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Ten Best Historical Novels

Posted by on Apr 13th, 2019 in Blog | 0 comments

While I’m working on my own second historical novel, Righteous, I still read a lot of historical fiction.  It is my favorite genre.  Here are my nominations for the ten best historical novels.  Enjoy at least one of them soon!

Katherine by Anya Seton

I can’t list my favorite novel of all time, Jane Eyre, because it is not historical.  It was contemporary at the time when it was written.  But my second favorite, Katherine, has a plot that is weirdly similar to Jane Eyre.  Both Katherine and Jane fall in love with a married man.  They are both governess to their lover’s child. Both must painfully separate from him as a matter of principle.  And both are (spoiler alert) reunited with their lover later in life.  Katherine and Jane are women with both principles and passion, and I truly believe that these two books helped to form my own character.  I first read Jane Eyre when I was 11 and Katherine when I was 15, and I return to both and re-read them every 10-15 years. Find out more about this book

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

This novel about two sisters trapped the horrors of Nazi-occupied France deeply touched me.  Hannah is absolutely unsparing of her characters.  The sisters both endure and commit unspeakably horrible acts.  This book unmercifully portrays the way women suffer under war and occupation, and it broke my heart to think of women in Syria and other strife-torn parts of the world who are still enduring theses horrors right this minute. Find out more about this this book. Find out more about this book.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

I love this book so much I’ve read it 3 times since it came out in the 1990s.  The historical setting of feudal England is very vivid, the characters are very likable and the justice at the end is extremely satisfying.  Follett does a wonderful job of putting his characters in danger and making you really root for them.  When I wrote my first novel, The Saint’s Mistress, I aspired to this kind of writing. Find out more about this book

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

I’ve read this one twice.  It’s the story of a deserter from the Confederate Army on his way home to his beloved.  Similar to The Nightingale, the author is unmerciful with his characters in this book.  The cruelty of war comes through loud and clear.  What I loved is the message of the book:  that life is full of both light and darkness, and the joy is worth every minute of the suffering.  Find out more about this book.

The Justification of Johann Gutenberg by Blake Morrison

After I finished my first novel, I considered writing about Gutenberg for my second novel.  Then I came across this book, and I realized I could not top it.  This is a wonderful novelization of a real historical character’s life.  We think of Gutenberg as a hero who brought literacy to the masses, but he was also a man who had to make a living, and he was a very flawed human being.  Morrison makes that clear; we see Gutenberg as both generous and mean, brilliant and petty.  My second novel is about another very flawed character, and this book is my inspiration for how to write that kind of person. Find out more about this book

The Treasure of Montsegur by Sophy Burnham

I read this book while travelling in Languedoc, where it takes place.  The main character is a Cathar, a heretical sect of the Catholic church in the 13th century.  Telling her story in the first person from the perspective of old age, Jeanne is a flawed character, similar to Gutenberg.  She is introspective and frank about her own flaws.  I liked how her spiritual life brought her contentment in her old age, in spite of poverty and persecution.  Find out more about this book.

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

I’ve read this one twice, too. It is the story of how the 17th-century plague impacts a small English village.  The language in the book is beautiful, and the main character, Anna, is a humble, poorly educated late-medieval woman but so likable, smart and brave.  I loved how she was allowed to grow over the course of the story.  Find out more about this book.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Alma is a wonderful main character and her life story includes a mid-life hero’s journey.  Gilbert places her character in the middle of the intellectual ferment of the 19th century, especially the profound insights about evolution, and makes Alma’s intellectual quest every bit as fascinating and dramatic as the love story aspects.  For many years, Alma lives in a very small world, where, to have any scope at all, she must live deeply rather than broadly.  A testament to female intellect.  Find out more about this book.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

The story of a blind French girl and a young German soldier in WW2.  No, don’t roll your eyes and think of Nicholas Sparks or something.  This is one of the closest-to-perfect books I have ever read.  The writing is gorgeous, and the story was absolutely perfectly plotted.  The hours leading up to the story’s climax in 1944 are flawlessly interwoven with the longer-term story that starts in the 1930s.  And the story has a moral core, which I always love in a book. Find out more about this book.

The Spectrum by Gary Link

Full disclosure:  I know this author.  But I would not put this book on my top ten list if it didn’t belong there.  This book is actually the second in a series, and is the best in the series.  The main character, John Parker, is a Pittsburgh constable in the 1840s.  A man of deep integrity, Parker also carries inside him a hidden heartache.  The setting is well-researched, and the themes of nativism and the real meaning of the American experiment are timely.  Find out more about this book. e

First Meeting

Posted by on Mar 30th, 2019 in Blog | 2 comments

Here is a sample chapter from my novel in progress, Righteous. It is a novelization of the life of Jane Grey Swisshelm, a Pittsburgh journalist and civil rights activist in the 19th century.

Here is a sample chapter from my novel in progress, Righteous. It is a novelization of the life of Jane Grey Swisshelm, a Pittsburgh journalist and civil rights activist in the 19th century.

March, 1830

The carriage ride back to Edgeworth School was weary and wet.  The day had started with drizzle from a low gray sky, but now rain fell steadily.  Although the carriage was covered, the damp cold seeped through leather boots and woolen coats and bonnets and seeped into Jane’s very bones and organs.  Even Abby and Hetty had ceased the hand-clapping games they had been giggling over and sat hunched and miserable with their hands in each other’s pockets.  Jane longed for such warm companionship, but at least her sturdy, home-knit woolen mittens were warmer than the other girls’ fashionable kid gloves. 

Jane’s mood matched the dismal weather.  Her heart sat heavy in her stomach at the prospect of returning to Edgeworth.  She gobbled at the knowledge like a glutton, but the other girls baffled her.  She couldn’t quite get it right, the niceties of adolescent girls, and their petty cruelties.  They were interested in such silly things:  hair ribbons, garters, games and boys.  Jane longed for admiration for her good grades and her excellent essays, but the other girls didn’t seem to value scholarship. Jane couldn’t figure out what they did value and was too shy to ask, although she longed for a friend with whom she could share her fears of eternal damnation and her efforts to live a life worthy of salvation.  She longed for a friend who would admire her piety, her thoughts of God, her good works.  She ached for a chance to show the girls how good she was; then surely they would like her. 

