A New Scholarship Fund at Cal is a Little Personal

With all the garbage on television to pick from, I’m pretty loose when it comes to my 13-year old son watching SportsCenter.

Last week was different. I had to get him to turn it off. Sports. Off. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to shelter him from all the ugly news. It was that I was sick of it after the third or fourth or fifth cycle. He plays baseball on a select team, so I’m not hiding that professional and even college athletes are not perfect, any more than the rest of us. We talk about steroids, cheating, the abysmal male athlete graduation record at my alma mater, Cal, bad sportsmanship, you name it.

But last night – alleged domestic violence, child abuse, immature and boorish behavior, more mentions of the exempt list than I’ve heard in my entire life. I was done.

IMG_1399Tomorrow, the University of California Berkeley – Cal – will issue a press release announcing that former San Francisco Giants second baseman Jeff Kent has created the Jeff Kent Women Driven Scholarship Endowment.

The Jeff Kent Women Driven Scholarship Endowment continues a quiet legacy he began in 1998 when he created with the Giants the Jeff Kent Women Driven. Women Driven donated $500 per RBI for an annual scholarship fund for female athletes at Cal in seven sports. He’s since also funded the building of new batting cages and supported baseball at Cal in other ways, including when the athletic department announced it was dropping the baseball program along with several other sports. But his legacy will be around women’s sports.

In 1998, Jeff drove in 128 runs totaling $115,000 for female athletes at Cal. The fund eventually contributed close to $600,000 for scholarships. Like the amount raised in the original Women Driven fund, today’s contribution is significant. $681,000. That’s the number required to fully fund an endowed scholarship. One that will provide a free ride for a female athlete each year. In perpetuity. Significant. For women’s athletics. Cal’s announcing it. Jeff’s funding it. He approached the University with this gift. His commitment qualifies for a $100,000 match, given by donors who also believed in the value of supporting sports for women at Cal.

Jeff and his wife have three sons. But their firstborn is a daughter. Having a little girl fueled Jeff to do something different from the programs most other professional male athletes support. So he turned his attention to women’s sports, believing that while the opportunities for women to become professional athletes, especially at the time, were slim to none, the experiences they took from sports – leadership, focus, commitment, teamwork – would, and have been proven in studies, make them better leaders and more successful in life. And as a walk-on athlete who didn’t earn a full scholarship until his final year, Jeff knew well how tough it is to make ends meet at Cal. Now someone else won’t know how tough it can be.

I’m sharing this story because it’s personal. I helped Jeff support the fund by running an annual golf tournament for a number of years. And most recently I got involved again by brokering the terms of the fund along with Jeff. I did it because I graduated from Cal, and while I didn’t play sports at that level, I paid for the majority of my education myself. So I can understand what it’s like to not be able to “call home” for money regularly. My role has been small, but I’m sharing this news because I am proud to have been involved.

It remains to be seen whether the sports reporting world will pick up on this story. The timing wasn’t planned. In fact it overshadows the incredible things that athletes do every day. How they give back. But I hope Jeff gets the recognition he deserves – but doesn’t desire – for supporting women to get an education and go on to be “a professional somebody.”

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Keep Your Team in the Game – The Art of the All-Hands Meeting

HandsAll-hands meetings are often trickier than they seem. Timing can be problematic – if you are a public company you most certainly want to wait until earnings are released so you can talk actual results, but that’s several weeks into the next quarter and by then the energy to share thoughts on how your business is doing is waning and people have generally moved on to focus on what’s ahead, not what’s behind.

If you’re the top executive in a larger organization, you also have to navigate the minefield of how many other teams in your organization also host a business review. No one relishes the thought of paid employees sitting through endless org meetings, so best to keep it to a minimum.

That said, my experience is that these meetings are well worth it if you follow a few basic constructs.

1. Don’t just review the financials – Yahoo Money and the WSJ do a fine job of this for your employees. Give them your thoughts on what the results mean to your business and your industry, and tie them back to your goals and key initiatives. Help people feel connected to the results. And don’t just cover the easy stuff – hard numbers, give the headlines across the teams. Not everyone carries a quota, but everyone contributes to results, good or bad.

2. Recognize individuals and specific teams. It works at the State of the Union, it will work for you. People love hearing their names, their friends’ names, and they want to know what it takes to stand out. Look at social media. We’re all following people and seeing what they are doing.

3. Get the whole leadership team involved. Make sure people know you are all aligned, whether it’s true every minute of the quarter or not.

4. Make it fun and engaging. Don’t just talk for 90 minutes. Solicit questions and feedback, poll the audience, serve some food before or after to encourage people to connect, spotlight a customer, show a cool demo. Mix it up.

People want to feel they are contributing to something bigger than their own little area at work – this is one way to make sure they do. Connect with them.

