Executive Development. Organizational Effectiveness. TransCultural Leadership.

Looking for Clues

4 Things To Do After Quitting That Awful Job

A good friend of mine finally quit the job she had suffered through for over a year. Quitting was an easy and impossible decision to make. Early last year she and her husband sold their east coast home and moved 2500 miles for a new job with a healthy income and the promise of professional growth. She threw herself into work, enduring 15-hour days, working weekends, leaving little time to spend with her family.

After 14 months she was strung out and stressed out due to an unsupportive and undermining boss. Turns out, this extraordinarily talented professional wasn’t the first to quit; others in her department had quit too for the same reasons. Her work colleagues were sad she was leaving, but said they understood why. The boss was just that bad.

My friend’s situation illustrates a reality captured in an April 2015 Gallup report stating that 50% of U.S. workers surveyed had quit their job because they were unhappy with their boss, and that only 31.5% felt engaged in their jobs. That means 68.5% of the workforce is not involved in, enthusiastic about or committed to their work. As stated in the report, “Having a bad manager is often a one-two punch: Employees feel miserable while at work, and that misery follows them home, compounding their stress and negatively affecting their overall well-being.

In a perfect world you never leave a job until you’ve landed another one. Well, my friend’s world, as it is for most, is imperfect. In an act of self-preservation she quit before she had another job lined up, although she wanted and needed to be employed. Her immediate relief and exhilaration from quitting was soon replaced with worry and doubt about the future of her career.

Taking stock of yourself, and what you really want, will help set the stage for your next moves. If you happen to be in my friend’s shoes, or are one of the 68.5%, here’s how to transition from an awful job to a job that brings out the best in you.

1.  Take Time to Reclaim Your Self

Being unhappy at your job and having your foot pedal-to-the-metal 24/7 takes its toll. You have sleepless nights. Your alcohol consumption is on the uptick. You eat more. You don’t eat enough. There’s little time for physical activity. Now that you have the time, be intentional about pressing the reset button on your intake, exercise and sleep. Your body will thank you.

2.  Talk About It

For all the months you were too busy to connect with friends and loved ones because of your nightmare job, well now you can. Pick up the phone, have a Skype session, meet for coffee, take a walk together. Tell them your story about what happened, why you quit, how you feel, and above all, what you’ve learned. There is immense comfort in having empathic listeners who’ll encourage you, share their networks with you, and help you land a job where you won’t just be coping, you’ll be thriving.

3.  Be Patient

For many there’s a knee-jerk reaction to jump at the first job that comes along, especially since the bills still keep coming. A sense of urgency may push you into a new job situation that’s not unlike the one you just quit. When going through the search process ask yourself: If this company were a person, would I want to be in a relationship with them?  If the answer is no, think twice about applying. Do your research on what the company culture is really like. You may be perfectly suited for the job on paper yet a company’s culture will likely impact your happiness in a new role. If you interviewed and didn’t get the job, understand it wasn’t the right opportunity for you.

4.  Ask For Feedback

After detoxing from a bad work experience, make time to learn from it by asking for feedback. This will help lay the groundwork for your return to the workplace. Consider using a 360° multi-rater report to receive feedback from former bosses, peers, direct reports, clients, and others in your work universe to capture how you’re perceived. A 360° report provides insights you may have overlooked. It will also help you project genuine confidence and purpose when seeking your next opportunity. Knowing what’s working for you, and what you have to work on is a prerequisite for getting back on that bike and steering it towards a path that brings you energy, not despair.

You’ve experienced professional successes in the past and you will again. Only this time you’ll be re-entering the workplace with a greater sense of purpose and clarity. You’ll better know yourself, what you want, and what kinds of people and places are likely to bring out the best in you. Like Shakespeare said, “To be or not to be, that isthe question.” He was right. What do you want to be, what does your dream job really look like?

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The Coyote, The Roadrunner & The American Dream

Photo courtesy: Warner Bros.

Photo courtesy: Warner Bros.

