NOT LONG AFTER joining Creative Co-op (Exeter, NH) in March 2014, I got an assignment for a series of educational fact sheets–something a little different than I usually do. The client, a Mid-Atlantic electric utility, had purchased a prize-winning solar home called WaterShed for display as a permanent exhibit of sustainable living practices. As the grand opening approached they needed fact sheets, signage and premiums for a wide range of attendees, ranging from teachers and students to Washington officials.
The level of complexity within WaterShed was daunting, with hundreds of eco-friendly features. How to sum up the whole house at a glance? Lacking the time or budget for infographics, I applied some basic communication tactics such as numerical sidebars and icon-organized tables to say a lot in a relatively small space. (Click any thumbnail below for a readable version.)
I organized key features and lessons into four guiding themes: energy, water, landscape and home. These themes, in turn, were keyed to simple icons that defined and integrated each display within the larger whole.
Signage was another need, guiding clients to the WaterShed site across a large corporate campus. So I wrote a series of double-sided banners lining the roadway. Teasers on the front intrigued arriving visitors and featured the same icons, while the backs offered visitors simple tips as they were leaving. Here are a couple of examples:
The opening went off without a hitch, the client was happy and WaterShed is now open to the public, helping visitors learn how they can reduce their energy use, curb erosion and keep local water resources free of harmful runoff. In October the program earned a gold for informational materials at the 2014 MarCom Awards–a nice bonus for the kind of writing I really enjoy doing.
DAVE TURNS 50 — JULY 13, 2013
DAVE TURNS 51 — JULY 13, 2014
IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME between updates. Fortunately birthdays are always a good excuse for taking stock, so here we are. Since last October I have landed a full-time copywriting job, lost 105 pounds and gone to Disneyworld. Here’s a very quick rundown:
> The job is at a small agency called Creative Co-op, in the venerable town of Exeter, New Hampshire. In February an old colleague from Brookstone tipped me off that she was leaving CCO, so I placed a call and did a three-month freelance trial before landing the job full-time in June. Now I am gainfully employed, writing for banks and electric utilities from here to Delaware. It’s a small shop of about a half-dozen people, but nice. Best of all, it’s a relaxed 45-minute commute. While everyone else is bumper-to-bumper towards Boston, I just cruise easily toward the New Hampshire seacoast.
> The weight loss started in December, when we scheduled a Disney vacation for April. I was heavier than I’d ever been, and knew that running after Ben in Orlando would make me miserable to be around; well, I wasn’t about to pay that kind of money just to be a grouchy wallflower. So I joined Weight Watchers and lost about 70 pounds for the trip. Upon returning I aimed to make it an even 100 pounds by my birthday. Now I’m lighter than I was when we got married in 1997, and I am trying to peel away a few more years by the end of 2014. That’s all I’ll say on the subject, because I find self-congratulatory weight-loss stories unbearable when other people tell them. We’re all just a couple of bad weekends away from falling off the wagon, anyway.
> The vacation was fun. Years ago we swallowed hard and got a timeshare near Laconia, NH with the idea that we’d eventually be browbeaten into taking Ben to Disney. It worked as planned. We traded for a very nice 2-bedroom suite with kitchenette in Orlando, reducing the post-trip credit card bill with free lodging and a fair amount of eating in. Plus we invited my niece Erin and her significant other Marlon, which made things a lot more enjoyable. Everything that Elsa, Ben and I do is as a trio, so adding Erin and Marlon kept us from getting sick of each other while adding more adults to tag-team against an attractions-crazed Ben. Their enthusiasm and youth greatly brightened the trip. Meanwhile April in Florida was reasonably cool, the resort pool had a fake volcano and we all got home safely after sampling Legoland, Disney’s Magic Kingdom, Universal Studios and the Hash House A-Go-Go (an upscale concept restaurant that was fancier than it sounds).
IN A DISCOVERY reminiscent of Robert Johnson’s lost photo, I stumbled across actual pictures of Ernie Olde today. Regular readers of this blog (if there are any) will remember my column on Ernie, which mentioned that I couldn’t find any pictures of this notoriously private man online. But now there is a case study by a publishing house that created a private book for his family, and it has a slideshow of photos. Ecce homo.
MASTORS & SERVANT – B2B MARKETING CAMPAIGN (2004)
PEOPLE TREAT INTEGRATED MARKETING AS A BIG DEAL, but companies on a budget often have no choice. Here’s a business-to-business program I devised and wrote at Stal-McLane (Manchester, NH) on behalf of Mastors & Servant, a Rhode Island insurance broker offering risk management services to plumbing and heating contractors.
