Michael Willard, writer, painter, columnist, entrepreneur
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The Silverback Diaries: The Manager As Hero

By J. Michael Willard

I dedicate this book to all the people who have ever worked for me or with me.
I do not include here my days honchoing a recreational parks crew at a U.S. Air Force base at age 18, for that was a really lazy and motley crew; and, in retrospect, I didn't much like them.
The dedication does include the folks at Thompson's Donuts, the Piggly Wiggly, the Food Fair, James E. Straits Circus Carnival; Upper Heyford AFB bowling alley, the Mobile Register, University of Florida Informational Services, the Orlando Sentinel, the Tampa Times, United Press International, the office of U.S. Senator Robert Byrd, John D. Rockefeller for U.S. Senate Campaign, the various reincarnations of Willard & Associates in West Virginia; Burson-Marsteller in Washington, D.C. (and around the world) and The Willard Group companies in Kyiv and Donetsk, Ukraine; Moscow, Russia and Istanbul, Turkey. You were and are truly amazing.

Without you, there would be no Silverback Diaries.
J. Michael Willard, March 2008

Chapter One

An Introduction: Let's Get Something Straight

This book has very little to do with furry animals, much less gorillas and the specific Silverback gorilla displayed on the cover. It is a visual and literary device, a clich? dressed up to go out on the town.

This book will not make you rich. The couple of dollars, pounds or euros you paid for it will lighten your pocket by that amount. Don't be a sucker and think I am going to set out a plan for your life. Your life is in your hands. I don't need the responsibility. I already have five children, two ex-wives, a lovely and terrific wife and more than casual alimony payments.

In fact, I confess that the title of this book was not my first choice. My first choice was The Gorilla Manager: A Reality Check. However, I was embarrassed into changing it when I came across an old article in The Economist magazine deriding business books with animal names, and names that numerically guide one to success, such as the Five Ways of Becoming Obscenely Wealthy. This particular article was titled: How 51 Gorillas Can Make You Seriously Rich, or, subtitled in the follow up sentence, "Why so many business books are so awful." It was inspiring. Moreover, yes, most business books are awful, particularly if written by famous CEOs who have teams of wordsmiths grinding out clich? after clich?. That's why I realize it is a great leap of faith for you to read this one by the CEO of a small American company headquartered in the heart of Eastern Europe. Thank you.

I actually have no great desire to be filthy rich. Being moderately rich is more a daydream than an ambition, something one does when he is tying his shoelaces and contemplating bellybutton lint caught in a seriously super-sized tummy. I smugly go by the words of a noted economist, the late John Kenneth Galbraith, who said, "Nothing so gives the illusion of intelligence as personal association with large sums of money." I don't have serious money, so I have few pretensions or illusions.

Therefore, I changed the title - several times, and when nothing inspired me, I went for a while for the adjective Quirky, which I find to be slightly more fitting than Oddball. However, since I already had gorillas on the brain, I quickly moved on, holding to the idea of an animal menagerie until the book went to press; and finally, at the very last minute, brought back that great silverback. For good measure I tacked on "The Manager as Hero." It seemed, in the final moments before the book went to press, to be the one consistent theme throughout. One might raise some question as to whether these are actually diaries, as in the sense of something one contributes to almost daily, like brushing one's teeth or shaving. Here I am going to fudge a little. These are, indeed, thoughts I have written down over the years, and embellished somewhat as I began that forced march which others generally call writing a book. The topics were inspired more by experience than some cosmic realization that slapped me, as we Southerners say, up against the side of the head. In other words, these are my genuine, down-to-earth beliefs and not something channeled through spirits or imaginary alter egos.

To put it even more mundanely, the book is about managing professional people, which we - that's an imperial we -believe to be a dying art and a stone-dead science. Professional managers are the chimney sweeps of the 21st Century. The late, great Rodney Dangerfield joked about never getting respect, as if he owned the category. He was pre-fat Elvis compared to managers of businesses and business teams. In that regard, this little tome represents the cavalry come to rescue wagons circled by yelping Injuns. As a discipline and a field, we need help. I doubt the answers would be found by chasing an MBA or by communing vicariously with the Jack Welch-types of this world. This isn't about a kinetic experience. It is about fundamentals.

Let's face it; the notable collapses of such business empires as Enron, Vivendi, WorldCom and a host of others did us managers a service. People are asking, who's in charge? Where are the grown-ups? (The late Kenneth Lay of Enron certainly dressed like a grownup, even when in shackles.) We, of course, do not attempt to tackle the complexities of rogue companies. We do believe there is a starting point, and that it has to do with comity and good manners. I know what you're thinking, "Jeez, is that his main point?" Well, sort of, but it probably has ramifications you have not considered.

Because managers are devalued in today's world - becoming as rare as a silverback gorilla in the wilds of the Congo (there, he IS still with us)--we believe a certain balance must be restored. Let's face it. The hostile atmosphere in today's business world can be the equivalent to that of a frat house after a Friday night bash. It smells of stale beer and dirty knickers are hanging from the windowsill.

Thus, the purpose of the book is rather modest, merely to return a modicum of gentility to the market place, to rearrange the wicker furniture upset by dozens of "Guerilla Marketing" (PR, management, advertising) tomes that adorn the business bookshelves. I also hope to show rather than instruct professional leaders how to be better managers. My very first title was something like "A Curmudgeon's Guide to Comity", but a quick survey showed that 10 per cent of a test group of readers scurried to the computer dictionary on the word "curmudgeon", and a full 40 per cent on "comity", apparently confusing it with comedy.

Everybody knows what a gorilla is. Well, imagine the big papa silverback.

