How to Survive a Layoff (according to me)

Posted on August 18, 2011. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , |

Two and a half years after my fourth (official) layoff, I’m finally ready to write about my strategies for surviving and thriving after a layoff. First, a little history for context, then a list of guiding principles that have worked for me. Before I proceed, however, I feel compelled to point out everyone’s situation will be different. Therefore, consider these guidelines in that light… as a starting point for planning your own layoff survival in the event it happens to you.

John’s Principles of Survival

  • Count Your Cash. You should already know where your money is, but make sure you know how much is in each account. Create a list of savings and investments and determine which ones can be used (in priority order) if cash is needed. For me, I spend from my checking account first, then savings, then cash-in CDs or brokerage accounts (stocks, bonds.) If necessary, it is possible to withdraw from a Roth IRA without penalty — you’ve already paid taxes on it. Traditional IRAs can also be cashed in, but at a penalty — these are the last assets to use. Remember, spending your retirement has long-term implications, but if it is the difference between keeping your house long enough to land a job, you’ll have time later to worry about retirement. You may also be able to sell possessions, but these take time to convert into cash and if they are things you’ll need either during or after your period of unemployment, it will probably cost you more to replace than you will receive for their sale. Keep selling of hard assets as a last resort.
  • Cash Flow is King. Pay off debt, especially high interest-rate credit cards. Reduce or eliminate expenses that neither generate an income, promise to generate an income, carry a severe cancellation penalty or cannot be removed. For instance, you have to continue to make your mortgage payment, but often the bank will allow you to reduce your monthly payments to cover just the interest for a defined period of time. Do you need the expensive CATV package or the phone land-line when you have a mobile phone? When is your ISP contract up, can you negotiate a price break for renewal? Eat at home instead of at restaurants. Get creative, make all expenses as small as possible and then put them off as long as possible without incurring penalties or interest expenses. DO NOT put off these tasks, the sooner you adjust your cash flow, the longer your cash will last!
  • Preserve your Credit. Pay off debt balances early if you can. Stop using your credit cards as much as possible. Look for ways to exchange goods for goods or services for goods. Increase your limits while you still have a reported income. If you exhaust all your liquid assets (see Count Your Cash above,) you can use credit as a last resort. I say last resort because credit can be expensive. Take advantage of 0% interest for 6 months deals while you can… they may not be available later if your period of unemployment is prolonged. Avoid this phase as long as possible! Once you get into the circumstance where you must use credit, be ruthlessly thrifty, use low rate cards first, pay only the minimum balances each month but pay them on time to avoid penalties. Talk to the credit card companies to see if they can provide any relief for people in your situation.
  • Finding a Job is Your Job! Those who have never experienced long periods of unemployment often think of it as a vacation. But seriously, how relaxing can a vacation be when you don’t know when or how much will be the next paycheck? If your company provides a severance period, use it to its full extent. Don’t leave anything on the table. If they require you “wrap up” your old job, negotiate to minimize the amount of effort necessary to do so… don’t worry about putting a tidy bow on everything, it will get second guessed and redone as soon as you are no longer available anyway. Don’t burn any bridges, but remember it is more important you find your next source of income than for you to cross all of the t’s and dot all of the i’s.
  • Find Some Time to Relax and Reflect. I know I just said unemployment is not a vacation. But, it does offer some degree of flexibility. Take advantage. Have you thought about helping on a community project or volunteering at the local not-for-profit? Do it. They’ll work around your schedule and you might find either an interest or a lead that will send you down an unexpected path. Join your friends or take your family to the local free concert-in-the-park. It will allow you time away from your day-to-day stress, will not drain your pocket book and could be an important avenue for networking.
  • Some Expenses are Really Investments. Do you really need that fitness club membership? It depends, what kind of job do you seek? If you have a strong support network at the club, this may also be an important job network as well. Avoid isolation, scrutinize membership expenses but also consider whether they might lead to job leads or referrals. Hanging out at the popular coffee house might seem frivolous, but if there is a possibility you will meet your next employer there, it might still be worthwhile. Be sure to use your time productively while there and plan for lots of interruptions. Look for ways to eliminate expenses without eliminating the opportunities they present — can you reduce your membership cost? Can you drink coffee instead of a double latte with extra flavoring or stretch a single cup of coffee over an hour rather than having a couple over the same period?
  • The Clock is Ticking. It takes a lot of time to find a job that fits and pays well. There used to be a rule-of-thumb of 1 month for every $10K of annual compensation. I don’t know if that ratio still holds, but it is a reasonable starting place to estimate how long your savings need to last. Unless your savings are big, you probably won’t have the luxury of an extended employment gap. Consider negotiating your starting date once you land a job so you can have a week or two vacation prior to resuming work.
  • Plan Ahead. Obviously, it is not possible to plan ahead if you have already received a pink slip. If you have not, assume it could happen to you someday. I have made it a practice to estimate my monthly expenses periodically. I try to keep 3-6 months of savings on hand at all times. Here’s how it works, if the parachute account (this is what I call it) is in excess of 6 months, I’ll spend the money on anything reasonable. However, if it ever drops to 3 months or below, I will not touch it until the balance is once again up to 6 months. There is an undefined bonus effect that actually extends a 3-6 month parachute — if you calculate the savings goal based on current expense, whey unemployed you will minimize expenses and thereby stretch your cushion over a longer period of time.

