Saturday, October 1, 2011

Plan in Professional Pit Stops

Call me dense, but I could never quite understand the allure of NASCAR. To me it seemed a lot like driving down Interstate 5 from Sacramento to Los Angeles: simply put your foot to the floor and get there as fast as you can. Sure, just like Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart you sometimes need mad driving skills to weave in and out of traffic on I-5 to avoid those “pack drivers” huddled together bumper to bumper at 80 mph or to sidestep a car crash in the making. But other than that, to me stock car racing always seemed more about the noise, speed, a blatant display of machismo, and beer. I thought the NASCAR formula for victory was pretty simple: fast car + great driver = winning.

Then I came across an article describing something I hadn’t realized: pit stop strategy.

That recalibrated my thinking. As a kid, my carefully crafted definition of a pit stop came from long road trips in the family station wagon. It was synonymous with taking a pee. It was a sprint race to the bathroom by five squirrely brothers. The toilet seat was our winners circle and the mad dash as we bolted from the car had all the simplicity and noise of drag racing. It was all or nothing. Flat out - get to the restroom first (or maybe second) or end up doing that wiggly little kid dance holding your private parts in line desperately waiting for the flushing sound as you moved up in the queue. There was no strategy involved. Put the pedal to the metal or you’ll wet your pants!

On the race track, however, strategy may be everything. Often the difference between the checkered flag and eating someone’s exhaust is how efficiently and strategically you execute a pit strategy.

Wikipedia provided more insight in the value of pit stops:

“By making pit stops cars can carry less fuel, and therefore be lighter and faster, and use softer tires that wear faster but provide more grip. Teams usually plan for each of their cars to pit following a planned schedule, the number of stops determined by the fuel capacity of the car, tire lifespan, and tradeoff of time lost in the pits versus how much time may be gained on the race track through the benefits of pit stops. Choosing the optimum pit strategy of how many stops to make and when to make them is crucial in having a successful race. It is also important for teams to take competitors' strategies into account when planning pit stops, to avoid being "held up" behind other cars. An unscheduled or extended stop, such as for a repair, can be very costly for a driver's chance of success, because while the car is stopped for service, cars remaining on the track can rapidly gain distance on the stopped car.”

Then I went to and read some comments from driver Carl Edwards in an online article on by Mark Aumann. What's happened, according to Edwards, is that pit strategy can negate any advantage a faster car may have on the track. "You will not win these races repeatedly if you don't have the right calls on the pit box," Edwards said. Aumann concluded: “Winning the championship requires a certain level of consistency. . . and the key, in his (Edwards) opinion, is walking that delicate balance of knowing when to be aggressive and when to be cautious.”

So, to win the race you don’t just drive until you run out of gas, burn up your pistons, and blow out your tires? I guess not. As school communicators, I think we can learn a lot from race car drivers as we Race to the Top. Obviously, we need to build in a Professional Pit Stop Strategy into our careers so we don’t sputter along running on fumes or actually burn out.

Here are a few of my perceptions about effective Professional Pit Stop Strategies:

Be your own pace car
Schools have only been in session for a few weeks and if you’re already tired and your gas is running low you are in trouble. You won’t be able to finish the race to June. And, when it really counts in a crisis or high profile, intricate situation you may not have the fuel in your tank to stay on track. Maintain a consistent pace in your job that enables you to gain ground steadily.

Take a personal retreat so you can advance
We create communication plans and district plans, but we rarely have a personal professional plan to guide our work. Twice a year, take yourself on a one-day personal/professional retreat (maybe with your favorite beverage, a friend/mentor, and a notepad). Create a plan for you. Know where you want to go, why you want to get there, the road map for reaching the destination, how long it’s going to take, and how you’ll know when you’ve arrived. It isn’t about doing things right, if you’re not doing the right things!

Know when to say “enough”
Adding a lot of “other duties as assigned” like cord wood in the work pile on your desk doesn’t make you indispensable, it makes you overworked. Be thoughtful about fitting requests into your schedule. Are they true priorities that should trump what you already have to do? Watch for the “dump trucks” on your professional speedway that drop off their problems at your desk instead of solving them on their own. Making marginal progress across a broad front of tasks and assignments won’t be satisfying or memorable. Get things done, but remember you are never going to be caught up.

Top off your own gas tank periodically
It’s important to keep your professional tires balanced, front end aligned, and engine tuned up. Maintaining the right balance between a healthy lifestyle, family, spiritual needs, intellectual pursuits, and professional networking will keep you psychologically sane and physically sound. Find those turnoffs in the rat race that can be “filling stations” to keep you moving forward.

