The Year Without Pants and How to Replace Email

Year Without PantsThe Year Without Pants and the future of work is Scott Berkun’s account of his year working for Automattic, Inc. the company behind WordPress, the online, open source website creation software that many consider the easiest and most powerful blogging and website content management system (CMS) available today.

According to Amazon:

50 million websites, or twenty percent of the entire web, use WordPress software. The force behind is a convention-defying company called Automattic, Inc., whose 120 employees work from anywhere in the world they wish, barely use email, and launch improvements to their products dozens of times a day.

WordPress is mostly free to use for anything from a personal blog to a Fortune 500 corporate web site. WordPress was used to create the blog that you’re reading right now.

I picked up this book because it’s about working remotely, or running a “distributed company” as they call it at Automattic, Inc. The story of WordPress is interesting and Berkun has some profound yet simple observations about people and how we communicate at work.

Like many companies in the digital economy, Verto Solutions is struggling a bit with remote work. Most members of the Verto team are passionate and self-sufficient, but when professionals aren’t in the same office it takes extra effort to collaborate and keep projects moving. The Year Without Pants is about the team that is maintaining and continuously improving the WordPress software, while rarely working in their offices in San Francisco.

Commuting, kids, and travel create legitimate reasons for wanting to work remotely. There’s clearly a trend toward adoption of remote or distributed work. Some believe that any organization that works primarily in the digital world can work remotely, but it’s more complicated than that.

Working remotely comes with compromises. Compromises that impact the company, the clients, and the advancement of individual professional careers.  The reason many people want to work remotely is to help manage kids and the household. My wife and I find that the logistical challenges of raising children make it very difficult to work from home.

Working from home probably hurts the employee as much as the company and the clients. But working remotely, or “distributed work” as Berkun calls it, is a fact of life as a result of computers. The average Verto Solutions employee works on a half dozen projects or issues each day. All of these involve using a computer, but they also require collaboration with other members of the Verto team and of course, our clients. Collaboration is how we move things forward and get answers to the tough questions.

So how can we work remotely while maintaining high levels of collaboration and productivity? The book gave me some ideas, such as teams should increase connectivity by using chat and Skype as opposed to email.  In fact, the book helped me find the answer to a question that’s been on my mind lately:  How will we communicate after we stop using email?
shutterstock_132990344Email as we use it today is broken. The volume of email that most professionals receive is unreasonable. One of my new year’s resolutions is to unsubscribe to all the junk mail that makes it through the spam filter. Now that I’m consciously unsubscribing, I’m amazed at how much junk email I was receiving.

Berkun calls it email madness, “where people are so overwhelmed by the waves of email they receive that they protect their psyche by never reading any of it. Instead they skim emails quickly and write and send replies even quicker…What they don’t realize is if they send waves of bad email out, they’re guaranteed to get waves of bad email back…”

Email is a horrible tool for many of the things it’s used for. It puts too much power in the hands of the sender; they can put anything they want in your in-box. Email is also a closed channel, unless you’re one of the addressees you can’t see the conversation. And email goes away, it’s really hard to search and be reminded of previous conversations. All of these problems are solved when a group uses a blog.

Blogs are the collaboration and information sharing tool to replace email. Blogs, the web-based logs enabled by WordPress and many other software products, are an easy way for groups of any size to collaborate and share information. If you haven’t created one they might seem complicated, but fundamentally a blog is just a place where a small or large group of people can see and share information and comment on it. It’s a web page, but thanks to software like WordPress they’re really flexible and easy to create one.

All of the associations managed by Verto Solutions have boards, committees, and task forces. These groups meet in person just a few times per year (just like the teams at Automattic) but they are constantly sharing technical information and collaborating on documents. We all have strategies for dealing with the flood of information, I use folders and project management sheets, others hang on to all of their messages and rely on search to find what they need when they need it. Wouldn’t it be better if you always knew that to get the latest info and all the info on a particular subject you simply go to the blog page for that board, committee or project?

