Tuesday, January 26, 2010

3 Ways to Give the Best of Yourself


I love that little button on my TV remote. I use it a lot. Commercial comes on?


A program with talking heads yelling at each other?


In today's workplace, I think a lot of people long for a "mute" button. Unfortunately, not only do we not have the option of tuning everything out, but the increasing stress levels have made it just a bit too loud -- in all kinds of ways.

Recently, I looked into the issue of incivility and stress in the workplace, and what we can do about it. Here's the column I did for Gannett:

As you check your e-mail, return phone calls, gather materials for a meeting in five minutes and try to ignore the fact you haven’t had time to eat lunch, the last thing you may find time for in your busy work day is taking a breather.

Who has time to pause these days? To catch a deep breath when there are ringing phones and buzzing pagers and deadlines and endless workloads? If you pause, you think, all the balls you’re juggling might come crashing down around your head. If you take a take a break, you believe, you’ll only get further behind.

But Nance Guilmartin believes that’s exactly the type of thinking that has led to so much incivility in the workplace today. The inability to give ourselves a moment to gather our thoughts, she says, is what has led many people to make bad decisions, engage in fruitless arguments and ratchet up the stress.

“We’re stretched to the snapping point,” says Guilmartin, an executive coach. “What people need to understand is that even though they can’t change what’s happening, they can change how they handle it. They don’t have to be the victim of what they can’t control.”

Guilmartin says that workers need to learn to stop the habit of “knee-jerk reactions” to situations or people at work, and instead take a minute to consider what they’ve heard and ask questions to make sure they understand the situation before commenting. She says taking a pause allows us to “tap back into our long-lost common sense.”

In her book, “The Power of Pause: How to Be More Effective in a Demanding, 24/7 World, “(Jossey-Bass, $24.95), Guilmarten tells the story of a nurse who was advised to slow down, and reacted with disbelief. As a busy professional with multiple patients, limited resources and time and the unending stress of ill or dying patients, the nurse was incredulous that anyone would tell her to “take a moment to catch her own breath,” Guilmartin says.

Guilmartin says she shared with the nurse the story of a friend who had been in and out of hospitals for a couple of years, and said she felt like nothing more than a “procedure” every time a harried nurse entered her room.

The friend told Guilmartin she would instead appreciate being seen as a person first, and a patient second.
Guilmartin said the message resonated with the nurse, who did indeed begin taking a breath before entering a patient’s room, understanding that the pause ensured that she gave the patient a better quality of care, and made her a better nurse.

“We have to learn to give the best of ourselves in the moment,” Guilmartin says. “And all it takes is the time to take one deep breath. Maybe you don’t have time to do more, but you can do more with the time you have.”

Guilmartin says there are a number of ways to be more successful and have more impact and satisfaction in our work, simply by changing a few bad habits that have cropped up in a non-stop, always-connected world.

Among them:
Don’t react with angry words. Either verbally or written in an e-mail, “you give your power away when you get furious,” she says. “You may win the battle, but you lose the war.” Instead, when frustrated or angry, pause and then try and regain control of the situation by getting more information. It could be that you misunderstood, the person may have accidentally misspoken, or you don’t fully understand all the issues involved.
• Listen. The workplace today is focused on developing a collaborative atmosphere where ideas are shared to drive innovation. That can’t happen, she says, unless people take the time to simply show respect by listening to another person without jumping in with snap decisions or judgments so they can move onto the next item on a to-do list. “The greatest thing you can have someone say about you is: ‘Wow. She’s a great listener.
• Be honest. “If someone comes to you and you’re waiting on an important phone call, be honest with them and say that you can give them only 50 percent of your attention because you’re focused on the upcoming call. Tell them if that's OK, you can give them what you can at the time. What this does is help the person come to trust you because you’re being honest.”

What are some ways you use to slow yourself down when things get crazy?


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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

How to Move from Temporary Work to a Full-Time Gig

When I was in high school I landed my first holiday job working at a small J.C. Penney's. Most of the time I was scheduled to work after school until about 9 p.m. I soon dubbed it as "The Dead Zone."

