The intolerance of difference

celebrate difference

In a recent post, I argued there was one proven way (borne from research) that dealt with bullying, but it was not easy to do. You had to deal with all 4 sides of bullying behaviour: the bully, the victim, the bully’s acolytes and the majority who carry on with their lives.

I’d now like to step back and discuss what causes bullying behaviour in the first place. What explains persistent and aggressive behaviour against a weaker group by another larger, stronger group?

It’s intolerance of difference, pure and simple.

Bullies play on the herd mentality, that bond that makes people stick together in a group of sameness. This group pours scorn and blame on a smaller group ‘that looks different’. Perhaps these victims dress different, pray different, eat different, speak different, act different. Some things, or many things, are different about them. And it’s this intrinsic ‘different-ness’ that becomes the reason to pick on them.

We are naturally scared of things we don’t understand. It’s an understandable, human response. Ever since our cave-dwelling days, we have been wired to distrust anyone that comes into our area that is not from our tribe. Safer to assume they will attack us, take our food, our jobs, destroy our neighbourhoods. You tended to live longer that way. Survival of the fittest.

Whether it’s the red-haired chubby 9 year old being picked on by taller, slimmer jocks, or whether it’s Hanson’s ‘Asian invasion’ of the late 90s (or her ‘Muslim invasion’ of the mid 2010s), what is common to all this behaviour is a majority privileged group putting down a smaller ‘different’ group, and blaming them for all their own ills.

What is also common is a complete falsehood with the facts. Asians did not invade Australia, nor are we being swamped by Muslims (less than 2% of the population). And anyway, what is actually wrong with having a nice variety of people and cultures on our country? What a boring, staid place it would be if it were all the same. How insular and sad that country would be. We’d all be missing out on some amazing experiences, many of which we take for granted today, that only came about through immigration and ties between countries (such as open trade).

Of course the two-faced nature of the ‘anti immigration’ debate is that those proposing it are indeed immigrants themselves, in their own generation or not many generations before. They should be more honest in their arguments (but of course they are not) by declaring: ‘I got here first, I like it, and I don’t want anyone else coming in and getting what I enjoy.’

If we only ‘stopped the boats’ (full of fleeing refugees, by their very nature the most downtrodden, weakest people on the planet), or ‘reduced immigration’ or ‘banned head scarves’ then somehow everything would be back to how it was. The implication is that it is too easy to get to our country, and we’re being overrun. A country of 24 million, with a land mass of 7.7 million sq kms, one of the largest countries on the planet.

Quickly you see the same four groups forming – the bullies shout from their safe positions as shock jocks, Alt Right politicians, Senate seats, news opinion pulpits or press columns, while their supporters jeer from the stands (‘Trump tells it like it is!’). Half a million voted in the recent election for Hanson’s party. Suddenly all your issues can be blamed on them, those that look and act different to us, those same people fleeing the horrors of Syria or African war lords. Meanwhile the victims line up for scorn, and have little recourse to a fair hearing. At the same time, the majority sit by, possibly disagreeing but not intervening.

One wonders why we don’t celebrate difference, rather than have a preconditioned aversion or suspicion to it. Multiculturalism brings the world together, creates better understanding and forms ties between peoples. You are less suspicious of people you have met and interacted with. 20,000 Syrian refugees are not going to ruin Australia (or the US for that matter) any more than the Vietnamese boat people did in the 1970s. In fact, many went on to form businesses, not for profits and councils and do great work in our communities. It makes a society richer, more understanding and inclusive. Ultimately, this makes us and the country safer. What puts a country at risk is tribalism, with people bleetingly following their one eyed herd.

In the 1990s I taught at the United World College of SE Asia in Singapore. There were students from 60 different nationalities in the school, over 1500 in all. Over 8 years, I saw no bullying behaviour. Instead, I saw celebration of difference, proudly proclaimed on ‘UN Nights’ and every day with kids just getting on with each other, forming friendships and understanding each other’s cultures. In fact, it was not even an issue. Put different cultures together at an early, formative age and they will have peace, argued Kurt Hahn, the founder of the United World Colleges. They were set up in the 1960s, a few years after the horrors of the Second World War, precisely for this reason. There are now 16 such colleges around the world. None (sadly) in Australia.

I am looking for the politician or leader to celebrate difference.

To plot a different path. To talk about what unites us, rather than play on what naturally can scare us and rub salt on divisions. To talk to our better angels, not our worse demons.

This is not for some trendy tree-hugging bohemian reasons, this is actually for our own (and everyone’s) betterment. A safer future, a surer world, confident in itself, able to stand up to bullies.

