Taking a work break: A dangerous choice?

I recently took a sabbatical from work.  In my case it was for a long-postponed surgery that would require at least six months of focused recovery and rehab time, to enable a planned, someday biking vacation in Italy.

As a freelancer/contractor, I knew my choice was a calculated risk. Taking myself off the job market meant I could be replaced. It could reduce my future assignments and earning prospects. In addition, if and when I decided to return to full-time work, the gap on my resume would require an explanation.

The choice became easier when my elderly mother’s health worsened last year.  By taking a work sabbatical I could visit her out-of-state without concern for losing, securing or completing assignments on a deadline. I took the plunge about six months ago. I’m not unhappy I did.  The time enabled my full recovery, and I was able to spend quality time with my mom before she died in December.

This month I started looking for work. Sort of. One of my sabbatical epiphanies is that I don’t need just a paycheck. Don’t get me wrong: I could use an income, but I have significant savings, my investments have done very well, and I have a defined benefit pension plan from a former employer. My financial security puts me in an enviable position. I can afford to be choosy about what I want to do, and what jobs I pursue.

As a communicator I bring commitment, strategic thinking, solid experience, proven value, and an extensive education to the workplace. What do I want in return?  Here’s my shortlist:

  1. A challenge, in the sense of a position where I can continue to growth my skills
  2. A collaborative work environment.
  3. Leaders who value their teammates.
  4. An organization I can believe in, in terms of its ethics and practices.

An improving economy makes this a good time to be a job hunter. While I research the possibilities I’m volunteering. I recently found a great opportunity and made it to second round interviews. Whatever happens there I’m confident there will be more opportunities that meet my criteria, and I’m actively seeking them out. In high-heeled pumps, with no pain!

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Where will your body go?

Some people do extensive planning for what comes after death. Others leave those details to their heirs, if they’re lucky enough to have them. My mother wanted to be buried with my dad at Arlington National Cemetery. At age 95, she got her wish.

Arlington is an awesome place. From the professional, well suited civilian coordinator who made the arrangements and stayed with us until the casket was lowered into the ground, to the eight uniformed soldiers who carried her casket, to the Monseigneur who refused an honorarium for his graveside service, we could not have asked for a more respectful experience.

Every day I pass a cemetery that looks a bit or more neglected. Many cemeteries have difficulties bearing maintenance costs as costs rise and burials slow. As family members age, some find it hard to maintain a loved one’s grave. Visits become less frequent as people move or get busy with their family, career, or the living who need a helping hand. We are lucky. We’ll never need to worry our parents’ grave is being neglected, and they’ll never want for company.

At Arlington they bury the non military spouse at the same site as the spouse who served. There are more than 400,000 graves, some of them famous, most others of people known only to their families and friends.  You can’t help but feel the tremendous losses that the United States and its people have experienced in wars and undeclared conflicts. It’s an honor to bear witness to the many who have served their country with honor. Row upon row, acre upon acre of undulating, white marble stones bear silent witness to those who gave, as Abraham Lincoln once put it,  “the last full measure of devotion,” as well as those who survived their service, such as my dad and thousands of others.

I was told that more than 150 burial services are performed at Arlington every week.  There is some talk of expanding its 600-plus acres in the future. My dad loved the U.S. Army and National Guard. I know he is happy to be buried there. We believe both he and my mom are at peace; we are the ones who now suffer.

The next time I visit my hometown, where my siblings still live, my sister and I agree we will make the rounds of the graves of our grandparents, aunts, and uncles, with spades and flowers and cleaning cloths. It has been too long.

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What has happened to customer service?

I recognize my personal experiences are anecdotal, and can’t be used to make sweeping statements about the way things are for all. But darn it, to borrow a quote from one of my favorite movies, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

The reason? A recent series of poor, no, horrid, customer service experiences. Partial information provided as complete information. Promised callbacks that never come. Promised forms that never come. Rude, dismissive sales clerks. Sale clerks too busy with personal cell phone calls or conversations, to attend to customers.  Late deliveries or no deliveries with no explanation, let alone an apology. Poor service that when pointed out, yields no offer to redo.

I try to be an understanding customer. Everyone can make a mistake, or have a bad day, right? But as of today, my patience is worse than worn thin. It’s worn out. So here is what I’ve committed to do.

  • I will find the offending business’s Facebook page and/or website.
  • I will publicly post an abbreviated message about their poor product or service.
  • I will no longer spend my time or money at that business.

I am tired of making excuses for people who don’t live up to the promises their companies make their consumers, on glossy webpages and in slick advertisements.

Aren’t you?

Postscript: A new study by AchieveGlobal shows I’m not alone. As its introduction notes,

It doesn’t take many bad experiences to lose a customer. In (our) customer experience study, 93% said they would refuse to do business with a company again after three or fewer bad experiences.

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Are we ever really alone?

