"I’m half geek on my mother’s side," says John Federico. A former Internet phenom, he is starting a new kind of business group in central New Jersey. Let’s Talk Business is a membership group that brings business owners together to offer one another instruction, insights, and a sounding board. The group has active chapters in northern New Jersey and New York City and on Long Island. The free launch event for Let’s Talk Business in Central New Jersey takes place on Wednesday, November 19, at 6 p.m. at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers. Call 888-696-1768 for more information.

Federico, a graduate of Marist College (Class of 1992), grew up in the Freehold area. His mother, from whom he got his interest in technology, is a systems analyst at Fort Monmouth. After college, he had a string of jobs in marketing and strategic planning for Internet companies.

"I was employee number six of New Jersey Online," he says. He also worked for get2net, MarketSource Corporation, and pioneer children’s Internet site MaMaMedia. After the Internet bubble was punctured, he set up his own marketing company. "I’m an accidental entrepreneur," he says.

As such, he was badly in need of advice. He went to a meeting of Let’s Talk Business’ northern New Jersey chapter as a guest, and joined right away, convinced that he had found the ad hoc board of advisors he needed. Now he is starting a chapter of his own.

Each Let’s Talk Business group, he explains, is made up of 10 to 12 small business owners, most of them in the service sector. Meetings are held once a month, and dues are a whopping $3,000 a year — but obviously worth it to Federico.

Discussions, he says, are "a barometer of the economy." When he first joined, in 1999, members advised one another on how to find and retain good employees and how to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Then, as the economy sank, the members spent their time looking at how to deal with "short term reality." Sales and motivating employees in a slow economy were issues that consumed members. He finds that the groups are now "looking more long term again."

The group was the greatest help to him in the area of structuring agreements with clients. How quickly should a client be told that work can be completed? What level of effort will be expended on a particular project? What should fees be? How should fees be structured: by the hour? by time and materials? by the project? Running his own shop for the first time, he had little idea of how to price his work, and he says that his group was a great help to him on this issue.

He says that contacts are made and deals are done among members of Let’s Talk Business groups, but that those who join with selling as a primary goal will be disappointed. "They don’t last long," he says. The ideal member, he finds, is a "lifelong learner who knows enough that his experience is worth sharing, but who knows that he doesn’t know everything."

A giving personality is essential, as is candor. "You have to be willing to take a bad experience and share it," he says.

The groups tend to be predominantly male — about 70 percent, although Federico says the goal is to get the balance close to 50/50. Most members are between 30 and 55. "I was the youngster," says Federico.

Anyone interested can attend the kick-off event at no charge, and can follow it up by sitting in on a meeting as a guest before deciding whether to join.

#h#Moo-ving Ahead Through Smart Branding#/h#

A sheep, working as a corporate motivational speaker, stands, microphone in one hand, cigarette in the other, in front of his audience. Sitting stock still, the audience, cows one and all, listen stoically as he rolls into his intro. "Did you hear the one about the corrupt shepherd?" he asks. "He had a crooked staff."

Getting no response to his warm up joke, he tries another. "Ya know that itchy feeling you get right after you get sheared?" Sensing his audience slipping away, he wonders aloud if his microphone is on. Meanwhile at the bottom of the page, a sextet of sheep roll with laughter. The message, or Cow Tip, is "know your audience."

The cartoon is the first in "Abullard’s ABC’s of Branding: 26 Concepts that Capture the Essence of Good Brand Management," which was published on September 25 and is available at www.cattlelogos.com The co-author is Jane Cameron, co-founder of recently-formed brand management shop, Cattlelogos, which has its main offices in Philadelphia. She speaks on the "ABC’s of Branding" on Thursday, November 20, at 8 a.m. at a meeting of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) at the Olde Mill Inn in Basking Ridge. Cost: $30. Call 908-604-8280.

"Traditional branding books are for big companies. They’re abstract. They’re for experts," observes Cameron. "We wanted a book everyone could understand, that anyone could read in an hour." The lessons in the book, imparted by cows in pearls, trench coats, and reading glasses, with reactions by silly sheep, are fun, but they are also serious business.

