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

Posted by jlubans on November 28, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Silkscreen print by Eleanor Grosch.

“A Crab once left the sea-shore and went and settled in a meadow some way inland, which looked very nice and green and seemed likely to be a good place to feed in. But a hungry Fox came along and spied the Crab and caught him. Just as he was going to be eaten up, the Crab said, ‘This is just what I deserve; for I had no business to leave my natural home by the sea and settle here as though I belonged to the land.’”

“Be content with your lot.”

This disputable moral – aren’t they all? - reminds me of the infamous “Lawsuit among the Adages.” No, not cabbages, adages. You know, “Look before you leap” Vs. “He who hesitates is lost.” The jury is still out.
In the workplace, one all too frequent refrain in opposition to change is the mantra: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” We’ll just keep on doing what we are doing, even if we are discontent. My injudicious response? “If it ain’t broke, break it!”
While that sounds a bit too close to the insufferable certainty of Thomas Alva Edison’s “Show me a thoroughly satisfied man — and I will show you a failure,” I think judicious application of the “break it” principle might help untie those workplace Gordian knots that impede and frustrate.
Less dramatic but perhaps more germane is the Latvian folk saying about pursuing one’s discontent for the best deal: “Why settle for a sandwich if you’re invited to dinner?”

*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.

Friday’s Leading from the Middle Library:
Susquehanna University, Blough-Weis Library
Selinsgrove, PA. USA

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

“Where the ball is going to be.”

Posted by jlubans on November 25, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Marquette's coach, Carolyn Kieger, in her first year, encourages the team.

I make frequent use of basketball movies and articles to teach teamwork. (Indeed, “Leading from the Middle” has a chapter – “More than a Game” - on what I learned from a season with a women’s basketball team.) The two films I use are “Hoosiers” and “Sapņu komanda 1935" (Dream Team 1935). They share a similar storyline: a dysfunctional team that has a long way to go to achieve its potential. Each coach makes passing or sharing the ball of paramount importance in the team’s development. Of course, the ball hog players refuse to share and the storyline develops around how the coach and team work out their differences. The teams eventually learn that by sharing the ball their team will become better able to score and to win.
A coach’s instruction, “I want every player to touch the ball before anyone shoots,” is not a silly team building exercise. Passing really is about improving the probability of scoring. Rather than a player’s going it alone, passing the ball can set up players for the rebound or to gain a fraction of a second for an open “look” at the basket prior to shooting. Several head-snapping passes on the outside perimeter can confuse and freeze defenders and get the ball to the most open player.
Caption: Program featuring freshmen players.
I went to a game this weekend and it reminded me, once again, of the many good lessons about leading, following, sharing, and support one can find in a well played game.
Azura Stevens, a first year player, had an outstanding game. When asked to compare her play to an earlier game in which she was less effective she said: “The main difference was just thinking of the team before myself,” Stevens said. “I had a semi-decent game (a week ago), and I’ll admit I was a little bit prideful. So going into this game, I was really trying to focus on the team goals and what we were going to get done as a team, and the rest just came.”
When a player steals the ball and runs the court, usually there’s a team mate trailing; often that player is in a better position to score. If the player decides to keep the ball and shoots at full speed, it may rim out, a lost score. Indeed the other team may get the ball back. Similarly, I see a coach shaking her head when a player surrounded by defenders keeps the ball and puts up a wobbly shot.
So what does this have to do with work?
Passing the ball is like sharing ideas at work. The more touches an idea has the better the idea (the notion of an idea “scoring” or “winning” is not a complicated concept). A willingness to talk frankly and honestly and to have the patience to wait for an idea to develop is akin to a basketball team’s communicating and patiently passing and setting up shots. Also, passing represents players knowing their inter-dependencies. To pass without losing the ball means being aware of one’s colleagues, of being in the right place at the right time. Wayne Gretzky, the hockey player, said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” (BTW, when repeated by hidebound bosses, the ending of this quote – Gretzky’s excoriation of tradition - is always dropped!)
Some of that mind set and skill is what a good team gains through practice. The player charging up the court knows – without seeing – that there’s a trailing player ready to catch a behind-the-back pass for an easy lay-up. Or, when one player, screened by a defender and out of view of the passer, steps to the right and catches the pass. And it means talking, making yourself heard to all the players, letting the other players know where you are, literally and figuratively. Look at any good team (on the court or at work) and you’ll see “hands up” and other gestures of being open and you’ll hear the players talking to each other, letting everyone know where one is to help, to offer support.
You do not have to be prescient, like Mr. Gretzky suggests; rather you have to be familiar with your team and its procedures to know where to move the ball; you need to be where the ball is going to be.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week:
University of South Carolina, System Library Service
University Libraries, Columbia, SC 29208 United States

