ON THE JOB PERFORMANCE STRATEGIES

Once you get a job, the focus becomes succeeding and excelling so that you can add to your responsibilities, seek meaningful challenges, get promoted, assume leadership status and ultimately, make more money. 

Many of my students have called or written over the years asking for advice in tough on-the-job situations. This post encapsulates some of the situations I think are common to all of us at one point or another. The temptation in often to go to your supervisor and present the issue with a finessing of communication skills. But I'm a big fan of accepting what's in front of you and taking decisive action rather than making it someone else's problem to deal with. Always easier said than done for newbies.

"I'm not challenged enough." This happens when bright people get lost in the fray. It may be that the company has gone through lots of recent upheavals in management or possibly that business has slowed down to autopilot. There are lots of contributing factors that likely have nothing to do with you. But this is a very real concern--one that if left unchecked, can lead to self-doubt and even termination. An immediate and easy way to address this problem is to challenge yourself and over-deliver.  If given a simple task, do it better than anyone else. Exceed expectations. Instead of delivering a report, produce a beautifully designed piece. Connect bigger dots. Offer up multiple possible analyses. Get feedback on your work from others so you can make it better. Offer to help a co-worker with their project. Give yourself a project. Do that a couple of times and you will be given more challenging work. 

"I'm at a start-up and I'm in over my head." aka, "I'm over-challenged." This scenario requires you to "manage up"--a skill not taught in school. One immediate tactic is to get organized. Order a giant whiteboard so you can keep track of all of your action items that are likely changing at lightening speed. (It also serves as a great visual display of everything you are doing). Start thinking about setting up systems and processes and tracking measures. It sounds complicated, but you've done this before when you were managing multiple projects for all of your classes at University. Talk to buddies that work at similar types of organizations. Make a list of the challenges or problems. Ask your buddies how it's done at other places. Copy. Repeat. You don't have all of the answers, so there is no sense in pretending that you do. And you have a finite amount of time. Use whatever resources you have. If this were your business, you would figure it out and make it work. The test of a person's value in an organization is not the havoc wreaked when you aren't there, it's actually the smoothness of the operation when you're not there. Companies with effective CEO's do not fall apart when she goes on vacation or travels for business.

"My coworker/boss took credit for my idea!" This happens all day long. Sometimes it's intentional. Often times it's not. When working on large, long, projects, it's not easy to keep track of who said what first. Don't obsess over it. You know you're smart. You've got a million more where that came from. Take one for the team and be happy that you're clearly on track. Keep building on it. In the event that it becomes a consistent and more obvious problem, you'll need to take a different approach. This could take the form of a calm discussion with a co-worker, or a gentle plea to be part of the presentation team because you know the idea back to front (having come up with it). There's a fine line between being a team player and advocating for yourself. But the best approach, I have found, is to always be generous. Use words like "we" and "our" instead of "I" and "my." They become contagious. Offer credit to those who didn't necessarily come up with the idea but were part of the team. Lead by example. Be ready to speak up first. Practice. Your supervisor has been there too and will notice and admire your maturity beyond your years and your magnanimous character.

"I like my job but I'm lonely in this big city." This one always breaks my heart. Big cities like NY or LA can be really tough and isolating for young people. It's one thing to live in a small town and be bored. It's another thing to be in a huge metropolis full of noise and feel like you're the only one who has no friends and no life. It can also lead you to hanging out only with work friends which can be fun but dangerous. You don't want your workplace to turn into a gigantic soap opera. And you don't necessarily want people you work with knowing every detail of your life. If that happens, then you risk being seen as an underling forever. You've got to build a village of support. One easy way to handle loneliness is to plug into your alum network. Ask other friends if they have friends in your town. Call them up and tell them you're desperate to meet people and be social--they will understand. They were there once. Attending a few social gatherings will get the ball rolling. Make sure you connect with people that bring out the best in you, not those that will distract you with too much partying or late weeknights. If you're in a big city, chances are you are surrounded by an impressive talent pool and there are people nipping at your heels for your job. You are trying to prove yourself, advance and set the world on fire. Distractions will only zap your energy and threaten your focus. Look for a work-out buddy. Or a museum buddy. Or a friend who loves to try new restaurants or go to shows, movies, readings or other intellectual events. They are out there. In the end, the bar scene just gets repetitive.

 

In the end, you can always go to your immediate supervisor with a pressing issue. (Maybe not for personal matters). But if you can solve it on your own, it's just another opportunity for you to shine. Your boss will be grateful and impressed. 

 

BAD INTERVIEWS

Bad interviews can go both ways. In my opinion, the biggest contributing factor to a bad interview is underestimating its importance and formality.

