Thursday, December 30, 2010

Goals for 2011

Last step in the process of review, reflection and repositioning of priorities -- setting some goals for next year. Some things carry on from 2010, while others are new...

1. Continue to improve my connection to members of my immediate family. I worked on this last year and made some progress, but it will take continuing effort.

2. Spend good quality and quantity time with Candace, Sarah and little Thomas when he arrives sometime in the spring.

3. Make measurable progress on my writing:
* Enter the Amazon Breakthrough Novel competition using INCENTIVIZE as my submission manuscript.
* Sign a publishing contract on at least one novel, or decide to self-publish by year end.
* Complete at least two additional novels during the year.
* Decide what to do with Lessons Learned the Hard Way, my non-fiction manuscript.

4. Add something business-like back into my life. Right now I'm considering the acquisition of a very small business, but consulting or board memberships could fill the bill as well, if I could arrange them.

5. Fully recover my running form by the fall, including: losing twenty pounds, recovering fully from injuries, and increasing mileage to at least 30 miles per week (right now its about 15). A bonus here for getting into marathon shape and running a fall marathon.

I'm trying to balance with these five goals between family (2 goals), professional (2 goals), and personal (1 goal). I have a tendency to over-focus on one or two things, neglecting the others, so balancing can be hard for me. I hope to do a better job of it in the coming year than I've done in the past.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Year in Review

Back when I was in the Corporate world, I would give myself my own mini-review each year around this time. The idea was to see how I did on my personal goals set at the beginning of the year, and then use the knowledge gained to set new personal goals for the upcoming year.

Unfortunately, I don't have 2010's goals handy (they're undoubtedly in a box full of office junk that I've studiously avoided looking at for the last nine months), but I believe I can recall more or less what they were. So for better or worse, here is 2010's report card.

1. Change my career trajectory -- Grade A.

In 2010, I had the courage (and the financial resources) to quit my job without a plan, and without any preconceived notions of where I was going to go. Although there were a couple of opportunities for more of the same kind of work that quickly popped up, with Paula's help I managed to resist racing down any of those paths.

2. Undertake a period of reflection, and try to deliberately decide what I'd really like to do for the balance of my career -- Grade C

I'd done a lot of reflecting prior to leaving my old position, but some of the things I envisioned doing, such as visiting non-profits or taking a sabbatical of several days in nearly complete sensory isolation, never happened. I ended up writing, perhaps not because I'd intellectually chosen it (in an intellectual sense), but because I enjoyed it. In a sense, however, it was a deliberate choice, just one made more with my gut and heart, than my head (which, if you know me at all, is definitely an out of body experience).

3. Reconnect with my family -- Grade B

If measured by the amount of time I spent, it's and A. Quality is probably a C. I've developed some hermit-like tendencies that make me less emotionally available than I'd ideally like. This is something I need to continue working on next year as well.

4. Spend time with the twins while they're still small -- Grade B

They definitely know they have two parents (When Anna was little, I was gone so much she believed I lived somewhere else, and only came to the house to visit!). I never understood the level of conflict that could exist between twins until actually experiencing it. There are some days where it can be pretty hard be enthusiastic about spending time with them if they're in a crabby mood.

All in all, while far from perfect, still a pretty good year!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Incentivize - a novel

I finished up the third, and hopefully final, draft of INCENTIVIZE this morning. I'm pretty pleased with the work, and have sent it off to my agent for review and comments. A short synopsis follows:

Julia McCoy a young female internal auditor, is sent to
Ethiopia to perform work at a copper mining company owned by
American materials conglomerate Matrix Corporation. Local
management at the EthioCupro mine is involved in a scheme to reprocess
mine tailings, extracting additional valuable minerals from them and
selling them for personal benefit. McCoy pretty quickly figures out
something is wrong at the mine, but doesn't grasp exactly what is
happening. After a confrontation with the senior manager at the site,
an accident is arranged for McCoy. But things don't go exactly as
planned, and a short time later she finds herself in Mogadishu, the
guest of a warlord with ties to al Qaeda.

Meanwhile, Randy Esteban a lawyer workings in the Matrix legal
department, becomes involved in investigating the Ethiopian copper
mine based on an email sent by McCoy prior to her disappearance. He
and McCoy's father travel to Ethiopia in an attempt to rescue the
young woman, and discover the motive behind her kidnapping. While
McCoy first struggles to survive, and then escape from her captors,
Esteban begins to unravel the secret EthioCupro management is willing
to kill to keep.

