Obama on Leadership and Winning the Presidency

Yesterday I caught part of a random IG live with Steph Curry and Barack Obama, just in time to hear his take on leadership and how it helped him win the presidency.

Obama said he didn’t win because he was the best candidate. He believes he won because he empowered his team to campaign for him, listen to the voters and understand them. 

He jumped right into this being about straight up leadership and how it’s something not everyone gets. He said if you’re looking at yourself like “how do I dominate this – how do I stay on top,” you’re not going to be an effective leader. If you empower those around you to do their best and feel good about what they’re doing, it naturally lifts you up. 

I’ve often thought that people who are thoughtful about being a leader tend to gravitate toward this conclusion because they’re purposeful about uncovering what drives the best in people.

The IG session also reminded me of James Comey’s book, A Higher Loyalty. Although he says he didn’t vote for Obama, he spends considerable time focusing on Obama’s thoughtful leadership. 

One anecdote stuck out to me almost more than anything else in the book. Obama was taking pictures with a family, and the daughters (college age) had their boyfriends with them. Obama subtly suggested taking a picture without the boyfriends so that the family would have a nice picture with the president in case the relationships didn’t work out. 

Obama is a busy man. To consider such a small detail that would be meaningful to a family not his own – wow. 

Comey also talks a lot about how from a young age, he’d always tried to pay attention to leadership qualities that got the best out of him to emulate when he had the opportunity to be a leader. I have probably written and talked about this before, but I think this is some of the best advice I’ve ever read. 

Leadership Work Culture

Leadership Starts Before You’re a Leader

It’s somewhat painful listening to a CEO on a quarterly earnings call thanking everyone “so much” for all of the “hard work.” It sounds hollow, and it often is. But I’ve been at two companies where it didn’t feel hollow because the CEO took time to make an appearance and learn some names. 

When I was at Midmark, CEO John Baumann took a few minutes a day to walk the floor and learn everyone’s name and their job function when he started at the company. He’s a CEO. He’s BUSY, and it’s a big company. But he made time to take 10 minutes to walk around the building every now and then. When he spoke, I didn’t just listen. I was engaged. I was more engaged with the company as a direct result of one person at the top acknowledging our existence. (I loved this company for many other reasons, but that was a big one!)

At PR Newswire Europe, the global CEO at the time, Ninan Chako, would sometimes visit the London HQ. He knew my name! He even referenced a conversation with me during a quarterly staff meeting. Because that was my first job, I didn’t yet realize it wasn’t a given that executives take the time to get to know the people in the trenches. Still, I felt “famous.” I was highly motivated to do a good job, because I thought I was on Ninan’s radar! I wasn’t, but he made me feel seen. 

In A Higher Loyalty, Comey talks about taking note of great leadership qualities from the time when he was a teen working in a grocery store. What made him feel motivated, trusting and committed? What made him angry? 

I’ve always thought the same thing, and as time goes on certain characteristics have stuck with me, such as Ninan Chako taking a couple minutes out of his day to talk to me and digesting what I said to the point that he mentioned it during a global meeting. I want to be intentional about carrying these traits through my own leadership in the future. 

Work Culture

SimTower Taught Me Fundamental Truths About Office Life

This sounds crazy, but a lot of what I learned about work culture and marketing strategy came from playing SimTower as a child.

I will never forget the wrath of my SimTower tenants when I created hastily placed elevators with no schedule. You want to piss people off? Make an elevator that follows no rhyme or reason during rush hour.

Until I recently revisited SimTower on Wikipedia (rabbit hole!) I didn’t realize elevator management was actually a key component of the game:

SimTower, which was built around an elevator simulation program, places a strong emphasis on good elevator management.


I was a kid – I didn’t understand the concept of rush hour, but I quickly learned to understand the complexity of society. Playing the game planted that seed that everything in an office is connected in a careful, deliberate manner.

Every department in a company can easily fall into a silo, and often one of the most surprising schisms is between sales and marketing. Only at one company (one!) have I joined a marketing team that frequently talked to sales.

