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Managing Depression: A Personal Perspective

I wanted to avoid the temptation of writing about this topic, given the voluminous media commentary in the aftermath of the Robin Williams tragedy. But the story I have to share is both personal and burning to get on the page. Please forgive me if I’m a little off point, but no doubt that we all know someone, whether family members, friends, or co-workers who are wrestling with depression or some form of mental illness.


The last few days has seen much written, discussed, and debated about the nature and effects of depression. My only brother (and sibling) suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, an illness that began to rear itself in his teen years and exacerbated during his terrible time in the military. While able to function on a day to day survival level, he is still incapable of holding a job due to the relentless distraction of the voices he hears between his ears.  For all of his adult life, he has taken numerous medications to quell the torturous chatter induced by his disease. Such is the distraction for him that I am called upon to help him read and understand documents of many kinds, since his concentration is impaired. And, occasionally act as a surrogate attorney at hearings for ongoing efforts to secure just compensation from the Veteran’s Administration. I also counsel him on various matters such as healthy diet and exercise (he has lost 50 lbs. over a years’ time) and encourage him to explore more of life, finding the joy in living as much as he can.


I used to believe that his condition could be transformed by realizing “it’s all a fantasy in your mind that can be changed with taking responsibility and mental discipline” until I read books, articles, and research pointing to a fundamental chemical imbalance. Clearly, a distinction has to be made between a person who is mentally ill or clinically depressed, and someone who is “feeling depressed”. 


A young teen who I knew well was feeling extremely depressed after a double dose of tragedy. This 13 year-old youth witnessed a murder at a synagogue Bar Mitzvah service, of all places, when the Rabbi was gunned down on the pulpit by a young man who proceeded to shoot himself. The assailant happened to be suffering from mental illness. Just four months later, the father of this young teen died after a lengthy nine year bout with cancer that included six major operations. Shortly after that, his mother moved the family from their moderate size city to the Big Apple, where some relatives lived but new friends had to be made in a new school, in a grittier neighborhood.


Adjusting to a strange, intense environment after two fatal calamities was much to cope with for this painfully shy kid, and he plunged into deep despair. When taken to a family wedding, he sat alone in a dark, vacant corner of the hall, contemplating suicide.


His Uncle Moe came over and asked him, “What’s the matter? You look like you want to die.”


“I do want to die. It’s just too much to deal with, my life. I want to walk out of here and kill myself.”


Uncle Moe pulled up a chair, sat closely next to him, and said, “I wouldn’t walk out just yet. I can get you tickets to see Jimi Hendrix in concert next week.”


Uncle Moe’s nephew was stupefied, his mind now contorted by this topical U-turn: “Huh…what…who? Jimi Hendrix?” (His favorite guitar player)


His Uncle nodded, “I can get two tickets.”


The kid’s eyes lit up: “Can you get four?”


Uncle Moe said, “OK, four it is. But promise me one thing. No matter how difficult life gets, you will never forget this moment.”     


I never did forget that moment. 



Here is a quantitative framework with peripheral qualitative apportionments to formalize the procedure for further processing, filtering and implementing your objectives:


In promulgating your percolating cogitations, or enunciating amorphous aspirations, beware of ponderous platitudes. Leverage your conversational communications with clarified conciseness, compact comprehensibility, coalescent consistency, and concatenated cogency. Keep it simple.






Hoops Management Lessons

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Basketball is an action sport, and most people involved in it are high-energy individuals who love to do something — anything — to solve problems.” - Phil Jackson




The business of coaching requires a fine sense of balance, between allowing full input and actions from all parties involved, while maintaining authority. Over a stretch of 25 years I have served as a professional speaker, trainer, and consultant to offer objective, if unconventional, ways to resolve thorny issues in the workplace. The potential problem with companies resorting to the option of outside consultants is becoming too dependent on them for solutions, which does not empower staff in the long run, or assigning blame to the consultant if follow-through falters. This is not to discount the value of intervention from a professional who can keenly see from a broader purview over the abyss of a problem-plagued workplace.


The objective of any consultant, IMHO, is to provide insights, skills, and a framework to staff so they can discover and resolve issues on their own accord, and then help staff refine the approach with periodic coaching.


