What Have You Tried?

IdeaConnection Interview with Dale Dauten, Syndicated Columnist and Author of It's A Wonderful Job (an eBook), The Laughing Warrior, Great Employees Only, Better than Perfect, The Gifted Boss, The Max Strategy, Taking Chances, and Quitting, Knowing When to Leave
By Vern Burkhardt
"What better way to reinforce creativity than to see ideas blossom into innovations." The Gifted Boss, page 62

Vern Burkhardt (VB): You write two nationally syndicated newspaper columns, "The Corporate Curmudgeon" and "JT & Dale Talk Jobs" which are carried in over 100 newspapers in the U.S. reaching over 6 million households. How do you continue to come up with new and interesting things to write about?

photo of Dale DautenDale Dauten: Well, here's a bit of news. I ended the "Corporate Curmudgeon" column end of 2010, after 20 years. The problem was the decline in newspaper readership, not a decline in my eagerness to write the column. I decided it was time to step down.

As for coming up with ideas, it actually got easier to identify topics to write about over the years. When I mentioned to people that I was coming up on 20 years, they would respond, "52 times 20 is over 1,000 articles for each of the two columns; how do you keep your thinking fresh?" My reply was, "I developed a 'column antenna' over the years."

VB: New ideas kept popping into your mind?

Dale Dauten: New ideas would come from a large number of sources, such as reading a book or an article, somebody saying something during a conversation, or overhearing business people talking in an airport. These types of stimuli would trigger 'Oh that's a good topic'. Coming up with new ideas wasn't the hardest part.

The other column I write, the JT & Dale column, is Q&A so it's a matter of hoping somebody sends in an interesting question. The problem is receiving the same questions over and over.

VB: No doubt you receive some unusual questions from time to time.

Dale Dauten: Yes, we do get interesting ones.

My partner, J. T. O'Donnell, developed a website that has gotten younger people involved, and they often have different and interesting questions. Keeping current with their issues is a bit of a challenge.

The harder challenge for us as writers is to find new ways to answer some same basic questions. About once a quarter we have to deal with somebody who's upset about age discrimination or who says, "I've sent out 500 resumes and haven't got any positive leads for a job. What am I doing wrong?" Our answers have to be fresh and insightful; not just a repeat of prior columns that answered these kinds of basic questions.

VB: Coming up with new approaches for answers to the same old questions must keep you on your toes.

Dale Dauten: We come across new resources, new metaphors, and new ways of thinking during conversations with others.

I write the column with J.T. O'Donnell who is fabulous. She's a full time career coach and workplace consultant serving individual clients and corporations. Jeanine has over 18 years experience training and coaching people of all ages on many career topics so she encounters a wide range of issues all day, every day. When working with clients she comes up with new ideas and techniques, so these are also useful for the column.

VB: In The Gifted Boss you say, "…the gifted boss and great employee save each other from the agonies of management." Is managing agony?

Dale Dauten: I don't know about everybody else, but it is for me.

Most management comes down to checking up. It's defensive. It's a kind of police function – making sure things are OK or, stated as a double negative, making sure employees don't do things that don't go right. "Are we on time?" "Oh oh, this project is behind schedule." "This is over budget." "This person is under-performing." To me, that's agony. I'm sure there are some people who enjoy this kind of checking up but it doesn't generate energy and excitement for me.

I'm not sure but this may be where management turns into leadership, where you stop making sure things don't go wrong, and start thinking about how things could be better.

My background is in economics, so I often think in terms of graphs. Leadership is when you move from defending the bottom of the learning curve – managing to make sure you're not falling down – to moving the top of the bar up. When you do something better than ever before you're refreshing the learning curve, and this is where there's energy and excitement.

VB: In your experience do a lot of managers practice what you have called the "Art of Impedership?"

