Monday, July 27, 2009

How to Survive When You're Drowning in a New Job

I've had a lot of "first days" at work in my career, but none were like the summer when I was 19 and got a job as a bank teller.

My trainer, obviously overworked, said to me on the second day: "You know, normally we train someone at least a week or more. But I think you're doing so well I'm just going to let you handle it on your own. Let me know if you have any questions."

She disappeared, and I didn't see her again for two weeks.

You can imagine the outcome. I made lots of mistakes that cost money -- literally. (My cash drawer was always short at the end of the day). I was forced to bug my co-workers constantly with questions. I ended up detesting that job.

So when I got an e-mail from someone telling me how she had felt in over her head on a new job -- I knew it was a story that had to be told. Here's the story I did for my Gannett column:

Darcie Borden believed herself to be fortunate to land a job as an account executive for R&J Public Relations in Bridgewater, N.J. last September, especially when she had little experience in the arena.

It wasn’t long until Borden realized just what that lack of experience meant: insomnia, carb-loading and lots of shallow breathing.

“I was floundering,” she says. “I felt I was in over my head. I couldn’t sleep at night, and I found myself sometimes literally forgetting to breathe.”

While Borden knew there was a learning curve with any new job, she didn’t think her experience as a journalist was serving her well in her new job – despite the fact R&J had hired her after four interviews, fully aware of her background.

“I certainly did not want to admit to any uncertainty. There’s so much competition for jobs these days, and I just didn’t know if they were glad they hired me or not,” she says. “For the first month, I was pretty anxious. I ate lots of carbs.”

Finally, Borden, a self-admitted “perfectionist,” began achieving results. The company also paired her with a mentor, a senior employee who “really helped me calm down and gave me lots of private, non-judgmental feedback.”

Borden’s experience is not that unusual for a new employee, says
Phyllis Mufson, a Philadelphia-based career and business consultant and certified coach. The difference these days, she says, is that employees are terrified they have to learn a new job more quickly in order to avoid being booted back into the unemployment ranks.

“Many firms these days aren’t willing to pay for any training an employee might need,” Mufson says. “And the employee is afraid to ask.”

Another problem is that new employees have to be cautious when telling others they are have difficulty in a new position. “The politics of an organization can be hard to figure out in the beginning. You have to figure out how things work and who has your best interests at heart,” Mufson says.

Anyone faced with learning something quickly can feel overwhelmed and become disorganized, gelling into a mass of anxiety, Mufson says. Coupled with the knowledge that landing a job in this bad employment market is tough only ratchets up the stress for new workers, she adds.

In Borden’s case, she says she’s received lots of support from her employer, and has become more confident as she sees that she has valuable skills, and is now learning new ones. “I’m starting to get more comfortable,” she says. “I don’t think I oversold myself to them. They hired me for my brain and what I know.”

That kind of positive self-talk is important, Mufson says, for any employee who feels they are in over their head. Mufson also advises anyone in this situation should:

• Look for training. “If there are actual skills you need, then you can create a proposal asking for more training,” Mufson says. “But these days, it’s really more up to the worker to get the training they need. “ If that’s the case, then look for online classes, weekend seminars or even a local university student willing to tutor you at home, she says.
• Ask questions. “Be willing to look like a nerd and ask questions when you need to,” she says. “Don’t put yourself down when you do it. It’s much better to ask questions early on in a job rather than later.”
• Talk it up. “Remind yourself of when you’ve been in difficult situations before and you came out of it OK,” she says. “Tell yourself you’ve done it before and you can do it again.”
• Find support. A buddy or mentor who can listen to your concerns, help you come up with some problem-solving and “just let you vet” can help release some anxiety so that you can focus on the issues and not your fear. A career coach also can be a good option.
• Keep your body in tune. Exercise, take yoga or even go online to learn how to do deep breathing to stay calm during these stressful times.

Finally, Mufson says she advises that anyone can avoid feeling overwhelmed in a current career or a future one by making a regular “automatic professional development” deposit.

“It’s just like a Christmas fund. Only with this one you put away money regularly that is for you to do something that keeps your skills updated. It sort of helps take the heat off so you don’t have those ‘uh-oh, I’m in trouble” moments. Lifetime learning is the best strategy against that happening,” she says.

