Series: Q&A Leaders On Leadership


Q&A (unedited) On Leadership

Charles Michael Austin, Ed.D. (“Dr. Chaz”)  is President at Dr. Charles Michael Austin.  He is a Career Mentor, College Professor & Curriculum Designer at various colleges and universities in Southern California.

How important in the roster of leadership qualities are attitude, habit and discipline? What weight would you assign them?

I assume discipline is present – in any professional. And certainly in a leader.
Habit can – and usually does – have a downside. As in, “that’s the way we do things around here.”
Attitude is the key. Are you open to new ideas? Can you make course corrections as needed? Can you give credit to a subordinate for something you didn’t think of? Can you get your own ego out of the way? We’ve probably all had bosses who’ve said to us, “My door is always open.” Going for the bait, we’ve gone in to pitch a new idea, only to leave the office like a flat tire because of the boss/leader’s needed to dominate.

What others, in your opinion, are coveted qualities of business leaders?

A.  The ability to shut up and listen.
B.  Making the people that report to you feel valued for their contributions.
C.  Being crystal clear about what you want – and by when you want it.
D.  Perspective. Except for hospital emergency rooms, no one is going to die if a deadline is missed. But so many leaders behave as if it’s always a life and death situation. It’s not. If you can lighten up, it goes a long way towards making those who report to you feel safe. People are more likely to take risks if they feel safe.
E.  Allowing people to fail. If you’ve hired good people and let them do their jobs, they will occasionally screw up. There is no need to berate them. You’re not their mom/dad and they’re not your “bad” child. They’ll learn from their mistakes and probably not repeat them.

Do you think there is finally equality between men and women in the work place?

No. Things have improved, but we need to be continually vigilant. Sometimes it feels like the Womens’ Movement never happened. Look at the ongoing popularity of “laddie magazines.” We’ve reverted to objectifying women, and that sort of attitude no doubt spills over into the workplace. As Erma Bombeck said, “We’ve got a generation now who were born with semi-equality. They don’t know how it was before, so they think, this isn’t too bad. We’re working. We have our attache cases and our three piece suits. I get very disgusted with the younger generation of women. We had a torch to pass, and they are just sitting there. They don’t realize it can be taken away. Things are going to have to get worse before they join in fighting the battle.”

When most companies are tightening their belts and employees are not shaking things up, how much does risk taking (challenging the corporate orthodoxy) play a part in your advice for executives seeking to stand out in a corporation?

My advice is: don’t. Companies say they want “outside the box” thinking, but in practice they don’t. You want to take risks, start your own company.

Brevity is becoming a communications fact of life. When is brevity not such a good idea?
When it replaces genuine communication. Human beings are inclined to avoid confrontation. A quick tweet or text or email helps us dodge the uncomfortable face-to-face meeting where bad news needs to be conveyed. I think one of the things that has helped make me successful is that confrontation is one of my hobbies. I’ve always found that being direct with people deepens relationships. Not direct as in “you’re bad and wrong, and here’s why,” which is verbal vomiting that disempowers people. I’m talking about collaborative communication whose context is “what worked/what didn’t.” That takes it away from the personal attack, shifting the focus to problem solving.

You are a specialist in career development. What are the differences between setting a career path in your twenties and in your forties or even fifties?

Presumably, by the time you’ve hit forty, you’ve gained some wisdom and developed some sense of what your talents are and where and how you can make a contribution to others. My clients and students who are in their twenties very seldom have a career path. They may have a passion (or so they think), and my advice to them is to get to work in some capacity in their field of choice to learn where and how they fit.

The meta-conversation, though, is that most people do things in their careers that they never would have imagined in their twenties; that career choices are usually unplanned accidents or matters of serendipity. If someone would have told me in my twenties that I’d hold a Doctorate in Education and (among other things) be a college professor, I would have told them that they were crazy and that that would never, never happen. You need to be open to the unexpected.

What is one behavior or trait that you have seen derail more leaders’ careers?

Ego. “I’m the boss. I know best.”

Your Ed.D. dissertation discusses the inherent value of career coursework in higher education. What is your summary finding on planning for a career when college is often a place to “find ourselves”?

That’s both the subject of my dissertation and my book (to be published later this year).
Having some career direction by the time you graduate is part of finding ourselves. Unless you’re a trust fund baby, you’ll need to make money after you graduate (if only to start paying off your student loans). There’s enormous pressure on college students (from their parents, usually) to find “the perfect job,” and so many students have no clue what that might be – or even what they want to do.  So, just get to work. If it’s not what you (think you) love, then at least have it be something you’d like to do. Get started. Meet people. Learn things. Trust that you’ll find your way – and eventually discover you passion(s). That’s plural because most people in their twenties can expect to have five or six careers. So even if you do find “the perfect job,” there will most likely be others during your lifetime.

What expectation is realistic when it comes to setting today’s career path?

Corporate loyalty is dead. Everyone is a freelancer, and their own brand. People need to be trained to determine, articulate and sell that brand – for as long as they work. The sooner they start doing that, the better their chances of continuing to find work that’s satisfying – both creatively and financially.

Advertisements

The Man or The Career?


