The Fastest Pickle Packer in the Plant

An email from Meg made me realize that in previous posts I had under-emphasized the responsibility each of us has to choose to be our best selves at work and in every setting of our lives.

Meg wrote:

When I was 16 years old, working for Gedney pickles and standing at a bin where we stuffed pickle spears into jars manually for 8 hours a day, I learned that only I had the power to make the job rewarding for myself.  I created a daily competition to pack more jars than I had packed the prior day.  I became the fastest pickle packer in the plant.  It made the time go by more quickly and it was fun to compete, even if just against myself.  I’ve carried that through all my jobs and shared it with my kids.  So no matter how nasty the job is, we have to find ways to feel rewarded and often that entails reinventing the job, which I’ve pretty much done with all my jobs.

And I’ve also learned not to fear things that I don’t understand.  When I came to IT Telecom and they laid off the whole team except me, I had to recreate 30 years of telecom architecture.  I just peeled off one layer at a time, disconnected unused services, saved the company thousands of dollars each month, and felt terrific for accomplishing it.

Toxic employees would see opportunities for savings and keep it to themselves figuring “if my boss doesn’t see it, why should I?”  Work ethics are not easy to teach, but managers needs to realize it is crucial to success and they should spend more time helping employees find the fun in the job and the passion to help the company thrive.

I’ve been very lucky because, at times, my employers have tried to “box” my jobs, but being the conformist that I can appear to be, they thought I was doing well. In reality, I was reinventing the jobs, letting them think the changes were their ideas. I could never have been productive if I wasn’t allowed to be creative, inquisitive, and progressive.

Similarly, reader Margaret wrote: “There have been jobs that I had that I didn’t like. When I’ve been in that position, I tried to think of at least one thing, often more than one thing, that I could change in the situation to make the job more to my liking.”

We are responsible for the lives we create or do not create.

Don’t Like Your Job? You Have Company.

The Washington Post reported that a recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive for the University of Phoenix found that 55 percent of American workers would like to change careers. Nearly 80 percent of working adults in their 20s and almost two-thirds of those in their 30s would like to do so, too.

Similar, Gallup reported that 52% of American workers lack involvement, enthusiasm, and commitment to their work. Eighteen percent are actively disengaged (less loyal, less productive, more stressed, miss more days): those folks sabotage company strategy and pressure co-workers to dumb down. In other words, 70% of us go to work disengaged or actively disengaged. Only 30% of us feel invested in our jobs. The Gallup data has been consistent since 2000.

Some observations:

We do a poor job of choosing our careers. If we select our profession based on money, prestige, or what our parents did, then the odds are great that we will choose badly and end up stuck and miserable.

How might we choose our work? We put in the time and effort to know ourselves: our natural talents, our core values, and our sense of purpose for our lives (why we exist). Then we figure out what activities best express our most authentic selves and we seek out careers that will allow us to spend the most time doing work that makes us feel alive. If our careers then pay well and have prestige, so much the better.

Organizations structure jobs badly. Most enterprises were structured on a mechanistic model of organization, which emphasizes conformity, efficiency, and uniformity. They then force employees to fit into rigid boxes, categories, and job descriptions. Most jobs are too small for people. I had a great boss who had me write my own job descriptions. When I would give it back to him, he would say, “Add more responsibilities.” We went back and forth several times, and I always ended up with work that fulfilled me. Organizations need to structure jobs less mechanically and more organically to allow the huge untapped human potential that lies dormant in most organizations to come forth.

Ignorant managers: Most executives grew up with the machine model ingrained in them from a lifetime in schools, churches, and workplaces. Many don’t understand why we do things the way we do in our bureaucracies. Many don’t know that the machine model isn’t the only metaphor we can compare our work world to: The greater our metaphorical diversity, the more creative we can be. I think of organizations as living systems that encompass mechanistic processes. Machines are mechanical; people are alive. Wise people think of each differently.

