Monday, May 31, 2010

Every Day is a Holiday!

At least for me it is...

And with school being out for the summer, it more or less is for the whole family. That being said, this weekend was simply awesome!

As some readers are well aware, we live on a sand-pit lake, and the weather was pretty much optimal for outdoor activities. The youngest kids went swimming Saturday, Sunday and Monday (the twin six year olds), and they were joined by their older brother and middle sister on a couple of the days. We went out on our boat to tour the lake. Took a nice walk one day, and participated in a Star Wars marathon on Spike TV. I spent time out on the deck, reading and relaxing. And with nothing pressing, I felt a reduced need to try to cram a bunch of home maintenance items into an already crowded weekend. (I wish I could say no need, but that just isn't the way I'm wired.)

Now normally, I would have started feeling bad by about noon on Monday -- angst over the coming work week, and trying to re-engage after completely disengaging for three days. This time -- no angst!

The resulting wind-down of the weekend is not only much more pleasant for me, it is also better for everyone else in the family. Admittedly, it feels a bit weird, but this is a weirdness that I can live with.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Fear -- Part 3, Anger -- Part 1

Revenge may be a dish best served cold -- I wouldn't know about that. Reflection is also a dish best served cold, or perhaps 'detached' rather than 'cold' is a better way to think of it.

In two previous blog entries, I talked about Fear. How fear permeated so much of what I did at work. How fear negatively motivated me. How I had a kind of love-hate relationship with fear.

After nearly 9 weeks away from the source of the fear, I'm very aware of its influence and its and the degree to which it engulfed me. Even when I had the financial ability to quit work, I still was driven by fear of criticism, failure, labeling, and fear of so many other things.

In the last 9 weeks I've also become more aware of another negative emotion that was present in large quantities while I was working -- anger. Anger can be a useful emotion, when it drives us to act decisively and effectively. But like a lot of emotions -- too much of a useful or good thing can be bad. And I now know that I had to much of it.

My anger was mostly suppressed when I worked. But suppressed emotions need to find ways to escape. I had a few methods of coping.
1. Risk taking -- hey, I wasn't white water rafting the Zambizi River, or hiking in the backcountry in Canyonlands just because it was fun.
2. Escaping on trips -- to focus on something exclusively, and put aside the things causing the anger.
3. Listening to hard driving music -- I'd scream my lungs out in the car sometimes to let off steam.
4. A short fuse at home -- unfair as it was, I was transferring anger to my family.
5. Complaining -- my apologies to those whose ears I bent unwillingly to listen to a rant over something. I was more aware of this outlet than any of them, and tried to at least moderate it some....

So what caused the anger? I'm not as sure about that. Feeling trapped, perhaps? Any kind of criticism leveled in any but the softest way? Feeling unappreciated for having to deal with the Fear? Probably a bit of all these.

And don't think these feelings just dry up and go away the minute that the source is removed. My emotional reactions to the world developed over a pretty long period, during which there was very little deep change in my life. Those patterns will take some time to wear down and change. But I can feel them beginning to thaw now after 9 weeks away.

Here's to a fear reduced and anger reduced future!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Some Tough Hombres

I haven't written yet about my trip to San Diego a couple of weeks ago yet, and a few words on the subject are overdue. I was able to visit the Navy SEALs training facility while there, and get a better sense of what it takes to be a SEAL, and what they do for our country.

Let me start by saying that I was woefully uninformed about the SEALs before making the trip -- most of my information came from watching Demi Moore in the movie "G.I. Jane", which I discovered, did illustrate some of the early training activity pretty well. The part about there being female SEALs, however, is pure fiction. None have ever been admitted to the training program, and after seeing what the men have to do, I can't imagine how any woman could pass the physical requirements.

Our group organizer handed each of us a copy of "The Finishing School", by Dick Couch. Anyone interested in getting a better understanding of the SEALs, beyond than the few comments I can present here, should buy a copy and read it.

I always considered myself to be made of a fairly stuff. While I was not the strongest, the fastest or the most nimble person, I've always had a strong ability to persevere. I could not, however, even in my best days, have ever even passed the entrance requirements for the SEALs program -- 100 push ups in 2 minutes, 100 sit-ups in 2 minutes, 20 pull ups, and a three mile run in 18 minutes (I certainly would have failed the last one!). From those standards, the SEAL candidates are expected to reimprove their physical fitness regularly throughout the program.

