Orbiting the Giant Hairball Book Cover Orbiting the Giant Hairball
Gordon MacKenzie
Business & Economics
Viking Adult
1998
224

Review: This is a quick, fun read that illustrates the difficulties inherent in working within a corporate structure. While it focuses specifically on the challenges faced by those working in a creative capacity (the author worked in that role at Hallmark for 30 years) the frustrations described will be familiar to anyone who has worked in a corporate environment.

The author gives good examples illustrating how he was able to thrive within a corporation without sacrificing his creativity. Naturally his solutions are specific to Hallmark; the feasibility of his solutions in other companies is questionable. He makes valid points in an entertaining way and clearly illustrates how the structure of a corporation contributes to corporate suffering. It’s no wonder there is less corporate innovation and profitability.

The key concern we have with this book is the implication that it’s better to avoid confronting obvious structural issues by “orbiting” rather than dealing with problems and working to make the situation better for everyone.

I came across the term “assisted serendipity” in Ryan Vanderbilt’s excellent Fast Company post about closing the happiness gap at workhttp://bit.ly/A1jwBE. He was talking about how technology “can connect you to other people, skills, tools, and trigger new ways of thinking and working; it can create an “assisted serendipity.” While I agree, I think many of us are relying too heavily on technology and ignoring “old school” ways of connecting with people and ideas that would not only help us thrive in the workplace it would make our lives happier too.

Start small. How many times have you been with friends, coworkers, acquaintances and in the midst of a conversation all of a sudden they become engrossed in something online? We’ve all done it. It’s part of our ADD culture. Make an effort to stay present when you’re with others. If you feel the urge to Facebook realize that you’re bored and make an effort to take the conversation in a more interesting direction.

Shake up your routine. Put yourself in unfamiliar situations. It doesn’t have to be a major effort. Take a different route to work. Walk outside during your lunch hour. Check out a new exhibit or attend a community event. Putting yourself in a position where you’re exposed to different influences and influencers can help you see things differently and exposes you to new people. That keeps your thinking fresh and along the way you may make some new friends.

Learn what others are up to. You never know where the next opportunity may come from—or how you can help others. Make sure you share what you’re doing too—as long as you’re not complaining about it!

Assisted serendipity is a new take on the old adage “make your own luck.” Why not do so in a way that benefits both you—and others?

I’ve witnessed some amazing communication lately. For some reason tacking on “thank you” seems to make some people think they’re allowed to say the most horrendous things. Witness these recent email examples from managers to their teammates:

“…You have missed the mark again. I can only hope that your work will improve so I don’t have to step in. I suggest you shape up or you’ll regret it. Thank you.”

“…We’re behind so you can forget about weekends off. Oh, and don’t think you’ll be leaving early either—I don’t care what ‘personal things’ you have to take care of. Lots of us have families. Thank you.”

“…I don’t know what’s wrong with you but you’d better fix it. I’m getting heat and I certainly am not going to be thrown under the bus because of your laziness. Thank you.”

Given the tone of these breathtakingly bad missives I can only imagine the type of environment these managers have created—and I wonder what kind of “leadership” tolerates this kind of behavior. Clearly corporate suffering is alive and well.

I suggest a simple test for everyone. Before you communicate, ask yourself these three questions: 1) Is it truthful 2) Is it necessary and 3) Is it kind? All of the earlier examples fail the “kind test” and will likely lead to more problems just due to tone alone. Why not stop the cycle of bad behavior and hold ourselves to a higher standard? Let’s bring back civility in our interactions and restore meaning to the phrase “thank you.”

The commotion surrounding the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision and subsequent reversal to fund Planned Parenthood activities illustrates several best practice anti-corporate suffering behaviors.

1. Be Clear
Komen Founder Nancy Brinker originally stated that they changed their grant criteria for two reasons 1) flaws in their grant making process eg “the issue is grant excellence” and 2) they wanted to bar contributions to groups under investigation (which currently only affected Planned Parenthood.) While they have continued to insist that they were not targeting Planned Parenthood specifically and that they are dedicated to “grant excellence,” by reversing their decision they are continuing to fund what they’ve already identified as flaws. “Many of the grants we were doing with Planned Parenthood do not meet new standards of criteria” Ms. Brinker said to NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. While I’m personally happy they reversed their decision, how they explained the change makes no sense and raises many questions. If they really believe changing criteria will lead to better outcomes why would they have backed off their position?

