Saturday, December 15, 2012

Dr. Richard H. Gallagher: A tribute

(Note: My late father would have been 85 years old this year. Sadly his life was cut short just before his 70th birthday, on September 30, 1997, after bravely battling a rare form of cancer while at the peak of his career as President of Clarkson University. He was one of the pioneers of modern engineering design analysis.

This tribute was originally written by me just before his passing, and sent to his professional colleagues after he died. I recently discovered that its original web host is now defunct, and wanted to preserve this online for posterity on my own blog.)

My father was, on the surface, one of the most improbable people one could imagine as a pioneer of modern engineering analysis. He was a kid from the Bronx who left home at age 16 to try and join the military, and describes his entry into engineering school as being almost an afterthought following the end of World War II and his Navy enlistment. He later graduated from an engineering program in New York that no longer exists, and was nearly in his forties, supporting a wife and five children, when he earned his doctorate in night school at an institution that had never granted them in his field before.

His accomplishments since then could easily fill the successful careers of several people, and many people who know him from one field are unaware of his accomplishments in others. He progressed from being a practicing engineer, to an industry pioneer of the finite element analysis method, to a distinguished Ivy League teaching career, to becoming a highly successful academic official and university president. In each of these diverse activities, he not only succeeded, but received the highest honors of each field in turn.

Behind the official accolades, however, was a very modest and private person whose personal integrity was absolute. During his retirement from the presidency of Clarkson University, the one comment we heard the most from his colleagues was "Dick is the most solid person I've ever known", and this was as true in his personal life as it was in his career. He never boasted of his achievements off-camera - his work itself gave him pleasure, and it sustained him day and night throughout his entire working life.

He felt that technology was an important means of improving everyone's success in life, and was a tireless proponent of both bringing more women and minorities into the engineering field, as well as helping practicing engineers to become lifelong learners. And even as a young engineer, he saw his field in very global terms. I will never forget, as a young boy, seeing how excited he was about presenting one of his first papers in Stuttgart, Germany -- he put aside finite elements for weeks in a crash effort to learn German, and gave a successful lecture.

From there, our family quickly became used to seeing him travel to Asian universities, behind Iron Curtains, and to every continent on earth as an active member of the FEA fraternity, while he and his wife Terry increasingly became host to a steady stream of international visitors. Early in his life, he developed a habit of purchasing a ceramic mug from each institution he would lecture at, and this massive international collection of beer steins remains a testament to his globetrotting support of the field.

It is a well-known "secret" among Dick's colleagues that all five of his children became engineering graduates, and pursued successful technology careers of their own. What is less known is that this was never his wish. I don't believe that he ever expressed a career preference to any of his children as they grew up, and was in fact a strong proponent of the classic liberal arts education; indeed, he married a cum laude graduate in English who was a published poet and a promising advertising copywriter. At home, he would light up as much talking about world history and popular culture as he ever did about engineering analysis, and we all remember road trips which would stop at every historical site, castle or bridge within range of our route. The fact that each of his offspring chose to pursue technology instead is a testament to how brightly his enthusiasm glowed for his own work, and his wish for at least one of us to become a person of arts and letters stands as one of few goals that he ever failed at.

Sharing the same name as my father, I experience constant reminders of his impact on the engineering field. At times, people mistaking me for him laud the impact of "my" books and papers on their careers; more often, they go out of their way to share what an influence the man and his work has been to them. His efforts literally paved the way for a multi-billion dollar industry, thousands of careers, and millions of lives improved.

In his last commencement speech at Clarkson, which he gave shortly after learning of his illness, he spoke in a strong, clear voice of how we must all have a sense of urgency in our lives, how quickly his own 45 year career had passed, and how the decisions we make early on affect us for the rest of our lives. The decisions that he made in his own life benefited all of us.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

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Saturday, December 01, 2012

The view from this far

This week I enter my 59th year. So what does it feel like to be approaching my 60s? The real answer is a little complex, but I'll give it a try.

The first answer is that I feel this is an ideal age. I wish I could stay here for a while. I wake up feeling pretty good every morning, with someone I am still madly in love with, but with the advantage of a lot more experience, wisdom, and resources versus when I was younger.

