Does Work Control Your Life?

Originally published 8/9/10

Being on vacation was a little different this summer. In the past, on the last day of the trip, maybe the last two, I would be getting crabby thinking about all the stuff that would hit me when I got back to the office. Usually some stinking presentation that I didn't want to prepare for, and didn't want to give. This year -- I was only worried about how tall the grass would be, and if the mower would be able to get through it without stalling.

Making this observation caused me to notice some other things that were different. I didn't try to sneak a peek at my email ten times a day. I didn't need to get up early to take care of some problem, or work on a deal. There were no conference calls I needed to participate in.

All this caused me to think further about how intrusive my career was on my life in general. It wasn't just on vacation, in fact, it was ever present. Working late or going in early only to be exhausted later. Evenings spent at dinners and other events that I really had no interest in, but had to attend. And on top of all, there were the ever present demands that work made on my mind -- I think it was always taking 50-70% of my bandwidth, even when I wasn't there.

Don't get me wrong -- much of the fault for this was mine. I allowed myself to be ruled by work. It was giving me status, income, and a sense of importance and accomplishment, but in exchange it was demanding a lot, too. Many of the demands were, however, subtle.

It's one thing to devote time to something you're passionate about, and quite another to devote it as an obligation. Somewhere along the line, passion was mostly replaced by obligation. Obligation inspired resentment, and resentment got me to where I am now.

Can work be a passion that doesn't grow into obligation? Can it be prevented from controlling your life? Probably not in a typical large public corporation, especially if your commitment is being overtly measured by your willingness to sacrifice your life to the company. Yes, they provide a lot, but they may ask for everything but your soul.

Using Fear to Manage Others

Originally published 7/22/10

I received an interesting email this week from a former colleague who asked me if I thought managers who ruled by fear, did so because they were fearful themselves. The implication being that we pull our style from our own dark corners.

Interesting question. I've certainly been fearful in the work environment myself (you can see earlier posts for more on that), I've worked for bosses who exploit fear, and I've occasionally used fear as a tool myself. The dynamics of all this are complicated, however.

To start with, most deeply seated fear -- the kind that borders on irrational -- is in us, not imposed on us (at least in the work environment, a kidnap victim's fear is undoubtedly imposed). If we aren't afraid of being embarrassed, of failing, or of being labeled, then it would be pretty hard for a manager or executive to make us afraid on that account.

Most of us, though, have some deeply held fears. If you're in management or a professional, and have been driving to achieve , the chances are good there is some deep seated fear in you. It can be a huge personal motivator.

Managers know about these fears (probably in most cases because they have them too, like my colleague said), and they sometimes exploit them. Some a little, and some a lot. No manager I ever recall meeting completely eschewed fear as a tool. The degree to which they do so depends on several factors -- their own personal style (some people are just natural terrors), their belief in the power of fear as a motivating tool, and the expectations of the organization, to name a few. There are undoubtedly other factors as well.

I don't think that most senior executives are Machiavellian by nature -- it just takes too much effort to operate that way (although I personally know of two exceptions to this generalization, for certain). Their use of fear, and mine too, was primarily instinctive and opportunistic. And in every organization I ever worked, there were structural expectations that management would use fear as well. For example, it wasn't uncommon to rely on the fear of public embarrassment to get people to work harder. Monthly and quarterly update meetings are structured specifically to do that. Another example would be the use of "stretch" goals, where management sets such impossibly high targets for people that they have little hope of actually achieving them, yet fear of a bad performance appraisal (formal or informal) is used to drive the employees to try just the same.

The unfortunately point is that fear is a powerful motivator, using it works, most people respond to it, and it is a cruel tool. And so it gets used a lot.

Kind of a perverse world we live in at times, isn't it?

It Just Doesn't Matter...

Originally published 7/18/10

There was a 1980's movie with Bill Murray, where he was a summer camp counselor -- the name of the movie was Meatballs or something like that. Anyway, I remember Murray leading the campers in a chant of: "It just doesn't matter,..." because they were losing some athletic event against another camp.

Funny what sticks in your head, and can amuse you years and years later. I have a lot of movie quotes floating around in my head, just like that one.

Anyway, I'm four months into the sabbatical now, and I'm finding my preoccupation with all of the petty details that went on in my work life not bothering me much any more. All of those labels we used to use -- "He's good," "She failed," its all so -- fabricated. I mean, in the big scheme of things, does it really matter if you did a great job on that particular presentation?

