Author Archives: Laurie Olberding

Zoomed Out!

Category : 2020

When Ozzie and Harriet were giving us our first taste of reality TV, everybody loved Lucy, and Alfred Hitchcock scared the daylights out of us every week, Zoom was what you ate, not what you did. In the era of classic television and sugar-saturated cereals like Sugar Smacks, Sugar Pops, and Frosty O’s, Zoom was a healthy alternative full of whole grain wheat and disgusting stuff your mother said was good for you.

Fast forward 65 years and a company that launched in 2011 as Saasbee is making Zoom a vital link between millions of people wanting to be productive and connected in a world of life by video. In the ever-changing dynamic of a COVID-19 marketplace, Zoom is also providing the medium for a new phenomenon that didn’t exist six weeks ago … Zoom fatigue.

When people look for ways to avoid a video conference, pass on potential business conversations because the meeting is by video, or tell friends gathered for an online chat that the conversation is their 10th hour on Zoom that day, the situation is worth consideration. While still only vaguely defined, Zoom fatigue is gaining legitimacy through articles in Psychology Today, National Geographic, and Harvard Business Review.

Video overload is driven by a long list of factors including –

Intensified Focus – Engaging with people in a video platform requires more focus than routine meetings in a conference room. If you look at your phone or read a document in an office meeting, no one notices. Look away in a video call-even to take notes, and all the faces in the Hollywood Squares grid see you and wonder what you’re doing. One writer states the brain stress of looking at a dozen faces at once is like trying to watch 12 television programs at the same time.

Loss of Connection – May people are feeling relationally estranged after weeks of separation. A quick survey on LinkedIn found the loss of energy from being in a room together and the absence of handshakes and hugs is a noteworthy loss. While video telephony provides a vehicle for communication, those mini-second delays create a truncated process, at best. As one LinkedIn responder noted, free-flowing in-person conversations aren’t normally punctuated with, “Sorry, go ahead.”

Lack of Leader Visibility – In a world of Zoom, Teams, and WebEx there are no unplanned leader interactions. A large part of an executive’s day is filled with valuable conversations that begin with, “Do you have a second?” and happen in a hallway or by the coffee machine. Now, every interaction is planned, scheduled, and intentional. While a virtual world enables business, it also eliminates those moments when a senior leader can stop by the cafeteria and informally interact with any group of employees grabbing a meal at the same time.

Absence of Boundaries – Many who joke about living at the office now do. Spouses, kids, and pets are now co-workers. Colleagues and bosses that don’t have a history of respecting personal boundaries may respect them less now. Requests to “jump on a call after supper” that might have been negotiated in the past are harder to resist when 14% of the population is looking for a job. People with kids at home want to show the team that even with managing schoolwork, they are in the game 100 percent. They may find it hard to draw a line and say, “I’m sorry, that time is already committed.”

If you ask Google how to overcome this new effect, you get about 900,000 responses. Here are several you can try-

Make breaks as intentional as your meetings. A day of video calls is not the same as a day of meetings. Life by video equates to more hours in a chair than normal and the chair is probably not the ergonomic wonder you have at the office. Moving between offices and conference rooms is gone. You biggest walk now is to the bathroom or the kitchen. Give you brain and your body a break. Every call doesn’t have to begin at the top or bottom of the hour. Schedule calls so you can pause your brain and stretch your muscles. Fully dress so you can get up and move during a call without being embarrassed. And if your pet walks into your office, letting him jump into your lap may be the moment of levity everyone needs.

Shut off the camera. Just because you can use video doesn’t mean you should. Most people aren’t used to looking at themselves during meetings. They are hyper-critical of their appearance (especially those needing a haircut or color) and they feel like they are on stage as much as on a call. If you don’t need to share a document or see the person, as the day wears on, cut the camera or use the phone.

Manage your mental diet. Unprecedented is a frequent description of the current environment and social media enables every well-informed expert and half-loaded nut case to offer equally convincing explanations about what’s going on. If you get a moment free at your desk, it’s tempting to scan a news outlet or social media platform only to rediscover that bad press spreads faster than good news-unless you are John Krasinski’s SGN program. If you are eating a lot of junk your body is feeling it. If you are loading your brain with negativity both your brain and your body are going to hurt. Intentionally engage with people or sources that are anchored in reality-while staying fueled by optimism.

