Category Archives: Working Smarter

review With more than half of my life spent in the work place, I have had the chance to learn lots of things about driving a successful business and creating successful development plans.

Embrace your inner adventurer: every day

useful source I am a person who loves to travel. I love to travel for work. I love to travel for pleasure. I love the journey. I love the hardships. I love the experience. I love the adventure. There is no part of traveling that I don’t love. No length of trip is too short or too long. I value all of the micro-elements of it. The food, the languages, the architecture, the culture, the flight, the train ride. So, it is always funny to me when people literally gasp and say things like, “I could never go to Europe for a long weekend. If I am going to fly that far, I would need to stay much longer” or “aren’t you afraid?” or “you are so crazy to go to a place like Cambodia”

So, in thinking about it, I realized that most people look at travel as something that must be broken down, as uncomfortably as possible, into it’s parts; piling up it’s challenges into an Everest of challenges. Imagine the 14 hour flight, piled on top of a currency that cannot be recognized, on top of an language that can’t be understood, the time change, people who don’t look familiar, the fear of not figuring out how to get to the hotel, the potential cash machine fraud, the pressure to make sure you go to the right places and do the right things: ALL THE THINGS. That’s a pretty big pile of things to contemplate. In simpler terms, it reminds me of how people say to me how they can’t believe that I can place ice hockey and ice skate at the same time! It’s all one thing. The fantastic sum of its incomparably wonderful parts.

I can’t begin to hope I will change everyone’s approach to how they travel, but at the very least I would love to help a few people enjoy a greater percent of the travel they have to do. Or maybe I can help remove some of the layers of intimidation that many people are encumbered by when they contemplate adventuring somewhere far away. Here are a couple of my personal guidelines for making travel less burdensome; for turning travel into free-education. Get a little bit of adventure out of every trip you take!

My first rule of travel is: Make a point of looking out the window every where you go. Not only are you less likely to get car sick, but you are also more likely to notice something that you have never seen before. Something you can ask about. When you notice things and ask questions about them of your hosts or foreign colleagues, you are showing a level of interest and respect for the place and people you are visiting. In return, people are more likely to be more personable and more welcoming to you. Plus, it gives you something interesting to talk about when you get home. Do you want to be the guy that says “Oh, it was terrible. I had to sit in the car for 4 hours in the middle of China.” Or do you want to the happy guy who “marveled at the tomb-sweeping festival which was evident across the hillsides outside of Ningbo.” Most people enjoy others who demonstrate appreciation for what they have had the good fortune to see or experience.

My second rule of travel: Plan your sleep and take advantage of the wonderful opportunity to relax and catch up on a couple of movies. Let’s take, for example, the fourteen hour flight from LAX to Hong Kong. If you are landing at 8:00 in the morning, here is how I would think about it. First, I back into the appropriate time for sleeping. If you land at 8, they will start the landing prep at 7:00. So, if you want to have 8 hours of sleep, you should plan to start sleeping 5 hours into the flight. That means you can have a cocktail, maybe a light meal and watch 2 movies. Then you sleep. It won’t be easy. I usually make a point of drinking tons of water, doing some lunges and squats and stretches between the 2 movies. And then, after the second movie, I take a prescription sleeping pill, go to the ladies room and then sleep like a king until 7:00. Kicking off a week of work far away is much easier if you entertain yourself strategically on the flight.

My third rule of travel should probably be called my first rule of travel. Awareness Development. Some would say planning, but if it’s a business trip, you may not have any time to set aside for “planned adventure.” The key is to have a clue about what is there. What might be interesting to you at your destination? What are the languages most commonly spoken? What is the exchange rate? How do you say thank you? Is there a World Heritage Site nearby? Spend a couple of hours a few weeks before you travel on TripAdvisor or reading the New York Times travel section’s “3 Days” article about your destination. From my own experience, I can tell you I have regretted my own failures in awareness development. My most egregious fail happened in central China. We took several flights and a very long car ride to arrive in Xi An, China. We were there to visit a factory specializing in small stainless steel and powder coated office supplies. We had an afternoon there with no commitments and we all decided to go to the hotel spa. Had I engaged in awareness development before this work journey to remote China, I might have known that the archeological sites containing the awe-inspiring thousands of life-sized terra-cotta soldiers were a short thirty minute taxi ride from the hotel.

