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In A Search For Authenticity, Locally Hosted Meals & Management by Accident

It was an hour and a half to drive home tonight in the rain. Nonstop sheets of gray pelted the windshield and I flipped around the radio trying (mostly in vain) to find a song worth listening to.

The delay became somewhat worth it when I caught a really interesting news segment on WTOP News. I am always interested in trends, and they were talking about the trend toward locally hosted meals, such as with Cookening, Home Hosted Meals, and so on.

In this business model, the impersonal, cookie-cutter restaurant is replaced with an encounter with a true local person who is simply hosting a dinner party, wine and cheese tasting, etc. at their home. I could see the appeal, especially when you align this kind of business with airbnb, where you get a place to sleep from a  local person - rather than a cold and sterile hotel.

People nowadays want to do business with people. Not plastic. Not customer service "robots."

Which relates to a second topic. People want to bring their humanity to work. Not completely of course. But just enough that they are relating to one another in a real way. This is a shift from earlier times, when the mode of interaction was colder and more formal.

The demand for increased authenticity makes it more difficult to interact successfully at work. As opposed to times past, when role division and distance was more explicit, today the employee may be more technically proficient than the manager and they may also be friends outside of the professional environment.

Let's complicate matters with the unconscious. We all carry emotions left over from our relationships of the past - successful and not. There are issues not fully resolved, dynamics still to be played out. It is inevitable that we will bring these emotions into the workplace, just like we will seek to make "friends" among people who really just want to get paid for pretending to be a friend and to offer "genuine" hospitality.

There is so much literature out there on leadership and management, marketing and how to run a business, and relationships. It would be nice, in a way, to buy a recipe book and plug it into the wall so that we could be successful.

But that would eliminate the meaning of the journey, wouldn't it?

We have to find our way an inch at a time.

* All opinions my own.

Trading In The Impossible

(Non-Jewish) Dachau concentration camp prisoners celebrate their liberation. Photo by U.S. Army soldier, held by NARA, accessed from Wikimedia
"Those who know, don't tell and those who tell, don't know." - Michael Lewis
Today I was eating some leftover matzah for dinner. Left over from Passover when we celebrate the miracle of Jewish escape from centuries of slavery.

Out of nowhere I started humming an old tune. My daughter said, "What is that? I never heard you sing that before."

I realized it was a Chasidic niggun, or melody. My Zayde, who escaped from a Holocaust labor camp, used to sing them. My father too. A niggun is what you sing when you don't know the words but want to convey the emotion.

That is Chasidic philosophy - we reach G-d through song and dance and prayer, simple things.

All of us (I believe) have that simple and direct connection. Whatever religion. No religion. It's not a man on a throne. It's Dharma. The Way. The creative force behind the universe. 

My grandfather's story is completely impossible if you look at it in normal scientific terms. So are the stories of many if not most people who survived.

April 28, 2014 was Holocaust Remembrance Day. Taken as a whole, the impossibility of survival against Hitler's machine becomes almost inconceivable unless you think about one particular thing.

And that is: When people hate your guts and are even out to kill you, it's not their hatred you have to worry about. It is the protection of The One Above that all of us need.

That protection is something we pray for and contribute to through good deeds and especially charity. It is also something we can bring to Earth, to the physical realm through prayer and faith.

Giving to others breaks your ego and in the process draws down blessings from Above. 

And when you give to or focus on others whose problems are worse, it puts your life into perspective. So many suffer from incurable, end-stage cancer. Undrinkable water. Forced labor. Mass rape. Being kidnapped to serve as a child soldier. 

There is something else. A lesson I've learned from a lot of personal survival accounts:

Don't be so wedded to the current reality. Instead, visualize the "impossible." Imagine yourself healthy, safe, successful, loved, whole.

Now, operate as though it were real.

* All opinions my own. Photo URL:

Bumps & Bruises

As a kid I knew my share of punks and bullies. Kindergarten, fourth grade, fifth grade, tenth. George, a girl with a boy's name, attacked me in a parking lot - I was only eight or nine. True, I got her pretty good. But she left me beaten up on the pavement, and I cried in shame as my parents carried me home.

Life is about bumps and bruises. My mother had no mercy about that. "Turn off the waterworks," she would admonish me when I started to cry. "It's enough."

It was better in the olden days, at least in some respects. We played outside - a lot. Chalk on the sidewalk, jacks, skipping rope. Plastic pool in the yard. Barbecue at Grandma's.

At camp I ran as fast as I could around the track, sprinting till I lost my breath and fell. Skinned my knees so many times. Picked at the scabs - why? Trying to make it go away was useless.

A child of the consulting life, moving every year till I was ten, I learned to live the solitary life. New friends in new places meant a whole new set of bullies. I took my mother's advice to heart and toughened up.

But then a funny thing happened...somewhere along the path to adulthood I began to make friends that stuck with me. Got married, started a family, went to grad school and began to enter the workplace, forming new friendships there.

What I learned over time, particularly working for the federal government, is that we don't toss our working relationships away all that easily. My mental model was the private sector, where you're employed "at will" and they can fire you for as little as an ill-conceived Tweet. 

But in the civil service, people can literally work together for life. And in the course of that working together, they know joy and sorrow and pain. They argue and misunderstand one another. They celebrate great achievements and mourn the awards they should have been given. Say things out of turn, write the angry emails you're supposed to hold - and then send them anyway.

And yet somehow they stick together, they muddle through. Eventually, once time has passed, they find a way to laugh about it all. 

There is something really beautiful about that. 

Here's to the beautiful thunderstorms, to the way they gather up in ominous swirls of clouds, wind and pouring rain, then leave the air cleaner tomorrow.

* All opinions my own. Photo isn't me.

Is There Such A Thing As Too Much Feedback?

Over the past few years I've gotten a lot of feedback about my leadership and management style. Some of it's been good -- visionary, quick to learn, creative, insightful, direct.

Other parts have been bad (really, the flipside of the good) -- too quick to change things, do things my own way, tactless at times, need to think through more carefully "how will we get there."

All of it is good. And I hold myself responsible for doing better.

But does there come a point when feedback itself impedes progress?

Yesterday I was watching an old episode of The Brady Bunch. This is the one where the kids get measles, and they're all in bed, kvetching. There's Mr. & Mrs. Brady & Alice the housekeeper, putting the trays together in the kitchen, each one specifically tailored to what the kids wanted to eat.

They trudge up and down the stairs with the trays. It's funny to watch them going up the stairs, then down the stairs, huffing and puffing.

My daughter says, "I wish I had an Alice at home."

Mr. Brady walks into the boys' room and hands the oldest son Greg his tray.

Greg says, "I wanted bologna."

Mr. Brady says, basically, "But we made this just for you, it's the food you want, just the way you want it."

Greg repeats, basically, "I wanted bologna."

Mrs. Brady says, "Now now, dear, if he wants bologna, he gets bologna."

And Mr. Brady takes the tray back down the stairs.

I tried to explain to my daughter that in the Bradys' world, it was possible to change out Greg's food, to let them choose their own separate doctors, to flex out Mr. Brady's schedule so he could help Marsha with her math problems. (Sexist script!)

In the real world it's not realistic to fix every problem. The feedback may be accurate, but we have to prioritize.

Or it may not be accurate, or helpful at all, but the manifestation of some other problem that is coming out as a negative comment about work.

The amount of feedback that our employees and customers provide will only increase moving forward. What's needed is a systematic, rational approach to listening to it and responding.

Otherwise we're setting up false expectations, and serving our stakeholders worse in the process.

* All opinions my own.