stories_2017

STORIES

Here are some stories about how I have handled situations in my life that could have been trouble. They illustrate some of my beliefs about how to deal with others.
Title Summary
Why We Think We Can Control Others

I carried him over to the scale, set him in it, and wrote down his weight. Ha! Told you it would work!

I’m amused, in a kind of dystopian sort of way, when I read some of the various “advice” columns that seem to be everywhere in this Internet age. One question that pops up repeatedly is some version of “How can I get [other person] to [something the writer wants them to either do or stop doing]?”

These are, as far as I can tell, asked in complete sincerity, apparently with the expectation of a workable reply. The writers seem to consider this kind of query to be as valid as inquiring about the current price of a given stock, the atomic weight of an element, or the showing times of a current movie. Ask a question, get an answer.

The part that makes me cringe is the simple fact that YOU CAN’T GET SOMEONE ELSE TO DO SOMETHING THEY DON’T ALREADY WANT TO DO UNLESS YOU FORCE THEM OR THREATEN THEM AND EVEN THAT USUALLY DOESN’T WORK EITHER AND BESIDES IT’S HORRIBLY WRONG AND A BIG PART OF WHY OUR WORLD IS SO HOPELESSLY MESSED UP.

Heck, it doesn’t even have to be another PERSON for this to apply. I had a cat a few years back that became seriously ill; one of my duties as “nurse” was to keep track of his weight. I (naively enough) bought a rather expensive infant scale so I could record his weight accurately and regularly. I figured, no problem – put the cat on the scale, write down the weight, all done.

My girl friend, Elizabeth, ever so much wiser than I, had a good laugh when I told her of my plans. “There’s no way that cat (Vanilla, rest his kitty soul) will put up with that. You’re delusional.” Well, she didn’t sugarcoat it, anyway.

And she was 100% right. The scale had a nice plastic tray, which I even lined with a fluffy towel to make it completely comfortable for Vanilla. I carried him over to the scale, set him in it, and wrote down his weight. Ha! Told you it would work!

Actually that’s what happened in the alternate universe my brain had been occupying. In THIS one, Vanilla sprang off that scale so fast you’d think it had been electrified. Serious illness or not, he had plenty of strength to resist any and all efforts on my part to get his weight. It was a digital scale! It would have taken 2 or 3 seconds at the most for me to have gotten a reading! But no way, no way on Earth was he putting up with this.

(Robert Heinlein once said you should never try to out stubborn a cat. He was right.)

In the end I resorted to coercion: I had to put Vanilla into a laundry bag to get his weight. This didn’t go over well either but I managed to get it done.

None of this should be terribly surprising to anybody. We all understand that just about all living creatures – bugs, bacteria, bobcats, babies, you name it – want to do what they want to do, regardless of someone or something else’s wishes. This fact is a big part of what makes our world go around.

So how can otherwise intelligent people ask, with all apparent sincerity, something as blindingly impossible as “How can I get Jasper to put his dirty socks in the hamper?” Or even more ludicrously – “How can we get those politicians to stop saying whatever we want to hear so they’ll get elected, at which time they go ahead and do whatever they want?”

At the risk of spoiling the fun by becoming somewhat serious, I think I can answer that.

I think many of us, somewhere in our secret hearts, really do think we can control what someone else does simply because we have had so much experience of having it done to us.

Or maybe we simply WANT to control someone else in order to settle the score, at least somewhat. Or, since it was done to us, it must be the right thing to do. (This last requires that we forget or at least minimize how much we hated having our preferences overridden).

But it generally doesn’t work. What’s worse, the ongoing attempts to come up with the magic formula, the right words, whatever it takes to “get” the desired response – all this takes the focus away from the one person you DO have control over – yourself.

And the letters written to the advice columns avoid the question that COULD be answered: "What can I do about the fact that [other person] is [doing / not doing] [x, y or z]?"

One of the secrets to getting along with each other on this troubled planet is to maximize the control we have over our own lives, which reduces the need we have to control others. Unfortunately, this requires strong individuals and weak groups -- the exact opposite of our warlike, immature social preoccupations.

You can still maximize your own control over your own existence, even if the range available to you isn't as wide as it might be in a saner society. Starting here, rather than immediately looking for ways to control someone else's behavior, is one of the keys to reducing conflict. Figuring out a variety of ways to make this become instinctive is one of the goals here at theroommatecoach.com.

ps Here is a great quote by Thomas Szasz on the subject:

Why is self-control, autonomy, such a threat to authority? Because the person
who controls himself, who is his own master, has no need for an authority to be
his master. This, then, renders authority unemployed. What is he to do if he
cannot control others? To be sure, he could mind his own business. But this is a
fatuous answer, for those who are satisfied to mind their own business do not
aspire to become authorities.

--Thomas Szasz

Early Career Sanity

Surprise: I realized that my first job back in that hamburger joint was in some ways much more satisfying, and definitely more “sane” than virtually all of my experiences in the “corporate world.” Admittedly I made a lot less money back then. But somehow it had been okay in some fundamental ways that my loftier, more lucrative positions simply were not.

I was intrigued.

Student job nearly freezes my tail off -- but it doesn't drive me crazy

Ever been to Northern Illinois in the winter? I have. My first job after striking out on my own was working in a busy hamburger joint in DeKalb, Illinois. One of the less desirable assignments for the newcomers was known as “picking up the lot.” Right around closing time (after midnight on weekends) the lucky worker – me – would take a cardboard box and venture out into the night to pick up empty cups, paper bags, burger wrappers and whatever else the customers had tossed onto the parking lot. I’d like to say “weather permitting” but that wasn’t a consideration. “Cold” doesn’t begin to do it justice.

Some years later, after getting my degree (Marketing, NIU, 1970) I began getting “real jobs” and working in my “real” career, sales and marketing. After working for a number of corporations over a period of about 10 years, I began to evaluate my experiences.

Surprise: I realized that my first job back in that hamburger joint was in some ways much more satisfying, and definitely more “sane” than virtually all of my experiences in the “corporate world.” Admittedly I made a lot less money back then. But somehow it had been okay in some fundamental ways that my loftier, more lucrative positions simply were not.

I was intrigued.

By this time I had become interested in careers in general, along with why so few people seemed to enjoy theirs. I decided to take some time and try to figure out what was different about this early job of mine -- it may have given me a few backaches (at least until I graduated from “lot picking”), but it didn’t drive me crazy like my corporate positions did.

What was different about my "real" jobs?

Here are some of the things I realized were different:

Work in the hamburger joint was very clear-cut; objectives were clearly defined and reachable. There was nothing mysterious involved in determining whether the work was done well or not: when the customers got served quickly and efficiently, all was well.

Much of my work in the corporate arena consisted of sales work. In general, no matter how much you sold last year, you need to sell more this year – regardless of the economy, competitive factors, whatever. Being held to an arbitrary objective, in many cases clearly unreachable, is a great way to lose your motivation.

My part of the job was easily evaluated and did not depend on others to perform successfully. Later on, when I became an assistant manager, this changed – I was counting on those reporting to me to do a good job. But I had authority to go along with this responsibility. I was able to replace those who were unwilling or unable to get the job done right. (See The "Molly" Story)

In my corporate work the opposite was frequently true: I was responsible for things that required the cooperation of others to achieve, but without any authority over the others involved. This is known as “crazymaking” -- responsibility without corresponding authority.

Sometimes the others involved were terrific individuals, which made all the difference. But in all too many cases they were struggling with their own issues, and/or had their attitudes destroyed by arbitrary and stupid decisions by management. No "I" in team? Maybe not. But frequently very little morale either.

