March 2012

Are you looking for a life-changing experience – career-wise and personally? If you are, you need to sign up for “The Leadership Imperative: Managing Yourself for Growth and Change;” the Executive Education Seminar that I’ll be teaching this summer through the Graduate School of Business at the University of Montana. “Life-Changing” may sound presumptuous, but that’s the most frequent feedback we get from participants in the course. If you want to get better at what you do; change what you do; or identify and plan for the next thing you’re going to do; this is the course to take. The seminar will take place at the School of Business, in Missoula, on the weekend of June 15th: All-day Friday, the 15th; half a day Saturday, the 16th; and half a day Sunday, the 17th. Saturday afternoon and evening will be spent at Dunrovin Ranch, about 30 miles from the University. Dunrovin is owned by Suzanne Miller, who is to horse training, what Harry Houdini was to magic. These horses are extraordinary animals, who teach adults a lot about leadership, and who bring a true gift to special needs children. If you don’t like the horses, you can fly fish, raft, hike, or just enjoy the beautiful scenery surrounding the ranch. At the end of the day, we have a blowout Montana barbecue; kick back, and enjoy the company. You can sign up online – www.business.umt.edu/leadership – or by calling Kathy White, at the Business School: 406.243.6715. “Picking Winners and Keepers,” our elearning recruiting and selection course, continues to generate rave reviews. (Technically, this is a VILT course – Virtual Instructor-Led Training, which means that it involves a computer and a live instructor.) The most common feedback we get is that the content is absolutely solid – no filler – completely unique, and ready to use. People really appreciate the 24/7 flexibility of accessing the material, enhanced by the live coaching calls. Alumni of the course universally report that their candidate interviewing is more focused, more efficient, more interactive, and more definitive. You can sign up online at: http://performancecounts.com/pickingwinners/ or by calling Marcie Cascio at: 860.653-3575.
Business: “New Lows In Customer Service: The Art Of Malicious Compliance.” As I travel around the country, the epidemic of indirectly hostile behaviours, directed toward consumers/customers, becomes more and more apparent. These are behaviours that say, primarily non-verbally: “I will do what I’ve been trained to do; say what I’m supposed to say; provide you with what you practically want from my company; but not make this interaction either pleasant , nor positive. In addition, it will be hard for you to confront me, since I’m not doing anything overtly rude or offensive.” An example: I recently arrived at a hotel around 11:00 pm, suitcase and briefcase in tow, and approached the front desk. The young lady on duty started out the interaction on the wrong foot, by asking me how she could help me. I’ve always been puzzled by this question. What else would I be interested in doing at that late hour, suitcase in hand, other than checking in to her hotel? (In the last year, I’ve taken to occasionally saying that I’m selling suitcases, and would she be interested in looking at the model I have with me.) Let’s back up a bit. As I approached the front desk, the young woman had a look on her face that could cut glass. Even though I see it more than I’d like to, it’s hard to accurately describe. There is no smile, no animation, and no range of feeling tone. But it is by no means neutral. It says, very strongly; “I don’t like being here; I don’t like my job; and I don’t like you.” I understand, intellectually, that it’s not about me personally. I simply represent an intrusion and an irritant in her life. (The gate agents at the Atlanta Airport have taken this look to its absolute zenith. They’ve made it an art form.) After we determined that I was there to actually spend the night at the hotel, she started going through the motions of doing what she was trained to do. Here is the exact dialogue, word for word: Front desk Clerk: “Last name?” Me: “Shechtman – S,H,E,C,H,T,M,A,N” Clerk: “How’s that spelled?” Me: “S,H,E,C,H,T,M,A,N” Clerk: “First name?” Me: “Morris” Clerk: “Method of Payment and Form of Identification?” Me: “It should be billed to my client’s credit card. I stay here every month.” Clerk: “It doesn’t indicate that in your reservation. Oh, wait, now I see it.” (I am not abbreviating or altering anything. This interaction had all the panache of a police interrogation.) At this point, I had had it. The following dialogue ensued: Me: “Am I interrupting something?” Clerk: (Somewhat flustered) “No, I just need to ask you these questions.” Me: “I don’t mind the questions. I do mind your attitude.” At this point, an awkward silence ensued. Then, the most amazing thing happened. Her whole gestalt shifted. Her face filled with softer feelings, she engaged me in a brief conversation about why I come there every month, and she found the kind of room I preferred (which was not in my reservation). What happened here? First, I established my boundaries and my expectations. Second, I set limits and boundaries for her (that she couldn’t set for herself) and that gave her a sense of safety and a feeling of being cared for. Why is this important? Because 95% of the time we miss the opportunity to grow and develop people, by ignoring irritating and inappropriate behavior. You see and feel exactly what I see and feel. The difference is in what we choose to do about it. I am not suggesting that you become the “feedback police” and build your whole life around confronting people and being a royal pain in the ass. I am suggesting, that you pay attention to your gut, and share with people exactly how they’re impacting you, and how damaging that can be to their future. Most career-compromising behavior is not dramatic. It subtlety drives people away, and neither party really understands what has happened. All they know is that they no longer want to deal