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What’s the worst that can happen? Imagine it & have a Plan B, C, D & E (review)

frankWhat To Do When Things Go Wrong

By Frank Supovitz

McGraw Hill

$34.78

This review first ran in the June 22 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

There are 80,000 souls in the stands.

More than a billion people are watching worldwide.

You’re doing a media interview.

And suddenly the lights go out.

This was the crisis facing Frank Supovitz just over a minute into the second half of the 2013 Superbowl in New Orleans. Supovitz was the senior vice president of events for the National Football League and ringleader of the planet’s biggest sporting event.

“It was not a time for guesswork,” says Armen Keteyian who was interviewing Supovitz for 60 Minutes Sports when the partial power failure hit. “What our crew witnessed (and captured on video) was a cool, collected leader assessing information. As the delay stretched into what would become 34 of the most surreal minutes in NFL history, Frank made one clear-eyed decision after another.”

Supovitz, an award-winning event producer, applied five principles during the “Blackout Bowl” that he’s outlined in his book What To Do When Things Go Wrong.

“I guarantee that if nothing has gone seriously wrong for you at least once so far, something is going to go terribly, horribly and spectacularly wrong sometime, somewhere and somehow despite your very best intentions, your painstaking and expert planning, and your unfailingly optimistic worldview,” says Supovitz.

“And when you get past the first thing that goes terribly, horribly and spectacularly wrong, guess what? There’s another crisis coming, and when it arrives things will look dark all over again, and very possibly worse. And I’m an optimist.”

Here’s how Supovitz mitigated risk and expertly managed crises during his 30-plus years leading major sports and entertainment events.

blackout bowl1.     Imagine how your event or project will play out in a perfect world and then picture everything that can go wrong. “Apply a dark and fertile imagination to visualize as many potential threats to our success as possible. Then we can spend the time, money and energy to keep all those monsters securely under the bed.”

2.     Prepare by building solutions to potential crises into your work plan. Hope is not a strategy, says Supovitz. Instead, you need a plan b, c and d. “Effective project leaders invest time and talent developing contingency plans that they truly hope, like an insurance policy, will turn out to be a colossal waste of time. But, having these plans can prove invaluable if something goes wrong and you need to work quickly to activate one or more of the plans.”

3.     Execute your plan and stay vigilant for all contingencies.

4.     Respond effectively when things go off the rails. “Try to resist the temptation to act too quickly, without regard to how your response may affect the outcome in other areas. That doesn’t mean don’t act fact. Just act fast enough to keep things from getting worse, but not so fast you end up making things worse.”

5.     Evaluate what happened and how you responded. Postmortems are key, as Supovitz points out that we learn more from things that go wrong than from those that go right. Of course, it’s always preferable to learn from the mistakes of others.

So when things go terribly, horribly and spectacularly wrong with your next project or event, remember Frank Supovitz and the 2013 Superbowl. Together with a quick-thinking team of well-prepared professionals, Supovitz kept calm, carried on and saved the Superbowl from a premature end.

No one was injured when the Superdome went dark. Play resumed after a 34-minute delay. Oreo put out a dunk in the dark tweet that ranks among the all-time great real-time marketing moves and cost nowhere near a Superbowl ad. And the NFL set a Superbowl record for concession stand beer sales during the blackout.

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

7 questions that’ll make you a better coach & leader (review of The Coaching Habit)

This review first ran in the May 18th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

coaching haibtThe Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever

By Michael Bungay Stanier

Box of Crayons Press

$16.95

I’m a good advisor but a pretty lousy coach.

Confusing these roles is how I get myself into trouble and annoy the people I try to help.

It’s an occupational hazard. After working in public relations for 25 years, I’m very much in what author Michael Bungy Stainer calls the advice-giver / expert / answer-it / solve-it / fix-it mode.

This mode doesn’t translate well to coaching.

It’s why I give answers to questions you haven’t asked and have solutions to what you don’t see as a problem. I’ll preemptively offer to save the day even when you have the situation well in hand.

To become a better coach, I need to talk less and listen more. Instead of having answers and offering up unsolicited advice, I need to start asking smarter questions.

Bungay Stainer, the founder and CEO of a company known for teaching 10-minute coaching to leaders, knows what questions effective coaches should ask.

