Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Guiding Others

Mary Parker Follet said it best “Unity, not uniformity, must be our aim. We attain unity only through variety. Differences must be integrated, not annihilated, not absorbed.”

Most people care to do a good at whatever it is they are doing. In almost all situations, I remember this fundamental rule. Everything else can be worked out. People progress differently and it is more difficult for some managers to be flexible rather than rigid. There are going to be tough situations that require leadership and unless there is someone remembering this rule, the situation will not be resolved in a constructive way.

There comes a point during the management progression where you realize that it is most effective to guide others rather than become controlling. I have learned that you cannot make anyone do anything, so what is most important is the approach to the situation to influence others to take the right course of action.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

How to Go From Writing Articles to Books

Writing articles can take minutes or hours. Writing a book or guide can take several days, weeks or even months. There are plenty of great experiences out there that deserve to be shared with others, but how do you even start? Here are some tips for writing a book:
  • Break it into pieces. Start with an outline of the major topic and break it into small sections. Keep breaking the smaller sections into writeable areas.
  • Do not try and write the book in a day. Set realistic goals that align with your allowable time to focus.
  • Find out what kind of writer you are. Some spend a little bit of time writing while others work better when they can dedicate several hours to allow the flow of thought.
  • Focus on what type of book you want to write. Is it a self help guide? Is it a fiction novel? Is it an autobiography? Make sure that you understand what you want to write and stay focused on that theme.
  • If it is nonfiction or self help, add personal experiences to your book or guide. It adds personality and others can relate better if it’s real rather than researched.
  • Save the preface, introductory remarks and concluding paragraphs for last. It makes it easier to think of these areas once you have the content established.
  • Do not stop. It’s easy to get caught up in other things, but learn to finish a project once you start it. If you feel burdened or frustrated take a break, but go back to it.
Happy Publishing.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

How to be Positive When it Seems Bad

Lately, it seems that there is negativity in the news, negativity in the economy and negativity in the work environment. I turn on the T.V. or open a website and unemployment is up, people losing homes are at an astronomical rate and the stock market is down. When things are bad, it has a domino effect. It has a tendency to be discouraging, but this is the time when true leadership is needed and is demonstrated.
  • Believe that it is temporary. Be the person showing the beacon of hope to those who are going down the path in the dark. It will not always be bad and people need to understand that things will get better and that it is a temporary situation.
  • Take time out to have fun. When stress levels are at an all time high, blow off steam. Treat yourself or the team you manage to a movie, a lunch or a few minutes away from the work setting. People will feel relieved and will be more productive in the end.
  • Surround yourself with positivity. It’s like osmosis. You become or are, at least, influenced by what you surround yourself with. For some it’s the mission statement, for others it is a beach setting in the Caribbean or their family. Put up pictures and reminders of whatever makes you feel like you can make it through the day. Reflect on those pictures when you are challenged to be positive.
  • Start the day off with a positive mission statement. Take it day by day. I sometimes set a small goal: Today I will be productive and complete this said effort XX. Something else that’s motivating is to sign up for a daily inspirational website that can jump start your day.
  • Challenge yourself to think positive when it seems difficult. Anyone who has competed in a sporting event knows that you can be physically tested, stretched and sore. This can happen mentally as well. Apply your determination in sports to your mental state. The key is never to give up. It is true that the harder you work for it, the sweeter the rewards.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Fighting Fires or Preventing the Flames

