Wednesday, November 5, 2008

How to Get the Boss To Listen to You



Do you sometimes think you've become the invisible employee? Do you think the only way your boss might pay attention to you is if you were holding a phone and saying: "I've got Oprah on the line for you!"

You're not alone. Many people have felt ignored by their managers, but they are really beginning to fret more about it these days because they fear that "out of mind" may mean "out of a job" if layoffs hit their workplace.

Unfortunately, some employees go about getting attention in the wrong way. They begin to slack, believing that if the boss doesn't pay any attention to them, what does it matter what they do? Or, they may believe the boss's inattention gives them license to sort of "creatively" handle their job, which can mean anything from illegal acts to taking advantage of other workers.

I once interviewed James E. Lukaszewski, one of those super management gurus, and he had some great advice for finding a way to get yourself heard by the boss. In what called the "three-minute drill" he said that you had to really hone your message, to practice and to do your homework so that when you spoke to the boss, she listened just like you really did have Oprah on the line.

He suggested that you write out your three-minute pitch (or about 450 words) to the boss. It should go something like this:

* In 60 words, describe the nature of the issue, problem or situation that requires decision, action or study by the boss. What you're saying is: "Hey, boss, this situation requires your attention and we've got to talk about it right now."

* Lay out for the boss what it all means. Is it a threat from a competitor? Is it an opportunity to grow the business? Let the boss know WHY is all matters. Again, keep it to about 60 words.

* Say what needs to be done in 60 words.

* Give three options: do nothing, do something or do something more. Giving multiple options is what helps you keep the boss's attention, instead of her just tossing you out when she doesn't like your recommendation. This should be about 150 words.

* Once you give the options, then you need to be prepared to give your recommendation on which one to choose. Being prepared to give an immediate answer keeps her focused on you and your solutions. Hint: Give the one that has the least negative consequences. Total: 60 words.

* Forecast what you think will happen, both the positive and the negative, if any. The boss needs to understand -- in 60 words -- the consequences.

What are other strategies you can use to become more "visible" to the boss?

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Is There an Addict in the Cubicle Next Door?



Six months ago on this blog I wrote about a smart and talented lawyer with four beautiful children who had a drug and alcohol addiction. The story, I said, was that of my cousin and her struggle for recovery in a world where she had once had it all -- but was stripped of nearly everything because of her battles with her addictions.

She died last week.

I had not seen her since my father's funeral eight years ago, but through family contacts I kept up with her health and addiction struggles. I'm not going to go into specifics, but suffice it to say because of her disease she at one point had lost custody of her children, divorced and lost her law license.

I debated writing this post, but after watching stress taking it's toll on everyone in this country because of the economy and the heated political atmosphere, I think it's important that we all make a promise to look out for one another. Addiction doesn't reside just on the street corner with junkies looking for the next fix -- it's also in the meeting rooms and boardrooms and cubicles where we work.

For my newspaper column earlier this year I interviewed Eric Goplerud a Ph.D. and the director of Ensuring Solutions to Alcohol Problems at The George Washington University Medical Center, who told me that while workers’ alcohol problems cost employers millions of dollars each year and contribute to skyrocketing health insurance costs, the problem often is not effectively dealt with in the workplace.

“I think one of the reasons that more employers have not addressed this issue is because it’s perceived as a private issue in the life of an employee,” he said.

He told me that one of the most effective ways to help someone at work is to use what he called "AIM" – aim, inform and motivate.

“You go to someone and you say, ‘You know, you seem to be drinking more – how much are you drinking?’ Then, you inform them that what they’re drinking seems like an awful lot. Finally, you motivate them to get help, by expressing your concern and saying: ‘Have you thought about changing?’”

Goplerud also told me that even those who have not become alcoholics according to the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) guidelines are running a risk by drinking too much.

“What we’ve learned is that many people drink alcohol in ways that are unhealthy to themselves and others,” Goplerud says. “There’s no need for them to go to AA, but it does affect their health and there may be a need to go to counseling in order to handle the progression.”

