Thursday, May 27, 2010

It's Twin Boys!!!

And well-endowed ones, too!  (Don't worry, you can't see that in the ultrasounds....)

That's their two heads right there, I'm told.  I don't get it... I just figured they were practicing their basic math skills in the womb by sketching an 8 in Debby's side.

Everybody says that now we really can call our kids Nathaniel and Superfly, which Debby doesn't seem too keen on. She suggested Kenny and Ches to me, which I wasn't too keen on either (besides, Kenny would die every 30 minutes).  Now taking suggestions.

Next step: buy one of those in-utero maternity MP3 players, lock it on Debby's belly, and have it blast Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Muppet Show reruns 24/7!

Monday, May 24, 2010

This is Why

I recently discovered a great blog called PhD 2015 (you can find it in my Links section on the right side of the page), which I've found, among other things, to be a thoughtful initial approach to Organizational Behavior study.  I envy the author's ability to stay on one professional track, as opposed to my own tendency to branch out from a serious topic to things like Muppets, video games, and Kenny Chesney (after all, just a couple of weeks ago you were reading one of my posts explaining social metaphysics, llamas, and Mr. Peanut).  The author of this blog has written a few posts lately that seem to establish her own motivation for studying Organizational Behavior which I found myself very... what's the word I'm looking for... moved by? ... identifying with?  I'm not sure how to put it into words.

It's very similar to my own reasoning for embarking upon this course of study, and it motivates me to talk a little bit about it here, as I don't think I ever have.  And as a side note, those original thoughts on PhD 2015 are well worth your read if you've ever worked in a business team, or if you ever plan to.

I am pursuing a doctorate in Organizational Behavior, intending to specialize in business leadership. I am leaving behind a lucrative career or two, a comfortable lifestyle, and a large house to do this.  I am, in many ways, sacrificing the life I've built for myself over the past ten years in order to start something new and wholly different. Most people would call me a fool (and several have) for going back to school at this point in my life, especially for my audacity of seeking a doctorate when I don't even have a masters or an MBA. They would ask me (and, indeed, have asked me) why I'm throwing away so much to do something so different.

And my answer would be, naturally, because it's what I believe in.

Organizational Behavior is the study of how organizations and teams work, and how they don't.  It's the study of why people are effective and why they aren't.  It's the study of what leadership really is, and what it isn't. It's the study of why people are happy with work, why they enjoy what they do... and why so many don't.

If you think about it, you spend more time in the average day at work, than you do with your family and friends. And for 90% of the world, they hate that time. They find it hostile, they find it unpleasant, they find it undignified. Most of them feel they are led poorly and taken for granted. Many do not use their skills to the fullest because they're not motivated to, or because they don't even know what skills they're supposed to use. They receive feedback that is meaningless, and are told they should be part of an ambiguous team without understanding how or why.

I believe very strongly in a concept that Aristotle called eudaimonia.  It's an old word without a true and precise English translation, but in short it means "the joy of excellence." Aristotle called it the very highest level of human experience, and the greatest form of happiness attainable by mankind. It's the pure joy you feel when you've completed something you enjoyed doing, and that you did very well because you enjoyed doing it. It's the feeling a car hobbyist gets when he finishes restoring that '57 Chevy, or the happiness a dedicated teacher experiences when she sees a once-failing student graduate. It's the very happiest you can possibly be, and better yet, you only experience it when you've contributed something wonderful to the world.  It's a feeling that most people never experience in the modern age.

I want them to. And I believe that improving organizational behavior is the way to make that happen.

In every management position I've held since college, I have attempted to my utmost to bring that feeling of eudaimonia, or at least the possibility of it, to my employees and teams. Although I usually failed, every now and then I'd nail it. The result was happy employees, effective and efficient completion of organization mission, and a real sense that we were all part of a real team... no, more of a family... working together for a goal we all believed in. If you've never felt that way, I feel sorry for you, because it's pretty damned awesome.

I've only scratched the surface, only begun to imagine what organizational psychology can accomplish. I want to be better, and I want to help make the world a better, happier, more effective place through organizational behavior. I want those 8 to 12 hours a day of work we all have to go to, to make more sense, to be something we're proud of, where we hold our head high and feel motivated to accomplish something great. I don't have the power or knowledge to do any of this now... but maybe someday, especially if I can surround myself with people smarter and better than I am.  Hence the doctorate.

I have a world of respect for an Ohio State professor, Dr. Anthony Rucci, who defined this area of study as the enhancement of the dignity and performance of human beings and the organizations they work for.  And it can be. And I want it to be.  Because that's what I'm passionate about, and that's what will bring me that eudaimonia I was just talking about.

