The week@work – Leadership lessons from FIFA, ways to boost job security & the ‘small, happy life’

Early Wednesday morning Swiss authorities entered a high end hotel in Zurich and arrested 14 FIFA officials on a variety of charges including wire fraud, money laundering and racketeering. On Friday, Seth Blatter was reelected to his fifth term as President of FIFA. Subsequent reports throughout the week illuminated Mr. Blatter’s leadership style.

His response to the arrests and accepting responsibility as the most powerful leader in soccer:

“Many people hold me responsible. I can’t monitor everyone all of the time. If people want to do wrong, they will also try to hide it.”

Apparently the buck doesn’t stop at Mr. Blatter’s desk.

Writing in the Opinion Pages of The New York Times, columnist, Roger Cohen provided a rationale for Blatter to step down:

“Mr. Blatter, your time is up.

Why? Because the corruption charges against current and former FIFA vice presidents and others reflect an organization rotten to its core, operating in the absence of any meaningful oversight, without term limits for a president whose salary is of course unknown (but estimated by Bloomberg to be “in the low double-digit” millions), overseeing $5.72 billion in partially unaccounted revenue for the four years to December 2014, governing a sport in which matches and World Cup venues and in fact just about everything appears to have been up for sale, burying a report it commissioned by a former United States attorney into the bidding process for the next two World Cups, and generally operating in a culture of cavalier disdain personified by Blatter, whose big cash awards to soccer federations in poorer countries have turned the delegates from many of FIFA’s 209 member associations into his fawning acolytes.”

Why should we care? On Wednesday, Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post published a story, ‘The human toll of FIFA’s corruption’.

“On the surface, it’s just another white collar crime story: rich, powerful men making themselves richer and more powerful. But a closer look suggests that there is a lot of real-world suffering happening as a direct result of FIFA’s decisions.”

“Human rights advocates’ worst fears about Qatar seemed to be confirmed as Qatar began building the infrastructure to host the Cup, and reports of migrant worker deaths started to pile up. The numbers, to the extent that we know them, appear startling: A Guardian investigation last year revealed that Nepalese migrant workers were dying at a rate of one every two days. In sum, the Guardian put the total Qatar death toll of workers from Nepal, India and Bangladesh at 964 in 2012 and 2013.”

Perhaps we would all like to be a bit more secure at work, while not employing the extreme tactics of the FIFA president.

The ABC network affiliate in Sacramento, California aired a story on ‘Nine Ways to Boost Your Job Security‘. Number one is to do good work. Some of the other suggestions included continuing to learn to maintain your competitive advantage and never get too comfortable in your job. In other words, security and comfort are not synonymous.

The two tactics that stood out for me were to know yourself, and establish alternate revenue streams. “A 401k plan, prudent investments, side businesses, and lucrative hobbies can offer temporary financial support if you were to find yourself without a steady income.”

From the billions of FIFA to normal folk seeking security at work, the last story of the week comes from The New York Times columnist, David Brooks. On Friday his topic was ‘The Small, Happy Life’. He was surprised by the result of his request for essays from readers on “their purpose in life and how they found it”.

“I expected most contributors would follow the commencement-speech clichés of our high-achieving culture: dream big; set ambitious goals; try to change the world. In fact, a surprising number of people found their purpose by going the other way, by pursuing the small, happy life.”

So here’s one for you, Mr. Blatter. Not that you will ever read it. But if you did, you could learn something from the response from one of Mr. Brooks’ readers.

“Elizabeth Young once heard the story of a man who was asked by a journalist to show his most precious possession. The man, Young wrote, “was proud and excited to show the journalist the gift he had been bequeathed. A banged up tin pot he kept carefully wrapped in cloth as though it was fragile. The journalist was confused, what made this dingy old pot so valuable? ‘The message,’ the friend replied. The message was ‘we do not all have to shine.’ This story resonated deeply. In that moment I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important, from which I would reap praise and be rewarded with fulfillment. My vision cleared.”

