Once upon a time there was a very ambitious, successful young man who hoped one day to reach the top spot of his fine organization. In fact, within a few years, he had risen to the position of executive vice president.
Part of the reason for this young man's success came from his emulation of the organization's legendary CEO, Mr. Big. Mr. Big had it all: bold confidence without the swagger, steely nerves without the callousness, thick hair without the Rogaine. The young man astutely observed Mr. Big in action and tried to absorb the great lessons his boss had to teach.
One sunny spring day, as the young man was leaving a grueling senior managers' meeting, he suddenly felt a hand firmly grip his shoulder from behind. It was Mr. Big. "Young man," he said. "You've got a bright future here. But I have a question."
"Yes, sir?" the young man stumbled.
"Have you ever read The One Minute Manager?" he asked.
"No, I always thought those books were full of — "
"Well, think again. Read it. It'll do you good," Mr. Big harrumphed as he abruptly turned the corner.
That night, despite the long, tiring day, the young man could not sleep.
So he turned to the journal that he had recently begun on the advice of a friend. He wrote: Dear Diary, What was Mr. Big trying to say? Am I not a good manager?
He must really think a lot of The One Minute Manager to give it such a heavy-handed recommendation. I'm racked with an aching fear that I have wrongly, arrogantly, skipped the entire genre of business fables. I always assumed these books were filled with candy-ass, trite palliatives. Now my hero, Mr. Big, has all but ordered me to read the granddaddy of them all. So be it! I haven't come this far to screw up now!
PS: Wear your lucky socks tomorrow!
The next morning, the young man was first in line at the local bookstore to buy The One Minute Manager. He went straight to the office afterward and asked his assistant to hold all of his calls for 20 minutes. He wanted to read the book very carefully.
Midway through, the young man came to a passage that he underlined on how the One Minute Manager rewards good work. "When he has seen that you have done something right, he comes over and makes contact with you. That often includes putting his hand on your shoulder or briefly touching you in a friendly way."
The young man was reminded of Mr. Big's hand on his shoulder yesterday (though that was surely a one-minute reprimand, if ever there was one). "Okay," he thought. "I'm going to start being a One Minute Manager by catching someone doing something right."
The young man emerged from his office. "Oh, look! Sheila's getting a jump-start on that project I asked her to do."
"Sheila!" the young man crooned.
Startled, Sheila jumped. "You about gave me a heart attack! What do you want?"
The young man, towering over Sheila as she sat dumbstruck in her chair, put both hands firmly on her shoulders, then gently rubbed her bare arms all the way down to her fingers. His eyes were closed as he thought about how to phrase his positive reinforcement. "Uh-oh!" the young man said, just then realizing that he crossed the clear line drawn each year for managers in a mandatory sexual-harassment training class. "No, Sheila, I just wanted to compliment you on — "
"Yeah, I know what you wanted to compliment me on," Sheila bellowed. "Get the hell out of here, you sick pervert."
"Aarrrgggh!" the young man yelped, and ran back to his office.
It took only 15 minutes for Debra Hirschorn from HR to summon him downstairs. Once there, he found his boss, Mr. Levy, joined by someone from the legal department. After a searing 15-minute harangue from Mr. Levy, the young man was given a stark choice: Be demoted to regional manager or leave. Without even putting up a defense, he took the new job.
Mr. Levy, sympathetic to the young man's plight, took him aside and said, "Young man, it's a real shame that this happened. But you can bounce back. Life is all about dealing with the changes thrown at you." Mr. Levy paused, took a long look at the young man, then continued. "Have you ever read Who Moved My Cheese? I haven't myself, but I hear it's a great book to help someone through a situation like yours. The lessons in there are a precious gift."
Having been sent home for the day per HR policy, the young man went to a cafe across the street from the office and began to write in his journal.
