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Life and leadership lessons from Frank Oz

When I was a kid, The Muppet Show was constantly on. Whether it was Roger Moore’s rendition of “Talk to the Animals” while fighting spies with laser guns, or Lynda Carter just being awesome, I loved watching. My most enduring memories of several songs are the version I saw on The Muppet Show – “In the Navy” (Viking pigs singing); “Time in a Bottle” (one of the more poignant versions rendered); “The Gambler” (old ghost gambler guy!); and “Grandma’s Feather Bed” (one of several collaborations with John Denver).

Even better than the guest stars and music were the muppets themselves. Scooter had dreams and a work ethic. Sam the Eagle suffered fools. The Swedish Chef was…well, Swedish. And I’m pretty sure Statler and Waldorf are related to me. When I started to learn more about the craft underlying the creation of The Muppet Show – and later all the movies – I was amazed by the talent and dedication of the people who brought my favorites to life.

Other than Jim Henson (who created the whole thing), the puppeteer who shined brighter than them all for me was Frank Oz. He created Animal, Fozzie Bear (Wakka! Wakka! Wakka!), Sam the Eagle, and others. On Sesame Street, he was responsible for Grover, Cookie Monster, and Bert. And lest we forget…he created Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back – a role for which George Lucas campaigned for an Oscar nomination.

Beyond puppeteering, Frank Oz is an acclaimed director – Little Shop of HorrorsDirty Rotten ScoundrelsWhat About Bob?, well…you can look up the rest on IMDB. He even occasionally made a cameo in movies – including that riveting prison clerk scene in Blues Brothers (sacred viewing in my childhood household).

I bring all this up because I want you to really understand what Frank Oz has accomplished throughout his career. This child of puppeteers who grew up to be so instrumental in so many lives.

And now – Frank Oz is on Twitter. And I adore him. 

Joining Twitter in December 2017 and using the handle @TheFrankOzJam, Oz has been authentically interacting with people in a way that’s both delightful and stunning. He shares thoughts as he goes about his day. He loves talking with fans, asking them where they’re from and admitting he can’t possibly talk to everyone because he still needs to talk to his wife!

Frank Oz on Twitter is a master class of humility – that most elusive of leadership traits we all claim people need, but often secretly dismiss as weakness when we see it. Since he’s been on Twitter, I’ve been glued to his feed and I think there are some things we can all learned from this man:

  • Remember the team: Oz nearly ALWAYS mentions everyone he’s worked with on just about every project. When complimented for his performance as Yoda, his response was it only worked so well because Mark (Hamill) interacted with Yoda like a real person. He throws credit to his collaborators far more than he accepts credit for himself.
  • Be honest and open: One of the more honest tweets came from Oz asking everyone which character the public thought he most identified with. After some guesses, he said, “There have really been wonderful guesses. Thanks! Okay. So. I most identify with Grover and Fozzie. Grover because he’s pure, Fozzie because as a kid I really wanted to be in show biz too. I shouldn’t have put Yoda in the mix. He is way deep inside me, but I’m not that wise.” Later he said, “Yes I identified most with Grover and Fozzie, but there are bits of me in all of my characters. Me being boring is Bert, me pure is Grover, me obsessed-Cookie, me neurotic-Piggy, me insecure-Fozzie, me uptight-Sam, me crazed-Animal. I’m a bit like each of them. And so are you.”
  • Know that luck is real: He very much acknowledges the opportunities he’s had, and knows how lucky he’s been. “I don’t know how I got here. I was this kid with low self esteem and a bit of talent. But a lot of people have talent and haven’t “made it.” Why did the planets line up for me? Why didn’t other talented people get their Jim Henson as a mentor? I don’t think I’ll ever know why.” When a follower mentioned his obvious “passion,” Oz replied, “No. Not true. I wasn’t passionate. I just had fun with Jim and my fellow performers. And I never struggled to find work. Jim always found it and I just delivered. Others have had to struggle.”
  • Don’t forget what work looks like: Frank Oz knows how weird it is that he makes a living through entertainment. He thinks about it a lot. “I’ve always believed the world is lopsided. I get attention & money while others do far more important things to keep our world going: Yes, those who work with their hands, as my father did, but also from teachers to mental health workers. Thank you all for keeping us afloat.” And them he immediately followed it with, “I’m not being humble. What i’ve done in my work life has given value or you wouldn’t be reading this. But what I truly believe is that the lesser known and lesser paid people are the ones holding up the world. So please give kudos to them. I’m doin’ fine here.”
  • Believe in the potential of others: “There are hidden artists among us. A really good short order cook is one. Bacon’s on the griddle, bread in toaster, slice bagel, orders shouted, crack eggs, flip bacon, grab toast, hands moving, body in motion. All rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. A beautiful thing to watch. An artist.” Seriously.
  • Cherish your elders and those who paved the way: Oz often thinks about the older folks he sees in his travels and encourages us to learn from them. “In my twenties, (mid 1960’s) I bought a video camera with a VERY heavy battery case and huge camera. Before they became too old, I recorded hours of footage of my mom and my dad telling me their life’s stories. They are gone now. But I have their stories. Don’t wait too long.”

