Because I Want to Make a Difference

I was exhausted.

I had spent months looking at job postings and nothing seemed to fit my criteria for the type of role with the kind of company that I wanted. Many people also looking, whether actively or passively, can relate I’m sure.

For me, it had nothing to do with the caliber of the organizations or the number of opportunities available. There were plenty. There still are. What was most important to me was the fit and trying to find an opportunity where I didn’t feel I had to settle.

Yes, money was a factor and I had a minimum threshold, but the salary wasn’t first on my list. Corporate culture was very important, but many employers did not come across as being consistent with what they claimed. The role itself wasn’t even primary. I was looking for the whole package…a meaningful role with company I enjoyed that paid a reasonable wage.

Any one of those things, even two of those criteria, are easy enough to find. For whatever reason, adding a third filter left me with few choices.

I was about to give up when I got the call. I actually got calls from two great retailers within the same week! It was a dream scenario where I had to choose between opportunities that were great for different reasons.

In the end, one worked out and the other didn’t. Things happen for a reason and I’m thankful, in that way, the decision was steered for me.

During the final stages of the interview process, my would-be boss asked how I would try to attract good talent to join the team. I answered, “I wouldn’t.”

Then I explained myself. For me, talent means nothing if it’s not a good fit for both the candidate and the company. And no matter how good a company might be, if you don’t make a meaningful contribution and feel good about it, the job slowly sucks your soul.

“Instead,” I said. “I would tell them about the organization the way I see it, including the aspects that aren’t that appealing.” I would say things like, “the infrastructure needs some work and there can be a tendency to work in silos. That said, the majority of employees are good people and the leadership has vision and style that bring out my best.”

“I would proceed to answer any questions and call attention to both the good and the bad. It’s important for someone to know exactly what he or she is getting into.”

So then he says, “What if I told you that…our infrastructure needs updating and we have processes that need rework…

…Would you still be interested?”

I told him that it would depend on whether or not I felt I could help make things better. To be part of rebuilding something and know that I’m playing an important role.

Fast forward a few months. The job is indeed challenging. Priorities seem to constantly change (or there are just too many at any given time). And cross-functional collaboration has room for improvement. But I’m feeling more fulfilled at work than I have in a long while. Why? Because I feel like I’m making a positive difference and everyone I work with brings out my best. Some days are better than others. Sure. During unusually tough days, I remind myself how nothing good ever comes easy and that our BHAGs are worth fighting for. More importantly, I enjoy facing everyday challenges alongside the team that is now family. Together, we fight the good fight and we work hard for the right reasons. I couldn’t ask for better.

It’s time for us to scale the team here, and so I ask you…”Would you still be interested?”

Photo Credit: Evan Clark

Corporate Band-Aids

http://www.atissuejournal.com/2014/09/03/band-aid-how-a-brand-became-a-generic/

In assessing a new area of responsibility, I usually discover that in order to make a more meaningful and sustainable impact, I will need to take the time to lay a new foundation, rebuild, or clean house before I can move forward. Unfortunately, there’s often someone expecting results right away and I don’t have the luxury of taking my time to approach the challenges methodically. When pressure starts to mount, it’s tempting to blame the circumstances, or the working environment, for the lack of progress.

When You Can’t Wait for the Bleeding to Stop

That’s when the band-aids come in handy. Although they’re meant to be temporary, they often provide quick relief to painful situations. If you need to quickly stop the bleeding, a corporate band-aid may be just what the doctor ordered. When you have to play your own doctor and a band-aid solution is not readily available, instead of feeling sorry for yourself, you can get creative and find something laying around to act as a tourniquet.

Accountability: “A personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving desired results—to See It, Own It, Solve It, and Do It.”

— from “The Oz Principle”

That’s one thing that separates the good from the great—those who can find a way to hold themselves accountable and get results regardless of the situation. They get creative. They don’t succumb to the victim mentality. (Victims tend to die a slow death. I learned that the hard way.) When they find themselves hurting and living ‘below the line,’ they take the necessary steps to start healing and operating ‘above the line.’ Band-aids often help along the way. Don’t be too proud to use them.

So, whether you’re helping to improve cross-functional collaboration across the entire organization, reworking SOPs to streamline new product development, or whatever…take ownership and make time to focus on long-term solutions, but also be flexible and creative to deliver more immediate results in the meantime.

No excuses. You’re not a victim of your circumstances.

From my perspective, the real challenge is finding the balance between developing sustainable solutions and knowing when to use temporary band-aids as a tool to buy you some more time. Band-aid solutions should never be the default, but they have their time and place.

Book Review: The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni

 

The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in BusinessThe Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business by Patrick Lencioni
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Decided to read this again since the new organization I recently joined has had its challenges and is actively working through them. Interesting how I internalized more of the content this second time around since it’s more timely and relevant at this stage in my career. Unlike Patrick Lencioni’s other books which are more fable format, this was more of a traditional business book with practical tips and a roadmap to follow.

View all my reviews

Stop, Drop, and Roll

Avoiding Occupational Burnout

Fire-fighting. In some organizations, it seems to happen on a daily basis inevitably resulting in casualties along the way. You may even be one of them.

While there’s glory in being the Phoenix that rises from the ashes, we might be better off avoiding burnout in the first place.

