Fear is opportunity in disguise

When the landscape is unfamiliar, fear can set in. I  t's also where opportunities to discover and grow kick in. (  Illustration credit: Jon Klassen) 

When the landscape is unfamiliar, fear can set in. It's also where opportunities to discover and grow kick in. (Illustration credit: Jon Klassen) 


Your work.

It’s probably something you're great at, some place where you shine bright.  

Which is to say – you do what you know and you do it well. 

With that kind of knowledge, chances are you tend to stay in your lane.

And you stay there in order to champion your expertise (that’s a much easier narrative).

The inverse of this is fear of the unknown.

Or, in a results-driven world, fear of failure.

But what if that so-called fear was just opportunity in disguise?


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What if you hinted at the idea that among all of the things you could possibly deliver, discovery just might be the most important?

Instead of loading your pitches for clients and customers with buzzwords of the best-in-class variety you showed a bit of vulnerability, perhaps even came clean by revealing that you didn’t have a trademarked approach to guarantee predictable results from rote formulas.

Instead of issuing the next RFP (or responding to it) with restrictions that actually stymie creative solutions, what if it went like something like this:

Here’s our challenge. We’re ill-equipped to solve it alone. Admittedly, we don’t know what we don’t know. We’re asking for your insight and expertise based on a track record of solving similar challenges. Might we talk?

Confront what you’re really afraid of: is it being vulnerable? Being perceived somehow as less smart or running out-of-step with a crowded field of thought leaders? Are you content faking it until you make it – or, worse, get found out?


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If you’re anything like me, you’ve been there and done that.

And so you’re veering outside of your lane, taking some calculated risks, and embracing a journey filled with insights that provide an interesting and highly viable set of outcomes that are all but impossible to predetermine in a plan. (Because plans change and course correction is necessary. Which is why you’re more interested in roadmaps that provide multiple avenues -- and unexpected detours too -- that help you get to your destination.)

Perhaps you’re finding out fear isn’t that scary after all.

Maybe fear is just another four-letter word.

You're considering it as a prompt that really means ‘get ready, this is going to stretch you.’

And by embracing fear for what it is, perhaps you’re starting to realize that your comfort zone is really your complacency zone.

Complacency: shouldn’t that be your fear?


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If there is anything else to be afraid of, perhaps it is being average.

Or not realizing your potential.

Or intentionally foregoing meaningful experiences and new relationships because they are unfamiliar.

Or blending in to the point that you’re indistinguishable from the crowd.

If fear is your opportunity to grow, then you must equally consider what it means to play it safe.


Eventually, we all need help (how we ask for it matters)

asking (2).jpg

I know this firsthand: asking for help can be a hard thing to do. Admitting that I don’t have all the answers or the capacity to accomplish what needs to be done can be challenging, sometimes defeating, and almost always humbling. But I’ve also discovered it’s among the best ways I learn and grow – personally and professionally – if I’m being genuine with my ask.

What to ask for

It has me thinking about how I can best offer my help as well. Usually it comes down to having to interpret what the ask is for. I’ve realized through my own “bad asks” that how you ask for help matters, and it starts with clarifying exactly what you’re asking for:

  • Am I interested in insights or just implementation?
  • Do I need advisors/experts to help guide the work or assistants to follow my lead?

Knowing what to ask for brings clarity to the need. Knowing who to ask for help brings focus on the right skill sets and fit. 

Certainly there are tasks that just need to get done. In those situations, there’s nothing more helpful than sets of extra hands. But sometimes more digging and legwork is necessary, especially when it comes to issues of branding, messaging and marketing.

When your brand isn’t performing or its purpose, promise and message are unclear, insights from the outside are going to be helpful. This is where that old adage rings true – sometimes you’re just too close to the work.   

Yet the business of branding and messaging all too often slips into that implementation part of the ask when insights could prove more helpful. But that's what happens when some fast-on-the-horizon marketing opportunity looms.

