On setting sail

Having lived in a lot of small places, I’ve seen a familiar blueprint. Communities across the country are littered with well-intentioned people adamant about “attracting investment” whatever the hell that means. This usually involves giving already rich people lots of tax breaks to trickle down jobs to plebes. The other thing these folks love to do, is build edifices that are supposed to be able to give people what they need to start a business. After all, the old model of businesses involved people having physical structures from which to make/sell/distribute their wares.

It’s almost 2017 and the landscape is different now. There are companies that do not have physical spaces, comprised of teams distributed around the globe proving themselves capable of developing and maintaining world-class products. Other firms inhabit spaces where a critical mass of talent converge to make cool things happen. I’ve lived in these spaces before and visited others. The thing that makes places like Boulder, Austin, Portland and Brooklyn cool has nothing to do with how many “tech parks” they have. It’s not even about the number of awesome bars, restaurants or shuffleboard bars that have cropped up. The difference is attitude.

People as they get older stay in places for a few reasons: perhaps they get a job, they partner with someone who doesn’t want to leave, they have family nearby and/or it’s a good place to raise kids. That’s about it. For people who have options, the choices are vast and the decisions are not much different than they were for people decades ago. You want to be someplace where cool things are happening. For this generation, many choose cities over the sameness of suburban life and that trend does not seem to abate.

So how do smaller cities — under 100k for this example — compete with bigger cities if they’re not a suburb of a larger one? Well, being unique helps. The other thing is giving young people the opportunity to compete at a level where a larger place not let them. You give them a seat at the table. The other thing you can do, is create a culture where standouts get utilized and a climate where contributors feel part of the puzzle. The hardest thing in any place — even when you have a partner — is making friends. People who have lots of family nearby never think about this, because their lives are preoccupied with the sorts of day-to-day things that having family around is comprised of. For people who make their family where they go, having a community where you can participate is vital and not in a superficial way.

When you have options, it gets harder to resist the siren sound of greater pastures. Even if the challenges are great, the annoyances more rampant, the opportunity to know you’re boxing in a higher weight class has value when you’re the sort of person who wants to know you’re actually challenging yourself, as opposed to settling for whatever you can get. At a certain point, it stops being worth it to remain moored to a port that’s too expensive to keep your boat and where you don’t feel like you’re truly welcome.




Root, Root For The Home Team


Anyone who knows me well, is aware I’ve lived a lot of places. Almost all of these moves have been some combination of work-based or relationship-based relocations.

One of the challenges of pulling up stakes and relocating is cultivating networks. Since my formative years, I’ve always been involved in civic projects. Not every community is tailor-made for an outsider to show up and participate in substantive ways on issues that might be related to policy and/or innovation.

As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out where I fit. Without the connective tissue to keep you rooted in a place, all you have is work and whatever relationships you cultivate on your own. These foundations are not always built strong enough to maintain life in a small place, especially if you’re upwardly mobile and have broader networks in bigger places.

So what’s a peripatetic person to do? This post isn’t prescriptive, it’s reflective of my own path. At the moment, I’m doing what I always do. I try to figure out ways to meld my entrepreneurial goals with whatever established activities are already going on wherever I am. My goal is to get in where I can, but resources matter, as do having the infrastructure and a team to execute big ideas and goals.

I feel like there is a lot we can do, when we’re focusing on our own contributions and let people know we exist. It’s easy to sit at home and expect that opportunities are just supposed to come to you. But most people don’t know the talent embedded in their own communities. While it’s great to create activities to engage and ignite interest, the reality is, we sometimes have to raise our voices and let people know we’re here and what we’d like to do.

Critical mass is important, but so is working within the confines of what your circumstances are as a person or a community.

Finding your flock in the working world

My understand is that when you see a flock of birds, the ones at the front don’t spend the entire trip leading. The birds take turns to conserve energy. The other thing I found most interesting about bird flocks, is that there are actually diverge leadership groups at different times trying to steer the flock elsewhere and some will indeed do that.

The funny thing is, the birds behind start to realize that the more of them that follow one, the easier the travel gets as they can draft behind the others in the flock and conserve energy. They take turns doing this and it makes the trip across long distances possible.

