Jake sets sail

11 03 2012

A very good friend of mine, let’s call him Jake, will be leaving his family soon on a seven-month journey that will take him to the other side of the planet.

He is doing this not completely voluntarily, because it’s part of his job. Jake is an officer in the U.S. Navy, and his ship is about to depart on a long military deployment.

I met Jake almost ten years ago, on a different Navy ship, just off the coast of Kuwait, its iconic city skyline on the horizon on the starboard side. Back then, he was a member of the crew and I was a journalist, and we watched the politics of the region heat up from front-row seats. The ground war in Iraq was a few months away but the conflict had claimed its first lives already.

Kuwaiti sunset, October 8, 2002

Jake and I kept in touch and we became really good friends. I got to know and love his parents, his wife and their two cool daughters, too. We visited each other – I traveled to both coasts of the United States to see them, they came to Europe to see us. They played a very important role at my wedding.

On a hot night in 2003, Jake, living in San Diego at the time, was my last link to the outside world as I sat in the back of an SUV, speeding through the darkness to Iraq from Amman, Jordan. We carried on a conversation by SMS until I got a few kilometers inside the border. Our chatting across 11 time zones ended abruptly as the sun began to rise, and I slipped out from under Jordanian cell phone coverage.

Iraqi sunrise, August 8, 2003

Nine years ago this month, the world saw a superpower and a dictator posturing for the public. The dictator lost on the first night of hellfire in Baghdad. Woe to those who try to tangle with the biggest military might in the world.

The politics of the region are, once again, in turmoil. The names of the places and the actors are different, but the anger behind it is similar. This new (and still verbal) conflict has very sinister undertones – there is talk of nuclear weapons for the first time since the Cold War ended. And Jake and his shipmates are sailing into the thick of it again.

It’s his fourth or fifth multi-month cruise in something like 12 years, and while I do understand his commitment and service to his country, I wonder how much more of this he and his family will be forced to endure. His father passed away recently, and he will miss his oldest daughter’s high school graduation this Spring. Last year she turned 18 without him… because he was underway.

I wish Jake – and the thousands of military personnel he sails with – Godspeed; that they return home physically and psychologically unscathed.  For the families and friends they leave behind, the wait will be a long one.

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Back to work!

12 02 2012

So last Thursday I started a new job.

Fortunately, it’s a really great job, with a lot of good benefits and an interesting, wide-ranging scope, and I really hope that I can keep it for a while. Unfortunately, I can’t reveal the name of my employer here because, well, I’m just a little paranoid about these things.

It’s a corporate job, and one which finds itself at the crossroads where doing good business meets doing good for society and the environment. It’s in the relatively new, wide-open field of Corporate Social Responsibility.

Companies are finally figuring out that it helps to consider the ethical consequences of their actions, rather than steering directly to maximum profit and ignoring the world around them, or the problems they may be creating.

Taking responsibility.

CSR is a controversial place. Some (neanderthal) corporate executives complain that it’s an expensive waste of money with zero return on investment. Some (dogmatic) non-profit organizations on the other hand complain that companies are engaging themselves in areas in which they have no expertise – and are going to screw it up anyway. Or that their efforts are not sincere. Or that they are interested only in the public relations benefits (also known as “greenwash”).

I’m very aware of the quandary CSR practitioners find themselves in. Nevertheless, I think there’s a lot to be said for the efforts that are being made. And after all, no single company or person can save the world. My employer has a huge interest in the subject, with a correspondingly significant budget as well.

For me, it’s something completely new. So new that in addition to my (full time) job I will also be attending university courses part-time for the next seven months to get a theoretical grounding in the basics. And that’s another challenge – going back to school almost exactly 20 years after I completed my last degree.

(What do I take with me? A pencil case? Or just a laptop?)

This will be my third career. When I got my Master’s degree two decades ago, I read that this was the direction in which society would be moving: While our grandparents’ generation generally stayed at one employer for many years, members of my parents’ generation changed jobs two, three and maybe even four times during the course of their working lives. My generation would change careers that many times.

Et voilà. Here I am.

This new job is waaaaaayyyyyy outside my comfort zone. In, like, Siberia as far as I am concerned. But judging by the winter we are having, I just also may very well be in Siberia right now. Nothing to be afraid of though, just a matter of dressing warm enough, right?

I know I’m smart (kinda), I know I have my head screwed on right (most of the time, at least), and I know that I have mastered incredibly difficult professional situations before – perhaps not with the greatest panache and elegance, but you don’t get points for style here.

Stay tuned, if you’re interested. This is going to be fun.





Smart women, dumb circumstances

10 11 2011

During my recently-relaunched job search I have been confronted by an attitude that I had no idea was still a serious a problem in early 21st century corporate life. Women have had the right to vote in most countries for more than a generation, in some countries more than two generations, and have been an integral part of the workforce for much longer than that. That the glass ceiling still exists at all is a crime in itself.