I’ve been stuck at home for more than a month, recovering from a major surgery. Pain medications and limited (but improving) range of motion, preclude my driving. While long-time friends visit and call, I spend most days alone… but only in the literal sense, thanks to my new friends on the Internet.

Before my surgery I located a health issues website, at, <www.healthboards.com/boards>, with numerous message boards, including one specific to my surgery. In addition to some very helpful sticky threads  – such as, “What I wished I’d known before my surgery,” and, “Things I wish I’d known about recovery” – this board features dozens of threads that show I’m not alone in worrying about new pains and problems.

The chance to “talk” with other patients who have gone through, or are going through, my surgery and recovery has relieved a lot of my fears and concerns. My message board contacts are available 24/7, another plus. My message board friends provide sympathy, empathy, and information. While I continue to rely on my surgeon and physical therapist for specific advice and direction, message board posts help fill in the gaps, for example, regarding what’s typical and what to expect (Has anyone else had this happen?).  Joining this online community also has reduced the isolating aspects of being substantially home-bound.

I long to go back to work and volunteering, to take my dog to the park, to go where I want to go, when I want to go. In the meantime I appreciate of the support of my family and friends, and my new online community. It helps to talk to other inpatient patients!  And to hear from those who’ve been there and done that, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

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Is time on your side?

Halloween is a time when many jokes touch upon the afterlife, ghosts and gravestones and the dreaded zombie apocalypse. (Personally, I’m a huge fan of The Walking Dead.) But for many people, death is a subject they fear and avoid. “Recognizing that death is inescapable and unpredictable makes us incredibly vulnerable, and can invoke feelings of anxiety, hatred and fear,” says George Mason University psychology professor Todd Kashdan, whose research suggests that more “mindful” people – those generally more tolerant and less defensive – are less fearful of dying and death.

I’m having surgery soon and was asked to complete an advanced directive. It acknowledges the possibility I may not survive. It made me stop and think about death and how much time I may have left to do what’s important to me – importance being the operative term.

Enjoying the gift of life, contributing to a better world, seeing a grandchild born or maybe even, making that hole in one – the key to making the best use of life is knowing what’s important to you, which will drive what you want to accomplish. As someone once said, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there… But you may not arrive where you want to be.

Am I afraid of death? I can’t say I look forward to it, but on the other hand, I have no reason to fear it. William Hazlitt, an essayist who died in 1830, makes a good point about death: In a sense, we’ve already been there.

There was a time when you were not: that gives us no concern. Why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be? To die is only to be as we were before we were born.

In the same circumstances, some people will pronounce themselves happy, while other rue their situation. You don’t need lower expectations and you don’t have to be a born Pollyanna to be happy. What does help? Resilience, optimism, tenacity, a belief in one’s self (channeling Dr. Norman Vincent Peale) and one’s ability to shape the future, all can yield a happier life, all things considered.

We each have all the time we need, however long our life. I believe the key is how we choose to use it.

Is time on your side?

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In appreciation of the kindness of strangers

Our little lab, Millie, hates the sound of a vacuum (among other noises) so last week, I leashed her on the porch with her bed, toys, and water bowl while I cleaned. I’d done it before but this time, I wasn’t as lucky. Millie slipped out of her leashed collar and ran away, presumably after another dog or cat. I found her leash and collar on the porch, but no Millie. It’s been three long days of looking and we haven’t found her yet, although we’ve followed the professionals’ advice (registering her as lost online, on the animal services’ website and Facebook page, and Craigslist; putting up posters; and driving around showing her photo and leaving our phone number).

(Yes, Millie has a microchip and our registration info is current, but that will only help if the stars are aligned, and she’s taken in by an honest person who cares enough to take her in to get scanned, or to animal control.)

I am so appreciative of the kindness we’ve been shown since Millie made her escape, not only by friends and neighbors, but by perfect strangers. People I’ve met as we’ve expanded our searches have helped look for Millie, and with flyer distribution. They’ve also offered us prayers and positive comments about lost pets they’ve found.

We all lead busy lives, but most people have a soft spot for their pets, and the support of strangers continues to be uplifting. Whatever happens, I’m thankful for the kind words, the help, and the prayers. If they help bring Millie home, so much the better.

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Do you feel the time passing as you’re having fun?

In his poem, Fog, Carl Sandburg wrote,

The fog comes in on little cat feet.

The association’s immediate because most cats are sneaky. They appear on your bed or your lap or your kitchen counter like magic, seemingly out of thin air. It’s sort of like that moment not long ago when I realized I’d crossed some invisible life threshold. I’m now the potential mentor, adviser, and resource that I’ve sought out, throughout my career.

When asked, I do my best to respond, payback for the help I’ve received along the way: A successful life is essentially a collaborative project.

