Dain Dunston

The Language of Leadership

Dain Dunston

Archive for November, 2013

Mental Health Moment

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From my friend Bill Herz, a video of the funniest man I’ve ever seen: Larry Griswold.

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People Who Think Well, Write Well

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unpublisheddavidogilvyDavid Oglesby was one of the best “communicators” ever and a driving force in the great advertising of the Sixties. Here, from one of my favorite sites, Brainpickings, is an excerpt from this 1986 book, The Unpublished David Ogilvy, now out of print.

Here are his 10 Tips on Writing, an internal memo to the staff at Ogilvy and Mather:

The better you write, the higher you go in Ogilvy & Mather. People who think well, write well.

Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches.

Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well. Here are 10 hints:

  1. Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times.
  2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.
  3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
  4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize,demassificationattitudinallyjudgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.
  5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.
  6. Check your quotations.
  7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it.
  8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.
  9. Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.
  10. If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want.

If your memos and e-mails don’t read that clearly, start working writing (and thinking) better now.

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What’s the Value of the Information Economy?

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I subscribe to the Sunday New York Times so I can access the New York Times on line. I subscribe to Andrew Sullivan’s Dish blog and to Rhapsody’s music library. I subscribe to Netflix, too. I pay money for those services. But beyond that, almost everything else I do on line — and probably everything you do — is free. We know have a huge economy on line that produces almost nothing that shows up in our calculation of the Gross Domestic Product. Does that mean it’s worthless? No. Does it mean that it really adds nothing to our economy? It’s hard to tell.

James Surowieki deals with this question in a great article in this week’s New Yorker.

Our main yardstick for the health of the economy is G.D.P. growth, a concept devised in the nineteen-thirties by the economist Simon Kuznets. If it’s rising briskly, we know that the economy is doing well. If not, we know it’s time to worry. The basic assumption is simple: the more stuff we’re producing for sale, the better off we are. In the industrial age, this was a reasonable assumption, but in the digital economy that picture gets a lot fuzzier, since so much of what’s being produced is available free. You may think that Wikipedia, Twitter, Snapchat, Google Maps, and so on are valuable. But, as far as G.D.P. is concerned, they barely exist. The M.I.T. economist Erik Brynjolfsson points out that, according to government statistics, the “information sector” of the economy—which includes publishing, software, data services, and telecom—has barely grown since the late eighties, even though we’ve seen an explosion in the amount of information and data that individuals and businesses consume. “That just feels totally wrong,” he told me.

We’re getting so many things free that it’s distorting the way we value the economy. But those free things — like Twitter, like free website design software, like Google or Apple maps — add a great deal of value to those who use them, saving us money we spend elsewhere. Brynjolfsson says that when we underestimate the value of the free parts of the economy, we distort our view of the economy as a whole. When a free service — like the maps and navigation apps on our smartphones — becomes ubuiquitous, it can kill off existing companies, like Garmin. So, while it looks like a formerly great company has lost a huge amoung of value, that doesn’t mean the overall economy has lost value. In fact, it’s become more valuable. The problem is, when new technologies in the past have driven out old technologies, they would enter the revenue stream of the economy and boost G.D.P. But that’s not happening this time. And the value we’re not accounting for may be worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

The enormous gains for consumers in the digital age often come at the expense of workers. Wikipedia is great for readers. It’s awful for the people who make encyclopedias. Although the digital economy creates new ways to make money, digitization doesn’t require a lot of workers: you can come up with an idea, write a piece of software, and distribute it to hundreds of millions of people with ease. That’s fundamentally different from physical products, which require much more labor to produce and distribute. And while digitization has already transformed the media and entertainment businesses, it’s not going to stop there. “There are very few industries that are going to be unaffected,” Brynjolfsson told me. The value that the digital economy is creating is real. But so is the havoc.

(Picture: The Nav System screen on the new Tesla S. Source: Motortrend)

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Are Millennials Really Different?