For students, this simply means remembering your audience and your purpose. You are not talking to your frat brothers or family friends. In an effort to relate to or bond with your interviewer, you don't need to find common personal ground or use street slang. Instead, you want to be professional and prepared to talk about how you plan to contribute to the overall organization. You want to show that you are reliable and you will be a good fit for the company. That you are someone they could and should invest in. That you are committed to the company's purpose. That's not to say that you can't relax, be fun or easy-going. You want to show your personality too. But even if your interviewer does or says something unconventional, remember that your job is ultimately to impress whether you take or even want the job.

It's also important to remember that you are observing them as well through this process. The hiring manager is the face of the company. Ask yourself what kind of impression this person gives. 

Recently, one of my students was super excited about a job interview but returned from the experience confused and disappointed. First, it was conducted in a bar during lunch time (the student was not 21). The company rep ordered a drink. She also had a gaggle of friends at the bar waiting for her to finish the interview so she could come join them. Her manner was flippant and a little too relaxed. The interview felt rushed and meaningless as the student couldn't join the party and felt like the rep was hurrying through it so she could get back to her friends. 

Surprisingly, the student was offered the job. She declined because she got a weird vibe from the interview and felt that the offer had nothing to do with her specific talents--she was just a warm body. Then a VP called her into the office for an interview. The VP took the opposite tactic. She promised that the student would have a huge role in the operation and was ready to give the student whatever opportunity she wanted.

My student didn't know what to make of the experience. It seemed like a good job, but then it seemed like a job that was too big for her. Why were they ready to to promise her the world all of a sudden? I told her to trust her gut and keep interviewing at other places. The first interview seemed haphazard and disorganized and the last one seemed desperate. Neither were particularly professional or appealing. 

In this particular case, the interview was a clear window into how the organization runs its business. But often times an interview will feel formulaic and removed. In that instance, it's important for both sides to push past the first impression. Before deciding on an offer, you can ask to meet with other employees at various levels. Ask tough questions. Ask about higher level operations and company vision. Come early for your interview, sit in the lobby and just observe. What is the company culture like? Is it obvious who's in charge? Is there an undercurrent of fear or respect? Are people busy or bored? Do people seem happy or engaged? 

Use all of these inputs to make an assessment about whether or not the organization is right for you. Chances are, you will be there for at least a year which can feel like an eternity if it's not a good fit. Conversely, if it is a good fit, you can sink your teeth in and grow with a company that values your input. Going to work everyday can be an exciting challenge, not just a grind.

WHEN INSIGHT IS NOWHERE IN SIGHT (PT. II)

What do you do when tons of research reveals nothing particularly useful for a brand's communications strategy? What if it falls into a low involvement/low interest consumer category, like Oral-B floss, Crest toothpaste or Scope mouthwash and there is nothing really new to say? Or perhaps your brand is the category leader by a large margin or maybe even the only one in the category like Summer's Eve feminine wipes....? What's the point of changing up the message if it's working just fine for now? Or if there is no new news to share?

The fact is, there is always room for improvement. You just need to look all around the brand's sphere in other areas of strategic development. In fact, a skilled strategist would do this anyway. Consider this checklist:

Would a change in tone freshen up the conversation? Sometimes just changing up the message delivery helps. We all know people who have a penchant for using humor effectively in serious situations, or conversely, dead pan sincerity in the face of comedy. Low-brow paired with high-brow freshens it up along with pretending something is super important when it's not and vice versa. The comedic toolkit of satire, farce, irony and others are all available for brands to experiment with. Just look at Dollar Shave Club, the Obama Translator, Kotex, Old Spice and Cheerios "How To Dad."

Is there a new experience to be created? Coca-cola did this with their vending machines. Once seen as a stoic block of beverages that only came alive for money, Coca-cola began infusing their vending machines with the brand's personality during the "Share a Coke" campaign. Suddenly, vending machines could see and feel us and connect us to other cultures as with the India-Pakistan experience. In Singapore, if you you bear-hugged the machine, it would give you a free Coke. Smoking cessation efforts created a whole new level of impact with the Truth campaign. Pokemon Go! took the brand to a whole new level of obsession.

Is there a more visible way to take a leadership stance? We've all heard the phrase, "Do the job you want." If you want to be a leader, you have to act like one. Sometimes leadership is about being innovative as Apple was when they introduced touch screen technology on cell phones for the first time. Or maybe it's about advocating for your constituents like Dove did for women with the "Real Beauty" campaign. Or maybe it's about aligning the business with eco-friendly goals as a means of demonstrating belief in the greater good of the planet like Patagonia. There are lots of ways to do it, and it doesn't always mean that you have to be first. The important thing is to avoid mimicking your competitors. Be loud, be proud.

