Monthly Archives: April 2009

Strategy and Tragedy – Reflections on Through the Looking Glass

Someone used that phrase this week – Strategy and Tragedy. It was a chance meeting, an introduction — but the phrase made it memorable. Beyond the sound of it, which I loved, there was an idea that merited thought. I also liked that it was done in very good humour. As always, behind the humour, there’s something real and insightful. Humour is one of the ways we react — and cope with painful situations.

When a phrase sticks with me, I know there is a reason. Like many people, I pick up on comments that are part of my own personal zeitgeist. They are part of a question or issue that we have been working out in the back of our mind, something that’s troubling us — or to continue the pain motif — they touch a nerve somehow.

That can be painful. And for me, strategy is painful. Now that’s funny, considering that strategic consulting is the way I’ve chosen to make my living. Yet, when you understand how my mind works, it makes a lot of sense.

I got into strategy by the back door. While I love to think about and discuss issues, what really drives me is results. I like to see accomplishments, achievements. But in order to have accomplishments, you have to know what you want. As someone who is driven to results, I’ve always been able to see my goals very clearly. In my early career, I was often given troubled projects and I made a name for myself getting them back on track. IT? Business? It didn’t matter. I loved a problem. Interestingly enough, most of my successes came from establishing some goals and a sense of direction.

Without clear direction, there might be lots of action, lots of effort, but little of it was focused on the real problems. Even for those where the effort was great, the phrase “madly off in all directions” often came to mind. In reality, the world often seemed mad.

For someone like me, the challenge was simple. I needed to get people to see the true problem and once they got that, they’d see where they needed to go.

One way to make the point was humour. I’d show cartoon pictures like the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland . I’m sure you’ve seen it. The famous picture of the cat grinning in the tree, and the equally famous conversation between Alice and the cat. Alice asks:

“Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where –‘ said Alice.

Then it doesn’t matter which way you go, ‘ said the Cat.

That’s how I got into strategy. This example showed precisely what I saw as the problem.

In fairness, that’s how strategy was taught at the time. It was, what I now refer to as gap consulting. I’m sure you’ve seen it somewhere. Gap consulting shows a current state — where we are today. It has a future state which shows where we want to be. the middle has the options, actions, projects or whatever that take us from the current state to the future state.

A lot of consulting that is based on that model. I’ve done a fair bit of it myself. I was very proud of it — still am to some degree.

But I’ve also had my share of frustrations with it. Given my need for results, it didn’t always yield the results that I wanted. It got somewhere, but it wasn’t always the knock it out of the park that I’d hoped. Funny, as I re-read this famous quote to work on this article, I’d forgotten the rest of the dialogue:

“– so long as I get somewhere.” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.

I should have known better. My first degree was in English Literature. And Shakespeare was all over this problem – as always. Hamlet says the famous words, to be or not to be and states the problem as clearly as anyone every could. Then for the remaining four acts, he demonstrated how hard it is to take action.

Strategy and tragedy.

Therein lies one of the real problems of a lot of gap consulting. That middle part — the action — is harder than it seems. I remember a client listening patiently to our description of the strategic challenges he faced. Part way through he interrupted and with the words that I have tried to live by ever since. He said, stop admiring the problem</em? and tell me what I have to do — today!

As long as “to be or not to be” is a question, it was irrelevant to him. While existential angst makes good drama, it makes lousy strategy. If it leads to action it worth engaging with. Otherwise it’s just “admiring the problem“. I learned a real lesson from that.

I’ve discussed this situation a number of times — often with other strategy consultants. Some get it. Some sympathize with the client to some extent. Others go on to state that this type of thinking is short term or tactical. The real problem, they say, is that the client doesn’t understand the difference between strategic and tactical thinking.

I have a real problem with the phrase, “the client doesn’t understand”. To me, it’s a lot like a comedian claiming the audience doesn’t get the joke.

To me, the client was right. Understanding the real nature of the problem has no intrinsic value by itself. It’s only use is that knowing it has some meaning to guide our actions today. Action is what saves strategy from tragedy. Larry Bossidy in his great book on strategy, which is called, curiously enough Execution makes a virtue of the tactical. He says, sweat the small stuff.

For gap consulting to work a lot of things have to come together. On the surface, we could say that it takes areal leader, with a clear and correct view of the future. No small feat, given the uncertainty and speed of change. One of my friends overheard two executives at a conference saying, “On a clear day, you can see six weeks.”

