Category Archives: Leadership

Never Stop Learning — Ever!

When the opportunity to go “back to school” for the MBA I always wanted became reality, I didn’t quite know how to react. It had been a while since I was in a classroom. I wondered what it would be like to be a student again.  And, just how difficult would that Mercy College “TURBO” program be.  Five nights a week and all day Saturday for four weeks is grueling, especially with a Long Island commute.

imagesBut, I love it.

Being in a learning environment again is inspiring.  The first class had me hooked. It’s something that had been missing over the past few years and I didn’t realize it until I was back in the classroom and saw what my professors and fellow students had to offer.  I know now that it will be something that I continually pursue whether in college or at another corporation.

We’ve all heard how important “training” is to corporations.  “We have a strong commitment to training our people” is a sentiment that can be found in most annual reports.  But what’s that “training” all about?  Mandatory ethics training that’s about as inspiring as…. well, you know.  Classroom training for the chosen few.  Online training for the rest of us.

What’s missing from many corporate training programs, from my perspective, is the stimulation you get from being part of a true learning culture.  I would argue that the degree to which businesses, big and small, can integrate a spirit of learning in their own environments would help corporate commitments to training get beyond mere platitudes.

Regular classes started earlier this month – a mixture of traditional and online.  Like everything else, some are more interesting and easier than others.  But understanding the business environment with a fresh lens is priceless!

 

 

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ICYMI: Lunch with a Legendary Ad Man

As the hostess seated us at a neighborhood sushi restaurant near Columbus Circle, my lunch partner said quietly, “When I come here, I always sit there,” pointing to the sushi bar located to my right, “the second seat from the right.” I wondered why as we continued to navigate the table maze to get to our seats. The answer came a moment later. “That’s where the head sushi chef is stationed,” he said as a matter of fact.

lesteryoung

A young Lester Wunderman.

Ahhh, I thought. A little known detail… a tiny piece of information… but a significant data point for the ad man at the center of the trillion-dollar direct marketing industry he so proudly invented and named more than five decades ago. Perhaps that’s why Lester Wunderman, 94, founder and chairman emeritus of the agency that still bears his name, was so successful. He made sure he knew something nobody else did, which gave him a competitive edge in business and in life.

I had the pleasure of being office “neighbors” with the legendary nonagenarian for the better part of a decade. We were also on a first-name basis, which I considered a great honor since he was frequently quoted as saying, “just because you know my name, doesn’t mean you know me.” This September day, we lunched on the sushi/sashimi combo. He had salad and I the soup. And our conversation focused on leadership, learning and a look forward.

On Leadership
I asked about the single aspect of his own leadership style he considered most important. Without hesitation, the man I had come to know as “Lester” responded: “Empathy. If you are not able to feel what your people are feeling, you don’t have a company. A company is not just about the numbers; it’s about the people.” He recalled some hard times he and the agency endured early on. I could feel the perseverance of his past.

He explained you pay people to produce and produce profitably, but to get them to do so you need to understand what inspires and motivates them. He likened running a business to playing a game. “It doesn’t mean you win every time. But it does mean you play with the best people you have all the time.” Lesson learned.

On Learning
Knowledge is important to him—so important that when it came to his own education, the path he chose was anything but typical. “I never planned to be ‘matriculated,’ I planned to be educated,” he said; “there’s a difference.”

The difference, I learned, was characteristic of this advertising legend. Lester Wunderman wanted to be educated about specific topics that interested him—not what others thought he should learn. Therefore he attended classes he chose at institutions that offered them that he selected—New York University, City University of New York (CUNY) and Columbia University. Ultimately, academicians from CUNY recognized his educational pursuits and awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Letters.

This quest for learning was never more apparent than his decision to learn Spanish. During lunch, I got the back story. A voracious reader, Lester would frequently take the subway from his Bronx home to the end of the elevated line—all the while his head buried in a book. When he disembarked, book in hand, he continued reading as he walked to his favorite spot beneath a tree in the nearby park.

“One day I was walking and reading at the same time and bumped into a guy who was also walking and reading at the same time,” he explained. “Our books fell to the ground. When we picked them up we discovered we were both reading Don Quixote. His book was in Spanish and mine was in English.” Serendipity or karma, I wondered.

Admittedly, Lester said he found the story “boring” at first. But the two men got to talking. His fellow reader was a Spanish instructor and suggested he read Don Quixote in its native language to grasp the richness of the story. It was then Lester decided to take his Spanish to the next level. Once he did, there was a new found appreciation for the story, its language, its humor and its wit. Another lesson learned.

