Category Archives: Marketing
Adam 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.
His 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?
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)
PERSONALITY + STRATEGY = WIN
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 shestockimages.com which features images like this one:
On the issue of too-many-pretty-people in stock photography there is plainpicture.com out of Hamburg, with stuff like this:
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.