Excess Baggage

August 5, 2010

I picked up a new project recently, which means I had to clear the decks, and the desk, to accommodate the work flow. I was overdue for a cleanup, as the office was looking like Max’s room in Where the Wild Things Are and the floor was beginning to sag into the basement. Just a bit.

Time to toss all that material about executive relocation and technology consulting, the remnants of the magazine publishing assignment and the memo about office equipment leasing. Five-year-old directories, month-old magazines, expired coupons from Office Depot….gone gone and gone.

Clearing out the detritus requires more than a day. One garbage can is already full, but there are still too many piles to consider the job done. I’m going through all the old magazines and newspaper clippings and letters/emails that seemed important at the time. I saved them until I could give them all the attention they deserved. Now, though, I read through them and realize I’ve merely delayed the recycling truck’s pickup.

The job must be completed before I can move forward. I can’t find space or time for the new assignments until I get rid of the old stuff that’s cluttering up my workspace.

It’s no different from the rest of life, of course. It’s tough, sometimes impossible, to move forward until we get rid of the junk that’s making a mess of our lives today. We can’t launch a new journey with the same old baggage.

Sometimes, the mess that holds us back is absolutely obvious. Sometimes, it’s invisible. Visible or not, though, we can count on it to be long-tenured and much less important than we assumed it to be. Once we look at the materials we’ve been saving, the anchor chains of our life, we find they aren’t as meaningful, or critical, or valuable, as they seemed when we decided to hold on to them.

What do I need to clear off my desk, or from my mind, to accelerate my progress? How do I take a fresh look at the keepsakes that turn out to be monkey’s paws rather than rabbit’s feet?

Every so often, it’s important to reboot.

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Sacred Time

July 28, 2010

Susan and Stephanie were having a Sister Day.

Two or three times a year, they get together simply to enjoy each other’s company and share the joy of being sisters. Usually, it involves some self-indulgent activity like manis or pedis or shopping and, sooner (usually) or later, consumption of alcohol. Sometimes, in the evening, the boys are allowed to join them.

Sister Days are sacred time, not to be interrupted by social engagements or family demands or work. The girls put up a wall around their time together and decline the opportunity to bring the rest of the world inside.

Sometimes, the rest of the world might bristle, just a bit, at their practice. If something comes up, why can’t the girls postpone their day? There are a million opportunities for them to spend time together, so why not make an adjustment to fit in a new engagement?

Which got me to thinking, as most things do, about time and priorities. How we spend time—our most precious resource—is a measure of our values. When do we bend, when do we break and when do we hold firm? What or who comes first on our list and when do we move people aside—including ourselves—for someone else’s benefit?

If a customer called with a problem, would we be expected to interrupt our honeymoon? Skip a funeral? Work on New Year’s Day? What if it wasn’t a honeymoon, but a long-delayed dinner? What if it wasn’t a funeral, but a long-awaited visit to the zoo? And what if it wasn’t a customer, but one of many friends who suddenly can fit us into THEIR schedule?

Would we forgive someone for declining to meet with us because they were riding a bicycle, reading a book or having a Sister Day? Could we acknowledge that their schedule of personal time is just as valuable, just as critical, as their career?

If you had been working for 21 straight days and had blocked out Day 22 for simply sitting in the house and reading a book, would you feel comfortable letting the world know about your choice? If mom or the boss or a friend from college called on the evening of Day 21 to suggest lunch the next day, could you decline the offer? Could you disclose the reason for your choice?

Some days, we’re the highest priority on somebody’s list. Other days, we’re not. It doesn’t make us, or them, bad people. Sometimes, it’s just a conflict of sacred times.

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How to Succeed In Business….

July 8, 2010

….As we continue our life lessons for the recent grads and suddenly-minted grown-ups who are out in the workplace, earning a living, and trying to hold onto a job. (Of course, if they haven’t read Your Name Here: Guide to Life yet, none of this great advice will work. JK.)

