Sunday, August 30, 2009

Discovering my strengths

I first heard of the Internet based StrengthsFinder Profile when Jane Pauley mentioned taking it in her book, "Skywriting: A Life Out of the Blue."

She wrote:
“I’d been reading books about management and organizations for a long time, recreationally. On our February trip to Boca Raton, my sister recommended Now, Discover Your Strengths, by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton, who argue that it’s far more productive to develop a strength than to strengthen a weakness. A provocative idea—assuming I had strengths. I was dubious.

I went online and, with the pass-code that came with the book, registered and answered the questions. Experts call it a “testing instrument”—it’s not apparent to a layperson like me how the questions produce accurate results. Instantly, I got mine and my first thought was that I didn’t recognize this person they said I was.”

I was intrigued that Jane was surprised by her results, perhaps her struggles with bipolar disorder contributed to this surprise, but then even Peter Drucker felt few people could articulate their areas of strength. When I noticed Now, Discover Your Strengths was listed as one of Jack Covert's "100 Best Business Books of All Time," I decided I had to buy this book and take this test.

You do need a NEW copy of the book. If you get a used copy, the key provided in the book will NOT enable you to take the online assessment.

I ended up purchasing Tom Rath's book Strengths Finder 2.0 instead of Now, Discover Your Strengths because it included a new upgraded edition of the StrengthsFinder assessment. It also came with a more customized version of the top 5 themes (strengths) report and 50 ideas for action (10 strategies for building on each of your top 5 themes). Both books are based on the same premise you are more productive developing your strengths than strengthening a weakness.

A strength is different from a skill. A talent or strength is something you're naturally good at, while a skill is something you learn over time by building skills and knowledge. Buckingham’s definition of a strength is something you’re pulled toward and want to do. When you’re doing it, you’re highly engaged. You’re curious about how you can do it better. When you’re finished, you feel energized and want to do it again. Once you shape your work and life in ways that use your natural talents, you will make yourself more effective, productive and happy.

What are my top 5 strengths?

You have a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve. In particular, the process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites you.

You have a craving to know more. Often you like to collect and archive all kinds of information.

You enjoy thinking about the past. You understand the present by researching its history.

You are characterized by your intellectual activity. You are introspective and appreciate intellectual discussions.

You are intrigued with the unique qualities of each person and have a gift for figuring out how people who are different can work together productively.

Initially, I was not pleased with the results of my assessment. My first reaction was "I thought this assessment was going to teach me something I didn’t know." I was hoping my strengths would be a little more glamorous. The above so called talents were the same traits I’ve been trying to overcome since I was the geeky uncool nerd in high school. I shut my computer off in disgust.

Most upsetting was the talent "Input;" my collection of facts, quotes, and lists of books is a strength? I never considered myself a collector of things even if it is lists of books or favorite quotes. Also, I was surprised I wasn’t an "Analyzer" (I am an accountant) instead I am this context individualizer. I always hated this part of myself. I tend to think it makes me seem obsessed; like I just can’t let things go.

The aftermath:
Acceptance ~ I took the assessment in May. Over the past couple of months, I thought and read more about my 5 strengths and gradually began to accept them as who I really am. If I strip away all the layers of what I think I am supposed to be along with what I aspire to be my 5 themes really are the talents that I am really drawn to.

It turns out INPUT is a great strength to have if you are a writer, artist, or another type of creative. INPUT can keep you fresh. It might be a great strength for a “Blogger.”

Also, this isn’t the first time I've seen "Learner" listed as my top strength. Back in 2002, I took the free VIA online survey which gives an immediate report of character strengths in top-down order with a brief description of each strength.

My top 3 strengths from the VIA survey were:
Love of learning
Industry, diligence, and perseverance
Judgment, critical thinking, and open-mindedness

I retook this survey last week. The results for my top three strengths were identical to the 2002 results.

I wonder if #3 is another way of describing "Individualization?"

My weaknesses:
I have to admit I do spend a lot of time trying to develop my weaknesses. No matter how hard I try I will never naturally be a "Commander." A commander is someone who has presence, takes control of a situation and makes decisions. This explains why I sometimes struggle in my role as Accounting Manager and why I found being the President of my professional association a difficult task. I had to push myself to lead the group and make the difficult decisions. The reality is that in any area where we’re truly weak you can climb from pathetic up to really bad, but no matter how much you work at it, you don’t really improve.

A new career or answering the question of are you in the right career is not the assessment’s intended purpose. It is designed to be used as a performance enhancer:
I can use my results to better enhance my career; when seeking out a new position I am going to look for more of a supervisor role that focuses on teaching and individualization rather than a senior level "Commander" management role. Or perhaps I'll forego management altogether and become an expert in one particular accounting area.

