Monday, April 30, 2007

Sad: Marilee Jones and her unfortunate lies

The Boston Globe reported last week that Marilee Jones, MIT's Dean of Admissions - and a noted authority on calming kids down through the anxiety- and peril-fraught college application process - has been forced out of her job because her résumé was falsified. (Here's a link to the Globe article by Marcella Bombardieri and Tracy Jan.)

And this wasn't just a slight fudge, minor pad. Apparently Jones' c.v. claimed not one, not two, but three degrees that she doesn't hold.

I don't know Jones, but by all accounts she was a gifted admissions counselor whose mission was to ease the pain of the process - including the pain caused by rejection. Among other things, she maintained a blog urging students not to be so consumed by their résumés and instead focus on enjoying life.

Jones had been at MIT for nearly 30 years. Starting out as an administrative assistant - a position that, by the way, did not require a degree to begin with - Jones rose through the ranks. She was on the top of her game, one of the best.

It would have been a spectacular success story.

If only.

MIT may be experiencing a tiny bit of embarassment. But they'll get over it.

What about Marilee Jones?

I can't imagine that she'll ever recover from the self-inflicted pain and embarassment that she's caused herself, her family, and her colleagues.

How sad.

In tendering her resignation, Jones wrote "I misrepresented my academic degrees when I first applied to MIT 28 years ago and did not have the courage to correct my résumé when I applied for my current job or at any time since."

Apparently, someone blew the whistle on her, and I'm sure that eventually the details came out.

Had she made an enemy somewhere along the way? Had someone confronted her with the evidence, then felt compelled to turn her in once she refused to do the right thing?

How very sad.

I don't have lies on my résumé, but I can see how it could happen. Maybe not to the degree that Marilee Jones let it happen, but still...

Many years ago, having dropped out of PhD program I had no business in to begin with, I spent a few years working as a waitress and office temp. Along the way, I told a few people that I had gotten a Master's degree. It was more than a white lie, but less than a big fat lie. I had completed most of the requirements, written a thesis, taken all the political-science related qualifying exams, but I hadn't passed the language requirement. And to do so would have required me to both a) do more studying; b) fork over some money I didn't have.

But, even as a waitress and a temp - especially as a waitress and a temp - I wanted people to know I was smart.

Sure, I had gone to an obscure, second-tier college, but the MA from an Ivy League school made up for that. In my mind, telling people I had the degree was just short-hand for letting them know I woulda-coulda-shoulda- gone to a better college. My other strategy was dropping my SAT and GRE scores into the conversation. And yes, over 30 years later, I am blushing as I write these words.

On one of my temp jobs, there was a prospect of full time employment. When I handed in my résumé, I had to point out to my boss that I hadn't quite finished up that degree from Columbia that I'd been telling her about. She was okay with it and was, in fact, just as glad that I'd 'fessed up before she'd submitted my application. As it turned out, there was a hiring freeze on, so I didn't get an offer. (At least that's what I think happened - who knows.) I did stay on at that job for quite a while longer before leaving for a part-time job that would give me time to take enough make-up courses in economics and math courses to get me into business school. (At St. Podunk's, I'd been a sociology major, which qualified me for not much of anything.)

In any case, my lie thankfully never made it on to my résumé. What's there instead is "completed first year course work in a PhD program in political science", which is the complete and utter truth.

I no longer worry about whether people think I'm smart or not. I may have been an admissions mistake, I may have been the worst student in the history of the school, but getting in and out of the Sloan School of Management and MIT - to most people's minds - demonstrates that I've got a reasonably good brain.

Marilee, Marilee, Marilee.

What were you thinking when you said that you had degrees from RPI and Union College and Albany Medical College? Did you just want people to think you were smart? (And, by the way, what was MIT thinking someone with three degrees was doing applying for a job as an admin? Who knows.)

I look at the picture of you that's included in the story.

You look nice. You look kind. You look like you could be a one of my friends. You look like you would have been very reassuring to those tension-filled high school seniors applying to The Institute. You look honest.

But at one point in your life, you weren't.

And, as you say, you did not "have the courage" to make it right.

When it finally caught up with you, how did you feel? Had you been living like a fugitive from justice all those years, waiting for the tap on the shoulder? Were you relieved? Mad? Angered?

I'm not going to sit here and judge what Marilee Jones did or did not do.

All I'm going to say is how very, very sad.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Strap-hanging on Skybus

There's a new airline coming to Boston.

Well, it's not exactly coming to Boston-Boston.

It's coming to Portsmouth, NH, actually, which - if it's not exactly Boston-Boston, it is Boston in the sense that it's only about 50 miles away. Which is close enough to drive up for lunch on a Saturday (and has fun shopping and touristy stuff.) And people in New Hampshire do root for the Red Sox.

So, I can see why Skybus might call Portsmouth, NH, Boston.

Presumably, there are more people who want to fly from Boston to Columbus, Ohio than from Portsmouth to Columbus, Ohio.

Although at the introductory fare they're offering - $10 one-way, weekday, if I've got it straight - means that pretty much everybody in Portsmouth can afford to make the trip. Heck, at that price, the people in Portsmouth almost can't afford to stay home.

I find the notion of the rock-bottom airlines very intriguing.

I know that they cram in more seats, and cut down on anything that even vaguely approaches the idea of "frill".

But, still, $10 to fly from Boston/Portsmouth to Columbus?

Maybe they're trying to get us hooked on the trip.

But I've been to Columbus and, while it's a pleasant enough city, unless you're an Ohio State Buckeye, part of the state government, or trying to sell something to Nationwide Insurance, I don't think there's all that much that would woo you there on a steady basis.

I'll take their word that they've learned from the finest - Southwest Airlines and Ireland's own Ryanair - how to squeeze costs out of the system by automating everything in sight (although they still have pilots who do the flying - or at least watch the instrument panel) and "flying in and out of less congested airports."

That would be Portsmouth. And Columbus.

Which I'm guessing are less congested because fewer people live, work, and care to go there.

Then there are the Skybus Rules of Flying (which is, I'll give them props here, quite wittily and engagingly written) :

1. Don’t pay for everyone else’s baggage.

But you do pay $5 per checked bag (limit of two at that price), so I hope they're really policing what people carry on. (No, that steamer trunk will not fit in the overhead bin.)

2. Hungry? Thirsty? Bring cash.

Okay, unless we're stranded on the tarmac for 10 or 12 hours (which is so February 2007), ain't no one going to starve to death on the two hour flight from Boston/Portsmouth to Columbus. And if they want to charge for grub, well, fine.  But there's an ominous point made here:

Oh, and don’t sneak food onboard unless you brought enough for the whole plane.

Do they have special carry-on checks to make sure that you haven't stashed a bag of M&M's or a snack bar in there? What about someone who's willing to sneak their Au Bon Pain sandwich into the fetid little toilet and eat it there. Will there be food detectors that go off?

Personally, I wouldn't mind if airlines banned people bringing sloppy, smelly, drippy food onboard, since they always seem to be sitting next to me. But a discreetly munched Caprese sandwich and small bad of Cape Codder chips from Au Bon Pain?

Again, just how are they going to police this one?

3. Bring a book.

Duh? Is there anyone who doesn't get on a plane with at least two 600 page books and the latest copy of Vanity Fair? One thing I've learned flying over the years is that 80% of the time I'm going to hate the in-flight movie. So, fine and dandy that there's no in-flight entertainment.

4. Don’t call us.

We don't have a phone number...those phone banks are expensive.

Well, this might preclude some people - like the elderly and the blind - from flying Skybus, but I'm guessing they wouldn't want them, anyway, since they might actually need some help getting on and off. And I'm guessing that if something terrible and unforeseen happens, there'll be people needing people and pretty po'd that there's no phone number, but I can see why they might not want people calling.

5. Don’t be late. We won’t be.

6. Don’t expect an army of gate agents.

Self-serve kiosks. Again, not a bad idea, but I can see some people - blind, elderly - having a bit of a problem with this. (I know that in the last few years of my mother's life - she died at 81, and was extremely with-it; at the time of her death she had 2 major plane trips planned - one of her kids would typically accompany her to the airports, since they were getting a bit overwhelming and chaotic for her to navigate on her own. Maybe Skybus is counting on that for elderly or handicapped travelers. That or the kindness of strangers.)

7. Yeah, we’ve got preferred seats. Sort of.

There are no fancy reclining beds onboard, but you can pay 10 bucks extra to board our brand-new A319 airplanes before anyone else.

No fancy reclining beds? I actually wish that airlines would do away with their unfancy reclining seats, since I invariably sit in back of some guy who immediately throws his seat back and I spend the trip with his head in my lap.

8. Tickets are nonrefundable.

9. Bigger is not better.

Big airports can be a big pain. We choose less crowded and more convenient secondary airports for better punctuality and, of course, lower prices.

I get the "less crowded", but "more convenient". I have news for Skybus. For someone who lives in Boston, Logan Airport is actually more convenient than Portsmouth, NH. 

10. No spontaneous dancing in the aisle.

I'm guessing part of that is because there probably isn't all that much space in those aisles.

I know that while low-cost airlines are - by definition - low-cost, they can't in the long run be no cost. (I have friends in Ireland who fly all over the place on Ryanair, since it is so cheap to just up and go pretty much anywhere in Europe for cheap. But if you want to plan well-ahead and count on a trip, Ryanair's prices, while moderate, are not all that low. The bargains are for the spontaneous, seats-are-empty-why-not-sell-them trips that people can take advantage of.)

Anyway, just for the hell of it, I tried doing the math on how Skybus can afford to run a flight from Boston/Portsmouth to Columbus for $10 a head (assuming they make no marginal money off me or anyone else for sandwich buying, baggage-checking, blanket-buying, or early-boarding privilege).

