Saturday, July 26, 2008

If You're Down on America, Visit Gettysburg

Gettysburg: Where 165,000 soldiers fought for their beliefs... Where Abraham Lincoln helped to mend a torn nation with his powerfully concise Gettysburg Address... Where millions have stood to reflect on the national and international importance of the events that happened on this hallowed ground. Since the smoke cleared from the battlefield in 1863, Gettysburg has been a must-see for all Americans.

If you're feeling down on America--thinking we've lost our purpose, that the world no longer respects us--a visit to Gettysburg will replenish your faith in our country and refresh your patriotism. Standing at the summit of Little Round Top, you cannot appreciating the sacrifices our fellow citizens made to preserve the Union.

Touring the battlefield at Gettysburg is a moving experience. Most people visit for a day, but the three-day battle requires more time. To grasp fully the strategic and tactical implications of Gettysburg, which took place July 1, 2 and 3, 1863, you'll want to devote almost as much time (2.5 - 3 days) to touring the battlefield and the town.

If you're planning a visit to Gettysburg, your best bet is to prepare ahead. Watch the movie Gettysburg based on the book by Michael Shaara. To place the battle within the political tempest of the Civil War, read James M. McPherson's seminal work, Battle Cry of Freedom. A little preparation will enhance your visit to Gettysburg.

Once you arrive in town, start your visit at the new Museum and Visitors Center at Gettysburg National Battlefield. This premier facility opened just two months ago and has thankfully replaced the old "Cyclorama". Watch the 22-minute film, "A New Birth of Freedom," narrated by Morgan Freeman. Devote three hours to tour the Museum and Visitors Center, which leads you through the battlefield and its aftermath.

Grab lunch at Olivia's--it's a little out of the way but the food is great and the service excellent.

In the afternoon, take a battlefield bus tour (take advantage of the discount available at the Visitors Center: Buy your movie ticket and bus tour at the same time). Make sure you get on a tour with a real, live guide. Some tours are canned audio; the licensed battlefield guides are highly knowledgeable and engaging. The tour takes about two hours; you'll begin and end at the Battlefield Bus Tour center in the middle of town.

Pass on the "Package Plans": After you've toured the Visitors Center the side attractions seem hokey and old-fashioned. Invest the money you save in either a ghost tour of town or a horseback ride tour of the battlefield (more on those below).

Return to your hotel for a rest--it's expensive to stay in town but there are a lot of options. Choose a hotel with a pool so you can have a quick and refreshing dip before your evening activities. I recommend dinner at the Appalachian Brewing Company on Buford Avenue. This restaurant is right near Lee's HQ and across from Seminary Ridge. After dinner, as the sun sets, walk through the Seminary--look to the West and you'll see the fields the Confederates crossed on days one and two.

In the evening, if you're not too worn out, sign up for a ghost tour of Gettysburg. Many people aren't aware that the town of Gettysburg was the scene of fierce urban combat, as the routed Union forces retreated on day one through the town to a defensive position on Cemetery Ridge.

The ghost tours recount brutal house-to-house fighting, along with grisly stories of civilian houses turned into makeshift hospitals where Confederate and Union wounded lay side by side. The town is apparently pretty haunted but the only ghosts I encountered were those left in my wallet. Nevertheless, the ghost tours provide an excellent perspective on the fighting in town, as well as the rudimentary and brutal medical care given to the wounded.

In my next entry, I'll share with you what you should do on Day Two of your trip to Gettysburg.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Don't Let the Naysayers Deter You: Smart Business Owners Know that NOW is the Time to Strike!

Because I have a few clients who have taken to heart my advice that challenging business conditions actually present economic opportunity, I've become a bit of an expert on how savvy businesses can actually gain market share during these dynamic times.

See below for excerpts from the Worcester Telegram and Gazette and the Chicago Daily Herald in which I have been quoted for my expertise in this particular area.

Rather than choose the traditional (and cowardly) path of cutting their marketing, communications and sales staff and budgets, some of my savvier clients are working with me on campaigns that simultaneously expand their market share and strengthen relationships with their current clients.

One of our campaigns involves distributing gas and "food" bonus credit cards (or gift certificates) when customers make certain purchases, achieve certain spending (or visitation) benchmarks, and/or refer new customers.