Ever feel like you put out fires all day? That if you just had enough resources or time, you could devote more of your time to much needed planning?  The reality in these tough economic times is that it is unlikely to get additional resources and you can never get more time. But don’t give up. There are ways to stay motivated and plan through evaluation of effort and prioritization.
  • Evaluate your current workload. Are there some tasks that you are performing that can be deferred or delegated? For example, I had an someone in my office who used to spend an extensive amount of time on every detail. Good in an accounting office, but not good for every situation. Some situations could be resolved with less effort, but it wasn’t until I clearly identified what her responsibilities were versus what she wasn’t responsible for. Do this same thing for yourself and guard your limited time. Sometimes we take on more than we really should be doing because we are spending so much time in the weeds.
  • Write out a list of issues, problems and patterns that you would like to see operate differently, efficiently or effectively. Determine which of these that you can influence or control and establish a game plan. If you are time constrained, do this in small stages. Maybe focus on one issue a day or a week, or even a month, depending upon the complexity.
  • Understand the problem before you come up with a solution and try to think of more than one solution. Sometimes it’s helpful to brainstorm and people brainstorm differently. I like writing things out and visibly seeing it on paper. Sort of like a fishbone diagram to make sure the focus is on the root cause and not a symptom of the problem.
  • Involve the appropriate parties and do not operate in a vacuum. If this problem involves other people or other functional areas, include them in the solution. Let them know what you’ve observed, what you would like to see happen and involve them in the how to get there portion, since you will most likely need them to help you achieve your desired outcome. Sometimes the best way to do this is to show them how the problem and solution impact them.
  • Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Be an advocate for the agreed upon solution and be persistent to ensure that it consistently being done. Tell people of the success stories as a result of their direct input into the problem solving. Praise those to others than are executing the solution.
Nip it in the bud and move on to the next problem. There are no more hours in a day, just a different way to manage the work that we have in those hours. The sooner you focus on a problem and are proactively resolving it, the more time you will have later. That upfront investment could have a return of requiring less of your time later.

Overcoming Exhaustion

In a time when we are asked to do more with less, it is difficult to maintain our energy levels. So much is expected and support may be limited, leaving us to deal with the fact that we are overstretched, tired and flat out exhausted.

Here are some ways to help overcome exhaustion:
  • Exercise. 30 minutes a day will limit the stress from going astray. Exercise helps to increase energy. Find out what time works best for you. Some are better in the morning, some mid-day some in the evening. Make time for at least 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise. Every time you make an excuse not to do it, you are reducing your energy levels. It hardly makes sense, but it’s true and scientific.
  • Know when to take breaks. In a time where the expectation is exceedingly high at times, it is important to address what your limitations are. Taking a break is okay and natural.
  • Do not overwork yourself. The majority of people are extremely productive by nature. It is important to not overwork yourself. In previous articles, I have recommended not working more than 10 hours a day to prevent exhaustion and to ensure that other areas in life are getting attention.
  • Eat regularly and healthy. Food is fuel. Eating regularly keeps energy levels optimized. Eating healthy ensures that the fuel is premium. It is recommended to eat six small meals a day in order to maintain energy levels. Eating large meals makes people feel sluggish and slower, therefore reducing energy levels.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Getting at least 7-8 hours a day is critical. It is scientifically proven. Getting less than 4-6 hours of sleep increases the heart attack rate by at least 30%. In women, this is the number one killer.
  • Find your balance. Life is not just about work. Make sure that you are balancing the other important aspect in your life. If not, your happiness will not be balanced.
  • Ask for help. There is nothing wrong with this statement. Many people work themselves too hard and not too smart. There is help out there and there are people who can help. Ask the question. People tend to want to help.

Creating an Effective Life Plan

Creating a life plan is key in remaining focused on the direction you would like to take in life.  There are several key elements to creating a life plan.
  • What is important to you? Is it a job, is it a family, is it education, status? Write down what is important to you for you to be happy in life.
  • Who is important to you? Write down a list of people who are important to you. Your spouse, your parents, your friends, etc.
  • How do you want the important people to in your life to remember you when you are not around? Next to each person, write down what you want them to remember about you when you are not around.
  • Compare yourself to how you want to be remembered versus where you think you are.
  • What do you want to have accomplished in one year, five years, ten years or even twenty years? Setting goals ensures that there is a set of milestones. It’s up to you to create the path to get there.
  • Break your goals into smaller steps to celebrate small victories along the way. I like to write down my goals and then create a little “how to” plan to get there. For example, I would like to get a degree. To get there, I plan to attend two courses a semester until I achieve my goal. This means, I will achieve my goal in XX years or by XX date.
  •  Continue to evaluate your plan. No plans are set in stone. If your goals in life change, make your plan flexible to change with it. After all, it’s your life.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Climbing the Ladder