The BUD/S program has been extensively written about -- this is the one where they have "hell week" a five day period of team exercises and training where the candidates get to sleep a total of four hours. They told me that 70%-80% of the candidates fail to make it as SEALs, and of that 80% opt out on their own (the rest are injuries, or a few that don't have the capability to meet the standards, despite having the will). "hell week" is the time when the drop-out rate is at its greatest.

Beyond BUD/S the guys go through a series of schools that teach them land warfare, combat swimming, marksmanship, diving, and all kinds of other skills. Once they finish those schools (the 'Finishing School'), the are assigned to teams who deploy on a two year cycle. Each six month deployment is preceded by eighteen months of training. I get the impression that they train -- at full throttle -- continuously from the day they enroll in BUD/S until the day they retire.

We had dinner with a group of SEALs one of the evenings. These were experienced guys, who had been on deployment several times, and who had undoubtedly seen some action when deployed. At my table was a SEAL with a sniper rating, who had the following conversation with one of my friends.

"So, why did you decide to become a sniper?" asked the Nebraska guy.
"Well, I really want to get the bad guys, but I'm not into the capturing stuff -- I just want to kill 'em."

Enough said. I'm just glad they're on our side!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Project list dwindling, summer here!

There isn't a better time to have excess time on your hands than summer. The weather this weekend was finally warm, and my project list is finally shrinking.

I've been spending more and more time with my new book concept (and continuing to edit the old one, too). Found a website for the "snowflake guy", which provides a template to organize your thoughts and plan a novel from the big picture down to the details. I'm giving it a whirl. The new novel, which I've tentatively titled "Incentivize" (a non-word I heard quite a lot while I was in Corporate life, and which always grated when I did hear it spoken), will have five storyline threads, and is primarily set in the horn of Africa. I'm currently working on character synopsis, and hope to be into scene details next month.

Not sure if I ever blogged about the nearly complete novel, or not. It is called "Leverage" (perhaps the most overused 'business-speak' term, or at least a contender), and is set in Minneapolis. In this novel, a middle manager at a technology company has a coworker die in his arms from gunshot wounds. He decides it is his sacred mission to find out what happened and why, which leads him into a web of technology theft and cover-up. Editing work is heading into the final stretch, and I'm feeling pretty good about how it is shaping up.

Otherwise, the major lifting and toting work around the house is winding down, and I'm looking forward to a relaxed and enjoyable summer!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Friends, perish the thought?

I had an interesting conversation with a retired friend this week concerning the wisdom -- or lack thereof -- of becoming close friends with your subordinates.

I maintained that I always worked best when I felt that closeness that comes when your direct reports are also close friends with you. Conventional wisdom would have you believe that you should try to maintain a certain closeness with your people, but that you always need to have some separation. The thinking goes that if you have a problem with someone, your personal relationship would "get in the way" of doing what needed to be done. Or if it didn't outright prevent it, it would at least delay the taking of proper action. That has definitely not been my experience, and I've tried it both ways.

Friendships are important to me, particularly in the stress of the work environment. There are some people that you run into that are engaging, interesting and low friction individuals, and I always found this kind of person hard NOT to befriend. Over the years, I've had numerous friendships with folks that fall into this category. I've had to give them tough reviews at times, and even fire some of them. While this was always difficult, I found that if we understood each other well, the pain of a separation was more easily managed. I've even been able to maintain friendships with some people I had to let go.

I did get badly burned once -- an employee that I personally liked was in over his head in a critical position, and I decided to reduce his responsibilities and bring someone more senior in over him. I wasn't going to fire him, and I wasn't going to reduce his pay or anything, but a change was needed. A few days after I talked to him, he had a lawyer send me a letter telling me that he was being constructively discharged, and that I had created a hostile work environment for him. That led to a long hassle with attorneys and human resources. This entire episode soured me on work friendships for a while. After some time, however, I ended up back where I was most comfortable -- friends with a number of my direct reports.

Interestingly, the biggest criticism I ever took for not acting fast to resolve a 'problem employee', happened with a direct report I wasn't particularly friends with. That was more of a disagreement with my boss about how to view the man's performance. I still think I was right --that the guy was a strong asset -- but as soon as I left my job, he was out the door. Ultimately I felt like I failed in that situation.