What if Abby should fall on a solo hike and break her leg? And when what if Jane happened along and helped her back home, all the way back to Edgeworth?  It should be very far, at least 2 miles.

Or what if Hetty became very ill in the middle of the night and Jane stayed up with her all night, cooling her brow with cloths and holding her hand?  Everyone would say how Jane had saved her life by breaking the fever and how brave she was to care for her friend at risk to herself.  Then while Hetty convalesced, Jane would remain loyal while the other girls played outside.  It would be Jane who brought her friend little bouquets and helped her to keep up with her schoolwork.  “Why, Jane,” she would exclaim, “you are so smart and so good!  I never knew!”  And when she was well, Hetty would tell the other girls, “Jane was my true friend when I was so ill.  And, did you know?  She’s awfully smart, too.  Her ideas on salvation are most intriguing.”  For Jane would, of course, also have shared her faith while caring for her friend, as a good Christian must do. 

And yet even to think such things was sinful, almost wishing accidents and poor health on her classmates.  Jane turned away from the girls, as if they might be able to read her thoughts. 

But what if she should come into a fortune?  What if, on a lonely walk one day, it should start to rain and she should be forced to take shelter in a long-hidden cave?  And there she came upon a cache of treasure hidden by pirates long ago?  She would keep nothing for herself, but donate almost all of it to the Covenanter Church for the relief of the poor.  A smaller amount she would use to purchase a beautiful stained-glass window for the assembly hall at Edgeworth.  She would be modestly anonymous until the girls, oohing and aahing at the beautiful window – Jesus in a field of lilies, being worshipped by a group of girls who looked like Jane and her classmates – begged to know how the school could afford such a luxury.  And Miss Harrison would let slip, “Oh, it was donated by Jane Cannon.  And, did you know?  The rest of the treasure she found is being used for poor relief in Pittsburgh.”  And suppose one of the girls’ family had only recently been delivered from destitution, and, before their deliverance, they had been recipients of daily stew from the Covenanter kitchen.  And this girl would come and thank Jane with tears in her eyes.  They would become bosom friends and the girl would confide to Jane that her family had been Heathen Methodists until the Covenanter kitchen not only saved them from starvation but saved their souls also, and now they were firm Covenanters, all through Jane’s benevolence.

The carriage creaked and bumped wearily along.  Jane stopped resisting and let herself sway and jostle with the movement.  As she was beginning to fall asleep, she was jerked back to consciousness by the sound of rushing water.  They were approaching Swiss Creek, but it was just a tiny stream, nothing that would make such a commotion.  Looking ahead, Jane saw that the rains and the snow melt had swollen the creek to a small river that rushed in little white-capped waves over the rocks.  They would have to stop, or detour upstream where the stream might be tamer.

But, Mr. Ball continued to drive the carriage toward what was, in better weather, an easy ford. 

The air noticeably cooled as they approached the stream, and the sound of water roiling over rocks grew louder.  The girls looked at each other, wide-eyed.  It would be disrespectful for young ladies to question Mr. Ball. 

Jane felt the carriage wheel beneath her slide on mud as they neared the ford.

“Mr. Ball!” she cried, “Should we not cross elsewhere?”

“Miss Cannon,” he yelled back, “Mind your business, and I’ll thank you to leave me to mind mine!”  He took one hand off the reins for an instant to wipe rain from his face. 

The horses were in the stream, struggling up the opposite bank, but jerked slightly to one side when Mr. Ball eased off the reins. 

The carriage began to slide sideways in the mud until it turned on its side into the stream, dumping its passengers into the water.

Jane felt herself being carried downstream and struggled to find a foothold or handhold.  She could hear the other girls screaming, but the shock of the icy cold had robbed her of her voice.  The overturned carriage shifted toward her and she grasped at one of the wheels and gripped it, scrambling to climb onto the carriage against the pull of the water. 

Abby was on top of the carriage.  She reached a hand to help Jane up, but their wet hands slid against each other.  Mr. Ball fought to release the horses, who kept struggling to pull the carriage, jostling it so that Abby and Jane clung for dear life. 

Then, through the driving rain, Jane saw a figure running from the nearby farmhouse.

The horses broke free, and with a loud crack the carriage sank. Abby lost her grip and barely grasped the wheel opposite Jane’s   The girls clung to the wheels, their heads barely above water, while the river pulled at them.  Jane felt her grip loosen and was sure she was about to be swept away when the stranger was upon her.  He lifted her in his arms and deposited her on the opposite bank, as Mr. Ball did the same with Abby. 

Where was Hetty?

The stranger dove behind the carriage.  He rose, choking, and dove again, emerging with a limp Hetty in his arms.

He laid her in the mud and turned her head to one side. Hetty coughed, spewing up some water.  Then she coughed again, her chest heaved and she vomited onto the ground.  The stranger picked her up again and ran towards the house with her, leaving Jane, Abby and Mr. Ball to limp their shivering way behind him. 

Jane had never been so cold.  Her waterlogged woolen dress clung to her legs and water squelched in her boots.  Her mittens had been lost in the river and her hands were white and numb.  The farmhouse door was a welcome sight. 

A stout middle-aged woman waited by the fire with blankets to wrap around the unexpected guests.  She seated Jane in a Windsor chair and covered her with a green woolen blanket.  “Sakes alive, man!” she scolded, “What possessed you to try to cross that stream in this weather?”

“’Twas deeper than I thought,” Ball admitted, sinking into a chair and accepting faded patchwork quilt.

“All’s well that ends well,” the stranger soothed.  Jane liked that he quoted Shakespeare.  With the emergency over, she looked at him for the first time.  He was young, perhaps only a few years older than her 14, surely under 21.  But he was a tall, sturdily built man, dark haired and dark-eyed, with a large nose and a firm, square chin.  Jane thought him very handsome, and she turned away lest he catch her staring. 

“I’ve laid the young lady who was underwater in the kitchen, mother,” he said.  “She is breathing, but weak and I think barely conscious.  Could you tend to her?” 

Still shaking her head in disbelief at Mr. Ball’s poor judgment, the old lady bustled towards the kitchen, throwing over her shoulder, “Make these folks something hot to drink, for heaven’s sake, James.”

