Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Aug 13, 2012

Your 23 Year-Old Social Media Manager Replies to Inc.com

On August 10, 2012, Inc.com posted an article entitled “11 Reasons a 23-Year-old Shouldn’t Run Your Social Media.” (Because they might start sentences with numerals... was not one of the reasons.)  Author Hollis Thomases questions their maturity with your brand and their grace under fire, among other things.  This got one of our student body very hot and bothered.  She also happens to be a social media manager under-30.

Contributing Author, Natalie Keener 

Hire a 23-year-old to manage your social media, because no one else will do it.

I rarely defend Millennials. If we were to generalize, as Hollis Thomases did, we could say most Millennials are over educated and under qualified, with helicopter parents and a clingy yet apathetic nature that is just…annoying. 

I get that. There are few times I will go up to bat for my generation.

 But social media is one area that some (not all) of us twenty-somethings are capable of, if not completely proficient in. I can’t help but laugh at the term “proficient” here because I firmly believe there is nothing difficult about Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Google+, etc. People can be “proficient” in Hebrew or calculus. Facebook? It’s like standing in a room full of strangers and not having a nervous breakdown.

If you’re able to engage even one other human in conversation with the slightest bit of charm or wit, your Facebook friends will thank you, and better yet, your consumers/clients/funders will learn to love you.
Here are a few reasons why you should hire a 23-year-old to manage your social media presence, if you happen to stumble across one and are too afraid to ford the proverbial Facebook river alone:
1.       They know other 23-year-olds
Depending on your strategy and goals, you may or may not need a swarm of young people. But is a crowd ever a bad thing? 

2.       They speak the language
When I was first asked to direct a social media campaign, the higher ups wanted to have a talk about “the plan.” This session involved questions like “how often will you tweet?” “who will you follow?” “what will you say?” I’m all about goals and objectives, but 23-year-olds don’t think to themselves Now is a good time to update my Facebook status! Our lives are no longer offline/online/off Facebook/on Facebook. It is a constant, mostly mindless activity. And for this reason, yes, you will need to direct/supervise your social media manager. But would that change if the person were 40? I would hope you’re directing your brand’s reputation on every platform, not just social media. Twenty three year olds grew up on Facebook. We were in high school when it expanded beyond college-only users. We were on Myspace in middle school and Livejournal in elementary school. Yep, we were blogging as 4th graders. Get used to it.  

3.       They’re teachable
If  you’re strategizing and directing your messaging, you’re teaching your staff how to talk about the people/customers/clients you serve and what you do for them. If not, then a 23-year-old social media manager can’t help or hurt your brand because it’s a mess to begin with. To continue generalizing, Millennials need leadership and structure. And feedback. They are the generation who got rewards for just showing up. So imagine the positive feedback required when they actually do something right. But they’re eager to please and grateful to work. Just give them a chance. 

4.       They might have to steward your brand’s future
Like it or not, you’re going to retire/die/move on someday. You and the other 60-year-olds. And these young whippersnappers are going to start becoming old whippersnappers and the next generation of apathetic, shallow youngsters with overbearing parents will come along. And the Millennials will have to guide and teach and move up into big, scary roles. What then? Did you take the time to mentor them, to instill in them the resolve to steward your brand’s messaging and reputation? What kind of online legacy are you planning to leave? 

5.       They know more than you’d expect
When I was asked to be a social media manager, I was 23. I was a few months out of grad school. I did it because I never said no to anything and I knew it wouldn’t be hard. As time went on, people started asking me questions about it. My boss asked me something about effective social media strategies, and I cited a study I’d read. Then I cited a study I’d conducted and published. I hadn’t flaunted that at my interview or even my first few months of work, because it was pretty irrelevant until that point in time. But I studied mass communications, and social media was a big part of it. Anyone who studied public relations, marketing, advertising, mass media, English, creative writing, social sciences, humanities, etc., after 2008 knows about social media and its impact on the [fill in the blank] industry.

Social media is not an art, but it is a language. And odds are, if you're 23, you speak the language.  Not every conversation is carefully crafted with Marketing 101 in mind, but at least 23-year-olds are HAVING the conversation. We're not afraid, we're not intimidated, and we're not inhibited by different formats and media. We grew up speaking this language. Just give us a chance.

Jan 10, 2012

"Stay Interview" tips for the Interviewee

Have you ever sat in your Exit Interview, with a member of HR you never met before, and thought, "Maybe you should have asked this 4 years ago"?  Let us know if you have encountered the latest "employee engagement"  tool awkwardly known as The Stay Interview -- as in, not "why are you leaving," but rather "what motivates you to stay?"

Jon Younger, of the RBL Institute, offered a strong summary of the tool's purpose, along with guidelines for its use a few years ago in The Huffington Post.  At the Finishing School, where some of our best friends are Managers, we are strongly in favor of employee engagement in general.  It used to be a fundamental component of staff development, and was known in our day as ... Management.
American business is less about forming long-term relationships these days.

There is plenty to read on Stay Interview technique -- much of it strangely similar, and nearly all of written for the Manager.

