Category Archives: Experience

Staying Relevant

It’s hard to think of really where to start here. Everyone everywhere has already talked about the ongoing, continuous change that is constantly occurring in business. Even I have written about it, and I actually do try to stay away from those ubiquitous, and somewhat trite types of topics. As they say, no good can come of that.

However, those of us that have had either the good, or bad fortune to inhabit one of those industries that are subject to the technological whims of change, have an added issue with which to cope. In an environment where the “next thing” is always perceived as the now “best thing”, how do you fight what can best be described as career inertia, and remain relevant in your organization, and to a larger extent, your industry?

Charles Holland Duell, was the commissioner of the United States Patent and Trademark Office from 1898 to 1901. Duell has become famous for, during his tenure as United States Commissioner of Patents, purportedly saying “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” However, this has been debunked as apocryphal by librarian Samuel Sass who traced the quote back to a 1981 book titled “The Book of Facts and Fallacies” by Chris Morgan and David Langford. In fact, Duell said in 1902:

“In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold.”

I bring up this often mis-cited tidbit for a couple of reasons: the first is that even more than a century ago the speed and relevance of change was already being anticipated, and the second, is that relevance seems to be in the eye of the beholder. It is not so much what you think about your relevance to various opportunities, but what others think of it.

For the most part now, Duell is thought of as an out of step, foolish curmudgeon that had the audacity to state that nothing new was ever going to be developed or patented, when in reality he foresaw that both the magnitude and rate of future changes was going to be unprecedented.

An interesting urban myth, but I have digressed.
I think I’ll look at how both time, and technology work against just about everyone in business. I think this is a position that is somewhat out of step with some of the current thinking.

There is a school of thought that says experience is a good thing. But in order to gain experience you have to have been around either a company, or an industry for a while. The up side of experience is that in order to have remained around for a while you probably had to learn a few things. The down side is that time has passed, and that you may have been pigeon-holed into a role which is defined by your experience.

Robert Heinlein is an author of many famous books and multiple great quotes. I have read most of his catalog, and I have cited him often in many of my quotes. One of his most famous, and one of my favorites is:

“Live and learn, or you don’t live long.”

This is especially true in business. If you haven’t learned from your previous experiences, you probably aren’t going to get the chance to have any experiences in the future.

But how much is that experience worth in business? By just being around for a while, chances are that you are also going to experience salary growth. Yearly reviews, pay raises and inflation are an ingrained part of the business compensation structure. The longer that you are around, usually the more you end up costing the company.

Also, in today’s organizations it is reasonably well documented that management would prefer specific subject matter experts as opposed to very broad experiential histories. Again, that means that the longer you are around, the higher the probability that you are going to be associated with a specific business, technology, and capability set.

But what happens when the baseline business or technology changes? Strategic directions change. Digital has replaced analog. Wireless has replaced wire. Optical has replaced copper. Unleaded has replaced leaded. Transistors have replaced tubes. Fuel injection has replaced carburetors. The list obviously goes on and on.

It is not uncommon for relatively more experienced, and expensive people to be associated with what was once but may no longer be viewed as strategic businesses within an organization. In instances such as this, the opportunities for advancement can dwindle, and in the longer term so can the opportunity for employment.

So, what can be done to prepare and avoid such issues? How do you stay relevant in the face of ongoing change?

My suggestion for the first step in maintaining relevance is to understand the current environment. Employment is now a cost – benefit, or value proposition. As long as it is perceived that you are delivering more value to the business than you are costing it, chances are that things will continue.

That would mean that the correlation to the idea that the longer you are around, the more you probably will be making, is that as time passes it is probably expected that you need to be generating greater value. This is usually much easier said than done. It also means that if time is passing, and you are remaining in the same role, that it becomes more and more difficult to be perceived as generating greater value.

Value is normally associated with orders, revenue, costs and earnings. Understanding your relationship with, and ability to quantify your effect on these topics will go a long way toward defining your value. The weaker your relationship with these key metrics, the more tenuous your value proposition may be viewed.

The second step is to align more with a specific business function or discipline, and not so much with a specific business unit or specific product set or technology. Accountants, Financial Managers, Sales Staff, Project Managers, etc., can usually ply their trades across different industries and business units. This doesn’t mean that it will be easy to move from one industry to another. It merely reduces some of the perceived barriers that will normally be erected when someone is experienced in one industry and not another.

Next, as Heinlein said, if you are not learning, you are probably not going to be around for long. Take courses. Take training. Most companies have training programs to help increase both the depth of knowledge in specific disciplines, as well as programs to support external trainings and certifications. Use them.

If you are planning on being around for a while, it will be expected that you will have to know more in order to maintain your employment value proposition. Learn about other technologies and disciplines. Understand and become more conversant in the process and project orientation that most businesses are currently in.

Finally, it is incumbent on you to challenge both yourself and the organization by demonstrating your willingness and ability to move out of your comfort zone, or area of expertise, and take on new roles. Most of the time no one will come looking for you to take on a new role. You must step up, and out on that proverbial limb and make the first move.

Otherwise it will probably be assumed that you are content where you are, and there you will get to stay. Until something changes.

This approach requires an active awareness and participation. Businesses will normally present you with the opportunity to learn many diverse topics, disciplines and technologies. They will also usually present you with the opportunity to at least try to move into something else. It is up to you to search them out and take advantage of them. Very few companies require you to take courses to stay abreast of new trends within business. Fewer still will actively try to reposition you into new strategic product and businesses.