with that person. If you truly want to help people, personally and professionally, you owe them the dignity of a genuine and caring response to their self-limiting actions. Political/Cultural: “Election Time: Deciphering The Code” Its election season and it’s time for politicians and the media to pull out all the stops on the use of code words. Both the Left and the Right try to mobilize their bases (and some Independents) with superheated language that has a special meaning intended to mobilize impulsive, irrational feelings. Everyone knows what is really meant by these words and phrases, but no one would own the real meaning, short of torture. On the Left, there are three “hot” phrases that get the juices going: Fair Share, Less Fortunate, and Equal Opportunity. The first two are inextricably connected, both having to do with the doctrine of “unfairness,” that the “Occupy Someplace” movement has been highlighting and trying to keep in the public consciousness for the last number of months. The “rich” paying their Fair Share really means the leaders of the Left arriving at a percentage of income to be taken from the former, in an amount to sufficiently punish those who have the nerve and gall to do what the latter will never do. That’s why those who promulgate the Fair Share concept can never quite arrive at an amount, or an amount that never seems high enough. Less Fortunate is an even more pernicious term. What it really refers to, is those unfortunate people who missed out when the deity of success held its lottery, years and years ago. If they only had the right ticket, they’d be living in the McMansions and driving the upscale cars. What’s really nasty about this term, is the unstated dismissal of the More Fortunate as lucky, “connected,” manipulative, and corrupt individuals, who have what they have through no talent, skills, nor drive of their own. If you have trouble believing this, talk to people in the main stream media (when they’re not working), and visit a working class bar in any major city. Equal Opportunity has been around since the 1960’s (in some ways, since the New Deal), and may, earlier than this era, have had real and genuine meaning. But make no mistake, in our time, it means one and only one thing: Equal Outcome. When this administration talks about equalizing the playing field, they mean, without exception, redistributing wealth, confiscating income, and making more and more cultural and social opportunities, entitlements. You know how Western European countries provide higher education free of charge? They exclude most of the eligible population early in their lives. (When I went to college in England, they still used the “11-Plus” test; which excluded the vast majority of children from any chance at a university education, and relegated them to the remnants of the industrial revolution.) The Right participates in no less mendacity. Their key code words are Social Issues and Conservative Principles. Both of these really mean an adherence to hobby-horse issues drawn from a narrow and exclusionary religious base. And these beliefs intend to be no less controlling of people’s lives, than the social engineering of the Left. When the Right talks about the two hot button issues – gay marriage and abortion – their intention is not to initiate a debate on issues of social policy. On the contrary, their agenda is to impose their religious doctrine on the society as a whole. Whether it is Evangelical Christianity, Fundamentalism, or other orthodoxies, the mission is clear. You either believe what we do, about these issues, or you are wrong and evil. I have never believed that gay marriage or abortion are public policy issues. And I have never seen any convincing rationale for making them political issues. The attempt to do so seems to me, no less arbitrary, controlling, and autocratic than the Left’s attempts to regulate what we eat, how we raise our children, and where we should live. As a psychotherapist and social scientist, I have seen no evidence that gay marriages damage my marriage, or have undermined the resolve of people to commit to heterosexual adult intimate relationships. In terms of commitment and fidelity, there is not one shred of evidence that there is less of it in gay, committed relationships, than in their heterosexual counterparts. The old, still referred to stereotype, of the promiscuous gay guy, flitting from bathhouse to bathhouse, is as invalid as the stereotype of the ideal heterosexual union in which husband and wife never so much as look at a member of the opposite sex. Most people are blissfully unaware of the fact that over 50% of straight marriages experience infidelity. Personally, I don’t care if you marry your horse; as long as you don’t cheat on her. In terms of abortion, I find the practice gruesome and repulsive; and, none of my business. If I wanted to outlaw all the human behavior that I found destructive and repulsive, I’d have to quit working and devote the rest of my life to it. In a free society, there is much opportunity and much pain. Deciding, on a political level, which pain is allowable, and which is not, is a slippery slope to fascism. As far as the “sanctity of life” argument goes, it has always struck me as an unexamined and contradictory canard that is pulled out when all else fails. When I have discussed this issue with advocates of this point of view, I ask them if they extend the argument to capital punishment, self-defense, and just wars. We kill people regularly, across the planet. Sometimes it is inexcusable and tragic, and at other times, it is totally justifiable and necessary. If you were an absolutist about this, during World War II, we’d all be speaking German, and pledging our allegiance to the Third Reich. When it comes to the term Conservative, I get real tired of it being applied to everything short of late night infomercials. It is not about your religious beliefs, your lifestyle, your ethnicity, your geographical location, or any other accidental characteristic. The term should only refer to the basic