Context: Why I am Qualified to Talk about This

I entered the professional workforce after completing an undergraduate degree in Business Administration from the University of Kansas. I was excited about the prospects of working for first employer because a KU professor’s tutelage had gotten me excited about Labor Relations and I would have the opportunity to practice in a company with a recognizable name. When my friends and I spoke about who had job offers, I didn’t have to explain who is Coca Cola.

Coca Cola Bottling Company

Our views of the world change as our perspectives expand. Mine is no different. Following the excitement of a union de-certification campaign, training management employees to work in the face of work stoppages and hiring strike replacements willing to cross a picket line, I began to develop a conscience. I learned that some companies deserve to have a union. Those unions can and do provide benefits that work to the advantage of both union and non-union employees alike. As my perspective expanded, I decided I would be better suited in sales and began applying for a transfer. Unfortunately, there was “bad blood” between the respective executives responsible to for Sales and Labor Relations and I became a pawn in a political game. I lost my job as a result.

PACE Membership Warehouse

It was 1983 and to my surprise, I landed on my feet in a role that fit my temperament much better and provided significantly better pay. I worked at this privately owned regional department store for more than five years. Advanced through a number of increasingly responsible positions and was ultimately recruited away when I topped out growth-wise in the moderately sized company.

PACE offered the promise of stock options, bonuses, travel, a considerable bump in pay and a prestigious job title. Unfortunately, the company did not know how to make a profit. Eventually, they were purchased (the goal of the founders of the company — built to flip) and I was out of a job.

Mutual of Omaha Insurance

Once again, I landed on my feet. I moved again, increased my salary, increased my responsibilities and got to do some really amazing projects. Professionally, I thrived in this environment; politically, I was a fish out of water. While heading the employee relations function of the global company I also received an MBA — paid for by the company! However, within months of finishing the degree, I became the football in another political game between corporate senior vice presidents. (I actually got the inside story when I ran into one of the VP’s at a cocktail party years later.) I had just finished my MBA and was ready to expand my responsibilities again. The situation allowed me to negotiate a superb severance package and move onto a dream job.

Alliant Health Systems

Yet another pay raise, bonuses, a generous boss and work outside of the human resource field, at last! I was still part of HR, but was working directly with front-line hospital workers and executives to re-create compensation and performance systems in brand new (at the time) and exciting ways. Despite the acclaim these programs brought to the hospital system and the increasing number of invitations to present at conferences, when my aforementioned generous boss moved to another position, I discovered I had not made the appropriate moves to replace him. Instead a peer manager had out-maneuvered me (again) and threatened to dismantle the systems I had assembled. Seeing the writing on the wall, I attempted to transfer within the system, but my skill-set was too specialized and no opportunities existed.

Hewlett-Packard Company

A number of factors led me to believe this would be my final career move. First, I could see organizational politics were not my long suit. I determined to shift my career trajectory from executive to professional. In other words, I intended to work in a role where expertise would serve me better than political skill. Second, I had longed wanted to live on the West Coast and HP offered an Oregon location. Third, my MBA had an international focus and I wanted to work with people in non-US countries. HP gave me instant global responsibility.

I was fortunate enough at HP to work on some very fun and unique projects. But mostly, I was able to turn a talent for organization into a job as a world class project manager. I developed a reputation for managing projects that were complex, dynamic and fraught with problems. I was constantly learning, was actively mentoring numerous colleagues and exercising a talent for problem solving at the same time. I thought I was set. Unfortunately, my success was also my vulnerability.

My frequent successes were met with bonuses, stock options and increasing salary. But I was working in a field (project management) that appeared generic and substitutable to company executives. Despite 13 years of success in management technical projects, my lack of a technical degree made me a candidate for layoff. I trained a replacement in India who earned 25% of my pay and was unceremoniously shown the door.

Oregon State University – An Encore Career

2008 was not a good year to be job searching. With the greatest economic crisis in nearly a century, high levels of unemployment and global financial malaise, few US (and international) corporations were hiring at my level of expertise. Plus, I was undergoing a personal crisis of identity. Faced with the prospects of having to relocate from a community where I had lived for a quarter of my life (longer than any other place) and leaving friends and community support, I decided to stay and change careers. Fortunately, a reasonably successful career had situated me such that I could pay off my home mortgage, eliminate all debts and survive on a significantly smaller income. I wanted to do something meaningful and teaching had been long on my mind as an option.

