Sunday, May 31, 2009


You have to be living under a rock to have missed the recent buzz regarding President Obama's selection of the Honorable Sonia Sotomayor to replace retiring Justice David Souter on the US Supreme Court. Serving on the US Supreme Court is an appointment for life, and only held by nine people at a time. Beside being President, this is arguably one of the most powerful jobs in the free world and, from an HR person's point of view, probably the lowest turnover of any job on the planet. (The only way out of the job is death, retirement, resignation, or conviction on impeachment - no "at will" employment here!) An appointment is a big deal for anyone who gets the nod. The outcome of the President's appointment ultimately relies on the outcome of the Senate confirmation process, which will unfold in the coming weeks. Until then there will be speculation, opinion, and discourse throughout the media about Her Honor's qualifications and suitability for such an important job. There should be!

The Supreme Court ultimately decides on questions of constitutional law - you know, that document which is the foundation for American democracy. Our Constitution is a dynamic document, filled with ambiguity, meant to guide a country for generations on the fundamental values of how we are governed and live together on our little chunk of the planet. The Court serves a critical role in serving and protecting our democracy. Interpreting this document is not something to be left for the faint of heart or intellect, nor is it a job that we leave to one person. The number has changed over time but has been set at nine for awhile with no foreseeable change on the horizon. The constitutional rights, responsibilities, and freedoms we enjoy as United States citizens are ruled on by nine people in black robes who are appointed to their jobs for life. That is a lot of power, and I don't know about you, but I care a lot that those nine people are smart, fair, can solve complex problems, are humbled by the gravity of their job, and appreciate that what they decide will have an impact on millions of us. I'm not being trite when I say, however simply, being a US Supreme Court Justice is one big job.

Who serves on the Court, what kind of qualifications should they have for this very big job? Citizens who care about the future of democracy are sure to have an opinion about who serves on the Court. It seems fairly obvious that among the many skills and traits required to perform this job well, one of those critical traits is perspective.

Oh yes, perspective. Much is being made of Judge Sotomayor's point of view. She has admitted to being influenced by the fact that she is a woman and a person of color. A quick glance at a photo of the current Supreme Court Justices will tell you this appointment, if she is confirmed, will make her unique among her colleagues. The fact that she is a Latina will alone mean she has a background unlike any of her predecessors in the history of the Court. Stop there for a minute and flip back your history book pages to life on the Court after the appointment of Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black man to serve as a Supreme Court Justice. His appointment was a huge chapter in our nation's history, and one which changed our nation for the better. Justice Marshall committed his powerful intellect and legal capabilities to the Court along with his white brethren. We also know that he contributed "perspective" to the bench and to the decision making process and dialogue that occurred out of public view but which ultimately impacted our lives through decisions the Justices rendered. Justice Marshall, by imparting his perspective throughout the course of performing his job responsibilities, shed light on a world which his colleagues had no way of experiencing firsthand. I suspect the other eight had a similar influence on him. For nine people working together to solve problems for millions who are unlike them in many respects, sharing perspective makes that problem solving process more robust. Much of the modern research around problem solving suggests that differing points of view are more apt to prompt more thoroughly reasoned conclusions. The contribution of a diversity of persective brings about thought out conclusions.

Oh yes, Judge Sotomayor's perspective. To some people, this is a problem. She has admitted to being a product of her upbringing and environment. She has stated the obvious - she is woman and person of color - and her experiences as such contribute to her opinions on certain things. Charges of "reverse racism" (whatever that means) and biased thinking are being hurled around by her detractors and people who haven't taken the time to listen to her speak or watch her work. Politics aside, good grief people, is this any way to evaluate someone for this all important job? Shouldn't we want her to have a perspective that is different from the other eight so that she can contribute to her fullest and add to the dynamic of the decision making process which will influence the future of American democracy?

Having worked in the legal profession for the last thirty years, I have seen many lawyers ply their craft - good, great, and not so good. The best among this profession have qualities we expect and want from our fellow human - empathy, fairness, ability to listen and communicate, thoughtfulness, reasoning, intellect, and humility. Academic distinction and other professional milestones are arguably signs of achievement, but if that alone was the criteria for a great lawyer we would choose our Supreme Court Justices with the simple act of a resume scan. We don't do that because the other qualities that distinguish people from robots are important here. The human stuff. Like perspective.

