Screenshot via StatueofLibertyTickets.com
The other day I was in the elevator with a couple and their teenage son. We all got out on the first floor.
"Excuse me," she said, in accented English that wasn't like any accent I usually hear. "The conference room, where can I find it?" When she took out a pamphlet and pointed at it, it confirmed my thought - they were foreign tourists.
"I don't know," I said. "I'm sorry." Her husband and son looked at me and shrugged. Their expressions were blank, as if to say, "Whatever - we didn't expect any help from you."
Just at that moment I turned to her, without thinking. "Are you from another country, visiting this country?"
"Yes," she said. "We're from Italy."
And again, without thinking I said: "Well, welcome to the USA. I hope that you enjoy your trip."
Just at that moment, the three of them looked at me. They were startled. It was a nice kind of startled, though. The most genuine expression.
In my mind what was I doing, when I reached out in this way? You can say perhaps just being polite and that's true. But it was something more and something else I think.
Working for the U.S. government, and working for two agencies now that deal with foreign populations, I understand that our country brand is built on interactions. Not only the formal ones. The everyday, hello-how-are-you kind of talking.
I love being here, love what this country means, and am grateful to formally and informally serve the government. We are the great experiment, largely successful, in freedom, equality, human rights, and opportunity -- regardless of our flaws.
I also understand that my brand and the brand of my agency, and the larger brand called "government" are inextricably aligned. No matter what others say about us, no matter what the headlines, I can only focus on what I do. As Tom Peters famously said more than 15 years ago:
"We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. (and) our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You." - Fast Company
This is something that any one of us can accomplish, and particularly in times of crisis. When the institutional brand is under attack, the individuals within that institution can represent the best of the organization.
That power is in our own hands.
At the first agency where I worked, one thing they did very well was Years of Service recognition. This is something that career public servants recognize and appreciate. Five years, 10 years, 15 years, 25, and 30 or more. A lifetime of labor, mostly quiet and unrecognized -- those gold stars in the newsletter meant that occasionally you were held up to the world and valued.
Those gold stars are very much in my head still. They are what I see, not the negative headlines. I see the real work of my colleagues, I see that they are up at night thinking about how they can make a difference. Whether it's protecting the public from credit card sharks. Stopping terrorists from smuggling in weapons of mass destruction. Literally delivering lifesaving aid.
It doesn't matter who you work for. Your brand is always tied to theirs. Assuming that you believe in the mission (which is not always the case, let's face it -- sometimes a job is just a job) -- you only control yourself, but you do control yourself.
At the end of the day, we each have many, many opportunities to preserve and sustain our personal brand and the brand of the organizations we work for. It is important to think about this for a lot of reasons. But the most important among them is ourselves. Because our deepest need, the moment at which we feel most connected to the Universe, is to do the right thing. And preserving a positive reputation through integrity, caring and technical excellence is how each of us can do that. In every interaction. Every single day.
* As always all opinions are my own.