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.

Oct 27, 2005

Master's degree Required/Some Heavy Lifting

Instructor, Caroline Bender

There is a lot I don't remember anymore. Not like a blackout, or even "it's all a blur." I still remember the facts of things every day, snapshot incidents that characterize how it all dissolved.

I remember that I used to get the dry heaves in the morning, just before brushing my teeth, and that I cried at my desk at least once a day. I remember that once I did hide in the footwell and found the enclosed dark space very comforting. But the real feeling of that pain -- say, the feeling that drives you to leave the building in the middle of the workday to go to a poolhall to shoot people with video guns -- I don't have sensual memories like that anymore.

But this is not the story of that pain, or the way that it ate me away, or how one wakes up -- as our previous contributor described -- not knowing how one got there.

The story I want to tell here is how it changed the way I think about my professional life. This is not necessarily advice for you to follow; this is not a diatribe against "careers" or those who desire them. This is only my story. I am Caroline B., and I am a workoholic.

The class does need some background, so let me spend a few moments on that. I did not plan to enter the profession I did; that is, I had no path or formal training. I had been inspired by two women I worked for to enter their field and was encouraged by them, by my colleagues, and by my staff to grow in qualities I had never known in myself. I had never been happier. I had found a vocation that was not only career and ambition, but a ministry, and way of life. It was the method I had found for making my contribution to the world, and even when for periods it was the hardest thing I had ever done.... I found tremendous joy. I had never been so in-the-game, or felt so good at anything. I knew exactly what needed to be done every moment of the day in any situation, and was at my best when several situations were happening at once. I was one of those finger-snapping, fast-walking, clipboard carrying dynamos in heels -- every moment tightly managed, every task anticipated, accounted for, delegated and executed. Staff development, budgets, office politics, facilities management, curriculum development, project management, student advising, breakfast meeting with the dean in the morning, awareness programs at night, leadership retreat over the weekend. All before work-from-home, conference calls, emails, or cell phones.

I entered the field at 23 and was elevated to management at 25. At 28, on a career development plan, I took a slightly higher position at another campus. At 30, the veneer began to crack. Underweight, underslept, emotionally dead (except for the crying jags and $10 rounds of Lethal Enforcer, which were euphoric), I kept playing through it. Walk it off. It's a phase, it's flux, you're just tired, she's just a bitch, it wasn't his fault, this too shall pass... whatever got me through the rough spots until I could get the groove back. These are the trials on the way to the deanship, I kept telling myself, ignoring the voice in the back of my head that I was still many levels away from a deanship I might not live to see. I wasn't even sure I wanted that anymore, but that was the career path I was on. Just keep working, keep working. It can't catch you if you're moving. This road leads somewhere if you can stay on it. Only the strong survive.

By 32, I had full-on rock star exhaustion. All I thought about was making it stop.

When I tell you that my resignation was rejected, you must believe that this actually happened. Like an infidel questioning the cult, I was shamed and punished for betraying our insular community, and daring to believe I could succeed anywhere else. I won't recount the words said in that meeting -- they were shockingly painful, and all has since been forgiven. Let's sum it up by saying that it was clear that if I walked out that door I could never come back -- not just to that campus, but to the profession.

And there's the heartbreak. Because I did want to come back. I wanted to stay. But I also wanted to feel better, and I knew I couldn't get sober until I walked away from the bar.

I have been re-examining my relationship with my work these days because it was 10 years ago this month that I submitted that rejected resignation letter. It took me this long to separate how I earn my money from defining who I "am." I went through a journeyman period ("This is my profession; I just happen to work for you.") followed by a need for utility ("I just want my best skills put to use every day.") Today I work for a company I don't particularly respect, doing a job that is not fulfilling, in an industry that bores me to tears.

But I stay.

I stay because the only real agreement concretely made between my employer and me was that I would show up and complete my duties, and in exchange they would pay me a salary, invest my retirement money, and provide me with healthcare.

I stay because it is more money than I ever thought I would earn -- and like the saying goes, they give you a thousand dollars a week until you need a thousand dollars a week to live.

I stay because it is 15 miles from my house and doesn't require me to drive on the highway.

I stay because I finally understand that the promise of "parking provided" delivers more consistently than "growth opportunities in a dynamic industry."

My colleagues and my supervisors will tell you that I still deliver, often far beyond their expectations. They'll tell you I still make the place a decent place to come to every day, that they value my partnership, that I cut through the garbage. I'm not puffing myself up; they have told me these things themselves. Only I know the difference.

And I guess now you do too.


Oct 20, 2005

Want to manage? Consider these five things

By Ms. Trienta Y. Heureux
Director of Department Zed, Geldstrafe College

I am a manager.
I manage people, programs, money, staff developments and staff meetings. I hire, I fire, I hold people accountable, and I tell them when they’ve done well. I make decisions, sometimes going against what others think. I am able, and sometimes required, to make people do things that they don’t want to do, don’t think make sense and actually, in some cases, hate.

