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November 20, 2013

Leadership in a 1,000 Words

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Leadership is ever-present.  We experience it almost from the time we come into this world until the end.  When we are very young our parents, or guardians, guide, teach, and care for us.  They influence us to achieve common or at least desired goals.  Teachers and coaches do the same, though in a somewhat more detached and less informal way.  The same can be said of supervisors, religious leaders, and various professionals we solicit to assist us.  Friends and colleagues also display leadership as do civil servants, like police officers, firefighters, and military personnel.  Leadership is part of our lives and it would be difficult, if not outright impossible to thrive, or at least survive long, without it.

Leadership can have positive, negative and insignificant influence on our lives, depending upon your perspective.   Similarly, some lessons learned from leaders stay with you for a lifetime, such as the way some address elders as sir or ma’am, while others fade quickly like wearing your clothes a certain way to be perceived as “cool”.

It has been talked and written about since at least the time of the ancient Greeks and very likely much earlier than that.   Some who study leadership will tell you that it is learned from observing and experiencing it.  Others believe that leadership is innate and that we are born with it.  Another group advocates that leadership is some combination of the two.  Formal theories have been devised that range from leadership being explained by a series of rewards and punishments, to personality traits both in-born as well as learned, to situational factors, which give weight to context as well as to individuals.  There are also theories that seek to explain it by relationships, with power being a key ingredient, as well as many hybrid approaches.

Most will agree that great leadership has the ability to inspire, motivate, and transform outcomes from group endeavors of all types.  Many civilizations, nations, corporations, groups, and individuals have benefited from leadership.  Similarly, much damage, destruction, and pain has also been wrought by people exercising leadership for conquest or oppression.  These days, if you desire, you can take classes in leadership and even earn an undergraduate or advanced degree in it.  Innumerable books have been written about leadership, especially in the last few years, and yet we still do not really know much more than we did when we first started wondering about it.

One of my early jobs was as a dishwasher in a college cafeteria.  The supervisor was a man named Rick and he led a team of young people like me by being actively involved and often personally teaching us how to complete required tasks.  He did this usually with a smile and was always willing to lend a hand, whenever needed.  The employees, my peers, respected him and the work was also always well done and completed on time.

Many years later, I worked for a boss who knew little about the operation and cared nothing for the staff.  As far as we could tell he spent much of his time simply goofing off in his office.  The decisions that he made were done with little regard for facts and the results were not given any real scrutiny.  The end was predictable and he was soon out of work.

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A leader that I later worked for was very obviously tired and did not want the job.  However, because of the circumstances, he had little choice but to stay.  The staff respected his experience and he obviously worked very hard.  However, he was easily manipulated and many of the employees took advantage of this, which caused great problems for the organization.

Yet another individual I worked with was very successful at her job and made many improvements.  She listened to employees, analyzed issues thoroughly, and quite obviously cared about the organization and those who were employed by it.  She worked hard to enhance organizational performance and challenged everyone to do the same.  She was focused more on the work and less on what was in it for her and the organization prospered under her leadership.

These types of experiences, and many more, combined with my education and training have provided me with a unique vantage point from which to contemplate leadership.   These days, I really do not think any of the theories satisfactorily explain or account for all facets of leadership.  This is because human behavior is complex (any mom, little leaguer, or bartender knows this) and is very likely influenced by both inherited as well as learned factors.  The expression of inherited factors itself is complex and is probably affected by multiple environmental influences, in ways that we do not yet completely understand.

Additionally, the context of any situation contains a multitude of factors that can and likely do alter outcomes.  In this regard, followers themselves also influence leadership through formal and informal means, though this is seldom taken into account when evaluating the effectiveness of leadership.  Similarly, individual definitions of leadership are diverse and not fixed.  So what defines good leadership to one person may be perceived as inadequate, ineffective, or just plain bad to another and both could be evaluated differently by the same person on a different day!  Follower and leader moods and attitudes are also not fixed and these too will affect perceptions and subsequent behavior (i.e., the world looks better when we are happy than when things are not going our way).

Where does this leave us?  At this point, with three thoughts:

  1. Leadership is important
  2. We do not yet really understand leadership
  3. That understanding leadership should be a priority for everyone

It is important to keep these in mind, because there are some who claim to fully understand it and will pass on their knowledge to anyone who will listen, or pay, for the privilege.  Until we fully understand it, which may take a while, keep this in mind and decide for yourself just what constitutes effective leadership!