Heeding the Signs

From an organizational perspective, what appears to be important can easily be sucking dry your most valuable resources. You might notice that days are filled with expensive back-to-back meetings. Perhaps, too much time is being spent on shiny objects and the next big thing. Projects start to drag and go well beyond budget. Every hour an executive is overreacting to some metric that missed its year-over-year comp. Left unchecked, your most valuable resource, your employees, will begin to disengage and fly on autopilot.

At an individual level, most days you’re stuck in back-to-back meetings filled with people that don’t even need to be there…including you. Because some industry expert said that X is going to be the next big thing, you’re suddenly asked to drop what you’re working on and get a new project started. Because the project doesn’t really align with the organization’s mission or values, there’s ongoing and endless debate about how to complete the project on time and within budget. You’re questioning why the project is even a priority and no one seems to have a good answer. Later you get blamed for the failure of the project even though you advised against it. After running around frantically trying to keep everyone happy, you feel exhausted and begin to disengage.

Making the shift from simply getting things done to focusing on doing the right things

What are the right things? Of course, that depends on the organization and the individual. Those who work in “fast-paced environments” are especially prone to resource-sucking tangents and running around in circles. Regardless, it’s important to occasionally pause and evaluate your current activities to assess whether your initiatives are moving you in the desired direction. Failure to do so can be quite costly. Some estimate this corporate waste could be costing the U.S. upwards of $3 trillion each year. (There are likely more impressive stats I could cite, but you get the point.) Exaggerated or not, that’s a lot of wasted Time, Talent, Energy.

If you’re feeling like you’re on fire—and not in a good way—it’s time to stop, drop and roll.

Stop, Drop and Roll

Stop: Unplug. Slow down. Go quiet. Get some sleep. Then with a clear head, take stock of your current resources and make sure you’re investing them in the right things. Are they serving your purpose? How much are they moving the needle in the right direction? Despite sunk costs, is any reallocation needed? Do you need to add a missing ingredient to the mix? Better yet, should you drop something unnecessary? These decisions can be tough, but that’s why you get paid the big bucks.

Drop: Keep what’s working and drop what’s not. That whole sunk cost mentality makes this easier said than done. Then, there’s the addictive juggling act. As an experienced “multi-tasker”, you like to juggle. You even think you’re pretty good at it. When balls start to drop, you might as well drop them intentionally. Focus on less but the most important.

And on the team side of things, trying to preserve relationships you’ve invested in can make letting go a challenge, even when the relationship is unhealthy. After you’ve done everything you can to make a relationship work, if someone is headed elsewhere, you’ll need to drop them off or let them off the bus. Switching roles, perhaps you need to get off the bus you’re riding.

The art of adding by subtraction is risky. Being smart about the process mitigates the risk. We are more nimble without the unnecessary baggage, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.

Roll: Once you put out any existing fires, prevention is the key moving forward. Make sure you have momentum in the right direction before you get on a roll.

Oftentimes, we set our own fires. With the daily noise, hustle, and bustle, our attention is distracted and we lose our way. Next thing you know, we’re backpedaling or just spinning our wheels. Sometimes we need to just roll with it, but most of the time, we should be paying attention, avoiding the unnecessary fires, and course-correcting.

In this fast-paced environment, we find ourselves in, it’s easy to catch on fire and burn out.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” – Benjamin Franklin

Fires can be dramatic. Preventing them doesn’t have to be. Allocate some time today to remind yourself where and who you really want to be. Assess how you’re getting there and make any necessary adjustments.

Everyday alignment is not a big deal but it can make a big difference. Keep calm and roll on.

What’s The Best Form of Self Marketing?

Viva Voce (WOM)

I’ve worked in digital marketing for over 15 years. First, it was for small online businesses I launched from home. Then I got into corporate marketing for several retailers. Now, it’s primarily freelance for one person … me as a writer.

During my corporate marketing years, I learned about the different effects between ‘push’ and ‘pull’ marketing approaches. In simple terms, writer Tanya Robertson describes the difference in this way: “From a business perspective, pull marketing attempts to create brand loyalty and keep customers coming back, whereas push marketing is more concerned with short-term sales.”

Most of my time at corporate was spent pushing. Trying to be at the right place, at the right time with the right offer. The Internet made that so much easier and Google was our best friend. Not only did their products — AdWords, Product Ads, and once upon a time, Google Affiliate Network — give us the best return on our investment, our Google friends always came to visit us and treat us like royalty. I had every reason to keep pushing.

Interesting. Google is great at pull marketing.

For me, the biggest challenge with the push approach is that you become insatiable. You always want more. Always looking for something to increase year-over-year marketing revenue while maintaining efficient advertising spend. It’s exhausting.

Obviously, pushing for growth is important. We all want to keep growing. It feels great to make big strides. And in business, it helps keep the doors open and the lights on.

That said, in retrospect, I wish I spent more time on pull marketing. Effective pulling still requires a lot of effort. What I like about it is that it’s focused on the long game. It focuses on developing relationships more than one-and done transactions.

What about personally?

Whether you’re looking for that next promotion or interviewing for a new job, you have to market yourself at some point. There are countless ways to push market yourself. Perhaps you have an online portfolio or blog that you share. Maybe you’re active on LinkedIn with a well-crafted profile. Some use their social channels to push messages to their followers and friends. I’ve been spending a lot of time on many of those things. Not so much to get a new job, but to develop as a writer.

It can be frustrating.

