Tag Archives: Career

Listen to Mom – Can You Really Start At The Top?

The N.Y. Times Corner Office feature, In Praise of All that Grunt Work, piqued my interest as no one ever writes about entry-level work. Dany Levy, founder of DailyCandy.com, talks with interviewer Adam Bryant about how valuable her early work experiences were to her current success.

Q. What prepared you to run your own company?

A. Most of what I learned was from my first job out of college, when I was an intern and then the managing editor’s assistant at New York Magazine. And it was being her assistant that really taught me how the whole machine operates. My career has been this just wonderful series of events that somehow makes perfect sense now. It was not a glamorous job. The Xerox machine broke, it was my problem. I was customer service. I would get people calling and complaining about the magazine, and I would try and talk them down, just knowing that every subscriber had a dollar figure attached to them. So it’s that kind of thinking, understanding the business side of it and understanding the relationship between advertising and editorial, and running up and down and getting people paid. I learned about office politics and how an office works.

When I graduated from college, I really understood that I didn’t know anything. In the real world, college doesn’t really prepare you for that. That’s what worries me a little bit about the present. There’s definitely, in this generation, from what I’ve seen, more a sense of entitlement, a bit of, ‘Why should I go work for ‘the man’ and put in the time when I could have my own blog and do it myself?’ And I totally understand that impulse. But there are some key things to learn from the grunt work.

Q. Can you talk more about that?

A. I think learning to work for people is really important. I think to be a good leader it’s key to know what it’s like to be an employee, and to have had a lot of the different level jobs where you’ve been the scrappy little nobody. I’ve had crazy bosses and I’ve had wonderful bosses, and it’s important to figure out that if you’re working for someone who you don’t gel with, there can be a way to manage that.

No One Is Going To Take You Seriously

I came to the same conclusion that Ms. Levy did when I graduated from college – I didn’t know anything. My BBA degree got me a job as a personnel (a.k.a. Human Resources) clerk instead of a hotel maid. I did the personnel grunt work as a clerk. I learned the application of employment laws, how personnel worked with every department and, more importantly, how important working relationships are.

As a manager today, all that grunt work still pays off. When staff tells me it can’t be done, I know better because I understand the basic process. It’s the real life experiences that give you credibility so others will listen and accept your recommendations. You may be talented and smart, but you will always have to prove yourself to be taken seriously.

It’s Working With People That’s Hard

Q. You have two minutes for a commencement speech.

A. We live in a day and age when there are so few opportunities and so many opportunities. And the ability to do something on your own, like starting your own blog, is so alluring. But working for people is actually a better education than four years of college, I think. I just worry, too, that we are getting into a more isolated phase of society, with the design of offices, with everyone doing everything over email versus picking up the phone. Sometimes you need to just pick up the phone, but the culture in which we operate today, we spend so much time just in this very quiet space, staring at a screen and interacting with people that way. And there’s so much room for misinterpretation over email.

The hardest part of any job is working with people. Taking the time to build positive relationships is key. As an employee or a manager, you’ll depend on those relationships to accomplish what you need to get done. It’s those relationships that support your success.

Talking with a person over the phone or in person is always better. You’ll actually learn more because you’re able to react to what you’re being told and see the reaction to what you’re saying. You can ask more questions and have a discussion. You’ll get better insight than from the quick answer to your question in an email. And you’re building relationships.

Working with others will teach you about yourself. How you react to people you wouldn’t normally interact with in your personal life. Gaining insight about your personality and the personality of others will help you with interpersonal relationships at work. There’s a lot of data on this subject available like the Meyer-Briggs Type Indicator analysis. I’m an INFP. Knowing this has helped me understand my approach to work assignments and how to work better with other personality types.

Listen to Mom

Getting the knowledge and experience you need to be successful in your career takes time. I realize that life in the 21st century moves at warp speed. Unfortunately, building personal credibility and relationships haven’t; it still takes time doing it the old-fashioned way.

It’s hard, I know. You want to be a manager by the end of the year and retire by 40. (I said the same when I graduated from college.) Put in the time, it’ll pay off.


Knowing Is Half The Battle

Trolling across the pages of BusinessWeek, I came across an interesting article about the surprisingly high turnover many nonprofits encounter and the “leaky bucket of volunteerism.”

