Fawn Germer: ...that I won
Jan: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Jan Black.
Laura: And I'm Laura Owens. The pandemic has dealt a terrible blow to many workers who've lost their jobs completely, been laid off, or had their hours and salaries cut. It's forced millions of people to rethink their lives, their jobs, and their careers.
Jan: That's why we're excited to talk with our guest on this episode, Fawn Germer. Fawn is a four-time Pulitzer Prize-nominated investigative journalist and the bestselling author of several books, including the Oprah pick, Hard Won Wisdom. She's a sought-after speaker on leadership. Her latest book is called Coming Back: How to Win the Job You Want When You've Lost the Job You Need. Fawn, thank you so much for joining us.
Fawn: Hey, it's a pleasure.
Jan: Your book couldn't have come out at a better time. I'm wondering how it came about.
Fawn: In terms of timing, my friends tell me to stop writing books because my first one came out the day before 9/11.
Jan and Laura: Oh, my gosh.
Fawn: I had one in the Great Recession. Then they said, “Please give me two years warning before you write another one so I can out of town.” I was speaking at a major leadership conference. At the end of it, senior executives from, let's just say some Fortune 10, Fortune 20 companies, went to the lounge and started talking about what was happening to their careers now that they had hit their 50's. They felt like they were being pushed aside, some were expecting to quickly be pushed out, one was forced to retire early. I thought, “Wow, that's just like what my friends are telling me, and my neighbors are telling me.” I thought, “This is great. I'm going to do a book on age discrimination because this is terrible. These are amazing people who I respect. How could this happen?”
Being a journalist, like you, I decided I was going to dig deep with it. I started interviewing CEOs, senior executives, consultants on the workplace, academics, and tons and tons of professionals. I did about 300 interviews to find out what it was that would sustain a career from beginning to end. The title of the book and the subhead make it sound like it's only if you're unemployed. But really, a huge part of the book is how to keep your career alive if you are still in your job and you feel like you're being sidelined. When I looked at this, it's not just people who are aging, it's people who've taken time outs, like they've had babies, or take care of a loved one, or took time out to get a degree, or travel the world, and they have trouble getting back in.
The issue is that, there's a lot of age discrimination, but it's the root of that that is far more significant. Employers are making assumptions about people based on age. They think that we are a bunch of people who haven't kept up with technology, we don't know what's going on. We keep telling them what they did 20 years ago that worked or didn't work, and didn't get current and relevant. Relevance is the most important word to your career.
I have someone I'm close to and I was talking about the tech lag between people who make it and people who don't, this is somebody who had taken an extended time out to be a stay-at-home mom. I said, "You've got to be up on technology." She goes, "Oh, I am. I have a millennial for a son. Don't you think I know technology?" and I go, "Oh. No, no, no, no, no. That's not what we're talking about."
What's going on is that there has been such significant, rapid change in the workplace. If you aren't up on what's going to drive success for the company five years down the road, you're not of any use to them. They don't care if you know what you're doing right now and you're the best person for the job today, it's what you're going to do next. You have to constantly upskill and, particularly people who have been in a work environment for a long time, what do we know about their paychecks? You've been there a long time, you're making more than others in the room. Is a company going to love, treasure, and protect you if you're getting the highest salary in the room? As opposed to somebody who's a fresh out-of-school hire, who actually knows what's going to happen with artificial intelligence, robotics, big data, and machine learning, and will work for a half, or a third the cost?
If you've just thought you're going to show up, do what you've always done, and be a great employee, that that would be enough to get you from start to finish in your career, you're wrong. If you're at an advanced salary, you have to lead the change.
Laura: How can you possibly do this, especially right now. I know the book was written before all of this happened, but it seems like you could have learned everything about computers, phones, and all this technology and really been ahead of the game. Then, all of a sudden, all of this happens, where you have to learn virtual meetings and you have to adapt really quickly. Somebody like me, who is a millennial, I didn't know any of this stuff, obviously, at the start of the pandemic. I still think it was easier for me to pick up than it was for somebody, my mom's age or something. How can you compete at that point even if you're trying?
Fawn: First of all, I did update data for what's going on right now. A couple of things. I learned by having a book come out the day before 9/11, when they canceled my tour and it looked like all hope was gone, I learned that your greatest opportunity to succeed always occurs in moments when people are giving up and think there's no opportunity. Let's just say 70% of the people who are job hunting are going to have excruciating experiences and hit the wall, hit the wall, hit the wall, and 30% are going to blast through. You have to make your mind up that you're going to be in the 30% that makes it. You have to make the decision, a very conscious decision, "I'm going to win."