Since that experience, without going out of my way, paying for any tours or suffering the overwhelming exhaustion of a targeted destination flight for tourism purposes, I have visited Iguaçu Falls in Brazil, Borobudur Temple in central Java Island in Indonesia, Golden Buddhas in Thailand, Khajuraho Temple Complex in India, the Tower of Bologna, Jeff Latham’s floral arrangements at George V in Paris, Tian Tan Big Buddha on the mountain near Hong Kong airport, the Jewish Cemetery in Prague and so on and so forth. Each of these sights are wondrous. Their histories intriguing. Their beauty immense. These little nuggets transform what would otherwise be exhaustive business twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Without these epiphanous mini-side trips, my travel could indeed be that which so many dread.

My point in sharing a few of my self-imposed travel rules is to help those who imagine travel to be incredibly burdensome. A little bit of optimism goes a long way to make even the shortest trip worthwhile. Every airport I have ever visited has an art or historical artifacts exhibit. CHOOSE to visit that exhibit! You can learn allot in 10 minutes! Learn something about the history of typewriters at SFO! Check out the skills and products of local craftsmen at ITH. Learn about the lauded traditions of the Philadelphia Eagles in the A terminal at PHL. Enjoy the inlayed bronze crustaceans on the floor at MIA. There is always something to gain on the road. So, rather than looking at what it takes from you, try to celebrate what you can take from travel.


The most reliable get-rich-quick scheme

A few years ago, I went to dinner with an old friend. Actually, an old boyfriend from 30 years ago. Since the time we had last seen one another, he had married his previous sweetheart, raised 4 wonderful children and had been incredibly successful in venture capital, riding the wave up, crashing back down, yet still earning millions per year in the aftermath. That night, we were joined by one of his junior colleagues who marveled at the fact that I was a women in her young 50’s and already retired. How could that be? he asked himself.

Perception is an amazing constituent in the evaluation of the successful and the unsuccessful; the rich and the poor; the winners and the losers. From this 40 something’s perspective, I was the winner and he was the loser. Why? Because the image in his mind of what life today and life in retirement should look like and what it would take to accomplish both of those images had created for him a Mount Everest that he must climb. So, as far as he could tell, I had already climbed that mountain. And clearly, because I run in the elite circles of his boss, and I have already seemingly ascended to his vision of epic success in advance of his boss…I am clearly one to envy. My existence was both a curiosity and somewhat demoralizing to him.

Truly, I felt a bit sad for him. This is a young man with a wife and two young children, living in a mega-millionaire’s mansion in the finest zip code of Connecticut, envying what is essentially a suburban housewife with an executive resume. What was wrong with him? His awe led me to think more about the gap between trying-to-achieve and achieving.

How do you ascend the Everest of your dreams and ensure security in your retirement years? What’s your “get-rich-quick” scheme? It’s really not that hard. But the first step is always to set an achievable definition for your success. What would retirement look life in your imagination? Do you want to be able to drive a golf cart to the course and around the course in the sunshine each day? Do you want to live on many many acres? Do you want to live aboard a boat and sail on a whim? Maybe tend a nice flower and vegetable garden in the summer and cross country ski every day in winter? Trust me when I say that there is a wide range of price points for each of these lifestyles. So take a look at what your options might be 30 years from now and place an image in your mind of the not-so-expensive version of this dream lifestyle. No one is saying you can’t overachieve your goals, but it is wisest to set up goals for yourself that you know can be achieved.

What does your dream every-day-life look like? Marriage? Family? House? Remember the advice that Warren Buffett so famously shared. Buy your first house and keep it. Stay in it. Don’t sell it. Don’t waste money on closing on a bigger house, just because you can. True, if you buy a 3 bedroom house and proceed to have 3 sets of twins, maybe you will need a bigger house. But when you buy that first house, be practical. Think about how the house will transition through your life plans. We all see publications full of huge dream homes. But do you know what happens when you buys a giant house with lots of space? Two things: First, you fill the stuff with things you buy; things you would not have needed to buy if you were in a smaller house. Second, you spend 3 or 4 more times on energy to heat, to illuminate, to cool, to circulate and to clean. Bigger really is not better. Not for the environment and not for your pocketbook.

If you are just starting out in your career, and your grandparents did not happen to leave you with a trust fund, you might be thinking to yourself…how on earth can I even think about any of these goals? I am about 5 million miles from base camp when it comes to saving for this said first and forever home! I feel your pain. Or rather, I felt your pain as a young executive in New York City. I would run out of money every two weeks and have to walk 3 miles to work instead of taking the subway. And when I worked my way up the ladder in my career, what happened? I then multiplied my work hours and used my extra income to eat conveniently. Suddenly, I was getting carry-out sushi or steak au poivre on a Tuesday night. With a couple of glasses of wine. Hmmm. $100/week after tax? This $7K waste of money (at pre-tax value) per year leads me to the quick solution in attaining your lifestyle and retirement goals: Don’t waste your money! Save your money!

