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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. Darrell Berger’s

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

Universalist minister.

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 Elizabeth Ann Myers

on "Communicating with Greater Effectiveness," Bill Clement

on "Added Value Leadership," Marjorie Brody on "Market

Your Magic," Michael Schatzki on "Negotiation Dynamics,"

and Janet Pickover on "Cost Saving Tips for Booking Speakers."

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

some advice:

Put tech in its place. "If you try to keep up with

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."

Look to your humanity. "You’re not hired because you’re

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.

Take reverses in stride. "Success or failure, employed

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.

Don’t worry about getting straight As. "Maybe smart

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."

While Berger elevates human values in business, and shuns tech

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

it."


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