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 31, 2010

Ask a Manager: My Reputation is at Stake

Note:  some facts in the letter below have been omitted or altered to obscure the workplace.  The letter is otherwise genuine.

Dear Finishing School:

I have a great career – 18 years.  8 long years ago we hired a master manipulator.  She comes off as sweet and innocent and has bought and paid for undying loyalty of all of more co-workers...She has been after me since she started here.  Has lied about me, manipulated every one, tried to destroy me and has been successful. (By the way, I work with all men)

The manipulator is not my boss; however, I [do]  have a new boss... Because of THE manipulator, our old boss said" to hell with it" and retired.  The new boss loves her and thinks she should be able to do whatever she wants.

It has taken her years to destroy me, as she has had to make it personal.  She has eroded relationships one by one by telling each individual that I say things about them that I absolutely do not say.  

 I could write a novel, but this is just one example of many...I have tried to tell people how she is,, but now they won’t listen despite having a very trusting relationship with me for years.  They’ve finally bought in to her lies and now I’m in danger of losing my job.  Her goal is to see me out the door.  She is the type that wants to be everybody’s “favorite” and she needs me completely out of her way.

How do I reverse the damage she has done?  How do I convey to everyone what she is and have them believe me?  How do you expose these people without looking like you’re the crazy one?

This correspondence must be held in absolute confidence.  "Irene"

Dear Reader,
You’ve painted a pretty bleak picture here. I am sorry to see that you are going through such a tough time, particularly after so many productive years. I probably need to know a lot more about the personalities involved, the options you might have in your work environment, and the motivation behind your coworker’s attacks. That said, I think I get the general idea. Based on that, I want to give you some high level tips that might help to give you some focus.

But first, I’d like to tell you about two of my kids. My oldest son "Russ" is twelve years old. He’s a great kid:  a gifted student, a talented musician, an athlete, and a wonderful, caring son. He is also very intense and can be a bit of a control freak. He’s often struggled with sharing that spotlight with his younger brothers.

My youngest son "Eddie"  is seven years younger. He is intense in a different way. He’s a comedian, cute as hell and full of mischief. He does some wild things but generally has everyone wrapped around his little finger because he’s such a charmer.

These two don’t always get along so well. The biggest fight always comes when Russ is standing in his T-shirt and boxers, talking to Mom and Dad, before going off to bed or on a weekend morning after getting up for breakfast. Eddie loves to sneak up behind his brother and yank those boxers to the floor. (Unfortunately for Russ, he does this a lot.)

Now when this happens,  Eddie always laughs and laughs while Russ FREAKS OUT. He will wave his hands in the air and scream and yell (boxers still on the floor) followed by a round of angry chasing and slapping and general chaos. It’s a scene.

The unfortunate thing that generally happens next is that Mom and Dad end up scolding Russ for all of the yelling and screaming and violence.  Is that fair? Not at all. He was clearly the one who was attacked. But a much bigger child cannot be physically abusing the little one.  That, in addition to the noise level and pandemonium that he creates, is just a lot to take. (Hey, we’re not perfect. We have three sons. We’re tired. It’s just a human reaction. I’m not saying it’s right.)

So in all of this, upstart Eddie gets a big load of attention, and wounded Russ ends up looking quite crazy.  My point is, as you put it yourself, he has been around longer, he's a good performer who gets wronged and tries to fight it, but the authorities don't see it that way.

Barbs can't be backed out
It looks like your manipulator has already gotten her hooks in at a very deep level. Clearly, you are not in a position of strength. As hard as it is to accept it, you will have to let go of the notion of exposing her, turning the tables on her, or overthrowing her. You can’t win that fight.

She has a cannon and you have a slingshot (and it sounds like you don’t even have a rock to put in it.) If she is attacking, you don’t want to go for a head-on collision. You don’t block a punch with a punch, you know? Okay enough with the male-centric mixed metaphors.

Anytime someone is accused of something he or she didn’t do, the natural reaction is to fight back and scream from the rooftops. Unfortunately, everybody likes a good story and the writhing-and-kicking denials only add fuel to the fire. If you point back at this gal and start your own campaign against her, it can look like defensive slander. At best, all these men in the office can look at this as a vicious fight between the two of you with you both as equal participants. That doesn’t help you either.

Narrow Your Focus
Right you are trying to do several things at once: refute allegations, expose her as a fraud, win over the boss,
restore your reputation, and get her out of your company. I recommend you focus on a singular goal, which is simply your own survival.

Ultimately, if  all of these men that you work with are so willing to believe bad things about you, you really ought to think about whether this is the right environment for you. I would look long and hard at your surroundings and how you have been treated in general – not just by her -- and decide if this is where you want to be. If not, you can set some goals to move on long-term and then focus on your survival as a short-term initiative. By that I mean that you should stabilize things while you look elsewhere.

Maybe this reflection will bring up some reasons that you want to stay; but within that, I think you need to assume that even in the best case scenario, you and your nemesis will both be there. Either way, you will want to keep working on getting yourself to a better place so that it’s bearable if you stay and if you leave it will be on your own terms, and not in a cloud of defeat that will haunt you for years to come.

And how do you survive?

•    Do your job and do it well. Don’t give anyone a reason to think that you are "no good" based on your own actions.

•    Be kind and professional toward everyone. Same reason as above. And yes, everyone. Even if it kills you. Don’t overdo it, either. No hi-pitched phony pleasantries or forced smiles accompanied by eye-rolls…just keep it all matter-of-fact and keep yourself from sinking to the behavior you are trying to combat.

•    Challenge other coworkers when they present you with things they have "heard." For example, “Bob, you’ve known me for a long time. Have you ever heard me speak badly about someone else?” You might even go so far as to say “if someone tells you something like this bout me, what makes you believe it?