Due to some lucky networking breaks, I landed a position at OSU where I am now teaching strategic management to seniors and organizational behavior to juniors. My work experiences easily translate into the classroom and I’m finding the challenge of learning how to teach at the university level equal to any I found in corporate America and twice as fulfilling. It has been a struggle at times, but I am enjoying the dual reward of personal growth coupled with making a direct difference in other people’s lives.


Losing your job can be one of the most stressful events in your life. I ought to know, it has happened to me five times! But it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. Timing is everything. If you can build a big enough war chest, aggressively manage your cash flow and learn from your experiences, you too can survive a layoff.

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The Problem with Innovation

Posted on December 30, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , , |

When I worked as a corporate training consultant I was in charge of innovation training for many years. Despite the widespread interest in the topic it rarely got any real traction at the company I worked. In other words, while most of the executives of the company mention the term “innovation” in their public pronouncements and speeches, when they’d speak in private it had very little meaning to them. They supported innovation the same way Americans are raised to support “mom, apple pie and baseball.” They are good concepts but they have very “fuzzy” boundaries. It is hard to “get your mind around” any of them with regards to WHY they are important.

Why don’t they listen?

Eventually, I became curious why these executives would continue to fund my training programs in innovation but not support the other activities that seemed critical to accomplish the results they claimed to need. They would complain that innovation wasn’t happening, yet they were often the biggest hurdles to true innovation themselves. In the language of TRIZ (one of the methodologies for innovation that I championed), they were part of an innovation dilemma, how do we get more innovation while allocating fewer resources on the subject. This article describes the problem with innovation as it relates to the disagreement over getting started.

Innovation is one of those concepts everyone already knows. Like being a backseat driver, anyone can drive better than the person at the wheel when things are going badly. Many discussions leading to disagreement often started in an attempt to define innovation. Many and varied definitions were generated and hours of productivity were lost in the debate. Ultimately, the definitions were so different because they required context for their relevance. In other words, the definition for innovation depends on what you need at the moment and what issues you are facing on a day-to-day basis.

A unique perspective

One of the advantages my training role offered over others — I served all masters, not just a single one — was the opportunity to compare and contrast the different constituents while they attempted to find a definition that addressed their particular pain. This article is the direct result of a conversation I had with a former colleague yesterday over coffee. Jack was one co-conspirators in attempting to learn and proliferate TRIZ methodologies throughout the research and development community of our former employer.

What is TRIZ?

Before I go too much further, let me describe TRIZ. The term has been around since roughly the middle of the last century. My favorite source of information on the topic is at the TRIZ Journal website. The reason many Americans don’t know about TRIZ is related to the fact it was developed during the Cold War “behind” the Iron Curtain. A patent office worker (have we heard this story before) by the name of Genrich Altschuller noticed a pattern in the applications for patents in the former Soviet Union. Over time, he developed a body of knowledge referred to as the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving. In Russian that translates roughly to the acronym “TRIZ” and is usually pronounced “trees.” The training in the theories required a rigorous discipline and many years of post-graduate practice. Following glasnost in the late 1980’s, several Russians began introducing this set of theories to other parts of the world. The concepts have caught on slowly in the West because they require “unlearning” some pretty deep-seated understanding before they can be usefully applied. However, the power of the techniques is well documented and irrefutable.

The Elements of Innovation

Venn diagram showing the relationship between the various elements of innovation.

Elements of Innovation

In the diagram at the left, I have characterized innovation as consisting of three primary components — creativity, problem solving and implementation. The intersection of these three components creates four additional concepts. The overlap of creativity and problem solving (A) is generally the realm of science. The overlap of problem solving and implementation (B) is  the domain of engineering. The perspective of project management comes at the overlap of creativity and implementation (C). True commercial value resides at the intersection of all three elements (D). Finally, when these attributes of innovation take place within a collaborative environment, innovation is enhanced. Innovation can and does happen without collaboration, but it is usually enhanced through the collaboration of multiple experts.

When we stop trying to confine innovation to any one of these elements — and realize the act of innovating can be applied to one, all or any combination — the exact definition becomes less important than the act. Just like the proverbial blind people attempting to describe an elephant by touching distinct and unique parts of the beast — scientists, engineers and managers often have difficulty gaining consensus on a single definition. Obviously, the definition is complex and depends on its application at the moment. Therefore, I shy away from the need to have any specific definition for innovation and instead focus on how to make it happen.

In application, innovation is elusive. If you set out to be innovative, it just doesn’t happen. However, I found when I got scientists, engineers or managers focused on solving a problem the outcome was almost always innovative. When I finally got traction with innovation was when I stopped trying to teach it — or, more precisely — to offer training in innovative techniques.

