ICology: Color me HR

Ep #49, Sarah Cooper with The Cooper Review

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If anything comes from this episode of ICology it's that you can have fun with HR. Sarah Cooper is the creator of The Cooper Review and the author of "100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings." And Sarah is also an expert in career and relationship advice for people who like to laugh.

In this episode we also talk about a clever project she worked on with Gusto. They worked together to create the "Color Me HR" activity book for HR professionals. The downloadable book recreates much of the fun from activity books for kids but puts them in the corporate setting. Can you make it through the onboarding maze? Or can you spot the office party lawsuit? Can you help Larry and Julia settle their dispute?

What makes this so creative is that these aren't normally funny situations. And in fact are quite stressful. But this approach shows us that humor can be a way to navigate difficult HR (and other professional) situations. Download the activity book and start having fun. 

Episode resources:

Episode Transcript

Chuck: This is ICology. It's a podcast about interesting people, doing interesting things, in internal communications. IN this episode I am with Sarah Cooper from the Copper Review. If internal comms is your passion, then this is your podcast. Listen in.

So, many who have listened before know I stress the value of participating in social media. Not necessarily publishing, but reading, and watching and researching. It was a particular piece of content I saw being shared that I thought listeners of ICology would want to hear more about. So Sarah Cooper is author and creator of The Cooper Review. Sarah - welcome to ICology.

Sarah: Thank you so much for having me.

Chuck: I acknowledge that I rip off this intro from one of my favorite podcasts - Tell Me Something I Don't Know, but I do it shamelessly. So Sarah, here is what I do know about you. You are an author, which we will get into a bit more later, you've also worked at both google and yahoo in the past. You love being political on twitter, which I applaud. And you perform stand-up comedy. So Sarah, tell me something I don't know about you.

Sarah: Something that you don't know about me is that I'm extremely unproductive most days. I don't get as much done as people think that I do, and I don't know where I got this reputation for getting a lot done, but I take a lot of naps and I struggle with productivity every single day. So, that's something you don't know.

Chuck: Unless you would consider being productive at napping?

Sarah: Yes - I'm very productive at napping. I'm also productive about talking about how unproductive I am. I talk about that a lot, so I'm good at that too.

Chuck: As I mentioned earlier, you are an author, and the author of 100 tricks to appear smart in meetings. So, here's my question to you - is it that it's the people who aren't smart, or is it the meetings that they're in that aren't smart?

Sarah: I think most of the people that I've been in meetings with are smart, I think that it's the meetings and the award situations that we put ourselves in at work that lead to meetings that aren't smart, and lead to situations where people feel like they have to say certain things or do certain things to look a certain way to their coworkers. So I would put it more on the meetings than the people.

Chuck: And a hundred tricks is a lot, and we've all sat through some of those meetings that you're talking about. What are you personal five favorite tricks that you'd like to tease the listeners with so they go and check out the other 95?

Sarah: Sure. Well definitely up there is translating percentages in fractions. I was in a meeting when someone did this - someone was presenting some statistics and they said 25% of people clicked on this button, and someone said "Oh, about 1 in 4" and made a note of it. And I was really impressed with this persons quick math skills and I always wanted to try that trick but I never got a chance to, but it's definitely one of my favorite ones. So that's a good one.

Another one is pacing around the room, which is really great cause you don't actually have to say anything, you're just pacing back and forth, and people think that you're being very introspective and thinking about everything deeply, and wondering what it is you're thinking. And so it's kind of a mysterious thing to do. But I remember when a VP would get up and just start pacing - I was like "Oh my gosh, is he pissed off, is he going to cancel this project?" I had no idea. But I just knew that my respect for him went through the roof. So pacing around the room is a good one.

Another one that everyone if in the tech world loves I ask "Will this scale?", no matter what it is, just ask if it's going to scale. Which I another one that I haven't gotten to try but it's great because no one really knows what that means, and I kind of pisses people off who do know what it means, which is usually software engineers. So asking it it's going to scale is a good one too.

So that's three. Another one that I really like, and this is great for those weekly meetings where you're giving updates and everyone is going around the room and saying what they're working on - is just to interrupt someone's update and then let them finish, which is also called the Kanye. Which is basically just saying "I'm just going to stop you right there, Anthony. Anthony's about to give an update that's really important, so everyone please listen to Anthony. Okay Anthony, continue." It's kind of, you know, a power move, but it makes you look like you've just taken control of that person's update for them. So it's just really great.

