Welcome to the Off-Season

On Tuesday, October 23, my former supervisor begrudgingly appeared at my office door. She’d come to deliver news that I was hoping to not hear that day, but had spent the previous week wondering if I’d hear. The company, while appreciative of my services, had decided to eliminate me and my position as a part of a restructuring. Oof.

Obviously, that news is difficult to hear and can upend your world, but I needed to decide how to confront this. The responsibilities of a family meant that wallowing in depression, sadness and self-pity would not be helpful. Also, desperately seeking and accepting any new opportunity would be detrimental long-term, and would devalue the skills, expertise and experience I’d earned during my 15+ year career to that point.

So I decided to look at this as an “Off-season” – that period of time between seasons when teams and players can take an overall view of the situation, rest and recuperate, but most importantly prepare themselves for the upcoming competition season. For me, I was a free agent and I needed to spend my time preparing myself and matching with the right new team.

While my off-season was not voluntary or planned, many professionals pass through off-seasons regardless of employment status. Perhaps you finished a major project and the next one hasn’t started yet. Maybe you’ve closed out a client and the next one isn’t quite on the horizon. Maybe your business ebbs and flows and you know you’ve got a slow period of time coming up. Those can be off-seasons, and you can make them beneficial.

As I pondered this mindset, I came across the website of professional soccer player Yael Averbuch. In one of her blog posts, she describes her approach to the off-season while she was playing for F.C. Kansas City. On the surface, these tips are for athletes. But the more I thought about what she was saying and what I was facing, her counsel made sense to me and anyone else facing an “off-season” in their life. Below are some of her suggestions and you‘ll see how you can incorporate them:

  • Find experts to trust with your development
  • Set your mind to succeed, and your limits will fall by the wayside
  • You can always work a little harder than you think is possible, but recovery must be a part of any training plan
  • Set long-range goals, but focus on the process

Honestly, I hope my “off-season” is a short one and I get back in the game as soon as possible. But in the meantime, I will be looking for ways to improve skills, make connections and recharge my batteries, with the goal of being a new team’s “top off-season acquisition.”

Life Lesson at Fenway Park

In October of 2010, my wife and I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Boston.  As a lifelong baseball fan, I could not take this trip and not pay a visit to historic Fenway Park.  Unfortunately, budget and time constraints made the prospect of buying tickets and attending a game out of reach.  Then came an experience I’ll always remember and one that I can spin in to a “life lesson.”

After a Saturday of sightseeing and restaurant hopping, my wife and I wandered our way until we were standing outside this grand, historic venue.  It was late in the evening and the game was nearing its completion, but there was still a nice vibe on the streets surrounding the stadium.  After enjoying a late night snack from a street vendor, my wife and I started looking at some of the souvenir stands and small shops.  Then, from the corner of my eye, I saw an open gate, leading from the street towards the entrances to the stadium.  I figured at this late hour in the game, no one was bothering to check for tickets, right?  And right I was, as the gate was completely unattended.  So we ventured through.  At this point, standing outside the home of the Boston Red Sox, I formulated a plan.  We would proceed through any open door or gate until someone asked us to stop.  I was completely willing to stop and retreat if told to do so, but I did not want to pass up this opportunity.  So as coolly and casually as possible, my wife and I entered the edifice and began turning corners.  Having never been there, I had no idea where we were headed, but I thought as long as no one was stopping us the worst that would happen is I could say we visited a broom closet at Fenway Park!  Still a win in my book.

Keeping an eye out for ushers, marshals or security guards that would ask us to leave, we kept walking.  Then one last turn led to a literal tunnel with a light at the end.  As we emerged into that light, it was like the entire world opened up to us and we found ourselves directly behind home plate, four rows up from the field.  The bright lights lit up the field of the 8th inning of a tied game between the hometown Red Sox and their bitter rival Yankees.  And rather than have stadium security grab me up and toss me back onto the street (which at this point, I would have been completely okay with), a couple of people shuffled over so we could have an even better vantage point as we joined them on the concourse.  And join them we did, in celebrating a thrilling extra inning win for the BoSox.  And to this day I can say that I watched the Red Sox beat the Yankees from seats behind home plate in Fenway Stadium.

What is the “life lesson” that I took from this?  I had this great experience because we were willing to walk through an open gate and keep walking until we were told to stop.  How many awesome opportunities do we miss out on because we presume rejection?  I’m sure there were other people that saw the unattended opening but decided not to venture through because they assumed denial was waiting for them just on the other side.  We tell ourselves no before others even have the chance.  We should avoid being our own worst enemy and go for what we want.  If we find rejection along the way, so be it.  At least we got as far as we did.  But if we don’t even try, we may not realize how little rejection there actually would have been.