In some ways this age is liberating. Take career issues, for example. I remember all too well how painful it was to be struggling with making a living in my 30s and 40s. When you are that age, career problems loom extremely large, because you have to worry about supporting yourself for another quarter-century or more. Nowadays I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Aging also liberates you from people's expectations. In my 20s and 30s, with an engineering degree and a hot technical career, any suggestion of trying another path was met with alarm by my friends, my relatives, and my mortgage. Now no one cares anymore, so I get to do whatever I want. And ironically I am busier and more successful than ever - although if you ask me what I do for a living, allow enough time for a lengthy answer.

At the same time, there is a twinge of sadness that time marches on. You notice it when you scan your iTunes playlist and see how many of the artists you grew up with have passed on. You look through your Facebook friends list and see that a lot of your colleagues are retired. Or you call your mother and she doesn't remember your wife's name anymore. I had a bit of a shock last month when we got tickets to see Chicago and the Doobie Brothers - groups that formed the soundtrack to our dating years - and realized that their original members are all roughly 70 years old now. So as much fun as it is to be here now, I still have to wrap my head around the fact that it doesn't end there.

Which leads to another conundrum. I am still very much in the arena these days. I write, I speak, I travel, and I have a new book coming out next year from a major publisher. Thankfully I am busy enough to be working far too many hours, and have been for a long time. Do I plan to shut all this down and start playing shuffleboard in a few years? No. So what does retirement look like for someone like me?

I frankly haven't figured that one out yet. To be as busy as I am now into, say, my 70s sounds kind of stupid, especially when I could be sharing a lot more sunsets with Colleen. But when you are a go-getter like I am, simply watching the sun set every night would be a recipe for boredom and depression. I never intend to retire in the traditional sense of the word, but the challenge will be striking a balance with the many things I truly enjoy.

Perhaps my latest venture is a good metaphor for where my life seems to be heading. Years ago I quietly went back to graduate school to pursue a longstanding pipe dream: becoming a psychotherapist as I transitioned into retirement. Nowadays I am in practice a couple of days a week, on top of all the other crazy things I do, and Colleen gets to chuckle at me when my schedule is full or I have to rush out for a crisis intervention. (One of my brothers put it even more succinctly, saying you couldn't force him to do this at gunpoint.) But I enjoy it, and did this intentionally to stay relevant as I age and the phone stops ringing in my consulting practice. Except that it hasn't stopped ringing yet. So that may be what my retirement looks like after all: reasonably well planned, focused on things I love, and perhaps busier than I expected. Stay tuned!

Monday, November 19, 2012

My Blue Sweater, Or The Fine Art of Ignoring Your Customers

This is my favorite blue sweater. It fulfills the three basic things I need when I venture out into the world this time of year: it's my color, it looks good with a sport coat, and it keeps me warm. And it's machine washable.

So you would think that every year or two I'd simply go down to my favorite department store - or online catalog - and buy a couple, right? Wrong. Most years I go shopping for sweaters, the stores have decided I really want green plaid ones. Or cable-knit ones with big fat ribs. Or ones with embroidered antelopes. Or the $150 rabbit-hair, dry-clean-only version of what I want.

And yet when I walk around on the streets, most fellow business people are wearing what I'm wearing. I never see them wearing embroidered antelopes. Which leads me to a simple question: How come so many businesses won't just sell us what we want?

Another example. This is an Open Oyster from Godiva Chocolates. My wife's favorite treat. Whenever I'm on a business trip to a major city like New York or Toronto, I stop by a Godiva store and get her a bunch of them.

So why don't I just go online to and get her more of these anytime? Because won't sell them to me. You can't purchase individual chocolate pieces in quantity. You can, however, buy their All-Sorts-Of-Crap-You-Don't-Want-Plus-An-Open-Oyster-Or-Two boxed assortment anytime you wish.

This reminds me of when I got my first iPod and discovered that I couldn't simply buy a set of replacement Apple earphones for it. Like Godiva, the geniuses at Apple (pun intended) apparently decided that I had to either buy them as part of a more expensive package, or get a more well-behaved cat next time. Or my favorite solution, get another brand of earphones.

No substitutions. Only sold as a set. Parts not available separately. Wholesale only. How often do we hear phrases like this, when we simply want to buy what people are selling. At many businesses, some genius keeps thinking up restrictions like these, for reasons that are usually completely beyond me.

So what is so hard about simply selling us what we want? Instead companies seem to behave in ways my Austrian grandmother would call "schtupid, schtupid, schtupid." I don't understand it. At all. If you could clue me in, please do so. Thanks!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Do business success tips work?

