Friday, March 29, 2013

Know Your Story

In everything we do, we need to know our boundaries and what we're capable of. You might be able to lift a car off your screaming child, but its probably not in your regular wheelhouse of abilities. As my mother might say, "Butter might not melt in your mouth" which is a Southern way of saying that you're both a smooth talker and a little removed/distant at the same time, or you might be the type that sits down for eight hours, wakes up, and marvelous things are done.

Whatever it is that you do well, you need to know it, and you need to be able to convey that to other people.  Sometimes we don't know think enough about it ourselves to have the list readily at hand. So the first step in the process is finding out the good stuff. Note: this can't be your own compilation alone. We often think, for example, that we hide how dry the turkey is at Thanksgiving every year like a champion, when everyone knows that your lips pucker with each bite and you drain three glasses of water. Our perception of ourselves is a good place to start, but not the last place to end. Put together a list of what you think you're good at for whatever reason--since this is a blog about management and work, you're probably going to want to start with your competence in those arenas--and then go over that list with people you trust to be honest with you but not in the "break your spirit with honesty" sort of way.

While you're at it, you might want to solicit what they think of as your weaknesses and compare their list to your own mental list. Its hard to hear your best friend explain that you can be a "bit bossy" (trust me, she's been kind enough to tell me when I've asked), but its better to hear it from her than third hand from a potential employer who indicated that was feedback they got from a reference.

Now you have the good and the bad. Put the story together. For purposes of work, this is how you got to where you are now, the ups (mostly) some downs (because people to whom you tell this story aren't going to believe there were never any downs), lessons learned, and plenty of examples. Try to find the humor in the overall pieces; people who laugh with you invest with you in the story you are telling. Try to find the honor in the story, for example, refusing to give less than two weeks of notice because despite the fact the new job thought you were a rockstar and wanted you immediately, you would never hurt your friends at a previous company that way. Try to find the humility in the story: I messed this up, but here's how I un-messed it up and learned the error of my mistake.

Now that you have an idea of the story, write it out, like you'd be writing an essay for a future employer or to your boss for a raise or to someone who doesn't know you...whoever the appropriate audience should be. When you're done, read it out loud. It's probably pretty dang long. Now, start cutting up your story. Break it into pieces that demonstrate specific things about you. Humility, honor, learning, etc. Take these sub-stories and make them fast, easy to remember, and remember to provide examples of your life and your choices in them. Now you can string them together, if need be, or target any specific part of your story, if need be. Interviewers or HR folks are rarely going to have time to hear the entire story of you, but you need to know it. It adds to the confidence in all the smaller stories you can tell about yourself. It answers the questions people will have about you and the story you are telling.

Let me just say for the record here: don't lie. In the words of Abraham Lincoln: "No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar." The story of who you are is made up of memories you already have and can lean on; you don't want to make up additional stuff you have to remember, that will be less reliable than the truth.

By the same token, you don't need to tell the whole truth to everyone, all the time. For example, the fact you hated your boss in one job with the passion of a thousand fiery suns is the truth, but not necessarily one you need to share in the story of your work experience. It leads to other questions, and other stories about why, which may have truthful answers, but which cause the listener to start drawing conclusions of their own about you. In the world--let alone the work world--it is easier to assume that someone with a grudge is the actual person with the problem than the person against whom you have the grudge. There are very few things you can say to prove things otherwise, and often trying to do so will simply make it worse. There are a large number of truths out there like that. If asked directly, be honest, but if not asked directly, pick a different story to tell.

The story will change and grow as you do. You'll swap some anecdotes out with more successful ones, with funnier ones, to ones more appropriate to a specific instance; but you'll always have all the stories to choose from, and they'll always be true. Because you know the stories (and the entire story they make up), you'll be able to follow any line of questioning wherever it may go and answer honestly.