We’ve already created web pages for some of the boards and committees of Verto-managed associations. What I’m talking about is creating blogs for any group or project of any duration that will involve sharing information. Blogs are just less formal web pages that allow everyone to see everything and eliminate the annoying group emails.

Using blogs isn’t a silver bullet and email is part of how blogs work (assuming you sign up to be notified when something’s been posted). Some conversations need to be real time, and in-person conversations convey so much more information when you factor in the eye contact and body language. Email is not going away completely, but we need to stop using it for brainstorming and routine information sharing.

The Year Without Pants doesn’t provide a model of remote work that we could apply at Verto Solutions.  Scott Berkun’s team is made up of young people that work in shorts and don’t appear to have any children or spouses.  They’re young programmers traveling around the world, while remaining productive by living on-line.

But the story did open my eyes to the power of blogs as association management platforms. I wonder which Verto Solutions-managed association will be the first to experiment with using a blog to manage a project?

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What is Strategy?

RoadtoRelevancePerhaps you’ve noticed that strategy is the most overused word in the corporate lexicon.  Not just for-profit corporations, but non-profits too, and it’s also frequently used by military leaders.

So I was comforted by the definition offered by Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers in their excellent book about association performance called Road to Relevance: 5 Strategies for Competitive Associations.

Here’s their definition:

Strategy is the skillful, creative, and disciplined use of an organization’s resources to achieve its objectives.

Pretty simple, right?

I was re-reading Road to Relevance in preparation for a hosting a panel discussion next week at the Professional Women in Advocacy Conference. The PWIA organizers invited me to host a panel discussion on delivering value to association members.  On the panel with me will be Chris Krese from the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, Kristin Wilcox from the International Bottled Water Association, and Shannon Campagna from Mars, Inc.  I hope to see you there.

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Innovation for Association Executives

I’m thinking about innovation in the context of managing associations and non-profit enterprises. Innovation is a corporate buzz word, but it’s also a fundamental element in any successful and growing organization.WideLens

This summer I discovered a book about innovation strategy for corporate product launches and I can’t stop thinking about applying these concepts to associations. The concept involved is using a “wide lens” when preparing a product or service innovation.

The book is The Wide Lens, by Ron Adner. Adner teaches strategy at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. His Harvard Business Review article, “Match Your Innovation Strategy to Your Innovation Ecosystem” is assigned reading in over fifty global MBA programs.

Innovation, Adner says, is a “problem for everyone because it is held up as the solution for everything.” But despite the excitement, Adner says that successful innovation remains the exception rather than the rule.

I saw this book on a friend’s home office desk this summer in Connecticut.  My friend works in corporate strategy for a major telecommunications company.  His team thinks about the future and helps their senior managers chart the company’s course.

The Wide Lens is about the difference between great innovations that succeed and great innovations that fail. Adner’s point is that it’s not just about whether or not the innovation is a good idea, because “no matter your situation, your success depends not just on your own efforts but also on the ability, willingness, and likelihood that the partners that make up your innovation ecosystem succeed as well.”

He focuses on innovative products that failed to launch. Examples include a Michelin tire that never went flat, Sony’s first electronic reader, and Pfizer’s inhalable insulin. Each of these failed in spite of massive investments and strong consumer desire for these innovative products.

The experts on innovation fall into two schools of thought in explaining the sources of failure and the path to success:

“The first school argues that most innovation failures are rooted in a shortfall in customer insight. Introducing a genuinely new product or service is not enough; if customers don’t see the innovation as uniquely valuable, or are unwilling to pay the required price, then the innovation will not succeed…The second school argues that failure is rooted in shortcomings of leadership and implementation. They claim that the key to success lies in building better capabilities for execution and implementation that will enable us to deliver on our promises and beat the competition.”