If you struggle with how to interact with others, follow Frank Oz on Twitter and study his language use, approach, openness, and humility. He’s the internet hero we didn’t know we needed. He is the balm to all the anger in the world right now. If we could just try to lead with curiosity and listen for understanding, maybe we’d be a step closer to being the people we hope we can be.

I view kindness as a weapon. Not the kindness that is paternal or condescending or platitudinous. I mean the kindness that comes from true empathy; that gently acknowledges another’s travails and so makes her/him feel less alone. For me, there’s no stronger weapon. 

Frank Oz, 12/31/2017

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2018 in Authenticity, Executive Presence

 

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Fasten your seatbelts: 2018 may be a bumpy ride (a NON-prediction prediction post)

I typically avoid writing predictive blog posts. What the hell do I know about the future? I mean, I watch a lot of Black Mirror and all, so clearly I’m aware that our technology is leading us to a dystopian landscape that will suck away our very souls, but leadership and HR trends? My guess is those will be the same as they’ve always been, only faster and more intense.

The thing is…I’m seeing some interesting behavior online and in real life (IRL for you cool kids out there) and it’s enough of a shift from what I’ve noticed in the past to make me want to write about it. (To be clear, it may be that I’m just more aware of this behavior, but whatever, it’s my blog. Hush, you.)

In the past, I think most people just read an article or post or tweet and were pretty passive about it. If they liked it, they may click the little button, or share a smiley face. If they didn’t like it, they moved on. Nowadays, people are pushing back and challenging more. I’m not talking about those out there who challenge EVERYTHING. Those people have been and always will be there. I’m talking more about those on the sidelines – the people who keep up on current trends and articles and follow the “influencers” but don’t necessarily post or tweet much. THESE people are speaking up. What they may have let slide in the past is no longer something they’re willing to ignore. 

This is where the #metoo movement came from. This is where we are being pushed to discuss inclusion and racism like never before. This is where we are humbled by our preconceptions. This is where we learn.

Frankly, I think it’s awesome – particularly in the leadership/HR world. We build cliques and comfort zones. We help promote each other, and are excellent resources for each other. These are the good things! But we also sometimes fail to push back on each other. We think, “that’s just so-and-so” and let a questionable statement stand unchallenged for fear of damaging a relationship. These are the bad things.

My friend Laurie Ruettimann wrote a fantastic post about healthy debate (go read it, really). We need to embrace that. We who choose to write or post or speak must be okay with people challenging us. We must also be willing to listen when we’re told a statement we made may be offensive. We must ALSO be willing to stand by some of our more controversial statements if we believe in them – which means taking the time to expand upon them or maybe state them differently to add clarity.

