Finding a Cultural Fit

Early lessons in leadership – #5.

Freeman is noted for its strong culture — 90 years in the making, and a source of pride for all of us. But in recent years, as we’ve acquired new companies and brought in new leaders, I’m reminded that it can take a while to feel like you fit in. It’s especially hard when everyone else seems to share a coded language and ritualized behaviors that you don’t quite grasp. I remember the first time I had to learn how to fit in, and how hard it was to be patient with that process of acceptance.

My eye-opening career experience happened when, as a young man, I went to work for Seybold Seminars & Publications. The company worked out of an old mansion, right on the beach in Malibu, next door to Johnny Carson’s old house. Reception was in the foyer, shipping and receiving was in the dining room, marketing was in the living room, customer service was just off the kitchen, and our offices were in the bedrooms. For a kid from Indiana, it all seemed pretty exotic — even the people.  Especially the people. And I’m pretty sure they didn’t know what to make of me, either. We were similar in age and education – but came from different worlds.

Early on, I was initiated into one of my first trials as “the new guy.” One of the rituals that my new team engaged in was running down to the beach and seeing how far they could fling an old beach chair. To me, it seemed like childish chest thumping, but I played along. It was only later that I realized what it was all about. I thought they were sizing up my physical prowess as a man. But in fact, the chair-tossing game was something they enjoyed that was uniquely their own. What they were sizing up was who I was as a person – how I handled the situation. It was a personality assessment, calculated to see if I had fun or if I refused to join in – a litmus test for cultural fitness.

It wasn’t until I’d gone through the full cycle of producing my first big show with that team, and passed countless other little tests, that I realized I was no longer and outsider, but an integral part of the team. It took patience. But what a team we made. And I discovered that, once you do find your place in a tight, culture-driven team, it’s a wonderfully supportive, powerfully collaborative place to be.  Everything just clicks.

Today, my advice to anyone joining a culturally-driven enterprise as part of an acquisition is to give things at least 18 months before deciding if that culture is right for you.  Take time to learn and earn your way in. Exercise patience. There’s no such thing as “instant culture.”  You need to give the culture time to work in you favor.  It’s like yeast-leavened bread. It’ takes longer to rise, but the results are worth it.

Don’t Assume I Can’t Handle It

Trusting others to know what’s best for them.

Managers are required to make decisions that affect the careers of their direct reports. It just goes with the territory. But all too often, with the best of intentions, we default to our assumptions instead of consulting with the individual in question.  It’s scary how often this happens and how many of us are guilty without realizing it.  Even worse, you’d think that gender bias would no longer figure into the formula. But it does.

Case in point: you assume that because a woman is pregnant that this isn’t a good time for her to take on a promotion. In fact, it might not be, but if she’s earned your consideration, hasn’t she earned the right to weigh in on her own career? Likewise, I’ve heard managers assume that, because an employee’s spouse has a thriving career, they’d be reluctant to take on a job that would require a move. Again — why is it so hard to ask?  Maybe they’d like to move closer to relatives. Maybe they’re ready for a change. Or they can arrange to work remotely. The point is — you don’t know, because you didn’t ask.

As managers, we must make daily decisions about how to best deploy, motivate and reward employees. That doesn’t make it our right to presume we know best when it comes to personal decisions in their lives. Engage the employee in the discussion about a future opportunity and see if something can be worked out. Don’t take it off the table until they say “no, thank you.”

Oddly enough, we sometimes do the same thing with clients. We may have a new product or service that we know they’d put to good use, but we don’t make the offer because we assume they can’t afford it. Or that they’ll resent the sales pitch.  Or even that they are too traditional to appreciate the value of the new technology you are reluctant to offer them.

Relationships are built on trust and it begins with us. If we don’t trust people enough to ask them to consider decisions that affect their own lives, how can we expect them to trust us? Rational people make rational decisions. Don’t presume; ask.

When Passion Isn’t Enough

Early lessons in leadership – #4

One of the best dividends of my hospitality experience in the Midwest was that it brought me to San Francisco, where I was lucky enough to get in on the leading edge of the high-tech boom. That led to a job for a tech-media start-up in Japan, and several hard-earned lessons in leadership. Along the way, I went from being the 17th person hired to CEO — all in short order.

