Do I Know You?–The Rule of 150

I can’t help but feel guilty when I don’t remember someone’s name, or even worse, don’t remember someone at all. It happens to me almost daily. No, I’m not suffering from memory loss, although it sure seems that way, I am just dealing with the rule of 150.

This rule, the rule of 150, is also known as Dunbar’s number after British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. He derived the number from observation and extrapolation from brain-size experiments. We humans, on average, can maintain 150 relationships. This includes past friends with whom we want to maintain a relationship. In today’s world, 150 friends seems woefully inadequate. Think about it…how many family members do you have? How many classmates from high school, college, and grad school? How many from your work environment? How many “friends” on social media?

The first time I heard of this rule, was Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point. He talked about W. L. Gore and Associates where they limited their factories to 150 employees. Everyone knows everyone else at the plant. If the company gets more business than one factory can handle with 150 people, it opens a new plant. The management has desks in the middle of the plant. Everyone knows everyone. They know their names, they know their personal stories, they care about each other. When a recession hits, the workers cut their own hours so that no one has to lose their job. It was a great business case. Their decision to limit their factories to 150 was based on trial and error, but it also provides supporting evidence for Dunbar’s number.

In my job, I probably interface with several hundred people on a semi-regular basis. Each time I change jobs at work, I am once again confronted with meeting several hundred new people. Having changed jobs about 10 times over the years, I have met, literally, thousands of people. I am not exactly a recluse, so I do have friends and family to remember, too. This is all to say that having met thousands of people in my life with whom I needed to have a relationship with for at least a short time, it is not so surprising that when an old business colleague pops up after many years, I generally have no idea who they are without a few hints. This is more true of people outside of my own organization, but even within my functional organization, there are about a thousand people.

So, although it is awkward, I generally re-introduce myself to people I haven’t seen in a long time or whom I know but can’t recall their name. I once said this to a mother of one of my children’s classmates to be slapped down with a “I know who you are, we’ve met, like, a thousand times!” This was done complete with an eye roll and then she turned her back on me for the rest of the event. Oh well. At work, when I re-introduce myself, I usually get a smile and a re-introduction from the other person. Sometimes I get a look of disappointment and even rarer, a deadpan response of, “we’ve met before”.

From now on, I’m not going to let it bother me. I do not need to know a thousand people and I don’t need to remember most of the people I’ve met only a handful of times. My circle of 150 is rich with family, friends, and people whom I’d like to get to know better.

Find the Joy in the Journey…





Is It Time To Lean In?

Recently, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, gave a presentation at my company. I got advanced notice that registration would open up at a certain date and time, so I marked it on my calendar a half-hour ahead. At the appointed time, I registered…and watched as the spots filled-up within a half hour. I had a conflict, but I figured I could work that out and be able to attend.

Now, I did not like everything I read in Ms. Sandberg’s book, Lean Inbut I was on board for most of it (the main difference being political…which is to say that we don’t see eye-to-eye on how to fix problems that we both agree are real problems). During her talk, however, I came to think we were more closely aligned than not. This, simply because she cited Norway where the law dictates the percent of women in congress and in corporate boards…without much difference in public outcomes. Change is needed, in other words, but it must be grass roots to be effective.

She started off by asking us if we had ever told anyone that we wanted to be CEO of our (Fortune 5) company. No one stood up at first, then one, lone woman did. Not very impressive. I was thinking, well, in graduate business school I did tell people that I wanted to be COO…I’m more of a hands-on person, so CEO was not as interesting to me as being chief operating officer. Then she asked the men (a minority at this assembly) if they were ever told in their career that they were too aggressive. Two men raised their hands. Then she asked this of the women and almost all of us raised our hands.

The assembly went on in the same vein. There are many statistics to show that women are not taken seriously from the get go…by their parents, their teachers, and their co-workers. She had much advice as to how we could change things. She has resources available to help us help ourselves. I was inspired and have challenged myself to create a “lean-in-circle movement” in my own work environment. No, not just a lean-in circle for myself, but a movement by which many circles are created and many people, both men and women are enriched.

