The man in the long gray coat

May 28, 2014 § 5 Comments

I felt the tap on my shoulder and I turned to see a tall, older man in a long gray coat pushing a piece of paper toward me, his finger pointing to the upside down words. He stayed silent as I took the paper and started reading, “I speak no English. . .”

The paper explained the situation, but not what he might want. There were three phone numbers listed so I held up my mobile phone and he nodded. I called the first and got voice mail. I looked at him and shrugged. The second call just rang so I hung up. The third met with success, though the street noise and the poor English at the other end of the line made for a rather comical exchange reminiscent of Abbot and Costello’s, “Who’s on first?” skit.

I handed him the phone and heard them talk in a language I did not recognize. Handing the phone back, I learned he wanted to go to the address on the paper. I walked him to the subway in silence, hoping to find help at the turnstile only to find it empty. We stood waiting as I hoped someone would come to provide him assistance.

Another passenger walked through the turnstile and, following his example, the man in the long gray coat pulled out a bus transfer and followed him, displaying the transfer to the vacant booth. He marched to the platform with me now following him. He knew which subway to take, so perhaps things were sorted out in the phone conversation. A stop later I left him smiling at me and wondered if he would make it.

In a recent meeting, it dawned on me how well I had come to know the organization. Not long ago, I was like the man in the long gray coat. I didn’t understand the language of the organization, how it was structured, who to talk to, or the “real” culture. The skills that got me hired were not the ones necessary to survive; no one asked me about patience, persistence or resilience in the interview.

The man in the long gray coat had someone who spoke his language, something we don’t always have when we join a new organization.

And a cool looking long gray coat never hurts either.

Stop Comparing me to Animals

March 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

“If you were an animal, what animal would you be?” said the interviewer.

I first heard this question in grade school. The teacher worked her way through the class and as various animals were selected by other students, I tried to think of one not chosen.

“A tiger,” I said.

“Ah,” said the teacher. “Powerful, brave, and king of the jungle. Is this why you chose a tiger?”

“Yes,” I said preferring her answer to my attraction to the orange stripes.

So, I’m surprised to find this question in an interview considering the myriad of ways any choice can be interpreted. Surely we can figure out how to interview without getting cute with our questions. I was once asked in an interview to name someone I admired. This free-wheeling interview took place in a bar where I and the other finalist took turns answering questions apparently written at the bottom of their whiskey glasses. I can’t imagine what they may infer from my choice of a public figure.

As my rival answered, I thought about the question and decided to use a fictitious individual. I told them of a friend’s dad. When asked why I chose this person, I answered with characteristics I admired in leadership. They never had a chance to make any interpretation other than the one I presented.

The animal question posed a similar but more difficult challenge. Making up animals might not be appropriate. Perhaps some dinosaur would work. No, they might wonder why I wanted to be extinct.

“A duck-billed platypus,” I said to questioned looks.

“An odd choice; why?” she said obviously wanting lions, tigers and bears. It is a rare person who knows anything about the behavior of a duck-billed platypus, myself included, so the door is wide open.

“Well,” I started, “let me tell you . . .”

Reminiscing – Chef School Part 2

March 24, 2014 § 2 Comments

Chef SchoolI blame it on my parents really. I can’t remember the occasion, but I insisted on making them breakfast in bed. My first solo cooking attempt at about the age of 10 revolved around toast, jam and tea. The empty sugar bowl didn’t deter me; I simply refilled it. Unfortunately, salt looks alarmingly like sugar and, from the look on my dad’s face, taste alarmingly different. Salty tea and a smoke-filled kitchen from burnt toast left a long delay until my next solo event, but didn’t curb my enthusiasm.

As I looked forward to my first class in chef school, I reminisced about my other cooking highlights. When I first moved out, the apartment I shared with a friend had an odd quirk – the kitchen sink would fill with soap suds from the apartment below whenever they turned on their dishwasher. Entertaining guests, I heard a strange gurgling noise and dashed to the kitchen just in time to save our draining spaghetti from the suds.

I don’t believe I have ever been that attentive since. I put a quiche in the oven then left to see a movie. The fire trucks outside our apartment building put an end to the easy walk down Yonge Street after enjoying the matinee. “There’s a quiche in the oven,” I said, picking up the pace. I found the quiche ruined, but I had not set fire to the apartment.