You can read more about this novel and my other projects at my website. I have an older version of the novel posted on another blog, which I will replace with this new version over the next few days. It can be accessed at Incentivize - a novel, but requires prior permission to view. To obtain permission, simply send me an email at and request it. Very soon afterward, you will be able to read INCENTIVIZE on line.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

At Last, a court date

I haven't talked extensively about our plans to adopt another child from Ethiopia -- as some of my blog readers are aware, we adopted Sarah and Candace from there a year and a half ago. This summer, Paula and I decided to once again add to our nest, this time adopting a waiting child.

Waiting children are usually older and male. We were matched with Feyissa, who we will be named Feyissa Thomas and called Thomas when he comes to the United States, back in June. He is supposedly four years old (although we suspect he may be a little older, given his height and weight), and comes from the Hadiya region, which is south and a little west of the capitol of Addis Ababa. Since then, we've been going through the paperwork exercises necessary to make the governments of both Ethiopia and the United States happy.

The adoption requires us to make two trips to Ethiopia -- one to appear in court for the actual legal adoption in that country, and a second time to obtain the child's visa from the U.S. Embassy and to bring him home. Getting the court date established is a big deal, and ours is set for March 4th. The second trip is typically six to eight weeks later. If all goes well, Thomas should be at our home some time in April.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Taste of Poetic Justice

When I was in school, we defined poetic justice as: "he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword". Its a common literary device, and tends to be very popular with readers or viewers of film.

But how sweet is the taste of a personal villain "getting theirs"? Most people have experienced a shadow of this -- when that sedan overtaking you on the road, clearly going twenty or more miles per hour over the speed limit, is pulled over by a cop a couple miles further down the road.

Yeah! That's what I'm talking about! Gives you a shot of personal moral justification.

Not too long ago, I had the opportunity to experience this on a somewhat grander scale. A former peer whom I felt had undermined me and helped bring about the end of an otherwise successful career, was in turn ousted from his role.

It left me with a kind of odd feeling, overall.

While I admit to a little fist pumping when I first got the word, enough time has passed, and I've moved on far enough to also feel an odd combination of pity and sympathy as well. While it pains me slightly to admit it, my former nemesis is actually a pretty talented guy. And while he might initially tell himself that he pulled the trigger on his departure, I think he'll have to deal with the fact eventually that he was voted off the island. And I know from personal experience, its kind of hard to do.

Its an odd feeling, to not be dancing a jig.

When I reflect on the bigger picture, the same couple of business units that felled me, also caused the demise of no less than eight other senior executives in a span of twelve years. That business is a sausage making machine, with a butcher who keeps trying different cuts of meat when he doesn't like the taste of the sausage. Unfortunately the butcher never checks to see if there's something wrong inside the sausage grinder itself.

Yeah, I do feel some sympathy for the guy.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Presentations Count -- Tactic #7

How often do you get the opportunity to strut your stuff before the top people in the company? We're talking about the ones that are far enough up the food chain that you have limited access to them. Maybe that's a plant manager, or maybe it's the board of directors -- it depends on where you currently sit in the organization.

If you work for a large corporation, I'm guessing the answer is: not much. And I'm also guessing that when you do get some "air time", its probably in the form of some kind of presentation.

Those individuals are the very ones that can make things happen for you. They can think of you when that next big project comes along, or that promotion, or whatever you're capable of doing. It doesn't take a lot of insight to realize those few contacts with the senior people are pretty important.

What you may not realize, however, is how top executives form their opinions about others -- at least most of those who don't report directly to them. So here's the secret -- its 20% based on your objective performance, 30% based on what others are saying about you, and 50% based on direct observations. Okay, maybe the numbers aren't that precise, but you get the idea.

I had a boss who would decide an employee was either a genius or a fool within five minutes of them opening their mouths during a presentation -- and once they fell into the fool category, there was no redeeming them. We can argue about the fairness of his judgments, but like many aspects to corporate power and politics, fair or unfair had no bearing on the reality of the situation. He made those judgments based on an employee's ability to communicate ideas during reviews and presentations in a clear, concise fashion, to speak intelligently, and respond to questions well.

To a greater or lesser degree, pretty much all senior executives do the same thing. I can't tell you the number of times I've heard someone remark "She's smart," after a good presentation, or "He's in over his head" (or something much less kind), after a bad one. Did those senior execs really know their conclusions are correct? No, they extrapolate based on the short snippet of information they gather during a presentation. And the judgment can easily become a self-fulfilling prophesy. The fool is picked apart on every tiny misstep, while the genius is forgiven his errors in consideration of his greater brilliance.