Dale Dauten: Yes. Many managers spend a lot of time checking up, having meetings, and reviewing status reports. It's a lot of nonproductive time. The term "Impedership" is me being 'writerly' by doing a play on the word leadership, but I think there's legitimacy in the implied meaning. A lot of people I meet, particularly great employees, think they'd be better off without the boss around. They see the boss as the voice of the status quo.

For managers in most companies there's much more of a downside to doing something wrong than an upside to doing something new and innovative. The result is they become champions of the status quo and masters of the double check, and thus don't add much value in terms of vision, strategy, exciting new product development, and better ways to help customers.

VB: When you walk into a business environment is it relatively easy to tell if it is a "magnetic environment?"

Dale Dauten: I have a new age belief that I can feel the vibrations of an environment. There's actually some academic research to suggest this is possible, so it's not just me going slightly crazy. I'm convinced I can feel it in a retail space, an office building, a department, or a whole company.

Part of it is energy. Our senses are sending much more information to the brain than our conscious minds process, and I'm convinced we pick up on stimuli we are not even aware of. For example, the feeling we get can be related to odors that we detect, or the amount and kind of light.

I have asked myself after first going into a company, "How did I know it was going to be a great company?" People laughing is one of the sounds that suggest it is a lively place. The sound of laughter is like bird song. When birds are singing, your subconscious knows it's in a safe environment. When you hear the right kind of laughter your subconscious knows this is a place you want to be.

You can also see a magnetic business environment by the speed at which people walk and the way they carry themselves. You feel there's productivity underway, it's an efficient working office, and people are working because they're excited and energized by the work they are doing.

VB: When relating the story of John Welker, head of an artillery battalion stationed in Germany, Max said, "He gave up on policy manuals in favor of standards – not rules, but definitions of excellence." Do you advise that companies throw out their policy manuals?

Dale Dauten: I'm sure they have a wonderful set of policy manuals at Goldman Sachs. They probably had great ones at Lehman Brothers as well, but these documents didn't prevent them from playing their parts in the financial meltdown.

It's the culture of an organization that matters, and the culture comes from the leadership. Most leaders have nothing to do with policy manuals – that's the work of lawyers, HR people, and efficiency experts.

There's a type of HR person who effectively operates as an extension of the legal department with all sorts of policies, procedures, job classifications, and organization charts. Instead of this type of role, HR should be a grand and glorious profession of talent management. In some companies they put the word "Talent" in their label instead of "Human Resources" and this rarity is to be applauded. Language matters.

VB: "When you ignore mediocrity, the bar is lowered. Then it's okay to do less." A mediocre performer is that dangerous to an organization?

Dale Dauten: I think so because it does set the standard.

A potentially highly productive employee may think or even say, "Well, I'm certainly better than Justine or Jack; they hardly accomplish anything. I turn out twice what they do." This can be used as an excuse for doing only half of what they are capable. I've written a lot, particularly in Great Employees Only, about what to do with mediocre employees.

Sometimes terrible employees are left to hang around the workplace, but they're not the people I'm interested in focusing on. As an employer if you are too cowardly or lazy to fire a terrible employee, well, I have given up on you.

It's easy to reward the top 10% and get rid of the bottom 10%, but what about the bottom 20, 30, or 40%? What do you do with those people, particularly if they're likable and have been around a long time? My second book, Great Employees Only, is about the "de-hiring" concept, although I also touched on it in The Gifted Boss.

VB: Would you talk about more about 'de-hiring' mediocre employees?

Dale Dauten: De-hiring is not firing someone. Employees are not told to leave; they are told what they must do and how they must change if they are going to remain with the organization. They are challenged to work hard to achieve excellence within an agreed upon period of time, and the boss commits to helping them do so. Those who won't, or can't, know their career will have to be with another employer, and the boss then tries to help them find a suitable job. Either way it should be a positive ending.

I give speeches about the 'gifted boss' and when I speak about de-hiring, particularly in seminars where there is a lot of interaction, people are fascinated by the idea. In fact, that's why I wrote the follow-up book on the subject.