The brief? Raise the company’s profile with large plumbing contractors and position Mastors & Servant as more than just a commodity insurance agent. It had to be versatile–mailer, sales handout, maybe a trade show angle. A customer, Gem Plumbing & Heating, was willing to serve as a testimonial.
After I talked with the client and interviewed Gem’s owners, I proposed a six-panel gatefold mailer.
Big foldouts have an intrigue that results in good open rates and strong impact, without the production and shipping costs of dimensional or gimmick mailers. They can be compact, yet still have lots of room to tell a complex story. Plus they make a cheap template for a fully evolved campaign. Just assign individual panels for specialized tasks: a testimonial, a trade show invitation, a reply card, an interchangeable area for particular market segments.
Then tear off a panel and recycle it as a campaign element. Voila, integration.
The first challenge was translating a rather dull insurance concept into a plumber’s blue collar terms. I thought of “leaks,” and translated that into “losses”–hard-earned capital spent needlessly on premiums and expenses because of a patchwork approach to insurance coverage. You know, like a poorly mended leak.
As a truly inept fix-it man around my own home, I imagined that plumbers would have a visceral hatred of sloppy plumbing. So my design colleague, Stephen Smith, went into the bowels of our century-old building and found some really ugly pipes that he could Photoshop into a gushing fountain of jury-rigged coverage. This was our front panel:
A GRIPPING TALE
Cover opened to a grimy pipe stretching across three panels, with 17 duct-taped “fixes” for common contractor problems, and copy about Mastors & Servant underneath. Stephen had created a nice graphic using a vintage monkey wrench, so I worked it into a payoff line: Get a Grip on Losses. And that became our campaign icon:
Later that would become handy as a trade show display. On the other side of the gatefold we included a testimonial study, which easily evolved into a stand-alone print ad, as well as a tabletop card for the trade show booth:
Taking it a step further, the “Get a grip on losses” line inspired my idea for a sexy premium that was sure to generate leads from contractors at trade shows–a new Leatherman multi-tool with locking pliers:
There you have it: one concept that spawned an integrated mailer, sales aid, print ad, trade show display and lead generator. My only regret was that Mastors & Servant wasn’t in a position to use the Web a little more proactively, for everything from banners to webcasts. But it was a hard-working idea that did very well, plugging the leaks in the company’s contractor marketing.
TALES FROM THE COPY CRYPT is a look back at lesser-known projects from Dave Conley’s 25-year career as copywriter, editor and marketing strategist. To see other samples, visit daveconleyportfolio.com.
LAST MONTH I TURNED 50. No amusing cards, no silly hats, no gag gifts about erectile dysfunction. Just a small cake, a few candles and me with my wife and kid. I was a little grouchy, I admit. “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be,” said Robert Browning. Bah!
Consider the things of my childhood: vinyl records, rotary-dial phones, passbook accounts and the savings bond drive at my elementary school, three TV networks, watching my dad climb the roof to clamp a new antenna to the chimney.
Or, more telling, consider the newfangled stuff I’ve seen come and go:
- CDs (and the record stores that sold them)
- Series and parallel port connections
- Floppy disks
- Video stores
Depressing. I think I might even be AARP eligible now. So I’ll blow out the candles on this short entry before depression really sinks in, with the promise of a more extensive post next time out.
I’VE WORKED WITH HUNDREDS OF CLIENTS. But one stands out as a touchstone in my career — a North Star I could always look to for perspective. No matter how bad things might seem, at least I wasn’t working for Ernie Olde anymore.
My first client in advertising.
The man who permanently expanded my consciousness of just how bad things can get in this line of work.
Before you accuse me of exaggerating, let’s start with a thumbnail portrait by financial reporter William P. Barrett, writing in Forbes back in 2008:
“Ernest J. (Ernie) Olde made The Forbes 400 list four times during the 1990s from the fabulous profit margins of his Detroit-headquartered Olde Discount, then the nation’s fourth-largest cut-rate brokerage. Big factors in the firm’s prosperity: lying to clients and pressuring them to buy unsuitable stocks, regulators said in 1998. The secretive Ernie (who had lost a libel lawsuit he filed against this writer), two aides and the business paid $7 million in penalties. Yet in late 1999 H&R Block bought the whole show for $887 million. Ernie’s timing was perfect; stock markets soon swooned. That–plus, perhaps, the need to follow the law–helped the rebranded H&R Block Financial Advisors post close to $400 million in pretax losses over the next nine years. (Ernie gave up his U.S. citizenship for that of the Cayman Islands; he died of cancer in 2002 at age 64.) Last month H&R Block finally gave up, too, announcing the unit’s sale to Ameriprise Financial (nyse: AMP – news – people ). Price: $315 million, barely one-third what Ernie got.”
