Book review: Tim O’Brien’s Inner Story

Disclosure: I’ve known author Tim O’Brien since university. We even share the same birthday (although, as I always remind him, he’s always older than me.)

So rest assured, this review has to be the most-objective I’ve probably ever written.


Looking to be a better leader, or improve team performance? Time to discard populist texts in favour of a learned one.

Time to buy this book and have it on your desk – whether you’re a manager, leader, sports coach, parent, or even international rock star.

Because O’Brien goes back to clinical, behavioural and observational basics about the psychology of the mind, and then makes it comprehensible and relevant to the rest of us.

Written in an accessible but slightly formal style, he establishes and explains, over 11 chapters, what’s going on inside your head, and how that necessarily affects everything you do, and everything you seek to do.

And then explains how you can change those internal references, world views and anchor points, and focus them anew on what you seek to achieve.

It feels like I’ve made a career of reading management books on performance and leadership. None comes close. How could they? Because every single one of us is an individual, so it’s impossible (for example) to corral us into one of four, or eight, behavioural or leadership styles. We, and those we work with, and those we manage, deserve better.

O’Brien explains why, and how.

His chapters cover the following subjects: the inner story your psychological sub-conscious creates inside your brain, understanding the behaviour it influences, where fear play its parts (as well as how to manage and redeploy fear), being more successful, happier, and confident, what being a better leader actually should mean, being a higher-performing team, and finally, a chapter on understanding how each of us changes continually – how none of us is static, but constantly reappraising what’s going on around us, and seeking to map those external inputs to our inner frames of reference.

If what I’ve described here sounds faintly alternative, rest assured, it isn’t. His text and experience is rooted in clinical psychological evidence and training.

A couple of examples: higher performing teams never get to “the end”, never get to being definitively “high” performance. and those which are truly high-performing understand this, as individuals within the team and as the more-complex, cohesive group. He also emphasizes the benefits (and need) for effective communication in high performing teams, and that lack of effective communication signifies a team not performing well.

But he also posits the concept of the “soul” of a higher performing team, that empathetic understanding between team members that allows them to construct a single team perspective, with mutual support. To achieve that requires every individual to understand their inner story, and for the team managers or leaders to understand how these various motivations and perspectives work together.

The second example is O’Brien’s analysis of how we construct personal perspectives in each of our minds, subconsciously and consciously. The subconscious perspectives are of course often submerged, and it takes work to identify what’s really going on there. This is important, because until the two are aligned, dissonance is likely.

He also asks the reader direct questions, ones he expects us to answer, and leaves space in the text for us to write down those answers. (I chose not to do this, not wishing to make my copy of the book untidy – I’m sure he’ll have a field day with this.) So he expects us to use the book as a training manual, and we should.

His style, as noted at the outset of this review, is slightly formal. No surprise, given O’Brien’s academic background rooted in teaching and research. That’s why his book makes you think, which is what I like about it the most.

Thinking is perhaps what all of need to do more: about what we want in life, what we want from our teams, colleagues, families and friends. Getting leadership and performance right is not a two-day seminar or a one-hour psych. test.

In any case, every team will, from time to time, fail, or not achieve its potential. Every performer, manager, teacher and individual will, occasionally, be faced with self-doubt. To assume it won’t happen, and to assume it’s a weakness when it does, is neither helpful nor realistic. None of us can predict what will happen next. What we can do is prepare ourselves to manage, overcome, and emerge from those moments better prepared and performing to our best. Understanding your inner story makes this possible.

Read this book. Then have it on your desk, and use if often enough to make it dog-eared. Its contents worked for Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, and rock star Sir Elton John, so you’ll be on good company.

My review copy of Inner Story was provided by the author. Published by Ideational, available from Amazon.)

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Social breaks out, social selling takes off… and social data still rule

What did 2015 deliver in social?

2015 saw social continue to break out from marketing-only thinking. More senior management embraced and exploited the social web. We saw it first-hand in the financial services, logistics and energy efficiency services sectors. CEOs were part of many of these discussions, in some cases driving the strategies personally.

Surprisingly, CFOs were missing in action, but as sales revenues and ROIs go up on the back of social engagement and social selling, they will undoubtedly be happy to come to the social party.

More sales teams now embrace social selling, and make it work. Those that still don’t continue to realize that they are being left behind. We saw integrated social selling and prospecting across sales engagement, sales management and social media channels, creating single views of what sales teams were doing.

Clients used the social web to generate engagement, increase brand presence and drive consumers to their web sites to make sales.

Value, relevance and engagement count for more than ever, even as sponsored and paid media engagements and channels (and constraints) continue to grow. Our experience in 2015 with clients is that organic (earned) media still lead the way. Consumers can still spot advertising, whatever it’s name.

And into 2016?

