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Career Advice

Career Advice

When to apologize and when not to

I recently got a question in email from a woman (who is early in her career) which I answered, but then as a few weeks passed, I began to think about all the times I wish my coworkers had apologized and when they did it too much.

The question was:

“Should I apologize when I make a mistake at work, and if so, how? If not, what should I do instead? I notice I am apologizing for mistakes that are mostly my responsibility, but not only, and that nobody else is apologizing.”

The hard thing about apology is some people do it, and some don’t. Some are comfortable making mistakes and being imperfect, others are not. But done thoughtfully apology is a powerful way to build trust.

So first – why not to apologize unless absolutely necessary

– Some men (and some women, although fewer) see it as a sign of weakness and will use it against you, bringing up your ownership of a mistake to weaken you in the future. Be conscious of when, where and to whom you apologize.

– If you are trying to manipulate or being insincere to achieve some other end then you will erode trust because most people can tell when you are insincere.

– If you are not the one who made the mistake. Again, not dealing in the truth erodes trust, even if you are trying to show you will own problems. Don’t throw someone else under the bus, but don’t step in and apologize if it is not your mistake because it may also be used to undermine you in the future as someone who can themselves be thrown under the bus.

The bottom line is mistakes are a normal part of learning. If you make a mistake admit it, see if you need to fix it, and move on. Don’t apologize unless someone else is hurt by your mistake. Don’t apologize unnecessarily, or profusely.

But then again, why apology is powerful

– Owning your mistakes openly builds trust, so if you have hurt or inconvenienced someone then take the time to apologize and try to do it one-on-one so you can be sincere and open.

– It takes courage to apologize which is why so many people don’t. You make yourself vulnerable when you do, but being strong enough to admit your imperfections (within reason) will make you a more compelling leader. Being authentic is a very powerful way to lead.

– The people who can’t admit their mistakes have a huge issue building trust as leaders. Too many times I have heard the comment “well s/he can’t admit when s/he’s wrong so s/he’ll make it someone else’s problem.”

These examples are all internal, but the one area where you need to be courageous and ready to take ownership is with customers. Your customers often need to hear from someone senior that you recognize a mistake has been made and you are going to fix it or make sure it gets fixed. If you are the senior person in the room and your company has made an error or let a customer down then own it, whether or not you are directly responsible.

In the end it is important to be thoughtful about how and when you apologize so your apology is both authentic and appropriate for your level of ownership of the issue. And make sure you do apologize when you own a problem and you don’t become one of those people who can never admit their mistakes.

 © 2011 Penny Herscher

Career Advice

Five practices you can learn so that “I told you so” is a gift

Does it irritate you when someone says “I told you so” to you?

You’d be quite normal if it does. There is nothing quite as annoying as having a know-it-all tell you that they knew better than you all along and you did not listen.

And yet, if you can check your ego, and if he did actually tell you so, then you’ve been missing a gift. Of course, this only makes sense if you are getting advice from someone who is often right, and who cares about you, otherwise it could be the blind leading the blind!

I have been fortunate enough to have two mentors who were not shy about telling me what they thought, and that I was an idiot when I didn’t listen. I saw one yesterday who, as we talked about the last couple of years, found not one, not two, but three times to say “I told you so”. By the last one he gave me a big grin and said “I think I told you that too!”

On the heels of the laughter, and the chagrin I feel that he was so often right, here are five practices that can help you milk your mentors for their wisdom and make sure you can hear it!

1. Learn to listen to business advice from people who have done it before. Whether it comes to building your engineering or service team, designing a big customer contract or hiring your first sales people if you are working with someone who has done it before, and who is respected, listen carefully. While their advice may not be perfect, and you may not like what they have to say, if they are willing to put the time in to work through an issue with you listen, take notes, and if you don’t follow the advice have a damn good reason. And frankly the argument of “you are not current” or “things are different now” is bs. While pace, technology and regulations changes, the fundamentals of what it takes to build a team and a thriving, profitable business are in common across a huge range of styles of company (as my mentor and I agreed yesterday comparing notes of the range of companies we are both working with now).

