How mutts at pounds became rescue dogs at shelters (review of Chuck Thompson’s The Status Revolution: The Improbable Story of How the Lowbrow Became the Highbrow)

How do you know if someone’s adopted a rescue dog?

They can’t wait to tell you.

And how do you know if someone’s bought a dog from a breeder?

They don’t want to tell you or they apologize.

Not so long ago, buying a pricey pup was a status marker for the have-lots.

The have-nots went to the pound and bought themselves cheap mutts.

But then a California shelter overrun with abandoned pets rebranded strays as rescue dogs and launched a global revolution. Rescue dogs became the new status symbol available to everyone.

The top reasons to adopt a dog according to the American Humane Society? You’ll save a life and bragging rights.

Owning a rescue dog became a badge of honour, says Chuck Thompson, author of The Status Revolution. “A badge that said I am a good person, I care about living creatures, I am virtuous. I am better than other pet owners. It conveyed status, but a new kind of status, one disconnected from wealth, talent, intelligence, success, religious or professional standing.”

That disconnect isn’t limited to just your neighborhood dog park. Thompson says a rebellion’s underway against pretty much all traditional measures and markers of status, prestige, luxury and privilege. “It’s taken hold at all levels of society. It’s swamping the status industry, from the academics who track and analyze it to the philosophers who explain it, the companies that manufacture it, the marketers that promote it, the retailers that sell it, the media that popularize it and the consumers who buy it.

“Like topped statues of Confederate generals and Founding Fathers, it’s possible that within a generation or two, traditional totems of status will have been rendered obsolete, and new ones erected in their places.”

Philanthropy’s traditional totems of status are also changing thanks to one of the world’s richest women.

Mackenzie Scott has pledged to give away her entire $60 billion fortune. She’s already donated more than $14 billion to around 1,600 non-profits. Many of those organizations had no idea Scott’s cheques were in the mail.

“The amount of Scott’s giveaway was shocking,”says Thompson. “What make it transformative, what ‘upended’ the philanthropy establishment, was the way in which donations were made. Many were sent to organizations that hadn’t even applied for grants, that didn’t even know they were on Scott’s radar.”

It’s an approach that lets non-profits stay focused on delivering programs and services and not spend time or money applying for grants.

What’s more, Scott doesn’t dictate how her donations should be spent, trusting that non-profits know best how to invest the money for maximum impact. There are no follow-up reporting requirements and Scott shuns recognition. You won’t find Scott’s name on buildings or see pictures of her holding giant cheques or cutting ribbons with giant scissors.

“Scott’s out-of-the-blue commitment to ‘trust-based philanthropy’ shocked just about everyone,” says Thompson. “Understood by everyone in the philanthropy trade, ‘full trust and no strings attached’ were code words that scared traditional foundations whose habit of sitting on millions and billions of assets, while annually parsing out the legal minimum five per cent of their endowments to pet projects with more strings than a marionette, was suddenly cast into an unwelcome spotlight,” says Thompson.

Following Scott’s lead, San Franciso-based Whitman Institute joined a growing number of ‘spend-down foundations’.

“This is another newish operating model that dictates a foundation should spend down or ‘spend out’ all of its capital reserves within a designated period of time, and then, once all the money is gone, simply cease to exist,” says Thompson. “The give-it-all-away rationale is that if a foundation’s true goal is to help alleviate a particular social ill, it should damn the torpedoes and throw everything it has available at the problem.”

Status is in chaos and Thompson does a masterful job of explaining why and previewing what’s next. “For the first time in history, social status is becoming available to the masses. Status, luxury, even prestige are now commodities within everyone’s grasp. Status is no longer for the gilded elect. It’s for everyone. The curtain is drawn. Everyone gets backstage. Everyone’s a VIP.”

Photo by Connor Home on Unsplash.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager at McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

There’s blood in our smartphones and electric cars (review of Siddharth Kara’s Cobalt Red)

What’s a child’s life worth?