Not that I haven’t continued to try. My wife ran into the kitchen soaking wet from the shower asking why I was letting the pizza burn. Turning, I discovered smoke coming from the stove 10 feet away. “Did I mention my poor sense of smell?” I said. A few weeks later, my wife, soaking wet from the shower, came running to the front porch asking, well you get the picture. More burnt pizza. I couldn’t blame my poor sense of smell this time. I now used my iPhone to time everything and my wife won’t let me cook while she is in the shower.

So, for the first time I will cook with a gas stove. All things considered, I’m not sure the school should let me near an open flame.


Chef School – Part 1

March 14, 2014 § 2 Comments

Gary the Chef“Heather and Tam are going to chef school and inviting me to join them,” I said to my wife. “You should go,” she said, leaving me to wonder if my cooking needed improvement.

I thought on it for a while. I love to cook; beyond liking the food and the wine part I also enjoy the organizing, creating and entertaining aspects. But is chef school going to change the perspective of my dinner guests? While everyone seems to enjoy my food, is the same meal served by someone going to chef school now mediocre?

I’ve cooked all my adult life. My parents, from Dublin, Ireland fed us fish and chips on Fridays, liver and onions on Saturday and roast beef on Sundays without fail. I remember lots of canned beans on toast during the week. I grew to hate boiled cabbage, forced to eat it cold as I stubbornly sat at the kitchen table trying to out wait my equally stubborn father. To this day I still gag at the thought of eating cold boiled cabbage.

To my parents, cooking was a necessary chore. After a long day at work and my mother at her evening job, my father napped on the couch. We eventually worked up the nerve to wake him to quickly fry something for his now starving kids. For me it is a form of relaxation and escape; rarely is it a chore.

I’m not sure where my interest in cooking came from.  It may have started when I moved out after finishing university. My mother gave me a slow cooker as a housewarming gift. Either she knew I had a hidden desire for cooking or thought this might make an unpleasant task less so. Regardless, I believe this to be the beginning and, 35 years later still use that same slow cooker.

So, after 35 years of cooking for me, for others and for my family, someone suggested I seek professional help.

In the end I couldn’t resist the opportunity to play with “real” kitchen equipment with friends, so I signed up for the twelve week basics course and looked forward to getting my chef’s gear.



March 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

“Stand clear of the closing doors,” she said.

I looked around in the elevator to confirm I am in fact alone. “Stand clear of the closing doors,” she repeated, leaving me feeling I had failed to act appropriately to her first request.

The short trip to the third floor left me wondering what prompted this new voice. I had never feared the closing elevator doors before, often sticking my arm out to allow a rushing passenger to board. Perhaps the doors had been cranked up to a bone-crushing force in need of a new warning. I hadn’t heard of a rash of “door pinching” incidents, though the doors do close almost as soon as they open, eager to be on their way.

It is a woman’s voice. Almost insistant, as if she can see you and knows you are in danger. Urgent, but without panic. She is silent betweeen floors. Pity, as her silent passengers are a captive audience. The addition of some random questions might be fun:

“How’s your day so far?” she might say. Or, “The elevator on the far left is in a bad mood; I’d stay away if I were you.” At the very least, she could say goodbye or, “Have a nice day,” when the doors opened. “Get out at the next floor, I’m feeling faint.”

After a while I started talking back, embarrased on those occasions I am not as alone as I believed, which is more frequent than I’d like to admit.

But then, if I could just copy her voice, I could say just about anything I want . . .



I could understand the umbrella . . .

June 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

It should have been a relaxing Sunday morning.

With a long weekend looming and plans to escape the city, I found myself in need of some reading material NOT related to work. Time to get back into the world of fiction, a much saner place than reality. So Sunday morning I decided to hop on the bike and cycle to the Chapters at the Eaton’s Centre and pick up a few books.

It was a hot day with the temperature pushing 30 Celsius. Helmut on, water bottle filled, I headed along Gerrard Street. When you bike in the city, you learn to be observant – car doors, pedestrians, turning vehicles, the occasional racoon. On this day, it was a shopping cart, pushed out between two parked cars with just enough time to slam on the brakes.

