|Websites for Professionals
Take control of your online presence
with your own professional website!
I Contemplated Suicide Again: This Time by Inhaling During a PowerPoint Presentation
I recently gave a business talk at a swanky New York City hotel and got robbed by one of the attendees. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised: it was a gathering of entrepreneurs.
There’s a price to be paid for going public
I was there to talk about a book that I recently co-authored: The CEO and the Monk: One Company’s Journey to Profit and Purpose. I’m the “monk” side of the story, having spent 15 years in a monastic community as a Catholic priest before venturing into the world of business. Actually, the work’s proven to be quite similar, except the pay’s now a lot better.
My presentation format is somewhat non-traditional. Unlike Jack Welch, I don’t purport to have clearly articulated solutions to solve today’s pressing business problems. I likewise eschew PowerPoint presentations, guided by the belief that folks are tired of them and prefer hearing a few good stories instead. I think Jesus followed a similar format in his short-lived business career. And even though it didn’t generate positive cash flow, his design was well received by the masses.
Perhaps what most distinguishes me from Mr. Welch is that he’s rich and I’m not. And as we all know from studying business best practices, if you’re rich - you must be right. Consequently, lacking copious cash and a neat package of simple handouts for business success, I use a presentation style that tends to skirt the mainstream, and wobbles along the margins of today’s cookie-cutter conference programs.
I’ve even given up deciding which business stories to tell, since it’s never really clear to me in advance what the attendees need to hear. I merely display several pictures on the stage and invite participants to choose one which captures their fancy – then I tell that particular story. This design is based on the business principle that people support what they help create. It also connects to my personal conviction that the group’s active contribution to the program generates buy-in and commitment. Besides, it safeguards my frail ego: if the presentation bombs, at least I have somebody else to blame. I’ve gleaned this final bit of wisdom by assiduously observing executive behavior both within and outside the monastery for well over 30 years.
During my talk, I also like to have the attendees take part in a group activity. Most of the time I’m able to resist the monastic temptation to have them join hands and sing “Kumbaya” and wind up engaging them in a business exercise pitched largely to their professional learning and personal enjoyment. When the activity’s over, I ask them to share their reflections with the full audience. I’ve found that if I can actually keep my mouth shut, most of the participants have pearls of wisdom to offer their peers. Anyone who’s brave enough to publicly speak his mind also gets a gift from the front table: a signed photo card from a well-known photographer - me. Like Ansel Adams, I counsel the recipients to hold onto it, for once I die it will only grow in value. This is, unfortunately, the downside of being an artist: you don’t get recognition until after you’re dead.
Miscreants in the marketplace
It was in just such a program that I got ripped off by a New York entrepreneur. After my talk, large numbers of the audience came up to shake my hand, offer congratulations and seek my professional counsel. This represented a total crowd of three. While I was momentarily distracted by the glow of world acclaim, someone snuck over to the front table where I had placed my photo cards and stole the display copy of my book. I didn’t notice the purloined item until the room emptied and I collected my personal belongings to journey home.
Drawing from my many years of monastic serenity, I remember softly muttering to no one in particular: “O my God! Some bastard stole my book.”
Like Holden Caulfield, I too couldn’t quite stomach all New York had to offer and found myself expressing similar expletives of disbelief. My teen-age son often reminds me that not everyone views the world as I do. But what the heck’s going on here? Isn’t there anyone left who knows something about Divine Retribution?
From the way I looked at it, stealing from some ordinary guy on the street is one thing; but ripping off a former man of the cloth is quite another. You can’t steal from monks, even defrocked ones, without expecting some dire consequences to ensue. However, I took some consolation in recalling the opening act from the Broadway hit Les Miserables, where Jean Valjean is caught robbing from the church and is forgiven by the cleric - a compassionate deed that became a turning point in his life. I eventually offered absolution, in absentia, to the thief and likened my recent experience as similar. I headed home that evening humming the soundtrack from the musical.
But then a month later, it happened again. This time in New Jersey! And as we now can statistically substantiate, there ain’t no bad people living in any suburb of New Jersey.
Similar to the New York experience, at the end of my presentation I was surrounded by a screaming crowd of inspired business professionals. While deeply engrossed with the five people before me (actually, a few were there seeking directions to the Garden State Parkway) once again my book was mysteriously absconded away with.
The crowd eventually dwindled and a lone gentleman remained behind. “I loved your talk,” he said, “and I wanted to have something to remember you by.” With an air of nonchalance, he continued: “Since you didn’t have any more photo cards left, I decided to take the display copy of your book.”
