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Saturday, June 29, 2013

When CEOs screw up: “I am Spiderman”

I once wrote speeches for a CEO whose go-to line when he screwed things up was: “The staff let me down.”

It was indicative of the low regard he had for the people who supported him.

An example. I was in his conference room with his chief of staff one afternoon, reviewing a draft, when a fly landed on the speech. The CEO whacked it with his bare hand and killed it. Then he flicked the fly's carcass with his thumb and forefinger -- launching it right into the chief of staff’s eye.

“Did I get ya’?” he asked, gleaming with pride at his marksmanship as the staffer daubed his tearing eye.

I enjoyed a moment of schadenfreude a couple of weeks ago when I watched Barack Obama standing embarrassed at the lectern because his staffer had failed to place the speech there beforehand.

Here’s a clip of what happened. Listen for two things:

1) The edge in Obama’s voice when he twice called out to his “people” – which betrayed the pique beneath his attempt to make light of what was happening

2) The sound of the speechwriter tripping as he dashed onstage to deliver the missing manuscript

When executives are on the podium, it’s theater. It’s his or her face that everybody’s watching. The last thing a speechwriter wants to do is cause embarrassment.

On the other hand, Obama himself has owned up to the fact that, “as president you’re held responsible for everything, but you don’t always have control of everything.”

It was a reminder of my own experiences with a couple of corporate speakers.

In one speech, the CEO promised his sales force that he would resolve the supply problem they were having with their manufacturing plant in Raleigh, N. C. I had given him a quick humor line to underscore the unacceptable performance of the manufacturing unit: “It’s gotten so bad, they’re telling Raleigh jokes in Poland.”

Back in those days, neither the CEO nor I were sensitive to the fact that we were poking fun at the manufacturing people at the expense of employees of Polish descent.

He got complaints about that line. But he took responsibility for the words I had put in his mouth. Our relationship remained strong, and I learned a big lesson -- nothing teaches responsibility more than having someone put their trust in you.

Then there was the day a Chairman of the Board for whom I wrote mistakenly started to deliver the wrong luncheon speech. His assistant had put into his three-ring briefing book as background another speaker’s speech. The Chairman read the entire first page before he realized his mistake. He simply turned to the correct tab, where he found his speech, and started over.

Afterwards, he returned to his office and stayed behind closed doors for the rest of the afternoon. I don’t know what he did in there, but he must have had a long, long talk with himself.

Maybe it went something like Peter Parker’s concluding soliloquy in the first Spiderman movie: “With great power comes great responsibility. This is my gift and my curse. I am Spiderman.”

In my next blog: When the CEO sees red

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Meet the savage goddess of Cape Cod

I heard it first from the lips of a summer resident at Provincetown airport’s departure gate: “Well, the time has come. I have to leave Paradise.”

Cape Cod? 


I had been in the midst of research for my novel, Cold Stun, involving the real-life murder of a single mom who lived down the road from my bed-and-breakfast in Truro, the narrow spit of sand near the outermost tip of Cape Cod.

So I was very aware that the Cape has its obverse.

Here’s what I wrote about it in my book:

Jenny didn’t know about the dour goddess of Cape Cod who can be savage to those not her own. Each summer, her outstretched arm beaches whales and dolphins that dare seek diversion in her waters. Each summer, she lulls scores of visiting sea turtles to their death – the Loggerheads, Greens and Ridleys that made their way north from the Caribbean for summertime feeding in Cape Cod Bay. As autumn sets in, many linger too long, misled by the shallow Bay water’s warm comfort. Oblivious to the approaching winter, they miss their chance to swim for the open ocean and safe passage south. As temperatures plummet in December, paralysis overcomes the trapped turtles and they fall victim to “cold stun.” The numbed turtles are driven before the wind onto the beaches of Truro, where impatient gulls do not grant them the grace of death before picking their eye sockets clean.

From the first British settlers who denuded Cape Cod of forests and turned her into the planet’s biggest sandbar, the desecration has been ceaseless. Noxious lead from the military base at Sandwich has percolated into the mega-aquifer that underlies Cape Cod. Female hormone, urinated into septic systems, has been found in tap water. Air-borne pollutants descend on Cape Cod from smokestacks as far away as Illinois. The goddess relishes the vengeance she takes. At least 3,000 men, women and children are estimated to have drowned here during the centuries. And when women are sometimes murdered here – more than a half-dozen open cases -- even then the goddess looks away. 

