Monday, July 14, 2014

Google Embraces the Predictable

Why Effective Leadership and Communication Require Consistency

This article also appears in

 An article entitled, “The Surprising Trait Google Looks For To Identify Potential Leaders,” caught my eye recently. Walter Chen wrote: “At Google, they're obsessive about looking at data to determine what makes employees successful and what they found in the numbers was surprising. The most important character trait of a leader is one that you're more likely to associate with a dull person than a dynamic leader: predictability. The more predictable you are, day after day, the better.”

This is important but, to me, not necessarily surprising. First, Google thrives on predictability – their algorithms suggesting web sites based on your input is a prediction of what’s needed to satisfy your query. And they sell predictability to advertisers, helping to assure the right message gets to the right target.

Second, leaders must have strategic vision. Strategists look ahead, they turnover ideas, they conduct research and think through scenarios all so they can minimize risk and predict outcomes.

And third, people would rather have predictable results than uncertain ones. We may enjoy a nice surprise when it comes to parties or presents, but we’re really creatures of habit and of known risks.

I had a boss years ago who was very charismatic but also erratic. “Who would I get today?,” I would ask myself. “The nurturer, the screamer, the back-slapper, the recluse?” It was unsettling and burned emotional energy unnecessarily. Indeed, Chen quotes Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google in his article: "If your manager is all over the place, you're never going to know what you can do, and you're going to experience it as very restrictive." So, without a sense of continuity and comfort, the office is doomed to poor productivity from ceaseless speculation and worry.

As I wrote in Camelot, Inc., people want to work, support, and do business with people who are predictably responsive and ethical. This also means staff, investors or donors can rely on the leader to communicate the expectations for the business and the conduct of the organization. The boundaries and goals are clearly defined – not wavering, not ambiguous. This is the path to trust and reputation building.

People respond to predictable, consistent leaders, but they also need the same when they choose brands, friends, medicines, transportation, and foods. (Franchise operations bank on this fact. A particular franchise may not have the best-in-class service or product, but we know what to expect; we know what we receive will be consistent no matter where or when we make the purchase.) But predictable does not mean plodding or unimaginative. Google is proof that serious purpose and process can go hand-in-hand with creativity and excitement.

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

Friday, May 30, 2014

Our "Big Idea" Obsession

Why We Should Embrace Incrementalism 

Public relations and advertising agencies never receive RFPs for little ideas. Boards of Directors don’t select CEOs for their promises of small improvements. Politicians don’t get elected on a platform of incremental steps. We’re conditioned to expect the big idea, to go big or go home, to swing for a homerun, to throw the Hail Mary for a touchdown.

That’s why President Obama was criticized last month for talking about hitting “singles” and “doubles” in his foreign policy efforts. But he did say, “Every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.” And then admitted, “That may not always be sexy. “That may not always attract a lot of attention..."

He was right and his critics were not happy. Maureen Dowd, in her New York Times opinion piece entitled, “Is Barry Whiffing,” told the President to “stop whining.” Ms. Dowd wrote, “What happened to crushing it and swinging for the fences? Where have you gone, Babe Ruth?” And then, “It doesn’t feel like leadership. It doesn’t feel like you’re in command of your world.” 

My readers, clients and students know I hate this type of mutual exclusivity. (I’ve addressed it before in this blog and in my book, Camelot, Inc.) Of course we need big ideas and bold gestures. But small things can be out-of-the-box and innovative, too. The answer is we need both vision and execution, the large goals and the little objectives, and the short-range and the long-term views. If we can’t always strike that “grand bargain” what are the alternatives?

It’s the same line of reasoning used to block investment in solar or wind energy because it would only be a drop in the bucket compared to our overall energy needs. Or the strengthening of background checks on gun purchases because the effect on violence can’t be fully quantified in advance. Or, it could be taxes and the deficit. The so-called millionaire’s tax can’t get any traction because, the logic goes, it would do so little to cut into our national debt.

But we need to start some place, some time. We’d like to get to the goal line in one play but we can’t. It’s certainly not going to happen with our largest and most complex problems. We’ve all heard Voltaire’s “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Well, incrementalism is hard to accept but, in so many cases, equally hard to forswear.

I’ll remind the politicos that our country is nothing but a timeline of incremental advances. Many of the Founding Fathers wanted to abolish slavery, while others insisted it remain. So, the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution in 1787 were compromises. They were steps. We had to wait nearly a hundred years for the Emancipation Proclamation and then another hundred for the Civil Rights Act.

As I wrote in another piece, “Compromise and incremental success may not seem satisfying, but it’s the way most things operate and succeed. Baby steps can sometimes add up to a completed marathon. We need to reject the all-or-nothing mentality and reward the smaller but still important measures. We need to learn from the past, not live in it.”

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

P.S. After posting my blog, I came across an article on the Celgene web site, Paving the Way for Cancer Breakthroughs: Small Steps Make a Big Impact on the Lives of Cancer Patients and Our Understanding of the Disease. They warn against "holding out for those large steps" and ignoring the reality of cancer's complexity. Cy Stein, M.D., Ph.D. and Chair of Medical Oncology at City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center commented, "One advance leads to another. Although the advance might be incremental, it's a step beyond." The article concludes, "If we are only interested in revolutionary therapies, patients will miss out on the improvements in care that smaller advances offer. In the end, these advances can help us transform cancer into a chronic, manageable disease."

Friday, March 28, 2014

A Message About Messages

This article also appears in Medical Marketing & Media.

