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News From Workforce Learning December 2009

Workforce Learning
Workforce Learning

DECEMBER ADVICE: Prepare now for the return to a more robust economy

In the last issue of Workforce Learning, I focused on how organizations can prepare for the growth cycle ahead in our recovering economy and offered three scenarios for how the recovery may play out. In the weeks since, I've done a more analytic survey and asked nearly 150 professionals from more than a dozen different DC-based organizations: "What will you do differently once the economic recovery seems to stabilize?"

A number of themes emerged in the conversations. Clearly, the dependent relationship people have had with their employers has been severely challenged during the last 12 months. In fact, large, seemingly stable organizations like county governments have been implementing forced furloughs and reductions in workforce. The old belief that large organizations offer stable future economic growth is all but gone.

But here is what raised an eyebrow. The number of people who expressed a desire to go out on their own and start their own business was staggering.

This may seem counterintuitive, especially after months of economic strife. But the impetus to start ones own business is not economic - it is to gain a better control of their future. Certainly, when you are an entrepreneur, your success and failure resides on your own actions and tactics, not the actions of management far removed from your sphere of influence.

This lack of control and the frustration it brings was aptly illustrated for me in a conversation I had with a manager in a large corporation who was obviously upset about the mandatory furloughs and pay cuts his organization was implementing to ward off the need to terminate staff.

He wholeheartedly supported the notion of everyone sharing the economic burden in order to save jobs, but was angry that the cut backs were the result of his company losing a major contract to a competitor. His gripe: "I don't know what leadership did to lose that contract. I have no say in how they go about bidding on work. All I know is that if they mess up, we all suffer."

Having been my own boss for the last 12 years, I'm obviously a big advocate of self-employment. But the decision to start up your own business is not one to take lightly. For those contemplating the leap, you'll find information below on things to consider before quitting your day job.

Whatever 2010 brings, I wish you and yours only the very happiest of holidays. We'll check in again in the New Year.

Warmest wishes, Alice

Contact me by phone: 703-834-7580
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ExecSense Webinars has hired Dr. Alice Waagen to lead a webinar on the topic: "Leadership Skills and Strategies for the HR Executive." Register here today: For details, call 415 453-3003.


What are the five competencies you need to succeed?

By Dr. Alice Waagen, President & Founder

I love to talk about being an entrepreneur, for when I made the leap from the corporate world to founding Workforce Learning in 1997 it was one of the most exhilarating, yet traumatic decisions of my life.

In the dozen years I've been out on my own, I can tell you that I've learned a lot about myself, the people I work with, and life in general. But perhaps the most fascinating discovery is that the characteristics and qualities that it takes to succeed as a business owner are the same sets of competencies I advocate for managers within organizations. Following is a list of five things you can do to prepare for life as an entrepreneur - while you are still collecting a paycheck.


1. Leadership. When you are on your own, you need to think independently and make decisions quickly without a lot of input from others. Look for opportunities to chair committees or lead projects that require a lot of complex decisions. Keep a log of all decisions you make in a week and assess what went well and what you would do differently. Actively seek opportunities to work independently, especially in situations where you need to motivate and direct others for whom you have no reporting authority.

2. Communication Skills. To succeed on your own, your writing and speaking skills must be top notch. If your current job does not give you opportunities to speak and write, look at joining Toastmasters or other groups that will give you public speaking experience - and productive feedback.

3. Project Management. Hosts of skills fall under this category, including the ability to manage complex projects effectively and allocate scarce resources. Conducting project debriefs or after-action studies should be a regular part of your work. Make a list of your successes so you can review what worked well. And keep the list of things that did not work top of mind so they are not repeated.

4. Financial Savvy. Unless you have a background in finance or accounting, this is the one arena that will challenge you the most when you run your own business. Seek out programs that offer advice for and build up your knowledge of financial basics. If you have budgetary responsibilities in your current job, make friends with someone in finance and have them tutor you on the intricacies of budget management. Or, work out an arrangement so you can hire that person to help you with your accounting when you launch your new firm.

