"Life always gives us exactly the teacher we need at every moment. This includes every mosquito, every misfortune, every red light, every traffic jam, every obnoxious supervisor (or employee), every illness, every loss, every moment of joy or depression, every addiction, every piece of garbage, every breath. Every moment is the guru." -- Charlotte Joko Beck

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Are you Scrooge or Fezziwig?

The way the boss treats people in the workplace has a direct impact on productivity, innovation and service, not to mention morale.  

No time of year provides us a better example as the Christmas holiday season when we are reminded of the classic tale by Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol.”

Ebenezer Scrooge, miser, misanthrope, and mean-spirited taskmaster, makes the workplace an unbearable drudgery for his sole employee, Bob Cratchit. You know the story. Scrooge denies his employee coal to keep the office warm enough to function. Keeping Cratchit cold and uncomfortable, and thus completely reliant upon his employer for the most basic of needs, is Scrooge’s way of proving he is in charge. In Scrooge’s mind, Cratchit should be appreciative that he has a job at all and thankful to his employer. By constantly threatening to fire him, Scrooge expects Cratchit will work hard to stay on his boss’s good side.

The result is not as Scrooge expects. As a matter of fact, Cratchit is not exactly a top-notch employee. He does the bare minimum he needs to in order to get by, he is eager to leave at the end of day, and is late to work – even after having been reminded to “be here all the early the next day.” 

One thing Cratchit does have that Scrooge cannot understand is work-life balance. At home, Cratchit is the ultimate family man. He thoroughly enjoys the time he spends with family and takes joy in the simple things in life despite not being able to afford common comforts.

Scrooge gets to experience this during his visit from the Ghost of Christmas Present when they stop by the Cratchit family household. Scrooge is surprised that there can be so much joy, love and laughter among such a poor family.

Yet, the concept of enjoying life is not alien to Scrooge. When he is taken back in time by the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge fondly recalls Old Fezziwig, his first employer.
Fezziwig treated people well – apprentices and veterans, customers and crew. Everyone was made to feel important and special. Fezziwig’s employees were happy, energetic, and willing to put forth extra effort. Although plenty of work got done, they took time out for parties and celebrations. They had fun and laughed.

Scrooge realizes, "He has the power to render us happy or unhappy, to make our service light or burdensome, a pleasure or a toil. … The happiness he gives us is quite as great as if it cost a fortune." Remembering this is what begins Scrooge on his journey of rediscovery and redemption.

Of course, this is what the story is really about – enlightenment on the important things in life. It is about the realization that to shut ourselves off from our fellow man, to deny our responsibility to community, condemns us to inflicting misery and pain on others and on our own selves.  It is about transformation and redemption. It is about the worthlessness of wealth. It is about benevolence, charity, and the common welfare that is all of our business.

There are many wonderful life and leadership lessons to be learned from Dickens’ Christmas tale. For the purposes of this blog post, I’ll limit the discussion to these points:
  • You don’t have to be stuffy to be successful.
  • You don’t have to be mean to be in charge.
  • You don’t have to instill fear to be respected.
  • Work does not have to be a drudgery.
  • Having fun at work doesn't mean you aren't working.
We spend a great deal of our lives in the workplace, trying to earn a living so we can afford the basic creature comforts and perhaps a few luxuries. Many of us work to try to help make a difference somewhere, somehow or for someone, or to make a meaningful contribution to the community or the world. No matter what the reasons for working, there is no reason why we should be miserable doing it.

I have had the unfortunate experience in the past of working with people who had Scrooge-like tendencies. Thankfully, not to the Scrooge extreme and not from the desperate position of a Bob Cratchit, but still it was uncomfortable and terribly demoralizing. The staff was overcome with negativity, apathy and despondency. Jobs were completed within the bare minimum of standards, and only in a quantity that would keep people out of trouble. A great deal of the workday was spent in complaining and there was frequent turn-over.

Conversely, I have been fortunate enough to also work with Fezziwig types. People who made employees feel important and appreciated, and made the workplace fun. Those environments were much more productive and happy. You would be amazed at how enthusiastic and innovative the employees were.  

So, what do you want your organizational climate to be like?

Scrooge’s or Fezziwig’s?

