Friday Fable. Aesop’s “MERCURY AND THE SCULPTOR”

Posted by jlubans on April 27, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: “Hold that pose!” Sculpture by Giambologna 1529 – 1608.

“Mercury was very anxious to know in what estimation he was held by mankind; so he disguised himself as a man and walked into a Sculptor's studio, where there were a number of statues finished and ready for sale. Seeing a statue of Jupiter among the rest, he inquired the price of it. ‘A crown,’ said the Sculptor. ‘Is that all?’ said he, laughing; ‘and’ (pointing to one of Juno) ‘how much is that one?’ ‘That,’ was the reply, ‘is half a crown.’ ‘And how much might you be wanting for that one over there, now?’ he continued, pointing to a statue of himself. ‘That one?’ said the Sculptor; ‘Oh, I'll throw him in for nothing if you'll buy the other two.’"
One translator added this epimythium: “This fable can be used for a conceited man who is not esteemed in any way by other people.”
Poor Mercury, the joke’s on him. The messenger of the gods appears to suffer from an inferiority complex.
The sculptor does not help, heaping on him yet another indignity. And so it may be for all of us who are messengers, the seconds-in-command, the deputies, the associates, and the assistants. If you have Mercury’s ego, you may want to go independent, say start your own wireless radio company! If that’s already been done, well then how about a telepathy company? But, there’s always a but, that would take you out of the middle. Maybe just get back on your bike and deliver those parcels.

*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.

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

Dispatch from the “Slough of Despond” Known as Economy Plus

Posted by jlubans on April 24, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: At less than a penny a mile, I knew what to expect when I traveled on Guatemala's Blue Bird busses.

A couple days before I posted about dis-service (most of it was drafted in a fitful doze on board a United/SAS flight on March 29) there came news of the April 9th arrest and physical removal of a United passenger. And, as I write this, there’s another incident in San Francisco of an American Airline’s employee losing it over a baby pram, offering to do battle, "Hit me! Come on, bring it on!"
Such behavior, I think, is all too predictable. It’s what happens when service is depreciated to not just the economic “bitter spot”* but to the “breaking point”.
A steady degrading of the customer’s value will lead to bad behavior among all involved.
It is surprising violence does not break out more often, although some say it does – not physical violence, but there are reports of agitated customers letting off steam, not just drunks but regular people. Many suffer in silence.
When an airline (or any organization) denigrates its service, the staff become passive/aggressive while customers become aggressive.
What do you think that lady is doing trying to stuff an enormous suitcase into an all ready full-to-bursting overhead bin? No one can get past her and the flight sits.
On our March 29 transatlantic leg on an already 4-hour delayed SAS flight, one woman insisted she was entitled to all five seats in the middle row in Economy Plus because she could not upgrade to the slab seating in first class.
My wife had a sore knee and had moved directly across to that row’s empty aisle seat; the women - stretched out across four seats - kept nudging her with her feet.
No flight attendant intervened until my wife moved to one of many vacant seats a few rows up in business class. Gotcha! An eagle-eyed attendant swooped down on her and ordered her back to Economy Plus.
We all have war stories.
But, I digress.
It was interesting to see the furor over the dragged-off passenger and subsequent responses from management consultants as to what should have been done, what could have been done, and what he or she would have done. Few see any of this as a corporate leadership failure. At least one speculated that if United’s so-called “core values” had been invoked the incident would never have happened.
I have no quarrel with the economic evidence that we consumers will put up with shabby service for a low price – even a 10% reduction will prompt us to buy a ticket on an airline we swore never to fly on again!
Yes, I will pay out hundreds of dollars and put up silently with Draconian seats, no complimentary food or drinks, harried and overburdened attendants, and embittered fellow passengers, as long as I get where I want to go in a decent amount of time.
United’s core values, as claimed by one writer, are the following**:
“Warm and welcoming is who we are;
We make decisions with facts and empathy;
We earn trust by doing things the right way.”
I have rarely seen these alleged core values in practice. Indeed, just the opposite:
Cool and distant is who we are;
We make decisions based solely on profit;
We earn dis-trust by doing things the wrong way
How do you think that happens? What makes decent people, like United employees, become more like abusive traffic cops and passengers more like sullen prison inmates?
What happened on United (and American) is exactly what their corporate practices lead to. Corporate practice trumps any core values however high falutin’.
Just like when the former head of Wells Fargo Bank unctuously declared how wonderful their historic core values were and how splendid their leadership was (of course, led by him).
All the while, senior W-F leaders were pressuring junior staff to sign people up, without permission, for bogus accounts. And, when the juniors resisted, they were tossed aside.
Treat people shabbily, rudely, then forget your declared core values. This applies to any organization, including not for profits, like higher education. The more you pervert your stated values, the more ludicrous and hypocritical you appear.
* The bitter spot is 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. In other words, comfort and good service are not to be expected, they must be bought. Consider the psychological inhibitions of that last item on service-minded staff.

