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, May 5, 2008

Feeling Dumb May Be the Smartest Thing You've Ever Done

Have you ever felt like the dumbest person in the room? If not, I highly recommend it.

I just returned from the SOBCON08 in Chicago. That's a conference for bloggers. That means a bunch of people knew a whole lot more than I did about everything blogging, web-related and a lot of technical stuff. I had dinner with people I were convinced were speaking Klingon at times.

"Well, you've got to take the XRwhingerwhammer jitbat and use it to open the Latvian mother's code or it will take you to the goose ginger," said Lorelle VanFossen.

People like Brian Clark and Chris Garrett, co-author of "ProBlogger" would nod and jump in with: "But don't forget the hangman's fifth gibber or the pickleman's lockdown."

OK, at times I threw in something if if I knew what they were talking about. But I did a lot of listening and asked a lot of questions. It was pretty reflective of a weekend where I spent most of it asking:

"How do I?"
"What's that?"
"Where do I find that?
"How does that work?"

And of course, the ever present: "Huh?"

But I had a lot of "A-HA!" moments as well. It felt like a giant, weekend-long V-8 commercial because I was slapping myself upside the head so much. "Why didn't I do that?" I thought (slap). "I could have done that!"(slap) "Why didn't I think of that before!"(slap)

David Bullock had the answer: Everyone feels that way. No one knows all the answers, and we're all going to make mistakes along the way. What you DO know is of value.

So, as much as I was often confused and feeling pretty dumb, I really enjoyed every minute of it. I started to get it. I started to understand. (OK, maybe not all the tech talk, but I took a lot of notes so I could look up stuff later.)

I had a weekend of mental gymnastics, of being around people that made me feel dumb -- but were also really nice and willing to let me learn from them and ask questions. And here's the thing: By jumping out of my comfort zone and exposing myself to people and ideas and thoughts and viewpoints that were new to me, I started to see possibilities and opportunities and new paths for myself and my career.

And that was really, really important. At a time when newsrooms across the country look like Tony Soprano and his gang have been there because so many bodies have been whacked, it was really energizing and uplifting to know that I didn't have to give up what I love doing, I just had to think of it in different ways.

I can't think of any better career advice for today. I want you to think of talking to someone today, of experiencing something this week, that makes you feel dumb. Ask questions. Learn. Grow.

I dare you.

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Survival of the Fittest in the Workplace

My oldest son is preparing to take final exams, and so I decided it was time to share with him my secret tip for writing a great essay on any test: Darwin.

Yep, that's it. Darwin, the "survival of the fittest" guy.

"It doesn't matter what subject," I told him. "Always mention Darwin and his theory and you'll score well."

He was a bit skeptical, and my other son wanted to know exactly how Darwin fit into subjects like math. "When you're older, I'll tell you," I said, sagely.

The whole discussion about survival of the fittest got me to thinking about ways that people can survive on the job these days. Things are tough, and it's those people who use all their bag of tricks that may be the the last ones standing. Sure, you should take on tough projects, make sure you're giving great customer service, be organized and efficient, blah, blah, blah.

But let's look at some not-quite-standard ways to impress the boss:

1. Have her over for dinner. Let the boss see you as a human being, not just Joe in accounting. Invite the boss's spouse or significant other. Don't serve anything fancy or she'll think she's paying you too much. Sit at the kitchen table and serve her good, standard food. Be interesting, be polite and don't talk about work too much. This is a chance to make a more personal connection with her.

2. Volunteer at the boss's favorite charity. This gives you a chance to rub elbows with her in a positive setting, and again establish a friendlier relationship -- or at least one where she likes you a bit better. So what if you don't like picking up trash along the highway on a Saturday morning? She cares about the environment, so get on that bright orange vest and start tramping the road right beside her.

3. Become interested in her hobby. If she likes NASCAR, then talk about Carl Edwards' last race. Or, drop off a golf magazine in her mailbox with a note, "Check out the story on page xx...unbelievable!" Maybe she's a big animal lover, so talk about how much you love your dog or how you ride horses.

4. Stand in her shoes. Most bosses are under a great deal of pressure these days and anyone who provides an understanding ear will be appreciated. Don't forget that bosses need a pat on the back, so offer sincere, supportive comments. "It must have been difficult dealing with that customer. You handled it well," you can say. Try to remain upbeat and optimistic, and the boss will gravitate toward your energy.

Maybe you're already taking on tough projects or making sure you're going the extra mile in customer service in order to impress the boss. But the point is that in these tough times, when gas prices are headed through the roof and a bag of potato chips costs $4, you're going to have to pull out all the stops in order to survive. Now, go make Darwin proud.


