Behind Leadership: Lisa Brock

Read. Check. Listen. Check. Self inspect. Check.  I can satisfactorily say these have been areas of strength of mine along my leadership journey.  However, I can’t say the same for one particular area Lisa Brock of Brock Communications recommends for leaders – skydive.  Yikes! Really?

Actually, as you’ll read, she says leaders should challenge themselves by stretching their comfort zones with activities that make them “uncomfortable.”  I found this to be stupendous advice in a mix of rich leadership counsel Lisa offered in our Q&A.  Enjoy, have a great weekend and lead well!

1. What is the hardest part about being a leader? 

Lisa Brock

Risking popularity. Leadership will lend itself at times to being unpopular, and it can be a lonely pursuit, too. I remember once when I was hired to change a culture – it was very tough in the beginning. I am not one to care terribly much about being popular, but I have experienced some losses due to the need to lead – and I know that is what is meant by the phrase, “It is lonely at the top.” Not always – but it can be.

2. What is the best part?

The doors that open – without a doubt! So many people, causes, organizations, clients and businesses need – and actively seek – leaders! Opportunities and what some call ‘luck’ just seems to come to you when you set your course and prove yourself. Also, the luxury of not needing to look over your shoulder or worry about your reputation. Leadership does not exempt you from tough times, but I think it involves, for me, a fair amount of self inspection. I cannot lead without living ‘the talk’ myself.

3. Who leads you and how did they become a leader in your life?

I was a foster child, but I had many caring adults around me. There is no one leader I can credit but my Aunt Louise who saved me from a lifetime in foster care, Pat Fussell who was a faculty sponsor and teacher at my high school and is now deceased, and my first boss at Procter & Gamble were all admirable leaders in my life. I also value iconic leaders such as Gandhi, Gloria Steinem, Martin Luther King, those who have fought against great odds to be heard – and who have done so peacefully. I believe that our current President is leading with great dignity while institutional politicians are doing all they can to trip him up. Again, he is risking his popularity, but he is maintaining a steady gait – trying to work against tremendous odds to do what he believes is the right thing for our country. And he could be taking lots of cheap shots at others, and he has refused to do so.

4. What is your advice for those who want to lead?

Listen twice as much as you speak. Realize that the loudest is not always the smartest and most of all – model the behavior of those you respect. Get used to refraining from fast fixes. Read as much as you can – about varied topics. Travel the world and see how others live. Try everything you reasonably can. Like skydiving, running, fasting, things that sort of push you mentally and physically, too. I am not talking about senseless acts of a daredevil or stupidity – but things that may seem uncomfortable at first.

5. What books, web sites or blogs on leadership do you recommend?

I like a variety but not typically straight up leadership books. I think Malcom Gladwell does a good job for fast reads, and I am about 3/4 of the way done with “Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print & Power” by James McGrath Morris. I just finished “Bossypants” by Tina Fey on a recent cross-country flight. (Thank you Kindle!) I am also just starting “Barbarians at the Gate” about the fall of RJR Nabisco by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar. I have “The Trust” up next by Susan E. Tifft and Alex Jones – about the New York Times. I like biographies, too. I have read most of what I know about leadership in good books or by living it. I am a believer in experiential learning.

6. If you had to choose between no longer being able to lead or losing those leaders you follow, which would you choose and why?

I think leadership is everywhere so if I lost, and I have, some of my personal favorite leaders, I’d carry on – that is part of what they taught me. As for not leading – well it’s welcome at times, and I gladly hand it over, like when clients are leading or I am working collaboratively with many leaders. Or, when my husband and I agree to let the others lead on some decisions. Leaders also know when to BE led I think.

7. What is your favorite food and place at which to eat it?

Well, my vice is travel and that MEANS food…so I’d say Moroccan, followed by Indian, followed by Mexican, followed by well, just about every kind of ethnic cuisine with the exception of Korean or British. (Sorry to each – but I have family from both places and while you can find good food anywhere, they are my least favorite.) I like to eat street food wherever I go, but I do enjoy a lovely, overdone meal like those found at the well-known ESCA, Tao, Town or my local haunts Mise en Place, Berns Steakhouse, Cafe European and well, let’s face it, I could go on and on.