These are some things that you have to do.

It takes extra time. It involves extra effort. It requires your own initiative.

Otherwise you may be risking your relevance expecting the things you have been doing to be as important, and relevant, to the business in the future as they are today.


It has long been known that just about everyone thinks that they can build a better mouse trap. Indeed, several in fact have. That is where innovation comes from. By building something better than what currently exists, a competitive advantage is created. It is usually a short-lived advantage as there are many others that are always also trying to innovate as well, who will either copy, or actually improve on the new design.

Add to this, the question of whether you should actually make your own better mouse trap, or buy someone else’s better mouse trap, and you have the makings for a reasonably spirited discussion. Remember, not everyone is in the same mouse trap business. So, do you invest in developing your own, or do you just go out and buy somebody else’s, already complete? However, when it comes to your own business systems, processes and tools, the decision should be very simple.

Unless you are in the tool and system business, never, ever, ever make your own tools and systems.

The tools and systems within an organization usually fall under the purview of the Information Technologies (IT) group (or some derivative thereof). The IT group can be staffed with some of the finest and brightest people in the organization. But everyone must remember, that unless you are in the IT services, tools and application development business, that is not the business that the organization as a whole is in. IT is then not directly associated with the products and services that the company positions as best in class and sell to its customers. It doesn’t develop them. It doesn’t sell them.

If IT based tools and systems are not the organization’s prime business, then investing in their custom development should never make sense. IT should then be treated as an administrative expense that is required to be spent in order for the organization to maximally leverage the available technology in the pursuit of its business goals, not a tools and systems development organization.

With this definition and positioning of IT in mind, I’ll now delve into the issues that almost every organization now faces when it comes to leveraging available technologies and how to be more efficient at it.

Over (a long) time I have had the opportunity to witness several different businesses and organizations try to utilize their product development capabilities to develop what has come to be known a “Multi-Tool Product”. This is a product that is supposed to do everything. It is designed to be all things to all customers. Instead of buying four different devices to serve four different purposes, you can buy one device to do all four.

And every time I have witnessed this type of product development attempt, I have witnessed what can best be described as failure, and worst described as abject failure.

There are two primary reasons for this type of Development failure:
1. The time and expense associated with this type of development is always, always much longer, much more complicated and much more expensive than ever budgeted or even imagined.
2. The functionality of the multi-tool product is never, ever good enough, nor delivers enough value to unseat the individual discrete products that it is competing against.

I like to tell the story of attending a multi-tool product development review some many years ago. The review was opened by the product manager stating that it had been eight weeks since our last formal review, and that unfortunately due to unforeseen development complexities, product availability had slipped twelve weeks in that time.

I commented that since it seemed that we were now falling behind faster than time was passing, that the only logical thing to do was cease development now so as to fall no further behind.

I was never invited back to another one of those product reviews.

The product however, was never completed nor released. It was quietly shelved many months, and millions of dollars later.

As to multi-tool product functionality. It may be time for another Gobeli Postulate on Product Development. It goes:

1. A product that is purported to be able to do everything, will do nothing very well.

Individually developed products are each optimized for value and performance. They are targeted at being the “best in class”. Multi-tool products by their very structures cannot match this. Each individual capability in a multi-tool product must carry the product cost and functionality overhead of every other capability in the multi-tool product.

This is equivalent to the Swiss Army Knife example. It may have a knife, screw driver, spoon and scissors, but none of those attributes are as good in comparison to a separate standalone knife, screw driver, spoon and scissors. And you must pay the added expense of the housing and overhead that is required to combine them all into one device. Invariably the four different best of breed items can be bought for less than the single, less functionally capable multi-tool product.

Okay, so what has all this got to do with IT?

Part of the average IT group’s responsibility is to create / select tools that will enhance the systems and automation of the business organization, their customers. It must be remembered that IT is a support group. They exist to provide functionality to the business.

This is contrary to some IT departments I have witnessed who appeared to believe the business existed in order to fund them.

Most internal (not out-sourced) IT tools groups think that they can create tools, capabilities and applications that are far better than what can be purchased in the market. They believe this due to their increased knowledge and proximity to their very business specific support needs. It is their focus to create tools and systems that deliver ever greater functionality and capability to an ever-greater number of people.

In short, they believe they can create better Multi-tools.

This is not always the case, but I think we can all probably remember instances where a perfectly functional and eminently usable tool was replaced in the name of “integration” by a tool that had greater integration with other systems, but lower functionality than the tool it replaced.

So here is where we get to the Title of this article: C.O.T.S. – Commercial Off The Shelf.

“Commercial off-the-shelf or commercially available off-the-shelf (COTS) satisfy the needs of the purchasing organization, without the need to commission custom-made, … solutions … Although COTS products can be used out of the box, in practice the COTS product must be configured to achieve the needs of the business and integrated to existing organizational systems.”

Please take note of the word “configured” in the above definition. It does not say “customized”. IT provided tools and systems should be configurable to handle multiple applications across different business groups. They should not be customized into different discrete tools to address each group.

There are organizations in existence whose business model is to create tools for other companies and organizations. In order for them to grow and flourish they must create best in breed tools for their specific applications. They cannot create all the tools. Only those types of tools that they are experts in.

That means that in order to get a full suite of tools to address all the business needs of the organization that the IT group serves, they will need to deal with multiple tool supplying organizations.