While I don't believe that most people have the capacity for Machiavellian plotting (although, I've met at least one CEO who does...), it's puzzling how the structure of corporations, especially the roles for managers and professionals, seem almost designed to extract the maximum amount of life from people, and quickly facilitates the discarding of the empty husks when finished. It just doesn't matter...

I'm starting to gain some new perspective on all of this -- by being able to look at it more as an outsider and less like a victim of the system. Some of those criticisms that those of us who were in the rat race used to shrug off, have merit to them. Take some time and think about what outsiders observe, and don't just discard it as unsophisticated drivel this time.

Follow Up

Originally published 6/30/10

I posed the questions for this post in the previous post, and I as I re-read it, it occurred to me that the way we ask questions can prejudice the answer. For example -- one of the questions I asked was (paraphrasing): Can you fail at something and be happy?

Now, I don't want to get into a battle of semantics -- I'm not going to say it depends on the definition of "is", like one of our famous politicians did. However, the word fail is pejorative. Of course, it would be next to impossible to fail at something and for that thing to make you happy. At least if by fail you mean: you suck at it so bad that any layman would look at your performance and say you were terrible. You would finish in one millionth place out of a million participants. Under those circumstances, I don't think I could be fulfilled, although there might be some people that would be happy just due to the joy inherent in the activity.

On the other hand if by fail I was to mean, second best in the world ("If you ain't first, you're last! -- Ricky Bobby), then yes -- I do think you could be happy. Let's say you're the world's second best salesperson, or the the second best writer, or the second best in some athletic pursuit. Sure it would be nice to be the best, but in a planet with seven billion people, if being number one was the only way you could be happy, then we would have a planet full of unhappy people. And despite an occasional pessimistic outlook, I think we can all agree that the world really isn't like that.

That being said, I think I'll continue to accept my middle of the pack running performances as fun, satisfying and happiness producing, thank you very much!

What's a "Boom Wrangler"?

Originally published 6/12/10

According to Po Bronson's book, I gather a "Boom Wrangler" is someone who rides the crest of each boom, each fad, in the marketplace. The wrangler enjoys the ride, and is constantly looking for the next big thing to dive into.

As I read this description, it sounded a lot like a person who is a "learner", as was described in Gallup surveys that I took: first in YPO, then later at work. A learner is someone who loves to learn new things. A "Boom Wrangler" sounds like a "learner" on steroids. Of course the term "Boom Wrangler" sounds pejorative, but I'm sure a confirmed B-W can be happy, if they feed this need they have.

In those surveys, "learner" came out as my top characteristic (I think, it was at least in the top five). So I eagerly set out to decide if I was a natural "Boom Wrangler", who had somehow missed the "Booms" (like, dot-coms, hedge funds, selling mortgage bonds, etc.).

I've always liked trying new things, and my interest in most of the things I've tried, both career and leisure, has tended to peak and then decline over a span of two to five years. These are B-W characteristics.

As I read further, I decided, however, that this does not describe me. I don't line up in several areas:
1. I'm too risk averse. I like my risk in smaller, less scary doses. I'm okay with moderate mountain climbing, but not with jumping cars on a motorcycle. I'm okay with incremental career changes, but, up to now, have always avoided going back to the start and trying something completely new.
2. I've got too many things I definitely don't like doing, and haven't been interested in trying. Most of them involve taking social risks -- like being in sales myself, or going around asking people for money (donations, investment capital, whatever). Sure I've done some of that stuff in limited quantities -- I've had too. But they definitely aren't something I would be willing jump into with both feet.
3. I do actually have some interests that have had staying power. I like products -- like working with them, like making them better, like thinking about how to produce them more efficiently. I have always liked athletics, and continue to enjoy regular fitness. I like music -- at least my own particular taste in music. Travel, particularly international, is another preference with staying power.
4. My changes have never, ever been motivated by boredom. Almost always by that creeping fear and anger that I've discussed in previous blogs.

So, I can cross B-W off of the list of possible diagnoses. It sure is helpful to read other people's ways of thinking about transitions and what drives them, however, because I never in a million years would have ever come up with "Boom Wranglers"!

Is What We Say We Want, Really What We Want?