What are some other tips to cope with being overwhelmed at work?

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Monday, June 29, 2009

Need a Shove?

One of the common threads I've found when interviewing people who have lost their jobs over the last year is the optimism most of them feel when they're first laid off. That lasts for about four or five months. Then, you can hear it in their voices: they're scared and frustrated and feel very, very alone.

I've been without work so I know how they feel. But recently I did a story on mentors -- how they can help your career not only when you have a job, but especially when things aren't going so hot. And while no one was portraying the mentoring experience as all fun and games -- it takes a lot of hard work and sometimes your mentor drives you a bit batty -- those I interviewed credited mentors with adding a lot to their lives.

I think we've all got to invest more in ourselves, no matter what our employment status. We need people in our corner, through good times and bad. Without those relationships, I think we risk making unnecessary mistakes, of letting good opportunities pass us by because of our own ignorance or perhaps our own fear. As this story show, mentoring may be just what we need:

Sometimes in our careers we need a kick in the pants. We need someone to push us, to make us see what’s possible and how we can get there. For people like Linda Swindling, that point came in college. For Christopher Wright, it came when he was enduring a job he hated.

Both turned to mentors. People in their lives who came along, saw their strengths and weaknesses – and for no pay at all – gave them invaluable advice that helped them land at better places in their career.

Now, at a time when most of us are confused and stressed about our jobs and career paths, mentoring programs appear to be more popular than ever – even employers are seeing the value in offering such support to employees.

Beth Carvin, CEO and president of Nobscot Corp., a retention management consulting firm in Honolulu, says that the company’s mentoring division, Mentor Scout, is currently doing a booming business. The program helps companies set up mentoring programs.

“It’s a way for companies to develop their talent, and it’s cost effective because they’re utilizing their resources internally,” Carvin says. “We’re seeing a huge growth in mentoring.”

Currently, about 70 percent of Fortune 500 companies offer mentor programs, but experts say no one in this economy should wait for an employer to find them a mentor.
“A lot of people don’t even think of it until they lose a job,” Carvin says. “You really need to think of it when you have a job.”

Swindling, a Dallas-based speaker and author, says that she’s used mentors since her college days, and still relies on them. “Mentors have really given me a push when I need it. They remind me of stuff I’m not doing and give me a different perspective,” she says.

Wright credits his mentor from decades ago with giving him the skills he needed to run his own mechanical engineering practice. “He was very open about what he was doing and very patient with my persistent questions and in helping me fix my mistakes,” Wright says.

Still, even with the fond memories for Swindling and Wright, both say that those going into a mentoring relationship need to understand it’s not always enjoyable.

“The truth is that just like with any relationship, there are downsides. My mentor got impatient with me at times, and there were times when I felt he could be too verbose. He could be maddeningly discursive,” Wright says.

Swindling adds: “You find some people who say they can help you and they’re lying. They just want you to help them sell their stuff. They want to use you.”
If you’re considering a mentoring relationship, those interviewed for this story have some advice. They say you should:

1.Plan ahead. “Nobody wants to just have you walk up to them and say, ‘I want you to be my mentor.’ You’ll freak them out. Tell them that you have a problem, and what you need from them in terms of help,” Swindling says. “Different mentors can be used for different aspects of your life. Don’t ask someone to do it all.”

Carvin adds that you should review your past jobs and relationships, weighing the best person to help you. A former boss? A Co-worker? Someone from an industry group? “Be thoughtful when you contact them, saying who you are, why you have chosen them and what you hope to gain. Also talk about what you expect from them in terms of time,” Carvin says.

2.Be patient. “It took a while to get close to my mentor. It was about two or three years before we really trusted one another. I trusted him to respond to my stupid questions, and he trusted me to ask about the things I didn’t know,” Wright says. “We were completely honest with one another.”

While not all mentoring relationships last for years, and may only be in place to complete a specific goal or project. Swindling, who now often serves as a mentor herself, says that mentoring is very time consuming so you must always be respectful and decide what would be the best use of the mentor’s time. “Sometimes I’ll say to someone who wants my help: ‘What are the top two things that we need to discuss?’”