More businesses will use the social web to drive revenue. The ROI equation becomes clearer each year. Great news for businesses of all sizes, not just large ones. More SMBs will make social work for their sales and brands.

COOs, CEOs and CFOs will realize that the social web gives them the hard data with the answers on ROI, win rates, sales opportunities, customer satisfaction. The result will be bigger spending on social, reduced spending on advertising. Why shout when you can engage?

Social will kick-start more disruption, especially by upstarts on incumbents. The upstarts can afford to invest in the social web because it gives greater returns for a lower outlay, with faster results from customers saying they are ready to engage, ready to buy. The incumbents will learn to fight back.

Sharing and engaging are great, and will remain the essential precursors to what really counts: buying. We think that the process that starts with discovery and ends with sales via leads, insights, engagement and creation will accelerate.

Mobiles will still rule, but don’t write off the desktop It’s still a portal to the social web and the real-time insights into customers and prospects that can be found there.

Whatever your preferred device, create your social selling strategy, tap the power of the social web to discover the insights you need, engage and sell.

Have a wonderful festive break, and a fulfilling and social 2016.

(This post also appears at

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VW’s reputation up in smoke: the first global brand crisis?

Obviously not.

But Volkswagen’s handling of the crisis that exploded following the revelation that the company had deliberately installed software that reduced exhaust emissions only at the time of scheduled services, reminds every organization that life is now too fast and too connected – to consumers, customers, regulators, journalist, activities and legislators, around the world – to rely on outdated attitudes to communication, and outdated policies that stifle agile crisis responses.

Companies can no longer wait for head office to catch up.

Companies can no longer wait for the legal team to review every sentence.

What’s right and culturally relevant for one country is not right for another. One corporate size – and one response – does not fit all.

That VW is large in America, but a cultural and economic icon in Germany, as one example, creates two distinctly different contexts and challenges. One is a market, one is a political minefield. Each requires an almost-instant response.

Local language means just that (and more) – in tone and nuance as well as actual language.

For decades, professional public relations practitioners have counselled clients and employers on the need for crisis planning, and the benefits and value in having such plans.

We were not crying wolf.

One might argue that shareholders should demand that companies provide meaningful and current crisis plans to mitigate, explain and respond to crisis. The town of Wolfsburg, VW’s home, is reliant on the company for most of its revenue, and the State of Lower Saxony owns 20% of the company according to the Guardian. Both might well revise their shareholder demands in due course.

This will likely become the defining crisis communications case study, not least because of its willful initiation. (Even BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill was an accident.)

Five take-outs from me? Almost impossible to know where to start, but I suggest the following ( to start with):

  • don’t marginalize the corporate communication function
  • define, develop and mutually agree protocols that connect the CEO’s office, the legal department and the corporate communications department
  • create a definitive framework for fractured, empowered global communication: build a framework that embeds the abandonment of a crisis command-and-control culture
  • factor in all the services needed in a crisis
  • HQ must  develop protocols that allow subsidiaries to ‘go early’, and the subsidiaries must understand that, with this freedom, they now operate in a connected world

None of these are easy or quick to achieve.

None should be set in aspic.

All should be started tomorrow morning.


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Book review: Shel Israel’s Lethal Generosity

Shel Israel’s latest book (Lethal Generosity – Contextual Technology and the Competitive Edge) builds on his earlier collaboration with Robert Scoble (Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data & the Future of Privacy, which I’ve not yet read) but takes a more personal walk towards the near future.

It’s a future in which technology and business common sense have combined (for those clever enough or lucky enough to make this happen) to create new ways to keep customers and do so profitably.

His thesis touches a number of just-launched prototypes and near-launch likely products to create an accessible summary of what these myriad product and technology types offer, and mean.

He does so with some conviction. For a CEO or CMO seeking a manageable narrative in business terms, this is a useful book.

For technologists wondering where the next competitor or partner might lurk, it provides a mid-2015 overview.

Even for venture capitalists (even in Australia) it should set agile minds thinking about new opportunities.

At its core, the book sets out the concept of delivering on customers’ declared preferences, seeking to engage rather than interrupt.

Israel focuses throughout on hardware devices and web sites tuned to customers’ needs, and hooked to smart phone apps.  The social web is left slightly at arm’s length – an area of special interest to the company I work for here in Australia. The themes though are consistent: organizations which will succeed in the future are those which listen to customers, whether via beacons in retail stores, preferences loaded into apps, or comments freely made in social media.

From on-line optometrist Warby Parker to campus coffee vendors Tapingo, and all points in between, he describes how companies have worked out how to deliver what he chooses to call lethal generosity – a customer engagement so compelling that it proves ultimately lethal to competitors, simply because customers return for more.

As Shel Israel succinctly puts it, customer become marketing campaign, not the targets of marketing campaigns.

