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.”

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.

 

Mom’s advice on acing freshman year

When I got ready for college, my mom gave me a great piece of advice: Set yourself up to succeed. That may seem obvious, but it may be the best piece of advice ever offered to an incoming freshman.

When you start college, everything is new–new places, new standards, new people and new distractions. It’s a big adjustment, and way too many freshmen bite off more than they can chew. Perhaps it’s overly ambitious advising or pressure to finish in four years, but I can’t count the number of friends who hit the wall in the first semester because they didn’t balance their load of classes. Some were slapped with the first D’s or F’s of their lives and watched as their GPAs plummeted into deep holes that were hard to dig out of. Thanks to Mom, I was able to avoid that trap.

As we had planned my very first college schedule, my mother told me not to overload myself the first semester. Admittedly, I was arrogant because I’d been a high school honor student. I should be able to handle it, I thought, but Mom handed me a dose of reality.

“Don’t enroll in 18 hours,” she said, “and pick at least one class you can ace.” In my case, that was Spanish. I’d already taken two years of Spanish in high school, so theoretically, this class would be an easy route to four hours of A for my transcript. That might help anchor me while I was indoctrinated into college rigor by classes like Psychology, English Comp, Speech and American History pre-1865.  

I had CLEP’d out of a year of Spanish as well as both freshman English Comp classes, but once again Mom intervened. She recommended that I take English anyway because that’s where you learn how to write collegiate-level term papers, and I would be at a distinct disadvantage if I exercised my option to skip out.  As a college administrator today, I have seen many faculty frustrated when their students haven’t taken English yet and can’t write a decent paper, so Mom’s advice was very insightful. Some parents would only see dollars signs for six hours of tuition that could have been avoided.

When I moved away from home for college, I was intoxicated with the freedom of being on my own for the first time ever. The bustle of life in crowded dorms, the opulent tree-lined campuses, the gothic architecture, the roar of the crowds at Saturday football games and a sea of handsome college men everywhere I turned…it would have been so easy to overindulge on the freedom and neglect my main job as a scholar.  Thanks to my mom’s persistence, I had set myself up for a smooth transition into a more difficult academic environment. Don’t misinterpret her advice into condoning a schedule full of basket-weaving and blow-off classes. She just recommended walking before I could run.

My mother passed away some time ago, but she left me with a deep appreciation for higher education and an enduring respect for her wisdom. As I witness each new freshman class step onto campus each year full of enthusiasm and energy, I flashback to that moment when my mom lovingly coached me in a dark room in the registrar’s office while we chose sections of classes projected on the wall.  (That was how it was done before the advent of the Internet.) Those tiny, little numbers we chose from the wall sealed my fate and set me up to succeed.

Without my mom, I might have taken Organic Chemistry my first semester. Trust me, that story would not have had a happy ending. Thanks to encouragement from both of my parents, I graduated on time four years later, and no one cheered louder than Mom.

Can a first name trigger prejudice?

VasquezesAs a mother, I worry that my brother-in-law was right. He told me not to name my son “Pedro,” which my husband had chosen as a tribute to their grandfather. My brother-in-law said that with a last name like “Vasquez,” our son needed an Anglo name to dodge prejudice. That’s why his girls were named “Anastasia, Kassandra and Savannah.”

I didn’t believe him. I think I even said that I was more proud of their Hispanic heritage than he was. Those were mighty big words coming from a white Protestant who lives in idyllic suburbs. It didn’t matter anyway because we were planning to nickname our son “Pete”—not because we were trying to hide his Mexican ancestry, but because everyone in my husband’s family uses an Americanized nickname: Jorge=George, Anita=Annie, Rogelio=Roger, Rosa=Rosie.

Flash forward eight years, and although we’ve called our son “Petey” or “Pete” since birth, somewhere along the way “Pedro” stuck. I vividly remember his soccer coach yelling “Petey!” and my son not listening until the coach yelled “Pedro!” We love his name. We wouldn’t have picked it if we didn’t, but I’m beginning to suspect that my brother-in-law’s prophecy was more right than I wanted to admit. I can’t quite explain it, but I hear it in the way people say my son’s name for the first time.

My husband doesn’t care. My big, bold Marine has a “to Hell with them if they don’t like it” point of view, and I love that about him. I, on the other hand, worry that our Anglo-looking Hispanic child may experience prejudice that could have been avoided because of the name we gave him. I am proud of the family history I married into, and I want to keep it alive in our blended-culture family. Giving our son a different name would have been selling out and philosophically moving to the back of the bus.

The fact remains that I will never be able to truly grasp racism because I haven’t lived it. My husband has, and so have many, many others, even in wonderful places like Plano, Texas. Sure, today’s racism is different than the horrors that led to the Civil Rights Movement, but racism still lurks and lingers silently. That’s why I worry for my son.