I can definitely relate to Fezziwig having played the character for several years in a musical production of "A Christmas Carol" in a Baltimore community theater. I am afraid to admit, the mutton chops were real. I grew them for the show, and when I wasn't on stage. I am sure you can imagine the funny looks I got.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Being Thankful

As we go through our daily lives, dealing with the various workplace “emergencies” and whatever troubles and trials plague our days, perhaps pining for better situations or finer things, the furthest thing from our minds may be to be thankful for what we have.
These statistics may help put things in perspective:
  • If you woke up this morning more healthy than sick, you are luckier than the million people who will not survive the week.
  • If you have never experienced, the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, agony of torture, or pangs of starvation, you are more fortunate than 500 million people in the world.
  • If you can attend a church meeting without fear of harassment, arrest, torture, or death, you are more free than 3 billion people around the globe.
  • If you have food in your refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof overhead, and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of the world’s population.
  • If you have any money in the bank, in your wallet, and spare change in a dish someplace, you are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthy.
  • The fact that you have a computer, tablet or mobile device that allows you to read this post means you are more fortunate than nearly 90% of the rest of the world. 
  • As a matter of fact, if you can read this, you are better off than 2 billion people who cannot read at all.
With this in mind, I started out the month of November with the greatest of intentions to post on my Facebook page every day something that I am thankful for. Of course, only a few days into it, my time management went out the window and I did not keep up with it. That doesn’t mean I ran out of things to be thankful for. As a matter of fact, if anything, I found even more to be thankful for.
Celebrating 30 glorious years together, my wife and I decided to go on a cruise this month. I am thankful for this gracious, beautiful woman who has tolerated me for so long, and also thankful that we were able to save the money and take the time for a vacation. This November also marked the 10th anniversary of my retirement from the Navy Reserve, and this month is also my birthday, so we had lots to celebrate and were greatly anticipating our time away.

Life hands you surprises, however, and you never know what will be waiting for you around the next corner.
Early in the month, it looked like we might have to cancel our vacation. It started with my having a surprise attack of diverticulitis (a very painful colon infection). Thankfully, it was quickly cleared up and I developed a very great appreciation for competent medical professionals who properly diagnosed and prescribed effective medications. I am also thankful for the availability of those drugs and the health insurance that allows them to be affordable. I realize that not everyone is fortunate enough to have access to good medical care nor insurance.

I quickly recovered and things were back on track when our care arrangements for our aging cat went awry. Poor Oliver has several medical issues including hyperthyroid and arthritis, so needs medication on a regular schedule. He also is very skittish of new people, so we can’t just have anyone take care of him. We made special arrangements for someone he knows and trusts to stay here with him, but they had to cancel just a couple of days before our trip. The veterinarian was booked solid, so we couldn’t board him there. Thankfully, friends and neighbors came to our rescue and volunteered to help take care of him. I am so thankful for the wonderful, generous people we have in our lives.
So, finally, we were off on our trip: 10 days of complete disconnect from the rest of the world. Plentiful food, fun entertainment, beautiful weather, and meeting some really great people – all wonderful things to be thankful for. Chancing upon and spending time with some old friends among the passengers onboard was an added bonus. Touring through the Caribbean islands and seeing how some of the locals live in some of these countries made us very appreciative of what we have and brought to mind some of those statistics I mentioned earlier.

While we enjoyed our rejuvenation time, it was not so great for some of our fellow passengers. There were multiple medical emergencies during the cruise, with people needing MedEvac services. One was a fatal heart attack suffered by a man my same age. Tell me that doesn’t make you feel your mortality! Another was our own tablemate who became ill and had to be taken off the ship to a hospital during an unscheduled stop at Norfolk. Kudos to the Captain who had to make the tough decision to divert our ship to help her. This meant a great loss of revenue to the cruise line as all retail sales had to be closed down a day earlier than normal because the ship came into U.S. waters. Now that was an exceptional demonstration of leadership – putting the health and welfare of a single individual above corporate profits.
What was amazing through it all is that people on board were fully supportive. They were more concerned for this woman they didn’t even know than they were about getting their duty-free jewelry or booze. I was thankfully surprised not to encounter any complaints about being inconvenienced.  