At the end of the assembly, she asked us to think of something, not being CEO of our company, but rather being CEO of our own dreams. She asked us to stand up if we were willing to speak up for our own, personal ambitions. I leapt to my feet, feeling auditorium chair hit me in the back of my thighs as I did. Then I stood there, feeling very vulnerable, all of a sudden, as time ticked on very slowly. Finally someone else stood up, then another, and finally most of the auditorium stood. I glanced at the few women still sitting and felt a fury at them. Why did they come to this event and take up seats that others with true ambition could have benefited from?

I left the assembly in a contemplative state…I thought hard about how I could make a difference. I feel a lot (not a bit) disheartened about my own ability to get ahead. Age discrimination is rampant and unnoticeable. But, if I can look past that, past my own situation, I see many opportunities to enrich the next generations.

Find the Joy in the Journey!


Finding the Fun in Conference Calls

Conference calls, once a rarity in my job, are now how I spend many hours every day at work. A dozen years ago I had an assignment in a nearby city, away from headquarters. It was the first time I was regularly involved in conference calls. I found it quite an adjustment. Back then, the calls were strictly audio and it was hard to tell who else was on the line. There was capability to do a roll-call, but I rarely used it and often people didn’t bother to leave their name anyway. Although I often drove to meetings so I could be there in person, those occasions became less and less because travel took up too much time.

Nowadays, we have evolved to conferencing with visual capability. It can be very useful, because multiple people can review the same document at once quite easily. We can meet with a global team and quickly get alignment. We can even do all of this from home or while on a business trip. Often, I call-in to a meeting at my desk even when the meeting is just down the hall. It allows me to get work done while keeping an ear to the phone in case I’m needed in the discussion. Of course, most of my meetings require my full attention, but for those which do not, calling in means I can multi-task.

Conferencing can have it’s issues, especially when the technology gets glitchy. This YouTube video, A Conference Call In Real Life, makes me laugh, showing some of the things that can go wrong on a conference call. Who amongst us hasn’t experienced these foibles? You are talking about a department that is not living up to their responsibilities…then the manager of that group speaks up…you didn’t even know they were on the call! Someone’s on the spot and their dog is  barking or their baby is screaming. You think you are muted and make an embarrassing comment.

I can recall many such moments. Top of mind is the moment when a colleague was on a conference call when some early implications of The Affordable Care Act were announced. She was heard to exclaim (as a single woman with no children) that children would be covered under their parent’s policy up to age 26 even if they were married. You can imagine that she was not happy about this revelation..but she didn’t mean for it to be broadcast globally!

Another time, on a very large call, some poor soul must have been calling from the hospital and we all heard the very embarrassing question that the nurse asked. Now, I don’t think that anyone is so important that they should be calling in to any meeting post-op, so perhaps they deserved all the laughter that followed! At least they were able to remain anonymous.

On the whole, I think that conference calls are  a good productivity tool. Sometimes technological glitches mess us up, but for the most part, I think my company is more productive for the calls. At least I know that I am. Nothing can replace a trip to meet new colleagues, but once you’ve gotten to know each other in person, much can be accomplished without further traveling.

Find the Joy in the Journey…and the humor anywhere you can!

Back To Work: Four Days Of The Condor

So, after three weeks off, I’m back at work. It’s only been four days, but it seems like four weeks. My brain is finding it difficult to adjust, especially since I am still in a full-out Breaking Bad watching spree. Lies and deceptions abound (on the show) and crises and full-on demands to start the New Year off with a bang abound at work. So, only four days in, I feel like I’ve never left and struggle to hold onto that “holiday” feel of rest and relaxation.

My brain tries to separate fact from fiction and I’m reminded of that classic movie starring Robert Redford, Three Days of the Condor, where one day he’s an agent solely responsible for research and the next, everyone else is dead and he’s in the field and on the run trying to figure out what happened. He is, of course, super intelligent, and clever. Kind of like Walter White in Breaking Bad (except that Robert Redford is a good guy from start to finish). I like that cleverness and like to think of myself fulfilling a role like that (albeit without true danger and without breaking bad).

