Carbon Monoxide:The Typical Approach To Employee Engagement

"Carbon monoxide poisoning is the most common type of fatal air poisoning in many countries....colorless, odorless, and tasteless, but highly toxic." - Wikipedia
Unless you have a carbon monoxide detector, it's easy to get poisoned. The same is true of employee engagement: If you don't check it regularly, you only find out people have "checked out" after business results have suffered.

Employee engagement is not just problematic, but epidemic: According to Gallup, 71% of Americans were disengaged from their jobs in 2011. Specifically, they were "emotionally disconnected from their workplaces."

A paycheck is not enough. It's not enough.

In the past maybe it was, because you could be the angriest, most miserable person in the room and still do your job. Watch an episode of "Hell on Wheels" on AMC, where they're building the railroad. Hands swinging metal hammers over the rails meant the job was getting done. And "management" was a guy with a gun standing guard, saying ominously, "get back to work or you're fired." 

In those times you did not need emotional engagement to get workers working productively. Just the fear of starving.

But that was 150 years ago - "Hell on Wheels" depicts the Industrial Revolution and is set in 1865. Now we're in a service economy, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics it's a fundamental change away from manufacturing, with no end in sight: "The employment favor of service-providing industries is expected to continue." (Number-crunchers head here.)

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand that service work, unlike manual work, gets done when the employee is inspired, excited, happy, engaged.

Engaged employees in a service job do better work and the company makes more money. High-performing companies, according to Gallup, enjoy "3.9 times the earnings per share (EPS) growth rate compared to organizations with lower engagement in their same industry."

Most companies fail to take employees' emotional temperature, though, and so their air is sufficiently poisoned that they just stumble along. The average workplace, Gallup notes, has about 1.8 engaged employees for every actively disengaged one (whereas a top performer has a ratio of 9:57:1.)

Again, it does not take a genius to figure out how to get people excited to be at work. A funny word but a serious discipline, "engageonomics," yields some "drivers":

1. Belief that your job is important
2. Knowing what is expected of you
3. Opportunity to advance
4. Feedback from superiors 
5. Quality of relationships at work - peers, superior, subordinates
6. Perceived ethics and values in the workplace
7. Internal communications effectiveness
8. Rewards and incentives for being engaged

Even though "internal communications" is only one of these, at the end of the day every single one of these comes down to communication, don't they? How can any of them be accomplished in the absence of somebody communicating with somebody else, and the message getting through, loud and clear?

At the end of the day most service organizations don't find the pursuit of employee engagement a pleasant exercise. Let's face it - it is easier, and it preserves the existing power structure, to simply ignore and deny emotional issues rather than to face them. But just like with carbon monoxide testing, to deny the facts, however intangible, brings with it the risk that the organization will not be sustainable in the end. 

Some might be satisfied with "average" productivity based on an "average" measure of employees who routinely get "a case of the Mondays". And Tuesdays, and more. But we're living in a demanding world, where it's less and less possible to get away with being "average." 

Better to get ahead of the curve and eliminate the silent poison in the air, then to let it destroy the many positive aspects of the organization. The things that make people love what they do and where they work, and that produce good results for the customer every single day.

"Step Up Revolution" - 5 Themes Related to Branding & Social Commentary

You could be snobby and say there's nothing to learn from pop culture but I say b.s. Here's what I got from the movie:

1. The inner workings of big brands are repulsive. E.g. the way they treat their employees.

2. The 99% wants to be part of the 1%, just in a more socially responsible way.

3. The kinetic, visual, aural and body language are universal signifiers of meaning - words are what we spend most time on and they're mostly irrelevant.

4. The bigger the brand and the larger the pocketbook, the lower the creativity level.

5. Great things are only accomplished by teams working together to achieve a mission that is moral to them.

So it's not goofing off to see the movie, OK? It's a field trip to see great dancing with meaning attached. Have fun.

