How to Lead and Succeed, Right Now. Advice from FLOTUS’s Former Comms Director


I waited for Maria Christina Gonzalez Noguera (who goes by “MC”) in the sunny lobby of an interactive agency in Union Square NYC. At the time, MC hadn’t yet started her new role as SVP of Global Affairs at Estee Lauder, and my office was in NJ, so meeting someplace central was ideal. As she exited the brushed-steel-door elevators whoever was in the perimeter slowed their step and turned their attention towards her. The cluster of hip-clad and smartly faced agency folks knew someone with clout had just entered their sphere. MC has a room-altering presence, a forceful combination of effortless grace, muted seriousness, and sparks of levity.

The Fire Had Long Stopped

The fire had long stopped. The trees stood pole thin. Black charcoal towers jutting slight from the ground and lancing the sky. They creaked, a faint echo of the torrid crackling fire that turned them from lush green plumes into these stilts. The ground was a powder of grey and black. I thought of the astronauts walking on the moon. I paced slowly between the trees, hoping not to drag my sleeves along their skins to become soiled with soot, but after five minutes I relinquished trying to avoid the trees and after fifteen minute I was indistinguishable from the charcoal trees…

Homayoon, on Friday night

I sat across the small round eat-in-kitchen table from him as I had been doing most Friday evenings during the years we lived in Indiana. We’d drive the kids over after work for dinner with my in-laws on the west side of Indianapolis. It was the closest feeling I had of living in a family compound with an extended family all around us. Most of the time a revolving set of cousins and family friends would join us for drinks, dinner and tea. Sometimes it was just us.

My father-in-law was an understated person, soft spoken and economic with his words. That evening as we sat together he was fixated on piecing together fragments of music he was replaying in his memory. Every now and then a melody would break from his lips, he’d tap a rhythm on the table with his fingertips of his right hand and the palm of his left. He gazed someplace over my right shoulder, humming and tapping, trying to align the sequences as he remembered them.

When he and I would be alone in the kitchen after we’ve all eaten and washed the dishes, and most of the family had gathered in the living room to drink tea and watch TV, he’d occasionally ask me a small-talk question such as “how was work today?” I knew not to complain about work. I knew not to complain about anything as he never complained about anything. I usually tried to steer the conversation to his life before he was married, before he arrived in the states. Having been born in 1930 he had seen a world in transition. Still, he’d tell his stories in a contrite and undramatic fashion, very matter-of-fact reporting though the subjects of the stories were far from boring.

That night he wasn’t annoyed, though if you didn’t know him you might mistake his remoteness for frustration. But he wasn’t that kind of person and his friends knew that. He was often doing equations of sorts in his mind, analyzing a musical tone, a colloquial phrase, a poor translation or use of a word. A vowel sound. A minor key.

Once, during a Friday night visit, he turned to me and said, “Listen to the ‘O’ sound in the word ‘dog’ when saying ‘hot dog.’”

“Hot dog.” I said.

“Hot…dog,” he replied, slowly, as if teaching me to speak for the first time and hot dog would be my first words.

“Hot. Dog.” I stated slowly.

“Hot dog,” he re-stated, “there are only a few times in American english where that ‘O’ sound occurs.”

Once, during a family trip to London, he handed me a small somewhat furry bean. We were sitting on the enclosed porch of a connected home in Mill Hill. He peeled the surface layers away to reveal a familiar pale brown shell that looked like an oval duck’s beak.

“Pistachio,” he claimed.

“Pistachio,” I questioned?

“Pistachio,” he defined. His eyes sparkled, he slapped my shoulder.

As I sat across from him that Friday night, while he was figuring out the melody in his mind, I asked him about his time in the Iranian army during the 1950s, when there was great tension between factions of the government. He’d typically oblige, but he didn’t want to talk about it that evening. He felt I was asking him to be boastful. Instead he surfaced a familiar refrain, “I’m just a simple person, like a small stone on a pile of similar stones.” He was regularly humbling himself, possibly a remnant of his studious practice of Islam as a young man. “I am just a small stone…” he started again and I interrupted him.

