Joining the Circus

6/21/2012

What will happen over the next ten years? Well, I look forward to less dynamic change in my life. Three careers in a decade is a bit much, don’t you think? But I know I’ll be applying the lessons I’ve learned in the last 10 years to help me succeed over the next 10.

Ten years ago this week (June 21st, 2002), I made a significant career move which has changed my life in many unpredictable ways. I changed careers twice, moved across the country, went through significant changes in my personal life, had many highs and a few lows which were fortunately not fatal. And I rekindled my love for playing ice hockey, which I plan to continue as long as the legs still move.

Upon this anniversary, I thought it would be a good idea to take stock of the changes in my life, for better and worse, and see if there’s any light to be shed from the reflection.

From 1998 through the middle of 2002, I hosted a successful radio talk show in the town where I had spent most of my professional career, Saginaw, Michigan. The program was a current events show. I inherited a timeslot that had been used for a news round-up. My charge was to create a more interactive program, increase the ratings, and bring younger listeners into the audience.

The show took in some of the most momentous events of the turn of the century. The Clinton impeachment scandal was a continual theme in the first two years of the show. I remember pulling in 10 copies of the Starr report, and giving them away on the air to the tune of the Beatles ‘Paperback Writer’.

September 11th was an amazing thing to live through, personally and as a member of the media. I remember I was hosting German journalists in an exchange program at the time, and how the attack delayed international travel. A friend of mine had to evacuate his office at the Wall Street Journal Radio office. A former guest on my show, the author Barbara Olson, died on the plane that hit the Pentagon. Everything was topsy-turvy, including how the flight restrictions even grounded a balloon festival in Midland. I also recall walking out of the studio one day, still during the no-fly zone and seeing what must have been Michigan Air National Guard fighter aircraft circling, with orange-tipped missiles on their wings.

There were local news stories, where I made, and lost friends by taking one or another side of an issue. I took the show to the lawn of the Saginaw Civic Center, for example, on the day of the vote to preserve or shutter the facility. Being a Libertarian, philosophically, I would have naturally opposed some kind of governmental support for a facility that the private sector could run, but the privatization scheme included a provision for it to break even, financially, over time. So I wrapped my head around that. I had no idea that about a year later, I’d roll up my sleeves and join the anchor tenant, the Saginaw Spirit Hockey Team, for its inaugural season.

I made a move to leave radio in 2002, largely because of continuing disputes with ownership over the terms of my employment. Looking back on it now, it may seem like a rash decision, and I left a number of good friends behind in process. I know I made things difficult for the colleagues I left behind, but it was a great pleasure to find that after yet another ownership change, I was welcomed back at least from time to time to guest host. It won’t show up on any tests, but I think radio is still in my blood.

A dear friend of mine told me that life is not complete until you run away and join the circus. Well, I had my grab at the brass ring by becoming one of the founding employees of the Saginaw Spirit Hockey Club. We were fond of saying we were building the plane as we were flying it, trying to bring a sports entertainment franchise to a town where at least three previous efforts had expired. I honestly think that the camaraderie forged in working endless hours with a single goal in mind cannot be duplicated. I had the chance to take the rope, jump from the bridge, and either figure out a way to climb or end up hanged. Fortunately, when you are surrounded with like-minded, dedicated people, there really is no risk of failure.

The next five and a half years of my life were an amazing ride. I had a chance to become part of something larger than myself. In radio, you are largely a sole-operator, on your own or in a team of individuals. But working in sports marketing, I had a chance to participate in and demonstrate what teamwork was really all about.

There were some challenges when it came to managing the message of a sometimes unruly bunch of budding athletes, but there were tremendous rewards too. I saw boys turn into young men, lead by example, mature and move on to successful careers, either in or out of hockey. I had a chance to travel all over the league, make friends in nearly two dozen communities around Ontario and the US. I moved around within the organization, taking on tasks I didn’t know I could do.

I enjoyed how dynamic the career could be, regretted how frequently players and management could change if the situations weren’t right, learned how to do things and how not to do things, and sharpened my skills for whatever might come next.

By the spring of 2007, I had an opportunity to take on a dream job, working in my hometown in radio again, but turned it down because the in weighing where I had been, versus where I was going, I found the road ahead to be much more exciting.

By the end of that year, family circumstances lead me to leave that of  all behind, though, for the promise of a new community and a new life in Durham, North Carolina. The skills I honed working for the hockey team gave me a shot at another heritage franchise in sports history, the Durham Bulls baseball club.

It was a wild ride. I was fascinated to see the similarities, and differences between the two sports. I learned how unusual it was for people to jump sports in their careers, although many of the skillsets needed in sales and promotions were similar, or identical. I met another group of highly motivated, skilled professionals who were dedicating themselves to something larger than just the game, in making a better community.

But where I had a chance to work in a variety of roles with the hockey team, my sole task with the baseball club was sales. I had a great run for the 2008 season with all the support I needed to succeed. However, a combination of some ‘holes’ in my sales skills and a national downturn in the economy teamed up to end my baseball career. But even in loss, I found an opportunity.

In negotiating my exit from the team, I approached a few of my clients to see if I could work with them as a consultant on their marketing efforts. Simultaneously, I tried to re-start my radio career.

A fellowship to travel abroad came first, and I took a month in Europe with it. I produced a project for my former radio colleagues in Saginaw about the promise of new energy, reconnected with nearly a dozen journalists I had hosted in the United States, and demonstrated how to use burgeoning social media as reporting tools.

Unfortunately, the journalism path fizzled. But two men at a furniture store I had represented while with the baseball team brought me in to work with them on marketing. At a time when it seemed like no one else was willing to do so, these guys invested in me. Together with two buddies I’d met through playing recreational-league hockey, we got my very own business up and running. My friends were talented enough to be pulled back into the regular workforce fairly quickly, but they gave me the assistance and confidence I needed to make a go of becoming successfully self-employed.

I learned lessons the hard way:. How to properly price a project; How to fire clients; How to say no to bad ideas and deals. But I also learned that the customer relationship is not all one way, and that if you approach clients as partners, with the end result being a successful business, the world will beat a path to your door.

The last four years since planting my flag in the business world have been a time of tremendous change and growth for me, personally and professionally. In the professional world, I’ve found that if you are sincere, dedicated and committed to delivering a good product at a fair price, you will be rewarded. In my personal life, I’ve found that no matter how much you screw up, no matter how difficult things can become, you can count on family and friends to love you anyway. I spent the first part of my life wanting to be that guy people could count on when things got tough, never wanting to need help, always wanting to be prepared. So when I had to reach out for some personal help, I was so lucky to experience what I wanted to give to other people coming back to me 10 times better