In a nutshell, I just want to change the way workplaces operate. I want workplaces to be better, more dignified, more respectful, less conforming, more creative, better led, more motivated, more inspired, more effective, and more efficient. And I think better leadership and management of organizational behavior is the way to do it. I believe we can all be better... myself more than just about anyone. If I can help the world move down that path, even in a very small way, then I'll have a lot I can be proud of.

I've gotta admit, I'm impressed that I made it all the way through this brain-dump without mentioning the Muppets as an ideal organizational team unit, or waxing poetic about Evanescence, or wondering aloud if Roy Clark is the greatest banjo player of all time, or discussing my recent increasing love of cheese. Maybe I can stay focused after all.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Eat Mor Chikn

I'm told I need to blog more by a couple of people who I didn't know were reading the blog. Maybe if you guys followed the blog, or commented on it, I'd know people were actually reading it!  As it is, I enjoy writing for all of my imaginary friends, including my favorite readers, Johnny AlwaysAgrees and Wendy AlwaysScantilyClad, and of course Kenny Chesney's legions of loyal fans.

Yesterday after a fun little visit to the Best Buy I used to work at, where I was pleased to see an awful lot of people I used to work with who are apparently doing very well for themselves, I stopped by Chick-Fil-A for lunch. And I marveled, as I always do, about Chick-Fil-A.

As soon as I walked through the door, I was bowled over (as I always am) by an onslaught of smiling and cheerful "Hello and welcome to Chick-Fil-A!"s, only one or two of which really sounded fake. The happy people behind the counter nearly begged to take my order, repeating it clearly to make sure they were getting it right, giving me full attention, smiles, and eye contact. The store was spotless as always, despite the fact that nearly every chair was filled. My order was ready nearly immediately, and it was piping hot. When I asked for extra sauce, nobody pouted.

As I sat and ate, I watched the drive-thru line move rapidly, even though it was about six cars long. As it got even longer, and as it began to slow down, I saw one of the cashiers notice, put on a headset, and run out to start taking orders from cars further back in the line. The line then sped back up.

Friendly employees stopped by my table occasionally to ask if they could take my garbage or get me a refill.

Chick-Fil-A is fast food, like a McDonald's or Taco Bell.  Well... actually very unlike a McDonald's or Taco Bell, but it's still fast food.  We don't tend to expect this kind of service from fast food.  Heck, I don't get service that good at most sit-down restaurants.  Despite this, Chick-Fil-A provides it.

Maybe that's why it really seems to me to be the busiest fast food establishment in Baton Rouge. And I've been to Chick-Fil-A's all over the country, and that huge customer service experience is pretty standard.

There are a lot of funny things to think about when it comes to Chick-Fil-A. For starters, I know they don't pay their people all that much money. They don't get paid as much as, say, those Best Buy employees I was talking about at the start of this post. They don't get paid as much as most of the Wal-Mart associates I know. And yet, they're a heck of a lot nicer to customers as a general rule, and they offer much better customer service.  They get paid less, and they do more.  Why is that?

Obviously there's something in Chick-Fil-A's corporate culture that they buy into, either voluntarily or somehow involuntarily (I suspect the former).  For some reason, they seem genuinely motivated to provide a level of service unlike what any of their competitors provide, a level of service unseen in quick-service restaurants for at least forty years. They seem happy with that and proud of it. They enjoy their excellence, which is very cool.  Aristotle called that 'eudaimonia' way back when... 'the joy of excellence.' It's something we don't see enough of in modern America.

Honestly, as food quality and taste goes, I'm not sure CFA is really heads-and-shoulders above their competition. In my own eyes, as far as taste goes, they're better than Kentucky Fried, but nowhere near the level of a Popeye's. So why are they so much busier than Popeye's, then, even in South Louisiana where Popeye's is practically the food we grew up on, the stuff our momma's and grandmomma's used to make? Seriously, I'd swear that those cajun spices at Popeye's were in my baby bottle way back when....

In my marketing seminars, I've long been a proponent of the competitive differentiator, and I've often made the point that the business without a clear and understood differentiator cannot thrive. Fox News and MSNBC's differentiators are their political slants, each on opposite ends of the spectrum. Wal-Mart's differentiator is its sheer variety. Best Buy's is its (usually) knowledgeable employees. The Xbox's is Halo. HBO's is its original series. Waffle House has its unique waffle recipe, Hobby Lobby has a lot of really unique crap you could never find anywhere else, and Chevron has Techron (which isn't truly unique in the slightest, but most people are fooled into thinking it is through Chevron's clever marketing).

