November 12, 2012

Thinking Around Corners

Filed under: Career Advice,Creativity,Leadership — Joe Grant @ 11:50 am

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Been to any meetings lately where people yak about problems but don’t solve them? Plenty, I’ll bet. Here’s why it happens: bosses train their employees not to solve problems.

You think I’m kidding? At the next opportunity, audit one of your internal meetings. Tell the folks you’re there merely to observe the process then keep your mouth shut. If they swirl around an issue without resolution, if they look at you for cues, or ask you what they should do, you’ll know you’ve got a group that can’t think for themselves and that you’re just a well-paid bottleneck.

How did these people become such sheep? Well, owners with their names on the door often enjoy a sort of unhealthy validation when they gift their subjects with “the answer.” They’ll complain they can’t delegate to the staff because “. . . they never have any good ideas.” And that’s true — because they’ve been schooled to come to Papa for answers, not generate their own.

Take heart. You can do something about it.

Don’t let people dump their problems in your office like the family pet dropping a trophy mouse at the master’s feet. Break the habit by demanding that anyone who brings you a problem also recommends solutions. And not just a stab-in-the-dark idea, but a handful of possible options, A, B, C, D & E, with a concluding reasoned recommendation on the best course of action. The formula is, What’s the issue, What will happen if it remains unsolved, What are several possible solutions with pros and cons, and — this is how leaders are developed — how they themselves will fix it. Make it a practice to turn away anybody approaching your desk without a solution. Even if it’s not a good one.

In fact, now and then let them prosecute their recommendations even when you know they’ll fail. There’s a legend at IBM that a junior VP once made a bad call costing the company about a million bucks and spent a sleepless weekend sure he’d be fired come Monday morning. Sure enough, even as he was putting his office doodads in boxes early Monday, the boss called. But he said, “Hold on. You’ve learned the lesson of a lifetime. You don’t think I’m going to fire someone we just spent $1 million educating, do you?”

Remember that no matter how smart you think you are you don’t hold the sole franchise on good ideas. Henry Kissinger, clearly one of our brighter public servants with no dearth of experience in world issues, taught his juniors never to plop a policy brief on his desk unless accompanied by suggested resolutions.

Thus he mined a trove of ideas while training a legion of colts to think around corners.

Problems are simply puzzles. They’re satisfying to solve and doing so builds confidence. You’ve probably gotten good at it over the years but if you’re the self-appointed protector-of-right-answers your folks will keep having meetings where all they do is rant about problems without fixing ’em. Why should they when they can visit the All Powerful Oz for answers?

And that’s the big lesson from the Emerald City, isn’t it. Dorothy and her buddies already had the keys to their issues inside themselves — all they needed was a little boost to their self-confidence from the guy behind the curtain.

Not a bad job for a Wizard, huh?

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January 17, 2012

Make Time for a Challenge

Filed under: Career Advice,Creativity,Leadership — Joe Grant @ 2:46 pm

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You know the line about give the busy man the work and he’ll get it done? It’s true. The more you do the more you can do, but here’s a twist you may find helpful especially if you’re trying to balance all the exigencies of running a company.

You’ll do more and be more satisfied with your job, too, if you take on something challenging and stimulating in your “off” time.

There are people – you probably know some – who run high-demand businesses yet still have enough time and energy to indulge in things they enjoy and grow from. They take on “parallel challenges” in addition to their demanding professional responsibilities. Effective people know that extra challenges make them better in all dimensions.

The magic in all this, especially if you tackle some long-buried desire to do something you’ve always wanted to do, is you’ll get more done at your regular job while you make a dream come true. Take on a “Gee-it-would-be-great-to…” project and daily work chores become easier and your confidence and enthusiasm improve. Along the way your neurotransmitter connections get polished up and all those mood-plussing chemicals we keep reading about start circulating more freely.

Like a sleeping acorn harboring the potential of an oak, dormant aspirations never really go away. They just need to be dusted off and fired up. Maybe you always wanted to play the piano, learn to fly, speed read, master French cuisine, ride a motorcycle…I don’t know. What’s important is it’s a blood-pumping challenge and when you take a step in its direction other issues in your life immediately become easier.

So what’s holding you back? Money? Doubt it, probably not at this point in your life. Not enough time?

Ahh. . .time! Let’s talk about time management for a moment. It’s so often misunderstood. The key is to remember that time management is not about time at all: it’s about priorities.

Think about the following.

1) We get done what we want to get done, what matters most to us.

2) Decisions about using our time, i.e. what we do next, are based on what’s important at the moment – if you see your wastebasket burning, getting that client brief written will not be as big a priority as dousing the fire.

3) Forget about how many hours are available or how many items you check off a to-do list. Processing more minutiae will just make the wheel in your personal hamster cage spin faster. Getting the important things done – the priorities – is what makes the difference.