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Friday Fable: La Fontaine’s version of Aesop's “THE STAG AND THE VINE.”*

Posted by jlubans on November 21, 2014  •  Leave comment (1)

Caption: The 42nd Psalm. Mosaic, probably from the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Ravenna, Italy.

“A stag, by favour of a vine,
Which grew where suns most genial shine,
And form'd a thick and matted bower
Which might have turn'd a summer shower,
Was saved from ruinous assault.
The hunters thought their dogs at fault,
And call'd them off. In danger now no more
The stag, a thankless wretch and vile,
Began to browse his benefactress o'er.
The hunters, listening the while,
The rustling heard, came back,
With all their yelping pack,
And seized him in that very place.
'This is,' said he, 'but justice, in my case.
Let every black ingrate
Henceforward profit by my fate.'
The dogs fell to--'twere wasting breath
To pray those hunters at the death.
They left, and we will not revile 'em,
A warning for profaners of asylum.”

Moral supplied by V. S. Vernon Jones: “Ingratitude sometimes brings its own punishment.”

In mordant moments, I like to think that people who do harm to others endure some level of unrelated suffering. Probably not as immediate as what the stag experiences, but over time, a karmic fate meanders their way, like a yellow fog oozing in and around and shutting off their light. So, all those folks in Kafkian customer service remember, do no harm to the customer (your metaphoric vineyard), lest you find yourself the stag surrounded by slings and arrows. Help, never hinder. The customer is always right, even when she’s wrong. Now that’s more Beckett than Kafka, but you know what I mean. Uber, the ride share company with vicious thoughts and surge pricing, could benefit from reading this and other fables from La Fontaine.

*Source: THE FABLES OF LA FONTAINE Translated From The French by Elizur Wright. [original place and date: Boston, U.S.A., 1841.] A New Edition, with Notes by J. W. M. Gibbs,1882. Available at Gutenberg.

Two of my students, Ilze Kleinšmite and Santa Lozda, have written about the class I just finished at the University of Latvia. My teaching of this class was supported through a Fulbright Specialists Program Award from the United States Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. I was one of over 400 U.S. faculty and professionals to travel abroad this year through the Fulbright Specialists Program.
The students’ report, “Informācijas pārvaldības studenti apgūst demokrātiju darba vietā.” (Information Management students learn about democracy in the workplace) is on the U of Ls Faculty of Social Sciences web page.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: High Point University, Herman H. and Louise M. Smith Library, High Point, NC, USA
Available at Amazon just in time for an egalitarian Christmas.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

“Untold” opinions

Posted by jlubans on November 18, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: The singular mindset. (Maine photo by JL.)