________________________

A number of years ago, we had an opening for an administrative assistant, paying something in the $14,000 range. Yes, it was a long time ago and, no, it wasn’t a queen’s ransom even then. One woman who interviewed for the job was the executive assistant to the president of a major institution. I don’t remember if it was a university or a hospital, but it was absolutely a big-time organization.

So I asked her why she was interviewing with us, since this was not a top administrative job and our pay level was about a third of what she was earning in her then-current position. And she told me, “They expect me to be nice to everyone. People come in to see my boss and I’m supposed to show them around and treat them like they’re important. I don’t know these people and I’m tired of having to treat them like I care.”

Not quite a word-for-word quote, but pretty darned close. Surprisingly, I decided not to hire her and force her to be nice to any of my clients.

I was reminded of my cantankerous applicant a few days ago while flying home from an assignment. (Actually, we weren’t flying home at all. We were sitting on a tarmac in St. Louis, waiting to refuel, because weather delays at O’Hare meant the plane didn’t have enough fuel to get all the way to Chicago.)

My seatmate and I were talking about the tough job market for recent grads and the lack of preparedness many feel about their entry into the real world. Both of us agreed that it’s very easy to succeed by making customers happy, but that most companies and their employees expend huge efforts to achieve the opposite effect. (Did I mention we were customers of an airline when the topic came up? What a coincidence!)

As we talked, I noted that we didn’t have to cite some major management guru or the hottest new reality show about apprentice bachelors lost in hell’s kitchen. It’s tough to succeed in business without really trying, but it doesn’t take much effort to get ahead of the competition.

For recent grads seeking the not-so-secret bits of wisdom that practically guarantee success, here are a few that we discussed while stranded on the tarmac:

1. Ask the customer. The customer is the ultimate arbiter of value, so her opinions are important. Why does she buy from you? Why won’t she buy something else that you sell? What are you doing that makes her loyal and what are you doing to push her away? Many people are afraid of rejection, so they don’t want to ask for trouble. The people who do ask are rare, but appreciated. Even better, they get the chance to identify and resolve issues before the customer leaves forever.

2. Return the phone call. FaceBook and LinkedIn and blogs (yeah, I get the irony) are a bunch of people talking without really anticipating a response. Phone calls are different, though, and people want to be called back. So many calls are left in voice mail forever—or can’t be left because the mailbox is full—that the person who returns calls promptly is miles ahead. There’s a corollary to the statement, “If it’s important, they’ll call back.” It’s also true that, “If YOU”RE important, they’ll call back.” If you’re not that important, they’ll move on to someone more responsive.

3. Prep for the meeting. Few things are more annoying in a meeting than wasting everyone’s time by reviewing what they should all know already. Even worse, some people proudly announce that, “I didn’t get a chance to read the materials, so I’ll just listen for a while.” Translated into English: “No point inviting me to future meetings because you’ll just be paying me to sit here and add nothing.” If it’s in the package you got before the meeting, read it. And if you somehow are unable to read it, don’t brag about your ignorance.

4. Follow up. I recently had a $1 million account relationship to place, so I contacted three businesses to get proposals for the package. Two responded with proposals within a few days of the meeting. One didn’t follow up for nearly three months, which was about ten weeks after they were out of the running. It’s not always this dramatic, but major points come from following up quickly.

5. Offer help. When a problem comes up, 75% of the people in this world will offer one of the following responses:
• It’s not my fault.
• Our policy doesn’t cover that.
• Are you sure you didn’t break this intentionally?
• There’s nothing I can do.

The other 25%, the successful ones, will offer to help. “Let’s see how we can fix this,” is a good start to a repaired relationship. Even if the problem cannot be fixed, the customer doesn’t blame you, because you’re the one who tried. When someone’s initial response is, “There’s nothing I can do,” they get no points if the problem is ultimately resolved.
…..
My seatmate and I agreed that technical skills and trade secrets offer little assurance of career achievement. Simple skills, the kind of stuff we all were supposed to learn in grade school, represent the fundamentals tools for careers, as well as the rest of life.