“Earlier this year, the Stanford Social Innovation Review published a piece that noted how poorly most nonprofits manage their volunteers. As a result, more than a third of the 60 million-plus Americans who donate their time and talents one year don’t do so the next—not only at the organization where they’d signed up, but at any nonprofit at all. Some call this “the leaky bucket of volunteerism.”

There are a host of reasons for this pullback, according to the analysis, including nonprofits inadequately recognizing the contributions of their volunteers and a lack of training among volunteers and their managers.

But Robert Grimm, director of research and policy development at the Corporation for National and Community Service and one of the authors of the article, believes there’s a more fundamental issue to grapple with: It isn’t so much that volunteers have nightmarish experiences at nonprofits, he says; it’s that they have “bland” ones.”

This certainly sounded familiar to me and I’m sure it sounds familiar to many of those in for-profit organizations as well. Who hasn’t experienced being “inadequately recognized for their contributions” and noticed a “lack of training among workers and their managers?”

Gone are the days where most companies hired the best and brightest kids out of school and groomed them through training and mentoring for corporate positions. Gone are the days of lifetime employment. Gone are the days where organizations treated human capital as human. More often than not, modern workers are being treated as interchangeable cogs in a machine rather than creative, innovative thinkers with potential who are essential to the growth and prosperity of a business.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal on how small companies are luring big-company talent neatly underscored this mindset:

“In March, Jack Rabbit Collection LLC, a three-person handbag and leather-accessories maker in Los Angeles, was able to snag a large rival’s design-development executive after that person was laid off.

Founder Mollie Culligan says the new hire, who has connections to tanneries and vendors, has helped the label reduce per-unit costs 20%.

Plus, Ms. Culligan doesn’t have to spend as much time mentoring and can instead concentrate on her design work.

“Before, I had to train people myself and really dump so much energy into inexperienced people who didn’t really add value,” she says.”

Why is training and mentoring seen as so much of a burden for employers?

I see scores of job ads searching for that elusive person with the exact, unique set of skills who can “hit the ground running” with little to no guidance. What person will honestly be able to have 100% of the skills and knowledge to function with no on-boarding whatsoever? I’ve watched first hand how management has hired talented people with a great background from outside the industry who end up floundering and eventually leaving because they simply do not understand the specific business model of this company and therefore could not be successful at their work. No one bothered to explain it to them when they started and even if the new hire was motivated enough to ask someone, chances are that person didn’t know either.

It is ridiculous for companies to invest nothing in their employees up front (in terms of knowledge and guidance, not salary and benefits) but expect a maximum return. Viewing workers as dynamic individuals with unique skills, motivators and potential rather than a vessel for tangible skills is the key to better worker engagement and sustained company growth.   

The moral of the story is this:

  • Empowering employees to make decisions and generate ideas helps the business.
  • Employees cannot formulate informed decisions or ideas without a minimum amount of knowledge about the company and its goals.
  • Determining a set level of basic knowledge and disseminating that your employees on the first day, week or month of hire will not only increase the likelihood of their job satisfaction (because they feel empowered and informed) but will improve your bottom line due to the creativity and productivity of your team.

As GI Joe says, “Knowing is half the battle.”

Listen to Mom – Why I Want To Work With Gen Y

I’ve now been working with Gen Ys for a couple of years and I must say you’re a pretty amazing bunch. As Baby Boomers, we pretty much dominated the work place for most of my work life so I could easily relate to how we all did business.

Then entered Gen X. I couldn’t understand what they were or are about. But Gen Ys–I admire how smart you are, how ambitious, and your desire to have meaningful work. I totally get what you are even before I read Money’s Generation Y: They’ve arrived at work with a new attitude. I immediately felt that difference when I first met the 20-somethings in our organization.

I feel the vibrancy of new ideas, ideas that can make big changes in my old bureaucratic organization if only the Baby Boomers in power will allow it. I applaud you. I want more of you hired at my workplace. I want Gen Ys to change the face of how big organizations do business. And I want to mentor you to be successful at work place politics until you become the bosses.

Gen Ys invigorate me. You inspire me to do more outside of the box. Truly. But I’m a Baby Boomer minority. My advice is don’t be discouraged at how Baby Boomers work. I’ve learned that it takes time for change to take root. I’m even waiting for my older Baby Boomers to retire so that us younger Baby Boomers can make changes.

It always helps to know and understand the boss. This might give you some insight on Boomers and probably your parents.