The COVID-19 business environment isn’t temporary and wise leaders will find ways to manage themselves and their teams to get things done without zoning out. Leverage the technology without losing your mind.

When Hope Becomes a Strategy

Category : 2020

An over-used axiom and the title of a popular book says, “Hope is not a strategy.” Under normal circumstances, that may be true. In a time of global crisis, hope may be all you have.

How well do you remember what we were talking about in January? A scan of USA Today tells us the Dow was up, the Dow was down, Puerto Rico had an earthquake, and Ricky Gervais did whatever Ricky does at the Golden Globes. That was all in the first week of the year.

When the majority of people in the country are forced to refocus attention on the first two rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy (physiological and safety needs), what caught our attention at the start of the year is quickly eclipsed by matters of, literally, life and death. We’re tired of frightening headlines, quarantines, self-isolation, social distancing, avoiding people who obviously cannot estimate what six feet looks like, and dodging people in stores who believe a mask, gloves, and a grocery cart make them invincible. Millions of people who thought zoom meant to move fast have discovered a virtual lifeline on the meeting platform. Dining rooms all over the country have become make-shift offices or classrooms. On the up-side, families have had more conversations over cooked-at-home meals in the last three weeks than they normally have in months.

While we are happy to see toilet paper and a bag of flour reappearing on grocery shelves, we’re ready for a disease we knew little about four months ago to stop sucking life, energy, and hope out of the economy and our lives. After weeks of small wins and major losses, difficult circumstances, and repeated disappointments, it is tempting to pack hope in a box in the attic of your mind and think that the worst that could happen might be the best that will happen. Doom and Gloom become your jogging buddies as you sadly realize that the pound of chocolate you stress-ate mysteriously turned into five pounds of something when you stepped on the scale.

In 1936, Václav Havel was born into one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Prague. His grandfather was a leader in the arts, and his uncle’s work laid the foundation for the Czech film industry. Following the 1948 communist coup, Havel’s family lost most of its wealth. A gifted author and playwright, Havel was a banned writer after his condemnation of the Warsaw Pact invasion. In 1977, he was charged with trying to subvert the state, and in 1979, sentenced to four years in jail. Ten years later, he was again incarcerated, this time for standing in the street. During long nights in prison, Havel could not have imagined that he would one day emerge as the central figure of the Velvet Revolution and become the first president of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.

Repeatedly slammed by discouragement, defeat, and the brusque unfairness of life, Havel continued to pursue his dream of a better future for himself and his nation. He learned to see beyond his current circumstances, refusing to allow the realities of the present to dim his convictions about the future. While speaking at the Hiroshima Memorial in 1995, Havel shared a message that articulated the beliefs that kept him pressing forward after hitting wall after wall of opposition.

“Many times in my life and not just when I was in prison, I found myself in a situation in which everything seemed to conspire against me, when nothing I wished for or worked for seemed likely to succeed … Whenever I found myself immersed in such melancholy thoughts I would ask myself a very simple question over and over again, ‘Why don’t you just give up on everything?’ … Each time, I would eventually realize that hope, in the deepest sense of the word, does not come from the outside, that hope is not something to be found in external indications simply when a course of action may turn out well, nor is it something I have no reason to feel when it is obvious that nothing will turn out well … hope is a state of mind, and we either have it, or we don’t, quite independently of the state of affairs immediately around us … Indeed, only the infinite and the eternal, recognized or surmised, can explain the no less mysterious phenomenon of hope … I do not know of a single case in which there is a genuine acceptance of some bitter personal fate … which can be explained by anything other than humankind’s sense of something that transcends earthly gratification.”

While we haven’t been given the option to choose many recent events and circumstances, we have not lost the opportunity and ability to choose our responses. Positive thinking doesn’t ignore reality in a quest for a sunny view of life. Mature, healthy thinking looks reality in the face and chooses to embrace hope, while taking practical steps to find a way through the immediate crisis.

Difficulties in life are not dispersed through a merit system. Unexpected events often bring unwanted adjustments. As a leader, one of the valuable roles you play in the lives of the people you lead-even when you work from home is demonstrating genuine hope – a hope you choose, that tomorrow will be better than today. Take advantage of every opportunity to provide a realistic and hope-filled assessment of the present and the future.