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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Feeling Angry and Frustrated When Change Happens is Natural

By our very nature, we human beings don’t like change. Children as young as 2-years-old will pitch a screaming hissy fit when the furniture at home is moved. Teens struggle to cope with the new world of high school or college. Even adults have a hard time saying goodbye to the familiar – especially when it has to do with work.

Work for adults consumes a lot of time. Many of us spend 12 to14 hours a day at work, so when things get turned topsy-turvey, we’re not always pleased with the results. In fact, our behavior may closely resemble a toddler’s hissy fit.

Except quieter.

We sit at work, fuming that our company is being downsized and peers are losing their jobs. We’re angry that we will have to move to another facility in another state in order to keep a job. We’re totally ticked that we will have to learn a new system.

But that’s change.

At first you may deny what is happening, and you put up some resistance, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Why? Because it shows that you're ready to do something, instead of just sitting around in a numb complacency.

Now begins the grieving process. But for many companies, acknowledging that employees are unhappy with change is the last thing desired. And that is why many workers have trouble moving on. Because if companies don’t recognize it -- the need for employees to talk about how much they hate what is happening -- then they cannot learn to deal with it. It is often the emotional piece that everyone misses.

Bosses need to understand that it is a natural reaction for people to be furious and frustrated when work patterns change. Humans are creatures of habit, and a lot of people have not yet learned how to become more flexible. People can learn to be very resilient, but they also need a chance to grieve.

If you are facing change on the job, here are some things to consider:
· The loss. If you feel that you are fighting the change, take a step back and consider what it is that you believe you are losing. Remember: If you cannot handle loss in your life, you cannot have growth in your life.

Perhaps it is the fact that you are afraid you will lose your visibility on the job because technology is taking over, or that you will lose yourself somehow when a job is lost.
Human ingenuity on the job is still critical, no matter how much technology is put into place. For those who suffer when they are laid off, remember: Your job is not your identity.

· The signs. Angry? Crabby? Blowing up at stuff that doesn’t matter? These are all indications, along with feeling blue, that change is causing problems in your life. Find a way to acknowlege these feelings and perhaps talk to a family member or friend about how you feel. If you have a case of the blues that simply won’t get better or go away, seek professional help.

· Saying goodbye. Many companies do not realize that desks can be moved, but not hearts. That means that even if an office is just moving across town, then employees need a chance to confront their feelings – maybe they will have a longer commute, they will miss their favorite coffee shop or their desk by the window that had a view of the park. At the same time, employees should be allowed to say what they may miss about the old way of doing things, then talk about their concerns for the future. Once that's out in the open, managers can help workers accept the changes to come.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Protecting Your Job in Tough Times

I've spent the last week talking to a lot of people about the economy, and their predictions about where the job market is headed in the next few months. The general agreement seems to be this: we're not officially in a recession, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be looking for ways to protect your job.

While I'll get to some of the suggestions in a minute, one of the things that bothers me the most about these conversations is the emphasis on the fact that the worst time to be looking for a job is when you're out of a job. In other words, desperation makes employers and recruiters avoid you like the plague.

How is that fair? If you've been downsized or laid off, how is it OK to compound the pain by saying you're somehow too needy to be considered for a job? How does wanting to pay your mortgage or feed yourself somehow make you less desirable? Wouldn't your eagerness to have a job mean that you would be a more enthusiastic and committed worker for anyone who hired you?

I guess that's just one of the mysteries of the universe I may never quite grasp, sort of like why we call the male presidential candidates by their last names or formal titles (Senator McCain) while referring to Senator Clinton as "Hillary," as if she's the girl who takes coffee orders for the office.

Now, onto some ideas for recession-proofing your job:

* Keep your butt in the chair. Now is not the time to ask for more flex time or take a three-week vacation. Hunker down and put in lots of face time with the boss to show that you're committed 110 percent to your job. If you do telecommute, try to put in more appearances at the office. Stay strongly connected to co-workers so you know the latest news.

* Reach out. Find out what's going on in other departments so you have a good picture of whether there may be trouble ahead for your company. If you think your employer's in trouble, start getting those resumes out there. There are warning signs, which I wrote about here.

* Network like crazy. Attend industry and professional events, start sending "hello, how are you?" e-mails to your contacts and look for ways to provide value to as many people as possible. Don't be just a "taker", but instead look for ways to make the connection worthwhile.

* Be on the cutting edge. No matter your industry, be aware of the latest developments and how you can position yourself to be of the most value. The people I talked with this week said there may be some shakeout in various industries (finance, retail), but those who know the latest technology, trends, markets, etc., and are ready to move -- and lead -- into those arenas will be of the most value.


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