Regret

I am standing on a sidewalk in Albany, New York with my father.  It is the late 1970s and I am, loosely speaking, a college student (I spend more time working on the college newspaper than in going to class, reading, writing papers or any of that boring stuff).  My father visits me often, for which I am eternally grateful.  Not only does he remind me of that other world, outside of college, but he takes me out to dinner (Yes!  No dining hall goop for me tonight!  Red Lobster, here I come!), buys me milk and orange juice for my tiny refrigerator, and leaves me with a twenty to stuff into my perpetually empty wallet.

I do not drive.  Driving might be a useful skill to have at this point, considering that the dorms are stuffed full with tripled-up students and I am forced to live five miles from campus on the tenth floor of a downtown single room occupancy firetrap hotel.  This means that there is a particular ordeal involved in getting back and forth to campus or getting anywhere else I might want to go:  I ride the bus.

There are the long green college buses, which are free to use with a college ID card, although the drivers almost never ask for it.  However, if I wanted to go anywhere other than up Washington Avenue to campus or back down Western Avenue in the opposite direction, there was the Capital District Transportation Authority, which went by many names.  The CDTA, the city bus, the shame train.  Back then, the fare was forty cents for a ride.  Most of the time, I didn’t have the forty cents.  But when I did (such as right after one of my father’s visits), I knew that if I were standing on the street corner when it was, say, ten below zero with a stiff wind blowing, it was exactly 30 minutes before the start of my first class of the day, and there was no Green Machine in sight, a glimpse of the #12 chugging up State Street hill would be an answer to prayer.  I gained more than a passing familiarity with the city bus schedule.

A bus blows past us and, staring at its tail lights, I remark to my father that I don’t know which bus it is because it has no number displayed in its rear window.

“Why would you want to know that?  To know which bus you just missed?”  My father laughs.  His son is weird.

Well, yes, Dad.  Actually, knowing what bus you just missed is pretty important.  After all, you wouldn’t want to wait out in the cold for a bus that had already come and gone, thinking that it was running late today.  It was important to know that you missed the bus, dummy, now you’re going to miss your European politics class again.

Seeing that “12” in the rear window of the city bus when you’re still about half a block away would occasion nothing but regret.  Regret that I didn’t wake up earlier, regret that I wasn’t able to walk faster, regret that I was forced to live so far from campus, regret that I was even taking this dumb class.  On particularly bad days (sleet and freezing rain come to mind), I would regret attending college in a city with such ungodly weather or I would regret going to college at all.  I knew I would never survive another 2½ years of this (somehow, I did).

Regret is a tough road to go down.  The older you get, the more the regrets accumulate, piling up like snowflakes in an Albany winter.  To get from one day to the next, you lull yourself into complacency by saying that, all in all, you made the right decisions and that, given the chance, you’d do it all again.  You start singing Sinatra.  “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”

But then it hits you over the head suddenly.  Or it comes stealing over you as a foreboding sense of dread in the middle of the night.  Those two words.  What if.

You never know what will be the trigger for these head games.  It could be a remark overheard from two cubicles down the hall at work.  It could be a story on the six o’clock news.  Or for one such as myself who daily gorges upon the smorgasbörd that is the internet, it could be lurking stealthily behind any URL or hyperlink.

This week, the regret monster hit me not once, but twice.

First, I read the story of fiftysomething Dan Lyons, who, after being laid off from his editorial job at Newsweek (just like me, when I was laid off from the state court system!), braved the culture shock of joining a startup firm full of 21 year olds with their bean bag chairs, foosball table, free beer and workspace décor “like a cross between a kindergarten and a frat house.”  Damn, I want to do that!  The place was presided over by a charismatic leader pushing platitudes that evoke both Orwell and Communist Russia.  I keep hearing that, in the tech sector at least, this is the face of corporate culture today.  It fascinates me, and I wish I were a part of it.  This is the reason that, for the last couple of years, I’ve had a vague fantasy love affair with the idea of working for Zappo’s in Las Vegas.  (I unsubscribed from their emails some time ago in order not to be repeatedly reminded of what I’m missing out on in my gray, government bureaucratic job.)

As if that weren’t bad enough, I then ran across an article about people who make a living (get this) writing dictionaries! Kory Stamper’s new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, tells the story of what it’s like to be a lexicographer with Merriam-Webster.  For one who is a word nerd and who has loved the intricacies of the English language since childhood, this seems like the ultimate dream job.  I recall reading Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything, about the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, when it was published almost 15 years ago.  Not long after, at a job interview, I was asked what would be my ideal job if I could do anything in the world.  The interviewer told me his was “rock star.”  I didn’t hesitate when I told him that I wanted to be the editor of the OED.  Need I say that I didn’t get the job?

Alas, nothing is ever as good as it sounds.  Decades ago, I read (mostly while standing in the aisle of a bookstore in Paramus, New Jersey, as I couldn’t afford to actually buy the book) Scott Turow’s memoir of his first year at Harvard Law School.  One L mesmerized me and was certainly one of the factors that influenced me to eventually attend law school.  Yet as much as Turow waxed poetic over “learning to love the law,” I never managed to quite pull off that particular flavor of amour.  I wonder if I’d be similarly disappointed if I were, like Stamper, “falling in love with words.”  The irony that Merriam-Webster is located in Springfield, Massachusetts, the same fading industrial city in which I attended law school, is not lost on me.