Here's the irony. Managers and leaders are dying to hear what to do with second-rate employees. But when I tell them about de-hiring, they don't want to do it. They think, "Oh, we're going to have to tell good old John that he's got to up his game or leave, and we have to mean it or it's worse than saying nothing." Thinking about this type of conversation scares off a lot of managers.

On the other hand, I receive wonderful feedback from people who do proceed with de-hiring mediocre employees. They send letters and emails saying, "You have made my life so much easier. I used to spend 90% of my time on 10% of our employees. Now two of them have left, two have gone on to become first-rate employees, and the world is better." This is what's possible, but most people won't do it because they find it too daunting.

VB: Is resistance to change a sure sign of a mediocre manager or employee?

Dale Dauten: The average employee resists change because it's human nature to do so. I have a favorite line in both books and every speech: "Different is always better, but better is always different." If you're going to get better, and everybody says they want to get better, the only way is to become skilled at being different. But many people don't want to be different. There's a fundamental conundrum of people trying to change without being different. The result is they all imitate the same role model.

The hot company right now is Zappo's, the online clothing retailer, so people from other companies are taking Zappo's courses. Effectively they are saying, "We want to be better but we don't want to be different. Let's be different in the same way as the people at Zappo's."

You could argue that the same applies to students in high school. They want to rebel, but they want to fit in, so they all rebel in the same way. That's why cliques form. This also happens in corporate life or, more broadly speaking, in organizational life. People are simultaneously trying to be different in the same way.

The great employees may not verbalize it, but they understand that they have to be different in different ways. They have to try new things. "Let's try something different" is an exciting, energizing message to the right kind of employees.

VB: In this way they can stand out.

Dale Dauten: Yes, but not everybody wants to stand out. The average employees, the mediocre employees, or whatever word you want to use to describe them, are not so keen to stand out. They may think, 'If I suggest something new that will improve a work process, management is going to want me to handle it if they think it's a good idea. It's easier to say nothing or just complain about problems than it is to try to come up with new ideas.'

It's more work to be a positive and gifted, high-performing employee, but it's exciting and energizing work. Part of my goal is to convince people they should come home energized instead of worn out by their work.

VB: "The ordinary boss: seeks team players. The gifted boss: seeks allies." Being a team player is not enough?

Dale Dauten: 'Team player' is a nice term. Everybody wants to be associated with others who think and act for the team. Dan Schweiker, co-CEO of China Mist Tea, has as one of the requirements for hiring new employees, 'plays well with others'. On the other hand, the truth is most people eventually leave the team; we don't have lifetime employment anymore.

Typical bosses, and I'm sure you've encountered them, consider you an enemy if you leave. They blame and criticize the people who are gone.

When I studied great bosses I was shocked and amazed by how much turnover they have, and on the other hand, by how they stay in touch with the excellent people who leave. My favorite is Dan Schweiker who refers to his former employees as his 'graduates'.

From great bosses I would hear, "Oh yeah, he got a great opportunity with another company. I'm so happy for him. He still calls me every month or two, and he just sent me a great lead for some new business. I have another former employee whom I just hired back for the third time." This is why I like the image of an ally. It suggests somebody really good, somebody you want to stay in touch with throughout your career and perhaps your life. Somebody you're going to try to help and who is going to try to help you. This is my simple definition of an ally.

If you're an ally you are also a team player. I hadn't thought of it this way until this minute. It's probably why I prefer the term 'ally' to 'team player'.

VB: Are there one or two gifted bosses who were your favorite role models?

Dale Dauten: There are people like Max, the eccentric old sage in my books, who I quote all the time. There is a couple of gifted bosses who have become good friends. One, about whom I talk in The Gifted Boss, is John Genzale who was a master at shedding unwanted employees. He's the one who did poetry readings at the Phoenix Business Journal when he was its editor in the mid-1990s.

The second is Jim Evans who was CEO of Best Western Hotels.
We've never made this official by using the word, but I think of him as my mentor. Often when I have a business challenge I think, 'How would Jim handle this?' I also go to him for business advice.

