My Sentiments Exactly

Good for Bob Parks and Bloomberg Businessweek for this article.  PowerPoint is indeed an overused medium, but I had no idea that 350 PowerPoint presentations are given every second.  That’s scary.

Part of my job is to talk with suppliers who want to do business with my company.  The ones that intrigue me the most are those that both a) come with a clear message and b) come without PowerPoint slides.  Unfortunately, a lot of suppliers can do either a or b, but few can do both.  Those that come with slides can tell you that I have a crazy good ability to predict exactly which slides are in their nicely spiralbound booklet, complete with hard plastic cover.  That’s how unoriginal most supplier presentations are.

But I digress from the point of this post and the article that spurred it.  The sentiments embodied by “Death to PowerPoint!” stem, I suspect, from many of us experiencing Death by PowerPoint.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan famously wrote, “The medium is the message.”  Yet many deliverers of PowerPoint slides believe that the message is the medium and thus fail to deliver a message at all.

The Apprentice is Now Too Far from “Reality”

The Spidey family has always watched reality television competitions.  We watch American Idol, Amazing Race, Design Star, Top Chef, and Hell’s Kitchen.  So, when The Apprentice returned this season with a non-celebrity version, I jumped right back in.

I remember The Apprentice back when Bill, Kelly, Kendra and Randall won.  I remember when it moved to Los Angeles, and the losing teams each week had to sleep in tents, while the winners stayed in a cushy house.  As I recall, those seasons past were a business skills and leadership competition, like Top Chef being a cooking competition or Design Star being a decorating competition.  Just as we can watch Top Chef and learn a bit about cooking, I felt that Apprentice provided some interesting lessons about project management and about how to be successful as a member of a team.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the 2010 season.  This season, the Apprentice is incredibly unappealing.  The hour-long shows focus more on the backstabbing and intrigue between contestants than on the business tasks themselves.  Apprentice 2010 is now like Big Brother or Survivor, in which defeating other opponents by undermining and deceiving them is the way to go.  It seems like Mr. Trump isn’t looking to hire the most talented person, but instead the person who “outwits, outplays, and outlasts” the other competitors.

As James Speaks, David is Being "David:" Boorish, Loud, Arrogant and Insubordinate.

If I was learning from the Apprentice’s first three episodes this season, this is what I would do to get ahead:

  1. I would undermine by boss aggressively and openly, without remorse.
  2. Knowing others followed #1, I would never volunteer for any leadership position.
  3. I would focus first on moving my team members out of my path to the top and second on generating the business results we needed.
  4. To accomplish #3, I would be risk averse and would not speak up to our boss, even when others acted unprofessionally and unethically.
  5. If I was asked by our boss about others, I would follow the lead of my more aggressive colleagues and criticize they people they are criticizing.

As someone who has been in and out of corporate America and respects success stories, I am embarrassed that Trump is sending these messages.  I am incredulous that he allows contestants like Mahsa and David to continue on the show when he would never ever hire them in real life.  They are both rude and callous bullies that would have no role in most companies.  They would last less than a week where I work now, if even that long.

This is Mahsa. Please Leave. Please Get Fired. Please.

(While I’m writing about Mahsa, I think it’s fair to ask why she’s even on this show.  This season is billed as helping those who have been impacted by the economy.  She, however, according to her official bio, “works as an Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn, New York, and is the host of two web shows on the side.”  It really doesn’t sound like she’s hurting.)

Mr. Trump, if you’re reading, I urge you to change course.  Focus more on the tasks and how results are achieved.  Make firing decisions based on what you know needs to be done, not based on what you are told makes good television.  Survivor does well when producers have no control over the voting.  You can choose who gets to stay and who goes.  I urge you to make better decisions.

Come back to “reality” please.

Things About Work I Wish I Knew Earlier #10 – Dress the Part

I have written a lot in the first nine postings in this series about things I’ve learned not to do.  Now it’s time to turn to things to do.  I’m going to start with something that seems obvious but is violated all the time.

10. Dress the Part

It is so tempting at work these days to push the limits on dress and personal appearance to get comfortable.  I don’t limit this observation to the younger crowd.  Perhaps I’m old school on this, but I believe how someone dresses at work says a lot about them and can impact their future.

People get noticed for dressing below or beyond the office’s dress code.  That’s right.  You get noticed if you go beyond what’s necessary.  If your office is “business casual,” don’t wear a tie every day.  At first, it might be interesting.  Then it become “cute.”  After a while, you become “that guy who wears a tie everyday.”  No need.  (There are parallels here with women in business suits.)

