Book review: When the Headline is You

This review was orginally published in the March 14 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

When the Headline is You: An Insider’s Guide to Handling the Media

By Jeff Ansell

I happen to really like reporters. I like their slightly warped sense of humour, the bemused way they look at our mixed up world and their fearlessness in asking tough questions.

I trained to be a journalist. I did a brief and unspectacular stint as a cub reporter before crossing over to the dark side of public relations.

And I got very lucky and married a really good journalist. I get to be her arm candy at reporter retirement parties and journalism award shows.

Pitching good news stories to the press is pretty cool and it’s one of the best parts of my job.

Yet despite all of that, I still get nervous when reporters call to ask a few questions and get some clarification about a story they’re working on.

I get anxious because, just like author and former journalist Jeff Ansell, I know the media coverage will only be as good as my worst quote.

“Though someone answering a reporter’s questions may strike all the right notes for the majority of the interview, it takes only a single miscue to trigger disaster,” says Ansell. “The cut and thrust of a media interview is not subject to the rules of everyday chit-chat.”

Ansell says that when you and I have a conversation, we’re able to appreciate the context of everything we say to each other. But a reporter won’t include everything you say. “A journalist’s job is to separate the wheat from the chaff and sometimes it is only the chaff they seek to report. It all comes down to the edit.

“Reporters, along with editors and producers, decide who plays the hero or villain in a story,” says Ansell. “Supporting roles are available for the victim, witness, survivor, expert and goat – or as I like to call that character, the village idiot.”

So here’s what Ansell recommends you do to avoid being cast as the villain or village idiot.

Be friendly with the reporter right from the start. “If the reporter hears stress, irritation or anxiety in your voice, it could be an immediate tip-off that you may be less than co-operative and may, in fact, have something to hide.” Instead, convey a desire to be helpful and forthcoming. The reporter has a job to do and you have a story to tell.

Create a buffer zone for yourself. While the reporter will want you to drop everything and do the interview immediately, you’re entitled to a stoppage in play. Tell the reporter you’ll call back in a few minutes. Clear your head, focus your thoughts, take a few deep breaths and return the call.

You’re also entitled to ask the reporter questions. “The answers you get to these initial questions will provide insight into the content and context of the proposed interview and the resulting news story,” says Ansell. What’s the purpose of the interview, the overall objective of the story, and who else are you interviewing are all fair questions to ask a reporter.

Asking to see the questions in advance and demanding to review the story before it’s published or goes to air is way out of bounds and all but guarantees you a rough ride.

Ansell recommends heading into media interviews with something called a value compass. It’s a guide that will help you stay onside with messages that match up with your organization’s values. The compass takes into account the spokesperson’s nature and standards and the stakeholders’ emotion and well-being.

When it comes to dealing with bad news, always fess up if you’ve messed up. Aim to tell it first and fast. Be accessible and forthcoming with reporters. Lying low and avoiding the press is never a smart strategy.

Be among the most upset at what’s happened. Know that the facts will never trump the emotion that people are feeling, whether it’s anger or fear. Always show humility, give people a reason to trust you again and couple your obvious concern with a genuine commitment to action. Tell the reporter that you’re sorry about what happened and here’s what we’re doing to fix the problem.

Whatever messages you give, always use simple words. Keep your sentences short and avoid qualifiers. “Scratch your ‘but’,” advises Ansell. “Spokespeople say but far too much and often with harmful consequences.” Sticking a but in the middle of your sentence cancels out whatever goodwill preceded it and signals that an excuse is forthcoming.

Along with a value compass, Ansell offers a one-page template for crafting quotable messages that meet the needs of reporters and assure you’ll get the opportunity to tell your story without stepping on a landmine. Ansell also walks you through 20 what-if scenarios.

“Answering questions from reporters is risky business. Knowing how to talk to reporters is like learning a new language, a language that bears little if any resemblance to everyday conversation. Exposing oneself to media scrutiny requires more than simple candour. It requires knowledge, training and a keen understanding of how reporters write the news.”

