Piercing Albert Speer’s disguise

My father-in-law’s telegram to his wife, announcing that his tour of duty as a bomber pilot was over. Note the date: one day after D-Day.

“He is just like us!” gushed George Ball, a high-level American diplomat, upon meeting Albert Speer shortly after the end of the war. Yes, that Albert Speer—minister of armaments, exploiter of slave-labour, close associate of Goebbels, friend of Hitler.

Nearly forty years after his death, the question about his career that sticks with me is: “How did Speer manage to rehabilitate his reputation to such an extent that he became a wealthy author supported by prominent journalists, historians, and politicians from both sides of the political spectrum?” Surely, his supporters couldn’t have believed him when he denied knowing about the Holocaust. How did they overlook his use of slave labour to keep the German economy going? What was behind their suspension of disbelief?

The self-interest of his audience is a good place to start looking for an answer. Like Speer, a large class of educated professionals had done well out of their service to the state. Speer’s claims that he did not know about the crimes and that he was not really a Nazi provided cover for them and a template for their own self-justification. Mark Falcoff, in reviewing Magnus Brechtken’s Albert Speer, Eine Deutsche Karriere in the October 2020 issue of The New Criterion, notes that “The public and private hierarchies of the Bonn republic were in fact honeycombed with minor replicas of Albert Speer.”

When I think of Speer, I try to reconcile two images. One is of the urbane, charming, almost romantic figure who had been cleansed by his time in Spandau prison. The other is of our former neighbour, Mrs. Skorupa, who had come to Canada as a Displaced Person after the war; she had been one Speer’s multitude of slaves, assigned to work in a munitions factory. Unlike Speer, she did not have the support of the sleek and self-satisfied. And unlike Speer, she did not have the luxury of forgetting about forced labour. But now, with each passing year, the slave-master’s false mask chips and fades while the image of my kind neighbour stands unchanged as a silent witness to evil. I wonder what George Ball would have made of her.

Donald Trump, the second coming of who?


Long before Trump, there was George Washington Plunkitt. Brash, garrulous, opportunistic, Plunkitt milked New York’s public projects in a time of intense immigration and economic growth. He despised civic reformers. He reveled in the intimate, all-consuming politics of his day. Unlike his cautious peers, Plunkitt held little back when talking about his views and methods.

Plunkitt summed up his approach to public life in the phrase, “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”

Just let me explain by examples. My party’s in power in the city, and it’s goin’ to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I’m tipped off, say, that they’re going to lay out a new park at a certain place.

I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before.

Ain’t it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my investment and foresight? Of course, it is. Well, that’s honest graft.

Would Trump deny that he is an opportunist? Probably not. Like Plunkitt, he treats opportunism as a political virtue, to be used for the benefit of his country. As for taking personal advantage, my guess is that he would echo Plunkitt: “When a man works in politics, he should get something out of it.

How does a billionaire like Trump connect with a mass audience? Plunkitt would have warned him:

Puttin’ on style don’t pay in politics. The people won’t stand for it. If you’ve got an achin’ for style, sit down on it till you have made your pile….

Trump tackled the problem head on. Remember the smirking reports about him eating fast food on his plane? Or the sneers at his red baseball caps? The message to his audience was “Deep down, I’m one of you.” His opponent’s slick, corporate-style logo looked disciplined, balanced, expensively-designed and, in hindsight, antiseptic. Trump, who clearly understands the value of professional design for his business interests, chose a deliberately “undesigned” look. The result? A potent mix of success-signals (the plane, the hotels, the bling) and plain-folk signals that reinforced his message.

Politicians live and die by their words. Plunkitt advised would-be politicians: “If you’re makin’ speeches in a campaign, talk the language the people talk. Don’t try to show how the situation is by quotin’ Shakespeare.” Can anyone doubt that Trump speaks in the simplest way possible? According to the Boston Globe, Trump delivered his campaign speeches at a Grade 4 level. A ten-year-old child could understand his words.  (Incidentally, Hillary Clinton spoke at a Grade 8 level and Bernie Sanders at a Grade 10 level.)

