Finding a Workplace Philosophy
Many Swamps, Few Pastures
The trail to fair philosophy is through thickets of dense disillusionment.
Philosopher-Writers Who Taught Me:
Robert Townsend was the CEO brought in to Avis Rent-a-Car after it had been in the red (losing money) for 13 years in a row. He led the firm into the black in a single year. (Up the Organization by Robert Townsend, Alfred A. Knopff, 1970, hardcover)
John Wooden was the coach that led the UCLA basketball team to ten national championships in twelve years. The record may never be broken.
(My Personal Best by John Wooden, McGraw-Hill, 2004, hardcover)
Finding A Workplace Philosophy
"Everyone has a philosophy." That's what our school principal, Wes Jansen, told us. I resolved to one day decide on a philosophy too. When I first left school and went off to seek my fortune, I wanted to decide: What are grown adults like at work?
At my school we thought being responsible, in our intramural sports and our academics, was only for grown ups—Our philosophy, in short, was: Don’t be competent… I dimly remember how, back when I was a science fiction fan who preferred the older bridge crew to a young ensign nearer my own age, back when I was one of only two boys with calluses in my high school English class, my peer’s “don’t be competent” ethic really grated on me. As a student, back then, I was eager, idealistic and grated upon.
At God’s footstool to confess,
A poor soul knelt and bowed his head.
“I failed,” He cried. The Master said,
“Thou didst thy best, that is success.”
(Old poem Wooden found, p 87)
Rudyard Kipling told his son in If, “don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.” Back when we took If I thought, “this might make sense;” and then I wondered: “Yes, but when I grow up, will the adults around me really be so weak?” Kipling wrote in his poem The Recruit of boys becoming men who were “getting shut of doing things ‘rather more or less.’” I went off to my big new adult world hoping to find civilians who, just like their counterparts in the armed forces, were devoted to excellence and professionalism. Ah, youth!
I guess I was like that former orphan turned spy, named Friday, in the novel by Robert Heinlein. Friday desperately hides her orphanage past. I too had secrets. Guarded around people from normal families, as I was too, she creates her own a philosophy: In her secret agent work, although no one but her boss will ever know, she aspires to act “professionally,” and measures others, especially the competition, by her standard. I can relate.
I had really hoped that as a grownup it would be safe to “look good.” But—oh dear.
…It is the standard by which I have judged myself and those under my supervision: “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” (Wooden, p 87)
Working a variety of jobs, I slowly decided most workplaces suck like a swamp. Competency? Yes, for individuals: I saw how Mr. Jansen lived up to his potential for competence and responsibility—in fact, he had been president of the provincial teachers federation, met a head of state, and seen the vast presidential suite “even bigger than a house” at the Hotel Vancouver. Nevertheless, for most adults I regret to say that, when it comes to excellence, most can’t or won’t cut the mustard. Unless, that is, they are fortunate enough to find themselves among a group of people with high standards. But such dry pastures are all too few.
As for “groups,” I soon shared disillusionment with many fellow adults: Although our philosophy throughout the 1950s had been that “big is good,” the Vietnam conflict showed us that “bigness” doesn’t always work. Later it was no surprise when I saw IBM being rendered irrelevant by Microsoft, which in turn grew big until today Microsoft is no longer feared by competing computer experts.
Skeptical of bigness, it was nonetheless clear to me there is still a good place for organizations. It is groups, I realized, that get things done, groups ranging from companies of stalwart volunteers to incorporated companies of sober wage earners. Business guru Peter Drucker, after coming to this same realization, decided to oil the economic gears of society… by leveraging the effectiveness of groups… by inventing business management. Sweet. Later he branched out to helping the nonprofits, but to this day many people still instinctively put the word “business” in front of “management.” Obviously, I thought, my life was going to be spent in groups. Now what?
In Alberta we can vote and drink alcohol at age 18. (And we can drive with a learner's permit at age 14—to move stuff around the farm) At that age I was a bright-eyed new adult wondering: Who are these other adults, now working in groups?
Not long after leaving home for the wide world I learned things. I know now why the community views university students, of legal age, as still being “more child than adult.” I know now why the same students who are so eager to become professionals, will, when they are working on group projects for class, act so unprofessionally and, through their inaction, “let their team down”: It’s because they can.
