Friday, April 30, 2010


Somebody asked me today what would be the best way to get over insecurity (I'm not sure why he asked me... maybe I look insecure?).  I told him that the best way I knew of was to constantly force yourself into positions where you were doing the things you were insecure about.  You'd either succeed or fail: if you failed, you'd learn from the experience and become better at whatever you were doing, and if you succeeded, the experience would make you more confident.  It's a simplistic solution, but it seems to work for me. Of course, the key is self-discipline and not caring if you get embarrassed.  Luckily, I did so many tremendously humiliating things in high school and college, there's very little left that can embarrass me.

For instance, if you're insecure about asking ladies out, the only way you'll get better is to actually give it a try (although I suppose you could read a book or watch a master in action, but I don't know how much better that would make you at your own, convince-a-cute-chick-you're-not-half-as-dorky-as-you-really-are style).  There's no better teacher than failure, and no better confidence-booster than success. Insecure people tend to think things are "not even worth trying"... which is one of the worst and dumbest expressions in the history of human thought.  Is it really better to not do anything and have a 0% success ratio, than it is to give it a try and have even a 10% success ratio?  Which method succeeds more?

The daredevil Muppet Gonzo the Great would absolutely agree with me on this. Sure, he usually crashed and burned... but who cares?  He entertained, his fans loved him, and he learned from every experience (although what he learned was mostly how to set broken bones and how to straighten his nose back to its normal shape). And come on, let's be honest... it's not easy to defuse a highly explosive bomb while reciting the full works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, or to dance "Top Hat" in a vat of oatmeal.

I was further asked, "What if I'm insecure because I deserve to be insecure, because I'm really just not capable of this?" My reply was that the very fact that you thought you were insecure told me that you do have the skills, and somewhere deep in your head you know that.  If you really didn't believe you had the skills to do what you want to do, you wouldn't have called yourself insecure; you would have called yourself realistic. If you think you're insecure, then on some level at least, you believe you have the skills you need!

I'm very disappointed I couldn't figure out a way to work Kenny Chesney into that.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

United Airlines' 10 Rules on How to Make Customers Hate You

Last time I was on a flight with United Airlines, I had a decidedly unpleasant experience. Curious about how this whole experience came about, I snagged a small pamphlet from the flight attendants' break-room.  And wouldn't you know it, I read....

