Recent grads and job seekers: 2 tips I don’t see enough people sharing with you

I am now, apparently, old enough to dispense career advice. Or at least according to my alma matter which hosted several of us on a summertime panel for undergrads and recent grads this week. After hearing myself repeat a few points between this week’s panel and some other recent career conversations, I thought I’d try to summarize my two main recommendations here.

Caveat! I have great respect and admiration for any dream or career path that calls you, but the points I’m making below are based on my experience with technology, nonprofits, communications, advocacy / politics, professional services, and other knowledge / creative work (is that an area?). I’ll invite the bakers, builders, and biologists tell us if any of this applies to their fields.

1. Seek out chaos.

Entry-level jobs come in two main flavors: (a) highly structured roles designed for recent grads who will be trained up for a specific function until they burn out, usually just in time for next year’s crop to arrive (only a slight exaggeration of how some places establish junior roles); (b) loosely structured roles in more turbulent environments.

Assuming you have some degree of choice (a luxury, i realize), you want the latter. The best place for you to impress others and shine is an environment in which there’s more work than people to do it (think startups, small firms, campaigns). If you’re young and hungry, this is where you thrive. Ideally you’re also high-functioning, resourceful, committed, and like-able.

I was lucky enough to get hired onto an insurgent presidential campaign for my first job where I had multiple simultaneous bosses, minimal oversight, and wild hopes and expectations for what my team could achieve (ie lots of room to fail or succeed). We often joked that anyone with a pulse could — and did — work their way up the ranks of this campaign into serious responsibility simply by finding constructive ways to plug the millions of holes that emerged each day. I’ve seen the same to be true of startups, media organizations, and basically any place with overwhelmed managers who don’t have the time or know-how to deliver. You can save the day!

When the people you’ve been working with (and impressing) inevitably move into new roles and need to build their new team in a hurry, now you’re on a short list of people they recruit or ask to apply.

2. Follow up! Make us useful.

I’ll never understand why job seeking friends, colleagues, or acquaintances don’t send follow up notes a few weeks or months after a chat to say “hey, I’m still looking; has anything popped up on your radar recently? as a reminder, i’d be good for any role that…”

If we bothered to talk to you or email you back in the first place, we’re at least somewhat interested in being helpful. Otherwise we would have said so or simply ignored whatever you sent.

So help us help you. Give us something specific and actionable we can do that helps you. This isn’t just about you; we actually feel better about ourselves when we can be useful.

  • Ask if I know anything about an org / place you’re interested in. I’ll tell you what I know.
  • Ask if I can make an intro to that person you see I’m connected to on LinkedIn or Facebook. I’ll tell you if I can or can’t.

I think job seekers are too often worried about crossing some kind of line or overstaying a welcome, but that’s never happened in my experience because very few bother to engage in something like the above after we’ve connected.

Oh — one thing not to ask: “So, how does one go about getting a job in your field?” As a more seasoned and therefore snarky member of the panel rightly pointed out, “That’s called a Job Search.”

And yes, all of the rules about ridiculously strong writing, communication, and people skills are still as important as ever but that’s already well documented elsewhere. Good luck out there!

[Photo: @kalexanderson]

Rethinking Conferences: Participant-Led Events vs All The Rest

I’m now convinced that there are two types of events: those that serve the interests of participants and those that primarily serve the needs of a small group of organizers (or, worse, the egos of the speakers).

I’ve been slowly coming to this conclusion after leading or helping to organize two 135-person events every year for the past four years (and attending my fair share of others) — Web of Change and Greenpeace’s Digital Mobilisation Skillshare, the latter of which just wrapped last week and hit several high water marks for me (kudos @captaintracy!) and crystalized some thinking here.

The challenge, as I see it, as it that our prevailing event models aren’t providing enough value to enough participants. And now that I’ve seen what’s possible, I think it’s time we expect more from (and ask more of) the events we attend. 

