Tag Archives: job

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.”

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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Get Ahead At Work: Be Selfish

As performance reviews loom on the horizon, it’s a great time for all of us to step back and ask ourselves:

How can I be a better employee?

A lot of the career advice out there will tell you how to communicate more effectively with co-workers, make your boss look good or provide unexpected value for the company. The experts tell you to focus on finding ways you can help others in order to help yourself. This will probably help you climb up the ladder a bit, gain some favor with folks at the office. Your boss will look good, your co-workers will look good and the company’s bottom line will look good. But what about you?

I suggest a more radical approach to career betterment. I propose we stop focusing so much on what we can do for others and more on what we can do for ourselves.

The 10,000-Hour Rule

Two blogs, Career Realism and The Writer’s Coin, have helped me reach this conclusion. The first post I read was from Career Realism, introducing me to the “10,000-Hour Rule.”

“Simply put, the 10,000 Hour Rule says no one gets to the top of their field unless they log at least 10,000 hours of practice. That’s right – 10,000 hours!”

Now 10,000 hours is a lot of hours to log. As one commentor on Career Realism pointed out, that’s roughly 5 to 6 years worth of work. As the blogger explains, that puts recent grads at a great disadvantage,

“One of the biggest complaints I hear from managers these days is the lack of ‘professionalism’ they see from recent college grads. The 10,000 Hour Rule explains why: most college grads today have not been required to work through high school and college in professional settings. Moreover, managers, parents, and even students themselves today are under the mistaken impression that college teaches this sort of thing. Over here at Careerealism.com we say, ‘College teaches you everything EXCEPT how to get the job.’”

Ever had a superstar co-worker who was great at their job until they were promoted? It’s a common story. A salesman may be fantastic at landing deals but completely unprepared to deal with budgets, fighting co-workers or incorrect timesheets. But what makes these workers successful at one role but not another? Experience–something that can only be acquired by doing it yourself.

But how do you gain professional skills if not on the job?

The Writer’s Coin, as the last part of a six part series on being a better worker, recommends doing something outside of work everyday. The blogger says,

“This one has less to do with work and what you do while you’re there than it does with having a nice balance in your life. In other words, it might just make you feel better when you’re at work if you’ve done something beforehand (or afterwards, if that’s your style—I just can’t get much together after work)….

The point of getting up early and doing something else is to make you feel like you’re life doesn’t just revolve around working. It also gives you time to get side projects off the ground, catch up on e-mail, read, etc….

I know, I know, getting up early is a nightmare for most people. You will get used to it. Trust me, I feel weird staying in bed past 5:30am now because I’ve been doing it for so long.”

Ultimately, having something else outside of work, whatever it may be, is likely to make you a happier person and a better employee.

And isn’t that what it’s all about?

The complimentary nature of these two posts gives us a prescription to becoming a more successful employee: make effective use of your time outside of work to do things you enjoy, which will in turn help make you more effective at work.

For example, if you are trying to get promoted into a management position but have no direct supervisory experience, you could continue to do a great job in sales and hope that the higher ups are willing to reward you for that work with an untested promotion. Or you could help yourself by volunteering to manage a group of phone operators during a pledge drive for a local charity.

One of the best managers I ever worked for spent his Spring afternoons coaching a high school softball team. He was accomplished at the technical aspects of his job, but I really think his willingness and ability to mentor the younger workers on his team is what made him such a great manager. His mentoring skills were gained in large part from his experience helping young athletes perform on the field.

By focusing on developing yourself, rather than on what you can do for your co-workers/boss/bottom line, you will accelerate promotions as well as enable yourself to succeed once you get to your next professional challenge.

Related Reading

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A Bad Case of Blogger’s Malaise

Almost a year has gone by since I started blogging as The Office Newb (stay tuned for a special anniversary post at the end of the month) and as I look back on my progress I have come to the following conclusions:

1. I have met my initial blogging goals.

My entry to the blogosphere was prompted by a severe dissatisfaction with my job. So I started reading blogs like Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist, Employee Evolution and the Chief Happiness Officer for inspiration. This got me excited enough about blogging to start my own, with the intent of having a portfolio of both my writing and my website management skills to show potential employers.