“The seemingly simple behavior change of giving a little less advice and asking a few more questions is surprisingly difficult,” says Bungay Stainer. “You’ve spent years delivering advice and getting promoted and praised for it. You’re seen to be ‘adding value’ and you’ve the added bonus of staying in control of the situation.

“On the other hand, when you’re asking questions, you might feel less certain about whether you’re being useful, the conversation can feel slower and you might feel like you’ve somewhat lost control of the conversation (and indeed you have. That’s called ‘empowering’).”

Bungay Stainer says the essence of coaching is helping others and unlocking their potential. It’s also the key to avoiding overdependence.  When you train people to become excessively reliant on you for answers, you disempower them and frustrate yourself. You become swamped with work, turning yourself into a bottleneck while everyone around you loses momentum and motivation.

“The more you help your people, the more they seem to need your help. The more they need your help, the more time you spend helping them.”

So instead of having all the answers, stick to asking one or more of the following seven questions:

What’s on your mind? Bungay Stainer calls this the kickstart question. It’s an almost fail-safe way to start any conversation with someone who’s asking for help. “It’s a question that says let’s talk about the thing that matters most.”

And what else? This is the AWE question and it’s the quickest and easiest way to uncover and create new possibilities. “With seemingly no effort, it creates more – more wisdom, more insights, more self-awareness, more possibilities – out of thin air.”

What’s the real challenge here for you? Asking the focus question will save you from wasting too much time and effort solving the wrong problem. “When people start talking to you about the challenge at hand, what’s essential to remember is that what they’re laying out for you is rarely the actual question.”

What do you want? This is foundation question. “Recognizing the need gives you a better understanding of how you might best address the want.”

How can I help? This is the lazy question which forces your colleague to make a direct and clear request and prevents you from immediately leaping into action.

If you say yes to this, what are you saying no to? This is the strategic question. It’s been said that the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. “A ‘yes’ is nothing without the ‘no’ that gives it boundaries and form.”

What was most useful for you? This learning question should close out your conversations. “Not only do you help people to see and then embed the learning from the conversation, but by your finishing on a ‘this was useful’ note, people are going to remember the experience more favourably than they otherwise might.”

With each of his seven questions, Bungay Stainer also offers a master class in how to make effective coaching a habit. His book is a great resource for those of us looking to switch off our advisor mode, quit playing the all-knowing sage and superhero and do a far better job of helping the people around us find the answers to their questions and realize their full potential.

adice

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 ignore your job’s expiration date (Review of Whitney Johnson’s Build an ‘A’ Team

a teamThis review first ran in the April 20th edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Build An “A” Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve

By Whitney JohnsonWhitney Johnson

Harvard Business Review Press

$36.50

Every job has an expiration date.

We ignore it at our peril. Yes, the living is easy once we’ve scaled our learning curves and we’ve settled into our comfort zone.

We’re fully competent but at risk of becoming bored out of our minds and completely disengaged.

We can convince ourselves that mailing it in and coasting to retirement is doable. But the people we work with and for aren’t so easily fooled.

So if you’re wondering whether a change would do you good, the answer is an empathetic yes (and I speak from experience).

We need to disrupt ourselves before the disruption is done to us.

According to Whitney Johnson, a CEO advisor and author of Build An ‘A’ Team, we should start looking for a new challenge around the four-year mark in our jobs.

For the first six months in a new role, we’re learning the ropes. It can be a steep, frustrating, exhausting and disorienting climb.

But then we hit a tipping point around the six-month mark. We reach peak productivity in what Johnson calls the sweet spot middle.

After four years in most jobs, we’ve reached the peak of our learning curves. We’ve mastered pretty much every task. We’re competent and confident. We can work on autopilot.

As a leader, it’s tempting to ignore expiration dates with highly skilled and experienced veterans who are well into their mastery phase. They require minimal adult supervision and there are few if any surprises.

You may also prefer to hire only new recruits who’ve already done whatever job you need doing and who’ll bring years or decades of experience to your team.

But your high performers will eventually turn into bored and restless low performers.  Some will be self-aware enough to pull themselves out of their comfort zones and look for new challenges.

“Nearly every human being is on the lookout for growth opportunities. If a person can’t grow with a company, they will grow away from it.”

Losing institutional memory when a veteran employee leaves an organization hurts. This is why it’s critical for managers to preemptively offer up new challenges or move high performers into new roles and onto new teams, where there’ll be new responsibilities and new learning curves.

