New Beginnings

It’s been a while since I’ve written, but it’s also been a hectic couple of months. But, it’s been an amazing couple of months. I finally achieved one of my life goals (and a secret goal of starting this blog), and took my dream job with the Walt Disney Company. And now, I can finally share the details of how I got to this point.

It all started, appropriate to the timing of this post, as a New Years Resolution in 2011. It took a lot of internal struggle just to get to the point where I could make this resolution. I had always wanted to work at Disney. It was my dream company, with a product I’d be excited to work on and values I’d identify with; but there were parts of me that were scared to try. I didn’t want to leave my hometown where all my family and friends were. I was quite comfortable at [my former job] and I didn’t want to “leave the devil I know for the devil I don’t know.” I could go on and on, because there will always be reasons not to pursue your dreams. But in the beginning of 2011, with my MBA behind me and my friends succeeding at achieving their life goals, I got inspired. I decided that this was going to be the year I set my mind to achieving my dream.

My New Year’s resolution was not necessarily “get a job at Disney in 2011,” although that’s what I hoped would end up happening (SPOILER ALERT: it did!). My New Year’s Resolution was to do one thing every single day that would get me closer to my job at Disney. This took on a variety of meanings from applying for jobs (I applied for a grand total of 32), to researching different aspects of the company, making new contacts at or affiliated with Disney, writing blog posts, or honing my technical skills. I wrote this as a task in my day planner for every single day of the year, and if you know me well you know that I absolutely live to check off tasks in my day planner! As an aside, this helped me with 2 of my other resolutions to learn Italian via Rosetta Stone and work out 6 days a week. I highly recommend a day planner to anyone who doesn’t have one. That overdue, unchecked task really taunts you.

Anyway, back to the journey. There were some setbacks. I felt pretty confident when I finally submitted my first resume, after days of tweaking and sending to friends and family for advice, only to immediately receive a rejection email within 6 hours of submission. The same followed for the next 3 resumes I submitted. It got better from there, but only in terms how long it took for my rejection letter to come. The long lead times between submission and rejection provided me with some glimmer of hope that maybe this whole ordeal wasn’t totally pointless. It wasn’t until mid-July  that I was invited to my first phone screening interview, which led to a phone interview with the manager, an in-person interview, and, finally, a job offer.

That period from applying to offer took about four months, and during that period I never stopped my daily Disney task to make sure that if it didn’t work out I wasn’t falling behind. I even looked into moving to Orlando toward the end of the year without a job to better network and be more available for interviews. If I hadn’t secured the job when layoffs at [former company] were announced, I am about 95% sure I would have offered to be separated.

Finally, let me close with just one really simple thought about this whole experience: having your dream job 100% rocks, and I highly recommend it to anyone. This is such an obvious statement that it doesn’t even seem worth stating, but if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t have taken me 4 years to work up the courage to realize that this was what I really wanted, so maybe it isn’t that obvious. It’s been a lot of change, but it’s exactly what I worked for and wanted, and I’m excited to build a career here.

I’m thinking really hard about New Year’s Resolutions for 2012, so expect to see a post on that in the near future (Hint: More blogging will likely be a theme for 2012). It worked out last year, so why give up a good thing? I think of it as my Personal Annual Review, but I’m only accountable to myself. It’s motivating to have goals and checkpoints for yourself to do the things you really want to do.

Happy New Year, make 2012 your best yet!

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PB&J Approach to Growth

If you’ve been following my facebook, you probably participated in a poll on peanutbutter storage post-jar-opening. While doing some light research to support my (minority) position that it belongs in the fridge, I found this article on the J.M. Smucker company, owner of (obviously) jellies and (less obviously) the Jif peanut butter brand. The article explains how a CPG company like Smucker’s managed to make it to #2 (beating out Apple) on this year’s Barron’s 500 list of the top publicly traded companies based on growth metrics.

What caught my attention was the short paragraph on this view of product innovation: Co nsumers don’t buy products; they hire products to do a specific job. The article doesn’t really go into the detail on this philosophy that it really deserves, but as old as this concept is (and believe me, it’s old), it’s surprising how many companies view their product from this lens. The companies that do view their product innovations this way usually have higher success rates on their new product lines.

iPods are not music players, they are tools hired to fight off boredom, stay entertained, or immerse yourself in music in any surrounding. In grad school I read a study about McDonald’s effort to improve their milkshakes, when they surprisingly found out that 40% of milkshakes were purchased in the morning by workers embarking on long commutes. These particular milkshake customers didn’t want a milkshake, they were hiring something quick, not messy, that they could consume with one hand on a long, boring commute. It’s probably not a coincidence that shortly after this research McDonald’s also came out with a line of smoothies (for those who want to hire the same type of product, but healthier). Harvard professor Theodore Levitt (who was surprisingly not quoted in this article out of HBR!) has the perfect way to sum this up: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

P.S. – Jif’s official position on the storage of peanutbutter is that peanutbutter consumed in under 3 months is fine in the cabinet. If it’s kept longer than 3 months, it needs to go in the fridge. My peanutbutter’s chief “job” is to complement the jelly, and as a result I store it in the same place as my jelly – the fridge!