Your faculty would like to complement Mr Younger's  advice (and other postings of similar verbiage)  with advice and encouragement for those being interviewed -- as well as a healthy dose of skepticism.  Like performance reviews and promotions, these techniques can range from discovering hidden capacity  to Exhibit A for moving you down the stacked-ranking list.

The sample questions we have seen for this exercise tend to be more "on the money" than you may be ready for.  The Company goals may be to determine who will stay more than who wants  to stay.  Your answer may be the catalyst for new opportunities, but nearly all in the form of action items for you.  It may be the source of new openness between you and Management; it may also force a response like... "that will probably never change."   So consider your answers carefully. 

Take your time - If you are not offered the time to take away the questions and answer them on your own, ask for it.  Your gut response is probably honest, but needs to be refined (even professionally spun, if you will) in order to be useful feedback.

Use "I" messages:  Still helpful advice in most interpersonal situations.  By answering in terms of yourself, you a) own the experience, however subjective, and  b) avoid putting management on the defensive, which never works in your favor.

Be professional:  Putting the first twp tips together helps you achieve this one.  When the Question is "What do you like about your job?"  and the answer is "nothing," you need to find a non-threatening way to tell the truth.   The same embroidery you put to your resume might be what you draw on now.
needlework by mwashin

"Pays the bills" = financially rewarding
"Close to home" = flexibility
"Good teammates" = "Good teammates"  Management loves this feedback, actually.  It says that they made many good hiring decisions, and that you are a team player

Don't oversell: at the same time, though, don't feel obligated to write a college admissions essay.  Bullet points are fine.  They  are going to force you to talk it out anyway, and with minimal talking points, you can adjust your response to best suit the tone of the meeting, without having to commit to something you wrote last night over a gin and tonic.

Don't ask for the impossible:  A 20% raise would make all of us like our jobs more,  but that is unlikely.  Now you have given your manager an impossible goal.
Don't ask for the undeliverable: That is, if you say you'd like to learn the budgeting process, be prepared to be delegated to.

In both cases, you can open yourself to an easy win, such as getting a mentor, or leading a small workgroup, that solves problems other people have expressed in their stay interviews.

According to  much of the Manager-focused information on this engagement tool, your being asked to participate in a Stay Interview is to be taken a compliment.  Most of this information identifies "top performers" as the first people to interview about why they stay.  So take it in the spirit it is intended, and try not to pine for the days when Management knew why you stayed, because that was their goal all along.

Dec 25, 2011

Workplace Dangers: Meeting with Legal

Instructor, Caroline Bender

This is not Miss Bender's usual lecture about the paper trail -- of the CYA/Kumbaya variety.  We'd like to go a little wider and deeper in today's class.  These are habits you need firmly established before you need them.  Because you never know when you are going to be deposed.

Let's review some examples of a email reply, with attachment.

1) subject line: none.  No message text
2) subject line: "spreadsheet".  message -  "Here ya go."  or... "per our conversation," (however formal your environment tends to be)

3) subject line (name of attachment):  message text:
Hello Brenda,
Please find attached the latest version of the report we reviewed on today's call, which I downloaded a few minutes ago.  Please look it over and make any comments directly in the document.  If you have no changes, please let me know that too.  I will file it to the accountants as soon as I have heard from you.

Three months or 3 years after that report has been cited as evidence in a business issue, you will be glad you chose #3.

I acknowledge the tedium of email.  It is actually more annoying than business by phone (if that is possible) and can be terribly time-consuming.  In the corporate arena, especially, we are buried in it, and without secretaries to weed it out for us.  Most days, it seems the only way to get through it all is to reply-yes, reply-no, reply-see attached, reply-please reschedule... and you already made a macro to insert "Please."  F12 is nice for that.

I ask that you acknowledge this:  A stitch in time... saves several uncomfortable meetings with General Counsel.  Not only can you pull a timeline of your role in whatever is exploding, you can quickly check your own memory of what happened when, and why.

Take this Pop-Quiz
Pull a history of the last 6 month's emails on any given category of your work.  (If you are not yet using Outlook categories to reference your email, please set aside additional time to read this).   Based on what you find, could you put together a reliable discovery-worthy history of events, using only these official business documents you yourself created?   Then I urge you to begin tomorrow, writing business emails so complete you could come back to work after a traumatic brain injury and still know what you were doing last week.

These do not have to be baroque in style -- heretofore, forthwith, whereas -- or even particularly long.  They need to be

Thorough -  if you need a template, try this:
  • The Big picture this pertains to.  
  • The central message of this email.  
  • Action on the part of the reader.  
  • Next steps for the sender.  
Read the note to Brenda again -- more than 3 sentences, yes, but the structure is there.  This "next step" area also serves as a task for you.  And if you are not yet using Outlook Tasks as your To Do list,  please set aside additional time to read this).

Date and Time stamped - the easy part is done for you already.  What you also want to include are points of reference that can be useful, such as noting to Brenda that the report was run "a few minutes" before the time stamp on the message.  The action came out of  "today's call," which likely has minutes or notes stored elsewhere.  Date your attachments whenever possible, also.  If it is later modified, its properties will tell you that; the date in its name can signal when it was created, run, or what it refers to (Annual_Report_2010).  If you develop a consistency for your own dating convention, the document name will have immediate meaning for you and your recipients.

