Sunday, November 30, 2008

10,000 hours

Malcolm Gladwell just released a new book, Outliers. He takes a look at the lives, circumstances, and personality traits of remarkably successful, productive people who make a significant impact in the world. One point that I found particularly interesting is his views on intelligence and diligence.

A certain level of intelligence and education gets an individual to a certain degree of success. However, to get any further, it's actually diligence that carries them. Specifically 10,000 hours of diligence in our chosen field is absolutely necessary if we wish to make a significant impact there. Now, just putting in the hours toiling away in a cube is not a sure-fire plan. You still need that degree of intelligence, and 10,000 hours in the minimum investment necessary.

This particular stat caught my interest because I, like many in my generation, am a job hopper. I have been blessed to have discovered one good opportunity after another in very quick succession. I see a greener pasture and I go for it. That's not to say that every move was a marvelous idea. Most were, though there were some duds to. What is true is that they have all been critical component of a very interesting path that I built for myself.

Now I have a job in a field that utilizes all of the skills I amassed through a variety of different jobs. All the time I put in at my other positions provided the experience to get me to this place, but my accumulation of those 10,000 hours began only recently. Perhaps without knowing it, Malcolm Gladwell made a very profound statement directly to my generation. "Hop around to find your passion. That's fine. But once you find that passion it takes staying power to make it to the top of the heap." Wise counsel, intended or not, and I'm very grateful to him for it.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Leaving sales on the table

Two girls shot in a California Toys R Us; a temporary employee, likely someone who needed the extra money in this economy, trampled to death in a Wal-Mart. All this after a raucous crowd ripped the doors off of the hinges. I was saddened and shocked to read this news late last night, particularly because I spent last Black Friday working in a retail store. Is that $130 Blu-Ray player worth violence? Does anyone on my list need a Nintendo DS so badly that I should literally risk life and limb to get it at as deep a discount as possible?

We could say that people in general need to calm down when it comes to holiday shopping. Perhaps suggesting that they act like humans instead of wild animals on the hunt. Then I took a stroll through the Wednesday and Thanksgiving papers that were filled with circulars. I reconsidered all of the television and internet advertising I've seen in the past few weeks, compounded by the many newspaper articles that have trumpeted Black Friday sales as the only time of year when you can get a real deal. Is it any wonder that frenzy ensues?

I understand that retailers are hurting and need the business. I understand that our economy needs a boost from consumer spending this holiday season. The only thing that is going to prevent this kind of violence happening year after year on the day after Thanksgiving is pull-back by retailers. This Black Friday is a man-made holiday, and it needs a man-made solution. Drive more sales to on-line rather than in-store. Learn how to spread yours sales across a season rather than across the hours of 5am - 11am on one day. And for heaven's sake order enough inventory to fulfill at least a majority of the demand. Work with the suppliers beforehand, long beforehand, and do a proper forecasting model. This scarcity as strategy model is obscene, and it's literally killing people.

This season I'll be staying away from stores for the majority of the holiday season, as much as possible. I might pop in at some lull periods just to soak up some ambiance. I'll be doing my spending right here in front of my laptop. In my efforts to cultivate peace on Earth this holiday, it seems that our retailers are not the place to be.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thankful

Now that the food and travel of Thanksgiving have passed, I'm spending the morning eating leftover pie, drinking coffee, leafing through retail sales circulars, and considering all the things I am thankful for. Friends and family go without saying. This has been quite a year to date so items are making the list that have rarely if ever been on the list before:

My job - despite the normal frustrations that come with every job, I am especially grateful for my current position because the day-to-day tasks and the big picture view get me up out of bed every morning. I'm learning this is a rare blessing.

A place to call home - my friend, Monika among many other people close to me, are quite shocked that I have lived at one physical address for longer than a year. That hasn't happened since 1998. Ten years of moving at least once a year. Good grief. And now I am finally in a city that is comfortable and feels like home. I feel a sense of ownership and belonging that I haven't found before in my life. The stability of that sends waves of peace into my life that I have not had before.

Interesting times at a young age - the economy, politics, social activism. We are living in unprecedented conditions and if we can push aside the sense of uncertainty that invades our lives regularly, it is truly a spectacular opportunity for learning. To have this privilege so early on in my life and career is a tremendous gift that will inform many decisions I will make in the year to come.

The opportunity that lies ahead - we may look out into the world at the moment and see a very bleak picture. Though hidden within the folds of that bleak cover, there are wrinkles and pockets of opportunity. Going forward, there will be incentives for us to start businesses, to become a society of savers rather than spenders, to take up the call to protect the environment, and to build better transportation systems in our cities that will benefit generations to come. The good times will roll again, though in different, and dare I say better, forms that before.

In business school, Frank Warnock was one of my economics professors. Frank developed his expertise in international capital flows as a Senior Economist in the International Finance Division at the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System in Washington, DC. And whenever we reviewed cases or economic situations that were troubling, he would always say, "You have to be hopeful. What's the alternative?" Those words ring truer today than ever before. And for hope, and the people who remind me of its value, I am most thankful.

Monday, November 24, 2008

DSY: Development School for Youth

A contact from a recent networking event invited me to a graduation tonight. The graduates had just finished the All-Stars program as part of DSY: Development School for Youth. The group helps at-risk youth see and experience greater value for learning through performance-based education. You've heard this all before right? Get them to stay in school, off the streets, value and respect their educational opportunities, get them mentors, etc. etc. Originally, I urned down the invitation, but my networking contact wouldn't take no for an answer so I got myself together and headed downtown. I thought I knew what I was in for. I've sat through a myriad of these types of events, and I tell you, this one is different and special and worthy of your attention and mine. 

