Saturday, June 2, 2018

Small events can cause big changes

As I sit in Bangkok looking out the window, I’m once again forced into reflection on how it is I got here.  (Not literally, of course. That would be Thai Airways and a lovely car from the hotel.). The fact is that little things happen which can have a great impact on your life further down the line.

In 1976, I was born in a smallish town called Malvern. I don’t remember living there and really the only thing it means to me is that I have to put it on every form I fill out. Such is life. Soon after we moved to Little Rock and then to Texarkana. (A can-do city according to the song I learned in kindergarten that for some reason I still remember.). Dad got a new job and moved us to Port Orange, which probably changed my path in life. If we’d stayed there I probably would have gone to the university of Arkansas and become a lawyer and lived there, probably quite happily. But moving to Florida changed everything. Because of the move, dad was chosen to go on an exchange to another country and took us to Australia when I was in 8th grade, and it exposed me to the world outside of the life I knew. There was more out there, and I wanted to see it.

When I applied to college I was accepted at University of Miami and GW. I went to GW, and again broadened my horizons. I was going to be an International Lawyer, and travel the world. Then I had my appendix taken out a week before the LSATs, and didn’t do well enough to go to Law school. Instead I took the Foreign Service exam on a whim, and passed it. I got a job in DC working at a law firm and realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer. Joined the State Department instead. First assignment, Suriname, wasn't what I expected but ended up enjoying it and meeting lovely people. I marched in Carnival in Trinidad. I stayed in a hut in a village in the middle of the rainforest. I had my own radio show. And because my post was considered a hardship, I was rewarded London. It was there I really found myself, and of course my Lovely English Lass. We moved to DC and then to Luxembourg where we had the kids. Got to go to Afghanistan, and then to South Africa, and then to Argentina. Then to Pakistan and now to Manila, which leads me to standing in my room looking out the window at Bangkok.

My kids have now lived on 5 continents and will have visited 6 of them by the end of next month. They’ve been on Safari, driven cattle in Argentina on horseback, and been to Hong Kong Disneyland. They’ve seen the Scottish Highlands and visited the reclining Buddha. Next month they see Uluru.

This isn’t me bragging, just showing how something small can impact everything in your life. My dad moving us to Florida. Us going to Australia. Me going to GW.  My appendix almost bursting. In March of 1976, I doubt my parents would have imagined any of that, or that their middle son would move literally around the world. It’s a long way from Malvern to here. It makes me wonder what my kids will do with their lives, and if they will appreciate how far we’ve all come.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Jazz Improv Management Style Or: Being A Manager Doesn’t Mean You Have to be a Pain in the Ass, a Pushover, Or a Stick in the Mud

(Note:So, I've been writing a book during my lunch hour on my own Management Style.  I'm letting you read the first couple pages just to see what you think.  Please let me know in the comments your thoughts.  Thanks!)

The Jazz Improv Management Style
Or: Being A Manager Doesn’t Mean You Have to be a Pain in the Ass, a Pushover,
Or a Stick in the Mud


Let me be upfront with you on something: I never went to business school.  I didn’t graduate from Wharton, or even have a Master’s Degree.  What I do have is almost 20 years of experience as Manager on five different continents.  I work for the Department of State, and while many people will say that my management work won’t translate to the Private sector, I disagree.  Working for one of the most underfunded Departments in the U.S. Government, and having to deal with varied labor laws all over the world gives me a unique perspective on how to manage, and shaped my philosophy.  But you’ll have to decide if I’m right by reading the book and seeing if you agree.  If you don’t that’s fine, but at least hear me out.

What you can expect from this is a thorough discussion of how I managed diverse groups of people, and maybe you can find something you like in my experiences that you can use to improve yourself as a Manager.

However, if you’re looking for the Who moved the Seven Habits of Getting to Yes, then this book isn’t for you.   I’ve read many of those books, and they didn’t click for me.  I got some good suggestions on how to improve my Management Style, but many of it felt forced.  Plus, in my opinion, not all of those philosophies work on everybody.  I think you need a more varied approach in how you deal with your staff, and sometimes a varied approach for each person.  Again, your mileage may vary, but that’s how I see Management.