So what do you do in the face of this political reality, my politically neutral friends? The path to success is no great secret -- your presentations must be of the best quality, and wow the audience. To get that to happen, follow these simple steps:

1.) Master the subject you are going to talk about. Make sure your real depth of knowledge on the subject equals or exceeds the most knowledgeable person in the room. Cram if you have to, and understand the theory, too, not just the way it is handled in your organization.

2.) Get your slides and words right! Nobody is impressed by poor grammar, uneducated phrasing, or other silly or careless mistakes. Often times, senior executives will have slide pet peeves. Ask around to figure out what those are. I always disliked the use of 3D graphs, for instance. Getting it right is tough to do on your own -- get some help from others, either professionals or your allies. Even after years of making board level presentations, it took one of my peers to point out to me the frequency with which I used the phrase "obviously".

3.) There are bonus points for introducing fresh or innovative ways of looking at things. These may come from theory, the experiences of other firms, or even right out of your head. They confirm your mastery of the subject, and get the audience thinking in a new way. It isn't necessary to overdue it, however, one new idea per major presentation is plenty.

Presentations are a big deal, and deserve a big application of time and effort. You can miss a lot of smaller stuff in your job, and as long as you get these big events right, your political future will be strengthened.

If you find this series of posts on corporate power and politics interesting, please visit my website to read my article titled Power and Politics.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A New Project

I took a break from the near endless process of reading and editing over the past few days, and thought about some new alternatives.

I had a call from a group that sponsors CEO led acquisitions -- their model is to locate senior managers with at least ten years experience managing P&L's of at least $100M, and have them put together a strategy to acquire and rapidly grow mid-sized companies. They supply the capital. I rejected this one out of hand, as I'm not willing to move, and the chances I could put together a deal locally is very low indeed.

Talked to a good friend about doing some consulting work. Said yes to that, but I don't think it really leads anywhere. It will still, however, be fun and will allow me to exercise my "management muscles" before too much atrophy sets in.

Discussed management roles, in general with another friend. He works for a bank, and said there were times where having the right person to put into a senior management position might make the difference in their decision making for loans. He asked me if I was open to considering such positions -- I said yes, but I will be extremely picky, particularly with respect to my potential relationship with owners.

Another contact asked me if I would be interested in purchasing a business line from him. After thinking about it, I think the answer is yes, provided my best friend will agree to run it for me. My day to day involvement will be limited to the kinds of things I like to do -- strategy development and execution, relationship and contact management, and new product development -- and would take only a fraction of my time. Eventually I would sell my equity position to my friend.

Started to develop the concept for a new novel -- Working title is Heir Apparent. The storyline focuses on a daydream I had once concerning how a senior manager COULD react, if he was the Heir Apparent in a large company, but discovered he was about to be passed over. In the story, the senior executive resorts to murder, and then several additional killings of prominent local CEO's to try to cover his tracks. Of course, there will be a good guy who will try to stop him, too.

A break in the action is a welcome way to mull over new opportunities.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Measured Risks -- Tactic #6

Let me start this post with a disclaimer -- this was one of the tactics used by political neutrals that I was probably the worst at. I've always been a gambler, knowing that some of my bets would probably not pay off. In some organizational cultures, that would probably be okay, but it sure provides a lot of cannon fodder for your political opponents. When you live in an organization that is very risk averse, its a prescription for self-destruction. So here I can only say -- do what I say, but not what I've done.

If you're climbing the corporate ladder, you're not going to move up without some big accomplishments to point to -- at least not very far. While early in a career, the promise of greatness is enough to create opportunities, by mid-career, people expect to see an impressive track record. You won't have one, however, if you don't take some risks.

Risks themselves range anywhere from the foolish -- the low probability of success but high reward -- to the nearly sure thing. I'm going to suggest that if you want to survive and thrive, you look as much as possible for sure things, and studiously avoid any risk with a low or even moderate probability of success.

Risk profiles -- the capacity, or even enjoyment of risk taking -- vary from person to person, and represent a personal bias toward risk-taking behaviors:

At one end of the spectrum are the conservatives -- managers who try to avoid risk taking to the maximum degree possible. They might only be provoked into accepting one risky project or goal per year, or even less if they can get away with it. Their biggest problem is without a higher degree of risk taking, they aren't likely to build an impressive track record.

At the other extreme are gamblers -- managers who love to agree to high targets, and put a lot of balls in the air at all at once. Generally, they're betting that more of the risks will result in successes than in failures, and that they'll be rewarded. Their biggest problem comes when too many things go south all at once. That's when they'll end up losing their status or their job.

