My kind of town

Just got back from a conference in Chicago. Here’s 6 things I loved and one thing that creeped me out.

Loved…

  1. The skyline and the architecture. Imagine going to work every day in the Tribune or Wrigley Building.
  2. The lakefront. Spent 3 hours Sunday morning walking along the shore of Lake Michigan. Lots of healthy and happy Chicago natives running, biking, rollerblading and swimming at 7 a.m. Went from the Navy Pier to Lincoln Park and the zoo (it’s free).
  3. Millennium Park. Why can’t every city have a commons area like this that brings folks, culture and art together? (suspect that money may be a reason).
  4. The great food, especially Carson’s, Mr. Beef and Heaven on Seven.
  5. The friendly people.
  6. Two daily newspapers plus five local TV stations.

And the one thing that left me spooked. American Girl Place. Hocking upscale Cabbage Patch Dolls to free-spending soccer moms and sorority sister socialites. Mom-daughter teams spending not-so-small fortunes to shop, dine, party and play and buy memories that will last a lifetime. Hair salon, photo studio, boutique and bistro all under one roof. Don’t quite get it. But good on whoever came up with this concept to part people from their money. Brilliant marketing.

Book review: When to stick and when to quit

The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick)

By Seth Godin, Portfolio, $16

Winners never quit and quitters never win.

The late great Vince Lombardi said it first and we keep saying it at school and work. It’s a quote that’s launched a thousand motivational posters, leadership books and senior management speeches.

But what if it’s lousy advice? Author, blogger and marketing guru Seth Godin thinks so. "Winners quit all the time. They just quit the right stuff at the right time."

Lombardi did a lot of quitting in his 22 years between graduating from university and becoming head coach of the Green Bay Packers. He quit working at a finance company. Quit playing semi-pro football. Quit teaching high school Latin, chemistry and physics classes. Quit coaching high school and college football and basketball teams. Quit being an offensive co-ordinator for the New York Giants.

And life turned out all right for one of the all-time greatest National Football League coaches.

The key to success for anyone and any organization is to know when to stick and what to quit. Winners stick with what Godin calls the Dip.

"Almost everything in life worth doing is controlled by the Dip. The Dip is the long slog between starting and mastery."

It’s the low point on your road to success. It’s where the honeymoon ends and the headaches, heartaches and hassles start with a vengeance. It’s where you have absolutely no fun and start to seriously wonder what in God’s name you were thinking of.

Lots of us quit the Dip. We run out of time, money and patience. We lose our enthusiasm and our nerve. We decide this is too hard and look for something easier.

Which is exactly what’s supposed to happen. The Dip is a filter. It separates contenders from pretenders. To make it through, you need loads of talent, drive and determination.

"If you want to be a superstar, then you need to find a field with a steep Dip – a barrier between those who try and those who succeed," says Godin.

Medical school, the bar exam and 30 years in middle management are all Dips and the reason why so few us become doctors, lawyers and CEOs.

Stick with the Dip and you’ll come out a winner. Head of the class. Best in the world. Number one in the hearts and minds of your customers and clients.

"Anyone who is going to hire you, buy from you, recommend you, vote for you, or do what you want them to do is going to wonder if you’re the best choice," says Godin, who says folks define best subjectively as being "best for them, right now, based on what they believe and what they know."

While winners stick with the Dip, they’re quick to quit what Godin calls the Cul-de-Sac.

Sure, life’s painful and unpleasant in the Dip. But your time in the Cul-de-Sac is soul-crushing and mind-numbing. It’s where your dreams and aspirations go to die. It’s where you become average and get mediocre. It’s where you lose your shot at being a winner and the best in the world.

"It doesn’t get a lot better, it doesn’t get a lot worse. It just is," Godin says about life in the Cul-de-Sac. "The opportunity cost of investing your life in something that’s not going to get better is just too high."

Too many of us don’t quit the Cul-de-Sac soon enough and we bolt the Dip too soon. So we stay in dead-end jobs that don’t play to our greatest strengths. We stick with projects that limp along on the road to nowhere. We keep peddling products and services that no one wants. And all the while we keep repeating the "winners never quit" mantra.

Yet the reality is we lack the courage to quit and take a shot at greatness. We get comfortable. We settle for less, sell ourselves short and waste our full potential. All of which means less competition for winners who know what to quit, when to quit and be the best in the world at what they do.

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.