There is a conundrum here. When the future is uncertain, but the leader is certain, someone is wrong. And if a leader can only be effective if they are always right, who exactly qualifies as a leader? How do you know?

It matters both in perception and in reality. As long as there is any uncertaintly, unless you also own the company and have limitless resources, the leader alone can’t be the only one with the long term view. It needs all stakeholders – investors, employees, suppliers and customers to buy in. Almost any one of these groups can derail a long term strategy — not because of any malicious intent, but even if they just see it as hitting them too hard in the short term. The long view, as many large companies are finding out in this recession, takes enormous resources and very deep pockets.

The real leadership decision of the moment is — even if you are right about the future, can you survive long enough to see it? And that’s only for those who are certain they are right.

Are you that certain of anything? Do you ever wonder if you are wrong? You might have good reason. Anyone who has seen energy prices rise and fall recently has to has to admit that any prediction has a degree of probability — rarely if ever is there a certainty. With uncertainty comes differing views of how to deal with uncertainty. Different capacity. Different risk tolerances. All of the range of human reactions, right up to denial — which, as my friend John Thorp frequently points out, is not a river in Egypt.

What turns strategy into tragedy? The same thing that that gets in the way. Life. That was my big insight.

Could if be that the real model for strategy is not some grand theory, but the same nuts and bolts that drives our everyday lives?

think about it. Most of us know that there is, or should be a direction we should be taking with our lives. We know by and large where we are. We know, or knew where we wanted to get to or at least where we should get to. We even have a reasonable idea of the steps that we need to take.

That alone is not enough. We know what’s good for us but we don’t always do it. Back to that river in Egypt.

In fairness, it’s not only denial that keeps us from doing the right thing. If we are really honest with ourselves — uncertainty plays a role. We’re not sure that even if we do all the right things, we’ll get to our goal. So many factors are out of our control. There are so many risks, so many potential pitfalls. Life isn’t always fair.

If we are really honest, many of us will confess that we are even that certain about the ultimate destination. It’s a matter of faith, not certainty.

So what are we certain about? For many of us — not much. For those bordering on the cynical, the Cheshire Cat gives an explanation to Alice if you read a little past the famous quote. Alice confesses that she doesn’t much care where she goes, as long as it’s somewhere. To this, the Cat answers:

“Oh you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

That’s the reality we all come to. For some, it’s frightening. For others, it reflects a certain degree of maturity. Take your pick. Either is valid. It doesn’t change the answer. We will get somewhere. It might not get the goals and dreams we started out with.

If that wasn’t sobering enough, the Cat tells Alice some bad news. No matter which direction she goes in, she’s going to face challenges and uncertainty. She won’t be able to tell what path is the “right one”. He points in two directions, one leading to the Hatter and the other leading to the March Hare. His explanation:

“Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”

Alice’s protest is an echo of our own.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked

The Cat adds a bit of wisdom for us all.

“Oh you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

That’s my reflection for the week, if you’ll forgive the metaphorical pun.

If Lewis Carroll is right, life is a lot like strategy. It’s a curious adventure in a mad, mad world. We are on an uncertain path to an equally uncertain future. No matter where we go, the signs will be confusing. We will find people who seem strange or different — even crazed in their actions. But in the end, whether we choose to realize it or not, we seem as different (or as mad) to them as they do to us. For those old enough to remember Pogo, the cartoon strip, “we have met the enemy, and it is us.

So much for the certainty of a current state and future state. More times that I care to admit, the assignments I walk into look a lot like this.

That might not always be the fault of the organization. The world is in upheaval. The path is not certain. People are, well — different. And the only certainty is that no matter what you do, you get somewhere.

Wait a minute. Am I talking about life or strategy? Even I’ve lost the distinction, and I’m the omniscient narrator.

I think the are the same in more ways that we care to admit. Classically, we haven’t wanted to see life and strategy the same way. That’s how we can divide between strategy and tactics — as if there is some magic divide between our day to day management and the strategy that guides it. In this concept, strategy is an event — it’s our moment where we corner the cat in a tree and elicit the answers. Life is more like the cryptic message that the Cat gives to Alice — it’s not an event, it’s a journey.