IT is usually a technology oriented group. External tool providing companies will usually provide tools much faster, better, cheaper and with greater functionality than anything that an internal tools group could create. However, working and negotiating with external businesses is not very technical in nature, which is somewhat out of alignment with the desired direction of most IT Tools groups.

They want to create and develop. Not negotiate and buy.

Many companies have created their competitive advantage by developing their own “better mouse trap”. This self-reliant development mentality can easily bleed over into the IT group when it comes to the tools and systems. Senior management can also be receptive to the IT tool and system development siren song, since that is how they were able to achieve success as a business.

However, management needs to remember that regardless of what they may think, or be told by IT, their business systems and tools needs are probably not so unique as to require custom tool development, but more likely just need the proper configuration of a C.O.T.S., best in breed, already available tool or system. This solution direction will invariably lead to simpler and faster implementations, as well as a lower cost of ownership and sustainment across the commercial life time of the tool.

IT will almost always be the owner of the make / buy analysis when it comes to tools. Building your own multi-tools will almost always be a slower, more expensive and lower functionality alternative to buying C.O.T.S., regardless of what the IT tool development group may want or think. Especially if your business is not the tool and system business.

Write It Down

A very small event occurred yesterday. On the surface, it usually doesn’t mean much, but I try to recognize them anyway. The pen I had been using to take notes on my activities and calls with, to jot down ideas with, and to work out solutions with, ran out of ink. As I said, on the surface, it didn’t mean much other than I had written down enough stuff that I had exhausted the ink cartridge in one of those disposable pens that I like to use. And as I said, it was a little thing, but I noticed it.

So, why am I writing about such a seemingly innocuous topic?

I learned long ago, back in college, in a time long before Personal Computers, that the quality of what I was able to learn, retain and utilize was directly related to what I wrote down. It was just me, but writing something helped me get it.

This of course was then the only way to capture information when taking notes in a lecture. This was a time before smart phones that enabled you to play Angry Birds video games in class while they recorded the entire lecture for you to peruse at some later time when you weren’t so focused on something else. It was a time when the professor’s words were ephemeral. They were spoken and then they were gone.

I found that intently listening was not good enough. If I physically wrote them down I not only captured them on paper, I captured them much better in my own mind. Revisiting the notes was always useful when it came time to study, but it was the initial writing down of the information that provided the most value.

When it came time for studying, I found that annotating those already written notes, in effect rewriting them, helped me prepare that much better. Somehow the act of writing helped me learn and retain information that much better.

When I told some of my friends about this study and retention technique, they looked at me like I was from another planet. I still used it anyway.

I thought about this idea, which is no mean feat for a then teenager. I wondered if the simple act of writing down concepts and notes as they pertain to lectures was such an aid to my learning and retention, would it also work with my academic reading load?

Till then I, like most of my student peers, just used a highlighter to highlight those passages in text books that I thought were important. I then tried taking notes on the textbook assignments I had instead of just the typical highlighting. It seemed to work as well. At least for me, it worked. I retained and was able to utilize the information far better than when I just read and highlighted it.

These realizations drove several changes in my behavior that still stay with me today. Whenever I need to learn and retain something I write it down. I learned that I no longer wanted lose-leaf binders and discrete sheets of paper. Paper would become ragged and eventually tear and fall out. I wanted permanently bound composition notebooks so the notes would always be there.

I didn’t want large, full sheet sized notebooks as they were prone to succumbing to the abuse that repeated access would cause, nor did I want the small note card sized ones as those did not allow for sufficient information per page. Hard cardboard or plastic covers were also desirable.

The simple act of my pen running out of ink got me to thinking about all of this learning, and retention and utilization of information. I wondered if it was just me or did others utilize this practice. I noticed that some of my now professional peers in the office also had notebooks, although many did not. As PCs have continued to proliferate, this notebook habit seems to be rarer and rarer.

I have tried to replace my notebooks with my PC. There are a couple of things holding me back. First, although I took typing in high school, I am still basically a “two-finger” typist. If I really get going, the number might expand to four, but never approaches the ultimate of using all ten fingers. The second is, that when I used the PC instead of the notebook, I didn’t retain the information nearly as well. It just didn’t work as well as writing it down for me.

I wondered if this was just me, or if others had found the same thing, so I Googled it. By the way, I continue to find it interesting how in this language a proper noun, the name of a company, can become a verb. Sort of like how having a “party” has now morphed into “partying”. I guess this is also the origin of “Xeroxing” as well.

Sorry. I digressed.

I searched “information retention from writing”. Holy smokes. A ton of stuff came up, supporting and detailing just what I have been talking about.

“A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop”

“Why Using Pen And Paper, Not Laptops, Boosts Memory: Writing Notes Helps Recall Concepts, Ability To Understand”

“Take Notes by Hand for Better Long-Term Comprehension”

“Writing by hand strengthens the learning process. When typing on a keyboard, this process may be impaired.”

These are just some of the articles that came up on the first page, and they are predominantly from the last ten years or so. They also seem to deal with the difference in learning between typing and writing, although the last couple do deal with the cognitive and comprehension benefits of writing something down.

This was just the first page. Google said there was something on the order of one hundred and twenty-one million results to my search. Judging by the first hits, I am going to guess that the rest will be rather supportive of the position.

That position, as you might guess, is write it down.

Ah, but there are probably some out there that are at least thinking to themselves that this is all well and good, and after all this discussion about the value of writing things down, does he “write” down his blogs and then transcribe them on the computer? The answer is no. I do not. I actually compose at the computer.

I have thought about this as well.

