Archive for the ‘career’ Category

The Wages of Fear

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

This crisis is more difficult than anything I’ve faced professionally in my entire life. It makes me realize how fortunate I was for my first 20 work years–how protected and insulated from the business cycle I was.

As I began my work career in 1984 for GTE, I envisioned, like the preceding generation, that I would eventually retire from that company. “You are the future leaders of GTE,” managers told the group of new hires into their management-training program, and I believed it. I even felt that someday I could be CEO of GTE.

Six years later, I left, entranced by the possibility of a startup. I loved the small team size, the direct connection between my performance and the company’s results. We had all-employee meetings standing up in the lab.

Less than two years later, it was apparent that the dream of riches wasn’t to be (a good lesson; I didn’t realize then how rarely startup dreams convert into riches).

Next step was EDS, a gigantic company, though I was in a remote outpost (Boston) which made working for a mammoth corporation much more palatable. The work concerned cellular telephony. (At the time, handsets were called “bricks,” and were nearly as heavy. They cost $1000.) The industry grew so quickly that there was plenty of new business for all comers. I was in marketing now, product management, where I developed my love for launching new products. I made lots of mistakes there, and I learned a ton, eventually developing a specialty helping salespeople structure, price and communicate complex outsourcing deals.

But in 1997 EDS started to retrench in telecom, and I had spent enough time in Boston. I moved to Atlanta, had a brief cup of coffee with Alltel (that’s another story) which I will cherish forever because I met my wife there, and was recruited to join LHS, an IPO wonder story.

LHS was a crazy place, full of conflicts, overcommitted, with everyone checking the stock price on Yahoo five times a day. I loved it. I managed alliances with Airtouch, Logica and others. I helped close some important deals and learned about the give and take required to create and sustain a successful alliance–as well as lots of lessons about what not to do.

Then LHS was sold, and the buyer offered me a lame marketing position. Not for me. My wife and I were looking to move north, closer to relatives, when a job opening came up at a telecom billing provider near Harrisburg, PA. It was a chance to report to a CEO, be a part owner of a company, and get pretty close to the top (as close, I learned, as I wanted to get).

Of course, this was in 2000. The tech bubble had burst, and all the telecom growth projections that had proven conservative in prior years were insanely optimistic now. We struggled to grow (not fun for the VP of Sales & Marketing), but worked hard to keep our most important customers and bring on important new ones.

But like lots of companies you read about now, we were overleveraged. The loans came due, and we couldn’t refinance. We were sold, and there wasn’t a great fit between me and the new owners.

I went out on my own, which was difficult, then as I started to get a foothold, all this shit happened in the summer of 2008, which we’re still living with.

So here we are. I wouldn’t want to go back. I love what I do now. But I do miss how easy it was in the old days. I can’t decide if this is an anomalous situation or whether 1984-2000 was the anomaly. Perhaps they both are.

I started this post to make a point, but I honestly can’t remember it now. I’d rather teach and share than vent or complain. We’ll make it through this era, and someday we’ll look back on this as the greatest life lesson we ever learned. But at the moment I’m ready for the lesson to end.

Please consider sharing your feelings in the comments.

N.B.: Each company I mention in this post has been merged out of independent existence. One, LHS, re-emerged as a standalone company.

(”The Wages of Fear” is a 1953 French movie.)

Network when you don’t need to

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

Act before there is a problem.
Bring order before there is disorder.

Tao te Ching, #27

I had coffee with a former colleague this week. He was looking for a new job, his company having closed its local office. My colleague was confessing his dread of networking. He knew he needed to do it, but it just wasn’t pleasant for him.

Also this week, I got an email from another former colleague, who wrote, “Love to catch up. I am out on the street looking for my next position.”

Both of these folks are senior people, corporate vice-presidents, who find themselves in the humbling position of contacting people in order to locate their next jobs. They have to network, because their next job depends on it. No wonder it’s a burden.

I have been in their position. When I started out on my own, the timing was not planned. Suddenly, I no longer had my prior position, and I needed to find work. I called, I emailed. I touched base. Neediness oozed from my pores. No wonder it took a long while to get a paying gig.

A significant event was stumbling across the book “Never Eat Alone.” Reading it helped at my mindset and my approach. It reinforced the importance of a network, why people work with people they know, and why people want to help others they know.

