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One Funeral, Two Lessons

13 Aug

I recently attended the funeral of a young man whose family we’ve known for three decades. He was killed in an accident, his life of twenty-one years cut far too short.

Ever since Brandon was young, he knew he wanted to be a chef. He loved food, loved being around the world of hospitality, and pursued the craft with great passion. In fact, he was just about to complete his training at a culinary school of some repute, and had already gotten hired by a fine local restaurant.

Among those attending his funeral were his fellow students. And they showed up dressed as he would have dressed– in their white, cleanly pressed chef smocks. They came. And when the funeral was done and it was time to share a meal, his fellow students were there to serve. To provide a repast. To bring nourishment. To offer, on a garnished plate, the love that Brandon so passionately pursued. One of his fellow students remarked about the impact Brandon had on him:

Upon graduation you are given a sash consisting of cheesecloth, butchers twine, a tasting spoon and a sprig of sage.  Each representing something different but overall symbolizing a milestone, where you leave one place and begin a life in another.  Prior to graduation you must complete a number of classes, one where you must cook a four-course menu for 8 guests in 30 minutes.  By yourself it is very tough, but with help, good help, it becomes much easier.  I called Brandon asking if he could help, and without pause he said yes.  Today at the cemetary I placed the sash given to me with Brandon; it is because of his selfless help that I was able to graduate.  My thoughts and prayers are with your family Brandon, and watch over me when I need help, though I know you will already be there.

The loss of this delightful young man is certainly a tragedy. But another tragedy is the number of people who go to work each day absent the passion and zeal Brandon had for his profession. For him, vocation and avocation were one. I see so many people who don’t feel that sense of passion and joy for what they do. To them, work is a “chore”, something to done only for as short a time as possible so they can then turn to what they view as more enjoyable, meaningful pursuits.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Brandon was a chef. That was in his heart. It was what he felt called to be. There are others, perhaps you, who would find working on your feet in a hot kitchen trying to serve a demanding, finicky public the furthest from your career dreams. That’s fine. Find the work that does call to you, that get’s you thinking every day “I’m a very lucky person to go to this company doing the kind of work I do.”

This is not, by the way, a pipe dream that came only to Brandon. There are many people who have found the work that fits them, work for which to them time seems to fly by, work where they easily grow and adapt to changing conditions, work where others seek them out as a mentor. The best companies we’ve studied in our ongoing research help employees on this journey, one that is good for everyone.

It’s out there.

The other lesson from this day, which several of us who were in attendance noted, was that “life really is short, don’t waste it”. Indeed, life is too short, and I suspect there are many out there who are wasting the precious time they have stuck in a job that, quite literally, cuts the life out of them.

I’m a fan of the movie About Schmidt, filmed here in my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. The title character, played deftly by Jack Nicholson, is the kind of person I’m talking about– he hated what he did, was loathed by those with whom he worked, and quickly forgotten once he retired. Toward the end of the movie Schmidt laments:

I know we’re all pretty small in the big scheme of things, and I suppose the most you can hope for is to make some kind of difference, but what kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me?”

In his twenty-one years, Brandon made a great difference in the lives of many, in part because of his passion, his zeal, his love for his craft. Because Brandon loved his work, his life mattered even more. Don’t let your life end up as scraps on the butcher’s block– make your life into a four-course, gourmet meal.

Those are “Top-Chef-four-star-Zagat-approved” lessons. Take them.

“I’m Not Good at Cutting”: A Lesson about Talents

2 Aug

The pre-school teacher had a goal that day– to have each student draw a character on construction paper, cut it out, and finish it so it could go home that afternoon with each child. On face value that seems like an innocent enough task that should be easily accomplished by each kid, right?

For our daughter Jill, it wasn’t quite so easy.

Jill is twenty-one now, will soon start her senior year at the University of Nebraska, and is considering options for graduate school. She is a delightful person with a great passion for life and promising career. But on this fateful day some seventeen years ago Jill ran into a teacher who was more interested in seeing her agenda accomplished than helping our daughter discover and develop her talents.

Jill is a meticulous person. She likes to have things “just so”, and when working on a task she deems important will take the necessary time to perform it to her exacting standards. She’s that way now, and was that way seventeen years ago. So when it came time for her to color and cut out the character at pre-school she was doing the job with the kind of attention that is part of her DNA, her basic character.

Some teachers might note her approach and even encourage the development of that behavior. But on this day, in the eyes of this so-called teacher, Jill was lagging behind the rest of the kids. She was not keeping up with the class and was in danger of not having her character cut out by the end of the day to take home. So as the school day neared its end and Jill wasn’t done what did the teacher do? She finished cutting the character out herself. Because Jill was careful, but slow, the task was taken away from her.

She came home that day in tears. Asked why she was crying, she said: “Mom, I’m not a good cutter.”

That’s what the teacher told her. I’m not kidding.

Why am I telling you a story from seventeen years ago about cutting figures out of construction paper? Because every day there are employees who are suffering the same fate, the fate of a workplace that doesn’t recognize their talents and tries to arrange the workplace to best nurture them.  Employees who should be using and developing their talents are doing work in conditions that don’t suit them, and because they are “slow cutters”—doing work that is not a good fit for them– their productivity and the productivity of their employer suffers.