“No you’re not.” I said pointedly. He lowered his gaze from over my shoulder and to my eyes. He stopped drumming his fingers. He paused whatever orchestration he had accomplished in his mind.

“What do you mean?” He asked, quietly and slightly antagonistic.

“Everybody, anybody you ask would say that you are not a simple person.”

“I see,” he leaned back in his chair, “and who exactly would this ‘anybody’ be? Who would you ask?”

“You’re not a simple stone, you’re more like one of those stones in the natural history museum, they look simple on the outside, but when broken open they reveal gems and crystals.” I was sincere.

“Well…“ he started, questioning my metaphor.

“Not everyone is like you, I’d say there are simpler stones than you…”

He interrupted me with a heavy sigh, a resignation. His shoulders dropped a little.

“Let me tell you a secret,” he continued, “when you believe in who you are on the inside, have trust in what you truly are, then your friends will see your insides as if they are your outsides. I am still a simple stone, I just know what I am on the inside (he raised his hands a little from the table and turned them palms up) and live my life.”

He paused and took another deep breath.

“One day,” he continued, “sometime in the future, I will be tossed back on the pile of similar stones and no one will ever know what I was on the inside, but if I believe in myself and live my life the way I think is right, then at least I can try to leave the world a little bit better than the world I was born into.”

With that he raised his gaze once again, as if he spotted a bird or a flower over my right shoulder. The song returned to his mind and he began singing the complete melody while tapping the rhythm on the table top. Then he stood up, turned his shoulders towards the kitchen door, and taking small steps while whistling, went to find a specific book within the multitude of books on his floor-to-ceiling living room bookshelves.

Three insights from seing Fran Lebowitz last night

I love what Fran Lebowitz has to say. I love the way she says it. Her story-wit brain is always on, ever-ready to pounce on a topic that strikes her. She’s a rock musician of anecdotes, she prefers a groove. She starts with a low grumble, smirking on the details of things. She builds on it with a sly widening lens because she knows where she’s leading us, then reaches her three-chord chorus of what it all means and shouts it out load to a welcoming roar from the crowd. I want to hear her talk and talk and talk…

Lew and His Abandoned House in Fountain Square

For the record, Lew is a great, great friend. We no longer live near each other and I miss our time together. He is existential, ruminative, and intellectual. Conversations with Lew run the gamut, but remain anchored to solving the mysteries of “the why.” Why does this happen, and why does this other thing happen too…

Eulogy for Hogs and Heifers

We spent the second half of 1996 flat broke, working entry-level internships and retail gigs. We shared one enamel pan and one aluminum pot which we used daily on our two-burner hotplate…

Steve, and the fish, at Half-Moon bay

My friend Steve is an early-bird and a perfectionist. He measures the tops of his side-tables and cabinets to mathematically determine the ideal location for a-framed photos, cups and plates, and general keepsakes from his extensive travels around the world. His wife Rachel is the polar opposite. She sleeps late, misplaces papers, and keeps things simple. When they met, they joked that their relationship was doomed, but they had been married twenty years when they decided to travel to a secluded, off-the-grid, beach-hut thirty miles south of Cancun.

On the fourth night of their trip, they were sitting on wooden stools at the local “bar.” They shared small shots of tequila with similar sized glassed of lime juice and tomato juice. They’d sip one, then the other, then trade them. They giggled at their joy over these small glasses. Steve lifted one above his head to find the brand, but couldn’t tell if what he saw was a word or a haphazard scratch along the bottom.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, slightly tipsy, “Let’s enjoy this moment.”

“Maybe I’ll buy the glass from this bar, to take home with us.”

“Why bother, we’ll just have to come back.”

Sometime later that night, after a few more small glasses of tequila, lime juice and tomato juice they sauntered back to their unwired beach hut. His arms around her waist. Hers around his shoulders. He stooped slightly to the left to allow her arms to fully cross his neck. They passed through the beaded doorway and fell into the hard and dusty mattress.

“Looks like its going to be anther beautiful day tomorrow,” Steve said, “I think I’ll get up early to see the sunset.”

