Raising Their Self-Image

IdeaConnection Interview with Jack Foster, Author of Ideaship: How to Get Ideas Flowing in Your Workplace
By Vern Burkhardt
The mind can alter the mind. People can alter their attitudes. Sometimes they need a little help to raise their self-images, to think better of themselves. A good leader can provide that help.

Vern Burkhardt (VB): What is "Ideaship" as compared to leadership?

photo of Jack FosterJack Foster: Leaders inspire, motivate, guide and direct their people but ideaship is getting people to inspire themselves. My first boss inspired me so he no longer had to worry about leading me. I was leading myself—that's the difference between ideaship and leadership. As the owner or entrepreneur of the company, your viewpoint changes because your job is to get your people to think better of themselves.

Your job is not only to get your people to have more ideas. Your job is to get them to think they can come up with ideas. It's totally different and I think it's a thing most creative directors in advertising agencies follow whether they know it or not. Some business people who read Ideaship told me, "You're right about the power of ideaship, Jack, this is the way I operate now and it works."

VB: I loved the concept.

Jack Foster: That's because you're an entrepreneur at heart. You're the audience for that book.

VB: From your experience would you say that most entrepreneurs still need to learn this skill?

Jack Foster: Yes, they do. There is a military attitude among many leaders, about being on time and doing tasks and work processes in prescribed ways—it's all wrong and unnecessary. The key is to get people to think, "I'm good, I believe in my own abilities and can guide myself." Encourage them to be self-confident.

VB: You say the primary job of an ideaist is to help people think better of themselves and to raise their self-images. Are you optimistic that almost anyone with a negative mental attitude can be turned around by an ideaist's approach?

Jack Foster: Sure, well maybe not turned around but certainly they can learn to come up with more ideas. Many people don't realize how creative they are—how unbelievably creative they are. If they would just look at what they do every day, they would come to realize and appreciate it. This appreciation would further encourage them to be even more creative.

VB: The more people generate ideas and recognize they are doing so the more positive they will be about themselves.

Jack Foster: Exactly.

VB: You advise that if you hold any type of leadership position you can encourage the creativity of the people you work with by helping them have fun and become idea-prone. Why does having fun unleash creativity? And what does it really mean to have fun at work?

Jack Foster: From my experience it isn't just enjoying yourself and having a feeling of job satisfaction or joy about excelling with a task. It's laughing, giggling, making jokes, and having fun—not just simply enjoying yourself.

Over and over again I've found the people that were laughing, giggling, and joking around were the ones who came up with the better ideas. It's because of the similarity or the connection between ideas and creativity and having fun.

VB: People should create their own fun?

Jack Foster: Oh, yes. I used to see it all the time. I do miss working in an advertising agency. It was a kick. I could hardly wait to get into work in the morning.

VB: Was it an adrenaline rush?

Jack Foster: Most definitely. I'd get up at 6:00 a.m. and roar into the office. It was a kick every day and all day—that's the way work should be.

I have a son who is a pediatric neurologist and when he was doing his internship in Staten Island I asked him how he enjoyed it? He said, "Dad I run to work in the morning so I get to work earlier." Now that's the way it should be with every job.

He currently works with autistic kids. Now he's bogged down with paperwork, forms, waiting lists, and not being able to do unlimited work for his patients. But he's still really into it. Hopefully he still finds it so rewarding he runs to work as he did as an intern.

VB: And if that's not how your job is, then you should get a different job.

Jack Foster: You should get a different job. Life's too short.

VB: You also advise ideaists to have fun and to spend time thinking up ways for their people to have fun. Is it surprising that leaders have to be told it's okay to laugh, relax, and enjoy themselves?

Jack Foster: I don't know why that is. This is true in almost all areas. For example, as far as I am aware there has never been a Pulitzer Prize awarded to a humorist. In writing, everybody thinks Mark Twain is one of America's best writers but few read and appreciate him—he's a humorist.

Humor is somehow second rate and seriousness is first rate. If you're serious you're an adult, and if you're humorous then you're a child. And children and humor are second rate—that's all negative. Seriousness and adult, that's all 'good' stuff. I don't agree with that view at all.