Andrew Hill, writing in the Financial Times,
reveals that a nondescript bank clerk - Eric Roberts - was a double agent during WWII, “controlling and neutralising hundreds of Nazi sympathisers and ‘fifth columnists’ in Britain”. What sets Mr. Hill to thinking is an archived note from one of this master spy’s bank supervisors questioning the rationale behind the request for him to help in the war effort: “What we would like to know here is what are the particular and especial qualifications of Mr. Roberts – which we have not been able to perceive – for some particular work of national military importance?” (Emphasis added.)
This supervisor’s inability to recognize talent when it was front and center sets Andrew Hill wondering how many other just plain workers – maybe more of the quiet, unassuming kind than of the extroverted – are passed over, go unrecognized and are under-used by the organization.
In my personal career, I know of at least two bosses – neither of whom I worked for – that would make noises akin to Robert’s boss, undercutting and mean-spirited. One was a director of a library in an elite private institution and the other was a director in a large public university. No, their inability to recognize talent was not just a blind spot; rather, it was something more calculated. Both resented someone’s being singled out for positive recognition and could not get past their personal envy. You can imagine the type of staff these two directors accumulated in their respective organizations. Probably not creative, independent, critical thinkers!
Hill suggests that there may well be talent, like the “genius spy”, in our organizations that simply does not fit neatly into the "paradigm” (excuse me) we think separates the best people from the crowd. “(D)etecting those who are hiding in plain view” is made all the more difficult by our preconceptions and intolerances.

I have written more than once about the quiet team member; the one who is not saying much. Do you invite them in to the discussion or ignore them? For that matter, do you even assign them to a team project since they are not loquacious and garrulous? I see this play out regularly when I form classroom teams and give them 10 minutes to come up with a solution to some problem. Often the quiet people are ignored and while the team products are OK, they could well have been better had the group made an effort to make sure everyone had a say, however briefly.
I encourage the quiet people to speak up, to exercise their voices. A few actually do and all - including the quiet person - are amazed at just how good his/her ideas are. Others reflect – remember these are quiet thinkers - and realize they indeed have something to offer, but that without speaking up, their ideas will go nowhere. One such student who received a grade of 9 on a scale of 10, made this observation when I asked her what she needed to develop to be more effective in a group:
“I would like to be more open, to communicate with others (more freely). Don’t be a shy person. Sometimes I noticed my views and opinion were right, but I haven’t announced it, (so) no one knew about it.”
Another student in this same class saw clearly the perils of not speaking up:
“I would like to develop my own follower qualities, e.g. my ability to speak my mind, express my ideas. Because “untold” opinions can be negative to a group’s work.”
(N. B. I have kept the language as written by the students; please remember these are students for whom English is a second or third language.)

Going back to Robert’s snarky boss, Andrew Hill argues that it is important for leaders to recognize talent. If someone does not measure up to your yardstick of corporate qualities, you may want to ask yourself why? In groups you lead, do you invite in the quiet person or do you figure they must not have anything to say – why else would they be quiet! Or do you invite them in, e.g. “I notice you’ve been thinking quietly, what should we do?” Or, “OK, we’ve talked about this and I’ve heard from most of you. I want to hear what those who have not spoken think, so don’t be shy about telling me what’s right, what’s wrong. If you think we’re barking up the wrong tree, let me know.” And then wait.
I like to tell the story – it appears in Leading from the Middle
of how during an outdoor leadership challenge we muted the two domineering MBA students who really believed they knew best. But, try as they might, their ideas, were not getting the job done, nor was anyone else speaking up. We decided to see what would happen if we silenced these two and asked the others to work out the problem – you might not get away with doing that in the workplace, but in a “harmless” adventure activity, it’s acceptable.
How did it work out? The quietest person came up with the solution. All she needed was some space and encouragement in which to offer ideas. Did the two domineering personalities change? Probably not, but the quiet participants certainly took home a memorable lesson.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week:
Uniwersytet Mikolaja Kopernika Library
Torun, Poland

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Friday Fable: Aesop's "THE SICK STAG"

Posted by jlubans on November 14, 2014  •  Leave comment (1)

Caption: The stag in happier days. (Illustration BY ARTHUR RACKHAM 1912).
“A Stag had fallen sick. He had just strength enough to gather some food and find a quiet clearing in the woods, where he lay down to wait until his strength should return. The Animals heard about the Stag's illness and came to ask after his health. Of course, they were all hungry, and helped themselves freely to the Stag's food; and as you would expect, the Stag soon starved to death.”