The reason I recommend knowing your story, especially in a blog about management, is that you're going to need to tell parts of it throughout your career. Mostly to other people, but sometimes to yourself. When you're picking an employee up who just fell down, and you are dusting them off, they need to hear about a time when you did the same and things got better. When you're talking to upper management about defending a decision you've made, you can use a story as evidence of how you've made such decisions in the past, and that they can trust your judgment as a result. When you're talking to a screener on a phone call, hoping to get to the next part of the interview process, you aren't off guard: you have what the political arena call "your talking points" and you know what you're going to say so you are less nervous. You also know instantly if this is the right opportunity for you or not, because you know your whole story, the good and the bad, and whether or not this opportunity is a good fit. Further, you can tell the appropriate parts of your story to the screener or interviewer so they can understand if it is a good fit or not.

Finally, it never hurts to know yourself a little better. In the work world, we often take a moment to look at ourselves at review time, or when we're looking for work, but rarely at other times. Taking the time to know your story and the stories that make it up is so worth it; the returns are endless for the entirity of your career, but also for your general peace of mind. No one is going to follow this advice and achieve zen management master, but hopefully being able to clearly communicate to yourself and to other people about yourself will make your work career and management life a lot easier.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Sticking Your Neck Out, or as Other People Like to Call Them: Recommendations

In the modern world, getting a job is always difficult. Even if the market is booming--during the start up boom in the 90's, they were grabbing people off the street and dragging them into start-ups--the whole process of getting a job that is both one that you can do, one that you can stand and one that is right for you can be pretty difficult. Add in any extras like a bad economy, a glut of people with your skill set and/or a hungry younger workforce willing to work for much less than you, and things get downright intimidating out there.

When you look for a gig, one of the final steps of the process used to be checking your references. This is where a potential employer called the people you listed to ask about your previous work experience, or their experience with you as a person. By this time they were basically hoping not to hear that you were a serial killer or had some kind of unnatural obsession with calendars, especially based on the fact that you provided them the list of people to call and talk to in order to tell them that you are good to go in terms of hiring.

These days, because the market is tighter (we have been in a pretty nasty recession and in theory we're on our way out of it, but still), employers are starting to sort of skip to that part first. Enter in places like LinkedIn, where referrals and recommendations are stored for anyone to see at any point in the process.

What this means is that, as a manager, you're going to start getting asked to provide referrals to employees, co-workers...even friends. Further, you may find you require their referrals as well. Some employers don't even want to move forward with a potential hire unless they can see some feedback about that hire that is positive or otherwise convinces them that the potential hire could be a good fit for their company.

Once upon a time, referrals and recommendations were more formal than just writing an email or posting on a website. You might write up a sheet of paper expounding the qualities of the person, sign it, and then they'd take it to whomever their new prospective employer might be. Those days are mostly over. People prefer a post on a website that anyone can see. Occasionally they want an email they can share with as many potential employers as they'd like. As a result, its getting easier to make recommendations and people are therefore more easily asking for recommendations. Even, perhaps, people that you might not want to recommend.

There's the rub. There are societal expectations that you will give a good recommendation even if the person is your apartment complex's gardener's third nephew twice removed. Meantime, potential employers are expecting that you will give fair assessments (if not a little biased towards the positive as these sites allow you to accept or reject recommendations and very few people proudly present the "he'd be great if he just wasn't so lazy" recommendation). Further, you may have future contact with these potential employers, either because they work with your firm or you may try to get work with them in the future.

I think the thing to do here is what you would have done if we had gone back in time and you were hand writing or typing a recommendation. Would you go to this trouble over this person? Do you now them well enough to say at least a paragraph of good things about them? Do you believe that there is a paragraph of good things about them in existence?

If the answer is yes, then by all means, provide a recommendation. Do your best to write at least three things about the person, no matter the format. And no damning with faint praise, either: "She'll be your absolute best employee because she gets extremely jealous when anyone else succeeds!"  Commit to writing a good recommendation, and believing in and standing behind that recommendation or...don't write the recommendation at all.

You may have to face the complex gardener's third nephew twice removed and tell him that you're sorry, but you don't know him well enough to provide a recommendation and maybe he could try someone else, but you should do that rather than writing a recommendation for him; you could be asked about it later, and if you don't remember his name (let alone the recommendation your wrote) it reflects badly on you--not on him.

