Fables for Leaders includes 100+ short stories of talking animals and trees…. and my ruminations on each. I emphasize the philosophical and ethical aspects in these stories – from across the centuries - to my own on-the-job experiences, - successes and failures - and relate them to our contemporary behavior and decision-making. We relate to stories, we remember stories, and these fable stories may help in thinking through and solving, in untraditional ways, problems on the job.” Whimsical illustrations by international artist and paper cutter, Béatrice Coron, capture the charm of this ancient literature and add to its comprehension and enjoyment. Each entry -in 7 chapters- sets forth the original fable followed by Lubans’ commentary. And, many fable feature a “My Thoughts” space to explore how this fable relates to the reader. The seven chapter heads: “Us and them” “Office politics” “The Organization” “Problems” “Budgeting and strategic planning” “The effective follower” “The effective leader”. Topical sub-heads include: “Perspective makes a difference” “Where is the cooperation?” “Hiring decisions” “Performance appraisal” “Pretenders” “Kindness, loyalty and respect for the boss…or not” “Have you heard of the Tall Poppy?” “Gossip and envy” “Are you leading or am I following?” Etc.

A Persian Fable: THE RAIN-DROP*

Posted by jlubans on November 14, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Oyster Bay Morning Rain byTerrill Welch

A RAIN-DROP fell from a spring cloud, and when it saw the wide expanse of the ocean it felt ashamed.
"At best," it said, "I am only a Rain-drop,—but compared with the ocean I am nothing at all!"
But just at the moment that the little Rain-drop was judging itself so humbly, an oyster opened her shell and took it to her bosom.
And fate so shaped its course that in the end it became a famous royal pearl.
It’s easy to feel insignificant, a “drop in the bucket”. Yet, one never knows the influence he or she might have or what actions will be set in motion.
So it can be in the workplace; the most humble worker may offer insights into a complex problem.
As a good leader/follower it is to our benefit to be open and encouraging of ideas from any source, not just the alleged experts or the most vocal.
Creating that climate takes some doing – you cannot have it both ways. If you are closed to all ideas but your own, you can count on everyone clamming up when you are stumped.
If you are seen as a listener and unafraid to admit a mistake, then others may well step up to help out.

*Source: Sadi, The Burstan, to be found in Cooper, Frederic Taber, editor (1864-1937), “An argosy of fables; a representative selection from the fable literature of every age and land”. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1921.

More nifty fables ONLY a click away:

And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019

Letting Go, Déjà Vu All Over Again

Posted by jlubans on November 10, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)

