My Brilliant Career, Part 6

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I had my consulting business for ten years and was profitable every year. There were a couple of soft patches that were pretty scary when I was going through them, but they were always followed by more work than I could handle. My primary product was leadership development, but during the course of a program, a client would ask, “Do you know how to do this?” and I’d usually know how. So, I wound up doing recruiting, compensation, team building, coaching . . . all kinds of things. Although most of the money came from the business world, most of the work involved nonprofits, because those experiences were always more meaningful and the people more appreciative.

I liked the variety of the work and I loved the gaps between assignments that allowed me time to explore my creative side. It was during these years that I wrote my first book,  launched Acoustic Disturbance and began Ringing True. It was great to work in my pajamas or to be on a conference call with an executive team while sitting in a bathtub. I worked out of my home office in San Francisco, so whenever I needed a break, there were plenty of cafes, restaurants and unusual people right outside my door to shake up the day.

What I hated was the travel. I did a program for one of the Baby Bells that had me crisscrossing the country for six months, staying in some of the most forgettable locales in the United States. I spent an entire winter in Evansville, Indiana. I was in Tucson during 9/11 and for six weeks after. I did some business in the U.K. and Canada, which were always fun, but the domestic travel became a real drag, especially after the Patriot Act.

I also had to admit that the work wasn’t as fulfilling as it was when I was inside. There was no continuity to the experience. I’d teach people leadership but I was never around for the day-to-day where you see if what you were teaching made its way into the real world. There was no feeling of shared experience.

Eventually I’d had enough and went back into the working world in a small company where I’ve had the opportunity to build an entire people-side function from the ground up. This has turned out to be a mixed bag, as this company, like organizations everywhere, has become more focused on the bottom line than on achieving excellence. I also find myself missing the freedom I had when I was on my own. Perhaps I’ll go back and do that, but what I really need is to figure out the thing I want to do for which I am uniquely unqualified.

It works every time!

I’d like to wrap up this series by summarizing the many things I’ve learned from my experience in the working world, in the hope that these insights might be of help to those of you who feel frustrated by the entire career experience. Here goes:

1. Business isn’t that difficult. I remember reading somewhere that initially there was a very strong protest against the concept of a Master’s degree in Business because it lacked a body of knowledge. I wholeheartedly agree. Any moron can make money—look around you! If a business succeeds, people with nothing better to do reinvent the story and conjure up lessons that others can use, usually in the form of simplistic nonsense. Get it through your head that success is cyclical; Jack Welch was a hero in the 90’s and is a bum now; Steve Jobs was a hero and a bum so many times in his career that I’ve lost count. No one predicted the success of the pet rock or even the iPod; it was luck, timing and simple common sense. A lot of the reason people think business is difficult is because we’ve placed businesses into different categories called “industries” and each industry is armed with an intimidating set of buzzwords that work as secret codes for those who are “in the know.” The true purpose of buzzwords is to make things seem more complicated than they are. I find the whole “must have industry experience” requirement in many employment ads to be incredibly insulting; you could describe the challenges in any industry on a half of sheet of paper if you used simple English. There have been maybe two or three original business books in the entire history of that genre; all the rest are piles of rehash made fresh by new buzzwords.

2. There is no such thing as a career path. I was an extreme example of this truism, but it’s something everyone needs to accept as reality. Some say that half of the jobs that exist today didn’t exist five or ten years ago. When I was a young lad in the Valley, everyone was flocking to get a Bachelor’s of Science in Electrical Engineering. When they graduated, there were no jobs . . . the world had shifted to software. A few years later, software engineers without web skills were wiped out by the thousands. Most of us are going to have to improvise and scratch to make a living and often we’ll wind up doing things we’d never thought we’d do. Get used to it. Embrace the opportunity instead of feeling like you’re settling.

3. All your planning, hopes and dreams can be ruined by a single asshole. This happened to me with that anal-retentive trainer and when one company almost went belly-up due to the CEO’s financial hanky-panky. Some trace the financial crisis that shook the world to one guy somewhere in Norway. You may have a great team of people you work with now, but bring in one devious person and the entire team will go to hell. The lesson is no matter how secure you feel, always have a back-up plan and plenty of escape routes. If there is one lesson I wished I’d learned earlier, this is the one. It sucks to feel trapped in a company whose values are offensive or whose managers are arrogant and abusive.

