Sunday, December 27, 2015

Year-End Stock Taking + New Year Planning

Do you pause over the holidays to reflect on last year and set priorities for next year? Taking a day to hole up with a blanket, journal, posterboard, or whatever tools work can be a great way to shape your year and beyond. Go into 2016 with intention- how will you spend time, make decisions and track progress?

I brainstorm goals for the coming year, both high level, such as “reduce stress,” and tactical, like “do abc by end of first quarter.” First I just list them out as I think, then I organize them. I choose no more than top ten as main goals- anything more is too much to hold yourself to in a serious way. Goals #10-20 are “backburners-“ things like learn more of a certain language- good things to incorporate where I can but not huge life priorities, such as “keep my daughter thriving” or gamechangers, like “increase earning power.”

I evaluate last year, brutally yet with fair credit where it is due, and think about the impacts of how I did going forward. Were they the right goals? Which ones stay/go? Which ones need new strategies to accomplish? Here’s how I judge them. Along a right hand column each goal gets a percentage met. I total up how many are over 50%, right in mid-zone, and aren’t met (near zero percent). I draw a pie chart with a rough visual of how I did. This year, 11 were met well, 3 at mid-point, 2 not met. That is about 70% met, 30% somewhat met and 20% not met. Not bad. I look at which ones are in each bucket. Two of the three at mid-point were very important, so they go to top of list next year and get a hard look at how I can do better. I feel good about the ones I met, and reflect on how to keep doing the things that resulted in those successes.

I also sketch out reflections on disappointments, challenges, things I’m thankful for, proud of, excited about. Seeing these helps bring together the whole of what life’s been about- where energy is good or bad- where struggles are persistent- what must shift. I note boundary constraints, too- those things I can’t change or control- so need to work within them. Having this all written down to look back at later helps evaluate what seemed big over time, what ideas keep bubbling up, which paths aren’t taking shape, what I have learned about each option. I look back at the past few years’ similar lists to shape my current thinking- both reflective and forward-looking. I have to be in the right space to do this personal stock-taking… usually alone, at home, in bad weather, off the computer/phone to enable focused time. But it’s been incredibly helpful over the years, well worth the time invested.

Good luck in your 2015 review and 2016 visioning! Any tips or thoughts to share?

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Art of Saying Nothing (or Saying it Well)

Fascinating to follow high-growth tech companies’ public affairs activity lately. I like that they are far less risk averse than traditional large corporations. CEOs are active on social media, they act fast, and don’t worry as much about whether they will ruffle feathers. But sometimes the strategy of saying nothing may be better than reacting.

Amazon’s letter in response to the scathing New York Times piece on its employee culture came across as sour grapes and reinforced the Times’ message. Attacking the messenger? Yikes. This isn’t a court case- it’s your reputation. Humiliating someone who spoke up- whether the details are true or not on either side- is poor form and sends a signal that Amazon does not tolerate criticism. Of course Amazon would not issue a statement validating the reports of tough employee conditions, so… saying nothing would have been better. Or at least having the CEO himself issue a short acknowledgement and viewpoint statement.

Airbnb put up then quickly took down ads in San Francisco poking at the government for taxing its business model. These ads smugly suggesting what the city could do with the tax revenue came across as tone deaf, ill-informed and in some cases offensive. All around, an amateur campaign. Another case of better of just focusing on your business rather than trying to react publicly to bad news.

On the bright side, two women-run companies showed restraint while professionally responding to harsh critique. Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company was first attacked in the media then sued in court over effectiveness of a sunscreen formulation. Jessica issued short statements emphasizing the company’s mission, commitment to continuous improvement, and customer education about natural products. Nice.

Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of Theranos, sat down in person with major media to combat high-profile negative information about her products’ performance and regulatory standing. She denied the claims yet shifted messaging on offering more data and transparency going forward. Some reactions saw her as deflecting too much, but at least she got out there herself and kept the focus on her products.

Best handling of tough media attention in this roundup? My vote goes to The Honest Company. Sure, some will try to rake Holmes and Alba over the coals. Show me a young female billionaire entrepreneur who doesn't get heavy scrutiny. I like how they are handling themselves- and admire their courage to engage directly.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Softphone, No Phone, Two Phones?

I learned yesterday what a softphone is after getting the office memo that our landlines are getting taken away. The landlines have actually been VOIP phones for years but now we will use only a cell, and/or get a yet-to-be revealed device that will enable calling through the laptop.

Keeping up with new technology is necessary and I get the desire to cut costs. But for those of us with dispersed work teams around the world, a solid phone connection is critical. A majority of the day's hours are often spent on conference calls. Cell phones are great, but at times drop calls, have bad signals, require being near an outlet for longer calls, and can involve a hot battery sitting on your person or nearby. Office lines are better, except the environments are challenging with today's open work stations- cube farms, shared desks. It can be hard to hear the people on the phone with the noise around you, and you can't speak more loudly without bothering other colleagues.

I don't know how the softphone will be. Anyone with feedback? I can see a few potential consequences.

