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You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money,

Love like you’ll never be hurt,

You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watching,

It’s got to come from the heart if you want it to work.

– Kathy Mattea

Sometimes, I find myself rediscovering the obvious. When that happens, I’ve learned to pay attention, because it always means that I’ve forgotten something to which I need to pay more attention. A few days ago, I made the thirtieth or fortieth of these rediscoveries in my lifetime – this one to do with networking.

Most of my income these days comes from journalism, but I do pick up the occasional tech-writing, communications, or graphical design work on the side – especially since the rise of the Canadian dollar has reduced the converted value of my pay cheques in American funds. Consequently, like any consultant, I am constantly networking to keep my name out there.

The only trouble is, most networking events are at the end of the day. After eight to twelve hours of work, going out is often the last thing on my mind. I often feel like I have to drag myself out to the events, when, instead of meeting a room full of strangers, what I really want to do is sprawl out on a futon with a parrot or two.

Then, when I get there, I have to get into persona. Regardless of how I feel, I have to look and sound outgoing, and bring out my best small talk. I never have been one of those who believes in speed-networking, counting the evening’s success by the number of cards I collect, but I have usually felt that I ought to circulate when I was really more in the mood to find a good conversation with two or three people in some quiet corner.

Yet over the last couple of years, I’ve been thinking more and more than the typical networking event was becoming less and less worth my while. Part of the reason was probably the tight economy, and another part that many of the same people keep attending the local events. But it was only this week that I accepted that most of the problem was my attitude.

The revelation came because I was out at an altogether different gathering. It had nothing to do with work, or even technology – it was just a group of people with a common leisure interest. And there, when I wasn’t even trying, I got the first piece of consulting work I had picked up at public event in over a year.

If that had just happened once, I would have attributed it to serendipity. But the next night, under the same casual conditions, it happened again, which makes coincidence seem less likely.

The difference, I think, lies in the image I project. I like to think that I talk a good line of piffle, and can make myself likable when I make an effort, and to judge by how people respond, that is not completely my imagination. But when I am going against my inclinations and maybe trying too hard, I suspect that I am projecting – not falseness, exactly, but an impression that is less than completely genuine. Even if most people are unable to explain why, something about me does not seem right.

Should I be in the position of needing work, this lack of authenticity is compounded by desperation. Most people, I find, are made uncomfortable by the slightest hint of desperation, and will avoid people who show signs of it. A few will even try to take advantage of it, although that’s another issue.

By contrast, at genuine social events, people are more likely to be relaxed and able to enjoy each other’s company. Our attitudes create an atmosphere in which actual connections can be made. Although the contacts we make may be fewer than those made at a networking event, the ones we do make are more likely to run deeper. Paradoxically, the less we try to connect, the more likely we actually are to connect.

I’m thinking now that much of how we’ve been told about how to network is inefficient, if not a waste of time. When I consider how I react to most of the people at networking events, I suspect that I’m not the only person with authenticity problems in attendance. Many, perhaps most, I suspect have the same problems as I do to a greater or less degree.

Under these circumstances, is it really so surprising that so few of us connect? We all want something from such events – a connection, a lad, a job – and we are all trying so hard that most of us are being less likable than we could be. Moreover, if some of us do have something in common, we may never realize the fact, because we are too busy with our false fronts.

To suggest that we stop worrying about making impressions or collecting business cards may sound counter-intuitive. To go out and simply enjoy ourselves, trusting that we will make connections without really trying might sound irresponsible, and trusting too much to luck. And almost surely it will result in far fewer connections than a networking event. Yet the connections we do make when not trying too hard are likely to be ones that are meaningful to us. Best of all, they don’t result in hundreds of business cards that we keep in drawer for a few years before we throw them away wondering who exactly all these people might be.

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If you’re a freelancer, you tend to be haunted by the thought of lacking work. Yet today, against all my freelancing instincts, I walked away from a source of income without having anything to replace it. It was not a step I took easily, but I had no choice if I wanted to keep my self-respect.