Dear Diary, Where did I go wrong? I don't know. But I'm going to follow Mr. Levy's advice and bounce back. I'm going to buy Who Moved My Cheese? Although for a 94-page book, $19.95 is kinda pricey — but, hey, that's 21 cents' worth of wisdom per page!
The young man started his new job with a fresh attitude. He devoured Cheese over a quick breakfast, determined to make the most out of Mr. Levy's recommendation.
"Having cheese makes you happy!" This line from the book kept echoing in the young man's head like a broken record.
During his lunch break, the young man walked six blocks to the grocery to buy an array of cheeses. "Cheese for everyone!" he announced to his new coworkers. It was a bit metaphorical, even silly, but it showed that he was someone who could be counted on, a real cheese sniffer as it were. The idea was brilliant. People got it and revered the young man for his stroke of genius.
Inspired, the young man went back to the cheese shop for more once everyone else had gone home. His employees would return in the morning to an office crammed with cheese in every open space. He turned off the light and locked the doors.
The next morning, the young man arrived at the office only to find a throng of people lingering out on the sidewalk. There was even a city fire engine and a sanitation-department official there. Before he could ask what happened, he saw his boss, Mrs. Littleperson, waving her finger at him, shouting, "There he is! There he is!
"That stunt you pulled must have attracted every guinea-pig-sized rat in the city. It's like the Middle Ages in there. Didn't it occur to you that leaving 40 pounds of cheese out overnight wasn't such a great idea?" Mrs. Littleperson barked.
In his defense, the young man said, "The quicker you let go of old cheese..."
Debra Hirschorn from HR tapped him on the shoulder, interrupting him. "I think you'd better come with me."
Once again, the young man faced a stark choice: Take a position as a junior account executive in the company's worst department or resign. He chose to stay.
"They call the place a 'toxic energy dump,' " Hirschorn said cryptically of his new department. "Here, you'll need this."
She gave him one of her many copies of Fish! — which she fully intended to read someday — in the hope that the young man's morale could survive. Despite recent events, she recognized his talent.
That night, he read through Fish! He liked what the fishmonger said about working at Seattle's Pike Place Fish Market: "Working in a fish market is cold, wet, smelly, sloppy, difficult work. But we have a choice about our attitude while we are doing that work." Before going to bed, he took out his journal and wrote.
Dear Diary, Fish! is right. This new department doesn't have to be a toxic energy dump. Look at what Mary Jane did in the book to get her toxic energy dump cleaned up: Play. Make someone's day. I should write these down again so I don't forget. Play. Make someone's day. It took three authors to come up with that, one of whom has a PhD. This must be a great philosophy for me!
Over the next few weeks, the young man tried to implement the book's lessons. He built a boccie court in the hall so everyone could play. He'd surprise his cube mates by bringing smoked-salmon canapes or make a neighbor's day by offering to watch her dog for a week. The department, slowly but surely, was becoming a great place to work. The world was righting itself. Fish! had really unlocked some powerful secrets — or so he thought.
One evening, as the young man walked to his car from the office, he heard some voices up ahead but couldn't see anybody. Then all of a sudden, Joey, his cube mate, jumped out from behind a large SUV.
"Joey, hey, th — "
Joey clocked him in the jaw, knocking him to the ground. As the young man rolled over, he saw his coworkers scowling at him.
"Yeah, that fish cracker you gave me — what'd you call it, a canopy? Turns out it gave me a case of the worms," Joey growled. "I broke my ankle on one of your boccie balls, jerk," another shouted. A woman in the back piped up: "You gave my dog fleas!"
Then Joey, wearing a pair of work boots, kicked the young man in the stomach — hard. He bent down and whispered, "Just let us all do our miserable jobs and be miserable about doing them, or next time you won't get off so easy, Mr. Happy. Capice?"
The next day, Debra Hirschorn from HR found the young man — swollen and bruised — waiting outside her office.
"Oh, my! What happened?" she asked.
"Let's just say I forgot to wear a HazMat suit to the toxic energy dump," the young man mumbled from his gauze-stuffed mouth. "I need a new job — anything!"