My next office/facebook debate? Creamy vs. Crunchy.

Zero Sum Games

Sorry again for another lack of updates. I’ve been keeping myself busy with vacation, some busy work days, and my sister moving to college. I have found some time to join some discussions on LinkedIn, and one of the topics I keep finding threads leading to is teamwork – How can I make my team more cohesive? How should I measure my team? etc. While the discussions are in the context of technology projects,  all walks of professional life make mistakes when trying to answer this question.

Compromise, collaboration, and cooperation have become the new “dirty c-words.” Look at our political system. As many drift further toward extremes in the political spectrum, we begin to create scenarios where one must lose for the other to win. In today’s game of mud-slinging, it’s the individual with the least dirt (note, I did not say the cleanest – there are not many who are clean) who wins, and the other who loses. And ultimately, anyone who is not in complete alignment with the winning extreme, loses. In the context of the discussions we had on LinkedIn, where both teams were measured on the defect count, the developer had to lose for QA to win (high number of defects identified) and QA had to lose for development to win (low number of defects identified) – and people wonder why they don’t seem to trust and collaborate with one another? They are actively incentivized (sorry for the made up buzzword) not to.

In economic theory, (and incentives are certainly economics) a zero sum game is defined as a situation where one participant’s gain can only be balanced by an equivalent loss from the other participant. Rankings, at-odds metrics, and performance appraisal curves (possibly even performance appraisals in general – but that thought needs its own post) all encourage another “c” word that should be dirtier than it is – competition.

Competition is healthy, to an extent. But today’s business world is increasingly complex – it requires cross-functional collaboration and high efficiency to be successful. If your metrics encourage competition, you may find that your senior staff members hoard the knowledge that makes them more efficient than the newbies, keeping the learning curve high and efficiency low. Even something as innocuous and seemingly harmless as individual performance measurements based solely on individual contributions can discourage sharing. It may not be defined in my project role, but I may have information that could help avoid a potential pitfall if I share it with the team. I’m not necessarily purposely hoarding the information. But if I’m not measured on the overall success of the project, just my individual contribution to it, I likely won’t involve myself in meetings or conversation around this topic since I’m not accountable – we’re all busy, after all (I say “I” and “my” universally in this context). But if I know that, regardless of the success of my individual project workstream, I will not be counted as “successful” unless the project is successful, I’m more likely to lend my expertise to areas outside of my defined role and be a true team member.

One of the participants in our LinkedIn discussion exemplified this in a unique example of a teambuilding exercise. Imagine you are at a bowling alley with your colleagues, all split into several teams. Your first instinct is to absolutely crush as many other teams as possible. But the rules for this game have changed – no one gets a reward at the end unless all of the teams successfully finish at or above a certain milestone. Now, if you’re a bowling expert, your instinct is not to crush other teams, it’s to share tips on how to release the ball, where to aim, etc. because you’ll be rewarded for their success. Ultimately, your focus will be on the success of the entire team, not your team.

I’m not suggesting that team measurement is the silver bullet to team success, or even team cohesiveness. It is simply one variable in the equation, among trust, respect, understanding, and a genuine interest in the project. But team measurement has broad applications. Even in a Sales environment where individual measurements have reigned king for several years, there are benefits to be reaped here. Salespeople sharing their successful pitch, customer knowledge, efficiency tips, etc. are unlikely if I know that sharing these tips and making another salesperson more successful means that I will be viewed as comparatively less successful.

Connecting and Listening Better

Sorry for a lack of updates lately. My grandparents have not been doing so well and I’ve been giving them a lot of my spare time, leaving little time for personal tasks like blogging. No regrets, though. I’m heartbroken that they’re sick, but I’ve really enjoyed spending quality time with them and the rest of my family.

With a night to myself, I watched a few TED talks from some of my favorite speakers, and this video from Julian Treasure caught my interest.

