Feb 16

You da man!


I had a fascinating conversation the other day with Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun and his senior communications strategists. We were discussing the subject of trust, the erosion of trust in virtually every segment of society, and the need for current and future generations to re-adjust their definitions of success as a result.

I volunteered that I’d noticed quite a few Millennial-focused surveys of late in which respondents seem to accept the very real possibility that, due to the economy, limited job options, staggering student loans and global competition, they may never attain their parents’ level of success. But, many seem undaunted and, in fact, point to new, and different, definitions of success, including: 

-      Achieving a work-life balance

-      Feeling fulfilled in one’s occupation

-      Believing one’s contributions are somehow making a difference for the better.

That’s very different from the definition of success when I grew up.

We were told one wasn’t successful unless one at least earned one’s age (i.e. $25,000 per annum if one were 25 years old, etc.). We were also led to believe that success meant getting married, fathering 2.4 kids, as well as owning a dog and a house with the requisite white picket fence (I scored with the wife and two kids, and now am pleased to say I report to two pooches: Mick and Rooney, respectively).

I also came of age in the Me Generation, monster-of-the-universe Gordon Gekko ‘Greed is Good’ Wall Street era. In fact, I distinctly remember a great example of success in the late 20th century. We were dining with my next door neighbor who, at the time, toiled at the now defunct Lehman Brothers. He was boasting about a huge raise and year-end bonus. Then, he glanced down at his PDA and shouted: ‘Look at this! ‘My boss just e-mailed saying, Jimmy, you da man!’ It was nauseating to say the least.

Well, with Wall Street, Main Street and just about every other street either stagnating or in full retreat, the You Da Man moments seem to be dwindling in an inverse ratio to our country’s budget deficit. That doesn’t mean there won’t be some incredibly successful executives rising through the ranks in the near and long-term future; it just means there will be fewer masters and mistresses of the universe.

So, knowing that, how have you personally re-defined success? I’m especially interested in hearing from my Millennial readers (as well as the Generation X and Baby Boomers who have been forced to re-set their expectations as a result of the New Normal). Success is still there for each and every one of us. It just may no longer look like a million dollar paycheck, a trophy wife, two kids, a dog, a house and a picket fence anymore.  

What will it look like to you, and what do you envision prompting a boss or peer to text a message saying, ‘You da man!'


Dec 21

The Lion in Winter

I've worked for two lions in winter. 334578-bigthumbnail 

Both were aging CEOs in the twilight of their careers. Both were both named Jim. And, both told me I should be ashamed of myself (but, for dramatically different reasons.)

The first Jim was president of a global consulting firm in the mid-1980s. He was terminally ill with severe emphysema, yet continued to manage day-to-day operations with charm, wit and dedication.

As the consulting firm's first director of global communications, I had my hands full to say the least. Maybe that's why Jim went out of his way to schedule weekly meetings with me (talk about having a seat at the table!).

Despite his myriad responsibilities (and intense pain), Jim always found time to discuss strategy, read my copy and suggest edits. After one lengthy session, I thanked him for his generosity. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Someday, you'll be in my position. I want you to be just as patient with your young employees as I am with you.” That made a big impression on me.

On another occasion, though, he sighed after reviewing an article I'd written about our Brazilian operations. He put the copy down and asked me if I spoke a second language. I shook my head no. Jim said he was ashamed of me, and added: “Every one of the foreign employees you write about speaks English as a second or third language. You should be ashamed you don't speak a second language. In fact, none of our American employees do. It doesn't matter to me. And, it probably won't matter to your generation but, trust me, foreign nationals will run rings around your kids' generation.” Talk about prescient.

The other Jim was the polar opposite. He reveled in intrigue, office politics and negativity. And, he was the antithesis of a mentor. Once, when four or five senior executives were sitting around a conference table, Jim folded his arms and sniffed, “You should all be ashamed.” When one of us asked why, he said, “Because none of you attended an Ivy League school. You lack the intellectual rigor that only an Ivy League education can provide.” We collectively shook our heads in amazement and disgust.

I didn't buy into his ersatz logic, then or now. It isn't where someone goes to college that determines success but, rather, how one performs at work. That's why we recruit from schools such as Marist, Northeastern and the College of Charleston. We don't want people who, like the second Jim, are elitists and think they're better than everyone else.  We want can-do, hard-working, team-oriented people.

When autumn turns to winter for this blogger, I intend to be the second coming of the first Jim.

Oct 25

Name any business that not only rejects the majority of its prospective customers, but also boasts about doing so

That was the question posed by Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun Thursday at a 14_seal meeting of the University's "Corporation", a group of 50 or so alumni and benefactors that I'm proud to say I've joined.

The answer to President Aoun's provocative question is colleges and universities. He spoke specifically about N.U. which, under his guidance the past four years, has skyrocketed its way up the most important national rankings, attracted some of the world's most gifted academics and become a real player among the elite universities. Indeed, of the nearly 38,000 applicants received this past year, Northeastern rejected nearly two-thirds!

But, Northeastern isn't content to rest on its laurels. The President advised us of some serious global competition from China, Korea, Australia and the United Kingdom that's keeping him up at night. The latter two, deprived of government funding for higher education, have become extremely aggressive in their marketing. The former two, supported by government monies, are fast becoming major factors in higher education. China, said Aoun, has doubled its number of colleges and universities in just 10 years (and the average university is the same size as the city of Boston!). Korea, he said, is making a major push at recruiting international students and is competing with our best schools for the very same talent pool.