First, they treat kids as whole people. Get their creativity going, teach them to respect others and their communities, get them to see opportunity even if it isn't apparent on their street corner of their neighborhood. 

Second, the articulation and passion that these kids have is nothing short of miraculous. These are kids that were in gangs, school drop-outs, drug users. They've seen friends and family fall prey to those streets. It would be easy, and understandable, to watch them go down the same route. Instead, they are choosing a different way and they are expressing themselves through performance. Their blatant honesty and poise would put some corporate executives to shame. 

The third piece that I love about the program is that participants are set up with an internship as a capstone. They earn money and understand that getting up and getting to work everyday can be a rewarding, gratifying experience. They have mentors and coaches - people who care and are invested in their success. And that personal investment of time is making a difference. You can, too, at http://www.allstars.org/programs/dsy.html.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Raisinets and apple juice

Sometimes my curiosity has hindered my life - just when I get going in one direction, any directions, I spot something else out of the corner of my eye and dart off to check it out. Some call this a lack of commitment or ADHD. I call it an uncontrollable commitment to learning. So match this up with my occasional insomnia and love of working very hard, and I get myself caught up in some very...interesting...adventures. 

This week, I launched a very large project which I will be advertising once it officially goes live and makes it past the test hurdles. I've been zig-zagging up and down the east coast this week, knocking down hurdles with my 2-ton bat. At one point, I made the mistake of calculating how many hours I had been awake: 39.5. Scary...but worth it in the end. 

I was in the Philly airport dining on a sumptuous dinner of Raisinets and apple juice. I was so exhausted that I could barely sit down - sounds counter-intuitive, though think of it as the jitters from too much adrenaline pumping through your system for too long. The thought of a full meal was making me a little queasy. So I opted for my beverage and candy of choice. Just enough to re-fuel and sending me packing off on another business trip, while I was only midway through my travels from the previous trip. 
  
Prior to my "Dinner of Warriors" as my friend, Stephen, called it, I just didn't think I could do any more. I was so worn out and frustrated and disappointed. All I needed to do was take a deep breathe and re-evaluate. And that re-evaluation helped me take the long view. Did this suck a little bit right now, canceling all my personal plans for the week, eating candy for dinner, and living in the same clothes for several days as I got sent off in every which direction to keep the wheels on the bus that is my product launch? Sure. But I have a little secret - I kind of like the rush and the excitement of churn and the unknown. It's when I feel most alive. And this tough economy, it's not such a bad trait to have. And today when I advocated for the product to launch and received the green light, it was worth it. Well worth it. 

So now that I am back and cozy in my New York apartment, smiling and on my way out for a celebratory drink with my friend, Cindy, I know if need be, I'll do it all over again. And my guess is that the need will indeed exist in the not-so-distant future. Next time, I'll remember a change of clothes and a toothbrush. There may be a lot of Raisinets and apple juice in my future.   

Monday, November 17, 2008

Ask not what your company can do for you...

I was talking with a friend of mine from school today about, what else, the economy. We have big dreams - things to do, people to see, places to go. We were movin' on up....until our economy tanked. Now we're happy to just be employed. We talked about the morale in our respective offices. The morale of my team is going okay - his is not quite so good. I asked him how he felt about his future at the company and he gave me a wholly unexpected response. 

"In times like this, it's better to think of what I can do for the company rather than think about what the company can do for me," he said. "Who would you want to have around?: someone who's always looking out for #1 or someone who's looking out for everyone around him." Good point.

In times like this when there is a lot of panic and anxiety, it's only natural to think of ourselves and our own survival. As it turns out, the best way to survive is to look out for others, to connect with others, to support others in their pursuits. Think about it from another viewpoint - in tough times it would be easy for companies to just focus on their own survival. The truly innovative companies are finding their salvation in premium customer service - if they take care of customers now, when times are tough, those customers will remember them when the good times start to roll again. And they will roll again, no matter how bad it is now. Taking the long-view is critical to success years down the road. You've got to be willing to hang in there for the long haul. It's no accident that the first for letters of "career" spell "care." And that's what businesses need right - people who honestly, deeply care about the present and the future. 

It's like friendship, it's like love. Tom Stoppard said, "It's easy to love someone at their best. Love is loving someone at their worst." When we're down and out, we find out who really cares about us because those are the ones that stick around and help us pick up the pieces. It's true in relationships and it's true for businesses, too. Both need tending and nurturing, now more than ever.      

Sunday, November 16, 2008

John Adams

I don't have HBO and missed out on the showing of John Adams. I read parts of the book by David McCullough when I was in business school. I took a class, on the Lawn, about Thomas Jefferson. Being a great Jefferson friend, then adversary, then friend again, John Adams had to be included. 

The HBO film and book bring to light the frightening prospect that Americans faced upon declaring their independence. We take this for granted today -- of course we are free and independent. The film drives home a visual image of the frightening times that led up to, through, and after the Revolution. They took a "leap in the dark" as Adams said to Jefferson. You get a feeling for the contentious, volatile, and passionate personalities. And it's a good education in politics and negotiation. 

