A few months ago I acted on a goal I have had for a long time—to start a business book club.
Although we have only met a few times, the coming together of this like-minded group of professionals has been more delightful than I could have ever anticipated.
Instead of being limited to my own conclusions on a particular book, I now have access to the ways that others with different backgrounds and expertise take in, interpret and utilize the same information.
It’s like arriving late at night to a vacation destination you’ve only seen in brochures and waking up in the morning and opening the curtains to find a beautiful, expansive view of the world your imagination could never have fully pictured.
As we were leaving, one of the guests turned to me and said, " hope I don't have to use your services!" I felt as if someone had just thrown a bucket of ice water on me. It was the first time I had ever had anyone talk about dreading the prospect of coming to see me as a client. I have always viewed what I do as helping people to enrich their lives, and it had never occurred to me that someone would see it as inseparable from the painful possibility of losing their job.
But these are not ordinary times, and the woman who made the remark works in an industry which is shrinking. She is dealing not only with anxiety over a lost livelihood, but also a life's work she had dreamed of following ever since she was a child. Who could blame her for thinking of me a bit like the undertaker?
I was standing in line at one of those office superstores to buy a plastic file box as preparation (and motivation) for the annual ritual of cleaning up my files, and I happened to glance up at a huge poster with an incredible promise. There, within that very building, it claimed, was everything I needed to be "wildly organized".
Like all clever advertising, the idea had its appeal, particularly for someone trying to keep a lot of balls in the air, someone who felt just the opposite—confined and out of control.
But is it possible to be "wildly organized"?
As I rushed home to catch Andre Agassi in the final stage of his transformation from tennis celebrity to endearing human being at the US Open last month, I was looking forward to the tennis, but dreading the commercials.
Yet much to my surprise, one of the ads spoke to me with the power and precision of a 130 mph ace about a phenomenon that universally limits human potential—labeling.
In the ad, we see an attractive young woman (Maria Sharapova) entering the Waldorf Astoria in New York, walking through the lobby, emerging from her room after a change of clothes, getting into a cab outside the hotel, and arriving at Arthur Ashe stadium.
She moves with a straightforward, I-know-where-I’m-going demeanor past doormen, desk clerks, elevator operators, business men, security guards, etc., and each person she passes sings, in his or her own cracking, out-of-pitch voice, Stephen Sondheim’s tribute to being female from West Side Story, “I Feel Pretty”.
If you’ve decided to launch a new business venture, you’ll find plenty of books telling you how to go about writing a business plan, securing financing, setting up payroll, etc.
Likewise, if you’ve been laid off or you’ve decided you want to make a change, there’s no lack of information on how to start a job search.
But where do you turn when your start-up activities are completed, and things aren’t going so well, when the initial excitement you felt at owning your own business has cooled, and no one is walking in the door, or you’ve perfected your career marketing package, and the phone isn’t ringing. There are far fewer resources for dealing with the low points in our professional lives.
Fortunately, however, there is The Art of Possibility by Roz and Ben Zander. Ben Zander is conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, professor of music at New England Conservatory, and a speaker on leadership and creativity. His wife Roz is an executive coach and family systems therapist.
It may seem odd to be talking about starvation at a time when most of us are indulging in an abundance of holiday food, but the starvation I’m referring to has nothing to do with what we consume by mouth and everything to do with how we nurture our professional growth.
As I write this column (the week before Thanksgiving) I know there are business professionals who hunger for a little time and space to reflect on where they are in their lives, just as people in third world countries hunger for a bowl of rice. The difference is that for the professionals the starvation is self-imposed.
Although the dream of finding and holding on the right job with the right company and never having to look for work again is still alive, there’s an increasing number of people who need look no farther than the contrast between their own and their parents’ employment histories to see that it is more myth than reality.
They have learned the hard way that security is no longer tied to a single company, no matter how impressive its corporate headquarters, stock price, or benefit package.
I was catching up with a dear friend, talking about all that had happened in her life since she was laid off from a company where she’d worked for many years. Although she had been restless long before the layoff, she had postponed taking action (despite my urging), hoping that seniority, a track record of glowing reviews, and being well-liked in the company would allow her to hang on for a few more years, long enough to cross the retirement “finish line.”
Today, as we all know, work comes in two basic varieties. It may be a conventional employment arrangement, traditionally known as a “job”.
Or it may take the form of a contracted service, consulting assignment, preferred vendor status, etc., traditionally known as freelancing.
When I started out as a career counselor, the job was the coin of the realm, and the complicated rituals associated with getting and keeping one took place on a strictly person-to-business level.
On the other hand, consultants, subcontractors, and other types of freelancers have always built business-to-business relationships by providing services directly connected to the needs and goals of the clients they serve. By virtue of the value added by these services, they are granted “temporary” admission to the organization.
In a recent column, I conjured up the vision of an unemployed techie named John. I had him charging up the hill under fire armed with nothing more than a resume and having something less than a fifty-fifty chance of closing with that well-entrenched employer on top.
When a person loses his job, or feels threatened by impending layoffs or outsourcing or shaky economic conditions, the most natural thing is to reach for what is most handy—a resume.
But this impulse to reach for the "equipment" and neglect strategic planning is not going to win the battle. It could even undermine the entire offensive.