Five months later I had a brand new job, more money and a healthy fan base–all because of my blog. Mission Accomplished.

2. I am less interested in blogging than I used to be.

Don’t get me wrong, I love blogging. My dream job would be having my own published weekly column a la Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City. Blogging allows me to do just that (except sadly, I don’t get paid and can’t afford $400 shoes). However, my enthusiasm for the subject has begun to wane and where writing posts used to energize me, the thought of having to sit at a computer for another hour and come up with something interesting to talk about just feels like a chore (and subsequently my blog and traffic are suffering). I feel I don’t have so much “Writers’ Block” as I do “Writers’ Drag.”

So what do you do when you hit a plateau in blogging/work/life?

Dr. Ron Brown, career columnist for Portfolio magazine has this advice for those who feel “bored and unchallenged” at work and want to get back on track,

“This is a familiar situation for many people, especially with opportunities for growth and development shrinking in the current environment. You need to be aggressive, though, and look for areas in your organization that are growing most quickly and try to get involved in them in whatever way you can, such as by volunteering to serve on company task forces and committees…

You might also look for white spaces in your company that no one’s taken ownership of where you can make your mark—look for unmet needs and figure out how you can address them, just as you would if you were starting up your own company.”

I especially like Dr. Brown’s suggestion to “look for white spaces” or essentially find a “fresh” angle by which to approach your work. So maybe what I should be doing with my blog is focus less on churning out posts (I’ve slipped from a high of 13 posts a month to a low of 3) which is starting to feel like a chore and spend more time exploring other exciting and new aspects of blogging like social media promotion, community building and advertising.

But I’m open to suggestions, any advice for getting out of a career rut?
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When Working From Home is a Sham

What if you could come into the office anytime you felt like it, or even stop coming in altogether? What if you could take a late morning run or volunteer in an after-school program but still get paid a full-time salary? What if you only had to work 4 hours a day?

Sound like your dream job? Sure, as long as you’re not the manager.

There has been much ado about Results Oriented Work Environments (ROWE), the latest in work/life balance programs. Under ROWE, there are no office hours. As long as workers complete their projects and deliver results, they are allowed to work whenever and wherever it suits them. Most notably being implemented by electronics giant, Best Buy, ROWE is promised to be the panacea for worker (dis)engagement.

Trust workers with their freedom and they will reward the company with riches.

If only business were so simple.

I’ve often fantasized about working from home. How great would it be to sleep in on weekdays, grocery shop without the crowds, never worry about missing a meeting because of a doctor’s appointment? As an employee, the freedom to not work would be an awesome benefit.

But as a manager, I realize that working from home takes discipline, a lot of it, and that most people don’t have the focus to work three feet from a bed and HDTV. This spells disaster for me and my bottom line.

In my own experience, most people who “work from home” (WFH) aren’t really working (exempting people with home offices or special set-ups who actually do work from home). How do I know this? They’ve told me. I once worked in an office with a very liberal WFH policy and the employees abused it so much that upper management had to revoke the policy. Now no one there is allowed to work from home without authorization from the president. Sound harsh? It probably was, but considering employees would send emails like the one below, you can see why they would do that.

Actual example (altered to protect privacy) of an email sent to all employees at my company:


I will be working from home today. If you need anything my email is xxxx@notworking.com and my cell is (123) 555-1234.

But I will be watching [insert important sport event here] all day so I probably won’t answer or be much use to you.

See you all tomorrow.

So much for all this extra productivity when working from home. You could make the case that this employee watched the game and then did some work. I can tell you that he most likely didn’t.

In a guest post on Penelope Trunk’s blog, Ryan Healy says this in praise of ROWE:

It’s a win-win situation. Half of the American population will no longer hate their jobs, which will inevitably lead to increased production for the corporations. The only sector that could possibly lose out is pharmaceutical, when clinical depression reaches an all-time low. And that’s just fine by me.