2. Manage Perceptions
Today’s resignation of Karen Handel, VP of Public Policy, former candidate for governor of Georgia and outspoken critic of Planned Parenthood adds more weight to the argument that the original decision was less about grant excellence and actually just a smokescreen for those who fear Komen money was funding abortions at Planned Parenthood. Particularly when you read what was publicly said. Five days ago Nancy Brinker stated “Karen did not have anything to do with this decision” in her interview with Andrea Mitchell. Today’s resignation quotes Handel as saying “I openly acknowledge my role in the matter and continue to believe our decision was the best one for Komen’s future and the women we serve.” Komen’s mixed messages are more damaging to their image than almost anything their detractors are saying. If you were working for them, imagine having to explain and/or defend their actions to others. How would you feel about your role at the foundation?

3. Be Accountable
While I believe the Komen Foundation has every right to decide where they want to direct their money, it was apparent from their subsequent actions that they weren’t prepared to accept the consequences. If they anticipated the backlash as many “unnamed sources” have suggested, then they didn’t have a good plan for handling the resulting fallout. Management has said one thing and done another consistently during this episode – eroding the goodwill they’ve built over 30 years of doing important work in the breast cancer arena. This whole episode has many questioning whether the Komen Foundation actually does care about saving lives.

When we watch these business dramas play out in the media it’s important to look for parallels in our own workplaces. Are we being clear, accountable and managing perceptions so that our audiences stay focused on what’s really important? Or are we inadvertently creating distractions and mini-dramas? Often it’s easier for us to see dynamics when we’re not directly involved. Our challenge is to not perpetuate the same mistakes other more high profile people and organizations make in our own work worlds in order to reduce corporate suffering.

This is the week where most New Year’s resolutions meet an untimely end—often because people set unrealistic goals. Having a happier work life—and happier life in general—is within anyone’s grasp. One of the most important predictors of workplace happiness is your relationships. The Gallup Engagement Survey has found that people who have three friends at work are 96% more likely to be satisfied with their lives. How can you ensure that the workplace you’re considering joining will contain potential friends?

One word: Values.

Find an environment where your core values are shared. That guarantees that regardless of background you will have common ground with your coworkers and management. You’re also more likely to connect to the company’s mission if you share their values.

A dramatic example of employees who not only connected but embodied their company’s values was detailed in the December issue of the Harvard Business Review. Authors Rohit Deshpandé and Anjali Raina studied employees’ response to the 2008 terrorist attacks on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, India in their article “The Ordinary Heroes of the Taj” (http://bit.ly/tk770z)

For three days the hotel was under siege by men armed with automatic weapons that took hostages, killed others and set fire to the building. While we’ve heard stories of individuals who risk their lives to help others, as Alix Spiegel of NPR noted “what happened at the Taj was much broader. During the crisis, dozens of workers — waiters and busboys, and room cleaners who knew back exits and paths through the hotel — chose to stay in a building under siege until their customers were safe. They were the very model of ethical, selfless behavior.”

The Tata Group (owner of The Taj Group) has a clear focus on character when it comes to recruiting employees. Rather than look for those with the best grades from the best schools, they look for those who are empathic, respectful of others and motivated by more than money alone. This focus on character is a direct reflection of the corporation’s commitment to social justice.

While the authors noted that no single factor can explain the employees’ behavior, “we believe that the unusual hiring, training, and incentive systems of the Taj Group—which operates 108 hotels in 12 countries—have combined to create an organizational culture in which employees are willing to do almost anything for guests. This extraordinary customer centricity helped, in a moment of crisis, to turn its employees into a band of ordinary heroes.”

While most companies are not as overt in articulating their values as the Tata Group, focusing on understanding a potential employer’s values will enable you to ask the right questions ensuring a good fit and a happier 2012.