So here are the simplest steps to accelerating your amassing of wealth:

  1. Immediately make the maximum pre-tax contribution from your paycheck into your 401K
  2. Immediately create a direct deposit into a savings account (of any sort) in the amount equal to or more than what you are paying into your 401K.
  3. Immediately change your view around eating out. Eat out only for social and special occasion purposes and target no more than one or 2 times a week. It is much healthier and much less expensive to “eat-in”
  4. If you are a woman…LADIES NIGHT. I drank free beer and ate free popcorn 3 times a week when I lived in NYC. For dinner. But bring tip money, because the hard working bar-staff can’t really afford for you to not tip.
  5. Review your credit cards quarterly to be sure that you do not have any monthly charges you are not using. (I just did this, and after 2 years had accumulated a monthly tab of about $180 on services monthly, I was not actually using…weight watchers, hulu, ancestry archives..)
  6. Always pay your credit cards on-time and cover the complete balance. There is no reason to pay interest on a credit card. If you need a loan, you can get one for a lesser % interest rate.
  7. Brands versus quality. Quality can be important. Occasionally, a high end brand produces product with a far superior quality than other brands. Do everything in your power to avoid wasting money on the shiny object of the latest hottest brand, unless the quality differentiator will truly make a life changing difference to you. (I wrote more about this in another blog session.)
  8. Find a role model adult who can help you find a smart financial advisor and a shrewd tax person. These people can be the key differentiator in achieving your long term plans. You will see that people who do not have someone doing a good job will not recommend the person they are using. So, wait until you hear some good positive feedback, and then shop around every couple of years.
  9. As you earn more money, increase your pretax and your savings deductions to cover at least half of the increase.
  10. Don’t forget that you could one day be unexpectedly hit by a bus. So, don’t pass up any once in a lifetime experiences because of frugality. Just be sure that when you spend money, it is really making a difference for you.

Following these 9 simple rules are just a start. But if you follow them, you will significantly increase the speed with which you can have some of the young-lifestyle goals that you have set for yourself. And the compounding interest on the early savings you have put in place will enable that vision you have for retirement. Every one of these pieces of advice are a bit cliche. The bottom line is, though, that THEY WORK. And they are all completely under your control. If you can do this for your first 5 or 6 years out of college, you will be able to move on to more complex investment strategies. But when you are starting small, the key is also to start smart. So, start smart and get rich quicker than you would have otherwise.

Preparing to become a Stay-At-Home-Parent

The grass, being always greener on the other side of the fence, led me at many times throughout my career to feeling envious of stay-at-home-moms in my neighborhood. I went back and forth weighing the pros and cons of quitting my executive career and taking on the luxurious role of the suburban stay-at-home-mom. There are many considerations to evaluate to be sure that you are prepared for that leap from employee to stay-at-home-parent. I find it easiest to break down the decision into it’s parts.

First, lets look at it based on an income perspective. For some people, it is a simple decision. For some people, it is not even close to being an option. And for some, there are substantial lifestyle changes to think about. In the case of a couple where there is a sales executive earning $300,000 annually and a spouse who is a office administrator earning $40,000, there is not a significant financial risk for the lesser earning spouse to stay home. In homes with many children and an income that barely affords food, shelter, medical costs and transportation, the decision is easy, because it really is not an option. Where it becomes a more complicated decision is when both parents have made it far enough in their careers so there is a substantial income loss if either person stops earning money. This circumstance forces the parents to look at other considerations to make a sound decision. Two things to think about here: First, from my experience, when the parenting and appointment driving etc becomes less “shared,” the parent continuing to earn income is likely to focus more energy on the job and earn more. Second, there is no way to calculate the value of what you gain in terms of the benefits.

Second, let’s consider the benefits to the family of having a parent at home. There are benefits, to be certain. However, it is important to avoid thinking the average stay at home parent will suddenly send allot more time with the kids. School goes every day until at least 3pm in most parts of the country. And after school, there are often activities. So, maybe there is an extra 1 to 1 1/2 hours of potential additional interaction with the kids per day. Giving up 9 hours per day at the office might only free up 1 1/2 hours with the kids. In our case, we gained no time at home with our daughters, since they were typically not home until around 7 after their various sports practices. So, when thinking about time with the kids, be careful not to over estimate the benefit.

Another thing to evaluate are the benefits of being available all of the time to your family. This is usually a big win for everyone involved. When the kids need to get to the doctor, you can just take them. If groceries are needed, they can be grabbed on the way to pick everyone up from school. Everything is easier if there is someone at home managing the day to day.

