Freedom at Work: Set Your Own Salary.*

Posted by jlubans on June 11, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Everyman a Plutocrat.

Before any HR types hyperventilate, let me dispense a little oxygen. Most salaries are already “set” for employees. Industries like libraries, or most not-for-profits, already have general guidelines for pay scales. These scales reflect, for the most part, the value society and the organization place on that type of work. As long as one’s salary stays in a “range” there is usually little resentment.
Of course, secrecy and minimal oversight can lead to excesses not only for private CEOs but also for overly handsome paydays in the not-for-profit sector. Once exposed, at least in the latter, taxpayers, board members, and voters can punish the greedy.

But back to Rich Uncle Pennybags, our fantasy spendthrift poster child. “SEMCO” is a for-profit organization that’s on record for allowing employees to set their own salaries.
Hardly a Marxist fantasy come true, Ricardo Semler’s SEMCO’s 3000 employees went at it in a rational manner:
“This was a … complex process, which involved hiring an analyst to benchmark pay levels across multiple positions at 35 different companies. Average pay scales were established for comparable companies, to which SEMCO added 10 percent to help reduce employee turnover. And everyone’s salaries, from that of the security guard at the factory entrance to Mr. Semler’s own, were published for all to see. Peer pressure provided an efficient leveling mechanism. “

Not much of a raised fist and red banners unfurled struggle there. It appears that fairness prevailed. Probably a tiny percentage - even at SEMCO - remains unhappy but the company’s considerable success suggests a vast, content majority. This blissful state is probably more ascribable to the leadership’s openness and fairness then it is to having a say on one’s salary. What do I mean? Salary simply is not the great motivator many believe it is. Most people are satisfied with what they believe is a fair salary. Once achieved, fair pay neither motivates nor demotivates. It is akin to air conditioning. If off on a hot day, all hell breaks lose in the office; if the ACs on, no one notices.

So, when fairness and openness are the goals, employee involvement is salary setting is more educational than it is insurrectionist.
Another way to involve workers in salary discussions is to tie that discussion to an annual review of everyone’s job performance – now that could get interesting! This is said to happen at the “manager-less”** Morning Star company: “In a company with no promotions, people earn more by getting better at their jobs. Employee-elected compensation committees set pay levels after measuring colleagues' performance against their CLOUs and other metrics.”

The CLOU - Colleague Letter of Understanding - is an employee’s stated commitment to the organization including what the employee will do (as capsulated in “Key Performance Indicators” – KIPs) and with whom he will work to achieve his “Commercial Mission.” The process appears heavily HR-inspired, intensely quantified, convoluted and clumsy – even vaguely Soviet - but is seems to work in spite of itself. I suspect there is a tacit understanding: Produce more, help others produce more, and we’ll all get paid more. “Morning Star can pay 15 percent more in salaries and 35 percent more in benefits than the industry average because it's not paying managers and productivity is so high.” (Emphasis added.)
I’m guessing, but workers may be humoring the leadership’s whims for CLOUs, iPod time clocks, and KIPs because they truly thrive in Morning Star’s freedom-at-work environment.

In library-land (my world of work), managers and administrators - who may take home pay triple or more what line staff do - could be particularly vulnerable in an open discussion about salaries. What’s your response when someone asks “What have you done for me lately?" or "What have you done for the organization?” If your role is to back up a fussbudget boss you might have difficulty explaining how you add value to the organization’s bottom line or purpose, why you are still relevant.
I recall in one free-for-all budget session – we’d opened the library’s budget (salaries and operations) to all staff to find resources to pay for new initiatives – one participant asking a pointed, even personal, question: “Why have assistant directors? (people like yours truly). Why not use the AD salary lines for operational needs?” While I kept my job, it was a difficult moment. Later, I tried to explain to myself why I was worth the extra dollars. It wasn’t easy since I saw that the value I placed on my services might be too vague or irrelevant to staff, or, for that matter to administrative colleagues who often saw (and were rewarded) their roles as keepers-of-the-faith more than my role as questioner-of-the-faith!
Self-delusion and preservation on my part? Maybe, but then I could point to successes that previous incumbents in my position had failed to achieve.
That rankling suggestion that ADs were dispensable – regardless of past achievements – may well have portended a time for me to hie for the distant hills. One’s welcome does wear out.
Objectively, that singular experience does suggest how salaries can be kept in line through public discussion. If your value to the organization is up for discussion and you want to double your take-home pay - you’ll need to demonstrate how you bring more to the table.

*Note: This is the third entry on how democratic workplaces behave. More to come. The first installment was about work schedules.
The second was about making salaries public.

** Chris Rufer, the founder of Morning Star explains managing in a flat organization: “Everyone’s a manager here”, …. “We are manager rich. The job of managing includes planning, organizing, directing, staffing and controlling, and everyone at Morning Star is expected to do these things. Everyone is a manager of their own mission. They are managers of the agreements they make with colleagues, they are managers of the resources they need to get the job done, and they are managers who hold their colleagues accountable.” From Gary Hamel’s, "First, Let's Fire All the Managers", December, 2011 Harvard Business Review, p.58.

Freedom at Work: Open Books (Part 1)*

Posted by jlubans on June 05, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

20130605-Pay shhh, secret pay.jpeg
I had not meant to overhear. Really. No ear to the keyhole for me, please! Regardless, my executive colleague in the next office with an open door was talking to someone on the phone – maybe an investment firm – about his confidential salary. He mentioned the amount, loudly enough for me to hear. I bolted from my office but not before learning that his salary was about 25% more than mine! I was a recent hire in a position on par with my next-door-colleague. We had similar backgrounds. If anything, I had more experience and professional achievement but somehow I was being paid less and he was being paid more. Ouch!
I was dismayed and unhappy about the apparent inequity. And, I kicked myself for not negotiating more cannily.
Now, many years later, a University of California study about making salaries public provides some rationale for my hurt feelings:
“The results were what you might expect for those whose pay was below average within their peer group: they weren't thrilled. They were more likely to be unsatisfied with their pay/job and search for new work. The worse the individuals' pay was relative to the median, the worse their satisfaction.”

Open books are essential to the democratic workplace. Employees get to see the financials – the budget - and, sometimes they get to see how much people are paid.
(Taking this a step further, a few freed-up organizations allow workers to set their own salaries. But, while many embrace the principles in my DW definition only a few have given workers a salary setting option. More about that in a future essay).
Opening the books – raising the curtain on the operating budget and the payroll, letting people see where the money is going and who is making what - is relatively simple. It can be limited to read-only access. Of course, you could opt for more democracy, like a Vermont town meeting, where people see the budget, debate it and then vote on it!
What’s the worst that can happen by revealing salary lines? Well, probably the worst is the exposure of historical inequities. Lacking those, there may be some initial confusion and gnashing of teeth, but then things will begin to sort out – the less deserving will understand why they are paid less and the more deserving will understand that they are compensated for doing a better job than most. And if wrongs need to be righted, then let’s get to it!
Now, for the faint of heart, you can opt to raise the curtain partially, say ankle height. Not all salaries need to be disclosed. Staff can be given the option to disclose or not.
Why am I so sanguine about making a payroll public? Well, there is the reassuring fact that many public employee salaries (including libraries) are already a matter of public record. With a few e-clicks, you can find out what your nemesis at work is making and whether you are better or worse off than she is. Those open record orgs behave like any other hierarchy – they are no better or worse for salary disclosure; it is simply an accepted tradition. For salary disclosure to really matter, other democratic virtues have to be in place. Salaries are often regarded as motivators; the greater the salary the greater the motivation. Truth is salaries have little to do with motivation. If adequate they are like organizational wallpaper, a reminder of a pleasant working environment. If niggardly, they de-motivate. Most of know the real motivators, respect, achievement, recognition, and camaraderie, along a few others, far outrank salary in an individual’s drive to be the best she can be.
I have worked in both public and private settings. Usually, I kept salaries secret, off limits. “Why, you blasted hypocrite”, you exclaim! Not really. For one thing, secrecy was the rule in those organizations. But, I will confess that confidentiality helped me avoid the hassle and embarrassment of having to explain why Mr. X – often inexplicably - made more than Ms. Y.
I now think that secrecy creates more problems than it avoids. People want to be treated fairly; an open payroll should make fairness manifest. If they are not being treated fairly then people need to know and they can choose to move on or, if there is apparent discrimination, to appeal for adjustment.
However, even some famously liberated workplaces only partially open the books. One of the more progressive companies, New Belgium brewery, plays its cards close to the corporate vest: “The company is earnestly open book--laying out everything but salaries (emphasis added) and providing an exhaustive education in financials.”
It is important to be “earnest”, someone said, but, New Belgium’s not revealing salaries does suggest there are some secrets the Fat Tire Tribe is not ready to deal with, regardless of ceremonial beads and investiture mojos. What is there to hide?
Bottom line, as they say, people desire fairness. Eyeballing salaries helps us make decisions about fairness. If we believe we are being treated fairly, then salary becomes less of a morale buster or fodder for unproductive grousing. A 2011 Atlantic magazine article backs that up, concluding that “knowing how much money other people make would benefit workers and make the labor market more efficient”

Overhearing that my peer was more highly valued than I was did make a difference for me. When a new CEO arrived, I re-negotiated my salary; I knew what to ask for. Did I get it? What do you think?

*Note: This is the second of several blog entries on how democratic workplaces behave. The first installment was about work schedules.

Money as a “Kick In The A--”

Posted by jlubans on August 10, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)


Vaguely reminiscent of a Russian folk fable, a rich business owner promised to pay every worker at least $70,000 per year, a “basic, comfortable wage”.
When announced, joyful shouts erupted inside and outside the company - especially from those plugging away at an entry-level wage, somewhere under $30,000. Income redistribution at last!
But, and this is a big but, the celebration has become muted and may even be in the hardcore hangover phase. The rich man may not really have enough money, some clients are going elsewhere in anticipation of higher costs, and most jarringly, some of the best people are leaving the firm.
Money as a demotivator? How can this be? Is this not the best form of corporate justice? Or is it something to do with equity theory? Or are these whining ingrates slipping out the door just not worthy?
One staffer who abandoned ship explained what he least liked about the equal pay program: “It shackles high performers to less motivated team members.”
Another dismayed veteran explained her decision to bail out: “He gave raises to people who have the least skills and are the least equipped to do the job, and the ones who were taking on the most didn’t get much of a bump.”
This stirs up memories of Christmases past in which my brothers and I each got a sweater, new underwear, a pair of socks and a coloring book. A mother’s fairness and maternal awareness of how funny things can get if one sib gets more than another!
And there was a colleague’s dismay after an event heralded to honor her writing for a professional journal. She’d been producing for a decade a very well received column. Readers, in editorial surveys, repeatedly picked her column as the journal’s best feature, far above the several other columns.
So, one day the editor told my friend her writing was to be recognized at the next annual society meeting. At the awards ceremony, her name was called, along with ALL the other columnists! And each was handed an identical recognition plaque. Someone, maybe Seneca, said, “honor the undeserving, dishonor the deserving.”
It might benefit us – when looking at what workers want - to revisit Frederick Herzberg’s - however disagreeable to some - on what workers want in order to do more than just barely enough.
For Herzberg, pay is organizational hygiene (in other words, not a source of motivation). Of course, pay should be appropriate and reasonable. It must be competitive with salary levels in the same industry. (See how setting your own pay scale works in the real world of self managing teams in my essay, ”
Freedom at Work: Set Your Own Salary.”)
Besides cash, there are other widely prevalent external motivation techniques worshipped by HR types and some bosses. First and foremost for the hard-nosed boss, there’s nothing quite as effective as a Kick in the Ass! (KITA). In short, the application of a cattle prod, a fear induced by a threat to strip away the worker’s basic sense of safety.
Less violent, but just as pernicious, are the three ring binders of official Company policies promulgated by HR departments and staff committees, all presumably to make staff feel valued and motivated, including the annual pestilence of performance appraisal. Thoroughly unproven, only the most checked out HR chief can kid herself into believing PA is an effective motivator.
Herzberg quite convincingly demonstrated that these organizational efforts are largely non-motivators. Absent, they can be de-motivators. Present, they remove dissatisfaction but do not improve satisfaction, they do not motivate. For example, a job without medical insurance may result in dissatisfaction. Add medical benefits and what do you get? No dissatisfaction. The employee gets what she believed she was entitled to in the first place. If there is any motivation to do more, to be nicer to clients, it soon fades into the background.
Herzberg’s motivators (satisfiers) - when used honestly - do yield positive satisfaction. These motivators emanate from the internal psychological benefits inherent in work done when the boss gets out of the way. It’s work that one, and others, can be proud of.
The number #1 motivator for effective and productive staff is recognition from boss, peers, and clients. Good staff rightly relishe being valued; they gain a sense of achievement, and want growth and promotional opportunities. They like their job. Finally, good staff want responsibility and are willing to work for it.
Now, this is still a difficult argument to make to many bosses – it takes effort and a willingness to share the glory. Of course, some bosses just know better. KITA works for them or so they claim. The attributable costs caused by an abusive boss are little known; I’d guess they are considerable and long lasting.
An entirely different dynamic occurs when you regularly recognize staff for a job well done, for their contribution to the work, for their contribution to the organization’s success. (N.b. I am not talking about the annual recognition banquet or the staff picnic – more hygiene!)
Oddly enough in the $70,000 salary case it appears that pay was a powerful measure of recognition. A valued and responsible person’s making more than a newbie gave the veteran producer some measure of personal satisfaction. (One does wonder about the boss/worker climate in this organization.) Remove the fair and appropriate pay differences based on skill, experience and ability, enter Banquo’s ghost to put a damper on the equal pay party.
Are you frowning? Am I being hard-hearted about giving the little guy a break?
A recent illuminating large-scale study about “The Effects of Employee Recognition and Appreciation” should make my view more clear.
The study largely confirms Herzberg’s conclusions about the importance of recognition in the motivation and retention of valued staff.
Victor Lipman, a management consultant, has this to say about what he learned about recognition from the numerous staff morale surveys he’s conducted: “Employees never got enough of it – invariably it was a pain point.”
So, will this Russian fable have a happy ending or will it be more like the grim endings of most Russian novels? My views are above. What do you think motivates staff?

© John Lubans 2015

Invading Privacy vs. Making Money

Posted by jlubans on March 26, 2018  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Exposed.

I googled moving boxes, the kind you pack with. I found what I wanted and closed the browser.
An hour later, I clicked for a weather projection. With it came an in-your-face ad from an office supply company - a quarter screen, promoting guess what?
How do you think that happens? Coincidence? Who pays what to whom?
Many, we are told, are aghast over recent reports of data mining and exploitation of “private” user data at Facebook.
While we have known about and participated in sharing personal information since the beginning (do you remember when you bought a diamond ring or a washing machine on Amazon, the “Zuke” would alert all your “Friends”?. Presumably, a bit of a prompt for “keeping up with the Joneses”, an ancient advertising trick.
For the longest time these practices, maybe a tad tawdry, were OK.
Why no longer? Maybe its the realization that Facebook et al. do not discriminate – when there’s money to be made - among political parties or political philosophies or friends or enemies or love or hatred, bigotry or tolerance.
The naked truth: Facebook (Google, Twitter, Linked-in, et al.) make big money by selling away our privacy, including our every click.
The super cool dudes and dudettes in Silicon Valley may espouse egalitarianism but they behave like robber barons. How else can they afford to live in downtown San Fran?
Whoever has the most money - Russian rubles, Ukrainian hryvnia, Saudi riyals, Iranian rials, and Chinese yuan accepted - the greater your access to private data for whatever purpose you wish.
Facebook and Google are worried – no, not about America’s growing mis-trust in social media - but the hit to the wallet kind of worry.
On March 25, the WSJ ran this story:
Facebook and Google Face Emboldened Antagonists: Big Advertisers”
So I am reposting my (prescient, eh?) February 28, 2018 indie author’s perspective (revised) on how this works out for the little guy:
“Information Wants to Be Free” (Almost)
The qualifier – almost - explains why since back in the day (1984, no less!) we have competing systems: vast ranges of free information and numerous fenced in sources of information.
We now know much of the Internet is not free.
Nor is there a middle class in the Internet economy.
There are the Have Nots, all of us under the long, long tail of the Internet (steerage) and there are the Haves up in First Class.
The Haves are a peculiar sort, because they do not provide content – the words, pictures, videos, selfies, and essays.
The Haves arrange the content and control the content, and husband how it is used. They manage it and they sell it to make money.
In other words, never have so many written so much for free to be read by so few so what they write can be monetized by a few, namely Google and Facebook through advertising revenue.
It is as simple as that. There is nothing innovative about this. What is new is that the exploitation – dare I say collusion? - has never been so complicit or gigantic.
When will content providers (including those of us who share cute cat videos or who write blogs) come to terms with this?
To their credit, the Haves created mechanisms for the “sharing” of the content and for linking to the content.
What about the Have Nots?
Yes, we are willing participants.
We seek “likes”, we seek “comments”, we want to be read – often we are happy to make our information free.
But do we really want to do that so a very few benefit while we get nothing back beyond a little recognition or fleeting pleasure?
A few days ago the WSJ wrote about proposed legislation that would permit publishers to engage in collective bargaining with those profiting from their content.
Facebook’s news stream, visited by millions we are told, does not pay for the news to which it links.
It does pay for the mechanism of spotting trends (however slanted) via human or machine means, but the linked-to content is free to Facebook or to Drudge or to Google.
Presumably, the content provider does have the opportunity to advertise or to push readers to buy their publications. However, this incidental revenue is tiny when compared to the ad revenue earned by the aggregators (and those who hold and share for a fee millions of bytes of personal information on millions of consumers and voters).
Understandably, the publishers seeing their profits declining, newsrooms depleting and the aggregators’ profits sky rocketing, want a piece of the action.
The legislation would allow publishers, as a combine, to set prices and to seek compensation from those making profit from their work.
How much?
Well, the WSJ has this to say: “Facebook... generated $40 billion in annual revenue from its ability to narrowly target advertisers’ messages to receptive audiences." I am not at all sure about how "receptive" any of the audiences are!
Well, then, what about this blog? I do not seek a profit (nor should I since under the present system revenue is almost impossible.) You could say my information really does want to be free, almost has to be free, if anyone is to read it!
If I want to “boost” this blog post (the one you are reading) according to Facebook, I can pay them $53.00 to “reach” 48,000 (targeted) strangers on Facebook. That’s for one post.
I suspect were my IP address in Moscow (Russia not Idaho) my post would be boosted as well as long as my credit card paid for it. Add several thousand rubles and I can "reach" several hundred thousand strangers.
The “reach” is manifest in those annoying “boosts” of opinion and products, etc that come out of nowhere on your personal Facebook page mixed in with updates from friends.
Facebook assures me, “Others like you are doing this”. In other words the already congested and polluted pages of Facebook are to become even more cluttered and I am to pay for it.
What’s the sense of that?
As well, I imagine I could do some advertising or "boosting" on Google. As long as I pay for it.
One small step.
I will close the archives to my Leading from the Middle blog (published twice weekly since March of 2010). I will re-gain control of my work by taking it off the grid. If others like me do the same, the Haves might need to come to terms with adding value to our work.
So, does "information want to be free"?
Let's return to the failed premise from which that 1984 quote arose: "information almost wants to be free because the costs of getting it out is getting lower and lower all of the time." The costs of "getting it out" may indeed be ever decreasing, but the costs of creating it have never been higher.

So, stand up to Social Media’s Big Bosses and Minions, buy the peck of Aesopic wisdom to be found in . Or, be clever like the Zuker and get your library to order a copy!

© Copyright John Lubans 2018


Posted by jlubans on November 22, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)


Lunch figures prominently in at least three workplace proverbs:
Never Eat Lunch Alone
There’s No Free Lunch
Always Pay for Your Own Lunch
Those three, in order, touch on Career Advancement, Microeconomics, and Ethical Behavior
Why never eat lunch alone?
It’s an adage I share with my management students when we talk about budgeting.
You want to know the budget officer and his staff so that you have a beneficial relationship. So that you are not a stranger or an unknown who’s budget can be reduced with impunity. Relationships are built - over time - through social interaction and lunch is a daily opportunity for that.
Career wise, the proverb speaks to networking. As a leader you will need to build coalitions of people who think of you positively and who help you with finalizing ideas. When opportunities come up, they’ll promote your name. When you become an unfair target for dismissal or demotion they’ll defend you.
Most important of all, when you have plans for improving the organization they will support your ideas.
What then does a congenital introvert do? Eating lunch alone was for me getting away from the madding crowd. Lunch on that park bench was when I recharged and reflected; I enjoyed the time to myself. Yet, there is such a thing as being too self-reliant, too willing to go solo.
Well, were I back in the corporate saddle; I would just have to build relationships better than I did.
Maybe I’d set up an informal support group to help me in figuring out to whom I should be reaching out to get to know them better.
Some, clinically or cynically, assess every meal as an opportunity for self-advancement. Better is to build relationships so that you understand your organization and that more people get to know who you are.
What’s the meaning of “There’s No Free Lunch”?
Of course, we know this is a microeconomic principle that implies that whenever someone gives you something for “free” there is an implied expectation that you will reciprocate. Or, for that matter, the lunch never was free. The free lunch provider is covering costs and expects you – while you are gorging – to spend your nickel on other items. The expectation is always there.
It’s the “loss leader” in a store. You come in for the half price item and wind up with other items at double price. So, something given to you for free is never free because of the expectation that you will return the favor, even if it is something as intangible as the emotional “feel good” on the part of the giver or the goodwill engendered by the gift.
The lovely custom of lagniappe in New Orleans may be an exception.
Why should you Always Pay for your Own Lunch?
Linked to no free lunch, some people insist on this to avoid the appearance of being obligated or influenced.
If you pay your own way, no one can say your support for a policy or a product has somehow been bought; that you have received something in payment for your support.
A boss whom I respected very much lived this rule. He never let someone else pick up his check. Doing so, he remained independent and objective about what the other person was promoting. He knew full well that a lobbyist – however bonhomious - treating him to a $75 lunch was getting close to a bribe,
Now this can go too far, but then perhaps I am being naive. A professional group I belonged to worked with a sole provider of an important service. We were all not-for- profits as was the provider. Our group would convene twice a year in distant cities and for many years the sole provider treated us to a feast at a top-notch eatery.
One of our group, when she became chair, stopped this practice for appearance’s sake. Henceforth, and unhappily, we each paid for our own meals.
My colleague was concerned about the ethical implication of our taking “gifts” from the sole provider. For her, it didn’t look good.
Others, including myself, said something like, “Don’t be stupid, we’re not that well paid and why make a fuss about a tiny perk like a free dinner?”
She prevailed, probably for the better.
Certainly, when there’s a re-payment expectation (like in some cases, a male’s buying his date her dinner in hopes of more than a handshake at evening’s end) picking up your own check is a way to avoid any implied obligation (or grappling on the front doorstep).
Well then, what of friendships, professional and personal? What if one friend pays for another with no expectations beyond friendship?
What if you are someone’s “guest”? Is it then impossible to be anyone’s guest without some implied obligation or dependency? It seems to me there are circumstances, where one should be a guest and not worry about some erosion in independence.
When one goes to a friend’s house for dinner does your $14 bottle of wine somehow compensate for the friend’s cost of the meal? Maybe the meal costs less than the bottle of wine. Is your friend/host then obligated to give you something extra?
Finally, and I mean finally, if lunch has become the highpoint of your day - regardless of who’s buying - that may be an indicator of being plateau-ed and you ought to be thinking of ways to rejuvenate your career.

