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Because you can’t read biz books on vacation

Many years ago in the Time Before Kids, my wife and I went to the Florida Keys for a winter vacation. My wife imposed a business book ban. Read something fun, she said. We’re on vacation.

I hadn’t read a novel since university and had been on a steady diet of business, political science, cultural studies books (with an inexplicable interest in books about killer viruses).

Since sunning on Sombraro Beach in the middle Keys, I’ve been reading a mix of fiction and nonfiction.

So, here’s some recommended summer reading:

  • I Love You Beth Cooper (Larry Doyle) — a laugh-out loud coming-of-age story about the last day and night of a graduating high school loser.
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseini) — the follow-up to the Kite Runner. Brilliant story telling about the brutual lives of two women in Soviet-occupied and Taliban-run Afghanistan.
  • The Road (Cormac McCarthy)– a great, thoroughly depressing and horrifying, read about a father and son wandering through a post-apocalyptic USA.
  • Jamestown (Matthew Sharpe)– another post-apocalypitc novel (see a pattern here?) about a ragtag exploratory team from New York in search of oil and clean food. A 21st century retelling of the 400-year-old Jamestown settlement and Virginia experiment, starring a very un-Disney Pocahontas

The gift of feedback

It’s officially "Gift of Feedback" month here at work.

Which means online 360 degree evaluations. We’re supposed to get a minimum of 5 gifts from supervisors, colleageus and direct reports. 10 gifts is the magic number. We’re ranking each other on 15 attributes like leadership, respect, commitment. Rating each other from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

Meant to be anonymous. But I’m putting my name to all of my comments. And I’m only accentuating the positive. Because who am I to judge? And I work with really great people.

When it comes to 360s, my views don’t necessarily reflect those of my employer. I’m sure there are many good and legitimate reasons to do it. I’m curbing my enthusiasm for 4 reasons:

  1. In a previous life, I worked for a boss who got cruxified with a 360. Was left demoralized and soon after reorganized out of the organization. And morale took an across-the-board hit even among folks who didn’t get brutalized. Brought out passive-aggressive tendencies.
  2. If you get 10 compliments and one suggestion for improvement, you’re only going to remember that one suggestion. And if you think I have an area for improvement, pick up the phone or drop by and tell me personally and do it sooner rather than later. I won’t break down in tears or throw something at you.
  3. I have a very good idea of what I’m good at, what I’m bad at and where I’ve screwed up. And I’m far tougher on myself than anyone I work with and for will ever be.
  4. And at the end of the day, the feedback I care about most comes from my kids and my wife. Am I a good dad? A good husband? A good person? Are my priorities straight or screwed up? (right now, I’d be getting mixed reviews). I’ve yet to read an obit that said the recently departed scored well in his last 360 performance appraisal at work, with 80% of colleagues, supervisors and direct reports saying they strongly agreed on 10 of 15 attributes.

Play to your strengths

When someone feels compelled to tell you about Areas In Which Improvement Is Needed, smile, say thanks and then forget about it.

Stick to playing to your strengths and what you do best. Here’s why:

  • You likely do it better than pretty much everyone else in your organization.
  • Your reputation will be built on what you do best.
  • What you do best is likely what you enjoy most. And you’ll be at low risk of burning out.

Focus on trying to shore up your weaknesses and:

  • You won’t have nearly as much fun and you’ll wind up feeling depleted rather than recharged.
  • Folks will compare you to others who do it better.
  • At best, you’ll go from bad to mediocre. Far better to invest your time in going from great to spectacular.

If your organization can’t find a way to leverage your strengths, chances are someone else can. And your reputation will precede you.

Book review: 30 reasons to hate your boss

30 Reasons Employees Hate Their Managers: What Your People May Be Thinking And What You Can Do About It

By Bruce Katcher

Amacom, $27.95

Let me guess.

You’re thinking why only 30 reasons? Did the author run out of time or pages in his book? Is he holding back for a sequel?

Why, you could rattle off at least 100 reasons to hate your boss without pausing for a breath. In a typical work week, your fearsome leader hits the 30 reason mark by around 10 a.m. on Monday.

Everyone has their horror stories about bosses behaving badly. The ones who are selective or indiscriminate in their lack of respect and social graces. The managers who’ve perfected the shameless art of kissing up and kicking down. Who believe all the world’s a stage and they’re playing the lead role. Who can’t understand why they’re the only ones working at 11:30 p.m. on Canada Day. Who think that if you have nothing nice to say you should definitely say it at staff meetings, in memos and e-mails with blind carbon copies to mystery audiences within the senior leadership ranks.

