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I recently watched the 1977 bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron.  Towards the end of the film, Arnold says the following:

“I don’t have any weak points. I had weak points three years ago, but my main thing in mind is, my goal always was, to even out everything to the point… that everything is perfect. Which means if I want to increase one muscle a half inch, the rest of the body has to increase. I would never make one muscle increase or decrease, because everything fits together now, and all I have to do is get my posing routine down more perfect, which is almost impossible to do, you know. It’s perfect already.”

I could not think of a more fitting way to describe properly maintaining the asset allocation of a portfolio.  While everyone’s specific allocation may be different due to their age and/or risk tolerance – the maintenance of that allocation requires mental fortitude to stick with it.

I’m currently in the process of re-balancing my investments to match my desired allocation and had to make a difficult decision.  I try to maximize my Roth IRA contributions each year, and rather than re-arrange my holdings by selling shares, I try to update my allocation with new contributions.  The problem I ran into was one of my asset classes is doing extremely well in terms of percentage gains, yet was a smaller portion of my overall portfolio than my desired target allocation. (The cause of this is likely due to my 401k contributions that occur at regular intervals, whereas I make my Roth contributions at irregular intervals.)  I felt like I was battling “buy low, sell high” vs. having a properly diversified portfolio.

In the end, I thought about Arnold’s quote.  I didn’t want to have a weak point and remain under-allocated in one of my asset classes. I moved forward and invested more shares in the well performing asset class.  My portfolio allocation is now closer to my desired target.  Now I just need to work on my posing…

Many of you have probably made a resolution of getting into better shape.  (Personally I’m against such things…I think if you want to make a change there’s no time like the present,  but that’s a topic for another time.)  Below are excerpts from my running/workout playlist.  I don’t really have ‘an order’ on this playlist  – I usually shuffle the songs, so I grouped them into categories below.

Girl Power

Ladies first…I’m not ashamed to admit it, I have some kick-ass songs from female artists that are spread throughout my playlist.  Here are some good ones:

Keeps Getting Better – Christina Aguilera
Miss Independent – Kelly Clarkson – 
This one is good for interval training.  Every time she hits her chorus – run hard.
Hit Me Up – Gia Farrell – You’re may be wondering who Gia is.  Apparently she didn’t get very far, but this is still a good song.  It was in Happy Feet.  This song has a good tempo throughout and is probably best mid-workout.
Rumour Has it – Adele

90’s/2000’s Rock & Alternative

This section will probably grow over time.  I always mean to add more songs to it.  I don’t know if it’s because I was a child of this era or not, but this category and the next make up a large chunk of my list.

My Generation – Limp Bizkit
Bulls on Parade – Rage Against the Machine – 
The entire song is hard and good,but the last minute really pumps me up.
The Boys of Summer – The Ataris – Another good one for mid-workout.  No real high’s or low’s but a good one for keeping a good pace.
Rollin’ (Urban Assault Vehicle) – Limp Bizkit
Calling All Angels – Train – 
Save this for longer runs.  It’s got a slower pace but feels upbeat.
Bawitdaba – Kid Rock
Chop Suey – System of a Down

90’s/2000’s Techno

Again, not sure if it’s because I grew up in this era, but I feel this was the best time for electronic music.  Maybe it’s because I’m older, but a lot of the newer stuff all sounds the same to me.  The songs of this era were all unique and you could identify one song from another.

Tao of the Machine – BT – From the Blade 3 soundtrack.  Really good for the beginning of a workout.  Good for getting things going.
Song for Mutya – Groove Armada – Better for longer runs mid-workout.  The chorus can be good for interval training and the lyrics are upbeat/uplifting.
Hymn (This Is My Dream) – Moby – Another good one for longer runs.  It never really picks up but has a positive sound throughout the song.
Paranoid (The Crystal Method Remix) – Garbage – Hard throughout.  Good for when you need a pickup.
Apache (From On the Floor at the Boutique) – Fatboy Slim – Good for interval training. Run fast every time the ‘jump on it’ part plays.
(Can’t You)Trip Like I Do – Danny Saber Mix – There’s nothing like the original – but this remix is good for getting pumped up.
Hand Clap – Girl Talk – I stumbled across this somewhere and it’s an absolute gem.  This song is basically a mash up of a couple other songs which eventually blends into Hollaback Girl.  It’s very short but very good.
Firestarter – Prodigy – As heavy as this song is, it can be good for both interval training and getting pumped up.  Towards the middle and end the drums kick in and out.  It’s good for picking you back up.
One Man Army/No Man Army – Prodigy & Tom Morello – Great mix of hard rock and electronic.  Both versions are good.
Cowgirl – Underworld – When I first heard this while watching Hackers, I was hooked.  In the top 3 of my favorite songs of this genre.

Everything Else

These next few songs didn’t really fit into the categories above, so I gave them their own.

Light Suits – Blue Man Group – Along with “Tao of the Machine” this is a good one to listen to at the beginning of a workout/run.  It has a good buildup.
It’s Tricky – Run DMC
Turn Down for What – DJ Snake & Lil Jon
I Want it All/We Will Rock You (Suckerpunch Soundtrack) – Queen/Geddy – Aside from being visually appealing, this was one of the few good things that came out of the movie.
Wish Liszt – Trans Siberian Orchestra -Sure it’s a holiday song, but you can run to it all year round.  The last minute is great for the end of a run for pushing through when you feel like you have nothing left.
Les Fleur – 4 Hero – This is a really weird one.  However, for some reason I like it.  The original is from the 70’s and originally sung by Minnie Riperton.  This song has a lot of slow points, but whenever the chorus hits I run as fast I can.

This book review was originally going to be lighter than ones in the past.  Rather than go in depth I planned to highlight sections of a chapter that really stood out to me.  After going through my notes, I realized I had a lot to say about the some of the chapters.

I was influenced to buy this book when I noticed it on the desk of a new employee at a former company.  I was already in the process of leaving when she was coming in, and had high hopes for her.  I liked her way of thinking and was upset I would not be able to learn a lot from her with me joining a new company.  When I saw this book on her desk, I figured it was a good idea to get myself a copy.