As a student, keeping living expenses down as low as possible was understood. Money was always tight but somehow I got by. There was never any question of spending money to impress someone or to keep up with someone or to distract myself from unpleasant aspects of my life.

Once I started my “real” career I could have spent more but somehow I never quite fell into this particular behavior. Much of it probably was due to my lack of interest in having children, an event that seems to seal the deal financially for many.
It’s also true that I benefited from the good fortune the owners of this particular business enjoyed: their timing was superb. Business was fabulous for them, labor was plentiful and inexpensive. For several years they had relatively little competition in their particular market. This might explain why they didn’t do the obsessive “cost cutting” that makes life so difficult for so many managers of retail operations: we always had plenty of resources available to get the job done right.


In later years, especially as the U.S. prosperity began to wane due to increasing competition elsewhere in the world, more and more companies have become much more preoccupied with cutting costs, perhaps to a fault. I know this affected my work in sales: I was frequently faced with reduced sales support resources but still expected to sell ever-increasing amounts of product. In one case I invested in my own typewriter because the company insisted on using an old one that put out horrible looking quotations.

I’m certainly not advocating “McJobs” as career goals… besides, I suspect that those are much more “corporatized” today, with their fair share of corporate nuttiness. But I think it’s well worth examining the factors that made my humble student job so much more satisfying in some fundamental ways than more prestigious work I did later.

Whether I did a good job or not was entirely up to me. This was the most important thing I learned from this comparison of work situations; my goal then became to figure out how to achieve this in my career (without going back to that blasted parking lot in Northern Illinois).

They were late picking me up -- and I survived!

How dare they delay ME of all people! Don't they know that I am the all-important center of the universe! I will show them!

A minor inconvenience gets fixed up -- and it stays minor

It happens to all of us at one time or another: something goes wrong, we wind up delayed or otherwise inconvenienced. Most of the time it's no big deal, although depending on how it's handled it can seem like a big deal at the time.

I experienced one of those minor mixups recently when renting a car -- I wound up waiting longer than I had expected for my ride to the rental office. No biggie at first but as the time dragged on I did become frustrated. Like most of us I had plenty of other stuff I needed to be doing so the unexpected delay was getting pretty annoying.

Anyone willing to put their name on a website stipulating that "Conflict is Stupid!" should probably be able to avoid creating -- wait for it -- stupid conflicts! This situation turned out well, largely because the people involved were terrific and because I was willing to update my attitude as the situation developed. Here's how it went:

When my ride showed up, the gentleman driving apologized profusely for the delay. This was a pleasant surprise! Some of my experiences of things going wrong in similar situations have been met with apathy, some version of "And I should care about this because...?" attitude, which does absolutely nothing to reduce the frustration level. The funny thing is, the facts didn't change -- yes, I had been delayed due to an unfortunate mixup. But the fact that someone genuinely gave a damn just changed everything.

And it got even better once I got to the rental office. The woman who arranged the rental for me was equally apologetic about the delay, which reinforced my growing realization that "Wow, these people genuinely care that I was inconvenienced!" And when we got into the business of getting me a car -- somewhat complicated by a third-party payment situation -- she was so helpful, friendly, and efficient at the whole transaction that any lingering memories of my early frustration completely evaporated.

I got my car, and I wound up with a really good contact for any future rentals. And they wound up with a happy customer. What's not to like?

But in some alternate universes...

How else could this have gone? Let's see.

Alternate Scenario A: same customer (me), but apathetic, unconcerned people to deal with. I've never been a terribly confrontational person so I wouldn't have thrown a fit -- but I would not have been happy. Next time I needed to rent a car I probably would have gone elsewhere, and I would not have recommended this particular company to anyone.

Alternate Scenario B: different customer, the kind that goes ballistic when things go wrong, dealing with the same nice people I dealt with. This is pretty common: something goes wrong but the people involved are trying their darnedest to make it right. Doesn't matter! The customer has been inconvenienced and now there is Hell to be paid.

How dare they delay ME of all people! Don't they know that I am the all-important center of the universe! I will show them!

This kind of unfocused and oblivious -- oblivious to anything beyond one's self-importance -- anger usually just makes the situation worse by damaging or destroying the goodwill of those who are trying to remedy the situation. Yes, companies sometimes have stupid and counterproductive policies in place that can be aggravating at best -- but the people one is face-to-face with are almost never the ones who created those policies. It makes no sense whatsoever to antagonize those who are trying to help.

(There is another scenario, Alternate Scenario C: pissed-off customer meets apathetic customer service people. This is like one of those bad movies where there are no heroes and the audience winds up not caring what happens to any of them. The best that can be said about this sad state of affairs is that the parties involved deserve each other!)

I was really glad to have dealt with such decent, considerate, and efficient individuals; the original minor inconvenience from the delay due to a scheduling error was of no consequence whatsoever. I am glad, too, that I have learned how to "play fair" in this kind of a situation as it generally creates a much better result all the way around.

One of my favorite quotes, from psychologist Nathaniel Branden, applies here. He was speaking of romantic relationships when he said "To find the right woman, be the right man, and vice versa." I have come to realize this kind of thinking applies to just about any interaction. Be the right customer, and your chances of finding the right people to work with will increase. Be the right service, and the right customers will be drawn to you. Hopefully the others will eventually catch on as well!

Treat Me Wrong, Treat Me Right: Who Decides?

'Gentlemen, it says in the Bible that no man shall serve two masters. When you decide which of you is going to make this decision, please let me know and I will do my best to get the job done at that point.'

In my "corporate" days I spent some time as a sales engineer. I worked with two very intelligent men with comparable backgrounds and comparable positions who appeared to be treated very differently by the company. This puzzled me so I paid attention in an attempt to understand why. This is my recollection.

A good guy who let himself be treated badly

Forrest was an engineer, as far as I could tell a very intelligent and highly skilled man, probably in his mid-50s or so when I knew him. Forrest worked as the liaison between the sales and marketing arm of Paul-Munroe and the technical, manufacturing/engineering division that actually put the systems together. Forrest's main job as I recall was to make sure that the salespeople didn't put something together that would either simply not work, or, worse, blow up and create all kinds of horrendous liability for the company. He had an extremely important job and from all that I could see he did it extremely well.

The only problem was that, at least to hear him tell it, the company consistently treated Forrest like a dog.

I had no way of knowing the literal facts about the way the company did in fact treat Forrest; the fact that he complained rather bitterly on a regular basis does indicate to me that for whatever reason he was not happy with the company. I was still fairly naive at the time so I rather easily got drawn into a classic game of "Why don't you / Yes, but..." Whenever I would see Forrest, at least most of the time he would launch into some version of how awful things were for him and how badly mistreated he was. I would play my part by suggesting in one way or another that he do something about it. He, of course, would then tell me all the reasons why he couldn't possibly do that.

I was naive but I guess at some point it did dawn on me that for whatever reason at least part of the picture here was that Forrest really liked to complain. I do believe, however, that there probably were some things about the company's dealing with him that could have been improved. I guess for me, at least for my purposes here, the issue is basically: what, if anything, could Forrest have done to truly improve his situation and give him less to complain about?

My dealings with Forrest helped me to come up with what I refer to as the "M.A.S.H. Theory." The popular movie, M.A.S.H., came out somewhere in that era or perhaps a few years before I worked for Paul-Munroe; I believe I thought of the movie when I began to hear Forrest complain about his situation. The parallel I drew was simply that, like the surgeons in the movie, Forrest appeared to be very good at his job and I suspected not someone who could be easily replaced. It appeared to me that Forrest had a lot more bargaining power due to his own relative uniqueness than he realized -- or than he used.

