I often write about the plight of the older worker. Unfortunately, we see how the very workforce they may have served well for decades often treats them like some turncoat and kicks them to the curb. Many were replaced by technology while others by someone half their age at half their salary.
What a shame.
In my opinion, companies, investors and society as a whole have been hurt by the practice. So here are some words of wisdom from a guy who will soon be 57 and who is happy to share his experience to any (and all) for the good of the tribe. Some of these are career lessons and others are simply prompted by life events.
1. People are Generally Good.
Don’t get caught in the headlines. News organizations put out the horrific terror stories because they make money. “Daughter gives kidney to father” stories are awesome and happen all the time. But they don’t sell. Most people want to help and will if they can. It is at the core of our DNA.
2. Finding Your Why For me, life is about creating experiences for others and consuming experiences of others. They go in tandem. I realize now what my life is about and what value I bring to mankind. I arrived at this conclusion over the past year. It is quite humbling.
3. The Journey with the Kids
We have three boys. Two are in college, one has graduated and is working. They made it through the teen years with a few scrapes and bruises but are on their way. We can see a future for them as ours slowly changes. It’s a big house.
4. Time is Precious and Fleeting It feels like yesterday that I turned 50. Seven years gone in a flash. I am certain it does not slow down from here. Make that bucket list and start ticking them off. We flew to California for Desert Trip because we wanted to and had a great time. We went to Alaska 5 years ago and talk about the trip frequently. I decided to start writing at 54. In 2018, I will publish my first book
5. I Have Uncertainty About What Happens When You Die I have seen and experienced so much but am not confident anything happens when it’s all over. I do hope I am wrong on this one.
6. The Best Days are Ahead for Human Kind I am optimistic for the future. Even with all the issues facing humankind. Hatred, poverty, sickness, terrorism, wars current and expected and everything else I believe we will thrive. The issues of today will make us better as we will work through them and be better for it.
7. Your Career Work Becomes Easier This is because you have experience, are very confident and sure of yourself. The reality of how you are perceived in the workplace though is dire. People are generally mean and disrespectful to aging workers. I saw this at a place I worked once. The CEO actually said in a senior management meeting. “There are too many old people working here.” I was floored and counted myself as one of those “old people.”
It is during my fifties when I reworked my network and connections. Kind of like a hurricanes eye wall replacement cycle. I have done this (meaning I have dropped some and added others). Like a storm, I am certain my network is stronger now after making the changes. I highly recommend you constantly reassess the value you are receiving from the people you surrounded yourself with. This is important in your fifties, as your network will catapult you through your career in your sixties. See my article The Core of Your Network and Why it’s Important.
I believe I am at my absolute best right now.
Further, I know I will continue to improve over the next years and decades. I’ll be sure to keep the lessons learned flowing to my network and followers. For now, good luck creating experiences for others and be sure to share your results to continue to learn and evolve. It is how we grow.
Do you think of our your life as having a purpose? Can you reason that you are here to contribute something for others to consume? Over the last few years, I have come to the conclusion that my WHY is really quite simple. In fact, it is so simple it can be fully described in five words.
Over the past few years I have figured out my “Why.” I spent real time thinking about what made me, me. I didn’t set out to answer the Why question until it was suggested to me by my friend, Sarah Elkins. Last year she invited me to the first No Longer Virtual session in Atlanta. Two days of workshops to meet, to learn, and to connect face to face with some super-talented people. I jumped at the opportunity. I went, participated, learned and made a couple of handfuls of new friends who shared a common love of communicating.
I take great pride in the teams I have built and led over the years. At the risk of sounding discriminatory, I have found that I have tried to hire morally good people. I often say in the workplace that “I hire people who are good out there and in here too.” I have high integrity, and I expect it from the people I lead. I have been fired for refusing to lower my integrity quotient. I have quit for the same reason. There are some things I am unwilling to do for money. I am a Marketing and Sales executive. There are ample situations where bending the truth or over stating something present themselves.