  • Panels rarely deliver (see Darren Barefoot: Why conference panels are awful, and how to fix them); it’s painful to watch a group of people try to work together for the first time or compete for airtime, and we usually walk away with little more than a thin, wandering exploration of a topic or theme. (Guilty, sorry everyone)
  • “Un-conferences” are unpredictable and get dominated by those comfortable with the approach or the more aggressive types; good sessions happen when an effective facilitator steps up to host a real discussion, but my experience is that most sessions at these events are no different than typical conference panels. (Also guilty.)
  • Plenary speeches are boring: Only Barack Obama has a shot at capturing the interest of the entire audience for the entire time slot he’s given, but it’s even a stretch for him. This is why I think we’re seeing growing interest in fixed-length “ignite” or TED-style formats. If you don’t like the content, it’ll be over in a few minutes!

There are, of course, exceptions to all of the above — we’ve all stumbled upon that one mind-blowing talk or session that (possibly) made the three day trip worth it. My point is that despite the best intentions of event planners, the well worn paths of least resistance in event design on balance do not reliably deliver the value that we should all expect as participants.

I think this is why conference-goers tend to cite the people they met and human connections made outside of sessions as the high point of their experiences.

The question I’ve been pondering is this: Why should we have to spend the majority of our time at events looking for that diamond in the rough? Crossing our fingers in hopes of experiencing that One Great Session? Why can’t the majority of our event experiences achieve that level of quality?

Well, I now know it’s possible, because I’ve been lucky enough to experience events where the majority of people seem to get value the majority of the time — and even a bit of magic if we’re lucky.

Here’s what I see as the defining criteria for a participant-driven event. The mechanics of organizing and facilitating an event that achieves these principles are the domain of my friend and mentor Allen Gunn (Gunner) of Aspiration who has been refining and perfecting this model for more than a decade.

1. Everyone gets a voice. 

This is what separates events with audiences from events with participants. If event organizers don’t give everyone the opportunity to speak or say at least a few words—ideally at the start—then they’re implicitly telling participants that they’re not as valuable as those with formal speaking roles. It sets up a two class system and gives permission to non-speakers and non-organizers to start becoming invisible, allowing themselves increasing opportunities to check out and teleport into email and social media land.

It may sound improbable but I’ve repeatedly seen up to 140 people say their name and share one useful piece of information about themselves in under 20 minutes. Or a room of 125 people get introduced in pairs or small groups enough times to not only get excited about the other people in the room but also discover that other people are excited about them being there and that they’re valuable participants too.

2. Everyone a teacher; everyone a learner. 

When you eliminate that two class system of speakers vs attendees, the entire dynamic changes. The urge to focus your time and attention on people with speaker badges disappears, and the perceived need to climb your way up into presenter status fades away. Everyone wears the same badge because, if you planned your event right and attracted a good group, everyone has plenty to share about their experiences (“expert” or not) and everyone is at least worth talking to.

At each of the last three DMS events, a majority of participants facilitated sessions.

And the experiences I’ve had at Web of Change over the past few years in which a participant finds herself unexpectedly sharing a transformational experience have been greater than just about any keynote talk i can remember.

The trick is attracting participants who are as interested in learning as they are in sharing. If you set this expectation at the outset, before people register or apply, you can almost guarantee you’ll have eliminated the a-hole factor. Unfortunately your in-n-out keynoters won’t be much use at this kind of event, but hey maybe you’ll wind up with extra money for the closing party.

3. Participants know best

I think organizers assume that putting participants in the driver’s seat automatically means chaotic “un-conference” with no agenda except a blank wall for half-baked session ideas. There’s a happy medium to be found if you pair “wisdom of the crowd” with a process or structure that lets you actually surface this wisdom.

Take the overall agenda. The approach I’ve seen Gunner facilitate many times now magically gets dozens if not hundreds of random post-it notes clustered and categorized on a wall for everyone to see in 8 minutes (see: agenda hack). The result is a reflection of the group’s needs and interests, from which additional sessions can be designed.