The problem wasn’t that the editor was doing their job. I’m a professional, and I have no illusions that my work is perfect or can’t be improved upon. I am incredibly inefficient at editing my own work (although a demon at editing others), and I generally welcome observations that make my wording clearer or more accurate.

Why wouldn’t I? An editor who points out problems before they see print makes me look good.

At the same time, I have worked with half a dozen editors, and I know what editing is generally required to make my work presentable. The number of revisions are roughly the same, no matter who the editor, and rarely require more than half an hours’ work – often less, and almost never more than an hour.

With this editor, though, revisions averaged three or four hours. I admit that he received a few pieces that I wrote while ill or under personal stress and that I should not have submitted in their current shape. However, regardless of the quality of each submission, the editor would almost always return a couple of pages of notes, amounting to a rewrite of the article.

Even if I didn’t have considerable experience, I could have guessed that this amount of revisions was unreasonable. The few times the senior editor looked over a submission, the changes were far fewer, and often minor enough that he made them himself rather than send them to me. But I continued to submit articles, partly because the pay was halfway decent, and partly because I told myself that things would get better once I learned the expected style.

The trouble was, the comments never lessened. Each article I wrote for the editor took twice as long to complete as anything else I wrote. If the revisions weren’t about typos, they were about content.

By my count, about one-third of the comments were legitimate improvements to the article. Another third consisted of explanations of how the editor would have written the article or shibboleths such as insisting that an article should never end in a quote, and one-third nonsense such as labeling a long but grammatical sentence a run-on sentence. I didn’t mind the legitimate improvements, but, to say the least, I felt that I was humoring the editor about the rest just to receive a pay cheque.

Asking other writers, I found that I was not entirely being singled out. Other writers told me that they also expected to waste half a day answering the editor’s notes. But the experience of others showed that the editing process was clearly being used to assert the editor’s authority.

In fact, the criticism was so unrelenting that I began to entertain serious doubts about my writing ability. Once or twice, when I was sick, I was so rattled about the thought of the revisions to follow that what I submitted was definitely below my usual standards. Why bother for quality when you know your article is going to be shredded regardless?

Even so, I might have endured the process while I waited for better times if the work had been regular. But the editor started forgetting my submissions – or so he said – and the one article per week slipped to one article every two weeks. Answers to my queries were delayed so that I had less time to research and write. I strongly suspected that the editor was pressuring me to quit so he wouldn’t have to take any action himself.

This morning, a submission of better than average quality received the same treatment as usual. Annoyed, I queried a couple of points – including one about the slant of the story, which I had based on the senior editor’s request – and received the usual ungracious reply.

Suddenly, I had enough. I was receiving less and less money from the editor anyway, so I had little to lose. Abandoning all plans of waiting until I found replacement work, I emailed saying that I was withdrawing the story and would not be submitting more. With an effort, I refrained from saying anything else.

The reply was a cheerful thanks for my work and best wishes for the future. So far as I was concerned, it was proof that my email had given him exactly what he wanted. Anyone who placed any value on my work, or didn’t want me gone would have asked for reasons.

I still feel nervous and wonder if I have done the right thing. But you know what? I feel so much better now that I’m out of a toxic situation that the challenge hardly daunts me. I’ve already been through far worse.

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If you’re one of the thousands who have been laid off in the last few months, you might be tempted to use a career coach to help you in your job search. But whether that’s a good idea depends on whom you hire as a coach, and what you expect to get out of the experience.

Hiring coaches is difficult, because in most places – and probably everywhere – anyone who wants to can set up as a career coach. No professional or regulatory body exists for the job. Nor does any recognized form of accreditation (having taken a course or two doesn’t count).

The only criterion you have for judging career coaches is their reputation. A good place to start is with an Internet search in which you keep an eye out for complaints to consumer organizations or better business bureaus. But even that may not tell the whole story if the coach is part of a larger organization or franchise, because a business record in one area may mean nothing in another area.

