Category Archives: Marketing

Adam Grant: A Giver and an Original… and a Generalist?

Adam Grant OriginalsAdam Grant’s new book is coming out this month and it already looks like a best seller… and not just because of the amazing marketing machine that is already in place.  This guy is on fire.
Grant’s style combines the rigor of research with a semi-autobiographical tone that is compelling and enlightening. On a more personal level, Grant is teaching me important lessons in my exploration of the generalist mindset and how it relates to patterns of success or failure in the contemporary economy.


Adam Grant Give and TakeHis previous book, Give and Take  looked at different reciprocity styles and strategies.  His new book, Originals  discusses themes of creativity and nonconformity… with perhaps a dash of novelty-seeking / openness-to-experience traits. Grant is plumbing the depths of under-appreciated aspects of human personality — more technical details on that below.

Givers in a Taker’s World, Generalists in a Specialist’s World

Adam Grant is a Giver, an Original, and a Generalist.  He seems to live the values (and struggles) of the Givers he describes in his earlier book, and very likely, exhibits many of the tendencies of the Originals showcased in his new book. Certainly the being a magician part. He also seems to characterize the mindset and skillset of a highly successful generalist.

Back in late 2008, during the long tail of the global financial crisis, I was talking to an investment banker named Fred.  I told him I was researching the subject of “the relative career success of generalists versus specialists” in a world of hyper-specialization and rapid change (a long-standing fascination – nay, obsession — of mine).

Here’s what Fred said:

“Yes, we live in a hyperspecialist age, but as a result, generalists can be overpaid or underpaid.”

Fred elaborated that there are circumstances where it’s not good to be a specialist. He asserted that being a generalist is a matter of disposition… and therefore inescapable. He later noted that having a generalist mindset can also be the result of one’s education style.

Fred’s language of “overpaid or underpaid” struck a chord in me at the time.

What separates unsuccessful generalists from successful generalists?  Especially in an economy that seeks to perfectly compensate “perfect fit” specialists for each and every function?

Another way of phrasing the question: What’s the difference between a wannabe Malcolm Gladwell from an actual Malcolm Gladwell?

…apart from Outlier circumstances and the embracing of a specialty (aka the 10,000 hour rule)?

Short answer:  It’s about having the right mix of Conscientiousness and Openness to Experience.

Longer answer:  It’s kind of like Adam Grant’s successful versus unsuccessful Givers… and very likely something to do with his Originals.

Personal Tendencies + Adaptive Strategies

In Givers & Takers, after giving props to Robert Benchley and his Law of Distinction, Grant proceeds to define a proposed “reciprocity style” spectrum between “giving” and “taking,” with “matching” somewhere in between.   He then goes on to show how the Givers occupy the bottom and the top of the career ladder.

Grant notes that while Givers at the bottom get walked over, there are a few things they can do to enable themselves to make it to the top without sacrificing their natural tendency to give. As they approach the top of the ladder, people will tend to root for them and push them even higher.  Structurally this resembles the following:

(values-or-temperament-based trait) + (skill-based behavior) = (outcome)



Thank you Adam.    This potentially answers my conundrum about generalists vs. specialists which Fred characterized as “overpaid or underpaid.”

It’s more than just luck, circumstances, talent or IQ. My hypothesis is that, just like Grant’s Givers, generalists have a temperament at keeps them at the bottom due to the often unforgiving nature of business.

However, generalists can also occupy the top tier of organizations, especially when they adopt the right strategies and develop certain skills.  Also, part of it is about moving across the generalist-specialist spectrum and becoming an Eclectic.

I suspect some of the winning skills and strategies for generalists will be mentioned in Grant’s about-to-be released book, Originals. I also suspect that his notion of an “Original” may be a closely related concept to my beloved “Eclectic” type. We shall see.

Finally, according to some personality research studies there is a troubled relationship between high Conscientiousness and high Openness-to-Experience.  My view is that learning to turn on or off obsessive focus by pairing it (or decoupling it, as needed) with distracted curiosity is the key to building an eclectic and useful portfolio of expertise.

For those who identify with being an Original, an Eclectic, an Eccentric, or even just a run-of-the-mill Creative, understanding and mitigating these personality and behavioral distinctions can make all the difference between frustration and fulfillment.

 Adam Grant vs. the BFF (Big Five Factors)

From a bigger picture perspective, Grant is a high functioning generalist who is exploring a series of under-appreciated aspects of human personality.

To phrase it in Five Factor Model of human personality terms, his first book  and related stories of “Powerless Communication” describe behavioral strategies characterized by high levels of Agreeableness. His recent New York Times article, “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate,”(cf.  wandering and letting things stew), draws out the relative merits of low Conscientiousness… and provides a direct lead-in to his new book that pokes around some corners of the domain of Openness to Experience.