(A gifted player was good enough to be a starter) …But he was not a starter at UCLA, because he was having difficulty with my concept of team play. He was too concentrated on having the ball and shooting before he’d look for the pass. This is damaging… It then becomes every man for himself, and the team is destroyed. (Wooden, p 102)
(Sean’s note: The application of Wooden’s philosophy to a staff meeting I leave as an exercise for the student)
Here’s a sad philosophy: I’m sure that at any new workplace tomorrow, as I encounter adults who have been doing work in groups and at meetings for many years already, if I am trying for the first time to facilitate or chair a planning meeting with them, then—for pity’s sake—I had better “go back to kindergarten,” pull over a flip chart, and have my group of alleged adults generate a list for all to see of “What does a ‘functional’ meeting look like?” If I don’t keep them accountable they will “forget” how to behave. (By the way, at my own agency—I went around asking top executives—we have fine meetings) Hence all those bitter blog entries by working adults, young, middle aged or even nearing retirement, adults who still despise staff meetings. What? In all those years did the staff never learn? …. As my old commanding officer would say, in his withering voice, “I am not impressed.”
As a sales manager said to me after setting sales quota, “People only do what they have to do.”
I could extend my philosophy: Most people, including most managers, won’t go to their local bookstore business section, nor to the self help section; most people won’t plan for their professional growth, nor for their personal development. And for most people, I know, that’s OK—I get it. My philosophy of the average Joe’s life is this: “Once I know my factory machine, or once I know my desk job, then it is quite usual to just cruise along for years, both at work and at home, simply doing “…more or less.” ”
Learning should be a lifelong process and I hope I’ve continued to listen and learn, but by 1962 much of my coaching philosophy was in place. Obviously, I had no clue as to what lay ahead… (Wooden, p 118)
On the other hand, here’s another philosophy, which I got from someone years ago: Yes, the “average” man can only jog one mile… but it’s “normal” to be able to jog four miles. In my own life, among my own friends, it’s normal for us to periodically put in the effort to grow in our capacity for various things such as physical fitness, or Japanese flower arranging, or project flow charts, or whatever appeals to “the best within us.”
In my social world, now, the joyful thing for me is having found peers with various ambitions. Sweet! When I am with them I never have to hold back from fear of looking too good or too wise. Not when we role model respect and support for each other, displacing jealousy with admiration. My female peers, I guess, having been through women’s liberation, don’t have to hold back either, not from fear of hurting my “fragile male ego.” What a relief! Meanwhile, I’m relieved to say, my current workplace is about as functional as my social life. I needn’t hold back much.
Here’s something queer … I will never forget a grandmother, a classmate in my night school drama class. One evening, when the building was mostly empty, she went skipping gaily down the hall. Then she remarked how, in broad daylight, people don’t want an old woman to skip. Well, my peers would let her skip.
Today, among people at my capitalist for-profit agency, I enjoy a shared enthusiasm as we work towards improvement, steadily, but never bureaucratically. In fact, thanks to me, my Chief Executive Officer (CEO) has been “pulling a Robert Townsend” by having every page of proposed new red tape sent to her first, for her to fill out every page in complete detail. She does this before any new forms ever become official. Understandably, we still remain light on paperwork and administration costs. (Only about 7 per cent of our costs are administrative, same as for the War Amputees, while among our competition the accepted industry standard according to the government is 20 per cent)
“Work is joyful” my CEO, at an orientation, Jan 31, 2013
I’ve always remembered Robert Townsend saying something like, “If you aren’t here at work for fun and excellence/(profit), what are you here for?” Yes. But if the mass of men “only do what they have to,” then it is left to officers like Townsend, supported by the rest of us non-officers, to set high standards. Peter Drucker was not thinking only of “the bottom line” (of an accounting statement) when he said, again and again, that a company must have “high standards”: I’m sure he meant that for group functioning and for individual health there is just no alternative… at least, no sustainable alternative. That’s my philosophy, too.
(Regarding academically challenged athletes being admitted to rival schools)… Perhaps I was rationalizing on a grand scale, but it seemed that many of these better players were not always better people. Too often they were mediocre or poor students who also attracted problems off the court. Furthermore, what I saw on the court suggested they weren’t inclined to be good team players. I concluded—begrudgingly, …—that UCLA wouldn’t have been as good a team with many of these excellent but academically ineligible players.
But it is not enough for individuals at the top to be setting an example solely of skill. Not when skilled individuals can cause a 2008 Wall Street Melt Down, or get themselves arrested at Enron and taken away in handcuffs. Character counts. Peter Drucker’s advice for considering the promotion of any junior manager to an executive level was to ask, in effect, “Knowing that a lack of integrity is contagious, would I want my son or daughter to serve under this person? ...”
