Featured post

Oregon is home

This site serves as my personal blog and online resume. If you are looking for my company, Portland HR Solutions, you can connect by clicking this link. The background photo on this site was taken at our family’s farm outside of Dallas, Oregon.

View Ryan Fleming's profile on LinkedIn

Work Life balance for an INTJ, and the Haven of the Secondhand Bookstore

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
Jorge Luis Borges



We introverts owe a fair share of gratitude to Susan Cain for her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Certainly there were people researching and writing about the introvert-extrovert spectrum before she published her book in 2012. But Cain’s hard work and accessible prose brought together a comprehensive and clear collection of available research, experience, and analysis that benefited people all over the globe. If you haven’t read it, you should, no matter where you consider yourself on the spectrum. It will change the way you see yourself and the world: as a parent, partner, spouse, coworker, manager, and human resources professional.

One major takeaway from her book is that extroverts generally gain energy from being in larger social situations, while introverts generally expend energy in those same situations. Introverts need downtime to recharge, often by being on their own or with a smaller group of close friends.

That’s been my experience as an INTJ (in Myers-Briggs parlance). When I’m not with my close friends, one of the next-best recharging stations is a secondhand bookstore.

Unfortunately, standing in Powell’s City of Books last week, it was no longer giving me the charge I needed. It’s not that I don’t love Powell’s. I find what I’m looking for almost every time I’m there. I definitely find things I had no idea I was looking for every time I’m there. But Powell’s has become a very busy place, the Times Square of Portland. Around the holidays, it’s wonderful crazy without the ice-skating.

In the late 80’s, I would spend an entire afternoon there. The aisles were just slightly wider than a person, and you had most of them to yourself. The old, wooden shelves angled away slightly as they rose toward the ceiling and sealed you into a dark, quiet valley. During the winter, buckets hung from the ceiling here and there to catch a leak before it hit the floor or shelves. There was a steady, slow, and comforting sound. Drip. Silence. Drip.

The shelves were stocked with plenty of well-turned old hardbacks and yellowed paperbacks. I would pick one carefully off the shelf in the literature room, and slide down to the floor to sit with my back against the books.

Studying the condition of each book was as much an adventure as sampling the contents. The dark patina on hardbacks where the cover had been held for hours, as it was read over and over again, told about the quality of the writing or love of the subject. A handwritten name declaring ownership suggested a personal connection to the work, or sometimes it was a brief inscription when the book was given as a gift, often saying, “I hope you enjoy as much as I did.”

What I loved most about turning those old books over in my hands was seeing the darkened edges of the pages, where fingers had held the corners and turned them over and over. And I would sit and wonder about all the people who had held that book and enjoyed it. On rare occasions an old envelope or a handwritten note once used as a bookmark would appear.

As I sat there, rarely would anyone interrupt me. Often people would walk around in the next aisle if they needed to go by. Powell’s is nothing like it was, which is fine, but I do miss those quieter days.

Quiet in the Purple Room

Quiet in the Purple Room

But standing last week in the Purple Room as people buzzed back and forth between the shelves and me, I saw Susan Cain’s book facing out on the end display, and remembered her insights on recharging. Then I realized it was time to head to Wallace Books in Sellwood.

Wallace Books, Sellwood District, Portland

 “I am very happy in second-hand bookshops;
would a gardener not be happy in a garden?”
Hilary Mantel

Bending beyond the limits of physics

Bending beyond the limits of physics

Wallace Books is an old bungalow style home on SE Milwaukie with every room, including the garage, absolutely stuffed with books. From the moment you enter the living room, there is an enveloping quiet and calm. A desk and computer-register sits in front of the fireplace on the right. Teetering stacks of books sit on the desk and newer used books are displayed on the tables, on the window sills, and in the built-in buffet. Boxes of books on the floor await inventory, pricing, and a place to sit on a shelf.

As you walk through the house, old books are stacked on shelves in every which way: books in front of books, on top of books, bending shelves beyond what appears to be the limits of physics. But they are organized exceptionally well into sections. If you ask Julie about a particular title or topic, she takes you right to it.

