Finding the amazing in your workplace | Column

By Mike Cook
Courtesy to The Bellingham Business Journal

I arrived at our office extra early one morning a few years back to find one of our employees sleeping on the couch in the reception area.

As she heard the door unlock she awoke, stretched and said, “good morning,” as I put down my briefcase.

“Did you sleep here all night?” I asked. “Yes,” was her short answer, blushing like she thought maybe she had done something wrong.

So I asked: “What’s up with that?”

“Well, I sort of got a bit behind on the preparation for the big workshop that kicks off at noon today, and I know you guys like to get there well ahead of time so I figured you’d want to be leaving from here early today and I’d better be ready.”


In the 20-plus years that I owned the small consulting business I founded in 1989, behavior like this was not uncommon. People taking the initiative and demonstrating extraordinary action to produce unpredicted results seemed to be the norm.

I had to remind myself frequently that the environment we had created was in many ways an ideal, and that this was my employees’ gift to the company.

And no one ever was criticized for taking the initiative. If there were messes made, we worked together to clean them up.

Please understand, we were by no means perfect. We were not strong in new business development. Our products were mostly one-off creations that made administrative preparation chaotic. We tried some things that really didn’t work and cost a lot of money.

And not everyone we hired wanted as much freedom to operate as we offered, nor the accountability we expected. So, not everyone we hired worked out.

But enough did.

When we moved to our new offices about 15 years ago, I wanted a great looking office environment. I knew that would not happen if I was involved, so I asked a couple of our administrators (who I knew had great taste) if they wanted to take it on.

Amazing! Fabulous colors, great art pieces and inexpensive, too, which was important. And I didn’t make a single design decision.

At one point we needed a new copier. I asked one of the administrators what she thought a suitable copier would cost. She said maybe $5,000. So I said: “Ok, you can spend up to $5,000 on a new copier, pick the one you think will work best for us.”

She was 22 years old and had never spent $5,000 at one time in her entire life. She did a terrific job. Amazing! And she came in well under budget.

We were in the late stages of a merger when I was approached by two members of our administrative staff who asked to meet privately. It turned out that the purpose of the meeting was to let me know that they felt the merger would be a big mistake.

They expressed their desire to preserve the working climate we had established and had serious concerns about the principals of the firm we were planning to merge with.

They shared their experience of being treated in a dismissive manner by both the owners of the other firm when we had hosted a meeting in our office, as well as on other occasions. My partner and I listened sincerely to their concerns.

Two days later we called off the merger. The two employees had caused us to face an uneasy feeling we had both been having for some time, but had not talked about. Amazing!

It has been a while since I reflected back on these events. I was reminded of them and similar occurrences recently when I was reading Seth Godin’s book, “Poke the Box.”

This is not so much a book as a long diatribe, and he says as much himself several times. He calls it a manifesto for initiative.

In one place in particular, he points to the infrequently addressed truth that much of the work we offer employees is not all that exciting or naturally engaging. And they trade their most precious resource—the time of their lives—to work in our organizations.

Godin says: “[T]he nature of most work is inherently unremarkable. … If you staff with cogs, if you have a three-inch thick policy manual, then the chances of amazing showing up are really quite low.”

From this remark I took the point that if your place of work doesn’t hold the possibility of “amazing” for the employees, then why would the customer, clients, call them what you will, ever be amazed?

Oh yes, about that employee who spent the night in the office.

I asked her to not ever do that again, but I never checked up on her. I wonder how that worked out.

Mike Cook is a management developer who lives in Anacortes, Wash. He publishes a weekly blog at

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