Take a Moment to Be Quiet

It’s Sept. 11, which is now far enough in the past that many people don’t remember the horror of the day.

But there’s much to be said for pausing to remember that anything can happen at any moment.

Carve out a quiet moment.   (Courtesy of apps.carlton.edu)

Carve out a quiet moment.                                                                                                                                               (Photo courtesy of apps.carlton.edu)

 

 

 

 

 

Can Lassie be saved? When re-branding doesn’t work

I’m still reeling about Lassie. That the scion of a loyal, courageous, elegant line of war heroes (The Courage of Lassie) has been re-positioned as the “Kate Middleton of animals” is more than I can bear.

Lassie, enduring her rebranding as a product pitch dog.  Courtesy of The New York Times.

Lassie, enduring her rebranding as a product pitch dog.  (Courtesy of The New York Times)

Granted re-branding is tricky, as are brand extensions. Should this young Lassie have been a brand extension instead of a re-brand?  Can Lassie come home?

Case in point:  I’ve been admiring a new extension of a venerable local brand as it’s come together over the last several months.  The new building is adjacent to the original, so the relationship of mother-to-child is obvious. Of course, this is not Hollywood, but we’re getting close to it here in Austin, Tex.

The original, Fonda San Miguel, is a gorgeous place filled with a world-class art collection, food and drink. A welcoming, elegant restaurant with adjacent gardens.

It's the kind of restaurant eople take pictures of each other standing in front of

It’s the kind of restaurant where you go to curry favor.

Here’s the extension. It’s unannounced, unopened but rumored to be a tapas bar.  Perfect, no?

The new tapas bar of Fonda San Miguel in Austin, Texas.

The child of the grand Fonda San Miguel, just across the garden in Austin, Texas.  A bit of hipster funk.

The brand extension works because it contrasts with the original while maintaining the flavor. It’s unexpected, but it makes sense. (I sound like I’m at a wine tasting, don’t I?  But you understand what I’m saying.)

A lesson for Dreamworks?  Don’t tamper with an icon.  Did anyone ask Marilyn Monroe to lose weight?  Well, probably, but that’s another conversation.

Is it presumptious to compare a Hollywood icon to a local institution?  Perhaps. But then again why not, if something is to be learned?

Maybe Lassie’s great-great-great offspring should have been renamed “Lasi” and positioned as a fashion blogger?

University student-designed solar cars show a path to the future

Finding myself fretting about the future of mockingbirds in a changing climate, I ventured over to the Circuit of the Americas to see what the American Solar Challenge was all about.

University students, these from Michigan State, use competition to learn more about solar.

University students, these from Michigan State, use competition to learn more about solar.

The weather had thrown a curveball, or to race aficionados, a chicane.  It was overcast and about 20 degrees cooler than your average July day in Texas.  No sun at a solar race makes for  a very slow pace.  But the crowd at the giant F1 track was coping gamely with long gaps between competitors. Student observers suspended high above the track were doing chin-ups in their  cages, on the lookout for approaching cars.  Enthusiasm remained high.

I wandered over to an open garage (pit?) to talk with the Michigan State team, which was engaged in some show-and-tell. Although they’d been disqualified, you’d never know it. “Don’t touch the arrays,” they patiently reminded the children who wanted to figure it all out by feel.

“It’s all about learning,” said Sean, a soon-to-be junior.  “Winning is icing on the cake, but it’s what you learn. We can’t wait til next year.”

I was curious how the team worked together.  Sean said they just figured out how to collaborate, but needed to do more of it.  “We need more ideas.”  A teammate chimed in, “Yeah, if you don’t have ideas, you’re frozen in place.”

Next year they plan to use a lighter material for the frame (it’s steel) and four- instead of a three-wheel design.  I don’t see these young people frozen in place. The team is losing three seniors to PhD. programs – Stanford and Michigan State.

