I’m still trying to completely get my ahead around what happened last week in Washington DC. I’m pretty heavy reader of history, specifically the times around the first revolution and the Civil War. Given what happened last week, and the events leading up to it, Ive been thinking about how the history of this moment will get told. Short version: It’s not going to be good.
While much of the coverage was focused on the melee, I was stunned by how many elected representatives were so willing to go with the flow of their dumb, conspiracy addled constituents who had a range of ill-founded beliefs about the legitimacy of the election, running from thoughtful skepticism to raging nutjob fervor.
Its just mind-boggling to me – now – that so many republicans were willing to turn over the election results. I “get” the politics involved, but I’m stunned by the lack of awareness of the broader situation: A mentally ill guy was leading the party, manipulating everybody, lying with every breath. And they all went along with it!
But the most important, most dangerous part of all this was Trump’s successful attempt to convince millions of his supporters that he’d won and was being cheated out of his win—and the fact that many leaders of the Republican Party, at all levels, went along.
I don’t think the Republicans have completely thought through their attempts at a Supreme Court case to address perceived election system wrongs. If it were to have gone to the court, there’s a whole lot of stuff in that pandora’s box, a whole bunch of unintended consequences. Andrew McCarthy at the the National Review provides a reasonable take:
“What this argument implies, whether the states making it realize it or not, is that even if Missouri wants to apply its own, stricter voter-identification standards, California should be allowed to file a complaint against Missouri in the Supreme Court. After all, the uber-progressive Golden State’s experts will say a strict-identification requirement disproportionately discourages qualified minority voters, which depresses Democratic Party turnout, effectively inflating the value of Republican votes to the detriment of Californians, who voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic candidate.
Staying Optimistic At Work When Everything is Hard
We’re now seven months into the slog of this pandemic. Those of us who can work — and can work from home — are probably feeling fortunate that, despite the hassle of zoom and video calls, we’re able to keep the train mostly on the tracks.
But, I’m sensing that, for a lot of us, the routine is starting to feel a little bit empty. Like the movie Ground Hog day, but without Bill Murray. Maybe our moods are getting a little jagged, and the humor is getting a little dark. And, maybe that future we’re building towards is getting a little cloudier. We’re trying to do good work, meaningfully, to create something better and, if we’re lucky, more useful. This rock won’t push itself up that hill, you know.
But, it’s getting harder. Trying to do it from the basement or home office is going to get lonely, if it hasn’t already. After a while, it’s all going to feel like most days are our worst days, when work is bullshit and we can’t really see the point of it. (Or, maybe the work reallyis bullshit, pandemic or not; that’s another post)
It doesn’t help that the virtual world we’re working in is overcooked and populated by a lot of empty wannabes. Those of us who pretty much live and work online are pepper sprayed with positivity and hustle-secrets by bros hawking their classes and private communities. I read too many click-baity headlines and I get worried for those under-employed journalism kids getting crappy hourly wages to crank them out, seeking just a bit of a career toehold so they can get off their parents’ payroll. There’s too much glossy snark and manufactured “I’m living my truth” first person stuff from stay at home moms and dads who dream of becoming the next Tim Ferriss or Glennon Doyle, the edge cases who actually did it, who jumped off the “real job” grind. I’m avoiding Youtube because it seems like every video is over-dosed with ads featuring some guy pitching me their course that will teach me how to sell my course, so I don’t have to work for the man anymore.
The relentless hustle and commercialism of this new workplace is toxic and transactional like the old one, just in a different way. It just reinforces the fear among us working alone, at home, that we’re not only in the wrong job, but that we’re not trying hard enough.
So how do we stay grounded? How do we see the meaning in the work, the satisfaction in the routine?
On my best days, I remind myself, in the words of the philosopher, that I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.
Remember how Phil Connors escaped the bleakness of those Feb 2 day-loops? Hint: It wasn’t just waking up next to Andie McDowelI.
On my good days, I can wake up and see pretty clearly what we’re trying to do at Fahren:
• There’s a leader out there, trying to make something important happen at their job.
• It doesn’t matter too much what it is, but they’re probably trying to put some technology to better use.
• They might be trying to bring something new into the world.
• They know there’s a better way to work, some techniques they can use to do something smarter.
• They want to keep growing and getting better. As workers, as leaders. As humans. They might be using their job to enact some real improvements in how they think, how they act and how they perform.
• They want help. They’re open to getting some ideas and support from a team that has gone through it before.
• Maybe they just want to hire an outside firm so they can work with likeminded people, so they don’t get stuck being a lifer in the old way.
• We can help. We can help that person solve their problem, to learn something new, to get a job done.