“Nature Abhors a Vacuum” – Fill It Before Someone Else Does

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Aristotle? Plato? Galileo? I didn’t find a definitive answer for to whom to properly attribute my headline quote (if it is indeed an actual “quote”), but I’m sure you’ve heard it in the context of sharing information.

Humans are no different from any other part of nature – faced with a lack of information, even just a perceived lack of information, we will work overtime to fill in the blanks ourselves. And more often than not, we fill the vacuum with exactly what you don’t want us to. And then we tell 2 friends, and they tell 2 friends (see last post)…

I generally think of myself as a reasonable person. Recently, my mom had a major, but relatively common surgery during which a complication occurred. What it meant was a much longer course of recovery was ahead than expected. As her family, and those needed to support her recovery, we wanted not only answers, but a plan. When the answers were slow to come, and the plan never really materialized, we filled in our own blanks and convinced ourselves of the worst. (Fortunately, “reports of her demise were greatly exaggerated”, and my mother is back in the saddle oversharing her wisdom on my child-rearing “skills.”)

In a perfect world, your communication cascade is expertly planned and flawlessly executed. But let’s be honest, it rarely happens the way we’d like it to. And the bigger the message, the more internal disagreement on timing. While knowing exactly when to communicate is an imperfect science, the best way to go is to say what you know when you know it. Strong leaders tell people what they know, and if they don’t have the full story, they say when they expect to know more, and they follow up. Wait too long, and the message will get out there, and more often than not, failing to be proactive will result in the need for damage control.

In professional and personal situations we have all been a part of it. When facing a vacuum of information, we seem compelled to default to fear and assume the worst. As communicators, we need to fill the void with our message before someone fills it with theirs.

What You Say in Vegas, Doesn’t Stay in Vegas

ImageNot too long ago, what you said in a meeting, or even presented at a conference, lived for about as long as the words still hung in the air. Without a doubt, you could gain a reputation for brilliance and insight that might outlast your true brilliance and insight, or you could gain a handle as the “did she really say that?” person.  Either way, unless your brilliant, or not-so brilliant, words ended up on the nightly news or as a Harvard Business case study, very few stood a chance of defining you in perpetuity.

Today’s deeply connected and always-on world has changed what information dies and more importantly what information lives. On. And on.

In a recent article by Brian Solis of the Altimeter Group on the “Internet of Things,” Brian states, “In 2008, the number of things connected to the Internet exceeded the number of people on earth. By 2020, it’s expected that there will be 50 billion things connected.” If you are old enough, or watch enough YouTube, that’s a far cry from the 80’s shampoo ad reminding you, “if you tell 2 friends, they’ll tell 2 friends, and so on and so on…” Last time I checked, the ad got Faberge Organics up to 32 “likes.” Compare that to Justin Bieber, who wins the retweets average race at 32k per tweet.

It is those connected things that can do as much, if not more, than your traditional communication plan of message, audience, vehicle and timing to define who sees you and hears you.

Expect what you say to be available to anyone, at any time, and in perpetuity. As communication professionals, we need to be more intentional than ever in delivering messages that are relevant, easily understood and eminently repeatable.

What you say in Vegas, definitely does not stay in Vegas.

To Be a Thought Leader, You Have to Have Thoughts

IMG_2435Over the past few months, I’ve spent a lot of time, probably too much time, immersed in who is saying what, when, and where.  One thing I’ve noticed is that while there is being a lot written, rewritten and retweeted, I don’t see a lot of new content.  Information or opinions that make me stop and say, “that’s an original take on the subject” or, “Wow, why didn’t I think of that!”

With so many channels available it is a whole lot easier today to get noticed, but being loud, or being followed, doesn’t make you a Thought Leader.  As an executive once commented to a colleague of mine, “to be a thought leader, you have to have thoughts.” Funny, and dead-on. LinkedIn recently introduced a “thought leader” component to its news functionality. These communicators have a number of characteristics in common; they are successful, smart (or some just the flavor of the day), but beyond that, these thought leaders are distinguished by their original ideas and provocative opinions.

The explosion of social media paved the way for many more who want to position themselves in the category of Thought Leader.  Certainly an interesting ambition, but it’s not enough to share your travel schedule, last presentation or re-tweet countless business articles.  You have to add original thoughts.  Comment on why you think an article is relevant, give me insight into where you think a market is headed or what the next trend will be; and while you are at it, be relatable. Reveal your personality (but no vacation or cat videos please!).

As I write this, we’re all drowning in a sea of Top “fill in your favorite number” lists from some of the most recognized “Social Media Thought Leaders.”   Lists such as “13 ways to get more Twitter followers”, “3 reasons why YouTube videos go viral” and even “7 companies that are capitalizing on the Mayan apocalypse.” It makes me want to cry “uncle.”

