Tag Archives: performance

Asking Isn’t An Art

I’ve never been a big fan of human statues. They make a spectacle of themselves and everyone else who happens to come into their orbit. The human statue doesn’t just try to charm you into her silent, frozen circle; she obliges you to deal with the invitation. That’s why I avoid human statues as assiduously as I avoid mimes (who doesn’t find mimes annoying?) and balloon-tying clowns: I make a detour around them all.

Amanda Palmer used to be a human statue, and she opens her much-hyped TED talk on “The Art of Asking” with a story about how she used to work sidewalk crowds. To demonstrate, she stands on an overturned milk crate (clever props and staging are quickly becoming an essential element of TED talks, as noted in this brilliant infographic); she asks us to believe that everything she learned about asking “on the street” accounts for her success as a musician cum crowdsourcing entrepreneur.

In case you haven’t yet heard, Palmer recently raised 1.2 million dollars on Kickstarter for a music project, an achievement her TED audience could not help but wildly applaud and greet with gasps of admiration. For Palmer, fundraising on Kickstarter is simply an extension of what she did when she worked crowds as a human statue or in the period after that when she toured with her band. She made “an art out of asking people to help us and join us”; asking was her MO, how she got around: couch-surfing, getting musicians to play with her, finding venues – simply by asking. Asking, she came to understand, “makes you vulnerable”; but it can also pay off with favors, places to stay, new collaborators, and something less tangible – new relationships and enduring connections: “in the very act of asking people,” Palmer says, “I connected to them.”

If you wonder why that needs saying, then you don’t appreciate the magical hold the word “connect” seems to have on TED audiences: they’ve invested it with emotion because, I suppose, it’s about the internet and the children and all that stuff. Still, Palmer’s point is valid: working the streets, traveling about as a musician, she learned that asking can create new relationships, or that asking puts the asker and the person asked, the petitioner and the respondent, in new relationship with one another. Like all speech acts, asking establishes and coordinates human relationships as well as human actions; the real question is what is special and distinctive about what gets established and what how things get coordinated when one person asks another.

One answer lies, in part, in what Palmer has to say about vulnerability and making others visible, seeing each other, and all that could serve as an interesting starting point for a conversation about the ethics of asking. On the other hand, what Palmer actually has to say about the music industry – the part of her talk that apparently has everyone’s heart aflutter – is hardly new: the old model of making people pay for music doesn’t work, or won’t work much longer; instead, Palmer suggests, “let” people pay. “I think people have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is, ‘How do we make people pay for music?’ What if we started asking, ‘How do we let people pay for music?’” To her credit, Palmer has already admitted that this is an oversimplification, but in her clever and very TED-like “what if?”, there’s a business scenario the music industry might consider, or at least try to consider, after they run the numbers and consult with the Office of the General Counsel.

In other words, the real insight here, the thing to appreciate in Palmer’s talk, doesn’t have much to do with revenue models or licensing or selling. It’s much more basic than all that. Palmer’s distinction of making from letting and forcing from asking tells me that she’s keyed into the simple fact that asking – genuinely asking — involves the exercise of non-coercive power.

But there’s the rub. The trouble is that when you make an “art” of asking, as Amanda Palmer has, you start to coerce. You start to weave an illusion. You turn a non-coercive relationship into a spectacle. I’m not denying that there is a theatrical or performative aspect to all speech acts, or even to the simplest conversation between two human beings, or that sometimes we ask in order to persuade. Let’s put those questions aside for the moment. At present, I simply want to suggest that talking about asking as an “art” misses the mark, or at least that in resisting that notion, we can learn more about how asking works, or really could work, if given a chance. We can learn something about the ethics of asking and the way non-coercive power works.

Palmer has made asking into theater, part of an ongoing performance.

For her part, Palmer has made asking into theater, part of an ongoing performance, a traveling circus in which her fans and admirers can participate. In treating asking as an art, as performance, as an extension of her act as a human statue, Palmer may not really be asking at all: she’s trying to charm, and she’s apparently very good at that. The trouble with relying on charm is that — eventually — the spell will be broken. This is one reason why, I think, some musicians were so miffed when Amanda Palmer kept asking for freebies and favors even after she’d raised over a million dollars.

Who’s Afraid of 953(b)?