• We can help them make their own transformation, while they are changing the work they do.
Our chosen work is to help people develop and grow while they accomplish something important using the best, leading edge techniques and tools. That’s not a mission statement, or a slogan. It’s a reminder, a commitment.
Maybe that’s too optimistic? Perhaps a little naive? Well, that’s the choice I’m making. It’s how I want to view the world we’re working in now and I’ll keep doing it, even after the pandemic is over. I want my business to be successful, but I can’t keep working on it if cash is the only thing that drops to the bottom line.
We’re all swimming in tech. Technology is the water. But, when we click off zoom and look out the window, we have each other, good and bad, on the other side.
We work with people. We’re working for them, and in their own way, they’re working through us.
I don’t want to be stuck in a loop of emails and Zoom. This choice is my way out.
When I did my graduate work on Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac and the American, civil religion of democracy, I got eye rolls from my professors for wasting time on a well trodden topic. Whitman was “over” (because who cares about form/structure and authorial intent anymore) and Kerouac was for dilettantes (which i guess I was), kid stuff. They were deep into post-structuralism, Foucalt, semiotics and Gramsci. But, i loved history, politics, religion and reading, so i got to do a little of all of those through my work.
When i watch the shitshow that is America circa 2020, I wish i could get a do-over on my thesis. The one I wrote was boring, poorly argued, not very interesting. What i probably should have focused on is the role of a creative, media celebrity in influencing ideas about politics and culture. I should have turned it into, effectively, a media studies project.
In their times, both Whitman and Kerouac were, in their own ways, media darlings. You could make an argument that Whitman was one of the first self-made influencers. If he lived today, he’d have a couple million followers on Insta and YouTube. Kerouac was one of the first post-WW2, mass media literary stars, pulled to prominence by editors and journalists and PR people who loved what he was saying, but still had to perform in their day jobs. They both had important messages about America, why we should love it, and how we should savor the elements of America that make democracy great. They both wrote beautifully about the role of the individual vs the greater culture.
Importantly, they also represented – and were presented in the media of their times – two different directions the American culture might go if the personal freedom inherent in a liberal democracy were taken to their extremes. Whitman, the communitarian, celebrated the beauty of a gajillion different identities brought together by the ideals of American democracy. Kerouac, the seeker of individual transcendence, was mostly focused on “kicks” and the freedom to follow his own path. If he lived and sobered up, he probably would have turned into a hermit monk or a libertarian.
The media of their times used both of these guys as a way to talk about American democracy. The audiences learned a little bit about democracy via the stories and the subsequent reading of Kerouac and Whitman’s work.
There are probably a lot of dissertations out there on the outsize influence Kerouac had on the hippies and “back to nature” culture dropouts of the sixties. I know there are plenty on Whitman.
When I watch the videos from the All Gas, No Brakes guy, I see the edge cases (i hope) of American freedom, pursuit of “kicks” and happiness run amok. When i watch peaceful protests, I see some hope. But, who is out there sharing a view of what democracy can and should be? Someone who isn’t a politician? Where’s the Oprah of political philosophy, someone making it easy to understand how we’re all supposed to act in a super diverse culture, but still live together in peace.
We need Walt Whitman right now. Or, something like him. A poet of democracy, someone that can teach and model what our American way of life can (and should be). Someone speaking beautifully, deeply about stuff no one wants to think about anymore: How we live together in a democracy, the beauty of the concept of “out of many, one”. Maybe they’re out there on Tik Tok? Maybe they’re streaming on Twitch?
We’re a couple years into our “startup” journey with Fahren and, oh man, am I learning a lot about how NOT to manage my schedule. But, I think there might be a better way.
While I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do in our short time, I’m one of those guys that can’t stop thinking about how to do more and do it better. As the CEO/Founder, it’s my responsibility to make sure we’re on track and driving this whole thing forward. It’s humbling to say it, but “clock management”- my time management skills (or lack thereof) – might be one of the things that is creating drag for us. If we want to accelerate, I have to be better at GSD.
My whole career has been an attempt to excel in what Paul Graham calls the “manager schedule”. Its been a schedule designed around 1-2 hour meetings, lot’s of variety throughout the day, and, a blend between quick decisions and deep consideration. Successful managers and directors and VPs were the busy ones, stacked up in meeting. A day full of meetings typically indicated more busy-ness and, by the power of the transitive property, more busy-ness meant “success”. In other words, a typical workday in corporate America is mixed bag of start/stop, high and low pressure, inefficiency. In those days, I had to come into work at 5 AM to get my “deep work” done in the quiet hours before the meetings started. It was a weird schedule, but, I was pretty good at that.