Perhaps Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, is the best example of this in practice. He personally welcomed the first group of Syrian refugees. When he was asked about the risk of letting in Syrians, he corrected the interviewer, saying ‘They are Canadians, and we will protect them, as we do all Canadians.’

Let’s use the power of the people to make this happen. Let’s call out those who pander to the lowest common denominators. Love trumps hate.

How to deal with bullying

BULLY

The repeated aggressive actions designed to belittle, humiliate or exclude is the act of bullying. Whether it’s in the school playground, online, at work or in the board room, there are four groups involved in bullying. They are present in all cases, and if the bullying behaviour is to stop, you have to deal with all four.

Before I get onto them, let me clearly explain what bullying is, and is not. One off acts of aggression are not necessarily acts of bullying. Bullying is the repeated picking on someone, or some group of people, over time. Nasty, incessant and continual. It is done to put down the victim, who the bully (and their acolytes) are there to dominate. It is usually for some totally unfair reason, be it someone who is slightly ‘overweight’ or has red hair, something the victim cannot control. At the root of the bullying behaviour is a power play, with the distinct desire of the bully being to put the victim down, and to make the bully (feel) superior. It is highly likely the bully is themselves acting out an insecurity issue, or has been the subject of repeated violence before. It is learned behaviour.

Anyone who has been bullied knows the horrible sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach whenever the bully or their supporters are around. React, lash out or cry and the victim is laughed at, punched, pushed over, physically or verbally. Complain to the powers that be, and retribution can follow. It can involve exclusion, it can be online (sending photos around social media, mocking someone on Instagram.)

I came across bullying at school, both as a student and as a teacher. When I was on teacher training I researched this area, and found some great work from Denmark which clearly laid out how to deal with bullying instances. Before I get to this, let me outline what does not work.

What does not work

  1. Ignore it – “they just want a reaction” ~ understandably the victim might be to ignore what is going on, in the hope it simply goes away. The bully and their mates laugh, and see the victim as an easy target. It usually continues.
  2. Fight back – “Man up!” ~ Not only does this ignore the fact that 70% of school bullies are female, fighting back can get you into trouble, and lowers the victim to the bully’s level. Settling things through violence is precisely NOT the way to deal with this. In any case, if the bully thought you’d beat them in a fight, they would not have picked on you to start with.
  3. Punish the bully (only) ~ complaining to the teacher or an adult is the first thing a victim must do, but if that authority figure then simply metes out retribution to the bully only (thinking this will solve it), the bully could turn on the victim and worsen the situation. If it’s one word against another, with parents involved, what is the teacher to do? Detentions might be a badge of honour for the bully and their mates.
  4. Laugh it off ~ can work in some cases, if you are strong enough to laugh in the face of the bully and their supporters and get away with it. Chances are, this will not work, unless you can really sustain some very good scripting (see below).

The Four Groups 

Bullying needs 4 things:

  1. A bully
  2. A victim
  3. A group of bully supporters (the acolytes)
  4. Everyone else does nothing (the silent majority)

To adequately deal with a break out of bullying behaviour, you need do counsel all four.

The bully needs to be isolated and talked to – why are they doing this? What is the problem? How do they think the victim feels? Is it right or wrong? Are they big enough to stop it? They might be acting out an insecurity. They may be suffering at home. They may have modelled this behaviour from others. Can they learn from this?

The victim also needs counselling. What signals are they giving off to the bully and their supporters? What can they do about the situation? What friends/assistance do they have? They may be submissive individuals. If you provide some ‘strengthening’ advice for the victim, they might be able to grow. “You’ve got a large nose”. “True, it is a bit big isn’t it?!”. “You’re an idiot.” “You think so – why’s that?”

The other (often ignored) group are those that egg on the bully. They are secretly glad the bully is not picking on them, and are usually scared of the bully themselves. They might not like the aggression, but fall into line through weakness. The bully, being manipulative, might end up getting them into trouble as well. This group needs talking with. Why are they doing this? Do they want it to end? This group can be the quickest to defeat bullying. Take away the crowd the bully is acting up to, and the major benefit for the bully evaporates.

The final group is also often forgotten in all this. Bad things happen only because good people allow them to continue. Everyone knows what is going on. While this group are not the bullies’ mates and not actively encouraging the behaviour, their silence and inaction allows it to continue. In fact, it’s a necessary precondition. If this group confronted the bully and their supporters, the bullying would cease. If they befriended the victim, they would out number the bully. The power balance would shift.

I witnessed some bad cases of bullying in schools. For each case, I tried to isolate the four groups and spoke with each of them. It took time. I engaged each group in finding a solution. They all knew I knew what was going on. After a week or so, the behaviour had completely gone. The victim had some good friends who looked out for him. He grew as a person. The victim was not that successful at school, and needed some better outlets. The acolytes felt a bit sheepish, as did the silent majority (where most of the victim’s new friends came from).