In the association world the most common barriers to innovation fall in the second category. Delivering a new idea in the association ecosystem is challenging because of the diversity and power of so many stakeholders. Corporations have shareholders, but these people normally rely on management to continuously innovate to remain profitable. Associations have stakeholders who care passionately about their industry or profession and they take greater responsibility for managing the association and deciding which innovations are worth pursuing.

Innovation in the association world is underappreciated. Given the competitive forces most associations face, every association executive should have a list of innovations in the pipeline.

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Global Public Affairs

My reading material on a recent business trip included Building and Maintaining a Global Public Affairs Function, by the DC-based Foundation for Public Affairs. The Foundation for Public Affairs is the association for public affairs professionals that produces excellent publications.

The paper is a high-level discussion of best practices and the evolving structure of corporate government affairs on the global scale.

Chateau de Divonne, France, location of recent global advocacy.   Courtesy of Yelp
Chateau de Divonne, France, location of recent global advocacy. Courtesy of Yelp

My trip last week included the last meeting with a global advocacy group I’ve had the pleasure to belong to for more than four years. The flavor and food ingredient industry has relatively little global government and public affairs capacity, but they’re effective at leveraging the resources that are in place and protecting their businesses in markets around the world.

This group, the International Organization of the Flavor Industry, brings together technical professionals from food ingredient companies representing just about every region of the developed world.

The playing field for global public relations has expanded and now includes all of the developed and developing world. The sooner you establish a presence in a country or region the better. Traditional strongholds like DC and Brussels are still important, but the action has shifted to emerging markets where companies are trying to get a first-mover advantage.

It is also true that companies take many different approaches to managing government and public affairs. In some companies and associations these functions are combined, in others they are separate which can create automatic internal communications challenges that inevitably hold the organization back.  Initial challenges include defining exactly what we mean by government or public affairs. Say these terms and people hear different things.

The IOFI group met last week in Geneva, Switzerland. Over the years that I’ve been involved we’ve also met in Tokyo, Brussels, and New York. I’ve seen this team evolve from tentative and clumsy to a collaborative and fast-acting global advocacy team.  Last week’s meeting included a group dinner at the Chateau de Divonne, (above), in France, just over the border from Geneva.

Tokyo Dinner last April with partners from Japan, Holland & Germany

Tokyo Dinner last April with partners from Japan, Holland & Germany

Over the years that I have been observing government relations the game has continuously evolved. The changes to global public affairs are now even more profound as the world has gotten smaller and more connected.

Here are what I see at the most basic elements of a global government affairs program:

Understanding the Business
Just getting a handle on all the various business units, products or services in a large company or industry can be a challenge. Strategic GR practitioners find the right balance between spending time in the business learning about it, and facing the external world, to explain and protect it.

“Lobbying” used to be seen as somewhat mystical. By calling it “public affairs” or “advocacy” you remove some of the mystery, but you still have to establish relationships with the right policy makers at many levels of government. The adage about being nice to the boss’ secretary applies to government relations too; people up and down the chain of an agency can be helpful or create obstacles.  My international colleagues have explained to me that there is no French word for “lobbying” and no Japanese term for “advocacy.”

Successful global government affairs requires the right combination of individual company representation and shared tactics through coalitions or associations. Associations are the most effective way for a company to shape public policy. However, this varies by region. For instance, in the U.S. and Europe governments encourage the business community to organize and speak with one voice when possible, but in Asia the association world doesn’t consistently play a role, at least not yet.

Culture and Secret Sauce
According to the Foundation for Public Affairs (FPA), “When multinationals are asked how they organize their global government relations function, there are nearly as many different answers as companies competing on the world stage.” Some companies have no resources dedicated to government relations, while others are fully engaged in partnering with governments.

Don’t forget that government relations really means human relations. When you add the international element to the game it makes it more complicated and more rewarding at the same time. I’ve gotten to know some smart and interesting people over some amazing meals.