At the heart of all this is deciding what those priorities are and then committing to them. And if you look inside and begin to actualize a long-unfulfilled desire you’ll be making a decision which will not only make you happier, it will sharpen your judgment and heighten productivity.

I mention all this because we frequently work with senior agency executives who don’t understand after attaining considerable material success why they’re so damn disenchanted. The answer is they’ve checked off the “run my own agency” box and now need additional challenges.

If your DNA programs you for measurable accomplishment, now’s the time to stretch for something else – true happiness and satisfaction don’t come from status quo. As the artist Paul Klee said, “Becoming is superior to being.”

A great resource on this subject of time and getting the important stuff done is First Things First by Stephen Covey.

Reading it would be a good priority, huh?

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March 7, 2011

Defrag Your Personal Hard Drive

Filed under: Career Advice,Creativity,Staying Fresh — Joe Grant @ 6:32 pm


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So…deep in your heart you’re a little concerned you’re working too hard, that your outlook and style is coarsening, and achieving meaning from your work gets more elusive every year.

You’re not alone. When we coach executive talent avoiding burnout comes up a lot, with both emerging leaders and 50+-somethings pushing for legacy and worth.

After many years as a business therapist, I’m convinced what keeps people creative and helps them prevent getting stale is scheduling plenty of personal time to focus on “un-business” and recharge. Yes, it can – it must – be done, even in our crazy business.

Let’s go for a low-hanging analogy. We’re bipedal computers getting sticky and slow trying to handle too many open programs. Our hard drives sluggishly strain to jump from sector to sector, churning away valiantly but always behind the curve.

Or how about high performance athletes? They know that to be competitive they must rest between heats and meets. But us, well, we treat ourselves like machines revving our engines at high speed for weeks, months, and sometimes years with little down time. Until something breaks.

Perhaps you know someone who brags about not having been on a vacation for several years. Well. . . that’s just dumb. It’s not that you “deserve” it, it’s that you need time away. Otherwise you’ll soon resent your work, your company, and what it’s all slowly doing to your health and your family relationships. Not to mention your sanity.

The truth is the longer you’re in our business with its unrelenting deadlines and sudden zigs and zags, the more you’ve got to make time to catch your breath.

Creative people know this. The reason so many good ideas come while singing in the shower or commuting in is that those are “down times” when your brain is not racing quite so fast to process multiple inputs. Good ideas bubbling to the top are easier to see when the surface is not roiled.

If you examine the lives of people who made great contributions, especially in their later years, you’ll see they understood that full speed ahead was not when they had breakthrough moments. It was when they lay quietly at anchor – remember Archimedes in his bath?

And here’s an irony. You know the line about give the busy man the work and he’ll get it done? It’s true. The more you do the more you can do, but there’s a twist you may not realize.

You’ll get more satisfaction out of your job if you tackle something challenging and stimulating outside your job. Something meaty. Especially if it’s a long-buried desire to realize a wish you first had in childhood.

Some examples: maybe you always wanted to play the piano, learn to fly, make outstanding pasta sauces, speed read, paint, restore an old car, build something out of wood that wouldn’t fall down when you leaned against it…I don’t know. What’s important is that it’s something you’ve always wanted to do and it challenges you.

You know people like this, right? Folks who run demanding companies but still make time to indulge themselves in things they enjoy and grow from. Effective people know that parallel challenges make them better in all dimensions and they’re not afraid to stretch for things which may at first appear slightly beyond their reach.

We take ourselves and “success” entirely too seriously. To stay engaged and vigorous, learn to take a breather and challenge yourself with something that has deeper personal meaning than just speeding up your personal assembly line to get more widgets out the door.

Remember, you have more than just “high” and “off” on that switch of yours. Try some different settings.


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March 9, 2010

Science of Motivation


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One of the striking things about the ad agency business is that we claim to be a “creative” enterprise but rarely demonstrate real innovation in running our businesses.

In fact, some of the agencies we’ve counseled over the years are the most un-creative places you can imagine, with moribund management showing little understanding of what makes people tick.

If you own or operate an ad agency – or want to some day – take a few minutes to watch this startling clip from a recent TED Conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design) presentation by Dan Pink as he sorts out the puzzle of employee motivation. You think incentive pay programs work? Maybe you should think again.

This one’s worth every minute of your time.

Thanks to Cortney Cahill, Brand Coach at Kelliher Samets Volk in Burlington VT for bringing this to my attention. By the way, if you’re not familiar with TED check it out here: TED Ideas Worth Spreading.


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October 16, 2009

Real vs. Perceived Value


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Smart, witty, provocative – that’s adman Rory Sutherland, current Vice Chairman at Ogilvy and one of the most entertaining brains you’re likely to meet.