What sickens me about bullying is the total unfairness of it, and the deep hurt it can cause. It is every person’s basic human right NOT to be bullied, and to be able to go about their business without this kind of sickening antagonism. Some become so isolated, so hurt and unhappy they feel they do not want to go on. Youth suicide is a real issue. It’s dreadful. It is preventable.

Moving out into the world we see grown ups who act as bullies. They shout and stamp and think this is going to get them through. They may have large physical presences, and use this to get their way in business and in life. One even uses classic bully techniques to run for President. What is common to all bullies is a deep-seated insecurity. They are cowards. If the majority rise up and call them on it, they lash out, but in the end they are trumped.

Company Directors Course – 5. Board effectiveness

CDC - board effectiveness

The final day of the company directors course focussed on board effectiveness –  what is it? how can it be managed? what’s best practice? what are some of the traps? The first half involved long time board recruiter Mike Horabin sharing his vast knowledge and decades of hard won experience. The second half involved us being put into a live case study, where we each in turn acted out as a presenter to the board, an observer of the board, and being a director on the board on a separate agenda item. It was the high point of the week, and a strong conclusion to the proceedings. 

There are so many takeaways from this course, so here are just a few more to add to those already posted about the board’s responsibilities and decision-making, duties and the law, risk and strategy and accounts, solvency and finances

  1. Boards are charged with coming to sound conclusions, concentrating on the proper items in front of them, with concise, well prepared information. They need a good mix of people and skills, have leadership from within (Chair) and provide leadership to the company. Overall, they are there to add value.
  2. Good boards provide calm decisions in times of crisis, are not rushed or panicked.
  3. They are a pool of wisdom, and are there to guide, mentor and assist management.
  4. Individual characteristics of good board members include: integrity and honesty, relevant experience, strategic thinking, good communication skills, wise and battle scarred, inclusive, good team player, adaptable, willing to change their views, courageous enough to ask difficult questions, are independent, decisive and have good instincts.
  5. High performance boards can have tough conversations but still reach decisions and be productive; they respect each other, trust and share in an open environment.
  6. The ‘magnificent 7‘ things a board needs to do are: lead with the right culture, develop the best strategy & pick the best CEO (then these others become easier ->), manage risk, monitor performance, ensure compliance & maintain good shareholder relations.
  7. The chair’s role is crucial – they are elected by the board, their relationship with CEO is pivotal, and they can only continue if they have the backing of the board.
  8. The Board should manage their own secession; most of the time they should try to get a new member on board before the other departs, and then have their position ratified at an AGM; they can come on as casual for a few months beforehand.
  9. Board committees must have clear terms of reference, time frame, its own Chair (good training ground for future chairs) and make recommendations to the main board.
  10. If you don’t agree with the way decisions are going in the main board meeting, by all means meet other board members, but make your points and do a paper to the next meeting if needs be. Talk to the chair; don’t thump tables, and if the decision goes against you, abide by it. Don’t form factions.
  11. Develop a “Matters reserve list” which shows which matters require sign off from Board, with the implication that all else can be handled by the CEO and management. Review this regularly.
  12. A board calendar should outline what needs to be dealt with throughout the year – monthly, quarterly, six-monthly and annually. Board meetings should last 2-3 hours, but can be half days, and in some indigenous organisations might last 2 days.
  13. Culture is crucial and central; it’s not fluffy, it’s hard nosed, but a good corporate culture can lead to so many good outcomes. “Culture is how people in the organisation behave when no one’s watching.”
  14. If Chairs disagree on the direction of the discussion, or how consensus is forming, ask a question. Monitor how bad news gets to the board – is it disguised? embellished? hidden? slow? Ultimately, boards need the bad news quickly.
  15. Papers to the boards are legal documents, as are your notes on them if they are kept and a legal case starts. After that you cannot destroy them, they are evidence. Minutes should be published within 48 hours of each meeting.
  16. Finally, take time to reflect as a board and as individuals, with each other – what can we do better? how did the meetings go? how good were the papers? were our decisions correct/best? have we added enough value? what can be improved?

Overall, the company directors course was a high value 5 days, and brought home the complexity and skill in group decision-making around the board table, how to search for answers, the importance of asking the right/tough questions. It’s made me reflect on how challenging it can be, but how vital it is to do well. It’s made me realise that this is something I want to do, in time, and something where I think I can contribute.

