Thanksgiving, gratitude and the value of encouragement

Thank YouThe other day an email popped into my inbox from HostGator, my web-hosting company. I get marketing emails from them from time to time, so I didn’t pay much attention at first. But the headline caught my eye: “Want instant business karma? Try philanthropy.” As it turns out, the entire email was devoted to gratitude. Of course, this is the season, and tomorrow is Thanksgiving after all. Most of the marketing we see this time of year, though, is screaming Black Friday deals and free shipping. It’s a mixture of sales hype and holiday cheer designed to make us feel good about emptying our wallets and pocketbooks.

But the HostGator email made me pause. So did REI’s well-publicized decision to close its stores on Friday and give all of its employees the day off. Maybe, just maybe, this gratitude thing is catching on. In the HostGator email there was a survey asking, “What’s the best way to show customers gratitude during the holidays?” Respondents were given three choices: Donate to a charity chosen by your clients, host a community holiday party, or send personalized cards or notes of thanks. Which one do you think got the most votes (including mine)? Sending personalized notes of thanks was by far the most popular choice (66 percent). The other two garnered about 18 percent each.

I have written before about the power of handwritten notes, showing gratitude and giving. Below, I’ve excerpted a few nuggets of wisdom from a past blog for your reading pleasure this Thanksgiving.

But before I cut and paste, let me leave you with a few points about giving thanks that I was reminded of recently:

  1. Giving thanks does not require a special occasion or holiday. Learn to give thanks every day—for the many blessings you receive and the small acts of kindness you might otherwise take for granted.
  2. Giving thanks does not happen by itself. Gratitude needs to be cultivated and practiced. Be intentional about giving thanks, especially in those moments when you don’t feel particularly grateful.
  3. Giving thanks is not a silent activity. Unless you tell people thanks, acknowledge their work or express your appreciation, how will they know?

Happy Thanksgiving!

From “Giving and the high performance leader” (Dec. 6, 2012)

In his book “Design a Life that Works,” Michael Alan Tate suggests that giving is a key characteristic of high-performing leaders. He tells of a business leader he was coaching who had incredible technical knowledge, plenty of experience and lots of drive, but he lacked the spirit of generosity. As a result, this leader wasn’t able to motivate his team and achieve the results he wanted.

Tate argues that successful leaders subscribe to four “give factors”:

Give thanks…for what you are most grateful for at this time.

Give credit…to those most responsible for your success, helping you and being there for you.

Give back…with greater frequency in a selfless way.

Give up…or let go of something intentionally to reach a new level of success.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

When I think back on the CEOs I’ve worked for in my career, it’s the giving ones that stand out. The ones that encouraged staff through their words and deeds, demonstrated compassion and trust, and honored each employee’s dreams and aspirations.

What does generosity look like in a leader? Here are nine giving “to-do’s” from an article by Bruna Martinuzzi on the Mind Tools website. See how many of these you do.

  1. Give people a sense of importance.
  2. Give feedback, not criticism.
  3. Give people visibility.
  4. Give anonymously.
  5. Know when to forgive.
  6. Give encouragement.
  7. Give opportunity.
  8. Share your knowledge and experience.
  9. Give moral support.
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Right brain, left brain—let’s just call the whole thing off


By the time I finished high school, I was pretty certain that I would not be majoring in engineering when I went to college. I say that because my dad is an engineer, and that’s what my brothers and my son all majored in. Mechanical, electrical, chemical and civil—my family seems to have it covered. I am the lone basket-weaver, as my brother Craig used to say.

While my brothers excelled in math and the hard sciences, I struggled with algebra 2/trig and physics (although I liked chemistry). So I decided to pursue a liberal arts education. When I was at UVA, I gave math one last try when I signed up for accounting and economics. I thought I might transfer into the Commerce School and become business major. I had visions of being courted by the big accounting firms.

