Working Wounded: Big Easy Business Lessons

I'm sending this blog from the Jazz Festival in New Orleans. Amid the food, music and parades, believe it or not, there are also a lot of important business lessons in the Big Easy. Not always easy, but powerful, none the less.

As you can imagine, New Orleans is a challenging place to visit right now. The devastation left over from Hurricane Katrina is everywhere, and these reminders are especially frightening when you consider the storm ravaged this city more than 10 months ago. Given the amount of garbage and damaged buildings everywhere, it seems like it should only have been a few weeks ago. You try to prepare yourself for the pain and suffering, but it is beyond anything you can imagine.

The hardest part of visiting New Orleans is driving along highway underpasses. Each one is jammed with abandoned cars. Hundreds and hundreds of them. It's very chilling, and gives you some sense of the scale of the devastation.

So what is the business lesson here? How quickly we forget -- in New Orleans and back in the office. It's embarrassing that it takes seeing hundreds of cars to help you appreciate, and remember, the devastation, but it's a powerful picture of the pain.

We forget at work too. Enron is an outrage, as were the WorldCom scandal and various other corporate indiscretions that have made news the past several years. But for some reason these travesties tend to recede in our minds until the next CEO perp walk. Why is that?

Sure, we have Sarbanes-Oxley, but it seems as if the only thing that keeps improving at work is the ratio of top executives' salary relative to the working folks. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for executives getting rewarded when their corporations do well. The problem seems to be that the pay and option escalator seldom goes down. For there to be an upside, shouldn't there at least be the possibility of a downside?

One thing that I also realized in New Orleans is the power of belief and spirit. Listening to musicians at the festival, cab drivers on the streets or people in stores, I am struck by the remarkable ability of the people of New Orleans to rise above their pain. I'm not sure that I could survive 10 months of pain and suffering with such dignity.

On the other hand, in the corporate world, I'm seldom sure what anyone really believes in. Is it really serving the customer? Doing well for the investors? Or is our corporate culture just feeding the egos and wallets of top executives? Dignity is not something I've seen in abundance in the workplace. How about you?

Beyond spirit is the gallows humor that no place does better than New Orleans. From the Meet the Fockers T-shirts with Nagin, Blanco, Brownie, et. al. to all the various satirical FEMA shirts, no city sees humor in its own misfortune better than New Orleans. One shirt that really went over the line said, "I survived Katrina and all I got was the lousy T-shirt, a plasma TV, a Cadillac …" Inappropriate? Probably. Funny? Definitely.

In contrast, corporations rarely show a similar ability. There is precious little humor in the average corporation. It's like it almost tries to be as bland as possible. And it succeeds in a way that would make a Saltine cracker blush (now that's a visual you don't get in the average business column).

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