VB: Through The Innovators' Lab® you offer a program called "The Culture of Innovation." Would you tell us about it?

Dale Dauten: After The Gifted Boss was published a company sent me around the country doing all-day seminars. When you're presenting an all-day seminar nobody wants to hear you talk the whole time so I came up with various ways to involve the audience. A motto I developed along the way was, 'You can't be a great boss without being creative.' You have to do things that are unique so people can tell stories about you, and in this way you create a culture in your organization.

I then started doing idea generation exercises in these seminars, and ended up making separate consulting work out of it. People would contract me to help them generate ideas. It was great, and I like to think I was really good at it. When I mentioned to Jim Evans, my mentor, that I was leading idea generation sessions he commented, "Six white boards full of ideas and nothing gets done." Sadly this was often true. It's easy to come up with dozens of ideas; it's difficult to make them happen.

Over time while working with some great companies, which I've been fortunate enough to do, I observed they have the energy I was talking about earlier. People in those organizations talk about ideas, what they've tried, and what's new. People at 3M, P&G, Kraft Foods, Caterpillar, Georgia-Pacific, for example, who meet a colleague they haven't seen in several months, may eventually get around to asking "How are the kids?" but that's down the list. First they focus on, "What have you tried?" "What are you working on?" "What's new?" It's a reflection of their energy and enthusiasm.

These observations led me to study the cultural aspect of organizations, focusing on the question, "How do you create an environment where people are talking about ideas, experimenting with new things, and are excited to experiment?" This is what we do through the Culture of Innovation program. We don't stop at just generating great and innovative ideas. We teach people how to build what we call an 'Innovation Infrastructure.' It's full of idea generation tools, which I developed personally. The rest of the program deals with how to create an organizational culture that has energy.

VB: "It's one thing to declare that you're going to be innovative; it's another to find ways to evolve creativity, to get everyone thinking creatively." Has it been your experience that most companies are merely using slogans about being innovative rather than implementing a self-sustaining innovation environment?

Dale Dauten: Yes, I've never attempted to quantify it but if you were to do a search of company mission statements, almost every one would include something about being a leader in their field. Many mention they're going to be a leader through innovation, but most don't do it.

Last year I met with a senior manager of a big local company who said, "One of the things we rate executives on, part of our built-in performance review, is whether or not they're innovative. If they aren't we have absolutely nothing to give to help them. We have programs for everything except that piece of leadership." The focus of our conversation was about creating that piece; we're still talking because the issue has not gone away.

It's a hole in management knowledge. We want people to be innovative and most people in companies' R&D departments know how to do it, but outside R&D when the question is asked, "Is this employee innovative?" people are stumped. They wonder what it means to be an innovative employee, with the result that lots try to be innovative by settling for being gimmicky, such as setting up 'Silly Hat Wednesday' or something equally unrelated to true innovation.

There's a lot of that type of gimmickry at Zappo's, which many consider to be the new role model company. It leaves me smiling because I don't think most companies are going to find gimmicks work to effect significant innovation and change. They won't result in the required cultural change.

VB: Innovation is needed not only in the R&D department, it's needed throughout the organization.

Dale Dauten: Yes, exactly. For the most part, who even tries? When producing a new training manual the training department generally takes the old one and updates it. When developing a new sales presentation the sales department uses the existing one after changing the names, and making other minor modifications.

Often this is partly due to a squeeze in time. I call it 'the time of no time'. Everybody's trying to be more efficient. It isn't that employees are idiots or don't want to be creative, but everybody's trying to do things as quickly as possible. And they hear their managers say, "It doesn't have to be anything special." Well, that's a soul deadening comment.

In the 'time of no time' it's tempting to say, "Let's pull out our last proposal, change the numbers and names, and let that good enough." The result is that 'good enough' becomes your standard. 'Good enough' is only what it says; it's good enough. The consequence is you end up falling behind those few organizations in which a few employees press against the status quo and ask, "Could we try something new?" "Could we do this differently and better?"

