A few weeks ago, I interviewed Brian Reich, SVP and Global Editor of Edelman Digital, to discuss his new book, Shift and Reset. The book challenges us to change the way we approach causes and issues and captures many of the sentiments held by young people who are motivated to make a change. In particular, Reich highlights the need to overhaul current methods of thinking and urges that, to address all of these issues, we need to collaborate and embrace the connectivity of the digital age. In a world more connected than ever before, he argues that we each have the power to be change agents and encourages young people in particular not to start out on their own, but to drive change from within existing organizations. He calls for a new level of collaboration and systems thinking if we really want to address serious issues and transform the world.
Can you speak to your general thinking around the book and more specifically to the impact for young people?
I think one of the benefits I have, which I hope is reflected in the book, is somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 or 20 years of work. One of the challenges I see with young people, particularly those in their 20’s, relatively recently out of school who have this passion and deep desire to have an impact on the world, is that without experience, without having failed, they don’t necessarily have the perspective or the lessons to apply.
As a result, I think there is this prevailing belief that changing the world is easy; if you believe, and if you have access to the technology, you can actually accomplish something. But in reality change is extremely hard. And not only are the issues we’re trying to tackle very complex, but the institutions that control a lot of the very important elements to make the change are extraordinarily resistant to changing how they operate.
My fear is twofold. A) We won’t actually solve these problems because we aren’t going about them with a full perspective or a real sense of collaboration. But more importantly, B) when we fail in the short term, the message that it will send will disillusion particularly young people who have that passion and interest but unrealistic expectations.
Part of my hope in writing the book was to take those established interests and shake them up and say look, the world has fundamentally shifted under your feet, so we have to change how we address issues. It’s a lot harder to change someone who’s already doing things a certain way, so if we can shape and mold the current, new or next generation of people who are going to have an impact with some of the lessons learned, then our likelihood of success and impact is going to increase.
The baseline of that is that nothing we’re doing is working, at least a far as I’m concerned. Not the way it should, and that’s just not acceptable. So the alternative has to be better. There has to be a better option.
So where would you suggest that young people who want to get involved start? If they’re going to have to fail, where is that? What’s their starting point and where do they go from there?
First, I encourage young people not to go and start their own thing. We all have different life experiences and things we bring that can help organizations change and succeed. I would start with finding a way to embed yourself into the work of an organization. Now that does not mean you have to take a job at a philanthropic organization, a nonprofit, or whatever. That may mean sitting on a board, taking the media approach and writing, blogging or podcasting so that your perspective and your questions are being considered alongside what everyone else is doing. But I think it’s very important, particularly for young people who don’t necessarily have the benefit of years and years of experience or perspective to draw on, that they go and see how it’s currently being done and look for the areas where they can have a discrete impact. That’s the opposite of what most people tell millennials to do. But again I think part of the problem is that no one really knows what exactly it takes to succeed. So to suggest that you go out there with no experience or any infrastructure or support and can go and have a significantly greater impact than an organization that is well funded and has a long track record, I think is misguided.
Would you say that the ultimate goal is for young people to start their own organizations or for them to enter an existing organization, transform it and ultimately control its course of action?
While it’s inevitable that young people will eventually become the leaders of these organizations and these causes, the goal needs to be to solve problems and address issues. It’s misguided to think that the attainment of a leadership position is a sign of success. If you’re the guy who tapes the ankles of all the athletes on a professional sports team, when the team wins the championship, you still get a championship ring. You don’t need to be the coach, the quarterback, or the star wide receiver with the big contract to play a critically important role.
There are a lot of politics and problems that come in when someone is focused more exclusively on attaining leadership. As someone who’s been in senior roles at a variety of organizations over the years, it’s extremely difficult. You have to now manage and be responsible for all other aspects of building an organization, whereas you can have significantly greater influence, particularly today with all the channels and all the access and flatness of the world, outside of a textbook leadership role.
You can have a much greater impact if you’re focused on taking your unique appreciation, skills, energy and passion and applying them to solving something. If you do good work and you have an impact, you will be recognized. And along the way, you will get whatever it is you need to feel successful; if you want to earn money, get awards, receive a title, etc. you can get all of those things.
By having so sort of impact on an organization or an issue, you are being a leader regardless of how you are deemed in the public eye. We see a lot of organizations that think that by being bigger and being a leader in the public eye are more important than having an impact. We see a lot of people who think that being a leader is about having a title and being at the top, when in fact being a good manager and being a good leader are very different things. Leaders don’t necessarily come from the top. In fact more and more they’re recognized as being the people who come up from the bottom. I think being a very good manager, which I am not, is a critically important skill in terms your ability to scale your own impact. But don’t confuse leadership and management. If you have management skills, then you will ascend to positions of power greatly and that will support impact in some way. If you’re a leader, you’ll influence differently. And both of those options need to be thoughtfully considered by people.