Introduction: The First 90 Days: The Break-even point

This section of the introduction stood out to me the most because I thought it was a fresh approach to starting a new job.  In essence, a new employee’s goal is to get to a break-even point as early as possible.  To get to this point, they should contribute as much value to the new organization as they have consumed from it.  In theory, the book suggests this be done within the first 90 days of a new job.

There is one story and then my  personal take that I will make as to why this stood out to me.  The story:  I interviewed at one company for a position that was being created to fit a new role.  I did not get the job, but one question the CEO asked me was, “How long would it take for you to get in the swing of things?”  Because it was a new industry and the job was being created from scratch, I answered, “Six months.”  I wonder if I had said “90 Days” instead if it would have resonated better with him.  I’ll never know, and I moved on.  My take:  Sometimes you have to do hard things up front to get a reward later.  Save your money now, and you can retire early.  Spend a few extra hours learning a new skill, and you are more valuable.  Those types of things I think relate to consuming value early in the new job, and start adding value back once you’re capable of doing so.

Chapter 1: Assessing My Intrinsic Interests

There were two main pieces I enjoyed in Chapter 1.  The first had more to do with elements that I believe is one of my strengths.  It has to do with learning the new culture and making sure you observe how things are run at the new company.  To develop the right connections you need to expand your communications to those outside your vertical relationships.  I fully understand this concept, and have done a great job of it in the past and would continue to do so wherever I am.

The other part of this chapter that really stuck out to me was the self assessment of intrinsic interests.  There is a table in the chapter where cell there is a ‘problem’ and you have to rate from 1 to 10 how much that problem interests you.  On the adjacent page is a similar table that you transfer your numbers.  Where the first table appeared random with problems, the second table categorizes the columns into “Technical”, “Political”, and “Cultural”.  The rows are categorized as “Human Resources”, “Finance”, “Marketing”, “Operations”, and “Research and Development”.  After totaling all my results, I found that there was a significant difference in the “Technical” column as well as the “Financial” row.  All other columns and rows were within a few points of each other.  This combination however, was further off.  What it says to me, is that this may be an area of weakness for me that I should pay extra attention to in my new role.  The book refers to these areas as “blind spots”.

Chapter 2: Accelerate Your Learning

The key lesson I learned from this chapter is that you can’t always take ‘what worked in the past’ and apply it to your current situation.   The culture could be different, and people may not be receptive to your ideas.  You need to adapt your ideas to fit into the the culture of your new environment.  The chapter then goes on to create a “Learning Agenda” by figuring out answers to questions about past performance, determining root causes, and history of changes.  It lists questions about company’s present vision and strategy, people, processes, land mines and early wins.  Finally it wraps up the learning plan with questions about the future revolving around challenges and opportunities, barriers and resources, and culture.

It goes on to list external sources of insight that you can identify.  Depending on your industry this could be customers, suppliers, analysts, etc.  Internal sources from various departments could also be used (sales, R&D, other staff).

If you’re in a management position, it suggests meeting with your direct reports one-on-one and asking each person the same 5 questions.  This should be done in this structured manner so you can compare your results.

Chapter 3: Match Strategy to Situation

This chapter evaluates companies using a method called STARS.  A company typically falls into one of 5 situations in the model.  Without getting into as much detail as is listed in the book, a brief description:

Start-Up – Getting a business off the ground.  No strategy or clear framework established.  Gives you the opportunity to create things from scratch.
Turnaround – Business is in trouble.  Employees are demoralized.  Gives you the opportunity to improve because the need to fix is known.
Accelerated growth – Business is growing.  Structures need to be established and new employees brought on-board.  People are motivated.
Realignment – Don’t settle.  Employees need to stay motivated.  The organization can see it’s strengths.
Sustained success – Taking it to the next level.  Finding ways to do this.  The good news is a strong team is already in place.

If I had to grade the company I was previous at and compare it to the one I’m currently in, I would say the company I left was somewhere around Turnaround and Realignment.  (The book mentions that certain pieces of a company can be at different stages in the model.)  In Table 3-3 it does a good job explaining the key differences between turnaround and realignment and what actions should be taken depending on where the company fits.   The previous company has made a lot of changes without a clear vision to see what would stick.  Eventually they may figure it out but it will take time.  The company I am current in is likely in Realignment or Sustained Success.  They are aware of their problems, and what they need to improve processes.  Now they are in the execution mode to achieve their goals.

 Chapter 4:  Negotiate Success

The focusing on fundamentals section of this chapter was my key takeaway.  Areas they touch upon: Be careful of a boss who is hands off.  If the boss doesn’t reach out to you, you have to try harder and reach out to them.  Your boss needs to be aware of what you’re working on.  Don’t surprise them.  When you do approach your boss with  a problem, show that you’ve looked into it and help him address the problem.  Don’t tell them everything you’re working on, just the things they need or want to hear.  Lastly, don’t expect your boss to change.  Aim for early wins in areas important to your boss.  Get on the good side of those that are close to your boss.

There’s a section that outlines 5 conversations you should have with your boss surrounding situations, expectations, resources, style, and personal development.  Two in particular I liked:  In the expectations conversation the author recommends steering towards under-promising and over-delivering.  I always try to guide people in this direction, especially when giving high-level estimates.  My main reason is people tend to be too optimistic and over-promise and under-deliver.  At worst, my suggestion ends up being realistic.  At best, you exceed the deadline and look all the better.  The other piece I enjoyed was the section on knowing your boss’ style.  The example they gave was if you leave messages for your boss and they don’t respond but then later come and ask you about the subject, you realized your boss doesn’t use that mode of communication effectively.  You will need to find out how your boss prefers to communicate.

Chapter 5:  Secure Early Wins

The story that opened up the chapter was interesting.  A woman is promoted to head customer service at a leading retailer, and worked with her former peers (now direct reports) to gain consensus and build quality improvement goals in a participative culture.  She made other changes, but ultimately she worked with her team in creating goals and achieving results.

The chapter focuses on getting wins that are important to your boss.  This appears to be a recurring theme.  Obviously for a good reason – if you’re boss is happy you will likely be in a good place.  One section I found interesting was on building credibility.  The author mentions in your first few weeks you won’t be able make a measurable impact.  However you need to achieve small wins early because people are already forming opinions about you based on the little they know.  Your early moves will shape their perceptions.

