Linda related this story to the public affairs department on employee appreciation day. Her goal was to convince people that waiting by the side of the road for someone to come by to say you are appreciated was the wrong way to go. Her story is about three very different people who all knew you had to believe you deserved to be appreciated, make it easy for others to appreciate you, and most of all appreciate others.

P.S. You might want to print this ... she has a lot to say.

Orbiting The Giant Hairball with Mr. Rogers and the Sweet Potato Queens

Thirty years to day after he started as a sketch artist at Hallmark, Gordon MacKenzie retired. During his career, he puzzled over how the corporation could allow people to be individuals and appreciated unique styles and ideas when there is tremendous pressure to conform.

He grew to think of Hallmark and all corporations as giant hairballs. He reasoned that a hairball is formed when two hairs unite. Then they're joined by another. And another. And another. Before long, where there was once nothing, this tangled, impenetrable mass has begun to form.

As he thought about the history of his company, he decided that Joyce Clyde Halls' first two business decisions were the first two hairs that eventually attracted other hairs and became a giant hairball ... Hallmark.

He observed that with increase in mass comes increase in gravity.

The gravitational pull a body exerts increases as the mass of the body increases.

There were many experiences along his 30-year journey that led Gordon to his Hairball theory. One occurred when he proposed that Hallmark establish an area called the "humor workshop." After getting the go a head and selecting 13 employees, he asked each person to fantasize about what they wanted the work area to look like.   A reoccurring idea was- roll-top desks.

So he went antiquing with a corporate checkbook. He bought the desks, stained-glass windows, and old doors with beveled-glass panels to divide work areas. Toward the end of the shopping trip, he spied some old milk cans that would make great wastebaskets.

The following Monday they were summoned to a meeting with Purchasing. The issue .... 13 milk cans. The desks, doors, and windows were not a problem. Desks, doors and windows were on the approved purchases list ... milk cans were not.

A struggle ensued. Gordon's desire to create a unique environment collided with the purchasing woman's desire to do her job and follow the rules. As they each restated their positions over and over, the intensity increased. And then, one of Gordon's coworkers spoke up. She asked if they could call the milk cans antiques and buy them for the corporate art collection thus making them an approved purchase. The woman from purchasing paused, blinked, and deemed it a great idea. Gordon stopped arguing.

From this experience he concluded that:

Anytime a bureaucrat (i.e., a custodian of a system) stands between you and something you need or want, your challenge is to help that bureaucrat discover a means, harmonious with the system, to meet your needs.

He concluded that to be of optimum value to the corporate endeavor, you must invest enough individuality to counteract the pull of Corporate Gravity, but not so much that you escape that pull altogether ... just enough to stay out of the Hairball.

Gordon lived in Kansas City, Missouri, a long way from Mr. Rogers' neighborhood in Pennsylvania, but they were neighbors in the great virtual neighborhood of people who appreciate individuals ... really appreciate them because each is unique.

This month, after thirty-three years of sharing his neighborhood with generations of children, Mr. Rogers will hang up his sweater for the last time and move on from doing the TV show to writing books and using the internet to send his message.

In all those shows, during all those years, the message was the same.

I'm proud of you. I'm proud of you.
I hope that you're as proud as
I am proud of you.
I hope that you're proud.

And that you're
Learning how important you are,
How important each person you see can be.

I'm proud of you. I'm proud of you.
I hope that you're as proud as I am proud of you.

A guy, who interviewed Mr. Rogers on TV a few weeks ago, identified himself as a late convert to the Mr. Rogers fan club. As a 14-year-old watching Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, he had judged Mr. Rogers as not cool at all.

As a parent seeing Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood through the eyes of his children, he decided that Mr. Rogers might not be cool, but that he was interesting. By the end of the show, when Mr. Rogers' turned to the camera and talked to the interviewers' children, calling them by name and telling them how much he enjoyed talking to their father, and how much their father loved them, the interviewer declared Mr. Rogers very cool.

Mr. Rogers is not just for kids. A recent article in Business Week online titled CEOs Listen Up: Nice Guys Can Finish First , encourages CEOs to be like Mr. Rogers, to listen and care.

As we orbit the giant hairball, it is great to be in the company of Mr. Rogers who always assures us we are appreciated.

There were many guests on the nearly 1,000 episodes of Mr. Rogers show. The Sweet Potato Queens from Jackson, Mississippi, were not among them. As a matter of fact, I don't think Mr. Rogers would totally approve of the Queens. But he would be able to see that they know a thing or two about being appreciated.

In the early 1980's, having passed through a pretty thick patch of the doldrums Jill Conner Browne was looking for a new direction for her life. As luck would have it, her friend Cheri's dad had just bought 26 acres of land in Vardaman, Mississippi. Vardaman is the Sweet Potato Capital of the World. They even have a festival.

It occurred to Jill that they might need a queen for the festival and that she could volunteer to be the perpetual Queen and save them the expense and trouble of selecting a new queen every year.This could be her new direction in life. She continued to mull over the idea, until the fateful day when her friend Viv called to announce that her husband was planning a St. Patrick's Day parade.

Without a moments hesitation, Jill exclaimed, "I'm in." Viv asked, "What are you going to be?" Jill's response, "I am the Sweet Potato Queen." Vi said, "Me too." And thus the first St. Patrick's Day parade had a float carrying Jill, the boss queen, and seven of her friends who formed the Sweet Potato Queen Court.

At first there was some confusion about the name Sweet Potato Queen. Did it mean queen of one type of potato ... sweet potatoes? Or, did it mean "Sweet" Queen of all varieties of potatoes.   It didn't matter to Jill and her court. The Queen part was what they cared about.

They all knew that it was important to declare themselves Queens of whatever they chose. There were no pageants for them. They weren't waiting for someone to declare them Queen, give them a crown that was only good for a year of doing the bidding of others only to end up a former Queen.

Sweet Potato Queens know you need to let people know what you want; you don't wait for them to figure it out on their own.   They could have waited an eternity for someone to figure out that these grown-up, self-sufficient, and self-actualized women wanted to be queen of something. Let alone that these women would put on big-hair, red wigs, dress up in green-sequined covered dresses augmented with enough batting to make 15 good sized teddy bears, and ride on a float pulled by a pickup truck. The Queens had to help people see that this was what they wanted; this is what they wished to be appreciated for.

In the years since Jill declared herself the Sweet Potato Queen, there have been many women who want to follow her lead. They are known as Sweet Potato Queen Wannabes. As a matter of fact, there have been so many wannabes that there are now wannabe wannabes.

For my birthday, a friend who knows me all too well got me a membership to the Sweet Potato Queen Wannabes. Here is my certificate. And best of all, these official Sweet Potato Queen sunglasses.

This week while Public Affairs has continued to orbit the giant hairball; you also have been celebrating employee appreciation. Mr. Rogers would be happy to know that you have heard from your management and the people around you, that you are appreciated. And I know that some of you have learned the lesson of the Sweet Potato Queen and have let people know how you want to be appreciated. You told you management you did not feel appreciated last year when you had to perform during the recognition event. That message got through to the people who planned this week.

And isn't the world an interesting place, because you let it be known that you would prefer not to be the entertainment. They asked me to come and tell stories which gives me a chance to be appreciated for something I love to do.

Well, as for me, I plan to continue to orbit the giant hairball with Mr. Rogers and the Sweet Potato queen, enjoying being appreciated and remembering to appreciate others. This is to say, I plan to live happily ever after. I wish the same for you.

The End.

©2006 The Garbe Creative Group • All Rights Reserved