James smiled apologetically and swung the teakettle over the fire to heat.  “James Swisshelm is my name, and the lady is my mother Mrs.  Mary Elizabeth Swisshelm.  This here is our farm.”

“Joe Ball,” Mr. Ball growled.  Jane suppressed a titter; she’d never known Mr. Ball’s first name.

“And you ladies?” Mr. Swisshelm inquired.

“Jane Cannon,” Jane answered.

“Abby Hamilton,” Abby whispered.  Jane wondered if she looked as pale and sopping as Abby did.

“What brought you folks out in this weather?”

“Taking these young ladies back to Edgeworth School from Pittsburgh,” Mr. Ball replied. 

Mr. Swisshelm nodded.  “Heck of a day for it.  Oh, excuse me, ladies.  I mean, not very good weather for it.”

Ball grunted noncommittally.

“Jane said we shouldn’t try to cross,” Abby piped up.  “She was the only one who tried to warn Mr. Ball.”  Abby gazed warmly at Jane, and Jane flushed with pleasure. 

Ball glared at her.  Mr. Swisshelm raised an eyebrow and looked at Jane.  “Was she now?” he said, as he poured hot water from the kettle into a flowered china teapot.  “I’ll see if I can round up your horses now, Mr. Ball.  It seems that you are your young ladies will be spending the night with us.  We’ll see you to Edgeworth in the morning.”

“Thank you kindly,” Ball said.

The cold wind threw a mist of rain into the room as Mr. Swisshelm went out. 

Warming now, Jane looked around her.  The main room of the farmhouse was very homey and hinted at some modest wealth.  Brocade curtains hung at both small glass windows, and pewter candlesticks and a pair of china dogs stood on the mantlepiece.  The spinning wheel in the corner was large, and etched-glass whale-oil lamps stood on both tables.  A set of stairs led to a full second-floor.  From where she sat, Jane could see into the dining room, which boasted two more brocade-curtained glass windows, and chairs with needlepointed cushions. 

Mrs. Swisshelm returned from the kitchen.  “Well, your third girl I think will survive, Mr. Ball, although whatever you were thinking I can’t imagine.  I’ve got her dressed in a dry nightdress and settled her onto the kitchen bed by the fire.  I mean to take her some of this tea now.  She may resist, but she must be warmed inside as well as out.”  The lady poured some of he tea into four china cups and handed one to each of her guests, then took the last cup back into the kitchen, muttering to herself, “Land sakes, it’s a miracle the girl’s alive.”

Mr. Swisshelm re-entered, removing his sopping hat and coat and hanging them on hooks near the front door.  “Your horses are safely in the barn, Mr. Ball.  Our hired hand is drying them off and feeding them.  It isn’t getting any nicer out there.”  He shook his head, heading for the teapot and pouring himself a cup.  “Care for a little good Pennsylvania whiskey in that cup, sir?”

Ball brightened up.  “Don’t mind if I do,” he replied, with a sideways glance toward the kitchen. 

Mr. Swisshelm winked, withdrew a slim flask from his pocket and poured a portion first into Mr. Ball’s cup and then into his own.  “My mother and I are good Methodists, sir, but on a day like this I think the good Lord forgives.”

A Methodist!  Jane shuddered and felt a pang of disappointment.  Well, they were everywhere, she supposed, not just in Pittsburgh. 

“I made her drink some hot tea,” Mrs. Swisshelm announced as she blustered back into the room.  “And then she went right to sleep.  She’s by the fire and warming nicely.”  Jane imagined Hetty rising like a loaf of bread and suppressed another titter.  She felt a bit light-headed and silly after the close call. 

“Now,” Mrs. Swisshelm continued, “I think you young ladies are warmed enough that it’s time to get you out of those wet clothes.  Lucky for you my girls and their younger brothers are away with their father visiting relatives in Pittsburgh.  We’ve got extra nightclothes, and you girls can sleep in Rose and Eva’s bed.  Mr. Ball, you can sleep with James.  Come, girls, let’s get you into dry clothes now.  Thank heaven James saw your accident and rescued you.  I don’t know what would have happened to you.”  Shaking her head and tsking, she picked up a lamp led Jane and Abby up the stairs.

Jane woke the next morning to icy cold, and pulled the patchwork quilt up to her chin.  For a few minutes, she lay half-awake and then it occurred to her that she might have to go downstairs to fetch her clothing, which had been drying by the fire.  All of her other clothes, that she had packed for school, had surely been lost in the stream.  She felt a pang for her poor mother, who would have to somehow find the funds to re-clothe her. 

Jane’s father had died three years ago, leaving Mary Scott Cannon with two daughters and a son to raise alone.  Mary borrowed money from her parents to open a little store and barely earned enough to pay off Thomas Cannon’s debts and keep her children fed and clothed. 

But Jane’s immediate problem was how to get her clothing while avoiding the embarrassing possibility of running into Mr. Swisshelm while wearing his sister’s nightgown. 

Abby was still sound asleep.  Jane forced herself out of bed and crept on icy toes down the stairs.  She peered around the corner into the living room.  No sign of Mr. Swisshelm.  Jane scurried into the room, and was gathering up her things when Mr. Swisshelm came through the door from the dining room.  She froze.

Mr. Swisshelm turned his head.  “I do apologize, Miss Cannon.” 

Jane picked up her boots and scurried up the stairs, her face warm.  Trembling, her back turned to the bed, she hurried into her clothes.  Oh, how could she ever face him again? 

Her dress, stockings and underclothes were dry and warm.  Her boots were still damp, but there was nothing for it; they must be worn as is.  As Jane stumbled into her boots, Abby turned lazily in the bed and murmured, “Good morning, Jane.”

“Morning,” Jane mumbled.  Abby had barely ever spoken to her before, but she was too mortified to even think of making conversation now and, anyway, she never knew what to say to these girls.  And what would Abby think if she knew that Mr. Swisshelm had seen Jane in a state of undress? 

“My, it’s cold,” Abby complained, stretching her arms above her head. 