Hence our dissatisfaction with strategy. Often there is no right answer — or if there is one, it’s not forthcoming. This is actually a good thing, if the Cat is right. Because even if we have the answer, the directions take us through a choice of madness and madness. I don’t know about you, but for many owners I talk to, this is a pretty accurate description of the strategic horizons we are all looking at right now.

Are there lessons we can learn that can keep strategy from becoming tragedy?

For answers about life, you have to go back to people. With all of this uncertainty, with all of the disappointment, with all that life hands some of us — why are some people so successful at life? Note that I’m not just talking about people who’ve achieved what we think they should. I’m talking about people who regard their lives as fulfilled — on their terms.

Here’s what I see. Some people have a continuing confidence and belief in their goals. Yet they are flexible about how they will get there. The path is not always clear or linear, but they are always moving towards it. Success comes in steps. Some of these steps will be successful, some will be life lessons. I got this from a close friend who had lost his job this week. You have to know this guy well to know that this was not just hot air. He said, that he knew that the future was full of new possibilities. He sincerely saw this as doors being opened.

This is not being a Pollyanna. I know that this guy understands the issues that he’s facing. This is not denial. This is choosing to see a setback for what it was — one of many steps on the road.

Successful people enjoy success, for what they can do with it. They use that to lever themselves to another level. But when they are not successful, they’ll use that too. They have setbacks, they have learning — not failures.

For them, it’s not a choice between strategic and tactical thinking. It’s a blend. They have to keep an eye on the future for hope, but pay attention to the present.

Like so many things in life — when we ask ourselves to choose between one thing OR another, we’re cheating. Or is rarely the only choice. Often it could also be this AND this? That’s when you need to take the long view. You need to be careful about closing doors until they need to be closed. Decisiveness for its own sake is another way of admiring the problem.

The best analogy I can use is a chess game. In chess, you think of a number of possibilities and are constantly evaluating them. There’s no question what the end goal is, but there are many ways to get there. (Sound familiar?)

It matters in terms of results as well. If you think only of the end — of winning or losing — you’ll lose to a good player. If you think only of the next move — you’ll lose to a mediocre player. If you learn to think of many possibilities and pick the best choices — you’ll be a challenger to even a good or even a great player.

Notice I didn’t say you’ll always win. In chess, in strategy, in life — there is no certainty. But in chess, there’s always more than one game. And isn’t that the same for strategy — and for life?

That’s where I got to this week. The difference between Strategy and Tragedy is not how well we understand the destination. In many cases, the destination is obvious. It’s how well we understand the journey. There are no absolutes, just potential moves that take us closer to our goal. There will be setbacks, even losses. The real question is – how can you learn from those.

If you are as results focused as I am, this little epiphany is bigger than it seems. For those who need a clear path, this could be frightening.

One thing you can be certain of. The Cat was right. If you keep at it long enough, you eventually get somewhere. The real trick is in taking that wisdom and using it to guide the day to day. When I’m uncertain, the best thing for me to do is to really listen to your clients:-) “Stop admiring the problem and tell me what I need to do today.”

Today? You need to be less focused on the end game and more focused on the possibilities that can take you there. There isn’t a certain path, and the certainty of the direction is up to you. Believe in your direction but be flexible about what steps you might have to take to get there. Some will work out, some won’t. What do you need to do today? What are the possibilities? What’s the best action to leave you positioned for that?

And if you make the wrong move, or the wrong move happens to you — learn from it, but regard it was a step. Look at the possibilities.

Hmmm. This could work as a strategic method.

That’s an idea I’m going to play with for a little while. I’ll let you know how it comes out.

As always, I’d love your comments.

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If you want new clients, go where the clients are!

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? You might have had a different experience. But here’s something that I’ve observed. Einstein had it figured out when he said, “every solution should be as simple as possible – and no simpler.”

When I first read this quote it stuck with me instantly. I remembered it days later. I had this visual image of Einstein with the funny hair and a blackboard behind him with E=MC2 written on it in chalk. The visual image made the quote even more memorable.

Isn’t it funny how a simple message can have such an impact? What would you give to be able to be that memorable to potential customers?

Why is that important? Because in this environment, can you really afford to lose even one single deal that you could have or should have gotten? Are you struggling to find those new customers in these tough times?

I’d like to suggest something that I’ve found has really worked for me. It might work for you as well. Only you can find that out for yourself. Your experience could be different. But take a second and think about this.