Book review: Workarounds That Work

This review originally ran in the Feb. 28 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Workarounds That Work: How to Conquer Anything That Stands in Your Way at Work

By Russell Bishop

McGraw Hill

You and I belong to one of two clubs at work.

We’re either part of the 99 per cent crowd or charter members of the 100 per cent club.

If you’re in the 99 per cent crowd, you can be counted on to always try to your best to see things through and get the job done. But you’re prone to bail on projects when the going gets tough and you slam into the inevitable roadblock that makes work so wonderfully unpredictable.

Launching a new project is not unlike getting strapped to a rocket and shot across the Grand Canyon. It’s a high risk proposition. And even if you’re 99 per cent committed, that missing one per cent will set you up for a really long and painful fall.

Unlike the 99 per cent crowd, folks in the 100 per cent club get the job done with a “no matter what” mindset. You don’t play the blame game. You don’t make excuses. And you don’t cast yourself in the starring role of innocent victim who’s at the mercy of conspiring forces beyond their control.

Instead, you turn problems into puzzles to be solved. And you prove that where there’s a will, there’s always a way.

Everyone in the 100 per cent club has mastered the art of the workaround. Author Russell Bishop calls workarounds a method for accomplishing a task or goal when the normal process or method isn’t producing the desired results. Maybe it’s a wonky procedure, an outdated policy, a dysfunctional team, risk-averse boss or a less than helpful co-worker standing in the way of you getting the job done.

When you hit a roadblock, the first question to ask is “What could I do that would make a difference that requires no one’s permission other than my own?” The answer may be all it takes to move from roadblock to effective, productive action, says Bishop.

“The most powerful thing you can do when laid low with the frustrations that will surely arise is to keep your mind focused on your positive intention. Stay focused on what you want and why it matters. If you allow yourself to lose sight of your purpose or intention, then you will be unlikely to find a successful workaround and will instead become preoccupied with the hurdle in front of you.”

There are no shortage of roadblocks at work. Consensus and its close cousin buy-in are two fan favourites. Both can grind your project to a halt or kill it before you even get your bold and brilliant idea off the ground.

“In most versions of consensus, whenever someone objects to a decision, it is fair game to resurface the issue,” says Bishop. “And to resurface it again. And again. The basic rationale is that everyone must be on board.”

The belief that everyone will get on board is a really bad assumption to make. Savvy coworkers who like the status quo or who don’t like you or your project know they can stall momentum and reverse decisions by raising doubts and disagreements at any time. Instead of getting the job done, you’re trapped in endless meetings where an ever-widening net is cast to safeguard against anyone feeling excluded. Everyone gets a chance to weigh in, even if they have nothing to contribute and their motives are less than pure.

So here’s a good workaround to the pain of consensus-based decision making. Decide upfront who has the ultimate authority to decide something, who has the right to be consulted prior to a decision being made and who has the right to be informed once a decision’s been made.

“By clarifying rights to decide, along with the rights to contribute through consultation, you can differentiate roles and accelerate the process considerably. This simple roles and rights clarification allows more streamlined meetings involving only those who need to contribute given the nature of each meeting.”

And then there’s buy-in. Organizations that love consensus-based decision making also give buy-in a warm embrace. “Over and over, we hear the apparently sage advice that we need to create buy-in before proceeding in any new direction,” says Bishop. “In my experience, buy-in is a laudable concept that is also pretty much guaranteed to slow anything down, if not kill it outright.”

While consensus is about inviting anyone and everyone to join the discussion, buy-in looks to gain upfront support from anyone and everyone before a project moves forward.

Again, you’ll find yourself trapped in a never-ending series of meetings, discussions and debates to deal with every imaginable doubt, complaint and concern.

The workaround to buy-in is progress. Just do it. Get your project started and rack up some early wins. “If you are waiting for everyone to buy in on an idea, you may be retired before they all give the thumbs up,” says Bishop.