There usually weren't a lot of customers during those hours, and all the stocking had been done during the day. This left me with long hours to be bored spitless, staring at double-polyester peach pantsuits and trying to look busy while doing it.

One night I started re-dressing all the mannequins in clothes I liked better. I re-arranged displays and started throwing away broken supplies.

I did that several times when things were slow. The mannequins became giant Barbie dolls, their fashions changing several times a week. I organized and cleaned the cash register area just to keep busy and help the hours pass faster.

A couple of weeks later, a manager paid me a visit. He said he had noticed the work I had done and wanted to extend my temporary employment. That was the beginning of a job that helped me pay for college. The store scheduled me whenever I had time after school and gave me full-time work during summer and holiday breaks.

I thought of this job when I began working on a story for my Gannett column on how temporary workers can turn their work into full-time gigs. When I was in high school, I was just bored and wanted to keep busy, but it seems that my strategy was one that experts recommend: work hard, look for problems to solve and show how you contribute to the company's success.

Here's the column:

Employers, still nervous about the health of the economy, have kept their permanent staff numbers lean, but have boosted their number of temporary workers. So, the question is: if you’re a temporary employee, how to you get an employer to hire you on a permanent basis when companies seem in no rush to do so?

“Ask,” says Alexandra Levit, a career expert. “Some people may be hesitant to do so, but you’ve got to ask if there are fulltime opportunities. Otherwise, you’ll never know.”

Levit, author of “New Job, New You” cautions that before such an inquiry you should make sure you’ve been doing a great job at the position you were hired to fill as a temp.

Martha Finney, president and CEO of Engagement Journeys LLC, agrees. “You’ve got to demonstrate that even as a temp, you’re a great fit for the company. Smile, be friendly and treat the job like it’s permanent and you own it. Treating it with respect sends out the right signal.”

The latest unemployment figures for December found that an additional 46,500 temporary workers were added by employers. This continues a trend for the previous month, when more than 50,000 temp workers were added.

Finney and Levit say taking on temporary work can be a good idea for many reasons.

“There are a lot of advantages to being a temp,” says Finney, who has herself been in the temporary worker ranks. “Many people have found out that permanent positions often have only the illusion of stability. You could actually find yourself in a more permanent job by being a full-time temp.”

Levit says that being a temp can fit in perfectly with some lifestyles, such as the baby boomer no longer interested in climbing the corporate ladder and “just wanting to collect a paycheck.”

“However, I wouldn’t recommend being a temporary for a long period for someone in their 20s because of it lacking the earning potential (of a permanent position),” Levit says. “You just have to decide what it is you want out of your job if you decide to temp.”

For companies, hiring temps can cost about 30 percent less than regular workers, mostly because they don’t have to pay for health benefits and unemployment. And while many workers seek permanent jobs specifically to get benefits, Finney says some temp agencies offer benefits, “so that’s not necessarily the only reason you should want to work for an employer fulltime.”

Finney, co-author of “ Unlock the Hidden Job Market,” points out that working as a temp can give someone a unique chance to see if a company and its culture would be “a good fit.”

“Lots of companies turn down job candidates because they say they’re just ‘not a good fit.’ Well, the same can be true of an employer. Being a temp gives you a chance to see if you appreciate their style,” she says.

Levit and Finney say that anyone wanting to try and move from a temporary job into a permanent position with an employer should:

  • Make connections. “Even if you’re only there for a day, make sure you send the supervisor a hand-written thank you note, and follow it up with an e-mail. Ask if she might be willing to brainstorm some ideas with you later about how to get your foot in the door,” Finney says.
  • Fix what is broken. “Look around and try and see what you can do to make yourself indispensable. How can you help them?” Levit says.

Levit says she knows of one temporary seasonal worker at a furniture store who suggested the way to compete with lower online prices was to attract customers into the store by offering customer events such as peakers offering career advice. “She did more than just man the cash register,” Levit says of the temp.

Levit further suggests talking to other employees “and ask what they’re dealing with right now. Then, figure out how you can help them.”