Footsteps clumped on the stairs and soon Mrs. Swisshelm appeared with Abby’s clothes.  “Here are your clothes, Miss Hamilton,” she said, “I can’t seem to find..  Oh.  Miss Cannon.  I see you are already dressed.  Well, then.  Get yourselves dressed and ready for breakfast.  Mr. Swisshelm will convey you to school in our wagon.  Your friend Miss Grant seems quite well enough to travel.”  She turned and descended the stairs, muttering something that Jane couldn’t hear but imagined was some complaint about scandalous young ladies who exposed themselves in their borrowed nightgowns to innocent young men.

Mrs. Swisshelm provided her guests with a hasty breakfast of bacon, fried eggs, and bread with apple butter before sending them on their way.  James would hitch Ball’s team to his wagon, and Ball would ride alongside on one of the Swisshelm horses.  The single horse would be able to pull the empty wagon back to the Swisshelm farm. 

It was a fine March day.  A timid bit of sun broke through the retreating rain clouds, and raindrops glistened on the swelling buds of cherry trees.  The Swisshelm property boasted many willows, which tossed their greening tresses like wanton girls.  Early robins chirped, fluttered and fought over worms.

Abby seemed to have forgotten the previous day’s compliments to Jane and their tentative intimacy.  She and Hetty huddled together on the wagon bench opposite Jane, giggling, chattering and playing their hand-clap games, as if Jane weren’t there.  Jane was left to contemplate her many errors in miserable silence.  Her cold hands missed the wooly mittens she had lost in Swiss creek.  She thought again of her lost wardrobe and the trouble it would cost her mother to replace it, and swallowed back tears. 

Shortly before they would reach the toll bridge across the Monongahela into Braddock, Mr. Swisshelm stopped to briefly water the horses.  “Would you care to sit up front with me for the rest of the journey, Miss Cannon?” he asked, not looking at her.  “I’d enjoy the company.”

Jane had already blurted, “Yes!” before she realized her mistake.  What would Hetty and Abby think of her siting on the front seat with a young man she barely knew?  What would they say to the other girls?  Jane’s reputation would be ruined.  Not to mention the mortification of sitting beside a man who had very recently seen her in his sister’s nightgown.  But she had already said yes.  She climbed up, not daring to glance back at her classmates, and looked straight ahead, hands clenched in her lap.

They rode along in silence for a few minutes, before Mr. Swisshelm ventured, “Nice day.  Makes me itch to get a crop in.  I hope we’ll have a dry spring so we can plant early.”

Jane was a city girl who knew nothing of crops, and only hoped for dry springs so that the mud on the Pittsburgh’s dirt streets might not be too deep.  “Yes, I hope you will, Mr. Swisshelm,” she replied.

“So what do you young ladies study there at Edgeworth school?”

“Drawing, singing, literature, mathematics.”

“Mathematics for girls?  Sounds hard.”

Jane did find mathematics to be, if not difficult, at least tedious.  “My favorite is literature,” she blurted.  “I noticed that you quoted Shakespeare last night.”

“I did?”

“Yes, you said ‘all’s well that ends well’.”  You know, from the play of the same name.”

“Well, miss, I have to confess I didn’t know I was quoting Shakespeare.  I’ll be darned.  Oh, excuse me!  But you sure are well-educated.”

Jane blushed and couldn’t think of an appropriate reply.

“May I tell you something else that I admire about you?” he asked.

Jane squirmed and continued to look straight ahead.  “I suppose.”

“I like how you spoke up to Ball there about not crossing that stream.  Took a lot of courage for a little girl to speak up like that.”

“I’m not a little girl.  I’m almost 15.”

“I beg your pardon, miss.  You being so small and dainty I thought you were younger.  What I mean to say, Miss Cannon, is that I feel that you have a good mind and a brave heart and, if it’s not too bold to say, I like that in a woman.”

Jane blushed and dared to look up at him.  “Thank you.”

“I’m not much of one for flibbertigibbet women,” he said, tilting his head backward towards Abby and Hetty.

“How old are you?” she asked, then wondered if it were too bold a question.

“I’m 18,” he replied.  “I’m the oldest son, so I’ll probably inherit the farm.  I’m the one most interested, anyway. My brothers are more interested in commerce.”

It appeared that Mr. Swisshelm had exhausted his conversational topics for the moment, as they approached the bridge.  The wagon wheels and the horse’s hooves were thunderous on the wooden bridge deck.  Beneath them, the Monongahela River ran strong, with small clots of melting ice riding the whitecaps.  Partially-submerged bare trees clawed the river’s edges.  The air on the bridge was icy and muddy-smelling. 

It was slow going through Braddock’s muddy streets, but finally they were ascending the hill to Edgeworth. 

“Nice situation here,” Mr. Swisshelm observed.  “This would be good pastureland for a herd.”

Jane nodded.  She wished she could think of a clever reply, to affirm his judgment of her good mind, but she knew nothing of pastures or herds. 

Jane’s heart sank when they stopped at the entrance to the school.  If only she had been able to think of more memorable things to say to Mr. Swisshelm.  She felt she would remember him for the rest of her life, but that he would have forgotten her by the time he got back to his farm. 

He offered his hand to help her down from the wagon.  At his touch, her heart leapt and her whole arm felt like a beehive. 

He next helped Abby and Hetty down.  Jane stood awkwardly, wondering how to say goodbye, and finally started walking towards the door of the school building.

“Miss Cannon!” he called.

Jane turned. 

“I am sorry that it took such a tragic accident for it to happen, but I am glad to have met you,” he said.

“Thank you for saving our lives,” Jane whispered. 

“It was my duty and my pleasure.  I hope that we may meet again at some time in the future.”

“I, too,” she replied.  But, as she trudged to the door in her still-damp boots, Jane was certain that she would never again lay eyes on Mr. James Swisshelm. 

Business Needs to Fire PowerPoint

Posted by on Mar 15th, 2019 in Blog | 0 comments

Social media is where fingers usually point when critics lament the decline of reading and attention span.  And Facebook and Twitter definitely deserve their bad reputations as attention-span killers.  But in the business world, I think there is another culprit.  I think business needs to fire PowerPoint. 

As a middle manager, a lot of my job had to do with communicating, both up and down.  The people above me absolutely would not tolerate lengthy texts.  Whatever I had to say must be said in 2-3 PowerPoint slides and conveyed in a 30-minute meeting.  And, on this basis, executives made decisions about staffing, spending, and strategies. 