Now this is important. Just ask the question. Don’t push it hard. And never mention the manipulator by name or say anything derogatory about her.

•    Be yourself. Focus on yourself and your job. Do your best to ignore external inputs, hard as that might be.

Find Your Allies
Perhaps it’s not everyone who has turned against you.  When you are going through something like thi,s it can feel like you have no allies, but there might be some people in the office who aren’t riding that bandwagon. Some might see the manipulator for what she is, and simply choose not to be vocal about it.

Some recognize that you have a long history as productive coworker and are not aware that there is a problem.

Some might not care about the situation one way or another. I would be willing to bet that there are at least a few people who aren’t thinking about this at all. That might sound harsh, but my point is that it will be easier for you to focus on your survival if you can avoid magnifying the problem in your head. It’s a pretty serious problem already.  No need to add even more to it because it is making you feel so isolated.

Finally, with that in mind, I would like you to consider whether there might be someone in the office that you find trustworthy enough to share in some proactive exploration with you. I mentioned above that you should answer allegations with frank challenges to the logic of the situation by asking them to give you details on what they think or why they believe it. This approach assumes that you have people actively confronting you with their beliefs. You might not have that luxury. If you really want to tackle this head-on, you might consider finding the right coworker (or two, or three) and asking them outright for some feedback on how you are doing.

Be Ready for the Response
It is extremely important to do this in a way that does not appear defensive. No folded arms or pinched faces, please. Just something like “Larry, I’d like to get your opinion of how I’m doing with my work…can you tell me what you think I am doing well, and what I am doing not so well?”

Then you listen. 

If the coworker doesn’t seem to want to share, you can guide the conversation a bit by saying things like “I think I’m pretty good at X, but I’ve been working on Y…have you seen that?” From there, you can get to the big one, which looks something like this, “I’ve heard that people [“people”…not her] might think Z about me and I’m concerned about that. Do you have this perception of me? Do you think others do? Can you tell me why you think this might be?” And then depending where the conversation goes, you can ask the other questions that I outlined above, which are meant to get the other person thinking about the logic of the situation.

If you can do this with a few people, possibly including your boss, you might learn something that you don’t know already. You might find some things that you can change or work on to help the situation. More importantly, you will have made a few connections with people who will now be less likely to accept untruths about you in the future. When someone has the courage to open herself up  and ask  for feedback – to expose herself in sharing what she thinks of herself while asking for  input – it is pretty hard to dismiss that person on a superficial level ever again. The memory of that conversation will stick.

You might even find yourself with a few people who will defend you. And hopefully, you won’t feel so alone.
Don Draper, Resident Manager

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Sep 14, 2010

All the World’s a Stage

Guest Blogger Mary O'Donnell, Fundraiser, Performer...MBA

 Following up a recent Business Women’s Finishing School article about the work of a performer, I have expanded on some of the lessons from the theater world that can be applied in the corporate world.

1.      Be prepared.
Like a job interview, an audition is all about research and preparation.  I always read the play before I audition, and if it’s a musical, I familiarize myself with the score. I had the opportunity to audition for (name drop) Ben Affleck for the first movie he directed.  I got a call the day before the audition, bought the book and read it before the audition the next morning.  Although I did not get the part, he was impressed that I had read the book on such short notice so that I could better understand what he was looking for in the on-camera audition.

2.      Know the players and their expectations.
You often have one or two minutes to do a “cold reading” for a director or casting agent, so you’d better know as much about the client as you do about the characters before the audition.  On-camera auditions involve clients who have clear expectations about the age, hair color, etc. for their characters.  If they say memorize the script and wear a business suit, do it.

3.      Establish clear goals.
Theaters projects have short time frames and lots of moving parts in various stages at any point in time.  If the goals and timelines are not clear for all of the participants onstage and backstage, the project can grind to a halt.

4.      Focus on your own goals.
When you are onstage acting, singing and dancing, there is no room in your brain to think about anything else but executing the script, your own staging, props and costume changes. There is no point in worrying about what everyone else is doing or not doing. If everyone focuses on achieving their own prescribed goals, it all comes together like a quilt—a crazy quilt, but an integrated whole nonetheless. 

5.      Rally the troops around a single shared vision
In any theatrical production, there is a specific script, but each actor uses his or her unique skills and perspective to interpret that script to bring it to life. The director’s job is to bring out the best in every performer through a process of respecting the actors’ instincts and interpretations, having a solid vision for the end product, and helping all the actors achieve that shared vision.

6.      Don’t take feedback personally
In the theater world, rejection is constant, and you can’t take it personally.  I go into every audition doing my best, but I know that there are too many elements of the audition outside my control.  The local theater circuit is a very small world with a smaller number of directors who have their friends, and cliques reign. A director may have very strong ideas about the physical “type” required for a role.  Sometimes you’re just not the vision the director has in his or her brain, and it’s more about your build and hair color than how well you read in an audition.  Accept it, and move on to the next project. 

7.      “There are no small parts, only small actors.”
Everyone is essential to success of a theatrical production.  Period.  See #8, #9 and #10.

8.      It takes a village
The people the audience never sees usually outnumber the performers onstage and are vital to the success of a show:  the guy backstage who built and moves the set pieces, the person who figures out a special effect, the lighting designer, the prop person who creates the 1959 newspaper, the costume designer, the stage manager who runs the show, and the volunteers who do the publicity.  This is a team effort, and everyone needs to pitch in on some less glamorous parts of the project to get the job done. 

9.      With concerted effort by all, today’s chaos can be tomorrow’s success.
“Tech week” is the week just before a theatrical production opens.  The set is onstage for the first time, the technical people are setting light cues, the orchestra is suddenly there, actors have quick costume changes to figure out, and everyone’s patience is tested.  Tech week is a very compressed version of a product launch where what looks like a looming disaster on Sunday becomes Friday’s successful opening night.