“Good will is worth nothing unless it is accompanied by good acts.”
Or, as George Fyler Townsend has it: “Evil companions bring more hurt than profit.”

Professionally speaking, I recall how in bad times the many colleagues from good times became as scarce on the ground as the feed in the sick stag’s bailiwick. Some former “colleagues” helped themselves, literally and figuratively, and at the end, offered no hand up.

*Source: Aesop for Children (translator not identified). Illustrations by Milo Winter (1886-1956). Chicago: 
Rand McNally & Company, 1919. Available online at Project Gutenberg.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: University of Delaware, Morris Library, Newark, Delaware, USA.

@Copyright 2014 John Lubans

“Working hard or hardly working?”

Posted by jlubans on November 11, 2014  •  Leave comment (1)

Caption: Cyberloafing.
A friend sent me an article about non-work, “The Art of Not Working at Work.
It’s gotten me thinking about the mysteries of why some people work hard, bad boss or not, and why others loaf, regardless of circumstance.
The Atlantic magazine article opens with the story of a Menden, Germany worker who on his last day in the office, e-taunted 500 of his colleagues by announcing that he had not done any work for 14 years; and, as a result, he was “well prepared for retirement”.
Yes, the mega-slacker claims, he did consult with his supervisors about wanting work but to no avail; the employer denies any such consultation. Yes, he collected a lot of money none of which he intends to return. Yes, he now says he actually did do some work, And so on. The German press says, with a straight face, “The public work ethic had been wounded.”
“Bild” does mention – unlike the liberal Atlantic – another possible causal factor, the worker’s union: “… a city could hardly take action against (a) recalcitrant employee (and member of) the Municipal Employees Association. After 15 years of service and having reached the age of 40 one is virtually impossible to dismiss...”
The Atlantic story goes on to describe - through interviews with 40 self-identified slackers - why slackers slack and loafers loaf. Not surprisingly, it is not always the loafer’s intent or fault. Managers, who plan and direct work, often contribute to the slacker culture. And technology may influence – indeed facilitate – loafing.
While IT has improved personal productivity some managers and workers insist that the same number of workers is needed post-automation as there was pre-automation. So, even when automation does the job in 10% of the time of the manual/paper system, too many employees may be vying over too few hours of real work – so workers naturally adjust to fill in the day.
Why then, when work is scarce, does a manager not transfer people to other areas in greater need? It may be angst that a reduction in the number of “direct reports” will reduce the manager’s status and salary.
Technology may provide another excuse for soldiering or gold-bricking, as Frederick Taylor called the phenomenon back in the day: an employee e-tethered to the workplace will have less compunction about doing personal work at the office or on office time since he or she is online all the time. Taking time for one’s self during the day is only a fair trade off for being on the grid every minute, every day.
Curiously, is not the Atlantic’s cyberloafer only doing what Karl Marx famously suggested workers would do one Utopian day? Since “society (now) 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….” Or, to bring it up to Web.2 speed, the liberated proletariat can now Facebook in the morning, Tweet in the afternoon and go YouTubing or LinkedIn-ing) in the evening or whatever else he or she wishes to do in cyberspace.
An organization’s culture may encourage loafing. A highly capable professional colleague – with an unstoppable work ethic and a do-it-now attitude - told me while her new job’s schedule is ideal for parenting her young family, there’s not enough work – she’s bored. When she asked her supervisor for more work he appeared incredulous. Why would she want more work? Obviously assigning more work – however capable the worker - would violate the company’s unstated work norm; better her talent go to waste than to rock the corporate boat.
The Atlantic’s story dredged up my memories of slogging through Max Weber’s lugubrious theories on the bureaucracy (governing by desk!) Some modern offices – public and private - do approximate his observation about the emerging bureaucrat, as paraphrased here:
“Employment by the organization is a career. The official is a full-time employee and looks forward to a life-long career. After a trial period they get tenure of position and are protected from (arbitrary) dismissal.”
Which reminds me how some people can get quite comfy in their jobs and customize their bureaucratic work life ala Weber’s “lifers” with late arrivals, long breaks, lengthy lunch hours, early departures and "special projects" (read hobbies). For me, the notion of squandering this much time when there were piles of work to do, along with the poor impression this behavior made upon the people doing real work, bothers me to this day. Yet, at least one organization in which I labored was reluctant to confront this behavior – doing so would have violated the inherited culture of conflict-avoidance. When abuse of work time is tacitly accepted, how can a sense of urgency - the quintessential condition for change – be introduced by any leader?