I believe someone up at Chick-Fil-A made the decision a few years back that truly amazing, throwback customer service was going to be their differentiator, the thing that got people talking about CFA. It makes you wonder what the corporate culture is like in CFA... if it's truly a different kind of atmosphere, or if all that is just show for the customers. It also makes you wonder just how they've been so effective at gaining employee buy-in, even at the entry level.

Luckily, one of my fellow incoming Georgia Tech doctoral students is a CFA insider, so I should get to find out!

On a side note, there's nothing cooler than randomly running into one of your dearest friends you haven't seen in a long time, in a place as nice as Chick-Fil-A!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Seriously, Does Anybody Know What Leadership Is???

Okay, I'm honestly amazed at this point.

For years, one of the main points of many of my seminars has been that most people in the business world don't understand leadership, to the point where we don't even know what it is. We don't know what leadership is. We can't define it.  You ask one executive, you'll get a completely different and often contradictory answer than you'd get from another executive.  My point has been that if we don't have agreement on what leadership is, we can't lead effectively.  I was so passionate about this that I even wrote a book about it (which can be found at several finer online retailers now!).

In the book, I took my own stab at the definition of leadership, borrowing heavily from leadership consultant Dick Knox:  Leadership is the art of motivating and inspiring a team to accomplish the goals of the organization. (and if you'd like a more detailed discussion on this, click here for the chapter from my book).  I like this definition and I think it covers it as adequately as a one-sentence definition can... or maybe I don't. I've always had a nagging feeling that I was missing something... and I looked forward to one day finding out what it was.

When I made the decision to pursue my doctorate, teach, and research Organizational Behavior at Georgia Tech (one helluva school), I thought this would be my opportunity to finally discover that missing piece of the leadership puzzle.  I thought that by having the chance to read and research from some of the world's most preeminent management minds, I'd finally find this elusive consensus on what leadership is and what it isn't.  I eagerly dug into my first research project... and discovered that these top professors aren't really sure what leadership is.

Can you imagine my disappointment?

I've learned that even the academic community is a bit mystified by the art of leadership.  A 2001 study on the core of team leadership, in a publication called Leadership Quarterly, admitted "we know surprisingly
little about how leaders create and manage effective teams."  A major 2004 book on leadership practices from the academic world laments that "Such questions as how or why leaders affect outcomes remain largely uncharted and poorly understood." In my own research, as I've reported earlier in this space, I'm examining the relationship between self-monitoring activity and leadership effectiveness.  Even in this limited area, I'm finding a clear difference on how different professors view the root of leadership. In this particular argument, one expert believes that leadership is all about building and maintaining relationships with team members, while a different but no less learned expert maintains that leadership is all about creating results.

And I wonder... how can I answer the question of whether high or low self-monitors are better leaders, if there's little agreement on what leadership actually constitutes?  Is it leader emergence (getting promoted?) or leader effectiveness (getting things done?)?  Is it relationships or results? Is it communication or detail?  Is it all of these, or none of these?

I'm also reminded of a surprisingly popular management seminar I do called "The Leadership Secrets of Scooby-Doo."  In this seminar, I have the participants (often high school or university students) come up with a list of things that make someone a leader, and I emphasize to them that I seek quantity rather than quality.  The results are amazing... I have people tell me with perfectly straight faces that leaders must be "attractive", "smart", "good drivers", "popular", "tall", "fashionable", and other things that have little or nothing to do with leadership.  The funny thing about the seminar is that the people who announce that these things have nothing to do with leadership, are the same people who first suggested them as leadership traits. The moral of the story: we have a better idea, deep down, of what leadership really is than we often exhibit. We know that we're fooled by 'false leadership indicators', and we allow ourselves to go along with it... presumably because that's what society, television, and movies have taught us to do.

In other words, if we see four people and a dog walking along, part of us will automatically assume that the one walking in front must be the leader, especially if that individual is tall and attractive.  Another, usually sublimated part of us, will know that this assumption is entirely bunk.

In examining some of the recent leadership on research from academia, I'm running into a similar problem. In efforts to show what leadership is, learned individuals point to popularity, likability, creativity, career success and promotability, technical skill, and other traits that are not directly linked to leadership.  Just because you're better with computers obviously doesn't make you a better leader.  Just because you're more creative, does that mean it's easier for you to motivate and inspire a group?  Do the most popular people really make the best leaders?

