Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Duped by Pottery Barn's aggressive marketing campaign

I like to think of myself as a smart consumer, but I believe I was duped by an aggressive marketing campaign when I purchased Pottery Barn’s "Sausalito" dinnerware:

Approximately five years ago, I drove to the mall in search of a decent set of dinnerware for an upcoming dinner party I was hosting. I came home with 12 place settings of Pottery Barn’s "Sausalito" dinnerware in natural. A friend had received a similar set as a wedding gift and I had loved the simple modern style. I was sure the heavy earthenware was durable and would last for years. It cost more than I normally would have spent, but it was Pottery Barn so the quality had to be good. I soon added a gravy bowl, 3-piece serving bowl set and a serving platter to my collection.

Unfortunately, this set has brought me nothing but problems. During my five years of ownership, I’ve replaced cracked dinner plates so frequently my local Pottery Barn store suggested I upgrade to their porcelain dinnerware and use the Sausalito plates for display purposes only. One plate cracked, making an explosive popping sound, during a dinner party while a guest was serving himself a plate of food. Also, recent plate replacements are so abnormally large I am no longer able to close the cupboard door tightly. Prior to the recent holiday season, I attempted once again to replace a cracked dinner plate only to discover Pottery Barn has discontinued making the Sausalito dinnerware in “natural” my color. After scouring the countryside, I was able to locate eleven plates in Miami, but ended up ordering only one. I have had enough; the next time a plate cracks I am replacing the entire set with a standard size durable set of dinnerware.

What I don’t understand is if Pottery Barn’s Sausalito dinnerware is so fragile why do customers continue purchasing it?

I think the answer can be found on the Solas Web Design blog where they write:

For $139.00, Pottery Barn offers their Sausalito dinnerware setting for 4. Yes, Pottery Barn’s pottery has become vastly popular, due to an aggressive, well-funded marketing campaign, but what is the actual value of the end product that shoppers receive? Though colorful, their dinnerware, serving ware, etc. is a mass-produced, made in Asia product. It feels machine-made, and frankly, doesn’t strike me as a cut above the place settings you might find at K-Mart for 1/3 of the price. My feeling would be that Pottery Barn can set a value like the above on their products because their advertising has created a mystique or buzz about their brand name. But the Martha Stewart products Kmart stocks, also mass-produced, have been slated as being for folks who live on a budget, because, after all, they are being sold at Kmart. Perhaps Pottery Barn consumers feel that they are spending their earnings on the finer things in life, because the corporation is slating themselves as such.

Yet, in the end, Pottery Barn customers are purchasing fast-food-quality pieces for their home, at a high price tag. This isn’t Blue Willow China. They won’t be passing it onto their grandchildren. Economists call us a throw-away culture and I’d say both the items manufactured by Pottery Barn and Martha Stewart’s factories in Asia fall into this category.
How was Pottery Barn able to create this mystique or buzz about their brand name?
In an old Reveries Magazine Hillary Billings Pottery Barn’s former vice president of product design and development says:

In the early nineties, nobody in the specialty retail world was addressing home furnishings. The only consumer choices were to go to mass-market retailers, like department stores or to an Ethan Allen, most of which weren't providing stylish furniture. They were presenting assortments that were very mainstream and weren't very interesting. Or you had to hire an interior designer and spend exorbitant amounts to enter the stylish arena of home furnishings.

There was nothing for the consumer who didn't want to hire an interior designer or didn't have the money to, but had an interest in style that was more sophisticated than what the department stores were selling. It offered a clear path for Pottery Barn to build a business.
So how was I duped?
I have mentioned previously I am decorating challenged, plus when I bought my dinnerware I was in a hurry looking for a quick purchase. Pottery Barn made shopping for dinnerware easy. They didn’t have numerous styles and patterns to choose from and the Sausalito with its hand glazing and visible brush strokes looked so sophisticated; little did I know it was mass-produced in Asia. Also, I didn’t realize buying good dinnerware isn’t as simple as just walking into a store and picking out the first set of dishes that catches my eye. There is actually a lot to consider. Instead of purchasing a quality set of dinnerware, I was purchasing the great “Pottery Barn name.

How about you, have you ever been duped by an aggressive marketing campaign?





Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Working with a “Master Manipulator”

I recently came across Miss Minchin’s fascinating post Manipulative people in the Workplace and was amazed how closely the personality traits of the “master manipulator” resemble that of the “hostile HR manager” who works at my company. I was especially intrigued to read:

The most dangerous of all workplace dangers, the manipulative coworker has mastered the art of aggression disguised as helpfulness, good intentions, or working "for the good of the company". These people are brilliant at hiding their true motives, while making you look incompetent, uncooperative, or self-centered. They can make you lose your job, do their job for them, or even get you to apologize to *them* for trying to confront them about their own bad behavior.

Over at Business Women's and Finishing School I talk about my experience working with a "Master Manipulator". Please check it out.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The value of “face time”

In a couple of recent posts, I mentioned Kate an employee of a local manufacturing firm. She was originally hired as the Controller of her company’s engineering division which is located in a separate building from the company's main office. During a recent downsizing, Kate’s controllership position was eliminated resulting in her being transferred to an administrative job in the corporate building. Yes, she is fortunate to still be employed, but she hates her new administrative role and has become discouraged watching her male colleagues be promoted to positions she wasn’t aware were open. Perplexed, she sought out a male colleague asking him “What do you have to do to get promoted around here?" He responded with: “You need to be a male who puts in a lot of face time.”

Both Kate and I interpreted “face time” to mean working late nights and weekends “at the office” to project an image of a committed hardworking employee.

After discussions with my mentor, I’ve concluded Kate's male colleague actually gave her some very good advice. Kate doesn’t necessarily need to work long hours and weekends to achieve face time, but she does need to be visible and to build a rapport with her colleagues. To be promoted, Kate’s managers need to know who she is and be familiar with her work. By working in a separate building, she didn’t gain the visibility needed for a promotion; most likely her company's hiring managers have not worked with her whereas they have worked with her male colleagues.

It is important to get face time throughout the organization especially in the operations area.

How to get face time when you’re stuck in a back office job:
Volunteer for projects even if it is not your area of expertise and then do whatever you need to gain the knowledge needed to be successful. Apply for open positions even if it may not be your dream job. It helps to get interview experience and get your name out there. Volunteer to work on teams and on committees – some companies have opportunities for internally promoting the United Way.

-Do remain open to working late nights and weekends “at the office” if you need to complete special projects or to maintain deadline credibility.

-Think twice about telecommuting:
Telecommuting puts you at an immediate disadvantage; by not being in the office you will have a difficult time achieving adequate face time with managers outside of your department.

To be promoted Kate needs to be credible, experienced and visible.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Is less prestigious job not worthy of respect?

Citizen Reader left a comment on my last post that I’ve been thinking about all week, she writes:

"But just because a certain job might be less prestigious or less well-paid, does that make it unworthy of respect? I never thought so."

First a couple of misconceptions about less prestigious employment:

- It’s a fallacy to think employees who perform “grunt work” don’t work as hard or put in as many hours as employees who have more prestigious positions. It has been my experience that these employees are sometimes the hardest working and most conscientious employees in the company.

-In spite of working and getting paid for part-time work, some part-time employees are still expected to complete a full-time work load. They take work home to complete after their kids are asleep while also being accessible through email and via phone throughout the day.

-This is despite my company’s HR Director’s belief that employees who work long hours do so because they don’t manage their time well.

The first person I thought of upon reading CR's comment was Donna my company’s Accounts Payable Clerk (she is also the employee responsible for completing our company’s 1099’s). She is by far one of the most diligent employees in our company with an incredible attention to detail. In her seven years of employment, I doubt if she’s made even five mistakes. She is also pleasant with employees and vendors and much more patient with them I could ever be. One of our company owners feels she is the best employee our company has.

