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What Steve Taught Me

The following is a guest post from some of the people who worked the closest with Steve over the past 4+ years at Booz Allen. His impact on the firm and individual people within the firm will be realized for many years to come. We’ve captured a few of the top lessons learned from Steve that we will carry with us in our work and life forever.

Steve taught me…
·         …that fortune favors the bold and fearless. Specifically, he taught me that creative, thoughtful ideas that have the potential to transform and disrupt should never be held back.  —Michael Dumlao
·         …that you don’t have to wear a suit jacket to play with the big boys!!! —Mike Robert
·         …how to navigate in a large consulting firm after spending my whole life in the education & research world –Don Jones
·         …the power of empowering others to build something new by boldly leading –Don Jones
·         …that great ideas can change powerful institutions, even when their tendency is to remain in stasis –Don Jones
·         …that be willing to speak up and shake the status quo can pay off –Don Jones
·         …that you can take the boy out of Pittsburgh, but you can't take Pittsburgh out of the boy –Don Jones
·         …that people come first. Time spent developing your "second team" is the most strategic investment you can make in your career. — Jacque Myers

  …to lead by example. Don't tell people what they should do–show them, and then empower them to take the lead. –Jacque Myers

  …to take risks, but choose your battles. Sometimes you have to ruffle feathers to get things done, but make sure it's truly necessary. Don't be a rebel for the sake of rebelling. Work within the system, and if it's something worthwhile that can't be accomplished the traditional way, blaze trails. –Jacque Myers

  …to network, network, network. I can't even count the number of times Steve would say to me, "You know (so and so) right?" He has a way of identifying people that matter and then building – and sustaining – relationships with them. Fortunately, he freely shared that network with me. One of my biggest challenges (and opportunities) moving forward will be to expand my own network in his absence. –Jacque Myers

  …If you believe in something, don't stop until you make it happen. Steve had a vision for transparency and collaboration in government long before the Open Government Directive and the #gov20 hash tag, and he would talk about it to anyone who would listen. He found people who shared his vision, and he worked with us to challenge our clients and transform the way they do business. His vision has been realized, and now it's time to move on to new opportunities and new challenges. Steve – Best of luck to you as you begin this new chapter! –Jacque Myers

·         …how to say yes enough to earn the right to say no.  –Tracy Johnson
·         …that getting your hands dirty almost always pays off. –Tracy Johnson
·         …that being a great leader has nothing to do with a title.  –Tracy Johnson
·         …how important it is to be a champion and mentor for other colleagues. I can’t thank you enough for being my champion over the past 3 years. Your support and encouragement has changed my career and life for the better. –Tracy Johnson
What has Steve taught you? How did it change your career or life? Please share your thoughts and well-wishes for Steve’s new adventures in the comments section!
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Time for a Change

Eight years ago, I left my job(s) delivering pizza and operating a crane in a steel mill in West Virginia to become government consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton. Consulting. For the government. I can honestly say this was something that never even entered into my mind while I was majoring in Public Relations at Bethany College, and here I was picking up and moving further away than anyone else in my family to do it. My plan was to move down to Northern Virginia for a few years, get some experience and then move back to Pittsburgh where I’d get a job in public relations.  This Wednesday, more than 3,000 days later, will be my last day at Booz Allen. This week I'll be moving to Chicago and then on March 19th, I'll be joining Cramer-Krasselt's PR team as a Vice President, Management Supervisor. 

My first day with Booz Allen was October 6, 2003. To give you some idea of how long ago that really was, consider this:

  • Facebook didn’t exist (it wouldn’t launch on Harvard’s campus for another five months)
  • The #1 song in the country was Beyonce’s Baby Boy
  • The #1 movie at the box office was School of Rock
  • The Red Sox defeated the Athletics in the playoffs and would go on to play the Yankees in the American League Championship Series (the Aaron Boone game was 10 days away). In the National League, the Cubs and Marlins were about to play in the National League Championship (the Steve Bartman incident would happen on Oct. 14th)
  • The most popular TV shows at the time were NCIS, Two and a Half Men, Fear Factor, Chappelle’s Show, and Survivor.