Is freedom from office hours enough of a reason for people to stop hating their jobs?

I highly doubt it. If you hated working in sales because you had to make 50 cold calls a day, would you really be that much happier if you got to make 50 cold calls a day in your bathrobe? If you disliked proofreading press releases, would sitting on a park bench make looking for commas that much more enjoyable? Maybe. Maybe not.

Case in point, the above email writer, someone who took an unlimited amount of “WFH” days to watch football, basketball, soccer or whatever sports event he wanted, with little to no financial or professional ramifications, left after 2 years with the company, allegedly because he felt “unappreciated.”

A change of scenery can’t cure everything.

Wait, My Boss Wants Me to Do What?!

I hate making copies!I was sitting in a meeting today and the subject of service-level agreements came up. I’d heard about service-level agreements before. When I worked in a production department, I’d been briefed on what type of service our customers were expecting: so many days to complete a project at a certain level of quality, using certain words in any outward-facing messaging. These were contractual, legally-binding agreements that our company had agreed to fill. Sounded reasonable enough to me. When I choose overnight shipping from the postal-service, I expect to receive my package the next day, undamaged–not whenever the shipping clerk, package handlers and delivery drivers decide to deliver it, half-opened and smashed.

However, what interested me about this particular discussion of service-level agreements was that we were discussing defining and implementing service-level agreements between internal departments—essentially making a contract between each department and employee outlining what services, projects, problems a specific team covered; the process for interdepartmental communication; and to what degree each department will handle said services, projects, or problems.

What a novel idea! Make expectations clear so that everyone understands what role they play in the company.

It seems like common sense, but it amazes me at how many companies fail to set even basic boundaries and expectations for each of its employees.

This method of setting clear expectations and then training people on how to meet those expectations has been put into practice with very successful results. At Webster Elementary in San Diego, principal Jennifer White was appalled at the violence, suspensions, and absenteeism occurring at the school when she arrived in 2000. By implementing a program that actively taught students proper student behavior, principal White turned the school into a happy, thriving learning environment.

Building on Buguey’s initial efforts to improve discipline, Jennifer White and her teachers crafted the Webster Way, which teaches “scholarly behaviors” such as eye contact, cleaning up your trash, and greeting teachers by name. Such skills are usually expected but not actively taught, White said…

It sounds elementary, and hardly radical. Yet the results have been dramatic. Webster has seen suspensions plummet and test scores surge since instilling the Webster Way. Only 10 students were suspended last year. Test scores ranked Webster in the top echelon of demographically similar schools statewide.

“Schools assume that a student will come in, and just know what to do,” school psychologist Steve Franklin said. “At Webster, teaching a student how to be a student is really important. We don’t expect them to already know how to read, to do math or write. So why aren’t we teaching these things, too?”

I often hear a lot of griping about how young workers are “incompetent” and “don’t know how to do even basic things.” Frankly, I don’t know too many universities that offer classes on how to work a fax machine, operate an espresso machine, or how to make 2-sided copies collated and stapled. Companies just assume that since you’re over 18, you must know how to do those things.

I doubt that most baby boomers entered their first jobs knowing anything more than how to answer a phone and type on a typewriter. As newer technologies were introduced, they were probably given formal training by their employers on how to use that new technology since, obviously, no one had ever used it before. Now, however, faxes, copiers, and multi-line phones are staples in most offices and very few companies take the time to train new employees on how to use them.

I’m not arguing that we need better training on office technology (although most people do), but rather that by combining a clear set of job expectations (it’s Suzie’s job to make copies, Rob’s to deliver the CEO’s daily latte) and giving each person the right training and tools to do their job successfully (Suzie spends an hour reading through the copier manual, Rob is shown how to grind the coffee beans and gently stir in 1% skim milk), employees will be happier, confident, and more productive since they know exactly what is expected of them, how to accomplish it, and don’t spend wasted time and energy squabbling over who jammed the copy machine or forgot to put the coffee filter in the machine.

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