The paper also includes some vivid anecdotes about the need to be aware of different cultures:

“In the U.S., we like people who get things done, are well-organized and are intolerant of ambiguity. Than kind of person could be a disaster in the Middle East, where meetings start late and relationships are so important.”

“In China, discussing business before having had two or three dinners together would constitute a faux pas.”

Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom Map

Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom Map

How does a company decide where to put GR resources? One company mentioned in the FPA report uses the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index to decide which governments might potentially interfere with there business. This is a fascinating index that for 20 years has provided a snapshot of government conditions country by country. But I can’t figure out exactly how this information would be used when deploying government relations resources. For example, if your company has significant operations in Canada, where there is considerable economic freedom, and Venezuela, where conditions have been steadily decreasing, where is it more important to invest in government relations capacity? I guess the answer is Venezuela, but you shouldn’t neglect any markets where you have operations.

The bottom line is that modern global government relations is still evolving, but it has become more sophisticated and interesting than ever.

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Verto Solutions Goes Sailing

Verto Solutions, with friends and families, went sailing today on the Chesapeake Bay.  The conditions were perfect with clear skies, a brisk wind, and great company.

Verto Solutions Summer Outing on the Chesapeake

Verto Solutions Summer Outing on the Chesapeake

Captain Lila has the wheel

Captain Lila has the wheel



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Advice for New Lawyers

I’m speaking again this week to University of Alabama law students about career opportunities for lawyers working in government relations.  It’s not an easy time for new lawyers to get started, so I’ve been thinking about what I can say to help them in their searches.

University of Alabama Law School - Tuscaloosa

University of Alabama Law School – Tuscaloosa

Last year my presentation to these students focused on the association world, explaining what we do at Verto Solutions and Verto Legal Solutions.  But entry level legal positions aren’t typical in the association world and so this year I’m expanding my remarks to discuss  what it takes to find that first job out of law school.  The recession and the profound changes in the market for legal services have made it more challenging than ever for new lawyers to get started.

It took me a while to get started after graduating from law school and I was pretty anxious about it.  I clerked for a small general practice in Alexandria, Virginia and worked as a waiter in the mall near the Pentagon.  When I finally landed my first “real job” after law school, it wasn’t even a legal job.

The good news is that by spending a semester in DC these students are demonstrating that they have the nerve and flexibility to make it in spite of the challenging market that they face.

There’s more good news; these students are graduating from an excellent law school.  The rankings and reputation of the University of Alabama School of Law have steadily increased over the last quarter century.  I think much of the credit belongs to Dean Ken Randall who retired last year.  For more information on Alabama’s ranking and value see Mark Kogan’s article, “5 Top Law Schools Just as Great as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.”

In trying to give advice to these new lawyers I turned to friends and colleagues to see what ideas or observations they might have for graduating law students.  I put the following questions to lawyers that have been out of school for awhile and that have found success, although not always working as lawyers:

  • What do you know now about working in the legal profession that you wish you had known when you graduated from law school?
  • Are you using your law degree in a way that you anticipated when you were a third year law student?
  • Did you get any lucky breaks in finding your first job after law school and what’s the most important thing to do to find such a break?
  • What’s the biggest change that you’ve seen in the legal profession since you graduated from law school?

All of my respondents commented on the rapid and unprecedented changes in the legal marketplace over the past 20 years.  More than one person said it’s just plain harder to make a living practicing law than before and it’s even harder to find that first position.

Changes in the market for legal services are being caused by two big and related forces: transparency and technology.  Legal information used to be available exclusively to law firms through expensive subscriptions to volumes of case law and regulatory rulings.  This has all changed, first with on-line services like Lexis and Westlaw, and then simply the Internet and free on-line government publications.

Transparency has also increased awareness of how lawyers charge for their services and given customers the tools to shop around.  Finding a good lawyer used to require a personal network; now just use Google and you can read all about a lawyer, their work, and their fees.