For children cursed to live in southeast Congo, we’ve decided their lives are worth the eight grams of cobalt in our smartphones.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa has the world’s largest cobalt reserves. It’s an essential element for the batteries that’ll drive our renewable energy revolution. To get some sense of the demand for cobalt, multiply eight grams by the world’s 6.8 billion smartphone users. And then add the six to 12 kilograms of cobalt needed for each of the 10 million electric vehicles expected to be sold this year alone.

The race is on to get as much cobalt out of the ground as fast and cheaply as possible. Working alongside industrial mines in the Congo are artisanal miners. Many are children who are being exploited, poisoned, beaten, raped, buried alive, crushed, maimed, murdered and killed in horrific accidents. They have no choice. If they don’t dig, they starve.

“Across twenty-one years of research into slavery and child labor, I have never seen more extreme predation for profit than I witnessed at the bottom of global cobalt supply chains,” says Siddharth Kara, a former investment banker, senior fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and “Cobalt Red” author. “The titanic companies that sell products containing Congolese cobalt are worth trillions, yet the people who dig their cobalt out of the ground eke out a base existence characterized by extreme poverty and immense suffering.

“The harsh realities of cobalt mining in the Congo are an inconvenience to every stakeholder in the chain,” says Kara. “No company wants to concede that the rechargeable batteries used to power smartphones, tablets, laptops and electric vehicles contain cobalt mined by peasants and children in hazardous conditions.”

While companies put out performative press releases that virtue signal their commitments to human rights, ethically sourced supply chains and zero-tolerance policies on child labour, Kara has seen what’s actually happening in the Congo. He takes readers on a hellish road trip through the Central African Copper Belt. He risks retribution from soldiers and private militias as he tours mines and neighbouring villages to talk with maimed children and grieving parents. One young woman told Kara she was grateful for her two miscarriages because it was better not to born into her world.

“The ongoing exploitation of the poorest people of the Congo by the rich and powerful invalidates the purported moral foundation of contemporary civilization and drags humanity back to a time when the people of Africa were valued only by their replacement costs.

“Cobalt mining is the slave farm perfected – the cost of labor has been nullified through the degradation of Africans at the bottom of an economic chain that purports to exonerate all participants of accountability through a shrewd scheme of obfuscation adorned with hypocritical proclamations about the preservation of human rights. It is a system of absolute exploitation for absolute profits.”

So what’s the solution? “The biggest problem faced by the Congo’s artisanal miners is not the gun-toting soldiers, unscrupulous Chinese buyers, exploitative mining cooperatives or collapsing tunnels,” says Kara.

“These and other antagonists are but symptoms of a greater menace. The biggest problem faced by the Congo’s artisanal mines is that stakeholders up the chain refuse to accept responsibility for them, even though they all profit in one way or another from their work.

“Rather than issue vacant statements on zero-tolerance policies and other hollow PR, corporations should do one simple thing that would truly help: treat the artisanal miners as equal employees to the people who work at corporate headquarters.”

As Kara points out in his book, Apple would never allow kids to dig tunnels next to their Cupertine, California headquarters or stand in toxic pools of wastewater to wash rocks for a dollar a day.  

If that fate is unimaginable for our kids, why’s it acceptable for the children who are dying in the Congo? Are their lives really worth nothing more than the eight grams of cobalt in our smartphones?

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Photo by Abdullah Omar on Unsplash.

We all long to belong (review of Belonging to the Brand by Mark Schaefer)

It turns out it was never about the roast beef and pie.

I spent two summers cutting grass, painting pipes and burying dead gophers out on the industrial end of town.

On Fridays, my grandfather would pull up in his Volkswagen Rabbit and we’d go out for lunch. We’d drive past McDonald’s and KFC and head over to the Royal Canadian Legion branch a few blocks from my grandfather’s house.

The legion served a roast beef feast with a mountain of mashed potatoes, gravy by the gallon, a side salad smothered in Italian dressing and a wedge of pie. My grandfather would smuggle back an extra dessert. I was a growing boy who apparently needed to eat half a pie for lunch – three quarters if my grandfather didn’t have room for his dessert.

I was always the youngest one in the dining hall. Yet I was likely older than all the veterans when they went overseas to fight in World War II and went years without eating a roast beef lunch.

No one traded war stories during lunch. The veterans sat alone and ate in silence. It was as quiet as a library.