Cold Stun's beach

Perhaps the dichotomy of Cape Cod explains why writers are drawn to the creative vortex that defines this place -- writers as diverse as Eugene O’Neill and Jack Kerouac, e. e. cummings and Norman Mailer.

Lydia Davis published a diary of her month’s vacation in Provincetown -- down to detailing the footsteps of the tenant in the apartment above – along the way winning a MacArthur Fellowship, aka the “Genius Award.”

And from Thoreau came an entire book cataloging his Cape Cod walkabouts.

I myself must keep writing if for no other reason than to deliver on what my B&B guests have signed up for -- a stay in a writer’s residence. 

I'm thinking about borrowing an idea from my neighbor. He's an artist, and during the summer months he turns himself into a tourist attraction by hanging out a shingle that offers visitors the opportunity to watch him paint -- for an hourly fee.

But I figure that watching an artist paint is dull enough; watching a writer write would be like watching the paint dry.

In my next blog ... When CEOs screw up: "I am Spiderman."

Sunday, June 16, 2013

How single-malt Scotch can help your career

My post two weeks ago touched on the idea that being odd can pay off. At least two of this Spring’s crop of university speakers touched on this idea as well.

Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke at Duke's Fuqua School of Business last month and counseled the MBA students:

“You should write the rules. “If you follow in a formulaic manner, you will wind up at best being the same as everybody else."

Jon Lovett, a former speechwriter for Barack Obama, told Pitzer College graduating students:

“There are moments when you'll have a different point of view because you're a fresh set of eyes; because you don't care how it's been done before; because you're sharp and creative; because there is another way, a better way. But there will also be moments when you have a different point of view because you're wrong, because you're 23 and you should shut up and listen to somebody who's been around the block.”

But unwritten rules are, I believe, more powerful than the written. Violate them and you’re dead man walking.

For example, when I was 23 and a newbie at IBM, my manager counseled me that I’d never get ahead because “your hair’s too long and you walk too slow.” I started going to a hair stylist, bought a clutch of crisp white shirts, and picked up the pace. A management spot magically opened where performance alone hadn’t done it.

My turn to divulge the unwritten to a newbie came when I was manager of speechwriters. My rule for hiring was to recruit from the Washington, D.C., pool because speechwriters accustomed to the 24/7 cauldron of the national political arena proved to be quite comfortable operating in the tense climate of the Chairman’s office.

One of my recruits had been speechwriter for a senator. Another for a Cabinet secretary. Both were buttoned-up, seasoned pros.

But my next new hire – a former reporter for a national news magazine and then press secretary to a mid-Western senator -- showed up on his first day at IBM in a sports jacket.

IBM had no written rules about dress. So I took the new man aside, asked him to look around, and suggested: “You might feel more comfortable in a suit, like everyone else is wearing.”

He went home at lunchtime, changed, and went on to a fine career.

People had fun at IBM’s expense because we all wore vested suits, white shirts, and sincere ties. But at Apple’s recent Worldwide Developers Conference, there seemed to be an unwritten dress code at work among the executive presenters, as these pictures show:

Apple CEO Tim Cook

SVP Craig Federighi

SVP Phil Schiller

SVP Eddy Cue

It ain’t easy, maneuvering a career between the Scylla and Charybdis of written and un-written rules. I myself defer to the late Christopher Hitchens, that rough-and-ready correspondent who lived as he liked: “Be careful about up-grading too far to single-malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won't be easily available.”

In my next blog: Meet the savage goddess of Cape Cod

(To comment, click on 'comments' below)                                                    JAC8QGA95YED

Saturday, June 8, 2013

For a speechwriter, sodomy sometimes comes with the territory

Ask a little kid what they want to be when they grow up. They’ll never say “speechwriter.”

Is it any wonder?

Consider this from the May 18, 2009, New Yorker regarding a Malaysian politician:

Anwar was removed from the cabinet. He was charged with corruption -- and with sodomizing his speechwriter-- and convicted.

This could be one reason young people seldom ache to become speechwriters.

