Archive for December, 2009

When my son was growing up, sports movies were one of our favorite modes of entertainment. I’ve always felt a little underprepared as a parent, so these outings were strategic on my part.  I figured that my rants and ramblings might not stick with him but maybe a movie with inspiring themes on leadership, perserverance, courage, and hope, would make an impression.  Some of our favorites are Rudy, Remember the Titans, Hoosiers and now Invictus, staring Matt Damon and one of my favorite actors, Morgan Freeman.

The film, based on John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy,” takes place in South Africa in the mid-1990s, just after Nelson Mandela’s election as the country’s first black president.   After 27 years in prison, Mandela takes office and then leads his nation by demonstrating compassion, forgiveness and even inclusiveness toward those who had imprisoned him.  When I left the theatre I still had no idea what the rules of rugby are, but I had a very clear impression of what great leadership looks like.

Since our future’s are bright and we all will certainly be applying our skills and talents to new organizations soon, I wanted to share several lessons on leadership that appear in an article written in 2008 by Richard Stengel, who worked with Mandela for two years as Mandela wrote the book “The Long Walk to Freedom”.  Although Stengle describes “Eight Lessons”, I’ll only list a few nuggets of wisdom here, but I found them all particularly relevant to my past and to our future journey:

  • Lead from the front but don’t leave your base behind. Stengel says that Mandela’s tactic was always, “What is the end that I seek, and what is the most practical way to get there?”  He was willing to do things to bring along a minority because they controlled the economy and the military and he calculated that he couldn’t succeed without them.
  • Appearance Matters – and remember how to smile. We often think that all great leaders are great public speakers – Obama comes to mind of course.  But Stengel mentions that Mandel was in fact not a very good public speaker and his audience would often tune him out after a few minutes.  He goes on to mention however that Mandela was a master at  knowing when symbols mattered more than substance.  There is a great scene in the movie when one of his personal bodyguards tells a new guard to smile as he faces the crowd of rugby fans who were booing Mandela.  Yep its true- how we appear can convince followers that we are being authentic or convince them we are not, despite the facts.
  • Quitting is Leading Too. Stengel says “knowing when to abandon a failed idea, task or relationship is often the most difficult kind of decision a leader has to make.” Mandela knew that leaders lead as much by what they choose not to do as what they do.

The movie’s title comes from a Latin word meaning “unconquerable”, and is also the title of the poem by William Ernest Henley that Mandela read while in prison and then passed on to inspire the Springboks team to win the national rugby title.   The closing lines can inspire us our next journey:

I am the master of my fate;     I am the captain of my soul

If you see this movie, share what had meaning for you.


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About six weeks ago I spent time updating my information on Linked In, the popular networking and job search site. I was told it was very important that I spend time on Linked In, but I must admit that when I compared notes with people, I was humbled (or maybe humiliated). Some of my colleagues have several hundred people in their networks whereas I had about 25. The common wisdom is apparently “Network or not work”.

So is this true? Jon Piccoult in his article “Networks Too Big for Their Own Good”, comments that the quality of these connections has been greatly diluted. As I begin to add to the list of people who I’ve had significant interaction with in business, worked with on not-for-profit boards, or assisted with fundraisers, it was a relief to hear some validation that quality, not size matters when it comes to our professional networks:

“IS your company searching for proactive, enterprising people who take the bull by the horns and get things done? These people aren’t constrained by their networks. They’ve taken real initiative, researched your company, identified executives in their area of interest, and sent those people unsolicited résumés and thoughtful, genuine messages of interest. They’re the ones who have pinned their hopes on a belief that meritocracy deserves a place not just in a company’s dealings with its employees, but also in its search for new talent.”  (Piccoult, NYT column Preoccupations, Oct 17, 2009)

So, the hopeful message is networking is important, we need to nurture these relationships with care and over time, but in the end it’s our raw talent that will make the difference.

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A quote from Malcolm Gladwell says, “Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade.  It succeeds or fails on the strengths of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head”.    I actually think THAT is exactly what an interview well executed is supposed to do.  It  engages, creates a connection and gives the interviewer a glimpse into what makes you tick and why your leadership DNA can move an organization toward its vision for the future.

