A path lit by words

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Characters and Convertibles

First posted as a guest blogger for The Quotable Literary Magazine.


From time to time, a frustrated writer asks me where inspiration comes from.  I tell them anywhere and everywhere.  One of my favorite examples is a great character I discovered in an unlikely place—the Saturday “Wheels” section of The Island Packet, the local newspaper here on Hilton Head Island.

In a column by the Car Talk brothers, a 93-year-old woman sought advice about buying a convertible. She’s driven cross-country twice, and just last year she traveled 3,000 miles through the Southwest in her 2000 Subaru. The trip raised fond memories of her Dodge Dart convertible, stolen years ago from a Detroit service station where she had left it to have the top replaced. Now she wants “one more crack at a convertible.”

Her letter is wonderful because, in barely 100 words, I know who she is. She may not call herself a writer, but she follows the essential rule: She shows me. She doesn’t tell me. She doesn’t say, “I’m a feisty nonagenarian with a sense of adventure who refuses to let age get in the way.” She doesn’t boast that she’s healthy and that she watches her weight and her cholesterol. She doesn’t whine that owning a convertible is one of the few items left on her Bucket List and she’s running out of time. This woman is focused on living her life and to do that, she needs a car that’s “moderately priced, safe, serviceable, and FUN.”

I can’t stop myself from filling in the blanks to create her back-story—how she grew up in a small town in Ohio that she left at age eighteen to join a pre-World War II peace organization. She traveled through Europe and eventually made her home in San Francisco. She’s a retired educator, an administrator or a professor of languages who never married. Her name is Rita, her convertible is a yellow Mustang, and she’s driving home for the first time since her mother’s 1988 funeral, to mend fences with her younger brother.

Or her name is Josephine Hollister Rice and she’s the wealthy matriarch of a family from Boston’s Back Bay. She toed the line all her life, but lately she’s become a loose cannon. In fact, the Daughters of the American Revolution have banned her from meetings because she revealed a local Senator’s extramarital affairs. Only her first great-grandchild, born to her eldest granddaughter when she was just sixteen, thinks Grandmother—he calls her Jo—is the cat’s meow. They run away together in her brand-new red Porsche, in search of Jo’s first love, the black sheep she was forbidden to marry back in 1942.

Or she might be Clara, the wife of an Iowa farmer who died before he could fulfill his dream of driving a restored ’57 Chevy convertible east to see the ocean. Or … or…or…You see what I mean.

Where does inspiration come from? Anywhere and everywhere. All it takes is sharp eyes, an open mind, and the willingness to follow your imagination wherever it takes you.

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Leaders: On telling your story

once upon a time

When Blessing-White‘s recent article, The Importance of Narrative, arrived in my inbox, I clicked on it right away. Writers are keenly aware that the business world has a love-hate relationship with people like us—we are welcome in good times, but too often expendable, a luxury some companies choose not to afford. So I was curious to see what a business consultancy had to say about narrative.

The Blessing-White article endorses our central belief in the power of story. It encourages business leaders to share their personal stories with employees “to show who they are in a way that builds trust and expands their credibility, while allowing their direct reports to be inspired and engaged by them.”

Hmm, said my inner cynic. I’ve heard those words before. I’ve lived in a business world filled with stories: Those aimed at the external audience (developed by Marketing, in order to sell) and those meant for a company’s internal audience (Employee Communications, designed to guide and/or change behavior). In that world, stories can be deceitful and manipulative. They aren’t always true.

Then there are leadership stories created by the media. They give us legendary CEOs like Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jack Welch, and notorious CEOs like Bernie Ebbers, “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap, and Ken Lay. Some CEOs fall in between—think Ted Turner and Larry Ellison. Their stories are colorful, frequently inspiring, and too often cautionary.

Blessing-White’s article is refreshing because of its emphasis on truth and its apparent focus on the unsung, not-famous senior leaders who step up every day to empower, engage, and inspire—in short, to lead. It espouses honesty and openness, the willingness to be vulnerable, and a commitment to show respect for one’s audience. And wonder of wonders, it quotes Joseph Campbell, best known for The Power of Myth, who defined the purpose of myths as “a way to make sense of life in the world and establish a shared set of rights and wrongs.” That is a noble challenge for leaders—not just of our corporations, but of our government and organizations of every kind.

Even better, stories can create a vibrant and compelling vision for the future. To quote Blessing-White, “Stories explore the possibility of where we can take ourselves and our organizations with a little imagination and a significant effort. Your way of editing the story of your business and its goals for the future makes you the editor, author and storyteller all at once.”

Kudos to global consultancy Blessing-White. The world will be a better place when more leaders lead by your model.

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To blog is human


I’ve been writing a novel for a while now, which means that people keep asking, “Got that book published yet?” As if it’s easy. As if I could be published if I wasn’t so lazy, dumb, and distracted. With that kind of pressure, it’s hard to think about anything but what you can do to make your book better. To draw the attention of an agent. To get a contract and be published.