Regret returns with a vengeance to bite me in the ass again!  As a third-rate student at a second-rate law school, I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised upon graduating from the big U to the little u (unemployment).  The only employer willing to hire me was Wendy’s (yes, that one, home of the Frosty), and even they were concerned about whether they could find a uniform large enough to fit me.  I ended up going back home to New York to work for a temp agency until I finally found a low-paying job as a typesetter with a weekly newspaper.  I would lay awake at night regretting having wasted three years and untold thousands of dollars, and thinking about burning my law diploma, or tearing it to bits and putting it out with the trash, or perhaps using it as toilet paper and flushing it down the loo (no telling what that would have done to the wonky septic system in my parents’ house).  And all of that when look what I could have done!  I could have just driven my aging Pontiac down to Federal Street and asked for an application to work as a lexicographer!  If only I had known.  How dumb was I not to know what was available right in the very city in which I lived?

I must confess:  After reading the review of Stamper’s book and staring a bit too wistfully at the MW dictionary with the red cover that I’ve owned since junior high and that now graces my desk at work, I couldn’t resist taking a peek at Merriam-Webster’s website to see if there were any jobs posted.  My labor was all in vain.  While the link to “Join MWU” was tantalizing, it was not about joining the staff but about paying $29.95 annually to join an email subscription to definitions to “over 250,000 words that aren’t in our free dictionary.”  There was a “contact” link on the website, but none of the categories on the drop-down menu had anything at all to do with career opportunities.

The fog soon cleared and it all started to make sense.  Stamper herself admits that when she first tells others that she works writing dictionaries, “one of the first things they ask is if we’re hiring.”  Well, it wasn’t long before I came across another article citing that, with the popularity of free dictionaries online, Merriam-Webster, which didn’t have a large staff to begin with, recently laid off seventy employees.

All of which teaches me that you can’t go home again.  Even Dan Lyons soon left the startup for greener pastures.  Scott Turow became a novelist.  And Kay Stamper, while still a lexicographer, no longer occupies an office in the brick building on Federal Street, but now telecommutes from her home near Philadelphia.

Life goes on, but I know that, sooner or later, I will read or hear or see something that will once again have me craning my neck to make out the number of the bus that has passed me by.  As my wife often reminds me, I need to learn to be content, to count my blessings.  To tell that bus “later, gator.”

And it’s true.  Life’s been good, so there’s no need to constantly ruminate about the road not taken.  Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention…

Be Humble

My parents tried to teach me to be humble through a variety of pithy phrases, among them “don’t get too big for your britches” and “don’t be a sassy pants.”  I’m still not too sure what either of these means, but I think it has something to do with not bragging about your clothes.

Zappos Core Value #10:  Be Humble

For years, I thought that being humble wasn’t a very good thing at all.  If a person is in humble circumstances, that means that he’s poor.  And if you are well and truly humiliated, it is said that you “eat humble pie.”

As if that weren’t enough, I associated being humble with minimizing one’s own finest attributes.  Whatever happened to tooting your own horn?  You can’t expect anyone else to do that for you.  As they say, “if you’ve got it, flaunt it.”

It took a few decades of experience and a bit of maturity to come to the understanding that I had it all wrong.  Gradually, I came to several conclusions:

  • No matter how good you are at something, someone else (usually someone younger) is better. (This is a good thing.  It gives you something to strive for.)
  • When you finally think you have all the answers, they change the questions on you.
  • “After the fire, a still small voice.” 1 Kings 19:12
  • “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang, but a whimper.” S. Eliot

Ultimately, I believe that being humble is a close partner of being grateful.  If I am able to make just one person’s life better in some small way, I am grateful for that.

The world is a big place, and most of what we do in life is insignificant in the grand scheme of things.  No one is going to write a book about what I did at work today, nor will what I had for lunch make the local newspaper.  However, if I’m very lucky, perhaps one of my coworkers will go home and tell his wife that a manager gave him a nice compliment today.  Perhaps that will put a smile on her face and she’ll return the favor to someone else who needs it, who will do the same for more people.  As you can see, I am a big fan of “paying it forward.”  If someone is kind to me, it makes me want to do the same for others.

That’s why it is so important for managers to lead by example.  Whatever behaviors we model are likely to be copied, consciously or not, by employees.  Send the right message, do the right thing, wow a customer, spread the love and you may just have done something good for thousands of people.

To me, humility is about being satisfied with the small things, knowing that the small things are really all that matter.

Most important of all, believe.  Believe in yourself, believe in your customers, believe in what you do.

Believe that you can.

Thank you for staying with me for the past ten days as I made my way through Zappos Core Values.  It’s wonderful to find a business I can truly admire.  Could I be a future Zapponian?  One can dream!

Tomorrow on A Map of California:  14th century Japanese warlords have taken over my life!

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Be Passionate and Determined

“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”  Doesn’t that sound ideal?  But for most of us, it’s only a dream.  We grab at anything that pays the bills, keeps our kids fed and keeps a roof over our heads.  Instead of making the most of what we are doing while we work toward doing what we really want to do, we treat employment with all the enthusiasm of zombies.  I believe that Zappos has helped to show us that there is another way.

Ninth in a series.

Zappos Core Value #9:  Be Passionate and Determined

In my experience, “passion” is about the last word that many would associate with their jobs.  Too many of my coworkers and subordinates have treated their employment with an attitude of bare tolerance.  “This is just what I do to earn a paycheck,” is their sad refrain.

