Amazon Expands Vertically and Horizontally

amazon-logoAmazon has recently announced plans to expand in two directions—a vertical expansion into shipping by competing with Federal Express and UPS, and a horizontal expansion into the grocery business in competition with Wal-Mart and other grocers. Initially a business that served as an online alternative to physical stores, first in books and then in a multitude of categories, Amazon now appears to be seeking to become a ubiquitous retailer of all products through all channels.

Will it work?

Over the last forty or fifty years, retailing has seen many changes. From downtown shopping areas in both urban areas and small towns to regional shopping centers; from specialty stores to mass market chains, from physical stores to online shopping. Recently, there has been some movement away from big shopping malls to more pedestrian-friendly environments and multi-use facilities.

Through all these changes, most of us have become comfortable with online shopping for many products that formerly required a personal inspection—such as clothing and electronics. Sometimes we use physical stores to try out merchandise, then buy online.

Amazon has become an online behemoth in many retail categories. As The Wall Street Journal put it in an article on September 27, 2016, Amazon’s move into shipping is “a brazen challenge to America’s freight titans.” There is every reason for Amazon to try to expand vertically to ship the merchandise as well as sell it, if it thinks it can do so more cheaply than the billions in freight costs it pays to carriers such as FedEx, UPS, and the U.S. Postal Service.

If Amazon can make this transition, costs to customers should go down, provided that the shipping companies remain viable competitors. Since even Wal-Mart has not destroyed the freight industry, Amazon would have a difficult time replacing the “freight titans.” Amazon itself told The Wall Street Journal,

“we are very happy to have the delivery capacity our carrier partners can provide. They provide a high quality service, and our own delivery efforts are needed to supplement that capacity rather than replace it.”

On the other hand, many big box retailers don’t like being showrooms for Amazon, and some have gone under because of consumers’ shifting buying patterns. Amazon already has around 70 facilities across the U.S. from which it ships to consumers, and over 40% of the U.S. population lives within 20 miles of an Amazon facility. So it’s difficult to predict what limits there are on Amazon’s efforts to expand into shipping.

Through all the changes of the last half-century, food has remained the one thing we typically buy ourselves in a retail environment. I may hate the weekly trips to the grocery store, but other than a few specialty items from proven businesses such as Harry & David or Kansas City Steaks, I wouldn’t want to trust my food purchases to someone else, particularly of perishable items.

And yet, I remember as a child that my grandmother—who didn’t drive—ordered her groceries from the shop around the corner and had them delivered. I remember my mother ordering milk deliveries three times a week. So why not? There isn’t any reason why Amazon shouldn’t attempt to expand its product lines into perishable items.

According to another Wall Street Journal article, Amazon is trying out both home delivery service of groceries and also small local stores where previously ordered groceries can be picked up. They are even trying drive-through. Wal-Mart is trying some of these things as well. Groceries are costly to deliver, so whether this business model will work is questionable.

Regardless which expansions prove successful for Amazon, it is clear that retailing will continue to change in the decades ahead.

What do you think—will Amazon be successful in moving into shipping and into the food business?

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Three Turning Points in a Career

I recently came across something that an old mentor of mine once wrote me as I approached my 30th birthday in the mid-1980s:

“There are three turning points in your career you will go through:

“1. Wondering if you really like what you do, at about age 30.

“2. Mid-life crisis, at about age 40, when you have a strong desire to do something else, and have a sense of losing your youth and vitality, wondering why you haven’t done more and why you’re not at the top.

“3. The end of your career, which might come any time after about age 60, when you’re ready for retirement, want to do more with your life than work, but may have some regret that you haven’t achieved your goals.”

His words weren’t the most artful description of career stages I’ve read, but they had an impact on me, and I’ve had occasion to think about these turning points over the years. He described pivotal times that I did in fact experience in my career.

MP900341467We all go through our individual variations on these career stages. Our chronological age may vary some from what my mentor stated (in particular, retirement in today’s world can come much earlier or much later than age 60). The depth and severity of the emotional conflict each of us feels are likely to be different from person to person, and one turning point might hit one person harder, while someone else is impacted more by another turning point. Finally, how we choose to cope with each of these turning points will be as personal as each of us and our career paths are.

My mentor wrote this to me when I was approaching my 30th birthday and at turning point #1. At that time, he had passed turning point #2, and was beginning to think about #3. Now I’ve passed #3 myself.

In my case, I gutted my way through turning point #1. I stayed in the same career with the same company for another decade after my mentor and I discussed my disillusionment with where I was at that time. But at my #2 turning point, I switched careers, moving from law to Human Resources. And my #3 came when I was only 50—I quit the corporate world to turn to consulting and writing, which I expect to continue for many years into the future.