“Sorry, didn’t see you,” he said, not bothering to stop but continue his dash across the street.  Continuing across the Don Valley, I spotted a man on the sidewalk beside me step onto the road. No need to stop or ring my bell, there was plenty of time for him to cross, but he just kept walking towards me, head slightly bowed, alone in his own world. Ringing my bell brought him back to my world with a start and a “sorry,” a word I would hear many times on this trip.

Toronto has lots of bikes and recently, lots of press about bike transportation. The city has finally approved an underground bike parking lot complete with showers, so you would think more people would be aware of their presence. But no, not really. On three more occasions pedestrians stepped on the road before looking, near enough that a second delay would have resulted in a collision.

The city recently opened some bike lanes and I decided to try one out. I was passed by two cyclists who used the road instead of the path. Then an electric bike passed me, approached a red light and turned right without even slowing down. We are all guilty.

I stopped at the red light and another cyclist stopped beside me. He was on a racing bike complete with colourful racing clothes. Even on a bike, despite the aerodynamic properties of your clothing, you cannot race along Queen Street. There are just too many lights. How do you get a workout?

“Go ahead, I’m not very fast,” I said as the light turned green.

“No, you go,” he replied. “I’m not that fast either.” Going ahead, it only took 100 feet or so for him to power past me, making me feel even slower. And that’s when I spotted him. Standing on the sidewalk, coffee in hand. I could understand the umbrella as a possible defence against the sun.

But not the earmuffs. I stared and then had to quickly brake for another red light and a crossing passenger.

“Sorry,” I said. Oops I thought.

The perfect tie

June 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

I knew it would be a weird day when he climbed aboard the streetcar. It wasn’t so much he was dressed head to toe in black, but the Darth Vader floor-length black overcoat complete with hood pulled up over his head and dark sunglasses that made him stand out. The Gerrard streetcar draws a mix of travellers, though one from a comic book or a time travelling wizard from the middle ages was a first for me.

I have to admit, part of me wished I could dress like that. I could picture myself arriving at work, walking past the cubicles.

“Who is that?” she asked her coworker.

“Oh, that’s the consultant,” he whispered. “They say he knows things. You know, like magic. Don’t look him in the eyes!”

But no, I’m dressed in brown pants and jacket with a paisley patterned shirt. A touch of wildness without the attitude. I once worked for someone who insisted we wear ties. He said it was the only way to tell who was in charge. I complied, but never agreed with his view. Leadership doesn’t come in red and blue stripes, and a noose around your neck is a bad metaphor for leadership.

So I am down to one suit and a handful of ties for those special occasions, interviews and first client meetings. There are time to look different; to stand out or to meet the assumed expectations of others. In another position, I continued to wear a suit and tie while everyone else dressed casual. It took me a while to realize I wasn’t being accepted as I insisted, through my wardrobe, on being different.

As I wait outside the door for a meeting, a coworker greets me. “Nice shirt,” she says.

Yes, but it’s not a floor-length, hooded black coat. Pity, as I have the perfect tie to go with it.


Look at my new shoes

June 4, 2013 § 2 Comments

The airport security ritual begins. I empty the contents of my pant’s pockets into the pockets of my jacket and then place my jacket into a bin. My watch is next. Then my belt. I look down at my shoes. I hate having to take them off and walk barefoot through security.

I raise my leg to show the security guard my shoe, “Are my shoes OK?”

“That depends on you,” she says. My foot hovered uncomfortably as I pondered her reply.

“What? No, do I have to take them off?” I asked.

She didn’t look up from what she was doing as she replied, “You can always try.”

I lowered my foot and proceeded, setting off an alarm. “That’s odd,” I said to the next security guard as I raised both arms up as if being crucified.

“It’s a random alarm so I need to swab you,” she said. I let my arms hang until she started swabbing not so random parts of my body and clothes, including my shoes. I started to wonder about the randomness of the alarm.

Having passed the swab test (and considering just taking the damn shoes off next time) I collected my things and, my belt upside down but securely in place, headed to the gate, thinking about the last time I showed off my shoes.

I was perhaps six or seven years old and in the back seat of my Dad’s car. We had made a rare excursion to Buffalo to do some shopping and my brother and I were sporting new running shoes – canvass sneakers. My Dad told us not to mention our new shoes as we crossed the border. Of course, neither my younger brother or I had a clue what the border was.

