Friday, December 26, 2008

Holiday reading

Just started Malcolm Gladwell's new book Outliers. I love it already. He aims to explode our idea that individuals succeed solely because of their own personal qualities, like talent, brains and moxie. Gladwell feels that "we vastly underestimate the extent to which success happens because of things the individual has nothing to do with." Sometimes it seems like we ignore the community to focus on the person - sort of like attributing a substance's qualities just to its electrons rather than to its atoms (or molecules, more likely). Corporate culture, anyone?

Just in case you somehow missed them, I strongly recommend Gladwell's other books, The Tipping Point and Blink. He's got a wonderful way of twisting the common wisdom and helping us look at the world - and our minds - in a fresh way that nevertheless resonates with experience. Gladwell's blog is fun, too. Check it out - and have a happy and enlightening New Year!

Pic via Swiss Miss

Monday, December 22, 2008


A dear friend wrote recently, surmising that I've been really busy, because I haven't updated my blog in quite a while. Actually, I've been so active I forgot I even have a blog! (Thanks for the reminder, M.)

It's been several months of new projects and exciting work with (mostly) eager learners. Giving technical presentations, keeping calm under stress, leadership and diversity have been some of Workplace's topics lately. With our last training date of the year just last Thursday, it's been a busier-than-usual December.

But now...ahh! Some time to kick back and catch up a bit on the reading. I promise to share.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Good words

Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one's self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all. -- Thomas Szasz

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Face facts

Wonderful article in Discover Magazine this month about facial expressions. Humans, it seems, have a "deep instinct" to mimic faces. When we see an expression on another person, we make the same face, fleetingly -- which helps us understand what that person is feeling. Mirroring facilitates empathy.

I'm trained as an actor, and actors have long understood that assuming a facial expression can create the emotion associated with it. Try it right now. Allow the inner edges of your eyebrows to rise up. Feel the corners of your eyes pull down. In other words, make a sad face. And stay with it for a little. Suddenly feeling sad?

Now look at the kid in the picture. Grin along. Feel better?

As Carl Zimmer says in the Discover piece, "When humans mimic others' faces...we don't just go through the motions. We also go through the emotions."

What implications does this have for communications training? It's fascinating to think.

Photo by CARF, Creative Commons

Friday, October 17, 2008

Bad blogger. Bad. Bad!

So sorry for neglecting you for so long. What can I say? It's been a busy fall, with Workplace designing a bunch of new programs. And then the hard drive fried...don't ask!

Anyway, I have a new book review up at the Perdido website. If you've thought about reading Dan Roam's The Back of the Napkin, I recommend it -- and I'm not exactly what you'd call a visual thinker. Great stuff.

I'll try to stay with you better during the weeks ahead. Been reading lots of fascinating stuff about emotion and learning, faces, and neurological whizbang. Let's talk!
Photo by Morten Skovgaard, Creative Commons

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Good words

The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak. - Hans Hofmann

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Let me hear your body talk...

No, I haven't been ignoring you. It's been a few weeks of intense work on a bunch of new programs for Workplace Productions, including a new diversity program we piloted yesterday.

To me, one of the most fascinating aspecsts of diversity work is nonverbal communication. How much is innate and species-wide? How much is learned and cultural? We know some specific gestures don't translate well: for example, the American "OK" sign, which is exceedingly rude in some places, as a friend of mine found out after she used it to thank a sweet little old Brazilian lady who had helped her find the right bus.

But the facial expressions that express the basic human emotions seem to be universal, according to research by Paul Ekman and others. And a very clever study of blind Olympic athletes suggests that full-body gestures of pride and shame may also be inborn. And like the facial expressions, we share many of them with our fellow primates.
Why these specific gestures? Here's a study that suggests that the spontaneous expression of fear may have a practical advantage...the better to see you with, my dear!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Good words

There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor. - George Santayana

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Frogs and ears

Not much to do with workplace learning, but I loved this story about how pure research can lead to useful things -- in this case, the discovery of a frog's ability to block out extraneous sounds while listening for a mating call, and what it might mean for hearing aids of the future.

(By the way, the image comes from an online store called Frog Nirvana, which sells an unimaginable variety of merchandise featuring frogs: rugs, wind chimes, staplers, birdbaths, music boxes...and, of course, earrings.)

