Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What You Can Learn from a Turkey Buzzard About Striking Out on Your Own

I often describe my job these days as being a turkey buzzard.

This is not something I am proud of. Well, maybe. A little bit.

That's because at a time when journalists are being laid off by the hundreds and the freelance writing market sometimes resembles a sweatshop operation, I have managed to survive.

How? I've learned to take what others might term "road kill" and turn it into a pretty decent meal. And you can do the same with your career.

First, in order to become a turkey buzzard, you've got to learn to see the beauty and possibility of a bird that scares the bejeesus out of most people, or at least invokes a shudder. My friend, Kathryn, at Plant Whatever Brings You Joy, once wrote a wonderful piece about these birds. I thought she was kinda crazy, but then I decided that maybe there was a lesson in there for me.

The lesson was this: Sometimes what looks ugly on the surface can really be pretty cool once you open your mind to other possibilties.

We all like to think that we're going to get the biggest piece of pie, the best promotion, the corner office or the juicy pay raise. But sometimes our careers don't always go as planned, and before we know it, we're staring at a dead carcass, known as our job.

That's where the turkey buzzard mindset comes in. Instead of seeing a dead career, you look at it from a buzzard's point of view and see.... opportunity.

In this tough economy, with industries undergoing great upheavals and more people facing layoffs and downsizings, it's the person who creates something from what others see as nothing that will survive.

So, let's talk about ways to prepare for the day you need to be a turkey buzzard:

* Learn to pick through the bones. Many companies these days are streamlining operations, or cutting out services because they're too expensive. But if you see there's still real need for those services -- just on a more limited basis -- you can create an opportunity for yourself.

My first freelance job was for a financially struggling publisher where I had once worked. I approached them, outlining what I could do for them, and how I could hit the ground running because I was so familiar with their business. They took me up on it and I think it was a great solution for everyone. It gave me a steady stream of income while I got the rest of my business underway, and they were able to get a qualified writer for less money that a fulltime writer, and didn't have to pay benefits.

So, if you are let go from an employer, consider if there is a service at your company that is being cut because it is too expensive and too far-reaching -- but you could provide it on a limited scale for less money. The employer would be more willing to contract with an employee familiar with the operation, whether it's coaching services provided by a departing manager, or a laid off worker becoming a virtual assistant.

* Look for hidden goodies. What others may ignore because they believe it's not worth the effort is a golden opportunity for you. The project that was ditched because no one had the time to devote to it, or the difficult (but lucrative) client that was avoided are just the kinds of challenges you can take on when you're on your own.

I don't know how many times I've heard people say: "I can't believe my employer doesn't see this opportunity. We could make lots of money on it, but there's too much red tape."

That's exactly where you come in. You've seen those chances for growth and can now go after them without being hampered by long chains of command and paperwork that would put the IRS to shame. Another advantage is that many times these opportunities are with people you've already met through your former job, so your path should be smoother when you pitch them your idea.

* Gather strength from the rest of the buzzards. Just look at the blogosphere to see the number of bloggers who have joined forces to create powerhouse destinations. These are people who have learned that combining the different talents of various people makes their product stronger. When you decide to create something new, make sure you maintain a strong network. Many of those strong connections will be from your former employer, possibly others who are looking to grasp a new opportunity.

* Scope out new territory. While the pickings at your former employer may be great, don't fall into the trap of only getting your meal from one source, or feeling like you owe them more than anyone else. Former employers can provide a good way to get your new venture off the ground, but you've always got to be scavenging for new sources of income and protecting what you've created.

Do you have a plan in place to propose to your employer should you lose your job?

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Watch Out for That Wrinkle -- It May be a Career Killer

Recently, a friend told me about a party she attended called "Botox or Bangs." For those of you unaware of this trend (as I was), it means that when you get of a "certain age" you can either cut bangs to hide the wrinkles in your forehead, or you can get Botox to freeze your forehead so it doesn't move for months and it looks unlined.

My friend opted for the bangs -- and the Botox.

When I asked her why she would ever willingly let another person stick a needle in her face, her answer was this: "I just got a new boss -- and she's younger than me."

Yeah, so?

"Well," my friend says, "I know it may sound stupid, but I don't want to be the 'older employee' in my office. It's very competitive these days. I consider it to be an investment in my career."

OK. Well, silly me. I always considered an investment in a career to be attending a training session on PowerPoint presentations or taking a class at the university. But needles? Never crossed my mind.

My friend -- always very honest -- also confided that she was contemplating an eye lift, which I assume means even more needles and a couple of knives.


"Because," she explained slowly to me as if I were a 3-year-old wanting to know why I couldn't shave the family dog, "the people I work with are getting younger and younger. I don't want to have to look for another job at my age. I've got to hold onto this job, so I need to be as 'fresh' looking as possible."