Do you think of your career regarding the decades related to your chronological age? You know, 20’s, 30’s and on to your what? 60’s. How about 70’s or 80’s? Beyond that? Do you have the nerve to think this way? Should you think of working and being active forever? You know, as long as you can and still be productive. I will bet you Warren Buffet (86) does, Pope Francis (80) too. How about Ruth Bader Ginsberg (84)?
How do you know if a job is worthy of your time and hard work? How will you know if another opportunity might have yielded a better return? How do you know whether you are being set up to be the proverbial canary in a coal mine by your new employer? They may be sending you into the mine to see if you live. They may be doing this to help themselves determine if they will live. It happens all the time in smaller companies. Many have been in business for awhile with some success but stalled for some reason. These firms may have tens of millions of dollars in revenue and some EBITDA. They provide jobs for employees and value for customers.
If the company has been around for five, ten years or more and has stalled, watch out. How many years a company has been in business is important. There are any number of firms that have been around for a dozen years who call themselves start-ups.
Ah, sorry. No way.
A start-up is a lab in search of a scalable business. If the company is pivoting to new markets or developing new products, it may still be new. But if the company is serving the same market with the same products and services, it isn’t a start-up.
There are many of these businesses out there; many are VC-backed. It is often because the investors have become married to their initial investment. They often are well beyond the life of the funds’ goal.
Time in business and the amount of revenue are key indicators. They speak to the health and future success of the firm. If a company is running at $20 million in sales and 20 years in business and calls itself a start-up, that’s bad. Be careful if you find yourself considering a job at a company like this. It’s ok if the company is moving its products to a new market. But I’d prefer it if the company had developed something new for the same market or a new market. If you start to hear that there is a need for new marketing and sales talent, look out. First, check the profiles of former employees on LinkedIn. How many came and went? Were they successful at other places they have worked? These are critical questions whose answers might prevent you from committing career suicide. At least you will avoid a situation where you would have little chance of being successful.
These companies have product problems. They have likely run out of market to sell to. They have taken their share of the addressable market. Or they may have poor products and services that don’t sell. It’s easier for the CEO, particularly if he or she is the founder, to blame it on the sales folks. They fire them, and the company goes and hires new talent. It happens all the time in sales. There are some important questions you can ask that can help you avoid a career mistake.
Look at the chart below. Imagine the rectangle is the market that the company’s products and services play in. It might be a $10s of millions market, a $100s of millions market, a billion, or more. Whatever it is, inside of the market I have put an S-curve. The S-curve is an environment where, early on, growth is slow. Over time growth increases rapidly before leveling off. The question you need to ask is this:
Where is the company on the S-curve?
You want to be on the bottom of the curve. If you are beyond the middle of the curve, you won’t be there for exponential growth. I was there for the ride while a member of the management team at Albridge Solutions. The first couple of years were tough sledding, and we almost didn’t make it. We had a $100 million market and no competitors. We experienced the growth part of the curve over the next five years. After some analysis we realized we were approaching the top of the curve. It is here where the nominal growth rate will kick in. The rate is usually in the single digits. You can make a living here, but it is not fun. We decided to sell Albridge to a strategic buyer for more than $300 million and move on.
Once you know the size of the market and where the company is on the S-curve, you need to ask the next two questions.
How long has the company been selling its existing products and services? What is the company’s revenue?
I would argue that five years or more selling legacy products will start to tell a story. The founders may say they are at the bottom of the S-curve in a big market. Be careful here. In short, they may have sized the market wrong. Or they may have inferior products. Or both. If a company has been around for a long time selling “older” products with weak revenue growth, think twice. You will have limited upside hanging your hat there.
When assessing a new opportunity, always research the market size and where the company is on the S-curve. Combining this with revenue and years in business is a powerful way to assess a business.