April 17, 2012

Uncle Joe

Uncle Joe is the name of a common relation that a lot of us know and love.  My particular Uncle Joe is actually my father’s Uncle Joe and his birth name was Jose.  I did not know my Uncle Joe well at all, but he nonetheless had an impact on me and many others during his life, and after.

What I know about his background is that he was born in 1908 in the middle of Mexico, in a state called Zacatecas, in the capital by the same name, in a sleepy village called Jerez.  The region was well settled by the Spaniards less than 100 years after Columbus opened up the new world to the west.  Uncle Joe was the fourth born child and though he was the third born son, he was named after his father.  When Uncle Joe was little, his family owned a ranch in a country that would soon be in the midst of yet another revolution.   The house where he was born was made from adobe and looked to be ancient when I saw it some eight decades after he was born (my grandfather, his brother, was born in the same house).

Uncle Joe spent his early years helping out with the ranch and going to school.  When the revolution, which started in 1910 and lasted until 1920, began to intensify the family decided to move to the United States.  By the time Uncle Joe was 12 he was living in Chandler, Arizona and later in Colorado with his father and older brothers working in fields, mines, and as labor to support themselves and the family.  Eventually, they relocated to southern California and made it their new home.

As far as I can tell, during the 1930’s, when he was in his 20’s, uncle Joe worked in sales.  He was single and had no children.  However, he did have many brothers and sisters, in-laws, and nieces and nephews, some of whom he was close to like my father and grandparents.  In 1936 he applied to become a naturalized US citizen, which was eventually granted.  To me, the really interesting part of his story begins when he joined the Merchant Marines sometime during the late 1930’s or early 1940’s, when Uncle Joe was in his 30’s.

Before I go on, the United States Merchant Marines, for those who are unfamiliar, consists of a fleet of privately owned ocean vessels that are operated by the government or private sector.  The fleet transports goods and services in and out of U.S. waters.  During times of peace, they transport passengers as well as cargo, but in wartime they function as an auxiliary to the Navy.  In the latter capacity, they transport service members, supplies, and cargo directly for the military.  I knew little about this until Uncle Joe passed away, at which time I checked to see if he was eligible for any Veteran’s benefits, since he worked in the Merchant Marines during World War II, the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam War.

When Uncle Joe was in the Merchant Marines he traveled all over the world (literally).  Based upon his letters, he loved seeing new places.  There are pictures of him in Egypt next to the pyramids, strolling down Canal Street in New Orleans, enjoying dinner in Paris, and exploring the Alamo in Texas.  He traveled to Europe and researched the family’s genealogy in Spain and visited the beaches in South Africa.  He enjoyed dancing in Tokyo and went down under to hike the outback in Australia.  He visited the Azores and Tahiti and even enjoyed the night life in Rio.  In short, this man who was born in rural Mexico shortly after the turn of the century found a career a little later in life than his contemporaries that enabled him to explore the world!

I know this mainly from his stories which were retold to me by my father and grandparents.  I know this also from the circulated coins, bills, and stamps that he brought back and gave to my father from all of his many ports of call.  When I was a child, I would look at the foreign bills and change with their exotic writing and pictures and imagine what these places were really like.  Uncle Joe wrote post cards to my father and grandparents, many of which survived multiple moves and clearly showed how much he enjoyed his life.

When I was little, Uncle Joe was to me an intense man who always seemed to be far away, even when he was in the same room.  He was pleasant but did not say much to the little boy that I was then.  My father and grandparents always loved to see him and they would talk for hours about times long past.   He was different from my grandfather in that he never did marry nor have any children.  The rumor in the family was that early investments in property enabled him to have a comfortable retirement, though I never saw any evidence of that.  After I came back from a tour overseas in the Army, I asked my father to have Uncle Joe write down any information that he had about the family, so I could share it with mine someday.  Uncle Joe did that, though he confused me with my brother, and I have since shared that letter with extended members of the family who found the contents to be priceless in filling in gaps of family history that appeared after his generation had passed.