And I think back to an argument I had last year with a leadership consultant about Tyra Banks.  He said she was a leader; I called the statement ridiculous and asked him to back it up.  He said she was popular, that a lot of people liked her, that she was famous, that she had influenced many people to buy certain products or watch certain television programs.  I asked him what exactly any of that had to do with organizational leadership... who had she led?  Had she actually accomplished anything by leading a team, or had a Hollywood image and impression management team following a precision-crafted marketing plan brought about those results?  Does that make every Hollywood and music star, from Steve Urkel to Spongebob Squarepants to Kenny Chesney to Cameron Diaz, a leader?  Does that make any sense?  He wasn't able to answer that question.

This was a gentleman I respect a great deal, a smart guy whose full-time job is coaching and consulting leadership. What does this say to me?

Seriously, does anybody know what leadership is?

I think it's about time somebody figured this out. I don't know if I'm worthy of the challenge, but I intend to give it a try.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Babies, Saints, Asylums, Banquets, and Social Metaphysics

It seems like it's been far too long since I've added anything to my blog, especially considering how many people, to my surprise, seem to be reading it.  It's odd when somebody comes up to me and randomly mentions self-monitoring, Donkey Kong, or Kenny Chesney. So I must assume that you, dear reader, are real, and not the figment of my unfocused imagination that I formerly assumed you to be. I hope you're as pretty as I imagined you to be, and I hope you really are wearing that skimpy lingerie.

So let's cover a few different topics, from the leadership psychology stuff to the random stuff, to make sure everyone's happy.

Debby came home with new ultrasounds of our twins yesterday.  She oohed over Baby A's spinal cord and his or her habit of teaching him or herself how to breathe.  She ahed over Baby B's detailed little skull and his or her propensity to rub his or her cute little head. Meanwhile, I just thought that Baby A and Baby B were lousy names for fetuses... fetus's... fetusi? feeti? Feet?  As I keep telling her, I prefer Nathaniel and SuperFly.  And I also still think they look just like Mr. Peanut. Seriously, I've got to find a tiny top hat and cane for sale somewhere.

I recently came across a fascinating phrase in my leadership research: the Social Metaphysician.  When I hear something like that, I tend to think of a new-age mystic, sitting crosslegged about three feet above the ground as he repeats, "Llama llama llama llama llama..." (which shows that I've watched far too much Animaniacs in my day), but it actually refers to the person whose whole frame of reference is based on what other people think of him.  Nirvana, to the social metaphysician, is having everybody like them.  They have no personal standard of what is true or what is good, they just act on the cues of those around them, doing what they expect the people around them would like to see them do.  They just want to be popular, and they're willing to sacrifice anything and everything toward that goal, in an almost sociopathic way.

Thinking about pop culture in general, and a few people I know specifically, I wonder how widespread that is. It's the ultimate high self-monitor (which, as a reminder, means somebody who spends more time than a low self-monitor reacting to cues and events in their environment to craft a positive impression of themselves in the minds of others), and while high self-monitoring can have benefits in fields like sales, marketing, politics, or even leadership (still researching that last one), this seems unhealthy.  In fact, it turns out research has shown that social metaphysicians have self-esteem issues, and major psychological problems later in life.

Makes sense to me.  So if you find yourself awfully concerned about how other people view you... don't be. Because you could end up in Arkham Asylum or something.

I just attended a high school FFA banquet, one which mercifully and oddly I did not have to give a speech at. It was a great affair with some highly intelligent and skilled kids earning lots of great awards.  As I drove away, I saw one of those highly intelligent and skilled kids on the side of the road, leaning on a police car and signing a speeding ticket.  Oops.

Meanwhile, as I continue to prepare for the inevitable move to Atlanta, and continue to bet myself just how many Atlanta Falcons fans I can piss off with my unabashed Saints love, I find myself wondering if I've been betrayed by one of my long-term close friends. I'm a country boy - I'm not good at coping with things like that. I wonder.....

And speaking of the Saints, thank you Coach Payton, you're right, we are so not interested in Jamarcus Russell!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Mr. Lemoine Goes to Baton Rouge

... or Observations from a State Capitol.

Today I had the fairly unique opportunity to meet with and speak to several state legislators as one of the volunteers assisting with the Louisiana FFA Association's Capitol Day program.  For those not in the know, FFA is an association ('club' would be the un-dignified and not quite appropriate title) of high-school students with interest in agriculture, agribusiness, civic improvement, and leadership.  As the president of the state's alumni chapter (a position I was elected to unanimously, excepting only my own vote against myself), I was honored to be part of the program, work with the students, and address several members of the Louisiana Legislature regarding the importance of vocational education and sustainable agriculture.

And I learned quite a bit from it.