Most bad clients are not bad people. Some very nice people just don’t have the makeup to commission, oversee or inspire creative work from others. And others are just your usual, garden-variety jerk.
But nine months working for Ernie Olde, whose company fleeced retirees, families with handicapped kids and little old ladies with husbands battling Altzheimers, led me to conclude that he was the worst human being I had ever met.
And that still holds up, three decades later.
LACKING A POLICE SKETCH, WE START HERE.
Ernie was a “sue or settle” kind of guy, which seems to have kept his posthumous reputation fairly low-key. There isn’t an awful lot online about Ernie Olde. Not even a photo. But I think he merits a long overdue perp-walk across the Internet, so I’ll share a few memories.
Shortly after I joined Olde Discount Stockbrokers in February 1986, the company’s senior copywriter told me that he’d often tried in vain to get Ernie to pose for a photo in his ads. Which seemed odd. It wasn’t lack of ego — Ernie put his name in electric letters atop his building, for God’s sake. And it wasn’t cosmetic. In fact, he was a barrel-chested 6′3″ blond guy with craggy good looks, far more appealing than the nerdy Charles Schwab. Maybe it was fear of violence from outraged investors, but this ruggedly handsome man in his late 40s was more camera-shy than a mafia capo.
If you’re a Dr. Strangelove fan, the character of Gen. Jack T. Ripper offers a decent visual approximation.
Ernie wasn’t that intellectual, or that deadpan; he often worked up to a frothing, spittle-flecked rage screaming about dumbass writers and artsy-craftsy marketing guys who couldn’t sell the sizzle instead of the steak. But the intimidation was the same. Peter Sellers absolutely nails the trapped, barely concealed fear of an Olde manager who has no idea what sudden tangent his captor is going to ream him out for this time.
WHAT IT WAS LIKE.
I was 23 years old, feeling like a grownup as I rode the MDOT bus to my first downtown job. The OLDE Building, at 751 Griswold in Detroit, was a sooty four-story former bank with lots of granite columns.
First and second floors were packed with eager young college grads in their first shirt and tie, surgically attached to phones and Quotron machines as they pushed clients toward recommended stock purchases. Harassed middle managers yelled at them to work harder and cut more corners. Maalox was swilled, hours were long, and a steady stream of new employees came in the front door while fired employees left out the side door onto Lafayette Street.
I worked on the fourth floor, which functioned as an in-house ad agency. More than a dozen people worked to churn out Olde sales materials: mutual fund brochures, statement stuffers, quarterly direct-mail magazines, newspaper ads pinpointing Olde offices in dozens of cities, plus personalized materials for banks offering Olde brokerage services to customers.
My colleagues included two other writers, four or so designers, a typesetter, a production manager and a department manager. When any of them mentioned “Ernie,” it was with a strange, furtive tension: Ernie’s not gonna like that. As if just saying his name would summon demons.
I never saw the guy my first couple of months. He was staying at his ski lodge in Aspen, and held conference calls to review the new materials we sent him. Off the radar, I sat and listened to everybody else. Then I’d go back to my desk and write copy using the same buzz phrases he kept shouting over the phone.
One Monday morning, I came in to find everybody scrambling around.
“Ernie’s back,” someone said. “And he’s pissed.”
We were all to report to the conference room immediately. I came in with the senior copywriter and another entry-level writer hired the same time I was.
Ernie Olde, huge and scowling at the front of the room, was pointing furiously at the twenty-foot conference table. He spoke to a white-haired older man in shirt and tie. “Look at that goddamned table, Herb. It’s scratched!”
Herb looked at it nervously, but not close enough for Ernie’s satisfaction.
“Closer, goddammit! Get down there and look at it.”
Haggard and nearly trembling, the white-haired executive put his nose to the table. “Yes, I can definitely see it now, Ernie.”
By this time everyone had filed in, 15 or so of us, so Ernie turned to a new target: the Financial Marketing Services Department. He complained that nothing had gotten done in his absence, that his managers were stupid, stupid, stupid, and that the writers clearly knew nothing about the brokerage business or any other kind of business. At that point, he grabbed up a sheet of paper and held it before us.
“What fucking genius,” he demanded, “wrote this?” And he crumpled it up and dropped it on the desk.
Silence. And a 33% probability I was about to get blasted.
Ernie unfolded the paper and mockingly read the copy aloud. It wasn’t mine. It was the other new copywriter’s. And that guy was called up to the front of the room and publicly grilled for the next half-hour. He was:
- Forced to read copy aloud while Ernie made disparaging line-item remarks;
- Interrogated about the day’s Prime Rate, which he didn’t know;
- Questioned about the merit of his intellect, education and career choices.
