March 12, 2012

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As I reflect on the history of work on this Labor Day holiday (in the United States) I am thinking that I don't need a workplace; I need many workplaces.

Of course, I can only be in one place at a time. But sometimes I need to be in one place, and sometimes in another.

I am a knowledge worker. I use my head to create value. Sure, I use my hands too, but mostly just to hit some little square pieces of plastic in a particular sequence that produces images of text on a computer screen. Sometimes I hold a pen or pencil and spread ribbons of ink (or graphite) on paper as another way to create and capture my ideas. But however I record my musings, it’s what goes on in my head that matters.

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Small Talk Isn’t Small

August 25, 2014

There's nothing small about small talk.

conversations1In western economies it has almost become a cultural norm to spend the first five or ten minutes of a formal meeting engaging with the other participants in what we call “small talk.” You know, those pre-call-to-order conversations that seem to just happen as people arrive in the meeting room – conversations that begin with questions and comments like:

  •  “How was your weekend?’
  •  “What are your kids up to?
  •  “Man, it’s way too hot this summer!” (or, “Can you believe how cold it was last night!”)
  •  “How about those 49ers! Is Kaepernick a world-class quarterback or what? [well, I can dream]
  •  “Congratulations! I just heard about your daughter’s gymnastics victory last night.”
  •  “Hey, I just heard that Freddie in marketing got a big promotion because of that killer ad campaign he designed.”

Most of us think of those topics as trivial, and primarily a way to kill time until everyone arrives and the “real” meeting starts. And yes, they do help occupy people’s minds until the host calls the meeting to order. But they can also make or break the “real meeting” that follows.

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ConfusionLR2

Peter Drucker liked to tell a story about a senior military officer who asked a junior technician a question about a complex new fighter plane. After trying for several minutes to explain how the plane’s sophisticated guidance system worked, the technician finally threw his up hands and said, “Oh, forget it, you wouldn’t understand anyway.”

That certainly sounds like insubordination; did the technician think the general was stupid? No, Drucker believed the technician was just telling the truth; the knowledge required to fly the plane was indeed far too complex for the general to understand.

And that is the nature of work and management in just about every knowledge-intensive business today.

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"What does a fish know about the water in which he swims all his life?" (Albert Einstein)

I’ve become convinced that the “water” in which organizations swim is the conversations that take place every day, in meetings, in hallways, in the executive suite, on phone calls, in email exchanges, and in marketing materials and contract negotiations.

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Conversations at work

August 4, 2014

As I have mentioned previously, my first corporate job was with a mid-sized publishing firm. I was hired by the Vice President of Human Resources as the company’s first-ever Manager of Training and Development.

At that time I was particularly interested in management as a skill and as something that could be taught (I was a relatively newly-minted MBA graduate). I was excited about my new job because I saw my role as an opportunity to design and lead an ambitious set of management training programs – sales training, problem-solving, leadership, team-building. I wanted to create programs that would brand the company as “with-it,” help us recruit stronger talent into the organization, and – oh, by the way – enhance our performance and profitability.

Much to my surprise, my boss refused to let me set up a formal program.

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Physical space matters. My first job after graduating with an MBA at age 25 was with a leading textbook publishing firm based in the Midwest.

The year before I was hired the company had moved from an aging center city eleven-story skyscraper to a suburban campus complex of four two-story buildings spread out on several acres of grassland with plenty of small trees that created a distinctive park-like setting.

Sounds idyllic, right? Employees now didn’t have to commute to the center city, riding the train or bus; they could drive to the office, where there was free parking and a brand-new, well-designed facility to work in.

I now believe that change in the physical layout of the corporate headquarters was actually a disaster. It completely changed the company’s culture and in particular the relationships between the senior executives and the rest of the employees.

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General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, the “Big Three” of the American automobile industry, draw on the same talent pools to staff their organizations. They hire from the same design, engineering, and management schools. Their assembly factories and distribution centers are often located within miles of each other and are staffed from the same local communities. Indeed, in many instances they hire people away from each other.

Yet those three organizations have distinctively different brands, different customers, vastly different organizational cultures, and clearly different track records.

Similarly, The Seattle Seahawks and the Oakland Raiders are two NFL football teams that draw on the same pool of college athletes, recruit coaches from the same broad cross-section of talent and experience, follow the same policies and rules of the game, use the same basic equipment – and have dramatically different won-loss records.

What makes an organization unique?

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How often do you come home from a professional conference and say something like: “The best part of the event was the coffee breaks and the cocktail parties.”? I sometimes say that even when the keynote presentations were world-class.

In this age of social media, free long-distance phone calls, and webinars, why do we spend so much time and money to attend conferences?

Well, for most of us there is still plenty of power in face-to-face communication. Good keynote speakers can have an incredible impact even in a big, crowded ballroom – an impact that is substantially different from reading their books and blogs or listening to them during an online webinar.

But I know as well as you do that the real value of going to most conferences is the opportunity to meet and have personal conversations with colleagues and professional friends, both old and new.

So why do so many conference organizers still fill up their agendas with pontificating platform speakers and with endless breakout sessions that always seem to be “I will talk and you will listen” experiences?

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Moments of Meaning

July 7, 2014

I have just returned from the annual convention of the National Speakers Association. It was an energizing gathering of professional speakers, authors, storytellers, facilitators, and consultants. We spent four days together focusing on the art and craft of informing, influencing, and inspiring our audiences.

As I reflect on what I heard and learned during that week one insight in particular stands out for me. Freddie Ravel, a professional musician, was one of the early General Session speakers. During his presentation he played bits of music by artists like Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

But he wasn’t focused on the notes; he wanted us to hear the quiet moments between the notes – the pauses that let the just-completed sounds sink in and that produce the cadence and rhythm that makes the music so memorable.

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