But, back to reality. Back to the Polar Vortex hitting hard soon after I dug my driveway out of a foot of snow on my first day back. I almost didn’t go to work, although I live close by, because the roads were so bad. I ended up going, however, because much as I support telecommuting within my team and across my company, I personally do better at the office. So, I traveled to work and found that very few people had bothered to do likewise.

I dug through my e-mail and tried to deal with the urgent issues while simultaneously focusing on the important ones. My time off quickly receded into the background. I had a supply crisis to deal with and with 90% of my colleagues and cross-functional teammates not showing up for work, I made little headway on day one. I did, however, forge a phone-friendship with a German guy a few tiers down in the supply chain, as we spoke twice a day, all week.

I have recently taken on added responsibility for tracking headcount, keeping the organization chart updated, and becoming the liaison between my department and human resources. This includes a list of tedious tasks, but since I represent dozens of people on the development committee, it is actually a good way for me to stay glued to day-to-day personnel changes. It’s also a way to use my intelligence, make a real difference for people, and get no credit whatsoever. Kind of like Robert Redford before he was forced into the field when everyone else in the office turned up dead. Just saying.

By day two, the company seemed to have about 90% attendance, but the icy roads still took their toll. Regardless, I dug in to my work issues, and got used to the idea that the year was starting off as if it had never stopped. By the end of day four, it seems as if I’d slogged through four weeks of work and my break is long forgotten. I suppose it is. One more work holiday, and then nothing until April.

Find the Joy in the Journey…time to brainstorm some fun for the long, cold Winter ahead.

Lessons From An Early Meeting

Yesterday, I had to be in my office with my computer warmed up by 6 a.m. for a meeting with a Japanese company. Being “global” means everyone has to be flexible. For me, 6 a.m. is very early and creates scheduling conflicts with getting my daughter to school. Instead of grumbling, however, I gave myself an attitude adjustment and boy did I learn a lot!

The alarm went off at 5 a.m. and I reluctantly turned on the light. I skipped breakfast, coffee, and a few rounds of Words With Friends, but I did take a look through the newspaper. Before I knew it, it was 5:17. I showered and dressed and was in my car at 5:52 a.m. I learned that no matter how much time I give myself to get ready in the morning, I will use it all up one way or another.

Driving to the office, I discovered that the many stop lights I have to get through are all blinking that early in the morning. With very light traffic, I flew along the road and arrived at the office at 5:57 a.m. (Yes, I live very close to the office!) I got a spot right by the door and got up to my office by 5:59 a.m. It took my computer until 6:06 a.m. to boot up so that I could get into the conference call. Yes, I was late! The meeting hadn’t yet started, so it all worked out anyway. Phew!

I felt very virtuous being in the office so early…but there was no one there to take notice. At 7:00 when the call ended, I gave my younger daughter a call. A very sleepy 12 year old answered her cell phone. I asked if her sister were driving her to school. No worries, she was sure that would happen, but told me I was calling the wrong daughter. I then called my older daughter’s cell phone and she didn’t answer. At 7:36 a.m., I got nervous and called her again. I had clearly woken her up and she was going to be late to school even without dropping her sister off.

I called my younger daughter back and said I was on my way. I got in the car and drove home. Walking into the house, I realized I’d not had any coffee, so I popped a K-cup into the machine and filled a travel mug. The dog bounded in, so I fed her then let her out. I got my daughter to school by 8 a.m. and pulled out my phone for my next meeting. As I drove back to the office, I tried to take a sip of my coffee only to have it spill into my lap. It was at that point that I recalled the last time I used that travel mug and the same thing happened. Fortunately, both times I was wearing coffee-colored clothing, head to toe!

I got back to the office at 8:20, just in time for my next meeting and just in time for my boss to see me “arriving” late. Sigh. There is no reward for going to the office early!

So, I learned a few things.

  1. The quickest commutes and best parking spots are for the early birds.
  2. It takes longer to boot up my computer than to drive to work.
  3. My daughters will sleep through their alarms and miss school if I don’t pay attention.
  4. I should never drive and drink coffee at the same time…unless I’m wearing brown.
  5. Next time I have a 6 a.m. meeting, I should complain about it loudly in advance and then through-out the day, especially to my boss!