My retired friend agreed with me -- and pointed out that he mostly worked for bosses that he considered to be personal friends. He said that the experience kept him better motivated, better in synch with what was needed by the company, and generally made work more pleasant.

I wonder if my experience with bosses (I can only think of one that I would call a friend) has just been bad luck???

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The score at the end of the second inning

Some of the crazy cleaning, moving and general shifting of "stuff" has slowed down, and it seems like a good time to take stock of where I'm at.

I had lunch today with a good friend, and we spent time exchanging stories about people we know both good and bad, not to mention taking stock of the changing business conditions his employer is facing. As I reflected on the former later (an odd turn of phrase), I was struck by how easily and quickly we grasp others, and how challenging it is to grasp our own essence.

When I used to do performance appraisals, I always hated the most common methods -- rating somebody on a list of fifteen generic characteristics never, ever seems to sum up who they are and what they have done or can do in the future. Similarly, setting annual objectives and then rating performance on those objectives doesn't work for me either -- our ability to set targets that are anything other than arbitrary is pretty poor, and even if you get that part right, things change during the course of the year.

I opted for a 3-4 sentence summary of a person's driving characteristics. I think in most people, a few things about them define who they are in large part, and the rest tends to be window dressing. For instance, one of the guys we discussed at lunch today (lets call him, Mr. X as my opinion of him is not favorable) was described as -- A guy who few people like, as he doesn't hesitate to stand on others to get what he personally wants. Is Mr. X smart, skilled, a good presenter, etc.? Yes, to most of those, but his essence is defined by this one bigger picture characteristic. Mr. Y, on the other hand, is a good guy, who will go out of his way to help out anybody who needs it, and works very hard at keeping a positive attitude despite having been trampled on himself (not by Mr. X, in this case).

Over the years, I think I became reasonably good at identifying and explaining to people what those bigger picture defining characteristics were.

Just try to do that on yourself, however! It's much more difficult, as we see things through our own window on the world, and most of us have a strong ability to latch onto feedback that fits with our existing self image, and roundly reject that which contradicts it.

I'm nearing the end of the second inning of my period of reflection (this game could go into extra innings, based on how I'm doing so far!), and have had a few such epiphanies of my own.

I'm very goal oriented. I think that is why I liked school (grades), sports (scores) and projects (easily recognizable measures of success). Extremely long slogs, and those tasks that don't seem to lead to a potential 'win' (defined in very broad terms), tend to frustrate me. I especially noticed this when running a business with a weak market and with expectations for performance set unrealistically high. I don't care if the business pundits say this is how to get superior results -- it is simply inhumane and unfair!

I like to learn new things, and see people or situations in new or different ways. I think this comes from a deeper desire I have to be creative. That probably explains my enjoyment of writing, travel, and other learning opportunities. I don't really like routine much -- unless I can make a game of it, or there is some way to make the routine new or different. That was why I always was a sucker for new acquisitions, new production processes and new products in business. I fell in love with the possibilities!

I abhor being criticized. Most people don't like it, but I'm probably at the far end of the scale. I can take a little, in small doses, especially if it is couched in some kind of help in improving. This is probably why I don't do well with most bosses.

I like to socialize, and need social outlets. I also value some alone time to think and reflect. I think this is a balancing act. Friends are important to me, and I want to be seen positively by them, and want to do right by them. I'll bend over backwards to help out even casual friends.

So that's a start, and he helps me close off some paths, and recommends others. So even though it might not look like much is happening on the surface, I am making some progress.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Hey! Where did that last week go?

It went into physical labor, mostly. Moving and cleaning and buying and the like. Can't wait to have this project behind me.

Paula tells me that I do well with projects, but not so well with the day to day picking up and cleaning and such required around the house. Probably means I'll find another project to do as soon as this one is finished. There is probably some valuable insight in all that....

On the writing front, I got the edits on the first chapter of my novel from the pro yesterday, and it was pretty dramatic - the changes he suggested, that is. Especially with the opening. I can recognize the plot and general flow of the story in that section, but now it is almost all action and very little description. Probably appropriate for a suspense story.

Fortunately, as the chapter lengthened, he either became too tired to do that much work, or the writing was better, because there was considerably less editing. I take some comfort in that!