I have worked in many places. Big companies, small companies, some thriving and some failing. Start-ups, turnarounds and places on cruise control. Years ago I worked in a business where my predecessors had gone on to commit career suicide, their graves scattered across the corporate minefield that is technology. Driving a company and millions of dollars into the ground does have benefits, though: millions more investment dollars. Others walked the plank, a sword in their back, fell, and drowned. When you work around and enable Wall Street, you are another hole in the same pincushion. Good luck trying to be different. I have scars on my back from doing that, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. They are the tattoos I never got, but admired on others at the beach. My own tramp stamp.
We all have that “atta boy” or “atta girl” folder in our minds of past successes. I actually have a manila folder from back in the day with some career highlights in it. One is from my first real job in the early ’80s. There’s a deli napkin with the following words written on it: “Effective in September, your new base salary will be $32,000. Keep the fires burning.” This amounted to a $5,000 pay raise for me. While the inflation at the time was high, this was my biggest accomplishment in my young career. I also became an officer of the bank where I was working. Did I know what I was doing? No. I got by because I was enthusiastic and showed up each day. It is funny what can set you apart from the competition sometimes.
Enthusiasm alone isn’t enough to sustain a long career or to bring you to new heights of success, though. I would learn that over time. Define it however you want: money, titles, free time and giving back are all measures of being successful. Having an impact, a lasting one, is important to me. I want to leave some corporate graffiti behind that is my version of “Kilroy was here.” It will be for others to experience or have a laugh at. Either is fine with me.
So you build on your experiences over time, over decades. You become an encyclopedia of business knowledge. These are the situations you have worked in, handled, or failed at. If a typical career is thirty-five to fifty-five years, one day you will close the book.
And be forgotten?
That sucks. If that is how it is ends for you, I refuse. I am going out in a blaze of glory on the back of wherever I am employed. I had never planned on working forever, but over the past five-plus years I have determined that is what I want to do. I tried not working for a long period, and it was a waste of my time. I wish I could have the time back. It won’t return for me.
So I am thirty-plus years into a career. I have done the math, and figure I will live an average man’s lifetime. Thinking I have another twenty-five years or so to go, I imagine what I can do with the time I have left.
My best opportunity to date arrived when I was thirty-nine. I would imagine there is quite a lot left to do. Believe me, I still want to travel and relax. Seeing the pyramids is on my list. I don’t want to go now for fear of not returning for whatever I am going to do next. I believe they will still be there when I am ready.
I also know I will continue to add critical skills to my repertoire. I am not done learning. Believe in a lifetime of knowledge and experiences. Your final goodbye will be the last one, in my way of thinking.
I have passed through my career with strong relationships, a posse of men and women I have counted on over the years. They are at the core of my network. As I sit and ponder my next move to growing a business vs. turning one around from failure, I have some questions. How will my team change? Who are the new people who will teach me things I never knew? Who will be with me as we discover new experiences together? Will they pass them on to others following in our footsteps? Who will emerge as a beacon, a leader I will follow in my next chapter? That’s one of the true rewards of a body of work well done. Who you teach. What they learn. If they can change you from leader to follower. I am open to it. What will they pass on for the greater good, and will their followers have the guts to do the same?
Advancing life happens throughout a career. If you are performing meaningful work, that is where the reward comes from. The key is to be part of an organization that is more a movement than a business. Revenues and profits are important, and most important when they create an energy that feeds on itself for a reason other than numbers on a page. Want to make money? Be a trader; you create nothing formidable or real only money for yourself. Want to have an impact on society? Make something useful and teach others how to do it. The rewards? The impact you have on all who follow.
Popular now is the saying “There is no there there.” According to Stackexchange: The original is from Gertrude Stein in a quote about her birthplace, Oakland CA. The meaning of the entire sentence is that she didn’t find a sense of place, a center, or anything substantial or important enough to warrant calling the town of Oakland some place by even a name. This statement got me thinking about a simple twist on the same word as it relates to a job choice.
If you accept a new opportunity, you must be able to answer the question. Is there a here here? If you can, then you might have something. The answer takes the form: Here is the here here.