Yet for the veterans and my grandfather, this was a community. What they’d seen, done and survived forged a bond. They needed each other’s company.  

Everyone longs to belong, says Mark Schaefer, marketing expert and author of Belonging to the Brand.

Smart companies, organizations and entrepreneurs are figuring out how to satisfy that longing. Their move to a community-based business model is rewriting the rules of marketing.

“Helping a person belong to something represents the ultimate marketing achievement. If a customer opts-in to an engaging, supportive and relevant brand community, we no longer need to lure them into our orbit with ads and search engine optimization, right? What we used to consider marketing is essentially over.”

Community was the first and is now the last great marketing strategy, says Schaefer.  “It’s the only marketing strategy people really want. Intellectually, psychologically and emotionally, customers need it.

“A customer committed to a relevant brand community doesn’t require any further convincing, coupons or coaxing to love us. They’ve become an engaged advocate for our brand, sustained through the purpose they find through our community. Moving customers from follower to audience to community is a process they will actually embrace!”

There are three distinguishing features of a community, says Schaefer. Members have a connection to each other. They have a shared reason for belonging to the community. And the community has relevance to their lives. “A community will dissolve if its purpose becomes irrelevant,” says Schaefer.

Most brand communities – upwards of 70 per cent – fail, says Schaefer. Why the high mortality rate? Companies confuse community members with customers, they sell instead of share, they talk at instead of with members and they refuse to give up control.  Companies also waste big money building their own online communities that no one visits. Use Facebook Groups, LinkedIn, Twitter Chats, Discord, Reddit or other popular community destinations instead, advises Schaefer.

Schaefer includes case studies and entire chapters on thriving brand communities, including Dana Malstaff’s Boss Mom community. It’s a community for women who want to start a business and a family. Malstaff built Boss Mom into a half-million dollar business in the span of a couple years, with no sales or marketing team. “That’s worth repeating,” says Schaefer. “Dana’s marketing budget is zero. She runs no ads. There are no sales promotions. She had reached a six-figure salary in her first eight months, and at that point her business had more than doubled every year.”

And then there are the brand community juggernauts, like Sephora’s Beauty Insider with nearly six million members. IKEA, Lego, Harley Davidson and Nike are other companies that have created hugely successful brand communities that meet online and off, discussing, reviewing and co-creating new products.

So if anyone longs to belong to a community that shares an interest in reading, writing and reviewing business books, let’s talk. Discussions over slices of pie would be an added bonus.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Practice the 95/5 rule to wow customers and employees (review of Will Guidara’s Unreasonable Hospitality)

How’d you react if you were served a $2 hot dog at a fine dining restaurant?

It happened to four guests at Eleven Madison Park in the heart of New York City.

“They freaked out,” said Will Guidara, the restaurant’s former co-owner and author of Unreasonable Hospitality.

“I had given away thousands of dishes, and many, many thousands of dollars’ worth of food, and yet I can confidently say that nobody had ever responded the way that table responded to that hot dog. Before they left, each person at the table told me it was the highlight not only of the meal, but of their trip to New York. They’d be telling the story for the rest of their lives.”

Here’s why. Even though he was the general manager, Guidara routinely bussed tables and he’d eavesdropped on the foursome. They’d eaten everywhere and everything except a hot dog from a street vendor. Once their meal was done, they were off to the airport.

 “If you’d been in the dining room that day, you’d have seen an animated bulb appear over my head, like in a cartoon. I dropped the dirty dishes off in the kitchen and ran out to buy a hot dog from Abraham, who manned the Sabrett’s cart on our corner.”

Guidara brought the hot dog back to the kitchen and asked chef Daniel Humm to plate it. “He looked at me like I’d gone crazy. I was always trying to push the boundaries, but serving what New Yorkers call a dirty-water dog at a four star restaurant? I held my ground and told him to trust me – that it was important to me – and he finally agreed to cut the hot dog into four perfect pieces, adding a swoosh of mustard, a swoosh of ketchup and perfect quenelles of sauerkraut and relish to each plate.”

Guidara told the foursome he’d overheard their conversation and didn’t want them flying home with culinary regrets. Servers then brought out the artistically plated hot dog.