Cyberspace -- you gotta love it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Blog crawl

Some interesting stuff on blogs:

How sleep, practice and testing consolidate memory on Sharp Brains.

More on power naps from the Boston Globe.

Everyone wants leadership development, but what are leaders without followers? Harvard Business School's blog reviews the new book Followership by Barbara Kellerman.

And the wonderful Jonah Lehrer in "Grape Expectations: What wine can tell us about the nature of reality":

The human brain, research suggests, isn't built for objectivity. The brain doesn't passively take in perceptions. Rather, brain regions involved in developing expectations can systematically alter the activity of areas involved in sensation. The cortex is "cooking the books," adjusting its own inputs depending on what it expects.


Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Good words

I've learned that you shouldn't go through life with a catcher's mitt on both hands. You need to be able to throw something back. - Maya Angelou

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Old dogs and new tricks

Could walking into a room and forgetting why you came in there actually be a sign of wisdom? This New York Times article suggests older people have wider (not longer) attention spans, enabling them to think more creatively, retain more detail, and solve problems more effectively.
Take that, whippersnappers!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Good words

When a thing is funny, search it carefully for a hidden truth. – George Bernard Shaw

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Son of my laptop ate my brain...

The wonderful Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. weighs in on our fading ability to sit patiently and read. Like me, Pitts has been finding himself dozing off over material that would have been a treat a few years ago.

I've decided to get back to reading books, at least an hour a day. (Shocking to make a program of something that used to be a guilty pleasure!) I hope to renew my ability to sit still and lose myself in nuanced material, without craving a hyperlink to another story, and then another, and then just one more...

Join me? Let me know how it's going for you. I'm heading back to Pierre and Natasha, and that little rat Napoleon.

Monday, June 16, 2008

My laptop ate my brain...

Finding it harder to concentrate on books these days? You're not alone. It might be that online reading is changing the way our brains work.

That's what Nicholas Carr's fascinating article in the current Atlantic Monthly explores. Carr writes:
Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, also
has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. “I now have almost
totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print,” he wrote earlier this year. A pathologist who has long been on the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School, Friedman elaborated on his comment in a telephone conversation with me. His thinking, he said, has taken on a “staccato” quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”

Uh-oh. My copy of War and Peace, bookmarked at page 390, has been staring at me sadly for several months now. How could I leave Pierre at the mercy of his steward for so long?

I think Carr may be on to something. How about you?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Good words

Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. – E. L. Doctorow

Friday, May 30, 2008

Talkin' about your generation

Lots of stuff in the media lately about the Millennials (aka Generation Y), the latest age group entering the workforce. Workplace Productions has been doing programs on generational diversity for a while now, so I'm always interested in new theory about differences in learning styles, ethics, working patterns, and so on. Having a daughter in this age cohort adds to the fascination. But so far, I'm not impressed with the analysis.

Last Sunday, 60 Minutes reran a pretty unflattering story about young people in the workforce. Oh, they mentioned in passing that many of this generation are hardworking, skilled and smart. But then the story went on to depict Millennials as "narcissistic praise hounds" who expect trophies just for showing up. (See? Didn't you just know those soccer banquets would ruin your kid's future?)

They don't like to be bossed around. They put family and friends above loyalty to employers. And they intend to keep looking until they find a job they can really love.

Shocking! Where do they think they are -- America?

Okay, I may be a little biased. But most of the young people I know are passionate, kind, idealistic, and very willing to work hard -- for causes that mean something to them. What's wrong with that?

There's an odor of sour Boomer over all this. We seem to be chastising the younger folks for the very ideals and priorities that we had at their age. If we gave them up for Hummers and summer homes, it isn't the Millennials' fault.

The workplace has been moving away from the factory model and toward more humane and creative culture for years now. (We training folks have been helping it get there.) "I suffered, so you should suffer too" is a pretty destructive attitude.

