Monday, August 10, 2020

Three Steps to Save the Presidential Debates

While the president was demanding a fourth debate with his challenger, an opinion piece in The New York Times suggested that debates be scrapped altogether. Yes, the debates have certainly devolved over the years but this is a classic “throw the baby out with the bathwater” reaction. Let’s fix them instead. Here are three changes to elevate the debates and increase their value to the public:


1. Ditch the audience. In her NYT piece, Elizabeth Drew wrote that debates were less about conveying a vision or a plan than they were about upstaging the opponent. “Points went to snappy comebacks and one-liners. Witty remarks drew laughs from the audience and got repeated for days and remembered for years,” she said. She’s not wrong, of course. But it’s the debate format that has helped to create the reality TV atmosphere. The candidates have been playing to the audience; they look for applause or a laugh. Let’s get serious and let’s remove the audience. The point might be made moot because of the pandemic this year but the editorial board of The Washington Post recently endorsed this idea, calling the debates “quip contests.” We’ll gain time, engagement, and potentially more substantive responses. 


2. Level the field. I mean this literally. The candidates should be seated, anchored to their chairs. The freewheeling Town Hall format, where the candidates roam the stage, should be banned. In 2016, candidate Trump tried to intimidate Secretary Clinton when he alternated between standing and pacing back-and-forth behind her. Clinton said he was breathing down her neck, which made her feel "incredibly uncomfortable." Politico magazine called it "the ugliest debate ever seen." Pressing a physical advantage – bullying – must not be allowed. And having the candidates seated will also help mitigate any height discrimination, or “heightism,” where taller people are perceived to be stronger, and better leaders.


3. Check the facts. A consequence of our glorious First Amendment is that political speech is highly protected – essentially any half-truth or lie may be told. While there are plenty of post-debate analyses, it’s too late. Many viewers tune-out after the practiced smiles and forced handshakes. And our brains tend to cling to misinformation even after it's been refuted. We need real time (or near real time) fact checking. If IBM's Watson computer can win at Jeopardy!, why can't we get an indication of veracity while the debate is still in progress? Let’s use technology to help the experts sift through speech transcripts and testimony; almanacs and atlases; laws, regulations and policy statements; credible survey data, and non-partisan news articles, journals, and research reports. Let’s help ensure the public gets the facts and not the flimflam.


While we’re more polarized than ever and fewer people are undecided, more information, more opportunity for side-by-side comparison, is still crucial to the democratic process. In a society that’s increasingly stressed by the health and economic consequences of COVID-19, systemic racism, and so many other issues, political discussion can be dispiriting, infuriating, and sometimes incendiary. But, as Ray Bradbury wrote in Fahrenheit 451, “If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.”

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me @pauloestreicher.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

My Time with Larry

Larry Kramer, the playwright and AIDS activist, died yesterday at age 84. He left his mark in two different worlds – the arts and health care. He changed me, too.

I was sad to read of his passing but this is not an obituary covering all the details of his dynamic life; it’s a brief reflection starting when we met in 1988. I was the chief representative to the HIV/AIDS and oncology patient communities at drug giant Hoffmann-La Roche and he was on the other side of a conference room table. His first comment to me was, “Bristol-Myers met us in a nicer hotel.”

The year before, I joined the company’s Public Affairs department from the R&D group. There was a need for someone with a technical background to help explain what was coming out of the labs to the general public. I landed in the role and immediately found myself in the middle of history. Roche was one of only three companies at the time that had a late-stage anti-HIV drug development program. Burroughs Wellcome (now part of Glaxo) had the first marketed product, Retrovir®/AZT. Bristol-Myers (now Bristol-Myers Squibb) and Roche had retroviral analogs in the pipeline.

Burroughs Wellcome was reviled by the AIDS community Larry helped to organize. Drug prices were high and communication from the company was absent. There were no best practices, no case studies on how to communicate with patients. It simply wasn’t done. Companies would inform the “learned intermediary” – the physician – and he or she would communicate with the patient.

Today, there’s at least one patient advocacy organization for any given disease. There were only a handful of AIDS groups in those days. Larry and others paved the way for all the rest.

Bristol-Myers decided to meet with the AIDS groups and I began my campaign to convince Roche management to do the same. I remember making a presentation to the Executive Committee and quoted Lincoln: “As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.” It wasn’t the easiest sell. But people realized there were both ethical and business considerations at play – many of the activists were patients trying to save their own lives, and they were phenomenally organized and well informed. The potential benefits of hearing the patients’ point of view and adjusting our own plans were new and valuable concepts.

A letter from Larry’s organization, ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was the catalyst for our first meeting. He once said, “If you write a calm letter and fax it to nobody, it sinks like a brick in the Hudson.” The demands in the letter were copied to a long list of top-tier news media, members of Congress, AIDS activists, and health care policy makers. I wrote back, explained our research initiative, agreed to meet, and copied back the entire list.