"Most companies worry about branding after they’re mid-sized or large," she says. "We say `No!’ Do it from day one." The reason, she says, is that "there is so much information coming at people. They have to remember a company before choosing it." Creating this memory is harder than ever. "Ten years ago," she says, "research found that consumers had to see a name seven times before they would remember it. Now, it’s 30 times."

At first blush, it seems odd that Cameron is so immersed in branding. Born in Ottawa, she grew up in Seattle. Undergraduate degree? "I don’t have one," she says. As a student at the University of Washington she had "a big romance with theoretical mathematics." The school, actively looking for women with potential in technical fields, plucked her out of its undergraduate program and set her on the path toward a Ph.D. in mathematics.

She earned her degree in 1980, a year in which there were few academic math positions. Nevertheless, she was offered several, and accepted one clear across the country, at the State University of New York at Binghamton. She went on to teach at Clarkson. Then her husband was offered a job at Bellcore. A trailing spouse, she was quickly offered a job at the research facility too.

"It was like you died and went to heaven back when it was well-funded," she says. After the AT&T break-up things changed, first slowly, then more and more rapidly.

In the midst of upheaval at work, Cameron suffered a personal set-back, that, strangely enough, led to the friendship that led to the creation of her new branding company. Traveling in Arizona to take her aging mother to see the Grand Canyon, Cameron, sleeping in the back seat as her husband drove, had both of her ankles broken when their car was rammed.

Recovery was slow. There was a good chance she would not walk again, and doesn’t think she would have had it not been for Jean Wilcox. Wilcox, now her partner in Cattlelogos, was working at rebranding Bellcore as Telcordia. At the time, Cameron, a ways removed from her beginnings in theoretical mathematics, was running Bellcore’s venture group. "They were going through the technologies and seeing which of them could be spun off," she says.

Labs in general, she had learned, are good at creating new technologies, but lack the expertise to commercialize them. "That’s where I got fascinated by marketing," she says.

Her work interrupted by her accident, Cameron was at home, and discouraged, when Wilcox began dragging her to a swimming pool to exercise. Swimming was the only exercise she was able to do, and Wilcox made sure that she kept at it. "I wouldn’t have walked again if it were not for her," she says.

With Bellcore rebranded, and the telecommunications industry sinking fast, both Cameron and Wilcox were offered buy-out packages. The two decided to open a business. Wilcox had owned a consulting business, and Cameron had always wanted to own a business, but was unsure about what kind. Before setting out, the pair reviewed what they knew about themselves and about business.

"We’re funny people. We didn’t know if we wanted to be on the artsy side, the tech side, or the management side," says Cameron. Throughout their careers each had felt that "no matter which way we went, we were writing things off."

At the same time, each had seen the disconnect between labs and commercial applications. Businesses with new products badly needed branding services, they decided, and branding was a field that used all of their artistic, technical, and management skills. Pooling money from their severance packages, the pair opened Cattlelogos just about 18 months ago. With all the confidence in the world, Cameron says they fully expect that the venture to become a big company. The name they chose, their brand, comes, of course, from the marks that identified cattle in the Old West and gave the branding industry its name.

Many of their clients are start-ups, both in and out of the technology field. Cattlelogos’ advice to them includes:

Be downloadable. In today’s electronic world, your logo, presentations, and documents are often downloaded from servers and web sites, and used in distributed work environments. They need to become part of your corporate DNA rather than sit in a binder in the graphics department.

Think long term. Your brand image needs to be hardy. It needs to be able to adapt to survive in a changing business climate. Once established, a brand can last for a long time. Make sure the images and concepts that you choose will stand the test of time. Major brand overhauls are very expensive.

Don’t go overboard. Less is often better. Simple stands out. Use just enough elements to portray your image. Just enough elements in your logo and brand image; just enough colors, fonts, and styles in your documents; and just enough technology on your website.

Make your brand image relevant. Your brand image should be relevant to your business. There should be a clear relationship between your brand concept and your corporate image, strategy, and goals. It will be easier for people to remember your brand and more likely that your own personnel will become brand champions.

The slightly-sleazy, very sleep-eyed sheep who opens Cameron’s marketing book was not much of a hit with his bovine audience, but chances are that the book’s easily-understand message will brand her new company in the minds of entrepreneurs in search of a way to stand apart from the herd.