So instead of yelling "Get off my lawn," maybe business should invite the kids over to play. After all, it's not really our lawn. It's the village green, and it belongs to all of us.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Good words

I write down everything I want to remember. That way, instead of spending a lot of time trying to remember what it is I wrote down, I spend the time looking for the paper I wrote it down on. – Beryl Pfizer

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Memorial Day

Wonderful piece from the upcoming season of This American Life on the malleability and failures of memory. Thanks to Jonah Lehrer at The Frontal Cortex.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Good words

When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong. – R. Buckminster Fuller

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Learning watch

There's a feast of a story in the New York Times about creating new habits. Dr. Dawna Markova and Mary Jane Ryan, of Professional Thinking Partners, also talk about learning styles, comfort zones, innovation, and the neurology of the new. I especially liked their discussion of what they call the three zones of existence: comfort zone, stretch zone and stress zone. Great stuff!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Good words for the first of May

A personal note...

The Middle
by Ogden Nash

When I remember bygone days
I think how evening follows morn;
So many I loved were not yet dead,
So many I love were not yet born.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Good words

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
Douglas Adams

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Kid in a candy store

Just found a fantastic site for all of us who are fascinated by science: I'm having a great time gobbling down the blogs on behavioral and neurological research, such as Cognitive Daily and The Frontal Cortex. But the site also links to blogs on physical science, environment, medicine and health, and more.

Gotta go -- I'm only halfway through that article on the collective mind and the neurology of human interaction...

Monday, April 14, 2008

Learning watch: new research

Here's an article by Howard Wolinsky about gender differences in processing language. Doug Burman, a researcher at Northwestern University's Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, says that language areas in girls' brains are more active than in boys' -- and girls process language differently than boys do.

Scientists aren't sure if these differences persist into adulthood, but the research suggests that males rely more on sensory vision and hearing centers in working with language, while females use more abstract brain regions for the same tasks.

The result is that how information is given -- through the ear or through the eye -- is more important to males than to females.

In your workshops, have you noticed any differences between men and women in processing language? Are visual aids stickier for one gender than for the other? What's the best way to get your message across?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Good words

It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is; it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong. - Richard Feynman

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Good words

One thing we do know about humans is that the left brain, which is the conscious language part of the brain, always makes up a story to explain what's going on. - Temple Grandin

Thursday, March 27, 2008

11 Ways Trainers Can Create Terrific Role Plays: Part Four


10. Applaud. Praise and validate the role players' work. Thank them for their contributions. Point out where they used the learning points and how it led to a successful outcome. Applaud them for taking the risk of role playing.

11. When "failures" happen, focus on the process rather than the person. When role players don't follow the learning points, say (for example), "Well, that certainly put him in his place. What might be some of the drawbacks to handling it that way?" Discuss the behaviors. Have the role players try the same situation again, with suggestions from other participants. Thank the role players for providing good material for discussion. After all, the whole group will learn from things that don't work out as well as from those that do.

Role plays can be a great teaching tool, with your help. You can design, introduce and facilitate them so learners:

  • Know what they're supposed to be doing

  • Aren't afraid of being judged

  • Feel free to experiment and have fun

With less anxiety and more targeted learning, who knows? Maybe role plays will become your company's favorite learning technique.

Reprinted with permission from Training Today.

Monday, March 24, 2008

11 Ways Trainers Can Create Terrific Role Plays: Part Three

4. Focus on a small, important piece of behavior. Don't try to do too much in a single role play. If you're training people in a process, work it section by section. For example, in sales training, focus on establishing rapport, then on asking probing questions, etc. -- perhaps with different participants playing the salesperson in each section.

  1. 5. Don't be afraid of "negative models." You can inject a lot of humor -- and learning -- into a workshop by asking people to "do everything wrong." For example, in the customer service situation, ask the person playing the rep to come up with three bad ways to handle the complaining customer (such as sounding bored, using sarcasm, and shouting at her), and then let the participants discuss why those approaches didn't work -- the consequences of not using the new learning. You can generate a lot of energy with this exercise, and the humor helps break the ice for further role playing.


6. Take role players off the hook. Tell them, "You're not you in this role play, you're somebody else just like you." Refer to the character by another name, not the role player's name. Creating distance between the character and the self means participants don't have to own any errors they make -- they're not really "their" mistakes. Sometimes it helps to set role plays at a fictional company similar to the real one.