A few months ago, after a request for a full manuscript ended in disappointment, I put my book aside. I didn’t write anything, and with time on my hands, I started reading about the business of writing. Want to get published? You need a website, a Facebook presence, and a blog. Writers really need to blog.

Oh, man. Really? Bloggers are narcissists. They are relentless self-promoters. The world already has too many bloggers. And so on.

I’ll spare you the details of my conversion journey, but I rolled up my sleeves and built a website on WordPress. I’ve been blogging since November 2013 and I highly recommend it. Here’s why:

  • A blog demands a commitment. Unlike the essays, short stories, and books that languish in forgotten Word files, “in progress” doesn’t work for blog posts. They must be completed and posted, on a schedule—once a week, or ten days, or two weeks. Finishing a piece of writing feels good.  I’ve written on deadline—usually someone else’s—so setting my own deadlines and sticking to them was a discipline I needed to learn.
  • A blog teaches you to be concise. Like any writing, a blog is a story—in 500 words or less. Beginning, middle, end. Tell the story. Notice what you had to cut to reach the right length, and apply the same principles to your other writing. Try it on short-short stories.
  • A blog gives you objective feedback. When you’re writing a book, your only readers are people you know, people you ask—too often,  because they’re friendly and safe. With a blog, your fans (and your critics) self-select. They tell you what they think. Whether you like it or not.
  • A  blog makes you human. It shows who you are as a person. Imagine an agent reading your dozen or so posts and saying, “Hmm. How interesting. I’d like to get to know her.” The same is true for any business person. Blogging puts you out there and makes you approachable.
  • A blog connects you. Writing is lonely, even if you love it. Writers need isolation, but we also need companionship to feed our minds and our hearts. Following others’ blogs helps you make a different sort of friend, one who shares your interests—and often your concerns.

Blogging will make you a better writer. It will expand your confidence, and if you let it, your self-knowledge. Sometimes what you learn will make you cringe; other times it will make you smile. All of it will help you move through life—as a writer and as a person.

So yes, I admit it: I love blogging.

But I still hate Twitter!

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Just the facts, Ma’am!


Recently I (re)learned an important lesson in journalism. It’s about checking your facts—no matter how reliable your source appears to be. An old lesson? You bet, but one overlooked by several well-known academics with best-selling books.

Researching a white paper on change management, I uncovered a shocking statistic: Seventy percent of large-scale transformative initiatives fail. Seventy percent! These are mergers and acquisitions, technology/systems overhauls, culture reinventions, and a host of other strategic undertakings—multi-million dollar change projects, intended to improve business results by leaps and bounds. Apparently, they don’t.

The infamous “70% failure rate” first appeared when Michael Hammer and James Champy wrote Reengineering the Corporation in 1993. Hailed as “the most successful business book of the last decade,” it set off a movement the authors called “business revolution.” A consultant then, I witnessed the competition among professional services firms to be crowned the one that could guarantee transformative, enduring business process redesign.

Through the years, other change experts—among them Beer and Nohria (Breaking the Code of Change) and John P. Kotter (Leading Change, Heart of Change)—picked up the 70% failure rate in some form or fashion. It became entrenched in the management consulting literature—until recently, when (I surmise; no empirical studies have confirmed it) some change management proponents got mad.

In 2011, Dr. Mark Hughes, of the Brighton Business School, decided to debunk the myth. He traced its evolution from Hammer and Champy, source by source, quote by quote, and concluded, “Whilst the existence of a popular narrative of 70 per cent organizational-change failure is acknowledged, there is no valid and reliable empirical evidence to support such a narrative.” In other words, it was not derived from a controlled, scientific study. It was someone’s opinion or worse, someone’s guess. (Hughes added a few words about “opportunistic business consultants” who may have deliberately promoted an exaggerated figure to sell their consulting services.)

Other change practitioners continue to challenge the 70 percent figure. “Change Whisperer” Gail Severini, Jennifer Frahm, founder of the Australian group Conversations of Change, and others continue to attack the claim as totally lacking in evidence. “Nothing to support it,” Frahm sums up. “No mention of where this fact has come from.”

My point in all this? I don’t think it matters whether 40%, 50%, or 70% of change projects fail. It’s too many, and I would wager that any of those figures would have earned the business world’s attention, back in the day. What does matter is accuracy, and as a freelancer, I’m finding that more and more difficult to guarantee. With the Internet, so much information poses as truth. There are no barriers to entry, no certification required. The potential for many-layers-removed misquoting has increased exponentially.

All I can do is rely on trusted sources; double, triple, and quadruple check my facts; and make sure I document them. What do you do? I’d like to know!

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Ghost-blogging–don’t tell!

ImageI’ve discovered another type of freelancing that’s a lot of fun–ghost-blogging. Although many people struggle for content, it’s easy for me to riff on a topic after doing some quick research. I’ll admit that I’m torn: It’s good work, but seeing someone else’s name on my work bothers me.