I shake my head and say “Life’s too short, dude!  Go do something else.”

I have come to the conclusion that this unfortunate situation is often the product of “job mismatch.”  As much as management seeks to avoid this, it can be tough.  There are lots of people who can “fake it” for a 45-minute interview, then show their true colors once hired.  Applicants know we want to see indications of interest in the company, investment in their career, cheerfulness and, yes, passion.  I once played a part in hiring an applicant who seemed to embody all of these qualities.  She told me this was her “dream job” and that she had to pinch herself to believe that she wasn’t really dreaming.  A month later, she left to go work elsewhere.  Perhaps it was us disappointing her as much as the other way around.

Once you’re on the job, passion and determination can’t be faked.  You might get away with it at the interview, but when you have a customer screaming at you for the third time in the same day, you either have what it takes or you don’t.

I like to think of employment as something like a marriage:  You’re supposed to take it for better or worse.  You don’t run away or give up on days that fall into the “worse” category.

In an industry in which success is measured by the happiness of the customer, employees must be committed to doing whatever is necessary to ensure that happiness.  It’s always nice when you get a customer who is already happy with the company, but most of the time, you have to create that happiness.  Fortunately, happiness is contagious.  However, this means that employees must have the right attitude in order to transmit that happiness to the customer.  This is what I mean by “passion.”  It’s that determination that “I am going to satisfy you if it’s the last damned thing I do.”

I will grant you that turning around an unhappy customer is often not an easy thing to accomplish.  Pulling off this feat requires having a lot of arrows in your quiver.  Apologizing as if you just broke your best friend’s heart.  Knowledge of products, availability and payment and delivery options.  Offering to refund money and resend the item as well.  Offering free next day shipment.  Coming through on all those promises.

As a customer service rep¸ I would know that I’d succeeded when my customer was rendered speechless.  Or when she would ask me why I was trying so hard.  Or when he would say it’s hard to stay mad when I’m so, well, nice.

Working in customer service can be an emotional roller coaster.  However, it doesn’t matter how good an actor/actress you are.  If you’re not a true believer, the customer will see right through you, at which point you are toast.

But if you’re truly aghast that something happened to prevent the customer from being delighted the first time around, and if you are determined to move heaven and earth to make it right, you might have the passion required to work in a place like Zappos.

I hope I get to find out personally one of these days.

Tomorrow:  We finish up Zappos Week with Core Value #10 – Be Humble.

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Do More With Less

In Hamlet, Shakespeare opined that brevity is the soul of wit.  Perhaps this makes the bard among the first to express the idea that less is more.  While I’ve always believed that only more is more (something to which anyone unfortunate enough to have been subject to my writing can attest), I am fully on board with the business practice of maximizing profits by squeezing every drop out of existing resources.  As my parents used to tell me: “You’d better make it last.  That’s all there is.”

Eighth in a series.

Zappos Core Value #8:  Do More with Less

When we were kids, we used to tell a riddle that went something like this:

Q: Which room is always growing?

A: Mush-room!

The real answer, of course, is “room for improvement.”  No matter how well something is going, it can always be done better. And as the world revolves and technology evolves, room for improvement keeps growing.

These days, the improvement that businesses feel most compelled to make involves efficiency.  In good times, doing the job with fewer resources increases profits; in not-so-good times, it can be the difference between survival and insolvency.

One of the worst experiences I’ve ever had as a manager was the time that half my staff was laid off due to financial difficulties.  After the shock wore off came sadness, then guilt by the remaining staff that they got to stay while their coworkers were out of a job, followed by anger that we had to continue to do the same amount of work with half the people to do it.  As hard as this was, it caused us to dig deep down into our reserves of resourcefulness, to find short cuts that did not compromise customer service and to do more work than we thought we were capable of doing.  We had to work harder and work smarter.

There are a number of different popular sayings that seem apt.  “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”  “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  However you say it, you may be surprised what you’re capable of doing when you have to.

The most successful businesses learn to do more with less before they’re placed in a position in which they have no choice.  In fact, efforts to find ways of doing things better, faster and more economically have become almost routine, integrated into the corporate culture.  And why not?  Employees who are treated right tend to be committed to the success of their employers and make it their business to find ways to save time and money.

It’s always nice when we hit that “eureka” moment when a light bulb turns on and a whole new way of looking at things suddenly becomes obvious.  More often, however, it is the little things that make the big differences.  Shaving off a minute or a dollar here and there adds up quickly.

Learning to do more with less starts with making the most of current resources rather than always trying to obtain more.  This is especially true of human resources.  Why utilize an employee to perform just one narrow job when he or she has many talents that can be harnessed toward the company’s success?  Maybe you’re a customer service representative, but you might have a degree in accounting and artistic talent.  Why should I have you sit on the phones when what I really need right now is to have a new logo designed or to figure out a way to reduce our tax liabilities?  To be really crude for a minute, I’m going to squeeze you like a lemon. This is perfectly in keeping with the Golden Rule, as it is exactly how I would like to be treated!  As they say in the Army, I want to be all that I can be, and I hope you do, too.

So, hey there, Lemon.  I don’t want you to sit on the counter and look pretty until you rot.  On the contrary, I want to get every drop of juice out of you.  You have so much to offer and I plan to take full advantage of that!

There is nothing wrong with wanting more and pursuing it.  However, I also count my blessings and appreciate a company that does the same, that makes the most of what it already has before it goes looking for more.