Technology is the other area where there’s been dramatic change.  Of course, technology has enabled the explosion of new information, but it’s also changed the way lawyers work.  One friend asked, can you imagine not having email when consulting with clients?  No, I can’t, and email is wonderful tool, but it also means that getting back to someone within 24 hours isn’t always good enough; make it an hour or less or they might wonder if they have the best lawyer.

So what do you get when you combine the experiences of my friends with the significant changes in the market for legal services? They came back with lots of interesting insights with most of their comments falling into four general categories of advice.

Early in my career I was told to focus on what I like doing and not to worry about the money or the prestige.  But it’s easy to ignore this suggestion when you’re just trying to get started.  You feel like you need to take pretty much whatever you can find, preferably a “real legal job.”  Many lawyers dive into something because it’s the first thing that comes along or because they think it’s what they want to do.  Then they get frustrated and realize that there’s a conflict between what they enjoy or find rewarding, and what they do on a day to day basis.

More than one of my friends pointed out that our society attaches implied satisfaction and happiness to the traditional progression from first year associate to big law firm partner.  This route has always been available to just a minority of each graduating class, and that minority is shrinking further.

Of the dozen or so lawyers I contacted only one has followed the supposedly traditional progression to big law firm partner.  He graduated from Harvard Law School, clerked for a Federal judge and was hired by a big law firm where he has remained through at least one merger.  We were speaking as The Washington Post reported merger talks between Patton Boggs and Squire Sanders.  These mergers are bad news for young lawyers and as the traditional law firm partner said to me, “nobody’s safe.”

In some cases, getting on the traditional track helps lawyers figure out what kind of work they don’t enjoy and the lucky and flexible ones are then able to transition to something different and more in line with their emerging preferences.  These transitions lead to a million different places but not generally to traditional law firms.

Figuring out what makes you happy at work isn’t easy.  I had been out of law school for more than 15 years when I first worked with an executive coach and took a Myers Briggs personality type test.  I’m not aware that the typical law school puts much time into helping students use these kinds of tools to identify what kind of work or environment is best for them.

If you know what you want to do, then be like a dog with a bone.  If you’ve decided that you want to be a food lawyer then immerse yourself in that area through outside reading and networking.  Employers will appreciate your passion for a particular area, but be sure to explain why you’re passionate about it.

As I explained in this space last year I stumbled into association law & management.  I’m still figuring it out, but right now I enjoy all aspects of managing associations, including the legal work, and I’m hopefully becoming a subject matter expert in association corporate governance and food policy.

In the information age it’s important to remember that to be successful you have to provide knowledge, not just information.  Attaining knowledge about any particular area requires time and effort.  To really succeed you will need to become an expert in something, but there’s plenty of time for this.

One friend made the point that law schools don’t normally help lawyers translate their education into jobs that might fall outside of traditional law practices.  The Washington, D.C. program is a great example of a law school creating an interesting and practical program to help students become professsionals.

It’s a little cruel to recommend outside reading to law students, but there’s an interesting book called Reinventing Professional Services: Building Your Business in the Digital Marketplace by Ari Kaplan.  Ari’s book includes many observations about changes to the market for legal services along with suggestions for succeeding in the new market.   He says the key to success is that you simply have to out hustle the competition; there’s no reason to wait until you get a job to start hustling.

I attended a workshop at the DC bar association last week.  The bar calendar is loaded with affordable workshops and lectures.  These events are intended for lawyers, but the secret is that they are happy to have a law student/potential bar member attend.  So look at the calendar and find something that interests you and be sure to raise your hand and ask a question.  Imagine the impact on an audience of lawyers when a student raises their hand to ask a question and says “I just wanted to attend today because I’m interested in ____ law.”  This is how to get noticed.

A word about networking.  I remember being told how important it was to network before I really knew what it meant.  Ari Kaplan even says he remembers thinking it sounded a little sleazy.

Here’s my definition of networking:

Offering to get involved or help someone without any expectation that you will receive a return on the favor. 