When you run a small business, there is no lack of chirpy articles on how to succeed. But do they work? Just for fun, I decided to take one of them (from a recent Forbes Magazine series, linked here) and hold it up against my own 15 years of successful self-employment.

It's actually not a bad article, and the author has great credentials. But your mileage may vary. So let's compare its "seven habits of highly effective freelancers" with my reality:

1. Start early
I am a serious night owl, and always have been. Sure, I'll get up at 6 AM sometimes - in fact, regularly - to deliver a kick-butt keynote speech or workshop somewhere. But people should work at their peak times, and mine is decidedly late evening.

Besides, late hours have their advantages. Tomorrow I have a teleconference with a new client in Germany - at 2 AM. Next week I stay up late again to do a webinar for Australia during their daytime. Like a chain convenience store, I'm always open.

2. Always be pitching
I don't know about you, but people who are always pitching annoy the crap out of me. My own clients seem to like the fact that I never, ever try to snocker them into giving me more work, and I strongly suspect that "pitching" them would drive more than a few away.

So how do I get business? Above all, through word-of-mouth from other satisfied clients. And through marketing, which is not the same as pitching. I publish books, write articles, give talks and webinars, and generally pester no one.

3. Create your space
There is a perfectly good desk somewhere under my piles of paperwork. But I know exactly where everything is, and I can't see where this has hurt my income any.

4. Diversify yourself
OK, this one I do agree with. Most successful self-employed people I know do multiple things for a living. And I think it's cool being a writer/speaker/psychotherapist/whatever-else-I-feel-like-today. Being a "mutt" with diverse interests is one of the hidden keys to success.

5. Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate
Better known as "talking yourself out of projects with fixed budgets." Google Phil Jackson this week - who reportedly lost the chance to coach the Lakers again after making a series of demands, despite being the best coach in recorded history - and see what being a tough negotiator gets you.

I'll give the author this much: gently exploring options or pricing is OK in my book, and I do it too. But quote-unquote negotiators are generally a pain in the ass. I've seen people lose jobs, consulting gigs, and friendships because they focus too much on negotiating and not enough on taking the gig.

6. Mingling, baby
Touching base with friends, colleagues, and clients sounds great. But this tip talks about how you should "wade into the  revenue stream every day." Does this mean you are pitching again? If so, go back and re-read my comments on tip #2.

7. Get a life
I didn't realize mine was missing in the first place. Enjoying what I do for a living is a big part of that.

So what is my formula for business success? Um, apparently stay up late, wait for customers to come to me, have a messy desk, and do very little negotiation. I can see why Forbes probably won't come calling on me for an article anytime soon. But seriously, here's my success tip: Do what you love. Be really good at it. And live a life that fits who you are. Then all the other stuff will fall into place.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The only political blog I will write all year

It is election season in America. That time of year when people start putting up posts and blogs about how candidates are horrible, evil, terrible, corrupt, and will ruin this country if, God forbid, they get elected. And that is just from the people I like and respect - don't get me started on what the politically over-invested are posting.

My position? I make most of my living training people how to build consensus and resolve conflict. So what may seem like political opinions to you are, to me, examples of how to do exactly the opposite of everything I teach. Let's break down what is happening linguistically in most of these posts:

The "doctor" technique: As in the old joke, "What do the call the person who graduated last in medical school? Doctor." The technique goes something like this: take any candidate. Find the stupidest person in their party. Find the stupidest thing the stupidest person says. Then link the candidate to it: "This candidate's party believes in (insert quoted stupidity here)! How horrible!"

"Hate" speech: Take a position. Any position. Then find whomever might not agree with it 100%, and make the candidate "hate" them. Everywhere I look, candidates apparently hate growth, hate women, hate small business, hate progress, hate freedom of choice ... or whatever. So, for example, whenever I wolf down a pizza I apparently "hate" fresh food.

Liar! Liar!: Someone backed something and then the legislation never passed? He lied! Someone laid out an economic plan and then the economy changed? They lied! Someone crossed party lines to build a bipartisan consensus on something? She lied! Try confronting your spouse with "You LIED!" the next time he or she is running a few minutes late sometime, and then let me know me how well it works.

(By the way, in case you are keeping track, the search phrases "Obama lies" and "Romney lies" actually have almost identical counts on Google - 155 million each, give or take.)

