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.

Apr 24, 2010

The Readers Speak

blue%20exam%20book%20 %20crayon_0278Greetings from the Deans' Offices -
Thanks for your continued support and subscription. Over the past 6 months, we have made significant changes to the website -- from its format and content, to its contributing writers and regular features.
The more we learn about you, our readers, the better we can provide the kind of material you are looking for. Please take a few moments to complete our Reader's Survey at the link below. Your feedback is very important to us.
Many thanks,
Caroline Bender & Miss Minchin

Apr 17, 2010

(book review) The Complete Guide to the Gap Year

Instructor, Caroline Bender
It is Spring in the hearts and minds of high school graduates and their parents everywhere.  In many homes, the arrival of the daily mail is a reason for gathering – sorting the fat envelopes from the skinny ones.  It is a bleak job market these new grads face.  Sadly, college may not be an immediate option for some of them, whose family future planning has been altered by unforeseen financial hardships.

The Class of 2010 may turn to the Gap Year in higher numbers than we have seen since draft deferments put working post-adolescence out of fashion.  For those considering time off between High School and College (or wondering if the investment of college will yield any higher rewards than not-college in the high-tech information/service sector age), The Finishing School recommends Kristen M White’s The Complete Guide to the Gap Year.

There are many such volumes produced every few years.  (You will see another 2009 guide in our book carousel at right).  As you might expect, reference like this are difficult to keep up to date, so you want to be sure you are selecing as current a version as you can before you call WorldCom about their entree level rotation program.  White's volume is about 40% directory, and a wide-range of opportunities it is, too -- including international service organizations, adventure-based leadership experiences, sports, academic, environmental, and language study.

The opening section breaks down the Gap Year decision and how to make it, establishing first and formost that is is not a vacation.  The Obama Administration's encouragement of a Service Year for all Americans has created new opportunities and highlighted long-standing ones such as AmeriCorps and the NCCC.  White writes that the Obama Administration "will also offer a $4000 tax credit in exchange for one hundred hours of public service per year, which will put the volunteer gap year within reach for many, many more students." (p 19)  The American Opportunity Tax Credit is part of the ARRA ("the stimulus"), and you can find out more here.

This book is written for serious-minded young people, and assumes a level of commitment and maturity of its reader.  Compared to the typical high school textbook, The Complete Guide seems almost dull, as if the author expects the student might only be reading one idea at a time!  Do not expect a lot of worksheets, assessments, CD-ROM companion videos or keywords in margin notes.  In fact, don't expect photographs and illustrations -- there are a few sidebars and one "ask yourself" box, but generally, this is straight information, delivered plainly.  Parents may wish to work through this with their student if s/he is not one to sit still for a 19-page opening chapter with only one "personal profile box."

You'll want to jump first to the Chapter Financing Your Gap Year for a breakdown of programs that are acually Free, Low-Cost, or federally assisted, and to learn more about scholarships, loans and grants for gap year experiences, support for sibling overlap (if your gap eventually  puts you and your brother in college at the same time, for example), an understanding of the tax deduction, and suggestions on extended health insurance.  With the financial fears addressed, you will be more open to the rest of White's message.

Most importantly, she explores the benefits of a year's experience -- a bridge or foundation year more than something to fill "a gap."  This is a real life-skill and career building option for today's graduate, which should not be dismissed as frivilous or unaffordable.

Apr 16, 2010

The Kumbaya File

Instructor, Caroline Bender
Like many things I learned in the world of work,I learned this practice in the trenches with my foxhole buddy Jay. I was reminded of it today, when one of our favorite trench writers Pam Slim, of Escape from Cubicle Nation, guest posted on Gapingvoid.com an essay called "you, less than."  That is a lot of blogrolling.  Let me get to my point.  There is a lot more to click below.

In the course of your work life, you will encounter many stumbles where you may question your competence, your worthiness, the gifts and skills you came in with.  Sometimes this will go on for years -- but most of the time it is a momentary hiccup that left unmanaged could bring you to your knees.  Sometimes, your self-doubt is correct -- you really do need to kick it in gear and rediscover that other version of you lost in the shadows of your stress and "fatalistic attitude."

Prepare for these lean times by setting up your stores in times of plenty.  When you are paid a compliment, an especially nice Thank You, or a certificate of achievement, file it away in a place where you can retrieve it when you need that reminder.  Every child knows how to start and keep a treasure box, and somewhere along the way we stop doing it.  It doesn't mean we stop needing a moment to lie on our beds and sift through those small and seemingly insignificant things that are important to us.