I realize some of you are not going to be surprised by this in the least. After all, we see television programs that promote the young, the nubile and the unlined. We watch reality shows on everyday people becoming "swans" after undergoing plastic surgery, and books on how not to look old are bestsellers.

Still, it's disturbing to think that older workers believe they are no long viable unless their faces resemble something out of Madam Tussaud's wax museum. Back fat, jiggly arms and crow's feet are now career liabilities?

According to the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, about two thirds of its members say that men and women are requesting cosmetic surgery because they wanted to remain competitive in the workplace.

Earlier this year I interviewed Dr. Gordon Patzer, founder of the Appearance Research Institute, and he told me that employers consistently hire and promote the best-looking candidates in a pool of equally qualified people. At the same time, he talked about the ugly downside of a society obsessed with youth and good looks, noting the rise of unhealthy body obsessions.

My friend assures me that she knows what she's doing, and won't end up looking like Priscilla Presley. The Botox, bangs and impending eye lift are not just for career reasons, she says, but also because they will help her feel better.

"I just want to look as young as I feel," she says.

I understand, believe me. But I can't imagine where this country would be without people like Benjamin Franklin and John Adams and Eleanor Roosevelt and Mother Teresa, all people who didn't look that "fresh" during some of the most productive years of their lives. Would bangs have meant they had even more impact? Would Botox have meant they were smarter or could earn more money?

I don't mean to sound naive. I know in this world many people have "procedures" and feel great about it. But I can't help but wonder if a few lines on the face, a bit of gray in the hair, and perhaps wisdom and experience conveyed in the action of a worker wouldn't be of value to a younger manager.

If not, then maybe the newest employee benefit offering should be a payroll withdrawal option for "Botox or bangs."

Are older workers feeling more pressure about the way they look? What should they do about it, if anything?

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Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Real Decision '08: Should I Work While on Vacation?

I got sort of depressed the other day when I tried to remember the last time my husband or I did not put in some work time while on vacation, including our second honeymoon a couple of years ago.

It used to be that when you went on vacation, you maybe -- maybe -- called in from the road to make sure the office hadn't burned to the ground while you were gone.

But then we became entangled with pagers and cell phones, laptops and Blackberries. And the "workless" vacation seemed to be a thing of the past.

So, as I head off for vacation this year, I pondered what I need to take with me besides the bug spray and some hiking boots. The laptop. Some research I need to peruse. A couple of business books I need to review.

I told myself I could put in a few hours of work while the kids go fishing or early in the morning when everyone sleeps in and I get up early, as always. I told myself what a good use of my vacation this would be because I'll be away from all the distractions of my everyday professional and personal life.

And then I nearly kicked my own ass.

Because none of that thinking made sense. Why even take a vacation if I'm going to drag along all the things that are making me so stressed out these days? I know I need a break. My creative juices have dried up. My critical thinking skills have taken a hike. My organizatinal efforts are laughable. I have just enough common sense left to realize that I'd be making a huge mistake if I took even a smidgen of work with me.

I know some people don't feel this way. They are disciplined enough (or so they say) to work only a little bit while on vacation. Some claim they're so bored on vacation they have to do a bit of work to keep from going completely whacko. Others contend that their families or friends don't really care if they work while on vacation.

But the research tells us differently. Our bosses want us to take vacation. Our long-term health demands that we take time away. And our personal relationships -- well, I guess if you'd rather send a few e-mails than watch your child build a sandcastle or go sightseeing with friends -- that's your decision to make.

But for me and mine, we're going laptopless this year. Our cell phones are for emergencies only, and the only book I'm taking is some totally frivolous novel that will hopefully make me laugh out loud.

I'm at peace with my decision, and actually very excited. I feel like a kid cutting school (ahem, not that I ever did anything like that), and plan to be totally selfish and be on vacation.

At this point, some of you may be shaking your head at my decision. You may feel that you can work on vacation and get the same benefits of time away that everyone else does. Or, you may feel like your business or career will fall apart if you aren't tethered in some way to your job.

But I'm going to try it this way. Not because I don't think I have anything to lose, but because I think if I don't, I could lose a lot.

How about you? Are you going to work while on vacation this year? Why or why not? (If you don't see your comment published right away, please be patient. I've gone fishing.)


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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Is Astrology the Next Business Tool You Need?

Let me just say up front that I am an Aquarian. For some people, this may mean a great deal. For others, it may mean as much to them as also pointing out that I am brunette or that I have blue eyes.

Interesting, but hardly meaningful.

Unless, of course, you are someone who finds astrology useful in your life. Like Nancy Reagan or the late Princess Diana or businessman J.P. Morgan. All powerful people who have made decisions that affect hundreds, if not thousands of lives.

Then, of course, the question becomes how much astrology -- defined as “the study of positions and aspects of heavenly bodies with a view to predicting their influence on the course of human affairs,” -- influences your life.