Old books are stacked every which way

Old books are stacked every which way

The air smells lightly of paper, glue, and fireplace soot. Sometimes in the winter the furnace doesn’t work and you can see your breath, so I bring my heavy winter coat so I can stay as long as I can hold out until my fingers go cold. In the summer the rooms are usually cool and slightly damp. There is one coveted armchair in the hallway towards the back that is often empty and waiting for a soul to sit and read, just outside the former bedroom that holds the science fiction and mystery sections.

There are many wonderful secondhand bookstores in the world, but Wallace is one of my favorites. It reminds me of the bookstores I would visit when I traveled for work to Washington, Idaho, and Montana in puddle jumpers and was away from home for full weeks in small towns.

On those trips it was common to work a long day, then go out to dinner with business associates, go to bed late, and then get up and do it again. After a few days of that routine I would run out energy, and duck out of evening plans and set out looking for bookstores. Many of them were small secondhand bookshops like Wallace.

I searched the shelves for interesting new titles, and what would inevitably happen is that I would notice the books I already had at home. Seeing them on the shelves were like voices from home: I read that one in the living room in front of the fire, this one over Christmas break, I read that one in High School, and that one Mom recommended.

I began to remember the conversations I had with friends and family about those books, and the characters and stories floated up through the distance to my consciousness, and suddenly I was back at home in my own living room library, and I felt connected. And so it became a centering ritual, to be closer to home as much as to recharge.

Going into a good bookstore is not just walking among the shelves of words. It’s being in the presence of the thousands of souls who have written those words, and with those who have come to those collections for advice, comfort, knowledge, and inspiration.

Tacoma Book Center, Tacoma, Washington

 “One of the great diseases of this age is the multitude of books that doth so overcharge the world that it is not able to digest the abundance of idle matter that is every day hatched and brought into the world.”
Barnaby Rich, circa 1600

 Another great secondhand bookstore is Tacoma Book Center, in Tacoma, Washington. 

Used books are all they do

Used books are all they do

They have a huge space and incredible selection of secondhand books, far greater than our own beloved Powell’s because used books are all they do. They have the warehouse you can walk through, and another that they use for storage and running their online business.

A couple of years ago I was searching for out-of-print books by Howard Pease, a young adult fiction author my dad read in his youth, and they were the only bookstore in the United States that had a selection of any reasonable size. I picked up many, beautiful hardbacks in amazing condition.

Location, as it turns out, is not everything. The store and warehouse are right down near the Tacoma Dome, in a district that looks as if it were abandoned the same decade as the buggy whip. But it is well worth the drive; the employees are absolutely fabulous and knowledgable beyond measure.

Book Buyers, Mountain View, California

In the new age, we get instant on-line ratings and reviews from thousands of complete strangers, and it is a great way to get suggestions on books to read. I use the system constantly. It’s technological magic that enhances everything we do, every purchase we make, every bit of research we want to complete.

However, I do miss the magic of the old way: getting recommendations from a friend, browsing the new releases table in a small bookstore, or having a great publishing house with editors that produced a steady stream of incredible new titles (like Penguin) or wonderful classics (like The Modern Library). Mostly, I miss the number of old titles that were available, which is why I stay on the lookout for places that have still have the old magic.

Here’s one that does: Book Buyers on Castro Street in Mountain View, California. I grew up in the area, so I travel back frequently to spend time with family and friends.

Book Buyers has a wide selection of out-of-print books, and a formidable inventory of titles at their main warehouse where they run the online side of the business. I’ve found a great selection of used hardcover editions of The Modern Library Classics at the Mountain View store.

They don’t try to market the new titles that keep pouring out each week. They leave that to another independent bookstore right next door on Castro Street (believe it or not), Books Inc., which is also fabulous in its own right (with a café in the loft above).

Back to the magic of Book Buyers: A few weeks ago, I was looking for several titles that fell under the philosophy genre. A helpful employee saw me struggling in the wrong section near the front of the store, and directed me to a room near the back that I hadn’t seen before. She pointed out the proper shelves and left me to search. The bookshelves went from floor to ceiling and were full and neatly stocked.


Book Buyers: floor to ceiling and neatly stocked

I found the titles I was looking for fairly quickly, and kept scanning for others that might be interesting. I then began to hear a soft wheezing. I looked around the room. All four walls were completely filled with books, and there was no one. Then I realized the wheezing was my own breathing.

