I Won’t Shoot My Uncle!

Source: strangeoldpictures.com
Source: strangeoldpictures.com

“I won’t shoot my uncle.”

“I get it, John – how are you by the way?”

At his second coaching session John Jr. the forty-one year old COO of a family business drew the line.  “I won’t shoot my uncle, so don’t bother suggesting it.” His was a large and moderately successful family business with many offices, more than a thousand employees and an enviable North American market presence.  The Chairman and CEO of this business was John’s uncle, John Sr., who at 71 showed no signs of relinquishing his role to John Jr. or anybody else for that matter.  And why should he you might ask?  The business was profitable (barely); it was growing (almost not at all) and; it had new products in the pipeline to build for a brighter future (one long shot and a handful of threadbare retreads).  The parenthetical asides were supplied by John Jr. on behalf of Uncle John Sr.’s executive team and a disgruntled majority of shareholders – all family.  Disgruntled because they couldn’t exert any significant influence on Uncle John Sr. or the business.  You see, once upon a time, when the business was on the threshold of market relevance, it and its shares were enticed into a safe harbor, a tax haven type trust.  This vehicle – as the tax specialist explained – sheltered profits, prohibited undue outside interference to the family ownership structure, and set wealth distribution policy once and for all.  This is to say that family members received distributions but exerted no legal influence on the trust itself because, by design, the only trustees of this safe haven locked-tighter-than-a-drum trust were Uncle John Sr. and his lawyer.  As long as Uncle John Sr. was alive, he could pretty much do what he wanted.

In this second monthly coaching session, John Jr. sits across from me and explains his predicament.  He is trim, obviously in good shape, wearing jeans and a starched white shirt, no color, and uses his hands to dramatize the story.  He speaks in short sentences.  He is articulate and so it only takes ten minutes to get to what he called the big question. “I feel like I need some strategic advice, a game changer, actually.”

“A game changer… that sounds like a tall order.”

“Yeah, I know.  In fact, I can’t even imagine what that advice might be.”

“I have a couple of questions first.  I hear what you are saying about the trust, but, for example, are you a lawyer?”

“No, God no!”

“So before we talk about strategy, you need to get the hard facts about this safe harbor device, the trust.”

His assignment was to engage his lawyer, not Uncle John Sr.’s lawyer, to do a detailed review of the trust documents and to give him legal advice about what a family member might be able to do if they wanted to push for some change.  I explained that he didn’t have to follow any of the lawyer’s advice or commit to any overt act: he just needed to know where he and the other shareholders stood vis a vis the trust.  I also suggested he talk to his Uncle about succession.  John said he had already tried the succession conversation.  Uncle John Sr. told him: “I’ll let you know about succession when I am ready to talk about succession and not one minute sooner.”

At John’s third coaching appointment he took me through what he called “the news”.  He talked from a two page memo prepared by his lawyer.  He started by telling me it was the most expensive letter he had ever solicited, suggesting, I thought, that he was none to happy about my assignment.  “The news is grim,” he said.  “And god-damn-it I knew it would be before I unleashed those people!”  The trust was pretty much unassailable.  Were it breached or altered, a huge tax bill would come due. Then there would be no tax or asset protection and everybody would be angry.  “Further,” John Jr. continued, “My Uncle is the man in charge until he isn’t.  That is to say, unless he wants to step down and pass the trusteeship to another person, or he dies – heaven forbid – or he was judged incompetent: he is the only person in charge – full stop.  That’s it, I’m screwed, oh and one other thing.  I was feeling a little desperate so I asked him again about succession and he basically threw me out of his office.  He just flipped and went off on me!  He’s not going to talk about succession with me any time soon!”

“So now we know something.”

“Yeah, thanks for that, we certainly do, I do, I’m screwed, and finding out was really expensive, that’s what I know.”

“Perhaps, but we don’t need to count you out yet.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean you know a lot more than when we first met: you have the facts.  We know a lot more about the situation as it stands now.  This gives us something to work with.”

“Like what?”

“Well how about what would happen if you went out and got another job?”

“Oh come on! That’s nuts! The whole damn family is counting on me, I’m counting on me, I can’t leave now!”

“Well, perhaps that’s true, but at some level I wonder what your uncle would do if he thought you were going to leave?”

“He’d fire me on the spot.”

“And then you would have to go out and get another job.”

“Well, yes, maybe, I mean we have some money.”

“Okay, let’s try another scenario, what if you approach the family members and see if they will back you to bring pressure on your Uncle, family pressure, personal pressure!”

“He wouldn’t care.”

“I’ll bet that isn’t true. I don’t know what he might do, but I would bet he does care what the family thinks and says, especially about him.  Why don’t you talk to each of your family members, separately, and ask them what they really think about the trust and Uncle John Sr.  Tell them you are just trying to get a sense of the family attitude, to poll their feelings about the business and so on.  They might appreciate the attention too.  I’m guessing Uncle John Sr. doesn’t talk to them much.”

“That’s an understatement!”

At our next session John Jr. looked like he might be ill.  Oh, the white shirt was starched and pressed, the tailored jeans were creased and his loafers were shined, but he slouched like a much older man, a dispirited older man.

“What’s up?”

He sighed, turning hollow eyes on me, sighed then said, “I hardly know where to start.  It’s a lot worse than I thought.”  With that, John Jr. told of meeting with each family member.  He named each one, placed them on the family tree with their shareholding percentage and gave a brief summary of their views about the business and Uncle John Sr.  There were twelve on his list, all of whom but one were either upset or very upset with Uncle John Sr.’s, as one family member put it, vice like grip on their business.

“So at least you have some allies.”

“Well, I am not sure they are my allies.  A couple of them want me to lead a coup d’etat.  None actually said it, but you could feel it.  They want me to shoot him… sorry not really shoot, but you know, take him out of the picture.”

“And you, after hearing this, what do you think?”

“I am not going to shoot my uncle!”

“No matter what?”

“No matter what!”

“What if your disgruntled family members want to shoot you?”

“Let them, I’m not going to shoot my uncle.”

It was as if John Jr. had taken the oath before coming to my office that day.  “I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”  He had taken the oath, refreshed his resolve before sitting down across from me, pulling a yellow legal pad from a canvass back pack, a disposable fountain pen, uncapped the pen, assumed the writing position and sat, pen at the ready, poised to work, to take notes and more than anything, to tell the truth.  I watched him, his expression, as he talked. And here he was saying “this man is my uncle, I owe this man, the family owes this man, and I won’t try to bring him down, not even in the face of a family uprising, especially not in the face of a family uprising.  I won’t shoot my uncle!”  It was a big moment.  It was an even bigger anchor.  John Jr. had discovered what was right and what was wrong for him in the situation, and John Jr. was going to do what he thought was right, no matter what.

His eyes weren’t young any more.  Early traces of wrinkles etched there.  His closely cropped hair wasn’t black any more: random gray hairs softened and aged him.  More wrinkles around his mouth were showing too, more when he was serious but you could also see them even when he smiled.  It was this aging John Jr., the number two executive of the family enterprise who diligently came to coaching sessions for the next three years.  During that time, the family was in open rebellion, one of John Jr.’s sisters and her husband filed suit against Uncle John Sr., the lawyer who drew up and administered the trust, and just for good measure, John Jr. for aiding and abetting the plot to deprive the family of its birthright.  Birthright, well not quite.  Yes family members had been born into the family, and family members did hold shares, but the company broken up into shares wasn’t worth much compared to the value of an ongoing business, even an old anguishing business.  But the ultimate outcome was cemented by the signed documents enshrining the trust, its rules and restrictions, all of the documents signed by each shareholder, initialed on each page and then certified and witnessed.  In the end, it wasn’t even a fight – it was a legal rout.  Even though John Jr.’s sister and her husband persisted, it was clearly a pressure move, not a real threat.  After three years of way to. much time spent defending the suit, the result was only to confirm that the Trust as a legal entity was cast in stone, and the management of the trust was unequivocally confirmed.  Of course while all this was going on, John J.r and I talked plenty about the trust but our main focus was on his job and running the business, managing up to Uncle John Sr., and managing down to the business and its employees.  Given his position, he worked out what he could do and what he couldn’t do, what he would do and what he wouldn’t do.  For those three years, handcuffed as he was, he did his best.

If you read at all about businesses, you might assume that even large businesses are fragile, brittle, and must be carefully attended for otherwise they will stumble and die.  And yes, it is true, businesses do die, but they rarely die all at once, or suddenly.  This business generated hundreds of millions in sales, and although it had lost much of its creative and strategic energy, during the three years after John Jr.’s admission, he found plenty of ways to improve the business and to avoid seriously damaging his relationship with Uncle John Sr.  So although the business did not grow its sales, or significantly increase its market share or even its geographic footprint or change its products much, it continued to make a decent return, pile up retained earnings and while getting stodgier, almost humdrum, when measured in balance sheet terms, it was a rock, a great granite monument to the family.  And after three years John Jr. was wondering whether this large granite edifice could be a foundation for something good in the future of if it was to be his (figurative) tombstone.

“What if it were a tombstone?  What is the worst thing that could happen if you continue to do nothing regarding Uncle John Sr. and his grip on the business?”

“I’ve given it a lot of thought.  Although I would be the least popular person in the family, I don’t see any way around forcibly removing him, and I won’t do that.”

“And?”

“And at some point I’m sure he will have to lose his grip.”

“What if it came too late?”

“You know, there is no such thing as too late in this scenario.  Oh sure, I could make it bigger, more innovative and so on, but so what?  This company is plenty big to spin off of some money for all of the shareholders even in decline.  One of the other good things about the trust is the trustees can’t kill the company, they can’t raid the company and so we’ll all be left with something if it begins to falter.”

“Your family thinks what they see as a series of lost opportunities is a sure indication that the business is in a death spiral.”

“Well that’s a convenient idea for them, but what do they really know about running a business?  I’ve lived in this god damn thing for twelve years, it’s just not that simple!  Yes, we could have been more innovative, taken bigger risks and ended up racking up some big losses, that happens you know!  Instead we do what we are good at and we repeat and repeat and it builds our balance sheet.  Not all bad.  And it makes for pretty amazing dividend checks for everyone, including the not so loyal opposition.”

“How about you, what’s it like for you to do your job in this environment?”

“Part of me is busy as hell.  We employ a lot of people and have a ton of different products we sell.  Part of me feels underused, yes, and there are times I itch to move into new products or to make acquisitions.  But the biggest thing is I am there to run the business for the whole family.  No one else stood up or was willing to put in the years working at the business.  I was the only one, and no matter how angry they may be, they will be greatly enriched by my effort.  I’m proud of that!”

And so it went.  The business did shrink about 20 percent during the 2008 recession, but it remained profitable quarter after quarter even while weathering the second great economic meltdown of the last hundred years. Uncle John Sr. did grant John Jr. greater authority to bolster and maintain existing operations.  Uncle John Sr. was now 73 and, according to John Jr., he was showing his age. The recession had taken a big toll on the older man.  He was traumatized seeing the banking and investment system in the United States on the brink of collapse and although he wondered aloud what had happened to the country he had known virtually all of his business life, he no longer acted like he had an optimistic answer.  It was as if the recession was a kind of betrayal, happening at a time in his life when he was least able to deal with such a catastrophe.

During a coaching session John Jr. told me that Uncle John Sr.’s wife, ten years his junior, was agitating at home for a change.  She wanted Uncle John Sr. to retire while they still had time to travel and see the world.  She also wanted him to spend time with their three children, one of whom was John Jr.’s mother. She told him that he had gotten everything there was to get from the business, but he had little to show for being a father, a grandfather, or for that matter, a husband.

“That sounds like pretty serious talk.”

“Yea, that’s what my mother said too, she says it’s serious.”

That was it.  Surprisingly, stars shifted and aligned in a surprising, some would have said, an impossible pattern.  Uncle John Sr. went to the Mayo Clinic for the full-on executive physical he’d been resisting for years.  His results included onset type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, off the charts cholesterol, high levels of arterial plaque, and plenty of previously unreported aches and pains.  The clinic is in Scottsdale Az. His wife traveled with him so there was no chance of suppressing or glossing over the clinic’s excellent and thorough diagnostic summary.  After his two day physical they left the clinic and checked into The Boulders, an upscale spa just north of Phoenix.  She had arranged this amendment in the sun, anticipating what she would later call – the showdown.  She confronted him about the results and insisted that they collaborate on next steps, meaning:  what steps are you going to take to avoid dying prematurely, being divorced and left on your own?  Although collaboration wasn’t Uncle John Sr.’s long suit, apparently, at the boulders, he became a fast learner.

John Jr.’s next coaching session was about change.  Working with several pages of handwritten notes in the omnipresent legal pad, he launched into his manifesto; orating, lots of gesticulation.  John Jr. was the newly minted CEO and he was on fire! He also had been named Chairman and administrator of the family trust by Uncle John Sr. and his lawyer.  The baton had finally passed.

Afterward:  Uncle John Sr. is fully retired.  Under the supervision of his wife, he is practicing at being a father, grandfather, and husband (and painter and golfer and ardent traveler).  John Jr. is running the company.  He amended the Trust agreement to expand the number of trustees, inviting three family members, a lawyer and a senior executive from their accounting firm.  He initiated a comprehensive leadership development program for his key executive team and a more general developmental program for the next generation of leaders in the business.  He intends to drive a succession initiative into virtually every leadership job in the company.  The family owners are mostly still prickly, but less combative.  One of John Jr.’s strategic initiatives is to give them more voice as owners without “turning over the institution to the inmates”.  Another initiative is to reshape the business to create and maintain a balance of sustainability and growth, a whole new field of exploration for the company as it morphs into its new, post Uncle John Sr. future.

NOTE:  I know for some of you, reading this story is frustrating.  Were we talking about chess pieces or avatars in a video game, we all know what we would do in this situation… Bang!  It happens often that a family business reaches a certain point where someone in the family suggests that the patriarch or matriarch must go, be moved out, figuratively shot.  Usually, executives come to work with me because they are experiencing such difficulty.  So I have watched cases where the matriarch or patriarch was forcibly moved out but also many more where the Uncle John Sr.’s scenario played out. When change was abrupt and forced, usually involving nasty legal action, the business sometimes benefits, but in every case, whatever family there was before the shooting is not just lost, it is destroyed, worse, the family is poisoned essentially forever.  Even if the business is greatly improved by the change, the family is shattered, often across generations. When John Jr. said he wouldn’t shoot his uncle, he was saying I will not destroy my family, business or no business.  As a business person yourself, this may be hard to take, but as a family member you might understand.  And as a family member of a family business, well you probably could have written this story yourself.

One last thought. I believe that family business is a tremendous societal resource, and has an unjustly negative reputation – especially among business leaders, teachers, and consultants who don’t work with family businesses.  The complexities of family spilling into business is not materially different than a proxy fight, or management civil war in a non-family business.  There are many, many successful businesses owned privately by families that contribute considerable heft and wellbeing to our societies and economies.  The idea that we can do business without human complexity is to misunderstand business.  In the case of family business, it just happens to include the complexity of family, a gathering of people who, in a way, know too much about each other, and in another way, understand too little about each other….  in other words, they are all human, all family, and just happen to be joined in a business.

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Presco Fresco!

Walt-snakes

A story about Snakes and Ladders

Tom arrives at the office at 7:45AM, five days a week, Monday though Friday.  Tom leaves the office between 6:00PM and 7:00PM, five days a week.  On Saturdays Tom comes to the office at 10:00AM and works until 2:00PM, every Saturday, that is unless Michigan State is playing at home.  He always attends Michigan State home games – football and basketball, rain, shine, snow, or the end of the world because it would be the end of his world if he missed even one.  On Sundays Tom rests.  He starts and ends meetings on time, he believes that you have to walk the walk not just talk the talk.  Tom is a Managing Director.  He firmly believes that as a leader he must lead from the front, by example.  He believes dedication and being punctual entitles him to expect the same from his executive team. He believes his good work habits will be noticed up the organization chart and down the organization chart.  His current assignment is to oversee four regional offices; San Francisco, Denver, Atlanta and Newark.  As a personal organizing principal, Tom puts great store in the idea that good work habits and good systems beget success.

