Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Unemployment Part 1

Today's post is about unemployment. In theory this will be a series, providing guidance to all those who either are unemployed or think they might be.

And everyone might be.

That sounds like a pessimistic note to start out on, but it is simply reality. Unless you are one of the privileged few who are privy to the ins and outs of your company's health, you really don't know what is going on. This isn't to say that you should sit around worrying about losing your job; that is a fast track to making your fears into reality. But prepare for it, just like you prepare for any other potential disaster in your life. You have homeowners insurance, right? Car insurance? Health insurance? There is no "unemployment" insurance (though I think I have a great business idea...), so plan for it.

First, I will echo what financial planners have been saying since the down of time: save money. There is no better way to survive a layoff than being in financially strong health. This doesn't mean rich. It means stable. And I'll probably piss people off with this next comment: part of being financially healthy means NOT eating out all of the time. Why? Because it's a hard habit to break. If you're married, and especially if you have kids, you'll find that suddenly having to eat meals at home that might not be that great is a burden on everyone.

Second, have a savings account that is accessible. It does you no good to have money in the bank if it's locked up in an IRA or a CD.

Third, when the event happens, evaluate your finances immediately. Plan on being out of work for a year. Can you do it? How far can you go without needing to break down and work on a loading dock someplace or begging the manager at McDonald's to hire you? This is important because you really don't want to take a job in desperation; that could lead to getting the wrong job for you. I did this once. It worked out for me in the long run, but I had to beg the hiring manager to bring me on because my wife and I were young with a young baby, new to town and with limited savings.

And on that note....

Finally, look at your career objectively. Are you doing what you want? Are you an example of the Peter Principle, where you've been elevated one level beyond your competency? Maybe you should take a step back down the career ladder. Or maybe it's time to wake up and move up the ladder; were you let go because you maxed out your job-title wage increases and the company could hire someone equally competent for less money? Go to the library and get a book on a new programming language, or start on your project management certification, or... whatever, just as long as you keep an eye on your career.

More to come....

Monday, June 24, 2013


This article came across the Facebook news feed today:

After the Show: The Many Faces of the Performer

The article looks at the apparent contradictions in creative people. For example, creative people can be both extroverted and introverted at the same time. This resonates with me. One major problem with the article (as well as with the links provided within) is that the writer focuses on performance art. Creativity is obviously much broader than getting up on a stage and singing, dancing, or telling jokes.

But the article made me think on how hard it is to be a creative person in the workplace. I know that some of my managers struggle with this. "You are really smart and creative," I've been told, right before being given some criticism.

Do companies want creative people? I believe most would say that they do. That is really just our conditioning, though. From my experience, while companies value creativity up to a point, they really want people who can move the corporate agenda forward. That makes sense. Businesses have goals, often financial in nature, and the ability to write a kick-ass poem or say a problem is "system agnostic" in a support ticket isn't necessarily important.

I argue that it is. For example, I am a hell of a problem solver. I believe this comes from years of writing. Not simply writing, but studying writing, and working to hone my own craft. A writer must have the ability to see through issues. Even if you write a crappy novel (which it appears I have done - three times), a book-length work requires seeing far down the road in both directions - both where you've been and where you're going. And that is at the root of problem solving. Far too often I've seen people think only a step or two in either direction. Problems are rarely so simple. A leader must be capable of understanding how an issue happened, and that is often accomplished by aggregating a lot of other problems, some of which might not have seemed in any way connected. Then, when the problem is diagnosed, the fix cannot break anything else. How often does a software patch fix problem A but also cause two other issues? I recall one incident in which a director who didn't understand the system told end users to take an action that resulted in double-billing our customers. Had she been more creatively gifted, perhaps she could have followed the plot beyond resolving whatever the immediate problem was (and, incidentally, the fix wasn't even her decision to make; she is known for going rogue).

So all you leadership position types: value the creative people. Encourage them. Give them a proper path to follow and don't force every worker into the same tight templates. In the long run your company will benefit, and so will you.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Leadership from a requiem

I went to see a performance of Mozart's Requiem. The orchestra and choir were from Vanderbilt's wonderful Blair School of Music. They came to my church to perform. The acoustics in our chapel are very rich and perfectly suited to that type of music. Watching the performance I came up with a couple of good leadership lessons.

The first was from the choir. Actually there are a couple of things I noticed as I watched them. There were four soloists: a bass, a tenor, an alto, and a soprano. In the bass section there was a young man who really didn't look to be trying very hard. On the surface he just wasn't "performing." He was singing. I watched him throughout and realized that he was actually quite passionate about his singing; but it was a subtle passion. Someone once said of Roy Orbison that he didn't look like he was putting any effort into singing; and if you watch him, he looks pretty ambivalent about performing. But the beauty of his voice is undeniable. That's what I thought of when I saw that young man in the choir. He'll never be a soloists as long as he doesn't *appear* to be doing his job well. There's an obvious lesson there, but it should be one for leaders rather than employees; just because a person appears to do something with little effort does not mean there is no effort involved. It takes patience and faith to see the passion a person puts into their task. Another note on the choir. Of the four soloists, I only one of them seemed to also be singing the non-solo parts. The others sat looking regal and diva-like; but the bass singer was singing along. He didn't put the passion into it like he did when he was doing his solo. But he was still singing. That got me to wondering how a soloist gets that job.  Was the young man so passionate about singing that he wanted to help his peers? Did he long for the days when he was one of the masses? All too often leaders relish being in leadership and forget where they came from; sometimes that's because they came from nowhere.