Understanding your ‘iconic’ reputation is powerful for communication

Businesses and nonprofits with any life at all have a reputation. Those that have existed for decades have an iconic reputation, one that has endured through success and failure, crisis and normalcy.

Take for instance the U.S. Air Force. Studies have revealed its iconic reputation is unsurprisingly a high-tech air force that can strike targets and defend the skies anywhere necessary.  This is all symbolized by the image of a pilot.  For Air Force communicators, this is important to understand for marketing, messaging, story telling and support building.

When communicating about challenging topics, such as the need to spend billions of dollars on a new aircraft, communicators now know how to better message.  Simply put, messaging should primarily focus on the need to replace older aircraft with better technology to continue being the most high-tech air force in the world. This works because the public has come to expect it and values it.  This is a better way to message than to talk money and buying processes for new aircraft, which could be tempting if that’s what’s happening today.  Rather, lead with your iconic reputation that is understood.

Additionally, understanding your iconic reputation tells you what your reputation is not.  This is important because it instructs you on what doesn’t garner as much interest.  For instance, the Air Force does much more than fly planes.  The have evolved into more of an air, space and cyberspace service for defense of the U.S and allies.  However, pilots and aircraft lead in the public’s mind.

Knowing this, should recruiters play up images of high-tech aircraft and pilots or satellites and streams of digital data?  I think it’s clear.  But what about those people who don’t want to be pilots?  Remember the “high-tech” part of the iconic image?  I submit that cuts across all career fields in the Air Force and all prospects.  If you go to www.airforce.com, it screams high-tech.  The words “It’s not science fiction” are front and center.  Do you think they understand what the Air Force is known for?  I think so.

Does your organization know its iconic reputation? Do you advise clients who know?  If not, it may be worth finding out.

Slow down with the ‘dead’ talk

As Jim Lukaszewski said in his book, Why Should the Boss Listen to You?, communicators need to learn to think like managers to gain a seat at the coveted “table.”  Well, I don’t know about you, but all the “dead” talk does not help us get there.

What am I talking about?

“Traditional marketing is dead.”  “The press release is dead.”  And the latest, “Google+ is a Facebook killer.”

The fact of the matter is traditional marketing is alive and well.  Press releases are written by the thousands daily.  And it’s just too early to tell how G+ will actually impact Facebook, Twitter or many other web sites out there.

In my view, sweeping estimations like these harm our credibility because so often they’re wrong.  And it’s not just the wrongness that hurts us, it’s how quickly and loudly the falsehood is touted.

Business managers do not often make serious decisions without first watching, analyzing, reflecting, discussing and watching some more.  Solid decisions are fueled with patience and deliberateness and are well thought out.  It’s not about being able to claim “I told you so.”  When we, as communicators, don’t exercise maturity in our advice and counsel, we lose and don’t deserve a seat at the table.

Are social media plans all show?

Some of my fellow Air Force Public Affairs pros developed this fancy blog assessment response flowchart a few years ago. At the time it was praised by many people because social media “management” tools were hard to come by then.  I’d say the praise was akin to that given to early social media “plan” creators. “A plan! That’s perfect. Now we know exactly how to use the tweeter. Good job!”

My question is this. Do we, as professional communicators, really use the social media plans, blog response tools and so on we create, or do we produce them largely to make top leadership feel better about engaging in social media, which is still an uncomfortable space for many top execs?

What’s been your experience?

Behind Leadership: Aileen Katcher

Managing isn’t easy.  Leadership is even harder.  In my exchange with Aileen Katcher of Katcher Vaughn & Bailey Public Relations in Nashville, Tenn., she reinforced this point really well.  She reminded me the best leaders are deliberate, seek challenges that stretch them, and can make hard decisions.

Aileen Katcher

I interned at KVBPR during my senior year at Middle Tennessee State University, which I can’t believe was a nearly a decade ago, and got to see Aileen in action up close and personal every week for a semester.  I’m sure if asked, she’d say she’s a better leader today than she was then. Why? Because leaders never settle.  They’re always working to be better leaders so those they lead become better, too.  As you’ll read below, she’s still fighting the good fight to be the best leader she can possibly be.