You can look at this and say, "The numbers say otherwise." I am not any old Pollyanna, but I have learned something. If everyone else thinks there's no opportunity, there is no opportunity for them. You don't surround yourself with naysayers and negative people, then you realize, where is the big opportunity right now? The biggest opportunity, in my mind, is in networking, particularly if you're in one of the hard-to-place groups that I was talking about. It's going to take someone else to get you through. You're not going to get much by applying at Indeed or Monster, because the algorithms do, they say it doesn't, but they do, kick people out based on age. But a human being bringing you in is a whole lot more important. I have never done better networking than I have during the year of COVID. Do you know why?
Laura: Everybody's doing the same thing?
Fawn: No, because we can Zoom so easily. We can get together easy, and nobody's doing anything.
Laura: Right. Right, we all have time for it.
Fawn: I talked about those people at that leadership conference. When the whole bottom fell out of the world in March, I sent an email to about 15 really powerful, powerful leaders. They were all women so this worked much better, I said, '"Hey, let's get together for wine and Zoom." I gave the date and the time, I didn't even ask, "When will it be convenient to you?" In a real time, there would never be a time when they could all get together at the same time, it would take years to schedule it. I gave them the date and the time and had 100% attendance.
Fawn: Because nobody's doing anything, and they want something to keep them busy. If you are looking for a job, use that to your advantage. People are a little tired of Zoom, I am too, I'm sick of seeing people all the time. People are also bored, so shoot emails through LinkedIn. You strategize, 'Who are the people you need to reach?' You don't write a transparent, gushy, self-serving email of introduction. Just be real earnest, "Hey, I'm really interested in your company. I know you probably don't have anything, but would you be willing to do a 15-minute coffee and Zoom with me so that I can find out a little what you would advise someone wanting to break into your company?" I'll tell you something, I learned this a long time ago. Most people, when you request something the right way, will say, "Yes." When somebody says, "No," there's always someone better who will then say "Yes." It's been very rare that I haven't gotten it.
Laura: I love that.
Fawn: The network is the most important thing that will happen at a time like this. The other thing is, companies are desperate for strong vision right now, and they need good leaders. At that moment, you have to advertise yourself as the face of the future who has something to offer that others don't. While you're there, sitting at home on your butt, you have to upskill. It is not enough to think you're current, you have to be current. That means every day you scan the summary of what's in the Wall Street Journal for the day. If something looks important, you read the article. If it looks like it's interesting, read the article. But otherwise, just reading those summaries keeps you kind of current of what's going on. You do it for the Harvard Business Review, Inc., Fast Company, Wired, you get a sense of what's going on out there. Then you go to places like Coursera and edx.org, and start taking classes in things like, I took one on Innovation from MIT. Now doesn't that make me sound really smart?
Jan: I'm impressed.
Laura: I am impressed. I'm sure it was free.
Fawn: Right, they're free. They have classes from Harvard, Yale, Cambridge, Berkeley, everywhere, with great professors. Here's the best part. That time I took the first class, it was a leadership class, I was really trying to focus so I could get a good grade on the test. Then it occurred to me, A: I have my degrees. B: I don't need the credit. C: Nobody's ever going to know if I pass or fail this thing. All I need is the information and the knowledge. It takes the pressure off. It takes about 20 hours on most of these classes. Then, suddenly you have had the voice of currency make you current for free. Take something on artificial intelligence. Sometimes this stuff seems so confusing because if you're behind on technology, you assume you will never catch up. That is not true, and it is not as hard as you think.
There's something called Blockchain. If I asked you to explain it quickly to me, could either of you do it?
Fawn: Let me tell you something. When something's confusing to me, I always look for an explanation on YouTube first, because that's the quick and dirty way to do it. I'll find somebody and say, "There's a five-minute video, somebody will explain that to me." The five-minute video completely confused me. I was lost, I could not understand Blockchain and it's the same science that drives Bitcoin. It's very important in certain supply chain and different business applications, but it's a big deal. I couldn't understand it until the day I saw a video on YouTube that said, "How to teach Blockchain to a five-year-old child."
Laura: Oh, wow.
Jan: There you go.
Fawn: I thought, "That's got my name written all over it." I watched it and then I got it. Then I could watch a couple more videos on it, a 10-minute video, a 20-minute video. Then I knew enough so that I could converse and know what it was. I didn't need to be programming Blockchain, I just needed to know what it was. We intimidate ourselves and say, "It's too late."
This is not a short story, but it's pretty significant. Way back when I was a reporter in Denver, in the 1990's, there was something that was happening. Our bosses got these machines and said, "We're all going to be using the information superhighway." They kept talking about the information superhighway and kept making the biggest deal about it. The day the information superhighway machines came to the newsroom, I was on vacation, I missed the training. I came back and for three weeks, I said, "Is there going to be another training?" "No." I would watch the other reporters going up to the machines to use the information superhighway, which, of course, was the internet.
