Archive for March, 2009

Monday mornings can be foggy all by themselves, but the morning after vacation can be completely gloomy. We all look forward to taking vacations; I’m back just today after 9 days off. My problem has always been gracefully exiting the workplace just before the time off and again entering back in.

NOT working is a harder subject for me than working has ever been. We won’t talk about the tornadic activity that accompanied my departure last Friday, but I’d like to share 10 steps to getting back into the groove with composure in tact:

1. if out of town, always come back a day early to unwind
2. don’t listen to messages on Sunday night in “anticipation” of Monday’s return
3. prepare lunches/dinners for a few days out and keep it simple
4. shower and set out clothes the night before
5. wake up an hour earlier than usual
6. type up a quick list of thoughts off the top of your head
7. don’t skip breakfast
8. walk into the office smiling and keep the chit chat to a minimum
9. close your door and breathe; unless you’re the Kremlin, it’s not world peace
10. take one little bite at a time
11. (bonus) if you forgot you had an article to write, sit down and knock it out while enjoying your morning coffee (another reason why that extra hour is so important)

I know, none of this is rocket science but getting back into the swing of things and having your family and co-workers happy to be around you are two totally different matters. Know your limitations, your boundaries and your “have to’s” for the day. Go easy on yourself and others. Don’t work late your first day back, but make every minute of that day count. Don’t skip meals or breaks. Take time to laugh and share a funny moment of vacation, but stay focused.

If you’re not a work-aholic this advice is not for you; but if you sometimes struggle with knowing when to quit or even how to quit, you get it. And in case you’re wondering, this is a reminder to me from me, with love, as I head back into the office today. Wish me luck!

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I don’t have kids so it’s easy for me to say.  I know it sounds harsh, but if I did have kids I’d really rather know.  So often in business we are forced to work with people who won’t go to that place of, “tell it like it is.”  I’m not suggesting you lose all regard and respect for common decency, I am saying be the person who’s known for telling the good, the bad and the ugly.  It’s a place you’ll share with few, but be respected by many. None of us want to hear bad news, but quite frankly once we hear it we can then begin to process it and even resolve it.

Here’s my story of how I learned a very important lesson in being forthright.  I was a rookie mortgage banker back in 2002.  Business was booming until about April of 2004 when the rates began to climb…had I even known enough to panic, I would have.  Instead I plodded along for another couple of weeks…that’s when the panic set in.  You see in the world of mortgages, you gamble daily on whether the rates are going up or down.  And you hope that you lock-in on the “good day” when they’re down so your clients are happy.  And when your clients are happy, everybody’s happy.  I had about 40 loans in the pipeline as they call it and hadn’t locked about 15 of them.  There’s a 50/50 rule on both the customer and the banker to agree upon and lock rates, but you can’t blame a customer when you’re equally as responsible.   Did I mention that rates were climbing?  I didn’t sleep.  I was worried and was bombarded with phone calls and emails from people asking me what rate they were locked in at…this went on for two weeks and I was just sick.

Finally, one night at about 7:30 I couldn’t take it anymore and decided to email all of the clients who were out there “dangling.”  It went something like this, “…for all we have been through as a nation since 9/11, that one quarter of a percent on an interest rate is insignificant compared to the state of this world.”  Then I went on to say, “…I will honor the rates you are expecting by taking shortages to keep my promises.”  I closed my eyes and hit the “send” button.  I felt relieved.

The next day, I was flooded with emails from customers telling me that they’d split the difference with me, or that they’ll take the eighth higher, of course some simply said, “OK.” By the end of that day that email would cost me nearly $16,000 and I only had $8,000 to work with.  I called my bosses boss and explained to him what had happened, how I handled it and then I quit talking.  He didn’t think twice about it; he picked up the difference, even chuckled at the mess I was in, called it a “split” then actually thanked me for my candor.

It was my willingness to go there that saved those loans.  Facing the customers wasn’t the hard part, it was all the drama I created leading up to the confrontation that was grueling.  While I didn’t have a very fruitful April, I did close over 30 loans.  Some of them even became repeat customers.  That year I was the top producer in the State of Tennessee…by only a few loans…ones I would have lost had I not been willing to tell my clients they had ugly babies.

From that experience I now have a formula for handling unwanted news:

  1. Procrastination: don’t avoid conflict, the wait is worse than reality
  2. Problems: should be dealt with up front, set the right expectations
  3. Promises: may be your only source of business integrity; keep them
  4. Planning: when organizing daily tasks, put the hard ones first; get ’em out of the way, hit your easy button and go on with your day

People really are willing to work with you if they know the facts.  And that in and of itself  is great to know.  Again, my post eludes to humility, but I have to be honest with you, prior to this incident, I avoided conflict at all costs.  I figured if I ignored it, it would eventually go away.  It never did.