An October essay/exhortation in the Wall Street Journal, “Bosses, Get Out of Your Employees’ Way” concludes, “wise bosses know that, sometimes, the best management is no management at all. Unfortunately, most bosses aren’t that wise.”
Reading it reminded me of my own efforts at getting out of the way.
In 1992, over 25 years ago, I wrote about what I termed “letting go” to improve one organization’s performance.
That bit of writing* confirmed for many of my professional peers that I was a silly ass, besotted and/or a traitor to their class.
For me, it memorialized a unique and successful effort to turn around a beleaguered organization. In other words, my getting out of the way worked.
What did I mean by letting go? I was not psycho-speaking about letting go of broken relationships or of burying workplace hatchets followed by a group hug.
No, my letting go was about changing how the boss (me) worked with subordinates, from department heads to front line staff.
Orders from the top down were no longer de rigueur.
I explained I was no expert when it came to what they did. Indeed, I confessed I knew very little and needed their help.
There was nothing phony about what I said; if they wanted a micromanager, I was not it.
Shortly after our first all-hands-on-deck meeting, the group gave me a three-page list of changes/improvements they’d been trying to implement for several years.
My predecessors - all expert leaders - had wrinkled their noses, sniffing, “How could workers know anything about improving what we tell them to do? I mean, really!”
Scanning the list, with a big smile on my face on seeing this bountiful harvest of low hanging fruit, I told them to go for it. All of it.
So my letting go introduced a democratic dynamic, a new trusting relationship between the boss and the staff. I trusted them fully in identifying problems, redundancies, dead-ends, and bottlenecks. And, most importantly the new dynamic gave them permission to act.
So, in letting go, my leadership role was to inspire, to make urgent, to lead competent people into making good decisions for the betterment of the organization.
However, don’t get the idea I was opting into some kind of hands-off laissez faire leadership. Hardly.
I was still the boss, or you might say, the democratic un-boss.
What did I bring? A willingness and ability to ask questions, some naïve and some taboo, such as “What happens if we stop doing this?”
And, as already alluded to, when obvious good ideas came my way, I took delight in saying: “Do it!”
Many staff found this freedom and enthusiastic support to their liking, especially those who thought about their jobs and wanted to improve, to make complex things simple and to speed up services to clients. They did, reducing turn around times from several months to a few weeks or days.
Of course, letting go may not work all the time or in all settings.
As the WSJ author declares, “the best leaders don’t hesitate to exert top-down control when quick decisions and immediate actions are essential.
And they switch gears and ‘flatten’ hierarchy when they need to solicit everyone’s opinion, develop employee buy-in, and make it safe to discuss uncomfortable truths....”
But, perhaps intentionally, the article infers most bosses are inflexible and won’t or cannot let go. Given this prevailing disability, the unaccommodating boss needs to be corrected or ignored by followers.
But, the boss is not always the villain; sometimes it’s the staff that’s seemingly intractable.
Not all staff are equal. Many want to be left alone to do their jobs – they have no interest or time to deliberate on how to do a better job. Their lives are full up with family and other matters.
And, in many organizations there’s a fair number of alienated staff – they do not agree with the leader’s vision and passively or actively seek to undermine and defeat that leader.
The WSJ article suggests five employee strategies when dealing with micromanagers.
The first of the five is commendable: be honest. Explain with examples to him or her how you would like more freedom and less micromanaging, less intervention. Be clear about what you offer in return!
If that fails, employ sabotage (my term):
Token obedience
Foot dragging
Constructive defiance, and
Malicious compliance!

(See my “Tips for Wrecking an Organization. Free!”)
This, shall we say, “resistance”, is potentially very destructive. I understand the resistance. Not everyone in my shop was on board with my approach or ready to join me on the barricades.
Of the 100 staff an alienated 20% were going to resist and they did – they’d been part of the telling others what to do and they were unhappy with my enlarging the pool of decision-makers.
Another 20% were keenly interested, appreciative, and all in. They were quintessential to our success.
The 60% in the middle were willing to go along but took a wait and see attitude. They’d been ignored for so many years they were rightly suspicious this letting go fancy of mine was another passing fad.
Many of this middle group, I think, eventually trusted what was going on and became a positive force.
What of the alienated 20%? They used each of the four sabotage
strategies mentioned above in attempting to short-circuit what I was trying to do. They declared streamlining to benefit clients was sacrificing quality for quantity. They believed “perfecting” – i.e. making more complex - our work process was more important than improving service to clients.
Albeit sidelined, the alienated hunkered down, stirred the rumor pot, and waited for a traditionalist rescuer. I’m sure they regarded themselves as heroic partisans saving the organization from ruin.
So, while some bosses never will let go, let’s not forget the staff determined to keep the status quo, however much in need of reform.
If I were to do it all over, I’d double my efforts to explain to the key alienated members what I was doing and why and to try to understand their opposition.
For that matter, I would spend much more time communicating to everyone what we were doing.
In any case, I’d be careful not to spend too much time with the gripers informing me of how awful I was. To counter this I’d invest even more time on working side by side with those wanting to improve the organization.
And, I’d reflect some more on my role in an organization when the employees can rightly claim “We did it ourselves!”
Maybe that’s the real reason why managers avoid letting go: becoming superfluous. Besides, top management may already see them that way! If you are the only one getting out of the way in a top down traditional organization, it’s unlikely you will survive without a CEOs support.