VB: A sense of humor is also important in great leaders.

Jack Foster: Yes, Churchill was famous for being a very humorous person and a great leader. I think some of the best leaders were humorists but often they are not remembered for it.

VB: Great leaders are remembered for being profound, aren't they? Is that partially because of their humor?

Jack Foster: There's a great profundity in humor.

VB: How does that work?

Jack Foster: I don't know exactly. With Churchill, of course, one is reminded of the story about his conversation in which a famous lady admonished Sir Winston for being drunk and his reply was something to the effect, "Yes ma'am, but you're ugly and tomorrow, when I'm sober, you'll still be ugly." There's a great profundity in these words.

VB: And people remember it.

cover of How to Get IdeasJack Foster: That's the other thing about humor. Style is more important than content. The reason people remember things and the reason that makes things great is the style of the person.

Shakespeare didn't say anything new to us. He took ideas from penny-history books extant in his era, but what made his writings great was that his words were full of style. Style is the thing the makes things memorable.

Other people could say the same things but, for example, when John F. Kennedy made speeches it was his style that made him very listenable to his audiences. People who wish to practice ideaship would be well advised to take a lesson from this observation.

VB: You said that sometimes Joe Forester, an art director, would shout in the hallway to staff, "No school today! No school today!" How did this unleash the creativity of the staff?

Jack Foster: It made us laugh and we could say, "We're not in school, we're having fun." For most people I worked with, school had not been fun—it had not been a highlight of their childhood. I worked with many people who didn't have a college education—they didn't need it, they were creative.

I am jesting—many well-educated people are also creative.

Anyway, school was a nightmare to some co-workers because they had to follow rules and they hated the rules. So Joe would shout, "No school today!" and everybody would say, "That's great, we can have recess and have some fun."

VB: And break the rules.

Jack Foster: Most definitely it reinforced that they should break the rules.

VB: What does it mean to be idea-prone?

Jack Foster: Just like some people are accident-prone, many of the people I worked with seemed to be idea-prone. They were always coming up with ideas. As I mentioned in the book, it isn't because they were somehow put together differently than you and I. It's because they did things differently, which seemed to make them idea-prone.

VB: When you say they did things differently, what do you mean?

Jack Foster: The idea-prone employees were inherently curious. They were always fascinated to learn about different things. They could hardly look at things without wondering about them.

How many leaves does a head of lettuce have? Why are knives shaped the way they are? Why are there different shapes to knives? How are the handles made and why? How did all that come about?

The other thing is they knew that ideas existed. Therefore they weren't looking for a needle in a haystack, they were looking for something they knew already existed.

VB: The idea-prone people felt these ideas already existed and they were looking for them?

Jack Foster: Yes, that may seem surprising but its true.

Larry Corby who was the illustrator for my books is a good example of that. One day we were in the office and he said rather emphatically, "Close the door." In reply to my questioning, why the request he said, "There's an idea in here and I don't want it to get out." And he wasn't kidding me, he was a serious as could be.

VB: He meant it literally?

Jack Foster: He thought there was a physical idea rolling around in the office. He was so serious and focused I believed him and quickly shut the door.

VB: You recommend that if people are having difficulty coming up with great ideas on a problem, they should be given another problem to work on. Would you talk about how this approach can assist with solving the original problem?

Jack Foster: I know it works because of my experience in advertising, where we worked on two or three problems at the same time, what seemed to be all the time.

We might be working on a motorcycle commercial and not coming up with anything creative, so we'd switch to develop a creative theme for a bank's billboards. When we returned to the motorcycle project, all of a sudden there would be three or four solutions that we hadn't imagined before. And they'd be excellent ideas.

It works because the subconscious is constantly working whether or not you're consciously working on the challenge. The secret is, give your subconscious a little time and it will creatively produce for you.

VB: Would you talk about the importance of enthusiasm as an emotion in an organization?

Jack Foster: The people I had trouble with in organizations were downers. The people I loved to work with were those who reacted either positively or negatively. They reacted with comments like, "that's great" or "that's terrible"—they weren't consistently negative about everything. They also felt free to change their mind.

