Sunday, January 30, 2011

But it Was a Mistake

When you fall off a horse, conventional wisdom tells you to get right back in the saddle again. And that’s exactly what I did with my new job at Lindsay Corporation.

But it became clear to me early on I’d made a mistake. You see, getting right back in the saddle again, I later realized, is a substitute for thinking things through. It involves setting aside your reactions and letting muscle memory take over. And that's precisely what I did.

Probably the first indication I'd made a mistake was my desire to take the summer off, rather than show up for work immediately. My twin daughters were home from Ethiopia, and I wanted some time to get to know them, to enjoy those first precious months. I resented being pushed into a strategic planning process in the first week of my employment, especially as it seemed hollow to me – another indication something was wrong. I was experiencing a deep weariness of all the corporate processes – strategic planning in particular. Couple that with missing my time with the family, and I just didn’t want to be there.

I muddled along through the summer and fall, trying to adapt to the much smaller dimensions of Lindsay, the greatly reduced span of control, and the differences in how decisions were made and implemented. It felt very confining, and I was having less and less fun as time went along.

In November I attended a seminar called “Courageous Conversations” featuring Robert Mintz and Roger Fransecky of the Apogee Group. That seminar changed my life. I realized I’d been pounding myself into a corporate round hole for so long, I’d forgotten I was had some corners on me. I started to think of my life differently – I wasn’t my job, or even my career. I didn’t have to be defined by those things – I could instead define myself.

I started to take time daily to think about deeply buried desires and interests – those things I was always “gonna do when I’ve got some time”. What was I waiting for?

Parenthetically, it helped that the Dow was back to 10,500 in December, and my investments were considerably more diversified and less volatile then they’d been when I’d left Valmont.

Yes, I’d made a mistake taking the job at Lindsay -- I could feel the nausea of it well up every Sunday night as I contemplated driving into the office the next morning. The question now was: what was I going to do about it?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I Needed a Job

The day I was fired from my Group President’s role at Valmont, the Dow closed at 7,920. Less than a month before, it had dropped all the way to 6,547. While I’d done fairly well financially, with the stock market so low, and the future looking particularly gloomy, I felt I needed to have a job – retiring or radically changing direction wasn’t an option.

My family had moved only a year ago to a beautiful home on a lake well west of Omaha. It was idyllic, and the home was what we’d always wanted – but it wasn’t marketable, at least not in early 2009.

And I was only six weeks away from flying to Ethiopia with my wife to adopt twin girls. We didn’t know what to expect with them exactly, but I was pretty sure moving across country in the first year wouldn’t be a good idea. And my older kids were all in school here – college and high school. I wasn’t anxious to uproot them, either.

In short, we weren’t moving.

So here I was: needing a job, not being able to relocate, and having my expertise and experience centered in manufacturing businesses. How many substantial manufacturing companies are located in the Omaha or Lincoln metro areas? The answer to that is – not very many.

As luck would have it, I had an immediate lead on one position and it sounded interesting – Lindsay Corporation was looking for someone to manage their infrastructure businesses. Sure it would be about fifteen percent the size of the group I’d managed at Valmont, but like I said -- I needed a job. Yes, it was with a hated rival of Valmont’s, but it was a manufacturing business, and it was in Omaha. I was definitely interested.

I want to make it clear that taking the position at Lindsay was in no way a betrayal of my colleagues at Valmont. It was not a virtual "slap in the face" or a middle finger gesture. It was exactly what it looked like -- a new opportunity.

I worked in unrelated businesses – the only area of overlap was industrial tubing, a business I’d never had anything to do with at Valmont. I wasn’t part of the Lindsay Irrigation management team. Yes, I was occasionally asked for my opinion about some aspects of the Irrigation business, but I was never plumbed for Valmont secrets – which I wouldn’t have known anyway, it having been four years since I’d last worked in Valmont’s Irrigation division.

I even went so far as to check with Valmont before taking the position, verifying that there were no restriction preventing me from working at Lindsay. I only needed to respect my continuing obligation to maintain Valmont’s confidential information.

So I took the job, and considered myself fortunate.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

I was Fired...

I’ve received a lot of advice concerning this series of posts: Keep it factual. Keep it a-political. Don’t get into exchanging insults. It’s taken me a few days to sort through it all and decide how much I want to say, but now I’m finished.

I’ve decided to keep it short, avoid speculation, and try to take the high road (where one exists to take). And that means being honest, and first and foremost, honest with myself. There are a couple of difficult truths I have to face up to, and I can’t wave the banner of objectivity without admitting them freely. So here goes…

I was fired from my position as Group President at Valmont Industries. I didn’t quit. I didn’t take another job. I didn’t leave to “pursue other opportunities”. I wasn’t the victim of a corporate reorganization. I was forcibly separated from the job, and that wasn’t what I wanted.