You may also want to arrange a preliminary meeting, and decide whether or not you trust the coach, but don’t imagine that you can necessarily tell someone who is fraudulent. After all, a fraud probably has more experience conning people than you have detecting them. Probably your best bet is to work with someone who comes recommended by a friend or family member who has been their client, and whose judgment you trust. However, if that isn’t possible, ask a potential coach for references — and check them.

As you screen a possible coach, be on the lookout for exaggerated claims. Does the coach claim to have methods no one else has? Do they guarantee results? Put you through a screening process, then tell you that you’ve made the cut? Use high pressure tactics? Any of these signs may indicate dishonesty or, at the very least, a greater interest in taking your money than in helping you.

Just as importantly, be very clear what a coach does for you. If you are expecting someone to do all the work for you, or to pull a genuine miracle out of the desk drawer for you, you are going to be disappointed in your association.

Basically, a coach can do two things for you. The first is to update your sense of the job market, and to help you prepare for your search. A coach can give you advice about how to arrange a resume to best effect, help you practice interviewing, critique your clothing and manner, and, if you have chosen well, give you a better sense of the job market in your areas of expertise than you have. In most cases, they will tell you about the effectiveness of networking and informational interviews, but the simple statistic that the average person needs 30-40 informational interviews to land a job is enough to tell you that the real work has to be done by you. A coach can prepare you, but if you don’t cooperate with their job search program, then you are wasting your money.

The second thing that a career coach can do for you is to serve as an advisor, answering the questions that arise during your job search, analyzing your account of your experiences, and suggesting ways that you can approve next time. Since they are constantly thinking about such matters with a number of people, they should be able to give you better advice than most people. In other words, they can help you focus your efforts and learn from them – but the effort is still up to you, and not the coach.

Hiring a coach is like taking a class; just as you can learn the subject matter of a class by yourself, you can learn what a coach can teach you through a library or experience. In both cases, entering into a formal agreement forces you to become organized, and can help you to learn more systematically.

But, if you are not ready to put in the effort, or imagine that the formal agreement is an end in itself rather than ongoing guidance, you are going to be disappointed in the result – and, because of the lack of formal qualifications for career coaches, quite possibly cheated.

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(This article was originally published on the IT Managers Journal site in January 2008. Now that the site is no longer active, many of the articles are no longer available, so I’m reprinting some of the ones I wrote to give them a more permanent home)

Everyone knows that networking is an essential part of business. Done well, it can build partnerships for you, and tell you about jobs before they’re advertised. If you are a consultant, you can easily find — as I have — that networking is responsible for 75-100% of your income. Done poorly, though, it can handicap or even seriously set back your career.

The dangers of poor networking are especially high for IT workers. Many of those working with computers have poor social skills, and may be tempted either to indifference because of shyness or brashness because of efforts to over-compensate. Also, IT workers tend to be among the major users of LinkedIn, FaceBook, and other social networking sites, where the ease of use and casual atmospheres can encourage the wrong tone for business interaction, especially if you’re a novice at it.

However, over my 12 years as a consultant, I’ve seen problems in every sort of business. To help you avoid them, no matter what field you work in, here are what I’ve observed to be ten of the most common mistakes in networking:

Badmouthing other companies and individuals

Meeting people in the industry whom you don’t see everyday, you can be tempted to express feelings that you normally suppress about bosses, past and present, or about other companies. However, it’s rarely a good idea to make those feelings public — especially in a job interview. If you show too much enthusiasm for criticizing others, those with whom you are networking are going to wonder what you say about them when they’re not around. You can also create the impression of a negative, downbeat person.

If you meet the fellow survivor of a company or boss, you might not have to worry about such things. Yet, even if others start the badmouthing first, you should be cautious about joining in. After all, what are you networking for: To find an outlet for your frustrations, or to make useful contacts?

Name-dropping without permission or with exaggerations

Being able to claim a connection is part of what networking is all about. However, before you claim someone as an acquaintance, much less as a reference, check that you have permission to do so.

For one thing, it’s only polite to give your contacts a chance to think what they’ll say about you if contacted. Possibly, too, they would prefer not to be a reference for you, for reasons like office politics that are only peripherally to do with you.