10.  It’s a small world
Your reputation can be broken in an instant.  One false step, diva moment or negative remark will be transmitted cryptically through Facebook status and backstage conversations, reaching everyone in the theater microcosm.  As Heidi Klum says on Project Runway, “One minute you’re in , and the next you’re out!”  If you have a reputation for being difficult to work with or unable to be a team player, you will not get the part.

Aug 16, 2010

Am I My Resume?

20 questions for performing artists

East Coast and West Cost comedy come together in friendly harmony for our latest installment of “20 Questions.” Caroline Bender sat down with 3 talented women for a round of 20 Questions that explores the professional environment of the working actor/comedian, to expand our horizons in the world of work.  What us to spotlight the "workplace" of your profession?  Email the Finishing School at bwfinishingschool@gmail.com.

Deana Tolliver is Associate Managing Director of ImprovBoston, where she has been performing professionally for 6 years, in improvisation, sketch, and musical theatre. Her kids have joined the family business as the go-to cast for short films and live bits

From Los Angeles, meet Robyn Simms,  a 20 year veteran of the funny, from acting and writing to costume design and puppetry.   Her short film "Sisyphus" has played a number of prestigious film fests, including Palm Springs Shortsfest and the LA Comedy Shorts '09 and won a jury prize at the FilmOneFest. Robin is currently the assistant director of the Santa Barbara Minute Film Festival (the films are not small; they are 60 seconds long).
Sara Faith Alterman (also known by her nom de blog, “SFA”) is a bicoastal performer frequently subjected to bad in-flight comedy as she travels between San Francisco and Boston to practice her crafts – primarily, as co-producer of Mortified: Boston, and a member of San Francisco’s The Loose Interpretations. To the IRS, Sara Faith works full time as a freelance writer. She is working on her third book and contributes the occasional feature article.

Not all the comedians Miss Bender knows are Emerson College graduates. Just the best ones.

CB: I tend to start these interviews with a naïve question based completely on stereotype. Working in performing arts seems to me like a constant stream of job interviews. Or dating. How does it compare to, say, a business interview or a job application?

Robyn: It is totally a constant stream of job interviews. You know when they like you. I find it comforting when they at least like me, even if I don't book it. It's awful when you know they DON'T like you.

SFA: You have to constantly try to market yourself, then cross your fingers and hope for the best. I thought I did a really great job on that press release. Are they going to call me? Or are they going to choose some other starving idiot?

Deana: As artists we all kick into performance mode easily, and therefore we do incredibly well in job interviews. We can convince anyone to hire us. The problem is that we might not want that job. I had to learn to shift out of that mode long enough to ask the important questions so I could evaluate whether the job was right for the "real" me.

CB: Which describes the experience more accurately: Fame, High School Musical, American Idol, The Apprentice?
Deana: Is there a reality show where a stay at home mom takes a class and gets cast out of nowhere in a show? That was my experience. That should be a show... 

Robyn: Fame- the original movie. It captures the thrilling soaring feelings of creating, and the really sh***y times too. When they have the hot shot grad as their waiter, the dancer having an abortion and Coco having to take off her shirt at the end. I stand by Fame. A fairy tale, yes. But one with actual reality. 

SFA: I've only seen Fame, and the live theater version of High School Musical. Don't ask. So, I have no idea. But I DO get a lot of comparisons to the lovably annoying Rachel on Glee. Because I'm a diva. And Jewish. And I love knee socks. 

CB: But the rejection - the rejection! How do you bounce back from "we'll call you"? 
Robyn: You keep other irons in the fire at all times, and don't take it personally. It's a numbers game, and as long as a percentage of [it] is sticking to the wall, you know you got something. 

Deana: Since I am [also] on the business side of things … I cast just as often as I want to be cast. I learned that there really is something specific folks are looking for. More often than not the choice is not about who is the most talented - when you get to this level everyone is talented. It's about the right look, the right vibe with other actors, the opinion of one person that day. There are so many variables that, at least for me, there is no way to take it personally. It's not about me, it's about what they need for the role. 

CB: Yes, let's hear a pep talk. Tell us a story about nailing the audition. 

Robyn: I just went through 3 rounds of phone interviews and one on-camera, and then booked it. We shot it over this past weekend, a game show pilot which we then won. 

SFA: When I walked into my audition for the a cappella group I sing with, I was so nervous I thought I was going to boot all over my sheet music. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, opened my mouth...and f[lubb]ed up the opening lines of my song so badly that I had to start over. I just made a joke about it, slipped the director a fifty, and voila! Not only did I get in, but if you don't blink during the first 10 seconds of the latest promo for Hawaii 5-O, you'll catch me and the girls shoo-be-doo-bopping in front of the Golden Gate bridge.

Deana: The last commercial gig I got was amazing. I was the first person they saw for the role. The call was for a "Kelly Rippa" type. I got in, chatted them up, read the sides (part of the script) in a perky, Rippa-esque way - light news interview, morning show style. I finished and the director said, "I really wanted it to be more hard-hitting, like Barbara Walters". I wouldn't characterize Barbara Walters as hard-hitting, but what do I know. I asked if I could read again. I delivered a blend of Barbara Walters and Hank Phillippe Ryan - pensive, smart, then went for the jugular. He loved it. He was impressed with the reading, but he was more impressed that I could throw away the first reading so quickly and give him something completely different. He went out to the lobby and sent everyone else home. The shoot turned out to be a really fun day and has led to more work with that company. 

CB: What have we seen you in? 

Robyn: I have an episode of Tim and Eric Show this season-I'm in a Cinco commercial. 