It’s wasn’t just $2 hotdogs delighting guests. When couples got engaged at Eleven Madison Park, they got complimentary glasses of champagne like every other restaurant. But the champagne was served in crystal flutes from Tiffany’s that went home with the newly engaged couples in robin’s-egg blue gift boxes.

Guidara introduced a Dreamweavers program with full-time staff to deliver improvisational and unreasonable hospitality on unsuspecting guests. That hospitality, together with exceptional food and service, would earn Eleven Madison Park three Michelin stars and top spot in the annual ranking of the world’s 50 best restaurants.

Every business is in the hospitality businesss and gifts are how you can stand out, says Guidara.

“Gifts to me are deeply meaningful, which is why I get so mad when a business gives me a cheap tote with a branded USB drive. Try harder! Do better!

“Gifts are a way to tell people you saw, heard and recognized them – that you cared enough to listen, and to do something with what you heard. A gift transforms an interaction, taking it from transactional to relational; there is no better way than a gift to demonstrate that someone is more than a customer or a line item on a spreadsheet. And the right one can help to extend your hospitality all the way into someone’s life.”

But what if you’re not a fine dining restaurant in the heart of New York City, serving meals that cost as much as month’s worth of groceries?

First, it’s the thought that counts more than the value of the gift.

You should also follow Guidara’s 95 / 5 rule. “Manage 95 per cent of your business down to the penny; spend the last five per cent foolishly. It sounds irresponsible; in fact, it’s anything but. Because that last five per cent has an outsize impact on the guest experience, it’s some of the smartest money you’ll ever spend.”

And be sure to shower some of that five per cent on your team. Give them more than they expect and they’ll do the same with your customers, clients and guests.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999. Photo courtesy of Pablo de la Fuente on UnSplash.

To build a happy workplace, start with what your team hates (review of Nicholas Webb’s Happy Work)

There’s one question I’ve yet to be asked on an employee survey.

I’ve completed dozens of surveys over the years and helped create a few. I’ve ranked and rated my satisfaction with everything from workplace culture, teamwork, training and communications to work-life balance, the alignment of my work with the organization’s mission and vision, my trust in leadership and confidence in the future. 

But I’ve never been asked what I hate about my job. 

Hate’s a harsh word. Yet it lends itself to specificity.  

For example, employees could (and almost invariably) give low marks to communications. But what does that failing grade actually mean and how should an employer fix it?  

The mystery goes away if employees say they hate 30-minute meetings that should be 30-second emails, muddled word-salad memos written by committee that leave everyone guessing what they’re being asked to do, town halls jammed with PowerPoint decks that test the limits of human endurance and videos of leaders trying to emote for the camera and proving that not going into acting or broadcasting was a smart career move on their part. 

Asking what employees hate about their jobs is essential if you have any hope of creating a happy workplace.  

Here’s why. What employees hate about their jobs cancels out what they love about working for you. You can’t afford to have a zero, or negative, balance. 

Customers know if employees love or hate their jobs and they’ll tell the world with online reviews. If employees are happy, they’re not quitting and you’re not scrambling to recruit and train new hires. And you’ll have a better shot at poaching talented people who can pick and choose where they work next.  

“Given the advantages of a happy workplace, there’s simply no rational reason to tolerate a company culture that’s toxic (at worst) or mediocre and boring (at best),” says Nicholas Webb, CEO of a management consulting firm and author of Happy Work. “Such a workplace will slowly decline, lose profitability and suffer the exit of top employees.” 

Which brings us back to finding out what employees love and hate. It’s safe to say Webb hates traditional surveys. 

 “We have created a ‘survey industrial complex’ of organizations that have built the perfect business model. These busy industrialists develop a survey algorithm, charge an organization to have their employees complete the survey and then report out to the client in a dashboard their employees’ level of job satisfaction.  

“This massive industry is essentially an online vending machine that delivers minimal value at an extremely high cost,” says Webb. “The companies that produce surveys lose this model because it’s profitable, and truthfully most organizational leaders like it because it’s the easiest and fastest way to check the box on employee insights while creating authoritative-looking graphs and charts.” 