2. Pay attention to when someone is sharing a personal story with you. A story which is painful to tell probably has a strong lesson in it. If your advisor is sharing a major mistake they made dig in and try and understand what do they wish they had seen beforehand, or what did they see and ignored? Are there parallels for you today where you are avoiding something that is in front of your eyes but you don’t want to see it? This could be as far ranging as a personnel mistake, or a personal mistake!

3. When someone tells you something you don’t agree with, and your first reaction is to think in your head that you don’t agree – and so to argue – stop yourself and ask questions. I love the Covey habit “seek first to understand, then to be understood” and too few people use this habit. As someone who coaches every day now, I pick up very quickly whether an entrepreneur understands the power of questioning to figure out what they should know that they don’t know.

4. Pay attention when someone is angry with you. Either they are a jerk and have no business being angry with you, or they care enough that your reaction is upsetting them. Now you can’t take on everyone else’s issues, of course, but anger or intense emotion or stress is a guide that is often worth following. Don’t react with anger, take a deep breath, apologize that you have upset them, acknowledge that they care, and ask questions (see above) seeking to understand the source of their emotion. Maybe you’ve heard them but you are not being skilled in acknowledging that, or maybe you have not been listening. For myself, I have found the skill of active listening “I think you said xxxx, did I understand that correctly?” can be very powerful when an advisor is frustrated with me.

5. Follow the joy in business. Too often we spend time talking through what’s going wrong, and yet some of the best lessons I could have learned (and got an “I told you so” about later) were about where/how I was going to be happiest. Work can be terrific fun if you stay grounded and don’t get wrapped up in your ego so if someone who cares about you is trying to give you advice to “lighten up” (as one of my early mentors told me) do yourself a favor and find a way to ground yourself.

And if you can do all that you’ll be a better able to hear advice than most!

Photo: Villa Farnesina, Rome  © 2016 Penny Herscher

Boards, Career Advice

So you want to join a board: Advice to help you prepare

 If you want to join a board, you are not alone. Some people want to find a board in the middle of their career because they like the idea of learning about board life, or for the status of it; some people are looking for board work towards the end of their career because they want to stay engaged and give back. Either way it’s a common, serious interest for many people.
But what does it take – how do you prepare yourself to be qualified?

First off, determine why you want it – and be able to articulate that. Are you looking for income or interest? Be clear about this because there is a huge difference between the two. Non-profit boards typically don’t pay, in fact they expect you to give money. For-profit private company boards may pay cash, or they may only pay in stock (which may, or may not, ever be worth anything) and for-profit public company boards pay, but the pay varies widely depending on the size, industry and country of the company.

Once you can clearly state what you want and why, the next step is for you to determine what value you are going to bring – what is your value proposition? What experience do you bring, how will you be helpful, why should a board want you on it? I had never done this formally until a few weeks ago when I was on a panel and the moderator asked us panelists to write down our value propositions. This is what I came up with (late at night in a hotel room!):

As someone who has 20 years as a high tech CEO, has been through an IPO and many M&A deals  and who is very technical, I bring experience in what it takes to create the strategy, execution plans and leadership teams necessary to drive growth. As a compensation committee chair on two public boards I team with the CEO to create the right incentives to execute the operational plans and create shareholder value. I tend to be the voice in the room focused on strategy and the needs of the leadership team in a rapidly changing world.

Try writing yours – what would you say?

Another way to approach this is to inventory your skills. Make a list of what you’re good at – what makes you unique. This is your experience – what types of jobs you’ve had – PLUS what is it about your intellect and personality that will be helpful? Are you good under pressure, are you energized by solving hard problems, are you good at negotiation, are you natural coach, do you have strong P&L management experience? These are skills that are often not on your resume, but when a recruiter asks you what you would bring to a board it’s good to be able to confidently state the top 3 or 4 skills that you would bring.

The next challenge is that while  you may feel you are ready to contribute on a board, many boards will not want to hire someone with no previous experience. This is one of the top objections that prevents boards diversifying – boards tend to hire people they know, who are like them, who have served on boards before. It’s less work than hiring someone who is different and needs training. But as the trend towards building more diverse boards continues, nomination committees are coming to terms with hiring board members without previous experience.