1. What is the hardest part about being a leader?

The old adage “it’s lonely at the top” comes to mind. Leaders have to make hard decisions that are not always popular in the short-term, but result in success for the long-term. In business, those decisions that affect the lives of people the leader interacts with regularly and cares about can be the most difficult. And, while long-term, it is usually the best for all, the immediate impact is hard.

2. What is the best part?

Mentoring others and watching them grow is greatly satisfying. I have had many mentors in my life and have learned much from them. I think we all have a duty to give back and mentoring is an important part of that. Sharing and celebrating success with others is also rewarding.

3. Who leads you and how did they become a leader in your life?

When I was in the sixth grade, I had an Autograph Book. You could say it was a precursor to social networking – we asked all of our friends and teachers to write something and sign it. When I asked my dad, he wrote “Aim high and persevere.” I have always tried to follow that advice.

4. What is your advice for those who want to lead?

Aim high and persevere, of course. Learn from other leaders. And, don’t be afraid to take on leadership roles. One of the best ways is to get involved in a nonprofit that pursues a cause you care about. Volunteer to be on a committee and when you are ready, volunteer to chair it.

One of the best lessons I ever had in leadership was when I was on the board of my congregation and ultimately asked to be chair of the board. The month I accepted the role of chair-elect, our beloved, founding Rabbi announced he was leaving. The next two years were the best leadership lesson I ever had.

Our interim Rabbi, Michael Remson, who specialized in helping congregations in transition, taught me much. One of the best lessons was not to triangulate. If there is a problem, approach it directly.

5. What books, web sites or blogs on leadership do you recommend?

I can’t name a specific source. It is more experiential.

6. If you had to choose between no longer being able to lead or losing those leaders you follow, which would you choose and why?

I’m sure there is a time that I will no longer be able to lead (and will not want to) and I have already lost a number of leaders and mentors that I follow. Note to Joel: One of the key points we make when conducting media and crisis training is not to answer speculative questions so that’s the best you’re going to get from me on that one. (Note to Aileen: =))

7. What is your favorite food and place at which to eat it?

Those who know me well, know I am a Lifetime Weight Watcher. So, I try not to focus on specific foods, especially chocolate, not that it’s a favorite.

With regard to place, two come to mind. One is the Red Bar in Grayton Beach, Florida. Terrific seafood and vegetarian food in a funky, eclectic setting with good jazz. And, at home, the Yellow Porch, where there is great food, great service and great art by my friend Shon Hudspeth.

If you liked what Aileen had to say, you may also enjoy her contributions to a two-part blog series about running a PR business.  Aileen was featured along with Gayle Falkenthal, Sarah Evans and Heather Whaling. The posts are found here and here.

Thanks for reading! I encourage you to subscribe and follow me on Twitter.

At the beach…achieving balance

After two very successful weeks of blogging, meaning I posted almost every day, I’m taking a break this week to enjoy a vacation with my wife in St. John. She deserves it after teaching 3 year olds for the past 6 months!

Like the stereotypical American I am though, my break won’t be a total separation from regular life as I will publish a Behind Leadership post Friday on Aileen Katcher of KVBPR in Nashville, Tenn.

If you just rolled your eyes and silently thought, “Come on man, take a break for real,” I understand.  The thing is work and blogging aren’t chores for me, they’re passions. I don’t vacation to get away from them, I just reduce the amount of time spent on them and increase the amount of time I spend with MaryBeth.

See we are very deliberate people. We set annual goals and yes we actually write them down and hang them where we see them daily. One of those goals is this vacation. It’s one of the many ways we achieve total balance in life, in addition to daily walks together and weekly date nights. While we don’t achieve balance daily, which we believe isn’t necessary, we do work to have it over the course of a year. We find this allows us to achieve so much more as a couple.

War, billions of dollars, Congress: The daily life of this Air Force press officer

Media relations can be a challenge for any organization.  For many Public Affairs pros inside the Pentagon, media relations never stops. It comes with the territory when you’re at the headquarters for the most powerful military the world has ever known in arguably the most politically charged town on the planet.