Like when I was deep in e-commerce, I still spend a lot of time with the analytics and other reports. Constantly refreshing data dashboards to see if the needle is moving in the right direction. Though now — instead of traffic, conversions, and revenue — I’m looking at views, likes/recommends, shares and follows. I get encouraged when there’s a spike in activity. When the trend is down week-over-week or month-over-month, I feel like I’m doing something wrong.

That’s not the only reason I’m frustrated though.

I’m also frustrated because I feel I’ve lost focus on what’s really important. Rather than just practicing for the sake of continuous improvement, I’m putting too much weight on the immediate metrics at the expense of the higher-level goal. I find myself choosing topics, or adjusting my writing, to see if I can generate more green hearts. It’s beginning to feel like I’m slowly losing myself in the process. As much as I preach the value of being yourself and being comfortable in your own skin, I still succumb to doing not-really-me things for the attention. For the immediate gratification of external validation. To improve my marketability.

I keep pushing. And I’m tired. There’s got to be a better way.

Word of Mouth (WOM) About You = Your Reputation

This morning, as all of these thoughts were dominating my free association time, I remembered that the best form of marketing is a kind of pull marketing — word of mouth, sometimes referred to as viva voce. In marketing, the acronym is WOM, or in the digital realms, eWoM (Electronic Word of Mouth).

From a marketing perspective, the beauty of WOM is that you can pretty much consider it free, and other people are doing the work for you. People spread the word because they want to, not because you’re paying them. Most likely because they had such a great experience, they can’t help but share it with a friend. If the experience was really share-worthy, they’ll be telling the story to many friends. And because the story is not directly coming from you, it doesn’t come across as bragging. Marketing doesn’t get much better than that.

I’m shifting my marketing approach to pull, working in a way that encourages others to share. I’ll still push occasionally, just not to the point of obsession.

If enough people start talking, maybe I’ll start developing a reputation. Hopefully it’s a good one.

Developing a Good Reputation

I’ve had my share of bad reputations growing up. In college, apparently I was considered a “player” with the ladies. During my career as a department manager, I was known for being “fluffy” with my management style.

Word gets around and eventually it gets back to you. Regarding your reputation, this is your feedback loop for something that’s difficult to measure. I use this feedback to focus on what I need to improve.

I find that the best way to improve and develop a good reputation is to choose to do the right things all the time especially when you think nobody is looking. This approach assures me that I’m coming from the right place … a place of personal integrity. Not just to impress or please others, but to be good and to do good because that’s the person I want to be.

I love reading articles from writers that do that.

I’m impressed with the likes of Coco Shackleton. During the course of June, she set a goal of writing 30 articles in 30 days. As I followed her, I noticed she didn’t submit anything to publications, even though I’m sure many would have gladly accepted her articles. She wrote from the heart and it was refreshing. I could sense that she was writing more for herself. She wasn’t stroking her own ego. She doesn’t even use her real name. (Coco Shackleton is her pseudonym.) I’m drawn to Coco because of how she represents herself. She exudes authenticity.

I’m not sure what happened to Coco. She hasn’t posted anything in a while. I miss her.

But you see that? I’m talking about her. And I do so gladly. Because reading her words during those 30 days was a great experience for me.

If I can write more like Coco and stop worrying so much about the stats, I think the frustration will subside.


This post still feels a bit forced. Heck, I’m thinking about what publication to submit this to, so I can extend my reach. I won’t, but it’s tempting. Well, then again, maybe I’ll include it in one of my own publications. (Not really push marketing since I have zero followers.) I also promise not to share on Facebook or tweet this time.

I guess I’m still recovering and getting to know myself again.

What’s different is that I don’t feel like I’m trying so hard this time. I don’t care so much about what you may think about my writing ability. Yes, I hope this might connect with another person going through something similar, but I’m letting the words spill out as they may. This is how I write without a whole lot of editing. Incomplete sentences and all. At least I’m feeling more like myself.

Whatever kind of reputation I might develop as a writer, I’m fine with it as long as it develops long-term relationships and I don’t sell out while I’m at it.

As Coco would say. “Keep going…”

Respecting The Yin and Yang of Productivity

“Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.”
– Mark Twain

In this achievement, results-driven culture that we find ourselves in, it can be easy to get caught up in the craze. With the focus on movement, there’s an inherent lack of focus on being still. Taking time to pause and reflect. Doing nothing. As Benjamin Hardy eloquently describes in The Harsh Truth Of Rapid Personal Growth, there is the Law of Opposites, where it’s impossible to appreciate things like the sweetness of success unless you’ve tasted the bitterness of defeat.

In my personal experience, I’ve learned the hard way that getting important things done and making big strides forward are easier and faster when I make time to do the opposite. Time to stop and pause. Time to rest. When we choose not to do this, sometimes it’s imposed upon us like my Career Break.

Since then I’ve had a chance to revisit some lessons learned long ago while I was working abroad. Concepts first introduced to me while reading Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh a fun way to get acquainted with Taoism, particularly Yin and Yang.

Copyright: Goruppa/123RF

For anyone not already familiar with Yin and Yang, here’s a translated excerpt from the Tao Te Ching to help provide some context:

When people see things as beautiful,
ugliness is created.
When people see things as good,
evil is created.
Being and non-being produce each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low oppose each other.
Fore and aft follow each other.

To oversimplify what can be a much deeper interpretation of the concept, I see the main takeaways as balance, flow and wholeness.

