An Open Letter to Marissa Mayer

Marissa Mayer
Yahoo Inc.
701 First Ave
Sunnyvale, CA 94089

Dear Ms. Mayer,

Note: Unlike the many other “open letters” that have been written to you recently, I offer no sarcasm here. I mean every word I say.

Your recent announcement of workplace policy at Yahoo ignited an exciting public debate. I know you are not alone with frustration about far-flung teams and the challenge of inspiring them. I applaud your decision to focus on collaboration and search for a solution that works. As someone who started in theatre and now assists business leaders to develop strategies to inspire their teams, create collaboration and drive sales, I know the value of “face to face” communication.

The advances in motion pictures, video and the Internet have made many wonder why the theatre still exists. And yet it does and there is still no replacement for actors using their skills in person to deliver stories to move an audience. This correlates closely with your desire to bring your team face-to-face to create excitement and forward motion.

I have seen business leaders in your position, with the same conundrum, who have successfully leveraged today’s technology to create theatre and communicate an inspiring message across the globe. It must be planned well and executed even better, but it can work…even if you cannot get all of your team under one roof or on one campus.

Truly think of it as theatre…you have your actors (the employees) who want to inspire their audience (the customers) with a message crafted by the playwrights (your marketing team, sales team, etc.). You have producers (your investors) who are keen on profits, success and ROI. And you are the director, the one who must put this all in motion in a way that rallies the troops and inspires them all to hold on while the plot unfolds and brings them together, all pulling in one direction toward one vision.

Inspiration from a good director will motivate actors to do their jobs well and the production generated will get good reviews. However, inspiration from a great director will motivate the group to inspire each other, resulting in a production that will generate great reviews. In the end, you want your message to resonate with your team in a way that drives them to work together, to inspire one another.

You can do this whether they are all at desks in the same building, or whether they are in offices around the globe. I’ve seen it done.

Before Tyco announced plans to split the company in 2011, we worked with their leadership team to create a global theatre event that took the company’s siloed teams around the world and brought them together through a video webcast resulting in a level of understanding and camaraderie never seen in their sales teams before. It wasn’t the technology that succeeded. That was just the delivery system. It was the message that we worked to craft and hone with their leadership, like a Broadway script, that attracted their audience. And it was the performance of that message that inspired thousands to reach across silos and invigorate product development and sales. The stage was the floor of one of their Chinese plants and the audience was gathered in groups in large rooms in front of screens and in front of individual computer monitors throughout the globe.

The result was rave reviews from an inspired team that was re-invigorated to work together. We’ve seen this work time and time again when the leader is courageous and willing to create a potent message and hone it until it can’t help but resonate with the audience.

If I understand your memo correctly, isn’t that the end result for which you are striving?

In Erik Brynjolfsson’s book, Working Against the Machine, he concludes that success can be achieved today only if we learn to work with the machine. Inspiring people today requires working with the new methods and delivery mechanisms, not going back to earlier models that have proven less useful over time. Your leadership in finding a balance between face-to-face communications and “online theatre” (of which Yahoo is an inseparable part) will be the answer to your quest.

You certainly have your team’s attention. Bravo. Now, you need to inspire your cast and crew to, in turn, inspire your customers. Imagine the potential.

Should you like to talk about this further, I’m here – and online. I would truly love to discuss your challenge and what success looks like for you.

Respectfully,
Rick Preston
Preston Productions Inc.

What’s in a Theme?

by Contributor Jennie Morris

Conference themes are a staple of business meetings, trade shows and other corporate presentations. A surprising amount of time and expense can go into developing them, just as with brand identities. Sometimes multi-million-dollar competitive bids are won or lost, based upon a selection committee’s reaction to a few words.

As you consider your theme selection process in 2013, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind…

  • A good meeting theme invites participation, by leaving something to the imagination.
  • The theme should also provide a metaphorical framework capable of supporting a variety of activities and presentations, since you are only at the beginning of the planning process and don’t want your theme to dictate your content.
  • A great theme always leads us back to an underlying truth, and embodies the intentions and aspirations of those gathered in conference.