As of this moment, Adam Grant’s marketing bio says he “specializes in building productive cultures of generosity and originality.” Let’s wait and see his niche expand further. Will the book he writes in about 2-3 years shine a light into the adaptive goldmines of low Extroversion and high Neuroticism? Or have those mountains been stripped bare already by others? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, it’s wonderful to read and be inspired by this arch-generalist who has mastered and braided for himself an eclectic and intertwining set of skills, interests and domains of expertise.


Generic Brand Video: In less than 3 minutes, every global corporate t.v. ad

Here is a wonderful video that captures every trope of early 21st century company brand messaging:

(ht DC/DZ)

Really, there’s nothing much to add to it, the video says it perfectly.  Much more perfectly, in fact, than my previous post about stock photography, which covered many of the same themes, albeit in a rambling, needs-to-edited-down-to-one-third-the-length-draft-blog-post sort of way.

Yeah, my friends, you know I love the meta-humor.

Also: The “Generic Brand Video” makes me realize that portraying diversity through a sequence of stock images is only slightly better than trying to do it with a single stock image.  In the end, if it looks like stock photography and if the ratios of skin tones are just a little too calibrated, than, yeah, it’s inauthentic.

Perfectly Balanced Ratio of Skin Tones

A client recently pointed me at a banner in their office that advertises their learning academy for employees.  She noted that all the people in the photograph were employees of the company, including her boss.  In other words, it was an authentic picture.

In the never-ending arms race of novelty and fashion in corporate aesthetics, expect to see more and more images of real life employees being featured in company ads and marketing materials.

..and expect to see more and more employees who are stock photo quality.



Stock Photography and Corporate Diversity

Selecting appropriate and compelling imagery for corporate communications is tricky, especially when “appropriate and compelling” includes, among other things, the idea of representing a diversity of people.

"I'm thinking we should go a bit more blonde..."

“I’m thinking we should go a bit more blonde…”

Companies are in constant need of pictures for their ads and marketing collateral, articles, presentations, training materials, etc., and a substantial market of stock photography has grown around this need. As an instructional designer, I’m often creating or editing slide decks that are illustrated with images of people taken from stock photo websites.

One of my challenges in these situations is how to put together visually and culturally appealing materials on a tight budget and short development cycle for varied audiences… or, more accurately, for audiences that would like to see themselves as being perhaps more varied than they actually are.

This is what this blog post is all about: Achieving corporate team diversity – both real and imagined – through stock photography.

“Can you add a bit more… color… to this deck?”

For the past five years I’ve had to put together an untold number of slide decks, some of them good, some of them bad, and many of them just plain ugly. During that time I’ve often wrestled with the notion of representing racial and gender diversity in the characters presented on screen – typically stock photography models.

It’s easiest to explain this with images, so let’s do just that:

"I don't always search for 'Businessman' on Google Image Search, but when I do, I want to see a Successful Mature Business Man Smiling"

“I don’t always search for ‘Businessman’ on Google Image Search, but when I do, I want to see a Successful Mature Business Man Smiling”

The above image is the typical, “old school” photostock business guy. Let’s call him Mr. White. I will probably look something like that fellow, about 20 years from now…. okay, maybe I will bear only a slight resemblance to him…  if I’m lucky…  but the point is, the people in most companies do not look like this, at least once you leave the executive suite / boardroom.  Heck, even the boardroom ain’t that good looking, most of the time.

The thing is, most companies also do not look like this:

"Diversity check?  A-O-K!"

“Diversity check? A-O-K!”

My main problem with this image (let’s call it “Team A-O-K”) is that it’s cheesy… and preachy. True, the first image of Mr. White is unsatisfying to those of us who see the importance of communicating the value of diversity and who would like to see more of it in corporate culture… so I get why there is a market for images of Team A-O-K…  but there’s got to be a better way.

Why do we want images of diversity?

As an instructional designer, my preference is to use images that resonate for my learners. When it comes to images of “people at work,” they will identify more with people who look like themselves at work. That’s why both Mr. White and Team A-O-K don’t cut it.  In the type of work I do, the goal is for reasonably accurate portrayals of diversity, not fantasies of diversity.

A lot of folks talk the diversity talk… it’s the walking the diversity walk that trips ’em up. When I talk to clients  (usually, someone in the HR function), they often cite diversity as both an important organizational goal, as well as a personal passion. However, when they describe their desire to have fewer images of Mr. White and more of Ms. Brown in their PowerPoint decks, what I’d love to do is (perhaps gently, perhaps not so gently) remind them that more often than not their companies STILL DO look mostly like Mr. White… and here and there Ms. Petite Intelligent Blonde and/or Asian, most typically represented in entry-level-to-middle-management organizational layers, and tapering off in the mid-30s/early-40’s age bracket.