The Saturday Read – George Packer ‘The Unwinding’

If you need additional convincing that the income gap between the wealthy and the ‘middle class’ is widening, set aside some time to read George Packer‘s ‘The Unwinding: An Inner History Of The New America‘. Originally published in 2013, the book takes us on a pilgrimage with a lead cast of three ‘American dreamers’: Dean Price, Jeff Connaughton and Tammy Thomas.

We meet Dean and Jeff in 1978 and Tammy in 1984. As each of their stories unfold, the author adds a ‘supporting cast’ of politicians, journalists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and ‘institution men’. It’s this supporting cast that influence decisions that effect the lives of Dean, Jeff and Tammy, but they are fuzzy background noise to the reality of trying to make a living in today’s United States.

“No one can say when the unwinding began – when the bolts that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way. Like any great change, the unwinding began at countless times, in countless ways – and at some moment the country, always the same country, crossed a line of history and became irretrievably different…When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money.”

We encounter our ‘ordinary’ Americans at the beginning of their respective careers.

Dean Price earned a degree in political science and is hired as a pharmaceutical rep for Johnson and Johnson.  “It didn’t take him long to realize that he hated his job…He had bought into a lie: go to college, get a good education, get a job with a Fortune 500 company, and you’d be happy. He had done all that and he was miserable…He decided to start over and do things his own way. He would become an entrepreneur.”

Jeff Connaughton first met Joe Biden in 1979 at a meeting of the National Student Congress in Philadelphia. “Biden was youthful, he was witty, he knew how to talk to college students. Connaughton never forgot the moment.” 

After earning an MBA from The University of Chicago Business school he moved to New York to work for Smith Barney in their public finance department. His next job was at E.F. Hutton where he survived the company’s wire and mail fraud scandal. “He was a twenty-seven-year-od assistant vice president making more than a hundred grand, and yet he went home in the evenings thinking that this was not what he wanted to do with his life.”

“Biden was like a cult figure to me,” Connaughton said much later. “He was the guy I was going to follow because he was my horse.  I was going to ride that horse into the White House. That was going to be my next stop in life. I had done Wall Street, and I was going to do the White House next.”

Tammy Thomas grew up in Youngstown, Ohio as the city began to decline. “Tammy vowed to herself that she would not go on welfare and live in the projects. She didn’t want to have just enough to barely get by but not enough to actually be able to do anything. She didn’t want to get stuck.”

“She finished high school on time, in 1984, and became the first person in her family to get a diploma…She got an associate’s degree at a technical college and worked for two years as a supermarket cashier in the hope that she’d get a management job, but none opened up…But up in Warren, the Packard Electric plants were still operating, with eight thousand workers making wiring harnesses and electrical components for General Motors cars. It was lighter, cleaner work than steelmaking, and two-thirds of the employees were women, a lot of them single mothers like Tammy. She went in to the interview and was hired for the assembly line at $7.30 an hour. So in 1988 she got off welfare and became a factory worker.”

This is a book that will reconnect you with reality. In his review of the book for The New York Times, Dwight Garner concluded:

“At one point in “The Unwinding” we meet a talented reporter in Florida who is writing about the foreclosure mess. This reporter, we read, “believed that there were two kinds of journalists — the ones who told stories, and the ones who uncovered wrongdoing.”

Mr. Packer is both, and he’s written something close to a nonfiction masterpiece.”

The Journey, a poem by Mary Oliver

I find that many people ‘shape shift’ their lives to meet the expectations of others. That may be a short term personal gratification strategy, but it’s not one for the long haul. In the end you lose who you are, and it may take a while for your GPS to recalculate.

The Friday poem is ‘The Journey’ by Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Mary Oliver. The poem is included in the collection, ‘New and Selected Poems, Volume One’ published in 1992 and recognized with the National Book Award.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Mary Oliver, 1986  First published in Dream Work, Atlantic Monthly Press. Reprinted in New and Selected Poems, Volume One, Beacon Press.

