Blog Archive - November 2009

Posted: November 29, 2009
By: Clay Cerny

(Sabbath is a Sunday feature that focuses on work and life)

Food & Poverty

I went to the grocery store today.  There were three items on my list, but, somehow, I left the store with more than that.  I didn’t think too much about what was in my basket.  For many Americans, however, food weighs heavily on their mind.  Many have lost their homes, their jobs, and now they have to ask:  Where is my next meal coming from?

According to a report in the New York Times, 20,000 Americans each day are joining the food stamp program.  Overall, 36 million are in the program.  12% of American receive food aid from the Federal government

The group most affected is children.  The Times conducted a detailed study of the increase in food stamp aid.  It found a problem that cuts across all parts of the country:  “Use among children is especially high. A third of the children in Louisiana, Missouri and Tennessee receive food aid. In the Bronx, the rate is 46 percent. In East Carroll Parish, La., three-quarters of the children receive food stamps.”

Many people who receive food aid work, but they do not make enough money to feed their families.  Still there is scorn attached to the program.  The Times cited Robert Rector, an expert from the Heritage Foundation, who mocks the food stamp program as just more of the “war on poverty” because it will make food stamp recipients not want to work.  I’ll bet Mr. Rector and his family have enough to eat.  He has a secure job – flacking for the type of people who will never have to worry about what they will eat or where they will live. 

One program recipient says that he is not proud to take government aid, “but it helps me know I can feed my kids.”

According to Mark Winne, who heads an anti-hunger organization, the problem of hunger is growing fast.  In 2007, the U.S. Department of Agriculture determined that 37 million faced hunger, which the government now terms “food insecurity.”  Today, that number has grown to 46 million.  Winne looks at food stamps as a half step solution that keeps people from going hungry, but they don’t end poverty.  Jobs are too transitory, and wages are going down.  Poverty drives hunger.

Winne sees a different model of work approaching in which people are growing their own food and eating locally grown food.  The question he does not address is cost.  Locally grown food is usually more expensive than the factory-model fruits and vegetables sold at supermarkets (which are often located far from poor areas).  Anyone who shops at a farmers market will testify that quality and price are higher.

The connected problems of hunger and poverty meet in work.  We need more jobs, better wages, and access to good, healthy food.  The problem is easy to state.  The solution defies any simple answer.

Posted: November 27, 2009
By: Clay Cerny

Francine Knowles had another valuable article in yesterday’s Sun-Times.  The “Money” page’s main and more depressing story (also penned by Knowles) talked about the state’s high unemployment rate (No, I’m not going to repeat the number.  You are not a statistic.).  Wrapped inside that story was a little gem with a much more productive message:  “Get out of the house.”

Knowles quotes Judith DeVries, an executive coach at Challenger, Gray & Christmas, who urges job seeker to stay active and avoid the depression that comes from staying at home.  Another expert, Tom Gimbel, CEO of the LaSalle Network, recommends staying around positive people.  The experts suggested actions like making your own gifts, treating yourself (within reason), and not letting negative job market news get you down.  This advice is good, but we can take it farther.

Exercise.  Even if it is only to take a long walk every day and clear your head.

Cook more, or learn to cook.  We have to eat.  Cooking will let you save money and enjoy a new, challenging activity.

Volunteer.  There are organizations all over your community that need help.  Some volunteer activities could help in your job search.  Any kind of activity that you find fulfilling will help keep your outlook balanced.

Join a club that will let you meet new people.  You will approach you job search with a fresher perspective if you stay social and active.

Go to the library and take out a book you have always wanted to read.  Don’t get trapped looking at the same things on your computer screen.  You can also save money by borrowing videos and music from most libraries.

Be realistic about your job search, and keep moving – physically and mentally.

Posted: November 26, 2009
By: Clay Cerny

The subject of my 100th post is a man who is nearly 100 years old, the great basketball coach John Wooden.  Wooden established records that will never be broken.  In 10 of the last 12 years he coached, his UCLA teams won the NCAA title.  During one stretch, they won a remarkable 88 games.

In his 80s, long after retiring, Coach Wooden took on a new trade, author.  He has written books on his life, coaching, and a very important topic to job seekers and career managers:  success. 

The website TED features experts from many fields discussing their projects and passions.  Wooden is featured in a section on “inspiration” (click here for the video).  He often seems a throw back to the 19th century, citing poets who haven’t been taught in schools since he was a child in the 1920s.  Even so, behind words that sometimes sound dated, there is a very relevant plan that anyone can use to be successful (or more successful).

In the 1930s, Wooden crafted a one sentence definition of success that he still advocates today:  “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable.”