Did you know that so-and-so voted for (whatever)?: They say if you like laws or sausages, don't watch either being made. Any elected official who does their job and votes to keep the budget running, the government functioning, etcetera will vote regularly for huge bills with zillions of obscure things in them. Here, you take the stupidest ones and say your opponent voted for them. The classic example of this is "(S)he voted to raise taxes 87 times."

Bracketing: Do I want peace? Well, duh, yes. Do I think people should learn and speak English? Golly, my English teacher always thought so. Should we save the environment? Give me a break, of course we should. Am I in favor of family values? Last time I looked, I haven't seen anyone against them. What you are seeing here is a technique where people ask stupid questions with only one answer, and when you give the one answer, you are supposedly on their side.

When I see any of these techniques in play, especially in politics, I automatically shut down to whatever is being said. Both at a personal level, because I wasn't taught to talk about others this way, and at a political level, because I wish we wouldn't keep voting for polarized gridlock government every year. Meanwhile, I am looking forward to the second week in November, when it will hopefully be safe to go back on Facebook again.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Raisin consciousness

I was talking back to a box of raisins this morning at breakfast.

No, don't go packing me off to a therapist yet (never mind that I *am* a therapist). These raisins and I have had a relationship going back for years. In fact, I blogged about it previously. For years, Sun-Maid Raisins has put motivational or inspirational sayings on the flaps of their little raisin boxes. Usually good advice about things like smiling more often, or the occasional raisin-centric plug. For a long time, I've enjoyed starting my day seeing what the raisins have to tell me.

I wasn't too happy with the raisins today, however. And there is a good life lesson on communication here that is worth sharing with all of you: when you cross the line from being supportive to telling people what to do, you start getting yourself in trouble.

Today, the raisin box said, "Pick up what you tripped over, so no one else does!" Including the exclamation point. My first reaction? I don't take orders from a box of raisins. And I certainly didn't ask them to be my mother. Their job is (a) to get sprinkled on my oatmeal and eaten, and (b) perhaps to make me smile and feel good. Anything else is shoving their oar in, even if they are a bunch of dried grapes.

A little later, I sat down and examined this reaction. After all, I am one of the most responsible people I know. I'm a mature adult approaching retirement age. I probably would pick up something I tripped over. So if this bothered *me*, how would other people react?

And that is exactly my point. Too many of us - including me sometimes - act like the raisins. We try to correct people. We try to "help" them. We give them advice. We show them the error of their ways. And then we wonder why they never listen to us.

I know the raisins mean well. But in my view, there is only one truly effective way of motivating people: Listen to them. "Get" them. Cheer them on. Understand and empathize with their struggles. And then, if you absolutely must give them advice, do it gently as an equal. Whether you are a person or a box of dried fruit.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Bob Welch and the quiet desperation of men

The recent suicide of former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Bob Welch was the saddest news I have heard in a long time. I always felt a special bond with his music, starting back when I would play his ethereal Future Games late at night as a college disc jockey, and continuing to the present day: I was just listening to his latest 2012 album Bob Welch Sings the Best Songs Ever Written a week before he died.

We will never really know what led Welch to end his life - that is personal and private. But according to news reports he had recently undergone spinal surgery, had been told he would never recover, and did not want his wife to care for an invalid, a fate that met his own father.

To me, this brings up a deeper point. Men often naturally define themselves around what they "do." It is a survival instinct that goes back thousands of years for us. When early man lost the ability to hunt and gather, it meant the end of his life. To this day, the end of our productive years is often one of the most bitter and lonely experiences men ever go through.

To be blunt, too many men I know have died or disappeared into isolation soon after watching their life's work fade into the sunset: family members, classmates, neighbors, and people in the community. Far too many to be a coincidence in my book. And I have tasted it myself. Leaving corporate life as I neared age 50 - knowing that at my age and salary, I was probably never coming back - was one of the most painful things I ever experienced. It is a deep, spiritual pain that doesn't go away easily, even as you recover financially and move on.

Thankfully I regained my own joy of living again. (I used to joke that the most powerful antidepressant I could take would be a book contract, and there was ultimately a lot of truth in that jest.) Nowadays I can actually thank this experience for what it taught me. Today I am fiercely proud of running a successful business for nearly a decade, and practically militant about the need for men to develop self-employment skills as they age. And when I eventually went back to school to become a therapist, it not only fulfilled a lifelong personal goal, it was in part to have a role into retirement that no one could take from me.

