Archive for April, 2007

The Other Stanford University

Posted in Methods, People on April 29, 2007 by barbararuth

What comes to mind when you think “Stanford University”? Hewlett & Packard? Google & Yahoo? Chelsea Clinton? I think of my two blissful years waking to crowing roosters, cultivating a compost bin, and harvesting fresh vegetables from my own garden. Now when I’m feeling nostalgic, I can visit the virtual homestead of the folks at Dancing Rabbit, an ecovillage in rural Missouri. Many of the founders are alumni of Stanford and of the co-op where I lived, Synergy House.

I have given up the fantasy of living communally and off-the-grid myself. The idea still resonates with me aesthetically, but I think my calling is more nomadic and worldly. More Rachel Carson than Scott and Helen Nearing.

What I most admire in the Dancing Rabbits is their commitment to vision over convention, image-making, and stereotype. To advance the dream, the residents operate Web-based businesses and navigate the alphabet soup of corporate structures that can accomodate their infrastructure. They use 21st century communications methods. They write columns in mainstream newspapers. This enables them to keep the dream going day to day.


Mindblowing apocryphal factoid

Posted in People on April 28, 2007 by barbararuth

I watched American Masters Lucille Ball piece last night. The voiceover said that Lucille Ball’s face has been seen by more people than any person’s who has ever lived.

Since I Love Lucy has been broadcast all over the world almost continuously for more than 50 years, I can’t imagine anyone who’s been seen more.

Not Hitler. Not Gandhi. Lucy. Gotta love it.

Radical, Common Sense Solutions

Posted in People on April 25, 2007 by barbararuth

I learned from a manager I respect that one should always follow up on a list of problems and criticisms with a list of solutions. So, my proposed solutions to the people problems I described in my last post, none of them rocket science:

To counter the Peter Principle: Create independent contributor tracks. Those tracks need not necessarily pay as much as managers make. I believe that the issue for many people is that they want to keep growing throughout their careers, to keep taking on new challenges.

To counter rewarding the wrong behaviors:  Evaluate the reward system from a broad perspective. Think about how the rewards shape individuals’ field of options both inside and outside of the job, and avoid creating a comfort zone where not growing is the best financial or political option.

To counter poor job construction: Be intellectually honest in evaluating jobs according to the work involved and the abilities it requires and set aside status markers, when possible. It’s probably not particularly damaging to give executives corner offices. It is very damaging to give all clerical work to the women or to the newest hires while allowing upper managers to get away with not learning how to make a single copy or post a letter through the company mail system.

Fasten Your Seatbelts. It’s Going to Be a Bumpy Night!

Posted in People on April 24, 2007 by barbararuth

I’ve become a reluctant fan of the writings of Jim Collins, who gained notoriety for writing about the habits of companies he says are “built to last.” He names a number of traits including having Big Hairy Audacious Goals and being a Hedgehog (good at one thing) rather than a Fox (clever at a lot of things.) The topic that has captured my attention lately: the selection and motivation of people. Jim Collins recommends “getting the right people on the bus” first, then “getting them in the right seats,” and only then “deciding where to drive the bus.”

(How could I resist the bus metaphor, so often used in the Dead world? But, I digress…)

Selection and motivation taken together is too large a piece to bite, so I’ll focus on step two. I see it more often than I want to believe: Many organizations seat their people so uncomfortably that loyal, talented people jump off the bus out of frustration — even if the bus in on a bridge and they have to jump into the icy waters of a very tough job market.

Some typical examples:

You have probably heard of The Peter Principle, or promoting someone to his or her level of incompetence. The root cause of the Peter Principle is a belief that it is “natural” for a person to rise up predictably, from sales assistant to junior marketing writer to senior marketing writer to marketing manager, say. This path is seductive, even as an employee leaves behind work he loves and at which he excels to takes on management roles for the money, prestige, and security that come with them. After a gigantic failure, he quits or gets fired.

Another common problem is rewarding the wrong behaviors. A perfect illustration comes from the nonprofit world, where there is a tradition of giving cost-of-living increases, often uncapped. There is no pressure to move up, on, or even laterally to earn more money, so people stay in entry-level or mid-career level positions far too long. There is also no reason to put effort into professional development; falling behind has no consequence. An executive director candidate I interviewed recently described a situation where mid-level managers of long tenure were making six-figure salaries. Talented people got bored, resented their unmotivated coworkers, felt unrecognized, and quit. Many people who stayed were also unhappy, their risk-aversiveness having backfired. They felt trapped by golden handcuffs and disappointed in their inability to grow professionally. Meanwhile, in the 21st century, the organization kept its membership records on index cards because nobody knew how to use a database.

