Category Archives: Career

The Upside of Anger? I Rarely Find One Anymore

I work with the public and am a clearinghouse for complaints, so I deal with a lot of angry people. Sometimes I’m the target, other times I’m paid to listen. More often I’m the go-between or messenger, charged with trying to broker or influence a solution.

Whatever my role, and however legitimate the frustrations, I have learned to muster a special brand of fortitude, humor and patience to hold my own amid the heat.

Personally, I am less angry as I age and less enthralled with the personal power that I thought my temper gave me. I am quicker to make amends when I am wrong and more willing to step aside in a disagreement, to speak my piece and then yield the last word. I once judged that behavior as passive.

And so, in the course of re-examining my relationship with this misunderstood emotion, I talked with anger expert and mediator Jeanne Zimmer, executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center in St. Paul.

Jeanne Zimmer

Jeanne Zimmer

How do you engage with angry people without becoming angry yourself?

“You have to be empathetic without taking on their emotions. Just to pick up the phone in our office, you have to have the 30-hour training. The person on the other end of that phone is angry. You need to listen both for what they’re saying and the emotions underneath it.

“People can’t move to logical problem-solving till those emotions are addressed. Mediators will say: ‘It sounds like you’re really hurt. This must be hard.’ Then the angry person can move forward.”

Years ago I was stunned to hear anger described as the flip side of fear. What have you learned about anger?

Anger is a secondary emotion. Shame or fear is often underlying anger. Think of primary and secondary colors. What is really going on?

“Somebody comes in and says: ‘Your dog is barking all the time. I want you to move.’ What’s underneath that? The interest may be my sleep, or fear of dogs.”

What is difficult about this work?

“As a mediator your job is to listen and absorb. Self-care is important. You don’t want to take that emotion with you. If you can’t be fully present to the person on the other end of the line, let it go to voicemail and take a walk.”

A handful of the angry people I encounter strike me as mean-spirited. They’re “beside themselves,” to use a phrase that I am only now coming to understand.

“People behave in conflict as they saw growing up. Many of us weren’t taught good conflict-resolution skills. How did the family of origin deal with anger? Did they scream and yell? Give you the silent treatment? Send you to bed and everything was magically OK in the morning? You tend to do what you know.

“If you learn sarcasm, for example, how do you change it? The response is not hard-wired; it takes intention to change it, and that’s harder than it looks. It’s much easier to call 911 or sue somebody than it is to sit down and work things out.”

I used to love the rush that self-righteousness gave me. So what is the motivation to change?

“Unresolved conflict affects your health. It can take a mental and physical toll. Conflict distorts who people are. It takes us out of our place of homeostasis, our place of balance.

“Also we’re not at our best when we’re in conflict. You don’t see people as they are or how they see themselves. If you told this handful of so-called difficult people what your perceptions are — that they seem unfair or unkind — they’d be surprised.”

What is the science — or art — of mediation?

“People come in and don’t talk to each other. They talk to the mediator. When you summarize what someone else is saying, you’re helping them to be heard in a neutral voice. People need to be acknowledged, recognized and heard. That anger is: ‘You’re missing something!’ And they will go back to that again and again till they feel heard.”

How has this work helped you deal with anger personally?

“I am angry about something in my life right now. I’m hurt and I’m frustrated. How do I articulate that? And, I can’t change what’s going on. There’s a powerlessness.

“It helps to describe what the anger is like, how it feels. Then, how do you take care of yourself when you’re angry? Do you like to be left alone or to talk about it? It’s that meta-communication: How do we help each other? Then, you have to be brave enough to confront it.”

Various men over the years have called me strident, emotional and, my favorite, overly sensitive. Does our culture allow women to be angry?

“I’m 55. Women my age were taught in our professional lives that we had to be like men, wear the blue suits. We tried to become mini-men. But a man who gets angry is manly; a woman who gets angry is a bitch. Those stereotypes are out there.

“So at work, especially, how can you articulate how you’re actually feeling and be heard? Because women, again, are dubbed ‘too emotional.’ We’re seen as weak and not in control.Hillary Clinton_2

“People are afraid of angry women, so that’s the fear of Hillary [Rodham Clinton]. People expect men to be angry, and a woman who is angry loses the pretty. Your face gets red, you’re not Minnesota nice.”

In my 50s I’ve been working to respond more than react. Has your relationship with anger changed with age?

“Most people become mellower with age. You learn to pick your battles, you learn to let things go. Self-reflection makes a difference. Are you willing to be vulnerable?”

Is anger ever justified?

“Part of our work at the Dispute Resolution Center is learning to diagnose the conflict. If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. You need to know what the appropriate response is.

