Are you a baby seal or a bear?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 September, 2009, 12:00am

Most business and management tomes are generated by gurus from the world of industry or education, but not so in Joel Zeff's Make the Right Choice. This joyful business guide is the creation of none other than a stand-up comic.

Although Zeff's background lies in newspaper journalism, he is also an improvisational comedian, speaker and humourist. He has presented his wit and wisdom to individuals from almost every sector of industry across North America.

His trademark approach to speaking at events is to invite audience members to come on stage and perform improvisation exercises. These are devoted to helping participants learn about communication, creativity, teamwork, change, leadership and, as Zeff emphasises, fun.

The book is a distillation of everything he has learned through his on-stage work about how people communicate together.

'It is a combination of what improvisation taught me about business and life, and what thousands of volunteers have taught me over the years,' he wrote. 'By playing the improvisation exercises with so many different companies, organisations, and corporate cultures, I feel like an anthropologist studying wild animals in their natural habitats.'

It should be no surprise that this fairly short and snappy text's incisive points were made with almost scientific precision. This does not prevent it from being a pretty entertaining read, thanks to a healthy dose of humour, which the author used to help us delve into how we could reconnect with our passion, creativity and success.

Zeff is also entirely uninterested in directing his advice towards people who are driven less by common humanity than by mission statements or quarterly performance improvements. Such people, in his words, were the managers in black mock turtleneck sweaters.

'A typical black mock turtleneck wants success,' Zeff wrote. 'He wants his employees to have passion and creativity. He wants his team to produce results. And then he clubs them like baby seals.'

Zeff's assumption is that his likely readers are those self-same baby seals, albeit ones who are nurturing fantasies of turning into polar bears. His argument runs that, if we want to be polar bears and escape a clubbing from our colleagues, we need to be open and flexible to change. We also need to be able to create opportunities and positive support. His final message is that employees and managers should recognise that we want to have fun.

Whatever our backgrounds, nationalities or industries, we not only want to have fun but also tended to make the same choices. We were also similar in that we could all be creative, energetic, passionate and fun provided that we were given the right opportunity and a positive environment. These opportunities helped us to unleash our creativity, communicate effectively and work together more successfully, he said.

What can we do to transform ourselves from Zeff's trembling, victimised baby seals into positive, innovative, productive and happy achievers? Above all, the author believes that we all need and expect positive encouragement. However, he argued that this was something regrettably rarely given.

His advice to readers on how to achieve this seems breathtakingly simple. We are encouraged, among other things, to remember to say 'thank you' and tell people how much we appreciate them. However, the point being made is that factoring in the time to thank colleagues, partners, vendors and clients is something of a rarity.

'When was the last time you told a client how much you appreciated their business?' Zeff asked.

He noted that when people received positive support, this generated opportunity which, in turn, led to happiness. Employers needed to accept that their employees were creative and passionate, wanted to do good work and make their company successful. If they trusted that this was so, they would be confident of giving the same employees responsibility.

Like most self-help guides, this book is packed with quick tips and smart ideas that might just make our lives a little bit easier and fruitful.

However, this project is less of a chore thanks to the author's mission to amuse as much as to inform. 'Read this book on airplanes, while standing in line, waiting for the doctor or any place. Laugh very loud,' he said.

Book Make the Right Choice
Author Joel Zeff
Publisher John Wiley & Sons

Five insights

1 Work is not complicated and finding happiness at work is even less complicated, writes Joel Zeff, the author of Make the Right Choice. 'You know what you really want and need for happiness, but unfortunately your manager is clueless.' Too many companies waste money on projects that they think will bring happiness.

2 Many problems between leadership and employees tend to start with a lack of communication. The problem frequently lies in the made-up language people use in business contexts, which is empty of true meaning. So the author's advice to the boss is: 'Speak directly. Speak honestly. Speak clearly.'

3 People don't like change. 'Change is scary. The idea of change is even scarier,' the author wrote. But, since change is inevitable, it must be confronted. The only way to deal with change and find success in it is via openness and flexibility.

4 Fun is a choice. Low personal expectations can hold us back, but everyone is creative and can have fun. 'Fun is our fuel for creativity, leadership, passion and success,' Zeff said. 'Yet we don't really spend any time thinking about fun. Anybody can have fun. We just have to make the choice.' The best foundation for teamwork is to make everyone successful.

5 Team effectiveness was much different from team building, the author said. 'You have already built your team, and what you are trying to do now is make your team more effective, productive, and successful.' Good teamwork boils down to taking responsibility for your role and doing the best job possible while helping everyone else achieve success.