One of the ways you can prepare yourself is to go and take training. I am a member of the volunteer faculty at a two day intensive training course – the NextGen Directors Academy – designed to take a small group of diverse, aspiring future board members through the nuts and bolts of being on a board. We cover the basic responsibilities, what each committee is responsible for, what your institutional investors care about and case studies of boards who got off track with activists. It’s an interactive, peer to peer format, and there are no stupid questions. There are several courses around like this, but not all have deep, intense content so make sure you talk with previous attendees before you sign up.

Another way you can prepare is to make sure you have the business basics covered. Most of the top business schools run executive training classes, from a few days to several weeks, ranging from general management preparation to specialized skills like cyber security. Once you have inventoried your own skills and experience, think about whether you have a gap you need to fill with some training, or whether you want to develop a skill that is currently in high demand for board members.

One of the ephemeral requirements of many boards is “fit”. Boards are expected to be collegiate, to get along, to voice difference but in the end come together on decisions. (I could write a tome on whether this is healthy for the shareholders or not, but not here). If you want to get onto a company board, but have no experience to point to, try joining a non-profit board first. Pick one that is a decent size (>$500k a year in budget), that has a real board that meets 2-4 times a year and that is run by an experienced chairperson. Reading the prep materials, listening to the management team, sitting in the meetings contributing to the discussion in a balanced, collegiate way will bring you confidence and experience that you can then refer to when you discuss your first for-profit board.

Make sure you have the time to be an effective board member. Being on a board carries status with it, it sounds important, and it may pay well. And many boards have 4-5 meetings a year so it doesn’t sound like much. But actually board work can take a huge amount of time. On a regular basis you need to put the time aside to read, to prepare and to attend the meetings. But in addition you will have countless phone calls and phone meetings outside of the regular meetings. You will need to meet with the CEO and members of the executive team and if the board needs to find a new CEO (for whatever reason) expect to spend days and days, over a series of months, meeting candidates and discussing them with the other board members. So before you pour time into preparing yourself to sit on a board make sure your day job allows you enough time to truly contribute.

And finally, don’t be shy. If you want to get on a board say so. Tell everyone you talk with about boards that you are, yourself, looking for a board seat. Network with recruiters who specialize, and stay in touch with them so you are current in their minds. Talk to people who are already on boards. Finding the right board is a pretty random process and so getting the word out will help the right board find you.

Career Advice

Three critical questions to ask a startup before you agree to work for it

So you want to work for a startup!

You’ve been talking to one that you think is going somewhere and will give you the experience you want, you like the people and the title, job and salary sounds right for you. They make you an offer. Great!

But now is the point where you need to ask three critical sets of questions to determine if this is actually a good company to work for or not. Remember each job you take influences your future career. What you learn, who you get to know, what opportunities you get as a result. Many people peak in their forties (career wise, and for a myriad of professional and personal reasons) and so the job choices you make in your twenties and thirties will affect how you peak.

After 30 years in Silicon Valley, 20 of them as a high tech CEO, and now talking almost every day to people who want company and career advice, I’ve seen too many bad company structures to take any offer at face value. I recommend you (respectfully) ask questions to explore these three areas – the health of the business, the capital structure and the organization – and if a company won’t answer then that in itself tells you this is a not a great situation for you.

1. Understand the health of the business

Health is all about rate of growth. What is the revenue, how is it growing and what other metrics are critical health indicators for the business? so ask:

– What was the revenue for the last 2 years, what is the forecast for this year and next year? You’re listening for consistent, sustainable growth and a management team that is making its plans. There is no right answer here because it depends on the stage of the company, but you’re listening for b.s. or inconsistency.

– What percentage of the revenue this year is recurring (ie. it renews every year)? Do you expect this percentage to improve? You’re listening for the quality of the revenue. Recurring is higher quality than one-time revenue and drives a higher valuation. If a high percentage is recurring then you want to understand how many of the customers renew – i.e. what is the customer retention rate? How much do they churn.

