“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
- Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night
(h/t Kyle Patrick Alvarez)
Fueled by time away and coffee, this epic year-end edition touches the human systems we operate in -- seen and unseen.  

This month, three things I read in 2015 and couldn't stop thinking about (one's a movie), the regular spotlight on my #Management syllabus, and some linkage to thoughtful people and resources I love.

Happy New Year, and thank you for inviting me to your in-box.
The Stanford Prison Experiment (NYPL) (Amazon)  Is culture -- as a thing -- fragile, or persistent?  How do workplaces become "toxic"?  To what degree do others experience us as our role?  Why do good people do bad things (at work)?  

Kyle Patrick Alvarez's Sundance-lauded film is about a 1970s psychology experiment meant to study prison behavior.  Philip Zimbardo's Stanford research team took 24 healthy male college students, randomly assigned roles as guards and prisoners, and housed them in a makeshift jail in the basement of Jordan Hall. 

After 6 days, experiment was terminated:  the ersatz guards had begun to abuse the faux prisoners.  (Not a spoiler.) 

As I watched, I noticed things we all see at work.  The swift emergence of behavioral norms.  How role and authority are intertwined.  What happens when people lack relevant experience for their roles -- a topic Zimbardo revisited as an expert witness in the Abu Ghraib trials.  And more.

The experiment generated a wealth of study and information.  I took a long strange trip through Zimbardo's website, his post-Abu Ghraib book, an old PBS psychology show, and an oddly compelling '80s ABC Afterschool Special about a public school teacher's social experiment (though not, yet, the related 2011 German film.)  And Wikipedia, too.  Last weekend, I discovered a Google talk by Zimbardo and Alvarez, which brought me back around to Vonnegut. #whew.

Watch the movie with a group of friends or colleagues.  (And here are my discussion questions and related links.)
If Sundance gave awards for '70s hair authenticity...
The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton (NYPL) (Amazon)  Ellen Olenska returns to the gilded New York society she left behind when she made a bad marriage.  Ostensibly a tragic love story, it spoke to me of social codes, of culture, and the factors we use to decide that someone does or does not "fit."

Who doesn't fit, and how do we treat them?  Fit can be pretty straightforward when we acknowledge our workplace rules and norms, and teach them to our newbies.  Especially the unspoken rules. 

When you're a leader, that's part of your job.  And when things aren't working out with a team member, step up.  Conclude things swiftly and kindly.  Learn to do this correctly!  (Pro-tip:  don't ghost people at work and wait for them to quit.)  And the Internet is no place to find advice on how to end someone's employment:  ask a human.  Preferably a solid HR exec. 

When have I been a prisoner, and when have I been a guard?  May Welland, Ellen Olenska?
Lee Childs' Jack Reacher series.  I'm in a group with several business owners that meets every 6 weeks.  In 2015, we hired a coach to lead us on a retreat.  One group exercise explored feelings/emotions we actively resist:  mine was "boredom." 

I prefer for my time to yield productive outcomes:  this can be a bug, and not a feature.  So, last summer I decided to read a "mindless" book.  One that would have no value for my work life.


Lee Childs has written 20 Jack Reacher novels.  Jack is a former Organization Man, a career officer who separated himself from the US Army.  (You learn why around book 6 or so.)  Reacher drifts through the US, abandoning most ties to community life:  he has no home, job, family, or group of local friends. 

He only owns what he can carry:  ATM card, passport, and folding toothbrush.  Because he's ownership free, young, strong, healthy (and white), he doesn't need a career.  He picks up casual labor from time to time.  He can squeak by on his Army pension (and he's not above stealing from bad guys.)

Book after book, Jack Reacher solves trouble:  with his mind, his fists, his mad weapons skills -- and his network of military and law enforcement connections.

True to form, after reading the first book, this became a project:  I decided to read all 20 Reacher novels by year-end. 

By October, I had started sharing my Reacher fascination in public.  In November, I felt weirdly redeemed by a NY Times article on an academic's interest in Jack and Childs.  In December, I sweated it out on the NYPL hold list, hoping to check out the last book in time to meet my deadline.   (Hope is not a strategy:  I bought the book, and read like mad on 12/31 to meet my goal.)

Jack Reacher's pre-apocalyptic road trip speaks to our fascination with tiny houses, non-ownership, job hopping, basic income, guns, and our changing view of once trusted institutions, corporations, and government.  

In the face of anything that life, bad guys, or the government can throw at him, Jack is skilled.  Networked.  Independent of The Man.  Perennially secure, he's an anti-hero for our times.
#Management Syllabus Spotlight:  True North Groups
"The challenges we face these days are so great that we cannot rely entirely on ourselves, our communities, or our organizations to support us and help us stay on track.  We need a small group of people with whom we can have in-depth discussions and share intimately about the most important things in our lives — our happiness and sadness, our hopes and fears, our beliefs and convictions."

- Bill George and Doug Baker, True North Groups: A Powerful Path to Personal and Leadership Development (NYPL) (Amazon)

Why is this book on my syllabus?

  • Truth:   We want to lead healthy teams, not "prisons."   Leaders are made, not born:  we need mentoring, feedback, and coaching to travel the learning curve, which is measured in years, decades.  Yet we're rarely in a work group -- or even an organization -- for more than a few years. 
  • Utility:  True North Groups is an instruction manual for cultivating a trusted cohort for mutual support and growth over the long haul.  The authors offer solid, practical solutions for common challenges of self-organizing.
  • Credibility:  My own small group of business owners found TNG about 5 years ago.  Over a couple of years with the book, we revitalized our mission and process.  After 10+ years, we're still here, still evolving.
  • Caveats or qualifications:  1) You may think that your own group, uniquely, won't need a leader or facilitator.  The likely result ("herd of cats") may be a required developmental stage.  Emerging from this stage may strengthen your group.  Or end it.  George and Baker address this.  Listen.  2)  Many of the links in the book are dead; the email on the website is apparently unattended.  3) Yes, the tone has a touch of "a bunch of white guys in a church basement."  Use your imagination.
Groups like YPO, C200, or Founders Network offer high value peer groups and facilitation, for leaders in certain businesses:  it depends on your role in a business of the right stage or scale.  (Idea for the right would-be entrepreneur:  create a service to facilitate peer groups for newer leaders.)
Here are a few people who gave me something to think about in 2015: I love:
  • Prompt, not many email newsletters end up in my in-box; Prompt is one of them.
  • Slack!  #fangirl #sorry
  • Health Care Navigators  There's no TurboTax for the ACA, so bless the intelligent, available, humans with training and experience in the particulars of purchasing health insurance.
  • The NY Public Library -- NYPL + Overdrive app = life changing
I'm an NYPL member and donor. You can be, too!
Next month's note will dial back from "epic."   My likely focus:  goals.

Would you tell me what you're reading about #Management -- or a bit more about what you'd like to hear in these monthly notes?  I'd love to know.

Thank you so much for your attention and time!

Anne Libby

P.S. If you know anyone who ruminates about #Management, I'd love for you to forward this email to them!
And here's what I'm reading now!

Copyright © 2016 Anne Libby Management Consulting LLC, All rights reserved.