Is there a partnership or co-branding opportunity that might lend excitement or momentum to the brand? When Cole Haan partnered with Nike, both shoe brands benefitted from the unusual pairing. Cole Haan noticed that women were wearing sneakers for their city commute and then would change into their heels when they got to the office. By blending Cole Haan's sleek, urban, professional styling with the comfort and endurance of a sneaker, Nike became seen as performance technology that could and should, go beyond the workout, and Cole Haan became known for introducing the concept of the comfortable shoe with style that could take you through an entire day on the job. Rolex did this by being the official timekeeper of the Olympics. Martha Stewart became accessible with her paint offerings through Home Depot and her bed linens and cookware in Macy's.

Is there a way to use product placement to enhance your brand's image? Ray-Ban successfully did this as early as the 70s in the movie "Jaws" and then later in "Risky Business" and "Top Gun." Reese's Pieces became an overnight sensation after ET. Pepsi and Nike received huge fanfair from "Back to the Future." Coca-Cola owned "American Idol" and the image of the young, rising creative star. Bassett Furniture on HGTV shows, Apple computers on "Big Bang Theory," Mini Coopers in "The Italian Job" and Manolo Blahniks in Sex and the City are all examples of strategic product placement. 

Is there a new consumer that could be adopted? One of the biggest and fastest shifts in target audiences was when cell phone companies realized that working moms were using the phones to manage their families remotely just as much as business people were using them to manage work. Old Spice also cleverly recognized that women influence male purchases even as mundane as deodorant which is why they came up with the concept of "The man your man could smell like."

Is it time to clearly define the brand's purpose? Lots of brands are born with one, like Tesla or Toms shoes. More mature brands may not have been born with it, but it doesn't have to stop them from defining their "Why?" for consumers. Consumers love to sink their teeth in brands that stand for something other than hocking product. General Mills is letting consumers know that they believe in the importance of diversity by putting diverse talent in their ads and insisting that the ad agency that produces them is also culturally diverse. 

Is there an opportunity to advocate for environmental sustainability, an issue that consumers either insist upon or at the very least, appreciate? Think Toyota's Prius, Clorox GreenWorks, Ikea's lightbulbs. 

What about packaging? Packaging is an instant, visceral and visual point-of-purchase sales tool. If you know nothing about a a brand or category, packaging factors in heavily to the purchase decision. Particularly with global brands that may be entirely unknown to the consumer or in an unfamiliar language. It also plays a huge role when the category players are perceived as similar in price and features such as cars, bottled water or lip balm in the case of Eos. 

How about loyalty rewards? Cable companies like Comcast and Verizon are great about rewarding disloyalty by encouraging you to switch providers often to get the best rate. But which companies reward loyalty and encourage you to stay with them? Brands like Delta Airlines, Starwood Hotels and even grocery stores offer a point system to keep you connected to the family and demonstrate over and over that you are a valued customer. They make it impossible to leave because of vested interest.

Is there a new place where the product could be distributed? Summer's Eve is a great example of a brand that would benefit from an overhaul in its message and distribution. Imagine if the brand took advantage of fitness culture and became known as part of the hygiene routine for women who work out. Women who spend a large part of their day in yoga pants and don't have time to take a shower immediately after working out. Imagine if Summer's Eve wipes were available in gym locker rooms. It suddenly becomes a new product category, with a fresh, modern, positive message, a new strategic partnership (gyms) with a new distribution strategy. All of this would lead to a shift in the perception of consumers and sales would take off.  

These are just a few of the ways in which strategists must expand their thinking. Remember the key to successful strategy is to do things differently. And there is no formula for being different. 

WHEN INSIGHT IS NOWHERE IN SIGHT

What happens when we are working on a project and we get stuck? Or how Susan Pope phrases it in her blog: "How do you train ideas to come when they're called?"

 

Is it as simple as calling a dog? Not quite. But you can train your brain. All it involves is a little bit of process and discipline.

Here's how you prep your idea factory:

Put the phone away. Know your distractions and get rid of them. No excuses.

Fresh air is nature's prozac. You are not going to get really good ideas by just sitting and thinking really hard. You will do the opposite and work yourself up into a state of anxiety. Go watch people, change up the scenery, take a walk. 

Feed your soul. Know what inspires you. For me, they are certain people (usually writers because they are good at articulating new thoughts or old thoughts in new ways). Podcasts--especially when I'm driving because I'm a captive audience and all I can do is listen. Certain websites and magazines. But be careful, you can also get easily distracted. Reading The New York Times Sunday paper is a ritual I have been doing most of my life. It is full of great ideas presented elegantly. Without fail, I get new ideas every time I read.