Chapter 6: Achieve Alignment

The first part of this chapter that stuck out to me was  when they spoke about a common trap where companies try to restructure their way out of deeper problems.  Companies tend to change their org chart rather than deal with their real issues such as processes, skill bases, and culture.  Ignoring this could cause misalignment and lead to backtracking and damaged credibility.

The other piece I liked was the starting point (ironically) of the Getting Started section.  They emphasized looking at how your unit is positioned with respect to the larger organization’s goals and priorities.  Make sure your mission, vision, and strategy are thought out and integrated.

The reason these two topics stuck out to me is because of the company I came from, and the company I joined.  I think the company I left has process issues they should focus on to gain momentum.  The company I joined has department goals and objectives that relate and roll up to the organization’s goals, mission and vision.

 Chapter 7: Build Your Team

The “Avoid Common Traps” section at initial reading seems like obvious stuff, but when you evaluate it deeper you realize that many companies still face these issues.  I’ve heard stories of new managers criticize  previous leadership.  They think they’re playing hero when in reality they’re building a brick wall against their new team. Instead, the author recommends assessing current behavior and making changes to support improved performance.  Another piece of this section I related with was in regards to keeping teams too long.  Inheriting teams can present a difficult situations especially based on the scenario in which the team was inherited.  You may also be constrained in your ability to make changes.  The hard advice to take is you need to set deadlines for reaching conclusions about the team and what actions should be taken, and you need to stick to the plan you created.  The last piece of this section I enjoyed was in regards losing good people.  A quote from the book, “When you shake the tree, good people can fall out, too.”  It’s tough losing good people and takes an extreme amount of effort to get back to the level you were at when you had them.  Time is lost in the search for a new person, they need to be on-boarded, etc.  While the author mentions this can’t always be avoided, the recommendation is to let the top performers know early and often that you recognize their capabilities.

The other section of the chapter I enjoyed was “Test Their Judgment”.  One statement I found interesting was “Some very bright people have lousy business judgment, and some people of average competence have extraordinary judgment.” Some smart people lack certain abilities you would think come naturally from them, and other people you might not expect to will surprise you with ideas.  The bottom line is you want to analyze the decisions people make.  It may be difficult to do in a work situation if you are new, so the author recommends feeling the person out for topics they are passionate about.  Once you find out what that is, ask them to make predictions on a given scenario.  See what choice they make and have them analyze why they made that choice.  Later, follow up to see what happens.  This allows you to test a person’s ability to exercise judgment in a particular area.  The skills they used can then be applied to the business domain.

Based on the length of this chapter’s review, you might be able to tell I enjoyed this chapter slightly more than the others thus far.

Chapter 8: Create Alliances

The further I got into this chapter, the more I enjoyed it.  It was also one of the main chapters where I felt I could stop thinking about the past and start thinking about the present.  One piece I really liked was in the section on mapping influence networks.  The author describes an influence network as channel for communication and persuasion that operates in parallel with the formal structure.  I when the author talked about having your boss connect you to key stakeholders.  He suggests you ask them for a list of key stakeholders he thinks you should get to know and set up meetings with them.  (The author also mentions ‘paying this forward’ and doing this for new employees that come after you, which I agree with.)  One thing I would add to this strategy, is feel free to expand that initial request to those around you.  In my present situation I’ve reached out to my peers, my boss, and levels above my boss when appropriate, as well as other people in the organization from other departments.  Use resources you have to find what other resources might be good for you to meet.

One piece I didn’t relate to right away but understood more as I read it was the section on drawing influence diagrams.  For me personally, I don’t think I’d physically draw them out as described in the book, I think I read people well enough to be able to make this connection in my head.  In summary you draw co-workers in a diagram and connect people via arrows.  The bolder the arrow, the more influence the person at the base of the arrow has over the person the arrow is pointed to.  Some people in your diagram will support your initiative, some will oppose it, and some will be neutral.  They will be labelled appropriately.

I particularly liked the section building ‘alliances of convenience’.  These are people you may not always see eye to eye with on a day to day basis but do come to agreement on specific areas.  You want to work with these people and educate them to your viewpoint.

There are various reasons people may disagree or oppose your goal.  They may believe you’re wrong, fear you, or just be comfortable with the status quo and be resistant to change.  Don’t treat these people as enemies.  Rather try and find out what it is that motivates them to oppose your point of view, and work on countering that argument.  The author mentions that success in winning over adversaries carries significant symbolic weight that will resonate with others.

Later in the chapter the author describes different strategies you can use to influence people.  Methods include: consultation, framing, choice-shaping, social influence, incrementalism, sequencing, and action forcing events.  During consultation you are engaged and actively listening.  You ask questions and encourage people to voice their concerns.  Finally you summarize and feedback what you have heard.  I took the benefit of this approach as mutual understanding and showing the person you treat them with respect.  I think it works well when you have someone who shares that same level of respect with you.  The framing technique mentions carefully crafting your persuasive arguments on a person-by-person basis.  Your argument needs to take an appropriate tone to resonate well with the other person.  The author goes into detail about Aristotle’s theoretical categories of logos (make logical arguments), ethos (elevate principles that should be applied and values that should be upheld – fairness and building a culture of teamwork are used as an example), and pathos (making emotional connections).  One very important piece that I completely agree with on this strategy is where the author mentions preparing for counterarguments you expect your opponents to make.  The author says, “Presenting and decisively refuting weak forms of expected counterarguments immunizes audiences against the same arguments when they’re advanced in more potent forms.”  I frequently use this technique when I know I will have to deal with difficult people.  In advance of an upcoming conversation, I think of typical counterarguments that they might have.  By being prepared, I find I have more success in the conversation and am able to work with the other person rather than have them become irrational.  Choice-shaping describes how you can influence how people perceive alternatives.  To me this all has to do with how you present options.  Social influence is about the impact of opinions of others and rules of societies in which they live.  This ties in with earlier pieces about influence groups.  Essentially if you get buy-in from a well respected person others are likely to follow.  Incrementalism is about taking baby steps to reach your goal rather than making once big change.  Sequencing is being strategic about the order in which you seek to influence people to build momentum.  This was another one I connected with.  If you meet with the right people in the right order, you can gradually build momentum and gain support.  For people into investing, I looked at this as interest compounding over time.  Your area of influence grows and grows.  In the book, the author mentions scheduling a series of one-on-one and group meetings to create this momentum.  These are techniques I use frequently when working on detailed projects.  Lastly action-forcing events deals with getting people to stop deferring decisions.  I think this technique should be used regularly in meetings with people.  In a typical meeting I have a section for action items that I assign to people with due dates for completing the action.