I would like to thank all of the people I’ve worked with all over the world. You’ve made me a great Manager, and helped me rise through the Department of State.  I’d like to thank my friends who listened when I needed an ear, and gave suggestions on how I could do better.  I’d also like to thank all of my supervisors, both good and bad.  Watching you showed me how to improve myself.  I’d finally like to thank my family for their support through it all. Of course my lovely wife, daughter, son, brothers and sisters in law, nieces and nephews, and of course my parents.  My mother managed the house and my dad managed the city we lived in, and I learned from both of them.

Chapter One: The Jazz Improv Management Style: An Introduction.

Picture it: You’re a brand new manager walking into the office to meet your team.  They’ve been together for years, and you’ve just arrived excited and full of energy and ideas on how to move the team forward.  How are you going to connect with them?  How do you find what motivates them?  What techniques do you use so that you get the best work from them?

These are all questions you must ask yourself when you arrive in a new position.  The answers vary depending on if you were a part of that company and are just moving upwards, or if you have been brought in as leader from the outside.  What doesn’t vary is the need to get results from your new team.  As a manager, you don’t have a large amount of time to “read in” or “ease into” the job.  You need to get up to speed quickly and make things happen.

In this way, being in the Department of State really helped hone my Management style.  The majority of the department jobs are for only one to three years, and so you really can’t ease your way into the position.  You must start working immediately, and learn quickly what are the go to rewards for your staff, and what areas you must avoid in order to keep your people happy and motivated.  Here’s a list of things that I use to get started when I arrived at a new post.  (I’ll go into each of these separately later on in more detail.)

1)      Set the expectations you have for your staff immediately:  Right off the bat, explain your expectations for your new team.  This includes behaviors and anything else you need them to understand about how you do business. 
2)      Let your staff know it’s ok to make mistakes:  I’ve always told my staff that no one is perfect. People make a mistake, that’s the nature of humanity. However, if you don’t tell me about the mistake until it’s become a really big problem, then I can’t help you out.  I won’t get mad if you discover the mistake and immediately come to me.  I expect my staff to be thorough, but I know sometimes you make a mistake in calculations, or you miss a decimal somewhere.  If you tell me immediately, we can correct it and move forward.  If I find out from someone else, that’s when we have an issue.
3)      Let them know you’ll stand up for them: I always say to my staff that if they have remained polite throughout the interaction with either a customer or my superior, that I will always stand by them.  And I’ve meant that.  If your staff know you’ll stand up for them, they will in turn stand up for you when you ask them to work later or to do that one special project that pops up over a long weekend that you need help with.
4)      Lead by example: Never think that something is beneath you as a Manager.  You need to be able to show your staff that you can work long hours with them, and wouldn’t ask them to do something you wouldn’t do. I’ve dragged mail bags into consulates, folded up chairs after events, help move bags of mulch from one place to another, and loaded and unloaded luggage for VIP visits.  My staff knows I won’t be asking them to do something I wouldn’t do myself, and so they won’t question when I task them to do something important.
5)      Get to know your staff: It’s important to get to know your staff as fully as possible.  Know their names, their birthdates, if they have kids, what sports they like or if they have special interests.  Following the law and not being creepy about it, of course.  This then can be filed away for use when you need to motivate someone that isn’t performing or to empathize with a subordinate.  I’ll discuss this more in a later chapter.

These are just some of the ways you as a manager can start to build report with your staff.  However, you may not feel comfortable with my method.  Everyone is different.  I want you to do this then: think of when you arrived in your first position and met your first supervisor.  Were you scared?  Were you confident in your abilities to do the job the right way?  What did your manager do to reach out to you as a subordinate to make you feel more comfortable?  You can then use your past experiences to reach out to your new subordinates to ensure they get as comfortable with you as quickly as possible to reach your goals quicker.

Chapter 2: So you’re in charge.  What are your expectations?

Now you’ve done it.  You’ve applied for a Supervisory position and you got the job.  Maybe you went to business school so you think you’re ready for this.  Or perhaps you have been doing a job like it for some time and now is your time to shine.  Maybe you took a chance and applied for the job, interviewed well, and had good interaction with the interview panel and they took a chance on you.  Maybe your father was in the same fraternity as the owner of the business and he’s paying back your pops for the time your dad talked the police officer out of arresting the owner for using a fake ID back in the day.  However you’ve done it, you’re now in charge.  What are you going to do?