7. Strive for a better -- not a perfect -- interaction. Let participants know that you'll applaud any success, even a small one.

8. Bring a sense of fun to the exercise. Keep it light. People learn better through humor, liveliness, and enjoyment.

9. Share the risk. Let role players work in teams, sharing solutions and coaching each other. Have the team come up to the front, so the person who is actually doing the role play can turn to his team for advice. Have team members replace each other in the role, as in tag-team wrestling, so no one has to do the entire exercise by herself.

To be continued...

Thursday, March 20, 2008

11 Ways Trainers Can Create Terrific Role Plays: Part Two

Here are 11 ways to make role plays work for you. We've divided these tips into the three phases of creating a role play: Design (how you structure the exercise), Instructions (how you explain the exercise to participants), and Facilitation (how you work with the role players as the exercise is taking place).


1. Be specific. Most role plays fail because they're too general, and people don't know what to do. Choose the circumstances of the role play carefully. Fill in lots of detail. For example, if it's customer service training, don't just ask someone to play a complaining customer. Tell the role players exactly what the issue is: "You're a credit card customer who asked last month to have an erroneous charge removed from your bill. You just got the new bill, and the charge is still there." And to the person playing the customer service rept: "Two people are out sick, and you're covering for them, even though you should have gone to lunch a half-hour ago. The last person you talked to hung up on you." This level of detail helps role players believe in the action. They're less likely to be distracted by their own nerves or by others' reactions.

2. Make the role play situation important to the characters. The stakes should be high. For example, a valuable employee is ready to quit because his manager never recognizes his achievements. The manager already has been warned by her boss about too much turnover in her department. When the outcome is important to the characters, the exercise has more energy and interest for the role players and for those watching.

3. Target the learning points. Make sure the situation you choose will make the role players deal with the behavior you want to reinforce. Because new learning feels uncomfortable, most role players will try to avoid acting it out. Close the escape hatches by picking a situation that must be solved by putting the learning points into practice.

To be continued...

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

11 Ways Trainers Can Create Terrific Role Plays: Part One

You know that role plays are a wonderful tool for turning theory into practice. They can answer that crucial question, "How does this apply to me?" By giving learners a chance to try out new behaviors in a controlled setting, they can jump-start the application of new learning back on the job. They get people out of their chairs and into action.

So why do so many learners hate role plays? You've seen it happen: participants groan when a role play is announced. You can't get a volunteer, so you have to force someone to come up. The role players are too easy on each other, or they give up too soon -- or they just undermine the whole exercise with joking or hostility. What's going on here?

It's simple: they're afraid they're going to make fools of themselves. As a trainer, you know that most people get anxious when they have to get up in front of a group. They're afraid they'll be judged. When that group consists of their peers and co-workers, it feels even riskier. And when they're not sure what they're supposed to be doing, that anxiety goes sky-high.

You can reduce the risk of role plays. You can't take away people's performance anxiety -- but you can minimize it through the way you design, set up, and facilitate role plays. You can create an atmosphere of humor and experimentation, and you can ensure succcess for all participants -- no matter what mistakes they make.

Here are 11 ways to make role plays work for you. We've divided these tips into the three phases of creating a role play: Design (how you structure the exercise), Instructions (how you explain the exercise to participants), and Facilitation (how you work with the role players as the exercise is taking place).

To be continued...

Monday, March 17, 2008

Flying lessons

At Workplace Productions, we create "flight simulators" for new learning: opportunities for people to practice skills in a low-risk setting before they go back to the job. We find it's the most effective way to make the transition from classroom to real life.
One of our favorite techniques is using our interactors (specially trained professional actors) in brief, intense simulations with learners. We do tons of research and create realistic situations that mirror those our participants are going to deal with back at work. They're like role plays on steroids (only legal!), because the interactors know how to keep the simulation on track and don't make it easy for the learner.

But what do you do if you're not bringing us in for a training?

A few years back I wrote an article for the magazine Training Today called "11 Ways Trainers Can Create Terrific Role Plays." I drew on our years of experience working with the form to help people use this great learning tool more effectively with the resources on hand.

