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Business is just like high school


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Meryl Streep once famously remarked in a commencement address to college students: “You have been told that real life is not like college, and you have been correctly informed. Real life is more like high school.”

Remember the important stuff you used to worry about in high school, such as where you sat, with whom you sat, what you wore and how confident you appeared when you tried to talk to girls? Now you’re 40 or 50 and a business executive, and guess what? Nothing changed! Oh, you probably don’t worry about acne anymore, but the rules of the lunchroom still prevail.

I help executives succeed, and some of that consists of technical skills such as strategic planning, organizational structure design and financial acumen. However, more of it involves “lunchroom” issues such as communicating clearly, deciding with whom and where you spend your time, learning to engage in healthy conflict, developing confidence, solving problems and determining how to do your homework without pulling all-nighters!

Sometimes the behavior that got you into trouble in high school, if directed appropriately, can actually be helpful in the work environment. Remember the brainiac kids from high school whom you were always jealous of? Many of them didn’t learn the emotional intelligence skills or appropriate risk taking to succeed in executive suites and are crunching numbers in a cubicle. (The combination of IQ and EQ, however, is what took a few of them to positions of greatness — not always associated with a title.)

I worked with Paul Orfalea, the founder of Kinko’s, for quite a few years. He would frequently say, “The A students work for the B students. The C students run the company, and the D students dedicate the buildings.” (As a D student, he went on to dedicate a few buildings!) Like Steve Jobs, Paul was prone to bending reality, but the point of his story is sometimes true. High school behavior often carries the day. When you’re 50 and running an organization, no one gives a hoot whether you remember the symbol for xenon on the periodic table. (I had to look it up … it’s XE.)

Recent work by some MIT and Harvard folks point out that there is real bottom line impact in getting your people to interact more frequently in the lunchroom. It turns out that the companies where people actually spend time together (yes, face-to-face) get better bottom-line results. (Here’s a link if you’d like to listen.)



So put away your iPhone for a minute. Don’t send that text. Don’t update Facebook. Go find a human being to talk to in the lunchroom.

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Todd Ordal

Todd Ordal is president of Applied Strategy®. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Todd is the author of Never Kick a Cow Chip On A Hot Day: Real Lessons for Real CEOs and Those Who Want To Be (Morgan James Publishing, 2016). Connect with Todd on LinkedIn, Twitter, call 303-527-0417 or email todd@toddordal.com.

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