A lot of my work boils down to encouraging great bosses to ask some basic and key questions. "What else could we try?" "Who else could we help?" Being a great boss isn't exhibited in the question, "Have you done that report yet?" Rather they ask things like, "I wonder if we could make this report special?" "Can we display the data in the report in a different way?"

VB: It stimulates new ideas?

Dale Dauten: Yes. The ideal meeting is where people are kicking ideas back and forth, and there's the wonderful sound of 'oh-oh-oh' exclamations as people begin to think original thoughts. It means they've made a connection they've never made before. My goal in meetings is to get that kind of energy going.

VB: You use story telling to impart the messages in your books. Do you find this writing style more enjoyable than the approach taken by most business writers?

Dale Dauten: I hope it's more enjoyable for the reader. It's certainly more enjoyable for me to write.

While a young man I was part of a writer's group and drafted a couple of novels. They never went anywhere, but I learned how to write dialogue and some elements of story telling. So when I write the newspaper columns I try to play around with this form. I've written columns in the style of a movie reviewer reviewing someone's career. I've invented characters a bit like Garrison Keillor does in "News from Lake Woebegone". In my "The Corporate Curmudgeon" column I had a company called 'Mundane Industries'. I enjoy this as a writer, and readers seem to enjoy it.

There's been a surplus of business books lumped into the category of parable. I don't know the exact definition of parable, but my books are more in the format of conversations – not about a rabbit and an alligator.

I had one glimpse that I had pulled it off in the books. Shortly after The Gifted Boss was published, I was asked to speak to a big insurance company in Chicago. I told them the fellow I used as a model for Max Elmore, a character in the book, was in Chicago to visit his daughter and was actually sitting in the audience. I introduced him. Roger Axford, who has since passed on, was a retired education professor I just adored. The Max personality was totally Roger. Roger wasn't interested in business, and none of the thoughts were his, but the personality was all Roger – the bolo tie, grabbing your knee in a conversation, and poking you.

Almost everyone in the Chicago office of the insurance company had read my book in preparation for me speaking. After I had given my speech and introduced him, there must have been 20 to 30 people clustered around Roger, and nobody was talking to me. They thought he really was Max. I had managed to convince readers that he was a real solo genius.

Actually I had taken the great ideas from all the wonderful bosses I had met and interviewed, and put them into one head, into this Max character.

VB: You answered one of the questions I had when I read your books – whether you were Max Elmore.

Dale Dauten: No, I'm not a billionaire, not a business genius. I'm just someone who's hopefully good at gathering stories and wisdom, and sending them back out to readers through the voice of Max.

I've just finished another book in conversational style, and sent the manuscript to my agent. This time it's in the classic mythic style of a younger person in conversation with a wise old one. We'd all like a genius uncle, mentor, or somebody else, who could tell us how things really are, so I created such a character.

In this book I've switched to a female version of Max. I want people to understand it's as much for women as men, as is the case with my previous books.

VB: What is the title and projected publication date?

Dale Dauten: I have some title suggestions, but have yet to chose one.

It's about bosses who are demanding but still respected, beloved, and admired. Demanding is the hard part. This is why I wanted a female protagonist. I don't want people to think it's about being macho.

I fell into the subject 'how demanding to be' when I saw how interested people were in this topic when I covered it in my speeches. Managers worry about how tough to be, and virtually everyone I meet thinks they're not tough enough. This new book is about how to be tough but not a jerk.

VB: What is your secret to being a gifted professional speaker?

Dale Dauten: I love meeting people and giving speeches, and it pays well, but I don't think of myself as a professional speaker so when you asked me this question I laughed. My first thought was, 'Oh that's not me.' But people pay me well to do it, so I guess I am a professional speaker!

cover of Laughing WarriorI try to pass along information. One of the mottos I include in The Laughing Warriors is "Who can I help today?" It sounds a bit corny so I don't talk about it much, but it really is useful to ask this question. If you walk into the office and say, "Ok, what do I have to do today?" it's a bit dreary. But if you say, "Who can I help today?" it's fun, lively, and wakes you up. This is how I think about speaking.