It was the first time I’ve ever had the experience, and I must admit: it’s hard. What’s worse is – there was some justification for letting me go. Enough? In my judgment, no. I wouldn’t have cut me, but it wasn’t my decision to make.

Of course I’ve ruminated about this subject incessantly. I’ve come to the conclusion the cause for my termination fall into four categories: financial performance issues, stubbornness on my part, peculiarities of the company, and the economic collapse. Of course, there were good things happening as well, but they seemed to count for little, as did my lengthy successful track record. It really is a world where “what have you done for me lately” dominates personnel decisions.

The financial issues occurred in four areas – (1) I recommended the purchase of a company, and it was significantly missing forecast, (2) I had a large manufacturing plant experience a meltdown, after I agreed to replace the plant manager, (3) I placed a big bet on a new plant with new technology which was running far behind schedule, and (4) I couldn’t get a small plant fixed despite two years of effort to make it happen. The causes, cures and details behind each of these problems could each fill a chapter of a book. Suffice it to say – they were real and difficult problems, and from a timing standpoint -- all overlapped. This “perfect storm” seemed to trump anything positive going on in other parts of my area of responsibility.

I’m also a stubborn person who doesn’t like asking permission, or taking direction from others. This was a problem throughout my time at Valmont, and needled my boss. I knew what he wanted, and I was consistently reluctant to provide it. There was a strange dynamic going on that even today I sometimes am puzzled by. He put up with my antics when things were going well, but it was definitely a contributor to my demise. The area where I was most intractable was over staffing choices. I had my opinions about who should be on my staff, and I wasn’t particularly interested in arguing about it.

I won’t say much about the company peculiarities, other than to note two of the three divisions I managed in my last assignment were known “career killers”. During my eleven years with the company, I watched as no less than eight general managers and presidents crash on the rocks of those two divisions. I was number nine. I’ll also note I was the longest tenured division president when I left the company, and eleven years in such roles at Valmont certainly must be close to a modern record.

The other three conditions determined my fate, the economic collapse determined the timing. I might have had more time to solve the problems, if the economy was stronger. I was responsible for three divisions up until the final months, all three of which had their own general managers in place. Unfortunately for me, I’d made myself expendable, and I was expensive – cutting me was equivalent to cutting several other people.

So that’s the start of the story – I was fired, and it hurt. I mostly enjoyed what I did at Valmont, and I definitely respected and liked the people I worked with. But worst of all, being fired was a huge blow to my confidence and self image, and that was at least part of the reason for my reaction.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Distressing Revelation

I had lunch with a former colleague today. It was a nice opportunity to catch up with him on what's going on with his career and family. Part way through the meal, however, he surprised me.

It seems, he explained, my former boss at Valmont was "angry" about me taking a senior management position at Lindsay Corporation. He also told explained my former boss at Lindsay told the former Valmont boss I was fired from that position -- a complete fabrication!

Now, I realize this is hearsay, and what this colleague reported to me might not have actually happened. It appears, however, that it is the commonly held view -- at least within Valmont (I'm unsure about Lindsay). And from what I know about Corporations in general, and Valmont in particular, the truth about a situation often fades into the woodwork, only to be replaced by the version of the story offered up by the survivors.

At first, I found the entire situation alarming. How would my friends and former associates ever be able to discover the truth? Maybe I should set both of these former bosses straight! Maybe I should just become angry and bitter over the situation...

But then I realized that I could get the truth out there for my friends and former associates to understand. I've been told by many my blog is fairly widely read at Valmont, so I can use it as a bully pulpit to tell my story in much greater detail than I have before.

And that is just what I propose to do over the next several posts on this site. I'll cover my termination from Valmont, and what I believe were the reasons for it, my recruitment to Lindsay and the reasons I took that job, and why I ultimately resigned from that position. Let the chips fall where they may!

So should anyone want to "talk some sense into me", I suggest it be done soon -- this tale has been dying to get out, and I'm certainly not afraid of the truth.

Got Most of it Done Yesterday

Okay, sports fans -- I transferred all of the Writing, Corporate Musings, and Power and Politics posts to my website yesterday ( On this site you will find more personal stuff -- more on my stumbling search for my future, our adoption arcs, and my personal interests. The web site will cover primarily writing, and those things in support of writing -- like the corporate musings, and the power and politics stuff -- remember, I do write Corporate Thrillers, and want to enhance my credibility as an expert in the field.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Split is Coming

I've recognized for some time that my blog has become a mish-mash of subjects. That didn't bother me much in the beginning -- words needed to be recorded, and this was a place to do it.