Then he was sent back to his chair, and Ernie began exploring the themes I would come to know intimately over time:
- We were all artsy-craftsy types who thought it was beneath us to really sell;
- We should be paying Ernie for the education he was forced to give us;
- Anyone with brains would rather be a broker and make real money;
- We should spend time on the second floor reading the whiteboard tally of current interest rates, listening to how the reps sold product and boning up for the Series 7 exam that would let us become brokers and make money.
Like the sudden whoosh from a released balloon, Ernie calmed abruptly and brought up a few points for his executives to attend to. And just about the last thing he did was glance at my copy, which had been sent to him in Aspen.
“This looks okay,” he said. “Go ahead with it.”
At which point I started breathing again. But that was another characteristic of Ernie’s — the sudden change of direction, the calm after the storm. You never quite knew what to expect while working at 751 Griswold Street.
DAVID MAMET, MEET GORDON GEKKO.
I’ve often wondered if my advertising career would have been more distinguished if I had started at a cushy ad agency or corporate marcom department after college. Maybe I would have been more creative, less prone to cave on compromises and revisions. Maybe. But nine months at Olde gave me one heck of an education just the same.
The place was like “Glengarry Glen Ross,” complete with paranoid managers, backstabbing careerists, yes men, emasculated in-laws fearing for their jobs, primadonna sales guys, streetwise hustlers and hopeful young men enticed by the money-intoxicated zeitgeist of the 1980s.
Particularly revealing is this writeup about a sexual harassment lawsuit brought against Olde:
At a managers’ meeting last year, the women’s complaint contends, Mr. Olde “told the all-male audience words to the effect that they should not fall in love with a stock because ‘it is like falling in love with a woman. It falls and falls and all you’re left with is a big yeast infection.’ ” The complaint also says, “Finally, Ernest Olde directed the attendees to recruit ‘young, good-looking, studly males’ from college fairs and not to hire ‘broads.’ ”
Susan Bell, who joined Olde in 1989 as a broker at one of its Phoenix offices, said in a complaint filed with the National Association of Securities Dealers in February that Mr. Olde had harassed her publicly at meetings of brokers. “He asked her what sexual overtures or sexual activities she would engage in to close a sale with a reluctant securities purchaser,” stated the complaint, a copy of which was obtained by The Times ….
“Olde feels omnipotent and above the law,” said Julie Quintero, another former Olde manager. She joined Ms. Graff in filing the discrimination grievance with a third woman, who is still employed at Olde and declined to be interviewed. “We had a nonsmoking policy,” Ms. Quintero said, “but he would walk around the office and pull out a cigarette and light it up. He’d say, ‘It’s my company and I can fire you all if I want.’ “
That was Ernie’s golden rule: he had the gold, he made the rules. I had four different department managers in nine months, as they shuttled in and out to keep up with his demands.
Copy was the same way … ALWAYS subject to rejection, criticism and revision. Sometimes weeks after it had been originally approved.
We once went through more than 20 approval versions of a single direct-mail investing magazine. That’s more than 20 versions of a 24-page book, each complete with new copy, artwork, layout, typesetting and comping into dummy review books. It was intended to promote Ernie’s “financial planning” brainchild, which consisted of several full-load mutual fund bundles carefully selected so that customers could spend six figures and never reach a “break point” entitling them to a lower commission rate. After it was finally done, my colleagues and I had a barbecue that included a bonfire of all the old dummy books.
Even when he was genial, Ernie was kind of scary. Maybe more so. Once he talked about having some of us over for a beer at his house in Canada … after we picked up a new TV he wanted and ferried it across the Detroit River on a boat so he could avoid the import duties. Somehow I don’t think he would have bailed us out if Customs had boarded the boat. (On the other hand, maybe we’d have been promoted to VPs if we proved we could keep our mouths shut.)
I also remember how he purchased a stake in a Canadian auto dealership, then appropriated all the complimentary lease cars and used them as free perks for his best Olde salesmen. Or how he had us working on decorations for the lavish birthday party he threw himself every year, inviting the people in his Canadian neighborhood like a feudal lord sharing his bounty.
Plus there was the other stuff:
- Not one, but two suspensions by the Securities Exchange Commission;
- Inflating his company’s valuation so H&R Block paid way too much for it; and
- Cheating the IRS on his $887 million windfall by fleeing to the Cayman Islands.
All that would have just rolled off Ernie’s back. Hell, it was rumored that he displayed a framed letter of censure from the New York Stock Exchange on the wall of his office. The only thing Ernie might resent about this article is if I neglected to mention one thing: he got away with it. He got away with it all.