Things never really work out according to plan, do they? What happened? For one, I never expected to still feel challenged after so long with one company; I never expected to have even half the opportunities that I’ve had here; I never expected to enjoy working hand in hand with our clients as much as I did; and most of all, I never expected to love working with the people here so much. Over the last four years especially, I felt as if I was at the tip of the spear when it came to things like social media policy (this blog and my Twitter account were the first transparent, employee-owned, external social media properties), Enterprise 2.0 (I created our now 6,000 member+ Yammer community more than three years ago), and Gov 2.0 (I was on the Programming Committee for the first Gov 2.0 Summit). It was exciting to be among the leaders in the burgeoning social media community in the DC area, and I had a lot of fun in these roles.  That’s one reason why I enjoyed working here so much – my proclivity for challenging and changing the status quo was encouraged and often rewarded.

Eight years at one place is an eternity anymore though, and over the last year or so, I found myself itching for a change and a new challenge. For a long time, I really enjoyed the role I was playing here, disrupting things that are being done “because that’s the way they’ve always been done,” and helping create new roles, processes and policies for my colleagues. However, as I've alluded to here before, being a change agent at the tip of the spear can be exhausting. I was spending just as much time, brainpower, and energy trying to make changes internally and take the organization new places as I was on the client delivery and marketing tasks that I was being paid to do.

You know how you feel when you feel when you’ve been dating someone for a really long time, but don’t want to get engaged because you're not ready to commit for the long-term? How you end up breaking up because you’re not ready to settle down yet?  That’s how I felt. I came to Booz Allen right out of college and have been there ever since. It was time for a change. It was time for me to move on to something new, something different, something that would help broaden my experience beyond the federal government and something that would strengthen my communications skills. It was time for me to experience something entirely different.

It's not without mixed feelings that I say goodbye though. At every step of the way over these eight years, no matter what crazy idea I had, there were always people supporting me and making me better. Sometimes that was my leadership giving me the top cover to take a risk (I wouldn't be where I am today without my mentors, Grant McLaughlin, Terry Mandable, and Jim Hickel). Other times, it was one of our Vice Presidents challenging my ideas and forcing me to back up my ideas with data instead of assumptions. It was people like Jacque Myers pulling me aside after a meeting to tell me very candidly that I was going too far and needed to pull it back a little. It was seeing people like Michael Dumlao, Tracy Johnson, Anna Gabbert, Don Jones, and Mike Robert help me not because they had to, but because they shared my vision and passion for social media and the potential it had to impact our business. Seeing them progress in their careers, get promoted, win awards and develop their own teams is one of the things I’m probably most proud of. I'm excited to see where they take social media after I'm gone. I can't wait to see how they develop their own teams and the next generation of leaders following in their footsteps – people like Margaret Lahey, Matt Allen, Colleen Gray, Amanda Sena, Emily Springer, Liz Helms, and so many others behind them.

I'm looking forward to my new job, employer, colleagues, clients, city, and of course, all of the new friends that I'll be meeting in Chicago. At the same time, I'm really going to miss DC and all of my friends and colleagues out here. Ultimately though, I'm think I'm most excited for the start of something new.  While I'm at C-K, I'll continue to blog here about social media, PR, advertising, and branding as well as my experiences in the PR industry – I hope you'll continue to read and engage with me here. 

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Are You a Corporate Rebel?

One of my new favorite sites is www.rebelsatwork.com/. Started by Lois Kelly and retired deputy director of intelligence for the CIA, Carmen Medina, the site is meant to give corporate rebels a platform to share their stories and ideas and help more corporations and big organizations succeed because of (not in spite of) their rebels. 