…Players not only were well groomed and dressed neatly on road trips, but also put towels in the towel basket and not on the floor, picked up soap and turned off their showers, and put gum and candy wrappers in the wastebasket. I insisted on this because sloppiness in one area breeds sloppiness in another.
Equally important, I did not want a player to think student managers were there to pick up after them. Believing you’re so important that a fellow student should follow behind and clean up your mess contributes to an unhealthy ego. Controlling the egos of those under your supervision is one of a leader’s great challenges, but it is crucial…(Wooden, p 106)
Earlier I mentioned Vietnam. I remain convinced that one reason (among others) for the fiasco was this: The US officer corps of the day lacked integrity. Back then, we headstrong young bucks believed the army’s “cover your a—” paperwork was a crock. I have since grown calmly middle aged, quiet and humble— but I’ve never changed that belief!
A no-no: Reserved parking spaces. “If you’re so bloody important, you better be first one in the office. Besides, you’ll meet a nice class of people in the employees’ parking lot.” (Townsend, p 124)
Since the fall of Saigon, looking back, it has become increasingly clear to me that the officers in the South Vietnamese army, and corporate officers in the South Vietnamese boardrooms, were intensely self-centered. For us over here, where “the price of leadership is courage and responsibility,” it may be hard to grasp how someone could seek a leadership position without having any “service ethic.” Recently someone snapped a photograph of two Pacific Rim generals walking through the waves as part of an allied beach landing. The Asian general, a living metaphor for his civilian Vietnamese counterpart, had a private giving him a piggyback ride. The US general, just as you or I would, was getting his feet wet. Of the two armies, I can see which one fights best.
There is nothing to distinguish their generals from their private soldiers except the star they wear on their collars. Their uniform is cut out of the same material, they wear the same boots, their cork helmets are identical and their colonels go on foot like privates. They live on the rice they carry on them, on the tubers they pull out of the forest earth, on the fish they catch and on the water of the mountain streams. No beautiful secretaries, no pre-packaged rations, no cars or fluttering pennants … no military bands. But victory, damn it, victory!
(Jules Roy, The Battle of Dienbienphu, 1965, p 304, quoted by Townsend, p 142)
Over here our army officers in the field go to the end of the line up for food, and once a year they will stand behind the mess tables cheerfully dishing out the mashed potatoes to their troops. At my civilian agency we do the same—several times a year. My emerging philosophy is that part of the way to encourage responsible ethics within the company is for a company to look beyond itself, to do some good outside in the community. I realize this can be hard to do, and humbling, and that not everyone would agree; well, it’s a philosophy I’m still working on…
A person of character works better with others—with teammates, for example—day to day, game to game. Such a person is more polite, more courteous, more in tune.
…While I can’t prove that a person of good character has more potential as a team player, I can prove that’s the person I want to coach. A scientist might find otherwise, but scientists don’t make a living teaching young men and women how to play basketball.
(Wooden, p 117)
I’m pleased to have formed a working philosophy…I think the boy I once was would approve. These days, with good peers, my work is going fine; I’ve been with the same company for decades now because life is too short. I just don’t want to work among the second best, or the less functional.
I don’t think we can have good clean fun at work unless we have ethics and excellence.
On the sprawling prairies
These days I am saddened, but still energized, by the dusty blogs (plural) of a computer software developer, Stevey. (Here’s his post on management) I once thanked him and told him he had inspired me: Although years ago I had spent a semester in a night class of secretaries learning to touch-type on a standard qwerty keyboard, it was from Stevey that I was inspired to learn on my own to touch-type a Dvorak keyboard, where the vowels are all on the home row. I don’t know if Dvorak is any faster, but if I ever get arthritis I’ll be very glad I switched!
In his blog Stevey expressed a self-development ethic. For example, he would write “programming book” reviews, to encourage his peers to teach themselves new improved programming languages. One of Stevey’s characteristic “blog rants” (essay) was called Math Every Day: He said he was learning math on his own. Sometime later Stevey did a follow up post: At last he could understand a prize winning math book! He was sure happy about that.
One of his most popular posts, based on hit counts, was You Should Blog. In this post he noted how essays are much more powerful than hallway talk, e-mails or speeches, at least when it comes to developing and changing the corporation. Stevey encouraged all his readers to start a blog for posting their essays.
Stevey has stopped posting, but that’s not what makes me sad. No, I am struck by a suspicion: …Maybe he smacked into a wall of ice, suddenly realizing his computer peers “only did what they had to”: …Maybe Stevey decided they would never figuratively do some “math every day” to stretch their programming skills. Maybe he came to believe he was casting his pearls before swine—And just stopped… For that, I’m sad.