– Are you profitable? If so for how long? If not when do you plan to be profitable? If not, when do you need to raise your next round of investment? Note, if your hiring manager says “we’re not profitable and we don’t want to be” don’t buy the b.s. The ONLY time you don’t want to be profitable is when you have easy access to lots of cash and you’re truly investing for growth but most good companies would like to be profitable, while still growing, so they stop burning cash. They should be able to talk about how much time and cash it is going to take to get profitable if everything goes to plan.

– What are the other important metrics you track for your business? For example customer acquisition rate and costs, customer retention rates etc? Be sure to listen for real metrics that are about the true health and growth of the business, not just marketing metrics (clicks, downloads etc) but which are not metrics leading to revenue growth.

2. Understand the capital structure and cash

Startups run on cash from investors, not cash from operations and so it’s important you know what the terms are and how they might affect the future of the company, so ask:

– What is the capital structure? How many preferred shares are outstanding, how many common and what is the total number of shares including the unallocated options in the employee pool? You want to know the total number of shares so you know what your options may be worth in the future.

For example
The company has raised $5M selling 5 million shares at $1 per share to preferred sharesholders
The founders have 5 million shares
The option pool has 1 million shares priced at 10 cents per share
=> there are 11 million shares and the post-money valuation is $11M


The company is sold for $49M. 


$5M is returned to the preferred shareholders so now there is $44M to share
This means $4 per share – you make a gain of $3.90 per option you have vested at that time

– What are the basic terms of the preferred shareholders? Are they participating? – this means they take their money back first as in the example above and then what’s left is divided across the total number of shares.

– Do the preferred shareholders have any control on the sale of the company? For example, can they veto a sale below a certain valuation, or veto a capital raise below a certain threshold valuation? You want to know this because if they can, and you think it’s unreasonable then you should discount the potential value of your shares. These kind of terms are not typical with high class VCs, but you do see them with PE firms and newer VCs who don’t have a lot of experience on the downside effects. And I know of too many founders who lost their companies because of these types of terms. If you are unsure, ask around or check out The Funded to get a measure of the quality of the investors.

– Do any of the executives have 100% vesting on change of control? Some VCs say no to this for everyone, some say only the CEO, some say only the CEO, CFO and VP Sales and so on but most executives want it. This tells you a lot about whether the executives are looking to ramp quickly and sell vs. build a long term company.

– And if they suggest you buy your common stock don’t. Look at what happened to the employees at Good Technology, and there are thousands of examples like this where the common holders lost their money because they were behind the VCs. Be patient and pay a little more tax when you make money.

3. Understand the org chart and politics

– Figure out where you fit in the organization. How many layers are between you and the CEO? What is the span of control of your VP? You’re looking for a relatively flat organization where you are in a strong part of the organization – i.e. your exec has power.

– Does the organization make sense to you? Do you see what looks like politics between founders (odd titles, responsibilities in places they should not be)? Do you see one CEO by name, but two CEOs by organization? Does the balance between R&D and sales make sense to you? Again, does it pass the sniff test for you?

Remember, you want to work for someone who is really good at their job, a great manager, and who will invest in you and your skills. And someone who you will work for for a decent period of time – like a year. You don’t want a weak manager, a revolving door of managers, or ill defined responsibilities between you and other people/teams. The chaos being reported at WrkRiot is certainly unusual, but there are many aspects of this story I have seen and heard when founders don’t know what they are doing and don’t have good advisors – so be selfish and do your homework.

Most good companies will help you understand these three areas because they will respect that you are making an important decision for your career. The most precious thing you have is your time and the best thing you can get is experience. Not money, or options, or a title but experience. Training, education and opportunity. So measure your startup against those metrics too before you fall in love.

Career Advice

Selling with Silence: How the power of the sale is in the silence you create

What do you think of when you think of being sold to? A salesman? Speed and feed? Talking your ear off with feature function? Closing you with obvious closing questions?

Sadly, still today, despite everything we know, many people sell this way.

But actually true selling is just the opposite. The sale is made in the silence.

There are a thousand B2B sales training classes and self help books you can read but they all basically say the same thing. Do discovery, qualify your customer, understand the org chart, understand their needs etc. etc. And yet, despite what we know, the simple concept that the power is in the silence gets lost and sales teams talk too much. They talk more than they listen.