Over the next 3-5 years and beyond organisations are going to be challenged like never before with the rapid changes in technology, cyber security, digital disruption, the sharing economy, robotics, driverless cars, connected devices, the Internet of Things and much more besides. Who knows what jobs will exist for our children in 10 or 20 years time? Probably they have not even been thought of yet. Whole industries will disappear, and new ones will be created. Businesses that cannot stay relevant will fade away. Others will start up.

I would like to be the ‘digital guy’ who sits on various Boards, thinks strategically, and assists organisations make the transition from old way of doing things to the new. It’s exciting, and challenging, and something where I can probably add value. What can you add value on? Are boards something you might be interested in? If so, I highly recommend the AICD company directors course.

… and now I have to do my exams and pass this thing!

Company Directors Course – 1. Board decision making

CDC day one

I’m back at school again, this time on the student side, for the first time in 18 years. Day one of the AICD Company Directors Course has just ended, and I’m going to blog my thoughts and take aways each day, so this will be the first of 5 such posts… 

The CDC course involves 10 modules, each takes half a day, so we covered the first 2 modules today – an introduction to the roles and responsibilities of directors and then group decision making.

It’s fast paced and you have to engage. There’s a lot of pre-reading (I reckon 20-25 hours should be set aside to read all the material and case studies beforehand), and I’m glad I did all the reading, as it gave me a head start and strong overall understanding before I walked in this morning. I could apply my reading to the cases immediately. You could tell some had done all their reading, and some had not. Like a sewer, what you get out of it depends on what you put in. My suggestion is to do the pre-reading work, over a few weeks beforehand and take notes as you read, which helps you stay awake while reading, remember it, and then you can re-read your notes just before the session, and it all comes flooding back.

My main take aways from today are:

  1. Directorships are not for the faint hearted – know what you’re getting yourself in for. Be clear on your responsibilities (to the shareholders) and what you are bringing to the table. Doing the wrong thing can land you in jail (think Adler and Williams from HIH).
  2. Actively participate, but don’t do so overly; add quality to the discussion, and consider how the best boards could be run, and best decisions be made.
  3. Some of the most important decisions a board make involve selecting the best CEO and formulating the best strategy, keeping the management and CEO to account
  4. Boards need to fly at 35,000 feet taking a view from above, and leave the CEO and management to work on ground level on the business; communication between them is critical – how much is enough/too much? how would you know?
  5. Sometimes boards need to fly down to ground level to help (e.g. in a crisis) and then they need to get out of the way again above the clouds when the crisis has been averted.  (Think Kevin Rudd, who was seemingly good in the GFC but then could not let go once it was past.)
  6. You should not get too comfortable on the board; after a few years, a refresh is needed. You can only be truly independent if you are relatively new and have no ties to the organisation (not a major shareholder or supplier).
  7. Group decision making is complex, but should be better than individual decision-making if the board is diverse, has enough information, takes enough time and analyses all sides and thinks what’s in the best long term interests of the shareholders.
  8. There are various tools that can assist decision making (Bono’s 6 hats, decision trees, PEST analysis, etc).
  9. Sometimes short term priorities blur long term thinking.
  10. A good Chair, who can draw out and use the talents of every board member, is crucial – they are like a conductor of an orchestra, and are ultimately responsible.
  11. Groupthink, where everyone just agrees and goes along with a (usually dominant) CEO of Chair is very dangerous; a managed bubbling of various ideas is healthy.
  12. Always consider what other options are possible, why others have not done this, what other information may be required.
  13. Voting is not a good idea; a good Chair will move the Board to a consensus, where all views have been expressed, and everyone can agree on the course of action, how success will be measured. If someone wants their opposition noted, note it.
  14. Reflect on past decisions and what it means for future ones.
  15. Before taking a decision, agree on how the decision shall be made (process).
  16. Will your decisions look good in the cold light of day? the next month? in 10 years’ time?

There will be many more takeaways; but these are off the top of my head (my notes are left back at AICD in the city).

See you tomorrow 🙂

Focus on what you can do

Focus on your own s**t

At a recent business cocktail function the WA swimmer Eamon Sullivan was interviewed about his illustrious career, which has included a world championship gold and a bronze, 2 Olympic silvers and bronze, as well as various world records.

A major take away for me was his honest self appraisal of his failure to win gold at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, despite having the 100m freestyle world record at the time (which he had broken in the semis). He put it down to a ‘classic and unforgivable error’ in the final, as he concentrated more on what his opponent might do, than on what he was about to do.

‘All coaches tell you, never worry about your opposition or concentrate on what they might do. Concentrate on your own skills, your own game, your own stroke, and what you can control. My failure to do this cost me the gold, and it’s something I have to live with, and I know I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.’

