A funny thing happened after I posted “Looking for the One That’s Looking For Me.”

They found me.

I’ve accepted a position with a philanthropic foundation. The learning curve is steep, so I’m putting most of my blogs, including this one, on hiatus for a while. Wish me luck!

Thanks, Z

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Looking for the One That is Looking for Me

I have not looked for a job since 1986, when I applied at Kinko’s Service Corporation. Since then, all of my employers and clients have found me.

For the last five years, I’ve been freelancing as a writer, photographer, and marketing consultant, but I miss the achievements and camaraderie one experiences in a team environment.  So now I am looking for a job.

A lot of people reentering the workforce worry that the world has changed and their skills and experience are irrelevant. For example, pay-per-click and search-engine-optimization strategies from five years ago are obsolete today. Big deal. Marketing strategies and tactics change constantly, whether one is in the trenches or not. Playing catch-up is the nature of the beast. I’m not worried about the pressure to learn and innovate, because that should always come from within anyway.

The biggest hurdle I’m facing has nothing to do with changes in marketing trends, but in how much I have changed over the course of my career.

I know a lot of divorced people, and my workplace re-entry challenge is analogous to the frustrations they face re-entering the dating world. In a nutshell, experience has taught us what we absolutely will not accept.

For example, I insist on working for a company that does something concrete, honorable and useful. That narrows my prospects dramatically.

Moreover, I’ve had the great privilege to work with outstanding leaders and managers over the past thirty years, so I’m pretty spoiled. That’s why I do not include cover letters with the resumes I submit online. My accomplishments and experience speak for themselves. Why would I want to work for someone that can be swayed by a couple of elegant paragraphs?

Hiring is the most important activity in any organization, and I want to be found by an employer willing to dig deep to discover the right person for the assignment at hand. The hiring manager that prefers a candidate because, “he wants it more” misunderstands the assignment for which he or she is hiring. Why would I want to work for an incompetent employer?

Am I missing opportunities because of this attitude? Certainly, but so are employers that treat the hiring process like speed dating.

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Why Has This Blog Gone Untended?

I presume you know the one about the cobbler’s barefoot children. I’ve been so busy maintaining other people’s content – and my photography blog –  that I let this one fall by the wayside. Sorry about that. Fresh content to come later this week. Really!

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Zappos, Kinko’s, and The Weak Link

Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness is crushing E Pluribus Kinko’s in Amazon’s sales rankings for a lot of reasons, but one of them is surely the fact that Hsieh’s company, Zappos, still exists. I stewed about ten years too long before writing my book. (Of course, it took ten years for grudges over the company’s cultural implosion to fade enough that people would talk to me)

Another reason: Zappos is a great company with a great culture and a thoughtful, articulate leader who puts his money where his mouth is. People like to read tales of the unusual.

Hsieh’s book discusses the role of customer and coworker happiness in business success, and the challenge of organizing around happiness.  Below is the heart of the Zappos culture, its “Family Core Values.” Former Kinkoids will find them very familiar.

Zappos Family Core Values

As we grow as a company, it has become more and more important to explicitly define the core values from which we develop our culture, our brand, and our business strategies. These are the ten core values that we live by:

  1. Deliver WOW Through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More With Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10.  Be Humble

I think Kinko’s, in its heyday, shared nine of these ten values. If Zappos can learn anything from our experience, it’s that “pride cometh before a fall.” I’m not sure if we lost our humility, or confused it with naivety, or just got crazy greedy as Wall Street hucksters filled our heads with visions of mid-1990s IPO multiples. But as soon as we ceased to see ourselves as struggling underdogs, the other values paled as the driving force in our day-to-day decisions. Good luck, Zappos. Stay hungry and stay humble!

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A Strong Brand Name is No Joke, Even When It Is

Does FedEx Office have an identity crisis?

Last night Jon Stewart referred to Kinko’s on The Daily Show, even though there’s been no such thing as Kinko’s for several years now.

Customer (and comedian) references to Kinko’s only reaffirm every Chief Marketing Officer’s secret conviction: customers just don’t understand marketing.

Sure, FedEx Office branches must now post window signs that say “Kinko’s Inside”, but as we all know from our insistence that government should run more like business, corporate decisions are never wrong, so elimination of the Kinko’s brand was in fact a touch of marketing genius.

Okay, that’s my quota of sarcasm for the day.

Brands are built – and destroyed – through customer experience. I’m sure FedEx responded to what it believed “Kinko’s” had come to represent by 2006. After all, it’s not the ubiquity of the brand name that matters – it’s what the name means to people.  I suspect that by 2006, Kinko’s represented a narrow range of products (copies) and indifferent customer service.