Instead, recruit some members from the 100 percent club, figure out what you can do on your own and get on with it. Once you start showing real progress, others will readily sign on and won’t need to be persuaded. Everyone loves a winner.

“Remember, it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission,” says Bishop. “If you keep asking for permission and seeking buy-in, you may merely be giving people reasons to object.”

Far better to give the powers that be something that’s already been completed rather than an idea that may require a ton of debate and discussion in an endless series of meetings.

Bishop offers an arsenal of workarounds to turn seemingly intractable problems into easily solved puzzles. All the solutions rest on you first taking ownership and control.

The final word goes to Henry Ford. “Whether you believe you can or cannot, you are right.”

Book review: Power — Why some people have it and others don’t

Power: Why Some People Have It And Others Don’t

By Jeffrey Pfeffer

HarperCollins ($32.99 Cdn)

You’re a team player. You do your best to fit in. You go along to get along. You play by the rules.

You’re a workhorse. You get the job done and done right. No fanfare. No drama. No blowing your own horn. You believe your actions speak louder than words.

Which is all well and good unless you’re banking on a promotion any time soon. 

“One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking that good performance – job accomplishments – is sufficient to acquire power and avoid organizational difficulties,” says author Jeffrey Pfeffer and a professor at Stanford University. “If you are going to create a path to power, you need to lose the idea that performance by itself is enough.”

So what else do you need?

You need to get noticed.  To move up the org chart, the people in power have to pick you for a senior role. But powerful people are preoccupied with their own agendas.  They aren’t paying much, if any, attention to you and what you’re doing.

They’re not going to seek you out so you need to stand out.  You need to be visible, familiar and memorable.  You need to tell your boss what you’re accomplishing and contributing.

“If you blend into the woodwork, no one will care about you, even if you are doing a great job,” says Pfeffer. “Being memorable equals getting picked.”

Do not listen to anyone who believes that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. It’s lousy career advice, warns Pfeffer.

“In order for your great performance to be appreciated, it needs to be visible.”

It’s not just what you tell your boss. It’s what you ask. You need to find out what matters to your boss. Because what matters to your boss should matter to you.

“Many people believe they know what their bosses care about. But unless they are mind readers, that’s probably a risky assumption. It is much more effective for you to ask those in power, on a regular basis, what aspects of the job they think are the most crucial and how they see what you ought to be doing.”

And that’s where you need to turn in a command performance and deliver stellar results.

There’s one other thing you need to do. You need to make your boss and others in power feel better about themselves. “The surest way to keep your position and to build a power base is to help those with more power enhance their positive feelings about themselves,” says Pfeffer. “The last thing you want to do is be known as someone who makes your boss insecure or who has a difficult relationship with those in power.”

It turns out flattery really will get you everywhere. “Flattery works because we naturally come to like  people who flatter us and make us feel good about ourselves and our accomplishments, and being likeable helps build influence.”

A professor at the University of California-Berkeley did a study to see if there was a point beyond which flattery becomes ineffective and the flatterer comes across as insincere, annoying and a suck up. The prof couldn’t find that threshold in her research. So when it comes to flattery, you can never overdo it.

The big lesson here is that you need to worry about your relationship with your boss as much as you worry about your job performance.

“The people responsible for your success are those above you, with the power to either promote you or to block your rise up the organizational chart. And here are always people above you, regardless of your position,” says Pfeffer.

“Therefore, your job is to ensure that those influential others have a strong desire to make you successful. That may entail doing a good job. But it may also entail ensuring that those in power notice the good work that you do, remember you, and think well of you because you make them feel good about themselves. It is performance, coupled with political skill, that will help you rise through the ranks. Performance by itself is seldom sufficient, and in some instances, may not even be necessary.”

Pfeffer says most leadership lectures, courses and books by well-known executives should be stamped with a caution warning so we’re fully aware that the material could be hazardous to our organizational survival.

Successful leaders tend to gloss over the power plays that got them to the top. And the teaching on leadership serves up prescriptions “about following an inner compass, being truthful, letting inner feelings show, being modest and self-effacing. In short, prescriptions about how people wish the world and the powerful behave.”