Its not a destination!

In my role, I worked with many vendors. We often shared frustration with the difficulty of facilitating wide-spread adoption of innovation techniques. TRIZ might be embraced by the practitioners (like Jack), but it was rarely seen as useful by their managers. I often observed innovation happening whenever collaboration took place. TRIZ helped facilitate collaboration because it brought previously unrelated concepts to the same problem. Only when we stopped trying to teach TRIZ and started to solve problems did we make progress. In retrospect, the problem with innovation is that it is a by-product of specific actions creativity, problem solving, implementation and collaboration — often involving collaboration between related but isolated contributors — and does not happen simply through the desire to be innovative.

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Linking Strategy and Tactics

Posted on March 11, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , , , , |

Linking Strategy to Tactics

Linking Strategy to Tactics

Working with an organizational client helped me see just how difficult the interplay between tactics and strategy can be for some. To keep these straight, it is important to understand both relative to “purpose”. In the diagram, I’ve shown a chevron diagram that leads from many tasks to a few goals and a single vision all of which point toward a target or “purpose”. When we work from a plan, this is is happening naturally, we don’t have to “think about” what we are trying to achieve… the plan takes care of that for us.

Plans are worthless but planning is priceless.

It is a long distance between purpose and our daily task list – or that work which is staring at us from our computer monitor or in basket. So, how does one bridge that distance between a “next action” and his or her “life purpose”?

Planning works in the opposite direction from daily action. In planning we start at our purpose, or “why am I here,” “what do I want to achieve,” or “how do I add value?” (By the way, individual planning is no different than group planning. If planning for a group, replace the word “I” in the questions above with the word “we.”) Sometimes, this first step can take a long time, even months, to fully understand. Often, just starting is as good as starting with the perfect purpose. In planning, nothing is ever finished until you re-write the plan! So, if you get stuck while writing your purpose statement, don’t dwell on it, just go with whatever you have after an hour or so and revisit it later.

If done correctly, a purpose cannot be achieved in a single lifetime! It is a spot on the horizon. If you can quickly achieve your purpose, you aren’t planning big enough.

Where purpose may be rather vague even esoteric, such as, “Be the best I can be” or “Build the perfect mousetrap”, a vision should be very concrete, for example, “The best salesman in the United States” or “The top selling mousetrap in North America.” This specificity will help in the next step.


To identify your goals, ask yourself what things need to happen in order for this vision to be achieved. Bear in mind the vision may take many years, but goals should be “SMART.” This is an initialism used for Specific — Measurable — Aligned — Realistic — Time-bound goals. Specific refers to focus of the goal, vague goals will not be completed. Measurable is an objective way of determining when the goal is met. Aligned refers to the place each goal fills relative to other priorities. Realistic references the ability to accomplish the goal within the time period, usually one year. Time-bound means the time in which the goal will be accomplished must be stated. I like the rule of “seven plus or minus two” when writing goals. That means, don’t write more than 9 or fewer than 5 goals. although there is debate over the validity of scientific studies, it remains useful to focus your awareness on 7 +/- 2 items. The surest way to inaction is to have too many goals, but you’ll underachieve if you write too few.

Nesting Goals

In some cases, you may find that nesting your goals is necessary. If you can’t achieve your vision without 12 goals, look for linkages such that the overall number reduces to that magic 7 +/- 2. Nest them and work on them in sequential order if necessary. See the discussion in the next two paragraphs on seequential and parallel tasks to get a better understanding of how this nesting strategy works.

Linear or Parallel Relationship?

When identifying your tasks, consider the goals and plan out what steps are required for each to be accomplished. Here, I highly recommend you work on just one goal at a time. You will identify these steps either need to be done in sequence or in parallel. Sequential tasks can have a “linear” relationship where one must be accomplished before another can be started. An example is baking bread, the ingredients must be acquired before the mixing can start and the dough must rise before the baking can start.

In parallel tasks, the relationship is different. Most often, these type of tasks involve waiting time and therefore several tasks may be happening at the same time. For instance, when putting together the meal, you may get the bread dough mixed, but it needs to sit for an hour before it can be baked, so you start on the meat marinade while you are waiting. Ideally, all parallel tasks are completed around the same time and by the conclusion of the goal deadline.

Next Step?

The final and most frequently addressed activity in planning is identifying the “next step.” Review your goals regularly and your active tasks daily and constantly ask yourself about the next action. In other words, when you finish a meeting, conclude a phone call or before you send an email, ask yourself this questions, “What’s the very next thing to do?” Don’t be afraid to say this question out loud with whomever is present. They will be appreciative and it will cause everyone to stop for a moment and think about the next step. This is a very useful summary question.

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