In today’s internet-driven, always connected world where we’re so used to instant satisfaction, we look for ways to digest information rapidly. We don’t listen for context and we don’t think critically, we just hear and acknowledge. Stephen Covey says “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” It’s hard to do that if you’re just listening to find sound bites you can play off of to bounce the conversation back to you.

In the world of constant connections, deep and intimate connections often get overlooked in favor of something more interesting, more entertaining, more “now.” As an example, when I say something funny on facebook I get a lot of comments, likes, etc. But a status about my grandparents got very few, and mostly by my closest friends outside of facebook. I’m not insulted by it – it’s a factor of how people use facebook. It’s just not meant for deeper connections. I wouldn’t consider many of my facebook friends “close.” I don’t know how anyone would keep up with 560 “close” friends. Obviously some of my facebook friends are close friends, and I have many close friends who aren’t on facebook at all. Whether they’re on it or not, my best interactions with my true friends don’t come from facebook.

The point I’m trying to make is not that facebook should be used to facilitate close relationships. Don’t get disappointed when the same people who laugh at your funny statuses don’t cry with your sad ones – it’s just not going to happen. The point is not to get so tied up in the world of instant gratification that you overlook connections in the real world. Try a deeper connection. Try listening. For information, for context, for feeling.

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How can I help you?

Social media has become such a powerful tool in this century – but unfortunately it’s often used for trivial things like sharing what kind of sandwich you just ate or arguing about grammar. I almost abandoned my facebook account last week because I was so tired of seeing bad news, gripes, and pointless arguments. It had gotten to the point where I wondered whether social media was really enriching my life or just helping me procrastinate.

Then I experimented. I asked my friends what was going on in their life that was GOOD. A 40 comment thread followed, with multiple friends sharing their good news, congratulating others on their good news, and interacting with people they didn’t know in a POSITIVE way. We even jointly helped a friend pick out a name for her soon-to-be son! I know this probably wasn’t a hugely profound experience for many involved, but it renewed my sense of the good that digital interaction is capable of providing, but doesn’t always deliver on. I’d like to see more interactions like that, and I’m changing the way I use social media to facilitate it. I’d like to use my social media presence for something good. So many of my friends have shown support for this blog and for me personally through social media, and so many of my friends are out there pursuing their dreams as artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs and using facebook/twitter/etc. as a big part of it. They inspire me every day with what they do to follow their passions. I’d like to start off by using my social media reach to help those friends of mine. If there is something you’d like me to share with my friends/followers/readers that will help make your dreams come true or support your cause, I would love to pass the word along for you.

As a disclaimer, there are limits to what I will share. I will not violate the trust of my friends by recommending something that I don’t believe in. My friends know my personality, values, and convictions so I don’t envision any problem with this (we are friends for a reason, after all!) but I just wanted to make sure it was stated. I also don’t want this blog or my facebook/twitter/google+/linkedin/other TBD social media to become one big advertisement for my friends – that defeats the purpose of trying to help because it dilutes the message and people will tune it out, so I can promise my friends that I will NOT make these kinds of updates constantly. But at least once a week I’d like to help my friends out by sharing something that they’re passionate about with the world.

First come, first serve – how can I help share your passion with the world? It can be sharing your blog/website/portfolio/music with my friends on a social network or connecting you to someone I may know who’s influential in the topic you’re passionate about, and anywhere in between. Send me a message in one of my many social media or email inboxes and let’s get started! Don’t be shy, and pay it forward for others if you can. I encourage ALL of my friends, even if they are not particularly interested in the particular topic of a post, to check them out anyway – even if you’re not in love with the topic, some of these folks are so in love with it they can make you love it, and if not they can inspire you to pursue what you love.

Great Service in Unexpected Places

Southside Regional Medical Center, for 20+ years, has been the hospital to avoid in the Petersburg/Hopewell/Colonial Heights area. They were notorious for not having enough ER doctors on staff, terrible patient satisfaction reviews, and old and antiquated medical procedures. My grandparents have been to the hospital so much in the last 20 years that if SRMC had a frequent flyer program they’d be George Clooney from “Up in the Air.” But we were always worried about their care in this hospital that seemed, frankly, dangerous if you needed immediate care. David Fikse, the CEO of the hospital from 2004-2010 changed all that when he introduced a new culture. Fikse led the charge to move the hospital to a new location with state of the art technology. He also redefined the values and the mission of the hospital to emphasize caring and responsiveness in addition to the emphasis on skills and training. Last week, when my grandpa had to go in for emergency surgery (he’s doing very well now, by the way), I noticed a huge change in what I had always thought of as a very deficient hospital. Here are a few examples:

One of the first things I noticed was that employees greeted us wherever we went. If an employee passed by, whether it was a nurse, security guard, doctor or janitor, they all greeted us and asked us how we were doing. We were given a restaurant-seating-style pager when he was taken down to surgery, allowing us to move freely around the hospital (cafeteria, gift shop, coffee shop, and even the maternity ward where they played Braham’s lullaby every time a baby was born) without feeling like we would miss something important. This took a lot of stress out of waiting for 5 hours because it gave us time to walk around and get our minds on something besides “I wonder how it’s going in there.” When we did sit in the surgery waiting area, the OR nurse gave us periodic updates on how surgery was progressing. There were certain outcomes (besides “death” as the obvious one) we were afraid of, so when they hit milestones in the procedure that meant those outcomes seemed unlikely, she came out and informed us. When the surgery was over, the doctor came out and discussed the procedure and results with us. He even brought out a picture of the area they had performed surgery on (as a before picture), to show us what had been causing his pain. Since the area they operated on was the colon, I personally could have done without this, but I’m sure it’s helpful to people with stronger stomachs. When we left to take my grandmother to dinner while he was in recovery, there was an employee with a golf cart waiting by the entrance to transport elderly and disabled visitors to their cars so they didn’t have to walk so far.

None of these things have a direct impact on the skill set of the doctors and nurses in the hospital, but as a worried visitor or patient, they make you feel cared for and ease your mind. Indirectly, they have a huge impact on the skill set of the doctors and nurses. Doctors and nurses want to work in the best hospitals. The best hospitals have high patient satisfaction ratings, the newest technologies, and a reputation for innovation. By investing in small ways, like increasing patient satisfaction through better interactions with hospital employees, and in big ways like moving to a new location and infusing better technologies, SRMC can lure the best doctors over time and continually increase their ratings. The doctor who performed my grandfather’s surgery was a recent addition to the hospital’s staff from Johns Hopkins.

The hospital’s rankings have improved, but still seem to be suffering from some lingering sentiment from its old days, but over the next few years I’d look for SRMC to climb into the Top 5 ranking for Richmond area hospitals as it continues to grow and place emphasis on caring for patients versus treating patients. I have a lot of friends in the medical field, anyone care to weigh in on SRMC?

Warning: Self Improvement Can Be Habit Forming

Before I started this blog, I thought about leadership and things that I liked in leaders and of course, like everyone, the things I didn’t like in leaders. But applying it was always sort of an afterthought. One of the methods I always used to study in school was to take notes as I read through articles and textbooks, forcing my brain to pause and digest the information. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that writing about leadership has had the same effect on my ability to process the topic. It’s now on my mind all the time and I’m seeing examples and lessons where I probably wouldn’t have before.

The brain is configured to resist change. Without boring you too much with the scientific details, the hypothalamus works to remind the brain that the behavior and routines that got you where you are have kept you alive thus far and tells you that you should probably just keep doing what you’re doing. Making rapid or dramatic changes can result in stress, which is your brain’s way of trying to tell you that something isn’t a good idea. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea, but your brain has never experienced it so it doesn’t have any information to tell you that it is, and as a result it takes a protective stance. This is why, for example, people who go from a routine that doesn’t include a workout find it difficult to get a workout routine together when they start off by saying “I’m going to start working out 5 days a week!” Conversely, this is also why it’s easier for someone whose routine has included 5-day-a-week workouts for some time to keep up the momentum.

But you can train your brain in tiny steps. If you’re interested in something, and it’s on your brain enough even subconsciously, you start to see it wherever you go. It’s kind of like the ads that appear on the internet because of some content you’ve visited before. I’ve booked so many Disney trips that I can’t even open a browser without an ad for Walt Disney World appearing (maybe it’s working and that’s why I go back so much…?). Your browser learns what you’ve been searching for and reading about, and serves up ads for you even when you’re not really thinking about that topic, like when you’re on facebook. Your brain can be trained in the same way when you focus it on a topic. I trained my brain on the concept of leadership, and now it seems to jump out at me wherever I go. Now, I’m training myself on my values by consciously using them while I process information and make decisions so that eventually they become ingrained in my thought process consciously or unconsciously.

What would you like your brain to focus on? A workout routine? A diet? Learning a new language? Studying something? Devote the time to it up front, using whatever method is best for you to make sure your brain is processing the information. For me, it’s writing it, for you maybe it’s reciting it to yourself, talking about it with others, or maybe just reading about it works for you. If you devote the time up front and get your brain honed in on the topic, you’ll see a compounding effect on every step you take toward your goal.