“Never Eat Alone” remains the best book on networking I’ve read. And the biggest lesson to me was to network because it’s fun and exciting to keep in touch with people. Not because you need something. The stronger a network you have, the more you contribute to it, the more opportunities will come out of it.

And, paradoxically, the less you will have turn to it out of desperation.

Related posts:
On “Never Eat Alone”
Networking: burden or pleasure?
The power of “weak ties”
“Weak Ties” #2
A personal relationship makes all the difference

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Michael Dell on generating sales leads

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

I found this great Michael Dell story in “Lessons Learned: Starting a Business.” In case you thought his success with Dell Computers was a complete accident, read this:

The first job I got when I could actually drive…was with the Houston Post newspaper. My job was to call people on the telephone and convince them to buy the newspaper. The first partial month I worked there, I figured out that when people wanted to buy the newspaper, either they were moving into a new house or an apartment, or they had just gotten married.

The way to find people who’d just gotten married was to go to the county courthouse. They have the applications for marriage licenses, which are a matter of public record in the state of Texas. And there is a place on the application form where you could request the license be sent. So that turned out to be a really good place to find people to whom I could send an offer to get the newspaper.

The other thing I found was that you could actually get lists of people who had applied for and received mortgages. And that was another great list of people. My first full month at the paper, I was the top salesperson of newspapers, and I had a great time. This was a summer job. I started hiring my friends and sending them out to all the surrounding counties to collect all these lists of people who had applied for marriage licenses and just had a blast. I was sixteen years old. I saved my money and bought a BMW.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Press. Excerpted from Lessons Learned: Straight Talk from the World’s Top Business Leaders–Starting a Business. Copyright (c) 2008 Fifty Lessons Limited; All Rights Reserved.

For more information about the “Lessons Learned” series, including a showcase of 50 Lessons video stories, please follow this link.

Related Posts:
The value of not caring in the workplace
A new midlife crisis story from Williams-Sonoma
Be careful using other people’s money to make acquisitions
Bosses, choose your words carefully

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Improving the opportunities for women to lead

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

My recent post on overlooked female business gurus attracted some attention, not least from the gurus themselves. The nature of the emails we exchanged was around when women’s representation in business leadership would start to resemble their representation in society. One dialogue went like this:

Me: In the long run, demographics are telling us there are more women college graduates than men and that trend appears to be continuing. So we’ll see more women thinkers acknowledged by the establishment, partially because the establishment will be more female. It won’t happen fast enough, but it’ll happen.

Overlooked guru: I’m not sure how much I think that things will change. If you look at all the people quoted in teams and leadership articles most are male. It is not clear what will make things change—will the establishment really become female with demographic change? I do hope so.

Some more insight on the general issue of driving more female leadership into the workforce appears in this month’s Harvard Business Review. In two Foresight articles (”Stopping the Exodus of Women in Science” and “One Reason Women Don’t Make It to the C-Suite“), the authors point out conflicts between long-standing business cultures and traditions and demands on women’s time, priorities and mental energy.

“Stopping the Exodus” blames a macho science and technology culture, “extreme jobs,” and other factors for driving qualified women out of the industry. The authors (Sylvia Ann Hewlett–who should have been on the overlooked gurus list–Carolyn Buck Luce, and Lisa Servon) illustrate steps some companies are taking to improve the situation, including connecting women technologists to each other and to mentors to create a stronger support community. Starkly, there’s no mention of trying to change the hero culture or redesigning tech jobs to make them less extreme.

“One Reason Women Don’t” discusses career paths that have evolved in companies over decades, which place future C-levels into the most demanding and draining jobs in their forties. This rite of passage comes at the worst possible time for women, who are typically dealing with intense demands at home from pre-teen and adolescent children (and from husbands on the same track). The author, Dr. Louann Brizendine, recommends breaking this pattern and creating a new path, on which women leaders can defer that rite of passage to a time, say in their fifties, when they are able and eager to take it on.

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A "new midlife crisis" story from the Williams-Sonoma Chairman

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

[This story is from Howard Lester, Chairman of Williams-Sonoma, the large home-goods retailer.]

…I realized that to that point in my working career, I had kind of done the things that were necessary. I was trying to make a living and just do the best I could and make money, but I was never really happy. I wasn’t excited about getting out of bed in the morning and going to work, so I gave a lot of thought to what it was that I wanted to do, and I knew it was something different.