*"Productivity in Libraries? Managers Step Aside!", Journal of Library Administration, 17: 23-42, 1992.
Reprinted as Chapter 32 in my Leading from the Middle book.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019


Posted by jlubans on November 03, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: This delightful illustration is by Sophia Rosamund Praeger, 1908

Two frogs lived in a marsh. The marsh having been dried up by the heat of the summer, the frogs made up their minds to leave it and look for another home. After travelling for some time they came to a very deep well.
"Oh," cried one of the frogs, "now we shall perhaps be more comfortable! There is surely water here.
Dear friend, let us both leap to the bottom and see."
"No," answered the other, who was wiser and more thoughtful than his friend; "the water in this well may be dried up too, and if this is so and we leap to the bottom, how are we to climb up again?"
So it can be with career choices.
When one job path becomes a seeming dead end, another may open. Is that the one to take?
Like this fable’s deep well, it may hold promise of safety and security or maybe it is nothing more than a mirage; actually a dry hole.
Worse, once in its depths, how will you get out?
Reflecting on one personal career decision, I should have been more like the “wiser and more thoughtful” frog when deciding to leave a public academic job for something in the private sector that paid more and came with a higher status.

*Source: Aesop's Fables by Lena Dalkeith with pictures by S. R. Praeger, published in 1908.
More “wiser and more thoughtful” fables ONLY a click away:

And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019


Posted by jlubans on October 25, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Illustration by Oliver Herford 1921

A lazy dog that sleeping lay
Outside the farmyard gate, one day,
Woke with a sudden start, to see
A fierce Wolf glaring hungrily,
Gruesome and grisly, gaunt and grim,
And just about to spring on him.
"O Wolf!" exclaimed the frightened Pup,
"One word before you eat me up!
Observe how very small and thin
I am; 'twould really be a sin
To eat me now. indeed I'm quite
Unworthy of your appetite.
Tomorrow Master gives a treat,
And I shall have so much to eat
That if you'll wait a day or two
I'll make a bigger meal for you!"
The Wolf agreed and went away;
But when on the appointed day
He came again to claim his right,
He found the farmyard gate shut tight,
And Doggie on the other side.
"What does this mean? Come out!" he cried.
Loud laughed the Dog, "It means," said he,
"I'm wiser than I used to be."
Poor Wolf, allegedly “gruesome and grisly, gaunt and grim”, he forgoes the ready made meal in hopes of something juicier and fatter a day or two away.
While I believe Herford's sleek and well nourished wolf depicted above, might take a raincheck, I doubt this other leaner and meaner wolf
Caption: Illustration by R., Caldecott and J. D. Cooper (so that’s what happened – he changed his name from D. B. and went back in time☺) 1883.
would for a moment consider the Doggie’s proposal; he’d gobble up on the spot the four legged Happy Meal!
And what might this fable offer us for the workplace? Possibly it serves to point out how organizations respond to situations. In halcyon times the organization – sleek and fat – is slow to anticipate what may be around the corner, while in dyspeptic times, the organization may over react and miss out on the “bigger meal” coming up.

The Herford Aesop, written and illustrated by Oliver Herford. 1921.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019

The More Equal Animal

Posted by jlubans on October 20, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)