These initiatives have been extraordinarily successful because they're what marketing guru Seth Godin refers to as "genuine". These initiatives convey the sense that "I feel your pain" and I am going to help you during these tough times. These initiatives afford businesses a rare and unique opportunity to connect emotionally with consumers when consumers are looking for emotional connections from increasingly distant (and seemingly contracting) businesses.

Businesses that lay off their marketing and communications staff and cut their advertising and promotional budgets are cutting their proverbial noses in spite of their faces. NOW is the time to be aggressive. Your aggression today will establish and strengthen enduring relationships with customers who will stay with you when the economy improves.

Overlook the power of the emotional connection and you will continue to lose market share. Now more than ever you need to find ways to connect with your customers. When you do, you'll set yourself up for success when the economy bounces back.

Worcester Telegram & Gazette (July 20)
... Such is the power of gas promotions. As average gas prices in Massachusetts hover above $4 a gallon, an array of stores, employers and charitable organizations are offering free or discounted gasoline to attract consumers. Grocery shoppers are building up points on store loyalty cards and then redeeming the points for discounts at gas stations. Those who take certain jobs or donate blood are winning gas gift cards. Some churches are even holding drawings among parishioners for gas gift cards.

The promotions aim to attract new consumers, reward existing consumers and shine a bit of light on entities that want to be seen as sympathetic and compassionate, according to marketing experts.

It can seem counterintuitive to step up promotions when times are tough, but those who do so can capture consumers who remain loyal when things improve, said Bruce R. Mendelsohn, principal of The Hired Pen, a marketing communications firm in Worcester.

“You have an opportunity to steal customers from your competitors by offering them an incentive that shows you care about the issues that are affecting them,” said Mr. Mendelsohn, who has clients that are offering gas promotions.

Chicago Daily Herald (June 16)

Bruce Mendelsohn, Principal of The Hired Pen, a communications consultancy in Worcester, MA, notes that "substantial anecdotal evidence" indicates the more scarce the resource, the more likely companies are to use it in marketing and promotional campaigns. This is especially evident when the resource ties into the company's line of business, Mendelsohn said.

"We think it's another example of the incredibly creative ways some businesses are adapting to challenging economic circumstances," he said. "As market researchers, we're always studying and evaluating consumer behavior; we're curious to discover how successful businesses will be by using gasoline as a marketing and/or promotional tool."

Using gasoline in a contest or promotion isn't unique. Similar contests, although not as sophisticated, happened during the oil embargo in the 1970s.

On alternate rationing days, some companies conducted "Are you odd?" or "Are you even?" campaigns, seeking to draw consumers to their respective stores, Mendelsohn said.

"While there's no doubt the exponentially increasing gas prices are depleting consumers' wallets, businesses that find ways to relieve the pressure on consumers are certain to be viewed favorably by consumers and generate some media attention," Mendelsohn said.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Finding Friends... and Hope in Sad Cities Like Scranton, PA and Worcester, MA

While on a week-long roadtrip through Pennsylvania, the wife and I stopped in Scranton for a night to visit friends. The parallels between Scranton and Worcester are unmistakable: Both are once prominent and wealthy towns that have over the past 100 years fallen upon hard times. Now they struggle to regain relevance in an economy that has over time made each town and their respective and once vital industries obsolete and irrelevant.

Worcester's heyday was more than a century ago, when the mills generated millions of dollars for industrialists and the town attracted world-class cultural institutions and world-famous visitors. Scranton's history--built on turn of the century coal, textile mills and railroad profits--is similar.

Driving into towns like Scranton and Worcester is depressing: The roads are generally in poor shape; the once-proud houses are uniformly dilapidated; the formerly bustling downtown shopping districts are filled with boarded-up stores and populated by vagrants or aimlessly wandering people.

But yet... Peel back the shabby veneer of these depressing and depressed towns and you find underneath neighborhoods filled with families and professionals who refute the reports of the demise of their respective towns. They believe fervently in the vitality of their hometowns and preach it to visiting skeptics.

They point to the reconstruction of Victorian houses, the influx of businesses, the new grocery store down the street, the infusion of Federal, state and local grant monies that will restore "their" hometown to its previous glory days. Their enthusiasm is infectious; their loyalty impressive; their civic pride remarkable.

Being from D.C., I used to malign dirty old towns like Worcester and Scranton. Like others from more prominent and wealthy cities, including members of my own family, I looked down on these towns.