One of the best enterprise sales people I ever sold with told me “Ask a question, shut up, and the first one who speaks loses”. People are fundamentally uncomfortable with silence and they speak to fill it up. And when they do they reveal what they are thinking.

When you are selling working with silence allows you to truly deeply listen. Prepare and ask your questions about their needs, process etc. and then listen carefully. Let them speak and then be able to speak some more because you don’t jump in to fill the silence they leave.

It also allows you to show respect. I’m always astonished at how often sales people talk over the customer or interrupt them. There is respect in silence. I am giving you the respect to fully express your needs and interests before I jump back in and tell you how great my mousetrap is. People buy from people and showing respect is a critical step to establishing trust.

And it allows you to close. When you ask for the order ask and then shut up. Too often people ask for the order and then immediately gabble on about why, when etc., justifying why they are asking for the order. You should not ask for the order until you know you can provide real value to your customer, and when you know you can, then ask, and wait. Don’t explain, talking will not help by this point. And if they speak, they either say no (and you talking wasn’t going to change that) or they reveal where they are at and you’re on the path to close.

And the same concept applies whether you are selling an idea or a product. People want to be heard. Master the art of asking questions and being silent. Present, silent and listening.

Career Advice

Give yourself permission!

I was struck by the interesting interview with Beth Comstock of GE in the NYT today – where she says “you have the permission to try something new”. In this case she is talking about innovation but innovation is not the only area where we are held back by the need for permission. Too often we are stymied in areas that lead directly to our happiness.

Too often, as working professionals, and especially women, we are held back by our fears. Fear of failure, fear of what other people will think, fear of the unknown, fear of being less than. We live in the world of Lean In and male-dominated tech, where I know and have personally experienced that to get ahead you have to work twice as hard, and be twice as smart, as the men around you. This doesn’t leave much room for permission to change, or to be rested, or happy.

So what’s the solution. I think it’s to consciously, and overtly, grasp the nettle and give yourself permission.

Permission to stop caring what other people think. As Cindy Gallop (entrepreneur and change agent extraordinaire) says “Fear of what other people will think is the single most paralyzing dynamic in business and in life. You will never own the future if you care what other people think”. And yet so often we worry endlessly about what the people around us think. Our boss, our peers, our parents; the people who have opinions about our title, or car, or house, or how much money we make. But in the end, the only people whose opinion really matters is our closest friends (who if they love you will support you no matter what you do, or how your screw up) and our partners in life (who do have to be in the boat with us). No one else matters. Truly.

Permission to try something completely new – like start a company. Scary. What if I am no good at it, don’t like it, fail at it? Well, so long as you do some basic financial planning so you can survive a temporary misstep what are you afraid of? Chances are you can always go back to what you did before. I have seen this many times in Silicon Valley – value accrues to failure. People try something completely new, it fails and they go back to what they did before. But they are often now actually more valuable. They have more experience, they may be humbled and so be a better leader and more compassionate. They will be changed, and usually for the better. Or maybe permission to try something completely new for yourself means going to back to school and taking the chance you can create a whole new career path for yourself.

Permission to not check your email 24/7 on vacation. Permission to not keep a perfectly tidy house. Permission to wear flats to work. Permission to leave a job you hate, or a boss you hate, even if it means making less money. Permission to pursue a sports passion which may mean you don’t climb the corporate ladder as fast as your peers. Permission to experiment with your career.

I had to take myself through this process as I made the decision to change my professional life. I can get wracked with guilt that I am no longer driving the feminist CEO agenda. I can get down on myself that I stepped back when other women are running companies and setting the agenda for key technologies in the valley. I, like so many successful women, continue to fight the demon of feeling like a failure inside every day. And so I give myself a talking to – sometimes physically in the mirror! Permission to try a new way of life. Permission to be with my family, and travel, and read, and write. And to stop caring what other people think.

For a while at least!

Career Advice

2 ways to completely destroy trust with your manager

It’s always nice to talk about all the things you can do right in your career and in the office, but sometimes it’s worth focusing on what you should not do because it’s so hard to recover.