Now I embrace being a “tell it like it is” person.  It makes me a better leader and a better sympathizer.  It also makes me a better manager of my time when I’m not wasting it worrying about all the “what if’s” that never come to pass.  Go ahead, tell me my baby’s ugly.  I can handle it.

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Even though there really is no “easy button” in business, I bought four of them on Tuesday at the office supply store.  Why?  Because sometimes I need a distraction to remind me that I may be the one making things difficult.  It’s my new “distractor” that makes me giggle when I hear it say, “that was easy.”  But here’s why I bought them in the first place.

I sat in my boss’s office on Monday after being called on the proverbial carpet.  He wanted to know why I was so volatile–so emotional the prior week.   The truth of the matter was that I had taken it upon myself to carry the weight of the entire staff on my shoulders.  I assumed the role of cheerleader and problem-solver all by myself.  And being the cheerleader for an entire staff is exhausting.  No wonder I was tired.  Anyway, the boss man asked me one simple question that instantly put it all into perspective, “who asked you to cheer everyone up?”  I slid back in my chair dumbfounded and smiled, then he smiled.  “No one, not one darn person” I replied, and that’s when I discovered my “easy button” powers.

The rest of my day involved some skipping and humming.  I had assumed tasks that weren’t really mine to assume.  I felt the burden of personalities and problems that weren’t mine to feel.   And now that I was relieved of my fictitious duties, I was liberated. I decided to back up my new found freedom with some questions to ask myself when I “get wrapped around the axle” again:

  1. Am I responsible for anyone’s actions or behaviors?
  2. Is anyone responsible for mine?
  3. Can I minimize the drama by recusing myself?
  4. Did anyone ask me for my help?

These are very simple questions, but sometimes after painful evaluation, we find that we are part of the problem not the solution.  It is humbling, but until we get distracted long enough to see things for what they really are, we are desperately in need of our own personal easy button.  The four I purchased last week are constant visual reminders.  And lucky for me, they have an audible reminder that reels me in as well.  They’re scattered throughout my office because I don’t want to forget this lesson.  Hopefully I will wean myself down to three soon.

None of us are immune to office politics…unless of course, we work from home.  My advice is this:

  1. take a step back whenever possible instead of diving right in to the mosh pit of office gossip
  2. insulate yourself whenever possible from the bad moods and personalities of the people around you
  3. develop your own “distractor” causing you to pause before reacting

It’s not rocket science, but I’m a 20-year professional who still gets stung by the gossip bee every now and then. Having an out-of-the-box plan in place beats not having one at all. And if you really get in a bind, I’ll have an extra easy button for sale in a few weeks.

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Life’s a dance you learn as you go, sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow…” Many a country song asks the question and delivers a dump truck load of answers.  My answer is ALWAYS, under any condition, no matter what the circumstance, do BOTH!  There are times to take the lead, remain in control and when the song is over, bow and thank your partner.  Then there are times to allow the situation to dictate the leader and gracefully twirl and curtsy when it’s over to the one who took the lead because your feet hurt so bad you needed to sit down anyway. The way I see it, I was in control in BOTH scenarios…but I learned when to take the lead and when to follow in dancing and in life.

An odd analogy, I know, but I taught country line-dancing at Disneyland in the early 90’s. Some of what I learned through teaching dance lessons I have carried with me throughout my days in business.  You see, I was twenty-something, 5′ 2″, and what others might describe as “bubbly.”  I was young and tiny and full of life. I didn’t pose a threat, but found myself “flirting” with the women to negate any preconceived notions they might have had. I needed HER to buy into the experience. I needed her to be in control. I needed her to lead the mood. So I would whisper in her ear, “he only thinks he’s leading,” then we’d giggle and across the floor we went.

In business every good leader surrounds herself with brilliant people…and sometimes we need to make our bosses feel they’re leading whether they are or not. But always, off the dance floor we appear to be in lock step. Having sour grapes is not attractive and does not bode well in business if we can’t show up to the dance in a cute pair of jeans, a smile on our face, wearing killer Stiletto’s.

Back then my objective was to create a bond with the wife first.  Instinctively, I knew the men would have fun and do what men do, so I ignored them completely!  My challenge was to engage the woman and give her an equally positive experience. My job was to make her look good and that made all the difference whether the night resulted in a great memory or a manure pile.

While line-dancing is not a life-altering activity, the lessons learned about creating allies with the wives have served me well.  It’s not manipulation, it is smart business.  So there are times now, leading is expected of me and it’s appropriate, but there are times, too, where I have to do my very best to make the rightful leader look good…and I follow (kinda) and enjoy the rhythm of the song.  We all do it, we need to embrace it. We can’t resent it because sometimes our feet really do need a well-deserved break! So as you waltz across the office floor or the dance floor, be willing to stand in the wings until you know for certain whether you are leading or following. It’s okay to do both.

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