There, boldly visible in his attaché, was the evidence of his misdeed. Adding insult to injury, he took it out for me to autograph.
With the same moral indignation that Officer Javert held toward the thief Valjean, I chided him for his dastardly offense. But he was both unmoved and unrepentant. “I didn’t want to leave here tonight,” he calmly continued, “without taking along a small reminder of the event.” What did he think he was doing - harvesting relics for some future ecclesiastical yard sale? While folks may have stolen personal effects from Mother Teresa at the end of her career, she certainly didn’t get her start that way. And neither did Jack Welch.
I worried how this might all eventually play out: today they take my book; tomorrow, my femur. Was the New York entrepreneur a harbinger of something deeper?
A final quality that differentiates me from Mr. Welch is that I’m not famous. This means that when I come into town to speak, most people don’t take notice. And when my presentation is over, I don’t have a frenetic speaking schedule that whisks me off to the next mega-conference in Vegas. I get to sit tight and hang around for awhile. It’s not uncommon that my speaking schedule is so paltry that after shaking a few hands, I merely loiter in the lobby waiting for the cocktail hour to start. I regularly even have time to attend the conference dinner. But I’m not important enough to sit at the head table; I usually dine with the ordinary folks at the convention.
I kind of enjoy that, for I get to meet interesting and wholesome people in the process. Like the woman who shared with me her personal journey with breast cancer. Being a cancer survivor myself, I felt heartened listening to her story. Or another executive whose uncle was a Catholic priest. As a young girl, she grew up having a vast horde of them continually showing up for dinner, often unannounced. The woman also had some of the best clergy jokes I’ve ever heard: “Why do people sit in the back of the church? Because there are no chairs in the parking lot.”
Oddly enough, there’s even a chance to perform some goodly deeds when you’re not that important. While I was wasting time before dinner, one young accountant in his twenties approached me with some small talk and then suddenly blurted out: “A friend of mine recently died and I haven’t been able to stop crying. My roommate feels there’s something wrong here. What do you think?”
We wound up talking for well over an hour.
It seems ministry is no longer relegated to the confines of a church. Most sacred moments happen in the marketplace, not the monastery. And occasionally even at a business conference. As we’ve known all along, the opportunities to offer support and provide friendly counsel continue to remain infinite and surprisingly varied.
Remembrance of things past
Upon reflection, I think the reason my book gets swiped at conferences is that people want a tangible reminder - a relic - of the experience. While difficult for my ego to accept, it’s not about me; it’s about the event. We come together at business gatherings seeking a sense of community. Our desire is not so much to hear from big-name speakers or to walk away with another set of handouts. We’re looking to connect with other kindred souls, ordinary folks struggling with the same issues we are.
Our unstated goal for attending these events is the overarching desire to feel that we’re not alone. That in living out our business vocation, we are making a difference. It’s the innate longing to believe that we’re using our God-given talents for something beyond financial remuneration. At some level, we understand that the author Neale Walsh was right: “When you lose sight of each other as sacred souls on a sacred journey, then you cannot see the purpose, the reason, behind all relationships.”
In our thirst for learning, we want to be active participants and have a playful hand in creating our own business reality. What we’re seeking is an experience of being alive. And we come alive through stories and personal interaction. Something PowerPoint presentations just can’t accomplish.
We’re also reminded that the sacredness of life is often shrouded in the trappings of the ordinary. The Divine is manifest in the mundane, not the spectacular.
It seems that throughout history whenever sacred events happened, most of us missed the encounter. We were looking for something dynamic and more attractive. Possibly a charismatic leader cloaked in the trappings of a business superstar. But the prophets always reside in the audience and never on center stage. Alas, the Divine is deceptive.
It’s no surprise then, that when we attend workshops we seek to retain something as a reminder. Rather than wanting to steal books, we really desire to recall that remembrances reside not in things but in us. Upon returning to work, we find that it’s who we are and not what we know that will ultimately transform our corporate homes.
Like Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz this is something we’ve known all along, but somehow failed to remember. She had Glinda, the Good Witch, to remind her. But who will help us?
Perhaps that’s the responsibility we have to one another: to be heralds for this more sacred business reality. Conferences confer the invitation for us to be the living reminders of this deeper responsibility, this more compelling journey.
Unfortunately, if we fail to recall it on our own, we’re sure to be subjected to further PowerPoint presentations.
And I’m not sure I can handle yet another set of handouts.
Many more articles in Insight & Commentary in The CEO Refresher Archives