  • Watch the schmooze. “Organizations understand that temps are more than their day job, but don’t reach beyond your job if it doesn’t feel comfortable. The most important thing is to first do your job really well, then you can network,” Levit says.

“Right now, you’re going to have to be patient if you’re a temp,” she adds. “I think employers are going to start hiring more on a permanent basis, but it’s going to take a while.”


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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

6 tips for handling a pregnancy and a career

When I was pregnant with my first child, I was determined to be professional and discreet about the issue at work. I didn't even plan on telling my boss until I was past my first trimester. I was determined nothing was going to change -- just because I was pregnant didn't mean I would do my job differently.

Then came the day a co-worker entered my office smoking a cigarette (back in the days when such things were allowed). I took one whiff, and nearly knocked the guy off his feet as I ran for the bathroom, overwhelmed by nausea.

My green complexion until noon every day, and the ongoing exhaustion, made it impossible for me to try and keep the issue quiet. Everyone around my office was so supportive of the news, but I still was determined to keep a professional demeanor -- no easy feat when you begin waddling like a duck and the office starts a betting pool on your delivery date.

Every woman with a job faces tough choices when she becomes pregnant, even more so in this tough economy. I explored the subject in my Gannett column:

When a woman finds out she’s pregnant, it can be a joyous occasion – until she realizes that her juggle to combine motherhood with a career may be just beginning.

There are a multitude of issues to address when a working woman is pregnant, from when to tell the boss about the little bundle on the way to how to handle the nausea and exhaustion while working.

Then, there’s the questions of what she can expect to happen to her career while on maternity leave.
“Everyone feels differently when they become pregnant. It can be a complicated pathway.

Having a child is such a rich part of life, but you have to be realistic about what’s going to happen,” says Dr. Marjorie Greenfield, an obstetrician-gynecologist and author of a new book, “The Working Woman’s Pregnancy Book,” (Yale University Press, $18).

Greenfield says that this tough job market can add to the stress for a pregnant career woman, who may worry that although the law doesn’t allow her to be fired for being pregnant, that can’t stop an employer from eliminating her job. With a 10 percent unemployment rate, pregnant women must plan ahead to make sure that they still have a job when they return from pregnancy leave, she says.

One of first things a woman must learn is that just because she is excited about her pregnancy, it doesn’t mean everyone else feels the same, Greenfield says.

Co-workers who have suffered miscarriages or infertility issues might be bothered by the news, or the boss may be “only thinking of it in terms of how it impacts the workplace,” she says.

“Don’t take any of this personally. Don’t get your feelings hurt by it,” she says. “You can’t assume everyone will feel the way you do.”

Greenfield says that by coming up with a game plan for the pregnancy and the maternity leave, career women can more successfully navigate the new world of being a working mom. She suggests you:

• Don’t whine. If you’re tired or nauseated while at work, plan ways to handle it as discreetly as possible. Take a catnap during your lunch hour, and stick to bland foods until your stomach settles. Take vacation time if you’re feeling really bad until things settle down. Try to find the time of day when you feel best and use that for your most difficult tasks.

• Stay on top of your game. While you may feel a bit distracted during your pregnancy because of all the changes, try to stay sharp and focused at work. Earn the respect – and future help – of others by pitching in when needed. Take a brisk walk outside when you’re feeling sluggish.

• Start planning. Once you tell the boss (make sure the manager isn’t the last to know), follow up the initial news with an outline of how your work can be covered while you’re gone. Don’t plan on keeping up with your career completely while on maternity leave – just checking in via phone or e-mail once a day may be all you can handle. “I have a colleague who tells new mothers that if they take care of two bodily functions a day, they’re doing great.” Greenfield says. “Being home with a newborn is no vacation.”

• Be flexible. Once the baby arrives and you return to work, you’ll need to periodically reassess how your plans are working out for your job and your family. Saying “no” to people who demand too much from you is OK.

• Think creatively. Is it possible to work from home sometimes or adjust your schedule? Could you job share, possibly with another working parent?