Long ago and far away, I was married. Let’s just call him “Jacko” for the hell of it. He was a gold-plated up-and-comer in the advertising business. We had an office romance, dated, moved in together and three years later, got hitched. Soon, the Wild Wild West came calling and Jacko was recruited to big-paying job in San Francisco. He went to work and I went looking. I’d had a nearly 10 year career clawing my way to the middle of a big time Madison Avenue ad agency and suddenly, there was no work for me. Once we’d bought the cozy love nest in the redwoods, the Audi and the golden retriever puppy, there was no turning back.

We’d been there nearly two years before I found a job in my chosen profession, television production, and for a reduction in pay and a humiliating standard compared to where’d I’d been, I worked my ass off. For that job, I often flew back and forth to Los Angeles, making a 4 a.m. trek to the airport a few times a month, sometimes commuting back and forth in one day. On one particular Thanksgiving, though, my job took me there for about a week. I arrived back home on Thanksgiving Day. I remember asking Jacko where he’d made a reservation for Thanksgiving Dinner.  He looked at me crestfallen. “Huh?” he questioned, “You didn’t cook?” And he was serious!

Therein is the story of women working and maintaining a family. In the 1980’s anyway. From that moment on, the marriage became a series of sacrifices. When he worked, Jacko made great money and life was dreamy in big houses with limos and luxuries.  Trouble was, Jacko could barely keep any job for more than a year. The minute he was fired, the perks dried up. Because my business life was second to his (that’s how it was in those days when men were the bread winners), he led and I followed. Just like the marriage, my career went into a ditch.

Recently, in a therapy session, I was asked to list opportunities that had been presented to me in life that I had grabbed and those I’d rejected. I reviewed the circumstances of those pivotal decisions that brought me to where I am today. (more on that later)

It turns out that there was a fork in the road about four years into our marriage when I had a chance to go in another direction solo. I remember it like I were sitting there now. My then boss, the head of a major ad agency production department, popped a $10,000 (read as triple that by today’s count) check out of his desk drawer. This was his inducement to stay and not to follow the bouncing ball of Jacko’s career path one more time to another city, this time a far less desirable one than San Francisco.  I was further induced to stay by my supervisor who suggested I take over one of the agency’s major accounts. Here in New York, where we were living, I’d found and decorated a superior apartment (the place was cheap and well located). We’d spent a few bucks renovating too.

The marriage was troubled for the money problems that came with high interest (16% fixed rate) mortgages and lack of consistent work to pay for our propensity for high living. Not to mention hefty child support payments and the nasty back-and-forthing that  results between exes.  He lived in the mid-West, where the only job he could find was headquartered, and I remained in New York for as long as I could hold out. With the house in California and an apartment in New York, adding yet another residence in another city made our  expenses prohibitive. While the distance necessitated planned, and often far more romantic interludes than we’d had in years, the situation became untennable until finally Jacko was making promises to me he ultimately couldn’t keep.

My friends and family saw the handwriting on the wall. Everyone who knew me urged me to leave the marriage and stay in New York, my hometown, the City I love and the place where the greatest career possibilities existed for me. I was still only 34 with plenty of road still ahead of me.  Jacko was more and more desperate to have me move to the mid-West to be with him and finally after 18 months of commuting, I caved in, packed and left.

This was the decision that, I believe, has influenced my life ever since.

Today, as different from the early 1980’s, I think women can choose differently. Back then, there was no negotiating for both people in a couple. When your husband was recruited, even by a wealthy company, you were on your own to find a job for yourself. Most couples weren’t comprised of two working professionals. Women were liberated by the second-wave of feminism (1950’s-1980’s) which was largely concerned with issues of equality, such as the end to discrimination a la Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique, 1963) but, apparently not all that much. Back then, I was one of few women I knew who wanted a job, not just an engagement ring, after college.  To move to a city without a network or a vehicle for acquiring one quickly, meant no real way to find a circle of like-minded professionals. Back then, without a open system for parlaying a decade’s worth of corporate ladder climbing, there was no way to break in to a small, closed society of workers. Back then, to work in television advertising meant living in one of two places and San Francisco and the mid-West weren’t either of them.

Whomever said you don’t have to choose is full of sh*t! Let’s face it. None of us would rather have one OR the other but the truth is – there are only so many hours in a day and we each have only so much energy to go around. What then was a choice between my marriage to a man I loved and felt committed to, no matter what damage had been done already, and a job or career was, in my mind, not a contest.  Today, if couples don’t get along that’s reason enough to split up. Until recently, 50% of marriages ended in divorce. Why things have changed, I’m not quite sure. I doubt it’s that women are taking their careers less seriously. If anything, my guess is that the gender slant of breadwinners is changing. Perhaps men are considering women’s professional lives more important. Perhaps both spouses are part of the negotiation when one is recruited to another city.

After my last exit from a highly respected New York advertising agency, I was never able to move vertically again, only laterally, at best, and was mostly relegated to compromising freelance jobs. Because television production is like any other “you’re as good as your last gig” industry, no good salary in advertising ever followed.  By the time the marriage broke for good and I moved to a serious production city, L.A., I had very little to offer in the stiffest competitive marketplace in the country.

Now, I was on my own. I scrambled for work and got none. The Divorce Court judge saw a working woman who only needed “rehabilitation” to be back on her feet. My ex got away with murder and welched on what he did owe. Since then, my resume has been a patchwork of reinvention. I don’t regret any of the roads this history has taken me down. I would never have had the chance to find my other talents. I do feel sure though, that, had things been more equitable, there could have been an easier way.