With this in mind, how do you best craft a theme for your upcoming event?

First, look to the central objective of the program. Is it taking place because of a need to train employees or inform a market? Is the mission to gain support for a cause, a program or product offering? Does it seek to overcome employee inertia or customer resistance? Perhaps you need to build trust among shareholders or employees to change attitudes driven by past employees or actions?

Each of these goals calls for a different approach. Begin with the objective and it will lead you to the appropriate theme as you can see below.

Challenges are “call-to-action” statements. They may announce a program or product, motivate a sales force or move customers to act.

Some examples of past Challenge themes include:

  • Lead the Way
  • Building Experiences
  • Reach-the-Beach
  • Destination: e-Space

Celebrations use assertive statements or phrases that command attention. These can be used to promote an existing product, recognize accomplishments or raise morale.

Some examples of past Celebration themes include:

  • The Power is On!
  • We are Here!
  • I (Heart) Talent
  • Timeless Solutions, Endless Possibilities

Characterizations apply to occasions that need an identity to intrigue and attract an audience, giving them a sense of what to expect without giving it all away. Most appropriate to events with multiple objectives, such as association meetings or industry conferences, they may be location-specific, when location is part of the attraction.

Some examples of Characterization themes include:

  • Trust Matters
  • A Taste of New Orleans
  • Cadkey Evolution Tour

Your theme is truly your starting point, the springboard for crafting your meeting, trade show presentation, webcast or corporate video. Begin with honest questions, which will lead to your goals and objectives. This will then drive the type of theme statement or event title that gives your project a launch that will inspire those involved. A theme that grabs the imagination of the organization will be invaluable as you guide your team to the successful realization of your ultimate goal.

What You Don’t Say, Counts

So last year’s Best Picture Oscar went to a story about public speaking – and this year, it’s all about what can be done with silence.  “The Artist” makes amazing use of gestures, gazes, graphics and music to engage us in a simple love story.

Corporate stories are rarely quite as straightforward, but business presentations can really benefit from similar performance techniques.  Sometimes all it takes is a couple of dramatic moments to underscore a key message, or focus attention on an important issue.

Great presenters can do this simply by pausing at the right moment.  A moment of silence gives the audience a chance to absorb what is happening and prepare for the next moment.

The right gesture evokes an emotional response without resorting to explanation – and that is key to delivering memorable performances.  Appropriate gestures signal authenticity, and build credibility for the speaker.

And of course, sound and graphics can lend a great deal.  That’s why great presentations are often the result of teamwork among talented specialists.  And if someone can tap-dance like Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, well, that could be a plus!

The Once and Future Jobs

So much has been written about Steve Jobs’ passing, it almost seems futile to try.  But the outpouring of respect and grief from “the rest of us” that consumed the social networks says something important about what we need from our leaders, and what we want from our technologies.

Jobs had an amazing belief that, given excellent tools, ordinary people would do wonderful things.  He was famously tough on his staff – unwilling to compromise his standards, but willing to encourage new ideas and listen to critiques.  He challenged people to make their very best efforts, and we loved him for it.

To engage employees, as we work so hard to do, one must first believe that they want to be engaged.  Leaders do that by listening, by encouraging people to express themselves.  They don’t tolerate apathy, but point the way towards action, and cheer those who head in the right direction.

Business leaders who listen in to social media today can gain tremendous insights.  Given great communication tools, people will become engaged.  Given recognition and challenged to apply their talents, they will make great things.

Anyone who used an Apple product felt empowered.  We’ll miss Steve, but he left a little bit of his spirit in our hands.

All Hail the iPad!

I have been a Mac user most of my life.  And to any Mac devotee that comes at a cost.  (No, not the retail value, though my overpriced laptop still lasts three times as long as that other OS version.)  But what I mean is the price to defend my choice.  For in the “business” world we were the outcasts, the troublemakers, and the enfants terrible of the personal computing world.