Webb instead proposes a three-step process. First, assess whether your organization’s ready to hear the truth, even if it hurts. “If the people in your organization are resistant to new ideas – even ones that will measurably help them and make them happier – then your first task must be to change the culture and perhaps even provide training, so that you can then present them with new information they’ll embrace.” 

Next up is the survey, with a focus on what employees love and hate about their jobs. “Design a survey that embraces a comprehensive and thoughtful assessment of the organization’s challenges, problems, opportunities and needs.” 

And then, with survey results in hand, follow up with employees and carry out what Webb calls happiness hackathons. “These programs are incredibly effective at soliciting authentic and hard-hitting insights from employees.” 

A happy workplace isn’t a happy coincidence. It starts with a serious and sustained commitment from senior leadership to listen, learn and collaborate.  

“If you’re going to ask your employees to spend a significant part of their lives working for your company, then what not make them happy to do so? Cultivating a happy workplace is like putting money in the bank.” 

It’s time to start investing. 

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.   

Don’t just feel our pain – remove it and you’ll earn our loyalty (review of Joe Polish’s What’s In It For Them?)

Joe Polish first learned the meaning of true appreciation in a janitorial supply store in Chandler, Arizona.

Polish was a recovering drug addict and dead broke carpet cleaner living off credit cards in the 1990s. “I started my own carpet-cleaning business with all my savings – $1,500 – because I wanted a better future and I didn’t have any better options,” says Polish. “I quickly learned that carpet cleaning is dirty, hard work.”

A client asked Polish to clean a sofa. The job needed equipment that Polish didn’t have and couldn’t afford to buy.

Polish went to the supply store and asked if he could rent the equipment. The store owner had a better idea. He let Polish borrow the equipment along with the cleaning chemicals.

“If you need something, just let me know and take whatever you need,” the owner told Polish. “Build up your business first and then come pay me back later.”

Polish’s cleaning business took off and he stayed loyal to the store owner. “Even as my business grew and grew, I would still go back to the same store to buy all my supplies – even it meant driving 45 minutes across town.”

Polish built a million-dollar cleaning business and eventually moved into sales and marketing, with cleaning companies as his first clients. Today, he’s the founder of the Genius Network for entrepreneurs, a marketing consultant, a host on three top-ranked marketing and business podcasts, founder of Artists for Addicts and Genius Recovery and even the co-owner of a 40-acre ghost town in Arizona.

The store owner’s generosity also let Polish in on an invaluable secret. 

“The secret to success in life and business is learning how to connect and form relationships with other people – and most people don’t know how to do that,” says Polish in his book What’s In It For Them?

So what’s one of the best way to connect and form strong relationships? Do what the store owner did for Polish.

Ease other people’s pain. Figure out how they’re suffering and how you can help. The store owner knew Polish was struggling to make ends meet and needed a break.

“Suffering is pain,” says Polish. “Suffering can be physical, emotional, mental or spiritual. There’s suffering everywhere and there’s much more than most people realize.”

To get at the root of someone’s suffering, ask three questions – where are you, where do you want to go and how are you going to get there?

According to Polish, we all want to connect with others, feel special, cared about and appreciated and have our problems solved.

Meet our needs in authentic, useful and valuable ways and you’ll earn our appreciation, trust, loyalty, business and friendship.

“Connecting with people is about helping them get what they want and helping them reduce or remove what is causing them suffering.”

The added bonus in helping others? You help yourself in ways that go far beyond monetary rewards, says Polish.

“By connecting with others, you reduce your own suffering, improve your own life, have richer relationships and make the world a better place.

“If you’re a person who cares about others and can solve their problems – someone who understands what’s in it for them – there’s no limit to what you can accomplish or the peace and joy you can find in your own existence.”

The owner of the janitorial supply store did it for Polish and Polish returns the favour by offering dozens of exercises and action steps to help us do the same should someone who’s struggling and suffering come into our businesses or lives in need of a helping hand.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999. This review first ran in the Jan. 13 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The one question to keep asking yourself in 2023 (review of Marshall Goldsmith’s The Earned Life: Lose Regret, Choose Fulfillment)

Skip the usual New Year’s resolutions that you’ll break within weeks and instead spend 2023 asking yourself one question over and over again.

