Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Searching for Optimism in 2023

I’m trying really hard to remain an optimist. As we grow older, conversations become graver. Life gets more complicated and less certain. There’s less talk about hopes for the future and more about missed opportunities. 

Our world gives us too many reasons to complain and I do my best to pull out of what is sometimes a very appealing spiral. Sometimes it takes a conscious, sustained effort to remain on a positive trajectory. When others try to engage me in a grumble session, yes, I will most likely join in – at least for a while. Then, I’ll usually catch myself. 

It’s not about ignoring the negative; this is not an exercise in mutual exclusivity. We must continue to confront and address personal and societal problems. 

But, let’s face it, there’s always something to whine about. If there’s no constructive effort to discuss a potential solution, I give people room to vent but then will likely ask, “Tell me something good.” (I adapted this line years ago from the movie Apollo 13. After an explosion rocked the capsule, alerts and alarms spewed at Mission Control and in space. Trying to get hold of an increasingly panicked situation, flight director Gene Kranz said, “What do we’ve got [sic] on the spacecraft that's good?”) 

It’s often a heavy lift to pick up and place yourself onto a different track. Complaining is easy, generally satisfying, and attracts a crowd. Once re-railed, though, new opportunities can open. Happiness for another’s good news might overwhelm your schadenfreude. Smiles can replace frowns. Hope may supersede regret. 

What passes for optimism, though, is largely in eye of the pessimist. It might take a little or it might take a lot but it shouldn’t always have to take years and cost billions of dollars. 

"Reasons for Optimism in 2023" (The New York Times) recognizes that we’re in “a world facing many challenges” but proclaims “there are reasons to be hopeful about next year and beyond.” Some of the reasons mentioned in the article are not exactly cheap or around the corner, however. Among the highlights listed include moving “a little closer” to nuclear fusion, advances in AI that “probably won’t take your job,” and “getting closer to cancer vaccines.”

That mislabeled article is not a prediction for breakthroughs in the next 12 months. It’s much better viewed through the lens of hopeful incrementalism. We limit our happiness and our satisfaction if the only measure of success is a home run or a touchdown.

We can enhance our lives exponentially if we remind ourselves that the little stuff matters – a lot. We need to invest in the essential steps along the way to a larger goal and celebrate when each are accomplished. Politicians, business leaders, and our friends and loved ones should consider expanding their definition of what is good cause for optimism. Searching for optimism in 2023 and beyond could get a whole lot easier.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

The 4 R’s of Strategic Thinking

Thinking, like many other activities, occurs across a spectrum. We can think in ways that are concrete and narrow or we can be creative and visionary. There’s a lot in between, of course (and I’ve covered that in other articles). 

There’s another continuum, though: Time. Sure, there are plenty of occasions when you want things to speed up (like when you’re crawling along in a sea of traffic or sitting with your mouth open in a dentist’s chair) but we mostly wish for more time. 

Having, finding time is often the key to so many things and strategic thinking is among them. Dorie Clark wrote “If Strategy Is So Important, Why Don’t We Make Time for It?” in a recently reposted Harvard Business Review article. She cited a survey where 97 percent of senior leaders said, “…being strategic was the leadership behavior most important to their organization’s success.” Unfortunately, another study found “96 percent of the leaders surveyed said they lacked the time for strategic thinking.”

We should care that people don’t spend enough time thinking. We tend to focus on the actions, the tactics, before thinking about the strategies and objectives they’re supposed to support. What passes for thinking is often unfocused busywork, a churning of un-prioritized activities.

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke of one of the best pieces of advice he ever received about strategic thinking at a Stanford Graduate School of Business seminar several years back; it was from former President Bill Clinton. The president gave him one word: Scheduling. Mr. Blair channeled the guidance he received and remarked, “Where’s your thinking time? Where am I going? What am I trying to do? You have to create the space to be thinking strategically all the time.” 

Strategic thinkers ask questions and gain insight through rigorous analysis of information. They look around the corners, predicting outcomes and the potential unintended consequences of a particular course of action. They prepare scenarios, from those with high probability but little impact to those with low probability but a high potential for damage. They evaluate who might be an advocate and who could be an adversary. They make conscious, timely decisions about where to play offense and where to allow things to go undefended.

Carving out the space – the time – to think strategically takes effort; it’s much too precious to waste. That’s why we need a way to optimize, to guide and focus the strategic thinking process. Here are my 4 R’s of Strategic Thinking for your consideration:

1.     Risk – potential impact of doing, not doing
2.     Range – short, medium, long term issues and influences
3.     Requirements – data, time, money, personnel
4.     Return on investment – financial, reputation, safety/security

In fast-paced environments, we’re often driven more by deadlines than the importance of the task or issue. Using the 4 R’s, we can make more informed decisions and apply resources more effectively. So let’s not be too put-off by a little process; it’s not a dirty word. Discipline is needed in finding creative solutions to our challenges and opportunities.