The next morning was their fifth morning at the hut. Starting with the first full day, Steve would wake up early, unfurl a woven mat at a specific spot on the beach near the ocean, practice yoga and then swim in the tranquil clear water until he reached the invisible line of the mouth of the small bay where the hut was situated. The bay had two shoulders nearly equidistant from the hut. The area could have been called “Half-Moon” bay as the bay was nearly a true half moon. He would swim until he reached the invisible edge of the half-moon.

As planned, Steve woke a little bit early in order to catch the sunrise as he practiced his yoga. He laid out his mat, exercised through his routine, and walked deliberately in a straight line towards the ocean, aiming for the midway point between the bay’s shoulders.

The water was not cold, but refreshing. He loved the caribbean for its warm and clear waters. Once he was up to his waist in the water he dove in with his hands then his head and began his freestyle stroke, counting his breaths. He thought of his swimming as a mediation where he would vacate his mind of any extra thought beyond his breathing and strokes in groups of ten. He’d count up to ten, then start again. He would often unintentionally insert the word “zero” as  a halfway between ten and one, but he worked to release this thought as well.

He was deep in his meditation, enjoying the water, the air as it entered his lungs, the air as he blew the bubbles into the water. The warmth of the new sun on his back and legs and on the side of his face when he took a breath. It was during one of these breaths where the sun hit his face that he realized he didn’t see the left shoulder of the bay in his peripheral vision. He halted his swimming, looking straight out into the ocean, and he didn’t see either shoulder of the bay in his periphery. He burst around to look back at the beach and then he knew. He had been pulled outside of the bay by a quiet tide. He was nearly four of five times further out in the water than he typically would be and he could tell he was being pulled further out.

He could barely see the small hut. He didn’t see any boats within the horizon either or else he would have started yelling. He floated there, treading water, looking in all directions for something to help him gage the distance he had traveled and at what trajectory he was moving further away.

After what he thought was five minute he tried to swim back, paddling his body at angles to the shore as he had learned as a boy to avoid the riptide. He swam for what he though was fifteen minutes, still using his meditation routine to keep himself calm, but when he tried to measure his success it appeared as if he had stood still. He was growing tired. His arms ached. His hands and feet were numb and tingling.

“Well,” he said aloud to himself, “I guess this is it. This is where it all ends,” and he began to cry, and shake in his misery. He yelled out for help, belting as loud as he could five times. Splashing at the water at his sides. Then the misery passed and he felt an odd clarity.

“What should I do now?” He asked himself. “Enjoy yourself,” he answered himself back. “But how?” he asked himself. “Back float.” He answered himself and turning and stiffening his body he floated on his back and looked up at the clouds. “Beautiful day,” he said aloud. He first started counting the clouds, then he started to identify the meteorological names of the types of clouds, then he started to think of them as characters in a play and wrote lines for them. The sky was a wide blue, the could soft tufts, the sun a pointed orb of hot yellow.

His back hurt and his arms continued to tire, to seem to turn themselves off, to not listen to his brain.

“What should I do now?” he asked himself. “Why not dive and look at the fish?” he answered himself. He turned his body, took a gasp of air, and dove into the water, not using his muscles too much in hopes to conserve his energy. He laughed at himself for the thought of conserving his energy seemed fruitless, but he decided he wanted to see as many fish as he could, and he needed his energy for that.

Under the water surface were schools of fish of all different types and varieties. Some scooped around his feet, others chased after invisible forces further down in the deeps. The fish would appear out of the invisible and then disappear out of his vision. He couldn’t believe how beautiful the underwater happenings were and thought about how many times in his life he had swam above these things without seeing them. He continued to watch the fish and then noticed how one group seemed to disappear behind something dark. He rose his head above the water and didn’t see any hint of a difference on the surface. He dove again and swam towards the shadow.

It was a reef or a sandbar or mixture of the two! He swam to the landing, wedged his feet where they could gain traction and stood. His head, shoulders and torso were above the water.

“I’m saved.” he said to himself. “I’m going to make it.” He looked down at his hands under the water, at how pale and wide they looked. He raised them up to his face, splashing water on his mouth and nose.

