Thursday, May 27, 2004

Went to sleep in Chicago, woke up in Boston

I went for an overnight trip to Chicago yesterday, which was a strange experience. I've made quick business trips before, but I have never stayed overnight somewhere yet still spent fewer than 16 hours in the city. Nor have I gone to work, then flown somewhere, and been back at work before lunch the next day. It doesn't feel right. If I'm going to get on a plane it should feel like a trip, not a commute. And I shouldn't have to get up at 5:00 in the bloody morning, ever.

This was a sales trip, something else that I don't get to do very often. You see, I'm usually the guy trying to explain to the client that the sales guy was clearly high on a controlled substance when he issued that quote, and that they should be sure that he will be dealt with severely. I've always wondered how they got to the point where they were willing to mortgage the souls of an entire project team in order to get a stranger to give them a PO number. Now I know.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, let me tell you about the plane ride. You've heard of the Ship of Fools and the Village of the Damned? Well, I flew on the Flight of the Queerly Proportioned. Looking around the gate area for my flight was like looking in a hundred funhouse mirrors. There was the extremely tall thin man standing next to the short, round, potbellied plumber. Side by side, they made a giant exclamation point, an excited response to the eternal question mark that was Ultra-Skinny Girl With the Bad Slouch. Everywhere I looked, super-sized bodies advertised the abundance, if not the quality, of airport cuisine, as they waited to be let onto the plane by the flight steward with the abnormally large head. How did all these people come to be on my plane? Was I unwittingly joining some genetic experimentation convention? It was an unsettling beginning to my journey, like crossing into the world of The Triplets of Belleville.

The thing I like most about traveling by myself is that I can read. It's been a long time since I read an actual novel, so I went to my ever-growing To Be Read pile before I left the house and chose what turned out to be a heady read. I highly recommend The Life of Pi to anyone who wants to think and feel while reading a great story. I haven't finished it yet, but my head and heart are already full from it.

One thing I noticed on this trip more than at other times was the complete ubiquity of cell phones. The sound of the airplane door closing was accompanied by a chorus of chirps, farewell songs, and other multi-toned goodbyes from cell phones being powered down. When we landed, the chime of the seat belt sign being deactivated at the gate was nearly drowned out by the sounds of all those phones snapping open and signing their cheerful welcomes to their human traveling companions.

I thought about this as I walked through O'Hare, and I think I now know why cell phones are everywhere now. It's not really about efficiency or getting more work done anymore, is it? It's because we are so very afraid to be alone, even in a crowded airport. We can't bear the noise of our own thoughts, our own pain, so we drown it out in conversation. We call someone, anyone, to let them know that we made it, that we are on our way, that the large man in the seat next to us (after he has walked away in the crowd) had a strange odor of teryaki sauce clinging to him. We check our voicemail because it reminds us that we are necessary, that other people need us to do something for them that, apparently, only we can do. Instead of connecting with the crowd around us, or with ourselves, or with God, we isolate ourselves in a mobile phone booth. It's an amazing sight, to see thousands of people, all moving, all talking, and yet not one of them talking to each other.

On to dinner. As far as I can tell, this was a typical get-to-know-you sales dinner, starting with a bound PowerPoint presentation over drinks. We got the business out of the way early, so that we could enjoy dinner without having to keep working the conversation back around to "why you should hire us." I appreciate this approach, because it saves you from some rather awkward transitions:

Client: While we wait for our appetizers to come, I think I'll head to the restroom.

Sales guy: That's good idea. Speaking of rest, have I mentioned that our clients can rest easy, knowing their project is in good hands?

Client: Um, yeah. I just need to relieve the pressure in my bladder after those six drinks you bought me in the bar.

Sales guy: That's nothing compared to the relief I'll feel when we close this deal.

Client: Look, I'm just going to go pee. Stay here (runs off).

