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October 2008

You don't know who you are sitting next to....

I was fortunate to be one of the keynote speakers for the national conference of the American Assoc. of Grant Professionals last week. Founding President Gail Vertz and their leadership celebrated their 10th anniversary. I spoke about urgency and passion--what else :) Sat next to the other keynoter Paula Van Ness, president of the Starlight/Starbright Foundation. They do amazing work with kids with serious illnesses, and their families--to help them cope, find support and comfort, and to improve their overall quality of life. Paula told me they are helping 180,000 kids a month! They have just started 19 new chapters across the US in the last year.  I am so glad I met Paula. She is a great source of inspiration for all of us. 

I have learned that if you take the time you will meet the most remarkable people that are sitting right next to you. Someone told me that there is a three foot rule to networking--you network with everyone within three feet of you! 


Seriously, my life has been changed by the people I sat next to. 


A Schtik of Chutzpah

One of the crazy ideas I had swirling in my head in 1981 was a Yiddish Page-A-Day calendar. A daily reminder of the funny and interesting Yiddish words that embedded themselves into everyday English. I read that Yiddish is the 4th or 5th most influential language on American English. I dated a few Jewish girls in college and after. I became fascinated with Yiddish. The mothers of these girls loved me, the fathers, not so much. I would ask questions at meals or during the high holidays. "So this is a knish and not a kishka." I was told my pronunciation was very good. I read The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten. I would actually correct people on the use of the word shlep or shpilkas or tell others that that the word glitch came from Yiddish. Once I told a headhunter I was bi-lingual in Yiddish! Anyway, I hooked up with my buddy Mitch Berman, after all he was Jewish and I thought it would be fun to work on the calendar with him and also give me street cred! We did research and came up with the requisite 365 words and phrases. We developed Kosher Kat as our erstwhile feline funnyman and yiddish host. Over a period of a few years, we approached the 9 top calendar calendars with full color mock-ups of the calendar--twice! They all turned us down. We lost our gaysterishkayt (enthusiasm) after so much time, money and effort--it was not fun anymore. Fast forward to 1991, I am invited to keynote the Andrews conference at  Notre Dame University. I was to talk about community service after the opening dinner. I am seated next to this lovely but stoic mid-western woman named Kathleen. I tried to schmooz with her but she seemed disinterested, I have that effect on some people! Anyway, she was not amused by my feeble attempts at conversation! The emcee began the program and I knew I was up soon. He introduced my seat mate as Kathleen Andrews. Apparently she and her husband James sponsored the conference! He went on to say that Kathleen Andrews was the President and CEO of Andrews and McMeel (she is now Vice Chairman). I probably was the only one in the room who knew that Andrews and McMeel was the largest calendar company! (They turned us down twice too.) I rose to speak and I looked at Kathleen with renewed interest. :) After my spiel. I could not help myself; I pitched her on the Kosher Kat calendar.  It was so funny to watch her face when I was describing the great array of Yiddish words like cockamamie and boo-boo, and she was thinking is this Asian guy Jewish or is Yiddish an Asian language? She was very confused. I quipped I was Jewpanese! She did not get it. :( Nevertheless, she loved the idea and signed a contract on a napkin! The calendar was produced and sold out in 1993. Mitch and I became published authors and appeared on some news shows as part of our campaign to stop Yiddish illiteracy! We enjoyed our 15 minutes!

Love Plane?

On January 2nd 1984 , I was n line at the LAX United Airline terminal to get my boarding pass to fly to  Hawaii. I had just left the Rose Bowl game where the UCLA Bruins had trounced the Illinois Illini. I was going to join my parents on one of our many vacations to the islands. I looked up at the long snaky line ahead of me, a diverse array of tourists, families and business people were shifting about. Then I noticed a very pretty woman with a shock of brown hair, she looked back directly at me, or so I thought. I mean I really thought we had an optic moment of connection. Later I learned, she was just looking at the clock behind me. :) It looked like she was with her Dad or some guy anyway. Another fleeting fantasy of an unattached man. I was an up and coming businessman, or so I thought. I was stricken with the Preppy look. Khakis, topsiders, and yes, a sweater over my shoulders and even tennis rackets. I boarded the plane looking for row 21 seat J. I started laughing when I realized I was seated next to my new optical friend, the young lady from the line. We acknowledged each other and then I went silent, trying to think of the right ice breaker--actually I was tongue-tied and intimidated by her beauty. The steward greeted us and asked if we were traveling together. I spouted, "We are together but not together." My seatmate smiled at me as I died a thousand deaths. Did I really just say that?!! Much later on the silence was broken by her and to make a real long story shorter--I learned she was from Hawaii and somehow got her phone number. We went out a couple of times and then dated across the Pacific. While I was not very smooth or even funny, I married the woman in seat 21 H. Sarah and I have been married for 23 years! 

I have hundreds of stories. I know you have them too. Getting to know the person I sit next to has always yielded friendships, connections, and now three kids! Practice the 3-foot rule and you will live life with no regrets!