Dr. Marijn Dekkers, CEO of Bayer, feels underappreciated. He has some good reason. At Bayer’s Spring Financial News Conference (on Feb. 28th), he said, "Almost every day, newspapers publish something about cancer – statistics, the best doctors, the best hospitals, the best treatments." Yet, they don’t discuss, "the molecule, the invention or the scientist behind the invention without which the doctors, hospitals and treatments could not help patients."

People go into a hospital, they interact with health care providers but what they see mostly from the pharmaceutical industry is a little, unimpressive looking pill. This isn’t new. Low trust and reputation scores have been a fact of life for decades now. The anger over high prices and low transparency has not been offset by improved health outcomes or the positive impact on jobs and the economy. Dr. Dekkers said, "I feel that this lack of appreciation for our ideas and innovations has to change." 

More credit ought to be given to the investments and inventions made by the biopharmaceutical sector – no question. But placing responsibility on the media for a perceived lack of fairness seems misplaced. The health care industry is attempting to meet the needs of its customers and so is the news media. In most cases, they’re selling a story with a point of view because that’s what the market is telling them to do. And they’re constrained further by the revolution in social media. There are fewer and fewer “real” journalists, professionals with credentials who have an understanding of the issues and the science. How many health and science sections in major daily newspapers have survived? Can you get beyond one hand? 

Today’s reality is health care is covered largely in the business sections and the industry feeds right into it. The first two-thirds of Dr. Dekkers’ talk was focused on his company’s impressive financial results. It was, after all, a financial news conference. But if getting a fair shake by the press was of such concern, perhaps he should have allowed his CFO, who was the next speaker anyway, to discuss all the numbers.

Next time, Dr. Dekkers may wish to lead off with and stick to some of his briefly mentioned closing messages – Bayer’s commitments to sustainability, ethics, access, value and serving the needs of the patient community. As messengers, as leaders, the tone should be set using the words, images and emotions that best communicate the industry’s contributions, not just the spreadsheets and stock charts. Tell the audiences what’s in it for them.

But there’s still a big missing piece to this communication puzzle. Dr. Dekkers pointed out, “Even the most outstanding ideas and scientific breakthroughs have no chance if people do not accept, appreciate and support them. All too often, people are afraid of – or uneasy about – new ideas, inventions, processes or products.” Indeed, the industry’s stakeholders must have a higher level of health and science literacy. Dropping information – even crucial or compelling data – onto the heads of an unprepared public, or expecting a response to another “call to action,” is unproductive and unrealistic. A massive, sustained education effort is needed to help turn the ship of disbelief and discontent.

Of course, a more knowledgeable public will not guarantee an enhanced corporate reputation. It must be earned. It will take time and the self-inflicted wounds – the reputation-killing missteps and misdeeds – need to stop or at least be minimized. Our job as strategic communicators is to help find common ground and common language, increase mutual understanding and secure the win-wins we know are out there.

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

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Beware of Absolutes

The Danger of Black and White Communication

This article also appears in PRWeek.

We crave absolutes – yes or no, stop or go, you’re with us or against us. Most of life, however, is not so cut and dry. We live with nuance and uncertainty, and there are usually too many unknowns to be 100 percent sure of the outcome. Communication professionals must counsel their clients accordingly.

This issue is being played out in the aftermath of New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s nearly two-hour press conference on January 9th. His declaration that he “had no knowledge,” and was “lied to” and “betrayed” may well be true. After all, he’s the governor, a former prosecutor and early front-runner for the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential race. Those are big responsibilities and big stakes to risk.

But many see those responsibilities and risks as reasons for their suspicion. They believe someone so involved and so concerned with appearances likely had a close eye on his own political operation. “Bridge-gate” (or what might evolve into “Retribution-gate”) was not put to bed with the governor’s long apology and assertion that he’s “not a bully.” Christie watchers will be listening for potential shoes to drop during the ongoing investigation. Any link to prior knowledge of Fort Lee, NJ lane closures will have dramatic, potentially career-ending consequences.

Still, we expect leaders to deal in absolutes and they accommodate us for fear of seeming weak or uncertain. Short and sweet statements usually win over the long and complicated. But there are too many examples of failed absolutes to ignore the danger of black and white or the outright denial. Nixon’s “I am not a crook” and Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” rocked two presidencies and the nation. The trajectory of events was largely within their control.

Even when events are not within our control, the siren song of absolutism dashes leaders onto the sharp rocks of crisis. After weather forced JetBlue to cancel flights and strand some passengers on grounded airplanes for over 10 hours in 2007, founder David Neeleman said, “This will never happen again.” His apology at that time was called “perfect.” But in 2011, weather created havoc and, you guessed it, it happened again. Passengers were sealed in and were parked on the tarmac for over seven hours with toilets that wouldn't flush. A strategic look ahead could have avoided this failure of absolute statements.

Scenario development and greater oversight also could have saved pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb from an embarrassing episode involving one of its spokespeople. Andy Behrman, who chronicled his life with bipolar disorder in Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania, reportedly accepted $400,000 in 2004 and 2005 to talk about the benefits of the drug Abilify®. He said the therapy was life changing and all of his drug side effects "went away." A warning bell should have been going off with that definitive statement. While Abilify may have a better safety profile than some other antipsychotic medications, it carries a long list of side effects and warnings on its label. Indeed, after his non-disclosure agreement lapsed, Behrman said he experienced side effects that were worse than any treatment he had tried and stopped taking the drug within the first year.

What's clear is there are few absolutes. It takes a marriage of analysis and creativity to develop statements that are appropriately qualified but not evasive. It's a tall order to communicate complexity in a succinct and compelling manner but that's our job. And it’s imperative we educate our students, staff and clients that the risk to reputation by seeking and telling the truth is less than telling or living a lie, or making promises - absolutes - we can't keep.

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