Archives for the month of: January, 2009

I’ve gone through a number of “work phases” in my life so far and reading about the new workstyle shift people are expecting to see in the Obama White House got me thinking about them.

The Obama White House is expected to be much different than the Bush White House:

Bush famously arrives at the Oval Office by dawn, leaves by 6 p.m. and goes to bed by 10 p.m. Dinners out are as rare as a lunar eclipse. Obama, by contrast, stays up late. He holds conference calls with senior staff as late as 11 p.m., and often reads and writes past midnight.

Get ready for late nights and weekends, in other words.

From Work Ethic To Static

Much earlier in my career, I viewed long hours and late nights as status symbols: they marked how committed you were to getting the job done. I would work late into the night, and nod approvingly to myself when I would receive a 1:00 am email from a subordinate. “Ah, he’s a good egg,” I’d think. “Good work ethic.”

But I changed my tune after a while. As I got better at working and managing my own time, I began to see late-night emails and Sunday night cram sessions as symptoms of something more negative: an inability to stay on track. In certain areas, there really is more work than there is time to do it, and immediate response is required. Political campaigns, some start-ups, daily journalism, medical care. But in most cases, even large workloads can be handled in a “normal” work week. The trick is to keep static and timewasters to a minimum.

This is especially true in the so-called “independent sector” (nonprofits). Everyone in the independent sector talks about being “too busy” — but they aren’t really. The nonprofit sector overall contains many of the more forgiving workplaces. (I do understand there are exceptions; I am talking in generalities here.)

And so, when a colleague would send me a 1:00 am email, I no longer nodded approvingly but instead would say to myself, “This is lame. Get some sleep so you can function.” The feeling would usually be intensified by the knowledge that the sender most likely was feeling proud of working so hard, unaware of the impression the late-night note caused.

New Rules About Time, Place And Manner

But now, having been in the truly independent sector for some years (that is, I do not work within an organization) I am changing my tune again. One of the benefits of working on my own is that the time constraints of the workday don’t matter. I can get my work done whenever — and that means I also have time in the day to have a life.

That also means I’m the guy sending late night emails!

But I am not sure this round-the-clock phenomenon is unique to the independent life. Workstyles are changing inside organizations too. The start and end times of the workday, for example, have long been much more permeable than they were a decade ago. It’s not weird for a colleague to come in at 6:00 am and leave at 3:00. Location is less restricted too. It’s not weird for someone to actually work at home most of the time. Most organizations are also much more tolerant of different approaches to work (some people work in bursts andd need slack time in between highly productive periods; otheers are more methodical).

So, while I fully understand that the workload in the White House is crushing no matter what, I also see the new Obama White House workstyle as symptomatic of the broader changes in work overall. Things really have changed when it comes to what we expect of that place called “the office.”

But closer to home, I am also much more charitable in my inward responses to people around me. Late night emails and middle-of-the-day silliness are no longer the negatives I thought they were.

Maybe I am growing up!

A couple days ago, I mentioned an essay of my old high school friend Charlie Burleigh. That got me to thinking and I dug around in my old files and I found the essay in question. I want to share it because I think it is one of the best essays I’ve ever read. He doesn’t know this, but in large part it inspired me to be an essayist.

Charlie and I were eighteen when he wrote this, back in 1983. It was intended to be a college entrance essay. The copy I have is from a student literary publication called “The Dubious Muse” that my school published occasionally.

The piece calls up E.B. White in some of his more reflective moods.

I have looked for but cannot reconnect with Charlie. If you find this, Charlie, I would love to get in touch.

Anyway, here is the essay:

GAS STATIONS AND WHALESONGS

The following item appeared in the New York Times Business Section on March 6, 1983:

“Gasoline stations have become something of an endangered species. Many were forced out of business as prices soared and gasoline supplies dried up. But lower prices and a glut of crude oil will not bring them back. Instead, their number is likely to shrink still further. Industry estimates place the current number of service stations at about 130,000 down from about 170.000 in the early 1970’s. Experts say the decline will probably not halt until there are fewer than 90,000. Among other reasons for the continuing shrinkage: new cars have lower repair and maintenance needs, and their gas mileage is far better than yesterday’s clunkers.”

Sitting in Birmingham Colonial Standard on a Saturday morning, it is hard to get the feeling that one is dealing with an endangered species. Looking at the Felix the Cat clock, the steaming coffee pot, the chairs, the dirty fake hammerhead shark on the wall, and the people standing around in conversation, one can feel very at home and not at all threatened by the outside world. One senses that the business here is more than gas sales and work orders.