Ben Franklin had two quotes in the second part that effected me so much that I paused the DVD to write them down: "Politics is the art of the possible" and "Diplomacy is seduction in another guise. One improves with practice." I think about these two quotes in light of our recent elections. How President Obama focused on the possible - how he ignited people's sense of hope with that idea - and how elegantly and patiently he played out his hand. He was the unlikeliest of candidates, by his own admission. There must have been times that he was uncertain, even scared or nervous. I imagine there must have been times when he would step back, breathe, and take another step forward. I am envy this kind of patience, and I am working on it as an area of development.

In John Adams, we see that Adams had no patience. H wanted to act swiftly and without hesitation. And he nearly missed the very allies he was looking for, even though they were standing right in front of him - the gentlemen from Virginia: Washington and Jefferson, one who would lead the battle by sword and the other by his pen. They also had this reverence for patience and humility. They had the same goals as Adams - an independent republic and governance by the people; they just went about achieving them in different ways.

The movie also makes it clear that each player has his part and I was left wondering if we'd have this nation today at all if any of those personalities had not been present. It made me re-consider the frustrations I have sometimes felt on group projects and it gave me greater perspective and appreciation for people I have sometimes terms "difficult". Maybe we all need a John Adams in our lives to help us to value and take decisive actions when the opportunities arise. And maybe we also need a Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson to teach us the value of diplomacy in getting what we want and to help us believe in the art of the possible. Most of all the film makes the case for a group of close advisers, no matter what path we take in life.       

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Zakkerz: women of New York, save your pants

A professor at my business school teaches a new product development class and her first set of advice to her students is, "if you want to create a new product, think about what gives you pain in your life. And then find a way to solve it." Chances are if it's causing you pain, it's causing others pain, too. The ladies who invented Zakkerz did just that.

It's a simple product: a pair of strong magnets wrapped at opposite ends of a piece of fabric used to hold pant cuffs in place. "Who needs that?" you may be wondering. Every working woman in New York City, and every other city in this country where commuting to work by public transportation is necessary. I recently gave up a job in New Jersey and the associated commute by car, to work downtown and commute by subway. Great for my quality of life, bad for the hems of my pants. I put on my sneakers or my Privos to get to work - problem is my pants are hemmed for heels. Enter Zakkerz. I cuff my pants, snap on a set of Zakkerz per pant leg, and off I go. 

I just had dinner with some girlfriends having this same exact problem I was having, and recommended the product to them. So simple, and yet so ingenious. It's products like this that make me wonder, "now why didn't I think of that?" I'm glad someone did.  

Get a pair for yourself, available in a variety of colors, at http://www.zakkerz.com/index.html

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Muppets are Taking Back Manhattan

When I went out to Los Angles to call on Disney in June, I spent some time in the archives digging through old Muppet memorabilia. Like a kid in a candy store, I sat for a few hours with those materials wondering why in the world the brand has been dormant for so long. I grew up on the Muppet Show -- I think at my very young age, it was a large influence on my interest in theatre that led to my career in the industry two decades later. I loved the idea that an audience could we watching a show on stage and then having an entirely different drama unfolding in the wings. I was entranced by the idea of illusion. As I sat in the archive I wondered, aloud and to myself, why on Earth Disney had let the brand go dead. As it turns out, ideas, big ideas, were brewing. 

My buddy, Dan, and I wondered in to FAO Schwarz a few weeks ago. As Dan sang the Muppet theme going down the escalator (and received spontaneous public applause, thank you very much), we rounded the corner to find "The Muppet Whatnot Workshop", a make-your-own Muppet boutique. Choose the color, eyes, nose, hair, and clothes. You name it, you can make it. It's a clever twist on the make your own trend tied to a beloved brand that is seeing a resurgence. You can also design and purchase on-line at http://www.fao.com/catalog/factories/muppets.jsp# (As an aside, FAO Schwarz will open toy boutiques at 200 locations inside of Macy's stores across the country for the holiday season. It will be interesting to see what kind of merchandise they choose to stock and how they will set up these stores.)

In other Muppet news, there is a new movie that will be released in 2009 featuring our Muppet pals. Details about the film are few and far between. Jason Segel of Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall fame is the lead writer. And in my limited research findings I stumbled upon a blog that tracks the latest Jim Henson News - "The Muppet Newsflash" - that has some information on the picture. 

In addition, the Muppets will be taking over the set of the Today Show (NBC) tomorrow morning, November 13th, for 30 minutes during the 8:00am hour. It might just be the best day Matt Lauer's ever had at work. And with all the depressing news about the economy these days, we could all use a little Muppet humor. So grab your morning coffee, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.   

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

October 14, 2001

Several months ago, I submitted a story to Real Simple Magazine to answer the question, "Tell us about one of the most important days of your life in 1500 words or less." I'm sure a lot of people wrote about their wedding day, or their kids bring born, a graduation. I wrote about the marathon I ran in in Chicago in 2001, a month after September 11th. I was on the eve of losing my job and was heart-broken that my city had been violated so terribly. I was angry, confused, and scared. For that month after the attack, I felt alone. The Chicago marathon changed some of those feelings for me, and as it turns out it was one of the most poignant moments of my life. Here's the story:

"In the summer of 2001, I was in Toronto on the Broadway tour of The Full Monty. I was the first person hired full-time for the tour and we had grand plans. I had been working so much that I had neglected my workout schedule and decided a big goal would help me to recommit. In the Fall the tour would be traveling to Chicago, and the Chicago marathon would be in the middle of our run.