Find the Joy in the Journey…and the lessons in the ordinary!

The Etiquette of Business Hugging

First let me be clear that I am no expert on hugging, but I do have close to 25 years of business experience. Three years ago if you had asked me if I’d ever hugged a colleague or imagined I ever would, I would have given you a funny look and answered firmly, no. In my current position, however, I’ve had the opportunity to meet my global colleagues in Germany, China, Brazil, and Mexico. I don’t recall any hugging in China, but once I’d met my colleagues in the other countries, a hug became the norm when meeting every time since.

I’ve come to think of business hugging as part of a global cultural norm, but still not a norm in the U.S. I’ve gotten used to the hug, although I must unconsciously still show a bit of hesitation as sometimes my colleague looks like they are unsure if they should shake my hand or go in for the hug. I go for the hug as it seems a more comfortable situation to go along with what they are used to. The other day, however, I found myself in a unique situation and ended up hugging a very senior person in my organization, both of us from the U.S., so not fitting in with my global-cultural-norm theory.

Now, the situation was also fairly unique. I was at a social function for a charity and if that were the whole context, the hug would probably have fit a social cultural norm. To complicate things, however, both of us were there on behalf of our company, so it was also a business function. I just went with the flow, business hug, no harm, no foul. But it did make me wonder about the etiquette of the business hug, so I did a little research.

I found this article, To Hug or Not to Hug by Ruth Mantell in Yahoo Finance where she quotes Peter Post, a director of the Emily Post Institution and great-grandson of Emily Post:

“Any kind of intimate touching is a mistake. I would avoid even reaching out to touch somebody’s shoulder as you’re walking by them. We really recommend that people refrain from stepping in and giving a hug to a co-worker, a client.”

He does make exception when responding to highly emotional news like a pregnancy or personal tragedy. I think this really still applies in the U.S., but it ignores the global nature of business and the complications of cultural differences.

In a sampling of other online articles, the consensus seems to be that hugging in general is a generational thing with the younger generations seeing it as a typical greeting and they are bringing that into the office environment. A second trend is that hugging is more common in the more creative fields and start-ups but that in more conservative businesses, such as banking, it is definitely frowned upon. These articles still only address hugging within U.S. companies with every-day colleagues.

So, I’ve come up with my own rules:

  1. If you don’t want to hug anyone, stick out your hand before the hug gets to you…the other person will then shake your hand and you’ve avoided the hug.
  2. If you are comfortable with a hug, consider the culture of the person you are greeting and let them signal the intent to hug.
  3. Keep any hugs to under 3 seconds.

That’s it…I have no better advice! Then there’s the air-kiss…

Find the Joy in the Journey and hug if you want to!

The Great Chair Roll-Out—I Live In A Dilbert World

About 6 weeks ago, I got an e-mail at work heralding the good news that soon all office workers at our headquarters town at my company would get a new, ergonomic chair.  The reaction to this news was a mixture of jubilation and sarcasm. The e-mail pointed out that we were sitting in 20 year-old chairs, and the company was pleased to provide us with new ones. By rough calculation, this is about a $10 million investment.

The week for my building finally arrived two weeks ago. That Monday, the extra-long, Steelcase tractor-trailer was backed into the dock at my building to deliver chairs to the first floor residents. Anticipation built in my department because Tuesday was the great chair roll-out for our floor. Tuesday arrived and sure enough, the Steelcase tractor-trailer was back. At the appointed time, I rolled my chair down the long hallway to trade it in for a new model. I was in for a disappointment…the freight elevator had broken down and the great chair roll-out was canceled!

An e-mail informed us that once the elevator company had completed its repairs, we’d be rescheduled. Sure enough, the following week was designated and like clockwork, Steelcase was back. This time I was not so quick to roll my chair down the hallway and again, I was disappointed; they ran out of chairs. Now, it’s not as if the company doesn’t know how many people sit on my floor…but I guess that enormous truck could only hold so many chairs.

Thursday was make-up day, but Thursday mornings are tough for me because I host a global meeting. I was not about to lose out on getting a new chair. A co-worker had let me sit on her chair and it was oh-so-comfortable. Another co-worker offered to rent his chair to me for a few hours. Yes, excitement was high about our new chairs. I pushed my meeting back 15 minutes and raced down the hallway to get my chair.

