Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Negative Feedback Loops

For sure, like the one Fortune ran for their cover story in the May 16th issue way back in 2005 (50 and Fired) are attention grabbers designed to sell the magazine, but I wonder if those who read that piece or others like it these days come away feeling anything like I did.

What a downer! After reading it back then and checking out the look on the faces of some of the folks they featured, one would think that the only option if you were unemployed and over 50 is to adjourn to your garage, shut all the doors, fire up the car, and drift away listening to Stairway to Heaven!

Why bring all this up again now?  Because stuff like this tends to surface again and again depending on what the economy is doing at any given point in time.  The tougher the times the more the media seems to invest their time and resources into trying to make us all feel worse.  No wonder they call it a "negative feedback loop."

This isn't to say that there isn't rampant age discrimination in this country. Of course there is, just like there is rampant discrimination of about any flavor you want. It has all been around for far too long to be sure, but around none the less. The way that article came across one would think that there is simply nothing to be done and you might as well cash in your chips and head for HR department at Wal-Mart or Home Depot unless you are really into cultural stuff and want to be a guide at a local historic site.

Is age an issue? For sure! Is making a change easy? Absolutely not, but it is a long way from having to swallow a gun which is the impression one gets from articles like these.  What a disservice to the tens of thousands of people impacted by the recession, and the further up the organizational hierarchy one goes, the more the age factor comes into play.

As tough s it is, however, making a job change is really a process with which most of us (age notwithstanding) are all too familiar.  It is a sales process and for most people I know, in order to be successful in sales, you need to really believe in your product, understand how its features and benefits will help the buyer and even more importantly, understand the objections the buyer might have and provide the information and answers that help the buyer to see that their objection is really not the problem they might have thought.

This may be an over simplified way of stating it, but when you peel away the anxiety and fear of rejection that is inherent in any sales process, and which is even more pronounced when the product is "you," the fact remains that this is really what it's about.

Maybe I am overly sensitive because I'm 72 and still feel I am still a long way from having to be kick started in the morning. It also might be because the average age of ExecuNet members is 52, so we talk to 50 somethings all the time.

But most of all, I think it's because we hear from and talk to members every day who are telling us about how they moved on to their next gig, and we get pretty excited each and every time.

The most recent came just the other day when I got an email from a member (age: 60) who was writing to tell me that he was about to start his new job as the CFO for a pharma company in the Northeast or the member (age 58) who had accepted the CEO position at a consumer products company in California.

Bottom line, I think and hope those who are working as hard as they know how to get on with their lives and careers are way too busy to take the time to read something as de-motivating as the one that appeared in Fortune back then and continue to show up in other magazines, blogs, and 2 minute "reports" on the tube these days.

When one reflects on the challenges facing the country, especially in terms of the economic competition and the numerical advantages faced by the U.S. versus the more rapidly developing economies, you would think that as a nation we would want to take advantage of every ounce of experience we can lay our hands on.

But then this is the country where our elected officials seem to think they are helping people deal with all this by spending their waking hours doing nothing except wringing their hands and calling each other names.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

This Is Getting To Be A Drag

Ever since I can remember, there has been a “factoid” making its way around the career management world about how long someone should plan their job search will take. What I can’t recall and never remember seeing is the source from which this “factoid” came.

In any event if you are in a job search, you have probably heard it too. It goes something like: You should plan your search to take about 1 month for every $10,000 you seek in salary.

I haven’t the slightest idea nor have I ever seen statistics that indicate whether this rule of thumb is right, wrong or anything in between, and I have been roaming around the career management space in general since (dare I say it?) 1961 and with ExecuNet since 1988.

That said, in talking with ExecuNet members, this is a subject that comes up with great frequency. Certainly not surprising, as most executives tend to be more type A’s than B’s and as such focus on objectives to be reached within a specific timeframe and get pretty impatient if and when it doesn’t look like that's happening.

In addition, as leaders, they are used to being in control (more or less), and if things are not going the way they want them to and fast enough, they can make the needed changes.

In truth, I believe the foregoing is one of the major reason why we all find the search process so frustrating.

There is only so much of it we really can control, and a great deal of it that we can’t. When you are “action oriented” and you feel you are in a situation when you can’t “make things happen,” to say it is frustrating doesn’t do it justice.

Also, how much time a job search is going to take is also one of those questions where I am not sure that an actuary could really give anyone a meaningful answer. There are so many variables involved, such as geography, age, function, industry segment, compensation needs, and the economy just to name a few, and given what we're all dealing with at the moment, "economy" deserves a capital "E"?