We all want to be happy and successful, learning, growing and doing what we love.  Yet as we approach Labor Day 2013 and the end of year five – beginning with an acute financial meltdown in 2008 to an economy that’s currently recovering but still under performing – there might be some things we can learn from the Coyote and the Roadrunner about how to move forward in an uncertain world.

Remember those Chuck Jones cartoons?  With an assist from ACME products our Coyote was always falling off a mile high desert cliff, getting creamed by a rushing locomotive or, my favorite, finding himself at the wrong end of an explosive device while the Roadrunner jets by uttering his signature mock “Beep, beep!” as the hapless Coyote gets smoked again.

My theory is that during boom times we are more likely to see ourselves as the Roadrunner, leaving everyone in the dust with the calm and righteous certainty that comes from truly believing we know how this cartoon will end; with us as the winners, of course.

But now the tables have turned and we’re in a new cartoon, one where we’re not so sure about the outcome anymore and one where we’ve become the Coyote who just can’t seem to catch a break.  Mark Twain once described the coyote as “… a living, breathing allegory of Want.  He is always hungry!”  Whatever the optics, our world has changed and so must we.

Various new studies indicate there are “big picture” reasons why so many of our citizens are feeling that the American Dream – our country’s defining metaphor – looks like a mirage.  The belief that one can be successful despite the economic conditions of one’s birth seems as elusive as the Roadrunner; today signaling a “catch-me-if-you-can” version of the American Dream.

So what does the two-lane desert highway look like?

* Recent Gallup polls tell us that 70 million Americans are consistently disengaged from their work, with 20 million of those who outright hate going to work.  The primary cause for this malaise is having a boss from hell – a boss who has no concern for their employees or in creating a positive workplace, doesn’t track their performance and motivate them, or invest in their development so they can do what they do best.  The price for this discontent is staggering.

* The American Psychological Association reported in 2011 that 36% of workers are stressed out due to low salaries, few advancement opportunities, overwork, unclear job expectations, and job insecurity.

* Drilling down deeper, a team of economists at Harvard and Berkeley studied millions of anonymous earnings records and compared them across the metropolitan areas of this country.  It turns out that upward income mobility – like real estate – depends upon location, location, location.  Where you live matters.

* Finally, new research by economist Miles Corak from the University of Ottawa concludes that having successful parents is now the primary factor in achieving the American Dream.  While most people understand why a person born on third base might actually believe they’ve hit a triple, the reality of privilege is now more acute than ever.  Rags-to-riches is now looking more like riches-to-more riches, or rags-to-rags.

With the accident of birth and where one lives stacking the deck on our chances to realize our dreams, no wonder so many are feeling like Wile E. Coyote.  Having a boss from hell doesn’t help either.  Sure, it’s hard not to admire Coyote’s cleverness and persistence.  He’ll go anywhere and try anything to get that bird.  Yet he always fails, which means he’s really not so wily after all.  Cleverness and persistence are not enough.

If you’re feeling like Coyote, on an endless loop of bad results, what can you do to break the cycle?  Here are a few tips:

* Stop and Take a Breath Coyote is obsessed and single-minded at the expense of reaching his goal.  Atypically, he has no peripheral vision. Plus, he never stops to wonder why things always blow up in his face.  First, take a breath.  Remember who you are.  Sometimes you have to slow down before you can speed up.

* Connect the Dots – Coyote’s a clever tactician but his strategy is flawed, and he never learns from his mistakes.  Painful though it may be, nothing changes unless you’re honest with yourself and question your core assumptions.  That means being inquisitive, asking tough questions and facing your demons.   With a new set of lenses you can see reality more clearly and critically, and move forward with renewed confidence.

* Change the Context  – Coyote is always in the desert, a stark and unforgiving place where there are few options.  To change the context and rewrite your story means opening your mind to new possibilities – to thinking differently, taking responsibility and assuming some calculated risk.  Reconsider your objectives and your strategy, and make sure you have both the assets and the will to succeed.