To put it simply, it appeared to me that Forest could have gone to management and told them what kinds of changes he needed to have made if they wanted him to continue working there. As I have said before, without an "or else" requests can all too frequently fall on deaf ears. And, the supply/demand factor needs to be taken into account, simply because some people can be replaced so readily that they have virtually no bargaining power (other than possibly whatever legislation might have provided, a separate issue entirely).

But it sure seemed to me that Forrest had a lot more clout than he ever used. It probably came down, once again, to the individual, Forrest in this case, simply being unwilling to take any chances or to "rock the boat" in any way. I guess I have always believed that if something appears to really be broken that you really should make every attempt to fix it -- and our personal lives, definitely including our careers, should not in any way be an exception to this rule.

Forrest, among others I have known, apparently did not feel nearly as strongly about this as I do. And, as I mentioned earlier, he may have gotten a lot more perverse pleasure out of complaining than I realized at the time.

Same company, different guy, different attitude, different results

Jack, much like Forrest, was a very intelligent and competent engineer. Jack had specialized for many years in mobile engineering; he had spent quite a few years working for one of the major companies that manufactures cement mixers. The name escapes me right at the moment* but it was definitely one of the major names in that field. Jack had such a reputation of being a highly skilled professional that I recall management at Paul-Munroe feeling that they had really scored an accomplishment by hiring him. I would have to say, based on my experience with him, that they were probably correct. He was a truly skilled person.

Staying sane: teaching others how to deal with us

More specific to my point here, though, is my recollection of how Jack interacted with management at Paul-Munroe. A fairly constant theme I heard during my years in therapy was a statement to the effect that we pretty much have to show people how to treat us. Jack was a fine example of how this could be done in the real world.

Jack was probably comparable to Forrest in terms of personal intelligence and professional qualifications. It is probably also fair to say that they were more or less equal in terms of their importance to the company, although I suspect Jack may have been a bit more visible to those outside the company due to his reputation in the industry. Just the same, I think they were fairly comparable in this area as well.

What was so fascinating to me when I worked with both of these men, however, was the enormous difference in how they appeared to be dealt with by management. I don't know if Forrest was literally mistreated as much as he seemed to think, since some of this could have been his interpretation; but I do recall a sense throughout the company that management pretty much took Forrest for granted. The feeling was that management could pretty much do what they wanted with Forrest and, though he would certainly complain to any who would listen, he would go along with it.

Not so with Jack.

Jack in action: "No man shall serve two masters!"

During my tenure as "rotary drive manager" I became involved in some of the management meetings, at least those that affected my area of the company. I have some very clear memories of meetings in which Jack was present; on at least a couple of occasions I remember two of the Vice Presidents taking different viewpoints on a given topic -- and both of them somehow requesting help from Jack based on their particular approach to whatever was being discussed.

This, of course, is a classic setup for anyone working for an organization-whichever way Jack would go, he could be guaranteed of at least irritating one of the vice presidents, if not in fact creating a powerful enemy. Clearly a no-win situation for Jack.

The part that I liked most of all in this little drama was Jack's response. He would stand up in the middle of the meeting, and proclaim rather loudly something like this: "Gentlemen, it says right in the Bible that no man shall serve two masters. When you guys decide which of you is going to make this decision, please let me know and I will do my best to get the job done at that point."

With that, Jack would usually leave the meeting, having decided that nothing constructive was going to happen until some more fundamental decisions were made. I don't think I realized at the time, but it was probably very good strategy on Jack's part to leave at this point as well. Whereas his continued presence could have implied some sort of approval on his part, his absence from the meeting clearly underscored his absolute refusal to involve himself any further in whatever project it was until the ground rules had been firmly established.

Someone once told me that questions are weak, statements are strong. Jack did not ask if they would clarify this situation before involving him; he did not request that management avoid creating this kind of problem for him; he simply told them what he needed from them in order to give them what they wanted from him. A question would have put the power to determine a crucial part of Jack's working environment in the hands of others. The statement kept it right where it belonged: with Jack.

In one way of looking at it, this was certainly nervy of Jack, after all, he was an engineer reporting to vice presidents of the company. It would have been a fairly simple matter for one of the VPs to demand Jack's resignation (although I wonder if the company president would have gone along with this). Somehow, this did not seem to bother Jack in the least, as there was no hesitation whatsoever that I could see on his part when it came time for him to take a stand.
Good at what you do, and knowing it = less b.s. (M.A.S.H.)

I wasn't very close to Jack personally so I can only speculate as to his motivations for his behavior; however, I have a couple of fairly good ideas. First of all, he appeared to be fiercely opposed to being put in any kind of a no-win situation, and he clearly recognized that the kinds of things I am describing here would have been just that. I'm sure he also realized that a man of his talent and reputation would have had very little trouble getting another job somewhere else if one of the vice presidents had in fact fired him; but I have a hunch that beyond this, he knew that he was doing such a fantastic job for the company (he was) that they would probably not have fired him in a million years.

He was right.

What's the difference?

The moral of the two stories is simple: being good at what you do and providing plenty of value for the organization you work for, while a darned good start, is not enough to guarantee that you'll get treated fairly.

You have to insist on it. Not just with words, but with your behavior. If your entire demeanor consistently communicates, as Jack's did, "I will do the best I can for you -- provided you keep your end of the bargain," others will be much more likely to treat you right.

Of course, this is not foolproof so keeping yourself in a position to make changes if a situation becomes intolerable is your ultimate means of maintaining your standards. And your Career Sanity.

* I remembered it -- Challenge-Cook Brothers.

Listening Well Brought Me a Great Client

“They didn’t listen to me” was Lenny’s explanation, “or maybe I should say they didn’t listen enough. They were polite and all, but they didn’t seem to think that I knew much about what was happening other than ‘my computer’s broken.'"

Communication continues to be one of the core problems affecting our dealings with each other. It is also something frequently mentioned by employers as an area in which many of their new hires could benefit from some improvement.

This is important strategic information: anything you can do to improve your communication skills will tend to give you an advantage over at least some of your competition for the career you want.

I know from my experience that good communication can bring you business: when I was getting started in my new career as an independent “computer guy” I managed to get a good client by listening to him in a way that many of my competitors did not.

I had been helping a local CPA with some computer issues. One day he mentioned a client of his who had been having nothing but trouble with his computer. This in turn was causing my client, the CPA, grief because it was affecting his client’s ability to provide his financial information on time.

Apparently by this time several computer professionals had been out to work on this troublesome PC, all to no avail. The situation was becoming a real problem; even buying a new computer wasn’t a real attractive option because there was so much data on the existing machine.

My client, the CPA, didn’t know if sending me out would do any good or not as I was relatively new in the field. The other techs that had worked on the problem were much more experienced than I was; they hadn’t fixed anything so it seemed like a long shot for me. I suggested that I go and take a look – I promised I wouldn’t hurt anything (“first do no harm”) so there wasn’t really anything to lose by having me give it a shot.

I showed up at the beautiful mountaintop home of the client, Lenny, a highly successful owner of about a dozen fast-food franchises. He and I hit it off rather quickly – he was a real down to earth guy who seemed to be highly intelligent in a very dynamic way, one of those people who catches on to things quickly and just generally has a pretty good feel for what is going on.

By now I had already begun working on the problem, even though I hadn’t even seen the computer yet. I knew that Lenny was no dummy, was highly motivated to get this problem resolved, and that he knew more about the problem than anyone since he had been living with it for months.

I gave Lenny the real “third degree” about what was going on. I paid careful attention to everything he said, which led me in the general direction of what turned out to be the culprit. After some trial and error I made some changes to his accounting software and the problem was solved.

This worked out great for me on two fronts: my CPA client was glad to have this resolved and wound up sending me to other clients of his. And Lenny became not only a very good client but a friend as well.