I screw up ALL THE TIME. I’m a fast typer, so I tweet at the speed of sarcasm. I’m flippant. I’m sassy. I don’t suffer fools. While I think this makes me charming, it also can get me in a lot of trouble. Unless I’m willing to back up and listen to someone who pushes back, I won’t know how to respond. Crazy person? Probably won’t spend much time on it. Person who’s trying to explain to me why my words hurt them? I owe it to them to try and understand why. I won’t necessarily agree (seldom do), but if someone is willing to share their pain with me, it seems like I should listen. If you want to know what this looks like, Sarah Silverman is your role model. I am not at that level – may never be. #lifegoals

If you share your thoughts with the universe, be prepared for the universe to “share” back. If you write controversial things specifically to spark discussion – which, by the way, is totally cool and a useful way to get people talking! – be willing to engage in that healthy debate.

By the way, this isn’t just for the online community. There are quiet folks in your organizations who typically keep their heads down who are starting to speak up. Their voices may be quiet. They may be asking for confidentiality. But they ARE speaking up. For those of you in HR, have you noticed an uptick in investigations and complaints lately? Visibility breeds awareness breeds action. I’m okay with this. It’s time that the vocal among us make room for those who haven’t felt like they were allowed to speak, or felt like they didn’t have something to say.

 

So here’s my prediction: If you’re not prepared to hear from those who typically haven’t spoken up until now…2018 is gonna be rough.

 

 

 
 

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A peek behind the curtain: Blogging with a full-time gig

One of the great things about blogging is that your blog gives you a cathartic outlet. Have a bad day? Write about it on the blog. Shocked by something an employee said? Write about it on the blog. Remember something your boss did that made you roll your eyes so hard it gave you a migraine? You got it – write about it on the blog.

Funny thing is…that’s kind of hard to do when you’re a working girl. Well, not THAT kind of working girl. I bet they have the BEST blogs.

I’m talking about folks who have a full-time job in corporate America. You know, the people who work 9-to-5 (what a way to make a living). It’s not that we don’t have enough material. Goodness knows it’s not that.

The challenge lies in the fact once people at the office find out you write a blog, they tend want to read it. Which is actually pretty awesome. Until they start trying to figure out if the topic about which you’ve written is about them. Or the company. Or the CEO.

Here’s the thing. Yeah. I probably did write a blog post about you. But not specifically about you, more about the situation. Or you said something that triggered a thought about a scenario I read in another article that made me think, “Huh. I wonder if that’s a trend I should write about.”

Except for that one time. That was TOTALLY about you.

It’s a challenge to not translate everything at work into a blog post. I try to weigh the relevance for a wider audience and if it fits into the general leadership theme of my blog. I mean, it’s my blog so I’ll go off topic from time to time, but you get the idea. I also try to decide if it’s a lasting issue or if it’s a weird one-off that may never happen again.

Most of all, I have to weigh whether or not someone I know will try too hard to read between the lines and make assumptions about the topic and try to assign meaning that isn’t there. My views truly are my own. But it’s not that hard to figure out where I work (or have worked), and because of that, I try to be careful.

I suspect that many bloggers who have a corporate gig take the same care. In fact, there are several who use an alias because they are worried their content will anger the powers that be. The struggle is real, people.

So I wait months to bring up a “hot” topic. I change names. I allude to past organizations or use the time-honored “a colleague of mine.” I’m not above throwing in a “studies show” now and then, either. Sometimes I wait 3+ months to write about something because it is too raw and close to what reality is. Hence the occasional dry spell in content. Well, that and writer’s block.

If I do work with you and you read my blog, hi! And thank you. I think that’s cool. Just please don’t try to figure out if I’m talking about something at work, because by the time I write about it, it happened so long ago that it doesn’t even matter anymore.

If I don’t work with you and your read my blog, hi! And thank you. Feel free to make any wild conjecture that makes my blog more exciting to you. If it helps to picture bear juggling knives while balancing on a unicycle, I’m okay with that.

Ultimately, I write on this blog because I enjoy it and only when I feel like I have something to say that others may find interesting. Every once in awhile, I might take someone specific to task, but only when they deserve it and they’re a national story. (Or if there’s an in-joke that will make us both laugh.)

Would I write more freely if I didn’t work a corporate gig? Yes. Does it keep me from writing anyway? No.

And it never will.


You fail only if you stop writing. 

– Ray Bradbury

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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