This feeling is reinforced by the type of problems the regulars bring in. “You wanna check the drivers side front tire’s valve core. I think it lost a couple pounds this week.” “Do you think it’s time for an oil change and a lube?” “I wonder if my timing’s off and I need some door grease.” These regulars, men, executives and chemical engineers, appear nearly every Saturday morning to buy time along with their door grease. As one confessed, “I wish he wouldn’t work so fast. This is the only time all day I can get away from my wife and have a cigarette. She thinks I quit – hell – it’s time for spring cleaning.”

As a place for escape the gas station is nearly perfect. It provides its own excuses and its own rules. The car can always need to be filled up or fixed. “It’s not safe to let this kind of thing go on without attention.” There is also no doubt about who you are at the station. The customer is always right and the mechanic always knows best. As long as no one infringes on these simple rules (e.g. as when the customer watches the mechanic too closely) there is no reason for dispute.

Escape by Saturday morning errand could also be found at a shopping mall, except for one thing, conversation. The verbal give and take is what changes the gas station from merely a place to get away from the job and the wife to a place that feels truly comfortable.

This talk, which may begin with the weather, progresses to nearly anything. Discussion can be about the hangover or world events, about who got any last night or the new model cars, about recent sports or how slow business is going. The range of topics is as open as the range of common experiences.

While this communication lacks predictable subject matter or direction, it would be too hasty to say that it has no purpose. A study in the 1970’s by a group of marine biologists and linguists seems to provide the purpose. The object of the study was to look at humpback whale songs, separate out the elements used in sonar and see if in the clicks, cries and rumbles that were left there were any repeated linguistic elements. What they found was that while one song could be identified with one whale at a given time, every song was subject to change when the whales communicated. They found further that there was no predictable subject matter or direction and no one song had any special significance. Indeed the scientists concluded that these complex signals were only sent to convey one message during the vast undersea migrations of the whales:

WHALE HERE
MAN HERE

The effect of this simple communication is to overcome isolation, to encourage the traveler. And even if all the general stores are now shopping malls and all the gas stations become self service, we will still need stations for this service.

By Charles Burleigh

A belated thanks, Charlie, for a great piece.

My friend Caryn Martinez has this interesting story about subliminal advertising. Seems that when hearing French music, more shoppers purchased French wine. During German oompah music, it’s all Piesporters and Rieslings.

The kicker: in post-purchase surveys, only a handful ever mentioned the music when saying why they bought what they did.

Such is the secret power of music.

The other night, a close friend was ill. The next day, recovered, we discussed an interesting thought that kept going through their mind. Every few moments, with some change in symptoms or worsening of feeling, they felt compelled to describe it to themselves in the lingo of a status update: “X is lying in bed,” “X is hoping to get better.” They were too ill to run to the computer, but still, the thought was there.

Most readers of this blog will know that a status update is a brief (one sentence or so) description of what you are up to, how you are doing, or what’s going on. In Facebook, the status update is one of the main ways that people interact, posting sometimes trivial, other times significant dispatches from their daily lives.

One way to look at this anecdote is with a certain amount of alarm: See? The “status update” culture has infiltrated the world’s psyche!

But another way to look at it is to see it for proof that there is something powerful that Facebook, Twitter, and other microblog outlets have tapped into. I think many people have an innate desire to say what they are up to, almost as a way of just verifying that they are present.

As a user of Twitter and Facebook status updates, I can tell you that they have come to matter to me in a way that I find surprising. Seeing a list of what all my friends, family, and acquaintances are up to helps me to feel connected to them. This is not just silly “Joe Blow is at the mall shopping for an iPhone” trivia either, though that is a crucial element of social currency. Important information can be conveyed, too. It was through a status update that I learned of an old friend’s work in freeing slaves in Calcutta, for example.

In fact, it is the haphazardness of it all that is compelling.

I am reminded of my old friend Charlie’s college admittance essay. Charlie was a brilliant, creative, enigmatic person. He wrote an admissions essay for colleges that was a meditation on social interactions at a neighborhood gas station (where he worked). At the time, I recall, it was too brilliant for anyone to really grasp.

But now I sort of get it.

Charlie’s essay, as it reached its punchline, touched on research into whale songs. It seems that after decades of research into the content of whale songs, scientists had been able to determine that, essentially, whales are mostly giving status updates and alerting one another to our (humans’) presence, watching them:

WHALE HERE
MAN HERE

I do not know if this is really true about whales, but I do know that often my status updates are whalesong: I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.