Who did What and When - Miss Bender developed an inclusive "we" habit early in her career -- a style she still prefers to "I," rather like referring to herself in the third person -- but "we" will immediately draw the question who out of the attorneys.  Naming names is good practice when asking for, or reporting, approval, sign-off, and other such authorizations.

Cross-Reference - Refer to supporting documents, work request IDs, meeting minutes, and the like by their full names.  This will be exceptionally handy even if no one seizes your records.  If the email is internal only, consider linking directly to shared documents from within the message so they can be retrieved immediately.

Recycle - Another handy tip for general productivity, and a sure thing for keeping the story straight.  Copy statements from your minutes, right to your action items, to your progress reports, your dashboards, your email messages.  No telephone game here -- and in a desktop search, you'll find all the documentation that pertains to that item. (And if you are not yet using a desktop search tool besides the one your operating system came with,  please set aside additional time to read this. ) 

Learn how to make a quick and relevant timeline out of your email archive.  Test yourself on a project some time back -- a year ago, even -- by making a 1 page document of key actions, milestones, decisions based only on what you can retrieve from your email.  Management is easily assuaged by
mm//dd/yyyy: AUTHORITY decides to DO/NOT DO

Store and backup - but don't overwhelm yourself.  It is not necessary to save every email if your end of the thread can fill in the blanks, and if your emails repeat and reinforce other documentation.  I recommend a Best Practice of keep the current year immediately handy in email form, the previous year in desktop folders or an email backup, and earlier things as Key decisions and documentation.  Your workplace may not allow the deletion of email.  That's becoming very common.

In which case, please set aside additional time to read this.

Happy New Year from the Business Women's Finishing School & Social Club.  
Tell us what's on your mind.

Oct 6, 2011

Influence without authority

A letter to the editor by Diane Chambers, BWFS Graduate student

"I'm at my wit's end," Chambers' letter began, "so I thought I would pen a quick relatively snarky post."

We at the Finishing School do appreciate the snarky.  We even appreciate the stomp around and overturn the water cooler.  But even at the highest levels of the faculty, our motto is... When you want to stand on the table, write a helpful post instead.  

Trying to get something done when you aren't in a position to say, "do this because I pay you" or "do this because otherwise I will hurt you" may necessitate the technique of  "influence without authority."   The tool of influencing without authority is often positioned towards entry level and middle management persons, but also applies to executives.
When you're a leader among leaders, a country's president among country presidents, an EVP among EVPs - you have no choice but to engage in IWOA.

Here are a few ways to do just that.  Comments are welcome.
1. Be bold and ask directly for what you want. For some it works, others may just get laughed at, so be judicious.

2. Appeal to the diva/star/megalomaniac in the other, otherwise known as "sucking up."  Best to be subtle here.  And be sure to insert your request!  A shame to waste a good suck-up.

3. Bargain/horsetrade.  In order to do this you need to cultivate something the other might want, and make it known that you have it, and MIGHT share it, but only with certain kinds of people.

4. Threaten to escalate.  This is akin to "I'm telling mom on you" and may be laughed at and/or may irritate the "mom" in question, so be sparing with the use of this one.

5 Public shaming.  This doesn't need to involve the press.  It may involve a weekly meeting where many are in attendance.  It can be effective but can backfire.

6. Build coalitions: harness the power of many in your favor.  Be prepared to give back to the coalition you've built (see bargain/horsetrade). 

One other chestnut:
Use a group setting to your advantage. Propose an idea, then play on the natural tendency of the herd. Instead of ending your spiel with "Everyone ok with that?" ask "Any objections?"
Let the silence, which is almost guaranteed, be your enthusiastic assent!
Ms Chambers may be somewhat tongue in cheek.  She may also have something here.  What works for you, when you need to influence without any authority?

Sep 14, 2011

Ask a Manager: Something's Rotten in Denmark

Our latest Ask the Manager question got our Executives in Residence plenty talkative.  Even our Research Fellows, who rarely step to the podium, had something to say.  So we opened this to our full panel.

Note:  some facts in the letter below have been omitted or altered to obscure the workplace.  The letter is otherwise genuine.   Please also note that our panel of managers are all senior staff  and  thought leaders in their organizations and their professions.  We are grateful to have their mentorship, and have masked their identities in exchange for their participation.

Enough disclaimers.  Let’s dish.

... I work in an area of [the company where] the managers all come from  an area called the... lab. Instead of being one large unit they give all of the credit to the lab. They promoted a tech into management that doesn’t understand the scope of [our jobs] and he hangs with his buds in the lab and in general favors them.  ... The Vice President of Operations came for a visit to our... area and she stated that the [recently promoted] tech should have never been promoted to management  and that she feels that [the rest of us] have not been represented well [in mgt].  The issue here is my [supervisor], the manager and the Director and some others in the lab are close friends, they have  plans to put yet more inappropriate people in these positions not changing a thing.  The VP (because she doesn’t see us often) isn’t aware of this new development.  She was very sincere in wondering  ...Why positions that have been approved were not filled?... I can’t  help but wonder why the VP would come in to our unit, say a few odd statements then leave.  

