About Conversation Kindling

The purpose of this blog is to share stories, metaphors, quotes, songs, humor, etc. in hopes they'll be used to spark authentic and rewarding conversations about working and living fruitfully. There are at least three things you can gain by getting involved in these conversations. First, you'll discover new and important things about yourself through the process of thinking out loud. Second, you'll deepen your relationships with others who participate by swapping thoughts, feelings, and stories with them. Finally, you'll learn that robust dialogue centered on stories and experiences is the best way to build new knowledge and generate innovative answers to the questions that both life and work ask.

I write another blog called My Spare Brain. This is where I am "storing" ideas for use in future books, articles, blog posts, speeches, and workshops. There is little rhyme or reason for what I post there. I do this to encourage visitors to come as treasure hunters looking for new ways of seeing and thinking vs. researchers looking for new or better answers to questions they already know how to ask.

17 May 2009

Hey! (It's My) Culligan Man.

I got to spend a few minutes recently visiting with the guy who delivers Culligan bottled water to my house. This isn't the first time we've jawed, and if the good Lord's willin' and the creek don't rise, it won't be the last.

I've come to know him fairly well over the past year or so. He's in his early forties, and a family man. He joined Navy after high school, and is justifiably proud of his service to his country. He finished up a college degree after he got out, and nabbed an entry-level, salaried position with a fairly good-sized company. He showed up faithfully for almost three years, and then resigned. He wanted out of cubicle nation. He wanted to do something more physically and mentally invigorating. He wanted to work directly with customers. He wanted to drive a truck and deliver water for Culligan. And, so he did.

That was 15 years ago. Has it worked for him? He's one of the most senior drivers in his company, and has built one of its largest and most profitable routes. He's been asked to accept a management position an untold number of times, and has politely - but firmly - declined on each occasion. Why? It's pure and simple: he loves what he's doing.

This is an interesting story, and I could wrap it up here by saying something like do what you love and the money will follow. We can dig a little deeper though.

First, we can ask - as I did this afternoon - how he has managed to build such a large and loyal customer base. His answer? He hesitated at first. Then he said:
"I think it's because I really like my customers. I enjoy talking to them and getting to know them. I like to help them in any way I can."
He means it, too. I've been looking for a cheapo used car for one of my kids. He said he just traded his in yesterday. He offered to call the dealer to see if he could buy it back so he could sell it to me. When I told him I didn't want to put him through those paces, he came back with the offer to keep his eyes open and call me if he spotted something suitable. Now, you might be thinking that Culligan must have one helluva customer service training program if it turns out people like him. Maybe they do. Maybe they don't. It doesn't matter in this case. My man's success is not built around sound sales and service techniques. It is - instead - a function of who he is and how much he genuinely cares about meeting, knowing, and serving others. I was still curious, though, so I asked him what kind of training he'd had. He said:
"Well, it's good. But I really can't do it just the way they say. It seems too canned. I'm more comfortable doing things my way."
There are some people who are naturals. They don't need a manual. They don't need a classroom. They just do what they do. How do you coach them? I am reminded of the words of Jim Frey, former Kansas City Royals manager, when he was asked how he coached the great natural hitter George Brett. Frey said:
"I tell him 'Attaway to hit, George'."
We used to have craftsman's guilds in this country. Young workers initially learned their trade by becoming apprentices to guild members. Once their apprenticeships were over, they became journeymen and started earning a wage. The final step was to save enough money to start their own businesses and become masters of their trade. I sometimes wonder whether it might be wise to return to this learning tradition - at least in some cases. For example, there's no way that Culligan can package what my man knows and teach it to others in a classroom, but they might be well-served to have new hires study by his side.

Second, we can ask - as I did on a previous visit - how he was able to turn his back on the extra money that would've followed a move up the ladder. He said:
"I try to keep my life simple. I do that by dialing back on buying stuff I don't really need. As long as I've got clean sheets on my bed, food on my table, a roof over my head, and a family that loves me, I'm good ... and I'm free to stay on in a job that makes me happy."
He has some rules about this. He tries not to spend more than he makes. He saves a little something out of each paycheck. He avoids credit cards like the plague. He quickly reverses course if he somehow gets in over his head. For example, he started a truck fund a few years ago and added to it here and there. When he finally had enough money, he bought the vehicle he'd been saving for. And, he loved that truck. Not too long after that, though, gas prices skyrocketed and he decided the truck had to go. It was costing him too much to run. He sold it and bought small car that averaged almost 40 miles a gallon. He was relieved. His stress level returned to single digits.

Finally, we can put to rest the notion that he's got a perfect life. He doesn't. He has crosses to bear just like the rest of us. He talked about one of them briefly today, and I simply listened. I'm hoping there'll come a day when he reaches out for help. And, if he does, I'm there. After all, we're friends.