Looking ahead
“Relevance” remains his mantra; and, as technology inculcates itself into the advertising industry, “personal relevance” nears his Nirvana.

Of the Internet, Lester was among the privileged to preview it in the 1960s. In later years, he observed “I can’t claim to having had a vision of its eventual popularity, but I had an absolute fascination with its potential. I knew what it could do, was using it, and viewing it as a technological miracle that could bring to life the kind of dreams I had about dialogues between consumers and advertisers.”*  That comment is perhaps the most telling of advertising’s continued evolution.

So I wondered. What’s next for the industry? Relevance remains key and data will be used to make what’s relevant more and more personal, he said. Then he added this: “My ultimate belief is that manufacturing will change. Factories, which started in England as a means of mass production, will go away. We are in the age of what I call ‘personal advertising’ now. And, I believe we will have factories in our homes and use data to help make the products we want to make.”

It is this type of thinking that makes legends. It is why Lester Wunderman was the first direct marketer to be named to the Advertising Hall of Fame. It’s why he sits at the second seat from the right at the sushi bar. It’s also why the inside of all his overcoats fashion a ruby red silk lining. But that’s a lesson for another time.

* Conversations with Marketing Masters, Laura Mazur and Louella Miles, 2007, John Wiley & Sons.

Originally posted, September 2014.

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Author’s note:  For 12 years, I headed Global Communications at Wunderman, the billion-dollar digital agency founded in 1958 by Lester Wunderman, the legendary ad man who turned traditional advertising on its heels with a “direct” approach. I had the pleasure of working directly with Mr. Wunderman, who served as an ambassador to the industry, on many initiatives, including speaking engagements at Direct Marketing Association events, the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, the re-launch of his autobiography, Being Direct and the establishment of archives at The John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History at Duke University which maintains an archive of the personal papers of Lester Wunderman.

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The Rise of Fishbowl Journalism

As a young account executive at a big PR firm, one of the things I looked forward to was prepping a client for “media training.” There was a certain delight in knowing that no matter how senior, seasoned or savvy our client was, there was no way he or she would ace the mock interview that opened the session. And they never did.

Without fail, “trainees” fell for every trap our faux reporter threw at them. The resulting story was filled with quotable quotes, unofficial information or unflattering commentary that made for a good gossipy read. It was a humbling experience, which paved the way for a productive work session. Fast forward to the session’s end, clients learned their lessons—among them, don’t say anything they would not want to see plastered on a newspaper’s front page—and they were proud of their progress.

fishbowl2One of the reasons behind the disastrous interview exercise is that society embraces the false premise that modern day news is actually news. It’s not. It never has been. Broadcast and cable news, newspapers, blogs, online platforms and social media are now, always have been, and always will be forms of entertainment.

“Breaking news” scandals are virtually hourly occurrences; and, what I call “fishbowl journalism” has become the “news” genre of choice for millennials and generations to come. Moreover, technology speeds up the “news cycle” so much so that we have developed an insatiable demand for this brand of entertainment.

With fishbowl journalism, “facts” are pictures; everyone has a camera in his or her pocket; and, people have a burning desire to share “experiences” in the moment. World events, tragedies and triumphs are communicated via “gotcha”  video, audio or photos that can be accessed on-demand and shared anywhere in an instant. A photo or video doesn’t just enhance the story, in many cases, it is the story.

Recent “top trending stories in social media” (have you noticed how news organizations are using that phrase which further feeds the frenzy?) include: Uber’s not-so-brilliant idea of digging up dirt on journalists; Bill Cosby’s on air request to “cut the tape from the interview”; Black Friday shopper brawls; Ray Rice’s legal victory; Janay Rice’s media blitz; and the list goes on.

It is truly amazing how naïve executives, celebrities and everyday citizens can be. Don’t they realize the devastating reality that the Internet has given rise to the permanent, sometimes not so flattering, record? Are these news stories? Sure, there is a kernel (or more) of news value in each of them; and, in my view, that is what should be explored, researched and reported. Yet, we hear little beyond the imagery.

Fishbowl journalism is here to stay. Yet, I wonder whether people actually like it, or whether people merely accept it as the norm, and are too busy to look beyond the picture or read beyond a tweet before it is shared. Will it fade away in favor of more responsible, credible news reporting? Doubtful, but one can dream. We get what we tolerate.

Today, the lessons of my early days of media training not only remain true, they have become more expansive and apply to everyone–executive and citizen alike.  Simply stated, never, ever say or do anything that you would not want to see, hear or shared everywhere. In a fishbowl, everyone is watching, recording and sharing.

News and entertainment have their place in our society but when combined, both suffer.

