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An 'underground' corporate speaker spotted in daylight

Billi Lee: Loaded for bear

iconBilli Lee's reputation is based on her concept of the workplace as a bear-fighting arena. Click here -- smartly -- for her six tips for putting some 'savvy' into your career game.  

March 22, 2001
Web posted at: 11:21 a.m. EST (1621 GMT)

In this story:

The bear story

Another animal heard from

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(CNN) -- "I'm not sure you can exactly call my life a career 'path.' It's more like, 'Oh, what year is it and what do I have to do?'"

You can hear Billi Lee's laugh coming a mile off. There seems to be nothing and no one she'd rather chortle about than herself. And as much fun as she gets out of her own "career wander," her profession is devoted to giving others some perspective on their work lives' directions.

graphic How savvy are you about business politics in your career?

Very. I know the ropes, I yank the chains.
So-so. I've figured out maybe 50 percent of it.
Lamb to the slaughter. Don't know a biz bear from my desk calendar.
View Results


"The thread that runs through all I've done -- and the reason I can make a good living off it today -- is that I started off in a small Midwestern town, being told that what it takes to succeed is hard work and talent, getting your degrees, being credentialed ... and figuring out, 'Oh, give me a break, there's something else here -- there's connections, there's political astuteness, there's paying back favors, all these things "they" don't want to tell you about.'

"I found out that an awful lot of folks probably know what's going on at some level. But they say, 'It shouldn't be that way.' Or 'I don't play games.'"

Not savvy attitudes, says Lee. The goal of her seminar work and columns is to get people past those dodges and into the arena with bearish bosses and climbing co-workers.

"It's fun because what I do is kind of a little underground thing. If you called a speaker's bureau and they asked, 'What do you want to have a talk about?,' nobody's going to say, 'I'd like a seminar called "Being Politically Astute." Or "Playing the Game."' So I've not been able to market my business through normal channels. It's been that wonderful thing of being passed from one person to the next. Those are the folks who respond the best to what I do. I call them 'bear fighters.'"


The bear story

Lee has talked "bear fighters" to staffers of outfits as diverse as Kodak, AT&T, the CIA, NASA's Langley Research Center, Sun Microsystems, Blue Cross-Blue Shield and Buryat, a Russian republic ("above Mongolia and next to China -- they asked me to help them with their emerging free-enterprise system").

This bear business has inspired Lee's logo and a lot of her material. At bottom, it's a parable of two cultures -- the cozy, cordial cave dwellers and the knockabout, competition-bashing bear fighters outside.

Billi Lee

Born: Mankato, Minnesota
Now resides: Colorado Springs, Colorado
Age: Just turned 50
Education: University of Minnesota, degrees in French, speech pathology, psychology
Previous career positions: Cattle rancher, restaurateur, woodcutter ("I did a lot of things you did in the '70s")
Books: "Savvy: Thirty Days to a Different Perspective" (1992); coming: a printed version of "The Bear Story" and "Head in the Clouds, Feet on the Ground" ("When do you plan to have that book out?" we asked her. "Oh, stop it," she answered.)
Project ahead: "There's a new thing, a three-month Peace Corps for an executive group. I'd like to work with African village women on how to get a micro-loan, start a business, pay back the loan and get another."

"I think it's the human condition," Lee says, in trying to answer why her bear-fighting parable seems to be effective not only with United States-based work forces and staffs but also with international labor groups.

"Because a lot of folks spend so much time at home and school, they get to work and they're naive -- they think the company is that supportive place they know from home and school. And it's not. The business world is different. There are bears there. My bottom-line message is that if you're going to go into the workplace, figure out the deal. Learn it's about fighting bears.

"What's the difference in a system designed to take care of people and it's all about love -- that's school and home -- and a system that's designed to take care of 'task,' the job at hand? What you get is people who don't know how to fight bears -- they can't depersonalize, form alliances.

"There are a lot of people who get bitter and complain, withdraw or sue or, worse than that, shoot people. They didn't know that what they're going into isn't home. Grow up. Get real. If you don't like it, either get powerful enough to change it or get out."


Another animal heard from

"Think about Aesop's fable about the crocodile. The little creature asks, 'Will you give me a ride across the river and promise not to eat me?' The crocodile says yes. And just before being finished off, the little creature says, "How can you eat me when you promised you wouldn't?' And the crocodile says, 'How could you not know this is my nature?'"

There's a parallel here for Lee, in that "underground" nature of what she's doing -- after all, neither hungry crocodiles nor bears on their hind legs are the kind of upbeat rah-rah energy often associated with motivational speaking.

Billi Lee has put together six "savvy" tips, as she'd call them -- a half-dozen key points that she says can help you get a clearer understanding of what the workplace is -- and what it's not. Lee's "savvy" is just a click away.

"I think I'm incredibly lucky -- and I know I'm grateful -- that people have found this work so helpful, because it is the 'shadow side' of success, you know? I've been doing this bit of material for 16 years? Seventeen years? In the beginning, I got so much resistance like, 'You're immoral.' Now, with the climate in the workplace, it's like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, give it to me.'"

Always the laughter. "As you might have noticed from my material, one thing I'm good at is getting married." Husband Marty, she says, is No. 3. "I like to train them and release them."

In the end -- and, Marty, this isn't aimed at you -- Lee talks a lot of tough love. "Look. If I play football, I could get hurt. If I go into the military, I might be expended. And in business? -- I could be treated unfairly.

"I'm called in to say, 'Let's get savvy here.' Companies want someone from the outside to say that. If you can't lie, don't play poker.

"And remember: It's just a job. Do it. Then go home to what's important."

Billie Lee and a bear


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Review: Taking business personally
January 29, 2001
Motivational speakers: Golden rules
October 17, 2000

Billi Lee's Web site

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