#h#Low Cost Branding That Works#/h#

Generations of people around the globe have been carefully coached to crave long, thin French fries upon seeing a sign crafted of just the right shades of red and gold. "Even if it’s just a little sign by the side of the road," says branding expert Bev Rossi, "the colors never vary." Sure, McDonald’s knows it has a lock on recognition whenever golden arches are sighted, but it has made sure that much less will trigger its name in the brains of hungry kids, truck drivers, and Yuppies taking a break from dieting. By never — never, ever — varying the hues on any of its signs or promotional materials, it ensures that billions of minds are wired to equate a combination of bright red and just the right yellowy shade of gold with its name.

Big companies may pull and tug at their images a little over the years. Betty Crocker’s hair might get a bit shorter; the jolly king may be yanked from Burger King’s round signs; the letters that spell Coca Cola may slant at a slightly different angle. Every successful big company, though, clings to its most important branding elements with a tenacity Super Glue can only hope to copy.

For small companies, the need to be identifiable is even more urgent. Smaller marketing budgets mean fewer chances to present a message. Even one mistake can have huge repercussions. Yet it is possible to establish and run with a brand on a small budget. Rossi tells how when she speaks on "Building a Brand on a Shoestring Budget" on Thursday, November 20, at the meeting of the National Association of Women Business Owners at the Olde Mill Inn in Basking Ridge. Cost: $30. Call 908-604-8280.

Rossi grew up in Hamilton Square, and attended St. Anthony High School, now McCorristin, and Beaver College, now Arcadia University (Class of 1986). "There’s change everywhere," she says with a laugh.

Rossi formed her Hillsborough-based company, Graphic Matter (www.graphicmatter.com), a year ago last July. A consortium of seven marketing professionals, it has found a niche in catering to professionals in service industries, including law, accounting, and consulting.

Change played a big part not only in Rossi’s education, but also in her decision to take the entrepreneurial path. She has been in-house creative director for Kepner-Tregoe, the manager of a digital print center, and the director of creative services for an ad agency. Her last job was at Cirquit, a Whippany-based dot-com that provides online bidding to match providers of advertising services with big companies with out-sized ad budgets, but a desire to get the best deals possible from qualified sources.

She has had other jobs too, and through it all says she has seen "so many companies liquidated, sold, merged." The whole concept of job security and loyalty is a distant memory, in her opinion. "The risk factor in starting a new business seemed zero," she says. At the same time, she had seen that entrepreneurs, especially those selling something as intangible as management consulting or legal services, have a tremendous need for effective, low-cost branding and marketing.

Here is her advice for creating a stand-out brand on a shoestring budget:

Put the logo first. "If you’re going to spend money on something, have it be your logo," says Rossi. Emblazoned on everything from business cards and letterhead to signs and brochures, your logo is inexorably linked with your company. It is the cornerstone of your branding effort. "The logo needs to be consistent through a company’s history," says Rossi.

This is not the place for a do-it-yourself effort. "If you can’t afford an ad agency," says Rossi, "hire a freelance graphic designer." If you can’t afford a freelancer, barter, she suggests. An accountant might offer free tax preparation in exchange for a professional logo, for example.

Don’t design the logo with your Microsoft Office software. Rossi sees any number of budding business owners who have booted up, pulled "logo" down from a menu, gotten creative with some clip art, added some shadowing, and ended up with a fine looking logo. Unfortunately, these logos, which look just dandy when they slide out of a home office laser printer, cost a fortune to print professionally.

The reason, explains Rossi, is color separation. It costs far more to print four color collateral materials like brochures than it does to print one or two color materials. A logo with many colors, shadowing, or clip art almost always demands four-color treatment, and a logo needs to be on every single piece of material a company has printed.

Creating a logo with off-the-shelf, consumer software might look like a smart move, but it can end up being very expensive. "You can literally, by accident, double costs," says Rossi.

Be consistent. "You need to differentiate yourself," says Rossi, "and the best way is consistency." Use the same logo, in the same spot, on everything that goes out from your office. Stick with exactly the same colors, exactly the same tag line. "If every time you see me, or my invoice, or my business card, it’s the same logo, the repetition grows on you."

If there has to be change, make sure to keep at least one element absolutely consistent. Set it in stone. If McDonald’s, with a restaurant at every intersection in the charted world, never varies its color scheme, says Rossi, you, the small business owner, who may only be able to buy one or two ads a month, definitely should not do so.