Lenny told me about some of the other computer techs who had been out to work on his problem. They all seemed to be very knowledgeable about the computers, highly professional, no problems at all in that area. So why hadn’t they fixed his computer?

“They didn’t listen to me” was Lenny’s explanation, “or maybe I should say they didn’t listen enough. They were polite and all that, but they didn’t seem to think that I knew much about what was happening other than ‘my computer’s broken.’ They were the ‘experts’ so they just jumped in and started looking all over the place for what was wrong. And they never did find it.”

I didn’t make the mistake of assuming that because Lenny didn’t specialize in computers, he couldn’t possibly know anything about what was wrong with his computer. Good communication helped me get an important client, which in turn helped my career considerably.

It can help yours as well.

Gangs of Chicago

In which my boss, our dates, and I come face to face with trouble with a capital T.


Some friends and I narrowly avoided mayhem in a lonely gas station in one of Chicago's scruffier 'hoods. We had come to the city for an evening of fun, not a trip to the ER. We were all relieved that it stayed that way.


Nearly Getting Our Butts Kicked

This story goes back to the late 1960s when I was a student at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb Illinois. I put myself through school working for a couple guys who owned a popular hamburger joint in town; I wound up becoming fairly good friends with the younger of the two brothers, a fellow named Jerry. At some point Jerry and I decided to go on a double date into Chicago, a couple hours away by car. Jerry offered to drive so we made arrangements for our big evening in the big city.

It's been so long I don't remember exactly what we did for our "night on the town," probably dinner and a movie.The memorable part of the evening, however, took place afterwards when we were getting ready to drive back to DeKalb. By this time it was probably at least 11 PM or so but we were young and healthy so staying up late and then driving a couple hours across the cornfields to get back home didn't bother us. But there was another risk to our health waiting for us which we soon discovered when we went to gas Jerry's car for the trip home.

I had lived in the Chicago area for a number of years prior to going to school in DeKalb but this was a part of town that I wasn't at all familiar with. Somehow we managed to pull into a gas station just before a couple cars full of young guys (who nowadays would likely be referred to as "gang bangers") pulled in. We were obviously fairly easy marks for some kind of mischief on the part of these fellows and they quickly took the bait. I had gotten out to find the restroom and as I was walking into the gas station building I heard some commotion. Looking back at the car I saw several of these scruffy fellows surrounding the car and beginning to harass Jerry's date.

It looked like a really unpleasant situation was on the verge of taking place outside because Jerry looked like he was going to confront these guys and probably get stomped. I guess luck was with me on that evening because one of the drivers of one of the cars, who appeared to be one of the leaders of the pack as they say, headed toward the gas station building about the same time I did, probably with the same idea of using the restroom as I had.

"Nice Car!"

I struck up a conversation with this guy. Like many young guys, I had quite an interest in cars although I hadn't had the opportunity to do much about it. But this guy had a really nice looking Pontiac -- I don't remember the details but it looked -- and sounded -- like he had done a lot of work and had really done a great job. So what I did was to completely ignore the rapidly developing / deteriorating situation in the parking lot and just started talking to this guy as if I had known him for years -- I started out by saying something like "Hey, that's a really sharp car you have out there!"

Because of my interest in cars I knew enough of the lingo and I did have somewhat of an understanding of some of the things guys would do to "soup up" a car, so I was able to carry on a reasonably intelligent conversation. I think I asked him if he had put a three-quarter cam* or something like that in the engine, which, as it turned out, he had -- this I believe gave a bit more credibility to my apparent interest.

I don't remember the guy but I do remember his reaction when I acknowledged what a great car he had: he lit up like a Christmas tree. His big smile told me that his car and his passion for it were bright spots in his life -- and he clearly appreciated the recognition. We chatted for a couple minutes and at some point we decided to walk back out to the lot to get back to our cars. By this time he and I had actually "bonded" somewhat because of our mutual interest in automobiles.

"Hey! Leave 'em alone!"

This is the funny part: he and I walked out together, still chatting like a couple of old pals. At some point he looked up and noticed "his" guys on the verge of really giving some serious trouble to Jerry and the two girls who were still in the car. He was the leader, all right. He barked a quick command -- music to my ears, and Jerry's as well -- to his troops: "Hey! Leave them alone!"

They did. They stopped hassling Jerry and got back in their cars. My friend and boss looked at me like I had just walked across the water or perhaps parted the Red Sea. I quickly got back into the car, said goodbye to my newfound friend, and we drove away, completely unharmed.

Fight, Flight, or -- Car Talk?

There is probably all kinds of criticism that could be leveled at my handling of this, especially from the devotees of the movies in which the bad guys get vanquished by the good guys through use of some wonderful martial arts techniques or who knows what. Even if Jerry and I had been highly trained fighters I suspect that the sheer numbers we faced would have been a serious problem for us. But we were so far from being fighters it wasn't even funny. We would have stood absolute zero chance of coming out with any kind of good result if we had tried to take these guys on physically. To make it worse, we were in a relatively isolated area and it didn't seem like any kind of help was to be had anytime soon. Cell phones, with which to possibly call 911, were still 30 years or more in the future.

(UPDATE: This took place in the late 1960s, several years after the November 22, 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. I have, somewhat belatedly, come to realize that JFK was attempting to deal with the Cold War madness in somewhat the same way that I handled this almost-rumble in that lonely gas station: by seeking out common ground rather than simply throwing a child's tantrum and lashing out in rage -- and the consequences be damned, of course. Unlike JFK, my only "enemy" was the group of toughs in the gas station... which is why I am here to tell my story, unlike the unfortunate JFK).

Was it somewhat manipulative of me to feign all kinds of interest in this guy's car? I suppose it was to some extent. As I recall though it really was a neat car and it's quite possible that if he and I had met under different circumstances I would have shown similar interest in his car. I guess what I was doing was just trying to find some kind of common ground, something to base some kind of a genuine connection with this guy on.

I believe it was many years in the future that I would begin to understand how psychology works and how it is very difficult to mistreat someone else without dehumanizing them first. This was why, for example, the concentration camp guards in Nazi Germany gave the harshest treatment of all to those who would try to befriend them, since they had no choice but to be cruel to these people.

Obviously this could just as easily have gone the other way, with plenty of pain and suffering to be paid for our mistake of stopping in the wrong part of town. But it was an important lesson for me, one that has stuck with me all these years: finding common ground with others at least creates the possibility of decent interaction.

* For any fellow old-time car nuts out there, I also dropped the buzzword "Isky"

Used Car Lot

" It was obviously an oversight, which is why I am looking to get it resolved so that I can leave here every bit as happy as I was before I found the crack in the windshield. I think it's a great car and I am looking forward to telling everyone I know what a great car I bought from you guys."

This is a story about how I handled a conflict involving a car I bought from a used car lot. After hearing a variety of horror stories about used car lots, I was actually pleasantly surprised, although I did have a little bit of difficulty right after the sale was complete.

The principle that this particular story illustrates is something that I began to realize many years ago: it helps a lot when it comes to reducing a conflict if you can avoid adding additional conflict into the mix. This is probably one of the biggest mistakes made where conflict is concerned.

Like many of us, I had some real live examples of this as a child watching my parents deal with their conflicts. In more cases than I can even begin to remember, what started out as a relatively minor difference of opinion wound up turning into a full-scale war because my parents did such a good job of escalating the conflict while supposedly attempting to resolve it. This inevitably took place as a result of the various personal attacks and implications they flung at each other out of frustration over the original conflict.

