Tag Archives: Employment

You’re On Your Own

A decade has passed since I last held a “real” job. My kids call the work I do now “Daddy’s Phony Baloney Made Up Job” but hey, it pays the bills so what can I say?

I didn’t realize when I left corporate life 10 years ago that I was actually beginning to ride a wave that continues to grow. I had joined the gig economy. What’s that? A gig economy is an environment in which temporary positions are common and companies sign up independent workers for short-term engagements. Companies don’t have “employees”, they have consultants or contractors. Think Uber – every driver works for themselves. Rather than a corporation of thousands, we have a thousand corporations of one.

According to Intuit, by 2020, 40 percent of American workers will be independent contractors. It’s liberating in some ways and incredibly stressful in others. No guaranteed paycheck. No paid-for healthcare or other benefits. You can set your own schedule and work as you choose but you have to go find that work. I mean, unless you’re a pro, playing a lot of golf doesn’t pay the bills.

We’ve become a society where we’re on our own. Putting aside what may be happening with small social safety net we do have here (no politics, please!), many more people are going through their daily lives without the safety net a “real” job provides, and many of the full-time jobs that are out there pay wages that haven’t increased in years because the demand for the shrinking number of jobs is still high. We have seen the growth of businesses and services that support individuals rather than corporations. Sites that help you find gigs (as opposed to full-time employment) are plentiful although in many cases they become places where it’s a race to the bottom with respect to what you can get paid.

What strikes me is that I struggled in many ways to get my business on a good track despite many years of business experience, having managed dozens of people, and being responsible for a multi-million dollar P&L. I often wonder how many kids starting out in this economy are going to struggle and fail without any sort of mentoring. I don’t mean the relatively easy stuff such as how to keep a proper set of books so you don’t have tax issues. I wonder about the hard stuff that involves learning how to formulate ideas and how to express them. It’s the stuff that we don’t learn in school that forms our business education (and that means you too, MBA’s). It’s hard to get that while you’re on your own.

This trend of being on your own is going to continue and to grow as more companies downsize and robots of some sort begin to perform tasks once performed by humans. Who is going to program and service those robots? Independent contractors, no doubt. Maybe you?

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Filed under Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

Do We Really Want Mullets?

Anyone remember the mullet? You know what I’m talking about: the haircut that’s “business in the front, a party in the back.” I think the last time the mullet was popular was when it was sported by members of the Pittsburgh Penguins when they won The Stanley Cup in the early 1990’s. Since then, it’s become more of an object of ridicule than a hairstyle to be admired. I think we’ve come to recognize that we can’t be both businesslike and a party at the same time.

I thought of the mullet the other day when I read that Facebook was testing resume-building features so that users can share their work history with their Facebook friends. They’re obviously trying to hone in on a space dominated by LinkedIn. The curious thing is that your “resume” doesn’t really display. It seems as if Facebook is simply gathering the information which one can assume they’ll use to fuel a service for headhunters and active job seekers. There’s actually a couple of points we can think about here.

The first is that most of the people I know (myself included) use different social sites for different purposes. Many of my Facebook friends are not work-related. We’re not generally connected on LinkedIn. I don’t cross-post (other than the screed) content on the two sites since I don’t especially think my business contacts care about what food I’ve eaten or what concerts I’ve attended or my political views. Conversely, I don’t bore my non-work friends with the three or four business-related articles I might come across that I find interesting.

From what I can tell, most users can distinguish between the appropriate content for the two sites. Frankly, I think Facebook knows way too much about each of us anyway, and I’m not sure that I want them to know much more about my work life, my contacts, or anything else I keep in the workplace. I certainly don’t want potential clients considering anything other than the professional qualifications available to them on LinkedIn – not my musical tastes, not my politics and not my sad attempts at humor with friends.

More importantly, every business needs a focus. Facebook, in particular, seems to have decided that anything is fair game. They’re trying to out video YouTube, to out marketplace Amazon, and to compete in areas such as food delivery. In the meantime, they can’t even decide if they’re a media business (hint: they are).  Each of us needs to figure out what business we’re in so we can channel our resources, focus on our competition, and understand what problems our solutions can solve to serve our customer base. Chasing the next shiny object or growing beyond our core competence generally is more trouble than it’s worth. That’s how we end up with a mullet and is that what we really want?

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Filed under Consulting, digital media

Hiring Cast Iron People

It’s Foodie Friday and this week I want to dwell on cast iron pans. Hopefully, you own a couple and they’re not sitting in some drawer rusting away. What I’ve been thinking about today is how there are some real misunderstandings about cast iron and how a number of those misunderstandings have equivalencies in how some folks look at employees. Let me explain.

Those of you who don’t use cast iron regularly probably have a few misconceptions. You think that it’s an outdated technology and newer types of pans are lighter and have better non-stick surfaces. You feel that cast iron is temperamental. You can’t wash it with soap and water and as a result, it always has a gross sheen of old cooking oil and other gunk on it. You fear using anything metal on it in case you disrupt the non-stick surface. Finally, you fear cooking acidic food such as tomato sauces in it because the acid will result in an off taste as it interacts with the metal.