This sentence is not nearly as simple as it seems.  Wooden is not just saying, “Do your best.”  We all tell ourselves we have done our best.  But how many of us have “peace of mind?”  How many of us feel a “self satisfaction” from our work?  Wooden offers us a road map through his “pyramid of success.”  Here we see how this great man defined and practiced a way of life that not only let him be a great coach, but a great thinker.  Wooden wrote his first book in 1997.  Over the last 12 years, he has produced 10 books, including this year’s Coach Wooden’s Game Plan for Success.  Not bad for someone in his nineties.

For John Wooden, success does not mean always winning.  It means preparing to play the right way:  having values, practicing skills, and – most importantly – pursing goals with faith and patience. 

We as job seekers and career managers can learn much from this man and his passion for success.  I’ll close with my favorite saying from Coach Wooden:  “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”

Posted: November 25, 2009
By: Clay Cerny

Greg Burns has a great post in the Chicago Tribune.  He writes that all aspects of manufacturing in America have declined.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is that there are smart, small, agile manufacturing companies in the U.S. that can compete with China’s low (slave) wage alternative.

One company Burns does not mention is Finkl Steel, which like many other American mills is proving that small and smart beats big and traditional (the great plants of the 1950s were smart; however, they could not change).  Finkl moved with the times, and it is growing in its new location on Chicago's South side.

Only companies that can adapt will survive.  Only workers who have the skills need to operate computers and precision machinery will have the opportunity to work at these companies.  The days of simple tasks fueled by muscle and sweat are over.

Posted: November 24, 2009
By: Clay Cerny

No one enjoys looking for a new job.  In fact, most people hate this more than going to the dentist.  We shut down the creative part of our mind and lose many opportunities and the most valuable commodity of all: time.

One of the biggest mistake job seekers make is limiting the ways they look for work.  Some focus on networking.  Others hit the job boards.  A few are successful with temp-to-perm positions.  The fastest path to a new good job?  Use more than one method.

How will you know what works?  First, look back at your own career.  How have you gotten jobs in the past?  Then ask a few friends and colleagues how they have found work.  Write down what you have learned.  Think about what methods will work best for you and start with those strategies.  Then, if you get stuck, try some of the other job search tactics. 

A good job search needs to keep moving forward.  Don’t let yourself lose momentum.  If your current ways of looking for work are not bringing results, try something new.  If that doesn’t work, find another approach.  Don’t stop. 

Posted: November 23, 2009
By: Clay Cerny

In today’s Sun-Times, Brad Spirrison, the paper’s tech writer, has a very interesting article about a new venture called Interim and its implications for the wider job market.

The key word is free agency, the idea of working temporary positions as a consultant would and then moving on to the next project without an expectation of long term employment with one company. Spirrison points to younger employers as being most adaptable to this new reality: “Rather than train for one job or industry, the most employable workers of the 21st century must be skilled in mobility and flexibility.”  Later in the article, he writes, “The sooner the rest [of us] recognize that (like it or not) we are all hired guns in some capacity, the more fulfilling our careers will be.”

Very few people will work at one company for their whole careers.  Most of us change jobs every 3-5 years.  Like it or not, we are free agents.  The problem with this trend is that, in most cases, the employer holds all the cards.  An employee with an extraordinary skill in any industry can command top dollar and write his or her job description.  Very few people have that ability.

For most of us, free agency means uncertainty.  The best way to address this concern, as Spirrison suggests, is to network so the widest number of people in your industry know what you have to offer.  Keep your LinkedIn profile updated and join professional groups that are related to your current career.  Use the Internet to follow industry news and key player, especially in the city where you work.  When you are changing careers, it is vital to learn that new career world and engage in its network.  Whether you are hired on a full time or temporary basis, the volatile nature of the economy may make your next job short term.  Be ready – and able – to move fast

Postscript: Even if you’re not a tech geek, I recommend reading Spirrison’s columns (link here).  We live in a world that is more and more defined by changes in technology.  The better we understand those trends, the more we can benefit from them.

Posted: November 22, 2009
By: Clay Cerny

(Sabbath is a Sunday feature that reflects on work in all aspects of our lives.)

Thanksgiving has evolved.  What was once a religious holiday that required fasting has given way to all-day football and feasting.  We neglect the activity that was the catalyst for this holiday – work.

We all remember the stories we learned in school about how the Native Americans taught the English living in Plymouth how to grow crops and fish in a new land.  What we’ve forgotten is that their lives were hard.  They lived off the land, what they could grow, gather, and kill.  They did not have access to supermarkets offering 57 brands of breakfast cereal.

 William Bradford, who wrote Of Plymouth Plantation, a contemporary history, described what we call the first Thanksgiving in these words:

“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion.”

Their lives were about work, getting ready for the winter.  The Pilgrims were not doing anything new in 1621.  Harvest festivals have been celebrated by cultures throughout history.  Even in America, the practice remained local and ad hoc.  The first national Thanksgiving holiday was declared by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, just a few months after one of the bloodiest summer the U.S. would ever know, a time when brother killed brother, and many fields were covered with corpses, not crops. 