He’s a fan of in-store beacons. What better moment, he argues, to engage a customer than when they walk into a store, and what better moment to engage rather than interrupt?

But this thinking can fail when technology execution and engagement become dissonant, when they fail to mesh, citing an experiment in London’s Regent Street where the missing element was awareness (and some technological glitches) that meant the customers tramping some of the world’s most desirable retail real estate simply didn’t know what offers lay just a few steps away.

My favourite example is that of the Magnum ice cream vending machines in which NewAer’s app spots two customers in the vicinity of the same vending machine and suggest they rendezvous at the machine for an ice cream. NewAer had won a Unilever hackathon competition to create a new, meaningful app (Unilever owns the Magnum brand). I like the essential simplicity and relevance of the app, but I also like it that a colossus like Unilever seems to get that new ways of creating new value are actually worth time and investment. (I’ve worked with companies for which the phrase ‘hackathon’ means ‘run for the hills’.)

Lethal Generosity is not a term I especially take to (nor is Uberizing, from Robert Scoble) but Shel Israel brings all of these entwined strands together in his final chapter, one in which he reminds us that the application of technology is a means to an end, and that the development of technology almost always accelerates and refines ways of connecting a customer and an organization with something of value to offer. The near future will, in his view, see those who get this pull ahead rapidly from those who don’t. His final words are therefore a gentle warning to us all:

“Those who follow the conventional route can and will use the new tools to accomplish the same old things in the same old way, and that will work for a while, but I believe it will be for a relatively short while. I believe that in the case of this fork, in this particular path, conventional wisdom can guide you down a road that grows narrower and curvier before bringing you to a dead end.”

Shel Israel points out, in a manageable 220 pages, where to look and what to think, about what we all need to consider about our futures, and the decisions that are ours to make about how we want to play this game.

The least we can do is read and ponder.

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Strategy more essential than ever in communications planning

The fast dynamics of the social web are no excuse for poor communications strategy. On the contrary, a strategic framework is more essential than ever, to provide context and meaning to the almost-manic nature of the social web.

Knowing what you want to say, why it’s important, understanding how that message supports your organization, being clear about the effects you seek, managing the resources required to make it effective, being clear about the internal support needed for success (and being clear about who has a stake in the message) – all these apply in the social space.

What’s more, social activity should be integrated with the complete portfolio of alternative communications channels, techniques and protocols, including policy. Communications dashboards are more important than ever, and should be used rather than filed.

Providing this clarity of strategic thinking, and guiding an extended team of communications ambassadors, is the new PR.


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Comms strategy 101

The start of the current round of US Presidential primaries reminds us of the impact strategic communications can have on any campaign, political or corporate.

The benchmark, certainly in how social media were first engaged in a politically meaningful sense, remains Barack Obama’s first Presidential campaign, in both the primaries and the election itself, in long-ago 2008.

Re-reading the book Barack, Inc., by Barry Libert and Rick Faulk, published in 2009, provides interesting insights into the rigour, planning, and adept execution of Barack Obama’s campaign, and reminds us of how much of this remains valid to this day.


At the core of the campaign’s success was the ruthless self-assessment by Obama and his campaign managers that he was very much the under-dog, particularly when competing against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. Clinton (then as now) was part of a political dynasty, had blanket brand awareness, and was funded to the hilt.

This is a familiar commercial scenario, especially for companies launching new products or entering new markets.

And it’s the archetypal play for disruptors. His deployment of social media and real-time digital strategies and tactics was designed explicitly to claw back the advantage. The commercial comparisons remain obvious and relevant.

In their chapter on Obama’s use of the social web Libert and Faulk list the following lessons learned from the campaign:

  • cultivate grassroots
  • create a seamless community
  • nurture your lists (in social terms this translates to your Followers across all social channels)
  • allow your new grassroots to grow into every crevice [we would add, support and equip them in this]
  • arm yourself against cheap shots but don’t take them yourself
  • turn CRM into what they called customer-managed relationships (CMR)  [a new concept then, and one we believe still has merit to this day]
  • make your marketing mobile [which of course has come true!]

This remains a useful template for any social-led campaign. What’s changed dramatically since 2008/2009 has been the rise of real-time analytics as part of what makes social marketing, social selling and social-led business development effective.

And the use of analytics in communications strategy and communications execution needs to transcend the social media space, to all forms of communications. We can take our cues (and should) from the analytical overtones and undertones of the social web. We should have a clear answer to the question, “What’s the objective here? How do we define and measure success?”

The picture becomes complete if you create a fully-integrated communications strategy. For a politician, the campaign engine drives an election. For a commercial organization, it drives customer retention, business development, and profit enhancement.

Ask Obama.

(Barack, Inc., by Barry Libert & Rick Faulk, published in 2009 by FT Press.)

(A version of this blog post was first published at


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