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Book Review: Glass Jaw – A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in the Age of Instant Scandal

When I first heard about Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in the Age of Instant Scandal, by Eric Dezenhall, I knew it was going to be “required reading.” The 24/7 news cycle has given birth to a new era of instant scandal (as the book title suggests) that can bring anyone in the communications business to his or her knees. Citizen journalism is now a cottage industry, with an unofficial mandate to ruin reputations; and journalistic standards for fair (unbiased) reporting, fact-checking (prior to publication) and the need (and value) of credible sources are waning. Old rules for issues management are showing their age in the digital communications era; and, unfortunately, new rules are not so easy to define. This book provides insights into some 30 years of scandals and offers a valuable history of how crisis management has evolved.

indexBy its own explanation, Glass Jaw “is about the changing nature of controversy” and the resulting powerlessness individuals and organizations experience when they get caught up in the “fiasco vortex.” Today, fueled by pop culture’s glamorized view of scandal management, Dezenhall points out that “reputational crises” are often misdiagnosed as mere “communications problems.” And, chief executives or those targeted just want PR to make it go away. Whether it’s the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s ill-fated decision to cease funding breast exams at Planned Parenthood facilities, Carnival Cruise Line’s Costa Concordia disaster, Anthony Weiner’s indiscretions or the corporate scandal of the day, Dezenhall reminds us of how they were handled and why or why not the chosen approach attained its goal. He explains how the emergence of the new “weapons of the weak” – the Internet, purposeful leaks, speed and reach – blend to deliver particularly devastating blows in record speed.

The book is a page-turner. But if you are looking for a “how to” guide for crisis management, this isn’t it, for Dezenhall clearly states that crisis management today is in a state of flux, has no road map, and surely no cookie cutter solution. Its instruction is in the hundreds of examples and observations about crises with which we are all familiar. He demonstrates how sentiments not facts matter more. He articulates the state of the media environment today—a far cry from evening newscasts and 60 Minutes. The Twitter cycle today, he says, “isn’t really a cycle at all, just an endless rapid-fire series of data bursts.” And, he cautions that Twitter is the new darling of crisis creation and rarely can be used effectively in crisis management (pay particular attention to the section on social media backfires in Chapter 6).

There are some healthy reminders too. For example, identifying “achievable expectations and ‘grown-up good judgment’”; understanding that legal and PR teams are often at cross purposes; the importance of working behind the scenes—below the waterline of the “controversy iceberg” as he describes it; and a heavy dose of common sense are all key elements of a solution. Every crisis is different, especially as technology fuels the spread of scandal and that there are people in business to clearly benefit from scandal. Dezenhall also has an interesting take on PR agencies and their role in crisis management.

I downloaded the e-book and highlighted many sections as reminders. But, I will likely purchase a hardcopy and dog-ear the pages for easy reference. Glass Jaw is easily the most comprehensive inventory of corporate, personal and political crises through the decades. With each example, the reader is offered valuable insights for consideration when faced with a corporate crisis on his or her watch.

My recommendation: Read it!

Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in the Age of Instant Scandal
By Eric Dezenhall
ISBN: 9781455558001
Published by: Grand Central Publishing
Published on: Oct. 7, 2014

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Everyday Leadership Lessons

Sure. There is no short supply of people offering leadership advice. Many do so formally in fancy speeches at name colleges and universities and are paid handily. Some write books. Yet, some of the best counsel can come from people you know and work with every day.

Often, you may not realize how important what they say and do is until years later, when out of the blue, it pops into your head as you begin to tackle another business challenge. Yet, I believe when something sticks with you for years… there’s a reason for it… there’s a lesson in it. Here are some that have stuck with me. They were never formally conveyed; rather, they were said every day in passing or experienced in routine encounters. But they were powerful lessons all just the same.

1. Treat your client’s money as if it is your own.
Anyone who worked or works for Burson-Marsteller, a leading public relations agency founded by Harold Burson more than 60 years ago, readily knows: “Harold Burson took the subway.” To the man who grew up knowing the devastation and poverty of the Great Depression, he proudly admits that he took the subway most of his business life. The lesson was clear: treat your client’s money as if it was your own. And we did.

subway lettersCountless times I remembered Mr. Burson’s mantra when faced with the choice to hop in a taxi or walk three blocks to the 23rd Street subway to make a client meeting at Colgate-Palmolive’s Park Avenue headquarters. “If Harold Burson can take the subway, so can I,” I thought time and again.  Admittedly, the taxi won about 50% of the time. But I take some solace in knowing it was a conscious choice, rather than a fait accompli.