I have been fortunate to travel to many faraway places in my life, but I have not yet seen a fraction of what Uncle Joe has seen.  Whenever, I visit a new area, I invariably wonder to myself if Uncle Joe has been there before me.  When my father and I were in Macau, we ducked in to a little piano bar to take a break from sight-seeing one day.  Near our table was a small plaque that indicated that this was the place where the Pan Am Clipper planes landed.  I asked my father if he thought Uncle Joe might have stopped there, to which he replied that knowing him he probably did!

Twenty years ago, Uncle Joe, who was then 84 years old, had a stroke and was hospitalized.  I took my grandparents to see him one afternoon.  He was in bed and could barely speak and was pale and drawn, but the minute he noticed my grandparents, he became more alert and even managed to smile, just a little.  They visited for a while with my grandparents doing the talking but aside from the obvious, Uncle Joe was different this time.  That distant look that he had always had whenever I saw him before was gone.  It was replaced with a tired, weak, but warm and satisfied expression of a man who realized his time was nearly up and who was somehow grateful nonetheless to be where he was at that moment.

Uncle Joe (Jose C. Campos) is gone now and since he has departed, I have thought a lot about him and the legacy that he left.  He did not, to my knowledge, leave a large estate, or a forlorn widow or fatherless children behind.  He did not write books, compose music, cure a disease, or discover a new planet.  His legacy was much simpler in that he lived his life the way he wanted to, in an era when many would not or could not do it.  In the process he showed those around him that they could do the same!

June 30, 2011

Job Interviewing Tales

Unless you were born into lots of money, you have likely had to interview for a job at some time in your life.  Many of us can recall without too much effort how we felt about the experience with nervousness being a common theme along with nausea in some extreme cases.  Whatever your experience has been few of us would probably say that it was fun or enjoyable; even those who consider themselves good at it!

My father, having started his professional career in personnel, would help his friends and members of the family by setting up mock job interviews.  We would later hear afterwards how these really helped the person to overcome some of their anxiety about the process and do well on it.  Many people prepare in this way or study the organization and review questions that they believe may be asked with varying degrees of success.  Numerous articles and books have been written about it as most of us recognize the importance of doing well in what amounts to an oral examination to get offered a job.

Some people, however, do little preparation and essentially leave everything to chance.  These individuals either have lots of experience, great confidence, or both.  The outcomes in these situations depend very much upon having significant amounts of both present to be offered a job.

Interestingly, there are also those who probably do none of these things and actually, for whatever reason, show up for an interview and do crazy, or irrational, things.  The outcomes for this group are as varied as their approach and are the subject of this bit of writing.  The below tales are from personal experience, though the names and some of the details were changed to ensure they remain completely anonymous which is important for reasons that are probably apparent once you read them.

Inseparable?  – It was an overcast fall day when I received a call from Mrs. Jones.  She said that she was calling for her husband who was scheduled to be interviewed for a senior management position next week.  Spouses sometimes call in my experience, so I was not too concerned when she started asking questions about benefits.  When asked what she should wear to the interview is the precise instant I knew something was not right.  After recovering from my shock at her question, I explained that interviews were done with just the job candidate present and members of the interview team.  She would hear absolutely nothing of that and insisted that she be allowed to sit in on his interview.  I told her I would have to get back to her as to whether we could allow it, but that I was sure that she could not.

My second shock came when I consulted with the hiring manager, a very senior person in the organization, and he said he would allow it.  When I explained my many concerns about allowing a spouse sit in on any interview, he patiently listened and then said that the candidate could significantly help the organization (in English – he had an extensive industry specific Rolodex that the organization wanted) and for that reason he would allow it.  At this point you can probably guess the outcome and so yes he was eventually offered the job.  He helped the organization as predicted but he also caused, in my opinion, far more problems than he fixed!  His wife continued to be as involved as she could, much to the employee’s detriment, though I am sure he does not know that to this day!

Pass the mustard – It was late-morning when a professionally dressed candidate showed up a little early for his interview.  The position he was interviewing for was a mid-career professional job and over the last few days the organization had interviewed several good candidates for the position.  He was in his mid-30’s and well-mannered.

I invited him in to the room and we began the interview.  He detailed his background as it related to the job in effective manner as I listened intently thinking at this point that he may be a good fit for the organization. Everything was going well when he casually pulled out a sandwich from his briefcase, un-wrapped it, and took a bite before I could say anything!  While he was chewing I explained that we could have a better discussion if he would hold off eating until after the interview.  He offered no explanation and did not get the message and so we continued the interview and he continued to eat!

