My cousin and I would spend a week at each other’s houses during the summer months when he and I were young boys. Our home had a horse, a fishing pond, and over a thousand acres of woods. But my cousin Rob had comic books…a gazillion comic books. We would lie on a wooden picnic table under a giant sycamore tree and read them for hours. But the best part was what followed.
We became Batman and Robin or the Lone Ranger and Tonto or Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday. We would reenact the elaborate stories we had just read. It was a lot like a group of grown men playing touch football on the front lawn after the game on TV had ended. Our imaginations ran wild, and we dreamed of being famous cowboys…until the requirement of chores shook us down out of our clouds and back to reality.
Yet we were more than entertained by the “let’s pretend.” We were inspired and changed. Once, while leaving a Saturday afternoon matinee, we saw a boy that Rob knew, picking on a girl. Rob pushed him down and told him to pick on someone his own size. He later told me he read in a comic book that Roy Rogers did that when someone was rude to Dale Evans.
Use Role Models to Elevate Standards
Role models are important for lessons learned. But they also give us a peephole into what is possible, and what we can become. A friend who owns a successful dry-cleaning business pays for his new hires to have lunch with a colleague at a nearby Ritz-Carlton Hotel. He has only one request for the new employee. “Notice how they serve you,” he would tell them. “And come back and tell me ways you can help our customers have experiences more like the ones you received at the Ritz.”
The idea started as an experiment. However, it became practice when his first employee came back with the idea of having a “bring your child to the dry cleaners” day on a Saturday. Kids got a tour of the back operation where clothes were cleaned. With their parents’ permission, they had their photo made and placed on the reception area bulletin board as “Junior Dry-Cleaning Experts.” It was a big hit with customers who saw their child’s photo every time they came in to pick up or drop off clothes.
At the end of World War I, one of the most popular songs was the hit, “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree.” The premise was that after farm boys went off to fight the war in Europe and saw magnificent cities like Paris, the farm to which they returned would be dull and bland by comparison. My friend tells me that with the Ritz experience in their heads, employees learned what excellent service looked like and replicated the style and manner they had personally witnessed. Look for ways to use role models to help your employees learn and value a high standard of performance.
As I have reflected on my youthful comic book experiences, what I recall most was reading the comics together. Rob and I took turns reading the stories, enabling us to witness the same “pictures in our heads, collectively.” It gave us the confidence to go beyond what we might have done on our own. We experimented, embellished, and elaborated on the stories we read. If the Lone Ranger could do it, we could do it even better, or indeed, in a smarter way. When Rob’s friend Louis joined us, we created a role for him that was not even in the comic book story.
We often work in a world that is “do your own work” biased. Performance reviews are rarely about collective labor. The preference for individual learning has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced us to avoid close contact with others. We now search for online learning since classroom experiences are dangerous. But, do we help facilitate “transfer of learning” like collective comic-book reading nurtured new applications? Do we support co-learning, even if some of the competence-building happens alone?
Make learning together relevant
My financial advisor is with a large well-known financial services firm. He reports that his team has been spending a lot of time doing online learning, with a twist. Virtual weekly staff meetings include agenda time to discuss what was learned and how it could be applied, not just in individual practice, but in collective practice as a firm. What are the ways you can make learning together as inviting and relevant as learning on your own? Comic book reading, like effective learning, is not just for more information, but also for greater insight and implementation. As my cousin can tell you, reading about cowboys is not nearly as compelling as being one.
Comic books were so popular during my childhood that some morphed into Classics Illustrated. When my cousin and I got to junior high we were required to read The Three Musketeers, Ivanhoe, and Moby Dick. We laughed about how we went first to our collection of Classics Illustrated comic books. Re-reading the comic book before tackling the prose with no pictures made me realize how impactive they had been under a sycamore tree on a summer morning. But I also realized the power lay, not just with the colorful medium, but with the learning partnership that was its context.