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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


A Great Atmosphere for Learning

The best atmosphere for learning I ever experienced had nothing to do with school.

October 12, 2018

I knew I was lucky to be hired at Leo J. Shapiro & Associates a few months after finishing my graduate degrees in English literature and creative writing[1], but until this week, I didn’t realize the full extent of my fortune, and that my luck was actually the product of other people’s design.

Leo Shapiro founded the Chicago-based company in 1955, at a time when survey research was conducted door-to-door because not enough households had phones in order to insure random sampling. Leo was a researcher at heart, shaped by his experiences earning a doctorate in sociology at the University of Chicago, and later using market research techniques to inform government rationing during World War II.[2]

By the time I interviewed with Leo in 1997, the firm had something like 100 employees, as well as associated businesses in data collection and conducting focus groups.

That my only interview prior to being given an offer to start work was with the company's 76-year-old founder and president is a clue to its unique culture.

I had come to Leo recommended by a business associate of his for whom I’d done some freelance ghostwriting. Leo was unimpressed by my resume – and said so – wondering why anyone would go to school to learn to write, remarking that Celine and Hemingway had gone to war, not school. Clearly I was wanting. 

I do not know what I did to pass muster, but a day later I had a call from a woman who would go on to be a significant mentor, “Leo said that you should come in and start doing some things for us.” I arrived the day after the call and stayed for four years, until my wife’s career required us to leave Chicago. In those four years, I learned approximately eight gajillion times more than in college.

A big part of the reason why I learned so much is that graduate school had awakened me to a notion that I was a human being capable of working hard and accomplishing things I would’ve thought not possible. This came in handy when confronted with working in an industry that I did not know existed prior to my hiring.

The pace and depth of my learning was not accidental, however, as it was part of the firm’s culture, a story which was captured in a book titled, Need to Know: The Story of the Company Leo J. Shapiro and Associates by George Rosenbaum, the company’s first employee, and one of the firm’s partners at the time I worked there. I did not know of its existence until a couple days ago. I devoured it in a couple hours.

My only interview was with Leo because as Rosenbaum writes, the company never had a formal HR department, “The hiring process was uncomplicated. Everyone who showed promise and wanted to work at Shapiro was hired.”[3]

We were hired as “trainees,” given 30 to 90 days to see if something could be made of us. The trainee period was an audition of sorts, a process of mutual sorting to see if the traits which made one predisposed to enjoy survey research work would manifest. The company was never not hiring. If someone of potential interest came on the radar, they were taken on and given work, often as a fieldworker to get hands-on interviewing experience[4].

We were required to learn everything, even if and when we would settle into niches more suited to our best use. I will never forget the first questionnaire I produced for a quantitative study under Leo's direct supervision. It was six or so months in to my tenure, having passed the trainee period and gone on salary, having found some comfort in qualitative research, primarily writing focus group reports. I’d thought I’d dodged having to ever look at cross-tabulations.

In hindsight, the project with Leo was clearly a test, one I was not certain I would pass - and Leo put me through a ringer for sure - but it resulted in a trip to San Francisco as part of a team to present our findings to a prominent environmental non-profit. More importantly, it allowed me to develop a comfort with quantitative reasoning that I’ve used repeatedly in the years since.

Despite being entirely uncredentialed, over time, I nonetheless became an expert, someone trusted and trustworthy. About a year after the project with Leo, George Rosenbaum supervised my work on a study for a major paper planner company, me assuming I was preparing him to deliver the results to the client up until the moment I asked when he wanted to leave the office for the airport and he told me I would be delivering the research presentation myself.

I thought I was acting as an underling serving his boss, when in reality, he’d been mentoring me the whole time.[5]

In his book, Rosenbaum observes, “The Shapiro organization has always benefitted more by growing people in its distinctive milieu than by hiring people with survey experience or by seeking acquisitions.”