As with so many people, I learned the right way to do things by trying the wrong way first.  I was young and passionate about the business and our opportunity in Asia. The team didn’t seem to share my passion, and needed to elevate the level of their work. It hadn’t occurred to me that not every culture operated just as we did in the United States — or that there might be ways of motivating people that didn’t involve confrontation. In the middle of a difficult budget conversation with the executive managing that office, I raised my voice and I said that his effort simply wasn’t good enough. He stormed out of the room. I didn’t know what happened. I was just venting because I cared deeply and I wanted him to understand how important it was. But his second-in-command made it clear that I’d better go after him and apologize; I had made him lose face.

The fault, of course, was mine. I disrespected him. And I quickly learned that being a hot head — yelling about my expectations and demanding perfection — doesn’t work in Asia. To be honest, I don’t think it works anywhere. From that day forward, I worked hard to be more diplomatic and respectful, and that approach has served me well wherever I happen to be working. By the way, I still see that person, who became a close friend, whenever he is in California.

The lesson, of course, is that your own passion isn’t enough to motivate people. Leaders take the time to understand what motivates their people. They find a way to let individuals tap into their own passion. And they’re smart enough to know it’s not the same for everyone.

Two Wrongs…

Seeking reconciliation, not retribution.

My mom always used to always say, “two wrongs don’t make a right.” I struggled with this as a kid … and as an adult, I admit that it’s still not easy to internalize. Pushing back is a reflex. Revenge feels like justice. 

Of course, intellectually, I know that instead of seeking retribution, I need to seek first to understand, and only then seek to be understood. It’s Stephen Covey 101. But when I’ve lost patience with someone’s passive-aggressive behavior … it’s so tempting to just shove back with a little extra force, for interest. In business terms, I tell myself I’m holding my ground and demonstrating self-respect and authority. But then I hear my mom’s voice, and she’s telling me not to stoop to their level. Two wrongs don’t make a right. It’s basic math – when you add negative digits, you get deeper into the hole.

So, what’s the proper response? I try to re-channel the energy wasted on anger into understanding what is motivating the other guy.  I ask myself what’s driving their anger and frustration. Does it have to do with something that happened in the past? Is there a ticking bomb I need to diffuse? Have I somehow threatened them in a way that was unintended?

It helps to take a moment of objective reflection. Does this approach clear the air every time there’s a conflict? No, of course not. But two wrongs never make a right. They just make a bad situation worse.  The next time you’re tempted to fire back at someone with both barrels, listen to the little voice in your head. If it sounds like my mom, pay attention – she’s usually right.

Quantity X Capability = Exponential Possibility

#20 Design the Platform for The Power Double Double

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

Human history is rich with moments in which massive change was made possible because an innovation that improved our capability coincided with a social movement that engendered increased quantity. For example, the English longbow gave England a decisive advantage during the Hundred Years’ War, but its use in battle was only possible because various English kings had encouraged their citizens to take up mastery of the challenging weapon for sport.

A very different type of bow — one perfected late in the 18th century by Francois Tourte — was embraced by violin virtuosi of the day. Its added length enabled the long, lyrical phrasing that made violin solos possible and popular. Its strength and balance better suited violins for concert hall performances. As the popularity of longer bows swept Europe, it supported a shift to the kinds of string-centric orchestral music we still enjoy.

Today, a similar effect is happening at an exponential level — which explains why even dramatic disruptions seem to gain acceptance overnight. It’s what Bruce Mau refers to as The Power Double Double.

“We start with putting two concepts together. One is the exponential growth in the sheer quantity of people…. the second is the doubling in capacity,” Bruce explains. “Over the last century, we’ve had a double double population. In other words, we started with about 1.5 billion people on the planet in 1900, we doubled to three billion, and then we doubled again to six… it’s the single biggest fact of the last century… we doubled and doubled again the number of people on the planet.”

Next, Bruce invites us to consider that the capability of each of these billions of individuals has seen a similar doubling, thanks to technology that allows people to connect, innovate and collaborate on the design of new solutions in ways previously unimagined. Think about how much we rely on our smart phone apps to accomplish the tasks we now consider routine — tasks that previously would have required us to be in a well-equipped office, or in a tech lab, or in a pricey film-edit suite, or even in another country.

“That’s what makes it a Double Double,” Bruce says. “The fact that the quantities are doubling and the capacities are doubling. So, we are literally producing millions and even billions of people with the capacity to change the world….This is a cool idea and very relevant to our business because it changes the people who show up at our shows…. they come with a new set of expectations; if we don’t meet those expectations, we fall short and we look outmoded, outdated and irrelevant.”