  1. Every major airline has had to massively delay flights lately, keeping customers trapped on planes while they attend to security issues. Our differentiater here at United will be our absolute and utter refusal to speak to our passengers and customers while they are trapped on our plane. This serves the quadruple purpose of (a) making us look busy, (b) making us look important, (c) keeping customers in their place, and (d) saving time.
  2. In fact, to enhance the effectiveness of Rule #1, United recommends that all employees avoid making eye contact with customers and passengers while the plane is stuck on the ground. Needless eye contact only invites what we at United are trying to avoid here: communication.
  3. While other airlines may trap their customers on planes for legitimate security purposes, we at United will differentiate by trapping them there due to our inability to correctly measure passenger weights. This will allow us to delay flights in order to give us time to decide who to kick off the flight, so that the plane is light enough to actually fly. This also helps to keep our customers in line, as they will constantly be frightened that they will be next to go (this also eliminates the communication and eye contact issues mentioned in Rules 1 and 2).
  4. After the plane finally takes off (after kicking off several of the larger passengers), make sure to comment on how you're certain to get everyone to their destination on time, regardless of the fact that you're now departing close to an hour late, and the flight was scheduled for just over an hour in the first place. Remember that most of your customers are terrible at time management and basic math, so the patronization will go right over their heads. By the time they get to their destination and realize how late they are, they'll be too far away from you to complain.
  5. Just prior to touchdown, mix up the gate assignments when you announce your passengers' connecting flights. This will give their frantic runs through the terminal a decided sense of adventure and enigma, as they will be unable to guess precisely where they will end up.
  6. As your customer finally makes his way to his connecting flight with just a few minutes to spare, be sure to berate him for being so late for the flight. Tell him how lucky he is that you waited for him, and how the plane's just about to take off. Then, just before he actually boards the plane, stop him and make him wait ten minutes or so while you tell him how his carry-on bag will no longer fit in the overhead compartments (even if there quite obviously is a significant amount of space in the carry-on compartments). We must educate our customers on our policies!
  7. After take-off, even if the flight wasn't delayed due to our inability to determine how much our planes weigh, stick with Rule #4 and brag about how you'll get everyone to their destination on time, even if the plane actually shows an arrival time of 45 minutes later than originally scheduled. This will give customers a deep sense of contentment as the flight attendants start the in-flight entertainment: advertisements for various failing sitcoms and washed-up comics, and a Kenny Chesney retrospective.
  8. Rather than the sandwiches and full meals other airlines serve, differentiate on United flights by offering 'snack boxes' - basically glorified Lunchables with crackers, cheese, and meat - at high prices to increase our revenues. Offer free salmonella and other food-poisoning substances, introduced directly into the food, as a free bonus for our passengers, and make sure the toxins are powerful enough to incapacitate our valued customers for at least 48 hours with fever dreams and dehydration. Our passengers will have to buy our food regardless; after all, their last flight didn't make it in time for them to buy any real food in the airport!
  9. Lose your passenger's luggage (see rule 5 - enhance the sense of adventure and enigma). This adds mystery to our customer's lives as they wonder when and if they will see their bags again, as it increases their dependence on our services! Make sure not to make eye contact with the customer or apologize as you inform him that his bag is gone.
  10. If you find the bag and deliver it to the customer, open the bag, pour water on the contents, and close the bag. Again, adventure and enigma is the United Way!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Do Performance Reviews Suck?

I was very surprised a few days ago to read the business headline, "Yes, Everyone Really Does Hate Performance Reviews," from no less esteemed a source than the Wall Street Journal.

I was taken aback by this because, as a student of Grand Poobah of Management Dr. Kerry Sauley of LSU, I believe that feedback is the Breakfast of Champions. Regular and constructive feedback is what separates decent managers from great managers, and the ability to receive and act on that feedback is what separates promotable employees from those who will spend the rest of their lives doing what they're doing right now. I've always looked forward to my own performance reviews, whether I was giving or receiving them, and whether they were positive or negative. I've always looked at them as excellent opportunities to grow and develop.

So imagine my surprise when the abstract of this Wall Street Journal article advocates the eradication of the time-honored business process of the annual/quarterly/whatever performance review. As I dug into the article, I realized that the performance review process the author is familiar with, has little in common with the one I know, which made me wonder if my experiences are rare or somewhat unique.  In the author's world, performance reviews are a wholly one-sided process, performed at regular intervals, during which employees find out if the boss likes them. That's pretty much it, from the author's view: the employee listens while the boss gives good scores if she likes the employee, or bad scores if she doesn't. Performance reviews, in the author's experience, are just a tool for managers to force employees to buy into their line of thinking (although I'm not sure how exactly that relates to being told if you're a good or bad employee).

I honestly don't know if the author is clueless on this topic, or if my own experiences with performance reviews are truly that rare.  Here's what my world of performance reviews has always looked like, through four major companies and my own entrepreneurial efforts:

Performance reviews are a timed complement to a regular feedback process of conversations and learning. Feedback and review happens on a daily basis through regular conversations, as the manager learns more about how the employee does business and the employee learns more about how the manager would like to see business done. It's sort of like school; daily quiz, homework, and test results are the regular feedback an employee receives, while the formal six-week report card is the employee's performance review. The review is the culmination of it all, the chance to document what has been learned and what wasn't; what the employee's strengths are and where his weaknesses lie; and it's even a chance for the employee to tell the manager how he thinks the manager's doing leading the team.

Is that really so rare?