Getting promoted is competitive and can separate you from the herd. I can remember when I was starting out in an assistant position; I had many friends. As I started to work my way up, I started to feel disconnected from some of those friends. Not intentionally, but because some of those people started to separate themselves and in turn, I felt isolated. Sounds pretty bad, but this can happen. The key is not to let this bring you down. Here are some things I’ve learned that has helped me climb the ladder.
  • Never, ever let a situation or person cause you to become negative. Positive thinking is absolutely critical among great leaders, no matter the situation. There will come a time where you are alone in your approach and others are seeking guidance and leadership. Your attitude will define you in these situations. Always, and I mean always, be positive in your attitude and approach to these situations.
  • Acknowledge the hurdle. You can be positive, but you also must be realistic in your thinking. Situations will be tough and require you to be on the same wave length with your team. To do so, you must acknowledge that it may not be easy to overcome, but it will be overcome.
  • Have a Champion Mentality. What do I mean by this? People may feel like they are running a race. It is up to you to help them celebrate small successes along the way. Anyone who has run a mile knows that you think about the quarters. There are four quarters in a mile. Celebrate the quarter, even though you have a mile to run.
  • Position Yourself. This may be through training or through education. I read biographies of positions I envisioned myself in one day. I reviewed what those people did to get into those positions; their training, their education, their work experience. Do what it takes to make your resume look like theirs.
  • Take risks. This may be hard for those who have attachments. Take risks whenever possible. It is difficult for people to be outside of their comfort zone. Many cannot and choose to not do this. Being outside of your comfort zone will help you be well-rounded. Taking risks shows that you are willing to do what it takes to be successful.

Keeping the Flame Alive

How do you keep the love going in tough times? I've been happily married for several years and it is wonderful. Here are some things that I've noticed that has helped along the way.

  • Remember your commitment to each other. In the days where the divorce rate is greater than 50%, people are not taking this commitment as seriously as they should. Marriage is a serious commitment that requires you to continually think about yourself and your relationship with another person. Not doing either will result in failure.

  • Your way isn't the only way. Compromise is key. I am very much an A type personality-which equates to sometimes stubborn, to my husband, and confident, to me. He is very much a B type personality which equates to sometimes a push over, to me, and laid back, to him. Every situation is different and requires a different approach. Both have different styles and both have their importance.

  • Figure out what you appreciate in each other. At times, in our approach to situations, my husband and I are polar opposites. What I've learned is that he is good at smoothing people over and I'm good at getting things done. I could do better at the people side. He could do better at the task side. We balance each others' weaknesses. I watch and learn from him. He does the same.

  • Find out what you can do to advance the relationship. As people grow and mature, so do their relationships. The key is growing together. My husband and I have our own different hobbies, but we give each other room to grow as individuals and then connect back together. You have to be able to do both.

  • You're not always going to agree and that's okay. What really matters is the core beliefs that you both share together. My husband and I have discussed different issues and debated them at length. In the end, we still have our differing viewpoints. That is absolutely okay. Respect the fact that you love someone who may not see things the same way you do.

Have fun with each other. Don't always be so serious. Life is demanding. Time at home should be a SHORT period of venting at the end of the day and the rest spending time appreciating each other. After all that's really what it's all about anyway.

Leadership: Guiding versus Controlling

Having worked in both an innovative environment and a controlling environment, I have observed and practiced varying leadership styles. People manage differently. Allow me to share my story in a couple of situations.

I spent the first few years of my career working for the federal government in the financial and budgeting arena. Most things are rigid. There is a way to do things and there are people who believe in complete structure. There are regulations, policies, extensive training; even a regulation on how to write regulations. This is no joke and it makes sense. I mean, I worked for the military side. Structure is absolutely necessary. Without structure, it is not uniform. Without uniformity, it is unmanageable. You do what you are told and that is the way it is; no debate. Leadership is driven by rank. Sounds harsh, but that is how soldiers are trained. Those who work to support soldiers are not immune to those that manage this way of thinking.

After doing this for 5 years or so, I decided to take a shot in the commercial sector. I worked for a small, niche, innovative company that specialized in advanced composite fabrication and experimental aircraft design and development. I was hired as a program business manager. I knew nothing about engineering, fabrication, composites; even managing in this environment. I remember my first few months; not knowing if I was doing the right thing or if I was doing the wrong thing. It was awkward and at times I felt lost. I mean, I worked for someone, but I rarely saw this person. I was just kind of put in an environment and had to figure out what I was supposed to do; the complete opposite of an established position description. It’s like defining the position. Sounds great, but it can be stressful. Especially, if you are going through it for the first time. After a year, I gathered that this company focused on results. They weren’t going to tell you “how” to do something. This is what they hired you for. There was this broad brushed goal and everything else was up to you and the team.

After a few years, I had the privilege of managing a team that successfully accomplished a major milestone for the program. We experienced record growth; going from 120 employees to 330 employees in a three-year period and had been bought by a major aerospace company. What a ride.