I've done it for years, and have got to the point where I look forward to being on stage. I hope I haven't become an old ham, but I do enjoy it. My transition from fearing and dreading speaking to loving it was because of helping. I'm going to help somebody today. I don't know who, but I'm going to help somebody.

At the beginning of my speeches I used to say, "Most people aren't going to use what I'm going to tell you. Most people aren't going to believe half of what I'm going to say, but I'm going to help somebody today and I hope it's you." Saying this, which was right from the heart because I believed it, stopped me from worrying about all the people who wouldn't like what I had to say or thought I was full of it. I knew I could help some people. I thought, "If I do a really good job maybe a lot of 'somebodies' in the audience will say, 'You know, I'm going to try that'." It suddenly made speaking ok.

My goal in speaking is to have people leave willing to try something new. It's nice when I tell a great story and people laugh, but it's immensely gratifying when somebody sends me an email and says, "You know I went back and tried that one thing." Often what they say will surprise me because it's not what I meant. They try their version of what I said, then write and tell me it worked. It's the part of speaking that's exciting.

The problem with management is that it is often just the art of 'Impedership.' Create a magnetic environment. 'Great employees' are allies. The goal for 'gifted bosses' "is to make your group into The Best Place for the Best People to Work." "Spend enough time around success and failure, and you learn a reverence for possibility." Dale Dauten's messages are well worth reading and heeding.

Dale Dauten's Bio:
Author and Columnist Dale Dauten earned Bachelor's and Master's degrees in economics from Arizona State University in 1971 and 1972, respectively. He did doctoral work in organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and completed training at the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University.

He is a nationally syndicated columnist through King Features, and from 1991 to December 2010 was 'The Corporate Curmudgeon,' which appeared in over 100 newspapers, providing business and management insights. Dale Dauten continues to write with J.T. O'Donnell in "JT & Dale Talk Job"" providing information and advice to job seekers, employees, and employers. His writing has afforded him the opportunity to interview top business leaders, innovative management thinkers, coaches, and political figures.

Dale Dauten worked for 4 years as market research manager for Americo and Dial Corp. In 1980 he founded Research Resources, a nationally known marketing research consulting company, which he sold in 1988. Since then he has been a writer, consultant providing management and creativity training and coaching, and professional speaker. In 2009, together with Arizona attorneys John Zarzynski and Georgia Wilder, and Frank Gaunt, Dale Dauten founded Agreement House, a company providing divorce and business conflict resolution services using mediation for solve complex interpersonal and legal issues.

He is the founder of The Innovators' Lab®, which is devoted to developing and testing new ideas in management and marketing. It consists of one-day meetings of business people who engage in creativity exercises that allow them to raise issues specific to their business and to learn how to create an organizational culture that has energy.

As a professional speaker, some options for topics include The Gifted Boss, How to Enjoy Killing the Status Quo, Where The Wild Brains Roam, and The Curious Case of the Dead Idea (and Other Business Mysteries).

Dale Dauten is the author of an eBook It's A Wonderful Job (2010), The Laughing Warriors: How to Enjoy Killing the Status Quo (2009), Better Than Perfect: How Gifted Bosses and Great Employees Can Lift the Performance of Those Around Them (2006), Great Employees Only: How Gifted Bosses Hire and De-hire Their Way to Success (2006), The Gifted Boss: How to Find, Create and Keep Great Employees (1999), The Max Strategy: How a Businessman Got Stuck at an Airport and Learned to Make His Career Take Off (1997), Taking Chances: Lessons in Putting Passion and Creativity into Your Work Life (1986), and Quitting, Knowing When to Leave (1980).

The Max Strategy and The Gifted Boss have been published around the world, with special interest given to them in Asia. The Max Strategy became a bestseller in Japan in 2003.

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