Working in that environment 40+ hours per week, for many years, conditioned me to think that the bullet-point style of communication, because it is efficient, is the best.  I’m starting to question that.  We are awash in information, but lacking in knowledge and wisdom.

Look, I get it: executives are really, really busy.  I agree that they should expect to receive proposals and reports in the format that they dictate.  Their precious time and mental resources shouldn’t be wasted on listening to an employee ramble or having to pick through his idiosyncratic presentation for the key information that they need.  And, a summary in graphic and/or bullet-point format can help to focus attention on the key points. 

Problems with PowerPoint

But there are problems with using PowerPoint exclusively in delivering reports or pitching ideas.

First, the brain doesn’t listen and read at the same time.  Your audience will either be reading the slides or listening to you speak, not both. 

Second, all too often, the winning idea is the one that had the most dazzling graphics and the coolest visuals.  Appearance wins out over content. 

Most important, executives make decisions that impact how millions of dollars are spent, what a company’s strategy will be in critical areas like information security, and – not incidentally – people’s employment and lives.  It’s not reasonable to assume that correct decisions on critical issues can be made on the basis of a 30-minute meeting and 3 slides.  When important decisions must be made, PowerPoint should be, at most, a starting point.  There is no substitute for additional background information and serious deliberation. 

In Aristotle’s Way, Edith Hall describes Aristotle’s 8 steps for making decisions.  The very first one is:  Don’t decide in haste.  Others include verifying the information you have, considering precedents, considering possible outcomes and their likelihoods, and taking into account the perspectives of all impacted parties.  Could you do that in 30 minutes, after looking at 3 pages of graphics?  Do you think anyone can? 

Finally, we do ourselves no favors by habituating ourselves to receiving information in 3-slide summaries.  The more you make decisions based on incomplete, summarized information, the more your capability to study and deliberate will decline.  Executives might be smarter, more self-disciplined and harder-working than the rest of us, but they are still mortal.  Faculties that they don’t use will deteriorate. 

What Amazon Does

Jeff Bezos has famously banned PowerPoint from Amazon’s meetings.  As Bezos put it in a 2012 interview, when you have to write your ideas in complete sentences and paragraphs, it forces you to think.  Yet, a 2011 study found that half of college students surveyed have never had to write more than 20 pages in a typical semester.  If you can’t write clearly, you probably can’t think clearly.  I would add that, if you can’t read anything more complicated that 3 pages of bullet points and graphics, you probably can’t think clearly. 

Alternatives to “Death by PowerPoint”

What is the solution then?  How can we provide business decisions makers with the deep background information that they need to make important decisions, without overwhelming them? 

One idea comes from the process that Amazon uses in place of PowerPoint.  Amazon workers with ideas to discuss must write a 4-6-page memo describing their idea in narrative form, and then defend it in follow-up discussions.  What if lower-level managers had to develop such a narrative and defend their ideas in front of a murder board of peers from related disciplines, before it ever got to an executive?  The members of the murder board would be required to read the narrative and have questions and objections prepared.  This allows managers at lower levels to practice the evaluation skills they will need if they move up the management ladder, and allows bad ideas to be trashed or improved before they reach busy executives. 

Do you have other ideas?  Great!  Just don’t try taking them to upper management with 3 PowerPoint slides.  PowerPoint needs to be fired – or at least demoted to a supporting role. 

Coming up next: This will be my last post on business topics. Next week, I will start posting about my novel in progress.

Avoid These Management Mistakes

Posted by on Mar 8th, 2019 in Blog | 0 comments

In these first weeks of retirement, I’m surprised at how little I think about the job that I left behind.  But, in quiet moments, I am definitely still mentally processing my management career, and I thought of a few more lessons that I want to share.

Don’t Neglect Cross Training!

One of the most common management mistakes I’ve seen is when managers become too dependent on one person on their team.  There are two versions of this.  One is simply neglecting to cross-train. I made that mistake early on.  We had a lot of invoices to process every month, and only one person on my team knew how to do it. 

Did I know that I should get someone else trained on that?  Of course I did.  Did I do it?  Nope. Did I even make sure that I got a good understanding of exactly what she did?  Nope again.  We were constantly buying other banks in those days, we were buried in the work associated with that, and I kept telling myself we’d get some cross-training whenever things slowed down.  Which, of course, they never did.  And then my invoice person took another job in the bank.  We muddled through, with the help of some friends in Accounts Payable.  But you can bet that I got TWO people trained on how to enter those invoices once the crisis was past.

Don’t let a psycho employee steal your power

The other way that management gets too dependent on one person is when they have a power-crazy employee who thinks her job depends on being the only one who knows how to do things right.  I had a co-worker like that many years ago, when I was still a software developer.  She did more work than anyone else on the team – and complained about it.  Often, She would even go to the extent of digging into other people’s code and “fixing” it, whether it was broken or not – and then she complained about that.  She constantly criticized her co-workers and blamed other people for her own mistakes.  Worst, she would keep important information to herself, so that nobody except her knew how to do certain key tasks. 

Then she used her power to bully our boss.  When she didn’t get her way about something, she would threaten to quit, and he would placate her because we would have had trouble functioning without her.  She made life miserable for our boss and everyone else on the team, and I learned a lesson from that.  Here’s what our boss needed to say the very first time she threatened to quit: “Gee, we’ll miss you.”  Take the pain up front, rather than putting yourself in a situation where you are not in control.

Do the up-front work to simplify processes

Another example of taking the pain up front is simplifying processes.  The ultimate solution to my invoice problem was to have fewer invoices.  But that wasn’t easy to accomplish.  We were doing business with 18 different suppliers for the same service, and had about 20 separate accounts with the main supplier.  That’s 37 invoices to keep track of, validate and tediously process every month.  No wonder my invoice person quit!  Once the frenzy of bank acquisitions was behind us, we embarked on a project to consolidate suppliers and accounts.  It took 4-1/2 years of tedious work, to close contracts and migrate boxes of records.  But, when we were done, we were down to 2 invoices per month.  The position that used to be nearly full-time invoice processing is now a growth position, where the incumbent gets an opportunity to learn our business and develop new skills by taking on stretch projects.  Oh, and we ended up saving $6 million.   