Counter-Balancing Flow

Like many others, I also feel the pressure to keep moving, to make it happen, to do what it takes. Not too long ago, I would do 14 hour work days with only 4 hours of sleep. Push, push, push without taking time to rest, rest, rest. Always being plugged in so I wouldn’t lose any connections. Recently, I’ve significantly changed my pace.

There is a natural ebb and flow as day turns into night and night into day. When we fight against the natural rhythm, we invite disharmony and imbalance. At work this can lead to burnout or loss of personal mojo. At home, fatigue makes us impatient and fosters a dysfunctional environment. Within ourselves, we lose clarity and creativity. None of this is particularly appealing yet we continue to force flow without respecting ebb.

“Life is full of ebbs and flows. Trust that when things are slow or not going the way you’d like, there’s something positive coming your way. Things are in the works, the universe is shifting, and all the seeds you plant will come to bloom in their right time. Take care of yourself, trust in the process and stop trying to force things.”
— Stephenie Zamora

Whether you occasionally do ‘a complete unplug’ as suggested by Neil Pasriche, or simply listen to Depeche Mode and Enjoy the Silence every once and a while, rest is not only vital for your overall balance, you’d be surprised at how much more productive you are after you re-engage. As Jim Lore and Tony Schwartz are quoted, “The richest, happiest and most productive lives are characterized by the ability to fully engage in the challenge at hand, but also to disengage periodically and seek renewal.”

Going Full Circle

Before I got caught in the ‘the busy trap,’ I used to enjoy sleeping in and taking long naps. I’d wake up fully recharged and filled with fresh ideas. Full of energy, I’d actually follow through and see those ideas to completion, one step at a time.

Settling into my career, I got too caught up in the wave and would try to ride the momentum too long. Forcing flow when it was time to ebb. Focusing only on Yang and neglecting Yin. Not making time to enjoy the silence.

At the extreme end, I eventually lost my mojo, burned out and received the dreaded pink slip after years of climbing the corporate ladder.

I don’t regret it though. It was the sign I needed to reset. And the experience has given me more appreciation for a simpler life…and more naps. That might sound a bit like the other extreme, but for now, it’s the needed Yin to counter-balance the Yang life I had been living.

My One Thing now is wholeness to improve the flow.

“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”
 — Tim Kreider in his New York Times article, “The ‘Busy’ Trap”

Fortunately, cultural shifts seem to be moving in a similar direction. You may have noticed as well. Perhaps you’ve joined the ranks of Susan Cain’s Quiet Revolution. Or you’re following Arianna Huffington’s Sleep Revolution.

All good.

Take a break, get some rest, and I’ll see you on the other side.


Originally published on Medium

Feedback on Your LinkedIn Profile

[Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse]

This was first written in response to the flood of requests for individual profile reviews. Henrik Kjærulff started what became a very popular group discussion titled “What do you like about the profile above you.” I participated by reviewing a few profiles in the comments section. The idea was to review the profile of the person who left the last comment, and in turn, the next person would review and comment on yours. Great idea, and as I write this, there are currently 953 comments.

There were no expectations regarding expertise from those who provided feedback. (I certainly do not have any.) It was enough to get some objective feedback on both the good and not-so-good. Most people were very constructive with any suggestions they provided.

As I reviewed earlier comments, I noticed the trend of people getting skipped. Not intentionally, but the flow would sometimes get sidetracked when someone used the comments section to thank the person who gave a review. There were also a few folks who may have missed the detail about first reviewing someone else before expecting one in return. Oh well, it happens. I tried to help out by taking time to review anyone who may have been inadvertently missed. I no longer expected mine to be looked at. It just felt good to help someone out.

So here I am trying to “work smarter.” As much as I’d like to comment individually, this post will hopefully summarize the feedback I found myself giving again and again. While this post is meant for a more general audience, I hope readers will still find a few things applicable to their individual profiles.

Profile Photo: At The Very Least, Have One.

There are plenty of resources and tips out there regarding the LinkedIn profile photo. I stumbled upon one the other day written by Rachel Zoe – “5 Tips For Looking Better In Your LinkedIn Photo“. Great tips so I’ll just emphasize what I think is the most important one.

Within the group discussion, one of my recurring observations was that several of the profiles had no photo at all. (If you’re waiting for the perfect photo before you upload one, you may be missing out in the meantime.) Rachel Zoe cites this stat in her post, “…having one makes your profile 14 times more likely to be viewed by employers.” Personally I would love to update my profile photo with one taken by a professional photographer. Alas, I’m being frugal and just asked my wife to take a shot. Not ideal, but I’ll circle back to that eventually.

Avoid Copying Your Résumé Verbatim: Tell a Story

There was a point when my profile was pretty much the LinkedIn version of my curriculum vitae. This wasn’t necessarily ineffective, but when recruiters would reach out and ask for my résumé, I didn’t have any more information to give them other than what was already detailed in my profile.

I decided to follow the lead of some of my mentors and tell my story instead of just making bullet lists of my past responsibilities and accomplishments. I went against my own reservations about being too personal, and injected more of my personality. Now it feels more genuine and less scripted. I figure that if this turns off potential partners/employers, I probably wouldn’t want to work with them anyway.

This may be the wrong direction. I’m still not sure. You’ll know what’s best for your particular case.