You say we should use all channels available to us now as a means to express ourselves as leaders and offer your valuable perspective. As a self-professed media junky, what channels do you think are the best to share or gain knowledge?
So I’m channel agnostic. Because: A) they change all the time B) there is no channel any longer that provides everything. My view is to look for something unique in the sea of everything that has become common. So the analogy I always use was given to me by a friend who is a conflict photographer and was a photographer in the white house when I was there. She would say: when you’re in a war zone and there are a hundred people taking pictures of a mob running, 99 of them will take a picture of the mob running. I will turn around and look at what they’re running from. And it sounds really easy, but it takes a certain discipline and perspective to say: I understand what everyone is talking about, let me understand why. Or everyone is reading and watching these things, what is the thing that most people aren’t looking at and what can we glean from that?
What I see in media consumption and knowledge attainment is whatever is loudest gets paid the most attention, and there often isn’t a deep or significant effort made to go and look for the little things. So in practical terms the reason I subscribe to 25 different magazines is because I have news magazines and sports magazines and political and cultural magazines, and I have specialty magazines that I read in some cases in print, and in some cases online. And I read thousands of blogs not because all of them are interesting all of the time or that I read every post, but because I’m looking for different view, different perspectives on the same issue.
So take Moneyball for example. Great – phenomenal book. I’m a baseball fan and have been a devotee of the Seattle Mariners through my life. Now, there are the movie reviews of the movie, the sport reviews of the movie, and there’s the application of the idea of moneyball now to healthcare and budget crisis and global water issues etc. My goal is to understand how people think about moneyball, the concept. Knowing that the movie’s good and Brad Pitt’s in it, is all certainly important, but taking the concept of the movie or the conversation around it and applying it to another project, is where I think I add some unique value. I think that’s partly how my brain is wired. So I consume a lot and make sense of how things interrelate and are connected. For other people, they may have a much greater ability to focus and go deep into a particular issue, and that’s great. But the point is you have to take that depth and knowledge and cross-apply it and cross pollinate it to be really successful.
And the same is true for the outbound communications. When I’m tweeting or updating my Facebook status or writing a blog post, I try not to just retweet something people are talking about, I try not to report on what I’ve seen on television. I don’t quote the president when he’s giving the state of the union on Twitter. I make a comment on something that I observed which I hope rounds out or compliments or supplements what other people are tweeting. So some people’s role is to tweet what the president said almost like a transcript. I see that role being fulfilled so I try to for my media consumption and my creation to find the areas that aren’t being addressed that I can reasonably address. And I think that looking to fill the gaps or trying to find a way to look at what’s driving the mob to run is valuable.
You speak a lot about social media in the book, and discuss how organizations are not often using the tool effectively. You say we’re creating all these networks of people but people aren’t being engaged, and even awareness does not often lead to a cure. How can we make this these tools effective or should social media even be used to try and advance causes?
I think the tools have value. They allow you to accelerate or scale any solution you have. What we’ve missed is the idea that we need to find the solutions. We need to reverse engineer out from what we’re trying to accomplish and figure out where the communities we build and the people we engage can potentially contribute. In some cases, we know that raising awareness results in individual shifts in behavior, but we also know that people typically and traditionally are not inclined to make sacrifices or change their behavior without a variety of other impacts. So for an organization to suggest that having a big list or having a lot of likes on Facebook will directly result in a set of actions that are different than the current course of action, is very limited.
The way I think about it in the book is we need to stop focusing on the tools and start focusing on actually being social. And by that I mean truly understanding how human beings that you’re engaged with get and share information, how they operate in their lives, what their expectations are and what it is that they can reasonably contribute or accomplish. And look to take those areas of value, and apply them towards meeting your goal. Now that doesn’t require any technology. If you have someone who is incredibly brilliant, the best way for them to convey their intelligence may be in a person to person conversation, it may be in 140 characters online or it may be by having them take ownership over a set of tools and self-operate and organize on their own. The reality is that every situation is different and every individual is different. The beauty of these social tools is that you can take these huge audiences now and find all the different niche small groupings and shared interests and exploit them in an efficient way. But to do that, we as organizations and as people who are trying to organize and motivate behavior have to not think in a monolithic one-dimensional way.