At the same time, we were learning about the horrendous incidents in Paris and Bali. It was incredible to witness such solidarity and compassion as crew and passengers joined together to support and comfort those directly impacted. On the final night of the cruise, some crew members led us in singing “Three Little Birds” and “One Love.” Between passengers and crew, we represented more than 70 countries onboard that small vessel, and there we were, all of one mind, sending our positive vibes out to the world, all of our own accord. You could actually feel everyone’s dedication and commitment to reclaiming the humanity and love so brutally ripped from us by the hideous acts of the terrorists.

People often consider cruising as a purely fun excursion, but it is also an instrument of joining people of many nations, backgrounds and beliefs to help make the world just a little bit smaller and kinder.
It’s an experience for which I am thankful... so very, very thankful.

So, for this Thanksgiving, I hope you have found much in your life to be thankful for, too.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

I Remember All Too Well

It started like any other morning, listening to the news in the car while stuck in Washington, DC commuter traffic. I was in uniform, reporting to the Naval Media Center at Anacostia for my 2-week Navy Reserve duty.

Heard on the news about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center. No details yet, so I'm thinking a small private plane and "how stupid or drunk was that pilot? "

As I approach the gates to the base, the second plane hits. This is no...t an accident, but it makes no sense.

Standing in the parking lot, speaking with a fellow sailor about what's going on in New York when we hear a distant fwoomp. Smoke begins to rise on the horizon. From the rooftop we could see it was coming from the direction of the Pentagon. Holy crap! It's official. We are under attack!

Everything goes into lockdown, and all sorts of speculation about what is going on as news reports of bomb threats, shootings and more plane crashes flood the media. Phone lines are overwhelmed so hours go by before I can reach my wife to make sure she is safe and let her know that I was alright. Everyone else is going through the same thing, especially those of us with friends or family at the Pentagon.

We are swamped with emotions -- fear, anger, sorrow, determination, resolve -- all at the same time. Those first 24 hours were Hell.

My team and I finally were able to get to the Pentagon the next day and we went to work documenting the recovery and volunteer efforts. I don't know how we were able to film things through all the tears, but we did.

Through it all, I can tell you that I have never been more proud of my fellow sailors and Marines at the Naval Media Center. Even more, however, as we learned about the brave acts of those on Flight 93, first responders and citizens in New York, and our fellows at the Pentagon, and how people from all over came together to help each other, I was never more proud to be an American.

Our nation and way of life are both coveted and hated by those who don't have the same rights and privileges we do.

We are resilient and strong. And we will thrive. Because we will NEVER FORGET.

Originally posted 9/11/2015 on my LinkedIn page

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Being Treated as a Person

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook about his new job in a state government agency. His story provides a good example of the impact leaders can have on morale. (names and details have been eliminated to protect individual reputations)
“Today an older gentleman came into my office to introduce himself at the end of the day. He said ‘I just wanted to come in and say hello. So, how do you like it so far?’ I replied with a puzzled look on my face that I liked it rather well and these are nice people.

“He told me that morale was pretty low when he came here in the beginning of the year due to his predecessor. I looked even more puzzled until he said, ‘Oh, I'm The Secretary of State,’ to which I replied, 'oh, (gulp)... hi.'  I mean what do you say to the Secretary of State, right?
“I was impressed with his candor, the way he took time to just come in for ten minutes to get to know me, as he does all of the people who work there. He and I talked a little bit about what the governor is trying to do and I told him how impressed I was so far at the general attitude throughout the building. (Apparently it was not a fun place to be a year ago.)

“I have to admit that when someone as busy and important as this takes the time to come in and kibitz a few minutes with me, he wins my respect – because he shows me he respects me as a person. He was so down to earth. The way they should all be. I guess some people remember why they have a job and the people who put them there. Nice man.”

Whether or not the Secretary ever visits my friend again, those ten minutes he spent set the tone for my friend’s outlook and attitude about working there. Strong impressions are made during the first few weeks of a new employee’s arrival. The Secretary took the time to instill a sense of welcome, belonging and mutual respect, creating a foundation for ensuring a dedicated and engaged employee.

The morale in an organization can be positively or negatively effected by how the boss relates to people. The way a boss treats employees makes all the difference in a work environment. Too often top bosses, and even front-line supervisors, take their titles or themselves too seriously and treat workers like underlings. Mutual respect and recognition as a fellow human being are critical factors in the workplace. The lack of this human connection is frequently the root cause of serious morale problems.

My friend's story hints at what the organizational climate was like under the previous management. It sounds like the new leader understands his role as a “leader” and the importance of establishing a positive organizational CLIMATE.