ONLY a click away:

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

© Copyright John Lubans 2019

“You’ve gotta love the business.”*

Posted by jlubans on July 25, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)


A new book by Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (with Douglas Century), Making a Difference: Stories of Vision and Courage from America’s Leaders, includes a chapter on Costco’s co-founder, Jim Sinegal. (Sinegal shuns interviews because of the media’s tendency to glorify the boss, but he willingly spoke with Sullenberger.) I was drawn to the interview because I like Costco's quality and prices and have heard, from time to time, that theirs is a different kind of organization, one that genuinely values customers and employees. As a Costco regular I have noticed over the years, just like Captain Sullenberger, that there is minimal staff turn-over. For some reason, the staff tends to stay; something highly unusual for the retail industry. Indeed, it was seeing the same staff over fifteen years of shopping at Zabar’s, the NYC food emporium, that triggered my interest in finding out why that was. (Chapter 14: A Zabarian Experience in Leading from the Middle.)

Caption: Jim Sinegal
Sinegal, who retired from Costco in 2011, spoke candidly with Sullenberger about his way of leading and how the Costco culture came into being.
Besides the tiny staff turnover – Costco has less than 10% while Wal-Mart has over 60% - there are other similarities to Zabar’s. Sinegal on pricing: “In traditional retail the thinking is, Gee, I’m selling this thing for ten bucks, I wonder if I can get eleven for it? The customer is never going to know the difference. We look at it and we say, Selling this thing for ten bucks, how do I get it to nine? And if nine, how get it to 8? We want a big gulf between Costco and other retailers.”

Caption: Murray Klein (1923-2007)
Murray Klein (a partner with Saul and Stanley Zabar and operations manager) was a driving force for taking Zabar’s from a small kosher-only establishment to a world-class food emporium. In the New York Times obituary one colleague said: “Where other vendors would look at a jar of mustard and think, ‘How much can I sell this for?’ Murray would think, ‘How little?’”
Quoting from my Zabar’s chapter, Mr. Klein’s “legend includes the celebrated caviar price war with Macy’s and his riding roughshod over sales reps during the Wild West era of kitchenware surpluses. More important was Mr. Klein’s being a stickler for quality – something never to be taken for granted, it was everyone’s job. He helped instill high standards – the same one’s Saul’s father valued. While no longer a partner (now deceased) his name is the organization’s shorthand for keeping high standards alive. When Saul and Stanley recently refused to sell lobster salad for four days because it did not taste right, that was like Mr. Klein. Scott Goldshine, a Zabar's floor manager, admiringly terms Mr. Klein, “one tough s.o.b” in demanding and getting the best quality and price from suppliers.”

20120725-sol price.jpg
Caption: Sol Price (1916-2009)
Jim Sinegal has his own Mr. Klein; in his case the legendary Sol Price, the heralded (by most) founder of the big box store concept. For Sinegal, Sol was the gold standard in running a business. Mr. Sinegal, who says he learned everything from Mr. Price, is clear about what it takes to make a business a success: “We have four things to do: “You’ve got to obey the law, you’ve got to take care of your customers, you’ve got to take care of your people, and respect your suppliers.”

Another similarity between Zabar’s and Costco is found in this quote from Mr. Sinegal: “Why should people in retail not be able to have health care for their kids and buy homes and send them to good schools?” Both businesses pay more and provide extensive benefits. In fact, “Costco’s pay is $17 per hour, 42% higher than its fiercest rival, Sam’s Club.” Stock analysts take Costco to task for paying more; one critic went so far as to say that it was better to be a Costco employee than a Costco stockholder! His analysis misses the obvious: there is higher productivity in an organization like Costco than in one like Sam’s Club. One study** found that “When turnover costs and productivity were reckoned, it was cheaper for Costco to pay people more.” At the time of that study 68,000 staff at Costco did the same number of sales as 103,000 staff at Sam’s. As Sinegal said to Sullenberger: “If you hire good people and provide them with good wages and good jobs and an opportunity for a career, then good things will happen in your business.“

There is at least one other similarity between the two retailers: Mr. Price, the boss, was known to pick up trash off the floor of the story; Sullenberger observes that Mr. Sinegal picks up trash off the floor, and I saw Saul Zabar picking up litter on the sidewalk outside Zabar’s at 80th and Broadway. On the upper west side of NYC where Saul’s brother, Eli, runs several high end stores, guess what I saw Eli doing when I came by to interview him? Picking up trash at the store’s entrance! When followers see leaders doing something like this, they are apt to model the behavior. The boss values (and acts!) a clean store. If you respect the boss, you probably will share that value.

The O’Toole and Lawler** study, mentioned above, was about two kinds of firms: Low Cost Operators (LCOs) and High Involvement Companies (HICs). LCOs shift the burden for health care, retirement, and education to others, pay low, and espouse Theory X leadership (Managers make all decisions. Workers cannot be trusted to do what is right). High Involvement Company managers share decision making with staff; they train staff for the big picture and expect understanding of the bottom line; HICs give workers decision making power in their responsibilities; and, HICs, in hard times, look for alternatives to layoffs; they retain staff as a resource in good times and in bad. (Costco, unlike many other retailers) has not lain off any full-time staff during the current economic depression.)

While both of these organizations do an outstanding job, neither Costco nor Zabar’s is a democracy. They are not perfect (e.g. I wish Costco had more American-made stuff) but they are far better than any of their competitors. Why is that so? When you consider how they are organized to get the job done and when you identify the cultural characteristics shared by Costco and by Zabar’s, you begin to define a superior service model for any organization.

* Jim Sinegal’s stated passion for the job (p.301) When he talks to student groups about career choices he emphasizes never take a job you dislike; it’ll do you harm.
** James O’Toole and Edward E. Lawler III, “The Choices Managers Make – Or Don’t.” The Conference Board Review, September/October 2006, v. 44 #5 pp 24-29.

The World’s Information Desk (part two)

Posted by jlubans on July 21, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Go, Duck, Go! (Competitor to Google, DuckDuckGo.)

After a week of cogitation, since the publication of part one
I am ready to do some futuring. Like the Oracle at Delphi, a bit groggy from the noxious effluvium (see this article about the Oracle’s cave), but with more than a little temerity (no one’s surprised, right?), I am primed to offer up two forecasts about information and the Internet. And, I will conclude with some thoughts on the importance of leading from the middle during times of urgent change.
Now, most prognosticators play it safe and time their predictions to occur after their death date. You can imagine them all circled up as a futurist choir, grinning and plucking harps in the “singularity” or “Cloud”, thinking naught but of lofty matters, predictions long forgotten.
Mine is a much shorter view, one that may come back and bite me. These two trends, I predict, will grow and strengthen in the next two to three years, maybe less.
Search Engine Darwinism. Google is the Tyrannosaurus Rex of search. It has held first place in search since the late 90s and enjoys most recently a 45% separation from #2, Yahoo powered by Bing. Competition has been weak, but a sleeker and leaner model is on the horizon: DuckDuckGo. Plus it offers no tracking of individual searches, something which Google does with a vengeance and by which it generates beaucoup bucks.
Almost as good as “being banned in Boston,” DuckDuckGo is off limits in China, because it refuses to track users. That “bad boy” badge should give it an extra boost in its battle for search market share in the free world.
I hope this little start up can give Google a run for its money and a serious kick in the pants. Regardless, I think search engines will experience marginal growth and there will be more links to commercial sites. In other words more ads and more tracking, more targeted ads and more annoyance. It is not healthy for Google or for us for them to enjoy what is nearly a monopoly on search. Anyone with a single provider cable service knows well how a monopoly can behave toward the customer when it puts profit above all. However, monopolistic behavior is not limited to the corporate world; a not-for-profit agency can go off the rails just as easily once it knows and accepts that there are no consequences for anti-consumer behavior.
The antidote to this kind of behavior is competition or a leader who will not tolerate arrogance, bad behavior or poor service. Capitalism was never meant to be free of competition; it thrives on it, it dies without out, making socialism’s “inefficiencies” all that more tolerable.

The End of “Free”. Much of what the Internet runs on is free. One of the most frequent go to sites is the Wikipedia. Its business model is based on volunteers donating time and expertise. That’s fine if one has a day job, much less so than when unemployed. How long can this type of business model continue?
Of course, there is no such thing as a free web site or blog. Someone is paying for it.
“No one,” according to Dr. Samuel Johnson, “but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” Well, in that case “never have so many (blockheads) written so much (for free) to be read by so few (for free).”
Then again, my blog while "free" is not written for “free”; it is linked to my teaching and selling my current book and a future book or two and my keeping current with trends in my area of expertise.
I am not alone in this. There are better examples than mine, ones of high quality and excellent scholarship; for example, the ones edited by Laura Gibbs, a professor at the University of Oklahoma.
When revenue is required to keep a site going, one option is to put up a pay wall. Doing so may drive away the most loyal readers, but I do believe the pay wall is already a trend and will increasingly reduce access to relevant information, ideas and opinion. Unless you are willing to register and pay, we will see reduction in free access beyond a few “free” items each month.
These restrictions will limit search effectiveness (unless you have a pass through the pay wall.) So, the World’s Information Desk (the Internet as facilitated by Google) will produce fewer relevant results and other venues may become more attractive, including library help desks.

Finally a brief word on the importance of leading from the middle. I cannot remember a time (from 1995 to today) when there has been a more urgent need for staff, especially star followers, to take part in an organization’s decision-making and innovation. Those libraries (and other organizations) that have made gains during these tumultuous time have only done so because of effective followers thinking independently and taking action. Staff generated ideas have been far superior to those ideas coming down from on high with minimal discussion among the people doing the work. A certain kind of follower has been most effective during this time: those with personality, curiosity, heightened adaptiveness, and an unsurpassed technical expertise, all of which has led to excellent collaboration with users/customers.
The leader with the ability to “let go” and to work with staff ideas creates a leadership that gets things done and improves services and productivity. In some ways, that is a third trend. Perhaps it is not as visible, but at some point some will stop and reflect and draw conclusions about why some organizations did well and others only so-so.

© John Lubans 2015

“Information wants to be free” (almost)

Posted by jlubans on February 28, 2018  •  Leave comment (0)

The qualifier – almost - explains why since back in the day (1984, no less!) we have competing systems: vast ranges of free information and numerous fenced in sources of information.
We now know much of the Internet is not free.
Nor is there a middle class in the Internet economy.
There are the Have Nots, all of us under the long, long tail of the Internet and there are the Haves up front.
The Haves are a peculiar sort, because they do not provide content – the words, pictures, videos, selfies, and essays.
The Haves arrange the content and control the content. They manage it and they monetize it.
In other words, never have so many written so much for free to be read by so few so what they write can be monetized by a few, namely Google and Facebook through advertising revenue.
It is as simple as that. There is nothing innovative about this. What is new is that the exploitation has never been so complicit or gigantic.
When will content providers (including those of us who share cute cat videos or travel photos or who write blogs come to terms with this?
To their credit, the Haves created mechanisms for the “sharing” of the content and for linking to the content.
What about the Have Nots?
Yes, we are willing participants.
We seek “likes”, we seek “comments”, we want to share – often we are happy to make our information free.
But do we really want to do that so a very few benefit while we get nothing back beyond a little recognition or fleeting pleasure?
A few days ago the WSJ wrote about proposed legislation that would permit publishers to engage in collective bargaining with those profiting from their content.
Facebook’s news stream, visited by millions we are told, does not pay for the news to which it links.
It does pay for the mechanism of spotting trends (however slanted) via human or machine means, but the linked-to content is free to Facebook or to Drudge or to Google.
Presumably, the content provider does have the opportunity to advertise or to push readers to buy their publications. However, this incidental revenue is tiny when compared to the ad revenue earned by the aggregators.
Understandably, the publishers seeing their profits declining, news rooms depleting and the aggregators profits sky rocketing, want a piece of the action.
The legislation would allow publishers, as a combine, to set prices and to seek compensation from those making profit from their work.
How much? Well, the WSJ has this to say: Facebook... generated $40 billion in annual revenue from its ability to narrowly target advertisers’ messages to receptive audiences." I am not at all sure about how "receptive" any of the audiences are!
Well, then, what about this blog? I do not seek a profit (nor should I since under the present system revenue is almost impossible.) You could say my information really does want to be free, almost has to be free, if anyone is to read it!
If I want to “boost” this blog post (the one you are reading) according to Facebook, I can pay them $53.00 to “reach” 48,000 strangers on Facebook. That’s for one post.
I suspect were my IP address in Moscow (Russia not Idaho) my post would be boosted as well as long as my credit card paid for it. Add several thousand rubles and I can "reach" several hundred thousand strangers.
The “reach” is manifest in those annoying “boosts” of opinion and products, etc that come out of nowhere on your personal Facebook page mixed in with updates from friends and political rants.
Facebook assures me, “Others like you are doing this” so I too should join in boosting. In other words the already congested and polluted pages of Facebook are to become even more cluttered and I am to pay for it.
What’s the sense of that?
As well, I imagine I could do some advertising or "boosting" on Google. As long as I pay for it.
One small step. I will close the archives to my Leadig from the Middle blog (published twice weekly since March of 2010). My doing so will have zero effect but for me to gain control of my work. If others like me do the same, the Haves might need to come to terms with adding value to our work.
So, does "information want to be free"?
Let's return to the failed premise from which that 1984 quote arose: "information almost wants to be free because the costs of getting it out is getting lower and lower all of the time." The costs of "getting it out" may indeed be ever decreasing, but the costs of creating it have never been higher.

© Copyright John Lubans 2018

Of Spiders and Starfish.

Posted by jlubans on January 09, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

The book, “The Starfish and the Spider: the Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations”* offers up numerous examples of how “leaderless” organizations (starfish) are more able to introduce new ideas and to adapt to setbacks than is the hierarchy (the spider). Starfish have the power to regenerate lost limbs; cut off one and another grows in its place. Kill bin Laden, al-Qaeda continues to pop up, unwelcome and unexpected. The message is that stopping a starfish organization is more complicated than only sidelining the leader.
The authors point to the Internet and many of its Web 2.0 services, like Wikipedia, Craig’s List and Napster, as successful applications of the starfish concept. Historically, and perhaps more credibly, the authors spot starfish elements in Alcoholics Anonymous and in the social movements to abolish slavery and to get the vote for American women. And, the book shows that the post-Columbian Spanish invaders were able to conquer the Aztec and Inca empires but failed to dispossess the Apache Indians of their the lands. The former were “spider” organizations while the latter was a starfish, mobile and “leaderless”, i.e. with no one all-powerful leader to kill.

While stressing positive examples, the book includes the use of the starfish model for negative or unethical purposes. For example, the authors appear ambivalent about Napster, a vehicle that facilitated millions of digital files for sharing without regard for copyright or royalty payments. Brofman and Beckstrom, with a certain amount of glee, explain that the old centralized (and unfair) distribution control of the recording and movie industries is impotent to stop file sharing, P2P, groups like Napster.** You can crush one or more of Napster-like businesses but you cannot kill the concept: Information Is Free. Too many people believe their entertainment should be free – regardless of production and distribution costs - and enough have the knowledge to pirate media. (I have a semi-serious proposal to amend the inherent rights in the USA’s Declaration of Independence: “life, liberty, entertainment, and the pursuit of happiness!”)

Jaron Lanier is an outspoken apostate of the Information Is Free movement. In a recent interview he compares pirating media with other unethical aspects of the Internet like bullying and the anonymity that facilitate violent rhetoric against anyone different. Like the televised shouting-heads, the result is incoherent rage. Lanier worries the cyber-bullying can become “social lasers of cruelty” not only against an unpopular kid but also as a murderous weapon in global political movements – so much for the much-vaunted “wisdom of the crowd”.
Mr. Lanier sees a direct connection between stealing media and the resulting unemployment for media producers and workers. It is one of our society’s values that taking someone’s property and using it without recognition or payment is wrong. Yet the practice goes on with a wink and a sly nod; sort of like jeering at prohibition, but under the Volstead Act you had to pay your bootlegger or suffer the consequences. Or, more au courant, if you do drugs, you do not forget to pay your dealer.
Google suggests the mindset that Mr. Lanier rails against. Is there not a supreme arrogance in Google’s digitization of millions of books without permission from copyright owners like me? Or how about appropriating the words and phrases of thousands of translators – again without compensation - and shoving them into Google Translate? Voila, Google’s the go-to place for translation, further reducing revenue for translators.
My point is that spider or starfish, ethics matter. If we believe it is wrong to harm others economically then we cannot be supportive of organizations that violate that basic value. I will be discussing questions about wisdom in crowds and starfish and spider organizations in my class on the Democratic Workplace in February and March in Riga, Latvia. I look forward to the discussion!

*Ori Brafman; Rod A Beckstrom. “The starfish and the spider: the unstoppable power of leaderless organizations.”
New York: Portfolio; London: Turnaround [distributor], 2007.

**The authors, after celebrating Napster’s unconventional ways, introduce an ironic touch in the warning on their copyright page:
“The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s (sic) rights is appreciated!” (Emphasis added.)

Freedom at work: The 40-Hour Week.

Posted by jlubans on December 03, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

20131203-IWW 4daywk.jpeg
Caption: The IWW may not be far off the mark.
A young friend landed a job at a software development company.
When I asked how it was going, he’d always enthuse, “I’m pumped!” He was loving it, putting in long hours fixing bugs and producing bushel baskets of code. He told me the organization was a great place to work, free coffee, free parking, cool co-workers, free gourmet lunch. They even let him bring his dog to work.
This went on for months – I’d ask and he’d gush, “I’m pumped!” He was really liking the job and the boss was always telling him what a great team player he was. A great guy, the boss.
Caption: Saying No to Hans und Fritz.*
One day something changed. My friend was downcast and discouraged. “I’m not pumped!” he told me, even before I opened my mouth.
How come? Well, after weeks of sleeping at his desk or in his car in the free parking lot from working into the early hours – “death march” was his term for the marathon work sessions - he had a bit of a relapse.
He figured he just needed some sleep in his own bed and all would be well. After a good sleep, he took the morning off to pay bills, online of course. While he had some money in the bank, it was not much considering the hours he was putting in.
When he divided his usual 80-hour week by his salary, his hourly rate dropped to below entry level!
He was doing the work of two people and getting paid for one. Unpumped!
He left the job, gave up the on-call barista, the free laundry service, the super cool co-workers, the free shopping service and found a job in IT support for a non-profit. He works a 40-hour week and does good, solid work. While no longer daily “pumped” about the job, his overall quality of life is much improved; he has time for friends and family; and, on nights and weekends, he’s off the grid.

My friend’s story is not unique. There’s been much concern of late in the popular press about people putting in long hours, brown-bagging in the cubicle, not taking vacations, and of being technologically tethered to the workplace 24/7. Some pundits claim the workforce is fearful of being downsized; others claim it’s supply and demand: too few jobs for too many workers (many of whom have already been downsized at least once!) The feudal spirit has returned to The Office.
So, it is a healthy indicator that some companies – especially democratic work places - are slowly returning to the 40-hour week, giving a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. This new “norm” can attract the very good worker who’s tired of owing his “soul to the company store.” Who’s tired of recrimination about leaving the job at 5 instead of 7 or for taking a long week end or – worst of all - for going “off the grid” – for any reason -when away from the office.
There’s a payoff for the company. Research suggests that workers are happier, and that productivity, creativity and innovation soar.
Piling on hours does not improve our work; it can have the opposite effect, a loss in productivity because of fatigue-induced errors.
Early in my career, (my first professional job advertised a 37.5-hour week) I was all for working extra hours, taking work home, writing reports on weekends. Why? To get ahead; to finger the brass ring.
I think that was good discipline for me as I learned about my business, but after a while, the extra hours and effort became burdensome. I cut back some, but not really enough.
I do hope the trend back to the 40-hour week flourishes.

* Source: “Pumping Up With Hans & Franz.”

Leading from the Middle Library of the week: College of Southern Nevada.

Copyright John Lubans 2013

Of Jerks, Bozos, Dorks, Fatheads, Nincompoops, Dunderheads, Twerps, Bamboozlers, Fakers, Hornswogglers, et al.

Posted by jlubans on December 07, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)


Who finishes last, the jerk or the nice guy? Who gets the glory? Or, as the song goes, who gets the “bird of paradise (flying) up his nose”?
We all know “competent” jerks who have gotten ahead by crushing other people and we all know “incompetent” jerks who have stayed in place, their poisonous personalities denying them access to the top.
We all know “lovable stars”* who have done great things and are loved and respected by their work colleagues. And we all know some “lovable fools” who have been skipped over because someone at the top’s decided a dour punctilio is better than a cheerful bungler.
Complicating all of this - lest anyone think that mankind can be pigeonholed - is that fascinating array of people who just don’t fit on any short list of stereotypes. That array would includes the covert jerk who pretends not to be a jerk to higher ups (kiss up) but is petty and nasty to subordinates (kick down).
A breezy 28-page article in The Atlantic magazine, “Why It Pays to Be a Jerk
gives us the latest on jerks, in and out of the office. Jerry Useem, the author, takes an incisive look at anecdotal evidence of success among jerky people like the insufferably temperamental Steve Jobs, the egocentric, pistol-packing General George S. Patton, and the “inaccessible and arrogant” Howell Raines, ex-editor-in-chief of the New York Times. Useem uses the latter’s resignation from the Times as an example of how jerks often fail to build up any reservoir of good will so that when there’s an organizational crisis and a whipping boy must be found, the jerk, however powerful, gets the boot. Of course, in the Times example, it helped that the jerk’s boss (Arthur Sulzberger Jr) supported the group consensus that Raines was the problem not the solution. The downside costs of Sulzberger’s siding with Raines were far greater than the cost of losing Mr. Raines’ services.
Psychological research**, Useem suggests - albeit a bit too uncritically - provides counterintuitive answers as to why it may pay to be a jerk. Studies reveal that sneering behavior by luxury goods store clerks results in higher sales!
Or, another study implies that a rude customer - no greeting, no eye contact, no please or thank you, just outright insolence - will get better service from a retailer
It brings to mind what I call the “fur coat condition”. Does a woman in a fur coat get better service than the same woman in a cloth coat? In days gone by, the story goes, a woman in a fur coat always got more and better attention from retail clerks.
And, then there’s the more recent stealing coffee study involving pairs of people. A person who steals coffee only for himself will be seen as less powerful by the other person – a bit of a selfish jerk, and not someone you want as a leader.
But, a person who steals coffee for himself AND the other person, acquires more power in the eyes of the other person. Supposedly, the research indicates, “People want this man as their leader.”
Useem concludes that both sides, the jerk and non –jerk just might benefit from knowing each other better, melding the best qualities from the jerk sector research with the best behaviors from the nice guy or gal side. Learning and practicing when to be politely assertive and when to be graciously accommodating could make a big difference in one’s career trajectory and how she is perceived by her peers.
Here is Mr. Useem’s short list of melded behaviors for getting ahead, being more a nice guy or gal than an outright jerk:
“Smile at the customer. Take the initiative. Tweak a few rules. .… Don’t puncture the impression that you know what you’re doing. Let the other person fill the silence. Get comfortable with discomfort.... Be tough and humane. Challenge ideas, not the people who hold them.”
So, neither doormat nor dipstick be.
Organizationally, adopt corporate values, like New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team that makes it clear if you are a jerk you won’t play for the All Blacks. A jerk would undercut the Maori concept of whānau or the “extended family” of the team.