You might think he’s being pretty tough on himself, but it’s a really important point. In life generally, we can often get caught up in what others might do. We cannot control what they do. We are only in charge of what we can do, and that’s what we should focus on. Our own performance. Our own skills. Consistently. Persistently. Patiently. Avidly.

We can control what time we turn up for work, what calls me make, how we make them, what we say in client and staff meetings, what we prioritise. We are in control of what we put off for later in the day, or tomorrow. We determine what we do now, and how we do it.

What Eamon reminds us, is that we need to make sure, no matter what, we do the best we can do. For no matter what result occurs, we do not want to have to ponder what we might have done better. Looking back on an exam result, a sales proposal or a potential partner meeting, you do not want to be thinking ‘what might have been if only I’d…’.

It’s obviously something Mr Sullivan is learning to live with, in relation to his big moment, 8 years ago. So, I ask you – are you going to focus* on what you can do, or get distracted by what others might do?

~~

* Or as someone once eloquently put, focus means “focus on your own s**t”.

My day as a courier

Tradesmens Entrance

On Friday I helped out delivering boxes of books to clients. It was a nice change from the desk job, and got me out into 13 offices from across the city, through East Perth, up to Joondalup and back down to Osborne Park and West Perth.

There were 9 books to a box (each book a 228 page hard cover volume), and you could fit about 6 boxes on our trolley. It was heavy menial work, and I was quite glad I didn’t have to do this for a living everyday. I earned a new found respect for those who did and my arms are still aching 24 hours later.

It was eye opening in another way – the manner in which we were greeted (or not at all). While most offices were fine, some concierges frowned on us at first glance. I would assume these offices take all kinds of deliveries all day, every day, and that the appearance of 2 lads with a trolley of 6 boxes was not that uncommon.

One place greeted us with a hand held out (as if we were invaders) telling us in a loud voice (so everyone in the foyer could hear) that we had to back out of the revolving doors and move down the side street to the back entrance, where we would be let in. When we got there, there was a locked door, a CCTV camera and we had to wait to be let in (state our reason again) and go up the back lifts through the underground car park (which came every 5 mins or so). This added 15 mins each way for each trip (we had 4 lots of 6 boxes to deliver to that building). Strangely, on our last trip down, the same concierge travelled down in the lift and was all smiles.

Nothing wrong about this necessarily, but these are the exact same offices I would have swept into countless times before, all suited up in order to meet the exact same clients. At those times, I would walk confidently to the front lifts and never give the concierge the time of day (nor they me).

Same person, different dress code. Same client, different reason.

It got me thinking about how we treat different people based on their purpose, status and uniform. It reminded me of the Secret Millionaire, or Undercover Boss, where rich people go into poor areas, or their own company, in disguise and see for themselves how things are really done, and how people treat each other.

I hope I treat visitors to our office with equal respect, whoever they are – a Minister, a client, a staff member, family member, a tradie or delivery guy. I will be more aware from now on, and when I visit the same offices in a suit, I will not assume a thing.

~~

Finally, in another ‘perception switch‘, I am doing the CEO Sleepout this Thursday, joining 100 or so others sleeping on cardboard on freezing stone floors, raising money for the homeless. I am 80% of the way to my $5,000 goal, so if you can help me get there, I will be very grateful > here’s my donation page.

 

Set creative content free

Messy desk creative mind

Let us consider the desk of a music teacher. It’s a mess. Scraps of paper. Bits of old instruments. Manuscripts. Old tour programmes. Scrunched up notepad. Yesterday’s lunch remains. A half drunk cup of coffee. A lunky gonk. Some chewed pencils.

A Music teacher’s desk is the desk of a creative mind. It’s a buzz, a whirl, managed maelstrom. But put that same teacher in front of the school orchestra, and somehow magic can happen.

Imagine John Lennon’s mind, Mozart’s, Steve Jobs’.

Imagine what they must have been like to live with. Read Walter Isaacson’s authorised bio of Jobs and you don’t need to imagine anything – he was a pain in the proverbial. Maddening at times, brilliant at others.

Yet he looked at things millions had looked at before and saw how to think different. Looked what he created.  Not once, but twice at Apple, and also at Pixar. The Mac would have been enough for most people. But the out of nowhere he releases the iPod, 1000 songs in your pocket and single handedly saves the entire music industry.

What right did a computer company have in making music playing machines? And before you think “agh, but he controlled creative content, he did not set it free”, he actually did the complete opposite. He set us all free to buy creative content, for $1.29 or $2.19 from iTunes, because he knew that creating a new way to release the content did not mean no one pays for it.

It was FREE in terms of freely available (we can all, now on a whim, download any song to our device in seconds, which was just not possible a few years earlier or when you or I were growing up), but not free in terms of payment.