I think a lot about leadership and for a long time, I thought if you’re passionate, work hard and care about other people that folks would naturally see what you’re bringing to the table and want to support you towards your goals. This somewhat mistaken belief was borne out of years and years of supportive people identifying me as someone they thought should lead. I’m talking all the way back to grade school, where I’ve had teachers and peers who have mentored me, lifted me up and told me I was worth a damn when I didn’t always feel like it. For all of my penchant for leading, speaking up and sharing what I know; I’ve spent most of my life trying to recede to the back. But time and time again, people have refused to let me not shine my light.

For this I am beyond grateful.

My professional life has been marked by people who have pulled me aside or put me in leadership roles consistently. From the boss at the software store in high school who made me his 3rd in command a month after I was hired to my first boss in higher ed who decided that she had enough faith in my abilities to let me lead a redesign project & committee that was comprised of all VPs and our President and felt comfortable enough not to attend those meetings because she knew it was in good hands.

These kinds of experiences I have shaped how I’ve seen myself as I moved up the ranks, assumed more responsibility and accept greater challenges. Even when things don’t work out, I’ve come away with a much better understanding of what my role is. But more than anything, I’ve come to understand that not everyone is going to have your best interest at heart. Not everyone is meant to be a mentor, not every person who comes into contact with you is concerned about your professional growth or wants to see you succeed on mutually acceptable terms. The trick here is if you’re not fortunate like I’ve been to have great people support, encourage and bolster me and find yourself in an unsupportive professional environment is realizing that you have a responsibility to accept change and to make it work for you.

I don’t mean making the job work for you because not every situation is salvageable in that way. But if you’ve reached a point where you consider yourself a competent individual with some value to offer, then you need to figure out ways to demonstrate that. People will notice. Even if they don’t, you can’t let one situation define you. Your work, your actions and your strength of character will define you over a period of time. It might takes years and you might find yourself searching far and wide, but eventually you’ll find your flock.

But you need to get off the ground.

Sometimes, your work isn’t enough

For a long time, I believed in the quaint notion that if you just do good work that people want to see you succeed. This hokey notion is akin to grazing on the prairie and believing you won’t be eaten. Workplace culture is a lot like the animal world, only the animal world is more sane. No one talks about this in college and you can’t be trained for it.

For so long, I’ve spent a lot of time trying not to overstate my work. I don’t profess to ever be anything I’m not. But in the process of doing so, I tend to understate a lot of what I am in an effort to make strangers feel comfortable. I’ve been told for years that I need to stop, but it’s difficult to know where the line is. What’s important? What do people really need to know? It’s the reason I like resumes more than LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a braggarts dream and a showpony for showing off.

It’s not how I’m wired.

I intentionally go places others won’t, because I figure someone has to do it. Part of what’s worked for me over a long period of time is making IT or web or digital related things accessible to people who view them as far outside of their abilities. I enjoy teaching and I’ve never embraced the role of IT overlord as “keeper of all the things” as if there’s only place to get the answers.

The thing no one tells you when you start working is you have to chronicle your experiences or you’ll forget. That you need to itemize your wins, not because it has to matter to you, but when it does matter, you need to be able to talk about it.

Not About Love

I don’t like articles with lists, but this article from Les Mckeown showed up on my Twitter timeline and for some odd reason I clicked on it. It purports to want to help you relinquish an “unhealthy need for being loved” in the workplace and offers sort of awful advice about how to fix this affliction. What it boils down to, is simply a Fiona Apple song. It’s not about love.

For the sake of soothing the irritant that was this post, we’re just going to examine his magic advice and rebut each argument on its face.

First he says that being loved elsewhere can keep you from feeling like you need your people to love you at work. Yes friends, the key to treating your subordinates like the unimportant maggots they are is simply to have someone at home who puts up with your b.s. on a regular basis. Sorry poor single schlubs that haven’t found true love yet, this is where you realize your single ass is never going to reach the fast track.

Next, he tells us to avoid one-on-ones as much as possible. So let me get this straight, the best way to deal with people at work is to avoid interacting with them. Maybe this works as a soulless corporate hegemon, but for the rest of us idiots in real jobs, this just isn’t as possible as our Inc. blogging genius thinks.