I look forward to more from you. Hang in there! (A popular Baby Boomer poster from 70’s.)

Picking Out Business Cards

Recently I have decided to print up some business cards for personal use and was confronted with what should be the simple task of putting your name on the card. For me this is infinitely more complicated. I can’t decide what name I should use because I have several. Let me explain:

Doomed From Birth

People have always had problems with my name. When I was a born, my Asian grandmother had trouble pronouncing the name my father had picked, Jacquelyn, because of her accent, so she called me Jackie (or more accurately, Jeckie). The name stuck and is what I go by. The only people who call me Jacquelyn are telemarketers.

As I was learning to write, my mom decided to go with the less conventional spelling of Jacqui thinking that it would be an easier transition for me from learning to spell Jacquelyn and then replacing the “-elyn” with an “i.” Sure, it’s been easy for me but incredibly, devastatingly, horrendously difficult for everyone else.

I’ve gotten cards (some from my own family) addressed to Jacquie, Jacque, Jaqui and Jackie. It’s also proven to be a pronunciation stumbling block for a lot of people and consequently I’ve been called Jacques, Jackoi and constantly asked if my name is said “Jackie” or “Jackwee.” If anyone out there is actually named Jackwee, please email me because I’d really like to meet you.

Neither Heads Nor Tails

To make things even more complicated, I’ve been saddled with the last name of Tom. While I can assure you that is a legitimate, Chinese surname, people still find the idea of having two “first names” (even though Tom is traditionally a man’s first name) very confusing.

I’ve shown up for classes and the instructors were expecting a male (apparently they didn’t notice the comma between the names). I’ve also had people ask me right to my face whether Tom was my first name or last name. Not to toot my own horn, but I think I’m pretty clearly a female. Take a look at my bio picture and judge for yourself. And if there’s anyone out there who actually has Jacquelyn or Jackie as a last name, please email me because I’d really like to meet you too.

Nicknames At The Office

How has this nickname/last name/legal name quagmire affected me professionally? Well, whenever I start at a new company I miss a lot of emails until people learn to spell my name correctly. But more importantly I always have to re-introduce myself to people as “Jacqui” not Jacquelyn and make sure that Jacquelyn is spelled correctly on all my legal documents. I recently had to deal with a spelling error on my pay stubs that has been printed on my recent tax forms. Fingers crossed that the IRS realizes that Jacqueline Tom is the same person as Jacquelyn Tom.

So now back to the business cards. Should I use Jacqui Tom, which sounds hipper but is harder to spell? Should I go with Jacquelyn because that’s the name checks should be made out to? I was also going to set up an email with name@gmail.com but can’t decide if I want to be tied to Jacqui Tom forever. What happens when I get married? I had planned on taking my husband’s last name no matter how horrible it is simply because I don’t want to constantly be questioned about my gender for the rest of my life. New business cards are easy enough to print up, but email accounts can last forever.

Any Advice?

How do other people handle this? Do you go by a nickname at work? Does it affect you professionally? What do you put on your business cards?

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Wanted: Smart Students With No Experience

In light of a record number of layoffs at U.S. companies in just the past few months, you’d think that businesses who still had money to hire new recruits would be overjoyed with an abundance over-qualified, experienced candidates, desperate enough to work entry-level jobs for entry-level wages.

Not so at one popular online real-estate firm.

They’ve decided to take an alternate approach, foregoing the usual “experience=quality” theory in favor of a “quality” educational background. Here are some of their required qualifications (taken directly from their website):

Strong academic record: we are looking for people who excelled at a top-25 university.

Liberal arts degree: we want someone who not only writes clearly and precisely, but has some intellectual interests, and panache too.

Entrepreneurial energy, creativity: in your interview, we’ll ask you for three or four ideas on how our website could be better. Come prepared!”

Top-25 Student

As a graduate of a top-ranked state university (Go Huskies!), I take offense to the implication that a strong academic record can only be achieved from a so-called “top 25 university.” What exactly is a top-25 university anyway? A google search turned up nothing conclusive. Does this mean ivy-league? Does this mean US News & World Report ranked? Does this mean nationally-ranked? Regionally-ranked?

Does an ivy-league education always equate to quality academic achievement? Not in my experience. Sometimes smart people can’t afford to go to the best schools and have to (gasp!) attend a local university. But they do well in their classes, learn a lot and go on to be successful. And sometimes people go to ivy-league universities and whittle the time away drinking and majoring in a subject whose department only scheduled classes after 10am.