The easiest way to have your cake and eat it too, is to be personally conservative with a harem full of risk takers working for you that you can sacrifice when things go wrong -- but that's a power player tactic known as scapegoating. If you're going to remain a neutral, how do you position yourself along the risk spectrum in order to succeed?

The answer will depend somewhat on the corporate environment where you find yourself, but all other things being equal, I recommend you stay at the conservative end of the risk-taking range you see among your peers. Why? Because relative gamblers rarely have much longevity. Eventually too many risks blow up on them simultaneously, and they flame out. Gamblers are also perfect victims for power players who use scapegoating.

But you can be too conservative as well, appearing to be so afraid to try anything that you just muddle along. People in this profile often last, but rarely progress in their careers.

So, in summary, know you're own risk taking profile -- it will identify the bias you will need to fight against. Observe the spectrum of risk taking among peers, and pick a position that is on the conservative end for your organization. Finally, try to find the surest risks you can take.

Monday, December 6, 2010


Whew! After five crazy weeks, I now have a completed first draft of DELIVERABLES. This is the novel I completed the outline and proposal for in early September. Much work still remains, but getting the first draft down is usually the biggest chunk of work in any novel writing exercise.

This novel was a bit different from it's predecessors -- LEVERAGE and INCENTIVIZE, in that it was written in first person, and from the point of view of two different characters. The first character is the victim of a crime of deception -- Roger Follansbee, who is seduced into helping a private security company masquerading as the CIA. Follansbee is helped by the second principle character -- Joel Smith, a retired CIA agent with a conscience, who walks into the mess with built-in insights and understanding that poor Roger never had.

The fun in the story surrounds the technology that is being stolen, understanding who is behind the thefts, and the what the ultimate motive for the deception really is. On top of this is the on-again off-again romance between Smith and Follansbee's attorney, Carol Hitchcock.

This novel was a departure for me in another way -- I used it as my project for National Novel Writing Month, and made an audible on the design at the last minute. My normal practice would have been to painstakingly go through the original design documents, but in this case, I decided to Pants it (in writer lingo, this means to fix it by the seat of my pants). While there will be a number of problems to straighten out in the first half of the novel, I'm pretty pleased with the storyline of the first draft.

In the next few days, I will post the individual chapters on my blog site. Those who are brave enough to wade through a first draft, please send an email request to me, and I will give you access to the chapters. As always, all I ask for is some thoughtful critique after you're finished.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Lend Support -- Tactic #5

How do you build your political alliances and move your projects and ambitions forward? You need to build up a balance in your political checking account. Tactic #5 for political neutrals is all about making sure you'll have allies when you need them.

Can you build alliances without lending support to others? Sure, but mutual support is the glue that holds alliances together. Without sticking your neck out for others a bit, they're not likely to stick their necks out for you.

So how do you do this effectively?

First, you need to give before you get. You need to demonstrate your commitment to other people and their agendas before you need their support. Will you get burned by doing this? Sometimes. There are power players out there (especially street fighters) who will gladly throw you under the bus if a situation presents itself where it is to their clear advantage to do so, regardless of how much you've supported them in the past. But if you don't start lending support, then you consign yourself to the virtual sidelines. Then you only play the game when someone else gets hurt, and then probably without a team behind you.

Second, build most of your alliances with other neutrals. By eschewing the more dangerous and distasteful tactics used by power players, you make yourself an easy mark if you ally too closely with these creatures. Besides, you can count on things like friendship, sense of obligation, and fairness to help you with neutrals. Those things might or might not matter to a power player.

Third, lend lots of moral support. This can be in the form of a shoulder to cry on, a counselor, a behind the scenes ally. This costs you very little, is low risk, and can pay dividends in the long term. I'm almost temped to advise you to agree with everything your allies do behind the scenes, but most neutrals need to maintain a certain connection with those things they think are fair an right. So instead, do as much of this as you can.

Fourth, just as with many of the other political tactics, select your battles carefully. You will find there are times when you need to lend public support to allies. Do so sparingly, causing as little offense as possible, and making sure you know the implications of your actions. Most people can accept a position taken against them, if it is taken on principle. Make sure the underlying rationale for your actions are sound.

Fifth, lend support to those you've opposed in the past. Opponents in a minor skirmish doesn't have to mean enemies forever. Stay engaged, and continue to lend support to erstwhile opponents when it makes sense.

Master this tactic, and when you find yourself in a political jam, you'll have plenty of friends to help you escape. Ignore it at your own peril.