Skybus says that their planes have 150-plus seats. Say, they take that plane and somehow manage to plus it up by 10%. (Leg room is overrated, after all, as long as you're not taller than 5'9''.)

At full capacity, that's a whopping $1650.

Now, I don't know what kind of gas mileage their planes get, but I read somewhere that a 747 burns five gallons per mile. Well, Skybus planes are smaller than that, so let's just say they burn one gallon per mile. Even allowing no extra oomph for take-off, that's roughly 650 gallons of jet fuel to get you from Boston/Portsmouth to Columbus. At $2 a gallon per jet fuel, that's $1300.

Let's no worry any about sunk costs (like equipment). Let's just focus on other marginal costs. Well, after they spend $1300 on fuel, they've got a cool $350 to pay the pilot, co-pilot, and flight attendants. (I'm assuming they need at least two per flight to make sure that no one sneaks on with an Au Bon Pain sandwich or tries to dance in the aisles.)

Well...we know where this is heading.

Obviously, with all their efficiencies, they'll be able to offer lower fares.

But it's all about the trade-offs.

Me, I'm willing to forego the plastic airline meal and the seedy blanket, but not the convenience of being able to easily get to the airport.  Who wants to fly back from Columbus to Boston/Portsmouth and face a long drive back to Boston/Boston?

And what about comfort?

I'm guessing they don't call it Skybus for nothing.

At any rate, it will be interesting to see how Skybus fares when they blow into town - or thereabouts - in late May.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Take a Memo, Miss Jones.

Remember how we used to worry about developing over-developed thumbs with all that texting? Or developing arthritis and the thumb equivalent of carpal tunnel syndrome?  Not to mention eye-strain from using teeny-tiny keyboards?

Those worrying days are over.

Over on Business Filter, Maura Welch had a good one the other day, introducing a technology/company called Jott that's going to put an end to having to text in something with the form factor of a matchbook.

What Jott does is allow you to send an e-mail or text message without having to type it in. Instead, you speed-dial Jott and dictate your message and Jott will key it in and deliver it to whomever you'd like (individual or group).

And - get this - the system is NOT based on speech-recognition technology.

Instead, it does things the old fashioned way. An actual, human being transcriber will do the typing for you.

The idea of Jott is not actually a bad one, although I find it a little hard to believe that there will be all that many people who are just too rushed, etc., to do their own texting or just go ahead an make a damn phone call.

And, as speech recognition technology becomes more refined and pervasive, won't this just do away with Jott entirely?

Why call them when you can bark your own message into your Blackberry and have it transcribed automatically. (Plus you can get to do quality control. Just how many Jott transcribers do we think are native speakers?)

There's not all that much info on Jott's site - you can sign up for the free beta, etc. - but one question that they pose did catch my attention. 

Have you ever ...

... felt like you don't remember things you should? Gifts to buy, a stroke of genius, a song to download, a cab fare?

Does it really make sense to call someone on the other side of the world to send you a text message when you can just do things the old fashioned way and jot yourself a note. Yes, I know, all those jotted down notes get lost.

But what about the other way you can send yourself a reminder?

Why, you could just go ahead and leave yourself a voice message.

How about that for a novel use of technology?

No outsourced transcription services required.

When you have the time, you can check your voice mail and jott down the message you've sent yourself. You could even type it in if you want to save your auto-messages for posterity. 

Let's face it, twenty years from now you might want to know that on April 30, 2007, you left yourself a note that said, "Buy milk. Send Tom a birthday card. Win MacArthur Foundation Grant."

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A little more hairspray, please!

Scott Baradell over on Marketing Profs had a delightful post the other day in which he laid out the seven reasons why he thinks hairdressers are the world's happiest workers. You need to read Scott for the full deal here, but in quick summary, Scott suggests that hairdressers are happy because its a profession that let's you:

  1. Be yourself
  2. Be creative
  3. Set short term goals
  4. Be social
  5. Form relationships
  6. Take ownership
  7. Not make work about the money

On that final point, it's worth quoting Scott:

Once you start making career decisions based on where the dollars are, rather than where your heart is, you've pretty much guaranteed yourself a life of unhappiness at work.

Scott's list is a good one, but I thought I'd add a few more of my own.  If you're a hairdresser:

  • You don't take your work home with you. Sure, you might bring a few styling magazines home, and your husband or kids might get an occasional trim, but once you walk out the door, your life's your own. No e-mails, no paperwork, no IMs.
  • There are no firedrills. I do understand that there can be such a thing as a hair emergency, and it's certainly possible that you could get called in to get the bride's hair right at the last moment. But it's hard for me to conceive of a top-drown firedrill in which everybody in the shop gets thrown into a frenzy because the boss has a brain spasm.
  • Mistakes aren't that costly. I know that my sister Trish might argue with this point, since she was once the victim of a bad highlights job that turned her hair pink, but even if someone just hates what you've done to them, it'll grow out. Not so bad decisions made at work, where it's definitely possible to screw up a product, account, deal, project - and it can cost your firm a lot of money.
  • You make tips. Having been a waitress I know that there is something highly satisfying about adding up your tips at the end of the evening and being able to figure out whether it was a good day at work.
  • You get to look at trashy magazines during your downtime. For years, my guilty pleasure when I was on a business trip was picking up a copy of People and a bag of M&M's and sitting in my hotel bed, in a strange faraway city, reading about George Clooney, Princess Di, and someone in Florida who was eaten by an alligator. Hairdressers have People and Us right there in front of them. They don't even have to buy it for themselves.

The only downsides, as far as I can tell, are having to work with chemicals and sweep up hair.

I will note, however, that I had an interesting conversation the other day with my incredibly wonderful hairdresser, Rita (for whom I have my sister Kathleen to thank). Rita's older daughter will be starting college in the fall, but one of her daughter's friends has decided to go to cosmetology school. Although she loves her profession, and is great at it, Rita doesn't think that this is such a good idea. It's too hard, she told me, when you're starting out, too many years at the low-end while your build your business up, not enough payoff once you do.

She is hoping that her daughter's friend changes her mind. Not going to college, Rita fears, means that this girl will miss out on the learning, the relationships, the experiences that Rita wants for her girls. Something that she didn't have.

Still, for Rita, it has been a good career.

And Scott's list is worth all of us looking at when we think about what we want from ours.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The 'Failure Circuit'

There's a very entertaining article by Susan Berfield in this week's Business Week, "I Was a Loser, Baby, So Why Don't You Pay Me?" chronicling one Bill Bartmann, a fellow who makes his living as a motivational speaker by touting his failures (which he's apparently had aplenty). And what can be more compelling than a success that failed. Bartmann's specialized in those.

His first success-failure was in the oil biz. In the 1980's, he built a fortune manufacturing oil pipes, but when crude stopped bubblin' he racked up a bit of debt.

Debt? Did somebody say debt?

Bartmann's next fortune was made on bad debts. He founded a company called Commercial Financial Services that, at one point, was the world's largest holder of bad consumer debt. The success of CFS put Bartmann on the Forbes list of 400 richest Americans. But CFS "secret sauce" was that it owned the debt outright. Which meant that it also owed the debt outright - at one point $14.5 billion worth.

Well, CFS ended up in a big tangle, with fraud and conspiracy indictments against Bartmann (of which he was acquitted), and personal bankruptcy.

On to the next money-making scheme.

As a businessman he had used the story of his early life to put lenders at ease, motivate employees, and in general establish his credibility as someone who can prosper in any circumstances. His setbacks began feeling like an affirmation of sorts: The wild arcs of his life offered valuable lessons. "I think I am the message, the answer," he says. "I'm selling the one thing everyone needs: self-confidence."

All I can say is that it takes one self-confident man to sell self-confidence. (I almost wrote "one self-confidence man."  Hmmmm.) Here's what Bartmann has to say about his new venture:

"The secret of success is elegantly simple, like the law of gravity. This is how the world works: You need to be willing to take risks. You don't because you are afraid of failure; you are worried about what people will think. And that's because of low self-esteem. To succeed, you have to raise your self-esteem."

Berfield writes that the motivation business is big -  a $10 billion industry - "even as its very premise--that its advice can change lives--remains unproven."

Apparently, among the most successful current breed of motivational speakers are those who've overcome some dire adversity, a list that includes:

The guy who chopped off his arm to save his life (Aron Ralston); the woman who treated herself for breast cancer in the South Pole (Jerri Nielsen); the prison guy who became a top chef (Jeff Henderson)...[and] Scott Waddle, commander of the nuclear submarine that accidentally sank a Japanese fishing boat in 2001, killing nine.

The latter makes $10K a pop for talking about how he overcame his own personal dire adversity. (I wonder how much the fishing boat survivors got.)

Berfield notes that there " may be as many as 15,000 people trying to make a living as professional speakers." The emphasis is mine, but the staggering number is Berfield's. There's no data on how many of them are in the motivational category, but my guess would be about 80-90% of so. (Thinks of every sales conference you ever went to....)

Bartmann's goal, according to Berfield, is "to do for failure what Betty Ford did for alcoholism and Susan Komen did for breast cancer."

With Bartmann forging the way, I see the possibility of a new calling for myself.

No, I can't look to any truly spectacular failures. I never had to saw my arm off or perform my own lumpectomy. (I did pierce my own ears when I was in college. Does that count?) No one, as far as I know, ever died because of anything I did as a technology marketer (although one customer did call in tears saying that she was going to lose her job because she'd purchased our product; caveat emptor and all that, but I did feel bad for her, especially as we were in no position to refund her $50K software license).

But I have worked in a number of companies that are no longer around, from mere $5M outfits well up to companies with revenues - or was it losses? - in the billions.