I manage up.
I deal with politics, with relationships, and with protecting my office and my staff. I manage those above me in areas different from my own who still believe that because they are higher on the hierarchical chart, they can tell me how to do my job... even when they have no idea what they are talking about. Then, I make sure that I work well enough with those people so they still respect me, my office and therefore, my staff. If I don’t represent my office well, and people lose respect for it, my staff suffers.

Oh are the woes of the mid-level manager. Because, women, let me tell you, there is a difference.

Manager is a broad term, and as you aspire to become one, make sure you know what you are getting into. Who and what do you manage? Will you be in a management sandwich? Just because you are managing others doesn’t mean you have any power whatsoever. It might mean that your life is miserable, because the manager above you makes all the decisions and you are left playing both sides in the middle.

So, as you move through your career and you begin wondering how to get in charge of something and stop being someone else’s lackey all time, here are some words of advice.

These are in no particular order because frankly, I don’t think in any particular order. (A downfall for a manager, really.)

Don’t become a manager before you are ready.
How will you know this? Well, subscribe to some self-awareness. Seriously. Sit down and have a nice long chat with yourself. Write it out, talk out loud to your best friend or your mom, or talk to yourself. It doesn’t matter, as long as you consider whether you have what you will need to manage other people.

These aren’t plants, people. They aren’t cats or even dogs (who, I think, are hard to manage). They are other human beings. They have lives, worries, problems, varying skill levels and are different than you are. They will not necessarily act as predicted. They will not necessarily make decisions in a way that makes sense to you.

You might have to fire someone. Can you do that?

Are you ready to bring someone your own age or older than you into a room and tell them to stop wearing flip-flops to the office? A good test: can you tell your roommate that her pans in the sink are annoying? Or do you just let it go because you can’t deal with the fact that maybe she won’t like you anymore? There’s your answer about whether you can manage another person.

Don’t think that because you are a manager, people will finally give you the credit you have deserved all these years and stop questioning everything you do.
It just won’t happen. In fact, it’s possible the questioning will get worse because you are making much more important decisions.

When you are signing the form that spends $13,000 for the spring event down payment, and when you have to go to HR to talk about why your incompetent assistant needs to go, people will question you. You have to be clear about why you have made the decision and have the gumption to stick by it. A waffler won’t get far. If you can’t explain yourself, soon the questioning will grow.

Play nice with others.
So this is probably a no-brainer, but it really isn’t. Lots of people are incompetent and inefficient and even downright stupid. (Look at George W. Bush for evidence. But I digress.)

The thing about managing is that you have to be at least nice enough that people will want to work with you, your staff will respect you, and want to do good work with you.

I am not a nice person. I am blunt, judgmental, cheeky, and even offensive. I tell it like it is. I have to work hard every day to make sure that people don’t hate me. So don’t think this advice is coming from Ms. Candy Sunshine. It’s not. ‘Nuff said.

Don’t think being a manager means having to do “less work."
This, apparently, is a common misconception. While the staff is toiling to make sure the programs succeed and the big event is successful and the sales quota is met by working extra hours, the managers are also working.
Apparently, we don’t do a good enough job at telling everyone else how we are working.

We have to figure out the bottom line. We have to manage the money. We have to manage the staff. An inordinate amount of time is spent dealing with staff who are either underperforming, having issues, or making mistakes (that then have to be managed to create as little damage as possible).

We have to communicate. I believe this is one of the biggest downfalls of management nationwide. We don’t tell those “below” us what’s going on enough. There are limits to this and timing issues, but it should be done better and more often. (I do. Gets me in trouble sometimes, but I think it’s not okay that this doesn’t happen more.)

Remember it’s still only work. Don’t take yourself so seriously.
Yes, other people’s lives depend on your decisions. You do their salary raise recommendations and you do their performance reviews. You are a role model. When you come in and when you leave and how often you bend the rules will be noted by other people and they will follow suit.

You will think of something you forgot to do while you are in the shower, out running, in the movies, at dinner with your friends, or halfway through your fifth beer in front of the game on Sunday afternoon. Figure out how to do your job well, but still have balance in your life, still maintain your relationships, and still remember it’s only work.

So many people forget this. They don’t take vacation. (I had to write a letter to HR excusing one staff member who has accumulated over 250 hours of vacation time and can’t figure out how to use it up, and he’s not even a manager yet – if I had that time, I’d be gone for 2 weeks every three months or so.)

A recent anecdote I read said to always remember Rule Number 6: Don’t take yourself so seriously. (The other 5 rules don’t even exist, this one is so important.)

In my book, these are the top five. There are a million more, in actuality.