  • The philosopher Seneca said "We never reflect how pleasant it is to ask for nothing." How do you respond to this notion?
"Each time we look upon the poor, on the farm workers who harvest the coffee, the sugar cane, or the cotton… remember, there is the face of Christ." - Archbishop Oscar Romero
"It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor." - Seneca
"The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is a hard business. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself." - Rudyard Kipling
"We are an exceptional model of the human race. We no longer know how to produce food. We no longer can heal ourselves. We no longer raise our young. We have forgotten the names of the stars, fail to notice the phases of the moon. We do not know the plants and they no longer protect us. We tell ourselves we are the most powerful specimens of our kind who have ever lived. But when the lights are off we are helpless. We cannot move without traffic signals. We must attend classes in order to learn by rote numbered steps toward love or how to breast-feed our baby. We justify anything, anything at all by the need to maintain our way of life. And then we go to the doctor and tell the professionals we have no life. We have a simple test for making decisions: our way of life, which we cleverly call our standard of living, must not change except to grow yet more grand. We have a simple reality we live with each and every day: our way of life is killing us." - Charles Bowden, Blood Orchid
"In social institutions, the whole is always less than the sum of its parts. There will never be a state as good as its people, or a church worthy of its congregation, or a university equal to its faculty and students." - Edward Abbey, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness: Notes from a Secret Journal
Video: A Working Man by Celtic Thunder

13 May 2009

Simple Wisdom for Complex Times

I found the following statement on Tom Peters' website. These are Tom's words; he's talking about the task of supervising others:
"The great secret to people excellence is treat people with manifest respect and appreciation and trust, and give them a chance to express the best in themselves and dramatically broaden their horizons."
I've always admired Tom and deeply shared his views on various and sundry things. He prefers the simple as opposed to the complex, action over theory, and plain-talk over typical business vernacular. He is direct. He says what he has to say - like it or not; he doesn't tap-dance. What I resonant with most, though, and have tried my best to emulate, is his willingness to wander far and wide to find ideas from other disciplines and show how they can be applied in a business context.

In this spirit, I want to share a poem I found recently on a blog I visit on a regular basis. The blog is written by Angela Meiers, a former teacher who spends her time these days working as an independent consultant dedicated and committed to helping the Department of Education's schools, districts and teachers reach their goals in literacy and literacy education. The poem was written by Angela and is titled Promises. And, if you simply substitute the word boss for teacher, I think you'll find it to be a meaningful way to understand the kind of relationship most of us would like to have with the person to whom we report:
Dear Teacher,

Love me,
Make me feel special,
Make me feel included,
Make me feel valued,

Smile for me,
Tell me that you’re happy to see me,
Tell me that you’re happy to teach me,
Tell me that you’re happy I am here.

Involve me,
Tell me about our work together
Tell me how I can be of help and mean it genuinely

Notice me,
See all of me,
See my emotions, my laughter, my curiosity, my anticipation
See my right, and I will work on the “wrongs”

Teach me,
PLEEZE don’t just tell me what you know
Show me what I need to know,
Show me how to do it well

Help Me,
Help me when it gets hard,
Help me persevere,
Help me know it matters

Excite Me,
I came to you in love with learning
Keep me excited!
Show me the fun
Show me your fire and passion

Promise Me,
Promise me that you can.
Promise me that you will.
Promise me that you are ready to…

Love me, help me, engage me, excite me, and teach me
I'm Ready
I want to learn.
I want to know.
I want to be your student.

I will return the favor
I will reward you with my attention, my focus, my heart
I will show you what I can do
I will show you who I can be

  • Can you tell a story of a teacher, coach or someone else outside your immediate family who treated you in the way expressed in the poem? What is the lasting impact your relationship with that person has had on your life?
  • Can you see the poem as a summary of what you might be looking for in a supervisor? Have you ever worked for someone that treated you in this way? What stories can you tell about the effect that supervisor had on your life's journey?
  • What other words besides boss can you substitute for teacher? Explain.
  • Can you move way out to the edge and see the poem as a request a customer might make of a supplier? In other words, can you see a business-to-business application?
"The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
"The more we live by our intellect, the less we understand the meaning of life." - Leo Tolstoy
"One brief way of describing the change which has taken place, in me, is to say that in my early professional years I was asking the question: 'How can I treat, or cure, or change this person?' Now I would phrase the question in this way: 'How can I provide a relationship, which this person may use for his own personal growth?'" - Carl Rogers, psychologist
"If I have all the eloquence of men or of angels, but speak without love, I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing. If I have the gift of prophecy, understanding all the mysteries there are, and knowing everything, and if I have faith in all its fullness, to move mountains, but without love, then I am nothing at all. If I give away all that I possess, piece by piece, and if I even let them take my body to burn it, but am without love, it will do me no good whatever." - Saint Paul, Letter to the Corinthians