Whatever your gender, we now live in an unprecedented era that treats too many of us as being disposable as we age. I feel this hits men particularly hard, because we have such a long history of being providers. My response to this? Fight back. Understand your feelings and survival instincts. Let them lead you to new paths in life, to counselors who can help you, to the fellowship of others. Your intelligence and talents are often the very reasons you hurt so badly. Don't give up.

And finally, a few words for those who love the men in their lives. Don't gloss over what they are experiencing with pat answers or chirpy slogans. Don't wait impatiently for them to "get over it." And please don't tell them they should just learn to live in the moment like you do. We aren't wired that way. Listen to them and learn from them, and they will tell you what they need.

Rest in peace, Bob Welch.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Banned for life

Have you ever hated a company so much that you swore them off for the rest of your life?

My late father was a successful engineering professor for most of his life, who eventually became a university president. What is less well-known about him was that in the early years of his career, he worked for a major oil company. He and his co-workers hated working there. In fact, they hated it so much that as he left this company, this practical and fairly even-tempered man made a vow with his co-workers never to purchase their products again as long as they lived!

Perhaps it sounded like a few disgruntled employees blowing off steam. But as we grew up, our family got used to the idea that Dad would always drive past this (major) brand's gas stations, in favor of any other one. Over time, it became part of our family history.

Of course, being a family tradition, his children honored it as well. I certainly never wanted to disrespect my father and use this gas station either. In my entire adult life, the only time I ever made an exception to the family boycott was when I was running out of gas in the middle of the Arizona desert, in the middle of blistering 100-plus degree heat, when one of their stations was the only one around for many miles. But even then, I felt kind of like a Hindu vegetarian who had just eaten a greasy pork sandwich to survive.

Perhaps a fitting epilogue to this boycott came late in my father's life, when he attended a reunion and reconnected with some of his fellow engineers from that oil company. And guess what - they confided to Dad that they, too, had honored their vow never to use their products in their vehicles. All their lives. And probably passed it along to their children too. Meanwhile, in my own family, this boycott will soon be entering a fourth generation.

So how much do your employees love your company? Would they purchase your products and services after they leave? In fact, would they leave in the first place?

Monday, April 09, 2012

The tragedy of the commons: Why service businesses are killing themselves

As a customer service guy by trade, I have noticed something interesting recently: more businesses than ever are chasing their best customers away.

Put bluntly, I can no longer make a major purchase - and sometimes even a minor one - without getting aggressively hounded to buy upgrades, add-on warranties or services I don't want, to a degree I have never seen before. I often react to this pressure by never coming back. Multiply this by lots of others, and I can see why many retail and service businesses are going the way of lemmings marching off a cliff.

Take the time I took a business trip to the West Coast, and was browbeaten by the rental car agent for the entire transaction about upgrading to a bigger car - asking why I didn't want it, pushing the benefits of the more expensive car, and sighing and acting like I was stupid not to take advantage of such a deal. (Even worse was the time an agent said, "How would you like an Impala?" implying I was getting one anyway, and then silently upcharging me without my permission.) Nowadays I rent cars from firms with automated kiosks where possible, and avoid live agents like the plague.

More recently, I went to purchase some home exercise equipment. As soon as the dreaded extended warranty question came up, I made it clear I had no interest whatsoever. Not that my wishes mattered. The salesperson insisted on going over one "benefit" after another of his plan, as I kept saying no thanks.

Then he asked why I didn't want to buy it, and silly me, I told him: I rarely use coverage like this, and when I have actually filed a claim my service experiences have usually been horrible. Of course, he didn't actually want to know why I wasn't interested. He just wanted to keep me talking so he could yeah-but everything I said. Finally, as he kept blathering on, I walked away.

Same deal when I purchased a new computer this month. This time the clerk not only didn't give up, but called her manager over for yet another round of "Why don't you want to buy this service plan?"  I practically felt like I was going to be led away for an interrogation before I made it to the checkout counter.

In perhaps the stupidest example of all - and one I blogged about previously - I went to a bookstore for the express purpose of purchasing some expensive professional books I had once browsed there. Solely to be fair to the store instead of buying them online. My reward was to be ceaselessly hectored to purchase a $25 discount card I had no interest in, because my savings would cover half the fee I had no intention of paying. After at least five rounds of  "no thanks," with her visibly clucking and sighing at me in front of everyone about it, I silently resolved to click "add to cart" forever after.

