Navigating Obligations: Keep Working

Rushing to work one morning last week, I listened to Mihir Desai talk about his new book The Wisdom of Finance: Discovering Humanity in the World of Risk and Reward. The topic is bankruptcy; the lesson: Life is chaos, and our task is to navigate through the it.  He kicked off the interview with an anecdote about American Airline’s 2011 bankruptcy filing (when the stock fell 79%):

 The first CEO said for a long time he’ll never go bankrupt, because it was his duty to make sure every obligation gets paid off. Of course, he gets dragged into bankruptcy at the very end, they switch the CEO. The second CEO comes in, restructures all the obligations, guts the pensions. But American Airlines goes on to live another day. So the idea there is, you know, who’s the hero of that story? Is it the guy who said, “I have to stand by all my obligations,” but took the company down? Or the guy who said, “I actually got to manage these conflicting obligations”?

Employees, or many of them, kept their jobs, and shareholders came out way ahead. Maybe the lady wasn’t as advertised, but she was a better option than the tiger.  So it goes with the ways we manage not just our working lives, but our personal ones as well.

Conflicting obligations come at you from all directions  

If it weren't for you

“If it weren’t for you I would have conquered the world by now.”                  

Unexpected interruptions — kids, divorce, illness, death — not to mention layoffs, separations and unplanned early retirement intrude. Financial hardship complicates things.

Living longer + Putting yourself last = Poverty 

Women are particularly vulnerable to the call of obligations. We tend to put others’ needs before our own, although perhaps this trend will shift as we evolve and more men take on caregiving responsibilities.  But as it stands now, Kerry Hanson’s “Money Worries” column is a wake-up call:

Women were 80 percent more likely than men to be impoverished at age 65 or older while women age 75 to 79 were three times more likely to fall below the poverty level than men the same age.

When I turned around after taking time off to care for my parents, I fully expected to step back into a job comparable to the one I’d left. But someone had moved that career ladder. It’s taken years, and a few unplanned twists and turns to accept where I am professionally.  I realize now that if I’d been less focused on doing everything perfectly and more on my future, I’d be in a better position financially.

Health care expanses:  A ticking time bomb 

Changes to health care policy pose a real threat to anyone over the age of 65 who does not have robust retirement savings.  Today 60 percent of the elderly in nursing homes are on Medicaid. Many have spent their savings on assisted living and residential care. Getting old is expensive. According to Hanson, a healthy 65-year old woman retiring in 2016 will pay $300,000 on Medicare premiums and out-of-pocket costs for hearing dental and vision care by the time she reaches 89.  That, of course, is in addition to living and personal care expanses.

Stay in touch with your possibilities 

Do what you need to do to keep a firm footing on that career ladder. But don’t get rattled if something knocks you off.  Expand your thinking and your network.

Desai’s interview closed with a tip of the hat to Martha Nussbaum’s “The Fragility of Goodness” and the example set by the ancient Greeks:

Fundamentally, this is about undercutting the idea that you have to follow duty. Most Greek tragedies are about people who have these conflicting obligations, and it’s a mess, and you have to navigate them. And she says that’s a good life. If you don’t have conflicting obligations, you’re doing something wrong.

So, it is as it’s always been. Keep working. Do your best; take smart risks and most of all, take care of yourself.

 

*  Cartoon is courtesy of Harry Bliss and The New Yorker, March 18, 2016.

Skills are Our Best Renewable Strategy

I recently went to the IBM Amplify conference, which was built around IBM’s cognitive offering, Watson. It was, of course, all about knowledge and skills. Although technology majored, human skills were also a theme, and I raced around trying to keep up.

Girls who code and more

IBM Chairman Ginni Rometty closed her keynote by recognizing three young women from California who excelled in IBM P-Tech six-year high school schools, offering those lucky students jobs as IBM interns.  Skills were visible through partners:  CoffeeBean and its Soical-ID, BlueSky CloudCommerce, Bridge Solutions, Lightwell fulfillment. Rocket Fuel, and SapientRazorfish — all driving, extending, the cognitive technology into their respective sectors.

IBM has deep experience in getting the right skill sets from its people, and Marc Benioff of Salesforce was there to represent a new generation of companies that underscore the value-add of ongoing training and education.

Business and jobs policy 

Benioff — an innovation evangelist — referenced a meeting he and Rometty (among others) recently attended with President Trump:

“I want to thank all the business leaders that have joined us to discuss a subject that’s very important to me: Training our workforce for the 21st century, especially in respect to manufacturing jobs,” CNN quotes Trump as having said during that meeting. “Here in the United States, companies have created revolutionary high tech and online courses.”

More to come in this area, no doubt.

H-1B visa applications out tomorrow

H-1B visa applications are due out tomorrow. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced quotas will remain the same despite proposed changes, and some 85,000 applications will be available to tech companies. In the past, the visas have primarily been gone to professionals from India for IT jobs, and although data shows there has been a small impact on tech sectors wages, overall the program has demonstrated it enhances innovation, lowers consumer prices and boosts company profits.