I met a few of the new employees and remember hearing them say after a few weeks they didn’t know if what they were doing was right or wrong. I could so relate, but told them that they should continue what they were doing and it would all fall into place. I realized that the management philosophy was to allow people to learn and be good at what they do. There was no one way to do something. There is room for great success and room for great failure in this environment. Leadership was good at keeping the pulse of things so that if there was failure it wasn’t a detriment to the company. People were motivated. They “owned” what they were doing.

I will not debate the necessity of either leadership style. They both have a purpose in their environments. I will say that having been in both situations, I have seen and appreciate the value of allowing people to figure things out on their own. What matters are the results.

There is No Box: A New Way of Thinking

Ever heard someone say, “Let’s think outside of the box”? What they really mean is, try and find a new way to view or solve the problem. I have heard this expression in just about every professional job I’ve been in. It is used to try and stimulate creating thinking.

What if I were to tell you that there is no box. That by accepting there is a box is like admitting that there are limitations that exist. That by not believing there is a box means that you are free to see things without restriction and without constraint.

Creative thinking is a limitless, boundless continual way to view and solve problems. There is never a box or limitation to interrupt the flow of thought.
How does one even begin to start thinking this way? I will describe some ways to help release the creative flow.

  • Even if you are not an artist, grab a canvas and start to paint. Do not think about your strokes. Just paint. Look at a color that inspires you and just brush it in any direction that comes natural. The goal here is to not paint a masterpiece. The goal is not to conform the lines or colors into something cohesive. It may be uncomfortable to see disconnected lines or colors that do not go well together. If this starts to impact you, then you are thinking too much about this exercise. The goal is allow yourself to loosen up. Keep trying this until you can let go and accept that it doesn’t have to be perfect.
  • Listen to music. Try classical, reggae or something relaxing. Close your eyes and listen. Listen to the instruments. Listen to the words. Move. Sway. Tap your feet on the ground. Feel your body start to loosen up. Sing along to the words of the song. Remember the goal is not to try out for American Idol. It’s just to relax and loosen you up.
  • Go outside and watch the natural things around you. If you are in a heavy traffic area, then go to a park. Observe the trees swaying as if they are dancing in the wind. Close your eyes and listen. Listen to the birds. Listen to the sounds. Open your eyes and look at the different colors around you. Breathe slowly. Become a part of your surroundings.
  • Grab a piece of paper and pen and start to write down ideas and thoughts. Notice that I said pen and not pencil. The reason is at first, to not go back and review what you are writing. Just keep writing. Write your thoughts. Write your experiences. Allow yourself to just go with your thoughts for a moment. When you can’t write anymore, go back and review what you have written. Do not erase anything. Think about what you wrote, but not too much. The point of this exercise is to allow yourself to think freely. Keep trying this. It may take several attempts.
  • Change it up. There are several ways to do this. It could be your wardrobe, it could be a hair style, it could even be cooking. Find a way to express yourself differently. I like to take dishes and try to add a different, unique flare to it. Some work out, some don’t. But keep creating.

Surviving the Home Buying Experience

Buying a new home can be exciting, stressful and full of surprises. Here are some tips to help with the home buying experience:

  1. The most important of all: Get it in writing. From finishes to color to types, etc. Whatever you are promised in the beginning, make sure it makes its way in the agreement. Yes, every detail.
  2. Shop around for lenders. You have options and don’t forget that. To make sure you are getting the best deal, make it as competitive as possible.
  3. Consider costs such as escrow fees, taxes and insurance not just closing costs. Something I learned from my first house.
  4. Get a buyer’s agent. The seller's agent tries to keep the business so they can keep the full amount of fees paid by the seller. Having a buyer’s agent ensures that you have someone working for you even if they have to split the fees with the seller’s agent.
  5. Get a home inspection. It’s a few hundred bucks, but worth the cost to have the peace of mind.
  6. Know the zoning of the area around you. If you buy a home and across the street it’s empty, ask about the zoning. If it’s industrial, a junk yard could pop up across the street. Something again, I learned from my first house, but was fortunate to sell it in time.
  7. If you can, put as much down as possible. This is important for new homes because there is a fee called Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) for those who put less than 20% down on a home. This can be several hundred dollars on top of your monthly mortgage payment. One way to do this is to have two home loans; one for 75% and the other for 25%.
  8. If you are buying a home that is 10 years +, consider having a home warranty as part of the deal. If a hot water heater goes out, it will be replaced for cents on the dollar for the cost of the home warranty.