Air Force Lt. Col. Todd Vician has been at the center of the fray for quite some time now.  For the past year, he’s led the Current Operations Division, known as the “press desk” to insiders.  It is the hot bed for all things media and all things controversial for the Air Force. Beforehand, he worked on the “press desk” at the Department of Defense level.  In other words, he was a spokesperson for the Secretary of Defense.  Yeah, no pressure there.

Lt. Col. Todd Vician

From Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya operations to multi-billion dollar aircraft purchases and everything imaginable in between, Todd Vician is charged with providing counsel to Air Force leadership on how to manage these issues and ultimately get the message right.  It is one of the most pressure-infused PR jobs in D.C., because the stakes are incredibly high.

Not often does a PR pro’s daily portfolio include billion-dollar backed issues, hundreds of thousands of military members, communities across the country, and 535 elected officials who are often just across the river and care deeply about what you’re up to.

Before he leaves this job, I wanted his perspective on doing PR for the Air Force, what it takes to do it well and what it means to serve the country in the U.S. military.  Here’s what he had to say.

1. How does your average day go as the director of Current Operations at Headquarters Air Force?

Our days are often focused on trying to make long-term progress despite addressing short-term challenges.  How do we get the public to better understand the Air Force and our issues while keeping “news of the day” in the right context.  From the day I entered the Air Force I’ve heard that people will support us if they just meet the Airmen who do our mission, so we have to bring Air Force leaders to the public through interviews and responses to inquiry.  Unfortunately that’s often difficult to do for a variety of reasons.

2. What type of leadership challenges do you face in this job?

One of the biggest challenges, and regrets, I have is getting beyond the e-mails to helping solve problems, focusing on the people of my staff and the headquarters rather than the issues.

3. What’s been the most challenging issue to manage and why?

It’s not been one issue, but instead helping to maintain the Air Force reputation.  The reputation with the public (so mistakes made, usually with good intentions, are understood in the context of our successes and great people); reputation with the press corps as we balance their deadlines with our processes; and reputation with the leadership we serve (a repeat of the challenges with the press corps).  Maybe it’s better said as expectation management and that’s something we work daily.

4. What skills are required to be an effective Air Force Public Affairs officer (PAO)?

Obviously good communication skills — including summarizing issues and presenting the information to your boss for a decision (“this is what you need to know and these are the communication effects of a decision).  Also connecting the dots — what does an article, Congressional comments, or Airman feedback mean, and what should we do?  And then leadership.  A good PAO is really a good officer.  In 21 years I’ve rarely worked alone, and always benefited from the efforts and skills of my staff, so we’re really leading more than being a PAO.  I think these are skills most people have, and ones we can improve with practice, mentorship, and learning from our experiences.

5. What’s been the highlight of your career to date?

One event doesn’t stand out.  I have had great experiences in every assignment, letting God direct our paths.

6. What does it mean to you to serve the country?

Serving means putting others first.  I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “Freedom isn’t free.”  I don’t like that saying because for many people it is free.  They have never sacrificed or served others.  I’ve been blessed many times over by serving others, and have served alongside others who have sacrificed so much more than I have.

7. How was your deployment experience doing Public Affairs?

It’s tough leaving, rewarding doing, and awesome returning.  In Afghanistan I learned more than I thought I would, especially working with the other services, NATO countries, State Department and the Afghans.  I remember a conversation with an Afghan colonel about media relations, thinking I had all the answers.  He had experience, and while his methods weren’t 21st-century answers, he knew the issue, players and a good course of action.

Lt. Col. Todd Vician is the Chief of Current Operations for the Secretary of the Air Force’s Public Affairs Directorate.  He leads a team of commissioned officers, civilians and noncommissioned officers who provide counsel on media matters to Headquarters Air Force leaders and information to national and international media. He entered active duty in 1990 and has served at various group, wing and headquarters units.  He has deployed to Afghanistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Spain, and Italy while supporting overseas contingency operations. He commanded an Air Force squadron in the United States and while deployed supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.  Lt. Col. Vician has also served as the public affairs advisor to the Secretary of the Air Force, been assigned to the Office of the Secretary of Defense as a press officer for Central Asian issues, and served in the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command’s Combined Joint Operations Center.  He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Public Relations and Journalism from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and a Master of Mass Communication degree from Arizona State University.