But are you really simplifying?

But make sure you’re really simplifying.  When my function reported to Supply Chain, I had a new peer manager who was determined to redesign the Purchasing and Accounts Payable functions.  His proposed new process was so complicated that the flow chart covered two walls of his office.  He somehow convinced our boss to spend several thousand dollars on a plotter-printer just to print all the flow charts.  If you have any experience at all with process improvement, you’ve probably already guessed that this master plan went exactly nowhere.  That manager was ultimately fired, and the plotter-printer lurked in a corner for many years, gathering dust.  I’m not a big fan of explaining everything in a few PowerPoint bullets (see my next post), but if you need a flow chart the size of a Lincoln Navigator to explain your plan, you need a better plan. 

Next week: Why the business world needs to fire PowerPoint

Handling Conflict at Work

Posted by on Mar 1st, 2019 in Blog | 0 comments

conflict at work

One of the hardest aspects of work for me was handling conflict.  I’m the daughter of an alcoholic father, so my childhood taught me that disagreements would tend not to end well for me.  And women of my generation were socialized to be agreeable and to keep the peace.

It’s hard to avoid conflict in almost any job, but it becomes impossible to avoid when you are managing people.   So, when I became a manager, I had quite a hill to climb.  Although I shrank from conflict emotionally, I understood intellectually that I could not avoid it and had to get tougher.

Using my strengths

It’s an HR and self-help shibboleth to focus on your strengths instead of on your weaknesses, and in my case that shibboleth proved true.  It was absolutely key for me that I used my existing strengths to build myself up in this weak area.

Strength 1: Self-control

The top strength that I used:  sheer determination and self-control.  I knew that I had to get better at conflict, and so I just made myself speak up. 

My early attempts were only partially successful.  It wasn’t hard for me to listen to views that opposed mine. And I knew that I had to respond.  What was hard was responding appropriately.  I made the rookie mistakes of trying to placate everyone I listened to, and talking too much.  I used my voice, but I used it too much and in the wrong way, and I spent too much time defending my decisions, which opened me up for more arguments.  And then I allowed those arguments to go absolutely anywhere.

I had one employee in particular who, once he started complaining, could go on for an hour, changing subjects every 5-10 minutes.  That was the first lesson I learned:  stick to the subject.  I was the boss in that situation, and  I had the power to control the conversation and keep it on topic.  Over time, I learned to do that.

Strength 2: Collaboration

I learned to hear people out, make a decision, and then announce in in few words, with no defensiveness.  Using my existing strengths – careful listening, a desire to be collaborative, and an ability to synthesize opposing points of view – gave me the confidence to be firm and decisive.  At first, I was pretending.  I didn’t feel decisive at all.  After a while, my confidence in my decisions grew and I didn’t have to pretend any more. 

Strength 3: Analysis

At first, I had some failures that I had to learn from.  Here, I used my analytical strength. 

In one conversation with a vendor where I had to deliver a demand that was unwelcome, I was met by sneering rudeness by the vendor rep.  This was the very sort of reaction I most feared, and I was caught off guard and speechless. 

I drank a lot of wine that evening, and cried a little, but I also analyzed the conversation and I was ready for him when we met again the next day.  When he again started to belittle our request, I said, “Mark, you don’t have to agree with me, but this is what we are required by our regulators to do, and therefore you have to support it if you want to keep doing business with us.”  We got what we needed, and he was never rude to me again.  Someone else would have said that to him the first time.  I had to think through conversations like that before it became second nature to me to respond firmly. 

Strength 4: Tact

It was hard at first, too, for me to speak up and disagree with my management and my peers.  What helped me here was my strong sense of responsibility.  I knew that it was my job to participate in decisions and advocate for the program that I was managing. I had to force myself to say things that I knew would be unpopular, but that I also knew were right.  Once again, I used strengths that I already possessed – tact and diplomacy – to backstop the difficult necessity of delivering bad news, demands, or contrary opinions.  And I learned that I could deliver those kinds of messages, and usually didn’t get the negative reactions that I feared.

The value of conflict

I always assumed that I was right to avoid conflict as much as I could.  But, learning to handle conflict appropriately taught me that it can be a positive thing.

Conflict is a form of communication, and it often helps us to learn more about ourselves and each other.  As I got better at confronting conflict at work, I also got better at it at home.  I’d always had that passive-aggressive tendency to hold things in until they came out in the form of screaming, tears, or both.  I learned instead to calmly state what was bothering me and what I wanted, and my husband and I got better at negotiating with each other. 

And that employee who did the hour-long rants?  He was still the person I had the most conflict with.  We disagreed about many things.  But, once I learned to set some boundaries with him, our conflict became very productive.  He often had good ideas, and frequently pointed out to me things that I hadn’t noticed on my own.  Our conflicts also helped us to get to know each other personally, and our relationship became quite warm. 

I still like getting along with people much better than I like disagreeing with them.  But constructive conflict is now a tool in my kit, and it not only made me a better manager, it also made me a better human being and enriched my relationships. 

Being a Good Manager

Posted by on Feb 23rd, 2019 in Blog | 0 comments

My last day of work was February 1.  After 24 years as a software developer, project manager and records manager, all I’m managing now is my own time and effort.  I’ve started my next book, and you will hear much more about that in future blog posts.  But, for the next few weeks, I’d like to share some of the wisdom that I earned over the course of my career. 

I enjoyed my work.  It was intellectually challenging and I loved leading a team.  But being a manager in a top-10 bank is also very stressful.  The pace is fast, regulatory pressure is intense, change is constant, and both employees and customers have high expectations.  And the bureaucratic red tape gets redder, longer and snarlier with every year that passes. 

Challenges

One of the biggest challenges for a manager in a large, bureaucratic organization is retaining good employees and keeping them motivated.  Employee retention is a particular problem when the job market is as good as it has been for the past few years.  The best people, the people you don’t want to lose, can go somewhere else and probably get a raise.  Large employers like the one I worked for even encourage employees to move internally and get experience in new areas.  That’s great for the employee, but not so great for the manager who wants to hang on to good, experienced workers. 

You can’t count on being able to give people big raises and bonuses.  Most big corporations are pretty stingy at compensation-review time. 

