Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Maybe this won't be as easy as I thought.....

Two of my major objectives in my year off were to investigate a not-for-profit business idea, and to get the novel that I have worked on on/off for the past two years published.

The not-for-profit idea is a derivative of the TOMS shoes business model. For those of you who haven't heard of TOMS, the principle is -- you buy a pair of shoes from the company, and they donate a pair of shoes to needy children in the third world. My idea was to try to apply a similar concept to the development of third world drinking water sources, offering an African produced product to people in the U.S. In order to develop the idea, I first wanted to understand the TOMS business model better. As luck would have it, Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS shoes was at Creighton University last night to give a talk, and so I invited myself to go and watch.

Blake was a very good speaker and his talk was very interesting. There were several things that became obvious to me while listening to the presentation. First was the fact that the room was absolutely packed with students -- I would guess around 500. They were wild about anything with the TOMS logo on it, and gave the featured speaker a hero's attention. I was surprised at how much of a phenomenon that the concept had become. As I watched further there were several points that leapt out to me...
* The success of this business is rooted in the simplicity of its mission. TOMS works because people can relate to; not having shoes, to buying a trendy shoe and by doing so helping others, and to the fact that they can visibly demonstrate their support of the concept by wearing the product.
* There was a fair amount of luck involved capturing the media attention necessary to turn this into a viral trend.
* The leader has some real woo -- he is young, hip, good looking, and very well spoken.

None of these things would be as straightforward for me to accomplish with my idea -- a bit discouraging.

After the event, I waited around for Blake to complete an interview, hoping to catch a moment or two with him. My objective was to get an invitation out to their operations in California, and be able to spend some time with Blake and his staff better understanding their model and how it functioned now. I finally gave up waiting when I realized that at least 100 students were also waiting to meet Blake, get him to sign their TOMS shoes, and angle for intern positions and the like. Instead I went home and emailed him with my request.

I didn't make it past his admin assistant. I was politely, but bluntly, told that Blake didn't have time for such meetings.

Between the realization of how hard it would be for my idea to succeed in the same way, and the brush-off, I was heartily discouraged! While I have other avenues to pursue to investigate the idea further, this one would have made everything else much easier.

Then came the feedback on the novel. Some readers of this blog are probably aware that I have had a passion for writing for some time. Over the last 3 years, I penned a novel titled "Leverage", a corporate thriller. Back in October, I finished the third, and I thought final, draft, and began submitting the work to Literary Agents. I think I sent out about 15 queries before Christmas, which all resulted in summary rejections. I started out sending queries again last week when I actually received a response that wasn't a form letter/email. The agent rejected the manuscript based on a sample I had sent him, but offered to provide some critique, if I had a strong stomach.

I took him up on the offer.

It did take a strong stomach to read. Although he did say that the plot looked interesting, and the basic writing style was not bad, he found many many things to point out in just the first 10 pages. I was left with the inevitable conclusion that another editing pass is absolutely necessary, and that should probably be followed by engaging a professional editor to read through the manuscript. When you thought you were done with a project, and then discover you probably have several hundred hours of work yet to do to complete it, it is a blow. Especially when it is the part of the work you like the least.

Today, I was a bit shell shocked by all of this, and probably need a good night's sleep to feel that I have enough energy to get to work on the book and develop a revised plan to put together my business idea.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Here is THE list, subject to change...

I tend to be a methodical person, occasionally I might have even heard the word 'anal' whispered behind my back. My love of process, steps, and the like are really at odds with existence in the neutral zone. What I would really love is '29 steps to navigating the neutral zone, and to finding the perfect future for you'. I've been told by several people that this doesn't exist. Yet the neutral zone is not a white space either. There are numerous people that have navigated it before, and they have useful tips. I guess I'll be happy with tips, but what I really want are those '29 steps...'.

Several people have emailed me or called and pointed out that I haven't provided my preliminary list yet. You know THE list of "things that would give me a deep sense of satisfaction and purpose, and could be meaningful in the context of my future". Yeah, that's the one. So, not wanting to disappoint my blog readers, but also realizing that I really don't have a complete list yet, I'm going to provide two lists. For interested readers of my blog, particularly if you know me, feel free to click on the "comments" button at the end of this post and suggest other ideas of things that should be under consideration. Or provide your observations. Or just say that you think I've gone monkey! Say something!