Deana: I perform at ImprovBoston at least once a week in various improv and sketch shows. This month you can see me in the Mainstage shows each Saturday at 8 & 10. I just finished a run of the musical Lube - which I wrote and starred in. I will also be hosting the Boston Improv Festival here at ImprovBoston September 8-12, featuring improvisers from all over the world. 

SFA: The latest promo for Hawaii 5-O! Plus Mortified shows in Boston, LA, and San Francisco. And you can find my first two books on Amazon. 

CB: What's a role/show you've always wanted to do but haven't? 

Robyn: The wacky neighbor. 

CB: I find that an obvious misuse of resources.

SFA: Saturday Night Live. It's been my lifelong dream to be a writer and performer for that glorious Svengali Lorne Michaels.

Deana: As comedians, we all have the same dream - getting on SNL or winding up with a tolerable sit com. In mine I play Ellen Degeneres' sister, we have a large family, our other sisters are Bonnie Hunt, Katherine O'Hara and Amy Poehler. You know, because we're all funny and blonde. 

CB: These crazy kids today.... what are they doing wrong you would like to set them straight on? (is it ending sentences with prepositions, perhaps?) 

SFA: Stop thinking that life would be so much more glamorous if you could just land a reality TV show for you and your posse. 

Deana: If it isn't a joy for you there is no reason to do it. Each audition is an opportunity - even if you don't get the role it is not wasted time. A casting director might remember you for something else, that actress you met in the lobby might turn out to be a great contact or an even better friend. 

CB: That sounds like good advice in any profession 

Robyn: The crazy kids are doing everything right. I got no complaints about them. 

CB: Correct our naive notion that Life is a Cabaret. But without calling me "chum." 

Robyn: We have a saying at our house called "Circus Family." It is for when we have to do something (good or bad) that might seem really out of the ordinary to regular people. For instance- I have a coffin stored in the garage, for a short film [my husband] Steve wrote, but we have not gotten around to shooting yet. This weekend it's getting hauled out for a photoshoot that is being staged in our backyard. 

Tomorrow, Dexter is coming with mommy to pick up the rented costume jacket at the fancy dry cleaners that has a giant popcorn machine for customers, 24 hour service and limo parking. The coat had to be specially cleaned because the animation guys wrapped it around an actual fish during the shoot this week. It was rented from a costume house where Dex and I spent a hour finding it in a warehouse the size of a football field. It was my job for the week-costuming a live action segment for Cartoon Network's "Flapjack." 

Deana: Life is a Cabaret! Except without having to perform for the Germans' Weimar Republic. 

SFA: It is. It's full of song and dance and terrible wigs. 

CB: Describe one of the "special skills" on your resume and how you came by it. 

Robyn: my favorite special skill I have is a very loud whistle. I learned how to do it the summer before 8th grade. I practiced a lot, and it is an awesome skill and the envy of many. 

SFA: I can pick a lock with a credit card. I wish I could say I picked that one up in the pokey, but the truth is I was locked out of my dorm room in college and I was too lazy (or drunk?) to call security, so I figured it out. 

Deana: I actually have "Single mother of two" under special skills - because it IS a special skill to juggle all this. I will refrain from telling you how I cam by that special skill in this interview, but if you ever want to grab a drink... 

CB: It’s important that we acknowledge that in addition to practicing your crafts, you are all employed at full-time jobs, and Deana and Robyn, you are parents as well. It's so trendy to talk about work/life balance. How do you find work/work balance? 

Deana: Divorce! It's honestly been a godsend for my career. Now that the kids are with their dad every other weekend I can travel to festivals and book more gigs. I mean, my personal life is a disaster but I have a lot more time for the funny. (I'm joking, I'm fine) 

Robyn: I don't sleep. [T]he middle of the night seems to be the only time I can get the peace and solid time to create anything. This is a terrible cycle. I recently had two nights in a row of sleep- 10 hours and then an 8, and I felt amazing. But nothing got done-my house was a mess, no bills got paid, no emails answered and certainly no personal art was made. 

SFA: Work/work balance is a tricky little bitch that's been playing hide and seek with me for my entire career. I have a hard time focusing on my "real" job sometimes, because I'm so excited about upcoming [Mortified] shows that I'll spend hours flipping through my old diaries, or fiddling around with arrangements of Beyonce songs on Finale. Is there a pill for that? Can you get me some? Basically, I sit around in my pajamas and stress out about my cell phone bill. 

CB: What would it take for you to be a full-time performer ? How do you work to make that happen? 

Robyn: Money to pay my bills when I'm not working, money to pay for a babysitter to watch my child while I exercised myself daily into a size 6, money for new pictures, money for a better wardrobe, money for more and constant grooming. 

Deana: I have been very lucky to create a combo of administrative work/performing at ImprovBoston. It allows me to go on auditions, and then take time off to shoot things. I have a steady pay check and still get to work in the arts. Now, if someone wants to offer me a full-time performing gig that will be steady I'd love to chat with them! With two kids, the stability of having a "day job" is important - I just happen to have a really cool day job.
SFA: Honestly, it's all about the Benjamins, baby. If i could be confident that I'd be able to pay my rent, and that I wouldn't have to face too much rejection on a regular basis, I'd go for it. Wow, that makes me sound like a timid a****le. Maybe I should just go for it right now. 

CB: When you imagine yourself in a completely different professional field, what do you think is most likely? 

Deana: Teacher - which is sort of cheating because I teach here as part of my job. But I mean classroom teacher, like elementary school or something. A good teacher uses the same elements that we use in improvisation - tapping into what interests your audience and exploring that, setting up an environment that insists on supporting one another and thinking quickly on your feet. 

Robyn: My fantasy jobs all seem to involve wearing smart looking suits with statement jewelry and working in an office. They also pay a lot. I'm always well groomed and have many material possessions. I think it always boils down to money. Happiness doesn't play into these fantasies at all, they are pure and utter Stuff Porn. 