Endorsements and Recommendations: Sometimes It Helps to Ask

When LinkedIn first rolled out the endorsements feature, I enthusiastically added it, perhaps too much so. I went overboard with the number of skills I listed. I’ve been fortunate to receive many endorsements from my peers and colleagues. Of course, I make sure to also give honest endorsements  for everyone I’ve gotten to know during my career. I’ve never asked for endorsements and I still prefer not to.

On the other hand, when it comes to recommendations, it’s a little different. Writing a recommendation for someone, at least a good one, takes thought. Everyone’s busy. So having someone write you a recommendation just because they like you so much, probably won’t happen. For the longest time, I only wanted to receive recommendations that weren’t solicited. I actually got a few. (Many thanks to…you know who you are.)

Then I decided to actually ask, albeit selective whom I asked. I made sure to give everyone an easy out so they wouldn’t feel obligated. It’s true what they say – you often get what you ask for.

Publish a Post: Stop Hovering

For the past year, any time I was editing my profile, my mouse would hover over ‘Publish a post’ but I didn’t feel I had anything worthy to share.

Hmm…I was fairly successful as a digital marketer. Should I write about that? Nah, too many people out there much smarter and with more expertise. Plus it will take too much time and I’m busy. Forget it.

I would move on to editing some other section of my profile.

Then I started journal writing again in the early hours of the morning. It was my way to capture important details of daily life and to reflect on my scattered thoughts. Since I was only writing for myself, I didn’t care about grammar, coherency, structure…I just wrote. It was in returning to this daily practice that I found inspiration to publish my first post. I wasn’t expecting much. I was only hoping that it might help others who were going through a similar career experience. After that first one, the subsequent posts followed without a lot of hovering.

As this relates to your LinkedIn profile, what you publish is an extension of your personal brand. It helps others get to know the person behind the job history and skills. For some it demonstrates their mastery in a specific field. For me, it’s about the career journey and how all the seemingly disparate moments come together.

LinkedIn Pulse can be a powerful feature if words don’t get in the way. Find the connection between what you do and what you love. The story will come.

Do What You Can Then Let It Be…For a While

During my career break last year, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to overhaul my LI profile and give it a major makeover. I tested and applied many of the suggestions I noted above. Eventually, I needed to just walk away. I was forcing it – with the aim of perfection – well beyond the point of diminishing returns. I’ve accepted that it’s probably best to let it gradually improve over time. To let my number of connections, endorsements and recommendations grow organically. To only post articles when I’m inspired. To shift my focus on what I can give rather than what I can get. Today, I’m ok with my profile, imperfect as it may be. It will improve in the long run.

I’d like to experiment with this being a “living” post. My hope is that I can continue to edit/add/remove/refine content within this post based on your comments and my personal experience. The sections covered initially only include what I found were common oversights. With the robust features that LinkedIn provides, there will be a lot more to cover as this post evolves.

Please leave a comment if anything I’ve mentioned is totally off-base or irrelevant. If most of it seems like common sense to you, please leave some suggestions on anything unique that you’ve found to be effective. Thanks in advance.

-Donn

[Last Updated: 03/04/2016]


Additional Reading:

 


Donn’s Blog: www.donndurante.com/category/career
Featured Image Copyright: inbj / 123RF Stock Photo

More Than Words: A Career Start in Japan and What I Brought Home with Me

It was the summer of 1991. Although I hadn’t officially finished school, I boarded a plane for Tokyo after being accepted into the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme. I had taken a semester of Japanese language during my freshman year but proficiency in Nihon-go wasn’t even a prerequisite.

My time as an Assistant Language Teacher was only contracted for a year. Six years later, I was still working in Japan. I had extended for a couple more years with the Ministry of Education. Then as I was packing my bags to head back to the States, a Japanese student/friend referred me to the CEO of a local language school which led to another 3 years in the private sector.

The entire cross-cultural experience influenced my perspective on everything from communication to customer service to relationships in general.

In terms of communication, I quickly learned the value of paying close attention and listening more than talking. It took incredible concentration just to carry on everyday conversation in a language I could barely speak, much less read and write. Surprisingly, even if I couldn’t find the right words, I was still able to carry on meaningful exchanges. Sometimes it was enough to just listen respectfully and then combine broken Japanese, simple English and a whole lot of gestures to respond. When totally over my head, I would bow and excuse myself as gracefully as possible. Sumimasen! To the Japanese, there were unspoken expectations and varying levels of formality depending on who you were speaking with.

Being a gaijin (translation: foreigner or outsider) I was often excused for making inappropriate or ignorant comments. I knew I could only play that card for a limited time. After the first year, I had no excuse not to understand the local lingo. More importantly, I needed to better understand the cultural expectations and social context surrounding both verbal and nonverbal exchanges. The more I familiarized myself with what made the Japanese culture unique, the more I appreciated the differences. It became easier and easier to understand what my Japanese friends really meant despite what they actually said.

My Takeaway: Words Are Important but The Nonverbal Means So Much More

More than 20 years later, this perspective still influences every interaction regardless of whether I’m with a client, a co-worker or family and friends. Understanding the subtleties of body language, or knowing when it’s better to keep my mouth shut, has had a huge impact on the quality of my relationships and the differences I’ve made in the various roles I’ve played. It has shaped who I am today and the opportunities that have come my way.