** I was not able to find these core values on the United web site. Instead there is a list of actions under the heading,
“Our United Customer Commitment.”
“We are committed to providing a level of service to our customers that makes us a leader in the airline industry. We understand that to do this we need to have a product we are proud of and employees who like coming to work every day.” (Emphasis added.)
Advise about lowest available fares

Notify customers of known delays, cancellations and
Deliver baggage on time

If they really believe their standard of service needs be that of the “airline industry” then they have a very low standard to meet. How about changing the “airline industry” to the “hospitality industry”?

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

Friday Fable. Lubans’ The Cat, the Man, and the Flying Sausages

Posted by jlubans on April 21, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)

A repeat from 2015:
Once upon a time, a hungry man went to the store. He looked and looked – he was a fussy shopper. He picked a big package of sausages because it looked the best of all; it had happy faces on the wrapper that was in colors of gold and green. I said he was a fussy shopper not a smart one.
Well, after frying up a few, he put the rest away in the fridge. The sausages tasted terrible and looked even worse when cooked, all curled up like mottled intestines.
But, whenever he went to the refrigerator, he wondered what to do with those disgusting sausages? Being frugal, of necessity, he could not bring himself to throw them away. When he offered them to his neighbor, she took a look and emphatically shook her head. No, thank you!
One day, looking out the kitchen window of his third floor apartment, he saw a raggedy white cat in the enclosed yard down below, a yard full of weeds and dandelions.
Aha! he thought, I bet that cat would like a sausage. So he tossed one out. Thirty minutes later, the sausage was gone –the cat must have scarfed it up. So, he tossed a sausage out the window each day until they were all gone. The man was happy.
The next day, he heard meowing below. The cat looked up at the man in the window, as if saying, “Where’s my sausage?”
So the man went to the store and bought more sausages. Each day he would throw out a sausage. Those flying sausages, the man thought, must be like manna from heaven.
The man had very little money and soon it was all gone, spent on sausages. He could no longer buy food for himself. He died.
The cat, also died. Not from hunger, but from over-eating.
In heaven, when they bumped into each other, the cat reproached the old man. “You are a kind man, but I have to tell you those were the worst sausages I have ever eaten. I only ate them because I like a tidy yard – after all it is where I live and hunt, under the vines up against the walls. I did not want the yard full of foul smelling sausages. When I meowed up at you that one day it was to tell you to quit tossing those damn sausages into the yard!”
The man was abjectly sorry. The cat flicked his tail, as cats will do, and went his way.

So think twice, my listeners, maybe try an ounce before buying a pound.

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.

© John Lubans 2017

“A Captain Since Kindergarten”

Posted by jlubans on April 18, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: In the bow, the young Andris Vilks "steering".