But we’re writers. That’s what we get paid for, and we’re fortunate to find people who appreciate our skills. When I first started freelancing, I was appalled at the meager rates clients offered to writers. I’ve come to believe that more often than not, we writers are to blame. We don’t value our time and talent. It’s taken some time, but I’ve finally learned that writing–usually fun and always absorbing for me–is excruciating for most people. That’s good news for us, especially with the internet and the proliferation of websites. The demand for content–and for writers–will only grow, giving us an ideal opportunity to combine our writing talent with whatever content expertise we’ve amassed through the years.

Mine is in Human Resources, and it’s proving quite useful. Trusting that my audience and my client’s audience are unlikely to cross, here’s a blog we recently posted.

The Future of Agile HR

Last week I checked in with Marie, the Vice President, Human Resources of a mid-size energy firm. We’ve known each other for more than ten years, so I was surprised when she said she couldn’t talk long—she had to go find more hours in her day. It turns out she had just read Accenture’s report on agile organizations and, by extension, agile HR. If you haven’t seen it, have a look. It’s a well-researched, comprehensive, and sobering forecast of what organizations of the future must do to succeed—and the daunting new roles HR will be called on to play.

“I already work sixty hours a week,” my colleague moaned, “and it looks like I’m not doing anything right.”

“Relax,” I consoled her. “It’s thought leadership. It’s supposed to be provocative. It’s meant to be aspirational.”

But Marie’s reaction troubled me. She’s smart and committed, not easily discouraged. I hate that she felt demoralized, yet her timing was perfect because she reminded me of an important truth: thought leadership is relative. One company’s aspirational goal is another’s impossible dream. It’s much like “best” practices: no practice is best unless it’s best for you. I knew that, but Marie reminded me at a critical time—the early months of my new consulting firm.

So here’s what I promise you: I won’t beat my chest. I won’t play to the highest common denominator, the most sophisticated HR organizations, the Fortune 100. I’ll do my best to meet you where you are and to help you determine where you can and should go. You’ll get my honest take on the world of HR, experienced through my clients and my interactions with others in the field. I promise to be practical and thoughtful, focused on advice you can use. And rest assured, I won’t sugarcoat the facts.

To that end, here’s my short take on agile HR. Too often HR is seen as an obstacle, dragging its feet when the business urgently needs an answer, a resource, or a new approach. It’s tempting to cave in to the demand to do “what they want” faster. But agility is much more than speed. It means thinking on your feet, so that rather than cutting corners or improving your time in the same old race, you’re blazing a trail to an extraordinary solution. You must have the vision to last for the long run.

Watch for a paper we’re drafting right now, expanding on this view of agility and offering advice on how to determine the changes you must make—the changes that are right for you.

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“The War for Talent” Rages On

tug of war for talent

One of my freelance writing gigs is helping a former colleague create thought leadership for her website. We share a career in human resources consulting, although our specialties are different: I’ve concentrated on people— talent strategy and management—and her focus is the organization, processes, and systems that make HR work efficiently. Or not.

This morning we were brainstorming blog topics. Like any other form of writing, blogging carries idea anxiety. My advice when someone asks, “What on earth can I blog about?” is to keep an eye on current events, professional news, and industry happenings. If something you see, read, or hear makes your heart sing or your blood boil, there’s a good chance you can blog about it.

I’d just made that statement when we came across a report titled, Predictions for 2014: Building a Strong Talent Pipeline for the Global Economic Recovery. A statement on the first page rang a bell, and the sound wasn’t pretty:

“Back in 1997, McKinsey coined the phrase, ‘war for talent.’ Today, one could argue that the war is over and ‘the talent won.’ ”

I had to read it twice. How can anyone believe that employees have won much of anything in the 17 years since McKinsey published “The War for Talent”? Gallup’s latest research on worldwide employee engagement, “The State of the Global Workplace, 2013” reports that only 13 percent of employees worldwide are engaged at work. That means 87 percent of employees have jobs they’re eager to leave in companies they aren’t proud to work for. That’s winning the war?

Just as “selfie” wormed its way into the urban dictionary, “the war for talent” has invaded the business lexicon (Google the term and you’ll get 110,000,000 results). Legions of researchers and consultants have borrowed, modified, and sometimes butchered the phrase. My favorite misquote is “the war on talent”— an appallingly accurate description of the atrocities employers commit against their “most valuable resource.”

My colleague and I stand with the majority who see the talent war as ongoing, and the contributing factors as complex and abundant. One factor we’ll explore in an upcoming Insight is the impact on employees of HR transformation. Our premise is simple: Intent—for two decades—on becoming a business-savvy strategic partner, HR has focused too much on processes and systems, particularly technology overhauls and upgrades. The unintended consequence? They have shortchanged improvements that would have made their employees more capable, more confident, more creative and innovative—and fully engaged in their work.

It’s a fascinating topic and we’re learning a lot. We’re also finding new angles to explore–and to write about. Stay tuned!