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Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Listen to The Conversation

What is being talked about inside your company?  Growing companies have a language all their own, and so do contracting ones.  Listening to what is being said is harder than it seems because, like the proverbial boiled frog, changes are subtle and sometimes elude notice.  Hearing what is being said, and knowing what it means, can be two different things but hugely important to your career.

I was in the Japanese auto industry in the 90's during its period of frenetic growth.  The opportunities it afforded me propelled my career years ahead of what it would have been in a slower environment. We could not build factories or hire people fast enough, and the emphasis was on how to find, retain, train and develop people.  The competition was for who got responsibility for new business, plants, customers, and product lines.  The tension in the company was typically about how much could get done and who could get to a hot spot (usually Mexico, Canada, Japan, El Paso, or Detroit at that time)in the quickest time frame and stay there the longest to get something done.

During the end of the 90's new competition arose. The American Big Three licked its wounds and got better, and new product lines from Korea entered the U.S. market as German car makers expanded their offerings.  Automobiles, and the parts we made for them, became commoditized. Margins shrunk, the budget cutters began to control the conversation and the result was stagnant wages, benefits and opportunities. This happened just as an opportunity in another industry came about and my decision was easy.

My first years in publishing were exciting. The company had hit bottom, trading at $6.89/share over concerns ranging from lack of succession to loss of focus. My job was to help with a fix, sell or close process, to refocus the company, and to help the CEO/founder choose a successor.  The resulting improvement in our finances felt a lot like growth, but it wasn't.

When the Founder sold, instead of rejoicing in our opportunity to modernize his company I should have been asking a more fundamental question.  "If he does not see opportunity here any longer is there any opportunity left?"

Over the next six years the internal conversations shifted from,  "Who could we buy?" to "Who might buy us?" We closed down our internal management development program and the conversation shifted from, "What is my next career move?" to "Who is safe?"

Know where your company is heading by what is and isn't being said.  Is there an active management development program?  Are benefits attractive and not just "competitive"?  Are raises assumed or in doubt?  Was a bonus paid last year or contemplated for this current year?  When competing voices argue internally, do the pro-growth and development voices of operations, sales and marketing prevail, or do the cost-conscious voices of accounting and finance trump all else?  Is the tension between managers over who gets the promotion, the best people and and the new business, or over who survives?

Listen, know where your company stands, and act accordingly.

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