Yes, I meant that in all caps. Organizational CLIMATE has been the core topic of several talks I’ve been asked to give recently. I’ll be blogging more about this in the near future, but here’s some homework for you.

Tell me: What’s your organizational CLIMATE like? What works, what doesn’t? Are people empowered or micromanaged? Recognized or abused? Email me at johnverricopro@gmail.com.

Maybe I’ll use your story as a case study.

Don’t worry. All information provided to me will be 100% confidential and I will only use the level of detail you allow me to.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Keep Trying New Things

Sharing this post here that I originally wrote for the National Association of Government Communicators blog "Adventures in Government Communications"

Keep Trying New Things

Reflections from NAGC President John Verrico

My earliest experiences as a Navy Journalist onboard USS BUTTE provided such a wealth of opportunity.  I was the sole public affairs professional on board, and there had not been another of my ilk for about 18 months prior to my arrival. I had to create my own job based upon what I learned at DINFOS (the Defense Information School) and try to do the best job I could. Since I was the only one in my profession, I had the opportunity to do it all, including two closed-circuit TV stations, two radio stations, the ship's newspaper and monthly  newsletter, daily evening newscast, press releases, response to media queries, speeches, photographs, video editing, ship tours and community relations. And I am sure I left something out.

That's me, c.1983, interrupted while recording a voice over.
It was busy, but awesome.

The problem with being the only one? No one to compare to, ask advice of, or even kvetch with. No one onboard really understood the specifics of my job. I had no one to tell me if I was doing things the right way or not, so I just kept trying new things.

How do I do a newscast? Hmmm. Let's get the AP and UPI feeds from the radio shack, along with the military message traffic, and pull some headlines out of them.  The TV room is too small to set up the camera for a live news show. I have a ton of 35mm slides and some slide film to make more. I'll do voice over slides! Maybe I can find an unused space and turn it into a studio. A little paint and a blanket as a curtain. Good to go. Manual typewriter to produce a small newspaper, duplicate with mimeograph and distribute on the mess decks. Too noisy to record voice-overs and radio shows during work hours. Wait till everyone's asleep and record the new Rock the Boat, Jazzin' Jay, or the Chief Push Time Machine show using borrowed cassette tapes from fellow crew members. Yeah. Had to get pretty creative sometimes. Thankfully, I had a technician who handled all the equipment maintenance and wiring issues, or I would have been doomed.

The thing was, nothing was impossible or not worth trying. And there were no preconceived notions of how to accomplish certain things, thus no barriers. Whether it was the right way or the wrong way, the easy way or the hard way, it didn't matter. All that mattered was coming up with an effective end product.

It was nearly 12 years before I finally worked with others in my profession. When I finally started being able to compare notes with others, I found there were plenty of things I could have done differently, better, or more efficiently, and the were plenty of slap-myself-in-the-forehead moments, too. Via the learning by trial and error method, I had done a fairly passable job after all, but imagine how much better though, had I had others to learn from, share with and compare to.

Looking back  from more than 30 years later, I realize that several good things came out of that period. Not only did I get to learn all those cool skills across the spectrum of communication disciplines, I also learned to really appreciate the concepts of teamwork and networking, and treasure the opportunities when we can learn from our peers. That's one of the things I love about NAGC - the ability to share, learn from, collaborate with and hang out with each other.

Nowadays, everyone has email and smartphones and ways to continuously stay in touch. I encourage you to use every tool at your disposal. Maybe I appreciate these things so much because I didn't have them back then.

I'll wrap this post up with this advice: Do not be afraid to try everything; network with other professionals whenever possible; and learn something new every day.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Everything I Needed to Know in Life, I Learned from Monster Movies

The first piece in my massive collection of monster toys was this 1990's reissue of the Dracula model I had as a kid in the 60s. This gift from my wife opened the floodgate of memories and seeded my collection fever. Photo by Kurt Lengfield.

I admit it. I’m a “monster kid.”

Yes, this is a real category, and, no, it doesn’t mean I was a brat or a trouble maker. Monster kids are people who grew up in the 60s and 70s watching monster movies and cheesy science fiction flicks on late-night television and at drive-in theaters.