4. Never underestimate your abilities, especially the ones you don’t think you have. There is a concept in improvisational theater called “the offer.” If you’re in a skit with a partner, any suggestion that partner makes is an offer. The fundamental rule of improv is to always say yes to an offer. If you say no, you’ll kill the scene—the action can’t move forward. People will present you with some opportunities that you will want to dismiss immediately as “off the wall.” Don’t do that. Go with the suggestion for a while. You may think you’re completely unqualified to do what the suggestion requires, but that’s because you’re looking at yourself as you would look at a resume. All of us have comparable, analogous or surprisingly useful skills that can be applied to a task. The fact that you know nothing can be a huge advantage because you’re bringing a completely new perspective to the problem. I said yes to many things and I learned things about myself and my capabilities that I never would have learned otherwise. Learn to play with possibilities and listen to all possibilities before dismissing them as silly.

Back to work!

Photo Credit:© Witch81 | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

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My Brilliant Career, Part 3

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First, a quick review of my career progress at this point in the story:

1. Worked my way through school as a flunky on the graveyard shift. Got a useless degree in English.

2. Was promoted to a job for which I was not qualified.

3. Was promoted to a job for which I was not qualified.

4. Went to another company and was hired into a job for which I was not qualified.

It had now been four years since I’d found the employee relations job and everything seemed okay. The primary reason things seemed okay is that I had no idea what was going on at the very top. At this point, I wasn’t part of the management structure, so I could easily slip back into my lower-middle-class upbringing and bitch a blue streak about that bunch of dimwits in the executive suite who didn’t give a crap about the rest of us. I’d had very little contact with any of the executives except my boss, who, like all the other executives, believed that information was power and shared very little inside information with his direct reports.

That wasn’t why he got fired. He got fired because he screwed up the sales compensation plan and caused a million dollar shortfall in the budget.

My colleagues and I speculated about a replacement. I thought for sure it would go to a person we’ll call Andrea. She had the most knowledge and experience and had worked closely with several executives on key initiatives. The Compensation Manager might have had a shot due to her Ivy League affiliations, but she was part of the sales compensation fiasco and the CEO had publicly humiliated her for her incompetence, an incident that was the talk of the town for several weeks. There was also some speculation that, this being a French company, they would bring in one of their own from Paris and fire the rest of us. Given my relative lack of experience and the fact that I’d only supervised manufacturing people several years before, no one thought I had a shot, self included. I didn’t want the frigging job anyway. I had no desire to be a golf-playing country-clubbing bonus-padding loser Mercedes owner. I still had dreams of escaping the world of business and somehow making it in a more artistic field and living a more bohemian existence. The last thing I wanted was to be a Vice President.

It had to happen.

One day Andrea walked in and said she and her hubby were headed for Honolulu to pursue their shared music careers in the soft jazz market. Later that afternoon, the CFO came to my office and told me to follow him. We headed for the CEO’s office, which was appropriately and significantly hidden from public view down a long hallway where all the human noise of the company was shut out as effectively as if he had been working in a sound isolation booth.

The CEO asked me a question. “What’s your ancestry?” I supposed the question was still legal in France, so I answered, “My father’s side is Portuguese.”

He said, “Portuguese! Good! That means you’re hard-working.” He then told me I was in charge of HR and that he wanted me to fix the turnover problem in the sales force and keep him out of jail. I was then dismissed.

So, here I was, a newly-minted executive who had no qualifications for the job and no desire to do the job. They gave me a modest increase and I later learned that what made me the top candidate was that they knew I’d come cheap. Having Portuguese ancestry somehow confirmed the wisdom of their decision.

To say I was stunned would I have been an understatement, but the people in HR were all very excited for me. The head of sales came down and gave me a bear hug and said, “Welcome to the executive suite.” I wanted to throw up, but I mustered up a pathetic smile.

It was all put into perspective that evening around the family dinner table. By then I was married with two sons, aged eight and five. Once we all sat down, I took a deep breath and said, “Well, guys, I’m a Vice President.”

There was a moment of silence, then my youngest said, “You mean like Dan Quayle?”

Oh God, I thought. I am a loser.