It’s good to know there’s a larger discussion on jobs and skills.  But in the end, each of us is responsible for keeping our own skills up-to-snuff, and making sure elected officials and our professional communities help in any and all ways they can.  Skills are the best renewable strategy we have.  None of us should be sitting on our hands (or laurels).

Coding is Only the Tip of the Iceberg, Ivanka

News that Ivanka Trump plans take coding classes with her five-year old daughter reminded me how important it is for public figures to use role-model power carefully, strategically.  Witness Michelle Obama’s use of fashion as a channel for her message.

I get that women are under-represented in technical fields. I also get that many young women are unprepared to make enough money to buy a car, home, support kids and their own old age. But not everyone is a coder, and the odds are that almost any skill acquired today will be outdated tomorrow.

Jobs are more than coding, and there are more jobs than coding

I’m not minimizing programming skills; they cultivate patience and problem solving ability.  But, coding is not the silver bullet of gender equality. Girls need more than C++.  They need to be able to read and write and think. Companies have layoffs and starts ups fail.  Jobs disappear. Spouses die and family members need care. We age.  Technology is a big part of the way we live, but what about education, health care, finance, dog training?

Case in point:  a young friend, Mary Hill, was in town to celebrate winning a $100,000 in angel funding.  Mary is developing an at-home test for sexually-transmitted diseases, a global market that’s projected to reach $190,000 million by 2022. Mary, I should mention, was raised by a single mom who worked for a state agency.  She went to a public high school, an arts magnet no less,  and nurtured by a very creative family, was able to take it from there. She doesn’t know how to code, but she is definitely a problem solver.

Apprenticeships across industries?

So, here’s hoping Ivanka’s coding will help. Maybe her example will help her dad encourage some big-pocketed businesses — pharmaceutical companies, large banks,  retailers, real estate developers — to invest in some education and training to caulk some of the gaps in our educational system, much like technology companies are doing today with coding sponsorships.  It’s good business and smart investing.

 

 

Look for Unexpected Leaders, Or Be One

I’m finding myself inspired by unexpected leaders: people I think I know, people I don’t know but am surprised by.

We crave leadership when tragedy hits. A young colleague of mine was killed on Saturday in a late-night car wreck. She was 23 years old, a single mom who left 3-year old son. Very few people know what to do when a tragedy likes this hits the workplace. An all-hands meeting was held, tears were shed, flowers brought, work efforts encouraged. It was another colleague, a man who’d raised a son, who said, “All I can think about is my son,” and volunteered to set up a scholarship fund for the boy, an action that could change that child’s life.

Then, driving home, I heard a familiar twang on the radio newscast.  It was former President George W. Bush taking full aim at, if not the sitting president directly, his actions on:

gwbush

Former President George W. Bush with his wife, Laura

  1. Immigration
  2. The free press (think about that one, coming from a man who was tarred, feathered and ridden out of town on a rail by the aforementioned press)
  3. Pre-election communications with Russia.  Will Bush, like his predecessor Nobel Prize winner Jimmy Carter, it his leadership stride after his presidency ends?

Did Laura put him up to it?  We’ll never know. But we listen to people who have survived and learned from failure and blame.

Credentials don’t make a leader.  I was reminded me of a conversation I’d had in late December with a friend who knew U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack.

judgejacks

Federal Judge Janis Jacks

In 2016, Jack ruled that the Texas foster care system violates children’s rights.  Essentially, she sued the State of Texas for its appalling, ongoing neglect of the children consigned to its care. She sued the state.  My friend, who knew Judge Jack early in her career, commented on her lack of high-powered credentials.  “Can you imagine,” he said, “She took them all on (the State of Texas elected officials) to take care of our kids.”

In these interesting times, look around for leaders — or be one yourself.  Take positive action, be clear and pave the way for others to follow. We need you.

 

Women: If It’s Your Talk; Lead

I recently sat in on two consecutive presentations given by women – the first, by a software consultant; the second by a director of marketing for a startup company.  Both women were somewhere around 30, casually dressed and clearly competent. One controlled her audience; the other did not. Here’s what happened:

“Your opinion, while interesting is irrelevant”

The  audience of about 50 software engineers sat quietly and took notes during the consultant’s presentation. Maybe they were younger and less experienced. Maybe their mothers taught them good manners. They photographed slides and asked a handful of questions during the presentation but mostly waited for a discussion period at the end.

In loved the quote the second speaker opened with, You opinion while interesting, is irrelevant.” She then poked fun at herself, saying she was director of marketing because there was no one else in her department. She characterized her company as simple and straightforward; her market as full of people who were bored on Fridays.  She got as far as her first slide before two men began critiquing her process. Their comments, though interesting, were irrelevant to the rest of us, and time-consuming.

Be like Beyonce:  Ask for feedback. Look for it. Give it. 