In other words, their corporate reality looks something more like this:

"As you can see, we have a very open and relaxed culture here... we don't wear ties."

“As you can see, we have a very open and relaxed culture here… we don’t wear ties.”

..and this:

"Here is my leadership succession plan.  It involves two of the people at this table."

“Here is my leadership succession plan. It involves two of the people at this table.”

Changing the stock photography without changing the cultural norms and hiring/promoting practices seems like a great way to focus one’s effort away from real change… like going to the trouble of recycling emptied glass bottles of artisanal, organic, locally-produced beer, even while upgrading electronic devices every 12 months. It might make you feel better, but you haven’t really changed the underlying behavioral patterns, you people. (“What do you mean, ‘you people?’”)  Okay, okay, I get it… okay yes, we’re not here to solve the world’s problems… okay yes, we’ve got a deadline for this deck deliverable… okay yes, we can start with the clip art.

"The other people at this company lack focus."

“I will provide greater diversity focus along the lower-left margin of your document title page.”

There… are you happy?  The guy in the picture certainly seems happy.

It’s a decent picture, actually, especially when considered within the genre of All-Purpose Corporate Photostock.  But yeah, there’s got to be a better, less heavy-handed, and more imaginative way to do this.

Meanwhile, I do feel the pain of HR. I once found myself wanting to throw up when, I was told, that if I were to create a slide deck for a certain corporate audience in another country, I could only use images of light-skinned men, so as not to break rapport with the viewers. Yuck.  In the end, I steered myself away from that part of the assignment, culturally insensitive jerk that I was. Can we agree, however, that my main concern wasn’t with their taste in stock photography?

On a much happier note, many of my current clients are truly diverse companies,  with strong diversity mandates in their recruiting and promoting processes.  Doing work for those companies is a pleasure… and a fantastic learning experience. Some of the most fascinating people with incredible personal stories show up in those organizations, and the overall effect is one of higher talent standards and outstanding performance results.

Of course, even the most demographically diverse company will struggle with a more subtle issue: diversity in thinking and approach. Many companies wrestle with psychographic, rather than demographic, homogeneity… but that will have to be the subject of different blog post.

Here’s an interesting trend that I’ve observed, though: Some of the most demographically diverse companies eschew images of people altogether, favoring photographs of objects, line drawings and iconographic images.

View from outside an office built on diversity

(Above: The only picture in this blog post which I’ve personally taken with an actual camera. I hereby grant permission to any stock photo site, editor, art director or graphic designer to tell their photographers to go out into the field and take more pictures like this one. Not that it’s fantastic. But at least it’s not totally dull and vapid.)

This is probably mostly a stylistic and pragmatic preference on the part of those companies – their PowerPoint decks and printed materials have a (slightly) longer shelf life across wider geographies if they don’t feature images of people with particular fashion of dress. However, there’s also message here about the value of practicing vs. preaching.  “We have achieved diversity in our ranks of real people,” they are saying, “We don’t need no stinkin’ stock photography models to make us feel better.”

What’s a More Realistic Picture?

Okay, so you want to know what diversity really looks like in companies, albeit within a stock photo-quality model universe?

It looks like this:

Three Women in Rapport

And this:


And this:

Laptop Staredown

And this:


And this:

Tech Guys

It’s all those images and more, strung across a much longer and varied presentation. Diversity is not a snapshot Kumbaya moment. Diversity in real life is not some statistically-calibrated melting pot moment where each ethnic group is included in a carefully balanced numbers, looking up into the camera with a smile.  Reality is messy… and clumpy. Diversity in real life involves concentrated pockets of specific cultures and sub-cultures, existing both separately and together with each other.

In other words, diversity takes a bit of work and doesn’t come in plastic-wrapped, single-serve images.

Lean In a Bit More Towards the Camera…

Meanwhile, Sheryl Sandberg’s organization, Lean In, recently threw its hat into the ring by partnering with Getty Images to publicize the “Lean In Collection,” a thoughtful initiative by Pam Grossman that features a very wide assortment of images of women… and also men in nurturing family roles.  Yeah, going through that collection I see a bit of the preachy, contrived  Team A-O-K thing happening, albeit with a contemporary hipster twist. Overall though, there is plenty of usable and compelling visual material.