Many people spend their whole career outside of management, either by choice or by circumstance. Many people aspire to be in management without a reason -- except that society says that’s what we are supposed to aspire for. Some people spend 80% of their career in middle management while others climb very quickly and spend 80% in upper-level management. Almost nobody, I believe, had a plan. People don’t make an active decision to be where they are, but instead find themselves there.

Be different.
Do think about it.
Make a decision.
Only get the next degree if you intend to use it and only intend to use it if you want to. (Yes, money is part of the issue here, I know. Take that into account as well.)

Long story short, be clear with yourself and those around you. Don’t wake up when you are 40 (or 32 for that matter) and wonder where you are and how in the world you got there.

Oct 5, 2005

When work is your life

Fireside chat with Ms. Minchin, Miss Minchin's younger, hipper sister.

Let's start with a quiz. For each question you answer "yes" to, give yourself 5 points. For each "No" give yourself 0 points. Workers in philanthropic or life-saving jobs are exempt.

1. I think about work anytime I am not at work. yes/no
2. I talk about annoying things that happened at work every night when I come home. yes/no
3. I drag myself to work in the morning because I hate it there. yes/no
4. At lunch with my co-workers, we only talk about things we hate about our company. yes/no
5. On the weekends, I mostly spend my time recovering and preparing for the week of work ahead, because it's going to suck. yes/no
6. I can't let go of the defects in my company's organization, the people who run it, and the people who annoy me at work every day. They should just change, why can't they see that? yes/no
7. I only socialize with people I work with, and then we mostly talk about work. yes/no

0 points = Congratulations! You don't really care about your company and recognize that it's just a job. You probably lead an active life outside of work, and know that no matter how much effort you put into your job, you will still get a "meets expectations" rating on your review just like the lazy bum in the next cube who pawns all his work off onto you. You'll both get the same 3% raise and that lazy bum probably makes more money than you anyway. Kudos!

5 or more points = You need a little more balance in your work/life sicha-ation. You probably believe that if you just keep sacrificing your personal time and energy, the company will recognize your efforts with a nice promotion, a fat raise, and reciprocate your loyalty if ever a layoff comes. You don't realize that the boss thinks you are a nerd, and knows she can make you "Team Leader" to get you do stuff she doesn't want to do, for free. If you aren't burnt out yet and resentful, you soon will be, and will probably cry during your review when you're told you "meet expectations" after giving so much of yourself to do three times the work of all your teammates. When you wear out and your performance slips to doing only twice as much work as the lazy bum in the next cube, you'll get a "needs improvement" rating and will probably quit before you find a new job. Read on to avoid this fate...

Balance is Good
Everyone knows equilibrium is important. Without it, we would be falling out of our chairs and puking at our desks. Even the ancient greeks knew that an imbalance of humours could lead to all sorts of maladies from Phlegmatism to Melancholy. Hence, in Spanish, a person in a bad mood is "de mal humor". Don't even get me started on why you should see your Phrenologist on a regular basis. All this brings us to the first step: blood letting. Now, once you've seen your local Leech-monger (or the Red Cross because they could probably use it), you're ready to move on to the first step in the work/life balance equation: Having things to talk about.

Things to talk about
One reason that you talk about work with your spouse/roommate/friends/family is because you work at a really frustrating company. But perhaps another reason is you don't have anything else to talk about because you don't do anything except work.

Here are a few ideas for fun things to do that will give you something else to talk about:

  • Read Books
    You can borrow these from the library, from your friends, even your coworkers (because we know you don't get paid enough to keep buying these from Amazon). Ask what your coworkers are reading, and when you read it, you can discuss it over tater-tots in the cafeteria. Check out the best sellers list, when you find out you hate most of these, at least you can talk about that.

  • Take a Class
    Check out your local adult education center or community college. Try a wine-tasting course, social dancing lesson, or a cooking class. Yes, there will be crazy people there, because it is open to everyone. But you already risk encountering crazy people every day when leave for work and besides, those crazies in your class will give you something to talk about over tater-tots in the cafeteria. You could even go a little wild yourself and try out a subject you shied away from in school, like Chemistry, Drama or Driver's Ed (it's about time you got your Driver's license after all these years anyway). You might just find out that the subject you always avoided is actually pretty cool when your GPA isn't riding on it.

  • Take up a hobby
    You've probably forgotten about all the interests you used to have, before you decided you were too busy with work to have time for anything else. Well now is the time to put those karate pajamas back on and finally earn your blue belt, or dust off your dancing shoes and get clogging. Private investigation is enjoying a new surge in popularity. Learn Observation and Objectivity, or "the two obs", and who knows you might just land yourself a part time job for a PI firm.

  • Join a society
    Now that you remember your hobbies again, you might want to join a society. Hanging out with others who share the same interests is a good way to expand your skills and share ideas or techniques. Unless of course you are a writer, because writers hate other writers, and they'll just steal your ideas anyway. Yes there will be crazy people, but fewer because crazy people don't like routine and monthly dues.

