Monday, November 30, 2009

Relief

Warning: if you're here this week to read a business-minded blog entry, you will be disappointed. Instead, this week's entry is about relief.

"Relief from what?" you ask. Relief from a lot of stress and anxiety is my answer. While the vast majority of America was relishing (pun intended) in the taste of a properly cooked turkey, my wife and I were unpacking in our new residence in NJ. On Tuesday, she came here as the vanguard to accept the keys from our landlady; Wednesday found me riding behind the moving truck as all of our possessions were transported from Great Neck, Long Island to the new place in Crystal Springs (technically a resort, but we live in the residential area of the development).

"Moving is a form of relief?" you reply. When you consider that my wife, my 14 month old, and I lived in a 600 sq. ft. apartment where I alone had enough possessions to fill the entire place then you can understand the stress. Now we live in a 2,000 sq. ft. condominium so, yes, it is a form of relief. Finally, we get to spread our wings and fly, almost literally, through the basement, which is bigger than our former residence. Let's add the main floor, with a proper kitchen, dining area, and a master bedroom that contains a walk in closet as big as our former kitchen as well as a proper bathroom. Now, we can breathe.

Granted, we are further away from the city than we were before. After completing college, I moved to the NYC area (from my hometown in Beaufort, South Carolina) and put my roots down in the New Hyde Park, New York area of Long Island. My friends, my church, my oldest daughter, and my memories are there. But my wife's family - who I have gotten to know quite well - live here. And now my oldest daughter has a place to sleep finally, so she will paradoxically be spending more time with us here, 90 minutes away, than she did when we lived 15 minutes away.

Selfishly, the greatest thing about living in a bigger place is my "man cave." For those who have never heard the term, Dr. John Gray (who penned the well-known Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus book and subsequent tomes in the series) described this as a place of retreat for men when they need to just shut themselves away from the rest of the world for an hour or two (or five). Since then, the term has joined the vernacular and even has a reality show dedicated to it on the DIY Network.

My man cave is a resurrection of something that I had before: my digital recording studio. To those that don't know me in real life, music has been a passion of mine since I first picked up a guitar at age 8. Since then, I have taught myself several instruments; marched in a parade or two playing the alto saxophone; played keyboards when the band I was in played for 2,200 screaming fans as the opening act for Air Supply in April 2006; and as you can see in the picture written and recorded a few songs.

But when my fiancée (now my wife) moved in to my "matchbox apartment" in 2007, my music equipment went into storage. I kept a guitar or two around to fiddle around with, but that was the extent of it. And when she took the baby to the Mommy and Me class weekly, I would crank up my Marshall amplifier and relive the youthful exuberance I had for music during the 90 minutes that they were out of the house.

No longer, though. Now, I have everything at my disposal, and I couldn't be happier. This is my pride and joy (of all things that aren't living), and I have relief that once again I can escape to lands far away, limited only by my imagination. And - who knows? - I may end up on stage again now that I have the facilities to practice playing like I did so many years ago.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Be Your Own CEO of the Decade

Steve Jobs was deemed to be the CEO of the Decade by Fortune Magazine. As they put it, he not only revolutionized one industry, but he revolutionized four industries. And he did it when there were already other established leaders in each, unlike his compatriots Josiah Wedgwood (chinamaker), John D. Rockefeller (oil), Andrew Carnegie (steel), Henry Ford (automobiles) and Estée Lauder (make-up).

After reading the 31 page exposé about him, one thought struck me like a wall of bricks crashing down: how do I ensure that I am more than a footnote in history? Will I ever leave a lasting impression on something more than just a gravestone?

The only effect I seem to be leaving right at this moment is the effect that I'm not as good a planner as I thought I was. I intended on writing about a few things I read in Entrepreneur, but due to the fact that we are moving from Long Island, New York to New Jersey on Wednesday I mistakenly packed the issue in question away and don't remember in which box it went. This is an unfortunately good illustration of something else I read in the same issue of Fortune: "good execution beats a bad idea."

The author, Wilbur Ross (CEO of W.L. Ross & Co.), described his experience buying mediocre performing steel companies and then combining them to form International Steel and the steps he took to turn them around so that the combined strength was greater than the sum of the parts. In effect, the great execution of his acquisition plans more than compensated for the fact that the companies he purchased where not in the best financial health.

