Work-Life Sanity Blog

Career

14 May 2014

Three Easy Ways to Improve Your Writing

Can bad writing kill your career? Maybe not. But given that most jobs require good communication skills, it can keep it in the Intensive Care Unit.

Not long ago, the CEO of popular iFixit website set off a blistering 4,000-comment debate on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network by saying in a post that he wouldn’t hire people who used bad grammar. And he was just dealing with issues like confusing “its” and “it’s,” not with all the other writing problems — such as a lack of clarity or coherence – which can consign your resume or pitch letter to the dead-on-arrival file.  Here’s the author’s followup.

Experts on business communication often try to help by urging you to observe the 5 C’s: Keep your writing clear, complete, correct, concise and courteous (though some substitute a word such as consistent or comprehensive for one of those). This is a good idea. But it offers little help to those of us who have a larger (and perhaps more common) problem: We can’t figure out what we want to say or how to say it.

If you’re one of those writers, try these tips:

First decide what you want to say. Then decide on the order in which to say it. Many of us learned in school to do outlines that listed point by point what we wanted to say, in the order we wanted to say it, before we started writing. That may have made sense in the pre-computer age. Back then, re-ordering your work at a late stage involved laborious cutting and pasting. Now that you can move blocks of text with a few clicks, it’s often more effective to write down the points you want to make in random order, or as they occur to you and then, if needed, go back and number them. Otherwise, you’re trying to do two things at once: to figure out what you want to say and the order in which to say it, which makes the job harder.

 “Write first, edit later.” Douglas Cazort offers this tip in his book, Under the Grammar Hammer, and he means: Write your first draft fast and without stopping to edit yourself. Other experts go further: They say you shouldn’t look at your notes, either, during the first draft. The reason? It’s too easy to lose sight of the big picture — what you want to say — if you’re constantly stopping to check your grammar, spelling, or facts. As Cazort notes, the detours can be costly, “especially if you forget your next idea while you’re hunting for the right way to spell a word.”

Read your work aloud. The best tone for most everyday business or online writing is friendly and conversational but professional. An easy way to achieve it is to read aloud what you’ve written and cut anything you wouldn’t say face-to-face. Would you say: “I am in receipt of your letter”? If not, change it to “I got” or “I received.”

For more tips on how to write for business and professional success, read “Good Writing Can Help You Succeed” on the Time website.

 

 

11 March 2014

Success and the Culture of Fame and Fortune

In our culture, success is often equated with wealth and fame.  If you were a smart kid who did well in school you might have grown up thinking you would become a successful adult, which you took to mean that you would be rich and famous.  Your experience in college and early professional work may have further enhanced your expectation of your eventual fame and fortune. 

But what if you’re beginning to see that fame and fortune may never be yours, even though you are just as smart as you ever were and do really good work?  What if you look to your left and right and see other people getting promotions and opportunities you want?

There are two kinds of major course corrections that I have seen people in this situation make that bring about big, positive change: the Re-Frame and the Behavior Modification.

The Re-Frame
The re-frame is the most appropriate course correction for many people and situations.  It goes like this:

    • Let’s say you’re a research biochemist at a big pharmaceutical company. You’re plugging away at your job, you get good reviews, things seem to be going well, but then you start seeing that some of your colleagues who started at the same time and same level as you are advancing more quickly than you are.  You ask yourself, “Where’s my promotion?” You wonder if you are failing.  You feel jealous.
    • The re-frame makes you stop looking at your colleagues and start looking at your own successes. Once you shift your focus to your own trajectory, where you’re coming from, you see that during this same period of time your company paid for your graduate degree and gave you reduced hours (at full pay) to pursue it, you took a leave when your mother was dying so that you could care for her, and then your company agreed to the job share that you and a colleague proposed, so you now work half time and have half time with your child.  (Your colleagues who got promoted did none of these things.) You have a really interesting job with people you like and respect, who appreciate and respect you. You have a wonderful family life. You’re actually a fulfilled and happy person. You’re living your life in alignment with your genuine values and priorities. THIS IS ANOTHER WAY THAT SUCCESS CAN LOOK.    
    • When you see this you realize that international fame and vast financial fortune aren’t the only markers of success, and neither are these particular promotions you’ve seen others get.
    • Can’t relate to the biochemist example?  Look at all the things in your life that you are grateful for.  Every day for a month, write down 5 things you are grateful for, any 5.  This will bring about your re-frame.