SFA: In my next life, I'd like to run an animal rescue organization. 

CB: When do these kind of thoughts occur to you? 

SFA: Every time I look at my dog, Noodle, who I rescued/kidnapped from Beijing, China in 2008. 

Robyn: When I realize there is too much month at the end of the money. 

Deana: But then I remember that teachers don't make any money either. 

CB: Do you now, or have you ever, worked in a traditional office/cube type environment? 

SFA: I was a reporter with The Boston Phoenix until 2009, but being a journalist, especially for an Alternative Weekly newspaper, isn't terribly traditional. I kept a bottle of whiskey in my desk, and would toss one back with my coworkers on a rough day. Don't think that would fly at a financial services company. 

Deana: I have certainly worked in lots of offices, though I would not call any of them "traditional". They have all been crazy in some way or other. Maybe the common thread there is me, and when I am not there they are very normal places to work. I have also worked in very corporate environments where I had to wear suits all day, it just wasn't the right fit for me, but they were all great opportunities and led me to where I am now. 

Robyn: For about 6 months at the beginning of my career in NYC, I was the receptionist at two different production houses. Both were terrible jobs. Had one of them been better, instead of making me think I would go postal, where would I be now?

CB: Anything you would (or do) borrow from that culture to benefit life backstage? 

SFA: Being a successful business person means constantly having to go with the flow and not let unexpected obstacles trip you up too badly. And to constantly envision the big picture. That sort of mentality is tremendously helpful when you're trying to produce a show, or when you f*** up onstage. 

Deana: [I]t is important whenever meeting directors, casting agents, and other actors to be very professional - some actors just don't get that. Be on time, be polite, follow up after the shoot to say thank you, simple things that the corporate world knows very well. 

Robyn: The [entertainment] world I work in…IS corporate. Still art, but there is a lot of money at stake. 

CB: What aspects of the arts/entertainment environment would benefit the corporate world?
Robyn: Craft Services would be a great morale booster. So would wacky costumes and better lighting. 

SFA: The principals of improv are the same as those of negotiation and general communication; accept another person's idea and build upon it, rather than shoot it down. That idea makes for much more productive communication and idea/product development. 

Deana: I am a corporate trainer as part of my day job. I teach businesses how to use the foundations of improv to benefit their bottom line. We teach people how to create corporate cultures that encourage support and creativity, that truly allow for ideas to grow, and that allow for better communication across all levels of the company. I truly believe that in order to have a successful business you need to embrace ideas, encourage humor and allow folks some fun in their day. 

One to grow on...

Audio-Visual Aids
Hawaii 5-0
Single Mother on Election Night

note: 20 questions round tables are conducted by email.  Participants are not in actual conversation.  But then, this isn't a real Finishing School.  ~~CB

Aug 11, 2010

Ask a Manager: Is Nepotism a Mitigating Factor?

 Due to an upswing in business my workload has become crushing. My supervising manager has advised me to team with another administrative assistant. I have done so, or at least have tried to, but now this person is "constantly too busy" doing things like Internet shopping and gossiping away from her desk. (We are talking a couple of hours in a day, not a few minutes) and some actual work.

Here is the biggest problem: the admin I can not rely on is the daughter of one of the owners and has been with the company a lot longer than I have. I am afraid to say anything against her.  How do I assert what's fair in a situation that is already one-sided?


Nepotism is an ugly fact of life in the workplace. I’ve seen it at all levels, and I’ve even had to deal with it in employees who have been assigned to work for me. As a conscientious manager, being put in that situation can put you on edge as you walk the line between playing the expected political game and trying to keep the respect of your other employees. Depending upon how in tune your manager is to that, it can impact the situation and how you should handle it. At a minimum, I recommend you consider where your manager might stand on the issue and how aware s/he is of the problem already.

The danger here is that presenting a scenario like this can put management on the defensive. If you make it seem like an attack on your manager’s judgment, he can shut down on you. Worse, if your manager interprets your concern about your coworker’s habits as an act of pettiness or unsportsmanlike conduct toward a teammate (especially this one), you end up making yourself look bad, and then it’s (still) no help for you!  But you know all of this already, which is why we’re here.

So here is my advice. Forget about the fact that the other administrative assistant is a waste of space. You and I aren’t going to eliminate nepotism, and we aren’t even going to fix this one case of it. If she’s been gumming up the works for this long, she’s not going to start working harder, and your management is not going to start pushing her harder. Sorry.

So let that go, and let’s focus on what’s most important: You. 

You have a big bucket of work and no one is helping you. It’s time to go back to the well and ask for help again. Now I don’t know exactly what kind of work we are talking about here, but generally when there is too much work, you have a choice of in how to handle it. You can either kill yourself to do it all (I think you’ve been trying to do that), get more resources to help you (your manager tried that), or prioritize it and let some of it go.

So with that in mind, I suggest you first set some boundaries for yourself. You are obviously a conscientious person with a strong desire to do a good job and succeed in your work. Remember that you won’t be able to do that if you burn yourself out. Think about what is reasonable to expect of yourself, and determine what work is most important from your perspective. Come up with a proposal of how you might prioritize it based on that.

This doesn’t have to be the end of it. In other words, I’m not suggesting that you will just tell your manager, “sorry, but I’m only doing half of the work you’ve given me,” and expect it to be well-received. However, it’s a starting point for the conversation that will not only illustrate the problem in practical terms to your manager, but also demonstrate that you are taking some leadership in finding a solution. Your manager might not accept that any of the work is less important, but if you can rationally demonstrate that it cannot all be done by just you, and his prior solution is not working, it will elevate the importance of the problem.