But perspective and flexibility are crucial to finding success with this or any other methodology. The weight placed on any of these components may depend on where you are in the organization, your responsibilities and their scope, and what you have to lose or gain. 

Remember what George Bernard Shaw said: “Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.” With some dedicated time and thought, you have an opportunity to join ranks with the greats.

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

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

What Bad Apologies Might Say About PR People

People screw up apologies all the time. I’ve studied this for years and published the 6 A’s of apologies in 2015 to help people remember to Acknowledge something happened; have an Authentic expression of regret; use Appropriate tone and language; choose an Acceptable venue; Act in the right timeframe, and Announce next steps. 

This advice could have come in handy to those profiled a recent Washington Post article: The 10 Weirdest Celebrity Apologies of 2021. These serve as reminders of how botched apologies can make situations worse and keep them in the news longer. 

It’s sad – but no surprise – that the classic non-apology apology appears in this piece. It’s what actor/comedian Harry Shearer once called the "ifpology." You know. These are the “If I offended you… If I hurt you… If I said something insulting…” lines that practically define the term cop-out. People need to have the courage – to be accountable – and change the “If” to “I”.

It’s hard to find an excuse for the self-inflicted wounds caused by thoughtless, hurtful, and unnecessary language. You’d think celebrities (and politicians and business leaders), who have access to staff and outside advisors, could avoid the avoidable. The Washington Post piece noted how “plenty of stars… [were] calling their publicists” to deal with their messes. 

So, here’s the question: If professional publicists were involved, how did these celebrities compound their mistakes and create even more problems? Possible answers include:

1. They said they were seeking counsel when they were not

2. They received bad advice and used it 

3. They received good advice but refused to implement it

We’ll never know, of course. But if the celebs (or others) received good advice and didn’t use it, could the public relations counselors have been more persuasive? Did they have the trust of their clients? Did they build support or alliances to bring additional, competent, compassionate voices to the table?

I’ve faced scenario #3 a number of times and tried my best, and I’m sure many who are reading this can say the same. At the end of the day, though, the clients did what they wanted; the outcome didn’t match what we got paid to do. If people knew we were involved, well, it didn’t look good for anyone. And you can’t always publicly distance yourself from the debacle; there might be contractual or ethical constraints.

A phenomenon seen in too many public pronouncements is when one can see right through an apology – the work of a PR advisor being so obvious. Here are a few examples where good apologies are undermined because they’re either visibly forced or fake, or both:

  • Heather Chase from the “reality” series Below Deck apologized for saying the N-word (more than once) in front of her Black co-star Rayna Lindsey. Her statement posted on Instagram: “I am sorry for the hurt my ignorance caused Rayna in tonight’s episode. While I apologized to Rayna throughout the season, I cannot express enough how truly remorseful I am. Part of my responsibility as Chief Stewardess is to provide a welcoming, safe environment for the crew and I fell short. Over the past nine months since this episode was filmed, I have learned how my words and actions can affect others and I vow to do better in the future.”
  • Justin Timberlake apologized to his wife, Jessica Biel, after being seen holding hands with Palmer costar Alisha Wainwright. His statement was posted, like the example above, on Instagram: "A few weeks ago I displayed a strong lapse in judgment — but let me be clear — nothing happened between me and my costar. I drank way too much that night and I regret my behavior. I should have known better. This is not the example I want to set for my son. I apologize to my amazing wife and family for putting them through such an embarrassing situation, and I am focused on being the best husband and father I can be. This was not that."
  • A contestant on the “reality” series The Bachelor, Rachel Kirkconnell, came under fire for past racist behaviors. Her statement was posted – you guessed it – on Instagram: “While there have been rumors circulating, there have also been truths that have come to light that I need to address. I hear you, and I’m here to say I was wrong. At one point, I didn’t recognize how offensive and racist my actions were, but that doesn’t excuse them. My age or when it happened does not excuse anything. They are not acceptable or okay in any sense. I was ignorant, but my ignorance was racist. Racial progress and unity are impossible without accountability, and I deserve to be held accountable for my actions. I will never grow unless I recognize what I have done is wrong. I don’t think one apology means that I deserve your forgiveness, but rather I hope I can earn your forgiveness through my future actions.”

If you’re going to write an apology for someone, it should be made in their voice. And do more than release a prepared statement on social media (for crying out loud) and do it quickly, not days or weeks later. If your spewed on a broadcast, get back out there and clear it up. If a group or organization was the target, find a meaningful activity to support that community. If an individual was involved, go and make it personal, face-to-face. Bottom line: If you truly want to try and right a wrong, do more than check a box.

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