Prior to 2010, I’d visit Latvia for stays of one to two weeks. When I started to teach there for months at a time I became more of a resident and less of a myopic tourist. And, some of the local political issues became more apparent.
I heard (and still hear) of the Latvian Oligarchs. No, this is not a Riga soccer team.
Rather, these are powerful and wealthy individuals. Hardly savory, yet largely legal, they somehow cornered the market on goods and services of all kinds.
In 1991, after 50 years of totalitarian tyranny, they landed on their feet deep in clover.
You may wonder, how did anyone acquire wealth in an economy routinely pillaged by Russian occupiers?
Latvia’s oligarchs, by hook or by crook, shoved their way to the front of the line at the privatization trough and proved themselves trenchermen second to none.
They are the quick of the “quick or the hungry” adage.
A connected insider could purchase, say, a Soviet factory worth millions for $1.
And, once you - a newly minted oligarch - started production, voila! “Happy Times Are Here Again!”
If anything, the Latvian oligarchy is a case study in Animal Farm’s “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” They’re the “more equal animals” shoveling down the larger share, deservedly so!
Not in the least embarrassed, oligarchs often conspire - yes, conspire - to influence decisions made by elected legislators.
How do they remain in power? Big bucks and the old ways help. Due to a glacial judiciary, it takes years for flagrant cases of corruption to get to a jury.
In the meantime, the indicted oligarch steps far, wide and handsome.
There are even gossip magazines – in a nation of less than 2 million - that cover the soap operas of the most flamboyant.
German sociologist Robert Michels claimed in 1911 that rule by an elite, or oligarchy, “is inevitable as an ‘iron law’.”
While he studies political groups he believed that any organization, “including those committed to democratic ideals and practices, will inevitably succumb to rule by an elite few”.
So what’s this got to do with the workplace, especially a democratic one?
Well, most top down hierarchies qualify as oligarchies.
An organization leans toward an oligarchy once its legitimate leaders claim or are said to possess superior knowledge, skills, and status.
Like the above graphic of the blindfolded man, I remember at one not-for-profit job feeling like I was battling shadows.
My oligarchy, composed of those with legitimate power would make secret decisions that affected the overall organization.
While not wealthy like our Latvian oligarchs, this group had cornered decision-making and believed it knew best.
An oligarchy may include “influencers” or people with expert power who insinuate their way into the inner circle of decision makers.
The nominal leader – the boss - is usually part of the oligarchy, but not always. A weak or sidelined leader has reason to fear her oligarchs; they’ll figure out ways to get rid of that leader.
In my experience, one effective strategy for purging an unwanted leader was to undermine the leader through connections in the parent organization – in other words conspire to influence the boss’s boss.
What to do?
To counter the oligarchy, a leader committed to democratic values should assure that the general staff remains active in the organization and that leaders not be granted absolute control. (This is no small task since every organization includes many people - sheep and "yes men" followers- who want direction and no more.)
The more open the lines of communication and the more frequent the use of shared decision-making processes, the more difficult it becomes for an oligarchy to gain power.
In other words, keep decisions out of the shadows.
Truly independent followers – effective, self-starting and loyal to the organizational good - are quintessential in keeping the inevitable oligarchy at bay. It’s the leader’s do-or-die role to encourage and to protect these followers.
The harm oligarchies do:
If you deprive individuals of the power to make decisions (self-rule) that affect their work lives, employees may give up, become apathetic and withdraw into passive rules enforcement.
Worse, the oligarchy will seek to stifle those followers who question their wisdom and authority. Someone who excels outside the oligarchy may be perceived as a threat and will be targeted for removal.
Top down rule can erode individual innovation, initiative and risk taking. This centralization of power in the hands of the few may well account for low voter participaiton in democratic elections. Why vote if those in power do not hear or represent you?
Customers, if they have a choice, will take their business elsewhere.
Are there oligarchs where you work? Maybe you are part of an oligarchy? If you regard yourself as indispensable and more knowledgeable than those you serve, you are well on your way.
If you do not lust to be an oligarch, what can you – as an effective follower or leader – do to beat back those who would centralize decision-making?
ONLY a click away:

And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019


Posted by jlubans on October 13, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)


A Woman that lay under the Mortification of A Fuddling Husband, took him once when he was dead Drunk; and had his Body laid in a Charnel-House.
By the time she thought he might be come to Himself again, away goes she, and Knocks at the Door.
Who's There? (says the Toper)
One, says the Woman, that brings Meat for the Dead.
Friend, says he, bring me Drink rather. I wonder any Body that knows me, should bring me one without T'other.
Nay then, says she, the Humour I perceive has taken Possession of him; he has gotten a habit, and his Case is Desperate.
THE MORAL. Inveterate Ill Habits become Another Nature to us, and we may almost as well be Taken to Pieces, and New put together again, as Mended.
Most of us wa
king up in a morgue after a night of one-too-manys would be more than a little “fuddled”, we’d be scared out of our besotted selves.
Not so for our Dead Drunk of a Husband.
L’Estrange (1616 – 1704) implies a renovation is the only answer. Ahead of Freud, our “Mending” will only come if we are figuratively taken apart and put together anew.
In the workplace, I’ve seen “Ill Habits” so pervasive as to render an organization incapable of positive progress.
Only a major jolt to the system (no, not yet another feckless “re-organization”), a genuine renewal of purpose and function and a sidelining of those managers and staff responsible for the morass, will bring a “Mending”.

