Video Clips from Branding in Government Talk, July 17, 2014

Yesterday I gave a talk on branding in government at the July 2014 Council of Inspectors General for Integrity and Efficiency Public and Media Communications Council meeting in Washington, DC. Here's a link to the playlist with some clips from the talk. As always, all opinions are my own.


 

How James Heller Became President

He is not a real President of course. But as I watched the "24" season finale I learned much about what makes a person the kind of leader people would give their lives for.

Heller is not a technical expert. He's not a military guy. He isn't aggressive. In fact he's losing his mind to Alzheimer's. But he has the people's loyalty anyway. Here's why:

1) He delegates.

Heller does not pretend to know Jack Bauer's tradecraft (the ins and outs of being a one-man SWAT team). He isn't military. He doesn't know computers. He trusts people to do their jobs.

2) He doesn't play favorites.

His chief of staff was married to his daughter. But when he confessed to an unforgivable crime, Heller had him arrested for treason.

3) He knows when to cede power.

When Bauer does well he gives him unlimited authority, to the point where he allows Jack to overrule him at one point - it doesn't matter if Heller is the president, Jack knows what to do and must be listened to.

4) He makes difficult decisions in a timely manner.

On the show China mistakenly believes that America has attacked it. He begs China not to retaliate. But he doesn't dilly-dally over a response, emphasizing that if China does do that, "We will fight."

5) He collaborates genuinely.

Heller works with the Prime Minister of England to catch the terrorists, giving him full access to America's intelligence even when this makes the military nervous.

6) He has his priorities in order.

Heller knows that he is going to be shamed when the Alzheimer's takes over. But that is not his main concern. He focuses on taking care of his country and his daughter.

7) He is concerned without being controlling.

He asks his daughter how her marriage is going in a way that suggests he knows something is wrong. But he doesn't push her to talk about it if she doesn't want to.

8) He is engaged.

In every scene, Heller is in the situation room, in front of the monitor, asking questions. He may not know everything but he shows that it's important enough for him to try.

9) He shows the appropriate range of emotion - in front of his staff.

When Heller is surprised that the terrorist Chang is alive and not dead, he shows the surprise and doesn't pretend that he knew it already. When his chief of staff forges his signature to get Jack killed, he shows anger. And when he gets the news of his daughter's death, he stumbles and faints in agony.

10) He throws himself under the bus rather than others.

Heller goes to a football stadium prepared to get blown up rather than have innocent civilians die in a terrorist attack.

* All opinions my own.

Aren't We Friends?

One of the most unethical things a person can do is pretend to be friends with another person, just to use them, gain unfair advantage, or even stab them in the back.

But it happens all the time - it's accepted - and it's even considered a career skill: "professional networking," "climbing the ladder," "learning how to play the political game."

I am fascinated and repulsed by this behavior. Fascinated because it's a skill, it works and it's tempting to want to know how to do it. Repulsed because it's morally totally wrong.

Of course manipulating people's emotions is not a new tactic.

  • In war it is called the "Trojan Horse" strategy, i.e. we come to your city bearing gifts and then once the gates are open, the arsenal of weapons is unleashed.
  • "Honeypots" are a tried-and-true espionage strategy involving the use of attractive women to elicit intelligence secrets.

People who should know better are gullible - heck I have always been gullible as hell - because they have an inherent need to be loved, accepted, and connected.
  • The need for connection is why people will always rather sit alone on a hard chair in Starbucks all day, when they could just as well sit with "no one" at home, because there are other people around.
  • A classic 1959 study by psychologist Harry Harlow showed that monkeys would rather have a fake cloth "mother" that hugs them, over a bare-wire surrogate that actually gives them milk. Monkeys left isolated for long periods actually mutilated themselves in agony.
  • In 2014, widely published research discussed the finding that people will voluntarily administer themselves electroshock rather than be forced to stop, disconnect themselves from their various brain-immersion devices, and just think.
In particular, they say "misery loves company" and people will always try to occupy a shared experience in whatever situation they find themselves - yes, even when facing death in a concentration camp.

It's hard to admit that you are a gullible person. But not admitting it hurts a lot more. It blinds you to the obvious where a better strategy would be to look at people's motives head-on.

* All opinions my own.

Who's Afraid of Performance Management?

I've been in a couple of federal agencies where performance management was a hot topic and every manager was afraid to touch it for fear of a grievance.

I've been in meetings where the discussion focused on "rooting out the dead wood," and I said, what about recognizing the good wood and I got the look like, come on Dannielle, we all know that poor performance is the problem.

And the opposite, there were those meetings where everybody focused on how bad criticism is by nature, how it hurts morale and how bad employees would feel if they got an actual one in their performance evaluation.

This is not one agency this is at least two, three if you count benignly ignoring poor performance and giving virtually everyone performance awards. It's four if you count the one where I inadvertently found out someone did something really bad, reported it and there was no obvious consequence other than I was outed as something of a troublemaker.

And then there's the private sector where the new fad is "holacracy," as in "hola" to managers not having to manage because peer groups take care of it for them. That's Zappos; let's not forget Whole Foods where the co-CEO lets employees run the stores (as long as the employees earn far less and he keeps making a profit) and also wants to have "sleepovers" so that corporate staff can be more like friends.

I have had lots of bosses in my life. Some have benignly let me do whatever I wanted, and I've flourished. Others have been unfairly harsh. Still others have been rigorous about telling me what I'm doing wrong, and praising me (more rarely) when I get it right. Those are the managers I want to work for - the people I want to please - because I know that when I get an actual good rating it means something.

In the end you've got to look yourself in the mirror and respect what you see in the reflection. As a manager or supervisor you owe it to people to give them real feedback and not set up ways to avoid it. As an employee you deserve to get the truth as your supervisor sees it and not mush. And both parties should be grown up enough to engage in respectful dialogue, celebrating victories while admitting mistakes and avoiding excuses.

* All opinions my own.

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