I’ve seen it worked many ways in my time working for the Department of State.  I’ve seen those who walk in an immediately start re-arranging things; I’ve seen Managers who walked in and immediately bowed down to the Alpha member of the team, using them as a barometer of how everything works; I’ve seen Managers come in and lock themselves away in their office.  In my opinion, you need to set your expectations for your staff immediately, so they understand what it is that you want from them, and how you expect them to work.  Setting expectations early gives your team an immediate understanding of what you expect from them, and makes the transition period easier and quicker.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Goodbye to The Lane

Can you feel nostalgia for a place that you've only visited once?  While I only went to White Hart Lane one time, I've seen it numerous times since on television, and have the entire stadium burned into my memory.

Tomorrow will be the last home game for Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane, which has served as their home since 1899.  Too small now for the modern game, it is an absolutely amazing place to watch a match.  I went there in 2003 for a pre-season game against PSV Eindoven, and immediately fell in love with the place.  It was odd we couldn't bring a beer or food to our seats, which perplexed the Yanks going to a match for our first time. However, the grass was green, the fans were in full song, and the game was fast paced and incredible.  I had to look the score up the other day, and it seems we lost that match.  Sadly, during that time in our history, losing wasn't that rare an occurrence.  But the passion, even during pre-season, made me smile.  It was that season, when I started to feel a little bit of something whenever I heard the scores for Tottenham, that I realized I was becoming a fan.

The loss of White Hart Lane to a new stadium, scheduled to open for the 2018-2019 season, is very sad for the modern game.  Nowadays in order to compete you need a larger stadium with Executive Suites which will bring in more revenue and allow the team to buy more players, making them competitive immediately.  I think it's draining the soul out of the game.  Tottenham are just doing what they need to do to remain competitive in the modern game, but that doesn't mean you can't miss the old times as well.

So many memories at the Lane for long time Spurs fans.  Winning the double in 1961, the first team to do it in the 20th Century; Winning the Cup Winner's Cup in 1963, the first English team to do so; 8 FA Cup wins; 4 League Cups; 2 First Division Championships.  While we haven't won anything recently, we haven't done too badly either.  All of it was centered around The Lane.  (Not to be confused with The Lane in Sheffield, that's another old and grand football ground.)  Of course the win against Anderlecht to win the UEFA Cup was one of the best nights at the Lane, but so many others as well.  Watching Kane score to ensure we beat Arsenal in the last North London Derby at WHL was special too.

The fact is we're losing a lot of these places all over the world now due to the economics of sports.  Tigers Stadium in Detroit is gone, and while I'm sure Comerica Park is nice, it won't compare.  Guaranteed Rate Field just isn't the same as Comiskey Park.  While the new Cowboys Stadium looks great, it doesn't compare with the old one.  I think we lose a little of the past when we leave these old stadiums, and the new ones just become disposable.  Look in Atlanta!  They got a new field in 1997, and now they built another one!  Where does it end?

I do wish I'd gotten a chance to go one more time with Crazy Little Man.  It would have been a great time, and he would've gotten to see it first hand.  Either way, tomorrow night my time I'll be sitting on my couch and watching the final home match at White Hart Lane.  One of the good things about the new Stadium, though, is that they aren't leaving the area that they've been in since 1899.  The new stadium is being re-developed on the same grounds, and so while the stadium won't be there, the echos of the past will still be heard in the area surrounding the Stadium.  We will remain N17, no matter what.  Bill Nicholson would've wanted it that way.

As always, Come On You Spurs!

I did indeed watch the game last night on TV, and watched as we beat Man United (something that when I first started watching Spurs didn't happen at all).  Afterwards, it rained on the crowd, but as the ceremony continued on the field (after clearing the fans from it first) a giant rainbow appeared over The Lane.  Strangely, as everyone at the ground sang Glory Glory Tottenham Hotspur, I accidentally hit the play button on my iPhone, and it started playing "Hallelujah" written by Leonard Cohen, but this version was Rufus Wainwright and a choir from Toronto and it seemed perfect.  

