by Patrick Lamb, MAI

Something interesting about me is that I am the fourth consecutive generation of my family to operate a local appraisal firm, originating in 1916 in South Seattle. I am also the third consecutive generation of Appraisal Institute designated members here in the Puget Sound. My grandfather bought out my great grandfather following the War; my father bought out my grandfather in the late 70’s after the “lights went out on Seattle” due to a decade of Boeing layoffs; and my opportunity to purchase the company was in 2009 while in the midst of the Great Recession. Apparently, our family motto for business acquisitions is, “it’s never too late, as long as you have a son who can wait.”

Roughly 10 years ago I got caught up in this idea of “change” in my work environment. I thought the company was dysfunctional. There were many frustrating things about the firm relating to the culture of competition within, (lack of team mentality), as well as a lack of an acceptance of technology and modernization. It was frustrating to say the least. I had some ideas that I thought would improve the situation that were falling on deaf ears.

Someone told me about this book called “Who Moved My Cheese”, you’ve probably heard of it, it was a quick read that I enjoyed. In short, it is a brief fable about four mice that were confronted with change in their lives. The book was very popular at the time, and it struck a real chord with me. It was hard not to be motivated by the simple and direct message. I thought it presented a clear case to address the issues within the company and help us move in a more productive direction.

I was inspired. The next day I went down to Barnes and Noble and asked the clerk where to find this book. He directed me to the shelf and I proceeded to buy the whole lot of them. 35 books to be exact, one for every employee and the owner in the company. That night, overwhelmed with optimism, I inscribed in each book this message; “This book is the key to our future! Let’s get together next week to discuss it…Sincerely, Patrick”.

Next week came, but to my surprise, nobody showed up to my meeting. Not a single call, note, or message from anyone saying they couldn’t make it. What a slap in the face I thought. This was exactly the type of behavior demonstrated in the book that led to the collapse of the way things were for the mice that wouldn’t accept change, Hem and Hah. I was furious!

I stormed into my dad’s office and commanded his attention about this book and how the entire company just ignored me. Which was very odd considering the book has been proven to have a tremendous positive impact on millions of people around the world. I told my dad how could his employees be so immune to such a pleasant and inspiring book? Were things that far gone for them? Or were these people so stubborn and callus that they couldn’t bring themselves to even read about change. I let him know quite sternly that he had a serious problem here, and that this culture, this attitude must be the result of his failure at leadership.

He asked me to take a seat, and then he leans back into his chair, folds his arms across his chest, and just looks at me with his head tilted a little to the side and his eye a little squinted. He looked for a second and says “Patrick…I read the book, and I have to ask… you really can’t believe in what that book is telling us, can you?”

I lost it! I said to him, “ this is exactly the problem with this company… it all stems from your attitude about change”…he cuts me off and says, “you honestly believe that the way to succeed in life is to lie, cheat, and manipulate others to get what you want”…I froze, and confusion rushed over me. What does he mean by that, I thought?

With the book in his hand he says, “I cannot believe that you could promote this kind of crap!” I’m still frozen, staring back at him with a confused look on my face. I ask him to throw me the book so I could examine it. It seemed to be the same as the one I have at home. The color scheme, the thickness, the print type, and the font size were all right…but wait…something was different. The title was off, just a little. Instead of “Who Moved My Cheese” one of the words was changed to say “Who Stole My Cheese”.

I opened the book and read the authors inscription. There was a picture of a man wearing what appeared to be an orange prison jump suit. Below, it read, “if you’re reading this inscription you’ve probably just embarrassed yourself in front of your colleagues. I wrote this book from prison as a hoax, meant to intentionally scam all you naive business people into thinking you were buying “Who Moved My Cheese”, which is actually an effective book for managing change. Tough Luck!”

Oh no!…I doubt you can even imagine my embarrassment.

I’ve thought long and hard about the moral of this story. This was definitely a brilliant failure- one for the books. Not for several years did I even dare tell this story to anyone. However, after I shared it with a close friend who openly shared some of his own leadership struggles, did I realize that, in a counter-intuitive way, it had revealed a powerful and motivating insight about the task of change…possibly even more so than that now irritating fable.

Many of my friends who hear this story continue to tell it to their friends, family, and business colleagues, (hopefully never mentioning my name). It’s a funny story, good for a laugh…but there is also something intangible about it. Like an artist or photographer who is taught to portray negative space instead of the subject itself. It’s an eye opening vantage point that most of us don’t recognize until we experience it directly.

I learned I wanted to make changes on behalf of my ego – so that I could be right. My first instinct was not to seek change because it was in the best interest of others – my instinct was to create change to satisfy my ego. However, humiliation taught me an important lesson: for change to be long-lasting and effective, the change cannot be about my ego – it has to focus on others. Change that is sustainable creates a better solution for everyone.