As for sessions, a few basic guidelines for session facilitators can go a long way toward creating a productive session for a group of ideally no more than 15 people (again, credit to Gunner):

  1. Identify the purpose of your session: What will participants achieve, build, or experience by the end?
  2. Actually facilitate: Find out why everyone is there so you can meet their needs, and reign in conversations that take the group away from the session’s purpose. This means that facilitators do not need to be an expert on the topic they’re convening.
  3. Ensure everyone gets to participate. Sharing brief stories and experiences is great, but you’re going for dialogue, not presentation. As Gunner would suggest, “if there are N people in the room, aim to speak one N-th of the time.”

I’ve seen over-preparation backfire in a ton of ways, like incentivizing presenters to take attendees hostage while they run through a powerpoint, but most importantly it means that you’ll get what the presenter thought was important rather than what the group assembled was interested in hearing. If you want to sit and listen to a lecture, no need to get on a plane: fire up the world’s best talk on the subject without ever leaving your couch.

~~~

My main takeaway is that event and facilitation design can either enable the best in us, or not. The schoolhouse event models make too many of us want to rebel — we engineer longer breaks for ourselves when we’re only given 10 minutes, we mentally or physically check out of talks that don’t capture our full attention, etc.

There’s still a time and place for the one-to-many model (ie well-crafted talks or presentations), I just don’t think they’re nearly as an effective use of time as the many-to-many model when assembling a group of smart, talented, and interesting people. 

The participant-driven model empowers and engages attendees in ways consistent with larger societal and technological shifts. We’re increasingly accustomed to customizing and crafting our own media and experiences, so why not our events? Attending an event designed in the broadcast model is increasingly going to feel as anachronous as wading through TV commercials.

I’ve glossed over the details of how you actually run such an event, but head to Aspiration’s Facilitation wiki for the best set of resources, and check out a few quick hits of what it looks and feels like, from our recent DMS (more here):

Gunner on the facilitation model:

Last year:

Some of what makes Web of Change unique:

The legacy of the Groundwire Dream Team

Adapted from a note I sent to the Web of Change alumni listserv upon hearing of Groundwire shutting its doors on March 1. I felt compelled to pay some respects… 

Groundwire (and ONE Northwest) represented something of a North Star for me when i first got into digital strategy and online organizing work… coming out of a transformational but electrifying experience messing with technology and organizing on the Dean campaign in 2003, i was desperately looking around to see if anyone else was excited about the potential for organizing and social change in a networked world, and Gideon’s Movement as Network – and Marty Kearns’ Network Centric Advocacy – were among the only things around… Both pieces heavily influenced me as we tried our hand at working with orgs and started EchoDitto.

A few years later, my friend and mentor Leda convinced me to come to Web of Change, where I met Jodie Tonita and Steve Andersen, two of the smartest and most interesting people I had ever met in our world, and they TOO were part of this amazing group of people who identified as ONE/Northwest! (the mystique was even greater to an east coaster who had never really been to the PacNW)

The incredible organizing work that Jodie did to create such a powerful Web of Change event in 2006 is why I’m still involved today.

Steve turned me on to the power and potential of data, long before “big data” was Big Data — writing pieces like this about he we can be smarter about tracking and engaging supporters. Today he’s unsurprisingly part of the leadership team at the Salesforce Foundation, helping the entire NGO sector get smarter with data.

Then i finally met the rockstars that are Jon Stahl, Dave Averill, and Karen Uffelman not too much later, only to find that the genius — and nice people — pool at Groundwire ran deeper than any other place I had encountered.

Some of the most influential and important and well-articulated thought leadership in our space has come from this team.

Know what the #1 Google search result is for ‘engagement pyramid’ (at least in my bubble) — it’s Groundwire’s incredible resource which i’m sure countless members of this network have pulled out in trainings, presentations, meetings, planning sessions — i know i have: The Engagement Pyramid: Six Levels of Connecting People and Social Change

Karen’s “What’s Your Engagement Superpower?” question has also become a staple for me.