—to be continued—

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My Brilliant Career, Part 1

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All I ever really wanted to do was play music and get laid.

I tried the music scene but ran into two big problems. One was that I was too stubborn about the way “my music” had to sound, which tended to put a damper on collaboration and pissed off my fellow musicians. The other was that I found “music industry professionals” universally disgusting. The lure of the 24/7 availability of sex-starved groupies was simply not strong enough to overcome my vanity  and artistic stubbornness.

So, music became a sideline and I went off to college. Somewhat unfocused, I changed majors seven times in the first two years. After getting tired of the poor lost student act, I worked full-time for a couple of years, earning enough to keep me in wine and women. Then I got tired of the playboy act and decided I wanted to be somebody . . . and in my small lower-middle-class universe, that meant becoming a bona fide college graduate, the first in my family’s less-than-stirring history. I approached this endeavor with such intense commitment that I spent two years working full-time on the graveyard shift at a semiconductor company while going to school full-time to finish my degree.

And I finished! I had a degree! A degree in English!  I’d lost touch with everyone I knew and I was still working a shit job on the graveyard shift, but I had a degree! A B. A. in English! Hooray!

Unfortunately, I hadn’t bothered to check the job prospects for graduating English majors, which at that time were similar to the current odds for winning the Mega Millions jackpot. There were no jobs for teachers and, as always, there were more than enough writers to go around. Some of my colleagues were headed to law school; some to get a second worthless degree in English by going for the Master’s.

I decided to go the worthless degree route and started my Master’s degree in English. Somewhere in the second semester, though, word got around at work that I had a Bachelor’s degree. One of the many upper middle managers at the company approached me and asked me if I wanted to be a supervisor. “We’re looking for people with degrees,” he said.

I thought it odd that he didn’t care that my degree was in English and that I knew a hell of a lot more about iambic pentameter, Jungian interpretations of Hawthorne and how Byron’s club foot affected his poetic rhythms than I knew about the science behind a memory chip. In fact, I knew nothing about memory chips except that I could shove them into a testing machine and if the light went green, it meant they were ready to do whatever they had designed them to do.

But if he didn’t care, I didn’t care—and I did care a whole lot about the 25% promotional raise I was going to get. I could get a sports car! Women would love me! Hooray!

I never learned dick about memory chips, but I actually became a pretty good supervisor for one simple reason: I listened to the people who worked for me. This was not a stroke of genius, but an act of desperation. I took the job knowing nothing about management, and the fear of imminent failure combined with the haunting image of a man in dark shades repossessing my brand new sports car threw my brain into paralysis. After about a month on the job, one of the leads asked to see me in my office.

“You don’t know what the fuck you’re doing, do you?”

I hadn’t learned the art of management bullshit yet, so I blurted out, “No!”

She sighed, sat down and proceeded to give me a few pointers. I tried them out . . . and they worked! I figured then that if she had some ideas, the others might have some as well, so I started asking people, “What’s fucked up around here?” They’d tell me straight out and then we’d fix it. My boss thought I was brilliant. My status as a sports car owner was now secure.

One of things that was fucked up was that my team (the inspectors) rejected 36% of the stuff submitted by the production people. I talked to the production people and found out that no one had bothered to train them on their jobs! A person was hired, given a smock, shoved in a chair and instructed to shut up and do what they were told. I came up with the groundbreaking idea that if we taught them how to do their jobs, they just might be able to learn how to . . . do their jobs! Brilliant! So I gathered all the production people together for a one-hour training session and voila! The reject rate plummeted to six percent in one month. Hooray!

Now my boss thought I was the greatest player since Willie Mays and started bragging about me to some people in the corporate office. The buzz caught the attention of some people in Organizational Development, and a couple of those folks approached me about becoming a leadership trainer.

Once again, I thought it strange that they would want to hire someone who had taught a grand total of one class and who had no earthly idea what the hell organizational development was. They explained to me that they liked the fact that I had “real-world experience,” something all of them lacked. They were primarily academics who had been hired based on their degrees as opposed to the presence of street smarts.

After hearing that the job came with a nice office and another 25% raise, I thought hard for about a nanosecond and said, “Sounds like fun!”

It proved to be anything but.

To be continued . . . 


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