I was a cross-country runner in high school and always interested in running a marathon. Chicago was a perfect opportunity! I recruited my friend, Mark, the drummer on the show, to run with me. He wanted to get in better shape, too, and agreed to go the distance with me. I purchased a training book that laid out an ambitious but doable schedule for us and we were off.

Long runs, short runs, speed workouts, stretching, improved eating habits. Mark was with me every step of the way, everyday, with his cheery attitude and lovely British accent. There was no way I could have gotten through the experience without him. Training in Toronto was a magical time in my life because I felt like I was regaining my sense of self. It was easy to get lost in my work, and I needed to rediscover who I was and where my life was going. This training helped me do that.

Before Chicago, we had a brief hiatus and I returned to New York City for a few weeks. I did a few touristy things I had always wanted to do. On September 7th, I ventured to the World Trade Center and had a look around. I had never been to that neighborhood before. There wasn't anything particularly remarkable about that afternoon. I remember that it was a long, beautiful walk along the Battery. I do remember looking out over the water and feeling lucky to be there. I looked forward to coming back to New York when the tour was over.

I left for Chicago on September 9th. Mark and I were getting into top physical shape, and were glad to be reunited to finish our training in Chicago. And then September 11th happened. My brother left me a message that morning, panicked that I was in New York. I figured he heard about some kind of crime in the city on the news. I dismissed his concern as nothing more than his overprotective nature and sense of exaggeration. I tried to call him back and his cell number was busy. Odd. I tried to call my mom. Busy. Was the entire AT&T network down?

I walked to work that morning, winding my way through the theatre district in Chicago. A beautiful day. I had never been to Chicago before and was entranced by it. This was going to be a great run for us. I stopped in at the Corner Bakery to get a coffee and a danish. Could life be any better? Then I got to work.

My boss was frantically searching on the internet, listening to NPR. The office phone was ringing off the hook.

"What's going on?" I asked.

"Two planes flew into the World Trade Center."

"By accident?" I asked.

"I don't think so," he replied.

And then everything was different.

My beautiful city, the very area I had been only days before, was in chaos. We worked all day, talking with our producers, easing the fears of our company members, and trying to calm our own fears. Finally, they closed the Loop in Chicago, and we were forced to leave the theatre.

I went to visit my friends and finally saw so many of the pictures that people had been watching all day. It was even more devastating than I had imagined. I went to bed that night thinking that our nation would never be the same, that all these years I had taken our safety for granted. I was right on both counts.

Within a month, our show announced its closing and we lost our jobs. The bottom fell out of the theatre industry. But before closing down, Mark and I ran the marathon. On Saturday, October 14th, we arrived at the starting line at 6am. We dropped off our valuables at check-in and got our numbers. We had trained hard in the final weeks – running was the only time of day I felt useful. Still, I was worried that we weren’t ready. Maybe we wouldn’t be able to finish. Maybe there was just no point to anything anymore.

We lined up, the gun went off, and slowly we wound our way through the neighborhoods of Chicago. The morning was sunny, the temperature perfect. A few miles in, I found that for the first time in a month, I noticed the sunshine, and felt warm. Mark and I stopped at every water and food station to keep our energy up.

What struck me the most about that race was the generosity of the crowd lining the entire route. I hadn’t expected that. They had orange slices and popcorn, cowbells and signs to cheer us on. That crowd made me believe in the goodness of the world, in our ability to reaffirm life. 

17 miles in, my knees began to ache terribly. “Come on, Love. We can do this,” Mark said. With that vote of confidence, he gave me a Tylenol. My knee pain was gone in minutes since my blood had been pumping strong for over two hours. Mentally, I was still feeling rattled. And then Mark did something that will make me love him forever. Mark asked me, “How did you start running?”

No one had ever asked me that before. Truth was, I started running to run away from my life. My dad was sick for most of my childhood and during my teen years, the situation in my home grew dire. I suffered from insomnia, and found that long-distance running would tire me out enough to sleep peacefully for a few hours. When I was racing, I knew my family was proud of me. I also thought if I could get good enough, I might be able to go to college on a partial scholarship. There was no money in my family to send me to college.

In my junior year of high school, I sustained a terrible injury that knocked me out for the season. I was devastated. I felt broken. I had a hard time walking for a number of months and began to run on my injured foot too soon, re-injuring it. A few months later, my father passed away after a long illness. While there was more peace in the house after his passing, it was an uncomfortable silence. That spring, I ran to forget, to hide. I didn’t care if I won any event. I just wanted to exhaust myself.

After that injury, I had the goal of someday running a marathon to pay tribute to my family for having lived through a difficult time. So this was it. This marathon was for my family. And if I could make it 26.2 miles, I’d believe that finally my body and my spirit were no longer broken.

Mark was quiet the whole time. I thought he might be bored with my droning. Turns out he was just a very good listener. “I’m sure that today your dad’s proud of you,” Mark said. And I believed him.

At the 26-mile mark, the finish line was in sight. There were banners flying high, and masses of people cheering. I felt like I was flying. At that point, Mark and I had to split because they timed men and women separately. We’d reunite at the end of the race. I smiled so wide crossing that finish line that I thought my face might crack. I lost all sense of exhaustion and burden. Mark and I made it – 26.2 miles in less than four and a half hours, step by step, together.