My first list is the safe list. This is the one I took with me when I met with Bob M. a couple of weeks ago. I'll enumerate it, and then offer his feedback.
* Buy a business
* Start a non-profit
* Work for or volunteer for a non-profit
* Consult (on what, was a little harder to pinpoint. For now assume 'business strategy, operations strategy, or acquisitions')
* Write, most likely fiction of the type that I enjoy reading, and similar to "Leverage", the novel I completed last year.

Bob M. commented that these choices are all very close to what I have been doing. If I have the entire world and all its immense variety to choose from, why am I looking at 3 degrees of a 360 degree spectrum. After some reflection, I've decided he is right in some ways and wrong in others. I think this list represents incrementalization (another new word?), where I am thinking about what I didn't like in my previous experience, and trying to design a role around eliminating the negative. For example, when I went to my last senior executive position, I took great care to make sure that the negative aspects of the last position I had would be different and hopefully better in the new one. Unfortunately, this process didn't work in my last position (lots of new negatives), and probably won't get me out of the neutral zone by itself. Of the five choices above, four of them are certainly incrementalization. Problem: don't seem to like having a boss -- Solution: be the boss. Problem: not excited by the mission of the organization -- Solution: select based on a mission that is important to me. The only choice that doesn't fit this pattern is writing, but that is 'safe' because I've been doing it as a hobby for quite a while.

Bob asked me a good question, which I have given some thought to, and which helped me with an expanded list. The question was -- what would you do for free? There were several things that immediately popped into my head: dispense advice - particularly career or business advice; outdoor activities like hiking, camping, fishing, running, etc. -- although I acknowledge that this, in and of itself, would probably bore me fairly quickly; read & write -- heck, I've been doing that for free for a while; do projects or deals -- I love the clearly defined end point, the clear win/loss and the focus on a single objective; help friends or others in need -- sometimes it seemed like I was running a part time recruiting business from my office; Dig for facts on controversial issues that catch my attention and argue -- one of my more recent favorites has been global warming.

So with these insights in mind, and not limiting myself to things that I already know I'm good at, here is an expanded list...
* Sailing charter operator
* Fishing guide, hunting guide
* college professor
* proofreader
* Researcher
* Anti-Global warming analyst / agitator
* lawyer
* write poetry or rock songs
* sing rock songs (hey, I'm not THAT old)
* executive recruiting
* game designer
* merchant marine or forest service (thought I would throw that in as they were the two highest matches with my interests when I took an interest inventory in high school)

When I look at this list, it just looks goofy and impractical, but impractical as these choices may be, by looking at them and thinking about them, I might still manage a serendipitous insight. At least that's what I'm hoping. I'm already planning some steps to explore the safe list -- discussions, playing around the fringes, experimentation, and the like. I have no idea where to even start on the expanded list. That is most likely me looking for '29 steps...' again. I think I need to just let them ferment and grow into something else over time, but we process oriented types just have a tough time doing that.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Fear - Part 2

I thought I was pretty clever in the first part of this post. I prattled on about how fear was used in the work environment, and its necessity or its 'unnecessity' (my apologies to Shakespeare for that one!). Did anyone notice that I didn't really address what I'm afraid of?

Sure, there are some hints of it in some of the blogs I have already written, but there is nothing like stating things openly to clarify and put a fine point on them. So here goes -- my biggest fears, at least the ones I know about so far....
* Confrontation. Especially where I don't feel prepared to defend myself. Especially with those in positions of authority. Am I the only one who replays confrontations over and over again in my mind thinking about what I should have said/done?
* Disappointing others. Especially those whose opinions I value. The usual initial response here is to blame someone else or external circumstances.
* Ridicule. I even dislike seeing someone ridicule a third party, because I can picture myself in the same position. This is normally done behind people's backs and can't be easily defended against.
* Isolation. I need affiliation and friendships, and fear not having them or losing them.
* Losing. I've caught myself over the years deselecting activities or goals because I'm afraid I will lose if I play. It certainly seems self-defeating, and this one I'm able to manage better than the other ones, when I recognize it.
* Getting older. Seeing possibilities close off unexplored (I will never be a rock star now!) because of age, reduced faculties, or just plain running out of time.