Pass this note on to your friends, kids, kids’ friends and anyone you know who’s starting out in the working world. Only a small percentage will actually follow these simple rules, but those happy few will be very grateful to their mentors.

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Your Idiot Boss

June 21, 2010

Being the font of wisdom that I am, younger folks will sometimes ask me important questions, such as, “Do you want paper or plastic?” “Is that for here or to go?” and “Did you dress that way intentionally?”

Young people are learning new things every day, of course, and their education doesn’t end with graduation. Just like childhood (I bet I can climb all the way! How many of these can I fit in my nose?) the metamorphosis from teen to adult is a time of constant wonder that the newly independent are anxious to share.

Mom, you just don’t realize how hard it is to have a job and do your own laundry.
Dad, can you believe my landlord expects me to take out my own garbage instead of getting it from me?
Mom, you just don’t understand how much groceries cost.
Dad, you won’t believe how much money the government takes out of my paycheck. MY paycheck.

Forget it, Wonder Bread. The formative years aren’t ages 1-12. They’re 18-23. It’s a time of immense discovery for young adults and for immense smirking and giggling among parents everywhere.

Many of the greatest sources of wonder and bewilderment originate in the workplace, where the newest employees on the payroll discover all the failings of their employers and ask one of my favorite questions of all time: How did this idiot get to be my boss?

Alas, it is true. Like Mork from Ork and Benjamin Button, we regress as we advance in our careers. The person who can run the company after 40 hours of indoctrination must abide the foolish prattle of a clueless manager while waiting to show everyone how it should be done.

It is the ultimate irony. The same guy who was smart enough, insightful enough and farsighted enough to hire my young friends turns out, in the end, to be an idiot.

“Hiring me was the smartest thing he ever did,” they might say. “Other than that, it’s hard to believe he’s allowed to operate a cell phone. I’ve been here all of two weeks and I already understand the company better than he does.”

I have great sympathy for my young friends, as I also discovered the shocking ineptitude and idiocy of many bosses on the way to becoming an inept and idiotic boss myself. I know the temptation that comes from seeing things more clearly than the people at the top of the organization.

“I bring a fresh perspective and great analytical skills that are strangely absent anywhere in the company until now,” I would say. “In fact, my new boss hired me for exactly that reason, hoping I would tell her how she is screwing up and how she can do her job better.”

All of this is true, of course, but the really savvy novice will focus on something deeper than the incompetence that dwells on the surface. Perhaps the boss has a hidden talent, much like the X-Men or porn stars. Somewhere, behind the memos and the policies and the mind-numbing incoherence of their strategies, somewhere beneath the contradictory goals and illogical incentives and undeserved self-esteem, a genius could reside. After all, if a person so untalented could rise in the organization, they must know something. Right?

Right. If their skill set is not found in actually running the company, perhaps they are savants at getting promoted by their own bosses. If a new hire could have all the answers to running the company AND learn how to get promoted more quickly, there’s no end to the opportunity.

And so, young people, I suggest that you hold back from saving the company for just a few days and take the time to really study your boss. What did she do to get where she is now? How does she hide her incompetence from her own bosses? And how did THOSE doofuses get to the top? The answers to these questions are the keys to success.

Study them. Admire them. Mirror their behavior. If they can do it, you can do it faster and better. All you need is a good sense of humor and a whole lot of patience.

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And So, Fellow Graduates…

May 8, 2010

I was hoping my commencement speech at Harvard this year would help me promote Your Name Here: Guide to Life as the ideal gift (Unisex!! One size fits all!!) for graduates entering the real world….but their invitation got lost in the mail for the 57th consecutive year.

I had the speech already written, though, and it would be a shame to let it go to waste. And so, (breathless anticipation) graduates and families, here is the speech you should be hearing….