The benefits of outside expertise

Few of us would be foolish enough to advise our physicians on how to cure what ills us without their expert evaluation, or advise our attorneys how to structure a business deal without their thorough assessment of the terms. Yet with issues of branding, marketing or communication, self-diagnosis and proposed solutions are what usually greet outside counsel. This is what makes the marketing or branding RFP nearly obsolete for thoughtful creatives who place extraordinary value on their relationships, their time and their craft.

Being open to the full potential of collaboration   

Like many of the partners I choose to work with, I’m drawn to the genuineness of connections over the binding of contracts. This is where expertise gets leveraged, trust and potential is realized, and how the best (and sometimes unexpected) work gets accomplished.  

While current challenges might be unique to your brand – they are not unique in general. That’s good news for any organization. Those current challenges likely resemble scenarios that outside experts work through day in and day out. They have familiarity in this territory. There is a knowledge of which questions to ask. And there is a recognition of what works and what doesn’t.

By clarifying the kind of help you’re asking for, you’ll have a stronger likelihood of saving time and, budget while also avoiding the difficult dance of finding the right partner to help.

The perils of not asking  

I’m more accustomed to asking for help these days – creative help, mentoring help, financial help and additional brainpower help – even though it didn’t come natural at first. Better yet, I no longer see it as a sign of weakness or personal failure, but rather a desire for something greater when my own perspectives and talents just aren’t enough.  

Nobody outright asks for trouble. However, there's one clear takeaway I have learned: by not asking for help and clarifying my ask, by default trouble is essentially what I'm asking for.  

The Consensus Paradox

Seeking consensus among the masses is good when choosing a vacation destination (nobody wants to embark on new adventures with a disengaged or disgruntled traveler). It’s not particularly helpful when building brands. In fact, it can be detrimental.

Asking for a show of hands and getting less than 100 percent alignment does not constitute a trip back to the drawing board or appeasing every new idea. While thoughtful feedback is fuel for bettering just about anything, discernment on when and how to use that feedback is critical. The buck must stop with someone who is empowered to say – this is the direction we’re headed and why

Seeking consensus sounds noble and democratic in theory. In practice, it sounds flat and uninteresting – the very things that branding and messaging initiatives seek to avoid – or reverse – in an attempt to differentiate.

In your quest to stand out, get comfortable pushing the envelope and, when necessary, reining things back in.

Not everyone in your organization will love the logo, the colors or the choice of type. They may not embrace every word of your message – and that’s okay. It’s not designed for them. It’s for your customer. 

Your extended team can do amazing things when they help shape the brand rather than dictate it. Asking for or falling victim to the consensus paradox won’t create internal believers. To the contrary, it can create pockets of skeptics who can appreciate the attempt but can’t get over what the brand has become versus what it could’ve been. 

Perhaps you’ve heard that a brand is more than a logo – and even more than a message. It’s about consistently exceeding expectations, providing exceptional experiences and connecting with stories well told. That’s where people fall in love with your brand. Your team included.   


How a hearing impairment is teaching me to be a better listener


Many good leaders will say that their success is measured by the actions they -- and their teams -- have taken. And a good many more will say that the opportunity to lead and achieve success started with being a good listener.

Certainly I had heard that before, but I wasn’t really listening. And to my defense, I was legitimately distracted.

Early in my adult life I was diagnosed with having tinnitus, a symptom of a hearing-related problem. The symptom itself is a highly annoying and perpetual ringing in the ears. To explain it, I tell people that it is similar to being in the country on a summer’s night and hearing the symphonic hum of crickets, where there is no discernible beginning or end. (It’s also quite similar to the last 30 seconds of bagpipes in this AC/DC classic.) Now imagine that hum never going away and being present as you work, accompanying every conversation and every waking moment. This is my reality.

But I’m far from unique. Statistics suggest that one in five U.S. adults experience hearing loss that often begins with tinnitus. It is a distraction that presents real challenges. And with nearly two decades of ringing in my ears, I’ve accepted it’s not going away anytime soon.

