Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Resolution For 2009: Lose Your Job

The end of a year is when we tend to reflect on the recent past and make some of our most ambitious plans for year ahead. Paths not taken are re-explored. Lists are drawn up. Priorities are set. Alcohol is consumed. (Note: Proper sequencing of the aforementioned has a direct impact on the results.)

Unfortunately, the beginning of the New Year is often a time of disappointment. We frequently fall short of our lofty and hastily assembled goals, sometimes before the dawn’s ugly light of January 2nd (but I digress).

By many accounts, 2008 is a year that many of us would like to forget. The world (and certainly the United States) is rapidly moving past economic recession into a depression (not just another great depression, but an awesome depression). If you haven’t been paying attention to the banking and economic crises of the past 12-18 months because “it doesn’t affect me”, you’re in for a nasty wake-up call in 2009. Unless you’re independently self-sufficient in everything that you do, the dependencies you have on your job, your community, and your ecosystems are going to be shaken to their core.

At the end of 2008, you’re in one of two camps: Those who still have a job, and those who joined the growing ranks of the unemployed. I want to address the second group first. You have my deepest empathy. I’ve been where you are several times in my careers, and it is one of the most debilitating and terrifying challenges life can throw at you in a free society. In 2009, I’m going to share with you some thoughts and resources that hopefully can aid you in your hunt for new employment.

The remainder of this article directed at the first group, but it is by no means exclusive to you.

2008 has given you a tremendous gift – the gift of working on borrowed time. You don’t have an excuse for being satisfied with the status quo of doing your same job every day. Doing only what your management asks, hitting only the metrics they give you, being satisfied just with satisfactory performance are sure ways to go unnoticed by people you infrequently speak with – those who ultimately decide whether or not you stay employed with your current company.

We’re all human beings (yes, lawyers too) and we all share a similar response mechanism to perceived or real threats – fight or flight. In economic downturns, traditionally (bad) advice to employment threats is to keep your nose to the grindstone (ouch!) and just keep doing your job. That strategy is particularly bad in today’s downturn, both for you, and your company. Hunkering down and hoping that the bean counters won’t notice you not only efficiently gets you into the layoff queue - it enables your company to make spectacularly horrid mistakes by severing talent and skills they never knew they had, and ironically will hire someone else to do the exact same job when the tides turn.

Corporate myopia doesn’t discriminate between large and small businesses. You may be the best widget maker or most effective manager in your department, but that doesn’t matter when your company’s business plans become obsolete overnight. When that happens in 2009 (if it hasn’t already) you’ll face a real possibility of being declared redundant, unless you’ve anticipated this situation and taken steps to prevent it.

The secret to effective career management (as well as to staying gainfully employed) is to lose your job. No, I don’t mean quit, or become unemployed. I mean, lose the idea of your individual identity in a company as being just a cog in the machine. If you objectify what you do as nothing but a job, i.e. tasks to check off on a list, you will only be seen as an object in times of poor business performance. Business, by definition, is impersonal. If you personally take responsibility for the growth of your performance, and its relationship to the growth of your company, you will create paths and opportunities for both yourself, and your company which will have directly measurable impacts to revenue.

I learned this very real lesson with my current employer in my third month on the job (to date, I’ve worked here for over six years). Soon after I was hired, new management was brought in by the board of directors to take the company in a completely different direction. All assets (products, resources) were examined closely as the new business plans were drawn up. The CEO interviewed all employees one by one, and when he came to me, we had a short interview, and gave me a very honest appraisal.

“Frankly, I don’t know what you do.”

I had just landed this job after having previously been out of work for nine months. To say my CEO’s appraisal of me didn’t sit well was an understatement. But, I took this as an opportunity to demonstrate to him, and myself, just what I did do. Failure was already built in, so anything that I did and demonstrated on some level didn’t matter, because I had already accepted that I had lost my job – the paychecks that kept coming were simply borrowed time.

What I lost then, and continue to lose to this day, you should as well - especially in the uncharted economic waters ahead.

  • Lose the idea that your employment is secure, even if you’re a top performer and your management has told you so. Expect the unexpected, like losing your employment tomorrow. Yes, this is a death experience. Die, mourn, pick up the pieces, and move on.

  • Lose the notion that life is fair, or that rules can’t change in a heartbeat. Whining is not a path to promotion (except in national politics).

  • Lose the idea that anyone else has your interests at heart more than you do.

  • Lose the crutch of hope. As Jim Cramer says, “Hope is not an investment strategy”. If your action plan for 2009 is to hope that things get better…hoo boy.

  • Lose the idea that problems that affect your day to day tasks are someone else’s problems to worry about, even if they are. A problem that affects your performance is an opportunity for you to excel and help get that problem solved. Never stop looking for ways to improve yourself or your company.

  • Lose the fear that comes with facing a loss of your livelihood. This is hard, but it is an essential skill to master before you need it. Fear engenders paralysis, and paralysis means someone else will have more control of your performance, and your fate.