Bad Bosses: The Gallup data showed that people don’t quit the company they work for; their quit their bosses. I’ve had a great boss and I thrived. I’ve had a bad boss and I stagnated. Get away from a bad boss as fast as you possibly can. They only drag you down.

The sooner we begin to search for our right livelihood, the more likely we will make a successful transition.

I am responsible for the life I create or do not create for myself.

Work Hard to Make Money So You Can Keep Working at Something You Hate

British philosopher and writer Alan Watts:

If you say that money is the most important thing, you’ll spend your life completely wasting your time: You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is, in order to go on doing things you don’t like doing — which is stupid!

A Vision in Stone

The 5-year-old girl, in a white T-shirt and cowboy hat, approached the woman — more than 75 years her senior — hesitantly. With a tone of reverence in her voice, she asked, “Are you Ruth, The wife of the sculptor?”

Ruth Ziolkowski, dressed in a simple yellow dress, blue checkered smock, and white moccasins, leaned over, extended her hand, and said quietly, “Yes, I am.” Mrs. Ziolkowski put her arm around the child and graciously posed for a photograph.


(Melanie Heuerman, Ruth Ziolkowski, Tom Heuerman, Warren  Harming)

Only minutes before we had stood on the extended arm of the Crazy Horse Memorial at the top of the 600-foot Thunderhead Mountain and looked at the visitor center a mile away.

Pete — our guide and teacher — and Warren Harming, a member of the Crazy Horse Board of Directors and close friend of the Ziolkowski family, drove us up the mountain.

When we got out of the vehicle, Pete asked us to walk out on the arm and not look back until he told us to. About half way out the 263-foot arm pointed east over the head of Crazy Horse’s horse toward the Black Hills, Pete said, “Okay you can turn around now.”

We turned and looked up at the nine story high head and face of Crazy Horse. “Oh my God” was our instant, involuntary reaction. Another group of people came to the top of the mountain later. As they walked with their backs to Crazy Horse, we watched to see their reactions when they turned. “Oh My God’ was the universal reaction upon seeing the face of Crazy Horse up close.

DSC_0170 arm

In 1947, at age 38, after he served in World War II, and turned down a government commission to create war memorials in Europe, Korczak Ziolkowski arrived in the Black Hills to carve a 100-foot likeness of Crazy Horse.

During his early months in the Black Hills, Korczak sat and looked at the mountain for five days and five nights. We can only imagine what he thought. At the end of the five days he decided to carve the entire mountain not just the top 100 feet. The vision had grown. After all, he said, “I had nowhere to go.”

Crazy Horse would be a symbol: a tribute to all North American Indians. The vision now included a memorial in the round — the largest sculpture ever undertaken, a Native American medical center, a university, and museum. Korczak’s purpose was to give the Native Americans “a little bit of pride and to try to right a little bit of the wrong … [the white people] did to [them].”

Korczak knew he would not live long enough to finish the massive project. So, he and Ruth spent three years detailing three books of plans for the Memorial.

Ruth leads Crazy Horse today. Seven of her 10 children, each of whom left the Memorial to do other things and returned because it was “where they belonged,” keep the dream alive and progress continues. Ruth says it is “not important when it’s finished; the important thing is that work never stops.”

When finished, the Memorial will be 563 feet high and 641 feet long. It will be taller than the Washington Monument and larger than the biggest pyramid. The four heads of nearby Mount Rushmore will fit inside of Crazy Horse’s head.


Melanie told me after our visit: “I knew you were a believer in the spiritual power of this vision. After seeing this Memorial in person, I am now a believer too.”

Life as Art: Feeling Alive

Feeling alive came natural as a kid — a time when we live a life of learning and adventure as we explore and master our worlds. We venture out bravely, don’t know the rules, adapt as we go, and have fun living out our fantasies of being courageous heroes and heroines who do good for others.

Somewhere along the way conformity and compliance become the rule — about the time we go to school, I imagine. I believe from then on many of us sacrifice much of our courage and authenticity as we try to fit in to be accepted by others in order to “succeed.”