Dressing below the dress code is a more obvious concern.  Over my 20+ years in the workplace I’ve seen some amazing things.  I’ve seen women wear shirts so low and skirts so high that I had to look away.  I’ve seen women wear heels so long that they could not even walk.  I’ve seen guys wear shirts and pants with obvious stains and holes and 10-year-old concert t-shirts with flip-flops on casual days.  I’ve seen people show up in t-shirts with marijuana leaves emblazoned on the front.  And, I have seen far too much men’s and women’s underwear exposed when they stretch or reach for something.  If you are wearing a black thong, I really don’t need to know.

It is important to remind ourselves that dress is relative to your workplace’s dress code norm or rules.  You need to make sure that you fit in with the people around you.  For example, folks here in St. Louis probably (certainly?) dress differently than folks in Manhattan.  I think we’re at least 12 months behind on fashion trends here.  If someone showed up at our offices right off the catwalks of New York City, they would probably catch some eyes.

Here are some more specific recommendations:

Short Sleeve Dress Shirt with Tie? NEVER!!

  1. At companies where meeting with senior executives is rare, put on a suit.  Show that respect, even if the senior execs aren’t in suits.
  2. When you travel for business, do not dress way down.  In other words, either dress as you do in the office or dress casually, but appropriately.  Don’t revert ever to shorts, t-shirt, and flip-flops on business travel.  You never know whom you might meet along the way, including colleagues and customers.
  3. Follow the lead of the senior executives as regards casual days, if your office is not always casual.  In our company, the senior executives do not wear jeans on jeans days.  Right or wrong, they don’t.  I recommend following their lead.
  4. If your office is casual, take care as to how casual you get.  Beware of what your t-shirts say.  No pajama pants.  You might not get fired for dressing way down, but you won’t be appreciated either.
  5. Spend a little bit extra than you need to on clothes.  People can tell.
  6. Vary what you wear.  Don’t wear white shirts and khakis every day or a black dress every day.

The bottom line here is that you want to be viewed as professional, whether you work in a retail store, a small design firm, a factory, or a large corporation.  Your clothes should be clean, proper, tucked-in, and within the norms.

One last pet peeve.  Men – please, please, please don’t wear ties with short-sleeve dress shirts!  In fact, don’t wear short-sleeve dress shirts at all.

Things About Work I Wish I Knew Earlier – Part 9

Last week, I wrote about how we’re really never as good as we think we are, especially early on in our careers.  I think it’s really important to remind ourselves of that, because certainly no one else will.  That leads me to this week’s post:

9. Few people will tell you the truth about your performance

I almost wrote “no one,” but I have to believe there someone out there that does tell the truth to their direct reports about their performance in a tactful and professional way.  For the most part, however, candid conversations about performance don’t happen.  Those of you with bosses that you like and who help you get ahead should be very, very thankful.  I have benefitted from bosses like that.  However, I have learned that even they aren’t telling you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Whether your performance is good or bad, the risk is too great to tell you the full truth.  There are two scenarios.

A.  You are performing well: Bosses really, really want to tell high performing employees that they are doing well.  As one who has managed people in the past, I know that these positive conversations are a pleasure.  However, if you have an employee that is really doing well, it is too risky to tell them exactly how well.  No one wants an employee getting too big a head, but a more significant concern is how quickly you might promote them or give them more responsibility.  If you tell someone they are doing great and are ready for a promotion, and then you can’t promote them for a while, you risk them leaving or becoming disenchanted and performing worse.  There is also a notion that a high performer might take her bosses job sooner than later.  If this is the case, why tell her how well she’s doing.

B. You are performing poorly: First, no boss wants to have this conversation, and this often stops a conversation about poor performance before it starts.  Second, people don’t want to be mean, even if it’s the truth.  No one will ever go so far as to say, “Fred – that presentation really sucked.  Worst ever.”  That’s just mean.  However, the real reason you are never told completely how poorly you are doing is because your boss needs you to stick at your job and get things done.  If your boss completely demotivates you, then you might leave or not get done even the minimum.

So, what do you do?  You start by doing what I’ve written about in this series.  Stay off the radar.  Do good work.  Keep your head on straight.  Don’t worry about getting feedback on your performance through the normal channels.  You won’t.  If you can get by without this feedback, you’ll be better off in the long run.

I’ll tell you why you are better off and how to get the feedback you need starting next week.

Things About Work I Wish I Knew Earlier – Part 8

We’re on to Part 8 of this series.  Last week I wrote in Part 7 about being patient.  One of the reasons I urge patience is because of this week’s topic.

8. You aren’t as good as you think you are

This was a tough learning for me and is one that many younger employees and employees new to their current company don’t realize early enough.   This learning is important to consider for three reasons.  First, it helps you calibrate the timing of your advancement.  Second, it focuses you on constant improvement.  Third, it keeps you humble.