Yet, from 1970 until 1999, the Kinko’s brand represented an ever-growing range of products and services, creative and helpful coworkers, and round-the-clock availability.

In E Pluribus Kinko’s, I sympathize with FedEx’s plight, since I believe it was sold damaged goods by the investment firm that took control of Kinko’s in the late 1990s and systematically dismantled the culture. By the time FedEx bought it, the Kinko’s brand was in decline.

But I’m not sure why FedEx chose to change the name rather than rehabilitate the brand. It’s as if the leadership lost sight of what made their own brand great (outstanding customer service) and thought the brand name itself could mask the inadequacies of an ill-considered acquisition.

It’s not too late. FedEx could still rehabilitate the brand. The old Kinko’s culture, based on partnership, profit-sharing, and pot-stirring, cannot be precisely replicated in a public company, but there are always ways to kindle the fire in coworkers’ eyes, and there are always new technologies that can be rented to people otherwise unable to afford them. It just takes the resolve to do something great.

C’mon Fred Smith – be a revolutionary one more time! Admit the mistake, re-launch Kinko’s, and lead a once-great company to its destiny.

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How Brand Consistency Damages Brands

As a Kinko’s marketing executive, I faced a real quandary upon entering the Los Gatos branch.

The coworkers had taken it upon themselves to decorate the store for Fall. There were leaves and pumpkins and colorful maize all over the counters and shelves, in stark contrast to the official company colors of blue and grey.

Brand integrity was one of my responsibilities, and this store had violated some of the restrictive policies formulated at the company’s headquarters. Some of my peers would have made a show of stripping the decorations down and berating the store manager – a mistake I had made early in my career. This time, I chose to praise the coworkers and take pictures.

Corporate executives almost always misunderstand branding. They think that brands are composed of color schemes, logos, taglines, and positioning statements. They think that brands are created through focus groups, committees and consultants. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Brands are built through customer experience. It’s marketing departments that are built through focus groups, committees and consultants.

The coworkers that decorated the Los Gatos store were proud of their work, and like all human beings, they enjoyed having some control over their environment. The result wasn’t consistent with the company’s official branding guidelines, but it wasn’t damaging to the brand either. This is a distinction many marketing control freaks refuse to make. They worship at the altar of consistency.

In a business where customers and coworkers stand face-to-face every day, coworker engagement matters a lot more than a few deviations from the official color palette. Obviously, if the coworkers’ efforts had made the branch look messy, or interfered with operations or customer comfort, I would have stepped in to make changes – with the coworkers. But these decorations merely brought a bit of personality to an otherwise clinical environment.

Kinko’s founder Paul Orfalea says that when he started expanding the company, a store’s color was determined by whatever paint was on sale. As the company grew, attention to branding offered the benefits of increased recognition as well as economies of scale. If you’re buying enough paint, it’s always on sale.

He saw the value of branding standards, but Paul also recognized that our most important brand element was “the fire in the coworker’s eyes.” Therefore, we tried to strike a balance between corporate branding requirements and local freedom. Balance requires judgment. When you replace human judgment with strict policies and procedures, you turn your coworkers into dead-eyed zombies. This is ironic, because any Marketing Manager worth a dime knows that coworker indifference is the number one killer of customer loyalty.

The balancing act is no small feat. How does your organization protect brand integrity while encouraging individual creativity and innovation?

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Press Release: Business Essays by Kinko’s Founder Now Available for Kindle

Paul Orfalea’s Two Billion Dollars in Nickels – Reflections on the Entrepreneurial Life, is now available in Kindle format for instant download to electronic readers, cell phones, and computers.

Originally published as a paperback in 2008, the book features concise essays on some of the lessons Orfalea learned about ownership, judgment, and self-knowledge while building his company. Orfalea founded Kinko’s in 1970 with a small loan from his father, and grew the business into a $2 Billion industry leader before leaving the organization thirty years later.

According to contributor and publisher Dean Zatkowsky, “We tried to create the kind of book we like to read on airplanes – brief vignettes about business experiences, with end-of-chapter questions to stimulate our imagination.”

Excerpt from the foreword to the paperback edition, by Dean Zatkowsky

Sometime in the late 1980s, I took my father to the Huntington Beach, California, Kinko’s to get some passport photos. We got the photos, and while the store manager and I discussed some ads he wanted me to design, my dad stood back and watched the cash register for a while. Later, Dad told me there was never a long line, but the cash register was in constant use. “You guys are making big money, a nickel at a time.” Yup. By the time founder Paul Orfalea left Kinko’s in 2000, the company was doing almost $2 billion in sales. That’s a lot of nickels.