Lavish attention on your hand-outs. Rossi has been to conferences where brainy entrepreneurs, people with fabulous ideas, handed out poorly organized articles full of typos and bad grammar. "Plenty of MBAs put out materials that look like they were done by high school students," she finds. And this despite the fact that "a good-looking piece gives you legitimacy right away."

Make sure to labor until every piece of paper, and every website, with your company’s name on it is flawless and professional looking. Says Rossi, "People really do judge a book by its cover."

While this is true across the board, perfection gets even more important as fees climb. The youngster who is vying for a contract to shovel your snow this winter can probably get away with a typo or two in his fliers, but the consultant who proposes to solve your HR problems for $300 an hour cannot.

Create and distribute a prototype. When Rossi creates a new brochure for her own business, she prints up a trial run of a few dozen copies. These copies go out to employees, friends, family, and professional associates. They check for clarity, organization, eye-appeal, grammar, spelling, and accuracy of information.

"The last thing you want to do is to have 2,000 copies of a brochure printed and find that the phone number is wrong," she says. "It’s the worst feeling in the world."

Realize that web and print design are different. "Make sure your graphic designer knows printing, and not just web," Rossi advises. "The two are not interchangeable." Colors, fonts, designs, and organization schemes that work beautifully in one medium do not necessarily work in the other.

Blanket your world. Find every opportunity to reinforce your brand. When you select checks, include your font, colors, and logo. Take a look at your e-mail; create a standard signature that incorporates your complete business name, address, phone, and web address in the footer.

Evaluate all of your support materials, and not just your marketing materials. What do your invoices, estimates, and contracts look like? If clients see this support material before they meet you, will it encourage them to contact you, or to go elsewhere?

Be relentless in promoting your brand. Think of McDonald’s. It didn’t achieve fast food dominance by hiding its golden arches behind a bush.

#h#Good Job Definitions Make for Good Fits#/h#

What will I be doing around here? "Oh talk to Jim, he’ll fill you in," my new boss replied. That was the total extent of my very first job description. For too many firms, methods have not advanced. Those companies that do take a stab at it often delegate the task to front line people who tend to see it a pesky piece of devilment sent down by idle human resource folk.

It’s a shame, because a sharp, detailed job description is of incalculable help in hiring the right person, and in ensuring that he will become productive quickly. New techniques on acing job descriptions are the topic of "Job Analysis: Analyzing Jobs and Job Descriptions," a seminar on Thursday, November 20, at 9 a.m. at the College of New Jersey. Cost: $10. Call 609-989-5232.

Sponsored by the New Jersey Small Business Development Center, this workshop features Jesse Behrens, supervisor of Employer HR Support Services, Division of Business Services, Department of Labor. Behrens’ talk is designed for all levels of supervisors and outlines not only new practices for analyzing a job, but also how to best use this description once you have it.

"Most company owners don’t think the Department of Labor has anything to offer them but trouble," laughs Behrens. "They are surprised to learn how much they can get from us." For employers struggling with anything from the development of an employee handbook to increased absenteeism, the Department of Labor’s Business Services Division offers seminars and consultations. For firms of 12 or more employees, the department will even send representatives out to the plant. To find a list of seminars or to arrange a visit, call 609-984-3518 or visit www.NJ.gov/labor/BSR/HRSupport.html.

Behrens sees a detailed job analysis as a basic business self-audit performed piece by piece. For the past 41 years he has been giving this message to companies through New Jersey and New York State. Born in the Bronx, Behrens graduated from Hunter College with majors in psychology and sociology. For 21 years he worked in New York’s labor department as an occupational analyst. Then, 20 years ago, he moved to East Windsor, where he worked for the New Jersey Department of Labor as supervisor of Employer Human Resource Support Services.

"The real problem," says Behrens, "is that most businesses fail to see any real use for job descriptions, so they are done once, half-heartedly, sloppily, and never updated. They serve only as management’s nod to enlightened practices." But as with any tool, the better it is crafted, the more effective it will be. So how does one craft a useful job description?

