Monday, May 9, 2011

What To Do After You've Done A Bad Job

So, you just did a bad job.

It's not that you don't care or don't have the skills, you just missed the mark and have been informed of this. You've had a tough feedback session where you found you had little to say and were served enough humble pie to sink the USS Alabama. You're probably not the proud owner of a flux capacitor or a Delorean with time travel capabilities, which means that the only thing you can apply yourself to now is your reaction. You need to demonstrate that you are in fact awesome, and then all this unpleasantness can be eclipsed by something more positive. So, where to now?
  • Attitude. An obvious one, but humour me. This is my stance: let them point fingers at my skills and experience, because I'm still working on these. They're better every day. Let them point fingers at my knowledge because this is something I am continually investing in. But I won't give them a reason to point fingers at my attitude. This is because attitudes come from personalities and personalities seldom change, and people know this. It's a statement about the individual's approach and is the gatekeeper of potential. Poor attitude is a label which is difficult to rip off. Potential is held back by poor attitude. Choose to be the guy that has stuff to learn rather than the guy who won't, or doesn't want to, or the guy we don't want to ask because he's going to mope about it for a week. Recovery from tough feedback should be lead by an overt can-do response to everything, and positivity.
  • Show Interest. It's easy to respond by hibernating for a bit: sitting in your corner, putting your earphones in and listening to Radiohead. But there's still stuff going on around you and business will not slow down to aid your recovery. Ask questions and involve yourself in the stuff that's going on around you. If you hear your boss or someone talking about something that you can contribute to, involve yourself. This thing is not about personalities, and hibernation will just amplify the awkwardness for you. Add value to things where you can. Choose to learn and be open about it. Thank people for their input. Courage.
  • Maximum Attention. Be at work while you're at work. You may need to limit your distractions for yourself for the next little while, at least until you're flying again and being appreciated. Some maturity will be required here as you figure out what these are. Perhaps you should only be checking your Twitter at certain times, or getting into the office at a time when you can start strong. Focus on what is required for a convincing and effective recovery and push aside all that doesn't help you.
You can turn your toughest critics around. Your responsibilities and personal brand are yours to own.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Trouble With Your Job Title

Job titles. People tend to either avoid mentioning them or they wear them like a badge, looking for opportunities to mention them while asking for the balsamic. It's often a case of social 'posturing' and people push the most impressive facts forward and avoid the rest. As soon as we reach a level which has 'senior' strapped to the front of it or 'manager' strapped to the back then our behaviour changes a bit. We may consider leaving our newly-printed business cards lying around conspicuously, next to the copier or the kettle, or updating our email signature and mailing people we hardly know or like. It's a big deal.

The trouble is that your title seldom illustrates what you do or are responsible for. It may just be me, but if I ask you what you do it's because I want to know what you do. I'm far more captivated by a picture of your average day and responsibilities than in a title which means 5 things in 5 places. But that's just me. Sometimes it takes some conviction to wade through the posturing which is sometimes the first response.

Our identities can get wrapped up in these things which is interesting because they are usually things which get assigned to us, like a desk, or a stapler. It's easy to be the person that is, but would we be willing to drop it to be known as the person who does, which is a little less socially economical? Unless it's something you've fought for then it's weird to get protective over it.

Corporates like titles because they keep things neat. It's easier to control what's going on when the names are in the right blocks. As long as the organogram is neat then people should know how to behave around each other and there should be less need for sombre discussions in the HR office, in theory. Titles are also handy managerial tools: "As an ABC we expect you to be able to.." or "you're unlikely to become an XYZ until you can..". They're also handy retention tools when necessary: "If you withdraw your letter we'll promote you to ABC..". And recruitment: firms can offer inflated titles to ordinary jobs in order to lure staff from competitors. Staff move and feel smart until they realise they're doing the same stupid work further from home. And so on.

One of the challenges in Corporates is staff responding to this neatness by sticking to their boxes with a "that's not really my job" reaction to things. So, while the employer is encouraging teamwork and collaboration, the Strategically Titled are letting that phone ring because, like, where the hell is that guy anyway?

Smaller firms such as agencies and start-ups have an opposite challenge. They often fumble around for titles because their focus is more on the important work at hand than where everyone fits in. They're just trying to get the work done. You can usually spot the new guy who came across from the corporate, other than by the chinos and nice hair. He'll spend a few weeks asking questions like "who do I report to?", and "is there a template for this?". For some small firms creating titles it's often a creative upwelling resulting in a resident Skull Grinder and an Awesomeness Master, which look cute on cards but may make your next job move challenging.