*Source: Aesop’s Fables translated by Sir Roger L'Estrange, 1692.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019


Posted by jlubans on September 29, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: The Ever Curious George and a firefly

ONCE upon a time
a troop of Monkeys were wandering through a wood. The weather was cold, and when in the twilight they came upon a Firefly they mistook it for the embers of a real fire.
Accordingly, they placed dry grass and leaves around the Firefly, hoping to warm themselves; and one of the Monkeys fanned it with his breath, trying to kindle it into a blaze.
A little Bird, named Suchimukha, was perched above in a tree; and when he saw the Monkeys wasting their time and efforts, he called down to them,
"That is not a real fire, it is only a Firefly. Do not waste your breath."
Although the Monkey heard what Suchimukha said, he paid no attention but continued to blow steadily.
So the Bird flew down from the tree, and once more began to advise and argue with the Monkey.
Presently the latter became angry and picking up a stone flung it at Suchimukha and killed him.
It is foolish to waste good advice on those who do not choose to listen.
When I was five years old an aunt-in-law gave me a Latvian nickname: Japatis! (John, myself!) It meant, “Leave me alone! I’ll do it myself!”
Even then, I brooked no interference.
Some would say my mulishness has only gotten worse!
Charles Handy, the famed management consultant, tells the story of his daughter’s starting up a first business and his inundating her with well-intentioned advice.
The daughter, after dutifully listening to him, fixed him with a halting gaze and declared: “Stop, Poppy! I know you mean well, but I want to make my own mistakes!”
Maybe the monkey wanted to see where his harmless efforts would take him.
While a do-gooder might have a better way, it matters not to the person wanting to solve something on his or her own. It may be plain old stubbornness or sometimes going down the wrong path opens up other doors, ones you would never pass through if you did things “by the book”.
In this fable the kibitzer dies.
Maybe one should wait to be asked before giving free advice. In advice giving, timing is everything.

*Source: Katha-Sarit-Sagara. Book X, Chapter 60, adapted from the German of F. Brockhaus. To be found in Cooper, Frederic Taber, editor (1864-1937), “An argosy of fables; a representative selection from the fable literature of every age and land”. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1921.
ONLY a click away:

And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019

The Happy Office

Posted by jlubans on September 25, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Performance Appraisal Day at the Samuel Beckett Co.
A “man bites dog” story made the rounds last week.
In New Zealand, an office worker was summoned by his boss “to discuss his role”. That had all the earmarks of a “redundancy meeting”.
Under New Zealand labor law, someone facing redundancy gets to bring along a support person.
(First, let’s get real about this euphemism, redundant: you’re about to get kicked out the door, ejected, discharged, sacked, fired.)
Our creative hero turned the tables by bringing along a clown.
The vast media coverage suggests this story “resonated” for many people. Why?
Take your pick. It could be that the reader:
a. Has had the experience of being ignominiously fired and would have liked to have had a friend along, an advocate.
b. Loves it when the worm turns; chalk one up for the little guy!
c. Enjoys theater of the absurd.
d. Picks up on the notion that absurdity empowers to some extent the person being fired. The joke is as much on the boss, as on the sad sack being told he/she is no longer relevant, useful, wanted, of value, etc.
EB White when asked to define “democracy” offered several views including it’s “the hole in the stuffed shirt through which sawdust slowly trickles” The clown makes the hole.
I’d like to build on the New Zealand story. Let’s alleviate the mutual suffering endured in the annual unhappiness ritual, the performance appraisal (PA).
I need to qualify my claim of mutual suffering. There’s no question of the ratee’s anxiety and fear, even pain. And most rater’s have at least a great discomfort doing the rating. However, there are those petty raters who relish being the superior, being the judge. Sure, the empathy mask is firmly in place, but the unseemly gleem in the eye gives you the idea the person secretly enjoys taking you down a peg or two, pointing out your flaws.
My modest proposal: we add a third party: a clown of the ratee’s choosing.
It’d bring some genuine zippety do-dah to this overly solemnized, high stress ritual.
The clown could reduce the anxiety level, adding an appropriate good humor and slapstick to the dreaded event.
Apart from miming what a rating of 6 out of ten feels like for the employee, or riffing, - with cascading crocodile tears - on the phony "I feel you pain" refrain, something tangible could come out: a balloon giraffe or gazelle or cat. Solid results! A first for PA!
Put this program under the aegis of the Happiness Officer (HO). Surely you have read of the latest management trend, the Happiness program?
In any case, the clown contingent could report to the in-house HO.
While no incumbent HO could pass for a clown – one explained the gravity of the HO job, “first, it’s not about being a clown or a comedian” - the job would need to be out-sourced, giving work to the unemployed in the clown population.
One HO sees his role as: “Treat people as they want to be treated.” You want a clown alongside as we defenestrate you? You got it!
Or, if the HO reneges, the Chief Mindfulness Officer could supervise the Clowns. Shouldn't someone in the organization be mindful of the wasted productivity inherent in PA?

