Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Etta James
"I'm open for business in your neighborhood;
The blues is my business, and business is good."

-Etta James

Plan to arrive a half an hour early. But don't do in. Drive around until you're five minutes early. If you're not early, you're late.

Your mind is going to want to think about how badly you need this job... any job. Even more, you're going to think about the one question you hope they do NOT ask, the dreaded "Why did you leave your last job?" When they ask - and they always do -- just say that it was a lay-off, shrug, and then ask a question before the interviewer does. And stop thinking about it.

Yes, you CAN stop thinking about it. Don't want fall for that purple elephant crap... just start thinking about your favorite boss and your favorite coworkers. Think about what you accomplished at your last job... and stop right there, do NOT think about how much more you could have accomplished with better management. Think only about things that make you smile, that make you strive into the interview confident and upbeat.

You can't let yourself get annoyed that you've been kept waiting for 40 minutes. Tell yourself that they are disorganized because they need help... hey, they need YOU.

When the guy you are scheduled to meet finally appears, he'll tell you that he's had "a crisis" and there's been "a blip." Instead of meeting with him, you're going to meet with someone named Crystal. This is a good thing, he tells you, because Crystal is "closer to the front lines." He shakes your hand, repeating, "It's a good thing," and hustles off. You can tell he's the sort of guy who tells everyone he jerks around that it's for the best, but you don't let yourself think that way.

Crystal appears 15 minutes later and introduces herself by correcting you -- "It's Krystela - with an 'a' on the end," and spells it. It's odd that her boss wouldn't know her name, but maybe she's new - after all, she looks like somebody who hung a tassle on the rearview of her Civic in the past weeks. Focus.

She takes you to the conference room and you'll be suspicious that it's because she doesn't have an office. Don't think that way. Just sit on the front of the seat, leaning forward - for you, the seat has no back.

She'll read your resume as she sits there, and it's obvious that it's the first she's seen of it. She says, "Why did you leave your last job?"

You'll fight the urge to over-explain, but then you notice that she's looking at her Blackberry and isn't really listening. You could say "I stapled my boss's lips shut so he'd stop interrupting me," and it wouldn't matter. But you just say, "lay-off" and shrug knowingly, then change the subject by asking her about her job. She'll say that she's an intern and is leaving next week for a trip to Mexico, so it's her last week.

Naturally, you'll want to feel discouraged, especially knowing that your wife and mother and mother-in-law will all be calling to ask how it went and then pretend not to blame you. So you'll lie and say it went great. And then you'll send a thank-you email and lie some more. And then you'll tell yourself the truth: somebody, somewhere needs your help and you're going to find that boss, no matter how many bad interviews it takes.

©2010 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


"We're bringing things into this that haven't been developed... we're working with scientists in the Netherlands... all trying to push boundaries, because that's what Michael is all about."

That's not a line from an R&D guy or a New Products engineer; it's from a Wardrobe Designer named Zaldy, talking about his work for Michael Jackson. It's in the recently-released video of the documentary "This Is It." (If you haven't been paying attention, the documentary is made from footage of the rehearsals for what was to be Jackson's touring show.) Watching it got me thinking how fully Jackson fit the profile of great bosses that I've been developing over the past couple of decades. Okay, his personal life was bizarre and misguided, and I suppose that we could say it killed him, but there on stage he was efficient, guided and guiding, a master at work -- not just a master performer, but uplifting manager.

Like all of the great managers I've studied, the ones I came to call "gifted bosses," he was conscious of creating something special. And he made everyone else fully conscious of it, too. There was never a "good enough" moment. Indeed, we get to watch as a choreographer and dancers have a lively exchange on how to properly do a crotch-grab during one dance number, and the choreographer, without irony, explains how a Baryshnikov would have done it.

And, in another scene, we encounter what we must consider another of our Great Moments in Management. Jackson is working with his Musical Director, who plays him a bit of a song. Jackson says, "Pretty good. Pretty good." And that is all it takes for it to be tossed out. Then the Music Director offers a new variation; Jackson opines that the rhythm needs to "simmer"; to which the response is, "Let add a bar. See what we get, simmer-wise." And they experiment till it's just right.

This Is It I love that exchange because it shows what happens when everyone is committed to creating the terrific. "Pretty good" is an insult. It's as if the team leader had said, "It's good enough for other people, but not us." And the team believes it, without question or apology. We see the same spirit when the pyrotechnics guy demonstrates the fireworks above the stage and the Director says, "Can we do that, times ten?" and the answer is, with delight, "Absolutely."

It would be easy for the fireworks tech to say, "Hey, that's what's in the specs" or, bigger picture, to say "Hey, it's just a music concert." That would be as easy as telling Steve Jobs to relax, it's just a music player or cellphone that he's working on. But nowhere in "This Is It" is a hint of that "it's only" thinking. Every crotch-grab is important, every firework, every guitar solo. The Wardrobe Designer I mentioned earlier was working with scientists in the Netherlands on wearable lights. If they weren't there would anyone notice and be disappointed? Of course not. What we see in the documentary, and what I've seen in the best workplaces, is a culture where the work is NOT about the audience/market/customers; it's about taking talent and taking off with it, luring it into the unknown, playing with the extraordinary for the sheer joy of being part of something better than it has to be. And that's exactly what elevates the best business endeavors, the joy of exploration into the frontier: better than it has to be.