Look out the windshield, not the rear view mirror
Learn to put the past behind you. Learn from mistakes, but don’t dwell on them. Build a proven track record and a solid body of accomplishment, but don’t sit on your laurels. There will always be another race and people are counting on you to be up for it.

Assemble a good pit crew
At a NASCAR race, the average pit stop takes just 15 seconds to change four tires, fill the tank, and check the engine. In that time your competition can be a quarter mile down the road. If you’ve ever watched a pit crew in slow motion it’s like sophisticated choreography as a team of specialists works together in a synchronized dance. You cannot do your job without help, so surround yourself with a great pit crew of associates, advisors, resources and networks that enable you to be the best driver you can be. Teamwork is a winning combination.

In life, and in your career, more pit stops along the way can make the journey much more enjoyable. In hindsight, I often wish my Dad had executed a better pit strategy during those long road trips. We could have traveled with a lot less fuel in our tanks.

I’m still wondering why the NASCAR drivers don’t have to take a pit stop to pee during a 400-mile race? Maybe they just do the wiggly dance and ask their crew chief . . . Are we there yet?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Modern Day Vampires: Politicians & CEOs are Sucking the Life Out of America’s Children

Child Poverty in America
In 2011, you can’t scroll through the TV menu without seeing something to do with vampires or zombies. The living dead it seems are all the rage these days. True Blood, Twilight Saga, Vampire Diaries, Zombieland, The Walking Dead, and myriad other shows dominate both the small and silver screens. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good zombie movie as much as the next person, but lately I’m starting to see a disturbing pattern. It could be life imitating art, or maybe it’s the other way around. The image on the screen is an eerie reflection of what’s actually going on in our society. The clear message to young people since the millennium washed over them ten years ago is that there is a menacing presence out there ready to suck the living daylights out of you. My advice to kids: heed your basic instincts, the threat is real and they are going for your jugular!

I have always liked Jay Leno’s definition of “politics.” Just divide the word – “poli” meaning many and “tics” meaning blood suckers. Now you understand politics. The dual vampires of political gridlock and economic recession are sucking the life out of our children and our schools. During the first decade of the 21st century the children of America have been caught in the vice-like jaws of increasing poverty and decaying educational systems. Schools are being choked to death financially and child poverty is escalating to record levels not seen in over half a century.

I spent some time recently reflecting on how lives have changed for the so-called 9/11 Generation since that tragic day ten years ago when innocence was shattered and security threatened. A report released this week from the Census Bureau puts it into stark perspective. The 2010 economic numbers are in and the U. S. Census Bureau reports there are 46.2 million poor people in America – the largest number in the last 52 years. The data suggest that our children have been a primary casualty as our government waged war on terrorism and Wall Street waged war on the American middle class and poor families.
 Some startling statistics:
  • One in three of America’s poor are children
  • 22% of all children in the U.S. (over one in five) live in poverty (16.4 million children)
  • That’s almost one million more children than last year (over 950,000 kids)
  • 7.4 million children in America live in extreme poverty
  • More than one in three Black children and one in three Hispanic children are poor
  • Children under five years old are suffering the most: one-fourth (5.5 million) come from poverty households (defined as a family of four living on less than $22,000 per year)
It isn’t enough that these poor kids have to battle for their very survival each day, now the sanctuary they called “school” is no longer able to give them the shelter and hope they deserve. In California, we are desperately trying to maintain a 2011 program on a 2000 income level. The politicians and CEOs who pray at the anti-tax Prop. 13 shrine have been systematically draining the lifeblood from public education. The vampires have permanently recalibrated the economic and educational support system for an entire generation. The impact of inaction on behalf of children will resonate for decades to come. The 9/11 Generation has been hit by a pandemic of poverty. We are already seeing the casualties. They will not do as well in school, will have more health and social problems, and will be permanently under-employed.

One of my heroes is Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund. Her life’s work to “Leave No Child Behind” was a passionate call-to-arms long before No Child Left Behind was a glimmer in the government’s eye. In looking at the Census numbers she captures the sense of outrage we should all share. “Shamefully, children are the poorest age group in our country, are getting poorer, and have suffered more than any other age group during this recession and slow recovery. A country that does not stand for and protect its children—our seed corn for the future—does not stand for anything . . . This is a national disgrace.”