In terms of the social importance of this initiative, I disagree with the notion that stock photography choices will create the conditions for the advancement of women in the workplace. Frankly, I see it happening the other way around. Scruffy dads wearing baby bjorns preceded the demand for stock photo models pretending to be scruffy dads wearing baby bjorns. Same goes with the models pretending to be flannel-and-jeans-clad motorcycle repair shop female mechanics (femmechanics?), server room techniciennes, the Chairwoman of the Board, etc. etc.. No doubt there are some feedback loops between cultural norms and cultural representations, but in the case of corporate clip art… um, no.  Horse goes first, cart comes second, otherwise it just looks like desperate wishful thinking.

Sheryl quips, “If they can’t see it, they can’t be it.”  Yes, that’s a rhyming slogan Sheryl, but no, that’s not true. We can be what we can’t see.  We always have, and we always will. Quip pro quo.

That said, I empathize with the sentiments being expressed – at least on the surface –  by this project.  I also see it as blow-over from the ongoing concern about advertising images which portray and promote an unobtainable physical ideal for women, and increasingly, for men too.

Rich, Pretty, Skinny, Smart: Choose any four of those

There‘s a whole other conversation to be had here, which is about beauty:  Stock photography models are just that – models. They tend not to display any major imperfections in their skin or facial symmetry, tend to have a slender body shape, and so on. As with the Mr. White phenomenon, from time to time I do notice that some companies, even while diverse in demographic terms, seem to have an abundance of stock-photo-model-quality employees.  Walking the halls of those companies reminds me of the movie Gattaca, where in a genetically-screened future, the protagonist (Vince Freeman) an “imperfect” guy with glasses decides to break through the “In Valid” category that he has been placed into. Through a supreme effort, he impersonates and ultimately outperforms his “perfect specimen” peers.  Although I saw the movie over a decade ago, I still think about it often.

Gattaca Treadmill Scene, aka, What the Gym Looks Like When I'm Business Travelling

Gattaca Treadmill Scene, aka, What the Gym Looks Like When I’m Business Travelling

As for the Getty Lean In Collection, I do wonder if there’s a simpler commercial agenda at work, i.e. Getty Images is catching on that people are tired of the same cheesy, overused stock images and, unable to accurately gauge the level of offline image usage, they are seeking a new mix of products and customers through a publicity-generating  alliance. The backlash to their hashtag is telling. Lean In & Getty are sufficiently sophisticated and resourced to produce a revenue-sharing system for submitted stock photography… but they chose not to.  Saying that “a portion of the proceeds go to grants for somethingsomething” doesn’t cut it.  Asking for free pics of chicks ain’t exactly “empowering.”

Meanwhile, in reading about the Getty Lean In Collection, I started thinking about who really decides which images of women and men represent what is ‘normal’ or ‘desirable’ — the mere presence of ’empowering’ stock photography doesn’t mean it will get used… people (mainly, advertising art directors) have to want to use the images.

Real People, Unreal Photos

I looked at some other sites and photo collections that have been addressing some of these issues for many years.  For the portrayal of women as powerful/accomplished performers, there are a number of  niche collections that seek to provide visual aid. One of these is women-owned which features images like this one:

Shestock - SKO000007

On the issue of too-many-pretty-people in stock photography there is out of Hamburg, with stuff like this:

Plain Picture

In addition to real-looking, non-airbrushed Euro-people, they’ve got nice collection of artistically inspired photography and interesting compositions. If as a designer you’re looking to stand out from the crowd of same-old-same-old stock photography… or if you simply want your stock photography models to be something other than idealized Ken and Barbie dolls (if you can handle it… be honest… can you..? Ken and Barbie are so pretty, and they’re also available in an assortment of trendy skin tones…), take a look at the PlainPicture collection.

Ultimately, we know that people enjoy looking at beautiful images, including images of beautiful people smiling back at them.  For that reason alone, I don’t expect stock photography models to ever go away completely… notwithstanding some my clients who currently insist on a diagrams-and-objects-only approach to their PowerPoint deck imagery. Also, we know that the idea of “beauty” will continue to evolve and diversify, as it always has. For the sake of building more enjoyable, meaningful and high performing corporate cultures, we can only hope that this evolution and diversification continues to happen in the real world, too.

How to Have More Engaging Conference Calls -::- Four Lessons from Morning Radio Shows

For the past five days this viral video by Tripp and Tyler, “A Conference Call in Real Life” has been bouncing around my social media circles, and day by day, it’s spreading faster:

Yes, I am one of those people… or more accurately, I am one of those people that does those sorts of things, often with (ironically) the goal of helping other people like that do a better job at doing those sorts of things.

..and yes, it is hard to keep a straight face on conference calls sometimes.  Especially now that they’ve nailed it with that video.