Self-prepared forms. Easiest, and thus most popular, the self-prepared position description is a written version of "letting Jim fill you in." Behrens says that, while this offers mixed results, some very valuable input can be gained by letting the current (and outgoing) employee give his version of the job by himself. There is an ironic caveat here, however. "Most people tend to underestimate the value of their jobs," he says. "They get very caught up in their routine and will minimize the skills or importance of their function."

Observation interview. Someone, preferably outside of the department under which the position falls, observes the employee performing the work and talks to him about it. For a man on the assembly line, this can be done in one sitting. For a manager behind a desk, several unannounced drop-in visits will more likely catch the varied flavor of the work.

Questionnaires. A questionnaire is a necessary part of the job description, but never should it be the sole source. Ideally, both the worker and his supervisor each fill out separate sections, and fill out a third section jointly. The hurdle is to make this a description, not an evaluation of any current worker. Crafting the questionnaire takes thought. Some jobs, including certain accounting slots, ad management, or straight labor may lend themselves to more of a task checklist. Others, like head of shipping and receiving in a zero-based inventory plant, may require a lot more essay description to tease out the job’s many facets.

The screw-up factor. The course of true business seldom runs smooth, yet most job descriptions cover only those times when everything is working perfectly. Behrens’ favorite example is that of the inspector in a bottle plant. This person spends three seconds each on the hundreds of glass bottles flowing past his eyes daily.

But what happens when he sees one of the 15 possible flaws occurring in the glass? How many does he scrap before he slows delivery and eats into profits? How many does he let slip by before customer satisfaction is ruined? And most important, how does he communicate the problem and go about getting it rectified? Foreseeing such incidents on the job description not only prepares the employee, it also provides direction.

The broader view. Once the current occupational position is fully established according to the employer’s and employee’s requirements, it is time to take a broader look toward the future. Consider who else may later fill this job from the vast variety of potential applicants. The Americans with Disabilities Act demands that employers make all reasonable changes to accommodate an employee in the work place. How much give is there in the tasks required for a particular job? What degree of health, strength, and attention is absolutely essential?

The Fair Labor Standards Act further demands all workers working over a 40 hour week, except those within five major categories, must be paid time and a half. Carefully clarifying the duties of a job can shift its incumbent from the exempt status of administrative, to the non-exempt supervisor class.

Upon finally polishing a carefully drawn job description, Behrens reminds employers that it is not a dictum etched in stone, but rather a tool to be continually used and re-sharpened. For supervisors, it becomes a handy evaluation yardstick. For the worker in the position, it can provide clarity and set priorities.

For human resources, the job description guards against what Behrens terms the "horns or halo effect," where candidates are hired by gut instinct or the press of their pants. With a solid job description in front of him, an interviewer can balance a candidate’s prior experience against the work he will be expected to do.

For the legal department, a detailed job description, coupled with a written evaluation history, can be an important defense in the case of a wrongful termination suit.

Yet no one is better served by a set of complete, accurate job descriptions than the observant manager. Gaps and overlaps in production, communication, and all aspects of business become evident by following the trail of duties performed. Profits fall when everyone is not pulling on the same rope in the same direction. Creating solid task lists, analyzing them thoroughly, and then revising them frequently should be an important part of the manager’s own job description.

— Bart Jackson

#h#Centers for Workers’ Health Opens#/h#

An open house is scheduled for Friday, November 21, at 4:30 p.m. for a new health facility at 1 AAA Drive in Hamilton. Called the Workers Health Centers of St. Francis Medical Center, it is the first of three planned centers that will serve employers and their workers.

"We have a small office at St. Francis Hospital," says Dr. John Coumbis, medical director. He is hoping to site the third center on Route 1. With a staff of seven at the Hamilton location, the Workers Health Center has started signing up clients. "Congoleum was the first," says Coumbis.

"Employers can come and look over our facility," says Coumbis. Further information on the open house is available by calling Mary Jo Abbondanza at 609-890-7100.

A primary mission of the health facility is to treat injured or sick employees, all of whom must be sent by their employers, and to get them back to work as soon as possible. In addition, it will evaluate workplaces for everything from ergonomic problems to manufacturing dangers and hazardous chemical issues.

#h#Go Ahead: Ask Me Anything#/h#

Suppose you want to sell your new software into Europe. You need to know what major cities show high computer use. What are the potential sales and competition figures? What country can act as a good gateway, with labor skilled and costs low enough for cost-efficient distribution, maintenance, and repair? To get this kind of advice you may need to hire a pricey outside marketing consultant. Or maybe this sounds like a job for Super Librarian.