Whether you believe it or not, experience counts.  Wine gets better with age.  Cheese gets better with age.  Employees get better with age.  Notice I didn’t write “smarter.”  I wrote “better.”  Many employees are smarter than their bosses and even their boss’s boss.  But being smarter, doesn’t mean better.  I ask, how many really smart people do you know that don’t cut it in your company?  Probably quite a few.

Smartness, however, doesn’t account for experiential knowledge.  The longer you work, at one or multiple companies, the more you experience and re-experience the same types of problems, situations, people, and processes.  The book-smart way to do something may not be the best.  A less experienced employee will gain a lot of points by asking the “older guys” how things are done and, with that understanding, proceeding down his or her own path.

There is reason that the only time you see very young CEO’s is when they founded the company and, even then, the founders often bring in the “gray hairs” to take over at a certain point.  Yahoo did that.  Google did that.  Take a look at a list of Fortune 500 CEOs when you get a chance.  Most are over 50 with many years of experience in the business world.  I’m sure they approach problems differently than you do, and, from time to time, you think they do things wrong.  Without their experience, however, you don’t know what you don’t know — and you realize that you aren’t as good as you think you are.

Even when you get up to a position of responsibility and authority, you can’t forget this learning.  You need to maintain humility and a focus on constant improvement.  More often that not, you aren’t as good as you think you are, and understanding that opens the door for improvement.  Your President or CEO isn’t as good as he or she thinks she is and, hopefully, understands that.

The concern I have in writing this is that many younger folks in the workplace don’t believe this advice.  They think, “Spidey – you weren’t as good as you thought you were, but I am as good as I think I am.”  They think that, once they get a chance, they could easily do jobs above them in the org chart and do it well.

For these people I have news.  At some point in your life, you’ll realize that half the music you listened to in college really sucked, that 9o% of the stuff your mom & dad told you is right, and that in the early days of your career, you really weren’t as good as you thought you were.  I promise all three will occur.

Things About Work I Wish I Knew Earlier – Part 7

In the first six parts of this series, I focused on what I wish I knew earlier about keeping oneself out of trouble, as a precursor to a long career.  I termed it “staying off the radar.”  If you read these posts, much of the advice focused on what not to do, as opposed to what to do.  Eventually I will get to advice on what to do, perhaps as early as next week.

This week, I  want to focus on maintaining the right mindset as you strive to expand your responsibilities or to get promoted.  This is definitely something I wish I put into practice earlier.

7. Be patient all the time about everything

I think this is the single most difficult piece of advice for young people to understand and believe.  Every ambitious person I have met wants to move up an organizational ladder as fast as possible.  They think they can do more challenging jobs.  They think they are better than their boss and better than colleagues promoted ahead of them.  This leads to a tremendous amount of impatience.  I now know that career growth and the world in general never moves as quickly as we believe it should.  I really wish I had believed others who twenty years ago told me to be patient.

On the job, there are two types of impatience:  1) day-to-day impatience and 2) career impatience.  I recommend that you eliminate both.  Your blood pressure and heart rate will decline, and you will be more successful.

Day-to-day impatience occurs when you are waiting for someone to return a phone call, respond to an email, review a presentation, get you some materials, etc.  Sometimes these requests are open-ended, and others have deadlines.  It is very frustrating when someone doesn’t get back to you as quickly as you want them to.  Sometimes, it impacts deadlines for a larger project to which you have committed, and that can be a problem.  When we suspect that things aren’t happening as planned, we have a tendency to repeatedly check in with that person.  We have a tendency to pester and ask them if they need help.

In these instances, you are best served by relaxing, placing yourself in the other person’s shoes, trusting they will get the work done, and considering logical reasons why they haven’t responded.  They could be at the doctor’s,  in meetings, in bed sick, at a child’s concert, etc.  Even if you put “urgent” on the message, sometimes the person just can’t get around to returning the message.  They could legitimately have been asked to complete other deliverables that are more important than yours.  Pestering is never good, and we know from part 4 that offering help is also a no-no.    I have found that there is almost always a logical reason for someone not responding.  If you can stay patient, not fire off repeated notes, texts, or voice mails, and wait, then you’ll be more respected and viewed as someone easy to work with.

Career impatience is the desire I mentioned above to be promoted or to gain more responsibilities as soon as possible.  The fact is that none of us gets promoted or expands our responsibilities when we think we ready.  It always happens later.  I’ve come to learn that most of these decisions are right.  We tend to over value our capabilities and contributions at work and over value the importance of immediate job advancement in a long-term career.  Impatience for job advancement can lead you to vocalize your impatience and show your frustration, neither of which will endear yourself to your boss, their bosses, and your co-workers.

