Author Cornelia Gamlem founded a management consulting firm (the Gems Group) to offer HR and business solutions to a wide variety of organizations. She has used her expertise in employee relations and human resources to co-author five business resource books with colleague Barbara Mitchell. Their newest release is They Did What? Unbelievable Tales from the Workplace (September 2020). You’ll find Cornelia at BigBookofHR.com and MakingPeopleMatter.blogspot.com, as well as on Facebook and LinkedIn. Read more about her writing in SWW’s 2019 interview.
What is your elevator pitch for the book?
It’s unlike any other business or HR book you’ve ever read. It’s been described as 50 Shades of Gray for the workplace.
What do you hope readers will take away from it?
There were a number of lessons we hoped to share. First, so much of dealing with employee workplace behavior occurs below the surface—solutions to problems are not obvious to everyone. Second, managers’ and HR professionals’ jobs are not easy. There is not one solution to similar problems. Dealing with human behavior is not black or white. Finally, for the HR reader, some of these issues occur more often than they might imagine, and we’re providing insights to different approaches to addressing them.
What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
My coauthor and I had always written pure nonfiction. We wanted to write a compelling book that presented stories rather than case studies. So, we chose the genre of creative nonfiction. For us, that meant we had to borrow elements from fiction writing—character development, story arc, suspense—and learn how to do that. The book is a series of short stories set against a fictitious backdrop.
Tell us how the book came together.
I was teaching an HR course at a local college when a student asked how you learn employee relations. My response was with practice and experience. When we finished our first book in 2011, The Big Book of HR, I had the idea to write this one—and our journey began. We interviewed many of our HR and business colleagues about the most challenging situations they had encountered, and a pattern of issues began to emerge. Of course, we had our own experiences to draw upon and add. The issues became the focus of each individual chapter. The challenge came with the writing and editing cycles—we’ve lost count of how many edits we did before we had a good working draft. In the meantime, we were approached by our publisher to write three more books along with a second edition of our first book. Those occurrences kept putting the project on hold, but we used these times to continue learning the craft of writing. When we tell people we took nine years to write it, we quickly explain we published other books during that period.
How was the work on They Did What? divided between you and your co-author?
This was a different approach for us. With our other books we divided the work according to our respective areas of expertise then stayed out of each other’s way. For They Did What? we divided the chapters initially by the issues, but then passed our completed drafts to each other for review, discussion, editing, rewriting. At the conclusion, we couldn’t honestly tell you who wrote what. We are lucky in the fact that we respect each other’s expertise and opinion and were both very open to critique from each other.
Would you like to share one of your favorite misbehaving tales from the book?
The cover of the book has a picture of a conference table. That’s because conference rooms and tables play prominently into many scenes—meetings and a place to gather for discussions. Employees, however, often take advantage of this space to engage in, shall we say, shenanigans, and we were surprised at the number of erotic stories we heard that involved conference tables.
What was the most rewarding aspect of putting this project together?
Learning more and more about writing and the publishing industry. We took the train from Washington DC to New York City every summer to attend the Writer’s Digest Conference and attended classes at the Smithsonian about writing. Of course, the highlight was finally finishing the book.
What marketing techniques have been most helpful to you?
Without a doubt, podcasts. We’ve been guests on quite a number of them over the past year, reaching diverse audiences. Since we write business books, we’re very active on LinkedIn, and that activity has attracted attention which has led to more invitations for podcasts, webinars and other on-line activities.
When you tackle a nonfiction project, do you think of it as storytelling?
Absolutely. The art of storytelling is emerging as a management competency in the business world. People learn from stories. It’s such a powerful way to communicate information. That was one of the reasons we looked to the genre of creative nonfiction to write this book. All the stories in the book are based on actual events, but to preserve confidentiality, we had to be creative, such as combining stories from several individuals with the same theme. The lessons, however, remain the same. In all of our books, we integrate scenarios to illustrate lessons and keep the reader engaged.
What is the best encouragement or advice you’ve received on your writing journey?
We were sitting in a session at the Writer’s Digest Conference listening to Hallie Ephron talk about backstory. “Write it out and keep it in a separate file. Then, layer information in when the reader needs to know it.” A communal light bulb went off. It was so clear that backstory is important, but you have to know how to use it.
What writing projects are you working on now?
The Big Book of HR – 10th Anniversary Edition. That book will be released in January 2022 and is the third edition. We’ve submitted a proposal to our publisher for a follow up to The Manager’s Answer Book, one that would focus on people management issues.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy has a new speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.
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