Real stories: Confessions of a Barbie loving CEO.

I just opened my updated version of Word to see that it now offers pre-made resume templates designed by Moo. Brilliant cross-promotion. But I cannot use Moo templates. I run a design and branding business. I love Moo. The clean graphics, the neat still-life shots of stacked business cards and simple design solutions. I’ve thought about picking one of their templates to use for my own but as the head of a business that offers design as a service, that seems wrong. Or does it show that I am great at appropriately distributing capital resources? That is CEO talk by someone who has never truly been comfortable putting those three letters after her name. When it comes to ideas and bringing them to life for clients, I’m confident but that CEO thing, however much it was my vision for myself when I was a kid, feels like an ill-fitting jacket.

It’s funny thinking about being a kid and having a vision of myself as a businesswoman. I clearly saw the briefcase, the shoes, the power suit and the ‘bring home the bacon’ hair and glasses transition dance I was going to do at the end of the day. So many people will tell you that when they were eight they wanted to be a fill in the blank here and now there they are on Oprah living it and telling their story. Like the time that Katie Holmes told Oprah how her childhood dream was to marry Tom Cruise. How did that work out? The idea that we knew it when we were children and it happened like magic is misleading. Some people do have a vision and they hold it firm, work hard to become it and live happily ever after. Others hold that vision and become it and it’s not at all what they envisioned so they leave their job as a lawyer and become a taxidermist.

Childhood visions are meaningful, but how literally should they be taken? The visions I saw screamed, “Must run company.” When in actuality, those visions might also have been saying, “You have a vivid imagination.” Or, “You are a writer or an illustrator, someone who can invent worlds and armies of people having conversations and living lives who do not and will never exist.” They also told the truth about where I stood on being in charge.

Growing up I loved playing Barbies. I could do it for hours. But did aptitude tests in the 1970’s ask kids what kind of play they enjoyed most? “Can you play Barbies for 8 hours at a stretch?” or “Did you totally redesign your Barbie’s wardrobe, because you felt she deserved better?” “Yes! Yes, that is me! That is what I do!” And then I would have trotted out Barbie in her tailor-made pants and dresses. Another great question, “Did you create a home line for your Barbie’s house, with pillows, artwork, vases, and sheets?” I would nearly hop out of my seat with excitement at having been asked a question that I could answer so passionately. At having someone understand me so well. To know there were others who couldn’t bear to put Barbie down for the night on a hard rectangle of pink plastic — not comfortable or cozy at all! She needed a mattress, a fitted sheet! A blanket made from soft cloth! Vases made from toothpaste caps, pillows in the corners of the homemade couch, artwork on the wallpapered walls. Magazines! I wanted to move in with her and Ken so we could eat popcorn together by the paper fire and have parties and drama in great outfits and bedding sets.

Make-believe was so important to me and the worlds I created were so real in my mind. All I wanted was for them to be real in life. That would explain the demise of a group of Barbie-sized dolls called the Sunshine Family, that I accidentally destroyed because I needed their camping trip to be more real, and so I added fire. When my Sunshine Family decided to go camping, they packed a stove in their hatchback. They were prepared. I loved that stove because it was tiny and metal and had holes in the top where flames could come out. A candle from my mother’s dining room drawer, placed underneath the stove made it all the more real. Until the day I joined a friend as she roller skated by. When I got back all that was left was a grey pile of ashes in the dirt under the treehouse. As I surveyed the damage my mother walked toward me looking grave and concerned. “What on earth happened here?” She asked, completely flummoxed when she saw flames from her kitchen window. I don’t think I ever explained the cause of the blaze. I was too embarrassed by my carelessness and sad about the loss of my little plastic family with their hip clothes, relatable hair, and cute baby.

That’s the thing about realism. It has real consequences. And now, the imaginary world I occupied through my Sunshine Family was over. Poof. Thinking about it now, I wonder if the heavy feeling I had was less about dolls and more about the end of using them to create a place where I was in charge. I was God. And a fashion designer.

But I needn’t fret. My vivid imagination continued to play out and insist on having a role, whether appropriate or not as I made my way through high school and college, art school and every job and moment of my life that followed. And that brings us to now. Where I am a CEO. Not the one I imagined, but another kind altogether. One who uses imagination and creativity to help clients and inspire team members. A CEO who has always had an odd sense of humor and way of looking at the world. And that is a good thing.

This story is brought to you by our observation that being real and sharing truth is something marketers talk about a lot, but don’t really do. So we’re doing it. We’re sharing our truths. About what we think, feel, and experience. What is your truth? We challenge you to be brave and tell it.  

How do we connect better?

As part of our series on connection, I asked Ben Woo, founder and managing partner at market research firm QC Strategy/Beamline Partners how we can connect better, and avoid common pitfalls? Here are 5 golden rules to stick by – let’s go! 

Put things in a language that your audience can understand.  A language around benefits vs. features.

Just because there is something that you think about a lot, doesn’t mean that everybody else does. Driving with your own frame on situations can prevent connection. Ben provides an example of work he did recently with a digital media company. If in the process of conducting research, he and his team were to ask consumers, “Which of the following things make you more likely to consume a piece of content?” Most likely they wouldn’t learn much. People don’t walk around thinking about the content they’re consuming. Instead, they think about a particular show they watch or an author or genre they like to read, so it’s key to focus more on how those things really show up in people’s lives. Companies that make products tend to focus overly on product features, tech specs, and innovation but that’s not how consumers think. Customers think in terms of benefits. In terms of, “How will this product affect my life?”

When interviewing or trying to get to know someone, say as little as possible.

When you ask shorter questions, you get longer answers and in the process of doing this, you are putting less of your own language or your own frame onto things. Craft open-ended questions to get more detailed answers. Keep in mind that you want to hear the story of the other person, as opposed to having them fill gaps in your own story.

Keep the focus on the other person, resisting the urge to interject.

I asked Ben about this as it frequently trips me up in conversations – when someone shares something that I too have experienced, it’s tempting to interject and share a story, in an effort to relate. As much as my intention in doing this is a good one, what I’ve learned is that switching to my own story lessons that moment of connection when the focus was on the other person. Ben’s view was enlightening, and inspiring, “Keep in mind that initiating connection is all about giving, about giving kindness openly without direct hope of something in return. As someone is answering something about their own life experience, to give somebody space to do that is a gift.” Ben reinforces, “It’s good to relate to folks, but not by making it about you.”

Approach conversation more like a Ouija board and less like a sheepdog.

Try to push the other person’s story forward, as opposed to interjecting with bits of yours, cutting them off or redirecting that energy. If there is an objective to the conversation, you have to make sure you can get there, but it is much more Ouija board than it is sheepdog.

Listen and follow up with simple questions.

Don’t worry about your questions needing to sound like your favorite late-night talk show host. Use simple follow-ups such as, “Oh, what was that like? And then what happened? Why? When did this happen?” Resist the feeling that you need to entertain and instead focus on gently pushing the conversation along.

What are your companies’ connection questions or challenges? Share them with us and become part of the conversation.

Thank you the founder and managing partner at market research firm QC Strategy/Beamline Partners, Ben Woo, for sharing his valueable time and knowledge.