First Lady Michelle Obama @ Oberlin College & Tuskegee University – “Rise above the noise”

First Lady Michelle Obama delivered two commencement addresses this spring. The first, in early May at Tuskegee University and the second over the weekend at Oberlin College. Respect and civility were on her mind and the narrative of her experience gave credence to the challenge she posed to graduates at both institutions: “stay true to who you are and where you come from” and “rise above the noise and shape the revolutions of your time”.

The position of First Lady of the United States is a career choice. The interview process is tangential to the candidate for president, but the spouse’s background is equally examined under the microscope of the 24×7 news cycle. In her speech to the Tuskegee graduating class, Mrs. Obama was candid in her reflections on the impact of the campaign and shared a leadership lesson in her resolve to not let others define her.

“Back when my husband first started campaigning for President, folks had all sorts of questions of me: What kind of First Lady would I be? What kinds of issues would I take on? Would I be more like Laura Bush, or Hillary Clinton, or Nancy Reagan? And the truth is, those same questions would have been posed to any candidate’s spouse. That’s just the way the process works. But, as potentially the first African American First Lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations; conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others. Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating?  Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?

But eventually, I realized that if I wanted to keep my sanity and not let others define me, there was only one thing I could do, and that was to have faith in God’s plan for me. I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself — and the rest would work itself out. 

So throughout this journey, I have learned to block everything out and focus on my truth. I had to answer some basic questions for myself: Who am I? No, really, who am I? What do I care about?”

The most respected of the management gurus are adamant that before you can lead, you have to know who you are, your values and what you care about. This is your anchor throughout your career.

“And at the end of the day, by staying true to the me I’ve always known, I found that this journey has been incredibly freeing. Because no matter what happened, I had the peace of mind of knowing that all of the chatter, the name calling, the doubting — all of it was just noise. It did not define me. It didn’t change who I was. And most importantly, it couldn’t hold me back. I have learned that as long as I hold fast to my beliefs and values — and follow my own moral compass — then the only expectations I need to live up to are my own.”

At Oberlin College, Mrs. Obama acknowledged the campus culture of service and social justice and encouraged graduates to take a leadership role “to actively seek out the most contentious, polarized, gridlocked places you can find. Because so often, throughout our history, those have been the places where progress really happens –- the places where minds are changed, lives transformed, where our great American story unfolds.”  

“And the truth is, graduates, after four years of thoughtful, respectful discussion and debate here at Oberlin -– those seminars where you explored new ideas together, those late-night conversations where you challenged each other and learned from each other — after all of that, you might find yourself a little dismayed by the clamor outside these walls — the name-calling, the negative ads, the folks yelling at each other on TV. After being surrounded by people who are so dedicated to serving others and making the world a better place, you might feel a little discouraged by the polarization and gridlock that too often characterize our politics and civic life.

Her address continued with a call to citizenship. Recognizing the temptation to “run the other way as fast as you can…you need to run to, and not away from, the noise.” 

So get out there and volunteer on campaigns, and then hold the folks you elect accountable. Follow what’s happening in your city hall, your statehouse, Washington, D.C. Better yet, run for office yourself. Get in there. Shake things up. Don’t be afraid.  And get out and vote in every election -– not just the big national ones that get all the attention, but every single election. Make sure the folks who represent you share your values and aspirations.

See, that is how you will rise above the noise and shape the revolutions of your time.”

Entrepreneur’s Notebook – The Cambridge Satchel Company

Why do folks decide to start their own business? Entrepreneur magazine offers a laundry list of possible motivations that include financial independence, tax benefits, ‘a story to tell’ and reinvention. For Cambridge Satchel Company founder, Julie Deane, her motivation was to fund a private education for her daughter and remove her from a school where she was bullied. Her ‘story to tell’ is one of reinventing the traditional school satchel.

A Daily Mail article summarized her journey from kitchen table to fashionista:

“When Julie Deane discovered her daughter was being bullied, she vowed to move her to the £12,000-a-year school down the road.

But unable to afford the fees, the housewife sat down at her kitchen table and wrote a list of ten ways to raise money.