The announcement of an architectural award* for the new National Library of Library has me reviewing my year-old notes of several interviews with the Library’s Director, Andris Vilks.
Since I am neither a biographer nor an historian, I've been struggling with how to begin my essay on Andris Vilks and his leadership.
I interviewed him initially in 2011 on a visit to his office in the old National Library building in downtown Riga. I well remember that interview: still recovering from the post 2008 economic meltdown, especially in Latvia, there was little heat and most of the lights were turned off to save energy.
Picking up these early threads, I met with him several times in 2016 when I was back teaching in Riga.
I’ve decided to do the Andris Vilks essay in three phases: Formation, Application, and Future. Today’s blog is the formation of his leadership, mentioning influences from childhood to young adulthood.
My first question – How would you characterize your leaderships? A king and his court, a father and his family, a leader and his team? - prompted Andris to show me a picture from his youth (depicted). He is the Captain of a land-locked boat. He sits in the very bow, (looking toward the camera) while "steering", directly next to a cute little blonde.
It is his first captaincy, a job for which he has "never fought", but one that comes to him.
A basketball player for much of his life, he was, invariably each team’s captain.
“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.”
“As captain, I talked about motivators not so much techniques – to individuals.” Andris’ best friend – a “better player” - wanted to quit the team but he recruited him back. “We needed him.”
Another influence shaping his leadership were the values of his paternal grandmother. She cared for him and he lived with her in a one room apartment until his marriage. (His parents split up when he was 8. His father died, his mother re-married and started a new family, turning away from Andris.) When Andris says he had a “difficult childhood”, I think this is an understatment.
“(His grandmother) worked very hard, was very honest and was very friendly with everybody … she worked (her) whole life.”
“She was very important to my life, always spoke of (an) independent Latvia, told me everything about Latvian history, the Stalin period, occupation, and the prior free Latvia. At 11 years, I understood what was going on in Prague.”
“I was ready for (a) free Latvia.”
He recalled another formative incident from his school days. It was 1968, a time when one had to be careful with saying anything other than what was expected of all good citizens of the Soviet Union.
Andris’ teacher asked the class for the date for celebrating the “Great October Socialist Revolution”. Andris responded “November 18”; a politically incorrect answer because that date, in 1918, was the proclamation of the Republic of Latvia, its first true Independence.
The date the teacher was fishing for was “November 7.
Subsequently, he was informed upon by one of his classmates (Andris knows the name) and was hauled up before a board and castigated, just short of expulsion.
“From that moment,” Andris told me, “I was against the Soviet Union and I began a passive resistance to the Soviet way.” While an adolescent, he understood very clearly what had been done to him; dissent – in any form and at any time – was a punishable offense.
Finally, Andris spoke highly of a professional mentor, Aleksejs Apīnis,
the head of the Library’s Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts, with whom he worked 1978-1986.
Mr. Apīnis was Andris’ “first principal, teacher, and first chief. “Without him I’d never have become what I am.”
“He treated people well – he had the same attitude toward everyone. (He was a) “very strong researcher, good professor, lecturer, (and) manager.
“He was very modest; avoided media interviews, rejected prizes, rejected communist awards.”
“Now, I teach management (at the University of Latvia) and I see (best practices for leaders and managers) in textbooks – but he (Apīnis) knew before textbook.”

Next: Application. How influences from his early years shaped his leadership and management today with a comment from an American peer, Mara Saule, Dean of Library & Information Services, University of Vermont.

*The American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the American Library Association (ALA) have selected the National Library of Latvia as one of 8 recipients of the 2017 AIA/ALA Library Building Awards. Gunnar Birkerts Architects + Gelzis-Smits/Arhetips.

In 2013 I posted on the tree-topping ceremony for the national library.

And, in 2014, I posted on the “Friends of the Library Book Chain” as hundreds of participants throughout the day transported books, from hand to hand, from the old library to the new through the old town, across the river, and through the doors of the new building on a bitterly cold January 18.