Now, armed with that, you can approach the issue of getting yourself some better help. I know: I told you to let the goldbricking ways of your coworker go. Still the case. You still need to remove the emotion, the opinion, and the judgment from the situation as you present it. However you must still focus on the result. Don’t let that go. That’s the key.
The important thing to remember is that your manager thinks that he solved your problem by pointing you in the direction of this well-positioned online shopper, but it didn’t work. He needs to know that he still owes you some support.

Now let’s put it all together. I see the conversation with your boss going something like this:
1.    State the problem:
“I’m still having trouble getting through all of the work”

2.    Illustrate the impact, taking ownership and showing you care:
“There are not enough hours in the day to get it all done so I’m concerned that the quality of my work will slip and I will not be able to deliver. I do not want to let the company down.”

3.    Address the past solution, being careful to state only facts and leave out your judgment and observations:
“I know you told me that I should share some of the work with Tiffany ( Ashley? Brittany? Am I close?), but that hasn’t been working out. She has told me that she doesn’t have time to help me because she is too busy.” 

4.    Propose a solution (within your own means):
“If we cannot get someone else to help, then I would like to restructure my work so I can focus on the top priorities. This will mean that X, Y, and Z will have to wait until we can get someone else to cover them.” 

5.    Ask if there is anything else that your manager can do within his means, but with a twist:
“If there are other resources available, I would still love to get help, but since these other people don’t work for me, it would be helpful if we could identify specific things they will be responsible for  and the message could come from you (management) to them.”

Notice that with this approach you aren’t making a judgment on how busy the other employee is or isn’t, but have only presented the fact that she told you that she is. Also, with the last point above, you are separating the owner’s daughter from the situation by talking about the help you get in terms of “other people”. Now your manager might read between the lines, depending upon how well known it is that this gal likes to loaf. That’s still ok because you have insulated yourself by approaching it tactfully and professionally.

The other important thing here is that you are making it a point to ask your boss to be more directive with the person who is helping you. I think that’s been a big part of the problem all along. If the person helping you is not beholden to you in any way, then you must rely entirely on his or her work ethic and desire to help you. Obviously if you get the wrong person, that’s not going to fly. So above all else, I recommend you push on that point. If your manager does not accept an option where all of the work doesn’t get done, you need to push to make sure he continues to help you get what you need without leaving it to you to sort out the additional resources.

Remember that in order for your manager to succeed, you need to succeed. You need his help in making you successful. If you can help him to focus on how he can best help you, you should both be in a better position to get through this stressful time.

I hope that helps.

~~ Don Draper

Don Draper is the Finishing School's resident manager, on-call for your sticky situations and management input on all topics.  Write Don in care of bwfinishingschool@gmail.com

Jul 24, 2010

20 Questions for Academics

Since our relaunch last fall, the Finishing School has enjoyed broadening our student body beyond the gray fabric walls of the cubicle.  Just when we think we know what we are experts on, you remind me that the workplace is not, in fact, universal.
Some of our contributing faculty are, in real-life, faculty.  Miss Bender sighs wistfully at them from across the staff room, wondering if she made a wrong turn at Albuquerque.  (Waltham, it actually was).

Listen in on the first of what we hope will be many “So You Want to Be A….” installments.  As long as the market is down, why not shop around?  (And make our Miss Bender feel less like she begged for private therapy?)

Meet Cathie and Robin,  colleagues at “a comprehensive regional university offering a rich, student-focused learning environment with an enrollment of approximately 4,300 undergraduate and more than 2,000 graduate students.”  We cornered them and their chosen professions for a round of 20 Questions, then we made it look like they were together.  That’s how we do in Virtual Academia – but we don’t lie to you about it.

CB:  How long have you been in your current field?
Cathie: It depends on what you mean by my current field.
Robin: About 10 years as an English professor.
Cathie:  I have been at my current employer for 13 years and then was in graduate school, preparing for my current field, for 5 years before that.

CB:  Have you ever worked in the “traditional office” environment so familiar to Miss Bender – the corporate cubicle, 9-5, and all that comes with that?
Robin: Not really. Though I have had regular jobs since I was 15, never very cubicle-oriented.
Cathie: I worked as a software developer/manager for 5 years and then as a grant writer for 2 years.

CB:  Anything you miss about it?
Cathie: Not really. I loved the problem-solving aspect of developing software and the feeling of accomplishment that I got when I finished some task. But that doesn't really have anything to do with a cubicle environment.  I sometimes miss software development but I do some for myself now. But I don't always have projects in mind to work on and other responsibilities often get in the way of focusing on a software project.

CB: Are there aspects of that environment that would benefit Academe?
Cathie: The sense of having to get things done on more than an individual level. In academia, we can be pretty slow to change things that need to be changed.
Robin:  I think it's good to appreciate and try different kinds of work, so you can be sure you end up doing something suitable to you.

CB: Most of our contributors work in those sorts of office cultures, and may think the grass is greener on the other side of your fence. Is it?
Robin: Well, yes.
CB:  Ok, maybe I mean me.
Cathie: I love the flexibility of my side of the fence although I think I work harder mentally now than I ever did on the other side. And it's sometimes difficult to do things and not see immediate tangible results. That happens a lot with education, because students don't always see the benefit of what we do immediately. But it is very satisfying when they come back after graduation to talk about how important what we've taught them was.

CB:  I have to admit I often draw on that from my own tour of academia – I remember that sometimes you don’t see the results for years.  Sometimes you never do, but it doesn’t mean there weren’t results.