They leave us wishing that rogue scientists would stop cloning sheep and start replicating the DNA of bosses who do good and get it right. And if some of the experiments went awry and created half-baked clones, would we really be any worse off than we are today?

Author and organizational psychologist Bruce Katcher feels your pain.

He runs a consulting firm that’s done staff satisfaction and engagement surveys since 1993. And the results aren’t pretty.

"More than 50,000 employees can’t be wrong," says Katcher. "Employees hate management. Hate is a strong word but in this case it’s appropriate.

"Katcher research has found that 46 per cent of employees believe management treats them with disrespect, 63 per cent say that decisions in their company are usually not made at the appropriate level, 52 per cent do not feel free to voice their opinions openly, 43 per cent say their good work goes unrecognized and 53 per cent say their boss doesn’t personally motivate them. There’s a whack more facts and stats but you get the general idea.

So why are good supervisors so hard to find? Katcher gives six reasons.

  1. Difficulty of supervision. Motivating employees and solving job and people-related problems isn’t easy.
  2. The Peter Principle. Some organizations promote folks who are good at managing things and not so good at leading people.
  3. Poor hiring practices. In our age of specialization, employers are hiring for technical skills and not leadership potential.
  4. Lack of recognition for good supervision.
  5. Lack of training because professional development is considered an expense instead of an investment.
  6. Lack of good role models. It’s worth remembering that every boss has a boss too.

"Does management care? Are they listening to the cries of employees? In most cases, the answer is ‘no,’ and that’s self-defeating," says Katcher.

Here’s why it’s a bad idea to do nothing. Folks don’t quit companies. They quit working for lousy bosses. Some walk out the door. Others keep showing up and going through the motions, hoping their lacklustre performance goes unnoticed. On the other hand, employees will forgo more pay, perks and promotions to work alongside great leaders. And they’ll freely and enthusiastically give discretionary effort.

As the war for talent heats up, organizations need to smarten up.

Investing in leadership development is far cheaper than continually replacing high performers and dealing with the diminishing productivity of demoralized teams. And then your organization can come up with the ultimate recruitment tool by writing the book on 30 reasons why employees love their mangers.

Jay Robb, a Hamilton freelance writer, can be reached at jayrobb.typepad.com

Ti(RED) of Bono

Bono’s the guest editor in the latest issue of Vanity Fair. Whole mag is focused on Africa.

The U2 frontman says that an African mother doesn’t care if the drugs keeping her child alive are thanks to an iPod or a church plate.

So when will these drugs be bought and paid for with royalty cheques from U2’s greatest hits?

As a self-professed student and fan of the United States, Bono should read up on Irving Berlin. Back in 1940, Berlin established the God Bless America Foundation and dedicated all royalties from his song to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America.

So how about it Bono? I’m thinking that Pride: In the Name of Love Foundation for Africa sounds pretty damn good.

Kids in Africa don’t need more celebrity photo-ops, special editions of Vanity Fair or marketing campaigns hawking cellphones, MP3 players and t-shirts. They need cold hard cash and lots of it. The kind of cash that three or four U2 songs could generate month after month after month — a perpetual ATM for Africa.

Good days. Bad days.

Great article in the May edition of Harvard Business Review.

"Inner work life: understanding the subtext of business performance" by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer.

What makes for a great day or a lousy day at the office? "We found that the single most important differentiator was a sense of being able to make progess in their work," the authors say about the employees they studied in their research project. "Achieving a goal, accomplishing a task, or solving a problem often evoked great pleasure and sometimes elation. Even making good progress toward such goals could elicit the same reaction."

Not surprisingly, managers contribute to good days when they enable progress and manage with a human touch. Say thanks. Celebrate a job well done. Remind employees that the organization is lucky ot have them.

"Far and away, the best boosts to inner work life were episodes in which people knew they had done good work and managers appropriately recognized that work."

Marching to your own drummer

Great article in yesterday’s Globe and Mail Careers section on mavericks at work.

"Organizations love them and hire them because they are self-starting, creative, innovative, entrepreneurial, productive and passionate. Organizations also hate them and fire them because they get restless or don’t toe the line."

Sound familiar?

Career mavericks are typically rule-breakers, free spirits and are only happy doing work that interests them or fits with their personal goals. Job descriptions are a starting point. And when the work no longer fits, mavericks are quick to move on to new opportunities.