When we bought our house in Plano, a neighbor approached my husband while he was mowing the yard. She asked for his business card thinking he was the new landscaper. It wasn’t the only incident. I’ve seen clerks follow him around in stores at the mall but back off when they saw me. Another time, the police mysteriously pulled him over for a seat belt check right after we bought a new truck. (The dealer tags were still in the window.) None of these incidents put his life in danger. However, the police incident shattered any disbelief I had that racism didn’t exist in my bubble. My husband called me as he was fumbling for papers in the glovebox, and I could hear the cops hassling him because my name was on the title rather than his. They were convinced at a glance that a dark-skinned Hispanic man had stolen a new truck, and they were looking for evidence to arrest him.

So I wonder if I have done the right thing. As a mother I want to protect my child from the ills of the world, but I have no desire to hide his heritage. I want the best for him, but how can we protect Pedro from slights he doesn’t deserve caused by a name his father and I intentionally gave him as a badge of honor and tribute to a great man? I will fight for my son, and I have tried to lead by example. Cultural change is huge, and although I like being idealistic and hopeful, I wonder if our idealism was the best thing for our son. It’s too late now to say “coulda, woulda, shoulda.” Perhaps, the best thing to do is concentrate on building a strong sense of pride and self-esteem in my son. Maybe if we build in him pride for the legacy of his great-grandfather after whom he was named and for his Hispanic heritage—which is not outwardly identifiable in his fair skin—he can change the hearts of the people who consciously or subconsciously slight him or anyone else who is different.

I still hope my brother-in-law was wrong. I don’t think children today see “color” the way previous generations did. I hope that Pedro will be judged only by the content of his character. To anyone who would judge my son otherwise, beware. I will be watching until all people are treated equally.

Surviving the editor’s red pen

MytshirtOne of many things I do daily in the course of my public relations practice is edit. Believe it or not, I enjoy it…sometimes. Our scribe team groans when I hand out difficult persuasive stories, but when they nail it, nothing makes me happier than to leave copy unchanged.

So how can you escape the red pen of a heavy-handed editor?

My editing pen is not actually red. It’s pink. Once upon a time, I edited executive correspondence for a company that needed me to wield the editing axe on 600 people. Did I like correcting every single letter, article or blurb destined for clients, partners and the public? No. I would rather eat glass. Hand someone a page bleeding with red marks, and it’s an instant flashback to that shriveled-up English teacher you hated in elementary school. However, someone had to be the heavy and tell the president that her grammar wasn’t perfect and that it reflected on the company. #amigoingtogetfired? Anyway, to earn my seat back at our Thursday night happy hour, this word nerd switched her editing pen to pink instead of red. It worked, and my corrections caused much less anxiety for all parties concerned.

Returning to the original question, how can you escape unscathed by your editor? Below are my top five tips. I know they sound obvious, but please understand that not all editors are innately evil. The words just need to play nice.

  1. AP Style. It should be your second language if you work in public relations. If you are rusty, study your AP Stylebook until it sticks. The good news is that most people learn and embrace AP Style quickly with application.
  2. Punctuation. Nothing gets my engine fired up like a missing comma between two independent clauses or a semicolon connecting two sentences. (I loathe the semicolon.) Commas are easy to miss when you are on a roll, but they are also easy to catch when you proofread. If punctuation is not your forte, re-read the punctuation section or your AP Stylebook until it sticks. (Full disclosure: I am not compensated by The AP, but I would love to be.)
  3. Typos. They are my kryptonite. I type so fast they spew from my careless fingers. They also hide themselves from my eye when I proofread my own copy. To compensate, I use the “phone-a-PR-friend” approach and share my copy with a buddy or colleague I know to be ruthless at proofreading. Be careful not to overuse this approach or else your friend will cease to be your friend. Maybe rotate friends…or improve your typo-catching skills. If you figure out how to do the latter, please share. Sometimes reading it backwards helps, but everybody struggles to see their typos.
  4. Flow. Once upon a time, there was a story drafted by a gifted writer that had all the research elements, but it wasn’t knitted together right. All the evidence for the case was in plain sight, but reading it was like choking down a gallon-sized bowl of dry bran cereal with no milk. Rather than tossing it back for a rewrite, I put my hands in it to show what it needed. That was the hardest story I ever edited, and I thought it might beat me. One Sunday afternoon, I was editing it at the dining room table while babbling about my challenge with my husband. Inspiration often comes from the most unexpected places. My beloved shared one of his “when-I-was-in-the-military” stories and suddenly the light bulb went off on how to tie it all together. I could tell that the writer had done the drudgery but hadn’t found the path to the hook. The pieces were there. I just helped the story find its natural flow.
  5. Storytelling. Nothing is more memorable than a good story, but in PR we have to tell a story and make a point at the same time. You have to grab people right away in the lead, whether it’s a feature story, news story, speech or ghost-written op-ed. One writer I know is notorious for pulling you into a scene in the lead with the five senses. What would you see, smell, hear, taste or feel? It works for her. One reporter friend always starts his story off with a person’s name and situation. He is particularly fond of things that conflict. Imagine booming voiceover: “Joe Smith is a pastor by day and a pimp by night.” (OK, I made that up, but you get the point.) Speak in a style consistent with the brand of your client or company. A speechwriter for the White House once said that when he heard his own words, it was in the voice of the president of the United States. You can still tell a good story whether it’s in your voice or someone else’s. Dive into research. Interview a person who lives the issue you are describing. Do whatever it takes to take your readers on a journey that makes them gleefully join your cause.