He stressed that employers need to be aware of situations that can lead to overuse of alcohol by employees, such as workers who labor with little or no supervision or in remote locations – or who travel a lot for business. Also, younger workers (males under 21 have the highest alcohol dependencies) can be greatly influenced to drink more in a company culture where older employees drink heavily.

Unfortunately, research also shows that only 10 percent of working people with serious alcohol problems receive any kind of treatment, Goplerud said.

“This is a problem that is a whole lot easier to treat before it gets out of control,” he said.

You may not want to get involved in someone's addiction battles at work. After all, are you your colleague's keeper? In memory of my cousin, I sure hope so.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What You Can Learn from a Turkey Buzzard About Striking Out on Your Own

I often describe my job these days as being a turkey buzzard.

This is not something I am proud of. Well, maybe. A little bit.

That's because at a time when journalists are being laid off by the hundreds and the freelance writing market sometimes resembles a sweatshop operation, I have managed to survive.

How? I've learned to take what others might term "road kill" and turn it into a pretty decent meal. And you can do the same with your career.

First, in order to become a turkey buzzard, you've got to learn to see the beauty and possibility of a bird that scares the bejeesus out of most people, or at least invokes a shudder. My friend, Kathryn, at Plant Whatever Brings You Joy, once wrote a wonderful piece about these birds. I thought she was kinda crazy, but then I decided that maybe there was a lesson in there for me.

The lesson was this: Sometimes what looks ugly on the surface can really be pretty cool once you open your mind to other possibilties.

We all like to think that we're going to get the biggest piece of pie, the best promotion, the corner office or the juicy pay raise. But sometimes our careers don't always go as planned, and before we know it, we're staring at a dead carcass, known as our job.

That's where the turkey buzzard mindset comes in. Instead of seeing a dead career, you look at it from a buzzard's point of view and see.... opportunity.

In this tough economy, with industries undergoing great upheavals and more people facing layoffs and downsizings, it's the person who creates something from what others see as nothing that will survive.

So, let's talk about ways to prepare for the day you need to be a turkey buzzard:

* Learn to pick through the bones. Many companies these days are streamlining operations, or cutting out services because they're too expensive. But if you see there's still real need for those services -- just on a more limited basis -- you can create an opportunity for yourself.

My first freelance job was for a financially struggling publisher where I had once worked. I approached them, outlining what I could do for them, and how I could hit the ground running because I was so familiar with their business. They took me up on it and I think it was a great solution for everyone. It gave me a steady stream of income while I got the rest of my business underway, and they were able to get a qualified writer for less money that a fulltime writer, and didn't have to pay benefits.

So, if you are let go from an employer, consider if there is a service at your company that is being cut because it is too expensive and too far-reaching -- but you could provide it on a limited scale for less money. The employer would be more willing to contract with an employee familiar with the operation, whether it's coaching services provided by a departing manager, or a laid off worker becoming a virtual assistant.

* Look for hidden goodies. What others may ignore because they believe it's not worth the effort is a golden opportunity for you. The project that was ditched because no one had the time to devote to it, or the difficult (but lucrative) client that was avoided are just the kinds of challenges you can take on when you're on your own.

I don't know how many times I've heard people say: "I can't believe my employer doesn't see this opportunity. We could make lots of money on it, but there's too much red tape."

That's exactly where you come in. You've seen those chances for growth and can now go after them without being hampered by long chains of command and paperwork that would put the IRS to shame. Another advantage is that many times these opportunities are with people you've already met through your former job, so your path should be smoother when you pitch them your idea.

* Gather strength from the rest of the buzzards. Just look at the blogosphere to see the number of bloggers who have joined forces to create powerhouse destinations. These are people who have learned that combining the different talents of various people makes their product stronger. When you decide to create something new, make sure you maintain a strong network. Many of those strong connections will be from your former employer, possibly others who are looking to grasp a new opportunity.

* Scope out new territory. While the pickings at your former employer may be great, don't fall into the trap of only getting your meal from one source, or feeling like you owe them more than anyone else. Former employers can provide a good way to get your new venture off the ground, but you've always got to be scavenging for new sources of income and protecting what you've created.