Poorly constructed jobs. Often organizations, both nonprofit and for-profit, compose job descriptions and career advancement paths that require traits in a person that are diametrically opposed, that include sets of activities that no person can perform simultaneously, that waste talent, or that simply waste ridiculous amounts of time. Can anyone proofread well while answering a busy phone? Is it likely that your hottest salesperson is going to stick around long if you require her to spend 25% of her week filling out tedious paperwork? Will a person with the capacity and drive for management stick it out in staff position in a seniority-based culture where he will underearn and be underemployed for years?

These problems are so ubiquitous that many people I know — me included — have come to the conclusion that self-employment is the only way out! With the relative ease of changing jobs and self-employment options today, a downward spiral seems to be in the making. People who can leave for their own companies or for a few companies known for good environments; every place else just gets worse and worse …

Geek or Pioneer?

Posted in Tools on April 20, 2007 by barbararuth

At work, I am considered a “technical person.” So, it confuses people a little when I give voice my favorite escape fantasy — moving someplace where I can mostly get around on horseback. My dream is to replicate aspects of my maternal grandparents’ childhoods, circa 1915. Both grew up on farms. I believe that my hope of doing so, of making a living away from the crowds and congestion, rests in technological advances. This is not as strange a split as it sounds coming from a Deadhead.

Most people I meet hold the image of Deadheads that, I admit, attracted me to the scene twenty-five years ago — that we are a weird hybrid of back-to-the-land hippies and privileged college students from urban families. What’s missing from the profiles of people not “in the life” is the Deadheads’ (and the Dead’s) history as early adopters of technology.

Back in the seventies, the Dead started storing fans’ contact information in databases. In the eighties, tapers at Grateful Dead concerts were using digital audio tape to capture the best possible recordings in a compact format. There was no hostility between these digital frontiersman and the less-technical beneficiaries of their experimentation. Deadheads were also among the first to latch on to the online space as a means to make community. (See this article about the formation of the WELL.)

As I see it, it comes down to this: Not all of us who love “technology” love it for its own sake. We embrace it when it facilitates our goals and aspirations, whether that means using a printing press to produce more Bibles, avoiding ink stains on the suit by using a ballpoint pen, working on the Web while staying home with a child, building a grassroots political movement through email, documenting police brutality with a cheap video camera, touching base by telephone with a long-distance grandma, teleworking to live removed from the modern hustle, or recording sweet guitar licks for posterity.

When it comes to taking up the technological charge, you gotta do what you gotta do.

Are You a Pioneer?

Posted in Essays on April 17, 2007 by barbararuth

What distinguishes pioneers from more conventional leaders, creative artists, and ordinary nonconformists? I have a theory. Pioneers may also fall into any of the above categories, and tend to share some characteristic traits with people who fit those labels more accurately. Pioneers often find themselves advocating change, I believe, because they hold these traits in unusual combinations.

Inner motivation combined with outward focus

Like creative artists, pioneers hold visions that differ from those of other people in the environment. They can’t resolve the anxiety the dissonance causes by expressing the vision symbolically in any medium. The drive is to change the actual events and circumstances in the environment.

Powerful but uninterested in power

I do mean “uninterested” rather than “disinterested.” The pioneer often projects an aura of power through high energy and intensity, strong opinions, confidence, and a tendency to question authority. In fact, pioneers often come late to leadership roles because they don’t really crave being “in charge.” Many will say that they took charge of something only as a last resort, as the only way to get sufficient freedom to pursue their own goals or as the means to correcting a percieved injustice.

An “old soul” and “young at heart”

This may be the signature mark of the pioneer, the thing parents and teachers might notice long before any pattern of accomplishment emerges. Pioneers are concerned with timeless and existential questions; they enjoy the company of much older people and are continuously at work on articulating a personal philosophy of life. They are also open to new technologies, experiences, and people, when those novelties can be pressed into service of important goals.

Why “treasure map”?

Posted in Introduction on April 17, 2007 by barbararuth

As a teenager introduced to the college admissions and career choice process, I came to believe that achieving success was like following the instructions in a manual: work hard, go to a “good” school, pay dues, and work my way “up.” I believed that every person and every workplace was as fired up about life as I was and took for granted that if I followed my basic interests and values, I would have no trouble finding a way to work on them in earnest.

I’ve realized that my success manual is really a treasure map: Parts of the instructions are written in a language I am still struggling to learn. Some of the pieces have been torn off, burned off, or damaged by water. The treasure I expect may not even be there when I arrive. Dragons, demon lovers, and unseen hands — not cozy coffee klatch buddies — are the traveling companions for this journey.

If I had the choice, though, would I have it any other way? Nah!