Originally published 6/9/10

Not meaning to be too philosophical, or anything, but do our words accurately reflect how we feel, or do we say what we think others want us to feel, and our actions point to our true interests and intentions?

When I decided all those years ago (when I was 15, I think), that I wanted to be a "captain of industry", I was absolutely certain that it was my dream. I had just read Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged" and was inspired. I wanted to be Hank Reardon or Francisco d'Anconia (I hope I remembered the names correctly -- its been a few years) -- a hero of the modern economy, who would, through my own sweat and intellect, make the world a better place.

I told everybody that was what I wanted to do, and I did take positive actions to make it happen. I studied Engineering. My original idea was to get into alternative energy, but I decided that it wasn't practical (Compromise!), and instead headed toward the convenience of the automotive field. I went to business school, and moved employers, but when I made my decisions, I stuck with safe, big, public companies. I moved along the career ladder, but started to doubt that the top spot really would fulfill my dream. I became too conservative (or chicken) to take the plunge into my own business.

But was the dream really what I wanted, or was all the compromises and shifts in perspective an indication that the dream wasn't really a legit dream at all? Did I reach for a dream and have it evaporate like a mirage?

One way to explore that is to look at what I spent my time on, when not working or otherwise obligated. I wrote -- figured that one out already. I loved to read. Escapist fiction is one thing, but I also loved true stories of survival and discovery. I also would read semi-technical stuff, like in Scientific American, because I like to understand how things work, but am not terribly interested in the detailed math behind it. I love to travel, meet new people, experience different cultures and see sights. I enjoy physical challenge -- running, hiking, mountain climbing, rafting -- but maybe in a weird way -- I like the personal challenge of testing myself, but not the risk/danger that seems to drive some other people to some of these same activities.

I also discovered a few things I like okay, but didn't have staying power with me. Golf for example -- like it but I don't actually do it much. Scuba diving, fishing, hunting. A lot of these activities are fun for me because of the companionship, and the act itself is less interesting. Once the novelty wears off....

So, do we really know what we want, and can we articulate it? I'm spending more and more time, trying to watch what draws me, what gets me excited, what is interesting. I hope to set myself on a truer path using those observations.

Fear -- Part 3, Anger -- Part 1

Originally published 5/28/10

Revenge may be a dish best served cold -- I wouldn't know about that. Reflection is also a dish best served cold, or perhaps 'detached' rather than 'cold' is a better way to think of it.

In two previous blog entries, I talked about Fear. How fear permeated so much of what I did at work. How fear negatively motivated me. How I had a kind of love-hate relationship with fear.

After nearly 9 weeks away from the source of the fear, I'm very aware of its influence and its and the degree to which it engulfed me. Even when I had the financial ability to quit work, I still was driven by fear of criticism, failure, labeling, and fear of so many other things.

In the last 9 weeks I've also become more aware of another negative emotion that was present in large quantities while I was working -- anger. Anger can be a useful emotion, when it drives us to act decisively and effectively. But like a lot of emotions -- too much of a useful or good thing can be bad. And I now know that I had to much of it.

My anger was mostly suppressed when I worked. But suppressed emotions need to find ways to escape. I had a few methods of coping.

1. Risk taking -- hey, I wasn't white water rafting the Zambizi River, or hiking in the backcountry in Canyonlands just because it was fun.

2. Escaping on trips -- to focus on something exclusively, and put aside the things causing the anger.

3. Listening to hard driving music -- I'd scream my lungs out in the car sometimes to let off steam.

4. A short fuse at home -- unfair as it was, I was transferring anger to my family.

5. Complaining -- my apologies to those whose ears I bent unwillingly to listen to a rant over something. I was more aware of this outlet than any of them, and tried to at least moderate it some....

So what caused the anger? I'm not as sure about that. Feeling trapped, perhaps? Any kind of criticism leveled in any but the softest way? Feeling unappreciated for having to deal with the Fear? Probably a bit of all these.

And don't think these feelings just dry up and go away the minute that the source is removed. My emotional reactions to the world developed over a pretty long period, during which there was very little deep change in my life. Those patterns will take some time to wear down and change. But I can feel them beginning to thaw now after 9 weeks away.

Here's to a fear reduced and anger reduced future!


Originally posted 4/16/10

I've decided that I'm probably a lot better at doling out advice to others than I am at identifying my own shortcomings and blindspots. Additionally, doing so is much more enjoyable than submitting oneself to self-examination or criticism. With that disclaimer in mind, tonight I want to talk about personal honor and corporate honor, and specifically what we owe to employers.