I came across him at TED, the worldwide confab of technology, entertainment, and design leaders which now freely distributes highlights of their conferences on the web at this site. Anytime you want a little juice for your head, go there.

Meantime, sit back for a few minutes and be enthralled by Rory Sutherland’s take on perceived value. It’s a hoot.

June 10, 2009

Rainy Day Ideas


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It’s raining as I write this, and it reminded me of what a drag it can be for kids stuck inside on a dreary, damp day. It’s depressing.

But when I was growing up and it rained, my Mom encouraged me to do something different, something to help eliminate the blanket of lethargy and apathy which often accompany drizzly days.

You can use a similar ploy at your agency.

Use wet sloppy days to solve nettlesome problems, break out of ruts, and get ideas flowing. Stick with me – this may sound hokey but I guarantee something productive will come from it.

Come up with a list of rainy-day projects. Some suggestions:

  • Task groups or individuals to generate a minimum of 10 ideas to increase the value of their work for clients without increasing cost or unbillable hours
  • Offer a small gift, maybe some sort of traveling trophy, for the largest number of computer files dumped or most kilobytes liberated by day’s end
  • Hold a contest – each department comes up with ideas to improve its efficiency and communication with another department
  • Then there’s the old standby: develop money-saving, productivity-increasing ideas, e.g. how can we develop low cost training programs?
  • Plan something different for this year’s Christmas party (always fun to do in the summer)
  • Start a book club – read business books and report on them to the staff with a focus on discovering improvements you can implement

Put a time limit on these “rainy day” challenges so other routine projects get done. At the end of the day have a beer-and-chips session to regroup and present any “awards.”

Here’s the point: it’s all about ideas. It’s invigorating to break out of routines on an otherwise dreary day and come up with a bunch of smart solutions. A little bit of fun like this will actually lubricate your brain so it’s easier to solve other problems. Try it.

By the way, a rainy day is a great opportunity for the boss to surprise everyone and order in lunch, too…

Your 2 cents

These were just a few thoughts that came to mind as a steady rain continues to fall outside. So what do you think? Got any suggestions to share with others reading this? Please comment below.

May 19, 2009

Rock ‘n Roll & Advertising

[Note: if you’re reading this on RSS or an ISP like AOL, just click on the title, e.g. Rock ‘n Roll & Advertising to see the full article on our blog page. Most of you probably know that, huh.]


guitars-rock-and-roll-museum-6Went to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame yesterday in Cleveland. God, it was great; almost too much to take without requesting supplemental oxygen as the memories flooded in from my death-defying youth. . . or what I remember of it anyway (!).

There are so many impressions to share, but one that bubbled to the top was how similar rock ‘n roll is to advertising.

Well, sort of.

The Hall’s multi-media experiences and displays make it clear that a rock band’s success was highly dependent on how outrageous they were, how many taboos they shattered, how uncomfortable they made the establishment, and of course produced words and music that spoke to the very soul of their audiences. The costumes, make-up, stage design, coarse words, driving beats, stunts. . . all are highly expressive forms of communication. And, highly effective, too – making their mark on their target audiences that has lasted generations.

Isn’t advertising supposed to be like that? Powering a message at a specific audience, stopping them dead in their tracks to feel something, and maybe even do something. When you experience good rock music, at the least you want to get up and move and dance. Now how powerful is that? Just imagine if advertising could be that evocative. . .

But alas, as we all know, it rarely is because the really good stuff – the uncomfortable, over-the-top edgy stuff – gets shot down before it leaves the agency, and sometimes even before it gets out of Creative. “The suits upstairs won’t go for it.” “The client will never buy it.” “It’ll never get past Legal.”

I confess: I’ve killed a lot of unborn children in my time. I, and other folks like me who’ve made a career in advertising, told Elton John to forget the goofy glasses and outfits and just play the damn piano like the classical pianist he was trained to be. We instructed David Bowie to look like a man instead of wearing a dress and wig. Janice, don’t scream like that; it offends people. Hey, ZZ Top – shave, will ya?!

Today I stand with the Pro-Lifers. Don’t kill the fetus before it even breathes! Let the ideas, crazy and bold and raw as they may be live, for Crissakes.

If advertising is going to survive as a “collective” experience, i.e. where we all get the same message and react pretty much the same way (as people do at a rock concert) then we can’t be afraid of any idea no matter how scary or whom it might piss off. OK, sure, it’s got to mean something. But please can we drop  the politically correct crap and get on with the business of effective communication?

And if I see another damn flyspeck legal disclaimer at the end of a TV spot I’m going to throw something at it.

Your 2 Cents

Agree, disagree? Are all the good ads stillborn because they might offend somebody?

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