waiting to see if the sky will fall? This type of crisis is giving smart companies the perfect opportunity to bound ahead and plant the seeds of their next growth spurt. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next week, but definitely within the next 6-12 months.

You have two choices: a) Cower and hide, or b) grab the bull by the horns, take a leadership position and go win some new business. Financial crises aside, if you had a valuable product a month ago, you still have a valuable product today. Don’t let fear paralyze your business. Use your competitors’ hesitation over the next few weeks and months to your advantage. Strategy 101.

Have a great Monday! 😉

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Even if you don’t care for cycling, even if you think that watching cycling on TV (or in real life) is as boring as watching the grass grow – only with more lycra and crazy looking sunglasses, you might still want to head over to VS. tonight (yes, the TV network) and watch today’s Tour De France coverage.

Judging from the RSS feed of today’s stage, Stage 17 sounds epic. No… not epic. EPIC: Not one, not two, but THREE major (HC) mountain climbs (the crushing Col du Galibier, the leg-shredding Col de la Croix de Fer, and the Holy Grail of cycling: Alpe D’Huez), the best riders in the world struggling to stay in the race, crashes galore, cyclists misjudging turns in 70mph descents and flying off mountainsides… It is absolutely insane.

Sure, I miss the early days of Lance Armstrong’s dominance – when the show was all about his crushing superiority on the climbs and in the time-trial, but this is spectacle. Pure, raw warfare on wheels. No engines. No time-outs. No half-times. No substitutions. Just sweat, blood and grit against some of the most spectacular vistas in the world. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know one rider from the next. This kind of stage is so intense, so pure, that you will find yourself rooting and cheering for the guy with the most heart. The most huevos. The guy who wants the stage win the most. You will find yourself cheering for a guy whose name you can’t even pronounce and whom you have never heard of before. That dude in green, or that dude in white or orange or blue. Who knows.

Whether you’re into cycling or not, this is truly sport at its best. Skip the sitcom re-runs tonight and tune in to VS. for a couple of hours. If the climbing portions bore you, stick around for the descents. (Between the full speed motorbike cameras and the sweeping helicopter shots, you are sure to gain a whole new appreciation for what is without a doubt one of the toughest and most dangerous sports in the world.)

Seriously. Wow.

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On Aug. 16, 1960, Col. Kittinger stepped from a balloon-supported gondola at the altitude of 102,800 feet. In freefall for 4.5 minutes at speeds up to 714 mph and temperatures as low as -94 degrees Fahrenheit, he opened his parachute at 18,000 feet. (U.S. Air Force photo).

What did you do today?

Or rather, what could you have done better today: Could you have fought a little harder for a budget? Could you have stood your ground about going with the best idea? Should you have turned away a HUGE client for all the right reasons? Did you hire the smaller agency rather than the big bloated one because you know it is a better fit?

Whatever your job is – entrepreneur, attorney, recruiter, CMO, creative director, account exec, product manager, copywriter, marketing VP, Business Development manager – let’s face it: Nobody is asking you to fly up into a high altitude weather balloon, jump out at 100,000 feet with a diesel truck battery strapped to your ass and a parachute on your back, freefall for almost five minutes through an absolute hell of terror and space-like cold temperatures, open your parachute at exactly 18,000 feet, then land… wherever and wait for the helicopter to come get you.

All you’re asked to do is sit at a desk, shake a few hands, come up with some great ideas, sell them to someone, and make them happen.

Tell me again what’s so difficult and stressful about your job?

It’s a brand new week. Make it count. 😉

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Some sweet, sweet words of wisdom from Advergirl:

What’s the number 1 reason agencies lose accounts? I would argue that it’s complacency. The agency is coasting. They probably don’t even realize they’re doing it. But after years with a product, it’s easy to get too close to it, to lean on old insights, to produce rather than create.

Taking a strategic approach to every project is fighting the coast.

But, more importantly, it’s getting to do the best at your job – who wants to be a pair of hands when you can be a leader?

* * *

Once you’ve tried out the same Idea three or four times, only to find a big ugly mess at the end, it’s just human nature to kill that Idea out on hand of the fifth go round. But a scrappy little rookie might look at it another way. Sure it didn’t work the other times; so, what can we do differently to make it successful this time?