Alas, it was not meant to be. I majored in English, and so no recruiter ever called, much less took me to dinner or flew me, expense-paid, to some glittering corporate headquarters. Like most of my friends, I dutifully sent out resumes and worried that four years of college had been wasted in pursuit of something totally impractical (like basket weaving). What separated me from some of my fellow English majors is that I had written for the Cavalier Daily, UVA’s student newspaper. I left school with a folder full of clips that I could show prospective employers.

engineering humorAnd so began my career as a writer, editor and public relations professional. I do not regret it. I have learned over the years that right-brain thinking has its advantages. After all, right-brain thinkers are the ones who rule world, right? Only two U.S. presidents have been engineers—Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. Need I say more? Hoover presided over the Great Depression and Carter over high interest rates and the Iranian hostage crisis. Interestingly, both had more successful careers as elder statesmen after they left the White House.

Dividing our thinking into right- and left-brain categories has some advantages. It helps us to understand different ways of viewing the world, processing information, solving problems and communicating.

You might remember the book, “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain,” by Betty Edwards. It was a landmark book when it was published in 1979. I remember using it in a drawing class I took in the 1980s at Northern Virginia Community College.

Edwards’ thesis was that our brains have two ways of perceiving and processing reality—verbal and analytical versus visual and perceptual. Edwards created a methodology and exercises for suppressing the left side of the brain and heightening the right side.

So in class, we were taught to disregard preconceived notions of what drawn objects should look like. I remember copying images upside down, drawing with our eyes closed, doing quick sketches without regard to whether the subject looked true to life and all manner of exercises designed to break us of the habit of drawing analytically. And you know, it actually worked!

Edwards was influenced by neuroscience research that seemed to indicate that the two hemispheres of the brain have different functions. She described “L-mode” thinking as verbal, analytical and sequential and “R-mode” as visual, perceptual and global.

Drawing on the right side of the brain

Edwards’ book changed the way drawing is taught and got a lot of people thinking about right brain vs. left brain.

In the intervening years, this right-brain/left-brain approach to thinking spawned a new movement in management that emphasizes soft skills, emotional intelligence and creativity.

In his 2006 book, “A Whole New Mind,” Daniel Pink argues that right-brainers are now on the ascendancy. We once needed an army of programmers, engineers and lawyers, he says, but today we need more artists, inventors and designers. Pink says that moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age will require new skills, among them: design, storytelling, invention, empathy, big-picture thinking, play and the pursuit of meaning.

The aptitudes that Pink identifies as being important in this new Conceptual Age are the very ones we’re now seeing Millennials value in their work and favor in the marketplace. But in our haste to embrace these new, softer skills, we shouldn’t lose sight of the left-brain virtues of logic and reasoning, nor the fact that a full complement of skills is needed manage an organization.

More recent research on how the brain functions no longer supports the notion that one hemisphere of the brain is more logical or creative. In fact, both sides of the brain contribute to both types of processes. The two sides of the brain collaborate to perform a variety of tasks, communicating through the corpus callosum that joins the two hemispheres together.

In a piece for Discover magazine, science writer Carl Zimmer summarized this more nuanced, integrated approach to brain activity, explaining, “The pop psychology notion of a left brain and a right brain doesn’t capture their intimate working relationship. The left hemisphere specializes in picking out the sounds that form words and working out the syntax of the phrase, for example, but it does not have a monopoly on language processing. The right hemisphere is more sensitive to the emotional features of language, tuning-in to the slow rhythms of speech that carry intonation and stress.”

Rather than conjecturing that one way of thinking is more dominant, depending on whether we’re right-brained or left-brained, it’s more helpful to think of both sides of our brain working together in a collaborative fashion. It’s like an orchestra playing a symphony that requires both a high degree of lyrical sensibility and perfect execution. All of the parts of the symphony and all of the instruments in the orchestra combine to create a memorable performance.

While I often think of myself as a “creative,” I’ve always had a very practical and logical side. I’m pretty good with budgeting and finances. I have a scientific mind in that I’m naturally curious and skeptical. I like hard proof before I make a decision. I like technology. I like to tinker, and I love the challenge of finding out how something works, whether it’s a machine or a computer program.

