Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Values We Bring To Work: A Shoemaker’s Tale

The author's grandfather in his shoe repair shop, circa 1986

A chance encounter with a friendly shoemaker in New York City earlier this week got me to thinking about the personal values we bring to work.  This gentleman — who, to my amazement, offered to fix my shoe while I waited (!) … and then proceded to do exactly that, with great care and expertise — reminded me in several ways of my late grandfather, who began his career as a shoemaker as a 9-year old boy in Sicily.  He emigrated to the U.S. in the 1920’s, opening his own shoe repair shop in Elmhurst, Queens a few decades later, which is where our story begins …

Leather dust, Italian opera, and lunchtime culture lessons

My grandfather was a kind, proud, hard-working, happy man with strong hands, and fingers blackened by 75 years of working with leather.  He enjoyed his work, and put his heart into fixing his customers’ shoes to “as good as new” every time.  But leather soles, heels, and taps weren’t the only things on offer in his shop — or even the main reason many of his regular customers came by the shop. 

With operatic music in the background, he was always eager to share a story, ponder a bit of philosphy, or inquire about your family — in heavily accented English accompanied by a warm smile. While shoemaking was his profession, helping people — with a word of support, a twinkle in the eye, or a hand of friendship — was his vocation, and he practiced it every day, day after day, year after year, well into his eighties, in that little shop in Queens.

Succeeding Generations, Same Values

It was that vocation — of using his work to help people in ways large and small — that he passed down to my father, who passed it down to me.  Though the context has changed — from a shoe repair shop, to  Continue reading

A Few Feet Makes All The Difference

They say that the distance between happiness and sadness is often very short.  I was reminded of this the other day in visiting a local merchant, who is sometimes noticeably happy and upbeat when I’m in the store and other times quite withdrawn and uncommunicative.  I started to wonder if it was me, until I noticed the pattern. In this case, a few feet made all the difference in the world.

Same Person, Different Roles, Different Demeanor

"Casting" an employee in the right role can make all the difference between happiness and sadness, as exemplified in these ancient dramatic masks.

The merchant, a soft-spoken, pleasant woman in her 50’s, owns a lovely stationery and specialty gift shop — the kind of place you go for fine writing paper, or wedding invitations, or special “knick knacks” of the type that my mom loves. A corner of the store serves as a postal “sub station” handling  certain postal transactions.  Those few feet — from the cards-and-gifts side of the shop to the postal side — are exactly the difference between happiness and sadness for the merchant (not too unlike the “comedy” and “tragedy” sides of a theatre mask).

When she’s on the gift side, she’s happy and light-hearted, easily engaging her patrons in conversation about their purchases; when she’s selling stamps or putting postage on a Priority Mail letter, she’s serious and sullen, almost morose, with no hint of a smile or a twinkle in her voice.  There is an old Seinfeld episode where Jerry’s girlfriend is Continue reading

Connecting People: “HR By Walking Around”

A few recent conversations with our company’s receptionist have reminded me of two things: 1 – HR’s unique opportunity to bring people and resources together; and 2 – It is often the “little” conversations that spark the true “eureka” moments and help people and resources connect in meaningful ways.

"HR By Walking Around" can help you connect people and resources in powerful ways

Playwright … Parent … Receptionist

In chatting with our receptionist, Carla, over the past year, I’ve gotten to know her from a variety of perspectives.  Taken at face value, she works hard to serve the company’s needs everyday from 9 – 5 – whether it is “putting a smile into her voice” every time she answers a call, or helping to support other projects. However, that isn’t where her true focus and calling reside. 

Carla is a playwright … parent … non-profit director … spouse … church member … among many other roles … and she puts great energy, meaning, and vocational zeal into each of these roles.  In short, she’s a really neat lady! Given the number of people holding down “ordinary” day jobs while pursuing their hopes and dreams outside of work, I’m sure your organization has people just like Carla, too.

Bridging the Personal and Professional

During one of our recent chats, I casually mentioned the specialty area of someone in our management consulting group. Carla reacted with amazement, as she has been answering our phones for over a year without knowing what this particular person (and many others) actually do on a daily basis (yes, our orientation and training programs need a lot of work – but that’s a story for another day!). 

Having this information would not only help Carla serve clients better on the phone, but also had a “personal” impact.  As it turns out, the consultant’s expertise and personal interests might benefit Carla’s non-profit group.  This followed another chat a few weeks earlier in which, understanding other aspects of Carla’s background, I was able to suggest a project she may be able to assist us with beyond what would ordinarily be a receptionist’s role – and which can benefit both the company (by using internal expertise) and herself (personal and professional satisfaction).  All of this just from a few “casual” conversations!

HR’s Ability to Connect Resources

These events reminded me of HR’s unique role as one of the few functions aware of resources, talents, capabilities, and needs across the whole organization.  In this way, we’re best-positioned to help connect employees with other employees, resources, and opportunities that benefit all involved.

This might happen in a variety of ways:

  • In large organizations, there are sophisticated “knowledge-sharing” databases, and most recently, “chat rooms” and other “social media” venues
  • Many firms have professional development programs (e.g., dedicated efforts — usually stemming from annual performance evaluations – to actively use internal and external resources for professional growth and renewal)
  • Perhaps most to the point of this article, there is “HRBWA” (“HR By Walking Around”) – i.e., getting out of our offices and engaging in conversations with people throughout the organization; getting to know their skills, talents, hopes, dreams, and interests; and making the effort to put the people and pieces in touch with one another, whenever possible (in concert with the manager’s own efforts supporting their employees, of course).

In the constant swirl of events, it is very easy for “HRBWA” to fall by the wayside – a “nice to have” that gets sacrificed to the urgent item of the moment (“I can’t talk to anyone today.  I have to get Project ‘x’ done.”).  If we can fight this urge – at least occasionally – great things (both large and small) may occur.

Looking Forward

For me, there is great personal and professional satisfaction when “little things” like my chats with Carla come together in a way that serves a larger purpose.  What are some of your experiences in helping people “connect the dots” and connect with each other?

Drawing Leadership Lessons from the Harry Potter Movies

In watching the conclusion of the Harry Potter epic last weekend (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2), I was struck by a number of themes that have become visible during the 10-year evolution of the J.K. Rowling book-based movie series.  As Scott Eblin of the Next Level Leadership blog has written a wonderful column on the servant-leadership ideas inherent in Harry’s story,  I’d like to reflect on leadership lessons visible in the making of the movies themselves.

(Director David Yates gives direction to Daniel Radcliffe on the Harry Potter set). Matching management talent to the evolving needs of the material was a key element in the success of the movie series.

Leadership Lessons

These leadership points stand out to me:

Hire for “talent” … then provide them with all the support they need
I wrote several months ago about the unique challenge of casting three 10-year old leads on whose shoulders would rest Continue reading