"All I can offer you is a janitor position we're desperately trying to fill," she said. "And since technically you don't have any felonies on your record..."
"I'll take it," the young man said bitterly.
The next day, the young man reported to his new boss for work. "Hey, kid," the shift manager said as he chomped on a cigar. "I hear that you've been having a rough time of things. Here, my boss gave me this, but maybe you could use it more than me."
He handed the young man a new best-selling Spencer Johnson book called The Present. He read the tagline aloud: "The Gift That Makes You Happier and More Successful at Work and in Life, Today!"
The young man gazed at the wizened old shift manager for a moment, then slid the book into his trash can. They both finally broke the awkward silence with a roaring laugh.
"Thanks," the young man said. "I really needed that."
Just then, from a corner of the office came heavy, pounding footsteps. It was Mr. Big. The boss strode purposefully past the janitors, but then suddenly stopped. "Young man, is that you?"
"It's me, sir," the young man answered in full executive vice president mode.
"I heard about all the terrible stuff that you've endured lately. What happened?"
"Well, sir," the young man answered. "I say this with all due respect, but frankly, all this started when you told me to read The One Minute Manager."
"My goodness, son! You actually read that book? Are you crazy? Those business fables are poison. Nobody actually reads them; they just buy them and throw around a few of the terms!"
"But, sir, you told me to read it."
"That can't be. I would never say...oh, my! You're right."
"I must have gotten carried away in my managerial showboating! Please forgive me! I'm so ashamed!"
"You ruined me! In four short weeks and three fables!" the young man cried.
"I make this solemn pledge to you, young man: You will come back to your job as executive vice president, and I will clear your record. But first, I must ask that you attend a six-week course that will help wash away any memories of those books."
Then Mr. Big drew the young man in for a businesslike bear hug. All was forgiven. The years passed and Mr. Big retired, but not before choosing the young man as his successor. The young man flourished and successfully remained in the top spot for years to come. And he did it all because he never read another business fable again. It was that easy.
Fast Take: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fables (but Were Afraid to Read)
The One Minute Manager
By Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson (Berkley Books, 1983)
Comes with a handy crib-notes flowchart on the back page: Have your employees set one-minute goals (written on one sheet, read in one minute). For every goal that's achieved, offer up a one-minute praising. If the goal isn't achieved, give a one-minute reprimand. Rinse and repeat. Business should be fast, but not this fast.
Who Moved My Cheese?
By Spencer Johnson (Putnam, 1998)
The much-discussed cheese of the title is a metaphor for what we want in life. Cheese moves, so get ready. Know when the cheese is going to move (try smelling it, the book suggests). Savor new cheese, but not too much — inevitably, it'll move again. Basically, embrace change no matter what and enjoy it. It's easy to gag on this cheese.
By Stephen C. Lundin, Harry Paul, and John Christensen (Hyperion, 2000)
Despite working in a smelly, dirty, rough place, the guys at Seattle's Pike Place Fish Market made their jobs productive and fun. You too can create a sunny, blissful office environment no matter how bad the place stinks. Just don't annoy everyone by taking the "throw the fish" metaphors too literally.
By Spencer Johnson (Doubleday, 2003)
Don't live in the past; don't sweat the future. Rather, learn from the past and plan for the future. Do this, and you will experience pure happiness right now. Thus Johnson's present (as in wrapping paper and bow) to readers is the present (as in today). Operators are standing by. All sales are final.
The Art of Profitability
By Adrian Slywotzky (Warner Business Books, 2002)
There are no quick-and-easy, large-print formulas here (and we're forever grateful). Slywotzky intelligently deconstructs how successful profit makers such as Microsoft and Intel achieve healthy margins. Even better, he instructs readers on the first page to read only one chapter a week so the lessons can soak in. After reading a dozen of these books, how nice to have real lessons to absorb.
A version of this article appeared in the July 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.