The first here is a point in time
It’s now, 2017. You are at a stage in your life where you have made a decision to explore a new opportunity. People leave their current job six months to a year before they make the move. You’ve made the decision so the clock has started and the countdown has begun. Good luck because it will be a bumpy road. Navigating the job market and working your network to find that gem which gets you excited is hard work. Oh, and remember you have to hold down the fort at your current gig, so you don’t get shown the door. You have several balls to juggle but taking care how you manage your move is paramount.
The second here is identifying the opportunity
It is the most important of the three here’s. It’s the opportunity. The reason you get up in the morning. You join a company to do something or perform a function. The opportunity drives you and is what gets you thinking. Your thinking drives your activities, which in turn has an impact on the business. Is it a turn-around opportunity? A growth opportunity? A chance to build a function? I have done all three and prefer building and growth over scaling back for a turn-around. When a company has poor performance, and you are a senior leader, it can be scary. You’re sitting in the cockpit and staring at the ground as it accelerates toward you. Pull on the yoke and close your eyes. Growth and building something are like the arrival of spring. Longer days, warmer weather make us all feel good and being in a growing business does too. Rapid growth is so much fun you may often forget about many things that are important to you. I remember my wife saying to me once “even when you’re home, you’re not here.” That hurt but she was right. I was having a ball at my job at a small technology company. It was around the time that we closed two, multi-million dollar deals, on the same day. We had changed the trajectory of the business. I knew I would have a stream of commission dollars coming my way. I also understood that we had increased the valuation of the VC-backed company. It was the goal I had hoped for and worked so hard to meet. I realized the second here.
The third here is the company where the opportunity resides
Is it Snapchat, Betterment or a start-up (insert name). It might be Microsoft. You have identified the industry, sector and narrowed it down to the particular company. You have also determined the role, title, and your compensation. Here I am, Senior Vice President of Business Development at YouNameIt technology company. My compensation is X dollars, and my office is in Boston with global responsibilities. It is the place you have decided to hang your hat. You have agreed to become part of the company’s prevailing culture. It is super important you understand this. It will be a part of you and your personal brand for the rest of your career. We are all judged to some degree by where we work, so be careful. Think of the reputations ruined as a result of the financial crisis for those who worked on Wall Street. How about working for Volkswagen right now or Kmart? Strap in and welcome aboard.
Before you set out on your journey to find that next great opportunity, spend some time building a plan. You’ll want to understand where you are in your life and the conditions around you. It’s the point in time and your relation to those things which are vital to you. Next, work hard to identify that great opportunity which gets your blood flowing. Think about it and don’t settle. How many great opportunities are not realized by not sticking to it and accepting a lessor role? Join a reputable firm which has a solid culture and reputation in the marketplace. Work with people who are good at their jobs and who are good people when they aren’t working. This way you will be able to explain to someone else: Here is the here here.
A toxin is a form of poison created by, amongst other things, human beings. Toxic can describe the culture of a company too. I once worked at a company whose culture was so bad that……sounds like a I am putting a Henny Youngman one-liner on a tee, doesn’t it?
We hear about it all the time. Abusive bosses like Roger Ailes at Fox News created an old boys culture at his company. A culture of deceit at Wells Fargo ended with fraud. Cheating at Volkswagen is crushing a famous brand and ruining its legacy.
But, we know some company cultures revolve around innovation, like Nike. Diversity and inclusion differentiate Starbucks in corporate America. Harley Davidson’s culture rests on its passionate customers.
Too bad all companies didn’t follow the latter examples. Unfortunately, good and bad cultures are prevalent in small and large businesses alike. It is surprising we don’t have a consistent measure for a company culture. Like a toxicity test. We verify the water for potability, the air we breathe for pollution and food for bacteria. We query our intelligence to determine where we can go to school. Then we test people (interview) to see if they can join our corporate culture. Imagine working at Wells, in the branch system, a few years ago. Welcome to the culture of sales via fraud at all costs. Congrats, you’re one of us whether you know it yet or not. Be sure to spend all the commissions before they close the cell door.