In my mentor’s case, he moved into management from an individual contributor role at his turning point #1. He changed careers and industries at #2, though remained in a corporate setting. At #3 he also left the corporate world and moved into a teaching position at a small college in a poor, rural community, which he continued to do until he turned 70, when he retired completely.

My mentor said one other thing to me in that letter he wrote long ago,

“Very few think about these things. They just go as far as they go.”

He encouraged me to really ponder what I wanted out of life at each turning point I faced. Perhaps that’s what started me on my journey of self-assessment.

How have you coped with turning points in your own career, and what helped you work your way through them? How have you mentored others facing turning points in their careers?

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When a Major Project Is Over, How Do You Decide What Comes Next?

2A83XPT89B.jpgI have just finished a major project and I’m at loose ends. I’ve been at this point many times in my career. When I worked for a corporation, there was usually another project waiting to take the place of the one just finished. In fact, I generally had many projects overlapping, though sometimes one took precedence. But now that I work for myself, when one big project ends, I need to motivate myself to move on to the next.

For the last couple of months, I have been bringing a huge writing project to closure. It is about to be published (not under the Sara Rickover name, so I can’t tell you what it is). I have spent countless hours on the minutiae, and I am just now able to raise my head and look around me. What work do I take on next? I ask myself.

In the corporate world, when I had a moment to think about what came next, I would assess what in my job was boring me (that I wanted to do less of), and I’d think about what interested me and how I might expand my expertise (that I wanted to do more of). That’s how I moved from defending employment cases into drafting employee benefit plan documents—it felt like it was time for me to broaden the service I could provide to my Human Resource clients, and employee benefits was a way to do it.

At other points in my career, my boss asked me to move into new areas, and I had little choice. That’s how I got into handling property tax assessment disputes for one division and specialized contract work for another division. Not glamorous stuff, but these matters did teach me more about business, and I’ve used both skills in non-profit work I’ve done in recent years.

Now I am faced with several possibilities for what comes next. The advantage is that I get to choose. So, how do I choose? Here are some of the questions I am asking myself:

  • Do I do what seems like the logical next step?
  • Do I do what will teach me the most?
  • Do I do what will make me the most money?
  • Do I do what I most want to do?

And after asking myself these questions, I asked: How can I make one project address most of these needs?

I think I’ve landed on my next project. It is an outgrowth of the project I just completed, but I want to structure my approach to this issue differently. I hope with a new approach I will learn new things. It isn’t necessarily what I most want to do, but I am getting excited about it as I plan the first steps.

What do you do when you get to choose your next project?

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Be Careful What You Write (and Say)—Don’t You Wish Everyone Learned This Lesson?

laptop-1149412_960_720This post concerns a pet peeve of mine. I really don’t understand some people. And by “some people” I mean everyone from Hillary Clinton to Colin Powell to the latest Afghani-American terrorist. They write things down that they never intended to become public.

Don’t they understand that in today’s world, nothing can be guaranteed to stay private? We may not like that aspect of our society, but it is the truth. A secret server won’t do it. Sending your inartfully drafted emails only to friends won’t do it. Not even a personal journal will stay private if there’s a reason to raid your home.

The lack of privacy isn’t limited to written words—even when the words are written only in the ether. Giving speeches to like-minded friends and followers is no guarantee that what we say will stay private, as Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney have learned to their chagrin. Whispering things to a friend in the airport security line can get you into trouble. Making comments when a dash cam is on can lead to criminal charges.

Whatever we say or write can come back to haunt us.

The sooner each of us learns that lesson, the better. And then, perhaps, we will be careful in what we say and write.

As I said, we may not like this aspect of our smart-phone always connected world, but we can’t change it. We should all show a little common courtesy and respect when talking about our enemies as well as our friends. We should all remember the old adage that if you can’t say (or write) something nice about someone, then don’t say (or write) it.

It is far better to be safe than sorry, to have refrained from speaking (or writing) than to be called on the carpet or embarrassed when our words return to bite us.

I can’t say I’m perfect in this regard. I’ve been embarrassed on occasion, more often by what I’ve said than by what I’ve written. I was trained early on that documents can be discovered. It’s only been a small step to recognize that now oral words can easily be made public as well.

As an attorney and an HR professional, I have always advised my clients and colleagues that if they didn’t want their mothers, the CEO or the media to hear or see their words, they shouldn’t use them.

Too bad so many people never learned this lesson.

When have you suffered because of something ill-advised you said or wrote?

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Favorite Firing: When a Customer Harasses an Employee

adult-15814_1280The usual adage in American businesses is “the customer is always right.” And usually that is true. I’ve posted on a few occasions about the need for many organizations to improve their customer service. But it isn’t always true. Sometimes the customer is dead wrong. Today’s “favorite firing” is about a case where the customer was wrong, and then an employee alleged she was treated improperly when she complained about the customer’s behavior. After the alleged retaliation, the employee quit. So strictly speaking, this is a constructive discharge case, not a firing.