The best description of the difference that I can come up with is that when I want to learn and retain information, I write it down. I am trying to take external information and internalize it. Writing it down is part of the process that helps me do this more efficiently.

On the other hand, when I am trying to take thoughts and information that are already internalized and express them, I find that the keyboard is actually a faster methodology. I can compose better at the keyboard.

It seems that at least in this cognitive approach technology has the benefit of improving the expression of the written word, but not so much the learning or retention of the information that it represents.

We all like to think of ourselves as somewhat unique. However, there are many things that we have in common. Understanding how we learn is something of a baseline that can also help us understand how we work, and more importantly how we can work better.

As business continues to increase in complexity and velocity, we have more and more information that we need to find ways to internalize that much faster. I think we need to understand that the tools that we employ, at least for me, are best utilized at helping in the expressing of our ideas. The taking of what we have and providing it to others.

On the other side of the same coin though, they are probably not so much good in the process of learning and utilizing of the ideas and information that others have provided via the same medium.

I think this is a point that needs to be remembered going forward. Computers and all the other forms of automation and intelligence that are out there, are better applied as capabilities that enable us to express the information that we have already internalized, but they are not nearly so good, or so helpful in aiding us in the understanding or internalizing of the information that they provide us.

If you really want to learn something, all the data and the research says that one of the best ways to do it is to write it down.

I think I’ll go get another disposable pen out of the pack now.

Hard Work

Perhaps I am getting a little too retrospective, or was it introspective. I forget which.

I think it is interesting how my concept of “Hard Work” has changed over time. I used to think of it as moving rocks and landscaping timbers around our yard for my mother when I was younger. Hours in the heat with all that physical exertion. Then I remember that I was also a competitive tennis player back then, and that also entailed hours in the heat with significant physical exertion. That didn’t seem to be as hard work, at least back then.

Now both yard work and tennis in the heat of a Texas summer seem somewhat equally uninviting. Right now, both seem like pretty hard work.
I think I would like to look at what hard work was, what it is today, and possibly more importantly, what it may become in the future.

I seem to recall that I also had a distinct dislike for reading text books and studying (on my own time, after school, when I wanted to do other stuff, of all things). It was hard work to both get myself to do it, and to maintain the focus on topic so I could learn and master the required topics. Now I find myself reading recreationally on those same topics, as well as many others related to my professional disciplines, and actually enjoying it. Now it doesn’t seem like hard work at all.

Using these examples, it seems that hard work is the work that we don’t want to do, but are somehow compelled to do. It may be best described as doing something which you have not fully bought into doing. Something you have to do, instead of something you want to do. I think I’ll go with that definition for now.

I had bought into the idea of spending hours in the heat practicing the various aspects of my tennis game. Initially not so much on the yard work for the then family home. Later with my own home and family, I enjoyed both the tennis and the yard work. Now, in the triple digit heat of a Texas summer, I do my best to refrain from both.

As an aside, I didn’t require my kids to join me working in the yard, as I was compelled to do. I don’t know at this point if I did them a disservice.

So far, neither of them has complained about not being required to do yard work in the heat. Go figure.

For some reason, I find myself quoting Mark Twain, a lot. I don’t know if it is just happenstance, or if there is some other type of connection. Either way, he seemed to say many things that can still be considered truisms today. He said:

“Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

But I am actually not so sure that is the case. I think it may be more along the lines of: If you do something that you buy into doing, it means that you will not consider it “hard work”.

You may be fully engaged. You may get to the office early. You may stay late. If you are bought in, and are committed to the deliverable, none of what you are doing is going to feel like hard work. You are getting satisfaction and fulfillment from the effort, and probably feel you are providing value in what you are doing.

I have found when I am engaged and committed I have internalized the assignment or objective, and I want to deliver and excel. I suspect that I am not too different from the majority of people out there. Given the opportunity, I think most everyone wants to be engaged, and to have internalized their work goals. What I have learned over time is that people probably cannot be trained or managed into this type of commitment. They need to be led to it.

I think the ability to do this is probably a learned capability.

I think back to the periods in time when my views about what was and wasn’t hard work changed. When the drudge work of studying for an exam was supplanted by the desire to walk into the exam confident in the knowledge and command of the material. Some kids seem to get this early in their educational career. Let’s just say that it was quite a way into my educational journey before I learned it. Much the same feeling as when the drudge work of the preparing for the customer (or even internal) presentation changed to ownership and the confidence that went with it, although that one came much quicker in my professional career.

People buy into ownership and leadership. If they are given a responsibility and are shown how their role plays into the greater good, the process of getting them to buy in has started. But that is normally not enough. People want to contribute. This is where the pride of ownership comes in.

Communicating the “what” part of what needs to be accomplished is only part of the process. It is the “how” part of the objective, as in how is the goal to be achieved that will either get internalization and buy-in, or probably get the function labeled as “hard work”.

If people are told what they must do, and how they must do it, there is very little for them to contribute to the function, other than being the vessel that performs the assigned tasks in the prescribed manner. They may have no pride of ownership. Without it, almost everything, regardless of how simple or easily achieved has the potential to be considered hard work.

As I said, we all have goals that we need to achieve for the greater good of the business, but I can’t help feeling that being told what to do and how to do it sounds like a definition of hard work.

Even with all of that preamble, I believe that the working environment, and for that matter all work, not just hard work is going to change. I have talked about the application of process as a substitute for judgement in business before. Good judgement is a necessary leadership characteristic. There are those that seem to innately have good judgement, and there are those that have acquired it as a result of their experiences.