5. Self-knowledge. This is possibly the most important competency, for entrepreneurs are only successful when they have a very clear assessment of their real strengths and blind spots. Take as many interpersonal assessments as you can, such as MBTI and DISC. Use this knowledge to strategically plan how you will achieve your goal, and take time to consider how you will augment your weak areas with outside help.


I've always been a big proponent of volunteering, mostly because I believe it is the right thing to do. But when launching your business, your work as a volunteer can benefit your new business by helping you build your professional network, in addition to growing your capabilities.

By taking a planned and goal-driven approach to your personal development, you can bolster your value internally while simultaneously preparing to strike out on your own. This gives you a Plan A and a Plan B and some real options in managing your professional future. Good luck!



How GenY Entrepreneurs are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways you can Profit from Their Success

by Donna Fenn

Review by Alice Waagen

I find myself pretty skeptical these days that yet another business book can present new ideas that have not already been churned out by the prolific business press. It is a tribute to the quality of Donna Fenn's book on GenY entrepreneurs that I read it cover to cover, taking notes and sharing her ideas with others in my network.

Fenn's book stands out from the pack in a number of unique ways. First, her writing style is clean, clear and absent from the usual jargon and clutter. It makes sense, because she is a career journalist specializing in small business trends, so not only does she know her subject area well, she communicates it in an engaging manner.

The premise of the book, as reflected in its subtitle, is how young entrepreneurs succeed by challenging a lot of the conventional "wisdom" offered by the traditional business gurus. Fenn does not overplay the generational theme but aptly uses it to illustrate the main themes of her research into successful GenY startups.

Her "8 Critical Lessons," are based on the unique differences business leaders under the age of 30 bring to the table. Shaped by events of their generation, these young "upstarts" truly have added new and innovative approaches to creating new companies.

Each of the lessons is the focus of a chapter and every chapter is illustrated by a number of businesses. I found the diversity of businesses a compelling feature of the book. Yes there is the classic tech start up but also nonprofits, retail, hospitality and others.

Although the business protagonists featured here are young, the lessons identified apply to any business startup, regardless of the age of the entrepreneur.

Certainly, Upstarts is a book for business leaders, and I found it to be inspirational and uplifting to read about individuals challenging the odds, questioning the established way of doing things and taking risks. Like I outlined above, entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart - but this book helps you realize that going out on one's own to make a mark in the world can be more than a dream.


Many thanks to the organizations that hired me in 2009 to help them master the art of good management. Here’s to a fabulous 2010 for us all!

  • American University
    Topic: Managing Performance
  • Social Security Administration
    Topic: Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Envision EMI Inc.
    Topic: Leveraging Interpersonal Influence
  • Airbus
    Topic: Creating a Respectful Workplace
  • Drug Enforcement Administration
    Topic: Delegating: Developing Others through Shared Work
  • Department of the Interior
    Topic: Delegating: Developing Others through Shared Work
  • National Trust Community Investment Corporation
    Strategic Planning Retreat
  • US Civilian Research and Development Foundation
    Strategic Planning Retreat

If your organization needs assistance with any of the topics outlined above, or would like to brainstorm on topics that would serve your needs, send an email to



Chef Nancy Robinson on starting her own business: MRS. ROBINSON COOKS!

Nancy Robinson, owner and head chef of Mrs. Robinson Cooks!, is an entrepreneur who made a dramatic career change in 2003 when she left her job in industrial and organizational psychology to start her own firm. After all, she was on a solid career track working in the government and private industry.

But five years later, the entrepreneur told me she wouldn’t change a thing. Read on to learn more about how Nancy made the transition from corporate citizen to business owner.

ALICE WAAGEN: Most entrepreneurs start a business based on the work they did in their corporate positions, but you made a dramatic shift from industrial and organizational psychology to catering. Very brave of you! How did it happen?

CHEF NANCY: I spent 10 years in the corporate world, steadily climbing the career ladder. I had spent years getting my masters and working in the field and was content with my career progress.

Then I had my first son, and returned to the working world. But by the time my second son was born, I found the work/life balance issues to be too challenging.

