The Belonging Sessions 010: Tom Sternal of Generation

Generation is a branding and communications firm that works exclusively with clients in
the non-profit sector. Their trademark thought process revolves around
culturally and politically engaged human beings who don’t need
foosball to be creative. 

I sat down with president Tom Sternal and posed three crucial questions about belonging:

1.     Good brands are bought, but great brands are joined. Why do you think your employees join yours?

We’re informal, small and there’s a high intellectual
dialogue. What people are turned on by is an agency that’s deeply aligned with
the social concerns & sensibilities of non-profit organizations. But we
don’t spend a lot of time thinking about our own brand, even though we’re in
the branding business. It’s all about the work we do with the clients. You get
word of mouth by making other people happy, not by making your own brand the

2.     The great workplaces of the world have soul. What do you do to humanize your

Our eyes have been known to involuntarily water at videos.And since the role of print is
changing in the lives of our clients, last year we got into video to provide
master narratives for institutions. Not to be exploitative, but to feel more
like a documentary style. And what struck us on the first video project was
that we were able to create emotion and give dimension to the client in the way
print couldn’t. That’s soul. The next step will be merging all those visual
assets that blend into a medium that is anticipated.  


3.     Belonging is a basic human craving. How do you remind employees that they’ve
found a home?

We’ve been virtual for a while. Our environment has a great
collegiality, but at the end of the day, people should be able to go about
their regular business. We were never really the social hub like a lot of other
firms. Everybody is out the door at six o’clock because we want our people to
have a normal life outside of the office. That’s how we create a culture that
simulates a liberal arts program at a college. Employees cultivate their
interest and develop a visual vocabulary outside of the workplace. After all, the
connections only become obvious when you’re not thinking about them. The city,
for example, is a wonderful palette for that kind of exploration. There’s a nomadic
quality for what we do. It’s the “invisible curriculum,” to borrow a phrase
from our high ed clients.        

Thanks Tom! Learn more about Generation here.

Are You Treating Employees Like Children?

Treat them like adults.

That’s the simplest, cheapest and
smartest way to deal with people.

Evernote gives their employees
unlimited vacation time and a thousand dollar spending stipend to boot. Because
they know that trust is cheaper than control. Don’t make attendance a form of

Commerce Bank allows their employees to kill any stupid rule that stands in the
way of pleasing customers. Because they know service is more important than
policy. Don’t demand their mindless compliance.

My friend Jessica, a social justice educator, insists that her students send
texts during class. Because she understands it’s their lifeline to the
universe. Don’t police cell phone usage.

Twitter keeps their users in the know
with a detailed system status log and a corporate blog. Because they respect
people’s time and patience. Don’t neglect elementary feedback loops.

My friend’s ad agency has a rule that
you can be up to an hour late to work, as long as you bring donuts for the rest
of the team. Because they know people had lives outside of the office. Don’t
obsess over the clock.

It’s time to grow up and treat people like

That’s all they want.

The Belonging Sessions 009: Shirley Au from Huge

Huge is a full-service digital agency that transforms brands and grows businesses.

I sat down with president Shirley Au and posed three crucial questions on

1. Good brands are bought, but great brands are joined. Why do you think your employees join yours?

try really hard to have a flat organization. We don’t tolerate big egos in the
workplace. For a lot of people, it’s attractive that the company is a
meritocracy and employees are evaluated based on their smarts and hard work. At Huge, we do amazing work and build
great products and experiences that people use all the time. If you look across
our body of work, it’s clear that we have a point of view. We tirelessly
analyze how users think and try to understand what they want to achieve when
they interact with a brand—whether it’s setting up their wedding registry or doing
something positive for their local community.

2.     The great workplaces of the world have soul. How do you
humanize your culture?

interesting about Huge is that there aren’t rigid job descriptions or career
trajectories, especially because the digital space continues to evolve so quickly.
We’re very flexible in terms of allowing employees to move into different roles
and disciplines, if they demonstrate talent and interest in a different area of
the company. We aren’t strict about hierarchies or making people follow
specific paths.

also try to create a relaxed-yet-professional office culture. We want people to
feel like they’re in a comfortable environment while they work. Employees can
bring their dogs to the office, we provide free snacks and beer daily, we have indoor
bike racks to accommodate employees who cycle to work and we celebrate
everyone’s “Huge birthday”—the annual anniversaries of their start dates—with
cards and treats.

office and department also tends to have its own organic subculture, which we
try very hard to support without it feeling contrived. Our Huge Social program
sponsors activities based on employee requests, such as company-wide kickball,
soccer and bowling teams.