  • Enter a competition
    Now that you have taken on a hobby and have joined a club, you should enter a competition. Why not? It gives you something to work toward, takes your focus off of work, and you might just win something. If you do photography, enter the town photo contest. Enter a ballroom dancing competition. Submit an idea for a new postage stamp. You don't even have to be good, crappy people enter all the time. Just think, you can say "I got 6th place at the dance competition," and you don't have to tell people that there were only six people competing.

Family time
By now you've probably figured out that I'm trying to make you more well-rounded under the guise of having things to talk about. Well since we're finally being honest, you really need to spend more time with your family. Even if your family consists of your cat Fluffy and your distant Auntie Edna, they want to hear from you. Giving more focus to your family life can make your work life seem less important, and can even give you some interesting stories to share over lunch, especially if you have a crazy family.

  • Date your partner
    Word on the street is your life partner wants his/her sweetie back. Forget about work for a day and go bowling, or plan a night out, or make a nice romantic tater-tot dinner at home. You know what to do, so just do it for once.

  • Visit your grandparents
    Gramps and Granny just want to see you. They don't even know what the internet is, so you definitely won't be talking about work with them. A Sunday playing scrabble and dominoes with your grandparents can really put your work and life imbalance into perspective.

  • Call your mother
    You heard me. The woman carried you in her womb for 9 months. Ask her about her early experiences in the working world when women worked for "pin money" and were still called "girl". You might feel a little better about the working conditions you have at your stupid company.

  • Give your sibling a break
    You know, the one with all the kids. Offer to babysit while she goes out on the town. Or spend a day going school shopping with your neice. She'll think your her cool Aunt.

Get your finances in order
Another reason you may be feeling so down about work is that you really need the money and feel like you have no choice but to keep coming back every day. Unfortunately, being in this position tends to make your work life harder. Employers can smell desperation and take this as their cue to treat you poorly, offer no advancement, and keep your wages low. Getting your finances in order gives you more control over your destiny, and having a plan for your financial future can give you the confidence to expect and request more out of your employer, or to dazzle another employer into hiring you for more money and better benefits. Don't believe me? I dare you try the following steps:

  • Create a budget: When you truly have a handle on how much money is going out vs. going in you will know whether you are living within your means. When you live below your means, you are less dependent on that weekly paycheck to get by, and less desperate to keep that crummy job. If you are living above your means, you are headed for trouble and are extremely vulnerable to any financial setbacks (ehem, layoffs). Buying things you don't need on credit is like signing yourself up for indentured servitude; you are spending your future wages for that thing you couldn't wait just a few months to save up for. If you are in this situation, start a plan to get out now, or you can look forward to many many more years dragging yourself to work in the morning.

  • Start saving: Put aside money now for that rainy day. Start saving now for retirement, there's no guarantee that you will always be employed as long as you feel like working. Save, save, save, and save. When you have an emergency fund, you will feel freer to take more risks like asking for more responsibility from your manager, or having an interview with that recruiter who calls you from time to time.

  • Set financial goals: When you know where you want to go, you can start taking steps to get there. Having goals to work toward can help you to see yourself progressing as time goes by, even if nothing at work seems to change. Hitting milestones you set for yourself can feel so good, that you won't even care about that lazy bum in the next cube. You might even score a nice retirement out of it too.

Get Involved
Once you've taken some time to do things that you enjoy, visit with family, and get your finances in order, you are ready to start giving back. Any discussion about well-roundedness would be remiss if it left out the feel-good part where you help other people and get involved in the larger community. Here are a few ways to get involved in your community.

  • Volunteer: Volunteer gigs come in all shapes and sizes. No matter what your special skills or interests are, there's probably an organization that can benefit from your time. Soup kitchens always need someone who can cook tater tots, for example.

  • Participate in your spiritual community: Every house of worship needs a constituency. Take part in the services and pitch in.

  • Local government: Campaign for your chosen candidate, or at least go out an vote once in a while. You might even want to run for a position yourself. Why not? Crappy people run all the time, you might just win.

  • Community theater: Why not take part in a spectacle put on for the entertainment of the community? In the olden days before Xbox, Tivo, and ipods, people only had each other, and TVs without remotes, to keep entertained. I'm serious, we had to get up to change the channel. You can keep the tradition alive of amusing thy neighbor with some community theater. If you're not good at performing there are plenty of jobs backstage, and there's always the role of "Tree #1."

Getting a life
If you start taking any of the actions we've outlined today, you'll be well on your way to having a rich, rewarding life outside of work. Once you have that, you may even find your job to be more stimulating, or at least you may come to view it as just one piece of the pie chart of your life.

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More

Powered by Blogger