Branding Lessons from the Nicest Guy in the Neighborhood

Category : 2020

Conventional wisdom tells us building a brand demands comprehensive market analysis, a thorough knowledge of the competition, and constant reassessment to ensure the brand position remains strong.

What do you do with a guy who held a very simplistic view of his market, rarely gave his competition any consideration, and successfully engaged with his audience using the same format for over 30 years?

When Fred Rogers died in 2003 at age 74, he left a legacy of 33 seasons on television, 895 programs, and generations of children who journeyed through early childhood listening to a man who built a brand out of being kind and convincing his audience, “There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.”

Fred Rogers was a uniquely gifted and extremely talented performer as well as a highly successful business professional. At his peak in the 1980’s, Rogers was watched by 10 percent of American households. His quiet, yet very visible life offers valuable lessons in personal branding.

You can’t pick where you begin; you choose where you go.
Born into one of the wealthiest families in Pittsburg, Fred Rogers was a pudgy kid chauffeured to and from school, and frequently bullied for being who he was. Rogers leveraged the benefits of affluence to fund his early efforts in children’s television and to create the financial stability that allowed him to take risks without fear of personal financial disaster. Rather than using his father’s connections to begin his career at the top, Rogers relied on his dad’s help to get his first job after college working as an apprentice in production at NBC.

Authenticity is your greatest competitive edge.
Fred Rogers rarely watched television and paid little attention to competing children’s programs. He was interested in creating the best programming possible-not doing something better than a competitor. Anyone meeting Rogers in person quickly realized the Mr. Rogers appearing on television wasn’t a character, he was Fred. The same Fred that was married for over 50 years, raised two sons, and would keep a union production crew waiting in a studio while he stopped to interact with a child he met on the street. As biographer Maxwell King described it, “Fred Rogers was so intent on shaping a good program that he didn’t even think about portraying a character-he was just Fred being Fred.”
Rogers was not a saint. As the creator, chief scriptwriter, producer, songwriter, singer, puppeteer, and host of one of the most popular shows on television Rogers had “a strong will and determined focus.” He could be stubborn and tended to be self-absorbed. He had no time for phoniness in an adult and the fastest way to see his anger was by deliberately misleading a child.

Kindness is not weakness.
Fred Rogers believed with all his being that, “human kindness will always make life better.” As he built Family Communications, the non-profit organization that produced Mister Rogers Neighborhood, people severely underestimated the benign man with a quiet voice. Beneath his gentle manner was a core of steel and keen business instincts learned from observing a father and grandfather who built successful companies in the steel industry. As a fierce defender of the quality of his program Rogers once engaged in a contentious meeting with two associates after which one said, “I wonder at what age Fred no longer likes you just the way you are?”
In 1969, President Richard Nixon wanted to cut proposed funding for public television by $10 million to fund the Vietnam war. During the hearings determining the fate of PBS, Senator John Pastore heard little to convince him to keep the budget-until Fred Rogers spoke. Pastore said Rogers’ testimony gave him “goose bumps” and let the public television budget remain intact.

Keep playing to your strengths.
Rogers once said, “You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are.” (p.227) In 1975 he forgot his own counsel and ended Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, feeling he had covered everything he needed to discuss with children. He wanted to talk to the adults in the families where he had made friends since 1954. But Old Friends . . . New Friends revealed that Rogers didn’t have the formula for creating compelling adult television and after four years, he was looking for new funding for the next iteration of Mister Rogers Neighborhood. The program ran in its new format for another 20 years.

Staying healthy isn’t an excuse for ignoring your health.
From age 40 through the end of his life, Rogers began nearly every day with 30 minutes of swimming. His strict exercise routine and vegetarian diet (he couldn’t comprehend eating anything that had a mother) enabled him to maintain a weight of 143 pounds most of his adult life.
But his commitment to health caused Rogers to ignore the stomach upsets occurring over several years. He finally agreed to an endoscopy in October 2002 and it revealed advanced stomach cancer. Rogers had promised to be one of the grand marshals for the Rose Parade in January, so he delayed treatment. His first surgery required removal of his entire stomach. Rogers died a few months later-perhaps much earlier than if he had listened to his body.