A little bit at a time he’d lower his face into the water to find and follow the path of the sandbar, making sure he didn’t get too close to the sharp edges of the coral. He realized that this sandbar was making an arc back towards the left shoulder of the bay, as if it was the other half of a full moon. He wondered if the bay was either the former mouth of a volcano or potentially the site of a meteor landing.

He slowly and deliberately made his way back to the left side of the bay, and then walked along the curve of the beach until he reached his wife sleeping on a mat to the left of the mat he placed on the beach earlier in the morning. She was snoring loudly. She had pulled the mosquito net over her entire body and over her heard. On top of that she placed her wide straw hat over her face and neck. He saw that her wrists and tops of her feet were becoming sunburned. He walked the few steps to the hut, pulled a towel from the drying bar, and draped it over her lower half. She woke, and moved the hat from her face to make sure it was him, then plopped it back down. She spoke to him through the layers.

“Hey, there you are. I thought you had decided to go into town or something.”

“No, I was swimming.”

“Oh, I couldn’t see you. Did you take a new route or something? That’s so unlike you.”

“Yes.”

“Well, good for you.”

“Yes. I guess it was.”

“Plus, it’s such a beautiful day, it’s a perfect day to be in the water.”

“Yes, it’s definitely a beautiful day.” Steve said, then laid back on the mat and felt the hot air wash over him. Rachel tugged her hand out from under her wraps and found his hand and held it tight. He gripped her hand right back.

The Drama Hidden within PR Week’s Power 50 Data

Each year since 2007 PR Week creates and posts a “Power List” of the most powerful and influential people in PR. From 2007 to 2010 the list topped at 25. From 2011 to present the list has expanded to include 50.

If you gather up the lists and look at the individuals chronologically from 2007 through to 2015 the results resemble the board game “Chutes and Ladders.” I specifically wanted to see how the 2007 winners fared throughout the years, and then wanted to see how the current batch of winners wound their way to their current positions. The below is a back-of-the-napkin, data-visualization analysis.

Here’s a quick guide to read the images…

  • Grey lines represent a continuous position on the list from year to year
  • A black line means that person laddered-up to the top position
  • A red line means that person exited the list after their position
  • An orange dotted line means the person was off the list for this period of time, but returned
  • A green dotted line means the person handed-off their position to a new/different person at their company (As example, in 2013 Harris Diamond passed the Weber Shandwick baton to Andy Polansky, and Leslie Dach handed the Wal-Mart baton to Dan Bartlett)
  • An “X” next to a name means they were one-time listees

2007 Power Listees and their Trajectory:

More individuals seem to “chute” than to “ladder,” potentially due to the expansion of the list in 2011. What’s also visible is the bunching of the top leaders. Most of the top leaders maintained a position within the top 10 year-over-year until 2013, when some of their replacements took over the roles. Though many of the replacements trended back up.

2015 Listees and their Paths to Glory

A different story appears through this data-visualization, though some of the principles remain. One key remaining principle is the top people on the Power List tend to remain at the top. You can see that a new wave of individuals emerge in 2012 and incrementally ladder their way to the top 10. The dramatic churn of individuals between 2010 and 2012 is also apparent, with a few years of list stability until this year, then there is a new wave of disruption in the list. Still, this new disruption is more of a changing of seats than people dropping from the list. Many of the people from 2014 remain on the list in 2015.

Areas of high drama in this visualization include:

There’s a lot more than can be derived from this data, such as the impression that women fare worse then men, and that strong brands hold their positions even through leadership changes (Wal-Mart, P&G, Fleishman-Hilliard). The above was my first take on this data.

Notes:

  • I once worked for a venture capital group that owned the celebrity index Popex. I wonder if a tool/game like that would be a valuable add-on to this list.
  • I captured the above data points within excel, then used PowerPoint to create the images.

Strand Stories: Johnny Depp

Back then the cash registers at the Strand were on an elevated platform at the front of the store. The cashiers stood with their backs to a storefront-wide plate glass window on Broadway. Looking in from the street our loose heads floated above the tiered and dimly lit display of bestsellers, remainders and t-shirts.