But as I've gotten to know people from towns like Worcester, and during my brief time in Scranton, I've come to realize that their civic allegiance represents hope for the future. Hope is one of the most motivating emotions we have; with hope much is possible.

So I'd say despite the socio-economic challenges these once-prominent cities now confront, the hopes of their respective citizenry bodes well for their futures.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

EP D'oh: The Tour de France Suffers from Cheaters and Abysmal PR

In spite of an aggressive television advertising campaign by Versus... In spite of erudite and entertaining commentary from Paul Sherwin, Phil Liggett and Bob Roll... In spite of the absolutely breathtaking scenery as the peloton pedals its way through the beautiful French countryside... In spite of the legions of fans who line narrow, twisting mountain passes to catch a fleeting glimpse of their favorite rider...

... The Tour de France continues to suffer from cheaters and horrible public relations.

As it is, the only time most Americans pay attention to the Tour is when either an American dominates the event (see: Greg LeMond, Lance Armstrong) or when the news reports that an American is suspected of taking performance enhancing drugs to dominate the event (see: Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis).

Given our winner-take-all culture, it's understandable that most Americans don't comprehend how, as my former father-in-law succinctly stated, "a guy can finish dead last in a stage and still win the whole race. It doesn't make any sense."

Besides, most Americans don't have the patience to watch a drama like the Tour de France unfold over three weeks. We want quick and decisive outcomes for the sports we follow.

But for those of us who appreciate the supreme level of fitness required to ride some 2,400 miles over varying terrain, in all types of weather, and to those of us familiar with bike racing, the Tour de France remains an irresistible event.

For many of the racers who compete in the Tour, the lure of winning (either a stage or the whole race) has since the inception of the Tour spurred ever-increasing sophistication in taking performance enhancing drugs that speed recovery, boost aerobic capacity, and stimulate muscle production. Blood doping has throughout the Tour's history for many riders proven irresistible (for an excellent description on blood doping in bike racing, check out

When blood dopers get caught at the Tour de France, the PR fallout is toxic: Sirens, flashing lights, humiliated riders, photos of used syringes and obligatory comments from former pro riders lamenting the demise of purity in sport (as if when they were riding the Tour was clean).

Every time, the Tour organizers issue a predictably similar statement: "[Name of rider] from [name of team] tested positive for [name of performance enhancing drug]. He has been expelled from the Tour and the matter is now being handled by law enforcement authorities."

That's a typical lawyer's statement. And while there's nothing fundamentally wrong with a statement from a lawyer, these statements are generally formulaic. They lack emotion. They address facts and facts alone. The problem with these predictably formulaic statements is that they don't address the raw emotions surrounding the tour.

TdF fans are incredibly passionate about the riders they follow: Whether it's exhorting the Basque riders up the Pyrenees, cheering for breakaway French riders on Bastille Day, or waving an American flag in one of the four American riders, the Tour is an emotionally draining experience for fans.

For riders--both past and present--the Tour is physically and emotionally debilitating. The clean riders--and there are some, notably led by Slipstream Chipotle, an American team with a rigorous, self-imposed drug testing regimen--are justifiably furious at the dopers. The dopers must ride in constant fear of getting "randomly" tested. The sponsors--many of whom dropped their team sponsorships after last year's debacle--are angry that their brands are associated with cheaters. The commentators are upset at having to report yet another drug-related expulsion when the real action takes place on the roads.

There's a lot of emotion when a doping story breaks, and the lawyer's statements don't address the sense of betrayal, the anger, the frustration, shared by fans, clean riders, sponsors, commentators and cycling afficionados.

If I were handling PR for the Tour de France, I would formulate and distribute to team sponsors, managers, mechanics, riders, bus drivers, commentators--anyone who is even remotely affiliated with the Tour--the messages below. I would instruct them to repeat these messages to anyone who asks them about the Tour's policies regarding performance enhancing drugs.

1) "We fully oppose the use by anyone associated with professional cycling of performance enhancing drugs before, during and after the Tour de France. We will swiftly and to the full extent of French law prosecute any violations of this policy. Further, we will ban for life participation in the Tour de France by any professional cyclist proven to have taken performance enhancing drugs during the Tour de France."

2) "As part of our continuous efforts to eliminate the use of performance enhancing drugs during the Tour de France, we have adopted a rigorous drug testing regimen and policy (as follows). By riding in the Tour, all riders agree to participate in the efforts to keep the Tour clean."