Cancer killed Ernie Olde in 2002 (assuming he didn’t fake his own death), but he died rich and free in the Caymans. His wife still lives there and is evidently much beloved, awarded the Order of the British Empire for her humanitarian efforts and philanthropy toward the Cayman people. The fact that it is funded with money of questionable origins was also a valuable point in my education. Look back far enough in any wealthy family, and you’ll find blood under the fingernails.
CATALOGS, PR SHEETS, EMAIL, WEB PAGES, SEO COPY … I did a little of everything at Brookstone as a freelancer and staff copywriter. Plus a lot of copy editing and troubleshooting for products that arrived from overseas with nearly incomprehensible text. Here’s a quick slideshow I’ve put together on Flickr, showing some of my work between 2011 and January 2013.
I EDIT MY COPY TOO MUCH. There, I’ve said it. It isn’t fashionable for a copywriter to admit, but I must unburden myself at long last.
Let others sweat the big stuff, feverishly seeking bolder and ballsier concepts as they pace around war rooms with a similarly engorged creative partner. Me, I agonize over widows and orphans and line breaks. I sneak my submitted copy off the traffic manager’s desk for another look. After a quarter-century I still try to find short sharp words that can evict longer, more passive ones.
Yet I am still amazed by how much fat can linger in a piece of obsessively edited text.
The other day I saw this echoed by Calvin Trillin, as he blogged about the challenges of working at Time Magazine:
It was largely because of the constant pressure to compress that Time prose struck me as more difficult to write than to parody …. At the end of the week (or “at week’s end,” as we would have put it, in order to save three words), the makeup people would invariably inform us that the story had to be shortened to fit into the section. Since words or passages cut for space were marked with a green pencil—changes that had to be made because of something like factual error were in red—the process was called greening. The instructions were expressed as how many lines had to be greened—“Green seven” or “Green twelve.” I loved greening. I don’t have any interest in word games—I don’t think I’ve ever done a crossword or played Scrabble—but I found greening a thoroughly enjoyable puzzle. I was surprised that what I had thought of as a tightly constructed seventy-line story—a story so tightly constructed that it had resisted the inclusion of that maddening leftover fact—was unharmed, or even improved, by greening ten per cent of it. The greening I did in Time Edit convinced me that just about any piece I write could be improved if, when it was supposedly ready to hand in, I looked in the mirror and said sternly to myself “Green fourteen” or “Green eight.” And one of these days I’m going to begin doing that.
Over the years I have tried to fight my windbag tendencies with a personal “25 percent rule.” It always seems like I write four sentences or four bullets, when experience and the great speeches of history show that three is a far better number. Hell, three is magic. In rhetoric, it’s called a tricolon. You know — of the people, by the people, for the people. So I often run a quick check of my copy for that fourth thing, sprouting up like crabgrass, then prune it away with a certain reluctance.
Sometimes the victory is pyrrhic. I look at the copy and lament the loss of flow, of spontaneity, of the sloppy creative abandon that is endearing in a lot of work these days. But there are always trade-offs … and they are unrelenting. Writing is like that.
Small wonder that Hemingway once took a long look at a blank page and gave it a warrior’s tribute. He called it The White Bull — paper that has no words on it. As for paper with too many words? I guess I’d call it The Black Hydra. You can never cut ‘em away very easily.
CITIZENS BANK OF NEW HAMPSHIRE – CEO SPEECH (January 1999)
I HAVEN’T DONE MUCH SPEECHWRITING, but here’s a rare departure from the written word, scripted at OGBE Communications (Manchester, NH) for Citizens Bank CEO Bob Gormley.
I had already written one speech on corporate leadership for Gormley, and this time he was scheduled to speak at Daniel Webster College. The brief was to expand the first speech to 20 minutes, with more emphasis on community values. I received a couple of newspaper articles about Gormley for biography and background, and the rest was digging up quotes and thoughts from my handy quotation almanac.
Bob was an easy guy to write for, and it proved to be a lot of fun. There are so many wonderful rhetorical devices available in speech, and you don’t need an art director to get them across. Here’s how it went:
Good evening! Earlier tonight, I had the great privilege of speaking to a class of students here at Daniel Webster College. It was a little daunting to find myself back in the classroom again after all these years, but it was also a real pleasure to exchange ideas with students of such a high caliber.
So before I begin in earnest, let me congratulate all of you here in Nashua. You support a truly first-class institution, and you have much to be proud of. I’d also like to thank President Hannah McCarthy and Dr. Doris Jafferian, two terrific individuals who were kind enough to invite me here. I only hope your students learned as much from my answers as I did from their questions!
What I want to do now is expand on the subject we covered in the classroom … leadership. Specifically, community leadership: what it means, why it’s so important, and how we can all be leaders where it counts most … in the places where we live and work.