Our prospective client, in this case, was a former sales guy himself, so he knew how to get the work out of the way and get to the fun. Since we were working this deal through another company, their sales guy had come to Chicago as well, and I had my sales guy with me. So, there we were, the three sales guys and me, or as I came to think of it, Alcoholics and Anonymous.

I think there's a reason for all of the old traveling salesman jokes, and the fact that he always ends up trying to sleep with the farmer's daughter. Nearly every sales guy that I have met fits into roughly the same mold: the drink like Vikings, brag constantly about their conquests (women or customers, there's very little difference), and are driven by the fear that someone, somewhere, is having a better time than they are. Their business trips are an eternal quest for the best party ever.

I had little to add to the dinnertime discussion of parties, wild trips, and interesting places to vomit. Fortunately, I couldn't have gotten a word in edgewise even if I had wanted to. I did learn some things, though:

  1. Chicago is known as the best place in America for a business trip one night stand, since half of the bargoing population on any night is in town from somewhere else. Like Vegas, what happens in Chicago stays in Chicago.

  2. No matter how fun it sounds at the time, it is never a good idea to take off all of your clothes and throw them off the balcony when you are 6 feet tall and spending the night with a 5-foot-tall flight attendant. If, however, you decide to do it anyway, remember to take your wallet out of your pants first.

  3. No matter how hot it is, Cabo San Lucas taxi drivers discourage taking off all of your clothes in their cab in an effort to cool down, especially if you are sitting in the front seat.

  4. Finally, it's OK to take your drunk buddy's wallet and use his money to get a room in another hotel (one with functioning air conditioning), but only after he has passed out and with the provision that you owe him a drink the next day.

Needless to say, it's good to be home.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Never mind

My wife has a cold, so I had to go home from work early today to take care of her and the kids.

Remember that thing I said about face time vs. quality time? Never mind.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

I won't grow up

I have to say, I am so grateful for the grownups in the business world. They have taught me so much and helped me to mend my foolish, childish ways. You see, I used to actually think that people were supposed to enjoy their work: imagine that! What did I think this was, college? As it turns out, to be a successful, mature company, you must put such silly notions out of your head and realize what business is really all about: obligations, responsibility, and the burden of respectability.

Young companies and entrepreneurs are allowed to play for a while, but the grownups demand their due in the end. After a while, the press and the other experienced business leaders start saying the things that all grownups say to young adults: "You can't keep playing around like this forever, you know. Eventually, you'll have to start recognizing your responsibilities. You have a duty to the board, to your shareholders, and to the market that must be shouldered. There are bills to pay, reports to deliver, five-year plans to assemble. You've had your fun, but now it's time to start acting like an adult."

Adulthood, according to our wise gray mentors, is a collection of obligations: to family, to country, to employer. There is no room for fun, because that implies that we have some energy left to spend on ourselves. Grownups live a life of dull daily sacrifice, and are glad, in their gray way, to do it. They protect what they have, risk little, and ensure that their obligations will always be met. If they have a little extra time, they pull weeds.

If this is adulthood, then I'm with Peter Pan:

I won't grow up,
I don't want to wear a tie.
And a serious expression
In the middle of July.

And if it means I must prepare
To shoulder burdens with a worried air,

I'll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up
Not me!

I will cling to the belief that work can be fun, and fulfilling, and profitable, all at the same time. I will refuse to accept that a happy employee is an inefficient one, or that money spent on quality of work life is wasted. I will continue to expect that, if I challenge people to rise beyond what they have done before, to push their boundaries and to push each other, that they will rise to the challenge and smile while doing so.

I will not accept the belief that in order to get the most out of people you must beat them down first. I will never allow the frowning grownups with their clucking about "obligation" to convince me that life is only meant to be survived. I may have to spend the rest of my life as an adult, but I refuse to spend it as a grownup! And,

If growing up means
It would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree,
I'll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up
Not me!