This book has nothing to do with the mortal combat of every day business battle, which we wholeheartedly endorse. It has everything to do with doing it with more finesse, more professionalism. To this end, we have outlined some areas in drastic need of reconstruction, a totally makeover if you will. Some of you might find certain thoughts slightly petty. I certainly do, but we are talking of that journey of a thousand miles, beginning with that first big, fat silverback print.

For example, we really believe that an errant and angry e-mail will be the cause of World War III. We are convinced that people who talk loudly into cell phones in public places are merely trying to impress bubblegum girls named Charity Dawn. We are committed to abolishing the billable hour, because we think it is more applicable to cotton gin workers and ladies of the evening. It has little relevance for business professionals, whether lawyer, PR guy or management consultant.

There is such a thing as "casual Fridays". We are genuinely puzzled by the concept and wonder aloud what moment of insanity institutionalized this nonsense. In the business place, we have an aversion to Che Guevara sweatshirts and Britney Spears belly buttons, which does not make us prudes, merely grownups. This, of course, calls into the question the whole need for a Human Resources Department, which seems to have overtaken the legal department as the single greatest obstacle to unfettered commerce.

Moreover, let us face it; we are awash in language fraud. At the "end of the day", we believe "the bottom line" is that everyone wants "a level playing field". Hogwash. In business, there is no end of the day, the bottom line is that which is to your own advantage and a level playing field clearly is meant to tilt to your home ground. Let's get real. Your daddy use to tell you that anyone who begins a sentence with the word "frankly" would therefore follow it with a lie. In business, that is only half the story.

These are a few of the windmills at which we charge, a serious assault for sure. Moreover, given current realities, we realize we will probably have the impact of a NERF ball. However, like Don Quixote, we charge on. As noted, these thoughts are not hastily put together or haphazard ruminations, but a semi-scientific study of long and intense observation. None, however, represented a mountain top epiphany; and, perhaps, many readers would suggest no serious intent other than to rattle a few cages here and there. So be it.

However, we do believe lateness has become epidemic. We wonder aloud at the millions of man-hours lost by endemic tardiness, not because employees are late, but because we business people rarely show up on time to meet with one another. Some price should have to be paid for wasting our most precious resource, time. We suggest, at a minimum, water-board torture.

While management fads generate business and dollars short term, most have the half-life of a fruit fly and the consistency of cotton candy. We will expound the belief that the whole jumble of alphabet management and business tools are, for the most part, that long-forgotten little exercise that most of us know as common sense. It is what we all do on our best days, without really thinking about it that much. As a marketing tool, they are probably marginally effective for people who otherwise would be spending their time listening to self-help tapes and the ever-present windup motivational speaker.

We stay away, as best we can, from extremely deep business philosophies that tend to get bogged down in psychobabble. Someone once said-maybe it was Lou Gerstner or maybe it was Elvis: "There are no mysteries. Business is about ideas, execution and keeping focused." If we veer over the line from fact to fantasy, tear out those pages and use them as tinder to stoke up the fireplace.

However, we do discuss the art of communication within an organization, the "leadership" of people as opposed to the "management" of people and the crying need for reality-based thinking as opposed to "perception management thinking". We firmly believe that businesses succeed on the strength of good management (leadership), and that from only this resource can proper company culture be formed. We're talking avoiding the mud puddles of Enron, Parmalat, WorldCom and Vivendi. Add to those, if you will, the missteps of the fallen heroine, Martha Stewart who in the fall of 2004 entered federal prison in my home state of West Virginia, and was released in March 2005. We would like to tell you how in that short span she became a half billion dollars richer and had her stock triple, but we are a little mystified ourselves.

Lest one thinks we venture up dark alleys without the slightest flicker of hope. Lest one feels we have merely thrown tacks in the super highway of commerce, we will offer you - and of course, this is hyperbole -the World's Greatest and Shortest Employee Manual, and The World's 15 Best Management Tips. Both will crank up your cerebellum and make you a better leader. I guarantee it.

Finally, we, as you, believe the world we accidentally landed on is moving at warp speed, and needs to slow down a little. Thus, we offer emotional and relaxing safety valves that constitute neither illegal drugs nor that much energy. We believe one can put in a 50 or 60-hour week, and make it seem as if you breezed through one of those very French or German 35 hour spans.

At the end of some chapters, because my editor asked me to eventually cut to the chase, we summarize the do's, the don'ts, the serial reasons that can make business more civilized, while at the same time expediting the process of making a profit. Some are universal truths and some are Willard-isms based on leading people and businesses since I was 18-years-old.

While I would like to think everything within these pages is applicable to every employee, it is not. However, it should be applicable to every "professional" employee. Hence, such ideas as thinking not in traditional work hours but work within a 24-hour time span should go down a little easier for the conservative that expects 9 to 6 from every employee.

Perhaps out of self-preservation, having passed the age where my vertical jump is in inches and strange sprigs of hair sprout from unusual places on a nearly barren head, the book makes a spirited defense for those of us who some call seniors but I call merely mellow. In other words, I'm referring to those of us on the outer limits of the baby boom demographic, i.e., over 60. Yes, I say, there is a place for us of the yellow leaf generation other than as greeters at Wal-Mart. Commercial plug here: I wrote a rather interesting book on the topic called the Portfolio Bubble: Surviving Professionally at 60 in 2004.

I don't expect everyone to take this book as gospel. After all, it is about a Silverback gorilla and, in many a way, he is a rather quirky fellow. Many of you, however, will have seen the inside of Harvard Business School while I barely got through a state university. I have made it through business life, however, and these are a few of the lessons I have learned, and observations I wish to impart. Hang on.

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