Isn’t 16 years of school enough? No!

It was my very last class of my senior year at the University of Oklahoma. As Dr. Howe passed out term papers, I was already celebrating my liberation in my head. I doodled on my notebook to cut the anticipation.

Then, the words “I don’t think so, Lisa,” broke my train of thought.

I looked up to see that Dr. Howe was talking to me. He had scarcely spoken to me all semester. My first stunned thought was “He knows my name?”

Then he said, “Your notebook,” and pointed to a note I had scribbled in the margin with the words “Last class FOREVER!”

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think you’ll be back.”

Then he smiled with an air of wisdom unique to college professors, and handed me my paper before he walked back to the head of the class to begin the final lecture.
After four grueling years of higher education—including two summers—I could not imagine a time when I was less willing to submit myself to additional torture. Practically my entire life had been spent within the confines of a classroom.

I was done. No more school. No more college. I wanted nothing more than graduate on Saturday, get a job and put my brand-spankin’ new degree to work.
That was more than 20 years ago. What I didn’t know then was that Dr. Howe knew me better than I thought. He knew my potential, although I barely knew him at all. He knew the inter-workings of my mind by reading my papers and by observing my thought processes. He knew I would crave more.

My first college degree changed my station in life. It turned a shy, small-town girl into a career-woman who was not afraid of the big city or the unknown. That degree also gave me the opportunity to earn a paycheck I never thought possible and help support a family.

Now, I realize that higher education that feeds your soul. All those people doubting the value of a college degree need to realize that today’s bachelor’s degree is yesterday’s high school diploma. Moreover, there is a tidal wave of millennials hitting the market who stayed in college when the job market plummeted, so the next generation will have more master’s-degreed, entry-level employees than ever.

Today, my great dream of going back to graduate school has come true as I started my first year in the College of Media Communications at Texas Tech University. In spring of 2019, I will complete a Master’s in Strategic Communication and Innovation and cross the graduation stage in a whole new set of regalia. I am so grateful and excited. I’m also tired from staying up late doing homework after a full day at the office, but so what.

Somewhere, Dr. Howe is saying, “I told you so.”

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Incoming Chapter 11: How to know it’s about to hit the fan at the office

My first (real) employer filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy three weeks after I started. One morning, I came into work and what to my wondering eyes should appear but a press release on my chair with lots of words like insolvency, lien, reorganization and trustee.

It wasn’t until later that they told me I still had a job. In fact, they kept me for three years. They even paid those of us who survived the RIF (reduction in force) a retention bonus. Welcome to “Operation Hang-Onto-the-Cheap-Labor.” At the time, it seemed ridiculous to pay a bonus of any size to anyone when the company was broke. But since when was corporate reorganization logical?

In retrospect, there were signs that something was afoot. Whether your company is folding, layoffs are cooking or a hostile takeover is in process, nobody can hide all the evidence. Here are a few clues. Start polishing your resume if you see:

  • Invoices being rushed through accounts payable for manual checks
  • The corporate attorney taking up residence in the conference room
  • • Employee evaluations postponed
  • • The CEO and top execs all missing until found later in a secret closed-door meeting. This happens repeatedly, and each time, they are found somewhere else.

One last thing: Beware of Friday! If they are cutting you loose, your big surprise will come on a Friday afternoon around 3:30. Nothing like starting your weekend with a pink slip! The December holiday season is a particularly common time for the axe to fall because it starts the new tax year clean.

The execs didn’t try too hard to hide the pre-filing chaos from me, but they also didn’t explain why they were doing what they were doing. (Picture parents spelling in front of their toddler. Faces are serious, but words make no sense.) Luckily I was so naïve that I was still completely shocked when the press release greeted me that morning.

Believe it or not, I’m glad my career started with a bankrupt employer. With the org chart cut to ribbons, I had the opportunity to learn new things and pick up responsibilities that ordinarily would have been reserved for people beyond my pay grade and level of experience. The ordeal also desensitized me professionally, and I needed that. Change became the only thing I knew in the workplace and the only thing expected. A little perspective really makes you appreciate the blessings in life. Of course, I’m thankful that perspective happened long before I had a family and a mortgage.

Have you survived an employer’s bankruptcy, merger or near demise? Were there any clues? If so, share your tips in the comments.

What’s your philosophy of leadership?

In a casual conversation recently, my boss mentioned an assignment from his doctoral work that he never forgot. The assignment was to write down a philosophy of leadership in 10 points without exceeding one page.

How profound! I resolved to try it myself. I also resolved to keep it short and scribbled the first items that came to mind. Then after some editing, deletions and consolidations, voilà, my top 10 was complete:

  1. Lead by example
  2. Mentor and empower for growth
  3. Make a difference so you leave a legacy
  4. Don’t ask anyone to do anything you aren’t willing to do yourself.
  5. Have fun
  6. Be nice
  7. Live your integrity
  8. Do the right thing
  9. Take responsibility
  10. Put people first

Every person will have his or her own list based on past experiences, but the exercise alone is a great lesson in leadership. As I wrote mine, I reflected on previous bosses—both good and bad—and how they influenced me. I also thought about the leadership lessons learned from people outside of the workplace like my parents, grandparents, teachers, professors, editors, friends and even band directors. I realized that my leadership list is a reflection of my philosophy of life. It’s about helping others. It’s not about me. I’m a big believer in servant leadership, and if you haven’t read Tony Dungy’s book The Mentor Leader, I highly recommend it.

Some would say that it might be odd to have “Be nice” on a leadership list, but that’s just who I am. One time early in my career, I overheard an argument between an employee and her supervisor down the hall. The supervisor had been hard on the employee and said (loudly) that she was concerned that she had broken the employee’s spirit. The employee, who was a timid, creative, and extraordinarily intelligent introvert, reached a breaking point and yelled back, “I know who I am, and I like who I am. No matter how hard you try to turn me into you, it’ll never happen.” That took a lot of courage, but how awesome that she said, “I like who I am,” in her defense. Don’t be afraid to own who you are as you explore your thoughts.

What 10 points make up your leadership theory? Who influenced you? What made an impact on you as your lived the management experience? Even bad bosses teach important lessons about resilience, humility and patience. Write it down and save it, even if it’s just a few scribbles on a Post-it note or a bit of rambling on a text note in your phone.

Apparently, my boss saved his 10-point philosophy. Through the course of his career, he continued to refine and update it. He also confessed that as his theory evolved, his list grew to 13 points and exceeded the one-page limit. Admittedly, I struggled to keep it at 10.