It reminds me of Emerson's quote "Nothing great is ever accomplished without enthusiasm." And he was absolutely right, as he was about so many things.

In business, if you're enthusiastic anything is possible. Once enthusiasm gets hold of an organization, energy and creativity flow. It contributes to success. But if people are down and say, "We'll never get this done," they'll never get it done. If you say, "We're going to get this done and we're going to kill them," all of a sudden you get it done and you kill them.

VB: You recommend, when using teams in competition with each other to generate ideas or solve problems, making it an "us versus them" instead of an "us versus us" approach. Is this an important aspect of productive teamwork?

Jack Foster: I guess it is. I hadn't previously thought about it but many advertising agencies I am familiar with would have several teams work on the same project and then pick the best from among the ideas the teams generated. Based on conversations I had with some who experienced this approach, it was clear they had received scars and wounds within their organizations that took a long time to heal. All of a sudden there wasn't quite the same camaraderie across the organization.

A better alternative to internal competition, which can lead to some of the negative consequences of severe competition and rivalry, is to set a common goal for the various teams working on the assignment. It's better to say to everybody, "We're going to come up with a bunch of ideas, because the other agencies pitching for this account are coming up with ideas too—let's beat them into the ground."

This will result in everybody pulling in the same direction and working against the real rivals. This approach always worked better for me in business.

VB: It promoted competitive juices.

Jack Foster: Exactly, the juices were there but not directed internally against co-workers. I never found that very good. I always thought we should be a family, have a great deal of fun, and work together to attack major challenges as a group. I'm not saying this is the only way to do it—all I'm saying is that approach worked for me.

VB: You say a cardinal rule of ideaship is you must treat your staff the way you wanted to be treated when or if you were in their positions. Would you explain how this promotes creativity, problem solving, and positive change?

Jack Foster: Most of the good people in my agency wanted my job—they wanted to be the creative director, they wanted to lead the team. If you treat them as if they are leading the team or as if they are good enough to do so, it will raise their self-image and make them think they're really good. If you trust people, they will become trustworthy.

When I first arrived in Korea with the infantry, I was sent to an island off the coast. I hadn't taken a shower or bath for three days. There were eight bunks in our hut and eight footlockers for our gear. I threw my watch, wallet and all my other personal things on my bunk and ran across the street in my skivvies to take a shower. When I came back, seven of those footlockers had been broken into by some of the Korean help, but the gear I had thrown on my bunk was undisturbed. Nobody had touched it.

I think because I trusted those people they thought they wouldn't rip me off. I trusted them. I think the same is true in business and other aspects of life. If you assume people are good they will live up to it or they will certainly live up to it better than if you say they're bad or stupid.

VB: How does an ideaist gain the trust of the people with whom they work?

Jack Foster: I guess by always being honest, by telling your people exactly what you think all the time, by never giving false deadlines and never telling them something that isn't true. As I said before by coming up with stupid ideas in order to set the example that it's okay to be off the wall. And by sincerely and consistently trying to be a good human being. None of us are, but we can keep working at it.

VB: Also by being approachable?

Jack Foster: Yes. A friend of mine who worked in a huge New York advertising agency once said that he and several of his colleagues wanted to take the place of their creative director when he left the firm. But the owners hired a woman from California.

When she arrived they were all prepared to dislike and distrust her. The first thing she did upon arrival was have the door taken off her office and stored in the basement. It immediately changed everybody's opinion of her—they realized she was different and obviously open to new ideas and approaches.

Most importantly it symbolically and effectively told them that she was open, she was approachable.

VB: From time to time we hear a leader say they are not running a popularity contest with the people with whom they work. But you say they are. Would you explain why it's important to be liked by the people with whom you work?

Jack Foster: Because nobody wants to work with someone they don't like. I certainly didn't.

I took a new job but quit after three months because I didn't like the leader at the firm. The result was I didn't like going to work and certainly didn't find I could be creative. If you don't like your leader but you stay because you have to for financial or other reasons you're not going to do a good job.

It's very simple. If you like the people you're working for you're going to like your job better. If you like your job better you're going to work harder and do better.