Why are some workers motivated to do well and why are some not? I asked my most recent Democratic Workplace class a freebie true or false question on the final exam:
“Without close supervision, I personally would work less and/or make less effort.” Ten agreed unless closely supervised they would work less and seven said they would still work and make an effort. These were undergraduates and that may explain the bias toward close supervision. Still that’s a big difference - almost 2/3rd would slack off when the boss was out of the room! Lewin found, as you probably know, that the democratic leadership model was superior to the autocratic and laissez-faire models in getting results. I would hypothesize that those organizations with more of a democratic environment would have less hard core loafing than a top-down, command and control leadership. It’d be interesting to ask the Atlantic’s self-identified slackers which of these organizational models apply to their organizations.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Peacock and Juno”*

Posted by jlubans on November 07, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Royal Doulton Figurine by Robert Jefferson, 1984. (Inexplicably reminiscent of Robert Arneson’s less-than-dainty ceramics.)

“A PEACOCK once placed a petition before Juno desiring to have the voice of a nightingale in addition to his other attractions; but Juno refused his request. When he persisted, and pointed out that he was her favorite bird, she said:

Or, as La Fontaine puts Juno's words:

“Cease then complaining, or from tail to throat
I’ll strip thee, murmurer, of thy gaudy coat!”

So while we may be the best in many ways, we are less than pleasing in others. Waste not your time on idle envy. When the green devil prods you with his fork, go do something helpful to yourself and to others.

Source: Æsop. (Sixth century B.C.) Fables. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