For another, IT or any other field is a relatively small place, and your claims of friendship or support are easily checked. If they’re false, people will react as though you have lied to them — and, in a sense, you have.

Exaggerating connections

Exaggerating your connection with someone can have the same results as mentioning a connection without permission. True, implying that you are a personal friend of Linus Torvalds or Andrew Morton may get you the job interview you’ve been angling for. But if your interaction is limited to a single email you sent two years ago, you’ll look either duplicitous or foolish when the truth comes out.

Begging for a job

If you are networking to find your next position, one of the unspoken rules is that you never ask directly for work. At first that tradition may seem like hypocrisy, but, if you think for a moment, it makes sense. Networking is an informal, personal way of compensating for the formal, impersonal habits of business. By asking for employment directly, you are mixing categories and creating a confusion that can only make you look crass.

It also makes you look as though you are only interested in networking for what you can get. While this attitude may seem efficient to you, it also signals to people that you are uninterested in them personally. You probably wouldn’t respond well to someone whose interest in you is selfish, so don’t be surprised if others feel the same way.

Spamming requests

Networking is the opposite of the usual marketing techniques; it’s about the quality of contacts, not the quantity. Sending out general broadcasts for help negates that emphasis. Instead of being a one-on-one connection, you make networking an anonymous one when you contact everyone you know with a request — and few people enjoy feeling that you only see them as one of the crowd.

Moreover, any experienced PR flack can tell you that, although targeted requests take longer to put together, they bring better results than spam broadcasts. So, by honoring the intent of networking, you also tend to help yourself.

Participating passively on online sites

As the middle-aged discover social networking, sites like FaceBook are increasingly being used to maintain business contacts. Others, of course, like Ryze.com were designed for business networking for the start.

On all these sites, you’ll find hundreds of registered users who signed up a year ago, and have only a handful of contacts. And, although registration for such sites is hardly time-consuming, these users have essentially wasted their time. One such user regularly complains to me that these sites are useless, but what else can he expect when he doesn’t actually use them?

For any type of networking to be effective, you need to put some effort into it. It’s only when you have developed a large network that you’ll find that others will start coming to you with friend requests. You don’t have to let networking sites take over your life, but, at the same time, if you do the minimum, you’ll only get minimal results.

Networking Indiscriminately online

When you are registered for a social networking site, you may get requests to connect with people you don’t know, or to give recommendations to people you’ve never worked with. The temptation is always there to build your network by accepting these requests, but there’s little point beyond an unconvincing illusion of a broad network.

Whenever someone actually tries to use that network, its inadequacies will quickly become apparent. If you don’t know a person, then how do you know that you can be useful to each other — or that they’re the sort you want to be associated with? Nor can you recommend strangers without making them appear to exaggerate the acquaintance (see above).

Failing to keep up relationships

Contrary to what many people seem to believe, establishing a connection is only the first part of networking. The longer a network connection exists and the more exchanges of help that are made — in short, the more trust that is established — the more useful the connection becomes for both parties. For this reason, stopping at initial contacts is only slightly more useful than sitting back and waiting for contacts to come to you. If you want networking to work, you have to become involved with it.

Being unrespectful of other people’s time

When you network, you can treat as a given that everyone is busy with other things beside the connection. Try to avoid pestering others for favors, especially if you are hoping to use the connection to find work, and avoid asking a favor that is disproportionate to the connection. Asking a new acquaintance to send you details about an upcoming conference is appropriate; asking them to give you a private crash course in Ruby isn’t.

Similarly, just over a year ago, a colleague asked if I could help her fill a position at her company. I found several possible candidates, and introduced one to her company. A few days later, she told me that her company had decided to fill the position through a recruiting agency. The decision meant that I — to say nothing of the candidate — had each spent a couple of hours for nothing. Both the candidate and I agreed that we would think carefully before dealing with my colleague again. We both felt we had been treated with a lack of respect.