In small rooms filled with books, there are effectively no acoustics. Books absorb sound, almost as if they are demanding quiet and deep thought. Perhaps that’s why libraries became such quiet-mandated spaces. It was a great moment of bookstore magic for me, just to sit and listen to absolutely nothing but the sound of my own breathing and read. Used bookstores are wonderful, strange places. If magic remains anywhere, it is within those walls of words.

[A sad update: as of late 2016, Book Buyers is no more. My understanding is that the increasing rent on Castro in downtown Mtn. View helped with their demise.]

There are many more I could recommend, but I’ve got jump back into some other work. If you find some to recommend, please let me know!

 “Books may well be the only true magic.”
Alice Hoffman

Refrigerator Wisdom

Found my wife’s calligraphic handwriting on a note placed just below the picture of my nieces playing in the park:

“There’s plenty of money out there. They print more every day. But this ticket— There are only five of them in the whole world, and that’s all there’s ever going to be. Only a dummy would give this up for something as common as money. Are you a dummy?” ~Grandpa George, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

I think she likes me working from home and doing all this writing. And laundry. Working on the cooking skills…

A great read: Economics and the Art of Controversy

Economics and the Art of Controversy by John Kenneth Galbraith, published by Vintage Books, 1959 (105 pgs)

“There is no reason for democracy to partake of the nature of a barroom brawl. However, the purpose of this essay is not to suggest an improvement in public manners or in the comportment of our debate on public issues. Such suggestions have been made before without notable effect. Rather its purpose is to look beyond the sound and fury of contemporary political argument in one important field of affairs—that having to do with economic policy—and to see how grave are the questions being debated. It is always possible that a cool and tolerably unemotional examination of issues will serve as an antidote to the more commonplace exaggeration and overstatement.”

With that introduction, economist, Harvard professor, and public figure John Kenneth Galbraith launched his observations, assessments, and insights in his 1959 book Economics and the Art of Controversy. Galbraith compiled the book from a series of lectures he delivered at the College of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington in 1954. While he insists that his goal is not to improve the nature of political discourse, he ends his book with a brilliant (and cutting) discussion on the nature of political argument and the politicians who render it.

In fact, many of his observations on labor, trade, the “Welfare State”, and overall economic policy shine even brighter today than when he delivered them 60 years ago.

Galbraith developed his lectures at the perfect midpoint of the twentieth century. The Great Depression was a mere 25 years past, the Second World War had ended less than a decade before, and the United States had just exited the Korean War in 1953. He provides an excellent history of the first half of the 1900s as he brings us to his modern era. Once there, he also suggests that new things are afoot for America.

“The argument of these pages, rather, is that the present topics of economic controversy have seen their best days … My case is only that the substance back of most of our current economic arguments is, indeed, rather slight. On some subjects it has become hard to think of anything new to say. As a widely regarded philosopher of our economic system remarked not long ago, ‘our present need is for some new platitudes.’”

America during the 50’s was doing what other countries were not able to do despite their best efforts: Build a solid middle class, keep unemployment low, and significantly increase personal wealth. Unemployment was well under 5 percent nationwide. Home building and home ownership soared. Personal savings grew. The federal government was focused (and capable) of balancing the budget and stimulating growth. Manufacturing and agriculture were still mainstays of the American economy, but the increase in prosperity was giving rise to a new economy: consumerism.

“As a people, we react violently to the suggestion that we are materialistic. We aver strongly that we are not,” writes Galbraith. “But in searching for the reasons for the long-standing pre-eminence of economics issues as objects of political controversy, it is perhaps fair to say that we are intelligently sensitive to political activity in the vicinity of our pocketbooks.”

Of course, there was constant political and economic debate during that time about how to maintain the current level of growth and prosperity, and to avoid another depression. President Eisenhower was carefully protecting the New Deal reforms of the 30’s from Republican conservatives focused on overturning them and other programs of “the Welfare State.”

Although several major American manufacturing corporations were beginning to accept unions as a reality and recognize their right to exist, conservative politicians and business associations continued to cast labor unions as the death knell of American capitalism and crushing free trade. Equally as important to the debate was whether the government should intervene proactively with monetary supply and price measures, or step back and let the economy do what it would.

Galbraith’s observations and sense of humor, at times bordering on satire, are a joy to read. He seems chillingly prescient in some areas like national health insurance, “Should the country one day enact a health insurance scheme, there is at least a chance that medical catastrophe would not ensue. The reputation of the AMA as a prophet [against it] would be sadly impaired.”