The team at GoKart Labs (RIP) were super talented makers, some of the best, most creative folks I’ve ever worked with. There, I learned the importance of the “Maker” schedule, where the focus was on the deep work that resulted in smart, clever solutions to gnarly problems, whether it was technical, creative or product strategy. I understood (and still do) the problem of context switching, and the lost creative momentum and productivity that happens when you are on the hook to make something great, but your day is broken up into 1 hour meetings. Back then, because I was a manager at the time, that was sort of a theoretical problem. Now the shit is real to me.
At Fahren, we’re building the business and, as the CEO/Founder, I’m a both a manager and builder, too. I’m a maker of things: Proposals, strategies, concepts, blog posts, etc. I’m supposed to be both a doer while I work “on” the business (i.e. figure out our healthcare plan options, pick some software for X), a doer while I work “in” the business (e.g. work on client engagements) and a maker (of ideas, posts, industry analysis etc). I’ve been trying to do all of it on a “Managers” schedule and it’s not working especially well. I have to make some changes, fast.
This isn’t an unexplored dilemma. These days, we’re all dealing with it to some extent. But, it’s one thing when your clock management skills get in your own way, and another when your lack of skills is holding back the rest of your team. Managing the balance between the two types of work is, I believe, a critical skill that any “ready” leader needs to hone. So, I’m going to try a couple adjustments.
Workshop Mornings – I’m going to pick at least one morning a week to block off as my “workshop” time, where I can focus on doing the deep work: writing, researching, planning, etc.
Meet and Greet Blocks – I’m going to block off a couple afternoons a week for the kind of meetings that would otherwise get interspersed throughout my schedule: Intro meetings, interviews, sales calls, regroups, etc.
Office Hours – I’m going to leave my schedule open for a 2-3 hours each week for random, drive-by talks. If folks call or want to video conference, these would be the time slots to do it.
No Meeting Fridays – I’m going to try (really hard) to not schedule meetings on Fridays if I can help it. If a client wants to meet, I’ll do it, but I won’t schedule it. In general, Fridays’ don’t seem like the most productive days and, at least in the summer, not much gets done after 1 PM anyway.
I’m going to try this for the 3rd quarter of 2020 and see how it goes. I’ll make adjustments at the end of September. If you’ve cracked the code on this balance, please let me know how you did it. I’m all ears.
I’m on a bit of work break right now and that means i’ve not had an online meeting in over 10 days. So, no Zoom, Hangouts, MSFT Teams, Slack video, WebEx, Skype, UberConference, GoToMeeting or Facetime (all of which i used in the two weeks leading up to my break for work).
You won’t be surprised to know I haven’t missed the meetings at all. At least, not the work part. I miss the social interaction of course. But, i don’t miss the small task of figuring out which tool to use for each of my meetings or fiddling with the equipment to make sure it worked and i could hear and be heard.
Zoom seems to have emerging as the leader because it’s easy, relatively simple, and reliable. It just works. But my time away has me wondering what’s going to come after Zoom?
I tend to agree with Benedict Evans, that video eventually just be a feature that every app has as part of it’s core offerings. Your project mgmt app will enable video interactions, your commerce apps will have video for customer support, etc.
But, in the meantime, there will be really interesting innovation ahead as, Evans says, “There’s lots of bundling and unbundling coming, as always.” Until, “Everything will be ‘video’ and then it will disappear inside.”
I’m curious about the way video is going to reshape the way we design our apps, once we make it a core feature. See, for instance, the vision of the Makespace team, where video is the interface for collaboration in realtime and more. I’m also curious how video gets used to support formal networks at work (think: Business unit conversations, meetings, projects, etc.) and informal networks (i.e. – peer groups, networking groups, etc.). I hope we see more than updated takes on House-party for work.
I’m fatigued beyond words with the two political parties we’ve got to choose from in the US. There has to be another way, another way to think through all the problems we’ve got in the States. And, while there are literally billions of opinions, there’s only two viable parties. So, i’ve been intrigued by the idea of the Third Way and Radical Centrism.
There is a premium on civility among Radical Centrists that, while we all believe it is essential for Radical Centrist purposes, is intrinsic to who we are as people with a wide variety of interests. For most of us this is an effect of religious faith, including something similar among good-intentioned people who may be classified as humanists –in the sense that the word is used historically to denote someone who seeks wisdom from many different sources, not limited to religion.
Kevin Bauer is, in some ways, a modern marketing unicorn. He’s got deep e-commerce experience, deep data & analytics experience, and general management/P&L experience. Plus, he’s got intrapreneurial experience, starting up new corporate ventures internationally. And now, he’s getting his entrepreneurial merit badge as the founder of Kessel Digital. It’s safe to say he’s been around the block in more countries that most of us.