And then the last one that I think is - ask if we're asking the right questions. So this is good for brainstorming meetings. It's always great to question the questions, and ask if these asks are the right asks, to put it in the parlance of most corporate speak. And then I still want to ask you what questions you think are the right questions, I can just say, "I just asked one."

So those are five of my favorite ones.

Chuck: Those are good. I think the one i like the most was around scaling. Because I cringe at buzzwords, and so my question around scaling is "Can you scale the scale?"

Sarah: Yes, and that's pretty deep.

Chuck: So, the reason we're talking today is, along with Gusto, you created the color-me HR - the coloring activity book for HR professionals. So before we dig into this, my first question is - for this color-me HR book, do you have to provide your own crayons for this.

Sarah: Yes, you do have to provide your own crayons. And you know, most HR professionals have crayons lying around, right? So that shouldn't be too hard.

Chuck: Would you recommend they do it in pencil first in case they make a mistake and you can erase and ...

Sarah: No, mistakes are welcome. You should make as many mistakes as you want here because a lot of times when you make mistakes elsewhere it's not allowed. So make mistakes, that's good.

Chuck: And I like creative solutions to everyday problems, and HR and internal comms often crosses each other, in organizations. Sometimes reporting up through the same channels, sometimes different. So what I want to learn a little bit more about is who came up with this idea, and talk about the process of creating the color-me HR activity book.

Sarah: Yeah, sure. So someone from Gusto contacted me, and they'd been a fan of what I was doing at the Cooper.com, and they asked if I'd be interested in doing a collaborative post, basically something that would help promote their HR app as well as help them promote me. And so I came up with a bunch of different ideas. I think 10 ideas of different things that we could do together. And the coloring book was one thing that I thought was fun just because it gives people something to print out and play around with, and they really liked the idea too. It was kind of a play off of a coloring book that I actually produced last year, called the corporate coloring book, so they really liked the idea. So that's basically how it happened.

Chuck: And if you'd like to download it you can go to learnICology.com/HR, and that will redirect to the landing page where people can go and download this. I encourage you to do that. So share with the listeners the types of activities that are included in the book, cause I think it will take them back to their younger years of having these activity books.

Sarah: Sure - so one of them is the onboarding maze, which tries to get you through a new employees first day without getting stuck in the stairwell or having your welcome lunch rescheduled or having a badge photo disaster or having to sit in the broom closet for an hour because your desk isn't ready. So that's a fun maze that you can do.

My favorite one is the office party lawsuit, which is basically depictions of your coworkers having an office party and doing lots of things that might get you in trouble later, especially if there's evidence of them. So you actually have to go through and color it, but then I have to circle the things that might get people in trouble - like some explicit lyrics on the Karaoke machine, or people playing poker with real money, or maybe even a cake that contains gluten, which you might find a lawsuit for as well.

And another one is settling the dispute, which is something that HR professionals have to do a lot. And so you have to figure out between Julie and Larry - Julie is saying "He's clipping his toenails at his desk", and Larry is saying "It's just one hang nail". You have to figure out who's in the right and who's in the wrong, and what should be done with this. And so that just makes a play on all of these ridiculous coworker situations HR workers have to deal with all the time.

Chuck: Well we know everybody loves a good office lawsuit, especially when they can color their coworkers in there. And I assume HR people have a sense of humor about some of this. So what has the response been, for those who have downloaded it?

Sarah: Response has been really good. I think people want even more of them. Another one was these little, like putting clothes on your coworkers that aren't dressing appropriately at work, which was another one of my favorite ones. And I think Gusto is trying to reach the small startup, or the company that is probably newer, and wants a really easy way to handle all of their HR needs. And so I think for the audience that it was targeting it worked really really well.

Chuck: What I like about you, and clearly some of the topics we talked about can be quite difficult in the workplace, nut it's clear that you're not afraid to bring humor into uncomfortable situations. I've got one question and a follow-up here. Has this ever backfired, in bringing humor into these uncomfortable situations, and if so, was it actually a good thing that the humor may have made people a bit more uncomfortable?

