Friday, September 30, 2005

Danger Quicksand - Have a Nice Day

They told me when I "volunteered" to enter the blogging world that I would be amazed at what I found as I surfed around the blogosphere. They were right. There are so many of these things out there, that it takes practically no time at all to start feeling like an electronic butterfly as you flit from blog-to-blog.

What I have found to date is that I am attracted to blogs that are focused on the world of career management (a term which for many of us may be in the running for oxymoron of the week). The fact that most of us have to work for a living, I guess I should not be so surprised that there is so much "out there" and that there are so many people who are willing to share their experiences and "learnings."

I find myself frequently going back to a blog hosted by David St. Lawrence called, Ripples. Maybe I just like his writing style, and maybe it is because I think we are of the same generation. Not sure, all I know is I check it pretty frequently.

In any event, David wrote this book called, Danger Quicksand - Have a Nice Day, An Unconventional Guide to Surviving Corporate Employment. He was kind enough to send me a copy, which I read with much discomfort and great interest. It is not a pretty picture, but it is one with which an awful lot of executives would relate all too well. The book is filled with, what felt to me, equal parts of cynicism and idealism, all of which comes from bitter experience.

My discomfort in reading the book came from seeing a lot of myself in many of the scenarios he describes, although at least in my own experience, I never felt I was working in a company or for a boss who was unethical.

He thinks a lot of people's experiences in the 21st century will lead toward more and more of us who will be going out on our own in some form, fashion, or another. I think he is more right than wrong. Indeed, as I read one particular "learning" that David shared about careers: "Work is like that rock, paper, scissors game. There is no long-term winning play" -- it made me shake my head in the affirmative. Those words also reminded me that one of the key reasons I started ExecuNet was because I had arrived at a time in my life where I realized how true those words really were (even though I had not articulated them in quite that way) and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to do something about it.

David’s "learning" also made me realize that when people ask me about our company, the first words out of my mouth are "it is the most exciting and rewarding thing I have ever done in my life." Why? The answer lay in something else that he shared in this book which he attributes to Lloyd Lemons, a freelance writer. Lemons was writing about something he called "The Joys of a Micro Business." In the piece, Lemons listed the three things that a micro business should be about, and these were:

  1. It should be about bending the world a little, to fit your purpose, by doing something you truly enjoy doing. (I'll drink to that!)

  2. t's about being a catalyst for your own ideas, and not a facilitator of someone else's. (I'll drink to that too!)

  3. It's about personal freedom, largely brought about by the integration of working and living. (I'm still working on the "living" part)

David feels that there is rapid growth among those following this track, and that the Internet is the engine powering the growth. I think he is right on both counts, and consider myself more fortunate than I can say that ExecuNet is a part of it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Frustration with a small "f"

When you see screaming headlines "I'M OUTTA HERE!" -- all in bold red, no less -- it is pretty hard to ignore. Even a casual subscriber to BusinessWeek could not have missed this article, subtitled Why Microsoft is Losing some Key Talent, on the cover of the Sept. 26th issue. Once you got past the MS-bashing slant of the story, which may or may not be deserved for all I know, I thought I sensed something else that was a broader message than just that people were bailing out of MS at a rate that made one think that maybe Redmond, WA was about to become a ghost town.

It isn't only BW that has been doing stories where the common thread from headline to headline is RETENTION. We have been reading about it ever since the McKinsey white paper on the War for Talent. Those who are seeking executive jobs are coming off the sidelines and getting back into the game.

In our own survey feedback, we see the "itch" manifesting itself in a different way as survey respondents talk about the degree to which they are unhappy campers and the degree to which they plan to do something about it sooner, rather than later.

As I read this cover story in BusinessWeek I wondered if in the years ahead we would be looking back on it as the same sort of "benchmark" that seemed to happen back in '92 when IBM announced to the world that it too was going to have layoffs. Hence, we all finally woke up to the fact that there never was anything "real" about the Puritan Work Ethic and "lifetime employment" in return for individual "loyalty" to the corporation was pure fiction.

The whole thing got me to wondering where the "breaking point" happens. What is it that causes people to "act" rather than simply complain when they feel that not everything is going their way? I have never met anyone in my life, myself included for sure, who arrived at work every morning or left it every night feeling like if the world needed a model for the most utopian organization on the planet, they need look no further. Just run us through the organizational Xerox machine and your troubles are over.

There is an old saying that goes something like: "There are two things that cause people to act: Inspiration and desperation." Maybe it ought to be re-worded to say "inspiration and big time frustration." The BW story outlined the reasons that many of the talented people at MS said they were jumping ship, and the common thread I saw was "frustration." Frustration at the change in culture that seems to happen as organizations move from the fluidity of start-up to one of becoming part of the "establishment." The change that seems to happen to so many companies when it goes from "us against the world" to "the world against us."

