Meet Scott Adams

first_img Comments are closed. World-famous cartoonist Scott Adams explains to DeeDee Doke how he canrelate the world of his cartoon characters to the world of human resources andgives his definition of key HR conceptsThe northern California neighbourhood where cartoonist Scott Adams lives isAmerican suburbia perfected to the highest possible gloss – a world far removedfrom the beyond-bland cubicle city inhabited by Adams’ sad-sack creationDilbert and his woebegone, evil or incompetent co-workers and bosses. Through the worldwide circulation and wild appreciation of Dilbert, Adamshas unquestionably earned his success, his millions and his right to live in abeautiful, big house – but somehow, it’s a relief to find wayward grass pokingits way through the flagstones on his patio. Too much polished perfection wouldnot be worthy of the cynical voice of the modern workforce. Adams is no longer merely a best-selling artist and author, however. He ownsa restaurant and is building a second. He also heads up Scott Adams Foods,which makes and sells the vegetarian Dilberito, a product Adams believes hasthe potential of becoming “the blue jeans of food”. In short, he’sjoining the ranks of dreaded management through entrepreneurial enterprise. Buthe follows a few HR rules of his own making to create his ideal workplace. “The fewer the employees the better,” says Adams “So for myfood company, we have national distribution but just one employee – and he ownsa percentage of the company – and he’s qualified. So I know he knows what todo. And I know he knows he wants to do it because his income is directlyaffected. So it practically manages itself. Anything that he wants to do, hejust has to make a case, and I almost always say yes. So that’s actually prettyeasy. “The restaurant’s a similar deal. I’m primarily the financial investor,and my business partner does all the managing. Then we split the money.” Boyish and bespectacled, Adams laughs easily. Although he originally hailsfrom upper New York State, his speech has acquired the Californian lilt of aquestion at the end of every sentence. He earned a Bachelor’s degree ineconomics from Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, then an MBA fromUniversity of California at Berkeley “just for the credentials”, heconfesses. He shares his home with the fabled Pam, whom he always thanks in thecredits of his books, and two cats – one who likes visitors and one who hidesfrom them. At six, Adams knew he wanted to be a world-famous cartoonist. “Thatkind of went away when I realised there were only a few of them. There werefour billion people on earth at that time, and there were maybe six with thejob I wanted, so the odds didn’t look good,” he explains. “So Ithought I’d be a be a lawyer or something. But I always thought that, at somepoint, I would do something entrepreneurial and that I would be wildlysuccessful. I always irrationally believed that.” Dilbert was launched in 1989, when Adams worked for the telecoms companyPacific Bell, and the cartoon became a true international hit between 1995 and1998. Adams left in 1995 at the company’s request. “I had an arrangementduring my last year or so that whenever I was more trouble than I was worth,they just had to ask me to leave because I didn’t need to work there at thatpoint. One day, they needed the budget more than they needed me, and my bossasked me to leave,” he says. But did he go quietly? Not quite. His bearded boss’ last words to Adams were”please don’t introduce a character with a beard”. So the firstcharacter he introduced after leaving had a beard. “Except it was aspecial beard,” Adams says, perhaps a shade too deadpan. The character, headds, was “too dumb to be able to grow it down his chin, so it came out ofhis forehead”. Adams’ perception of the HR professional is reflected in Dilbert’s worldthrough the character of ‘Catbert, the evil director of HR’. “The fewtimes when I leave out ‘evil’, just for space, I get letters from people saying‘Why isn’t he evil anymore? We like him evil!’” Originally drawn into the cartoon as an anonymous cat for a one-day stand,reader interest spurred Catbert’s addition as a regular member. Adams wonderedwhat kind of job the character should have. Then it struck him.”Personality wise, the cat seemed like the perfect director of HR, becauseif you think about it, a cat doesn’t really care if you live or die, but itwouldn’t mind playing with you before you go. So that seemed to fit the HRpeople I’d been familiar with. And it hit a chord because the HR peopleembraced it. It was a perfect marriage.” The ‘evil’ in the title is no mistake, Adams insists. “Catbert reallyconveys pure evil, and at some level, I think HR people are relating to thefact that they are the agents of evil. I mean, the whole point of anyleadership is to get people to do things they didn’t want to do on their own.Otherwise, why would you need leadership? So if there could be a more perfectdefinition of evil, I don’t know what it would be. I don’t think theynecessarily enjoy being evil all the time, but they’re fully aware that they’rethe carriers of evil.” Both in his early banking career and during his stint at Pacific Bell, firstas a budget analyst and then as an engineer, Adams encountered the kind ofsurreal workplace scenarios that give Dilbert its ‘been there, done that’credibility. “This is a good HR story,” he says about when he leftPacific Bell. “It was a time when the company was downsizing. So if youever downsized anybody, since they were trying to downsize by attrition, youcould never hire anybody to replace them. So within a group, if you had more ofa need for engineers than for budget analysts, your best bet was to take yourbudget analyst and make him an engineer – which is what happened to me. Theysaid: ‘You can use a computer, right? You’re an engineer now.’ “I was the most incompetent engineer ever,” he says. “I wasgame for anything because I have no normal sense of embarrassment for failure.Perhaps it was bred out of me. They threw me in a lab, and customers would comein, with all this high-tech stuff around – we were working on ISDN lines at thetime. I’d be desperately trying to connect cables and make things work, with noidea what I was talking about.” Adams’ own experience demonstrates how, when it comes to story material,downsizing and Dilbert are a match made in heaven. “Dilbert did the worstduring the dotcom frenzy because I couldn’t find anyone to complain about theirjob.” The HR tenet of diversity poses an ongoing dilemma for Adams, however,because of the push-pull of reader demand for a mixed bag of characters againstthe cloud of political correctness. Most of Dilbert’s characters are whitemales, with several exceptions: Asok is Indian, Juan Delegado is Hispanic andAlice is a woman. But don’t expect to see greater ethnic or racial diversity inAdams’ cartoon workplace. “There are two reasons I don’t do morediversity, and one of them is the worst reason in the world: diversity isharder to draw. With a little black and white cartoon, to show somebody beinganything other than the generic white person, you would have to do it partlywith features. If a white person draws anybody who is non-white with featuresthat are their interpretation of what their features look like, it’s nothingbut trouble. “It doesn’t matter what I do, it would just be a world of hurt,”he says. “And in any case, all the characters are flawed: Wally is lazy,Dilbert has no social life, and Alice is mean. That’s what makes theminteresting. Imagine having an African-American character. What flaw do I givethem? What could I get away with, me being the whitest person in the universe?”The answer is, I can’t get away with it. I would love to do it, and Iwould love to make all characters as despicable as the Caucasian characters. Ijust can’t get away with it. Someday the world will allow it, but that worlddoesn’t exist now. “I get lots of complaints whenever I have Asok do anything that makeshim look inexperienced,” Adams continues. “His flaw, if you can callit that, is that he’s new – and that’s not even that much of a flaw. He’s notas cynical and beaten down as the others. But with political correctness, logicisn’t really part of the equation.” Bravely, Adams was the first American cartoonist to give his mass audiencehis e-mail address. As a result, he receives hundreds of messages a day fromreaders, with about 15 per cent writing to him from outside the US. What he’slearned is that workplace issues are pretty universal, and he reciprocates byleaving out Americanisms that could dilute Dilbert’s universality. “Idon’t do Fourth of July jokes, and if I’m doing a sport, I’m more likely to dosoccer. They might change the word, but at least they’ll recognise it becauseeven things like baseball don’t always translate.” Of his life today, he most loves being able to control his own schedule.”I found, for example, there’s a time of the day when I’m really creative,and there’s a time of the day when I can’t do anything except staple andcollate. And if you’re in the business world, and you work for someone else,they will invariably want you to be creative during your tired time and collateduring your creative time until you’re virtually worthless. My ability to dowhat I’m best at when I’m best at it makes me very happy. The hardest aspect of life now, however, is the fact that “you can’tcomplain” he says. “Nobody wants to hear it because, relativelyspeaking, things are going so well. My complaints are so petty that they soundlike luxuries to other people. I believe that everyone has a certain amount ofcomplaining they need to get out before they die. You’re born with a store ofcomplaints, and if you get rid of all of then, then you die. So I’ll probablylive forever because I can’t expunge them quickly enough. “So,” he adds, “that’s really not a big problem.” GlobalHR asked Scott Adams to play jargon association with key HRconceptsHuman capital: “It’s likeresources. All these words that try to turn human beings into fuel,essentially.”Empower: “The manager’ssolution to the fact that sometimes things would be the manager’s fault, andthat was not good. So by inventing this sacred word, empowered, they could tellthe employees that it was their responsibility for their own decisions. Then,of course, they still had to do what the manager wanted them to do, except nowthey had to guess what things would get them in trouble and what thingswouldn’t. Then when they did things the manager didn’t like, the manager couldyell at them and blame them, so it’s like the perfect management trap. Youstill had all the control you ever had but now you had more credibility inblaming your employees.”Value added: “Expensivephrase for ‘What are you good for?’ I confess I’ve used that phrase. Once in awhile, you want to convey that you’re making a point and also that you’re avery business-minded person. So you say something is ‘value added’. But it’salso a fairly useful thing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in asituation where I’ve had to ask somebody what value was being added. It’s funnythere’s even a phrase for it because it should be built in.”Performance management:”As far as it goes, performance management is like its own littlecategory, because everybody, when asked, who’s been involved either as manageror employee, will tell you they (appraisals) don’t work. And everyone willstill do them. That’s the part I don’t get. Where’s the value added, you mightask?”Succession planning: “Thething that you want to pretend you’re doing but don’t actually do because ifthere’s a succession plan then you can be canned. So it’s the last thing youwant to do by the time you’ve become an executive, when it actually startsmattering. You’re certainly smart enough to not have a successor. You’d be afool. So you want to have somebody who’s totally incompetent, but at least hasgood hair or is tall or looks good or something, so it’s not as if you haven’tdone your job. But you want everyone to know it’s big trouble if that persontakes over.”Talent management: “Maybe that’s another phrase fortaking care of the prima donnas.”Managers: “You have tohave them, I’m not advocating getting rid of them. I’m just thinking that thebest kind of management could be to show up every once in awhile. Do a goodhour of managing and then go play golf. And it probably would be just as good,but you wouldn’t look like a manager, and you would be fired if you did that.”Management books: “I’veperused many. If you could become a better manager by reading management books,then the only people who would be bad managers would be the illiterate. Andeven they could get books on tape. So, really, if they worked, you could solveeverybody’s problem. You could say ‘Hey, you really suck as a manager. Read abook. Try a book, that’ll fix you up’. There’s just so much evidence that itdoesn’t work that I’m amazed, amazed, that anybody can think that it wouldwork.”Further informationDilbert: The Way of the Weasel byScott Adams (out in October 2002)God’s Debris: A Thought Experiment by Scott Adams,Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2001  Excuse Me While I Wag  by Scott Adams, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2001Random Acts of Management by Scott Adams, AndrewsMcMeel Publishing, 2000The Joy of Work by Scott Adams, Andrews McMeelPublishing, 1998www.dilbert.comwww.dilberito.comwww.Staceyscafe.comE-mail Scott Adams at [email protected] Meet Scott AdamsOn 1 Jul 2002 in Personnel Today Previous Article Next Article Related posts:No related photos.last_img

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