Caleb Gardner is a sought-after speaker and founding partner of 18 Coffees, where he helps leaders navigate change and get a foothold in the future. He is also the author of the recently released No Point B: Rules for Leading Change in the New Hyper-Connected, Radically Conscious Economy. We discuss the rules for leading change, the importance of prioritizing change initiatives, and how to articulate a message for different stakeholders.
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Leverage A Communication Canvas With Caleb Gardner
This episode’s guest is Caleb Gardner, Founder and Managing Partner of 18 Coffees, a management consulting firm and a community of forward-thinking leaders building more ethical, inclusive, and effective organizations. Caleb, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much for having me. I’m glad to be here.
It’s great to have you. This is going to be an interesting conversation about management consulting and some of the concepts that you have. Let’s start with the usual question about your entrepreneurial journey, including your stint helping President Obama’s campaign. How do you get here, and how did you get to be the Founder of 18 Coffees?
I feel like it is an appropriate time to be having this conversation because a lot of my entrepreneurial journey is wrapped up on Twitter, which is in the news right now as we are doing this episode. I got involved in Twitter around 2008, and I met a ton of people here in my backyard in Chicago that were in the tech scene in marketing and business who were using Twitter back when it was this innocent place where you could get to know people.
I ended up meeting someone who referred me to a job at Edelman in Chicago, a big global communications firm. They were creating a digital strategy division and needed smart people to come in and teach an old-school PR firm how to do digital well. She ended up being my mentor for a while. After that, I met people through Edelman that had been part of the Obama organization and had either worked on the 2008 campaign or ended up leaving and working on the 2012 campaign.
We were positioned in Chicago across the street from where the Obama campaign was. Just by proximity and by sharing of talent, I got to know a lot of people in the Obama world and eventually got referred to the job that led me to run social media for the President for almost four years through that. It’s very serendipitous, going from an innocent user of Twitter, meeting people, and networking to running the Twitter account for the most powerful man in the world.
That must have been a pretty exciting time for you. What was the biggest thing that you learned from working on the President’s Twitter account?
There was so much. Where do I narrow it down? I learned that when you have a good team surrounding you who is willing to think on their feet, you can overcome all kinds of obstacles. The amount of political pressure and risk we faced every day on top of a global audience who’s waiting for us to screw up. We’re having conversations with the White House comms team about not causing an economic crisis by accidentally tweeting the wrong thing. The stakes were insane.When you have a good team surrounding you who is willing to think on their feet, you can overcome all kinds of obstacles. Click To Tweet
It’s the ability to trust your team and to know that they are going to be able to move quickly with you and think on their feet in a not-that-impressive environment. If you’ve ever worked on a political campaign or in the government, this isn’t like a WeWork. You don’t have all these corporate perks that a lot of people in the private sector have around their job. We were bootstrapping it together in ways that people don’t appreciate.
I learned that if you hire the right people and you trust them to be able to move quickly, and if you’re doing work that is mission-driven and inspiring and makes the world better, people will put in all kinds of performance, not only in terms of hours but in terms of caring about the quality and caring about what you’re saying every day. People perform amazingly.
In the video, if you can capture the emotional engagement of people and they buy into emotionally what you are trying to accomplish, they’re going to bring everything they have to the job. It’s not only their intellectual and time resources, but they will figure things out for you. Let’s talk a little bit about frameworks. This show is all about frameworks or management blueprints. You developed a framework called the Communications Canvas. What is this canvas designed to do, and what does it look like?
It looks like any of the many canvases that I’ve used over the years that were developed by smart people. It’s meant to be a tool that is able to be filled out by teams together or individually, depending on what your communications team looks like, but it was originally designed by me and a few people on my team who come from the marketing and communications world who think about things like what a value prop is. How do you translate that into key messages across several different mediums?
How do you translate something that’s complex? How do you boil it down into different mediums in a way that appreciates the nuances of that medium? What do you use different mediums for, and how do you measure the efficacy of how you’re using those different mediums? These are things that we would think about in marketing communications, but when it comes to internal communications with our employees and shareholders, we don’t think about it with the same level of complexity. Also, we don’t appreciate how often and in all the different ways we need to communicate a message.