Chik-fil-A & the August of Our Discontent

The other day somebody asked me if I would rather get the fish filet sandwich at Wendy's or McDonald's. Wendy's is objectively better in our experience.

I said McDonald's.

Because to me McDonald's means being an American, and that means a lot to me. It's happiness, Ronald McDonald. It's rebellion against the strictures of Orthodox Judaism, even though I don't eat non kosher. It's good memories of going there with my mom, the playground in the West Village where my kids gaped at the homeless people hanging out near the slide. It means running out for french fries with coworkers, gossiping and talking about our diets.

Brands are memories. They are fantasies. They are a wish and a voice and a vote. They are all the things we hold in our heads. Taste and quality are often marginal.

Chik-fil-A is a brand that has become a rallying cry for people who are fed up of having an extreme leftist liberal agenda seemingly shoved down their throats at every turn. They perceive and dislike that Big Government and a very specific ideology associated with that is ever-expanding--invasive inspections at the airport in the name of security, attacking the Constitutional right to bear arms, efforts to institutionally silence dissenting religious beliefs about contraception and marriage. They perceive the media as biased.

Recent political polls don't reveal the extent of this sentiment, perhaps because one party is being oversampled. But every person who lines up for a serving is in their own way making a statement - a contribution to the cause. And that political party could be labeled something like, "not sure what's going on, but royally pissed."

I personally support the right of committed consenting adults to marry and am horrified at the thought of denying anyone contraception. I believe in social reform. I hate that there are homeless people. I am worried about national security abroad and at home. I understand that "we don't know what we don't know."

But this is not about what I believe. It is about the meaning behind the Chik-fil-A protest. Unlike Occupy Wall Street which seems to me like a largely manufactured movement of thugs - notice that they've magically disappeared - the people lining up at Chik-fil-A are organically angry and concerned about their rights. Not just to uphold traditional male-female marriage. But their rights in general, which they fear are slipping away without explanation, couched in Orwellian-speak: "It's for your own good."

Less than 100 years ago there was a sign that read, "Arbeit Macht Frei." "Work shall set you free." Propaganda as the gateway to death.

People are afraid, and they are angry, and want to express that. The choice of a fast-food spot today - the vote for a brand - is therefore loaded with meaning.

The 3 Fallacies Of Branding: Intentionality, Rationality and Transparency

If you were to ask me how I got to this place in life, the most honest answer would be "I don't know."

I don't know how most people I know got to where they are either. G-d has a strategic plan for everyone (I actually think we get input on that before we're born). We either align to it and feel good or we don't and we course-correct.

Yeah there is hard work. There is education and opportunity and coaching and staying in track in the face of life's obstacles. There is networking. But mostly, I think, there is raw gut instinct - for physical, emotional, and spiritual survival - that leads people to do what they do.

If you don't believe me look at any strategic plan. Once it's all said and done how many organizations actually follow the results of these rationalistic exercises?

The applications for branding are simple, clear and straightforward, in 3 ways.

1. The Fallacy Of Intentionality

Brands are not built in an incremental way. To even try to do so presupposes knowing what the audience reaction will be. Instead brands are built by acting, seeing the reaction, and adjusting accordingly - just like in living life.

2. The Fallacy of Rationality

There is not currently a scientific body of work that can explain why some brands succeed and others fail. It is possible to develop one in much the same way as we have the Project Management Body Of Knowledge. The PMBOK codifies project management and is subject to review, debating, updating. Accountants, lawyers, and doctors have similar repositories of shared reference points.

In branding we cannot even agree on taxonomy. Rather it is for the client to judge what "system" or framework is best. In that sense it is more like Scientology - a religion passing itself off a a way of life.

3. The Fallacy Of Transparency

There is a mythical quest nowadays to get to the "truth" behind the image. The reality is that there are many truths, and some of the most important ones are not accessible to the customer or even many employees. We are always building brand on a mountain of sand - partial and shifting information.