The DIY Engagement Benchmarking Survey is a work of art in my book and has some of the best diagnostic questions anyone could ask in working with a team or organization and getting them to think about if and how they value people. Hats off to Drew Bernard who was behind Groundwire Labs and made lots of stuff like this happen before launching ActionSprout.

And Jon’s recent Engagement Organizing report continues the trend.

I’m sure there’s plenty more i’m missing, i just wanted to share a few of the big ways that Groundwire has made a difference in my life personally and professionally over the years — and, i believe, had an outsized impact on our entire community.

I’m so grateful to everyone who was part of the team and have deep admiration for the legacy you’ve left us. I’m consoled by the fact that the individuals who made Groundwire what it was will continue to do what they do best from many great new perches and have just as much (if not more) impact.

With great respect
Michael

Making sense of the datastreams of my life

For a moment, looking at the data, I was beginning to conclude that my year had been a miserable failure.

I went into this year with a “Big Data” mentality — boundless enthusiasm to track as much of my life as humanly possible, with blind faith that all of these new data points and pretty dashboards would reveal fresh insights about how I live my life that would make my days on earth even better.  

I could lie and tell you that I went into this year with all kinds of clear goals that could easily be quantified or numerically tracked. But that’s precisely where I went wrong. Sure, there were plenty of things I wanted to make happen this year, and many other good and bad things that I could never have planned for. That’s life.

Few if any of the things (or experiences) that I wanted for 2012 could easily be monitored by a Fuel Band or Gmail meter. Which is why today I find myself sharing a seat with many a misguided digital director who, tracking only vanity metrics, finds himself crowing about how many page views or retweets he scored but knowing very little about how his work (or data) rolls up to anything that really matters. 

For example, isn’t it great that I put nearly 800 miles on my bike this year? Traveled to 32 cities in 8 countries? Well, I don’t know. Is it? (Cycling and travel destinations unrelated, but that would have been cool.)

I love cycling, so anything greater than 0 miles should mean that I spent at least a portion of my year doing something I love — 49 hours and 55 minutes to be precise, if Strava is to be believed. 

But the data doesn’t say anything about that epic loop Savage and I did in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom over the summer — chasing storms, cows, dirt roads, and our own physical limits. Nor does it capture the satisfaction of being submerged in Lake Anna moments after unclipping from a lake loop with Jake. And what about the tourists standing next to their cars atop Cadillac Mountain, begging Dave and me to explain how we got up there. Or the pride of completing my first metric century on West Virginia’s country roads.

Those are the datapoints I want to see at the end of a well-lived and hard-faught year. And they’re well within the realm of technology to deliver. New apps like Everyday.me and Timehop.com are already helping us remember what we did one or two years ago, so I can easily imagine similar tools for helping us surface the qualitative highlights of our year along with all the numbers. 

If I were training for something, then clearly some of these numbers would really matter in helping me track gradual progress toward milestones. But even without a race in sight, the Nike apps try to nudge me toward some kind of goals so that all this tracking they’re doing for me adds up to something  relevant. The Fuel band wants to keep me in a constant state of motion for as many days in a row as possible — and will offer me any flavor of goal and lots of reinforcement to make that happen. (I’ve taken 1.7M steps this year since June, for the record.)  

Nike+ has a famous person acknowledge me every time I beat my previous running time or distance, but it’s also pushing me to set some goals for how often I’ll run each week or month to prevent from leading me down another road of meaningless data. The latest message even comes with a generous dose of friendly peer pressure: “Green level runners set a goal of 4 runs per week. Think you can handle it?” If I followed their lead, then maybe I’d know if i should be celebrating or crying over the 100.28 miles I pounded out since I started tracking in April. 

Before I give up on data for the sake of data, there’s one place where quantitative data alone may be useful – fact-checking our unreliable brains and, therefore, calibrating our perception of the worldDo you feel like you’re more diligent in responding to emails than everyone else? Gmail Meter‘s data on your emailing behavior would gladly tell you if you’re actually obsessive or just think you are. 