*Casciaro, Tiziana and Miguel Sousa Lobo, “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools and the Formation of Social Networks,” HBR June 2005

**The field of psychological research may have a jerk problem à la Diederik Stapel.
In August of this year Nature, the prestigious science magazine, concluded, “Don’t trust everything you read in the psychology literature. In fact, two thirds of it should probably be distrusted.” Emphasis added.

© Copyright John Lubans 2015

Customer Dis-Service

Posted by jlubans on April 11, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)

“If Franz Kafka were alive today he'd be writing about customer service” was a quote I was going to use in a workshop in Berlin.*
Why link Kafka with customer service, with dis-service? Merriam-Webster tells us that Kafka’s fiction “vividly expressed the anxiety, alienation, and powerlessness of the individual”.
In Prague, I recall a subterranean shop near the famous bridge (and the pay toilets) selling Kafka t-shirts juxtapositioned alongside variations of a leering, bent over Homer Simpson pointing at his backside.
“Das gute, das schlechte und das hässliche”
Travel, according to the wise, not only cures boredom it allows one to observe how agencies treat people and how we treat it each other.
From porters to custom agents, to migration officers to information desk staff, to waiters and sales clerks, we run into “Das gute, das schlechte und das hässliche”. We experience exceptional customer service and dis-service.
Indeed this essay took shape while dozing fitfully on a transatlantic flight, somewhere over Iceland, with 200 other thirsty, cramped, hungry and ignored souls shoehorned into Economy and Economy Plus. All of us were metapmorphosizing, à la Kafka, into insects. Not really; we were contorting into weird shapes, wrapped cocoon-like in airline blankets.
Awake, I thought, maybe there are shared concepts behind many examples of dis-service.
Surely, those episodes can’t all be spontaneous? What did they have in common? Is there, then, a shared, if tacit, philosophy among dispensers of dis-satisfaction? More interestingly, how do some firms consistently alienate the customer and yet avoid bankruptcy? Is there a grand conspiracy to make the little guy suffer, and then some?
As we know, when there’s nary a hitch, things should go swimmingly. But, when things go awry, when something breaks or goes off the rails, how is the customer treated? What are the real observable organizational ethics or values (if any)?
So, I came up with this brief mental list of principles which I suggest, only a bit facetiously, are shared by all practitioners of dis-service:
Waste the time of the customer. (It’s free!) Queuing is what customers do and were born to do, whether digital or literal. Take a number!
Or, D-I-Y, wander retail mazes hoping in vain to find someone to help.
Give nothing away. Cling to every dollar. Out-of-warranty is out-of-warranty, regardless if the failure is due to a design mistake or inferior materials. To assuage the unhappy customer, offer to send her a replacement at the full retail price plus shipping and receiving.
Seek the “bitter spot”. That’s not the “sweet spot”, that happy intersection of profitability and excellent customer service. Rather, the bitter spot is the “price point” and intersection at which a disgruntled customer is dissatisfied but not enough to go to a competitor. The underlying rationale being that a “low” price goes hand in hand with minimal or bad service. Good service is something to be bought.
Close doors. Literally wall off decision-makers. Post no phone numbers, hierarchies, or e-mails, making it impossible for an aggrieved customer to reach the CEO or the Head of a governmental service agency.
Block decision-making by those on the front line, those most likely to mitigate dis-service. Pay them a competitive wage but give them zero discretion to make changes, to make things right.
Collude (copycat) with your competition in providing minimal service; if, an industry agrees to an industry "standard" to cram 50 passengers into a space meant for 30 then there’s no difference in service among competitors – misery is equally distributed.
Never make eye contact – avoid embarrassment. Making contact might mean you have to explain (and fix!) a problem in your agency.
Budget for complaints. Pay off the complaints that make it to the CEO, but do not address the fundamental causes of those complaints.

And there you have it. There may be more. Let me know.

*Zentral-und Landesbibliothek Berlin. "To Save the Time of the User: Customer Service in Libraries" 21. März 2011
While eternalized in Google-land, my ill-fated workshop never took place. I was all packed and ready to go but we never lifted off due to a lack of registrants.
That this was in Germany is highly apropos; it’s where I have had some of the most splendid customer service and some of the most miserable.

N.B. My new book, Fables for Leaders, Ezis Press, comes out in June 2017 as an e-book ($15.00) and a soft cover print-on-demand book, ($25.00). The print book will feature original illustrations by the renowned Béatrice Coron.

© Copyright John Lubans 2017

“A Captain Since Kindergarten”, Part 2*

Posted by jlubans on July 16, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Latvia’s Castle of Light A-building, July 2013. Photo by author.

For one sports writer, it is not the super stars but the captains – often not the best players - who create and sustain the greatest teams. Sam Walker, the author of “The Seven Leadership Secrets of Great Team Captains”, elaborates:
“(The teams) all had just one shared characteristic: Their long streaks of dominance either began or ended—and in many cases overlapped precisely—with the tenure of one player. And in every case, this player was … the captain.”
Boiled down, Walker’s captains exhibit these qualities:
Work hard,
Break rules when necessary,
Are pragmatic in speech,
Lead by doing,
Think for themselves,
Are relentless in pursuit of goals, and
Exercise emotional self-control.
How does this relate to Director Andris Vilks of the National Library of Latvia (LBN)?
Of course, the captaincy metaphor is inspired by Andris himself – that’s his quote in the title.
He told me: “I was not the best player, some were smarter, more knowledgeable. I liked to play; so (it was) important to be on field with other players, so I don’t want to be a coach. I want to be on the field and to play”
Being captain, “I took on responsibility for the team.” And that meant normalizing the team through “demonstrating your enthusiasm” to others. It takes an attitude, “I never like losing”, and “I never give up.”
Andris refers to the library as a team (of 400) of which he is the captain, “All (staff and friends) are members of this huge team - formal and informal.“
“A lion”
The building’s 20-year journey from inception to completion – all under Vilks’ guidance – reveals some of the best captain qualities; independent thinking, tenacity in pursuing a mission and a pragmatic approach in convincing others.
Mara Saule of the University of Vermont (USA), who consulted on the construction of the LBN, told me:
“Early on, the concept for a new National Library of Latvia building was little more than a grand idea …. In becoming a reality, it faced a skeptical public and political resistance over many years and through many changes in government. Nonetheless, Andris pushed on as a tireless and persistent warrior …. Thanks to Andris’ steadfast advocacy and relentless focus on the goal, the National Library now rises above the Daugava as a testament to the adage that no mountain is too high.”
At the building’s grand opening in August of 2014 - amidst Latvia’s elite, including the President and invited guests - the building’s architect Gunnar Birkerts termed Andris, a “lauva”, a lion!
Think for Self / Lead by Doing
In 1989, when he was promoted to the directorship of the National Library Andris was aware of the ten or more “informers” – his word - in the library. Informing, including to the secret police, was a common practice during Soviet times, widely feared and expected. **
Informers received intangible and tangible rewards from the ruling/enforcing culture.
So, on his first day as director he told each of the ten to never come to him with gossip or “information”. This action made clear to everyone this practice was over and done with; it was not going to continue under his leadership.
He was able to do this, he believes, because by 1989 he was well respected (protected) in many quarters for his knowledge and work in the profession; and, because this was the period of “glasnost” and “perestroika” a time of frank and open discussion to restructure the Soviet Union.
Indeed, Latvia regained its second independence on August 21, 1991. Still there was risk; hard-core communists inside Latvia and Russia wanted to crush, literally, any national independence-seeking movements. Had the communists prevailed, Andris would have been fast-tracked to Siberia or worse after secret imprisonment, a Torquemada-style "interview", and a forced confession.
Now, many years later, he still avoids the “whisperers” and people trying to share a secret. “If I feel a negative vibration (at work), I talk directly with the people involved - I do not go around collecting opinions from people - If something is wrong I try to intervene directly or delegate to the person in charge of the involved unit.”
Rule Breaking / Team Building
In the transition in the 90s from communism to democracy, many people were forced by economic hard times to leave the library, to look for gainful employment elsewhere.
Andris had to make a choice as to how he was going to re-build: Try to recruit trained staff from other organizations or to “grow our own”. Andris opted for the latter, “to invest in young people, that is my idea.”
Doing so came with a price. “It was prohibited to pay study fees (for staff) – but we did it. (I was penalized) for paying fees for our young staff. Almost everyone (of this group) is still working here ….”
A staff member told me that the LBNs organizational climate is supportive of staff – in other words, Andris’ idea to “grow our own” prevails. There is “not close supervision, mistakes can be made, (and) experimentation is possible”. That open atmosphere has made LBN a magnet for people from other less-open organizations, “If you have a better way at LBN, do it. You can enact….”
“A grizzly”
I asked Andris how the staff regards him. He told me, frankly, “Only an idiot thinks he is ideal.”
“Sometimes I would be happy if I were more patient – my reaction is not always best. I become too angry, not a teddy bear, sometimes a grizzly.”
However, he is “very fast to forgive, but it (his temper) is a weakness; manager should always control behavior. On other hand they know exactly what I think.” His predecessor told him: ‘Everything is seen on your face’.“
However, for him, a poker face is worse than not showing emotion. A neutral face is only important when you “try to solve conflict between two people. Both sides should understand you want to help” resolve the matter (and do not have preconceived opinions).
The most difficult situation for a leader is when his or her assessment is “very different from what your people think of you – then you are in trouble.”
Andris also ventured that he hopes, when asked, the staff would say that one of his qualities is that of “bringing together”.
“No one is hung”
Andris explained how LBN decisions are made. Decision-making is an important part of what he does, “All day I am spending in decision making.”
“A basic rule, always get the other side of discussion.”
“Consensus in important”; normally the most difficult decisions are made by top management. However, he always asks – “Who will it touch?” and those people are consulted about the decision prior to its being made. “Decisions should involve those who must execute the decision.” Failing to involve those people may lead to a poor outcome. Involving people can be the difference between leadership and dictatorship.
“I like horizontal decision-making – so am sure to include several departments (on problem solving groups”.
“If policy is already clear, then lower levels can make decisions”.
“No one is hung” for making a bad decision.
“Punishment is not the main idea”; “I am more concerned with a bad decision being repeated”; only then we might need to take corrective action.
“We analyze the decision; right or wrong. The decision may not be wrong, it may be different.”
“We should realize and analyze wrong decisions carefully; there may be another rationale and I may need to rethink.”
“I need to understand if the decision is conceptually different or if the wrong approach has been taken or the decision maker lacks confidence.
“Sometimes a “wrong” decision reflects a different – perhaps better - concept and we can accept it.”
He tries to convince managers that “humans are not robots, they may not behave always the way you think or do or want.”

Author’s note: I asked Andris to read a final draft of this essay. Prior to posting, I wanted to make sure I had not misinterpreted his answers to my questions. Not hearing from him after a few days, I asked him over lunch if he'd read the draft and did I need to make any changes? His response, with a touch of embarrassment: “Too many superlatives.”
I would add that Self-effacement is yet another’s best captain’s trait.
While multi-lingual, Andris is most comfortable speaking in Latvian; so my abbreviated English quotes (from my written notes) are but an attempt to epitomize his way of leading.
My personal takeaway is that Andris cares deeply about the individual. If someone strays from the organization’s path, I think Andris would tackle the perceived problem early on, face to face, and not delay or avoid. As he told me, the “best way (is) to just talk with someone.”
He would candidly explain to the person what he was observing and then listen to the individual’s response. I can well imagine a discussion - not a condemnation - leading to a mutually respectful and considerate resolution.

Next, Part 3: After attaining the pinnacle of the new library building, is the job done?

* My essay on Andris Vilks is in three phases: Formation, Application, and Future.
Part 1 was about the shaping of his leadership and focused on influences from childhood to the beginning of his career.
Today’s essay, part 2, is about how those early influences shape his actions and leadership.
**Background: Latvia was made into a Soviet satellite under a secret Nazi and Communist agreement prior to WWII. Inexplicably, the Yalta conference, with America’s ailing President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, England’s Winston Churchill and Russia’s Joseph Stalin, upheld this secret pact and continued the enslavement of several million people in the Baltic countries, not to mention other nations subordinated to the communist way.

N.B. My next book, Fables for Leaders, Ezis Press, comes out in September 2017 as an e-book ($2.99) and a soft cover print-on-demand book, ($23.99). The print book will feature original illustrations by the renowned Béatrice Coron.
ISBN: 978-0-692-90955-3
LCCN: 2017908783
Cover: "Fables for Leaders" PRE-PRINT, 203pp. 2017.

© Copyright John Lubans 2017

“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

The unmanageable

Posted by jlubans on September 28, 2011  •  Leave comment (0)

The Unruly Calf (1875?) oil painting by Homer Winslow (1836 – 1910).

Beatrice Coron, after reading my “Teaching self management
asked me What about those who can’t or won’t be managed – the unmanageable?
Since Beatrice is an artist, I expect questions like that from her; she takes ideas and turns them inside out, literally and figuratively, and in the process reveals that which is largely invisible to the rest of us.
Well, her question induced an imaginary passing parade of some of the people I have supervised – not always all that successfully. As I thought about it, I broke the “unmanageables” parade into two lines: Assets and Liabilities. First, I’ll review two assets named “B” & “S”. And then “O” from the liabilities marching past.
“B” could be maddening and yet his ideas saved us countless dollars and oodles of time. I once led a team building retreat for his department. I gave them an exercise – draw the ideal team and put yourself in the drawing. Each did and talked about what they drew. B drew a circle – often the most common representation of a team. Most who draw a circle team put themselves along the perimeter with other team members. Not B. He was in the middle, the sun around which the other team members revolved.
When I asked him to redraw his team, it became a triangle and he was at the top of the triangle. I gave up after the third attempt, a bubble drawing, with each member of the group floating around in a bubble. Guess who had the biggest bubble?
Still, B had an unerring knack for taking procedures, untangling and streamlining or eliminating. He created macros (now called apps, I think) and used them for shortcuts. He asked unsettling questions like “Why do we do this?” “What would happen if we did this?” Most disquieting to the “Manageables” was his asking “What would happen if we stopped doing this?”
I encouraged him to find answers and then to go ahead. We made some large gains. I was happy to support B, and I was able to do so because of my boss and because of the innovative and questioning environment in that organization. Unfortunately (for us), with a leadership change B knew he had to leave or else suffer being corralled and led by the nose. He found a private sector employer, a highly innovative enterprise that appreciated his unconventional ways.

“S” was a different unmanageable asset. To be fair, he was highly manageable as an individual worker – I supervised him when he ran a branch and then when he became part of another unit, I stayed in touch as a friend. When I was his direct supervisor, he was open to my ideas and he did a very good job; there was no resentment or question about the boss/worker relationship. But, S shied from any group work, especially when he was transferred to a larger unit in which he was one of several workers. We were trying to make this group into more of team and S would have none of it. He simply wanted to be left alone to do his work. The work he did put him among the most productive in the organization.
S gave more to the organization than most. I realized it was best to let S do his job and not force him into teamwork. I realized from S that when a highly productive person does not want to be part of a team, then don’t force it.

Now for the Unmanageables as Liabilities.
“O” was a self-declared polymath. Unlike B & S, he appeared to be confused as to his contributing role in the organization that was paying him. Was he there to help the organization or was the organization a mechanism to help him? The latter; O did not appear to think he owed anything much to his employer. It was as if O’s personal reasons and interests were superior to organizational needs. (Keep in mind that the example is drawn from a campus, not a corporation.) O was most successful in creating arcane research projects that took him away – at full pay – and often for months at a time. Because he had tenure and sources of private funding he was masterful at manipulating things to his personal advantage. He was resented by many staff, rightly so, but a few of those that resented him, were not really upset about his maneuvering of resources – they’d do the same if they had the opportunity – but O had so bruised their feelings theirs was a festering resentment.

For a spell, I supervised O. Could I have done it better? No doubt. I could have had a heart to heart with O and maybe we would have gotten some concessions, but I do not want to kid myself. O was egotistical to an extreme. I recall trying to place him in another unit – one for which he was eminently suited, as they say. I had my fingers crossed that the first meeting between O and the supervisor would go well. That meeting lasted less than 30 minutes before bursting into a shouting match. The two personalities were like a burning match next to a gas soaked rag. So, when the boss said how it was going to be, O’s response resulted in what became a mutually embarrassing failed “conversation”. Did O get what he was after? Well, he was pretty much left alone and spent his last years doing project work – largely by himself. A very disappointing waste of resources.

My point is there is the unmanageable, like O, who need to be closely supervised – even hounded – until they come around or leave or by organizational consent are “left” alone. But, then there are those unmanageable “creators” – artists, if you will - whom you need to encourage in their anarchous ways. You will have to defend them, and, if lacking support from the top, you’ll be tagged a bad supervisor, someone reluctant to rein in a cowboy riding roughshod over the corporate rules. Regardless of the excellent work the unmanageable does, you will be at risk. If the boss does not trust you or lends his ear to gossip or is tradition-bound, you have few options.

There is a book: Managing the Unmanageable. (See book cover below.)
The book seems more about problem employees than what I describe in this post. Still I am sure it offers many good ideas on dealing with the UE = “Unmanageable Employee”
The authors state: , “there’s a world of difference between someone who’s acting unmanageable, and someone who can’t [won’t] act any other way. There’s a world of difference between someone who’s become unmanageable in response to a particular set of circumstances (that can, at least theoretically, be changed) and someone who’s just like that.”
The authors do offer a formula to follow when confronted with the UE: “The 5-C Model: Commit or Quit – (make the decision to change the employee or to get rid of the employee or leave him or her alone), Communicate, Clarify Goals and Roles, Coach, and Create Accountability.”
No doubt, each of us could find something of value in this book when we are faced with our next “Unmanageable!”

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Democratic Budgets

Posted by jlubans on August 01, 2012  •  Leave comment (1)

Something akin to what goes on in New England town meetings is brewing in different parts of the country. That something is participatory budgeting. NPR did a ("Chicago Ward Gives Budgetary Power To The People") in late May 2012. I’ve since discovered there is a national organization
with active projects in Chicago, New York City and here in North Carolina in the city of Greensboro an hour away from where I live.
The National Public Radio story, by John Bliewen, talks about how one politician in Chicago decided to democratize the spending of the annual allocation of 1.3 million dollars for capital improvements in his ward. Instead of following the usual custom of the ward boss’ calling the shots, he called a group together and told them: "I am ceding my power to decide how this money is spent and giving it to you." (No, not the money, the power to decide!) People came up with proposals, lobbied for their ideas, and then the ward’s voters (1400 took part) decided which of the 21 projects would be funded. Sort of like a New England town meeting.
And, this week, the city of Vallejo, CA (pop 120,000) began the process to decide what projects will be funded from a budget of $3.4 million. However, unless I am misreading newspaper reports,
Vallejo is hedging its bets on democratization. The expenditure proposals getting the most popular votes will be submitted to the city council for approval! Unlike the New England town meetings, Vallejo’s citizen vote will not be a binding one. The Council will make the final decision, if any. This condition suggests some of the resistance to participatory budgeting.

Participatory budgeting reminds me of when I decentralized the budget of an organization in which I worked. It was a large non-profit and one of the things we always suffered from was antiquated equipment. We had never established an amortization fund nor for, that matter, did we have an annual separate fund for capital equipment. And, like most not for profits, a new budget was 99% committed on the first day of each fiscal year, leaving all too few discretionary dollars.
While we had some dedicated computer terminals, about 8, their use was rationed among two-dozen or more staff. Another 60 staff had minimal computer access. This was not efficient and we were increasing backlogs instead of eliminating them. We all knew that if we had modern equipment our productivity would go up, our turnaround times would improve and we would be serving our customers immeasurably better. But, unless somebody gave us the money we were out of luck. While the central administration supported us in many ways, it did not have the money needed to get computers for every person.
One of my monthly jobs, as an upper administrator, was to review the budget. One category caught my eye: salary savings. This line represented dollars “saved” whenever a position was left open for a few weeks during recruitment and hiring. In our case we got to keep and re-use these leftover dollars. It crossed my mind that if we kept some positions vacant for a few months, we could accumulate a lot of money, enough to pay for the desperately needed computers. I went, with my boss’ approval, to the department heads in my division and pitched this idea to them: If we hold vacancies open x amount of time – with your approval - the salary savings will be yours to use for equipment and other things essential to your work. They agreed. Each month every department head got the salary savings report and distributed it to the staff. Soon, we all could see the dollars accumulating. In a few months, we began purchasing computers. And, we built up an amortization fund for future use.
As I think about it, we decentralized AND democratized budgeting. Naturally this was looked at askance by some, just like those reluctant in Vallejo to share power. I found that if we gave department heads the freedom to decide how long to keep a position open, to balance the workloads, and to consider the sacrifice involved (vs. potential benefits), they would do so in responsible and careful ways. As the new equipment came on line our productivity soared. Savings continued to accrue as the computers helped us streamline. My boss made it clear to everyone that as we automated processes and freed up staff no one would lose their job. Redundant positions were transferred into vacancies or into new positions in other parts of the organization.
Giving taxpayers decision-making authority in spending tax dollars seems like a fine idea. I hope that the participatory budgeting efforts planned and underway will be a genuine test of the pros and cons.

“Those are the rules.”