It was an elegant technological solution to a massive problem (something all startups should look to emulate). He set the content free, and billions of downloads and dollars followed.

Not finished there, Jobs then created the iphone in 2007 and ipad in 2010. What was he doing with phones? Thanks to Jobs, my phone is now my camera, my notepad and my diary. And a hundred other things.

Tablets had been a disaster for Microsoft in the 1980s. Yet whoosh – a mass of new creative content results in apps and the App Store. A whole new industry was created from thin air. And it revolutionised how we consume content. Much of it is (yes literally) free to consume.

Creatives can be a pain to work with, but without them.. you just get more of the same. If you want routine, order, then have control and carry on as before. If you want to create, set it free. Let others co-create, collaborate and fly.

I was the economics teacher. I was ordered. I was on time. I got good results. I dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s, and it worked.

When I went into business, thank goodness I did not do it alone. I met a crazy Steve Jobs’ type on the UWA MBA and it was his idea to set up the world’s first map-based property search web site, aussiehome.com, right here in Perth, way back in 1999. Nick was (and still is) a crazy guy, part genius, part brilliant, part rude, blunt…. We were ying and yang, it worked.

To think the new, means not saying ‘cos we’ve always done it that way’. When we ran aussiehome, we banned this saying. People learnt quite quickly that ‘but we’ve always done it that way’ was NEVER the answer, to ANY question. EVER!

We had ideas some mornings that went live that afternoon. I have since worked in other environments and the simple act of changing one web page was so controlled that nothing happened … for years.

Whatsapp, Snapchat… have little revenues, yet have been set free and are now each worth billions. They have 500m and 150m active monthly users respectively by setting their content free. YouTube, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Linkedin… have all been set up with free content, available to all, everywhere. That does not mean they do not earn money – Facebook earned $18bn in revenue last year, $3.5bn profit. Google revenue $74bn, $5bn net profit & 57,000 employees.

All are pioneering new 21st century biz models.

So, come on everyone, let’s free our better creative internal angels.

Start a blog. Learn to tweet. Take up a musical instrument. Write a book.

You’ll never feel as free as when you are feeling free and creative, doing things that are new and exciting, pushing the envelope.

Oh, and by the way, please feel free to tweet this content for free…  🙂

 

Photo credit: What we talk about messy desks blog

Sloganeering

Keep Slogans for consumer products

There’s nothing quite like a neat, succinct slogan (or natty headline for that matter) that neatly encapsulates a big point into a tasty few words.

Businesses strive for this with ‘tag lines’ for the promotional campaigns – ‘don’t cheat on the cheese‘ is one I remember back in the 1980s, being a TV ad for UK cheese producers. I remember being in a zoo in Holland, of all places, and hearing this line ring out from a couple of loud English lads. ‘English abroad, so embarrassing!’, I said to my Dutch friends at the time.

Another one was the classic ‘Tunes‘ ad for cough sweets, which ended with the newly cleared up man saying ‘Tunes’ in a self-pleased manner to a rather surprised looking railway ticket counter staff member. Many of us would imitate the way the word was said, and hence would help spread the brand name, much like, ironically, a virus.

So I like a good slogan. Well delivered.

Where I don’t like a good slogan is in politics. Especially if that’s all you get. Politics is more important than cough sweets and cheese. We’re talking about the people that make laws of the land, take charge of armies, the economy and represent the country in living form. Slogans may make for easy sound bites and get taken up by the TV media and social media feeds, but they don’t make for considered debate. They don’t elucidate, they aim to simplify and deflect.

After decades of political sloganeering, first made famous 50 or 60 years ago (“I like Ike” and “All the way with LBJ”), we have somewhat distilled all political discourse down to a few words. “Stop the Boats” did for Tony. “Kevin Oh Seven” worked for Rudd. “Change you can believe in” was Obama. “Make America Great Again” is tapping into a large section of disaffected US voters right now with The Donald.

What I’d like to know is (to use another catch cry) “where’s the beef?” Where’s the real debate, the insightful discussion? Back in Abe Lincoln’s days, people would come from far and wide to hear a real debate. Speeches would go on for hours. Sloganeering would not do (on its own).

If the US is to elect President Trump, then he needs to be be made to work harder than spout dangerous invective that might look good on a bumper sticker, but has no substance behind it. You know, like actual policies, experience, analysis and thought. Any time he is asked for the second and third sentences behind his headlines, he struggles to provide substance.

If people came to me for a job I would probably place them in an interview, initially on the phone and then face to face. I would not be doing my job if I allowed them to get away with limp, empty answers. If they evaded the question, I would re-ask the question or take them to task. It’s too important when you are selecting someone, who the business is going to invest possibly several hundreds of thousands of dollars in over many years. Hiring the best people is one of the most important jobs of senior management.