It’s Wednesday noon (East Lansing Michigan time) and Tom pulls up Face Time (video conferencing) on his computer to call Marianna.  That’s Marianna Abruzzo his regional director in Denver.  The ring tone chirps, chirps, chirps, eight, nine, ten chirps.  Tom’s fingers drum the desk top, “come on, come on, its not lunch time yet” he says to the chirping screen.   Finally he smacks the track pad which kills the FaceTime window and reaches for his cellphone.  He’ll call her directly.   After three rings he is dumped into voicemail.  He punches the red disconnect button and angrily fingers a text that reads: “Call me”.  Five minutes pass.  No Marianna.  He calls the Denver office number.  After ring-around-the-rosie on that goddamn automated system he finally hears a live voice. “Hello this is Jim, I’m the office manager, how can I help you?”

“Where is Marianna?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Where’s your boss, Marianna?”

“Who’s calling please?”

Tom tells the young man in an edgy, slightly threatening tone that he is the Managing Director, Marianna’s boss, and that he wants to talk to her.

‘I’m sorry but she must have stepped away from her desk for the moment.  Can I take a message?”

“Yes you can, tell her I called and ask her to call me as soon as she returns, can you do that?”

Tom makes a mental note to make a written note about this frustrating episode and angrily punches the red “end this call” button. Instant communication systems and devices costing shareholders millions of dollars and he can’t reach Marianna at 11:00AM on a regular work day.  What the heck is going on?  Not good enough, not good enough by half.

Tom went to business school at Michigan State.  His diploma hangs on the wall in his office.  Someone sitting in one of Tom’s visitors’ chairs (or viewing him through the video camera on his computer) couldn’t miss seeing it hung, as it is on a perfect sightline just above his head.  Thomas Bartlett MBA, Eli Broad College of Business.   Of all the things he learned in B School he says, the biggest game changer was the world of systems, particularly as they relate to people and organizations.  Tom learned how systems, carefully designed and applied could/would make the world a better more predictable and therefore productive place.  Not only did this body of work support Tom’s sense of orderliness, but Systems, with a capital “S” could cut through the chaos of what Tom saw as uncontrolled human behavior.  In the hands of a professional, systems, applied and measured, held the promise of taming or at least minimizing the unpredictable (read dangerous) proclivities of human activity in business organizations.  Since graduating from Eli Broad College of Business, Tom developed a systems practice, based on a kind of philosophical system whose main benefit would be to survive the chaos of people in business through the use of careful planning and inducements.  You can systemize right actions, you can plan for and incentivize good behavior and as a result you can count on reliable (good) outcomes.  For Tom, this was comforting, to the point of obsession – thank you Eli Broad, Thank you Michigan State!   See a problem, create a system; create a roadmap of incentives and deterrents and Presco-Fresco, everyone does what they are supposed to do.  That’s how Tom saw it.  Ten years on with lots of systems practice, Tom carried himself like a kind of systems ninja.  His frustration with not being able to reach Marianna (and other senior executives reporting to him) was yet another opportunity to dampen randomness and uncertainty in his organization.

Step one: craft a specific Connectivity Policy.  After all, this company provides top-end iPhones for each of its regional leaders, and there is an obvious quid pro quo.  Tom swells with justification as he begins typing a first draft that reads:

“Your iPhone is a remarkable executive tool.  We have provided it to you in order to ensure convenient connectedness throughout the work day.  Specifically, you are expected to be available by voice, or IM from 7AM until 9PM each work day and from 9AM to 5PM on weekends.  Vacations are not considered work days or week ends unless otherwise designated by your supervisor.”

Next comes the incentive part.  Philosophically, Tom sees himself as an apostolic economist – not just an educated enthusiast, but an experienced practitioner of economic principles.  His reading and observing have led him to believe that the most important aspects of human behavior are fully considered in two primary sources: Adam Smith “The Wealth of Nations” and the modern treasury of Freakonomics books, blog entries and podcasts.  To Tom, Adam Smith and Freakonomics has everything one needs to know about the science of human behavior.   In summary, Tom’s creed reads like this:  The one true way to control human activity is to create incentives that guide right actions.  And since they don’t call it economics for nothing, the most perfect incentive is money… do good and you get more, do bad and you get less.  ‘Presto Fresco’, everybody does good, and in this case, heightened availability is achieved and the organization is more efficient.  Thank you Adam Smith and Freakonomics!  No messy collaboration, time wasting meetings, deep listening, brainstorming, none of that fuzzy stuff.  And most importantly, no more having to wait to talk to regional managers!  Presto Fresco!

P r e s c o… f r e s c o, that’s what Tom’s Italian grandfather used to say when something turned out well.  “Oh hay Tommso! Presto-Fresco ma boy!  Da Dodgers won the World Series!”  Like that.  Presto Fresco is as good as it gets, so to speak.

In this case, the Presto-Fresco incentive was simple and aimed directly at the wallet.  Each executive starts the year with a $3,000.00 “connectedness bonus credit”.  Say one team member calls another on the iPhone.  He/she either gets voicemail or talks to their teammate.  If sent to voice mail the protocol is to leave a message – or to send a text which starts a 60 minute clock running.  The call recipient has sixty minutes to text or return the call.   If a response wasn’t forthcoming (60 minutes) the offending regional manager’s connectedness bonus is docked $250.00.  At year end the executive would receive whatever was left in the bonus account. In rare cases where the bonus had gone negative due to a surfeit of unresponsive events, the deficient executive’s year end pay is of course docked in an amount equal to the deficit. Presto-Fresco!

The “Connected Bonus Credit” program was enshrined by HR, added to an already impressive list of systems and incentive schemes, fifteen of them and counting. This was an intricate collection of devices, almost like a treasure hunt of rewards and punishments that gave proof that “Tom was here” as the Managing Director, North American operations.  All of his direct reports, especially the regional leaders, learned quickly that the way to get along in Tom’s world was to learn how to navigate the Incentive System better known informally as Snakes and Ladders after the board game of the same name.

Then one day, after three years on the job, Tom was promoted to another division.  Tom’s boss chose his successor, and, to no one’s surprise, it was Marianna.  Unlike so many big corporate promotions, she was a popular choice among both subordinates and the regional directors.  As the transition unfolded and Tom moved out, Marianna hit the ground running. First she relocated the center of North American operations to her office in Denver, found a successor for her vacated regional director role, and then took off for the grand tour, visiting eighteen offices in Canada and the United States.  She was curious, inquisitive and a good listener.  After a month of hand shaking, talking, assessing and strategic conversations, she was ready.  It was time to formulate and direct some changes.  Ground zero, as her four regional directors were calling it, was to be the venue for the North American Executive Team meeting, a mountain lodge in Aspen Co.  Upon arrival, they were greeted by a majestic mountain landscape sprouting springtime green, retreating snowcaps and clouds racing across a blue sky above the mountains that dominated the scene.

It was 8:15AM, day one at ground zero. Marianna sits at the head of a midsize conference table, a wall of glass on one side and landscapes, painted in oil, framed and hung on the wall opposite.  The wall with paintings is covered in beige rough textured silk, each painted scene softly illuminated by an invisible light source. These are not a matched set of landscapes; their pedigree from several different artists, each painting masterfully framed in rough weathered board cut and finely joined.  Ground zero is actually called the cowboy room.  To Marianna’s left, sits Tom and Archie, to her right, Janette and Belinda.  The first fifteen minutes is an exchange of introductions, greetings and personal updates.  This is the first time the team has met in person.  Belinda is Marianna’s replacement as regional director, so she is new to the team and Archie had just become a regional director two months ago, so he too was as good as new.  There were stories told about teenage children driving, partners getting new jobs, losing old jobs, being promoted, aging parents, church activities, PTA participation, vacations taken, life as lived in four different parts of North America.  This opening time brings everybody into the room, and settles the nerves some, setting the stage for other conversations.

Marianne produces an agenda.  It is a single sheet of paper with “First North American Directors Meeting” printed in bold letters at the top.

Then a large white space followed by these three lines centered on the mostly empty page:

Success

Roles, Responsibilities, Resources

Compensation

And at the bottom of the page in smaller black print:

Two days.

“Wow’” says Tom, “Minimalism.  Is this it?

“Yes it is, and thanks for noticing” says Marianne smiling.  “Any questions about the agenda?”

“No”

“No not me”

“Um, no”

“Sorry.”

“Belinda, question?”

“Sorry Marianne but for some reason this makes me more nervous, a little like those job interviews when they spill a glass in your lap and then watch your behavior?”

They all laugh, a little nervously, even Marianne.

“No spilling water, no exploding rubber ducks, nothing like that.”

“Well the other thing that makes me nervous is we are here for two days and well – three sentences?  You know?”

“I do know.  Anyone else, other thoughts about the agenda?”

The four are still and silent, looking at her.

“Okay, here’s the deal:” She holds up the single sheet.  “I think this is all the agenda we need, and I know we have a lot to talk about.  One of the reasons for the white space is to allow for other issues to be added as we uncover them.  But just so you know, if we sort out these three things at this meeting, we will have done a lot of good work.  My aim is to lay down a strong foundation for our team, our work together, and for our combined North American Operations.  The raw materials for that foundation are all on this page.”

“Well that makes me feel a little better,” says Belinda.  “As long as you promise to give us some warning about what is expected of us, that’s what feels uncomfortable.”

“Yes, I can see that.”

“I’m fine with it,” says Tom.  “You’ve always been square shooter with me!  Oops, maybe that isn’t the best way to say it –  sorry Belinda.”

Everyone laughs.

“All right… here we go….”

And so the conversation, the real conversation begins.  The group explores the idea of team success and enterprise success.  By the time they break for lunch, they’ve forged a strong agreement about what to tell others in the business about success and how to judge their efforts.  After lunch they begin, this time hashing out rules for team engagement, behavior, team values, and budgets.  This work is suspended at 6PM.  They agree on where to pick up the conversation in the morning and adjourn for dinner.  Marianne emphasizes that dinner is a social event, and so it is.  After a day of shop talk, dinner unfolds as a no-shop-talk- zone.

By noon on day two, they have co-written a group charter for the team going forward, thus completing two of three items on the agenda.  The sun is shining outside, the temperature is reported by Siri on Marianne’s iPhone as 73 degrees with no wind.

“Lets all get some fresh air.  I will have lunch served out on the patio and then we can take a walk.  I don’t think we have to be back here until say 2:30, how’s that?”

“Heavens yes” said Belinda.

“Just one question,” it was Archie.  “Will that give us enough time to get through the compensation part?”

“I think so, in fact I suspect we’ll be done early.”

“Really?” Archie looked puzzled.

“Yes, really, is there something worrying you, Archie?”

“Oh, well I’m not worried exactly but, well sort of worried, you know our compensation, the snakes and ladders, its always been such a big deal and I just want to be sure we have enough time to figure out how it’s going to work this time.”

“Got it, thanks,” says Marianne.  “If that is your main worry, I am sure we will be done early.”  She looked directly at Archie and smiled, then at Belinda, then Janet, then at Tom.  “Good, let’s eat and enjoy the sun shall we?”

“Rhetorical question,” whispered Belinda as they rose to leave Ground Zero.

At 2:30 PM Ground Zero, AKA The Cowboy Room, Marianne’s team is back at it.  Janet sighs, “Thanks for the break, I thought my head would split apart this morning.  Writing the charter was a real push for me.”  The others nod heads and exchange smiles.  “The fresh air and exercise was perfect, I think I’m ready to tackle Snakes and Ladders, well not alone of course, but I’m ready.”

“Good,” says Marianne, and since you’re feeling energized I have a question for you, you first Janet, and then for each of you in turn.  Give me two words or phrases to describe your experience with Snakes and Ladders”

“Oh Gosh”, says Janet.  “Umm: okay, Las Vegas,  Anxiety”

“Archie?”

“Well I’ve only heard about Snakes and Ladders, but I have played a version of the compensation game in other parts of the company so I will say: “Place your bets” and “Care Bear”.

“Care Bear” says Janet.  “What does that mean?”

“It means; I care about stuff but getting the bonuses is more like looking for my teddy bear than about anything else.  You want me to look for my teddy, and I will look for my teddy and you will pay me for it so… Care Bear”.

Belinda says, “Pop goes the weasel and The Gumball Machine.  I do want my big juicy gum ball but you never know really, do this then that and pop goes the weasel, surprise and then the gum ball machine rewards me.  I want the money for sure but the whole thing feels silly and manipulative.”

Tom sits nibbling at his lower lip, shaking his head slowly distractedly, takes a deep breath then says “Dial for Dollars, and Survivor.  Money, yes and you better do pretty well at snakes and ladders or you won’t survive around here, you’ll be voted off the island, that’s what I think.”

Marianne had been taking notes, looked up and smiles, looking left then right, looking at her journal and then says: “Oh Gosh, aren’t we smart!  We have devised a maniacally complicated system, paid lots of money to install this system only to have it called Snakes and Ladders, and in its current state, this variable compensation bonus system’s highest accolade is Presco Fresco.  I mean listen to what you’ve said:

Las Vegas, Anxiety

Place your bets, Care Bear

Pop goes the weasel, The gumboil machine

Dial for Dollars, Survivor.

Wow!

Okay, since I’m in charge of Snakes and Ladders for the coming cycle and have had the dubious pleasure of playing Snakes and Ladders myself, I’ll add just one word – Crap!  Our Presco Fresco Snakes and Ladders variable compensation system is just that; its crap!  Can anyone on this team give me a good reason to continue with the Snakes and Ladders?”

Tom says “Well, I like being paid money and a big part of my pay is determined by the system.”

“Yes, I know, but stay with me here…  my question is what – other than pay – are you getting from the system?”

Tom sits straighter and says; “nothing, but this conversation makes me really uncomfortable.  You see I do want to be paid.  Actually, what I mean is: I don’t want to take a pay cut if I can avoid it, frankly… if I may be so bold as to say so.”

“Good for you, Tom, yes, I get it.  I am not talking about you taking a pay cut, I am only asking about the system, the game.”

“Well in that case, no,  I hate the stupid game, it feels like it does the opposite of its purpose, it pisses me off, it doesn’t make me a better leader or employee, I’m sure of that.”

And so began the conversation about the last item of business on their agenda.  In the course of fifteen minutes Snakes and Ladders was disassembled.  Fourteen of fifteen Presco Fresco initiatives were summarily retired.  Marianne adjusted salaries to the previous year’s net level so no one was penalized by the game’s demise.  In the end, only one of the fifteen variable compensation elements was left intact; profit-sharing contributions to 401K.  If the division made profits, everyone was granted a proportional bonus contribution.  Item three on the agenda, Compensation, was completed at 3:13PM at Ground Zero.  The mountain light was turning yellow, the temperature according to Siri had fallen to 68 degrees outside.  Marianne gave this closing message to her newly formed team:

“Well, we did it! We finished the whole agenda. Gosh we just crushed it, good work!  Thank you so much for all of your effort.  These two days at Ground Zero gives us plenty to do in the coming year, that’s for sure.  And we’ve built a strong foundation for our team.  We all will be earning a predictable executive salary, and we all may receive a profit sharing bonus if the enterprise is successful.  You may recall that Snakes and Ladders was initially set up to ensure – maybe micro manage is a better word – our behavior as executives.  Starting today Snakes and Ladders is gone and as is the idea that we need to be paid extra or incentivized to do our basic work as executives, leaders and team members.  From now on you and I together will discuss our work, our obligations to do good work, to grow, and how to act as good team members.  We will measure progress, we will answer our phones when possible, we will respond promptly to each others needs, we will even attend our training courses because they are a basic part of our executive development. We will do these snakes and ladder types of things because we are being paid fairly to do them and because we want to grow individually, as a team and as a business unit.  So, for example when you think about showing up on time for meetings, see that it is the right thing to do, and that you don’t need a slot machine to compensate or punish you in order to do good work.  We will “just do it”, how about that?  And if we don’t or if we fall down, we’ll talk about it, and get back on track.  Presco Fresco!   Dinner is at at 6:30, and the no-shop-talk rule will be in force.”