But as I've drawn deeper into writing, I've begun to realize that mixing apples and oranges creates some problems. The writing bloggers and writing websites advise authors to begin managing their brand early in their career. That brand being the type of work they produce and how they present themselves as the author of it.

I took my first steps toward doing that with my website, but it turned into a mish-mash as well. So I've got some clean up work ahead of me, I just need to find the time to complete it. I'm going to collect up all the writing-related materials from my blog (Power and Politics, Corporate Musings) and repost them on my website. I'll probably stop recording my running posts over there, and I'll drop the consulting pages as well (no real activity to speak of).

On this blog, I'll leave the material on Adoption, Personal Musings and my personal thoughts on Writing. I suppose the Mr. Mom materials will remain here as well -- for posterity's stake.

Been contemplating this change for quite some time, and now that I've determined what I need to do, the only thing left is to find about three days to get 'er done!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Keep it to Yourself -- Tactic #10

What do most people do when they're unhappy?

They share. Share their feelings, their frustrations and their anger.

In many, if not most cases, I think they're looking for commiseration and sympathy. Misery loves company.

But is seeking commiseration from your fellow workers a wise or foolish move? The answer is Foolish!, and there are two big reasons why.

First, everything you say to anyone -- even your most trusted associate -- can and often does become political ammunition. I've seen this happen many times, and if you're politically aware, you probably have too. To notice it, look for a comment prefaced by, "Bill thinks..." or "Jane is really angry about...". The person mentioned in the statement is, at that very moment, being betrayed by the speaker. The reason may be as insignificant as for a laugh, or as weighty as to change the power alignment on an important debate. Whatever the reason for the betrayal, it couldn't have happened if the original confessor had simply kept their unhappiness to themselves.

The second reason to keep your unhappiness hidden has been made much more obvious by the corporate focus on "engaged" versus "disengaged" employees. Empirical evidence shows that "engaged" employees (whatever they might be), are much more productive than "disengaged" employees. And there are two classes of disengaged -- active and inactive. Of course, actively disengaged employees are seen as the most corrosive. So how would a manager spot an "actively disengaged" employee? They're the complainers trying to bring down their co-workers, of course. One complainer dragging others down is, however, another's confessor looking for a shoulder to cry on. And the conventional solution to having "actively disengaged" employees is to get them OUT of the company. The only way to ensure you aren't classified as "actively disengaged", is to not look "actively disengaged".

So what's an employee to do? You're stuck with that micro-manager as a boss (or whatever your personal cross is to bear), so how do you suffer through it?

If you have to talk it out -- do so only with someone not in the company, and preferably someone not connected to the company. Or better yet, tell your dog about it.

If you want to offer constructive criticism, then go beyond just complaining, and offer real alternatives, and a way to make improvements. And talk to the person who is the focus of your issue, not a pal in the office (or plant).

Friday, January 7, 2011

Ten Month Check-up

I'm closing in on ten months, and reflecting a bit on what I've learned so far. This certainly has been an interesting journey, so far, and it's far from over. Below are a few of my "lessons learned".

1. I had much grander plans for what I'd do during my year's sabbatical than I actually accomplished.

2. Some things that sounded good in theory, failed to motivate me. (for example: charitable work, starting a business).

3. I need friendships, and have always relied on work friendships to help me out. That's been tough -- I've needed to take responsibility for 80% of the contact. I guess I'm out of sight, hence out of mind.

4. A hobby has become my major source of fulfillment this last ten months -- writing. I call it a hobby because I've yet to sell anything.

5. Sitting still and reflecting on life, the universe and everything is hard work. I don't do it easily. I've developed this habit of wanting to be in constant motion. I have to schedule time for reflection.

6. Spending time with my kids has been rewarding, but it doesn't completely fulfill me. I want my future to contain much more time with the children, but maybe a little less than it's been these ten months.

7. I've still got a bit of business in my blood -- just on a much reduced scale (time and effort). I haven't figured out the magic formula to fit this in, but it doesn't appear to be consulting -- too much up front marketing work needed. I'd be okay with it if the jobs more or less drifted in of their own accord, but I'm not up for working hard at building a brand. At least not yet.

8. I don't miss travel at all. I guess I got my fill of that when I was working.

I continue to point the majority of my time toward writing -- four manuscripts either finished or drafted in the last ten months, and another new one already planned. I'm not running out of ideas for business thrillers, either. I've got more two ideas percolating in the back of my mind already.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

New Material

After a couple of weeks of hard work, I finished up the proposal for my latest fiction project "Heir Apparent - a novel".