Two nights ago I went to see Shelle Rose Charvet speak at a meeting of the our Strategy special interest group of the Toronto CMC Chapter. Shelle said a number of amazing things, but she left me with an image that I can’t get out of my head. Actually, it was two images — but if you want the second one, you have to hear her speak. She knows what it is. I think of her talk at least once a day. It turns out that’s healthy. But even if I tried to forget it, I couldn’t. And I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday. So making me remember two things is quite an achievement!

Let’s return to that first image. Here’s what she said — I wrote it down so I’d get it exactly. It might not be perfect, I wrote it quickly, but I’m sure she will correct me if it’s not right.

Here’s what I heard.

“In order to get someone to go somewhere with you, you need to meet them where they are…”

Shelle went on to make another point. She feels that many times our real competition might not be competitors. The real thing that’s preventing us from winning the sale may be that the client has other alternatives. One of those alternatives is to do nothing. The other is to study the issue – put it off.

She suggested that we need is to find a way to convince our clients that they need us more than ever. Shelle also went on to explain why we can have the best product or service and still lose the deal. Or why sometimes our own honest enthusiasm might be working against our message! I appreciate that all of this might sound a little over the top so let me share something from my own experience.

I’ve been following Shelle’s work for a few years now. Recently I had a client who had a problem. They had a product which would legitimately save their customers money. It had added benefits as well. It offered them ways to access new services. Interestingly enough, this other product was not only good for my client’s customers, it was much more profitable for my client. So imagine how frustrating it must have been to find out that they could not convince customers to switch.

They told me that their customers preferred the first (less profitable) product. They could not be convinced to switch.

As someone who cannot resist a good problem, I wanted to see if I could help them (as Shelle would say) re-frame the issue. Or as I might call it — to change the game. I had some ideas I thought might work, and I asked them if we could do a pilot to test them out.

So here’s what we did. We stopped selling. We asked customers if we could help them. We created a script which asked customers what their needs were and we asked permission to explain the differences between the two options. We explained these options clearly and objectively (we’d prepared this well). What happened? In our tests, we converted 60 percent of the people to the cheaper, but more profitable option.

Remember that my client was convinced this wouldn’t work? the results immediately raised some skepticism. So they should. They have every right to be skeptical about results like these. It’s a good thing. And I wanted to be careful not to “oversell” this. I was clear that their results could be different in other stores, other circumstances. But I got the chance to ask a question. I got the chance to ask what benefit they would get if the results were 1/10th of what we got in the pilot?

When even the skeptics went to work on this, they had to admit to themselves that this was worth a try.

Why did this work? The underlying principles came from reading one of Shelle’s books “Words That Change Minds”. I tell people that the reason my consulting gets results is not that I have to be smarter than everyone else. I just have to be smart enough to recognize great ideas an adapt them to what I do. Shelle has given me a number of those ideas over the years in her book. So it was very rewarding for me after all these years to be able to sit in the audience and hear her talking about things that I had thought about over the years since I first discovered her book in our company library.

And as always, she was reframing the issue so I could see it in a new way. If you want to get someone to go somewhere with you, you have to meet them where they are. We did that. We got to them in the store as they were in the process of making their decision. But we knew from surveys that customers wanted to be helped, not sold. We devised this so that it was clear and helpful — no sales, we simply gave them the facts they needed to make an informed decision and invited them to make up their own minds.

If we’d started where we were, we would have been trying to convince them. Even if we were right, even if we were enthusiastic, we would have been making them even more skeptical and less likely to hear our message.

So I’ve been asking myself a question. How many times am I missing opportunities because I am not going to where my clients are? As a consultant, I fall into the trap myself. I might be good at spotting issues with clients, but missing them in my own work. My own filters might keep me from seeing myself clearly. Sometimes even the best of us need a good mirror. That’s what Shelle’s presentation was for me. And what her work has been for me over the years. It’s a chance to hold up a mirror and take a clear look at how my message is being (or not being) received. By seeing it clearly, I can remove the obstacles to my own success — in the same way that I remove them for others.

So to my friend Bob who started this out with his question this morning. If you are reading this, that’s the answer to the question you asked (half in jest) this morning. Your question was right on the money. I hope I got it right You asked, if I’d read Shelle’s book so many times, why didn’t I spot these issues earlier? Correct me if I’m wrong and I’ll fix it. (The wonderful thing about a blog!)