Eleven time champion/basketball coach Phil Jackson often let his teams work out dysfunctional play on the court during a game, foregoing time outs to enhance confidence in problem-solving on the fly. This may have lost a few games for the team in the regular season, but the learning, growing, and faith that came from working it out themselves served the team well in the long haul leading to crucial playoff situations.


The “Zen Master,” as he was famously known, gave players the latitude to express themselves, but when deemed necessary “to wake players up and raise their level of consciousness,” he employed “tricks” designed to teach his players how to react to unplanned and uncontrollable events: “Once I had the team practice in silence; on another occasion I made them scrimmage with the lights out. I like to shake things up and keep the players guessing. Not because I want to make their lives miserable, but because I want to prepare them for the inevitable chaos that occurs the minute they step onto a basketball court.”


“Some coaches insist on having the last word, but I always tried to foster an environment in which everyone played a leadership role — from the most unschooled rookie to the veteran superstar. If your primary objective is to bring the team into a state of harmony and oneness, it doesn’t make sense for you to rigidly impose your authority.” Jackson says he came to this conclusion after trial-and-error with imposing his will. He realized he needed “to dial back my ego and distribute power as widely as possible without surrendering final authority.”


As a coach, he also discovered that “when I had the players sit in silence, breathing together in sync, it helped align them on a nonverbal level far more effectively than words. One breath equals one mind.” Through rituals and techniques, he created mindfulness for his teams so they could better connect with one another, preparing them for the teamwork needed on the court.


“When you lead from the outside-in,” Jackson says, “you may have short-term success, but it can’t last. No one wants to be repeatedly ‘brow-beaten’… as time went by, I discovered that the more I spoke from the heart, the more players could hear me and benefit from what I gleaned.”


Jackson was not beyond yelling at players when they lost focus on the court, nor the occasional sarcasm for motivational prodding. But commentary was well-measured and tailored to the thickness of the player’s skin. Taking someone aside for words of encouragement was usually the therapy of choice. He said, “Compassion is not a word often bandied about in locker rooms. But I’ve found that a few kind, thoughtful words can have a strong transformative effect on relationships, even with the toughest men in the room.”



This is the 15 minute power nap they raved about in the last time-management course you sent me to.


I was meditating on the mission statement and envisioning a new paradigm.


I wasn't sleeping. I was trying to pick up a contact lens without my hands.


They told me at the blood bank that this might happen.


Someone put decaf in the wrong pot.


I left the top off of the Liquid Paper.  








The Merits of Music in the Workplace


Music is arguably one of humanity’s greatest creations. It can provoke powerful emotions, from stirring us into action to soothing a troubled soul. A simple tune can inspire, challenge, unite us, help us focus and invoke a positive state. Music has served as a trusted companion to some of the most complex scientific theories. Einstein credits many of his pioneering ideas to the inspiration derived from listening to Mozart. When asked about his thought process by one interviewer, he attributed images and musical structure, rather than formulas and words, to his breakthroughs: “If I was not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.”


For countless professionals in a variety of fields, music has been a catalyst for bold ideas and bodacious achievements. And yet, until recently much of the corporate world has disregarded, dismissed or discouraged the role of music as a critical driver of a more effective organization. Still in many companies, the presence of music, even the use of headphones, is either frowned upon or even banned by corporate policy. This contradicts the overwhelming evidence showing music to be a potent tool for morale, team building, creativity, and productivity.


Background music has been employed in the workplace for centuries. In the Industrial Age women and occasionally orchestras would be booked in the quieter factories to sing and play among the workers. In the Victorian era handloom weavers would sing together to keep awake.


Radio in its early days was primarily a news broadcasting platform, but in 1940, the BBC launched a program called “Music While You Work.” It ran twice a day and was tailored for factory workers. Bands hired for the show played medleys that would keep the workers’ attention – pieces with an upbeat rhythm with the intent to foster productivity. The benefits of background music in the workplace were quickly realized: increased productivity, fewer accidents and sick days, improved alertness, and more team interaction.