Of course, I have no desire to motivate an audience. No, my motivations would be more modest. I'd want people to identify with me and my work experiences. To empathize with my workplace woes - and share with me theirs. (And I just know that the audience will have plenty of them.) Oh, and maybe have a few laughs.

Ah, there's my problem.

Not once, in all the motivational books I've read, from all of the motivational speakers I've heard, have I once read or hear something that was actually funny.

At least not intentionally.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Dumbing Down of Candy Land

As a board-game aficionado from way back, I was shocked but unsurprised to see an article in The Boston Globe a few weeks ago noting that toy-maker Hasbro will be introducing "express" versions of Monopoly, Sorry, and Scrabble that will only take about 20 minutes to play. "Busy lives", the article said, "shorter attention spans."

Like most grown-ups who make the time in their busy lives to focus even a short bit of attention on the matter, I am concerned that children's lives are too busy, and their attention spans too short, to participate in a full-bore game of Monopoly, Sorry, or Scrabble. Depending on which way you look at it, I was the beneficiary or the victim of a non-programmed childhood, and I cherish the memories of all those hours spent playing Monopoly, Sorry, Clue, Parcheesi, Chutes and Ladders, Go to the Head of the Class, Yahtze, and any number of other mesmerizing board games that involved some combination of dice, markers, and movement.

Rather than speeding games up, which I suspect is just another term for dumbing them down, I would suggest that board games can be used to teach children focus and patience. Maybe these are characteristics that will no longer be needed in the techno era in which no one will ever have to wait in line with nothing to do, travel in a car that's not equipped with a DVD player, or spend time in a tent in the woods with no electricity and a run-down battery.

Perhaps it is paucity of imagination, however, that prevents me from actually imagining a world in which focus and patience will not matter. If nothing else, is it not likely that there will always be conversations in which attention actually has to be paid to the person speaking and what they are saying? 

Do we not want the children of the present to grow in to young adults of the future who, if not interested in or capable of writing a letter, are still willing to do things the old-fashioned way and send their parents or grandparents an e-mail instead of an IM. (Think of how perplexed those poor grandparents would be on the receiving end of a text message that reads LOL U. "Gertrude, honey, do you think he means Lots-of-Love-to-You or I-Laugh-Out-Loud-At-You." Ah, all the difference a missing digit can make if it's significant.)

And don't we want children to grow up to be able to focus on something, stick with it, see it through?

Rather than Express versions of games, is it not possible to, suggest that, if there isn't time to complete a game, you can declare a winner - or a tie - pack it up and move on. Or, even, leave the game in situ and return to it later?

Although the article did mention a DVD-based version of Candy Land, it did not indicate whether an express version is in the works. Since Candy Land is one board game you can actually play with a very young child with an exceedingly limited attention span, I am surprised that the manufacturers haven't jumped on the bandwagon.

Perhaps it's because, as everyone knows, what you can do to speed up Candy Land is cheat. (The Globe article quoted a mother of two who confessed to cheating at CL. She is, of course, not alone.)

Let's face it, a two year old might not notice that you've stacked the deck and put the Molasses Swamp card where she'll pick it; a four year old might not care. (He'll just be happy he won.)

If you've got two close in age kids playing the game, and you don't want to let one win over the other, cheat to win for yourself. Sometimes adults win. Sometimes kids lose. Sometimes life is unfair. And sometimes, especially when it's getting near bedtime, life comes at you awfully fast. Lessons every bit as important as attention span and focus.

In any case, do we really need new versions of old games to tell us how to speed them up. Think about it for a moment.

Even without cheating, Candy Land can be sped up in any number of ways: Have each player draw three cards at once; institute a 'no-going-back' rule - even if you pick Peppermint Stick Forest; let kids play with a handicap (10 minus their age), so that each time they move they can add a few more squares.

In Parcheesi, start out in the space that's one-quarter closer to home. In Monopoly, do a random draw of a couple of deeds each before you start out.

Before you fork out twenty bucks for an express version of anything, make up your own. Use your creativity. Use your imagination. Think out of the rectangular, cardboard box the darn game came in.

Which is, of course, precisely what people are doing.  The Globe article talked about one such imaginative game player:

Tracie Broom, a San Francisco writer, and her friends cannibalize Scrabble to play a quicker word game -- called alternately Anagram or Grab Scrabble. They put the Scrabble tiles face down, and flip them over one-by-one, calling out new words as they are formed, or stealing words from other players.

It takes 15 to 20 minutes to play.

That's the spirit, Tracie. Power to the game playing people!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Management Theory Meets the Cambridge Blues

A brief article in the March 31st Economist caught my eye. "Rhythm and blues" described how the Cambridge University rowing club is applying management theory to selecting and training the rowers for their April 7th race with rival Oxford. (And this isn't just any old race. It's now been held 153 times, and its url is simple, elegant, and so very British-ly understated

In any case, the Cambridge club's try outs and trials have been observed by business school management theorist Mark deRond, who "thinks that the time-honoured contest holds lessons for business today." 

As in any company, the members of the boat club are torn between competition and co-operation. Colleagues vie with each other for preferment, yet must collaborate closely to fend of competition from without. To win a seat in the blue boat, a rower must outshine his clubmates; but to go fast, rowers must synchronise their efforts with the same people they are trying to outdo.

The club coach, Duncan Holland, is shown coaching by "leading from the side." When two rowers are each trying to "impose his natural tempo on the other," Mr. Holland doesn't tell one to pick it up or the other to slow it down. Instead, he encourages the team to solve the problem themselves. They do. So it's not about individual ego, about individual best, it's about team success.

The coach (with Mr. de Rond's help?) ends up choosing the final rowers from a highly competitive field of hopefuls, and at least one of the picks appears at first to be unorthodox. Dan O'Shaughnessy's technique is awkward, but he is someone who "gets the best out of his crewmates, who like to have him around."

There is a brief mention of a Harvard Business Review article "which found that workmates prize amiability over ability, preferring the 'loveable fool' to the 'competent jerk.'"

My work as part of teams over the years certainly underscores the notion that groups that get along are more productive. But in my experience it's entirely possible to work with people who are both loveable and competent. And that there's nothing worse than working with someone who's both incompetent and unpleasant.

The article brought to mind my experience working on a team effort in which a group of us were prepping our boss for his "big" presentation to executive management. We all had our roles - numbers crunching, fact finding, prototyping, info gathering - although one member of the team seemed to be able to dog all work. He took on a self-appointed role as cheerleader, checking in on us and giving the worker bees an occasional atta-girl or atta-boy.

As the hour of our boss's departure for corporate HQ neared, I took on the role of lead scrambler, pulling everything together - and doing the copying, collating, binding. (All those good girl tasks.)

My boss appeared at the door of the conference room where I was busily packing things up for him, overcoat already on, ready to race out the door with the goods. Right behind him stood my cheerleading friend. Also wearing an overcoat.

Where, I wondered, might he be going in the middle of the morning with his overcoat on.

Although the team had been told that our boss was flying solo at this meeting, somehow or another, Mr. Cheerleader had convinced him that his presence was necessary. To add insult to injury, he had the nerve to come over to me, pat me on the shoulder and thank me for all the help I'd given him and Steve.


I've been on other teams with jerks like this: showboaters, credit-grabbers, goldbrickers.

Sometimes, it seems, things work to their benefit - to management, they appear to be leaders, on top of things, the one in charge.

But things look very different when you're on a team with them. People seldom elect to team up with them again, and, invariably, their behavior catches up with them. If someone is both useless and a jerk, it will generally be recognized sooner or later.

In any case, and for whatever reason, the article on the Cambridge Blues reminded me of this long-forgotten incident.

And oh, yes, Cambridge beat Oxford by a length and a quarter.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Work happy

Inside the Cubicle has a recent post on "the little things - the traditions, the quirks, the silly events - that make a big difference" at work. It got me thinking of all the little fun-at-work things that made a difference at the places I worked - and the ones that fell flat on their face.  In my experience, the good ones included:

  • Friday Party: I worked at two companies (both founded by the same guy) that had a regular junk food-wine-beer party every Friday. I'll definitely date myself here by noting that at one time, Friday Party also meant grass. (All very Cambridge.) It was a great way to wind down the week and socialize, pretty much everybody went, and there were always leftovers for the weekend warriors. (Ah, the good old days when you had to drag into work on the weekend if you wanted to use a computer.) When the first of my Friday Party places, Dynamics Associates, closed its doors - having been acquired, our little outpost was eventually shut down and consolidated with the mothership out in the suburbs - about 200 people showed up for the final Friday Party. This at a company that I don't think ever had more than 50 or 60 people working there. At the final FP, one of my friends said, "You will never work at a place that inspires this kind of camaraderie again." But I did.
  • Friday Lunch: Softbridge had Friday Party, but we also instituted Friday Lunch, for which people took turns bringing in desert. There was a small official element to Friday Lunch - news, announcements, recognition - but mostly it was about getting together and having fun. When we hired new people, we tried to get them to come to a Friday Lunch before they accepted an offer. If they could recoiled from the sometimes raucous, always irreverent Friday Lunch, they wouldn't have liked working at Softbridge very much.
  • Color of the Week: I pretty much hated my two years, seven months, and twenty-three days I worked at Wang Labs, but I really enjoyed my group (a couple of dozen folks who formed the financial services vertical products group). Somewhere along the line, we started declaring "color of the week" and on Fridays, everyone - and I mean pretty much everyone - wore something with that color in it. The results were sometime hilarious. We had one techie who always managed to dredge up a shirt from the 60's or 70's that was the right color. We also got together for Friday lunch and played trivia, with people taking turns coming up with the game. (This week's winner brought next week's game.) The topics were pretty wide-ranging: Wang products, marine biology, TV theme songs, license plates, space exploration. Competition was intense, and we had an awful lot of fun playing - and also learned a lot about each other.   

