Thursday, October 28, 2010

Burning Bridges -- tactic #2

Conventional wisdom tells you to never burn bridges, but can you really go through your career straddling every issue?

I doubt it. I certainly wasn't able to do so, not that I was trying to avoid burning bridges as a goal.

But many people allow themselves to be drawn into political battles, and burn bridges (or another way to think of this is: they damage their relationships) without really thinking things through.

An example might be instructive.

Let's imagine you're on a company's senior staff and an acquisition is being reviewed. You know the CEO is going to ask every person in the room to give their opinion of the proposed deal at the end of the review. A peer in another division is advocating for the deal, and you can tell from the discussion that the CFO is adamantly opposed to it. What do you do?

Chances are, you aren't going to be able to straddle this one -- it would hard to be in favor and opposed to the deal at the same time. You certainly can try to be as inoffensive as possible, perhaps by outlining the good and bad points of both positions before you vote. But the fact of the matter is, you have a good chance of alienating the person you vote against.

Of course there are questions of fact and questions of politics both in play here. The questions of fact might surround the financial projections, the integration plan, and all the other things you've learned to ask questions about in school or on the job. Those things are normally talked about during the review.

The questions of politics aren't typically discussed. They involve things like -- who is more important to my future -- my peer or the CFO. Is my peer the next COO of the company, or is he a lame duck on his way out. Also important is understanding who allies with each party. Is the CEO listening intently to the CFO and nodding, or is he quietly rolling his eyes when a challenge is issued? Which way is my most important political ally leaning? To understand these thing requires careful observation of word, tone and body language.

Once you have the political landscape figured out, then what? You must know what you stand to win and lose based on any position you might take. In our example, if you know the deal is going to to be killed because the CEO is aligned with his financial guy, you might choose to vote in favor of the deal, currying favor with your peer. Anytime you're on the losing side of an issue, you're less likely to burn a bridge than if your vote was the swing vote that put the vote over the top. On the other hand, if you know the CFO is a vindictive grudge holder, you might choose to vote with him anyway. It's all a question of properly reading the situation and forecasting the political implications of your actions.

Of course, I'm assuming in my example that there isn't a clearly correct answer based on the facts of the situation. An acquisition was a good choice for my example, as they tend to reflect opinions about the future, rather than facts. If there is a clear factually correct answer, I would have a tough time not following it, regardless of the political ramifications. But that's just me. I'm sure there are some politicians that would act based on the political reality alone, largely ignoring or discounting the facts.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


I've been a runner for about ten years now, and getting regular cardio exercise for longer than that. Over the years I've had a few injuries -- a muscle spasm here, tendonitis there. Every time it happens I find myself falling into a funk.

Currently my left foot is undergoing a persistent bout of plantar fasciitis, also known as heel pain. The problem typically is tightness in the calf muscle that causes stretching and inflamation of the tendon running from the arch to the ball of the foot. The typical symptom is pain in the heel area when you first put your foot down after sitting for a while or sleeping. Mine is bad enough that I'm experiencing heel pain pretty much all the time.

This is my second bout with plantar fasciitis, the first one coming eleven or twelve years ago. It's not horribly painful, but certainly prevents running, which always causings further tightening of the calf and further inflames the tendon in question.

I know patience is needed for this to clear up, but I've never been a very patient person. I'm looking for some kind of cardio exercise that won't further inflame the heel, and also doesn't require an expensive piece of equipment to perform. Swimming laps across the lake would have been a good choice in August, but its getting a little cold now.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Learn the Landscape

The first and most important political skill any neutral or power player needs to have is an understanding of the alliances and important hot buttons those alliances are built around.

Political relationships are sometimes built on real friendships, but often times they are arrangements of convenience. Because of that, you can't just rely on who eats lunch with whom (although that's something to notice, too!) when trying to sort out the landscape. Most organizations have a handful of hot button issues that are central points along which battle lines are drawn. The web of relationships around those hot buttons are what creates the political environment.