Speechwriters seem to materialize like mushrooms on a rainy morning. So where do they come from?

Usually, a diffident journalist or public relations staffer with passable brain bandwidth is “called upon” to write a speech for a client. Ta-da! A speechwriter is born.

Speechwriters are instrumental in articulating an organization's platforms. They put ideas on paper for a client to react to, adapt and adopt as his or her own.

But many clients take their speechwriter’s first draft and run with it without adding much thought of their own.

I was so struck by an experience with a newbie CEO that I fictionalized it in one of my novels (not yet published):

Lauterbach needed a motivational message for his first speech to his company’s employees as their new chief executive. After their exhausting effort to develop and launch the cluster product, the rank and file – more than 600 of them -- had to be re-energized for the implementation phase.

“The story you wrote about me in the newspaper made me look like a leader,” he said to Jenny. “If you can get that perception across in my first talk to the folks, that will give me a great head-start.”

Jenny asked him what he wanted to cover in the speech.

“Why don’t you write something for me to look at?”

With that, he ended the brief meeting. He had given her no direction, no idea of his strategy for Network Dynamics, no call to action.

“What made them hire this guy to run their company?” Jenny asked herself.

A week later, she was in his office for their scheduled 7:00 AM meeting. While he read her draft, Jenny sipped coffee from a china cup. She was too nervous to mix in sugar and cream, as she usually drank it, and the black coffee scalded her tongue. Like the last time she was in his office, not a single file folder, notepad or sheet of paper was on the desk except for her draft. She watched him turn each page of the speech as he read. He got to the last page, scanned it and said, “This is good. I can go with this.”

What do you mean, “go with this?” she thought. I made everything up! Don’t you even want to discuss it? Add some ideas of your own? Change some words, at least?

She put her thoughts aside and said, “I’m happy you’re comfortable with it.”

As she exited the building, Jenny was embarrassed to remember that she had left her half-empty coffee cup on his desk, complete with lipstick smear.

Incidents like this help explain why speechwriting pays so well. The pay could be even better if buggering a reluctant speechwriter qualified as billable time.

In my next blog: Can single-malt Scotch help your career?

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Being odd can pay off

When I was a speechwriter at IBM, my wife and I used to take our two daughters to Cape Cod for a month every August …

the reek of fried seafood so heavy you could smell it from the car as you drove by the clam shacks …

sand everywhere …

and the sweet joy of observing your little girl’s face prune up at her first mouthful of ocean brine.

During one of those vacations, I was dozing on Coast Guard Beach (perennially picked as one of the world’s Top 10) when a voice woke me: “I had to see for myself that there is such a thing as a joke writer for IBM.”

I opened my eyes to see my four-year-old Wendy standing over me with a nice-looking young guy in tow.

“She told me her father is a joke writer for IBM,” he said. “I just had to meet you.”

Now, those were the days when IBM was famous for its employee “uniform” of vested, pinstripe suits, white shirts and fourteen-pound, wing-tipped shoes.

The guy my daughter befriended on the beach that balmy day couldn’t fathom that a mega-conservative outfit like IBM paid people to write laugh lines to perk up executives’ speeches.

Oddly, I myself had never thought of my work as odd.

But as Philip Larkin once noted, “You have to distinguish between things that seemed odd when they were new but are now quite familiar, such as Ibsen and Wagner, and things that seemed crazy when they were new and seem crazy now, like Finnegans Wake and Picasso.”

Sure enough, when I think about it, just about everything I’ve done with my life fits most people’s definition of odd:

  • Going to work for newspapers just when broadcast journalism was ascendant

  • Getting married without a penny in the bank

  • Staying married for 47 years

  • Starting my own business without a penny in the bank

  • Attempting novels without ever attending a writers’ workshop

So this blog is offered as inspiration and demonstration that if I was able to retire to a live-aboard sailboat and fancy residences on Vieques Island and Cape Cod, then you, too, can make being odd pay off.

All of it in the context of living, writing and working in “Paradise.”

I’ll keep my postings short, because Ana Miller, a reading specialist at the University of Texas, says the average adult reads at 250 words per minute. So, two-minutes or less for my stuff.

And here we go …

In my next blog: for a speechwriter, sodomy sometimes goes with the territory.