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LeBron’s Homecoming Story Mirrors My Own Journey

LeBron James Comes HomeFor those of you who follow sports and professional basketball, the most recent LeBron free-agency media hurricane could be seen as fascinating, inane, or some combination of both. Most of us remember the widely criticized facepalm moment which was The Decision four years ago when The King decided to leave his hometown of Cleveland to take his talents to South Beach. At the time, I was one of his detractors, not just for instigating the circus but running out of a town desperate for one of their own to deliver them from sports purgatory. (All of which is rather funny considering that I’m a Pittsburgher with enmity toward Cleveland sports teams.)

He left his boyhood home, joined a successful franchise in the Miami Heat, and achieved what many expected him to do: win championships. But there appears to have been a nagging yearn to return to his roots and do something important. Think about it. It’s similar to the journey most of us make in our own lives. We grow tired of home with its constant expectations and suffocating familiarity. We wonder if there may be something better “out there” and leave it all behind. Yet it’s in that journey where we explore new territory, try out different identities, experiment, risk, love, and lose. This process helps us find out who we are and what we want from our life. Eventually, there is a point where coming home is the most obvious and desired choice. Perhaps its one of the reasons why the parable of the Prodigal Son is such a revered story in the Bible.

So, LeBron…I understand your decision to come home because it largely matches the decision I made this year. After leaving for Texas and the shiny attraction of the corporate world, I chose to come back to the East Coast and return to the nonprofit work where I began my career 15 years ago. It’s funny because I confidently swore at one point that I would never go back East and definitely wouldn’t go back to nonprofits after I fought so hard to escape them. Now? I laugh and understand why it’s never wise to use the word never.

My eight years in Texas was a journey where I explored new territory, tried out different identities, experimented in my career, risked much financially, loved family and friends, and lost my soul for a while. But I’m proud of that decision to leave for the Lone Star State and even more proud of the decision to come home. Now that I’m in Atlanta, I’m back near the old mountains that I love dearly, near the ocean that holds so many joyful boyhood and young adulthood memories, near family and friends who helped me become who I am, near my ancestral roots.

Plus, I’m back doing the work I know I was always meant to do. Each day, I put my talents, experiences, and passions to good use to help make a difference in the world and end poverty housing. Having lived through the good, bad, and extremely ugly of corporate and startup life, I’m all the more grateful to have soulful, purposeful work that I love to do (almost) every day.

Cheers to you, King James. And welcome back home.

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What Charlie Weis Can Teach Us About Job Failure

More football, you exclaim? Yes, its another football-related post. Sorry friends…when it’s Fall and the weather starts to cool, my mind gets a bit preoccupied with all things pigskin. If you have no interest in the NFL, just bear with me for a few more weeks and I’ll try to make this as painless as possible.

Now, to the issue at hand and it involves the gentleman over to the left. He might be recognizable or he might not. His name is Charlie Weis and earlier this week he officially became the former Head Coach for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team. Did he deserve to be fired? Probably, based on the key metric used to assess all sports coaches: wins. However, it was an ignominious end to what was once a very promising career with the Irish. Weis was known as an offensive guru with the New England Patriots and highly sought-after coach in the NFL. But his alma mater of Notre Dame came calling and it looked like a golden relationship for a once-proud college football program battling mediocrity. After the first couple of years of success (and some have argued undeserved), the roof caved in and Weis’s Notre Dame teams returned to previous levels of unremarkable football.

To paraphrase Marc Antony (Roman not singer), I come neither to bury Weis nor to praise him. Instead, I think there are a couple of career lessons we can extract from Charlie Weis’s fate.

Success at one level or different position is no guarantee of universal success. Weis is the owner of four Super Bowl Champion rings as a result of his 15 year career as an assistant coach in the NFL. In hindsight, we might be able to say that this prior success offered no indication as to whether he’d be a good head coach in the pro or collegiate levels. Both career transitions offered their own unique set of challenges that would be new for him. And don’t we face these same challenges any time we receive a promotion to manager or change industries? Here’s the key: recognize that what got us to where we are isn’t necessarily going to take us higher. We have to be prepared to set aside our ego and learn with a child’s curious mind.