Then, my phone rang. “What are you doing writing back to all my constituents?,” he barked. I said, “They’re our constituents, too.”

That was a pivotal moment. Yes, I gained some respect by coming right back at him but the truly important piece was that first step we took into a common ground. Our constituency was their constituency and everyone wanted new, effective medications in the hands of patients as soon as possible. The two “sides” worked to expand access to experimental therapeutics, enroll patients into clinical trials, support NIH funding, and lobby for FDA reform to speed drug reviews and approvals.

The world was changing. The normal course of business – the normal course of life – was disrupted. But progress was made – advancements in understanding and equality, as well as advancements in medical science.

Larry was called a troublemaker and much worse. But at least there was talk back then and a respect for science. It’s worth noting that ACT UP’s slogan was Silence = Death. With COVID-19, I’m afraid Silence has been replaced by Division and Ignorance. Maybe a little Larry Kramer-style agitation wouldn’t be such a bad thing to get people think about the state of our society and the status of our health care system.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me @pauloestreicher

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

You Don’t Get It… and Don’t Know It

Like it or not, we don’t “get” a lot of things. Most importantly, we don’t get ourselves. 

The Harvard Business Review recently re-posted an article by Tasha Eurich where five years of research showed “95% of people think they’re self-aware, [while] only 10 to 15% actually are.” It’s a consequential finding, despite all that’s been written on cognitive dissonance and self-awareness. Think about how many and how deeply personal and professional relationships are affected by our lack of personal insight. 

A survey I conducted a few years ago on self-perceptions of meanness and niceness showed “respondents felt others are much meaner than they perceived themselves to be.” Twice as many people thought they were never mean versus those who said they were sometimes mean. In the workplace, “un-self-aware colleagues aren’t just frustrating; they can cut a team’s chances of success in half,” Eurich wrote. These individuals can spur “increased stress, decreased motivation, and a greater likelihood of leaving one’s job.” 

This is big. Unchecked, it’s life and career changing. 

It calls for intervention and the resolve to make it happen. No one likes conflict but it’s a necessary step. In Toxic Team Treatment I wrote, “Few go looking for a confrontation but it’s a critical part of working in teams, and supervising and leading others. Having the courage to take some action is not the same as “making waves.” Making waves connotes stirring up trouble and creating new problems. This is about airing and addressing the issues by asking questions, and seeking clarifications while showing respect for different views.” 

But productive dialogue requires mutual trust. “For someone to truly be open to critical feedback… they must fundamentally believe that we have their best interests at heart. When trust is present, the other person will feel more comfortable being vulnerable, a prerequisite to accept one’s unaware behavior,” Eurich said. 

If there’s a trusting relationship, go for it. If you don’t have it, find someone who does. Speed matters, just as it does in most situations though Eurich suggested, “If possible, wait until your colleague expresses feelings of frustration or dissatisfaction that (unbeknownst to them) are being caused by their unawareness.” 

Still, don’t allow an issue to become a crisis. Act. Follow up. And be empathic – understand that it’s not only about embracing the challenge to help yourself and others; others must be willing – or persuaded – to embrace the feedback.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me @pauloestreicher.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

3 Things Employees at Amazon, Edelman and Microsoft (and many others) Are Telling Us

It's almost impossible to escape politics these days. And by politics I mean the kind that's become less civil and more polarizing. It surrounds us through 24/7 news coverage, social media channels, and... our co-workers.

New York Times article, “Edelman, Public Relations Giant, Drops Client Over Border Detention Centers,” is another reminder of the growing advocacy of a long list of stakeholders – including employees, customers, clients, students, investors, and donors – and the expectation that sides or positions are taken on issues.

When entering this realm, organizations must make calculations on whether or not an issue really matters to them, and the value of taking a side or not. Discussion points include who they might offend or flatter, what business could be driven away or won, which employees they might alienate or attract, and how it might all be communicated. There are hard choices to be made.

So, as people find their voices (or blindly follow the herd) and leverage the tools of the digital world to amplify their message, organizations need to be prepared. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a business, university, charity, or political group. You may choose to proclaim neutrality but that, too, is often treated as just another position like right or left, for or against. It could even be seen as a weakness – the lack of will to take a stand and express the character of the organization. Expect to be challenged, no matter what.

The NYT piece – and what employees are telling us – underscores a few key points organizations must consider in an increasingly demanding environment:

1. Define your purpose and gain alignment. Organizations must ensure its stakeholders know the purpose, the mission, of the institution. People need context and a clear understanding of where the organization fits within its competitive set and where the employee fits within organization.

2. Understand there are precious few secrets. Our inability to contain information was already past the point of no return when I wrote “The Secrecy Bucket Is Full of Holes” 10 years ago. We are being recorded and tracked. There are hackers and leakers. Of all my experiences in this arena, I’ll never forget being asked to comment on confidential information my firm sent to a government agency only hours earlier.