That day, I learned more about the world than any other day before or since. I developed a special fondness for Chicago – I felt that the crowd who came out that day breathed new life into me at a time when I felt very hollow and alone. That crowd helped me to refocus on the generosity and commitment of people to a community. Despite a dark set of circumstances facing all of us, we could rediscover happiness and enlightenment and move forward. I learned that true friendship carries us in the most trying times. I’m forever indebted to Mark for his positive attitude and belief in me. Almost 10 years after my dad’s passing, I lived up to the promise to honor my family. I raced toward sunshine, and found it. And I have been alight ever since. "

The photo above can be found at: http://riseupomenofgod.files.wordpress.com/2007/05/running-man.jpg

Monday, November 10, 2008

A victory for generalists

Change at a fast pace can be disconcerting. 2 years ago, I was in the middle of my second (and last) year of graduate school. I knew I'd be doing an off-grounds job search, and my only criteria for my next employer was that I be treated with respect and be in New York City. Beyond that, the options were endless. I was grateful for a (seemingly) strong economy that allowed me to take my time to find the right match.

I was exploring a myriad of options, networking with alum in all stages of their careers and in different industries. I was explaining to one of my career counselors that I really enjoyed having a job where I wore a number of different hats. He looked at me quizzically. He is one of those people who really prefers to file people into neat little boxes. Needless-to-say, I cannot be confined to a neat little box of any kind when it comes to my career. (Mind you, this career counselor convinced the majority of my classmates to become investment bankers and management consultants and we see how that story's gone in the last few months...) After I explained my varied work experience to him and employment possibilities I was considering he said to me, "Well, Christa, eventually we all have to decide what we want to be when we grow up. We can't stay generalists forever." Little did he, or I, know that being a generalist is just about the best thing I could be in the job market that would exist 2 years later. 

I walked away feeling a little badly about myself and my life. Maybe I was aimless; maybe I was like one of those little kids raiding her mother's closet and wearing grown-up clothes that are 5 sizes too big. I was masquerading as a grown-up, with no intention of actually ever growing up. I am happy with my own special brand of optimistic realism. Fittingly, I went to work for a toy company right after graduation whose motto is, "I don't want a grow up. I'm a ...." You get the idea. I found my place in the world being exactly who I am.

Surprisingly to that career counselor of mine, though no to me, being a generalist is what is savings me (furiously knocking on wood) right now in this economy. My broad-based experience is allowing me to play many different roles on one stage - I can do whatever task needs to be done at the time it needs to be done. And that's true of many people I work with. It also happens to be true of President-elect Obama - his broad-based experience allowed him to speak genuinely to people from many different walks of life. His honesty, humility, and ability to emotionally connect with so many people and bring them together played a large part in his victory. It also helps that he's brilliant, confident, and capable. He is a generalist at heart. 

This week, my Penn alumni magazine ran an article by President Amy Guttman entitled "A Pitch for the Uncharted Path" that described her speech at this year's convocation. Like me, she meandered across a whole host of disciplines as an undergraduate, stopping to inspect anything and everything that interested her. And now she is Penn's President, a job that could only be filled by a infinitely-curious generalist. She encouraged the newly matriculated class to be open to the possibilities that will be set before them in the coming four years. Being a person who has wanted to be everything from a champion dog breeder to an astronaut, I whole-heartedly agree. 

Our world is complex, and to get into the thick of it and make a positive impact, we have to appreciate every shred of that complexity. The best way to gain that appreciation is to live our lives in many different directions, on many different planes. Yes, this is a time that "a genius wants to live." And it wouldn't hurt if that genius also moonlighted as a generalist. 

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A time for geniuses

Traditionally, grade A educations have been more prevalent in elite, affluent circles. But the tide may be turning on that trend - Obama could do for high-quality education what Target did for design. He could make it desired by, and possible for, all.

This past week I had lunch one day with a group of people I don't know well. We were discussing the election and one of my lunch companions said, "Who would ever want to be President at a time like this?" This morning, I was watching Meet the Press. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Presidential historian and author of Team of Rivals, quoted Abigail Adams when asked about how Obama will govern with all of the problems he is facing. "These are times that a genius wants to live." If only I had access to that quote during my lunch. 

And the same could be said of anyone who runs any kind of team, any kind of company. The challenge, the fun is rolling up our sleeves when things are messy and in disarray and setting them straight again. It's in the churn that we find our new direction. Abigail Adams was right -- this is a time that a genius wants to live. And I would add, it is also a time when a genius wants to lead. Thank goodness we had the sense and foresight to elect one.      

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Rise up and reach down

Last week I heard Ursula Burns, President of Xerox, speak. Like President Obama, she calls herself an unlikely candidate to the President of a company like Xerox. She was raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, went to school at Brooklyn Poly, and has never accomplished a single thing on the life to-do list she created as a young student. What she has done is become a shining example of achievement and the use of adversity as a tool for advancement rather than an excuse for set-backs.

Of all the topics she discussed with us this week, there is one quote that stands out in my mind. Like me, she is a fan of author Anna Quindlen. She heard Quindlen speak a few years ago and reminds herself of Quindlen's favorite quote that she uses to close every talk. When asked about her motto in life, Quindlen says, "Rise up and reach down." Strive to get ahead, and take others with you.

In these times when so many people are concerned about their jobs, their financial stability, and their future prospects for success, it can be tough to imagine rising up. At the moment, they're just trying to tread water. But rising up can mean something more than just advancing our careers. Rising up is what we did on Tuesday - regardless of the candidates we voted for, simply going out to vote is a form of rising up. Going to the leadership at our companies with innovative ideas to save on costs, delight and support customers, or diversify our offerings - that's rising up, too. Speaking out, getting involved, lending our time, funding, and support in our communities - that is rising up.