Sometimes the view from below is better than the one from above. While the above is about what we need to do when in the gig, let’s take a look at the view of where Charlie is right now. It’s one that many of us have experienced before. Maybe we got laid off or even canned. Maybe we got demoted after a promising rise through the organizational ranks. Here’s the good news, though…these are the experiences in which we grow the most. It’s like the old proverb says, “There’s always more growth in the valley than there is on the mountaintop.” See Vince Young and my earlier post as an example of someone who took the time while in the valley of their life and profession to refocus their efforts toward success. Trust me, I’ve been in the valley quite a few times and it sucks. But I also cherish these times as moments in my life when I was more truthful with myself, more humble toward others and more accepting of the gifts that come in life. They were crucial waystations in my journey and I recognize that I’ll likely visit the valley again at some point in my life.

What are your experiences? Any wisdom you gained while trying to climb a new mountain or trekking through a valley in your work or life? Love to have you share your story with the community here.

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Stay Focused And Work On Your Craft

How many of us have ever felt like Vince Young, quarterback for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans? He was once a heralded first round draft pick by the Titans but after a knee injury in his first game of the 2008 season, he was relegated to a backup role for the remainder of the year and first six games of 2009. It was only after the Titans started a woeful 0-6 this year that Young got a chance to start again. Since his return as a starter three weeks ago, Tennessee is now 3-6.

Vince Young’s story is still unfolding but haven’t we all been in his shoes before? I’m thinking specifically about our work. We’re good at what we do and receive accolades from our managers. Then, we make a mistake and are demoted to some form of a lesser role in the organization. Or we find ourselves entangled in a layoff. Or we simply find ourselves burnt out of the job. It becomes easy to just stop caring and giving our best. This quote from Young as told to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King shows how important it is to stay out of the muck and mire of self-defeating, internal dialogue.

A couple of times last year, when he was most frustrated, Vince Young would text Kobe Bryant, who had become something of a mentor. He’d write something like, “Man, I wanna play so bad. What do I do?” The answer would always come back from Bryant with something like this: “Stay focused. Work on your craft.”

When we’re faced with bad situations in our work, often the best solution is to remember that its temporary and can turn around at any point. We need to stay focused and committed to improving our selves and our capabilities. You never know when you’ll be asked to return to the starting lineup with a chance to be even better than before.

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Matt Millen and the Art of Poor Management

For those of you who follow football, the firing of Matt Millen should not come as a great shock (and for those of you who happen to still follow Detroit Lions football, it likely comes as a Day of Liberation). If you don’t happen to follow or care for the american-style pigskin sport, this is just another example of what happens when you hire someone to manager your operations who has technical experience and passion, but next to zero management ability. The fact is that while anyone can be a manager, not everyone is actually good at it.

One of Millen’s former employees, coach Steve Mariucci, had this to say:

Matt’s interest really wasn’t there. I don’t think he was equipped with his background to do a good job. He certainly had an interest, certainly loves football, he certainly has a passion, but I think his skills would say that he simply didn’t have the experience to do a good job in management.

That’s not to say that he couldn’t have learned and honed his management craft because let’s face it…management is something that can only be learned through practice. However, judging by the fact that he made rather curious personnel moves throughout his tenure and other poor decisions that led to a 31-84 record over the last eight seasons, I would wager against that idea.

But luckily, failing doesn’t mean failure. Here’s hoping that Millen does find what he’s good at and runs wild with it.

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In The Action Even When You’re Not

I heard a great story the other day which emphasizes how important our actions are…even when we think we’re not actually doing anything important. It involves the infamous Ice Bowl football game between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers for the 1967 NFL Championship.