Years later, as I managed bigger budgets and decided how and where to allocate dollars, this money management lesson would pop into my head. It taught me to negotiate—always a fair deal, but negotiate just the same. It taught me to find the hidden costs when forecasting annual budgets. It taught me to make a strong, provable business case for the spending. Doing so earned respect in the eyes of the finance team—a tough group to impress. While I didn’t always get budget approval, when I did, they knew there would be no surprises.

2. Motivate and great things happen.
Once I was asked what it was like working for a now very successful advertising executive. He was being considered for a new position at a bigger agency and his future boss was doing his due diligence. I remember my answer verbatim: “He makes you do more than you thought was possible.” I didn’t realize the significance of that statement until years later when I was faced with motivating members of my own team.

It always seems impossible until it is done.What was it that this leader did that so inspired me?

He let me think for myself, take responsibility, make my own mistakes, chart my own path, find a better way, challenge ideas—even his ideas—without fear, and the list goes on.

Assignments often came in a passing 30-second phone call, but armed with context and confidence, everything was possible. It was for me then, and the thousands he now leads.

The lesson was clear:  it doesn’t take much to motivate people.   Inspiring confidence in those you manage is essential.   Acknowledgment is what most team members are looking for–no matter how big or small.

3. Introductions count.
We have all experienced it. You are in a business meeting with the higher-ups and someone you know of, but never met (or someone you don’t know), interrupts. The person to whom you are speaking immediately becomes engaged in conversation with the other person, leaving you out of it. What do you do? Introduce yourself, of course.

introduction - woman outstretched handThe truth is that should never have happened. It never would have if you had worked for Alex W. “Pete” Hart, former CEO of MasterCard International. Pete was the master of introductions. If he didn’t know you, he simply introduced himself. Whether it was in the hallway or on a lunch line, extending his right hand he would say emphatically “Pete Hart, nice to meet you.”  When Pete, the CEO, introduced himself to me, I felt like a million bucks.

As a result, I’m hyper-conscious of the introduction—introducing others and introducing myself when others are lax. It’s a first impression and it has to be good.

4. Give your undivided attention.
It was the 1990s. The paper “in-box” was thriving as email was just entering our consciousness. Papers piled up; and the higher the stack, the longer your “to-do” list.

When I walked into the regional president’s office for a scheduled, 30-minute meeting, I was prepared. I had to be. There was so little time and so much to cover. Peter was a Brit, about 20 years my senior, and judging from the multiple paper stacks on the table where we convened, he had little time for me. But for those 30 minutes, he focused on our agenda, probed unanswered questions and made thoughtful decisions. I marveled at, and was grateful for, his undivided attention.

undivided attention gorillaThere were no interruptions—no “excuse me, I have to take this call”; no notes slipped in by an assistant; no TV news playing in the background; no stolen glances at incoming texts (there were none then). That made all the difference.

One 30-minute meeting between two people who focus intently on a thoughtful agenda is more effective than an email string with countless people on copy weighing in, supplemented by private text messages to get the back story. Really.

5. Passionate pursuits are the most productive.
Leaders know when people care about something deeply, success follows. I have never met anyone more passionate than Joann Ferrara, a pediatric physical therapist by training who founded Dancing Dreams, a charity that gives children with physical challenges a chance to fulfill their dreams to dance.  It is her passion, her dedication, her sleepless nights and her dreams that enable her to turn what some may think are impossible dreams into reality.

Recital2014-528-790x526

Joann Ferrara, founder of Dancing Dreams, handing a ballerina a rose after her first performance.

Joann’s passion is matched equally by that of her student ballerinas. As a result, both teacher and students thrive and hundreds of children, parents, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles and teens benefit from a dance experience they never thought possible. And dance they do, in a performance “extravaganza” on stage complete with costumes, makeup and glitter– just like their friends, sisters and mothers have done. Here’s a glimpse of their most recent performance on the Meredith Viera Show in September 2014.

Keep the passion alive.  So what if this ballerina is in a wheelchair.  So what if she has braces on her legs.  Where there is passion, there is always a way.

In business, this is especially important.  To me, it means understanding what’s behind a person’s passion and matching it to the business task. A mismatch is often misunderstood for incompetence and disappointing all around. But a perfect match is amazing.

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Lunch with a Legendary Ad Man

As the hostess seated us at a neighborhood sushi restaurant near Columbus Circle, my lunch partner said quietly, “When I come here, I always sit there,” pointing to the sushi bar located to my right, “the second seat from the right.” I wondered why as we continued to navigate the table maze to get to our seats. The answer came a moment later. “That’s where the head sushi chef is stationed,” he said as a matter of fact.

lesteryoung

A young Lester Wunderman.