In this day and age the one thing you still have going for you is integrity. If you water that down providing recommendations for people you don't know, or worse, don't deserve it, then it can affect you as well as them later on. Ever recommendation you write is you saying to people reading that recommendation "this person is worth sticking my neck out for." So you really ought to make that statement true.

This also means that, when soliciting recommendations, you should not put people in a bad spot, yourself. Ask them to write about what they do know about you, and only if they're comfortable. Never, ever, leave it to the automatic request system on some website to request a recommendation or referral. Personalize the message, or, if you cannot, email them before the website does to let them know its coming and what you're hoping to get/expect.

When someone does write something for you, accept that it may not be the glowing awesomness you hoped for; a former boss might say you were diligent and timely and effective, but could use some help with your detail work because that is the truth for them (even if it might not be the truth for you). You have then got to make the decision about whether to make that review public (your original intention before you knew there might be something in the recommendation that makes it slightly less useful for getting work) or potentially hurting the feelings of/burning bridges with the person who wrote the recommendation.

In summary, while computers, email, etc., has made the process of referral and recommendation so easy that my nephews can do it, it doesn't necessarily mean that they should. It also doesn't mean that it should be treated trivially. What you write represents you. What people write about you represents actual human feelings and time they took out of their busy lives for you. Appreciate what you get, be gentle and deserving with what you give....and good luck on any future recommendations.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

This Just In: Bullies are bad, water is wet, Pope is still Catholic

There have been a lot of articles about bullies in relation to schools and often in relation to the Internet (ie: Trolls). But, even though we're (technically) all adults, bullies do grow up and sometimes stay bullies, and don't bully just in the safety and anonymity of the web. Sometimes they take their bullying ways to work.

Your work.

At the core, bullies are dealing with some kind of powerlessness inside of them. They had child hood trauma and never really learned how to feel powerful on their own, they may have learned to fake normal but never understand it, they may have poor impulse control...the reasons go on.

In a recent gig, for example, a perfectly nice gentleman who was a subject matter expert and well liked by the team went off the deep end one week and never came back. Something in his personal life flipped the switch and he took out his powerlessness on me and the rest of the team. When the situation was dealt with, he was first completely blindsided by the fact that anyone wielded the authority to stop his behavior, followed by chagrined and embarrassed at the behavior. He didn't believe, he said, we'd "be able to move quickly" at all, and that while he expected it would "come to this" he just never expected that we'd stand up to it so soon.

He was aware he was bullying us, and when he was stopped--and fired, because I fired him--he reverted to the perfectly nice person he'd been before. I think part of that was because of the way it was approached: we put the cards in his hands to change his behavior and keep the job, or to not change his behavior and lose the job. He chose the latter. But he was allowed to choose. This seemed to ail whatever powerlessness was in him. He actually thanked us for the opportunity, that he'd enjoyed working with us.

I'm not sure what caused him to test the rules of working for a company so thoroughly that he had to be asked to leave, but I know it was not a common behavior for him. His temper was always fast to flare, but actual bullying, not so much. As a manager, I tried to understand and help, but sometimes there are behaviors that cannot be helped. You can only go so far. Its the choice of the employee/co-worker/etc. to determine the final course.

And, as I've said before, doing things people don't like is a behavior, not an intrinsic thing like the color of your eyes, that you cannot change. Some people act like bullies, but they are not inherently bad people. If the behavior can change, they can change. If the behavior can't change, they may be able to find a place elsewhere that it is not as unacceptable or difficult, or where they may not feel the need to act that way at all.

If the bully at your office works for you, you can do what I did: meet with them semi-privately to discuss the behavior (and emphasize the behavioral aspects) and then clearly explain what you'd like to see instead. Some people learned the wrong lessons before you got them. Some people don't know their behavior is problematic. Some people are challenging you to see how far they can go. Whatever the reason, talk to them, tell them what is expected and how to achieve that. Note, I said "semi" privately. This is because someone who is bullying is at his/her best when they are one on one. Bring another trusted person to the talk. This will help you being intimidated as well as provide a witness to the proceedings.