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Two dreams

For those of you that don't know me, I am somewhat of a ham.  I love to perform, and even being the MC of quiz night is a chance for me to go out and make it something special.  Instead of just coming in and reading questions, I make it an event.  Can't help it.  I've always pictured myself with entrance music when I walk into a building, and wanted one day to be somewhat famous enough to warrant a piece written about me in Rolling Stone, or to appear on "Never Mind the Buzzcocks" in the UK.  Sadly, that TV show isn't on any more, and I doubt Rolling Stone will be knocking on my door any time soon.

But I do have two dreams that I still foster.  One of them is to perform my one-man show that I've had bubbling along forever.  Entitled, "Anxiety and Low Self-Esteem" it's basically me talking about what I went through growing up with both anxiety and low self-esteem, and how I've overcome a lot of it.  But with humor you know?  It's in the same vein of Dave Gorman's "Googlewhack Adventure" and if you haven't seen it you should be ashamed of yourself and do so right now!  I'll wait....  Anyways, he inspired me and I think I'd be pretty good at discussing how my life was shaped by anxiety, and the feeling of low self-esteem I fought against pretty much right up until my 28th birthday.  (I'm much better now, thanks, but still struggle.)  I can picture the entire thing in my head and how it would go.  There would even be a break in the middle where everyone gets up and dances for about 2 minutes before sitting back down to continue the show.  As you can see, there's been some thought put into this.

The other dream I have isn't quite so random.  I'd like to write a screenplay.  "The Diplomat" being the title I've chosen, but can be talked into a different one.  I've been working on the screenplay, but just haven't been able to move through, since I really don't know a thing about screenwriting.  I mean, how long is a shooting script usually?  Is a longer one better, or is it just going to get cut?  Knowing I have zero chances probably of ever seeing my work on the screen, I still think it would be cool to do, you know?  Just to point and say, I took a chance once outside of my area of expertise, and even though it didn't work out I tried.

However, I'm not really the writer in my family.  Lovely English Lass is an amazing writer.  And an amazing photographer.  And an amazing cook.  And an amazing mother and motivator.  And an amazing partner in my life.  So while I have these two dreams, in reality my life is better than the dreams. I'll still work on them, but to be honest, I probably won't be too upset if I don't finish them.  Besides, life with LEL, Crazy Little Man and Lovely Little Girl is far better than any rush I could get by performing.  Besides, they'd probably help keep me grounded if I got to big for my britches.  I mean, when I call home, the usual response from the kids is, "Hi daddy, what did you buy me?" Can't argue with that, can I?

Monday, February 13, 2017

Music has to have meaning

Music is universal.  Music is in every culture on earth, and was on the Voyager spacecraft we sent outside of the solar system, so now it's one with the universe.

However, there is a disturbing trend that I must speak of even though it's a bit of a generality.  I speak of the lack of meaning in music.  Much of music today is fluff or stuff done without meaning.  (Again, generality of course.)  While I love all types of music (most country music being an exception.  Just don't....) the fact is that some things out there have no feeling.  No soul.  No nous.  Music needs to have a meaning to it.  A catchy beat is good, but it's not something that you'll find thirty years from now playing on an oldies station.  I mean the Partridge Family had 7 Top 40 hits, but when's the last time you heard one of their songs on the radio?  (Aside from "I Think I Love You" I mean.)  Think of iconic scenes in movies with 1960s music playing in the background.  The opening of Mean Streets with "Be My Baby".  "The End" playing over the credits for Apocalypse Now.  Any Scorsese film with "Gimme Shelter" from the Stones.  Can you honestly tell me you'll hear any of the songs from today playing in movies in 20 years?  I doubt it.

Music is a base instinct in my opinion.  You get across emotions you might not be able to speak about, but the tone of the music can get you there.  As an example Berlioz wrote "Symphonie Fantastique" which was a full fledged story, using notes and sounds to convey a man in love with a woman, his infatuation with her, her death, his execution for her death and then his soul in hell without the use of words.  Telling the cellists to turn their bows over and play with the wood on the strings to sound like skeletons dancing was inspired, and the turning the theme of the beloved from beauty to a wicked jig in the last act was brilliant.

Queen could do that with their music.  Buffalo Springfield's awe inspiring "For What It's Worth" is a brilliant example.  What else, besides music, can exude meaning just by playing two notes over and over on a guitar.