Think about Jill for a moment. She was “slow” when it came to cutting, but look at the other side of equation. Do you know of work where attention to detail is important, where being meticulous is a valued asset? I can think of many companies who pay big bucks for people who have that kind of personality, who love doing detail-oriented work, who don’t seem to tire of it and look forward to the next time they get to use that talent. I can think of a gaggle of such jobs.

In fact, Jill holds one of those jobs right now. She works for a group home for adults with developmental disabilities. Most of the residents have needs that require numerous medicines be distributed accurately and on time. The supervisor of the home actually changed the schedule, including volunteering for part of a shift himself, so that Jill could perform the weekly medicine review as drugs were shipped to the home from the pharmacy. You see, Jill has a talent that is of significant value to her employer and the clients she serves. She may “cut slow”, but her boss doesn’t care about that. He cares about making sure that the correct medicines are administered at the right time at the right dosage to the vulnerable clients the agency has been entrusted to serve. Kudos to her boss for recognizing and utilizing that talent.

The companies we profile in Re-Engage do a far better job of helping their employees find roles that fit their strengths and where they see opportunities to grow and develop. It is one of the six universal drivers our research says contributes to highly engaged workplaces. One employee at a winning Best-Places-to-Work said:

“This is a great place to work, a place where an individual can utilize their talents and move freely amongst department to pursue their work interests and passions.”

Let’s help each and every employee with whom we work utilize their talents. Let’s get the meticulous folks doing jobs that fit them, the more creative folks doing creative stuff, and if you need a cutting job done quickly I’m sure there are people who are exceptional at that too.

Want to re-engage your staff? Stop ignoring their talents and start putting them to work.

Cowboys and Horsebits: A Lesson In Talent Management

15 Jun

In the early 1970’s my father hired Bev to join the sales team at our family clothing store in North Platte, a small town in west-central Nebraska. She took quickly to the job, learning the intricacies of selling everything from tailored Austin Reed suits to Nunn-Bush shoes. It became clear Bev had the ability to build good relationships with customers, get them to leave with a sack in their hands, come back often and talk up the store as the only place to shop-the outcomes every retailer craves.

To my father’s credit, he saw beyond Bev’s talent in sales. He learned that when she wasn’t working at the store she was often doing “cowgirl” stuff-riding horses and attending rodeos. As my dad got to know her a question came to mind-could he combine her interest in “western” activities with her gifts in retail?

The answer was a new store that sprouted across the street called “Circle A Ranchwear”, to which Bev was appointed the new manager. Because of her passion for the western lifestyle and talent in sales she quickly attracted customers to the new business, selling cowboy boots, western-wear clothing items, even specialized horse tackle.

For me, it’s a terrific example of getting people into roles where their talents, skills and interests can be best used in the workplace. From the 100,000+ survey comments we have read in the last few years, here are three from individuals who have clearly benefitted from their employer’s efforts to match their talents with the work at hand:

“This a great place to work, a place where an individual can utilize their talents and move freely amongst department to pursue their work interests and passions.”

“Our company really plays to the strengths of its employees; it rarely assigns someone to a task to which they are not suited. Once an employee shows their talent, they can be moved from day-to-day operations to development, or if an employee is showing signs of burn-out, a departmental move is soon to come.”

“Recently, my team was assigned their own set of clients to handle independently. From my perspective, it demonstrates the firm’s interest is recognizing and challenging each person’s ability and talent recognizing strengths and weaknesses.”

Can you imagine how much more productive organizations would be if more of their employees felt like this? Work then becomes a place where a person has the opportunity to utilize the best of who they are and, in doing so, help their employer succeed.

In the case of Bev, her reputation for outfitting cowboys and horses spread. One day she received a telephone call from a man from Utah who was looking for a specialized horse bit. He had been calling all over the United States, and numerous inquiries had finally led him to Bev. To his delight, she had the item in stock and was happy to help. The man sent her a check. Rather than cashing it, my dad decided to frame it. After all, it’s not every day a little store in the outback of Nebraska does business with the actor Robert Redford!

Whether it is casting a feature film or retail store, getting the right people in the right place can make all the difference.

Photo uploaded on Flickr by Alana Holmberg

A Writer Goes Retail– A Lesson In Liking Your Job

17 Feb


I encourage you to read the column written in the New York Times by Caitlin Kelly. The author is a freelance writer, who recently took a part-time job at a department store. In the course of her time she learns about her profession of journalism, about the store that apparently does a good job of creating a friendly, productive environment and, most importantly, something about herself. She concludes her column:

My retail co-workers have chosen this job for many reasons. Some are college students, some already work at two other jobs, and for top managers, it’s a well-paid full-time career. It offers flexible scheduling, can be a lot of fun and — in an economy forcing millions to redefine themselves professionally — its expectations are manageable and clear.

With so many media companies struggling, hundreds of my peers are losing their handsome titles and well-paid jobs. Some of them, too, may have to redefine themselves, temporarily and part time, or permanently. Right now, at our store and for this company, I play on a winning team. It feels good.

“Are you still there?” my friends ask me, month after month. Luckily, I am.

Many of us will need to rethink careers in the midst of this crisis. One thing we should keep in mind is that liking what you do and who you work is important. Ms. Kelly’s journey can be a good guide for the rest of us.