The Facts: In Prager v. Joyce Honda, Inc. (Aug. 22, 2016), Nicole Prager, a 20-year-old receptionist at the Joyce Honda dealership, complained to her managers that a high-profile customer pulled on her shirt and revealed her bra. There was no doubt as to what had happened, because the incident was caught on the dealership’s surveillance tape.

Her managers discouraged her from filing charges against the customer because he was a really good customer who had purchased 20 cars over the years and regularly had his cars serviced at the dealership. Despite her managers’ cautions, Ms. Prager did file charges. In fact, once she made the decision to file, the dealership managers called the police and provided an office at the dealership where she could talk to the police. (Later, the customer pleaded guilty to offensive touching and paid a fine.)

After she filed the charges, Ms. Prager alleges that some of her her co-workers began behaving coldly toward her. In addition, she received two written warnings for leaving work early on two occasions. One of these occasions occurred prior to filing the complaint against the customer and the other was an incident after she filed the charges. She objected to the reprimands, saying they were retaliatory and that she had left work early before without being disciplined. Her managers said they reprimanded her because she had not communicated about her leaving early on these occasions, as she had in the past. Nevertheless, the employer offered to rescind the disciplinary warnings, but Ms. Prager resigned instead.

In her lawsuit claiming retaliation and constructive discharge, Ms. Prager alleged that the dealership had become a hostile workplace environment for her, which justified her resignation. The trial court dismissed Ms. Prager’s lawsuit, saying that employers were not responsible for the conduct of customers in the workplace. Ms. Prager appealed.

The Appellate Division in the New Jersey courts also rejected her complaint, although the Appellate Division said that filing a police report against the employer’s customer was a protected act. However, though she could state a claim for retaliation, she had not sufficiently alleged a retaliatory consequence in her complaint—she had resigned immediately after receiving the reprimand and the dealership had offered to make the reprimands go away. The court said

“no reasonable juror could find that conduct ‘so intolerable that a reasonable person would be forced to resign rather than continue to endure it.’”

The Moral: Any complaint of harassing behavior by an employee should be taken seriously. And once an employee complains, the employer must be careful not to retaliate. Those are givens. Moreover, managers should be supportive of employees who complain and who decide to take their complaints to higher authorities, whether those authorities be internal company investigators, administrative agencies, or external law enforcement.

In this case, reading the Appellate Division’s opinion is instructive. It is clear from what the court says that part of the problem was that this employee was young and inexperienced in dealing with harassment and the follow-up complaint process. Her managers did not help the situation—they did pressure Ms. Prager not to complain about a valued customer, though they ultimately did support her. This case is a good reminder that we take our employees as they are, and must adapt our responses in some respects to their unique circumstances.

The timing of the warnings to Ms. Prager was unfortunate at best, and possibly retaliatory, though the court held that the two warnings in this situation were not sufficiently retaliatory to support constructive discharge. The management rationale for the warnings—that Ms. Prager was not communicating with them—probably should have been dealt with through a verbal discussion, at least initially, saving the heavier discipline of a written warning for a later occasion more distant from the harassment.

Nevertheless, there is good news for employers in this case, namely that constructive discharge is difficult to prove. If managers show an ongoing willingness to work with an employee in reasonable ways, it will be hard for the employee to prove that the workplace is so intolerable that he or she must resign. While any disciplinary action against an employee who has complained of discrimination or harassment should be carefully considered, it is appropriate to hold employees accountable for their performance and for following reasonable company policies.

When have you dealt with allegations of constructive discharge?

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What To Do When You Don’t Get to Choose Your Boss

boss-454867_1920For the first twenty years or so of my career, I was fortunate to be able to pick my boss. By that I mean, I knew who I would report to when I took the job.

In my first corporate assignment, I didn’t know what I didn’t know about my supervisor. I knew who he was and what his credentials were, but frankly I was clueless as to how much a manager’s personality impacts the workplace environment. I worked for this man for many years, and I learned his strengths and weaknesses, as well as experiencing first hand the benefits and pitfalls of his characteristics as a manager.

On my next few assignments, I knew something more about the individuals I went to work for, though I didn’t know these individuals well. Still, I chose the jobs knowing who I would report to. I went into the jobs knowing something about them, and had colleagues who had worked for them longer to whom I could talk. And I had enough experience to know myself and how I liked to work, as well as how to be flexible and adapt to new managerial expectations.

Then, in the last few years of my corporate career, I twice had managers foisted on me. My former managers left their roles (and one left the company), and new people were assigned to the positions that I reported to. I had no control over my reporting relationships. It was a disconcerting experience to be in my forties and suddenly have to change how I related to my boss with very little warning.