Too bad she doesn’t think so:
Donna regrets not earning her four year degree and hates that she is a clerical worker. So much so, she refused to attend her high school reunion not wanting her former classmates to know she was just an Accounts Payable Clerk. We have offered to change her title to Accounts Payable Associate, but she doesn’t like that either. Unfortunately, she is also one of our lowest paid employees and is aware of this through her payroll responsibilities. I have also noticed our HR Director treats her with disrespect, but she is not alone our HR Director treats all of our clerical employees with disrespect.*

I think it’s important to realize not everyone can be the CFO, if everyone aspired to do so there wouldn’t be anyone available to do the work. There is a lot to be said about having a stable job you enjoy and in which you can be the expert. Too bad not everyone including the employees themselves feel this way. All jobs including the less prestigious and the lowest paid should be worthy of respect.

*Note our HR employee gave herself the title of HR Director.

If you would like to read more about Donna I also wrote about her here.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Culture of Patriarchy Observation

I had the pleasure of attending two CPE seminars within the past 30 days; both sponsored by the same organization:

The first, a tax planning and wealth preservation seminar, was strongly attended; with 70% of the attendees male. Almost all of the attendees regardless of gender were wearing a business suit.

The second, a 1099 and W2 preparation seminar, was sparsely attended with at least 70% of the attendees female. The only attendees wearing a business suit at this event were the seminar sponsors and me. (No it was not a Friday.)

Conclusion:
In the eighties, my friend Laura earned a masters degree in tax. She likes to tell stories about being the only woman in her tax classes and subsequently at CPE tax seminars. (She is also the first person to say that the glass ceiling still exists.) I must say, I was surprised and disappointed to see how few women attended the tax planning and wealth preservation seminar. Obviously, males donning a power suit continue to manage the money and wealth in the Milwaukee area while the women continue to perform the grunt work.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Using humor during phone interview

Abby writes:
I have a phone interview scheduled for a tenured teaching position with a private college. My husband has advised me against using humor during my interview. He said, "You are funny. I think you are funny, all of your friends think you are funny, but don't be funny during this interview." But funny is who I am. I want to show the interviewer I have a personality. Wouldn’t humor make me more memorable? What do you think?

I agree with your husband on this one; save the humor for the face to face interview or better yet 'til after you are hired. There is such a large margin for misinterpretation of humor; I wouldn’t take the risk. Not everyone has a sense of humor. Plus, because it is a phone interview you will miss any visual cues indicating your interviewer did not realize you were joking. A phone interview is serious business especially in the current job market where there are more qualified candidates than positions available. The purpose of your phone interview should be to get an in-person interview; focus on promoting your job qualifications and teaching ability not your sense of humor.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The culture of patriarchy continues to be an obstacle for women

Last week, when I answered the question for the women unbound challenge meme: What do you consider the biggest obstacle women face in the world today? I went with the first answer that came to mind. I did this because I wanted to see how my views evolved as the challenge progressed. I’ve subsequently came across a blog post that so truly captures the essence of my beliefs I must share. Ann Daly, who describes herself as a fem-evangelist, devoted to the success and advancement of women, wrote in an article for more.com:

First she provides the statistics:
The glass ceiling remains firmly in place: Although women hold 50.8% of managerial positions in the labor market, they represent only 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs. Women remain grossly underpaid, taking home 78% that men do.

Then she answers the questions:
Why, then, are women still lagging behind? Why are women’s success stories still the exceptions that prove the rule?
Because beyond laws and regulations and attitude is the deepest, most pervasive, most unconscious and ingrained layer of our lives: culture. All of our laws and all of our diversity training won’t close the gender gap, because it’s the culture, sweetheart.

It’s the culture that insists on coding babies as blue or pink. It’s the culture that assumes men in the public sphere and women in the domestic sphere. It’s the culture that defines active qualities as “masculine” and passive qualities as “feminine.” It’s the culture of patriarchy, in which power and privilege accrue to the men.

If you doubt that male privilege endures, just replay to Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy.

This is exactly what I was alluding to when I wrote:
Just last week my friend Kate, who works for a Milwaukee manufacturing firm, asked a male colleague, "What do you have to do to get promoted around here?" She was told you need to be a male who puts in a lot of face time. Kate was describing “the good ole boys club”.

She then lists:  The Top Ten Hidden Rules That Can Sabotage Your Career

Here are two I find pertinent to my situation:
- Actually, it is personal. In mid-career, at the point where everyone brings comparable talent to the table, it’s who you know, not what you know, that gets you promoted. As HR pros will tell you, you don’t push yourself to the top, you get pulled there. Men knew what they were doing when they invented the old boys’ club. From the get-go, women need to be just as savvy, cultivating loose ties, close ties, mentors, allies, and champions.

- Men are bred for self-confidence. From Little League to fraternities to the golf course, men’s lives emphasize competition. By the time they get to the workplace, they are seasoned competitors, with all of the self-confidence that comes from having successfully weathered both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Consider the consequences: one internal corporate study showed that women will apply for an open job only if they meet 100% of the criteria listed, while men will apply if they meet just 60%. In order to assume that same level of self-possession (and entitlement), you have to design your own path to self-confidence.

I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately, if I continue to hold off applying for jobs because I don’t have 100% of the criteria I will never get where I want to be.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Getting a Clue about Feminism

I originally concluded, I needed to read more books about woman and feminism after reading  Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness claim Susan Jane Gilman's book Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress: Tales of Growing Up Groovy and Clueless inspired her to meditate on what it means to be a feminist and whether she could consider herself one. It has been a long time since I considered my own views of feminism, and am intrigued with the idea of renewing my feminist meditations through reading.

I was again reminded of this goal when Grace of GRACEful Retirement commented on my blog post: Ten non-fiction books that help us understand the world, that Betty Friedan's book "The Feminine Mystique" helped her better understand the world.

Now, I may have finally stumbled upon the motivation to actually fulfill this goal; I’ve discovered the reading challenge Women Unbound. The challenge runs from November 1, 2009-November 30, 2010. Participants are encouraged to read nonfiction and fiction books related to the rather broad idea of ‘women’s studies.’ I am signing up at the Suffragette level: which requires I read at least eight books, including at least three nonfiction ones.

The challenge begins with the following meme:
1. What does feminism mean to you? Does it have to do with the work sphere? The social sphere? How you dress? How you act?
2. Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not?
3. What do you consider the biggest obstacle women face in the world today? Has that obstacle changed over time, or does it basically remain the same?

What does feminism mean to me?
I grew up in a household where my dad controlled my mother’s every move. She was a housewife living in the country without a driver’s license. She had to ask for every penny she needed (not to mention a ride to the store); justifying each purchase whether it was a card for a sick friend, a birthday present for one of her six children or a tube of lipstick for herself. I vowed at a young age my life was going to be different; I was going to have my own money and control my own destiny. As I’ve gotten older, my feminist ideals have broadened to include all women; no woman should have to live a life of oppression.

Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not?
I was a feminist from the moment I was exposed to the idea; I grew up in the 70’s in the midst of the “women’s movement.” I thought a lot about equal rights for women throughout high school and college. Actually I considered myself a feminist right up to the moment I was hired at my first “real” job which I attained only after I proved I could type. After that, all thoughts of feminism took a back seat to actually working, my marriage and just living life.

What do you consider the biggest obstacle women face in the world today? Has that obstacle changed over time, or does it basically remain the same?
Most recent media accounts list "lack of time" as the modern women’s biggest obstacle. Statistics have shown, not only do many women work outside of the home but continue, despite their male partner providing some assistance, to perform the majority of child rearing and housecleaning duties including staying home with sick children, leaving little time for themselves.