I wondered if she wanted to have more of a collaboration with her audience  rather than a traditional presentation. But 30 minutes and two slides into the pitch, it became clear that she was not in control. We’ve all been there at some point in our careers, and I know this woman will learn from this experience.In fact, in describing how she shares her data with others in her company, she told a story of  Beyonce’s immediately critiquing each of her performances, sending night-of feedback to her back-up performers.

Be professional; never, ever minimize your professionalism or what you have to say 

Speaking to a group of people you don’t know is a challenge, any way you cut it. But there are ways to hedge your bets and set yourself up to be successful:

  • Dress the part. Don’t fool yourself: Men can get away with dressing more casually than women can.  Dress the part you’re playing. If you’re an executive, look like one.
  • Define your expertise, don’t inflate it but don’t minimize it either.
  • Set clear guidelines for your audience. If in doubt, use the tried and true
    • Tell them what you’re going to tell them: “I’ll spend 20 minutes outlining my process, leaving 15 minutes for your questions and comments …”
  • If someone in the audience insists on interrupting, stick to your guns:  “Let me finish outlining my process, then your question will make more sense…”  Practice this; you’ll become more witty and charming, always a good thing.

 

Image result for facing an audience

Should You Be Following @Alexey_Pushkov?

Get used to Google Translate. The conversation is global. The subject ranges from cars to politics to espionage to health care, but the message is the same: keep your ears open and your eyes on the road ahead because it’s not going to look like the one behind you.

 

This week alone, Ford’s no-factory-in- Mexico announcement, which yes, was about jobs – fewer, higher-skilled jobs for people who can help build the company’s leadership in “autonomous” (self-driving) and electric vehicles. The IP may stay in Michigan, but it will be tested and applied globally in some of the world’s most “challenging” traffic conditions. Because the future is about renewable technology and multi-modal transportation.

Paying attention is not easy.  What stood out in reading David Sanger’s analysis of the American intelligence agencies report on Russian influence on the recent election, was not that the intrusions were undetected, it’s that so much going on, it was impossible to see the forest for the trees. Then, lo and behold, Alexey Pushkov, a member of the Russian Parliament, is tweeting about how silly you are to imagine such things. The future will continue to be a global one and maybe not the one we imagined.

I tend to be goal oriented but have learned to pull back and consider that the most unlikely outcome may be the one that comes to fruition. Having a role in sales has been particularly instructive:  focus on possibilities, not outcomes. There is no magic bullet, only a reminder to get enough sleep, keep your skills current and stay open.

NOTE:  Getting back to Google Translate, if you’ve haven’t read Gideon-Lewis Kraus’ “Going Neural,” make it a priority. Think about it in terms of our fear of change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weighing the Trans-Pacific Partnership on a Larger Scale

Two statistics alone — that 96 percent of the world’s consumers and 80 percent of the world’s purchasing power are outside the United States — should insure our attention is riveted on the first of President Obama’s signature trade deals, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as it bobs before an un-receptive Congress in a lame-duck year.

 

charlesrivkin

Ambassador Charles Rivkin, the State Department’s assistant secretary of Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs

This week TPP evangelist Charles Rivkin was in town to talk about the state of the deal and its benefit to the small businesses and tech startups that make up 95% of Austin’s economy. Ambassador Rivkin is no empty suit. His blue-chip credentials in technology, entertainment and business include negotiating the $1B sale of the Jim Henson company. A self-effacing speaker, he cited a nickname, “Don Quixote,” for promoting causes he believes in (like President Obama).

 

Trade is a complex topic that quickly becomes emotional. But Ambassador Rivkin did something interesting:  he inched the discussion out of the “what” category (jobs) and into another, more properly labeled “how.” Framing TPP as a once-in-a blue-moon opportunity to “raise the standards of international trade” — climate change, endangered species, human rights — while also touting the benefits to specific sectors of the economy. In technology, for example, TPP is the first trade deal to address intellectual property.

Windmill alert:  Watchdog groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Citizen oppose the deal, which doesn’t go far enough for their respective publics. EFF in particular is worried the deal will hamper investigative journalism and openness while endangering privacy. Nobel Laureate and Columbia business professor Joseph Stiglitz, an advisor to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, is also against it, pointing out that financial industry, as always it seems, gets off lightly, as do pharmaceuticals and big business in general.

But other voices support Ambassador Rivkin’s argument. The New York Times’ Nathaniel Popper’s nonlinear look at trade deals cites  TPP supporter David Autor (“China Shock”):

global-trade_paul-windle

Courtesy of Paul Windle, the New York Timescites TPP supporter David Autor (“China Shock”): TPP:

 

“The gains to the people who benefited are so enormous — they were destitute,m and now they were brought into the global middle class…The fact that there are adverse consequences in the United States should be taken seriously, but it doesn’t tilt the balance.”

In other words, trade can be seen as a tool to offset economic aid, or as Popper concludes, the benefits of trade have to be evaluated on both sides of the transaction.

Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman is a bit pithier: “Politicians should be honest and realistic about trade, rather than taking cheap shots. Striking poses is easy; figuring out what we can and should do is a lot harder.”

Any way you cut it, I’m glad we have a savvy Don Quixote at work on TPP.