Look into the possibilities at "The Living Search Engine: Business Services from the New Jersey State Library." This breakfast seminar takes place on Tuesday, November 25, at 8:30 a.m. at the College of New Jersey. Cost: $25. Call 609-989-5232 for more information. Sponsored by the New Jersey Small Business Development Center as part of its CEO Toolbox series, this workshop features Karen Hyman, executive director of the South Jersey Regional Library Cooperative, and Maureen Ritter, supervisor of Newark Public LIbrary’s Business Center. The talk aims to reveal to business people those hidden (and free) tools that can answer problems ranging from taxes to workforce improvement.

"Don’t bother the librarian. She’s busy, and looks sort of stern. Go find the information yourself." That’s the myth we were all brought up on and what has hamstrung both librarians and information seekers for decades. The truth is that the individual sitting out behind that library counter waits there primarily to provide whatever information you want. Invariably, they are experts who can surf to your answer faster than you can boot up, and who will do so happily.

Don’t believe it? I asked South Brunswick’s reference librarian Jeff Papier to find a gateway for my hypothetical new software. Within an hour he had selected Ireland as the best place for launching low weight, high-tech items. He regaled me with an extensive flow of charts, websites, and statistics citing workforce education, shipping capabilities, even individual companies that distribute my kind of software. All that from a public library. Free.

If you still have doubts, talk with seminar speaker Hyman, who for the past 25 years has been working to dispel the no-service-library myth by developing solid programs to target both corporate and individual needs. Following a Camden childhood, Hyman earned a Russian studies degree from Douglass College and then a masters of library science degree at Drexel University. During her seven years at the Cherry Hill Public Library, her many job titles included head of public service. In l983, Hyman joined the New Jersey State Library staff as reference consultant, and for the past seven years has directed South Jersey’s regional cooperative, which links public, school, and specialized libraries together.

"For small and medium sized businesses, the library can prove a true pathfinder," says Hyman. "It can be everything from a cost of living calculator to a statistician to a quick answer machine." The range of library services may indeed be amazing, and the amount of information overwhelming, but most firms still don’t know how to mine this asset. Here are some tips.

Give a jingle. Probably the fastest way to obtain information is to call your public library — or any library in the area — and ask for "someone in reference." Yes, they take calls. If the answer is short (the address of your Congressman), you can hold on the phone and get an answer immediately. If you need more, a librarian will call you back or will fax or e-mail information as needed. For this deadline-pressed writer, library reference crews have called back promptly with everything from the exact weight of the Pennsylvania state capitol to the spelling of the four guardian figures on Tibetan Buddhist temples.

The library also has all tax guides and paper forms and some can even e-mail the forms to you. Librarians find phone numbers, local and international, and even wadethrough bureaucratic tangles for those hard to find government numbers. The downside to all of this is that most all libraries close between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m.

Plug into Q&A NJ. While many librarians labored to launch it, Hyman provided the primary muscle and foresight to see this two-year-old program through. Question and Answer New Jersey allows anyone to log on to WWW.QandANJ.com 24/7, 359 days a year, and chat real time with a skilled librarian who will scurry to find information. The service is both anonymous and personal, making questions like "I’m getting married in November, where should I go on my honeymoon?" the sort of problem that you and the unknown expert on the other end can discuss together. There is even a homework link where school children can work through problems online with teachers.

The Q&A NJ program replaces the old Nightline Program, which basically carried the regular library reference service round the clock. In creating this new Q&A, Hyman initially had to wait until software that could cover the entire state was developed. Launched as a national first, the Garden State’s Q&A now has 37 participating libraries, which offer services of reference librarians, such as Jeff Papier, for six to ten hours a week.

Search special business sites. Researchers need not drift on a sea of general knowledge, wasting time before narrowing their searches. Both state and local libraries offer many snug harbors. EbscoHost provides Business Source Elite, which searches an encyclopedic index and full texts of thousands of business periodicals and articles. Infotrack is another fast-track avenue for the information-hungry business community.

Hyman notes that the New Jersey Library Network affords access to a host of specialty sites such as University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (www.UMDN.com).