And there were those things that didn't work:

  • Bah Humbug Christmas Eve Lunch: The first two years I worked at Wang, they had a very nice tradition of having families come into work on Christmas Eve morning. Each group or area had parties and the company closed around noon. All very sweet and fun to see all the little kids running around. My final year, the new management put an end to this sweet little tradition, sent around a mean spirited memo reminding everyone that it was a full workday, then invited us all to a free lunch - served up by the execs wearing Santa hats - in the company caf. By the time my group got to the front of the line, the first tier execs had left and we got served rubber turkey and luke warm potatoes by a bunch of lower level VPs we didn't recognize. Lame and dispiriting.
  • The Good Humor Man: When I worked at Genuity, senior managers would - once a quarter or so - wheel around the building with an ice cream cart, going from floor to floor giving out treats. Sure, it was nice to have the ice cream break, but I was never quite sure what these were supposed to accomplish, since it's not as if the execs ever hung around to chat. They just wheeled on over to the next area and rang their little bell.
  • Hail to the Chief: The all time worse was when I worked one Christmas vacation as a temp at a large insurance agency in Worcester. The pink collar workers sat at desks in an open floor, broken up into sub-areas by file cabinets. I'm not sure what our group was called, but I spent my days there typing the letter "B" on forms. On Christmas Eve, mid-morning, our boss told us that the president of the company would be coming by to extend his Christmas greetings to us. She was quite excited, and coached us on how we should behave. A few seconds before Mr. Big arrived at our area, his frontrunner appeared at the opening to our enclosure and announced, "He's on his way."

    "Sit up straight, girls," our boss barked, "Face the entryway."

    Mr. Big showed up, stood at the entrance for a second or two, waved, and, without making eye contact with anyone, hollered, "Merry Christmas, girls."

    After he'd left our boss sighed and said, in a hero-worshipful tone, "He doesn't have to do that." 

The ones that worked were organic and pretty much defined the culture. Even if they were "invented" by management, they never seemed obligatory or imposed. It's probably no accident that the corporate fun that was the most fun was in smaller settings where everyone knew each other - and management knew everybody - and were generally pretty friendly. At Wang (big company) the small group "color of the week" was good for morale, bonded our team, and gave us all a good laugh. The corporate, grudging Christmas lunch was just depressing.

Interesting to consider if you're thinking about what makes a corporate culture positive.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Do lay-offs work?

I spent 25 years in technology companies, all of which went - at some time or another - through protracted periods of lay-offs.

Thus, I was understandably interested in a question posed by Paul Michelman over on The Harvard Business School Press blog. Michelman asked Jeff Pfeffer, a Stanford B-School professor, for his reaction to Citigroup's recent announcement that they would laying off 17,000 employees. Here's what Pfeffer had to say:

"There is lots of evidence on the effects of downsizing—or 'restructuring' as it is sometimes euphemistically called—and that evidence mostly indicates that downsizing does not increase stock price over a long period of time or enhance productivity, quality, innovation, or customer service. "

Pfeffer was reacting to a New York Times article on the lay-offs, which apparently stated that 8% of Citigroup's employees would be "affected" by the cuts, an percentage that Pfeffer regards as ridiculous:

"Until people know who is being laid off, many will be fearful. And there is lots of evidence that those who 'survive' layoffs also exhibit diminished motivation and attachment to the organization—sort of 'survivor' guilt. Citigroup’s actions will affect most of their employees—all right, not the big cheeses but the rank and file—who will wonder who is next and what this portends for the future."

I'm happy to read Pfeffer's comment that the evidence suggests that lay-offs fail to "enhance productivity, quality, innovation, or customer service."

That was certainly true at the companies where I worked. More to the point, lay-offs failed to ensure survival.

Of the five companies I worked for during those 25 years, the only survivors (sort of) are the companies  - Dynamics Associates and NaviSite  - that bracket my years in the corporate world. In the first case, Dynamics Associates (a brainiac little consulting firm that specialized in econometric and financial modeling) was acquired by Interactive Data Corporation. I was with Dynamics during its last, immediate post-acquisition years. During these times, we floundered around trying to "survive" while waiting for Interactive to figure out what to do with us. Those times were painful, and riddled with lay-offs, but Interactive eventually did figure out what to do with Dynamics, which was to close it down and take the products and employees back to the mothership. Interactive Data - an incredibly focused and, by the standards of the other companies I worked for, incredibly successful, is still in business. A number of my former Dynamics colleagues are still there in high level positions.

I left Interactive Data after getting into a snit with my boss. The rebound took me to Wang Labs. I've lost track of the lay-offs I survived during the two-and-a-half miserable years I spent at Wang, but they were numerous and, if I remember correctly, at least quarterly.

Softbridge is another story entirely. But throughout my 9+ years there, we had a number of lay-offs . In fact, I was fired - my first Pink Slip - after a knock-down, drag-out fight with the president over how we were going to position the lay-offs we were about to have to the survivors. I did everything short of challenge him to a duel, but he was the one in possession of the dueling pistols and he chose to use one on me. Ouch! As I said, this is another story entirely. In any event, a few Softbridgers survive, a vestigial organ, in a company that was spun out from Teradyne, which had acquired Softbridge somewhere along the way.

At Genuity, my next career stop, we began regular lay-offs in the wake of our disastrous IPO and the disastrous whatever-it-was with our crypto-parent, Verizon. Having volunteered for separation from that disaster (which spun fully out of existence and into bankruptcy), I vowed never again...

That was until my former boss at Genuity asked me to join his team at NaviSite. I was getting better at figuring out the lay of the land and, when I walked up that gang-plank I made a mental note that I would be there 18 months max. It turned out to be 16 months before they turned me and my ex-boss out.

So, while I've never been in a corporation large enough to have a 17,000 person lay-off - although Wang, arguably, ended up laying off 30,000 people over the years - I am no stranger to lay-offs. I've put people on the list. I've taken people off the list. I've warned people their time is coming. I've been laid off. I've told people that they've been laid off. I've helped people pack their offices up. I've carried boxes to the door. I've been the "buddy" with the Kleenex. I've traded rumors. I've had the inside scoop. I've worried. I've been relieved. I've sat through the post-lay-off rah-rah meetings. I've been a cheerleader at the post-lay-off rah-rah meetings.

So I probably know a lot more about what lay offs are actually like than most academics who study them. And I'm sure that Jeff Pfeffer is right.

While each of "my" companies had unique issues, all were the same in that the lay-offs never solved anything. In some cases, they seemed to accelerate the death-spiral. The obsessional focus became "if we just cut heads/expenses one more time, then we'll be right-sized and survive." Time and energy that would have been better spent on trying to figure out what our purpose and value to customers was, instead was wasted on quarterly, roller-coaster lay-offs.

The pattern in a couple of the larger companies (Wang Labs, Genuity) where I experienced quarterly lay-offs was one in which it would be rumored that a lay-off was coming; the rough timing of the lay-off would be announced; people would start speculating about who (groups,categories,individuals) would be impacted; work - other than the absolutely essential must get done to keep operation - would slow to a crawl; lay-off would occur; company meeting/memo/whatever to bolster the survivors - "we've turned the corner, blah-di-blah"; a few weeks of almost fully concentrated work - but never completely so, there was always too much fear and trembling, sorrow and guilt; then rumors of another lay-off...

And so it went. Lay-offs were always too large, and never large enough. They were, however, something that management could actually "do" and demonstrate "results". ("We said that we were going to cut personnel expenses by 10% and we have....")

If the lay-offs I experienced had been "smart" lay-offs, in which off-strategy or non-profitable business units, product lines, offices were closed down, that might have been one thing. They never were. Instead, they were numbers games - 'how many people do we need to get rid of in order to make the number we have in mind?'

In any case, I've yet to see lay-offs solve a fundamental identity problems (lack of focus, lack of strategy, lack of coherence, lack of will, etc.) of any company. Never.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

I know, it's only Rock 'n Roll Fantasy Camp...

...but I like, I like it...

Actually, that's a lie. In truth, I would loathe Rock 'n Roll Fantasy Camp, which sounds pretty much like a guy thing, but I couldn't resist checking it out once my brother-in-law Rick  saw an ad for it in the Wall Street Journal and alerted me.

You've already missed the one that was held in LA this February, but there's still room to get on board for May's London edition. The dollar's faring poorly against the pound, so it won't be cheap, but for $13,999 (+ 1,999 for spouse) you get 5 days and nights jamming with the likes of the Stones' Bill Wyman, Gary Brooker of Procol Harum, and Jack Bruce of Cream. (I don't think hotel is included in this fee, but "you can stay at the trendy Mayfair Hotel where Rockstars are a daily fixture!" Exclamation point courtesy of R'R Fantasy Camp.)

For a few extra bucks, you can tack on an extra day's sidetrip to Liverpool and the opportunity to play some Beatles' covers at The Cavern.  Gear! Fab! (Exclamation points courtesy of me.)

Much as I enjoy a good celebrity spotting myself, this has very little appeal to me, probably because I didn't like loud music when I was young, and I like it even less now. (For whatever reason, I was a modest fan of Cream, however. Must have been those scintillating lyrics: "I'm so glad, I'm so glad, I'm glad, I'm glad, I'm glad.")

No, if I were going to attend Fantasy Camp, it would be Folk Song Fantasy Camp, where there'd be no expensive leather jackets but plenty of Birkenstocks and elastic-waist LL Bean khaki shorts. We'd all sit around the campfire strumming acoustic guitars and signing Blowin' In the Wind.