For example, when I DJ a party, the music is the language of choice. How I segue from one song to the next is based on how I read the audience and the mood of the moment. I pay careful attention to how smooth the transitions flow and how the party reacts. When I’ve done my homework and made the effort to understand the audience before the event, our “meeting” leaves everybody pumped up. I put the needle on the record and communicate through the song selections and the crowd replies by packing the dance floor. A track record of packed dance floors makes securing the next gig easy.

Whenever I’m responsible for a team, I flex my management style depending on the person or the group. As I’ve mentioned in my post about simply effective leadership, I always take the individual and the situation into consideration. This tends to produce much better results than the one-size-fits-all style I used to have. In turn, being an effective leader has afforded me greater responsibilities with greater rewards.

At the heart of it all, it comes down to understanding the details within the context of the bigger picture. The meaning of any words spoken or actions taken can change drastically depending on how you frame them. The frame can shift the focus. The context can change the meaning.

So this is what I learned so many years ago thousands of miles away:
It doesn’t matter what language you speak (Japanese or English, Music or Business). what you do and how you respond can mean so much more than the words you actually say. There’s a universal language out there that we all understand, and words have little to do with it. Da yo ne!

Originally published on LinkedIn

Translations:

  • Nihon-go – Japanese (language)
  • gaijin – foreigner or outsider
  • sumimasen – excuse me
  • da yo ne – isn’t that right!

Featured Image Copyright: rawpixel / 123RF Stock Photo

Simply Effective Leadership

During a monthly senior management meeting, I was once asked by the President of the company how I became such a good manager. The question caught me off guard (it took me a minute to realize he was being serious) so my answered really sucked. I was flattered but embarrassed at the same time. (As an introvert, answering questions on the spot in front of a large group, without having had time to think, often leads to embarrassment. Anyway…) After the meeting, I gave it more thought. If I had to boil down the major contributors to my unique leadership style, it would be my psychology background and a library of management books combined with painful lessons learned along a colorful career path.

I’ve tested many theories in various roles and in different environments, with mixed results. What worked well in one situation would fail miserably in the next because the variables changed. Very few techniques are universal, only working case by case. My conclusion: stick to overarching principles and don’t get hung up on specific techniques or methods. The right techniques can be called upon as needed depending on the people involved and the situation at hand. The trick is to have enough experience and practice to instinctively know what to use and when.

There are certain things I put into practice regardless of whether or not I’m in a leadership position. They seem to be effective in any case and I like to practice them at work as well as outside of work. These simple practices tend to have very predictable outcomes for me. Even better, they’re a natural extension of who I am. Below are a couple examples.

Acknowledgment

Many managers I’ve worked with were inconsistent with who and what they acknowledged, so whenever I was in a management position, I decided to be different. Where other managers focused on calling out mistakes, or what needed to be better, I made every effort to spend more time recognizing a job well done and what was working well. What seemed to make even more of a difference is that I started with each person as an individual. I always kept in mind that every person on the team was unique. Everyone had their own style, their own story and different priorities. What was important to one may mean nothing to the other. It didn’t matter what was good for the company unless I could find a way to tie it into the goals of each individual.

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

This might seem overly simplistic, but one thing I picked up early on was the importance of remembering people’s names. Especially as I’ve gotten older, this gets harder and harder with every new person I meet, but I continue to practice remembering someone’s name after only one meeting. The next time I see that person, I always greet them by name. This seems to make an incredibly strong impression for two reasons:

  1. I care. When many people bump into me after we’ve only met once, I often hear, “Hi…,” “Hey Buddy,” “How’s it going?”…or something along that line. It’s when someone says, “Hey Donn” that something special happens. I feel important, at least important enough for her or him to remember my name. And so this is how I want everyone to feel after I meet them. Because we’re all important and we all like to feel special.
  2. It’s unexpected. When it comes to remembering names, most of us don’t expect others to routinely address us by name unless we already have a good relationship. I try to do it every time and from the very beginning.

One time, at a company party, I had the chance to ask someone from another team why they would always look away and avoid eye contact every time we passed each other in the hallway. I was curious because I would always say, “Hi Laura.” This seemed to make her feel uncomfortable and she would hurry past. (I thought maybe it was the “creepy” factor.) Anyway, she said something like she wasn’t sure how to act because I was a Vice President and had absolutely no reason to know who she was, much less greet her by name. That’s sad but I guess many would consider that normal.

Follow Through

As a manager, it is one of my pet peeves when someone doesn’t follow through. So I try to make sure I lead by example so I’m not one of those people. Now, it’s one thing not to follow through on a big project or a major initiative. I’m mainly talking about the simple everyday things.

For example, if I’m stopped by someone while I’m rushing to a meeting and I tell him I’ll catch up with him later, I make sure that I actually do. Sure, they would probably understand if I didn’t. We all get busy and there is always some other priority calling for our attention. But by keeping my promises, even the ones made in passing, I do for others what I would want others to do for me.

Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

I could go into additional details but for now I’ll stop. There’s a lot more that goes into my management approach that varies depending on the company and the role. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems, even with these two practices. It took a lot of effort for me to get good at remembering people’s names. And to this day, I still catch myself not following through all the time. That’s ok though. There’s something about simply making the effort. It sends a message to others that you care, even about the little things. I’ve found these little things can bond teams together and inspire great work. At that point, you don’t need to manage. You can focus on leading.

There are many influential leaders out there and I’ve been fortunate to work with some great mentors. They taught me the essence of timeless leadership principles and I put my own spin on them. What matters is that whatever methods or principles you follow, they’re effective. Then add your personal touch.

