Near Yellow Mountain

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Moving on......Updated version April, 2015

In May, I wrote a blog about it being “Time to Say Goodbye”. I talked about needing to leave my current position and the reasons. As it turns out, what I had been told by “the experts” before I left the US for Japan was true – it is hard for a long time ex-pat to return to where you started. My favorite author from high school, Thomas Wolfe, was right. At least in my case, “you can’t go home again.”

By my  favorite author from my high school years - for many expats life imitates art
The feelings I had in May about needing to move on intensified as I watched my ex-boss get fired in June and three others in leadership positions depart quickly. Despite being a profitable business in a company whose stock had just hit an all-time high, the corporate chiefs are never satisfied and seemed to feel a game of corporate musical chairs was in order. I stayed away from the growing chaos as much as possible by spending time with customers in Asia.
Another saying came to mind as I traveled, “you can run but you can’t hide”. Although I dodged the initial salvos from the change machine at HQ, it became apparent to me that a bullet with my name on it had entered the corporate RIF chamber.

A couple days later, I was sitting on a tatami mat on a small island in Japan enjoying sashimi and sake with customers when my cell began to buzz. Night time in Japan meant the day was just getting started on the east coast of America. The news was not good – one of our least knowledgeable people had just been named to run the Division. We had a new boss and not one who appreciated my Asia skills…….
My trip continued for another ten days. I was traveling with a colleague who was equally unhappy with our leadership change. We mulled over the possible impacts. “There is no (expletive deleted) way he can get rid of you, who else can do what you do in Asia?” queried my long-time friend. I smiled and my unease grew.

I flew home to happily find our new leader was out of the country. The buzz in the office was about the coming reorganization. A week passed, a new week began. I had three groups of Japanese visitors coming over a ten day period to visit our plant, discuss the future and play golf (not necessarily in that order). I incorrectly assumed that nothing would happen when we had important guests visiting. Our new leader returned to the office, he wanted to see me at 4PM – before a customer dinner.
I sat across from a man that I had never liked but had always had civil dealings with. He knew nothing about our business and had no international experience before he came to the Division. On the other hand, he was gifted at internal politics and used to work for the company our new CEO came from. His ascent to the top - a victory of form over substance.
“I want to show you my new organization” he said. Not waiting for a reply he described the boxes on his chart. “Did you notice your position is not on the chart?” he said with a gleam in his eye. Since it was a rhetorical question, he went on: “that is because I have eliminated it”. “You are paid too much and I want to get your departure costs in this quarter”. His parting shot was that my old boss was not around to protect me. Clearly this was not a painful experience for him. Rather than give him the joy he was seeking by reacting emotionally. I simply said, “Well, ok, I guess I will go talk to Connie (my wife)” and walked out of the room.

This diagram shows the highlights of the final meeting with my boss.
In a moment, I had gone from 1% er to 8.1% er (unemployed). Of course, inside I was hurt and angry and feeling “screwed”. I left the building, got in the car and hit speed dial on my touch screen (hands free, of course).
Within 30 minutes, I was home – walking our faithful dog Yuki with my wife. I got someone else to host the dinner I was skipping. I talked and talked some more. I told my wife: “this is like 8th grade, I was going to break up with my girlfriend (translation - leave the company) but while I failed to act she broke up with me (translation – they RIFed me)”. Feeling a surge of energy and a lot of emotion, we dropped Yuki at the house and kept walking. After letting me vent, the ever wise Connie said: “look, this is a Christmas present; they are paying you to leave”. “Your non-compete is void”. “Had you left on your own, you wouldn’t be getting paid and you wouldn’t be free to work anywhere”.
Of course, she was right but it took me another 24 hours to see the world through her lens. I started making calls and then I started getting calls.
I still had guests in town to host. I told them the situation. They were not happy with my sudden demise ("but nobody else in your company understands Japan, Joe san"). Nevertheless, we carried on. The golf outing to Pinehurst was still a great time. We planned a November meeting in Japan to discuss the future. What my boss didn’t understand was that my relationships in Asia will continue whether or not I am with the company.
The next week was a whirlwind of activity. I reviewed my severance package and early retirement options, saw a financial planner, had a physical, went to the dentist and eye doctor, talked to two ex-bosses who had also been “let go” but were better off for it. I listened to their advice and started to plan my future. I talked to other trusted friends about next steps. I had my first interview by phone and agreed to visit the company to discuss options as soon as possible.
I video chatted with our faithful Shanghai driver Philip a couple of times. As usual his perspective made me feel good: “I don’t care what the company does, I am always your driver”. “I don’t care if China and America go to war, I am your driver and your friend”. Vintage Philip - not sure where the war comment came from but I understood and appreciated his sentiment.