“It breaks you out of just thinking one way,” insists Teresa Lesiuk, an assistant professor in the music therapy program at the University of Miami. Dr. Lesiuk’s research points out how music affects workplace performance. In one study involving information technology specialists, she found that those who listened to music completed their tasks more rapidly and initiated better ideas than those who didn’t, because the music improved their mood. “When you’re stressed, you might make a decision more hastily; you have a very narrow focus of attention,” she stated. “When you’re in a positive mood, you’re able to take in more options.”


In a five week study on software developers, she observed that “positive affect and quality-of-work were lowest with no music, with longer task times.” Furthermore, “positive mood change and enhanced perception of design” were recorded with the addition of music.


Dr. Lesiuk determined that personal choice in music was very important. She granted study participants the freedom to select whatever music they liked and to listen as long as they wanted. Those who were moderately skilled at their jobs benefited the most, while experts experienced more modest results. Some novices regarded the music as distracting. Dr. Lesiuk has also found that the older people are, the less time they spend listening to music at work.


In physiological terms, melodious sounds help encourage the release of dopamine in the reward area of the brain, as would eating a delicacy, looking at something appealing or smelling a pleasant aroma, said Dr. Amit Sood, a physician of integrative medicine with the Mayo Clinic. People’s minds tend to wander, “and we know that a wandering mind is unhappy,” Dr. Sood affirmed. “Most of that time, we are focusing on the imperfections of life. Music can bring us back to the present moment.” He asserts that it takes just 15 minutes to a half-hour of listening time to regain concentration. Music without lyrics usually works best, he said. For those who choose to listen to music, it’s best to set limits, because wearing headphones for an entire shift can be perceived as rude by those nearby.


In his book titled “This is Your Brain on Music,” author Daniel Levitin helps to clarify how our brain processes music, and why certain music, like classical or jazz, evoke stronger emotions than noise or monotonous music. As he describes it, when we hear one part of a song, it’s the process of anticipating what is to follow and the challenge of it derives pleasure for us. Without it, our brain is unchallenged and excitement is limited. The excitement releases dopamine and serotonin in our brain, and these chemicals elicit a feeling of euphoria and positivity. Music gets us high, it feels good, enhances our mood, and opens the mind, all positive outcomes you want for your employees.


However, not all are convinced by the merits of music in the workplace. "If people need a high level of concentration, it could be a distraction," asserts Dr. Carolyn Axtell, at the Institute of Work Psychology. The key is control, according to Dr. Anneli Haake, who has a PhD in music psychology. "When people choose to listen there can be positive effects - it can be relaxing and help manage other distractions such as noise. But when it's imposed, they can find it annoying and stressful," she says. Problems occur when colleagues clash. "You can look away if you don't want to see something, but you can't close your ears."


Daniel Rubin, a columnist at The Philadelphia Inquirer, has listened to jazz and piano concertos for most of his 33-year newspaper career — but only when writing on deadline. He began with a Sony Walkman, but now listens to 76 days’ worth of music on his iTunes playlist. “The person clicking their nails three desks away and the person humming next to me all sound equally loud and it’s hard for me to block them out,” he said. As a columnist, he works mostly alone, and people in the office seldom need to approach him. But when he was a budding reporter, he noticed that colleagues would become irritated when trying to get his attention. “It was really annoying because suddenly you would hear ‘Dan ... DAN ... DAN RUBIN! People were screaming at you because they needed you.”


The work space is increasingly being filled with techno-gadgetry that embraces the benefits of music. One company is already offering headphones that can read your brain’s wavelength and play music according to your mood. Another technology company called Focus@Will collaborated with UCLA researchers to create a neuroscience-based music library designed to motivate and inspire. The service aims to find your productive zone, or flow, by offering a few genres to choose from and by taking continuous feedback on how you performed based on what you were listening to. After 100 minutes, it shuts off briefly, reminding you take a break before coming back to focus.


Companies are starting to consider more seriously the role of music within their organization. Music can have a positive impact both at the individual level of employees, and as a collective unit throughout the company as a whole. Individually, music can directly impact the mood and state of happiness of employees. It can affect performance and help push individuals beyond their limits. Collectively, it can synchronize teams into a rhythm with their activities and output, unite employees and create a social bond that brings the organization closer together.