Halfway down the list she wrote ‘selling traditional leather satchels’. It was a business venture which, just four years later, would generate an annual turnover of more than £12million.”

And this is why you should listen to your family (and your potential customer) :

“Emily and her younger brother Max, now 11, were reading Harry Potter at the time and had asked their mother for leather satchels similar to those worn by the book’s characters. Starting small, she found a leather supplier in Hull and asked him to make her eight chestnut brown satchels.

She said: ‘I chose satchels because I had always loved mine as a child. It lasted me all the way through school, whereas my children’s rucksacks became tatty and dirty within a few months.’

The Cambridge University graduate had been enjoying life as a full-time mother while her husband, a partner at an engineering consultancy firm, was the breadwinner. But she immersed herself in books on how to run a business and quickly found herself working all hours of the day from the kitchen of the family home near Cambridge to keep up with demand.”

The bags caught on as a fashion accessory worn by celebrities. Her satchels are sold in the U.S. at Bloomingdales and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Growing her business from a website, she obtained $21m in investments earlier this year, from U.S. backers, Index Ventures. Her plan, after an international trade visit with the Prime Minister, is to break into China and “train up the next generation” of British craftsmen. All the bags are handcrafted in the UK.

Why do some ventures succeed while others do not? Ms. Deane knew her product, had strong motivation for success and worked hard to translate her vision into a reality. The result? She has created jobs, preserved a vocation for leather craftsman and offered a quality product.

In an interview with the Huff Post Third Metric she was asked:

“Did you ever dream – a few years ago, that you would own such a successful company?”

“I didn’t think about it, I have always worked hard at following up every opportunity and building the brand. Trying to exceed expectations of customers (individuals and trade) and not compromising ethics or quality.”

Asked what advice she would share with aspiring entrepreneurs:

“Give it a go, it’s never been a better time to reach a global market. Don’t risk what you can’t afford to lose, that way you will remain optimistic, creative and happy.”

That’s my red satchel in the photo. I bought it online four years ago after returning from a trip to the UK. I had seen the competition in a variety of retail outlets, but her story and the quality of the product closed the sale.

If you have an idea and are committed to hard work, then ‘give it a go!’

The Mysteries of Networking – Part Two

Are you curious about why some people succeed and others do not? If you had the opportunity, who would you like to interview about their success? What would you ask? Identifying folks you would like to meet and crafting questions for a conversation is the foundation for a lifetime of networking.

Start by making a list of who you want to meet. Since we are talking about careers, let’s focus on professional connections. Once you have your list, google these folks for background, then email or call to schedule an appointment.  Anticipate rejection, but don’t give up. Request a minimal length of time (15 – 20 minutes), offer a wide range of dates (next 3 weeks) and be charming and humble (even if arrogance if viewed as an asset in the industry).

Brian Grazer calls his approach to networking ‘curiosity conversations’. He found, early in his career:

“First, people – even famous and powerful people – are happy to talk, especially about themselves and their work; and second, it helps to have even a small pretext to talk to them.”

“I developed a brief introduction for the secretaries and assistants who answered the phone: “Hi, my name is Brian Grazer. I work for Warner Bros. Business Affairs. This is not associated with studio business, and I do not want a job., but I would like to meet Mr. So-and-so for five minutes to talk to him…” And I always offered a specific reason I wanted to talk to everyone.

My message was clear: I worked at a real place, I only wanted five minutes on the schedule, I did not want a job. And I was polite.”

Minimize rejection by having your script ready with your specific reason for the meeting request.

Once you have your meeting, develop a set of questions. Keep it short and to the point. What is it that you want to know about this individual that will help guide you in your career decision? Here are a few suggestions:

Why do you think you have been successful in this field?

What experiences served as building blocks to your success?

Did you experience failure? How did you recover and move forward?

How do you balance work and family? Have there been tradeoffs?

What do you look for when selecting a new employee?

What does it take to be a success in this field?