... I love my job, I feel that I am a team player and I have demonstrated many times my willingness to go above and beyond. My main point to this query is, does the VP need to know something that she is unaware of. She is an extremely smart person, but again very busy ....  How does one inform without being a teller of tales or should I take my husbands advice and just buck up and hope for the best.
~~ Erin B

Caroline Bender: So, a toss-up question first.  Is a drop-by from someone of this VP’s stature unusual?  Is she fishing?

Monica, Academe: The writer is answering her own question when she says she is wondering “why the VP would come into our unit, say a few odd statements, and leave.”  She came because she smells that something is up, and she is fishing for information.

Don,  Business Integration: I think it is most likely not some random coincidence that the VP would come around asking for input, particularly if this is not a usual occurrence.

Chris, Human Resources: I'm disappointed that your VP seemed to solicit opinions but did not follow up by providing a safe venue for people to voice them. This makes me question her EQ, and her intent to truly understand the problem.  No one makes it to VP in an organization without a deep understanding of how power structures work, and the roles people are forced to play within them.

Gerry, Software Development: it was incredibly inappropriate for the VP to make a public disparaging comment about another employee, true or not. I wonder what she was trying to accomplish with that visit to the group. But that said, she has certainly opened the door for conversation with you and others in your group.

Emilia, Professional Services: As a leader of an organization, I can tell you that it's impossible to be aware of everything that's happening within a group at all times so we're forced to rely on our own observations/experiences as well as information provided by others.

CB: Erin has an agenda, too, doesn’t she? Her own motives aren’t completely objective.

Gerry: [Erin,] I would ask what it is you want to accomplish. Are [the managers] harming the company? Are they making your work environment untenable for you? Are you and your colleagues being harmed financially or personally by your management? Or do you just want to let somebody know it's a bit crazy in that lab?

Don: If you truly feel that this exec is being sincere -- and I recommend that you do because if she didn't care about your input, there is hardly a reason to go asking for it -- then I think this is your chance to do something about your situation. I cannot guarantee that you will move this mountain, but you will gain some peace of mind in knowing that you tried rather than standing idly by as the situation gets worse.

Monica: It is very unusual that she would reveal her opinion that Joe Blow shouldn’t have been promoted and that you’re not being well represented to management.  Be a little (just a little) suspicious of this.  You need both your approach to the VP and what you offer to be quite casual.  You need to sound at least 50% less passionate about what’s going on than what you really feel about this mess.

You need to let her own the reason for your visit/email/phone call:  “I am here only because of what you said in your visit to us. I saw in your visit and your comments that you are thinking in some new ways about the organization, and I just wanted to pass along some observations that I thought might be useful as you assess what’s going on.  Others may see this differently; for what it is worth, I’ve noticed that .............................”

Don: [Y]ou can keep things at a level that might just make you feel comfortable with what you are doing. More importantly, you can insulate yourself from being looked at (even by the VP) as a “teller of tales.”  Something  like:
"… At first I didn't feel that I had much to contribute to the conversation, but I have been considering your questions and I wanted to follow up. I really like working here and being part of the team. I want to see us grow and be successful. If I were in your shoes, I think I might want to focus on bringing in some new skill sets to round out the team. We have some great technical minds in our leadership, and a great group of people doing the work. I think for the next set of hires it would be important to round things out by bringing someone in with some outside experience in (fill in the blanks: managing teams, building a business, etc)..."
Emilia: To avoid feeling like a teller of tales or someone who is rocking the boat, [Erin] should 
  • stick to the facts as she knows them 
  • avoid getting emotional so she can be as objective as possible
  • focus on what positive changes she'd like to see within the group and explain their business benefit
[You can also] get the information to the VP via an anonymous option - filter through HR confidentially, send via an email or letter, etc. With this option, there's no satisfaction of knowing how the information is received or whether any action will be taken at all.  Personally, I would lean toward option 1 whether I was the VP targeted to get the feedback or the employee considering the approach.

Gerry:  If you do go to her, you need to be prepared for possible repercussions. If there were to be backlash, is she in a position to protect you (for example, is she the VP of Operations, but your group is in Marketing)? Do you trust that she would? Is there a possible outcome that will make things better?

Chris:   Sit down and imagine that you have found a way to share your observations with the VP. Then, imagine the worst possible way in which this opportunity could go wrong. Then, make a plan for what you'd do if that scenario occurred. After you've gone through this exercise, decide whether you could live with this outcome.  [Y]ou need to be able to live with the consequences if things went horribly wrong. I have been on the end of situations that have gone spectacularly wrong even when I was in the right. And when I say spectacularly wrong, I mean that it went wrong in ways that I would have only joked about beforehand. There's the truth, which is always right, and then there are all the egos impacted by someone bringing the truth to light, and all of the worst in human nature that having your ego scraped can bring. That's the part you have to worry about.

Maybe you decide you can live with the worst case scenario. Maybe you decide to brush up your resume and start looking for another job. Maybe you decide that you'll stay put for now, given this economy, and live with it for a while. The good news is that the one thing that's constant in a business is change. People leave, people join, re-orgs happen, people get pregnant and go on maternity leave - the landscape is constantly changing.  And you may be surprised; there may be others at your workplace who are considering this same question. Core problems like the one you describe always have a way of bubbling up to the top eventually. If you can live with the worst case scenario of being the whistle blower, then do it. If you can't, then look for a new job or decide to hang in there for a while because it will change eventually.