Luckily, my organization was looking to reduce the size of its workforce so I took the opportunity to opt out for a while and raise my family. I won’t lie and say it was easy-especially the part about going from two full-time incomes to one, which put a crunch on our finances.

So I started to do a lot more from-scratch cooking. Soon, I found that I had a natural talent for cooking and entertaining and folks told me that I should start up my own culinary business.

The nice thing about my company is that I was able to ramp it up over the years as my sons grew and their need for me to be fully involved in their lives diminished. I first started marketing my personal chef services in my neighborhood, then expanded and grew the catering business.

Today, I have dozens of clients all across the Washington metro area and have appeared on TV talk shows. It has been an exciting ride.

ALICE WAAGEN: What upfront planning did you do before you launched Mrs. Robinson Cooks!?

CHEF NANCY: Like many of the entrepreneurs I know, I just jumped in and started working. I was fortunate in that my husband's income and benefits was a strong anchor that got us through the startup phase.

One thing I do wish I had known before I started was how to actually run a business.

My biggest challenge has been managing the back end of the company because I didn’t have any experience or training in that area. And things like marketing, profit and loss sheets, and best accounting practices were foreign to me, so I had to learn as I went along.

Of course, I made a few financial blunders along the way, but I chalk that up to being part of the learning process. After all, no one can truly be a master of all things.

In retrospect, I could have hired someone to help me put together a business and marketing plan, but funds were tight at the beginning. Now that I’m at the five-year mark, I feel good about what I’ve built, but am taking the time now to step back and assess where I want to go next.

ALICE WAAGEN: Do you ever get the urge to go back to corporate life?

CHEF NANCY: Being on my own gives me the flexibility to integrate my business and home life, and quite honestly that is the most important thing to me right now.

My children are still in school, and I love having the flexibility to set limits on the number of jobs I do, and the number of weekends I work so I can play an active role in my sons' lives. I couldn't do that if I still had a big corporate job.

Plus, once I was away from the corporate world for a number of years, I found that I no longer needed or wanted the identity that goes with that type of work. I no longer cared to be the working woman, climbing the career ladder, rushing off to meetings and chasing deadlines.

The contentious nature of my corporate job was draining and once I was away from it for a while I decided I did not want to go back to that kind of life.

ALICE WAAGEN: And what keeps you attracted and interested in being a business owner?

CHEF NANCY: The more I learn about running a business, the more I find that I have talent in areas I never knew I'd enjoy, like closing deals. I also find that I am good at proposing new ideas to clients and encouraging them to opt for new levels of service.

I also now use my business planning skills in my personal life, to help my family on issues in the community. It is really exciting for me to see that there are no boundaries between what I do professionally and personally. This was certainly not the case when I worked in the corporate world.

ALICE WAAGEN: What do you see for the future for Mrs. Robinson Cooks!?

CHEF NANCY: Good question! I am thinking long and hard about that right now. Quite honestly, the catering and personal chef business is physically demanding. Just last week, I had 5 jobs in 6 days and was exhausted at the end in it.

So although I love what I do, I am thinking of creating some products that will keep me in the culinary world that I love, but will enable me to create a business that is less physically demanding.

I am looking to experiment with some alternative income streams in the next few years and see where they take me and my evolving company. Stay tuned!


What began as a passionate hobby has now grown into a successful business. Since 2003, Chef Nancy Robinson has been delighting clients with her enthusiastic love for cooking, command of fresh ingredients and cooking methods, attention to detail, and friendly personality.

Chef Nancy is a member of the American Personal and Private Chef Association, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, and is a Certified Food Protection Manager. She is active in numerous business groups, including the Dulles Regional Chamber of Commerce, and she participates and volunteers in her local community.

Mrs. Robinson Cooks! has steadily grown over the last five years in the metropolitan Washington area, including Northern Virginia, DC, and Maryland.

Her clients include busy families, time-crunched professionals, elderly and retired persons, nonprofit organizations, businesses, political groups, and religious and social clubs.

To hire Chef Nancy Robinson to cater your next event, visit

Published by Inkandescent Public Relations, Hope Katz Gibbs: Editor

© 2009 Workforce Learning