Randy Pausch in his book “The Last Lecture” said:

“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

This is a pretty well known, and surprisingly accurate assessment of the world. What may not be as well known, is the second line from this quote. It goes:

“And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.”

But as business continues its journey from process to automation and beyond (Artificial Intelligence?), getting experience, that most valuable thing, the basis for good judgement (at least for most of us) is going to be a more and more difficult thing to obtain.

Career progressions that were once based on the recognition of an underlying business issue, and the creation and implementation of solutions to rectify them, will no longer be the norm. It will become more along the lines of being compelled to follow the steps in the existing process. As experience is gained in one step, there may then be the potential opportunity to manage multiple steps, or entire processes, or potentially multiple processes. Work will change from the creation of a solution to a problem, to the management of the existing process.

One of the issues that we seem to be facing today is that we no longer appear to be accepting, let alone rewarding the individual who does what we used to call “Thinking Outside the Box”.

That does sound pretty trite to me, but unfortunately also pretty applicable.

Process minimizes the risk of poor judgment and the variability of results. But as business appears to be creating more processes, as a substitute for judgement, that compel people to remain in the process box, it also makes the opportunity for business (or process) improvement that much more difficult to achieve.

I guess this can be an acceptable situation if you are confident that the process in place is optimal. But again, we have all seen and have grown accustomed to the idea that the rate of change in business is continuing to accelerate. The progression of work from on shore, to off shore, to automation, to the potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI) should underscore this. So even if a process was optimal at one time, it does not appear that it can remain optimal in the face of accelerating change.

I think the future of hard work will lie in compelling people to continue to use more or less fixed processes in the face of ongoing, rapid change. The process structure by its nature is resistant to change with its multiple parties, stakeholders and check points and desire for predictability, and that does not bode well for it going forward in a continually more unpredictable environment.

Perhaps the new business leaders of the future will be the ones that instead of just recognizing and solving an issue, also master the means of rapidly modifying and adapting existing processes to the changing environment. That will probably require a fundamental change in how processes are created and managed. The proverb states that “Necessity is the mother of invention”. I think that is the case here. Otherwise I think there is going to be an awful lot of hard work for everyone in the future.

Feeling Inferior

I like to read. My son says he would prefer to wait for the movie. Any movie. Seeing as how he is still only fifteen years old, I don’t think that there is much that I can do about that right now. What I can do is control what I read. I was under the misguided idea that occasionally I should read articles, magazines and books written by and for successful people, who like to tell us other presumably less successful people what we should do to become more successful, just like them.

I don’t think I am going to do this anymore.

Every time I read one of these success missives, I can’t help but feel inferior. It has a tendency to either depress me or drive me nuts.

I’ll demonstrate by example:

I got an email notification that my college alma mater (of all things) “liked” an article on one of those professional networking sites. I take being a mighty Lobo alumnus of the University of New Mexico very seriously so I thought it best to go check out what my alma mater deemed important enough to actually like. I clicked on the link in the notification.

Via the magic of the internet I was immediately whisked to the site of some business and technology e-zine with the appropriately titled article (and I am paraphrasing here as I don’t wish to have to provide attribution)

“27 Things that People Who Are More Successful Than You Do Every Day – Including Weekends – Before They Leave Work, That You Probably Don’t Do Which Explains Why They Are Successful And You Aren’t”

You would be surprised how close to the real title that paraphrase is.

As I said, I like to read. I read for information and enjoyment. I also believe it is something of a dying art. I mean why read when you can text or IM or as my son does, watch the movie anyway? But that is not the point. The point here is that I was already at the site. I consider myself to be reasonably successful. I have not ruled the world but I have done moderately okay. I figured I would peruse the first few topics of the list of successful attributes purely out of self interest and compare what the list said successful people do with what I do and see how much similarity there was.

Big mistake.

After furiously reading through the entire list with ever increasing disbelief to see if there was anything at all that I did at the end of the day that even remotely resembled something that a successful person was purported to have done at the end of the day, I came to the crushing conclusion that I am not fit to leave work at the end of the day, let alone work anywhere.

In case some of you have not experienced the joy that accompanies an epiphany that springs from reading an article like this, let me provide an example as a means of explanation. Most of us know how to sign our names. There are probably a few of us who don’t, and due to the penmanship challenges associated with the inability to sign their name these people are hence genetically selected to become doctors. Over time we have all probably evolved our “signature”.

Now take the pen that you normally sign your name with, put in the other hand (the hand that normally holds the paper while the first hand signs your signature) and now be told that all successful people are ambidextrous and in order for you too to be considered successful you should immediately be able to use that other hand to sign your signature as quickly, clearly and effortlessly as the first hand.

Give it a try. See how that works for you.

You now have only the slightest of inklings how it feels to read these articles about the habits, traits, customs, manners, dispositions, styles, fashions, penchants and proclivities of successful business people.

It depresses me that I don’t seem to have any resemblance at all to these so called successful people. It depresses me that I don’t spring out of bed at four o’clock in the morning prepared to shampoo the dog and rotate the tires on my wife’s car, and jog six or eight miles while thinking great world changing thoughts, all before going into the office like successful people are being depicted as doing. I am crestfallen that I don’t seem to be the appropriate whirl wind of activity in the last ten minutes of my business day closing off to-do lists, clearing my desk while simultaneously creating a workable plan to solve world hunger as I prepare to do battle with the other presumably unsuccessful souls on my commute home from the office.