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Yes, says consultant Tom Agan, in a column in the New York Times. He holds that Millennials — people in the workplace born after 1980 — are more accustomed to the rapid, real-time networking and information sharing associated with the use of texting and social media.

Social media permeate the personal, academic, political and professional lives of millennials, helping to foster the type of environment where innovation flourishes. So when compared with older generations, millennials learn quickly — and that’s the most important driver of innovation.

When I worked at Nielsen, I led a quantitative study of major consumer companies like Kraft and Procter & Gamble — research that demonstrates the link between learning and innovation. The study found that employees were likely to generate more revenue if they held mandatory meetings to identify the strengths and weaknesses of new products after their introduction, used a consistent set of questions to do so, and recorded what they learned.

At some companies and universities, smart leaders are already tapping into millennials’ abilities. For instance, when leading conference calls, one senior executive I know asks younger staff members to introduce the instant messages they send during the meeting directly into the discussion. Rather than keeping the two streams of information separate, he is intentionally encouraging and inviting the parallel conversation into the mix.

The culture that many older workers came up in (and that still drives most organizations) is one of elites at the top controlling information and doling it out to the rest of the people on a need to know basis. I don’t think that works any more. It certainly doesn’t work with Millennials. They expect to be included and expect their point of view to be valued. They don’t expect to be right, but they expect to be listened to. Companies that like to keep their lower, younger ranks in the dark may find it hard to attract and keep the best talent.

But there’s something else: because Millennials operate in a more transparent social atmosphere, they tend to ask good questions and to be less attached to “established” answers. So if you want projects to succeed, make sure your ideas are passing the “Millennial test.” Just ask a group of Millennials to test your assumptions.

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The Three-Legged Puppy

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tumblr_mvwhkrucl81qzq14lo1_1280Jackson died last night. He wasn’t missing a leg but, at a little less than four months old, he was missing a functioning liver. Of course, we didn’t know this when we brought him home four weeks ago. He was born with a liver shunt, something not uncommon in puppies of certain breeds, though incredibly rare in Standard Poodles. A shunt is simply a blood vessel that bypasses the liver, something all puppies have in utero. Usually, it withers away before birth but if it doesn’t, a relatively simple surgical process can often fix the problem. But in Jackson’s case, what the surgeon found was not repairable.

We knew something was not right after he’d been home a week. We had picked him from among his brothers because he had a very calm demeanor. But when he stopped wanting to play with bouncing balls, we knew that was a little too calm. At first, the vet thought it was a digestive problem and, with a non-functioning liver, it was. But the real problem didn’t come to light until a week later when, shortly after I fed him his breakfast, he started stumbling in circles around the kitchen, leaning against the walls. I raced him to the vet to discover that he had gone temporarily blind due to severe liver distress. And that was when we discovered the shunt.

Some meds and a special diet restored him to full puppyness and after a few days in the hospital, he was home tearing around the yard, pouncing like a lamb in a four-legged leap any time a ball went his way. The surgeon wanted him to stay on the meds and diet for an extra week to build up his strength. But on Saturday night, he went catatonic again and so it was back to the hospital. And from there it was downhill. He would recover his energy, then relapse. The surgery was postponed and then, when he recovered enough, they went in.

I said goodbye to him Monday morning when we took him to the hospital for the last time. I told him that I loved him.I told him it was OK to go. I told him that, one way or another, the sickness would soon be over. When the surgeon called from the operating room to tell us what they found, the choice was to let him go then or to sew him up and revive him so that we could take him to our local vet to be euthanized. That second option would have given us a chance to see him again and say good-bye. But the exercise of getting him well enough to be executed at a later date would have been unfair to him and something our hearts could never bear. So we gave the doc our instructions and hung up the phone. Then we stood together in the kitchen and wept.