We’re well into the holiday season now and it’s clear that many have taken the old axiom “the customer is always right” as a license for bad behavior. Witness the egregious behavior of the pepper-spraying Walmart video game shopper on Black Friday. The original meaning of this retail policy was to make customers feel special by convincing them they’d get good service. Now by rewarding bad behavior and penalizing people who are respectful of others, it has created a situation where good service is rare.

Consider the message that accommodating abusive customers—regardless of your business–sends to employees. It communicates that your hardworking staff is less valuable than someone you may have known for mere moments, that no matter what the cost, you’ll do anything to “get the business” and that your employees have no right to expect fairness and respect in the workplace. Is it any wonder that corporate suffering is endemic?

The justification that it takes more money to get a new customer than keep an existing one needs to be balanced by remembering how much money it takes to recruit, hire and train employees versus keeping a loyal staffer happy.

“Resigning” bad customers is often the best thing for your bottom line. It sends a powerful message to your employees and customers regarding your corporate values. As consumers, we need to be reasonable when dealing with companies and take responsibility for our part in any issue. Choosing to frequent those companies that balance the voice of their employees with the concerns of their customers rewards the behavior that creates a better workplace for all of us.

As we give thanks this week with our family and friends it provides a chance for us to appreciate how many good things corporations provide.

Working at a corporation gives you with the opportunity to:
• meet our basic needs—and ultimately the freedom to explore our own interests as our income increases;
• make new friends and build lifelong relationships—meeting people you may never have had the chance to otherwise;
• learn about new cultures — via your coworkers, your clients and the collaboration and travel necessary to get your job done;
• be exposed to new ideas and different viewpoints—expanding your world beyond your own personal experience; and
• to have a bigger impact on the world than you can alone—aligning with a business that reflects your values can be both personally and professionally rewarding.

Beyond the personal benefits, corporations provide us with:
• the means to drive our country’s economy—creating a cascade of benefits to society, everything from increasing an individual’s feeling of self-worth and identity to funding social programs to help the less fortunate;

• the ability to solve important problems that increase quality of life for millions—creating new products, medicines, policies–as the best and the brightest are provided with the resources and focus to address critical issues; and
• the satisfaction of making a significant difference directly through our–and our teams’–efforts.

These are just a few of the many benefits businesses provide…what are you thankful for?

As events unfolded last week at Penn State most people saw the situation as tragic. Exactly what they considered tragic was instructive and says a lot about the values we hold—both individually and as a society.

Many saw tragedy in the tarnishing of Penn State’s reputation—and new irony in their football motto “Success with Honor.” Many were upset that a football legend’s career would end so ignominiously. Many found it hard to fathom that an instance of sexual abuse would be witnessed by an adult who did not immediately intervene. Others found it hard to imagine those responsible for enforcing the law would willfully look away. Many were appalled by the allegation that young boys were abused by adult(s) in authority.

The central tragedy here is that young boys were (allegedly) abused by an authority figure and those in power chose to put their own interests above that of the victims.

What do the riots that broke out in response to Joe Paterno’s firing say about our values? What are we saying to the victims when the sexual predator’s name immediately became shorthand in a joke? What does it say about the Penn State environment when a grown man felt unable to immediately report (or intervene) when an instance of sexual abuse was witnessed?

Accountability is lacking within our institutions—and our broader society. In this instance there was a lot of noise about holding administrators accountable for firing Paterno—less about holding Jerry Sandusky accountable for his actions. Does a football program take precedence over basic human decency?

In my opinion, the biggest tragedy is that we’ve lost focus and empathy for the real victims.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is the reaction to it. While many would agree with the protesters’ core issue—the belief profits have come to matter more than people—how the protest is being conducted has made it difficult for people to easily categorize it.

We’ve been conditioned to expect clear storylines in news reports. We want to know who the leader is, exactly what the protesters are looking for and how they’re going about getting it. Without those pieces of information we’re at a loss and unsure how to deal with the phenomenon. And it is a phenomenon. OWS is very sophisticated in their approach to the logistics of fundraising, their online presence and how they meet the basic needs of a very complex group—all without designated leadership.