But here is a little more food for thought.

Twice within a short period of time I have been rejected for jobs on a premise and for a reason that for me is quite simply unbelievable. I was always told to work hard, and that there will be rewards. “You can do whatever you want in life,” was the refrain I always heard from elders and teachers.

Well, apparently, if you are a woman, and you work too hard, and do too much, and want too much and you are tall and blonde and strong and intelligent and outspoken, all these factors will conspire to work against you because managers are downright scared of you.

And if you wear heels, by God, you are in for it.

My favorite heels of all time. These boots were made for walking, but not only.

Earlier this year, I interviewed at a company that has a record of treating smart women well. I saw a TV feature on the company’s CEO, a rare bird indeed in a tough, manipulative and mildly corrupt industry. I saw myself learning a great deal from this person. Especially tactical things like getting ahead in territory that is generally dominated by men.

The rejection surprised me because I had the feeling from my interviewer (the person who would be my direct superior) that I was just what he was looking for. He seemed confident that I could do the job well, fit into the team and could offer me a perspective to expand my abilities and skills to benefit both the company and myself.

I ran into this person in a completely different context months later. Somehow, the topic came up as to what the real reasons were for why I was not offered the job. He said flatly, “You were too strong for my CEO. You would have scared her to death.”

A second incident happened shortly thereafter. The feedback from my interview, passed on to me by HR: “The department head felt threatened by you. He felt like you could do his job, and not the one you applied for.”

Well of course I could do his job, but the question that nobody bothered to ask me is: would I even want to? (Uh… no.)

So how do I get my message across in a non-threatening way? I have no idea. I don’t want to be the boss, I don’t want to have to deal with personnel management, and I could care less about the perks and the big bucks that go along with it. (I just left a job to which I was lured by money and status, and it didn’t make me happy.)

I just want to be left alone to my own devices, work as a member of a team, deliver my deliverables, and go home. I have no desire to have to pick up my phone in the middle of the night on the weekend to solve a problem for some impatient person who can’t wait till Monday morning. Been there, done there, got the stupid T-shirt. And a burnout.

In the meantime I have the feeling that I have to dumb-down my CV and my story to make it look like I am less qualified than I really am.

For real? Isn’t that just so… wrong?





Of journalists and corporations

9 10 2011

Like many employees in these difficult economic times, I am disillusioned and disappointed in the place I have been lassooed to these past four years. While chained to my desk, I have become increasingly cynical and disgusted with the superficial nature of the corporate world as a whole. Of the relentless chase after the almighty buck and the daily soul-crushing acts of psychological torture.

A few months ago, I resolved to return to journalism, to my roots, somehow. I decided that I am probably far too critical of corporate hot air to really ever be able to breathe it with ease and spread it with pleasure. Or to drink the poison Kool-aid like I would need to in order to fully succeed as a media flak.

There is no way I will ever be as comfortable in stilettos and a suit as I was in hiking boots and cargo pants, with a reporter’s notebook in my back pocket.

Last week, I received a painful rejection for a journalism job that I felt like I had all sealed up. The hiring manager had (perhaps inadvertently) signaled this to me during my meeting with her.

After I spent weeks waiting for the final thumbs up (that was supposed to be just a formality), she called to tell me that she could not offer me the job covering the Swiss banking industry. Not because my qualifications or experience were insufficient, and not because I was too expensive either. The reason is much more banal and dogmatic: I was disqualified from a job for which I was the top candidate because… (drum roll)… I am married to someone who works at a large Swiss bank.

She told her own superiors that she really, really wanted me on her team, and that she would reshuffle the reporting assignments, allowing me to cover an entirely different industry and focus on entirely different topics. Her managers reiterated their “no way”.

When she told me this, I was stunned and speechless. I had never before been rejected for a job because of the company I keep or the man I am married to.

For those who don’t know Zurich well, it is a small town chock full of financial service companies. It would indeed be strange, I countered, if I did not have close friends (or relatives) in the industry which employs the most people and generates the most tax revenue and economic value in all of Switzerland.

And the fact that the top editors at a high-quality international news organization would not even consider a change of reporting beats to accommodate a very qualified candidate indicates to me that they are more concerned with doctrine and ideology than finding the best people for a particular position. To me, this reeks of discrimination and middle management that has been intimidated into spinelessness by some corporate policy that is not worth the paper it’s printed on. How ironic.

So after this unusual, unbelievable and stinging rejection, I continue my search to be relevant. My search to find a place that will value my skills and experience, long for my writing and appreciate my personality. A place that will not judge me by who I fell in love with and married.

Can’t wait to find out if that place exists out there.





This land is my land.

28 03 2011

Now that I have been in the United States for A WHOLE MONTH already, I have come to realize that there is a lot about the culture here that I can still totally identify with, even after spending the past almost 20 years overseas. I feel like I would feel completely comfortable easing back into society here, and pretending I had never left.