I don’t edit for retribution. I do it to make the work better and to help good people develop into great professionals. A good editor will talk to you constructively about your mistakes, so you don’t make them again. If I have coached people, and they continue to commit the same crimes, it’s like neon signs blinking “I didn’t proofread” and/or “I don’t care.” Good writers are invested in their work, but you have to divorce yourself from your pride of authorship. All of us can benefit from a second opinion, and sometimes it can hurt to hear it. Even if you become a syndicated columnist someday, you will still have an editor, and editors have to be able to “speak the truth to power.” It’s a good day when I can put the pink pen back in the drawer without using it. Happy writing!

First job advice I wish I’d had

I graduated from college in 1989. The economy was lousy, so finding a job was a dubious challenge. I had always dreamed of living and working in Dallas, Texas, but I knew absolutely no one there other than a few cousins. It was a different time. There was no Internet, no Google and no online job posting. If you wanted a job, you either had to know someone with the right connections or find an opening in the classified ads in the newspaper. It felt impossible, but I began a resume-mailing campaign to every ad remotely applicable to my field and cold-called countless companies I found in the greater Dallas phone book.

For months, I looked for job leads as if filling out job applications were my full-time job. My parents were clearly anxious about my job prospects since I was still living with them. No pressure! Finally, I landed a few interviews for the lowest entry-level jobs. One hot August morning, I left my cousin Sherri’s house in my navy suit, hose and pumps for a series of interviews. (Thanks for letting my crash at your place, cuz!) After fighting epic Dallas traffic, I sat across from a woman who was maybe two years older than me during an afternoon interview through a placement service. She proceeded to dropkick my dreams, and belittle me until all that was left was a puddle. She waived my resume in the air and stated that I would never get a job anywhere with this resume. That was the resume I wrote with the help of the university’s career services department and with consultation from my journalism school adviser Dr. Dannelley, who was a renowned expert in the field of public relations. She said I might get into graduate school with this resume, but without her agency’s help, I was thoroughly unsuitable to work in the big city. My only hope, she said, was to sign a contract with their firm, and they would use their back-door connections to get a job for me with the caveat that I would in turn pay them 10% of my first year’s salary. I left with my tail between my legs, convinced that I was unemployable unless I mortgaged 10% of a salary I didn’t have for a job I probably would hate. Her words echoed in my head, “You will never get a job with this resume.”

The air conditioning in my car died on my way back to Sherri’s, so after baking in 100-degree stand-still traffic on 635, I walked in the door dripping, smelly and philosophically licking my wounded ego. I had barely dropped my purse when Sherri’s phone rang. It was for me. (This was before the age of the cell phone, so you had to share the nearest landline number when you were traveling.) To my shock, it was the real estate developer I had interviewed with in the morning. I had almost forgotten. Now, they were offering me a job…my first real job. Not only could I get a job with that resume, I had done so on the very same day that I had been told I never would.

It was a great lesson. Over the course of life, there are many people who will attempt to break you or make you doubt yourself for their gain. Some are opportunistic charlatans (like that placement firm) who feed on the ignorance of those who don’t know better. Others just want to tear you down or hold you back so they can be stronger.

So as the Class of 2014 polishes those resumes for job hunting after graduation in a few months, here are words of advice I wish I’d had: Never let someone tell you that you aren’t worthy, and that you can’t make “it” happen. You can do whatever you set your mind to if you are willing to work hard to accomplish it. Maybe my parents had told me that before, but in my youth and inexperience, I was surprisingly willing to believe a total stranger who told me otherwise. Assume that anyone who attempts to tear you down is wrong no matter how convincing or persuasive they seem. They are lying to either take advantage of you or to weaken someone they perceive to be a strong opponent (you).

And another thing: be prepared to “phone a friend” in times of doubt…because there will be some doubts no matter how tough you are. It’s a great idea to pick a professional mentor in your field who can keep you in touch with reality. Had I called Dr. Dannelley after that interview and told him what had happened, he would have laughed and slapped me back into reality with a few persuasive words. I was lucky that reality presented itself to me and gave me that first opportunity to claw my way up on my own volition.

No matter how young or inexperienced you are, always believe in YOU!