So on that note, I would like to say congratulations to several of this blog’s readers for the completion of successful interviews in the Southeast.  My brief text exchanges with several of them tell me they created exactly such an engaging interaction with their potential employer.   What did they do right?  Well, since many of us in the Midwest are snowed in for the next few days, I’m hoping we’ll hear comments from them.

One thing I see my colleagues doing is duplicating a success strategy recently recommended in an article by Phyllis Korikki from the NY Times called “How to Turn Downtime into Job Offers”. Her suggestions include:

  • Devote several days a week to lay groundwork for the search
  • Create a “success folder” to organize accomplishments.  (I understand one of our colleagues created a PowerPoint presentation to Wow their interview team.  Smart idea).
  • End every day planning the next one and two days after that to enable you to pace yourself (Contrast this with hunting on line at 2 a.m.)

The article ends with a quote that, slightly modified, could be our job search mantra:

Getting things done creates energy, energy creates more energy, more energy creates productivity, productivity begets confidence, and confidence increases your chance of being hired.

A passage from Romans 5:3-5 provides a similar but more inspirational job search mantra.  It is:

“Tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope; and hope does not disappoint”.

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All of us will be faced with a decision at some point– Where do we want to relocate?   And thus today’s reflection….

I had coffee with a well-read friend and he recommended that I should read a new book by Peter Kilborn, a former reporter for the NY Times called, “Next Stop, Reloville: Life Inside America’s New Rootless Professional Class”.   I read an excerpt, a couple of reviews from major newspapers and also watched a video clip of an interview with Kilborn on Fox Business.  Click “Fox Business” to link to this video.  I am hoping that having really read the entire book, Mark will post a comment providing some additional revelations, but here’s the theme:

Kilborn coins a word “Relos” (REE-los) to describe the corporate gypsies, or middle class professionals who relocate every few years.   At their core, he says, “is a faith in open horizons and a willingness to risk losing ground to gain ground. ( ) They are an affluent, hard-striving class. They inflate the American Dream and put it on wheels.” In the Fox video interview with Kilborn the interviewers even make the point that many “reloville” communities thrive because of this professional migration.

The thing that has me thinking though are comments like these:  A Minneapolis Star Tribune writer comments:  “In pursuit of power and influence, they lose the simple staples that generations of human beings have leaned on for meaning”. Another reviewer says – “A fascinating account of a new type of transient worker in America, affluent in their material lives but impoverished in their community ties.” The most depressing reviewer commented,  “In this sympathetic and arresting portrait, Kilborn takes the Willy Lomans of the present age and weeps for them.” The Willy Lomans?  Ouch.  I’ve read “Death of a Salesman” and seen it on stages several times but never in my life figured I’d be him.  Did you?

For some of you, you’ll transport your family to the new location, and develop a best-friends-at-work network, and continue to keep in contact with your colleagues across the U.S. and will probably be able to keep everyone including yourself from feeling isolated, adrift, disconnected, lost, and disassociated. For me – it’s just me.  My son is in college and my parents are finally doing well in a retirement home so I’m free to “seek open horizons”.  But I do need to figure out the cost-benefit equation.   How do I make sure that what I’m doing doesn’t sacrifice creating a greater meaning for my life.  I’m going to take a stab at answering this but your suggestions are welcome.

How Relos can lead a fulfilled life during their season of migration:

  • Pick an employer who truly has a Mission you believe in and work that makes you feel energized and passionate
  • Stay connected to your virtual family – for members of TS, just a quick nudge,  that means all of you
  • Make time to contribute your talents in the new city.
  • Once per year, spend the money to join former colleagues at a spa (I’m sort of into this experience now), or an education seminar so you can reconnect.

Tell me what you you’ll do to create a smooth transition and make the new place feel like home….

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A few days ago I had lunch with a member of Team Severance (TS), and she was glowing.  It wasn’t because she had just finished 90 minutes of crazy weight lifting and cardio at her fitness club, although in fact that was true. She was on top of the world because she had a phone interview that morning with an entrepreneur in London!  This fellow is a VC guy, had bought and sold companies many time over and I can only imagine,  is probably 10 years younger than I am.  She said he loved her resume, and commented that she was very  articulate.  He noted  that they had some experiences in common and told her there might be some leadership opportunities in companies he would soon be buying.  She of course will be a FIND for anyone.  So after I listened to her I reflected on what there is to be grateful for, large and small.