So maybe it’s time to stop categorizing people as right-brained or left-brained. Perhaps we should be more concerned with developing the talent that we have and recognizing the unique strengths and contributions that each of us brings to the table. At the same time, we must understand that the best organizations are those that cross-train and encourage their team members to innovate, take risks and grow into new roles. Let us strive to bridge right-brain and left-brain thinking, honing both hard and soft skills to effectively plan, analyze, motivate, inspire and lead.

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‘Break every chain, break every chain, break every chain’

Razor wire

I never get used to the razor wire and clanging of metal doors when I visit Greensville, yet that is where I find peace with my Kairos brothers.

You could hear a pin drop at our table at Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Va. It was chapel time. Six residents and three volunteers sitting in a circle in a prison gym, leaning in to hear one of our Kairos brothers unburden his heart.

“For a long time, I had a lot of anger…a lot of hate,” the man began. The words came out slowly, punctuating the silence, pulling us closer as he related his story.

“You see that prayer chain,” he said as he pointed to a paper chain taped to the wall. The chain had hundreds of links, each one inscribed with the name of a person praying for the 42 residents who were part of Kairos 57.

“There are different colors on that chain, and I could’ve been one of the white ones,” he said softly. The white strips on the prayer chain held the names of death-row inmates.

His story tumbled out and his eyes moistened. It was a story like many I’ve heard in my four years as a member of the Northern Virginia Kairos prison ministry team. We tell the residents that what’s said at Kairos stays at Kairos, so we don’t share the details of what we hear.

Except to say that it comes down to this: 10, 15, 20 or more years behind bars. Years of anger, doubt, fear, shame and every dark emotion you can imagine—all bottled up inside. And then, for many, freedom. You would think the prospect of release brings joy. Yet, they are afraid. Afraid of what they have become in prison, and afraid of what they will face when they go home. They don’t know if they can trust. They never could before. And yet they want to. They want to believe that there is a better way, a way to make peace with themselves, their families and each other.

All weekend long, we shower them with our love and our prayers, our conviction that there is a higher power, a forgiving God who cares about them. We can’t change the nature of their crime or their sentence, but maybe, just maybe, we can change the condition of their spirit. Perhaps the seeds of trust and healing we’ve planted will grow, even in prison.

I’m not a counselor or a chaplain. I had never even been in a prison, much less Virginia’s largest penitentiary, prior to signing up for Kairos. But it doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to figure out what these men are going through and what they need. We all have our doubts and misgivings, demons that tempt us, people we can’t seem to forgive, memories we can’t forget—the “what ifs” and “could haves” that haunt everyone’s life. We do not judge these men. By the same token, we do not coddle them. In fact, we teach them that we all make choices, and that we must accept the consequences of our choices. But we do share with them. We’re honest about our mistakes and our hopes and our dreams. We make ourselves vulnerable so that they might open up for a brief moment, long enough to let in some love that may just change their lives. We face the human condition straight on, and we come away understanding that we are all brothers. We all hurt. We all need comforting. We all need forgiveness—whether we live inside or outside the walls of Greensville.

It’s been a year since I wrote about my last Kairos experience. It’s not an easy thing to write about. One of my friends who became active in Kairos before me said after he returned from his first weekend that he wasn’t ready to talk about it. He would get back to me, but he never did.

When you enter a dark place and see the work of a loving God—the miracle of grace and forgiveness—what do you say? What do you say when you’re touched by Jesus, the holy spirit, or something you just can’t explain? When you see it at work, when you feel it, and you know it’s real? When you see the difference it makes? What do you say to someone on the outside to make them believe?

You say that Kairos is a powerful experience, that it changes lives and that it’s a special time. Those are all true, but they only tell part of the story. It’s hard to put into words what really transpires. Sometimes you just have to let it be.

