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ADVENTURES ON THE JOB

Breaking the Office Chains

Tired of your boring job? With a little advice from our experts--a 'corporate anthropologist' and a cartoon heroine--you can make the rat race seem like the Indy 500.

June 23, 1997|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gentle Readers:

Karen Stephenson knows a good adventure when she sees one, having survived hair-raising trips into deserts and jungles as an anthropologist. After re-crafting herself as a "corporate anthropologist," the Dallas-born Stephenson now ventures into the equally untamed venues of academia, as a professor at UCLA's Anderson School, and of corporate America, as a consultant to executives of high-tech, manufacturing, banking and other companies. As testament to a pugnacious nature, her office sports a sign: "Don't mess with Texas."

Cathy, Stephenson's challenger on the issue of workplace adventure, has not aged a bit since her debut as a comic strip character in newspapers nationwide in 1976. Since then, she has served as a sort of vulnerable Everywoman for many of the nation's single career women--revealing her travails with bosses, boyfriends, dieting and department store fitting rooms. As Cathy aficionados know, an adventure can be as simple as trying on a bikini. Her alter ego, by the way, is cartoonist Cathy Guisewite, who runs her Cathy empire from a workshop in Studio City.

Ms. Work Wise

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Q. What does adventure mean to you?

Stephenson: Adventure means going where no man has gone before. Real adventure is going where no woman has gone before. Adventure is the reward itself for many.

Cathy: Adventure is bravery in the face of the unknown. (For example, answering the phone in the office when the only possibility is that the person on the other end is calling about something you haven't done yet.) Adventure is calculated risk-taking. (How many fat-free muffins can you eat at the client breakfast meeting without losing the button on your power suit?) Adventure is panic management. (You have a 20-minute rush-hour commute in which to write your presentation, put on your makeup, re-hem the right half of your skirt and explain to your mother via cell phone why you haven't called in a week.)

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W. What type of personality is best suited to adventure?

Stephenson: A person who loves adventure and who actually engages in it is usually a risk-taker. There is a difference between a reckless and a wise risk-taker, however. Risk-takers are usually innovators or entrepreneurs. You don't have to start a business to be an entrepreneur--within an organization, you can be an "intrapreneur," creating new ways of doing things and new things to do.

Cathy: The type of personality best suited to adventure is either type D (delusional) or type O (optimist). But the ideal is that rare breed who is both type D and type O all in one, creating the powerful type DO (delusional optimist), or a real "DOer," as such people are known in corporate America.

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Q. The fictional archeologist Indiana Jones became the epitome of an adventurer in the movies. Who are the icons of adventure in corporate America?

Stephenson: Adventurers include Frances Hesselbein (who, as executive director of Girl Scouts USA, galvanized the organization in the 1980s by encouraging low-income and minority girls to join); Herb Kelleher (co-founder and spiritual leader of Southwest Airlines); Ted Turner (visionary behind CNN, which changed TV news coverage forever); former Texas Gov. Ann Richards; Thomas Epley (a chief executive who turned around, among other companies, Technicolor Video Services, the nation's largest maker of videotapes); and Gordon Mayer (CEO of Alameda, Calif.-based Geoworks, maker of telecommunications software).

Cathy: Here are the true icons. Charlene M.: Assigned to venture alone and unprotected into the dark, terrifying back shelf of the office refrigerator to try to find a carton of unspoiled 2% milk. Mr. Pinkley: Owner and operator of a $5,000 computer, a $6,000 sound system and $3,000 worth of miscellaneous boy gizmos, who gets locked in the copy room by a group of fed-up female employees and told he won't be let out until he figures out how to refill the paper tray in the copier all by himself. And Marcia D.: With nothing to go on but a message hastily scrawled on an empty artificial sweetener packet, was sent into the "inactive file storage room" and given 17 minutes to locate the middle initial of an old client her boss was attempting to win back by surprising him with a set of monogrammed golf balls.

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Q. How can an individual make a job seem like an adventure?

Stephenson: Learn the job well so that you can see holes or gaps and figure out ways in which the job could be done better. The adventurer sees the inconsistencies, and these become the opportunities to make a change or suggest a new idea. By their behavior, adventurers point to ways institutions can change. If used strategically, adventurers are the natural scouts for future change. If left on their own, they intuitively seek the weak spots in what is presumed to be the smooth, impenetrable surface of tradition.

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