Book Review: The One-Week Job Project

After finishing university, Sean Aiken embarked on a tour of North America working one job per week for 52 weeks. The One Week Job Project describes his journey over that year and what it’s like to work at 52 different companies. I heard Sean speak a few weeks ago, and loved his stories and ideas. You can learn more about his project here. It’s a great read, and subtly brings us back to the question all of us–leaders and followers–face at some point in our lives: what will my job mean in the end?

This book encapsulates Millennials more than any other book I have read. It describes a typical Millennial’s life journey and overt desire to find our passion, no matter what that passion pays us. It is like an anthem of this generation. Not that all Millennials will work one job a week like Aiken did, but they will strive for meaning in what they do choose to do. Bruce Tulgan uses the term “tapestry” to describe the Millennials career paths, where they want to paint a picture, or create a beautiful work of art with their lives, rather than just climb a corporate ladder to nowhere. Aikens’s book describes that journey, but also previews an intriguing twist with the Millennials: they might actually inspire other generations to question “why” and give up pointless quests for status amidst the rat race as well.

From a leadership perspective, this book is a great reminder that the people I lead have dreams and ambitions. We easily lose sight of that as leaders. In a perfect world, those dreams coincide with their job. But many times, they don’t. Why should I be surprised if they leave my leadership if I don’t care about that meaning? Aiken also gives us numerous examples of how new employees often get treated by companies. If you are an HR leader, this is an especially great book to read to help you understand the mindset of a new employee starting at your company. The little things do matter.

Our followers will not be content with mundane and pointless jobs with no meaning or direction. They see life as being too short to put up with ridiculous demands by leaders. Those domineering leaders will eventually run out of followers willing to put up with them, and they will not be able to compensate for their leadership ineptitude by throwing money at people. 21st century followers will laugh and quit when that happens, rather than stay and be miserable. That will change our workplaces substantially.

I loved this book. Aiken’s writing style reminds me a lot of Donald Miller, and he does a great job of telling the story of his 52 week adventure. Through these stories, he becomes an inadvertent leadership philosopher. It may be a stretch to add it to your leadership bookshelf, but I loved it, and would highly recommend it to anyone feeling a bit restless in your current job. You will soon realize that you are not alone, and many people feel that restlessness. Few of us will create an adventure like Aiken did, but you might be inspired by Aiken’s adventure. As leaders, we might also inspire our followers to find their passion too.

Note: I have no connection to the author or publisher. I did hear Sean speak in person in March 2012. All attendees at this event were given a free copy of the book.

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Book Review: Pension Ponzi

Pensions. Bring that up at a party and watch everyone’s eyes glaze over. It really is more exciting to talk about paint drying than about pensions and actuarial tables, but bear with me. Pension Ponzi by Bill Tufts and Lee Fairbanks is actually a mostly interesting book.

The book is actually about two core issues: public sector pensions and public sector salaries. The issues are intertwined, but actually are two different issues in my mind. Tufts and Fairbanks combine them and rant about both issues throughout the book, and repeat themselves many times in doing so. The book specifically analyzes the Canadian public sector pension and compensation system, but as far as I can tell, the issues apply to other countries as well.

The authors cite many examples–which I do appreciate–but make a crucial error in stating over and over that public sector wages are too high, without adequate comparative data. What is a police officer (or fire fighter, or military officer) worth? How exactly do you compare those jobs to any other profession to determine their profession. Simply stating they get paid too much or too little only works when you compare the salaries. The tough question is what do you compare them to?

Unfortunately, the authors don’t make any attempt to compare public sector wages to private sector counterparts. For example, they laud CEO salaries in Canadian government as being too high. But are they really? Maybe they are, maybe not. What is the CEO of a Billion dollar organization worth? In the private sector, s/he might be paid millions of dollars. So is $XXX,000 too much in the public sector? I don’t know. Maybe it is, but to simply say a salary is too high implies a comparison, and you must present the other side of the comparison to complete the argument. The authors don’t do so unfortunately.

