Reinvent vs. Retread: Why the Odd Metaphor Wins

Reinvention is the biggest misconception about late in life career shifts.

As I point out in this article for AARP’s “Life ReImagined” website, you just don’t have time to abandon everything and everyone you know.

Retread instead. Gain traction by changing your grip.

But wait! Doesn’t ‘retread’ have bad connotations? Retread tires are likely to shred after a few miles. They’re not a good deal. Isn’t it ‘reinvent’ better?

‘Retread’ is better, in the context of shifting into an encore career, for two reasons.

  • A ‘retread’ only has to get you a few more miles, just one last version of your career really only needs to get you over the retirement line. Most late-in-life entrepreneurs don’t want or expect to build a Fortune 100 company. They want a steady income stream from satisfying work, with a sunset in view. Those factors, which are all wrapped up in the ‘retread’ connotation, make that term a better fit than the open-ended, sunny-with-ambition ‘reinvent.’
  • Secondly, ‘retread’ carries just enough surprise factor. It starts out like “reinvent,” but goes in a different direction. It’s a twist on a term that has become a cliche.

You don’t have to reinvent every metaphor. Sometimes, a retread works turns out to be a better fit all the way around.



“We Love Women!” Ok, Prove It!

Employers love to brag about awards, especially awards that help them attract women and minorities to boost diversity. But how can you see past the self-congratulations to the real deal…especially if you’re interviewing and hoping that you’ll be able to take advantage of such programs?

The current issue of The Glass Hammer cuts through the rhetoric and gets to the point: Yes, if the company is bragging about its wonderful awards, then it’s perfectly in line to ask them to explain how those awards translate to a daily culture and work-life blend that you might experience if you worked there.

Among the great sources for this piece (yes, including me and the Accounting MOVE Project) is Risa Lavine, one of the smartest human resources people I’ve ever met. Her common-sense advice: when you’re scouting a potential employer, simply keep your eyes open. Are women well represented in higher ranks? Does the company back up its happy talk with women taking key roles at all levels?

Both men and women should advocate for the advancement of women. If men do all the talking and the numbers don’t back them up….well, you might have your answer right there.




A Metaphor Formula as Easy as Pie

Does concocting a powerful metaphor trigger a flashback to pop quiz in freshman English?

Does it feel as fun as writing a sonnet on deadline?

It doesn’t have to be. Here’s a simple, effective way to concoct a catchy – possibly, a powerful – metaphor: Add a twist to a cliche.

Take the headline of this post. What if, instead of ‘easy as pie,’ it read, ‘as easy as pi”? You’d immediately flash back to sophomore geometry and a chalkboard filling up with the endless decimalization of pi. So, as easy as ‘pie’ is sweet, but as easy as ‘pi’ is, well, not  so easy.

Let’s add another twist: ‘As easy as Martha Stewart’s pie.” We stay in the realm of pastry, but our claim of simplicity is now up against our assumption that Martha Stewart has needlessly overcomplicated pie.

Here’s how this technique looks in real life. Columnist Susan Tompor’s piece “Detroit retirees facing cuts anxiously await bankruptcy eligibility decision” includes a nice twist on the retirement cliche of a gold watch. “City of Detroit retirees are discovering that the golden watch may have to be pawned, as Detroit deals with an $18-billion mountain of debt and projected liabilities,” she wrote. And that’s how it’s done.

Must a Writer Be Cranky?

Well, in short: no.

But the real question is, when hiring creatives for your content team, must you choose between talent and attitude? That’s basically the question addressed in this story from a business to business marketing advisory about content development.  I’m not the only expert quoted. Fortunately, other journalists-turned-content-gurus share my point of view: choose a short list based on proven ability. Then hire for attitude.

Our content writers and managers are collaborators. They are great at detecting the real story that you have been struggling to tell. As one client recently told us during a message development session, “I’ve been trying for six years to get this said right…and you did it in an afternoon!”

Your story + our skills = your words. Because ultimately, yours is the voice that needs to be heard.

Legally Blonde Meets HBR: How Harvard Business School Moved the Gender Needle

Legally_blondeYou have to be smart and accomplished to get into the Harvard Business School. But many women faced an additional set of hurdles once they arrived on campus: they could let the men dominate and get along, or they could be assertive and shunned.  The culture was quite familiar to fans of the movie Legally Blonde, in which a brainy Barbie shows up at Harvard Law and shows up her classmates.

As described in a beautifully written New York Times narrative, HBR leaders were appalled by that ‘false choice’ – once they figured it out. The story shows how a deep commitment, paired with insight and fearless leadership, more than doubled the proportion of HBR student women top performers in just one year.

Some of the most powerful tactics they adopted are similar to those we’ve seen work at MOVE winning companies:

Women were coached in how to step up in a group situation, how to not be talked over or overlooked when raising a hand to be heard.

Leaders restructured some course material into a collaborative team model, reinforcing the value and power of peer and influence dynamics. The traditional HBR case study method is, as described in the story, a top-down, power-riddled process with students called on the spot by professors. The new Field class structure is all about collaboration.

And to help the professions gain insight into their own assumptions, habits and – dare we say it – privilege? – the school installed tracking software that enabled them to see the gender implications of their grading decisions as they made them. To quote the story:    “New grading software tools let professors instantly check their calling and marking patterns by gender. One professor, Mikolaj Piskorski, summarized Mr. Nohria’s message later: “We’re going to solve it at the school level, but each of you is responsible to identify what you are doing that gets you to this point.”

By blending numbers and stories — the methodology used by Wilson-Taylor’s MOVE Projects — the leaders at HBS effected genuine change. The proportion of female students in the class of 2013, at 40%, was about the same as it was in in 2009 (36%). But the proportion of women in the top 5% of the class rose from 14% to 38% — in just one year.  Most companies would love to win results like that. Nice that HBR backs up how it’s done through MOVE.