Instead, what we’re doing is we start thinking that Twitter is the answer to X. And all of our communications and organizing has to fit into 140 characters or a series of 140 character conversations. We don’t appreciate how that conversation unfolds, and we don’t appreciate the level of understanding and learning an individual might need to go through before taking action. We don’t understand or appreciate how difficult and how important it is to deeply and thoughtfully engage with a person.
I always use the analogy of dating to explain what I mean by engage. You can’t go to a bar and get a phone number and then expect that that person is going to sleep with you. You have to go to the coffee date with the friend in the corner, then you graduate to the dinner date, you have to remember birthdays and then you have to meet the family. You move through these phases of the relationship, and they require constant maintenance and constant iteration and constant reconsideration. The ability now to manage many of those relationships and communities is possible because of these tools. But the core of it is still this understanding that human beings operate in certain ways and need to operate in certain way. No tool can replace that.
One of the reasons organizations are drawn to social media is that it’s easy. It’s easier to reach out to a million people and create networks. But is this a misconception? Is it possible for organizations to effectively reach and engage people without using social media?
It’s absolutely easier. It’s more cost effective, and it is faster. But the metric of success should be related to actual impact. Whether that is long term global impact in terms of eradicating hunger or ending malaria or the short term impact that moves an individual from one stage of engagement to the next so you can more easily motivate them or the Holy Grail so they self-motivate or take action without your direct input. In a lot of cases we’ve essentially replaced the old idea of broadcast communications with these new social communications. Nobody wants to say that but what happens and in the context of serious issues is that it actually gets us further and further away from meeting our goals.
In terms of fundraising, many organizations use social media as a way of reaching more potential donors. But people often don’t give much if anything. Are these more grassroots initiatives worth it when targeting big donors and has cultivating relationships in this way proven effective?
Absolutely it’s much better to go find a big donor who will write a million dollar check than to find a million donors who will give one dollar each. The benefit of social media and of engaging these grassroots audiences is not because of fundraising potential but because writing a big check is still one person. There are a lot of things you can do with money, and money does have an important role in organizations. But there are other things that organizations need to accomplish. And in many cases you need an army to do that. One of the things I talk about in the book is how we should focus less on fundraising and more on the ways we can mobilize audiences to address issues. I don’t think that, if we can’t find the solution to a problem, we should dump more money into the same methods.
A great example of this is the Obama campaign, which everybody talks about the unbelievable fundraising juggernaut. They did raise significant amounts of money from small donors, but out of the $750-800M raised, the vast majority of it was still from traditional large donors and fundraisers where Senator Obama went around and did the chicken dinner circuit. But out of all of those individuals that they engaged, millions upon millions of individuals participated in political organizing efforts locally, helped the campaign to win in caucuses, helped to encourage voter turnout and helped to spread messages that promoted the candidate not through broadcast advertising but through person to person, door to door canvassing which has always been the most effective way to engage in politics. So yes they did donate money, and that was great, and it was another example of their commitment to that organization and caus. But more importantly they were seen from the start as partners in the political effort to organize the campaign.
So how do individuals come into play? Addressing complex issues requires system change and system overhaul is incredibly difficult and in some cases may be unrealistic. How do you start this change? Can it really come from just one person?
I think it only takes one person to change. An individual, particularly in a world where we’re all connected, has potential to influence others through their behavior and their contribution to the conversation. So if you’re one individual, a 20-something recently out of school without a leadership position, you’re still in the meeting. You’re still at the table, and you need to raise your hand. You need to ask that question that no one will ask if something doesn’t quite sit right with you. You don’t need to go in guns blazing and blow the place up. You need to pick your battles and be smart. Not because blowing everything up probably wouldn’t be the better solution, but because that’s not the way the world always works. You don’t have to uproot every time and toss the furniture around to get change. But you can’t sit there, grumble and complain and say these people don’t get it. You have to go and tell them why you think differently. A lot of that will get rejected and in some cases you will get frustrated. I have that all the time, but you will also see people learn in their own way from your individual contribution.
I view content as a key driver of change. The beautiful thing about all these channels today is that you have great potential to get your idea discussed or your issue advanced if you can articulate it. What it comes down to is, if you look at a cause or an organization (and this is true for corporations, media, everyone, it’s not just around serious issues) and you can explain and demonstrate to someone how the change is supposed to occur, you will see them change. And then all of a sudden the network effect takes over, and you start to see all these connections and all these relationships and influence that other people have. Organizations are learning now to be more and more open to that kind of outside perspective, whether that’s outside the leadership team or outside the organization period.