CB: I think there are certain aspects of the campus culture that The Suits never understand if they haven’t lived it.  I remember that when I was in student affairs, I would tell stories about my students’ problems, or issues we were dealing with, like “cultural sensitivity” or administrative politics, and my corporate friends would answer with “you can’t just fire them?”
Cathie: I think outsiders (including the students) don't understand how much time we think about and talk about individual students, trying to figure them out, trying to figure out how to present information to them in a way that they can succeed, that will motivate them. I know a lot about my colleagues' students even when I don't personally know the students themselves because we talk about them all the time. So it's very surprising to me when I ask an advisee what the name of their math professor is and they don't know. We definitely think about them more than they think about us.

Robin:  I think it's true that we have more time off than in other fields. But on the other hand, there is actually NO time off. Like zero. I have gone to weddings with bags of papers to grade. I have been on vacation with piles of books that I had to read (even if I detested them). I have spent most evenings at home working on student papers, and most summers madly catching up with my own scholarship. We have a lot of autonomy and a lot of flexibility, and yes, even a lot of free time. But in other ways, we never, ever enjoy the feeling of having nothing work-related to do.

CB: Did you have any idea how immersive it was going to be? What kind of fantasy about your profession did you have going in, that your reality has disproven?
Robin:  That there would be time to sit around with other smart people and ruminate. Not much ruminating amongst the busy-work. Students and faculty alike are pretty maxed out at my university in terms of workload and time, so there isn't a lot of sherry-drinking, pipe-smoking, and pondering.
Cathie: [I thought] I would work less than when I was in software development or grant writing. That I would have summers "off".

CB:  Do you ever think about leaving the field for “the big money”? What keeps you from doing it?
Robin: Sure I do. I can't do anything that qualifies me for big money. [Ha ha] Mainly, I love my job.

CB: I often say I should have learned a practical trade.
Cathie:  I was making the "big money" as a software developer and it didn't make me happy. I make a decent living now--I don't need more money.

CB:  What does it mean to know you have a “job for life.”
Cathie: This is a difficult one for me because in every job that I've had, I never really thought I would lose it except through layoffs. We in the education field, even with tenure, are not immune to layoffs. The university could close completely or shut down my department and tenure would not help me keep my job. Even before I had tenure, I felt that I would not lose my job (even when I spoke my mind) unless something drastic happened.
Robin:  I prefer to think that I only have my job as long as I am good at it. The other way of thinking is a slippery slope to hell.

CB:  How do you keep it fresh and interesting?
Robin: Well, the students help with that, since they turn over every year, and they truly are unique from person to person and from generation to generation. Also, I like to stay current with scholarship, since all fields are constantly evolving. I think if you do this job well, you really wouldn't have the same year twice.
Cathie: My previous discipline, computer science, is constantly changing and so I was always doing something new, not always by choice. I have recently changed disciplines, to digital media studies, and so I'm still learning, still becoming acclimated to the new field.

CB:  When you counsel students entering your field, what advice do you offer?
Cathie: Be passionate about being creative and hardworking. If you like to work hard and think hard about ideas, you could do well. But with the field as tight as it is these days, if you aren't self-motivated and diligent, you probably won't make it.  Also, you really have to love teaching and sharing ideas. Really. Love. It. Teaching isn't what you do to support your scholarship; that kind of thinking would lead to misery. For most of us in the Humanities, teaching is what you do a lot of the time, and you have to want to be there, and think of it as an asset to your own scholarly development.
Robin: Communication and media studies (my new discipline) is valuable no matter what they decide to do when they graduate. So I suggest that they try to create a curriculum for themselves that will expose them to the things they think they are interested in. And I suggest they do an internship (at least one--some of them do several).

CB:  The rest of the world is jealous of Sabbatical. Why do you think this hasn’t caught on in the rest of the work world?
Robin: Maybe they aren't as smart as us. But seriously, folks. ..
Cathie: Great question.   
Robin: Sabbatical is something I always thought of as an enormous privilege-- maybe even an elitist privilege... But now that I have had one, I realize that it would be good for just about anyone in any field, and would probably yield greater productivity, retention, etc. for most employers. Could even be cost-effective in the long run. Someone should do a study. But not me. I am still on sabbatical.
Cathie: It is so valuable for rejuvenating people and helping them become more productive when they come back from sabbatical. I think, however, that most people think sabbatical means you don't do any work. That's not true. Instead, it is a time when, freed from the normal teaching and service duties, a person has time to work on some sustained project, usually scholarly in nature.

CB: Is that why it has survived in academia?
Cathie: Yes, because good work comes out of them.
Robin:  Sabbaticals actually work-- they produce good scholarship, better teaching, prestige (and admissions) for the universities. But I wouldn't be surprised if they start abating as the economy declines and the right wing gets more snippy about the intellectual elitism (or intellectual growth) of the country. I know tenure is under fire now; I am sure sabbaticals will be on the firing line soon.

CB:  Describe a good day on the job.  I’ll close my eyes….
Robin: A balance of collegial discussion about pedagogy, teaching a class on a stimulating topic, working on my own research, and leaving with enough time left to spend social time with family and friends.
Cathie: A good day is when I have a class planned that I'm excited about and it works--the students understand and are excited about the material. A good day is when I have no committee meetings but can find some time to do a bit of scholarship, some task on whatever current project I'm working on.

CB:  Now be fair – describe a bad day
Robin: Rushing. Being unprepared for class. No time to get to my own work. 50 student papers to grade by the next day. Rushing home for fast dinner, then grading all night while my daughter plays alone with her stuffed animals. Oh, and also, a student walks out of my Feminism class because he says I make him want to throw up.
Cathie: Classes don't go well for whatever reason. Many committee meetings on committees whose work is vague, unclear and unproductive. And I have lots of grading so I spend my free moments doing that rather than something I like.

CB: When you imagine yourself in a completely different professional field, what do you think is most likely?
Cathie: I would be a star on Broadway. Just kidding. Software development again. I gotz skills.
Robin: Gynecologist.