This in turn leads to the simplest and most important advice that I can think of when it comes to minimizing the additional conflict from an already tense situation: avoid getting personal. And the way I have learned to do this is to simply focus on the issue itself, and avoid anything at all about the other person's motivations or character, family background, or anything else.

Back to my original story. After moving to a relatively small town in Northern California, I decided I needed to buy a car. I learned many years ago that buying a brand-new car is somewhat of a silly way to spend a lot of extra money, so a used but hopefully "gently used" automobile was in my future. I immediately discovered one of the drawbacks of living in a small town: the number of choices when buying just about anything is severely limited compared to the larger cities I had lived in previously. I scoured the various newspapers and online forums, but I kept coming up empty when it came to the kind of car I wanted. As a result, I wound up taking my chances at a local used-car lot.

I was really pleasantly surprised because I had heard all the horror stories about used-car salesmen and getting ripped off. I found a really nice secondhand smaller SUV, which I wound up buying. I have had it several years now and it has turned out to be a great little car, so apparently I did pretty well on the used-car lot. There was one glitch, however, at the very last minute.

After test driving and getting an inspection by my dealer's mechanic, I went ahead and completed the purchase. In my enthusiasm for all this, however, I had neglected to remove the little windshield banner that the seller had put at the top of the windshield to help advertise the car while it was on the lot. Much to my dismay, when I removed this, I found a small but very prominent crack in the windshield itself-right where it had been covered up by the sales banner. This did not make me happy.

I called the dealer and arranged to go in to discuss the matter with him. Relatively early on in the conversation he began to become defensive and asked me somewhat loudly if I was trying to say that they had done this on purpose in order to deceive me. At this point I could easily have escalated the conflict by raising my voice and implying all kinds of negative things about their motivation and so on and so forth -- but I did not. I have no way of knowing what their actual intentions were, but I had already come to realize that the car itself was really in quite good shape and was in fact a decent purchase. So what I said was "No, actually, it's the exact opposite. I have heard so many good things about your dealership that the last thing in the world I would think would be that you would do something like this on purpose. It was obviously an oversight, which is why I am looking to get it resolved so that I can leave here every bit as happy as I was before I found the crack in the windshield. I think it's a great car and I am looking forward to telling everyone I know what a great car I bought from you guys."

This was actually a true statement, although it may have been mixed in with a little bit of optimism on my part. But it was an interesting thing to say, and the reaction was immediate. I could tell that the dealer was ready for a fight-and, given the business he was in, I am sure he was quite prepared to give me as good a battle as he had likely given others. But my statement really did seem to take him by surprise, and he didn't know what to say for a minute or two. When he realized I was serious, that I really thought they were a great dealership, his attitude changed somewhat dramatically.

I don't remember all the details, but it was relatively soon after this part of the conversation that he made the offer to split the cost of fixing the crack in the windshield with me. I tried a couple times to see if he would cover the entire cost, but he had really dug his heels in at this point, and it was clear that 50-50 was as good as it was going to get without some kind of massive escalation on my part. The amount of money involved was not all that significant, and the fact was, I had already bought the car and he could have just told me to go away and that would have been that. So I agreed to the 50-50 and went out and got my windshield replaced. They paid their share, I paid mine and I have had a terrific car ever since.

So in this case, the two things that I did to make the most of an otherwise tricky situation were this: first of all, I not only did not do anything to put the other fellow on the defensive, I did the exact opposite. I made it very clear that I thought highly of them, and I expected nothing less than continuing decent treatment since they had already done such a great job of selling me such a nice car. I guess you could say I was appealing to their better self, which might sound somewhat naïve, but in fact it worked.

The other thing I did was I showed some flexibility by accepting the 50-50 compromise offer. Sure, I would have preferred them to pay 100%, and you could make a case for that having been my right, since I didn't plan to buy a car with a cracked windshield. But some of the responsibility was in fact on me because I could easily have lifted the little banner and looked underneath and seen the crack, but I did not; unfortunately, my mechanic didn't either. The sum total of all this was the 50-50 split seemed like a pretty decent way to resolve the situation.

I really don't think I could have done any better than I did, even if I had been a lot more aggressive -- unless I had been willing to go all the way and turn it into a legal battle. Perhaps if I had gone to small claims court, or something like that I would have come out with a larger proportion, maybe even a hundred percent of the cost of repairing the windshield. If it had been a multi-thousand dollar or tens of thousands of dollars at stake, I probably would have gone this route, but in this case, the additional time and effort it would've taken to pursue some legal remedy would have quickly more than consumed any of the modest amount of additional cash I might have gotten.

The bottom line is, I felt pretty good about the overall situation and I still feel good about the dealer. So it worked out pretty well all the way around.

Stay In Your Field (We’ll get paid sooner if you do)

I remember when I began to realize how unimportant 'enjoying my work' was to the world at large.

The fact that I did not want to continue in this direction was completely irrelevant to these people; my staying in my current field represented the quickest path to their commission so that was that as far as they were concerned.

I remember when I began to realize how unimportant "enjoying my work" was to the world at large. I had developed some food service experience (including management) while in school; working for a couple of years for my stepfather after graduating reinforced this. But I didn’t want to stay in this line of work forever, so I went looking.

One thing I tried was working with employment agencies. I was in Chicago at the time, so there were plenty to choose from. I believe I went to four or five different agencies, where I heard some version of the same thing: “Your experience is in food service, so that’s where you should interview.” They weren't kidding, either. I managed to convince one or two to ignore my food service background, more or less, but it was a constant struggle. Most insisted on sending me on food industry-related interviews.

The fact that I did not want to continue in this direction was completely irrelevant to these people; my staying in my current field represented the quickest path to their commission so that was that as far as they were concerned.

My degree -- a Bachelor's in Marketing -- was not nearly as interesting to the agency counselors as my work experience. Maybe this would have been different if I had held a more advanced or more specialized degree.

I appreciate self-interest so I understood their position: they had bills to pay and weren’t interested in my personal issues, wanting to change my career, and so on. But this is my point: it was up to me.

Always Have an “Or Else”

The hypocrisy of the “no ultimatums” policy is somewhat galling when you think about it.... a more accurate policy would be “no ultimatums for you (or else!)”

In an ideal world, maybe we would all agree on everything – there would never be a time when your boss really wanted you to do something that you really didn’t want to do. If you do a good job of being a rational, conscientious worker and finding the same kind of people to work with, this may not become an issue even in this non-ideal world. But chances are you will face a dilemma like this sooner or later in your career.

The solution is to always have an “or else,” an action that you are willing to take if the circumstances of your work become intolerable to you. Much of the time this will mean the willingness to leave the position. If this sounds drastic, bear in mind that the alternative, by definition, is to stay in a situation that you have decided is unacceptable to you. (If this isn’t stress I don’t know what is.)

“We don’t like ultimatums!”

Management will frequently adopt a “no ultimatums” policy in an attempt to neutralize or at least reduce the use of this approach by employees. Beyond the obvious irony – what is “No ultimatums!” if not an ultimatum itself? – it is a pretty transparent attempt at maintaining control. After all, if you have a non-negotiable requirement – and the willingness to follow through if necessary – you are able to force an issue: either management meets your requirements or they have to find someone else to do your job.

It is frequently much simpler, from their perspective, to simply tell you “we will look into it and let you know” or something similar, then go on with business as usual.

Questions are weak: “Can I have a raise?” Statements are strong: “I need a 10% increase in my salary effective immediately or I will have to resign.”

The hypocrisy of the “no ultimatums” policy is somewhat galling when you think about it. The underlying premise in most work environments, especially when management issues things like wage freezes is pretty much “our way or the highway.” A more accurate policy would be “no ultimatums for you (or else!)”