ONLY a click away:

And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019


Posted by jlubans on September 17, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)


ANY a man, starting with a modest capital, has ended by acquiring great wealth.
But I built up my large fortune by starting with nothing at all. Listen, and you shall hear how I did it.
My father died before I was born; and my mother's wicked relations robbed her of all she possessed. So in fear of her life she fled from them and took refuge at the home of one of my father's friends.
There I was born, to become later the protector and mainstay of my excellent mother.
Meanwhile she supported our lives by the pittance earned through hardest drudgery; and, poor as we were, she found a teacher who consented to instruct me in the simple rudiments of reading, writing and keeping accounts.
Then one day my mother said to me, "My son, your father before you was a merchant, and the time has come for you also to engage in trade.
The richest merchant now living in our city is the money changer, Visakhila, and I hear that it is his habit to make loans to the poor sons of good families to start them in business. Go to him and ask him for such a loan."
Straightway I went to Visakhila, the money changer, and found him angrily denouncing another merchant's son, to whom he had loaned money:
"See that dead Mouse upon the ground," he said scornfully, "a clever man could start with even such poor capital as that and make a fortune.
But, however much money I loan you I barely get back the interest on it, and I greatly doubt whether you have not already lost the principal."
Hereupon I impetuously turned to Visakhila and said, "I will accept the dead Mouse as capital to start me in business!"
With these words, I picked up the Mouse, wrote out a receipt, and went my way, leaving the money changer convulsed with laughter.
I sold the Mouse to another merchant as cat's meat, for two hand-fuls of peas.
I ground the peas and taking with me a pitcher of water, I hastened from the city and seated myself under the shade of a spreading tree.
Many weary wood-cutters passed by, carrying their wood to market, and to each one I politely offered a drink of cool water and a portion of the peas.
Every wood-cutter gratefully gave me in payment a couple of sticks of wood; and at the end of the day I took these sticks and sold them in the market. Then for a small part of the price I received for the wood I bought a new supply of peas; and so on the second day I obtained more sticks from the woodcutters.
In the course of a few days I had amassed quite a little capital and was able to buy from the wood-cutters all the wood that they could cut in three days.
It happened soon afterwards that because of the heavy rains there was a great scarcity of wood in the market, and I was able to sell all that I had bought for several hundred panas.
With this money I set up a shop, and as I am a shrewd business man I soon became wealthy.
Then I went to a goldsmith and had him make me a Mouse of solid gold. This Mouse I presented to Visakhila as payment of the loan; and he soon after gave me his daughter in marriage.
Because of this story I am known to the world as Mushika, the Mouse. So it was that without any capital to build on, I amassed a fortune.
Horatio Alger has nothing on our hero, Mushika the Mouse.
While there’s no moral appended. I am guessing the story was to inspire a poor reader to get out of poverty, to improve his or her lot in life.
If anything, the story speaks to one’s using existing resources – however minimal – to move ahead.
In the workplace we often fail to use what we have and instead bemoan what we do not have. An atmosphere of depression sets in, and weighs heavily upon the organization.
Every now and then along comes a leader like Mushika, who uses what’s available and achieves something special – not just in escalating production but also in raising followers’ morale and inspiring them to genuinely “do more with less”.
It’s the “can do” attitude – alas, a cliché nowadays - but when that attitude is sincere, amazing things happen, all within what you already have.
In Aesop’s fable “The Shipwrecked Man and Athena” a wealthy man clings to a capsized boat and prays to Athena, making many promises if only she saves him.
A survivor – heading for the distant shore - swims past and says, “While you pray to Athena, start moving your arms!”
Ditto for the shipwrecked workplace with only doom and gloom on the horizon. Instead, “move your arms” and work with what you have. There’s a new dawn coming.
Remember Mushika!