It's a myth that bosses can be successful if they're unapproachable, mean, and demanding. You can't lead with fear and aloofness. Leaders need to be open and positive in their interaction with their people.

VB: There's a difference between being liked and being a friend, isn't there?

Jack Foster: Yes. Sometimes a leader may end up not being friends with their employees, but a lot of the employees who worked for me have remained my friends over the years.

About 15 of us, who worked together 25 to 30 years ago, still meet for breakfast from time to time. They were all people who worked for me and we still meet and get together and talk—in fact we're meeting next Monday. We still have a lot in common. I think friendship can be pretty important between a leader and their employees.

But what happens when someone is your friend but you have to fire them because they're not working out? I used to have do it and I had a very easy way. I would say "It's not working around here. I know it isn't working and you know it isn't working. Go find another job. I'll cover for you for three months." The message was you need to find another job you will be more suited to but you're still my friend.

VB: When hiring new employees, what are some of the key things to look for to ensure they will be creative and productive?

Jack Foster: Enthusiasm and a passion to do things well. Curiosity and a driving interest in making things better. In other words, look for horizontal people instead of vertical people.

Most of all, I think you need to like the person. I witnessed that in the approach taken by Joe Forester, who was the head art director—Joe would do the interviewing of prospective employees. Then he and I made the final hiring decisions.

Joe interviewed a fellow named Ralph Price three times for three hours and never looked at a single thing in his creative portfolio. He came to me and said, "We should hire this guy."

When I probed about Ralph's skills and background, Joe merely said he wanted to hire him because he liked Ralph, thought he would fit in, and it was clear he thought the same way Joe did.

That's an extreme example, but I think you have to like the person you are about to hire. As I said in Ideaship, if you don't think you can go across the country with the person in a Volkswagen, don't hire them.

VB: Have you ever been fooled into selecting someone who had those traits, and who you liked, but who didn't work out?

Jack Foster: Unfortunately, it happened twice. In both cases they were alcoholics and there was nothing I could do about it. I was successful in getting one of them to enroll in Alcoholics Anonymous but not the other.

These two had the necessary traits and I was fooled into hiring them, because during the interview process they were able to hide the fact they were habitually in the sauce.

VB: You say leaders should avoid trumpeting corporate goals when setting performance goals, and instead should ask their people what they want to accomplish. Why is it that employees often have difficulty identifying with corporate goals and is this inevitable in a large organization?

Jack Foster: I think the larger the organization the more inevitable it is. The real goal of any leader should be making the people in their organization better.

How can I make my people better human beings? How can I make them be full of ideas? How can I make them be more enthusiastic? How can I make them believe in themselves and in the company?

It doesn't make any difference what the company's goals are. Unless they've got stock shares, nobody cares if the company is or isn't making money. What they care about is, are they having fun coming to work? Do they feel they are contributing? Do they feel appreciated?

That's the leader's goal. Make it fun and rewarding to come to work. And leave the corporate goals to the official brochures aimed at investors and the media.

VB: And if that's occurring you'll make money.

Jack Foster: That's right. To me it was very obvious. And it seemed obvious to our employees.

VB: You say there are advantages to having no more than about 30 people in a company, and if your company is larger it should be organized into smaller organizational units of about that size. How does this relate to creativity and business success?

Jack Foster: If the group is too large, there will be those who will not feel engaged. And the organizational structures required for large groups will divert attention from the real work of creativity and innovation.

If you have a large number in your organization, divide it into different groups that are responsible for unique and different tasks. And use the principle of ideaship—give them responsibilities and trust them so they will increasingly have confidence in themselves that they can excel at what they are doing.

Even 30 people can have disadvantages, at least in advertising agencies. Groups as small as three or four people will feel more responsible to get a project completed.

For example, I would say to them, "You are responsible for all the advertisements for Suzuki motorcycles and I want you to create the best motorcycle advertising campaign in history. I know you can do it, and you know you can do it. Now go do it."

VB: Creative people break rules. What are some examples of rules you encountered in companies, including client companies, that were prime targets for being broken or eliminated?

Jack Foster: What first comes to mind is dress codes. They were prevalent when I first started, but enough employees broke those rules that I don't think they exist in very many places any more. IBM was the classic example. Everybody had to wear a white shirt and a blue tie and in advertising agencies that was also the way.