It further concerns me that almost all the people that I know that I would consider to be successful also seem to have nothing in common with the ideal successful person that these articles describe.

In the past I have discussed how happiness cannot be derived from the actions and relative performance of others. I guess the corollary here is that feelings of depression and inferiority in the office should also not be the result of the actions and relative performance of others either.

Unfortunately that approach does not seem to sell articles, magazines and books. Nor does it seem like a very good way to drive people to specific web sites where their eyeballs can be assaulted by both an article describing in detail why they should by inference not consider themselves to be successful as well as those advertisers that are on that site who have specifically tailored their self-help ads to those people who after reading the article are now feeling so insecure about their relative worth and success in business.

What this epiphany does open up to me is the idea of a new opportunity to address a whole new segment of the self help article, magazine and book market. It is the segment of the market that is for the business person that is at least in part moderately successful, and wants to feel good about what they have accomplished. Think about that for a moment. Doesn’t everyone want a little recognition, reinforcement and reaffirmation that they have in fact been doing things well?

Think about the titles for these articles, magazines and books that could be generated, based on this new and previously untapped market approach:

“From Good to Better”
“Twelve Habits of the Moderately Successful”
“Congratulations on Making it to the Office on Time”
“How to Get Back From Lunch in One Hour”
“Speakerphone Etiquette in the Cube Farm”
“The Art of Aiming Low and Meeting Your Objectives”

The list could go on and on.

I understand that in this day and age that it is hyperbole that sells. As another example, in the past it used to be enough to just report the news. Now we seem to have a never ending stream of talking heads that are associated with one end of the political spectrum or the other that are now presenting their “version” of the news. Everything now has “spin” and now screams for our attention. I think the same is now the case for the plethora of business “self help” articles, magazines and books that are vying for our attention.

Each of these new and improved lists of elements associated with success seems to be more outlandish than the previous. As I noted before, based on these items it is hard to understand how I or anyone else is or can ever be considered successful. Hence the source of my concerns over these feelings of inferiority.

I think the bottom line is that when you take everything into consideration it is still things like drive, determination, attention to detail, effort, honesty, knowledge, experience, cooperation, preparation and maybe just a smidgeon of luck that are some of the determining factors in success. These concepts are not particularly exciting and don’t promise any secret short cuts to success. Maybe that explains why there doesn’t seem to be a market for a book titled:

“Be Smart, Work Hard, Perform Well and Move Ahead”

Perhaps another answer to being considered a success is to write a book that tells other people what they should do in order to be considered a success.

Business Lessons I Learned (or Re-Learned) When My Son Started to Drive.

I am now entering one of the most difficult stages of my life. My teenage son is starting to learn to drive. This is not a process, or a stage of life for the faint of heart. There is really nothing in life that can prepare you for this eventuality. All children do grow older, and eventually ask you for the keys to the car. It is a rite of passage for you both. Them the asking for the keys and the stepping across a metaphorical threshold into a new freedom and you granting the keys and then being cast down into a previously unknown dark world of fear and discomfort.

With all that being said I have searched for methods and experiences that I can use to help him and me cope with this situation. I think it might be better said that he does not really see a need to cope with this situation. It is obviously I who must cope with the fact that he does not see the need to cope with the situation. I think I may have come up with a few corollaries.

I am choosing to treat his beginning to drive in much the same way that you treat a new employee when they first come on the job. New employees have such high hopes of what they can achieve. Hiring businesses have such high expectations of what the new employees will accomplish. The reality of the situation is somewhat different for both of them.

Now my son has never had a job. He much prefers playing video games to working. However, I have had several jobs and have brought on many new hires into their first jobs and I do see some parallels. If a company ever adds a CVGO – Chief Video Game Officer to their executive suite of CEO’s, COO’s and CFO’s, it is possible that my son could conceivably be considered over qualified. Until then, we’ll go with the new hire analogy.

My son and I were driving along in my car when he started the conversation about which type of car he would like when he gets his driver’s license. I drive a rather non-descript car that is just large enough for me to transport my upright bass to Jazz gigs when I am asked to play. It was the deciding factor in my car selection decision. Car options and coolness factor really didn’t come into play for me. It does for him.

He on the other hand is more interested in how he will be perceived in his car by his female peer group and how fast the car will go. This is where the setting of new hire expectations comes into play. Most new hires are looking for positions and work that is commensurate with their opinion and vision of their own capabilities. They in effect want to go fast and look good.

We all think that we are capable of trading paint with any of the Sunday afternoon NASCAR drivers, but in reality we know we can’t. The same goes with my son, and new hires. I needed to tell my son where the light and windshield wiper switches were in the car. Aside from this he is ready to go. NASCAR here he comes. Step on the gas and turn left.

However it has been shown that new drivers and new employees need to learn how to handle their cars and responsibilities before they get to go fast. My son will get a “learner’s” car that will be able to absorb some abuse as he works to perfect his capabilities. This is also usually the way that new hires gain experience in an organization as well.

My son has told me a few times that he has observed me while I drive and that in fact it looks like a relatively simple operation. I told him that I once observed a juggler while he juggled running chainsaws. The juggler was very adept at juggling and it appeared as though anyone should be able to juggle chainsaws. However, I chose not to try. The same thing goes for driving if you haven’t done it before. The same thing goes for business as a new hire.

This is why there are such a large number of Driver’s Educational institutions in our area. The law here (Texas) states that there will be a specific number of class hours (training) and a specific number of supervised driving hours (practice) before a driver’s license will be issued. Who would have thought that both training and practice would be required in order to successfully obtain a goal, be it the proper and safe operation of a car on the public streets, are the successful integration of a new hire employee into the proper conduct of a business?