And finally, a question that can not be ignored. Are you prepared to not have co-workers every day and not get regular feedback, assuring you that your work makes a difference. This can often be a difficult piece of the transition. As you make your plans to stay at home, it is worth lining up some casual responsibilities outside the house once your new lifestyle begins. Maybe volunteer for a school board role or something like that. I struggled with my transition at first. I was actually frustrated because the only feedback I got every day involved how I make bad grilled cheese sandwiches and buy the wrong kind of milk. Then I signed up for too many things outside the house. It took some time before I got a sense of balance.

It is never easy to make a decision that impacts family income. Will you feel like you aren’t earning your keep? Will you feel like you can’t buy new underwear? Could you really give up that 15 to 20 year investment in career advancement? Will you find friends? Will your kids value your presence? Here is the great thing. You can always go back and work somewhere else. Nothing is forever. And your kids probably won’t be home forever either.

A is for Accountability

My daughter asked me what I thought was the most important attribute of a successful person. Hmmmm. Wow. Uhhhh. Is it really possible that I could be rendered speechless? All day, I tried to think of an answer I believed was the best answer… It was a long day!

Thankfully, we received an email from our soccer coach later that day, which really inspired me and helped me find, at least, a good answer. His letter was about ACCOUNTABILITY.  What a great platform for life!

Being ACCOUNTABLE TO YOURSELF is such a an almost foolproof foundation for greatness, because it forces you to commit to achieving goals that you set for yourself, no matter how big or how small. Why “to yourself?” Because being accountable to yourself enables you to keep your commitment to your schedule, to your schedule and even to your commitment to God.

Being accountable to yourself means that you need to utilize discipline, that you may not even have, to maintain your commitments. It means you say to yourself “I said I would do this, and even though I was out too late last night and even though it’s too hot out and even though I wish I had not made this commitment…I need to do it because I said to myself originally that it was the right thing to do – the best thing to do – and I will be accountable to myself and get out of bed and do it!”

At school, accountability gets you to class on time and forces you to budget your time.  Being accountable to your work means that you know what work is due and when. You hold yourself accountable to figuring out what it will take to get it done far enough in advance and then getting it done. Being accountable means that if you aren’t sure what is due, you ask your teacher. If you are not sure how it works, you ask when you can come in and then you come in. Holding yourself accountable to your school commitments is the simple path the success in school. Sometimes you need to put aside your personal lack of interest in the subject matter. Developing habits to allow you to be accountable to yourself is not easy. Discipline, hard work and focus are probably the best tools to enable your commitment to yourself.

In sports, there are layers of accountability. Showing up on time, every time is foremost. Working hard. Being respectful to the coaches, the parents, the referees and the fans. Giving it your all, all of the time. Training beyond practice. Doing it for your team. This can’t happen if the player does not make the commitment to themselves. And even then, if the player does not hold themselves accountable to that commitment, they will completely miss out on excellence. There was just an ad on TV featuring the olympic athlete, Simone Biles. Every day she has the option, when her alarm clock goes off, to “choose to snooze.” Being accountable to yourself in sports means that you don’t choose to snooze.

At work, accountability takes on a more complex personality. We need to be financially accountable, morally accountable and for those who really want to be successful; we need to be accountable to exceeding any of the expectations for the role that we are in today. The difference between school and work is that in school, all of the work is assigned. It is clear what is due and when. At work, there may be one or two things that are regularly assigned, but these tasks become fewer and fewer as one’s career advances. When I go into the office, there is almost nothing that has been assigned to me. I could go in and talk on the phone with my friends all day (how old school!) or take 3 hour lunches. But every day, I come in with a plan of how I am going to make a difference in the business. I am holding myself accountable to the company, but also to making sure I continue to grow each day and not get bored.

People with less tenure sometimes don’t stay accountable to their career growth. I have seen many people complete the assigned analysis a thousand times without having actually looked for findings. The difference between an employee saying “here’s the report” vs the employee who says “here’s the report that you requested. I took a bit of extra time to look at some of the trends in the data and I think I may have found an opportunity” is HUGE. The latter employee is committed to growing their career.  While it may look like a case of sucking up to the boss, that is not the advantage of giving the analysis a deeper look . The advantage is what is learned in the 10% extra investment. Just as the advantage of doing training beyond what happens in practice. It is not so that you can prove to someone else that you are doing more. It is because the extra training and extra practice makes you better at the game.

What drives success? A million things. Hard work, dedication, focus, aptitude, interest, planning, learning from mistakes, love, positive attitude, faith, willingness to be wrong, sleep, yoga, a good diet, experience, and so on and so on… while the ingredients of success are endless, when they are the layered onto a foundation of accountability, they get a big boost. So, my answer to my daughter begins with ACCOUNTABILITY.