Monica: After you drop the dime, add to the script a few of your observations about what is going very well; who is great to work with – smart, responsive, insightful (upper management is always running Talent Search.)  Then, end it and leave.

Don: The key point is that you should not be speaking badly about anyone who is currently working on your team. Nor should you call out hiring plans that you know about already in a critical way. My suggestion is merely to discuss what you think is lacking in the team and how your VP might be able to help the situation. If she's sharp enough, she will probably read between the lines and be grateful that you are nudging her in the right direction. If she is more of a literal type, then you will have given her some clear direction that will help her to take some further action. If she asks you to give more details or tell some tales that make you uncomfortable, you can say something like "I have no issue with the people in place now and I don't want you to think I do. I am simply telling you what I think would be a logical next step in the evolution of the team." You might say that you have often thought you would benefit from (fill in the blanks) within the organizational structure. The point is to keep it positive, non-specific, and forward-looking.

Dana, Healthcare: In these types of situations, where you will never have 100% of the available information, I recommend that you just sit tight and do your work.  If the wrong people are in the wrong positions it will eventually get noticed...maybe not today or tomorrow but eventually results will start to slip and it will get onto a VPs radar

Monica: After you’ve done this much (but not until you’ve done this much) you might take your hubby’s advice and hunker down, do your work, and see what happens.

Gerry: Good luck. If you think this is the right thing to do, do it. But make sure first that you are looking for positive change, and not just commiserating, and that it is change this VP can help with.

Don: I would recommend that you try and put yourself in this VP's shoes. She, like just about everyone, wants to be successful. She probably knows that in order to be successful, her team must  function effectively. She has probably picked up on the fact that some things are not going well. She might have come to this conclusion from listening to what she has been told by her direct reports, from looking at business data that shows that things are not going so well, or from just a general sense of unease that a perceptive manager can feel when something is amiss in the kingdom.

Dana: Meanwhile, do a fantastic job, give 110%, and keep smiling.  If things don't change after six months or you can't do it anymore, quietly look for another job and quit the boss. 

Have a question for our executives in residence?
Your sticky situations and request for advice are handled by real working professionals at the leadership tier.  
Your confidentiality is protected.  Write us at a bwfinishingschool@gmail.com

Jun 8, 2011

The New People

Senior Thesis Proposal, Pam Beasley Halpert    

They are not new to the world of work, just to your world of work.  Help your new colleagues feel welcome and prepared without being overwhelming or condescending.

Having new people around is a little like having the Boss listen in on your meeting:  you are bound to be a lot more polite and discreet than you would ordinarily.  Suppressing the daily grouse can also make you want to avoid the new people, and that is unfair.  They are nervous, and lonesome, and eager to please....with very little to do while they watch the rest of you scramble around complaining in your secret insider language.  Try a little niceness.

"How's it going?" is a simple conversation starter that lets them take charge of steering the conversation.  A couple of moments in the day where they don't have to answer "I don't know" is a nice gift that costs you nothing.

Remember the personal questions.  Again, on the size of their family, the town they live in, and the source of that wall calendar there.... they are experts.

Invite them along to meetings and phone calls, even if you think they are tortuous and repetitive.  Every opportunity is a new opportunity, and you just may discover they have some background/inside info on the topic at hand.  This technique works best when you can brief them ahead of the meeting, and de-brief afterward, but you may not always have the time.  If you have to choose only one, choose the pre-brief, so at least they understand what is happening.

Never say it's tortuous and repetitive.  Self-discovery is another of the small joys of the new workplace.

Stop for lunchOr even dinner. 

Introduce them.  The walk-around is over-rated, but it does work.  What else works is simply introducing them to people you are standing there talking to.  You should do this for at least 6 months, at which time the no-longer-new should be responsible for, "We haven't met.  I'm...."   This is a good practice for you too, because there are new people... everywhere.

We are interested in hearing your New Kid stories, and Visiting Remote Worker stories.  Contact us at bwfinishingschool@gmail.com and share your Best and Worst.  Confidentially is always protected.

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Counterparts: Foreign Exchange Students of the Workplace

May 27, 2011

Princesses are not Perfect (book review, of sorts)

a confusing business fable
Chief Researcher, Caroline Bender 

Parents in our student body may have already explored this topic.  Your Miss Bender is on field research this week, as a spinster businesswoman with little other-life experience.  Living through the eyes of a 4 year-old this week is a fascinating look into how we get here.  Give me the princess until she is 7.... and I will give you the Chairwoman of the Board.

If you live within a mile of a 4 year-old girl, you understand the pull of Princesses.  I gave up trying to explain it years ago.  I accept that for most of this demographic, the world is painted in lavendar and pink, and everyone wears a crown.  A fraction of the group who don't actually believe it go along with it out of cultural deference, and the rest of them go horsey or live as boys.  (Don't start writing your letter yet; I am just getting started)

I am not against princesses, and I am not going to blame Disney for them.  A girl's gotta be what a girl's gotta be, and if it involves unicorns and rainbows, so be it.  When you draw a girl's smiling face in sidewalk chalk, and your 4 year-old charge asks, "Can I draw her crown...?" you are up against a new kind of reality. (4 year olds say "drawl," as you know)

Among the library books we read (in our matching pink reading chairs while one of us was dressed as Belle) this week is Princesses are Not Perfect, whose author has just found this post through her favorite search engine, and will be writing within the hour.  The surface message of the story is meant to be that you don't have to excel at everything you try -- in fact most people, even princesses, can not do everything perfectly.