In our youthful management days before electricity, the Kumbaya File was a green Pendaflex, mixed in with all the others that we literally named "Kumbaya."  Today, for me,  it is an email or desktop folder, though I still call it Kumbaya.  Some of the contents are formal and flowery, some are snarky and insidery.  Some say hello and some say good-bye.  What they have in common is they make me feel good about myself and remind me of the great rewards that come from random acts of professional kindess.  Artifacts like these can keep you grounded.
Remember to give as well as receive.  End this week by acknowledging one of your co-workers today.  Tell them something they do that you admire and ask for nothing in return.  And thank God it's Friday.

Apr 13, 2010

The Mailroom is Open!

Letters, letters, we get letters!  Ok, we really don't.  And we think it is because we didn't have an email address.  So NOW.... one more way to contact the Finishing School.


Contact us with ideas, comments, and Ask a Manager questions.

Please continue to
- Use the Comments field (if you are not a spammer.  You know we don't mean you)
- Visit our Facebook page (and share us with your Friends)

It's true, we don't Tweet.  But when would we post?

Apr 11, 2010

Ask a Manager: Managing Up

Dick Whitman, Manager in Residence

Dear Manager, 
"Do you have any tips on how an underling should initiate a conversation with her boss about concerns she has regarding their working relationship? For example, my boss shows up late for meetings I am facilitating, gives me assignments that lead me to believe she thinks I'm her assistant, and she doesn't provide feedback in a timely manner, which slows my progress on projects. I'd like the conversation to be mature and productive, not a laundry list of things that are annoying me. Thanks for your input."

There are a few questions I’d love to ask you before sending you in for that tough conversation. If I had a little more detail, my guidance might be more direct, but ultimately what I’m going to tell you should lead to the same end result. So in preparing to address this situation, I’d suggest you analyze it from two additional points of view.

First, I’d like you to consider your boss’ behavior with others to determine if this is truly an issue with how she sees you or if these problems might be areas in which your boss needs to improve in general. For example, does your boss show up late for everyone’s meetings? This might not be an issue of your boss not respecting you. Maybe your boss has time management challenges, or better yet maybe your boss has had too damn much work piled on her plate and how can they expect her to find enough hours in the day to get through all of these endless back to back meetings!

Sigh. OK better now. Where were we?

I kid. But seriously, I would like you to try to truly understand whether you are being singled out with this behavior because, while it won’t necessarily change the words you use in raising the issue, it will give you some additional perspective as to how much of this issue is within your control.

In thinking this through, it’s ok to ask a few trusted peers for their input, but I would recommend you use your own powers of (objective) observation as much as possible. Going around asking everyone in the group if the boss treats them like an assistant would be  “stirring the pot”, and I’ve never been convinced that the input you get from this kind of thing is all that valid. I’ve had people come to me with complaints at times that end with “and everyone else feels that way too” and this always makes me picture the scene by the water cooler where heads are all nodding as the villagers are getting ready to storm the castle.

We managers have enough trouble trying to keep morale up in this economy. I would get kicked out of the managers’ union if this response were viewed as a recommendation to go pot-stirring. You can get more trustworthy results by observing the other meetings you are in with your boss where you are not in the lead, nd her interactions with those who are.

 The second bit of perspective to think about is your own interaction with others. Think about past bosses you have had as well as peers and others senior to you in the organization. Is this situation with your boss a new dynamic, or are you having a “here we go again” feeling?  This kind of exploration is important before having the conversation with your boss so you can truly understand if this is a pervasive problem that you want to break out of for the good of your long-term career or if this is truly an issue of your boss needing to change her behavior to better support you.

 Now if you take all of this above reflection and organize it in your head, you will hopefully have a pretty well-rounded view of the situation and the potential drivers. You won’t necessarily talk about your findings with your boss. They are meant to provide you with perspective to ground you and help you to steer the conversation.

I highly recommend that you stay away from anything that sounds like “we have problems with our relationship”. That risks putting your boss immediately on the defensive, which will cause you to exert a lot of time and emotion in the world of denial. Depending upon your boss’ personality, this can lead to all sorts of reactions ranging from hostility at the notion of her being challenged to a hypersensitive effort to do everything in the opposite way….and probably with that sugary-sweet fakeness that people try when they are called out on bad behavior. You know the one.

Think about the goals that each of you (should) have within the workplace. A boss wants her team to be effective so she will be successful as the leader of that team. A team is made up of individual employees. An employee wants to be effective, treated with respect, and see growth in her career.

I think the best way to lead into the discussion is to talk about where you fit within the group. The issue you are raising should be about your role, your impact, and your ability to be effective. It should be about how you think you are perceived based upon concrete things you have observed, and how you would like your boss to help you to change this perception so you can be more effective within her group for the benefit of both of you.