Despite Penelope Trunk’s claim the gender pay gap no longer exists, I think the reality is women still need to fight for equality in the work place. Just last week my friend Kate, who works for a Milwaukee manufacturing firm, asked a male colleague, "What do you have to do to get promoted around here?" She was told you need to be a male who puts in a lot of face time. And as to Penelope’s claim the pay gap no longer exists; check out this business week article, this article and this one.

I think part of the problem is most women; including myself, do not promote themselves and their abilities as confidently as their male co-workers do. If they do happen to be one of the rare women who does promote herself they are labeled a B----.

Footnotes to this post:
1. I titled this post "Getting a Clue about Feminism," after reading an interview where Susan Jane Gilman described her book, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, which is actually a collection of personal essays, as “getting a clue” on race, sex, injustice what makes other people who they are.
2. The Woman Unbound challenge is my first book challenge.
3. This post includes my first meme.
4. It will be interesting to see if my answers to the above meme questions are different at the end of the challenge.

Can you recommend a book that helped you meditate on feminism?

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Are you a fan of LinkedIn?

I received my first invitation to connect on LinkedIn about a year ago from an insurance salesperson. My second invite came from a recruiter a couple of months later; curious to learn what this networking site was about I created a LinkedIn account and entered basic job information into my profile. To date my profile remains lacking; it consists only of my name, current company and job title.

Throughout the year, I received additional invites resulting in 12 connections. I also joined two groups affiliated with my profession, but I have not been convinced a LinkedIn account holds any real value for me. So far, the most useful LinkedIn message I received was a colleague recommending her interior designer.

Here is what Penelope Trunk writes about LinkedIn:
LinkedIn is great. I’m on LinkedIn. I have 650 connections. At first I wondered, why do I need this list of connections published on LinkedIn? What was the purpose of it? But now I get it. With LinkedIn, people can tell that I am a very connected person.

Potential employers like LinkedIn because they can glance at your LinkedIn profile and get a sense of how connected you are and how much money you make. (Yes, large networks correlate to large salaries.) That's the utility of the scorecard.


But what you cannot do on LinkedIn is build a network. Networks are built on relationships, which grow from conversation. LinkedIn is not for conversations. So you need to go somewhere else to build your network, and then, when it’s big, display it on LinkedIn so you’ll look great.


I recently attended a continuing education session titled, “New ways LinkedIn can benefit you.” After attending, I remain unimpressed. As a fellow seminar attendee stated, “This is basically a resume on steroids.” And to Penelope’s well connected comments, LinkedIn caps your public profile connections at "500+", meaning Penelope may have 650 contacts, but profile viewers only see she has 500+. I think the value of a large number of contacts is profession specific, it is important for someone who is promoting their business or works in sales, but for a bean counter like me I think future employers would prefer to see quality contacts over quantity.

Then there is the LinkedIn message I received from a contact asking me to endorse him. I was a little taken aback; I don't know this person well enough to endorse him. As a viewer, I don't see value in reading pumped up recommendations written by acquaintances.

And here is a bit of caution for employers found on Anita Bruzzese's blog:
She quotes Shanti Atkins who says "Even LinkedIn, which is considered the “professional” online networking site, could get managers in trouble because of the feature that allows you to “recommend” someone."

“Ninety-nine percent of companies have a policy that says you can’t give a letter of recommendation for an employee because it’s a liability and a risk if the employee doesn’t work out for the other employer,” Atkins says. “But if you recommend someone on LinkedIn, you’ve just published one.”

Thoughts on LinkedIn from others:

A colleague working in the recruiting industry tells me LinkedIn was initially designed as a tool for recruiters. She became disenchanted with it when a fellow recruiter offered to share her network if my colleague shared hers. After doing so, she felt it was an unfair trade; the connections she received were sub par in both quantity and quality to her own.

From an overtaxed friend and fellow seminar attendee:
Having a LinkedIn account would mean I’d have one more thing that needed to be maintained. Plus, LinkedIn seems like an on-line popularity contest, I thought high school ended a long time ago, no thank you.

What am I going to do?

The worst impression I can give is to continue portraying a LinkedIn account with a weak profile; it screams I don’t care about this. Since I've gone to the trouble of creating an account and accept connections, I might as well put in the extra effort to create a quality profile. As to whether my account will incur any real value, it can’t hurt.

How about you, do you find value in LinkedIn?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Who are you meant to be?

A few years ago, a gal I know participated in a local beauty contest. During the pageant’s question and answer segment, she was asked if she could be anyone living or dead who would she be? She replied, “I would be myself. I’ve lived with myself my whole life and know myself better than anyone else. I wouldn’t want to be anyone other than myself.”

At the time I thought what an odd answer; I would have gone with Madame Curie or Eleanor Roosevelt, but I couldn't help admiring her self-knowledge; I had no idea who I was.

Perhaps I am not the only one lacking self-knowledge, George Thompson author of Verbal Judo writes:

"We know the least about our real selves. That's why we must deal with how we see ourselves. Our real selves may consist of where we came from, our beliefs and values, and the way we’re raised. But our selves as we see them will be bogus unless we make an effort to really be honest and introspective. If we don't we will always have an area that can be exploited and can make us less effective than we could be."

As my “"Getting my ducks in a row project," continues to evolve, I’ve come to realize the first step is to know myself. Everyone from Aristotle to Rilke to Drucker tout the advantages of self-knowledge. Here is my latest find from life coach Tracey Houston:

The whole idea of knowing yourself more deeply is to provide a competitive advantage. The most successful companies are ones in which the leaders have a greater understanding of themselves. When you don’t know yourself, you don’t know your limitations or your strengths. And today, the key economic resource is people.

This brings me to this month’s issue of Oprah's Magazine themed “Who are you meant to be?” The magazine includes a quiz developed by Anne Dranitsaris designed to help you figure out what really defines you. It is based on seven categories called “striving styles.” The premise is everyone is wired with all seven styles, but most people have one that dominates. When you are engaged in your particular style, you have the greatest chance to fulfill your potential. The best part is you don’t have to buy the magazine; you can take here for free.

Here are my results:

Dominant style:
You are striving to be secure

A strong 2nd:
You are striving to be knowledgeable.

There were no surprises here. What I found most informative were the tips on what to watch out for: For the security style, rapidly changing environments (like a shaky economy) are very hard for you. As a result of such instability, you can spiral into a state where everything seems catastrophic and you're sure life will only get worse. (I'm thinking Slump).

"Until you know who you are, you cannot know what you can become" - Neils Lindhard

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Verbal Judo Communication

Anonymous asked the following question in the comments section of my blog post "A Personal Attack at Work":

I need feedback on being coached and counseled on someone's perception of me being rude by giving short responses to her questions. I was totally taken aback. Her questions were answered appropriately and honestly; I didn't know any other way to respond and I conveyed this to her. I've worked on this job for 5 years and have never had a manager speak to my character as this manager did today. I was so upset that I wanted to cry but I stated that I needed to seek advice on how to respond to third party false accusations. I don't know what to do; I feel that this is a personal attack against my character. How can I defend myself against someone's perceptions? Please advice.

To answer your question, I turned to George Thompson's book Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion for a better understanding of what went wrong and how to assist you with future verbal encounters. First, it is important to note you are not alone; most people do not communicate skillfully under pressure, yet our entire careers depend on it.

What makes communication so difficult?
According to Thompson, when 2 people are talking there are actually 6 different identities involved - each person’s real self, each person as he is seen by himself and finally each person as seen by the other doubled.

So, what went wrong in your encounter?
I found some interesting statistics in the book’s elements of communication section –
The truth (which would be the honest answers you gave your manager) carries a weight of only 7 to 10 % of the total impact of a message. The message, which you see as the most important part of the process, is the least considered factor.

Voice carries a weight of 33 to 40%

Other non-verbals (body language) make up 50 to 60% of your impact.

