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Lessons you can learn from big business

The financial maneuverings of large corporations and top-salary CEOs probably seem about as relevant to your life as Paris Hilton's dress size.

But read between the lines of that business-page story and you might discover a lot of practical -- and applicable -- strategies that could apply to your life and career.

Some examples to consider:

1. Take time to do research and plan long-term. Microsoft's Bill Gates takes a two-week break every year just to read and catch up on technology, says Mark Weaver, director of the Entrepreneurship Institute at Louisiana State University. During that period, "no one can call or bother him," he says.

What the rest of us can learn: That kind of uninterrupted time to refuel "helps you develop your vision and helps you develop your life plan," Weaver says.

Many successful CEOs and corporate leaders have their own personal strategies, and most schedule time to step back and look at the big picture and how their companies can compete, survive and thrive, he says. "Top CEOS have a vision, and they have some steps to get there, says Weaver.

You might not be able to take two weeks, but you certainly can find an afternoon.

2. When it comes to retirement, depend only on yourself. When United Airlines went into bankruptcy, it restructured its retirement pension program, says Alfonso Canella, an adjunct professor of finance at Brandeis University International Business School. And many companies in other industries are moving in the same direction, he says.

What the rest of us can learn: Times have changed. It used to be that you could work for a company for a set number of years and retire to live on a pension of 60 percent to 80 percent of your salary, he says. No longer. Now the only money you can count on having is what you salt away in retirement plans such as IRAs and 401(k)s, says Canella. One big plus: If you change industries or jobs, you can take your money with you.

3. If you want to learn, listen. When former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner took the helm at the corporate giant, he spent the first few months really listening, especially to customers, says Weaver. 

"That's the way you find out about opportunities, and that's the way you find out what's wrong," says Weaver.

What the rest of us can learn: Nobody ever learns very much while talking. If you want to get ahead in your job, try listening to what your bosses are talking about. Figure out what's important to them and make it important to you.

Same thing with your co-workers and subordinates. Listen to what they have to say. No telling what you'll pick up.

4. Use only what you need and devise strategies to get the most out of it. Cisco Systems uses something called "hoteling," says Canella. Many employees are portable. When workers need office space, they go into the building and are assigned a temporary space with all the necessary equipment and connections. The company "is cutting out the cost of square footage and office space," even as it grows its staff and business, says Canella.

What the rest of us can learn: Don't get stymied by what you think you should have -- or what the neighbors are doing. Take a fresh look at your approach (whether for investment, budgeting, lifestyle, etc.) What are your real needs? How can you cut costs? And what would make you happier or more productive?

Next: "... don't slack off on those things you do very well."
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