* It’s Tough Being a Loner – Most coyotes travel in packs, yet Wile E. travels alone.  Not so smart.  There is strength in numbers.  We all need help and support, and a chance to return the favor.  Find your tribe, expand your networks and increase your chances of success.  There are only two characters in Coyote’s world but countless others in your own.   Decide what you want and work with others to make it happen.

* Find Your Voice – Do you notice how Coyote almost never speaks?  He never howls or expresses himself.   Rather, he toils silently alone pursuing an elusive goal that’s become his obsession. To change his fortune and find his voice Coyote needs to change himself.  He needs to ask for help. You can’t shape your future unless you declare your intentions, and that means having the confidence and clarity to do so.

* Take Action We can’t fault Coyote for not taking action.  The old dog is always in motion, except for when he’s getting clobbered time and again.  He’s stuck.  Taking action is ultimately rewarding when you’ve done your homework – sized up your situation, clarified your objectives and committed to goals based on reality.

So if you’re one of millions of Americans enduring a boss from hell, not emotionally connected to your work, stressed out by your situation, living in the wrong place or not born into privilege, don’t despair.  Pull your inner Coyote over to the side of the road for a pow-wow to consider how you might change both the landscape and the approach to get what you really want.  In so doing you can learn from your experience, define success on your own terms and with some good fortune, reclaim your dreams if you so choose.

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Happy Father’s Day

If leadership is learned through experience, then being a dad easily stands out as one of life’s key events for influencing how we choose to lead. So on the occasion of Father’s Day, here are a few things I’ve picked up along the way that may ring a bell wherever you happen to lead, influence, or otherwise try to make a difference in your world. In no particular order:

• Juggling Paradox – The fancy term is “managing polarity” but the lessons come from dealing with the day-to-day realities of life and work; from fender benders to broken hearts. Add multiple kids, each with their own “weather system” and a desire to be understood, and it can get very interesting very fast. You can try to have it all, but just not at the same time. How well do you juggle?

• You get what you give – This is about as simple as it gets, and yet it’s easy to drop the ball by taking for granted those closest to you. Be present, take a genuine interest in those who look up to you, give them your time and your attention. Whether they’re your children, your friends, or your co-workers, if you want their support (or their love) show them you genuinely care.

• Good Judgment – When my oldest daughter was three years old her mother and I took her to Disneyland for the first time. We started off with a double-header of the Haunted House and the Pirates of the Caribbean rides. Yes, there were a few nightmares following that adventure. Should we have only done the It’s A Small World ride? Maybe. Good judgment comes from experience, and experience sometimes comes from bad judgment.

• Be Inspired – One of the surprises of being a dad are the array of people and experiences our kids bring into my life. We’ve all been on an adventure together over the years, the mutual enterprise of our family, and we’re committed to enjoying the journey. Why be part of anything if it doesn’t inspire us?

• Action with Purpose – I see myself as a fairly spontaneous, go-with-the- flow kind of person. Being a dad taught me that a purpose, with a plan, is a powerful combination when moving others into unchartered territory. Plant your stake in the ground and declare your intentions. Your audacity combined with preparation can inspire confidence.

• It Takes a Village – From my supportive extended family, loyal friends, colleagues, and especially my phenomenal wife and partner, I would never have had even partial success as a dad without their help and encouragement. Humility is a hard-earned lesson that keeps us grounded in the universe, and makes us both better leaders and better fathers.

• Legacy – When I was a kid one of the topics of conversation among my pals was “What did your dad do in the War?” (That would be World War II.) It was a way for our tribe of eight year olds to understand how we fit into the larger world. We all want to be remembered. It’s a desire as old as time fueled by the conundrum of mortality. Being a dad reminded me that doing the right thing when no one was watching – integrity – mattered most to those I loved the most, and how I want to be remembered.

Knowing the right thing, and living it, has been the biggest lesson of all. Being a dad means that your children are paying attention to how you operate in the world, on their behalf. Fatherhood, like leadership, is a balancing act and not for the feint of heart. Yet it’s as rewarding an adventure as one could hope for; shaping the future by serving others and discovering ourselves in the process. Here’s wishing all you dads out there a very Happy Father’s Day.