An example might help -- In one organization I was involved in, there was a significant disagreement over centralized control versus decentralization. The battle over this issue was being played out in the way the purchasing organization was structured. Some people's positions were fairly predictable -- divisional operations VP's didn't much like a centralized structure, as it made getting their jobs done more difficult. Senior corporate management found a centralized structure more appealing because it was theoretically cheaper. But there were a couple of key senior corporate players who felt the decentralized structure led to better accountability and was worth the price.

In my example, the new vice president of corporate procurement made a lot of mistaken assumptions about who was on each side of the issue. In doing so the VP alienated potential allies, and solidified opposition. It was a big part of what led to the VP's eventual departure from the company.

So how do you figure all this out? First identify the hot buttons. There won't be more than a dozen or so of them in most organizations, and they tend to be the items people will talk about when they are having casual conversations. As you go along, gather information on who seems to be on each side of the issue. Try to base this mostly on what they say and do, and not who they are friends with or what their position title is, although that information can be useful at times. Then look for patterns.

People that tend to be in lockstep on most or all of the hot button issues, are likely to be allied. This will help you identify political camps and their captains. Bear in mind that this isn't a static picture. People, particularly fringe players or those who don't find an issue threatening or compelling, may shift their positions and alliances.

And whatever you do, keep your trap shut. Expressing your opinions strongly before you know where others stand is dangerous -- you have no idea who you might be making an enemy of.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Are these cute self-portraits or what?

Today was parent-teacher conferences for the twins. They've been in the U.S. about sixteen months now, and both of their kindergarten teachers have been impressed by how quickly they've learned English. While their pronunciation isn't perfect, they have certainly come a long way.

I thought I'd share their self-portraits. Here is Sarah's effort. She's a bit more quiet and introspective. Her drawing is more realistic -- except for the blue eyes :).

This is Candace. She's our more outgoing, and fast paced daughter -- I think the more abstract (and hurried) style captures her personality.

Okay, they're a little young to be labeled future Picasso's, but I thought the pictures were cute.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mr. Mom

Paula is headed out of town for two weeks -- she's going to Ethiopia as a part of the charity Because Every Mother Matters, which will be working to start up a women's health clinic in the south of the country. She's been wanting to do this for months now, but has been nervous that your's truly couldn't handle the twins in her absence.

I won't say it will be like falling off a log, but I have been watching pretty closely what needs to be done each day. There are only a few areas where I'm a little nervous:

* Dinner -- our twins are the pickiest eaters I've ever seen, although there has been some improvement over the last few months now that school has started. School lunch is basically an "eat what's there, or go hungry" affair, and it's forced the girls to branch out a bit. I'm vowing now NOT to resort to McDonalds or Pizza every night!

* Hair -- There's a lot of it, it's always a bit of a mess in the morning, and there is a limited amount of time available to redo it. I did rebraid a couple of times this summer, but basically I'm a hair neophyte about to be cast into the big leagues. And the weekly style change looks even worse. Photos may have to be forbidden during Paula's absence.

* Melt-downs -- Maybe its a guy thing, but I rarely seem to do the right thing when one of the twins has a melt-down. The fact that they often come in the evening, when I'm at my least patient, probably doesn't help much. I think my strategy will be to take a deep breath, and then do exactly the opposite of what my instincts tell me to do. Failing that, I do have the phone numbers of my mother and my mother-in-law memorized for emergency aid.

So if you see two adorable twin girls who look like the ones in the picture...

except their clothes don't match, their hair is sticking out of their braids, one throwing a tantrum, and they have pizza sauce smeared on their fingers, they couldn't possibly be mine!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Power Players

If you aren't an Avoider or a Neutral, then you actively use the political environment to your advantage. Then you're a Power Player.

Power Players come in two broad categories -- Street Fighters and Maneuverers. They are very different in their approach, but both essentially do the same thing -- try to change the perceptions about individuals other than themselves. The difference is how they go about doing this -- a Street Fighter is overt, while a Maneuverer is covert.