Your voice’s tone conveys your real attitude towards people. If there is any conflict between your role and your voice people will always believe your voice.

What is needed for more effective communication?
Thompson feels empathy is the key to effective communication. Empathy absorbs tension. He says it works every time. Empathy is the quality of standing in another’s shoes and understanding where he is coming from. That’s right; you need to try to understand what your manager is thinking. Focus on her and her predicament. You may see the situation as you haven’t seen it before.

Empathizing doesn’t mean you have to agree; just try to understand where that person is coming from. Too many people confuse empathy with sympathy. You don’t have to sympathize with or approve of another’s actions or words. Just empathize and see how powerful it makes you. Don’t do it to be nice; do it because it’s the only way to hit upon a proper appeal.

I must point out, the more I read, the more I became convinced your manager may be the one who needs a lesson in Verbal Judo. Take this quote:

“When dealing with somebody in a business situation, you may be thinking I’m, handling this well. I’m firm, fair and professional, but if the other person sees you as pushy and aggressive, as ineffective, biased and intemperate, where does the truth lie? Unfortunately, it lies with how you’re seen and not with how you see yourself – even if you are right.”

Since unfortunately, we can’t send our managers to communication training, I came up with these suggestions to help you work through this situation:

Role-play:
Have a trusted friend, mentor or co-worker practice role-playing with you. Start by reversing roles. Try to think like your manager; define the problem from her point of view first, then practice your response. Try to keep a concerned and caring face while practicing and pay attention to your voice’s tone, pace, pitch and modulation.

For professional assistance contact your local Toastmasters Organization:
Ask if they can recommend a career or communication coach. Also, attend one of their meetings. The mission of the Toastmasters Club is to provide a mutually supportive and positive learning environment in which every member has the opportunity to develop communication and leadership skills, which in turn foster self-confidence and personal growth.

Write it down:
Putting it on paper helps me organize my thoughts. Your communication’s delivery may carry more weight, but content is also important. You do have to know what you are talking about. Decide precisely what it is you want and need to communicate then shape your thoughts by writing them down.

Request the assistance of a mediator:
Mediators can help both parties see the situation from a different angle. Do you have an HR department; if so, ask them to help you communicate with this manager. You didn’t specify if this particular manager is your manager, if not, is there another manager you report to? Ask them to intervene or assist on your behalf.

Enroll in a communication class
See what communication classes are available at your community college or local university. Prior to reading Verbal Judo, I would have recommended an assertiveness class, but Thompson feels assertiveness training is the wrong approach; in his opinion most assertiveness training teaches you to be aggressive.

Read Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion.
Thompson offers many helpful communication techniques to help take control of a situation while maintaining a non-confrontational atmosphere. I particularly like his paraphrasing technique (putting another person’s words into your words and delivering them back to him). He includes so much information in this book it is hard to absorb it all in one sitting; I plan on revisiting the book for further study.

Talk to other trusted managers and co-workers
Your confidence needs a boast; you have been with this company for five years and have never been in a situation like this before. Surely, there are others who have positive things to say about your performance and communication skills. Ask them for feedback on your strengths. Then concentrate on these strengths rather than your manager's hurtful words.

My own “personal attack episode” occurred last January and I can honestly say it took me months before I was completely over it. Only a couple of weeks ago, I realized I’ve stopped hating this manager. I ended up discussing my episode with a manager in a different department who gave me positive feedback on my own management skills; he pointed out positive aspects of my management skills that had never occurred to me. He also complained to our President about this manager on my behalf. Whether the President ever followed up with this manager or not I will never know; the manager does continue to cause problems in our department and throughout the company on a weekly basis. I have learned to be more empathetic towards this manager, but am still careful in my dealings with her and watch for signs she is having a bad day.

Does anyone else have advice for anonymous, if so please chime in?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A follow-up to: "How to break out of a slump"

Last week, I wrote about my recent slump and discussed how to break out of one. Throughout the week, I came across a couple of inspirational posts which provided further thought and introspection:

Trent at The Simple Dollar posted a question from Mark who wonders, "Is this all there is?" Mark is a 37 year old CPA in the midst of a mini mid-life crisis. Over the years he has had various goals, such as graduate college, earn his CPA license, get a great job etc. Most of them were achievable within just a few short years. His next goal is to become debt free and he’s come to the realization that it will take some time for that to happen. Beyond that, the only real goal he has for himself is retirement and that is pretty far down the road. He asks Trent "Is this all there is?"

Trent responds with:
If all of the things we’re looking forward to in life are shrouded in the far-off future, we’re left with little to look forward to in the short term. This, unsurprisingly, leads to unhappiness. We feel aimless. We wonder if this is all there is in life. And sometimes we can become depressed. (This pretty much sums up what I've been going through)

The solution, I’ve found, is to keep busy in the short term, both with short term things and with smaller projects that fit in as part of the bigger goals I have in life.

He offers these suggestions:
Develop – and accomplish – month-long projects.
Seek out smaller projects (one to three months) that fit in the context of your larger goals.
Find a personal passion or hobby to channel yourself into.

Here are some additional awesome suggestions I found in the post's comments:

Every morning, take time to review the day and see what you have to look forward to. Try to schedule something every day.

New goals are the answer.

So, this is an occasion to revisit your values and convictions first, and then move forward with your goals armed with a sense of who you are.

I think Matthew needs to define what his life is all about. I recommend writing his obituary as it would read today if he passed. Then write it again. Only the second time, write the one that he would want written. He may find something that he can focus his life on or some goals that haven’t been fulfilled.

This has nothing to do with having a far off goal. It means his goals are not satisfying his internal needs. Even if he retires wealthy, he will still have this same emptiness unless he is focused on something that drives him – his true passion.

I also think you missed the real need of the writer, Trent. He doesn’t need to break down his empty, existentially unsatisfying goals into even smaller ones. He needs a goal broad and deep enough to satisfy him. He’s not going to find it in personal finance.

So what did I learn from all of this?
I spent time thinking about my own goals, values and convictions. I liked the recommendation to write your own obituary the way you would like it to be written. My first thought was I'd like to be remembered for helping others.  I am reminded of one of my favorite blog posts of all time, Tom McMahon wrote, "Everybody wants to help Save The Earth, but nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes." I know I don't have to accomplish huge undertakings like winning the Nobel Peace Prize, but I would like my endeavors to be more helpful than encouraging my company's vendors to fill our orders despite our inability to pay for them on a timely basis.

I may not be a successful CFO or work for a major Fortune 500 company, but I am helping one little company survive this economic downturn. And I do help people every day; just by being approachable I help many of my co-workers by answering their questions, offering advice or just listening to their problems and ideas.

I have a dream of some day working for a not for profit, teaching financial literacy or possibly assisting women entrepreneurs manage their company's finances. I've never pursued these goals, thinking I don't have enough time; I need more experience or maybe even more education. What I can do to incorporate these goals into my life on a weekly or monthly basis? I could write posts pertaining to these topics each week on my blog, volunteer at agencies providing these services; attend community events, lectures and classes all with my long term goals in mind. As far as helping others, if I really look I am sure I could find numerous opportunities to help others in some small way every day.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

How to pull yourself out of a slump

Several years ago, I fell into a slump immediately upon receiving the results of my CPA exam; I had passed only one section, meaning I had to take the entire exam over again. Fortunately soon afterwards, I came across an Ask E. Jean advice column in Elle Magazine that went something like this:

Dear E. Jean,
I am miserable. I don’t have a boyfriend. The apartment I live in is a dump; I have a lousy job and rarely go out. I spend all of my free time reading romance novels and dreaming of the life I will someday have. A life where my "night in shining armor" will swoop down and rescue me from my miserable life. He will be a romantic who enjoys eating dinner by candlelight and sending me flowers. Eventually we will marry and live happily ever after with our two kids in a house with a big yard and a white picket fence. What can I do to make this life happen?
Miserable

Dear Miserable,
Take a lesson from single men. How many of them sit home reading romance novels? Instead they, along with their single buddies, spend their free time participating in competitive sports. Get moving. Join a softball or volleyball league. And read difficult books. Men don’t read romance novels; they read difficult books. Read Jane Austen and Emily Bronte. Instead of pining for a man to buy you flowers buy yourself a plant and put it in your apartment window. Stop dreaming about life and start living it. Your dreams will follow.

