Posts tagged ‘Philosophizing’

March 10th, 2013

Of Tails and Dogs

Periodically, I hear myself saying to clients sentences such as “I think we need to remember that the tail shouldn’t wag the dog. The decision you need to make should be driven primarily by mission, and not just by the communications implications.”

That I need to say this at all is understandable. Most of my clients are public organizations, institutions that rely on networks of donors and audiences for support and that thrive based on wide participation. Decisions that risk alienating those audiences and supporters are tough to confront, no matter how necessary they may be.

While communications concerns and implications are often (rightly) invoked at the front end of many decision-making processes, in many instances the discussions about external messaging and impact risk taking over the entire process. Good consultants can recognize this early enough and try to help the client shift gears.

Much more troubling are the opposite scenarios, where there seems to have been little or no attention paid to communications processes or decisions at all. If you’re reading this and thinking: oh, that’s because a terrible decision gets made and then communications folks have to figure out how to “sell” it publicly, you would be … wrong.

Yes, leaving the communications team out can definitely be a problem. Trying to figure out how to create a communications strategy or coherent messages for what may be very complex and multi-layered decisions is not always easy. However: that’s the job–and good communications professionals can handle this.

And in an age of digital communications, it should be obvious that leaders cannot afford (literally and figuratively) not to give their communications team a role and opportunity for input. (Does this argument even need to be backstopped with references? Pick up the newspaper or look at any business blog and it is easy to find examples of communications failures that stem from bigger leadership failures.)

But a little scraping away at the surface of these situations often reveals poor internal communications up to and through whatever the present (external) crisis might be: the questions for staff, trustees, or external constituencies may be poorly articulated, while the rationale for confronting a problem may be muddled and the ramifications of any decision left unclear. Not to mention that poor leadership often empowers as decision-makers those who are normally just one set of stakeholders among many.

In other words: the real problem is that a lack of attention to communications issues tends to reflect a lack of leadership entirely. And that is pretty much the definition of a crisis.

August 30th, 2012

This Speaks For Itself


August 28th, 2012

The Customer Is Always Right

Last week, I was looking around for the old “definition” of stress, to share with a colleague who hadn’t heard it. In the process, I found this other humorous saying, about which I had long forgotten: “Poor Planning on Your Part Does Not Automatically Constitute An Emergency On Our Part”. I chuckled, much as I probably had when I first saw it in someone’s office years ago.

Then I woke up a little and remembered what I do for a living.

As a consultant, this little truism is utterly untrue. Often, much of the reason we exist is to help clients through emergencies. On at least a few occasions, those emergencies are the result of poor planning on the part of the client.

This does sometimes create dilemmas. The truth embedded in this saying is part of human nature: dealing with problems you never anticipated and for which you may feel like you don’t have the time is not always going to generate sympathy. Most of us have been in this position, personally if not professionally, and our reaction has surely been: “Ugh!” Depending on who is asking for help, it may be an emotional dilemma or just a practical one.

For a consultant, there are often opportunities in a crisis. There may be a momentary pause while trying to assess the nature and degree of the emergency and how rapidly everything else must be dropped. The opportunity, however, is more than just a matter of new fees. Helping a client in an emergency can generate goodwill from the people being helped, and that can sustain a consulting relationship over time. Sometimes–and much to people’s surprise–a crisis can also be a moment that draws out the best or most creative thinking, revealing new ideas or insights with long-term value.

It all leads to another saying: “The customer is always right.” And it is a good reminder that these little truisms are often as much about how we think and act as they are about how we feel. Don’t deny frustrations–but don’t necessarily express them to the client, either. Instead, find ways to channel them, and to separate the irritation of the immediate moment from the opportunity and the need.

Hey, someone needs your help. Whatever the reason, if you’re a consultant that has to be a good sign.

January 12th, 2012

Prophets, Guardians, Barbarians

A few days ago, in a piece about politics in Israel, Daniel Gordis mentioned a reframing of “left” and right” that he’d heard at a conference: rather than those traditional designations, the speaker preferred to think of people as either “prophets” or “guardians.” Since reading that, I keep thinking about the applicability of these same terms to the working world, too. The distinction seems clear enough: prophets reflect a vision for the future, a response to changing dynamics that draw on core values but adapt them to new and more challenging circumstances, where guardians are people who recognize that the value in the status quo and fight to protect it against whimsical change or uncertain times.

As a consultant, this situation comes up more than occasionally, and assessing the relative weight of the prophets versus the guardians can be a rough guide to the future. When organizations are confronted with challenges or the need for change, the reactions that are provoked are often very similar. Some people respond like (or turn into) prophets; others become guardians. I think this genuinely reflects people’s responses to (potential) disruptions in either their internal or external working environments, no less in the world of arts and culture than in any other area–and sometimes more so, because the motivations for change in a non-profit are very different from those in a for-profit.

Understanding that people may respond this way can help leaders navigate through the necessary interpersonal and practical decision-making processes. Guardians can be helped to understand that not all change is bad–and that most organizations change over time, even if they don’t recognize it as such. Prophets can be encouraged to frame their views in ways that connect past and future; they can be helped to turn their vision of an inevitable future into a process that feels controlled and controllable.

At the same time, the world is rarely so black-and-white; few of us are ever 100% of anything, let alone 100% “prophet” or 100% “guardian.” We may embrace change or fear it, and sometimes we do both in equal measure. That is the most difficult place to be, because it can so easily lead to stagnation. But for most businesses and organizations it may also be the best hope–if both those leading and those being led can understand that they are in this dynamic together. This is the point when the good ideas and opportunities can be separated from the bad, using the critical judgments of those leaning in one direction or the other. It does not necessarily mean absolute consensus, but it can mean general agreement that helps an organization’s leaders to lead.

The worst situation? Whether an organization is mostly guardians or mostly prophets, the real threats come from the barbarians: those who function that way internally, or those who are outside the organization and viewed as such. The internal barbarians are the ones who may run roughshod over both the good and the bad ideas, forcing “change” but not evolution. They form alliances that fight for the status quo, but only for the status quo that applies to them. If you perceive barbarians externally, well, your problem is likely also internal. Those people are your audiences–your customers–so if you view them as barbarians, then you need to ask yourself whether you are doing enough to help these folks understand your mission and your goals.

Are there legitimate barbarians outside your gate? Probably a few. But they may be clamoring for a past they vaguely recall, or for a future they cannot articulate. Your goal is to embrace and convert them. An organization that cannot adapt to embrace its customers–and instead views them as a threat–is doomed to fail. No embrace of the future or protection of the sacred past will change that.