Conference calls are brutal, but they are a fact of business life… and a continuously growing fact at that.  As the workforce spreads itself out across wider distances, “virtual teams” become the norm rather than the exception.

Virtual teams have to contend with relentless, energy-sucking entropy that diffuses the impact of their verbal communication, primarily through the reduction of non-verbal cues. The long, boring conference call with half-listening multi-taskers – the calls where the question “Any questions?” is answered by a field of sleepy crickets – epitomizes that entropy.

If we’re going to succeed in the virtual team environment, it’s crucial that we inject greater vitality, engagement and focus into our conference calls.

Get Your Morning Jolt of Acoustic Variety

When it comes to improving the quality of a conference call, one of the best analogies I’ve found is the morning radio talk show. The morning radio talk show demonstrates (often, to an extreme) the importance of maintaining acoustic variety in an audio-only medium.  Never mind the old radio rule of “no dead air.”  On a raucous morning show there is no stable air… no one sound pattern that lasts longer than 20-30 seconds.

On a typical radio talk show, acoustic variety begins with the voice of the hosts. Individually, a radio talk show host will have a great voice, with strong vocal modulation and emotive power.

But any one voice is still not enough:  Our ears tune out almost any speaker after just a few minutes (or for some, seconds), especially when the listener is multi-tasking, such as eating breakfast and reading emails/social media updates, all while navigating the morning commute. So that’s why radio talk shows typically have a pair of co-hosts,  often male and female, usually with varying demographic/regional accents, in order to raise the level of vocal variety.

In addition to the voices of the hosts, radio shows feature music, media clips, sound effects, guest interviews, and listeners calling in by phone. Put it all together and you’ve got a veritable non-stop varying stream of acoustic madness.  While we don’t need to go that far in our corporate conference calls, there are certainly a few useful lessons we can apply from radio.

Four Easy Listening Lessons from Radio

Here are four things you need to start doing – and continuously improving upon – if you’re a person whose days are spent on the phone with far-flung groups of people who barely know each other:


It ain’t so much about the words you speak… it’s about how you speak the words. Put some effort, energy and practice into the quality of your voice. The key thing is to get a good combination of self-calibration and coaching/feedback from others. Start by recording yourself speaking and then playing it back to yourself. Do this until it no longer feels uncomfortable to hear yourself played back from a recording device, i.e., you’ll want to reach the point where you have an accurate understanding of what your voice sounds like to others, and be satisfied with it.  We tend sound a lot more dynamic to ourselves, in our own head, than we do to others.  Hire a speech coach, too.  A few lessons can go a long way… Lorde knows.


Great communicators are, first and foremost, great listeners.  Make sure that your conference calls have a strong element of dialogue. Plan a series of two-way discussions into your presentation. The earlier you do this in the call the better, as it sets the tone and expectation with the participants that they are just that — participants in the call. Pepper the discussion with questions and call on people in advance to let them know you expect them to contribute to the conversation.  Rule of thumb: No one person speaks for more than 3 minutes straight… and for higher-energy results, reduce the limit to 90 seconds.

iPhone Headphones


What are you wearing?  How are you sitting, or better yet, standing?  Did you know that your appearance, facial expression, posture and gestures translate into the quality of your voice?  Good.   Now put a mirror in front of yourself on your next conference call and be prepared to experience your best call ever.


When leading discussion, make your words explode with sensory language, aka,  the Invisible Visual Aid.  Use words that trigger the imagination and/or memory — sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings.

Brilliant storytelling and gripping analogies will hijack your listener’s brain, painting pictures in their mind and carrying them off to faraway places.

..and say it with feeling, too.

Because if you’re gonna be on, then you gotta be on.

These Six Sentences Reveal How Quickly Your Brain and the Internet have Grown Together

What happened next, after everyone started using cheesy “click-bait” headlines, was unbelievable, or was it…


We embraced the (important and useful) blurry line between entertainment and learning (see this other an easy-to-read-article, here) which made it easy for us to quickly consume information and ideas.



There was a veritable Arms Race of “click-bait” — words and images competing for our eyeballs and thumbs — one shark jumping over the next, endlessly…

shark jump


..but we became cognitively fat and lazy, because there was little nutritional substance behind those empty “snackable” headlines…

fat cat on couch


..and the repeated experience of getting “tricked” by a headline that wasn’t exactly representative (or even true) to its content caused us to become even more cynical and suspicious of online information sources.


Ultimately, with our reduced expectations of what the Internet had to offer, we looked more and more to our personal friends in the real world for authentic sharing and learning experiences.

maya and kristen dancing

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