I am most successful when I partner with people who have complementary strengths:
“Learners” love research and learning for the sake of learning. For me, results matter less than the experience of learning. My immediate boss is clearly “Analytical.” He searches for reasons and causes and has the ability to think about all the factors that might affect a situation. Between the two of us we take forever to get something done. I work much better when I work directly with our President. He is an “Achiever.” Achievers thrive on getting things done. They are driven by accomplishing things. “Learners” and “Achievers” complement each other well and together succeed like they might not as individuals.

Bottom line:
Based on my experience, I think Peter Drucker is correct; few people can articulate their areas of strength. Trying to discover my own strengths has not been an easy process or very effective. So many career books I’ve read in the past, Lawler Kang’s Passion at Work: How to Find Work You Love and Live the Time of Your Life comes to mind, instruct you to perform an exercise or two then assumes you’ve discovered your life’s passion. Now, I finally feel as though I have a baseline of strengths to draw from to continue my process of "Getting my Ducks in a Row."

If you have any interest in discovering your own strengths, I highly recommend taking the StrengthsFinder Profile or at the very least checking out the free VIA online survey. If you do so, please share your experience in the comments or post a link to your own blog post.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Unplugging Electronics; how much does it really save?

After reading electronic devices continue to draw electricity from the socket even when not in use, I began unplugging our phone chargers, microwave, toaster and coffee maker each morning. I’ve wondered how much if any money this is really saving me. After watching this video, I now estimate my efforts to be worth less than $5 a year. Watch the video and see what you think. Is it worth it?

Click here to play video

FYI, if I purchased the electricity meter shown in the video it would take 6 years of continuous unplugging to make up for the $30 purchase price.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The "repair vs. replace" decision

Last weekend, my dryer stopped working; I'd push the start button and nothing would happen. We checked the cord to make sure it was plugged in properly, the circuit breaker and all of the connections. Everything seemed to be in order.

We were then faced with the “repair vs. replace” decision. Several years ago, my husband repaired a used late 70's model dryer that went on to last ten more years. Encouraged by this experience and sensing there really wasn't anything seriously wrong with the dryer we decided to get it repaired.

The repairman initially found our dryer’s problem perplexing. He knew it wasn't taking in enough voltage, but couldn’t figure out why. He too checked all the connections, discovering the problem only after performing a diagnostic test. A couple of wires on the inside terminal block had come loose. Apparently, this happens over time. The cost to fix the wiring was $10. The cost for the diagnostic test was $79. Total cost with tax $94. It seemed a little high for a couple of loose wires, but my husband feels any repair bill under $100 isn’t too bad.

After he left my first thought was could we have fixed it ourselves? I played around on this site, but was unable to find the correct solution to the problem. Plus, if the repairman was perplexed, I doubt my hubby would have figured it out.

That was all great until this weekend. Our dryer now starts, but it no longer provides any heat. So, here we are again faced with the “repair vs. replace” decision. We received this dryer three years ago from my mother-in-law when she moved out of her home. No one knows for sure how old this dryer is, but estimate it’s at least 15 years old. We found the average life of a dryer to be 13 years on this site.

We called the repairman asking for his recommendation. He said the problem could be the element, the switch or the timer. Over the years he has seen two outcomes; he repairs the switch then two weeks later the timer goes. Or he repairs the switch and nothing else goes wrong for another 5 years. In our case, since we think the dryer is at least 15 years old he recommends buying a new dryer. He did suggest testing the dryer on a different dry cycle with an empty dryer.

Of course that didn’t work either. It looks like we wasted $94; hopefully we can make it up on a new more energy efficient dryer.

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Sunday, August 09, 2009

An update on "I hate my supervisor"

Towards the end of last year, I wrote a post, "I hate my supervisor" about Alyssa who was having difficulties with her supervisor. She had asked:

Two years ago I was promoted to a different department within my company. I love what I do and have been performing very well. The problem is my supervisor; I hate her and she hates me. She inherited me as a subordinate when my department merged with hers last January. Things got pretty bad earlier this year, forcing me to file a harassment suit against her. HR performed an investigation and determined no harassment had occurred. They did, however, send her to an all day training seminar. Since then, we both go out of our way to avoid each other, but I am constantly on edge thinking she is plotting to get rid of me. My old department has sought me out and offered me my old job back. I hate the idea of giving up my current position, and salary, yet the thought of working for this woman another minute literally makes me ill. What should I do?

What subsequently occurred?

In February, Alyssa resigned from this position and went back to her old job in her former department. She was able to negotiate, a higher salary than what she had been making before (though still a pay cut from her promotion) and better hours. She is a little bored in this position, but is happy to have a job and to be rid of her toxic supervisor.

Her former supervisor
Her supervisor’s job was eliminated effective June 30th. She was told on a Friday, and escorted out the door.