This past weekend, the Kairos praise band performed one of my favorite gospel songs, “Break Every Chain.” As I stood and sang, I closed my eyes and said a prayer: Yes, break every chain. Break the chain of doubt and fear. Break the chain of ignorance and hatred. Break the chain of violence and abuse. Break the chain of darkness and death. Break all those chains, and replace them with a chain made of paper—a prayer chain stretched across a wall at Greensville Correctional Center—with the names of people who say, yes, God, I will pray for men I don’t even know so that they may live.

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Need to make an apology? Here’s how to do it right

I'm sorry“I’m sorry” and “excuse me” are words we hear on a daily basis. When used liberally and expressed sincerely, they go a long way towards preserving civility and smoothing over awkward moments. If I accidentally bumped into you on a crowded Metro train, of course I’d say, “Excuse me.” And you would nod, knowing that I didn’t mean anything by it. Just the jostling of the trains.

In these social situations, saying we’re sorry doesn’t take an awful lot of effort. It’s a habit as much as anything, part of being polite and having good manners. But if our actions descend to the level of boorish, unfeeling, callous or incompetent, then we’ve veered into new territory. We may need to issue an apology. This is especially the case if we represent a company or an organization whose reputation we are entrusted to protect.

Unless you’re Donald Trump and don’t have to apologize for anything, there will be times when you need to own up to your lack of judgment or your company’s poor performance. And while The Donald doesn’t do apologies, I’ll bet the managers of his hotels do if a customer isn’t treated right.

There are many guides for writing apologies, and you can find tons of examples on the Internet. Over at, there are sample apology notes for every conceivable shortcoming. No matter what you’ve done wrong, they have a letter for it!

However, I would strongly urge against using fill-in-the-blank templates. Like thank-you notes, apology letters are most effective when they are heartfelt and personal. It’s best to write your apologies in your own words. Business and professional apologies can be more formal, but they should still be personalized and certainly tailored to the specifics of the situation.

So what, exactly, should be in your apology letter? Listed below are the essential elements of good apology. Follow these five steps, and you’ll be well on your way to mending fences:

  1. Acknowledge the problem, but from the recipient’s point of view, not your own. Put yourself in the shoes of those you have let down or offended. Make it clear to them that you appreciate their concerns, that you understand why your behavior was disappointing, hurtful or uncaring. In short, name the offense and own up to it. Do not gloss over it or resort to being glib.
  2. Say that you are sorry in plain, simple language. Do not make your apology conditional. Do not embellish or make excuses. Demonstrate that you genuinely regret what has happened.
  3. Provide an explanation, particularly if there are extenuating circumstances, but only to help clear up the situation. Again, do not excuse your behavior or try to assign blame to anyone else, especially the person you are apologizing to. Describe what you will do to correct the problem so that it will not happen again.
  4. If appropriate, offer to make amends. This could include reimbursing someone for expenses, offering a replacement or similar product or service, providing a credit or giving a discount on a future purchase.
  5. Conclude by asking the person to accept your apology. If appropriate, thank the recipient for bringing the matter to your attention and providing honest feedback so that you can continue to improve.

Also, keep in mind these other key points in writing or giving an apology:

  • Stick to the subject of the apology. Do not cover other topics.
  • Do not delay in apologizing, especially if delaying may cause further injury to your relationship or to your reputation.
  • Avoid the non-apology apology. Politicians and other public figures often resort to saying they are sorry in self-serving and insincere ways. (“I’m sorry my office did not release the facts right away, but I personally have done nothing wrong.”) Such apologies are not really apologies at all.
  • Saying you are sorry doesn’t necessarily mean that you are liable. However, use your judgment when issuing an apology. Obviously, you should avoid saying things like “this never would have happened if we were doing our job” or “we were clearly negligent.” Consult with an attorney if you are concerned about liability issues. Some states have laws that prevent defendants from using an apology as evidence of liability (for example, in a malpractice lawsuit).

In this summer of candidate non-apologies, we haven’t seen the best examples of how a sincere apology can mend a broken relationship, restore feelings of worth and dignity, or repair a damaged reputation. Writing in Psychology Today 10 years ago (“Go Ahead, Say You’re Sorry”), Aaron Lazare made these points about apologizing that may be even more appropriate today:

Far and away the biggest stumbling block to apologizing is our belief that apologizing is a sign of weakness and an admission of guilt. We have the misguided notion we are better off ignoring or denying our offenses and hope that no one notices.