Try to meet with folks at their workplace. It is one thing to hear people talk about their work, it is another to experience the work environment and observe them in it. Remember, you are trying to absorb as much information as you can in a short time to help you in your career decision. Think Dian Fossey among the gorillas of Rwanda. Observe the culture, the behaviors and the office decor.

How many people should you meet? It’s not about quantity. It may be that your first contact answers your questions and you are on a track to follow your dream. Or, your first information interview only leads to more questions. Before you leave, ask for an additional contact; someone who may be able to answer these additional questions.

Networking is about building relationships. The quality of the effort depends on your ability to listen and act on the information you receive. It’s a practice, not a 911 call when your job is threatened.

Adapt your style for lifelong learning and networking to incorporate elements of Brian Grazer’s ‘curiosity conversations’:

“For thirty-five years, I’ve been tracking down people about whom I was curious and asking if I could sit down with them for an hour. I’ve had as few as a dozen curiosity conversations in a year, but sometimes I’ve done them as often as once a week. My goal was always at least one every two weeks.”





The week@work – Essays about work & class, what to learn in college, & paying tribute on Memorial Day

This week@work invites us to pause and remember those whose unselfish commitment to our way of life motivates them to sacrifice immediate career aspirations, family and in some cases, their lives. On my ‘honors list ‘this year, in addition to the active members in the military and veterans, are the doctors and nurses who travelled to Africa to fight Ebola and the medical personnel who treated the Ebola patients who returned to the US.

These folks allow the rest of us to go about pursuing our own ‘American dream’ while they ensure our right to do so. We apply to college, launch careers, struggle with work/life balance and do our best to contribute to our communities. And on one day, Memorial Day, in towns across the country there will remember with parades, 5k races and wreaths set on memorials to the war dead.

Work & Class (‘Essays About Work and Class That Caught a College’s Eye’, Ron Lieber, The New York Times, May 21)

Very few college admissions essays address issues of work and class, but each year, a selection of those that do are published in The New York Times.

“The single most memorable line we read this year came from an essay by Carolina Sosa, who lives in Centreville, Va., and will attend Georgetown University. In writing about her father’s search for a job, she described the man named Dave who turned him away.

“Job searching is difficult for everyone, but in a world full of Daves, it’s almost impossible,” she wrote. “Daves are people who look at my family and immediately think less of us. They think illegal, poor and uneducated. Daves never allow my dad to pass the first round of job applications. Daves watch like hawks as my brother and I enter stores. Daves inconsiderately correct my mother’s grammar. Because there are Daves in the world, I have become a protector for my family.”

What to Learn in College (‘What to Learn in College to Stay One Step Ahead of Computers’, Robert J. Shiller, The New York Times, May 22)

Professor Shiller addresses the central question in higher education today. How do we ensure that those who attend college are transformed by the experience, not just with a utilitarian skill set, but with a broader understanding of the human condition and a commitment to improving their local and global community?

“What can young people learn now that won’t be superseded within their lifetimes by these devices and that will secure them good jobs and solid income over the next 20, 30 or 50 years? In the universities, we are struggling to answer that question.

Two strains of thought seem to dominate the effort to deal with this problem. The first is that we teachers should define and provide to our students a certain kind of general, flexible, insight-bearing human learning that, we hope, cannot be replaced by computers. The second is that we need to make education more business-oriented, teaching about the real world and enabling a creative entrepreneurial process that, presumably, computers cannot duplicate. These two ideas are not necessarily in conflict.”

His conclusion reflects a recognition of the value of integrated, adaptive learning.

“The developing redefinition of higher education should provide benefits that will continue for decades into the future. We will have to adapt as information technology advances. At the same time, we must continually re-evaluate what is inherently different between human and computer learning, and what is practical and useful to students for the long haul. And we will have to face the reality that the “art of living in the world” requires at least some elements of a business education.”

Paying Tribute

This week The 9/11 Memorial marked it’s first anniversary since opening. News organizations were given a preview of the observation deck atop the new One World Trade Center. A good time to revisit the intention of the original architect of the twin towers, and his quote preserved on the wall of the memorial museum.