You and me, Zappos, we’re on the same page.

Tomorrow:  Core Value #9 – Be Passionate and Determined

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Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit

As we approach Thanksgiving and Christmas, I find myself thinking about family a lot.  Admittedly, this involves worrying about such things as how we can help my two nephews who are out of work and what we will do about my octogenarian parents when they are unable to live alone any longer.  Even so, I get that warm and fuzzy feeling as I look forward to sharing Thanksgiving dinner with family and then celebrating Dad’s birthday a few days later.  We’ve started buying Christmas presents and imagining the looks on the faces of our grandnephews and grandnieces on Christmas morning.  I keep catching myself singing Christmas songs in the shower.  But then I go to work.  Wouldn’t it be great if I could carry that family feeling with me?

Seventh in a series.

Zappos Core Value #7:  Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit

One of my favorite memories from the early 1980s is Sisters Sledge singing “We Are Family.”  It’s just such a goofy, upbeat song that I can’t help bobbing my head and singing along.

It’s interesting that we tend to think of work and family as diametrically opposed concepts.  After all, work is what takes us away from our families, right?  And yet, most of us who have worked in a particular location for any period of time seem to develop “work friendships” that may or may not spill over into our personal lives outside of the office.  More romances than anyone can count have blossomed among coworkers.  (My wife and I, now married for nearly 17 years, serve as a prime example.)  And I keep hearing about close platonic relationships at work among “work husbands” and “work wives.”  Whether it’s a girls’ night out or just a chat over the cubicle divider, we try to bring “that family feeling” into the workplace.

And why shouldn’t we?  Developing positive relationships makes our days at work a lot more pleasant than they would be if we had to toil in solitary silence.  Plus, it’s nice to have people with whom we can “talk shop” and who understand exactly what’s going on without having to explain everything from scratch.  They know how it is and they can commiserate with us.

When I don’t understand something at work, it’s nice not to have to run to the boss when I can go to a friendly coworker for help and know he won’t roll his eyes.  There are coworkers who allow me to brainstorm with them and who will warn me if my bright idea is really rather lame.  And, of course, it’s a mighty good feeling to celebrate successes as a team.

I like the phrase “family spirit” that Zappos uses.  Family implies pooling resources for mutual benefit.  It also implies mutual regard and teamwork.  These are “feel good” attributes that don’t have to be limited to our home lives.  It’s a shame that too many, both employers and employees, seem to prefer to make work a misery for everyone involved, including the customers.

When employees share responsibilities and share details of their personal lives, we can avoid that unnatural line of demarcation between home life and work life that some believe is inevitable.  Ultimately, it’s our own decision whether we are going to make the most of our time at work or just dread every minute that we have to be there.

It is encouraging that some companies value their employees enough to be cheerleaders, fully invested in their success.  Often, this starts with injecting fun into the work environment, allowing employees to be themselves.  I value the feeling of togetherness among coworkers.  This is where I start singing the Sisters Sledge song.

Some will tell you that this is artificial and forced, that we are just at work to do a job, get paid and go home.  I, for one, refuse to live my life that way.  Life is way too short for such foolishness.  And it is well known that happy employees lead to happy customers and a successful business.  “Teamwork makes the dream work” is not a meaningless phrase.

Unless, of course, we want it to be.

Tomorrow:  Core Value # 8 – Do More with Less

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Build Open and Honest Relationships with Communication

This is the week that I sing a love song to Zappos!  Join me in my journey through the ten core values.

Zappos Core Value #6:  Build Open and Honest Relationships with Communication

Sixth in a series.

Here’s an oldie but goodie:  You start working at a new company and your manager tells you that she has an “open door policy.”  You have to be there a little while before you can determine whether your manager’s door is open just a crack or all the way (and whether that crack is wide enough for you to jam your foot in).

Unfortunately, this reminds me of a particular parenting style I’ve witnessed in which a mother or father tells the kid “you can always talk to me about anything.”  Then, when the time comes, it turns out that this is code for “don’t bother me, kid.”

I find it difficult to understand why a manager wouldn’t want to maintain good communication with her team and why company higher-ups wouldn’t want to keep the lines of communication open with the rank and file.  Sadly, some managers prefer to live in a world of their own making.  “Don’t confuse me with the facts” seems to be the predominant philosophy of these ostriches.  I enjoy playing “let’s pretend” with my three year old grandniece, but this tactic doesn’t work so well in the business world.

It’s no joke that the truth can hurt.  Nevertheless, brutal honesty is just as much the key to a successful relationship between managers and employees as it is between businesses and their customers.  Sometimes I need to be hit right between the eyes by having an employee or customer tell me that I’m being an ass.  I may be stunned at first, but I always end up thanking them for giving me an attitude adjustment upside the head.  If no one tells you, how are you going to know?

I’ll never forget the time when, as a supervisor, one of my team members took offense that I called her out for being a chatterbox.  He was insulted that I would dare make such an accusation.  However, the guy was a gossip, plain and simple.  Being friendly and talkative is surely an asset, but not at the expense of serving our customers.  And not when telling tales about your coworkers seems to be your raison d’être.  I was amazed when, about a year later, he sheepishly admitted to me that I had been right.  He had been so upset by my comments that he thought about them for a good long time and eventually made the necessary changes.