I think every company, big or small, sees this sort of thing going on. It certainly is nothing new, and they all are trying -- to varying degrees -- to avoid the consequences of a cultural change that turns "inspiration and dedication" into "frustration and desperation."

We are also all looking for answers. We are looking for the "universal solvent" for retention, especially in the age of the war for talent.

I not only know I don't have the answer, I sometimes wonder if I even have a "clue." As we and other companies struggle with this issue on a daily basis, I just keep coming back two words: Communications and Collaboration.

If you can create and maintain an environment where you are willing to constantly and consistently share information with everyone, coupled with a problem-solving process where people feel that it is about consultative collaboration, you at least stand a decent chance at retaining those people who can and will get "frustrated" but over the long haul it will hopefully be with a small "f" not a big "F." Even in those instances where a decision may not go their way or they might have felt if they were "king" they would do it differently, they will still go home at night and after a glass of wine will say to anyone who'll listen, "Yeah, they aren't perfect by a long shot, but the dumb bastards’ hearts are in the right place. At least they are trying."

People can be pretty understanding if they see effort.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Power to the Sellers!

There are all kinds of signs, and have been for many months now, that the law of supply-and-demand is starting to surface once again in the executive jobs market place. Our own data has reported it and our monthly surveys with the search community also reflects the trend. And when the supply-and-demand pendulum starts to swing, the executive's search for the "better" executive job heats up. Translation: The "A" players are headed out looking for, as they say in the NFL, "respect."

If you checked out the cover story in this week's issue of BusinessWeek, the focus is on the departures of key players from Microsoft, simply serving to underscore the level of dissatisfaction among the executive ranks. One of the ways we see the manifestation of the BW headline "We're Outta Here" is when we look at the make up of our membership as the economic times shift. A couple of years ago, roughly 30% of our membership was made up of people who described themselves as "employed and monitoring the market." Now, nearly 70% fall into that group.

We have been hearing about the so-called War for Talent ever since the well-known McKinsey study was published way back when. McKinsey was saying, among other things, that for the next 20 years or so, the most critical corporate resource was going to be "talent."

So what else is new? Hasn't that really always been the case? Sure, innovation can help a company gain a competitive advantage, but that doesn't last forever. The only really sustaining competitive advantage any company has is made of the people who work there, and that "advantage" is driven more by their collective attitude than anything else. Golden handcuffs may keep them physically on-site, but it doesn't necessarily keep them mentally engaged.

It is also well documented that it costs far more to replace experience than it does to retain it. Most organizations know very well who their "A” players are. I wonder how many really know or try to find out how those "A" players really feel? If "retention" is really the issue du jour for business today (and I believe it is) then I would suggest that the most critical factors in achieving that objective can be found in the other two "R" words: Respect & Recognition.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Blogs & Unhappy Campers

With the gut-wrenching horror of Katrina it is pretty hard to even think about anything else, much less write about anything else, but here goes anyway.

Since I am new to the "blogosphere" as they call it, I read with some interest (pre-Katrina) an op-ed piece in the NY Times by Jeremy Blackman entitled:
Job Posting. [Free registration required.] Essentially it was an argument that blogs posted by employees should be protected by law even if what the blog has to say would not make the company very happy.

It's an interesting question, and if it works like most things legal, it will be many moons indeed before there is enough case law to sort it out from a legal perspective. Given the way courts rule, I am not sure I would even make a wild guess as to how it would all turn out, but that doesn't mean that I don't have a point-of-view. Not that the fact that I have an opinion means much, or the fact that I have had the experience of being an employee, but I have also had the experience of being an employer for the past 17+ years. This fact doesn't make me unique either, but at least it has made me think about this maybe a bit differently that I might have had I only had the experience of being one or the other only. Funny how your perspective can change as your role changes.

I am sure that by now most of us have read about the instances where employees have been fired for what they have said about their employer on their personal blog. I guess the answer lies somewhere between freedom of speech and the lengths to which one has to go to prove libel, defamation of character, or damages as the result of lost business and probably a host of other legalisms about which I know nothing and fervently hope I never will have to know anything.

So the question before the house is: should bloggers who write about their employers be protected by laws? I think the question is, in large measure, academic, because I think they are now, and will continue to be as things evolve. The balance between managing the relationship between employers and employees it not easy. Employers ended up with unions because their actions over time "earned" them unions. We have laws against discrimination, and laws regarding minimum wages, and drawers full of other stuff because the actions of employers over time made it clear there was a need for them.