For example, “I would like to understand how you perceive me in terms of my ability and effectiveness….it is my perception that you might not see me at the same level I see myself and I would like to understand what I need to do to change your perception of me…I would like to contribute at a higher level, as I have expected my job to involve x, but I’m finding myself spending a lot of time doing y…”

You will notice that I putting a heavy burden on you to take the hit for “what you can do” to change the situation. While I do think that you need to be prepared to share in the solution, this is not to suggest that it is all on you. I have just found this approach to be disarming and to help to mitigate some of the natural defensiveness that your boss might feel if coming under what feels like criticism.

Now get ready. Your boss might tell you that your perception of how she views you is actually not correct from her perspective.
 work and you don’t need it.
  • She might tell you that she gives you the tasks that make you feel like her assistant because she trusts you more than others to help her more directly.
  • She might say that she shows up late for your meeting because she trusts you to run the show (or she might throw out some whiny excuses about her workload being too high).
  • She might tell you that she doesn’t give you a lot of feedback because she’s just happy with your work and you don't need it.
If the conversation goes in this direction, it is important to emphasize what you need from your boss to be effective. You can accept and appreciate this new perspective from her, but stick to your guns with regard to your needs. Tell her that you would like to have her support in your meetings and that you want to get feedback so you can continue to improve.

Tell her that you want to have challenging assignments and you would like to have the opportunity to contribute at a higher level than you do now. From there, you will probably need to let that percolate a bit, but I am hopeful that over time you will see some changes stemming from the fact that you raised her awareness.

Apr 8, 2010

Workplace Dangers: Idea Stealers

Recently, one of our students asked, "Could you write about how women should handle a fellow coworker, in a higher position, completely poaching a project after most of the hard work is done? That would be really useful. I think women are almost TOO good at making thier coworkers look good- which sometimes gets them in trouble."

This gave us the opportunity to reprint one of our earliest postings, from 2005, when our institution was founded. We invite the student body into conversation about whether this advice should be altered when the Idea Stealer is a higher-up. 

Freshman Seminar with Miss Minchin - Session 2

It's happened to nearly everyone. You pitch an idea to your boss, or share a thought with your colleague and next thing you know that other person is taking credit for it as their own. What does one do in this situation? Well, there are several approaches:

Vigilante approach: Demand justice at high noon. Set out to expose the idea stealer’s traitorous ways, regardless of whether he or she is your boss. Set out on a smear campaign designed to make others see him for the slimy weak thoughtless leech that he is. Be sure to jump up and shout "that was my idea" and offer to "take it outside" when it happens.

Passive-aggressive approach: Secretly fume and imagine the idea stealer being crushed under a giant boulder while you pout in meetings. Give him the cold shoulder. Refuse to meet with him unless he agrees to have your conversations recorded. Then as these guys did, feed him an awful idea that he just can't resist taking credit for, and then sit back and enjoy his demise.

Zen approach: If it's your boss, accept the fact that your job is to make your boss look good. Your boss probably doesn't even realize the idea came from you, but will remember how valuable you are to her success, and will keep you close by; even taking you to the next company she works for. If it's your colleague, remind yourself that you are all part of the same team and be happy for him when he gets promoted over you. Remember that it's accomplishments, not ideas that you list on your resume. Get yourself on the projects you want to work on and contemplate letting go of your attachment to recognition while you practice yoga on your lunch hour.

Direct approach: If a colleague tells you that the boss just congratulated her for suggesting your grand idea, you can march into the boss's office and say "Bernice tells me you really liked my idea! I can't wait to start implementing it." Or as suggested in this excellent article on e-magnify.com, if the idea-stealer makes his move during a meeting, stand up and say 'Thank you, Bernie. I'm so happy to hear that you were listening when I proposed [idea]. I'm looking forward to working together on this project..."

Collaborative approach: As Nigel Nicholson put it, you can feel good about the clear value of your ideas to your boss and your colleagues. Be proactive by scheduling meetings to discuss specific project ideas and document everything. This makes it easier for the boss to remember that the idea came from you. Nicholson also suggests that you give feedback to your boss. Let her know how much you appreciate recognition for your ideas.

You'll see that some approaches work better than others, and a good combination of approaches will likely work best. In any case it is never a bad idea to document everything. At the very least, during your annual review you can remind your boss of the ideas you suggested and how successful the implementation of those ideas has been. Having a timeline to refer to makes this conversation much easier, and reminds you of the value that you know you bring to any job.

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