Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thriving (or at least Surviving) in a Diving Economy

Imagine this happened to you: You finally discover what would be your dream job at your dream employer. So you write a letter to the person with the power to hire you--and he politely declines.

That was 15 years ago. Since then, that dream job stays in your mind like the love of your life that remains unrequited. So every year or two, you write back to that employer, sending samples of your work. Sometimes he politely declines but increasingly, he doesn't even respond. So you decide to stop writing to him. Three years pass and then, out of the blue, your phone rings: It's him. "How'd you like a four-week trial on that job you've been wanting." How would you feel?

This story is not a hypothetical. It's real. And this month, it happened to me. What's the job? Hosting a show on work. The employer? KGO radio, one of America's most listened-to stations. A few weeks ago, Jack Swanson, KGO's Operations Director called to say, " Would you like to host for us--so many KGO listeners are suffering career pain. You can help them. We'll try it for four weeks and see how it goes."

In addition to trying to be good on the air, I've done some other things to try to succeed at KGO that are relevant to anyone trying to thrive or at least survive in this diving economy. These strategies have worked for many of my career coaching clients and I'm hoping they might help you.

Lesson 1: Use a moderate communication style; no irrational exuberance. When Jack offered me the job, I was tempted to yell, "Fantastic!" but in that fraction of a second before I responded, I remembered the time I hired someone and he literally jumped up and down in ecstasy. That made me wonder, "Is he a bad employee who's been unable to land a job forever and that's why he's so ecstatic?"

So, in responding to Jack, I just said, "I'm delighted, Jack. Thank you." And on reflection, remaining moderate really is a good idea. I think about how often I tell my career coaching clients: "Watch C-SPAN, which is a parade of the world's most successful people and you'll see that their emotions range only from pleased to concerned, no wider, even if they're talking about the economy's collapse. And remember when Howard Dean yelled a war whoop of ecstasy when he won the Iowa primary? That single moment killed his presidential chances." So Lesson 1: Show moderate enthusiasm, not as Alan Greenspan said, "irrational exuberance." Most Americans claim to celebrate diversity but we're not tolerant of diverse styles of communication. Extreme emotion doesn't read as passion; it reads as being high-maintenance or out of control.

Lesson 2: Unless you're darn sure they're wrong, try it their way. Jack then told me to meet with Trish Robbins, KGO's Executive Producer so I could learn "The KGO Way." My natural tendency is to propose alternative ways of doing things but as I walked into that meeting, I reminded myself that KGO is a top-of-the-mountain radio station and has decades of experience in how best to serve its listeners, so at least for that meeting, I decided to mainly just listen. So when Trish suggested how long the average call should take, how to welcome and say good-bye to callers, the importance of, before the news break, telling listeners what I'll be talking about next, and so on, I mainly just listened and took notes. So, lesson 2: Unless you're darn sure you have a better way, try it their way, at least for starters.

Lesson 3: Unless you're darn sure they're wrong, act on their feedback. Before my first show on KGO, I said to myself, "I'm going to try to be the best talk show host in the history of KGO. Even if I don't succeed, this is the time to really go for it, not hold back."

It didn't work: I tried too hard my first show and Trish told me, "Marty, dial it back." Of course, that felt bad but I didn't want to be one of those people who gets defensive when criticized and did want to let her know I am eager to get better. So I simply said, "Thank you, Trish, I'll do that." So lesson 3: Unless you have a very good reason, accept feedback and promise to work on it. Even if your first reaction is to disagree, to be sure you're not just being defensive, it's probably wise to think about it a while before pushing back.

Lesson 4: Be ready to change gears. Before my first show, Trish asked to me to make the average call shorter than in my previous radio work. I agreed but then when I met her after the first show, she said, "I'd like you to make the average call longer." I didn't get defensive, saying "But you told me to make them shorter!" I recognized that job success normally requires experiments, only some of which succeed. So I acknowledged, "I agree. That experiment with short calls didn't work. I'll make them longer." So, lesson 4: Be ready to change gears.

Lesson 5: Stay alert to your workplace's unwritten rules, the stuff that doesn't appear in the employee handbook. For example, I've gotten the sense that unlike in some workplaces, at which bosses love when you ask a lot of questions, the people at KGO seem to appreciate self-starters, who only ask a moderate number of questions. So lesson 5: Keep your antennae out for the behaviors that are respected in your workplace.

Lesson 6: Strike the balance between displaying competence and appearing like a know-it-all. In that regard, I had a dilemma this week: My producer, J Westerling sent me a copy of the letter he sends to guests he's booked on KGO. Well, when I've booked guests, I also send a confirmation letter and honestly, I like mine better. I deliberated not sending him my letter because I didn't want to appear like I was trying to one-up him. But in the end I decided to send it because I thought it might be helpful enough to him that it was worth the risk--and after all, I had praised a number of his suggestions. The point I'm trying to make here is not whether or not I was right in sending him the letter. It's Lesson 6: Stay conscious of the need to strike the balance between showing you're competent and seeming like a know-it-all.

Lesson 7: It's probably not enough to work smart; you may also need to work long. For example, while I probably could have winged a list of how to thrive in a diving economy, I spent a lot of time thinking how I could make it most valuable and interesting to the listeners--hence I came up with the approach I'm going to use on this Sunday's show: telling the listeners, as I'm telling you, what I've done to try to turn my temp job on KGO to a permanent one. So, lesson 7 again: Think twice before following the conventional wisdom: "Work smart and you won't have to work long." In this economy, that could cost you your job.

If you care to hear how this Sunday's show turns out, you can hear it live anywhere in the world on, or in many places throughout the West Coast and even into the mountain states at 810 on the AM dial from 7:06 to 10 PM Pacific time. Later, the show will be archived on KGO's archive page.


Kelly said...

Congratulations on the new show! And thanks for the (as usual) great advice. Your points go way deeper than the usual tried-and-true stuff we hear elsewhere. I hope you new show isn't going to affect your old one, and the podcasts I've recently come to know and enjoy.

Marty Nemko said...

Thanks, Kelly. Such kind words really matter to me.

Anonymous said...

Awesome that KGO wants to help listeners and wise of them to choose someone who can really help. Thanks for the link, I'll look forward to the archive.

Thank you also, for your honest experience and the lessons. (First one for me was a reminder that sometimes it's all a matter of timing when an employer needs/wants you.)

Anonymous said...

Congratulations! Looking forward to hearing your new show.

Cornhusker said...


Congratulations on your dream job. I also listen to your show on NPR and enjoy it. By the way, you and I have similar personalities. It sounds as if you are being heavily managed and making lots of compromises. How much longer can you tolerate it after being self-employed for so many years?

Marty Nemko said...

I feel I'm only being moderately managed. It's not, at this point, bothering me at all. As I wrote, KGO really is a nationally esteemed talk station and I'm glad to have the opportunity to benefit from what they've learned about how to do talk radio over decades. And the things they're suggesting are reasonable, and they're being quite nice to me. I'm happy.