Judge Sotomayor will be scrutinized, criticized, and hailed in the coming weeks. I suggest we all listen to her, formulate our own opinions, and hope that the other eight learned Justices appreciate the perspective she brings if/when she becomes their colleague. We all depend on it.

Friday, May 22, 2009


On the opening day of baseball season I had a rare opportunity to be a flag bearer of the gigantic US flag carried out onto the field for the national anthem before the start of the game. Many of you have seen these at sporting events or before a big game on TV. We had a rehearsal the day before to sync our timing and handle the flag properly, and in doing so we practiced in the venue – the playing field at Safeco Field in Seattle. As a middle aged woman I can’t imagine having another sanctioned opportunity to be on a professional sports field, so it was a new experience and, as a baseball fan, quite a thrill. As we first stepped onto the baseball field I was a little overwhelmed – the smell of fresh cut lawn, looking up into a beautiful stadium, my first thought was “why do they pay these guys anything to come to this office everyday? They play a GAME, applause greets you when you arrive (except for A-Rod in this town anyway)….baseball players should work for free!”

We know, of course, that they don’t. In fact, their compensation levels are sky high compared to almost any other line of work. One could debate the merits of professional sports compensation endlessly, but let’s leave that commentary for someone else’s blog. The reality is that no one works for free – it’s an untenable proposition. But playing a game as a job, what fun! How lucky is anyone to have that choice?

I know a woman who recently left her senior management job after 11 years of working for a profitable brand-name Fortune company, where she was well-compensated and considered a strong performer and leader. She does not have another job lined up, no big severance to fall back on….in this economy?

Oh and the law firm and corporate lay-offs just keep coming, with perfectly talented professional people who have never needed to look for a new job suddenly thrust into this horrible economy when few are hiring. What to do next?

What do they have in common? The choice of doing something they love! No matter what you do for a profession, work SHOULD be as fun as it can possibly be. We have all heard the popular saying “work for free and you will never work a day in your life.” Passion for your profession plays an important role in career satisfaction and has a significant positive impact on job performance. It stands to reason that the happier you are in your work, the better you will perform, which will contribute to your personal bottom line. Employers all factor personal performance metrics into their compensation system at some level, be it base salary increases, bonus rewards, or other long term incentives. Even highly paid athletes have performance incentives built into their contracts. Home runs do more than win games and make fans happy.

Professional work is hard enough without enjoying it. Whether or not you are at a point where you are considering your next career move, there is no better time than now to articulate this part of your professional vision. It is too easy to get caught up in the day-to-day tasks to stop and focus on this, however it may be one of the best things you do for your career. Consider it a piece of self-assigned homework. Set aside an hour of time, situate yourself in front of a blank screen/whiteboard/paper and pen in a distraction minimized zone (locked bathrooms work, if nothing else) and make two columns – likes and dislikes. Brainstorm about your professional work and list items in each column specific to you. What do you like about your job content, your profession, the kind of work environment where you are happiest, the pet peeves or tasks you don’t like doing, the things you do not do well, qualities you want in a boss, the industries or topics you find dreadfully boring…you get the idea. Write it all down in their respective plus and minus columns. Some of the items will be tied to other life priorities – supporting a family is one example. On the other hand, maybe your misery index will encourage you to retool your budget and accept a lower income in another kind of work that increases your daily dose of personal fulfillment and lowers your blood pressure.

Unless you commit your criteria to a tangible document you will lose sight of all these elements. Once you commit it to paper, it will be much easier to see trends and set priorities. Developing a professional vision around your talents can be very liberating and enlightening. Armed with your list, you are now well positioned to make informed choices about everything affecting your career. You may make trade-offs along the way as you use this list to evaluate a new job and as you move throughout your professional career. That’s ok, and encouraged. Examine the list from time to time, make changes or additions, and tweak your criteria as you consider new options. Give that list a long hard list when you get a job offer and compare it to what you are signing up for in the new gig. Is there something you should explore a little further before taking that new job, maybe something in the minus column that should be fleshed out? Job offers, particularly good ones, have a way of obfuscating the downside. It pays to be vigilant and thoughtful before you leap. Your plus and minus list will keep you honest and focused. The important thing is that you have a tool to keep on track and your eyes on the happiness prize. We may not be so fortunate as to choose a job with a built-in adoring public, but truly enjoying what you do may well make it seem less like work, and more like a game.

