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career growth

Career Advice

Management screws up – what do you do?

Something is wrong and management has messed up again, how do you react?

One of the ways people react and hurt themselves in the process is by being immediately negative. Cynically: “well this is just the norm for this effed-up company” or “yet again we are going to screw our customers”. Maybe with resignation: “I’ll have to work more hours now to correct their mistakes”.  Maybe as a victim: “I have no power and I can’t take the risk of saying anything”. Maybe on the attack: “We need to get rid of our VP”. You’ve heard them all I am sure, standing around the water cooler discussing how, yet again, management is no good.

How is that helpful to anyone? It’s only helpful to you for 30 seconds as you feel better venting (but it’s better to save that for your dog). It’s not helpful to your team mates because while they might pile on for a moment they will be left feeling worse.

But most of all it is not helpful to your management. When there is a problem usually everyone knows it, including management who, though they may not show it, are probably worrying too.  Quality issues, high turnover, bad process – it’s probably a known issue that is languishing or not being solved for whatever reason. Or maybe you’ve identified a problem. Either way piling on to complain or roll your eyes does not contribute to the solution.

What most leaders long for is for the people on their team to describe the problem constructively and offer solutions. Pragmatic or harebrained, cheap or expensive, start the conversation and you become part of the solution.

If you are not sure how to do this maybe role-play with a friend. Practice describing what you see without being negative, cynical or frustrated. Don’t be a Pollyanna either. Focus on facts, process, unconscious culture – whatever is contributing but in a pragmatic tone. Make sure you are clear up front that your objective is to bring a new idea or solution so you don’t get derailed in the description of the problem before your audience knows your intent (so he can keep listening and not stop listening and start composing his response in his head before you get to your idea). For example, first sentence “I have been thinking about the quality issue on the latest release and I have an idea” or “I’m concerned about the turnover in our department and I have an idea as to how we could reduce it”.

There is a mind game you can play with yourself. Imagine you are the CEO listening to you. You are busy and burdened with the challenges of the job. You (the CEO you) may know the problem you (the employee you) is about to bring up, you may not. Either way, what is the best way to quickly describe the problem/your observation and your idea? Practice that – without being negative or sycophantic.

If you get skilled at this you will become part of the solution and you will be recognized and appreciated by your management. It will create opportunity for you. Early in my career I was not as skilled at this as I wish I could have been, but I was good at pointing out the problems and offering to fix them. Taking on broken programs, developing new programs from scratch to solve a problem or develop an untapped opportunity and this definitely accelerated my career.

Now you may say this would not work in your company. That’s not the culture. Management doesn’t want to hear, HR doesn’t listen etc. etc. To that I say get out. Find a better company that is worthy of your talent. And when you do, chalk it up to experience, or if you think it’s really egregious maybe write a blog like Susan Fowler did and bring down leadership. You are never powerless.

Photo: At the wall in Bethlehem, Palestine © 2018 Penny Herscher

Leadership

Five tough lessons on being a mentor

Coaching and mentoring is increasingly popular, everyone wants one, everyone has one. This is somewhat a result of the explosion in the number of startups over the last ten years, but also because the word is out that getting a good mentor can really help you grow faster at any stage of your career. And women want to help women!

I have mentored on and off for the last 20 years but in the last 2 years since I stepped down as CEO I have focused almost entirely on women, especially new CEOs and entrepreneurs. And I have learned some hard lessons in this process – all of which are obvious, but all of which can be easily forgotten.

1. Not everyone who asks for your help is a good match

The chemistry has to work. The mentee has to truly want your advice, and you need to enjoy being with her. Trust your gut. If you find the interaction tough on the first meeting then it is unlikely to get better (a bit like dating). If you find the mentee talks more than they listen take a deep breath and assess whether you can be effective (unless that is the issue she is asking for help on). If you are irritated, or even bored, in the interaction ask yourself honestly can you be helpful.