What simple practices have worked well for you?

Excuse or Motivation: I Don’t Have a Degree

Feature Image Credit: http://startupcamp.com/4-brilliant-reasons-to-not-go-to-college/


Excerpt from James Altucher’s “The Choose Yourself Guide to Wealth” (pp. 132-133 in Chapter on “Getting Rid of Your Excuses”):

I Don’t Have a Degree
I get e-mails every day. “I’d like to work at Google but I don’t have a degree,” Or, “I’d like to be a success but I don’t have an MBA.”
And it’s not just degrees. I get e-mails from people who think they need yoga teacher certification. Or a medical degree (you can be a healer without writing prescriptions). Or any flimsy piece of paper that ultimately is no indicator of value. Google’s head of HR has even announced that graduates’ GPAs are a waste to look at. And that more and more of their hires have no college degrees at all! It’s just another way the world is changing, and you have to grasp it now. It used to be that a stranger knew he could cooperate with you if you had that stupid piece of paper. Come up with ten ideas on how you can escape the trap of the degree and demonstrate you still have value. Ideas for the company you want to work for, or the person you want to work with. Or just go get a camera and start making movies without a film degree.

When actor Andy Samberg was starting at Saturday Night Live he didn’t just huddle in the writers’ room with everyone else and try to come up with jokes. There was too much competition! Instead, he took a camera and with his buddies Jorm and Akiva went out and shot “Lazy Sunday,” which was the first YouTube video to get over 100 million views and became his first SNL digital short. He didn’t wait to rise through the ranks and hopefully get a joke or a sketch produced. He went out and produced it himself.

Before Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” got a billion views on YouTube, the rapper turned down every record label. He realized he didn’t need the validation they have provided to generations of artists. The distribution is there to reach the world no matter what your field is. You validate yourself now through your work.


Apologies to Mr. Altucher for taking that much verbatim from his book. I just read those pages this morning and it hit home.

The Trip Full Circle

I fall in the category of those who dropped out of college. While I had many an opportunity to finish, life went on and I eventually decided not to. When I’m having an insecure moment, I like to remind myself that I only had two classes to finish (and they were both freshman level electives!) so really, I earned pretty much everything I needed for that Liberal Arts degree in Psychology. I guess I just didn’t cross the finish line which could be perceived as inability to follow through. I understand and respect other perspectives. I just don’t personally see it that way. It doesn’t have to be a negative. I have worked very hard since then to show that it doesn’t have to matter if you don’t let it.


The Road Not Taken

 …Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost


It was 1991 and I was scheduled to graduate at the end of Spring semester. This was all the JET Programme (Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program) needed to know at the time I applied and interviewed. They didn’t actually ask to see my degree before it was time for me to board the plane that summer. By the time the University of Illinois notified me that I failed two classes (English 101 Introduction to Poetry and Classic Civilization 115 Mythology of Greece and Rome), I was already all set to leave for Japan. Although becoming an Assistant English Teacher (AET) had nothing to do with my major, it was a 1 year adventure abroad with all expenses paid as well as a monthly salary. I wasn’t about to pass on the opportunity unless absolutely necessary. That degree would have to wait.

I had lady luck on my side. After the year was over, I had the option to extend for another year and I definitely wanted to. The only catch – I had to renew my work visa and I was told they required a copy of my college degree in the process. I figured I had better start packing my bags but then again…why not just go through the motions and see what happens? Even if they sent me home, I already had my adventure. For some unknown reason, the Japanese government renewed my visa without any questions. One year turned into two and next thing you know 3 years later I was still in Japan. That was the maximum length that anyone could stay with the Jet Programme. As the third year winded down, a Japanese friend referred me to the CEO of a private language school under the Terakoya Group. They offered me a job and I had to go through the process of renewing my work visa for another year. Again, nobody asked to see my college degree. Surprising enough, the person in front of me in line was asked for his. To this day I can’t figure out how I got away with it year after year, but my luck lasted long enough for me to meet my future wife. Caro was on a 9 month work-study program and just happened to be assigned to Matsuyama City where I also lived. After 6 years in Japan, instead of calling it luck, I’d like to think it was serendipity.

Unlike I did in college, note that I wasn’t just sliding by while I worked in Matsuyama. Knowing that I didn’t finish school, I felt like I had to prove something and make my mark anyway. My second year, I was elected as the Ehime Prefectural Representative for AJET (The Association of Japanese Exchange and Teaching) and after 1 year at Terakoya, I was promoted to Head Teacher at the private language school.

Ok. The story goes on, but I need to pause here for now. The kids are awake and I’ve been writing since 5am.

[2/16/2016 4:38am] Picking up where I left off…

When I returned to the States in the summer of 1997, it was like “Oh sh*t, what do I do for work now? I don’t have a degree.” I was going on 28 years old and still didn’t have any solid plans for my career. I was back with my parents and when my Dad asked me what I was planning to do next, I told him I was thinking about starting a DJ business. I could sense his disappointment. When your parents go against all odds to earn their college degrees in the Philippines and then move the entire family to the Unites States so we can have a better life in the Land of Opportunity, I can understand why being a DJ might not be what they had in mind for their son. When I was still at the University majoring in Electrical Engineering, I think I was living up to expectations. We all imagined my future becoming an engineer like Dad and having a secure and well-paid profession for life…I guess I’d be disappointed with my DJ ambition too.