Hounding a connection

Last summer, I promised to let an acquaintance know when a position at another company was being filled. After a week, he began sending me daily emails, and phoning me every other day. Since I had no control over the job and was simply relaying information, I could do nothing about the delay and told him so. Once, I made inquiries on his behalf, but eventually I had to ask him to stop contacting me so often. He got angry, and I haven’t heard from him since. From another mutual acquaintance, I understand that he feels that I let him down.

Really, though, he let himself down. By hounding me, he lost his connection to me, although it was obviously useful to him.

Rather than producing the same results yourself, minimize your followups when you’ve requested help. Unless there’s a definite deadline, once a week is often enough to ask. And if the request goes unanswered for more than a couple of weeks, you can probably assume that it’s not happening.

Treating networking as one-sided

Effective networking is about an exchange of help. That means that, if you want people to help you, you have to be willing to help them. If you ignore requests for advice or references, or — like one of my acquaintances — always find excuses for not reciprocating, eventually people will start refusing to help you. The same can be true if you are constantly asking for large favors while only offering an equal number of small ones.

The exchange of favors implicit in networking doesn’t have to be spelled out. In fact, most of the time, it’s not. Instead, networkers simply assume that, if they help you out, at some unspecified point, they’re entitled to request a favor of comparable value from you. Ensuring that you honor that assumption is the main point of networking.

Conclusion

Perhaps the best way to avoid these mistakes is to keep in mind the image you would prefer to project around colleagues. For most people, this image would be professional, polite, and active. Ask yourself how your words and actions might appear to your colleagues, and you’ll not only be likelier to avoid these mistakes, but also to start networking effectively.

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It is impossible to experience deja-vu for the first time.
I reckon the first time you experience deja-vu must be the second.

– Les Barker

These days, I can’t go to a networking event without meeting at least two or three people who are hoping to start their own high-tech business. Taking “Web 2.0” and “social networking” as their personal mantras, these contacts sound eerily like throwbacks to the dot-com boom. Enough time has passed, I suppose, for people to forget the lessons of that first infatuation with technology. As a survivor of that first era, I could tell them a thing or two, but mostly, I don’t bother. They wouldn’t thank me.

If the old dream was just about quick money, then the whole things wouldn’t be so painful. Most of the dreamers are going to fail, and that’s a lesson that can hurt, but can be valuable. If you find that your thirty thousand stock options are worthless in one company, you can always do what I did, and get another thirty thousand from your next company, continuing the process until reality sets it. You learn about persistence, and eventually you learn that hard-slogging work pays in smaller but more reliable returns – both useful lessons.

But, just like the dot-commers, the Web 2.0 generation isn’t only concerned about money. Most of its members would happily settle for survival as the owners of their own small business. Still more are attracted by being involved with something larger than their selves, for experiencing the sense of belonging that comes with being involved in the biggest trends of the era. And it’s this sense of purpose that is likely to shatter on the pavement when reality sweeps their feet out from underneath them.

Take me, for instance. My first dot-com startup, the pay was three-quarters of what I had been earning as a consultant. I never did believe – not really – that the company would go public and my stock options would let me retire. What concerned me was that we (and it says something about the spirit of the times that, for a non-team player like me, there was a “we”) were going to change computing by introducing GNU/Linux to the world.

Moreover, as the first non-developer hired by the company, I was playing a leading role (maybe theleading role in my own mind) in making that dream a reality, cutting bundling deals, hammering out a features list, going over legal contracts and licenses and discovering all the other thousand and one things needed to bring a product to market.

My second company offered much the same – only better, because this time I was working with big names in the field and being flown across the continent for the sake of my expertise.

Was I self-important to the point of blindness? No question. But other parts of my life were at an absolute nadir, and the dream gave some desperately needed meaning. It’s because I remember that desperation that I don’t want to spoil things too much for this next generation of dreamers. Let them dream while they can.

Of course, if they did ask, I would warn them that being tipsy with meaning doesn’t mean that they should abandon common sense. Half-intoxicated as I was, I never could see why those around me were working long extra hours when they didn’t need to, or sleeping in the cardboard boxes that file cabinets came in, just so they could have the full experience (in the same spirit, many line up for hours for tickets or Boxing Day Sales – not out of necessity but because they don’t want to miss the excitement). Nor could I see the point of those who hung on after I left, working for half pay and then deferred pay, or staying loyal before they were laid off. Too many dot-commers forgot in their quest for personal meaning that business remains business, and my only personal claim to foresight is that I twice remembered that simple fact and ejected before the crash came.