Never stop learning or building the capacity to learn in others.
Through his entire life, Fred Rogers maintained a child’s level of curiosity about the world which undoubtedly enhanced his ability to communicate with children. Rogers believed social and emotional learning are more important in the first few years of human life than cognitive learning. He focused on developing self-discipline in children rather than imposing it from outside, teaching them to be accountable for their own actions. Rogers always wanted to develop the people around him.

Many emerging leaders in companies across the country were proteges of Fred Rogers. One can hope as they build and lead enterprises, they will remember the wise counsel of the man who branded kindness.
“There are three ways to ultimate success:
The first way is to be kind.
The second way is to be kind.
The third way is to be kind.” (Fred Rogers)

Brands, Risks, and Dragons

Category : 2019

Innovation and re-invention are inherently risk-driven propositions. Taking an organization, or yourself from where you are to where you want (or need) to be demands valuing ambiguity, a level of comfort with the unknown, and embracing the unavoidable risk woven into every change. The turnover of companies on the Fortune 500 list over the past decade underscores that managing a brand from a posture of protection rather than expansion is a proven path to obsolescence.

Medieval cartographers made a practice of including illustrations of mythological creatures like dragons and sea monsters on the uncharted areas of maps-especially locations far out to sea. The perils were unknown, and the risks were great, so early map-makers labeled these alien places with the characteristic phrase, “here be dragons.”

If you aren’t embracing the dragons of risk with your brand you aren’t building your brand. By avoiding risk, you face a greater probability of becoming stagnant and irrelevant in the circle in which you operate. Whether an enterprise or an individual, if history is any indication, markets and market influencers are far more understanding of a brand that grapples with evolution and reinvention than they are of a brand that remains safely cocooned in a world of sterile self-protection.

No stranger to embracing if not pursuing risk, Elon Musk grabbed fate by the throat when introducing his electric Cybertruck to the market. Musk knows a brand doesn’t get noticed by presenting the expected, promoting the mundane, and promising staid predictability. During the introduction, the vehicle withstood a sledgehammer to the body and guests watched a slow-motion video of a bullet bouncing off the exterior as well. Musk’s’ effort to demonstrate the truck’s shatter-proof glass resulted in glass shattering onto the seats and egg trying – but failing – to land on Elon’s face. The unplanned mishap did little to deter excitement at the event. The brand-builder took a risk and the market largely applauded with approval.

On a broader scale, Forrester’s recently-released research titled The Future of Organizations underscores the market demand for brands that move beyond protection to innovation noting that, “. . . in today’s customer-led and disruption-rich market, most organizations are proving to be slow, rigid, and culturally tone-deaf. Designed on the principles of stability, accountability, and control, they protect entrenched politics and create hard-walled, politically laden silos, long decision cycles, and disjointed customer experiences that stymie change – and frustrate customers.”

As you plan for 2020, allotting time to calculate some well-planned risks is a prudent investment. Perhaps it’s time for a change in industry. Maybe you should consider a move to a division or team where you aren’t well-known, and you don’t understand that part of the business well. The greatest risk you might take could be choosing to interact with your colleagues with more candor and engage in the conflict that will help you lead your part of the organization to new levels of productivity and profitability.

Dragons in uncharted waters are no reason to stay in port. As William Shedd wisely reminded us, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”

Branding Lessons From The Architect of Tomorrow

Category : 2019

Before he was worth $22 billion, he earned $18 an hour cleaning the boiler room in a lumber mill. Before his name became synonymous with innovation and visionary ideas, he supplemented his university scholarship by using where he lived as a speakeasy. He demonstrated his commitment to his company by agreeing to take no salary until the business reaches a market cap of $100 billion ($40 billion to go).

Elon Musk is readily available to the media, very popular with his fans, and highly polarizing in what he says. In 2017, Rolling Stone named him the Architect of Tomorrow and he has been called the first influencer CEO. In Entrepreneur, marketing technology expert Alp Mimaroglu described Elon Musk as a “48-year-old entrepreneur extraordinaire [who] consistently manages to excite, rattle and assuage employees, investors and shareholders alike as he executes his vision.”