3. Declare your values and limits. The article begs the age-old question: Are there people or organizations that do not deserve representation? In a legal situation, the answer is clear but in other sectors of business and society there are choices to be made. Organizations should declare their values, their operating principles, and enforce ethical standards. It’s not feasible to name every person, company or institution that might be off limits but you can define your beliefs and set up a structure to review and discuss critical decisions.

No one needs to tell you that we’re operating in a hot mess of division and high expectation. We need to be thinking and planning… all the time. Paraphrasing management guru Peter Drucker: If we’re not changing and innovating, we’re dying. And, while we can’t prepare for every scenario, we can take some basic steps to better listen, evaluate, and communicate.

Between posts, I invite you to follow me @pauloestreicher.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Six More Things About the Boeing 737 MAX Crisis

“The crisis drags on” is about the last thing an organization wants to hear. But that is what’s happening at one of the world’s most venerable companies. Unfortunately, the manner in which Boeing is communicating – or not – has become its own news story.

The all-too-familiar drip, drip, drip of bad news is a classic “Don’t” in crisis circles. New and shocking revelations in the past few days have added to the tragic mess, which started last October with the crash of Lion Air 610. Boeing’s decision to base a critical flight system on a single sensor and a report that defective parts were installed in hundreds of planes are keeping the still unfolding story front-and-center in the minds of investors, the FAA and sister agencies around the world, current and future aircraft customers, and the flying public.

Apologies go hand-in-hand with crises and, while there have been hundreds of articles, reports and analyses on the 737 MAX crashes, I have a few additional observations to share on how Boeing is saying sorry using my 6 A’s model:

Acknowledging something has happened. It was impossible to deny the loss of 346 lives in two crashes. But in the days following the tragedies, Boeing claimed the 737Max was safe and the MCAS (the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, which caused the planes to lose control), was "certified." This creates an astounding dissonance: While the fleet is stilled grounded, they're continuing to work furiously on an MCAS software fix. It took weeks for Boeing to say, “We own it.” Score: 5/10

Authentic expression of regret. Initial statements and testimony placed some blame on pilot training. Then CEO Denis Muilenburg said weeks later, "We at Boeing are sorry for the lives lost in the recent 737 MAX accidents. These tragedies continue to weigh heavily on our hearts and minds, and we extend our sympathies to the loved ones of the passengers and crew on board Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302." My friend Helio Fred Garcia, president of Logos Consulting Group, said: "Trust didn't fall because two of its plane crashes. Trust fell because they were seen to be indifferent." Score: 5/10

Appropriate tone and language. As pointed out above, this is the tale of two phases, two apologies. Following the accidents, the tone-deafness was jarring. The later statement and corporate video seemed to make up some ground but it was sprinkled with jargon like “MCAS” and “erroneous angle of attack information.” And Mr. Muilenburg fell into the “me” trap when he said, “I cannot remember a more heart wrenching time in my career.” Score: 6/10

Acceptable venue. One gets the sense that Boeing is being dragged into its apologies and has failed to rapidly, proactively face its publics. While public statements and videos are becoming normalized, they fail to come face-to-face with those affected. It reinforces a wall of separation and does not allow interaction or engagement. Score: 6/10

Acting in the right timeframe. The video apology came 26 days after the second crash – Ethiopian Airlines. Enough said. Score: 6/10

Announcing next steps. Boeing said initially that they were “humbled” and “learning.” It was honest but not terribly reassuring or instructional. Saying they will “deliver airplanes to airline customers and to the flying public that are safe to fly” is like Starbucks saying they’ll serve coffee that’s safe to drink. Boeing finally came around and said they "will ensure accidents like that of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 never happen again… top engineers and technical experts [are] working tirelessly" and that they will give pilots "training and additional educational materials." Score: 6/10

The 6 A’s rubric weights the elements differently. So, my overall score – and you may certainly have a different evaluation – works out to 55/100. An “F.”

Apologies – good ones, bad ones – have real consequences. Boeing’s behaviors have broken trusts, damaged its reputation, slowed sales, harmed valuation, and created fear. But I know they'll make it back. They’re fundamentally, historically a good company making good products and time will muffle the damage. But it’s been an unnecessary, destructive, lengthy episode. I hope something instructive can come from all the loss.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Morale Is More Than Fun

If I read one more article about how to boost morale in the workplace simply by saying nice things to co-workers and subordinates, I might say something decidedly not nice. The message and the tone – what you say and how you say it – are, of course, important elements in the morale equation. No doubt. But words are the end, not the beginning, of the effort. We must start with an examination of the culture and values of the organization, and how the leadership implements them.