Johnson says the most productive and innovative teams have an optimal mix of employees, with 15 per cent starting out on their learning curves, 70 per cent in the sweet spot middle and the remaining 15 per cent in the mastery phase and willing to take on a mentorship role.

“One of the most powerful ways that managers can foster innovation in their teams and engagement in their people is to keep them moving to new learning curves before they get bored,” says Johnson.

She recommends a three-step process for leaders who need a new game plan for anyone at the top of their learning curve. Applaud their achievements. Identify a new learning curve. And then deliver on helping them make a successful jump.

“Taking charge around the who, what, when, where and how of these leaps is critical. Should your people proactively lobby for a jump to a new curve when they reach the top? Yes. But remember, it’s a lot harder for them to come to you and say ‘I’m at the top of my curve, I need to try something new’ than you think it is. The boss holds most of the cards in this situation, and an employee may feel that asking to jump is tantamount to asking for a push into unemployment.”

As a leader, you hold the power and have a choice to make. “Is the top of the curve a place where people decide to leave because they know there’s nothing more? Is it a spot where they outlive their usefulness and become organizational deadweight? Or, is it the launching pad for even greater effectiveness?”

Don’t put off having conversations about what’s next for team members who’ve maxed out on their current learning curves. Pretending there isn’t an expiration date with their jobs is a failure of leadership. They’ll either start mailing it in or start sending out resumes.

“You can leave them in place and watch them suffer a gradual, even precipitous decline in productivity; you can watch them abruptly depart for a warmer professional climate. Or you can find a new learning curve for them to climb.”

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

 

Feedback is a gift and other lies we tell ourselves at work (book review)

liesThis review first in the April 6th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Nine Lies About Work – A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World

By Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall

Harvard Business Review Press

$39

Thanks for your feedback.

Now it’s our turn.

Your feedback is not a gift. Or it’s a gift we didn’t ask for and can’t return.

Truth be told, we don’t want unsolicited advice and constructive criticism. We don’t need to be fixed, rated, ranked, saved from ourselves or shown the error of our ways.

Your intentions may be good but your feedback won’t put a pep in our step or kick our productivity into higher gear.

“People don’t need feedback,” say Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, authors of Nine Lies About Work. “They need attention, and moreover, attention to what they do best. And they become more engaged and therefore more productive when we give it to them.”

Ask people on high performing teams if they’re recognized for excellent work and they’ll strongly agree.

The Gallup Organization looked at what drives employee engagement.  To put yourself in the running for worst manager of the year honours, don’t give any feedback to the people you lead. For every engaged employee, you’ll have 20 who’ve checked out.

A leader who gives negative feedback will have two engaged employees for every one who’s disengaged, according to Gallup.

And the leader who gives positive feedback gets 20 highly engaged employees for every one who’s disengaged. That’s the starting line-up you need for a winning team.

So what’s the best way to be positive with your feedback?

Tell us how you feel when our outstanding work catches your attention and makes an impression.

“For a team member, nothing is more believable, and thus more powerful, than your sharing what you saw from her and how it made you feel. Or what it made you think. Or what it caused you to realize. Or how and where you will now rely on her. These are your reactions, and when you share them with specificity, and with detail, you aren’t judging her or rating her or fixing her. You are simply reflecting to her the unique ‘dent’ she just made in the world, as seen through one person’s eyes – yours.”

But won’t accentuating the positive trip up your responsibility as a leader to have difficult yet necessary conversations with underperforming employees?

The need to shore up shortcomings is another of the lies we tell ourselves at work, say Buckingham and Goodall.

Instead of highlighting areas for improvement, focus instead on our strengths. These are the activities that make us feel strong. We eagerly anticipate doing them. We lose track of time when we do them. And we feel fulfilled after we’ve done them.

“We can’t always explain why, but some activities seem to contain ingredients that breathe life into us, that lift us up out of ourselves to reveal something finer, more resilient and more creative.”

Our strengths offer the greatest opportunity for our continued learning and growth and yield the greatest immediate and long-term returns for higher productivity.

According to Buckingham and Goodall, the best leaders leverage the unique strengths of each person on their team. You may not meet all 30 of your organization’s core competencies but you’ll excel in a few. The other members on your team will do the same and together, you’ll achieve great things. Diversity of strengths will be your team’s most valuable asset.