Granted, such a positive outcome doesn’t always occur.  I have a bit of a reputation as a meanie because I like to tell it like it is.  This is not a one-way thing, however.  If I dish it out, I expect to take it, too.  My staff seems to enjoy taking advantage of this opportunity on a regular basis.  Although it’s not always pleasant at the time, I appreciate when my employees “keep it real.”  If I’m starting to micromanage a bit, by all means, tell me to back off.  I have to learn by making mistakes and making corrections, because there is no other way to learn.

One of my pet peeves is upper management that treats employees like mushrooms — keeping them in the dark and feeding them bullshit.  How can you feel a part of things, know where you fit into the big picture, if information is treated as a closely guarded secret?

Arriving at a company that practices open and honest communication can be a little like stepping out of a stifling hot room into the cool, fresh night air.  You just breathe deeply and soak it in.  My staff has the right to expect me to lead them, but it is difficult to do so effectively when I find myself flopping about like a fish.  I enjoy being a leader, but it’s a tough road when you’re heading into the fog.

At companies like Zappos, the open exchange of information makes it possible to lead and actually know where you’re going rather than just guessing.  The holacratic model minimizes the importance of job titles, is committed to the free flow of information throughout the organization and disdains rigid roles in favor of establishing relationships that flex and grow over time.  Sounds like my kind of place!

Can you blame me for wishing I were a Zapponian?

Tomorrow:  Core Value #7 – Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit

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Pursue Growth and Learning

I remember a cartoon posted on the wall of one of my high school classrooms many moons ago.  In it, a boy sits at a man’s feet, apparently the victim of a father-son talk.  “That’s it,” says Dad.  “That’s all I know.”  The sad part is that some are indeed contented with what they know, preferring not to have to learn anything new.  Of course, that cartoon predated the internet by a couple of decades.  With every type of learning opportunity, from webinars to podcasts to MOOCs now available at our fingertips, there is no longer any excuse to be satisfied with what we think we know.  After all, a minute from now what you think you know will no longer be correct.  The only solution is to be a lifelong learner.  How fortunate that employers like Zappos encourage expanding our horizons, resulting in personal growth and increased ability to contribute to both personal and professional success.

Zappos Core Value #5:  Pursue Growth and Learning

My wife’s friend is quite clever.  Although she herself doesn’t enjoy reading, she understands the importance of encouraging her children to read and to maintain a sense of curiosity. Accordingly, when her kids were small, she would walk around with a book as often as possible and sit holding a book even if she weren’t actually reading it.  Her children got the message, and now it is rare for either of them to be seen without a book.  In our age of smart phones and tablets, I find this most amazing.

Indeed, it is true that instilling a passion for knowledge is among the greatest gifts we can give our children.  Growing up, I spent as much time as possible inside a public library.  I consider myself a lifelong learner, which is a distinct advantage in an age in which facts become outdated almost as soon as one learns them.

At work, I encourage my employees to jump on every possible training opportunity, including those not directly related to their current employment.  Whether this means attending a two hour seminar or signing up for a course at the state university, I support it.  If I have to change an employee’s schedule to make this possible, consider it done.  It doesn’t matter what “holes” this creates; we’ll figure out a way to make it work.  Not only is broadening and deepening of knowledge an investment, but it improves an employee’s ability to contribute to our success and increases life satisfaction in general.

I encourage my staff to do outside reading, to look things up online, to figure out how what we do relates to the rest of the world.  In my department, we’re just a little puzzle piece and it helps to have a grip on where we fit in with the big picture.

Back when I first started working in the court system, I discovered that my predecessor had no use for training.  Staff members never went to refresher training and were discouraged from making the three hour round trip from our remote location to the nearest training venue.  I am proud to say that I changed that.  Whenever possible, I would have the subject matter experts come to us.

My people would laugh when I would crook a finger and say “Don’t tell me you already took that training class.  That was ten years ago.  The world is not the same place that it was then.”  It was a novel concept to some of them that checking off a class on the training list didn’t mean that their obligation was forever resolved.

These days, I work in a place where training is decidedly rather hit or miss.  You never know when or if the training class you want will be given, whether you’ll be able to get in due to limited class sizes and whether your manager will allow you the time off to go.  Many of us don’t get a lot of formal training, so I encourage everyone to take the initiative to train themselves.  Thanks to the public library, the internet and the community college, there’s really no excuse to do otherwise.  Yes, I know you have a busy life.  So do I.  It’s all a matter of priorities.

The kind of place where I want to work has a well-stocked library, training that can be accessed online at my convenience, and a management attitude that no learning is ever wasted.  Let me improve myself so that I can improve my contribution to the company.

By the way, I’ve just described Zappos.  I don’t know whether I’ll ever get to work there, but at least I can hold them up as a model of a business that has proven that training and learning are assets we can’t be without rather than liabilities that we can’t afford.  And I am particular impressed with the Z’Apprentice program, in which employees get to try out working in other areas of the company to see whether a good fit exists.  More of that kind of learning, please!

Tomorrow:  Core Value #6 – Build Open and Honest Relationships with Communication

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Be Adventurous, Creative and Open-Minded

Fog on the 5

Fog shrouds downtown Sacramento during the morning commute on the 5 freeway.

I would disappoint myself if I were to live life walking around in a fog, operating robotically with nary a chance of coming up with my own bright ideas and striking out on new adventures.  Sadly, too many jobs fit that bill.  Fortunately, there are enlightened businesses like Zappos to show us a better way.

Fourth of a series.