*Source: Katha-Sarit-Sagara. Book I, Chapter 6; adapted from the German of F. Brockhaus. To be found in Cooper, Frederic Taber, editor (1864-1937), “An argosy of fables; a representative selection from the fable literature of every age and land”. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1921.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019

“We Don’t Make Brownies” (or Cupcakes, or Bagels, or Muffins)

Posted by jlubans on September 12, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: The Old Town shop on a wintry day.

On my frequent Riga rambles, I’ve got a regular go-to-place. A cafe on the edge of Old Town: Mārtiņa Beķereja. (Martin’s Bakery).
I stop in for tea and my favorite pīrāgi (bread rolls filled or topped with a variety of flavors, some sweet, some savory).

Caption: Inside.

A convivial place, Martin’s interior colors are warm and welcoming. There’s mixed seating: banquettes along the walls and window counters with a view onto pedestrian-busy Vaļņu street.
And, as you can see from the photo, small tables, mid-floor. More often than not you’ll find me along the divider in a cozy chair savoring the flavors with notebook and pencil in hand for any loose thoughts/inspirations that might spring forth while I linger.
Latvia has a reputation for introversion, but that’s not to say Martin’s has planned seating for introverts. Let’s just leave it that one’s eating alone is a normal, not an anti-social activity.
You order at the counter and then take it to a table or you get it bagged or boxed to take away.
There’s ceramic, glass and metal-ware for all but take out. Apart from the serviettes, there’s no paper.
A tiny dish washing machine, in the back, labors mightily all day to keep up.
No foodie, me, I should note before we go much further this is a not a restaurant review.
Instead my aim here is to write of an organization I’ve observed first hand for a decade.
Here’s what I have seen:
Consistent high quality
Very good prices
Little turnover in staff, and
Friendly counter service.

My questions: How do they achieve this? Even more important, how do they maintain this? What is the role of leadership? What are the corporate values?
Thanks to my cousin Dace – who agreed to translate - I was able to set up a visit with the owners.
So, one rainy morning in mid-June my cousin and I made our way to Martin’s Bakery’s headquarters on the heavily trafficked Brivibas Boulevard, about a mile northeast from the old town branch.
On a corner, it sits across the wide street from Riga’s famous Dailes Theater.
The headquarters incorporates one of the company’s six stores. The store was there first in leased space. Just recently the business purchased the entire building. A major restoration and renovation are in the works and the store will remain.
Along with Mārtiņs, in his early 40s, I got to meet his mother, Vija Kalniņš (the founder). Mārtiņs deals with finances, accounting, and operations.
The other owner, Dins, was not there. In his late 40s, he’s the chief of production and a practicing baker. I’ve included two of his photos of Martin’s products.
Ms. Kalniņš now serves as an advisor and as a supervisor. After many years of dealing with banks, she has happily turned over bank loans and other financial matters to her sons.
Two years after Latvia broke from the Soviet Union in 1991 she founded Martin’s Bakery using recipes and techniques she had developed over many years as a renowned baker/pastry chef.
The first Martin’s Bakery – with three employees - was located two kilometers outside of Old Town and would even today be considered peripheral to City Centre, the business region.
Still, she made a go of it.
Her sons, 15 and 23 at the time, helped from the beginning.
Not easy, that first year was during the chaotic changeover - “privatization” - from a communist economy to democratic capitalism. One large issue was how workers got by under communism. It was not unusual, in order to survive, workers would help themselves to resources; after all, they were the “owners”, it was theirs to take.
This view was not limited to retail shops but was prevalent in factories and in collective farms. This kind of “sharing” helped people persevere in an economy burdened with shortages, centralized planning and corruption.
Today, at Martin’s Bakery, there are 105 staff in six locations, and the business has a 3 million Euros turnover with tax returns of more than 700 million*.
Caption: What it’s all about: Foto by Dins Kalniņš, 2019.