Armed with the foregoing, hopefully you can understand why it is when someone asks me to guesstimate a timeline that I try to say this is one of those things where “the answer is, there is no answer.” But of course, most people think that this is just a cop-out on my part and ask for a number anyway.

At that point and using my own personal experience as a starting point, I am likely to say something along the lines of, “Well, I can tell you that whatever length of time you think it will take, you are probably underestimating it significantly.

It is kind of like when your wife says she is going to do some redecorating and she estimates the cost at X; as a seasoned pro you immediately make a mental note that it is much more likely to be at least 2X+.

While we can all try to smile at our spouse’s budget estimates, translating that to a job search isn’t so funny. It is, however, very important in this sense:

Part of trying to manage your way through a process as frustrating as a job search is to set realistic expectations. Without them, people tend to set goals that reality will make it very hard to attain, and when they are not attained, they feel it is somehow a sign that there is something seriously lacking in themselves when, of course, that is not the case at all. Easy to say but much harder to internalize and believe.

I talk with members almost daily whose searches have been going for several months and in many cases more than a year, and aside from looking for ideas on handling the frustration, they also want some ideas on what they can do to try and re-energize the quest.

There is a lot that could be said on this subject too and even more that’s been written, but for whatever it’s worth, here are a couple of thoughts for those who might be in this situation:

• Keep in mind that this is essentially a sales process, and as such, do what companies do if a product they have introduced to the market is not producing the results they expected – repackage it. As a candidate, that could mean a résumé makeover, tuning up your phone and/or in-person interviewing skills, making sure you are doing really thorough research in terms of target companies, and certainly working harder to expand your personal and professional networks.

• Make sure that because things have gone much longer than you wanted them to that you don’t fall into the trap of locking yourself in your home office and spending your days “clicking and praying.” It is counterproductive both strategically and emotionally.

• Get out, about and involved, both online and especially offline. Relationships can start online, but trust, which is the tipping point in personal referrals, comes much more often from face-to-face relationships built over time. If you are not already actively involved in at least one professional organization and one civic organization, do so. Keeping yourself intellectually “tuned in” is really important in terms of both attitude and energy, both of which are critical in terms of how others react to you, not to metion how you feel about yourself!

• Since most people get jobs as the result of a linkage process (i.e. networking), everything you can do to give yourself the opportunity to create those links is very much worth the time and effort. If you are a member of ExecuNet, you have long heard us talk and write about effective networking being built on a foundation and attitude of “giving, not getting.” Approaching both people and/or events with the idea that you’re there as a resource to others does a lot to get your focus on the right stuff.

• If you are someone who has trouble doing some or all of this revamping yourself, you might consider getting an executive coach to help. It is certainly nothing to be ashamed of and from an accountability and structure perspective can be very helpful in getting things back on track. At ExecuNet, members frequently ask our help in finding such a resource, and we are happy to refer them.

And don’t ever forget what every salesperson will tell you: every “no” is simply one step closer to “yes.”

Monday, August 01, 2011

Let's Play Twenty One

Want something to take your mind off the mind-numbing noise coming out of DC? I said take your mind off it, not fix it (or them).

Okay, here's what you can do; think of any one of the several characters we have all been watching over the past several months irrespective of political persuasion. Got that picture?

Okay, now download the PDF summary (it's free) of John C. Maxwell's The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership and see if you can find anyone, and I mean anyone, where you can objectively say that you feel they would qualify as having dmonstrated or even attempted to demonstrate any of the twenty-one. 

I couldn't, however, I did find it helpful to have revisited Maxwell's thoughts. Certainly served to remind me that despite having been in the working world for nearly fifty decades how many and large the gaps are between what I would aspire to be and reality. It doesn't mean that we don't keep trying, but it sure puts in perspective how far many of us (and I certainly include myself in that number) still have to go.

If you are familiar with the "laws" then I am sure there are those who would argue they are too "warm and fuzzy" and aren't anything more than idealistic consultant-speak that has no place in the real world.  Maybe so, and I would leave that argument to others, but directionally they tend to ring true for many of us who have been "followers" or have found ourselves to be placed in leadership roles.

This exercise also served to drive home the reality of the difference that true leaders really make and why there are so very few of them. I believe countries drift into situations such as the one in which we find ourselves largely due to lack of leadership, and that is going to cost not just our kids, but their grandchildren and perhaps well beyond very dearly indeed.

I am also sure that no matter what the future holds it certainly will not produce an answer to the eternal question of whether leaders are born or made, but it will certainly serve to underscore the fact that without them no good will come.