Maneuverers are more numerous than Street Fighters for reasons I'll describe momentarily. To be a successful maneuverer, one must be keenly aware of the existing power structure, and be able to see how that structure can be manipulated to advantage. The work of a maneuverer is subtle. In many cases, the intended target is not aware they are subject to a political play. In others, they are aware, but aren't sure which maneuverer might be behind it. In almost all cases, the target is unable to do much of anything about it.

A maneuverer is a little like a stock broker -- market goes up, I win; market goes down, I win. They maneuver their targets into a position where they are faced with a bad choice or a worse one. Sometimes the objective is to directly help the maneuverer -- as in scapegoating, for example. If the maneuverer successfully identifies someone to take the blame for a mistake, then the blame doesn't fall to them. Sometimes the objective indirectly benefits the maneuverer -- the removal or discrediting of a competitor or opponent, for example.

I doubt there's any data supporting it, but I will assert that the higher level positions in most corporations are heavily populated with maneuverers. This is why some of the wildest political battles occur at this level. We can argue as to which is cause, and which is effect, but I believe maneuverer skills definitely help executives ascend the corporate ladder. At a minimum, they help protect them while on the way.

The primary reason I think there are more maneuverers than street fighters is, I believe, because it is lower risk. If your target doesn't know who is behind the political play, it's hard to expose them or fight back. Even if the target does grasp what's going on, its often impossible to do anything about it. Some of this is because of other maneuverer's admiration for a game really well played. I've seen this a couple of times behind closed doors where the entire scenario is well understood by the guys at the top, and they tacitly approve of the maneuverer's skills, and blame the hapless target for being so stupid.

Street fighters are rare breed, and I don't think they are necessarily present in all organizations. A street fighter openly identifies opponents and goes after them. The best example of a street fighter in my career successfully removed at least one competitor I knew of, and his boss tolerated it while he took aim at several others. It was only when this street fighter went after the boss himself, that he over-reached and was fired.

This is the primary reason street fighters are so rare -- they make a lot of enemies, and often times self-destruct. And I don't know of any large organization headed by a street fighter. I suspect the incongruity between the demeanor expected by boards and shareholders, and the street fighter's overt tactics, make it difficult for them to reach the corner office.

Just like other distinctions I've made while musing on this subject, I'm talking about the Power Players as if they had a bilateral choice -- maneuverer or street fighter. In reality, some maneuverers occasionally engage in street fighter tactics. Street Fighters are capable of maneuvering as well. There is every grade in between the two extremes.

Next I will start discussing some of the specific tactics used by Neutrals and Power Players (if you're an avoider you, by definition, don't use political tactics). Doing so will help further distill the differences in approach, and how the various roles shape the political environment of the corporation.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Close Encounters

Everyone has a fear -- some rational, some irrational. Ever since we moved to East Amherst, New York back in the mid-80's, I've been afraid of hitting a deer. The roads I drove on each morning to get to work had many deer, and frequent collisions. I think I remember someone saying that one stretch of that road had more deer-kills per mile than anywhere else in the state.

The fear embraces all negative aspects of such an accident -- from killing an innocent wild creature, to the damage to my car, to actual fear of bodily injury. Accounts I read in the papers described deaths from deer-car collisions where the body of the deer came through the windscreen, or a driver was impaled by an antler, etc.

This fear had an upgrade in the late 80's when I made a trip to Kapaskasing, Ontario during the dead of winter. Yes, a deer would be bad, but a moose -- that would almost certainly be worse. The fear was stoked by a moose I saw that wondered into a vehicle test track one cold morning. I was driving, trying to keep the car at a steady 35 mph on the icy track, while dodging this seemingly lost and confused animal.

The phobia took a sabbatical for a few years, until three years ago when we moved out to rural Nebraska. I kept seeing dead deer on the side of the road -- a certain sign that my peril had increased greatly. Then another new high -- I came motoring around our lake development one night, only to find cows in the road. Cows would be even worse than a moose, and they appeared to be even stupider! And I was driving this tiny little Lexus SC430 convertible -- yikes!