After we were done he went to the hiring manager and her staff to be interviewed by them.  Afterwards, I was told that they would like to bring him back for a final round of interviews until I explained the behavior he exhibited during interview.  Once they heard that, they decided that the lack of judgment could be a liability and so he was not brought back in for another interview and he did not get the job.  I must admit the sandwich looked good but probably not worth losing the opportunity that he did over it!

Party time! – I knew something was wrong with this one when I saw the candidate run for the restroom, covering her mouth the whole way.  She emerged a few minutes later looking slightly green.  I invited her in and when she shook my hand it felt clammy.  When I sat down I made a mental note to wash my hands after the interview as I thought she might be ill.  I asked her if she was feeling OK and added that if she was not we could always reschedule.  She said that she did not sleep well last night but that she would be fine for the interview.

Midway through the conversation, which was going well except that it was obvious that she was not feeling well, she asked if she could take a short break.  No sooner had I agreed when she got up and walked very quickly (almost ran) for the restroom.  When she was gone I was feeling bad for her as I thought she was ill and was thinking of another way to ask her if she would like to reschedule, when I caught a strong whiff of alcohol coming from the area where she was seated.  Shortly after she returned we completed the interview.  On her way out, I noticed that she tossed a bottle in the trash.

The bottle turned out to be exactly what you would think it was (Vodka actually).  In this case, the interview panel did not select the employee, without even hearing about the above details.

The Auctioneer – John (not his real name) was a well dress man in his late forties was interviewing for a job in sales.  He showed up on time and had a pleasant demeanor.  After I asked him a question, however, he responded with a detailed answer but the rate of his speech would have impressed the most seasoned of auctioneers.  After a couple of more such responses, I gently reminded him that we had plenty of time and to feel free to use it when answering the questions.  He did not get the message and, due to his rapid fire responses, the interview was finished in less than half the time they usually took!

He was otherwise a solid candidate and would have been a good fit for the organization.  Unfortunately, he continued with the same rapid fire responses with the other people who interviewed him and he did not initially get the job.  I say initially, because shortly after the position was filled it became vacant again.  After recruiting a second time, the pool of qualified candidates was such that the decision was made to bring him back for another interview.  He must have received some feedback in between because the second time around, I was told that he spoke at a more natural rate and was offered the job where he stayed for many years and did great work!

Less is more right? – Monique was a 30-something, stay-at-home mom who was seeking to reenter the workforce after a 10 year hiatus.  She had a bachelor’s degree in English and had 7 years of experience working in operations.  When she was brought in to the office she was very professional and had a terrific smile.  When asked questions, her responses, however, were brief and with precious little detail.  When asked if she had anything to add (to try and draw her out) she flashed her smile but declined saying that she felt comfortable with her response.

Regardless of the question asked her responses were always concise and devoid of much detail.  She did not display any nervousness and her answers actually addressed the question but did so in such a way as to leave the interviewer wondering.  An example of this is when she was asked to describe her experience in Managing people.  She replied that she managed 3 staff members in her last job, two manufacturing coordinators and one specialist.  She continued that she enjoyed the work and would not mind being a supervisor again.  On the surface it sounds like a reasonable response but she missed an opportunity to provide information about her challenges and accomplishments.

She did not get a job offer, however, I saw her 3 or 4 weeks later as she was entering the building.  She had signed up for a temporary employment agency and was hired to handle customer service for the organization.  Several months later she was hired into a regular position, though not in the field that she interviewed for.

The early bird catches the worm? – It was just after 9:00 am one morning and I had settled in to work on a project for a few minutes before attending an important meeting.  As soon as I started to work my phone rang and it was the receptionist informing me that Ms. Wong (not her real name) was here for her interview.  I checked my schedule and confirmed what I already knew, that Ms. Wong was not scheduled to be interviewed until 1:00 pm that afternoon!  Showing up a few minutes early was one thing, but showing up 4 hours early was something else.  I asked the receptionist to send her in and that I would talk with her and find out why she was so early.

Moments later Ms. Wong was in my office and we were shaking hands.  I asked her why she showed up so early when her interview was not until the afternoon.  I was honestly expecting her to say that she wrote down the wrong time, when what she said was simply that she always liked to be early for appointments.  I explained that being a few minutes early was always a good idea but that most organizations scheduled interviews as they had other responsibilities to take care of that often could not be changed with no notice.