I’ve been working on writing projects with Paul since 1986, when I joined Kinko’s Service Corporation as an advertising copywriter. Coworker development was a big deal at Kinko’s, so along the way I read a lot of business books. And I mean a lot of business books.

I enjoyed books like Jim Collins’ Good to Great (Collins Business, 2001), which I consider the best business book ever, and shorter books like Ken Blanchard’s Gung Ho (William Morrow, 1997). I liked USC president Steven Sample’s The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2002), and I keep a large collection of Peter Drucker’s works as a reference library—there’s something useful on every page!

Over the last few years, however, I’ve enjoyed business books less. Or more accurately, I’ve enjoyed less of business books. Traditional publishers urge authors to produce ever-higher page counts because bigger books command higher retail prices, while economies of scale reduce per-piece production costs. Thick books are more profitable. That’s why so many recent business books contain twenty or thirty pages of interesting ideas supported by three hundred plus pages of ponderous and often redundant examples.

Paul and I can’t work that way. 

On my first day at Kinko’s, I was warned that Paul did not like to read, and I should never present him with anything longer than one page—and it better be in large type. I didn’t know he was dyslexic, but I thought, “Whatever, he’s the boss.”

That one-page limit turned out to be the best training an aspiring writer could hope for. My job was to distill the key messages to the simplest language possible—no matter how complex the subject. Any success I’ve achieved as a writer is a direct result of that challenge.

I’m not a lazy reader, and I don’t think you are either. But we are busy people, and we have our own priorities. My to-do list does not include studying twenty pages of intricate charts and graphs that illustrate a concept I understood after one good example. Maybe I’m just losing patience as I get older, but I’m drawn to slimmer business books these days because I expect people to just get to the point. And maybe it’s the Kinkoid toner in my blood, but wasted paper drives me crazy.

Thanks to the BookSurge print-on-demand publishing service, which I consider a descendant of Kinko’s mid-1980s Custom Publishing product, Paul and I don’t have to pad our books with extra pages just to pad our publisher’s pockets. We don’t have to waste paper, ink, and fossil fuels. Paul has always said that inventory is the dirtiest word in business for both cash flow and waste reasons. Thanks to print-on-demand, the book in your hands is truly your copy—it was made just for you. It’s a thin book, but we hope you’ll find a useful idea on each page. We’ve kept the price low so that even if you only find a useful idea on every fifth page, the book should still be a good value.

I’ve learned a lot from Paul Orfalea over the last twenty-two years, but here is the most important thing he has taught me: Entrepreneurship is not about owning a business; it’s about owning your life. His entrepreneurial philosophy melds business, personal finances, lifelong learning, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s a very uplifting and rewarding way of looking at the world.

Here, then, is a small collection of essays and questions for entrepreneurs and people who want to live more entrepreneurially. Portions of this book were published previously on Paul’s Web site (www.paulorfalea.com) or in our Tolosa Press (www.tolosapress.com) newspaper columns. A version of Paul’s introduction appeared in the International Dyslexia Association’s quarterly journal, Perspectives. You can read this thin volume quickly, but we hope you’ll be pondering its ideas and questions for a long time to come.

The Kindle version of Two Billion Dollars in Nickels is available as an instant download for $4.99. The paperback version is still available for $12.99.

Zatkowsky’s book about Kinko’s unusual democratic culture – E Pluribus Kinko’s: A Story of Business, Democracy, and Freaky Smart People – is available in both paperback and Kindle editions as well.

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The Value of Corporate Myth

As the Ojai Storytelling Festival approaches, here is a borrowed post from Kinko’s founder Paul Orfalea. Because of his dyslexia, Paul respects the oral tradition more than many executives, and never missed opportunities to swap stories with his coworkers.

The Value of Corporate Myth

Companies often rely on a handful of stories to define their culture. And those tales often grow like fishing stories. Kinko’s lore about the first shop, which was so small we had to wheel the copier onto the sidewalk to do business, provides a good example. Every time I overheard the story while traveling, the shop got a little smaller, and I expected to hear one day that I opened the first Kinko’s in a refrigerator box and had to produce my own electricity with a hand-cranked generator.

I’ve heard lots of stories about the company that bear little resemblance to the events I recall.  But if true stories evolved into myth over time, they did so to better communicate the culture’s core values. Like any other society, a company retells certain stories to indoctrinate new members in the values of the culture.

Kinko’s had creation myths, like the one mentioned above. We had hero myths, which included the story of store manager Frank Perez taking a very public stand against corporate mandates. We had sacred place myths, wherein executives bragged about their time spent in “the field.” And we had our flood myth, about recreating the business after a copyright lawsuit halted production of our primary product.

