It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t get distracted

I’m helping an entry-level Associate learn prioritization. I remember what it was like, getting asked to perform tasks by multiple superiors. Everyone wants their stuff to be priority, so much so that they employ a little trick with the line staff (some consciously, some not): they don’t even give a timeline within which something they need done should be completed. They just assume the Associate interprets the request with the directive, “Now.”

But there are multiple “nows” – multiple time horizons upon which we determine when something should be complete. And I’m sure you know, dear Reader, that many deadlines are actually artificial.

Of course I still need to prioritize. Big time. I fell a little short of my numbers this year. It was close enough that if I had really been focusing on the numbers, I think I could have nailed it. Instead, there were high-level organizational growth issues to deal with, and I worked on those happily because it is important and interesting and intellectually stimulating.

Our company has a goal to double revenue from 2013 to 2018. And you know what? We’re on pace. We’re on pace!! That’s a big deal for a small company, and I’m so proud – proud of my colleagues and all the line staff who are putting in good work every day, proud of my contributions to that pace (even if I fell a little short this year).

But let’s be clear – we’re only going to make it to Goal if we keep our eye on the ball. Whether it’s managing tasks from multiple superiors, hitting annual targets, or realizing 5-year strategic plans, we can’t get distracted.

So I told that Associate who struggled with prioritizing requests to ask for timelines for completion from the requestor, and if the Associate could accommodate it within her already established priorities, then fine. But if she couldn’t, that she should refer the requestors to me to determine whether priorities need to be shifted, they need to wait, or they need to find another solution to get it done.

I will need to continue to do the same. We love to talk about organizational development! Let’s do it within the context of existing priorities, talk about it after we review where we are on our first-tier goals, or create a new organizational development goal and rework the relative percentages of focus for all goals.

Because if we do that, we can manage well not only our business days, but our business years!

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How to be able to think at work (seriously)

Our business, like most, is bottom-line driven. But our business is also SMART goal-driven, and that might not be like most others. (SMART goals = goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timed)

We spend a considerable amount of time each Fall preparing company, division, and individual employee SMART goals to improve our bottom line year over year. Then January 1 comes along, and I find people spending time working (very hard and in a very focused way) on the most random things.

What on earth happened to the SMART goals?

There are countless distractions during the day. I get it. Fires need to be put out! Emails need to be answered! We have standing meetings and calls!

But often, this is not actual work. I encourage people to block out their calendars to get actual work done. Brain work. Not busy work. I didn’t hire people to answer emails. I hired people to come up with some solutions and best practices and new protocols. I hired people to ask the right questions, and get us closer to solutions.

I hired people to think.

And there is little to no accommodation in today’s business world for people to just think.

Here’s what happens when people carve out time in their calendars to think: the actions that result are actually pretty straightforward and efficient. People don’t need an hour meeting. They need a 20 minute meeting. People don’t waste time on email going back and forth on an issue. They make an actual decision on something.

Have we forgotten how to think? How to brainstorm? How to structure our days? Has the calendar full of meetings that anyone can drop something into made us a collective Sisyphus? Yes.

So here’s how to think at work:

  1. Book it. Block out the calendar for this. And respect the time you allocated.
  2. Frame it. Ground yourself in what to think about. What is the problem or issue? What is your objective today?
  3. Start broadly. People don’t brainstorm these days! What a pity. There is value – and potentially the best answer to the question – in starting with a sky’s the limit attitude. You can narrow things down later. Don’t fear the brainstorming process! And don’t dismiss or scoff at it.
  4. Organize. Sort out what is not relevant, and put it in a parking lot. (Hey! It may be useful later for something else.) Don’t know whether an idea is relevant? See #2. With whatever is left, start grouping ideas together. Are some ideas really variations on a theme? Are some ideas steps in a singular process? Are other ideas related, but not specific to today’s objective?
  5. Land on something. Chances are, the brainstorming and organizing have resulted in a coalition of ideas that serve today’s objective. Still seeing disparate concepts? Go back and organize more. Not enough content to work with? Go all the way back to brainstorming.

And that’s how you think at work. After that, the actions come:

  1. Write it out. People usually start here. They open up a new email, or they create a new Word document and start typing. They type and type and type… and stop when they get a little stuck. Next time, don’t. Only take pen to paper (or keyboard to email) in a structured way after this exercise.
  2. Proofread. Always. Who doesn’t re-read that email before hitting Send? Change it if you need to. But only read it once. Catch your “will” that was supposed to be “won’t” but then hit Send, for goodness’ sake! The amount of time it takes to get it just right often doesn’t result in better outcomes. Move it forward.

The first 5 steps are the way people and a company can actually meet their SMART goals. The last 2 steps are not how you work; writing and sending something are only the mechanics. Actual work is often brain work, and like anything else, it requires time and space to do it.

Demonstrating value in a cost-center: the one-two punch

I head up a division of the company that is in many ways (though not all) internally focused – building best practices, improving coordination, being more effective with clients, and so on. The challenge with these types of departments is that they are cost centers for the most part (i.e., not direct revenue generators, like sales), and so we need to think creatively about demonstrating value to the rest of the organization.