I knew I was traveling a ton this year, mostly all for work, and at a level that was starting to seem unsustainable. I estimated that I was gone nearly 1/3 of the time and averaging 2 trips per month. My reliable travel buddy TripIt tells me that I was, indeed, on the road 26 times in 2012, but away 41% of the year, which means that I actually underestimated how much I was traveling. Now I can use this intel to moderate my travel and set some targets for next year. 

But again, none of this travel data surfaces the indelible experience of smashing my head into a stone arch along the Great Wall of China. (Thank you very much, Qing Dynasty.)

Fortunately, much of this is changing. The various tools available for social media analytics (TwitterCounter, Crowdbooster, and the like) increasingly seem more geared to providing us with useful insights rather than simply summarizing our volume of activity: what are the best times of day to tweet to maximize exposure? which filters tend to correlate with the most likes on my instagram photos? etc. (check out statigr.am, very cool)

I’m an incredibly fortunate guy, as you can probably tell from all of the above, and I’m luck to have had an incredible year — full of love, new experiences, struggles, luck, loss, and everything in between. But I wouldn’t have known that from the stats of my life.

 

Remembering Gregor Barnum (1952-2012)

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I haven’t been able to board a plane without thinking of my friend Gregor Barnum since his tragic death several weeks ago.

Among other things, Gregor was obsessed with an obscure device called the trimtab, the tiny piece of an aircraft’s rudder which plays a disproportionately large role in keeping a plane in the air. He’d bring up the trimtab not just as an excuse to channel one of his favorite mentors, Buckminster Fuller (“Bucky”), but also to give us hope that no matter how small and insignificant we may feel in our work, we all have the potential for outsized impact.

I had the pleasure of getting to know and work with Gregor over the course of several years, after our mutual friend Jeffrey Hollender connected us to conspire on launching Seventh Generation’s first blog (including Jeffrey’s), the Seventh Generation “Nation” program, among other interesting digital engagement projects. “Work at Seventh Generation creating design science consciousness” he wrote in his twitter bio. 

In all his madness and endless circus of exciting activity, like helping to found B Corp and help set the gold standard for corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports, he always found time to ask how I was during our weekly calls and meetings. The question was never a formality, and it was sacrilege to get down to business without covering our personal state of affairs, not to mention the state of world affairs. Sometimes we never made it to the official agenda. 


These conversations were the highlight of my day. Gregor, like few others, could make you feel like the exchange you were having was the most enthralling and fascinating part of his day. Remarkable. “Love the many to find the one,” he’d say.

“When my son was diagnosed with autism i began to see the world of specialness in people,” he explains in this interview, talking about some of the defining moments of his life. Here’s a beautiful video Gregor made sharing some moments with his son, Sean, last summer. 


On one occasion, I made the mistake of replying to Gregor’s “how are you doing — no, no, how are you REALLY doing?” questions by admitting that I was feeling somewhat overwhelmed. 

 

“What’s this BS about everyone being so busy!?” he yelped (more out of intellectual exasperation than actual frustration). “People keep telling me about their plates being so damn full. Since when was all of our life supposed to fit on a plate? Our lives are like airports, man. You just gotta make it flow — some things coming, others going, all at once. There is no plate — you just gotta be air traffic control.”


Gregor was the only student and philosopher of the world I’ve every truly met — constantly suspending judgement and evaluating the large, complex systems we find ourselves negotiating every day. He was never so wrapped up in it all that he couldn’t observe and question it, but never so removed that he couldn’t feel its pulse or disguise himself as a mere mortal when necessary. 


Some people walk through a grocery store and see products, price tags, or dinner. Gregor saw a tangled mess of supply chains, ethics, morals, and the future of civilization. It’s this kind of questioning and thinking that helped Seventh Generation design some of the most rigorous supply chain management and sustainability standards (and reporting) in the corporate world.

Gregor battled the ordinary… in pursuit of greater truths, trying to cut through “the constructs that just don’t work” … illusions of authority … to help us all design a better world. 