I couldn't disagree more with many aspects of the article, but there are a few points of agreement I see. I've known many managers whose only employee feedback was during their performance review; that's unacceptable. One rule I've always had as a manager is that no employee should ever be surprised by anything they hear from me during a performance review, because if they're surprised, that means I've done a poor job of regularly communicating feedback to them.  I know there are many managers out there who break this rule, who only offer feedback when they are forced to by a deadline-enforced performance document. And in those cases, that document probably is fairly worthless.

I'm sure I'd also agree with the author that forced measurements, as are common on many corporate performance reviews, are bunk. For instance, one company I worked with strictly enforced a rule that no employee was allowed to receive a perfect score for any job skill, no matter how good they were... because they could always be better. That rule frustrated me... after all, if an employee can't receive a 5 out of 5 in customer service skills, for instance, why is that score even possible on the review? And how do I reward someone who used to be a 4, but has improved dramatically?  Another rule I've encountered that makes no sense is an expectation to measure all employees on the same skill-sets, even if the employees have different positions that use different skill-sets. How does measuring an employee on a skill, one that has nothing to do with his job, help that employee become better at his job?

I love performance reviews because I love regular feedback, both formal and informal. If I've got a great employee, I want to give him a formal, written document showing him that the company knows how great he is. If I've got a terrible employee, I want to give him a formal, written document showing him that his lack of progress is noted, and he needs to improve. If I've got an average employee, I want to give him a realistic snapshot of his strengths and weaknesses, and give his a chance to become great. If I've got Kenny Chesney working for me, I want to give him a 0 out of 5 for Ethical Character.

Am I wrong on this?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The thing I love about airports...

... is just how much you can tell about a city by taking a careful look around in its airport.

Take my home airport of New Orleans, for instance. The airport is bright, colorful, and gaudy. It's also usually messy, and your bags never get anywhere on time. And the food is great, even the Lucky Dogs that are sold right out of the cart. Just like the city... just replace the bit about the bags with "nothing gets done on time, because most the residents are drunk."

Take the nearby airport of Baton Rouge. Average, mediocre, and generally boring in almost every respect, save for a few LSU novelty stores. Just like the city.

Or take the Los Angeles airport. It's jam-packed with advertising, crowded, and lacks any system of mass transit (like the small trains and buses in most major airports). It also features many people who don't speak English and look at you like you're stupid if you have the audacity to speak English. Just like the city.

Or take the Oakland airport. It's done up in a strict monochrome color scheme, drab and depressing, although you can see a little bit of the future in the design every now and then. Just like the city. And, in fact, just like the football team.

Or take the Detroit airport. There's technology and bright lights everywhere you look... not useful or productive technology, but more the kind of thing you might expect to see in a theme park, almost as if the airport was desperately trying to prove it was still technologically relevant. Just like the city.

Or take the Portland airport. There are recycling bins everywhere, but you can't find any good fried shrimp anywhere, no matter how hard you look. It's really good looking, but it's awful wet in there... maybe I'm just unlucky, but it seemed like the roof was leaking. Just like the city.

Or take the Las Vegas airport. There are slot machines everywhere you look, complete with lots of old people pouring their entire life savings into them, and the best selection of good food of any airport of its size. Just like the city.

Or take the Atlanta airport. It's big, and it has a good transportation system, and there's lots to do, but oddly they hide their best culture in the basement (I'm specifically referring to a fantastic display of Zimbabwean art that for some reason, they display in their rarely-seen underground areas). Just like the city.

Or take the Orlando airport. There are more Disney merchandise stores than there are functional airplane gates, leaving the airport with little function other than to support a lumbering entertainment behemoth or two. Just like the city.

Or take the Nashville airport. You used to be able to find some really cool stuff there, but now it's just Kenny Chesney drek.  Just like the city.

I'm sure there are more, but I'm tapped out. I'm off to Tucson to look at cactuses... cactees... cacti! I wonder if there will be stucco in the airport....

Friday, April 16, 2010

Does intellect stifle creativity?