Key piece of advice — don’t lose sleep over HR types who will look at your resume and see someone who can’t hold a job. Do what excites you and the opportunities will always be there.

Motivation is a DIY

I’m in the persuasion / engagement business and I hear this over and over again.

We need to get people motivated. Fired up. On side and on board. Rowing in the same direction. Singing from the same song sheet.

Well, you can’t motivate other people. Not going to happen. Not with carrots. Not with sticks. Forget rational arguments or emotional appeals.

Folks motivate themselves to start, stop or continue doing whatever you need done. Create the right conditions and people will pursue what’s in their own best interests. Which hopefully is also in your best interests. Shared interests.

Same holds true with communications. People just aren’t getting it, you say. The message isn’t getting through. We need to turn up the volume.

Well, odds are good that folks are getting the message. Maybe they just don’t like what you’re saying. And maybe you’re not listening.

Book review: Fun at Work

Fun Works. Creating Places Where People Love to Work

By Leslie Yerkes

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc

$23.95

A stranger stops me in the frozen food aisle.

"You know who you look like," says the stranger. "That golfer Phil Mickelson."

I hear that a lot. And some folks ask if I’m really Phil, apparently taking a break from the PGA Tour to buy milk and diapers in Hamilton. Yes, I’ve been tempted to play along. Have my photo taken. Sign autographs. Ink endorsement deals and maybe talk my way into a free lunch. But that would be illegal and get me in trouble with the real Phil and his legal team.

Other times, I’m stopped and told I look like the guy who writes book reviews for the newspaper. That’s me, I say. So far no one’s been interested in photos, autographs, endorsement deals or comped lunches. Although I can always count on meeting that stranger who’s just self-published a business book featuring an eclectic cast of fictional characters who meet at a coffee shop and discover the 12 secrets of power selling courtesy of a wise old waitress who has a hugely successful direct mail business on the side.

The first question I get asked is always, "So how can you read all those books?" Which is a polite way of asking, how could anyone in their right mind read so many boring books week after week and year after year? Do you have a life?

The short answer? Because it’s fun. Reading and reviewing business books is a great gig. You get a mountain of free books, a steady diet of big ideas and a cool way to prevent the creative juices from congealing like day-old KFC gravy. Not once has reviewing books seemed remotely like work. And not once have I complained, which to my patient and long-suffering wife qualifies as a miracle equal to seeing the image of the Virgin Mary on a burnt piece of toast. While I’ve had very good jobs the past eight years, nothing’s yet compared to the fun of reviewing business books.

So how much fun are you having with your work? Life is short and most of us spend it at the office. You owe it to yourself and your family to have a good time, says author and consultant Leslie Yerkes. Somehow we’ve managed to pry apart work and fun. If we’re lucky, we get to sit through the decidedly fun-free nanosecond of celebration routine at management and all-staff meetings.

Which is too bad because fusing work and fun has proven bottom-line benefits. "When fun is integrated with work instead of segmented from work, the resultant fusion creates energy, it cements relationships between co-workers and between workers and the company," says Yerkes. "When fun is integrated into work, it fosters creativity and results in improved performance."

Yerkes has come up with 11 principles for achieving that elusive fun/work fusion.

* Give your staff permission to perform by following guidelines rather than consulting the hierarchy before taking any action.

* Challenge your Type A biases, especially the "when the work gets done is when we’ll have some fun" belief.

* Capitalize on the spontaneous because fun doesn’t happen on schedule, by management decree or committee.

* Switch from a task orientation that’s all about control to a process orientation that’s built on trust.

* Value a diversity of fun styles and realize that not everyone is going to laugh at your jokes.

* Expand the boundaries to let in more fun.

* Be authentic.

* Be choiceful and give yourself permission to be your full fun self.

* Hire good people and then get out of the way.

* Embrace expansive thinking and risk-taking.

* And finally, celebrate. Nothing is more fun than celebrating a success or shared win and nothing spins off more energy.

To back up her principles, Yerkes profiles profitable and growing businesses that integrate fun into their day-to-day operations. You’ll find yourself wanting to work at each and every company or at least do business with them.

"No longer is success determined simply by our ability to be smart and strategic," says Yerkes. "We need to create environments which resonate with the workforce, places that are fun to work, situations that fuel deep relationships. To me, the answer is simple: fun works. And it works over and over again."

Jay Robb, a Hamilton freelance writer who’s now having fun blogging, can be reached at jayrobb.typepad.com.