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Thunder Road

Hello world!

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How’s Your Mojo?

We’re one month into 2013 and I’m wondering how all those New Year’s resolutions are coming along. You know – more trips to the gym, more time with friends and family, fewer carbs, fewer hours watching ESPN, Homeland and The Bachelor. In short, less intake, more out-put. As we all work to improve our quality of life, blatantly absent from most resolution lists is this: Become more aware of how we impact others, respond to situations and deal with surprises in the new year.

Three months ago I began working with a new client in the Bay Area. She’s a technical wizard running a department of emerging technical wizards, yet things have been going south lately. Her department is in turmoil – people are feuding, turnover is high, and there is rumor of work-place litigation on the horizon. While her department produces quality work and is well-regarded by the company overall, she was unaware that its “internal state” had eroded. Once reality hit, she wasn’t sure what to do next.

Despite numerous years in a high-visibility leadership role, she had never really gone through any kind of a serious leadership development process: no multi-rater feedback from her peers; no personality profiles to identify how she operates in the world; no consideration of her leadership style; and no executive coaching. There was nothing to help her understand the impact she had on others and the tone she set as a leader. She was, after all, a technical wizard so this leadership stuff just never came up – until now.

After collecting and reviewing various types of data from her and her department, a clear picture emerged. As the department head she was respected professionally but was often perceived to be aloof, unapproachable, sometimes autocratic and, frankly, checked-out from day-to-day operations. When she wasn’t in meetings she spent most of her time locked in her office doing important technical wizardry on her computer. Nor was she much interested in team member input when it came to decisions that affected their own work projects. During one of our telephone conversations she said to me regarding her department: “This is not a democracy.” I paused for a moment to let her words sink in. While I get the spirit of her comment, and even the realities of a leader who knows where the buck must stop, she was missing the point in a big way.

Research tells us weaknesses are often the result of strengths overplayed. In her case, her technical wizardry had come at the expense of any time or attention devoted to learning how she – she the person, she the leader – was affecting her team. Nor did she give much thought to how her behavior impacted the people she led. The result was that her people felt disconnected from their work and not appreciated or recognized by their boss. They felt they were not being developed professionally and were often left to fend for themselves in a high-pressure setting. Consequently, they began to generate their own assumptions about what motivated her, about why she was the way she was and what that meant for them. All of this created “weather” within the department – an environment where trust was being undermined, factions were taking hold, conflicts were not being addressed, operations were slipping, and no one seemed to be leading – least of all her.

Which brings us back to her statement, This is not a democracy. We all carry assumptions in our heads about “what is what.” In this case, she apparently thought her role as a leader gave her a green light to simply dictate her wishes and wisdom, without consequence. Was it her intention to be a dictator? Not really. She thought she would work more efficiently and productively by continuing to operate as if: I’m in charge, just do what you’re told, and all will be well. She assumed her position conveyed certain rights that come from being near the top of the work-place food chain. And since her temperament (analytical, cerebral, logical) and her style (get-it-done, black and white, zero-sum) were perfect for the “wizardry” part of her job, she never got the memo on the “people” part of the job. Thus when a crisis erupted, she didn’t have the emotional capital – the goodwill – from her people, nor did they give her the benefit of the doubt in a pinch. In fact, she didn’t know emotional capital from capital gains – until she realized she didn’t have it.

The good news is she didn’t dismiss the feedback and realizes she needs to change her mindset. Further good news is that she wants to change. She’s still a technical wizard, but now she’s opening doors she never knew existed, and she’s expanding her leadership repertoire. Lucky for her, she’s a quick study. Above all, she now knows herself better than she did last year, and is working to change how she responds to situations, interacts with others and leads her department. In short, she is starting to discover her mojo – the magic that reflects our uniqueness and the spark that motivates us all. This is a big first step, one of many more to come on her road to becoming a real leader – one who truly inspires trust and confidence. Our technical wizard is beginning to understand what George Bernard Shaw told us many years ago, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”

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Going Viral

Last week at a dinner party with some close friends we ended the evening with coffee, dessert, and an animated conversation sparked by Ann-Marie Slaughter’s recent Atlantic article titled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” Slaughter wrote about the professional and personal conundrums women face today. Her story went viral and had more clicks to the Atlantic website than any other magazine story they ever published. Slaughter, who recently quit her high-powered job at the State Department to spend more time with her family, hit a nerve and unleashed a torrent of commentary, critique and attack for saying what most people already know – the demands of the 21st century American workplace are at odds with what’s required to have a life, let alone, a life where you can “have it all.”