I might suggest suggest that I’ve done some very good work for my customers. Do you remember that famous quote from Archimedes? I think we all learned it in school. “Give me a lever long enough, and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”

I’d like my clients to think of my services in that way. I can help them leverage what they do now and transform their efforts so they can do things they never thought possible. I can help them solve tough problems. The solutions are what they need them to be. For some, its that extra customer, for others, it’s reducing costs, for others its getting their teams to work together effectively. Some just want to hold the customers they have by building loyalty. They believe that loyal customers stick with you in tough times.

Even my business has challenges. We are a growing business and need to find new customers. Or better still, we need to convince old customers that doing nothing is not an option. I have to help them see why they need my services more than ever. This recession (or whatever it is) is changing customer behaviour. To use Shelle’s visual metaphor, it’s like clients have moved off to a different bus stop. And I can only convince them to get on the bus with me if I go to the bus stop where they are. It’s a timely message that we might all consider.

Everyone — including good consultants — need a look in the mirror from time to time. Because the world changes and our filters — the very things that help us cope with all the information out there, the things that make us successful, can actually prevent us from seeing problems clearly. Even if you are great at seeing what others need, you can still miss it for yourself. Shelle helped me once again, to reframe and see a challenge that I have.

so I came out of Shelle’s workshop with a list of notes. I’ve learned that if I want to get a lot out of an event, I have to listen carefully. Some speakers make that hard. Some make it easy to listen.

Shelle not only makes it easy, she explains how you can do that as well.

I hope I will never stop improving. So I set some goals. I will try to meet my clients where they are. I will expect them to be skeptical if I talk about all the great results that they will get. I will ask even more about their problems. I’ll remember to ask them what matters to them and why. I’ll continue a habit that Shelle taught me long ago – I’ll capture the answer in their words and not mine. I want to meet them where they are and not where I think they should be. If I can do that, I can invite them on the bus with me and we can take a journey together. That’s the type of work I think I’m good at. It’s also the type of work I love.

Thanks, Bob for raising that question. Thanks to Shelle for helping me see an issue that I can share with my friends, colleagues and readers.

Note for anyone who missed this workshop. Shelle is having two more workshops which are sponsored by CMC Canada in Toronto. Contact CMC Canada if you want more information about these workshops. Check out Shelle’s web-site if you want to find out more about her. You have to make up your own mind. All I can tell you is that her advice has helped me a lot 😉

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Filed under Lean, People, Process, Social Media, Strategy

That will go on your permanent record, young man!

Ever say one of those dumb things at a party or dinner table and wish you could take it back? And you know you can’t?

We all do this from time to time. Say that stupid thing. Make that bad decision. Talk before we think.

Well, actually, with me it’s more than just from time to time. I do it a lot. Most of the time its just a joke that doesn’t work out. Or its the witty comment that just sounds dumb. For the most part, people are forgiving. I even manage to forgive myself. I can let it go.

But over the course of a lifetime, there are a few of these that are, shall we say, special. One or two of them haunt me to this day. I manage to keep them in the recesses of my memory. But sometimes, if I’m feeling a little down, or just in a bad moment, they return to play out before my eyes in full technicoloured splendor.

It’s times like that when I realize that I don’t think I’m afraid of dying, but there is something that sends a cold chill down my spine. They say that just before you die, your life flashes before your eyes. What if its not my life, but some perverse bloopers show of just the dumb stuff? I’m not sure I believe in heaven or hell, but if there is eternal punishment, it would be seeing every really dumb or cruel or stupid thing I did flashing before my eyes. If I had to watch that it would seem like an eternity.

Funny how our images of these things are rooted in our childhood memories. The idea that there is some way the universe keeps track of what we’ve done right or wrong something we all share in one way or another. For most of us, that view matures as we get older. Sure, Santa had a list — he checked it twice. That one was easy to let go of. But real life is a different story. It imprints on you in different ways. I remember the principal at my school who informed me that my conduct would be noted on my permanent record. I can still channel the fear of that 10 year old kid. I felt trapped. My lip quivered. I wanted to cry. Even then, I had guts. I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. But it was tough. Really tough. Especially when I looked over at my mother, who was almost in tears herself. This was my permanent record?