My transformation to trusted resource arrived on cat’s paws. I didn’t see it coming; maybe I wasn’t looking. I was working, going to school, volunteering, being a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sibling, and a friend, juggling the 1001 roles we all play, concurrently and sequentially. In retrospect the time passed quickly. Now I have discussions about retirement investments with my financial guy. Those tiny lines in my face are getting much easier to see. My orthopedic surgeon is recommending the benefits of joint replacement, “while I’m still young enough to enjoy it,” but I know what he really means. Now I’m someone who gets emails and calls from new college graduates, graduate students, and even mid-career professionals, seeking resume critiques, job hunting and interview tips, and career advice. I admit it’s flattering as well as scary. Ironically, I now work as a senior consultant: Apt, but a little disconcerting.

I enjoy working, the strategy, the challenge, the opportunity to contribute. I have no interest at the moment in retiring, early or otherwise. But I’ve seen that cat across the room. I know it’s coming, so it won’t take me by surprise. If I’m lucky, that next phase will be just as fun, with new rewards and challenges.

I always say, it costs no more to be an optimist.

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What happens when sales people don’t care about the bottom line?

Macy’s made more than $1.2 million in profits in 2011. How much more might it have  made, if its sales people were better trained?

The question is prompted by this true story, which   involves Macy’s, sales staff training, and general intelligence.

Today I am off work. I decided to return six items (3 each of two items) ordered from Macy’s online, to a local Macy’s store. I was hoping to exchange three of them for the same item in a different size.

I didn’t mind waiting for a sales person, since I believe short-staffing is part of the price we pay for less expensive merchandise.

When it’s my turn to be helped, I show the saleswoman my receipt and items. I explain my desire for an exchange for one of the items, if they have the different size I need in stock. I note that while the size fits me in other brands, it did not fit me in this particular brand.

The sales woman agrees to check to see if she has the item I want to exchange, in the different size I need. I reiterate what size I need and say I will take a different color if I have to.

Problem 1: The sales woman comes back with a totally different item. It’s also a different brand item, although it’s in the size I requested. I point out that’s not the item I want to exchange.

The saleswoman now seems disappointed, and asks what I want to do. I tell her look, it’s OK, I will just return all six items. She takes the items and my receipt, and starts entering information on her register for the return. I watch the process on the small, customer-facing screen that shows the transaction in process, where I eventually will be asked to provide my electronic signature.

Problem 2: (Macy’s execs, pay attention): The customer screen shows the sales woman is crediting me the full price for my items. There is a total difference of nearly $200 in the full price, compared to the sale prices I paid. The sales prices are clearly shown on my receipt, which she has in hand. Thanks to my Catholic upbringing and wanting to be nice, I politely point out that she is crediting me a lot more than I paid for these items. She responds that well, this is the price the system is showing now, so the prices cannot be changed.

I say excuse me, because I am sure I mis-heard what she said. She repeats the statement, and resumes entering data on her register.

Long (longer) story short: I tell the sales women I’d like to speak with a manager. When the manager arrives, I explain the issue. She is a floor manager and unfamiliar with the merchandise, but she confirms that of course there is a way to process the return at the correct, lower prices. The manager proceeds to walk the sales woman through the process, and thanks me for calling her.

Key point here: The saleswomen didn’t care that she was giving me back too much money.  So maybe the real “Magic of Macy’s” is that they make any profit at all.

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Job seekers: Does your resume show you think strategically?

I recently was reminded of the importance of defining where you want to go and who you want to be, looking at the resume of a friend who’s seeking work. The resume is well written and includes lots of examples of what she has done, but says nothing about why and how, and with what results.

As a prospective employer I am glad to know that you have produced employee newsletters, developed town hall meetings, and wrote news releases and speeches. I’m just as interested in knowing why you did what you did: What you sought to accomplish, how you used those tactics, and if you achieved your (ideally action-oriented) goals… which even more ideally, were goals that (effectively) supported your company’s overall brand and business goals.

If you’re job hunting in the communications industry, it’s valuable to show that you are an effective tactician. It’s even more essential to show that your work helped your company achieve its bottom-line, business outcome goals.

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Considering bathroom fixture reglazing?

I had the bathtub reglazing I was considering, completed last week (see previous post).

The tub does look better but it’s not perfect because reglazing in-place is an imperfect process.

There is no foolproof way to make the room a ‘clean room’ or fully sanitize the installer, although in retrospect they could have done more shielding around the work area. Since the replacement glaze is installed like airbrushed make-up once the tub is prepped, any bit of dust in the air races directly to the newly finished surface, resulting in minor imperfections.  (Most of these were subsequently removed by my installer with a small razor blade.)

In addition, reglazing cannot completely hide surface damage from overzealous cleaning, since fixtures aren’t stripped to bare metal. (Darn those overzealous cleaners!)

The new finish shine is guaranteed 5 years and should last longer with the right care. Fingers crossed.

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