Saturday, November 5, 2011

Fashionable, but does it sell clothes?

The holiday shopping season is underway, and Maastricht’s merchants are trying to attract shopper’s attention.  These are a few of my favorites, but I have to wonder if they are as effective at selling clothes as at stopping traffic.

Or is that one and the same?

 

 

  

Friday, November 4, 2011

Op de Blotevoetenpad

‘Literally a “Barefoot Walk”.

Ages ago, when I was a camp counselor for the YMCA, we were trained in “Nature Immersion”, the technique of going belly-first through grass and into swamps to get a better connection (and smell) of habitats.

This is similar: the blotevoetenpad is a park in Belgium, set up as a 2 km path through the woods.  Visitors join small groups that walk in barefoot silence behind a guide.  Since our tour was very early on a Sunday morning, They included a philosophical / spiritual element alongside the tour.

       

It’s an interesting experience, the path changes texture all along the way.  The grass was soft and cool, infinitely pleasing; stones were sharp and miserable.  There was knee-deep water and shin-deep mud, squishing between my toes and warmly caking my ankles.  Startled toads emerged from the soup as we squished through, hopping off into the woods.  The hills were a little challenging to climb, even with log steps to balance on; the tower even moreso.

The tour ended with a small breakfast and a lecture on healthy living..  Our guide had recently passed through a health crisis so was emphasizing the need to slow down, recognize what was important, and then find the right balance in life.  She illustrated her points with symbols from along the path: the maze, the tower, but waterfall, the stones.

My friends took unwarranted delight in singling me out as one of the most unbalanced lives in the room.  “Life is short; opportunities are few.  When you have a chance, you have to jump for it,” I offered.

Neither of us embraced the other’s point of view that morning.  Still, I see the wisdom in the talk: the day will come when I’m sure that I’ll share her perspective.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Leven is vurrukkulluk

   Amsterdam was rainy and stormy while in London the sky was blue, the trees blossomed and people got their T-Shirts out. To celebrate the beautiful weather we ate strawberry and cream out in the garden yesterday lunch time – for the first time this year. Simply vurrukkulluk.

Simply Delicious.

The title is from a famous Dutch novel from the 60’s, ”Life is Delicious” by Remo Campert.  The excerpt is from a delightful blog by Meike Ziervogel, Things Syntactical, nicely illustrating the meaning of the phrase.

The phrase is also the slogan of this year’s Nederland Leest campaign, promoting reading and literacy.  What better time to go join your local library.

I am a reader and have always been a library patron, but somehow never got my library card here in Maastricht.  The city has a beautiful modern stadsbibliotheek just across the river, so I took motivation from the event to go sign up.

In the Netherlands, libraries are membership organizations: library use is free but you pay a yearly fee (36 euro per year) to be able to check out books.  A simple form, backed up by a passport or ID, got me my card (in the UK I also had to bring a recent utility bill to show that I lived in the community), but everything is online and electronic immediately after that.

The library features a l;arge selection of books, magazines, CDs and DVDs, with a small English language collection.  There’s free wi-fi and lots of meeting rooms and study areas, serving a lot of small businesses and community organizations as well.  A museum fills the ground floor, with space for performances and readings, there is a cafĂ© up a floor and a delightful research room overlooking the river on the top floor.

 

 

It’s quiet and sunlit and couldn’t be better for curling up in a corner with a bit of good writing.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Dutch currency transfers and internships

Exchange ratesI got a nice banking surprise this morning as I paid the monthly bills from the business bank account: a transfer from the UK yielded an unexpected bonanza of euros.

The European debt crisis has pounded the euro in recent days, and a dollar or pound buys 10% more euros than they did last summer.  It’s not the time to be moving money out of Europe, but a great opportunity to move money in.  This is especially true if you can afford to move the money slowly (over 5 days rather than 2) and can take advantage of SEPA credit transfers (a mechanism for making cross-border transfers in euros that cuts fees in half).

doll-eurConversely, if repatriating funds to the US or UK, it might be a good time to wait or hedge until things resolve (I don’t believe that the Greeks will leave the euro but the uncertainty will weigh on exchange rates for many weeks.

Pound per euro

I am not one for watching exchange rates closely, nor for hedging rates, but I keep general track, monthly, of price movements and fees and will shift excess funds towards cheap currencies for “rainy day” savings when I can.

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A friend and I discussed job prospects for graduating students over a wonderful Italian meal last night.  Dutch unemployment generally is enviably low, under 5% overall and under 8% for youth 15-24, so there should be a good market.  In part, this reflects broader Dutch labor policies, but it’s also a product of the way that Dutch youth enter the workforce.

There is a much higher reliance on temporary internships in the Netherlands (and in Europe generally) than in the US. Graduating students take 4-month positions at 500 euro / month wages to build skills and networks.  Since these are not permanent employment, hiring firms don’t have to pay the same social and severance benefits.  There are various clearing sites to connect opportunities with students, and most universities have services for employers looking for students.

It’s an intriguing possibility, but I’d have to do some serious planning to know what I’d expect an intern to do and then find the right one.  But students I know have a lot of interest in global markets, products, and careers, and could do a good job across my global organization.  Certainly there are lots of projects to re-assign that I just don’t have time for: market, patent, and competitive landscapes, data analysis, contract pricing of service providers, web site maintenance.