Marianne’s team clapped, applauding each other, shook hands all around and paraded out of The Cowboy Room into the coming year and its many challenges.  Marianne would call Tom next week and tell him about the change in the team charter and to thank him for handing over a solid organization.  She didn’t want him to be ambushed by rumors of his system being dismantled so she explained it to him herself.  She wasn’t sure he would understand, but at least he wouldn’t be disrespected.

Presco Fresco!

Posted in A Better Way to Work, Build a Culture, Building a Community, Entrepreneurs & Managers, Leadership, People. People. People., The Secret Sauce | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beginnings and Endings

“In the beginning….”

People of Christian tradition know the words.  Just say “In the beginning” out loud and others join in around you with “God created the heavens and the earth….” These are the opening lines of the Christian creation story.

We humans are big on beginnings!  We are fired by the sense of possibility, curious about what’s over the next hill, drawn by the challenge ahead, eager to discover the next step along a path.  We treat beginnings as sacred, as if we were prescient about what will follow – mainly good we hope.  Then later, usually long after the beginning, we reconstruct the story, often embellishing it with enlivening details, crafting an even better story, and as time passes, we tell this story over and over.  We add more color to it, patchwork amendments, peppered with a dash here and a dash there until, truth be known, it becomes more story than history, more set-piece than documentary.  This story becomes a creation myth.  Every great tradition has its creation myth or story, the tale that defines the well-spring of its people.  We are defined by our beginnings, and although the stories are different; the human spirit arose from the heart of a volcano, or out of the ether, or dropped by a great bird from the sky, or squeezed out of a giant lotus blossom, these beginning stories become the cornerstones of our culture.

Here is an example of how it works in a business life:

I remember sitting in a hastily purchased squeaking secondhand executive chair in front of an old dining room table which I’d seconded to serve as my desk. It was all I could afford and we’d rushed to get this much ready for day one, the first day at work in my newly founded company.  There I was, hands folded at my table, alone except for the telephone, the smell of furniture polish, in a three room office suite buried in a four story building called The Farmers Building in downtown Seattle, Washington. The one-page-at-a-time calendar read April 1, the numeral one glaring bright red, dominating the page with April 1976 printed in small black letters above.  Now this was a standard issue business desk calendar of its time.  Each day started by flipping the top sheet to bring you up to date, so to speak.  Once done, there it sat on the desk: stark, watchful, challenging, judging, waiting for you to do something, to go to work – now!   Because it was a business calendar the words April Fool'[s Day did not appear anywhere on the April 1 page, but I knew, as do you, it was April Fool’s day and I was launching an enterprise, perfect!

At first it felt like a pregnant moment, about to burst with something important.  I sat waiting for whatever… and I sat, and I sat.  The buzzing bank of florescent lights created a shadowless scene, me sitting, hands folded, April 1 and a phone on my otherwise empty desk surrounded by beige carpet, beige walls, not a picture or window in sight.  When nothing happened for the longest time, I began wondering if I had rented too much space? What was I thinking?  Next, I felt the cold finger of doom push its way into my chest.  I now knew my pregnant moment had nothing to offer and that I might end up sitting here alone all day.  Then I thought of one day extending to a week and then, and so on.   This was the not-so-funny variant on a “what happens if they throw a party and no one shows up” story that was now banging around in my head signaling an onset headache.

For fifteen minutes I sat, looking at the three line telephone on my desk, buttons dark, listening to the air moving through ducts above groaning out a low depressing monotone accompanied by a single syllable that sounded like “shish”.  I sat.  I sighed.  I looked hard at that telephone.  Then, out of the beige gloom, as if touched by a speck of fairy dust, focusing yet again on the telephone and its inert buttons, I realized that the phone was connected to sister phones, one in each of the two adjoining offices I had leased.  Then, better yet, I remembered that all three of these phones were connected to the outside world!  Thank God!  I am not alone!  There is a world out there and some day, that world will call me on this very phone and ask me to do paying work! Dear God make someone call now!  Still the phone sat silent, as if dead to me.  I picked up the receiver, placed it to my ear, watched the light on the button on the left glow promising yellow and heard the dial tone.  I replaced the receiver in the cradle, folded my hands again, and waited.

After an hour of waiting, three cups of coffee jangling my nervous system, when I thought I could not stand any more, I realized I was going to have to make the first call!  I opened my address book, fingered a prospective client’s name and dialed the number.  I needed to use my telephone to find out if this April Fools start up was going to be an expensive joke or something real, like a business that employed people doing real work in the real world and earning a living for all of us.  This was 1976 and I was 23 years old.

Two months later, there were three of us beavering around in the beige caves: me; Kathy, a strident energetic office manager and Jack, a minutia savant who became our first project manager.  The phones rang often enough, real work was being done, clients were invoiced and paid, paychecks were written and signed, my family would be fed, clothed, and we were off to the races.  That’s how it began for us.

Now, thirty-nine years later, I roll this story out like it was freshly delivered by an Amazon drone just this morning, or a warm croissant from a French bakery.  In fact, I have twenty or thirty of them, stories about what I’ve come to see as important beginnings.  You probably have several yourself.  Perhaps a first job, or a relationship, or a birth of a child, a big trip, an adventure.  We use these as a way to both explain ourselves to ourselves and to the world at large.   But, what about the other end of the story, literally?   My experience is we are very good at beginnings and not so good at endings, and yet for every beginning, there is an ending – or perhaps several endings.

This blog is an ending, not a beginning.  More precisely it is the celebration of an ending, one of many children born of the creation myth – my April Fools start up circa 1976.  That scene, and the event it embellishes is the mother of many, many endings.

In 1976 I needed to earn money to live and to raise a family.  Also, I had been fired from my corporate job.  So for some reason, probably obstinacy, I decided that I also wanted to be “the boss”.  I set out with almost no money, not much experience, and a busload of foolish ideas about business and the world around me.  Fast forward to 2015 and an “ending”.  It is The Mingus Parchment: The Secret to Becoming a Successful Entrepreneur, the book I have written and am now pushing out into the world for anyone to see, perhaps read, to learn from, to be fortified with, to criticize, applaud, lambaste, or to ignore.  It is one of many endings to the April Fools day start up, and I am nervous, just like I was in 1976.

The Mingus Parchment, is a book about the entrepreneurial journey – set in Glimmerland, a fictitious place with just enough magic to convince the reader that “life is curly” and to dramatize the depth and breadth of our real life adventures.  This ending is the book’s launch.  Just like in1976 when I was sitting in an empty office wanting the phone to ring, I am sitting here today writing these words… and yet again nothing is happening (some things never change).  This ending is about me picking up the phone to call someone (metaphorically so to speak).  Me calling you and saying… here, here is my best shot about being an entrepreneur.  Here is the best story I could write about it.  Here is what I have to offer today.

My children are grown and supporting themselves, the Western Farmers Building has long since been replaced by other buildings and a park in Seattle, the armies of people who populated my businesses are scattered everywhere.  The endings I’ve experienced have been amazing.  I’ve seen the world, met so may spectacular people, heard so many enlivening stories about you and your adventures.  I’ve discovered how generous you are with your stories and how your beginnings and endings are thrilling. After all, beginnings and endings, are the way of life….  Try it yourself, trace some of your beginnings by linking them to endings.  It is an interesting exercise. And when you reach a fork in the road or a series of choices that foreshadow an important change, look to celebrating the ending before you chose a direction and continue on.

Oh yes; one last thing.  Endings are poignant, there is often a real sense of loss.  But if you can be still and just listen, you will hear a thin whisper of optimism. You see, every ending is also a beginning.  So as I sit here and bid farewell to this project, I wonder where the The Mingus Parchment will go; hell, where will its author go, what projects lie ahead?  Those are pretty exciting ideas.

As for your endings, today’s message is: pay attention! We are good at beginnings and not so good at endings and yet… well you get the picture.

From me to you, in the spirit celebrating beginnings and endings; I offer you my current ending:  The Mingus Parchment.

The book now lives here:

Amazon US    (print & Kindle)
Amazon Canada    (Kindle)
Amazon UK    (print & Kindle)
Amazon Australia    (Kindle)

 

Posted in A Better Way to Work, Building a Community, Entrepreneurs & Managers, Growing your Business, Survival, The Mingus Parchment, Vision | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mind the Gap!

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I love the way the Brits express themselves.  Mind the Gap… the most important thing you should be thinking about when you are getting on or off the Tube (the subway)!  This sign couldn’t be more clear, concise, or evocative.  Just three words and suddenly you are focused.  Lose track of this one red lettered admonition and you will be in a world of hurt!

The gap I refer to this morning is less dangerous.  It is the gap in blog entries… and here is me minding it.  I won’t pretend that there has been a deafening hue and cry about an absence of blog entries, but I can report hearing a couple of quiet whimpers, one pointed jab-in-the-ribs email from a friend and several off color texts from close acquaintances: all gesturing at the empty space in this blog-a-thon between June and today.

I have been telling them then what I am about to tell you now.  Hey, I’ve been busy!  I’m in the final throes of bringing forth another book into the world.

This gives you a hint as to why you should keep your distance from me when I am writing.  Mostly I love the work but like many other writers, I sometimes also hate it too, especially around publication time.  Imagine an epoch of tedium and embarrassment, a long drawn out gong show.  Imagine spending every waking hour being picked over by the supercilious comma and spelling police. One day followed by another, then another laboring at corrections only to clear the underbrush to reveal dangling participles smelling like thrice worn running socks, hanging out there in what you thought was a literary breeze.  That’s what publishing feels like.  And while standing trial for rotten punctuation, you are being sued for your nonsensical diction and grammar, well, who the hell who wants to write? Who wants to create more cannon fodder for those-who-must-be-obeyed?

Today’s good news is comma police are retiring back to the barracks and those dangling participles are washed, folded, and tucked in a drawer, out of sight.  With some luck, the book will be out by late October and you, lucky reader, will be able to get your copy (electronic and printed formats) soon thereafter.  The Mingus Parchment is a business book about being an entrepreneur in an unusual land.  It is about a character who learns how to fend for himself, discovers that “life is curly”, and how to “keep his eye on the meatball”.  It is an adventure story set in a fantasy world with strange and interesting characters who grow and learn about entrepreneurship and finally, as we discover in the end, reach a place of real accomplishment and well, you’ll have to read the book to get what I am talking about.

The gap to be minded in The Mingus Parchment is the unpredictable nature of things – things all of us think ought to be predictable but are not, and how entrepreneurship can become a compendium of experiences that teaches us how to navigate surprise, variability, and life’s general iffy-ness.

This announcement appears in my blog because completing and publishing The Mingus Parchment is a fulfillment of another step in my quest to teach through stories.  In this case, The Mingus Parchment is for not only people who might be entrepreneurs, but also children and young adults, because make no mistake, knowing how to fend for yourself (entrepreneurship by another name) is a very valuable life skill no matter which path one chooses to take.

So do Mind the Gap!  Stay tuned for more sort-of regular blog entries and know that The Mingus Parchment is on its way to the Amazon showroom near you!

And now that I’ve written this entry, it’s off to the comma police to see if I am free to go or not.

 

 

Posted in Entrepreneurs & Managers, Navigate the Rivers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nikolas Makes Something out of Nothing (Part 2 of 2)

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Previously on Nikolas Makes Something out of Nothing…

I’m going out to seek my fortune!  That’s what Nikolas told his parents as he left the relative safety and conformity of his carefully selected college preparatory school.  His parents were shocked and very unhappy, but resigned. Nikolas had turned eighteen the day he left.  There was nothing they could do other than worry.  The Headmaster of the school knew what to do, though- he warned Nikolas that he would be very sorry for his intemperate act.  He warned—no, he scolded—Nikolas: … “In this life there are no second chances for the wayward or quitters, you WILL be sorry!”

Leaving the scolding and admonitions behind, Nikolas departed school and the safe life his parents had crafted for him, and took to the road. His first port of call was the chaotic but colorful Village del’Arte, the Village of the arts. Here he learned to live freely, discovering his artistic talents as he drew and painted pictures for a few coins and worked in the artists’ community, a colorful, musical, aesthetic anarchy that is a village of artists.  From there he traveled to the Village del’Oro,  the money village, where he learned what it was like to live in the land of money with rigorous class divisions, golden gates, guards with guns, strict rules and Guest Worker accommodations.

And NOW…

We rejoin Nikolas on his way out of the high mountains, leaving Village del’Oro behind.  As he walked, he ruminated about all that money and how hard it had been to earn any of it as a Guest Worker.  So hard that he was convinced that if he was to find his fortune, he would have to do it some place else. The inhabitants of Village del’Oro, although kind and caring up to a point, had lots of money mostly because they didn’t give it to other people.  He was also anxious about spending winter in an unheated one room mud hut perched on the exposed high mountain pass.

So it was the search of warm weather and better prospects that drove him out onto the road again, heading south with his rucksack, his Swiss Army knife, forty-one coins, and enough food for twelve days.  He was fueled by anticipation, that powerful drug of adventure.  Yes, there were plenty of hardships on the road and in the strange villages along the way, but more than anything, Nikolas felt free!  Even though he didn’t have much to show for many months of traveling, somehow, inside, he really did feel he was getting ahead, that he was going somewhere.  After all, he had forty-one coins in his pocket, his legs were stronger legs (he had walked over three hundred miles), and his back and arms were stronger because he had worked hard along the way.  Feeling his new strength and optimism, he bounded down the mountain path onto a forested plane, camping, sleeping well, and wondering where the road would lead.

Winter was coming: the days were not so warm.  Rain fell more often, sometimes with thunder and lighting.  He talked to himself as he walked.  “So I’m going south, but where in the south?  So I am heading to warmer places, but where will I land next?”  The words were marching through his head, over and over, mesmerizing, when he was startled by the small yellow dart of a bird whizzing past his cheek, barely missing his eye….  “Oh!” Nikolas yelped.

A goldfinch landed on a branch right in front of him.  “Damn you, bird, you scared me!”  The goldfinch flit into the air, did a small circle and landed on another branch nearby, and seemed to stare right back at him.  Nikolas, now angry, sprung ahead.  As he did, the bird flew at him again, right at his face, veering off at the last second.

“Hey,” Nikolas shouted.  “Hey, what’s up with you, stupid bird!.” And he reached out to swat the bird, but in doing so, he tripped over a swollen root across his path and flew forward, hitting his head on a large stone.  He saw a flash of light, heard a dull thud, and then the world went dark.

“Nikolas…. Is that your name, Nikolas?”

Nikolas blinked, a blaze of white light shocked him. Then came a crushing pain in his forehead.  He blinked again, the pain now throbbing.  Nonetheless he was curious. The bright light came from a window to his right, and was also reflected by the white uniformed mob surrounding him.  He now could see he was in a hospital bed, its chrome bits adding to the glare and the pain

“Nikolas, welcome back,” a woman dressed in white said.  “We were worried about you.”