When I embraced this fact, something surprisingly counter to my situation happened: I became a better listener (partially out of necessity). It also meant coming to grips with the fact that, until this point, I wasn’t the listener I thought I was.   

The good news is you don’t need the distraction of crickets chirping or Bon Scott’s bagpipe coda in your head 24/7 to force yourself to be a better listener. Instead, start being more intentional. Here are five things I’ve learned over the years:  

  • PRACTICE INTENTIONAL LISTENING: This is far different from hearing. Listening is actively processing ideas and making connections to what is – and isn’t – being said. My clients are too kind to question my listening techniques, which may include cupping an ear or getting up and moving about the room to hear more clearly. When we choose to listen with intention versus simply hearing what’s being spoken, we become better problem solvers, and more understanding and empathetic to the stories being shared with us.
  • PUSH THROUGH DISTRACTIONS: Tinnitus, for me, amplifies sounds that are high pitched. That can mask what I’m trying hard to glean and discern. If I focus on this as it happens in my head, it can send me off course and I miss chunks of conversation. So I refuse to focus on it as I did in earlier years with this symptom. My listening challenges aren’t all rooted in audiology. Visual distractions play a key role, too, as I notice people around me, the large TV screen above the bar, or anything that’s moving in my peripheral vision. To combat this, I take off my eyeglasses and look directly at the individual in front of me. Simply put, I can no longer focus on the distractions.
  • ADJUST TO ENGAGE: I’m guilty of occasionally being in casual conversation and nodding along when I don’t hear clearly. This also means I'm not clear on what I’m agreeing with or laughing to, which is just bad form on my part. This is particularly the case when I’m in a noisy, crowded environment. But if I care about the person who is choosing to speak to me, I should care enough to listen. That may require moving to an area that is less noisy or leaning in a little closer as a nonverbal gesture that says I want to hear what you’re saying. Stop nodding along and make the necessary adjustments to be engaged. You have no idea how important that conversation might be.
  • ASK CLARIFYING QUESTIONS: The idea that there are no bad questions sounds good in theory, but to some degree most of us are embarrassed to suggest we don’t understand. When we overcome our fear of asking questions by asking clarifying questions, we put what’s in question into context: “So what you’re saying is…”  “are you suggesting that…” “so how do you see that playing out…” are a few thoughtful ways to have content readdressed that perhaps didn’t stick the first time. We all miss the point from time to time. Asking clarifying questions can help. And it may get you to a comfort level of simply saying – I don’t get it or “could you repeat that?
  • MAKE 'FACE' CONTACT: More than just eye contact, I’ve found that face contact allows better processing of nonverbal cues by paying closer attention to the mouth. As a result, I’ve become adept at reading lips to cross-check what I believe I’m processing. This has proven immensely valuable the more I work with individuals whose native language is not English. I can see how they are forming sounds and words, and that helps us to have smoother and more fluent conversations. Recognizing my nature to be an introvert, averting the eyes has always been easy. But when I look intently at someone, they know I'm dialed in to them and them only.  Conversations of all types reap greater rewards when we’re focused on the one who is talking.

If you want to lead, start by being an intentional and engaged listener.  And if you're currently in a leadership position, assess how strong your listening skills are and commit to becoming even better.

Are you listening with intention or just hearing the chatter and noise around you? What practices do you employ to be a better listener – and thus a better leader? Consider sharing your thoughts, tips and strategies. We can all afford to get better.

VW's latest problem: is it the message, the messenger or something else?

Volkswagen CEO Matthias Mueller .  Photo credit: Guenter Schiffmann/Bloomberg

Volkswagen CEO Matthias Mueller.

Photo credit: Guenter Schiffmann/Bloomberg

I feel bad for Matthias Mueller right now. The current CEO of beleaguered automaker Volkswagen is attempting to smooth things over with lawmakers this week in his first official visit to the U.S. However, he couldn’t hide from his off-putting comments on Sunday at the Detroit Auto Show. Remarkably VW dug a deeper hole for Mueller when it cast blame on the circumstances of the interview rather than the substance of his remarks.