@Copyright 2014 John Lubans

Not Franz Kafka’s Customer Service*

Posted by jlubans on November 04, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Zabar’s: More New York than Woody Allen.
A week ago, the New York Times ran an illustrated story which reminded me of my book’s chapter on Zabar’s, the famed Manhattan food store at W. 80th and Broadway.
Rachel L. Starnes’ story, “The Deli Business Is Still in His Bones, Two Decades Into Retirement”, is about Harold Horowytz, Zabar’s “retired” deli counter manager. He’s someone I interviewed back in 2001/02.
Reading her story, I had good memories of that interview with Harold – he’s an impressive guy! Some of this blog appears in the book but I’ve added new observations about customer service and included some material I’d previously edited out, including Harold’s earthy language.
“A Zabarian Experience”
The morning after a day with Saul Zabar touring the store from the cheese stored under blue tarps on the rooftop to the subterranean staff break room, I visit with Harold Horowytz. He’s retired, but not really. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s he leaves home (New Bern, North Carolina*) and returns to manage Zabar’s deli counter. He takes over from Frankie Cabrera, the deli manager for the rest of the year. (If there’s any tension between Frankie and Harold, it’s not apparent to me. Saul calls Frankie a “primitive”, meaning I think that Frankie’s a bit feudal - loyal to Saul - and not averse to working with different models of organization; he’s happy to help in any capacity and if that means playing second fiddle part of the year, that’s OK.)
I’ve seen and marveled at the workings of Zabar’s deli and fish counters: customers take a number, wait for the number to come up, and the countermen (no women) prepare individual orders, slicing, weighing, packaging and pricing. The workweek can be from 72 - 84 hours. Harold calls it “a grind”, explaining “it’s a retail business…” Yet, he loves the work: “Zabar’s is a good store, with lots of action”. A friend and New York native once told me: “If major corporations could organize themselves as well as Zabar’s runs its fish department, American business would benefit greatly.” (I agree with her assessment and, when librarians express cluelessness about how Zabar’s deli counter has anything to do with libraries, I have to explain that while we may be not-for-profit we are in the retail business; we have customers to satisfy and products we wish to “sell”. And we have an indirect income stream from those customers: taxes or other budgetary allocations. The last two decades of library success and failure stories confirm for me that those libraries that understand and apply the best retail model will survive and thrive. See below for Harold’s retail “business rules”.)
Harold welcomes me into his “office” - the end of the deli case near shelves filled with knishes and strudels just outside the kitchen. At seventy-three, he looks a healthy 65 underneath his baseball cap.
How does Zabar’s maintain high quality?
When I ask about the consistent high quality, Harold is not the first to tell me about the legendary Mr. Klein, a former partner and operations manager with Saul and Stanley Zabar. Mr. Klein (always Mister) was a stickler for quality. He helped instill high standards, and while he’s been gone several years, his story is the organization’s shorthand for keeping the unstinting quality tradition alive.
Another quality enhancer for Harold: “You buy the best” and freshest products. And, it helps that Boris Bassin, the executive chef, is “fussy”, always checking for quality and freshness. Those 200 deli items behind the glass display cases come from the army of cooks and food preparers that Boris commands.
As we talk, a deliveryman rolls in several boxes of tongue and pastrami from a New York manufacturer. Before signing off on the invoice, Harold checks the shipment, opening each box, rifling through the wrapped tongues and pastramis. Frankie joins him and they feel the tongues (shaped like pink 5-pound sacks of sugar), one by one, holding each in two hands, probing with gentle thumb pressure for consistency and texture. One is undercooked; the others are OK, but not as good as they could be. “This is shit” Harold says to the deliveryman. The deliveryman bears up fairly well under the blunt talk – remember this is NY, a town where car horns serve as trumpets of self expression - then makes excuses about how the ovens were not working like they should. Harold acknowledges the excuse but crosses off the undercooked tongues on the invoice – no sale.
Pastrami is next. Harold scrutinizes each, but spends less time on them, telling me, “It’s hard to kill a pastrami!” Still, you can cheat by adding water. Some manufacturers do pump in water for extra weight, but they don’t get business from Zabar’s.
Harold ends what’s been a quality lesson: “Take your tongue and get your ass out of here”. Harold’s crustiness is well intentioned, half jest, half reprimand. It’s tough talk that makes the point to the young man and to the manufacturer. Afterwards Harold tells me, “Usually this company makes a nice product”.
Why work at Zabar’s?
How well you do at Zabar’s is up to you, Harold assures me. “A lot of people who work here care about what they do, they care about the store”. It’s why Harold comes back every year.
And, “Compared to the fucking turkey you might get elsewhere, here you get a genuine bonus!”
Serving the customer.
Zabar’s is a retail business, Harold explains. The business rules are simple: you get customers, treat them nicely, and bend over backwards if you have to, and, get the money.
Zabar’s regular customers are knowledgeable and demanding. Everyone wants the best cut – from the middle. But, if you berate a customer, forget the money.
Harold tells me there is no pleasing some customers. You cannot do enough to satisfy them but you have to overlook that – it’s a retail business!
For Harold, Saul’s daily involvement in every part of the store is “As it should be. Saul’s an owner. Can’t blame him for that”. And, everyone ultimately answers to Saul, who is viewed more like the head of a family - and all that can entail - than a CEO.
Near the end of our visit a Zabar’s worker comes out of the kitchen area hauling a plastic bag stuffed with trash. Harold tells me “He’s the most important man in the store.”
Think about that. Harold well understands that certain duties some might see as insignificant or less than dignified can break a business if not performed well, if not done with dignity.

*A note of explanation is called for. My title is from a “pull quote” I used for a “phantom workshop,” “To Save the Time of the User: Customer Service in Libraries”, which, while fully developed for presentation in Berlin, Germany never took place for insufficient enrollment. It haunts Google.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014