The opposite effect can be seen in my predicament for this week. I know I write a blog entry every week; I knew when I read that issue of Entrepreneur that I wanted to use it for this week's entry; yet I not only neglected to leave it on the coffee table, but I also packed it away in a box that is in a community of 7 stacks of boxes (piled 5 high) making it virtually impossible to find.

Translating this to the original question ("how do I leave a mark on the world [of business]?"), one should realize that any idea is better than no idea. After all, the quality of the idea will not amount to a hill of beans in the long run. Instead, it is the forethought that you put into the execution plan and its eventual execution that will really separate you from the rest of the pack.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Imaginations Run Wild

One day, several years ago, I was eating dinner with some Chinese new friends in a small, Chinese restaurant in Flushing, NY. After the food was gone, I turned to Jeff who was sitting next to me and watched him eat the rest of his bowl of rice by itself.

The young, philosophical me had a picture in my head. I could see the women in their bamboo hats, ankle deep in the mud of the rice fields. So I asked him at that point, "are you eating the rice because it symbolizes the hard work of the laborers in the fields and you don't want to waste it?"

Jeff assessed my mental state for a few moments, then resumed eating his rice. It turns out he was just hungry, and plain rice was better than no rice.

Elegance is...well...elegant. It's nice to devise a solution to a problem that you feel would qualify for a place in the Museum of Modern Art, but sometimes the best solution is the easiest. We know this as the Keep It Simple, Stupid or KISS principle.

(For the astute reader, this posting is different than another one that I wrote using KISS as the premise for the discussion.)

So why am I writing about a topic with which we are all familiar? (I wonder what the rice workers would give as an answer.) I'm sure we've seen situations where such emphasis is placed on developing an elaborate solution that it paralyzes the team. The final solution isn't started, much less finished, until well after something simpler could have been implemented and the rewards realized. Therefore, it's worth reminding ourselves that frequently simplicity is best even if it means that it may only address 95% of the requirements for a solution.

For example, my family and I are currently preparing for a move from Long Island, New York to New Jersey. We have a small apartment now, but it still needs to be packed. During the time that we've lived here, we've managed to accumulate a fair amount of small "stuff" (with a nod to George Carlin). Given that moving companies have a reputation (unfairly attributed, I'm sure) to manhandling one's possessions, we could organize everything in the boxes neatly and wrap everything up in bubble wrap to ensure its safety.

What would that accomplish? Honestly, it would do nothing but waste a substantial amount of our time. Instead, we have recognized that a lot of our smaller possessions would not be missed (much) even if they were pulverized. Therefore, we are simply putting things in boxes without much regard to organization with the recognition that the odds are greatly in our favor that nothing will get damaged.

Does the story of the tortoise and hare ring a bell? In this instance, however, the hare wins. Steady persistence (the tortoise) in one's efforts to find the best solution have more potential in terms of benefits provided, but (to paraphrase a basketball coach whose name escapes me) "potential means you ain't done shit for me lately."

On an unrelated note, I get asked somewhat regularly where I get my graphics from for the blog. I use an amazing site, full of free and royalty photographs: stock.xchng. Unfortunately, they are having stability issues at the time of this writing for the first time since I started using them, which is why there is no spiffy graphic in this installment.

See you next week.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Bigger Picture

Yesterday morning, I panicked because I had not written a blog entry for this week. When I first started this blog, I had so many things that I wanted to share with the world, but new topics weren't arriving as fast as I had been spending my philosophical coin.

There have been plenty of distractions here too: I've been out of work since the end of May; we have (as of this month) depleted our savings account and in fact are a few thousand dollars in short-term debt so that we could meet our financial obligations for the month; we accepted an offer on our apartment out of necessity (since we didn't know when we'd get the next offer...we had already been on the market for 18 months) that resulted in a 27% loss in two years; we're moving from NY to a location in NJ that is a few hours away; etc.

This isn't an excuse, but it is worth noting that the stress level that I have been exposed to on a constant basis has been quite high. And while I've been trying to keep my chin up, it's difficult and my frustration at the state of my life (especially my inability to provide for my family) has spilled out into my marriage.

I wanted to write this blog entry because, regardless of what's going on in your life, you cannot forget the bigger picture. Granted, this doesn't necessarily apply directly to those of you who aren't married, but I think you'll get the idea. The bigger picture is that there are always things to be thankful for in one's life, and even though it's tough to plod on day after day those positive aspects should be enough to give you the energy to continue.