Through the wall of pain in his forehead, Nikolas frowned. “Where am I?”

The woman smiled, placing her hand on his shoulder. “You’re in the Village del Mano Amiga, the helpers village. You’re in a hospital.”

“How did I get here?”

“An old man found you and your pet bird on the road.  He bound the wound on your head, put you over the back of his donkey, and brought you here.  He brought your little bird, too.”  Nikolas looked to where she was pointing, at the window that was letting in the painful sunlight.  On the sill, was the goldfinch, moving from side to side, first bouncing, then staring, then bouncing, again.

“That bird,” Nikolas said, moving to sit up, but at the jolt of pain in his head, he wilted and fell back onto the pillow with a groan.

Sleep and bed rest were proscribed by the doctors.  All the while, the bird faithfully held watch from the sill.  The nurses brought in a small mound of seed on a saucer and a child’s cup of water, and the little goldfinch bounced, stared at Nikolas then chirped as if trying say something in Nikolas’ direction.

Three days later he was talking to the doctor while she examined an X-ray of his skull.  “Hard as rock,” she marveled. “You have a concussion, but in two weeks or so you should be right as rain.”

“When can I leave?”

“Well, I think you and your friend here should plan on say at least the whole two weeks, just so we can be sure.  You won’t have to stay here in the hospital though. We’ll get you a comfortable apartment in the town center so you can convalesce.”

“I’m a little confused.”

“Yes,” she smiled down at him.  “That is one of the symptoms of concussion.”

“Yes, but it’s not that, what I don’t understand is why you call this a helping village.  What exactly is a helping village? Who do you help? How do you help?”

“Well, this village is organized to help anyone who needs help.  Here in the hospital we help people who are sick.  In fact, we have eight hospitals in this small village.  We also have counselors, therapists, body workers—all kinds of people who help others.  That is the job of this whole village.  We are open to anyone in the land who is sick, handicapped or in any way challenged, and we help them with whatever it is they need.”

“But that’s crazy.  Don’t people take advantage?  What about gold diggers or fakers?”

The doctor smiled.  Her eyes sparkled and wrinkled at the edges as she shook her head and said, “Well, it’s not like that. We’re not here to judge people, we’re here to help them.  So if someone is, as you call it, a faker, well they need to learn that faking isn’t a healthy coping mechanism, and in this village we have counselors who can do that, teach them to not fake, so to speak.  Gold diggers, well, I think what you mean is people who just come here to live and not work… they need to learn that just sitting around waiting for someone to feed them and act as their servant isn’t a healthy lifestyle either.  So we teach them to work, to enjoy work. In fact, many of those types of patients learn how to work and then stay on here as helpers themselves.  The work of helping can be very satisfying.

“I can’t believe such a place actually exists.”

“No, many people in other lands don’t approve of this type of support for people, but believe me, it works. And you, young man, are going to be a beneficiary of our care-giving.  What do you say about that?”

“I say thank you.”

“Thank the Country Counsel who made all this happen.  We were founded seventy-five years ago, and have become a major factor in attracting people to this part of the world.  We help those in our Country who need help so they can live safely and productively without fear of being left on their own due to sickness, injury, impairment or handicap.  As you will see, this is a very happy place, even though we deal mostly with sick or suffering people.”

(Note: In real life, conversations rarely pan out this way. There are unexpected interruptions, people fail to say things beautifully, and many things are said through body language rather than with words. This conversation needs to be disrupted a bit in order for it to seem realistic. Perhaps the bird can interrupt? Maybe its seed gets spilt on the floor? Anything you like.)

Nikolas overstayed his concussion by three months, not as a freeloader or gold digger, but as a paid helper’s apprentice.  He worked in a counseling center, did some artwork in the children’s wing of one of the eight hospitals, learned how to do “intake” work—the administrative receiving of emergency room patients at his home hospital. Finally he worked as what they called an assistant facilitator for a cluster of substance abuse groups that met in his immediate neighborhood.  The group work was the most challenging by far.  He saw for himself how people could get caught by chemical dependencies, depression, lack of sleep, high anxiety, and even episodic terror.  He also saw many of these people work themselves back to what was, for all the world to see, mainstream normal behavior.  Person after person was freed from the poison of internal demons. If he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, Nikolas would have never believed what helping could do for people who were, for one reason or another, in trouble.  He also learned firsthand the power of skillful one-to-one contact, of listening, of positive regard, and the special healing powers of peer group involvement.

He was housed, fed and appreciated for his contribution to life in the village of helpers.  For a while he was so overwhelmed by the experience that he thought he might stay forever.  He celebrated his nineteenth birthday, and used the occasion to write his parents a long letter about his adventures.  Much to his surprise they responded with a birthday card, hand written, with words of encouragement and love.

One thing he learned about being a helper is that humans must, from time to time, take stock, reflect on where they have been and where they are going.  Nikolas knew very well where he had been, but he still didn’t really know where he was going.  Oh, yes, he knew he wanted to seek his fortune, only his learnings in the village of helpers made the definition of the word “fortune” more obscure than ever.  Money mattered, for sure. But would one thousand coins make a fortune, or, as he suspected, did fortune have anything to do with coins in the first place?  He didn’t know. What he did know was that he now only had sixty-three coins and that didn’t feel like enough.  He had set out to make his fortune and was pretty sure he wouldn’t find it by staying in this idyllic place.

So it was, after a stay of four months, that Nikolas set off early on a crisp and clear Sunday morning in December.  His departure was attended by a crowd of thirty or so new friends.  They gathered at the gate of the village, clapping, shaking his hand, some hugging him, promising all the things you promise friends at a departure.  They gave voice to encouragement and helped him with his straps as he put the rucksack on his back.  Out of a tree flew the goldfinch, landing on top of his pack, taking his place, settling in for the journey ahead.  Nikolas smiled and waved one last time. Feeling the press of anticipation he pushed off, out the gate, out onto the open road toward the forest ahead.  The sounds of “goodbye and “good luck” faded, giving way to the crunch of leaves underfoot and the comforting chirp form his traveling companion.

It was good to be on the road again, even accompanied by the sadness of having left behind friends and the warmth of the helping village.  The energy that comes with adventure pushed him at a fast pace for five days.  Since it was December, he went south hoping to avoid the worst of winter.  He climbed over a low mountain pass and went down the other side at a half run, the breeze ruffling the goldfinch’s feathers.  The trail dove into deep forest ablaze with newly changed yellow and orange leaves framed by the black roots, trunks and branches of trees all round him.  It was eerily quiet in the forest. The leaves seemed to swallow up even the sound of his breathing.  Coming out of the other side of this magic tunnel of color and quiet, the road continued out across a great wheel of the earth, a plane that fell away from him as fallow fields. The early spring sun was passing overhead, rising on the left and setting on the right.  Each day’s progress brought warmer weather. The cold wind lost its bite, the frost was less frosty.

On the sixth night, he set up camp. The goldfinch pecked at fallen grain next to the fire as Nikolas leaned against his pack, writing in a journal, thinking about all that he had seen so far.  He drew a little map of the world as he knew it… including his parents home, the school he’d left behind, and the villages he’d visited. After the Village del Mano Amiga he drew a bit of the road and then a big question mark. Now there is an enigma, he thought to himself; I am heading for that great question mark in the South, the one in the great blank space on this map.  Suddenly he felt the cold finger of loneliness, and then an ache of homesickness in his ribs.  Black sky, dimming fire, dropping temperature, and he was aching all over.  The ground was cold, hard, and the pain grew until finally he looked over at his pack with the goldfinch nestled into its folds and said: “I can’t stand this, I have to go home.  I can’t stand this… I…have…to…go…home!”

The goldfinch looked over at him and just chirped, one time.

“So you agree?”

The goldfinch was silent.

“I don’t care what you say, I’m going home, I’m starting back tomorrow, first thing!”

Then the goldfinch did a strange thing.  It stood up, shook its little body, puffing up its bright yellow and black feathers, and flew off into the night.  Nikolas lay down next to the campfire and went to sleep.

The next morning, still feeling the ache, he threw all of his provisions and supplies into the rucksack and with exaggerated long strides retraced his steps back along the trail, heading back home, heading back toward the tunnel of leaves and the mountain pass.  He had taken twenty or so giant steps when he noticed that he was alone.  He felt up on the top of his pack, then took it off to examine it more carefully.  The goldfinch was not in its place.  He called out “Goldfinch, Goldfinch where are you?”  But nothing happened. I want to go home, Nikolas thought to himself, despairing. It makes my stomach ache, this homesickness, but my friend, I can’t just leave him alone out here.  He went back to the campsite and carefully examined the trees around it, the shrubs, the ground, wondering if the bird might have been hurt or even killed.  He walked some distance along the trail in the direction the goldfinch had flown the night before, along the trail toward the great question mark, and after about a half hour, stopped and sat on a rock. His stomach ached so badly, he felt so sad, he had to rest.  Then he heard it, a chirp, not just any chirp but that chirp, his chirp. “Goldfinch,” he cried, “Goldfinch!” He jumped up and ran farther down the trail toward the chirp.  And there he was, standing in the center of the road, his friend!  It flitted into the air and flew about ten yards farther down the trail.

“Wait,” cried Nikolas. “Wait. I want to go home, I’m homesick!”  The Goldfinch chirped and flew another ten yards down the road, landed, and looked back.

“I don’t want to go that way, Goldfinch!  I….”   But before he could finish, the goldfinch had already flown farther yet, then again, then again, around the bend in the trail.  Nikolas, angry now, started running after the little bird, tearing up as he went around the corner, almost sprinting, and as he did, the little bird flew back to him and landed right on top of the pack, chirping over and over and over.  Nikolas slowed down and started to laugh even though he was breathing hard from running and crying at the same time.  He sat down, this time on a log, looked around, caught his breath and finally said: “All right already, I get it!  We aren’t going home yet… I get it.  This is the way.”  And somehow his homesickness softened, and as they made their way farther down the trail toward the question mark, his sorrow eased and the ache receded to a recent memory.

They walked for five days. The sun shone more brightly, the earth warmed, the experience of winter in the south was oh so different than winter in the north.  More exciting yet, last night, in the direction of the question mark, he and Goldfinch had seen something very curious.  Close to midnight, they saw a glow in the sky, just the faintest bit of illumination painted across the lower part of the dark night, above where the road was heading, a soft white vapor-like glow.

The next morning, they found it, no longer a question mark, but a village.  “Welcome to Village Mercado. Tourists and Shoppers Welcome!”  The banner flapped in the warm morning breeze, bright white with red lettering. It was hung across the road, and Nikolas smiled and goldfinch chirped with joy as they passed beneath it, drawn on by the smell of cooking food and the excitement of people coming and going along the road into the village.  Just inside the gates were more signs, most of them welcoming shoppers, a huge mural, a map of the village painted in bright colors, a booth with brochures about all the stores and booths and restaurants and attractions of the great Market Town of the south, Village Mercado.  Off to one side stood another, much smaller, booth, this one painted white with a sign covering the entire side wall: “Welcome Entrepreneurs.”  A woman in uniform stood inside. Nikolas approached the sign and read:


 

1. All entrepreneurs must register with The Authorities before entering.

2.  Entrepreneurs must be self-sustaining.

3.  Entrepreneurs can borrow no more than 1X what they bring in capital to the village.

4.  Entrepreneurs pay no taxes and no booth or store rental and are granted rent-free housing for the first year of business operations.  After that, if there is an after that, taxes and rent are charged at market value.

5. Entrepreneurs are encouraged, supported, and viewed as desirable citizens in Village Mercado.  In this spirit, we must disclose to you that about eight in ten of you will not succeed in your business endeavor here.

6.  If you do not succeed in business you must leave the village.  If you so choose, you might get money (capital) abroad, at which time you may come back and try again.  Otherwise you will only be welcome here in Village Mercado as a tourist or a shopper… See the other booth marked “Welcome Tourists and Shoppers” for more information.

Good Luck Entrepreneurs!


Not the most encouraging of signs, he thought, but he had come a long way and this looked a lot like the place he was seeking.  Nikolas had a premonition that he had finally arrived at the big leagues, no longer a question mark, but the place where he could, and would, he hoped, earn his fortune.

Sixty-three coins wasn’t a big stake, but he found a small storefront on a good corner just as it was being vacated by someone who failed to make a go of it.  It had been an art gallery called Death and Dark Goth Expressions.  As the tattooed and oft-pierced young woman packed up her mostly black paintings, she handed him the keys and left.

“Sorry,” he said.

“Whatever.” She replied without making eye contact, and pulled her cart down the street in the direction of the main gates.

Nikolas was in business. The storefront was his. He pumped his fist in the air, shouted “yes” then set out to discover the village, strolling through swap meets and thrift shops, returning that evening with six old, battered, rusted birdcages.  He also bought paint, twenty-five different colors, and set to work on the cages.  He cleaned, straightened out bent wires, added little ceramic cups, until he had six shining, multicolored, hand-painted birdcages.  He also painted over the Dark Goth Expressions sign on the storefront.  He painted the whole sign a bright, crisp white, overwritten in sunny yellow and black letters spelling “Goldfinch’s Pet Supplies and Emporium.” Beside this, he rendered a huge likeness of a goldfinch in profile.

The next day, he opened for business.  Surprisingly, he sold four of the birdcages, mostly because they were so cheerful and colorful, each a piece of art and handmade.  He set one of the cages aside and outfitted it for Goldfinch, inviting him into his new home and leaving the door open of course.  That evening he returned to the swap meets, midnight markets, thrift stores and even scrounging through the junkyard for more cages. Then he visited the corner pub to chat up the locals in hopes of finding a supplier for seed, cuttle bone, water dispensers, and … well, you get the picture.  Nikolas was on his way.


 

Five years later we meet an older, more prosperous Nikolas.  He owns four Goldfinch’s Pet Supplies and Emporiums which strategically dot the Village Mercado map.  The new stores are bigger than the first one.  They are bursting with all kinds of pet supplies, but  specialize in one-of-a-kind art pet houses, art pet mazes, art pet castles, art pet pillows, art pet enclosures, art pet everything, all made by hand, by artisans, by craftspeople who now support themselves by selling their creations to Nikolas’ Goldfinch Emporium Enterprises Ltd.

At the age of twenty-four, Nikolas has earned his fortune, so to speak.

Today we find Nikolas on the porch of that first store.  He is being interviewed by a reporter for his old hometown newspaper.  They are doing a Sunday supplement, a big spread, with lots of color pictures; a special profile about Nikolas entitled “Home Town Boy Made Good.”  The interviewer named Melody is, as it turns out, the Goth Gallery’s previous owner, turned aspiring freelance journalist.  She sits with him on the porch of his and her first store.  As she opens a reporter’s black pad, she looks over at him, making eye contact.  Somehow she has acquired a welcoming openness, an easy smile.  The piercings are mostly gone except for three silver studs on each ear and one on the side of her nose, like a small shiny beauty spot.  Her hair is henna red and she is dressed in jeans and a white linen shirt.  To Nikolas, she seems completely transformed.

“What is an entrepreneur,” she asks.

Nikolas chuckles. “Well, I think an entrepreneur is a person who makes something out of nothing, or almost nothing.  Someone who organizes or creates a business, a kind of sustainable economic entity, perhaps even an enterprise, from very little.”

Melody scratches notes then looks up and smiles at him. “Sounds very mysterious. Is it mysterious?”

“No, not mysterious, just not obvious.  You see, once upon a time I learned how to paint and practiced art. Now it appears in my products. But my skill, my knowing something about art, is not apparent to our customers.  What they see is a nice store with lots of stuff, some of which is original art.  They like the art, but they don’t bother with trying to figure out how my knowing something about art helped to create this business.  So it looks like making something out of nothing, that’s how I like to put it.