Good to his word - 30 months later Philip still drives me when I am in Shanghai
I started saying goodbye to dozens of people – at the office during the day and by night via phone and computer to friends and customers in Japan and China. After a few calls I was asked by one person not to say “goodbye” but to say “see you later”. That became my mantra.

Yesterday was my last day of work for my former employer. I had lunch with some friends, got a buddy in IT to help configure my new computer and turned in my things.
The next several weeks will be interesting. There are several options on the table. I haven’t been this excited about the future since the week we left for Japan to begin our ex-pat life. Perhaps I should have acted sooner but no matter – today is the first day of the rest of my life and I am looking forward to the future again.

Post script:  it as been 30 months since I wrote this post. Life and work is good. I formed a company and have been busy ever since. Working on my own has been more enjoyable, less stressful and more profitable than working for a marginal boss in a declining organization. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Blind Inspiration

Over the course of my working life I have accumulated almost 4 million frequent flyer miles.  Much less than the character played by George Clooney in the movie “Up in the Air” but a respectable sum.  In two decades of almost constant business travel, I have had a variety of interesting seat mates :  athletes with Super Bowl and NBA rings, a loser in the Presidential  nomination process, a princess, IOC members and Olympic athletes  and today, on my second of two flights, the Rev. Jesse Jackson  who was traveling to the Democratic National Convention .  I have never had a blind seatmate until my first flight today.  I realized my new friend was handicapped when she boarded in a wheel chair but since she and her helper (nicknamed “Lightening”) were both wearing sun glasses, I thought maybe they were just typical aging Southern California hipsters getting on a plane at LAX.  I watched as Lightening got Maggie settled in seat 1A and then departed for his seat in 24F. I was in 1B.
Flying home from a 13 day, 8 city trip around Asia, I was more in sleep than chat mode. Besides I was finishing watching an episode of “White Collar” on my IPhone so I wasn’t really looking for conversation or inspiration. As I watched my phone, my peripheral vision was attracted to Maggie’s hand movement around her seat. After about a minute of seeing her hands move methodically over her surroundings, I pulled out my ear buds and asked if I could help. “I am trying to find the earphone jack” was the reply to my question.  The earphone jacks were in an unusual place for a United 737 so it took me a few seconds to locate it and get her connected.
Maggie mentioned she was worried about her IPhone battery running down. I told her she was in luck because this plane had electric outlets in the seats.  She smiled, reached into her purse and held up her charger and then asked if the plug would match her cord. I plugged it in for her, she heard the beep indicating the charging had started and a big smile crossed her face.  She thanked me and continued to quietly explore her environment by gently touching the seat arms. She located the Direct TV controller and tried to divine what the seven buttons meant. I wasn’t sure whether trying to help her again was crossing a line or something she would appreciate.
 I thought back to my teenage years when I would visit my grandmother who was virtually sightless but furiously independent. Each time I visited her I seemed to cross an invisible line and offer help she didn’t want. Normally I was rebuffed with a loving slap and a verbal rebuke that she was perfectly capable of doing things by herself.  
I was more uncomfortable watching Maggie struggle than fearful of offending her since she had already accepted my assistance once.
So I decided again to ask if she wanted help. I explained the control to her.  She was surprised and happy that the plane had Direct TV and explained to me how Jet Blue was the first to install it on planes.  I was impressed by her knowledge of airline trivia. She said she needed to leave a couple text messages before she had to turn off her phone. I was curious to see her send a text message.  She did it by talking into her IPhone. When she was finished she went on to explain that the voice recognition did not always work and sometimes she had to use the keyboard which was much more difficult but “doable”.
The boarding of the plane continued. Suddenly two gentlemen stopped and greeted her. She said hello and told them “Lightening” was in 24F. They told her they would see her when the plane landed in Chicago and continued to their seats. I asked where she was going. She said to Mackinaw Island in Michigan but she was worried about the tight connection. I told her I had an IPhone app that could give updates on her flight and the connecting gate. That was an app she wanted. Soon we were just talking like two average travelers.  We took off.  Half way through the flight, she needed to use the rest room. She simply excused herself felt her way past me and made her way to the rest room. She clearly had done this before and I guessed the wheelchair was only to speed up getting around airports. The flight attendant jumped up to help but only needed to watch her slow but steady progress to her destination. She returned and confidently made her way to her seat.  Conversation resumed.
 I asked how “Lightening” got his name. She said he was hit by lightening at 14 and had been called that ever since. She asked about my work and my family. We landed, said our goodbyes and I made my way to the gate for my next flight.  In many ways this was a normal exchange between people who happened to meet on a plane.  On the other hand, for me this was an amazing experience. One of my greatest fears is losing my sight and, in my mind, my freedom. Over the course of 4 hours, my seatmate showed me that life goes on – she travels, sends text messages, and “watches” TV and Netflix. I boarded my next flight thankful that my sightless seatmate opened my eyes.