What are you up to?

Andrea Jarrell passed on to me an item she saw in the always-useful Inside Higher Ed. It’s an interview with Harold T. Shapiro, the new chairman of DeVry, Inc.

Yes, that DeVry. The for-profit school. Before you turn up your nose, know this: Shapiro is former president of University of Michigan.

Many of my friends and colleague probably share my initial gut reaction to things like DeVry, University of Phoenix, and Strayer University: They can’t be rigorous. They’re just diploma mills churning out useless online bachelors degree programs. They exist only to get Federal financial aid dollars.

But the interview with Shapiro has me thinking differently.

Two highlights:

Higher education is such a subsidized activity that it wasn’t clear to me that a market-funded organization really could overcome the competition represented by these very large subsidies. Now what’s happened over time, of course, is these subsidies have declined as states have had different kinds of priorities or have had budget constraints of one kind or another; the subsidies to higher education have gone down very substantially. . . .

Yes, I thought that a private organization could [possibly] be more effective, it could be more nimble, it could be more efficient in certain ways, but I just thought that wasn’t enough to overcome the subsidy [disadvantage]. But I was wrong. They found a way to operate extremely efficiently and now increasingly through the online service and the broadening of the curriculum they have found niches out there that just weren’t being served.

What about quality? How can for-profit schools really provide what “real” schools do?

I think there’s a general skepticism that people that are in this for profit aren’t going to serve their students well. I feel the other way around, because if DeVry doesn’t serve their students, we’ll be out of business.

I was president of the University of Michigan. It’s not going out of business anytime in our lifetime. DeVry could go out of business in years — not in decades — if it wasn’t serving its students. So it has to pass a much tougher test than traditional higher education does. I hardly think we do it perfectly; I’m sure we have many improvements that we could make, but we’re always on the trail, always trying to do something. . . .

If you look, for example, at how quickly we adapted to online education, we’re much more fully adapted to that than any traditional school that I know of. Now I don’t know them all, so maybe this is an exaggerated statement, but we have an extraordinary number of students who get their degrees partly in classrooms, partly online. The coursework that we’ve developed online in the areas that I’m familiar with, like statistics which I taught for a number of years [at other institutions], is really high quality.

These are excellent points, and Shapiro is a serious person who merits serious attention.

This is an area to watch in the future.

Friend–


Here are a couple of recent posts from my daily blog that I thought might interest you.

  1. I used to be in an “entourage.” It wasn’t a star’s coterie, but a charismatic business person leading a startup. The time has stuck with me over many years. Very strange. More here: In The Entourage

  2. I work on the periphery of the world of philanthropy. I notice that, with the tough times, the trend of risk aversion from philanthropies has increased exponentially. But who else can take risks in the independent sector, if not endowed organizations? More here: Philanthropy’s Unique Advantage

If you are interested, consider joining the email list for my daily blog. This would mean that you get a note each time I publish — about once per day, certainly no more. If you would like that, just reply and let me know.

(My plan is to send you a recap like this each Friday at 11 am. This is a test to see how it goes. I may change that schedule.)

Many of my friends know how passionate I am — but certainly not as active as I want to be — about the new Abolitionist movement against slavery worldwide. There are more slaves now on the planet than there ever has been. Many are here in the United States.

Facts: [UPDATE: Forgot to mention these are from Call And Response.]

  • There are 27 million enslaved men, women and children in the world.
  • Over 2.2 million children are sold into the sex trade every year.
  • There are more slaves today than at any other time in history.
  • In India children cost less than cattle.
  • Their traffickers pocketed $32 billion last year alone.
  • More profit than 499 of the Fortune 500.

I recently reconnected (thank you FaceBook) with Sarah Symons who went to my same high school (a quirky little school in the Detroit area called Roeper).

It took me a while, but I shortly learned that Sarah is the founder of The Emancipation Network.

TEN is an organization that Sarah founded with her husband based on a “conversion experience” she had that opened her eyes and changed her life. (The story is here.)

I just wanted to share Sarah’s work with some of my friends.

I ran across a very interesting piece the other day. It’s LA Times pop critic Ann Powers’ blog post about her five-hour personal interview with none other than Prince.

This piece was interesting for two reasons.