For example, take… people. I understand their language, their jokes, their mentality and their concerns. I can talk shop on baseball, hurricanes and inflation in the cost of an ice cream cone. And everyone is just so nice to each other. That’s what I really like about Americans.

In the past couple of weeks, I have also been noticing stuff that is maybe a little under the surface… things you take note of only when you are here a longer time, that are so very different from my life in Europe. A couple of days ago, I started writing down a few of these, and thought I’d share them.

Here an incomplete list of fascinating stuff I have (re-)learned about the USA:

Freight trains, though not as plentiful as in Europe, are exponentially longer than in Europe. The other day I was stuck at a railroad crossing in downtown Hollywood, FL as a cargo train passed. I counted 150 wagons, not including the two locomotives that were pulling it.

– There is a good reason it’s called commercial radio. When there is a commercial on the station you happen to be listening to, there will be commercials on all the other radio stations, at the same time. It’s like all radio stations have together conspired to simultaneously flood their listenership with paid advertising. The exception to the rule is, of course, (commercial-free) National Public Radio… that is in the middle of its Spring fund drive.

Radio Gaga.

– And by day four of the above-mentioned NPR beg-fest, any intelligent and loyal NPR listener is ready to pick up the phone, not to pledge but to tell them to please, please STOP! There is only so much penetrating, public on-air groveling I can tolerate before it seriously grates on my nerves. And you’ll notice that the voices get more desperate the closer the deadline creeps. (“Please, pledge NOW! We need your money!”)

– One more thing about advertising. The U.S. oil and natural gas industry is currently paying millions to bombard television viewers with the message that “the deeper you go the more good you learn about oil and natural gas.” Really?  Deepwater Horizon, anyone?

March Madness is not some kind of psychotic illness that runs rampant in the Springtime, but a basketball tournament that everyone seems to get real excited about. (OK, maybe it is an illness…)

–  To end on a positive note: Americans volunteer more than any other population I know. There are opportunities to do unpaid social work everywhere – coach a team, chaperone kids or help old people. If only there were as many paid jobs as there are volunteer opportunities, this country would be in fantastic shape.





Unemployment and resilience

19 03 2011

It’s hard not to notice the after-shocks of the financial crisis here in South Florida. There are still a lot of houses with “for sale” signs on them and the media are still reporting about long, soul-crushing job searches. Millions of highly-qualified, experienced folks looking for work. Anything at all. Going back to the basics they thought they had graduated from and left behind years ago.

Too many people, too few jobs.

And as I come face-to-face with these stories, I am increasingly thankful that I made it through the crisis with a stable job, in a stable environment. I complain a lot about toxic levels of arrogance, but yes, okay, it’s complaining at a very high level.

The other night out at the beach, I met a woman, about my age… let’s call her Carrie. We got to talking. She had a very slight British accent and she told me that she moved to Florida from London 20 years ago, and then from here to the West Coast in 2005. She was back east on business this week.

She asked me what I was doing in Miami, and I told her I was on an unpaid sabbatical.

Carrie said she had just gotten off a sabbatical of her own about a year ago. It was 18 months long, and involuntary. The sabbatical she had, however, is generally known under another name: “unemployment”. She had been a marketing manager for a global motorcycle manufacturer, and was laid off after 15 years in the industry.

Carrie spent more than a year and a half with no idea what her future would bring, living off her savings and hoping every day for some kind of turn for the better. She sent out more than 200 job applications and heard little, if anything, back.

“It was just like writing into a big black hole,” she told me.

I had heard exactly this sentence on the radio earlier that day. And now the story had a real face. Carrie said she ended up doing what she called “internships”. But, I asked, what company was willing to give someone in their mid-40’s an internship when there are long lines of young university graduates applying for the same thing?

“Well, they weren’t internships in the classic sense. More like… loose consulting. Or just sitting in on conferences, going to company events, volunteering my time to do… anything, really, and networking.” All for free, of course. And she never gave up.

Her big break came just over a year ago, as a direct result of one of these “internships”. She got a job as the national sales manager for a maker of motorcycle protective clothing. She now supervises more than 100 sales representatives working for her and regularly travels across North America visiting and training her employees.

“It’s my dream job,” she told me, back in the industry and sport she has loved since she was a kid. But it came at a high price. She said she had to take a 65% pay cut. “It’s been really, really hard. Really hard. But it’s getting better now.”

This looks dangerous. But hey, if it's your thing....

Carrie’s story had a happy ending. She made me think about myself, and how I might react in a situation like hers. Four years ago, I was unemployed for three lousy months, resting in a generous European social security net, and still I was close to a nervous breakdown.

I’m wondering if I could be as resilient as Carrie, if I found myself in her shoes. What would it take to not lose faith in my skills and abilities, in humanity, and in the system? Where would I get the positive energy to keep trying? And what would be the alternative?