Belonging is a basic
human craving. What do you do to remind employees that they’ve found a

general, we have a very high retention rate. Many employees have left to work
at other companies and actually end up returning to Huge. We give our project
teams a lot of latitude and freedom to learn, create and grow along with their
teammates. We give them the toolset and framework, and it’s up to them to
figure out the best solution for the client, without micromanaging.

come to Huge to work with the best people in the industry and to work really
hard on things they care about. For most of our employees, when they find their
workplace full of like-minded people with shared values, shared priorities and shared
talent, that’s when it really feels like home. We work very hard to strip away
the distractions so that people can focus on what they’re really here for—to
make something they love and would use themselves. 

Thanks Shirley! Learn more about Huge here.

Overstuffed Schedule Be Damned

Life doesn’t always let us be as disciplined as we want.

Sometimes all we can do is one thing to move the pile
forward, clock out and call it a day.

And in these moments, it’s hard not to be hard on ourselves.
When we can’t seem to steal enough moments from the crowded day, our default
response is to grab the gloves and jab ourselves until we’re black and blue.

But while it’s not the most fulfilling or productive output,
what matters is, we still tried. We still showed up, overstuffed schedule be
damned, and did our work.

Even if it didn’t amount to that much.

The Belonging Sessions 008: Joey Cummings of The Joey Company

The Joey Company is a full service integrated
advertising agency. Their team of research nerds is known for their abilityto see what is obvious, but
not necessarily apparent.

I sat down with founder Joey Cummings and posed three
crucial questions about belonging:

1.    Good brands
are bought, but great brands are joined. Why do you think your employees join yours?

Coming from Chicago, culturally we have a Midwestern work
ethic, competitive spirit and non-bureaucratic, horizontal structure. We’re an
agency of doers, not managers. A small, lean company that offers employees an
opportunity to make an impact, even at a young age. Team members have the
ability to contribute to the growth of client business, as well as the agency
itself. And most of the people here like the idea that they can play a part as
opposed to just being a cog in the wheel.             

2. The great workplaces of the world
have soul. What do you do to
humanize your culture? 

Our biggest assets go up and down the elevator everyday. And
there’s a sensibility and respect for who people are, and the nurturing to help them grow. Because we are especially dedicated
to understanding consumer behavior and insight, the work we do is based on human
nature. It’s the stuff Shakespeare is made
of. For example, we are fortunate to work on brands dealing with tough, scary
or embarrassing issues. These are the companies like Trojan Centers for Disease
Control. The ones ready to deal with serious human issue the moment they occur.
And as a result, talent is necessary for entry, but integrity and humility are
the highest employee characteristics.

2.    Belonging
is a basic human craving. How do you
remind employees that they’ve found a home?

First, we make sure we’re picking like-minded, value based
and quality people. Next, working between two bridges and next to parks gives
us a huge taste of nature every day. We also invest in creating a contemporary,
artistic, feng shui
workplace that makes people feel comfortable, at ease and
considered. Also, in the past few years, we’ve landed really great clients who
have been growing through some tough economic times, which allowed us to grow
too. That’s what feels like a home to us.

Thanks Joey! Learn more about her team here.

The Young Artist’s Guide to Playing For Keeps, Part 23

You’ve chosen an uncertain path.

You’ve adopted an inconvenient lifestyle.

You’ve embarked upon an unconventional journey.

You’ve felt the voice inside you growing more urgent.

You’ve committed yourself enough so you can’t turn back.

IN SHORT: You’ve decided to play for keeps.

This is the critical crossroads – the emotional turning
point – in the life of every young artist.

And I’ve been there

Here’s a list of suggestions to help you along the

1.    It’s hard to be creative alone. First,
without people to bounce our ideas off of, it’s like playing basketball without
a backboard. Hitting nothing but net is hard to do every time. Second, when
working in isolation, out of context, trapped in our own head, there’s only so
much perspective we can bring to our work. Third, without a strong sense of we,
without a real connection to the human family, we can’t access the full
potential of networked knowledge. Fourth, without access to each other, without
regular exposure to other ways of being, our work remains myopic and
untextured. Fifth, without
collaborating with and enlisting support from others, executing broader
projects is a futile endeavor. The upside is, we are never alone in this world
unless we want to be. Sometimes all we have to do is extend our arm. Which is
hard. It makes us vulnerable and out of control. And it forces us to depend on
someone beside ourselves. But anything worthwhile depends on other members of
our species. Who do you play ball with?

