Locking Our Doors Makes Us Less Safe

I was born just four days after the launch of Sputnik, a seminal moment in the US/Russian Cold War.

That was not long after the end of the Korean War and only a dozen years after World War II; my dad served in both as an Air Force bombardier.

My mom and dad grew up during the Great Depression—emphasis always on "Great" when being reminded to clean my plate at dinner or care for others less fortunate.

It's not hard to understand, then, why my parents wanted to create a "safe space" for me to grow up. We lived in a small, white Milwaukee suburb, I went to a Catholic grade school and a Jesuit high school, and everyone we knew was pretty much the same.

And while no one ever spoke a prejudiced word in my household, it was understood that life within our safe space was normal, while what was happening in the rest of the world (what we saw on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite) was not. 

"Lock the front door before going to bed. Sweet dreams."

The folly, of course, is that isolation is never a safe space in a world of diverse people and increasingly divisive views.

And yet—from well-meaning college students who wish to shield themselves from hurtful speech to self-serving politicians who seek to barricade our borders—we continue to erect walls that have only succeeded in inflaming the conflicts we wish to resolve. 

Safe zones are neither safe nor smart and we cannot resolve problems by seeking to repress free speech or suppress innocent refugees.

Locking our front doors only makes us more vulnerable to the hateful polarization that continues to divide our world—and makes everyone’s space less safe. 

Fight for $15: Match Your Mantra To Your Mission

Photo by OFL Communications Group via Flickr.com, (cc) some rights reserved. 

Photo by OFL Communications Group via Flickr.com, (cc) some rights reserved. 

When I first heard of Fight for $15 in November 2012, I thought it was crazy—crazy brave, crazy bold and crazy bombastic. 

Today, less than three years later, I can add one more compound descriptor to that list: crazy brilliant. Because companies across the country are adopting the $15/hour wage, even if most states and the federal government won't budge. 

It may not even matter, though, if enough big companies take the lead. Because once one large employer in an area offers $15/hour, others will need to match it to compete. (A scary thought for a lot of small businesses, unfortunately.)

Hats off to the Fight for $15 organizers for understanding that a successful campaign demands:

— A clearly defined goal (contrast "Fight for $15" with "We Are the 99 Percent," "I am _______" or "Black Lives Matter"). 

— A strategic and persuasive argument (smartly reframing "minimum wage" as "livable wage").

Fight for $15 even seems to have won public sentiment, as Pew reports that 73 percent of Americans support a substantial hike to the current minimum wage.

If other socially conscious groups are paying attention, they'll follow Fight for $15's lead: Stop focusing on "activism" and organize "actionism.*" 

*Yes, I know that's the name of a 1960's art movement. But they never embraced the word, so I am appropriating it.

But Can You Buy a Gub?

A good friend from college recently posted this photo he took in Las Vegas on Facebook. 

I commented, "But can you buy a gub?" To which he replied, "We forgot to tell Virgil!!" 

That probably sounds like gibberish to you. But my friend knew that I was referring to Woody Allen's "Take the Money and Run." And his near-instant rejoinder was a reference to the same 1969 film and $1-movie-night favorite when we were back in school. 

Dumb, right? Except a day or two later I had a similar email exchange with a friend who followed up: "I love to pieces that you sent in such shorthand and I knew exactly what you meant."

Great marketers know the "shorthand" of their customers and audiences. They don't just speak in their language or vernacular—they tap into their code. They recognize the joy that people have when they unlock a riddle that only you and they know. 

If that sounds like gibberish to you, that's OK. Just put $50,000 in this bag and apt natural. 

The Problem With BHAGs

If there were a Hall of Fame of business catch phrases, BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) would deserve an emerald-encrusted display case all its own. 

Since popularized by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in this article nearly 20 years ago, the phrase (pronounced Bee-Hag) has been uttered at nearly every "big picture" brainstorming session I've ever attended, often with a chuckle or smile, as if the presenters coined it themselves.

The problem with BHAGs, like so many catch phrases, is that people forget the meaning behind the mnemonic device. Because "audacious goals" can be dangerous things without corresponding, and equally essential, "core values." 

Without adherence to core values, anything goes. 

Volkswagen's BHAG to become the world's No. 1 automaker by 2018 is a likely example. Cheating on emission tests to meet audacious sales goals comes easy when not put in check by values like respect for customers—let alone every living thing on the planet.

Years ago, a clever client of mine foresaw such workplace dilemmas and devised a simple evaluation system to keep his employees on track: a star with the BHAG at the center and the company's five values, one at each point. 

Once a quarter, the CEO would rank the company on how it was performing against both its BHAG and core values, assigning each a simple ranking of 1 through 5. So if, for example, the company was exceeding its sales goals, but customer satisfaction fell short, then the business couldn't be considered a "star." 

Perhaps if VW had instituted similar checks and balances, it could have prevented the ethical blindness that transformed its BHAG into a BHAM—a big hairy audacious mess. 

Meet The New Boss. Same As The Old Boss?

Dear Oscar (love your name),

Thank you for your email! And welcome aboard as the new president and CEO of United Airlines. (Sorry to hear about that whole Jeff Smisek corruption scandal thing. Bummer!) 

For starters, please call me Frank in future correspondence! (No one has called me Francis since I was 11 years old; not even my mom.) And dump the "valued customer" thing, too. Whenever I read that phrase, it's usually when my bank or cable company raises my rates. Double bummer, right??!!

It's GREAT to read that you are committed to my "needs and desires" and to getting me "to my destination, on schedule." Given my experience over the past few years, that would be an enormous improvement in United's service! 

But that's the thing, you see: Millions of us have gotten used to the fact that United doesn't just break guitars. (Remember that?) Time after time, #UnitedBreaksPromises.

So why, why, why waste my time with a letter loaded with so much corporate-speak and pinstriped pablum? It just makes United sound old and dusty, like an ad from a 1970s Fortune magazine. Reign in the rhetoric: We want action, not more promises! 

I bet you didn't even write this letter, did you? Someone in corporate communications or marketing did, right? Well go down there and shake them up for me, please. And next time you jot me a note, give me some straight talk about United, the good and the bad. Maybe make it sound like a real letter, too—from a real person, not a PR algorithm.

Normally I wouldn't write, because I know you're crazy busy. But you did mention "listening to our customers" and wanting to "do better," so I felt compelled. 

If you want to be a trusted brand again, you and your communications team need to huddle and come up with a new plan. That includes giving me some way to send you feedback, rather than sending me a "no reply" email.

That way, I wouldn't have to write blog posts like this one! (Triple bummer!!!) 

Your Customer In the Extra-Legroom Seats (when they're available and I'm not bumped for a more valued customer), 

Frank J. Oswald

MAYBE OSCAR IS LISTENING (October 1, 2015): United Airlines CEO Pledges to Stop Being Awful to Customers and Employees