Graduates, I bring you warm and heartfelt congratulations today, not merely for earning 120 class credits but also for your brilliant financial decision not to attend Harvard. (If you attended Harvard, insert some other name here.)

By taking the cheap route, you’ve put yourself well ahead of those peers who enter the real world with a prestigious degree and $300,000 of student loans. After about one year on the job, few people will ever ask you where you went to school, and even fewer will care about the answer.

So congratulations. You’ve avoided paying $300k for 12 months of bragging rights. If all your other financial decisions are this good, we’ll all be working for you five years from now. (Remember that I was your friend before you were fabulously wealthy and famous.) Of course, there will be pitfalls along the way, and you’ll need some special insights to avoid the traps that lie in wait for recent graduates. Herewith is almost everything you need to know to succeed in this world.

1. Relax. You aren’t the future of our nation and the universe doesn’t rest in your hands. It’s tough enough finding both a job and a good deli without the extra burden of saving the world. Don’t worry about it. You’re responsible for yourself and, if you choose to have kids, raising them to be responsible for themselves. Being responsible for yourself sounds easy, until you try to do it, so take great pride if you get it right.

2. You’re going to fail most of the time, but you only need a small number of victories to have a great life. Remember that a baseball player who fails to get a hit 60% of the time is almost guaranteed a shrine in Cooperstown.

3. Listening is the most underrated form of persuasion. If you want people to like you and trust you, learn to listen more than you speak.

4. There is always a camera. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, somebody within 20 feet has a camera. If you’re doing something really stupid, it’s going into your permanent record. On YouTube.

5. No problem ever gets resolved by e-mail. If there’s a real issue, pick up the phone, pay a visit and, oh yeah, listen to what the other person has to say. E-mail is great for forwarding links, but terrible for linking people.

6. Unless you have a billion dollars already, nobody is going to bring you a billion-dollar investment opportunity. Somebody’s going to invent the next e-Bay or Google or FaceBook. Most likely, that person isn’t coming to you for seed capital. Just spend 10% less than you earn every year, sock money away for retirement and you’ll probably do just fine.

7. The bad stuff is the price of admission. You’ll put up with all kinds of nonsense as you start your career, date, raise a family, and pay off the mortgage. We all pay a price to get what we want. Eventually, we get comfortable enough that we can mock the next generation of whiners.

8. In the first meeting, the answer is always ‘Yes.’ Whether it’s a job interview or a sales call or a friend who needs help moving, ‘yes’ is how you build relationships and lifelong success. You can work out the details and end up saying ‘no’ later, if needed, but at least people will know you were willing to make the attempt.

9. Like embezzlement, change is an inside job. You can’t change anyone else and nobody can change you. If you want to be better at something, nobody can stop you…other than you, of course.

10. You have power, because you have choices. Go or stay, buy or sell, love or hate, it’s all up to you. Never make yourself subservient to someone else by blaming them for your decisions.

11. Life isn’t about what you have or what happens to you. It’s all about how you respond. Everyone gets a share of pain and aggravation, but the ones who end up happy are those who deal with it and move on.

12. You have three reputations to protect in your career. Yours is first, your boss is second and your company is third. Never forget that yours is the one you’ll be renting out to your next boss and your next company—and passing on to your kids.

13. Everybody has something to offer in this world. The more you look for it, the more you’ll find it. That means you’ll have access to friends and resources that other people miss, because you paid attention to the people everyone else was ignoring.

And so, graduates of 2010, you now know almost everything you need to know to achieve happiness, love, serenity, prosperity and successful lives. The rest is contained in Your Name Here: Guide to Life and, if your parents really loved you, they would have bought you a copy by now. Forgive them, however, as they were smart enough to raise you to be a responsible adult (See Note 1 above.) and you should be eternally grateful for that gift.

Now, go forth and prosper as the world of joy unfolds before you. Remember, whenever your face hardships, setbacks and difficulties, that millions of others have faced the same and worse.

They survived it.

So will you.

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