Looking over the list, much of it deals with my life in the context of the approval or lack of approval of others. That is my green eyed monster. So knowing it is out there what do I do? Confront it (Ha, like that is going to happen -- see bullet point number one. I don't do confrontation, at least not readily)? Make peace with it and accommodate it in my choices? Understand where it comes from -- is it in the foundation of who I am, or is it the result of some baggage I picked up along the way? Something else?

Hey, I'm taking suggestions, if anybody has any....

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Lists, bloody lists

There are any number of pads of paper lying around my home office that have headings like "Things I like doing", and "Things I hate doing". If you've never tried to fill one of these out before, it is a lot tougher than it sounds. The real list that I'm trying to put together is "Things that would give me a deep sense of satisfaction and purpose, and could be meaningful in the context of my future". If the first two lists seem difficult to assemble, this last one is my current Mount Everest -- distant and seemingly unattainable.

The negative list is a bit easier, because I've reflected more often when I have a negative experience, as opposed to a positive experience (which, I suppose, I see as 'normal'). Here are some sample items off of one of the older lists
* Being criticized.
* Being directed by other people, as opposed to persuaded
* Having my direction changed once I'm committed to something
* Conflict and confrontation
* Being rushed into things on a tight timetable -- I prefer to contemplate.

And this list goes on and on.

For the positive list to have any real insight, it needs to reveal something other than the 'contra-negative' (yes, I know that's not a word, but Shakespeare invented words to suit his needs....). Here are some sample items off of a list from the same vintage.
* Novel or new experiences, especially where I learn something new
* Discussing and understanding the big picture
* Wrapping in emotion, I especially see this with music
* Spending time with friends
* Physical tests and challenges

There are probably a dozen of these types of lists lying around now, and they are all variations on the themes above. So what does this all mean? Does it get me any closer to the BIG list -- the one that could hold a future direction for me? I really can't say at this point. What I can say is that I'm more aware of what my likes and dislikes are than I've been in a long long time.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Okay, but what am I?

According to some of the material that I've read concerning transitions, the first step in a transition is to make an ending with the past. In a tangible sense, I did that last Monday when I resigned my position as President of the business without any interest in or intention to follow it up with anything remotely similar.

It's one thing to no longer have a senior management title, or have the daily trappings of the office -- that seems odd enough to me. I can intellectually accept that I am no longer a senior manager in a public company. I can even accept that I probably will never be a manager in the conventional sense again - been there, done that! But those things are on the exterior. What about inside?

I WAS a general manager for the last fifteen years, and before that a general manager in the making for another fifteen. I've identified myself with my profession and my position for so long, it has become deeply entwined with my feelings about myself and my own self worth. When I shed the profession and position, what is left? Right now it just feels like a big hollow vacuum that desperately wants to be filled with something (my old physics professor in college always said that 'nature abhors a vacuum'). What should go there? It is already very tempting to continue to fill that void with interactions with those people I had past work associations with. That would let me continue to be a "general manager" in a surrogate sort of way, dispensing advice and making observations as if I was still in the game.

It is tempting, but I can feel that it is the wrong direction to go. Doing so will only prevent me from fully shedding the past and moving into the neutral zone (love that term -- thinking of the old Star Trek episodes). On the other hand, severing my ties with some of my old work associates also feels wrong -- these are people that I deeply care about and built what I hope will be lasting friendships. The situation presents a tightrope to walk -- continue to develop the relationships, but discard the work piece of it. I guess if there is something of value there, it will work out, and if not, well....

None of this gets to the root of what I am. I'm not a vacuum. I'm certainly no longer a senior executive or a general manager. A guy asked me on the plane ride to Las Vegas late last week what I did for a living, and in the moment, grasping for a way to package my 'situation' into a convenient sound bite, I said, "I'm retired." Boy did that generate a strange look.