“All music is folk music. I never heard a horse sing a song.” ― Louis Armstrong


“Let me be clear about this: I don’t have a drug problem, I have a police problem.” ― Keith Richards


”To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.” ― Leonard Bernstein


“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.” ― John Cage


“Actually I don’t remember being born, it must have happened during one of my black outs.” ― Jim Morrison (The Doors)


“If I didn’t do this, I wouldn’t have anything to do. I can’t cook, and I’d be a terrible housewife.” ― Freddie Mercury (Queen)




Flying in the Face of Reality

Quote of the Week: “You know they invented wheelbarrows to teach FAA inspectors to walk on their hind legs.” — Marty Caidin

The Global Business Travel Association just concluded their annual convention in L.A. Two topics were high on the agenda: the surge in international business travel and the complex safety and security issues that have arisen as companies dispatch more employees to various locations around the globe.


This year’s GBTA convention, which drew over 6,700 travel managers, suppliers and others in the industry, followed a rocky series of events for travel. The trade group said that spending on business travel would rise about 7 percent this year, to roughly $1.18 trillion — $292.3 billion of that in the United States, up 3 percent. But as industry professionals energized themselves for five days of meetings, exhibitions and after-hours parties, there was a much sober discussion about travel safety and risk management.


GBTA Executive Director and COO Michael W. McCormick issued the following statement about the threat of terrorism in the skies: “The recent attack of the Malaysian airline exposed a significant safety concern on how information regarding potentially dangerous routes is applied. Corporations send business travelers to every part of the world. Duty of care and risk management is a vital component of today’s business travel. Companies and individual travelers have assumed airlines fly in safe skies, but now must start evaluating flight-path risk as part of their own duty of care responsibilities. Industry leaders need to step forward and work closely with government intelligence organizations in this dynamically changing environment. Traditional approaches to risk mitigation must be re-evaluated.”


It is obvious that flying over war zones should be avoided, whatever the cost in time and money may be. And why not incentivize peace by banning flights from landing in places where armed conflict is raging?   


“I’ve been at this 28 years — military, U.S. government, different response companies — and this is the greatest concentration of threat that I’ve ever seen, because of the frequency and severity of these incidents, but also because companies and institutions are global now,” said John M. Rose, chief operating officer of iJet, a travel risk management company.


Of course, one would expect such melodramatics from a travel risk management executive. Clearly, the last two weeks have been glum for the airline industry and the flying public in particular, with the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines flight followed by separate crashes in Taiwan and Mali. But this short term succession of calamities contradicts the broader reality that each decade of air travel has become safer than the previous one. As tragic as the recent crashes are, they represent barely a fraction of the 93,500 daily airline flights worldwide.


"Aviation safety is continuing to get better. A sudden spate of accidents doesn't mean that the industry has suddenly become less safe," says Paul Hayes, director of air safety for Ascend, a travel management software company.


Each day, 8.3 million people around the globe — the approximate population of New York City — board a flight. Virtually everyone lands safely. Last year, there were 3.1 billion flyers, twice the total in 1999. Yet, the chances of dying in a plane crash were considerably less. Since 2000, there were fewer than three fatalities per 10 million passengers, according to an Associated Press analysis of crash data provided by aviation consultancy Ascend. In the 1990s, there were nearly eight; during the 1980s there were 11; and the 1970s had 26 deaths per 10 million passengers.


Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest U.S. pilots' union, adds that strong oversight by governments and trade groups is needed to ensure proper training across the board. "If you don't have a safe operation, then you're not going to have customers," Moak says. “Countries must also invest in the right infrastructure. There needs to be proper radar coverage, runway landing lights and beacons and skilled airport fire and rescue teams,” asserts Todd Curtis, director of the Foundation.


Technological improvements are also helping to lower the accident rate. Cockpits now come with systems that automatically warn if a jet is too low, about to hit a mountain or collide with another plane. Others detect sudden wind gusts that could make a landing unsafe.