Got to get ready for work. I’ll continue later.

[2/16/2016 7:45pm continuation]

While I worked to put things in place for the DJ startup, I took a commissioned sales associate position in retail. Retail store positions don’t often require a college degree. I chose Bachrach, a men’s clothing retailer founded in Decatur, IL with locations all around the Chicago area. I’d always been into fashion so this would be aligned with my interests. Sales was not my strength, but it paid the bills and helped fund the DJ equipment and music I would need. For years, I tried to work both paths in parallel without any breakthrough success. I knew very little about operating a profitable business and everything I learned was from trial and error.

The DJ business wasn’t growing fast enough and we were getting deeper and deeper into debt. Thousands of dollars spent on music, lighting and other gear without enough gigs to pay for it all. When I found out that Caro was pregnant with León, I knew I needed to change my approach if I had any chance of providing for my growing family. I decided to focus on Bachrach and work my way up the ladder. We could stabilize our finances and buy me time to figure out what to do as an entrepreneur. Looking back, that was a pivotal point. After my motivation shifted from selfish ambitions to providing for the family, my career started to take off.

Within a few years, I went from Sales Associate to Store Manager to Director of E-commerce. (I’ll save my success strategy for a different post.) I worked in several locations and eventually had my own office at the downtown Chicago corporate headquarters. There were several rungs in between and along the way, but I won’t get into those details now. What happened with the DJ business? One thing led to another and it eventually led to the launch of ChicagoWeddingServices.com. Although small potatoes compared to other dot coms, it was a business model that made money while I slept and the site could often run on autopilot. It supplemented my income at Bachrach quite nicely. (For more details, see my post on Website Experiments Throughout the Years)

After 10 years at Bachrach, I had to move on. Too many acquisitions had taken place and it was no longer a fit. I began looking elsewhere. When I was offered a position at Dreams Retail in 2008, I jumped. Fortunately, during the interview process, my college education wasn’t a deciding factor.

I would have to say that my years at Dreams, Inc. have been the highlight of my career to date. Kevin Bates and the team he built created a work environment that brought out my best. I started off in an Account Management role but followed the same strategy I used to work my way up at Bachrach. I went from non-management to executive management with a team of more than 50 people to lead. I eventually got promoted to Director of Marketing and in less than two years after that, became VP of Marketing.

This too eventually came to an end. Dreams Inc. was acquired by Fanatics Inc. and I relocated from the Chicago area to the Jacksonville, Florida area. (The kids didn’t like the move, but we had a new house built in a nice neighborhood. It also helps that we live only a couple hours from Disney.) I was able to keep my position as VP of Digital Marketing but with so many changes during and after the integration period, it was the beginning of the end for that chapter. My time at Fanatics officially ended in January of 2015. Without having anything lined up yet, I spent 6 months  in what I call “mid-career retirement” – a career break if you will. We didn’t have to worry about finances, at least for a while, so I had the luxury of time to decompress, reconnect with my family, and think about the next chapter. As scary as it can be to lose a 6 figure salary, I’m grateful for what I’ve gotten in return.


“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
– T.S. Eliot


Today, I feel like I’ve come full circle in a way. I’m back in fashion retail and am making about the same income as I did when I first started my career. I see everything through a different lense though. While money is still important, it’s no longer the carrot. It’s no longer about the prestigious title, but more about the unique contribution and value. Being hourly no longer has a negative connotation to me. It now means I have more work-life balance. Instead of thinking so much about what I want in the future, I spend more time appreciating what I already have and whom I’m with today. Things will have to change again I’m sure. Even though we’ve always lived below our means, our current lifestyle is not sustainable in the long run with my current income. Surprisingly, I’m not very worried though. We’ll figure it out. I know because we’ve done it before.

Definition of Success - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Definition of Success – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Regarding my college degree, or lack thereof, it has definitely made a difference in my career choices and the life I’ve lived. I’ve spent most of my career proving that you can succeed without a degree. When the competition was smarter, I just worked longer and harder to compensate. Most of my lessons learned were from the school of hard knocks. I learned the simple yet important lesson on how to make a positive difference…always strive to leave it better than you found it.

I’m content with what I’ve accomplished as a college dropout. I have no regrets.

Special Acknowledgments

Caro and I were married in 1998, not too long after I started at Bachrach. Although she has seen and experienced all the ups and downs of my career, she has never stopped being supportive. Even when she didn’t agree with all my choices, she has stood by my side and was always there to give me strength when I needed it most. I can’t imagine how things would have turned out without her. All these years later, I don’t worry too much anymore about climbing the corporate ladder or making lots of money. With her and our three beautiful children, I already feel successful. Together we’ll make life good no matter what comes our way.

To my band of brothers who joined me on my crazy adventure as an entrepreneur: That was an awesome ride, let’s do it again!

Grateful to the many coworkers who I had the privilege to work with, and my bosses/mentors who also shaped who I am and how I work today – they were some of my best teachers. To the organizations and hiring managers who took a leap of faith and gave me a shot, thank you.

I also want to give a shout-out to all my family and friends, near and far. You’ve never judged me and accept me for who I am, warts and all.

And special thanks to Mom and Dad, for always loving me even when I disappoint. From you I learned what is possible when you work hard.
[2/17/2016 4:38am] Today is Dad’s 70th Birthday. I dedicate this post to him.

Featured Image Copyright: kaczor58 / 123RF Stock Photo

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