Thanks for reading. John


Urgency over the disease of complacency

This is a topic I have talked about for a long time--how to retain and energize our inner sense of urgency to focus on what we are doing and what we want to do. Urgency is continuously putting the most important things on the top of our to-do list and investing ourselves into that agenda. Urgency is assigning personal importance to what we do, making a commitment to what matters, without any anxiety or stress. Acting with urgency everyday, defies the gravitational pull of distractions, complacency, and unproductive activities. Complacency is a highly contagious disease that kills off all energy, entreprenuership, creativity, and real change. It infects those that are too comfortable, those that have had success and lost the drive, those who have settled for whatever comes their way. I see these symptoms often and they are frightening. Any time potential, great potential, is wasted, it is a tragedy. Complacency can befall your job, your career and your life and you may not know it until it is too late. For me it has always been about time and regret. I have little time and I want to avoid regret. When I was young, I did not understand the advice of so many. "Make today count" my Dad would tell me a thousand times. Or Coach John Wooden filling my ears with so many profound thoughts in a car ride back to his Encino condo, "Make everyday your masterpiece," he urged. I get it now. I really do.  Eckhart Tolle's Power of Now is a treatise on this subject. 

There are so many subtle and brutal reminders if you pay attention. A friend of mine, Randal Lee, came over to my house to give me some UCLA football tickets less than 2 weeks ago. He greeted me at my door with his ever present cheery cherubic smiling face. A few days later he suffered a massive aneurysm and passed away. He had no other symptoms. At 55, he was successful, happy and a joy to be around. In a nano-second he was gone. Another heart wrenching wake-up call that screams how fragile and precious the here and now is. Every Sunday, for the last 5 weeks I have been attempting to counsel my second daughter about her college apps. It has been fun and frustrating, but that is the life of a Dad of a teenage girl! Looking at the calendar, I have barely 50 Sundays left before she goes off to college. For some that seems anal, but for me it reminds me that the sands of time are fewer and I must make the most of them. These events give me a sense of urgency, not to waste any time to do what I want to do, to nurture relationships that are important to me, and to make the most out of my career.

"The few people who do have smoke pouring into their offices are furious that somebody has

started a fire. But instead of demonstrating a real sense of urgency to solve the problem,

starting today, they complain." Sense of Urgency

But I say, we also have to build our own fire from within, a fire that is fueled by what we want, by our recognition that the status quo is unacceptable, and a deep desire to be the change agent, to succeed. 

Just finished this interesting but long read--John Kotter's Sense of Urgency (be sure to scroll down and see the video). There is a lot of good material here and a focus on leading and managing with urgency. Here are a few tidbits that might be useful for you and increasing your personal sense of urgency:

Your thoughts, feelings and ultimately your behavior are driven by urgency. Breaking this down, you must think it, feel it and then do it. And the feeling part may be the most important. You may have the thoughts and the tools but you have to emotionally commit to make it happen. This is what former Harvard Prof Kotter preaches:

  1. Don't be complacent--This seems obvious and maybe almost insulting because who is just sitting around?!! But there is a big difference from acting with urgency and being busy. And what if the actions you are taking are not really addressing the real problem--sound familiar?
  2. Avoid false urgency--Again, being busy is not acting with urgency. It is about priorities and then continuously pursuing them.
  3. Bring in external sources--Force yourself to see, hear, and touch the realities of your work. Get out of your office and visit your customers, see the needs you are addressing, remind yourself of the value of your work, and get motivated about what additional efforts will accomplish. 
  4. Make progress everyday--Your urgency grows with each advancement you make toward your goals and deepens your desire to win. 
  5. Lead by example--Model urgency in your commitment to the goals and to the work.     

For my money, urgency has always been my number one booster shot against the scourge of complacency. 

The challenge is in every moment and the time is always now. James Baldwin 

Make something happen this week! Thanks for reading. John

Weathering the storm and defining the moment

Hard to comprehend what is going in our financial markets. How to react to them. If you have any money in the market you have been hammered. More important the instability of our economy will put hundreds of thousands more jobs at risk, maybe yours and I am sorry to say we have not see the bottom of this crisis yet. It may be many months before anything resembling stability returns. But you have been inundated with this news and I have nothing to add to the cacophony of financial analysis. Bottomline: You need to be preparing yourself and your family for harder times. You have to be thinking about about Plan B and C. Hopefully, you are managing your anxiety by stepping back a bit and realizing how limited your ability to alter this context is. As a friend says, "It is what it is." Nevertheless, this is an extraordinary time and it requires extraordinary thoughts and actions. What are my options and choices in times like these? How can I be a source of resillience? People look to you for signs of what to do, how to act. We have to lead by example. 

See my blog on Earthquakes and Networking...

Here are three things to keep in mind during this time of turmoil:

1) Do your job--Keep an eye open for opportunities 

If you are fortunate to have a good job, then invest in your work. You have twin goals: 1) Job retention through creating perceived and real value (something you are already doing) 2) Paving the runway for what's next by keeping your track record strong (and great references make a difference in times like these). Unless there is writing on the wall portending a major change, then do what you were always doing, be competent and on top of your deliverables. Too often self-fulfilling prophecies happen when an eroding performance leads to both unemployment and a bad reference. As I have always advised, that does not ever minimize your ability to see emerging opportunities--chances to re-tool or move to something new. New opportunities are going to be harder to find but they are still out there. And history has shown that enrollment in courses, training and degree programs will skyrocket. Be an employee that can be counted on with an eye on the horizon. 