I felt a bit guilty outsourcing my web site redesign to India for 6% the cost of doing it into the US or Europe – this might be a way to do some good closer to my base.  I wonder if I can include “learning Dutch” in the remit somewhere…

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

If yesterday was Halloween…

Today must be the beginning of Christmas.

Or so it seems in Maastricht.

 

 

 

Monday, October 31, 2011

Layers of Leadership

Board Meeting“Dave, a Board meeting is not a milestone review,” the Chairman gently chided. “They are there to advise, not to judge.”

We walked through the consequences together: a higher-level agenda, more focus on financial performance, less detail on development, questions phrased as propositions, a single-page operating summary. 

Yet another way of doing business.

The seamless hierarchy of business organizations suggests that every manager understands the detail of what people beneath them are doing.  It implies that managers at all levels differ in the quality, but not the type, of their reviews and presentations.

Employees earn promotions based on performance: applying knowledge, leveraging contacts, and gaining experience that qualifies them for the next level of leadership.  A research manager will have successfully innovated; a research director will have completed several projects.  At each level, new skills (budgeting, market analysis) and processes (financial reporting, disciplinary rules) are added.

And so, there was a straight progression from scientist to director.  Department meetings were large versions of project meetings.  And everyone there shared a vocabulary and design model; everyone understood the company’s expectations and the customer’s needs.

We told similar stories. We lived by stage-gate reviews.

Stage Gate

And it defined how I did my job: I knew the format of the weekly milestones list and how to frame a goal.  There was a particular report outline and presentation template that spoke to my engineering audience, much like scientific papers and conferences fit diverse information to an expected style.

This changed a lot when I became a general manager at Vitatron.  The people around the table came from different departments, with different processes and vocabularies.  I viewed the group as a confederation of specialists: meetingI was the science guy who could help others understand what was going on in the literature and the design teams.

But what they wanted was confidence that someone understood and had control of the science. I learned to frame the details rather than to present them, touching on aspects familiar to the diverse perspectives around the table, and addressing the risks that they worried about.

How did my activities fit into their processes, what would I need from them?  How did it fit the portfolio budget, how did it support the strategy, , when would I be in the market?

It’s qualitatively different from engineering leadership meetings, where Matlab graphs were the norm.

And, again, at the Board level.  They approve goals, pose questions, leave instructions for the next meeting.   My response would be to give a detailed rundown on what had been accomplished, performance against expectation. board A milestone review.

But, again, there is a qualitative difference.  These folks have a very distant and abstract view of the business, not an operating perspective.  They want to know that the leadership has it’s priorities straight, that I have a plan, that I am on top of problems and events, and that I am making money.  Our monthly agenda runs through those aspects, more reassurance than judgment.

Detail only matters when matters become public or affect investors.  The press release and fundraising were disproportionately discussed; operational status matters much less than financial ones. 

There’s a temptation to say “Look, this is important; we worked hard on his, look what we did”, naked approval-seeking <laugh>.

But I’m learning to create and stick to brief updates and Q&A.  They willingly engage if I have a question, but I’m also learning what questions they can be most helpful with.

It’s not that milestone reviews aren’t important, or that experience doesn’t matter.  It’s that audiences are more diverse at the top of the hierarchy than lower down.  So Board presentations are not just more polished department presentations.  And there are still meetings that will want technical detail (the science review) and operational status (my CFO and I).

The trick is not in being able to hold more polished conversations, but in being adept at leading more types of conversations.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Once around the Albert

Il Fiore, my local gym, closed early this afternoon.  A moment’s frustration, followed by the happy realization that the sun was out, the breeze was warm, and the road lay open to the south.

‘time for the Albert Loop.

It’s one of my favorite rides, south along the Maas to Eijsden, then a ferry crossing into Belgium (in reality, a tiny bike-platform of a ferry, shown above).  Up the hill, over the bridge, and down to the locks (under construction – looks like a third passage is being dredged?).  Around the dam to the left, right turn, and onto the gently curving bike path that lines the blue waterway.

 

The Albert Canal is a bypass for barges circling Maastricht, cut deep through the hills in a broad semicircle through Belgium.  Normally I turn off at Kanne, taking the scenic route past Chateau Neercanne.  But the weather was warm and the path empty – how far does the Albert Canal go?

A long, long ways.

Eventually I started doing calculations: if it starts three miles from town and follows a circumference,  it’s about a ten mile path.

‘ lined with flaming trees and capped by soaring bridges, it’s a scenic run but not a well-traveled one.  For long stretches there was nobody in sight, then I’d find a cluster of anglers and birds competing for fish (neither seeming to have much luck).

The path ends at Simaco.  a silicate manufacturing operation dwarfed by massive wind turbines. The adjacent village of Smeermaas is known for its churches, cormorants, and bike trails.  But, with taverns and shops shuttered for Sunday afternoon, I found more in the  bucolic fields and cows that ring the town.

It’s a quick run back into Maastricht from the north, completing a 2.5-hour loop in total.  I’m not sure that there’s enough in the northern reaches of the Canal  to recommend it over the route in from Kanne.  But it was a perfect day for exploring, and opened a few new areas for future rides to the northwest beyond the river.