I had another conversation with a member of TS who had an outstanding discussion with a search consultant. I caught him on his way into a Kinkos for a video interview.  He had just returned from a  visit to Philadelphia.   Each of the search consultants were incredibly impressed with his qualifications and want to talk further.  Of course.  We know how amazing he is.  It helps though to hear it coming from the other side of the table, the other side of the video screen, or the other side of the world.  I don’t even remember driving my car, while I was on the phone with him.   It was completely energizing to hear THAT tone in his voice.  The sound of “good things yet to come”.

And today, I returned from an interview.  I felt confident I could make a difference in this company and spoke  in a way that I think demonstrated my knowledge, energy, focus, and leadership style. I debriefed with a friend and mentor afterward and just talking through the experience out loud allowed me the chance to revel in the possibilities of a new challenge and new relationships.  I received 4 phone calls this evening,from people who just wanted to check in.

In Mike Morrison’s recent blog,(See –  theothersideofthecard.com) he says “Every day offers a powerful sense making opportunity”.  I think some of this “sense making” at this time, for some of us, maybe for all of us includes these things –

  • We can be grateful for having this time to mold our lives in a new direction.
  • This time of change gives us a chance to take stock in how much we’ve learned in the past and how we can contribute to a Larger Purpose in the future
  • This transition time, could be very lonely, but we can be grateful for the support that we have given, are giving and will give to each other in the future.  It has made all the difference.

The universe has opened up possibilities for all of us.  I will relish hearing the stories.

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In July of 1999 I was working for Worldcom in Florida and my mother had flown down to visit me and my son.  We were making dinner on a Friday evening when a report came on CNN saying that John Kennedy Jr’s plane had gone down.  There are a few events in my life that are burned into my memory and this is one of them.

About a year after this tragedy Malcome Gladwell published an article in the New Yorker with the title – “The Art of Failure:  Why some people choke and others panic”.  You really should read the entire article.  Fascinating.  He goes on to talk about how choking, a term frequently used in sports, is very different than panic.  Choking during stressful situations, activates different parts of the brain than panic.  So in terms of Kennedy’s failure – he poses and answers the question: Why wasn’t he able to sense that something was wrong?   Some of the answers  might apply to how we deal with stress during organizational transformations and why we miss the “signs”, that cause chaos.

In times of low visibility and high stress, keeping your wings level is very difficult .  A pilot can’t even detect when he is graveyard spiral without his instruments.  Why?   In this death spiral, the effect of the plane’s G-force on the inner ear makes the pilot feel perfectly level even if he is not.  So did Kennedy choke or panic?  He panicked.  He did not revert to what he had learned about instrument reading.  Instead he just kept scanning the horizon for the lights on Martha’s vineyard.

Panic can cause tragic failure.  Scuba divers drown when they forget they can buddy breath with a partner.  I’d watch the news and hear about  90 year olds in Boca Raton who drove their cars into canals and drown because they’d  frantically try to push open their car door while submerged in water, when the first thing they needed to remember was to release their seat belt.  Sometimes failure happens because we trust too much, because we hire the wrong people, or don’t fire the right people, or just don’t set boundaries and say “Enough already”.

So what can we learn from these failures in order to craft our future successes?  Maybe:

  • pay attention, listen, and look for signs of things being amiss.  Poor visibility causes lots of  preventable tragedies
  • avoid focusing on one or two of the “lights on the horizon”.  I think it’s easy to fall in love with the innovation or the thing you are creating and forget that others might not love it so much
  • communicate a lot with the “control tower”.  These are the people you’re trying to lead, but also your friends.  Nothing is more valuable than a friend. They say all the supportive stuff you need to hear, even if at the moment it’s not really true.  They get you through.

Unlike JFK Jr., we’re all going to rise from the ashes smarter and stronger.  A  quote  from  Andre Agassi’s book “Open” tells us why.  He says –  “The same court on which you suffer your bloodiest defeat can become the scene of your sweetest triumph”.   That’s what we have look forward to. I know it.

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