2.    Chaos
isn’t a merit badge
. You don’t need to keep reminding me how busy you are.
The fact that you’re overextended, booked solid and barely able to juggle all
the craziness that is your very important life, doesn’t impress me. What does
impress me is when you ship. Execution is
the measure of man, not bravado.
If you’re inventing things to outsource to
preserve the illusion of productivity, we’re not interested. If you’re wearing
busyness as a badge of honor to inflate your ego, we’re not interested. And if
you’re spending your time convincing competitors that you’re busier than you
really are instead of creating work that matters, we’re not interested. Let
your work do the talking, not your words. Are
you spending your time creating work that matters or convincing your
competitors that you’re busier than you really are?

3.    Evolution is inevitable. If our work is the same it was a year ago, if
what we do hasn’t evolved with who we are, we’re in trouble. Some of us fail to
renew because we’re lazy. Others because we’re comfortable with the current
level of our success and don’t want to let go of what’s working. Some fail to
renew because we don’t think we need to evolve. And some of us fail to renew
because we don’t think renewal is necessary to become great. But more often
than not, we fail to renew because we fail to reflect. We fail to renew because
we’re so busy with the day to day, wrapped up in the demands of the
marketplace, that we forget to take time to step back from the work and ask
ourselves what the work is evolving into. And as a result, we become prisoners
of our own labors. Instigating a process of renewal is so essential. Without
it, we don’t just grow stale, we grow cynical as we watch the evolvers pass us
by. Are you telling the same story just
because you know it’s guaranteed to get applause?

4.    Nothing
lives once anymore.
Thanks to the beauty of the web and its abundance of
access to the otherwise unattainable, any art we create – and openly share –
has infinite shelf space, unlimited airtime and endless viewership. In one
click, our work can live online, in perpetuity, for anyone in the world to experience,
for free, forever. This is the best thing that ever happened to us. For the
first time in history, there are no walls. No boundaries separating creators
from consumers. No permission police preventing us from sharing the things we
love. It’s one big transcontinental farmer’s market that never shuts down. Even
better, we live in the age of the remix. Consider Shepard Fairey’s famous
campaign poster for Barack Obama: It
became instantly iconic not because it was brilliant – but because it was
Originally, Shepard only sold a few hundred posters on the street
the day it was printed. But once he converted his art into a digital image and
invited other artists to create variations, parodies and imitations of his work
– also known as communal recreation
the poster earned instant recognition. He made history because he bravely
stepped back, let evolution do what it did best. Will you enabled your art to live more than once?

Originality isn’t about content, it’s about movement. If the work
pushes us forward as human beings, it’s original. True creativity,
unprecedented or not, will always result in change. You
could argue that Glee isn’t original. It’s just another comedy drama about
teenage angst with standard issuehigh school
archetypes, cliché storylines and perfectly choreographed cover songs. Then
again, Glee gives voice to the bullied and misunderstood. They
ask questions the public is afraid to confront. They put a human face to
cultural taboos like religion and sexuality. They bring social justice to the
forefront of popular culture. And they show us that we don’t have to be weird
alone. Maybe they’re singing an original song after all. Do you need to be original or in motion?

6.    Make
room for the new.
Humans have a built in reluctance to let go of what’s
working. Because it means we’re no longer
in control.
Worse yet, it means we have to trust ourselves, trust the
process of change and trust whatever result emerges. Yikes. The advantage is, when we bow to the
door of next, when we tear ourselves away from the safe harbor of certainty and let go of who we are, we become who we
need to be. A few months after Seinfeld
went off the air, Jerry recorded a live comedy special in which he vowed never
to use old material again. He even opened the program with a mock funeral
scene, literally burying stacks of paper in the dirt while celebrity graveside
mourners wept along with him. Because he didn’t want to be a new guy doing the
old guy’s act. Interestingly, Jerry’s special was nominated for a Grammy. Talk
about a punchline. Sometimes we have to let go of what’s working today to make
room for what needs to happen tomorrow. Sometimes we have to operate from the
edges to allow the truest, freshest expression of ourselves to emerge. Are you making a joke or making history?

REMEMBER: When you’re ready to play for keeps, your
work will never be the same.

Make the decision today.

Show the world that your art isn’t just another expensive

Identity is an Inside Job

Identity is a complex adventure.

On one hand, when you build your identity from the outside
in, from how people respond to you, the vision you have of yourself comes
solely from the social mirror. You let the world tell you who you are. And it’s
hard to grow into yourself when you’re smothered by expectations.


On the other hand, when you build your identity from the
inside out, from how you chose to see yourself, the vision you have comes solely
from your own limited worldview. You lack the necessary perspective. And it’s
hard to grow into yourself when you’re insulated from any kind of feedback.