In fact, the apology is a show of strength. It is an act of honesty because we admit we did wrong; an act of generosity, because it restores the self-concept of those we offended. It offers hope for a renewed relationship and, who knows, possibly even a strengthened one. The apology is an act of commitment because it consigns us to working at the relationship and at our self-development. Finally, the apology is an act of courage because it subjects us to the emotional distress of shame and the risk of humiliation, rejection and retaliation at the hands of the person we offended.

All dimensions of the apology require strength of character, including the conviction that, while we expose vulnerable parts of ourselves, we are still good people.

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Everything I know about management I learned from gardening


Things are looking pretty good in my garden, where I’ve learned many lessons about management.

It’s September again. The days are getting shorter, the nights cooler. The grass is staging a comeback, the liriope is in full bloom and the crepe myrtle is taking its final bow. As I walk around the yard, taking stock of this year’s horticultural successes and failures, it occurs to me that everything you need to know about management—about life, really—can be found in the garden.

If you think about it, many of the skills of a master gardener are transferable to the C-suite. Just as good leaders understand their people, gardeners know their plants. They know when to nurture and prune to promote growth—and when to remove and discard and start anew. They measure progress by seasons and years, not by days or weeks. They enjoy the fruits of their labor and learn from their mistakes. They take risks, but they also carefully plan for the future. They know that nature, like the marketplace, can be harsh and fickle but also wonderfully generous.

I’ve always liked working in the yard. It began when I owned my first house and then became an obsession when I moved to an older house with a bigger yard. It was there that I got a little crazy, ripping out everything and starting over with all new landscaping. I learned a lot about plants, about preparing the soil, about fertilizer and pesticides. I watered. I made numerous trips to nurseries, read lots of books. And I watered. Always watering.

I experienced great satisfaction, and I had my share of setbacks. Two small yews I planted on the front and side of the house slowly grew into perfect specimens. They would have made beautiful Christmas trees. On the other hand, English ivy I foolishly planted on one side of the house became unmanageable almost immediately.


My camellia in bloom.

I learned that gardening favors those who persevere. It teaches patience, that things happen in due course, and you must wait for the good things. Take the camellia in my backyard. It almost died shortly after I planted it. I came home from work one day and found it toppled over, its root ball exposed. I put it back in the ground and watered it. Then I staked it on all four sides to keep it from falling over. I brooded over it all summer and into the following year. It survived and started to take off a few years later, and now my garden is the better for it.

When I was in management, I enjoyed mentoring employees and building teams. Like the farmer who surveys the progress of his fields, I have watched young saplings grow into tall trees. What if I had given up on the employee who didn’t quite fit in, the one who took longer to get the job done in the beginning, or the one who needed a little nudge or just some time to come into his own? Would those employees have matured into mighty oaks or withered from lack of support?

The best managers are those who understand they are stewards, entrusted with the care and feeding of their organization. That’s not to say that we should coddle employees or turn a blind eye to unsatisfactory performance. Like plants, some employees do not do well, no matter how much Miracle-Gro we give them. Sometimes we have to transplant them or remove them entirely.

So the next time you’re in the yard or admiring your neighbor’s prize roses, consider these seven management lessons from the garden:

  1. Take the long view. Remember, good things come to those who wait. It takes patience, perseverance and faith to grow something big from something small.
  2. Know your people. Understand how they perform in different climates and different seasons. Then place them in an environment where they will thrive.
  3. Give your team the resources to succeed. Make sure your organization has the water, nutrients and sunlight it needs to grow.
  4. Have a vision. Maybe there’s nothing but weeds or dirt in your backyard. Think about what it could be, then go to work on making it happen.
  5. Not everything that grows is desirable. Learn to identify and quickly remove weeds, pests and disease. There is no room in your organization for dishonesty, prejudice, selfishness, laziness or complacency.
  6. We all labor under the same sun. Everyone has the same growing season, the same 24 hours to get things done. So plan and execute accordingly.
  7. You cannot control everything. Sometimes death and destruction visit the garden despite all of your hard work. When they do, salvage what you can and move on.
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Keep your data secure with these simple steps