Miserable’s circumstances may have been different than mine, but I still found E. Jean’s advice motivating. I had a couple of months before I needed to begin the daunting task of studying for the exam again, to break out of my slump I decided to just do something. I signed up for golf and tennis lessons; I read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudiceand planted a container herb garden that I placed in my apartment window. It worked. When the time came to begin studying I felt refreshed and able to take on the task.

Now once again, I find myself in a slump, the economy has taken a toll on the company where I work; I received a pay cut. Home and auto repair have put a dent in my savings. Dreams of travel, plans of early retirement or pursuing a different line of work have all been placed on hold. Suddenly, finding a new job in a more stable industry has taken precedence over finding the right job and getting my ducks in a row. My not quite right resume continues to go out unnoticed. My favorite recruiter resigned. I used to complain about everything always being the same; now everything is the same only worse than the same. How do I pull myself out of this slump?

Here are a couple of inspirational blog posts I’ve found offering ideas on breaking out of a slump:

John at Pick the Brain wrote an informative post explaining why we lose motivation. He writes:

There are 3 primary reasons we lose motivation.
Lack of confidence – If you don’t believe you can succeed, what’s the point in trying?
Lack of focus – If you don’t know what you want, do you really want anything?
Lack of direction – If you don’t know what to do, how can you be motivated to do it?
(This pretty much sums up how I've been feeling)

When his motivation starts to wane he:
Regains direction by creating a plan that contains two positive actions. The first one should be a small task you’ve been meaning to do, while the second should be a long-term goal. I immediately do the smaller task. This creates positive momentum. After that I take the first step towards achieving the long-term goal. Doing this periodically is great for getting out of a slump, creating positive reinforcement, and getting long-term plans moving.

Gretchen Rubin author of the Happiness Project provides some quick ways to boost happiness in her interview with CBS:

Get enough sleep.
Go for a walk.

Make your bed each day. (This is a great suggestion when you need to just do something)

Morrison at the former blog All Doors Considered believes “The Great Recession” is over. Business at her small company has picked up and her DH's friends are back to work (at lower paying jobs of course, but at least they are working). She has decided to rebuild herself and offers these steps:

#1. Start on yourself. When you look good, you feel good about yourself and life improves.
#2. Put your house in order. When you live well, you feel well and you start to live better.
#3. Rebuild your finances. With banks paying 1.5%, The Feds paying 0% on most bonds and Wall Street still without new regulations, this is going to be most difficult.

Janie at How I got out of $26,000 debt before getting married offers a 100 day challenge. She realized as of September 23rd there are only 100 days left in 2009 and thought it would be amazing to see how much she could accomplish in the last 100 days of the year. Starting on September 23, 2009 she gives everyone a little financial knowledge building challenge to complete each day. A daily challenge for 100 days is guaranteed to offer a couple of inspirational ideas.

It is sometimes easier to see what others need to do than for me to see what I need to do myself. My friend Alyssa has been talking about going back to school forever, but has never enrolled in even one class. When I asked her why, she said she didn’t want to take a class until she knew exactly what area of study she was going to pursue. It is easy for me to see she needs to take a class (any class) and see what happens from there.

For myself, I was telling a peer in my professional organization about my company’s dismal outlook. She recommended I contact every member I talk to regularly; tell them I’ve begun a job search and ask them to keep there eyes open. There, perhaps I have step one.

The message I take from all of this is the first step in breaking out of a slump is to just do something. It may not be the right thing or the perfect thing, but you need to start somewhere.

How do you pull yourself out of a slump?

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Tips for getting motivated



Sunday, September 20, 2009

Someone sprayed Roundup on our company's green shoots.

Last week, my boss asked if I would be willing to accept an additional 5% salary reduction on top of the 8% reduction I received in June. He jokingly said, “Someone has sprayed Roundup on our company’s green shoots meaning the sales forecast and budget he prepared in May has become unattainable. He asked that I discuss this with my husband to see if we could work the additional pay-cut into our budget. If I refused, he would be forced to place our department’s hourly employees on a weekly one-day furlough. He was reluctant to do this because none of the other departments were reducing their hourly employee’s hours or salary at this time.

Why has he made this request?
My company’s year-to-date sales are down 50% over last year and we have lost money every month this year. Cash is running out; if expenses are not reduced immediately we will no longer have enough cash to operate on a daily basis. Also, if we continue status quo we will most likely not meet our bank’s loan covenant for the third year in a row.

Loan covenants are conditions the borrower must comply with in order to adhere to the terms in their loan agreement. If the borrower does not act in accordance with the covenants, the loan can be considered in default and the lender has the right to demand payment (usually in full).

My company’s loan covenant requires the company maintain a specific level of equity in the business and earn a specified amount of profit each year. There is a strong possibility; especially in this economy our bank will cancel our company’s line of credit if we do not meet the covenant again this year. If this happens the company will be out of business.

Why doesn’t my company just look for a new bank?
Again, because of the current economy and because of our company’s last two year’s of poor financial results the owners are skeptical of their ability to find another bank who will take them.

Effective immediately, the company has gone into survival mode. Everything and everyone is on the table. Each department head was given a fixed dollar amount of reductions they must attain on a monthly basis.

Initially, I didn’t take my boss’s salary reduction request well and expressed my displeasure. I felt it was unfair of him to ask me to take another reduction while others in my department and throughout the organization remained unaffected; a 13% pay-cut is a lot considering I wasn’t exactly overpaid to begin with. He could at least have offered to give me something in return for my sacrifice, i.e. additional time off. Plus, I felt his request was putting me in an uncomfortable position; if I say no he will be forced to reduce my co-workers hours. Why did I have to be the bad guy?

What happened?
All of the other departments came up with their allotted reductions by laying-off employees. My department was unable to lay anyone off because every position is needed.

My husband told me I had to accept the reduction, but before I could do so my boss came into my office and said, “You can’t kick a cat on one side then turn around and kick him on the other before he has a chance to stand up.” (He really said this.) He withdrew my salary reduction request and placed the three hourly employees in our department on a one day furlough two weeks a month. They will be able to apply unused vacation pay to their day off if they choose.

What have I learned from this?
Nothing in life is guaranteed including a negotiated salary. Prior to the “Great Recession,” I never would have fathomed so many companies would be forced to issue salary reductions in order to survive.

Life is never going to be 100% fair.
Who you know really is more important than what you know. Favoritism came into play during this round of cost reductions. The employee who is a friend of the boss was not affected nor was the administrative assistant who dates her boss. Neither employee is overly busy. Everyone including myself and my boss found this to be unfair.

Sometimes you need to look out for yourself; no one else is going to.
My boss came to me first because it was easier for him to have me take a second-cut than to approach his other employees. When did he plan on reinstating my salary and to what amount? One of the other managers in the company, who did accept a second salary reduction, insisted on a specific time frame. He agreed to the second reduction for a period of six months.

This isn’t a good time to become less visible; working remotely may not be the best idea in this economy.
Three months ago, an employee in our corporate office returned to his parents home four hours away and began working remotely. This week, he was given the option of returning to our office or accepting a permanent lay-off. He accepted the lay-off. Managers like to see their employees working; if they can’t see you they may conclude you aren’t busy. Plus, it is harder to stay on top of what is going on in your department or to volunteer for extra projects when you aren’t present to hear about them.