Pensions are complicated and the authors to a pretty good job of explaining the issues and why they believe most pensions are in dire straights. Baby Boomers are living longer than expected. There are not enough Gen Xers and Millennials working to support the retired Baby Boomers. The market is volatile. All of these have created a perfect storm that may see many of our pensions go bankrupt without substantial changes to our system.

What does this have to do with leadership you ask? The pension issue is not merely an economical issue; it really is a leadership issue. Public sector leaders, corporate leaders and union leaders must all step up and address the simple fact that our public pensions may not last as they are currently structured. The pension issue has been at the centre of recent bailouts of GM, Chrysler and other major corporations. It is a major issue in government-union clashes in Wisconsin, California, and many other locales. Tufts and Fairbanks unfairly lay most of the blame for pension unsustainability solely on unions, but it takes two parties to negotiate. That can’t be forgotten. Political and governmental leaders must take both a short and long-sighted approach to this issue. Few leaders are able to do this, and ones that do may become the most important and influential leaders in the next couple decades. The pension issue will not go away quietly.

Overall, I did enjoy this book. It’s funny at times, wanders off track at others, but overall, addresses a mundane topic in an interesting way. They are very biased in their disdain for unions, but do raise many interesting facts and history about labour relations in Canada. I wish they spent more than 11 pages proposing solutions, but that may not have been their purpose in this book anyways. The book succeeds in bringing a complicated issue into everyday language, and out of obscurity and complicated language. It is an intriguing book for any leaders looking to reward their employees today but who also want to create a long-term sustainable future for the next generation of employees. Their (my) retirement future depends on those choices.

Disclosure: I paid full price for this book and have no connection to the authors. I also work in the Canadian public sector and contribute to a public sector pension.

Tufts, B. and Fairbanks, L. (2011). Pension ponzi: How Canada’s public sector unions are bankrupting Canada’s health care, education and your retirement. Mississauga, ON: John Wiley & Sons.

Book Review: You Can’t Fire Everyone

Hank Gilman is the Deputy Editor of Fortune, and You Can’t Fire Everyone is a meandering blend of thoughts on management, leadership, hiring and firing people.

Gilman has a witty and engaging prose style. I didn’t really learn anything from this book, but yet I happily read it cover to cover, wondering what crazy rant he would go on next. It is raw and honest, something most leadership books avoid. He describes management as it actually is, not how it should be according to someone who has never managed before. This is truly a practitioner’s book; it won’t be cited by any leadership scholars soon.

The book made me wonder again about the gap between scholarly and practitioner leadership literature. Leadership theory is important, but it tells you nothing about what to do when your star employee walks in and demands a raise. It does nothing to help a new manager fumble through firing a dysfunctional employee. It does nothing to help a manager “manage performance” (really, does anyone do that effectively?). Gilman doesn’t tell you exactly how to do it, but he does reassure you managing is tough, and that you are not the only one who has no idea what to do next. Few are cut out to lead, and few are really good at it. Gilman strikes me as someone who is very good at it, and if he struggled at times with “what” and “How” to manage, I am sure all leaders will at some point in their careers.

This is a great book for someone looking for an entertaining and humorous read, and for someone who is sick of all the bland business/leadership/management books out there. You will be entertained and reassured, but not necessarily informed. Read it on your next vacation or trip, but understand it will not be on the book-list of your next MBA class (although I am sure Gilman would be amused if it was). I enjoyed it, and it was a happy break from the stack of other leadership books I intend to read.

Book Review: Onward

Onward is an enigmatic but fascinating book. It reads like a memoir, shareholder report, Howard Schultz’s personal diary, and corporate promotional material at the same time. It is simultaneously brashly conceited and remarkably humble, while being completely engaging from cover to cover. The book details Schultz’s journey as he returned as ceo (Starbucks uses lower-case titles for some odd reason) and lead Starbucks through the economic turmoil of 2007-2010.