None of the above is true. Well, ok. The pans are heavy. I have a 15-inch cast iron skillet that requires a back brace to lift. But it makes a roux like no other pan I have. It took a while to learn how to use cast iron properly. It doesn’t heat evenly but it holds heat fantastically. Because of that, it puts an amazing sear on anything. It can go from stovetop to oven with no fear. I wash mine with soap and water all the time and the non-stick surface is fine. Why? Because it’s not old oil that creates the non-stick. It’s a layer of polymerized oil that has already bonded to the surface. That is also why I cook acidic foods in it without issue as well. The more I fry it in the better that layer becomes. So what does this have to do with business?

We often look at people much as we look at cast iron pans. We think that people who are older can’t have the properties that make them valuable. We hear rumors they’re difficult and that they’re temperamental. We don’t think they are versatile enough to deal with any situation. We hear they require constant care and maintenance. None of those things are true, at least not to a degree that’s any worse than we face with any demographic. The reality is that more experienced people can often perform a multitude of tasks and, like cast iron, get better at them over time and with use.

There is one other thing cast iron has that’s extremely valuable. It’s called emissivity, which is its tendency to expel a lot of heat energy from its surface in the form of radiation. Not only does it cook what’s in contact with its surface but also the food above that surface (think roasting). Who wouldn’t want an employee that radiates high energy to those around them?

If you have a cast iron pan in a closet someplace, take it out, clean it up, reseason it, and put it to work. Not a bad thought for the underutilized experienced employee in your midst either!

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints

Hurt Feelings And Non-Competes

For our Foodie Friday Fun this week we have a bit of legal drama. I’ve mentioned several times before in this space that I am a fan of Cook’s Illustrated and have learned a lot about food and cooking from the publication. It was run for its entire existence by Christopher Kimball whom you may know from TV. He left the company a while back and has started his own publication (and media platform) called Milk Street. A few days ago,  The Boston Globe reported that America’s Test Kitchen (the corporate parent) is suing Kimball. Why?

Cook's Illustrated

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A lawsuit (filed) Monday against Kimball in Suffolk Superior Court, accusing the firm’s most prominent former employee of disloyalty, saying he “literally and conceptually ripped off America’s Test Kitchen.” “He kept on saying he wasn’t going to compete,” said Jack Bishop, chief creative officer at America’s Test Kitchen. “I took him at his word. I think everyone on the board was taking him at his word.”

Hmm. As with most legal spats, there are two versions here that contain much of the truth but THE truth lies somewhere in between. For our purposes, what can we learn that’s applicable to your business?

First, what Kimball appears to have been doing was planning his next venture for some time while he was still employed at ATK. If you’re employed, are you never to think about your next job? Headhunters call people all the time and many startup founders were employees someplace else while they developed their new company’s business plan. It’s unrealistic to think that the folks who work for us don’t look around to see what else is out there. What we can do is to make the choice to leave extremely difficult by keeping them happy, motivated, as well-paid as they could be anyplace else, and continually growing in their jobs.

Second, there doesn’t seem to have been a non-compete in place. This isn’t legal advice but you should be aware that non-competes are generally not enforceable if they’re signed after someone begins working for you without some additional compensation to the employee for having signed. The point of a non-compete for the company is to protect trade secrets and to protect against unfair competition. “Trade secrets” really have to be  proprietary and should be kept secret. They’re not secrets just because the employer says they are. Is ATK doing testing in a way that no one else is? Nope. One look at Serious Eats will show you that.  Have they found a secret business model? Nope. On the other hand, Kimball is alleged to have used ATK’s mailing lists to help start his new venture. That is theft and way over the line. Before you demand someone sign a non-compete, be sure that you have something that’s protectable and have the employee sign the document BEFORE they start work. If you’re adding one retroactively, be sure you give the employee something in return.

Finally, the new magazine just came out and the suit says it  bears a striking resemblance to Cook’s Illustrated, right down to its 32-page size. I got my copy the other day and it’s similar but not the same. You can’t protect look and feel, and clearly, it’s original content (not plagiarized) so a good part of this seems to be hurt feelings. Our jobs as managers and businesspeople are to make feelings of that sort a rarity. Treat your co-workers at least as well as you’d treat a customer (and you know how I feel about that!).

I don’t know which side I’m on but I do know that the entire matter could probably have been avoided with better communication and a lot more transparency. I’m pretty sure that the legal fees each side will incur are a good chunk of what either might have given or received had they talked this through. Better idea, don’t you think?

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints

Good Eggs

For our Foodie Friday Fun this week we’re having eggs. I love eggs. I also have a daughter who gags at the mere mention of them, so I’m well aware that my admiration of them isn’t universal. Too bad, because in addition to being part of many of the great dishes in the food world, eggs also provide a few insights into hiring.