I am enough of an idealist to still believe (maybe “hope” is a better word) that for a very large percentage of the population on both sides of the employer/employee relationship you really don't need laws to protect either party. If you have decent people dealing with decent people, by and large, the right things get done, and the right things happen. It is when one side or the other tries to take advantage of the other that things go downhill in a hurry.

How do I net this out? I would say it this way -- It is one thing to bad mouth your boss or your company at a cocktail party or over some beers at a sports bar, but doing the same thing in cyberspace feels different to me. Should bloggers be protected? I guess my answer is to some degree yes, but not to the point where they are free to take shots at their employer because they are honked off by whatever.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Knowing What You Don't Know

My recent posting on running a successful enterprise and running a successful job search and how they were two different animals generated some discussion. Lifelong success at the former didn't automatically translate to success in the latter. One of the comments that came after that posting went up was the following:

Dave, I will add one more item to your list ..... loss of familiarity. We have had decades of experience in running companies or doing our jobs and are extremely familiar with what needs to get done under different circumstances. Not many of us have the experience running a job search campaign ..... and the natural tendency is to revert back to what we are familiar with and fill up our time with activities that are not necessarily valuable in terms of job search.

The comment got me to thinking of just how on target this person's posting was. Executives who are masterful at what they do in the business world frequently are virtually clueless when it comes to managing a job change, and one of the key reasons why is because, if they are lucky, it isn't something with which they have had (or will have) a lot of experience.

The result ranges from people who understand that they "don't know what they don't know" and make a concerted effort to acquire the appropriate knowledge and then apply it to what by then is a well thought out strategy. At the other end of the spectrum, one sees those who also indeed "don't know what they don't know" but are in denial. They then jump into the fray based on a strategy that can best be described as "Ready-Fire-Aim." For those at this end of the scale, it is usually accompanied by all kinds of frustrations and fault-finding directed anywhere other than at themselves.

They are quick to fault the market place for their lack of wisdom in not recognizing the value that they represent or would bring to an organization. It isn't that they lack talent or skill, more often than not, it is that they lack the real understanding of how it is that most people really end up making a change and the degree to which learning how to both market themselves and become really effective in extending and building their network impacts their chances for success.

Monday, September 12, 2005

And This Surprises You?

Why it took me until now to stumble across a study that was jointly conducted by AgeWave, The Concours Group, and Harris Interactive I don’t know, but given that my reading these days seems to be pretty much confined to scanning the online NY Times in the morning and dashing through the WSJ on my way out for lunch I guess that might explain it. Fortunately for me, colleagues like Lauryn Franzoni keep an eye out for things that they think might be of interest, and this study certainly was.

The survey included 7,718 workers “…in every industry about the current and future profile of the American workforce.” From this data, they then identified six “distinct categories (i.e. profiles) of workers who differences derive more from attitudes toward work and life circumstances than age, gender, race, or ethnicity.”

In a nutshell, the profiles played out as follows:

  1. Self-Empowered Innovators (14 percent): Hardworking, entrepreneurial, well-educated and self-empowered. They want work that’s stimulating and that serves a larger social purpose.

  2. Fair & Square Traditionalists (20 percent): Highly reliable and loyal with below average education and above average incomes. They work hard and expect to be paid for it.

  3. Accomplished Contributors (17 percent): Team players who work hard and have a very positive attitude toward their employers, colleagues and workplace. They want to learn and grow on the job.

  4. Maverick Morphers (15 percent): Salient characteristics are confidence, intellectual curiosity and high energy. These are the innovators who generally do best in smaller organizations.

  5. Stalled Survivors (19 percent): Stressed out. Want a good paycheck and a fun work environment for now but something more productive and successful down the road. This is the youngest group.

  6. Demanding Disconnects (15 percent): The least satisfied and productive segment. Want their employers to step up and provide extensive benefits but are willing to provide little energy or commitment in return.

Source: Joint Study of Age Wave (, The Concours Group ( and Harris Interactive Inc. (
The big “worry” that was talked about in the survey summary I read was this:

“Most distressing, they said, is the finding that the youngest workers, tomorrow’s leaders, are uncommitted to their work and often constitute a negative influence in the workforce. At the same time, older workers are blossoming, showing a can-do attitude across much of the workforce. The challenge for corporations is transitioning the variety of attitudes for the benefit of the company, and nurturing future business leaders.”

Having tried to digest all this, and if I had the wherewithal, I was tempted to take out one of those neat looking full page ads in the NY Times that would have said in so many words “and this surprises you?” Is this not a condition with which the “boomers” and the Gen X and Gen Y world are all too familiar?