One of the absolute, hands-down, best seminars I do is also one of the few I didn't come up with myself. Instead, I learned it seventeen years ago from a chief executive at the Coca-Cola Company. Just in case anybody reading this blog ever ends up in this seminar, I won't offer too many sundry details on it. But at its core, this is a workshop that examines and measures creativity in individuals and small groups. Although this is not the session's only point, the session is outstanding at showing not only how individuals and groups think creatively, but also when they don't.  It showcases the way many creative individuals don't put forth new ideas for fear of rejection, and how so many groups avoid and ignore creative ideas, even when they're the right ones.

Like I said, it's a great workshop. I wish I could take credit for it.

I led this seminar twice today for two groups of high-school students; one, an advanced group studying Java programming (yes, a high-school group studying advanced logic and programming concepts!), and the other, a slightly more basic group from a class on Microsoft Office. (in case you're wondering, neither group seemed to be big fans of Kenny Chesney)

Guess which group did better and proved to be more creative: the advanced group, or the basic group?

Before you answer that, consider that over the past seventeen years I've done this particular seminar with eight-year-old elementary students. I've done it with junior high school kids. I've done it with high school groups. I've done it with university groups. I've done it with groups of teachers. I've done it with Masters students. I've done it with executives. I've done it with millionaires. And once, I did it at a retirement community in a rather beautiful part of Oklahoma.

Guess which age-group came across as the most creative.

Hands-down, my reigning champions have been the elementary students. They didn't have any trouble with the exercise at all, using an astonishing amount of creativity to solve my presented problem almost immediately. In fact, they thought it was overly simple, and seemed surprised when I told them about how much trouble other groups had with it.

On the other hand, my all-time losers have been... the millionaires.  They exhibited a startling lack of ability to think of a process or problem outside of their established comfort zones. They imagined and assumed rules where there were none, limited their behavior based on those nonexistent rules, attempted to repeat the exact same process ad nauseum continually hoping for better results, and failed the activity utterly.

The difference between these two groups, I believe, is in how they see the world. The executives saw rules everywhere and conformance as a necessity, as well as a need for decorum and a minimization of failure potential. The eight-year-old's acknowledged no rules, assumed none, and probably wouldn't have cared even if there were any.  The older, successful mind did not want to risk failure or embarrassment by trying something startlingly different from what had gone before, while the fresh young mind relished the opportunity to do something strange and new. The young students didn't mind trying something different, even if they might fail and be embarrassed by it. The successful executives didn't see any need to do anything other than what they'd always done, even if what they'd always done obviously wasn't working.  Hmmm... there's a business lesson there, I think.

I presented the seminar today to two groups: a basic class, and an advanced class. And the basic class was more creative.

This got me thinking: can intellect be a barrier to creative thought? Are the smarter among us so caught up in our own intelligence and ideas that we may forget to come up with new ideas?  Like the executives, were the more advanced students hindered by an over-reliance on experience and logic, and an unwillingness to explore the unknown and attempt something untried? Or am I missing the point entirely?

I'm going to have to think on this some more.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Trapped in a convention center and bored out of my mind...

... which made me think of the MAME software I just installed on my laptop (a particularly neat little program that tricks your computer into thinking it's a working 80's arcade cabinet, allowing you to play all kinds of pixelated but fun games), which in turn made me think of Donkey Kong.

Great game, lousy name.

That game was followed by Donkey Kong, Jr., which I had a lot of trouble understanding as a little kid. So in the first game, you were Mario, the heroic carpenter, scaling dangerous buildings and construction sites in an attempt to free your girlfriend from the evil giant monkey, Donkey Kong, right? So after I had pumped allowance after allowance into that machine, constantly fending off the evil monkey and rescuing the girl, spending hours and days and weeks helping the carpenter best the ape... Donkey Kong Jr. came out.

And now, all of a sudden, Mario was the bad guy. And I had to play as Donkey Kong Jr., helping poor old Donkey Kong escape from the evil Mario.  As an eight-year-old who thought too much, I was very, very confused. Wasn't Mario the good guy? Wasn't Donkey Kong the bad guy?