This post was inspired by a dinner I had with a friend, R., who is struggling with the core dishonesty that revolves around demanding commitments from individuals by representatives of corporations, who have no intention or means to follow through with rewards for a job well done. 

Let's start this with the posing of a hypothetical --
If a corporate representative (undoubtedly somewhere higher in the organization) asks an employee to make a commitment (for example -- take on a particularly tough assignment, move his family across the country, or step back from his current responsibilities in the promise of further development and the promise of bigger and better opportunities in the future), what does the individual owe to the company, and what does the company owe to the individual?

The individual owes the company NOTHING, particularly if the commitment was obtained under false pretenses, which it frequently is. Even if the manager in the company that extracted the commitment was honest in his intent, the corporation itself, may not back the manager, effectively creating a situation where the commitment was falsely obtained. The company actually has an obligation to the individual who went the extra mile on its behalf (or at least put best efforts toward doing so), but since companies are not people, there is no one to grab and hold accountable to a debt of conscience in such instances.

There must be a course somewhere (I think I missed this one somewhere along the lines of my education), where CEO's, presidents, and other senior managers learn how to pinch employees and extract commitments from them that are patently unfair and one sided. A typical example would be -- "I need you to commit to turning this mess around. I'm picking you because I know you are the best person to take on this challenge. But I need to know now, are you committed to making this a success." Because of the way that many of us have been brought up, with the notion that our word is our bond, we believe that a promise extracted under these circumstances is binding on us.

Too often, when the individual succeeds at the difficult task, often through much personal sacrifice and family sacrifice, the company (and those who run it) rationalize away the just rewards deserved for the extra effort. "That was in his job description", "He needed to do that to earn a chance to move up", and the ever popular "his salary is governed by market economics" most of the time, these are the words that are spoken to justify a muted reward. Better be prepared to be satisfied by a pat on the back.

If the individual fails -- regardless of the circumstances, he is certainly headed for the exits, with the only thing holding the company back being some small amount of additional sweat that they believe that they can extract in the individual's short remaining time. Or worse, senior management doesn't tell the individual where they truly stand, and so they continue to impress, perform and deliver results, despite the fact that in reality they are already 'dead men walking', already judged by those that make such judgments.

In this environment, how is one to operate? First off, make sure that all commitments are well understood on both sides -- what will you give and what will you get. And if you find yourself in a position where the commitment of the company was weak enough that they can weasel out of actually providing any reward for work well performed, then ask yourself honestly -- what binds me to honor a promise to an organization that proves themselves over and over to be fundamentally without honor. Then act accordingly.

Actors Playing Roles or Reality?

Originally posted 4/5/10

One question that has occurred to me recently is -- Is 'Corporate Life' reality, or is it a stage play performed for a limited audience of interested spectators? And does it become so real to the actors, that they truly believe it is real life?

I realize that this isn't very clear, but I'm not sure I can make the concept completely clear. So let me illustrate what I mean: When you are IN 'Corporate Life', every aspect of it seems sooo important. Do I really need to go to dinner that night -- of course, it's expected! What an incompetent 'that person' is, because they didn't know the answer to 'that question'. How we dress ourselves each day, according to the norms of the organization. Even the language we speak (Dilbert certainly has a field day with this one) can be seen as a joke - "incentivizing associates through EVA for the benefit of all stakeholders."  Yuck.

Looking at it from the outside, it sometimes appears to be an elaborate farce. We all are hammered into roles -- the mentor, the technician, the young ladder climber, the celebrity CEO, etc. There are real people underneath the surface, below the role, but we steadfastly insist on characterizing the people by the parts they appear to play rather then what they really are beneath the veneer.

What is worse, the better we, as the actors themselves, understand the roles that are available, the more we try to hammer and squeeze ourselves into them. Of course, there are parts that no one willingly takes -- the incompetent, the shirker. These parts are foisted upon unwilling actors by the other players, and usually only for a brief time before they are written out of the production.

And there are an infinite variety of these productions going on at different companies across the US (and probably the world). While there are strong similarities, each one seems to have its own nuances and twists of plot.