The other leadership lesson comes from the obvious place: the conductor. In this case the man conducting this wonderful work was a member of my church. He was obviously very passionate about what he was doing, and because of that everyone watched him. Now, that's their job; they must watch him to know what to do next. But you could see in their eyes that they trusted him to lead them down the path, and they willingly followed him on the journey. Whether the person was looking for personal gain or wanted to be the best member of the group they could be - they all followed. And to me that was amazing to watch. It's doubtful that the conductor could do most of the jobs of the people following him; he is a singer, and I assume he plays an instrument. But not all instruments, and certainly not all vocal ranges. Yet despite that, he was able to lead people. That's because he trusts the people to do their job. The first violinists are in that position because they know what they're doing; the horn players, the cellists, everyone was trusted by him, and that's why he was able to lead them. He didn't just demand respect; he demanded they do their job, and because of that faith in them they trusted him to lead.

One final lesson: life offers us many chances to lead. It also offers us many ways we can follow. The difficulty is when we want to do the former, but perhaps are best suited to the latter.

Leadership from ruin

Today's leadership lesson comes from the aftermath of the tsunami disaster in Japan a couple of years ago:

No doubt there are many such stories, most of which we'll never hear. In this case, I think the lesson is clear, as the article states: the man is forging his destiny. We all do this, of course, every day of our lives. Sometimes an opportunity comes along to take a giant leap forward. You could argue that such opportunities are always around us; but they're not always obvious. Usually we have to uncover them, even if by minimal effort.

Kudos to this man for doing what he can to make the world a better place. That's the purpose of leadership; it's not about the self. It might be lonely at the top, but we cannot lead alone.

Firing Line

Once I managed a housing facility. My staff was a pretty diverse group of 13. They were a quirky bunch, but all were hard workers and they did what I asked. If I asked too much, they told me. I considered that part of my job; they knew their limits, and as their manager I needed to trust them; they knew their jobs, after all. That's why they were hired.

A few months into the job one of my workers started showing up late. First it was once a week, but it grew to be worse. I told him to start coming in on time, but it didn't get better. Finally, my director said we cannot tolerate it any longer. I was ordered to fire him.

I took him into my office and had him sit across from me. The foreman was with me.

"I'm in a bad spot," I said. "I've talked with you about coming in late, and you keep doing it. It's really important that you tell me why right now."

He said the mother of his child had become very erratic in the previous month. That left him with the responsibility to take care of the baby. Every day his mother came to get the infant on her way home from a night-shift job, and sometimes she had to work over and so he was late.

I told him to give me a day to think about it. When he left, I asked the foreman if we he thought a staggered shift would fix the problem. He said that there were a couple of other employees that might like that idea. I wrote up a proposal to my director and he approved it. My staff worked out who would come in an hour later than the others, and it became policy at all facilities. In the end I didn't have to fire my worker because I analyzed the situation and came up with a solution that allowed the company to keep a valuable resource and also allowed the man to take care of his personal situation.

Whenever a friend of mine tells me they've been fired, I think on that situation. Do companies really do all they can to retain employees? Is there an analysis done on the cost of NOT having someone doing that job? My feeling is that the answer is no. Directors and managers can often be little dictators over their people, with complete authority to decide if that person stays or goes. Such power is unacceptable in our society; yet we accept it.

Been a long time ....

That's not such a bad thing, I guess. I stopped posting here for two reasons. One, I was warned by someone that management types at my company had seen my blog and had mentioned it in a negative light; not sure if that's true or not, but it made me wary. Second, I ran out of steam. Part of that was due to my depression taking hold; then I changed jobs, was very happy, and then oppressed in an extreme way. Very Dilbert-esque.

And then I was laid off.

Technically I resigned. They make you resign.

Now I'm on the bandwagon again. More posts to come, and I'm working on a book project around this blog. The working title is Biography of a Bad Manager. It is a culmination of my experiences as someone "being led" by managers. There are few leadership books from this perspective. Most are by Warren Buffet and others who are leaders telling other leaders how to lead. My project is from the perspective of one in the trenches. What is it like to be led?

I've been very lucky. Most of my managers have been good. There is one very glaring exception to this.

I am also working on my travelogue of a recent trip to Japan. Every publisher and agent I've sent it to has rejected it. Awesome.

Hopefully I still have people interested in this blog. Either way, I'll be putting up more posts soon.