Notwithstanding his tweet that, “I hate the whole idea of brands and branding. So much BS . . . Brands suck,” this entrepreneur, space explorer, and out-spoken critic of whatever he doesn’t like offers a three-dimensional lesson in how to build a powerful brand. Leveraging Mimaroglu’s brief ideas in Entrepreneur[i], here are three branding lessons from a leader who embraces failure as quickly as he lauds success.

A captivating mission is about more than what you do

To understand the Elon Musk brand today, you need to explore its beginnings. After finishing college with a large college debt (sound familiar?), Musk and his brother borrowed $28,000 from their father to launch Zip2, a company that provided and licensed city guide software to newspapers. To keep overhead low, Musk lived in his office and showered in the YMCA. The venture was a success and Musk moved to millionaire status four years later when Zip2 was sold to Compaq for $307million. His more well-known foray into on-line bill paying with PayPal (sold to eBay for $1.5 billion) gave Musk the financial base for bigger dreams.

Musk believes and demonstrates an impactful brand grows from a captivating mission that is more about an outcome (what you accomplish) than an output (what you do). As a person, Musk is compelled by the belief that “If something is important enough you should try, even if the probable outcome is failure.” Tesla’s mission is “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” The edgy projects at SpaceX emerge from a desire to “enable humans to become a spacefaring civilization and a multi-planet species by building a self-sustaining city on Mars.”

Notice that Tesla says nothing about vehicles, SpaceX says nothing about rockets, and Musk says nothing about any of the businesses he has created. Regardless of your role, title, or level in a company, your personal mission should drive you to, as the founder of Patagonia says, “take the stairs two at a time.” The farther a leader travels on a career path, the more owning an engaging mission is critical. Without a meaningful mission, all the quarterly earnings, market captures, and stock options in the world can’t erase the feeling that “life must go on, I just can’t remember why.”

What you say matters-always

Strong brands are built on contribution, reputation, and communication. The Securities and Exchange Commission knows the power of words and strictly controls communication about earnings. A leader can easily underestimate the ripples of what is meant to be an inconsequential comment. When a CEO walks through a conference room commenting that the plant in the corner is a little pale, someone assumes he is unhappy and wants a new plant service.

Elon Musk keeps learning this branding lesson the hard way. After telling Wall Street analysts he tired of their “boring, bonehead questions,” Tesla’s stock plunged. Three months later, Musk made what KeyBanc called “maybe the most valuable apology of all time.” Musk repeatedly expressed regret for his inappropriate behavior on the previous call saying, “There’s really no excuse for bad behavior.” Tesla shares went up 8.5 percent in after-hours trading that day, adding close to $4.75 billion to the company’s value. After making other unkind and misdirected comments Musk simply called himself “an idiot.”

A strong brand is self-secure

Big brands make big targets. Any executive committed to something bigger than they are will face criticism, misunderstanding, and unvarnished dislike. After what he described as an “excruciating” year in 2018, Musk told the New York Times, “If you have anyone who can do a better job, please let me know. They can have the job.” Musk had no intention of leaving Tesla. He simple demonstrated his conviction that he still believed in his mission, he was certain there was a way forward, and he was confident there was no one else better qualified than him to get his company where it needed to be.

As one popular speaker of the past described it, “Wherever there’s light, there’s bugs.” Holding the light for a challenging mission makes a leader a very visible target for the misinformed, the misdirected, and the miserable. A clear indicator a leader is progressing toward a mission is someone telling the leader the strategy isn’t right, it will take too long, or the pain involved makes the mission flawed. A solid personal brand is built on self-confidence and the balance of knowing you are neither as good or as bad as the press or social media describe you.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX office was once decorated with a poster of a shooting star. Beneath the image read a caption that portrays the humor and balance of a leader with a strong brand. “When you wish upon a falling star, your dreams can come true. Unless it’s really a meteor hurtling to the Earth which will destroy all life. Then you’re pretty much hosed, no matter what you wish for. Unless it’s death by meteorite.”