Pfeffer’s book doesn’t need a caution warning and warrants a careful read by anyone interested in knowing how the world really works, how to gain more power and influence and how to move up the ladder of success.

Book review: Islands of Profit in a Sea of Red Ink

Note: This review was originally published in The Hamilton Spectator.

Islands of Profit in a Sea of Red Ink

By Jonathan Byrnes

Portfolio / Penguin ($35 Cdn)

The next time all your managers get together for a meeting, here’s something worth adding to the agenda.

Get each manager to list the five customers you shouldn’t do business with. The five products you shouldn’t sell. And the five services you shouldn’t offer.

Now, compare lists. If everyone’s top five is different, you’ve got yourself a serious problem with profitability.

And odds are your problem goes like this.

Forty per cent of your business is unprofitable.

Thirty per cent of your business is so profitable that it keeps you in the black and subsidizes your losses.

And the remaining 30 per cent makes no more than marginal contribution to your bottom line.

In other words, you’ve got islands of profit in a sea of red ink.

Author Jonathan Byrnes, a senior lecturer at MIT, first discovered these tiny islands and the red, red sea while working with a lab supply company 20 years ago.  Every department was making their numbers but that wasn’t translating to a healthy bottom line.

And the pattern has kept repeating itself in Byrnes’ consulting work with more than 50 of the highest-performing firms across business and industry.

Turning the islands into continents and draining the sea starts with a smart and sound business strategy. “Strategy is the foundation on which all profitability initiatives are built,” says Byrnes, who believes that three core principles capture the essence of a good strategy.

One, it’s all about customer value.

Two, strategy is defined by what you say no to.

And three, you have to be best at something.

“If you get these right, chances are strong that you’ll succeed.”

Too many organizations take their customers for granted. They assume that already know what their customers want. And they believe those wants never change.

“The starting point in strategy development must be the creation of value for customers by deeply understanding their real underlying business needs and developing innovative ways to meet them,” says Byrnes. “Customer needs are a moving target.”

Trying to be everything to everyone guarantees unprofitability. “A manager can develop a winning strategy only if he or she is willing and able to define crisply and clearly what is out of bounds. In this way, strategy acts like a laser, bringing the whole company into phase, and enabling the company to burn a hole right through its target market.” Strategy is all about focus and alignment. You need to know which customers, products and services aren’t a right fit for your organization.

And your organization must absolutely be the best at something. If you’re not the best, someone better will always beat you. “Companies that fall into the trap of trying to be everything to everyone almost by definition cannot be best at something,” says Byrnes. “This leads to a vicious cycle.”

The good news is that hunt for profitability can start in your own backyard. “There is an enormous amount of money to be made by improving the business you already have in hand,” says Byrnes. “For some managers, it’s easier to spend money on glossy new initiatives than to systematically improve the business. But when your business is tuned up to its full potential, you can drive it like a Ferrari. It’s hugely fun and immensely satisfying to manage. It’s also very rewarding.”

Byrnes lays out a gameplan for doubling down on the 30 per cent of your business that makes money, improving on the 30 per cent that’s marginal and phasing out the unprofitable 40 per cent.

Pulling this off requires what Byrnes calls paradigmatic change. To break through the inevitable wall of “the way we have and the way we will always do business”, you need to build a strong, clear and convincing case that there’s no choice but to change. The platform may not be burning but the clock’s ticking.

And the most important thing any president or CEO can do to maximize profitability? “Creatively, systematically and relentlessly build the capabilities of the company’s middle management team,” says Byrnes. “Middle management performance is the single most important element in corporate performance.”

The key to excellent performance is to manage at the right level. “As managers progress up the business hierarchy, their focus must increasingly shift from managing the company as it is (or as it was) to building the company for the future.”

So, the next time your managers are all in a room, get them making a list, check it twice and find the 30 per cent of your business that’s keeping you in business.