Now a couple more years have passed, and I was beginning to think I had this whole deer-car thing figured out. I traded in the Lexus for a gigantic Chevy Suburban, I rarely drive in that dangerous 6pm - 9pm time frame, and I know exactly what a deer's eyes look like reflected in the hi -beams.

None of that prepared me for this evening. Tonight I almost hit a horse. No kidding, a horse. Admittedly a little lighter than a cow, but the center of gravity is oh-so-much closer to windshield height, even in the 'burban.

I'm still not exactly clear how it happened. I was driving along a gravel road, thankfully at only 40mph. There was a horse paddock on my left -- I'd seen it and the beautiful animals kept there a thousand times before. Along a portion of the paddock were some ratty old pine trees. Like a flash a grey horse shot out from between two of the pines right in front of me. I reacted instantly, slamming my foot on the brake pad, the anti-locks engaging as I skidded to a stop. My heart was pounding, and I felt a surge of warmth flow through my body from my stomach radiating outward. I started to sweat.

The horse took one brief look at me from no more than twenty feet away, and bounded off into a recently cut cornfield. Paula, who saw the whole thing in her Buick a quarter of a mile behind me, called the sheriff's office.

Suddenly, deer don't seem so scary, anymore.

Monday, October 11, 2010

"Everlasting Spring" Provides Hope for Children

Yezelalem Minch is an Ethiopian run charitable organization that helps keep families together in the face of extreme poverty. They are trying to recruit 50 sponsors in 50 days, and our family is trying to help. I've reproduced Paula's blog post here. Please consider giving.

50 sponsors in 5o days... will you be one?

Yezelalem Minch is a grass roots organization in Ethiopia devoted to helping children stay in their families when faced with the prospect of becoming an orphan on the street due to the death of one or both parents. Yezelalem Minch helps provide children with food, clothing and education. YM helps to keep families together by providing support to caregivers. For the children who sadly have no one, they provide a home in addition.

You can give all this to a child for just $30 a month. $1 a day.

For me, that's less than my daily "good morning Diet Coke" at the drive-through.

Click here to see my friend Kara's Smilebox slideshow of YM. You can get the contact information at the end of the slideshow (slide 40). You can also ask Kara how you can receive a wonderful free DVD about Yezelalem Minch... how it came into being and stories about some of the children it is assisting. It is profoundly moving and I highly recommend it. Just in time for Orphan Sunday on November 7!

Sunday, October 10, 2010


I talked about political avoiders in an earlier post. Today, I'll comment on the fuzziest category of responses to the corporate political environment -- political neutrals.

There are a few characteristics that define a neutral. First, they are aware of and understand the political environment. They also typically are willing to engage in defensive tactics, but not offensive tactics, for one of several reasons -- they don't understand how the offensive tactics work, they think those tactics are too risky, or they find them morally reprehensible. I'll talk a little bit more about defensive tactics in a later post, but for the most part, defensive political tactics involve managing your own image and the perceptions about you, but not attempting to negatively alter general perceptions about others.

An example might be helpful -- let's say (as was the case with one of my employers), you recognize the political reality that your commitment is being measured by your boss (or someone else higher up) by the number of hours you spend at work. An adept neutral would make sure that when the boss and other power players could see they were at work for long hours. A neutral might also cut out early or take an extra long lunch if they felt they were not being watched (that's more of a question of personal integrity). The neutral might engage in a conversation about how little of their vacation they used, or how much time they had to spend at home working over the weekend.

An avoider, by contrast, would whine about how it shouldn't matter how many hours you work, as long as you get your job done.

A power player, would take this one step further -- they might identify their organizational rival or target, and find a clever way to make sure the boss knew they weren't as committed. For example, they'd find a way to expose that three hour lunch, or the fact that their competitor was playing solitaire for an hour on the computer each day.

Neutrals run the gamut from ham-handed to skilled, just like power players do. I've personally witnessed some pretty poorly executed self-promotion over the years by political neutrals.