Posted by jlubans on February 06, 2013  •  Leave comment (2)

A funny thing happened on the way to the Faculty where I am to teach while in Riga. My wife and I got on the number # 3 trolley bus at the stop just outside the door to our apartment. It was our first bus ride since landing in Riga a few days ago. I had four bus cards with rides still remaining from our last visit. I used one and it came up “invalid” in Latvian. I used another and it too came up empty. About then two "Rīgas satiksmes" (Riga traffic) agents sidled up and said, sotto voce, it was verboten to use old bus cards. We were escorted off at the next stop and fined! One guard spoke English and so we tried to appeal to him that we were not “fare-dodgers”. He made a wry face and shrugged his shoulders in mild sympathy, “Those are the rules.”
We took the next bus – the “kvīts” or receipt for the fine permits one to travel for 30 minutes on the bus – and made our way to the Faculty building.
The incident brought to mind multiple examples of how bureaucracies can become bureaucratic – insensitive to the client, indeed, unable to assist the client. This often happens when orders from above result in rigid application of one policy to all situations regardless of circumstances. Why don’t the bus police have some discretion in doing their main job to stop the regular cheaters? What would happen if they had some latitude of interpretation?

A similar thing happened awhile back on a train from Bologna to Milan. The conductor looked at my fully paid ticket and said I had failed to validate it – whatever that meant - in the Bologna train station. Of course the sign that says you must do so is in Italian. I had to pay a hefty fine. Again, it was a simple oversight, an understandable mistake made by a first time foreign visitor.
In this instance, I did feel that the Italian conductor was overly zealous and derived not a little bit of pleasure from the power he had over me, an American. In Riga, I felt like at least one of the bus police was embarrassed by the episode and would have let us totter off with no more than a warning. But, I suspect, the bus police had no discretion to do otherwise and his partner seemed a hard case, like the officious Italian. “They must pay!” she hissed to her partner. We had attempted to defraud the state, had we not!?

Back in the USA my wife had a couple recent encounters with the Rule of Law in the public library. One was when she forgot her library card but wanted to borrow a book. The clerk knew her, knew her to be a regular patron – she borrows one hundred or more books a year, is religious about returning books on time, always responds to call-in notices, (for crying out loud she's a LIBRARIAN), etc – but, regardless, the clerk said “no ticket, no laundry” or something to that effect. Making a bad situation worse, the clerk deliberately took the book and put it behind the desk as if my wife might pull a grab and run. Imagine that – hordes of readers looting the library’s collection! Would that be a sign of success or failure? So, what is the purpose of the library and what was the purpose of the clerk in preventing my wife’s taking out a book? What was behind this behavior? I’ll bet it was more than a bad hair day. “Those are the rules,” after all.

Merton’s essay* on “bureaucratic structure and personality” is an assigned reading in my management class. Merton explains why and how bureaucrats – office workers in public enterprises - can become mean, stingy and heartless and lose any semblance of trying to help people; in essence, conspire to frustrate clients
Merton cites an absurd interpretation of the USA naturalization rules as applied to a Norwegian residing in the USA. Back then a foreigner, who wanted to become a citizen, had to reside in the USA continuously for five years. The man was Bernt Balchen, Admiral Byrd's pilot in the flight over the South Pole. When he put in for this citizenship, it was denied because he had left the USA and gone to the South Pole. It did not matter to the naturalization official that Mr. Balchnen had served heroically on an American boat and the expedition base was named Little America and flew the American flag. “Those are the rules.” What, you may wonder, was accomplished by this literal interpretation of the so-called rules?
You, the reader, may be thinking this bit of Kafka cannot happen in your shop, no way. I hope so. It is a central tenet of the leading from the middle concept that when staff is free to make decisions that set things right, doing so avoids the many unintended consequences - the pitfalls, traps and snares - of administrative policy. When intelligent and well-educated workers are expected to do what is right, that’s what they do and feel good in doing so. If they err, so be it, as long as that error “leans toward the customer”. If, on the other hand, you (the immediate supervisor, the upper administration, the boss) tie the staff’s hands or ham string them with production quotas, they will do only what the letter of the law - as written or stated by the boss - demands. A staff’s unquestioningly carrying out orders makes an organization look inhumane and unintelligent. It is unimaginable to think that this pathological behavior will not incrementally embitter and harden even the best worker, unless, of course, she finds a better job. Nor will that worker ever be on the lookout for ways to improve the organization.

*Merton, Robert K. “Bureaucratic structure and personality,” in Shafritz and Hyde, editors, Classics of Public Administration, pp.53-62. Merton’s first wrote on this topic in 1940 with an article in the magazine, Social Forces, v. 18.

Sleepless Nights and Prozac Prescriptions

Posted by jlubans on March 20, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

A frequent request I get, like I did after my talk at the Estonian National Library, is to provide library examples of democratic workplaces*. That’s an interesting question to answer since there are no all-out democratic libraries, quite to the contrary. Other realms** offer up examples, like New York’s highly successful Orpheus Chamber Orchestra or, in Brazil, the highly successful and productive Semco Group as described in one of my class readings: “Thought Leaders: Ricardo Semler Won’t Take Control.”
There have been some democratic efforts in academic libraries – I had a leadership role in one – but these are parochial and circumscribed. One research library claims to be team-based and that does appear to be true, but when I inquired about their rationale the official response was similar to other tentative efforts: to make staff feel more involved in the organization, and, from that engagement, to derive greater job satisfaction. That’s commendable but I would have preferred a public statement that the teams will improve on what the library does, will develop new services and will, quantifiably, increase productivity.
I have always held that a re-organization needs a substantial rationale. Shifting people around into a new, feel-good assemblage is not enough. Some good may come from re-organization, but the dozens I have witnessed - including a huge one underway right now - show more imbroglio than improvement.
I have not much history with the Semco Group but from what I read and observe, many executives the world over admire Ricardo Semler, the owner-founder. Few, if any, want to duplicate his democratic workplace. Semler says - facetiously, I think - that there are two reasons for this: That 80% of business people will not give up control. And that the other 20% do not trust mankind, on its own, to do good. Does this absolute ratio, however tongue-in-cheek, apply to libraries? Probably.
I certainly recall a multitude of queasy feelings when I surrendered control over a bevy of departments. Because compensation and status is based on one’s place on the hierarchical ladder, a flat and ladder-less terrain may induce sleepless nights and Prozac prescriptions. Worse, some leaders egotistically do not believe staff capable of self-management (people need supervision!) and/or that none can replace their most excellent leadership. They are certain that the democratic way of work is utopian and naive in the real world of the hierarchy!
Yes, I did find - at some personal cost - that democracy in the library workplace is not for everyone. Indeed some of the library work groups I supervised were unhappy with empowerment and were very passive about sharing power. They abhorred the notion of limiting a boss’ power and freeing up people to do their best, to be all they could be.
Because of this intransigence (plus libraries are almost never stand-alone institutions which further restricts their autonomy) my book
and blog are meant to stimulate and challenge individuals, not to vex hierarchical dinosaurs. So, I encourage the individual - leader and follower - to think about democratic concepts and to apply democratic ways of working to his or her local situation. If you are a department head that believes people work best when trusted, respected and free to make decisions about how to do a job, then be democratic in leading. Or, if you are a hard working follower, then support and practice democratic concepts in working with others.
Even if your workplace is the most constipated and untrusting hierarchy, you can be democratic in what you do and think. If you are required to take part in the ritual of formal performance evaluation, you can coach and advise people separately from the paperwork.
I think the democratic work place appeals especially to the younger, newer professional. Our new librarians – the best ones in my classes in the US and in Riga - are demanding a say, they want something more. We should be paying attention.
There is a glimmer of hope on the library horizon.
A colleague at a conservative research library tells me administrative attitudes about command and control are shifting. Her term for what she is seeing is the “post-departmental” library. Her meaning: the hierarchy is frequently by-passed and that a more matrix-like organization is emerging. While departments remain, library-wide task forces - composed of staff and supervisors - are used to set policies and to avoid departmental turf battles. While this library has a long way to go on the democratic continuum, it may well exemplify what is occurring in other large libraries.
From what I know of my friend’s library, I can well imagine that the executives pine for the good old days of command and control, but they have had to make concessions. If they resist during these difficult economic times, they might discover that their power only exists as long as those whom they supervise want them to have it. I am optimistic that many reluctant administrators, like the room full of managers I spoke to in Estonia, actually may come to like a democratic organization.

*As defined here:
Many leaders.
De-centralized power.
Open “books” (finances and personnel).
Planning involves everyone.
Team-based, flat organization.
Many effective (independent and critical thinking and action-taking) followers.
Managers do “real work”.
No formal performance appraisal.
Workers help define individual perks, from parking to pay.
A proactive organization.

**For more examples of democratic organizations, there is the WorldBlu (Freedom at Work) web site for its list of “Most Democratic Workplaces.” There are no libraries or academic institutions on that list, but it is well worth looking at since those on the list are carrying out and helping define what it means to be democratic.

Breaking down the Wall.

Posted by jlubans on October 21, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Berlin, 1989. The physical Berlin wall comes down

As I read one of the assigned solo essays in my Democratic Workplace class at the University of Latvia, I was reminded of a recent article in the Boston Globe.
The student paper (by Santa Lozda) was an anonymous interview of a Latvian who worked under both communism (pre-1991) and capitalism (post-1991). The person interviewed was asked to contrast the two systems.
The Boston Globe article is about the “massive laboratory for studying human society” created by the building of the Berlin wall in 1961.
The Globe’s report summarizes several sociological studies and in doing so suggests that while the wall’s collapse in late 1989 was a defining event in the 20th century, the people who endured communism and its ways, still are recovering from the documented abuses of the police state. Democratic ways have to be learned and society has to be open to learning. There are psychological walls to be taken down.

Attitudes in what was East Germany have improved toward democracy, but one research team “estimated that it would take between one and two generations—20 to 40 years— for the gap to fully close, and ‘for an average East German to have the same views on state intervention as an average West German.’” Twenty to 40 years!
And, ‘(w)hen … researchers compared survey data collected not long after reunification to data collected in 2002, it was clear that living in a democracy for a decade had not made East Germans significantly more trusting of others.”
Let’s be clear about one thing: No one wants to go back to the euphemistically termed “Soviet times” (in reality those were communist times.) But, democratic reforms and attitudes are slow to come by and many may suffer or be left behind as new institutions develop.
To quote from the student interview:
“I would say, that today people are more scared, because there is no stability in a workplace, prices are growing, and after a year you have to earn more, because of inflation. Employers today can’t provide stable workplace.” (Under communism one’s low-paying job was guaranteed.)
“Personally, I think there is no difference (in the workplace between capitalism and communism.) Because in communism and capitalism (both) you had to work hard, the only one thing has changed – you have an opportunity to grow and choose most preferable workplace. Nowadays there is no one behind your back to control you, you are your own future builder.”
If I or anyone else naively believes that one can switch communism off and turn democracy on, the Berlin studies are large-scale proof that change of this nature will take a long time.
I admire the interview subject for his surviving in both systems; not everyone has achieved that. A few years back when five students did a similar interview, 3 of the 5 people interviewed felt abandoned by the state, by the nation of Latvia.
I was intrigued by this person’s considered views on leadership:
“True leadership is a consensus, not compromise, but total agreement and satisfaction. Leadership doesn’t automatically happen when you reach a certain pay grade. You can be a leader …, all without having a title. Leadership should be built on trust, respect and responsibility for each other. …. An employer should understand, that employees are helping him/her to achieve goals, to earn capital. All together they are a team. They should be equal.”

Ms Lodza’s conclusions? “We live in democratic society where employees, workers are not protected - that’s the main problem. There is one main positive thing - we have realistic opinion and view. We recognize the problem and that’s the first step of solution.”
At the same time, she cautions, quoting Voltaire: “ the best is the enemy of the good.” Perhaps we need to accept progress made, and keep pushing for more. The ideal, the best, may never be realized – how many years have Americans been building democracy, our “shining city on the hill”? - but that’s no reason to eschew the “good” of progress made.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: Hebrew University of Jerusalem Library

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Under “the Long Tail”: A Reflection on E-writing.

Posted by jlubans on December 30, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: The “long tail” illustrated.

The long tail theory seeks to upend Pareto’s simple 80/20 rule: Twenty percent of the literature – on any topic – satisfies 80% of the need. So, four out of five library books sit like wallflowers waiting to be asked to dance. I have experienced the 80/20 in libraries. Indeed 20% of the collection is used frequently and 80% is used less frequently or never. Internecine strife may still erupt when advocates for Use come into conflict with advocates for Conservation; the just-in-time gang vs. the just-in-case mob.
Very likely, in our age of e-resources, the use of the legacy print collections (books) has slipped from 20% to possibly below 10%. One study conducted by a reputable agency discovered use of print collections at 6% of holdings.

The long tail advocates hold otherwise: To paraphrase the theory, in the digital world, when large number of users are given access to large numbers of items (books, DVDs, shoes, garden hoses, underwear, etc) to choose among, a wide variety of items will be chosen. In other words, the user's choices will encompass the obscure and esoteric, like a merciful rain that falleth gently on all below. The serendipity of finding what you did not know you were looking will rule!

Google is great except when it’s not.
Well, ubiquitous choice may apply to refrigerators and rubber boots, or any commerce in which one can pay to “improve” search results - but it surely does not apply to the blogosphere. We are told there are now over 152 million blogs. And that, “Goosh!” 172,800 blogs are added daily!
Their age, frequency of use and other demographics are largely undetermined. How many of these millions are under the very long tail of our dinosaur friend? I would modestly suggest that well over 99.9% of all blogs are indeed under the long tail – a very long tail. And this blog is clearly one of those.
As someone said, “never have so many written so much to be read by so few.” Unless you are in the top .01% of the blog universe, your message is just one of millions in millions of corked bottles, bobbing in a boundless sea. Yes, Google will pick you up from time to time but it is not a given and highly unlikely you will achieve the blogger’s apotheosis, going “viral”.

Well then, why blog?
I do so for two reasons: discipline and for potential print publication. Twice a week blogging requires discipline. I rarely miss my self-imposed deadline. And, blogging – putting stuff out there for even a few to see - is a way of distilling my thoughts about the underlying concepts of this blog: freedom at work, the democratic workplace, teamwork, collaboration and cooperation, and, the unboss, among a few others.
And, I do see producing a book or two based on these now several hundred entries. So, for me, these writings are so many drafts eventually to be gathered and edited into a paper format.

Books are better.
Yes, that sounds contrarian given some of the above – did you expect anything else? - but if one is to reach a larger audience than those few regular blog readers, books are still vastly superior. For one thing when vetted prior to publication and then reviewed by discerning readers (for better or worse) a book gathers an audience of interested people. Word gets out.
One’s ideas in ink on paper just look better than pixels on a screen. Hardly viral, an audience of 500 individuals and libraries willing to pay for the book is certainly superior to remaining under the long tail.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Friday Fable. Aesop’s The Lion and the Shepherd.*

Posted by jlubans on February 20, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: A Roman relief. One kind shepherd, one happy lion.

“A LION, roaming through a forest, trod upon a thorn. Soon afterward he came up to a Shepherd and fawned upon him, wagging his tail as if to say, ‘I am a suppliant, and seek your aid.’ The Shepherd boldly examined the beast, discovered the thorn, and placing his paw upon his lap, pulled it out; thus relieved of his pain, the Lion returned into the forest. Some time after, the Shepherd, being imprisoned on a false accusation, was condemned "to be cast to the Lions" as the punishment for his imputed crime. But when the Lion was released from his cage, he recognized the Shepherd as the man who healed him, and instead of attacking him, approached and placed his foot upon his lap. The King, as soon as he heard the tale, ordered the Lion to be set free again in the forest, and the Shepherd to be pardoned and restored to his friends.”

One moralist has it: “When a man acts righteously, he can never be defeated by the punishments inflicted on him by his enemies.”

Maybe. I’d say this story of the good shepherd shows how kindness can pay unexpected dividends. The shepherd, selflessly, helps the lion, but he is not motivated by personal gain. He simply helps - one being helping another. While the lion does pay back, acts of kindness are not Newton’s Third Law about reciprocating actions. A reciprocated kindness is nice, but it cannot be anticipated. Our helping a parent with a pram down a subway staircase likely has no reciprocal action beyond a heartfelt thank you. Helping a man on crutches in a drenching rain cross a busy intersection is kindness; the young woman I saw doing this did so because she felt something, she knew intuitively what to do – it is our innate Golden Rule, if we let it be.

Note: This story is also known as “Androcles and the Lion” and was made into a film starring the beefy Victor Mature based on the G.B. Shaw play of that name.

*Source: AESOP’S FABLES By Aesop Translated by George Fyler Townsend (probably from this edition): “Three hundred and fifty Aesop’s fables”. Chicago, Belford, Clarke & Co., 1886.
Available at the Gutenberg Project.

If I can’t be there, my book can be, virtually. Friday’s Leading from the Middle Library: Bermuda College Library. (To find the book click on the Catalogue.)

Copyright John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE EAGLE AND THE FOX”*

Posted by jlubans on April 09, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: “Don’t get mad, get even”. Woodcut by Heinrich Steinhöwel, active 1429-1480.

“An Eagle and a Fox became great friends and determined to live near one another: they thought that the more they saw of each other the better friends they would be. So the Eagle built a nest at the top of a high tree, while the Fox settled in a thicket at the foot of it and produced a litter of cubs. One day the Fox went out foraging for food, and the Eagle, who also wanted food for her young, flew down into the thicket, caught up the Fox's cubs, and carried them up into the tree for a meal for herself and her family. When the Fox came back, and found out what had happened, she was not so much sorry for the loss of her cubs as furious because she couldn't get at the Eagle and pay her out for her treachery. So she sat down not far off and cursed her. But it wasn't long before she had her revenge. Some villagers happened to be sacrificing a goat on a neighbouring altar, and the Eagle flew down and carried off a piece of burning flesh to her nest. There was a strong wind blowing, and the nest caught fire, with the result that her fledglings fell half-roasted to the ground. Then the Fox ran to the spot and devoured them in full sight of the Eagle.”

“False faith may escape human punishment, but cannot escape the divine.”

So, listen well gossipmongers, slanderers, calumners, tittle-tattlers, libelers, denigrators, defamers, schemers, trash-talkers and other evildoers. There comes a time for payment, the scales must balance out. Count not on getting off scot-free. It may take time, but a squaring of accounts will happen when you least expect it.
The fox, in the illustration, however is not one to wait for divine intervention - immediate retribution is more like it! Perhaps if perpetrators were punished right away, there might be more thought given to doing what’s right rather than wrong.

*Source: AESOP'S FABLES A NEW TRANSLATION BY V. S. VERNON JONES WITH AN INTRODUCTION By G. K. CHESTERTON AND ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARTHUR RACKHAM (Publisher: London: W. Heinemann; New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1912). Available at Gutenberg.

© 2015 John Lubans

A “whopping effect”: How “Knowing” Improves Teamwork.

Posted by jlubans on April 20, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)


The notion of “common knowledge” is featured in the March issue of the “Harvard Gazette”. The article confirms how levels of common knowledge can affect working relationships and productivity. I was drawn to this report because I teach about teamwork (cooperation among humans), conflict and collaboration.
The study (co-authored by graduate student Kyle Thomas and Prof. Steven Pinker) tests “four levels of knowledge for how participants could earn more by working together:
In the private knowledge condition, a participant (either a “butcher” or a “baker”) was told he or she could earn 10 cents more for working with the partner but was not given information about what the partner knew.” The second and third knowledge conditions improved on the participants’ shared knowledge. In the fourth level, the common knowledge condition, the improved payoff was presented as public information - indeed broadcast over loud speakers - readily comprehended by every participant.
“Each was offered a choice: Try to work together for mutual benefit … or work on their own for a lesser, but certain profit.”
So what happened? “’What we found was that, for private knowledge, even if we varied the payouts, or the number of people involved, only about 15 percent of people cooperated,’ Thomas said. ‘With shared knowledge, we saw about 50 percent, and with common knowledge, it was 85 percent. It was just a whopping effect.’”
So, what does this study of would-be butchers and bakers have to do with the workplace? What’s the take away?
Well, some of the theory I stress in class involves best practices in setting up a team to work on a problem. Also, I talk about conflict resolution and how the several ways of managing conflict are bounded by knowledge conditions. For example, collaborating as a way to resolve conflict requires high assertiveness and cooperativeness, both sides sharing knowledge and understanding – nothing relevant is hidden. Conflict avoidance – a very popular strategy in cultures the world over - features low assertiveness and low cooperation. (And, little shared knowledge; after all, you are avoiding each other!)
Tuckman’s stages of group development (form, storm, norm, perform and adjourn) are bounded by high or low trust and knowledge, shared or not. The higher the trust and greater the shared knowledge (nothing held back) the greater - Tuckman would have it - the opportunity for a group to be highly effective at doing its job. Similarly, low trust and low knowledge will result in a pseudo-team, not an effective team.
Of course, unlike antiseptic laboratory conditions, the workplace may not be the safest place in which to reveal one’s motives, to bare one’s soul, so to speak. We are conditioned somewhat at work, home and in school to hold back, to repress, inhibit our natural inclination to work with and help each other. I may skirt someone sleeping in a doorway but I will help – without being asked - a young parent haul her child and stroller down a flight of subway stairs. I might ignore a panhandler openly soliciting for “beer money”, but I will give money to a stranger who tells me at a highway rest stop that he is on “empty”. In the workplace, I will compete with work colleagues, seeking a personal win in order to gain status and compensation. My preference may be for cooperation but the organization makes it near impossible, maybe even dangerous to “broadcast over loud speakers” one’s common knowledge. Instead, our best inclinations – indeed our natural human impulses - are blunted and uncooperative behavior is rewarded. If the organization really does not support openness and trust, then the “whopping effect” in the laboratory cannot survive in the scrum of the workplace. This research does confirm for me that an open and trusting workplace, free and democratic, is central to group achievement and productivity.
Alas, we seem inured to the way it is and continue the hierarchic traditions rather than try out other structures, even a compromise like a hybrid organization.

© John Lubans 2015

Mirthless Moguls

Posted by jlubans on August 24, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Henry, the Mogul, Ford’s Assembly Line. Interchangeable Parts.