Then it happened one day.  The CFO of a major global corporation, prepping for our video shoot, revealed her latest tool: her iPad.  What is this I thought?  A business individual, a numbers person, of all things, embracing the enemy?  Is this a victory for the small guy, the rest of us? All hail the…?

Face it. Despite the worldwide acceptance of the “other” operating system as a business tool, you’ve all suffered from Mac envy.  The sleek lines, the intuitive interface, you can’t deny its appeal. And now you have an excuse to own one.  Because the iPad is rapidly becoming the most successful new business tool to be launched in decades. The consulting firm Deloitte estimates that companies will buy some 10 million tablets this year, the majority of them iPads. That’s companies! Not individuals, companies.

Apple is getting serious about the enterprise.  And Salesforce.com CEO Mark Benioff described current IT strategies as the “consumerization of IT.”  What’s good for the consumer is good for business. Does your business have a Facebook account? Wasn’t that once for college kids only?

The bottom line is: in the end it’s all about productivity.  Tablets like the iPad have a deep catalog of business apps that turn this mobile device into a real business workhorse. Companies are distributing them to sales people to take into the field to present products, track orders, videoconference and communicate quickly and easily.

And, they are cool.  Admit it, you always wanted to be on our side. Welcome.

Now is the time to recognize your heroes

Events in Japan continue to grip the world in shock and suspense.  Much more will be written about management and decision-making in response to this crisis, but recently attention was focused on the courageous perseverance and dedication of Tokyo Electric Power’s nuclear plant technicians. We all must feel grateful for them – but why does it take an extreme event to remind us?  These are the same people who worked steadily to maintain safety every day, before a tsunami overwhelmed their facility.

Corporate events often feature a speaker with a remarkable story to tell in an effort to motivate employees.   Or they produce a video extolling some extraordinary accomplishment.  These stories capture our attention, and may inspire us to strive a bit harder, but they also imply that outsized achievements are the only thing worth applauding.  We’re happy to tell stories about those who respond to a crisis – but what about those who make sure that the crisis never happens in the first place?

The reality is that we are much more dependent upon the steady, unsung efforts of the daily grind.  As one Harvard Business Review article put it: “It’s hard to argue with the accepted wisdom—backed by empirical evidence—that a motivated workforce means better corporate performance.”  And knowing that one’s daily contributions are noted and valued is surely motivating.   Companies that really lead their industries acknowledge employees on a regular basis.  They pay attention over the long haul, and look for opportunities to applaud those who keep the office humming, the plant safe, the shipments inspected and the environment protected.

In its statement on the situation in Fukushima, the I.B.E.W  points out that there are 15,000 workers at 42 nuclear plants in the U.S. today.  Let’s hope their employers don’t hesitate to let them know how much their efforts are appreciated.

Why the King matters…

As you might imagine, my vote for best picture this year is The Kings Speech.   If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you do…today!  Not simply because of its numerous Oscar nominations, but because you will rarely see the significance of trust so well expressed.

In this elegant film, the coach Lionel Logue sees courage and possibility in the Prince of Wales, while the future King can only focus on the barriers his speech impediment creates.  Lionel demands trust from “Bertie,” which is the foundation of building trust in his own leadership potential.

I believe we have many exceptional leaders whose awkward speech hinders their effectiveness.  And today we desperately need them to be effective, and not to be stymied by anxiety.

It’s no wonder this is common: the risks associated with taking messages public, and the negative impact of less-than-effective performances can be magnified upon replay.  Contemporary examples of bad message delivery abound:  the tone-deaf remarks of BP’s ex-CEO Tony Hayward, President Bush’s public praise for his FEMA chief, Howard Dean’s excessive enthusiasm in front of the microphone.  Political leanings aside, we cringe to see leaders pilloried in the media after a misstep – because it discourages those who may have the ability, but not the confidence, to take on a leadership role.