We're doing a poor job of protecting our personal data. Photo by Jack Moreh (

There were 2,122 confirmed data breaches last year, and lot of them could have ben prevented. Photo by Jack Moreh at

Over the last few years, I’ve done a lot of writing for clients on the topic of data security. I’ve pored over reports and talked to experts for articles and white papers on POS systems, smart cards, data breaches and mobile technology. While I am struck by how complex and enormous the problem of cybersecurity has become, I am also surprised by how indifferent we are when it comes to protecting our personal information and identities. We could keep our data a lot more secure with just a few simple preventative steps.

Each year, Verizon compiles information about cyber crime in its Data Breach Investigations Report. It has become must reading for anyone interested in data security. In the 2015 report, Verizon noted that 700 million records were compromised last year, resulting in an estimated financial loss of $400 million. Altogether, there were 79,790 security incidents and 2,122 confirmed data breaches. And that doesn’t count the most recent revelations from the Office of Personnel Management that over 22 million federal employee and contractor records were hacked, the largest cyber attack ever on the U.S. government.

The Washington Post recently editorialized that our government’s response to cyber attacks has been “lazy and complacent.” With major U.S. breaches tied to foreign governments such as Russia, North Korea and China, our response has been slow or non-existent. “Cyberconflict does not fit neatly into other types of war, espionage and crime. It is asymmetrical, favoring a smaller, stealthy attacker over the defender,” the Post said. Unfortunately, it is not always clear who to take action against and whether retaliation might result in more harm to our already-vulnerable U.S. networks.

Equally troubling is how unconcerned and careless people are when it comes to securing their personal identity, bank and credit card information, computers and mobile devices. Many people still don’t password-protect their smart phones, laptops or Wi-Fi routers, or they keep their passwords taped to their monitor. Duh.

When I was researching payment system breaches, I found that retail businesses don’t always maintain strict controls over their systems. One of the most common oversights is failure to change the default password that comes with the POS system! Other not-so-brilliant mistakes include giving employees unrestricted access to network computers and allowing vendors access to internal systems.

As consumers, we can do a lot more to protect ourselves. Sure, it’s a nuisance to remember passwords, but they at least give some level of protection. Experts say that we should always opt for a higher level of security when given a choice. At least two-factor authentication is recommended. It’s also not a good idea to stay logged on to a website or app after you’re done viewing it, even though many sites offer that option. It’s especially important to log off of an e-commerce site after you’ve made a purchase or viewed your account. Also, you should avoid logging into personal banking and e-commerce sites when you’re using free, public Wi-Fi.

And speaking of account balances, hopefully you are monitoring your bank and credit card balances frequently. It’s easy to do with an app. You’ll be able to spot any suspicious charges or withdrawals, and act on them quickly.

Be sure to update your software and operating systems regularly, install antivirus software and backup your computer onto an external drive. When you’re finished with your computer for the day, turn it off. You may also want to turn off your smartphone’s Wi-Fi and Bluetooth service if you are in a public space.

A whole blog post could be written about being prudent about the sites you visit, forums you post comments on, and invitations you receive from Facebook and LinkedIn. If you’ve never heard of the person who’s asking you to connect, maybe that’s a clue. Needless to say, never share personal information or agree to send money.

Then there are the phishing emails that land in your email box daily. The best thing to do is just delete them. Even emails from friends can be suspicious, especially when they contain a link and no explanation. Generally it’s a sign that your friend’s contact list has been hacked.

There are lots of resources available to help you protect yourself and your business from cyber crime.

You can report Internet fraud on the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) website. IC3 is a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center.

More information is available at these sites:

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Using digital tools to make change stick

Cloud with digital technology iconsLast year, when I was doing research on change management for a book project, I came across a depressing statistic: up to 70 percent of change initiatives fail, usually due to employee resistance or lack of management follow-through.