People often say that children are our future. I disagree. We are their future by the actions we take and the decisions we make. Children don’t have a voice and they don’t have a vote. They rely on adults to do the right thing. As a society we must get past political gridlock for the sake of our kids. We owe it to the 9/11 Generation to fix our economy, fix our schools, and fix our politics. It’s about time we insisted that our business and political leaders start acting like the grown-ups in the room and learn to “play well with others.” Adults have mortgaged their future and children are paying the price. We need to stop sucking the lifeblood out of our kids.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Power of Stories

“So this duck walks into a bar . . .”

When you hear a phrase like this, you know instinctively that a joke or story is heading your way. It could be a hysterical one that makes your drink come out of your nose from laughing so hard or it could rely on a corny pun that makes you groan and shake your head.

Why do so many stories or jokes begin with someone walking into a bar? It’s probably because the pub, saloon, or tavern in a community has always been a focal point for interpersonal communication. The bar was the original chat room where stories were the stock in trade and they were “shared” and “liked” before there was an Internet. Good story-telling doesn’t always fit into the cadence of 21st Century social media communication. Now, thin-sliced communication comes at you at the speed of light while a compelling story takes time to unravel, usually over a cold beer.

I have known some great story tellers in my life. Most came from a generation before there was Twitter or Facebook or YouTube. They came of age in a simpler time before we tried to convey our stories in 140 characters or less. These 20th Century raconteurs relied on the power of verbal stories, told and re-told to share their experiences and reflections on the ups and downs of life.

My family tree is rife with a long line of fascinating story tellers (BS artists if you will). Three come to mind immediately: my late father-in-law Donald Parker and my two uncles – Bill and Don. It may come as no surprise that they all were sailors who served on ships in wars dating back to WWII, Korea or Vietnam. As an impressionable young man, I can remember shooting the breeze with each of them for hours on end as they regaled me with stories that to this day still make me laugh. Their stories are a reflection of them, their times, and their lives.

We don’t remember facts and figures, but we do remember the stories that have touched our lives. We remember stories because they can be riveting, funny, poignant, and chock full of common sense and homespun wisdom. Information by itself is not compelling, but add to the facts the visual image of the case study or anecdote and data can come to life. A picture is definitely worth a thousand words, but a story is worth a 1,000 pictures because it embeds the message with mental images as we personally relate to the story and to the story teller.

As public relations professionals our job is to translate numbers into words. We decipher financial or assessment hieroglyphics into understandable and meaningful prose. But the story teller takes that to a higher level. He or she paints a vivid picture of what the prose means and how it makes us feel. They put us into the picture emotionally and intellectually.

My late friend Charlie Binderup was a masterful story teller. Charlie was superintendent in a very small school district in Northern California. He often joked with pride that the Tulelake Basin schools had the first wood burning fax machine. He also had the same delivery as the veterans mentioned above. He would reel you into the tale with an “aw shucks” style so you couldn’t be quite sure if he was telling the truth or making the whole thing up. But it didn’t matter because the story was so endearing or funny. Great story tellers also have a shared affinity for laughing along with their own jokes and reminiscences. They often crack themselves up as the words come out. I’m convinced that the best part of story-telling is when you get caught up in the telling and it reminds you all over again of how you felt the first time you heard it or experienced it.

[By the way; the punch line to the duck walking into the bar joke is: So the duck says, “I can’t take a job like that . . . I’m an engineer!”]

One of the best things about attending the annual seminar of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) each summer is that I get to swap stories with some of the best BS artists in the country. Guys like Steve Knagg and Jim Cummings are keeping the fine art of story-telling alive and well.

Their tall tales use the same formula for success: their reflections are based in reality, the events are plausible but maybe not believable, just a hint of mischief is added like seasoning, and they linger with a slight pause before delivering the punch line with a wry smile and a laugh as they crack themselves up telling it. They enjoy the story as much as you do. Stories are infectious.

We have some very powerful stories in public education. Everyday miracles, snapshots of success, touching tributes to the human spirit, and the indisputable evidence that education is the cornerstone of our society and the rock upon which our freedom and democracy are built. Now, that is a story worth telling!

The public desperately wants to still believe in public education. So my advice is to be more than a public information officer; be a public story teller. Be the chronicler and conveyor of the story of your schools. Story telling is one of the oldest and most effective teaching tools. Use your arsenal of social media and digital tools to point people to the stories of success and triumph in your classrooms, playgrounds, and school buses. Make the complexity of teaching and learning come to life by adding a few choice stories to your communication repertoire. Great stories make for memorable messages.

“So this little boy walks into school one day . . .”