Creative people break out of the usual patterns of thinking. They break the rules of established thought.

VB: Would you make Ideaship recommended reading for President-elect Obama and his key advisors?

Jack Foster: No, I don't think he needs it. He seems to understand the principles of ideaship, of creating self-confidence in the people who work with you. And he is seeking council from, and surrounding himself with, people who are confident and don't all think like he does.

The first presidential election I voted in was 1952 and I voted for Adlai Stevenson, and since then I have voted in every presidential election. But until this year, I've never again voted for somebody again. I've always voted against somebody.

This is the first time in 56 years I actually voted for somebody. Whether it's going to work or not we'll find out.

VB: What lessons could business leaders learn from your writings?

Jack Foster: A couple of things. That their people are not workers; they are individual human beings who want to enjoy themselves, have fun, and contribute by being creative. Your job is to make sure they have fun and have the opportunity to be creative.

Secondly, engage in ideaship.

VB: Have you met many who were successful leaders?

Jack Foster: Almost all were successful. I recall speaking to about fifty young entrepreneurs of small companies from across the USA. We had an invigorating two-hour conversation on the single topic of how you should treat your employees.

My view, which I shared, is tell your employees everything. Make them part of the company. Invite them to dinner. Do whatever it takes to make sure they know that you know they are individual human beings with wants and likes and dislikes. Be an inspiring leader but most importantly encourage your employees to inspire themselves.

VB: What are your ideas about how to address global warming—given that there's always a better idea?

Jack Foster: First of all leaders and everyone else have to admit that it exists. We've still got people, such as senior leaders in Oklahoma, saying it's a hoax.

Most people realize that global warming and climate change exists as a major threat to our way of life, to many highly populated cities, and perhaps even to the survival of mankind. With that realization can come all sorts of solutions, given how creative people can be especially if generating new ideas and commercializing solutions are made financially rewarding.

VB: You haven't mentioned technology in terms of coming up with solutions and ideas. How does that fit in?

Jack Foster: There has to be a sound technological basis to enable such creativity. But if somebody gets a winning new idea the technology will be developed to implement it or existing technology will be modified to enable the solution. The technology may be available somewhere in the world and what is needed is to match the idea with that technology.

I live right on the edge of the ocean and twice a day I see the tide going in and out with enormous power. Nobody is using that energy with the exception of a few locations, such as France, I believe. All somebody has to do is figure out a way to capture some of that sea and use it rather than coal to generate electricity.

VB: You've been very generous of your time. Is there anything that I haven't asked you about your ideas that you would like to share with us?

Jack Foster: No, I must tell you I really am impressed. Nobody has ever interviewed me like this and I have been interviewed over a dozen times about my books. I wish you luck and thanks for spending the time with me. I'm honored.

A leader's primary goal should be to help their employees think better of themselves.
This is because:

  • What people think about themselves is the single most important factor in their success.

  • Humans can alter their lives by altering their attitudes.

  • An environment of inspired and creative employees will result in better products and service, creative new ideas, and increased profits.

It was a privilege to interview and benefit from Jack Foster's wisdom gained from a successful career in a creative advertising agency environment, many years of study and reflection, recording his thoughts in prose and poems, and gazing out the window at the Pacific Ocean. And to talk to someone who prefers the human touch, to communicate by talking rather than through email.

Jack Foster’s bio:
Jack Foster worked for advertising agencies for 35 years, initially as a copywriter. He was the executive creative director for 15 years at Foote, Cone & Belding in Los Angeles, California. After retiring 25 years ago, Foster taught advanced advertising at the University of Southern California and an extension class on creative advertising at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He has written Ideaship, How to Get Ideas, three novels, about 100 poems and about 30 short stories, articles, and essays. And he continues to write poetry and is "compiling grist" for a book on humor (he has shared his introductory chapter with me).

Jack Foster and Nancy, his wife of 52 years, live in a home overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara, California. He does not have an author's website!


Thanks a lot, Vern, and best wishes!
I find your interviews a very interesting and good work!

- Eleder

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