It might sound like I’m advocating a contentious relationship with management. In fact it’s the exact opposite. As long as you are realistic about what you are asking for, the confidence that comes from your willingness to follow through with alternatives if necessary will frequently tip the scales in your favor. For an example of how this can work see Treat Me Wrong, Treat Me Right: Who Decides?, especially the second half.

The Eloquence of Cash

No real mystery, just cash. Nothing new about that, either. I even explained that I wasn't being altruistic or self-sacrificing in any way because I was paying Chuck out of the increase in my earnings.

A standard arrangement for many companies selling just about anything is an inside / outside sales team: the outside rep calls on the customers and prospects, the inside counterpart supports the selling effort in various ways: telephone follow-ups, routing orders through the system, handling emergencies, as well as many others.

The overall success of the company, then, depends to a great extent on how well these "teams" work together. I worked as an outside salesman for a company with this exact setup; one of the ongoing complaints at this company was the lack of cooperation between the "inside guys" and the "outside guys." The outside reps would consistently complain about how "their" teammate just didn't want to do very much beyond the bare minimum. (I'm sure the inside guys griped as well but I wasn't privy to their discussions as I was one of the outside guys.)

One thing I've learned is not only are there two sides to every story - there is almost always some background, some context, that needs to be learned in order to best understand the situation. In this case the background consisted of the simple fact that the inside reps were paid substantially less than the outside reps. Not only that, but the outside reps had a substantial commission program that could result in even higher earnings for them.

Pretending to work -- and pretending to get paid

The inside salespeople had some kind of a "bonus" plan as I recall but the reality was that even with bonuses their earnings were quite a bit less than ours. The bonus was also a "pool" type situation, meaning it was paid based on the overall performance of the inside team as a group. One person working really hard could be dragged down by the lackluster performance of one or more of the other "team" members. The bottom line was these guys had very little to motivate them.

My counterpart was a very bright, personable fellow named Chuck. He was trying to do a good job but I could tell the combination of endless bureaucratic busywork and lack of real motivation was beginning to take its toll. He was either going to leave or join the ranks of the "zombies," those poor souls that aren't motivated enough to do a good job but haven't quite found the courage to just quit. It was clearly just a matter of time.

I invited Chuck out to lunch. I explained an idea I'd had to him: if he would be willing to really bust his butt, to go out of his way to help me build up sales in the territory, I would share my commission checks with him. I forget the exact split we agreed on but it was something substantial, 60% me, 40% him, something like that. Not quite 50-50 as I recall but substantial.

I could tell he was skeptical but he agreed to give it a try. And did he ever! He literally came to life... he was on the phone all day long contacting people for me to go see; he'd run out on his lunch hour to get something to a customer that had to have it that day; he became an absolute genius at getting rush orders through the company's bloated paperwork system. He really helped me to keep the customers satisfied.

It worked, too. Sales increased almost immediately, and, of course, my commission checks increased. There is absolutely no question in my mind that Chuck was directly responsible for the lion's share of the additional commissions I started to receive. This is an important point which I'll come back to shortly.

A check for Chuck

After I'd received my next (larger) commission check I suggested to Chuck that we "do lunch" again. We sat down, I told him the results, took out my checkbook and wrote him a check.

ZZZZZap! I know how Ben Franklin must have felt when lightning struck that kite of his - Chuck looked like someone had plugged him into the wall socket! To say that he was pleased would be like saying Bill Gates knows a little bit about selling software. So what became of his new-found behavior, working harder than ever to help me get the sales figures up? He kept doing it! He just plain kept at it, and for the next year or so he and I both made more money than we had before. We had a good time working together, too. The company we worked for sold more of the stuff they were trying to sell, and the customers got better service than they were used to getting. Good deal all the way around.

At some point some of my counterparts, the other outside guys, began to notice the change in Chuck. Their guys were still behaving the old way, just more or less shuffling along, while Chuck was going off like a Roman candle on a daily basis.

"How did you do it?" "What's your secret?" Several of us outside guys had lunch one day and of course my new, improved "inside guy" was the hot topic of the day. They wanted one too!

Just cash, guys

So I told them. No real mystery, just cash. Nothing new about that, either. I even explained that I wasn't being altruistic or self-sacrificing in any way because I was paying Chuck out of the increase in my earnings. As I indicated above, I was now making more, even after giving Chuck his share, than I was before. So what was the downside of all this? None that I could see. I was more than happy to share this with my comrades. I was even naïve enough at the time to figure that they would go on and do some version of the same thing, with hopefully similar results.

They didn't. Not a one. They kept griping about their inside guys, their inside guys probably kept griping about them, and the status pretty much remained quo.

This was the point in my life when I began to suspect that sometimes the opportunity to complain about something is perhaps more important than the opportunity to fix it.

I won't do this any more

If I needed the money so badly that I would in effect take it away from little old ladies, somebody might as well shoot me.

It's not that often that I can point to one specific event in my life that wound up triggering other events, but in the case of my job in pharmaceuticals, I can. I can remember exactly when I decided that I would not work for this company any more.

I was in one of the pharmacies, I believe in Hollywood, making small talk with the pharmacist since we both knew there really wasn't a whole lot work related to talk about that we hadn't both heard a thousand times before. So we were just basically shooting the breeze. He had to interrupt our conversation to deal with a customer who had just come into the store: a somewhat typical little old lady with a prescription from her doctor. She seemed concerned with how much her medication was going to cost so the pharmacist looked it up and gave her the price.

The price he gave her was apparently quite a bit higher than she was expecting, and from her response and her overall appearance it looked like the amount of money involved was going to have a severe impact on her budget. She seemed really concerned about having to spend this much money on her medication.

In an attempt to get the price down to something more affordable, she asked the pharmacist if he could substitute a generic version of the drug. The pharmacist took another look at the prescription and as it turned out, the doctor had checked the little box on the prescription slip that said "no generics". The pharmacist then had to explain to his customer that he could not do that because the doctor had checked the box forbidding it.

The woman wound up having to fork over the price of the brand name product, and she left the store clearly upset. We could only speculate on exactly what this meant to her, but it is probably not too much of a stretch of the imagination to see where it could have meant she would have cat food for dinner rather than people food.

The problem for me was the fact that as I stood there in my nice suit, having just recently gotten out of my nice new air-conditioned company car, all paid for by the company, I realized that one of the things the company expected me to do was to convince the doctors to check that little box on the prescription slip with every prescription they write. This particular patient had not been purchasing something from my company, but that really didn't matter. I was one of the people supposedly working hard to create the situation that was going to make it more difficult for this woman and others like her to live a decent life.

(Yes, I realize the question of quality of generics compared to the "name brands." For a particular product, maybe there is a difference in the two -- just as the store brand of a consumer product may not be exactly the same as its brand name counterpart. Like any other financial decision adults make just about every day of their lives, whether or not to spend the extra money for a name brand drug is nobody's business but the person spending the money.)

That was it for me. I decided right then and there to give my notice, which as I recall I did that day or within a matter of days, probably as soon as I could get hold of the guy I worked for. I was Goddamned if I was going to be a part of something as lousy as this. I remember thinking that if I needed the money so badly that I would in effect take it away from little old ladies, somebody might as well shoot me.

No such thing as an unloaded pencil...

"Is that thing loaded?"

A couple of lifetimes ago I made my living as a salesman for a power transmission systems dealer. This is a story of a somewhat challenging sales call. It was a potentially big account so I brought my boss with me -- which wound up making things a little more challenging.

This particular prospect was a middle management type for one of the big seafood processing plants in the Los Angeles area. Our discussion came around to reliability, which was understandably enough a topic of enormous importance to him and his company.