This is the stuff that nightmares are made of. It comes and goes for reasons that escape me. It’s like that crazy dream where I’m in school and I’m naked. No idea what that one is about. Freud would probably have a field day. But I have no idea why it comes and goes. At least the dream about being naked is probably some kind of neurosis. This one about the permanent record is long past its expiry date. But its among the ghosts that haunt me. And it will still wake me up in a sweat.

So what? Everyone has their nightmares. You wake up. You can’t sleep. Some of us wander past the computer and – Google ourselves.

Some find nothing. How sad is that? Others find something even more troubling. Their nightmare is still there — on the screen.

What if that moment before we expire was a Google search? What would you find? For some of us, there are some really stupid things up there. Highly embarrassing. In the words of my public school principal, these are on your permanent record. This is even worse than your school record. If a principal said that today he’d probably be laughed out of the room – “cool, put it on my permanent record, big boy. But if you release two words of that to anybody, my parents will see you in court!” That might have been a bluff coming from a 10 year old kid. But ask any university professor why they really don’t want to go after cheating and plagiarism. Why? Who needs the grief? However slight the chance, do you want to be part of a lawsuit?

No such luck with the internet. Unless you’re some kind of idiot, suing the internet is — as they say — so not going to happen. If you are one of those idiots who think they can sue the internet, please notice that I didn’t mention your name. I don’t have to — people can find you with a few creative searches. You can run but you can’t hide.

Wasn’t it always like this? Haven’t people have been posting crazy stuff since before there was an internet. Even in the old days of dial in bulletin boards (yes, I’m that old) people were posting stuff they’d prefer their mother, current spouse, boss or their kids didn’t read. The difference was that a lot of this was done anonymously and in places where our mothers, spouses, bosses and kids were unlikely to find it.

Social networking, visual content and things like tagging have changed that. Even if you live your on-line life under a pseudonym, all it takes is for someone else to tag you in a photo and there you are.

One crazy picture of you at party doing the shooters. Or your name in a facebook group? That screaming rant that you posted on that forum? The picture of the office party with your arm around someone? Harmless? Maybe. Depends who is looking at it.

But don’t assume that nobody is looking at this stuff because it’s too trivial. Employers are googling you. Parents are turning up as facebook friends with names that sound just like some classmate. And they are freaking out at what their kids are saying or doing. Spouses are looking at what the other half is doing. Your kids are looking. Heck, your mom is probably looking.

Here’s something scary. What they see doesn’t even have to be correct. My son told me recently that he thought it was cool that I was once a drummer in a band. Trouble is, I play guitar – not drums. So was it a mistake? Or did he get confused between me and the 50 other Jim Love’s? For some reason a lot of them are creative types. Who knows? My point is that I didn’t see this. The only reason I knew about it was the fact my son told me. Which means he’s looking at stuff that I don’t even see.

I do a lot of public speaking. I know from some of the questions that people have checked me out online before they came to the presentation. It’s not that hard. But sometimes I’m amazed at what they ask.

You can miss things by just Googling yourself. There’s a whole cottage industry based on searching different aspects of people’s on-line and off-line lives. Sometimes you don’t even have to look. My wife found herself as a friend on a Facebook page and surprise, surprise – one of our kids is also a friend.

It’s not just web pages and pictures. I’ve been listening to reports from a recent trial where the evidence was the text messages that were exchanged. Text messages in court? Would you have thought of that? Do you even know that every text message you send is archived? Did you know a court can subpoena them?

Not that it takes a court order. Sometimes just a little bumbling will do. We’ve all heard the story of the the person who sent the email to the wrong person. Recently a vendor (who I’m tempted to name) wrote a note to a client which mentioned me. What they wrote about me was, shall I say, unflattering? Why? I had taken them to task earlier about acting, shall we say less than professionally — sometimes that’s my job. The difference with me was that I followed my cardinal rule. When I have something tough to say, I don’t email. I call the person.

This was one on one and it needn’t have gone any further. Unfortunately, this person decided to launch an preemptive strike, trashing me in an email to my client. I have no idea why they did this. They demonstrated their lack of professionalism in a way that nothing I would do or say would have accomplished. It got worse. Somebody in the subsequent chain of emails discovered that I was not on the list and sent the string of messages to me without realizing what was in it.