I informed her that she could not be interviewed until her scheduled time and that she would have to come back then.  She told me that she had no place to go, so I explained that there was a coffee shop and a library nearby as well where she could go.  She left reluctantly and actually showed up a few minutes late that afternoon.  Her interview was unremarkable otherwise and she did not get the job, though not because of her early arrival, but rather due to the fact that there was another more qualified person who was offered the position.

Job interviews are stressful events that sometimes cause people to do crazy things.  If you are ever in a position to interview candidates for a job remember these tales and be prepared to encounter all manner of behavior.  Equally important to note is, if you have a job interview scheduled, relax, prepare as you see fit, and try to behave rationally!

April 16, 2011

Finding a job these days…

Countless articles, books, and blogs have been written about finding a job.  Most were typed with the best of intentions and all have their own perspective on how best to do it.  I know because I have read more than my share of them over the years and found much useful information in some, though others were definitely lacking.

The reason for the disparity is as varied as human nature.  Some are written clearly with the hope to make the writer famous, sell books, or build a consultancy.  A lot of them are based on the writer’s own experience gained in one particular industry, with only certain types of jobs, or in one region.  All of this is fine within a particular niche, but it may not work at all for different jobs, places, or circumstances.

These days many employers have down-sized significantly, competition is generally global, and uncertainty is rampant.  Traditional ways to find work probably will not help you to get a job.  This is made even more challenging by modern technology where the resulting hyper-connectivity to information and people is completely unprecedented in human history.  This fact alone has changed many things, including finding work.

I have been a job seeker several times in my life and most recently last year.  Having worked in Human Resources for the majority of my career, in jobs ranging from Personnel Specialist in the Army to Vice President of Human Resources for a global service sector corporation, I have a lot of experience in hiring people.  My master’s degree is in Human Resources and my PhD is in Industrial/Organizational Psychology, so you would think I would have all the answers when it comes to finding work.  Well, 15 very long months of seeking full-time employment taught me otherwise!

Why?  Two major reasons really.  The first is the economy.  Even now, when experts say it is improving, many employers are still understandably hesitant to add staff to their payroll.  In fact, a glance of the news shows that many state and local governments in the United States, for example, are still receiving less revenue and most if not all are working to cut their budgets.  This will translate into more employee lay-offs. In the private sector things are not much better as employers are still slow to hire new workers.  When employers do decide to hire they are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of applicants and that decreases the odds of getting hired for any job seeker.

Employers’ responses to being inundated with applicants causes the other major reason finding a job is so challenging these days.  In order to manage the process, all the applicants must be screened (filtered) to a number that the employer can reasonably assess and hire from. They do this many ways but the majority of processes amount to selecting only the most qualified candidates to seriously consider for a given job based on some criteria.  “Qualified candidates” in this instance often means only those with highly specific experience and training are given any consideration at all.  From the applicant perspective, it feels like you must have the perfect background to be hired for any job, when in reality for many positions you really do not.  The prospect of getting hired these days appears about as likely as buying the winning lottery ticket from the local convenience store.

Having said this, what advice would I give a job seeker now?  My best answer, admittedly based heavily on my own recent experience, is as follows:

  1. Do not give up, even though it may take a while.  Jobs exist and you will get one.
  2. Take care of yourself, eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep.
  3. Find time to relax.  If you appear to be stressed out, it will show!
  4. Decide what types of jobs you are “currently qualified” and “willing” to do.
  5. Research the employers that hire those types of jobs and learn everything you can about the industry, the work, and especially how they hire people (most public libraries have free Internet).
  6. Apply to jobs using methods that they favor based on your research, follow-up, and apply to others.
  7. However you decide to apply, make sure you present yourself honestly and in a fully professional manner (both on paper and in person).
  8. Network with professionals in the field and let them know you are looking.
  9. Be creative and dedicated in your search efforts.  Wishing or getting angry, or depressed, will not help get you a job.
  10. Believe in yourself!

Make no mistake not having a job is an extremely humbling experience for anyone!  You are not alone and you will find a job if you keep at it.  Good luck, though unlike buying lottery tickets, that probably has little to do with it these days!

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