Deviled Eggs shot during the Inaugural Portabl...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Think for a second about the role an egg can play. A fried egg placed on a burger certainly isn’t meant to be the star of the show and often the burger is just fine without it. The egg, however, adds a richness and provides a secondary sauce, almost transforming mayo (if you use it) into a hollandaise. The egg is in a supporting role that makes the entire production better.

Then there are the dishes in which the egg is an equal player. A bacon, egg and cheese sandwich (one of the world’s great dishes, IMHO), plays the various flavors and textures off against one another and weaves them into a harmonious whole. No one flavor should dominate, and in this context we see the egg holding its own but playing nicely with the other components. Huevos Rancheros or Chilaquiles are other examples.

Finally, we have the egg as the star. Deviled eggs, egg salad, or some perfectly cooked scrambled eggs are dishes in which the egg must be front and center and in which lesser eggs means a lower quality dish. As it turns out, a few studies have found that it doesn’t really make a difference in taste or quality if you buy regular old supermarket eggs instead of from your local farm stand (but you should support your local folks anyway – it may not taste better but you’ll feel better).

What does this have to do with business? I want to hire employees who are good eggs, and I mean not just in temperament. I want people who can play any role from supporting to leading. I want people who work well with others. I want people who are versatile. I want them to be of high quality. In short, I want people who are as wonderful as an egg. Don’t you?

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints

Crappy jobs

One summer when I was in college I found myself without gainful employment. I had spent many other summers as a camp counselor but I had decided not to spend 8 weeks locked in a bunk with a slew of six-year-olds and hadn’t really found anything to do that didn’t require an investment of cash (like an ice cream truck route). All the “good” jobs were taken, and while a buddy and I were offering our services out to paint houses, I really needed to do something to generate cash. That’s how I ended up with a crappy job for which I am still thankful.

My crappy job involved going door to door selling encyclopedias. I’m not kidding. For the younger readers out there, printed encyclopedias were pretty popular (think analog Wikipedia) nearly half a century ago. Every day I would drive my car into some neighborhood and walk the streets knocking on doors. The case I carried was not light, even to my younger, in-shape self. I got rejected nearly every time, at least when someone was nice enough to actually open the door, hear my spiel, and not threaten me with a dog. I also made a few bucks in the process, but calling it a crappy job is an understatement.

I learned a tremendous amount from my crappy job. First and foremost, I learned patience and what is commonly called sticktoitiveness.  I didn’t quit; well, at least not until my painting partner convinced someone to let us paint their house, which was 8 weeks into the summer.  I learned cold-calling and how to qualify leads.  I learned not to fear speaking to strangers. I learned that, just as is baseball, it’s possible to fail 6 times out of 10 and still be an all-star. Most importantly, I gained perspective.  Nearly any other job seemed great by comparison, and I could mentally return to knocking on doors any time things got bad at some subsequent job.

Many years later, “tell me about the worst job you ever had” became one of my standard interview questions.  I looked for people who had a crappy job at some point and we always talked about why it sucked and what they learned. I always leaned toward candidates who had done the worst jobs.

What crappy job have you had? How did it change you?

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Filed under Growing up, Helpful Hints, Thinking Aloud

Bringing In The Broker

I mentioned the other day that we’re getting Rancho Deluxe ready for sale. Part of that process is choosing a realtor. It’s a very important part of the process since the realtor is your guide. What work should we do on the house prior to listing? How much is a reasonable but aggressive asking price? Where is the local market and are the offers we get worth considering? It’s a job interview, even if the job is temporary. I thought some of what we found is applicable to any form of hiring, and that hiring might be personal (a job) or organizational (by a client). 

We got the names of three realtors from friends who had worked with them. Each walked through the house and scheduled a second meeting, the purpose of which was to give us their thoughts on the questions I mentioned, above. It was also a chance for them to demonstrate their thinking and competence.

Two of the three came back with folders containing listings of comparable houses to help us price. They gave us a good overview of the marketplace and described the buyer they thought would be looking at our home. The third showed up with nothing. When asked about comps she scrolled through her phone looking for some while we sat and waited.  While she could talk about the market, her conversation was very general and not specific to our situation (location, the age of our home, etc.).  Had it been a business meeting, I would have tossed her out of my office after 15 minutes.  The point is preparedness.  While Woody Allen may have said that 80% of success is showing up, I think showing up prepared is far better.  Needless to say, she was disqualified from consideration.

The choice between the other two came down to a few things.  Personality (with whom dd we feel most comfortable) was a big part.  How hard we felt they would work on our behalf was another.  While they each told us what they thought needed to be done to get the house ready, one of them offered to help us make those things happen by offering to hook us up with some reasonably priced contractors/handymen.  She didn’t just identify our issues; she offered to help us resolve them.  In addition, she described what money she would invest, putting her own skin in the game. It means that if the house doesn’t sell she is not just out the commission she won’t receive but also some funds she has invested herself.  That was the tie-breaker.

Each of those points – preparation, personality, problem-solving, and commitment – is something that should come up in any vetting process, whether you’re hiring or being hired.  How does each candidate stack up?  How do you?

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