This games isn’t referred to as “the Ice Bowl” for nothing. It was played at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin in December. The gametime temperature was -13F degrees (-25C) with a windchill driving the temperature down to -48F degrees (-44C) making it the coldest NFL game on record. It was so cold that referees couldn’t use their whistles because they froze to their lips. To this day, some players still say they suffer from the effects of frostbite. It wasn’t just cold, it was bone-numbingly frigid. So, you can forgive some players for doing all they could to try and stay warm.

In the end, Green Bay won in dramatic fashion as Bart Starr scored the winning touchdown with 16 seconds left. One key to their win came from the actions of a Dallas player, Bob Hayes, who was a wide receiver and considered one of the fastest men alive. Turns out his hands were cold (remember this is before players started wearing gloves) so when a run play was called, he shoved his hands in his pockets before the snap. When he did this, he communicated that he wasn’t going out for a pass and unwittingly tipped the Green Bay defense to play the run.

What’s interesting about this story is that it offers an example of how we influence the action around us, even when we’re not actually a part of the action itself. Everything is connected and we’re never truly out of the play…no matter if we think we don’t have a role in the action.

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Thoughts on CareerBuilder’s Super Bowl Ads

I’m not sure about you, but the Super Bowl ads this year sucked like nobody’s business. Can someone explain to me how you can justify spending all that money ($2.6 million by some counts) to get your name out there and produce such lousy, uninteresting, and tepid commercials? I usually enjoy the ads as much as the football – hell, there are times when the ads trump the actual game action for sheer entertainment value. This year though, the ad agencies must have all taken a vacation and left the work to a bunch of college interns.

Out of the bunch, it seemed like CareerBuilder.com at least made an effort. I do admit, however, I missed the chimps of old and was sad to see them go. I’m curious as to how they resonated with others. Take a peek at all three new ads and the older chimp ones here.

Do More Than Just Survive The Workweek. Each ad plays off our typical fears we have of a nightmare job:

Darts
“looking for volunteers for a training seminar” As sad as it is, most professional development and trainings are worth running from…even if there is an abyss on the other side. Only be concerned if your Director of Human Resources has a good aim.

Promotion Pit
“last one standing gets the promotion” Man, you know you work in a toxic organization when getting a promotion means you have to draw on your inner Russell Crowe and battle your shipping guy. Crafting a helmet from a three-ring binder seems to be a must.

Performance Review
“Mr Watson will see you know…please remove your shirt” Hot coals I think I can handle, maybe even the dozens of binder clips fastened to my upper torso. Super-wedgie from my boss? Nope. But then, I guess it’s better than the verbal teardowns that some employees get for their performance reviews. Folks, you know it’s bad when you’d rather get your underwear stretched over your head than have a sit-down with your manager. Maybe it is time to find a new job, eh?


Bonus thoughts on the Super Bowl.

I’m happy the Colts won. I like Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning. Of course, it would have been better to see my Steelers in it again.

And maybe I’m just a child of the 80s, but I thought Prince put on one hell of a halftime show. And how many can say they didn’t get a little shivery at his closing number of Purple Rain while the downpour continued in Miami? It’s an odd thing when the halftime show pretty much beat out the football and the commercials for entertainment value.

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Wild World Of Sports: Don’t Pull An Erickson

If you’re a manager or other stripe of executive who happens to leave one organization for another, I implore you not to pull an “Erickson.” What’s an Erickson, you ask? It’s a decidedly anti-leader move that firmly and publicly announces how much the current company and its employees have held you back from greatness. Why is it called an Erickson? Consider this most recent scenario as reported by ESPN:

Dennis Erickson informed his players of his plans to leave Idaho at a team meeting Sunday before he boarded a private jet to Phoenix for the official announcement that he would become head coach at Arizona State, and the players’ reactions were mostly indifferent — until he left the room.

You know you have a problem when your head honcho tells his players he’s leaving and all he gets is indifference. But then, after your coach tells you that he’s off somewhere else to claim his glory…well, perhaps that might explain it. Here’s how one player recalls the meeting:

It was kind of weird with Erickson talking and telling us he thinks he can win a national championship at Arizona State. It makes us realize the doubt he had in us. I guess he has to do what he has to do. 