In most cases, you will be limited by your title. William Wallace said something about people following courage rather than titles, and while most of us don't aspire to lead with a broadsword we do need to be taken seriously. I'd suggest that if the suits down the passage won't consider your innovation because of your title then you may be working at the end of the wrong passage. And if you're not prepared to take your idea down the passage because of your title then you're just playing their game. Choose awesomeness, despite what the email signature says.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

How Much Do You Pay To Work?

It may sound like a strange question but we all accept some expenses in order to stay employable & employed. Perhaps it's a trip to the hairdresser so that our bosses can see our eyes while we're talking to them, or a new pair of chinos which aren't frayed around the heel. They're often grudge expenses because we're spending money just so that we can earn some, in order to live. I guess that an extreme example would be someone who spends everything he/she earns (or more) on stuff which helps him keep his job. It's easy to imagine a minimum-wage cleaner who almost spends a day's wage on a day's transportation. It's a sad picture, but one which you'll spot in the middle and upper class of our society too. You would expect that people, generally, would do everything possible to reduce the costs of work so that the nett benefits of work are more obvious.

So, let's focus on one aspect. What do you pay to get to your job? If you live somewhere with a comprehensive public transport infrastructure, your cost of remaining employed will be your bus fare or your underground access. It's money you pay in order to work. If you own a car in such a city it may be because your car was more than a pragmatic decision. If you live in a big city without a comprehensive public transport system, your car is a necessity. You own it because you need to get to work. It's also handy for getting to Sunday lunch at the folks, but let's focus on work because that's presumably why you live in the city.

Almost daily, because I live in a city without a comprehensive public transport system and own a car as a result, I find myself in some level of gridlock. Sitting dead still. Sometimes it's alongside a purring sports car. I obviously appreciate it, usually switching off my radio and winding down my window just so that I can hear it. And then my brain kicks in, and I want to ask the driver "How much are you paying to be sitting dead still, right now?" The truth is that it's a fair question. There is a significant block of time, daily, where the sports car driver and myself are in near-identical situations. Imagine yourself & a small group of middle class professionals on that bus to work, just trying to get to work. And imagine one guy choosing an expensive, exclusive & slightly more comfortable seat at the back of the bus. Imagine he's paying ten times what you're paying as you both make your way to the office, on the same bus. I have no doubt that his ride is more comfortable and he is enjoying being alive more than you for that period, but he's basically working in order to finance his quiet yet conspicuous mirth.

We've all seen the young guy who gets the new job followed by the new car. You could almost feel sorry for the young guy because his trip to work just got more expensive, and he's hardly bringing home any more cash than he was when he drove a reliable rattle-trap, but then you realise he did it to himself. We're all just trying to get to the place which pays us, and as economically as possible, aren't we?

No, of course we're not. We've been talking about pragmatic purchase decisions and not emotional ones. We all value different stuff and are willing to throw money at that stuff. When I make a pragmatic transport decision, it just needs to get me there safely & efficiently. It's a means to an end. When I make an emotional transport decision, the fact that it gets me there is almost secondary. I am investing in my status and supporting an affinity of mine. We all make both kinds of decisions all the time. I may make pragmatic decisions when it comes to cars (or umbrellas), but may make affinity-based decisions on cameras or computers. All decisions sit on this continuum.

I guess the point is that we need to be aware of & comfortable with what we're throwing money at. There's something for everyone here. If you're a pragmatic A-to-Ber then you probably drive something sensible. Try to avoid coveting that which you see on your trip in everyday, and tell yourself that you've made financial calls which will benefit you more in the long term. Your time will come to splash out a bit. If you're driving a flash ride then don't get grumpy about what it's costing you, because it's probably not the fault of your job or employer.

At the end of the day we're all just trying to get to work, and back again.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Silent 'U' In Team

'How are we doing with that report?' Officespeak. It's the stuff we say in the work place when we momentarily lose the skills to speak English.

This is one of my personal favourites and it happens every time we refer to the group of us instead of to the person we're actually addressing. Obvious responsibility is extracted and replaced with obscurity masked as teamwork. Other examples include 'Have we managed to find out where the discrepancies came from?', or 'Do we think we'll make the deadline we've been given?' There's the suggestion of joint responsibility, but don't be fooled - you're still The Man.