The next generation of technology promises to help prevent even more accidents. Honeywell Aerospace launched a new system 18 months ago that gives pilots better awareness about severe turbulence, hail and lightning. The company is also developing a system to improve pilots' vision in stormy weather: an infrared camera will let them see runways through thick clouds earlier than the naked eye would.


Worldwide travel is projected to double within the next 15 years, and new challenges will emerge. Sky traffic congestion will rise; the demand for skilled air traffic controllers, pilots and technicians will reach all-time highs. Boeing forecasts the need for another 500,000 pilots and 550,000 maintenance personnel by the year 2035. Still, we have seen with every spike in growth over five decades an overall improvement in safety.


The industry deserves kudos for their safety diligence. But new technology is expensive and in order to apply it they may determine to cut costs before the new tech is proven to provide an enhanced safety margin. Safety could be replaced by a need for cost efficiency. Some claim that safety margins in the past have been set too high and we can make do with lower standards as long as it saves money. And new tech may be doing exactly that. Will the temptation to cut costs compromise future safety precautions?



The Hiring Revolution

Reid Hoffman changed the way individuals networked and searched for jobs as co-founder of LinkedIn. Now the billionaire venture capitalist has plans for revolutionizing the way employees work.


In his new book “The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age” (co-authored with Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh), Hoffman outlines a new employee-employer contract -- one in which employees sign up for "tours of duty." He instituted such a radical policy at LinkedIn; new hires were given a 2-year or 4-year tour of duty and if managers were pleased with their contributions, employees were awarded with another tour of duty, which the company characterized as “career advancement”. "Functionally this is the way the world works already in many industries," says Hoffman in the video above.


Hoffman picked the two-to-four year time frame because "it syncs with a typical product development cycle, allowing an employee to see a major project through." Of course, contract work of this nature does not typically include benefits like stock options, sick days, paid vacation, holiday pay, etc. And does the more frequent adaptation contract workers must make to different company cultures affect productivity both ways? What bank would issue a loan or mortgage to someone who only has a contract for a 2 year tour of duty? Who would even want a mortgage if you only have a 2 year commitment?


He believes this new paradigm builds trust between employees and their bosses and keeps the employee engaged throughout the entire tour; employees direct their attention to discrete tasks and are assigned specific goals. The process allows honest conversations, Hoffman explains, and helps ease employees' concerns over layoffs and instability. How does making any sort of job longevity tenuous at best build trust? Yes, it eliminates the employee fear of layoffs, and replaces it with the likelihood of a layoff. Do most people really want to go job hunting every couple of years?


This is not a new paradigm. This practice simply reinforces what is already happening. It’s a way to avoid long term commitment to rewarding employees with pay per skill/experience level and benefits for any great length of time, so new people can be hired at entry-level wages. In the long run, when you have a growing abundance of people in between jobs their inclination to invest in homes and spend on consumer goods becomes muted; ultimately, it will come back to bite the companies that laid them off .


Employers committed to engaging, fairly compensating, and appreciating the best employees for the long run, are likely to get the most optimum returns in productivity and bottom line results.




“Once I had a guy show up for an interview in flip-flops and shorts, high as a kite. I asked him about a gap on his resume, and he said that during those two years he had been starring in a well-known television show. He had not been.”


“I once had a candidate show up for her interview directly from the pool. She still had on a wet bikini under a super short, strapless romper thing and flip flops. Her hair was still wet. The interview had been scheduled for over a week.”


“I once interviewed a job candidate who said she was interested in the position because she had ‘nothing better to do.’ No, thank you.”


“My friend was conducting an interview one time, and asked the candidate the dreaded, ‘What’s your worst quality?’ question. Answer: ‘I’m kind of unreliable.’”


“I work for a well-known nonprofit so it’s important to us that employees believe in our mission. One interviewee explicitly said she didn’t care about our mission, but she was willing to try to work on it.”


“I was conducting a phone interview and the guy’s tone changes to a slight echo for about 5 or 6 minutes. As he is talking, I hear the toilet flush in the background and 60 seconds later there is no echo.”


“I asked a candidate, ‘Tell me about the biggest challenge that has taken up your time unexpectedly in the last 3 months.’ Her answer: ‘Well, I’ve started breastfeeding, and that can be tough. Sometimes even painful.’








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