Jeff at Fenway

What’s Your Motivation?

As the CEO of a corporation walked down the hall towards his office, he saw a familiar face.  “Joe!” he said as he greeted the man delivering the morning’s interoffice mail.

“How are you Mike?” responded Joe with a warm handshake.  “It’s been a while.”

The two men happily exchanged pleasantries and caught up on how the years had passed.

Then Joe paused and said, “Mike, can I ask you something?  You and I started working here at the same time down in the mail room so many years ago.  Working for mere dollars a day but we were young and I was so excited to get that paycheck each week.  So how is it, all this time later, I’m still in the mail room and here you are with the big corner office?”

“Well,” responded Mike, “all those many years ago, you came to work for the paycheck.  I came to work for the company.”

I heard this story many years ago and it has stuck with me.  The moral of it can be applied to many aspects of our lives.  When we are in school, are we attending classes simply for the credit or are we really looking to learn from it?  When we are in a relationship, are we in it for comfort’s sake or are we trying to build each other up?  When we take a job or a new position is it because of the bump in pay or because it presents a challenge we can grow from?

The outside world cannot truly assign a right or wrong answer to these personal questions.  But if we are honest with ourselves, discovering our true motivations will give us a clearer understanding of the results we see.

Step 2

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao-tzu

A popular motivational quote indeed, but I’m here to dispute it. Regardless of length, the journey is not truly underway until the 2nd step. That second step is what really produces movement, shows commitment and represents complete detachment from the previous position.

In the professional world and in our personal lives, often the 1st step is coming up with an idea. Admittedly, that can sometimes be a very big step, but your situation hasn’t changed. Whatever problem you had still exists. You haven’t left your previous position; you just have an idea of where you want to go now. Until you take the 2nd step to begin implementing that idea, your 1st step didn’t really get you anywhere.

For me, that is why the 2nd step is so crucial. I have been involved in many situations where great ideas were thought of, but no one ever took action on them. Instead, we just collected ideas but never actually did anything to solve the problems.

What prevents that 2nd step from being taken? Often it is a lack of patience. Coming up with ideas can be invigorating and creative. Putting those ideas into action requires hard work, and the payoff is not always immediate. Some people get frustrated and lose their patience and would rather spend their time coming up with new ideas.

Another roadblock can be a lack of commitment. Are you committed to the potential solution you’ve come up with and want to see it come to fruition? Or are you simply committed to the creative process in step 1 and want to spend your time formulating new ideas?

Whatever the journey, both steps are necessary. You cannot have one without the other. Just as I have said Step 1 without Step 2 is unproductive, you cannot skip ahead to Step 2. If you want to make real progress, prepare for both steps. In fact, you’ll find that once you get to Step 2, you’ll build momentum for the many steps that come next.

I’ll cite another inspirational quote:

“OK, we won a game yesterday. If we win today, it’s called ‘two in a row’. And if we win again tomorrow, it’s called a ‘winning streak’…It’s happened before!” – Coach Lou Brown (Major League).

On With the Show…

As a professional communicator, I am often called upon to make presentations or teach in front of audiences.  I have never found too much anxiety in this proposition, the gift of gab* is apparently a genetic trait in my family. *insert other more evocative words than ‘gab’ if you choose.

For others, this is not always a pleasurable experience.  Having been previously approached for tips or suggestions on how to make this a more tolerable exercise, I decided to share some here.  Since I’m always on the lookout for new ideas, feel free to share your thoughts as well.

  • Be Confident.  More than likely, you’ve been asked to present on information that you have and the audience doesn’t.  That gives you a leg up, stand on it.
  • Know Your Presentation.  Personally, I’m not a fan of memorizing lines or scripts.  I prefer presenting in a more conversational style.  But, it is always helpful to have talking points, segues or facts memorized so that I can use them to stay on topic and to prevent those blanks we are all familiar with.  If you’re not comfortable going off the cuff, learn your presentation until you can give it with your eyes closed (but don’t do that, it looks weird).  Once you know your script well enough that you can give it in a casual way, you will become confident and fluid.
  • Know Your Presentation Tools.  If you are using visuals, especially slideshows, practice and learn the sequencing ahead of time.  I have been in the audience many times when a presenter is using a Powerpoint slideshow and appears unsure or surprised with each new slide that appears.  Always know what will pop up next.  That way you can speak to the audience and not stare at the screen with them and read what they can read.
  • Get the Lay of the Land.  Get to know your surroundings before the spotlights are on you.  As you are preparing in advance, speak with whoever extended the invitation or assignment and discuss the audience.  Who are they?  What is their background?  What are some key points to hit or avoid?  Also ask the logistical questions.  How big is the room?  What is the A/V setup?  How much equipment, if any, should I expect to provide?  And make sure you arrive early to your own show.  Give yourself plenty of time to set up anything that needs setting up.  And if possible, meet and greet some of the audience so there will be some familiar faces in the crowd.  Avoid feeling rushed and you will feel much more comfortable.
  • Talk to a Friend.  How much more comfortable would you be discussing your presentation topic with one of your co-workers in a one on one conversation?  When you stand before an audience, you are essentially having that same conversation, just multiple times over.  If you find the masses intimidating, periodically pick out one or two people and “talk” to them.  This will also help to prevent the “deer in the headlights” look.