Some people will always offer inappropriate advice.
After relaying my troubles to my neighbor, who was standing in my driveway when I returned from work the day of my boss’s reduction request, she offered me a job working at her husband’s company completely unrelated to what I do. I do still have a job; I am not yet ready to consider an entry level position in a completely different field. A better response would have been to ask what type of work I was looking for and to offer to keep her eyes open. This incident reminded me of Revanche from A Gai Shan Life recent post, “10 no 11 worst things to say to someone who was recently laid off.”

It was a very difficult and sad week for everyone involved including the managers who had to make these difficult decisions. The final tally: ten managers received a second salary reduction, eight employees lost their jobs, one employee lost his guaranteed overtime, one employee’s full-time position became part-time and three employees had their hours reduced. I did tell my boss he could put me at the top of the list for a salary reduction, if the company needs to go to round three, but I hope to find a new job before that happens. I know what occurred this week was not my company's fault and was entirely due to the economy, but I think I need to go into my own survival mode and seriously start looking for another job.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Ten nonfiction books that help us understand the world

A few years ago, I read Anna Quindlen’s little book, How Reading Changed My Life. In the back of her book she includes a series of book lists one of which is titled, “Ten nonfiction books that help us understand the world.” Here is Quindlen’s list in its entirety:

1. The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon

2. The Best & the Brightest by David Halberstam

3. Lenin’s Tomb by David Remnick

4. Lincoln by David Herbert Donald

5. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

6. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

7. How we Die by Sherwin Nuland

8. The Unredeemed Captive by John Demos

9. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

10. The Power Broker by Robert Caro

Recently, I read Tom Bissell’s book, The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnamfor Citizen Reader's Book Menage. While reading the book, I kept thinking this book belongs on my list of books that helped me understand the world. The book is actually a memoir about Bissell’s relationship with his father, a Vietnam veteran, but he includes a substantial amount of historical data that he blends in with his travelogue (he returns to Vietnam with his father 40 years after his father left) and family biography. He includes the politics and history surrounding the war, incorporates many of its debates; whether the war was winnable, what Ho Chi Minh’s real motivations were and why America’s leaders lied so often and even touches on how the war has continued to influence American views on foreign policy more than thirty years later.

I admit, I had read very little about the Vietnam War prior to reading this book and was too young to comprehend the war when I was growing up. This book has given me a better understanding of the Vietnam War, its aftermath and Vietnam itself.

To date I can think of only one other book I would add to my list:

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies:
Jared Diamond explores why certain societies were able to develop and dominate over others. He argues it was more about environmental factors; being born in the right place at the right time than intelligence and ingenuity. This book gave me a greater understanding of human history and how the modern world came to be.

In Henry Alford's book "How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth)," Charlotte one of Alford's interviewees has an epiphany moment when she read historian Chalmers Johnson’s The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. “Previously, I thought I was well-informed,” she said, “but I had no idea the extent to which the defense department runs the government." I'm sure this book is on her list of books that helped her understand the world.

I'm curious what books have helped you understand the world?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Discovering my strengths

I first heard of the Internet based StrengthsFinder Profile when Jane Pauley mentioned taking it in her book, "Skywriting: A Life Out of the Blue."

She wrote:
“I’d been reading books about management and organizations for a long time, recreationally. On our February trip to Boca Raton, my sister recommended Now, Discover Your Strengths, by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton, who argue that it’s far more productive to develop a strength than to strengthen a weakness. A provocative idea—assuming I had strengths. I was dubious.

I went online and, with the pass-code that came with the book, registered and answered the questions. Experts call it a “testing instrument”—it’s not apparent to a layperson like me how the questions produce accurate results. Instantly, I got mine and my first thought was that I didn’t recognize this person they said I was.”

I was intrigued that Jane was surprised by her results, perhaps her struggles with bipolar disorder contributed to this surprise, but then even Peter Drucker felt few people could articulate their areas of strength. When I noticed Now, Discover Your Strengths was listed as one of Jack Covert's "100 Best Business Books of All Time," I decided I had to buy this book and take this test.

You do need a NEW copy of the book. If you get a used copy, the key provided in the book will NOT enable you to take the online assessment.

I ended up purchasing Tom Rath's book Strengths Finder 2.0 instead of Now, Discover Your Strengths because it included a new upgraded edition of the StrengthsFinder assessment. It also came with a more customized version of the top 5 themes (strengths) report and 50 ideas for action (10 strategies for building on each of your top 5 themes). Both books are based on the same premise you are more productive developing your strengths than strengthening a weakness.

A strength is different from a skill. A talent or strength is something you're naturally good at, while a skill is something you learn over time by building skills and knowledge. Buckingham’s definition of a strength is something you’re pulled toward and want to do. When you’re doing it, you’re highly engaged. You’re curious about how you can do it better. When you’re finished, you feel energized and want to do it again. Once you shape your work and life in ways that use your natural talents, you will make yourself more effective, productive and happy.

What are my top 5 strengths?

Learner
You have a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve. In particular, the process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites you.

Input
You have a craving to know more. Often you like to collect and archive all kinds of information.

Context
You enjoy thinking about the past. You understand the present by researching its history.

Intellection
You are characterized by your intellectual activity. You are introspective and appreciate intellectual discussions.

Individualization
You are intrigued with the unique qualities of each person and have a gift for figuring out how people who are different can work together productively.

Initially, I was not pleased with the results of my assessment. My first reaction was "I thought this assessment was going to teach me something I didn’t know." I was hoping my strengths would be a little more glamorous. The above so called talents were the same traits I’ve been trying to overcome since I was the geeky uncool nerd in high school. I shut my computer off in disgust.

Most upsetting was the talent "Input;" my collection of facts, quotes, and lists of books is a strength? I never considered myself a collector of things even if it is lists of books or favorite quotes. Also, I was surprised I wasn’t an "Analyzer" (I am an accountant) instead I am this context individualizer. I always hated this part of myself. I tend to think it makes me seem obsessed; like I just can’t let things go.

The aftermath:
Acceptance ~ I took the assessment in May. Over the past couple of months, I thought and read more about my 5 strengths and gradually began to accept them as who I really am. If I strip away all the layers of what I think I am supposed to be along with what I aspire to be my 5 themes really are the talents that I am really drawn to.

It turns out INPUT is a great strength to have if you are a writer, artist, or another type of creative. INPUT can keep you fresh. It might be a great strength for a “Blogger.”

Also, this isn’t the first time I've seen "Learner" listed as my top strength. Back in 2002, I took the free VIA online survey which gives an immediate report of character strengths in top-down order with a brief description of each strength.

My top 3 strengths from the VIA survey were:
Love of learning
Industry, diligence, and perseverance
Judgment, critical thinking, and open-mindedness

I retook this survey last week. The results for my top three strengths were identical to the 2002 results.

I wonder if #3 is another way of describing "Individualization?"

My weaknesses:
I have to admit I do spend a lot of time trying to develop my weaknesses. No matter how hard I try I will never naturally be a "Commander." A commander is someone who has presence, takes control of a situation and makes decisions. This explains why I sometimes struggle in my role as Accounting Manager and why I found being the President of my professional association a difficult task. I had to push myself to lead the group and make the difficult decisions. The reality is that in any area where we’re truly weak you can climb from pathetic up to really bad, but no matter how much you work at it, you don’t really improve.

A new career or answering the question of are you in the right career is not the assessment’s intended purpose. It is designed to be used as a performance enhancer:
I can use my results to better enhance my career; when seeking out a new position I am going to look for more of a supervisor role that focuses on teaching and individualization rather than a senior level "Commander" management role. Or perhaps I'll forego management altogether and become an expert in one particular accounting area.