With Training Today's generous permission, I'll be posting the article in several chunks over the next few days. I'd love your thoughts on it, so please leave a comment.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Good words

In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few. - Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

Cracking the Curse

So what's the cure for the Curse of Knowlege? How do we communicate what we know to those who don't know it -- without getting tied to the railroad track of our own understanding?

The most direct way is through stories.

Stories are how our brains work. We can understand more by a quick anecdote than by dozens of charts and graphs. Stories supply context.

Our expertise tends to assume that others are with us. They're not: we have to take them there. And concrete, emotionally lively stories are the quickest way.

Basically, we unboil the message our knowledge has boiled down. We're using a kind of mental shorthand internally -- but it's meaningless to those who haven't shared with us all the experiences that created our understanding. So we have to talk in terms that we both understand. Add vividness and credibility, and you've cracked the Curse.

I love shop talk of all kinds, and I'm fortunate that what I do allows me to learn a little bit about a lot of different businesses. It's not only fascinating -- it keeps me humble. Listening to a lineman, a university administrator, a shift nurse, I get a glimpse into another person's world. It's clear that they know things I can only guess at.

My best understanding of their workplaces comes through their stories.

My task as a learning designer is to find the common place where our different mindsets can meet. In my experience, it's stories that take us to that place.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Good words

Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment. - Robert Benchley

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Curses! Foiled again!

The idea from Made to Stick that I find myself quoting the most is the Curse of Knowledge.

That Snidely Whiplash-like phrase means that once we know something, we can't imagine the state of mind of someone who doesn't know it. And it's a curse, all right.

The Curse of Knowledge is what's operating when we sling the training lingo around. We're standing up there, staring at learners who are blinking blankly back at us. They don't know what we're talking about, and we can't figure out what's not to understand. But it's more than just a jargon gap.

When we're under the Curse of Knowledge, we assume that everyone has the same information we have. And the more expert we are in any subject, the further we are from the true mindset of the people we think we're communicating with, because we've been immersed for years in material that may be brand new to our listeners. When we understand something in our bones, it's hard to imagine that others don't get it at all. As Chip Heath and Dan Heath say in Made to Stick, "you tend to communicate as if your audience were you."

I've found it quite useful to be alert for the Curse of Knowledge in my life. I look for signs that I've made assumptions, and that my communication may be foiled again.

How to dispel the Curse? More on that in a later post.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Good words

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves. - Carl Jung

Thursday, February 28, 2008


A client recently turned us on to Marshall Goldsmith's concept of "feedforward," and we've been happily passing it along.
Goldsmith points out that the problem with feedback is that it focuses on the past (and blame!) rather than on the future (and growth). Feedforward emphasizes ideas that can help you do a better job next time, instead of analyzing where you screwed up last time. Imagine development sessions without criticism, defensiveness, or arguing about who was wrong and who was right. (Hey, imagine a marriage like that!)

Try the exercise Goldsmith uses. We found it a much more productive and respectful way to share ideas about how we can do better. And after seeing a group of twenty practicing, we were delighted by the energy and connection in the room.

Of course, we can't completely abandon talking about the past. But we can use feedforward more often than we think. It's a great tool for keeping communication positive and fruitful. And people eat it up.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Good words

I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this. - Emo Phillips

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Stuck on you

For some months now I've been in love with Chip Heath's and Dan Heath's Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

The title of the 2007 book grabbed me, of course, because Workplace Productions has been using the phrase "Learning that Sticks" for five years or so. And as a designer and facilitator of adult learning I'm always looking for new ways to make ideas and skills memorable.

And what a treasure this book is! It's written using its own principles: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotional appeal, and stories.

I'll be discussing aspects of it here (even though the orange cover clashes with my color scheme), and I'd love to hear your thoughts on the Heaths' practice-what-you-preach manual.

So grab your copy, and over the next couple of weeks we'll talk about how these ideas relate to workplace learning. Stick around.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Good words for Valentine's Day

The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed. - Carl Jung

Monday, February 11, 2008

Good words

You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions. - Naguib Mahfouz

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Anniversary Waltz

Today marks ten years that Workplace Productions, Inc. has been in business. It's only getting more exciting for us, as we explore new ways to make business learning interactive, engaging and memorable. Check out some of our stories at our website (yes, we promise to update those pictures soon!).