Look into individual services. Individual libraries increasingly seek to connect with the business community. Burlington County boasts a business outreach library. Cumberland provides workforce improvement and job placement counseling. Princeton, South Brunswick, Plainsboro, and East Windsor all offer computer training classes.

Bringing knowledge right to your door, any library with a bookmobile might well agree to add your company to its route.

With free lunches few and far between, and time more precious than departments full of employees volunteering to take pay cuts, frugal companies can delight at feasting on the unlimited, customized, totally free information available at their libraries.

— Bart Jackson

#h#Keeping Talented Women At Work#/h#

One of Kimberlee Phelan’s fellow accountants at WithumSmith+Brown is finding it impossible to keep her house as clean as she would like it. "We had an intervention," says Phelan, only half joking. The founder of a women’s group within the firm, Phelan pointed out the obvious. "You have to get household help!"

More than three decades into the women’s movement, this suggestion did not meet with automatic agreement. "She said she wasn’t comfortable having a stranger in her home," says Phelan. Her colleague also stated that she doesn’t like the idea of anyone but a relative watching her children, and her sister, who watches the children when she can, is not always available.

For want of a cleaning service and a top-notch caregiver another capable, well-trained woman may be lost to the accounting profession, which is seriously light on female talent at the top. But the situation extends far beyond accounting, and may only be masquerading as a mothering issue.

Phelan quotes a recent cover article in the New York Times magazine section in which a group of female Princeton University graduates spoke of choosing full-time caregiving over high-powered careers in large part because of disenchantment with those careers. "They’re leaving not for motherhood, but because they’re dissatisfied," says Phelan.

Recognizing the problem well before it appeared as a major feature in the New York Times, Phelan talked the senior partners at her firm into allowing her to form a women’s group three years ago. The support, mentoring, and education group meets every other month, and once a year holds a networking breakfast that is open to all corporate and professional women.

The third annual "Women’s Leadership Group" networking breakfast takes place on Tuesday, November 25, at 8:30 a.m. at the Westin Princeton in Forrestal Village. There is no charge, but attendees are asked to bring gently used men’s and women’s career clothing. Call 732-842-3113 for more information.

Phelan, who sounds as understated and congenial as a Southern matron serving tea on her verandah in the middle of a lazy afternoon, has a lining of pure steel. Women still have to work harder than men to get anything like the same opportunities, she says, and she has been willing to do that. As a junior investment banker, for example, she wanted to work on an important project, but was told by the man in charge that she was qualified in every way, but would not be considered.

"`I don’t want a woman on my team,’" he said. "He said it right to my face!" Phelan exclaims. Undeterred, she went over his head, telling the vice president in charge that she wanted to work on the project, and expected to be able to do so. Her end run worked.

Women have far less practice in the art of office politics than do men, but need to get up to speed. And many of them need to do so while nurturing children. It can be done, and Phelan’s life provides proof.

A native of Southern California, she graduated from Wellesley in 1987, and went to work on Wall Street where she worked on tax issues surrounding international mergers and acquisitions. After a transfer took her back to California, she enrolled in UCLA, from which she earned an MBA in 1991. Married half-way through business school, she realized that investment banking, with its heavy travel demands, would probably not be a good fit with family life. Drawn to taxation anyway, she decided to become a CPA.

Tax accountants often work monster hours, but at least they generally do not have to do so in multiple time zones on a given week. With her husband, John Phelan, traveling extensively in his career in pharmaceutical sales, she decided that two spouses on the road would not work.

Following her husband to the East Coast, Phelan worked first for PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York City and then for WithumSmith+Brown, where she became one of only a handful of female shareholders in the firm while nurturing four children, ages 10, 8, 4, and 3.

After years of alternating good child care with bad, Phelan credits the current balance in her work and home life to her nanny. "She used to be my husband’s nanny," she says. "She worked for his family for 23 years. We’ve known her forever; she’s like a grandmother to the children."

Still, Mary Poppins or no, combining family with the higher echelons of the world of work is never easy. "Every one of the wives of my husband’s friends is a stay-at-home mom," Phelan says. Some 10 women make up this group, and all have given up promising careers. On the other hand, she has kept in close touch with five college friends, a doctor, a lawyer, and a trio of MBAs, all of whom continue to combine career and family. Here are some of the factors that she believes could encourage more women to make that choice:

More aggressive attempts to hold on to women. One of the reasons that Phelan started the women’s group at WithumSmith+Brown is the cost of losing talented women. "It’s not just the salary," she says. "It’s the training." Once women, like men, are up to speed and producing, "we want to keep them," she says.

