Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Oracle of Omaha

Warren Buffett made good on a promise this week. Once a year he raffles a lunch to the highest bidder and gives the proceeds to charity. This year Zhao Danyang won the opportunity to have lunch with Warren Buffett at Smith and Wolinsky’s in New York City and it only cost him $2.1M.

I like reading about Mr. Buffett to see what I can learn. I’ve been following news stories about him since my days at Salomon Brothers when he was one of the primary stockholders. It was always news when he was in the building and everyone rushed to the auditorium at 7 World Trade Center to hear him speak.
What did I learn? Simple things really. He drove a used car, lived in a modest house and believed in saving for a rainy day. He held fast to his values despite his exorbitant wealth.

I was surrounded by big money when I worked at Salomon. In the summer, the limos would begin lining up in front of 7 World Trade starting around noon on Fridays, waiting to take the million dollar brokers to the Hamptons for the weekend. They had big cars, big money, big houses and big egos. Working in HR, I saw the compensation numbers – they were big! I also saw the other side: the burn out, the high divorce rate, the substance abuse and more.

So what’s this have to do with Mr. Buffett? He traveled in the same circles; he made even bigger money but had something that money couldn’t buy . . . . balance. Most of the folks thatheaded for the Hamptons are long gone now and sadly, so is 7 World Trade Center. Mr. Buffett survives. He had a two million dollar lunch Wednesday at Smith and Wolinsky’s.

Balance. . . it’s a beautiful thing.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Branding: Why It's Important

It’s about marketing yourself. In today’s fast paced world, it’s about telling your story, telling it succinctly and telling it so people can see the benefit to them. Your brand needs to be communicated clearly: in your resume, in your pitch and in your interviews.

You know what you’re good at. You know how you’ve gotten hired in the past and you know what people have valued about your work. If you don’t know these answers, we should have a conversation. But for those who have this part nailed, you’ve already mastered the most difficult part of self marketing: knowing your product inside and outside, backwards and forwards. You know the products’ highlights and lowlights; you know what it can and cannot do. You know what it does well and what it does less well. You know yourself. This is good—because YOU are the product!

Next, create interest in the product by creating excitement around what it does. Here’s what I mean: my computer got a virus that was reaping havoc on my life. Technology is my main form of communication with the world—I need my computer! I needed someone to fix it yesterday. I called The Geek Squad, which by the way, has great marketing and hefty prices (someone has to pay for the marketing campaigns.) They responded within 24 hrs. They arrived in a Volkswagen Beetle with “Geek Squad” logos and marketing all over it. Their technicians wear “geekie clothing”: black pants, white collared shirts with thin black ties. What, no pen protector? But here’s the best part: the technician knew his stuff, absolutely! Not only did he nail the virus in no time at all, he explained everything as he went along, showing me things my computer could do that I didn’t even know about and sharing shortcuts I still use. He was friendly, professional, knowledgeable, efficient and thorough.

OK, so let’s say I’m interviewing him for a position in my technology company. He has all the techno buzzwords; he’s taken the right computer programming courses. I ask him to tell me about himself and he says:
“I’m an experienced technician and have been with the Geek Squad for 5 years. I’ve worked on a variety of computers types and am familiar with several computing languages.” OK.

Now, here’s his co-worker interviewing for the same position. I ask him to tell me about himself and he says:
“I’ve been using computers almost as long as I’m walking! My parents started me off with an Apple when I was three. Eventually I started taking them apart so I could see how they worked. My parents relaxed a bit when they saw that I could put them back together and they would work! I’m a senior technician with the Geek Squad, great place to work by the way. I’ve learned a lot from them these past 5 years, especially around advanced programming techniques and the importance of delivering outstanding customer service.”

Which one should I hire?

Friday, June 5, 2009

People At Work in Brooklyn

As a career coach I find it interesting to observe what others do for a living. What calls them to the work they do? Did they pursue their life’s work consciously, did they sort of tumble into it? Were they taught? Were they born with some innate talent? Whether a physician, laborer, artist…how did they get there?

I met my cousin Nancy last Friday at The Brooklyn Museum to see Gustave Caillebotte: The Reluctant Impressionist. Nancy is an artist, so visiting an art museum with her is a wonderfully enriching experience. Not only is she enjoyable to be with, she has an artist’s eye. I get an art lesson just being there with her. She’s smart, not preachy; and knows her stuff. She would make a wonderful teacher. Caillebotte’s famous Floor Scrapers are his rendering of the actual workmen he had hired to refurbish his Paris apartment. He painted them as they worked.

My personal favorite was a painting by Francis Guy: A Scene in Winter. Painted in the early 19th century, Guy depicts his neighbors going about their daily lives when Brooklyn still resembled a small Dutch village. It was difficult to think of Brooklyn as the village it once was, especially as I drove down Flatbush Avenue. But Guy’s gift with a paint brush allowed my imagination to take off. A Brooklyn native myself, whose ancestors had a farm on what is now Bedford Avenue, I thought it was entirely possible that some of the townspeople depicted in the snowy scene were family members from 200 years ago.

Caillebotte was wealthy and could well afford to paint while others worked. Francis Guy painted what he saw from his window. Did anyone work at regular jobs like the rest of us? Certainly not either of these gentlemen. But one thing became clear to me. Whether we scrape or paint, we seem to migrate toward what feeds us. Do we choose our life’s work because it provides the income to feed us physically or because it feeds us in ways that are more important to us? Which comes first? . . . something to think about on my way home.