“What would you recommend to those who want to be entrepreneurs?”

“Well, I think it would help if you’ve had a lot of specific types of experiences, you know, learned skills.  You certainly have to know how to do something or make something that others will pay for.  You also should understand money, what to charge, how to buy stuff, how to sell stuff, how to save, how to invest.  And most of all you have to relate to people, you must understand how to build a community that will become your business, and you should understand the people who will be your customers.”

“Where did you learn these things,” she asked.

“I learned them by going out into the world, taking my young self out on an adventure into the real world, with real consequences and lessons that I couldn’t have learned at home.  As it turns out, I was also pretty lucky.   I managed to hit most of the right places. It really was quite an adventure.”

“Was there some turning point along the way you could share with me?”

“Well, there were so many things that happened.  But yes, not one but two turning points, and they both happened sort of by accident,” he said.  “The first was a knock on the head and being taken to the helping village.  The second happened on a lonely stretch of road heading south, in the middle of nowhere, between the helping village and the question mark.”

“Sorry?”

“The question mark. You see, the whole time I knew I was going somewhere but I didn’t know where. It was a question, a question mark on a map I drew in my journal.  But I was so tired and so overextended. I almost quit, in fact I did quit. I turned back and was heading towards home, feeling defeated and homesick. But good old Goldfinch, he had another idea, he pulled me out of myself and led me back down the road, toward this place.”

“Wow,” she said.

Nikolas laughed out loud and said; “Yes, wow, indeed.”

“Why was the helping village such a big deal?”

“Because that’s where I learned about people, real people.  None of this would have happened if I didn’t know a lot about people. I learned a lot about myself, too.  There are so many opportunities in the world if you just have a good sense about people, if you know how to get along, if you can figure out a way to contribute something of value, and if you can relate to others well enough to connect with them.

Melody stretched, arched her back all the while looking at her notebook.  Tapping the page with her pencil she spoke slowly.  “And so we have a helping village and a Goldfinch to thank for your ultimate success?”

“Yes, and a robin and—well, like I said, there are too many things that went right to even remember them all. I just have a lot to be grateful for.”  He paused for a long moment.  Then, looking directly at Melody, nodded his head, smiled.  “And here’s the best part, I know how fortunate I am, I know it, I feel it, I appreciate it

“What do you suppose your parents think now?”

“I think they’re proud, but I suspect my mother still wishes I had stayed in school.”

Nikolas and Melody laughed together. She pushed her hair back with one hand then continued the interview.  As evening fell, the interview was finished, but the conversation carried on, continuing with dinner at the “Hope and a Prayer,” a local farm to table, certified organic restaurant.  It wasn’t until weeks later that Nikolas realized the restaurant choice was his way of beginning yet another adventure, a journey toward the next great question mark in an achingly blank part of his personal map that even Goldfinch couldn’t fill.

*******END

Posted in A Better Way to Work, Build a Culture, Building a Community, Entrepreneurs & Managers, Financing your Business, Growing your Business, Leaping, Live your Life, Navigate the Rivers, Survival, Vision | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nikolas Makes Something out of Nothing (Part 1 of 2)

nikolas-walt

“Break year, you must be kidding, Nikolas, tell me you are kidding!”

“Mom, no, I’m not kidding, I want to take a break year, lots of kids….”

“Not until you finish twelfth grade, and not until you finish your university degree, then you take a break if you need one.  Right now you need to study for your finals!  Now go to your room and get to work!”

“No, Mom, I won’t. I am eighteen, I can do what I want and you can’t stop me!”


 

That was how it started.  What followed was a week of angry conversations, recriminations, and threats.  Finally, unable to make any headway with his parents, Nikolas left school one day and headed out into the world to go walking. This was BIG walking, as in the walking across England sense, or the 500 miles of Camino de Santiago sense. He set out with a rucksack and a sleeping bag, and a young heart. He was abandoning formal education; he was leaving in the middle of the twelfth grade at THE school, as his parents had put it.  THE school that would launch him toward the correct university that would launch him into the right social circles that would launch him into the proper life his parents envisioned for him.  Only he wouldn’t be launched, at least not at THE school, not by that headmaster and those teachers.  Nikolas just couldn’t stand anything about THE school, THOSE well intended teachers, THAT place.  So, upon reaching the age of majority, he decided to go walking—right out the door, out the gate, and into what he imagined to be the real world.  As he left, the Headmaster’s voice echoed back from the stone gates that guarded the grass and tree adorned campus:  “You will be sorry, Nikolas. In this life there are no second chances for the wayward or the quitters!  You WILL be sorry!”  That was it.  No second chances for the wayward, indeed.  Phooey!  He would show the Headmaster, he would show his parents, he would show the world. He would walk, he would find his own fortune, he would seek his own way, thank you very much.

On the first day he walked fifteen miles along a trail through fields and forest.  That night he camped and discovered the freedom of being alone, in the woods, by a brook. Since he was lucky enough to turn eighteen in the Springtime, it was reasonably warm.  He started a small fire, put up his tarp, laid out his bag, opened a can of beans with his Swiss Army knife, the one with sixty-one and a half blades.  One can down, seven cans left; he had commandeered the beans from THE school.  Smoke made his eyes sting. The sun set behind him.  He heated the beans on the fire, ate, and went to sleep smiling. He was on his way at last.

That night he dreamed of himself as a soaring bird, high above the forest, trail, and towns, looking down on the whole world below.  He felt the wind on his face as he flew, then rain, and then the feeling of a chill spreading over his body as he woke to the cold.  The ground was hard. He pulled his sleeping bag under the tarp as the rain pelted down on his camp and hissed out what was left of his fire.  He slept fitfully for the rest of the night.

Life on the walking path was an almost magically changing tableau.  It was sunny, it rained, there was mud, there was dust, he was hungry, he ate berries, and from time to time, he met other travelers.  What surprised him the most was how generous these travelers were. They gave him more food, if they had any extra, they talked to him about the road, the trail, the towns ahead and behind, and they told him about their own walking adventures.

Needless to say, Nikolas was growing up fast, and after a month on the trail he was beginning to wonder when he would find his fortune—something inside told him that walking was good but wandering forever wasn’t.

The most useful conversation he’d had so far on his journey was with a robin that invaded his camp one evening.  Red breasted, yellow beaked, hopping around pulling worms from the ground, Nikolas and the robin chatted:

“Well Robin,” Nikolas said, “where do you come from?”

The robin nodded its head and pulled a worm into its beak.

“Okay,” said Nikolas “I guess that means you’re not from around here, Robin. Have you traveled far?”

The robin turned in a circle and faced Nikolas again, then hopped once.

“Of course,” said Nikolas, “you must be from one of those towns, up in the great back country valley. You know, Robin, I met a traveler on the road last week and she told me about one of them, let me see… it was the town of the arts, a town full of artists, that’s it. Is that the town you are from?”

The robin hopped three times, flew to a nearby branch landed and faced him again.

“So you think I should go there, then?  I can draw, I can paint, and I can sing, I ought to be able to get along there, at least for a while, don’t you think?

The robin bobbed its head.

“Okay!  That settles it, the Village del’Arte it is, friend Robin! Why don’t you join me?”

The robin flew up into the light purple sky.

Village del’Arte was a village, yes, with houses and buildings painted every color, all colors it seemed, a riot of color.  Being Village del’Arte, there was no pattern to the color at all, which Nikolas imagined was in itself a pattern, a certain type of art.  The air was filled with incense and other strange smells, there were sculptures in neighborhood squares, and the villagers all were busy painting, writing, sculpting, or arguing about aesthetics, designing garden patches that were pretty but not so practical. Yet the place felt welcoming, in a loud free-wheeling sort of way.  Nikolas had a sense that he could fit right in.  And so he did: he drew portraits of children for a coin, painted pictures of pets for three coins, and helped cast a great bronze sculpture of a fifteen foot paint brush in a paint pot that would, when it was finally completed, adorn the village common. Nikolas came to understand this place.  He felt at home here, and as long as he could keep earning a few coins from his drawing, painting, and casting, he had all he needed.

And yet after three months Nikolas began to feel restless.  This surprised him because he was often tired at night with all the hustling for coins.    But for all his effort, he never seemed to earn quite enough money to take a day off.  He noticed this was how almost everybody lived in Village del’Arte, and although it was free-spirited, energetic, colorful and lively, there never seemed to be a way to get ahead, and this is what made him restless.  So he reassembled his rucksack and sleeping bag and headed back out on the road.

He left the warm valley, heading toward the great mountains to the north.  While living in the Village del’Arte, he’d heard stories about a place called Village del’Oro, the great center of money and banking.  He’d thought to himself: if he could get some money, get a little ahead, he could come back to the Village del’ArteVillage del’Arte and continue his life as an artist.

So off he went, up into the high mountains thinking and dreaming about  money  The Village del’Oro was many days walk, mostly up hill as it was high in the snow covered mountains.  He imagined a place where money was kept, and dreamed of a job where he could work for a day and make thirty or forty coins at a time (because of course in the place of money, there was plenty to go around).  After two weeks of difficult hiking and freezing cold nights, he climbed the last mountain pass and entered a high valley whose snowy hillsides were scattered with mud huts.  Between the huts were paths dug out of the snow so the people living on the hillside could get from tiny one-room hut to tiny one-room hut.  He continued down this valley, and the number of huts increased, until as he rounded a bend in the road he stopped in front of a shining edifice, two huge golden gates blocking the road entirely. In front of the gates were forty guards, marching back and forth.  They wore high bearskin caps and green baize uniforms with gold buttons.  Silently, they marched back and forth and back and forth, holding rifles.

Nikolas went to the guardhouse and said “hello, my name is Nikolas and I am from the South. I am an artist seeking my fortune.  I want to enter the city to get a good job and make some money.”  The guard took his passport, examined it carefully, and said, “You will have to leave this rucksack in a locker, take a shower and have your cloths washed and pressed before I can let you through the gates.”

“But I can’t leave my rucksack out here, I need it.  All of my belongings are in it!”  The stone-faced guard said, “No problem.  As an outsider you are permitted to work in the city, but you will never be allowed to live in the city.  Each night at midnight all guest workers are required to leave.  The gates are closed and locked from midnight to first light.  Any guest worker remaining in city after midnight will be prosecuted, punished, and then permanently deported. That’s the law!“

“Where will I live?”

“In the Guest Workers’ huts, of course,” growled the guard.

And so it was that Nikolas began his life in the Village del’Oro, working within its gates, but living in a one-room hut outside the city.  After all, the people with money, the bankers and money holders who lived in the city, needed their lawns mowed, needed someone to carry parcels while shopping, someone to help them move all that money from one safe place to another, load and unload trucks, wait on tables in their restaurants, sweep the streets, wash and polish floors and dispense shots of cappuccino. Like clockwork, each night, all of the Guest Workers were counted and expelled from the village.  At five minutes to midnight, a rotating red light atop each of the golden pillars that supported the golden gates began turning, penetrating the night with a red flashing warning: “The Gates Are Locked, Do Not Enter.”  Five minutes later a loud CLANK could be heard in the valley of little huts and the streets of Village del’Oro, and the rotating beacons would stop and go dark.   Thus the bankers and moneyed people could sleep peacefully at night, knowing that people without money were on one side of the wall and people with money were on the other.

Nikolas worked in Village del’Oro for eight months, a very long time in the life of an eighteen year old.  He was befriended by a family of bankers, and eventually he worked exclusively for them as an all-around dogsbody, bat man, jack of all trades and sometime babysitter.  They were very kind to him, and during the day treated him almost like a son, even giving him food to take with him at night with advice like “Nikolas, you should get your education,” or “Nikolas, you should do more traveling and become a travel agent in one of the villages with a warmer climate.”  This was how they treated him during the day, but as night fell, he, like all the other Guest Workers, would be put out of the village like, well you get the picture.  Needless to say, Nikolas did not make a lot of money.  Nikolas made a little more money than in Village del’Arte, but not much more.  The people with money had money because they didn’t give it away, so the pay was low and the hours long. Nonetheless, Nikolas learned a lot about work and money, not the least of which was the notion that having money was different from not having money.   He decided he did want to have some money, only he wasn’t going to make his fortune in Village del’Oro.

Now we must leave Nikolas for a couple of weeks as this is a blog not a novel.  But before we do, lets take stock:

First we have young Nikolas, out in the world seeking his fortune.  So far, he has accumulated many useful things for those seeking good fortune.  He has the adventurer’s heart, enthusiasm, and courage.  He has a predisposition to action.  He has learned about art and the ways of making something out of very little, he has mastered his Swiss Army knife (all sixty-two and a half blades), he is self-dependent (just), he talks to himself, to animals, and to other people.  He seems to be able to get along, and, finally, he has learned something about money.  Nikolas is well on his way.

Next time, we will find out where this journey takes him, and we will see what seeking one’s fortune really looks like for Nikolas, you, me and others like us. Did Nikolas make a mistake leaving his school before graduating as his mother had urged?  Was his old Headmaster right that Nikolas would be sorry, that there are no second chances in life?  Setting out on the next leg of his journey, Nikolas does not think so; in fact, Nikolas is well on his way to… well, that’s for next time isn’t it?

Posted in Entrepreneurs & Managers, Leaping, Live your Life, Navigate the Rivers, People. People. People., Survival, Vision | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inflection Point

waltskischool

A meeting room, forty people in attendance:

“Good Morning… um.  I want to… um let me see here, oh, yes, I just want to say how delighted I… um am to be here today.”

Long silence….

@Audience1 tweets:  “Really? I mean #MrBadPresenter your hands are covering your crotch, dude!”

@Audience2 tweets: “#MrBadPresenter sure as hell don’t look delighted. Definitely not a smile on your face!  It’s like a death mask. Rictus.”

“Today I am pleased to share..um be able to some ah very important information and ah timely… too!   I am certain you will find it valuable, so let’s get going shall we…?”

@Audience 1 tweets:  “Is his foot caught in a bear trap? #MrBadPresneter hasn’t moved a muscle since he stood up except for his flap-flap lips… god, why me?”

@Audience 2 tweets:  “Important, right! The only thing important is my boss–he made me come. #MrBadPresenter really wants to be boring! Time to catch some zzz’s.”

And so it starts.  You find yourself in front of a group, perhaps at a business conference, or an office presentation.  You can hear, well you think you can hear (and will later confirm on the feeds), what your audience is saying and thinking.  As they hunch over their phones tweeting, even hashtagging you with your very own albatross, and worse (you imagine) a large dagger shaped icicle, three feet long, is slowly, inexorably, inserting itself down your throat.

GREAT! Now you can’t breathe either.

And you suddenly know, as if visited by a clever tooth fairy who glibly tells you that the only way to get out of this horrible situation is to say something that will make them love you, or at least like you, or better yet; disappear you, as in “poof”!  But no, you didn’t plan on having a giant icicle shoved down your throat so you didn’t come prepared with Tooth Fairy Plan B; the magic of improv, or a riff of clever, funny, and engaging words, acts, noises that would make them laugh, or be interested, or just be nice.  You didn’t prepare any of those things you now so desperately need in order to extract the icicle and get you going.  God, why are you doing this for in the first place?

Then of course you freeze.  Or more prosaically, you choke.

You know what I am talking about, right?  If you read this blog, you know.  In real life, leaders are often frightened.  Public speaking is a common requirement leaders regularly face. You’re not alone: surveys show that public speaking is our greatest phobia.  One recent university survey  concluded that over 25% of Americans fear public speaking more than anything else. Each time I stand up in front of two or fifty-two people, I am hit by a blast of fear: it jumps up and mugs me the moment I face the group.  We are not talking about some abstract idea, a theoretical fear.  We are talking about: F  E  A  R  !  !   !  Not some lowercase typed word buried in hundreds of other words in an article.  The feeling of the icicle, that twist or torque you feel in the gut, the solar plexus, the dry mouth, the sweaty palms, a racing heartbeat, an onrushing headache or surge of dizziness, the tightness in your chest, bulging eyes, the seemingly irresistible urge to run, strike out, hit, destroy … that experience psychologists sometimes describe as “fight or flight”.