Nice sentiment.  Mr Rogers taught us that.  Captain Kangaroo taught our parents to "let your young person try to comb their own hair, even if it doesn't look quite right."  And in a childhood of bike helmets and kneepads, we have learned to say encouraging things like, "if you're not making mistakes, you might not be trying very hard."  A (wo)man's reach must exceed [her] grasp, etc.  (I originally typed "gasp," just now...which seems a little closer to the truth.)

Inside Princess are NotPerfect, I found a more confusing  layer of messages, and a generation of Women Who Do Too Much in the making. It happens like this. 

Each of 3 princesses has a specialized skill.  One is a gardener, one a baker, and one a builder, in an interesting push against gender-specific occupations.  While planning the big party, the builder announces that she is tired of always doing the same job, and what if she tried doing the baking this year?  The other princesses are uneasy about working outside their sphere of expertise, but convinced they can excel at whatever they try, they agree to shift duties.

Hilarity ensues, as you might expect -- the builder gardens with a chainsaw, the baker slathers glue like frosting, and the gardener pours flour onto the kitchen flour and rakes in the ingredients.  Each makes a hopless and imperfect mess at her contribution to the party.

Confusing message #1 - you have perfect...or a mess.  Nothing in between.

They each lie to the others about how great the project is going and go to their separate beds.

Confusing message #2 - Never ask for help from people who could.

Stressed beyond sleeping, each princess paces, and tosses, and drinks relaxing liquids, thinking about...
not how they will explain what happened to the chairs, the cupcakes, or the centerpieces they attempted, but sensing what a horrible mess the other princess must have made working on their part.

Confusing message #3 - Delegation = disaster.  Just do everything yourself.

Each gets up in the middle of the night to work will her tools, as"the only thing" that will calm her. 
(Oh, "tsk" yourself; you've done it.)  Their ouput, of course, is a new set of 100 chairs, cupacakes and flower arrangements.

Confusing message #4 - People want you to rescue them.  No, they really do.  And you're the best at it.

No one questions the turn of events.  They are all grateful, and the village children have a wonderful party.  Confusing message #5 - Stay in your box.

The line in the story is "do what you love," which is also a good positive message.  Unfortunately, it is written like this (emphasis mine):
"Princesses," said Princess Allie, "are good at what they love." (in fact, perfect at what they love.  And terrible at anything else.) "You don't have to be good at everything to be a princess."  (but you do have to be a princess).
What a nice story it would be if they had helped each other learn a new skill and produce something original and good, if not perfect.  If the cupcakes were decorated with real roses, and the chairs filligreed like wedding cakes, and the centerpieces architectural wonders of climbing topiary and hanging baskets.  What if we let ourselves try something new and celebrated the experience rather than the outcome.

What if.

Mar 30, 2011

Ask a Manager: Why did you leave your previous job?

The Finishing School welcomes our guest manager,  "Miranda Bailey," to respond to a recent Ask the Manager question.

Note:  some facts in the letter below have been omitted or altered to obscure the workplace.  The letter is otherwise genuine. 
 Hi there,
Came across your web page and "ask a manager" section particularly interested me.
Here's my query: hope I get some guidance.

An overview to my profile:
I am an MBA graduate.
An HR professional (Based abroad)
I've worked for 5 yrs with mostly start-up organizations. Throughout my career I made sure that I give my best to the organizations (for which I did win loads of accolades as well).
To the best of my knowledge, I've always had positive feedback about my work and personality.

The situation:
I got married in 2008; due to demands at home my work suffered and I was fired (without any prior warning). The markets crashed soon after and unemployment prevailed for most of the year in 2009.  By the time the markets got greener for jobs, I got pregnant and had to continue staying at home.

My child is 6 months old now. I am ready to work now.

I am not clearing any interviews in spite of most interviews having indicated good outcome.
Most difficult questions/situations interviewers present me with are :
•why a junior position if I apply for non senior positions (after being a senior manager) ;
•why did you leave your previous job ?(gets tricky if I tell them the truth and will get messy if they find out that I was fired!).
•Some state I am too qualified to start off again at a junior position.
•Could it be possible that my previous employers are giving a negative feedback. (Is it possible that a company reference checks with my previous employers without my knowledge? )

Kindly help.
Dear Reader,
As we say in the service business, you are only as strong as your last encounter.  It can be difficult  to bounce back from a termination, though you say you are “ready to work.”  Let’s see if we can emphasize this aspect of your candidacy in your next round of interviews.
Let them Ask
In this market, of course, most candidates are more than ready to work, and many are laid off from senior high-paying roles and competing for junior positions.  You have your work cut out for you.  The market also works in your favor in one way: most candidates have a gap between their most recent employment and the present day.  You may have the advantage in some cases of being assumed laid off, rather than terminated, and you are under no obligation to reveal that in an interview.