In other words, even if the “same” people come to our events year after year, they are “different” each year, because their expectations have changed. The annual doubling of technology across a vast population means that innovations that seemed mind-boggling at first — such as personal assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Hey Google — quickly become normal, price-of-entry features. And the people who rely on them come to our live events expecting that we will take it to the next level.

This prospect may seem intimidating, but the possibilities are incredibly exciting. Especially for those of us engaged in creating live brand experiences. Think of how many products, services, ideas, concepts, medical breakthroughs  and business practices we help to launch into the world. Think of how many people we reach and from how many regions of the world. When we design the platform for The Power Double Double, there is an implicit obligation to make it count. As design-thinkers, we must create our conferences, trade shows, exhibitions and events in ways that harnesses this vast power for a higher good.

Here’s an example that features a Freeman client: the people at IFT (The Institute of Food Technologists) are actively working to elevate the industry they represent and the career outlook of professionals in the field of food science. At their show last year, organizers created an incubator to showcase, launch and even sell new food technology businesses — right from the expo floor. Even more impressive, they are leveraging the The Power Double Double to help solve for the challenge of how to feed 9 billion people by 2050. Understanding that the new culture of food technology is a distributed culture, they have redesigned their IFTNext sessions to highlight the stories of individuals and institutions making a huge difference in solving for things like global food security, sustainability, and reducing carbon footprints. As a result, participation in these breakout sessions has tripled. More people attend; more people leave inspired and equipped to feed the expanding global population.

We are privileged to work in an industry ideally positioned to advance massive change, solve thorny problems and create prosperity for people everywhere. And as Bruce points out, it drives a fundamentally optimistic outlook: “That’s The Power Double Double,” he concludes. “It’s super exciting. This is the best time in human history to be alive.”

The Value of Valuing Others

Early lessons in leadership – #3.

One of the things I find valuable about taking time for reflection is that it helps us understand how we became who we are.  The key values that shaped me as a leader can be traced to encounters that happened early in my career. Here’s a story about learning the value of compassion; it goes all the way back to my days as a hotel manager in Cincinnati.

One of our most loyal, hardworking housekeepers, Georgina, hurt her back. She was no spring chicken, and it was clear that she could no longer handle the physical labor of cleaning rooms. The problem was, she needed that job, and she didn’t really have any options.

So, I created an option. Back then, hotels used a PBX switchboard to handle all the phone calls that came into the hotel and to connect calls between rooms. We had an opening for a PBX operator. The qualifications required a clear, hospitable speaking voice and knowledge of the PBX system. Georgina had the loveliest voice you can imagine — I can still hear her slight drawl and the sincere warmth of her greeting. But when I proposed the job to her, she panicked. She was afraid of the PBX machine, afraid she’d mess up, and afraid to move away from the familiar work (even though it was killing her) to try something new.

I had the weekend off, so I convinced Georgina to come in and, for two days, we ran the switchboard together. By Monday, she was ready to fly solo. Her sweet greetings made customers glad they called our hotel, and she continued as one of our best employees.

Georgina was grateful, to be sure, and that felt good. But in truth, I am in her debt. In that weekend, she taught me the value of compassion — of recognizing others’ vulnerabilities — and the satisfaction of finding the right solution for everyone.  It was one of the best weekends I can remember in a long career. Today, when I’m tempted to ignore my feelings and just “stick to business,” I think of Georgina. I’m still trying to be the man she thought I was back then.

Designing the Real Design Project

#19 Design the Platform for Constant Design

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

Bruce Mau tells a self-effacing story about the time, as a young designer, his group was called in to do some vital brand identity work for a client. He laughs when he describes the unstated assumption by everyone on the team — the designers, the consultants, the clients — that “this time” they would achieve an ultimate, lasting solution because, of course, “this team” was smarter, more intentional and more strategic than the previous one. What makes the assumption so funny, Bruce explains, is that he was commissioned ten years later to conduct a re-design of that same project.

“It’s sort of a weird experience, to dismantle the solution that you created,” Bruce says. And he explains that it led to the insight that the essential concept of “relevance” exists on a continuum that demands constant design. “In fact, the world changes so radically, all the time,” he adds, “… there aren’t that many things that are truly ‘for the ages.’”