Maybe he'd had a bad day, maybe it was just his style, but at some point he began shaking his pencil in my face as a way of emphasizing his point that "These systems have to be reliable! Our downtime costs are outrageous!" and so on and so forth. I had no problem, of course, with his point; I totally understood and agreed that reliability had to be the top priority for anything my company would provide his. What I didn't care for was his blasted pencil wagged in my face, especially since I hadn't done anything to deserve this kind of crap.

At the same time, he was a potential customer (and a big one); to make matters just a bit trickier I had my boss with me, right there in the meeting. Now what? I asked myself. I really didn't want to antagonize the prospect, and I certainly didn't want my boss to make a note like "picks fights with potential customers" in my personnel file. But I just didn't see any reason for this guy to be treating me like some kind of a peon when I was in fact doing my best to figure out how to help his company accomplish something.

As sometimes happens at difficult times, inspiration struck. I leaned back, away from him, and fairly far off to the side, almost positioning myself as an outside observer watching the whole event. From this vantage point I pointed at his pencil, grinned at him just long enough to get his attention, and in a very pleasant voice asked him:

"Is that thing loaded?"

A couple seconds went by; maybe not my life but certainly my job flashed before my eyes; suddenly he broke out in a big grin. He put his pencil down and we continued our discussion.

I honestly don't remember whether we wound up selling his company anything or not but I certainly got a charge out of getting such a "real-world" result from my sense of humor.

Ruby in Houston

Ruby was somewhere in her 60s when I first met her; one of those seemingly ageless Southern women that can pretty much do whatever needs to be done. Even better: she had the most delightful attitude and overall approach to things – people liked her, trusted her, and respected her.

Old as my grandmother, but some of the teenagers could barely keep up with her ...

As a young man, fresh out of school, I had the amazingly good fortune to work with a delightful lady named Ruby Shane. Ruby was about 3 times my age when I met her yet had more energy and all around enthusiasm than many of her co-workers, most of whom were even younger than her new manager. Ruby has been gone from this world for quite a few years now. This is for you, Ruby, wherever you are. And thank you again for being there for the new guy.

Right after getting my Marketing degree from NIU (Northern Illinois University) I went to work for my stepfather. By this time he had established a chain of cafeteria-type operations in shopping malls throughout the country; he offered me a job managing one in Houston, Texas.

This was a big deal for me: I’d been slogging through the snow in Illinois for quite a few years now. Here I was, off to a whole new life in a whole new city. And as a “boss” no less. I had worked in food service during my undergraduate years, including some limited management experience, but this would be the real thing.

There were actually two operations at the location I was to take over, with something like 30 or 40 employees in all. Not an enormous operation but considerably larger than what I was used to – and now I would be in charge. Plus, of course, I had moved to a new part of the country where I didn’t know a soul. I was excited about the opportunity but at the same time pretty apprehensive – was I going to be in over my head?

I never found out exactly what happened to the former manager but there were rumors about alcohol and related issues; it seemed that he had pretty much been out of the picture for quite some time, at least a few months. The operation had deteriorated but it was holding together – Ruby was acting as an unofficial (and unpaid) manager to keep the place going.

Ruby was somewhere in her 60s when I first met her; one of those seemingly ageless Southern women that can pretty much do whatever needs to be done. Even better: she had the most delightful attitude and overall approach to things – people liked her, trusted her, and respected her. She was no pushover – if one of the staff (most of whom were part-time, local high school or college students) slacked off Ruby let them know about it in no uncertain terms. But she was fair.

So here I come, young wiseguy from the North, fresh out of school – and the owner’s kid (well, stepkid) no less, to take over. I found out later that many of the employees, including Ruby, were somewhat apprehensive about my arrival. Not knowing what to expect I think they were ready for just about anything.

Frequently, when a new manager takes over an operation, he or she will rather quickly begin making changes and more or less throwing his weight around. The stated purpose of this is usually to let everyone know who’s in charge. This has always struck me as kind of stupid, as well as disingenuous – employees are generally well aware of management changes.

I not only did not feel any need to make any big production about the fact of my newly-minted authority – I was grateful, extremely so, to have Ruby there while I figured out which end was up. I realized right away that Ruby had the respect of the employees. If I could make an ally of her it could very well help me enormously in my quest to learn the operation and eventually improve things.

This might sound somewhat manipulative but it wasn’t. I genuinely liked Ruby from the start, and I could tell immediately that she was doing a terrific job under far from ideal circumstances. My approach? It was simple: I was completely honest with Ruby about my plans and how much I needed her help, and what a great job I thought she was doing.

I also got her a raise and title so she was officially an Assistant Manager. I asked her outright if she resented the fact that they hadn’t made her the manager. She laughed and assured me that she wouldn’t have taken it if they had offered it. I am pretty sure she meant it.

We decided that Ruby would continue opening the place in the morning and staying until midafternoon or so; I would come in around lunch time and work until closing. Of course, as “the boss” I could have simply taken the somewhat preferable day shift and let it go at that, but there were some good reasons for the approach I took instead.

For one thing, much of the deterioration of the business had occurred during the evening hours. Ruby was great but she was only one person; she usually left in the midafternoon after working a full shift. From then on the place was pretty much on automatic pilot. And it showed.

By working the evening shift I would be able to get an idea of what the problems were and take steps to correct them. Not rocket science, it seemed like an obvious approach.

But a larger benefit was that this made it clear to Ruby (and everybody else) that I was serious about valuing Ruby’s help and being willing to do what it took to improve the operation. Ruby had family at home, and she was getting on in years; she was pretty adamant about not wanting the evening shift. If I had insisted I would have either lost her entirely or at least lost much of her good attitude and cooperation.

I could have just worked the day shift myself along with Ruby – which I did, from time to time, but these were the exceptions. This would have left the evening problems pretty much in place, and would likely have given me the reputation of a talker rather than a doer. Not good.

The great thing I learned early in my career about dealing with people was this: if you are fortunate enough to be in a situation where both parties are genuinely doing the best they can, with a reasonable amount of goodwill and consideration for the other person, the situation can just keep working more or less indefinitely. This was how it worked with Ruby.

On the Ropes: Tough Interview

I kept struggling with an answer to this, and at some point I began to feel like a fighter who had been knocked down, listening to the count.

Hydraulics in Southern California

Paul-Munroe Hydraulics, which I don't believe exists today as a separate entity, was founded (I believe) sometime shortly after the end of World War II by two bright young fellows named Bill Paul and Ted Munroe. These gentlemen found themselves in Southern California at the beginning of what has come to be known as a wonderful and prosperous time in the history of the United States, the post-World War II boom. Ted had a technical background and Bill had the business background; somehow they were able to foresee the tremendous growth in the American heavy industries, which they realized would fuel the need for various equipment such as the hydraulics.

So these two young men founded the company which bore both of their names. I believe their first manufacturer, one of the first products they carried, was Vickers, an old line manufacturing outfit that had been making heavy equipment components for automobiles as well as larger construction equipment, things like this.

Post-WWII: "Smokestack" industries in their prime

The business grew and by the time I finally encountered them they were pretty well established in the state. At their peak they had the home office in Whittier, the manufacturing and engineering facility in Orange, CA; as well as something like half a dozen branch offices throughout the state. They probably had 200 or so employees and I would guess annual sales of probably 20, $30 million? I could be off here but I am probably somewhere in the ballpark.

They were a successful company, well established, and just on the verge of moving into America's shift from emphasizing the smokestack industries into the newer high-tech business. None of us knew it at the time, but things like hydraulics were on the verge of experiencing a severe de-emphasis. In this sense I guess you could say my timing was pretty bad, but I didn't have a crystal ball either so what the heck.