There is something to be said for being part of a rising tide that lifts all boats. If I am successful, that is a win for every demographic that I belong to: women, Generation X, people who put themselves through school, my alma maters (Penn and UVA). Ursula Burns calls it "winning because of everything I am, not in spite of it. My race, my gender, my demographics are certainly involved in how successful I am because they make me who I am."

Barack Obama's victory on Tuesday was a victory for community organizers, Democrats, blacks, those of mixed races, youth, social media users, those who value and exhibit eloquence, people who seek to educate themselves to improve their lots in life. Everything that he is, "a mutt" as he called himself yesterday in his first press conference since his win on Tuesday, made his victory possible. And with his signature humility and ability to unite people from every walk of life, he took us with him. He exemplifies Quindlen's and Burns's ideal of rising up and reaching down. We would all do well to live by this example.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Transforming a cage into a net

I heard Lauren Zalaznick, the President of Bravo, speak several weeks ago and she drew a metaphor that I have been thinking about ever since. She is a marketing guru and someone who has lived through and thrived in hard times. 

NBC Universal (and that company includes Bravo) belongs to the giant conglomerate that is GE. And as the result of being part of a very large company within a very large empire, there are lots of rules and regulations, a.k.a. guardrails. But rather that seeing those rules as a cage, she encourages her team to see those as a net, a safety net. We have to find ways to use them to our advantage rather than feeling suffocated and down-trodden by them. This is not easy, particularly for people like me - self-professed critics of authority who enjoy small non-conventional environments. Lauren Zalaznick has been incredibly successful at turning around Bravo, despite the many rules set by NBC and compounded by entirely different rules set by GE. Clearly, she's found a way to make it work, and I'd like to do the same. 

Here are ways that I've been using rules to my advantage, to build a net from what was formerly a cage:

It's a matter of perspective - simply imaging the rules as a safety net rather than a cage has helped me to appreciate and respect them. 

It's all good learning - I have recognized that rules and regulations are put in place for a reason, so before I get frustrated with a rule, I consider in what situations it can be helpful and necessary. And this has led me to be more grateful for, rather than resentful of, those rules. 

Transformation is led from the inside out: if you want to change the rules, you have to first learn them and use them. I am supremely interested in constant improvement, transformation, and change. And if I am ever going to make an impact on a large company, I will have to do it from the inside. This means learning the rules, and then figuring out how to improve and mold them to function exceptionally well. 

I'm not saying this new way of thinking is easy. I still get frustrated, sometimes daily, by the rules. But when I do get frustrated, following these three lines of thought helps me work through the frustration, and turns that frustration into a tool rather than a roadblock. 

Thursday, November 6, 2008

When failure leads to friendship

I have a long list of subjects to write about with everything that is happening in the world at this moment. But I'm taking a little pause tonight to talk about a very simple subject, and one that is so crucial to getting through the times we're all finding these days: friendship.

I was part of a team today working on a local charity fundraiser. I was to be the big finale - the chocolate fountain. I got the fountain from my mom and got started about an hour and a half in advance. It was melting just fine though not flowing properly. It was too gloppy and sticky. So I added so milk to thin it out. Bad idea. It turned to fudge. I was so upset - this was supposed to be the finale event of the day and it was quickly becoming a disaster. (For the record, if you need to thin chocolate, you need to add a little vegetable oil, not milk.) 

Until my co-host looked at me and said - let's take the rest of the chocolate, melt it in the microwave, put it in a nice bowl, and put it out with the dipping items. People will love it. And they did. A few people asked where the advertised fountain was, but no one much cared. They were just happy to have any kind of treat at all. Another co-host announced that the fountain had become a fondue. And everyone accepted that change just fine. 

Despite the fact that I was disappointed about the fountain, I did feel good that I had failed at my task and a co-host was able to pick me back up and help me keep going. It's this leaning on each other, helping one another deal with our disappointments, that's going to save us in this tough economy. We need to be joiners and supporters as much as we need to be leaders and innovators. 

I wrapped up the goopy fountain and brought it home to clean. As I was rinsing off the last of the chocolate, I began to laugh at myself - a sure sign that the disappointment had passed. And I smiled knowing that friendship had filled in the space where failure had been. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The value of and quest for alignment

I walked around all day today with a smile from ear to ear because this morning I woke up more hopeful about our future than ever before. The afterglow of the election was shining brightly on people's faces everywhere I went - at work, on the subway, in the grocery store. Construction workers at ground zero, my co-workers, doormen of apartment buildings in my neighborhood. I'm getting emails from friends telling me how excited they are about our future. And that excitement is infectious. Obama will be the greatest President this nation has ever had. I believe. As Thomas Friedman said in his column today, "The Civil War is over. Let Reconstruction begin."

The critical activity that lies before Obama, and us, now is one of alignment. I thought a lot about the difficulty of achieving this state, especially among parties, factions, and classes that are sometimes so disparate with competing interests and values. I'm working on a project at work that is nearly at completion and just when I think I have alignment, something threatens to derail us and I have to gently and firmly coax that detail back into line. It is amazing how much daily effort and time alignment costs; it is an endless pursuit. 

So how will Obama get to alignment and how will we help him get us there? I've found that focusing on the finish line and getting others to place their focus there is most helpful. Playing pool helps.