Schultz is simply passionate about Starbucks. And passionate is not the right word, but I am not sure the right one exists in the English vocabulary. He loves Starbucks. I wonder how many other Fortune 500 CEOs live and breathe their companies like Schultz does? I get the feeling that Schultz spends every awake moment thinking about coffee and Starbucks. If Inception was possible, I am sure Leonardo DiCaprio would find Schultz in a coffee roasting plant during his dreams too. But this passion is oddly appealing. He works not for the money, but because he loves his work. How many of us can say that about our jobs

Onward is a 100% biased read, and is a perfect book to kick back over a cup of coffee (Starbucks of course) and learn about the day-to-day life of a leader orchestrating corporate change. Few books give this much behind-the-scenes detail into what goes through a leader’s mind amidst corporate changes. For those aspiring to leadership positions, experiencing this is the benefit of reading Onward. I learned more about the actual life of a ceo, and the tough decisions they need to make. It isn’t an easy life by any means. If you want a book of theory or models, this isn’t worth reading. But if you want a great experiential story, then Onward is a great read.

Book Review (aka my 2 cents): Love Wins by Rob Bell

The Marketing Campaign
The viral marketing campaign for Love Wins was simply brilliant. It should be studied by any marketing student looking to market a product. I don’t know how intentional everything was, but it worked, and I hate the fact that it did. I saw the Rob Bell “trailer” video on a friend’s Facebook page, watched it, and then re-posted it. It generated a really interesting discussion on my page, and I knew that I “had” to read the book to have an informed opinion. It wasn’t a choice for me, I had to read it. Some of my friends re-posted that video on their pages. Other friends Tweeted about it. I read blogs about the book from people that actually had never read it, based on heresy about the book. I knew I had to read it, so I bought it.

The Book
Much of recent postmodern deconstructive writing is like an employee who constantly criticizes everything management does, but when given a management opportunity, declines it, because he doesn’t want to be the guy being criticized. It is much easier to point fingers than to come up with solutions. This book falls into this trap at times. It points fingers at Christians and the church, but fails to propose an alternative solution, other than well, love wins.

Love Wins is a book of questions. If my beliefs are solid, they should be able to weather a barrage of questions. But Bell mostly lets his questions drop off into thin air. He grazes issues like eternal damnation, judgment, heaven etc., and avoids voicing an interpretation by asking questions. Why doesn’t Bell take a stab at answering some of his questions?

On the other hand, do we avoid many of these questions because we’re scared we don’t know the answers? Do I really 100% know what heaven will be like? Or hell? Or who will be where for all of eternity? Is it better to live in sheltered naivety that never asks the questions everyone is thinking anyways, or should we as Christians challenge each other by pondering age-old questions, in a challenging and introspective manner that acknowledges we actually don’t have every answer? Job and his friends questioned many topics such as justice, fairness, and judgment, but God answered them with questions. Jesus answered many questions with questions. Questions are a reality for Christians, and our quest to answer those will take our entire life, and the life after that.

God is infinitely complex, and if I think I can summarize God in a few sentences, confine him to my own mind, and mold Him to whatever I want Him to be, then I am turning myself into a God. I might as well just build a golden calf to worship. If God is God, then there should be an infinite number of questions about Him. We’re finite humans; He is an infinite God.

Bell is a brilliant writer. He has a unique rhetoric style that is easy to understand and flows like a stream through the woods of complexity. But he is more poet than theologian. More David than Paul in his writings. If you are looking for a simple “3 keys to avoiding hell and going to heaven” type of book, this isn’t it. Read it if you want to be challenged, angered, humbled, and awestruck at how much we don’t know about God. Bell’s questions can scare us, or they can help us go back to the Bible and study deeper to try to understand them. If that was Bell’s intention, then it worked on me.