Near Yellow Mountain

Friday, January 25, 2013

One Man Band

One of the many benefits of our ex-pat days in China was the fact that there was an abundance of helpers – a full time assistant who spent her days looking for new ways to help me (and my family) and never felt any request was too much, an “aiyi” (auntie) in the office who made sure I always had oolong tea (even though I liked the Japanese brand), and the often mentioned driver Philip to make sure I always got where I needed to be and never had to worry about where to park. We also had an ayi at home, a lawn guy, the garbage got picked up five days a week – you get the picture. I was never able to play golf in China without a caddie – it was just part of the deal in a land with an abundance of low cost labor. The Chinese caddies had a tendency to give you the benefit of the doubt in keeping your score. One day my caddie handed me the scorecard she had kept and asked me to sign it before she turned it in for handicap calculation. After looking at the total, I wasn’t sure if she was trying to become a fiction writer or thought it was my birthday. My card said 87. The caddie’s card said 79.  
Caddies in China - always ready to help

In my eleven years overseas, I signed a lot of papers – all sorts of contracts, government required forms that I couldn’t read (thank the Lord for my previously mentioned assistant – Sabrina), expense reports, employment offers, etc. I just never had to fill out any forms I signed. When I traveled out of the country even the entry documents were filled in for me. Ok, I am not going to get any sympathy for having gotten spoiled while I was out of the country. The point I am about to make is - my life changed dramatically when I got back to the US.

While I was living overseas the company I worked for, like many, cut back support staff in the US - time and time again. In many cases, marginally usable technology replaced humans. The results weren’t pretty. Booking travel on-line was easy if you were flying to Chicago but was unspeakably bad if you needed to go to Singapore through Tokyo and Hong Kong. One time the Orbitz website suggested a 46 hour “layover” in Istanbul (yes, the one in Turkey) to save $400 when I was flying from Tokyo to Charlotte. Unbelievable but true.

Far too often, the people left in support functions spent more time explaining why they couldn’t help you than getting things done. Still, I was lucky. The admin I shared with a group, that seemed to include more members than AAA, was very dedicated - an exception to the rule in our company. She had worked with me before I moved to Asia, was loyal and helped as much as she could. I didn’t realize it but having to do more administrative work myself was good training for what was to come.

When I left the company almost four months ago, I didn’t look back. I never fully adjusted to being back in the US organization. Besides getting spoiled overseas, I developed skills that were not valued on this side of the Pacific. Despite getting calls from headhunters, I decided to forgo getting another “corporate job” and to work independently in the industry I know best as an advisor to former customers and new lithium producers. The fact the global market for lithium is in a boom period (perhaps a poor choice of words given the current battery woes that have grounded Boeing’s new Dreamliner) was very helpful in creating demand for my niche expertise.  Much to my surprise, several companies expressed interest in retaining my services. Working on my own seemed to be the best course of action for me but also provided a further shock to my formerly spoiled “by an abundance helper’s” self.

As my fledgling enterprise got off the ground there were a lot of basic things to do. Form an LLC, set up accounting, design and order business cards, negotiate contracts, etc. Once I was actually working there was more to do: issuing invoices and making sure I got paid being among the most important. I am my own secretary, IT person and travel agent. I am President of the new company. I am also the janitor.

Earlier this week, I was asked to visit a client in China next month. I checked my visa for China and found it expires a week before I leave. I have been getting visas for China for 13 years. Every time I did it the same way – I handed my passport to my administrative assistant and said; “please get me a new visa”. A week later, a Fed-X envelope appeared on my desk with my passport with a new visa.

In the brave new world of being a “one man band”; I need to handle all the travel details - booking the ticket (and confirming the upgrades) which wasn’t too much of an effort but still takes time. I am embarrassed to say it took a large part of a day to go on-line find a service company to expedite my urgent visa request, fill out the service and visa applications and write a letter from my employer (me) to the Chinese consulate general, guaranteeing that I would not be a financial burden to the people of the People’s Republic of China. The letter was required to be on “company letterhead” which I had to create on the fly.

In the middle of printing the forms, my printer ran out of ink so I asked the IT guy (me) to go to Office Depot and get an ink cartridge. When I returned, I tried to enlist the help of our faithful dog Yuki to review the checklist of required documents as I stuffed them into the
Fed – X envelope but she just sighed and left my office. Turns out I needed a passport size photo – guess who I asked to help with that? Me. It was a stressful day doing simple tasks. I felt a bout of multiple personality disorder coming on as I juggled my various roles.

Today, I reflected on all the time I spent on mindless tasks to get ready for a trip to China. For a minute I longed for the corporate infrastructure that, for most of my business life, took care of details for me but then I remembered how miserable I was when I returned from Asia to HQ and spent more than half my time in mind numbing meetings with no agenda or spending hours trying to “manage the quarterly numbers” for my corporate masters. The next time I need a visa, it will take a fraction of the time it took yesterday. I am fortunate to have found clients that will enable me to stay active in a business I know and enjoy while continuing to travel the world.
Philip saying goodbye to Connie on her last day in China
Life in Shanghai would have much harder without Philip