Why is it OK to make fun of some people but not others?

Well, I am not really the authority on this, except to say that I am one of those people whom it always seems OK to mock.  But it’s only OK up to a point. So, what are the defining lines for me? And what are the defining lines for people who would be less comfortable being made fun of?

Everyone handles feedback differently. Whether at home, at school or in the work place. Anywhere we go, we might encounter a person who is made very uncomfortable by the the way we look at them, the way we say thank you, or don’t say thank you. Even the way we shake our head or more significantly, the way we might sigh or roll our eyes. All of those simple and habitual responses can read as forms of feedback. Some times our feedback makes people feel relieved, happy or maybe proud. Other times it makes people feel weak, disappointed, embarrassed or just all-around uncomfortable.

I remember when I was in seventh grade and my father had just some home after months in the hospital. He had nearly died. With failed kidneys, home dialysis and a semi-healed broken leg from having fallen off the roof of our house while spraying gypsy moths in the crab-apple tree; my dad had endured the added complications of a joint attack of pericarditis along with a side of diverticulitis  and peritonitis. As my dad slowly recovered from his conditions and emergency surgeries, we were all relieved to have him around. And we got used to his conditions. The broken leg meant that mom drove everywhere and the colostomy bag grossed us all out.

Anyway, my father was a great sport about it and never whined or complained. Always optimistic and industrious, he found ways to heal his body and his mind with little coddling from his overworked wife and selfish teenaged children. On my last day of hockey camp that summer, we were all planning to celebrate because I would be done with three weeks of hockey and conditioning and my dad would finally be cast free; free to just walk around. But in a fit of his aforementioned industriousness, my dad thought it would be a good idea to mop the kitchen floor, which had not been done in a long time (maybe months.) As he walked with his crutches out of the kitchen, dad hit a wet spot on the terra-cotta tile floor. BAM! The foot with the rubber healed cast slid as fast as a torpedo right into the cabinet!

So, when my dad showed up at the rink at Elmira College that night, he not only wore the cast we had expected would be gone, he also had a giant extension on it, which supported all of his newly broken toes. We all knew that it must have hurt like crazy, but it was such a hilarious banana-peel-slip-and-fall that we all felt that we had no choice but to laugh and retell the story again and again. HE laughed along with us. And we also laughed at my mom, as part of a funny pile-on tactic for not allowing the hospital to cut off my dad’s new jeans when he broke his leg in the first place, since it had taken her years to get him to buy a pair of jeans. All of this misfortune brought Wyle E Coyote anvil-crushing hysterical laughter to our family. The four of us could just laugh and laugh until we were sopping wet with tears and hardly able to catch our breath. Except for one part of the misfortune.

One night, my brother made some sort of a comment slightly mocking the colostomy bag. THAT was over the line. That was the barbed wire we had not realized was there until we had torn our skin on it. Then I tried to nationally defend my brother, at which point, for the first time in my life, I was chased violently out of the living room by my father. How were we to know that this would upset him, that this one subject would make hime so uncomfortable that he would lash out at us? Well. We sort-of did know. At least we knew not to bring it up. We sensed it, which is why we had never really talked about it much. We knew better.

The point is that everyone has a line of humiliation that shouldn’t be crossed. People are often able to laugh at themselves when something seems funny but does not feel as though it reflects poorly on them. Like, for example, I thought it was so incredibly hilarious when I accidentally set a fire in my oven when a pie I was baking overflowed and then I forgot the rules of combustion and tried to smother my fire by pouring flour on it, which promptly exploded everywhere covering me and everything I own with a one inch layer of flour. What a mess!  I was happy to laugh at my apparent lack of intelligence. It was funnier than a banana peel slip and fall! But I could only do that because I did not actually feel like I lacked intelligence. I could laugh and point at how stupid I had been and how funny the mess was. There was nothing bad in it for me.

But when a friend of mine suggested that I could afford to have failed in baking that pie, implying that I was a bit heavy to be eating sweets; she jumped right over my tolerance hurdle. It hurt my feelings. The truth is I probably could have afforded to skip a meal and I had a low self esteem around my body image. The humor was lost. And the room went silent.  Everyone sensed that this might make me uncomfortable. They were all right.

The point is that it is not a question of which people can be made fun of. It is a question of which fun will threaten which person’s self esteem. This becomes really important in the workplace, as employees have the right not to have to feel threatened in their work environment. So tread lightly in strengthening your team’s bonds through making fun. And remember what my 13 year old calls “The Platinum Rule:”  Treat people as they would prefer to be treated. Don’t assume that they share the same confidences and insecurities that you do.