An old boyfriend of mine was a very good pool player, and he taught me how to play. When I first met him, I wasn't very good. I always focused on my cue ball, not on the ball I was trying to hit. And without fail, I would miss my shot. What I needed to do was get my eyes in line with exactly where I needed to hit that prized ball to sink it, not on the ball right in front of me that I would hit with my cue stick. I needed to keep my eye on the prize in the distance- that ball that I couldn't quite get to directly. My game dramatically improved. 

The same strategy that works for pool can work for alignment. Get everyone looking toward the same goal, the same prize. And then you will find that they are less concerned that their desired road must be taken to reach that destination. As the leader, you choose the road that's leading the group to the common goal, and cast the players according to their strengths and curiosities. Alignment is possible, even in the most fragmented of circumstances, if we as leaders are committed to making that alignment priority number one, every day.     

The image above can be found at http://static-p4.fotolia.com/jpg/00/06/11/21/400_F_6112144_t94UJu9HPCAKP3oR0IyxXWddBYWXkdwU.jpg  

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

O-ba-ma

"O-ba-ma". That is the chant that is echoing down the streets of my neighborhood. People throwing back their heads in laughter. Cars beeping their horns in celebration. There is joy in the air. 

We have a long road ahead to rebuild this nation, to heal this world that has been plunged so deeply into despair. And while hope is not a strategy, it is certainly a tool, something that will build us up, something that will give us confidence to keep going, in spite of the tough times that lie ahead.

We banded together. And we did it. We stood up, we let our voices be heard, and we count.   

Monday, November 3, 2008

Why I vote

I had dinner over the weekend with a friend of mine who said that the person who is elected the next President of the United States will not be able to do anything to help our problems. He thinks we're too far in trouble to be helped. In fairness, this friend is infamous for stating his opinion as fact (borrowing a phrase from my pal, Kelly) and he's not American. He's also facing a lay-off by his company that will likely send him back to his home country. He's understandably angry and disappointed. And he doesn't understand what it means to be an American. He doesn't appreciate or understand how every vote by every citizen in this country makes a difference. 

I was a little miffed by my friend, the defeatist, though it has had me thinking very hard about why I vote and why I encourage others to vote. Right now, at this very moment, at every moment, people around the world are fighting for the right to vote. And I understand that passion but that's not why I vote. Our economy is in shambles and our foreign relations are at an all-time low. I understand that we are in dire straights. But that's not why I'm getting up at 5:30am and running to the polls tomorrow.

There were federal policies in place in the 1990's that helped me put myself through college. Without them, I could never have become a college graduate, much less a graduate of a top academic institution. And as hard as Penn was for me, both personally and academically, my 4 tough years there changed my life. They opened up an entire world to me that I never knew existed. My future is shaped every day by what I learned and the people I met in that small area of West Philadelphia. And I had the great privilege of being there because people went to the polls on election day to put someone in the Oval Office who understood that equal access to education, regardless of socio-economic level, is critical to the future of this nation. Those voters and the policies they helped to put in place gave me a shot at a better life.

I vote to return the favor for so many people in this country who need my voice now more than ever. And they need your voice, too. Please vote. If you need to find your polling location, please visit http://www.voteforchange.com.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Quelling financial anxiety

This morning the New York Times ran a great article on quelling the financial anxiety that is running rampant in this country. They interviewed Margaret Wehrenberg, a clinical psychologist in Naperville, Ill., and co-author of “The Anxious Brain.” That's the permanent state of my brain: anxious. What a perfect article for me to read. According to Dr. Wehrenberg, I'm using my anxiety wisely: to prepare for anything. There is power and empowerment in action. Use the anxiety as fuel to get going.  

When I graduated from business school, I didn't have a signed job offer in-hand. I had turned down several because they weren't the right fit, and in the Spring of 2007, it was okay to do that because to economy was cranking along at a good clip. You could even negotiate a job offer. How quickly times have changed! I have friends who would take anything reasonable at this point, including a significant cut in pay and title, just to be working in their chosen field.  

I got a great job offer in June of 2007 but not before I had completely run out of money. I had to take a cash advance on my American Express Card and incur a finance charge - the only time I have ever had that happen in my 12 years as a card member. I read two books by Suze Oreman and have followed her advice to the letter. Since then, I have been on a diligent savings plan. Tax refund? Banked. Sale of car? Banked. One day of wages per pay period? Banked. I have set up automated funding into into my savings account every month and have been working to save 8 months of very modest living expenses. I started these habits when times were good, and now that times are not-so-good, these habits are easing my anxiety-prone mind.

So I'm in my apartment this morning, waiting for CBS Sunday Morning to start, drinking tea, eating granola, and battening down the hatches, or at least planning to. I love my job and am very happy to have it. The job losses of so many of my friends is weighing on my mind, and to remedy that, I feel like I need to consider what life would be or could be like if I were in their shoes. We all need to do that in this economy. So here's the plan:

Update the resume: keeping it fresh is something we should be doing all the time, regardless of the job market. It needs to be ready to go at a moment's notice. Update it on Linked-In, and any other on-line source you feel is appropriate.

Get out there: networking is a continuous activity. It's much easier to establish and refresh a network when you aren't looking for something, and then the network is there to tap when you're in need. Keep your name out there, and let your contacts know what you're up to.

Get your would-be action items in order: I am a list maker. I love lists of any variety. I'm working on several this morning - key contacts, brands I am passionate about (more to come on that in a later post), and job sources.   