When Trump is asked who he consults on foreign policy issues (he has absolutely no experience of this important area) Trump says “myself, primarily .. because I have a very big brain.”

Seriously? This is your answer? Would Obama have been allowed to say such a thing? I remember a Vice President getting into trouble for not being able to spell potato (hardly a heinous crime). If Trump did this, he’d smile, shrug his shoulders and somehow blame Muslims or Mexicans.

Reality TV (for that is where Trump has come from) has infested presidential campaigning. Trump is supremely successful at the former, and he’s segueing this into the latter. How disturbing is that? How dangerous.

Hillary Clinton, in a foreign policy address this week, eviscerated Trump’s ideas by not even calling his ideas, ideas. “They are just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds and outright lies.”

“He’s not just unprepared, he is temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability and responsibility.”

Note how Clinton did not just say he’s unfit to be President, it went far deeper. In a 35 minute address, she outlined her own policies and credentials (which are very much on the record) and made the case (at last) that Trump is just too fragile, too much of a walking joke, to ever be anywhere near anything like Presidential office. This wasn’t about Trump’s policies (what are they anyway?), it was about his very character.

Devoid of anything but an ability to self promote, that is exactly what Trump does – self promote, through incessant call ins to 24 TV news channels (feeding the beast, who gleefully take it up and give him time) or through 140 character bullying statements on his twitter account. If anyone in the media does stand up to him, he simply boycotts their show. As Clinton was speaking, she mentioned that Trump was probably stirring up another twitter rant right now – and of course, he was. Despite Clinton quoting him word for word on many occasions, he just called her ‘Crooked Hillary’ and described the things she said about him ‘not honest!’ More slogans.

So, are we going to see a sloganeer win the highest elected office on the planet? It’s not out of the question. And if that happens, what does that say about what our politics has been reduced to?

Beware the creeping changes

monsters

Things that creep up on you can be the hardest to recognise and defend against. Whether they be imaginary spooks hiding in the dark to frighten you from your slumbers, or people quietly tip toeing up behind you to shout ‘boo!’ in your ear, if you don’t see it coming, it can be unnerving when it’s already upon you. Of course, you are at your most vulnerable when you have no idea what is about to hit you.

Last week I saw a stat that really summed up all the digital changes that have been happening over the past 15 years or so. Online advertising in Australia surpassed the A$6 billion mark in 2015.

6 big ones.

The growth is not slowing either; since 2010, online ad revenue in this country has been rising at more than 20% a year. Last year it grew 28%. Within this growth, mobile ad revenue grew 80% last year, and video ad income 75%.

Online ad revenue was almost zero in the year 2000. I remember that year well. It was probably the toughest year of my life so far. There were illnesses in the my family, two friends of mine succumbed to cancer, and it was first year of my fledgling tech startup. Our initial seed funding had run out, and we had passed the dotcom crash after which no more investment funds would be forthcoming. I had quite a few sleepless nights, and not a few doubts. We had a few real estate agencies on board, but very few were paying very much, and it was going to take a while for us to get to cash flow positive, let alone profitability.

A few years on, I remember when online ads in Australia went over the $1 billion mark (2003) and then within two years had doubled to A$2 billion. At A$6 billion, it is now the number one advertising medium in the country. Print ads have fallen to A$2.2 billion and set to continue their decline. Movie ads, radio ads, TV ads, are being left in online’s wake.

When I talk to online tech people these days I joke that we had almost 100% market share of the online real estate ad market in Perth in 2000, but unfortunately it was 100% of very, very little. But as the online market grew, we kept ourselves alive long enough (sometimes I wonder how) to take advantage of the creeping change that was occuring all around us. We built a nice little business out of this, with real profits appearing in year 5 and dividends paid to shareholders from then on.

Today, realestate.com.au (ASX: REA) is worth over A$7 billion (share price $55). In 2000, REA Group’s share price was a mere 12c (half its listed price of 3 years earlier). It was touted as yet another dotcom disaster, an example of greed overtaking common business sense. With 3 CEOs in 4 years, it was but a few months away from closing shop altogether. Or so the wise analysts thought. By 2008, it had billion dollar value, and now after another 8 years is seven times that.

We weren’t the only ones to see that real estate search was broken in the last century, and that the new one would herald a new way of finding your next home. Many people knew this was happening, but the incumbents paid lip service to the imminent threat. Very few people are crying for them now. The 2 weekend papers that once had huge real estate (and cars, and jobs, and boats…) sections in them that landed on your doorstep with a loud thud, are now so weak they are having to combine forces to give themselves a few years more life. In an isolated marketplace with little competition (bar online, which they don’t have much share of). They hide their limp real estate sections in among the cartoon section. A tie up that was once thought anti-competitive, is now being hurried through.