The creation myth expressed our belief in entrepreneurialism, the hero myth our support of free speech, the field stories our veneration of the frontline coworker, and the flood myth our adaptability and openness to new ideas.  The stories provided a common language for discussing these issues. Naturally, a company that promotes from within has an easier time holding onto its stories, but also risks becoming insular and arrogant. We need new stories, but it’s a delicate task to weave them into an existing culture.

Mergers and other business takeovers don’t always fail, but often fail to live up to their potential. New leaders have their own stories to share, or, lacking that, generic stories from popular business books. If the conjoined organizations’ stories do not express complementary values, the combined entity produces friction rather than synergy.

It’s one thing to buy a failing business and turn it around; in those cases one hopes to replace an inferior culture with a superior one. But when one buys a successful business, how do we avoid turning it around? Warren Buffett believes in a hands-off approach – he buys successful companies and stays out of their way.

At the very least, I think a successful merger or transfer of power requires a lot more anthropology and a lot less imperialism. We need to hear coworkers’ stories to understand their personal, often un-articulated values, because their values drive the application of their talents. And those individual talents drive the company.

Kinko’s founder and philanthropist Paul Orfalea is the author of Two Billion Dollars In Nickels: Reflections on the Entrepreneurial Life.

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Change the World by Changing the Workplace

Ironically, if you want to hit people where they live, you need to hit them where they work. For better or worse, work dominates much of our time and identity. I believe the first step to a more democratic world is a more democratic workplace.

While writing E Pluribus Kinko’s: A Story of Business, Democracy, and Freaky Smart People, I found Traci Fenton’s website. Her work reassured me that the democratic principles responsible for Kinko’s success were not a fluke. Recently, I met Traci, and instantly recognized her as a kindred spirit – one who believes that the most direct route to improving society is to improve the workplace.

As true believers in the democratic principle of self-governance, Traci and I had a spirited conversation about workplace freedom as the key to greater coworker engagement, creativity and initiative. Traci and her team have spent thirteen years analyzing organizational democracy, and I’d like to bear witness to the power of the “10 Principles of Organizational Democracy” they have identified.

1.  Purpose and Vision: A democratic organization is clear about why it exists (its purpose), and where it is headed and what it hopes to achieve (its vision). These act as its True North, offering guidance and discipline to the organization’s direction.

As I describe in E Pluribus Kinko’s, the company Philosophy served as a touchstone for our purpose and vision. Whenever we faced a tough decision, we could turn to the philosophy for guidance – literally, since it hung in every office and store.

2. Transparency: Say goodbye to the “secret society” mentality. Democratic organizations are transparent and open with employees about the financial health, strategy, and agenda of the organization.

Many insecure managers derive their power from mystery. By giving their coworkers the mushroom treatment (keep them in the dark and feed them S#!%), such managers become a barrier between the organization and its workers’ talents. But people cannot solve problems if they don’t know what’s going on. At Kinko’s, widespread profit sharing worked as an incentive because we shared and discussed P&L details with the coworkers. Coworkers practice frugality when they clearly see how every expense affects their personal income.

3. Dialogue + Listening: Instead of the top-down monologue or dysfunctional silence that characterizes most workplaces, democratic organizations are committed to having conversations that bring out new levels of meaning and connection.

Along with the Philosophy and Partnership Ethos, I highlight Pot-Stirring as a key success factor for Kinko’s. Founder Paul Orfalea loved to stay out in the field talking with coworkers, and his partners and their teams followed his example. One-on-one or in groups, we discussed and debated everything from domestic partner benefits to holiday hours to whether we should open stores in China. We didn’t always agree, and individuals didn’t always get their way, but everyone had a voice in the organization. As a result, people got in the habit of speaking up and offering ideas.

4. Fairness + Dignity: Democratic organizations are committed to fairness and dignity, not treating some people like “somebodies” and other people like “nobodies.”

Many organizations struggle here because the leaders do not fully understand every coworker’s contribution, while coworkers often confuse “fair” with “equal.” The key to fairness and dignity is rigorous hiring and development, based on a clear understanding of how each person adds value to the organization. If you would like to read a great book about leaders who understood fairness and dignity, get The HP Way, by David Packard.

5. Accountability: Democratic organizations point fingers, not in a blaming way but in a liberating way. They are crystal clear about who is accountable to whom and for what.

