If You Want to Empower then Make the Medium the Message


On Wednesday, I had one of the most fun times I have ever had presenting to a group. Nate Butki invited me to speak on a panel in L.A. at the Great Places to Work Conference. If you’re not familiar with them, they’re the brains (and the heart) behind Fortune magazine’s January issue which features the “100 Best Companies to Work For.”  GPTW developed the criteria and the research behind the awards, and they also consult to organizations that want to create a “best company to work for” culture.  Nate asked me to talk about “societal trends” affecting work.

I decided to make two points:  first, that authority is less and less trusted; second, that everything in our world is just more fluid, fast, connected.  (That’s for instance how Sergei, Larry and Mark became billionaires at 25.)  As a 55-year old I can see these changes.  But I especially see them through the actions and the eyes of my college students. They learn fast, experiment, go from one thing to the next. Yes, they whined when Facebook changed its timeline (I’m still not too sure what a timeline is), but for the most part, they just go with it.

When the conference said I could bring a student, and I had a great one, a Berkeley junior named Hannah Jones, I decided:  If I want people to see fluidity and how the authority figure is so much less important, well, I’d show them! Correction:  We would show them.  Hannah began as a disembodied voice thrown from outside the room, her lavaliere mic allowing her to correct points I was making — as if Google fact-checking me.  She later came into the back of the room and continued to share how my analysis wasn’t going far enough.  For instance, when I talked about how huge cultural events like Watergate and the Vietnam War eroded our confidence in authority, she answered with a litany:  911, Enron, Gulf Oil Spill, Iraq War, the housing crash and The Great Recession, campus police violence during Occupy, and even the crash of their hero Lance Armstrong.  She asked: if you’d been through this would YOU trust authorities?

I didn’t mention that Hannah also put the whole presentation together on an online platform called Prezi that I had never used and which blew people away. In the end, she took the podium and finished the presentation for me.  Although I had obviously orchestrated her presence, she wrote her material, and she taught me.  Perhaps the biggest takeaway for me was when she said, “our generation is full of distractions, positive or otherwise,” and so she said: if you don’t engage us, we will find better ways to use our time. It may have sounded threatening, but she was just telling the truth. They’re not waiting.

I wasn’t surprised when two women came up to say how much they liked our presentation (but mostly to say they knew my brother Jim). . . while fifteen others lined up to engage Hannah.  She taught me one big lesson:  If I really want to empower people, I’ve got to keep pushing the envelope, giving them a chance, letting them strut their stuff.  These guys have a lot to teach us as we

Lead with our best self,