It was a hectic and crammed Friday night in July when the air was heavy. We all wished for a thunderstorm to take the weight away, but the day darkened into a hot electric night pregnant with the type of muted trouble only found below 14th street. Behind the tall stone buildings on the west side of Broadway the sky deepened orange then red then grey.

The store was a mess on nights like those. Broke-loose ramblers and lonely half-baked brainiacs would find their way to the store to soak up the specific mojo created by that creaky space and all of those second-hand books. Billions and billions of words piled and pressed and mashed together, filed sideways in a haphazard but respected logic. You could hear the words reading themselves aloud. The words called into the night and the people came to find them.

There was one narrow door in and it was the same door out. People pushed and jammed their way into the store and onto the street. There wasn’t any air conditioning, just giant steel caged fans that buzzed louder than the music and neutralized most possible conversations. Occasionally you’d hear a fleeting break or a squeak above the drone. It was hot. Everyone was sweaty. It smelled like shoes and bark.

One perk of working up at the registers was that you were closest to the fans though they blew directly over your head. You could reach up and touch the cool air with your open palm. As a customer approached the registers they’d see the cashiers standing shoulder to shoulder, occasionally lifting an arm or two in a form of signaling or waving. Sometimes a customer would confuse this for a beckoning or a salute. They’d blush and wave back.

On this Friday Night I was at the far left register, next to the one and only door. I’d hang my right arm over the plywood divider between the cashier platform and the small entranceway to catch any cool air that carried in. That channel of in and out by that door was furious. People knocking people sideways to enter and exit.

“It’s a bookstore.” I’d remind myself, but it was more than that. It could have been built upon sacred ground, upon a long buried magnetic meteor. It was the gyroscopic core of a hallowed universe where the fanatical believers of “don’t judge a book by its cover” convened as far away as possible from all the pretty people and their dancing and their fancy parties.

I stood at my post, scanning the crowd and ringing up customers by reading off codes such as “paper,” or “review.” Just as I was finishing up with the end of my queue, a shoulder length mop of brown hair bobbed and weaved through the crammed aisles towards the front. The faceless figure wore a bold and baggy printed shirt, khaki shorts and combat boots. He marched a bit too furiously, headed for the the door. His hair swung back and forth from shoulder to shoulder like an upside down mop being used as a dance partner.

As he entered the tidal scrum of the small entranceway by the one narrow door he flipped his hair back and stared right into my eyes with a wired sadness and a mischievous desire. I was frozen. We were frozen in that grip of timelessness when strangers lock eyes and search for something that either isn’t sure of, but spark each to cackle in a laughter of lost friendship or common alignment of stars and situations.

I stood there, locking eyes with Johnny Depp and we read each other’s minds.

He said to me “C’mon man, let’s get the fuck out of here, we’ve got things to do.” And we shared a vision of loud music and dozens of people jumping from hotels beds to couches and tables breaking, tumbled buckets of ice slush and liquor punch spilling widening puddles into high-weave carpets, and so much laughter and rapture that everyone pees their pants.

And I said back “Dude, I can’t leave, I’ll get fired.” And the vision closed up like a wide plume of smoke reverse-escaping back to the bottle where it was born from. Then the bottle top sucked itself back into place with a thump.

And then he said, with a sad tear in his eye and a frown on his lips, ”I hear you man, but I’m gone.” And with that he lowered his eyes, ducked his shoulders, and exited through the one and only door to the store.

The cashier next to me elbowed my left arm and said, “Yo, do you know that dude?”

“Yes. I guess I do.”

“I’ve got friends like that too.”

We each turned around, putting our palms up to catch the cool fan air and for a few seconds looked out into the night and all the blurry faces that rushed by that neither of us would ever see again for the rest of our lives.

Three Sunny Days in Seattle

The sun was still setting early as if it was winter, and the high grey sky paled to pewter then charcoal when the street lights flickered on. The coolness of the ground seeped up through the lush green shrubs and somehow the flowers glowed vibrant and full. I looked out of the front window of my small house in Columbia City and marveled at the fullness of the green, even in the dark.

