Category Archives: Junior staff development

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!

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.

 

Onboarding new employees: what I’ve learned and have yet to figure out

Feedback from new employees indicate that the top three areas in which employers most miss the mark in onboarding are the following :

  1. Clear guidelines on responsibilities
  2. Effective training
  3. Friendliness and helpfulness from fellow employees

I’ve been onboarding employees for 10+ years, and here are some tips to ensure that the investment you’ve made in recruiting and hiring someone doesn’t go to waste:

  1. Have a clear job description for them. Use it as an anchor for check-ins and reviews, and be open to refinement.
    • Set up categories of duties, so that it’s not an unending list of activities that can be hard to manage and refer back to.
    • Include relative percentages of time for those categories, so that employees know what they should be focused on.
    • Have a couple of items in each category that fit under “things that are not required but you may be asked to do.” Here, you can list professional development opportunities that don’t have to be performance-based.
    • Things change. That’s OK. But go back to the job description once a year and refine it, ideally to the agreement of both parties.
  2. Assess whether training was effective, and retrain if necessary.
    • I use simple multiple choice survey monkeys for the basics.
    • Use case studies for training someone on how to apply the material. Some case studies have served me for years; they don’t have to be from yesterday, as long as the application is still relevant.
  3. Set up side meetings or social encounters to help facilitate connections with other employees.
    • Have an open welcome the employee’s first morning, in which everyone is invited for a meet and greet. At my company, the operations folks do a great job of organizing a round of everyone sharing one “fun fact” about themselves. It’s a nice 15 minute welcome.
    • Sure, I like to take the new employee out to lunch the first day! Even better, invite one or two other employees to join you, so the new employee has a chance to develop early connections outside of the managed/manager one.

What I haven’t figured out is just as important a thought exercise for me. Here are some areas that I continue to either stumble through, or implement new strategies on a trial and error basis with mixed results:

  1. Assisting with full assimilation into the company. How can I best help the new employee infuse their unique perspectives into how we have “always” done things?
  2. Diagnosing trouble spots and making course corrections earlier. How do I obtain truly honest feedback from new hires and get an opportunity to make refinements in their experience when and where it counts?

I will continue to noodle on these critical and lingering issues for a long time, as I’m not sure there’s a magic answer out there, but I am open to ideas.

My definition of leadership

Isn’t leadership nothing more sophisticated than being a reflection of what matters to you and what works for you?

It seems to me that those who inspire feel inspired themselves, and are only reflecting their own passion and excitement. They don’t seem to be wrapped up in trying to be a leader.

What drives us as individuals can be the cornerstone to leadership. Therefore, if you are stifled or uninspired, being a leader will not result.

This also means that we can all be leaders in our own ways. No need to strive to lead the way another does; find your passions and you will lead in your own special way.

Can do vs have done: To what bar do we hold ourselves, and does it hold us back?

“Too many women still seem to believe that they are not allowed to put themselves forward at all, until both they and their work are perfect and beyond criticism.” — Elizabeth Gilbert

This quote has really been sticking with me for a while. Maybe it’s because I have a middle management crisis on my hands, and I’m trying to diagnose issues to help resolve some bottlenecks. Did I promote the wrong people, or is there something else going on?

Issue: the women I promote to middle management really struggle with ambiguity in their new positions. As a junior person, you’re told what to do. As a manager, you direct others. But what if you haven’t directed others before? I observe paralysis from women who are uncomfortable with being promoted to a role in which they are now the ones who have to define a way forward.

I’m coming to the conclusion that many women gain confidence through experience. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the only place confidence can come from, and in fact, the higher up the ladder you go, the less first-hand experience from doing the individual mouse clicks comes into play. At all levels, for junior, middle, and senior female professionals, confidence needs to come from a place of “I can do that” (i.e., skills) as much as “I have done that” (i.e., experience).

The quote above points to women not being confident in what they believe they can do vs what they have actually done. Men may define their qualifications in terms of possibilities, while many women may define their qualifications in terms of battle scars.

I would like to see many more women think in terms of possibilities, point to examples of how they used relevant skills to get something, even something unrelated, done, rather than opting out of new roles entirely until they have an example of having done a particular thing.

Another aspect of this issue is what happens after a thing is done. Failure – a word I hate! – is an unpleasant but possible/acknowledged outcome in some circles. It’s always something you try to avoid, of course, but if you fail, some are privileged to have a great support network in leadership, or a decent place to land. Many white males in white collar professions benefit from this, and as a result, bounce back from “failure”, both professionally and mentally/emotionally, better than others.