“Define the outcomes you want from your team and its members, and then look for each person’s strength signs to figure out how each person can reach those outcomes most efficiently, most amazingly, most creatively, and most joyfully. The moment you realize you’re in the outcomes business, is the moment you turn each person’s uniqueness from a bug into a feature.”

Give a copy of this book to everyone in your organization who’s leading a team and make it essential reading.  As Buckingham and Goodall point out, corporate culture is overrated because we don’t truly care which organizations we work for. But we do care deeply about the team we belong to. We’ll stay with a great team in a lousy organization but bolt from a lousy team in a great organization.  And that’s why deciding who leads teams is the single most important decision your organization will make. Choose wisely and then help your team leaders debunk the nine lies we tell ourselves about work.

THE NINE LIES ABOUT WORK AND THE TRUTH

Lie – People care which company they work for. Truth – It’s all about the team we work on within our organization.

Lie – The best plan wins. Truth – It’s the best intelligence – the most accurate, real-time data – that wins. Smart organizations invest in intelligence-gathering systems.

Lie – The best companies cascade goals. Truth – The best companies cascade meaning. People don’t need to be told what to do, they want to be told why.

Lie – The best people are well-rounded. Truth – The best people play to their unique strengths.

Lie – People need feedback. Truth – People want attention given in a safe and nonjudgmental environment.

Lie – People can reliably rate other people. Truth – the unique personality of whoever’s doing the rating has an outsized and highly subjective influence on whoever’s being rated.

Lie – People have potential. Truth – People have momentum.

Lie – Work-life balance matters most. Truth – Love-in-work is matters most.

Lie – Leadership is a thing. Truth – How followers feel is more important than the qualities in a leader. “We follow people who are really good at something that matters to us,” say Buckingham and Goodall.

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

Your meeting needs a bouncer and an unchill host (review of Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering)

priya parkerThis review first ran in the March 23 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters

By Priya Parker

Riverhead Books

$37

We’re gathered here today for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

We’re in the dark because our host organized the event on autopilot, leaning hard on convention.

So while it’s neither meaningful or memorable, at least the event’s a familiar routine. And if we’re lucky, it’ll start on time and end ahead of schedule so we can get an early jump on heading home or back to work.

We shouldn’t be settling for just an efficient and uneventful event. Priya Parker shows what we’re missing and what we should aspire to whenever we bring people together, whether it’s an all-staff retreat, town hall, workshop, conference, fundraising dinner or awards night.

“The way we gather matters,” says Parker, author of The Art of Gathering and founder of Thrive Lab with a background in organizational design. “Gathering – the conscious bringing together of people for a reason – shapes the way we think, feel, and make sense of our world.

“Gatherings consume our days and help determine the kind of world we live in, in both our intimate and public realms. And we spend much of that time in uninspiring, underwhelming moments that fail to capture us, change us in any way, or connect us to one another.”

The solution for fixing forgettable events starts by deciding why we want to bring people together, what we hope to achieve, who should be there, when it should happen and where. The bolder and sharper our purpose for an event, the better.

“When we don’t examine the deeper assumptions behind why we gather, we end up skipping too quickly to replicating old, staid formats of gathering. And we forgo the possibility of creating something memorable, even transformative.”

So aim for specificity and uniqueness. Disputable is the other hallmark of a great event. A disputable purpose is a filter that forces you to make hard choices and decisions rather than compromises.

Think of purpose as the bouncer who decides what’s in and what’s out with your event. If you can’t find a purpose, don’t bring people together. Give them the gift of time instead.

If your event’s a go with a clear purpose, don’t be a chill host. “Chill is selfishness disguised as kindness,” says Parker. “Chill is a miserable attitude when it comes to hosting gatherings.”

Resist the urge to be noninvasive, relaxed and low-key. When you leave your guests alone, you leave them alone to one another to recreate The Lord of the Flies in a conference room or banquet hall. They’ll be confused, anxious and at the mercy of someone who’ll fill the void in a way that could prove inconsistent with your event’s purpose or your values. What your guests wind up with may not be what they signed on for.

“If you are going to gather, gather. If you are going to host, host. If you are going to create a kingdom for an hour or day, rule it – and rule it with generosity.”