The online retailer, Amazon, has come to starkly epitomize the “all work and no play” ethos said to be widely prevalent in the pumped-up Silicone Valley. Ninety-hour workweeks do not make for a Happy Valley. In other words, high tech companies, for all their good pay and perks like free gourmet lunches, personal baristas, free commuter busses, free laundry service – interestingly, none of these, apart from the good pay, are to be found at Amazon - are little more than 21st century “sweatshops”. At least that is what many come away with when reading the NY Times report of numerous interviews with former and current Amazonians. While some readers called it the worst kind of work environment (“I’ll never shop at Amazon”) more than a few saw the Amazon way as the best kind of leadership. “We need more of it.”
Jeff Bezos, the founder – likely embarrassed by these harsh conclusions – issued an e-memo to all 180,000 employees, rejecting the Times depiction of Amazon “I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay,” …. “I know I would leave such a company. But hopefully, you don’t recognize the company described.” Bezos’ e-mailing rather than having face-to-face closed-door meetings with staff suggests a big piece of what’s wrong at Amazon. Obviously, Mr. Bezos sees it differently.
I have long admired Mr. Bezos; I still do. He did on-line for the antiquated and arthritic book industry, in the late 90s, what no one had been able to do before. He solved the distribution bottleneck. With Amazon, books finally became easy to find and to get. If the library did not have it, you no longer had to write to the publisher or trudge to the bookstore – with its very limited stock – to order the book and then wait two weeks or longer to get it. By investing an estimated 100 million dollars in the front-end software, Bezos made finding and buying books as easy as pushing a button. And, he gave you a discount besides.
But like most moguls, Bezos does appear to lack a sense of humor. If you look at his refreshing and challenging “Our Leadership Principles” – written by Mr. Bezos and delivered unto the work force – the words enjoyment, fun, pleasure, satisfaction, and joy are absent. Not much to smile about.
What does appear is the allusion, nay assertion, that hard work and ever striving to be the best at any cost is the end all. Under the heading, “Insist on the Highest Standards” he declares, “Leaders (presumably all Amazon staff are leaders) have relentlessly high standards - many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and driving their teams ….”
If one is looking for an excuse to be a whip-cracking, ass-kicking boss, that “driving their teams” pretty much opens the door. It’s likely not what Bezos meant – he certainly denies it - but that’s how it plays out according to scores of current and former Amazonians.
Now, when I interviewed CEO Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines, and SWAs President Colleen Barrett for my book “”, I glimpsed a culture very opposite to Amazon. Yet, there’s no fear of hard work at SWA. Rather, they practice the “work hard and play hard” ethos. No, I am not talking about the risible “party hearty” and do only enough to stay enrolled as practiced on many, even elite, college campuses. At SWA you have permission, you are expected to enjoy what you do, that you should derive satisfaction from it, and that you should celebrate good work.
But, all the while doing so you are to “Maintain perspective (balance).” There is more to life than working at SWA.
Herb told me that the daughter of one of his senior staff got a job at SWA. It did not go well. “She got the ‘play hard’ part, but skipped over the ‘work hard’ piece.” She no longer works at SWA.
Maybe Mr. Bezos should take a look at the
SWA Core Values
statement with its categories of Warrior Spirit, Servant’s Heart, and Fun-LUVing Attitude.
There’s a balance to working at SWA that appears absent from working at Amazon. The hard work is tempered with encouragement and events to have fun, to enjoy your work, to celebrate success, and to treat others with respect. And, you cannot miss the meaning of this core value: “Don't take yourself too seriously.” Herb lives it: “I take my work seriously, I don’t take myself seriously”. Now, that might be a hard one for Mr. Bezos to emulate, but it might make all the difference in the Amazonian world.
As an aside, I cannot imagine either Herb or Colleen sending an e-mail to SWA staff after being royally ripped by the NYT. Of course, as one would expect, SWA already has in place the structures and systems for senior staff, including Herb and Colleen pre-retirement, to meet openly with staff more than once a year all over the country. Yes, SWA staff were free to fly from all over to take part in these meetings.
Since everyone is offering Mr. Bezos advice - from imposing mandatory break times, instituting paternity leave, to turning off e-mail after 5PM, to emulating Europe’s laid back work culture - I too have an idea. Like Jupiter, Mr. Bezos should disguise himself and work side by side with some of the “pickers” laboring in the warehouses. Listen. What do staff think of you and of their immediate supervisor? Great guys or despots? Then do something to change the corporate culture or settle for what you have. But, if the latter – however unintentional - we know how far fear can take an organization; not very far.

© John Lubans 2015

“… too much democracy.”

Posted by jlubans on August 31, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Not quite ready for independence. (Annie Tao Photography)

The title quote is one of the several explanations for why a bossless office may fail to live up to expectations. It comes from a recent article, Radical Idea at the Office: Middle Managers, on the travails associated with self-management. (I plan to use it as a class reading.)
Treehouse Island, an online coding school of 100 staff, did away with bosses. But, “That experiment broke,” according to CEO Ryan Carson and the article goes into some of the causes of that failure.
The article is insightful because it not only offers examples of what went wrong, but indirectly suggests that eliminating managers is not that simple – there’s more to it than flattening the organization chart. After all, effective managers actually do real work: Do you remember Luther Gulick’s PODSCORB, his executive functions from 1937 (Planning, Organizing, Directing, Staffing, Co-ordinating, Reporting and, Budgeting)?
At the least, when you take away the bunkum - like formal performance appraisal - managers, coordinate and organize, very important aspects of group work.
I would add, that really good managers lead in the sense of leading from the middle. If you fail to address and re-distribute these roles you’re in trouble. It is not intuitive for workers to take on management jobs; those responsibilities have to be recognized, learned and applied within the organization. When I ask my classes which organizational model they prefer – the democratic vs. the autocratic, the majority selects the former. But, as I learn from group projects, many students do not fully appreciate what it means to work in a democratic organization.
The article confirms that when you remove the direction-givers the remaining people may become directionless. You quickly discover that while there may be a few action-taking and independent-thinking people, for the most part many people have become inured to direction taking and having someone else do their thinking, at least on the job.
Instead of thriving when bossless, they flounder looking for someone to point the way.
Now, I have been known to make self managment sound a bit more simple than it really is. For example, this quote from my blog:
“It probably needs repeating. Organizations that de-emphasize the strong boss or the role of management, are not without leadership or management. Leading and following are distributed across the organization instead of boxed up in the org chart. For example, consider what Chris Rufer, the CEO of the no-managers, flat organization, Morning Star means when he says: “Everyone’s a manager here, …. “We are manager rich.”
But, tell that to the folks on the front line, the people Rufer would expect to “step up”, as sports people like to say when the star player is taken out of the game. If you don’t have the skill or experience, how can you possible “step up” and behave like the corporate equivalent of an All American athlete.
In my own experiment in self-management for an organization of 200 I saw a gamut of responses to our flipping what were departments into self-organizing teams. A very few caught on and landed on their feet; they got the idea and were able to work with it; they naturally assumed the action taking and independent thinking roles. Under their leadership, their teams thrived and exceeded expectations. They behaved just like I had hoped they would! However, more than a few clung to the old ways, like in the picture, and persisted in the old top-down thinking. They’d nod and say they were a team, but the behavior was departmental.
What would I do differently? I would add coaching and training – vigorous and specific – for every team. And, I would use trainers who understand what it means to be self managing and how that concept plays out in the workplace. I would leave far less to chance than I did.
The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is a splendid example of a self-organizing, a self-managing group. Each player understands that if she wants to be an Orphean, she will have to think like a conductor. You have to pay attention to more than just your sound, you have to be able to offer up and defend ideas during rehearsal, and you have to think and articulate what you want the sound to be, what the product is to be.
In other orchestras, these responsibilities belong almost exclusively to the conductor, the boss. Orpheus has spent decades perfecting how to be bossless. Of course, some would say, rightly so, that they are not conductorless; instead, they have 35 conductors!
Still it’s a struggle. Even Orpheans, when coaching student symphonies to rehearse and perform without a conductor, too often revert to the directive, telling, boss model, directing rather than letting the students fail and learn.
Another reason I like this article as potential class reading is because it does present examples of what the bossless found difficult. For example, a management professor claims that, “Employees want people of authority to reassure them, to give them direction, it’s human nature.” Do they?
I would counter with that it is more intuitive for humans to spurn authority and to yearn for democracy, but it is far less intuitive to know what that means in day-to-day life, including work. When given a choice workers often choose democratic ideals over the autocratic or the laissez faire. But, as Kurt Lewin famously said, “Democracy he has to learn.” Autocracy is easy; someone tells you what to do. Democracy takes work on everyone in the democracy.
So, why do it? Because the pay off in democracy is significantly greater productivity and creativity and a far more fulfilled workforce.
To borrow from a country music song title, there's no such thing as too much democracy, just like there's no such thing as too much fun;
"It's like too much money, there"s no such thing
It's like a girl too pretty, with too much class
Being too lucky, a car too fast

© John Lubans 2015

Getting Noticed

Posted by jlubans on January 23, 2018  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Logos for the Ezis Press, publisher of Fables for Leaders.

As an indie publisher, I am challenged by how to get a book like Fables for Leaders noticed amidst the pandemonium of the book-selling universe.
I have written about other challenges for the indie publisher,
including “The Ezis Press: Indie Publisher” and “A Tale of Two Covers: Designing Fables for Leaders
Today’s Topic: What do readers encounter when looking up a book, either to buy or borrow?
At its founding, Amazon made vast improvements to our antiquated book distribution system. No quarrel there.
But, now, 20 years later, how is it doing? How is it doing especially as the world’s leading bookseller?
Enter forced serendipity.
You know your serendipity.
It’s what happens when you are browsing for a book in the library stacks - maybe with the location number in hand – and you discover not only the book you want but also several others, unknown to you.
Sometimes those other books are better for your purposes than the one you were looking for. You’ve found something really good without knowing that you were looking for it.
That’s one of the happy notions behind open stack library browsing, serendipity.
Libraries facilitate this by classifying similar books close to each other.
At Amazon (and to some extent at Google) what appears near what you want may not be a happy coincidence but a paid-for placement.
Like in a grocery store, if a manufacturer wants the eye level shelf to display his ketchup, he’ll have to pay for it.
If you do not have the money, then settle for the bottom shelf.
Libraries - egalitarian bastions - do not do that even if they do appear to have a “problem” with books from indie publishers.
If libraries buy your book, they will treat you fair and square.
Your book won’t be elbowed out of the way by someone with a mega-marketing dollar.
For example, here’s what happens when I search for Fables for Leaders on Amazon.
I enter the title Fables for Leaders. Unlike a library online catalog, Amazon’s search results begin with a display of three unrelated books:
There’s “'Develop the Leader Within You' with (sic) John Maxwell" (grinning as he should having sold 25 million copies of his books).
And, there’s his:
“The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You (10th Anniversary Edition).”
And, there’s also his:
“The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork: Embrace Them and Empower Your Team”
OK. I get it. Mr. Maxwell has cornered the market on the word “leader” by paying Amazon in order to squat on top of all other books on the topic.
But, lo and behold, what happens next?
While I am thankful, grateful, happy, pleased, if not over-joyed to see my darling book cited, it is followed by other titles that may or may not be relevant to my search.
In other words my book, Fables for Leaders, is used as a marketing magnet for readers to eyeball several other books. There’s
“Leadership Fables Every Leader and Manager Should Read”,
“Our Iceberg is Melting by John Kotter & Holger Rathgeber”,
and, not to be missed: “Leadership Fables: The Frog, The Crab, and The Monkey.”
Yes, I know. Amazon is selling books. You get to use their platform, so play by their rules.
But, this does smack more than a bit like Google’s monetizing the world’s “Information Desk” (That’s what Google aspires to become, taking anywhere from a quarter to a third of the library’s market share).
Is it fair? Not particularly so in an era when “never have so many written so much to be read by so few for free,” for the content providers.
Maybe it is time for Schools of Information Science to undertake research that explores the issues around the growing monopolization and shaping of information by Google, Facebook, and Amazon.
Specifically, what is the social cost when for-profits control search results and in some cases skew those results for profit motives
Similar to the “fake news” plague, someone other than the vendors (Amazon, Google, Facebook, even Twitter) needs to be exploring what these marketing strategies and policies mean for producers and consumers.
My book, Fables for Leaders, is mentioned in American Libraries by Karen Muller in "How We Lead.". Click here.

Fables for Leaders Library of the Week: Salem Public Library, OR, USA
Summary: "Short fables emphasizing the philosophical and ethical aspects of leadership."

© Copyright John Lubans 2018


Posted by jlubans on July 04, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Sculpture said to be from a Buddhist stupa in Bharhut, central India (ca. 100-200BC) The woman/deity in the forefront (with a cooking pot) is observing how the otters deal with their bounty.

ONCE upon a time two Otters whose names were Gambhiracari and Anutiracari, were standing on the bank of a river, on the lookout for fish. Presently Gambhiracari saw a large Rohita fish, and with one bound he dived into the water and caught it by the tail.
It happened that this Rohita fish was very strong, and when it felt something grasping its tail, it dashed headlong down the river, dragging the Otter with it.
He called out to the other Otter, "Friend Anutiracari, this great fish will be enough of a meal for us both, but it is so strong that it is dragging me away.
Come and help me!"
The other Otter plunged in to his aid, and the two friends between them soon dragged out the Rohita fish, laid it on the bank of the river and killed it.
But now they began to say to each other, "You divide the fish,"—"No, you divide it!"—"No, you!"— and soon they quarrelled and could not decide how the fish should be divided between them.
At that moment a Jackal, named Mayavi, happened to pass the spot. Upon seeing him, both the otters saluted him and said, "Oh, Lord of the grey grass-colour, this fish was caught by both of us together; but a dispute has arisen between us, because we cannot decide how to divide. Will you kindly make a fair division for us?"
After hearing their request, the Jackal replied, "I have decided many a difficult case and done it peacefully. I will settle yours with equal fairness."
So saying, he cut off the head and tail of the Rohita fish, gave the head to Gambhiracari and the tail to Anutiracari, and seizing the whole body of the fish, he ran away with it before their eyes, remarking as he went, "The best belongs to me, in payment for my trouble as umpire!"

So, make your own decisions; deferring to another’s judgment may not work out the way you like and prove to be costly.
If you have time to deliberate, contemplate and meditate – as was often the case in my business - likely you will waste it and pay dearly for not deciding.
The otters fail to come to terms; the jackal runs off with the best cut.
We see this daily in legal settlements of class action suits. The lawyers (a small number) take a third to 40% and the balance is divided among thousands of clients. We are told that the jackal’s argument is a reasonable explanation for this seeming disparity: his sizable share is for his “trouble as umpire”.
Another fable - The bear, the Lion and the Fox - offers a similar outcome: The bear and lion’s disagreement devolves into a debilitating struggle and the fox runs off with the prize.
That fable’s moral applies to the otters and to all of us unwilling to decide: "’How much better it would have been to have shared in a friendly spirit.’"

*Source: Darbhapappha Jataka, No. 400.
Adapted from the translation by Sir Edwin Arnold included 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


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


Posted by jlubans on June 01, 2010  •  Leave comment (3)

The Rego Fish Co.

Here is my evocative look at a small family business, once prosperous, now seemingly winding down, left behind technologically and with none of the octogenarian owner’s children wanting to come into the fish business.

This essay was originally an appendix to my book’s chapter 14 on Zabar’s, the quintessentially New York deli. But, soon after I completed the first draft of the manuscript, we made an editorial decision to limit appendices and such. Well, thanks to Web 2.0, here it is. The story takes place in January 2002 when Saul Zabar brought me along on a visit to one of his smoked fish suppliers, the Rego Fish Company.

Rego’s is in the Middle Village neighborhood of Queens. Saul told me that Rego’s is a “nice primitive operation”; its “gravity ovens” for smoking fish qualify it as an antique in this era of computerized ovens - an endangered antique it turns out. Founded and owned by Conrad Spizz, now in his mid-80s, the company is recovering from a failed partnership with a conglomerate of banker smoker-wannabes. A new venture, starting in January, leased Rego’s to Marshall’s, a Philadelphia smoked fish concern.

For Saul, besides the long relationship with Connie, it’s Rego’s gravity ovens that keep him coming back and wanting to help Rego’s stay in business. Gravity ovens, Saul is convinced, are the only kind to use for smoking sturgeon – a fish that computer driven ovens have yet to tame. Sturgeon, according to Saul, “likes slower moving air than what the computer sends in” in high tech ovens. Sturgeon cooks best with a human touch. An expert smoker, who monitors temperature, airflow, and the cooking color, produces the finest and priciest sturgeon. At the time of this story, according to Zabar’s online catalog, sturgeon was selling for $15.00 a half-pound. Today’s price is $33.

On the Way
As he has done for innumerable Wednesdays, Saul maneuvered his car from the Zabar’s garage on W. 80th, slipped past snarls of honking traffic, crossed from the West Side to the East Side and over a few bridges, into Queens and pulled up to the curb at Rego’s. The company is in a mixed business and residential neighborhood of small houses, many with post 9-11 American flags on display, some with Christmas decorations yet to be stored for next year. Across from us, the yard was crowded with faded plastic elves and reindeer. I wondered where (or if) they stored them – maybe the answer was obvious.

We entered Rego’s one-story brick building through its unimposing glass door. Conrad Spizz’s office is on the immediate right, a step or two in from the glass entry door. Conrad (or Connie to friends) sat at the far end of the narrow room, a walker on his left. He is partially recovered from a 1993 stroke. When I shook his hand, his other hand supported the one I grasped. Invoices littered his desk, an old Remington typewriter sat idle. Connie let me know right away that he’s an opera buff, for 49 years he’s had three family subscriptions to the Met.

A few photographs, opera and movie posters interrupt the dingy walls. A large yellowing poster, behind Connie, is a lively illustration of what looks like an operatic rendering of Kiss Me Kate. He told us the story behind the poster. Connie’s speech was stroke impaired, but I got the idea. This Kiss Me Kate, according to Connie, includes a drinking toast to oral sex. Connie got a kick out of telling what must be a story many times re-told.
Saul told him (and me) he couldn’t understand Connie’s slurred speech. No offense meant, just the way it was. Their relationship goes back decades. Saul would bring his kids along whenever he was buying fish and the kids would fold, as a pastime, hundreds of shipping boxes for Rego’s.

Connie’s ribald humor extends to interior decoration. The office light switch cover was a guy with the switch coming out of his pants. It was up.

Around the corner to the right from Connie’s office is a tiny retail store with one or two glass deli cases. It’s empty today. Saul told me the cash income was never reported, instead, it was a source for paying the undocumented workers in the store. The Feds and Connie don’t see eye to eye. He stopped smoking chubb – a type of fish - when the inspectors insisted he use a higher temperature. The new temperature made chubb unpalatable.

To the left, swinging double doors lead to the ovens. Saul and I headed there to taste the latest version of Rego’s smoked sturgeon.

In a dim light, two men (Mitchell Gardiner and an assistant, Leslie) stood near one of the operating ovens. Saul introduced us. “My great pleasure” said Mitchell to Saul Zabar, a verbal genuflection. Mitchell, a veteran fish smoker, knew who Saul was. He also happened to be one of the new partners in Rego’s. His life’s mantra: “I’m smokin’, I’m happy!” He also likes to talk.

The ovens are tall, bricked up from the floor to just below the ceiling each with an arched roof, like pottery kilns. There are five black doors, one with smoke seeping out. These are walk-in ovens. Unlit. Mitchell used a trouble light to see what was happening inside the oven. When I peered in I could see a series of sturgeon chunks hung from hooks on a series of crossbars, straddling the oven, a few inches below the curved ceiling.

There was a perceptible sizzling as the fish oil dripped onto a metal grill around the perimeter of the oven floor just visible in the shadows cast by the arc light. Adding flavor and heat, buckets of charcoal were randomly placed inside the oven. Gravity was at work, the air redolent from the dripping juices splashing onto the metal grill. The rows of sturgeon chunks were turning a pale gold. The walls and grills are baked-on black, black from decades of smoke and oil.

Oven temperature matters, Mitchell explained. It’s best to start high to seal in juice, and then lower the heat to finish it without rendering the fish. If the temperature is too low at the start you wind up with dry fish.

Getting down to business, Mitchell asked Saul how he liked the sturgeon Rego’s sent him a couple days ago. “It’s OK”, something he says to people who have good stuff. Saul did want the tailpieces cut longer. Mitchell explained the short tails in the sample were a fluke; Leslie was already cutting them the requested Zabar’s length.

On another business point, Saul and Mitchell concurred, “You can’t make money selling sturgeon”. That was probably not just barter palaver. Sturgeon’s raw cost is high, permitting only a fractional retail mark-up – otherwise it becomes too expensive. Their talk turned to Rego’s price for smoked salmon, starting at $7.00 then to $7.50, settling on $7.25, and splitting the difference. I couldn’t tell if Saul was pleased or not. (A month later Saul still was not satisfied with the taste of Rego’s salmon and had not placed an order.)

Leslie had again opened the oven’s door, shining a light on the glistening fish chunks. The final step in smoking uses a bushel basket of “excelsior”. That’s the word for the fine curled softwood shavings that add the desired golden color to the pellicle (the very exterior of the skin), like thin sunlight at dawn. It’s important to use softwood, since it smolders, unlike hardwood that bursts into flame.

Leslie got feedback from Mitchell about how he had “ringed” the excelsior fire with sawdust on the oven’s floor; not the way to do it. Mitchell explained what was needed: don’t smother the excelsior with saw dust, just cover the center of the pile so air still comes into the excelsior and produces the right mix of flame and smoke.

Leslie, with asbestos lined gloves, hauled out the cross bars laden with sturgeon, and hung each bar on a nearby cooling rack. Mitchell selected and pulled off a large sturgeon chunk, still on its hook. We gladly accepted his offer and ate with our fingers on paper towels, celebrating the golden fish, like ancients around a smoke fire savoring a heavenly gift.

Afterwards, on our way out to say good-bye to Connie, Saul gave me a tour of the retail store– there’s no one around. We’re behind the deli case counter. Making himself at home, Saul opens a tray of herring and pulls out a piece in a white cream sauce. He slices it on a piece of wax paper. We share it. I thank him and tell him I like it. It is fresher and has a milder flavor than I am used to.

Before we left, Connie wanted me to talk to his son; he’s on the phone. He’s called the son, an alum of the university where I was working. We reminisced about the campus and fund raising among the alumni.
Rego’s survives, albeit under new ownership. Still in the Middle Village neighborhood, an Internet review published in 2009 terms the retail shop a “treasure” with excellent smoked fish and excellent prices. As for the Zabar’s connection, I’ve gained from Saul in the mid-2000s the impression that Rego’s would at best be an incidental supplier.

Connie died in 2007. Here is his New York Times obituary:

A question for the reader: At the literal level this is a story about a small company in the fish business. Beyond that level what does this story say to you?

The “Maestro Complex” Part 2.

Posted by jlubans on May 15, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

Viviane Hagner (see Part 1) elaborated on her response: “Even in symphonies (with conductors, the players) need to talk with each other.” Her words are a good lead-in to Part 2 of the "Maestro Complex."