I had a manager a couple years ago who literally forbade me from talking to sales. He said “they’ll figure it out” and it was a “waste of time” talking to them. Well, as a web manager I need to talk to sales! How else do I know if I’m sending over good leads (among many other things)?

This manager was eventually fired and it turned out, no, we were not sending over quality leads. Only when we were able to work closely with sales were we able to give them what they needed.

In the ten years of my career I’ve reminded myself to keep in good contact with Sims from every department, and I think this has served me well.

Shifting gears here, I read a piece in the Times this week about the future state of elevators in busy office buildings in the era of COVID-19 and beyond. The challenge is getting all of those people up in a non-petri dish way.

SimTower never had a simulation for a pandemic, however, they threw enough disasters our way to prepare us for anything. As Carrie Bradshaw would say, “I couldn’t help but wonder” when I read this article what a SimTower of 2020 would look like.

Would there be a SimZoom expansion pack, complete with Sims who can “see you but can’t hear you” or Sims who join the meeting a week late?

One can only hope.

Discrimination Work Culture

A Gross Gesture of Me Too Failure

In my past there was an incident where a man in a very senior position explained how I was soon going to have data flowing down my throat, which he demonstrated with a gesture mimicking himself jerking off into his own throat, mouth wide open. 

I was deeply uncomfortable and grossed out, but honestly I was unsure if he understood how truly heinous that gesture seemed in a closed room with a female mere feet from his nasty face. 

I never had much contact with this man, so I can’t be sure if something like that would have happened again. He is a highly conservative, very religious man who holds President Trump in high regard. Making assumptions, I’m guessing he’s not on the lookout for inappropriate behavior in the workplace. However, this also doesn’t mean he had ill intentions here.

Incidents like this aren’t easy to articulate, and I feel the Me Too movement still hasn’t given us a clear answer on how to handle this stuff. Does he deserve to be fired for doing something like this? Does he deserve to be reprimanded? Should it even be mentioned if there is no other indication of harassment? Is it simply a question of him being completely clueless of his own actions? 

The thing is, I NEVER hear men tell stories like this. I have never heard a man tell a story anything remotely like this. I am guessing that even if this disgusting gesture was completely accidental, he would somehow refrain from performing such a gesture to another man. 

Ultimately, I didn’t do anything about it. From my perspective at the time, there was nothing I could have done about it. Even though it’s my belief that he didn’t intend to harass or offend me, I still felt grossed out every time I looked at him and always wondered if there was more to it. 

In day-to-day life, I don’t believe Me Too has changed much for the average American working at the average company. Most men don’t believe they’re at fault, because they would never assault or rape someone. And it’s true – most men wouldn’t. But I haven’t witnessed any real action to get men to understand how uncomfortable it is when they make jerking-off-down-your-throat comments. You don’t have to be a rapist to be inappropriate and make women uncomfortable. 

This is where Me Too has failed. Anyone and everyone lost their livelihoods in the face of unchecked allegations, and it’s a shame because it’s a serious problem that still needs serious conversations. 

Photo by Mihai Surdu via Unsplash

Discrimination Work Culture

Combat Racism by Having Uncomfortable Conversations With Family and Friends

I had an encounter with a coworker over racism in 2016 that’s stuck with me and resurfaced in my mind since the George Floyd murder and protests.

I’d read a piece in the Harvard Business Review talking about creating a more diverse workforce and how it isn’t as simple as bringing in more minorities and women to interview. The premise was that if you have five white men and one black person to interview for a job, it’s a phenomenon of difference. People are generally more comfortable choosing something from the majority than an outlier so the minority is still unlikely to get hired. If you have multiple minorities or women to interview it’s less likely they’ll suffer from this “outsider” phenomenon. 

I repeated this to my team simply because I thought it was interesting, and with the company HQ being an hour north of a small city, the workforce was very white. The developer who happened to be sitting nearby somewhat aggressively said, “Well what if all the best candidates happen to be white?” 

This guy was typically soft spoken and not what I’d characterize as an aggressive individual by any means. I was taken aback by his reaction.