In the world in which we at ExecuNet operate on a daily basis, we have the opportunity to talk with a lot of people who are in very senior-level executive jobs, and there are precious few I have talked to over time who aren’t worried about the same thing that this survey points out, and as an aside, they feel like they “blossomed” quite some time ago. They do, however, spend a good deal of their time trying to deal with the issue of commitment -- in some cases their own, and in others that of their subordinates.

To me, it doesn’t feel like much of a mystery. The generations they are talking about who are “uncommitted” is made up of “kids” who grew up watching what happened to their moms and dads who traded loyalty to an organization in return for what they foolishly believed or wanted to believe was job security. When the reality of the myth was revealed, companies have been challenged ever since to try and figure out how to regain the trust of their employees. It is, I believe, trust that is the engine that drives real commitment. I also believe it is commitment that is the single most important element that gives any organization a competitive advantage, especially when it comes to the incremental productivity that is out there for every organization beyond that which comes from the application of technology.

Maybe it’s just my rose-colored glasses that they give to those of us who fall into the category of the workers who somehow still have this so-called “can-do” attitude or maybe it is because once or twice over the past 40+ years I was fortunate enough to work for a manager that showed me the difference in how someone feels when they are “working for” versus “working with.” It wasn’t that I didn’t always understand who the boss was, but the way I was coached and counseled that made me feel truly “valued” and which translated itself into commitment with a capital “C”.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Devil You Know vs. The Devil You Don't Know

Since I have only been introduced to the world of blogging relatively recently, I had no idea just how addictive it could become. Not so much in terms of posting stuff myself, but in roaming around and reading what others are blogging about. It doesn't take long before you are reading a good deal of pretty fascinating stuff.

I am passing along one of the most recent postings I came across because so many of our members are either a part of or very interested in becoming engaged in a small business (preferably one that they own).

The blog site is called Small Business Trends and is run by Anita Campell. She writes some very interesting stuff plus a free newsletter that I also signed on for. In any case, she recently posted an article that caught my eye called Starting Small Businesses Later In Life. It caught my attention because in the surveys we have done of our membership for the past 13+ years, we see data that tied in very well with information she shared from a Yahoo! Small Business/Harris Interactive survey that gauged entrepreneurial attitudes.

The survey results, among other things, showed that 56% of those responding (and they had over 2,200 responders) said they wanted to own their own business later in life. When Anita was writing about this, she ginned up this chart which makes the results even more eye-catching.

While people wanting to own their own business may not be such a revelation, something Anita said in her posting came as a bit of an eye-opener to me. She said in part:

"This desire to continue working later in life seems at odds with another trend, that of people foregoing high-pressure corporate positions or jobs that bore them, for lifestyle reasons. People are saying they do not want to be part of the rat race. Is this really at odds with conventional wisdom?”

Not really. What I believe is happening is that people are moving towards better integration between their work and the rest of their lives. They see owning their own business as offering flexibility. The choice is no longer either work at a demanding pace or not work at all. Instead, they can work at something they really enjoy at a pace that fits with the rest of their lives. When work and personal life are integrated better, with flexible work hours and conditions, they want to continue working."

I kept reading and re-reading this and wondering if this was really the case. For sure I know very few people who wake up in the morning saying "Boy, I can't wait for the rat race to get started again today!" I think that many of us wake up in the morning thinking, "Wow, how great would it be if I were my own boss!" No more political BS, I can start and stop when I want, no more worry about my job being the next one to be downsized. How great is that?"

My answer is, “Not a great as you might think,” and in many respects the downsides of the rat race are simply replaced with the downsides of owning your own business. One source of stress is replaced with another. There is, however, one critical difference between the two that makes dealing with the stresses a bit easier -- passion and belief in what you are doing.

I don't know about anyone else out there who has left the rat race and went out on their own, but at least in my case, what I would share with Anita (and maybe others who are thinking about all this) is that while it is very true that most of us in “later life" want to continue working that does not necessarily translate into the tidy integration of work and personal life. I went from a 5 day a week stressed out person to a 7 day a week stressed out person, and the "integration of work and personal life" didn't start to happen for me until I was 17 years into ExecuNet and my wife made what she calls a "management decision," changing the distance between work and home from 7 miles to 140 miles.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Who Needs Emotional Intelligence?

I was talking to Robyn Greenspan the other day. Robyn edits one of our newsletters called CareerSmart Advisor. Robyn is also probably the closest I'll ever get to knowing a reality TV show celebrity - her brother is one of the contestants on Martha Stewart's soon-to-debut Apprentice show, but that's another story.