3) "We apologize to fans and supporters of professional cycling for any violations of the Tour de France's drug testing policy. The lure of Tour de France fame and fortune is not sufficient motivation to violate the principles of sportsmanship upon which the Tour de France is based. We are embarrassed and our sport is ashamed when we find dopers--and we will find you. You and your team will be humiliated on the international stage."

4) "We understand professional cycling is both physically and emotionally draining--both for riders and for fans--and we appreciate the support of fans who, like us, want only to witness a clean race among drug-free riders. We strongly encourage followers of professional cycling--be they fans, team sponsors, event sponsors, former riders or amateur cyclists--to support those teams and athletes who ride drug-free."

Messages like these address the emotion surrounding the use of performance enhancing drugs and send an unmistakable message to those riders who risk getting caught with that crap in their systems. They also placate fans by telling them in no uncertain terms where Tour de France organizers stand on the use of performance enhancing drugs.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Who Let the Cat Out (Who, Who, Who)... Or, More Adventures with Pumpkin Pie.

--A tale of Pumpkin Pie's attempt to regain her position as the only animal that sleeps with mommy.

As my loyal readers know, the wife is in California for two weeks, returning Monday night. During her absence I have been responsible for the proper care and feeding of the wife's cat, Pumpkin Pie. I have often stated my belief that Pumpkin Pie has a pea brain and is incapable of cognitive ability--certainly not sufficient intelligence to carry out the following nefarious plot.

Or... does she?

Today's adventure with Pumpkin Pie has compelled me to reexamine my analysis of the cat's brain. I think she wants to make me look like a terrible cat-sitter, and after you read this entry I'm confident you'll share my belief.

During the wife's absence, Pumpkin Pie and I have observed an uneasy truce: As long as I feed her, give her fresh cold water twice daily and occasionally change her litter box (see previous blog post to discover my feelings for that term), she has behaved herself moderately well: Only one hairball/throw-up and several litter box near-misses.

We've occupied the same space with a minimum of hostilities: Think North and South Korea and you'll have an accurate grasp on our relationship the past two weeks.

But to carry the North/South analogy one step further, today she crossed the DMZ in force. Quite honestly it's my own fault. I believe she saw an opportunity to make me look bad in the all-important eyes of mommy; thankfully her attempt was unsuccessful. If it had been, I might now be writing about my frantic search for a replacement cat.

Did I mention that Pumpkin Pie is not an outdoor cat? That's right, loyal readers: Pumpkin Pie is sans claws, sans shots, and sans any idea of how to survive in the big world beyond our deck.

This morning Pie shed the comforting confines of our humble abode and went off on a adventure. I left the house in a hurry at around 0730 to get to the Worcester JCC to teach spinning. After teaching from 0800 - 0900, I went to play soccer in Northboro for two hours. After that I went to West Boylston where I hooked up with my brother-in-law and his daughter to go swimming at the Holden Pool. I finally returned home at about 1500 (that's 3 p.m. to those of you unfamiliar with military time--it's easy, after noon just subtract 12).

I got out of the car and heard plaintive meowing. I looked up to the bathroom window--Pumpkin Pie's usual throne from which she surveys her kingdom. Not there. I looked at the kitchen window, where she perches when she wants to see the commoners at their level. Not there either.

I looked on the deck and saw a cat. I thought, "what's that stray cat doing on our deck? I've never seen that cat before." I looked closer and lo and behold it was Pumpkin Pie. She must have snuck out right behind me when I left this morning, darting between the closing screen door. And she must have stayed outside for seven hours: No food, no water, no shots, no clue.

Naturally I let her back in and she went immediately to the feed dish--but not after I swear she looked at me with utter and complete disdain: Like, "you're supposed to take care of me?! Hell, I snuck out for seven hours and you didn't even know. Wait 'til mommy finds out; she'll never feed you or clean out your litter box again. And then I shall reign supreme once more."

My first inclination was to thank God that Pie hadn't been eaten, run over, or any of the various misfortunes that can befall an unsuspecting animal (either two-legged or four-legged) in our cruel and unpredictable world.

But then I thought: Why did she come back? I mean, if she has a pea-sized brain, how did she know that this is her house? Was it actually smart of me to have in the past let her out to wander the deck?