Am I being the person I want to be right now?

Write that question out on an index card.

Put the card in your wallet.

And take it out whenever you need a reminder of how to behave and what to say and do at work, home or out in the community.

“Do this once with an affirmative answer and you’ll discover that you have earned the moment,” says Marshall Goldsmith, executive coach and author of The Earned Life. “Do this habitually and continually and you will create a string of many earned moments, stretching from days into months into years, that add up to an earned life.”

So what’s an earned life?

“We are living an earned life when the choices, risks and effort we make in each moment align with an overarching purpose in our lives, regardless of the eventual outcomes,” says Goldsmith. “In the end, an earned life doesn’t include a trophy ceremony. The reward of living an earned life is being engaged in the process of constantly earning such a life.”

Cover of The Earned Life by Marshall Goldsmith

The alternative is going through our careers and lives on autopilot. We’re focused on action and ambition and completely ignore aspiration. We make a pile of money and get every promotion but sacrifice everything else. Or we have big dreams to make the world a better place but accomplish little or nothing at all. We overestimate risks or rewards and make questionable short-term decisions with lousy long-term consequences. And then we’re surprised, angry and disheartened to find ourselves drowning in the regret of what we could’ve, should’ve and would’ve done differently.

Goldsmith has other suggestions for avoiding this fate and leading an earned life instead. We can go beyond the one question on our index card and start answering a half dozen more  that Goldsmith promises will improve our lives.

At the end of every day, ask if we did our best to set clear goals.

Did we make progress toward achieving our goals?

Did we do our best to find meaning?

Be happy?

Maintain and build positive relationships?

And be fully engaged?

Answer each question on a scale that measures effort but not results. Ten is maximum effort. One is next to no effort. “Segregating effort from results is critical because it forces you to acknowledge that you can’t always control your results (stuff happens) but you have no excuse for not trying,” says Goldsmith.

He also recommends sharing our results each week with a group. “Don’t do this alone. Common sense should tell you that reviewing your plan in the select company of others is vastly superior to reviewing your plan alone. Why would you try to adhere to an ambitious life plan and refuse to share the experience with anyone else, especially if you didn’t have to? What added value does going solo bring to the endeavor? It would be like baking a birthday cake to eat by yourself or giving a speech to an empty room.”  

Choose your group wisely and set some ground rules, says Goldsmith. Recruit a diverse group of five to eight people who are all committed to getting better. “It’s a gathering of successful people with shared goals for the future, not a gripe session for unsuccessful people with problems,” says Goldsmith. “You’re looking for people of any and every stripe who share the same optimism about getting better. They are not victims or martyrs.”

The rules are simple. Show up each week and steer clear of judgement, negativity and cynicism, especially when reporting on how much effort you put in during the past week. Don’t beat yourself up, says Goldsmith.

“Accomplishing something with the help of a chosen community resonates more resoundingly, affects more people and is often an improvement on the solo act because of the contributions of the many. Would you rather be the soloist or sing with a choir behind you?”.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Quit singing messaging karaoke and tell us a great story instead (review of Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes)

Every business tells us they’re customer-centred. Every hospital is patient-centred. Every school, college and university is student-centred.

But to stand out from the competition, you can’t be with them in the choir singing what Ann Handley calls messaging karaoke.

Instead of tossing out the same exhausted words and tired phrases that we all tune out, show us how you’re putting customers, patients and students first. Highlight some of the big and small ways you’re doing this that are unique and unexpected. And recap who or what inspired you to go the extra mile.

“What sets you apart,” says Handley, who’s just revised and updated her bestselling book Everybody Writes. “Don’t tell me what you do. Show me who you are – and then show me why you matter to me.”

You show who you are and why you matter by telling stories.While we ignore messaging karaoke, we pay attention to stories. We’re hardwired for storytelling. Great stories stand out, stay with us and connect with us at a deeper emotional level than a straight up sales pitch. The good news is every business and organization – even yours – has a great story to tell.

To help you find your story, Handley poses 11 questions.

What’s unique about your business or organization?

What’s interesting about how your business or organization was founded?