* * *

We all get into a groove. The creative brief works like this. Client Z will always want this. For retail, we always do this.

The new kid in the room carries none of that history. And asks – preferably in a brief way – why? Or how? Or what about this? Or do we have research on that?

Keep asking those questions. Looking for holes. There’s always more to learn.

‘No’ is the easiest word to say. Finding a way to say ‘yes’ can be the first step to great work.

Clearly one of my new favorite reads.

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The Paris-Dakar Rally isn’t very big in the US, but it is in Europe and other parts of the world. For decades, it was the quintessential international motorsport expedition event – more so than the Camel Trophy and its other motorized adventure race style events.

As a kid, I remember watching the day’s highlights on TV, and sitting next to my dad on Sunday evenings as the race was recapped stage by stage. Helicopters equipped with cameras followed intrepid racers in kit cars and modified supercross bikes as they raced balls out across the North African desert. The crashes were as spectacular as the scenery. The teams were made up of seemingly unshakable professional adventurers and thrill-seekers. Drivers routinely got stuck in the sand and had to get themselves unstuck. Mechanical problems had to be fixed without assistance. The race was as much aout self-reliance and survival as it was about horsepower and speed.

More than anything, the race was about courage.

I remember watching a participant on a motorcycle crash so hard one year that he broke both legs. He was on a motorcycle. In the desert. By himself. With two shattered legs. He managed to get back on his bike and somehow ride to the finish – amid dunes and rocks and some of the most hostile terrain known to man. Other than the hiker who amputated his own arm with a pocket knife a few years ago, this dude holds a special place in the pantheon of courageous and tough bastards.

Like I said, this race was mostly about courage.

That ended today when the organizers of the Paris Dakar Rally announced that the rally would temporarily move to South America next year in an attempt to avoid the threat of terrorism (from msn.com):

PARIS (AP) – Argentina and Chile will host the 2009 edition of the Dakar Rally, which was canceled this year because of fears of terrorism in Africa.

Organizers said Monday the race will start in Buenos Aires on Jan. 2 and finish in the Argentine capital Jan. 18. The full route will be announced Tuesday in Argentina by Patrice Clerc, who runs the company that organizes the rally.

This year marked the first time that the 30-year-old rally, one of the biggest competitions in automobile racing, was called off. The threat of terrorist attacks pushed the element of risk to levels organizers deemed unacceptable.

The roughly 550 competitors were to have embarked on a 16-day, 5,760-mile trek through remote and hostile dunes and scrub from Portugal to Dakar, Senegal.

The race, once known as the Paris-Dakar, was canceled following warnings from the French government about safety after the al-Qaida-linked Dec. 24 slaying of a family of French tourists in Mauritania. Eight of the competition’s 15 stages were to be held there.

Organizers promised that the cancellation did not mean the end of the Dakar race.

Please. Grow a pair.

Easy for me to say, sitting comfortably at my desk, thousands of miles away from Europe and North Africa? Don’t be so sure. Anyone who makes it his or her career to train for these types of events and risk everything to race in them isn’t the kind of person who will back down because of the “possibility” of a terrorist attack. Racing teams have to be fuming over this ridiculous and unbelievably cowardly decision.

As if Al Qaeda didn’t have better things to do.

As if the race couldn’t be adequately protected.

I understand that the decision to cancel, and then to move the race is probably related to insurance coverage, but that is no excuse. The Paris-Dakar is called Paris-Dakar because the race starts in Paris, and ends in Dakar. Duh. It has for decades. Moving the race to a different continent makes in another race altogether. If you move it, it ceases to be Paris-Dakar. Period. End of story. The race dies.

Perhaps this is me sitting on my high horse, but when the threat of terrorism pushes event organizers to postpone, cancel, or move a sporting event, the terrorists win… and this is unacceptable.

Why don’t we also move the New York Marathon to Ontario, while we’re at it?

Why don’t we move the Superbowl to Australia?

Why don’t we move the Tour De France to Japan?

Why don’t we just cancel the Olympic Games?