And then I thought: What if this was a ploy to have the neighbors find her roaming outside? What if Pumpkin Pie planned her escape all along; waiting until the opportune moment struck in her bid to assert her eternal dominion over mommy's heart and affection? What if she's really not stupid, but calculating, shrewd, clever and incredibly vindictive?

Such are the musings of a misguided non cat person.

I wasn't going to tell the wife about how the cat got out and who let her out, but I know somehow if I didn't spill the beans Pumpkin Pie would. So for a change I demonstrated my superior human brain power and immediately called the wife. I told her the story because I didn't want Pumpkin Pie to seize the all-important public relations initiative.

The cat may have outsmarted me in escaping, but I'll be damned if she beats me at my own game.

Mommy comes home tomorrow night and I don't know who will be happier: Pumpkin Pie or me. Suffice it to say that given Pumpkin's recent walkabout, my adventures in cat-sitting are not soon to be repeated.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Five Ways You Can Discern Organizational Culture: Before You Take Your Next Job!

For the thousands of you who read my blog (ok, maybe not thousands), you're aware of my interest in organizational culture. I've blogged about it several times. Because organizational culture is still looked at as the red-headed stepchild of the "harder" and generally more quantifiable aspects of management and leadership, most senior leaders overlook it in the hiring process.

In this blog you'll discover five ways you can discern organizational culture both as a employer and as a potential employee. If you're the former, your unbiased assessment of the following questions may reveal characteristics of your organization that you never knew; if you're the latter, getting concrete responses to these five issues will prevent you from taking a job in which you will clash with the prevailing organizational culture.

I've done it twice and the inevitable results are painful, both professionally and personally. By the time you're in an organization and you realize your professional attributes and personality clash with the prevailing culture, your bosses likely have arrived at that point long before you... And they'll sacrifice you at the altar of their organizational culture rather than change the culture.

It takes great courage and a long time to change organizational culture; most CEOs and COOs lack that courage (and the knowledge); in this challenging economic climate they certainly do not have the luxury of time. After all, it's far more convenient to get rid of the individual who doesn't fit the culture rather than change the culture.

And yet, with resources so precious, and so many resources devoted to finding, hiring and training employees who will positively contribute to the organization from day one, both employers and potential employees would be wise to take into account the following five ways to determine whether or not a potential employee is a "good fit" for the organization.

My academic background (I have a Master's in Systems Management [Organizational Behavior]) and practical experience dealing with the repercussions of not accurately reading organizational culture during interviews and in the early stages of new jobs (or projects), makes me I believe uniquely qualified to blog authoritatively about the importance of recognizing organizational culture.

1) “Bull in a China Shop”: A job seeker concerned with determining whether or not (and to what extent) he or she will fit into the target company’s organizational culture should understand two things: His/her personality (are they a “bull”?) and the decision making structure/system of the target organization (is it a "China shop"?).

Questions that may help determine this include:

a. What structure/system does the organization have in which I am supposed to do my job? Is the organizational hierarchy flat or steep?

b. How are internal conflicts handled? Ask for specific and recent examples. Note facial expressions, body language and the words used to describe those conflicts. Conflict resolution reveals much about organizational culture.

2) Pre-evaluate your prospective boss: You're going to spend a lot of time working with and answering to your boss. Just as professional sports teams intensively evaluate their top draft choices, so must you carefully evaluate your prospective boss. What can you find out in a one or two hour interview?

Here are some questions you should ask. Be sure to ask these of both your boss and your boss’ superiors and subordinates.

a. Is the boss passionate/motivated about the work/the organization? How is that passion/motivation reflected?

b. Does the boss bring an infectious sense of energy and teamwork to the department/team? How responsive is the boss (by email, in person, voicemail, etc.)?

c. Does the boss motivate, inspire and educate? Is he/she affable or aloof? Does he/she micromanage? What is his/her management style, and what specific examples can you use to describe how the boss manifests that style?

3) The organization's decision making process: How an organization makes decisions reveals much about the character of relationships and flow of work in the organization. To understand how the target organization makes decisions, ask the following questions:

a. How many levels does one have to go through to get decisions?

b. How are decisions made on a new initiative? Is it death by committee, "ready-fire-aim" or something in between? Before you get the answers, you should know the decision making process that best suits your personality. Conflicting decision making styles are a leading reason why employer-employee relationships turn bad.

c. How does the organization green light new initiatives? Ask for specific and recent examples.