Many women are terrified of failing in general, and some of this is due to societal pressure – fear of failing at being the ideal wife (“What did I do to make him leave me?”), fear of failing at motherhood (“You should breastfeed or your baby will be sickly or not as good at math!”), and certainly fear of failing in the work place. Double standards still exist, but the root of the confidence crisis in middle management among the women I observe is that failure is unacceptable rather than just unpleasant. A lack of a safety net in terms of professional network (in leadership above her pay grade, not just peers) may cause a woman to be more cautious than her male counterparts. But more often than not, we are likely to rise up to meet the challenges, realizing our potential, not come crashing down!

We can all be a part of each other’s safety net. We will pick each up, we will give each other support, and contrary to the thought that I promoted the “wrong” people, I like to think that we will give each other opportunities, learn to see possibilities, and see each other through shifts in thinking – to be successful in the end.

 

Three practical ways to say “No”

Juggling family and work – something’s got to give. All the work-life balance blogs, books, and articles say that you should learn to say no, but rarely do people talk about how to do so well so that it doesn’t leave you feeling like you’re the bad guy or leaving people in the lurch. Here are some ideas – applicable to work AND home.

1. OFFER AN ALTERNATIVE. “No, but let’s do this other thing instead that will give us the same or similar result.” Often there is an alternative approach than my doing the specific thing I’m being asked to do. Can I do it differently than how I’m being asked that is more efficient? Or do I need to do it at all – are we just going through me because it’s always been that way? If I don’t need to do it, then what can happen instead? The trick to this is concentrating not just on the task you’re being asked to do, but stepping back and thinking about what youre collectively trying to accomplish in which your task is a part: is there a way to meet the objective that doesn’t require the task being asked, or at the level of involvement that is being asked?

2. PUT IT OFF A BIT. “No, I can’t right now. We should definitely get to this, but let’s connect tomorrow/next week/etc on this since I’m focusing on something else right this minute.” If it’s not urgent (truly urgent, which you’ll find few things actually are!) then you might find it resolves on its own or other things happen to get it to the next step if given some time.

3. HELP SOMEONE ELSE DO IT THEMSELVES. “No, I can’t do it myself, but I can definitely help you get to the finish line on this.” This one is my favorites because it’s a win-win. In order for this to work, you’ve got to have someone who doesn’t know how to do it and is willing to try. So many of my junior and mid-level staff are willing to try anything. GREAT! Let’s do it. I always give the baby a bath at night, but if my husband does it with me a few times, we can trade off and I can get some much needed down time. Is it going to happen exactly as you would do it? Probably not. Does this require up front investment in your time? Yes! But the ROI of saying no this way is typically realized fairly quickly.

Maybe there are other ways to say no in an effective way?

I’ll say it: I’m looking forward to going back to work

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a new mother, it’s that people don’t have qualms about judging you every which way. Though I nurse my baby, I’ve seen enough “how dare you choose formula” posts on online mommy boards that I cringe and really feel terrible for the new moms who are subject to those scathing comments.

Well here’s one for all those judgmental people out there: I love my baby girl to the end of the world and back but I CAN’T WAIT TO GET BACK TO WORK. I feel like screaming it from the mountaintops.

Our little girl had a rocky delivery, and a rough start with 12 days in the NICU. She was fussy and generally unhappy when we got her home; it was a tough transition for all of us. Thank goodness we have come out on the other side in many ways, and you know what? It feels damn good! Our little girl is a delight, and she’s thriving. Maybe we first-time parents are doing something right.

But while I’ve cherished all the smiles she has for me, and I’ve celebrated all of her milestones, and I’ve marveled while watching her learn new things every day, I still desperately want to head back to the office.

I’d like to have conversation with other adults, and have it not be about babies.

I’d like to dress in sharp clothes every day and feel great about how I look rather than wear sweats covered in drool or spit up.

I’d like to challenge my mind by figuring out issues around new medical technologies rather than figuring out how else I can entertain a two month old.

And I was going to say that I’d prefer to hear clients whining than my baby, but that’s pretty much a draw.

*****
When I left for maternity leave, I purposely (and purposefully) created a situation in which the idea was not to have things maintained in the exact same way during my leave as before, but instead to keep our team’s goals in sight, ensure they had the skills and support necessary, then let the team run with it on their own while I was gone. (It’s easier to do when you hire the right people from the start.)

Since I’ve been gone, revenues have been maintained and business has grown to support hires. Clients are happy. My staff have tackled things they’ve never encountered before and have grown professionally by huge strides. This is excellent news!

My first order of business when I return in a few weeks is to interview both my team members and our clients to learn their new ways of working that developed in my absence, so that I can do my job to put in place additional support systems, identify areas of quality improvement or increased efficiency, give people an opportunity to identify and commend colleagues who did exceptional work internally or externally, and basically celebrate how far we’ve come.

Yes, it’s a little kumbaya, but I don’t care. My absence was very disruptive even as prepared as we were, and I want my team to know that disruption is nothing to fear, and coming out on the other side should feel damn good.