I am most successful when I partner with people who have complementary strengths:
“Learners” love research and learning for the sake of learning. For me, results matter less than the experience of learning. My immediate boss is clearly “Analytical.” He searches for reasons and causes and has the ability to think about all the factors that might affect a situation. Between the two of us we take forever to get something done. I work much better when I work directly with our President. He is an “Achiever.” Achievers thrive on getting things done. They are driven by accomplishing things. “Learners” and “Achievers” complement each other well and together succeed like they might not as individuals.

Bottom line:
Based on my experience, I think Peter Drucker is correct; few people can articulate their areas of strength. Trying to discover my own strengths has not been an easy process or very effective. So many career books I’ve read in the past, Lawler Kang’s Passion at Work: How to Find Work You Love and Live the Time of Your Life comes to mind, instruct you to perform an exercise or two then assumes you’ve discovered your life’s passion. Now, I finally feel as though I have a baseline of strengths to draw from to continue my process of "Getting my Ducks in a Row."

If you have any interest in discovering your own strengths, I highly recommend taking the StrengthsFinder Profile or at the very least checking out the free VIA online survey. If you do so, please share your experience in the comments or post a link to your own blog post.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Unplugging Electronics; how much does it really save?

After reading electronic devices continue to draw electricity from the socket even when not in use, I began unplugging our phone chargers, microwave, toaster and coffee maker each morning. I’ve wondered how much if any money this is really saving me. After watching this video, I now estimate my efforts to be worth less than $5 a year. Watch the video and see what you think. Is it worth it?

Click here to play video

FYI, if I purchased the electricity meter shown in the video it would take 6 years of continuous unplugging to make up for the $30 purchase price.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The "repair vs. replace" decision

Last weekend, my dryer stopped working; I'd push the start button and nothing would happen. We checked the cord to make sure it was plugged in properly, the circuit breaker and all of the connections. Everything seemed to be in order.

We were then faced with the “repair vs. replace” decision. Several years ago, my husband repaired a used late 70's model dryer that went on to last ten more years. Encouraged by this experience and sensing there really wasn't anything seriously wrong with the dryer we decided to get it repaired.

The repairman initially found our dryer’s problem perplexing. He knew it wasn't taking in enough voltage, but couldn’t figure out why. He too checked all the connections, discovering the problem only after performing a diagnostic test. A couple of wires on the inside terminal block had come loose. Apparently, this happens over time. The cost to fix the wiring was $10. The cost for the diagnostic test was $79. Total cost with tax $94. It seemed a little high for a couple of loose wires, but my husband feels any repair bill under $100 isn’t too bad.

After he left my first thought was could we have fixed it ourselves? I played around on this site, but was unable to find the correct solution to the problem. Plus, if the repairman was perplexed, I doubt my hubby would have figured it out.

That was all great until this weekend. Our dryer now starts, but it no longer provides any heat. So, here we are again faced with the “repair vs. replace” decision. We received this dryer three years ago from my mother-in-law when she moved out of her home. No one knows for sure how old this dryer is, but estimate it’s at least 15 years old. We found the average life of a dryer to be 13 years on this site.

We called the repairman asking for his recommendation. He said the problem could be the element, the switch or the timer. Over the years he has seen two outcomes; he repairs the switch then two weeks later the timer goes. Or he repairs the switch and nothing else goes wrong for another 5 years. In our case, since we think the dryer is at least 15 years old he recommends buying a new dryer. He did suggest testing the dryer on a different dry cycle with an empty dryer.

Of course that didn’t work either. It looks like we wasted $94; hopefully we can make it up on a new more energy efficient dryer.

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Control what you can

Sunday, August 09, 2009

An update on "I hate my supervisor"

Towards the end of last year, I wrote a post, "I hate my supervisor" about Alyssa who was having difficulties with her supervisor. She had asked:

Two years ago I was promoted to a different department within my company. I love what I do and have been performing very well. The problem is my supervisor; I hate her and she hates me. She inherited me as a subordinate when my department merged with hers last January. Things got pretty bad earlier this year, forcing me to file a harassment suit against her. HR performed an investigation and determined no harassment had occurred. They did, however, send her to an all day training seminar. Since then, we both go out of our way to avoid each other, but I am constantly on edge thinking she is plotting to get rid of me. My old department has sought me out and offered me my old job back. I hate the idea of giving up my current position, and salary, yet the thought of working for this woman another minute literally makes me ill. What should I do?

What subsequently occurred?

Alyssa
In February, Alyssa resigned from this position and went back to her old job in her former department. She was able to negotiate, a higher salary than what she had been making before (though still a pay cut from her promotion) and better hours. She is a little bored in this position, but is happy to have a job and to be rid of her toxic supervisor.

Her former supervisor
Her supervisor’s job was eliminated effective June 30th. She was told on a Friday, and escorted out the door.

Her former co-workers
The co-workers Alyssa left behind when she returned to her former department have also lost their jobs. Their department has been revamped and all of their positions eliminated. They have been given three options:

1. Leave the company; there is a severance package.
2. Apply for a scaled down version of their job, for less pay.
3. Find another job in the company; i.e. move to Alyssa’s department. They have been offered the same flexible schedule and salary that Alyssa received. (Three of the eight have gone this route).

Bottom Line
It has been my experience that bad managers are eventually weeded out, but it seems to take upper management close to two years to discover and be rid of a problem manager while the lowly ranks who work for them recognize the problems and shortcomings of their new manager within a couple of months. In the meantime, everyone including the company as a whole suffer.

For a good book on dealing with jerks in the workplace, check out Robert Sutton's The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Target Date Funds are not a "Magic Bullet"

My boss, the administrator of our company’s 401(k) plan, fearing fiduciary liability refuses to give our employees investment advice. Instead, he steers them towards our plan's target date funds. Much to his surprise, he recently discovered these funds are not the panacea they appeared to be.

A target date fund is simply a mutual fund with an asset allocation construed with a particular retirement date in mind. If you think you will retire in 10 years, you would pick a 2020 target date fund, with 2020 being roughly the year you plan to retire. It is the fund managers responsibility to reallocate your account from stocks to bonds automatically as your retirement date approaches, becoming progressively more conservative. These funds typically hold a mix of stocks, bonds and cash and will often include an allocation to foreign equities as well.

The latest economic downturn has revealed these funds are not a “magic bullet;” the reality is most of them are badly flawed and inappropriately allocated.

The problems include:
1. The asset allocation strategies and “glide path” vary dramatically among these funds.
No two target date funds invest the same way for the same retirement date. In fact, that's a major problem with them - take any two 2010 target-date funds and you may find one is 15% in stocks and the other is 60% in stocks. That makes a world of difference for someone retiring in 2010.

According to Tom Idzorek, chief investment officer and director of research at Ibbotson Associates, a Morningstar subsidiary, target-date funds differ dramatically in asset mix and in "glide path" — the rate at which the asset mix changes over time. "Participants who rely on date alone to choose a fund can have much more exposure to market volatility than they realize. Indeed, the percentage of equities in 2010 target-date funds ranges from 14% to 65%.

A target-date index created by Dow Jones determined a firm's asset class allocation for 2010 target-date funds should be around 27 percent in equities.

Performance statistics found in Morningstar indicate:
-2010
-The 2008 performance of target date funds ranged from -3.6% to -41.8%
-The 2008 average return -24.3%

-2020
-The 2008 performance of target date funds ranged from -31.1% to -41.8%
-The 2008 average return -37.9%

-The 2008 S&P 500 Index was -37.3%.

2. Many target date funds are stocked with mediocre funds:
Virtually all of these funds are made up of stock and bond funds within the same sponsoring fund family. Fund companies don't have a broad enough lineup of good funds to offer solid target funds so instead they use their lower rated funds that aren’t selling on their own knowing the typical target fund investor won’t probe deeper.