There are two ways I have seen people break trust in the office that are almost always fatal. They are not the only two, of course, but when they happen it’s always a surprise to me because these mistakes are always visible – whether you think they are or not.

1. Make, and stick to, a bold faced lie

This mistake is often about the use of information. You, the manager, share a piece of information with Angela. Maybe Angela sits in a meeting where she hears it, and you stress in the meeting how confidential it is, or maybe you need to share the information with Angela so she can do her job. But, for whatever reason, Angela just cannot keep the information to herself. She shares it with John. Maybe she shares it because it’s just too juicy not to, or because it gives her sense of power to show John that she has the information, but once she does it’s out.

John is shocked by the information and asks his manager, Bill, is it true? Bill asks him how he heard and John tells him, and shows Bill the text Angela sent him. Bill calls you to discuss the leak. So you, the manager, know the source. You confront Angela, and she lies, and sticks to the lie. She doesn’t know you have evidence so she won’t back down.

This is a real scenario I experienced, and it’s not unusual. In a recent seminar on cyber security an FBI instructor told us that in the case of a security breach the average time to leak is 2 hours because employees cannot sit on the information, but they deny it because they are afraid. Decisions like layoffs and reorgs which affect people’s lives spread fast, as do knowledge of in-office sexual relationships.

But as the manager, once you have an experience like this with an employee, will you ever trust them again? If you know they will lie like that? Probably not.

2. Break a serious promise

Strong teams are formed on human relationships. Trust, relying on one another, knowing that you have each other’s back. And so, at times, employees make commitments to one another. A commitment to stick with a project until it’s done, not matter how hard it gets. A commitment to stay on the team through thick or thin until the mountain is taken. A commitment not to lie to one another. A commitment to take on the customer travel for the team because they need to focus on the project within HQ. A promise to protect someone’s job when they go on maternity leave.

Jeff is leading a small team taking on a significant challenge for the company. He knows it’s going to be hard, and he’s worried about it before, but he commits to his manager and his team that he’s going to see it through. He won’t quit on them and they’ll win together. A month later he gets a better offer and quits. He’s an important player but do you try to turn him around?

When someone breaks an explicit commitment/promise to you, or to their team, would you ever work with them again, or give them a reference? Probably not.

Everyone is human, and everyone slips up sometimes. And it’s not only early on that people that make these mistakes, but experience has taught me that age has nothing to do with breaking trust in the office. And so what do you do if you make one of these mistakes?

My advice is as soon as you realize you have made one of these mistakes you come clean. Go to the person you have betrayed, tell them everything, and sincerely apologize from your heart. Don’t try to explain it away, or explain why you think there were extenuating circumstances, or why your actions were really OK but you got caught. Just take the blame squarely on the chin and, if you believe can, make the commitment to never make that mistake again because you understand the cost to their trust in you.

Trust is fragile. It takes time to build and, once broken, can be very hard to rebuild. Admitting your mistake is a good first step to rebuilding trust.

Career Advice

5 Ways to Deal with a Workplace Bully ( Who is Your Customer! )

Customers are usually really fun to work with, but sometimes you run into a difficult one, a classic “tough customer”. So what do you do when you have to work with a customer who is a true bully? You know, the customer who throws his weight around, talks over you, raises his voice if you push back, disrespects you and insults you with aggressive behavior.

I’ve dealt with my fair share of bullies over time and learned the following approaches to defusing the bully behavior. Note, all these tips refer to “him”. I have never encountered a female bully (I am sure they exist), but then again, I have not worked with many female customers, so I will say “him.”

1. Get to know him 

Most bullies have a hard time keeping up the aggressive and domineering behavior once they are on a familiar, social ground with you. Not always, but often. Invite your customer out to lunch with no agenda; don’t talk business, just get to know one another. Be sure to ask lots of questions. Most bullies are insecure, so make him the center of attention. Ask about his family and interests, and listen attentively. You are more likely to enable him to relax around you, and you’ll learn something new about him. This knowledge will help you connect with him in the future.

I had a customer in Arizona many years ago who was awful to deal with–short, angry and aggressive in every meeting, convinced, we, (the vendor), were trying to mislead him. By investing the time getting to know him I earned his trust, and we sold a significant contract to him. In the process I learned what he was deeply worried about; buying the wrong tool and losing technical credibility.