To be fair, I feel a lot of the soul from music has been lost due to technological influences.  The feel of live musicians adds a lot to the sound.  I'm probably biased since I did play an actual instrument, but it's less cold and calculated.

I do know there are exceptions to this rule.  St. Paul and the Broken Bells is now a favorite of mine, as is The Lumineers.  But a lot of the disposable stuff lately just leaves me cold. Hopefully there is a backlash against it and people start making music again with guitars, drums and a singer.

While I'm at this rant: Get off my lawn!

Monday, October 24, 2016

My worst 6 months

That title may not be correct, but it's certainly the description of what my life was like one year ago.  From May until December (technically more than 6 months) I was in hell.  My professional life held on by a thread, and I was doing everything I could to survive.  This was probably the closest I've ever come to quitting my career, and that should tell you something.

It started because of a mistake.  Actually, my section made a mistake, but I took the blame.  I was the boss, so my fault, right?  I wasn't then, nor now, going to throw my team under the bus.  I took my lumps, told the front office at my last post that if they wanted me to leave so it'd make it easier on them I would, and prepared for the worst.  My Ambassador assured me that wouldn't be necessary, and we all faced the music together.  It was rough, but it passed, didn't really cause as much of a stir as originally thought, and things moved back to normal.

If this was an O. Henry novel, it would have been a learning experience and I would have moved onward in my life, wiser from the knowledge received during my tribulation.  Sadly, Mr. O wasn't around, and life was going to take a much more difficult turn for me and my family.

Before all of this had even started, I'd discussed with Lovely English Lass about leaving BA early to go to a post where I'd be alone for a year, and applying for a linked assignment to help with getting Lovely Little Girl a school that would meet her needs.  So I applied, and accepted the job for the Management Officer in Karachi.  LEL and the kids would go to the States, and now I had to apply for a job for afterward.  So I did, and it was a job I knew I could do and was very qualified for, and fully expected to get the job.

I didn't.  I was told they'd read my 360 reviews, and then looked beyond them and decided I wasn't what they were looking for in the position.  When I asked what that was all about, I was informed that the issue in BA had been raised.  I was encouraged to move on and try another bureau for a position.  I looked, and found a job that I liked in another bureau, and a friend of LEL was the incumbent.  I called him and talked to him about the position, and it really checked all of our boxes. I interviewed with the supervisor for the position while I was on vacation, and really hit it off with them.  They told me I was more than qualified, and that they'd recommend giving me the job.  A few days later came the official offer for the job.  I was ecstatic!

However, a month later, 2 days before I was to be officially put into the job, I received another email telling me they were rescinding my offer. They gave reasons as to why, which were specific enough to hurt and vague enough to not give much detail.  When I requested more information, I was informed that this was given to them in confidence and that I should talk with pretty much everyone I've ever worked with.

So, after all my hard work through the years, my reputation was laying in tatters.  I was going to a post alone so I could get a place for my daughter, and then I couldn't get a job at those posts.  I was advised to "just work hard and keep my head down and it'd work out" by quite a few people.  I was depressed and seriously thinking of leaving the entire thing, and chucking my career.  Heck, I could open a BBQ joint in the UK and be somewhat happy there doing something I liked.  But did I want to do that?

Not right now I don't.  (In a decade, maybe.  Check back then.)  Instead of the old me, that would have slunk away and taken it, I decided to fight back.  There are in fact things you can't take from someone: Pride in your work and a sense of what's right are two that pop off the top of my head.  Nothing in my evaluations stated any of the things they were accusing me of doing, and in my eyes (and rather amateur sleuthing on the internet) that was slander.  Basically, I prepared to sue if they didn't at least give me details on what I'd been accused of doing.  In my job, your reputation is everything.  It gets you jobs and gets you promoted.  If I'd allowed this to stay, it would have followed me for the rest of my career.  I also received support from some very good people in the department who told me to fight like hell, and when I felt like giving up to fight some more.