Newly minted drivers, like newly minted employees feel like they are ready for anything. After all, they are fully licensed. New drivers have a driver’s license; newly hired employees usually have a diploma. Both documents are designed to confer and bestow privileges and capabilities upon the owners of them. The truth is that these documents confer the capability; they do not provide any assurance of success.

This is why there is insurance. For those of you that have already bought insurance for a new driver, you already know what I am about to say. For those of you with future new drivers, please take note.

Insurance for new drivers is unequivocally expensive. Start saving for it now, regardless of how old your children are. Like college tuitions, chances are that whatever you save for new driver insurance will not be enough.

The reason that new driver insurance is so expensive is because the chances are very good that despite all the training and practice, the new driver is going to make a mistake and have an accident. Again, I think the same goes for new hire employees, and just about anyone else trying something new for the first few times. There is nothing like the first few live fire business events. This is where they gain experience, and as I have noted before, experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted.

Unfortunately there is no insurance that can be bought for new hires in business. It can be provided however in the form of oversight and supervision. Spending a little extra time with new hires on a regular basis is probably the best insurance policy available in business. It’s like riding along in the passenger seat while my son is driving. I don’t have my hand on the wheel, or my foot on the brake, but there is another set of eyes watching the road and looking out for potential issues on the road.

Also, my son learning to drive has (re)taught me patience. He does not have the same experience driving that I do. He hasn’t learned to anticipate what he may face. This is much like the new hires in the office. They too want to be successful, and while they may have many of the capabilities for success, they still need to learn, or be shown how to succeed.

New drivers and new employees in general understand the theories of driving and business, and they may actually have some experience in real life applications, but that doesn’t mean that they can just be turned loose to fend for themselves, either on the road or in the business environment, especially if your goal for them is long term success. Active mentoring and a measured introduction into more complex / higher speed environments will help minimize the dents and bruises to egos, careers and cars. It takes a little more effort, but the dividends do pay off.

Finally, this new world of my son driving has also taught me the value of antacid tablets. That is something I have never needed at office.


A necessary evil in today’s business world is the resume. It is the document where you must distill down all that you have accomplished since high school into no more than two self aggrandizing pages, and yet still be enthralling to the reader. It is one of the few documents on the planet where both form and substance are required, and where lacking either can immediately land it in the trash can. It is a living document which must be continually updated with the latest catch-phrases and Boolean search words to enable its easier location on the web by automated search programs. While being no acknowledged expert in the field, I have been on both the sending and receiving end of a boatload of resumes. I’ll share some of my findings and views.

The color of your resume does not matter, unless you choose a color other than white for your paper or electronic background, and black for your ink. I am not the only one that feels this way. I have checked this one out with some of my recruiter and head-hunter friends. Beige or pastel colored paper will in fact stand out in a stack or resumes. Beige or pastel colored resumes will remain in the resume stack. It’s a professional document for goodness sakes. The only reason that the Declaration of Independence is on yellowed paper is because the paper has aged to that color. Once your resume hits two hundred plus years of age it too can be on yellowed paper, but until then, print it on white paper.

The length of your resume does matter. A one page resume tells people that either you have not tried hard enough to write a viable resume, or that you do not have enough experience or qualifications for the job you are applying for. That would go for any job you were applying for. A three page or longer resume would indicate that you are truly enthralled with your own capabilities and accomplishments to the point where you couldn’t possibly bear to remove even a single event in your life from the document in order to better respect the readers time. Trust me on this. Nobody’s life is so awe inspiring so as to require more than two pages on a resume.

Provide information on your areas of expertise and the things that you actually can do. A historical list of the things you have done is nice, but it won’t get this job done, nor will it get you this job. It is a slight difference in approach and voice in your resume, but providing information on what you know how to do is much more compelling then reciting a list of the places you have been and the things that you did while you were there.

Front load your resume. Provide more detail and information on your most recent assignments and positions. I understand that you have done some really neat stuff twenty plus years ago. I did too. But there is a thing called currency as it relates to your experience. If your best stuff is twenty years old then it is possible that your business skills may be considered out of date.

Tell people what it is that you do. If you are looking for a sales role, then just about everything in your resume should scream sales. There should be few if any sentences in your resume that do not have the word “sales” in them. The more specific you can be about what you do, and what you can do, the more appreciative the reader of your resume will be. The easier that it is for the reader to understand if you are a fit for the position or not, the better it is for everyone, especially you.

Quantify what value you have brought to previous positions and what value you can bring to this position. Value is relatively easy to identify. It is usually represented by an ordinal number, which is preceded by a dollar sign. If you can’t put a number and a dollar sign next to it, it probably isn’t of value. It may seem harsh, but it is the current business environment.

Don’t tell anyone that you led a cross functional team, even if you actually did at one time. Cross functional teams are management speak for some sort of committee that met on a regular basis. Mark Twain described a committee as a life form with at least six legs and no brain. Organizations seem to be increasingly fond of creating them, and people seem to be intent on telling each other that they were either on them or leading them, but I nor anyone else I have ever known has ever seen any value delivered in a quantifiable way to a business from a cross functional team. You are wasting valuable space on your two pages with this one.