But I know there are a lot of guys my age who were in garage bands and beyond, even, who would really enjoy the chance to jam with Bill Wyman.

If you miss the London Camp, there's one in New York City over Labor Day that features someone from Kiss and Ted Nugent. Let the head banging commence!

What really interested me, however, is the Corporate Camp that this outfit also runs. Led by a member of Bad Company - and could there be a better band name for the head counselor of a corporate camp? - this camp promises "immeasurable, numerous, lasting benefits", including:

  • Engaging and motivating your employees in a way that no traditional training event or incentive program has ever achieved
  • Breaking through organizational hierarchy and boundaries by placing all levels of your company together as equals in a band and opening up communication channels by the equity created within the rock band environment.
  • Strengthening teamwork and collaboration skills as the bands work to utilize the varying skills of all band members, and then further utilize these skills on a daily basis.
  •  Igniting the creative thought process as bands work to select and perform material (especially original material), which will carry over to their work.
  •  Building exceptional presentation skills by having employees perform in front of hundreds of people, the high profile client’s board room doesn’t seem so intimidating any more!
  •  Building lasting employee networks through the high energy/intensity team environment, generating greater loyalty to the organization as well as to each other.

Ghastly as all this sounds to me, it would actually be more fun than tooling around in Formula One Racing Cars (which I fortunately and blessedly was able to avoid at one company) or the Medieval Manor Dinner that was forced on me at one point (trust me, you don't want to see a fellow-employee walking around swinging a loaf of French bread between his legs).

It would be a nice break from the team building off-sites that featured little more than flip-charts, although it wouldn't be as much fun as  my personal preference: the pop-psychology off-sites where everyone takes a personality test and you get to figure out how to get along with everyone better. (I was at sales conference where they grouped us by color and the Reds  - where virtually all the sales people landed -  turned on the Blues and Greens and started jeering and hooting in a menacing way. One sales guy who found himself stuck in the Blue group kept muttering, 'There must be some mistake." This was actually a wonderful learning experience, as I figured out for the first time why I actually despised most of our sales team, those Flaming Reds.)

At Corporate Rock 'n Roll Camp, it's not enough to have counselors from Bad Company, Grand Funk Railroad, Kiss, and Alice Cooper:

You can also “super size” the package and add a Mega Star
to join in the festivities.

Who's on that roster of Mega Stars?

Roger Daltry (The Who)
Mickey Hart (Grateful Dead)
Levon Helm (The Band)
Mickey Dolenz (The Monkees)
Dr. John (The Nighttrippers)

That's who. (Or Who.)

I like the thought of reworking Grateful Dead songs to fit the corporate mold. Get rid of those "high on cocaine" lines, and "Casey Jones" would do:

Trouble ahead, trouble behind. And you know that notion just crossed my mind.

Although you'd probably want to change that "Trouble" to something like "Profits ahead, losses behind."

How about, "In the next fiscal year, we intend to keep truckin' like the do-dah man."

A brochure quote from Roger Daltrey - well, it almost but not quite brought a tear to my eye ."I like interacting with real people who have a passion and a dream. I was lucky with my passion and dream so it’s great to be able to give back.”

Giving back by participating in Corporate Rock 'n Roll Fantasy Camp. What a guy! And here was a fellow who just forty short years ago was singing lyrics like :

People try to put us down (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
Just because we get around (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
Things they do look awful cold (Talkin' 'bout my generation) Yeah, I hope I die before I get old (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

Well, giving back sure sounds like a lot more fun than dying before you get old. (And how among us hasn't lived to regret some of the things we said and did...)

And  'talkin' 'bout my generation, these rock 'n roll stars are all a bit long in the tooth, aren't they?

Not that they can't still rock on, but it seems that the appeal of rubbing guitar strings with these guys would be mostly to Baby Boomers. What about corporate folks in their thirties or early forties? Wouldn't getting down with Mickey Dolenz and Levon Helm be the equivalent of having a corporate retreat twenty-five years ago that featured the Andrews Sisters and Tommy Dorsey?We could have bonded singing "You've got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative..." and had our morale lifted with "Don't fence me in." 

I guess that Cold Play and U2 have better things to do.

Maybe twenty years from now, they'll be Fantasy Camp headliners.

Until then, it'll be the Baby Boomer idols, and all those successful Baby Boomers who can afford the price of R'nR camp, or who work for companies that spring for corporate camp, will have their day.

And, alas, their rock 'n roll moment will stay in the realm of fantasy. (Yeah, they 'keep getting richer, but they can't get their picture, on the cover of Rolling Stone.')

Monday, April 16, 2007

On the reading list: Penelope Trunk's Brazen Careerist

Brazen Careerist blogger Penelope Trunk has a book coming out in a few weeks. 

After my recent discovery of Penelope's blog, and a few comments I'd made there, Penelope and I ended up in a couple of e-mail exchanges that resulted in - wonder of wonders in the blogosphere - an actual phone conversation. In any event, Penelope sent me a pre-publication copy of Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success., which I just finished reading.

I am pleased to announce that Brazen Careerist is an advice book that is actually well-written, sharp, and funny. There is plenty of excellent on- and off-the-job business wisdom contained within, yet the book is absolutely devoid of pietistic lard or corn-pone cutes. Nobody moved this girl's cheese. And nobody taught her everything she needed to know in kindergarten, either.

It helps, of course, that Penelope can both write and think. It also helps that she has had a wildly interesting career, starting with early-on jobs plucking chickens on a French farm and signing Esther William's autograph on 8x10 glossies. (Esther Williams! For those drawing a blank, she was a swimmer who starred in aqua-maid musicals in the forties and fifties. Hard to imagine that anyone was looking for an autographed glossy of Esther anytime post-1956, but apparently they were. If you were the recipient of one, say, twenty-odd years ago, it may have been "autographed" by Penelope Trunk. This may actually increase its resale value someday.)

Penelope was also a professional beach volley ball player, software firm executive, and a bunch of other things.

Along the way, she learned a lot, and in Brazen Careerist she's willing to share. The  book is nominally aimed at Generation X and Generation Y-ers (i.e., those under 40), but there are a number of practical points and viewpoints in the book that will prove useful to their Baby Boomer 'rents, as well.

Her advice on résumés, interviewing, negotiating, cold-calling, and e-mailing are apt and generation-less. (I'm not looking for a job, but I do have a résumé floating around somewhere, and I will soon away to purge it of all paragraphs and get it down to one page. Why advertise that I'm old enough to have a two-page résumé?)

Penelope's main thesis is that people in their twenties and thirties will have a different relationship to work, and will define and shape their careers in a far different way than did their parents.

They will, she argues, demand more work-life balance. They want flexibility. They want to learn. They have no intention of staying in one job forever. They're not about money. They will not work at "grind" jobs. They want meaning in the workplace.

Certainly, she is right that things will be different for the GenX and Gen Y cohorts. And, indeed, every generation has its own day. But I think she makes too strong a point about the Gen X-Yers redefining everything. For one thing, many Baby Boomers still have some work life left in them, and they, too, are doing things differently - and pretty much along the same lines as "the kids" - in the later stages of their careers in terms of flex-time and meaning.  (Boomers are not, however, going to be taking Penelope's advice about going back home and living with their parents to save money.)

Penelope's right that the new kids on the work block won't have any corporate loyalty, but globalization and general business-Darwinism have made the concept of sticking with one job and being loyal to an organization passé a long time passing. (Having worked in several technology companies that no longer stalk this earth, I can assure Penelope that there are plenty of us boomers who have already found this to be true.)

It also goes unstated that technology is making the kinds of flexibility that the Gen X and Yers will demand a possibility. They didn't invent it, but they will surely profit from it in terms of having greater flexibility and fluidity between the work and non-work staging in their lives. (This may not prove to be an unalloyed joy.)

So, while the Gen X and Gen Y folks will "remake" work, it is also being remade for them, whether they like it or not. Their choices about remaking work will be the rational response to what is going on. Free choice, yes, but somewhat inevitable.

But if Penelope leaves the big macro trends unacknowledged, well, it's her book. And her point is that the savvy folks among those coming of professional age will get and stay on top of the overall trends that are reshaping the workplace, and further shape these trends so that they are their very own. They will and should not just let things happen by default. (And without any pining for the not-so-good-old days of "stability": seize the time, the day, and the workplace.)

Brazen Careerist is quite a good little book. Graduation time is soon upon us, and Penelope's publication date in May means that it should be on the list for college graduates. And recent grads who have boomeranged home. And thirty-ish "kids" who haven't quite figured out what they want to do just quite yet.

And, although it might spoil the positioning, it's not a bad little book for the Baby Boomers, either.

Friday, April 13, 2007

E-Ink: I saw it in the e-paper

A couple of weeks ago, The Boston Globe ran an article by Carolyn Johnson, E-paper Comes of Age, that profiled Cambridge-based E Ink. E Ink, Johnson tells us, is a harbinger that the "electronic paper, long hyped as the technology that would make newspapers and books obsolete, is finally making its way into consumer products."

While with my WiFi'd condo and iPod, I am not exactly a Luddite, I am someone who does on occasion allow herself a fret about technology.

Books obsolete? Shudder and gulp. Given the great pleasure I've gotten out of books my entire life, do I now have to worry that the printed word won't last my lifetime? That I'll spend my last days reading forty-year old copies of Alice Munro short stories and the collected works of Heinrich Böll? Will my last breath on the face of earth be full of old book mold? Will I die defending the last book on earth from the snatches of some 20 year old recycling militant?Shudder and gulp, alright.