One of the main conclusions that I reached was that it was important for me at that point in my life–as I mentioned, I was in my early forties–to do something; you know, this is not a dress rehearsal. And I wanted to do things that I loved doing. Why go through life doing things that you don’t love doing? And I felt that if I was doing something I loved, I’d have a better chance at being good at it than doing something I didn’t love, because it wouldn’t be work, it would be a joy.

So I went on a little journey of looking at a lot of businesses, some of them pretty weird. And one day I came across this little company called Williams-Sonoma, which was struggling. It was a little $4 million company with four stores and a small catalog, located in San Francisco. One thing led to another, and I was able to purchase the business in the summer of 1978.

We’ve been very fortunate. We’ve grown a business that we’re quite proud of, and I can tell you that since acquiring Williams-Sonoma, I don’t think there has been a day or a morning when I wasn’t excited about getting up and going to work.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Press. Excerpted from Lessons Learned: Straight Talk from the World’s Top Business Leaders–Starting a Business. Copyright (c) 2008 Fifty Lessons Limited; All Rights Reserved.

For more information about the “Lessons Learned” series, including a showcase of 50 Lessons video stories, please follow this link.

Related posts:
The New Midlife Crisis: It’s an existential necessity
Midlife Crisis–21st century style

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The new midlife crisis–it’s an "existential necessity"

Friday, February 8th, 2008

I’ve been working through my midlife crisis (profiled in this earlier post)–not buying a sports car or seeking a trophy wife (I have one of those already), but confronting this: since retiring at fifty is neither practical nor desirable, working 2000 hours or so per year better be fun and have some meaning in it.

For me, that means working for myself, engaging in lots of different projects with different clients, working with folks from different countries (UK, Brazil, Japan, Northern Ireland in the past year), reading and researching, and playing with some new product ideas that may never earn a dime. (And being able to spend time with the family guilt-free.)

It may not be a house on the Maui beachfront, but it’s a bit of paradise to me.

I have found that I have company in this new midlife crisis. I just caught up with a colleague from the ’80s who left the rat race to develop a business combining his passions of marketing and auto racing. Very cool.

And now I learn that it is not only desirable, but necessary, to go through this change. Carlo Strenger and Arie Ruttenberg write in the February Harvard Business Review about “The Existential Necessity of Midlife Change” (link – $$). Strenger and Ruttenberg recognize that the midlife years often bring a need for career transition–boredom with the “same old job,” lack of promotion opportunities, corporate restructuring or even being fired during our forties and fifties. Yet our assumptions of what we have left to offer are hopelessly out of date:

The myth of midlife as the onset of decline is rooted in historically outdated conceptions. According to this myth, people end their productive lives and retire at age 65. Sixty-five is not a magical number, however. It was introduced as the retirement age in Germany in 1916. Twenty-seven years earlier, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had established 70 as the age to begin receiving a pension. When asked how the state could afford such largesse, Bismarck replied that almost nobody would reach this age anyway. He was right. According to one source, life expectancy in Germany at the time was 49.

Since life expectancy in much of the developed world exceeds 80 years, retiring at 65 is a decade or more too early (ask my 83-year-old dad, who is completing his seventeenth year of work at the local elementary school, a job he took after retirement).

But for those forty-somethings who are looking at how to spend their next thirty years’ productivity, there’s another trap, write the authors: the myth of magical transformations:

This myth, the fruit of the past few decades, has been fed by countless self-help books and magazine articles, and by a general cultural atmosphere. The myth tries to sell the illusion that if people have enough vision and willpower, they can be anything or anybody they want to be. Paradoxically, this doesn’t make midlife career changes easier—it makes them more frightening. Faced with stories of doctors who get up one morning knowing that they want to become chefs, housewives who have a sudden vision of the business empires they are about to build, and lawyers who one day have crystal clear plans for high-tech businesses, real-life human beings are bound to feel inadequate. They have fears, doubts, and vague ideas at best, so they’d better stick to their knitting.

To sidestep this trap, the article gives us some commonsense advice: “To be productive, dreams must be connected to our potential. Otherwise, they are idle fantasies.”