So I did.  I fought back.  I fought back through the proper channels, and by laying out my story.  I explained my life and career, and why I was doing my tour away from my family.  I told them of the horror of hearing that someone somewhere was saying these things about me, and I wasn't being given the opportunity to even rebut them.  I asked for the powers that be to direct them to tell me what was said, allowing me to face the accusations, and then to allow me an audience in person, which I would pay for out of my own pocket, to argue why I should be given the job back.

Less than two weeks later I got an email from the decision maker.  It started off thanking me for going to my next post without my family, and how hard that is and how big a sacrifice that is.  I braced myself, as that's usually how you start an email where the next sentence is, "However".  There wasn't a however, though.  They agreed with me, and directed that the job would be re-instated.  A week later came the confirmation, and then in January I was filled into the position.

Here's the lesson, everyone: You need to stand up for yourself in this world, cause no one else is going to do it for you.  I did have a lot of support from many people (both in and out of the Department), which was great, but it wouldn't have helped if I hadn't decided to take on that fight.  Remember, if you're an honest person that always tries to do the right thing, then you have nothing to fear.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The pain of losing someone you never actually knew

Boy 2016 has sucked for losing famous people, hasn't it?

Every time someone famous dies, there can be an outpouring of people talking about how sad it is, and many fans basically distraught.  Of course, with that and this being the age of the internet, this is followed by the people who mock them for their sadness, pointing out all the other bad things in the world, and making fun of them for caring so much about a simple celebrity.  It never fails.  It does in fact beg the question: How come you can feel pain losing someone you never actually knew?

Look, I'm no psychologist, but I can at least explain this one a bit.  You see, there is always something that speaks to you as a person.  Be it preacher, music, an actor or even a painter or artist.  Something that you see that for some reason becomes a part of you.  It's something you respect, and may even feel as if that one thing gets you.  In this world, which can be at times very confusing and just a bit crazy, there are always things that can give you solace. Things that put your mind at rest and take you to a safe place. That's a connection that can't really be explained, but it's a real one.  Because that person's work is such an important part of your life, losing them is just like losing a friend or family member.

I don't understand now why people are angry because someone feels sad their favorite artist (or actor, etc) died.  I guess now everyone can be their true selves with the internet's anonymity, and it makes them feel better about themselves by mocking someone else's pain.  However, it's weird that this has really started to come out, since there wasn't any kind of backlash against the sorrow felt by people previously when someone famous died.  (Well, there was kind of one when Kurt Cobain died.)  But no one said boo when there was much grief all over when John Lennon died.  The UK definitely was very sad when Eric Morecombe died in 1984.  But nary a word was mentioned over how stupid it was that people were grieving for someone they'd never met.

In my opinion, people need to realize that everyone has a thing they connect with.  Lovely English Lass has Jane Eyre, the music of the Beatles, and other things as well.  I have to admit feeling a certain pang of sadness upon hearing the news that Brazilian soccer great Socrates had passed away a few years ago.  (He was a maestro on the pitch in the 1982 World Cup.  Watch a few clips if you don't believe me.)

What brought all of this out, of course, was the death of Prince yesterday.  Strangely enough, a few weeks ago I downloaded Prince's greatest hits, and started listening to it again.  I've always liked his music, and if you grew up in the mid-1980s until the mid-1990s, you heard Prince on the radio all the time.  Some people hated his sexualized music, and tales of his perfectionism were rampant.  (Ask Morris Day and the Time, or The Revolution, or The New Power Generation.)  But if you listened to his music, especially as another musician, you couldn't help but love the sound of Prince.  Complex and simple at the same time.  (Frank Ocean put it best, so go ready what he said.)  It was the sound of growing up to a lot of people my age (now in their late 30s, early 40s.)  We, as a group, have introduced some of his more tame songs to our kids already.  Plus if you think about all the music he wrote, ("Nothing Compares 2 U") he's undoubtedly one of the greatest musicians of the last 40 years.  LEL and I talked about how it was weird that this one felt a bit harder to take than some of the other deaths this year.

Again, to me, it's all about feelings.  You make a connection to something, and it becomes a part of you.  In this world, with everything crazy that goes on, if you find something that touches you deeply enough to become a part of you, then you should be happy.  If someone creates something that means so much to people (be it music, art or literature) that when you die they all mourn your passing as if you were a true friend, that should be celebrated as well.  Because, in their eyes, you were a part of their family.