Delivering messages successfully is not about talent. It is about hard work.  It is about taking the resources you have, building on them and pushing them to their limits.  And as this film illustrates, great performance is not just about the physical characteristics of the task.  That is just the beginning of the work.

To get to the true power of performance, you must find the courage to let go of those demons that would limit you.  Have the courage to share your beliefs, principles and ideas.  Embrace the task of understanding your audience and use your own best abilities to reach them.  And as the audience nods their collective heads and realize that the speaker is speaking to their needs, beliefs, principles and desires, a well-delivered speech connects with people in ways that surpass volume and diction.

Who wouldn’t want their leaders to have this capability?  It’s powerful.  King George VI spoke with the voice of one who faced down personal limitations and overcome them. He did so because it was his duty to inspire confidence – but also because someone trusted in his courage, and gave him the ability to help lead a great nation through crisis.

Enough for now!  Hope you enjoy Oscar night.

Elementary Performance

Last week the media buzzed with reactions to a supercomputer’s victory:  IBM’s Watson trounced human opponents solving puzzles on Jeopardy, with only occasional pauses or mistakes.  This provoked all kinds of speculation about the future of human/computer interaction.

One fact overlooked in the discussion was this:  Watson had no consciousness of the audience.  No way of knowing whether anyone was laughing at its answers, cheering with delight or gasping in surprise. How much more difficult would it be to teach a computer to take on an unscripted Q&A session with a live human audience?

That’s a challenge that business leaders face on a regular basis.  Questions come up that can’t easily be answered with a Google search or by matching data in stored documents.  There are fine nuances:  beneath the surface of a question there may be a challenge, a plea, a demand or a hint (the unspoken question is often the most significant).

Those are aspects that speakers should listen for, and need to address if they wish to be effective leaders.  But with more and more Q&A sessions taking place online, with limited face-to-face interaction, the challenge is magnified.  How do you read nuance in a text question?  How do you judge the mood of an invisible audience?  Computers may be capable of analyzing online discussions and social networks, but having data is not the same as having answers.

And would we really want a Watson to explain corporate policy or predict industry trends?  Not likely.  What’s needed is better ways of connecting leaders to their online audiences so they can become attuned to the nuances of online buzz (and online silences) and respond with feeling.

An Ear to the Groundswell

Keeping up with the breaking news from Egypt in recent days was a challenge for anyone, including experienced news analysts.  But the most clueless comments of all came from then-President Hosni Mubarak.  Clearly, he just wasn’t listening to “his” people.

Sadly, many leading business executives seem to have similar challenges.  They may be good at listening to their peers, or their advisers or leadership teams, but the voice on the shop floor?  Not so much.  And the impact of that is demonstrated by numerous cautionary tales ending in bankruptcy: poor labor relations at Delta and US Airways, whistle-blowers ignored at Enron and WorldCom, excessive risk-taking at Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual.  Not to mention dozens of firms that struggled to profit from ill-conceived mergers with baked-in cultural issues (can you say AOL?).

Perhaps those leaders were so caught up in what “the message” coming from the executive suite ought to be, that they failed to hear the warning sounds outside their windows.  The message from the ground in Tahrir Sq. was “we know what we need, and it isn’t you.”  Leaders who take time to show they are listening before a crisis hits are more likely to remain standing when it has passed.

Making the Stage your World

If it is true, as so often said, that people fear public speaking more than death itself, we might expect to see an unusual suicide rate among corporate executives.  But that isn’t the case.  So, why not?

I think companies like ours can take some credit.  We work hard to ensure that presenters on stage appear comfortable and engaging, and are able to hold the audience’s attention for however long they speak.  It’s critical to find time for rehearsal, reduce distractions and help focus the speaker on the task at hand.  Then we can find the appropriate vocal tone, tempo and natural gestures that will make that speaker most effective.

Our ultimate promise to clients is this: we will never let you look like a fool in public. That’s not unlike the promise a theatrical director makes to his actors.  The director’s task is to bring the production to life.  Though audiences may question the play, or even the casting, they shouldn’t fault the performance.