File under: ,

Quality time

Over the past decade or so, we've heard so much blather about "quality time" at home that the phrase has become a parody of itself. No one can say it without irony, or at least air quotes. Personally, I think that the concept of quality time was invented by people who felt guilty about how little time they were spending with their children, so they decided, "It's not the quantity of time I spend at home; it's the quality." Right.

The funny thing about kids, though, is that you have to have quantity time in order to get the quality time. You see, they determine when quality time arrives, but you have to be there for it to happen. You can't just sit Junior down and say, "Son, we're going to have some quality time now, and make memories that will last a lifetime. Want to know the meaning of life?" I've seen some friends try -- God help them -- and the next sentence is usually something like, "Son, please don't wipe your boogers on my pants. I just got them back from the cleaners."

What I want to know is, why doesn't anyone ever talk about quality time at work?

At work, we trade quality time for "face time," proving our commitment to our company's success by daily wasting hours of our time there. We say, "I could be doing something better with my time, but because I love this place I'm going to sit here and surf the Net until my boss goes home. That's what makes me a valued employee." And then we go home just in time to kiss our kids good night, spend a little quality time with the TV, and go to bed.

Have you bought into this? Ask yourself these questions, and then try to answer them honestly:

  • At the end of the day, what are you most proud of: the things you accomplished that day or the time you put in?

  • When you go to a performance review, what measure do you use to prove your value to your company?

  • Does "hard worker" feature prominently in your self-description?

That's what I thought.

What if we switched the measurements? What if we sought quality time at work and face time at home? What would that look like?

For one thing, we'd probably accomplish a lot more in both places. At work, we'd look at our day and ask, "What can I accomplish today? How can I make a meaningful contribution to my company's bottom line and my coworkers' lives?" We would think twice before scheduling that meeting, because that's a lot of quality time in one place so it will have to generate a heck of a return. We would start proving ourselves by what we delivered rather than how much effort we expended.

We might even stop bragging -- sure, it sounds like complaining, but we all know you're bragging -- about how busy we were, and how everyone wanted a piece of us. Instead, we'd brag about how we got everything done in time to see all seven exruciating innings of our kid's baseball game, including the inning where every batter hit a home run because the entire infield was chasing a field mouse.

We might stop taking up space and start making the most of the only totally irreplaceable resource on this earth: time.

By the way, this doesn't just apply to people with families. I'm not advocating free time for moms and dads, with the singles picking up all the slack. Though if any of you want to babysit, please let me know. Even if you don't have a family, there has got to be something better you could do with your time than spend it at work. Do you have any dreams? Then pursue them now, before the sleep deprivation of early parenthood makes your brain so soft you forget what those dreams were. No dreams? Then borrow someone else's for a while until you come up with your own: volunteer somewhere where people are trying to get a second chance at life. That way, you get two lives for the price of one.

This isn't the social equivalent of string theory: it's a simple decision to put your effort where you say your priorities are. You don't have to wait for your boss to give you permission, either. If you deliver everything he asks you to do, and you do it well, he can't really complain if your car leaves the parking lot before his. And if he does really give you a hard time, then I bet that a lot of companies will be impressed by someone who has the courage to be "an efficient, delivery-oriented employee," and who refuses to simply take up space. I know I do.

Friday, May 14, 2004

Why would anyone want to sound like an accountant?

Two more additions to the "words you will never hear me utter, except in air quotes" list:

  • Net-net

  • Net-new

What the heck: unless you're talking about injuries received during a summer fishing expedition or an NCAA basketball victory ceremony, I will baldly state that using "net" as a prefix makes you sound like a dork. Using it as both prefix and suffix makes you sound like you have a stutter, and it adds nothing to your conversation. Just say, "That's all we have," or "This stuff is new."

As far as I can tell, this new phrase is an outgrowth of accounting teminology, that eternal pantheon of hipness. While it's OK to say that an invoice is due "Net 30," I think we would be best served to leave that terminology there. Think carefully about this: do you really want people to associate you and your conversations with taxes and bald, nearsighted men in rumpled suits? I didn't think so.