Over dessert Lucy spoke of having to grow her consulting business after her husband was laid off last year – with two kids in college – and feeling the burden of being the sole breadwinner for her family: “Now I get it about the intense pressure men feel for having to keep it all going.” Nick, a real estate broker and property manager, spoke of having to be extra resourceful in a down market as he and his wife put their two kids through college. This has meant a downsized lifestyle, with his wife now working two jobs. Bruce, a Boomer generation dad with a young son, spoke of how the tables were turned on him when his wife with her corporate job and medical benefits recently left him. “I made a decision to retire early and be a stay-at-home dad. Then this happened. I’ve been out of the job market for 15 years and now have to figure out how to pay for my own health insurance, stretch my dollars and still raise my son.”

Two things strike me. First, although we experience our lives in multiple dimensions over time, when it comes to this issue in this country at this time, the tendency is to separate the personal sphere from the public sphere – as if our experience is separate from our context. Secondly, the assumptions we have about what defines “success” and how to achieve it are up for grabs in 2012. There is no straight line, no one-size-fits-all definition of what constitutes “success” or how to get there. There’s a memory of it, maybe a vague myth we have some nostalgia for. Yet there is less certainty than ever that our assumptions and our roadmaps are reality-based, that we’re even in the ballpark or that our future will be better than our past.

Despite years of research supporting society’s need for “family friendly” policies and ongoing efforts to mediate work/life balance in organizations, in the real world, work/family tensions and frustrations are felt in a visceral and personal way. Which is why our dinner party stories were personal, and the emotion was real.

Of the three couples and one divorced dad at dinner that night, everyone was self-employed and had children. Most had worked in a corporate setting at one time but had taken the jump into entrepreneurship, throwing caution to the wind. While these stories might be dismissed as dinner party anecdotes from people who should simply count their blessings and quit whining, it’s clear this is not just a woman’s issue anymore. It’s a family issue, a community issue and, on a national level, a policy issue with employees told to work harder and longer as they watch their health benefits shrink and pensions disappear. Slaughter’s piece resonates because everyone understands the essence of her story and feels the effects of this conflict, particularly single-parent families who are now on the rise. This tension, this imbalance, has generated an unsettling hum on 21st Century American lives.

So, what to do? Admit that until we move beyond the policy impasse that keeps us locked in a time warp as our global competitors respond to similar challenges, we’re on our own. Our diminishing social compact demands we design innovative ways of addressing work/life tensions – if we’re willing to use our imaginations, take some risks, and include all the stakeholders in the conversation.

What then do I tell my three 20-something children as they embark on their own futures? Take ownership of your life – both personally and professionally. Be intentional, be a critical thinker, be open, know your values and your worth, and never be afraid to walk away. Don’t settle. Be part of something bigger than yourself. Define success on your own terms, not on someone else’s assumptions of what success is. Be savvy about the world as it is, but be willing to imagine and fight for a world as you think it should be.

The late writer Nora Ephron was more eloquent in her 1996 commencement speech to the young women graduates of Wellesley College, her alma mater:

“What I’m saying is don’t delude yourself that the powerful cultural values that wrecked the lives of so many of my classmates have vanished from the earth. Don’t be fooled. There is still a glass ceiling. Don’t let the number of women in the workforce trick you. Don’t underestimate how much antagonism there is toward women and how many people wish we could turn the clock back … Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim … Make a little trouble out there … So what are you going to do? Everything, is my guess. It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess.”