I first saw that quote in Ken Blanchard’s “Mastering the Art of Change,” but I’ve since seen it elsewhere. As Blanchard comments, it’s “a figure so high it means that most change initiatives are doomed to failure from the start.”

If you read Blanchard or John Kotter, the well-known change expert and former Harvard Business School professor, you know that communicating the need (and urgency) for change is crucial—and so is getting buy-in and feedback from the folks you are depending on to change.

“I believe the best way to help change work is to increase the amount of influence and involvement of the people being asked to change, resolving their concerns as you go,” Blanchard says. That’s not a revolutionary concept, yet many CEOs simply announce major changes and then expect their employees to embrace them without any discussion, input or even a roadmap forward.

That 70 percent failure rate again caught my eye last week when it was quoted by Boris Ewenstein, Wesley Smith and Ashvin Sologar in a new McKinsey Quarterly article called “Changing Change Management.”

The authors suggest that when people are truly invested in change, it is 30 percent more likely to stick. They make a strong case for applying digital tools to promote and accelerate organizational change, making it “more meaningful—and durable—both for the individuals who are experiencing it and for those who are implementing it.”

According to McKinsey, “B2C companies have unlocked powerful digital tools to enhance the customer journey and shift consumer behavior. Wearable technology, adaptive interfaces and integration into social platforms are all areas where B2C companies have innovated to make change more personal and responsive. Some of these same digital tools and techniques can be applied with great effectiveness to change-management techniques within an organization.”

Here are five areas the authors have identified where digital can help make change stick:

  1. Provide just-in-time feedback. McKinsey gives an example of a beverage company that wanted to motivate its sales representatives to sell more effectively. It used an SMS message system to text reps in the field two or three times daily with updated market and customer insights. As a result, sales increased dramatically.
  2. Personalize the experience. A rail yard wanted to reduce the idle time of its engines and cars by 10 percent. It used digital alerts to provide specific information relevant to each worker at that moment such as details on the status of a train under a worker’s supervision or its precise location in the yard. “Providing such specific and relevant information helped workers clarify priorities, increase accountability and reduce delays,” McKinsey reports.
  3. Sidestep hierarchy. Digital technology creates direct connections among people across the organization and can shorten the time it takes to get things done. In the rail yard example, workers received information right away rather through a middleman.
  4. Build empathy, community and shared purpose. With workers and communities increasingly distant from one another, digital tools can help create a higher level of connectivity and commitment. “Those that we have seen work well,” say the authors, “include shared dashboards, visualizations of activity across the team, ‘gamification’ to bolster competition and online forums where people can easily speak to one another (for example, linking a Twitter-like feed to a work flow or creating forums tied to leaderboards so people can easily discuss how to move up in the rankings).”
  5. Demonstrate progress. Digital change tools are helpful in communicating progress so that people can see what is happening in real time. “More sophisticated tools can also show individual contributions toward the common goal,” McKinsey says. “We have seen how this type of communication makes the change feel more urgent and real, which in turn creates momentum that can help push an organization to a tipping point where a new way of doing things becomes the way things are done.”

Digital isn’t a substitute for a well-designed change initiative, but it can accelerate and amplify your efforts to make it happen. The key to change will always be good communication. That is why I have long argued that communicators should be brought into the change process from the very beginning. Adding digital to your change toolkit makes communicators an even more valuable ally since they are the ones already using social media and other digital tools for outward-facing communications.

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To subcontract or not to subcontract, that is the question

Hand drawing network

Are you one to work alone or create networks to share projects?

I’ve been wrestling lately with a question that all self-employed people face at some point: to subcontract or not to subcontract. Is it better to retain the business you have, or should you farm some of it out? It’s a question that touches on issues of control, management, income, philosophy and lifestyle.

As your little business grows, you soon realize there only so many hours in a day. All of a sudden, you’re juggling multiple projects with overlapping deadlines. Do you call in reinforcements, or do you buckle down and get the job done? I think it depends on your personality, your reasons for going into business in the first place, and how comfortable you are collaborating and sharing work.