Sarah: It has backfired. I've always had a snarky sense of humor, and I say things off the top of my head, and I think during the first few weeks at google I wanted to change the color of something. I was the u-ex designer and I really wanted to change the color of something, and I had no idea that the software engineer that was in charge was so married to this color. And so I made some joke about how he's taking this way seriously, and I think my performance review later on that year mentioned that I should take these things more seriously, and maybe be more respective of people's opinions. And so that backfired a little bit. But in the end, I feel like if you can't bring your personality to work then you're really spending a lot of time repressing the things that you really want to say and how you really want to be. So for me, I think that eventually everyone got used to the fact that I was snarky and sarcastic rather than me having to not be the person that I wanted to be at work.

Chuck: I think the people that write about this would talk about being 'emotionally honest'. How would you recommend though, if your snarky and sassy brothers and sisters out there, to still be themselves at their organization without possibly alienating those that might have really made a heartfelt decision on that particular color, for example?

Sarah: Yeah, It takes time, and for me a lot of people say "I'm scared to be funny, I'm scared to make a joke, cause I don't want to offend anybody". And I think just start slow, test the waters a little but if you are working with someone who takes things very seriously, and is more likely to be offended, then maybe tone it back around that particular person. But let it be known that this is just who you are, and that people shouldn't take it personally. And I think that people will appreciate that. I think at work, people - especially me - I worried a lot about people liking me, and I think you get a lot more done when you stop worrying about people liking you and you just care about being as honest as you can.

Chuck: In the things that I do know about you, I shared that you are a strong user of twitter, who is not afraid to share political views. I'm very much the same, maybe not as colorful as you are. So how have your followers responded? Have you found that this has drawn you sometimes a bit of a new audience, for the Cooper Review?

Sarah: Yeah, I think it's drawn a new audience. It's pissed some people off, I've definitely lost some people and had some people ask me not to share my political views and things like that. Part of the reason that I left google and the corporate world was because I wanted the freedom to be able to talk about whatever I wanted to. So, repressing anything that I didn't want to talk about, like, then what's the use? Why did I leave google, why did I try to do this thing on my own? So I'm going to do that no matter what, is the conclusion I came to.

However, I have left politics out of the Cooperreview.com, just because I feel like people should have a place where they know that they don't have to be exposed to political opinions, cause people do get really upset about it. So I think it's okay that there are places where you don't have to deal with that stuff too.

Chuck: Talk a little bit about thecooperreview.com. What can listeners find if they go there? What are some of the more popular topics or posts that you've had on the site?

Sarah: One of the most popular ones recently has been my nine non-threatening leadership strategies for women. Which I did last year, and it's just making fun of the way women change how they speak in order to seem more polite, or less threatening - not really threatening, but instead of saying something like "This has to be done by Monday", saying "what do you think about getting this done by Monday?", so it's just making fun of that, and that did really well. Sometimes took it seriously, and they thought it was real advice for how women should be speaking but it was more a commentary of how it would be nice if we didn't have to change they way we speak in the workplace, or feel like we have to. So that was one that was pretty popular.

I also did a 'here are google, amazon and Facebook secrets to hiring the best people', which was basically making fun of the really painful process of going through an interview at a lot of these big tech companies, just because they interview so many people, and employees themselves and in charge of running these interviews and often have a lot of other things going on so they're not as prepared as maybe we should be. And so it was making fun of all of those little things that people have to go through in the interviews - like not really sure what the schedule is, or having the presentation software not work, which happens every single time. Things like that.

So, a lot of it is just making fun of the tech world, and the office world, and all kinds of snarky sarcastic stuff like that.

Chuck: I read the post with leadership strategies for women. And I think the one that was both funny and sad to the same level was the one where you had the woman saying the exact same thing, but in the second picture she had a mustache.

Sarah: Yeah, that's the last one, yep.

Chuck: Again, funny, but also sad at the same time. It's interesting, I can see how people would, at first, take some of that advice seriously given the connotation of social and how content gets shared. But you're right, under the right framework, it should be used as a more educational around 'this is what it's really like, whether you believe it not. These are the challenges that women do face in the workplace'.

Sarah: Exactly, yeah.

Chuck: So final question I have for you. So, obviously, everybody go check out theCooperReview.com - to read some of these posts, as well as learn about the books, and guides that you've written. Final question is will you create the internal comms coloring book with me? And I'll preface it first by saying, I first wanted to produce and internal comms scratch and sniff book, but I didn't know quite how to do that, so I think a coloring book might be the way to go.

Sarah: Yeah - that sounds great.

Lightning round

Chuck: So we're going to move along to the lightening round of the podcast, which is a chance for listeners to learn a little more about you. What is your number one traveling pet peeve?