It's almost as if the Asker has been involved in something all along but has now forgotten the status of everything and has approached you to help them remember. They're almost referring to themselves in the third person, and a forgetful third person at that. The Asker lacks the confidence to ask a direct question so they soften and mask it in such a way that you feel like you're on a team for a split second. Until you realise that you're still completely responsible and the only involvement of the Asker is to ask confusing questions, apparently. 'What do we think the reason for the issue is?' Despite the suggestion that both parties are solving a problem, there is not usually an opportunity to respond with 'Since we're both thinking about this in concert, why don't you give me your take first.' This would usually be inappropriate.

[If you have an image of Bill Lumbergh from Office Space in your head right now, coffee mug in hand, I wouldn't be surprised.]

It's important to appreciate at this point that there are many well-meaning, concerned managers who lack the self confidence and relative aggressiveness that is sometimes required. The intention of this post is not to create resentment between you and them, but rather to help us all avoid confusion and be the model employees which we need to be.

'Would it be possible for us to work late tonight?' There are layers within this one. On the surface it sounds like the fake teamwork thing which turns out to be a masked direct question, which you'd identify quite swiftly if you'd read this post, but then you realise it's not even a question. It's a statement about what's expected. So, you'd be about to respond with 'Sure, I've been hoping for an evening with you instead of my family..' when you realise that not only will the Asker not necessarily be in the building but that the question was rhetorical. Previous learnings about teamwork and actual responsibility almost prepare you for this one.

Be vigilant folks. These people need our support, and understanding them is the first step.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Work Is Like A Pocket of Marbles

Work is a transaction.

It sounds a little impersonal. 'Transactions' are not really things which happen in relationships where there's warmth and care, but rather sounds like stuff between people on opposite sides of armoured glass. At it's core, though, this is what work is. Let's break it down a little to see if the reference is valid.

John introduces himself to The Corporation and presents his skills, experience and time. All three are an attractive bundle for The Corporation (because none of them would be useful individually) which has certain needs. But it's a transaction, so John now allows The Corporation to present itself. A positive environment, plenty of opportunity and an amount of money are offered in exchange. A piece of paper is signed and John agrees to sell a portion of his day to The Corporation in which he will use his skills and experience for their betterment instead of his. Seems fair, I mean, this is what happens.

It's important to identify where the 'sacrifice' is sitting. John enjoys using his skills and The Corporation already had a positive environment which they benefitted from, so neither are a sacrifice. John's time and the money offered for it are both sacrifices, as he would rather spend his time spraying his roses and The Corporation could be spending the money on new cutlery for the staff kitchen. And maybe a sandwich toaster. This is the core of the transaction, time and money. The rest of the items on the signed paper are peripheral and add some colour to the arrangement, but it is these aspects which either create balance or imbalance. John's perception of what he is receiving for his time will ultimately either bring contentment or anxiety.

Now, let's imagine that all aspects of the daily transaction are represented by marbles. Not the ones with green shapes in the middle though, because they look like snake eyes. John receives marbles monthly which represent all which the Corporation is offering him, and he uses up the marbles as he gives of his time and uses his skills and experience at work. Let's ignore money for now because it isn't really variable like the other things. For the sake of the analogy, John walks in with a pocket of marbles daily and pops them into a box next to his desk during the course of the day, representing all that he is contributing, until the end of his day. Because the employment arrangement is equitable, all marbles are used up daily.

Then the fun starts. A demanding project means that John has to put in some extra hours. He works late for a period, starts to skip on his exercise routine and misses his daughter's first word one evening. It happened to be 'dog' but that's not the point. John finds himself dipping into his personal stash of marbles (time, perhaps) in order to deposit all that is required into the box. Now there's an imbalance and John is 'poorer' for it. But then John's commitment is noticed by The Executive who show their personal appreciation and suggest that this could fast-track his progress. Balance is restored as the previously-lacking marbles are replenished through hope and prospects. Then the project at work ends but a new expectation has been created and John struggles to dial back his hours as more responsibility is placed in his capable hands. Displays of competence can do this. Then John's immediate Manager suggests that he's being creative when completing his timesheets. The tone changes, and the long hours and spirit of mistrust mean that John starts running out of marbles by mid-afternoon, again, having to dip into a personal supply. The Executive become aware of the situation. They don't want to remove him from his important accounts which are flourishing, and avoid addressing his Manager because she's related to the MD, so start discussing whether the window seat will restore balance for John. It won't cost them money, and it's pretty easy to move that other guy to the copy room.

This is the transaction which takes place daily. Balance comes and goes sometimes several times a day, and the equity of the whole thing can really only be determined by the employee in the middle of it. But if any imbalance is left unaddressed then we're all at risk of missing more than the word 'dog'.