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
P.S. You might want to print this ... she has a lot
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
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
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.
proud of you. I'm proud of you.
I hope that you're 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
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
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
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.