Not to worry just quite yet, but E Ink has apparently been doing wondrous things with screen technology for advanced electronics like the Sony Reader tablet. (Reader tablet?  Oh, no! Shudder. Gulp.)

What E Ink has developed is something called "electrophoretic" ink that is making the "digital screen that looks, bends, and folds like paper" possible. And, while they're at it, e-ink is apparently green-ink, too, with minimal power consumption when compared to traditional screen requirements. Energizer Bunny, beware: you won't need to be so darned energizing for much longer. These batteries will last. 

So far, the market for this sort of technology is small. Jennifer Colegrove , the iSuppli analyst quoted in Johnson's article, estimates the overall market is just $78 million. But, of course, it's growing at a healthy clip.

Some of the applications that Johnson talks about in her article:

Emano Tec Inc. in Newton has adopted the technology to create washable medical tablets for doctors. A Lexar jump drive uses E Ink's technology to create a disk space gauge. Polymer Vision uses the technology in a foldable electronic paper display called the Readius that connects to a wireless network, allowing people to access data and read news on a 5-inch paper like screen instead of a cellphone.

The 5-inch paper-like screen. How cool is that?

No surprise that E Ink's roots are in the MIT Media Lab, and as their web site lets us know:

E Ink's technology is ideal for many consumer and industrial applications spanning handheld devices, watches, clocks and public information and promotional signs. Future technology developments will enable many new applications through ultra-thin, lightweight, rugged, flexible, full color displays.

Well, I still think that I'd prefer to curl up with a good book, rather than with an E Ink-powered tablet of some sort. Literary novels and short stories. Serious biographies and history. (I'll admit. I'm a reading snob, and, while I'm not exactly sitting around with my nose in Bertrand Russell or Henry James all the time, most of my reading is not of the ultra-light variety.)

But it's certainly easy to see the advantages in plenty of applications.  Including not so good books.

Why shouldn't beach reading be downloadable and do-away-with-able? Why waste the tree? Sure, I might pass on a Janet Ivanovich book to one of my sisters, but it's not exactly like I'm going to put it on the shelf next to William Trevor and save it for a re-read.

And while I might still want to mull over The Atlantic, why shouldn't People Magazine - a guilty pleasure I occasionally allow myself; after all, who doesn't need to know about Angelina's new kid or whether Zsa-Zsa's eighteenth husband is real royalty or not? - be something that gets read on a screen.

I'm sure I could already do all this downloading onto my laptop, but the form factor isn't right. If E Ink can improve on that with a real portable reader with the right look and feel, I'm all for it.

And then there's reading for information or "knowledge". (Yes, I know information can be pleasurable, but I really create a distinction in my mind between the two.) Self-help books. Business books. Almanacs.

There are a lot of books that absolutely lend themselves to one and done.

And, come to think of it, if you can cram dozens of books into an eBook published with E Ink, and it only ways as much as a paperback, and kind of feels sort of like pages you can turn....

Maybe it'll be okay all around.

So, bravo E Ink.

While I am not yet prepared to surrender my fret about the last paper book on earth. But I am prepared to give an E Book a good old-fashioned read.

Ready when you are.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Workplace Violence: Be Careful Out There

On April 9th - a Monday morning - in a terrible workplace incident, Anthony LaCalamita, a recently-fired employee of a Michigan accounting firm, returned to work. Apparently bent on avenging his firing, LaCalamita shot three people, critically wounding two of the firm's managers (his presumed targets) and killing a 67 year old retired secretary who was pitching in as receptionist during the busy tax season.

It is hard to imagine the horror for this woman's family, for the two men shot, and for all of the employees of Gordon Advisors.

Sure, we've all heard (and maybe even made) ghoulish remarks about employees "going postal", but we take for granted that we're safe at work - especially those of us who are in non-dangerous, white collar professions. Like accounting.

Personally, the only violence I've ever witnessed as work was when one hothead, ticked off that we'd made an offer to someone he didn't want to hire, put his fist through the wall. (We hung a picture over it.) The hire of his objection turned out to be an incredibly fine employee (and a great friend of mine.) The hothead? He did alright by himself, and went on to become president of a software company. In retrospect, this "incident" has become an amusing story, a "remember the time...."

Personally, I have never felt physically threatened at work - other than that one time an off-kilter colleague, ticked off that I'd gotten a very small promotion he felt entitled to, fired off an anonymous e-mail screed attacking 'women who got ahead because of their personality," rather than their technical prowess.

Sorry, pal, EQ trumps IQ. And that promotion? It was more of a faux-motion: title change, small shift in responsibility, no increase in pay - you were still making more than I was, you jerk.

I wasn't frightened. Not really. Other than for that second or two when I entertained the thought that you just might be crazy enough to do me some harm...

So, personally, I haven't had much fear. But I have - perhaps being paranoiac - been fearful for others.

I worked for many years at a small software company where, at one point, we hired a woman as an administrative assistant who did not - to put it mildly - work out. While I had recommended not hiring "Martha", intuiting that she would not be a good "fit" for the person she would be supporting, I in no way could have predicted just how poor a fit she would be.

And lest I appear to be giving myself too much credit for recommending against Martha's hire, what I missed entirely during the interview process was that she was deeply disturbed. As in seriously mentally ill.

Shortly after she began working with us, Martha admitted to me that she had left some things off of her resume - namely, her engineering degree from a prestigious university - so that she wouldn't raise any eyebrows about applying for a "lowly" administrative job. I felt considerable sympathy for her - she told me that she had suffered from a nervous breakdown and was just recovering. There were other details of her personal life that she revealed to me that further caused me to feel sympathetic - but which also caused me to see that things were not likely to work out for her with us.

They didn't.

All the sympathy in the world couldn't change the fact that Martha had to go.

On the day that she was fired - which was done as deftly and sympathetically as could be done by "amateurs": we did not even have a real HR person in our very small company at that point, and God knows none of us were trained psychologists - I was truly fearful that Martha might do something erratic. Violent, even. (This may be a case of a false memory from a dozen years ago, but I've somehow convinced myself that at one point she had once mentioned something to do with a gun.)

I shared my misgivings with her boss, "Paul", the logical target in Martha went, errrr, postal. I warned him that he needed to be careful: Martha knew where he lived.

Paul assured me he'd be on the alert.

As it turned out, Martha went quietly.

What a relief.

When I worked at Genuity, where we had wholesale, quarterly lay-offs as we entered our death spiral, security was always increased for lay-off day. Fortunately, I had nothing to fear from the people on my team. Not that the people whose names I'd put on lay-off lists weren't upset, or out-and-out angry with me. But I never felt at all at risk.

But there was a lot of anger roiling around out there.

In bulletin boards and chat rooms - precursors to today's blogs - an occasional threat aimed at a couple of our executives would pop up.

Idle trash-talk in the anonymity of the Internet? Real threats? Who knew?

Whether they were "benign" or not, I found these comments deeply disturbing.People had a right to be upset, annoyed, angry, mad-as-hell. They were losing their jobs. And some of them were also losing their shirts. Certainly if they had invested heavily in our tortured, failed IPO they were. (Unless they'd been canny enough to short the stock.)

But translating their losses into death threats on Joe Farina and Paul Gudonis?


I thought of all this as I read the accounts of the Michigan shooting.

No doubt it will all come out, but I don't know why Anthony LaCalamita was fired. Or how he was fired. Or what else was going on in his tortured soul that caused him to shoot up his former place of work.

Was he fired in a cruel manner?

Probably not.

Midwest nice and all that aside, most people, when they have to fire or lay someone off, behave decently and are well-intentioned. Sure, we may be awkward and clumsy when it comes to giving someone the bad news, and God knows it's never pleasant, but few people actually take any pleasure in the act. (I do know of at least one who did: He laid off a colleague by phone while the colleague was in the newborn ICU unit with his wife and sick just-born baby. Afterwards, the prince among princes who'd done the firing was overheard telling someone how much he had enjoyed it.)

And few of us who make personnel decisions, however sympathetic and decent we might want to be, aren't really prepared to gauge how someone will react to the bad news. We don't know everything that's going on in their professional lives. Let alone in their personal lives. Let alone in their heads.

Madeline Kafoury is the name of the woman who got in the way of Anthony LaCalamita's anger and craziness. Talk about an innocent bystander.

Of course I may have her all wrong, but it's easy for me to imagine Madeline's presence in the office. Kind heart. Yenta. Mother hen. The one who knew where everything was stored, and where everyone was. The only person who ever washed the coffee pots out. The one who every once in a while brought in her famous crumb cake, the one who could tell when someone was pregnant even before she announced, the one with the sympathetic cluck and a hand pat. The one who knew the names of everyone's kids, who liked - maybe even loved - all of the people in the office, and who made the office feel like home.

No, I didn't know Madeline Kafourey, but I've just pretty much described Lena, who was the receptionist at Softbridge, a Gordon Advisors-sized software company where I worked for many years. We would have been devastated if anything like this had happened to Lena.

The day after the shooting, the Gordon Advisors home page referred to Madeline Kafoury as "our beloved."

And all she was doing was pitching in the help during the busy season, picking up a little pin money, and sustaining the ties she'd made over twenty-years with the firm.


The two managers who were wounded are innocent, too. However professionally, sympathetically, ineptly, brutally, gently, or whateverly they handled LaCalamita's termination, they were no doubt just trying to do what was best for their company.

You come to work thinking it's crunch time for getting all those tax returns done. Then something like this happens.

No guarantees in life. No 100% safety anywhere.

I don't imagine that Gordon Advisors will be getting back to "normal" anytime soon. If they ever do.

When we go into the office in the morning, we do so trusting that we'll be safe there. Maybe not from professional upsets and personal knocks, but physically safe.