“Beyond the compelling need to make this a monument to world peace, the World Trade Center should, because of its’ importance, become a living representation of man’s belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his beliefs in the cooperation of men, and through this cooperation his ability to find greatness.” 

Minoru Yamasaki, World Trade Center Architect, 1964

This week@work we make connections. The architect’s desire for his building to represent man’s belief in humanity, Carolina Sosa’s hope to recover her father’s human dignity from ‘the Daves’ and Professor Shiller’s intention to preserve the values of higher education to ensure each graduate’s opportunity to find greatness.

The Saturday Read – Gayle Tzemach Lemmon ‘Ashley’s War’

For this Memorial Day Weekend, ‘The Saturday Read’ is ‘Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield’. The story of Ashley White Stumpf and her US Army ‘band of sisters’ is told by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “A Fulbright scholar and Robert Bosch Fellow, she began reporting from conflict regions during MBA study at the Harvard Business School following nearly a decade covering politics at ABC News.”

The book is dedicated in part “To all the unsung warriors. That you may never be forgotten.” For many Americans, including Ashley’s mother, the role of women in combat in Afghanistan was unknown until Ashley came home to Dover Air Force Base.

An ABC News ‘Nightline’ segment provided background on the story.

“The U.S. Army Special Operations Command created a program in 2010 called the Cultural Support Teams. They were special units of female Army soldiers that were meant to build relationships with Afghan citizens as Green Berets and Army Rangers searched compounds in the rugged desert of Kandahar.”

“The “CST’s” would do essential work that the male soldiers could not: they would interface with local women and children to gather information, because in traditional Islamic culture it was considered inappropriate for men to commingle with women.”

The book offers “a ground-level view of the women who answered the call to serve with Special Operations Forces, soldiers who raised their hands right away when they heard of the chance to volunteer with the best in battle.”

In the ‘Nightline’ segment, Diane Sawyer posed a question to author Lemmon, “What is courage?” Her response, “Being afraid and doing it anyway. It’s always taking the hard right over the easy road.”

An excerpt from the Epilogue of ‘Ashley’s War’:

“On Memorial Day 2012, Lieutenant General John Mulholland stood before an assembly of grieving families to honor the Army special operations soldiers who had given everything for their country.

“It is important that we never forget that Ashley and her brothers-in-arms were truly exceptional people,” he said during the annual  ceremony held on the U.S. Army Special Operations Forces Memorial Plaza. “They had and always will have a value beyond measure; they are supremely competent in what they chose to do, were clearly committed to making a difference in the world in which they lived, and they unquestionably did so.””

Take time this Memorial Day to read ‘Ashley’s War’ and recognize the truly exceptional people who made a difference in the world.

Richard Avedon, a poem by Jeffrey Brown

Earlier this month, Emmy award winning journalist Jeffrey Brown published his first book, ‘The News: Poems’. The PBS Newshour chief correspondent for arts, culture and society was interviewed by Gwen Ifill on a recent broadcast and described his goal to tell the stories he reported “in a different voice with different words”.

“I am a hard-bitten news guy. I mean, that’s our world, right? We go out into the world, we see things, we tell stories, we meet people.

But there’s a side of me that loves literature, that loves poetry, that loves history, that loves ideas, that loves music. It comes out, I hope, on the program as well.

I started writing a long time ago. I wrote at different times during my life. I would write. I would pick up snippets from along the way.

I started realizing that I wanted to go back and look at stories that I had done and sort of rethink them, reimagine them, tell them in a different voice with different words. And I — it was just — it was — it was fun for me. It was interesting to do.”

He went back and looked at transcripts of old interviews and used quotes to create the scaffolding of his poems.

This week’s Friday poem reflects his conversation with the photographer, Richard Avedon.

“He said — and we did an interview late at night in the Metropolitan Museum surrounded by his grand portraits.