I calmly explained that I didn’t think there was anything wrong with our current skill set in the company, and in fact I really love the company. It’s the only company I’ve worked for that is very active in employee appreciation and engagement. However, I was used to working in London, which is highly diverse. One of the first things that stood out when I moved from a major city to a small town was how white the workforce and leadership tended to be. 

BUT. When you don’t have people from different genders, cultures, races, etc., how are their perspectives supposed to be heard? As a global company, how can we truly be global if our workforce only represents the rural Midwest?

The developer got angry. He repeated that there was nothing wrong with people in the county where HQ was, and why should they be punished if they happen to be the best for the job? 

I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t encountered this type of underlying racism suddenly and aggressively thrown out into the open. He was extremely offended at the thought of outsiders taking jobs away from the hardworking people he’d grown up with, and couldn’t even begin to see the benefit a different perspective could bring to a business.

Fast forward four years, and here we are having these same conversations. It’s so encouraging that for the first time, much of the population seems to get it now. My main concern is what happens when the fire calms. What happens when people stop sharing lists on what books to read, where to donate, what black businesses to support?

It’s not enough to educate ourselves and donate to causes. We need to learn how to have uncomfortable conversations with people we love, work with, associate with. I don’t think most people are ready to do this. 

Anecdotally, what I’m seeing on social media among friends and family (as opposed to large-scale “detached” social media like Twitter) is a continued lack of willingness to confront the many forms of thinly-veiled racism. Many of my friends are posting about Black Lives Matter, but they aren’t confronting the people who are posting racism masked as conservatism. 

I have one friend in particular who is white, hyper-conservative and posts only about black people who say there is no such thing as white privilege and discrimination. He’s one of those people whose persona is “see, here’s a black person saying this is fake news.” He’s outraged about the riots but completely unconcerned about the murder of black people or George Floyd. 

It’s not OK. It’s fine to have differing political views and not want to make waves with friends/family/coworkers, but allowing this sort of racism to continue to flow around us is not OK.

I’m not saying we need to start fights with these people, but we do need to start conversations and use our collective voices to let them know it’s unacceptable. Staying silent negates every financial contribution and book read.

Photo by Mike Von on Unsplash

Work Culture

In defense of open office plans

While I am always one to question everything and try to find the best, evidence-based solution, I can’t get on board with the idea that open office plans are bad!

I have read many blogs and articles stating that open offices are too noisy and distracting, contribute to higher levels of virus spreading, etc. But I am enthusiastic about open offices because I love seeing the people I work with. Even simply looking across a room full of people, I feel the spark of energy and collaboration!

Of course, most times I’m not going to pop over to someone’s desk if they are obviously deep in thought or typing. I may send them a quick ping to ask if they’re free for a minute before walking over. But the point is that it encourages a lot more face-to-face interaction, which I truly think is invaluable.

Being able to talk with people saves a lot of back-and-forth email traffic that is oftentimes confusing and annoying. How many times have you had to send a follow up email because the person tried to save time by skimming your email and subsequently asked you a question you clearly already answered?

We are in the office for a single reason: face-to-face interaction. Otherwise, companies could save a lot of money and effort by having everyone work from home.

When everyone is hidden behind a cubicle wall or office door, it becomes a much more invasive move to attempt face-to-face interaction. It’s almost easy to forget you have coworkers with whom you can talk to vs firing off another email.

When their door is shut, how are you supposed to know if they’re on an important phone call or if they’ve shut their door because they are embarrassed of listening to Justin Bieber’s Christmas album in October? Or December.

No, I’m not judging because I have definitely shut my door due to Bieber’s holiday tracks. And you shouldn’t judge, either. Have you heard his song with Boyz II Men? Talk about collaboration!

Now that we’ve come full circle on collaboration, I’ll end by saying that I don’t think offices have to be one way or the other. I think we can achieve open office plans while still giving people their privacy.