As we approached, my Dad answered the border guard’s questions. When he asked if there was anything to declare, I remembered not to mention the new shoes, so I leaned back and raised my feet so the border guard could see them, my brother following suit. Dad never said I couldn’t show them off; just not say anything. The guard waived us on with nothing more than a chuckle.

My Dad didn’t say anything to either of us, but we never went to Buffalo again.

As I find a seat at the gate, the memory reminds me to take things in stride. As much as I find others frustrating me, I’m sure I give as good as I get.

I lean forward and look at my feet, imagining new canvass sneakers and say to no one in particular, “Look at my new shoes!”


May 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

“The squirrels have been at the garden,” I said, a note of despair in my voice.

Looking up at the neighbor’s house I see a little black face sticking out through a hole in the front veranda. I swear it is smiling. My neighbor doesn’t live in the house. He lives in a house across the street and as best I can tell, uses this one for storage and an occasional opportunity to sing opera or, my theory, escape for a few moments of peace from his wife. I occasionally see her barking commands at him wielding a large stick.

Regardless, he has left the house for the squirrels. Perhaps not entirely to them. The squirrels, always full of energy and ingenuity, appear to have sublet to a family of raccoons. I appear to be living next to Animal Farm. Human’s rush to live in cities has created at least these two dependent species living off our refuse. Abandoning urban life would surely put both on the endangered species list. And yet we think them cute.

If Superman can wear reading glasses to hide his identity, I guess rats can grow bushy tails and be called cute squirrels. And raccoons look like cute bandits. Are we really that easy to fool? As I return indoors to the distraction of work, I think maybe we are. I’m reviewing resumes for a position available at work. While I won’t relate any to animals, there are more than enough bushy tails.

But then again, we like things cute. Or at least dressed up. The facts alone are rather dreary; give me a story. As I read through the resumes, I am drawn towards the bushy tails and the raccoon eyes. I’m reading about Superman hoping Clark Kent doesn’t show up.

So to be safe, I’m going to bring an old raccoon tail with me and, if needed, I can ask them to hold it while we conduct the balance of the interview so they can look a little more like their resume.

Laughing at work?

May 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

It was the “beep beep” that sent me back to my youth. Standing at the corner of Yonge and York Mills in Toronto, a driver displayed his impatience with the reflexes of the one in front when the light changed to green.

“Beep beep” – the Roadrunner cartoons, part of the Bugs Bunny show. Every Saturday morning I woke early and headed to the TV and sat on the couch for hours watching every cartoon show. On occasion I was too early and would sit and watch the farm report or a fishing show patiently waiting for the cartoons to start.

The Bugs Bunny show was the best, and I remember my father liked the Roadrunner cartoons. Whenever one came on I would call, “Dad, dad – it’s the Roadrunner. Come see.” And then we shared a moment or two laughing that are some of my strongest memories.

I crossed the street heading towards the parking lot where I had left my car. I’m still watching cartoons, I thought. I watched the Simpson’s with my kids and I thought of a couple of other things I did as a kid that I’m still doing today.

I loved comic books. Spiderman, Daredevil, the Avengers and Batman. While I don’t read the comics anymore, I never miss the movies – the “acceptable” adult way to read comic books. The new Ironman is out this weekend and is high on my list.

And then there are games. While as a child board games were all we had (and those wonderfully creative ones we would play outside with nothing but our imagination) the onset of computers ushered in a whole world of games that as adults, didn’t seem childish. I loved playing Diablo, creating a “role” and then acting it out.

So, I’m still doing all the things that, as a child, brought me joy and taught me so much about being creative, making friends, working in teams (hockey!!!), trusting one another, being let down, resolving conflict, organizing and saying goodbye.

All things we do at work with, I fear, considerable less fun. As a part-time teacher at college I’ve rediscovered all these things as I try to engage the students in learning and taking control over their future. Fun, learning and productive work don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

As I start the car for my trip through traffic, I reflect on the leadership team I am facilitating on building a change story. I think I will start by reading them a child’s story. We can discuss the simple message, the power of stories and re-connecting to that child that never disappeared but has been cleverly hidden under layers of process, management by objectives and performance management.

If you can’t have fun at work, work at having fun. It could be powerful.