P.S. — Take ten minutes to hear Brooke Boyarsky, the heroine of the NYT story, give a commencement address.



Did You Hear What I Meant, Not What I Said?

Gender miscommunication started in the Garden of Eden and has been tangling understanding ever since. When your career is at stake, it takes on a whole new dimension.

Through the Accounting MOVE Project, which measures and supports the advancement of women, the Wilson-Taylor team listens to women accountants who don’t understand what they don’t understand about making partner.

Here’s the thing: they lean in till they are nearly falling over, but when they simply ask their sponsors or mentors “What do I need to do?”, they inevitably get back a cryptic, opaque response: “Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

In this piece that ran August 2, 2013 in the Chicago Tribune’s opinion section, I tell the bosses of America what they need to do to turn this conversation around.

But here’s what women need to do: be more specific. It’s not much more risk to get a lot more information. Ask, “What specific skills or experiences do I need to master to fill in the gaps that qualify me for partner?” or for your next critical career step.

When you ask a detailed question, you get a detailed answer. And just like that, you understand what you need to do next. Then, of course, you need to do it.

When Sports Analogies Miss the Target

Playing the field. Home run. Hit the bullseye.

Sports analogies are as inevitable as sports fans. But as discussed in a recent New York Times story, it’s not a good idea to wade too far into sports terminology because your message can get lost in the weeds when what you really want is a mulligrubber.

A what, you say?

Precisely the point. If you’re not familiar with rugby, you won’t know that a mulligrubber is a  play that essentially buys a moment of time.

Even if you are communicating with an audience intimately conversant with your topic, don’t use inside baseball to make your main point. State it clearly, in plain English, even if you’ve teed it up with a metaphor.  Because simply stating your point is always a home run.


Backhand compliment.



FedSpeak: A Metaphor is Like Money in the Bank

If your policies are too complicated even for your colleagues to understand, make your point with a metaphor.

It works for the Federal Reserve Banks. It’ll work for you.

“I think you can use [metaphors] in two ways,” said Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, as quoted in the Wall St. Journal in an entire article on the Fed’s colorful language. Mr. Fisher says. “One is to get people to listen, and the other is to explain policy.”

Crystal-clear, Mr. Fisher!

Metaphors are ideal for grabbing people’s attention. A memorable metaphor will be repeated, quoted and might even take on a life of its own.

That’s why you should do as the Fed officials do and choose your metaphors carefully, testing them with an experienced communication consultant who can examine the figure of speech from all angles to see how it will be perceived and misperceived.  As spontaneous as your delivery might be, your actual language must be chosen with care.

Fisher’s other point is that a metaphor must be true as well as snappy. The comparison you are making must either simplify a concept or simplify the introduction to a complex concept. The test for this is easy: try out the metaphor on a colleague from a different department or outside your field. If you have to explain the metaphor, it’s self-defeating and distracting. Toss it away and try another one. The good news about metaphors is the better you are at using them, the better you will be at finding them.

Don’t Flush Away $7,500

Can your organization afford to toss $7,500 to the wind and blindly hope it results in an enhanced reputation?

I didn’t think so. But if you gin up a standard press release — a $7,500 process — and then spend another $750 to blast it out to an uncaring internet — you may as well shred it and drop the confetti from an airplane, for all the good it will do you.

The hard costs of producing a decent release include collaboration, legal review, and integrating search-engine-friendly terms designed to anchor search results, according to marketing consultant Fred Godlash.

And all that’s great. But if your message isn’t memorable and share-able, it’s also a waste.

The key to a press release that sparks coverage by media and industry influencers is to join a conversation that people already care about.

Really, that’s it. Nobody cares about your company’s 37th anniversary. Nobody cares that your company had a booth at a trade show. Nobody really cares that your executive spoke on a panel.

They don’t care because such messages are about you. And when you use a press release to say what you want to say, you miss the chance to say what people want or need to hear.

How ‘The Glass Ceiling’ Became a Mega-Metaphor

Everybody knows what ‘the glass ceiling’ is: the invisible but real barrier between rising women and executive positions.

That you don’t need that phrase defined proves the power of a metaphor that taps into a deep trend accompanied by deep emotions.  Powerful metaphors are more than snappy turns of speech. They reach deep into the zeitgeist to crystallize how people feel. That’s what makes them memorable — and more:  “the glass ceiling” defines a widespread problem that affects success and economic wellbeing for millions of women.

A recent New York Times magazine feature on innovation helpfully explains who coined ‘the glass ceiling,’ and why. As a human resources manager at a large company in 1978, Marilyn Loden saw the statistics that summarized who got promoted, and who didn’t.  While participating in a panel discussion about workplace advancement titled “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall,” she suddenly paired her longstanding observation that women hit a ceiling with the imagery of glass.

It was an inspiration that defined not just the current situation of baby boomer women who aspired to leadership, but also the submerged organizational culture and structures that blocked those aspirations.

Here’s why ‘the glass ceiling’ works:

  • It is a juxtaposition of two familiar items — glass and ceiling — in an unexpected way. Everybody knows what glass is and everybody knows what a ceiling is, so it’s easy for them to envision a glass ceiling.
  • It is easy to build on the image. How many times have you read the phrase “cracks in the glass ceiling?” An entire online newsletter, The Glass Hammer, references the glass ceiling without mentioning it.
  • Share it. Loden’s inspiration happened in the moment, in front of an audience. She didn’t try to control it or copyright it or own it. If you coin a moneymaker, its influence (and yours) will grow only when others use it.

Short, relatable and easy to use: that’s how ‘the glass ceiling’ became a meta-metaphor.