First, it was interesting on a journalistic level. The piece is a great example of how a reporter can humanize him or herself by consciously being present in the narrative. Instead of “this reporter” doublespeak, we get a great opening salvo:

Tuesday morning, I received the Golden Ticket of journalistic invitations: a summons to Prince’s mansion, high atop Mulholland Drive, to hear the new music he’ll be releasing sometime after the holidays. At 8 p.m. that evening, I drove my dirty Mazda past the fountain in his courtyard, parked by the limo in the back, and entered his manse. The man himself greeted me in a candelit study, where he was laboring over a laptop with his Web designers . . . .

Man, I want to be there.

The other reason the piece is interesting is the window it gives on Prince, one of the most interesting performers out there. The big P has plans to release three records in 2009, without the help of a record label. Yes, there will be digital downloads and whatnot, but more interesting is that there is evidently a direct deal with a retailer to carry physical product.

Prince evidently said repeatedly in the interview “the gatekeepers have to change” when it comes to the music business.

Great news from a deep thinker in the music business. I look forward to reading Powers’ full piece on January 11.

@bobbygwald retweeted an interesting post that is worth sharing. (If you do not know what that sentence means, you will within twelve months).

It’s the rules of the garage:

  • Believe you can change the world.
  • Work quickly, keep the tools unlocked, work whenever.
  • Know when to work alone and when to work together.
  • Share tools, ideas. Trust your colleagues.
  • No Politics. No bureaucracy. (These are ridiculous in a garage).
  • The customer defines a job well done.
  • Radical ideas are not bad ideas.
  • Invent different ways of working.
  • Make a contribution every day. If it doesn’t contribute, it doesn’t leave the garage.
  • Believe that together we can do anything.
  • Invent.

What garage are we talking about? This one. Yes, the HP garage — birthplace of Silicon Valley.

Worth keeping these in mind.

It turns out that it was not Queen Latifah who had her jewlelry stolen in Tobago, but a member of her entourage, according to the Trinidad and Tobago Express.

Reading the item made me remember that I used to be in an entourage myself. What a strange life it was.

Unless you have been in one, you cannot really imagine what it is like day to day, wondering what you will do next, knowing that it is entirely at the whim of your entourage’s anchor.

In my case, the anchor of my entourage was not a star but rather a charismatic business person. We were all working on a startup company in the electric transportation field. It was in Los Angeles.

It’s a story I don’t often tell because it takes too much time for all its strangeness to soak in. So here are a few of the less salacious details. I could go on at depth but some of it just should not be talked about in polite company! Also, some of the memories are a bit hazy.

  • For about nine months, there were no offices. We would all congregate at the founder’s Malibu beachfront condo (which, it turned out, he was renting with investor money). We’d sit in the living room watching the surf, each of us in a separate living room chair, working a phone.
  • I got a call every morning at seven to “plan the day.” My boss and the second-in-command were kindred spirits when it came to this — hyper morning people. They had decided it was rude to call people they did not know well before seven, so they would wait, chomping at the bit, until that hour. Then we would all suddenly get caffeine-fueled calls.
  • Our daily plans typically included simple business errand: go here to pick up the new logo t-shorts. Go there to drop off a form. These were complicated because we all had to go together, because we were part of an entourage. We were always waiting for someone. It seemed that, if the size of the traveling party decreased below a certain threshold, our anchor got depressed. There always needed to be a bunch of people around to hold cell phones, fetch water bottles, drive cars, etc.
  • No one had a real job description, but we had our “areas of expertise.” These typically had little to do with actual skills any of us had. I was typically deployed when there was some perceived need for someone who understood politics.
  • The founder loved women. There was always a new young woman floating around in the condo. Many meetings were held with him in bed, us hangers-on standing in a semicircle at the foot of the bed, taking notes.
  • For a while, there was a houseboy. I have no idea where he came from. But one day we all showed up and there he was. He got us drinks and cookies. It was not clear what his duties were in comparison to others in the entourage (everyone did everything). Eventually he faded away.
  • One day we all piled into a couple of cars and went to a meeting at a Hollywood mansion. We were meeting with a big TV person (I recall it was Aaron Spelling but I may be wrong) and his people, looking for investment money. As I recall, we showed up late on purpose. To make some kind of point. TV Exec wore fancy pajamas to the meeting. I do not know if that was to make a point.
  • For a while, there were plans on the books for the company to buy a mini-bus, which would be outfitted as a rolling office. We would all just spend all our time in the bus, rolling around LA.

Eventually, I left the company to do my own thing. I’ll always remember that time. I am not sure how useful any of it was — but it sure was interesting.