There was a lot in this chapter, I especially enjoyed the last section on influencing strategies.  To summarize, the strategies I really lean towards are:  consultation, framing, and sequencing.  At a smaller level I also like social influence.  While I think action-forcing events is important and required, I don’t see it as an influence strategy but more of a requirement for making change.  Based on the length of this chapter review you might be able to tell it was also one of the ones I enjoyed.

Chapter 9: Manage Yourself

This chapter focuses on evaluating your strengths and weaknesses.  There is a section on taking stock in yourself based on where you are in your transition.  On a scale of low to high it asks you to answer some questions.  I’ll highlight some below and provide my responses:

  • How excited are you?  Response:  High.  I’m motivated to perform well in my job.  I want to start strong out of the gate and set a good example upon initial impressions of me.
  • How confident are you?  Response:  Medium.  My confidence in my job is growing, but because it is a new segment in the healthcare industry, I feel I have a lot to learn before I can truly feel comfortable in what I do.
  • In control of your success?  Response:  Medium.  Again, I think I have to work with others to understand and achieve deliverables on my end.
  • With whom have you failed to connect?  Response:  Everyone I have worked with has been very friendly in reaching common goals.  Where there is conflict, people respect each other.  This is a positive change compared to what I have seen in the past.  However, I would like to build connections and get to know people at a more personal level.
  • Which interactions exceeded your expectations?  Response:  There have been some people I have worked with that have taken the extra step to make sure I understand something.  Experienced people at a company usually forget this when they are working with someone new and use acronyms and program names that are foreign to the new person.  It’s helpful when people go the extra mile and is something I would pay forward when training the next new person.

One comment in this section I connected with was when the author mentions that the difficulties we face may be the result of deeper personal vulnerabilities that could take us off track.  The book has some examples that follow (Know when to say no, defending a bad decision, being busy but avoiding the important work) and the one that I think I need to focus on is isolation.  I’d like to work on making and maintaining the right connections.  The book uses other examples that I don’t concern myself with, such has discouraging people from sharing information with myself, as I don’t think I’d let that occur.  In my case I think I would work on being more assertive, focus on communication efforts, and display confidence.

The next section covers the 3 pillars of self management.  Pillar 1 is adopting the 90-day plan.  Pillar 2 is developing personal disciplines.  “Knowing what you should be doing is not the same as doing it.”  Sometimes we know we have a difficult task in front of us and put off doing it.  Getting started is the hardest part.  Once you’re in it, it doesn’t seem so bad.  Devote time to planning.  Develop a plan-work-evaluate cycle.  Spend 10 minutes at the end of each day to evaluate what you did and plan what you want to do the following day.  Focus on what’s important.  Don’t let the urgent crowd out the important.  Don’t commit to things right away.  Take the time to make sure doing something a good idea.  Pillar 3 details building support systems internally and externally.  Make sure you have a good work-life balance.  Build an advice-and-counsel network of internal and external people.

Lastly and most importantly, stay on track.

Chapter 10: Accelerate Everyone

The first part of this chapter discusses different types of transitions and the support that may be needed.  Table 10-1 discusses some of the reasons for transition failures.  Some I thought to be interesting are:

  • Insufficient clarity about expectations and mandates – I’ve seen or heard about people getting ‘thrown in the trenches’ without much to go on.  They are then held accountable for results without really knowing what the organization’s goals are.
  • Having a Darwinian leadership culture – Similar to the bullet above, leaders don’t get enough support when cultures tend to have a sink-or-swim approach to development.  More organizations should do a better job of building leaders in house.
  • Leaders are expected to do their old job and their new job:  I’ve seen this as well.  Companies need to set a date of transition and honor it for the sake of the employee.  While the person in the new role can assist with tasks in their old role, they should not be held accountable for it.
  • Culture Adaptation – People are expected to figure out the culture on their own and can make early mistakes.  A company can do a great job describing what their culture is, but it can also be helpful to describe how they live it.

I also enjoyed the section titled “Deliver Support Just in Time”.  It describes how transitions evolve through a series of predictable stages.  People usually do investigative work to learn and gain clarity.  Then they define a strategic direction for the organization and then make key decisions around talent and processes.  The author mentions how leaders should be offered transition support in digestible blocks.  In their new role they only have so much time to devote to learning and planning.  Companies I have worked for accomplish this through online training courses and documentation organized in a way to bring new people on board and slowly immerse them into the topics that are new to them.  Another option the author recommends is to leverage the time before the new leader starts the official position.  Provide people with key documents and tools that might assist them before they start.  I really like this idea and would use it in the right situation.  As a new leader coming on board, it may be helpful to email your new supervisor and ask for this type of information up front.

In matching transition support to transition type, they focus on two types of transitions specifically.  In a promotion, leaders face a new set of challenges.  What is needed of them in this new role are very different from the skills that got them into the new role.  Resources should be provided to help the new leader understand what new skills it takes to be successful at this new level.  With on-boarding, new leaders face many foreign challenges.  They have to learn a whole new set of processes, learn the company culture and subcultures, and create new relationships.  Resources should be available to help them understand what is needed to connect with key people to increase their productivity early on.

Final Thoughts

I thought this book was very good.  I wouldn’t go as far to say it was excellent.  I think it tried to face the challenge to target a wide audience.  In doing so, some parts or chapters focus on executive leaders while others are tailored towards middle managers.  Having said that, it is still a very good book.  Readers will have to take the time to focus on the pieces that could apply to them, and take advantage of the learning opportunities available throughout the book.  I would recommend it to anyone starting at a new company who wants to make a strong first impression or anyone in an existing company about to take on a promotion.