The communications canvas was originally designed as a tool that takes some of that thoughtfulness and complexity and applies it to how you make change within an organization. How do you apply the same communications discipline that you would externally to persuading your people about the direction we’re headed, persuading your shareholders, persuading your employees, or persuading your leadership, if necessary?
We’ve seen people take this and apply it to, “I need to convince my senior leaders that we need to move in this direction. Where can I apply that persuasion and pressure in different mediums so that they understand?” It was originally designed for that purpose. We’ve seen it used for a few different purposes now, but it’s meant to be a tool that maps it out for you. How should we talk to our people?
We talked about the elements of it being the first one. The first one is to identify the pain points and then the value proposition, the messaging, and the metrics. Can you give a little bit of an elaboration on each of these four elements and how they fill together?
The pain point is trying to empathize with who you’re talking to. Trying to say, “We are about to go through this transformation, or we are about to start this new strategy,” or whatever you’re trying to communicate. What about the person you’re talking to is painful right now that this new direction may help alleviate? It’s starting to try to get into their mindset a little bit with how to communicate in a way that positions it specifically for them and that’s not only for a general audience. How do we specifically talk to their pain?
Also, similarly to the value proposition, we usually start even before we get to this canvas exercise talking about visioning. How do we talk about where we want to go as an organization in a way that’s compelling and is both aspirational but also attainable? We’ll then bring that vision to something like the canvas exercise so that we can talk about the value prop for that specific audience.
If we’re talking about different stakeholder groups, how is the vision of where we’re going, going to be different for employees in HR versus employees in marketing versus employees in data and analytics versus shareholders or other stakeholders that might not even be in the day-to-day? The value prop ends up being different for them but based on those pain points.
Also, how do you boil that down to specific messages for each of those people, and in what mediums is where the rubber starts to hit the road? Now, we’re talking about not only high-level value prop. We’re talking about day-to-day communications and where we’re going to engage with these people and try to get that value prop across.
You then measure that so that you know how effective those messages are. Is there a process that we can describe for how the message gets articulated for different audiences or stakeholders, or is it more of an intuitive process on how you want to use the language and verbiage of that group and talk to them this way? Is this process-driven, or is this more of a relational thing?
The tool is meant to be a milestone with you and the team can sit down and say, “Here’s what this should look like from a broad standpoint for this audience,” but on any given day, we’re creating thousands of messages. Externally, we’re creating messages for our audiences, or, as individuals, I’m creating all kinds of social media messaging. However, internally, we’re also sending emails and we’re sending Slack messages. We’re sending all kinds of internal communications as well.
This isn’t meant to be a content calendar. It’s not meant to flesh out every specific individual message, but it is meant to quickly ground you in a strategy that can be a foundational document for how you develop that message. If we’re saying, “We need to be able to talk to our employees about this big change coming up.”
Let’s say it’s a leadership turnover. “We need to be able to communicate this leadership turnover. We’re going to debut it at all staff meetings, but we’re going to have to reinforce it via email this many times a week. We’re going to have to reinforce it via Teams, Slack,” or whatever your organization uses. There needs to be some consideration of how people receive those messages differently in those different mediums and how often, but it can start with this canvas, which is meant to get it on paper from a big-picture standpoint.
That’s a great framework for people to think about, “How do I articulate, share the message, and tailor it to the different groups?” Ultimately, you want to measure it to make sure that you are improving its effectiveness. Now, I’d like to switch gears here a little bit. I’d like to talk about your new book, No Point B. Tell me a little bit about why you wrote this book. What is this about, and what was your goal with publishing it?
Related to the work that we were doing when I was working with President Obama and when I was at Edelman, I got very interested in this new communications world. It’s not only the world of communications but the world of technology and how it was changing business in general. I got super interested in who’s building for the next world. Who’s taking all of this potential that technology gives us and thinking about how to apply it to business in a creative way that upends business models and different areas of value for the organization that finds new areas of value?
At the same time, coming out of the Obama world in 2016, we were seeing how that upending of expectations that technology was giving us, especially when you and I can take to the internet with our opinions, our political views, and our values. Take any company to task about how they are or are not living up to their own stated public social responsibility goals. We felt like there was something transformational happening around the social responsibility of business as well.
Between technological disruption and social disruption, we thought business was about to completely change. I say we because, at that time, I founded my current company, 18 Coffees, with my business partner. We started doing that transformational work leaning on what we knew about communications, technology, and innovation.