That fear!

Are we on the same page?

Excellent!

Today’s lesson is about leadership and fear.

Most people who are offered leadership positions say no, or no thank you.  Most don’t want to cross that line because of fear.  It’s true, to be a leader is risky: it regularly does have fearful moments, starting immediately after you accept a leadership role.  From the beginning, you don’t know if you will be accepted (even if you are the “boss”).  That is fearful!  Were you to interview people who have chosen leadership roles you would discover most of them regularly experience fear and discomfort.  In this light, “no thank you” is a reasonable answer.

For others, one of the issues people face when considering a leadership assignment is whether they are willing to stand up in front of a group and speak, to make arguments publically, to get important points across, to convince others to action. Even the pros, those who speak often, experience fear. You may have heard about the ubiquitous USA Today survey that asked people whether they would rather be the dead person at a funeral or the person giving the eulogy.  The majority said they would rather be in the coffin.

But for some, the experience of fear isn’t necessarily a show-stopper.  Many people do say yes to the leaders’ role.  If you talk to leaders about their experience of leading, they will tell you they have many fearful moments, but for them (generally) the experience of fear is more of an inflection point, the place at which the he or she either grows because of success or grows because of a failure. In either case, there is growth.  Most senior executives will tell you their highest and best learning doesn’t come from successful outcomes in business; it comes from making mistakes.  You may well ask why a person would want a job whose learning curve is described by fear and mistakes?  The answer for most of them is that the leadership job is an adventure, someone has to do it, and although it is often fearful, it can also be generative and gratifying.  From a distance, you might also see that every group endeavor (business or otherwise) needs a leader.  And yet this idea of fear is just that, an idea.  The experience of being a leader and encountering fear is not just an idea: it is bracing an unpredictable experience.  I am reminded of the old saying: “In theory, theory and practice produce the same result, but in practice they don’t.”  In that spirit, let’s move from the theory to practice and see what happens.

Imagine for a moment you have just accepted a leadership job teaching newbies how to ski.  You know that beginning skiers want nothing more than some type of certainty that they can control their path down the hill. They want to turn left, turn right and most importantly, they really want to be able to stop. If you ski, you know the secret to control is to lean down the hill. Yet the first time you are on a slope – even an almost flat bunny hill type of slope – you can say “lean down the hill” as often as you’d like, but your body can’t hear it.  Your body only wants to lean back – way back! The “right action” to guarantee control is out of reach.  It is intuitively outrageous, beyond provocative, your body is screaming “don’t lean down the hill because you will die!” So there it is, the big challenge.  In the learning stages of skiing, leaning down the hill triggers an alarmingly high level of fear in the student. Because the student has yet to acquire the experience of carving long speedy banana-shaped turns, she has no way of appreciating the physics of skiing and the great increase in control imparted by leaning down the hill. So starting at rest, she is in a kind of comfort zone.  You, the instructor, must somehow convince her to move towards imminent danger by leaning (just a little at first) down the hill.  She has to take that risk or she will never get control of her skis. Once she has a single successful experience however, she can lean down the hill more easily, and as this happens, she experiences increased control, a little more at a time, often by falling some too.  As the students improve some, the ski teacher’s confidence also grows, (fearful inflection moment, moved through it) so the leader and the student share this joint experience of net success.  The student is able to hear the teacher (leader), leans down the hill some, and is soon carving a giant banana turn and stopping at the bottom of the run in a splendid spray cloud of snow.

Now you, the leader, some weeks later, are starting out again with a new group of skiing wannabes.  You’ve been through this before. The fearful inflection point is less debilitating: you have experience.  Nonetheless, there is still discomfort: you are facing a new group, you must get to know them in order to gain their trust, enough so that they are willing to do that preposterous and unnatural thing – lean down the hill.  But now you know more about being a leader.  You see this group as your next challenge: that’s it, a leadership challenge, so off you go… right through the feeling of fear, right through the inflection point.

Weeks later, the Queen of the Mountain (head of the ski school) asks you to get up in front of a gathering of ski instructors and teach them how to teach skiing…!   “Huh, why me,” you ask?

“Because you had such success teaching young students.  Now we would like you to teach other instructors how you did it, oh and by the way, we are making you our new chief instructor, congratulations!”

Here comes the icicle.  This is a much bigger challenge!

Okay, you think, I certainly feel the fear, my heart, sweaty palms and so on.  Then you take a couple of deep breaths, shake your head, stretch to relieve some of the tension and then you go to your desk to prepare an introductory session for the whole school of ski instructors, as their new leader. Here is part of the prepared text you deliver to the ski instructors the following day:

“As the students face the risk of falling – under your watchful eye”, you opine, “they lean down the hill and bit by bit, they learn to turn to the left and the right and most importantly to STOP safely.  It is a glorious moment, just glorious.  Especially remembering that when you first met your students, you were afraid and they were afraid.  Will they listen to you?  Why should they listen to you? What happens if they all fall and walk away?  We all experience these and perhaps many more uncomfortable doubts.  But at that moment of fear, you just take a deep breath, smile to yourself and to them, greet them one by one, learn their names, chat them up a bit and then begin to teach.  An hour later you watch them ski, fall some, lean down hill and learn.  They get better, you get better, all through the portal of fear.  We know that humans are wired to avoid fear, but for you, as a qualified and skillful ski instructor, that moment of fear is a portal, a door to growth and a successful leadership experience!   In time you will have taught several groups to ski, you will have been through this whole cycle several times and you will grow through the sense of accomplishment, you have taught your students well, they can ski.  I know you will like that experience a lot.  Thank you very much. Now let’s get out there. Your students are waiting, time to have some real fun!

In a final scene you are standing at the top of the ski hill watching several instructors teaching pods of students how to lean down the hill.  As you survey the scene below you feel the joy of helping (leading).  It awaits each person who is asked to lead a team, group, association, or an enterprise.  Someone must lead, someone must help the group get ready for whatever happens next, to learn and work together, to help the team members and the group, as a whole experience, to describe a better future.  As this unfolds, there will be fearful inflection points, but in time, everybody is figuratively leaning down the hill, and you and they together are having a better more fulfilling, and richer experience.

Every community needs one or more leaders.  Next time you are offered this opportunity, you might consider saying “yes” (through the first inflection point) and then off you all go, up the learning curve.  You grow, each team member grows and the group as a whole grows; good things happen and the whole community is enriched.  Yes, leadership has fearful moments, but it is also purposeful, rewarding and necessary work. And anyone can learn: just say yes, and pass through the first inflection point to the next better place.

Good luck!

 

Posted in A Better Way to Work, Entrepreneurs & Managers, Leadership, Leaping, Live your Life | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rippling

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A friend died recently.  It was really a fluke that we met at all, let alone became friends. I got her name because of a pick-up sticks-like jumble of intersecting acquaintances and business relationships.  We lived in different cities, so we rarely actually met with each other to talk, in person I mean.  Our friendship mainly developed by phone, a bit like pen pals of old, only with voices and the immediacy of real time conversation.

When I first got her name, I called for an appointment and went to Los Angeles to meet her (this was twenty five years ago).  At the time, she was CEO of a publishing company and I was an ex-CEO trying to write a book.  What a score I thought, I know someone who knows someone else who knows this woman who is the president of a publishing company!  I was thrilled to get the introduction.  We met at her office in Santa Monica, a beautiful layout; it was a clean modern sunlit space housing ninety or so people, every surface clad in blond wood: the floors, the desks, the walls were lined with blond wood shelving too, holding hundreds of books her firm had birthed and sent out into the world.   I thought to myself, maybe this company might someday publish my book – which at that time wasn’t a book at all: it was just the idea of a book, an imagined book.  She pretty quickly dissuaded me of that fantasy by gently, but firmly saying, “No, we don’t publish that type of book, but tell me something about it and perhaps I can help in some other way.”

I sat in the guest chair in her office and told her about my idea.  She was encouraging, nodded, asked questions and as I tried to answer her questions I began to feel uncomfortable.  I was babbling, hemming and hawing, talking in clichés, and the more I noticed it, the worse it got… my imagined project spoken out loud in the office of a real publisher fell flat, dead on arrival, disjointed.  God, I wasn’t writing a book, I was groping, I was clueless.  Finally I looked at her, my hands sweating, fingers aching and said, “Look, I’m embarrassed.  I have never written a book before and trying to answer your questions, or really not answering your questions, well, as you can see, I’m a hell of a long way from writing a book. I’m not sure what I’m doing other than making a fool of myself.  Can we call this thing off before I die of embarrassment?”

“Sure” she said.  “But don’t be too discouraged!  There’s a book in there: you just need to work a little harder to find it.  Do you have time for lunch?  I have something you might be able to help me with.”

We sat outside, in the soft shadow of a white linen umbrella eating bistro salads and drinking sparkling water.  It was an over the top Santa Monica scene on a Santa Monica sunny day.  It’s no wonder so many people live in this place.  She began with, “I’d like to tell you a brief story, then ask you some advice, if that’s okay?”

“Sure, anything I can do to help.”

“I fell into this job.  I am not a real CEO.  I am a writer, kind of a mix between technical writer, writer of non-fiction books, courses that we also publish, and well, editor at large too.  What I’m really trying to say is that I don’t know much about business.  I know a lot about publishing and writing and books, just not much about business.  My boss, our founder, is sixty-eight, and he is tired.  He and his family have lived well, very well, for thirty years and this business is the source of all of their wealth.  They are getting worried about him and what one of his daughters calls the golden goose, us, the business. Well one day, three years ago he called me into his office and told me he was stepping back and making me CEO.  At first I told him I wouldn’t take the job, I couldn’t do it, I told him I didn’t know enough about business to be a CEO.  He took a piece of note paper and wrote ‘$250,000/yr, 10% of the business, I’ll teach you about business,’ signed his name at the bottom and pushed the note across the table at me and said go home and think about it.”

“Well I did and he made good on the offer and here I am.”

“How is the learning about business part going?”

“Okay, only the business part is the easy part – he was right about that.  What is really hard are the people parts, the political parts, and the will we survive in the publishing world part… which leads me to my question.’

“Yes?”

“You were a CEO for a long time, and you are thinking of writing a book about it – do you have any ideas about how I can get his family off my back, get him some money from the business and live through the coming storm in the publishing business?”

“That’s three questions”, I said and we both laughed.

We talked for two hours, and agreed to stay in touch.

That’s how our friendship began.  Over the next three years she orchestrated an employee buy-out of the family, released the patriarch of his burden and acquired ten percent of the business for herself.  The ninety employees revered the founder, but they were invigorated by her fresh, direct, uncomplicated leadership style.  She was just what the company needed.  The business responded: it began to grow again, reversing a decade long decline.  The place felt electric, alive again. She said you could feel the excitement in the place, every day.

And yet the shockwaves of publishing consolidation were being felt all around them.  She saw clearly that their small specialty publishing niche was approaching its sell by date; in fact she was worried that it had already lived past its sell by date and was headed for a crash.  She saw the “bigs” as she called them, overrunning her company without even noticing.  As time passed, and publishers disappeared from the market place, she went from worried to alarmed.  She saw herself as being responsible for the wellbeing of a ninety person tribe, and my god what about their families!  But every time she looked at the future, she couldn’t see the firm surviving in its current state.  The earthquakes grew more frequent, volcanos were spewing molten rock all around them and their old publishing model felt like it was made of kindling.  They would not survive without protection.

Another year passed and we met again for lunch, this time with Champaign, a real surprise, as she was not much of a drinker, and never at lunch.

“What’s up,” I asked.

“We did it! We sold ourselves to someone who can tuck us under their wing and give us a future!  Ta Da!”

“That’s fantastic!”  And it was, I could hardly believe it.  A large mainstream agency publisher found a place for her tribe: they actually paid a small premium on the sale price, it was a strategic fit, they could add this specialty publishing group and enhance their offerings, tell a better story, and raise their mega-profile a notch.

“How are you going to feel working for a big company?”

“Ah, well that’s not going to be a problem.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, very sure, you see they bought the company but they don’t want me in the bargain.  They are putting their own president in to run it.  That was part of the deal.  I am, as the British would say, redundant.”

“Wow, how’s that for you?”

“It’s just fine!  Look, I get some money – that will keep the wolves away for quite a while for me and my son, and we’ll see won’t we?”

“I can’t believe they didn’t want you to run the group!”

“Let me put it this way.  It was a non-negotiable part of the deal, I knew it as soon as we began serious talks.  The Vice Chairman’s son needs something to do with his shiny new MBA is what I heard through back channels,  but look, all those people still have jobs, they have a future, and it is time for me to get off of the train.  So let’s toast to what… knowing when to get off the train!”

That was her, true to form. Whatever was needed, she’d make it happen if she could, and in so many ways for all of her ex-employees, she did provide, and off they went without her.

We didn’t talk for three years, we moved, I retired, our kids left home, and somehow she just slipped from my mind as somewhat distant friends sometimes do.  She did lead me to a publisher who ultimately did publish my first book.  I sent her a case of Champaign and a card in appreciation, but that was it, until I decided, out of the blue one day to just give her a call and see how she was doing.

“Well a lot has changed since we’ve talked, mostly good.  I guess the biggest news, which isn’t the best, but it seems to be behind me, is I had breast cancer.”

“Gosh, how are you now?”

“Well I’m fine, yes really fine.  I had surgery, a full mastectomy, radiation, chemo, took the full course but and as of today I am six months cancer free. I really feel grateful that I’m fine now.”

“Are you working at all?”

“Oh golly, that’s a big subject for me.  Look do you ever get back to LA?”

“Yes, every couple of months… want to have lunch?”

“Yes I would, lunch and some time to talk.  I’d appreciate that.  I know you retired for a while too and well I have some ideas I’d like to bounce off of you, some questions to ask, if you have the time.”

We met in Manhattan Beach at a New York Style Delicatessen alive with pastrami sandwiches, dill pickles, white fish platters and a full house making it hard for me to hear her.  She looked great, fit, strong, tan, alive and energized.  I was relieved.   She started by telling me how much she loved to work with authors and making books.  She knew that she wanted to work, perhaps three quarters time,  but she definitely did not want be tied to an organization.  She knew she had been a passable CEO (her words not mine) but what she loved was working with the writers, editors, artist, marketing people, printers, book sellers, she liked it all – only she didn’t like being responsible for their employment, there benefits, their next pay check.  Being the creative spirit she was; her idea was to be, what she called, a virtual book enabler, a one place to go for a person who wanted to get their ideas or stories out into the world in book form.

Her business plan was simple and elegant.  Here’s how she pitched it.  “A person hires me, I guide them through the process of going from idea to published book.  In some cases the person might write the book themselves, in some cases I would find them a ghost writer, I can help them find graphic people and lay out people and I can help them find an agent, or I could be their agent, I help them find a publisher, I would pitch books to “the bigs” and/or I would guide people through the self-publishing channel – it’s growing at double digit rates you know, as the consolidation drumbeat gets louder.”

“So where would you do this?”

“Anywhere, I would work out of my home.  I know many, many, specialists, back room people in the industry, spread all over the United States, Canada and the UK.  I can do this from anywhere.  I want to give people a way to get their ideas out into the world, and this is a way to do that and enjoy the journey.  What do you think?”

It was a rhetorical question.  I thought the idea was brilliant, and in her typical energetic state, she was already reaching out to finding her a handful of aspiring authors. She was well on her way by the time she talked to me.