Davidson, in his article “What Does a Conductor Do?” suggests that leadership styles among conductors are changing. As implied in Ms. Hagner’s quote, he claims that there is a perceptible shift for more freedom (and power) for players.
This change is due more to unionization of musicians than to conductors “letting go” of their usual tight grip on the reins. A tyrannical conductor can still publicly humiliate a musician, but he’ll pay a price. The modern orchestra (a few are self-managed) has some say over which conductors get asked back.
Still, Davidson’s preferred way of leading leans to the traditional conductor, the self-sufficient and all-knowing maestro. I am not suggesting Davidson turns into an intolerant leader. Rather, he acts on the received tradition that the conductor’s job is to figure out the music and to lead it. Input from the musicians is incidental; it is not pursued. After all, as Davidson says, “(a) good conductor is a parent who’s always ready and always right.” In other words, musicians are children in need of guidance/direction.
While most of us think it is desirable to share decision-making, when we become THE boss, our go-to way of leading, our intuitive impulse is to centralize decisions, to go it alone - just like Davidson did - regardless of evidence that collaborating with others usually results in better decisions. (No, seeking advice from an inner circle of like-minded managers is not the same as talking to the people doing the work.) It takes a deliberate effort to ask for the workers’ advice and opinion. Doing so (letting others participate) can be seen by some as weakness. I am reminded of a study in a recent book, Sway. The authors maintain that dissent – a normal part of democracy - is essential to limiting our wrong-headedness. To get honest dissent, the boss has to establish a climate that permits, even empowers, dissent. Airlines now train cockpit crews in how to “block” – the term for getting in the way of irrational behavior - when a safety rule may be violated. Not only does dissent improve decision-making it can also save lives.
Corporate leaders, because they rarely allow others to see how they lead, are under far less scrutiny than are conductors (or surgeons or airline pilots). Inferior performance in an organization can be hidden for years or, if business is good, an inferior leader can take credit for the work of effective followers. Some corporate leaders may fantasize that they, alone, make the difference. I recall a friend’s boss who often spoke at professional meetings and encouraged collaboration and risk taking, innovation and experimentation. Back home, my friend learned to her dismay, that her boss talked the game but then punished anyone who took him up on it. If you experimented, innovated, collaborated with others then the boss would undercut your efforts, maybe even encourage you to leave. This boss was not about to relinquish control, and the organization suffered. Of course the damage (unlike a failed public musical performance) caused by this boss is not easily perceived by higher ups.

Early on in my career, I certainly thought it was up to me to make decisions and to do so with minimal input from staff. As I matured, I suffered less from Davidson's Maestro Complex (the need to justify my higher salary and to exhibit my “superior” knowledge). When I turned to the staff for help, we achieved our goals and higher productivity. It was really very simple, I had no illusions about my expertise, so I had to let go and allow staff to collaborate. Not that I was detached; I was an active participant in work meetings and I did ask good questions that complemented my ability to spot redundancies at 50 paces. I knew the type of followers I wanted and was active in recruiting them. And, I was very good at finding the best people (both staff and managers) and allowing them freedom to get the job done. My “hands off” approach worked well for about five years. Then, because of organizational shifts, we started to bog down once again, returning to the hierarchy in structure and behavior. My way of leading now ran counter to what the organization wanted and, as I have already said, inefficiencies can be easily rationalized and covered up. Finally, when my boss departed, I lost the necessary support and my days were numbered.

For those five golden years I did not have to justify my presence – staff relished their freedom (and saw me as the source of that freedom) and my boss supported me. Insecure conductors (and managers) "gesticulate, point, urge, and cajole" – they micromanage. For example, one of the conductors coaching Davidson in one session “demonstrated for a percussionist how to get the right sound on the triangle, corrected a bowing in the violin part, sang the bassoon line, and pointed out a subtle harmonic shift—all without glancing at the score.” For Davidson the key point here is the conductor’s phenomenal memory. Well, a good memory is important, but this is micromanaging. Why not let the musician make the mistake and figure it out; why not let them “lead” themselves and make decisions relevant to the work they do.

Conductors are essential for facilitating communication in large orchestras.
Caption: Karel Mark Chichon
Some conductors, like Karel Mark Chichon, whom I have seen perform a half dozen times with the Latvian National Symphony, have great gifts. Maestros, like Chichon, can take a very good orchestra and make it great. They understand the composer’s meaning, articulate it, and somehow inspire musicians to reach high levels of performance. I doubt there is much micromanaging (or ass-kicking, to put it crudely) by this superb leader; the true maestro works at the conceptual level, eliciting a particular sound from the musicians, the workers. It is up to the players to rise to the occasion, to meet the conductor at the mountain top and share in the joy of the music! The conductor trusts the musicians and the musicians trust the conductor. This shared trust spurs everyone to higher and higher levels of performance. That’s the best kind of leadership: followers and leader interacting and producing something very good.
Interestingly, Davidson does note, among other clues, his mentor’s advice (very much like a manager’s “letting go”) for getting through a dicey part in the score:
“Just beat clearly and they’ll take care of it.”
However, Davidson qualifies this counsel: “That’s a useful though not universal commandment: Do Less.”
Davidson’s coaches give him additional insights about leading: One tells a conducting student not to lean toward the players, (hectoring them) instead “to set aside the baton, close his eyes, and turn his back to the orchestra so that he’ll listen more and insist less.” No micromanaging there.
Then, Davidson heard some great advice from Bernard Haitink, the Dutch maestro during his visit to Juilliard. Observing a student rehearsal, Haitnik cautions: “The musicians are very busy with playing.... “You (the conductor) should not distract them!” Definitely no micromanaging there!
Davidson further reinforces the notion of letting the musicians lead with this quote from a principal cellist: “It’s amazing how beautifully we play when we don’t know what the hell the guy on the podium is doing.”
In spite of these several bits of leadership wisdom, Davidson is anxious about how he will lead the student orchestra through a difficult part of the overture. He calls it the No, really passage. Worried for several days, he hopes for the best that somehow something will come to him.
Here he describes how he did in his conducting debut:
“I make plenty of flubs: I scramble the beat, forget a cue, confuse the players once or twice. The Juilliard students respond with sensitivity and respect, and a desire to play as beautifully as I will let them.” And, his mentor offers him high praise for how he conducted the No, really.
Why did Davidson not ask the student musicians for help or simply let them play through the No, really? To collaborate with them and figure it out. Davidson did well, but I am left with a What if? What if he and the students had talked about the No, really?
“I learned more about conducting by watching (Orpheus) rehearse, than I have in all my conducting classes.”
This quote in my book comes from a conducting student who, like me, sat in on an Orpheus rehearsal. He had learned something remarkable: there is a process for and value in soliciting ideas from the players – the people doing the work. And while that may sound obvious to most managers, it is a lesson worth re-stating and practicing.

Customer Service Secrets from Trader Joe’s

Posted by jlubans on February 27, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

Because of its tight-lipped ways, Trader Joe’s can make for the wrong kind of story, all about the covertness of its German owners. For example, this headline from a 2010 story in Fortune: “Inside the secret world of Trader Joe's
It’s true, TJs managers will not talk about the business side of the business, but the “crew” – as the staff are known - offers just about the best service in the retail grocery business. You’ll have a hard time “getting (TJs) kind of love at the Piggly Wiggly.”
A TJs crewmember interacts with you more like a person than a consumer in an economic equation. TJs staff appear to understand the fundamental truth about retail: if you help people find what they are looking for, and make them feel good in the process, they will spend money in your store AND they will come back. The money from the sales, the profits, then can be used to further enhance the enterprise for staff and customers.
When I called the nearby TJs in Chapel Hill, inquiring about a discontinued item, I was put straight thru to the store’s manager, Greg Forte. I told him about my dismay in the absence of TJs stone-ground Southern Grits. When would the product be back? He expressed surprise and said something like “I love those grits!” But in the time it takes to check a computer inventory, he confirmed the sad news. Both of us commiserated about the situation. However, when I asked him if I could come by and interview him about their excellent customer service, his tone became wary. He’d have to check with headquarters. I offered to write a letter explaining my interest, who I was, and how I worked, but he said no, that’s not necessary. He’d get back to me in a week. Not.
So, as you can see, TJs strength is not in talking about the organization but in doing service better than most other food stores. I had the good fortune to interview Saul Zabar co-owner of Zabar’s, New York’s delightful food shop at 79th and Broadway. Over several months, Saul showed me the business, gave me back office and kitchen tours, allowed me to accompany him more than once on his weekly tasting of hundreds of pounds of smoked salmon at a Zabar’s vendor in Brooklyn, and he gave me full access to a dozen or more staff to ask any question I wanted. It made for an insightful story about the complex world of a retail business. It’s in the book:
Chapter 14: A Zabarian Experience
But, TJs, and its German owners, think differently from Saul – perhaps for their own right reasons. Still, you can derive much about a business by how you are treated. TJs staff have an obvious interest in what the customer thinks. Is this a trained-in empathy? Or, maybe that empathy is in the corporate DNA, an inherited gene from TJs California culture that the new German owners have the smarts not to re-engineer.
Well, just how does an organization establish a uniform friendliness toward its clients? Somehow, TJs staff can be spontaneous and not worry about getting yanked by corporate policy. As much as I like Costco, the staff on the floor invariably avoid eye contact with customers. If the customer makes the effort and asks a question, the response is usually positive, but it’s up to me to take the initiative. Yeah, I know Costco’s "great", but eye contact or a friendly nod is the exception, not the rule. Why is that?
TJs apparent policy is to look people in the eye and ask how to help. Better, the policy seems to say, if you see someone who might need help, you help. You stop re-stocking the shelf and help the customer find what she is looking for. Or, if the store does not have it – most TJs have a limited line of products, e.g. one type of lip balm, no more - you confirm that and express your regrets. You do not leave the customer wandering around (like I have done numerous times at Costco) hoping for serendipity to come to my rescue. When I asked a staffer in TJs dairy area about where a vegetable might be – I’d looked and looked in the produce area - he stopped his inventory of the cheese bins, without a hint of “I’m busy” - and walked me to a shelf in produce. It was the same shelf I had scrutinized. There was the product. He pulled it out and showed it to me. Sale made!
At TJs there’s a detente in the barrier between staff and customer, and there’s no enforced impersonality; apparently it is OK to be yourself. (Much like the individuality permitted staff at SWA.) There’s a much mis-guided concept in too many organizations that staff must present the same face to every customer. Those plastic smiles seem to be saying, “We are impartial, we are fair, we are consistent, just like the robotized “Your call is very important to us.” It’s a different message that the client receives: We may empathize with you, but we know our limits; we know the narrow boundaries of what we can and cannot do; I do not have permission to help you beyond point x, regardless of the national advertising that “if something’s not right we’ll fix it!”
Think back about a great interaction between you and an employee. What happened? I remember thirstily looking for a water fountain at Frankfurt’s vast-desert-of-an-airport. When I asked someone behind the service desk at Lufthansa for the nearest one, she said there were not any water fountains, then left her desk, unlocked a door, went inside, retrieved and gave me a bottle of water! Did I like that?
I was pushing one of TJs tiny grocery carts – with several bottles of wine and olive oil rolling around – when one of the “crew” observed me and made some comment about the party I must be having. Then she asked if I could use a box for the bottles. Actually, she did not ask me, she got the box and put the bottles in it so I could continue do my shopping.
On another visit, I saw a couple staff restocking the shelves. (Consider that this would be an obvious inefficiency to any retail expert. Why not stock only when the store is closed? Imagine the savings from a minimum wage stocking crew that can focus on the job at hand? Instead, TJs re-stocks during the day, while the customer is there. A stocker is a ready target for questions that take him away from his job and add to the retail labor cost. Actually, restocking during the day is a highly efficient way to get staff out on the floor to help people find what they need (or to try something new!).
But back to the re-stocking staffers. A little boy, three or four, imitating two TJ staff, was also re-stocking a bottom shelf. This was fun for the little boy. Work as fun. Imagine that.
It’s remarkable to me that the staff were OK with the little boy’s playful interest instead of telling the parent their insurance does not permit children playing with the merchandise.
I wonder what TJs policy manual looks like? Is it hundreds of pages of detailed direction or is it one page with the simple statement, “Help the customer.” I cannot confirm that, I can only admire how TJs helps their customers (of all ages and economic circumstances*).
The Fortune article concludes that TJs good staff benefits package makes for the good customer relations. I’d say it helps, but good pay is hardly the only reason. It’s in the corporate culture. It’s what is transmitted and demonstrated daily to every staff member. The rules can be bent – what’s the harm in the little boy playing at re-stocking? And, yes, when someone asks for help, you do stop what you are doing and help.
Back in the day of library card catalogs, I recall the controversy over a card filer’s helping a library user find a book. It made perfect sense to me for a user to ask for help from someone who looked like a library worker. Yet there was considerable opposition from some staff. The filer might misguide the user! The filer’s job was to file not to assist, etc. All this was nonsense. A type of nonsense that the TJs organization has overcome in its expectations of each crewmember to help people to the best of their ability. If the Chapel Hill manager agrees to an interview I’d love to pass on something more substantial about TJs than my best guesses.

*However TJs customer base is largely white. Perhaps curiously, the Durham (where I live) Aldi store (owned by the same German family but run in an altogether different fashion) has a fair number of black customers.

Real Work

Posted by jlubans on July 27, 2010  •  Leave comment (0)

One contributing factor of the financial meltdown, including the Madoff fraud, was the seeming hapless laxity of the Securities and Exchange Commission – the government agency set up to monitor and control the bad guys. The media has set forth lots of reasons why a large regulatory agency could miss what was happening. They of course do not mention their (the business media’s) cluelessness!

What rang a bell for me was reading the report that some - over 30 - SEC staff were staring at pornographic web sites, sometimes for as much as eight hours per day.

This took me back to the time when one of my professors gave our Systems Analysis class a tour of the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, not unlike this stock image from the 1950s
. 20100824-state office.jpg
He took us into a cavernous space with hundreds of desks in perfect rows, as far as the eye could see - an all too real caricature of a bureaucracy. I noticed (unlike this photo) that most of the seated workers were reading books. From a librarian’s perspective, that was great! From a taxpayer’s, less so. When I inquired about this, our professor said that the staff was reading books because it was past tax season. They had no real work to do.

At my Fulbright orientation in Washington DC last week, one of my fellow scholars told me about his experience while working in a state census bureau. There it was understood, when things were slow, you would invent work, and you would pretend to be busy. While they were indeed busy at times, there were long spells of nothing. Why these workers could not be moved to other areas in need of assistance was a taboo topic, according to my colleague. That we spoke about this in a city as if invented to demonstrate Parkinson’s Law made the discussion all that more poignant.

I believe that these workers’ behavior points to what is wrong with many bureaucracies or with any rigid and nonporous organization where staff are prohibited by management and union policy from helping out in other units or departments.

People want real work to do, meaningful work. When wasting one’s day is seen as normal the staff and the supervisors’ behavior becomes pathological - a Kafkaesque reality: "We'll pretend to lead while you pretend to work."

Leaders at all levels could make a huge difference by facilitating and protecting managers and staff who want to collaborate with other agencies, who want to help out where needs are greater. There should be flexibility in every organization to assure every individual has real work to do.

“Clamour, Disgust and Odium”

Posted by jlubans on July 29, 2010  •  Leave comment (1)

Well over 200 years ago, Alexander Hamilton wrote a remarkable letter
to the newly created U.S. Coast Guard’s revenue cutter commanders. It’s remarkable because near the end of the letter Mr. Hamilton offers guidance on how to behave toward the client – any customer, anywhere. That advice is as relevant today as it was June 4, 1791.

“Prudence, moderation and good temper” is what he asked of the new officers. Yes, “activity, vigilance and firmness” were important, but the former qualities had equal bearing on the success of any enterprise including, I would venture to say, our modern day organizations. Consider what you have when any or all six of Hamilton’s qualities go AWOL.
Mr. Hamilton was all too aware that “it is easy by mismanagement, to produce serious and extensive clamour, disgust and odium (among customers)”. We certainly have some evidence of this. What are the reasons for the so-called “rage” expressed by many people about government officials and services, at just about any level or office?

Hamilton wanted the commanders to never forget “ that their countrymen are freemen, and, as such, are impatient of everything that bears the least mark of a domineering spirit.” Hmm. Does that “domineering spirit” lurk behind the smirks and ready dismissals of citizen ire by some of the elected and appointed?

I once wrote to my several congress people politely encouraging them to, like Zeus, descend to Earth, disguise themselves and take a chair in a social services office (think DMV, Social Security, Medicaid, etc.) to observe what happens. Who makes eye contact? How clear are directions and how is the facility organized for assistance? Is the floor clean? And, does a staff member reach out and ask to help you? Is the security guard armed? Why?
When you finally (how long did you wait?) are face to face with a service provider, does he or she welcome you or put up with you? Most important, does he or she help you or waste your time through a practiced ignorance?

No one wrote back.

Hamilton was well aware that front line staff must refrain, ” from whatever has the semblance of haughtiness, rudeness, or insult.”
I have often wondered what would make a difference in these agencies. Some simple straightforward suggestions: Make immediate eye contact. Smile. Know and do your job.

Now, who would make this transformation happen? Who or what gets in the way of that happening? Staff, unions, bosses, the rules, the customers? What would it take to convert seemingly demoralized staff –exuding the worst kind of bureaucratic attitude – into smiling workers willing to help everyone who comes thru the door? I doubt the answer is more staff. Or, higher pay. I can almost guarantee one of the ways to “….inculcate upon your men a correspondent disposition” is to allow staff to help people without regard for the office handbook or hierarchy, to do what is right for the customer each and every time.

“I am sir, your obedient servant,”
John Lubans Jr.


Posted by jlubans on September 29, 2010  •  Leave comment (0)

While in Hollywood during the 30s, P. G. Wodehouse saw a lot of “Yes men”. He wrote a short story about this phenomenon entitled The Nodder*. In the story, decades before Robert Kelley set forth his Follower grid, Mr. Wodehouse established a hierarchy of toadyism. Sunny Hollywood, of course, was (is?) a natural breeding ground, equal to Wall Street, for the worst kind of followers what with its megalomaniacal studio bosses, a sycophantic press, the star system, and - being the only show in town during the Depression - a generous stream of cash to cover vanity payrolls, including a colony of Brits: writers, actors and penniless members of the peerage. The colony had its own cricket team.

One of those colony writers (and cricketer) was P. G. Wodehouse. It is said he endured being paid thousands for doing next to nothing (not his choice) for three years, and then his contract was not renewed. Shortly after (more likely during his three years of being under used) he wrote several stories, including at least one novel that exposed child labor in the film industry. Not at all like the muckraker Sinclair Lewis, all of Wodehouse’s writing was in good humor and with his usual celebration of the absurd.

The story includes a definition:

“A Nodder is something like a Yes-man, only lower in the social scale. A Yes-Man’s duty is to attend conferences and say “Yes.” A Nodder’s, as the name implies, is to nod. The chief executive throws out some statement of opinion and looks about him expectantly. This is the cue for the senior Yes-Man to say yes. He is followed, in order of precedence, by the second Yes-Man - or Vice-Yesser -, as he sometimes is called- and the junior Yes-Man. Only when all the Yes-Men have yessed, do the Nodders begin to function. They nod. “

The Nodder in the story is a young man who seeks the hand of a bird imitator – yes, back in the day there were vaudeville performers paid to warble. He encounters difficulty in his suit until the Cecil B. DeMille-type studio boss fires the bird imitator when she speaks truth to Cecil’s power: the cuckoo exclaims with a Wuckoo!, not a Cuckoo!. Now, the Nodder has his chance to demonstrate to his true love that he is a Real Man – or not, by telling off Cecil. Will he? Will the worm turn?

When teaching about leaders and followers, I combine the assigned reading for Kelley with Wodehouse’s Nodder short story. Some students never quite get the connection. Others immediately see the link and probably learn more from it about the iniquitous side of following than from reading Kelley with his elaboration of sheep, yes men, alienated followers and survivors.

*P. G. Wodehouse, “The Nodder”, in his Blandings Castle.
NY: The Overlook Press (original copyright, 1935) 2002,

Copyright John Lubans 2014

"Then I Start Googling"

Posted by jlubans on November 25, 2010  •  Leave comment (0)

Not that long ago, a gripping article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Written by one Ed Dante, it was a remorseless confession of a scholar-for-hire, more Madoff than Philip Marlowe. Over 530 readers have responded to “The Shadow Scholar: The man who writes your students' papers tells his story.”
Apart from the true crime intrigue one segment from Dante’s writing caught my eye. His go-to is Google.

“I haven't been to a library once since I started doing this job. Amazon is quite generous about free samples…. customer reviews and publisher blurbs. Google Scholar is a great source for material, providing the abstract of nearly any journal article. And of course, there's Wikipedia….“

This glimpse into Mr. Dante’s M. O. offers us a ready solution and a puzzle. The solution to stopping term paper mills is for teachers simply to require students to attach to their papers print outs of a book’s title page and/or of the first page of an article, ones actually used and cited, whether electronic or paper.

The puzzle? How did these faux papers pass the sniff test? Would there not be clues, hints that the wording is not the student’s? I have not reviewed any of the 530 reader responses, but I suspect there are a number of explanations (many self-serving I suspect) of how we got to this sad state.

No doubt Mr. Dante chose his pseudonym with care. I wonder what circle of hell Mr. Dante is in. The Sloth Circle? It’s as if Mr. Dante is selling indulgences to sinners; yet, unlike most indulgence sellers, he is actually trading his normal life to labor at a Sisyphean task, day in day out. The coffee he consumes is a luxury, but 72-hour writing stints sound a lot like the traditional punishment for the slothful: to run at top speed without rest. Cui bono, one wonders.

I cannot but help – forgive me – to link back to my recent story about the Boston Globe expose, “What happened to Studying?” How do students study less and yet grades continue to soar? Maybe Ed Dante - soon to get off his high-speed treadmill and ride off into retirement - knows. Perhaps new enterprises and adventures await Ed. He does know the name and e-mail of each of his clients, including the "lazy rich kid ... poised for a life of paying others and telling them what to do." Henning Mankell might have his next murder mystery here.

Why teams? Part 2: Two monkeys carrying a log.

