Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Memorable impressions

I was inspired today by the power of a great memory, and it sent my mind abuzz with thinking of all sorts of parallels to my professional and personal life.

I was attending the funeral of Bob, technically my great uncle - he was married to my grandmother's youngest sister on my father's side of the family. Growing up, I simply referred to them as aunt Mary and uncle Bob. Aunt Mary is alive and kicking and pushing her mid-90's. Bob passed a few months ago at the tender age of 95, shortly after renewing his drivers license. These were, and are, active, alert, life loving people, despite their chronological age. Bob was a compassionate and talented man who lived a relatively simple, long, and happy life in rural America.

So I am standing graveside on a cold but sunny Sunday afternoon in a tiny rural town in southwest Washington. Few people are in attendance, among them an elderly couple who looked vaguely familiar. I come from a big Italian family and all of us are predisposed to being gregarious and the center of social activity. My grandparents and their siblings were all very social, entertaining people in their homes as long as I can remember. Family, neighbors, friends, a lot of Italian community folks, everybody at some point rotated through my grandparents house for dinner or socializing every weekend. Over the years my big extended family tree has grown smaller, so that attending funerals at this stage of my life (let's call it 50-ish), is not particularly uncommon. My dad, a spry 86 this July, knows everybody, or so it seems to me. I thought nothing of him talking to this elderly couple. Everybody seems to know my dad. He and the elderly gentleman were obviously engaged in a warm and familiar conversation, smiling, laughing, very convivial. A short time later this gentleman approached me and in one breath introduced himself, extended his hand, and asked my name. "Hello, I am Alisa Tazioli" I replied, and nodding in the direction of my dad, said "I am Eddie's youngest daughter." I was greeted with a beaming smile, and words I never expected to hear . . . "Oh yes, I went on a date with your grandmother."

Let me pause here for a minute. Carrying a distinctive last name that is rare in this country, much less the one my ancestors came from, it is not uncommon when I meet someone who has EVER met another person with my last name to immediately blurt out the the question "oh, are you related to . . .?" followed by the name of any one of my aforementioned gregarious relatives. I am no spring chicken either but am among the youngest of my generation, so most people know someone older than me. But my grandmother?! She passed in her mid-80's when I was, well, considerably younger. She would have been well over 100 by now. Who WAS this man?!

He then proceeded to recount to me a story of traveling to Seattle in his youth with my uncle Gino and aunt Alice (another of my grandmother's sisters), who suggested they call my grandmother for a night out on the town, hanging out at a night club where there was music, dancing, and lots of other Italians. It is what people did in that era. My grandmother was a petite somewhat reserved earnest family devoted woman. She was never boisterous or loud. She was an intelligent conversationalist, and loved nothing more than to be surrounded by family anytime anywhere, so a call from her sister visiting from Portland would surely get her attention. My grandfather loved staying at home, and although they rarely were apart, on this rare night apparently my grandmother decided to go out with her sister, her brother-in-law, and their gentleman friend - the man now standing before me. Nothing nefarious, just a fun night out.

With a memory no doubt somewhat clouded by the passage of time, this elderly gentleman nonetheless recounted the evening events with great clarity. They visited multiple clubs in downtown Seattle where Italian musicians were performing, one club had a new Italian chef recently arrived from Lucca (the motherland!), and they stayed out until "after hours" courtesy of one restaurant proprietor. They laughed, drank, sang, socialized, and had a night of fun. Among the remnants of his memory he described with great precision my grandmother's laugh, her smile, and her demeanor. "I'll never forget it" he said with a bright smile and gleam in his eye. This gentleman is easily in his 90's. The memory of this evening had to be at least 60 years prior. It was sweet and clear. Impressive. I can't remember where I put the ear thumps to my iPod and he can remember a few hours out of his vast life like it was yesterday. THAT is what I call memorable. Something so riveting it sears an enduring home in your memory so that you can recall it at a snap decades later. Say what you will about how older people recall memories of events years earlier when they have trouble recalling yesterday's lunch, but the way he described it was obvious and powerful.

