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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the July 24, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Put Tech in Its Place
Career advice from parents can be specific. Find happiness
on the family farm or get a law degree, for example. Or it can be
general, perhaps something like: Follow your heart.
father’s advice fell into the category of what not to do.
"My main instruction from my father," says Berger, "was
`don’t work in a factory like I did.’" In the main, Berger took
the advice. For while he did put in a short stint at an auto factory,
but the experience just added weight to his father’s advice and increased
his resolve to be the first in his family to go to college. A 1970
graduate of Vanderbilt, he is now a full-time speaker based in Millburn.
His resume includes stretches as a country guitar player in Nashville,
a philosophy teacher at a maximum security jail in North Carolina,
a columnist for a magazine on professional baseball, and a Unitarian
Berger speaks on "Executive Success in a Brave New World"
on Thursday, July 25, at a Speaker Showcase sponsored by the New Jersey
Society of Association Executives, which begins at 8:30 a.m. at the
Crowne Plaza in Clark. Other speakers include
on "Communicating with Greater Effectiveness,"
on "Added Value Leadership,"
Cost: $69. Call 732-339-9085.
After postings in rural North Carolina and suburban Boston, Berger
served as minister of the Unitarian Universalist church on Central
Park West from 1989 through 1999. Ministers are generalists, he says,
and he liked some parts of the job more than others. Giving sermons
was among his favorite duties. He characterizes his new career in
public speaking as "moving from the pulpit to the podium."
The two types of speaking have similarities, but also differences.
Giving a once-a-week talk to his congregants allowed Berger to pick
a topical subject, learn all about it, deliver his reflections on
it on Sunday, and then, he says, "forget everything I had learned
by Tuesday." He says this with a laugh during a phone interview
in which he moves rapidly from subject to subject, backing up observations
with quotes from the New Yorker or from recently published books.
There is an impression that, for him, reading is pretty much like
breathing. After he delivers a dozen or so citations from fascinating
articles, he pauses when asked just how many books, newspapers, and
magazines he reads in an average week. Genuinely stumped by the question,
he says at last, "I really don’t read that much."
In his new profession, Berger uses all that he absorbs from print,
and all of his experiences in crafting advice for executives. He particularly
enjoys drawing on the interviews with former baseball greats he conducted
over a period of 10 years, when his avocations included writing for
Baseball Hobby News.
Business circa 2002 has a lot in common with baseball, he finds. "People
are losing confidence in business," he says. The cause — cooked
books — has been a bone of contention in baseball. "For years,
owners have been bringing out the books to show they’re losing money,"
he says. "And no one believed them."
The baseball losses, he says, were not real losses, but rather were
a string of paper losses that netted owners big tax write-offs against
their other businesses while they bided their time, waiting for a
big pay off when they sold their teams for ever more inflated prices.
But baseball, like many businesses in the news, may have come to the
end of the line. The "greater fool theory" that produced crop
after crop of new team owners may finally have run aground, says Berger,
conceding that this is the one point on which he can agree with baseball
commissioner Bud Selig. In the same way, a number of corporate bubbles,
sometimes inflated with little more than crafty accounting, are now
unable to maintain their loft.
For executives caught in what is beginning to feel like a seventh
inning stretch extended by a lengthy rain delay, Berger does have
technology, you’re doomed," says Berger. "You can’t do it."
He sees a race of super-human cyborgs arriving perhaps as soon as
20 years down the road. That, he says, is where technology is heading,
and he sees no reason for executives to break their necks to make
it happen any sooner.
"One of my oldest friends is a CIO with an insurance firm in California,"
Berger says. "He knows how futile it is to try to keep up. Whatever
you do it’s going to be behind the curve."
a more effective machine," Berger declares. "You’re hired
because you’re human." Human reasoning can be superior to machine
reasoning, he says, pointing to sickening, sudden stock market dips
and swoops as an example of what happens when a company’s value is
largely in the hands of software programs.
or unemployed, win or lose; life is more complicated than that,"
Berger muses. "Life is more of a piece than that." Being knocked
down — at least once a decade — can be a good thing. "It’s
not a matter of being on top," he says, "but of riding with
the ups and downs."
There is a comfort in having seen adversity, and survived it.
"As of Monday," Berger says on July 16, "the bear market
was at 1973-1975 levels." During the 1970s, the Dow briefly poked
above 1,000 and then sunk below it — and stayed there for the
better part of the decade. "I was just getting started in business
then," Berger recalls. Anyone who made it through that period,
he says, is more apt to take this down market in stride.
people don’t make the best managers," Berger observes. Quoting
a recent New Yorker article, he says school is all about individual
performance, but upon graduation, students enter the workforce, and
most never work alone again. "It has to do with getting along
with people, not getting the best grade," he says. "The masters
of industry haven’t always been highly educated."
worship, he is no Luddite. During his tenure at the auto factory,
he observed that his father, a mill wright, was the guy everyone turned
to when the machines went down. All worked stopped until his father,
whose job was fixing production machines, arrived on the scene. It’s
much the same with today’s IT professional, without whom no modern
office could run.
Bowing to technology, Berger acknowledges that he needs to get a website.
"With no website," he says, "you sort of don’t exist."
He is also adding speeches via videoconference to his repertoire and
considering making demo speech presentations on CD-ROM or through
streaming media on a website.
"You can’t be ignorant of technology," he says, "but the
basis of my career is what I say, not the medium through which I say
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