I remember at the local arcade they had the two games, Donkey Kong and Jr., right next to each other, and I felt strangely compelled to play them in a logically story-based order. In other words, I'd put a quarter in Donkey Kong, and Mario would defeat Donkey Kong. Then I'd put a quarter in Donkey Kong Jr., and I'd help the little chimp rescue his father, whom I'd just defeated. Then I'd feel obliged to go back to the original game and catch him again, because that damn monkey kidnapped my girlfriend again! Then I felt bad about it, and would put a quarter in Donkey Kong Jr. and rescue him, because darn if he didn't look awfully sad and pathetic in that tiny cage. It got expensive after a while, because I was really much better at Spy Hunter and Ms. Pac-Man.

Young Jim pondered for far too long about what type of moral lesson he should draw from this. Female safety and the sanctity of construction sites, or animal rights and the evils of tiny cages? Was I not listening to enough Kenny Chesney music? Or was I just destined to be confused forever?

Then Donkey Kong 3 came out, and I had my answer.

See, DK3 cleared up the epic story perfectly. In Donkey Kong 3, Mario the carpenter was no longer anywhere to be found (presumably, he was off in the sewers with his twin brother Luigi, a humiliating demotion for the once proud carpenter, no doubt caused by his primate fixation and the fact that, well, to be honest, he was a pretty poor carpenter, evidenced by the way he never actually built anything).  Instead, some other heroic character was taking his place, armed not with high-jumpy boots or hammers, but instead with a can of bug spray. And the only way he could defeat Donkey Kong this time... and I promise I'm not making this up... was to spray the giant monkey's butt repeatedly, until Donkey Kong ran away.

It was some time around this point in my youth that I realized my life never would make much sense.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

And now for something Slightly More Meaty

So aside from the fact that I've been cajoled and begged by a bunch of people to start a blog for years (and I'm not trying to brag here... I'm not really sure why they wanted me to blog. Maybe they figured that if I spent more time blogging, I'd spend less time bothering them?), there were two major reasons for me to finally revisit the NeverTown and download this blogging software: first, because my wife and I are about to have twins, making this an excellent outlet for cute little pictures, funny parenting stories, and good child-rearing advice, like the below*:

However, as of now, said twins are only beginning to make the transition from tiny blobs to tiny fetuses... fetus's... fetusi? Anyway, not too much to talk about there, and not too many pics to share unless you have a fetish for Debby's rapidly expanding belly.

The second reason for the blog is to share, discuss, and gain feedback on all of the fascinating management and leadership knowledge I will (hopefully) gain starting this August as I begin my term as a doctoral fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology (one of the top business schools in the country... great excitement!), specializing in Organizational Behavior. And that, at least, I can start to talk about.

The largest duty (heh... I said 'doody') of the doctoral student is to write a comprehensive "first-year paper," one which researches in some great detail one particular and somewhat specific topic in the field. I've been talking a lot with one of GT's many open-minded and helpful faculty member about a topic that very much interests me: leadership, and its relationship to self-monitoring tendencies.

I think we all know what leadership is here... (Or do we? Well, that's a topic for another time) but in case you aren't clear on it, self-monitoring is the tendency for people to monitor what they say and do in order to make other people happy, or to make others look at you with a more positive outlook. So, the question is... do high or low self-monitors make better leaders? Think about it... high self-monitors will change their answers to make other people feel more comfortable, bend their beliefs to foster consensus, and work harder to build a loyal and cooperative team-unit. Low self-monitors will stand by their principles no matter what, won't care what others think about them, and expect their team to change to meet their own beliefs and values.

I'm honestly not sure what the answer to the question is... in fact, I could and have made strong arguments in both directions. And academic research seems a bit mixed in this area, too... although it does lean a bit in one direction, from what I've heard. I find it a very interesting question, though, because I'm a geek like that, and leadership and org. behavior topics like this fascinate me.

So what do you think? What would your boss think? What would your teachers think? What would Kenny Chesney think?

* Thanks to Carrie Perez, my lifetime funny-pics supplier! She gave me a free fix, and any day now she's going to start charging me....