“If you’re Rosa Parks, you don’t mediate. If there’s an injustice, you need to get out there and stand up and effect change. There are reasons why we have the legal and criminal-justice systems. But way too many issues are being treated as though they’re about ‘rights,’ and they could be solved in an inter-personal way.”

Women and Money: Earn, Save and Spend (in that order)

St. Paul–based financial educator Ruth Hayden has been giving women the same advice about money for 25 years.

And it’s not because she’s out of touch with the persistent problems of the gender pay gap or the glass ceiling. Far from it. No, Hayden — who literally wrote the book about women and money back in 1992 — is discouraged about how little has changed for female wage-earners in the past quarter century.Ruth Hayden

“I get more sophisticated questions than I got 20 years ago,” says Hayden, whose “Women and Money” classes are consistently sold out and whose four books include one on couples and money. “Women know the language. They know they have to make money. But they’re still deferring too long on investing, and they’re not earning enough.”

Advice may be cheap, but a conversation with the ever-quotable Hayden — a regular with Kerri Miller on Minnesota Public Radio — is like striking gold.

On financial education: “To my toes, I am a teacher. And there are three areas of money I work in:

“One, how do I earn money? Is it enough? Is the income stream sustainable? Because I’ll likely work a lot longer than I thought I would. Two, how do I consume or spend my money? Am I in charge of it? Three, how much do I accumulate? Am I in charge of my savings and investments?

“Without the first one in place — a solid income stream — the other two don’t hold.”

On saving as a necessary discipline: “The biggest risk for women is that we don’t get enough money put away fast enough. Two factors are at work: We don’t earn enough in a job that is sustainable, and we are uneducated about where to put that money. Because we feel incompetent about investing, we ignore it.”

On learning to invest: “Financial advisors tell women to pay off their house. And women like that. They like the concept of home, and they can touch it. But that’s why so many women are living in a paid-off house but don’t have enough money coming in to have a decent life inside of that house.

“Instead of telling women what they want to hear — ‘pay off your house’ — we need to encourage women to come into a field they’re uncomfortable with, and that’s the stock market. It is the only game in town to create money over time that grows ahead of inflation and taxes. All the stock market is, is other people’s businesses.”

On how to have money when you’re old: “I can start a business that I later will be able to sell. Second, I can invest in other people’s businesses, and that’s the stock market. Third, I can invest in real estate, including my own house.

“Men prefer the first one. They assume they will build a business and someone else will highly value it. I like a mixture of the three.”Women invest

On why women resent work: “If you lined up 10 women and asked them this question, they’d say, ‘Oh, no, I don’t resent my job. I have to earn money.’ Then you let the conversation go informal, and it may come out. It’s the resentment at having to do it.

“The women who are always exhausted or resentful about work have an issue with work. Somehow, they expect to be taken care of — and it used to be by a man. It’s not politically correct to say that now. But when I push on this in the women’s class, the room gets very quiet.”

On the ambiguity inherent in making choices: “Very few decisions are either right or wrong. There’s always a downside. That’s how you make a decision: ‘I want this upside, and I can manage and live with the downside.’

“This is where couples get fussed up. They look for a right and wrong. Instead of getting tangled in who’s right and who’s wrong, ask the question this way: What is the upside and what is the downside? Find a process to work through it. Make it a brainstorming session.”

On career vs. job: “When women are really overstressed, they say they’ll work in a flower shop or bookstore. No, those don’t pay well. That’s a job, and a job is temporary. A job is something I wish I didn’t have to do.

“Women need to get more engaged in the way we make money. It’s about learning to develop a career: A career is part of me. A career grows with me. Emotionally and intellectually, I own a career. And then we have to find a way to make the career more sustainable long term, because most of us will be earning money a lot longer than we thought we would be.”

On discomfort with age: “A Twin Cities–based corporation brought me in because their younger employees weren’t enrolling in the 401(k) plan. They showed me a digitized photo of me aged to 80. My brain did not recognize me. If I can’t recognize myself, why would I put money toward that person? Why would I invest money for retirement?

“I recently had a client, at 56, take $18,000 out of her retirement funds to pay for plastic surgery. And she is so happy! But she’s not examining the back end of that choice. Three decades from now, that $18,000 could go a long way toward making her comfortable.”

On women and power: “Women still feel powerless in their lives. When we pull out the credit card and get what we want: In that moment, we feel powerful.”

Executive Volunteers Bring Professional Moxie to Nonprofits

Back in 2006, when she was 52 years old, financial services executive Paula Meyer read a book that changed her life — and launched her into founding a nonprofit organization that is changing the world, one child at a time.