Frustrating as this is, I don’t blame Mueller.

I don’t blame the former head of Porsche, who was appointed to CEO of VW and thrust into the smoggy limelight last September, for his overall tone-deafness, lack of urgency on the emissions scandal, or even the gulf of truth that lies somewhere between his “I apologize once again” and “we didn't lie” statements.

I don’t blame Mueller because so far he’s just been the messenger – a poor one perhaps (and that is fixable) – but a messenger nonetheless. And I hold true to the notion that we shouldn’t shoot the messenger.

While VW's communication has been anything but a well-oiled machine, the opportunity to reverse that trend starts this week. Here's what can be gleaned from VW's recent road bumps and how the company can get back on track.  


Mueller’s messages are crafted talking points designed to share VW’s point of view or story, which is key here: it's the story VW wants to share, which sometimes isn't the story that needs to be shared. Mueller is still in his infancy as CEO, so getting the story right every time can be challenging, especially when the story is changing, opinions are shifting and emotions are running high.

As hard as it may be for some leaders to tell the unvarnished truth, doing so invites transparency and simplifies things. But simply saying the right thing isn't enough. The right words only begin to mean something when they don't always require notecards and are followed up with meaningful action. This transparency also kills a deceptive form of creative storytelling, often designed to appease a niche audience, rather than getting on with the work of repairing broken trust. In his incredibly short tenure, there has been a repeated theme of ‘misunderstanding’ with his answers that needs to be resolved immediately.


Mueller’s counselors and advisors had to know that he’d get tough questions not only from U.S. lawmakers later in the week, but also from media at the auto show in off-the-cuff moments. Language barrier aside, a lack of preparation and ownership of the clear and concise story beyond the scripted moments is showing,  and it's reflecting poorly on him and the company. His response to NPR about ethical problems is an example of not being well prepared and inconsistent: 

MUELLER:  I don’t understand whether (why) you say that.

NPR reporter:  Because Volkswagen in the U.S. intentionally lied to EPA regulators when they asked them about the problem before it came to light.

MUELLER:  We didn't lie. We didn't understand the question first.    


There is no guarantee that Mueller will choose to do the right thing – or the wrong thing – when it comes to steering the company forward. But his recent statements regarding his desire to infuse fun back into the company hints at problems with VW’s culture, especially given the cover up and deception that put VW in this position in the first place. The leadership team that has been running VW prior to and through the emissions scandal also is responsible for anointing Mueller as chief messenger. Whether he emerges from this crisis as a transformational leader is yet to be seen – and it hinges on whether or not he can deliver truthful, transparent answers and simply do the right thing, no matter the short-term cost. That alone will signal a significant shift in corporate culture, which will help to repair its troubled reputation from the inside out.


Like any successful leader, Mueller needs good counsel and must surround himself with thoughtful individuals committed to bettering the company and exceeding public expectations. He needs to set a high bar regarding insights into all facets of the company and candor of how shortcomings will be addressed. However, if what we’re seeing is an eschewing of wise counsel, preparation and well-developed messages that have failed to be delivered with the sincerity in which they were written, then Mueller’s tenure likely will become a brief footnote in the company’s history.

Until now, VW has been its own worst enemy in the last several months, but this week Mueller has an opportunity to change that. While Mueller could benefit from a more thoughtful and concerned public persona that most people intuitively expect of chief executives under fire, there should be an undefined "grace period" for inheriting and cleaning up a mess not of your own making. And despite some foot-in-mouth moments and inconsistent messaging, I find myself rooting for Mueller to make the successful evolution from brand messenger to respected CEO, and here's why:

America loves a great comeback story – especially when one humbly accepts its wrongs and works with unmatched determination and transparency to right the ship or, in this case, the car.

It is without question the story that VW should be working tirelessly and without compromise to write.