"The key thing is flexibility," in her view. Part-time work, job sharing, and the ability to work from home all make it more likely that women with small children will stay with a company.

A look at the "old boy network" is another imperative. Senior men still seek out young men as proteges, introducing them to important contacts. This advantage makes it hard for women to compete, and to see themselves progressing.

"I’m not saying that women are throwing it all away," she says. "I’m saying employers are falling down if we make highly-educated, top notch women leave."

A support group. After nearly two decades in investment banking and accounting, Phelan has seen the pressure that women are under. They need to be better than their male peers to achieve the same promotions, and need to do a good job of raising children and creating a home. A safe place to work out solutions can be a tremendous help.

The group Phelan started provides this support, but it also works at teaching women some strategies that may not come naturally. This is especially true in the all-important matter of sales. Women, she finds, tend to spend an inordinate amount of time on getting prospective customers or clients to like them. "We’re not as assertive," she says. "We don’t ask for the business."

The women’s group at WithumSmith+Brown works on issues that keep women from the top, while providing a sounding board for those struggling to "keep all the balls in the air." The response from the men has been: "`Hey, why isn’t there a group like this for the men?’"

A women’s college. The women profiled in the New York Times article on stay-at-home-professional-moms were Princeton graduates. It may be purely coincidence, but Phelan and her still-working friends attended a women’s college. The emphasis, she says, was on the importance of service and of making a contribution. Quick to state that women who raise children full time are most certainly making a vital contribution, Phelan also says that her school taught her that "there isn’t anything that a woman can’t do."

A careful career choice. Phelan really does not want to say that a mother cannot be a successful investment banker. Given a spouse who works close to home, and given an amazing nanny, it could work. But it wouldn’t be easy. Phelan’s own choice shows the wisdom of thinking about the demands of children when planning a career.

Within every profession there are satisfying, prestigious, high-paying jobs that require fewer hours and less travel than others. It sounds like compromise, and maybe it is, but choosing the less-demanding road can keep the work/family juggling act going.

Delegation. One of the stellar partner-track associates at a prestigious New York law firm was a champion delegator. Assigned a case, the attorney, who was also the mother of two young children, would immediately round up the most able junior associates and paralegals and put them to work. As a result, she was able to keep relatively short hours, while keeping herself firmly on the uber-competitive partner track.

Delegating is important at home too. If Phelan’s colleague is to keep working, she will have to come to grips with her fear that another person will not clean her house as well as she does, and, more importantly, that another person will not do as good a job of caring for her children.

"I love to cook, but my nanny does all the cooking," says Phelan. In the lives of every working mother, she says, "choices have to be made."

Popsicles and Dunkin’ Donuts. Phelan chuckles as she recounts the opening scene in The Life of Kate Reddy: Working Mother. In the novel, by Allison Pearson, an investment banker mom is unraveling under the demands of work and family. She is first seen working into the wee hours of the morning manipulating store-bought pies in an attempt to make them look homemade.

Phelan recounts the scene in great detail. A mom who tends to bring Dunkin’ Donuts or popsicles to school events, she identifies with the fictional Ms. Reddy.

"My kids ask me `How come we never bring anything homemade?’" she says. In response to the children on one occasion she pointed out a number of mom-baked cookies still sitting around at the end of the picnic. "Look," she said, "all the popsicles are gone."

Compromises have to be made, companies need to change, and children have to adjust their vision of perfect parenting, at least as it applies to baked goods, but high-achieving women themselves have a responsibility.

"When I had each of my children, I told my boss the exact day I would be back, and I walked through the door on that day," says Phelan. It wasn’t always easy. "I would have given my right arm to stay home longer with my first baby," she says. But she had promised to be back at work on August 8, five weeks after the baby was born, and she kept her word.

Whether it’s being included on a key project or getting approval for working hours that are a good fit with childcare responsibilities, women who want to get to the top — and enjoy the ride — need to be more assertive.

And they probably need to hire a really good cleaning service.

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