On surviving in politics, Plunkitt had one piece of advice: “You must study human nature and act accordin’. You can’t study human nature in books.” Trump’s immersion in backroom politics and private deal-making has undoubtedly taught him a lot about the self-serving, treacherous side of human nature. His marketing experience in developing attractive brands and properties appeals to the aspirations of his customers. Developing a successful television program has kept him in touch with mass audience preferences. He could say, with Plunkitt:

I know what they like and what they don’t like, what they are strong at and what they are weak in, and I reach them by approachin’ at the right side.

Plunkitt’s political career began before the Civil War and endured for nearly fifty years. Since his time, the population has exploded and the economy has grown more complex. Mass communication has changed the pace of politics. Yet the words of this machine politician speak across the years and shine a surprisingly bright light on the politics of our day.


The Founder’s Mentality: Find it or Flounder


It’s not often that I meet a legendary business leader. It’s less often that I receive a book in the mail from that person. So when Robert K. Irving sent me a copy of The Founder’s Mentality by Chris Zook and James Allen, I was eager to discover what Mr. Irving found to be so compelling.

What I found was a book that answered the twin questions: why do successful, growing organizations stall, and what can their leaders do to restore sustainable growth? Every business has to find an answer to those questions. So do volunteer organizations.

I work for a family-owned business that lives many of the same values that Mr. Irving described as the bedrock of his companies. I was not surprised, then, that The Founder’s Mentality is applicable to my work. What delighted me was how relevant it is to my volunteer activities.

What does the founder’s mentality look like?

  • It features a bold sense of mission that everyone in the organization understands.
  • It obsesses about the front line, where employees interact with customers and suppliers.
  • It shares an owner’s mindset, which is biased towards action and against bureaucracy.

As I worked through the opening chapters, I kept nodding in recognition. Among others, I recognized:

  • Robert K. Irving, who had paid a visit to our company—a new customer—to personally ask whether we were being well served and to explore whether we could find more opportunities to do business together.
  • Ward Griffin, whose passion for customer service has been the north star during our company’s growth over the past two decades.
  • Fr. Michael White from Timonium, Maryland, and Fr. James Mallon from Halifax, Nova Scotia, leaders in a movement to build vibrant, energetic Catholic parishes.

The authors maintain that success and growth present an organization with potentially lethal challenges. As they grow, businesses become more complex. They offer more products, they cover larger areas, they hire more people. Volunteer organizations introduce more programs and recruit more volunteers. Each addition adds complexity and dilutes the common vision. Growth stalls and, at best, the organization treads water.

Reigniting growth depends on adopting, maintaining, and spreading the founder’s mentality throughout the organization. A sampling of the recommended practical steps include:

  • Embed the front-line obsession throughout the organization.
  • Open up the lines of communication.
  • Share the burden of leadership.

Do I recommend The Founder’s Mentality? Heartily. For anyone who cares about their business or volunteer organization, it offers important insights and practical suggestions. I expect it will be part of my working library for years to come.

Relax, the idea will come to you

A Technique for Producing Ideas nestled on In Search of Times Past

A Technique for Producing Ideas nestled on Remembrance of Times Past

In keeping with recent research, both focus and unfocus are vital. The brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocus, allowing you to develop resilience, enhance creativity, and make better decisions too.
[Srini Pillay, Harvard Business Review]

We’ve all experienced it. We grind away at a problem until we give up. When we leave our grindstone in despair and forget that it exists, inspiration strikes. If you’re like me, at that moment you ask yourself: “Why didn’t I think of that sooner?”

There’s a simple answer. You didn’t lose focus fast enough.