For the folks at Gordon Advisors, that trust disappeared in the split second it took from Anthony LaCalamita to take Madeline Kafourey's life.

My sympathies to them all.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Pyromaniacs: Just Say "No" To Fire Drills

First off, I have to admit: it's not my word.

It comes from Michael Watkins, who used it the other day over on Harvard Business School Press Online when he asked Are You a Pyromaniac? Most managers, Watkins writes:

...struggle to stay focused on advancing their strategic priorities, and to avoid getting trapped in fire-fighting mode. So the last thing they need are bosses, peers, and even direct reports who make frequent, unnecessary declarations of states of emergency. These are the pyromaniacs - leaders with impulse-control issues who start the fires that waste so much precious time and energy in their organizations. For them, every day is a new crisis to be managed... and they want you to come along for the ride.

All it takes is a few key people behaving this way to drive everyone in the organization into a constant state of hyperactivity. Why? Because of the contagion effect. If a leader demands that his or her direct reports jump to attention and respond to the crisis-of-the-day, they have virtually no choice but to force their own direct reports into the same mode, and so on down the chain. Top leader behavior gets reflected down through the organization and everyone lurches from crisis to crisis.

Watkins' post reminded me that the one thing I have valued most in a manager over the years is the ability to avoid calling fire drills.

In one company I worked for, the difference was stark between working for my boss (VP level), who was seemingly impervious to getting sucked into firedrill mode, and two of his peers, who seemed to have their fingers ready to pull the alarm box on a whim. Their whims were typically generated by a comment made by the CEO or President who, sitting in a meeting pontificating, would make a some type of passing "wouldn't it be nice" statement.

Within minutes after the meeting ended, her direct reports would have their marching orders: Paul wants this, Joe wants that. Drop everything. We need it right away.

Never mind that five minutes after the meeting, neither Paul nor Joe would have been aware that they'd actually made any such request. Mattered not, in their aim to please, these VPs were off to the races. Presentation. Data sheet. Press release. Program. Plan. Web site. Restructured pricing. New product name. Better color on the logo. Stronger value propositions.

We're off!

I'd watch my friends get into a dizzying frenzy to meet the new, meaningless deadline.

"You are so lucky," they'd tell me.

And I was.

My boss might be sitting in those same meetings, but just because someone senior made an offhand remark, Joel never took it as a divine message. If a senior manager made a request of Joel, he made sure that he knew exactly what was needed and when.

Thus, if my boss called a fire drill, he was able to be explicit about it. He would state clearly that he knew that his request was last minute and disruptive, but that it was real, where it was coming from and why.

On our fire drill days, my group might be putting in the same hours as those on regular fire drill duty, but getting the task done became energizing and we didn't mind doing it.

On one project, I was quasi-dotted-lined to the two primo pyromaniacs I mentioned above.

Days before a major product launch that I was captaining, one of these folks swanned into my daily status meeting and announced, show-off voce, "I just ran into Paul, and he said that he'd like us to add XYZ to the launch list." This was on a day when 50 or so people were collectively tearing their hair out trying to figure out how they were going to accomplish what was already on our task list. All we needed was Paul's X, Y, and Z larded on.

Usually I manage to deflect things like this with humor, but I was in no mood at that point.

I told this fellow that, at this point we should be taking things off our to-do list, not adding things on. And I also somewhat haughtily informed him that it was our obligation as managers to resist such requests.

I may have been a bit snotty, but I was right.

Sure, X, Y, and Z would have been nice, but they could wait.

I'm sure that many corporate fire drills occur in the same way. Mr. or Ms. Big says something and, eager to please, someone underneath them decides it's a command or that it's something they can do to gladden the heart of the boss. 95% of the time they probably don't even know that they've set off a firestorm.

Years ago, my friend told me a story about the fellow who'd been president of her company. This guy kept some kind of kinetic, pyramid-shaped devise in his office. When you turned the top of the device, however gently or slowly, it set off a whirling mechanism that accelerated as it made it's way down the pyramid. By the time it hit the bottom of the ladder, things were really whirling.

My friend told me that the president played with this device regularly to remind himself of the impact that an even minor, half thought out request, could have on the organization.

More senior managers should follow this lead.

Go take a look at Michael Watkins on workplace pyromania. His take is really good. And there's that glittering gem of a word. Wish I'd thought of it.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Sex Sells? Well, not so fast....

Most marketers, if playing word association, would hear the word "sex" and respond with "sells." It's something that we all pretty much take for granted - even those of us doing B2B marketing.

Back in the day, I remember going to one trade show where someone was walking around dressed in a French maid's costume, giving out Twinings tea bags on behalf, if I remember this right, of British Telecom. And I remember another show where one of booths (a pretty good sized one) was manned - well, manned isn't exactly the right word - by booth babes all wearing identical sexy little black dresses. There was one decidedly no nonsense, perfectly attractive but less-than-babish young woman - same black dress, but not a model-look-alike - who seemed to be answering all the questions in the booth. I couldn't help but stop in and ask. Yes, indeed, she was the only company employee in the booth at the time. The other women were, indeed, models hired to draw men into the booth. I can't recall the name of the company or its product, but it was some generic IT-related application. Apparently they weren't interested in the custom of women IT-ers.

But I don't think selling-with-sex is as prevalent in the B2B world as once it was.

Just as well, since an article in a recent Economist (March 3rd) seems to explode the myth that sex sells.

Two University College London psychologists ran an experiment in which they had different groups watch a Sex in the City episode, while others watched Malcolm in the Middle. The Sex episode revolved around the gang trying to figure out whether they were any good in bed, and featured, in addition to the girl talk, scenes that showed kissing, foreplay, nudity and sex in the city. Malcolm was unsexy, family sit-com material.

Sex and Malcolm watchers were divided into subsets, half of whom were shown ads that used sex, half of whom saw ads that didn't.

As it turned out, the folks who'd watched Sex had sex on the brain alright, but all they could remember was the episode, not the brands which were being advertised. It mattered little whether the ads were sexually-oriented or not, they didn't do as well as the Malcolm viewers when it came to ad recall.

When the researchers also looked at overall recall of sexy vs. non-sexy ads and found little difference between groups. One interesting finding: men had better recall of the sexy ads, women were better with the non-sexual. No surprise there, but before advertisers get too excited about continuing to use sexually-oriented ad techniques in trying to reach men: the men remembered the sexual advertisements, but not the brand being advertised.

Given that women do so much of the buying, maybe we'll see sex being downplayed, although that probably won't happen with products that are more explicitly marketed to men: beer and male grooming products.

An earlier study cited in The Economist article had already indicated that violent and sexually explicit TV shows detract people from noticing whatever ads were running, but had suggested that sex in advertising might be used to countermand this effect. Apparently not.

Anyway, an interesting study, and one that I'm sure that consumer marketers - and the few B2B hold-outs who continue to play the sex-sell game - will be paying attention to.


My friend and colleague John Whiteside posted on this a while back on Opinionated Marketers, our joint blog. We never co-ordinate what we write about, and this was one of the few times that we collided on a topic. John got there first so a post that would have gone to Opinionated is belatedly finding a place on Pink Slip.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Vonage Bankruptcy (hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo)

A little squib of an article in the Boston Globe (from Bloomberg) reported the other day that Vonage "the worst performing US initial public offering in the last year may go bankrupt by 2009."

Well, as an alumna of Genuity, the worst performing US IPO of its year, and I believe the worst IPO ever up to that time. (I might just be bragging here), I can sympathize with the Vonage folks. (And did I mention that we went bankrupt, too. How fun is that?)

The warning came from Citigroup, which was a comanager of the IPO, and which drastically downgraded the stock. IPO comanager Bear Stearns had already downgraded it. Funny thing, Bear Stearns was involved in the Genuity IPO, too.

And both Vonage and Genuity were in the telecommunications business. And we both did Voice Over IP.

Maybe we're related?

Don't know about Vonage's IPO other than what you could see from the outside, but here's an inside peak at Genuity's fabled IPO.

The market was getting a tad wobbly mid-way through 2000, but "we" were hell-bent on an IPO. Actually "we" maybe weren't so much as our parent company Verizon was. For some tangled regulatory reasons, they had to get rid of us to consummate the marriage of Bell Atlantic and GTE. Why just spin us out when you could grab a little cash with an IPO?

In any case, the company was gripped with IPO fever. If we all weren't going to get rich, there was sure a potential to get more comfortable. Because we were kinda-sorta the phone company, everything was pretty hierarchical. Option amounts got really interesting at the Director level. I was a Director.

Options aside, a lot of folks just didn't want to be left behind on the friends and family offering.

Not everyone, of course, got in. (A warning in the newspaper a few days before the IPO said that, given the convoluted structure of Verizon and Genuity, "this one's for the pros.") The cooler heads took a pass. The hotter heads took a second mortgage. (I saw several second mortgage applications on the fax machine in the run up to the day we could put our orders in.)

I decided that I couldn't very well be a Director, with twenty people on my team, and not have some faith in the company. I sat one morning with my friend Joan and we both decided that the amount we were each prepared to lose was $11,000 (11 shares at the pre-IPO price).

Well, good thing I was prepared to lose $11K.

By the closing bell on opening day, our options looked like they weren't going to ever be worth the paper they were printed on. And you tell just looking at people's faces which side of the friends and family divide they were on. Relief (nice people who didn't invest); smirk (not-so-nice people who didn't invest); non-chalance (those in for a small, manageable amount); and sheer panic and/or rage (those who'd mortgaged the farm or their kids college tuition). I knew a couple of couples, both working for Genuity, who put in the max. For a lot of people, the personal distress was compounded by the fact that they'd gotten friends and family involved. (Hey, what's a friends and family for, anyway?) As one of my friends told me, "My father-in-law didn't like me to begin with."