What’s interesting about the founder(s)?

What problem are you trying to solve for others?

What or who inspired your business or organization?

What are the aha! moments for your business or organization?

How’s your business or organization evolved?

How do you feel about your business or organization, your customers and yourself?

What’s an unobvious way to tell your story? Can you look to analogy instead of example?

What do you consider normal and boring that everyone else would think is cool?

And what’s your vision? How will your company or organization change the world?

“That last question is especially salient because it’s central to your bigger story: How will you change the world…even a little bit? How will you make it better for all of us?”

When telling your story, never make yourself the hero. The hero is always a real customer, patient or student. You’re the solution to your hero’s problem, the answer to their prayers and the resolution to their searches. Build your true story around an ordinary person who’s done something extraordinary with your help.

Also know that how you tell your story is as important as the story you tell. Again, you don’t want to sound like everyone else.

“Your brand’s tone of voice sets you apart,” says Handley, who calls brand voice your personality in words.

“It differentiates you from competition. It signals what you’re like to do business with. It’s key to creating and sustaining customer relationships.

“Brand tone of voice is not a small, throwaway thing. And yet most companies treat it that way. Very few take the time to consider the branding boost that an approachable, relatable, friendly voice can give a company.”

Here’s an easy way to test for brand voice. Strip your logo and name off your website. Would anyone know it’s still you? Or would the words and tone be indistinguishable from your competitors and have all the warmth and personality of copy created by artificial intelligence or a room full of lawyers?

“Storytelling in business isn’t about spinning a yarn or a fairy tale,” says Handley. “It’s about showing how your business (or its products or service) exists in the real world: who you are and what you do for the benefit of others; how you add value to people’s lives, ease their troubles, help shoulder their burdens, and meet their needs.

“Your brand stories give your audience a chance to view your business as what it is: a living, breathing entity run by real people offering real value.”

So please don’t tell us like everyone else that you’re innovative, creative, leading edge, best in class, world class, driven by excellence, committed to quality, a champion of inclusivity and an employer of choice. Show us instead with a great story and a hero’s journey.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

The case for getting boys and men into HEAL jobs (review of Richard Reeves’ Of Boys and Men)

Turns out there are two gaps we need to mind.

There’s the earnings gap between women and men. For every $100 earned by men, women earn just $82. The gap’s closing but not fast enough.

There’s also a gap in higher education. That gap gets less attention but is just as troubling. For every 100 bachelor’s degrees awarded to women, only 74 are awarded to men. And the gap’s growing. “The gender gap in college degrees awarded is wider today than it was in the early 1970s but in the opposite direction,” says Of Boys and Men author Richard Reeves.

In all 38 member countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Reeves says there are now more young women than young men with bachelor’s degrees. Forty percent of 18-year-old women in Britain head off to college, compared to 29 per cent of their male peers.

That gap is one of many warning signs of a male malaise, especially for boys and men on the lower rungs on the economic and social ladders. “Things are worse than I thought,” says Reeves, a senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution. “I knew some of the headlines about boys struggling at school and on campus, men losing ground in the labour market and fathers losing touch with their children. I thought that perhaps some of these were exaggerations. But the closer I looked, the bleaker the picture became.”

How bleak? Deaths of despair from drug overdoses, suicides and alcohol-related illnesses are nearly three times higher among men than women.

Here’s one solution proposed by Reeves to help ease the struggles of boys and men. Just as there’s been a concerted and successful effort to get more girls and women into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs and occupations, we should do the same to encourage more boys and men to train for, and work in, health, education, administration and literacy (HEAL) jobs.

“HEAL sectors are where the jobs are coming from,” says Reeves. “To improve men’s employment prospects, we need to get more of them into these kinds of jobs. By my calculations, for every new STEM job created by 2030, there will be more than three new HEAL jobs.”

To accomplish that, Reeves says we need to build a pipeline in the education system, provide financial incentives and reduce the social stigma faced by men working in fields like nursing and early childhood education.