If you read any recent business books, blogs, or articles, often they talk about the great service a company like Zappos provides.  Zappos is frequently mentioned for empowering their employees to make decisions which leads to the company being recognized for exceptional customer service.  Unfortunately for me, I had to climb some hurdles with my bank over $2.50.

A few months back I noticed a charge on my checking account.  I went to a branch and inquired with one of the tellers.  They said they notified all the members with my account type that the new minimum balance was changed from $5,000 to $7,500.  I mentioned that I received no such memo, and asked if they could give me a credit for that month.  I received my credit and  all was well.

Fast-forward to a few months later and add a child to the mix along with diapers, daycare, and Desitin,  and I was struggling each month to maintain the minimum balance.  I found myself having to wait an extra week for another paycheck to come in before I could pay the bills.  (Part of this is my fault, I like to pay them off as soon as I get a statement.)  I went back to the branch, and asked to change my account type to the next one down, that has many of the same perks, but only requires a $1,000 minimum balance.  I noticed in the brochure that one of the differences between the accounts was that this new one had an ATM card where the one I was switching from offered debit cards that contained a credit card logo.  I mentioned it to the teller and she said I could keep the debit card but they would charge me a fee.  I offered to surrender my debit card for an ATM card.  All seemed well.

Fast-forward to a few weeks later and I’m checking my account online.  I see two new service charges.  The descriptions are vague, but I can make one out to be  for the debit card that I no longer owned.  I had a check to deposit, so I figured I would go to the bank and speak to the teller about it.  As I’m filling out the deposit slip, I see an employee lurking in the queue.  In the past they’ve had a sales air about them letting you know of some promotion they are running where if you refer a friend you each get $50 or something similar.  Today however, I got the sense he was figuring out what types of transactions people were doing for the new employee behind the counter.  I mentioned to the lurker I was just making a deposit and he mentioned, “Oh John should be able to help you with that, right this way.”

So I proceed to the counter.  To my amusement, the new guy reminded me of the squeaky-voiced teen from the Simpsons (Jeremy Freedman is the name of the character on the show.)  So part of me goes, “Oh here we go, the new guy is going to have no clue how to answer my questions.”  But then another part of me went, “You know what, they have to learn somewhere.  Let me ask him anyway and see where this goes.”  So after he does the obligatory, “How’s the weather out there?  Did the sun come out yet?” and deposited my check, I get the “Is there anything else I can help you with today?”  I replied, “Why yes there is…I have these two charges on my account…”  He’s able to look up the descriptions that were cryptic online in a little more detail.  He replies, “Well the $1.00 charge was because you have a debit card..” and I quickly interrupted him to let him know I surrendered my debit card to the teller (ironically that same teller was helping out another customer to my right) the same day I switched my account.  He replied, “Hmm I see.  Well I will need to check with my manager.  She’s on vacation for another two days.  I can write down your account information and have her look at it when she gets back.”  I can see him writing my account information on a blank deposit slip.  I asked him if I could give him my cell phone number so the manager could call me with confirmation she got the message and give me an update, to which he replied sure.

I didn’t get a good sense that the manager was going to call, or that a credit was going to take place, so I decided to call the 800 number.  I spoke with customer service representative who reiterated everything Squeaks told me about the debit card vs. the ATM card.  However, she had a little more power, and was able to credit me the $1.00 service charge.  When I inquired about the $1.50 charge, she mentioned it was for an overdraft protection line of credit that I had, which was previously free with my other account type.  I told her I was not aware that this would result in fees with the new account type, and asked if she could close my line of credit account.  She said she would need to transfer me to the Loans department and they would be able to help.  Now I’m on the phone with someone from the Loans department, and he tells me in order to close my line of credit account I need to go back to the branch in order to sign a form.  I say it’s unfortunate since I had just returned from the branch.  He apologized but said that is what is needed to close the account.

Fast-forward to two days later, and I received no phone call from the squeaky-voiced guy’s manager.  I wasn’t surprised.  I decided to go to a different branch to see if I would have better luck.  This time, there was a senior-looking employee that looked like she would be able to help.  I started telling my story.  First she replies, “Well you know, you get so many perks with the other account type, and the interest bearing account type you’re in now pays so little interest, maybe you want to go back…”  I replied, “No no, it’s not that I didn’t like that account, I struggled to maintain the new minimum balance you guys changed to a few months back.”  She quickly backed down.  I thought to myself, “So far, so good.  Let’s keep this going.”  But then as luck would have it she goes, “Well I do see you were charged but then later refunded a $1.00.”  I said, “Yes but that’s not why I’m here.  I’m also charged $1.50 for a line of credit that I would like to close out.  I was told I had to come to a branch and sign a form.”  She replies, “Oh no you didn’t have to come here to do that.  You could have done it over the phone.  But anyway, I can put in a request to close it for you.  Please keep in mind I can’t close it myself, I’m only putting in a request to have it closed.  You should check back your account in a week to see if it’s actually closed.”  Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot!

As she is closing the account, I start my fight for my $1.50.  “Since I was unaware that the account change would incur this $1.50 service charge, is there any way you can provide a credit for it?”  To my amazement, I see her whip out a blank deposit slip.  “Well, I would need to check with my manager to get approval, but I can take down your information and send it to them.”  At this point, I started to feel like I was going to get far with this teller either.  However, I had another thought that concerned me.  “So to confirm, you’re not sure if you can credit the $1.50 for last month, and I’m closing the line of credit this month.  Am I going to see another $1.50 charge on my account for this month?”  She replied, “Well your billing cycle starts on the 6th, today is the 12th, so you technically  have had the protection for a few days in this cycle, so there is a chance they will bill you for this month. But I did just put in the request to close it, so you should check in a week or so to make sure it goes through.”  I thanked her and left.

Now, at this point, most people would say, “It’s $1.50.  It’s not worth your trouble to further.”  But to me it was a matter of principle.  I couldn’t give up.  I took to Twitter.  I have had good luck in the past reaching out to companies via Twitter.  For some reason, it has been a boon for customers in trying to get good service from many companies, myself included.  My tweet: “@BankName Whatever happened to empowering employees? Ive gone to 2 branches and a phone call to try and get a credit on a new charge.”  Four hours later, I get a request to direct message them my personal number and a good time to call.  I message them my information, and 90 minutes later, my cell phone rings.