What's a corporate rebel you ask? According to the Rebels at Work site – 

You hear about innovators in start-ups all the time. Rebelliousness and restlessness are accepted qualities of entrepreneurs. But what about people on the inside of big organizations? How do they blaze new trails and find ways to change business as usual. What are their characteristics? What makes them tick? How do you find them? Could they be an untapped resource for creating more innovative, engaged corporate cultures?

Good rebels also tend to be outstanding employeesThis idea of a "corporate rebel" has always resonated with me because I've always been known as the squeaky wheel, the guy who was never satisfied with doing something because that's the way we've always done it or because the boss said so and the guy who was never satisfied with doing what everyone else was. I've annoyed many a manager by acting almost like a three year-old at work, constantly asking why? Why not? And why can't we do that?  So when I saw Carmen and Lois' site, I recognized that I wasn't alone, that I wasn't crazy for trying to challenging and trying to change long-held assumptions and policies in corporate America. So when they reached out to me on Twitter to share my story being a corporate rebel, I jumped at the chance. One of the questions I answered for my rebel story was, "what advice do you wish someone had given you earlier in your career?" I said: 

"The biggest piece of advice I wish someone had shared with me is to be yourself and be yourself all the time. Don’t listen to the people who tell you that you have to talk a certain way or dress a certain way to advance your career. Don’t try to be someone you’re not just because you don’t see anyone like you in the levels above you. Understand the unique skills, experience, and characteristics that YOU bring to the table that other people don’t have. Don’t assume that just because you’re a junior level employee that you’re at the bottom of the ladder and you have to go up. Look at it like you’re filling a different role, an important role in the organization. You bring strengths to the table that senior leaders don’t – you’re not jaded or cynical, you’re still full of ambition, you’re more likely to take risks, you’re better connected to the rest of the staff, etc. Understand and properly value your strengths."

You can read my full rebel story here, but I would encourage anyone who works in a big government agency or a big company and finds themselves frustrated by the bureaucracy and the inertia of the status quo to bookmark the site and visit it often for inspiration and encouragement. Making change happen in a big organization when you don't have a "Vice President" or "Director" after your name is incredibly difficult. It requires rebels who know how to be disruptive without being insulting, who can offer solutions in addition to identifying problems, who can energize others others to follow, not hold other people back, and who are almost optimistic to a fault. 

If you're the type of person who asks why? why not? how come? what if? or can we?; if you're the type of person who just can't accept "because that's the policy" as a reason for doing something; if you've ever found yourself emailing suggested changes to a corporate policy to your boss solely because you wanted to, you may be a corporate rebel. And guess what? Not only is that ok, you're probably one of your organization's best employees. In fact, most corporate rebels also share many of these nine traits of outstanding employees, so if you feel like your rebelliousness is being punished instead of rewarded, I wouldn't worry – I suspect the job market for an outstanding employee is pretty good :).  

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Do You Have a Social Media Superman Complex?

Are you trying to hard to be a social media Superman?

I've become the designated "social media guy" for a massive organization (25,000+ people). For a while, the responsibilities of this role consisted primarily of explaining what the Twitters were and why people cared about what you ate for lunch. As social media has grown in popularity, so too has the internal and external demand for people who know what they're talking about (the demand is so great that even people who have no clue what they're talking about are in demand). My time has since become monopolized by my colleagues asking me to join meetings, review work products, pitch clients, and "pick my brain." Once the words "social media" were uttered, the call went out – let's get Steve in here right away!! 

I liked it. I was in high demand, and I became well-known throughout my huge company as THE social media guy. It was fun and led to awards, promotions, and raises. I became the social media Superman, flying in to win new work, solve problems, and offer innovative solutions! I built a team and developed a mentality that if there was social media involved, I'd swoop in and save the day, wherever and whenever I was needed. The fact that I didn't have the resources, the budget, or the authority to scale this across an entire organization was a concern, but I figured that would come soon enough – how could it not???