Well then, what did I learn? What’s Martin’s Bakery’s secret to success?
Freshness and quality.
Each branch is self-contained. All baking is done on site from start to finish. Assuring freshness, each location bakes everything, every day, using only natural, fresh ingredients including seasonal fresh fruits and berries – additives are verboten.
And, yes they use only fresh cream. (During the interview, Mārtiņs offered Dace and me a plate of gorgeous raspberry tarts with whipped cream. Heavenly!)
Prior to my interview, I was under the wrong impression that there would be centralized pre-baking with delivery to each branch for finishing. Not so!
I witnessed kitchen staff making the pastries by hand and baking them, staying just ahead of demand.
When a store shelf is depleted, the retail staff signals the kitchen and up comes more. When you are in the store you’ll often spot a baker coming up the kitchen stairs or along the kitchen hallway laden with a tray of fresh out-of the-oven baked or prepared delicacies.
Of course, fresh inventories are more difficult to manage than those treated with shelf-life extenders; Martin’s does so through minute attention to quality, very rapid turnover of the product (excellent prices help) and a devoted, regular clientele.
Value Employees.
Knowing how difficult it is to find staff, the company works at retention and maintaining a “stable” group.
And, when you hire good people and treat them with respect you can expect a “good mood” (to quote Mārtiņs) in the workplace.
A personal note: even during busy times one of the counter staff takes time to enunciate in clear Latvian the amount of change from my purchase. It’s her friendly effort to help me learn to count in Latvian!
Overall, I was told, Martin’s Bakery pays more than other confectioners. And, during several seasonal highs there is extra remuneration for workers.
Importantly, every morning Ms. Kalniņš goes to each of the six branches to check for quality and other business matters.
That connection makes clear that the owners are present. While each shop is independent with its own working manager, Ms. Kalniņš provides the necessary link back to the owner’s traditions, goals and vision.
Suggestive of how employees are valued, in June, two of Martin’s bakers were in Australia giving lessons to Australian-Latvian bakers about how Martin’s does what it does. Martin’s Bakery was among the trip sponsors.
“We don’t make brownies”
That was Mārtiņs short hand way of telling me they are a traditional bakery. While others may chase what’s “trending” – like cupcakes - they know and stick with what they do best.
Arguably, their pastries are the “best in town” offered at “very acceptable” prices to a large client base. Nobody comes to Martin’s Bakery once only; the return business, I would guess, is central to the bakery’s financial success.
While not closed to innovation Martin’s Bakery is slow to move away from traditional items. Staff ideas are considered and tried out.
Caption: The sweet: Foto by Dins Kalniņš, 2019.

A family business.
Decisions are made as a family. “We all have the same vision”, I was told: “the truth is always in the middle.”
Sometimes there are disagreements, differences of opinion, but they get resolved; there’s mutual respect for each of their roles.
I asked about how they came to decide on their no alcohol policy. This is unusual for Riga; many bakery or lunch cafes here offer an assortment of vodkas and whiskies, a “bracer” for the early morning or afternoon crowd.
After a short family discussion, the no alcohol policy was set, and no alcohol is served.
Ditto for the early-on decision for a cash-only retail model. That policy was only recently revised since clients began demanding the use of payment cards. The family adjusted and now a customer can use his or her debit or credit card.
Caption: The cute! Fanciful hedgehogs. Foto by Dins Kalniņš, 2019.

What’s next? An outsider’s reflection.
When I asked Martins if he was familiar with the S-shaped curve for depicting an organization’s growth and decline, he told me the business was already on its 3rd or 4th curve!
Obviously, if they have successfully navigated the risky waters of being a family business, then chances are they are in good shape for the future and unlikely to succumb to conditions like the Founder’s Syndrome, or short-term profit goals undermining long term good will and eroding the customer base.
Given the apparent robust health of Martin’s Bakery, I expect few negatives in the short term. That’s would be more than OK with me, as I'll be back in Riga to teach, April-June 2020!
Caption: A sunny ending. Foto by Dins Kalniņš, 2019.

*If that seems like a lot of tax, keep in mind that Latvia - like many, if not all, EU countries - has a VAT (Value Added Tax) of about 21%.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019