The secret is balance. Listening from the outside in, then deciding for yourself.

Because while both sides of the are valuable, ultimately,
identity is still an inside job.

The Belonging Sesions 007: James Heaton from Tronvig Group

Tronvig Group is a full service marketing agency in the business of helping museums, arts organizations, non-profits, service and retail businesses do better at doing good.

I sat down with James Heaton, Creative Director, and posed three crucial questions about belonging:

1. Good brands are bought, but great brands are joined. Why do you think your employees join yours?

has a voice. We always ask why, not just what and how. I think people crave
responsibility when they are also given agency, when they can see the effect of
their work on their destiny, and can see how their personal contribution plays
a role in serving a larger vision that they help create and sustain. Years ago
I fell in love with the ideas of Ricardo Semler. Taking some cues from him, we
focus on values, honesty, openness and we add to this doing good in the world
by helping our clients do better in their own efforts to do good. 

2.    The great workplaces of the
world have soul. What do you do to
humanize your culture?

We ask
the questions: Why do we exist and why do we matter? We ask our clients this.
We ask ourselves. I think everyone understands that we are each working to
achieve personal mastery and collective excellence. We don’t have a gimmick for
this. Working hard to achieve something greater than ourselves is motivating
enough and this is intensely human.

3.    Belonging
is a basic human craving. How do you
remind employees that they’ve found a home?

In a
healthy home anyone can say anything. Home is where your mind is free and
failure is met with understanding. Good ideas are good regardless of who came
up with them. Each member of the organization understands that it’s a place
where one can intentionally expose the weaknesses or insecurities within your
own ideas so that its strongest version can be brought out. And that’s incorporated
with the ideas of others, all of whom share a vision and an ultimate goal: To
make the world better.

Thanks James! Learn more about the Tronvig Group philosophy here.

I’ve Decided to Bet on Broad

I have extensive training in narrow thinking.

Assuming everybody thinks like me, making decisions from a
limited perspective, refusing to let go of processes that have been good to me,
throwing around the word forever like it’s a nerf ball, killing myself trying
to accomplish outdated goals, backing away from perceived negatives, leaning my
ladder against the wrong wall, believing that just because somebody kissed me
once means that we’re in love forever, allowing my observations to bounce off a
thin reservoir of experience, keeping consistent with silly ideas because
they’re too convenient to be killed, and, worst of all, preserving the dangerous
posture of terminal certainty.

And don’t get me wrong, it’s been great practice.

But that brand of
thinking doesn’t serve me.

From now on, I’ve decided to bet on broad.

The Belonging Sessions 006: Sarah Durham of Big Duck

Big Duck is a Brooklyn agency that works exclusively with nonprofits to help raise money and increase visibility.

I sat down with
principal Sarah Durham and posed three crucial questions about belonging: 

1. Good brands are bought, but great brands are
joined. Why do you think your employees
join yours?

Big Duck works exclusively with
nonprofits, so the people who want to work here are usually do-gooders with a
passion for mission-driven organizations and a love of good communications.
Most of them never thought they could find a place where they could get paid to
write, design, strategize, project manage (or whatever they do) for something
they believe in and get paid to do
it. Having a nice office space in an interesting neighborhood in Brooklyn helps
too. We also find that sharing our values
(which we really use and live by) is
also a big reason people get excited to come here. 

2. The great workplaces of the world have soul. What do you do to humanize your culture?

I want
to feel good about the place I work and the people I work. And when I get up in
the morning, I want my staff to feel that way too. We spend a ton of time
together, and our relationships to each other and the space we share have a
significant impact on our quality of life. I don’t usually push forced social
events, but rather try to celebrate people’s individuality, and make room for
it, so it happens fluidly and without hierarchy. We have Friday Snacks, after work
drinks, push-ups at 5pm, Lunch Club and Pictionary. Humanizing the culture
means making an environment where you care about people in dimensional ways.
And if you really do care about them beyond the job, it’s easier to make
decisions that help them thrive. 

3. Belonging is a basic human craving. How do you remind employees that they’ve
found a home?   

If they
need reminding, they probably aren’t really at home. The best employees have
what your business needs to grow and thrive, but they also need something from it
to grow and thrive personally. It should be a two-way street, a partnership, in
which both parties benefit and know why they are there. When that’s the case, employees
feel at home; they know they’re truly needed and what they’re getting
personally, beyond a paycheck. When people stagnate, stop growing, or get
complacent, it may be time to push them out of the nest. 

Thanks Sarah! Meet the Big Duck team here.

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