Even though it was difficult, I was fortunate to know who these people were, and I had worked with them before in previous assignments. Reporting to these individuals was far different than working as peers with them, but I knew the importance of building a relationship with one’s manager and in addressing their priorities. Many people do not have the benefit of knowing the boss that is foisted on them.

So here are my tips for how to deal with a boss you didn’t choose:

1. Analyze the situation

The first thing to do is to understand the organizational issues that led to you having a new manager. Did your old boss retire after a laudable career or was he or she fired? These circumstances will lead to different dynamics as your new manager comes into the workplace.

Even if you don’t know the particulars, you probably have some idea as to what the expectations for change are in your department. Spend some time thinking about the situation you find yourself in.

2. Gather information

As you analyze the situation, gather additional information where you can. Maybe you know your new boss, as I did mine. But if not, you should see what you can find out about his or her work styles, what the higher executives’ expectations are for change in your department, and anything else that can help you fit into the organization as it is evolving.

Do a little research on what executives in your field (or managers generally) should do in their first 90 days in a new role. That will help you assess what your new boss is probably thinking about and where he or she might focus attention first. If you can address your boss’s priorities, or even help determine those priorities, you will be in a better position to be successful.

3. Determine your loyalties

You may have loved working for your old manager. You may have strong friendships with co-workers that might now be upset if the department reorganizes. You might be close to retirement yourself and just want to lay low. Whatever your situation, decide in your own mind where your loyalties lie.

I’m not suggesting that you turn into a back-stabber, but you should give some thought to who else might get caught up in the changes and how they will react. Think about whom you want to help and about where you would ideally end up in relation to others in the organization.

And I suggest that, if your old boss was fired and the new manager is expected to make significant changes, taking the attitude that “that’s how things have always been” is not going to get you very far.

Simply because he or she is your supervisor, the new person to whom you report is deserving of respect and loyalty. Others also deserve your respect and loyalty, and that is why I recommend you consider how all the new relationships you will have after the change will impact your role.

4. Decide what you bring to the table

It’s a cliché, but you want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. You want your new manager to see you as a resource. So think about what you can do to help your new boss.

Do you have specialized skills or experience that the boss does not have—how can you diplomatically make your abilities known and available to your manager? Do you have relationships with others or insights into the industry that could benefit the new boss? Again, where can you help fill gaps?

5. Provide assistance to your new manager

After you’ve analyzed the situation, gleaned what you can about your new supervisor, thought about the loyalties and responsibilities you will have in the future, and assessed where you fit in, then make a sincere offer to assist your boss where you can. If you’ve done this analysis, you’ll have some specific suggestions of how your skills and background can help your new manager where he or she is most likely to need help.

You will have positioned yourself to address his or her needs and priorities, and you will be appreciated for it. Yes, it’s office politics, but it’s also common sense to try to make yourself useful in a new environment.

What additional tips do you have for dealing with a boss you didn’t choose?


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How Realistic Do You Want Your Fiction To Be?

I don’t post much about my novel, Playing the Game, but I thought it would make a nice Labor Day diversion.

Recently I was asked whether the book is true to life. My answer: Yes and no.

Playing the Game is fiction. None of the events in the book happened—at least not the way they are depicted. The facts and faces have been changed to protect the innocent. But the plot is realistic. It deals with issues that many corporate executives face, such as managing budgets and people, planning new product lines, deciding who will succeed departing key personnel, and integrating work and family time. And, of course, dealing with the personal peccadilloes of the colleagues we encounter in the hallways every day.

But the plot is realistic. It deals with issues that many corporate executives face, such as managing budgets and people, planning new product lines, deciding who will succeed departing key personnel, and integrating work and family time. And, of course, dealing with the personal peccadilloes of the colleagues we encounter in the hallways every day.

One reader told me after reading the book, “I know these people.” This reader and I have never worked together, and we have only a few common acquaintances. In other words, the characters are like co-workers we have all known, with common foibles and insecurities.

I market Playing the Game as a thriller, but it isn’t a thriller like Dan Brown’s or Brad Thor’s novels. It is a thriller in the same way that Arthur Hailey’s books such as Hotel or Airport were thrillers. The business is going through a make-or-break time, and the question is whether it can be saved. There are criminal activities in the book, but the thrill is not from solving the crime but from the highs and lows of living through difficult circumstances.

Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park and other far-out thrillers also wrote Disclosure, which dealt with sexual harassment in the workplace in a very realistic setting. While I enjoyed Jurassic Park and his other fantasies, I was captivated by Disclosure, because “I knew those people.” I had dealt with similar situations in my job. That’s the kind of fiction I aspired to write in Playing the Game.

So, as a writer, my question to readers is:

How realistic do you like your fiction? Do you want to read books that deal with things you know, or do you want to explore worlds of fantasy to escape your daily routine?

Happy Labor Day


Filed under Playing the Game, Writing