(Note: all references to accountants in this article are based upon other people's opinions. Personally, I think accountants are great, and wish I could be more like them. Especially the ones who review my tax returns. You guys rock!)

Friday, May 07, 2004

More Vocational Vocabulary

More words and phrases I will never use, either in writing or in conversation, even if I choke on my own tongue trying to find alternatives:

  • Go-forward plan

  • Actionable plan of attack

  • Transition (as verb)

  • Accountabilities

  • Resource, as verb. By extension, resourcing

  • Bucket, as verb. Ditto for the past tense, "... has been bucketed."

  • Actualize

  • Impact, as verb. And "impacted," if you have ever watched ER, has a wholly different connotation than I think people are seeking when they use it in emails.

  • Transparent, when used in place of "invisible"

And some that simply need to be used sparingly, if only because everyone else finds a way to insert them into every other sentence:
  • Leverage

  • Facilitate

  • Sign off

  • Best practice (that one hurts, because I used to be the "Best Practices Manager" for a former employer)

  • Resources, as opposed to "people"

Got any more?

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Chair games

It's spring in Boston, and there's a certain smell in the air. No, it's not pollen, though my car has turned a lovely shade of yellowish brown again. And the apple blossoms smell lovely, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the sharp, salty tang of reorganization!

Yes, it's time for the corporate answer to spring cleaning: the reorg. I've been through far too many of these in the past few years, so I recognize the signs: everyone looks extremely busy, but even less seems to be getting done than usual. Directors and managers find excuses to go visit their VPs three or four times a day, just to let them know how well everything is going on their projects. Unless, of course, they go to tell them how that guy in the other department -- you know, the one that does the exact same thing we do, only not as well -- keeps dropping the ball and delaying everything. Or at least, that's what they would say, except their VPs are nowhere to be found. They clearly have been in their offices -- you can tell by the sandwich wrappers scattered around their monitors -- but they've been in all-day meetings with the head of their divisions, or else in an off-site with other VPs in their functional areas from other divisions. Budgets are "under review," and contracts are "on hold for now," except in key areas.

As a manager in my old company, I hated these times. Everyone knew something was coming, but no one was allowed to admit it for fear the strange guy who always wore a fedora, even in the middle of summer, would finally go off the deep end and bring his gun collection to work for show and tell. Because then, "reorganization" was a euphemism for "thanks for playing, but we just sold your desk on eBay." Now, though, I'm a consultant at a large company, and times are better. This reorg probably won't involve anyone getting laid off, except maybe the grossly redundant and incompetent. Now, reorganizing doesn't cost people their livelihoods, just their hard-earned political capital. If Director A gets moved to a new division, he has to start building up his influence all over again and prove his worth to a new boss, and that's a lot of work.

A corporate reorganization is like a grown-up game of musical chairs, but with slightly modified rules. In this version, some people have enough power that they get to save some seats for their friends, and some seats are more comfortable than others. The trick is, you can't always tell who the Chair Savers are, or how many seats they can save. If you're next to the wrong person when the music stops, you may both find yourself fighting over a three-legged stool.

So right now, while the music is still playing, people are running around trying to figure out who the Chair Savers are and who has the cushiest seats next to them. Other people are pretending that they have a couple of seats saved just for their closest buddies, while at the same time desperatley hoping that they don't come to work one morning and find that their own seat has moved.

Round and round the mulberry bush,
the monkey chased the weasel.
Round and round the mulberry bush,
Pop! Goes the....

Monday, May 03, 2004

Say "stress!"

I was loitering near a coworker's desk the other day, waiting for the people in the meeting before mine to evacuate my conference room, and I started looking at his pictures. At first, I didn't recognize anyone in the pictures, but then a strange feeling of happiness mixed with surprise came over me as I kept looking. After a few moments, I realized why I didn't recognize the man in the pictures: he was smiling.