Canned beans or bananas?

Every year, between the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many Jewish congregants take home a brown paper bag to be filled with non-perishable food for people in need.  It helps fill food banks, and is emblematic of the principle of tzedakah, or charity, which plays an important role in most major religions (tithing, zakat, etc.)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the surge of interest in volunteering / working in the nonprofit sector, especially the social enterprise sector (where I spend my days).  There’s a tsunami of people, young and old alike, interested in using their skills for good in the world.  Organizations like Acumen Fund, where I work, seem to be attracting particular interest, and I think it’s because of the impression that nonprofits that work with social enterprises are more likely to be able to take advantage of people’s business skills and put them to good use in solving social problems.

(I say “impression” because I still haven’t been convinced that “business skills” – which I take to mean effective leadership, management, strategy, organizational design, use of capital, etc. – have any more or less application in social enterprise organizations vs. the nonprofit sector more broadly.  And I bet the leadership of CARE or Mercy Corps or UNICEF or Save the Children would agree here.)

Part of the challenge of matching this talent to needs is about canned beans vs. bananas.  Historically, “volunteering” has often been about applying less specialized skills (serving in a soup kitchen, helping to build a home) to directly serve a population in need.  This is canned beans: highly nutritious, long shelf life, can plug in almost anywhere.

Bananas are tougher.  They don’t travel particularly well, they spoil quickly, they’re best if you pick them and buy them locally.  Yes, you can transport a banana across the world (and we often do), but you would never think that a banana and a tin of canned beans are interchangeable.

I think it’s time we start calling bananas bananas, which may mean distinguishing between “volunteering” and “service.”  This is a tough one, because even those words feel like they imply that one is more valuable than the other…which isn’t true.

But if we could develop a common vocabulary about long-term, on-the-ground, specialized engagements requiring  screening and specialized skills, we’d be a long way towards clearing up a lot of confusion.

Because, in truth, we really do need a lot more bananas.

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Don’t forget

Everything you write online (email, blog, twitter, text) can and will get anywhere else in an instant.  This isn’t news, but ask yourself:  do I write EVERY email/blog/tweet assuming that the people who are closest to this can and probably will read and share what I’m writing?

This isn’t just about search and the fact that web pages from 2002 still exist.  And it isn’t only about whether your party photos on Facebook might get in the way of the job you hope to get a decade from now (though that matters a lot).  It’s really about the power of tribes to amplify any idea and get that idea/thought/reflection in the right hands in an instant.

The most velocity is in tight networks where the word gets out silently and before you know it.

So why not assume that the people who know and care the most are reading everything you write, and there won’t be any surprises down the line?  The upshot is that this isn’t just risk avoidance; it forces you to think big and imagine you have exactly the audience you dream of — because you just might.

This is as much about awareness as it is about discipline each and every time you write.

(and no, I didn’t have something fall into the wrong hands.  But a few things in the last few days  got into the right hands very very quickly, and man was I happy that I was conscious about each and every word I wrote.)

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How do you know if a job will be “perfect”

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jennifer’s comment on last Friday’s post about The Perfect Job:  “the perfect job” doesn’t exist for 90% of the population.”  According to CareerBuilder, 1 in 5 people love their jobs and about half are satisfied.  So it seems that most people aren’t miserable, but it still begs the question of how to find a job that you’ll love.

A little more than a decade ago, I was living in Spain, slogging through my third year of working 80+ hour weeks as a management consultant.  Late one night, my face bathed in the cool glow of a spreadsheet on my laptop’s screen, I noticed that I was spending much more time with my work colleagues than I did with my someday-to-be-spouse (let alone non-work friends).  Looking forward to the many decades of my career still to come, I realized that if I was going to spend so much time and energy at work, I should do everything within my power to find not just a good job but a great one.

But deciding to do this and getting it done are two very different thing.  Landing the right job takes a combination of determination (to find what you’re looking for), skill, luck and a whole lot of good timing.

But occasionally, when everything lines up, you get that chance.  And then it’s worth asking: how do you know if this job is the one?

Here’s a thought:  in each interview, ask the interviewer, when it’s time for Q&A, “Do you love working here?”  Not “like.” Not “enjoy.” Not “value.”  Ask if they love their job.

Because the question you really want to answer for yourself is: “Will I love working here?”  And no one really knows that for sure.  But if no one loves working there, what are the chances you will?  And if a place has so much mojo that most people DO love working there, don’t you think the odds are pretty high that you will too?

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The perfect job

It doesn’t have the highest salary.  It doesn’t have the fanciest title. It doesn’t give you a team of 100 people reporting to you.  It doesn’t have a clear path to promotion.

It’s where you have the most leverage.

It’s the job that allows you to take who you are right now – your skills, your passions, your knowledge, your relationships – and use them to greatest effect.

Which means of course that the perfect job is the perfect job for YOU, right now, at this moment in your life.  It might be a dud for someone else.  And someone else’s dream job might be worthless to you.

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Ideas or action?

The NYC Police and the Metropolitan Transit Association have run a catchy public service campaign for the last few years whose tagline is, “If you see something, say something.”