For the next ten years we talked pretty regularly, every couple of months, for an hour or two, updates about children, her business, my practice. We were good friends who never seemed to see each other but we got high marks for staying in touch.  There developed a pattern to our talks, which included the roll call of books that she was shepherding, shaping, feeding, stimulating.  She talked about these projects like each of them was a child to be “grown up” and hopefully launched into adulthood.  She’d tell me about them, how they were doing, where they were stuck, when they left home and went out into the world, and every now and then she’d tell me about one of them being launched by the New York publishing establishment to fireworks and cheers.  Our calls weren’t carefully scheduled, or evenly spaced so we’d go for a while talking monthly except when we didn’t, and then there might be a miss or two, especially over the summer.  So it wasn’t all that unusual when two of my calls and subsequent emails went unanswered for three months.  When she finally answered my call she sounded tired.

“How are you?”

“Well, I am alive, so that’s a start.”

“What do you mean…  are you okay?”

“Well I am now, pretty okay.  The cancer is back, so I’ve been having treatments.  This time it came back in my brain, I’ve literally had my brain fried with radiation and more chemo.  As you can imagine I’m having some memory issues, slower than normal, but gaining a little most days, so it’s better.

“Are you able to work at all?”

“God yes, is that a blessing!  The treatments were at a time I didn’t need to be very active with any of my authors, things were just marching along swingingly without me, so no change there and what a relief to be able to get back to it.”

For a second time she had pushed back from the brink.  Over the next year, we talked regularly, every month.  She grew stronger in memory and voice as far as I could hear.  Her adult son was living with her and caring for her during the treatments.  Although she was feeling better, the cancer was not going away; it was just being held at bay, until this call:

“How are you?”

“Well I’m, still here!”  She laughed and we talked just like always, bantering for an hour about books in the making, about my work, some joke she’d heard.  Then she mentioned the serendipity of our first meeting in Santa Monica.   I told her I was lucky to have met her, how she helped me eventually make my dream of writing a book come true, and how important the realization of that dream was to me.  Typically she dismissed her contribution and then in a quieter voice said; “you know I’m not winning this bout with cancer.  I don’t mean to burden you with it, but I do think we are good enough friends that I should tell you.  My oncologist has suggested that we stop the chemo.  He says that he has run out of ideas, that it is time for me to consider hospice care.  So I’m considering that.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

“No, I just wanted to tell you.”

“Thanks, you know I wish you the best.”

“Yes.”

“This must be a hard time for you.”

“Um, well not so hard. I’ve been in this fight for fifteen years now, and a lot of really good things have happened.  Did I tell you about my son, what he did?”

“No”

“Well, above my work desk is a book case.  It’s where I keep all of my reference materials, dictionaries, thesauruses, fact books, publishing industry lists, directories, oh gosh just dozens of handy reference things, right there at hand.  Well he drove me to a chemo session two weeks ago, left me there (they take three hours or so) and came back and cleared all of the reference books out and replaced them with the books I have helped people publish – he did that as a surprise.  So when I got home, as always, wiped out form the infusion, discouraged and a little grouchy, I glanced over at my desk, and then stared up at these books thinking what the hell….  Then he said ‘Mom, I want you to see how much you’ve helped people, how many wonderful ideas you’ve helped people make real.  Look, there are 83 books up here! You did that.  I want you to see how many people’s lives you helped change every time you go to your desk to cheer you up a little.’  Well, as you can imagine, I cried.  I’m looking up at them now.  Eighty-three, quite a number don’t you think?”

She died peacefully two weeks later, with her son and her sister at her side.

The psychiatrist and novelist Irvin Yalom writes about life passages using a metaphor he describes as “rippling”:

“Rippling refers to the fact that each of us creates-often without our conscious intent or knowledge-concentric circles of influence that may affect others for years, even for generations. That is, the effect we have on other people is in turn passed on to others, much as the ripples in a pond go on and on until they’re no longer visible but continuing at a nano level.”

He goes on to challenge the reader to ask: what types of ripples am I making?  Being a psychiatrist, he then ups the ante by then asking: if you were to look back at the ripples you are making, say three or four years from now, how would you feel about them?  Good or not so good?

My friend taught me that she, as a CEO, as a woman, and as a mother looking up at a bookshelf with eighty-two books, was quite pleased with her journey.  I’m convinced she reached that place by realizing that each of us really does have choices around what we do and how we carry ourselves. Out of that conviction, she advised, encouraged, and helped so many people to do important things that mattered to them, including shepherding her ninety tribe members into the publishing future so many years ago.

All of us on the shoreline need all the encouragement and good examples we can get, whether it be ripples to encourage us as a soccer coach, a teacher, a camp counselor, a parent a business executive, man, woman, husband, wife, son, daughter, human being.

So, in the dark days of February (at least up here in the northern hemisphere) how about you looking at your own life and then looking out for the light ahead.  Make ripples.  Do something that matters, do something that makes you feel fully, wholly alive.  And if it takes you a long time to get from where you are now to that better place, well, you making that change will make positive ripples too.  And for all of those people around you, they will feel them, and they may be emboldened to make ripples of their own.  And so it goes, from my friend, to hundreds, including me, to you, and beyond.

Posted in A Better Way to Work, Build a Culture, Building a Community, Entrepreneurs & Managers, Financing your Business, Growing your Business, Leadership, Live your Life, Making Deals, Survival | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Scrooge 15 Years after the Graveyard

Image from 1938 film of A Christmas Carol

For Immediate Release:

Announcing an International Media Event:  Sir Ebenezer Scrooge interviewed by Sir David Frost (the spirit of).

London – December 23, 2014 – The Financial Times has arranged for the ghost of Sir David Frost, OBE to conduct a first ever celebrity interview with Sir Ebenezer Scrooge, OBE.  Until now, Sir Ebenezer has been publicly silent about his life after A Christmas Carol, the often unflattering and unauthorized memoir/novella written by Mr. Charles Dickens.  Mr. Dickens’ commentary about his A Christmas Carol and Sir Ebenezer Scrooge’s life post ACC has remained the same since the book was published.  Dickens repeatedly says: “just read the bloody book, that’s all you have to do, read the book… the rest of the story is uninteresting.”

Well, we at the Financial Times believe that the rest of the story is anything but uninteresting.  The metamorphosis of Scrooge and Marley from a third rate counting house with ten shareholders to the global enterprise known as SM-ATR Ltd (NYSE SMRT) with tens of thousands of shareholders is one of the great stories of the last quarter century.  Under the leadership of Sir Ebenezer, SM-ART has erupted around the globe with more then a dozen important businesses, describing a path that seems literally fantastic, with one who-would-have-guessed-it twist and turn after another.

Two years ago we mobilized our research department to search the info-world for Scrooge, and to help us determine if there was a story worth telling you, our FT reader.  After a year gathering every bit of data and media material about SM-ART and its Chairman, Sir Ebenezer, we realized that the only proper way to get to the heart of this story was to do the impossible.  We needed to get the story from Sir Ebenezer himself, directly.  We needed to convince him to do what he has to date stridently resisted.  We needed to conduct an in depth one-to-one interview with him.  The odds against his agreeing to such an interview were over the moon.

We began by summoning the ghost of Sir David Frost, perhaps the twentieth century’s most accomplished English speaking interviewer.  We found him (his ghost) at his summer home (an undisclosed location in the heavens) and after several days of spirited negotiations, he agreed to accept one last public assignment, to conduct a full-on Interview with the famous but fiercely reclusive Sir Ebenezer.

Then came the greater challenge!  How could we puncture the media shield that so assiduously guards the reclusive Sir Ebenezer?  In this, we were aided by having Frost in hand, so to speak, and of course we are the Financial Times; that counts for something too.   Over the next year we initiated a flurry of back channel outreaches, direct approaches, dozens of strings were pulled, and many of his influential friends were contacted, until finally there was a breakthrough.  We were suddenly invited through the veil of privacy by an invitation from Sir Ebenezer’s public relations Czarina, Samantha Cratchet.  It was Ms Cratchet who led us through to the prize, an off-the-record face to face meeting with Sir Ebenezer himself.  We met him at his home, Chateau Joie de vivre, a sprawling estate and vineyard that abuts Châteauneuf-du-Pape, in the Vaucluse region of France.  After several hours of conversation, Sir Ebenezer rather cheerfully agreed to do the interview.

END Press Release.


The Financial Times are pleased to present The Ghost of Sir David Frost and his in depth interview with Sir Ebenezer Scrooge, fifteen years after the graveyard.

Chateau Joie de vivre, Valcluse region, France December 23, 2014.

“Good morning, Sir Ebenezer, thank you for welcoming us to your home.”

“Nice to see you again Sir David, we’ve missed you on the Tele, and yes Happy Holidays!  It is a wonderful time of the year isn’t it?  Remind me to ask you off camera what Christmas is like in Heaven.”

Both men laugh.

“It is a wonderful time, Sir Ebenezer.  If I may though, I’d like to start with Mr. Dickens.  In his story A Christmas Carol, he suggests you were not so jolly, in fact, quite an unhappy man. Did he get that part right about you, Sir Ebenezer?”

“Yes, as embarrassing as it is to have one’s life splattered across pages of a cheap penny-a-pound novella, parts his story are true, even though it was outrageously presumptive that he should pretend to channel me, or tell my story,  I was not a lover of Christmas, in fact I didn’t love anything except perhaps money.”

“Here is how he described you in those days, the days before your visitation, and I quote:

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features….”

“Was that you in those days, a covetous, clutching old sinner?”

“Yes, as best I can recall it, I was that sort of person.  Certainly that was how others saw me.  I was a hard old nut, uncrackable, or at least I thought I was uncrackable.  But you know none of us comes off well if the person describing us has an agenda, and in this case, the agenda was to tell a story that sold many books, and god knows he succeeded on that front, and I’ll just say this too, that fellow Dickens, he never missed twisting the knife with ten words when one might do, long windy sentences loaded down with gaudy adjectives for the sake of excess!  He was writing for the blood and guts of it, and as it turns out, my small story was the grist for his mill.  So yes, the gist of what he says about me back then is true if not quite so dramatically true, if you get my meaning.”

“I do, yes.  But we can’t ignore the fact that A Christmas Carol continues to be an international best seller.  He captured something important to many people, it seems.”

“If you say so.”

“But putting Mr. Dickens on the shelf for the moment, how would you account for the change in your life that followed, in your own words.  Was there a ghost of Christmas past, present, and future, was there a moment when you saw Tiny Tim’s grave, and your own?

“Yes, yes, and yes again.  And you Sir David should appreciate the power of spirits, or ghosts!”

Both men laugh again.

“Yes, I did see them.  I saw Marley’s head on the door knocker, and I did hear much of what other people said about me, the hard things, my own grave, Tiny Tim’s as well, no, St Paul had it easy, he just got knocked off of his horse, I spent a night of poignancy and terror, in alternating waves until I thought I would go mad.  Then I fell into a pit of despair, then quite magically awoke in my own bed on Christmas Day, with the rest of my life in front of me, it was quite something, I must say.”

 

“So Dickens said:”

‘I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future.’ Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. ‘The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me . Oh, Jacob Marley, Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this. I say it on my knees, old Jacob, on my knees.’

“So, are we done with Mr. Dickens?  There was a change, yes, and I believe the change has carried through to today, which is as I recall was reason for our interview.  Let me see here, yes I have it right here in my notes, Sir David; the subject of the interview is: What Is It Like to Be Scrooge Fifteen Years On, that’s it isn’t it?

“Yes, Sir Ebenezer, and thank you for the segue. After your experience with the ghosts, you did something that has flummoxed observers ever since.  You bought out all of the old Scrooge and Marley shareholders.  Yet at the time, the word on the street was that you paid a big premium to purchase those shares.  Why pay a premium when we understand the shareholders were perfectly happy to hold them?”

“Well, they hadn’t gone to the graveyard with me for one thing, and yes they were content to hold their shares mainly because they owned a piece of a business that was run by a legendary skinflint, a tight fisted nasty piece of work.  Me, I mean.  Those people liked my way of doing business, tough, grind everyone and everything to a miserable fine point and extract every ounce of blood and life out of the enterprise and then distribute it to the shareholders.  But at that time, after the graveyard, I was a man with a very different idea about life, and therefore about business.  I was the majority shareholder, and if I wanted to, I could have shoved my new ideas right up their greedy snouts.  The problem is that such behavior would have been just like the old Scrooge.  Don’t you see, that is what the old skinflint would have done.  I couldn’t, in good conscience, act that way any more.  To make the changes I was going to make, I needed to settle accounts with everyone, including the tight fisted skinflints I had as shareholders.  So the first step was to buy them out with a premium, and I am pleased to say they all behaved true to form, grabbed the money and the premium faster than a thief in the night, every shilling taken in the blink of an eye.”

“And so for the next five years you held all of the shares, you were a private business.  You carried on as a counting house, and then what?”

“Well let’s see, the first year we were a counting house, yes.  We had 20 employees, and I needed to try my ideas out with them.  I decided I was going to own a business that would engage in commerce for the benefit of the members of the firm, from the janitor to the chairman, a business what was a rich place for people to work, a place they could learn, a place where they could earn a fair wage, a place where they would participate in guiding the business and share in the business success.  It took me a while to figure all of this out by myself at first and with them later, so really for the next five years we were, yes a counting house, then a counting house that also sold consulting services, then a mini-conglomerate as we began selling certain types of specialty insurance, mainly to other businesses, then came…well before I get to that, we also renamed ourselves, and I distributed a substantial portion of the shares to the staff, so they could buy and hold shares or were given options to do so.  Finally at the end of five years we had become SM-ART Ltd, a closely held private commercial community that was made up of , let’s see, yes, eight businesses.”

“The name came from…?”

It came from Scrooge and Marley, that’s the S and the M, and ART is because I realized running a commercial community, a multi faceted business was more art then anything else, SM-ART Ltd fit the bill perfectly.”

“Speaking about that time, five years on, you weren’t exactly receiving glowing reviews.  Our Financial Times writers for example didn’t warm to you or your new ideas, as you call them, and on one point they were positively howling.”

“Yes, thank you for reminding me, that article on your pink paper, entitled something like Scrooge Gone Bonkers, yes I do remember.”

“What was your reaction to it?

“My reaction was that they can and will say what they want.  They didn’t like the idea of profit sharing, they really didn’t like our selling shares to the employees in a small closely held company after I had paid the earth for the same shares purchasing, them from the old Scrooge and Marley gang. And they were apoplectic about our publishing an Annual Report, an exhaustive set of year-end financial results, in the Times.  Perhaps that’s what triggered the Finical Times article, we didn’t buy space in your newspaper!”

“Were their criticisms warranted, were the FT right?”

“From their point of view, yes of course they were right.  Your employer is named the Financial Times for god’s sake, what do you think they care about?  Profits, that’s what they care about, law and order in the markets, doing things in a prudent and careful (usually tight fisted) way.  But, today I take issue with them about many things, except of course profits.  I agree that a business enterprise must earn a profit, but what you do with those profits, and how you earn them, well that’s where we tend to disagree.  I sold options and shares because I believe that a person who works in an enterprise should be able to invest in the place he/she works, and we made it so.  I also believe that everyone should have a share in the profits.  I also think the purpose of a business is to be a place where people choose to work because it is a wholesome, challenging, fair-minded place to spend most of your waking hours.  That the people who work there are a part of a community, that yes, works hard, but they do so because they want to work hard, work together, in reasonable harmony.  I also thought and continue to think now more than ever, that just because we were private in those days, we still needed to be transparent, open, honest, and direct to the world around us as to how we did things and what the finances of the company looked like.”