4) Organizational responsiveness: When opportunities present themselves, is the target organization quick to seize opportunities or slow to react? Is it a slow-footed or a fast-footed culture? Most non-profit organizations and associations are the former; most newer companies and start-ups are the latter.

If you thrive in a dynamic, unpredictable environment; if you make decisions based on 60% fact and 40% instinct; if the machinations of Boards of Directors and Committees cause you to grind your teeth, save yourself a lot of professional and personal angst: Don't take a job at a non-profit or an association.

5) Notice little indicators of organizational behavior: It's true that the devil is in the details. An important part of organizational culture is organizational behavior. As you walk through the hallways for your next interview, note how most staff dress. At the most senior levels, note especially how your boss dresses: Is he/she fastidious, vain, slovenly, well-groomed?

Always ask to go to the bathroom. Is it clean? Besides giving you a little break from your interview schedule, use the time you're unescorted to look subtly at the common areas of the organization. Are they clean? Do they appear used? Do people congregate in the common areas? Are voices subdued or excited? Lots of movement generally indicates lots of activity and interaction.

a. Is it a cube world or an office world? If the former, are the cubes personalized? Are there pictures of family/pets/etc.? If the latter, are doors open? Is there a lot of traffic in the hallways, break rooms, etc. Do people appear to like each other, or do they pass in the hallways without saying hello?

As a potential employee, ask these questions and you'll get concrete answers upon which to base your decision. As an employer, try to see these issues from the perspective of your potential new employee. Set aside your ego and truly examine your organizational culture. You may find the results of your examination reveal flaws--or strengths--about which you were not previously aware.

Employers, don't make the mistake of trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. The candidate you love on paper may not fit your organizational culture, and everyone will suffer when the inevitable clash comes.

Employees, carefully and diligently seek answers to the five aforementioned issues. Ask the tough questions in your interviews. Do your career and your ego a favor: Understand the organization's culture and assess whether or not you'll fit.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

I Am Living in a Dali Painting

Suffice it to say, the recent heat wave that has hit New England reminds me of those halcyon DC summers, when it gets so hot that people simply start melting: They melt into air conditioned offices, air conditioned cars, theatres, restaurants, even the metro, whose mostly underground stations offer shelter from the relentless sun and suffocating humidity.

When it gets this hot, your personal thermostat loses its frame of reference. It's so hot outside, it's like we're in Indonesia. I keep on waiting for Sukarno to come walking down the street, clad in flip-flops with a towel around his head.

In weather like this I particularly enjoy when people ask by way of making conversation, "hot enough for you?"

To which I respond: "Hot? I didn't notice that it is hot." They look at me like I wouldn't notice if my hair were on fire.

I mean, it's so hot the clocks are melting off the wall. I feel like I'm living in a Dali painting.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Put Your Life in Perspective: Skydive

To celebrate my recent birthday, I bought myself the present of a tandem skydive. Adverse weather conditions prevented me from going on my birthday, so I rescheduled for yesterday. Rescheduling actually proved fortuitous, since I have been enduring a bit of a rough spot professionally (it seems my former employer did not value my marketing and communications prowess as much as my previous employers)...

Ironically, the remedy for my professional malaise was jumping out of a perfectly good plane and free fall plummeting for 30 seconds to the big green rock. When falling from great heights, I was thankful simply that the chute opened and I landed on two feet. My job, my financial situation, my worldly concerns seemed by comparison petty and insignificant.

Truth be told, I liked that feeling. It reminded me of the last three or four miles of a marathon, when I'm focused relentlessly and solely on finishing the run: Everything else seems at the time unimportant. I like being focused completely on one thing: In this case, it was reaching earth without a splat.

From Airborne School, I remembered that the merest hesitation is standing in the door, looking at the clouds and the earth below and wondering--for that split second--at the insanity of it all. My instructor also played a little trick on me; he said we were going to exit on three but we actually went on two. I remember that, and I remember the back flip we did before he deployed the drogue chute to slow us down during free fall.

Free falling was a unparalleled adrenaline rush. The only comparisons from my life I can draw are the feeling of jumping off a 30 foot cliff while skiing in the Dolomites or descending a Cat-5 rapid. Being in a tandem afforded me the luxury of looking around and taking it all in--that is, while I was trying to catch my breath.