Her former co-workers
The co-workers Alyssa left behind when she returned to her former department have also lost their jobs. Their department has been revamped and all of their positions eliminated. They have been given three options:

1. Leave the company; there is a severance package.
2. Apply for a scaled down version of their job, for less pay.
3. Find another job in the company; i.e. move to Alyssa’s department. They have been offered the same flexible schedule and salary that Alyssa received. (Three of the eight have gone this route).

Bottom Line
It has been my experience that bad managers are eventually weeded out, but it seems to take upper management close to two years to discover and be rid of a problem manager while the lowly ranks who work for them recognize the problems and shortcomings of their new manager within a couple of months. In the meantime, everyone including the company as a whole suffer.

For a good book on dealing with jerks in the workplace, check out Robert Sutton's The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Target Date Funds are not a "Magic Bullet"

My boss, the administrator of our company’s 401(k) plan, fearing fiduciary liability refuses to give our employees investment advice. Instead, he steers them towards our plan's target date funds. Much to his surprise, he recently discovered these funds are not the panacea they appeared to be.

A target date fund is simply a mutual fund with an asset allocation construed with a particular retirement date in mind. If you think you will retire in 10 years, you would pick a 2020 target date fund, with 2020 being roughly the year you plan to retire. It is the fund managers responsibility to reallocate your account from stocks to bonds automatically as your retirement date approaches, becoming progressively more conservative. These funds typically hold a mix of stocks, bonds and cash and will often include an allocation to foreign equities as well.

The latest economic downturn has revealed these funds are not a “magic bullet;” the reality is most of them are badly flawed and inappropriately allocated.

The problems include:
1. The asset allocation strategies and “glide path” vary dramatically among these funds.
No two target date funds invest the same way for the same retirement date. In fact, that's a major problem with them - take any two 2010 target-date funds and you may find one is 15% in stocks and the other is 60% in stocks. That makes a world of difference for someone retiring in 2010.

According to Tom Idzorek, chief investment officer and director of research at Ibbotson Associates, a Morningstar subsidiary, target-date funds differ dramatically in asset mix and in "glide path" — the rate at which the asset mix changes over time. "Participants who rely on date alone to choose a fund can have much more exposure to market volatility than they realize. Indeed, the percentage of equities in 2010 target-date funds ranges from 14% to 65%.

A target-date index created by Dow Jones determined a firm's asset class allocation for 2010 target-date funds should be around 27 percent in equities.

Performance statistics found in Morningstar indicate:
-The 2008 performance of target date funds ranged from -3.6% to -41.8%
-The 2008 average return -24.3%

-The 2008 performance of target date funds ranged from -31.1% to -41.8%
-The 2008 average return -37.9%

-The 2008 S&P 500 Index was -37.3%.

2. Many target date funds are stocked with mediocre funds:
Virtually all of these funds are made up of stock and bond funds within the same sponsoring fund family. Fund companies don't have a broad enough lineup of good funds to offer solid target funds so instead they use their lower rated funds that aren’t selling on their own knowing the typical target fund investor won’t probe deeper.

3. Higher fees:
Fees are higher because you are investing in target date funds that own other funds. Not only do you incur the fees of the target-date fund itself, but also the asset-weighted average of the management fees of the underlying funds.

4. One Size Doesn't Fit All:
The premise behind target date funds is that investors are supposed to place all their retirement savings into a single target date fund because one target date fund owns many other funds mixed together to form a specific asset allocation. They are not designed to be used in conjunction with other outside funds. They do not take into consideration a spouse’s 401(k), any other investments, risk tolerance or the actual date you plan on withdrawing your money which may differ from your retirement date.

When asked about my company 401k’s target fund, my financial planner immediately pointed out the above and insisted he could allocate my money more appropriately.

Investors have flocked to these funds ever since they began popping up in 401(k) plans. 40 % of defined contribution plans have target based funds and they are the most common default investment. The demand for target date funds stems from a lack of consumer investment knowledge. The typical consumer is increasingly responsible for funding his or her own retirement and is in dire need of guidance.

“Employees are most confused about how to allocate their investments.”
-401(k) Benchmarking Survey

What is a 401(k) plan sponsor to do?
Education that includes individual meetings and personalized communications are now cited as the most effective strategy for plan success. But beware, such specialized communication usually comes with a fee and one thing our 401(k) plans do not need is another fee.

The bottom line when investing your money; you can’t get away from being responsible for your own retirement. The best advice I can give is if your company provides individual education take advantage of it. It they don't, do the best you can to get your own advice. Visit a fee-only financial planner. Many offer a free consultation. Clark Howard recommends you go to to find a fee-only financial planner in your area. He suggests you interview three planners so you are comfortable with their way of investing. Also, get referrals from family and friends.

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