We were like, “We’ve got to be able to bring the entire org along,” and there’s something about that Obama organizing model where you can bring people along with making a big change that we can apply to companies that want to be more ambitious about how they are doing their work. When I went to write the book, I was talking about the work that we’ve done over the last five years in that space. How do you be ambitious, continue to innovate, but still be socially responsible and still bring the rest of your people along in the organization so people don’t get left behind?
When I talk about the book, I’m talking about how we do change well. How do we think about change in this specific environment, which is unique, but then also talk about the best practices for human development, mindset change, and change management for a lot of the things that we’ve known that worked for over the last many years? To think that we are both in this very specific, unique moment that calls for some new thinking, and we can look at what doesn’t change and what is foundational about the way that people change how they work that we can learn from.
What does the title No Point B refer to? Is it about no clear direction, or is it about no alternative destination? What is this about?
It’s about the fact that change never stops coming. The idea is that in traditional change management models, you would look at change from a linear perspective. You would say, “We’ve got this big disruptive thing coming. This thing happened to us. Our org is going to be disrupted for this amount of time and we’re going to manage it accordingly. Eventually, we’re going to get back to “normal.”
The argument that I’m making in No Point B is that there is no normal. We’re never going to arrive at a point where we can stop changing and get back to business as usual. There’s too much disruption happening, both internal and external, and it makes a big case for why technology is being so disruptive to the way that we work now and why our political environment is so disruptive. The argument that I make is that change has to become a core practice. We have to see this as something we are constantly doing and that we have to practice doing. We have to get our organization adaptable in order to deal with an environment of constant change.There is no normal. We're never going to arrive at a point where we can stop changing and return to business as usual. Click To Tweet
That’s a great point that you’re making that we have to get used to a changing world and get comfortable with the uncomfortable, is the idea here. How do we change well? What does it mean to be a change agent and an adaptable change participant who accepted and embraces the idea that we have to keep changing? What does it look like?
It looks like switching your mindset to be less focused on, “How do I do all these things on my to-do list right now, well?” and switching it to, “All these things are on my to-do list, and I have to do them well. Also, I need to think about what’s not on my to-do list and what is going to be coming down the pipeline that may make the things that I’m doing now irrelevant, or at the very least, maybe not as important. Maybe it’s going to shift my priorities.”
On an individual basis, we have to shift like that, but we have to teach and train people to think like that within teams and within organizations too. There are a few different ways that I bring that out in the book. One is that there are rituals we can create as teams around breaking down old thinking and restructuring the way that we think to see new opportunities.
There are dry runs about crisis scenarios where we can say, “What’s the worst-case scenario that could happen in this thing that we are trying to do? How do we do some risk analysis about how likely that worst-case scenario is going to happen?” There’s some forecasting we can do where we can look across multiple horizons and say, “What is the future likely to look like or not look like?” These are all things that we tend to not do in the day-to-day of our organization because we rest on our strategic assumptions and assume that they’re not going to be disrupted. It’s a very unsafe place to be from an organizational leadership standpoint.
I’m wondering about this topic because some people might argue that if there’s too much complexity, if you’re trying to cross that bridge before you got there, then you might be wasting your energy, and you might be better off focusing on the present and execute your current plan as well as you can. If that gets overridden, then you shift and pivot to another plan, but spending too much time thinking about the future in an unstructured way could be very confusing for people. How do you help people cut through that confusion and not get distracted by all those potential futures?
I would agree. It can be very paralyzing, and that’s one of the reasons why we don’t tend to do it because thinking about all possible futures is overwhelming, so we myopically look at what we have right in front of us but I don’t think the answer to a complex world is to pretend like the complexity doesn’t exist or to try to reduce what we can control down to a few levers and ignore the rest.
We have to trade off not all but some of our time and resources now to the future so that we are not at risk of disruption. There’s a 70/20/10 model that I talk about in the book that I didn’t originate, but it’s been around for a long time, where we talk about 70% of our efforts and our resources going to positions that are defensible. We have specific product and service lines. We know that they work well. We want to double down on them. We want to make them work.
We’re going to have about 70% of our time, energy, and budget to go to reinforcing those things, but there’s another 20% that we are seeing on the horizon that we know possibly is going to add value. We’ve got some data points around that we should start making investments and being able to capitalize on those opportunities pretty quickly.