Of course, this means you have to see and value what you have first. I had forgotten for a time that this woman living with me is my wife and the mother of our child; worse, I had forgotten why I married her in the first place. And it wasn't until we were fighting for a few days straight that I gave myself a time-out; put myself in the corner; and gave myself a few moments to think. Only then did I realize what had happened.

So I wrote her a love letter, and told her all of the things about her that I love. And it wasn't until then that the bigger picture came in focus once again.

The next time you're on yet another business trip because you travel 75% of the time; or you're working until all hours of the night; or you're upset because you were stuck in traffic and drove a total of 6 hours for a 2 hour meeting; etc. take a few moments to step back and admire what it is you have in your life already. You won't be sorry that you did, and neither will those that love you.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Bored? Now what? (Cont.)

Last week, I talked about how I didn't take advantage of extra time in an attempt to influence my future when I knew my employer was not in the best financial and sales health. I'm sure that after reading that, especially with my opening line stating how I've been unemployed since the end of May, many of you are wondering "have you learned from your experience?" Obviously, if I'm unemployed there are things that I could be doing right now to lessen the stress level and more quickly reenter the workforce...

...right?

Last week, Donna Sweidan posed a question on LinkedIn that followed a similar vein. She's currently finishing up a book / DVD set on using LinkedIn effectively for a job search, and wanted some final input. Specifically, her question was:

"What do you do on a daily/weekly basis to maintain your networking momentum? It seems a given today that networking for your job search is as important as exercise is to a healthy lifestyle, but just like so many of us have a hard time keeping up with an exercise routine, I am seeing too many job seekers who tell me that they don't network nearly enough! I think it's pretty clear though, that consistent and strategic networking is probably the most important job search activity a job seeker can be doing in this current market. So, my question to all of you who are doing it successfully: what is your secret? What one or two tips can you share with others that help you maintain your networking mojo? What do you do on a daily or weekly basis to keep the momentum going?"

This, I feel, is a nice segue from last week's topic especially since the landscape has evolved considerably since my previous experience several years ago. So without further ado, here are the things that I have been doing.

Write a blog. I write this weekly blog. To promote it, I use ping.fm (but feel free to use any of a number of similar services) to add a brief, one sentence summary of the blog along with a link to it.

Promote your professional wisdom. I publish (using LinkedIn's Google Presentations application) a 3 slide PowerPoint to my LinkedIn profile when my blog entry is published. It summarizes the blog entry with a plug and a link to the blog on the last slide.

Stay in contact. Every few days, I scan through the network updates on LinkedIn and send 2 or 3 emails to people that I have worked with in the past and with whom I have had limited contact during the past 3 months. The email is typically something innocuous like "I'm just checking in" and is intended to spark a brief conversation that does not necessarily have to have any business relevance.

Get on their radar. I answer questions on LinkedIn, because I know the fact that I answered them will show up in my network's updates.

Just recently, I was asked by a potential employer for 2 managers that I reported to and a contact that was a customer of mine earlier this year at a particular Fortune 100 company. I called up the contact, introduced myself, and asked if they remembered me.

"Of course I do," they replied. "Plus, you seem to be all over LinkedIn."

The fact that I do a lot of stuff on LinkedIn ensures that I stay on people's radar. Couple this with the fact that I have purposefully built my network to be filled (to the greatest extent possible) with people who hold positions of influence, and you can see why the momentum I have maintained is so important.

Another example of the success of a strategy like this came in the form of an email that I sent to a former colleague (see item 3 above). In my email, I asked how he was doing. He responded, "I'm great - thanks. I see you're pretty active [on LinkedIn]." Again, this is a validation of my efforts to stay on people's radar.

Efforts mean little without demonstrable results, correct? After the demise of my position I immediately reached out to my network and consistently contacted them to see if anyone knew of any position that could take advantage of what I've demonstrated over the past number of years. Frequently, the response was similar to the following: "you have exactly the skills and experience that we need...but we have no budget / headcount / etc." However, now that things are turning around - and I won't deny that I feel that a large part of this is due to companies, in advance, deciding to freeze hiring until Q4 of this calendar year, which ended in September - I have seen a noticeable uptick in activity. In fact, I have recently completed interview cycles with 3 companies currently vying for me and am entering the negotiation stage with 1 of those 3.

It remains to be seen what the future holds, but because of my efforts to ensure that I remain relevant I am cautiously optimistic about the weeks ahead.