I suppose that academic achievement is one of the few measurements an employer can use to gauge an employee’s potential when interviewing, but in this economy, why would you take a chance on an unproven work history (note that internships are not even mentioned, just the quality of educational institution) when you have so many other experienced candidates out there?

Liberal Snobs

I’ve written before about how liberal arts degrees can be valuable in the workplace. But as a liberal arts degree holder myself, I don’t think liberal arts majors hold the monopoly on “intellectual interests.” Is this company implying that a business major is incapable of writing well and being intellectually stimulating? My boyfriend majored in business and he’s one of the most tuned-in, well-read, intellectually curious people I know.

And if liberal arts majors as a whole are more “interesting,” is there a hierarchy within academia that elevates certain subjects as more intellectual? Does the intelligence quotient go up the more obscure your area of study? Medieval history majors above political science majors above run-of-the-mill English majors?

Also, I find it funny that the job ad equates writing “clearly and precisely” with liberal arts majors. Don’t they realize that your grade on an essay is mostly based on length and depth and not necessarily on clarity or brevity?

Entrepreneurial Desk Job

What strikes me as so funny about this particular requirement is that Generation-Y is often labeled the “entrepreneur generation,” with many successful people under 25 starting their own multi-million dollar business. If I were a successful liberal arts graduate from a top-25 university and was entrepreneurially-minded, why would I come work for your company? Why wouldn’t I just start my own?

No truly intellectually-minded student would want to work in an industry that is rapidly shrinking, is suffering from negative PR because it just played a huge part in the worst economic crisis in close to a century, and for a company that just laid off 20% of its workforce.

I also find it ironic that this online real-estate company asks the candidate to come prepared with ideas on how to improve the site experience. What recent graduate just out of school has the money or wherewithal to buy real-estate? They might be able to suggest the latest and greatest social media technology. The truly tech-savvy ones might be able to give suggestions on how to improve the design for better usability. But I highly doubt that any fresh-faced 22-year old would have the occasion to use the site as a consumer, and isn’t the key to a successful service business providing the most useful service to customers?
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Paid To Nurse A Hangover?

One of my biggest office pet peeves is dealing with co-workers who come into the office sick. This is partly because I’ve dealt with not one, but two bouts of something akin to the black plague (which I caught both times from a sick co-worker) and partly because it just irks me that people would rather drag themselves into the office when they don’t feel well (to the detriment of those around them) than give up a precious PTO day. Although, with most American workers averaging two weeks’ paid vacation and maybe five paid sick days (if they’re lucky), I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised.

What did surprise me, however, is that workers in Belgium seem to be having the opposite problem: too many sick days. The Wall Street Journal reports,

“Belgians, like many Europeans, are entitled to extensive or even unlimited sick leave — and they tend to stretch the definition of the word. One study showed government employees in droves were calling in sick to pack before vacations and to sleep off holiday hangovers. Some government departments were averaging 35 days of paid sick leave per employee each year, more than twice the national rate and seven times the U.S. average.”

Unlimited sick leave? That’s practically unimaginable to an American. A day to sleep off that hangover? Priceless! But just as folks like me complain about too few sick days, Belgian employers complain about workers taking too many. Take the story of Fabrice Vandervelpen,

“In September, he called in sick. His girlfriend of six months had just left him, he says. A psychiatrist diagnosed him with depression and certified him for medical leave…

Mr. Vandervelpen says he spent his first two weeks off writing poetry at his parents’ home, where he lives. His mother, Marie-Jane, often took him shopping for new clothes, she says. He played soccer again with his local club, FC Burdinne, and volunteered as club treasurer. He visited a Catholic shrine in Banneux, Belgium, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in 1933.

In November, Mr. Vandervelpen bought a bright red Alfa Romeo MiTo for $30,000. Zipping through the hills and sugar-beet fields in his new car made him feel better, he says. He visited his ex-girlfriend and went to parties….

If the law didn’t mandate paid sick leave, he would have gone back to work sooner, says Mr. Vandervelpen. Hesbaye Frost paid his full salary for the first month he was off. After that, a government-backed insurance company picked up 80% of his salary, which the law guarantees indefinitely. “The government keeps €1,000 [about $1,357] a month in taxes off me, so why shouldn’t I get help when I don’t feel well?” he asks. He makes €2,500 before taxes.”