The last one I’m going to address, because I’d rather get to the point is his argument that closing the feedback loop by simply never asking for feedback from subordinates is the best way to ensure you never have to find out how you’re really doing.

Look, all of this stuff is great if you want to live in an echo chamber of your own adulation. But if you’re actually interested in change,  you won’t embrace an ethos that says caring about others is some kind of character flaw. Yes, there is a problem with being too heavily reliant on being liked; especially in the context of leadership. However, this doesn’t mean you need to trend so far in the other direction so as to close out allies you need within your organization to survive.

Here are a few quick productive ways to ensure that forming good working relationships doesn’t turn into something more sinister and damaging:

1. Treat people fairly. You can’t always treat everyone the same. But you can be fair with people. If you say good morning to one person, it doesn’t hurt to extend that courtesy to someone else you don’t know.

2. Target personal interactions. Maybe you just enjoy talking recipes with someone and enjoy their time. If these kinds of one-on-one interactions impact morale, then stick to using these interactions for a specific purpose and spread the love. If more people feel included and appreciated, it can have a positive effect on the organization as a whole.

3. Remember what leadership is about. Look, your job isn’t always to direct. It’s to find good people who understand the job well enough that if you weren’t available, it’d be done well without you. Identifying and empowering great people is hard work. But it’s worthwhile for you to seek out quality people and train them up to someday take your job.

4. Leadership paint-by-numbers. If you have the good fortune of having paid your dudes before moving up to your role, it can be helpful for junior and mid-career employees from time to time to hear of your own trajectory up the ranks. Sometimes, you see a person who’s seemly been “in charge” for a long time and don’t always realize the journey it took to get there. Having someone demystify those secrets can boost morale and provide a pathway for someone else to someday follow.

The peril of being “social”

Welp, if you enjoyed using the social network Foursquare (like me), prepare to lose all of your mayorships and expect to contend with a ton of new traffic, as the NY Times has profiled the new service in today’s paper: (I’m mostly kidding, btw.)

Just seven months old with about 60,000 users so far, Foursquare is still getting off the ground — especially when compared with supersize services like Facebook and Twitter, which have millions of members. But that underground status is part of Foursquare’s appeal, its fans say. It is not yet cluttered with celebrities, nosy mothers-in-law or annoying co-workers.

“On Twitter, there are more than 3,000 people that follow me, and Facebook is more of a business community now,” said Annie Heckenberger, 36, who works at an advertising agency in Philadelphia. “Foursquare is more of the people that I actually hang out with and want to socialize with.”

That brings up a point that Michael Stoner touches on in his recent post, where he coins the term “engagement fatigue.” In short he says:

The disorder is engagement fatigue. Engagement fatigue will occur when mass numbers of people participating in social networking—everyone who is making marketers salivate because they’re swarming to Facebook, Twitter, etc.—get tired of brand engagement marketing and tune out.

What happens when you get tired of hearing from people? Don’t want to see their photos, don’t care what their kids are doing potty training and feel the need to create a nebulous profile blocks to ensure that certain people can’t see everything? What happens when the tools we use become too ubiquitous to be useful anymore? Well we know what happens, we move on to other things. But when those tools become a big part of our lives? I know my answers to this question, but it’s a bigger one I’m putting out there for the wider audience.

Is this some sort of permissive intrusiveness that we’re sanctioning through permissions on a web site? How far does it go and for what aims? I realize this is almost a backwards argument, given how far we’ve gone with most sites these days, but I wonder exactly what we expect to be doing with our Facebook profiles in five years.

A modern bobsleigh team, the 2006 United State...
Image via Wikipedia

At least when I used AOL in the 90s, you knew when you deleted your account, your profile and screen name went away too. As it turns out, those profiles weren’t all that interesting anyway. But now? Facebook is better than any family photo album you can find. I guess this is just part of their longevity strategy, but I really am mulling (and no, there’s no real punchline to this post, sorry..I’m just musing) over where we’re really headed with all of this and how profound an effect it’ll have on our social interactions over the next half decade or so.