Generous authority means protecting, equalizing and connecting your guests. “One measure of a successful gathering is that it starts off with a higher number of host-guest connections than guest-guest connections and ends with those tallies reversed, far in the guest-guest favour.”

Parker also advocates creating a custom constitution and pop-up rules for your event. “Etiquette allows people to gather because they are the same. Pop-up rules allow people to gather because they are different – yet open to having the same experience.”

And work hard on having a stellar opening and close to your event. Avoid the mundane housekeeping chores and sponsor shout-outs that mark the start of far too many gatherings. We can figure out where the bathrooms are and we know to tell our server about any dietary restrictions. “However vital it may seem to start with this housekeeping, you are missing an opportunity to sear your gathering’s purpose into the minds of your guests.”

The same holds true for the end of your event. Remind your audience what they experienced together and what they can take with them back into their jobs, families and community.  “Too many of our gatherings don’t end. They simply stop.  A strong closing has two phases corresponding to two distinct needs among your guests: looking inward and turning outward.”

Everyone who plans, organizes and scripts events should read Parker’s guidebook. Along with practical advice are examples of meaningful and memorable events that foster a genuine sense of belonging.  Wow us at your next event and we’ll happily sign on for more.

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

 

Raising leadership standards = more women leaders (and fewer incompetent men) – REVIEW

boss-454867_1920This review ran in the March 9 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?

By Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Harvard Business Review Press

$32.50

menYour leadership search is down to two candidates.

One candidate is fully competent, with 20-plus years of directly relevant experience.

The other candidate’s full of confidence and rocked the room during the two-hour meet-and-greet interview with your selection committee.

Of course you’d choose two decades of experience over two hours of showmanship.

So how to explain organizations that inexplicably choose a confident man over a competent woman?

How do these organizations not know how this story plays out? Mr. Confident will quickly reveal himself to be all hat and no cattle. Along with failing to live up to the hype, he’ll prove that nothing destroys workplace morale quite like incompetence in the corner office. Meanwhile, the competent woman will go on to do great things with a smart organization that knew what to look for in an effective leader.

“When men are considered for leadership positions, the same traits that predict their downfall are commonly mistaken – even celebrated – as a sign of leadership potential or talent,” says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, chief talent scientist at ManpowerGroup, psychologist, university professor and author of Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?

“They are overconfident, abrasive and very much in awe of themselves, particularly in light of their actual talents. They are their own biggest fans by some distance.”

We confuse these flaws in men with desirable leadership qualities, says Chamorro-Premuzic. “Traits like overconfidence and self-absorption should be seen as red flags. But instead, they prompt us to say ‘Ah, there’s a charismatic fellow! He’s probably leadership material.”

This confusion saddles us with a glut of incompetent men running the show, crowding out and leaving fewer opportunities for competent women and men.

“Women’s paths to leadership are undoubtedly dotted with many barriers, including a very thick glass ceiling. But the more I have studied leaders and leadership, the more I believe that the much bigger problem is the lack of career obstacles for incompetent men.”

A Northwestern University review of 45 leadership and gender research studies makes the case for why we’d all be better off with more women in charge. The research shows women are more capable of driving positive change, elicit more respect and pride from their followers, communicate their vision more effectively, better mentor subordinates, problem-solve in more creative ways and give more objective evaluations to direct reports.

‘Compelling evidence suggests that leadership is more likely to improve if we start drawing more heavily from the female talent pool, especially if we understand that the women most likely to drive positive change look quite different from the typical leaders we have today, irrespective of gender.”

Good leadership from both women and men requires intellectual, social and psychological capital. There’s also a host of bright side personality traits to look for in strong leaders, including curiosity, extroversion and emotional stability.

Chamorro-Premuzic says the evidence shows a good leader is someone who builds a winning team, helps that team outperform rivals, depends on the team’s performance and unites the team in pursuit of a shared goal.

Telling women to lean in, man up and fake it until they make it is not the answer. Why would we want competent women to adopt the leadership traits of incompetent men? Chamorro-Premuzic instead shows organizations how to redefine and elevate leadership and why they should start choosing competence and integrity over confidence and charisma.

“Since we all want better leaders, we should not lower our standards when we select women, but we should raise them when we select men.”

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.