“We were the huge dominant company in the US and so sure all we’re going to do is you know right click copy and paste”. Of course, there were surprises and hurdles and, as you might imagine, things didn’t go exactly according to plan. Most importantly, one of the key consumer behaviors that drove the business in the US didn’t exist in Europe. The team had to start over after trying for months to get established.
The key leadership lesson: You have to support a team through the various stages of frustration (even when you’re feeling it too!), and support them through the pivots. All without decreasing the level of effort or intensity.
Pivots are hard in any situation, but especially when the urgency for results is mixed with the real pressures of a business closure if those results aren’t met. Leaders like Kevin have to make a tough ask of their team members who might be battling fear: “I need you to embrace that fear”.
Kevin’s insight: If you’re the leader, and you’re asking your team to embrace their fear, you have your own special obligation: Radical Transparency. “I had to be radically transparent about the plans, and how we were going to achieve it. And who was going to have to do what and what the risk was. ”
This sounds pretty straightforward, but there’s a critical piece woven through the commitment to radical transparency. You better have a really good plan. “If you’re radically transparent but you have no plan and if you’re not organized in your communication… Yeah, then it’s…we’re all just running off the cliff.”
As Kevin and I wrapped our conversation, I was looking at the concept of transparency differently than I had. Transparency is obviously a clarifier. But it’s really the way to be the most respectful to the people you’re working with and to keep the focus on the action plan, not the anxiety your team might be feeling. It’s a key tool to keeping the energy and effort up through the pivots.
Craig Pladson is a marketer and leader I’ve been following for years. I met him after he heckled me (in a good natured way!) at a MiMA talk years ago and we’ve been in an ongoing discussion about brands, digital, marketing and business ever since. The conversations spanned times when we worked together, times when I needed advice, and most recently when i was trying to get smarter about what’s coming next for brands.
He’s on a new adventure now, building his own consulting practice based on his experience at Digital River, Colle McVoy, General Mills, GoKart Labs, and Ovative.
While we talked at length about brands and what’s going to happen to marketing over the next couple years, I really enjoyed hearing him talk about his growth as a leader. I asked him about the experiences where he learned the most, the ones that created the environment for accelerated development. I was expecting it would have been his first job out of school (as part of the Digital River mafia), but it was his most recent role that generated the most discussion. It became clear that one of the drivers to accepting the role was specifically because it would stretch him, an opportunity to, as he said, “put myself in a position where I was intensely learning. I thrive in that type of environment… it keeps me dusted off and pushes me to take a modern approach in how I solve marketing problems.”
The role was in a fast-growth, high performing organization staffed by great talent. Smart people moving at digital speed. So, how do you lead a team, keep them moving fast, when you’re learning, too? How does a leader strike the balance between fast and frantic, especially when the leader is learning alongside the team? Craig reminded me that a good leader has to make sure “there’s clarity and a forecasted roadmap of where we’re going and why” but that leader must also support a team that’s learning through the inevitable adjustments and pivots. By getting work into market, the team can watch and adjust based on the results, knowing “feedback will start to direct you in a way that continues to lessen the subjectivity of it. “
I’m someone that takes pride in my ability to stay curious and open to new ideas, but I was inspired by Craig’s intentional, focused effort to create the hard situations where experience transforms into insight. He made it hard on purpose! I’m generally kind of lazy, but when I consider my own history, I know Craig’s instinct is right: Good stuff inevitably comes out of those “crucible” moments, where pressure, curiosity, opportunity and experience get blended and good ideas come out as a result. If we want to keep open, keep growing, we have to seek out and embrace those hard moments, the ones that test us, but put us in a position to learn.
Retro, but not kitschy – They’re reverent about their past and give a nod to their previous brand expression, but its a little cleaner.
Tone – They’ve adopted a closer-in, more friendly and welcoming tone, but they’re not trying too hard to be clever or cool or be your best friend. You know there are real humans behind the scenes, but they aren’t being annoying about it.
Authentic, but Authentically Authentic – No fake backstory, here. But, they’re also not working overtime to tell you how much cooler they are (or were in the ’50s) than your new favorite hipster beer.
Community – They are – quite literally – working off the PBR playbook and are actively engaged in supporting the local (Pacific Northwest) sports, culture and environmental organizations.
Imagery – If you want to connect yourself to the beauty of nature, you better have really beautiful shots of nature. They did that. It’s almost as though this is a nature brand that also sells beer.
Timely / Relevant – They’re doing smart, mostly useful things like providing Zoom backgrounds, but keeping the branding relatively light.