In other cases, he reassures us that congressional behavior, whether directed at economic policy or other issues, often follows the same paths and is usually cut from the same two bolts of cloth.

“Certain numbers of our political figures always achieve their distinction by being negotiators, brokers, and architects of comprise … But the more typical political career requires controversy; political recognition or notoriety is won by participation in argument and dispute. If such a politician cannot argue over one thing, then he must pick a quarrel over something else.”

I first read Galbraith’s book in the early 1980’s studying economics as an undergraduate. At that time, supply-side economics (also Reaganomics, trickle-down economics, or free market economics, depending on your leaning) was the wisdom of the moment. My professor had the good sense to suggest Economics and the Art of Controversy as a way to clean out the conservative leanings of the required textbooks of the program.

Unfortunately, this book is out of print, and I long ago misplaced my original copy. I happened upon one at Book Buyers in Mountain View, California a few weeks ago. I found a second copy at Powell’s in Portland last week that I can loan. Several are also available on Amazon at the time of this writing.


Avoid the performance review assembly line

Some of the strangest debates I’ve had with Human Resources professionals and executives have been about whether it’s better to administer performance reviews on a fixed calendar Focal Point method, or on an employee Anniversary Date method.

Completing all employees’ performance and salary reviews on a Focal Point (or fixed calendar basis) has become the preferred, modern approach for many companies over the past ten or so years. I’ve administered it both ways, and having had both experiences, I’m firmly in the Anniversary Date camp. I’ve found my reasons for that preference surprise a lot of people, and that fact worries me.

There are articles published all over the web and in HR magazines saying the Focal Point method is the most organizationally efficient way to get the work done. It allows managers and supervisors to connect employee goals to the organization’s goals, and it encourages them to communicate quarterly with employees. If timed correctly, it can also tie fiscal year results to each employee’s performance results, and employees can see how they contributed to company’s bottom line.

Many of the articles argue that Focal Point is also the ultimate blessing for HR. It’s easier to administer once a year for everyone; it allows more effective annual salary budgeting (and forced distribution for some); it allows HR to do its job and market survey work more efficiently; and, perhaps the most vigorously argued point, is that it allows companies to use new software solutions that brings the business of reviewing performance and administering salary into the modern era.

I find it interesting that those arguments are often made in articles written by people who work for software companies.

But what is most interesting and disconcerting to me, is that if you start the discussion about what’s better, Focal Point or Anniversary date reviews, most people never start with the consideration of what’s better for the employee.

When I’ve pointed that out to colleagues, there’s usually a snort and discussion that ultimately suggests, “Hey stupid, this isn’t about the employees, this is about process. We need to get this done. The other way is a nightmare. Get on board here.”

I believe that thinking is dead wrong regardless of your preference for process. On the contrary, performance reviews are all about the employee. Just ask employees.

Certainly, both methods have their advantages, and the selection of one or the other is often dependent on the company’s culture, business, and overall business model.

However, I need to say this again, because I still feel the echo of those past debates being ended by dismissive hand waves and changing of the subject. Performance review process is about the employee.

We should do what is better for the employee, particularly when it comes to reviewing their performance and sharing that assessment with them. We otherwise dismiss the crucial connection to employees and workplace culture. Performance reviews and the process of their administration must build the employee’s trust in their manager, belief in the mission and objective of the organization, and investment in providing the best ideas, innovation, and service possible.

From administering both types of methods, I’ve experienced that Focal Point poses the greatest danger to employee engagement and workplace culture. The focus on administrative efficiency, from salary budgeting to the cattle call of pushing everyone through at once, de-emphasizes the individual employee and their contributions.

Even with the most modern, up-to-date intentions and aspirations, the Focal Point method can eventually erode the humanity from the process. It becomes an assembly line for managers as they work to pump out reviews and salary recommendations for all their employees over a compressed period of time. I’ve never seen a Focal Point method help a manager stick to a quarterly review schedule in the off-season. It becomes a “one and thank God I’m done” mentality.

Depending on how many people need to approve those draft reviews and approve the salary increases in Focal Point method, the timeframe becomes even more compressed. Managers often stack performance review meetings like cordwood on their calendars, and operate a revolving door of individual meetings to get through the messages quickly and mechanically, sending another strong message to their employees. Let’s get you in and out.