A word of caution–you need to be genuinely interested. If you are faking it your customer will know and you’ll lose his trust.

2. Don’t take his behavior personally 

As I said, most bullies are insecure. If you watch them carefully, you will notice their behavior is no different towards you than it is towards other people. They tend to also bully those below them in the power structure. So while their tactics may push your buttons, or make you so mad you want to punch something or cry, (this had happened to me more than once), remember it is not about you. It’s about him; his fear, his need to assert himself to feel better. Take a step back from the onslaught, take a deep breath, and let it go. This small gesture will turn into a big investment in the long run.

3. Get to know his boss and peers 

This is your insurance policy. In most organizations the other people in his company will know he’s a bully. They usually won’t admit it, but they know. They might have a culture where it serves them to keep him around, or maybe they don’t let people go, (more popular in the 80s than today). Find ways to meet and develop professional relationships with his peers. Discuss areas of common interest such as a mutual customer. Make sure you get to meet his boss, even if he keeps telling you that you don’t need to (which is classic blocker behavior). This way you establish your own credibility, independent of how he portrays you. You will both gain from what you learn about the business as a result: you will be more useful to his company because you’ll understand more of their needs, and your knowledge will help you cement a relationship with him when you are.

4. Stand your ground 

With all that said, you do not have to cave and agree just because someone raises his voice, talks over you or becomes aggressive with you. If you are in the right on a discussion point, or you need your customer to understand an aspect of your work together, hear him out and then gently assert yourself. Let him talk, let him bluster, wait him out. Don’t disagree or cut him off or he’ll increase his bullying. Think tai chi in your head. Let his energy flow over you, and then, when he gives you an opening, tell him what you believe he needs to hear.

5. Move on 

Finally, sometimes you are just incompatible with a bully. Either you trigger something in him, or he triggers something in you. If you’ve tried building a relationship, you’ve been professional and diligent in your service of the customer, and still he’s a bully then maybe you are not the right person to work with him. It’s important to recognize when you can succeed in changing someone’s behavior towards you and when it is hopeless. And if it’s hopeless, stand down and ask your team to put someone else in instead.

Of course, if you are the CEO this is almost impossible. But even so, you can usually find someone compatible to front for you, someone you can bring into judicious scenarios and protect you from your bullying customer, and protect your customer from your temper!

Repost of my latest posted in Inc today

Career Advice

Top 3 things to look for in your first job

It can be hard to find that first job, and sometimes you need to take
whatever you can get to start your career. But whether it is your very
first job or a job search in the first five years of your career, there
are three critical things you should not settle without.

1. A great manager

Having
a great manager early on will by far create the strongest impact toward
your long-term growth. Working for someone who is talented, generous
with their time, and willing to teach you can be a powerful jumpstart.
And working for a turkey is both demotivating and a waste of your time.
Remember, for every way to do something well, there are a thousand ways
to do it badly. Every year counts early on, so partner up with a strong
leadership team, make sure that you are efficient with time and sponge
every skill possible when you are young, hungry and hopefully don’t need
much sleep. Strong management will steer you onto projects that stretch
you and teach you, and catch you when you stumble. Poor managers come
in a variety of flavors: micro managers, absentee managers, inconsistent
managers, and the list goes on, but they share one characteristic, they
deprive you of valuable learning. So pick wisely. Interview your
potential manager so you get a sense of how much they will help you
grow.

2. Growth

Just as a rising tide
floats all boats, finding a thriving environment early on will create an
opportunity for advancement. Think about the people who landed early in
companies like Google and LinkedIn. Were they any smarter than their
peers who joined loser companies? Probably not. But the diligent,
hard-working ones took advantage of the extraordinary emerging
opportunities to grow their own careers, fast. Even in modestly
flourishing/booming times, you will find that growth creates
opportunity. Early in your career, you should be alert for new tasks,
projects and be sure to volunteer and raise your hand up when companies
are searching for aggressive new talent. Take on new challenges, be a
problem solver and stretch your skill set. Stagnant companies make it
difficult to do this, so stay alert for rising tides.