He was a provocateur in every way — from thought to poetic delivery. He questioned just about everything, and pushed anyone in his orbit to see the world in some radically new and beautiful ways, despite the grave challenges facing us. 

He never gave in to accepting the world around us as it merely was. Inkslinger, co-conspirator on the Seventh Generation’s blog project, put it best in his tribute post:

He was a mad man, a wild man, a sweet man, a brilliant man, and a magnificently beautiful one, too. To be in a room with Gregor was to be joyfully carried away to a place of hope and possibility that prior to my knowing him, I’d dared not believe in. That’s something Gregor would have no part of, for among all those here who hope so deeply and believe so strongly, Gregor hoped and believed more than any.

I take some comfort in hearing Gregor’s inspiring, curious, brilliant voice in this recorded conversation with Duke Stump as they deconstruct the worlds of marketing and corporate responsibility as we know it. Find yourself a nice perch and give it a listen. 

 

Here’s my favorite riff in that interview from Gregor – 

Bucky used to say one of the least used resources on the planet is all of this human consciousness that’s getting wasted in these very confined… these boxes we keep creating… there is a Phoenix happening. you ain’t gonna find it in the media. You gotta go and walk these communities and look into their eyes

There’s so much potential and possibility in all the broken people frm the old economy that are getting lifted in this phoenix feeling

I’m wrestling with my own discomfort over his death … not necessarily sadness, because he was so clearly in sync with the universe that I can only imagine he ultimately left in clarity and peace. Primarily I’m frustrated that the world did not get nearly enough time to appreciate and benefit from everything he was offering us. 

Here are some thoughts Gregor recorded (while driving!?) about existence… beginnings and endings… life and death… which seem especially fitting now:

 

Thank you, Gregor, for everything you did to help me and so many others see our potential to redefine this challenging world and make it a place that can thrive and survive for the next seven generations. 

See these interviews to learn more about this incredible man:

AlternativeChannel (2008)

Treehugger (2006)

 

UPDATE: Also see Jeffrey Hollender’s tribute to Gregor here on his blog

Entertainvertising – AVICII and Ralph Lauren “Silhouettes” music vid is example of advertising from future

Why pay for the 10 second video ad that plays before a YouTube video when you can just make your ad the ENTIRE MUSIC VIDEO? (And reach a much larger and more desirable audience than from a TV ad)

That seems to be gamble that Ralph Lauren made with this new AVICII remix, which I stumbled upon today and think is brilliant. Sure, it’s also kind of gross in the “everything will become marketing in the future” kind of way, but that’s not my point here… 

Someone at Ralph Lauren was presumably responsible for marketing their new “Denim and Supply” line. Miraculously this person, or a forward-thinking ad agency / consultant, was given the leeway to try something new. 

Rather than produce a TV ad sampling a new, hot song and mixing it with some video images of young people having the time of their lives thanks to their Denim and Supply gear, they took they money they would have burned on TV and produced some high quality content that has the potental to move — a music video that you might actually want to watch and share, unlike the majority of TV ads. Plus they got 2.5 mins to tell a good story rather than 30 seconds. 

    So wha’ts the impact?

    • reach more of the demographic they want — young folks who are spending more time watching online video and hunting down new music online (actively) than they are watching TV commercials (passively)
    • audience will most likely receive this from others they know and trust rather than directly from the brand, which they are less likely to trust (see Edelman trust barometer on how we trust “people like us” over brands and indstitutions); looks like they also spent some money on online ads to build some initial awareness 
    • reach more people for less money; this is a guess as i have no idea the cost of the deal but dollar to dollar they cost of an online view will be far less than the TV view once they reach a certain threshold of views online; currently the video has nearly half a million views in just under a month)
    • create a positive emotional experience and assocation for the brand that is far more impactful and posiive and memorable than they could through a 30 or 60 sec TV ad
    • get more/better data about what’s working — digital is data-rich, unlike TV
    • the AVICII endorsement doesn’t really count for much since they arguably could have paid for the celeb endorsement in the traditional approach — although it’s possible that a popular DJ like AVICII wouldn’t have been willing to be part of a traditional ad for his own branding and identify purposes