Zappos Core Value #4:  Be Adventurous, Creative and Open-Minded

I would venture to say that, at some point in our working lives, most of us have had a boss who had no interest in hearing his or her employee’s ideas.  “No comments from the peanut gallery” is this manager’s mantra.  Or, as I have heard it put even more crudely, “If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you!”

This is the type of working environment in which all creativity and adventurousness is shut down before it starts.  Employees understand that they are not to ask any questions, just shut up and do what the boss says.  Needless to stay, this creates a stifling workplace that breeds inordinate amounts of stress and employee turnover.

As painful as it was at the time, I am glad to have experienced this early in my career.  For me, it has served as an object lesson, a prime example of what not to do.

In a turn of irony, over the years I have learned that, to be an effective leader, one must be a servant.  I do my best not to pontificate.  I try not to be a know-it-all, if only because I am acutely aware that I do not know it all.  While I am busy attending meetings and completing administrative tasks, my team is getting the work done.  I’m not the one who is in a position to come up with new ideas; they are.  After all, they’re the ones who receive feedback from customers day after day and who know what works and what doesn’t.

If one of my team members muses “I wonder what would happen if we (fill in the blank),” likely as not I will say “Why don’t we try it out and see?”  The last thing I ever want coming out of my mouth is “Oh, it’ll never work.”  Talk about taking a pin to your balloon!  Among my favorite sayings is “They forgot to tell him it couldn’t be done, so he did it.”  (A poor paraphrase of an Edgar Guest poem.)

Even if I don’t think your idea will work, I may very well allow you to give it a try anyway.  I may be pleasantly surprised.  As I said, my employees are the subject matter experts.  It is important for me to remind myself that they know more than I do.

Also, I believe a sense of adventure is an asset.  Even if an idea doesn’t work out, perhaps we’ll learn some other lesson from the experience?  Often, efforts to solve one problem can yield a solution to quite another problem that wasn’t even on our radar.  And even if we don’t take away anything we can use from the experiment, there are lessons to be learned from the very experience of trying.  For example, asking an additional question of customers may not, in the end, yield useful information, but the reaction we receive to asking the question may in itself be instructive.  Plus, it broadens the experience of employees and makes them feel like a part of the process.  Being willing to try out my team members’ ideas shows that I value their input, recognize their expertise and trust their instincts.

We all have unique talents, experiences and backgrounds that allow us to bring a veritable cornucopia to the table.  (I couldn’t resist getting in that Thanksgiving reference.)  Plus, we all have different thought patterns.  You and I don’t make connections in the same manner.  In other words, we need each other.  Hence, the value (and the joy) of diversity.

The business gurus urge us to “think outside of the box.”  The only real way to do this is to adopt the attitude that no idea is too crazy.  Often, the only way to make progress is to leap off that cliff and see where you land.

I’d much rather work in an environment marked by a spirit of adventure than one that pays homage to past successes by sticking to the tried and true.  Only by being willing to take risks can we move forward into the realm of the possible.

While this doesn’t fit in with the culture of every business, I’d rather lend my efforts to a forward-thinking operation like Zappos.

Tomorrow:  Core Value #5 – Pursue Growth and Learning

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Create Fun and a Little Weirdness

I must admit:  Zappos knows how to have fun.  For Halloween, they held a bingo and donuts party for employees and held a scary film festival.  My hat is off to those lucky Zapponians who get to spend the holiday season working hard and playing hard.

Part 3 of a series.

Zappos Core Value #3:  Create Fun and a Little Weirdness

Yesterday, I discussed driving and embracing change.  Thinking about all the changes I’ve been a part of at my various places of employment, I would have to list changes in management, changes in technology, changes in procedure, even the time I had to lay off half my staff.  Surprisingly, however, one of the most difficult of all the changes I had to implement involved fun.

When I was a supervisor in a large call center, management decided to adopt the FISH Philosophy.  Based on the way the fishmongers at Seattle’s Pike Place Fish Market (it’s worth it to click that link just to see the photo of the customer kissing a huge fish) achieve happiness, the philosophy includes four basic tenets:  Be There, Make Their Day, Choose Your Attitude and Play.

I remember reading over the material I was given and being astonished.  The first three principles I could certainly understand.  But play?  Play?  At work?  It didn’t make any sense to me.  Play seemed like the exact opposite of work.  Children don’t have to work; they get to play instead.  Back in my education courses, the professors liked to spout the platitude “Play is the work of children.”

But we’re all adults here!  And we have a job to do!  Wouldn’t play take away from our mission of serving our customers?  Even after I viewed the video of the fishmongers throwing fish and making jokes with the customers, it all seemed just a bit over the top.  And how on earth would we translate this to a busy call center?  What exactly should we be throwing across the aisles and cubicles?  Surely not stinky fish!

Management gave the trainers little rubber fish to play with, and some of these found their way into the hands of the supervisors.  I actually had my team throwing these back and forth for a while, until the day that I myself accidentally hit an operator in the head with one while she was on a call.  Fortunately, she was a good sport about it.

There had to be another way to “play at work.”  When the supervisors and trainers put our heads together, we eventually came up with things like holding little parades to acknowledge accomplishments, hosting cubicle decorating and trivia contests and choosing a silly word of the day.  Pizza, Krispy Kremes, candy.  Just little things to lighten the mood.  If you’ve ever worked in a call center, you know how desperately this is needed.