Insanity! That’s how Thomas Sternberg, co-founder of Staples, describes Section 953(b) of the Dodd-Frank Act. “Incredibly wasteful,” adds John A. Allison IV, a director of BB&T Corp., the ninth-largest U.S. bank. For the past year or so, CEOs and business lobbying groups like the Business Roundtable and the National Investor Relations Institute have been fighting “tooth and nail” against 953(b). With the SEC preparing to issue its proposed rules sometime this spring, expect a lot more noise.

Why all the fuss over 953(b)? This section of Dodd Frank deals with disclosure of executive compensation – always a touchy subject. Specifically it would mandate public companies to disclose, in their SEC filings:

(A) the median of the annual total compensation of all employees of the issuer, except the chief executive officer (or any equivalent position) of the issuer;
(B) the annual total compensation of the chief executive officer (or any equivalent position) of the issuer; and
(C) the ratio of the amount described in subparagraph (A) to the amount described in subparagraph (B).

Issuers — public companies — advance a number of arguments against having to make this dread calculation. The one repeated most often is that it is cumbersome – a burden, just too difficult, a waste of everybody’s time and money. (They respond in the same way when they are asked to report on human rights, by the way.) But compensation data can’t be all that hard to gather, can it? What would it really take to calculate the median of the annual total compensation of all employees? Are we to take seriously the claim that companies do not have these numbers already available? And if they do not, isn’t that a sign of seriously poor fiscal management, or negligence? Time to demand better housekeeping.

Second, we are told, 953(b) disclosures wouldn’t be of value to investors; the measure is just politically motivated. “Everyone recognizes that this is a political disclosure, not an economic one,” writes Michael S. Melbinger, partner at Winston and Strawn; 953(b) is “intended to give unions and certain media folks a tool to bash corporate America”.

The unions and the media? Melbinger’s argument is specious at best. You can only bash corporate America, and these disclosures will only count against companies, if there is something disclosed that is embarrassing, or worse. And of course there is. The research of Duke University’s Dan Ariely suggests that these disclosures would reveal gross inequities: in the past 20 years, CEO pay has increased from 130 to about 350 times that of the average worker. Does that give people a bashing tool? Or does it reveal that ordinary people are regularly getting bashed by a bunch of corporate tools?

Third, some companies argue that the disclosures should be restricted to employee compensation in the United States. The fear is that employee compensation in foreign countries will drag down the median. Strange that companies that are usually so bold about their global reach or their smart outsourcing strategies are suddenly so shy. But shareholders (and customers) are increasingly concerned about the treatment of foreign workers – how much they are paid, and what their working conditions are – and are demanding transparency and accountability across the supply and service chain. Witness Apple.

These arguments are merely blinds. The question is whether the SEC, after so much heavy lobbying, will be able to see them for what they are. Maybe shareholder demands for greater transparency can eventually make up for any shortcomings of the SEC’s final ruling, but that will, of course, be a longer slog.

It would be difficult to argue that a CEO earning 350, 250, or 100 times the average worker is really a model of good corporate governance. A study [pdf] by Michael J. Cooper, Huseyin Gulen and P. Raghavendra Rau shows that highly paid CEOs are not necessarily more effective CEOs, and that CEO pay does not correlate with company performance. And a recent post by Christopher Swann and Agnes T. Crane gives the lie to the usual excuse for bloated compensation packages: the “global war for talent” has not brought global talent to the C-Suite; American companies still hire American-born CEOS, even though American CEOs have lagged behind their European-born peers in delivering performance.

In any case, we need a better understanding of how pay ratios and the hierarchies they perpetuate affect performance, especially in an environment where command and control hierarchies can seriously limit agility and hamper innovation. 953(b) provides a good opportunity to have that conversation.

Finally, my guess – and right now I don’t have any research to back this up, so I will have to rely on behavior I’ve observed – is that overpaid CEOs tend not to attract, retain or inspire innovative thinkers in their immediate circle. There are, of course, notable exceptions; and this is not to say that overpaid CEOs cannot preside over innovative companies. But like mafia bosses and politicians, most SuperCEOs tend to prefer polite indulgence or deference, even if what they are saying is wrong, ridiculous, or just plain boring. Talented people, on the other hand, need to follow their own course and will dissent, or just leave and start their own thing, rather than keep silent, tolerate gross inequities, or toady up to the big bad boss.