• Embrace the guilt. Working moms often struggle with trying to do it all, but they can’t. Accept that sometimes you’ll feel conflicted by your decisions, and move on. Think about all the things you’re able to do, such as hold a job and raise a child. That will always be an inspiration to your family, Greenfield says.

Do you have any suggestions on how a woman can best handle her pregnancy at work?

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Monday, January 4, 2010

Eat your salad first, and other career strategies

Every year I get loads of candy over the holidays, and every year I feel compelled to eat it as fast as possible. This is because I always make a New Year's resolution to lose weight and eat healthier, so I figure the faster I consume the candy, the faster I can get on the road to being skinny and fit.

Guess what? It never works. Because before you know it, Valentine's Day is rolling around and that means more candy. Which means I need to get busy scarfing it down so I can get back to losing weight and exercising.

New Year's resolutions are tough. But unlike other people who think they're a waste of time, I sort of like them. It gives me hope every year to think that I want to do better, to be better.

I also have found that it pays to be more realistic when setting goals for myself. So, while I might not always eat healthy stuff, I've promised myself to eat the salad BEFORE the M&Ms.

Here's the story I did on resolutions for your career for my Gannett column:

The problem with making resolutions regarding your career is that you become so busy with your job, or so stressed by everyday work events that you quickly lose sight of the things you want to improve.

For example, maybe you decide that you want to begin the new year by being more organized. But a quick look at the hundreds of e-mails awaiting your attention, the foot-high stack of reports leaning against the wall and the constantly ringing telephone makes you quickly scrap the plan. Who’s got time to get organized?

The key is not being too ambitious. After all, most people are doing more work than ever, and you don’t need to add to the pressure. Don’t make such sweeping plans that you would have to clone yourself a dozen times in order to accomplish a goal. At the same time, don’t try to tackle too many things at one time. Think about putting a new idea into play for each month of 2010. Who cares if you make a resolution for January or September? The point is that you’re trying to make life better for yourself, and that timetable belongs to no one but you.

Here are some ideas to get your started:

1. Get more organized. That’s a resolution that can be pretty ambitious, so instead plan to spend 10 minutes at the end of every day noting your top three most critical tasks for the next day. Take everything else off your desk except for those materials and write the list on piece of paper or your calendar so it’s the first thing you see when arriving for work.
2. Improve skills. Most people have figured out that to survive in today’s business climate they must make themselves more valuable by learning new skills. But deciding to go back to school can be a daunting challenge, especially if you’re working full time. Find a seminar at a nearby college or through a professional group, and attend. Maybe it’s an evening session on how to use social media or how to speak publicly. The point is to find one event that is an investment in yourself professionally.
3. Network. Instead of casting a wide net at an event and passing out business cards randomly or adding 500 people to your list of Twitter follows, target five people a month to add to your network. You can decide whether to call them, connect with them via LinkedIn or even ask them to lunch. Just adding five people a month means you won’t feel overwhelmed and end up doing nothing, and ensures you make a more meaningful connection because you won’t be rushed.
4. Focus on quality. A lot of companies like to say they’re focused on quality, and deluge employees with memos and reports on the subject. But there are ways to focus on the quality of your daily tasks that can make a real difference in how you are viewed at work. Try proofing every single e-mail before you send it, making sure you use proper grammar and spelling. When you leave your personal message for callers, stand up and smile while speaking. Your message will make you sound energetic and approachable.
5. Take the high road. Deciding to be a nicer person is a wonderful goal, and one many people like to put on their resolution list. But the guy in the cubicle next to yours drives you crazy by eating chili cheese dogs – with extra onions – at his desk. The receptionist puts your mail in the wrong box. Lots of little aggravations can challenge your “be nice” resolve at work, and before you know it, you’re upset with yourself after making a snide comment or getting in to an argument with a co-worker. Instead, make a commitment to pay a sincere compliment to one co-worker a day, especially to someone who is getting on your last nerve. Prompting yourself to see the good in someone can help put petty annoyances to rest.

What are some resolutions we should make for our careers this year?


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