3. Visibility into the business

Too
often I talk with people early in their career, and they don’t
understand the Profit and Loss principles of their company. Being able
to distinguish between decisions that help or hurt the business is
pivotal. Insist on acquiring visibility of cash flows from customer
reports, sales deals, marketing expenses and product development costs.
Looking at the cash trail of a company early on is essential to
understanding how the company makes money. Whether you are the egghead
designing a new product (which will make money), or you are the inside
sales rep selling (bringing money in) or you are the accountant working
on the P&L (watching the money) you want to see it and understand
it. That way, later in your career when you are making decisions that
directly impact the growth, profit or loss of your own company, or the
company you work for, you will have a visceral feel for how the
financials of a company actually work. And if you don’t understand basic
finance in the first 5 years of your career take classes until you do.
The knowledge is well worth giving up a few evenings for.

 Often, I
am contacted by people who want a little coaching as they start their
careers or who are looking for a change in direction. And so often I am
asked my opinion about whether they should go and get an MBA. There are
some circumstances where an MBA is worth the time and money – for
example if you want to switch from engineering to finance – but in most
cases it isn’t. It’s my belief, after managing so many talented people
both with MBAs and without, that in most cases these three things are
fundamental: a great manager, a growing company, and getting yourself
familiar with the money trail.

Career Advice

How to Deal with a Horse’s Ass (in your head)

I love my job and I love meeting 90% of the people I have the privilege to meet, but sometimes, just sometimes, I have to spend professional time with someone whom I have a hard time respecting. Of course I don’t let on, and of course I am professional and respectful, but I have to find ways to manage myself through my reaction to the behavior.

What is the behavior I have to manage my head around you may ask?

What I find really hard is the person who has to be the smartest person in the room, and makes sure you and everyone else reflects that back to him/her. The person who is so sure they have the answers they don’t listen. Who talks over people more junior than them. Who is dismissive of other people they consider lower in the power structure. Who posture to make a point, instead of just being open and direct.

I’ve seen this behavior by execs to people on their teams (sometimes in front of me when I am the vendor). I’ve seen it towards my employees, and sometimes to me because I am selling, or because I am female, or because I threaten them in some way. I’ve seen it in groups which should be peers but where one person thinks he’s better/senior/more experienced/smarter and so throws his weight around. In board meetings, on panels, at dinner parties.

So it happens. You’ve seen it. But enough of the negative. How to deal?

I am inspired by Caravaggio in this circumstance. Caravaggio was commissioned by Tibero Cerasi to paint two paintings for the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome in 1600. One of the conversion of St Paul, the other of the Crucifixion of St Peter. At the same time Cerasi commissioned Caravaggio’s competitor Carracci (a conventional Baroque painter, and Caravaggio’s contemporary) to paint the altar piece.

The first versions Caravaggio painted were rejected by Cerasi (only one is known to survive and it is glorious), and the history hints to their rejection being maybe motivated by Cardinal Sannessio’s desire to take them into his private collection. But whatever the reason, the net result was Caravaggio had to paint two more, and this time he chose to paint them in rich, high drama, and to send a message.

Meanwhile, Carracci painted the altar piece and the Assumption of the Virgin takes center stage of the Cerisi chapel. The Assumption is a beautiful, classically baroque painting in romantic pinks and blues replete with cherub angels, but it’s no match for Caravaggio’s stunning, dramatic flanking paintings.

So how did Caravaggio make a point of his opinion of his competitor Carracci?  He painted a horse’s ass pointed towards the Carracci painting!

Here’s the chapel. The Assumption is in the middle above the altar.

You can see the Conversion of Saint Paul on the Way to Damascus is on the right. The horse’s backside is directed squarely at the Carracci painting. And it’s been expressing Caravaggio’s opinion for 415 years.

This is a truly glorious, extraordinary painting. It is Caravaggio at the top of his game, changing the world of painting forever. It has incredible depth, drama and detail and the horse is alive!

So when I have to play the game and be respectful and polite to someone I don’t respect I think about this painting, and how Caravaggio had the last laugh, and remind myself not to take any of this too seriously.