I have been around for decades and have worked in all kinds of company cultures. One was fun, open in every way and had employees who obsessed about the product. I didn’t fit in well and moved on but am a happy ex-employee. I would consider it a good culture but not for me. Because you move on doesn’t mean the culture is weak. The culture worked for them, and they became successful.
At another company. The mantra was sales at all costs. The guy who ran the business in North America would jump up on the conference table and yell at the top of his lungs. It was bad behavior and permeated the whole office. Fear and intimidation became the culture. A culture of fear is a culture, but not a healthy one. The culture of fear caused high turnover and clients became frustrated. There was no consistency or secure vision for the future. The strategy changed daily as new people showed and then quit. I moved on, and the company sold in a fire sale.
I also worked in a company where the CEO wanted to change the company. After twenty years of doing things in a consistent though not optimal way, he had come to this conclusion. The culture was ok. The people were friendly and smart. After I was tarred and feathered in my first year, they accepted me for what I was. While so many said they wanted to see culture change, when it came to doing it, they resisted. It was more the “devil you know versus the devil you don’t know.” It was a challenge because this company had merged into a much bigger company. They were at odds with the parent. The cultures were different. The parent was conservative and staid. There was inherent tension. The smaller company continued to be successful regardless of the strife. Why? Because their core product is an industry leader and flat out works. There was a cost to the business. The fear of a new and different culture stymied development. Handcuffed employees put a lid on creativity. It resulted in a one product business serving one market. The result was nominal growth.
It is important to know that a toxic culture can destroy your employees, clients and personal relationships. I went through one of these in my career. Great relationships became strained and friends lost. Collateral damage from a listless work environment. The company limps along hoping something good will happen to it. Hope is not a strategy or a culture.
I recently had lunch with a friend who decided to move on from a culture of “saying one thing and doing another.” Self-preservation ruled the day. It had been prevalent across the firm. She became confused as a senior manager. Those who reported to her became lost in the dark atmosphere. She said, Chris how can they perform, if I can’t?”
I was a part of a great culture at one time. I was one of the early team who helped create it. I credit this as one of my biggest achievements in business. We didn’t have a plan at first. What we did have was a group of people with disparate backgrounds. I would argue this was one of the key elements of our success. There was a couple of consultants, engineers, a technology guy, three Wall Street folks, and an HR guy. We didn’t have consistent pedigree. We struggled at first and almost failed but got our house in order. It’s funny how staring at failure can motivate you. Desperation can do that. Almost failing forced us to focus, and reminded us of what hard work was. We also combined fun with hard work. This created more work and more fun. What a great cycle for a company. This made it easier once we had a functioning blue water product. The cycle continued. The results piled up, and the cycle continued. We rewarded the company, and the cycle continued. A culture of achievement and rewards works.
Lightening had struck
We should develop a rating score for assessing a company’s culture. Employee and ex-employee reviews are not enough. Until we get there, my advice is to join a culture of integrity at all costs. A company that performs meaningful work. One that makes a difference for employees, customers, and the community. Find that, and you will have the foundation for a meaningful company culture.
I have been a senior-level executive at five companies over the past couple of decades. They have ranged from a couple of hundred people to 30,000. The management teams I was a part of ranged from dysfunctional to high performing. For those that were high performing, I have found the following consistencies.
Each senior leader had a high leadership lid. John C. Maxwell’s first of his 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership spells it out for us. Your leadership lid determines the level of effectiveness you will have. Have a low leadership lid, and you will never make it past the recreation team in business. If you have a high lid, you will play varsity for a long time. At Albridge Solutions, we built a management team of people that had high lids. It became evident in years four through six as we climbed the S curve. We all got along well enough and challenged each other’s assumptions and decisions. For us, a decision required data to back it up versus emotion. We took educated risks where we understood the consequences. That team broke up long ago. It is no surprise that each executive has moved on to further effectiveness and success.