2. Trust is essential

And the trust needs be to two-way. You must trust enough to be truly yourself and give the honest advice you believe in as constructive a way as you can, and vice versa. If you start to believe that either of you cannot, or is not, being open and honest then gently end the relationship.

3. Again, trust is essential

Growth is hard and takes introspection and vulnerability; it takes the mentee having the ability to admit when she has messed up, or to hear difficult feedback. Only by facing mistakes can you get to the bottom of why it happened and then talk through a change in knowledge or skills to be pursued. If you are mentoring someone who has answers for everything, or who cannot admit their challenges, then again, gently end the relationship. Likewise if you don’t feel emotionally safe in the relationship.

4. Be clear about motivation, especially yours

Because coaching becomes a labor of love it’s important to be clear about what is motivating you in the relationship. I get asked many times a week to be a mentor and I have learned, the hard way, to pay attention to what is driving me. It’s not about making money (because even if you charge for your time as a consultant or take stock options there are easier ways to make money). It might be about responding to a friend who has asked you to help someone they are vested in in some way. But in the end the most productive relationships develop because you care; you care that she grows and becomes successful. I recently started mentoring a future star who was willing to pay for basic workplace skills coaching in her first job but I feel so privileged that she is genuinely seeking my help that I signed up and said “no I won’t take your money”. Sometimes I do, if many hours are needed and the company will pay, sometimes I don’t.

5. Have integrity about your standards

I’m passionate about women achieving economic equality. So passionate I am leading a delegation of women into a tough part of the world next year to help female entrepreneurs. But I am realizing equality also means no short cuts for women. Women leaders need to be held to the same ethical and legal standards as men, no matter now much I may want to cut a female leader some slack when I see bad behavior. And I need to hold myself to the same standards. So sometimes the process hurts because I want so much for women to win, but not at the cost of my integrity.

All that said, mentoring and coaching can be incredibly rewarding, especially when I work with smart young women who are becoming amazing leaders and I get to participate helping them in some small way (ladies you know who you are!).

Photo: Snippet of Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes, Rome  © 2016 Penny Herscher

Leadership

When to tell your employees to take a hike

 Small companies are like families. They are full of tension, tight relationships, dreams and disappointments and they form a culture all of their own. And when they are small how each and every employee behaves affects the culture of the company. What it is like to come to work every day, how people solve problems, how they interact and help each other, or don’t.

In every group of employees you hire you are bound to hire a few non performers, and it’s management 101 that you know you have to move the non performers out. That’s what having an accountable team or a performance culture means.

But there is a group of employees that is harder to move on. I’m sure you’ve worked with people like this. They are good at their job but they are like dripping poison. They talk about “this place” or “this company” in negative terms. They make snide remarks about the leadership or about their coworkers. They work for you because it’s a good job, but nothing is good enough.

Clearly if the behavior is egregious you can move on the employee and treat it as a performance problem, but what if it’s borderline?

One way to handle this is to invite your employees to leave.

The most valuable resource an employee has is their time. Especially when they are in the early stages of their careers. In terms of personal growth and future earning power every year before 40 is more valuable that five after. Your millennial employees are investing in your company with their time learning, growing, inhaling everything they can do to improve their future. So if they are negative why are they there?

I talk to many teams and my logic to invite people to leave goes something like this:

“If you love this company and our mission, if you love working here, then invest your time wisely. Pour in your passion, work hard to make the company and your career they best they can be. Be a part of creating a positive, winning culture. Share your observations with your leaders but bring solutions, not just complaints. Support your leaders – they are human too and doing their best. Be positive.

But if you are unhappy here, if you see all the things that are wrong and you feel a need to continuously complain, if you think your leadership is incompetent, or the work is too hard then please leave. Get out.

Because life is too short to work in a company or a job you don’t like for people you don’t respect. If you think things could be better then make them better or please leave.”

Sometimes I am even more direct – “There’s the door”.

Photo: Petra © 2017 Penny Herscher