3.Be realistic. “Keep in mind that rarely is the mentor going to be able to give you a job or introduce you to the person who has an immediate need. More likely, the mentor will help you down the path quicker and with more insight, which can later give you an edge on other job seekers,” Swindling says.

She also points out that mentors can help you submit a resume at a “higher level” and protect you from “automatic outs” like a spelling error on your resume.

4.Be observant. “I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to a convention and been seated right next to someone who can help me,” Swindling says. “People love to give back.”

Wright says he met his longtime mentor – who has since passed away – when he drove him back to his hotel after a business meeting. “We must have sat in the car and talked for an hour and a half. Then he offered me a job,” Wright says. “You can’t always have that kind of chemistry with a mentor, but that trust is critical.”

Notes Carvin: “Different mentors can offer you different kinds of help. The key is to always be looking, to always know what you need.”

What do you think is the key to having a positive mentoring experience?

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Five Steps for Survival When You've Been Verbally Reprimanded

Everyone knows that when a boss starts "paper-trailing" you -- giving you written reprimands that go into your personnel file -- you're in deep doo-doo.

That's because written reprimands are what bosses do when they're seriously considering booting you to the curb -- or have already made up their mind and are just going through the paper thing because human resources makes them.

But what happens when you get a "verbal" reprimand? Is that the same as a "paper" reprimand?

Well, yes and no.

Obviously, it's not paper, so that makes it different. And, if the boss were really fed up with you, he would be writing down what you did (or didn't do) and shooting off a copy to HR. But when he just verbally disses your performance, you've been given a (brief) reprieve to get your act together.

Usually, a supervisor will say something like, "This is your official verbal warning" or something to that effect. When you hear that, it's your cue to either a) start dusting off your resume or b) craft a battle plan to save your butt.

And, in this economy with the crappy job market, I'd suggest you focus on Plan B.

So, let's look at an action plan when you get a verbal warning from the boss:

1. Set the tone. Ask for a time to talk to your boss when you won't be interrupted. Trying to discuss a serious issue such as your performance while on an elevator or in the break room pouring a cup of coffee won't serve your interests well. By asking for a meeting, you show that you're taking what he said to heart.
2. Ask for specifics. The boss saying, "You're not a team player" isn't going to be very illuminating, so ask if he can provide specific instances of this behavior. Don't be confrontational or defensive: Listen and take notes.
3. Set goals. Just as in a formal yearly performance appraisal, you should always have a clear road map of where you need to go. In this case, you're looking for things you can do right away to show the boss you're serious about meeting expectations. Then, ask about long-term expectations: Have those changed since your last evaluation?
4. Follow up. After you've had your meeting, use your notes to write a formal e-mail to your boss, outlining your expectations and goals. Tell the boss how much you appreciate the feedback. Make sure you send your boss e-mails when you've met those expectations: Bosses aren't the only ones who can paper-trail. Keeping track of your accomplishments is a good practice not only for employees who are in trouble, but as a way to have solid proof of your contributions. Set up regular appointments with the boss to make sure you're staying on track.
5. Kick your own butt. Once you've got a good idea of what the boss expects, it's time to take a hard look at your performance. Is the verbal reprimand an indication of a more serious problem? Do you need anger management classes, or perhaps more training in an area that makes you defensive because you lack the necessary skills? Are you deliberately doing a poor job because you resent a co-worker or the boss? This is a good opportunity to find a mentor who is willing to give you honest feedback and help steer you back on course.

What other steps should someone take after a verbal reprimand?

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Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Workplace Mentors From Hell

I've never had a discussion about mentoring without someone offering a story about the mentor from hell. Stories of micromanagement, hostility, uninvolvment or just plain weirdness are some of the tales of woe from the mentees.

The most difficult situation is when the mentee can't find a way to put an end to the relationship. Finding a way to be diplomatic and not totally sabatoging a career while ditching a mentor at the first opportunity can be tough. Most mentees don't want to be disrespectful or unprofessional, but sometimes horrible mentors can push them to extreme measures.

I've written before about finding a mentor and making sure you both get something out of the deal, but is there a way to spot potential "bad" mentors before you enter into the relationship? Is there a way to check out the credentials of a potential mentor before you make the commitment? And, if you do find yourself disliking your mentor, should you just give it more time or get out as soon as possible?


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