Sharp focus is a difficult thing to achieve, especially for us left brain folks. I pride myself on being creative. I bring new, different, and unusual solutions to business problems and opportunities. When you achieve success in your business, it becomes even harder. Many will tell what you should build next or add to your product or service. Resist this, as it will distract you from the unrelenting focus you need. Many firms get distracted by the new, shiny idea. They get away from the core offering that drives their business. I have seen companies spend millions of dollars on products without research. Later, they wonder why they don’t sell. A solution looking for a problem is a tough way to introduce a product. In the meantime, the core offering revenue sagged. The result of the attention being directed away from it. At Albridge Solutions, we consolidated financial data for our clients. Everyone told us to build a CRM or compliance system. We had a lot of pride doing one thing: being the best consolidation engine on the planet. Over time we achieved our goal. Being laser-focused allowed us to monetize the company for over $300 million back in 2008.
First, you have to have a strategy. I have worked for businesses that had none or had many. Neither is good. The plan has to be simple. Why? So everyone understands it. I had one CEO tell me our strategy is to “sell.” Ok, I thought, that’s simple enough, but selling isn’t a strategy. Selling is an activity. A strategy is a plan for achieving the desired goal. It’s important for everyone in the company to understand where they are going and how to get there. Strategy starts within the management team. Next, the people who will perform the work to deliver on the plan get involved. Often the message gets lost in over-complicated PowerPoint slides. Or the message becomes confused in business garble. It often makes no sense to the people responsible for executing the work. Keep it simple, check in on how it is developing, and adjust course if needed. Next, remember to reinforce it every chance you get.
It is painful to see how little some companies know about the market or markets they serve. An addressable market the management team and board understand and agree on is a must. It will help Marketing, Sales, and Product perform. The CFO will be able to set reasonable and achievable revenue targets for the company. I once worked for a company that had been in a market for ten years. They didn’t know who their ideal customer was or how many there were in the market. We performed the analysis, and it turned out there were only a couple dozen potential firms left to sell. That is not a good place to be. In Peter Ducker’s parlance, it defies the purpose of the business. It was Drucker who said, “the purpose of a business is to create a customer.” So I say, if you are not creating a customer, you don’t have a good business.
Great products rule the day. All the marketing and sales in the world cannot hide flawed products for long. We all seem to want to be number one, or the best. It is also ok to be number two or to work for a good company. As an example, Home Depot’s revenue is 50% greater than Lowe’s’. Both might be good places to work depending on your desires. I have worked for companies whose products were great and also so poor our customers didn’t like us. They voiced their displeasure in our surveys. They said many bad things about us in the market that we had to remind them of an important fact. They were our customer and hurting our business, in turn, would hurt them. That’s a vicious circle if there ever was one in business. A company with great products stands on the shoulders of giants in the super competitive 2017 economy.
At the heart of any successful company I was at there was a defined culture. The culture supports what the business was trying to achieve. Words like fun, hard work, and results-driven come to mind. I know lifestyle companies where the employees go skiing when it snows and surfing when the waves roll in. At one company I was with, we had developed a reputation for delivering on expectations. Our customers said “you guys do what you say.” This is by far the best compliment I have received in business. Well, it’s not surprising that the culture we had built was one of delivering on expectations. Accountability and sound decision-making ruled the day. Over time it proved out in the form of value for our customers. It felt good to be part of, and this drove us to continue to deliver because it felt good.
If you are thinking of joining a new company, look at the management team and ask yourself some questions. Are they people that you want to lead with? Or do they have high lids that you want to follow? Does the company know where they are going and have a laser focus on getting there? What markets do they serve? Why are they in business and do they have the products and services the market wants? Finally, is this a place you want to spend many hours at and think about? Can you have an impact and feel good about your effort and decision? These are tough questions to consider. But they are necessary if you want the best chance of work happiness and success.