I knew there weren't enough office supplies in the building that people could cadge to make up for their losses.

On IPO day, there was a big party scheduled for our quad: champagne, barbecue, big cake. They also had gift packs for us that contained a disposable camera, a fleece throw, a foolscap (how appropriate), and an IOU for a t-shirt. Well, people were looking for an IOU, alright, but it wasn't for a lousy t-shirt.

Part way through the party, when it appeared that the gift packs were going to run out, the crowd got really ugly. People were lunging over the tables to grab extras, swearing at the young marketing folks who were responsible for giving them out, and acting in general like they were trying to grab the struts of the last American helicopter out of Saigon.

Our hangdog execs tried to put a smiling face on things. (It didn't work.)

By the next day, people were making chat room death threats on our CEO, calling their lawyers to claim that Bear Sterns - which had to call all IPO participants on the eve of the IPO to confirm their order - had pressured them and/or lied about their obligation at that point. (I may have been a little bit lied to. When the person who called me told me what the opening price was  - a number less than we'd been told - I asked her if that meant that the book hadn't been sold. She denied that had anything to do with it. Hmmmm.) In any case, since my investment was minor, and I was prepared to lose it, I wasn't one of those clamoring to rescind my order. My choice. My dumb decision.)

I remained at Genuity for two wildly entertaining (if somewhat tortured) post-IPO years.

One of the highlights of those years came when I was named a Genuity i-Leader, and sent to the sales winners' week at a swank, no expense spared resort in Lanai, Hawaii. I never knew whether 50 of us (plus traveling companion) from outside of sales got to go because there weren't enough sales guys who made plan, or whether they'd always intended to have some non-sales awards.

What I did know was that, sitting with my friend Joan - another i-Leader - at one of the week's events, we did a mental calculation of what this whole thing was costing per couple. We came up with a number that bore a very close resemblance to the $11K we were each in the process of losing as Genuity continued to fall arse over tea-kettle into oblivion.

Through some peculiar tax loophole that I'll wager has since been closed, as long as you showed up for a breakfast that featured two sales guys describing a deal they'd won, the entire week - and it was quite a week - was considered work.

As I said, I don't know what's going on on the inside of Vonage. I'm sure it's not altogether pleasant, but I'm sure that there are more than a few moments when for the folks working there, it still seems almost worthwhile. (Hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo.)

Friday, April 06, 2007

Bonus, Baby

Over on Boston Filter, Maura Welch had a blog begat (taken from Guy Kawasaki, taken from December entry on Science Daily) about a Cornell study that showed that bonuses had a greater impact on productivity than merit raises.

According to the study, a 1 percent pay raise boosts performance by 2 percent, but the same amount of money proffered as a bonus is better by an order of magnitude. The same sized bonus will yield a whopping near-20 percent performance boost.

The study, conducted by Michael Sturman of Cornell's School of Hotel Administration, also found that paying above the market also produced higher performance.

Having worked at a couple of point for companies that had philosophically decided that they were going to pay "at the market", I actually like this finding better than the bonus vs. pay one.

As for bonus vs. pay: Personally, while some people like the bird-in-hand of the pay raise, I've always preferred the bonus method. To begin with, I'm a deferred gratifcation kind of gal. I like to get paid after a job is completed, not upfront. I like to go on vacation in September, not June. (I'm violating this preference this year. We're going to Berlin in May.)

The trouble with bonuses in almost every place where I've worked is that it's been very hard to connect what individuals accomplish to the overall results of the company. I've worked in places where bonuses were completely based on meeting personal commitments that were, as often as not, easily gamed and seldom real results based. (Who cares if you produced 12 customer profiles this quarter if sales didn't budge.) On the other hand, I've worked in places where the bonus was completely tied to company results. Which meant that you could accomplish nothing and get a good bonus; or accomplish a lot personally, but come up empty because the company tanked that quarter or year.

I'm in favor of some type of middle-ground which leans more toward overall company performance, and which absolutely, positively tries to connect all the personal performance line items to something that actually matters. And the higher up someone is in the organization, it may be best if the balance between what's personal and what's company shifts more and more to what's company.

Over the years, I have seen some really strange bonus plans in action, but none seemed stranger to me than the one that we had at Genuity. I worked there for nearly three years and, if I'm remembering this correctly, received two quite hefty bonuses during that time. This despite the fact that the company was bleeding - losing a billion dollars a year or so during my tenure. I'm not sure how the payout was figured, but if I recall, for directors and above, "incentive pay" was awarded annually and that the percentage was the same across all levels. I beliee that the percentage to be awarded was voted on by executives who were , in fact, voting on what percentage to award themselves. (Can this possibly have been the case?) No wonder the bonuses were so large!  

Meanwhile, the quarterly bonuses given to rank and file employees had a far lower percentage cap, and were always nickeled and dimed.

Of course, Genuity is no longer around.....

At a far smaller company, there was one year in which we had a whopping $20K to spend on bonuses. Senior management decided to give 10 individuals $2K each. A nice idea (given that I was one of them, and given that they asked for my input - and listened to - my input on who the other 9 shoudl be). When it came to giving the checks out, however, they decided that the whole thing was a deep dark secret, and swore everyone given a check to silence.

Well, it didn't take the people who weren't getting bonuses that day more than fourteen seconds to figure out what was up - and there was no way to keep them from talking about it. Everyone knew who'd gotten bonuses, and management had squandered an opportunity to a) recognize key individuals; b) let everyone know how and why the awards were being made. This, of course, wouldn't have kept people from complaining or second guessing, but it would have at least have put management on the line for making sure their choices were defensible.

Compensation. Bonuses. It's all pretty tricky.

The bottom line of this particular bottom line is that the process should be as transparent as possible. People should know clearly how the plan works, what the ground rules are, and how and why what they're doing contributes to the "grand scheme" of things.

Unless this is happening, any link between bonus and performance is going to be a case of post hoc but not necessarily propter hoc

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------Thanks to Guy for alerting me to Science Daily, and Maura for reminding me that I should read Guy more often.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

LeBron James Builds His Dreamhouse

No, this is not an attack on LeBron James for building a 35,440 square foot mansion outside of Cleveland.

I don't follow basketball all that closely, but from what I do hear about it as background noise, LeBron is phenomenally talented, a great up-from-under story, and a decent guy who does a lot of his family and the community - Akron - that he came from.

Having already made a good start on his "stated goal is to be the world's first billionaire athlete" ever - though I think he'll have competition from Tiger Woods and David Beckham - Mr. James is entitled to spend his money however he wants, and if that means spending it on a dream house, well, that's his right - even if it required tearing down the 11-bedroom house that used to stand on the property.  ("An outer wall will feature a limestone sculpture — a bas-relief of LeBron's head, wearing his trademark headband" - which may or may not increase the resale value.) 

No, LeBron James is entitled to build his dream house.

Just as Donald Trump is entitled to spend money he may or may not have on his wretched excess Versailles gold-and-mirror apartment in Trump Tower. (At least when he "restored" Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, he was doing something of historical significance. Mar-a-lago was originally built by Roaring Twenties heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. According to Wikipedia - and what's not to trust, there - the "house" has "58 bedrooms, 33 bathrooms, a 29-foot-long solid marble dining table, 12 fireplaces, and three bomb shelters" (they must have been put in during the Cold War). Mar-a-Lago, from what I can gather, is now a private club and glorified function hall.)

Just as Al Gore's is entitled to his 10,000 square foot 'wouldn't it be nice to gave all the kids and grandkids under one roof and have every sub-family have their own bath, etc. or whatever else was going on in his and Tipper's head when they built it house. Come on, Al, I still love you, but do carbon offsets really work? 

Just as I am entitled to a brief meditation on whether we'd all be better off without all of these excrescences.

I sit on the board of (and volunteer at) St. Francis House, a large day shelter with a largely homeless clientele.

At our last board meeting, we discussed whether we would be better off lobbying for and/or building Single Room Occupancy (SRO) or efficiency units. (The difference is that in SROs, kitchen and bath are shared.)

35,000 square feet. 10,000 square feet. That's a lot of SRO. That's a lot of efficiency units.

There are thousands of people - in Boston, NY, Cleveland, Akron, and maybe even Palm Beach - who are homeless. They're homeless because their lives of desperate, dire poverty have ill-equipped them to deal with personal setbacks. They may have no family or interior resources to fall back on when something bad happens to them. They may be mentally ill. Or just out of jail. Or substance abusers. Or people who make bad choices. Or just have unimaginably bad luck. One, some, all of the above.

All I know is that when I talk to our guests they will all tell you the same thing: "All I want is a job and a place of my own." Like all of us, they want a door they can lock. A place to leave whatever stuff they have. A bed that's not over a heating grate, under an over pass, or in a room filled with 200 other luckless individuals.

They may have dream houses in mind, but they're dream houses are far more modest than those of LeBron James, Donald Trump, or Al Gore.

Well, it's spring now, so at least people won't be freezing to death out there.

But the weather can still be cold, windy, and rainy. And when you're "out there" it's also scary and lonely.

St. Francis House, by the way, is not just about a place to come in out of the cold and rain. Yes, we do provide that - and breakfast and lunch; clothing; showers; medical, legal, psychological, and spiritual counseling. We also have programs - like Moving Ahead (MAP) - that help people rebuild their lives. MAP graduations, in which everyone gets to play valedictorian and tell their story, are remarkable events.

Even if you don't have a 35,000 square foot house. Or a 58 bedroom mansion. Or a relatively modest Al and Tipper sized "cottage". If you're reading this blog, you've probably got a place to call home.

Just remember that there are plenty of people out there who don't.