I give her a summary version of the story you just read.  She was very helpful, agreed it’s silly not to credit the $1.50 and told me she would put it through, and that I would have to wait 24 hours to see it on my account.

So because this bank did good in the end, I chose not to name them.  However, this would be my advice to them, which is applicable to any company:  Empower your employees.  People are frustrated enough they get bounced around from Person A to Person B.  When I see them write information down on a piece of paper and follow up with “I need to check with my manager” I assume one or two things are happening.  1)  You have no power to do anything.  2)  You are being trained to pretend to care and write my information down but you don’t actually plan on doing anything with it.

How I Would Fix Comcast

I recently cancelled my Comcast subscription and switched to U-verse for reasons I will explain below.  I’ll be basing my feedback on my experience with Comcast for the past 5 years and my first few months with U-verse.

The Creeping Bill

I signed up for Comcast in September 2007.  My monthly bill was $150.  In March of the following year, it crept up to $159.  By August, it was at $193.  I threatened to cancel, spoke to a retention specialist, and was brought down to $159 in October 2008.  It stayed that way for another year, but in October of 2009 I noticed it was up to $173.  I threatened to cancel again, and they brought it down to $165.  After another year, it was up to $230.  I threatened to cancel again, and they bring me down to $182.  Ten months later, it was back to $199.

October 2007 $150
March 2008 $159
August 2008 $193
October 2008 $159 (New Baseline)
October 2009 $173
November 2009 $165 (New Baseline)
March 2011 $230
April 2011 $182 (New Baseline)
January 2012 $199

Notice a pattern?  Each time I threatened to cancel  they would lower the new rate but didn’t quite bring me back down to the original rate.  It was always just a little bit more where I am happy it’s not $40 more, but I seem to keep quiet with the smaller $10-$15 increases.

The last retention specialist I spoke with was interesting.  (I won’t complain about their customer service, that is one of the things I’ll say is a plus for Comcast – almost every one I spoke with gave great service.)  I told him their fees were too high and needed him to work something out in order for me to stay.  He mentioned an al a carte option where I can pick and choose specific services and channels.  By the time we were done picking my options based on what I currently had, the quote was at $210.  I had to remind him my reasoning for wanting to cancel was because of the high bill, and this new model had me paying more.  He pauses for 10 seconds and goes, “What if we just put you back to what you were paying?”  I agreed.  My bill went to $188, and then the following month was back up to $199.  I was back to where I started.  I realized I wouldn’t save much on the money front if I stuck around.  But I also had another nagging problem…

Speed at Night

For the past 8-10 months, my internet speed at night was unbearably slow.  Pages would take a long time to load.  YouTube videos would hang.  My Roku box would have to reconnect and play video at a lower quality at a slower connection.

When I played online games, there were times when there was so much lag that I would be disconnected or the game would hang, and I would find out my character was dead.

Perhaps one of these first two factors on their own might have been bearable, but the combination of the two was absolute deal breaker.

The User Interface

The Comcast Guide looks like it was last updated in 1995. To make matters worse, they modified it a few years ago and the quality went down.  The user interface looks like it was designed for the original Nintendo console.  The Guide used to let you sort by date, genre, etc.  They removed that or I’ve not figured out how to do it in the redesign.  The old Comcast Guide used to show more channels at one time, the new one shows less.  In the old guide if you were at the bottom of the list on the screen when you pressed the down button the remote, it didn’t select the advertisement at the bottom.  On the new guide you have to ‘double-down’ because the focus now selects the advertisement as you scroll through.  Comcast On Demand is slow to load and navigate.  Once you press the On Demand button, the screen turns black with the old ‘Nintendo’ font saying “Please Wait..”  When it does come up, it gets rid of what you’re watching while it displays their own programming.  Finally, before they changed their guide, they had true Picture in Picture, where you could watch 2 separate channels at one time.  They got rid of that with their update.

In comparison, the U-verse Guide is very modern.  The fonts are appealing.  Both the U-verse Guide and On Demand overlay your current channel, so you don’t lose what you’re currently watching.  It has a nice look.  On Demand is fast to load and browse.  Not only do they have picture in picture, they let you create multi-views that let you watch 4 channels at once.  (One complaint: You can’t ‘sort’ the channels in the multi-views so you can’t change the order in which they appear.)

DVR

With Comcast, you could only record two shows at once.  When both shows are recording, one of them has to be the channel you are viewing.  There were a few times where my wife would head up to bed, and I couldn’t change the channel because she was recording Dance Moms and Real Housewives and I was forced to watch one of them.  With U-verse, it’s possible to record up to 4 shows at one time.

Customer Service

Overall, Comcast had very good customer service.  There are a few minor things I will point out.  When I called to cancel and the specialist asked me why, I mentioned the rising prices and internet speed at night.  I was hoping he would acknowledge the slowness at night, and mention how they were doing something about it.  Instead, he said I’ve been a great customer, and was sorry to see me go.  Later on in the conversation he asked if I noticed any slowness in internet if I was watching HD channels at the same time.  So far I have not.  Why are they so quick to try and point out the flaws in U-verse without admitting their own?  We ended the conversation with him giving me the address to the Comcast store where I could drop off my equipment.  He mentioned how nice it would be since they are now modeled similar to Apple stores.

I get to the Comcast store to drop off my equipment.  It’s 20 minutes before closing time, and the store has no customers.  In one hand I’m carrying a bag with 2 cable modems, 2 analog adaptors, and 3 remotes.  In the other, an HD digital box.  I’m greeted by an employee and he asks me my name.  At this point, you think he would offer to take the digital box off my hands.  I give him my name, and he puts it in the computer and tells me to someone will be with me shortly.  I wait 2 minutes for my name to be transmitted to the help desk, and the two very friendly people behind the counter begin to help me.  They’ve done so much right with the layout store and the concept of taking your name down, but they forgot the small stuff.  When you see someone carrying a large number of items, offer to help them.  When they’re the only customer in the store, don’t make them wait for their name to get processed in the computer.  Go ahead and take care of them.

My Advice

The Comcast business model encourages disloyalty.  They told me how great a customer I was, and said if I come back I would be offered the introductory rates.  What incentive is there to remain loyal?  Give customers a competitive rate and they’ll be more likely to stick it out.  (They  probably make a profit off a ton of customers who put up with the rate hikes and maybe I’m in the minority.  I would hope more people catch onto this.)