1. Less reason to go to the office. If I'm using a cell phone anyway, why sit somewhere with other people yapping on the phone all around me, rather than my living room? I'd like it if my company offered more meeting rooms for us to use, but that isn't the direction it's headed.

2. Less meetings! If everyone has the same challenge- getting a clear signal, staying plugged in before the battery dies again- I'd rather have 5-10 minute tagups instead of one hour meetings. Send me your materials, exchange questions/decisions needed, and let's cut to the chase. Many of us would prefer this anyway but in some companies the meeting culture is so strong.

3. What does this mean for data networks? If large companies are moving the bulk of their communications to wireless (or software, but more realistically, people will use the cell phones), it'll have some impact on signal traffic. Companies aren't likely to pay for home internet connections for us, so wireless

Of course, the office is still be a good place for in-person meetings and the never-replaceable face-to-face connection with others, when the people are in the same location. But I work just as much with people on other continents. I'm all for going in to work a few times a week max if that's the end result!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Amazon Article- Reactions from a Female Professional

If you haven’t read it by now, check out the New York Times’ article supposedly exposing Amazon’s tough practices towards white collar workers. Here are a few thoughts about it. Mainly: this is not news, for a handful of reasons. But it is good coverage, causing awareness and dialogue.

1.     Those with connections to Amazon already knew about its culture. The article is getting wide play, but this has been common knowledge for years. Those of us living in Seattle, with many friends working there, know the info in the article is all true, not new, and not that interesting. I have some friends who have carved out happy spots there with reasonable hours for years and like their situation. I have had housemates who work 24/7, sleeping there at times. Some are paid very well, others not as well.

2.     Burn and churn business models aren’t new. Ask anyone in law, finance, consulting… the bargain of long hours for experience and pay has been around for a long time. People get out, or burn out, or cope. I asked a friend who just left Amazon for a better ‘lifestyle’ company why this was making such a splash. He said because it is unusual in the tech sector. How great that is unusual, that this group of people with desirable skills have choices to jump ship to somewhere better. The article helped legitimize his decision to leave- he’d been miserable but hesitant to go, impacted by the culture. He is far happier now. Just like many of us who have left bad situations for better ones in other fields.

3.     Amazon, like many powerful innovative companies, has plenty to like and to criticize. It offers impressive, disruptive, convenient services across a wide span of the personal economy. It is full of contradictions: nimble yet strict. Helps and hurts small businesses. I personally appreciate and value it a lot- not just for the ease of shopping as a busy working parent, but because it enabled me to publish a book, while doing those other things more core to my life. This is not something that was doable just a few years ago for independent, swamped people with limited time/money to invest in side projects. How great- thanks, Amazon.

4.     Amazon, and most American workplaces, can do better by their staff, and should- yet still do great things. Hard work, frugality, nimble: all goodness. Intolerance of illness, parenthood, or any other common human constraint: bad. While employees have the choice to leave, we are not all 25-year old singles. I don’t know how many times I have asked Amazon friends: “Does anyone there have a child?” after hearing about yet another all-nighter, months on end of on-call work, or just the expected evening drinking events. It’s a business model. If it’s working well, they can and will do what they want- and won’t be the first or last demanding employer. But I’d prefer more choices for the majority of us who have life obligations beyond work. Are some Amazon employees contributing to the culture by egging each other on? Sure. Do they leave on average before 2 years? Yes. Luckily in tech, there are other places to go. It’s not just Amazon that works people like this- it’s just special because they are bucking the trends in their industry. And history should be on the side of those trends: parenting leave, healthy benefits, support for employees as whole people, not just producers of stuff.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Thank you to all the caretakers.

Thank you to all the caretakers. Those who are taking care of an ill parent or parents. An elderly veteran friend. Little children who can't yet meet their own needs. The disabled and struggling. Those who do it on the side of day jobs, those for whom it is your work, those who have given up working for pay to care for family or friends. Thank you for what you do day in and day out, tirelessly and selflessly. 

You know who you are, or you know some of them. They aren't catching a show tonight, or running a marathon tomorrow. They are helping someone else live better through the daily slog of must-do's: meals, cleaning, bathing, paperwork, doctor visits, laundry. We all need to be taken care of at different times in life. It is not easy to be the one in need or the one devoted to another. At times frustration, resignation, sadness, exhaustion, yet also joy, companionship, connection. Plenty of people eject when things get tough. I have deep gratitude and admiration for all all those who stay, and care.

To my buddy Howard who has cared for his disabled wife for three decades: your patience and dedication inspire me. So proud of you for finishing that built-from-scratch house she can get in and out of now. To my colleague Kev, who is standing by his wife during her battles with cancer: thank you for being there for her. To George, who has spent the last 12 years of his retirement caring for his business partner post-stroke, I can't imagine what you meant to him or what he'd have done without you. To my friend Jo, what you did to help your dad before he passed was all and more that you could do. To my neighbor Lisa, who quit working to care for her preemie now toddler, you are amazing and a pillar of our community. You are people that make the world one I want to be in. Thank you!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Being a Full Time Employee vs. a Contractor

Ever weighed the pros/cons between being a contractor or an FTE for similar work? If the choice comes up, crunch the total compensation numbers and consider lifestyle factors. Which one works best will vary by situation- both yours and the details of the offers. Look at the specifics, ask questions, and consider the whole picture before deciding.