Does all of this mean that the quest for brand mastery is useless? Obviously not. But maybe it's time to start being honest about what we are doing as people who support brand development. Mostly we are there to give advice and support, and to avoid making the brand worse by implementing ill-thought-out plans.

The most meaningful things in life are the ones you can't capture in words. In essence that's the job of a brand specialist - to imbue raw material with emotion, excitement, fantasy, passion, and zeal. It's not a "nothing" job at all, and it takes great care and skill. But we shouldn't try to "legitimize" this discipline/art by talking about it like it's rocket science, either.

Nicolas Cage: Actor, Meme

My daughter showed me the picture above and at first I didn't get it. Of course the orange juice machine is not a toaster. Then I saw the little comic on the upper right - "You Don't Say?" - and I realized that it was sarcastic.

Looked up "You Don't Say" on YouTube and this video popped up with 1,627,393 views. It's a seen from the movie "Vampire's Kiss" with Nicolas Cage.

There isn't one mention of the words "You Don't Say" in the video but I'm starting to get it...the whole meme thing is sarcasm, making fun of popular culture, things we've said again and again. And anonymity - in meme culture I have never once seen an author.

It's meta-commentary, post-branding, reflexivity, fun.


Want more information? Here's another video, "The Origins Of Meme," with 2,251,585 views.

Even if you've never heard of a meme before, time to get on the communication bandwagon. Start with pronouncing "meme" right - here's a short tutorial on that. To make your own, visit

Hire for Brand, Train For Technical Skills

In response to: "That's Not Your Area To Worry About; That's Above Your Pay Grade; You're Not Being A 'Team Player!'" at GovLoop

Just saw this post and wondered why nobody had replied. Then realized that of course, nobody had replied as there's really no diplomatic way to say that you've gone through this at work even though employees, federal and nonfederal, go through this all the time.
The problem is really that we're hired to do specific jobs, that fit into a specific functional area, that fits into a specific kind of hierarchy, that is situated within a culture. The unspoken but understood contract is that you you get a performance plan and you fulfill its requirements and then you are secure. Unfortunately this model is very outdated.
In today's economy/work environment we need to be hiring people who fit in well with the overall brand of the organization. By "brand" I mean the culture but a little more than the culture - it's the "way things are" plus "the way we want them to be." You could call brand a combination of culture, mission and direction.
When you hire for brand, you immediately add to the cohesiveness of the team and enable it to be higher-performing. The technical stuff you can train for, whether it's computers or the things that particular agency or organization does that are mission-specific.
The kind of people who are best equipped for the new workplace are broadly educated critical thinkers who do exactly what the old-fashioned organization tells them not to do. They jump in, see the big picture, identify problems, and find ways to solve them either alone or with other people.
This is why understanding and continually refining the brand through leading people is the #1 job of any and every leader and should be the top task on the priority list every single day. 