For instance, although I haven't been inside the State Capitol since 1995, I'm pretty sure I would have remembered all of those naked people painted on the walls of the building's foyer.  Definitely classy in a French Renaissance kind of way, but still an awful lot of nakedness.  I wonder if the murals are new, or if I was just too busy in 1995 to notice?  When I accidentally wondered this aloud, the friendly receptionists just giggled. As they were old enough to be my grandmothers, I found that odd somehow.

My little group of high school students was escorted downstairs to a set of caucus offices, which sounds a lot more impressive than it is in real life, where we were met by the chairman of the house agricultural committee, Andy Anders.  Mr. Anders came across as a genial fellow, an old-school Southern Democrat who said he was much more comfortable at home on his farm than in the chambers of the Legislature. Although I distrust all politicians by general rule, I found myself warming to him, especially in the way he took my little group of high school students so seriously.  I've seen government leaders deal with high school students before, and they generally treat them even worse than they treat the general public: patronizing, self-important, and imperious.

On the contrary, Mr. Anders impressed me a great deal by talking to this group of high school students not just as respected constituents, but as equals.  He blew me away. He discussed an animal euthanization bill coming up for discussion in the legislature, and asked my group of high school students where they would stand on it and what talking points they'd use.  One of the students, a very bright lady with some veterinary experience, had some clear thoughts on the matter, a stand and solid rationalization.  And Mr. Anders took that stand, and listened to her points, and used them on the floor of the legislature, because he thought they made sense.

I know nothing of this man except what I've reported thus far... but I like him a lot.  I couldn't help thinking that this is the kind of leader we need more of.  I hear a lot of noise in the business press that leaders (1) should always have a definite plan, (2) should pretend to be confident even when they're not, and about how  (3) a bad decision is better than no decision at all. I've never bought into this line of thought, and I plan to do a detailed study on it after I receive my doctorate. In my mind, to contradict the three ideas I just mentioned, (1) leaders should have a definite plan at all times except when they're busy creating the best plan, (2) leaders should be confident in their decisions because they've researched them, asked questions, and reviewed the appropriate data, and (3) no decision is always better than a bad decision, so long as the period without a decision is caused by the research necessary to make the best decision.

Did that make sense?  Anyway, I digress... I liked this guy.

Later we ended up in the Education subcommittee room, where a debate raged on whether or not to require a 2.0 GPA of all students before they could join extracurricular and athletic activities.  This is already a requirement for athletics due to the state athletic association, but the bill would make it state law and add clubs like Band, Cheerleading, FBLA, and FFA to the list.  As I rolled it over in my mind, I originally thought it was a good idea; I mean, heck, what's wrong with putting academics first?  But as I continued to think about it, I thought back to all of my friends who'd had bad grades in high school, joined FFA, and became motivated to improve their GPA.  I thought back to all the people I'd met who were on the verge of quitting school altogether when they joined these clubs and associations, and how their membership (and their great teachers) motivated them to stay in school. And I thought of the research my wife had recently shown me, indicating clearly that career and technical education and associations improved graduation rates.

The committee seemed to be split on the bill, so I urged the group of FFA students to send a representative up to talk to the committee about it.  Unfortunately, the students were understandably nervous... so I gave it a shot myself. I don't even remember what I said, as I was going in completely unprepared and speaking in front of a very intimidating set of microphones, bald men, and cameras.  But since the final vote was 11 to 4 to kill the bill, I guess I must have done okay.

Of course, I might have been helped by the bill's sponsor, who spoke just before and after me and gave a speech about breastfeeding.

Let me repeat that: this state legislator, in an attempt to pass a bill regarding extracurricular activities, gave a speech about the merits of breastfeeding.

I love my elected officials.

I had another opportunity later to present remarks to several legislators, policy-makers, and the ag commissioner, which was pretty cool.  It was a humbling opportunity to talk about just how important vocational education is, how much the students in organizations like FBLA, FCCLA, DECA, and FFA really contribute to communities and states, and how important funding and support really is to the fabric of Louisiana society.  And I got to tell jokes about Taylor Swift and Wal-Mart, too... it was a good time (I meant to throw in a Kenny Chesney riff too, but I was on a roll and completely forgot).  Most of the lawmakers came up to me afterward and asked me when I was running for office, implying that they'd rather I didn't run against them.  I think that was a compliment.
All in all, the day was a big success... the FFA kids were every bit as amazing as I expected them to be, and then some.  It's amazing the difference an organization like FFA can have on a young person's life... how polished and confident it makes them, what great speakers they become. I'd like to think I'm a living example of it, but I know I'm not all that impressive... but I can at least say that a lot of who I am, I do truly owe to the FFA.  If I had half the polish and professionalism these FFA officers do, back when I was in high school... wow.

I'm going to really miss being involved with these guys after I move to Atlanta to start my doctorate.