Lincoln framed his declaration in language that recognized the horror of battle.  At the same time, he saw that the work, – “the plough, the shuttle, or the ship. . . the axe” – not war, would prevail:

“Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.”

As we celebrate our bounty, it would be good to consider the work that made it possible and remember our many neighbors who have lost jobs in the last year.  For many, this year’s harvest will be meager because their plant has been shut down or their company “right-sized.” (What would Lincoln say about that ugly word?)  Their fate is tied to ours as surely as North was yoked to South in Lincoln’s time.  We cannot mindlessly gorge on turkey and pumpkin pie while so many face not just the loss of job and home, but a deeper spiritual trial of despair. 

Thanksgiving is a holiday about work.  This year offers a great opportunity to ask if what Lincoln called the “large increase of freedom” still exists.  Do we still share the bounty of our harvest?

Posted: November 20, 2009
By: Clay Cerny

I was helping a client prepare for an interview last week.  He was certain that his prospective employer was going to ask a certain question.  I asked him how he would answer that question.  He hesitated.  Then he gave an answer that was flat, skimpy in details, and unconvincing.  I followed up with a general question: “Talk about the biggest mistake you’ve ever made and what you learned from it.”  My client wasn’t prepared for this question.  He had spent so much time and effort focusing on what he thought would happen, he wasn’t preparing for what could happen.

“What we anticipate seldom occurs; what we least expect generally happens.” Benjamin Disraeli

A mentor in business once taught me a valuable lesson that applies very well in career management and job searches: “Until you have a problem, you don’t have a problem.”  This was a smart man, successful.  He wasn’t saying that we shouldn’t anticipate obstacles and avoid them.  His point was that we should not predict how things will happen and get locked in by our predictions.  What if the interviewer doesn’t ask that question?  What if the person reading your resume isn’t looking for that skill or experience? 

The best way to deal with problems is to be ready when they pop up – unexpectedly. In job interviews, the way to do this is to learn everything you can about the position you are interviewing for. Then look at yourself.  Why are you qualified for this job?  Make a list and be able to present your qualifications in a convincing manner.  Finally, don’t guess what questions will be asked during an interview.  Listen.  Understand what the interviewer needs to know and offer an answer that speaks to the question, not what you think the question should be.

In a similar vein, your resume should be based on good research about the types of jobs you will be pursuing.  Start by building a market profile.  Find 5-10 posting for jobs you would apply for.  Look at the requirements for skills and experience.  What elements are repeat on posts?  Those points need to be emphasized in your resume.  If you take the time to know the market for your skills, your resume should catch the attention of prospective employers.  Don’t guess at what employers want to see.  Do some research!

The worst part of anticipating a problem isn’t how it will impact your resume or job interview.  The worst part is the stress you are putting on yourself.  Rather than worry about one big problem that may or may not happen, stay flexible and strong.  Flexible means living in the present and dealing with what is in front of you. If you are facing a problem, address it right away.  Being strong starts with knowing yourself.  Think about difficulties you have had in your life.  How did you deal with that situation?  Focus on stories where you solved the problem.  How did you do it?  Bring that strength to bear on your current situation. 

We all worry.  It’s human.  However, we hold ourselves back when we imagine problems that we may not have to deal with.  Stay positive and focused.  If you live with balance, you will be able to deal with problems and live without the worry.

Credit & Recommendation:  Thanks to Maggie Finegan for the very apt words from Disraeli.  If your selling or buying a house on Chicago north side, you should talk to Maggie.  She can be reached at 773-502-1673 or  Her website is

Posted: November 18, 2009
By: Clay Cerny

An article in today’s Chicago Tribune reports that the large pool of unemployed workers and the rising costs of benefits will keep wages flat.  We know were in trouble when the article cites a company taking back a 10% wage cut as a sign of progress. 

As we go forward in managing our careers, we need to be even more diligent about paying attention to what people in our professions are paid.  We also need to inventory our skills and achievements, and use that knowledge to negotiate better salaries and, when necessary, leave companies that don’t pay and find an employer who will compensate us for our contributions to their company’s success.

Posted: November 18, 2009
By: Clay Cerny

Huffington Post reports on a school employee who lost his job for posting a vulgarity from a school computer.  We’ve heard these stories before, but they are valuable in reminding us about the line we should not cross when we’re at work.

That said, it’s so easy to take a minute and check a website, drop a comment, or send a picture.  We forget that everything in the digital world leaves a fingerprint.  One of my clients is in pharmaceutical sales.  His boss walked in a meeting and announced that he knew employees were not in their territories during work hours.  How did he know?  They were making personal calls on phones paid for by the company.  Some firms are using GPS to track employees' driving.  Big brother isn’t just watching – he’s like Santa Claus:  He know if you’ve been bad or good.  Be good.  Keep the personal stuff outside the workplace.

To read the article about the big dummy who deserved to be fired, click here.