Posted by jlubans on July 15, 2011  •  Leave comment (0)

Not long ago, I came across some science that gave insight into the question of why humans experience a gravitational pull toward teamwork and, by extension, a yearning for an egalitarian workplace.
On July 4, the New York Times offered up a distillation of recent evolutionary research that extends and supports the hypothesis that humans teaming-up is a natural - even biological - way of being.
Natalie Angier, the author of this insightful piece, cites several anthropologists’ research that strongly suggests human values, like cooperation and collaboration, fair play and fairness in resource distribution, have evolved over time. Her article seeks to make a point about pay inequity (which in its most obscene sense, can be found in any herd of MBAs), but the article is far more successful in helping define the elusive aspects of why humans cooperate, why we prefer the egalitarian and participatory workplace to the hierarchy, why we do not mind generally helping each other instead of always maximizing our advantage at the expense of others. Of course, in that herd of MBAs and among even academics, there are vestigial attributes that push individuals (Type A personalities?) to survive; to hell with everyone else.
But, for the most part the Darwinists do see us as different from other primates.
20110715-chimp3.jpg”Two chimpanzees will never carry a log together”. Humans will. Why?
We work with team building rules learned on the veldt, according to Angier: "belief in fairness and reciprocity (the Golden Rule!), a capacity for empathy and impulse control, and a willingness to work cooperatively."
It is why we will accept a mild sort of hierarchy but will resist mightily a rigid structure dictating our every action and thought.
Some research shows how that resistance toward something patently inequitable (e. g. "one for me and 8 for you") can be reduced with anti anxiety drugs. In real life, those that hold absolute power know just how tenuous their grasp is; it is probably why vodka in communist Russia was always available and cheap.
Teams are not about the survival of the fittest. We have weak members and we have strong members - the best teams know what a team is about and they make use of every member's skills, not just depend on the one or two "stars" to achieve goals. The researcher David Sloan Wilson says that ‘when you have mechanisms for suppressing fitness differences and establishing equality within groups ... it is no longer possible to succeed at the expense of your group." While these “mechanisms” may control the bully or the person who must always be the team captain, team members may overcompensate for the weakest members, protecting the underperformer instead of confronting the problem. Perhaps this kind-hearted avoidance of conflict among team members is more biological than we realize. Of course, really good teams work out differences. Unlike many mediocre teams highly effective teams do not avoid the inevitable "storming" phase of team development; they know the differences have to be engaged and resolved if the team is to succeed.

Team Rituals

Posted by jlubans on March 11, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

Since we are in basketball’s “March madness” I want to give you some of my observations about how real team members – albeit they are not on work teams – support and encourage each other.
20120311-TEAM b-ball.jpg
This picture, shot by Toni Tetterton, appears in Leading from the Middle in Chapter: 8: “More Than a Game: A Season with a Women’s Basketball Team.” It depicts a common practice among men’s and women’s basketball teams – players circling up, arms around waists or draped over shoulders, faces close, fully attentive, with a few words spoken to plan, to calm, to encourage, to support. The coach is not in the huddle.
I could do a full day workshop on this picture alone. Really. It speaks to me with an eloquence that surpasses the circle’s symmetry.
Do you circle up like this at work?
We use sports analogies on the job because our bosses aspire to “WIN”. Unfortunately, for many reasons, our aspirations fall short. For example, there is an inherent superficiality in applying these team work adages in the work place: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” or “There’s no ‘I’ or ‘U’ in the word TEAM,” etc
But, instead of dismissing all team rituals because of our ineptness o-t-j, take a minute with me and see how basketball team members interact, encourage, and inspire
While observing two games – one a men’s and one a women’s - I picked up on several rituals. What qualities/transfers do these rituals offer? What is their provenance? Why are they done?
I encourage you to think about how these gestures and behaviors could apply to work teams. Do some what-iffing about how we treat ourselves off the court.
Cheering comes from the bench (from the “riders of the pine”); the non-playing substitutes pay attention to the game; there’s clapping, rising to feet, shouting. Absent, except among dysfunctional teams, is any staring off into space wanting to be somewhere else, resenting the loss of playing time.
Injured players sit on the bench, often in uniform, even if unable to play.
Bench players get up on feet, give up their seats to players during a time out with the coach.
The Bench rises and greets incoming players.
After a time out with coaches, all hands go up and touch in a spire, including coaches and other team members. (Surely not all these players like each other, yet they touch and aspire together.)
Hand taps by incoming players to entire bench – yes, the players runs the length of the bench hand-touching the team doctor, the strength coach, the assistant coaches, etc.
An assistant coach gives a word of advice, recognition, and encouragement as an aside to an incoming player.
At the start of the game, after the national anthem, starting teams are introduced. While only five players will be named, the bench players are up in a double line and the starters run through the lane and end with a low five or chest bump or other imaginative exclamation point. The entire team (players and staff) circles up before the tip-off.
On the COURT:
Hand taps between players, while passing up and down the court.
At the foul line, players touch hands, always, and give pats on back to shooter whether the first shot is an air ball or basket.
An incoming player (in women’s game) often brings a towel to the replaced player.
Teams circles up under basket after point made or missed or the shooter “charged” or was “blocked”. The circle provides a sense of celebrating and/or steadying, calming, focusing.
Players, but not all, talk. (Often talking or not – communicating - is cited by coaches as a contributing reason to why a team wins or loses.) Hand signals can be used for communication.
Sometimes, a quick burst of hand clapping is a non-verbal “let’s go!”
Hand touch or hand slap after basket. Good job!
Player gives finger point to the assisting player, for a pass in or a dish out that results in a score.
A player helps a downed player up off floor, offers a hand up and a smile or a concerned look. (On an occasion, an opponent offers a hand up to a downed player – sportsmanship of the finest kind!)
Scalp rub or tap: usually from a veteran to a rookie who does well.
Players set “screens” (this is a legal way to hinder a defender and to “open up” a shooter.
‘Tude or swagger is less about teamwork than it is about psyching the opponent. Still it can bind a team and intimidate an opponent. (I recall a women’s team that circled, pre-game, the opponent’s court with their hoodies up over their heads – thug-like, an image this team and coach cultivated. They won.) Chest bumps after a great play might qualify as ‘tude, possibly earning a technical foul.

Let me know if your workplace team emulates any of these behaviors. A few might be taboo in the no-touch corporate culture, although hardly any are really invasive or harassing. Hand taps, shoulder touches, talking, eye contact, encouraging words and gestures, and engagement, are all relevant and possible. Through them we strengthen our connections and heighten our trust and awareness of each other.
Watching Florida State University Seminoles battle the University of North Carolina Tar Heels for the ACC Championship, I saw FSU player Luke Louck advocating and encouraging several players on the court and at least once inside the coach’s huddle with seeming full support (Bravo!) from Seminoles coach, Leonard Hamilton. It was a scene right out of the classic team movie, Hoosiers! The Seminoles have had a hard season, but after losing 6 of 10 games from November to early January, the team has come back. How did that happen? Here I am citing from a March 10 an ESPN blog item by Edward Aschoff who explains that the team confronted itself after those embarrassing loses, “Players and coaches gathered … to speak candidly about how things weren't working. Slackers were called out and even coaches received constructive criticism from players.
Guards were told they were shooting too much and big men were called lazy in the ultimate open forum.
"Everybody knew what the other guy next to him was thinking," James (a FSU player) said. "We identified our problems and everybody worked toward fixing them. That's what brought us to the point we are now."
FSU won its first ever ACC championship on March 11, 2012
Sounds like the kind of conversation we need but all too often do NOT (cannot?) have in the work place!

Aesop & Management of Self

Posted by jlubans on June 05, 2012  •  Leave comment (2)

Caption: Aesop. Born around 620 BC, died ca. 560 BC.
I have several goals for the Democratic Workplace class I will teach this winter in Latvia: “to explore and engage the democratic work place, teams and teamwork concepts, group dynamics, self-management, leadership and effective followership.
“Self-management” deals with becoming an effective follower, someone who stands out because she is pro-active and thinks critically for herself; she is more leader-like than waiting-to-be-led. An effective follower has a good idea of who he is and is not afraid to speak the truth. He has a strong professional purpose and values to match. Andrew Rowan is but one example touched upon in this blog.
Barbara Kellerman’s book on Bad Leadership offers advice on what followers can do when working with a bad leader. That same advice helps define self-management:
Empower yourself.
Be loyal to the whole, not to any one individual.
Be skeptical.
Take a stand.
Pay attention.
These concepts may be difficult to instill - if you are not already inclined that way from experience or gene pool - but I still think a person can evolve and gain more knowledge about who he is.
Experience helps us acquire lessons, to find courage for the “next time”. If we regret our performance in one situation, how will we do better the next time? If we backed down from an abusive boss or if we were abusive to someone, what will we change about the next time?
Caption: New cover, same excellent book.
I have been reading an engaging new translation of Aesop’s some 600 fables.
It is by Laura Gibbs, a professor at the University of Oklahoma.
Here are two of her translations I’ve selected for their relevancy to how we manage ourselves.
Caption: Bust of Athena, Goddess of War and Wisdom.
Fable 480
The Shipwrecked Man and Athena
A wealthy Athenian was making a sea voyage with some companions. A terrible storm blew up and the ship capsized. All the other passengers started to swim, but the Athenian kept praying to Athena, making all kinds of promises if only she would save him. Then one of other shipwrecked passengers swam past him and said, “While you pray to Athena, start moving your arms!”
(I can apply the lesson to myself; but economically hapless Greece leaps foremost to mind.)

Fable 285
The Kite and the Partridges
One day the kite happened to consider his wings and feet and talons. ‘Indeed,’ he exclaimed, ‘am I not just as well armed as the hawk and the falcon? Look at what wings and what feet and what talons I have! Why shouldn’t I go and catch some partridges?’ The kite knew a place where he could find many partridges so he went there and launched his attack: he seized one partridge with his beak, another with his wings and one more in each foot. But the kite couldn’t keep hold of that many partridges, so in the end he had none. Hence the saying: Seize all, lose all.
From then on, the kite never tried to hunt wild birds again.
Note: compare the Roman proverb, ‘the man who chases two hares does not catch either one’.
Caption: The Hare about to get worked over by the tortoise.
(Multi-tasking might sound like something the "cool" among us are doing, but it is best avoided. Common sense and research show that an absence of focus leads to superficial results and errors. So, quit chasing two hares!)

The Un-democracy

Posted by jlubans on August 29, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)


Since I will be teaching about the Democratic Workplace, I ought to have a definition for what that means. I live and vote in a democratic nation – there are some 120 democracies around the globe. As many, some vehemently, will tell you, democracy is imperfect. Of course, when the critics reveal, in moments of candor, what they have in mind for government, democracy is vastly preferable. It is the only model (apart from a Thoreauan anarchy) that promises all individuals freedom, choice and power.
So, democracy, in theory and in practice, appears to be a good model for nations. What about democracy for business?
Most bosses – for-profit and not-for-profit – make it well known to workers “We are not a democracy!” The boss may be of a participatory bent and good at listening and all that, but she is not about to surrender her legal authority and responsibility (and explicit expectation) to give a thumbs up or down on what happens in the business.
And, there’s many a boss – in both sectors – who believes that without his steady guiding hand, his unique vision, his je ne sais quoi as it were, the business would falter and fail. Perhaps.
If you’ve read this far, you may be itching to ask me, “What do you mean by the democratic workplace?” Fair enough.
Another question. “Is it even possible to have a democratic workplace?” We have democratic governments, but government offices (bureaucracies) are anything but democratic.
Maybe I should first list out some of the qualities that make for an un-democratic workplace. A negative approach is not my preferred way to consider a topic but when I (or you) “flip” the negatives, we’ll have a good start on what the democratic workplace looks like.
One dominant leader.
Centralized power.
Workers are “told”; little, if any, choice.
Closed “books” (finances and personnel).
Little worker participation, in any influential way, in planning.
Hierarchy rules, with layers of supervisors responsible for workers.
Communication follows the hierarchy.
Extensive “grape vine” communication among workers.
Many “pragmatist” – survivor – followers.
Managers supervise more than do “
real work” .
Administrators make decisions.
A pronounced fastidiousness about policies and procedures.
Formal (and elaborate) performance appraisal.
Individual perks, from parking to pay, align with the hierarchy.
A reactive, not proactive, organization.

SOON: The “flip” side.
Note: Of course, offers up numerous concepts about democratic principles. The chapters on Southwest Airlines and the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra are especially relevant. My personal experience with the democratic workplace appears in Chapter 4: “Letting Go: A Reflection on Teams That Were”.

Un-democracy flipped

Posted by jlubans on September 05, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

As you know, my in defining the democratic workplace was to list out what it is not.
Today’s post is the flip side of the Un-democracy; it is the definition I will use in my teaching.
By flipping the negatives – for example, “closed books” becomes “open books” - I get to the positive workplace.
In my eyes, it is natural for people to cooperate. Uncooperation is the abnormal. Humans prefer – with some noted competitive exceptions – to collaborate. The democratic workplace is indeed a natural environment. It is our evolved inclination – with language - to help each other that separate us from other species. “You will never see two monkeys carrying a log” is just as true as that when most of us see someone in need we want to help. Finally, the quintessential reason for a democratic workplace is that we get better at what we do, more so than under any other scheme.

Many leaders.
(There is a head leader, but leadership is delegated and distributed throughout the organization. Workers take initiative and cross boundaries to improve services and production. Team leaders, consulting with workers, meet to set goals and iron out production needs. (The “many leaders” concept was recently discussed in the Wall Street Journal,
Who's the Boss? There Isn't One.))
De-centralized power.
(Workers make decisions about their work. Units within the organization make decisions and spend money relevant to their work in concert with other units.)
Open “books” (finances and personnel).
(No secrets. Workers see financial and personnel records and take part, as relevant, in personnel budget decisions and in the recruitment and hiring of new staff.)
Planning involves everyone.
(Workers participate in planning; they are stake-holders equal to managers. Decisions are made in a collaborative process that may include anonymous voting.)
Team-based, flat organization.
(No non-working supervisors. Team members, including team leaders, do their fair share of real work. A flat organization promotes communication across the workplace. There is a “grape vine,” but it is an informal network among workers and no longer the main source of knowing. The democratic ethos is clear: no back stabbing, differences are settled face to face.)
Many effective (independent and critical thinking and action-taking) followers.
(While some workers are less-able followers, all have the freedom and peer-expectation to move from dependent and uncritical thinking to thinking independently and to taking action.)
Managers do “real work”.
(With increased worker responsibility comes a reduction in the need for managers to supervise. Managers take part in doing what needs to be done and take the lead in thinking about trends, improvements and challenges for the organization.)
No formal performance appraisal.
(Performance appraisal is replaced by regular conversation and guidance among team members and managers. As necessary, discipline and guidance is addressed immediately by leaders or peers. Goal setting – Why are we here and what can we do better? - is a natural discussion among leaders and followers. )
Workers help define individual perks, from parking to pay.
(Workers, collaborating with managers, set fair salary levels and other compensation.)
A proactive organization.
(Most staff act like owners. They look to improve what they do; they are alert to trends, new ideas and they are free to carry out new initiatives. The organization has the highly developed capacity to anticipate change and to take on new challenges.)

There you have it. Let me know what you think.
There are, of course, some who question the advisability or feasibility of the democratic workplace. If you have doubts, you might derive comfort from an essay by Phillip J. Jones and George J. Fowler,
Then again, you might be thinking about how much fun it would be to work in a productive, proactive workplace instead of a hunkered-down bureaucracy.
Apart from the Wall Street Journal article linked above – with its several examples of democratic workplaces – there is another one-of-a-kind success
story out of Brazil.
Leading from the Middle, of course, applies many of these democratic workplace principles at work.

And, the blog went over 200,000 hits (quien sabe?) on September 4, 2012.

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE FOX AND THE STORK”*

Posted by jlubans on December 21, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

“Do no harm - if someone does get hurt, then turn-about is fair play, as this fable cautions. 
The fox is said to have started it by inviting the stork to dinner and serving a liquid broth on a marble slab which the hungry stork could not so much as taste. The stork, in turn, invited the fox to dinner and served a narrow-mouthed jug filled with crumbled food. The stork was able to thrust her beak inside and eat as much as she wanted, while her guest was tormented with hunger. As the fox was licking the neck of the jug in vain, the stork is supposed to have said, 'When others follow your example, you have to grin and bear it.'”

Translator’s Note: “Caxton supplies the English proverb 'with the staf which he had made he was bete.'” **

The fox was cute, the stork cuter. One or the other goes hungry. A winner? Maybe, if “getting even” is a “win”, as the promythium condones. Politicians (elected and appointed) pull this sort of one-ups-manship. I recall wanting to move my professional association into a new area of service. Several colleagues and I were riding a popular wave among the membership to do just that. If we succeeded – it was fairly certain we would - the traditional groups might lose dues-paying members leaving for our new, inclusive, organization. One of the traditional groups, at the urging of its president, created its own subgroup for the new service (which it had resisted doing for many years) and thus retained many of their members. Problem was that this kept the old divisions in place and handicapped, to this day, the necessary open discussion among all participants. You might say the outcome was a half-a -loaf, which was better than none. Kind of like the fox and the stork, because of their petty behavior, getting one meal instead of two!
My colleagues and I did get the unacknowledged bragging rights for the creation of the new subgroup. Without our efforts - perceived as a "threat" - the subgroup might never have been.

*Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.

**Seems akin to being “Hoist on one’s own petard!” Or, to quote Hamlet, “Hoist with his owne petar.” In English, “petard” is an obsolescent word for a type of “bomb” for blowing down gates and doors. In French, ‘péter’ means “to fart”, a not unrelated image.

Governing Not

Posted by jlubans on October 12, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

Danny Heitman’s essay on Henry David Thoreau,
Not Exactly a Hermit", skips the enviro clichés and brings fresh insight to the life of the American intellectual and political theorist. Thoreau has had a global influence on political thought, persuading the likes of Gandhi, Tolstoy and King. While not a consistent hermit, he was hardly a social butterfly, eschewing the party scene for one-on-one conversation in which he voiced blunt opinions. Emerson remarked “‘I love Henry, but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree’ ” Probably not the best team player!
Heitman adds a new perspective - Thoreau as the quintessential American writer: “(W)hat he advanced by constant example, is a style of writing that’s characteristically American—often colloquial, routinely direct, and with a suggestion of plain talk that sometimes, on second reading, reveals a deeper complexity.” I like that.
Caption. One of many Thoreau books still in print.
Why am I going on about Thoreau? Because of the following quote from his essay, Civil Disobedience, which I will use as a discussion starter in my Democratic Workplace class this winter:
“I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe– ‘That government is best which governs not at all’; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have”.

This paragraph about self-government is the curtain raiser on Civil Disobedience.
The footnotes in the link suggest that Thoreau may have been referring to the motto - "The best government is that which governs least," - of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, 1837-1859 or to "the less government we have, the better" from Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Politics", 1844.
For me, these quotes bring to mind the earliest anarchistic writings found in Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (The Book of the Way, ca. 500 BC).
Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience in protest of a government at war and still enthralled by slavery. Mr. Thoreau was not happy with the status quo and called upon others to join in with his disobeying. He himself refused, in protest in 1846, to pay a mandatory poll tax and was jailed for a night before family bailed him (unwillingly) out.
I do wonder if Mr. Thoreau really meant what he said about dispensing with government. While he lived an idealistic (and reclusive) life in a way that others might only wishfully talk about, he may be overstating the case for a different kind of government, substituting one with his ideas transcendent. He did participate in productive and inventive ways in his family’s pencil factory, but there does not seem to be any record of how he worked with others on-the-job.
Thoreau hedges his self-governance option with the condition that it comes about only “when men are prepared for it”. When will that be? I would argue that people have always been prepared for it and that political thinkers have always managed to figure out some way to keep government going, more or less depending on the critic’s philosophy. For example, below is Lenin’s charming propaganda about self-governing children. We know how that dystopia played out!
Caption: Lenin’s "Self-government for Children”
All that aside what does no government look like? How do decisions get made? Why group decisions? I doubt if Thoreau asked for any advice from anyone during his 2 years and 2 months on Walden Pond. He made all his own decisions and did not have a single group vote a la OWS consensus voting. In BF Skinner's Walden Two, the story of a rigidly controlled utopian commune, the "members" have no say in decisions. They, the founder assures us, want it that way. It's the "Planners" (an elite) that run the place and tell the willing many what to do.
I will pair – in my class - Thoreau’s quote with Lincoln’s words from his Gettysburg Address:
“that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
For me both quotes relate to aspects of self-government, of personal responsibilities, and management of self in organizations.
Freedom at work is a theme I began to develop in Leading from the Middle, for example, Chapter 32: Productivity in Libraries? Managers Step Aside
I am looking forward to where the class discussion of these concepts and ideas - when applied to the workplace – takes us.
And, I hope a few of my students take me up on an extra credit project: to interview a Latvian worker with experience in both the Soviet (pre-1991) and Democratic (post-1991) eras. I’ll write about the results.
Since I am not a Thoreau scholar anyone that knows more about Thoreau's No Government or Walden as Utopia or Thoreau and Utopic thought, please comment.

Friday’s Fable: Aesop’s “THE BEETLE IN THE AIR”*

Posted by jlubans on February 15, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Keep on rollin’
“There was a beetle who came forth fully sated from his dung heap and saw an eagle flying high up in the air, crossing a great stretch of the sky in a brief stretch of time. The beetle then felt contempt for his own way of life and declared to his fellow beetles, 'Look at that eagle, who is so swift on the wing and so strongly built, equipped with such a savage beak and talons! If she wants, she can soar up to the clouds and plunge downwards as fast as she likes. Meanwhile, we beetles suffer from a sorry state of affairs, being not quite bugs and not quite birds. But my voice is no less pleasant than the eagle's cry, and her sheen does not outshine my own. I will not crawl around in the dung any more! From now on I will consort with the birds and fly around with them everywhere, joining their society!' The beetle then rose into the sky, emitting a song that was nothing more than a loathsome sort of buzzing. As he tried to follow the eagle into the upper air, he was unable to endure the strong winds. He fell to the ground, shaken and exhausted, far away from his home. Facing starvation, the sad beetle said, 'I don't care if they call me a bug or a bird, if only I can get back home to my dung heap!' 
Disaster awaits the arrogant person who puts on airs: he will fail to get promoted and will lose his former position as well.”

The concluding moral evokes, for me, the vainly envious worker who wants a higher job in spite of a lack of experience or qualifications. There’s no question he’d be in over his head, but that does not get in the way of his ambition: “The eagle (the leader) has all the perks, why not me?”
I recall in my study of a woman’s basketball team (Chapter 8)
that one of the players – who was not happy with “riding the pine” as a sub - left the program to go to another team. There she was promised a starring role; no more waiting on the bench! Alas, her inconsistent play – flashes of brilliance followed by stretches of mishandling the ball – got worse due to the extra stress of being a starter/leader.
Yet, there’s something to be said about climbing out of a seeming “dung-heap” to higher levels, to taking a chance, to betting on your own success.
Or, we may choose a prestigious job that pays well but offers few challenges. It’s routine and comfortable, but, to our dismay, the organization likes the status quo: routine and comfortable! And, it resents being reminded about its shortcomings. Let’s hope, like the beetle, when we fall back to earth, to reality, we’re wiser for when the next opportunity comes knocking.

*Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by . Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.

Freedom at Work: Setting Your Own Schedule*

Posted by jlubans on May 15, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

One of the key tenets of a democratic workplace is for workers to set their own schedules. How can this possibly work? One supervisor told me that among his several staff, a “slacker” like Kyle –given his druthers - would now come to work at 11AM and leave at 3PM after a two-hour lunch. Jamal, who arrives early and leaves late, would get shafted. And, what about Jordan? She says her family situation restricts her working evenings or weekends.
Is this supervisor’s incredulous response warranted? Yes, if nothing else changes in the organization. If the culture of the hierarchy remains compartmentalized and departmentalized, self-scheduling is improbable. I had a similar response when one organization I worked in decided to empower its staff. The planning group had a pretty good idea of what empowerment meant, but the staff did not – the fault of us planners. Staff asked me, “Since I am empowered, don’t I get to fire my co-workers and do what I want and only when I want to?** I explained – to the worker’s disappointment - that was not “our” version of empowerment. The needs of the organization prevailed, the work had to get done. My response to the would-be-anarchists applies doubly when workers set their own schedules. As a member of a team - the preferred organizational unit in a freed-up organization – you do not work alone. So, decisions about hours of work are not self-serving or made in isolation. An effective team (nota bene: effective) understands why it exists, where it is headed and what it hopes to achieve.
Please keep in mind that “democratic organizations are transparent, (egalitarian) and open with employees about the financial health, strategy, and agenda of the organization.”*** In other words, the “books” – budget and personnel - are open.
So, if an information desk has to be staffed weekends and evenings or if a processing unit has a one-day turnaround goal then the team knows its parameters, its limits. However, while getting the job done takes priority in schedule setting, there is flexibility in start and end times, breaks, lunches and vacations. These exceptions are negotiable within the team. Effective teams - those that have high trust and good communication - can customize individual schedules and still achieve stellar performance. And, when there’s conflict – say a team member is not abiding by his or her agreed-upon schedule, like our slacker friend, Kyle - the group takes care of the disciplinary process.
Remember, an effective team by definition, enjoys high trust, open communication and has had some training in how to have difficult conversations. While team members personally may desire to avoid, accommodate or compromise on conflict the group’s accountability steers it away from the avoidance route. There’s far less likelihood of game playing in self-managing teams than in a top-down supervisor arrangement. The group self monitors and is more likely than a supervisor to call a negative behavior.

*Note: This is the first of several blog entries on how democratic workplaces behave. Besides the topic of work schedules I will cover pay and perks, production norms, hiring and firing, and workflow planning. In most hierarchies these “choices” have been removed from the workers and delegated to a central authority. The centralization idea is misguided – a central authority is not the way to a productive and smoothly performing organization. Choice is the difference between the hierarchy and a democracy. “Democratic organizations thrive on giving employees meaningful choices.”

** Karl Marx, famously offered up, in 1845, this glimpse of utopia:
“In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” Or, to bring it up to Web.2 speed, the freed worker can now “facebook” in the morning, “tweet” in the afternoon and “yelp” or "telecommute” in the evening or whatever else he or she wishes in cyberspace.

***Quoted material comes from a list of principles for successful and sustainable democratic workplace.

More Music to Manage By.

Posted by jlubans on May 29, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: “Hank Drank “ Hank Williams, 1923 – 1953. The song title’s brevity surpasses W. H. Auden’s poem “Fleas”, “Adam Had ’Em”.
This is the second installment of country music titles. The first appears here and is related to my writing on Latvian folk music to be found here, here and here.
As a noted industrialist remarked, “There’s more good sense in this music than in a year’s worth of Harvard Business Review.”
1. Walk out Backwards Slowly So I Think You’re Coming in.
(For the farewell party when your best work buddy on the East coast work decides to go West. Sob!)
2. If You Can’t Bite, Don’t Growl.
(If the organization won’t let you back up your threat to fire a relentless under-performer, then don’t threaten. Just keep on ‘em. One of two things will happen. He will improve or he will leave to get away from the daily pressure of showing up.)
3. All I Want from You (Is Away.)
(Tell me about it! Like the previously listed “Thank God and Greyhound You’re Gone!” But, don’t sing about it until that person is ON THE BUS and THE BUS IS MOVING; fate and her co-conspirators may be lurking in the wings to keep that “irreplaceable” person in place and on your case.)
4. I Ain’t No Cowboy (I Just Found This Hat.)
(The song describes my funny feeling about taking on a new way of managing without much of a clue. I meant well, but at times I was riding bareback on a run away horse.)
5. You’re Going To Ruin My Bad Reputation.
(When my work team had great success and accomplished the “impossible” that confounded my bad reputation among the deniers. But not for long; theirs was a sliding scale!)
6. You Can’t Build a Fire in the Rain.
(If doubters surround you, all eager to stomp on your campfire, you might feel like this. Same effect:, You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd.
7. The Bridge Washed out, I Can’t Swim, and My Baby’s on the Other Side.
(Classic. Use it when you need to explain why you are a no show. And for that difficult phone call to the spouse after you’ve gone missing for several days after the out-of-town convention: Don’t Pay the Ransom, Honey, I’ve Escaped.
20130529-hank and band, with his wife.jpg
Caption: Hank Williams and band in his prime.

Freedom at Work: The 2%.

Posted by jlubans on June 26, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

“Open books” or open budgets are among the must-haves in the democratic work place. Trust can be strengthened and, once the staff see where the money is going, how it is spent, they are better able to conserve resources and use them wisely. However, with most open budgets, staff are limited to looking, not touching. I think staff should have the opportunity to influence the budget, to influence how the money is spent. When you get to help decide how the money is spent you will develop a much greater understanding about the budget, that “quantitative prediction of the future.”
Reality intrudes: Most, if not all, of the new budget is already spent, already obligated, already committed, leaving few dollars for new equipment, new programs. The costs of salaries, benefits, books, subscriptions, equipment, do not diminish over time, they invariably increase. Indeed, “benefits” alone can drain resources away from the other categories, robbing Peter to pay Paul. In reasonable times, the budget is almost always incremental; it increases a percent or two and programs continue, largely undisturbed. It seems that only in a crisis can the budget be used as a force for change, forcing us to make those long delayed, uncomfortable decisions. While that may be what it takes, it would have been far better for the organization to have the courage to confront change rather than to have it forced upon the library, to be told, “You have 5% less this year, deal with it”.
One approach to break up the incremental organization is through involving staff in planning for the future. My gives an example of doing this. Here’s a quote from Chapter 26: You Can’t Build a Fire in the Rain: Sparking Change in Libraries:
“The underlying theory behind the FS (future search) is that if you get enough good people together, they can decide what needs doing for their organization and then go about doing it.
Envisioning the future is the first step to getting there. The FS includes a large number of stakeholders: selected staff Haves and Have-nots along with invited guests like customers. For the academic library this group would include students, faculty, and board members. (My FSs numbered over sixty participants each.) This mix is the difference maker, because for an intense two days, we sidelined the pecking order, with good and bad ideas coming from all over. Good ideas are supported on their merit and not by the status of the suggestion maker. Invariably, there are enough positive people in the mix to assuage the uncertainty and trepidation some participants—often proponents for the status quo—might be feeling. Cannot becomes can do.”

But, and it is a big but, many FSs conclude inconclusively – at least those conducted at institutions not on life support. My FS groups developed imaginative and expensive scenarios for desirable futures but largely stalled when it came time to decide what to give up to fund the future. That is not necessarily bad. As indicated in the above quote, the FS did in one case lead to a dawning realization – initially resisted by many - that the digital library was indeed the future and that we had to re-allocate funds for e-resources and more money for hardware and for systems staff and that it would have to come out of hide (OOH!) The upper administration, however sympathetic, made it clear that there would be no new money. We brokered a deal with the administration to keep salary savings and went about systematically holding positions open in order to put more resources toward the digital future. In many ways this put us on the right road well ahead of our peer libraries who continued to delay and to deny for several years more.

The 2%. Writing about opening the “books” and reading about
participatory budgeting, and blogging about bee decision-making, and Vermont town meetings in which citizens debate and decide a town’s budget, lead me to make a pragmatic and practical suggestion: The 2%, a way to find “new” money for programs and equipment. How it works is that the organization holds back 2% of the total budget, in all lines. Easily said, you scoff, but how would you really do this? Pretty much like what I described above for that one library: make small sacrifices to gain big resources – including a new vision - for the future. But, only on the condition that the 2% goes to an Innovation Fund, visible to all staff. Of course, be sure all share holders understand what you are doing and why.
If your upper administration is enthusiastic about your plan, ask them to help out with a “thrift” match. Include them in the solution. So, once the money starts to trickle into the Innovation Fund, how do you decide what gets supported? I suggest you borrow from the Participatory Budgeting process and allow staff – certainly all those how have touched the 2% - to make proposals for all to see, to publicly lobby for them, and then to vote. I recommend that the vote should be anonymous and that the results are binding, not advisory. Repeat, annually.

Freedom at Work: Saying No to “Gamification”, Slogans, Mottos, Mantras and Maxims, including Performance Appraisal.

Posted by jlubans on July 16, 2013  •  Leave comment (1)

(This continues my series on what it means to be free at work, what the democratic workplace looks like.)

You’ve seen them, those glossy posters of an iced-over climber staking a flag on a mountaintop or a kayaker soloing a raging river; they’re all about excellence and what it takes (for you!) to be the best. Pretty good photography but is it effective in doing what it is meant to do: goosing the lackadaisical, the disinterested, the fatigued and tired to new levels of production?
Caption: Tom Sawyer’s Fence.
With the internet comes a new term: gamification*. It’s a way to get people to do things they normally would not do – e. g. write long reviews for free, for Amazon and TripAdvisor. In return, we get e-badges, congratulatory e-mails for achieving or aspiring to new levels of contribution. We may even be designated “top contributors!” If this reminds you of Tom Sawyer getting his friends to pay him so they can paint his fence, then you understand gamification. Indeed, gamification concepts have long been applied to work. If you achieve a certain level, you are rewarded along the way, maybe with a gold star, a badge, a medal Now, the computer tracks your progress and e-rewards you to keep you on task and tricks you (willingly), ala Tom Sawyer, to work harder. You are having fun. Right?

Well not really. Gamification – while automated - is not much different than any other external motivator, like the high-flying eagle on the wall poster. You might like the picture, but if you do not personally aspire to soar metaphorically alongside that eagle, then it is not likely you will. Anytime you are exhorted, reminded externally to do better, to give more, to pick up the slack, the assumption is that you are holding back and that you are not giving it your all.

I would go so far as to suggest that Performance Appraisal (PA) is a pre-internet example of gamification. PA is different from much of the new gamification in its explicit “carrot and stick” (rewards and punishment) approach. Most gamification suppresses punishment – Amazon does not upbraid me for failing to review a book I’ve purchased nor does TripAdvisor reproach me for too few reviews. LinkedIn does not admonish me - yet - for failing to post my CV. No, gamification does not at the moment use electrodes to buzz me with gentle reminders that I am, yet again, falling down on the(ir) job, that I have not clicked the SUBMIT button often enough.

Nowadays, most everyone in the library workplace goes through an annual ceremony of boss sitting down with an employee and assigning one of five levels (badges?) to that employee, from Exceptional to Unsatisfactory. Much of this process is tacit, highly ritualized, and pleasing only to HR officers who think – without any quantifiable evidence - that PA makes a positive difference. You disagree? Totally? Well, please show me a study or two concluding that performance appraisal makes a difference instead of stealing hours away from service desks and other real work. The notion that PA forces the boss to talk to the employee tells me that the boss needs to be replaced. Or, there's the other heralded result of PA; an official document that protects the employee from a mean-spirited supervisor. Again, why are we employing such cretinous bosses? PA has little, if anything, to do with the frequent coaching and disciplining, guiding, mentoring, and conversing - all essential components - in the daily relationship between leader and follower. The more independent and accomplished the follower the less frequent the interaction.

“OK, OK”, you exclaim! “You’ve convinced me to tear down (sob!) my inspirational posters, to stop with the Vince Lombardi wannabe exhorting my team to excellence, and to limit PA to an annual conversation about ambitions and goals! Now, what can I do to help my staff be more creative, more industrious, more willing to think about what they do?” “Gamify reference and cataloging?”
Nyet! No easy task or solution. I quote or allude to Fred Emery’s research more than once in my book. His research helps clarify what an organization must provide each worker to augment, perhaps waken, internal motivation:

Adequate elbowroom for decision-making
Opportunity to learn at work
Variety in work
Mutual support and respect
Desirable future

Work towards these ends, then you’ll have a motivated library staff. Some workers will excel regardless, but if you do not provide what Emery concludes most workers want, they won’t be around for long.

*I ran into “gamification” in the Times Literary Supplement: Michael Saler, "How the internet is using us all”. Published: 22 May 2013.

Born or Made?

Posted by jlubans on August 21, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Mr. Burns, the quintessential Theory X Leader.

What kind of leader/follower are you? Do you give it much thought? I am planning a weeklong leadership retreat during the summer a year from now. As I develop the agenda, I do want to include time for each participant to deliberate about how she leads and how she follows. In my career as a librarian few of my administrative colleagues talked about their leadership or followership. We’d lead somehow or other, including not leading. Taking the time in a retreat to consider why you – the participant - leads the way you do might be an excellent next step toward becoming the leader or follower you want to be.
I’d also like to include a segment where each participant explains who they are as a leader and then gets feedback from the group about how the group perceives that person's leadership.
We’ll need to review the types of leadership styles. I have two reasons for doing this. First is to give everyone a shared vocabulary so when someone calls himself a Theory X leader, people will have a general idea of what he means. Or, if someone says she’s a transformational leader or a situational leader, we’ll all know pretty much what she is talking about. My second reason is that in many fields, including librarianship, we focus on our jobs and do not have the time or the interest to think about leadership style or to mull over the type of leader we may want to be. It’s important for personal growth to know what style may suit us best.
A basic working assumptions in every text about a new theory is that we can become the type of leader we want to be or are told to be, like Homer perusing Covey. I have questions about this assumption. Are we born to be a leader/follower (it’s in our DNA) or do we have a choice?
When teaching library management in the USA I give students a one page, ten question, self-test on theory X and theory Y*. (Quick review: Theory X holds that without the active intervention by management, people will be passive – even resistant – to organizational needs. Staff must therefore be persuaded, rewarded, punished, controlled – their activities must be directed. This is management’s task. We often sum it up by saying that management consists of getting things done through other people.
On the other side, advocates of Theory Y believe the motivation, the potential for development, the capacity for assuming responsibility, the readiness to direct behavior toward organizational goals are all present in people. Management does not (indeed cannot) put them there. It is a responsibility of management to make it possible for people to recognize and develop these human characteristics for themselves.
In brief, theory X managers supervise closely, while theory Y managers are more hands-off.)
Each student takes this test twice, once for how he supervises (or would supervise) and once again for how the student wants to be supervised. After scoring the two tests, the students arrange themselves around the room by their scores. There’s usually a wide distribution from extreme X to extreme Y but more often then not the Xs have it.
Then, I ask the students to rearrange themselves by the score for how they want to be supervised. There’s usually a total shift to the theory Y side of the room. Those with a strong theory X inclination in supervising others find themselves wondering, “Why am I the boss that I would not want?”
So, are leaders made or born? I think it important to consider why we behave the way we do on the job. If most of us prefer a democratic style, how do we wind up pushing Theory X? Do we acquire it, learn it? Are we imbued and inculcated with it? Or is it that our organizations are built around Theory X? What do work place accoutrements and appurtenances like the payroll, budget, time clock, performance appraisal, the hierarchy’s organizational chart, and the required review and sign off by upper management on paperwork suggest about the underlying dominant culture?
At semester’s end I have the students re-take the X and Y test. Is there a shift in student leadership ideas? Over the semester, the students will have participated in team building activities, group projects, and reading and discussing about organizational theories. When the students line up according to score, almost the entire class shifts toward the Y end of the spectrum. If there are Xs left, it is often demanded by the type of job, e.g. training and supervising entry level workers.
I mention this to suggest that it is possible to unlearn one way of leading in favor of a way that is intuitively more comfortable and, in many cases, more productive.

* The Human Side
of Enterprise (the Annotated Edition) by Douglas McGregor and Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld.
New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006. The revised edition of the "enduring management classic" from the 1950s, with introductions by Warren Bennis and Edgar Schein, in which Douglas McGregor introduced management style Theories X and Y.
For the reader of footnotes, it might be of interest to know that I am cited by name in this book on page 102.
You can google the reference by clicking on this .

Copyright John Lubans 2013

Book Thieves and Other Library Scoundrels.

Posted by jlubans on September 04, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Title Page, Philosophical Transactions, 1665.
Travis McDade’s engaging new book, “Thieves of Book Row: New York’s Most Notorious Rare Book Ring and the Man Who Stopped It”. (NY: Oxford University Press, 2013) set me reminiscing about the book crooks I’ve run into during my library career. While “Thieves of Book Row” is about the booming used book trade in Depression-era New York City, the book provides antecedents to current skullduggery and book thievery in libraries. Librarians are today more vigilant and diligent than ever, but the book thief is still at large and doing his mischief. (Hard to believe, but I have never encountered or heard of a female book thief! Bibliokleptomania appears to be a guy-thing.)

Here is my reminiscence of The Felonious Flier:
My first library job was at RPI, the engineering school in up-state NY. One of my many tasks was to secure the thousand or so rare items in RPIs historic collections dating from the early 1800s. Underscoring the importance of this assignment, my boss told me of his recent unhappy experience with a supposedly reputable book dealer. This dealer’s cover/scam was microfilming early journal holdings – he’d pick up the hard copy from the library’s stacks and fly it on his personal plane to a filming company. He’d pay the library a fee and gave it a “free” microfilm copy along with the returned hard copy journal. Presumably, he would then sell the microfilm to other libraries that wanted that journal. (This was a time of mega budgets for science libraries.)
All was well until one weekend when the library director chanced upon the dealer loading the complete set of the rare “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society” (including the first issue from March 6th, 1655) into his car to go to the airport. The “Philosophical Transactions” were not on the to-film list. The director smelled a rat and realized his mistake in letting this dealer into the books stacks unsupervised. (McCade mentions many book thieves ingratiating themselves with library staff and being permitted into locked collections, even after hours. We are indeed all about service!) Because of an open stack library’s “normal” attrition, It is hard to say how many rare items Felonious Flier stole before my boss caught him. I do not recall the punishment, beyond the dealer’s being banned from campus. McCade points out that book thieves rarely get the maximum jail sentence. And, there is the victim’s tendency to avoid embarrassment, so many thieves go free.

Another scoundrel:
The Magazine Mutilator or “My Teacher Said I Could.”
The campus police interrupted my usually quiet lunch hour at the University of Colorado Library. They’d nabbed a student – on the prominent front steps of Norlin Library, no less - tearing pages out of one of the library’s hardbound magazines.
When confronted, he claimed his teacher told him he could. I learned that the teacher, as part of a term paper, required full copies of any cited articles. While I understand what the professor was trying to do – stop plagiarism and make students locate and use original information – I think she could have been clearer about wanting photocopies, NOT ripped off library articles. (But, then, really?)
We re-claimed the torn out pages and glued them back into place. And, as a penance, I had the student write us a letter in which he explained why it was wrong to do what he did. I have to admit, his explanation was like one of those ubiquitous non-apologies from wrong doers, “If I have offended anyone with my actions, I wish to apologize.” No admission of wrongdoing. Nor any acceptance of responsibility for unethical behavior.
I doubt if the student understood (or cared) that ripping out articles deprived other readers. Very likely he had been, since grade school, clipping articles and pictures from magazines as part of teacher-sanctioned assignments. True, those articles were from home subscriptions, but it was not much of a leap –for the literal minded - from ripping up dad’s copy of “Time” or “Life” magazine to doing the same with ones at the library.

In a future blog, I’ll have more recollections of pilfering professors, literary lurkers, petulant patrons and other enemies of books, including librarians.

NOTE: Linked to by American Libraries Direct!

Copyright 2013 John Lubans

More Music for Managers.

Posted by jlubans on September 24, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

20130925-merleand Jukebox.jpeg
Caption: Merle Haggard (“The Hag”). Born April 6, 1937, Bakersfield, California

This is the blog’s fifth listing of country western song titles for managers to manage by. Written and sung from the heart, this music offers us – when we are ready – solace and wisdom.

“How Can Anything That Sounds So Good Make Me Feel So Bad?”
You’ve been there. Someone is telling you how great it’s going to be and yet you have some doubts. You inner hype-detector is flashing. “Trust and verify” worked for the Ronald and the Roos-kies; apply the same skepticism to those "never-again" promises of a wandering lover or the absolute certainty of the in-house work flow expert about the breakthroughs to be had with more equipment and more staff.
“From the Gutter to You Is Not Up.”
That’s the song that reared up in my head when the boss, after firing me, told me he’d give me a good reference. The last thing I wanted was an obligation to this boss, nor would my disdain permit me to accept the offer. I never did.
“I’ve Got a Funny Feeling I Won’t Be Feeling Funny Very Long.”
That dawning realization that you are no longer the “golden boy” in your organization. Indeed, there may be a piano about to drop on your unsuspecting head as you slip on a banana peel on the sidewalk of life.
“I’m Too Low To Get High.”
There are workplaces with a “Culture of Complaint.” Even when the pay is OK and the work is hardly arduous, nor is the boss all that bad, for some reason, morale is low. After a while, moving is the only cure if you want to be happy in your work. Or, if don’t want to move, then renounce your role in the culture of complaint: stop agreeing with the grousing and speak only in terms of how to make things better.
“I Can’t Afford to Half My Half Again.”
A song for that fiscally reeling feeling most libraries (and many other businesses) have had since October of 2008. How many cuts can a budget sustain before the cupboard is bare and it’s time to shut the door?
Caption: Don Williams. Born May 27, 1939, Floydada, Texas.
“There’s No Use Running If You’re on the Wrong Road.”(By Don Williams).
I used to be one of the Pooh-Bahs in the user education movement, now termed “information literacy” (after molting out of “instruction in library use”, “bibliographic instruction” and “library literacy”. ) Some of our ideas were well intentioned, but not the best – we were running on the wrong road. I see some of the same ineffective ideas still supported – for example, mandatory information literacy classes. Everyone knows since the mid-60s that help at a “point-of-need” is when the student library user learns best.
Caption: Merle, older & wiser.
“It’s Not Love, But It’s Not Bad.”
When your deal won’t float, you take what you can get. It’s the “I can live with that” type of consensus. You may have no choice or inclination to do otherwise. But the best result is when two good ideas merge to produce a third, the best idea. So, Merle is onto something, love may come.

Copyright John Lubans 2013