When the question arises, meet it honestly.  You may even use it as a selling point.

Never Stop Learning
 Like most interview questions, “Why did you leave your last position” is only partly about what you answer.  It is mostly about how you answer.  Your letter reveals some interesting opportunities:  you recognize where you were stumbling professionally, and though your termination came “without prior warning,” you also know that your work suffered.  
Now is your opportunity to do some hard reflecting on how that happened, and how you might have done things differently.  Work on a simple statement that acknowledges the cause, your role in it, and what you learned from it. End your statement with a question that gives the interviewer the chance to say something positive.  
Like this: “A project I was handling missed a key milestone.  I thought I had it under control, so I hadn’t escalated my concerns to management.  Does your company provide the kind of collaboration that would help resolve scheduling conflicts with projects?”  A savvy recruiter or hiring manager may throw it back to you, “So you were terminated?”  And you can say, regretfully, “I learned so much from that experience.  I realize how it important it is to look for obstacles much farther ahead than I had been.  For example….” 
If this is also a situation where you are applying for a role junior to one you held before, or seem more naturally qualified for, you can also add, “I may not have been ready for that level.  In my current job search, I am looking for opportunities to refine my current skills and better prepare myself to return to the senior role.”  Again, a question back keeps the conversation flowing in a feel-good direction.  “Can you tell me about professional training or mentor opportunities in your organization?”
Bad Blood
 You suggest that your previous employer is giving negative feedback, and perhaps they are.  In most industries, a simple verification of employment is all that previous employers will offer, though they may add that you were dismissed.  Chances are,  they are not saying much more than that.  As much as we talk about the “permanent record,” most HR files I have seen, including my own, contain very little information about the employee’s actual work.

I was once surprised to be listed as a reference for an employee I had terminated.  It had been years before, it was for cause, and with warning... and I bore no grudge.  I gave the HR screener who called me all the positive feedback I could about the candidate’s skills and talents.  And I did say, “You should know that I did terminate 'Isabel,' though it was many years ago.  You may want to ask her about time management and meeting performance goals, which had given her difficulty.  I expect she has developed since then and has some strong ideas about how to help others with that challenge.”  

Keep Practicing 
Let’s take a look at those interviews you have had which seemed to be going well, but did not yield a job offer.  Identify 1 or 2 where you felt like you had strong rapport with your interviewer and contact them for feedback.  This takes courage, and humility, and you need to be careful not to put your contact on the defensive, or suggest in any way why they didn’t offer you their job.  You want to network with them as you would any contact.  Learn what they saw as your strengths, and what they suggest as areas for improvement in your credentials and/or your interview.  See our earlier post about networking for guidelines on approaching contacts.  Consider taking a coaching session at your local career office, unemployment center, or networking group.  
Better References
 And continue working, in whatever way you can.  Volunteer work, contract/freelance opportunities, and part-time gigs keep your skills fresh and your energy up.  Most importantly for you, they build new references, who can counter any negative feedback you may still be receiving from your previous employer.

Mar 22, 2011

My Interview Story

Guest Instructor, M. Cipriani

 Whenever things happen that make me think, “This is not how it used to be,”  I realize I am getting old.

I long for the days when job offers were made over the telephone, rather than through email.   When you were courted by a company that wanted to hire you, rather than having to remind them – “Hey, you have a job to fill, remember?”

Perhaps it is the economic downturn that has left the state of human resources and recruitment in such a mess, as those folks along with the sales and marketing teams are usually the first to be escorted to the door.   Perhaps I have unrealistic expectations (that has happened before).

Perhaps you should be the judge.

I would not consider myself to be actively "in the market" for a new position, but I am always open to an opportunity to better my situation.  When a co-worker recently departed my company, she mentioned that there may be an opening for me at her new place of employment, and encouraged me to apply.  She would be happy to refer me, she said.  So I applied.

After a couple of mis-steps, one on my part (sick kids) and one on their part (wrong time zone), I was finally able to speak with the hiring manager by phone.  Apparently, I passed the litmus test, and was invited in for an interview.  A week passed, I did not hear from the recruiter, so I contacted her to find out if there was still interest.  Yes, there was; she’d just been in training all week to learn their new process (a clue).

I  had not been informed that I would be meeting with a host of individuals that day, five to be exact.  This is another part of interviewing I’ve grown to dislike.  Is it really necessary to spend half a day at the company, or longer, meeting everyone from the hiring manager to the cleaning crew?   This isn’t a small, family owned, operation either where you could see fit as an issue, this is a large corporation. Can’t the hiring manager make their own determination about somebody’s character? And, much to my dismay, I hadn’t met everybody I needed to meet, because several key players were unavailable that day.    I would have to come back. 

Now for someone who is in between positions, this may not pose a problem. But for someone who is working full time, I am now using my precious vacation time in order to go to these interviews.  Do I mind?  

Yes, actually, I do.