Most of us have left organizations for reasons connected to our own sense of purpose. We need to move on in order to fulfill our purpose. Sometimes we might just leave for reasons like the ones that Erickson offered: the current organization isn’t set up for our own success. But for Pete’s sake, don’t go and broadcast it to your staff! Here’s why…not only does it insult your past work, but it likely will follow you in the future. How are you feeling if you’re a player at Arizona State right now? How many of them are thinking, “Oh goodie, Dennis Erickson thinks he can bring a National Championship here.” Perhaps the sentiment is, “Crap, here’s yet another coach who will leave us when something better comes along. Just a month ago, his players at Idaho thought he was there to build a program.”

Again, we all leave organizations when we are ready to move on (unless we’re kicked out or laid off which is a whole other topic). The lesson that Dennis Erickson teaches us is when we do move on, do it with some grace.

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When Goals Get In The Way Of Fun

Well, leave it to Kathy Sierra to inspire me to do something else. She asks a seemingly simple question about why many people (and I’m included here) don’t like to exercise when most animals crave it.

She muses…

Take a human out of his work cubicle or off the couch and turn him loose outside. What happens? Hmmm… for far too many of us, nothing happens. Or we turn around and walk right back in the door and head for the couch or the chair in front of our computer. The one thing that usually does not happen is the kind of physical exuberance–the sheer joy of being able to run and jump–that so many other animals do.

She offers some explanations but I know for myself that it’s a matter of just not enjoying the process of exercising. Or, at least, that was my old story. This old story continues that exercising is boring and pointless (forgetting all the pointed stats that it’s actually good for us to break a sweat). So, to make it less boring and pointless, I always tried to initiate a set of goals and keep a log to track my progress. This always worked great…for a while. And then something would happen like I’d get sick or my work got heated up. I’d miss a few workout sessions and before I knew it I’d be back to where I started. Only this time, frustrated and depressed to have to begin the long progress back toward my goals. I wager this might be a familiar pattern for most folks.

So, in keeping with my new living philosophy of rewriting my personal story, I’m taking a very different approach to exercise: I’m giving all these goals the boot. I’m rediscovering whatever exercise I’m doing and focusing on the fun of the activity. I’m running again and leaving the stopwatch at home. Rather I’m listening to my body tell me when to run, when to walk, when to just enjoy the time outside.

Now my recrafted personal story is that I love to exercise and that my body is a finely tuned system that will always tell me what it needs. I don’t have to impose any artificial goals to force me to workout. I’m more than able to find the fun in things without creating structures.

If you find yourself on a treadmill going nowhere (exercise, work, relationships, you name it), slow down and let the rhythm of a playful life take hold.

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Save That Enthusiasm For Gameday

Ah, football season approaches so you’ll likely see a lot of metaphors popping up on this blog and her sister blogs. By the way…Go Steelers. Okay, now I’m better.

It’s not untypical for players to get all enthusiastic during practice and keep the aggression of the play going after the whistle blows. There may be pushing and even some punches exchanged. Hey, football is an aggressive sport. Shortly, the coach will intervene and tell the players to “save it for gameday.”

Let’s be honest, business can be an aggressive sport, too. Particularly when you have two heavyweights going at it like Microsoft and Google. The problem is that they don’t have a coach who tells them to save their fight for game day.

Okay, my metaphor breaks down since they clearly don’t play for the same team. Yet, they should share a singular goal: to provide the best product and service for their customer. That’s why all of this posturing and legalistic BS makes such little sense. I’d like for Microsoft to take just a little of the money they are going to spend to sue Google and put it into some OS software that is reliable and not prone to constant virus attacks.

Why is there such fear of the competition? The best players don’t hope that the other team is full of injured guys playing at levels less than their best. The best players pray that the other team is going to test them by giving them their absolute best effort. It’s how you grow. It’s the only way you know how good you really are.

Unfortunately for us customers, if our companies continue to try to weaken the opponent off the playing field, we’ll never know who is the best and who is just a pretender.

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