We’re banking on these young people and those lucky enough to be like them.  We need the keys to trapping and commercializing photovoltaic energy; fortunately, the world seems to be kneeling at their feet.  Flash notice: The Abu Dhabi Solar Challenge will be held on an F1 track in January 2015, with financial support and partnerships available on a first-come, first-serve basis for 20-25 qualified university teams.

In the meantime, I’m channeling their attitude – about learning, failing and engaging.  I hope that’s the future.

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond Work Hard/Play Hard: Building a Resilient Culture

The most surprising aspect of a SXSW Interactive workshop on corporate culture was how few people showed up and participated.  “Beyond Ping Pong Tables: Building Better Companies” was by far the best discussion of that behavioral petri-dish we call culture I’ve ever attended.  Led by a fascinating leadership trio, it condensed experience from the nonprofit, Wall Street, entrepreneurial and corporate worlds:

  • Jessica Lawrence, executive director of the New York Tech Meetup
  • Rasanth Das, co-founder, Bhakti Center (and former Wall Street banker)
  • Vipin Goyal, founder and CEO, SideTour (and former McKinsey consultant)

    More than work hard/play hard:  Culture is a major success factor. Be intentional in cultivating it.

    Culture is a major organizational success factor. Be intentional in cultivating it.

The takeaway:  Each of us is a culture cop. Culture is everybody’s business. . Our values model our behavior, which shapes our culture.  It starts with the CEO, but everybody else is part of the  check and balance.

All too often this becomes a cult of CEO’s personality.  Vibrant organizations understand this and intentionally transform this misplaced focus on externals into an organization-wide investment in the values that shape people’s behavior.

Casual cultures break down under pressure, as do dysfunctional ones.  I’ve learned this the hard way first, as a veteran of IBM’s implosion in the 90’s, during the start up bust of the early 2000’s and again with a small agency.  Warning:  Disintegrating cultures are very painful and lead to their own form of PTSD.  Practical tips from Lawrence, Das and Goyal:

Hire for culture over competence; ask candidates:

            • What books are you reading?
            • What was the last thing you googled?
            • What do you watch on TV/movies?

Think of the employee handbook as an articulation of corporate culture:

  • Considering a new job?  Ask to read the handbook.
  • Check for vacation guidelines, maternity/paternity leave, and gauge it against your values
  • How does the physical space allow for interaction, concentration or lack of both?  Does it offer multiple functional spaces?  Common spaces for accidental intersections?

The hardest:  Spend time talking about culture. It may be your biggest success factor:

  • Sacred cow bbq, where people list their nonnegotiables on post-its, prioritize and distill them into a list of values.
  • Write a corporate obituary, what do you want customers, employees to remember?

Food for thought – and action.

 

 

Who Put Brussel Sprouts in Every Shopping Basket?

What I want to know is this:  Who engineered the comeback of brussel sprouts?  Did I miss the tweets?  Because the humble vegetable of my childhood, grey and waterlogged, has morphed into a supply side challenge.

Can farmers keep up?

               Can farmers keep up?

Was it Mark Bittman and those classy NYT spreads?  Some trendy chef in upper New York state, or even here in what was once a comfortably populist ATX (Tex Mex or a steak, anyone?)?

There’s been no humiliating name change (bruss?), as prunes have had to endure (dried plums?).  They look the same:  little cabbages, hard and round.  No labor-saving innovations;  still a somewhat tedious process that requires a colander, trimming, cutting, and unless you’re a roaster, a two-step cooking process.

They still, sauces and marinades aside, taste (and smell) like cabbages.

Was there a blog?  A reality show (an island, 20-somethings, a case of brussel sprouts and lots of conflict?)  Opeds?

Did Dr. Oz endorse them for their digestive qualities?  Was it the source-agnostic but ever-purist French?

Where is the marketing team?  I want to meet them.

Be Great

Each of us can be great — in our own way.  Great human beings don’t spring full-blown from Zeus’ head like Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and inspiration.  The trick lies in uncovering, then nurturing its seed.

