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People: Frank Topper's Brand of Creativity

Frank Topper shares his mantra with the world. (Photo by Lori Ann White.)

Instead of advertising a dealership or garage, the license plate holder on Frank Topper's car says, "Thank you for not complaining."

"I've had it for years," said Topper, who had the plate holder made for himself. The inspiration came during the Employee Recognition Awards (popularly known as the Globies) some years back, he said. Among the many contributions announced for one award winner was the phrase, "she never complained."

"When she walked up to meet Persis, Persis laughed and shook her hand and said, 'Thank you for not complaining.' I liked it so much as an inner mantra, I put it on my car," Topper said. "Whenever I find myself complaining, I try to minimize it and move on to what is possible. If I'm repeating my complaints I'm not recognizing any creative possibilities."

Topper has worked at SLAC for about fifteen years, starting in a part-time capacity that has slowly grown closer to full time. He is transitioning to a position in the Human Resources Department and remaining open to the possibilities along the way.

Creativity is often required in one of Topper's main areas of expertise—facilitation. He's been working as a facilitator for more than 20 years, beginning at the University of Pennsylvania, where he worked before coming to Stanford University about 19 years ago. Topper defines facilitation as "helping people in a room get to the point, get agreement and figure out how to get on with it." SLAC and academic institutions hold some special challenges in that regard, he said.

"Between the university and the scientists, we've got this academic environment," he said. "And we've also got an administrative environment. The academic environment is used to creating new knowledge—that's what research is, creating new knowledge—and part of that is arguing. 'Prove me wrong.' This is part of the natural process," he stressed. The challenges arise when the natural process of science impinges on the natural process of administration, which he characterized as more of a "make it happen" environment—making decisions and then executing them without prolonged debate. Unnecessary disagreements arise, tempers flare, and Topper's skill for facilitation is called into play.

How does he bring the scientists and administrators together?

"It's kind of a magical thing, I think," said Bob Hettel, deputy director of the Accelerator Directorate. "Somehow he has the ability to walk into a room of who knows what—probably very contentious people—and express principles of communication in a non-threatening way."

According to Hettel, Topper draws on a non-judgmental nature, a sense of humor and a duffel bag of toys to defuse tensions.

"He's like a solvent," Hettel said—providing the proper environment for reactions to take place.

In addition to facilitating meetings, Topper runs retreats and focus groups, and is an expert in process improvement techniques. For example, he has led retreats for Karen Fant's accelerator engineering group, and helped her with meetings. Fant was similarly impressed by the duffel bag of toys, but said she appreciated the intangible benefits Topper brought to meetings as well.

"He can help other people who manage meetings learn how to manage them better," she explained. She said she feels she's more skilled at conducting meetings after learning from Topper. "Sometimes I think people who haven't used his services don't know how valuable they can be."

Topper has helped several groups increase the usefulness of their meetings. One of his first duties at SLAC was helping with a major management meeting at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource. He created an approach the group has continued to use for fifteen years.

Topper is also known around the lab for handing out pencils imprinted with pithy sayings. The sayings are a creative spin on his consulting days, where he often focused on corporate marketing and branding. "It's fun to try to come up with something in thirty characters that expresses the essence of something," Topper said. Take that, Twitter!

For example, when Lowell Klaisner retired, Topper had pencils made bearing the legend, "Lowell Klaisner: He'll be back." Klaisner is indeed back at SLAC, consulting on project management issues. These self-financed giveaways are often directed toward particular people. Concern over minor vehicle accidents on site prompted pencils for then Chief Safety Officer Craig Ferguson that said, "Thank you for not backing into my car."

Topper said he realizes his purpose here is to use his many talents to make the conduct of science easier, but his reasons for being at SLAC go deeper.

"SLAC is challenging," Topper said. "It's got a great sense of community. And I learn stuff. Not the science, but how to hold difficult conversations and how to bring diverse groups together. I also learn from the people here. In fact, I continually marvel at the unique perspective each person brings."

Creative stuff.

—Lori Ann White
SLAC Today, March 30, 2011