You can’t count on loyalty to the company.  The work force today is made up of Gen Xers and Millennials, who grew up watching their Boomer parents dedicate years of late nights to big corporations, which then shed them like old coats in the next economic downturn.  Our children learned a lesson from that. 

It took me a while to figure out how to counter those headwinds, but I finally came up with two principles:

Keep them busy

Keep them busy enough.  For a while, my team was overstaffed and I had trouble keeping some of them busy.  Then two people left and I was only allowed to replace one of them – and it took a while to find the right person.  The rest of my team pulled together and got the work done.  One fairly junior person, in particular, stepped up and took on work that I thought was beyond his capabilities.  Lesson learned.  People like to be challenged; they like to be busy.  Don’t be afraid to give people a little more than you think they can handle. 

And, don’t just keep them busy; keep them busy with the right things. Work hard to put people in their sweet spot, doing work that they enjoy, are good at, and which challenges them a bit.  Ignore official job descriptions if you have to, and put people where they can shine.  Are most people working for the paycheck?  Sure.  But, day to day, what the best employees want is the opportunity to do good work.

Build loyalty at the team level

Talk to any war veteran and they will tell you that, in the heat of battle, they aren’t fighting for something abstract like “Freedom.”  They are fighting for the guys on the firebase with them.  To build loyalty to yourself as a leader, you must first demonstrate loyalty.  Be quick to give credit to your team when things go right, and to take accountability yourself when things go wrong.  Advocate for them as best you can at compensation-review time.  Talk to them several times a year about their professional development and encourage them to take training opportunities.  Ask for their feedback and take it seriously.  Remember their spouses’ and children’s names and ask about them. 

And give them opportunities to develop loyalty to each other.  Celebrate birthdays and accomplishments.  Pair an experienced worker with a newer worker on a project.  Conduct regular team meetings and do occasional team-building activities (yes, they feel hokey, but they do work).  Go out and do something fun together as a team occasionally.  And, by the way, you can’t fake this stuff.  If you aren’t the kind of person who really cares about the people you are leading, you shouldn’t be a leader.

When I walked out the door for the last time on Friday, February 1, I was leaving behind a cohesive team who were all doing the work they liked and were good at, and I hadn’t had to replace anyone in over a year (believe me, that is a long time by behemoth-corporation standards).  I had a lump in my throat on the elevator down, a little sorry to leave my fine team behind. But I was confident that they would function superbly without me. 

Coming next time:  How to get comfortable with conflict at work. 

Genetic Testing

Posted by on Jan 21st, 2019 in Blog | 0 comments

My husband is adopted and has never had an interest in finding any member of his birth family.  But, when genetic testing became widely available, he did develop an interest in knowing his genetic heritage.  So, we recently completed one of those mail-in DNA kits.

I wasn’t surprised by what I was: mostly German & French.  I was definitely surprised by what I wasn’t.  My maternal grandmother always said her family was Irish.  Nope.  I have not a single strand of Irish DNA.  We are ENGLISH, interlopers who probably spent a couple of generations in Ireland – and obviously became so culturally assimilated that they thought they were Irish – before moving on to the U.S. 

I also assumed that we must be part Jewish somewhere way back. We have an unusual genetic mutation that is most common in Ashkenazi Jews, and my paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Marx.  Also nope.  No trace of Middle Eastern DNA. 

With my DNA results in front of me in black-and-white, I feel a bond with my ancestors from the German forests, French farmsteads and English villages.  One thing every living person knows:  we are the descendants of people who knew how to survive.  People who worked and fought, and hugged their children or slapped them. Women along the French and English coasts who survived rape by Vikings.   Who knew how to use every single atom of a wooly mammoth carcass, make tools from iron, coax barley and peas and apple trees from the soil.  People with the self-discipline to keep a fire going on the windiest winter night and set aside some of their food for damp, starving February.   They protected their communities from armies, floods, wolves.  They killed other humans when they had to, and eventually had the courage to set forth for an unknown continent.  From them, I got my sturdy thighs, my delicate ankles, my large nose, my Cupid’s-bow upper lip. 

The mother struggling to keep her baby warm in a hut in a German forest some long-ago January had no idea that she was making my life, too, a life where I sleep on a pillow-top mattress in a house warmed by a forced-air furance.  She couldn’t imagine me, and couldn’t have fathomed central heating.  She was just keeping her baby alive.  But I’m alive today because of her.  We are all alive because of someone like her.

This business is being human is less brutal than it used to be, but it is still hard, and nobody gets out of it alive.  And yet we survive.  And sometimes we thrive.  I think of my ancestors drinking their beer and singing hymns in their Lutheran churches, failing in love, cuddling their babies, dancing in the May sun when new leaves unfurled in the Rhineland.  Their lives were hard, but they were surely good, too.  I think of a quote from Marilynn Robinson’s wonderful novel Lila.  She was describing a group of migrants that Lila lived among as a young woman, but it could apply to humanity as a whole. “Pity us, yes, but we are brave, she thought, and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding itself within us.”

Enough

Posted by on Jan 12th, 2019 in Blog | 1 comment

We keep hearing that middle class people are struggling.  Statistics show that wages have risen almost not at all for middle-income people in the past 40 years.  Our children may be the first generation to have a standard of living lower than their parents’.

But, I look around and see what looks to me like over-abundance.  Some of my friends 3000-square-foot houses with granite countertops and built-in swimming pools.  Half the people you see walking down the street are clutching $7 coffee drinks and $1000 phones. 

I hear about co-workers’ vacations to Punta Cana and Cancun. My husband and I take for granted that we will travel to Europe at least every other year.  SUVs clog the roads, $15-a-pound cheese clogs our arteries, and advertisements for jewelry and other luxury goods clog our virtual and physical mailboxes. 

A work friend complained to me how hard it was to save money for her children’s college educations – a month after she had traded up from a $300,000 house to a $450,000 house. 

When will we have enough?  Will we ever have enough?    

Could we maybe reconsider what it means to have a rising standard of living?

What do you really want for your children?  Is it just for them to have a bigger house and bigger cars than you have?  If you grew up in a little 5-room ranch and now have a 9-room McMansion, is it even necessary for your children to have 12 rooms?