And that isn't right either. I'm not retired in the conventional sense at all. And I'm not 'between jobs' with its negative connotations either. I'm here by choice, but labels seem to fail. Most disconcerting to me is that standing with the trappings of the senior executive role stripped away, I'm not really sure what I see. Maybe getting that straight is the current 'work' that I should be doing....

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fear - Part 1

How much of our behavior is motivated by fear? This is a question that I've been contemplating quite a bit over the past few weeks. I certainly see it in my own actions. If I had to put a percentage on it, I would say that 60% of what I did at work was motivated by fear -- most of it an avoidance reaction. I was working through BS tasks and reporting on them, not because I saw them as important or worthwhile, but instead simply because I was avoiding criticism, complaint, public humiliation or some other negative consequence.

The ugly part of it is -- it works! Fear definitely generates energy and action. People will go to great lengths to prevent being exposed to those situations where they experience fear. I've wondered if the most successful leaders need to tap into fear in order to drive action. It certainly seems commonplace.

I've been reasonably close to three successful corporate leaders. Based on the normal judgment of the world, the most 'fear inspiring' of the three was the most successful. The least 'fear inspiring' was second most successful, with the mid-range utilizer of fear as a motivational tool being the least successful. A sample size of three, however, doesn't prove much, and all three of these men went to the 'fear well' at least on occasion.

When I further reflect on the great bosses I've had, and those that allowed me to experience the greatest level of satisfaction with my work, the number one top boss never used fear. In fact, this individual created an environment where I was his partner in trying to accomplish the company goals, rather than a subordinate who should be worried about how every expression of thought would play to him. I wanted to come in to work each day because as a team, we were engaged in fighting battles together.

I contrast that with my last position, where I felt the boss had designed a monthly 'arena event' (too much Spartacus recently, I guess), where someone was ritualistically slaughtered. The trick was to try to be uber-prepared, so that it wasn't you! Despite the fact that I didn't have to be at the company, and hence had a lot less on the line, I trembled at the onset of every one of these meetings. And I could feel the fear (and testosterone) in the air each time as well.

Most of the people in the room hated it. If anyone didn't it was because they were not really in the arena (yes, corporate staffers, I'm talking about you!). My question, after seeing so much of this in Corporate America is -- is it necessary? Is it somehow an essential element of success? In the absence of fear as a motivator, do people slack off to a degree that they are easily taken down by a hungrier competitor?

My gut says no -- it isn't a key element of success. But then why is it so common?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

You started your year long sabbatical in Vegas?!

Well, sort of. The trip had been planned for quite some time. One of my friends invited me to be on the board of a 'special purpose corporation' a few years ago. I'm not exactly sure what makes it 'special', but we have three telephonic board meetings a year, and one meeting in person in Las Vegas. In previous years, I always felt pressed for time, so spent the bare minimum amount of time at the meeting (which takes about 4 hours in total). This year, I was able to stay longer and feel completely unencumbered. It was really liberating.

On the fun side, I spent much of my free time in 'The Pub' -- a bar in the Monte Carlo, watching first round NCAA tournament games. I also saw Frank Caliendo perform, which was really funny. No, I don't gamble, but I did get a tattoo (well, a Henna one -- skull and crossbones. I asked them for something with a pirate theme!).

On the more serious side, I spend quite a bit of time thinking about my meeting with Bob M. on Wednesday evening. At that meeting, I presented my thoughts and ideas about what I could do with my future, and he his response was more or less, "...is that all? You have the whole world open to you, and your choices are so narrow!". I was a bit crestfallen at first, but then realized he was probably right. I'm way too busy worrying about how I can leverage my past (job skills, contacts, etc.,). That tells me that I still haven't put the past behind me. I still haven't made an "End".

He also mentioned two things that hit home. He said it appeared that I've spent the first half of my life being focused on meeting the expectations of others, and subordinated my own desires. He suggested that there was still a little boy inside me that was trying to get out, and I needed to listen better to what he was trying to tell me, or I would end up in the same place I was at the end of my last corporate job.

I definitely don't want to end up there again, so I'm off to think more deeply about that "end", and what the voice inside me is trying to say.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Into the Neutral Zone

Two days ago, on Monday of this week, I walked into my Boss's office and told him I didn't think that I wanted to work at the company any more. That set in motion a series of actions that resulted in me now being at home, without contact of any kind with my former fellow employees. It is definitely an odd feeling.