3. Higher fees:
Fees are higher because you are investing in target date funds that own other funds. Not only do you incur the fees of the target-date fund itself, but also the asset-weighted average of the management fees of the underlying funds.

4. One Size Doesn't Fit All:
The premise behind target date funds is that investors are supposed to place all their retirement savings into a single target date fund because one target date fund owns many other funds mixed together to form a specific asset allocation. They are not designed to be used in conjunction with other outside funds. They do not take into consideration a spouse’s 401(k), any other investments, risk tolerance or the actual date you plan on withdrawing your money which may differ from your retirement date.

When asked about my company 401k’s target fund, my financial planner immediately pointed out the above and insisted he could allocate my money more appropriately.

Investors have flocked to these funds ever since they began popping up in 401(k) plans. 40 % of defined contribution plans have target based funds and they are the most common default investment. The demand for target date funds stems from a lack of consumer investment knowledge. The typical consumer is increasingly responsible for funding his or her own retirement and is in dire need of guidance.

“Employees are most confused about how to allocate their investments.”
-401(k) Benchmarking Survey

What is a 401(k) plan sponsor to do?
Education that includes individual meetings and personalized communications are now cited as the most effective strategy for plan success. But beware, such specialized communication usually comes with a fee and one thing our 401(k) plans do not need is another fee.

The bottom line when investing your money; you can’t get away from being responsible for your own retirement. The best advice I can give is if your company provides individual education take advantage of it. It they don't, do the best you can to get your own advice. Visit a fee-only financial planner. Many offer a free consultation. Clark Howard recommends you go to napfa.org to find a fee-only financial planner in your area. He suggests you interview three planners so you are comfortable with their way of investing. Also, get referrals from family and friends.

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Lesson of the week: "It is impossible to please everyone"

I’ve been a member of a professional organization for the past 12 years and a board member for 10 of those 12 years. During my tenure, I have held many positions including President. Last year, I took a much needed break after running a major event and was surprised to discover after a couple months how much I missed my board involvement. This year I volunteered to be co-program chair, one of my favorite positions. Our annual planning meeting was this week. It appeared to be a successful meeting; my co-program chair and I presented what we thought was an interesting line-up of CPE topics for the year that were well received.

The morning after the planning meeting, I received the following email from a fellow board member:

Another thought (please take it as constructive), some of the topics, Linked In, Word, other computer related topics are great for those of us GenX and older, but the students/recent grads can probably give some of this training. It probably wouldn't be attractive to them, so if we could do those early on and have more career related topics after student night, that might attract a newer audience?

My first thought was, it is too early in the year for me to get upset about the “never satisfied.” My second thought was, if members have a genuine gripe with the CPE line-up it is still early enough to tweak the schedule, so I emailed my co-program chair asking her opinion. She responded with:

Finding speakers is hard enough, I’m certainly not going to say oh we’re sorry, we want you for a different month now because your topic isn’t quite ‘rock’n’ enough.

And to her point about computer-related and the college kids could teach us something….well if it were about face-book, twitter or blogging probably, but any real-world applications, definitely not. I’ve been in the business world longer than I care to admit and I’m learning things through my ‘new job’ about Excel that I didn’t know were possible. You don’t learn how to spin/pivot/manipulate data in a classroom like you do behind a desk.

(Sorry I’m cranky this morning, I think I need another cup of coffee)

My take on this is, you and I will take guidance on what people want and ‘try’ to accommodate, but in the end you and I find the speakers.

Whether it is planning the menu for a dinner party, preparing the exercise class schedule at the gym, or even deciding what topic to blog about I have come to the conclusion it is impossible to please everyone, all you can do is try to accommodate the majority or in the case of blogging please yourself (why blog about something you are not passionate about). Also, after ten years of active board involvement I am surprised that I am still continuously learning decision making, leadership and management skills. I firmly believe I would not learn nearly as much if I were not an active member.

"If you're trying to please everyone, then you're not going to make anything that is honestly yours, I don't think, in the long run.” Viggo Mortensen

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Monday, July 20, 2009

"Girl on her way." Relevant lyrics for a mid-life birthday.

I couldn't help but be moved by the following lyrics on Maia Sharp's new song, "Girl on Her Way:"
“How long can she be the girl on her way before she’s just the woman who never got there? How far can she ride the dream of some day?"
I discovered Maia Sharp last week when I heard this interview on NPR. Maia, the daughter of country songwriter Randy Sharp, has been in the music business most of her life. Her songs have been covered by the Dixie Chicks, Bonnie Raitt, Carole King, Cher, Trisha Yearwood, and Mindy Smith. She just released her fourth album, "Echo."

Sharp says, “Since her first album in 1997, she has seen a lot of close calls.” After many brushes with success, she feels Echo is more of an "arrival than an on-the-way. This album, of all my albums, I feel like it has the most truth in it," Sharp says. "I feel like there's some truth in every song. The last song is the truest of all, but I feel great having written it and gotten it out of my brain and my stomach and onto the album. It's really the most cathartic song that I think I've ever written."

"Girl on Her Way," features just Sharp and a piano. It's a poignant, crushing song about expectation and people who are expected to do great things, but fall short. This song will strike a cord with anyone who thought they’d have made it by now or expected more out of their life. It is especially relevant today, as I am yet another year closer to 50 than I am to 40; a fact that my friend’s daughter is all too willing to point out ever since she learned rounding in school.

Then again, Gretchen Rubin did have a valid point when she made “The days are long, but the years are short” one of her “Splendid Truths.” Perhaps instead of concentrating on the “what ifs,” I should focus on what I have achieved and appreciate where I am today; which really isn't that far off from my original dreams.

Also, happy birthday wishes to Sarah Statz Cords of Citizen Reader.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Is it me or is it the Crate & Barrel Table Runner?

I will be the first to admit my interior decorating/housekeeping skills are not exactly on par with Martha Stewarts, but I can’t help wondering if this latest episode is entirely the result of my inadequacy. Last year, I received a gift of hand painted candle holders and have been searching for a table decoration to display them with ever since. A few weeks ago, I found this table runner at Crate & Barrel. The flowered pattern is a perfect match.

After removing the runner from its tightly wrapped plastic packaging, I noticed it was deeply creased. The label indicated the runner was made of cotton; its embroidery made of rayon, so I set my iron on low and began ironing. It wasn’t long before little iron marks started appearing in addition to the creases. Thinking I was ruining my new table runner, I searched the internet for: “How to iron rayon"

On the purse blog I found:

Never iron rayon right side out without a pressing cloth to protect it. Rayon will gain a shine to it if you iron it directly. Either iron the inside of the garment or use a pressing cloth on the outside.

I then ironed the runner from its back side and placed a cloth on its right side while ironing the top. After about twenty minutes the creases remained as well as the little iron marks, only now the runner also refused to lay flat. I quit. Even my husband thought it looked worse than before I had started.

I complained to my more domestic friends, asking if I should take the runner to the dry cleaners. They recommended I steam it or better yet take it back to Crate and Barrel and have them steam it.

Since I don’t own a steamer, I called the store where I had purchased the runner explaining the crease problem. The sales associate’s first comment was all of our table runners are packaged like that (I hadn’t asked; apparently she has had this complaint before). She suggested I wash it then iron it. When I politely asked if by chance the store could steam it for me she responded with:

"Well, you can’t come in today we are too busy (I hadn't intended on going in today). We need to focus on our in-store customers."

And

“If you give us your phone number we'll call you when it is a good time."

Hello. Aren’t I a customer? Although, I am seriously considering never being one again. Also, I work full time and can’t exactly run to the mall when it is convenient for them. And finally, was it really necessary to package the table runner tightly in fancy plastic packaging (which I’m sure cost me at least an extra five bucks). I can't imagine too many customers appreciating the extra work.

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