It’s actually too bad that all our meetings were conference calls. I couldn’t see the look on this person’s face when I quoted from this email — in front of their executives. Conference call or not, the sound of squirming and groveling is still something to hear.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar said that, “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” Not so in the online world. One of my wisecracks is sometimes more accurate – “no good deed goes unpunished.” Cynical? Perhaps. But things can go terrible wrong even when you try to do good.

I recommended someone for a job some time ago. It’s the only time I’ve ever done this, but I gave them a recommendation although I had some minor but nagging reservation. Why? They were so depressed about losing their job that I was really afraid for them. How could I not do this? I don’t know anyone who hasn’t made a similar mistake. This one almost cost me a a friendship when the person I recommended turned out to be a total disaster. I didn’t see that coming. And it did me a lot of damage with my friend who hired this person. If I had it to do over again, I might do something different.

Bad as this was, it could have been worse. How many people have done a Linked In recommendation because they were asked to? Or did it because the other person recommended them? I don’t. Every word is true or I find an excuse to avoid it. But what if you recommend somebody and they do something really stupid? There you are, endorsing a nut case.

I’m sure you heard about Jon Stewart’s battle with the CNN television host over what Steward lampooned as as some pretty boneheaded stock recommendations. It was pretty funny to have all those clips played saying to buy stocks that are now in the toilet. It’s hard to plead that he was misquoted or taken out of context when the whole clip was there to be played. But you don’t have to be famous. I found an article of mine on a website that was done years ago. Ever read a paper that you wrote in first year? Remember what it sounded like? Guess what – for some people that paper will be searchable for years to come.

In the world of social media and the personalized internet, our lives are being pushed out into the electronic commons. And if Andy Warhol was right and we all get 15 minutes of fame, what will people see? Is it what we want to them to see? Is it accurate? Is it the person we are today? Or is it from some point in time long ago, a time that we might rather forget?

It’s all there. Things you’ve said. Things you’ve done. Things you’ve written. All there for the world to see. In websites, blogs, social networks, forums — and even in our text messages and other areas we would think were private. It doesn’t even have to be accurate. All there. On your permanent record.

There are ways to get the record cleaned up. People practice “reputation management.” They’ll tackle your concerns and try to fix those problems. I don’t know how effective those services are. Maybe someone can leave a a comment if you’ve had experience with reputation management.

My take on this? I see how valuable reputation management is when people or companies get into a real jackpot. I have no idea how much people charge for this service or even what they do. Maybe someone will leave a comment on the blog if you’ve had some experience in this area. If you are someone who provides these services, be careful you don’t make it too much of a commercial. But I am interested.

Short of shelling out some bucks to this type of service, what can you do?

I’d start by being aware. Here’s some things I do:

– If you haven’t googled yourself, do it
– Take a look at your public pages – Linked In, Facebook — all the rest
– Set up a pseudonym and alternate mailbox for forum postings
– Even when I have to register with sites, I rarely give the right data (sorry folks!)
– Don’t invite or accept friends you don’t know.
– Don’t give out recommendations unless you really mean it. I don’t have any problem ignoring requests so far. But if you don’t think you can say no or duck the question, then don’t do it at all. Just tell people that you’d love to recommend them but it makes it so difficult to refuse people that you’ve stopped.
– Don’t say, write or publish anything that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of your local paper, or given to your boss, a new prospect or just a friend. If you are angry, count to ten.
– Never talk disparagingly about a client. Ever.

Feel free to add some of your own ideas.

Most of what you need to know is common sense. It was true before the internet. There are many places in this world where it is truly, “better to keep your mouth shut and be thought of as an idiot than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” Your mother was right when she told you that if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all. And you are judged by the company you keep. So assume that everything you post or send will end up being seen by the person you least want to see it and in a circumstance where it will be embarrassing.

But how do you deal with the well intentioned items which, in hindsight, are not the stuff that you want to see with your name on it? Don’t sweat those. Take them down from your site and ask others to do the same. Yes, they will be there for all time, but people have to really be looking and if they are, there is another defense. Do like you do in life. Post a lot more of your good stuff. Let them judge you not on a single article or prediction, but on the total breadth of what you have contributed.

I have a word for those who look for one item to trap you. But I’m not going to use it. You know why.

Thanks for listening tomorrow. Or a week from now. Or ten years from now.

I think I can get back to sleep. I’m going to do one last thing and reread this before I post it. After all — it goes on my permanent record.

Jim

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