Talking with management over the last twenty years, those who sit down to write reviews on the employee’s anniversary date don’t dread it. They recognize it as a regular, ongoing part of their job duties, and it becomes a welcome event to connect with their employees.

It also keeps managers tuned on how to write reviews, share difficult messages, and recognize accomplishments. It keeps performance discussions happening throughout the year on a regular basis, and it encourages them to have those quarterly discussions with the other members of their teams. In short, managers and their employees in an Anniversary Date method consistently said to me that they understand the importance of those connections and valued the process.

I’ve also experienced far fewer employee complaints about their performance reviews and managers in an Anniversary Date method. Complaints of being unfairly compared and rated against team members, of being rushed through their meetings, of being held accountable for performance issues they never knew existed, and of not getting along with their manager have been significantly less in an Anniversary Date system.

Regardless of your company’s preference or necessity for Focal Point or Anniversary Date performance reviews, the process should balance what’s right for employees with what is necessary to meet the business need and objectives. In a Focal Point environment, it takes more effort to ensure that the process doesn’t overtake the individual. In an Anniversary Date environment, it takes more effort to manage the process for each individual. That can mean more work for HR.

Just so you know, I’m okay with that.

Friends: Dinner at the Farm this Saturday, March 7

Joyce and I are inviting our friends to join us at the Family Farm this Saturday night, March 7, for a spaghetti and meatballs dinner. The weather is supposed to be perfect and calls for kicking off spring right.

Lots of spaghetti, red sauce, options for either real meat and vegan “meat” balls, crusty French bread, Kerrygold butter, a fresh green salad, and red wine. I’m thinking the standard cheese, crackers, grapes to start.

Bring a bottle of red if you can. We’ll get started socializing at about 4pm, dinner to follow. Send me a text if you can make it and/or need directions. We’ve got extra bedrooms so let us know if you want to stay the night before we fill up. Conversation and cards late into the evening, unless somebody has an old Pictionary game laying about… or wants to head to the top of hill and star gaze. Might be a bit cold up there…

On Performance Management: Opinions, ghosts of Fredrick Taylor, and what we should discuss

I have strong opinions about performance management programs and tools, and how to administer them. I have exceptionally strong opinions about how not to administer them.

If you are a supervisor or manager, you have likely written and delivered over a hundred individual reviews for your employees during your career. You have also been the recipient of your own performance reviews for many years. And you likely have very strong opinions of your own.

A word of admission as an HR professional: we continue to focus too much on the importance of objectivity in performance reviews, and to measure things as precisely and closely as possible. We provide training on how to write performance goals and reviews objectively, how to share those reviews objectively, and how to respond to your employees when the meeting turns emotional.

We essentially try to wring out the emotion and feeling from our performance interaction with employees, to advocate a protectively sterile and clinical examination. We even build the review forms to use objective language as much as possible to keep emotions out of the equation, as if the ghost of Frederick Taylor was hovering about the office.

Why too much? Because it’s a new world out there, where attitudes are different, motivations are different, and what matters to people is different. It has been changing for years, but we just haven’t shifted.

While HR professionals and management both spend a lot of time focusing on individual reviews and how they are written, the process of conducting reviews still gets short shrift in discussions and planning. And that process affects the whole system, from how the ratings are structured, to how the supervisor sits down and shares with their employees. We’ve continued to fall back on methodologies that were built decades ago instead of evolving our programs toward the new world of employee engagement and talent management.

I have been told by employees in meeting after meeting that their performance reviews are one of the most emotional connections they have with their manager, their teams, and their company. I’ve met with employees who were distressed, angry, and shocked after receiving their reviews; other employees who say the thing that matters most to them is the exceptional review they received “x” years ago; and those who say the best supervisor they ever had was the one who was kind, fair, and respected their feelings.

I’ve had some great discussions (and arguments) with colleagues over the years about how to change the thinking and administration of performance reviews. I will share some of those discussions here, along with some of my very strong opinions, as I have the time.

In short, I think we need to recognize the emotional connections of our employees as a strength, not a liability, and administer performance management programs in a way that truly connects us. After all, we want them to take good care of us, every year, for the rest of their working lives.