I was like, "I don't know how to use the information superhighway, my career is over. I'm never going to understand it. I am so screwed." The person who sat across from me came back from using the information superhighway, and I said, "Karen, I don't know how to use the information superhighway." She goes, "Oh, well come here." She drags me across the newsroom, sits me in a chair, and she goes, "What are you working on?" I said, "Casino gambling." She types, 'casino gambling, Colorado.' It's quick. All these articles come up, she clicks an article. I said, "Oh, wow." She goes, "Now you know how to use the information superhighway."
Here was this thing that, in my head, was so big and unattainable, and it was nothing. If you think you're behind, you're behind. If you think you're caught up, you're still probably behind. Get current, take these classes. Then you have to brand yourself with it, not just on your resume, but when you have conversations with people, you mention, "I was reading about flying cars the other day." They know that you are not stuck in the past, you're not a has-been. You bring that up, you forward articles, you paint yourself with relevance, and then you get hired. Honestly, I believe you can get a job when the time is horrible, it's harder. You have to have the fortitude within yourself to understand, the person who wins is the one who keeps taking the next step.
I have bad feet. I walk long distances on the beach, 10 miles, 13 miles, on the beach. By about mile seven, my feet hurt. By mile nine, I want to die but I still have four more miles to get to my car, so I have to keep going. I learned a long time ago that if I put my left foot in front of me, and then the right, then the left, then the right, I got where I needed to go and sooner or later, I would get there. That's what job hunting is all about. You just take the next step. Have a list of things you can do. Some of these are things you do all the time, it'd be like, spend an hour reaching out/networking on LinkedIn. You have a list so you always have something to do to move yourself forward towards your goal. I promise you, if you always have something left to do and you keep doing it, you will get where you need to go.
Jan: Now people look at you as a tremendous success in terms of being an author, and yet, it didn't come easily to you at all. Tell us about the journey that you went on to get that first book published.
Fawn: I wanted to start that with a caveat too. Sometimes people read my profile and they're like, "Wow, look what you've done." My career is like every other person's career, it has ups and downs. Even when I think I've gotten past all the adversity, still, something happens to kick you down and say, "How bad do you really want this?" Don't assume that my career has been this rocket ship to the top since I broke through. No. You have to always fight. Now, I used to be a reporter. I worked for, what I call this massive boss-hole, who did not like strong women very much. He really tried to get in my way, and I had to fight back. At some point, I realized he was the problem, not me.
I took a position as an editor in Tampa, and I went into management. You know, because you're journalists, a strong investigative reporter goes into management, which is to win friends and influence people, I was a disaster. People were quitting to get away from me because I was impatient, hard-charging, 'get it done now.' I needed a book to tell me how, as a strong woman, to survive in a male-dominated environment. I went to Borders, Borders was this thing that was known as a bookstore where people would go in and they would buy books. I went to Borders, I went to find a book on how to be a strong woman in a male-dominated environment, there was nothing. The friend who was with me said, "Why don't you write it?" I said, "I'm so sick of people writing things they don't know anything about."
But I started to think about it. I was a journalist. I could get to people who knew the answers. Nobody had gone to the greatest women trailblazers to say, "What did you learn the hard way that would help us?" Quickly, I got a very impressive list of great women who told me their stories, many of them very famous. I knew that I would have this bidding war on my book and it'd be this monster bestseller. They all said that the way to really get to your success is you have to take a risk and bet on yourself. I literally quit my job to write the book, and then it was rejected by every major publisher in the United States.
There I am, a starving author with an idea that I thought was great, but I can't get it placed, and I'm failing. I remember one time, I live in Florida, I was going over the Skyway Bridge. I wasn't thinking of jumping, no, but I did see a sign at the toll booth that said, 'Help Wanted'. I thought, "I wonder if they would hire me." That's what happens when you lose faith in yourself. I know people who are out of work may lose faith in themselves. You can't do that. A friend of mine said, "If you don't believe in yourself, who's going to believe in you?" That's when I learned you just keep taking the next step.
I had to figure out what the problem was with the book, it was formatting. I had given every person I interviewed a different chapter. This source of mine from my reporting days in Colorado, her son was an editor in Boston. I said, "Can you get him to read my proposal and tell me what the problem is?" You know moms will always volunteer their sons, and she did. He said, "The problem is format. If you want to sell this to a decent publisher, you have to integrate all the stuff you have into a thematic book. Basically, what you've done isn't going to work." I thought, "Okay, great. I'm a writer. How long does it take to take a bunch of that stuff, figure it out, and reformat it?" It took two weeks to make the new proposal and, I did have my bidding war on my book, rewrote it quickly.
Again, it came out the day before 9/11 and I had to fight through that. I wrote my 29 letters to Oprah. Because it was at 9/11, I am absolutely convinced that's why that book cut through because they were getting 4,000 books a month there. When everyone came off the road because their tours were canceled, people gave up. I just kept fighting and something got through. Actually, it was a bestseller before Oprah got it because my friends all bought millions of copies. Then that got on her show and I exploited that endorsement like you wouldn't believe. Then I became a successful speaker.