Where do we start? Well, there is no shortage of great quotations about leadership — often from famous generals, legendary statesmen, big-name CEOs. And I intend to share some of their thoughts with you tonight. But first I want to do something a little different … and quote a grocery store manager.
A grocery store manager, by the way, who happened to be my father.
You see, my dad worked with people all his life. Long before there were consultants and management gurus, he said something that I have never forgotten:
“It is the customers,” he said, “who turn on the lights.”
That line always stayed with me. And it has served me well in my profession. Because, in the life of a bank, everyone is a customer. Every single one of us has economic needs. Financial challenges. Dreams and futures that depend on taking care of our money. Whether it is a young couple proudly opening an account for their newborn child, or a senior pondering investments for retirement, bankers are privileged to a wider view of their customers’ lives than all but a handful of professions.
So the people who turn on the lights in my bank are the very same people who turn on the lights in my community. In a word, everybody. At Citizens Bank, our success is only possible if we help individuals and businesses alike do well financially. That means reaching beyond the walls of the bank, into the community.
And what are the interests of that community? It must be vibrant. It must grow. It must have good schools and low crime. The community needs widespread citizen involvement. As the great French political observer Alexis de Tocqueville once said in his study of America, the health of a community can be measured by the public functions performed by private citizens.
You can argue, then, that a community leader is simply a private citizen working in the public interest. I would not argue very much with that definition. But I believe it has to be broadened a bit, by asking, “What is leadership?” And what is a leader?
Those are big questions, much in vogue among students of business and politics. Everywhere we turn, there are books on leadership … books by CEOs, consultants, ex military commandos, even a very successful book on the leadership secrets of Attila the Hun!
Go to a Barnes & Noble, and you’ll find that books on leadership not only fill shelves; they fill entire sections. Whole industries have grown up around leadership books and training.
If you’re interested, by the way, two books that offer a good starting point are Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders by Garry Wills, and Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership by Howard Gardner. Both books feature a series of portraits on famous leaders and the traits that made them effective.
Wills is a Pulitzer Prize winning historian who is interested not only by well known leaders like Napoleon, Churchill and Lincoln, but offbeat choices such as movie director John Ford and tightrope walker Karl Wallenda.
Gardner, in contrast, is a Harvard psychologist who uses his study in the workings of the mind to identify how leaders actually think and communicate. To him, leadership is a creative, even artistic act. It is either direct or indirect. Direct leaders are traditional, influencing by who they are — their drives, ethics, goals. Indirect leaders influence by what they do; solitary figures like Einstein or Newton.
Back to the subject at hand, what makes a good leader? I think the following characteristics hold true — not just for individuals leading businesses, but for businesses that hope to lead within their communities. A little later we will have a questions and answers session, so if you care to discuss these characteristics in greater detail, I’ll be happy to do so.
First, I believe effective leaders lead by example. They roll up their sleeves and get the job done. As Albert Einstein once said, “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others; it is the only means.” It also helps establish a sense among your people that “we’re all in it together.”
Second, I believe leadership is based on a consistent set of actions. Because leadership is a process of definition: defining values, norms, priorities within an organization or community. So when we talk about “company culture,” it’s not artwork hanging in the hallways or fancy coffee blends in the cafeteria; it’s a way of taking an abstract notion such as ethics or employee empowerment and making it a concrete, believable reality — not just a topic of conversation.
We live and work with those core values, and they always remain intact. Even in times of change, or when times are tough.
But even when times are tough, a true leader, in my opinion, does not rely on intimidation. As General Dwight Eisenhower once said, “You do not lead by hitting people over the head — that’s assault, not leadership.”
Here’s another Eisenhower story: one day, the General placed a piece of string on a table. He began pulling it across a table, going in every direction. Then he looked at his audience with that famous smile and said, “Try and push it, though, and it won’t go anywhere. It’s just that way when it comes to leading people.”
That brings me to my third point: a true leader helps people believe. Whether it is belief in a cause, belief in a common purpose, belief in the good of a company.
In the same way, a community leader gives people faith in that community. Because, as Napoleon once said, ” A leader is a dealer in hope.”
Fourth, leaders help create more leaders. The growth and development of people, as Harvey Firestone said, is the highest calling of leadership.
That is why, for example, I empower my managers by delegating. Where others “micro manage,” I prefer to macro manage — focusing on the big picture, only stepping in when one of my people really needs my help.
For me, these are the attributes that guide my own work. Not only within Citizens Bank, but within a larger picture … as part of the community. And perhaps the best way to illustrate what community leadership really means is to tell you a little story.
So I’d like to take you back in time … three short years ago.
The year was 1996. It was January, just as it is now. But the time was a very different one.