Do you have a plan in place to propose to your employer should you lose your job?
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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

If You Were a Salad, What Kind of Dressing Would You Be?

Anyone searching for a job knows the excitement of finally landing an interview. But just imagine how you would feel, after prepping for hours to make sure you're ready to answer questions about why you'd be great for the job, to have a hiring manager lean earnestly forward and ask:

"If you could compare yourself with any animal, which would it be and why?"

Huh??

Welcome to the whacky new world of interviewing.

Lynne Sarikas, director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University in Boston, recently filled me in on some of the, er, creative interview questions being asked of job applicants:

* If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be and why?
* If you were a car, what type would you be?
* If you had only six months to left to live, what would you do with the time?
* If you could be a super hero, what would you want your superpowers to be?
* How do I rate as an interviewer?

OK, I think I see the point. The point is the try and rattle the job candidates a bit, because if they've followed the advice that I and others have given them over the years, they've done their homework and prepared good, solid answers to many of the standard (sane) interview questions.

But ever since the high-tech companies started asking questions designed to evaluate how a person thinks (why is a manhole cover round?), interviewers are starting to push the envelope in coming up with off-the-wall questions.

Sarikas says the key is not to panic. There really isn't a right or wrong answer to these questions, but the point is to see how you react when asked to think on your feet. The first thing you do is take a deep breath, so you don't blurt out something like, "Are you kidding me? What kind of crap is this?"

The second thing is to give an answer, even if you feel like an idiot. So, when the interviewer asks, "If you were a salad, what kind of dressing would you be?" answer it to the best of your ability.

"Why, ranch of course," you say. "I go with just about anything, and am favored by most."

Still, if you're feeling it's time to turn the tables a bit and see what this employer is thinking, maybe you could ask some creative questions of your own:

* If your CEO were an animal, what would it be? (If they mention hyena, turkey buzzard, boa constrictor -- you might want to head for the exit.)
* If you could have one person in this company on a deserted island with you, who would you pick? (If the interviewer can't name one person, you may want to reconsider the lack of friendliness within the ranks.)
* If you were asked to compare the supervisor for this job with a food, what would it be? (If a lemon, prune or lima bean is mentioned, be careful in accepting this job. Very careful.)
* If a book were written about this company, what would the title be? (If "Loserville," "Eaten Alive" or "Insanity" is mentioned, again, head for the exit.)

Do you think these kinds of questions being asked of job candidates are fair? Do they serve a purpose?

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Hot Jobs and Job Ruts

I came across a great quote from Casey Stengel to begin this Tidbit Tuesday: "They say you can't do it, but sometimes it doesn't always work."

Here are some items I also thought might be of interest:

* Turn your head and cough: Sixteen of the 30 jobs with the fastest growth are health related, reports the U.S. Department of Labor, while six are computer related.

Most of the remaining fast-growth occupations are in environmental services and education. The fastest-growing major occupational group—professional and related occupations—is made up mostly of occupations that generally require postsecondary education or training. Examples of these are physician assistants, network systems and data communication analysts, computer software engineers, database administrators, physical therapists, preschool and postsecondary teachers, and environmental engineers.

* Social work recall: Working with older adults has been a low priority for social work students, faculty, practitioners and employers, and has created an impending shortage of gerontological social work services, says The National Association of Social Workers - Illinois Chapter.

The chapter now offers retired social workers everything from computer skills updates, interviewing and personal marketing advice, as well as ongoing training on various aspects of working with older adults. A press release states that some return to work for financial reasons, while others are seeking personal and professional stimulation they found lacking in retirement.

* Enron, the sequel: Six years after high-profile corporate scandals rocked American business, there has been little if any meaningful reduction in the enterprise-wide risk of unethical behavior at U.S. companies, according to the Ethics Resource Center's 2007 National Business Ethics Survey®.

Interviews with almost 2,000 employees at U.S. public and private companies of all sizes for the survey show "disturbing shares of workers witnessing ethical misconduct at work - and tending not to report what they see. Conflicts of interest, abusive behavior and lying pose the most severe ethics risks to companies today."