If you see something, say something

The ad on the train I’m on has these words is big letters, with a picture of an abandoned bag.  The message is to keep an eye out for suspect or abandoned packages.

I’ve probably seen this ad two or three times a week for the past few years, and only this morning I paid enough attention to notice the words underneath the tagline: “Tell us, a cop, or call 1-888-NYC-SAFE.”

I bet if you asked 50 people who had seen this ad what phone number to call, 49 of them wouldn’t remember.

It’s easy to make an example of this ad because it so clearly separates out the IDEA (“if you see something…”) from the ACTION (call this number).  It could be that they figure “say something” is self-explanatory, but couldn’t they have traded catchy for memorable and said, “See something?  Tell a cop or call 888-NYC-SAFE.”

The point is, most of the time we write or speak with the goal of convincing people of an idea rather than convincing them to take an action.

It’s actually much harder to get people to act.  You only need to convince them of an idea while you’re talking.  But to get them to act, they have to remember what you said long after you’re done .  You’ll probably have to come at the idea from a number of different angles, getting people to work through their barriers and their internal conversation about why they should do nothing.  You’ll have to be a lot less elegant and a lot more explicit.  You’ll have to give examples and be motivational and inspirational and pound the table some.

You’ll have to sell.

And you absolutely, positively, definitely wouldn’t get stuck at a conceptual level if what you cared the most about was action.

If you see something, say something that will get me to act.

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The sound of silence

One of the newest, and most interesting (also potentially most unsettling) phenomena for public speakers is the prospect of your audience tweeting your presentation in real-time.  If done right, it can serve as instantaneous feedback for parallel conversations that enrich discussions in real time.

But before going all high-tech on you, let me ask: 140 character real-time commentary notwithstanding, how do you know how your presentation is going?

Try this: listen for the sound of silence.

Recently I had the chance to listen to a series of excellent presentations to a medium-sized (45 person) group.  Sometimes, instead of giving all my attention to the presenter, I started listening to the room, and I discovered a distinct difference between quiet and silence.

Quiet was when people were listening.  But they were also taking notes and shifting around and perhaps doing some other small thing.

Silence was when the presenter got everyone’s full attention.  It’s the “you could hear a pin drop” moment  when the entire room was energized and focused on the speaker, hanging on each and every word.

And guess what?  9 of 10 times, it’s powerful stories that create that silence.

If the goal of your presentation is to convince people to act, if you’re trying to sell them on an idea, if you want them to remember what you said after they (and you) walk out the door, how much of their attention do you think you need?

You need it all, for as long as you can get it and hold it.

So lead with your stories.  Lead with the memorable narratives that capture people’s attention.

Your first objective isn’t trying to convince people that you’re smart or credible or have done your homework.  Your first objective is to convince them you’re worth listening to.  Get their attention first,  capture their imagination, get them to put everything else aside and engage with you personally and with your ideas.    Once you’ve done this, tell them what you want them to do.

But not the other way around.

So listen for silence, and build your presentation around finding ways to create it and exploit it.

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Twitter echelons

I recently was talking to a friend who I consider to be successful on Twitter: he has cracked 10,000 followers in a few months, tweets regularly, and his tweets regularly get picked up (retweeted) and cause a stir.

From his perspective, he’s a long way from the top of the Twitter foodchain, where people have hundreds of thousands of followers and are gaining 5,000+ followers a day (apparently @Oprah just tweeted for the first time this week…how psyched is Evan Williams?)

When networks of relationship are created, they are self-reinforcing, giving real power to early movers who establish themselves (who are in a different category than folks like Oprah who bring their fame to the table so are basically impossible to compete with…she joined 10 hours ago, has tweeted 6 times, and has 195,654 followers right now).  This is why it’s incredibly difficult to jump from one circle to the next (100-1,000 followers vs. 1,000 to 10,000 vs. 10,000 to 100,000).

In terms of size of network, Facebook is already in its own category (more than 200 million users!).  Twitter is still new enough (just) that you have a couple weeks left to join before you’re too late (heck, you can even start by following @sashadichter).

And if microblogging is the next big online trend, what does this mean for blogs, whose traffic isn’t growing as quickly?

Here’s my take: microblogging will be good for serious bloggers.  Yes, there will be a migration of “here’s what I was thinking” from blogs to Twitter/Facebook (the blogs that were just about people’s daily activities make more sense on Twitter/Facebook).

But if you consider this spectrum from microblogging to blogging to newspapers/news weeklies, the question to ask is: 5 years from now, after most of the weekly news magazines have gone out of businesses and many major local papers go belly-up, will there be more or less appetite for thoughtful, analytical, 400-500 word opinion pieces on what is going on in the world?

I think more, and I think bloggers who up their game, who serve a need for a loyal and growing group of followers, will be more in demand, not less, in the near future.

(Oh, and if you really want to be an early adopter, now’s the time to check on Flutter, the leading nanoblogging site.  You heard it here first.  Click below)

P.S. note the moment in time: “blogging” and “blogger” are both in my spellcheck.  “Microblogging” isn’t.

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Why do you read?