After my last relationship failed, I remember dragging myself into work on Monday with eyes puffy from crying and Kleenex at the ready. I could definitely have benefited from some “mental health” time to deal with my personal issues in private. And as Mr. Vandervelpen points out, he pays a great deal of taxes to enjoy the benefits that the Belgian government provides its workers.

But even if you pay taxes for it, is four months paid leave an abuse of the system? If this were happening in America, wouldn’t somebody out there be complaining that they would have to pick up more than their fair share to compensate for these sick workers?

Considering that at least 65% of workers overestimate how much they actually contribute in the workplace, I think that the gains in employee loyalty and satisfaction from a flexible sick-leave policy far outweigh the potential decrease in productivity. Not to mention we’d suffer from fewer colds.

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Happy Birthday To The Office Newb

The Office Newb turns one-year-old today. To celebrate the accomplishments of the past year I have put together a retrospective of some of the 2008’s most popular posts.

Keeping Up Appearances: Why Fat People Make Less Money
Last week I was relating the gritty details of each interview with a close friend and expressed my anxiety about receiving an offer from any one of the companies where I was interviewing. My friend responded with these words of reassurance: “Don’t worry. You have what everyone is looking for in a co-worker: Looks and personality.”

Understanding Generation-Y In 5 Easy Steps
As a public service for all those confused boomers out there, I submit my list of the 5 events that shaped the lives of Generation-Y in hopes of giving everyone a better understanding of why we act the way we do.

Top 10 Most Annoying Office Habits Of All Time
In Letterman-like fashion, I present the most horrifying, offensive and incessant co-worker behaviors that infect the office and kill your productivity.

Hate Your Job? Move To Denmark
What is it exactly about Scandinavian countries that allow them to be so much happier at work? Are they born with the courage to stand up to bad bosses? Is there something in the water that makes them have a more positive attitude than Americans? The answer may lie in the differences in government and social policy between the U.S. and Scandinavia.

How To Write Emails People Will Actually Read
I think we can be smarter about how, what and to whom we write emails. I think we can learn from Europeans and start spending more time “crafting” each email as if it were a true business correspondence rather than an instantaneous record of our immediate thoughts.

Is Having It All A Thing Of The Past?
As a young woman in the workforce, I am bombarded with media stories about the “Mommy Wars” between working mothers and stay-at-home moms. And the “off-ramping/on-ramping” a woman’s career takes if she decides take an off-ramp from the freeway of corporate life to raise children. How to best approach working motherhood seems to be a loaded question, soliciting the harshest critics on either side with no sign of agreement in sight.

How McDonald’s Is Spoiling America’s Future Workforce
Children are no longer being taught the satisfaction of hard work and a job well done. They are being taught that money is the only reason to do anything. Is it no wonder then that the younger generation of workers now entering the workforce expect to be paid six-figure salaries and work on their laptop at the beach after only 6-months employment? Is that not the reward they’ve come to expect from a lifetime of trading performance for money?

Age Is The New Glass Ceiling
The story just serves to illustrate my point, respect should be given based on proven performance. Period. Years served is only a measure of how long someone has managed to hold onto a job, not on whether they are a good employee. Past experience can be a good indicator of whether someone will have the skill set to perform well at a certain position in the future, but the true test of their productivity and quality as an employee can only come from actually doing the work.

Are CEOs 275 Times Better Than The Rest Of Us?
A CEO is charged with making decisions both large and small. They lead the company, they have the ultimate say and absorb the responsibility of making the right decisions–all of the time. The fate of the company rests on their shoulders and they should be compensated accordingly. But a company is not a singular entity. One person alone could not run a fortune 500 business. Does not every employee from the executive in the penthouse to the receptionist in the lobby play a vital role in making a business successful?

My Advanced Degree Is Ruining My Relationship
A recent study, reported in The Wall Street Journal, has found that women with MBAs are twice as likely to be divorced than men with an MBA degree. Women with professional degrees in law or medicine also seem to get divorced at higher rates than their male counterparts.

This blog isn’t just about me and what I think, it’s also about what you, the readers, put into it as well. So I want to thank you, especially to my subscribers, for making this blog as successful as it is.

Keep reading and I’ll see you all in 2009!

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