It turns out that neuroscience is giving us permission to drop our focus. If we let our brain’s “Default Mode Network” take over, we can relax while it “activates old
memories, goes back and forth between the past, present, and future, and recombines different ideas.” It’s like having a mental butler serve up ideas while we engage in positive constructive daydreaming, pretend to be someone else or take a nap. [Pillay]

Science has spoken. Besides, who would want to argue against naps and creative play?

If you don’t live by every word that falls from the lips of neuroscientists, there are other, more entertaining sources to confirm your bias that napping and play are good for you.

James Webb Young’s A Technique for Producing Ideas made the same point in 1939 without the arcane references to the inner working of the brain. In the space of 5,600 words (only 280 20-word tweets for those who live on Twitter-sized crumbs) he told advertising executives how to generate ideas: do the detailed research about your product and then drop the problem. When the idea interrupts your relaxation, write it down and get back to work, refining and testing the idea.

Maybe Young got his idea from Proust. (Trigger warning: Remembrance of Times Past is the equivalent of nearly 60,000 20-word tweets.)

In trying to force his mind to recall something he wanted to picture, Proust’s Marcel failed ten times in succession.

And each time the cowardice that deters us from every difficult task, every important enterprise, has urged me to leave the thing alone, to drink my tea and to think merely of the worries of to-day and my hopes for to-morrow, which can be brooded over painlessly.

And suddenly the memory revealed itself.

In the same way, he struggled to recall the appearance of towns he had visited, people he had met, music he had heard. Almost always, the recognition returned when he stopped dredging the river of his memories.

Filing away memories worked in a similar way. Here’s how Marcel came to internalize music he listened to:

…with regard to works we have heard more than once, we are like the schoolboy who has read several times over before going to sleep a lesson which he supposed himself not to know, and finds that he can repeat it by heart next morning.

So take heart. Developing ideas, remembering, and learning all benefit from diversion and loss of focus. Need convincing? Skip the neuroscience and advertising executives. Lose yourself in Proust. Nap with his book in your lap. Your creative genius will thank you.

I have all the WD-40 I need, thanks

The demand for more and distinctive marketing content chews through a writer’s time and energy like a cloud of grasshoppers devouring a wheat field. Calls for tweets, blog posts, LinkedIn updates, landing pages, emails, flyers, ads, RFP responses — they ride in on the west wind and take bite after bite until the content calendar is shredded.

The agriculture industry has learned how to fend off grasshoppers. Marketers? Still learning. When not writing, marketers can often be found reading about writing. We check tweets, blog posts, ebooks and courses that promise to help us advance in our craft.  Instead of giving us powerful tools to hold back the swarm, much of the advice goes like this:

  • create awesome content
  • create jaw-dropping headlines
  • create out-of-this-world images
  • capture the “wow” factor

The west wind keeps blowing in the grasshoppers, so we need resources that will help us write faster, better, more consistently. Fortunately, there’s good material to be found. Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes fills an important need and should be on every active marketer’s reading list.

Everybody Writes delivers well-organized chapters in a reference book divided into six parts:

Part I. Writing rules: how to write better (and how to hate writing less)

Part II. Writing rules: grammar and usage

Part III. Story rules

Part IV. Publishing rules

Part V. 13 things marketers write

Part VI. Content tools

The book is notable for its generous spirit. Ann Handley not only shares her own experience and advice but shines a spotlight on other resources. In doing so, she has created a reference book that artfully serves as a springboard for writers eager to learn more about their craft.

I turn to Part V often. It provides useful tactics for Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, email, landing pages, infographics, blog posts and annual reports. A copy of the chart “The Ideal Length for Blog Posts, Podcast, Facebook Posts, Tweets, and Other Marketing Content” sits beside my keyboard.

In every book, there’s a passage or idea that flashes a green light to continue or a red light to set the book aside. The green light began flashing in Chapter 28, “Deadlines are the WD-40 of Writing,” when I read :

Do the best work you can by the deadline you’ve set, and then consider your writing project finished.

