24 amazing hours

I’m home from the IBM Technical Leadership Exchange in Anaheim, where I spent two interesting days and then 24 amazing hours.

The interesting days were filled with useful sessions and conversations, and I’ve written a bit about them on my internal blog; there are a few things I could write about here, too, but I’m not going to bother, because the last 24 hours have been so incredible.

It started on Tuesday night. There was a “networking event” for the conference, at Disney’s California Adventure, and from all reports, a good time was had by all. I wasn’t there, though, for two reasons. I’d just been there in August during Worldcon, and I had a more important engagement. One of my colleagues who lives in Los Angeles (we’ll call him “Dr. K”, though his real name is Steve Krantz) had decided to retire at the end of May, and his manager and many of his friends (including me) were here. So his manager invited 24 or so of us to dinner at The Catch of Anaheim. I’m glad I didn’t have to submit the bill for reimbursement, because the beverages flowed fairly freely, and food wasn’t inexpensive, either. But even though the food and drink were great, that wasn’t what made the evening memorable. It was the love (not a term I use for work-related events very often!) that perfused the table, born of respect for Dr. K and his influence on all of us.

Dr. K is in the CIO organization, as was almost everyone at the table but me; one of the few other non-CIO people was a person considering taking up a rotational assignment in the CIO team. I don’t know if he’s made up his mind about the assignment or not, but I can think of no better advertisement than last night’s dinner. (I’m not in the CIO organization, by the way, but I’ve worked with (and against) Dr. K for over a dozen years, and it’s always been a pleasure — even when we’ve been on opposite sides of an argument.)

Dinner ran a little late, and morning had to come early; we’d been asked to come to the general session 15 minutes early today to allow enough time for the two speakers. So I wasn’t in the best of spirits when I arrived.

Our first speaker was Ginni Rometty, Senior VP for Global Business Services. She’s a good speaker — unlike most IBMers, she is able to speak without PowerPoint (though she did use one slide today). And what she had to say was interesting and relevant. And the Q&A was useful. But, somewhat to my surprise, she was strongly encouraged to finish quickly and introduce the morning’s second speaker. Senior VPs are rarely asked to give up the stage, but I thought it might have been out of courtesy to a non-IBM speaker.

And perhaps there was a little of that, but I’m sure that wasn’t the real motivation.

Our second speaker was Ben Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, and he treated us to two hours of transformation. I can’t do justice to his presentation — it was high-energy, high-touch, high-contact, and high-value. We sang Happy Birthday to an audience member (and I’ll never sing Happy Birthday again without remembering today); he talked about distinctions and developing categories; he showed us the difference between playing music and performing it; he explained how he only teaches “A” students and why giving someone an A frees you to tell them the truth; he showed us one-buttock playing; he gave us the secret of life and Rule Six; and finally, he led us in singing the Ode to Joy — in German.

I’ve left out much that he gave us; but I plan to live it. And now I can add another item to my CV: I’ve sung — twice — under the direction of the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic.

It’s hard to really describe the impact of his presentation, but perhaps the most startling fact is this: there were 4700 IBMers in the room…and not one open laptop that I could see (I’ve been told that there were, indeed, people using laptops, at least at times, but I didn’t see any where I was sitting).

After the performance, many of us followed him to the TLE Bookstore, where he signed copies of his book, The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. They’d brought in 500 copies, and they were gone within ten minutes. There was a long line of people who wanted their copy signed; I couldn’t wait, because I needed to check out of the hotel, but when I returned 30 minutes later, he was still signing books and talking to everyone. So I chose to miss a bit more of the next session in favor of getting my book signed and having a chance to thank him for the experience.

I’ve ordered three of his discs with the Boston Philharmonic: Beethoven: Symphonies No. 5 & No. 7, Mahler: Symphony No. 5 – Benjamin Zander / Philharmonia Orchestra, and Mahler: Symphony No. 9 / Zander, Philharmonia Orchestra. They should be here tomorrow; I can’t wait to listen to them.

But Ben’s presentation wasn’t the end of the conference. No, there were two more slots left. Or, to be more accurate, 1.3, since I’d chosen to spend time getting Ben’s book rather than going directly to the session I’d chosen, the first of two parts of “Unleashing Your Possibilities: Creating What You Want”, taught by Therese Kienast of Radical Leadership.