In the public relations field, it is very common for solo practitioners to subcontract work, especially if the scope of the project extends beyond their area of expertise. For example, I am not a graphic designer or a web developer, but I have contracted these services for my clients.

The conventional wisdom about subcontracting is that it is generally a good thing. It’s how you get through busy periods, satisfy clients who need specialized skills or grow your business.

Pick up any book on management, and you will find a chapter on the importance of delegating work. It frees you up to be more strategic and to spend time on projects that add value to your firm.

Mike Michalowicz, author of “The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur,” says it well: “As an entrepreneur, it is your job to identify what you are great at and do those few things to your fullest. Surround yourself with people who are strong where you are not. Great companies are built on the foundation of exploiting a few strengths, not on trying to be masters of everything.”

I tend to agree, but deciding to subcontract is not always a black or white decision. As Michalowicz says, you need to recognize where your talents lie—what makes your services valuable and unique. Those are your crown jewels and ought not to be outsourced. On the other hand, trying to do everything yourself is a recipe for burnout—and mediocrity. Sometimes you have to look in the mirror and ask, “Am I really the only one who can do this?” Often you can find someone who is better than you to do the job.

There is also the issue of control. Many sole proprietors are happy working by themselves. They enjoy the one-on-one relationships with their clients and the freedom to set their own schedule and call their own shots. Subcontracting their clients’ projects to someone else may not appeal to them. They don’t want to lose control of the process and may view the extra time required to manage subcontractors as a burden.

Setting business goals and reviewing them periodically can help you decide when subcontracting is appropriate. While subcontracting can free you up to develop more business, that may not be your goal. Perhaps you prefer to stay small, nimble and singularly focused. If that’s the case, you may only want to subcontract occasionally or simply reduce your client load if things get hectic.

Remember, there is a reason why you decided to go into business for yourself. Don’t lose sight of it when things get busy.

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Strunk & White’s little book on style still packs a punch

The Elements of Style

My 1972 edition of Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style.” The blurb on the cover still rings true.

It’s been 95 years since William Strunk Jr.’s guide to style was first published by Harcourt. In the years prior to its publication, Professor Strunk circulated his “little book” to English students at Cornell University, one of whom was a budding young author named E.B. White.

“The Elements of Style,” a slim, concise guide to writing that lives up to its own rules about clarity and simplicity, has gone through multiple editions and influenced English usage for generations. White would later revise and add to Strunk’s original work for a 1959 edition by Macmillan that became known simply as “Strunk & White.” Since then, there have been other editions, including my own copy that was published in 1972.

When I began writing seriously after college, there were four go-to books on my shelf: Webster’s New World Dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, Stunk & White and the AP Stylebook. Now all of those are available online, and you can search any number of excellent grammar and usage websites.

Still, Strunk & White is what I return to, and I prefer my paperback copy.

I’ve taken on a writing project this summer that requires me to produce two to four news items every afternoon. They must be brief and to the point—no more than 250 words each. Most of my writing for clients consists of longer-form articles, white papers or speeches, so brevity has been a welcome change-up. It’s also been a challenge since the deadlines are fixed. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson’s remark about a hanging in the morning, nothing focuses the mind like a deadline!

So Strunk & White has come down from the shelf. The rules are timeless, and they remind us of our duty as communicators: to choose words carefully, to use the active voice, to be precise and accurate, to not overwrite or overstate, and to keep ourselves in the background.

Here are a few gems from the little book. See if they strike a chord with you.

Put statements in positive form. “Make definite statements. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as means of evasion.”

Use definite, specific, concrete language. “Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.”

Omit needless words. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, only that every word tell.”

Avoid fancy words. “Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.”

Be clear. “Clarity, clarity, clarity. When you become hopelessly mired in a sentence, it is best to start fresh…Usually what is wrong is that the construction has become too involved at some point: the sentence needs to be broken apart and replaced by two or more shorter sentences.”

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