It’s already affecting us, but I think we’re just scratching the surface. So much of what we talk about in these contexts almost becomes solely focused on how we can profit from these intimate details that people give up freely and I’m really wondering about the ethics of this and whether we’re not riding a bobsleigh towards a place that none of us really want to go until it’s too late and we’re already at the bottom of the course.


College a la carte?

I'm a Master of Education Technology (well may...
Image by catspyjamasnz via Flickr

I was reading Foreign Policy earlier today and ran across an article entitled “Personalized Education” as part of their “next big things” feature.

Throughout most of history, only the wealthy have been able to afford an education geared to the individual learner. For the rest of us, education has remained a mass affair, with standard curricula, pedagogy, and assessments.

The financial crisis will likely change this state of affairs. With the global quest for long-term competitiveness assuming new urgency, education is on everyone’s front burner. Societies are looking for ways to make quantum leaps in the speed and efficiency of learning. So long as we insist on teaching all students the same subjects in the same way, progress will be incremental. But now for the first time it is possible to individualize education—to teach each person what he or she needs and wants to know in ways that are most comfortable and most efficient, producing a qualitative spurt in educational effectiveness.

In fact, we already have the technology to do so. Well-programmed computers—whether in the form of personal computers or hand-held devices—are becoming the vehicles of choice. They will offer many ways to master materials. Students (or their teachers, parents, or coaches) will choose the optimal ways of presenting the materials. Appropriate tools for assessment will be implemented. And best of all, computers are infinitely patient and flexible. If a promising approach does not work the first time, it can be repeated, and if it continues to fail, other options will be readily available.

Just how will this happen? Where, when, and by whom?

I don’t really have any doubts this could happen, as the technology already exist. The only thing really stopping it is accreditation. But would a WikiDegree really be about getting a job? Or is it about demonstrating a level of knowledge you’ve acquired through self-study? How would such a virtual institution operate? Could it be a school comprised of faculty from other places? Adjuncts who are looking to prove their worth on a larger scale?

Would it even give bachelor’s degrees at all? How about a diploma?
I could see all sorts of scenarios where this could work. Whether it’s professors offering courses on their own, around the world attracted talented and motivated students who want to learn from them — as they use it to burnish their personal brands in the post Web 2.0 world — and people who have a lot of acquired knowledge and use such a platform to share it with others.

I think the real question for something like this, is whether credentials would cease to be important. Whether Notre Dame de Open Source would be the sort of place that would “hire” faculty who didn’t have even a bachelor’s degree, but years of “field experience.” I think that’d be a credibility problem and yet, Wikipedia hums along fine without peer review in the traditional sense.

So will McUniversity be online soon and change the way we view the distribution of education? Or will the university stay pretty much intact as society evolves around the new tools that will continue to change the way we communicate and interact with each other?

My new blog & a twitter username swap

In a move that I’m sure will please my higher ed readers, I’ve created a spinoff blog called Startup Failure and you can get there via 307ceo.com or ronbronson.com

The idea here was to create a place where I could really dig deeper into issues that affect solo startups or people who are just getting started, as well as those who’ve been in “the game” a while.

This blog will try to gradually bend itself back towards higher ed more, though to be honest a lot of my insights are focused largely on how much we shoot ourselves in the foot in the higher ed world and how we make it harder for people to really succeed. So I’ll be focusing on the success stories and the interesting things I see in the field. Maybe I’ll branch out in other ways, too. I have some ideas, but I won’t give them all away.

Save for the backposting I did when I first started the blog, this blog is really only a year old this month. So I’m proud of where it’s gone in that time span and what it’s been able to do for me. Had I started it three years ago, who knows where I’d be now.

So I’m excited for what’s next and I do hope if you’re interested, you’ll check out the other blog too or pass it on to someone else who might be.

I changed my twitter user name from omnivoredotus to 307ceo. I have a love/hate relationship with the public timeline, but it’s public so people can find me for now. I’ve been pondering shortening the name for a while, I created the original one when I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with Twitter and just went with something I could get. With the new domain/blog, it just made more sense.

So there you go. Chock full of updates.