Ahhh, I thought. A little known detail… a tiny piece of information… but a significant data point for the ad man at the center of the trillion-dollar direct marketing industry he so proudly invented and named more than five decades ago. Perhaps that’s why Lester Wunderman, 94, founder and chairman emeritus of the agency that still bears his name, was so successful. He made sure he knew something nobody else did, which gave him a competitive edge in business and in life.

I had the pleasure of being office “neighbors” with the legendary nonagenarian for the better part of a decade. We were also on a first-name basis, which I considered a great honor since he was frequently quoted as saying, “just because you know my name, doesn’t mean you know me.” This September day, we lunched on the sushi/sashimi combo. He had salad and I the soup. And our conversation focused on leadership, learning and a look forward.

On Leadership
I asked about the single aspect of his own leadership style he considered most important. Without hesitation, the man I had come to know as “Lester” responded: “Empathy. If you are not able to feel what your people are feeling, you don’t have a company. A company is not just about the numbers; it’s about the people.” He recalled some hard times he and the agency endured early on. I could feel the perseverance of his past.

He explained you pay people to produce and produce profitably, but to get them to do so you need to understand what inspires and motivates them. He likened running a business to playing a game. “It doesn’t mean you win every time. But it does mean you play with the best people you have all the time.” Lesson learned.

On Learning
Knowledge is important to him—so important that when it came to his own education, the path he chose was anything but typical. “I never planned to be ‘matriculated,’ I planned to be educated,” he said; “there’s a difference.”

The difference, I learned, was characteristic of this advertising legend. Lester Wunderman wanted to be educated about specific topics that interested him—not what others thought he should learn. Therefore he attended classes he chose at institutions that offered them that he selected—New York University, City University of New York (CUNY) and Columbia University. Ultimately, academicians from CUNY recognized his educational pursuits and awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Letters.

This quest for learning was never more apparent than his decision to learn Spanish. During lunch, I got the back story. A voracious reader, Lester would frequently take the subway from his Bronx home to the end of the elevated line—all the while his head buried in a book. When he disembarked, book in hand, he continued reading as he walked to his favorite spot beneath a tree in the nearby park.

“One day I was walking and reading at the same time and bumped into a guy who was also walking and reading at the same time,” he explained. “Our books fell to the ground. When we picked them up we discovered we were both reading Don Quixote. His book was in Spanish and mine was in English.” Serendipity or karma, I wondered.

Admittedly, Lester said he found the story “boring” at first. But the two men got to talking. His fellow reader was a Spanish instructor and suggested he read Don Quixote in its native language to grasp the richness of the story. It was then Lester decided to take his Spanish to the next level. Once he did, there was a new found appreciation for the story, its language, its humor and its wit. Another lesson learned.

Looking ahead
“Relevance” remains his mantra; and, as technology inculcates itself into the advertising industry, “personal relevance” nears his Nirvana.

Of the Internet, Lester was among the privileged to preview it in the 1960s. In later years, he observed “I can’t claim to having had a vision of its eventual popularity, but I had an absolute fascination with its potential. I knew what it could do, was using it, and viewing it as a technological miracle that could bring to life the kind of dreams I had about dialogues between consumers and advertisers.”*  That comment is perhaps the most telling of advertising’s continued evolution.

So I wondered. What’s next for the industry? Relevance remains key and data will be used to make what’s relevant more and more personal, he said. Then he added this: “My ultimate belief is that manufacturing will change. Factories, which started in England as a means of mass production, will go away. We are in the age of what I call ‘personal advertising’ now. And, I believe we will have factories in our homes and use data to help make the products we want to make.”

It is this type of thinking that makes legends. It is why Lester Wunderman was the first direct marketer to be named to the Advertising Hall of Fame. It’s why he sits at the second seat from the right at the sushi bar. It’s also why the inside of all his overcoats fashion a ruby red silk lining. But that’s a lesson for another time.

* Conversations with Marketing Masters, Laura Mazur and Louella Miles, 2007, John Wiley & Sons.

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Author’s note:  For the past 12 years, I headed Global Communications at Wunderman, the billion-dollar digital agency founded in 1958 by Lester Wunderman, the legendary ad man who turned traditional advertising on its heels with a “direct” approach. I had the pleasure of working directly with Mr. Wunderman, who served as an ambassador to the industry, on many initiatives, including speaking engagements at Direct Marketing Association events, the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, the re-launch of his autobiography, Being Direct and the establishment of archives at The John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History at Duke University which maintains an archive of the personal papers of Lester Wunderman.

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