Monday, April 12, 2010


At my last keynote in Portland, a student came up to me after the presentation and told me that she really enjoyed my speech. She said her favorite part was when I told the audience, "You are what you do," and that it meant a lot to her. I smiled politely and tried to keep the confused look off of my face, as I sadly didn't remember saying that.

Then last night, it hit me... I did say that! It was a spur of the moment kind of thing, but yes, I remember now! I hadn't written it or planned to say it, but it had just come out as I rambled on about the philosophy of personal choice. Guess I was on a roll or something.

The gist of it was this: 'You are what you do,' means that we become what we practice. If we sit around watching TV all day, we become a lazy couch potato, expert in American Idol standings but sadly lacking in practical and useful knowledge. If we lie on the sofa playing video games all day, we develop excellent reflexes and hand-eye coordination, but we fail to become people who contribute in any way to our friends, families, or modern society. If we spend all day studying... well, then we become studious, scholarly, smart. If we spend all day practicing catching footballs, we become better football players, and start to take on a more athletic attitude.

We control who we are by deciding what we do. What we do is what we become. Thus, the person we become, be they smart or dumb, successful or not, is completely within our control. But the vast majority of us fail to control it, and instead let our lives be guided by dumb luck and circumstance. None of us want to become lazy, and most of us would rather be skilled in something practical than in being able to recite Kenny Chesney lyrics, but that doesn't stop us from spending inordinate amounts of our spare time on things that don't really matter. Don't get me wrong - fun is fun. It's okay to spend time watching TV or playing video games or doing things that are solely for enjoyment (God knows I spend a lot of time that way...), but the question becomes, is that all you spend your time doing?

Because if so, that's all the person you'll ever be.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

I Strongly Dislike Kenny Chesney

Never mind that I'm not a big fan of modern country music (although, to be fair, I was never anything more than a barely moderate fan of any form of country music, with the sole possible exception of the likes of Garth Brooks, Clint Black, and the Kentucky Headhunters, which I know is somewhat stereotypical, but do me a favor, if you like rock and roll music, then go listen to the Kentucky Headhunters, and then tell me that's not some good stuff), but I learned on Friday that I rather detest Kenny Chesney.

Sadly, I was watching the Oprah Winfrey show on Friday, a regrettable side-effect of having a nice girl fall asleep on your couch with the TV on, and of being a gentleman and not wanting to move, reach for the remote, or change the channel for fear of waking her up. It was Kenny Chesney day on Oprah Winfrey on Friday. Kenny Chesney, I quickly learned, is a huge country music star with a penchant for using a wide variety of ill-fitting hats to cover his male-pattern baldness.

Now, the baldness and the bland, stereotypical country music are not reasons enough for me to detest Kenny Chesney. But these are:
  • When asked by Oprah why he was making "Kenny Chesney in 3-D," his wholly-necessary-I'm-sure film tribute to himself, he honestly said, "Because I want to show what it's really all about, what's really important. Not my staff, not the record company, not my band... just me. And the fans." Way to appreciate your team, Ken.
  • When asked by Oprah about his failed marriage,Chesney replied that he had to keep his priorities straight in life, and music was the most important thing to him, more than family, and that his wife didn't really fit into his lifestyle as well as he'd hoped. She's got her own life, her own career, and he didn't really care for that. Surprisingly, Oprah empathized with him, saying that's why she didn't get married: because any other individualism would cramp her style. Nice people, these.
  • When asked by Oprah if there was anything he'd ever wanted to do but hadn't yet done, he said he wanted to take his grandmother on a plane ride. So they did. The multi-million dollar music star, who owns his own plane, had never bothered in the past to take his 'beloved grandmother' on a ride. What made it even worse, as we learned as the cameras followed him for this magical moment, his grandmother lives in a tiny shack in the middle of nowhere. Way to take care of your family, Ken.
So there you go... I've watched an episode of Oprah for the first time in my life, and learned I detest Kenny Chesney. Next time I'll have something more intelligent to talk about, I promise.