After my instructor--Muppet (a self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie and full-time skydiver with more than 5,600 falls)--deployed the main chute, we enjoyed about five minutes of gracefully gliding to the big green rock below. Nothing like feeling terra firma under my feet to provide perspective on my life's situation. Given how many things can go wrong during a skydive, landing successfully made me thankful for my many blessings.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Feline Frisson... Or, Adventures with a Mischievous and Misanthropic Maine Coon

This entry opens with a statement that may alienate the world's passionate cat lovers: I am not a cat person. I know this because my wife has left me for two weeks with her Maine Coon cat, Pumpkin Pie. Deliberate emphasis on her.

Pumpkin Pie is my wife's cat, pure and simple. She is not my cat. I don't like cats. In general, I find cats haughty, fickle, calculating and maddeningly ego-centric. I understand this ascribes human personality traits to an animal whose mental capacities are incapable of manifesting such behavior, but having no other frame of reference I must rely on my observations.

My wife--God bless her--rescued Pumpkin Pie from a shelter, days before she (that is, the cat) was to be euthanized. I suspect the shelter people say that to every sad sack who wanders in, oohing and aahing over a sweet little kitty cat.

So in the beginning there was Pumpkin Pie. She lived with my wife well before I entered the picture, and I swear she (that is, the cat) has resented my presence ever since.

I inherited Pumpkin Pie in the marriage deal--which is pretty fair, since my wife inherited my daughter. The wife loves the cat and the cat--when it suits her (generally during mealtime) loves the wife right back. I have photos of the cat sleeping on my wife's head. It's really cute. The cat never sleeps on my head--I suspect she's an anti-baldite.

Since the wife left for two weeks in California, Pumpkin Pie has not been at all cute. After four days alone together, I'm willing to bet that Pumpkin Pie--if she could form a coherent thought in her pea-sized brain--is saying to herself, "I am not a man person."

I think she is deliberately trying to sabotage my relationship with my wife, who instructed me in no uncertain terms to in her absence value the cat's needs over my own.

In just four days, Pumpkin Pie has:
* Left hairballs in my chair
* Defecated alongside her litter box--right after I cleaned it!
* Scampered on the kitchen table, knocking over candles and other fragile objects
* Overturned her water bowl
* Scampered (for reasons unknown) across my bed at 2 a.m. for three consecutive nights (always at 2 a.m., like she knows what time it is--I tell you, it's eerie)

I spoke with a few cat people I know (one must befriend the enemy to gain insight regarding the enemy's behavior)and they said it's because Pumpkin Pie misses her mommy. She knows something isn't right in her world so she's acting out.

Acting out?! Let me get this straight: Cats have pea-sized brains, it's unfair to ascribe human behaviors to them because of their pea-sized brains, yet the cat is acting out? Maybe I should send the cat to intensive therapy for the next 10 days.

Pumpkin Pie and I have a truce going, though: When I am upstairs, she is downstairs. When I venture downstairs, she moves upstairs. We pass on the stairs, eyeing each other warily. The stairs have become our DMZ.

As long as I feed and hydrate her, as long as I clean out her litter box (Aside: litter? It's not litter. It's defecation and urination. I mean, I'm in PR but really, calling it "litter" is too much), and as long as I give her some treats I think she will not claw out my eyes while I sleep.

Here's the irony, though: This afternoon while I was watching TV, Pumpkin Pie jumped into my lap (she NEVER does this with the wife) and sat there for about 20 minutes while I scratched her behind her ears and rubbed her tummy. I understand from cat people that when a cat allows you to rub her tummy that means she's comfortable around you.

I suspect Pumpkin Pie is trying to lull me into a false sense of security and resolve to remain vigilant--especially at night when she has the run of the house...

Thursday, July 3, 2008

More on Generation 'I': Are They Getting the Message to Succeed at Any Cost?

Here are some facts that will set the background for this blog entry, which deals with "Generation I" and the message we as a society may be sending them:

Last week the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia awarded the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) $2.3 million damages in a copyright infringement case GMAC brought against Lei Shi and other operators of the U.S.-based web site known as sold VIP access for $30 a month and gave users previews of questions on the latest GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test)--including some answers posted by users after taking the exam. In the award, GMAC got access to the hard drives listing's clients; a GMAC spokesperson said that prospective and current graduate students who may have used to cheat on about 6,000 entrance examinations over the past five years could have their scores thrown out.