Thanks to our wonderful clients and especially to our great team of interactors. We love working with you.

And we never get tired of hearing participants say, "This was the best training I've ever had."

Friday, February 8, 2008

I'm recommending...

Here's my review, from Perdido magazine, of a terrific all-around management book. It's just come out in paperback.

Growing Great Employees: Turning Ordinary People into Extraordinary Performers
By Erika Andersen
Reviewed by Beverly Feldt

Say you’re a manager. The people who report to you are pretty good, but there are a few problems, of course. You’ve had some management training from your company – mostly focusing on theory, rather than practice. Some of the approaches you’ve learned are useful, when you can remember them in time. But often you run on instinct, and often you regret it later. You recall vague terms such as “core competencies” and “coaching for performance.” However, it’s kind of a jumble in your mind.

You’ve even read a few books on management, but most of them are either too simple or too abstract. Usually they tout one skill, such as listening, as the cure for all workplace ills. You’d give a lot for a clear, well-organized manual on the people side of management.

Got $15.00?

Growing Great Employees (Portfolio, 2006) might be the handbook you’ve been waiting for. It’s the best management training book I’ve seen.

Beautifully organized, comprehensive and straightforward, Growing Great Employees is better than its title. (And don’t be put off by its unifying metaphor, gardening, which appears mostly in chapter headings and introductions.) Erika Andersen, founder of the consulting firm Proteus International, has put 25 years of experience into a reader-friendly, meaty guide to “all that people stuff.”

In admirably clear language, Andersen covers an astonishing amount of material: the hiring interview, TRACOM’s Social Styles ™, delegating, positive and corrective feedback, performance agreements–even how to fire someone. There’s a guide for making sure new employees start out well; a technique for discovering the key responsibilities of a job; a model for changing your own mindset to become a better coach. Each topic is discussed step by step and illustrated with dialogues and case studies. Diagrams and models are lucid, logical and easy to follow. Every chapter ends with a page of “Big Ideas” that summarizes the main points just covered.

Even more useful are the many practical exercises throughout the book. Called “Try It Out,” these experiments cover actual practice (using listening skills in a real conversation), planning (writing out statements and questions you might use in a corrective feedback session), analysis (filling out a job description template) and self-assessment (determining your preferred learning style). There are checklists and charts, and even space to write in the book.

But what makes Growing Great Employees a true handbook – and truly useful – is its structure. In the introduction, Andersen offers a summary of each chapter, acknowledging that many readers might not choose to read the book “in a straight line.” Since reading non-fiction books out of order is a secret vice of mine, I was delighted. What’s more, throughout the book Andersen provides references back to earlier chapters as needed.

For example, in Chapter 4, during a discussion of non-verbal signals, she writes, “…if you’re reading this book out of order, at this point you might want to go back and read the first chapter, where we focus on listening skills.” This interconnected approach, reminiscent of hyperlinks on a website, makes the book much more accessible if a reader is trying to work through a particular management problem.

Throughout each chapter, there’s a personal flavor, as if you were having a private consultation with Andersen. The tone is positive, down-to-earth and specific – a welcome change from most management books, which seem either to oversimplify or to wallow in impenetrable jargon. Growing Great Employees does neither.

Non-gardeners may roll their eyes a bit at chapter titles such as “Staking and Weeding” and “Some Plants Don’t Make It,” but Andersen has a charming way of laughing a bit at her own tendency to push the metaphor. (She says in the introduction, “I intend to wring every last drop [from the gardening image] by the end of the final chapter.”) It’s not really a gimmick; it’s more of a useful trellis on which some prize roses grow.

Is Growing Great Employees for you? It’s worth a look. As productivity demands increase and hierarchies flatten, hiring and keeping good people becomes crucial. As Andersen says, “Most of the things that make employees want to work for a particular company can be provided by a skillful manager. I can help you be that kind of manager.” I think she’s right.

Reprinted with permission from Perdido: Leadership with a Conscience, Vol. 14, No. 3, ©2007 Trinity Foundation.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Good words

There is no pleasure to me without communication; there is not so much as a sprightly thought comes into my mind that it does not grieve me to have produced alone, and that I have no one to tell it to. - Montaigne