And we were talking, because this is a subject that fascinates me, as it does with him, anybody who has a camera in front of them. What does the camera tell you? Well, it tells you a truth, but it doesn’t tell you the whole truth.”

Richard Avedon

Look around you: all gone

all dead. The heavy-lidded,

snake-charmed, sunbaked.

The poets and actors, Capote

with the blotched face, Marilyn

in sequins, Beckett and one

of his drifters, the powerful

and the pretenders.

They stood before a white screen

as close to me as you are now –

a confrontation that will last.

Eyes closed tight and eyes alert.

Eyes ahead and eyes askew,

as though they knew not to stare

at the viewer – click! – forever.

All gone, all dead – forever.

That is why I call the taking

of portraits a sad art, he said.

The camera lies all the time,

it’s all it does is lie. But this

is no lie: over there, my father –

Sarasota, August 25, 1973,

staring at me, forever. He does

not age. But he will not return.

Jeffrey Brown, ‘The News’ 2015

It’s only a play? Lessons learned on the stage

The lights dim, the music rises from an orchestra pit hidden from view and a tiny light begins to fly across the curtain. It’s that magical moment of anticipation in a darkened theater on a spring night in New York. It could be any play, but for me, on Tuesday it was ‘Finding Neverland’, the new Broadway musical about the life of JM Barrie, the playwright and creator of Peter Pan.

Being cast in the lead of a Broadway play has about the same odds as being signed to an NFL contract. Only the lucky, talented few survive the uncompromising selection process beginning with high school and college productions, local theater companies, summer stages and hours of auditions to reach the pinnacle of success for a stage actor.

A Yahoo finance article in 2013 listed drama and theater arts among ‘The 10 Worst Majors for Finding a Good Job’. And yet, sitting in a theater, removed from electronic contact with the outside world, it’s easy to understand why so many aspire to a career on the stage.

The lead role of JM Barrie in ‘Finding Neverland’ is acted by Matthew Morrison. His journey to the Lunt Fontanne Theater in NY started at the Orange County School of the Arts in California and progressed to NYU, TV roles, supporting roles on Broadway, his first lead in ‘The Light on the Piazza’, and in 2009, ‘Glee’ where his audience came to know him as ‘Will Schuester’. Although not as popular with critics as theater goers, this musical based on a 2004 movie plays to a full house at every performance.

And every night, each member of the audience receives the gift of watching a cast of actors pursuing their dream. And the actors include children, dogs and actors playing dogs.

Lesson #1 – There they are, on stage, demonstrating in an incredibly competitive business, that you can achieve your dream.

Lesson #2  – Act Two – The former actors who have achieved success beyond the footlights.

Clarence Otis, Jr. who stepped down as Chairman and CEO of Darden Restaurants late last year, credited his success in team building to his experience in theater.

“The thing that prepared me the most — where the team was front and center — was theater, which I did a lot of growing up, in high school, during college, law school and even for a couple of years after law school. I would say that probably is the starkest lesson in how reliant you are on others, because you’re there in front of an audience. It’s all live, and everybody’s got to know their lines and know their cues and know their movement, and so you’re totally dependent on people doing that.”

Tom Vander Well, business consultant, writes on his Wayfarer blog ’10 Ways Being a Theatre Major Prepared Me for Success’.

“When I chose my major, I had no pipe dreams about becoming a professional actor. I did it because more than one wise adult had advised me that my actual major in college would have less impact on my eventual job search than having the actual degree. “Study what you love” I was told, “not what you think will get you a job.” I listened for once and chose theatre because I’d done it all through my secondary education, I had relative success doing it, and because I simply loved being a part of it. Fortunately, my parents gave me absolutely no grief about my choice (unlike most of my fellow majors. Thanks mom & dad!)”

The list of skills he acquired includes: “improvisation, project management, working with a limited budget, hard work, presentation skills and making difficult choices.”

I would add that you learn to accept feedback as an actor. And you eventually realize it’s about the performance, not personal. If you listen you will get better. Maybe that’s the most important lesson we can take from those who make a living on the stage – listen and you will get better.