There are many ways to do this, but I think it boils down to two broad strategies.

One, think about metrics that tie cost center activity to company goals. The first group to be on the chopping block when money is tight often appears to be cost centers, rather than revisiting efficiencies in revenue centers. Internal IT is the poster child of this phenomenon. But what if internal IT had, up to that point, been regularly issuing reports on the number of hacks and data breaches averted, the number of smooth technical onboardings occurred, the number of growing applications developed and maintained? Then the chopping block turns into questions of, “What percent of this value are you willing to sacrifice?” and “What level of efficiency in systems are you willing to compromise?” and “What additional risk are willing to accept?” rather than simply, “What can we outsource to save money (because on paper they do the same thing)?”

Here, think in terms of a “balanced scorecard” – an excellent concept described by UC Berkeley’s Dr. Toshi Shibano in his Strategic Financial Literacy course under the university’s executive education series. Financials are really just a single dimension, which everyone will naturally gravitate toward. Can you produce data on other dimensions, such as customer satisfaction and retention, cycle time or turnaround time, productivity, and innovation, in order to demonstrate value?

  • Pro tip: distribute balanced scorecard reports before your department is at risk of being on the chopping block!

Two, leverage relationships. Don’t have them? Go  build them. This can be especially hard for individuals working in a company’s internally-focused cost center teams, whose initiatives require skills in infrastructure-building, accounting, or other administrative and operational responsibilities, rather than explicitly relationship-building. But you don’t have to be a schmoozer to build relationships. (Really!)

The easiest way to do this is to identify 1-2 relevant people to go talk to for 30 seconds after you’ve sent out an email, whether it’s a reminder, a notification or FYI, a request, or a call to action. Asking individuals in person if they had any questions about what you sent out, or asking their opinion on the content, is a great way to make sure other parties in the organization are aware of your work and your role.

  • Pro tip: Get buy in from people before the email goes out – even better!

This is especially important in our company where I’m trying to get people to comply with established best practices when everyone would rather stick with what they’ve always done. Walking around the office and spending a minute verbally engaging with people to brainstorm how it’s relevant to them does more to get compliance than any formal email or “roll out” of company policy alone.

Writing well in business: 4 tips for succeeding, borrowed from academia

When I was in the College of Chemistry at UC Berkeley, I had a professor who was appalled that science students bragged about getting through college without having to write a single paper. He attempted to correct that by making a paper required as part of his class.

I work with people coming out of finance or life sciences at the university level, and some days, I wish I could just surround myself with humanities majors – you know, people who know when to use who versus whom. Sometimes, people are not very practiced at writing well in the business environment, and it’s to the industry’s detriment. So much weight is placed on doing the actual research that the communication of research findings can be lacking. (This shortcoming is best illustrated when I see work plans that reserve 90% of time to doing the research, and only 10% of time to summarizing it all!)

I’ve been following Daniel Wallace’s collection of essays on teaching composition at the university level. Over the course of 15 years in consulting and managing junior and mid-level consultants, many of the challenges Daniel discusses and helps to solve actually resonate with my own experiences outside the university environment.

A few things I have learned, or discovered for myself, after reading his essays:

  1. We are never really done learning how to write well.
    • There are infinite audiences, objectives, and environments in which we write.
    • Sometimes, we need to “unlearn” one way of writing to learn another. Over time, an assessment of what type of writing is required becomes a part of the natural process, but at first, people can have a hard time letting go of the one way they’ve been successful writing thus far.
  2. There is always an opportunity – and in fact, a goal – to gain a skill through an exercise.
    • The point of an exercise should not only be the deliverable to the client, but to ask ourselves: are individuals on the team and the team as a whole going to do it better and more efficiently next time?
  3. Sometimes, you just have to be explicit about how it should be done.
    • There is a lot to be said for giving people space to figure it out on their own… unless they start to spin their wheels. A roadmap, especially the first time, goes a long way.
    • For example, one habit that I’ve tried to break new consultants of is the tendency to leave the punch line until the very end. Your writing process does not have to mirror your research process. This isn’t some dramatic conclusion you’re building up to! You’ve got C-suite level decision-makers who want to know the bottom line. Go ahead and put all the need-to-know information up front in an executive summary. It doesn’t minimize your research diligence and in fact, a fantastic executive summary does more to demonstrate your research chops than anything else in the deliverable.
  4. Every sentence is a question.
    • I’ve pulled this directly from Daniel Wallace’s sixth essay in his series. This is a fantastic strategy for making sure your staff are leaving no stone unturned in your analysis or presentation of findings. It’s a great way to review and provide feedback on drafts, as well.
    • Especially in niche professional services, industry jargon can be used as a crutch. The key to ensuring that your message is getting across to clients, and is organized well, is to ask a question after every statement or concept, to fully explain rationale and bring your client along your thought process. Don’t leave it to them to connect the dots on their own.

It is wonderful to be able to learn from other academic and professional avenues! So much of our success depends upon recognizing where someone is coming from, and adjusting our teaching or communication to optimize behavioral change.