In sociological terms, this is what we call the tragedy of the commons. It happens when individuals, acting in their own self-interest, ultimately destroy a shared resource - in this case, their paying customers - in much the same way that farmers let common lands get over-grazed as long as their own cows get there first.

Here is how the math works: Upselling improves a company's short-term bottom line. So some genius at headquarters orders everyone to do it aggressively or else. Then customers like me get hassled and shift permanently to buying elsewhere or online. Which makes them even more desperate.

It is often even worse for the employees than for the customers. Once at a chain jewelry store, for example, I saw a poster on the back of the stockroom door with a truly stupefying list of daily sales goals: close X amount of revenue, upsell Y number of customers, sell Z numbers of service plans, etc. Employees who don't "close" as hard, and are therefore liked better by customers, often lose their jobs or don't get bonuses. The ultimate impact of losing these less-pesky employees - and good customers - of course never gets measured.

Not every company falls victim to this trend. Take Wal-Mart: they offer extended warranties at check-out, but the cost is very reasonable, and at least at my store, they won't hold up the line pestering you if you aren't interested. And of all places, my favorite car dealer. We recently leased a new Honda, and the literature for their add-on services was just that: literature. No pressure and no problem. We'll be back.

Businesses today seem to have fallen into a vicious cycle of bullying people to make one-time sales, while chasing away the loyal long-term customers they need to survive. The solution? Start learning a basic concept from the world of dating: no means no.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Thoughts from a Curaçao cab

Public speaking has taken me a lot of places. This week it took Colleen and I to Curaçao, a Caribbean island off the coast of South America, where I did the opening keynote for the Tree Care Industry Association’s 2012 Winter Management Conference.

Aside from teaching a couple hundred or so of my best friends what to say to a porcupine, I had a rare couple of days free to explore this beautiful island and do what I love best – speak with new people. Often from the inside of a cab. And frankly, I think everyone should look at life the same way a Curaçao cab driver does. Here are some of the things I learned from them this week:

Enjoy the moment. I always ask cab drivers anywhere how their day is going. In Curaçao, a typical answer was a broad smile, a sweep of the hand pointing to the sky, and the response, “Great – the sun is shining!”

When I used to live in Los Angeles, where it was pretty darn sunny most of the time, most people wouldn’t respond to “how are you” by even noticing the sun. Instead, they would talk about their jobs, their bursitis, or their ex-wives. I much prefer the way they think in Curaçao, stopping to savor the moment.

Life is about relationships. One cabbie in particular seemingly stopped every ten seconds in crowded downtown Willemstad to honk and wave at people he knew, and later made a quick stop at its Floating Market to buy Venezuelan grapes the size of plums for his mother (“she’ll be happy in a few minutes.”) How often does that happen in most places? Whether we are cabbies or computer programmers, too many of us (present company included) live in a cocoon instead of connecting with others.

There is always tomorrow. One driver leaned out the window to talk with a colleague who was about to board a ferry, smiling and joking with each other in their native Papiamento language. He then explained that his friend’s cab had been in the shop all week waiting for a part, putting his livelihood on hold, but that he was enjoying the time off and the great weather in the meantime. So how did I react last week when my own “cab” (e.g. my computer) crashed, and my consulting projects were held up? Certainly not by putting myself on “island time.” I’ve still got a lot to learn here.

It isn’t just about us. Whatever you might think about organized religion, a surprising number of Curaçao cabbies – as well as our Dutch tour guide – volunteered that they read the Bible every day, and that it guided their life. We had some fascinating discussions on what Jesus actually said, especially about forgiving people, starting over, and never judging others. I totally respect anyone’s religion or lack thereof, but it was refreshing to listen to so many people who “get” the difference between being righteous and self-righteous.

Now that I am back home, I realize it is time to trade the warmth and relaxation of Curaçao for the speed my life normally runs at. And it is a great life indeed. But I tip my hat to a lot of good people who charmed me this week, and am going to try and carry a little more of the islands inside me from here.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Dear online retailer

How nice of you to start sending me e-mails this week, telling me that you want me back. In fact, it is very kind of you to remember me at all, since I haven't ordered from you in years. Since it has been a while, I thought I might clue you in on why I have been gone so long.