CVS For Lunch

Usually I don't have time to run out for lunch nor do I want to spend the money at the food court (eats into the Starbucks budget).
Therefore I went to CVS one day and stocked up on various things that seemed somewhat edible.
It took me way too long to find something. Generally it is sort of a mystery to me why the "grocery" (so to speak, it's more like half an aisle where I go) section is stocked the way it is. Whatever, it's probably marketing research combined with sales volume data that determines what's on the shelf.
Given the various restrictions in my diet, including general calorie/addictiveness of food considerations, eating kosher, and not wanting to spend too much, I pick out the following:
  • General Foods International Coffee - it just tastes way too good to be true and I don't know what each chemical in the ingredients does. Don't care.
  • Red Bull - to which I am so addicted that at a recent offsite, where I was sequestered in an anonymous office building with no access, I thought they were going to call 911 the way I was slumped over in the chair by 3 p.m. Yes, I did run to (guess where, CVS) the minute it was over.
  • Butter Lover's popcorn in a blue box, probably Act II - whatever brand this is, it smelled so strong when I microwaved it that people came by to my cube to ask if I had chocolate. Yes they said chocolate. And I got a huge stomachache afterward, but craved yet more.
Disgusting isn't it.
Let me close this blog by saying that I had a really nice mug on my desk that I put pens in. I needed said mug for the coffee. Unfortunately the mug had ink on the bottom. One of the pens had drained itself of ink and there it was, pooled at the bottom. Settled in.
I was desperate for a cup of coffee one day, and that was the only mug I had. This is so gross, but I heated up some water in the mug, thinking that the ink would not affect it. I put the coffee in the mug and it tasted fine. 
I couldn't drink the whole thing so I left the mug on the desk with some coffee still left in there, and the ink at the bottom. Went home for the weekend and came back on Monday to find the mug still there, till with the coffee in it, but tinged a different color. Purple.
Went to the office sink to wash out the mug, thoroughly ashamed of my lack of "housekeeping." And when I dumped out the liquid there it was - I couldn't believe it! Whatever was in the General Foods International Coffee had literally lifted out that ink. 
The mug was sparkling!
And they say CVS doesn't have everything. It does. It does.
Note: They say Coca-Cola takes the paint off a car, so I'm sure General Foods International Coffee is **completely** safe to drink. Meme by me via

Facebook May Not "Get Marketing," But They Still Have A Great Brand

Last night I saw a TV commercial promoting Lay's Facebook contest where you can name your flavor and maybe win $1m.

Let me start by saying that I'm not a fan of potato chips, or Lay's, and normally could not care less about any commercial promoting same.  If I were to crave potato chips it would either be anything "kettle style" (except Utz, because I hate the name "Utz" and it seems cheap) or anything Pringle's, which always tastes very flavorful and indeed is very hard to put down (the famous tagline "Once You Pop, You Can't Stop." The logo is also great.

In any case I was watching TV and the commercial came on. It showed New York, a city still enveloped in myth and mystery for me, so I paid attention. Then there was Eva Longoria doing a Desperate Housewives bit in character, trying to get someone to pay attention to what she was saying. I didn't recognize the other person she was talking to, who seemed like a restauranteur-celebrity.

Eva was saying that the person should listen to her idea for a flavor for potato chips.

This seemed kind of humorous. I used to love on the show when she (in character) tried to convince husband Carlos of something. It reminded me of the "I Love Lucy" show where Lucy was always selling Ricky on her harebrained ideas.

The commercial went on and there were lots of people dancing in the streets of New York about their potato chip suggestions. It seemed so easy. And Eva had suggested "corn dog" flavor, hadn't she. Hm. I could beat that. A simple URL:

At the URL it took me maybe 5 minutes to submit an idea. I was thinking, what could be good? And then it hit me - at the kosher deli we used to like to get falafel flavor "Bissli" (an Israeli snack). Fried bits of flour that tasted like falafel. That would be great in a chip!

The contest asked me to come up with a "backstory" or theme and then I started thinking...falafel is one of those foods unique to the Middle East, that people of all nationalities and faiths enjoy. Meaning - this food could be the key to Middle East peace. (If you watched the movie "Don't Mess With The Zohan" with Adam Sandler you know this is not a new concept, except there it was hummus.)

Anyway, I had a lot of fun entering the contest. I have no real idea how to promote my chosen flavor. So I don't know if I have any chance of winning, period. But the best part of it was that I finally discovered the mystery that has been eluding me for so long.

Which is: What is the essence of the Facebook brand - not for the brand's producers, but its consumers?

This is not going to be anything new to most of you. It's not totally new to me. But because I experienced it so vividly firsthand, I feel like I can articulate it better.

The essence of the Facebook brand is that it provides a blank slate, on a level playing field, for you to develop and communicate your unique identity. 

As you customize your page and come up with new ideas, you are really embarking on a discovery process about who you are. And it works better the less you are worried about building a brand and the more you simply engage in it.