Fix the speed.  It got to a point where it was too unbearable to do anything at night.  Update the user interface.  Modernize the Guide and On Demand.  Bring back Picture-in-Picture.

A less important point, but I’d recommend increasing business hours from 7:00pm to 9:00pm EST.  The current time makes it difficult for people on the east coast.

I can’t imagine that the lack of features for Comcast has to do with bandwidth. Cable is supposed to be capable of very high speeds. Why do they have fewer features? Why does it appear so dated in comparison?

I’d say more, but I’m going to go record 4 shows at once while I play a game online.

Everyday on my way to work…

I take the back roads.  I pass a couple of farms and residential areas.  Every now and then I get stuck behind a tractor going 15 mph,  and during the school year I have to stop on occasion for school buses.

However there is one thing I look forward to on my commute during the school year.  As I make the drive down one particular road, there is a group of houses on my left.  If I make it before the school bus arrives, I often pass a father and son passing a football.  Sometimes they’re standing there going back and forth, sometimes the father has the son run for it.  Sometimes the son misses and chases after the ball.  But they’re always smiling.

The father and son pass the ball back and forth every morning.  Early in September they are wearing short sleeves switching to light jackets as fall approaches.  Come winter, they’re in heavier gear, and the process reverses as spring arrives.

When the bus arrives, the son picks up his backpack, waves goodbye, and boards the bus.  The father waves back, still smiling, and watches as the bus takes off before he goes inside.

That’s the kind of father I want to be.

Munchkin

Office Etiquette

I have been working in the corporate world since 2004.  During my time, I’ve witnessed, and at one time or another committed, some office etiquette blunders.  I thought I’d take the time to write about my biggest office pet peeves, as well as those of friends and colleagues.

‘Office’ Office Etiquette

I am going to start off with ‘Office’ office etiquette, that is, Microsoft Office, and the things you should be doing to use it effectively.

Utilize the ‘Location’ field for Conference Call Information (So it Appears in Meeting Reminders)

I attend a lot of meetings.  Several a day, and dozens a week.  Nothing ticks me off more than to have to click through the reminder popup to retrieve the conference call information.  The meeting coordinator should put that dial-in information in the Location field.  Don’t worry if you’re also booking a room; you can modify the location field after you add the room to include the call-in information.  One of the worst feelings in the world is when you’re 30-seconds late for a meeting and you have one more click to get the phone number.

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Only include the participant dial-in information in the location.  If you copy and paste all your call-in information, some poor soul is going to accidentally dial the host number.  Then the host won’t know what’s going on while everyone else is on the call waiting.  The next 5-10 minutes of the meeting are wasted trying to figure out who it was.

Meeting Reminders/Recurring Meetings

Always use the reminder feature.  It is typically on by default, so this shouldn’t be an issue.  But once in a while, there’s that meeting that gets set up and the creator didn’t set a reminder.  The next 10 minutes are spent rounding everyone up.

Make a conscious effort to properly utilize the recurrence feature.  In the unfortunate instance where you must set up a daily meeting, make sure you use the proper selection of everyday vs. every weekday.  Every weekday will only schedule meetings Monday thru Friday.  If you quickly, and likely inadvertently, select everyday then everyone with a smartphone will get an alert on weekends.  If you’re an electronic victim like me, you likely sleep with your phone inches away.  There’s nothing worse than being alerted on a weekend at 8:15am to for your upcoming non-existing meeting.

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This next piece could probably go into my regular ‘Meeting Etiquette’ section, but since it typically involves Outlook, I’m going to include it here.  Set an end date to your meetings.  I once was invited to a recurring weekly meeting.  I noticed it started getting cancelled week after week.  I deleted it from my calendar.  It never came up for over a year.  All of a sudden, the meeting organizer sends the invite again to occur every week without an end date.  So I assume they want to start it up again.  So the meeting time comes, and the meeting doesn’t happen.  What the heck?

Attendees: Read the Information Before you Email a Question

Sometimes you have to have a special password or a bit of key information you need to share with users. One would think putting “THE WEBEX PASSWORD IS 123ABC” in big bold letters right in the subject of the email invite would get their attention.  To my amazement, people clicked the link to the WebEx, and then followed up via email with “Hey, what’s the password to the WebEx?”

Organizers: Send the Agenda Before the Meeting

For weekly meetings, you send out the agenda right after the meeting.  Between then and now I get 577 more emails.  So when the next meeting rolls around, I have a hard time finding the minutes from the previous meeting.  So either send it out again right before the meeting (which nicely reminds people of the upcoming meeting) or make it available on SharePoint (which is probably a better idea since the most recent document is in a central location.)

Meeting Etiquette

I’ve mentioned some of these in the past, but they are worth repeating.

Be On Time, Start on Time

Be on time for meetings.  If you’re joining a meeting via conference call, dial in a minute early.  If it’s in person, try to be right on time.  Don’t be the person that has to be constantly reminded that they’re supposed to be attending a meeting, and then shows up 2 minutes late.

End on Time

Be respectful of other people’s time, and end the meeting at the scheduled end time.  People have a lot of other things to do and going late messes up their schedule.  In the event that the meeting looks like it’s going to go longer than scheduled, end at a good stopping point and schedule a follow up.

Don’t Schedule Too Early/Too Late (Factor in time zones)

It should be an unwritten rule that no meeting should start earlier than 9:30am or 4:00pm.  When people first get to work, they check e-mail, follow up on the last minute things they couldn’t finish the night before, etc.  At the end of the day they wrap everything up.

You should make an effort to leave work on time.  You’ll feel better, have more time to do non-work related activities.  In most non-emergency situations, it’ll all be there in the morning. A difference of 4:55pm tonight and 8:35am tomorrow morning won’t mean much a month from now.  Abstaining from scheduling meetings in those early and late hours helps avoid working late.

Factor in the time zone when you are scheduling meetings for people in different locations.  Try to be respectful of the 9:30-4:00 rule taking into account in their time zone.