  • Lose the complacency about being measured by metrics that you haven’t had a direct hand in shaping or discussing with your management. If you don't know how you're being measured, you risk working towards irrelevant goals. If you do know how you're being measured, and the metrics are inadequate, work with your management to change the metrics. The process will benefit both you, and your company.

  • Lose ignoring your potential as a brand. Excellence speaks for itself, and often it carries a name. Focus on continually excelling beyond your limits, and you’ll develop personal and professional brand value.

  • Lose the idea that you can’t make a direct impact to your company’s products, services, and revenue.

  • Lose any lack of passion about what you do, even if you’re doing “what ya gotta do”. If you’re just punching a clock so that in 30 years you won’t have to, you’ve got much bigger problems than I can address here.

If you can’t see yourself doing any of what I’ve outlined with your current employer, then all I can give you is a consolation prize – the knowledge that you need to move on. In this environment, that’s difficult, but you should still take the ideas I’ve outlined as benefits that you would expect to be able to bring to a new employer, and be prepared to speak to them as you interview.

Above all, as you make your resolutions for 2009, make one additional (sober) resolution:

Don’t Panic.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Wintry Potpourri

The deepest aspect of this article is likely to be the seven inches of snow that's fallen outside my window. A typical New England storm has moved through to make room for an even larger storm later this weekend. The roads are nearly impassable, but as a familiar song of the season slurs (at least Dean's rendition of it), I've really no place to go.

A lot of topics that I'd would have liked to write about here have surfaced since I talked turkey last month. However, I find that as the end of this year approaches, I want to clear the decks to make room for what's to come in 2009. So I thought I'd take a break from writing a larger article, and instead share some brief insights on things that have caught my attention over the last few weeks.

Innovating In A Recession

It is probably safe to say that 2008 has been a recessionary year for most, and 2009 promises to be even more challenging. During the Great Depression, a few companies managed to thrive. Their secret was simple. They identified ways to create and deliver value.

Chuck Frey of InnovationTools and Renee Hopkins Callahan of Innosight recently contacted a diverse collection of innovation experts and practitioners to learn more about the strategies they recommend for maintaining innovation during these challenging times. I was surprised and honored that an excerpt from one of my recent articles here at Thirty Minutes From Andromeda was included in their report, "Innovation Strategies for the Global Recession". My colleague Jim Todhunter, over at Innovating to Win, was also included in this report.

Recent Passings

Innovation is a technical and creative form of expression, usually a longing for something better, often of a goal that seems unattainable. I have found that for some of the most inventive minds, science-fiction has been an early source of inspiration, creating dreamers that transform into doers. It personally has played a role in my own career paths. So it is with sadness that I note the passing of two important figures in 20th century science-fiction.

Majel Barrett Roddenberry passed away this week from complications of leukemia. She was well known as the "first lady of Star Trek", having been involved with every production of the most recognized franchise in genre entertainment. Recently, she just finished voicing her familiar role as the computer of the famed U.S.S. Enterprise in J.J. Abrams' blockbuster restart of the franchise, due in theaters next May.

Forrest J. Ackerman (Uncle Forry, to those of us who knew him) was one of First Fandom's beloved members. He was responsible for coining the phrase "sci-fi" as a pun on the popular "Hi-Fi" home entertainment center in the 1950's. He discovered and represented giants of the genre including Ray Bradbury. Long before the commodity of social media, Forry published magazines and books that helped connect hundreds of thousands of fans and professionals in their love of the future, the fantastic, and the unknown. He was also one of the kindest and biggest hearts that you could ever meet. I was personally very fortunate come to know him through the 1990's, and last saw him in 2006 in Los Angeles. Forry's passing represents the end of an era, but not the end of his influence.

Notable Blogs

I started this blog as an experiment. One thing I learned very quickly is that there are more bloggers in the world with more talent than I could ever hope to have (or keep up with) who have some very thought provoking things to say. Recently, I've recently discovered several blogs which appeal to my professional and ecclectic interests that are very much worth sharing. I encourage you to check them out.
  • Lateral Action - Thought proking articles on creativity, productivity, problem solving and innovation.
  • Zero Punctuation - While technically not a blog, this video website contains the most essential element of electronic game review: a misanthropic British pop-culture slave displaced to Australia with an unnaturally developed sense of abuse and sarcasm, and command of the $#%&ing English language.
  • The Market Ticker - I follow a fair number of economic and financial blogs as best I can (certainly not enough as I should). Karl Denninger pulls no punches and doesn't waffle around when it comes to looking at the macro-economic catastrophe we are in, and all of its consequences.

I'll be returning to writing more focused articles shortly, including: the conclusion of my "Why Johnny Can't Innovate" series; a recommended reading list for 2009; and some new insights into the innovation initiatives of the Obama administration.