You remember it, I’m sure: New Hampshire was coming off the worst banking decline since The Great Depression. Money was tight; the lack of it was choking many of the small businesses in our communities. Even as more banks merged and consolidated, and issued proud announcements of record profits, our industry was widely criticized. People saw us as being slow to support small business development and growth when it was needed most.
I had just arrived in New Hampshire, the new president and CEO of Citizens Bank. As our team came together and looked at the community around us, it was clear that someone had to take the first step — to think less about institutional risk, and more about community reward.
In retrospect, the decisions we made now seem deceptively simple. Our lending process? Streamline it. Our red tape and lengthy loan reviews? Eliminate them. Small businesses starving for capital? Reach out to them.
These decisions, however, were not so simple to carry out. Untold hours of work and study went into them. Yet we discovered a great source of strength: our 1200 employees and the community shared a common sense — that this was necessary, that it was a goal worth pursuing.
So we brought together virtually every segment of our community: small businesses, individuals with low or moderate incomes, first-time home buyers, municipalities across New Hampshire. Where there had been no leaders, there were now many leaders … all working together.
To paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, our community couldn’t be a good place for any of us to live in, until we made it a good place for all of us to live in.
The result? A resurgence that has helped make New Hampshire communities some of the country’s most highly ranked areas for quality of life and commerce.
Today, Citizens Bank is not only the state’s #1 lender to small businesses, but the region’s #1 small-business lender. Individual citizens come to us each month for loans totalling 55-60 million dollars. We provide financial services to more than 60 percent of New Hampshire’s town and city governments. And to more than half of all school districts.
These are the statistics we’re proudest of. Other banks can publicize how large they’ve grown … how many hundreds or thousands of their branches dot the country, how cutting-edge their technology is. But at Citizens Bank? The difference we make walks through school doors. It protects and preserves city streets. It lives in thriving neighborhoods. It provides vital local jobs and services.
This same belief in our community guides us today. Our definition of success is based on the concept of a community banker — one who understands the unique needs around him or her. One who leads by helping others lead, who succeeds by helping everyone else succeed.
Emerson once said, “Make yourself necessary to someone.” At Citizens Bank, we try to make ourselves necessary to everyone.
You might ask, how does the bank measure its contributions to the community? Is it more customers? More favorable stories in the newspaper? Or something less tangible, what we might call “goodwill”?
Citizens’ approach is far more substantial than that. Our goal is to get involved with our schools and community groups … providing assistance and support in the towns and cities where we do business. And in the process, we have been fortunate enough to employ a great many people who volunteer their time, money, and hearts to the idea of making a difference.
You can now see this same trend in many businesses. Corporations are being asked to carry out social responsibilities, through charitable contributions and employee involvement.
And guess what? That expectation comes not just from the community, but also from employees.
- For instance, many of our 1200 employees freely volunteer their own time — raising over $75,000 this past year for communities statewide. At the risk of blowing our own horn, let me offer a few more examples:
- Our employees hold hundreds of offices and positions with civic, cultural and charitable groups statewide … including 38 chamber memberships;
- We’ve committed tens of thousands of dollars to revitalizing main streets in Berlin, Milford, Derry and Plymouth;
- You’ll find us in 8 housing programs statewide — providing education, underwriting low-income mortgages, even swinging a hammer as volunteers in Habitat for Humanity;
- Our $5 million loan fund for women-owned businesses was the first in the state;
- And our volunteers raise money, support underprivileged kids, help out in soup kitchens … for the likes of the Salvation Army, New Horizons, and French Hill Neighborhood Housing Services.
To me, the sheer energy of our people is their biggest contribution. I have seen it at work in our bank, and in our community. Theirs is the kind of leadership that really makes New Hampshire a better place to live.
So as you can see, Citizens Bank takes a leadership role in the community for two reasons: because we want to do our part as good corporate citizens … and because it simply makes good business sense. A stronger economy means greater prosperity for everyone, whether you own and operate a local sandwich shop or run a statewide company.
And what of the future, here in New Hampshire?
I believe it is a bright future. Economic development and community growth are really just symptoms of underlying leadership, vision and teamwork. Those qualities exist here in abundance.
Our state has proven that it can support business and help our communities prosper, while retaining the special qualities that make us the Granite State.
That is why Citizens Bank is committed to helping make New Hampshire a good place to live, work, and raise a family. For many generations to come.
Community leadership, then, is about making connections. Connections with a family that needs financial and emotional support. Connections with the individual struggling to get his life back on track. Connections with the people who are like us and not like us, throughout the community. Because we have a harder job to do than just choosing sides; we must bring sides together.