When we create brand experiences, it’s essential that they are relevant on both a personal level and in the context of what’s going on in the community, business sector, and technological environment.  By definition, if we are truly relevant in the here and now, we should assume that we will be obsolete in the near future; that’s why it makes sense to design the platform we are using to allow for constant redesign. Bruce explains that as the world shifts, we must shift to stay relevant.  “You have to understand what the transformational context is for the design work that you’re doing, and understand where the new opportunity is situated…. And for many practices … it fundamentally changes the assignment …. how I am going to deal with a design, so that I can keep servicing the stable and flex the other things, so that each year I can refresh it.”

Bruce references the work he did with David Butler at Coca-Cola, where this practice of templating the work was dubbed “freedom within a framework.” They established a set of parameters that worked much like the rules for game play. “For me, it’s a game of sameness and difference,” Bruce says. “So, what are the things we’re going to keep the same? And where are the things we’re going to allow to be different? …. You want to keep as much as you can stable, so you can carry that forward and reinforce the identity, but have enough things that are constantly being refreshed, so that you can remain relevant.”

Think about what newspapers and magazines do. Whether we experience them in print or digitally, the content changes with each publication, while the essential identity — the design of the masthead or banner, font and layout — remains constant. This is the approach we should consider when designing the scenic elements and properties we create to define the spaces in which we host brand experiences.

“The interesting thing for events,” Bruce says, “is that, when you start to apply this logic, you realize, I don’t have to reinvent the whole thing. I can reinvent one thing every year, and in five years, the whole thing is new. It’s a method for sustaining relevance and optimizing the business.”

This approach is equally true when we’re designing less tangible things, like processes and organizational structures. The only hope of “permanence” is to define when and where the updates will happen. Designs that work with Lego-like modular components – content that can be swapped out or upgraded without dismantling the whole thing – offer a possible solution. Maybe the updates happen digitally – or through software upgrades. But they must happen by design.

That’s the secret to designing the platform for constant design. We have to resist the temptation to assume we can “design it right the first time and forever,” as if business is static and nothing ever changes. The beauty of this design principle is that it doesn’t require us to predict the future or know where the winds of change will push public sentiment. It just requires the discipline to accommodate continuous change within the design. It’s a matter of deciding which aspects of the design will remain constant and which will require flexibility.

Plus, there’s a bonus for following this methodology. “It introduces the opportunity to do the Madonna Curve,” Bruce explains. “And for me, this concept is really about understanding the nature of change that we’re moving through. You can’t predict what’s going to happen so you have to build an open platform so that as things happen, you’re ready for it. You’re built to accept new things if you take this approach.”

Here’s the irony —If we think our design is impervious to change, we won’t be motivated to look for change, and are likely to miss important opportunities. But if we design the template (for our organization, exhibit space, e-zine, process, branded experiences, etc.) with the assumption that things are always changing, we naturally form the habit of anticipating and watching for the trends that will drive the needed upgrades. We continuously redesign before we lose relevance. This means that we are ready and waiting to pounce on opportunities before anyone else —which is a pretty solid roadmap for sustainable growth.

Briefly put, designing the platform for constant design is a fundamental growth strategy. It’s how proactive, successful businesses keep their edge.

When “Sorry” Isn’t Good Enough

A version of this article originally appeared in Entrepreneur 

If you know me, you know I believe in unconditional love. I believe we owe those who’ve messed up a shot at redemption. But what should we do when people fail to learn from and correct bad habits — when they act as if saying, “I’m sorry” is a get-out-of-jail-free card? I call this the “Sorry Pattern.” I believe it calls for a little tough love and a reminder that bad habits are a choice and have consequences.

We all have people in our lives who have played the “sorry” card too many times. (Maybe we’re guilty ourselves.) There’s the person who is habitually late for a meeting and mumbles “sorry” as she slides into her seat.  Or the guy who apologizes for exploding his lunch in the communal microwave (again) but can’t seem to clean it (ever). Or the kids who leave their skateboards at the bottom of the porch stairs, where it taunts fate, time and again.

Here’s what my dad told me back when I was young: “Sorry isn’t good enough.” He knew I felt bad when I messed up, but he wasn’t interested in my remorse. He was interested in results.  Since I wasn’t taking responsibility for my actions, he insisted that I own up to whatever the problem was and make a plan to correct it. Good parents, good friends, and good leaders call us out when it’s necessary. They put us on the path to redemption before serious resentment sets in.