Robyn was talking to me about doing a piece on EI. At first I thought she meant one of our other newsletters called Executive Insider, but that wasn't the case. She was talking about what is known in the trade as Emotional Intelligence which came from Daniel Goleman's book Working with Emotional Intelligence. Since I had not read Goleman's book, and knowing my type A personality, she gave me the cliff note definition of EI which went like this: "...the ability to make decisions based on assessing the feelings of others and self." She also shared with me the EI (aka EQ -Emotional Quotient) competency set from Goleman's book:

  • Self-Awareness – knowing your internal emotional status and behavioral tendencies. Includes: emotional awareness, accurate self-assessment and self-confidence.

  • Self-Regulation – managing your internal state and external impulses. Includes: self control, trustworthiness, conscientiousness, adaptability and innovation.

  • Motivation – tendencies that facilitate reaching goals. Includes: achievement drive, commitment, initiative and optimism.

  • Empathy – awareness of the feelings of others needs and concerns. Includes: understanding others, developing others, service orientation, leveraging diversity and political awareness.

  • Social Skills – proficiency in promoting desirable responses in others. Includes: influence, communication, conflict management, leadership, change catalyst, building bonds, collaboration and cooperation, and team capabilities.

Source: Adapted from Working with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, PhD

So I am reading and talking about all this and wondering what all the excitement is about. Doesn't it just stand to reason that if a leader does a good job at "assessing the feelings of others and self" that things would go a heck of a lot better than if they didn't? I mean how hard it that to understand? Isn't it just common sense?

After congratulating myself on the fact that I didn't need a book to tell me all this, that, after all, these were all traits that I saw myself as having in spades, I then paused to ask myself, “Well look Dave, if you had all this EI DNA going on then how was it that you have had more than your fair share of managerial screw ups over the years? And by the way, if you see yourself as such an EI superstar, how come you didn't do a better job at raising your kids, or how come you were batting considerably less than 1.000 when it came to making hiring decisions or any of the other nearly limitless items you could add to such a list?”

The more I thought about it, the faster it brought me back to the reality that understanding something on an intellectual level was a hell of a lot different than understanding it on an emotional level and certainly much easier on either level than living it day-to-day.

I guess that's one of the reasons why there will always be a rich market for people to help coach me to learn and apply what I already "know".

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Not Happy With the Result? Just Quit

Blogs, I guess, are sometimes viewed as some sort of electronic confessional, at least as they are used by some bloggers and viewed by some blog readers. That being the case, I confess that I am a bit of a sports junkie. It is probably due to the fact that I was such a poor student in grammar school that by the time I got to high school I found myself in school six days a week trying to catch up, and the only respite from the "catching up" was sports. In any case, here I am still mad because the Dodgers moved; I’m wondering if the Knicks will make it back to the NBA finals in my life time; and worried sick that Eli Manning might not be "the answer" and if I should start a petition to bring back Y.A. Tittle.

What got me thinking about all this? While doing my three hour, 143 mile weekend commute to my house in Rhode Island, I came across a sports nut named Jim Rome, that I now understand (and after listening to him was not surprised to learn) has had millions of listeners for many years (he calls them "clones"). Jim rants about a lot of stuff, has a great and funky sense of humor, which is reflected back in many of the calls and/or e-mails that he gets during the course of a broadcast and many of which are very funny.

While the focus is sports, we all know perfectly well that sports and what goes on in sports is simply a microcosm of our society in general, and as such, Rome often talks about things that remind you just how unimportant some things are and -- more importantly -- reminds you to keep things in perspective.

By way of example, this past Friday, he was talking about why he had decided to give up golf. He called it a tough game, and said it was too hard to really get good. And besides, he read a story from a paper somewhere out West about a guy who had been in a wheelchair since he was injured in an auto accident nearly 20 years ago and who had just scored the second hole-in-one in his career. With his semi-sarcastic humor, he was telling the audience that he was going to quit since clearly the odds of an able-bodied person getting a hole-in-one was almost actuarially impossible, and here was a man in a wheelchair who had not only gotten one but two, there was certainly no point in Rome working any more at trying to get any better.

Rome then went on for roughly ten minutes talking about the scores of things that most of us complain about all the time as we feel frustrated about really important stuff like people who don't signal for turns or feeling sorry for ourselves because things didn't go so well at the office. I can't recall all the examples he gave, but after each one he would just say "Quit." As he continued with example after example, it just made you feel smaller and smaller and more ashamed of yourself when you realized that any time you think you have put effort into something and haven't attained your goal maybe you needed to rethink the word “effort.” I thought about it even as I was stuck in traffic and waiting behind all those folks headed to Cape Cod.