That, to me, is community leadership. It is a recognition, to borrow from John Le Carre, that the corner office is a dangerous place from which to view the world. Instead we must reach out … and recognize, as my father did, that the customers who turn the lights on in our businesses are the very same people who keep the lights from going out in our community.
Thank you very much.
TALES FROM THE COPY CRYPT is a look back at lesser-known projects from Dave Conley’s 25-year career as copywriter, editor and marketing strategist. To see other samples, visit daveconleyportfolio.com.
A ROSY RED VALENTINE’S DAY TO ALL, with warm hopes that your holiday is replete with cards and chocolates and a plump Cupid shooting arrows wherever they will do the most good. I haven’t written for a while, though a subject has been much on my mind these past few weeks. So this seems like a good opportunity to spread the love and provide an update.
Milestone: one month ago today, yours truly was laid off from Brookstone.
It was Monday, Jan. 14, and I was at my desk when a priority meeting invitation appeared on my email. I remember the time: 9:36 AM. In 24 minutes I was to meet with Brookstone merchandising VP Steven Schwartz, and punctuality was urgently requested.
I thought it might be a withering critique of the Spring catalog we had just put together the week before. But when I got to the conference room there were about 30 chairs in neat rows–way more than would be needed for the catalog team. So people filed in, the 10 o’clock hour came, and a few uneasy minutes later Schwartz came in with an HR woman I hadn’t seen before. He pulled out a letter and read aloud, informing us that we were being laid off as part of a corporate restructuring intended to increase Brookstone’s competitive something-or-other.
The usual BS followed. Very difficult decision, no reflection on our performance, gratitude for service rendered. Then he excused himself and left the HR person to handle questions and answers. The gist of it was, we were expected to leave the building immediately. Boxes would be provided, here’s your packet and severance info, call the number on the card if you need to return and get stuff off your computer.
I’m too obtuse or antisocial to keep up with workplace gossip, but it seemed that my surprise was shared by most. Creative director, lead art director, designers and writers and proofreaders … all gone with the wind. Only a skeleton crew survived the purge in Creative Services. If it was anything like other situations I’ve been in, they probably figured they could save money by scaling back print catalogs in favor of cheaper online marketing. At the very least, there’d be an impressive savings figure they could take credit for.
In the meantime, other letters were being read in other conference rooms. Seventy-one people were laid off, all told, and many were career Brookstone people of unquestioned value to the company. The layoff was so sudden and unannounced, the state unemployment office was unaware of it until reading it in the papers the following day.
Now I’m back on the job market, which is mightily depressing. And I can’t help but feel pessimistic, because this is the third straight job I’ve been laid off from.
Each time it gets worse.
At Stal-McLane, the aging owners simply didn’t have enough business to keep me on, and it pained them to give me my notice. Then at Deluxe, I survived four or five corporate reorganizations while most of the other writers lost their jobs or had positions eliminated. Eventually I lost my job too, but only after a very thorough process in which employees had a chance to “interview” for the reconfigured job descriptions. That was something of a charade, since it was obvious that management wanted to pull jobs back into the corporate HQ in Minnesota; but still, there was plenty of notice and I had a shot at justifying my existence.
Now? It seems layoffs are just a quick-fix tactic for investor relations, with no stigma or residue of public regret. And only the HR people seem to thrive. In this terrible economy, individuals have been under siege for a long time, and corporations seem far more confident–and far less tactful–about pressing their advantage. Even when it doesn’t have a fully thought-out benefit beyond momentarily impressing board members or investors.
It is a meaner time in Business America than any I can remember. I have a friend who just got laid off from Deluxe after 30 years, and he said business was booming there in the time since I left the company. He was busy all the time and the company’s financials were great, but that wasn’t enough. Another friend (also laid off) said that a colleague praised the layoffs for “getting rid of the lazy people”–unaware that she was talking to one.
It’s just business, not personal. That “Godfather” cliche is everywhere these days. But people often make a personal judgment about you after a layoff.
“Why were you terminated?” is the inevitable question, whether you’re talking to an interviewer or the unemployment office. The idea that it was done for no special reason always seems to arouse skepticism.
For example, New Hampshire’s online claim forms give you many options when explaining sudden unemployment: insubordination, absenteeism, poor performance and more. But there’s no option that says, “Management wanted to whitewash a bad quarter.” The onus is on the little guy. He must have done something wrong.
So my brief Prague Spring of fulltime employment at Brookstone is over. I must say it comes as a painful disappointment, just as I was starting to contribute something and solidify a place in the company. Hopefully there will be something new in the near future, but even if there is I don’t think I’ll be able to feel secure anymore. That luxury seems almost quaint nowadays, an irrational mental artifact from a time we won’t see again.