Over the years, I’ve learned that no matter what type of work I’m called upon to do, the same rule applies: deadlines are the ultimate constraint. Usually, deadlines are imposed by an external party.

  • In politics, issues have to be dealt with in time to head off bigger problems.
  • If RFP responses aren’t delivered to the purchasing agent by the deadline, the response won’t be opened.
  • In the printing industry, the customer’s deadline sets the scheduling in motion.

If left to create their own deadlines, undisciplined writers are doomed.  The urge for perfection undermines their schedule. Their writing seizes up like a rusted piece of farm equipment. The grasshoppers swarm the field and leave behind devastation until the WD-40 puts the equipment back into the field. In Handley’s words, “… give yourself a hard deadline. And then strictly adhere to it.”

[Ann Handley. Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2014. Follow Ann Handley on Twitter: @annhandley.]


Winning the name game

Can anyone win the name game? You know the one I mean. You’re at an event and a friend introduces you to someone. Your friend lobs the name to you like a hanging curve ball, expecting you to hit it out of the park. Whiff! The name flits past you and the umpire rings you up. Another failed connection!

If you’ve experienced this, you’re in good company. Forgetting names is one of the three most common getting-to-know-you problems people have, according to Keith Rollag in the December 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review. The others are—you guessed it—hesitating to introduce yourself and failing to ask questions.

It’s the “names challenge” that interests me. Some jobs just demand that ability. For example, how do the good politicians and priests keep their mental Rolodex up-to-date? The politicians remember their constituents and the priests put a name to each sheep in their flock. Do they have skill or talent? Or help from above?

Rollag advises us to work at it: say the name in conversation right after hearing it; write it down as soon as you can and review your notes until the name is locked in; and, of course, create a vivid image to link the name with an unforgettable object or situation. Picture Rock Hudson as a giant boulder dropped into a river, with the New York City skyline in the background.

Can this advice work? Seeing is believing, so I’ve long been a believer. In the summer of 1972, I took a course in Canadian history from Dr. Bev Koester. As the students straggled into the classroom for the first session, he studied us without uttering a word. When everyone was seated, he began to take attendance.

“Mr. Williams,” followed by long seconds of silent scrutiny.

“Mr. Goski.” More silent scrutiny.

The process continued until all thirty students had been named, scrutinized and entered into his name bank. “Please take the same seat at our next two sessions, after which you will be welcome to sit where you please.”

The methodical roll call resumed in the second and third sessions. From then on, he used our names without hesitation or error, regardless of where we sat. A year later, I took another class from him and was greeted with “It’s good to see you again, Mr. Goski” as I entered the classroom.

By then, I had come to know why he had developed this skill. It was an essential part of his previous job—Clerk of the Saskatchewan Legislature. Dr. Koester was required to recognize each of the 59 members of the House in turn by the name of their constituency when the member rose to vote on an issue. [And yes, I never addressed him as anything other than “Dr. Koester.”]

After an interval as a spell-binding lecturer at the University of Regina, Bev Koester went on to become Clerk of the House of Commons, where he duly mastered the names and constituencies of 282 Members of Parliament. By then, I was working on Parliament Hill and would watch in admiration as he handled the standing votes: “The Honourable Member from Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, The Honourable Member from Kenora—Rainy River, The Honourable Member from Assiniboia” and so on, until the roll had been called.

How many hours had he spent, poring over lists and pictures of the Members, linking their names and constituencies to the faces? I don’t know, but I’m reasonably sure he had the memory work done before newly-elected Members even came within view of the Parliament Buildings.

So yes, we can win the name game. It takes desire, will and practice. Judging how clearly I remember my reaction when my name was called out by Dr. Koester after the interval of a year, the effort is worthwhile.

[For further information about Dr. Bev Koester, see this brief Wikipedia article and this entry from Hansard. For more on succeeding in new situations, see Keith Rollag’s article in Harvard Business Review.]