Creating a Financial Plan

Managing money and having financial discipline can be seen as a difficult and daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are some tips on managing your finances.

  1. First and foremost, track your expenses. It’s as simple as jotting down or using a spreadsheet to track what and how much you are spending your money on. Set a limit on your discretionary spending.

  2. Reduce expenses if possible. It’s amazing once you track how much you are spending and research competing companies for services such as insurance, telephone and cable, the amount of money you might be able to save.

  3. Set up a budget plan. Anticipate all of your earnings, expenditures and payoff plans and stick to it. I recommend setting it up paycheck to paycheck. It is also helpful to establish a debt payoff plan and even a broad set of goals for 5-10 years from now. It’s astonishing how writing something down is like writing a contract with yourself once you make the commitment.

  4. Incorporate “fun” events into your budget plan. Getting yourself to think about your limits is important. Even the best made plans can be ruined if they are not realistic. Including some of your hobbies is a critical part of your planning.

  5. Pay off debt, and obviously, the higher interest rate credit first. You could save hundreds even thousands by paying off higher interest rate credit. If this is difficult, try to transfer the balance to a lower interest rate credit account. You will save money this way.

  6. Put a little away to savings. This is extremely important and often overlooked. Having a cushion in your bank account can be a saving grace. I know it’s hard, but worth it. Putting away $54 a week with an 8% interest rate over 20 years will give you roughly $100K. To find out how much to reach your goals, there is a great financial calculator at:

  7. Live below your means. Mentally train yourself to put money aside and pretend it doesn’t exist. Once you’ve demonstrated self-control, you can then get into more sophisticated financial planning.

  8. Contribute as much as you can to your retirement plan; at least meet the match. If your employer matches up to 5%, put in 5%. If they put in 6%, put in 6%. Essentially, it’s free money.

  9. Don’t let setbacks deter you. Get yourself back on track.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Changing the Way You Think About Work

Many of us may be far from it. We work our whole lives to achieve it. As I say the word retirement, I sigh deeply. There is some sense of freedom in thinking about retirement. I had a conversation with one of my mentors who contacted a government office for help on an issue. Everyone was pleasant, helpful and went above and beyond the normal call of duty for customer service. She asked how she could go about submitting a letter of appreciation, as this kind of behavior is, unfortunately, rare. One of the customer service representatives said, "Do you know why we are all service-oriented"? We are all retirees hired as consultants. It started to make me think about how mentally there is this sense of freedom to have the ability to not take things so seriously. At any moment, any of these consultants could just walk away if they don't like the way things are going. Many of us are not in the fortunate position to walk away, but we can choose our attitude towards work while we are there. Here are ways to think differently about work.

  1. Find your purpose. Most of us work to earn a paycheck, but there isn't a whole lot of depth to just focus on the money aspect. Some have to believe in what they are doing. Some want the next level of promotion. Some want to become more skilled in what they are doing. Whatever it is, find your purpose.

  2. Treat others with respect and kindness. There is a quote that I read in the Quotable Quotes section of Readers Digest. "If there is one thing that I've learned in all my years of working, its that we should be nicer to one another."-artist unknown.

  3. Keep a level head. Work can be very demanding and stressful. People can get pretty tense in situations and sometimes need a little guidance on seeing the positive side of situations. I challenge myself to try and help others be positive. Negativity just makes things worse and even more stressful.

  4. Write down your goals. It's good to have short range and long range goals. When there are tough situations, keep the focus on your goals.

  5. Become outcome-oriented. After spending a lot of time in meetings that lacked direction, I have found going into a meeting with a desired outcome ensures that the meeting is productive. I am not a proponent of having meetings just to have meetings. Meetings should be evaluated to see if it is worth the effort to gather a group of people together and spend time having a discussion.

  6. As one of my mentors said, "Keep it Simple". Understand what you can control and what you can't control. I have talked with many people who get frustrated over things they can't control. When this happens, I try to redirect them to their goals and to keep the focus on what they can control.

  7. Evaluate if this is what you enjoy doing. People shouldn't be miserable in their jobs. If you find it difficult to be positive or you flat out do not like your job, figure out if you should really be doing this for a living. Position yourself and make the necessary changes to put yourself into a job that you enjoy.