My last company had official meeting rooms to reserve, but it also had a lot of private “huddle” rooms that anyone could use with no reservation. This could be for private phone calls, work you need absolutely no distractions for, whatever. There were also a lot of large open spaces for teams to work in as to not distract those at their desks trying to work. I felt like that company really got it right on this balance, and I hope to see more of that going forward!

Work Culture

Say Hello to Someone on Their First Day: Why Employee Onboarding Matters

As you progress in your career, it’s funny to look back on your first job and think about your old hopes, dreams and flat out desperation. You show up for your first day and don’t initially notice how depressing it is that not a single person looked up from their desk when a shiny new hire was introduced. You had a job! Money! Someone thought YOU were worth paying and it officially wasn’t a case of mistaken identity that you got hired.

When I graduated in late 2008 the job market was non-existent. All of 2009 passed and I’d been diligent about tracking my applications, which totaled more than 500 by the end of the year. When I got hired for my first job in March of 2010 I was so desperate that I actually told them I’d take less than they offered me. What?! I didn’t even know what I was saying! I think it was some kind of desperate plea, still in shock that I’d been hired. A kind of, “Please don’t change your mind, and if you do, I’ll take less money!!”

When I started, exactly one person spoke to me and tried to make me feel welcome on my first day. I’d been so excited to start working that I naturally assumed people would be equally excited to have me on board, so I was fairly disappointed to find out I was just another dust bunny in the basement. Eight years later and I have never forgotten her or how she made me feel welcome, simply by introducing herself and talking to me like she was happy to have me there. Eventually I made several excellent friends at the company and had a great three years of employment there, but in the beginning, it was fairly quiet and pretty scary for a person brand new to the workforce!

It’s not my intention to dog on my first company – they are the norm when it comes to employee onboarding. Most jobs I’ve had, it’s been up to me to introduce myself, try to remember faces and associate them with names, job titles and teams while also trying to simply remember where my desk is.

My last company, Midmark, was the shining star of employee onboarding. I can’t say enough fabulous things about this company and how much they truly care about their employees. (No, they aren’t paying me to say this and I haven’t been employed there for more than a year!)

On my first day, one of my teammates took me out to a nice lunch and made me feel like Midmark was a place where I’d have colleagues who cared about me as a person. The week I was hired, Midmark actually sent a box to my house filled with welcome materials – a nice water bottle with the company’s logo, a shirt, a gift card to a local restaurant they owned, etc. They also gave me a booklet that contained everyone’s names and titles, and how everyone’s teams were connected, as well as a book they’d created about the company so I completely understood the history of the company from day one. EXCELLENT.

Contrast that to another company I was at who literally dropped me off at my new workspace and it was disgusting. Push pins all over the floor, dead bugs belly up, no one talked to me for days. The culture didn’t improve from there, so it was a fairly solid indication of the company’s focus on culture.

Beginnings are so important. As I’ve been reading through Daniel Pink’s latest book, “When”, I’ve realized even more how much beginnings set the tone for everything – from first days on the job, project kickoffs, first dates, etc. As the years pass, your memory fades. I’ve been working only 8 years and already a lot of days from past jobs are fading. But I remember those first days and how they directly affected my outlook of the company and my motivation to achieve my greatest work for the mission of the company.

There has always been a clear distinction in my motivation for work, depending on my view of the company. For a company like Midmark, I thought and still believe they are one of the few corporations that actually lives up to its motto: Because We Care. When I worked, I cared about doing a good job for the company as well as myself. With other companies that put zero effort into employee culture and onboarding, my motivation was more often about doing a great job so that I could make myself a more skilled, valuable person in the workforce for the future. (I am also passionate about making the web a more accessible place, so much of my motivation rests in that more than anything else!)

Of course, there is much more to being a good company than proactively creating a happy employee onboarding experience. But it sets the tone and it goes a long way toward starting your employees off running with your mission. If you’re not a company and just a regular person, say hello to a new person. Take them to lunch. It means more than you know. If you’re the company, show your employees you care because I guarantee they’ll care about you, too.

Photo by Pablo Gentile on Unsplash