Thanks to technology (and I include publishing), we’ve no shortage of examples — in business, the arts and politics.  We can read, see and hear the stories of people who discovered their gift and then overcame their circumstances, doubts and fears to be bigger, broader and richer (if that’s what they wanted).

Work at being great -- in your own way. (Courtesy of Greg Bartley/Camera Press, via Redux, The New York Times)

Work at being great — in your own way. (Courtesy of Greg Bartley/Camera Press, via Redux, The New York Times)

Many of us have to dig to find our seed of greatness.  Maybe it’s writing, or developing great relationships or designing gardens.  But believing in ourselves — and our unique greatness — is pivotal.  Otherwise, our hands are tied.  We fail to act.  So we have to look for examples and learn from others.

Take entrepreneurs.  Entrepreneurs are energizers.  They charge us up with their self-confidence and sheer drive.  Last week I sat in on a talk by John Arrow, the brilliant young CEO of Mutual Mobile.  Arrow told about his first entrepreneurial effort, a grammar school newsletter that was shut down for profiling students’ popularity.  (Sounds a little like a Facebook prototype, yes?) While his co-conspirators were punished by their parents, he was praised for his business acumen.  That chutzpah — and vision — has taken him far.

Or statesmen.  Nelson Mandela believed in a cause so great it dwarfed the failure and suffering he endured to become an icon of humanitarianism. Bill Keller‘s coverage drew from a 2007 interview.  Mandela was asked how he kept his hatred in check:  “… his answer was almost dismissive: “Hating clouds the mind.  It gets in the way of strategy.  Leaders cannot afford to hate.”  My sense is Mandela, although born the son of a tribal chief, was not always so adept a diplomat. I listened to a former colleague describe him as a “head knocker.”  If that’s the case, then Mandela had to master his anger to achieve his goals.

Or musicians.  A quote from the late, great Lou Reed, who as a young man had been through electroshock therapy, and in his music never seemed too concerned about popular opinion.  He followed his muse:

I’ve never thought of music as a challenge — you always figure the audience is at least as smart as you are.  You do this because you like it, you think what you’re making is beautiful.  And if you think it’s beautiful, maybe they think it’s beautiful.

As we wind down another year, rushing madly along, let’s go for one thing:  Let’s try for greatness.  Or as Steven Pressfield puts it,  … Follow your unconventional, crazy heart.  Do the work.

Stay Curious Despite the Shutdown: Try edX

“We’re looking for the international space station,” my elderly neighbors said as they looked up at the night sky.

“What does it look like?”  I asked.

The night sky on Oct. 13, 2013 in Austin, Texas.  That's Jupiter above the tree. Courtesy Night Sky Network.

The night sky on Oct. 13, 2013 in Austin, Texas. That’s Jupiter above the tree. Courtesy Night Sky Network.

“We’re not sure, but it’s supposed to be out here someplace.”

We spend a lot of our time looking for things without knowing exactly what we’re looking for.   Ideally, there’s a sense of wonder, but also frustration and alas, impatience.

Whether it’s a job, a new client or partner.  We know they’re out there, somewhere.  But where?

The trick is to stay curious, so curious we keep trying.

To keep my curiosity in tune, I’m trying our edX, specifically Dr. Micheal Webber’s Energy 101 MOOC.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

The content is terrific, especially the widgets.  I find myself sliding over maps of Europe, Africa, India and South America to get a sense of our world — in constant flux.  Want to see fracking in action?  Stephen Rountree’s 3D infographic is one of the best I’ve seen.

But it’s the sheer scope of the effort that sparks my imagination.  Comments and introductions from people all over the world – Iran, Palestine, Iceland.

It’s like the night sky; makes you think anything is possible.  (Even this photo, taken by intrepid volunteers on Astronomy Day 2013 by the Night Sky Network, despite the federal shutdown)