New Energy for a Tired Brand

Category : 2019

Brands are like buildings. With the right foundation, on-going maintenance, and an occasional renovation, both can provide functional value for a long time. The oldest brand in the world is Kongo Gumi, established in 578 AD and family-owned for 1400 years. Dixon Ticonderoga has been making pencils and Jim Beam has produced bourbon for over 220 years. JP Morgan Chase has been in the game for nearly as long-by repeatedly adapting to the new realities of financial services. Harper Collins has survived the volatile world of publishing by reinvention and embracing technologies that were beyond imagination when the company published its first volume in 1817. Macys and Sears have been iconic brands for decades, but age has caught up with both and their futures are uncertain.

Some people have figured out how to ensure the relevance of their personal brands long after their peers tire and fade into oblivion. From oil to natural gas to alternative energy, Texas legend T. Boone Pickens stayed in the game of business until close to his death at age 91. After his time in office, former president Jimmy Carter grew his brand as a humanitarian and continues building for Habitat for Humanity at 95, insisting that he not miss the launch of his latest building project with 14 stitches in his forehead. Octogenarian, Warren Buffet’s investment guidance is still followed closely.

When interacting with a personal brand, people care more about energy than age. Brands with a perpetual shelf-life, brands that maintain a relevance that belies their age, consciously resist the inherent banality that comes with tenure at anything.

Throughout its lifespan, a brand stays relevant because of personal and strategic choices, not circumstance. As a young man in his thirties, Beethoven realized his loss of hearing was both progressive and permanent-a frightening possibility for someone whose brand was built around being a gifted composer and musician. Realizing the inevitability that faced him, Beethoven wrote his friend Franz Wegeler, “I will take fate by the throat.” That is the mental resilience that keeps a brand fresh.

Your personal brand is as unique as you are. You can be imitated but never replicated. In his book Brand Gap, Marty Neumeier calls that singularity a charismatic brand, “any product, service, or organization [let’s add person] for which people believe there is no substitute.” Here are three ways you can keep your brand charismatic, maintaining brand vitality when other brands get weary and decline.


Like houses, brands show their use. The structure and character are solid, but the presentation shouts, “dated.” An executive in his 50s who dresses like he did in the 80s screams “update needed” as much as a house with the original wallpaper. If you are past 40 and your professional photo is more than five years old, it is time for trip to a professional photographer. Few things spell awkward at the start of a networking meeting more than, “Oh, you look a lot different than your picture on LinkedIn.” Clothes, like people, often lose their shape before they wear out. “This still looks okay,” is not the mantra of a brand that shouts relevance. Dress to win, lose the weight, exercise for vitality!


Staying with the house analogy, there are times when continued relevance and functionality demand renovation. Anyone who has renovated a house will tell you it takes longer, and costs more than you expect, so you want to plan for it – not get the experience forced upon you when something falls apart.  Positioning yourself in a different role may be attractive. If a lesser role is an appealing option, a C-Suite executive needs to anticipate the changes that come with such a move. However, be aware that a smaller title may not equate to fewer responsibilities and a lighter workload.

A clear indicator it’s time to renovate is when you spend more time talking about past successes than current results. If your stories took place before your audience was born, it’s time for a brand renovation. Anyone, at any level in a company, will find value in updating their resume or CV every year. If there is nothing quantified and significant to add to the list of contributions, it’s time for a career and brand renovation. When a brand no longer demonstrates and communicates its value, it loses its significance.


Massive gentrification efforts in major cities give a second or third life to warehouses or old buildings as up-scale flats and condos. Even shipping containers are finding long-term value as apartments. Sometimes, brands need more than an update-they need reinvention. As industries and roles evolve, an executive may face the need to take the best of what was and build something new. Digital transformation, AI, the explosive growth of cloud computing, and the impact of the millennial workforce demands executive brands that are both agile and courageous. Being the guardian of a legacy system or the guru for holdover internal processes is more of a liability than security – especially following a sale or acquisition. Savvy executives with lasting brands stay ahead of the change curve, proactively taking new responsibilities that expand and enhance their brands, facilitating their perpetuity.

Brands stay fresh when the people they represent maintain a mental framework that is realistic, positive, and uncharacteristically optimistic. T. Boone Pickens captured that positivity with “Be the eternal optimist. Act like the fella who fell off the top of a 10-story building…as he passed the third floor, he said, ‘I’m not dead yet. So far, so good.'”