Since my initial phone screen was actually with the hiring manager, rather than a human resources professional, I had never been appropriately "screened" for this position.  So like any good recruiter, my interviewer attempted to obtain my salary requirements before sending me off to meet the masses.   However, I was already sitting in front of her, and had taken the day off to go to this interview.  The last thing I wanted was for it to be over before it even started.  I did as any prepared candidate would do: I side stepped the issue and we moved on.

The interviews went well.  I learned that a previous candidate had refused the position -- for personal reasons, I was told.   Hmm.
Were there other candidates? No.
Would there be? No.

“We would like you to come back in and meet with a few more people.” Should be music to a candidate’s ears, right?  Since I had not been properly screened for this position, before I spent any more time on it, I wanted to be sure it was worth my while. Having had a long stint of being ‘in between positions” myself, I developed a knack to handicap salaries.   I was somewhat concerned that this position wasn’t as senior as I thought.  I phoned the recruiter and asked her to share the range for the position with me.  I did not ask her to make me an offer, simply to provide some information before I continued.

“We don’t give out that information.”

“How will we get anywhere if you don’t give out that information?” I replied.

“We ask the candidates to tell us what they are making and then go from there.”

Yes, well, I will not be doing that. Perhaps a different tack.

“Well, I think this position may be paying in a range of x to y.  However, I already make more than y, so were you to make me an offer in that range, I would be disappointed, as I’m sure, so would you.   Is this position paying x to y?”

“We could be competitive with that.”

What does that mean? “You must have a budget for the position.”

“Yes, we do.”

“And what would that be?”

A little giggle on the other end of the phone.  Seriously, she laughed at me. She indicated that she would need to speak to the hiring manager before she could provide me with any concrete information.

Since I was sure I had blown it,  I called my reference to let her know what had happened. She didn’t like what she heard and relayed this event to the individual who had recruited her:  the manager of the recruiter I was dealing with.  Imagine my surprise when that afternoon, I received a call from the manager of human resources for this company.

“I just wanted to get some feedback from you on how the process was going.”

I proceeded to have a nice conversation with this woman, who, wonder of wonders, disclosed to me the range for the position.  How refreshing!

I thanked her for the information, as price communicates something about a job.   It tells you about the level of discretion this position will have, the qualifications expected and where it sits in the organization.   Clearly, a job paying $50,000 is not going to have the same level of decision making and autonomy attached to it that a job paying $100,000 will.   She asked me not to disclose to the recruiter that we had this conversation, and to "let the process play out."  I agreed.

The recruiter eventually phoned me back and indicated a range that the hiring manager would be willing to offer. I thanked her as well, and indicated my availability for a second round of interviews.

“My scheduler will be in touch.”
Three business days pass, no word.  The day before the interview was targeted to be scheduled, I prompted her with an email.  “The schedule came out today. Didn’t you receive it?”  Actually, no I didn’t.  I adjusted my schedule so I can attend the second round with members of 2  functional areas that I would be supporting.

Today, I received an email that read as follows:
"both Jim and John enjoyed meeting you. It was also nice to see you again.
I met with Joe Hiring Manager this morning and we are working on putting together an offer for you.
I will be in touch soon."



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Mar 15, 2011

Real and Imagined Business Panic

Bunny Watson, Student at Large

A story comes to us this morning that Spokesduck Gilbert Gottfried has been dismissed by Aflac for a steady stream of tweets making light of conditions in post-earthquake Japan.  We might all agree to cry "Too Soon!" on this play; when you are the voice of an insurance company.... well, that just won't do.

Oh, our Tweets will undo us, won't they?  Tweets are the new Send-All email gaffes we all made 15 years ago.  We all have a story of accidentally sending to an entire distribution list an off-color joke or response to the company meeting.  And that was just an extension of being caught passing the slam-book from row to row.

We at the Finishing School already hold you personally responsible for what you do.  This post is for the management.  Because it can be difficult to know when something requires crisis communication... and when you are just doing more damage.  The public does want to know you are in control, yes.  They want to feel confident that "you people" re not running some "kind of show."  A PR crisis is what company spokesmen train so hard for, like raw recruits who just want the chance to show what they got.   And as we have become accustomed to the pattern of Incident, followed by on-line polls by so-called news agencies asking what we think of Said Incident, and whether Offender should Apologize, then Formal Apology and Eventual Firing...  we may be losing sight of the scale of crisis.

We must praise this story on the American Red Cross -- an organization with its share of public image trouble, since every time America gets inspired enough to give them blood, they seem to have trouble handling it.  (reference one, and reference two).  In this case, a cooler management head prevailed, and a simple "I'm so stupid" acknowledgment and a joke at their own expense put the entire matter in its right place in the news cycle.  Even the other company implicated found the opportunity to come out ahead (and let us know there is a thing called beernews.org).

Whether the Tweeting employee was more strongly disciplined behind closed doors, we don't know, and don't need to.  We are glad to know that not everyone gets fired for every boneheaded error, however public -- that there are still Ones to Grow On , even for our media-savvy Media Specialists.  The Red Cross's official spokeswoman masterfully addressed the public "concern" while reminding us of the brand and the mission: “We are an organization that deals with life-changing disasters and this wasn’t one of them,”she said.

Nicely played.


Please remember that blood products have a short shelf life.  The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies needs blood every day. For the catastrophes, cash is better.  Give what you can, whenever you can.

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