It got me thinking about what creates enduring impressions. In the modern day we are bombarded with media, music blaring in every retail outlet, billboards that spin with graphics and neon, cell phones ringing everywhere all the time, televisions in airports with pundits and spin doctors loudly espousing their controversial views, even advertising placards in restrooms! We are all so drenched with this stuff it is lucky we can remember where we are going, yet advertisers are assaulting our senses every waking moment. On a planet inhabited by billions of people in this media overload era, how do we distinguish ourselves at all? Has life has become so busy and crowded in the 21st century? Is it harder because there are so many more people? Are we numb to it all now, or just not paying attention? Or are we so oriented to the masses that we lose sight of the individual that is right in front of us?

I linger on that last question a lot. It is part of what I think about every day. I am an executive search consultant for the worlds' largest search firm devoted solely to recruiting lawyers for our client law firms and corporate legal departments around the world. Our firm serves hundreds of clients, large and small, and individually I easily speak with hundreds of lawyers and the people they work with every year. Over a recruiting career that is a little shy of 20 years, that equates to a lot of people. I talk to employers and candidates alike who are as unique as their individual fingerprints. So what makes others stand out among the rest? Part of what I do for a living is help my client distinguish themselves to attract top talent, and to help that top talent distinguish themselves from other talented and capable people. Especially in the current economy, whether you are a candidate or an employer, you better stand out too. Look at your odds if you don't. But with all the sensory overload, it isn't a numbers game or who shouts the loudest. It's about the impression you create.

I have noticed a fair amount of trade chatter recently around employment branding. Admittedly I have not read much on the topic yet, but seems to me it relates to distinction. A few observations:

Honestly define yourself. Hold up the mirror and inspect the image, warts and all. That which defines you is what others see, so if you are candid about it you will attract the right people. The most intelligent employer brand marketing describes a company's corporate culture and values consistent with what employees experience and what the company or firm expects from their employees routinely. Expect long hours and reward with generous bonuses? Say it! An egalitarian structure where every fee earner is a partner and has a truly equal vote in major decisions? Spell it out! Mo matter how big of a company you are, the truth is you don't want everyone to work for you. The people you want are the ones who have the attributes necessary to succeed in your unique organization. It does no good to stand in front of the mirror and say that you look like everyone else when you don't. "We hire the best and brightest" . . . like your closest 100 competitors say anything different. Employers who appeal to the masses will get exactly that = masses. Don't appeal to a ,mass audience expecting to net specifically oriented highly talented individuals. In the legal profession, yes there are hundreds of great lawyers out there. Not all of them are going to be great in your organization. Focus on finding the few who will excel in your unique culture, and don't spend your time on the hundreds who might because you are afraid of missing someone. You will never make a decision, and you will alienate good people in the process because you cannot show them who you are as a company.

Know thy self. Yep you have smarts, experience, maybe a few things that aren't your strength but you can you do it all, right? Well, not really. Even if you graduated summa grand pooh-bah, you really are not all things to all people, nor do you want to be. That jack of all trades master of none guy was never the king of anything, much less his own career. Where's the destiny and accomplishment in that? You do want to be memorable for the right opportunity at the right time. I am a big fan of "the list." Start with a pad of paper and a pen, one column for what you like, one for what you don't like, and one very short one for items you are willing to compromise. Make your list without distractions, without regard to specific employers. Don't be trite or gimmicky. Do be honest about your strengths so you can maximize them, your weaknesses so you can minimize them, and what truly motivates you so that you can find it. Be true to your list in your search. Gear your questions around it when you explore opportunities with a prospective employer. Evaluate it again when you get an offer. Enjoying your work will bring the best rewards. You will be happier in the long run, and when that happens you will be more productive, your employer will reward you, and in it you might actually have fun.

Distinct candidate, meet the perfect employer. It should be so much easier, shouldn't it? It can be memorable, real, and powerful. And maybe it will put a gleam in your eye.