Now that’s an idea worth going viral.

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Another One Bites The Dust

Like many folks on the planet today I’m riveted by reports on the death of Col. Muammar al-Gaddafi, dictator of Libya. We all know the story from CNN so I won’t repeat it here – the mother of all final smackdowns. What’s interesting to me is what happens when delusion runs its course, and recklessness is held to account.

Here’s a guy who used his oil money to do lots of bad stuff, funded terrorists and killed scores of people; his people, our people, many people. On top of that he also believed his own press releases and surrounded himself with sycophants who told him what he wanted to hear. It appears that at the top of that list were his own sons who coveted a piece of the action, behaved badly on numerous continents and ended up on the losing end of a morality tale, and a gun.

This is a story as old as time; it’s biblical in fact. A leader who drinks his own Kool-Aid and insists that everyone keep drinking it too, to the very end. And so they do, while the rest of us nod our heads and wonder, “What were they thinking?”

For Gaddafi the end came in a drainage ditch under a Libyan highway at the hands of a rebel army. Maybe it was the deep pockets from the sweet Libyan oil that fed his delusion and addiction to power, creating a family business run amok by greed and paranoia. Apparently Gaddafi didn’t get the memo that his time was up, that the world was changing and that eventually people would say “Enough!”

Bottom line, Gaddafi had no checks and balances in his universe; nobody near him willing to call “time out” on his behavior – a suicidal move by any measure. He could do whatever he wanted to, and he did. Libya was his family’s personal cash cow and they milked $20 billion + into Swiss bank accounts with additional investments in companies we all do business with. He enriched himself and his loyalists by pitching the Big Lie to justify his strategy, and enforcing it by fear. Yesterday the broom of history swept him away.

So what can be learned from this sordid tale? One lesson is that people who call themselves leaders will ultimately be held accountable to the people they serve; their communities, their countries, and their enterprises. They may do a lot of damage along the way but sooner or later there will be a reckoning. There is always a reckoning.

Power can corrupt yet power is neutral. People, on the other hand, are not neutral. We each make choices everyday that ripple into the universe and reflect who we are. Those choices may seem mundane yet they matter. Our moral compass exists to help us distinguish confidence from delusion and its consequences.

Whether we’re leaders, followers or spectators it’s still worth remembering what Roman slaves whispered into the ears of their victorious generals returning home from battle … “All glory is fleeting.” So it’s not that Gaddafi didn’t get the memo. It’s just that he chose to ignore it at his own peril, and ours. Delusion will do that.

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At The End of the Day

After nearly 25 years of working in the field of human development and organizational learning, I’ve come to realize this: At the end of the day, professionally, folks are just trying to figure things out and are looking for clues to be more effective.

How will I manage all my direct reports across remote locations? How will I massage some of the egos on the board of directors? How do I fit into this new, alien culture? How will I manage a battle of wills with a co-worker? I see these questions in bubbles above people’s heads as they scarf down their breakfast and race out the door to work.

I truly believe individuals, teams and enterprises can learn how to be better at what they do. It’s often a messy, emotional process that may involve confronting the powerful forces of denial and delusion. A client once told me, “This process is like putting my finger in a meat grinder!” Sometimes it’s like that. But if we’re serious and honest with ourselves about wanting to be better at what we do, we usually start with asking other people, “How am I doing?”

My work reminds me of the tagline from that ancient TV show, “There are a million stories in the Naked City…..”

The just-promoted Gen-X department-head swimming upstream in his efforts to win over his new team of grizzled engineers who’d seen it all. The vice president who was dismayed to discover that his long-time assistant was poisoning the office environment with her power-tripping. The leadership team that had derailed with cries around the conference table, “We’re going down in flames!”

I love my work because it gives me a ringside seat into the full range of human behavior. Despite the potential for stumbling upon duplicity, complicity and the Seven Deadly Sins – I know that people are capable of amazing things. So stay tuned as we kick off this conversation about people, teams and enterprises – giving it their best shot, learning from experience and, always, looking for clues.

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