I now feel like I'm entering into the neutral zone -- a place where I know I need to spend some time, and from which the exit isn't clear. Let me explain...

On April 13th of 2009, I was fired from my position at a Nebraska public manufacturing company after working there for 11 years, moving up through the ranks, and believing that I was the most likely successor to the the CEO. It wasn't a shock -- the signs were there in the last year of my employment: the peeling away of some of my responsibilities, a call to bring in a general manager for one of the businesses I was responsible for and was personally managing, the declining economic situation, and some business performance problems that cropped up and couldn't be dealt with quickly. I was an expensive, high level guy that they could get away without having for a while in a time when the economy was in tough shape. In short, I was expendable, and was soon 'expended'.

Even if you see it coming, losing a job for the first time is a shock. At age 46, this was the first time that, other than some short vacations, I had ever been away from work for more than a couple of weeks, and certainly the first time that I had ever not had ANY business items to think on or worry about. It was disorienting. It was strange. I didn't like it. But it was, as I've come to see, a time that I should have taken to explore what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Unfortunately that didn't happen.

On my first day at home in April of 2009, I sent a blast email out to my entire contact database telling people to use my new gmail email address. That prompted a response from one of my former competitors, who asked me to call him. Over the next couple of weeks, I discovered that he had the 'ideal' job for me. It was a much smaller responsibility, in a much smaller (though still public) company, but essentially it was doing what I had been doing, which was managing general managers and presidents of manufacturing businesses. Best of all, I wouldn't have to move. It seemed like the perfect fit. As it turns out, my assessment was completely wrong.

I committed a classic blunder -- I checked to make sure that all the things I didn't like about my last job were better in the new position, and then I stopped. I didn't really think about how this new position might be unpleasant or uncomfortable to me. And I certainly didn't think about that uncomfortable, disorienting and strange neutral zone that was open in front of me. That was something to avoid. So I accepted the job by mid May, and was back to work by the end of June.

It didn't take long for me to feel dissatisfied in this new role. The primary problems were ones of size and authority. The new company was smaller in total than what I was running in the prior job. My new assignment was about 1/8th the size. My new boss was suffocatingly involved in every decision, and seemed to develop endless action lists, the follow up for which took most of my available time. I was used to calling my own shots, now I had to ask permission for everything, and I really had no time to implement my own shots, even if I could call them. This wasn't going to work. In addition, nagging in the back of my mind, was the need to think through what I really should be doing with myself.

In November, I attended a seminar called "Courageous Conversations", put on by the Apogee group, and sponsored by a local bank. The seminar, though only a half day in length, spoke deeply to me. I realized that I had blown through a rare opportunity I'd had to re-examine my life and my purpose, taking an easy path back to familiarity. Not surprisingly, I was feeling some of the same dissatisfactions that I had experienced in my prior job. Unfortunately, I came to realize after much thinking and discussion with the seminar presenters and others that there are no easy answers to this situation. No 'process' to go through, no list of options to consider, no one to tell you what to do. To really resolve the feelings of unhappiness that were permeating me, would require time, deep contemplation, experimentation, lots of discussions with others, and, it couldn't be easily done while in the midst of the chaos of my normal work environment.

I resolved that I would plan a one year sabbatical, and use that time to sort out the direction for the rest of my life. After lots of internal debate, some fear, and discussions with those I love, I was finally ready to act. On Monday, I expected to have my boss talk with me about my transition out of the company, which would likely happen some months in the future -- after I helped to hand off my responsibilities to my successor, closed out some of the projects I was working on, and had a chance to wrap up my relationships with those few people that I had developed friendships with. I even fantasized that he would become more consultative in our relationship, instead of feeling that he constantly needed to assert his control. I was wrong again.

So now I've plunged into the neutral zone, a bit before I planned to do so. It is a little scary, especially the prospect of quiet solitary deep contemplation. I know that my first step in the process has to be to make peace with the past. I'm meeting with Bob M., one of my advisors tonight to discuss just this point, and hope to have more direction on this step in the next few days.