Perhaps like you, I’ve always chafed against the rules of conformity and compliance even as I’ve tried to find a place for myself in this world. I’ve taken a long journey to regain my natural and authentic sense of purpose.

In the middle of my life, I left the pseudo-safety of the paternalistic corporate world that demanded more dumbing down than I could stand and set out to create a new life for myself. I was not a wealthy man and my choice to venture out alone was not without risk. I realized that if I failed financially no one would remember in a few short years. But if I did not take the journey into the unknown, I would live with my cowardice and the disappointment of my own unfulfilled potential for eternity (See my post Life as Art: What Do I Want?).

Today, almost 20 years after I began my adventure filled journey, I am grateful for good health; a happy marriage; children and grandchildren I love; two great dogs; financial security; and time to do the things I love. And yet, I still pay attention to my inner stirrings and live my life in such a way as to renew myself often and naturally.

Such a journey of self-discovery beckons many today-not necessarily the external changes that I made but the inner growth of awareness and consciousness. The world struggles in the midst of many transformations with outcomes unknown. Seemingly unsolvable problems threaten our way of life. Regressive politicians try to return us to a world that no longer exists. Technology threatens our humanity. Our previous life paths exist no more. We cannot go back. We must seek out new journeys for ourselves.

The details of each person’s journey are exclusive to them but each of us shares the goals of deeper authenticity, a noble life of integrity, and the expression of our unique contribution to life. We want to feel alive. The inner work is hard. Perhaps as difficult as anything a human being will do in life — as a person, leader, or follower. This personal development requires the courage of a pioneer, the honesty of a child, the imagination of an artist, and the confidence of the naïve, and often begins from deep despair, disillusionment, and a fundamental change of mind. The journey gives one a special energy and changes the traveler forever.

We become the artists of our own lives. We plan as best we can, take bold action, reflect on what happens, and adapt our next steps. Our creative process is messy, inefficient, and non-linear and it redefines us. We stay true to our values and our purpose in life and expand our vision for life as we move toward it. We become artists in redefinition. We create, and we feel alive.

Feeling alive isn’t just about feeling good. Feeling alive is about feeling all of the life around us.


A Grave Injustice

Todd Hoffner was a good football coach. Only a month earlier, Minnesota State University, Mankato had awarded him a new 4-year contract with a raise of more than 15%.

But on August 17, 2012, his life changed:

Hoffner had turned a malfunctioning cell phone in to the University for repair. On the phone were two short videos of his three young children as they laughed, danced, frolicked, and played in the nude after baths. In post Jerry Sandusky hysteria, university employees turned the phone over to the police.

Hoffner was placed on investigative leave.  Did the University act precipitously or were they prudent to be cautious?

Then bad judgment: a few days later Hoffner was arrested on two felony counts of suspicion of producing and possessing child pornography. Has insanity become normalized, I wondered.

County human-services officials quickly determined that no sexual abuse or maltreatment of Hoffner’s children had occurred. Nothing suspicious was found on his laptop, in his home, or in extensive searches at his earlier places of employment. The County attorney refused to drop the charges.

Last November, Blue Earth County District Judge Krista Jass dismissed the charges against Hoffner for lack of probable cause. She rebuked County prosecutors and her strongly worded order made it clear that the videos were innocent hijinks, not porn.  Thank God for a brave and lucid judge.

Will the community hold the county attorney accountable for the actions that did great harm to a decent family? Remember citizens of Mankato, if you don’t stand up for the victims of  power abused, who will stand up for you when you are the victim?

Did the University reinstatement Hoffner as expected?

No, administrators gave Hoffner a 20 day suspension apparently for using his university cell phone for personal use. The length of suspension appears excessive to this veteran of 18 years of labor relations experience.

Administrators then removed Hoffner from his position as coach and reassigned him to a non-job administrative position and stuck him away in a closet. Then they fired him without explanation.