Pros of being an employee include easier taxes, fringe benefits such as healthcare and retirement, and often, more job security. There might be a bonus structure and better support systems (IT, for example).  Social support with office mates might be a plus. Cons can include lower base rate, lots of internal time spent on administration and company meetings, and the like.

Pros of being a contractor can include a higher hourly rate, less organizational hassles, perhaps a more flexible schedule and location. Cons could include being lonely, if you don't work on site; being concerned for good reason about work drying up with little warning, lack of support systems, and lack of benefits. Some companies are using intermediary companies to manage their contractors, though, which provide healthcare, tax support and other helpful benefits- so that hybrid model may be appealing. Some sectors have ample work, so workflow may not be a con depending on what you do.

A friend of mine just decided to take a contractor position to a small company with a good reputation for lifestyle and growth, leaving an FTE position at a big company. The money may be less on the whole, although the salary is 25% higher, because instead of a stock bonus the compensation is cash, which is taxed at a higher rate. But he's doing it anyway for lifestyle tradeoffs and long-term opportunity. He will be managed by a third party company that will handle benefits and taxes, so that removes several cons. They promised to try to hire him on full time next year. Big company jobs are not always the best deal- it has been interesting to see one person's analysis. What have you seen or experienced?

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Are Sleepaway Training Classes Outdated? More Choices Please.

 Corporate training programs sounds great in theory. Go away for a full week. Immerse yourself in self-improvement away from life’s everyday distractions. Bond with new contacts, hit the gym, enjoy long meals. The reality is usually an overpacked schedule of lectures and exercises with homework and group projects, so the downtime was hard to come by- not to mention catching up on day job work as needed. There are pluses, but by no means essential for all learning.

After I had a kid, these courses became much less appealing. Regular life doesn’t stop. When you add up other business trips and work obligations, more time away from home is tough. Tough to miss more time from the kid(s) than you already do, and tough to maintain a smoothly-running household before, during and after travel. If one is fortunate to have an available spouse or extended family to cover childcare, super; if not, a training trip means challenging logistics and high costs.

We work via remote teams in times zones across the globe effectively. Face time is great, but so is harnessing the skills and results of diverse teams. The old corporate one-size-fits-all programs might still be a good fit for some. Better for many could be combination programs, or choices about how to participate. For example, some distance learning with some in-person classes, organized around location hubs that already have a critical mass of people who can go home after a full day.

I rejected a training course opportunity in my own city because the program required sleeping at a local hotel for 2 weeks straight. I called and explained that daycare closed at 6:30, so I could attend all day including the weekend, take my child home, then dial in to group exercise homework after she was asleep. They declined to make an exception. This signaled to me that the company was not aligned with a modern workforce- their historic demographic has been men with stay at home wives.

Without more choices and alternate approaches, quality leaders miss out on training and professional development. That stinks for leaders with personal obligations. It stinks for the organizations relying on their performance. Let’s encourage programs to frame trainings around the needs of the participants, and highlight courses that do strike a good balance between intensity and respecting real life.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Joining a Board: Questions to Ask

Ever been on a Board? Not the fancy corporate kind, but the common small organizations run as nonprofits and associations? It can be a rewarding experience- learning and using business skills, making contacts and working with a new set of people, furthering the organization’s mission from a strategy and tactical perch. 

It can also be a major time commitment, usually unpaid! 
Aside from meetings and subcommittee meetings and assignments related to core membership duties, Board members (especially officers) are often pulled into day-to-day management activity. Best case, the org has a strong management company in place or an effective Executive Director. The Board will provide oversight, conduct transitions and monitor progress. Worst case (yet quite common) the management function is dysfunctional, and Board members may need to run daily operations, conduct accounting and payments, answer the mail, coordinate Board and staff activity, and more. This can quickly become too much.

There are also fiduciary duties and liabilities that apply to Board members, so learning what’s going on with the organization before joining is important. It’s much harder to extract yourself elegantly from a bad situation once you are in it. I’ve been on a few tough Boards with too much transition and poor financials- learned a lot each time, but I avoid these now unless it’s part of my employment responsibilities.

To size up an opportunity before you say yes, here are questions to ask.
1.     What has been the recent turnover rate in Board membership and officers? (if high, why?)
2.     Is there D&O (Directors and Officers) insurance in place?
3.     How much is in the reserve fund? Are monthly expenditures covered by incoming revenues?
4.     How is the relationship between the ED/management company and the Board?
5.     What are the formal duties (they should have a document setting them forth)? What are the common other expectations?
6.     Is a financial contribution required or expected from the individual or his/her host organization?
7.     What’s the estimated time commitment monthly/quarterly? (starts with monthly 4 hour meetings plus all-day strategic planning sessions on a few Saturday? yikes!)
      Congrats if you do have an opportunity to help lead an organization. It is worthwhile.. but choose carefully! Pictured: a rooftop bar, the type of venue you may enjoy decompressing at after lengthy Board meetings.