The company was hiring sales reps. Although they referred to them as "sales engineers" they did not require a technical degree or background -- they said they would train for the position. This sounded ideal for me as I had a strong interest and aptitude in technical fields but my degree was in Marketing. The more I looked into it the more I felt that I really wanted to work for this company.

Things went quite well in the interviewing process, at least initially. I had the traditional two or three interviews with people such as the sales manager; I also took their battery of tests, on which I did extremely well, which with all due modesty I usually do. I am fortunate enough to usually do quite well on testing. And the interviews, as I say, went well from all that I could see. At least until my interview with Bill Paul, the owner of the company.

By this time I had probably spent at least $5000, possibly $10,000 on my various therapy - related activities; it sounds like a big sum of money and it is but it was worth every penny. Just the same, it wasn't until this interview with the owner of Paul-Munroe Hydraulics that I began to see a conscious return on my investment. But it sure began to pay off here.

What an interview!

My interview with Bill Paul started off pleasantly enough, but after the various small talk and pleasantries were exchanged it quickly turned into a confrontation. Bill Paul was a very soft-spoken but extremely intelligent man who believed that he possessed extraordinary wisdom in determining other people's character. He seemed to have decided that, even though I was obviously qualified for the job on paper, somehow I would not really be the kind of person they were looking for. Since I had spent so many years in "clean" jobs, he suspected that working in factories and places like this would somehow not be right for me.

This may have just been an interviewing technique for all I knew, but at the time he seemed thoroughly convincing and it appeared to me that this job I really wanted badly was about to vanish because the owner of the company had taken some kind of a dislike to me. I was scared, but at the same time I began to feel an inner strength of determination such as I had never felt before. As I have mentioned, I do believe that the therapy I had done certainly helped here because I began to behave as a much more self-confident guy.

Bill Paul kept asking me things like "How can we be sure that this will be a good match between the job and you? How can we be sure?" This seemed to be a genuine concern of his, somehow being guaranteed that things were going to work out.

On the ropes

I kept struggling with an answer to this, and at some point I began to feel like a fighter who had been knocked down, listening to the count.

I will never know exactly where this came from, deep within is my only guess - but as the count hovered between 8 and 9 and I was just about to be declared knocked out, inspiration struck. I got to my feet, figuratively speaking, and began to give as much as I had been getting.

"You keep asking me for a guarantee," I shot back at Mr. Paul. "Let me ask you something. What kind of a guarantee did you and your partner have back after the war when the two of you gambled everything you had on this new business?"

This literally stopped him in his tracks. It was somewhat of a defining moment in my young life -- I don't think I had ever felt my own strength of character quite as clearly as I did in that instant. I went on to say that I felt fairly sure that I could and would do a good job for him but in all honesty I cannot predict the future with 100 percent certainty any more than he and Ted Munroe could have 25 or so years before this. But I could tell him that I would give it my best, just as they had.

I guess I made it a point not to lay it on too thick, because I realized that I had gotten his attention. Some advice from someone I knew in Chicago years before this came to mind: when you have made the sale, shut up.

I did just that. I shut up. Bill Paul became very quiet for a long time -- and I got the job.

The "Molly" Story

Surprise! The next time I went down to see how Molly was doing, I was amazed -- she had totally changed her ways. Unlike before, she was genuinely paying attention to each and every customer, nice as could be to them in addition to getting their orders filled efficiently.

Have you ever had to wait while a cashier or clerk finished a personal conversation before helping you? I'll bet you didn't like it. When I was managing a fairly busy fast food café in a large shopping center, my customers didn't like it either. Here is how I handled the situation.

The operation I ran was fairly busy but not terribly fancy -- definitely "fast food." Pretty standard: the customer wants a decent bite to eat in a fairly short time. No big mystery, just the basics.

Things for the most part went fairly well, but every now and then there would be a glitch of one sort or another. This was a decade or so before Tom Peters popularized the term "Management by Wandering Around" but it seemed pretty obvious to me that I had to see what was going on in order to do my job effectively.

One thing I noticed on one of my wanderings was one of the counter workers, a high school girl named Molly: though she seemed quite competent at the job itself, she had an annoying habit of talking to her friends at length, up to the point where she would actually keep customers waiting. The customers noticed as well, and it was obvious that they were none too happy about this.

I mentioned this to Molly the next time we talked. I kept it fairly light, hoping she'd take the hint and change her behavior so I could quit worrying about it. No such luck, so I mentioned it again. This time I was a little more direct about it. Again, nothing changed.

OK, time for something more substantial. I arranged to meet with Molly after her shift ended the next day.

"Here's the situation, Molly," I began. "I'm paid to keep this place running well, which means keeping the customers happy. The customers are happy when they can get the food they want fairly quickly so they can go on about their business as soon as possible. When they have to wait for their food they get unhappy."

I believe I mentioned that she could probably understand this by thinking of times she'd been out buying something and had to wait for what seemed like an unnecessarily long time. Nobody likes to wait.

I went on to explain to Molly that, while most of what she did on the job she did quite well, there was one thing that was causing trouble with the customers; this of course was her habit of chatting with her friends and keeping the customers waiting.

"So, Molly, I hope you see where this leaves me - for the customers' sake, which means for the business' sake, I have to get this to change. I'm hoping you'll be willing to change this because I enjoy working with you and I think you're a great worker; but if you don't I'll have to replace you." I named what I thought was a reasonable length of time and explained that if the customers were still waiting because of her personal conversations when that time had passed that I would in fact let her go.

She didn't say much at this point; I think she was taken somewhat by surprise by the whole thing. By the time we were finished talking I had no idea whether any good at all was going to come out of the conversation.

Surprise! The next time I went down to see how Molly was doing, I was amazed -- she had totally changed her ways. Unlike before, she was genuinely paying attention to each and every customer, nice as could be to them in addition to getting their orders filled efficiently. Yes, I was definitely amazed.

We talked again after a week or so (I had to be sure that one day wasn't a fluke!) and I told her how glad I was to see her doing such a great job with the customers. She actually thanked me for having that earlier conversation with her... she said that she enjoyed the job a lot more now that she had made the change I'd requested.

Since then I've tried to figure out just why this worked out as well as it did. I was fairly young and pretty much going "by the seat of my pants" as the saying goes. I think there are a few factors that contributed to this success story:

  1. Molly was a teenager, rebellious, full of energy, and all that, but she was also essentially a decent person, meaning she hadn't been damaged beyond repair by the world yet. Another person without this basic decency could just as easily have ignored everything I said and headed on out the door. And nowadays, of course, maybe this person would've come back later with a .357 ....
  2. My approach was focused primarily on the situation, what was happening vs. what needed to happen, and why. I did mention Molly's behavior where necessary since that was the point of the conversation, but I didn't go overboard, didn't imply anything about her character, none of that. I kept it very neutral, very objective - and very definite. This has to change, and this is why.
  3. I came up with a reasonable request as well as a definite statement about consequences of complying or not complying, and a realisitic timetable. Years later I heard the phrase "Actions have consequences." This is an anxiety-diminishing statement since it indicates that we do have some control over our lives. I wasn't playing some capricious authority figure, making arbitrary decisions about Molly's life. I was simply explaining to her what the situation required of her - and why - and leaving it in her hands at that point. She apparently responded to the responsibility I placed in her.

Was I glad that this turned out as well as it did? Of course I was! And would I really have followed through and fired Molly if she hadn't changed her ways? Of course I would have! To not fire her under those circumstances would have been more of an insult than anything else. And I believe she realized that.

But lately I wonder, especially when I'm in a store and the clerk or cashier or whoever is more interested in their conversation than waiting on me - I wonder if anyone in their company knows how to tell a "Molly" story. And I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one.