* Smell the love: If you've ever wondered why you like some people at work, and not others, it may be your nose knows the answer. New research from Northwestern University suggests that humans -- like dogs -- pick up infinitesimal scents that affect whether or not they like somebody.

The study adds to a growing body of research suggesting that subliminal sensory information -- whether from scents, vision or hearing -- affects perception.

* Stuck in a rut: Fast Company recently asked Timothy Butler, a Harvard Business School professor and author, how you get "unstuck" at work if you have a mortgage and can't just go off and live in a cabin and find yourself.

Butler's answer: "I'm initially quite suspicious of the person who leaves it all and goes off to a cabin. That sounds more like a geographical cure rather than really looking at the issue itself. Often, negotiating impasse does not mean changing a job or what would be seen as a dramatic change. It does mean recognizing there's something missing and deliberately going about trying to collect information about it. The outcome may be as undramatic as a conversation with your boss about something you'd really like to be doing more or something you'd like to be doing less."


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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Save the Assistants

They are often the unacknowledged heroes of the workplace – the assistants. Not many companies could get by without them. They know tons of critical stuff – from how to fix the office copier to how to set up conference calling with Switzerland to how to get a company party catered for 200 with less than 24 hours notice.

They are smart, tough and critical to the success of their bosses, and yet they can be treated like doormats. No wonder they set up their own Web site to vent their frustrations, share tips for success and yes, plan for their escape from the jobs they sometimes love and often hate.

Recently, Lilit from Save the Assistants reviewed my book, and that led to her asking me questions – and now me asking her questions.

1. Tell me about "Save the Assistants"...how it got started, what kind of topics you address, the goal of the Web site, etc.
My first job in New York after graduating from college was at a very corporate media firm. I had no idea how to be an assistant, and my company didn't really invest time in job training. The only reason I survived was because the other assistants all pitched in and helped each other navigate the day-to-day particulars of our jobs. I started wishing there were some kind of online forum or Web site were I could talk with other assistants. I'm from North Carolina, and many of my college friends were at smaller companies where they were the only assistant – they didn't get the same kind of office camaraderie.

After leaving the company, a former coworker, Ashley, and I, founded Save the Assistants. We wanted it to be a mix of horror stories, practical advice, success stories and other resources to empower assistants. It's helped us as much as it's helped our readers. We always regard our audience as a resource. They send us e-mails and post comments and help continue the conversations we start on the blog.

2. What is the biggest misconception about assistants?
There are two. The first is that assistants are incompetent or stupid – the misconception is usually that if they were smarter or better at their jobs, they wouldn't be assistants anymore. The second is that assistants are secretly plotting to take over their boss' job and will stop at nothing. That “All About Eve” mentality often makes bosses second-guess
their assistants' motives or not trust their assistant to do more complicated, interesting projects, instead saddling them with thankless administrative duties. The truth about assistants is somewhere in the middle of these two misconceptions: they're learning how to do a job, and eventually want to move up and get promoted, but understand that they have some ways to go.

3. So, what do bosses do that drive their assistants crazy?
The biggest thing assistants complain about is their bosses “not treating them like people.” What that boils down to is a boss who talks down to his or her assistant or sees the person only as a faceless employee.

4. How can a boss make an assistant happy and satisfied with the job?
It's amazing how far a little personal gesture can go. A boss and an assistant shouldn't be BFF outside the office. However, a boss personally congratulating an assistant in front of everyone at a meeting or sending the assistant a birthday present can do wonders for improving their relationship. People want to admire and be proud of who they work for, and they also want to feel appreciated for what they do.

5. What do a majority of assistants dislike about their jobs? What do they like the most?
Assistants hate unnecessary busywork, being condescended to, and not feeling useful to the company. Even though spending time as an assistant is necessary, it's way more beneficial to an assistant's career in the long run if she gets to take on projects and learn new things at work than if she sits around and make scopies all day. Give your assistant one or two meaningful projects in addition to her administrative duties, and you'll see her
approach all her work in a more eager way.

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