However, there’s another 10% where we have even less data where maybe we’re talking about moonshot ideas or maybe we’re talking about being able to invest in things where we don’t have a lot of data, but we have good instinct. We’ve got good people with a good education. We need to be able to trust that they have good ideas that we need to invest some resources in.
We’re not going to bet the farm on it. We’re going to stay in the things that we know that work, but we’re also not going to pretend like we are not in danger of being eventually disrupted by never trying anything new. Once those moonshots or once those 20% investment opportunities turn out to have value, we can start incorporating them into what we do or rolling them out, but that, to me, is the answer. It’s not about necessarily not doing one or the other. It’s about the trade-offs between our time and attention and being intentional about making time for the future now.
We need to work on the present and the future at the same time. We have to figure out a way so we can make the present work from 70% of our energy and be profitable as a company by allocating 70%. We have to free up 30% of our energy for new opportunities and moonshots, which is a challenge for many companies because right now, they are working 110% of their energy and burning themselves out on staying afloat.
Maybe they are about under 100%. That is a very different mindset that it’s not good enough to be 100%. You have to compress. You’ve worked to the 70% of your capacity and you have to work on the future but as professionals and as entrepreneurs, we all have to do this right. We always have to think about the future and squeeze things somehow if we work on both.
We talk a lot about prioritization. I would argue that if you are spending 110% of your time on something, only 20% of those things are probably valuable, to begin with. There are always efficiencies that we can find and space we can create for the future. There’s an old Buddhist saying that a Buddhist monk used to say. “If you don’t have 10 minutes to meditate a day, then you should create 30 minutes to meditate a day.” That’s what it reminds me of. If you don’t think that you have time to plan for the future, it probably means you’re in a worse position than you think you are.If you don't think you have time to plan for the future, it probably means you're in a worse position than you think. Click To Tweet
Before we wrap up, I like to ask a different question, and maybe that pertains to 30% of your time. You and I talked and you said that you are focused on creating time for social impact issues that are important to you personally. I was wondering what issues these are and why they’re important to you.
We started off this conversation by talking about Twitter a little bit. The impact of tech on society is something that I continue to care about, probably coming from the background that I do and feeling somewhat invested in the tech ecosystem both personally and professionally. It’s like finding a responsible forward path for technology to be a net positive for our country and not a net negative is something that I care about a lot.
Democratic participation, again, coming from the political sphere, is something that I care about a lot and something that we invest in a lot as a firm. Trying to find better ways to get people to get out and vote and make it easier for people to vote. We also invest quite a bit in, again, both me personally and as a company in trying to help with sustainability and environmental issues with the clients that we work with.
In general, there’s an interesting split between what our clients are interested in and how we can invest in helping them be more socially responsible, which is one track of how I think about social impact and then how I think about it personally as a citizen and what things I’m going to invest in personally. There’s a lot of overlap there, but I’m in the beneficial position of running my own company and having a business partner that shares similar values and being able to invest both personally and professionally.
It probably allows you also to be more in the world of your customers and engage with similar topics than they are, and you strengthen the connection with them that will also help probably your business at some point. Caleb, what do you suggest that the audience do? Where should they go so that they can learn about the topics that we discussed and your books? You also wrote another book. You guys are very prolific at 18 Coffees because you came out with the Changemaker’s Toolkit, which is another book. Where should the audience go, and what are the best resources to connect with you guys and read your materials?
Thank you. CalebGardner.com has all of my information. I’m @CalebGardner in most places around the web, including Instagram and Twitter. All my information about No Point B is on CalebGardner.com. The Changemaker’s Toolkit, which puts a lot of what I’ve written in No Point B into practical application, is available on 18Coffees.com. We wanted to add tools like the Communication Canvas to it, where it’s a lot of things that you can take and use right away. We’re excited about the potential for that. That’s on 18Coffees.com, along with the rest of my team.
Caleb, thank you for sharing your vision and your Communication Canvas with the audience and your vision of what a company should look forward, look like, and think about the future. That’s been very good and for those who are reading, stay tuned because now we are coming out with new episodes twice a week, and there’s always an exciting entrepreneur on the show. Thank you for reading.