Delivering a successful presentation is dependent on your preparation and your confidence.  These are just a few ways that can help.  If all else fails, you can always “picture everyone in their underwear”.  But I hope you don’t get to that point, for everyone’s sake!

Pressure Test

I recently replaced the radiator in my vehicle.  Not a monumental undertaking by any means, but it brought to mind some interesting comparisons and analogies.

I did my best to install this part exactly to the manufacturer’s specifications.  I checked and double checked all of the hoses and connections made.  I visually inspected every piece that I could to ensure proper alignment and that any obstacles had been avoided.  But it wasn’t until I filled the system with fluid, started the engine and allowed pressure to build could I really be sure there weren’t any leaks or defects.  There were no other real tests that could simulate it.

This exercise came to mind as I watched preparations being made across the southeastern U.S. as yet another winter storm took aim.  The stories have been widely reported how motorists and residents suddenly found themselves stranded on ice and snow covered roads as they attempted to make it home following ill-timed closures of businesses and schools during the previous storm a few weeks ago.  Miscalculations in forecasts, unprepared resources and dealing with unfamiliar circumstances had laid plans to waste.  Plans that when pressure was applied, failed.  I’m sure that these plans had been well-thought out, vetted and discussed.  But they hadn’t been tested under these circumstances, under this pressure; because they couldn’t have been.  You cannot simulate the implementation of such a massive movement of people and resources.  You can plan as best as you can, and when the day calls for the plan to be put in place, you await results.

Evaluating the results of such a pressure test and incorporating improvements are crucial parts to the planning process.  The development of the plan is not the end.  While you hope you have covered every potential contingency, you know that a real-life, pressurized test may indeed reveal flaws, or at least areas for potential improvement.

This evaluation of results is recognizable by the steps the leaders have taken in the face of this week’s storm.  Drawing on the results of the previous plans, there is a much more concerted, pro-active effort to keep people out of harm’s way, realizing it would be more effective to keep people home rather than try to send people home.  Is this time an overreaction as compared to what some may have considered an under-reaction previously?  Possible, but again, the results will be reviewed and analyzed following this round of pressurized testing.

A local example rings very true for me.  In the days and hours leading up to the landfall of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the state and local leaders revealed their plan to “evacuate” the greater New Orleans area.  This led to thousands of vehicles pouring on to northbound interstates, which had been hastily converted to one-way, four-lane thoroughfares, and stranding many without access to transportation.  This plan, once implemented under pressure, showed many unforeseen barriers.  Lack of communication on the roadways, lack of direction and lack of resources left many residents, evacuees and rescue workers stuck and hopeless.  Fortunately in 2008, when the area was threatened once again by another storm in the form of Hurricane Gustav, the results of the previously flawed plan had been analyzed and the plan was updated.  More lead time was incorporated, more resources were made available to those in need and better coordination was evident.  When the call came to evacuate, it was a much improved process.  Were their flaws as a result of this test?  Absolutely, but they were fewer and different.  And I am certain those results will be reviewed and changes applied.

Hurricanes, winter storms or other disasters are never desirable, but at times, they are inevitable.  But they can provide a pressurized test for our plans and processes.  While we work diligently in the planning stage to prevent or minimize failures under these stressors, the added tragedy would be if we didn’t take the results to improve our efforts.  So that in the end, we have tested, proven plans that will hold up under pressure, allowing us and those we serve to feel secure.


The Communications Bridge

“Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.” — William Butler Yeats

One of the most important functions I fulfill as a communications professional is to bridge the gap between those with knowledge and those needing said knowledge.  I have had the privilege of working with some immensely intelligent and talented individuals, but without effective communication strategies and techniques, their work and services would go unrecognized, under utilized and under appreciated.

Whether it is the latest engineering breakthrough in a roads and bridges project, the most recent biological data collected on a desired wildlife species, or the housing program made possible through a variety of financing and regulatory maneuvering, I enjoy the challenge of translating the technical into the understandable.  Finding ways to bring attention to great works being done and informing those in need of the resources now available to them.