But I digress. The entire point of this post is to illustrate the difficulty I'm having in thinking of 'Corporate Life' as real. Reality seems so much - Bigger (for lack of a better term) than the narrow interests of 'Corporate Life'. When you buy into it to the degree that I did, you lose track of real life because 'Corporate Life' hijacks so much of your energy.

So maybe getting something 'accomplished' today is over-rated. Achievement, especially career achievement, perhaps isn't all that critical. Maybe catching a 3 pound Bass, or tickling a 5 year old, or spirituality should be elevated to a greater standing in a rebalanced world.

Fear - Part 2

Originally posted 3/26/10

I thought I was pretty clever in the first part of this post. I prattled on about how fear was used in the work environment, and its necessity or its 'unnecessity' (my apologies to Shakespeare for that one!). Did anyone notice that I didn't really address what I'm afraid of?

Sure, there are some hints of it in some of the blogs I have already written, but there is nothing like stating things openly to clarify and put a fine point on them. So here goes -- my biggest fears, at least the ones I know about so far....
* Confrontation. Especially where I don't feel prepared to defend myself. Especially with those in positions of authority. Am I the only one who replays confrontations over and over again in my mind thinking about what I should have said/done?
* Disappointing others. Especially those whose opinions I value. The usual initial response here is to blame someone else or external circumstances.
* Ridicule. I even dislike seeing someone ridicule a third party, because I can picture myself in the same position. This is normally done behind people's backs and can't be easily defended against.
* Isolation. I need affiliation and friendships, and fear not having them or losing them.
* Losing. I've caught myself over the years deselecting activities or goals because I'm afraid I will lose if I play. It certainly seems self-defeating, and this one I'm able to manage better than the other ones, when I recognize it.
* Getting older. Seeing possibilities close off unexplored (I will never be a rock star now!) because of age, reduced faculties, or just plain running out of time.

Looking over the list, much of it deals with my life in the context of the approval or lack of approval of others. That is my green eyed monster. So knowing it is out there what do I do? Confront it (Ha, like that is going to happen -- see bullet point number one. I don't do confrontation, at least not readily)? Make peace with it and accommodate it in my choices? Understand where it comes from -- is it in the foundation of who I am, or is it the result of some baggage I picked up along the way? Something else?

Hey, I'm taking suggestions, if anybody has any....

Fear - Part 1

Originally posted 3/21/10

How much of our behavior is motivated by fear? This is a question that I've been contemplating quite a bit over the past few weeks. I certainly see it in my own actions. If I had to put a percentage on it, I would say that 60% of what I did at work was motivated by fear -- most of it an avoidance reaction. I was working through BS tasks and reporting on them, not because I saw them as important or worthwhile, but instead simply because I was avoiding criticism, complaint, public humiliation or some other negative consequence.

The ugly part of it is -- it works! Fear definitely generates energy and action. People will go to great lengths to prevent being exposed to those situations where they experience fear. I've wondered if the most successful leaders need to tap into fear in order to drive action. It certainly seems commonplace.

I've been reasonably close to three successful corporate leaders. Based on the normal judgment of the world, the most 'fear inspiring' of the three was the most successful. The least 'fear inspiring' was second most successful, with the mid-range utilizer of fear as a motivational tool being the least successful. A sample size of three, however, doesn't prove much, and all three of these men went to the 'fear well' at least on occasion.

When I further reflect on the great bosses I've had, and those that allowed me to experience the greatest level of satisfaction with my work, the number one top boss never used fear. In fact, this individual created an environment where I was his partner in trying to accomplish the company goals, rather than a subordinate who should be worried about how every expression of thought would play to him. I wanted to come in to work each day because as a team, we were engaged in fighting battles together.

I contrast that with my last position, where I felt the boss had designed a monthly 'arena event' (too much Spartacus recently, I guess), where someone was ritualistically slaughtered. The trick was to try to be uber-prepared, so that it wasn't you! Despite the fact that I didn't have to be at the company, and hence had a lot less on the line, I trembled at the onset of every one of these meetings. And I could feel the fear (and testosterone) in the air each time as well.

Most of the people in the room hated it. If anyone didn't it was because they were not really in the arena (yes, corporate staffers, I'm talking about you!). My question, after seeing so much of this in Corporate America is -- is it necessary? Is it somehow an essential element of success? In the absence of fear as a motivator, do people slack off to a degree that they are easily taken down by a hungrier competitor?

My gut says no -- it isn't a key element of success. But then why is it so common?