When you work in law and government, as I have done for the past decade, play seems to factor out of the process.  The conservative nature of these fields makes me wonder if the denizens thereof were deprived of a play gene in utero.  Were they ever kids?

I am encouraged by the stories I regularly read about the way play has been incorporated into the workplace within the tech industry.  My nephew, who is an engineer in Silicon Valley, confirms that there are ping pong, foosball and air hockey tables, hallways turned into putting greens, impromptu hackey sack games, employees sliding down a firehouse pole instead of using the stairs, and employees’ dogs who are there so regularly that everyone knows them by name.  It pains me to think that I am missing out on this stuff.

In the words of Dick Van Dyke, “I am a child in search of his inner adult.”

Business journals like to write about how the youngest generation of employees, the millennials, expect these kind of distractions and diversions.  I say why not?  And even though I am a COG (Certified Old Guy), I too would like to participate in such good times at work.  For one thing, it would be a huge stress reliever.  For another, why should the younger crowd have all the fun?  Hey, wait for me!  Geezers just wanna have fun! (If you’re reading this, Cindy Lauper, forgive me.)

My knees may not allow me to skateboard down the corridor anymore, but I promise I will whip your butt at ping pong (or run out of breath trying).

And don’t roll your eyes if I break out into song right at my desk.  If I try to imitate George Strait and it comes out sounding more like a croaking frog, please feel free to lob wadded up paper at me.  It won’t stop me, though.  Oh, and if you can’t hear my caterwauling, just look for the workstation decorated all in orange, a color that never fails to lift my spirits.

Are you listening, Zappos?

Tomorrow:  Core Value #4 – Be Adventurous, Creative and Open-Minded

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What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

A question posted online recently captured my attention in a big way.  It went something like this:  “If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?”

I was surprised when my guts began churning and a flood of emotions washed over me.  So many memories.  So many “what ifs.”  So many “if onlys.”

What would my ideal job be?  Oh, please don’t ask me that.  Ask me anything else, but not that.  It’s just too embarrassing.

It sounds like a warped job interview question, something the production manager or the HR lady sadistically throws at the poor applicant in an attempt to throw him or her off kilter and assess “thinking on your feet” skills.

In fact, I was asked this question during a job interview once, many years ago.  The interviewer added “anything but the job you are applying for, that is.”  Of course.  There would be no point in enduring suck-ups who provide the obvious answer.

As a self-professed “word freak,” I told the interviewer that I have long been fascinated by etymology and would, in my dreams, be the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.  What happened after that was not pretty.  Believing I had said “entomology,” the interviewer thought I was into insects.  As far as the OED, he told me that he had one of those on his desk.  I was sure he was lying, as I knew full well that the OED consists of 20 thick volumes.  (I had not yet heard of the compact edition.)  Then he admitted to me that he’s really like to be a rock star.

Oh.

Need I add that I did not get that job?  I’m probably better off, too.

The loaded question about “your ideal job” has been around just about forever, and I don’t see it going away anytime soon.  When I was in college in the 1980s, pondering what the hell I was going to do after graduation with a degree in English and political science, the popular question (courtesy of the Richard Nelson Bolles book) was “what color is your parachute?”  Today, I suppose, we would say (courtesy of young crooner Kacey Musgraves) “follow your arrow wherever it points.”

Turn the dial on the ol’ Wayback Machine a few years earlier.  Everyone from my grandparents to my aunts and uncles to my parents’ friends and our next-door neighbors posed the same question to me at one time or another:  “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Every kid gets asked that question.  I used to think it was a way of testing the kid’s mettle, to find out how big he or she can dream.  Or maybe it’s just a way of making small talk, an adult’s way to start a conversation with a child when the adult doesn’t really know how to relate to kids and has no idea of what else to say.  It’s the old tried-and-true.  It’s the question that’s expected.  Now that I’m an old guy, and more jaded than I like to admit, I suspect that many adults ask kids this question to get a good laugh at the outrageous response they might receive.

If a shy kid greets this question with silence, the follow-up may well be something like:  “Policeman, fireman or Indian chief?”  (In the upper middle class suburban world in which I was raised, the question would more likely have been:  “Doctor, lawyer or Indian chief?”)

Seriously, what is it with Indian chiefs?  I was born much too late to have heard of Tonto and the Lone Ranger, although I have vague, fuzzy memories of watching old westerns with my grandpa when I was four or five years old.

It seems like a humorous anachronism now.  Today, if you used the phrase “Indian chief,” the image that would come to my mind would be of a CEO in Mumbai.  Not a bad career choice, come to think of it.

Well, what I wanted to be when I grew up was really rather boring.  I wanted to be a librarian.

I was enamored with books and retain vivid memories of an embarrassing incident in which I walked right into the office of the director of the public library and asked him for a job.  I was ten years old.

To the guy’s credit, he quizzed me on the Dewey Decimal System, a test which I summarily failed.

“Being a librarian doesn’t mean you get to read books all day,” my mother patiently tried to explain.  Duh!  Everyone knows that.  Librarians get to push the little cart around and tell people where the periodical room is and shove library cards under that little machine with the bright light that makes a copy with the due date stamped on it.

I started telling people that I wanted to be a teacher like my Dad.  It was safer.  Also, it was less of a sissy answer.  Everyone knew librarians were old ladies with their hair put up in buns.

What I do for a living today is far more boring than being a librarian.  I am a manager in the government service.  Pass the white bread and the vanilla ice cream.