I won’t point a finger at the recently published piece that set me off. I was encouraged initially when I read the first point: conduct an assessment. Then, hopes were dashed when it was clear the research was not about values or culture or communication practices. It was about your attitude. Again, it’s an important point but not where to begin. Morale is complicated, not one-dimensional, and goes to the core of the organization and its leadership.

Perhaps the most common mistake in the one-dimensional realm is confusing fun for morale. I had a boss who once asked me what morale measures I was undertaking for the office I was recently hired to lead. I said I involved the whole operation – in teams and as individuals – in discussions about our new direction. I reported that we were creating new business plans, investing in training, developing individualized career paths, and ensuring everyone understood their role and their goals. Excitement and camaraderie was building. And, I added that we just celebrated a new business win with a very enjoyable happy hour. “Yeah, that’s fine,” he responded. “But it’s not enough.”

He insisted that I give $200 to each staff member and the morning off so they can buy something for themselves. Then, host a lunch where everyone could share what they bought. I was incredulous and pretty sure gave a reflexive, accidental eye roll. I added to the blooming disagreement by saying, “Isn’t that a bit like a band aid? I think morale is an outcome of doing all the great stuff we’ve set in motion. What expectations are we setting with the $200? What will we need to do next week or next month?”

That may not have been the best way to raise an objection but I saw too many forced-fun, temporary fixes before. You can try to build instant, synthetic relationships but authenticity rules and it takes time for cohesiveness to gel.

Like so many other important efforts, organizational behaviors and principles must be continually role modeled and reinforced. You cannot put your mission/vision/values statement in a nice frame, nail it to the conference room wall and walk away. Make them count. All the time. This applies to the intern, to the board of directors, and everyone in between. And we must ensure there are consequences for negative or harmful actions. Want to undermine the morale of your organization? Ignore, tolerate or reward bad behavior. Don’t confront the toxic employee.

The bottom line is that morale, or creating a fun or a “cool” place to work, is an outcome of an honest, ethical, communicative and interesting work environment. Organizations succeed when they focus on delivering differentiated products or services, provide unambiguous information, and instill confidence with visible and empathetic leadership.

Between posts, I invite you to follow me @pauloestreicher.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

A Bit of Camelot at Microsoft

Some say Satya Nadella is Microsoft’s knight in shining armor. It turns out the metaphor is not so far-fetched.

While he may not know it, the Microsoft CEO is channeling a bit of King Arthur. And Redmond, Washington shows some hints of Camelot.

Simone Stolzoff profiled Nadella in a recent Quartz article, which was striking in the way it tracked some of the characteristics of King Arthur outlined in my book Camelot, Inc. Arthur, likely a composite figure stitched together over a few centuries, has uncanny resonance in today’s world of business and politics.

In the case of Mr. Nadella, whom I know only through articles and interviews, we see an unassuming ruler/CEO who commands a far-flung empire/company. Here are a few of the Arthurian traits seen in Mr. Nadella:

Humility. Arthur was known to be “of the people” and eschewed many formalities. Nadella famously had a stage lowered so he wasn’t seen looking down on the audience, literally and figuratively. Bluster was out, thoughtfulness was in. Pomp and circumstance gave way to being relatable and approachable.

Accountability. Arthur established a new civil code, which was applied equally even when it put his own family at risk. When Nadella botched an answer and sounded insensitive to the issue of women and pay raises, he admitted it quickly and wrote a message to the company.

Articulating Mission and Vision. Arthur inherited a chaotic kingdom with threats from within and abroad. He created common purpose and common values, uniting the country, brought relative peace, and did what was right and good, not what was convenient or conventional. Numerous challenges faced Microsoft when Nadella took control but his first order of business was to address the company’s mission and culture. He knew being too deeply in love with their 20th century idea of “a computer on every desk” would leave Microsoft behind in the 21st. A new rallying point needed to be created.

Communication. Among its many symbolic aspects, the Round Table was a gathering place. Arthur demanded occasional face-to-face time to rekindle relationships and share ideas because his knights were most often far out in the countryside enforcing the new laws. At Microsoft, employees are invited for “One Week” — an annual meeting to “drum up new ideas, tackle problems, create change and make a difference.”

Learn, Do, Repeat. Well before he knew he was to be King (and knew of his noble birth), young Arthur was tutored by Merlin who told him (in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King), “Learn why the world wags and what wags it.” And when Arthur thought he failed, Merlin reminded him “It was an experiment. Experiments lead to new ones.” Microsoft made a business and cultural leap when it adopted a learning mindset. “We went from a culture of know-it-alls to a culture of learn-it-alls,” said Chris Capossela, Microsoft’s chief marketing officer.

There are many more parallels and, to be sure, we can learn much about what not to do, too, from King Arthur. For now, I’ll be happy that a little bit of Arthur lives on. I only wish there were more leaders to include in the story.

Between posts, I invite you to follow me @pauloestreicher.