If asked, I would also tell them about my post-dot-com survival, about how, after feeling yourself in the avant-garde, laboring to produce dull and sensible things that people actually want to buy seems pointless and bland. And if you once believed that you were not only in the avant-garde, but leading it, then life in an ordinary office under managers and executives who know no more – and sometimes less – than you do becomes simply an exercise in sustained frustration. I would warn them that their experiments with meaning and work will make them unfit for anything else except becoming consultants in their own small business.

Not that this role is an unsatisfying one – far from it, I would say. After all, iit’s the one that I chose. But unless what you really want is not just purpose, but control of your life, it would be cruel to encourage anyone down this twice-trodden path. You’ll only be disappointed and unhappy, unless you are one of that handful who truly wants that direction in life, one of those for whom the boom-gone-to bust (and it always goes to bust sooner or later, believe me) means a hard-won chunk of satisfaction.

Like I said, I could tell this new generation of dreams these things, but they wouldn’t appreciate hearing them. So I try not to intrude on their dreams, and smile fondly as I hear their excited talk of commitment.

Goddammed kids with goddammed stars in their eyes. I hope they enjoy the roller coaster, and appreciate the ride when they stagger away.

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“You’re an English major? You must be planning a career in fast food.” Comments like this haunted me from the moment I declared my major in university. But hearing the sentiment recently, I realized that it was far from accurate. The truth is, people who have a way with words can make a comfortable living in all sorts of ways, so long as they don’t limit their possibilities to the obvious.

The worst mistake that anybody with an English degree – or, in fact, any Arts degree – can make is to hang about on the fringes of academia, hoping for a tenure track position. Ever since my undergraduate days, I’ve been hearing about all the tenured positions that are going to become available as their current incumbents retire, but, between budget cuts and the increasing tendency to hire non-tenured staff or sessionals, the positions are unlikely to materialize. People who were hoping for those positions when I left academia over a decade ago are still waiting for those tenured positions. Meanwhile, they endure semester by semester contracts, last minute hires, and doing the same work as tenured faculty for half the money. That’s fine for a few years, but it’s no way to live in the long-term.

The same is true of editing piece work. Just like academia, the publishing industry depends on having a constant pool of cheap work-for-hire editors. You may be one of the lucky exceptions, but the odds are against you, no matter how talented. Those who run the industry are careful not to employ you so much that they become obliged to offer you benefits.

Instead of lingering in limbo, waiting for the academic or literary job you used to dreamed of, English majors should explore the possibilities in business. Not only is the power of self-expression in demand there, but the competition is far less fierce than in academia – partly because of the greater need, and partly because many English majors seem to consider that taking a job in business is beneath them. Often, too, they make the mistake of thinking that their writing skills are all they need, and are slow to learn the subject matter expertise they need to do the work properly.

But, if you can get beyond the idea that you are dirtying your hands and are willing to learn what you don’t know, then the jobs are there. As a technical writer, you need to write clearly and organize information for conciseness and accuracy; in many ways, the job is writing stripped to the basics. As a communications and marketing manager, writing news releases or blogs, you take on the responsibility of being the voice of the company. As a product manager, you decide how to present a product or line, and you’ll find your skills with textural analysis serve you well when you come to deal with end user license agreements and other legal documents. As an instructor, you are reprising your role as a teaching assistant while you were in grad school, the only difference being is that you are teaching software or policies and procedures, rather literature or criticism.

And these are only the most obvious career paths. Writing and teaching skills aren’t a bad foundation for going on to law school, for example. Best of all, the first thing you’ll notice when taking these positions if you’ve been vying for scraps of work around academia, your yearly income will increase by over fifty percent or more.