©2010 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


"I had the meanest boss in the world so I'd call in sick a lot. I would say I had 'female problems.' My boss didn't know I meant her."

-Wendy Liebman

One of the problems with this economy is that if you're lucky enough to have a job, you have to live with the burden of being Lucky To Have a Job. Implicit in being one of the Lucky Ones is "shut up and be grateful", which is no one's first choice in the luck lottery.

Meanwhile, managers themselves keep getting asked to give just a bit more effort, to put in a bit more time. The problem is that they've been doing a bit more, year after year, crisis after crisis for a decade or two. Let's review the math of "just a bit more": If you work 40 hours a week and you're asked to put in an extra ten percent, in ten years time you're at 104 hours (which is 15 hours a day, seven days a week). It's your investments that are supposed to compound, not your workweek. (Compounding uninterest?)

What got me thinking about the dual-stress of the modern workplace was reading the news reports about job satisfaction stats reaching a new low. So I decided it was time to update my pair of lists of boss-employees annoyances. Let's start with the list of employees' frustrations…

  • Using the word "teamwork" when you really mean "overwork without complaint or compensation."

  • Treating kindness as if it were a scary virus that might spread to others – "If I did it for you, I'd have to do it for everyone."

  • Calling to "check in."

  • Offering distant and vague rewards: "No promises, but something good is coming."

  • Complaining about the cost of repairs for your "Beemer."

  • Prattling on about being a team when your real goal is to get a big promotion and leave the team behind.

  • That face you make.

And, on the other side, let's recall what it is that managers find annoying about their employees…

  • Saying "FINALLY!" to any announcement of a positive change.

  • Mistaking a thought for an idea, an idea for a proposal and a proposal for an innovation. (An idea is to an innovation what the sex act is to raising a child.)

  • Asking for advice when what you really want is to pass off problems or responsibilities.

  • Being miserable but not having the guts to do something about it.

  • Pretending not to understand.

  • Mistaking the boss for a wealthy and gullible relative.

  • Reacting to an attempt to the company doing something nice for employees by saying, "I'd rather they just give us the money it cost."

  • That face you make.

What's needed from both sides is to assume the best about the other, even when you know better. Perhaps that's what it means to be a professional: Show up – I mean really show, all in – and force yourself to assume the best (which means you don't get to make that face).

©2010 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.



-A sign in the Springfield Library -- the Springfield that's home to Marge and Homer Simpson and family

Today we travel to an unlikely place in search of inspiration for innovation, to a library in Gilbert, Arizona. There we can find the start of a radical notion known in the library world as "The Perry Branch Rebellion."

The Rebellion began with what qualifies as one of our Great Moments in Management. One day in 2006, a boss happened to say to an employee four of the most beautiful words in organizational life: Let's do something special.

Ah, what glory lurks in that little statement! Yet, such a suggestion is spoken rarely; the more common pronouncement is just the opposite, the dreary, "It doesn't have to be anything special" The heart sinks. But a young librarian named Marshall Shore recently recounted for me how one fine day he was asked by Harry Courtright to make a library special. (Perhaps we should also make this a Great Moment in Career Management because when I asked Shore if he'd be amazed at being asked to do something unique, he replied, "I'd developed a reputation for experimentation and innovation, so when they asked me to be involved, it was asking for something new." And there's the career chicken-egg – you have to be known for being special to be asked to be special.)

What Shore did was to seek out locals who did not use the library and ask, Why not? Here again, let us stop and admire: Most people, put in charge of opening a new library branch would seek out librarians and library users – the "experts" – to ask for "input." But, as Shore put it, "I want everyone to use the library so I wanted to see what was stopping people from coming in." He mostly heard two complaints: finding a book using the library numbering system, and the fines.

Given the nature of the economy, he couldn't give up a revenue source, like fines, but he could do something about those little numbers, the Dewey Decimal System that we all learned in school… didn't we all?... yet it's still off-putting to many prospective library users. I suppose it made them think of the crusty old school librarian with the schussing – a serpent-like hissing, come to think of it, the snake in the stacks.

But many of these same non-users of the library claimed to LOVE going to bookstores – ah-ha – and that's how Shore decided to offer up the radical notion of dumping Dewey and going with the topic-grouping familiar to book shoppers.

Imagine the resistance Shore faced. Not from library customers – he knew from survey results that three out of four visitors to the library came in to browse, not to seek out a specific book – but from librarians and staffers, the people who live Dewey, die Dewey. How did Shore overcome their objections?

Get this. It was a new library branch. The Dewey-less system was decided BEFORE the staff was hired. Part of the interviewing process was asking about Dewey. Those who couldn't imagine a library without it simply were not hired.

If you have an idea you want to nurture, don't plant it in the forest of the status quo, place it in a fresh field, away from the old growth. Give it to a new group or try it in an experimental store, surrounded by people who want it there, who want it to thrive.

Which brings us to an IBP (Important Business Principle) with a lovely Zen weightless heft: It's easier to change people than to change people.

©2010 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.