“So that’s the item I don’t quite understand.  What about privacy, and the rights of private ownership?  Shouldn’t or wouldn’t you have been more prudent to keep all of that information to yourselves, away from the prying eyes of your competitors for one thing, and from the world at large for another?”

“No. I don’t think that.  Privacy doesn’t mean that we owe nothing to the world at large.  For heaven’s sake, we are alive and functioning in a broader society, one that has given us great resources and opportunity with which to succeed.  We have laws, we have rules, we have roads, utilities, we have many support services, fire and police.  We are a part of many villages, cities, counties, countries from which we derive structure, protection, a money system, and markets that allow us to conduct our business.  Whether we are a public company or a private company, these entities have a stake in our business too, and we owe it to them to share information about what we are doing and how were are faring with what they have given us.  If competitors learn something, well, in this age, they have access to far more information about us than we’ve ever published, I’m sure of that.”

“And then Sir Ebenezer, you dropped the bomb!  Your private business, SM-ART took center stage and went public on the New York Stock Exchange no less.  Why did you go public, and why New York?”

The first part of your question is simple, we went public because we wanted to expand well beyond the intrinsic limits of our closely held shareholder structure.  Look around you, these fields have sprouted grapes for four hundred years.  We had a gigantic opportunity to move into the winemaking business in 2007.  All of these fields and the Chateau with outbuildings were being offered at a huge discount.  But the terms were cash.  This happened during the darkest days of the recession. A promissory note was not very attractive to a seller trying to accumulate a horde and take it to Switzerland.  As a public company, a very successful public company I would like to add, we had plenty of cash, and so we were able to make the deal. Our wine business was cash positive in year one, and the subsequent years have been amazing.  As for New York, well it is still called The Big Board, so it was where we wanted to be, nothing against our lovely homeland, just a matter of being where the main action is, simple as that.”

“Indeed, I suspect Queen and countrymen will forgive you as long as you continue to be successful, but what about the ruckus at your last shareholder’s meeting?  It is a very dangerous world on the New York Stock Exchange.  A large and influential institutional shareholder mounted a nasty challenge too, what they called, your indulgent and wasteful leadership model.  They tried to dump you.”

“Yes, they did!  And as shareholders, they are entitled to make such challenges.  That’s the price of capital.  But beneath their snowstorm of paper and publicity was a drive to force a big payday.  They wanted to commandeer our values, our vision, our culture.  To start with, they insisted we scrap most medical benefits, demanded we slash our training budgets, and abolish our retirement investment plans entirely.  You may know we establish a plan for each of our employees when they are hired. But what that group really wanted was to take all of that money and distribute it to themselves, the shareholders.  Now the motion was easily defeated.  If you’ve followed the aftermath, you will see that they are divesting themselves of our shares as we speak, which is fine.  We make a concerted effort to communicate to our shareholders and prospective shareholders that we are not in this for immediate quarter to quarter profits only, we are in these businesses for the long haul.  We believe we can run an excellent businesses producing world-class goods and services at competitive prices by investing in our employees, their health and well being, their learning and development, and to recognize the obvious; everybody ages, and at some point later in life most people don’t want to work any more or can’t work any more.  When that happens, they will need money.  Very few governments provide for old age, so we do.  You know a dollar set aside when you are 25 or 30 will be close to $10 when you are 65 or 70.  So we are not interested in getting blood from a stone, we are not going to grind our people down to meet some quarterly earnings report.  We are the antithesis of that, and if people want to invest in a hard-driving tight fisted, zero sum game business, they should not invest in SM-ART.  They should look elsewhere, there are plenty of those types of business around.

“Sir Ebenezer, don’t you think that perhaps this generous, some say, pandering treatment of employees is out of step with current economic theory, that it is out of step with the current market trends too?  How can you possibly compete with companies that don’t pay for these types of benefits?”

“Good question!  As to this modern economic theory you refer to, it has incited many businesses to move from a position of doing what is best for human beings to doing what is legal, shifting from a moral criteria to a narrowly defined legal criteria.  So when the institutional investor mounted a challenge, they based their complaint on their belief that if medical benefits aren’t required to be paid by law, we had a fiduciary responsibility not to pay them.  I believe in laws, certainly, but more than that, we believe in the human spirit and human capital.  We run on human spirit: that is the only energy that truly fuels an enterprise.  Yes some economists say Greed is at the center of all human behavior, but that’s not our view, and we have plenty of successes to show for it.”

“But how do you compete with third world countries, where some people are working in slave labor like conditions?”

“We don’t.  Take clothing.  A pair of trousers can cost anywhere from two dollars to hundreds of dollars.  We produce our clothing in third world countries, with profit sharing, with medical benefits, with a retirement stipend and we sell our garments in markets that will support the prices we need to charge for those pants.  Listen, you don’t have to be the bottom feeder to succeed.  An unnaturally low price (because of underpaid labor) doesn’t reflect the real cost of that product.  At some point some of those employees are going to get sick, at some point they are going to need to grow by training to be more efficient, at some point they are going to want to retire.  We say we will compete by providing for those things and sell the products at a price that is profitable.  Business doesn’t need to act like capitalism is a zero sum game. For example, we support charities, good causes around the world we give a portion of our profits back to.  We do it through our philanthropic arm, the Jacob Marley Trust.  There is plenty to go around. You may recall, Jacob needs all the help he can get; he wasn’t as lucky as I was, to see the ghosts and so on, at least not before he died.  Now he’s wandering the earth with those chains.  I hope the Trust and its good work will help him.”

“Yes, but you must know, to many this just sounds frankly naive, paternalistic, socialistic even.”

“Well yes, those labels, you are this or you are that.  Socialist?  Why don’t you just say what you are thinking and call it communist?   Yes, some label us that way.  What is missed when people generalize like that is, for example, we have twice as many applicants than we can possibly hire at virtually all of our companies.  We attract and get the most energetic and dedicated people because of our philosophy, our culture, we get people who have exceptional experience, people who want to learn, collaborate, work hard.  We are overrun with people wanting to be a part of our community.  So, Sir David, if you were given a choice, wouldn’t you want to work for us?  And if you see that we offer say health benefits, do you think this is squandering money or do you think you would rather roll the dice and not pay for health benefits.  Well you can work at any one of the hundreds of businesses that don’t offer them or a retirement benefit.  And one last thing.  If we can’t provide a superior product or service because the market won’t support our prices, we won’t enter that market.  We are building businesses, commercial communities for the long haul, that’s the abiding philosophy, and if a market won’t support us, we have no interest in it.”

“So what about your future Sir Ebenezer?  Where do you go from here?”

“Well the first place I go is to step down as chairman in eighteen months.  We have very strong leaders coming from the next two generations.  It’s time for them to get out in front of our businesses including SM-ART itself.  I too grow older, and although I’ll keep a seat on the board, the ethics and compensation committees, I look forward to Bob and Tim Cratchet’s generations leading us into the next twenty five years.”

“Does this mean retirement for you?”

“Oh…well, partial retirement.  I’ve already passed on many of my responsibilities to others.  You know I don’t really run any of these businesses now; I’m no longer the Managing Director of SM-ART, I’m its chairman, but not the chief executive.  I quite like wine-making though, I like to teach, but what I like most is being with my extended family.”

“Do you ever wish you had married, or had children?”

“No, it was what it was.  But I have plenty of family, and the children in our extended family are my children too.  And I get to celebrate Christmas each year with family all around, three generations, soon to be four!.  By the way, how lucky you arrived for this interview today!  It’s December 23, Sir David!  We would be honored if you would join us for a pre-Christmas and candle-lighting dinner tonight, here at the chateau.  Do you get hungry or thirsty when you live in the spirit world?”

“I am honored.  I would love to join you.  And I’ll try not to scare your family with my ethereal presence.  As for getting hungry?  Well no, we spirits don’t really get hungry or thirsty, but we have heavenly taste buds, the flavors are ever so amplified.  I enjoy a taste of this and a sip of that, so thank you, I would be delighted to stay for the evening before I fly home.  But, one last question if I may.”

“Yes?”

“Could you summarize for our readers what you have learned over the last fifteen years? What stands out for you after your visit to the graveyard and seeing your own tombstone?  I think our readers would like to know, I know I would.”

“I have seen the power, the positive and life affirming power of the human spirit.  I have seen it, I have benefited from it, and I intend to do everything I can do to champion it.  People are generally good, they usually want to do good things and they really do want to get along with each other.  I am blessed to have seen kindness and cooperation at work and then to help create a place where this spirit can soar, expand, reproduce itself and advance good causes, worthwhile lives, and fun and adventure thrown in as a bonus.  And since you have so skillfully brought me to this point in the interview, I want to thank you for coming down from the heavens and putting me through my paces.  It has been an unexpected pleasure.”

“Thank you, Sir Ebenezer Scrooge. Now I know Mr. Dickens and his book caused you a lot of discomfort.  But I would like to end our session today by reading what he wrote about you as you awoke to what was arguably, your first real Christmas, after the omens, after the ghosts, after the graveyard.  Here is what he said:

“He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”

“Sir Ebenezer Scrooge, thank you for being a gracious host, and for sharing what it has been like to live a life transformed by ghosts!  I am sure there are many Financial Times readers who will disagree with your opinions, but none could question your integrity or your passion about the human spirit and the potential for business to be life-affirming.  Happy Holidays to you, Sir, your family, your employees and to all of our Financial Times Readers”

 

 

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Early Morning Lessons

MaryO

John Medina PhD, author of Brain Rules, tells us that our bodies (including our brains) are built to live out in the great open plains, the savannah, and because of this, our bodies work best by moving, moving quite a lot more than most of us do move.  In fact, he estimates that the very same body you are currently inhabiting is made to run and/or walk 12 to 20 kilometers per day… not per week, not per month, but per day.  That’s a lot of exercise!  Another current thinker is Tony Schwartz who has been writing and talking for over a decade about improving health and wellbeing in the work place.  His first book about living well and working well was What Really Matters followed some years later by his excellent The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working which led him to found The Energy Project, a global consulting practice whose clarion call is to help people and companies find a better way of working.

Medina and Schwartz, each in their own way through separate lenses, synthesize some of the more recent studies about our bodies, what works and what doesn’t work.  And in case you have lost track of time, we are about to be regaled yet again by articles, books, TV public service messages, all telling us “what’s new” in the research about that same old body.  You’ll see, the barrage will start on January 2, 2015.  And for me, your resident senior citizen, it will be the 60th time in my life I’ve experienced it… You may not know this but back in the day, there was a guy by the name of Jack Lalanne who was on (black and white) TV teaching us all how to do chin-ups, push-ups, and jumping jacks in the 50’s.  So this year I thought I’d beat the rush.  I also thought that since this is the season of parties, food and wine, shopping, late nights, corporate budgets, strategic planning, pressure to make year-end numbers, you might want to get ahead of the crowd too.

So here goes – the message couldn’t be simpler: Moving, somehow, every day, is good for every part of you.  It is good for you the thinker, you the worker, you the mother, father, daughter, son, man or woman; it is good for your dog if you have one, it is good for seeing things you wouldn’t otherwise see, for feeling things you wouldn’t otherwise feel for making friends, having great alone time, for thinking, for not thinking, creating imagining, dreaming.  It is just good.

Of course, as I suspect you’ve noticed, we don’t live on the savannah any more, we aren’t hunters, wandering herders, or farmers.  We are modern people, well, at least in our minds, because what we experience, generally, is a modern world, very densely populated spaces, filled with six thousand or more years of labor saving technology.  In short, we don’t need to move much, certainly not 12 to 20 kilometers.  Unfortunately, this thinking, this construct in our minds doesn’t jibe with our physiological brains though.  You see, our brains haven’t changed that much in twenty thousand years.  Our brains, along with our bodies, are still made much the same, because the brain too, along with our bodies, is a savannah survival machine.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking:  I’ve heard all of this before. But before you log off, let me tell you a short story.

Thirty-three year ago, one winter morning, I was being escorted through what was then Seattle’s newest and hippest Sports Club.  It was built to lure young and middle aged hipsters, feeding off of the new(ish) physical fitness craze: that mania of the late 1960’s, early 1970’s that coaxed lots of investment money into work-out emporia like (trumpets sound and a deep press box announcers voice speaks) “The Seattle Club”.

I was impressed, overweight, truly middle aged and reasonably flush at the time.  So after the tour by a spandex clad sales executive named Janet, I said “What the hell” and joined, paid a ridiculous “Membership Entitlement Fee” and received a royal blue card with gilt edging that entitled me passage through the front desk of this haven of fitness into the inner sanctum where I could work out as often as I wanted… several times a day if I so chose.

Several days later, after shaking off a flu of procrastination, I made my first appearance at the club, puffed with vague intentions of lifting weights and perhaps run on one of the army of treadmills arrayed across the Cardio Studio floor.  It was 6AM, and yet another dark rainy Seattle winter morning.  Inside the club however, it was bright, warm, not raining, and I approached the weights area, mirrored of course, anticipating my first work out, mentally pumping myself up.  Off in the distance I heard loud music, rock and roll actually, some shouting, laughing, and foot thumping.  Looking over into a large adjacent space I saw an aerobics class in action. There were only about ten people spread across a very large gym floor, but the music was loud, rhythmic, and wow, were they having fun.

Later, after half-hearted weight lifting and a fifteen minute treadmill slog, one of the guys from the aerobics class, a business colleague, came over smiling sheepishly, drenched in sweat, and said “Man, that Mary O, what a woman!  What a class!”  Now, for most of us lesser mortals, lifting weights alone might be manly, or womanly, but more likely the experience is one of doing a physically uncomfortable boring chore.   Running on a treadmill is worse.  Really, what is the experience of running on a gym treadmill?  (Think rodent on a wheel.)  It is running in the same damn place, looking at a wall, or monitor with CNN, a poster, or (worse), looking at someone else running on a treadmill looking at….  My reaction was “Ugh, what have I done?  Let’s see: I spent thousands of dollars, committed to forever of monthly payments, and a lifetime of boring and miserable workouts!  Yikes!”

And so it was, full of dread and desperation, I tried something unlikely…to do the unmanly thing.  I decided to give that aerobics class, that dancing and jumping thing a try.

Enter the redoubtable Mary O, the leader of our class, lithe, spry, strong, the body fat of a pencil, and as I was to find out, a virtual human dynamo.  She was energy incarnate.  She was funny, saucy, edgy, and she knew how to make us work hard, really hard, and yet somehow enjoy the experience.  The combination of energy, fun, music, and personality gave her what you might call aerobic charisma.   And that made for converts, lots of them, me included.  In less than a month her class was attracting standing (jumping) room only crowds: 45 – 50 people covered every square foot of gym floor.  And we did rock!

Since then, I have amassed a huge bank of memories of moving, most mornings now, usually running: through London’s Hyde Park around the statue of Peter Pan, or beneath the Eiffel Tower and along the river Seine, or through St. Mark’s square in Venice, or up a trail above Lake Annecy in the French Alps running on a path of red and orange leaves during the fall, or through the high desert of Sedona Arizona.  There have been literally thousands of runs, and hundreds of trails, cities, and continents.

Medina and Schwartz have lots more to say about physical wellbeing and you would learn a lot by reading what they have to say.  But the gold standard for me was watching Mary O walk to the center stage under the glare of gym lights, smile her “You’re going to love this!” smile, raise one hand in the air and shout “Well alright!  Let’s get going!”  And with a flip of a switch, Flash Dance boomed, or Tina Turner growled, and we would launch our bodies, all of us at once. “Start your day by moving, ” she would call out, pumping both fists in the air, and we did.

Find a way to move for yourself too: move your body, whether you walk, dance, bicycle, skip, just move, every day.  It makes all the difference in the world.

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