Build your personal brand around 4 key elements that tell your story (review of Cynthia Johnson’s Platform)

platformThis review first ran in the Feb. 23 edition of The Hamilton Spectator

Platform: The Art and Science of Personal Branding

By Cynthia Johnson

Lorna Jones Books

$29.99

You have a solution to our problem and an answer to our prayers.

You’ve gone where we’re going and already done what we dream of doing.

We’re hungry to hear what you have to say and you’re willing to share your lessons learned.

Thanks to social media, it’s never been easier for you to  offer up your experience and expertise, insights and ideas. Yet finding you among the billions of users online is the challenge.

This is why you need to build and then manage your a personal brand.

“You can change the world with your voice if you have a platform to stand on and people who will listen,” says Cynthia Johnson, author of Platform and a branding agency co-founder with more than three million followers on social media channels.

“There is so much noise coming from so many people and places that we are exhausting the public attention span for experts and important causes. We need to hear from people who understand topics completely and thoroughly.”

A strong personal brand cuts through the noise and draws our attention.

Brand building is technical, creative, spiritual and scientific, says Johnson. “And it is much easier than you think.”

Our personal brands are built on four elements: personal proof, social proof, recognition and association. “Each piece is part of a puzzle, and they all work together to tell a story: your story.”

Personal proof includes your education, experience, credentials and achievements.

“Social proof is the proof that other people need in order to believe that we are qualified to do something,” says Johnson. Examples include our social media followers, referrals and references.

“Association is the part of the branding puzzle that determines nearly all of your successes,” says Johnson. “People decide whether you are credible based on your expertise and your network. You are whom you hang out with.”

And finally, you build your brand by being recognized as among the best at what you do. Awards and accolades elevate you in our hearts and minds.

Building your personal brand requires growing your networks on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. Johnson has four suggestions.

Always include an email address on your social media profiles and tell us exactly what you’re interested in and looking for. “You can follow and connect with people all day long, but unless they know how and why to reach out to you, the ball will remain in your court.”

Aim for quality over quantity when posting content to social media. Post too much content that’s of low or no value cand we’ll legitimately wonder where you find the time to do the job and develop the experience that you’re attempting to build your personal brand around.

Avoid the rookie mistake of overusing or misusing hashtags. Don’t use hashtags to grow your followers by highlighting key words, says Johnson. “The main purpose of the hashtag on all social media channels is to create live public groups around topics or interests.”

And, just like in the real world, treat everyone on social media as if they matter because they genuinely do. “Don’t be the person who ignores the little guy, because in a connected digital world, you never know how people will grow from one day to the next. So go ahead and connect with people; it doesn’t hurt, and you never know how much it could eventually help.”

Personal branding is for everyone, says Johnson and it’s not an optional exercise if you want to be seen and heard. “You have it even when you don’t. Everyone in the digital age needs to be aware of their personal brand. It is no longer a choice whether to have one; the choice is whether you manage yours.”

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.

How to drive big changes with better stories (Review of Alex Evans’ The Myth Gap)

myth gapThis review first ran in the Jan. 26 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough?The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough?

By Alex Evans

Eden Project Books

$21.99

Who are we?

What do we believe in and stand for?

Where are we at?

How did we get here?

Where are we trying to go?

And how will we get there together?

These are the stories told during crises and transitions that galvanize movements and drive change, whether at work, in our community or across and beyond our country.

“Myths are the most fundamental narratives of all,” says Alex Evans, a Senior Fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, political advisor and climate change expert to the United Nations. “Myths don’t just explain the world; they explain us too.”

Not telling these collective stories leaves us with a gap, warns Evans. That gap gets filled by prophets of doom who profit by stoking fear, anger and division with anti-myths. They tell us it’s us versus them zero-sum world of winners and losers.

This is how we end up with political and business leaders who tell us that climate change is fake news and a hoax. Fighting it will be a recession-triggering tax grab so let’s pay no mind to the estimated $54 trillion cost associated with a world that’s warmer by 1.5 degrees Celsius or the $551 trillion tab for a 3.7 degree increase.

Arid technocratic jargon, pie charts on PowerPoints and appeals to rational self-interest are not the stuff of compelling stories that counteract anti-myths.

The same goes for enemy narratives that stoke shock, outrage and polarization and shift blame and responsibility to anyone or everyone else but us.