OWS has continually stated they are democracy in action–and democracy is messy. Democracy is also a process not an endpoint. Rather than focusing on the details that would make it easier for us to understand, look at what their process is demonstrating.

They are participating and taking responsibility for what they believe in regardless of the physical cost. They are ruling by consensus—meaning a 90% or better super majority—to ensure all voices are heard. This requires patience, tolerance and a whole lot of listening while addressing of issues and objections. Although unwieldy, once something is decided it’s hard for anyone to challenge its legitimacy.

What if we adapted the spirit of their process into our work environments? What if more people took responsibility—not just for their own work but for the bigger teams they’re a part of? What if more voices were included in decision-making? What if we listened better and were more tolerant of dissenting opinions? Perhaps then we could craft a workplace with a more equitable balance between people and profits where both could thrive.

In the tributes to Steve Jobs that have been made over the past few weeks I found it interesting that so little was said about how poorly he treated people.

While there’s no debating that he was a genius of industrial design, he was also legendary for his combativeness and mean-spiritedness when dealing with others. We can only wonder what more he could have accomplished and how much easier his own life would have been if he had had a healthy management style.

Corporate suffering is directly related to how those in power behave. With so many idolizing the brilliant products Jobs created, we can only hope that people differentiate his design genius from his management approach and seek only to emulate the former.

The conundrum of Steve Jobs was that he was able to so clearly put himself in the shoes of the user in all of his products but, from all accounts, never able to do so with his employees.

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Taking Control of Your Career® Bootcamp Content Overview

Our Bootcamp is designed to get you back to feeling like yourself fast. To avoid overwhelm, we cover critical topics sequentially so you can make small changes quickly and experience immediate results.

1. New Beginnings

We start by creating a clear picture of your desired outcome and showing how feeling stuck can benefit you. You’ll also learn how to increase your physical and mental energy and a quick (less than 5 minutes!), easy way to improve your mood.

2. Setting Yourself Up For Success

It’s easier to succeed when your environment completely supports you. You’ll learn how to easily analyze yours and bring it into alignment. We’ll also cover techniques for viewing your work situation in a neutral, productive way–allowing you to move within it effortlessly.

3. Values & Standards

Values impact your behaviors, decisions, relationships and direction in life. Yet your values are often not aligned with your workplace. Standards are what we honor because we believe they will lead us to our goals. Logically you’d think high standards would result in a superior result but just the opposite often occurs. In this session we’ll cover how to maintain your standards when they’re not shared and how to stay true to yourself without making it an issue for others.

4. How Your Best Intentions Work Against You

If you’re like most achievers, you welcome and thrive on responsibility. Sometimes, however, your life can feel like one long “to do” list leaving little time to figure out what is working – or not – in your life. We’ll cover how to retrain your teammates, how to redefine your role and the concept of “responsibility without authority” – having one without the other makes success impossible.

5. Core Beliefs

Understanding how personal beliefs drive behavior is critical to freeing you from feeling trapped. This is a deeply personal and important aspect necessary to move into action. You’ll learn how to uncover the core belief that is out of alignment and the 5 step process you can use to replace it.

6. Who is in Control of Your Life?

Control is like catnip to high achievers – we all want it. But surprisingly few exercise control in the one area where they actually have it. This cycle of relentlessly trying to get control over an uncontrollable situation is exhausting and self–defeating. Resetting expectations so you can focus on fulfilling activities will provide the energy you need to regain your perspective and take action.

7. Setting Boundaries

If you’re surrounded by those who constantly violate your boundaries it will create conflict, drama and drain your energy. When you set and maintain appropriate boundaries you will experience an almost immediate reduction of stress. We will review the 5–step boundary setting process; discuss how to hold the line without alienating others or compromising your standards, and the implications of not being able to say “no”.

8. The Path Forward

Your work each session will have helped you uncover your personal traps and provided strategies for overcoming them. We’ll do a quick review and focus on how to use your strategic plan so you’ll never get in this situation again. We’ll also review how to appropriately take responsibility, how to manage workplace expectations and perceptions and the best habits for self–management when “overwhelm” strikes again – as it inevitably will.

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