I think most of us want other things for our children, even more than we want them to have nice material things.  We want them to have happy marriages and to be good parents.  We want them to have work that they enjoy.  We want them to have some financial security.  We want them to have time to spend with loved ones, or to grow a garden, or to just sit in the yard and read a book.  We want them to be healthy, to have good friends and to live in thriving communities.  We want them to contribute to those communities.  We want them to have lives of quality, not just quantity.

The desire for more stuff drives people to work long hours, compromise their ethics and be in constant, frantic motion. 

The energy that it takes to create and transport our luxury goods is making the planet uninhabitable for our grandchildren.  Some of us don’t believe that because it is inconvenient to believe it.  To believe it would require a choice:  between our luxuries today and our grandchildren’s lives 75 years from now.  I think some of us are afraid that we aren’t strong enough to make the right choice.

Could it be possible to measure our well-being by something other than whether we have more and bigger material things than our parents had? 

I know it’s possible to be perfectly content with a modest lifestyle, because my husband and I have always lived beneath our means.  We’ve stayed in the little 3-bedroom house we bought when we were first married.  For the most part, we still have the same furniture we bought in the 1980s, too.   Other than about 10 years with a minivan when our kids were in school, we have always bought small sedans and driven them until they had to be towed away.  Not only are we pretty happy with our lifestyle, we have always had a savings account and are now in a position to retire very comfortably. 

Think about changing your definition of “standard of living.”  You might find yourself happier.  And you will be doing your part to protect the planet for your grandchildren.

I leave you with this description of the good life from William Henry Channing:  ” To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable; and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly…to listen to stars and buds, to babes and sages, with open heart; await occasions, hurry never…this is my symphony.”

 

Radical Love in the Hague

Posted by on Dec 22nd, 2018 in Blog | 1 comment

After our trip to Amsterdam in September, I’m a great admirer of the Dutch.  I love how neat and pretty they keep their country.  I like that they deeply respect work. The stained glass windows in their Rijksmuseum don’t just honor saints and kings; they honor professions:  everything from philosopher to bricklayer.  They have been literally building up their country for centuries by draining marshlands into tidy canals.  And they are determined to survive climate change.  They have intensified their efforts to keep the sea at bay. Electric cars and charging stations line the streets of their cities, and our train ride into Germany took us past miles and miles of windmills and solar farms.  But they are fun-loving, too; all you have to do is walk down the street and take a whiff!  And they are kind and polite:  Holland and Germany are the only non-US countries we’ve travelled in where people offered us seats on public transportation because of our age. 

I recently read of another reason to admire the Dutch:  Pastors from all over the country are taking turns conducting services in a Protestant church in the Hague as a way of protecting a refugee family who have taken shelter there.  The Tamrazyan family – parents and three children –  fled Armenia for political reasons in 2010.  After a 6-year legal process, the family was denied refugee status by the Dutch government.  They sought refuge first in another church and more recently at Bethel Church in the Hague. 

Under an obscure Dutch law, an arrest cannot be made in a church as long as a service is being conducted.  So 550 pastors from 20 denominations have been conducting services in a relay for the past 7 weeks. 

I don’t know the particulars of the Tamrazyans’ case.  And I understand that Holland, like the U.S., is a country that lives by rule of law.  I also understand that no country can open their doors wide and expect to survive.  There have to be limits and there have to be rules.  And the rules have to be enforced.  Intellectually, I understand and agree with all of that.

But, here’s what my heart says.  My heart is deeply touched by a group of Christian pastors who are undergoing considerable inconvenience to protect a family whose lives may be in danger if they are forced to return to their home land.  I am moved to tears by this brave attempt to live out Christ’s injunction to welcome the stranger and the oppressed.  I remember that this season is about celebrating a time when Our Lord was a baby and his parents homeless refugees. 

My fellow Christians, this is how we win.  This is how we bring the world closer to heaven.  Not by preaching and judging and gathering in our holy huddles.  Not by waiting inertly for the Second Coming.  We win by being Christ and by seeing His face in our fellow men and women.  May we be filled with all the blessings of this Christmas season and may 2019 be a year when we live in radical, Christ-like love. 

Read more about the pastors’ actions HERE.  Photo credit Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times.

Sheep and Goats

Posted by on Nov 18th, 2018 in Blog | 1 comment

Jesus said that at the end of the world “All the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.” (Matthew 25, verse 32, NRSV)

But in Luke 3:6, John the Baptist says “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

And Saint Augustine said, “The line between good and evil is drawn straight through the human heart.”  We all intuitively know that this is so.  Even the most self-righteous among us know deep in our hearts that we fall far short of sinlessness.  And science provides support for this.  Richard Dawkins famously wrote about the “the selfish gene,” the drive to survive at all costs that is inherent in human beings.  But, as far back as Darwin, evolutionary scientists theorized that humans could not have survived without cooperation, and therefore evolution also selects for compassion and altruism.  And some recent evolutionary science supports the theory of inherent altruism (see this excellent article from Psychology Today). God built goodness into our very genetic code. 

I’m a good Lutheran and completely understand that I will never win salvation via good works.  We Lutherans are all about justification by faith.  But…if none of my good works could ever earn me a place in heaven, how could any level of faith get me to heaven?  Relying on your own faith feels to me every bit as mistakenly pious as relying on your own good works. 

What can save us then?  Grace alone.  

If none of us is good enough or faithful enough to be saved or our own merit, the logical conclusion is that we will all ultimately be saved. Or damned, take your pick, but I’m counting on saved. Otherwise what was Christ’s sacrifice for?  Augustine would definitely disagree with me. And the universalist position does raise very serious questions about justice.   I’m not a theologian, just a layperson who likes thinking about these things. I admit that I have no idea how universal salvation would work.

But, in this lovely defense of universalism from the journal First Things, Russell Saltzman puts it beautifully.  “If it was God’s purpose to reconcile the world through Christ, I’ve never felt comfortable saying God can’t have what he wants.”

None of us knows the “day or the hour.” But I hope that what happens at the end of the world is that Christ erases that line through our hearts by separating each and every one of us from our sins.  That feels like a Christ-like thing to do.  Separating people into categories?  Suspiciously human.  

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