In his book, For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action,Charles Camosy poses the question of whether animals have souls. I would have to be an enormous fool to say I KNOW the answer to that one but I am on the side of those who believe they do. The affection and connection that can develop between a person and their dog seems to me to be too profound a link to be explained simply in terms of neoteny and oxytocin. One of our previous dogs, Dodger, came to me with a soul connection that I had never felt before in any dog, even dogs who I loved very much. Beyond the fact that he was with me nearly every day of his life, at my side as I worked or when we ran, there was something deeper. I knew that as a working dog he needed to get out and work, so I took him running almost every morning. Five miles a day when we were both younger, then four and then three as we both got older. And he seemed to know that I was a workaholic, so every afternoon at four he would come to my desk and, in his chewy Husky palaver, let me know it was time to play. We took care of each other. We made each other better. And the day we took him to the vet to end his cancer-burdened life was perhaps the hardest pain I’ve ever felt. Not so much because I had to let him go but because I felt I let him down in the way I said goodbye. But how do you gracefully let go a soul mate?

Maybe it is the way a puppy requires your minute-by-minute attention that made Jackson’s 37 days of life with us so intense. On days Jean was out, I changed my work habits and wrote on my laptop in the living room so I could watch him and he could watch me. As long as one of us was present, he would sleep or play quietly. His condition required attention to detail on a higher level. And we never stopped working on his training, operating on the proposition that we should assume he would survive until we were informed otherwise. He was good on a leash and a born retriever, always bringing the ball back and dropping it at my feet. And he was brilliant at “sit,” responding to a hand signal from almost the first moment he saw it. He was a good dog, and we told him so. Right up to the end.

Jackson Close up
I know there are people who would say, to those of us who grieve so much at the loss of our dogs, that it’s stupid. “It’s just a dog, get over it!” But I think those are people who have never been touched by the soul of a dog. And when one is touched, a dog can tell you things and teach you things. If Jackson was here with us now—and in one very important way I feel he is—he would tell us “Play. If you play you won’t feel sad.”

So let us play.

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The Success of the Intervention

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“The success of an intervention depends on the inner condition of the intervener.”

Bill O’Brien
former CEO, Hanover Insurance

As you’re asking your leaders to be innovators, talent developers and culture builders, it’s important, I think, to focus them internally as well as externally. I coach a lot of C-suite execs and one thing I’m always working with them on is what are they doing to feed their psyche and their spirit. This is not soft stuff. This is tough. I ask them to stop before they walk into a meeting, clear their minds and ask two questions: 1. Who am I being? and 2. What do I want?

I also ask people what they’re reading and when they tell me “nothing” I take them to task on that. The primary quality of a leader is someone who can see and interpret the really big pictures. That’s an ability that has to be fed and cultured.

You’re going to need leaders going forward who have great knowledge of themselves and great knowledge of the world around them. Otherwise, they’ll slide into mediocrity.

Here’s another quote I like from Bill O’Brien, who said some smart stuff.

“The fundamental problem with most businesses is that they’re governed by mediocre ideas. Maximizing return on invested capital is an example of a mediocre idea. Mediocre ideas don’t uplift people. They don’t give them something they can tell their children about. They don’t create much meaning.”

We have a lot of metrics and tasks in business and when those metrics and tasks become more important than the big stuff like providing a guest experience that brings someone back again and again, that’s the tyranny of mediocre ideas. How do you make sure you and your teams aren’t gravitating toward mediocre ideas?

First, that’s where reading and connecting more broadly comes into play. Don’t just read literature on your field or on leadership. Read biographies. Read stories about innovators. Read novels that let you get inside the heads of other people. Read some of those books you pretend you read in college. Challenge yourself and your team to broaden your field.
Farm boy
There’s a great quote from Otto Scharmer at MIT: “”The visible result of farming, the harvest, depends on the invisible quality of the field itself.” What is the invisible quality of your mind? Are you just plowing the same furrows or are you fertilizing it with challenging new ideas and ways of thinking?

Second, you can avoid mediocre ideas with the two questions above. By asking yourself who you’re being, you can catch yourself settling for mediocrity. And by asking yourself what you want, you can refocus on extraordinary quality, instead of mediocrity.

That’s the intervention one needs to do on oneself several times a day. And unless a leader constantly does that intervention on herself, she won’t be able to intervene in a quality way with the people she leads.

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