When it comes to getting into "the best" schools, standardized test scores make the most difference. The competition to get into "the best" schools obviously spurred a small group of test takers to gain a competitive advantage by cheating.

What possessed the cheaters to believe that cheating was acceptable? Perhaps in cheating they merely reflected the lessons we've taught them. In a era when success--defined as degrees from "the best" schools, living in the biggest house, driving the flashiest car, etc.--is prized above all else, traditionally accepted morals and ethics seem sadly obsolete.

To support this theory, I turned to a book I read several years ago, A Tribe Apart, written by Patricia Hersch.

Hersch writes: "In times when society lacks clear ethical guidelines, when parents neither spend the time to educate their children about time-honored values such as honesty, integrity, and personal responsibility nor necessarily model consistent values in their own lives, kids are responding to the one message they hear loud and strong from the adult world: Succeed. Do well. Do whatever you need to do."

If success means knowingly cheating on a standardized test or if it means deliberately cutting corners, are today's kids learning these lessons from us? To what extent are we to blame for the relentless pursuit of success that would prompt adult children (the average age of GMAT test takers is 21) to cheat on the exam?

If we are (as I believe) partially to blame for the astounding erosion in the time-honored values to which Hersch refers above, what can we do to reverse this alarming sense of entitlement and moral turpitude?

For a possible answer, I turned to another book I read a few years ago, For Shame: The Loss of Decency in American Culture, by James B. Twitchell.

Twitchell writes: "We've got to restore a sense of shame to our society. Nothing seems to shame us or outrage us anymore. We look at our television sets and see all kinds of trash, and we allow it to come into our homes. We're not ashamed of it anymore."

General Colin Powell--an erudite, well spoken and highly experienced soldier and stateman--would advise the cheaters thusly: "There are no secrets to success: Don't waste time looking for them. Success is the result of perfection, hard work, learning from failure, loyalty to those for whom you work, and persistence."

There's no doubt that cheating conveys a competitive advantage which could very well lead to fiduciary benefits. But in the final analysis, there is a spiritual cost to that fleeting fiduciary benefit.

Twitchell comments on that spiritual cost and its influence on society: "A society that ignores or opposes a set of core standards that motivates people to work, stay married, exercise self control, and be honest exhibits a poverty of the spirit that no amount of money can enrich."

The message we may be sending Generation I--to succeed at any cost--could well be eroding the fabric of our very society.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Leave the Marketing and Communications Work to the Professionals

Both as a freelance communications consultant and as a full-time Communications Director, I've worked with and for people who believe they can market and communicate as well as I can. The further up the leadership food chain I progress, the more ingrained I have found this belief to be.

This is particularly true with non-profit organizations and associations (such as the one I just left): The leaders shortsightedly think they'll save money by cutting marketing and communications staff and "doing it themselves."

While it is generally true that most senior leaders understand the basic fundamentals of marketing and communications, they don't understand the subtle nuances that often make the difference between successful marketing and communications efforts and those that merely cause the organization to run in place.

Even worse, the often prodigious egos possessed by leaders in smaller organizations or associations as well as entrepreneurs convince them that they can, in fact, plan, implement, manage and analyze effective marketing and communications initiatives.

In my experience, their attempts fail miserably: They do a disservice to their organization or their association and, when they end up hiring a new communications professional, the new arrival has to work even harder to make up the communications deficit.

CEOs and COOs don't involve themselves every day in the subtle nuances of marketing and communications. They don't grasp how dynamic marketing and communications are; they don't understand how traditional and nontraditional approaches work together to create the vital synergy necessary to achieve marketing and communications goals with limited resources. In most cases they fall back on their old, obsolete knowledge.

I see it happening now with my former employer. It's a shame because it squanders the progress we made over the past seven months to create a immediately recognizable brand for the association, to formulate and communicate compelling collateral which conveys the association's unique value, and to establish a strong foundation upon which to conduct effective and long-term public relations.

Effective marketing and communications demands constant attention and nurturing by marketing and communications pros, not by neophytes who regard these vital activities as merely another additional duty among many additional duties.

Sure, they'll put their best efforts into the activities but their efforts will fall short because they simply lack the skills and knowledge to do so effectively.

Smart leaders leave the marketing and communications work to the professionals.