A light rain fell, misting up the windows. The heat clicked on, and across the water of lake Washington the twinkling lights of Mercer island could have been stars.

Laying in bed as the night grew colder I pulled my heavy blanket to my chin and thought about my work agenda for the next day. I fell asleep wondering if I had any same-day deliverables.

I woke the next day in the usual pale grey light. By the time I dressed and exited my house and headed towards my car parked at the curb I realized that the sun was out. It was bright on the horizon somewhere behind the trees, but it was bright and warming. Steam lifted from the roads and grass. There was fog between some trees.

Huh, I said to myself. Sun in April. Looks like it will be a beautiful day.

Riding up the elevator at the office building the half dozen of us talked about the sun. We each remarked on the beauty of the light and how it will warm up the day. Someone joked about taking the day off to enjoy it.

There were small conversations about the sun throughout the morning, leading up to lunchtime. Everybody ate outside, along walls and on benches, sitting on their bags to prevent the dampness to seep up from the masonry. The whole city of Bellevue was outdoors and there wasn’t enough room for everyone to sit. The sidewalks were crammed with people strolling slowly in their sleeveless vests and waist-length shells.

Back at my desk, the sun reflected off of the windows of the building across the way. I went to pull down the shades and my office cube neighbors erupted with, “No way!” By 3pm a quarter of the office left early. By 4pm the office half had left, by 5pm there was me, and a few other easter-coasters who hadn’t yet been in the PacNW long enough to understand the high value of these precious daylight hours.

I drove home, back over the route 90 bridge towards Seattle and the light was radiant and heavenly. As I turned off of Mercer island and towards the tunnel that bore under the east side of Seattle the highway slopes down towards the lake. As I drove the light glimmered across all the small waves, it was blindingly bright. Mount Rainier was visible and present and majestic to the south, out of scale with the rest of the world around it. The fish swam to the surface of the lake, bolting from the cold depths and leaping into the sun. They sang and squealed with joy. I sang too.

The stars that night were glorious although the night was cold.

The next day, it was sunny again. My neighbors across the street were outside pointing at the sky. As I open the door to my car I said good morning. They both looked at me, muted at first and said, “This is so usual. We might stay home today.”

Half of my office took the day off. My friend, an ex-pat from Chicago tapped me on my should at my desk. He said, “You realize there are never, and I mean never, two sunny days in a row in April. It’s unheard of.”

“It’s beautiful here in the sun.” I said back. Over his shoulder was a view of the Olympics in the distance. Sharp and snowcapped. To my right were the Cascades. The Puget sound sat in the center of a giant torque-spring bear trap, surrounded by the jagged teeth of rock and stone. It was so breathtakingly beautiful I understood why everyone lived here.

Wednesday was another sunny day. I received an email just before I was going to leave that house that the office was closed due to the sun. The simple note from our considerate CEO stated simply that it was to beauteous of a day to let it slip by. Especially for those of us who were vitamin D deficient. She closed her email with smiley face emotion.

I went into town, everything was closed. The bank was closed. Many of the restaurants had only a few people on hand for staff. Caravans of cars passed by with canoes and skis strapped to their racks. I sat outside at my favorite bakery, sipping on a cappuccino. The cool air blew the swirls of steam from the mug until they evaporated in shafts of bright light that piled through the gaps between the buildings and the trees.

“You’re not from here are you?” The waitress asked me.

“No, I’m not. Why?”

“Because you’d be doing something other than sitting here if you were.”

“Like what?”

“Being outdoors.”

“But I am outdoors.”

Later that day, back home, I sat on my my front steps and my retired neighbor waved to me from his driveway.

“Beautiful day.” He said,”Never seen three days of sun in a row in April. Maybe in February, but never in April.”

“That’s what I hear.” I said.

“There’s nothing like Seattle when it’s sunny,” his smile so wide his teeth glinted and shone. Up above a flock of birds circled and swerved across the bright blue sky. The day was so clear I could see their lined feather and their small solid eyes. They dashed among the tall green trees and flew out of sight, over a hill, and into the evening when the clouds would return.