All for security reasons. Al Qaeda and all…

Maybe race organizers should also get rid of the swim portion of the Hawaii Ironman because of the threat of shark attacks.

Maybe Mount Everest expeditions should be redirected to a safer mountain that doesn’t claim so many lives. We could still call it an Everest expedition… you know… for the sponsors. And for the public too, since they’ve heard of Everest.

Maybe Nascar should enforce speed limits.

When your event/race/brand is synonymous with courage, adventure, and survival in the face of adversity, cowering before the bullying specter of terrorism is just sad. Excuse my French, but if we have become too chicken-shit to race cars through the desert, the spirit of Paris-Dakar is indeed dead – only Al Qaeda had absolutely nothing to do with it: Terrorists may plant bombs and crash jetliners into skyscrapers, but we’ve become cowards all on our own. We can’t blame Al Qaeda for that.

I think that we can officially call the Paris-Dakar brand dead and buried.

Shame on the race organizers. Shame on the race sponsors. Shame on us all.

Let me close with this little bit of Chuck Palahniuk, for good measure:

“The laws that keep us safe, these same laws condemn us to boredom.” (…)

At her last trial, before the last time she went to jail, the Mommy had sat up next to the judge and said, “My goal is to be an engine of excitement in people’s lives.”

She’d stared right into the stupid little boy’s eyes and said, “My purpose is to give people glorious stories to tell.”

Before the guards took her into the back wearing handcuffs, she’d shouted, “Convicting me would be redundant. Our bureaucracy and our laws have turned the world into a clean, safe work camp.”

She shouted, “We are raising a generation of slaves.”

And it was back to prison for Ida Mancini.

“Incorrigible” isn’t the right word, but it’s the first word that comes to mind.

The unidentified woman, the one who ran down the aisle during the ballet, she was screaming, “We are teaching our children to be helpless.”

Running down the aisle and out a fire exit, she’d yelled, “We’re so structured and micromanaged, this isn’t a world anymore, it’s a damn cruise ship.”

From Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk


Nothing is sadder to me than watching courage die. This is at the very least a sad day in the history of sport.


R.I.P. Paris-Dakar Rally.
1979 – 2007

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Hop on over to Kathy Sierra‘s blog for her post on bravery, confidence, and getting past the paralysis of uncertainty. Very cool stuff, as always:

“If your new Big Idea doesn’t scare the hell out of you, it’s probably not a new Big Idea. If it doesn’t scare other people, it might be because you allowed the consensus (or what you imagined as the consensus) to smooth the pointy bits, buffing and polishing the idea into a nice safe state that displeases nobody and delights nobody.”
(…)
“But–if we let the critics (or fear of criticism) talk us out of an idea we still believe in, the world will be more homogeneous. Smoother. Less interesting. Imagine where we’d be if people throughout history had always given in to the critics (or fear of critics). Imagine the ideas that would have beenlost if others hadn’t been brave enough to stand up against smart people who disagreed. Nature needs change and diversity, but humans tend to favor the status quo.”

… Well, not all humans. Some of us are wired a little bit differently. It isn’t so much that we’re difficult. We really aren’t. It’s just in our DNA to a) figure out ways to make things better for people around us, and b) to find ways to take these ideas and actually make them happen.

We just want faster wheels. Safer helmets. Sharper pictures. Easier web interfaces. Cleaner fuels. Smarter workspaces. Softer beds. Fun retail spaces. Cheaper orbiters. More powerful telescopes. Tastier drive-thru coffee. Food, clean water and medicine for every human being on the planet. Better advertising. Put simply, we have the skills to make these things happen, and don’t feel like waiting for someone else to get around to it.

Kathy posted a link to the very cool ode to “The Crazy Ones”, from Apple. Remember the ad? If not, maybe this will refresh your memory:

Here’s to the crazy ones.


The misfits.
The rebels.
The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently.
They’re not fond of rules.
And they have no respect for the status quo.

You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them,
disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.
Because they change things.

They invent. They imagine. They heal.
They explore. They create. They inspire.
They push the human race forward.

Maybe they have to be crazy.
How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?
We make tools for these kinds of people.

While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.
Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Amen.