Northeastern has a distinct competitive advantage over virtually every other college and university in the world. It's called 'Co-op' and stands for cooperative education. It's a somewhat clumsy phrase to describe THE perfect blend of classroom and real world experience. N.U. pioneered co-op more than 100 years ago and has perfected the model, creating deep and long-lasting relationships with such major global employers as General Electric (no school has more alumni at GE than N.U.). As a result, the vast majority of Northeastern's graduates land jobs. In fact, the school placed no fewer than 83 percent of its June graduates in the midst of the worst recession in 80 years. Compare that number with some state and small liberal arts schools that struggle to place 30 percent of their graduating classes (and are just now getting around to formalizing their intern programs).

N.U.'s success is due, in part, to Aoun's contrarian approach. While other schools were retrenching, Northeastern was investing and expanding. Since 2006, it's hired no fewer than 204 new faculty and improved a campus that is now rated, along with Harvard, as Boston's greenest (a huge factor in attracting the best and brightest Millennials, BTW).

Speaking of the best and brightest, Northeastern is making its acceptance standards even more rigorous. The majority of incoming freshman graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes and N.U. now boasts more national merit scholars than ever before.

It's nice to see a real American education success story. It's even nicer to be playing a role in helping President Aoun and his staff take the school to even greater heights.

That said, Steve Cody, Northeastern University class of 1977, wouldn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of ever being accepted to the world class institution that is the N.U. of today.

Jun 03

Listening matters

June 3
friend Mike Armini is vice president of external affairs at Northeastern
University. I mention this because Mike’s just penned a cautionary tale that’s
as applicable to college marketers as it is to communicators in
general. In it, Mike laments the sorry state of college and
university branding. He says there’s far too much chest thumping and far too
little fact-based marketing. I agree.

worked with many colleges and universities over the years. I’ve found that,
just like every ‘service’ organization I can think of, each believes its
faculty, programs and students are the best. Period. The problem with such an
admonition is that when everyone says the same thing, no one says anything.
Management consultants are notorious for their use of meaningless superlatives,
hyperbole and ‘ConsultantSpeak.’ The words ‘unique,’ ‘innovative’ and
best-in-class’ seem to permeate and pervade every consulting firm’s messaging.
As a result, no one can truly break out from the pack. People, programs and
services are mere table stakes in the branding game.

order to arrive at a true differentiator, colleges and universities (and every
sort of organization for that matter) needs to first listen. Listen to what
your internal constituents believe sets you apart. Then, audit your external
audiences to see if they agree that that particular nugget is, in fact, what
makes the dear, old alma mater singular. Last, but not least, listen to what
key competitors are saying is their unique point of differentiation. If they’ve
already claimed your stake, it’s time to move on to Plan B.

faced a classic branding challenge with Duke University’s Fuqua School of
business about 10 years ago. At that point, they wanted to enter the global MBA
market with a brand-new offering they called the Global Executive MBA (or,
GEMBA, for short). They were hungry to begin branding the program and filling
the inaugural class. We cautioned them to listen first. We did our due
diligence, examined what schools such as Harvard, Wharton and Kellogg were
saying about themselves and arrived at a unique and sustainable positioning:
‘Global campus on the Internet.’ Duke, and Duke alone, could own that moniker
because they were the first to link their various global sites via the web and
to complement on-site learning with online tutorials after ‘students’ had
returned to their jobs.

campus on the Internet was a winner. In fact, in covering the Duke program,
BusinessWeek used our positioning as the
headline of their article on the program (and, it simply doesn’t get any better
than that). Media ‘got’ the distinction. Significant coverage ensured.
Duke filled its classrooms. We won a Silver Anvil. And, GEMBA became a generic
term within the business school world.

spot on when he says colleges and universities want quick fixes for their
branding and marketing campaigns. Sadly, though, there are no quick fixes.
Successful campaigns, be they online or off, in the private sector or on
university campuses, must
always begin with a listening phase.

Nov 23

To dream the impossible dream

November 23 - wallpaper_football10 I applaud my alma mater’s decision to end its college football program. Northeastern University’s decision was reached after an exhaustive, two-year study and follows on the heels of cross-town rival, Boston University’s, decision to follow a similar course.

Northeastern is a serious contender in sports such as ice hockey, crew and, every now and then, basketball. But, the football program has always been an also ran. Like many other wannabe’s, N.U. aspired to greater things and actually scheduled an opening match against perennial football powerhouse Boston College. The result was both laughable and predictable.

Now freed from the shackles of climbing a mountain too high (or a bridge too far, if you prefer WWII analogy), Northeastern is free to concentrate on its core athletic competencies while also diverting funding to academic pursuits (an area in which the school is rapidly rising through the ranks).

Northeastern’s David v. Goliath run against BC is akin to a two-person PR start-up competing against Weber-Shandwick in the public relations industry annual awards’ programs. While N.U. may boast the single, most creative tailback or safety on the gridiron, BC’s sheer size and numbers guarantee a lopsided result. Ditto with the industry awards’ programs. Like the NCAA, our industry should create three distinct categories based on size and allow the big guys to compete against one another, midsized firms to engage with their peers and the boutiques to do the same.

What chance did Northeastern ever really have against a major football powerhouse like BC? None. And, what real chance does an unknown start-up have when competing against 11, count ‘em 11, separate submissions from one Top 10 agency in a single category? The fledgling boutique can only afford one submission while the behemoth can lob in one after another.

The awards’ system is broke. And, the PR powers that be see it as nothing more than ‘an old argument,’ that merits no discussion. That leaves little guys with one of two choices: follow Northeastern’s lead and divert whatever disposable marketing dollars you have on something with a higher return on investment or, like the Man of La Mancha, continue to dream the impossible dream.