Long before Freddy Kruger, Jason, or the zombie invasion – and certainly before vampires became glittering heartthrobs for adolescent girls – there was Dracula, Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Godzilla and, my personal favorite, King Kong. Extremely popular for watching from under the bedcovers were the low-budget nightmares of the 50s – gigantic mutations caused by residual radiation from atomic bombs, huge prehistoric beasts awakened by bomb testing, or alien species threatening to destroy our planet before our war-mongering race became a threat to the universe.

Today’s computer generated dragons can’t hold a candle to good, old-fashioned, stop-motion animation, puppetry and flying saucers hanging from strings. Our robots had zippers!

These were great fun, even with their not-so-subtle warnings for mankind. For me, however, they were also a source of great inspiration.  

You wouldn’t know it by looking at me now, but I was a very undersized and insecure kid. I was short and super skinny, had no special athletic abilities or unique talents, and tended toward the nerdy side (before being a nerd was cool). This made me a heck of a choice target for the bigger kids who would try to impress others with their physical strength by knocking the pipsqueak on his can.

My personal get-away therapy is to build and paint monster
models. Photo courtesy of Southern Maryland newspapers.
It seemed I was always facing foes that were bigger than me, stronger than me, and seemingly indestructible. Kind of like the people in the monster movies I loved so much.

In those movies, no matter how big and bad the monster was, the little guy always won the day (and usually the girl, too.) The underdog heroes learned to be innovative, to collaborate with others, and work in teams. They weren’t afraid to try new things, because not trying them could mean death or annihilation. They weren’t afraid to look foolish. Egos went out the door and were replaced by humility, fortitude, and “let’s all roll up our sleeves and get to work” determination.

The hero wasn’t the big boss nor the overly muscled tough guy. He knew better than to try to face the monster head on and duke it out. Traditional weapons like guns, tanks and bombs usually had no effect on our supernatural villain, so new ideas were needed, no matter how ridiculous they seemed.

As the situation progressed, these underdogs became the true leaders, while even the most senior officials turned to them for guidance or turned over the reins.

These were great lessons for a kid like me. I learned that you didn’t need to be the biggest or most senior, nor even have a title, in order to be a leader. I learned that a true leader empowers others and fosters a collaborative environment. I learned that leaders should have no egos and should not expect to be the fount of all good ideas, but should have the humility to try new solutions, even if it means letting someone else lead for a while. I learned that no matter how challenging the threat, all hope was not lost. I could be a survivor and I could win the day – and maybe the girl, too.

Admittedly, I don’t have any stories about how I used my secret flamingo karate chop or Vulcan nerve pinch to defeat the bullies. I didn’t rig up booby traps or entrap them into situations where they got caught by the teacher and expelled from school.

But I did, however, change the rules of the game. I refused to play their way. I knew I couldn’t take them in a heads-up fight, but I could not degrade myself to fight “dirty” or escalate the situation into using weapons. I didn’t want anybody dead; I just wanted them to stop picking on me. Besides there was enough of that level of violence in our lives back then with Viet Nam and the racial tensions here on the home front. 

What I did was simply refuse to fight. I realized that if I refused to be goaded into a fight, the worst that would happen was that I’d be pushed aside or knocked down. But I wouldn’t have a black eye or a broken nose. Back then, there was somewhat of a code of honor – even among bullies. You didn’t beat up a defenseless victim or someone who refused to fight back. It was a sure-fire way to lose credibility with your posse. 

But I did learn another lesson from those old movies. There were plenty of examples where women were significant contributors to the successful solution against the monster, if they didn’t deliver the coup d’ grace themselves. So I learned early on that women were at least as good – if not better – than me, and should be treated as such. Because of this attitude, I befriended many more girls than boys. Even today, my female friends far outnumber my male friends.

My wife and I both love monsters. She
tolerates my collection. I'm a lucky man!
As you can imagine, my hanging out with mostly girls in school just made me more of a target, but when the bullies tried to start something and I refused to fight, the girls surprisingly took my side. They mocked the bullies for picking on someone half their size, called them names. Even their own girlfriends turned their backs and walked away from them.

Sure, I got heckled a bit for having girls stand up for me, but you could name-call me all day long. Sticks and stones, and all that. Fact of the matter is they stopped beating me up or playing nasty pranks on me, and even stopped pestering me altogether.

So, maybe I defeated the monster and won the day after all. And, in a sense I won the girl, too.