Respect the Conference Room Booking Process

Every company has a different method of booking the conference room.  Whatever the process, It should be respected.  The same employee will go from “I booked the conference room at this time” to “Oh I didn’t think we still used that system to book the room.”  Use whatever system your  company follows, and stick to it.

Interrupting People When They Are in a Meeting

The following is a true story.  I was in a meeting where people could see inside the conference room from the main area.  A co-worker was looking for me and realized I was in the conference room.  So first they just stared at me from outside the door.  I gave a face that said, “I’m in a meeting we can chat later.”  They stared at me for another 5 seconds.  I had my computer at the meeting, and noticed an email came in.  It was from the gawker, “I need help with xyz.”  To which I replied, “I can’t help you right now, I’m in a meeting.  I can help you when it is over.”  They were persistent, “But I really need help with xyz.”  I knew it could wait.  So now I’m losing focus on the meeting because this person thinks they have an emergency.

This next scenario has also happened to me a hundred times.  I’m on a conference call in my office.  Someone peeks in and one of three things happens.  Rarely, they make a face that says  “I’ll come back later” and leave.  More often than not, they look at the phone to see if you have it muted, and then just start talking as if my meeting isn’t important.  Occasionally, they don’t even have the decency to do that, and just start talking anyway.

If you need to talk to someone and they are in a meeting, whether it be a in person or a conference call, wait for them to get out of it before you sidetrack them.

Attendees: Respect the Meeting

I try to schedule as few meetings as possible.  So when I do, it’s usually for a good reason.  I also keep my meetings as short as possible.  So for the 20 minutes I ask you to meet with me, put the phone down and give me your attention.

For those dialing in, we can hear everything around you.  This includes, but isn’t limited to: chewing food, driving in your car, and the barking dog.

Organizers: Don’t Have Meetings for the Sake of Having Meetings

I’ve mentioned this in the past: Limit the number of recurring meetings.  If there isn’t a reason to meet, cancel the meeting.

Try to limit who you invite.  Don’t invite someone if their time is better used somewhere else.

In the Office

This section has to do with communication and respecting others while physically in the office.

Don’t Take Advantage of Cube Location

There are three main spots where this is typically abused:  the bathroom, the kitchen, and the exits.

Like the children’s book says, everybody poops (more on this later).  Don’t pounce people on their way in or out of the bathroom.  Don’t make people think twice about going to the bathroom because they’re worried they’ll have to go through you.  (Side note: Who knows, maybe it makes them more productive, I read somewhere that people make better decisions when they have to pee.)

Everybody goes to the kitchen, likely multiple times a day.  Don’t make people go hungry or thirsty because they’re worried they’ll get stopped every time they go to the kitchen.  At the same time, respect the people whose desks are near the kitchen.  Don’t heckle them for the two minutes and thirty seconds it takes to cook your Hot Pocket.

Everybody in the office has to come in and exit through the front door.  Don’t stop them.  When they’re coming in, they probably haven’t had that cup of coffee yet, have all their belongings strapped on their shoulders, and just want to get to their desk.  When they’re leaving, they just want to get home.  The last thing they want is for you to say, “Hey, got a minute?” as they’re almost out the door.  It’s never a minute.

I used to work with someone who was so bad at this that I would have a co-worker leave at the same time as me and we would pretend to be engaged in serious conversation just so we could get out.  Also respect the people who work near the front door.  Don’t start up a conversation with them on your way back from your cigarette break, coffee run, etc.

Beginning of Day, End of Day Interruptions

Let people settle in when they get into the office.  Give them a good 20 minutes before you hit them with something if it can wait.  At the end of the day, leave them alone for the last 20 minutes to wrap things up.  People typically designate these beginning and end times to gather all their thoughts and tasks.

“Working Through Lunch”

I’m probably not working through lunch.  I’m probably catching up on my RSS feeds, reading the news, taking my mind off work.  The last thing I want when I’m eating my sandwich is for you to come in and talk about work.

Quota on Interruptions

There should be a quota on how many times, whether in person or electronically, you are allowed to interrupt someone.  I’m all for interaction, but when I’m trying to work on a specific project and you visit every 20 minutes, I lose focus.

Speakerphone

In offices with thin walls, use speakerphone sparingly.  In cubicles, use speakerphone only if you’re the only one left in the building.  Someone once told me a story where three people all within 10 feet of each other, all on the same call, were all on speakerphone.  One person was in an office with the door open, one in the next office over with the door closed (I may have been the victim here), and one in a cube across from them.  You could imagine how annoying the delayed voices were on the various speakerphones.

Personal Calls

Be aware of your surroundings.  No one needs to hear about the status of your latest medical condition or what’s for dinner.  Talk softly or go outside.

Food & Cleanliness

Don’t be ‘that guy’.

The Water Cooler

I’m all for being green.  Go ahead and re-use that water bottle.  Just don’t stick the mouth of your bottle up and over the spigot.  Chances are you weren’t that good at Operation as a kid, and that bottle is going to touch the spigot.  If your hands (or anything else) touch the spigot by accident, do the right thing and give it a wash.

Replace the water cooler when it’s empty.  If you are strong enough, offer to replace it for others.  If you’re not, ask someone for help.  The same could be said for filling up the coffee pot.

The Fridge

If you brought something in but decided not to eat it, you are responsible for seeing that it gets thrown out.  If you bring something in to share, you are responsible for seeing that it gets thrown out after it’s edible time has passed.  No one wants to see, or smell, a furry science experiment weeks later.

If you didn’t bring something in but want to eat it, too bad – it belongs to someone.  Don’t steal food.

The Sink

Your mother doesn’t work there.  And even if she did, you’re an adult.  Wash your dishes.  When they’re dry, put them away.

The Microwave

That soup that  just exploded all over the inside?  Clean it up.

Bathroom Etiquette

When I walk towards a urinal or toilet, I don’t want to see a foamy pile of pee waiting for me.  Flush.  Then, wash your hands.  I don’t care if you didn’t get anything on them.

Shut the light off when you’re done, and leave the door cracked.  Don’t keep people waiting making them think you’re still in there when you’re long gone.

If you made a mess, for whatever reason, clean it up.

Final Thoughts

Leave a comment if you have a good office etiquette story.   Thanks to everyone for sharing your thoughts when I talked about creating this post.

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