But again, you're never there. Just when you think you've arrived, there is another place you have to go. That is part of the beauty of life, is understanding that it's don't judge yourself by what came easy, judge yourself by what you did when things got hard. Right now this is a very hard time, emotionally, professionally, financially, physically. You have to look at what you're doing in this moment to see how you can be your true, best self. You could have been one of those people saying, "I can't wait for 2020 to end." Or you could say, "Okay, this is what we've got. What can I do to make the most of it?"
Imagine me, a professional speaker, I make my money at big conventions and conferences. How many do you think there were after March, right?"
Laura and Jan: Right.
Fawn: Zero, so my business collapsed. But I knew I had this book coming, I was going to rewrite it and configure it. I knew that was there. I've been through promoting a book in a tough time, so I thought, "That's going to be great." But it was thinking, "I'm not going to waste a year of my life, or months of my life, or even a day of my life, because of adversity. Right now, I am not bottoming out, and I'm healthy.
Let me tell you something, the kayaking was fabulous in 2020. I had a lot of adventure right in my home county in Florida. I am somebody who travels and goes, goes, goes. I fell in love with where I live. I swam laps every day, I lost a bunch of weight. I had a great 2020. For those people who kept waiting for it to end, I kept saying, "You don't know, 2021 could be worse." They kept thinking, it wouldn't. Well, welcome to 2021.
Jan: Right, yeah.
Fawn: Adversity didn't leave. There are problems we're dealing with now that I never imagined for our country. But again, we have to keep that in check. Whether we are employed, making a fortune, and having a great time, or unemployed and facing difficulties. There's always a way to put meaning and fulfillment in any day of your life, even if it means you're just walking outside to breathe fresh air and look at the sunset. Do not waste a day, or a minute, of your life. If you do that, it then makes it easier for you to deal with the adversity that's coming your way.
Laura: At the end of each program, we ask our guests, "What is your nobody told me lesson?" What is it that nobody told you, in your case, I want to know what it is about publishing a book and doing something really crazy at a very difficult time that you wish you'd known because maybe it would have saved you some grief and from some tough times.
Fawn: That I would win. This is something that I think is more specific to women, but some men too. A lot of women are uncomfortable saying the words, "I want to win" because they're scared they won't, so they ask their friends for help. It's like, "No, if you want to win, make up your mind and say, 'I want to win.'"
Particularly at 9/11, my tour got cancelled. I mean, really, I cut my first book the day before 9/11. The local Borders canceled, wait, no, no. My publisher wrote them and said, "Understandably, the author's decided not to tour at this time for safety concerns. The PR person at Borders called me and she said, "You can't drive from North Tampa to South Tampa?" I said, "Of course I can. They gave up." She said to me, "Why are you giving up?" Isn't that beautiful? It's like, 'Oh.' She said, "I know who you need at any Borders in the country." I got out there, I said, "I want to win," and I fought for my dream.
Believe me, if you look at who I might have been had my book been published easily, that first draft, maybe it would have been a midlist book. I would have ended up going back into a newsroom at a newspaper, in an industry that was dying. But because it was rejected, and it was so painful to go through that, but because of that adversity, I was able to come out of that with lessons, strength, fortitude, and fight for my dream in a way that turned it into a bestseller.
Somewhere along the way, while I was waiting, a friend said, "You got to be a professional speaker." I said, "You get paid for that?" I looked it up and you did. Boy, what a great life. I've gone all over the world to empower people so that they don't work for boss-holes, so they have better lives. Out of the darkest moments, you can find the greatest success.
Jan: Fawn, how can people find out more about you on social media and the internet, or the information superhighway?
Fawn: My website is fawngermer.com. I've got a giveaway, which I'll send you the link if that's okay, which has a download for how to rebuild your career during COVID, and another one on just taking the next step. We can do that.
I love hearing from people. I love hearing from people, so add me. I'm on Facebook, I'm everywhere with that stuff. You can get the links for all of that on my website. I love hearing from people. Never give up, people, just take the next step.
Jan: Such great advice Fawn. We thank you so much for joining us.
Fawn: I have enjoyed you two so much.
Jan: The feeling is mutual.
Laura: We feel the same. Feeling very empowered after everything. I was a big fan of your TED Talk on doing a reset from a couple of years ago. I was really excited when this book came about, and we have the chance to talk to you.
Fawn: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Jan: Our sincere thanks to Fawn Germer. Again, her latest book is called, Coming Back: How to Win the Job You Want When You've Lost the Job You Need. Again, her website is fawngermer.com.
Laura: I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: And I'm Jan Black.
Laura: You've been listening to Nobody Told Me! Thank you so much for joining us.