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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It Seemed Like Such a Good Idea at the Time

July 20, 2010

Every so often you get a brilliant idea. You wake up in the middle of the night and say, GADZOOKS, THIS IS GENIUS. And maybe you grab a note pad by your bed and write down your $billion$ idea and then, when you wake up the next morning, you look at the note and try to figure out what you meant when you wrote, “put it online and phzilkygiiisz.”

I know how you feel. My penmanship, which is somewhere between doctor and dachshund, gets even worse in the middle of the night. If I could have read the notes about all my great ideas the next morning, I’d be so rich right now that I’d have someone sitting by the bed all night, just waiting to take dictation.

Until then, I’ll just have to content myself with the recognition that some of those billion-dollar ideas might not have panned out quite as well as hoped. For every idea that hits it big—pet rocks, hula hoops, carpal tunnel syndrome—another fifty or hundred prove to be expensive flops. I know, because I invested in most of them.

There is something much worse than a bad idea that flops, however. Far more expensive and irritating are all the bad ideas that succeed. We are plagued daily by timesavers and solutions that cause much, much, much more trouble than they are worth. They might have seemed like good ideas at the time, but they come from a box labeled Pandora.

My own Hall of Shame includes:

Automatic faucets. Okay, just move your hand a little closer; no, just a bit more. Oh, did the water just soak your sleeve? Bwaahahahahahah. Automatic faucets seem like such a convenience, but we have no control over the water temperature, how much water comes out or, in some cases, whether the water comes out at all. Don’t you love it when an overly aggressive faucet sprays onto your pants and you walk out of the restroom with the appearance of a person who just….? If only there was some kind of manual override for these things, maybe a handle of some sort that could turn the water on and off and adjust the temperature? Someday, perhaps, such a device could be invented.

Voice mail. Voice mail is the greatest wealth transfer mechanism in the universe, bigger and more far-reaching than Social Security, Health Care Reform, credit cards, online pornography or professional sports. Millions of companies decide to save the cost of having people answer phones and take messages; then pay their few remaining employees to leave messages for somebody else. Voice mail seems to save money, because companies know how much they once spent on secretaries. Watch how much time employees spend talking to machines, however, and it’s clear this experiment has gone horribly wrong.

Rolling luggage. Luggage without the lugging. What could possibly go wrong? Well, for starters, the rollers and handles add weight to the bag and take up storage space, so the bag is heavier and totally unwieldy when we actually have to pick it up. Worse, these things take up too much space in the overhead bins, which leaves room for fewer suitcases and other carry-ons, while the boarding process is delayed at least ten minutes while various klutzes try to stuff their roll-aboards in the A-B bins. Perhaps airlines should start charging a toll for each axle? I discovered a final flaw on the shuttle bus to Sky Harbor last week as a boulder on wheels slammed into passengers each time the bus turned, bounced, slowed…

Reply All. Whenever I’m driving and I decide to take a shortcut, I end up getting lost, taking more time and traveling more distance than would have been the case if I’d just stayed on the original route. Reply all is like that, a shortcut in name only. Send an invitation to ten people and nine will hit reply all to announce whether they intend to show up, ask about the dress code, mention that they’re lactose intolerant…. If people had to type in the names of their recipients, all of us could spend more time watching television.

Social Networking. Let’s see. I’m spending about two hours a day scrolling through FaceBook entries and LinkedIn entries and checking out tweets. Most of the stuff is boring, so I don’t bother responding. My posts are brilliant, but my online friends are too busy shouting “look at me” to notice my wit. Meanwhile, thanks for calling, but I can’t take an hour off to meet you for lunch today. I’m too busy being social. All alone. At my desk. Surrounded by friends I’ve never met and strangers I used to know. If you post your thoughts online and nobody responds, do you really exist?

Drive-Through. I don’t have to get out of my car to pick up the dry cleaning, buy my breakfast, drop off a deposit at the bank or mail a letter. I’d be saving tons of time, except that idiot in front of me can’t decide whether to get the hash browns or the tater tots and the guy before him didn’t like the foam on his latte and I had to wait five extra minutes while they resteamed his non-fat yak milk. Hey, look over there. That family of four that was going in when I pulled up here is done with their breakfast and heading to their car. I can’t understand why they didn’t take advantage of this convenient drive-through lane like me.

Loyalty Programs. Booking a plane ticket on the company’s dime and earning free trips as a result? Now that’s what they mean when they say ‘something for nothing.’ Except that the flights aren’t available and there’s a fee for cashing in the points and the number of miles needed for a free trip goes up and up. Whether its hotels, airlines, book stores, restaurants, hardware stores or grocers, I’ve been seduced and abandoned by half of corporate America. I’d stop the madness, except I’m only 3,200 points away from a free pencil. Without a doubt, points are the crystal meth of marketing.

Supersize. Do I really have to explain this one?

The list goes on and on, but all this whining is tiring me out. Time for me to go take a nap and dream up some great new ideas to improve our lives. If we’re really lucky, I’ll forget all about them before I wake up.

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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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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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