grounding principles of those astounding individuals who paid an extraordinary price to create a society that has benefitted more people than any other place on earth. Those principles are: Individual Responsibility; Accountability; Freedom of Commerce; and Freedom of Speech and Expression of Individual Beliefs. If you choose to engage in the political process this year, which I believe is everyone’s duty, ask politicians what they mean, by the terms they use. Unfortunately, between career politicians and the main stream media, meaningless clichés have come to dominate our political discourse, and people are reduced to arguing one pointless position against an equally pointless counter-position. We have a choice about changing this. Personal: “Riding The Train: Good And Weird” A couple of months ago, I took the train from where I live, in northwest Montana, to do some lectures for a fast growing and ever-changing telecom company in north central Montana. The ride was for about five hours, and we passed through some beautiful scenery, particularly around Glacier National Park. But for me, the train trip was a kind of sociological journey into a part of our society that I spend very little, if any time, with. To start with, the Amtrak people are disorganized, customer-neutral, and easily overwhelmed. No one could tell me what car I needed to be in, or where I should sit. One employee kept telling me – “We’re oversold, every seat is taken, go sit in the lounge car until some people get off.” I finally figured out what car to sit in, and found a seat. I think that this trip was possibly the only time in the last thirty years, that I appreciated the airlines. On the whole, the trip struck me as a cross between a surreal movie about the circus, and a kind of adult day camp. (If you’re old enough, the movie part would have been directed by Federico Fellini.) A number of people clearly showed no interest in adult conventional dress or behavior. They were not obnoxious or threatening; just oblivious to customary middle class norms and conventions. At times, it very much felt like a circus side show,and, in particular, I would have been challenged to assign a gender to a couple of individuals. Having lived in L.A. unconventional people are not a new experience for me. (However, unconventional people in L.A. all have the goal of making it big in the highly conventional world.) These folks, on the train, did not strike me as having that goal. In one sense, all the people I saw seemed financially constrained. No one was throwing money around, or placing huge orders in the lounge car. (Although the meals in the dining car were pretty stiff, and no one seemed to balk at the prices.) Within that commonality, there were the non-conformists, students, itinerant workers, foreign tourists, and a group of Hudderites or Mennonites. The latter were across the aisle from me, in the lounge car, engaged in some kind of playing card game. Every time something significant happened in the game, there would be shrieks of pleasure and much conversation in a language that sounded like a mixture of classical German and Chaucerian English. They were absolutely in their own world. Sometimes I wish I could do that. Dinner was a fascinating experience. I was seated in a booth with three complete strangers. The last time that had happened to me, was over forty years ago, when I was a student in England. The server saw my irritation and said something snide to me. I had obviously violated train protocol. To my surprise, the experience was enjoyable and informative. I don’t know why I was initially irritated. I have no trouble talking with strangers – I do it on the airlines all the time. The three people I was sitting with, were a construction worker, a truck driver, and a high school senior. The construction worker was convinced that the oil companies and the government were in collusion to make his life miserable, and was looking for allies to bolster his conspiracy theory. Since the rest of us either didn’t agree or didn’t care, he ate rapidly and left. The truck driver was returning from the relatively newly discovered oil fields in North Dakota, headed to Washington State, to retrieve his family and move them to the fields. He was fascinating to talk with. He was making $10,000 a month, and told us stories of signing bonuses of thousands of dollars for working at McDonalds (for $30.00 an hour). He described an environment right out of the Gold Rush Days of the 19th Century. Tent cities, strip clubs, brothels, high crime, and no where to live, with any permanence. He had just stumbled across a mobile home that he was happy to rent for a couple of thousand a month. He knew some strippers (possibly, also hookers) who had made $500,000 their first year in the oil fields. I felt like I was witnessing history in the making. The young girl was beautiful beyond her age, articulate, a straight A student, and an ice hockey player on a highly rated regional team in Montana. Her parents were divorced and she lived with her mother in a very small town in far Eastern Montana. Her mother left every Monday morning to fly to Northern California where she was the CEO of a hospital. She returned on either Thursday or Friday. The girl acted like this was no big deal, and that she did fine essentially living alone most of the time. If I remember right, she had been accepted at the University of Chicago (my grad school alma mater). She seemed to absolutely have her life under control, and meeting all her needs. I left dinner asking myself the obverse question to what I usually ask. What happened to produce this happy, well-rounded, confident, and balanced young person? The train trip was truly a learning experience. I met and interacted with people I never would have, in the normal course of my life. I was also keenly aware of the narrow world I live most of my life in. No regrets, but struck by the challenges of getting away from it and learning from people who I’ve only heard about. Morrie

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