I thought about blowing off the session and just going outside — it was a lovely day in Anaheim. But I didn’t. And when I finally made it to the third floor of the Convention Center and entered Ballroom D, I was asked immediately to move towards the front instead of staying at the back, because sharing and participation was part of the program. So I did.

I’d arrived just in time to be asked how much of my time was spent in running the Trickster Triangle, moving (mentally, at least) between victim, hero, and villain. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on, but it was clear that running the Triangle wasn’t a good thing. And, after a few minutes, and a few (sanctioned) conversations with my neighbor, I had more or less caught up. Just in time for lunch.

Lunch was actually part of the class; we were asked to sit together, with people we didn’t know. I didn’t quite succeed in that, since I discovered that I’d actually met one person many years ago, when he and Ed Costello used my Gopher server to host MVS manuals on the Internet, but we decided that was OK. And I wound up hardly talking with him anyway, since he was too far away. Instead, I talked to my immediate neighbors, and I may wind up mentoring one or two of them as a result.

The second session of the class was also worthwhile; we talked about radical leadership, choice, and responsibility. On an ordinary day, it would have been an amazing high point — but a day with Ben Zander isn’t an ordinary day. So the class was merely excellent.

And then TLE was over. But my run of good luck wasn’t — I was able to get an earlier flight home, and even had an empty seat next to me.

There were many good technical sessions at the TLE; I suspect most people concentrated on those sessions, because they were immediately job-relevant. Although I did attend one or two such sessions (and even got some job-relevant information on structuring presentations at one of them), I don’t think they’re the real value of a conference like TLE, any more than the programming courses I took at RPI were the real value of my education there. Technical skills are short-lived; what’s important is learning how to learn, and how to make the world a better place. This TLE offered much in those areas, and I’m very glad I was able to take advantage.

12 thoughts on “24 amazing hours

  1. Yep, it was Pete, and we did talk about the ginger beer (which I think you did supply, though I’m not sure about the screen wipes). I’ve fixed the link; apologies!

  2. Hi David. Hi Ed.

    David is right about the 24 hours. This is what I wrote on my internal blog about one part of it: “I am tempted to say that Benjamin Zander was the most amazing transformational (he resists the term motivational) speaker I have ever heard. But, I have heard and forgotten many such speakers, so I will revisit this topic in a month to see if I sing happy birthday to my 5-year-old daughter with as much warmth and feeling as the entire team of 4000 IBMers did to a random IBMer during Zander’s talk.”

  3. My birthday was on the 18th, too: care to share the secret of singing with feeling?

    And gee… how come we average people don’t get treated to amazing experiences like these? Seriously, sometimes I think something is very wrong in the world when only the kids in the “gifted” class get the enriching educational experiences.

    (That wasn’t meant to sound snarky, but I guess it might… my apologies.)

  4. I’ll try — but it’s not something I can do over the web. :-)

    Pete found a short version of one of Zander’s presentations at http://www.teachers.tv/video/5086 — I haven’t watched it yet, but it’s almost certainly worth checking out (the reviews there are quite favorable).

    There was a lot of discussion at the event about how to spread the wealth (this was my first time at a TLE or its predecessor), and we were all encouraged to “Pass it On”. But there is a difference between being there and getting it second hand, and there’s no way around it.

  5. Pie. I remember owing a pie from somewhere near RPI. That is highly unlikely to happen.

    I read the Zander book several years ago and found it to be thought provoking. The challenge with experiences like this is to actually do something with it, otherwise it festers in the back of your mind and before you know it a year has passed.

    Hi Pete! Hi Diane!

  6. That would have been a cheesecake from what is now the late, lamented Platt’s Place. It was replaced by a Buca di Beppo — not at all the same thing. *sigh*

  7. I have to agree with David. Benjamin Zander was amazing. This was the first TLE I’ve gotten to attend, I hope there are more. My pass it on effort is to create a set of DVD’s (unless the conference does it) containing the presentations and audio for my team.

    I do have one question. I’ve gone back and listened to the audio recofding of his talk trying to find the piece of music he described as being at 108 beats per minute. Memory indicates a Chopin piece but past that I can’t remember. It was in relation to a comment to remember a person as he performed it.



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