 

A trying time: whether and how to help your employees

There is a comic that I saw online of two people walking down the street, and one person was telling the other, “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.”

These headlines about police aggression and resulting retaliation are incredibly distressing, especially because social media provides a platform for people to wage keyboard wars over extreme positions. What can leadership do for employees during such tragic and sorrowful times? Should we do anything? Must we keep separate work and anything outside of work? Do we ignore the controversies swirling right outside our door and expect the employees to do the same?

You may not be able to push off deadlines or change company operations in any way, but here are some ideas to inject some sensitivity into your work environment.

  1. Acknowledge that it’s a stressful time.
    • Even the simplest gathering to acknowledge that it’s a tough and scary time can relieve some tension. Acting as if nothing is happening sometimes prevents people from releasing the burden of their own thoughts.
  2. Allow more breaks and time-outs for people to clear their heads and get back in the game.
    • Distracted employees will only introduce inefficiency and poor work quality. Let people clear their minds more often if they need to, and something as simple as taking walks outside might help employees dive back into their work with more focus.
  3. Do not make judgments on how employees decide to use their earned PTO.
    • Most companies have personal time off (PTO) as a benefit. Sometimes we need a mental health day to collect ourselves. Let your employees use their PTO benefit however they choose, with no judgments. It doesn’t have to be reserved for sickness or vacation. They earned it – they can determine when and how to use it.

We don’t have to compromise our business goals when dealing with external controversies, but a little sensitivity with our employees can go a long way.

If I see one more irresponsible gender wage gap article, I’ll scream!

Link: These are the 30 office jobs with the biggest gender pay gaps

The link above is from Business Insider, but there are a ton more totally superficial, uninformed, and infuriating articles like it. (And from reputable sources. See Fortune, and USA Today, and Washington Post.)

Is there a reduction in income when women take time off to have kids? Sure! No one (I hope) debates that. But I’m not sure it’s such an awful thing. Articles use words with negative connotations, like motherhood “penalty” or “tax” to describe it, and some articles and organizations promote the idea that adjustments should be made to make up for the lost income. I don’t agree. If someone is paid appropriately for valuable contributions in a job, and that person takes time off and gives up experience and opportunity to do something else, I would not expect that person to be paid equally upon return to the work force. Simply put: value in = pay out.

Many oversimplify the issue by pointing to the woman who took five years off to raise kids and not work professionally at all during that time (which by the way, is probably rarer these days than people think given the economy and what it costs to raise a family). However, I think a large part of the gender wage gap explanation that isn’t discussed is about the woman simply choosing to work more flexibly (off hours, fewer hours) which translates to less pay. And that’s OK. I’m not sure that’s a “problem” that needs to be “fixed” as many (including President Obama in his State of the Union speech) argue.

Put it this way: If you asked me whether I would prefer (a) a job that will always pay exactly what my male colleagues get for valuable contributions but allows very little flexibility, or (b) a job that will pay for my valuable contributions but gives me all the flexibility I want, I will pick (b) every time. And I bet if you asked around, most women – especially moms – would do the same. And they do.

Gaps in pay are generally attributable to some common-sense factors, and these include things like experience, skills, educational background, standard of living where the job is, and risks involved with the job (hazard pay).

Beyond these factors, however, there is one other that helps to explain the gender wage gap that these frustrating articles never talk about: gender wage differences exist in jobs with the highest degree of what Claudia Goldin out of Harvard calls “temporal flexibility” – jobs in which women can control their hours more, still do valuable but scaled back work, opt out of certain traditional office hours in order to work off-line earlier or later, and so on. Goldin found that a lot of professional jobs where the wage gap exists do, in fact, allow for people to run individual practices or otherwise be self-employed, and it is in those types of professions where that temporal flexibility exists.

Here is a great interview with Goldin from Marketplace’s Freakonomics series:

http://freakonomics.com/podcast/the-true-story-of-the-gender-pay-gap-a-new-freakonomics-radio-podcast/

The temporal flexibility concept is very hard to control for in studies and analytics because (1) the data collection systems do not account for it, and (2) it is difficult to define appropriate proxies in the existing data to try to account for it. Really, all I would like to see is the mere mention of this very real factor in the reporting of the “flat” income numbers that are thrown out by the media all the time!

 

Mommy Wars to the extreme

In Germany, the Mommy Wars are taking a turn for the worst.

Regretting motherhood’ debate rages in Germany

When the societal pressure to keep up a ridiculous standard of motherhood, in large part defined by men who are biologically incapable of having children, becomes the norm, something just isn’t right.

The notion that children’s well-being depends on their mothers and not on the society around them or their fathers, is deeply entrenched in Germany and creates real obstacles to women’s careers. … A mother who returns to the office without taking maternity leave for a year — or often three — opens herself up to being branded a “Rabenmutter” (raven mother) — women who dump their kids in childcare so they can pursue their personal goals.

Women regretting having children because they feel they can’t do it the way they see fit? It’s a sad day.