2) Be strong--Make this a defining moment

Excerpt from Jim Collins book Good to Great:

"Throughout our research, we were continually reminded of the 'hardiness' research studies done by the International Committee for the Study of Victimization. These studies looked at people who had suffered serious adversity – cancer patients, prisoners of war, accident victims, and so forth – and survived. They found that people fell generally into three categories; those who were permanently dispirited by the event, those who got their life back to normal, and those who used the experience as a defining event that made them stronger."

How can we make this a defining event for ourselves? Worst strategy is just to hunker down, pull in the sails, and hope the storm passes. Take care of my family boat and minimize risks and wait and see. Wait and see is ALWAYS the worst plan. In any sea in any environment.

3) Be positive--Reach out and help others

For me focusing on what I can do and what is important to me relieves some of the stress. I truly believe that power of attraction is very powerful in times like these. Negative attracts negative and positive attracts positive. But the latter is much harder, because the negative forces are nearly out of control. So many people love to tell a worse story of financial damage and consequence. Not sure what part of our DNA feeds off the misery and devastation, but I would love to discover the antidote. Then be a source of positive energy.

Like in an earthquake, you make sure you are okay, then you check your family and friends, then you try to determine if everyone else in your inner network are okay too. Reach out to people and find out how they are doing. Your network, your clients, your colleagues, your neighbors. Be a source of support--I do not mean financial support, but moral and networking support. People are worried and they need advice, counsel, job assistance--they need people who can help them. At the very least these are the times to reflect on who is important to me? Intuitively we agree that WE is always more powerful than ME. So engage with others instead of just focusing on yourself. 

These are crazy times of financial dowturns. No need to lose your cool. Keep your whits about you and your career, your priorities and future may even be on the upswing. Hang in there. Let me know if there is anything I can do for you. 

Thanks for reading. John

Super Mario transitions--how do I jump into a new career?

For those who have been climbing the ladder of success for a long time, but now it is leaning against the wrong mountain.

Maybe the hottest topic since the financial events of last month. Hundreds of thousands of people laid off are pounding the pavement. Many of them vowing not to stay in the professional vertical that just ejected/rejected them. They are now sitting at the kitchen table looking at a wide variety of options. Passion, what you want, the shape of your resume and the vitality of your network all play big roles. Like the iconic video game star Super Mario, jumping onto moving platforms in different venues, is now the challenge. Are my skills transferable? And to what? And then again what do I want. Always seems to come full circle, doesn't it? :) After going from non-profit to for-profit to non-profit to for-profit to non-profit, I get asked how did I do this. By the way, non-profit is much harder and i will go back to for-profit when I want an easier job! What I have learned is that a solid track record of achievement and a strong skillset are needed in government, business, non-profit, Universities, Foundations, start-ups, big companies and small businesses. I would say emphatically that the only thing that prevents you from platform hopping is you! And maybe your resume. A career shift to a new world requires an understanding of the needs of that world, the lexicon, the cultural differences etc. I have deterred thousands of people from going into non-profit work because they could not make the mental shift to the non-profit culture--a culture where the goals, outcomes are hard to measure, where strict business models do not always apply. Not even mentioning the lack of resources and the absence of an IT department! :)

Once you have selected a new platform or two to explore--platforms that you have serious interest in, then you have to engage the network and find sources and resources at those employers or in those industries to get a handle on how your story can be translated to be relevant there.

A few recent examples: Talked to a government employee who said he wanted to go into marketing. Yet the word marketing did not appear on his resume--"because we don't call it marketing". After listening to him, he was indeed a marketer and we injected the "m" word in appropriate places throughout his documents, including marketing deliverables that were meaningful to the business world. He used his network to get in the door of a major entertainment company and was hired. Talked to this very impressive woman with an MBA from Wharton and terrific marketing expertise. She had more recently earned a PhD in History from Berkeley. She just loves History--I know, kinda random. She wanted a marketing job. I advised her to take the PhD off her resume. She was more than taken aback. I told her it was a marketing test. ;) She relented. The hypothesis was firms were intimidated by the PhD and did not want a "Dr." working for them. Almost immediately she was interviewed and hired. Lastly, a referral who spent almost his whole career in real estate, a very successful career mind you, but now wanting to jump to a new platform. We worked on re-fashioning his background to be less real estate focused and put more attention on his skills, management, and achievements. Engaging his network, he is getting interviews now, no job yet. Of course, I am relaying success stories, but they are models of adaptability to become more transferable.

Basic stuff here. Career ladders, career escalators--where you just climb and ride your way to the top are relics of the past. Platform jumping is now a required sport in the career game of life, especially when industries and seemingly invincible brand names just disappear. I have always believed that you will have 4-7 careers in your lifetime! Your skills, background, and your story may be transferable, but only if you translate them into the language and culture of the new world you seek---and engage your network!

Thanks for reading. John