It's rough out there and these are uncertain times. The best defense is one that is all-encompassing. We all want to feel safe and secure, and if this economy has taught us anything it's that security is self-made. As Ani DiFranco sang, "Self preservation is a full-time occupation."

Saturday, November 1, 2008

"Failure as an event" ~ Seth Godin

I've been reading Seth Godin's blog a lot recently and he recently wrote a post about the dreaded "F" word - Failure. We shutter at the very thought of it. We are told this is the last thing on Earth we EVER want to do or be. It's a death sentence. Seth has a different perspective, and in the economy we're living in, his view is critical to our long-term health. For Seth, failure is learning. 

I thought a lot about this yesterday as I worked away at my desk, thinking about the 10% of my company that was be laid off this week. I'm sending those people all of the good energy I can scrounge up, and I am incredibly grateful to have my job. A number of my classmates have lost their jobs, some of them having to leave the country because their visas expired without a company to sponsor them. I've been thinking a lot about them lately, praying for them, hoping that even in this unfortunate economy they can find a way through. I've been wondering how I'd feel if I was the one who had lost my job. Would I feel like a failure? And if I did, what would I do to turn it into a learning, as Seth suggests? And this led me to think about the times I've failed, and what that failure meant to me.

At first I had difficulty thinking of any time I've failed - my mental blocking mechanism was running on overdrive to keep those failures at bay. But they're important. So I kept digging into the recesses of my mind, and the failures were there, in abundance. Here are some of the big ones and what they taught me:

My college running career
I had dreams of running in college though I knew no one makes a living after school doing that. It prompted me to consider applying to Penn because of the Penn Relays, the world-class running event hosted by the school. My junior year in high school I injured myself so badly that I had trouble walking for the entire cross-country season and the Spring track season. My hope for a college running career went down the drain. But Penn stayed on the list of schools I applied to. I was accepted on merit, not as a runner. And it became my alma mater. I learned the very valuable lesson of diversification. I was a good runner, but I was an even better student. I worked as hard on the track as I did in the classroom. And that diversification saved me.
  
Princeton
But Princeton was my first campus crush. I wanted in, badly. I was going to study engineering and walk the same grounds as Einstein, my scientific hero. It was love at first site. But the school didn't love me back. I cried, a lot. For the first time in my life, someone told me I wasn't smart enough. And that was crushing. And very good for me, long-term, because it tempered by dangerously large ego and taught me how to rise above defeat with grace.  

Penn, at first
I got two C's my first semester at Penn in courses for my major. I had gotten one B+ in school in my entire life prior to college, and that crushed me. But C's??? What was going on here? I was dealing with the fall out of losing my dad, and being a very poor kid at a very rich school. I was WAY out of my league. These kids were smart, much smarter than me, well traveled, ambitious. I had to sprint to keep up with their leisurely strolls in every facet of my college career. I was an alien on those grounds until I found a niche in the theatre community that would change the course of my life, even though I didn't know it at the time. I learned how to be flexible, how to adjust and change course. I got comfortable with being uncomfortable. I gained a work ethic that has served me well for over a decade now. And because I knew how it felt to not feel accepted, I gained an empathy for outsiders and learned to value, appreciate, and seek out extreme diversity.   

My relationship with my dad
I lost my dad when I was a teenager. We never got along. Ever. And he passed away before I had the chance to understand him and his perspective. We never made amends, and we never will. His death taught me about forgiveness, of others and of myself. And there is no time like the present to offer and ask for forgiveness. His short life taught me about the urgency of living. And the massive disappointment that he faced in his life, that ultimately destroyed him, taught me that we must put aside failure, and move forward, grateful for what we do have rather than dwelling on what we don't have. 

Several long-term romantic relationships
If I had married any of the boyfriends I thought I might marry, I'd be divorced 5 times over by now. It is only now that I really feel I have come into my own, understand who I am, and have the confidence to live the life I imagine. Marrying any of my past boyfriends would have been an enormous mistake, and I am grateful that those relationships failed me before I had the chance to fail them (which surely would have happened.)

NBC
Since I was a little girl, I have wanted a seat on that couch on the Today show. And I got my chance to be within arms-length of that couch during my second year at Darden when I went to NBC to interview for their MBA rotation program. I had imagined myself walking into 30 Rock everyday, donning my badge. I imagined myself whipping around that office, changing the face of network television. I was going to be a star. (Seeing a pattern yet?)

And then I went through 8 hours of demeaning interviews by people who thought I wasn't good enough to join them from the moment I walked in the door. They were the worst interviews I've ever had. And it was humiliating. I had spent months preparing for those interviews, and all for naught. An alum brought me in as a favor, knowing I'd never make the cut. I was ashamed and embarrassed, and it was the best thing that ever happened to my career. I reached for something far beyond my grasp, and I missed. As a result, I went to work for a retail company after a very long job search, and my boss there has become an invaluable mentor to me. I discovered the world of innovation and product development, and picked up the trail of a path that I am thrilled to be on. Again, I learned about the power of humility, the courage it takes to hold your head high and look failure in the eye, and move on with continued confidence. 

All of these failures taught me a few valuable lessons:
The universe knows your destiny better that you do
Preparation and grace are key to moving forward
The world is a very generous place - it will give you the same lesson over and over again until you learn it and the don't need to go through it any more

Seth is right - failures are moments of learning. And while in the moment, it may be difficult to be grateful for failures, we can take comfort in the fact that accepting and acknowledging their existence helps us to leave them behind in search of better times ahead.