Everybody talks about collaboration, but to truly collaborates means to understand what your specific, valuable contribution is to an organization, recognizing your role and finding how that fits into an organization. So find the Achilles heel that needs to be patched, find the structural insecurity and exploit that weakness. You’re going to see a much greater impact and a much likelier evolution or change, than trying to come in and attack people who are digging their heels and resist the change and could potentially take you down personally or squish you in resources.
You have to be careful because people resist change. And if you want to change the world, if you want to have an impact, you can’t please everybody. So you will end up ruffling some feathers. What you have to be confident of is the way you went about approaching that change. As an editor, for example, I write but I also edit other people’s writing. I have a different style and perspective on how people should write. I try not to impose my style on other people’s writings, but if someone gives me something and it’s not clear, then I will redline it to death. I need to do it in a way that explains why I made this or that change instead of just saying this is no good and here’s my version. Because then that person will learn and over time they will change their behavior to reflect the way I hope they will do it. But that process takes drafts and lots of iterations and lots of time. And if we don’t have patience as individuals, we won’t change the organizations. It takes an incredibly tough person, with a strong stomach, strong emotion and self-awareness to be a change agent. I don’t think that all the people we view as leaders and as change agents necessarily have that.
We not only do we need to try new things and challenge new ways of doing things and push even harder. We have to learn lessons more quickly and apply learning much more appropriately, and that’s tiring and hard. If you come in with the right mindset, which is a lot of what I write about in the book, then you will succeed in different ways with different methods, and that I think is what we ultimately all want to do.
So is it really just about falling forward?
Make different mistakes tomorrow. I make mistakes every day – horrendous, stupid, awful mistakes every day. My hope is that I’m making a different set of mistakes than the ones I made before. The thing that frustrates me more than anything is when I know I’ve made a mistake, and I can’t break the pattern. I’m fine with making mistakes, and I’m fine with rubbing people the wrong way. I don’t enjoy it, but I say things in the book that people will be offended by. When someone tells me I’m wrong or proves me wrong, I’ll be the first to accept it. But I’m not going to wait around for someone to tell me what to do, and I’m certainly not going to sit on my hands when someone tells me something to do that I don’t think is right. I’m not patient enough. But I have to find my domino to knock over because I do have confidence that on the other side of that, change will occur. I’ve seen it before. At the very least recognize that what you have to do is change people and change a lot of them, and change the world. And that does not come easy and it is not glamorous. It’s important.
I agree in that we have to get comfortable with change and always be looking for the next intersection of things. How would you suggest for individuals to stay grounded and focused while having information coming at them in all directions?
I think you have to be comfortable with the change and that means that when you have the opportunity to celebrate a success, you celebrate it. When you have a failure, you have to process it and move on. And you probably have to do all of those things more quickly than you had in the past. I recognize that there are some people who are more open to change, and there are some people who are more resistant to change. So I try to at least to be self-aware enough when I’m asking someone to do something that’s really hard for them to make sure that I’m responding in the same way.
It sounds like this goes back to what you said before, you need to be aware of your unique role as a change agent in any situation and take pride in your ability to have an impact in whatever capacity?
More than anything, you need to get your own house in order. You need to take care of yourself. It only does take one person to change so if you demonstrate the way you want other people to act, then the likelihood that they’ll be receptive to how you’re asking them to act is much greater. There’s a piece about how CEOs need to exhibit the behavior that they want their customers and employees to have. So if you’re asking everyone to eat healthier because it reduces your health care costs as a company, then you need to work out and eat healthy as well. The fact that you have 100,000 times more money and have more opportunities than others doesn’t mean you’re any better. Mayor Bloomberg is phenomenal example of this. He takes the subway to work most days. What better way to show that you are as much of a New Yorker as anyone else, even though you’re the man in charge, than to ride on the subway, read the paper and cozy up with everyone else on the subway.
You can’t do it all, and there are some trappings of leadership that you need to assume for a variety of reasons, but it comes down to how you motivate people to do things. I write about this in the book, and the one that I think is the most critically important in all of these cases is learning and understanding. If people truly understand what it is they’re supposed to be doing, then the barriers don’t seem as great. You can’t incentivize people continuously, and you can’t emotionalize a situation and either scare someone or make them feel loved and not have that resource become kind of finite. But what seems to become continually regenerative is that when people learn and understand deeply and intellectually what it is they’re supposed to be doing, they end up taking actions themselves. And then it’s about guiding them and shaping them and showing the best ways to do things.
It does come down to individuals and groups of individuals and individual actions and collective actions that have an impact on the world so we have this unbelievable resource, 7 billion people worldwide who are now connected and have the potential to really change things. We as individuals have to step up and figure out how that’s going to happen.