Related post: Fear Is Irrelevant.

Check this out. 😉

To leave comments (and read previous, related posts) hit the brandbuilder’s main page.

Image by Goldmember

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Every day, I am amazed at the sorts of things people are afraid of.

Perhaps because of my time in the Fusiliers Marins, – and because a handful of my friends are in hot war zones where death could come at any moment from a sniper’s bullet, landmine, rocket, mortar shell or IED, – I am not really all that phased by the thought of getting yelled at by my boss or looking bad when one of my projects doesn’t pan out the way I thought it would.

It isn’t to say that I don’t worry about office-related catastrophes. I don’t want to look bad in front of my peers. I don’t want to get yelled at by my boss. I don’t want to do anything that will make anyone I work with or work for think twice about letting me develop and execute their next marketing strategy. I get paid to deliver great work all of the time – not just some of the time. Like everyone else who is serious about what they do for a living, I don’t ever want to screw up. I don’t want to be wrong. So yes, like most of you, fear of failure is part of my world.

That being said, I make a choice every day not to let that fear get in the way of turning ambitious and often unproven ideas into a reality. Why? Because fear of failure is purely a vanity-driven fear. It’s bullshit. Heck, it’s pathetic and inexcusable once you’re over the age of 30.

Do I put my reputation on the line every time I take on a new project? Absolutely. Do I risk a black mark on my “file” every time I turn the dial a little further and push past our comfort zones? You bet. So what. What’s the worst thing that could happen if one of my projects doesn’t deliver? You take your licks, learn from your mistakes, and try again.

What I have found is that failure is a much more effective teacher than success. Taking chances and finding out how things work or don’t work makes you a more effective leader. You learn to ask “how can this go wrong?” early on in the planning process. It marries curiosity with wisdom, which is always a good thing. Conversely, sitting in an office doing the same crap every day for twenty years for fear of screwing up and looking like a fool doesn’t do much except turn you into a warm piece of expensive office furniture.

When you put things in perspective, taking a few chances here and there at work with the goal of improving your company’s position, growth rate or bottom line pale in comparison to working in a place where bullets and shrapnel (instead of a few angry words behind closed doors or some unpleasant moments during a presentation) are the threats you face every day.

Facing bullets and bombs every day takes a lot more courage than your boss occasionally taking a verbal dump on you.

Earlier today, ex-Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, just days before elections in her country. Bhutto, a woman, opposed a predominantly patriarchal government in the face of hatred so intense that death threats were a daily reality for her. She could have backed off. She could have thought about the risks and rationalized that perhaps retiring from public life, playing things safe, just flying under the radar and making a living without making waves was the smarter thing to do. The safer thing to do. But instead, she chose to stand for something. She chose to be an agent of change. She chose to give fear the middle finger and stand up for what she thought was best for her country and for her peers. Her murder today makes me very sad.

The kind of commitment, the level of responsibility and professionalism, and the unbelievable amount of courage that men and women like Benazir Bhutto display in their lives and careers help put things in perspective for me: How can I ever be afraid of things like petty office politics and the occasional little career dings when my world is a climate-controled office thousands of miles from the nearest war zone?

When most of us take a chance at work, the risk isn’t an assassin’s bullet finding us at our desk. It isn’t an RPG ripping through our windshield during our morning commute. We aren’t going to get shanked or strangled with piano wire in the executive bathroom by a couple of pissed off junior VPs. What is there to be afraid of? I mean really. What is there to be afraid of? A frown? A few angry words? Missing out on a promotion?

When did we become such wussies?

My advice for you today is this: Be engaged. Be bold. Change the game. Leave your competitors in the dust. Rewrite the rules. The worst thing that’ll happen is that you’ll occasionally screw up , but you’ll also occasionally score big, so the score won’t look as bad as you think. Most of the time, as long as you did your homework and set out to execute a well-thought-out plan, you don’t really have much to lose.

Nobody is going to put a bullet in your head if your last marketing campaign fell short of the expepected ROI. You may go down in flames, but at least you’ll have tried your best, and there’s a lot to be said for that.

Stop playing it safe. Go on the offensive. Either commit or go home.

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