And then there are the self-fulfilling stories that traffic in collapsitarianism and dystopian nightmares. It’s the end of the world as we know it, there’s nothing we can do, all hope is lost and we’re all doomed.

But in the face of existential threats to our lives and livelihoods, we’re hungry for stories that give us hope for the future and that unite, rather than divide, us around a common purpose.

“The stories and myths that we reach for in such moments are what determine whether we use those moments creatively or reactively, for a larger or smaller us, for a longer or shorter now, for a better or worse idea of what constitutes a good life.”

Evans makes the case for telling stories about restoration, regeneration, rebirth and repairing the breach. “I think that tales of restoration are just about the most powerful and resonant kind there are. They speak directly to a profound yearning in all of us, an instinct that while the world may be broken, it can also be made right again, and that this may at some level be what we are here to do.

“As we relearn how to tell myths about where we are, how we got here, where we might be trying to go, and who we really are, we will discover extraordinary new capacities for creating the kind of future that we yearn for.”

It’s time we start sharing and filling the gap with better stories at work, in our communities and on the world stage.

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

How to fool people into giving you nearly a billion dollars (Bad Blood review)

This review first ran in the Jan. 5 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

By John Carreyrou

Alfred A. Knopf

$38.95

Let’s be thankful that investigative reporters aren’t among the people who can be fooled all or some of the time.

Lots of smart and successful people lost their minds and nearly a billion dollars to Elizabeth Holmes. More concerning were all the people who trusted her with their health and well-being.

The 20-something founder and CEO of Theranos was Silicon Valley’s first female billionaire tech founder. Holmes was heralded as the second coming of Steve Jobs and even dressed the part in black turtlenecks.

The college dropout with two semesters of chemical engineering courses was promising the iPod of health care with a revolutionary blood testing device.

With just a painless drop or two of blood, we could quickly, easily and cheaply test our blood from the comfort of our home or while buying groceries and picking up prescriptions.  Drug companies saw the technology as a way to drive down the cost of clinical trials. The military saw life-saving battlefield applications.

holmesHolmes graced the cover of Fortune magazine (“This CEO is out for blood”), appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, USA Today, Inc., Fast Company and Glamour and did star turns on NPR, Fox Business, CNN, CBS News, Charlie Rose and Jim Cramer’s Mad Money on CNBC.

She was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people. President Barack Obama appointed her a US ambassador for global entrepreneurship and Vice President Joe Biden toured the company and called it the laboratory of the future.

Holmes stacked the board of directors with former cabinet members, congressmen and military officials, including former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz and former Marine Corps general and secretary of defense James Mattis.

Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who controlled the Wall Street Journal’s parent company, personally invested $125 million.

Walgreens and Safeway planned a nationwide rollout of the blood testing system in their grocery and drug stores.

But then a skeptical blogger tipped off the Wall Street Journal’s two-time Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter John Carreyrou.

The first in his series of stories ran in October 2014, revealing that Theranos couldn’t deliver reliable test results. The company was putting lives at risk and soaking investors.

“Holmes and her company had overpromised and then cut corners when they couldn’t deliver,” says Carreyrou. “It was one thing to do that with software or a smartphone app, but doing it with a medical product that people relied on to make important health decisions was unconscionable.”

To his credit, Murdoch personally rebuked Holmes when she wanted Carreyrou’s story spiked. The Journal’s editorial team also didn’t try to save face after running a favourable profile two years earlier that had served as Holmes’s coming out party.

“My newspaper had played a role in Holmes’s meteoric rise by being the first mainstream media organization to publicize her supposed achievements,” says Carreyrou. “It made for an awkward situation but I wasn’t too worried about it. There was a firewall between the Journal’s editorial and newsroom staffs.”

Despite a line-by-line bullet-proof review by editors and lawyers, Holmes, her lawyers and PR firm tried to discredit the reporting, smear Carreyrou as a misogynist and intimidate whistle-blowing ex-employees.

Carreyrou’s stories became the talk of Silicon Valley and opened the floodgates on critical coverage by other media outlets.

Theranos would be forced to void or correct nearly a million blood tests. The company agreed to pay $4.65 million into a fund to reimburse 76,000 people for their blood tests, settled a $43 million case with an investment firm and a $25 million Walgreens lawsuit. Back in March, Holmes and her company were charged by the Securities and Exchange Commission for conducting “an elaborate, years-long fraud.”