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

Friday Fable. Krylov’s “THE GRANDEE”*

Posted by jlubans on April 14, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Ivan Krylov (1769 – 1844)

“ONCE, in the days of old, a certain Grandee passed from his richly dight (clothed) bed into the realm which Pluto sways. To speak more simply, he died. And so, as was anciently the custom, he appeared before the justice-seat of Hades.
Straightway he was asked, ‘Where were you born? What have you been?’
‘I was born in Persia, and my rank was that of a Satrap. But, as my health was feeble during my lifetime, I never exercised any personal control in my province, but left everything to be done by my secretary.’
‘But you—what did you do?’
‘I ate, drank, and slept; and I signed everything he set before me.’
‘In with him, then, at once into Paradise!’
‘How now! Where is the justice of this?’ thereupon exclaimed Mercury, forgetting all politeness.
‘Ah, brother,’ answered Eacus, ‘you know nothing about it. But don't you see this? The dead man was a fool. What would have happened if he, who had such роwer in his hands, had unfortunately interfered in business? Why, he would have ruined the whole province. The tears which would have flowed then would have been beyond all calculation. Therefore it is that he has gone into Paradise, because he did not interfere with business.’
“I was in court yesterday, and I saw a judge there. There can be no doubt that he will go into Paradise.”

This was, history tells us, one of Krylov’s most censored fables. The censorship is understandable since it takes to task people who, empowered, do “nothing” – they loll around like the satrap - letting others do the doing. Imagine the many “do nothing” among the royalty who would not like being “outed” as incompetent.
The Czar was at an event and heard Krylov read this unpublished fable. He “took him in his arms, kissed him, and said, "Write away, old man, write away." End of the censorship.
After that episode, it is said Krylov’s career pretty much went into hibernation; he rested on his laurels.
Sometimes at work having a boss who gives you freedom to make decisions – which he or she signs off on – can be a pretty good deal for both of you. The work gets done, the boss ultimately protects you and you gain a considerable freedom to carry out your ideas.

*Source: Krilof and his fables, by Krylov, Ivan Andreevich, 1768-1844; Ralston, William Ralston Shedden, 1828-1889. Tr. London, 1869

© Copyright John Lubans 2017

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

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE HEN AND THE EGGS”*

Posted by jlubans on April 07, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: An "Oh, Oh" moment. Woodcut from the 1672 Amdsterdam edition of Aesop's Fables.

“A hen came across the eggs of a snake and devoted herself to them, settling atop the eggs and brooding on them. A swallow saw what the hen was doing and said, 'O you stupid, senseless creature! They will destroy you first of all and then destroy everyone around you!'”
"The fable shows that we should never put our trust in a wicked man, even if he seems to be completely innocuous."

L'Estrange added his own epimythium: ''Tis the hard Fortune of many a Good Natur'd Man to breed up a Bird to Pick out his own Eyes, in despite of all Cautions to the contrary.'”
And thus can be said of a subordinate whom you have supported, indeed, championed, who stabs you in the back.
It reminds me of a politically incorrect friend. He had promoted and backed a young manager, helped her achieve a job well beyond what she could have expected were it not for my friend’s recognizing her potential and championing her in the organization.
No, there was no “hanky panky”.
Well, there came a time when my friend found himself besieged by a fuss budget boss and was politically in need of a helping hand. He turned to the subordinate for a good word or two. The subordinate informed him - through a mutual colleague, no less - that she would not speak on his behalf. “Every man for himself” in other words.
My friend was forced to leave the organization.
Now years later, he has still not heard from the former subordinate why she chose not to speak well of him. Nor has she ever thanked my friend for giving her an opportunity that nobody else in that organization would have. Can you spell i-n-g-r-a-t-i-t-u-d-e?
So, like the hen, my friend had bred “up a Bird to Pick out his own Eyes.”

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

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. One of the fables in this forthcoming book is relevant to today's fable: my “The Snake and the Egg” which was first posted to this blog in August of 2013.

© Copyright John Lubans 2017