I was once in a boardroom of one of the main paper-based media empires during the early 2000s. Accosting me from across the table, one executive jabbed his finger towards me saying: “Why would we turn a $380 million business into a $38 million dollar business?” (the online ad market being much smaller at the time, his reasoning was why would be chase the internet market and so herald our own demise?). Pausing for a while to take in this question, I answered “Because you have to. And if you don’t this year, it will only get more expensive the next year, and the year after that. It will only get harder for you to make the change.” He glared at me like I had lost my mind.

In all of this is a lesson. Never take things for granted. At your peak, be your most worried. When feeling most comfortable, be nervous. Analyse what is happening, what could happen, what you could do to take advantage of things. Some things will lead you down dark alleys, some of it will be wasted time, dead ends, but you’ll be experimenting, learning, feeling your way. No one can predict the future, but the onset of online advertising was certainly something that could have been foreseen, in the same way mobile and video ads are now galloping along.

Get on trend, or be left behind.

The $10 challenge

making the most of your resources

As a team exercise, you are given $10 and told to turn that into as much money as you can in a month. What would you do?

I used to give my management and marketing class (Year 10s) this challenge in their first lesson, and see what they would come up with. They’d be given some basic rules (no gambling, no begging, nothing illegal or immoral) and they’d have to work as a team to come up with a hypothetical solution. I wouldn’t actually give them $10 and they wouldn’t have to go through with it.

I’d sit back and watch. Some formed teams quite well, a natural leader emerged. A few ideas were thrown around, tested and they quite quickly came up with a few that needed further exploring.  Some groups saw it as an easy ‘doss’ lesson, sat back and did little. The noise rose. Other flicked pencils. It was quite different to how they’d been used to be taught, and they probably thought I was a little bit wacko.

I checked in from time to time, circulated around the groups, but other than that pretty much let them get on with it. For a double lesson a week they could work on this, plus some homework, and after 4 weeks they had to prepare their written plan, and a presentation with visual aids. They could decide who did the writing, who did the speaking, who did the visuals. In their other weekly lessons I taught some skills that might be useful, but did not make the link too blatant. The brightest realised I was helping them along, some others thought this was a proper lesson and took notes, but did not apply it to the $10 challenge.

When the day for presentations arrived, the groups that had slacked off relied on bravado and ad libbing to get them through. Their presentations were faulty, minimal, there was little thought and they mainly limbered along to an end, usually well before time. The others that had taken it more seriously went through some of the possible solutions, before building up a case for their best options. I gave a trophy to the best solution.

I did not care which solution they came up with, it was more the process I was interested in. From it, I could see their beginning level on leadership, team work, resourcing, budgetting, planning, risk taking, scenario planning, costs and benefit analysis, culture … pretty much anything relating to business and management really. During the year, the exercise became a rich vein of examples to refer back to. Later, some would tell me, ‘I wish I’d taken that more seriously, Mr G.’ Right.

I was at another one of those innovation breakfasts the other day (it is the topic du jour  after all) and I heard Shaun Gregory (Senior Vice President at Woodside) talk about a similar $10 challenge given to final year Stanford University students. ‘Turn $10 into as much as you can in a month, and come back and tell us how much you made and how.’

One group bought a few bike pumps and pumped up student bikes for money around campus, and had made $100 or so by the time of the presentations. Smart. Industrious. 10x return (less labour costs.)

Another took reservations in popular Silicon Valley restaurants and then sold these off for money to the highest bidders. They did not even spend their $10, but had a few hundred dollars by the end of it. Clever.

The winning group thought quite laterally. They sold off their own presentation spot to the company that wanted to present to the Stanford Uni graduating students. Top Valley companies compete for the best and brightest talent, and pay huge fees to research companies, sign on bonuses and countless internal hours in search. Here was a golden chance to pitch their business to the elite grads. The winning company paid many thousands for the chance.

We don’t even need to teach entrepreneurship to 15 year olds (or even under grads), we just need to give them the opportunity to have a go. We need to tell them it’s OK to have a go, to fail, to set up a company, to try to solve a problem, to look at things differently. We learn by doing. We need to say it’s OK to have the aspiration to be a lawyer or a doctor or a plumber or a singer or a social worker or a teacher, but also an entrepreneur. We need to celebrate entrepreneurship and success. Those that have a go. Those that take a quantified risk.

Here’s a final thought. If the $10 was ‘your life’, how are you going to make the most of it…?