While it's true that there are all kinds of concerns about learning about yourself in such a public way, for me the benefits have outweighed them. I feel more confident and at peace with a canvas before me and the world as my palette.

In any case, it is surprising to me that such a seemingly valuable company doesn't do more to explain itself to the consumer at all. You could argue that it's a form of brand genius that they are such non-marketers, but with so much money at stake, it also seems like a form of incompetence.

Nate Elliott at Forrester research makes a similar point in the Forbes article "Why Facebook Still Doesn't Get Marketing." My feeling is - if you're not going to do marketing, or branding, then don't. But if you are, then you should know what you're doing.

A thought about national security, social media and branding

After reading the New York Times op-ed "Israel's Settlers Are Here To Stay, something occurred to me. (This requires developing further.) Due to the ubiquity and availability of social media, it is no longer possible (if it ever was) to develop a nation-brand the traditional way.

National security demands that not everything be transparent; but the expectation of the audience is that brands will always be authentic. A possible solution could be a bolder stance about what the national vision is (rather than trying to please every stakeholder), and also a bolder assertion that there are simply some things that cannot be discussed.

In the context of Israeli settlers' insistence on a one-state vs. two-state solution, this sounds controversial. But in the end, is it better to simply say clearly what it is that your goal is, or to be more circumspect? In a social media age, I am leaning toward the former - but the problem is that such definitiveness can be too divisive to sustain.

Something to reflect on further.

Seriously, Duct Tape Art @ AC Moore

There is a certain kind of person who goes crazy at the sight of raw creative material. That is not me.

And then there are those who see the potential for "semi-homemade" art (like Sandra Lee's cooking show) and get seriously jazzed.

I am one of those people. Sort of like using a pre-made brand to make a unique "look."

Spongebob Squarepants duct tape and a video explaining how to turn it into a fun, individualistic creation?

Count me in.

In a writing mode for now.

I don't know when any book is going to happen. Every time I have a chance to sit down and pull the content together, another thing comes to mind that seems important to write.

That's OK, it'll wait.

Occupy Chesapeake Beach

Surprised they didn't bring a stove.

Very seriously you can do marketing research by watching what people do when they hit a blank strip of beach:

1. Some people show up fully stocked, as if they were literally moving in. Reminds me of how we used to see the cars of city-ites fleeing to Bear Mountain in the summer with their homemade hammocks, boom-boxes, cookout gear, cookers, chairs, and even mattresses (!)

2. Others bring a pet and play catch and retrieve in and out of the water. The pet runs free and it frees them.

3. Some search for seashells very intently even when there are very few good finds to be had.

4. Some seem to do mini-science projects like looking for jellyfish and picking them up on sticks. (Yes!)

5. Finally there are those who tap away at their smartphones, take photos and videos, write blog posts and take care of phone calls. Generally these types being a small folding chair, not for relaxing but to keep the sand away from the phone. I can't imagine who would be as workaholic as that :-)

A Meditation On Angelina Jolie

Having just watched an esoteric Angelina Jolie-Antonio Banderas movie on Netflix I am disturbed. I don't like what Angelina stands for, at least as I conceive it. And yet I am compelled to watch her be that persona.

We had a discussion about our mission at work the other day. What struck me was how uncomfortable people are at being reduced to one simple sentence. And yet they crave that simplicity in the abstract. We strive to reduce other people to categories so that we can comprehend them.

Angelina Jolie a a persona, or brand, is a very simple idea. Maybe it's "dangerous woman." But the movie on Netflix, like all her work, shows that she's a lot more complicated.

I am still mad at her for breaking up Brad and Jennifer just because she could do it, and he was willing to go with her. But then I don't really know the true story, do I? Only what's made up in my head, of the stories other people tell who may or may not know anything.

Brands like Angelina are valuable because they leave us a little unsettled.

Like Mick Jagger may have said (paraphrase, gossip magazine, source?), referring to her,

"Angelina scares me, and I like that."

Me too.

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