I don't know if this is a complete list, but I think Neutrals stay as neutrals, and don't venture into being power players, primarily for three reasons.
  1. They might be unaware of power play (PP) tactics -- I expect this applies to very few people. If someone was ignorant of PP tactics, they would generally be an avoider, but I can't rule out the possibility that they might know just enough to poorly utilize a few neutral tactics.
  2. They may see the power play (PP) techniques as too risky. There is little question that PP tactics are more difficult to get right, and more likely to create enemies. Some individuals probably do the math, and decide PP tactics are not for them.
  3. They see many of the things power players do as wrong or unfair. I personally fell in this category. While I had no problem trying to improve my own image, there was just something that felt wrong about trying to negatively influence someone else's image.
As I've mentioned before, these categorizations are abstractions. Probably nobody is a perfect neutral. Sometimes neutrals may fail to recognize a political reality, and other times, they may try a PP technique or two. I would also argue that the vast majority of corporate professionals and managers are neutrals. Unfortunately for them, in the organizations I've known, adept power players typically rise rapidly to the top.

Next subject: Power Players

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The future of books

I've spent a lot of time recently reading about the future of books, and have come to the following conclusions:
  1. Book sales are on a slow decline. This is because of competition from other forms of entertainment, many of them on-line. Paula is a good example -- today she spends some of her time playing webkinz, doing geography quizzes, or reading/writing blog posts. A few years ago, some of that time would have been spent reading.
  2. eBooks are capturing increasing share from print books. The most recent statistics I've heard suggest 6-10% of current book sales are electronic. Everyone agrees it's going up, the only question is how far and how fast. A recent article titled Where will bookstores be five years from now suggests it could be 50% of the market by 2015. Another industry person I talked to said it will still be under 50% in 2025. I tend to believe the first analysis is closer to the truth.
  3. eReaders -- Kindle, Nook, Sony and iPad, are all coming down in price. You can get a basic reader right now for $139. If the entry price drops below $99, watch out. One will be in nearly everybody's Christmas stocking. And the technology is good -- almost everyone I know with a dedicated eReader, loves it.
  4. The share eBooks are capturing is mainly coming from bricks & mortar bookstores. How long they can hold on in a declining market with declining share is anybody's guess. I know from experience in other businesses, it's tough to survive a 20% drop in sales, and you do it typically by closing less profitable outlets. Look for bookstores to start closing soon. That will drive more of the print market to on-line vendors like Amazon, continuing to drive a death spiral for the brick & mortar stores.
  5. Publishers are in a tight spot in this environment. The primary value they add, the one that can't easily be replaced, is access to shelf space in brick & mortar bookstores. They do other things as well, namely: cover art, editing, printing, packaging and, to some degree for new authors, marketing. All those things can be purchased from other sources. As bookstores become less relevant in the equation, then so do publishers.
  6. It isn't easy, but even today, a new author can experience success by ePublishing for the Nook and Kindle, and contracting a print on demand service for the physical books. It is still my guess that a new author will sell more copies, and earn more with a traditional publishing contract, but I suspect we may not be all that far from the cross-over point.
  7. The ability to market your books, or get someone to market them for you, will be as important as craft when it comes to success. A poorly crafted book will not succeed with a great marketing strategy. A excellently crafted book will not succeed with a poor market strategy. It takes both.
So in this evolving environment, what is the best strategy for a new author, like your's truly? For now, I'm trying to enter using the traditional method -- a publisher. But I can't afford to be infinitely patient either. In both environments, it helps to have a number of titles, rather than just one. For now, I'm going to continue working with my agent to try to land that elusive publishing deal, while I work hard to produce additional work. Who knows where I'll be in a year?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Open Invitation

I've had several people make comments on the post from last week titled "A Friend Speaks Out". I want to open up my blog for other guest posts that reflect your frustrations and/or fears associated with the work world. Or if you just have an ironic or strange story to tell about something that happened.

What I can offer you is to put it in print on my blog -- disguised enough so others won't necessarily recognize it was you (if that's what you want). Your personal experiences can serve as signposts and warnings for others as they try to navigate similar waters.

From a mechanical standpoint, just email me at I promise I won't print anything without your approval/agreement.