Monday, May 4, 2009

False Intimacy

So you think you know me, but you don't know goes the lyrics to the familiar love ballad. Well, familiar if you are my age and listened to your parents' music or have heard the beautiful remake by Diana Krall. It is a song about the mix of realism with imagination in a relationship, and the resulting melancholy of unrequited love. (My interpretation at least.) The phenomenon of perception created by one's observations without a real means to test their true meaning. Actions by one person are ascribed a meaning by the listener/observer without regard to the feelings of the actor. It leads to misperception...."you don't know me." Is the true the same in the context of modern day social networking? Does the plethora of communication through technology create a false intimacy between actor and observer?

Social networking has spread like wildfire in recent years. The evolution from mobile phone, instant messaging, the PDA, texting, Facebook, and now Twitter, has changed how people communicate as well as the content of the message. Do we assume that the words "I love you" spoken in person carries the same as "luv ya" in a tweet? The pace of daily life moves so fast that it seems we really haven't taken time to consider the power of truncated messages used in the modern day, to say nothing of the relative lack of privacy of those messages. Take the Facebook status update as an example. Users type in a brief status message that is posted to their "wall" (more or less a personal homepage), out there on display for their connected friends and people in their network to see. The prompt on Facebook poses a question to the user "What's on your mind?" Type in a sentence or two, click on the 'share' button, and voila, you have just communicated your innermost thoughts to 200 of your closest friends. Those friends can respond to the note, post their own note, post a link to an article or video with a comment, post photos, and on and on.

What is all this creating? Facebook calls them "stories." But what do we truly know from these stories? The user may be doing everything from revealing their innermost feelings about something they just experienced ("Getting a hug from my kids is the best part of being a dad"), or testing fodder as an aspiring fiction writer ("it was a dark and stormy night.") Here's the rub - how are we to know the difference? The readers of those updates may ascribe an entirely different meaning than what the person posting ever intended in either case, real or imagined. This can all dangerously lead to a sense of false intimacy: the feeling that we deeply know someone based on a series of 140 character blurts in cyberspace. I just wonder if this too easily creates a false impression.

Don't get me wrong. I am a big fan of technology and applaud the innovators who find new ways for it to bring new dimension to our daily experiences. I also believe in the principles of free speech. Easy to see how I could be an internet junkie, eh? As an executive recruiter I look people up on the internet everyday. I look for common things like published articles and professional bios posted on web sites, and stumble on incidental things like wedding announcements. My clients pay me to know the candidates I present to them well enough to have vetted basic appropriate background information, and I would be remiss in my duties if I didn't spend the time to obtain information first hand from candidates as well as through independent verification and exploration of someone's background. I could cripple my credibility if I were to present a lawyer candidate to a client without checking for their State Bar admission status and later learn the person had been disciplined or disbarred. But do I disclose their latest party weekend indiscretion posted in a tweet? Of course not, that crosses the line between social banter and professional behavior. It may be the mindset of my client however to check the social networking sites, or make an assumption about what they see on a Facebook post.

Recently an unemployed lawyer networked their way to my inbox, and in the message was a link to what I reasonably believed was a legitimate website. (Hear that scream of the IT tech in the background?) It was indeed a blog, chock full of info about this well-credentialed and earnest lawyer, one of many perfectly capable people in the unenviable position of being between opportunities in a lousy economy. It started out with the usual info - education pedigree details and work history, a chronology of professional employment, all appropriate. As I scrolled through the info there was a discussion of this person's journey through finding new employment, complete with a scorched earth opinion of corporate interview practices. Wow, any prospective employer would read this and be repelled by the cynicism and disdain expressed in this perspective on hiring. What to do with this info, do I consider it as part of my evaluation of a prospective candidate for a client? Is it the understandable temporary frustration of an otherwise credentialed professional? The reader wants us to know them, but are we getting to know this person's background, their opinion, or is it just another creative use of social networking. In this case it was relatively easy to pick up the phone, call the person, and find out for myself through good old fashioned person to person contact. That is not always practical of course but it drives home the point that misperceptions are easily created.

You can tell that I am skeptical about the appropriateness of social networking chatter encroaching into professional territory. The underlying premise however is that we all make assumptions based on what we see out there. I worry we draw assumptions so quickly that we fail to discern true feelings from mindless banter. Let's not forget the power of what we all put out there, and the increasing power of unintended consequences. Oh yeah, and maybe it's not a bad idea to pick up the phone once in awhile. Because otherwise....."you think you know me, but you don't know me."