So, there’s a prescription. Dream your future–as connected to your capabilities and strengths. Then go do it.

Anyone else out there giving it a go? Let me know.

(Photo by outrequin)

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I’m on my fourth career – how about you?

Friday, January 11th, 2008

Time was, you went to work for a company and stayed there your entire career. You retired in, say, your fifties, then bought the condo in Boca Raton or Hilton Head and lived off your company-provided pension.

Boy, does that seem a long time ago. Almost nobody spends a career at one place. And fewer and fewer of us are limiting ourselves to one career either (part of the reason being that retiring in one’s fifties isn’t financially viable, nor really appealing, to most people).

I’m on my fourth distinct career, by my reckoning. Here’s the breakdown:

1984-1992 – software developer
1992-2000 – product manager, marketer, channel salesperson
2000-2006 – senior manager (getting involved with all the above areas)
2006-? – consultant/entrepreneur/writer/???

And the priorities have changed along the way. I’m a lot more concerned about day-to-day work being enjoyable & intrinsically rewarding than I used to be. Keeping control of my time and being able to devote enough to family time is also important.

Knowing that I’ll be working for twenty more years, at least, is making me much more conscious of working “in the moment,” with less concern for what happens a year, or five years, hence.

How about you?

(Photo: career men & women from another time. “Mad Men,” courtesy of AMC television.)

Midlife Crisis, 21st Century Style

Friday, June 8th, 2007

My friends and I have been working for 20-odd years now, and midlife crisis is starting to take hold of us.

I don’t mean Porsches and trophy wives; instead our midlife crises involve trying to find meaning in our work. None of us is rich, but we can handle next month’s mortgage or rent payment without undue stress. We’re trying to find a better balance between work and family time. Each of us has accomplished a great deal, but none of us will be CEO of IBM–the goal we might have had coming out of college. If we have to work for twenty more years, it better be something we care about. Here’s a sample:

  • Tom has been with three different companies that have been sold or restructured, and is looking for something where he has some control of the direction of the company.
  • Michael has left high-tech to become president of a small company that installs advanced wiring systems in new homes.
  • Ross has left management consulting to become a teacher in New York City (go, Ross!).
  • Dan is contemplating leaving the defense contractor he works for to be one of the initial team at a high-tech startup.
  • And I’ve become a lone wolf, doing independent consulting and researching areas I’ve had a long-term passion for. And some fun things, like this blog.

So, if you see me driving around town in the car pictured above, that’s my answer to the Porsche. Our generation’s midlife-crisis car is an 11-year-old Isuzu. What does that say?

Networking: burden or pleasure? It depends on how you approach it

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007

Author Barbara Ehrenreich writes about personal networking in the latest issue of Forbes magazine (link–free with registration). She comes to the completely unsurprising conclusion that for most people networking is difficult and unpleasant.

She reveals the feelings of job-seekers (including herself, in another undercover escapade to gather material for a book) urged by life coaches to network, network, network. She cringes as she reads airport-bookstore-bestselling author Jeffrey Gitomer’s advice to spend as little time as possible with each new acquaintance, the better to make more overall contacts. The way Ehrenreich describes it, networking is a predatory, utterly-calculated activity replete with victims and victimizers.

All of which misses the point. Of course, networking that is done purely for personal gain, where scores are kept, and especially when one is needy, can be pure agony for all involved. But that’s not proper networking. (If it were, could it possibly have persisted?)

In the “Tao te Ching,” Lao Tzu said, “Act before there is a problem. Bring order before there is disorder,” and so it is with networking. If you begin network-building the day after you’re laid off, you will find it a hard road indeed. When should you start? How about today?

At any rate, your “network” is a fancy term for your friends, relatives and acquaintances. Keith Ferrazzi, in his excellent book “Never Eat Alone,” makes the point that talking about work with people we know is perfectly natural, and that keeping in touch with people, when you don’t have an agenda, truly care about them, and are curious about them is one of the pleasures of life. [Ferrazzi's goal for new contacts made at an event: one. Have a nice day, Gitomer.]

In that context, when you know and touch enough people, they know what you do, and they are up to date with your situation. From that, opportunities will arise. And that’s the point of networking.

(Thanks to the Wall Street Journal’s Informed Reader blog for the tip.)

(Photo: bonsai tree by ired via stock.xchng)

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