On the first talk, I leave it at that. In the case of this employee I mentioned, since he spent part of that conversation literally yelling in my face, I wrote it up immediately. I strongly suspected it was going to happen again. If you think there's a chance it might--even a faint one--write it up and send it off to your boss. Documentation is a good protector if there is ever a he said/she said moment in the future, as is bringing a guest with you to the discussion who has a reason to be there.

Also, as one of my former bosses, he has a "no asshole" policy. Which is to say, if someone's being or acting like an asshole, get rid of them right then. You do not have to tolerate bad behavior if it is extreme enough. In the example where my fired employee screamed into my face, no one would have blamed me for firing him on the spot. However, I operate on the "everyone has a bad day" principle, whereby sometimes bad stuff happens and you react to it and you react all over the first poor unfortunate person you encounter. So I wrote it up, and left it alone.

If the initial talk doesn't bring about improvement, escalate.  In this case let your boss and HR know you're going in again, and list what you'll talk about, specific examples, and actions you want to see taken and by when. Go in, again, preferably not alone (again) and go over it. The "by when" is the first chance they have to improve their behavior by a set period of time. Afterwards, write up what happened and what was said, and send that out.

If the time comes and goes with no improvement, or the situation escalates even further (in my case, my employee was starting to bully the other employees), take swift and immediate action. Remove them from the situation. Document what happened. Talk to your boss about whatever is appropriate from time off without pay to termination. Then follow through.

So many people do not want to follow through on corrective actions, for bullies or any difficulty with an employee. Failing to follow through will only increase the bad behavior. It may make you feel sick to your stomach to fire someone, but sometimes, you have to do it or the situation will actually get worse.

In the event your bully is a co-worker of equal standing, similar rules apply: talk to them first. Ask for improvement. Write up what was said. Repeat this process. In the event the second talk doesn't work, either, escalate to your manager and human resources.

In the event your bully is your boss, apparently you're not alone. Per a recent study, bosses who bully you may not just be bullying you, and their bullying of you affects the entire department. The results per Forbes: "...both abusive and vicariously abusive supervision had similar impacts on employees, with both forms leading to more job frustration, a greater likelihood of coworkers abusing one another, and a greater lack of confidence in the company as a whole..."

If your boss is bullying you, and you've read my earlier articles about the liability of being a manager, try not to rub your hands together in potential lawsuit joy too soon. Document every instances of abuse, who was there, and then meet with your boss to discuss a change in behavior. If you're afraid to meet with them alone, talk to HR about mediating a meeting. Document the conversation. Things are likely to get worse before (or if) they get better. A bully doesn't like to be bullied. But, usually, involving HR and setting up specific boundaries and clear expectations can make for a tolerable work environment.

If it doesn't, you can work with HR regarding the behavior; this may end in the termination of your boss, or in you looking for work elsewhere. As noted previously, Human Resources is there to protect the company. They are not your friend. They are not your bully boss's friend. So tread carefully.

Finally, if you find that your bad moods are coming out all over your employees, stop it. Don't wait until someone asks to talk to you (with or without HR) about your behavior. Feel your frustration rising or the desire to call someone a bad name or hit something? Take a walk. Leave the situation. Doesn't matter if it's a big important meeting, you losing your cool is so much worse than missing a meeting. Analyze what's going on in your life to make you feel powerless and lash out, and try to get a handle on it. If you can't on your own, your HR folks are likely to be able to provide you with health care information where you can work with someone to avoid being the bully boss. Because, no one likes a bully, most especially the bully him/herself. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Some Soft Shoe for You, my Loyal Reader(s) - Will Work for Paycheck

I am currently looking for new employment. The existing consulting contract under which I productively work has come to a close earlier than expected, and my daring and amazing consulting firm doesn't have anything for me by the close of the contract.

I enjoy eating, heating, and the love of my spouse, so I'm seeking employment even as the consulting firm scrambles to try to find me something.

If you happen to enjoy my work and are interested in helping an (Im)Perfect Manager out, please click on my linked in profile button at the top right of the page and message me with any potential prospects you may have/know about.

Thanks, very much, for your help in advance.