Based on the manufacturer’s description, you can see what all the fuss is about:

Tucked away inside its backrest is Amia’s patent-pending LiveLumbar – a system of flexors that contour to fit your spine, for continuous lower back support as you move in your chair. You may not see it, but you’ll certainly feel it. As you sit in the chair, an adjustable LiveLumbar zone flexes with your every move, for consistent ergonomic support for your lower back. Hour after hour, day after day. With additional comfort features like 4-way adjustable arms, adjustable seat depth and a flexible front seat edge, Amia keeps you feeling good. It’s a chair for every day, that’s not your everyday chair.

If you come to my cubical for a meeting, I will not let you sit in my chair. It is my seat of power! No, you will have to sit in one of the worn, mis-matched “guest” chairs with no lumbar support what-so-ever. There’s a reason why I’m such a good negotiator…my secret is my chair.

My new seat of power!

Now if the company would just spring for business cards and office supplies, I’d be all set.

Find the Joy in the Journey…even a Journey to Cubeville!

Corporate Dinosaur–On The Cusp Of Extinction

These days, when I walk down the hallway at work I am struck even more forcibly by how congenial and familial such a walk is. I say “hi” to old and young…but to old I have a special smile…we are corporate dinosaurs and I bask in the realization that we bring real value to our company in a different way than the wonderful, younger people with whom we work.

I’ve been through hell and back with my 100% American, still-family-controlled-after-over-100-years, company. We are publicly traded, but special stock allows the founding family control, and so we are a unique company, Fortune-right-up-there, but different. Believe me, I’ve seen dysfunctional behavior over the years…but I’ve also seen tremendous growth in so many ways. We have grown in social responsibility…leading the way for sustainable manufacturing in all industries. We pioneered the casual workplace…at least in the Midwest! We gave benefit rights to same sex partners long before it became politically correct. We have diversity programs that make other companies jealous and win us awards.

My workplace is part of my identity…I have worked for the same company for over 23 years…hence my status as corporate dinosaur. When I was getting my MBA, right after graduating from college in a recession, I was an avid reader of Working Woman magazine. I don’t think this magazine even exists anymore…but before the world-wide web, it was just about the only resource for working women and even at 22 years old, I devoured every issue. I learned that women typically don’t end up with as good of a retirement as men because they drop in and out of the workforce and are more likely to work part-time. This drove me to stay with one company, albeit one with generous maternity benefits, and take reasonable leaves that allowed me to return to my job without any official break in service.

So, when the downturn came, I was able to stick with it. I watched entire departments get devastated. I lived through the pain of getting a voluntary package, which by law requires a 90-day decision period…more like a 90-day torture period if you ask me. With my years of service, I was offered a 13 month severance package…the richest of them all. Even so, I was torn one day to the next with thoughts of, “I must take this! I deserve this!” to “No way am I taking this, they can’t get rid of me that easily!” My husband encouraged me to keep my job, saying that in 13 months I’d be in the same financial situation, but sticking with it I’d have a job and quitting, I’d be jobless. I was so offended at the time…but in retrospect he was right. Leaving a great job in a recession, with house underwater and kids in high school was risky; I was better off keeping the sure thing.

At one point, most employees over 50 years old were offered special early retirement packages and most of them took them. At the same time, there were no new hires, so that most people at work were between the ages of 30 and 50…it was very odd! But, we all get older and as the industry has perked up we’ve started hiring. A certain percentage of our retirees have come back on contract, so the age range has widened again from early twenties to early sixties. Even so, I count myself as one of the dinosaurs now!

Occasionally I get to tell the stories of the “olden days”. Some stories are of the “good old days” variety, but mostly they are of the “we’ve come a long way, baby” variety. I enjoy my role as mentor and coach and like that I have the context of the cultural history of my company to work with as a backdrop. Most of all, though, I just like all the friendly faces that say “Good morning, Laura!” when I get to work each day.

Find the Joy in the Journey…even one friendly “hello” can make all the difference!