Networking is something you will have to continue after you get a job as well.  Many lawyers get so tied up in their first few jobs that they ignore their networks from schools, previous jobs, neighborhoods, etc., until they are older.  Don’t make this mistake.  Don’t forget that your friends are your best network.  Almost all jobs come through connections, but this doesn’t just mean friends in high places.  Several of my friends heard about jobs through their friends.

Very few of my friends are using their law degree in ways that they anticipated when graduating.  I’m not a futurist, but I’m confident in saying that many students graduating today will find fulfilling work in fields that don’t even exist today.  The changes in our society are that profound.

One of my friends suggested that law students look for a chance to take a finance course if they haven’t already.  Again, perhaps it’s gotten better, but traditionally law schools fall short at providing a practical education.  The days are gone when you could just be a lawyer.  Success today will eventually require business and finance skills that they don’t teach in law school; find a way to get them on your own.  It’s rarely possible to “just be a lawyer” anymore.

Understand that even when you do find your first job you won’t know what you’re doing.  Society places value on a law degree and that feels nice at least right after you pass the bar, but what you learned in those three years is just the beginning.  Be prepared to be a life-long learner.

Another friend recommended The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career by Reid Hoffman.  LinkedIn cofounder Hoffman gives great advice on how to succeed in the hyper-competitive business world, it’s great advice for any professional.

Having met the students in the Alabama program I can say with confidence that they will all eventually find interesting and rewarding positions.  They are the lucky ones, because they’ve got the drive and they’re coming out of a great school.  The critical thinking and organizational skills that they learned in law school will help them regardless of where they land.  And by participating in the Washington program they’re growing their network.

I’m grateful to Mike House at Hogan Lovells for including me on the program.  Mike and the University of Alabama have created a great environment for new lawyers interested in government relations, now it’s up to them.

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Chuck Spurlock: An Appreciation

I went to Montgomery, Alabama today to be with the friends and family of Charles Hughes Spurlock, Jr.  Chuck Spurlock passed away Tuesday evening after a year fighting cancer.  Chuck was one of the smartest, sweetest, and most interesting people I have ever met.  I admired Chuck enormously and today I learned some things about him I didn’t know.

Chuck is originally from Clifton, Tennessee.  Over his 60 years he lived in many places, but all in the South.  He taught religion, history, and Greek and Roman mythology to high school students in Savannah and Atlanta, Georgia.  He also led successive debate teams in regional and national competitions.

While teaching in Savannah he began managing Congressional campaigns.  He went on to manage gubernatorial and Senatorial campaigns in Tennessee and Alabama.  Chuck managed Senator Jeff Sessions’ successful races for Alabama Attorney General and U.S. Senator.  Chuck was appointed as Sessions’ State Director, and served in that position for 17 years, taking a leave of absence twice to manage successful re-election campaigns.

Thinking about Chuck today made me realize that although I may not always love politics, I am fascinated by people that do, and Chuck was one of those people.  He was practical about politics, but he was also extremely competitive.  Because Chuck was involved in so many races he must have made an enemy or two.  But only from a distance.  Anyone that really knew Chuck admired and respected him, regardless of their politics.

I met Chuck when I joined the Senator’s staff in 1997.  This was also when he married his warm, beautiful and funny wife Phyllis.  Chuck and I traveled with the Senator for three years and I got to know Chuck, and the state of Alabama, better.  The usual arrangement had the Senator in a car with his local field representative; Chuck and I would be in the following car.  We would plan the day’s events and hopefully some media coverage.  In those conversations I learned how much Chuck loved history and politics, but I didn’t realize until today that he was so accomplished in them.  What I would give for one more ride with Chuck. has a story about Chuck’s passing that includes a good picture and the Senator’s heartfelt statement.

Chuck had a wonderful sense of humor and a happiness about him at all times.  As Dr. Bryan said today in the benediction, “I could hear his smile over the telephone.”  We could all hear your smile Chuck, I still hear it now.

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