You cannot learn from mistakes if you cannot admit having made any. And you cannot innovate unless you are willing to make mistakes along the way. Thus, accountability works with a partner: forgiveness. Both depend on unambiguous language. Clear delineation of goals, strategies and tactics helps every coworker understand his or her responsibilities. We must also distinguish error from misbehavior, and remember that what we tolerate, we encourage. To hold people accountable is to aid their own development and to advance the organization’s goals and culture.

6.  Individual + Collective: In democratic organizations, the individual is just as important as the whole, meaning employees are valued for their individual contribution as well as for what they do to help achieve the collective goals of the organization.

One of the great paradoxes of the Kinko’s Philosophy was expressed in the line, “We value creativity, productivity and loyalty, and we encourage independent thinking and teamwork.” Such a commitment requires strong leaders, capable of walking the tightrope between the apparently conflicting ideas of creativity and productivity. There is no formula – just the constant refinement of judgment.

7.  Choice: Democratic organizations thrive on giving employees meaningful choices.

Democracy is self-governance. Kinko’s founder Paul Orfalea explained that as the company’s majority owner, he could have mandated anything. But once you do that, he said, “you demoralize your coworkers and then you have to dictate everything.” Instead, we tried to offer alternatives and let the people decide.

8.  Integrity: Integrity is the name of the game, and democratic companies have a lot of it. They understand that freedom takes discipline and also doing what is morally and ethically right.

Legendary investor and presidential advisor Bernard Baruch said that our only real freedom is the freedom to discipline ourselves. Integrating one’s public and private life requires the discipline to live every moment in accordance with our values. I believe this is the linchpin for improving society by improving the workplace, because the workplace now fulfills a role abandoned by our schools: it teaches citizenship, for better or worse.

9.  Decentralization: Democratic organizations make sure power is appropriately shared and distributed among people throughout the organization.

Study after study confirms what we experienced at Kinko’s in the 1980s and early 1990s: the best customer service happens when decision-making authority rests at the point of action. Ego is the enemy. Trust unleashes the talent of our coworkers.

10. Reflection + Evaluation: Democratic organizations are committed to continuous feedback and development and are willing to learn from the past and apply lessons to improve the future.

Reflection and evaluation require that we value candor. At Kinko’s, we worked very hard to collect feedback from our customers and coworkers on a daily basis. Executives spent 50% or more of our time in stores. We called hundreds of customers every week to interview them about their in-store experience. We collected thousands of comment cards every month, and we read every single one.

Traci Fenton and WorldBlu have done a great job identifying and codifying the principles, traits, and challenges of democratic organizations. My own experience of workplaces – democratic, monarchical, or tyrannical – assure me of the truth of Fenton’s findings. If we believe in self-governance, if we believe in bringing democracy to the world, we must first bring democracy to the workplace. To learn how, visit www.worldblu.com.

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Muggles In The Workplace

Even though I cannot get Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert to look at my book, much less invite me to appear on their shows, I do spend a fair amount of time talking to them while on long drives.

During one of my Walter Mitty episodes on the 405 freeway, I was explaining to Jon Stewart that democracy does not turn companies into Utopias; rather, it increases coworker engagement, creativity and initiative, making workplaces more innovative and productive, but also more contentious.

I attempted to explain that a company’s workers, like any sizable population, create a bell curve pattern with a small number of heroes at one end, a small number of assholes at the other, and a large number of…. Hmmm. I found myself at a loss for the right word to describe the vast majority of coworkers who, although competent and diligent, lack the comfort with conflict so visible in great leaders and great assholes. And it’s important to acknowledge that the workplace is rife with assholes – a democratic company culture does not eliminate them, although it does much to mitigate their dark powers.

Suddenly, the word popped into my head: Muggles. Fans of Harry Potter know the term and its definition: “Non-magical folk.” What a perfect description for those who do most of the work, but do so through ordinary means and daily effort. The problem is, most company cultures do not respect muggles, referring to them as “worker bees” or “staff” or, ugh, “employees.” CEOs and VPs may get the magazine interviews, but executive assistants, product managers, data entry people, frontline cashiers and a host of others run the company.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the HR executive that tried to talk to Kinko’s Northwest managers about working with muggles, only to learn that the managers refused to accept the idea that non-magical folk belonged in the company.

In retrospect, I realize that the managers’ belief was merely an illusion. It’s not that the average Kinko’s coworker was inherently more talented and ambitious than coworkers elsewhere. The trick was that Kinko’s democratic culture allowed coworkers to be themselves, and the resulting engagement, creativity and initiative simply looked like magic.

Of course, if I ever do an interview on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, they’ll probably just want to know if it’s true that executives traveling together used to chug Big Gulps and bet on who could go the longest without peeing. Well, at least that would mean they read part of the book.

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