I’ve spent years as a supervisor and manager in both the public and private sectors, during which time I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect upon career paths, recruiting and the interview process.  On several occasions, I found myself in the position of reviewing stacks of job applications and then conducting dozens of interviews.  I learned to take good notes, because after a while it becomes difficult to remember one candidate from another.  Perhaps someone stands out because they tell me a funny joke, once worked as a lion tamer or show up at the interview with really big hair.  But mostly it’s just a chorus line.

These days, I consider myself reformed.  I am rarely involved with hiring anymore, and when I am, I don’t ask candidates what their ideal job would be.

For one thing, it’s too painful.  That is, the ridiculous answers you get are too painful to bear.  And you can’t even laugh!  You have to keep your serious supervisor’s face on, nod and say something profound like “Well, that’s different!”

Mostly, however, you just get boring answers about wanting to work “in the helping professions” (Query:  Is there such a thing as “the hurting professions?”) or wanting to give back to the community or to make a real difference in society.

Sigh.  My eyes grow misty as I recall the many times I’ve spewed out such chewed-over platitudes to prospective employers.  Even when it’s true, it always comes out sounding just a little bit insincere.

Okay, I’ve put it off long enough.  It’s time to fess up.  My ideal job, what I’d really love to do more than anything else I can think of, is to be . . .

A customer loyalty team representative in Zappo’s call center.

Yep, you read that right.  I want to don a headset, surf the Net like a wild man in search of bargains and answers and make customers insanely happy all day/night.

And much as this is the object of my desires, I can unequivocally guarantee that I will never have this job.  More on that in a little while.

Now, why would I want such a job?  I’m glad you asked.  It’s not out of some goggle-eyed fantasy, I assure you.  I worked in a call center for years, so I know the drill.  Most of my coworkers hated it and got out as soon as they could.  I stuck around for nearly nine years.  It’s where I met my wife and it was one of the best times of my life.  I’d do it all again in a minute.

My niece works in a call center and often makes vague references to the difficult customers she is forced to deal with, the time constraints she faces on each call and the constant threat of Quality Assurance listening in with a critical ear.

Bring it on, I say!

Satisfying the customer at the other end of the phone line, even the one who has a beef with the company and decides to cuss me out, brings a smile to my face and joy to my heart.  I am the weirdo who glories in turning the frown upside down.

But why Zappo’s?  Oh my goodness, where do I begin?  Sorry, I’ll try not to gush too profusely.

First, Zappo’s operates on a holacratic model, which basically means that it’s about the work, not about the person.  There are no titles; roles overlap and morph with business needs.  Employees get to use their skills in a variety of areas rather than being stuck doing just one thing until they get “a promotion.”  It’s about getting things done, not stroking egos.  The idea is entirely refreshing.  You can read more about holacracy here.

Then there are Zappo’s ten core values.  I will list them here so that you can get some idea of why I’ve gone a little bit gaga over selling shoes and apparel:

  • Deliver WOW through service
  • Embrace and drive change
  • Create fun and a little weirdness
  • Be adventurous, creative and open-minded
  • Pursue growth and learning
  • Build open and honest relationships with communication
  • Build a positive team and family spirit
  • Do more with less
  • Be passionate and determined
  • Be humble

I’m told this is not for everyone, but I find it a bit difficult to imagine why anyone would not want to work for such a company.

Pursue growth and learning:  Yes!  I consider myself a lifelong student, I always want to obtain more schooling, I read omnivorously.

Be adventurous, creative and open-minded:  Yes!  No more being a square peg wedged into a round hole.  Try your latest idea without fear of failure!  Then try something else!

Be passionate and determined.  Be humble.  They’re talking about me!

There are other little things, too.  Zappo’s has a 24-hour call center, and I am an inherent night owl who enjoys working weird hours.  Switching shifts every so often to meet business needs doesn’t faze me.  I find it exciting!

The fact that the staff is always up to fun stuff like parades through the call center and silly games and contests — That’s what adds joy to one’s work life.  It’s what keeps people forever young.  That’s what builds the same kind of loyalty to an employer that the employees wish to instill in their customers.  It’s the WOW, it’s what makes their day.

So why haven’t I packed up and moved to Las Vegas yet?  There are a number of obstacles to doing that, but only one that I simply cannot overcome and will never be able to overcome.

I cannot survive on $11 per hour.

Even on $15 an hour, I simply couldn’t make ends meet.  I only wish Zappo’s had been around when I was fresh out of college, 21 years old and back home with my parents, wondering what on earth to do next.  No rent, no utilities, no food bills, nothing but putting gasoline in my rattletrap old car.  I started working for $5.50 an hour on the night shift, which even then was very little money.  If I could transport myself back to that time, and transport my parents’ home to the Nevada desert, I could happily indulge in the job of my dreams.

Those days are long gone, of course, decades in the past.  All that remains is the edges of a dream, a dream fueled by monthly “Zscoop” email reminders from Meli Gonzalez, social recruiting and engagement specialist at Zappo’s.  Like a junkie, I lap up these e-newsletters as a much desired fix.  And I try not to let it break my heart.  But it’s tough.

I know you don’t read this blog, Meli, but if you’re really out there, give an old guy a break and leave a comment telling me that a Zappo’s job paying a salary on which one can pay the bills just opened up and has my name written all over it.

Back in my day, there were all kinds of pop songs about unrequited love.  And this one is mine.

So good night, sweet Zappo’s. I’ll see you in my z’dreams.