While I steer clear of many of the lists, a top 10 from the Decker Communications group caught my eye. It names the Top 10 communicators of the year, and 10 of the worst, and it explains why. The conclusion is that the best communicators are not just experts in their field, they are “about something,” “informal/down to earth,” authentic,” “a story teller,” “real,” “energetic,” “funny.”

In the end, you can increase your followers by driving the amount of content you share, but to be a true Thought Leader, you have to have thoughts. Insightful, original and relevant thoughts.

Speaking of lists, I’m off to relearn the one that really counts this time of year to my kids – the 12 Days of Christmas.  Are there 7 maids a milking, or is it lords a leaping? I’m pretty sure the original has a partridge and not a beer, in a tree. Happy holidays.

Make the Crowd Part of Your Comms Strategy

IMG_1346Building your brand has evolved from the days of just hiring a knowledgeable and experienced corp comms team to define and communicate the essence of your company brand.  For sure you still need us – to align the messaging, demand consistent visual identity and manage social media to attract the right brand advocates. But the truth is today your front line is your company bottom line, and that is increasingly influenced by your users’ interaction with you.
More specifically, how good (or not) your customers experiences are when they interact with you, what positions you support and how well you know what is important to them.  The crowd is loud and it is not possible to maintain a positive brand without them on your side.
I am a big fan of sites like Yelp and Chef’s Feed. What’s interesting to me is that most contributors don’t spend  their time commenting on the food.  They want you to understand the overall experience.  Mediocre and even bad reviews often begrudgingly admit the food was anywhere from not so bad to really quite good, yet if they had a negative experience from the brand  – the host/hostess, waiter or busser, there go the stars.  So how much time do you think a restaurant pays attention to getting the food right vs training the busser?   Obviously the food is important but for many people, it is not necessarily the most important to them.
Not long ago,  I worked for a company that implemented a new HRIS system.  To be sure the roll out was big.  And well communicated. It was emailed about, blogged about, posted on the intranet home page, a topic on staff calls and at all-hands meetings. But in the end, the system was…well…universally hated by 7000 employees!  Why? No one could figure out how to use the one thing people cared about most, the employee org chart.  You know, the original social network inside the firewall. Then one day it was replaced with a far superior system; in every way but the one that mattered most.  Employee photos!  A communications plan that better understood how important the org chart was would have made a lot more fans.
Building a brand is about going well beyond a good communications plan.  It is about delivering great experiences.   It is about understanding what matters to your audience.   People talk about experiences and what interests them, not tag lines.  So go ahead, give them something to talk about. And remember, we’re all part of your brand experience.

Getting On Social Time

IMG_1127Remember the cheesy 60’s TV version of Batman? It definitely didn’t prepare me for the Dark Knight series and my years of communications experience didn’t prepare me for how important it is to communicate on social time.  A few years ago, I used the line “same bat time, same bat channel” when describing to an executive the importance of delivering communication in a regular, consistent way that would meet the expectations of your audience. I’ve also been known to reference the evening news – expected, understood, consistent in timing. I still think consistency is key to communications but that’s another topic.

The real change here is that social media has blown up the concept of timing. (Or probably more appropriately social media has shed light on a world that has existed for some time.)  Now instead of communicating at consistent intervals through a specific medium (send an email every Wednesday at 7 am), it’s more important to understand how to reach your intended audience when they work, when they play, and when they want to listen.  It used to be fashionable to send an email, a newsletter or even post a blog while you were actually at work.  Well, time to throw that traditional bat-timer out the window.

It’s taken me awhile to understand the realities of the social timing thing. Inherently, it makes sense but how do you convince yourself that 6am or after 10pm might be the best time to get your message across.  It finally hit home recently.  To my kids, I’m the poster child for forgetting the value of brevity and clarity in my commentary. To say nothing of timing. I could win a bookshelf of awards for lectures over meals, at bedtime tuck-in, and inevitably my most epically worthless time of day – on the ride to school.  Imagine a 9-year old nodding their head repeatedly as I make a thousand different points, a thousand different ways, then toss in a few non-sequitors about gymnastics tonight or the baseball tournament this weekend.  All while driving to school. At 8 am. While they stare at the window.  Asking them, “no really, do you understand what I am saying??”

There’s a great article I ran across today from @spinsucks called “Social Media Campaigns Don’t Match When Consumers Are Online.” Getting the message right, and to the right buyer is the latest in marketing artistry. Figuring out when to send that email or newsletter or make that blog post or post that tweet has often been a game of trial and error, guess and hope. Interesting to see some data starting to come to light.

Maybe my kids could subscribe to my Twitter feed – I’d be forced to reach them when they are interested in hearing from me, and forced to keep it to 140 characters. I’m sure they’d appreciate it if Mom would get on social time.

Where thoughts on professional communication meet personal experiences