Do not stare at a blank white piece of paper or computer screen. Your brain will register blankness, you'll intimidate yourself and your idea factory will shut down. Relax, think, start taking notes--pen on paper is preferable. Why? it's faster and more visceral. You don't have to use the part of your brain that has to remember where the keys are. You already know how to make the letters. If you are out and about (often the case) and don't have pen and paper,  use your notes app on your phone if you must. 

Let it percolate. Typically, we have a good idea but it's small and we're not sure. Don't give up. Meditate. Go to the gym. Take a shower. Seriously, my best ideas come when I'm either in the shower, driving my car or about to fall asleep. That's because my brain is relaxed. Do not confuse this stage with the home stretch is which all about finishing the idea. (see earlier post)

WHAT IS STRATEGY?

For whatever reason, communications STRATEGY tends to be something that needs multiple explanations and examples. I have heard it described as an unnecessary complication and/or an unaffordable luxury. I have also been told that it confuses or pollutes creativity. On the flip side, I've been told that having one packs an intense punch and brings clarity to the creative process.

So which is it? The answer is both. You can certainly win a game of chess mindlessly playing by the rules. (Assuming your opponent is less skilled than you). You can accomplish all of your errands in a day without mapping them out. (Assuming you have all the time in the world). You can get the girl to go out with you (once) or get through an entry level job interview. But if you want to ensure better, more consistent results--if it's something important to you--most people employ some form of STRATEGY. 

For example: You are looking for a place to live. After an initial exploration that may include some driving around, web searching, polling of friends and some pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, you realize that your deadline is fast approaching and it's time to get serious. So you decide on a budget. Then a neighborhood. Or a particular style. Questions arise such as: Is it more important to be close to work or in a good school district? Do I want something with tons of space and light or a neighborhood chock-a-block with kids? A fixer-upper or move-in ready? What compromises am I willing to make for increased resale value? 

This is where it can start to get complicated. How do you define your priorities? When you end up with 3 very different, but viable possibilities, how do you decide which is the right one? What does the resulting conversation sound like with your spouse, kids or roommates? 

Some say they would just "go with their gut." But that's just another more visceral, less disciplined expression of strategy. When it's too important to go with your gut; when you really need to get it right; when you want to win...you strategize. 

 

 

"SENSEMAKING"

...or the Role of the Strategic Planner in Advertising

When “BeerCo” found its pub sales falling, market research and competitive analysis provided no help. So it sent out a team of social anthropologists to investigate. The resulting data, including field notes, photographs, and videos, yielded insights that prompted the company to revamp its promotional materials and training methods. Sales rebounded within two years and are still growing.

BeerCo’s story shows how the emerging approach of “sensemaking” can illuminate customers’ true needs and facilitate successful transformations of product development, organizational culture, and corporate strategy. Rooted in the human sciences—anthropology, sociology, political science, and philosophy—sensemaking is a five-step process. Companies must:

Reframe the problem, focusing on the customer’s experience of the product and the market

Collect raw, firsthand data

Find patterns in the data

Generate new insights

Translate those insights into initiatives

Sensemaking can help solve some of the toughest business problems and enables leaders to think creatively about what business they’re really in.
— Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen, Harvard Business Review, March 2014

WISECRACK ON YOUTUBE

I just came upon the coolest thing I've seen in a while that gave me a flash of insight into the future of education.

Wisecrack's Youtube channel is a collaboration of comedians, writers, filmmakers and illustrators that create videos blending humor, pop culture and education.

Take, for example, my favorite series: Pop Psyche!: What's Wrong with Your Favorite Fictional Characters? I watched the one about Santa and not only did I laugh out loud, but I learned something technical about psychology that I can actually REMEMBER. The production value was fantastic, employing sound effects, quality acting, an engaging script, effective visual storytelling and demonstration techniques. It's as if TedEd got a sense of humor and a shot of adrenaline (even if it was a bit fast--encouraging viewers to watch multiple times is certainly not a bad thing).

What I especially like about this is what many strategists know: Humor is an incredibly effective tool for memory recall. Humor, as the emotional expression of Chip and Dan Heath's Made To Stick "SUCCESs" idea evaluation tool (Simple, Unexpected, Credible, Concrete, Emotional & Story) is particularly effective for this target audience--college students. Not only does it help with recall, but it encourages the viewer to share with their friends...kind of like what I just did.

So, now the question is....how can I use this technique in my own teaching? Is there a humorous way to teach concepts in advertising strategy? What if brands saw a therapist? Which brands would need help? Which ones would be considered healthy and well-adjusted? Would Apple have OCD? Would American Apparel be diagnosed with acute Narcissism? 

If we already view brands as somewhat anthropomorphic--and many of us do ascribe human personalities to brands--then why wouldn't they need a therapist from time to time?