The connection to education seems clear. College is a milieu which should encourage growth, into what specifically should be significantly controlled by the one doing the growing.

Until I read the book, I did not recognize how purposeful the whole enterprise was. We had people without post-secondary degrees in high level supervisory roles, having started in the phone center as teenagers and demonstrating confidence and drive. I have never experienced a more diverse (in every sense of the word) workplace.[6]

Rosenbaum’s book shed light on other aspects of the culture which I took for granted when there, but which have informed me since.

While you would be working on half a dozen or more projects at a given time, I cannot remember a single scheduled meeting. The primary milieu was what Rosenbaum calls “the corridor conversation,” which invariably turned on what one was working on, and closely mirrors my experience in faculty offices. If we needed to meet with someone, we got up and walked to their office, knocked on the door and had a conversation. It wasn’t unusual to grab other passersby to chew on the question at hand.

I’ve forgotten how fun that part of the job could be.

The most notable underlying practice was perhaps the total absence of suspicion or monitoring of employees. Rosenbaum: “We believed suspicion is antithetical to good work. Good work, we were convinced, encourages the best from employees and engenders pride and self-respect…The aim of management was to create an exceptional environment. Suspicion did not belong in this environment.”

They walked the talk. I never had anyone check on my hours and was given freedom to manage my own time. If I had focus groups at night which had me in the office past 10pm, I could arrive at 11 the next morning as long as my work was getting done. I had my first publishing successes while employed at LJS, including my first book, which one of the partners (Matthew Smith) granted me three extra days off to complete.

This trust and freedom made me a far more effective and dedicated employee. I missed a Thanksgiving dinner because a corrupted PowerPoint file had me redoing a presentation. I could’ve offered an excuse, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to deliver.

Every employee, including the field researchers and data coders was versed on the purpose and goal of the project at hand. We were both cog and machine simultaneously, and this spirit manifested itself in the way the company dealt with mistakes, which were inevitable in something as complex as survey research.

When mistakes were made, rather than being punished or fired, we were tasked with solving them, and over time, this resulted in a team effort to prevent them from happening in the first place. Many times I had errors in surveys pointed out to me by the phone interviewers to whom I was nominally superior. In turn, I would alert my supervisors to any bumps in the project I detected, including those which might be my fault.

The goal was “good work.” The rest of it would take care of itself, and it did. The company lasted for more than 60 years until it was absorbed by another entity and most of those I worked with moved on to do the same work in the same spirit elsewhere.

Reading George Rosenbaum’s book made me see the company for what it was, a place built on inquiry, largely open to all, embodying an atmosphere conducive to teaching and learning.

The absence of bureaucracy, the open conversations among those of different ranks, the freedom to be curious and make mistakes and learn from them are all values I’ve carried into my teaching without fully recognizing the origin of those values.

The way I grade, my desire to center students rather than myself, my policies favoring student autonomy over being a sheriff of attendance and behavior were all modeled by the people of Leo J. Shapiro and Associates.

I thrived there for a reason. We could do worse than see the company as a model for the work of education.


[1] A fuller rendering of the tale is featured in this very old post

[2] An amazing man, he started his survey research company which required going door-to-door despite being partially disabled by childhood polio. For a fuller story of Leo J. Shapiro’s life, see his obituary from 2015 when he passed away at the age of 94. 

[3] Essentially anyone had the power to hire. Even when I’d only been there a couple of years, and I was doing some initial screening, I had a good feeling about someone and he was hired by my boss basically on my recommendation. That someone went on to become one of the managing directors of the firm.

[4] I started, quite literally, in the typing pool formatting documents and PowerPoints, not a bad way to learn what marketing research entails.

[5] George Rosenbaum has also passed away. I fear I never expressed sufficient gratitude for his investment in me.

[6] I never experienced an overall more brilliant set of people either, and it had nothing to do with education. The overriding common trait was curiosity, and your degrees or lack thereof made no difference.


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