Admittedly, some of these positions aren’t on the express way to the top. Technical writers, for instance, may rise to supervise other technical writers at a large company, but they aren’t likely to become CEOs. But they can serve as entry positions, and, if you’re interested in climbing the corporation, you can always expand your skill set later on. Meanwhile, you can reasonably expect a salary that puts you solidly in the upper middle class, to say nothing of responsible and often rewarding work.

Really, the only thing holding you back with an English degree is your own lack of imagination or initiative. Just because those who prefer an education they should be getting at a technical college choose to belittle your liberal education is no reason for you to believe them.

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“I wish people would come to work with enthusiasm,” the CEO said to me, looking up from his copy of From Good to Great. “I really wish they showed some passion.” His voice was a mixture of puzzlement, longing, and frustration that could only come from a man wondering why the rest of the world wasn’t more like him.

The statement shouldn’t have caught me as unprepared as it did. As a communications consultant, I didn’t even show on the organizational chart, but I’d noted before that executives often feel free to confide in a consultant in a way they’d never consider with an employee. Besides, we were sharing an office until the company could take over more space on the same floor, and it was a hot Friday afternoon, a time when even the most gung-ho company officer takes off his jacket and feels conversational.

All the same, the statement left me dumbfounded for a minute. What I wanted to say was, “You mean you really don’t know?” But I settled for something non-committal and corporate about teams taking time to build. After all, consultants may have more freedom than employees, but wise ones learn to temper that freedom with discretion.

Besides, the fact he could express the wish — and the puzzlement behind it — made all too clear that he didn’t know how much he was responsible for the lack of enthusiasm.

You see, the CEO in question had been recruited by the board of directors to make the company profitable. And he had done everything he could from a business end to achieve that goal, finding new markets and products, and developing business intelligence about the company’s industry and local business. However, what he had forgot was his responsibility for morale.

Frankly, it couldn’t have been worse.

The CEO had come in six months ago, and quickly proceeded to cut a third of the staff. About a month ago, he had done the same again, and anyone who could read a balance sheet and his worried glance could tell that another staff reduction was due in the future.

All these cuts made sense from a bottom line perspective, but they left employees uncertain. The stress was even greater because he had closed a branch office after promising to keep it open, and fired everyone who wasn’t willing to relocate to headquarters.

Moreover, even at headquarters, he had laid off people with no regard to their roles within the company. As a result, the survivors were not only wondering when the axe would fall on them, but having to cope with a sudden loss of a lot of unwritten knowledge because key people were gone. In other words, not only was morale so low that the photocopy machine was starting to jam from the rush of resumes, but the company had become less functional because of the cuts.

Then, just to make matters worse, having just read Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, Lou Gerstner’s biography of his days at IBM, the CEO was inspired to hold retreats for those he designated key personnel. These chosen few were given free copies of various best-selling business books, and invited to spend a day or two at a resort discussing the contents.

But what might have worked in a mega-corporation like IBM, where a few absences across the country would barely be noticed, only served in the CEO’s small company to make make three-quarters of the company feel under-privileged and insulted. Several of the elite didn’t feel especially honored, either, since what they really wanted to do was get on with their work.

And, after all this, what did the CEO do at Christmas? Cancel the company party, and, on Christmas Eve, leave at 11AM without telling the staff they could do the same (most left anyway by 1PM).

Looking back, I’m pleased at my restraint when the CEO wished for a dedicated work force. He wasn’t a stupid man, yet he had no idea that he couldn’t have ground morale into the dirt more effectively if he had been deliberately tried to do so. Busy satisfying the board that he was containing costs, he forgot that, if he wanted dedication and respect, he also needed to show some loyalty and support for his employees. And, really, considering all his long hours trying to turn the company around, I couldn’t tell him what was wrong or the aspects of business that he was neglecting without mortally insulting him.

The company still exists, but it’s only a remnant of what it was in my time. Despite a couple of modestly profitable quarters, it continues to show regular losses, and the same CEO still heads it. I’ve never revisited, but I sometimes wonder if he’s ever figured out what puzzled him, or simply bemoans the difficulty in attracting loyal personnel.

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