Sarah: I'm really angry at anyone who designed the touch screens that go in the headrests of airline seats, and the people that don't realize it's a touch screen, not a punch screen, so you're constantly having someone basically punching the back of your airline seat. So that's something that drives me crazy.

Chuck: Now you are an author so you cannot recommend your own book, but what's another book that you recommend every communicator should read.

Sarah: I think one of the books that I read that I really liked is called "Disrupted" by Dan Lyons. It's his experience in the tech world, as an older person who entered this new world, and I think it's really interested just because he's sort of a fish out of water in this world, and how he perceives the way you're supposed to have fun and work, and the way it's forced fun, and the way everything is made to feel like this isn't work, and how that backfires sometimes. It's also really really funny, fascinating read, just because it's based on his real experience. So I would recommend that one.

Chuck: And then what's a tool that you rely on to make sense of your world? This could be an app, a website, a hammer, other past guests have mentioned yoga and meditation. So what's a tool that you rely on?

Sarah: I use a self-journal, which is a really great way of organizing my day and thinking about exactly what I want to get done, which doesn't really go well with what I said early about how unproductive I am. But writing down hour by hour what I'd like to be doing helps me get at least 50% of those things done that I write down. It also helps me reflect every six weeks or so on what I've gotten done or what I want to get done for the next six weeks. I like getting away from my phone and my laptop and just writing sometimes, cause that helps me clear my head.

Chuck: I kind of thought you were going to go nap on that one.

Sarah: And naps! I need naps!

Chuck: What's the best piece of advice you've ever received, and do you remember who gave it to you?

Sarah: I remember who gave it to me, I can't remember his name, but I remember who gave it to me, and he said "If you're scared of failing, you've already failed". Which was, he was trying to talk to me about my newsletter which I am so scared of sending out. Thousands of people had subscribed but I hadn't yet sent out anything, because I was scared to send anything out. And he said that my fear of sending something out that people didn't like, or that didn't work meant that I wouldn't ever try, which meant that I had already failed. And so, that has helped me realize that sometimes you've just got to do it, and the act of not doing it is already failure. So if I'm scared of failing then it's already happened. So that really helped me.

Chuck: And that's a wonderful piece of advice for communicators, especially those that are inside large corporations, because they do, sometimes they're even paralyzed by fear of something that either others might like or criticize or not value, and I think you bring up a good point - by not doing that at all you've sort of failed yourself in that process.

Sarah: Yep, exactly.

Chuck: And what's a final piece of advice you want to share with listeners? So again, we've got communicators that listen to the podcast, but also people that want to get better at communicating. So what's a piece of advice that you want to impress on them?

Sarah: I'd say that we all have that moment in a conversation where we know that we're not really connecting with someone. And lot of times, in fact, I would say 90% of the time we just breeze by that, and we just keep going until the meeting is over, and walk out of there. I would say try to notice that moment, and try to just pause and just stop for a second. Talk about anything else. Talk about a spider on the floor or something else that's just real and everyone can relate to so that you can bring it back to the present and bring it back to the connection. Cause I think that meetings are more productive when everybody is really present and a lot of times, by the 20th minute, by the 25th minute of the meeting, everybody has zoned out. And so, if you can figure out a way to take that moment and get everyone back in the meeting and present in the meeting I think that those things all be more productive.

Chuck: Sarah, I want to thank you for coming on ICology. And everybody, please go learn more about Sarah Cooper at thecooperreview.com. Sarah, I think you have a great message around bringing humor into potentially uncomfortable situations so that they aren't so uncomfortable, and whether you're a tech company in Silicon Valley, or a manufacturer in Indiana, or a hospital in Atlanta, everybody's going to have these challenges and I think that you can use humor, because, though it is risky at times, it is something that everyone can relate to. Everybody has some sense of humor. So you just have to try to appeal to some of those masses.

Sarah: Yes, thank you so much - this was great.

Chuck: Visit learnICology.com to catch up on old episodes, get to know guests better, read blog posts, check out events. Also, all episodes transcriptions are there. And check out the critic table of internal communication at elementsofIC.com - that's a project I worked on with the fine people at alive with ideas. Please follow ICology on twitter at @learnICology to pick up show announcements as well as other IC news. And if you're not already a subscriber, listen to ICology on apple podcasts or wherever you get your episodes, and if you enjoy what you hear, it would mean a great deal if you took the time to leave a review. If internal communications is your passion, ICology is your podcast. Thanks for listening.