CB: When do these kind of thoughts occur to you?
Robin: When I occasionally feel that my work is too abstract, I wish I were involved in a more grassroots career, that would have a clearer and more immediate impact on the quality of life for people who have been disenfranchised.
Cathie: They don't actually. I'm very happy in academia, even on the bad days.

CB:  Another question that is probably more about me…. Do your parents still send you clippings and classifieds, under the impression that you are “still looking?”
Cathie:  No--they don't really understand what I do but they didn't when I was a software developer either.
Robin:  No, they finally stopped. But they are fond of telling people that their daughter "is a doctor, but not a real one." Shoot. Is this why I just answered that I wish I were a real doctor? Ugh.

CB:  Care to share a favorite fantasy about a personal win in your profession?
Cathie: Interesting question. I guess I have two. One is that there is an issue before the faculty that I feel strongly about. I stand up in a faculty meeting and, using my powers of persuasion, I convince the hostile crowd of the wisdom of my opinion. The second is that I write an academic book that captures popular attention. Appearances on Diane Rehm and Charlie Rose follow.
Robin: I have realized that more accolades lead to more responsibility which ironically leads to increased criticism. Also true: success --> failure.

CB: Is that the name of your still-to-be-written memoirs?
Robin: Memoirs. (Ha ha ha) And no, THAT is not the title.
Cathie: How do you know they are still-to-be-written?

CB:  There were only 19 questions – does that bother you?
Robin: The fact that you are a liar is, I will admit, irksome.
Cathie: No, but only because you've asked this question which makes it 20.

Jul 14, 2010

Another Satisfied Candidate

Guest Lecturer Marie Hills reflects on 13 months on the unemployment rolls.

I was laid off in May 2009 so I took advantage of having a summer off. In retrospect, if I knew how long it was going to take to find a job I would have started right away. After 3 months, I got started – nearly a year since the last time I had looked for work.

I looked for organizations that were financially viable/healthy. Before I applied for a position, I researched the organization’s financials. I also sent out emails to friends and former colleagues to see if anyone had contacts at certain organizations. By using a contact name, I was able to personalize my cover letters. I felt like this search was more about who I knew vs. what I knew. Having an “in” was a key at having your resume looked at even if it didn’t lead to an interview.

Some people recommended that I “dumb down” my resume. I’m extremely proud of the positions I’ve held and the things I’ve accomplished professionally. Dumbing down my resume felt like I was selling myself short – it was an injustice to my accomplishments.

During my numerous phone interviews I heard two things:
1) you’re a fundraiser; and
2) I don’t think we can afford you.

I did not want to go back into fundraising. I did it for years and it took me awhile to get out of that area. There were numerous positions that I saw and liked, but the minute it mentioned fundraising it was added to the NO pile. The only way I would have gone back into fundraising is if my unemployment benefits ran out and I had no choice.

I was willing to take a pay cut from my last job, but I refused to go below a certain level. Believe it or not, over the last 15+ years, I have taken 3 pay cuts to work at organizations that I wanted to work at. The last two pay cuts were worth it. We’ll see about this one. For me it’s all about where I am, not about how much I make.
This job market requires “Reflexiablity.” There has to be a give and take relationship between job responsibilities and salary requirements.

Of course, I had to make some concessions at home as well.
a) During the winter, I kept my heat down so the bill wouldn’t be too high. I wore a lot of layers to keep warm.
b) I took advantage of my gym’s “hardship” membership. (Was able to get a reduced rate when I showed unemployment paperwork.)
c) Purchased as many sale items at the grocery store as possible.
d) Told my family not to get me holiday/birthday presents because I couldn’t afford to give a present in return.
e) Only purchased clothing when needed.
f) Limited the number of times I went out with friends and where we went.

As summer came back around again, I was prepared to cut deeper – to cancel my gym membership when my “hardship” membership has expired. Using the AC only at night during the summer or only when necessary.

Two things surprised me the most :
1) the number of people applying for one position and
2) that it took me as long as it did to find a job.

 I had a phone interview with one organization that told me I was 1 of 300+ applicants. The organization was speaking with 24 applicants via phone and then planned on bringing 5 or 6 people in for in-person interviews. Being 1 of 24 made me feel like I accomplished something even if I didn’t get an in-person interview.

I even looked out-of-state, focusing my search on 4 geographic locations. I got a call for a phone interview from an organization in New York City. Oddly enough, the interviewer was a friend of a friend. The interviewer wanted me to meet with staff in the area office vs. a visit to NYC. The following week I received an email from HR saying," thank you for applying, but we decided to go in a different direction." I emailed the interviewer with this news and never heard back.

 Even if employers are overwhelmed with applicants, I think they should still get back to applicants that they have spoken with on the phone. (I did hear back via email from 2 phone interviews that they hired someone else. These are organizations that I will look at the next time I interview.)

After 10 months of searching I made it to one (One!) on-site interview. This was after several phone interviews – some of which said I would be contacted to schedule an in-person interview, but nothing ever happened. These places also ignored follow-up emails.

Truthfully, I had no other choice but to keep going. I found a job because I feared I would become homeless. I know that sounds dramatic. I was able to survive on unemployment by watching how I spent my money, but I knew my benefits would eventually run out. I was smart enough to have several months of savings. I don’t own a home so I didn’t have to worry about foreclosure. If I had no benefits and ran through my savings, my options of where to go were very slim. My family lives out of state and doesn’t have the space for another full-time adult. I’m too proud to ask friends for help. (Trust me when I say, at this point, I would have gotten several part-time jobs to survive.)

But in the end, I was able to re-connect with old friends through the found time and the drive to network. I also had the time to evaluate what I wanted in life. I wasn't even planning on applying for this job until a friend mentioned it. I think people need to listen to friends and take advantage of their intuition. It paid off for me.

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