Reeves says friends and colleagues advised him not to write this book. “In the current political climate, highlighting the problems of boys and men is seen as a perilous undertaking. Progressives refuse to accept that important gender inequalities can run in both directions and quickly label male problems as symptoms of ‘toxic masculinity’. Conservatives appear more sensitive to the struggles of boys and men, but only as a justification for turning back the clock and restoring traditional gender roles.

“The Left tells men ‘be more like your sister.’ The Right says ‘be more like your father.’ Neither invocation is helpful.”

It’s not an either/or proposition. “We can hold two thoughts in our heads at once. We can be passionate about women’s rights and compassionate toward vulnerable boys and men.”

If you’re worried about your underemployed, unemployed, bored, listless and seemingly lost son, boyfriend or husband, Reeves will confirm your fears but also let you know you’re not alone and these are systemic problems that require collective action to solve. “The problem with men is typically framed as a problem of men. It is men who must be fixed, one man or boy at a time. This individualist approach is wrong.”

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Buyer beware with online advertising (review of Bob Hoffman’s Adscam)

Best of luck to the rest of us if big name brands like Nike, Adidas and Starbucks are in the dark when it comes to buying online ads.

The companies thought they were advertising on USA Today’s website.

But Gannett Publishing – which owns USA Today – accidentally placed billions of digital ads in its smaller community news sites for nine months.

“Not a single brand noticed that their ads were not where they were supposed to be,” says Bob Hoffman, author of Adscam: How Online Advertising Gave Birth to One of History’s Greatest Frauds, and Became a Threat to Democracy.

“Not a single media buyer noticed that their ads were misplaced. And for nine months we can only assume that these ‘sophisticated’ advertisers were receiving fictious reports about the nature of their programmatic buy.”

But at least the ads ran somewhere.

If you’re buying online ads, you’ve likely been scammed with fake audiences, websites and clicks. Online ad fraud is estimated at $60 billion a year, with crooks siphoning off 20 per cent of online ad budgets. That’s bigger than credit card fraud even though the credit card business is 10 times the size of online advertising. By 2025, it’s expected that online ad fraud will trail only drug trafficking as the largest source of criminal income.

“Ad fraud is one of the largest frauds in the history of the world,” says Hoffman.

Why all the fraud? Adtech is so complicated that no one really knows how it works, says Hoffman. Adtech tracks everywhere we go online. When we visit a website, ad space is instantly auctioned off.  Some websites charge a premium while others take less than penny. With hundreds of thousands of websites, it’s tough to know which site is legit and which is fake and which sites you’d your business to be associated with.

“Instead of reaching Bob Hoffman by running their ad on The New York Times website, where it might cost $1 to reach Bob, advertisers can track Bob to, a much lower quality website, where they can run the same ad and it may cost them only a nickel,” says Hoffman.

“The only problem is that may not be a real website, and Bob Hoffman may not be a real person.” And those nickles can quickly add up.

So why does no one seem to care?  

Hoffman quotes a former ad executive who says “it’s in nobody’s interest for digital ad numbers to be true as long as they’re good. No one will question the efficacy of the numbers because they love showing the CEO (who understands nothing about marketing) that we gained x number of followers, reached an additional y people and z more people saw our content. Everybody is in on the con. None of the involved parties want anyone to examine the numbers as long as they’re good. It’s pathetic.”

Chase Bank ran the numbers and decided something didn’t add up. The bank was buying ads on more than 400,000 sites every month. The bank cut back to 5,000 sites and saw no difference in performance. “An astounding number of the sites they were buying programmatically were worthless,” says Hoffman.

“On the surface, the value proposition of ad tech – reaching the highest quality eyeballs at the cheapest possible locations – is an appealing proposition. But advertising has probably never experienced a wider gap between promise and reality. This has led to all kinds of expensive and dangerous consequences. “

Hoffman says those consequences include a cesspool of corruption, an ocean of fraud and the degrading and devaluing of legitimate online publishers, news media and journalism.

“And it has played a major role in driving a perilous wedge into our culture,” says Hoffman. “Other than that, it’s great.”

So what’s the solution? Ban tracking, says Hoffman. Stop letting companies spy on us online and don’t let them sell, trade or give away our personal and private information. And if you’re buying online advertising, spend it where you can see it.

Jay Robb is the communications manager at McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.