You probably recall the dust-up in April after it was revealed that the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) hired a clown and a mind reader to entertain some of its employees at a conference. Among the mind reader’s services was giving a GSA employee a message from Beyond from the employee’s dead dog. The scandal prompted the head of the agency to resign.
That dust had barely settled when another federal agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was found to be advertising for a magician to wow attendees at its conference. The magician was supposed to be talking about the magic of change management, but the ad disappeared in a Washington minute, so we’ll never know whether that involved transmuting dimes into quarters.
Many people have questioned whether these are wise expenditures—particularly because the services were to be paid for with our tax dollars. In an election year, no less. They might be better than the trouble that the Secret Service stirred up down in Colombia, maybe. We hold our government agency leaders to very high standards.
But, just for the sake of argument, let’s consider the merits of engaging clowns, mind readers and magicians for certain leadership-related exercises. Not in government, but in the private sector. Might there be some merit?
I’m not a fan of clowns, and I have a real problem with street mimes. I suspect many business leaders share my aversion, and I imagine that few likely would have the patience to sit though a mime’s act without growling “spit it out!” and “get to the point!” So they don’t make the cut.
But mind readers might add another dimension to the business world. I can see hiring one for a leadership retreat, or perhaps even taking one on as a consultant. Consider the bane of many a CEO’s existence: the Board Meeting. Why not bring in a mind reader, under the cover of an up-and-coming CFO or an intern. She or he could text the CEO with insights about which board members want to slash the budget or seem determined to can the CEO. Knowing what others are thinking could be da bomb in merger/acquisition talks. And anyone’s Facebook password would be yours for the taking—not that I recommend it.
I think that a mind reader could help business leaders improve employee engagement. Those periodic engagement surveys are valuable, but someone with ESP could provide more granular results. It would certainly help HR to know that Fred is melting down because there is no more hazelnut coffee in the break room, that Janet is copying her resume on the third floor and that Andrew would be willing to take a pay cut to transfer out of accounting.
Magicians could bring additional skill sets to the private sector. Having trouble with that monthly or quarterly financial report? Abracadabra! Budget balanced. Facing the miserable task of having to lay off 10 percent of staff? Shazam! Several disaffected employees suddenly decide that they need to spend more time with their families, or leave to pursue an exciting new business venture with a Nigerian businessman they met online. Just make sure that the magicians stay away from extreme acts such as making a person disappear and sawing a lady in half; the Family and Medical Leave Act and health care reform law are hard enough to administer without these complications.
I concede that there might be drawbacks to these innovations. Through mind reading, leaders might inadvertently discover legally protected personal genetic information or might have to face the fact that half the company simply hates their guts. More likely, however, is the possibility that our employees--and maybe even our shareholders--might come to expect us to pull rabbits out of hats on a regular basis, setting expectations so high that it would be almost impossible to deliver on a consistent basis.
So even if “magician” and “mind reader” become standard job descriptions in corporate America over the next few years, we must keep in mind that there are no true shortcuts to the hard work of leadership. If we really want to know what our employees are thinking, we should talk to them and listen to them. And develop their skills and opportunities. Understanding the changing needs of our workforces, and demonstrating that we recognize that our employees’ success is tied to our organizations’ success, is the neatest trick.
But don’t throw out that straitjacket yet. You never know when it might come in handy.