The book, Just Enough by Harvard University professors Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson, posits that the most balanced people among successful “high achievers” integrate four aspects of their lives: happiness, achievement, significance and legacy.

Meyer was happy and had achieved much in her career; her family and volunteer work added significance to her life. But legacy, “leaving something that endures after you are gone,” was not yet part of her personal and professional portfolio.

Then she went to Africa.Ngong-Road-Logo

There, in Nairobi, Kenya, Meyer saw such a depth of poverty and need — children orphaned because of AIDS, struggling to survive — that she was inspired to co-found Friends of Ngong Road along with Peter Ndungu, who was orphaned at age 11 in the slums of Nairobi.

The nonprofit organization, now eight years old, seeks to transform the lives of boys and girls equally through education, daily nutrition, caseworker support and an arts-and-crafts summer camp that gets the children out of subsistence living in tin shacks.

Its organizational structure and strong financials — a seven-member board of directors overseeing a $650,000 annual budget and a nearly million-dollar endowment fund — speak to Meyer’s current work as a board member for corporations such as Mutual of Omaha and her past executive positions at Piper Jaffray, Ameriprise Financial and SECURA Insurance.

Executive influence

The success of Friends of Ngong Road is told in Kenya through the obviously improved lives of the 350 smiling, well-nourished, neatly uniformed schoolchildren that the organization serves each year. Here in the United States, the story is about creative middle-aged executives following Meyer’s lead, putting their resources to greater use and transforming their own lives through social service.

Paula MeyerMeyer jokes that, at 60, she is past middle age. In fact, her decision to uproot her life — to leave a high-paying career at age 52 and donate her skills not toward charity but sustainable change — puts her squarely amid the trend to re-examine priorities at midlife, and, ultimately, to give back.

  • Management consultant and former professor William Bridges describes it in his popular business book Transitions as “the shift from the question of how to the question of why.” A careerist naturally moves from wanting to “demonstrate competence” in her or his field to “being motivated to find personal meaning in the work and its results.”
  • The “working retirement revolution” examined in March 2014 by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave notes a pattern of “re-engagement” among young retirees like Meyer. Among the four types of working retirees — many “motivated by important non-financial reasons” — are “caring contributors,” people with financial means who “seek to give back to their community or worthwhile causes.” They make up the largest percentage of working retirees, the study found.

The Friends of Ngong Road board is made up of current and retired senior executives, men and women like former Piper Jaffray executive Karen Bohn, 61, who organizes up to 20 home-based fundraising events a year.

“A lot of people in this 50- to 70-year-old cohort are no longer working full time for pay,” says Meyer. “They have a lot of experience, and they want to use their gifts to make the world a better place. This is not licking envelopes; it’s meaningful work. Our board does the scut work, but we also shape strategy.”

Board member Keith Kale, a former marketing executive at Pillsbury, oversees the newsletter and informative website. Tom Gleason, a retired IBM executive and former Boy Scouts leader, organizes Friends of Ngong Road’s weeklong summer camps in Nairobi.

Meyer and Bohn are the chief development officers, using Gleason’s online relationship-management tool to track some 500 individual contributors and sponsors. They identify top prospects and divvy up calls among the board, which meets semi-monthly.

Crafting solutionsKaren Bohn

Bohn’s proudest achievement has been her “craft ladies” initiative, which yields about 5 percent of the organization’s annual revenue.

During a visit to Nairobi in 2009, she noticed two women who’d been waiting hours in line for free medical care. They were clutching ratty plastic bags — “the scourge of Africa,” Bohn says — out of which they pulled beautiful beaded bowls. Spotting opportunity, she and Meyer combined their Kenyan shillings and bought all of the bowls they could get their hands on.

Now, Bohn invests in about $10,000 worth of handcrafts every year and sells the bowls, jewelry and other colorful items for triple markup (“we’re shameless about it”) at the house parties she organizes. “These are our Girl Scouts cookies!” she declares.

The “craft ladies,” in turn, tithe 10 percent of their revenue back to Friends of Ngong Road. “It’s another example of something that I would not have thought of,” Meyer says. “Everyone on the board comes up with ideas. My approach is: ‘Feel free to add value!’”

Succession planning is becoming a priority. Only two of the seven board members are under age 50, and both Bohn and Meyer are realistic about the unpredictability that comes with age. The 18-hour one-way flight to Africa will become less palatable and physically less possible.

Meanwhile, as the board evaluates whether the nonprofit can be replicated in Bangladesh or India — and can become less volunteer-dependent in the United States — Meyer relishes working with creative professionals who have the means and the selflessness to offer children hope.

“It’s fun to create and work with great people,” she says, “but the most fun is going to Kenya and seeing the impact we have on children’s lives.”