I encourage you to look around you at your company and make a realistic assessment of people’s career paths.  My guess is that you will see some very good people who have been  in the same job or at the same level for three, five, seven or more years.  Why should you be different and move more quickly up the ladder?  I urge you to listen to the guidance your boss gives you about when you might be considered for promotion and set that as the earliest possible date.  If she says three years, then three years it is.  There’s a reason why this guidance exists.

If you are 25 and reading this, I’d bet my house you don’t believe me.  Remember, I’m writing here about what I wish I’d learned earlier.  I wish I had just relaxed in my roles, done a good job, and focused less on how quickly I could move up.  I would have been calmer, happier, and would probably have gotten promoted earlier.

I encourage you to put things in perspective.  How old is your CEO?  How long has your boss been with the company or doing their job?  After 20+ years in the work place, I can tell you there is a reason why leaders are often on the older, more-tenured side.  Set a pace that gets you to their job at their age.  Stay off the radar.  Have the patience to get there.

Things About Work I Wish I Knew Earlier – Recap of Parts 1-6

I began this series of posts six Fridays ago, and each post that I have written has been part of a common theme:  Don’t put yourself on the radar at work.  Let others put you on the radar.

The essence of this idea is that your focus at work should be to get noticed for reasons that pertain to your career, not for any other reasons.  It is better to create no impression than to create a negative one.  This means that some things we have been taught to do or some behaviors that we may have picked up should be eliminated or never started.  I will have a few more thoughts along these lines later in the series, but this seems like a good place to pause.  To recap, parts #1 through #6 are:

#1 Don’t Complain or Make Waves
No doubt at your company or firm, it is common practice to complain about things that could be improved.  From my experience, that is relatively normal.  However, I wish I knew earlier to stay out of these conversations entirely.  You don’t want to be known as a complainer. Swallow your thoughts.  Tell your significant others or friends.  Just don’t talk about it in the office.  I’m not suggesting you be Pollyanna and talk about how wonderful things are.   I’m recommending that you keep all complaints to yourself.

#2 Don’t Talk Negatively About Anyone Behind Their Back
This is also extremely common.  Everyone talks about everyone else.  I recommend you avoid these conversations.  Don’t get sucked in to a session bashing your boss or anyone else.  You do not want to be known as someone who always talks about others when they aren’t around.  In fact, studies show that when you criticize someone, the quality about which you are being critical is reflected back on you.  If you say someone is a jerk, others think you are a jerk.  If you stay out of these conversations, this can’t happen.

#3 Don’t Ask Questions in Large Meetings
I think this piece of advice is easy to follow.  As I wrote in the post, the risks of asking questions far outweigh the benefits.  Let others take those risks.  Keep your arms folded at your seat.

#4 Don’t Offer Suggestions Unless You Are Asked
If you look at offering your help or suggestions proactively, there are only two reasons why:  the other person is doing something wrong or isn’t doing something all.  When you offer help or ideas, you are criticizing what they are doing, by definition.   People don’t like that.  I suggest you stay away and only help if asked.

#5 Volunteer, But Choose Wisely
Most volunteer opportunities are worthless and should be avoided.  When the boss asks for volunteers, it’s because she doesn’t care who does the specific activity.  Thus, the benefit of doing it is limited or zero.  In fact, there are risks if you do “it” wrong.

#6 Keep Your Mind on Your Own Job and Only Your Own Job
When you concern yourself with functions or actions outside your direct job and ask questions, you will be viewed suspiciously and considered to be butting in where you don’t belong.  It doesn’t matter what others are working on.  It only matters what you are working on.

In each of these six items, I’m recommending that you don’t do things to call attention to yourself, for I believe the risks outweigh the rewards.  It is better to have someone else call attention to you than to call attention to yourself.   It is much better when someone else puts you on the company radar than to put yourself on the company radar.

A few readers have understood my points but commented, “If I don’t put myself on the company radar, I won’t get on the company radar.”  What I think most of them are really saying is “If I don’t put myself on the company radar, I won’t get on the company radar as fast I want to be.”

We justify violating the above six recommendations because we add a time factor to the risk-reward equation.  For example, our thoughts might go something like this regarding point #3 above:

  1. I understand the risk of asking this question.
  2. However, no one knows me enough to even see what the quality of my work.
  3. While I know I’ll get on the radar eventually, if I ask a question, people will know who I am now.
  4. Because they know who I am, they’ll notice the quality of my work and other positive attributes.
  5. I’ll then move up faster.

As a result, the risk-reward equation flips.  Where as before, the risks today > rewards tomorrow, now the rewards today > risks today.  And, we stand up to ask a question and make, what I believe is a big career mistake.

In the next several posts, I’ll build on this and explain what I wish I knew earlier about the time frame for advancement and/or expansion of responsibilities.  Understanding this make it easier to follow parts #1 through #6.

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