You see, you sell all sorts of things – and way back before iTunes got really big, you even used to sell downloadable music. Back then, I bought a lot of songs from you. But then one day, one of these songs I purchased was a corrupt file that wouldn't play. Downloaded it a couple of times, in fact, to be sure it wasn't me.

"No biggie," I thought. "I'll just e-mail customer service and let them know. They will appreciate hearing about the problem, and I will get my 99 cents back." What happened instead was one of the most ridiculous bureaucratic ordeals I have had with any consumer product.

First I received an e-mail, written in marginal English, telling me that you would "investigate" the problem, and would then inform me of the results of the investigation – and that after this process was complete, you would then decide whether I would receive my 99 cents back. *Weeks* go by. I cannot resist the curiosity of asking about the status of this. A good while later, I receive a response telling me that you are still investigating this, and that you cannot respond to my request for a refund until this investigation has been completed.

Some time after that, long after I first contacted you, good news! Your "investigation" was now complete, and you were now finally prepared to refund my 99 cents!

Meanwhile, as a former customer support executive – and now as a customer service author and speaker – I was curious about why this involved such a long, drawn-out process. After all, we were talking about a sum that was probably less than what it costs you to send one of these e-mails – unless, perhaps, your offshore customer contact staff were being paid in agricultural products and small farm animals. So I wrote a polite note to one of your senior executives. And, of course, never got so much as a harrumph from the corner office. 

So meanwhile, back to your recent e-mails wanting me back. First, I have a question for you: given what was involved in getting my 99 cents back, how much trust do you feel I should have in ordering, say, a $1500 laptop from you? Or a $200 digital camera? Get back to me on that one, OK? I don't mind waiting a few more weeks.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Interviewing skills: Common wisdom versus reality

As a longtime former hiring manager, I often get a kick out of reading articles on how to act during a job interview – because there is so much in them that is just plain wrong. Especially now, in today's tight job market. Let's take a look at the "common wisdom" that is often in print about interviewing, and hold it up against reality:

Common wisdom: Say nothing but positive things about yourself. Never admit weaknesses.

Reality: Do you have co-workers – or relatives – who never admit to any weakness, and always have to be right? They are a pain in the neck, aren't they? You don't want to come across like them. It is much better, as a person and as an interviewee, to "own" both your strengths and your legitimate weaknesses. And forget about that trick of substituting a strength for a weakness, like, "I work too hard" – hiring managers have seen through that one for years.

There is an even more important reason you need to be proud of strengths and authentic about your weaknesses: your credibility. Especially if you've been out of the workforce for a while. Many hiring managers – including me – have had the experience of getting "yessed" by someone who is desperate for a job, and then getting burned. Trust me, you don't want to smell like these candidates. So when you can tell an interviewer, "I'm great at A, B, and C, I can easily learn D, E, and F, and I'm absolutely horrible at X and Y," BAM! Instant credibility.

Common wisdom: List as many duties and accomplishments as possible on your resume. You never know which one will "stick."

Reality: Less is more. Emphasize your biggest successes and summarize everything else. Yes, keywords are sometimes important, but so is white space: focus on the things you are the very best at, or your biggest goals.

Be aware that an endless laundry list of projects and skills can stereotype you. As a hiring manager, I used to refer to these densely-packed, buzzword-laden resumes as MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over) resumes – and their authors were usually mediocre at everything and masters of nothing. Always go for quality over quantity.

Common wisdom: Stay formal and professional throughout the interview. Don't let your guard down for "small talk" beforehand or afterwards from interviewers.

Reality: This is a tricky one. Of course, you don't want to come across as someone who talks too much or lacks boundaries. But the opposite is sometimes even more dangerous. Your qualifications are important, but so is how much interviewers like you as a person. If you are hired, you will probably spend more time with these people than your own family, and chemistry is what hiring managers lay awake at night about. Small talk is a preview of what you will be like to work with, so err on the side of being friendly, open and genuine – not just a professionally competent robot.

Common wisdom: Interviews are a competition to show you are better than others.

Reality: People rarely – if ever – "blow" an interview. Even if they are very nervous or forgetful. If you really have the best professional or personal skills for the job, it will show. The purpose of an interview is to discover who you really are. Prepare well, research the position and the company, and then do the one single thing that will most help you get the job: relax and be yourself.