A short synopsis of the high level concept follows:

When two prominent CEOs in the Kansas City area are killed, George Crawford, the leader of Sangreen Industries is scared, hiring ex-CIA agent Joel Smith to help insure his security. But Smith finds little to go on as the murderer successfully kills another local CEO's, leaving Crawford as the most likely next victim. Smith investigates a seemingly vast number of personal enemies, alienated business partners, and disgruntled employees, systematically narrowing the search for the killer to three associates of murdered Epic Graphics CEO, Stephen Arndt. As Smith closes in on the killer, he inadvertently tips his hand, becoming a target himself. When the two men come face to face, survival comes down to physical strength and the love and loyalty of a woman.

I also opened up a new blog site listing the first draft of my non-fiction work "Lessons Learned the Hard Way".

Either of these documents can be accessed through my Blog by clicking on the "Great Links" section on the right hand margin of this blog. If you want to read any of the novels or "Lessons Learned the Hard Way", you will need permission, which can be easily obtained by sending me an email at and requesting it.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Don't Badmouth -- Tactic #9

Its a known fact that misery loves company, so how could something that feels so natural and comfortable -- like complaining, criticizing or otherwise badmouthing an enemy -- be the wrong thing to do?

There are two good reasons to avoid badmouthing: First, whatever you think you're saying in confidence to a friend or trusted associate is likely to get back to the target; and Second, since political alliances tend to shift in business all the time, today's enemy or competitor may be tomorrows friend of convenience -- that is, unless your badmouthing is personal and alienates him/her.

I've tried to show in this series of blogs the fluidity of the political environment. Alliances shift all the time. People change jobs, responsibilities, goals, and ambitions. Projects fail, projects succeed, and the company moves forward. But personalized and harsh criticism lives virtually forever. That irritating power player who really made you angry when he tried to scapegoat you on his bombing project yesterday might be your best friend tomorrow when you need someone to help negate a competitor's political clout -- unless he found out you labeled him a weasel, and he took it personal.

Remember the old chestnut -- this isn't personal, its just business -- and try to take it too heart. If you feel compelled to criticize, then do it with someone without a connection to your employer, like your pet Golden Retriever.

Why do these criticisms end up coming back to the object of your dissatisfaction like iron filings to a magnet? Because they represent political currency that someone is likely to trade on. And don't think doing your badmouthing to a political neutral is the answer, either. They might pass it along because its interesting and they don't understand that the information has value.

If for some reason you mistakenly or uncontrollably badmouth someone against my advice, then at least have the sense to avoid loaded terms like: liar, cheat, scumbag, weasel, and similar terms. Those terms label someone's entire character, and are almost impossible to retract.

And if you do even that, then start assessing what the damage might be when the target of your badmouthing hears what you've said (no doubt embellished by those in the telephone game gossip path). You may choose to live with the damage, or you may decide you need to go bow and scrape before the person to try to negate it -- your choice, but at least be aware of what the potential consequences are.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Don't Hide Bad News -- Tactic #8

Some things get better with age, but bad news is never one of them. Generally, bad news ferments and gets progressively smellier as time passes. Best to get rid of it as soon as possible.

But throwing the bad news out on the table at the wrong time or in the wrong way will likely lead to more problems rather than fewer. How should you handle the revelation? Here are a few tips to make it a bit easier to swallow.

  1. Err on the side of mentioning potential problems before they are even real problems. If you're worried that the date might slip on that project -- say you're worried now, rather than when everybody already know it. If you wait, people think your either out of the loop or purposely hiding something.
  2. Always think through the answer to one question before you mention bad (or potential bad) news -- "What are you going to do about it?". The answer to this question should be provided by you without request if the problem is big. Remember the often quoted definition of insanity: Doing the same thing, but expecting something different to happen.
  3. Package your bad news in a "bad news sandwich". Do this by taking the two best pieces of news you have, and placing them before and after your bad news. Sure, it won't nullify the bad, but at least it leaves the impression that everything isn't going down the tubes at once.
  4. Don't make people drag bad news out of you -- volunteer it up front. Senior people will quickly draw the conclusion that you can't be trusted if you repeatedly make them dig for problems. Show that you are perceptive enough to recognize what's important.
  5. Don't pile on. Don't reveal your bad news as just one more problem in a seemingly endless series of problems (yours or others). You don't want your bit of bad news to be the thing that "breaks the camel's back". That will almost certainly have deep and unpredictable repercussions.
The bottom line is bad news is just...bad. There's a limited amount you can do to package it prettily or deflect the damage it causes. Perhaps the best thing you can do to manage the effects, is to limit the risks you take so that a limited amount of bad news comes your way.

One tactic for managing bad news that works extremely well is scapegoating, but that's an advanced tactic, and beyond the bounds of what neutrals will normally engage in. By using scapegoating, you don't reduce the impact of bad news, you simply deflect it onto someone else. Good scapegoaters will set it up that way, always keeping a buffer between themselves and their risks. This tactic will be described in more detail in a future post.