Don’t tell anyone that you enabled anything. Leaders don’t enable things. They do things. I understand that enablement is a nice sounding concept. There are very few instances where it has quantifiable business value. You either did it or you didn’t. Please don’t try and convince people that you enabled someone else to do it. At best it sounds lame and at worst it sounds like you are trying to appropriate someone else’s success.

Many resumes like to make mention of the fact that the individual is a “team player”. When reviewing resumes, most hiring managers are not looking for team players. They are looking for stars. In sales they are looking for someone that will bring in orders, preferably boat loads of them. In operations they are looking for someone that will deliver revenue and control costs. Most of the time a team player is not the type of individual that can perform these functions. If you can do extraordinary things, tell people in your resume. Don’t tell them you are a team player.

Have someone else read your resume before you submit it. Most of us are somewhat blind to our own mistakes. We wrote it. We reviewed it. Therefore it should be fine, right? Unfortunately, no. Have someone else read your resume and provide you their opinion. When they do, don’t argue with them. I too have felt that people have missed both the obvious and the nuanced aspects of my resume. I have also come to realize that if they have missed it, probably so will the recruiter and hiring manager miss it. Take the feedback. A resume is a personal item, but it is for public consumption and may need to be adjusted from a specific individual taste.

The two pages that comprise a resume are precious real estate. All of your education, training and experience to date need to be distilled down into those two pages. You need to convey what you are capable of and the value that you can bring to a prospective hiring manager. With that in mind you surely do not want to waste space by relating banalities such as being a team player, enabling others to succeed or were on some sort of aggrandized committee.

As I said, resumes are a necessary evil. They are the convention that businesses use when reviewing potential candidates for positions. Unfortunately they are also the basis for the first in a number of decision criteria and hurdles that are designed to winnow out the perceived unfit or the perceived less competent for the position. Unless you are a Nobel laureate or some other similarly gifted applicant, chances are that your resume will not get you the job. However if your resume is not in the appropriate format and does not contain relevant content it can preclude you from further consideration for the job.

You Can Take Some Things With You

As we start out on a new year I was looking back at the past one(s). There is no doubt that we have been in, and continue to work through unsettled times. I have several friends that are in the employment market. Some for the first time, and others are repeating the process. I too have been through multiple position changes over the past several years. As I said, I think it is a sign of the times.

When people ask about these multiple positions, I think the reasons for the changes are clear. Companies and businesses are making changes and adapting to new environments that are requiring them to adjust their resource plans at ever increasing speeds in order to deal with the financial demands that they face. Simply put, businesses are increasing staff much more slowly, and reducing staff much more quickly in response to the market pressures than they have in the past. As a result, many of us have had the opportunity to work in multiple environments over this period.

While it has been unstable, challenging and sometimes stressful, it has also provided many of us with the opportunities to work in, and experience different business models and cultures that can’t help but assist us in future business opportunities. Below are some examples of what can be learned and taken away from different and varied assignments.

Many of us have spent the majority of our business careers in a General Manger type environment and structure. This seems to have been a favored structure for North American companies. This structure puts significant value on the performance of the individual and business as the primary metric functions. While it was a very good model for each discrete business unit in the structure, it does create an insular and competitive environment where there is very little cross unit communication or assistance. While it was also very good for rapid response and action (after all there is ultimately only one person making the final decision for the business), it also did not openly foster the need for contribution and buy-in from the entire team.

As Matrix organizations and structures become more popular, a greater emphasis is now being placed on the communication and cooperation between business units that is needed to now get jobs done. Since there is now in effect multiple entities that are required to concur before a decision can be finalized, multiple inputs and contributions are both needed and invited. This structure generates a concurrence and consensus orientation to decisions that reduces the internal conflicts associated with the General Management model, but may take longer for those decisions to occur.

The future will require business leaders to be equally at home and adept at managing in both the General Management decision making / responsibility structure and Matrix management communication / consultative structures. Being comfortable or good in one structure will not be enough. Leaders will have to be able to understand and work well in both structures, probably at the same time.

These times have presented the opportunity, and in many instances demanded that leaders who have been involved with large multi-national organizations to work in and learn how smaller and entrepreneurial organizations function. Understanding how to help small organizations act big, and how some big organizations may need to learn from and in many instances emulate the smaller and more nimble businesses will probably also be a requirement of the future business environment. Since almost all competitors will compete in almost all markets, the ability to be “big” when necessary and “small” when required will be a flexibility key to success in the future. As businesses opportunities will evolve to be situational by market, the ability to recognize, vary and change business approach and behavior to take advantage of them will be a key to future success.

Another opportunity that these times have presented is the opportunity to experience both sides of the “Head Office – Remote Office” divide. The problems, perceptions and bias’ that occur from prolonged involvement in one office structure or the other can affect future performance and views of a leader. Being able to understand and live the different and discrete issues associated with trying to manage remote offices, or being in a remote location managed by a distant head office, can provide the perspective needed to understand the forces driving particular behaviors at both locations.

Few of us “like” to have to transition from one position to another. In many cases it will take us out of our comfort (or familiarity) zone. By understanding that when we step into new organizations and structures we not only have the opportunity to contribute from our experience set that may be external to the current business culture, and thereby strengthen them, we also have the opportunity to learn and take away new experiences that will increase the breadth of structures and situations that we can and have dealt with, and thereby strengthen ourselves.

Over the past while we have seen the business world focus on each individuals “depth” of knowledge in very narrowly defined responsibilities. As the business environment hopefully begins to improve I can’t help but think that the leader who has come through these times and taken with them an increased breadth of perspective and experience will become more in demand.