By now, you probably already have someone in mind — someone who’s caught in the Sorry Pattern. Plan to have a friendly chat with them. But before you do, look in the mirror. How often do you have to apologize for a repeated offense? More often than you’d like?  Don’t feel sorry about x, y or z. Solve for it.

Getting Schooled on Serious Matters

Early lessons in leadership – #2

Here’s another lesson in leadership… from when I was just a punk kid running housekeeping for a major hotel chain.

One of the supervisors who worked for me came in to complain that a housekeeper I personally liked was acting out: not putting washcloths in the rooms and generally being belligerent. I knew this was not normal for her. She was a great person and a hard worker who was obviously having a bad day. But I pulled up my boss pants, called her into my office, and told her in a stern voice, “this is serious.”

She then put me in my place by explaining that “what was serious” was being beaten up by your drug-crazed son in the middle of the night because he wants your cash to get his next fix. What’s serious is having to pull a loaded weapon from under your pillow to keep your own child from killing you.

Oh. Right. Like I could even relate to that. I apologized and told her to just go home and get some rest, and I promised to clean her rooms myself — which I did. But to this day, 30-some years later, I wish I’d started that conversation by asking her what was wrong, and what could possibly have happened to make her have such a bad day. Of course, that kind of learning only comes with spending more time on the planet. But it’s a lesson in empathy that I’ve never forgotten.

The next time you “can’t understand” why someone is behaving in a certain way, make the effort to understand. Then formulate your plan. It’s one of those things that distinguishes a leader from a boss.

Designing for the Crisis of Trust

#18 Design What You Do to Tell Your Story

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

It’s a sign of the times that the word “optics” — which refers to the properties of light that let us see things — has been hijacked to describe “how something seems.” It’s used as shorthand for situations in which the actions people witness don’t jive with what they’ve been told. Countless celebrities, politicians and brands have been pilloried on social media for #BadOptics. Public shaming via memes, Facebook rants and #twitterstorm posts are the new norm.

This wasn’t an issue 25 years ago, when the sausage-making part of the working world was hidden in the factory.  Today, however, living in the age of social media and ubiquitous camera phones, everything is recorded and published. Progressive enterprises understand this phenomenon and are intentional about designing not only their brand narrative, but everything they do to tell their story.

“This concept rests on the insight that the connected world fundamentally transforms communication,” Bruce Mau explains. “The everyday crisis that we’re having right now in America is a crisis of trust, that we can’t believe what they say and what they do are the same thing…. The real thing that you should be designing is what you do.”

The examples in our industry are easy enough to find. Many convention venues have been renovated to achieve LEED certification. As part of their conferences, associations often create charity events that support relevant causes and support the host community. Groups like Gender Avenger act as watchdogs that collect, report, and broadcast information about gender balance in conference presentations.

Bruce describes this as going from a paint culture to a transparent culture. “The new world is a world of total transparency,” he says. “We should work as if everyone can see everything, because they can…. what you do is actually who you really are, and what you say is often of little consequence…. So, designing how you do that is really a critical piece of defining our product.” Another way to think about it, he advises, is “Turn the sound off and just watch the action — that’s who we really are.”

This is the perspective we need to adopt when considering each opportunity to design a brand experience. If a car manufacturer talks about the quality of their brand, everything about how they engage with people must reflect that quality — the exhibit itself, of course — but also every sensory experience that contributes to or detracts from the message.  We must be mindful of the fact that we reflect who we are from the moment we approach the assignment.

Here are some examples specific to our industry: Organizers for an information technology trade show cannot afford a snafu with registration software. But they can proactively survey attendees to learn about favorite conference apps.  A teachers’ association would look silly if they published anything with typos or grammatical errors. But they could create a space on the show floor where they reveal the process used to check for errors, and even invite teachers to share and collect strategies that work with students.   As design-thinkers, we should never offer our clients products or services that violate fundamental design principles. But we can bring them fresh ideas on how to proactively remediate past oversights or outdated exhibits. And we can use tools and systems that reflect our design perspective.

At Freeman, if we want to be known for inventing the meaning of live experience, we have to do it.  That’s why we’re investing in new display systems, new technologies, new ways to collect and understand data, and new acquisitions that bring fresh ideas and approaches. It’s why we established the Design Leadership Council. It’s why we are aligning our organization to better surround our customers with multidisciplinary support.

When I first got into the business, we were urged to “walk the talk.” Our new mantra must be, “design what we do.”