That's when I realized I had a problem. I had a Superman complex. Wikipedia defines a Superman Complex as an unhealthy sense of responsibility, or the belief that everyone else lacks the capacity to successfully perform one or more tasks. Such a person may feel a constant need to "save" others.

I felt this enormous sense of responsibility that if there was a project using social media, I needed to know about it and my team needed to be involved. If I heard about a project where we were doing any sort of public outreach, I felt like I needed to butt in and help them integrate social media. If there were people working on a knowledge management strategy for a client, I had to get on the call and talk with them about social media behind the firewall. I felt like I needed to be there to ensure that we had the absolute best people working on these projects, that they were armed with the best intellectual capital we had and that they were consistent with the overall approach to social media that I had established. When a project's social media efforts fell flat, I felt personally responsible. What did I do wrong? Why didn't they get me involved sooner? Why wasn't one of my people working with them already? Why didn't they just ask for my help?? Now, remember, I work at a firm that generates upwards of $5 billion in annual revenue. That's a LOT of projects to keep an eye on.

My team and I quickly found ourselves drowning in reactionary meetings just trying to keep our heads above water. We were becoming a social media help desk. My Superman complex, helpful at first, had become a detriment. I soon realized that my small team, based in our Strategic Communications capability, was never going to get the budget, resources, and authority needed to manage EVERY social media initiative for the entire 25,000+ employee, $5B company. My Superman complex had led me to believe that I could fix everything, regardless of the challenges that had to be overcome. Our recruiters aren't using social media as effectively as they could be? No problem – I'll hop over there and give them a briefing! Intelligence analysts struggling with how to analyze social media in the Middle East? I'll be right there! Instructional system designers stuck in a rut? Give me a few hours and I'll get them up to speed on social learning! I saw opportunities EVERYWHERE to fix things. I needed to be a part of that proposal team. I had to attend that meeting. I had to review that strategy. I had to give that presentation.

Fact is, I didn't have to do any of that. What I had to do was stop. Stop and realize that by trying to fix everything, I wasn't fixing anything, and in some cases, I was actually making things worse:

  • People were lacking incentives to develop their own social media skills because they could just rely on someone from my team to swoop in and help
  • We were too focused on just equipping people with the social media fundamentals that we weren't able to focus on diving deeper into some of the niche areas of social media
  • We were becoming "social media experts" instead of communications professionals who understand social media, pulling all of us away from our core business area and into all kinds of discussions that may have involved social media, but had nothing to do with communications

If you find yourself developing a social media Superman complex (or need to manage an existing one), try the following:

  • Know your role. Do others in your organization expect you to have a hand in EVERYTHING related to social media or is that a responsibility you've taken on yourself? Understand what's expected of you and meet those expectations first before trying to solve all the world's problems.
  • Let others learn. Sometimes people in your organization are going to fall. It's ok – they'll learn and do better next time. Focus on the people and the projects you're responsible for first, do what you can help people in other departments, but don't let them steal your time and focus away from your core mission.
  • Develop your team and set them free. You can't be everywhere all the time. Spend some time developing people on whom you can trust, equip and empower them to succeed and then step away and trust that you've developed them right.
  • Accept that there is no one way to "do" social media. Social media are just tools, and different organizations will use them for different purposes. What works in the Department of Defense may not work in the private sector and vice versa.
  • Respect other people's expertise. Sure, you may know social media better than anyone else in the room, but also realize that you're going to be working with people who are experts in their chosen fields too. Successful social media initiatives require both old and new school expertise.
  • Assess the situation. Don't assume that because someone isn't using social media that they need your help – they may not have the budget, internal expertise, client support, or a whole host of other reasons for not using social media like you think they should.

Social media Supermans bring a ton of benefits to your organizations but they also run the risk of burning out, alienating their colleagues, and creating a culture of dependency. Understand and embrace the balance between Superman and Clark Kent.

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