I recently interviewed Steve Weiss, author of a new book, "Signs of Success: The Remarkable Power of Business Astrology" for my Gannett News Service/ column.

Weiss made it very clear that while he's been fascinated by astrology for decades, he believes it is only one of many tools we need to understand one another in the workplace.

Still, I would imagine there are plenty of questions about using astrology in business.

How comfortable would you be if your CEO were using astrology to make business decisions? Do you think understanding the 12 signs and their traits could help you make better decisions and understand co-workers, bosses or competitors? Or, should we make astrology part of our Sunday newspaper reading -- along with the comics?


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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

What Cats Can Teach You About Living a Better Life

A while ago I wrote about what I learned about life and work from my dog. Since then, I've been trying to figure out what my two cats, Spike and Ace, have to teach me.

So far, I'm stumped.

But the more I think about it, maybe that is what they have to teach me. They don't really care if I don't get them. They don't care what I think. They plan their days around naps, eating, the litter box and maybe a little playtime with one another.

They have little regard for someone else's angst, unlike my dog who seems to sense bad moods and do her best to set things right with tongue lickings and a wagging tail. Like most cats, their persona is one of ultimate cool. Two sleek black cats that are mirror images of one another. They've got the cool part down pat.

If I'm having a bad day, it's not their concern. Their priority is a morning bath in the sunshine, maybe a little Purina and then a nap. And, if they should they need a scratch behind the ears or a tummy rub, they complain in incessant meows beside my desk until I comply.

Then, once again, they go on their own way, seemingly satisfied that they've take care of their needs.

So, I guess I have learned a thing or two from Spike and Ace:

1. No need to rush. Food, water, a patch of sun and a clean litter box, and life is good. Why fret about deadlines or toss and turn at night when right here, right now, things are just fine? Hurrying to and fro is not only a waste of energy, it makes you look uncool.
2.Walk away from the noise and chaos. When the dog is barking, the kids are yelling, the phones are ringing and someone is at the door, the cats head for the quietest spot they can find, usually to resume their naps. No way are they sticking around where they can get their tails stepped on or get caught up in the frenzy. They don't let themselves get drug into issues that don't concern them, or ones that would add any kind of stress to their day. They don't make a lot of excuses -- they just make it clear that they've made a choice and they're cool with it.
3. Know you're awesome. The sight of two solid black, green-eyed cats striding down the hallway is enough to make you look twice. They are a throwback to their jungle counterparts, and project it in every step. They know who they are, what they want out of life, and make no excuses. Take them or leave them. They're cool with it.


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Monday, April 7, 2008

What Dogs Can Teach Us About Work

It was a glorious weekend -- warm air and sunshine -- and no man or beast enjoyed it more than my Golden Retriever, Annie.

In fact, I spent a lot of time observing Annie this weekend, and I think I came away with some life lessons that would benefit anyone in the workplace today.

1. Take a nap. After chasing a couple of rabbits in the yard, barking at the neighbor's cat and thoroughly sniffing all open spaces, Annie looked a little pooped and headed for some shut eye on the sun-warmed deck. After about 30 minutes, she roused and and resumed chasing birds and barking at the neighbor's cat. The lack of sleep in this country is terrible, and it shows up in the workplace in terms of lost productivity and more accidents, both on the job and while commuting. Nearly 70 million of us are sleep deprived, and that's bad for our mental and physical health. When you're tired, don't check that last e-mail or put in that last load of laundry -- go to bed. Take a nap every day if you can. Annie sleeps when she's tired, and doesn't worry about whether the neighbor's cat will be there when she awakes.

2. Multitasking doesn't make sense. When Annie greets a member of the family, she always brings something to share like a tennis ball or a rawhide bone. Sometimes she'll try and bring a couple of tennis balls and the bone, which slows her down. In the time she spends searching and then trying to organize the items in her mouth, the person she was hoping to share her slobbery treasure with has moved on. She's learned that by grabbing only one thing, she does it quickly, efficiently and reaches her goal in time to enjoy the moment. Multitasking often backfires at work, so take a tip from Annie and do one thing well and enjoy the success of the moment before moving on to....well, barking at the neighbor's cat.

3. Appreciate the hand that feeds you. Every member of our family is greeted with love and lots of tail wagging by Annie, but I have to admit that Annie shows the love a bit more to me every morning because I'm the one who fills her food bowl. I get yips of joy when I pick up the bowl, and the tail wagging that accompanies her meal could generate enough energy to power a small city. Afterward, she always excitedly tracks me down, happily dancing in place as she conveys her gratitude for filling her belly. I think too often we forget that it's our jobs that allow us to feed ourselves and our loved ones, it's our jobs that allow us to pay bills and perhaps travel or buy that new iPhone. So, with job losses on the rise,remember to do an internal happy dance of your own and say "thanks" to those who give you a paycheck.


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