How did Holmes lose her way? “A sociopath is often described as someone with little or no conscience,” says Carreyrou. “I’ll leave it to the psychologists to decide whether Holmes fits the clinical profile but there’s no question that her moral compass was badly askew.

“I’m fairly certain she didn’t initially set out to defraud investors and put patients in harm’s way. But in her all-consuming quest to be the second coming of Steve Jobs amid the gold rush of the ‘unicorn’ boom, there came a point when she stopped listening to sound advice and began to cut corners. Her ambition was voracious and it brooked no interference.”

While Holmes’ Silicon Valley unicorn was all smoke and mirrors, Bad Blood shows why investigative journalism will always be a smart investment that pays life and money-saving dividends for us all.

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.

5 career and business-boosting New Year’s resolutions

This review first ran in the Dec. 21 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Here are five New Year’s resolutions courtesy of the best business books I reviewed this year for the Hamilton Spectator.

trigger1. Give us something to talk about. 

Word of mouth is the least expensive and most effective way to grow your business, say Talk Triggers authors Jay Baer and Daniel Lemin.

Do something different, unique and unexpected and we’ll rave about you online and in person. Check in anytime and every time at a Doubletree Hotel and you get a fresh-baked cookie. That warm cookie reinforces the hotel chain’s promise of a warm welcome

“A unique selling proposition is a feature, articulated with a bullet point, that is discussed in a conference room. A talk trigger is a benefit, articulated with a story, that is discussed at a cocktail party. Done well, talk triggers clone your customers.”

2. Start answering the questions we’re asking.

Every business and organization is a media company, according to Marcus Sheridan.

they ask“As consumers, we expect to be fed great information,” says the author of They Ask, You Answer. “Are you willing to meet their expectations? Or would you prefer that the competition be the one who answers the question for them? Remember, they’re going to get their answers from someone, so wouldn’t you prefer they get their answers from you?”

Sheridan saved his pool company by doing exactly that. He told prospective customers what it would cost to put a pool in their backyard, why his pools weren’t for everyone and made referrals to his competitors. So quit talking about yourself in 2019. Stop cranking out content that we didn’t ask for or care about. Instead, be the best teacher within your industry. Earn our trust and our business by answering our questions with fierce honesty.

3. Skip the wine and cheese mix and mingle and instead put us to work.

“Research suggests we are better off engaging in activities that draw a cross-section of people and letting those connections form naturally as we engage with the task at hand,” says Friend of a Friend author David Burkus

friend of a friend“You may not be focused on networking while you participate in such activities, but after you finish, you’ll find that you have gathered a host of new and interesting people that now call you friend.”

If you score an invite to a Jon Levy dinner party in New York City, you make the meal together. You can only talk about what you do for a living once you’ve sat down at the dinner table.

Pixar Animation Studios runs an in-house university with courses that bring together senior executives, front-line staff, veterans and new hires. Everyone is treated the same, can take up to four hours of paid time each week and can skip meetings if they’re supposed to be in class.

4. Instead of the golden rule, follow the mom rule.

Treat us the way you’d want us to treat your mom.

momJeanne Bliss, the godmother of customer service and the author Would You Do That To Your Mother? The “Make Mom Proud” Standard For How To Treat Your Customers says you need to respect our time, take the monkey off our back, stop asking us to repeat ourselves and don’t leave us in the dark.

“To put this in the simplest terms, do you deliver pain or pleasure? Do you make it easy and a joy for your customers to do business with you?” Your mom would want you to the do the right thing. So make her proud by taking customer service seriously and making it personal.

5. Prepare ahead for a viral video starring an employee doing something truly dumb or way worse. 

“We got blindsided by two idiots with a video camera and an awful idea,” said a Domino’s spokesperson after employees violated every imaginable health code in a kitchen.

“Even people who’ve been with us as loyal customers for 10, 15, 20 years, people are second-guessing their relationship with Domino’s, and that’s not fair.”

crisis readyMelissa Agnes, author of Crisis Ready, lists eight expectations you must immediately meet if you have any hope of recovering when your reputation takes a mortal hit. Make building a culture of crisis readiness a priority in 2019.

“You want to get your team to a level of preparedness that is instinctive, rather than solely being dependent on a linear plan that cannot possibly account for all the variations, bumps and turns that may present themselves.”

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.