You’re reading this blog right now.  Why?

It might be for entertainment, or a diversion.  Or it might be because you want some ideas about how to do things differently.

If you’re interested in doing things differently, you have to ask yourself: do I want just to be exposed to new ideas, or do I actually want to act differently (today, someday)?

If it’s about acting differently, what will it take to get you there?

It’s probably been two years since I read Seth Godin’s missive on Really Bad Powerpoint, and I’ve been carrying around his maxim of “No more than 6 words on a slide. EVER. ” since then.  I’ve also made a million excuses why this is a nice idea but it’s not realistic; why it doesn’t apply to my own storytelling.  Or I’ve said, “6 words per slide is a nice idea, but what he really means is fewer words per slide.  I can hack that.”  That’s a cop out.

Tomorrow, in a big, very visible, very important meeting, I’m giving a presentation that has 17 slides and 51 words.  I’m giving it a shot.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you might have thought it interesting to consider reorganizing your RSS feed, changing the way you write email or conduct conference calls, or practicing your storytelling.   If you’ve been reading Seth’s blog, you might have thought about getting a professional picture on Twitter, learning graphic design, or listening to your sneezers.

But are you stuck thinking “this idea might be interesting someday” or are you actually doing things differently?

Sometimes it takes a few tries to get there.  It took me more than two years to take the plunge on my next PowerPoint.  But you should be honest with yourself and ask if you’re reading as a passive observer or as someone who is going to act.

Go ahead, act.

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Plus first

In February I blogged about Randy Nelson’s, President of Pixar University, talk about the core skill of innovators being “failure recovery, not error avoidance.”

Before getting to this point, Randy talks about the environment that nurtures creativity at Pixar.  One important element is having a culture where the expectation is that you will “plus” other people’s ideas.  Randy explains this by talking about improvisational theatre, the core principle of which is that you have to accept any idea that’s thrown out by the other actor(s) on stage (you can also hear Emily Levine talk about this at TED) and then build on it.

For example, if you’re an improve actor and you say, “It’s a lovely day today” and the other actor says, “Yes, except for that 20 foot wave that’s crashing to shore,” you have to accept what that actor has said and work with it (so you could say, “Yes, which is why I have this inflatable suit on, just in case.”)

In many professional situations, there’s a real tendency to skip this step and instead jump to the contrary point, the little bit that could be improved, your small suggestion.

All of you smart, critically-minded people out there (you know who you are) ask yourself how often, when asked to give feedback of one sort or another, jump right in to all the little or big changes you think should be made.  This is actually the easy way out: you feel like you’re being helpful, improving the output, and it makes you look smart to boot.  And when you’re talking to someone you like and respect, you assume they know you think they’re smart/capable/etc. and that the thing they’ve just done (the practice presentation, the brainstormed idea) is pretty good.

Try plus-ing first instead.  If something is mostly good, start with that.  And don’t talk in general terms (“It’s really great.”) as this is neither credible nor useful.  Give this part real attention and thought.  Give it as much analysis as you give your (subsequent) critique. Tell the person what’s good.  Be very specific about what you like.

This will accomplish three things: first, it will give the person just as much feedback about what works as about what doesn’t, so she has a chance to amplify and strengthen the best part of what she’s done.  Second, the person will feel good and gain in confidence.

Perhaps most important, it gives you practice at giving positive feedback in an honest, genuine, and specific fashion – which is actually much harder than it looks.

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An email tax

It’s pretty well-established that we have an email free rider problem.  Since there’s essentially no marginal cost for each additional person I email….voilà, SPAM represents more than 90% of all email sent.

But what about inside your organization?  I suspect you have a lot of email threads involving a back-and-forth conversation with 8 people copied.

What if you had to do the math?  30 seconds to read an email, another 30 to think about it and maybe respond x 8 people = 8 minutes of organizational time spent.

On average the people copied on your email earn $0.50 – $1.00 per minute (some more, some less, but let’s keep the math simple…and never mind that everyone’s supposed to be producing much more than they cost the company).  So each time you Reply All, even if just to say, “Thanks, Cary,” or “This will be great!” it’s cost the organization $8.  That doesn’t sound too terrible until you figure 50-150 emails/day/person in your organization…thousands and thousands of dollars per person per year because we’re lazily copying people.

Plus all the time people spend wading through emails instead of thinking.

Some ideas:

  1. Disable the “Reply All” button for emails
  2. Or if that’s too technical to implement, create norms that makes replying all unacceptable
  3. When a chain gets going, after the second note it’s someone’s job to write the group and say, “We’re taking this offline, I’ll update everyone on where we ended up.”
  4. Reply All and type “Remove me”.  Short term this increases email traffic, but pretty soon people will start thinking twice.
  5. Create an email tax: charge people $0.25 for each reply all, with a 3x match by the company ($1 total per Reply All).  Give the money away to a charity, and have a “Reply All” volunteer day to boot.  Everyone wins.
  6. Pick up the phone instead.

There are some conversations that whole groups need to follow by email, but not nearly as many as we think.  Make it cost something to send to everyone, and you’ll have more time left to do…just about anything.

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