What motivated the actions of University managers?

Did political enemies in the bureaucracy take advantage of the opportunity to get rid of Hoffner ─the successful coach who had just signed a 4-year contract with a big raise?

Or, did the culture of the institution drive decision-making?  Protecting the institution from whatever people or situations are perceived to be threats to the image of the institution often becomes paramount in crisis and doing what is right regardless of politics and institutional embarrassment get lost entirely. Did Hoffner have to go because he brought embarrassment to the University?

It is never right to punish the victim of injustice for the embarrassment that injustice may cause a big institution.

Or, did the University investigation that came about because of false accusations and an unjust arrest lead to the discovery of new information that on its own justified an immediate termination?

We don’t know the answers to these and many other questions because University officials acted in secret behind closed doors and have shared only cold and terse written announcements. No human face speaks for the University, only a lifeless and uncaring bureaucracy.

Hoffner will challenge his firing in arbitration later this summer. If the University comes up with a reason for his discharge aside from the false allegations of peddling porn, it better be a good one. Remember, this is the coach who had just signed a new 4-year contract with a big raise. Any known issues with Hoffner from before that contract was signed are moot after the new contract effectively endorsed Hoffner fully. Will any new issues be legitimate and rise to the level needed to justify his abrupt termination or will they be concocted efforts to justify earlier bad judgments, political assassination, or the dark side of corporate culture?

The community should watch with discerning eyes.

(See ESPN interview with Todd Hoffner)

Does Your Job Excite You?

Does you wake up enthused to go to work?

For most people, the answer is “no.”

Gallup reports that 52% of workers in America aren’t involved in, enthusiastic about, or committed to their work. Eighteen percent are actively disengaged (less loyal, less productive, more stressed, miss more days): they are the folks who sabotage company strategy and pressure co-workers to dumb down.

I know that engaged employees achieve tremendous business results and that absent engaged employees an organization cannot endure for the long-term.  Sadly, most leaders don’t yet realize the power of engagement.

How are organizations doing when it comes to sustainability and engagement? I define a sustainable organization as one that endures indefinitely in a continually changing environment or marketplace. Some companies endure for hundreds of years so we know the potential exists for all. Some examples are DuPont, Hudson Bay Company, and W.R. Grace.

Sadly, however, the average life expectancy of a Fortune 500 company pales at 40-50 years. The 40-50 year life expectancy of a Fortune 500 company is the worst actual-to-potential life expectancy ratio of any species on the planet. This statistic cuts across nations and is even worse for smaller start-up companies — 40% survive less than 10 years.

The massive disengagement that Gallup has reported for years is symptomatic of low life expectancy for the organization. We experience low life expectancy as stress, pettiness, power struggles for control, cynicism, resignation, and the walking dead of our organizations. If this sounds like your company, then your company is dying.

Companies often state, “People are our greatest asset.” I don’t think so. Not in most organizations. And the devaluation of people shows in the lack of sustainable organizations.

While employees bear some responsibility for this disengagement, for the most part it is a leadership issue.

I’ve seen the walking dead come back to life when they’re invited to participate, to be involved, and when required to be responsible — when treated with basic human respect. They showed me the impact leaders have on people and showed me the vast untapped human potential available to all of us.

The truth is, no one in a management team is performing their job if their employees are not engaged — and this includes supervisors, managers, and executives. As leaders, we need to own this issue of employee disengagement, and grab the potential of engaged people.

In The Elements of Great Managing, Rod Wagner and James Harder reported Gallup data that shows, among other things, that engaged employees miss less work, quit less often, steal less from their employers, have fewer accidents (all of these by dramatic percentages), and more engaged organizations outperformed the earnings-per-share of their non-engaged competitors by 18%.  Long-term profits come when we lead people well.

The leadership challenge of the 21st century is to achieve outstanding and sustainable business results by creating conditions for employee engagement that brings forth the vast untapped human potential in organizations — the competitive advantage of our time.