The wonderful truth is that as you begin to more fully recognize, appreciate and enjoy the life you actually already have, and as you let go of comparing yourself unfavorably with other people, you become more and more of your best self.  As you move into more fully living your best life, you will probably continue to be be very successful on all levels, including getting promotions.

The Behavior-Modification
The behavior modification is the most appropriate course correction for other people and situations.  It goes like this:

  • You’re the same research biochemist at the same big pharmaceutical company, seeing the same colleagues get promoted before you.
  • In this scenario, you go to your boss, and ask what you can do differently to qualify for promotions.  And then you listen very hard to what your boss says to you.  You don’t argue or disagree.  You just take it in.  You may need to think about it and come back with questions; this may be an ongoing conversation.  When you’ve heard what your boss tells you, and when you’ve digested it, you can either choose to pursue it or not.
  • If you choose to pursue the changes that your boss suggests, you may need to go back to her for help in making the changes.  For example, your boss might say you’re an excellent bench scientist but to advance here you really need to develop your leadership skills.  Or become a more assertive champion for your ideas.  Or a better team player.  If you have no idea how to translate those ideas into different behavior, you may need to ask for help.  There may be courses you can take, or mentors you can attach yourself to, or books to read.  There may be performance objectives that you and your boss can come up with that will move you in that direction.  There may be lots of help available to you if you seek it
  • Don’t have that kind of boss?  Seek out this information anywhere you can find it.  From another senior person in your organization.  From a coach.  From a colleague or mentor.  From books.

These two types of course corrections can be used one after the other, or at the same time.  You may move from one to the other and back again for years.  And of course there are many other ways to fine tune both your understanding of what success means to you, and your strategy for getting there.  These tools can help you resist the temptation to feel bad about yourself when you compare yourself with others or to feel like a failure because you haven’t created the fame and fortune you imagined you would have by now.

 

 

 



 

12 June 2013

Delegation and Success

One of the most common patterns of overwork I see with clients stems from advancement.  Here’s an example.  Ellen worked for a startup that was doing well and growing like crazy.  A natural systems-thinker, Ellen could anticipate potentials glitches down the road and know how to resolve them ahead of time. She got lots of thumbs-up from her manager to run with her solutions. 

The only catch was that as a result, her workload kept growing and growing.  Each new solution she came up with added to what was already on her plate.  Eventually, her workload became untenable and overwhelming. That’s when she sought me out.  She hired me to help her become successful at work again.  She thought she was failing. 

As people advance into more complex work, many jump into the new work without letting go of enough of their old work to make it possible to succeed.  The solution is to offload some of what’s on their plate, either to someone already in the organization, or to a person who would be hired to do this work. There are at least two pieces to this process of offloading.  One is to bring your manager on board — you’ll need his or her buy-in.  The second piece is actually handing off — or delegating — parts of what is now your job.

Learning to delegate is a process — it’s not a trivial thing to learn how to do well.  There are courses, books, and articles about how to become a good delegator.  I sometimes lead workshops on delegating, and may write a blog post about it soon.

Ellen was suffering from what I call the “If it’s on my plate I should be able to do it” syndrome.  The solution for Ellen was to catalog all that she was doing and to quantify approximately how much time each of these items required of her weekly.  When it was all down on paper, it became visible to her that the job as it was currently defined was impossible.  No wonder she felt like she was failing! 

I had her select the pieces she most wanted to keep, and draft a job description for the remaining responsibilities.  Then she made the business case to her boss — that much of what was on her plate could be done by someone at a lower salary, which would free her up to do more of the work she currently found most engaging, which happened to be high-value work for the company’s long term strategy.  Her boss hired someone to work for her. 

When I raise the subject of delegating, many people immediately slam the door shut by saying, “Well there’s nobody at work I can hand work off to, and that’s not going to change.  My boss will never let me delegate any of this off to a colleague or a more junior person.” I’m sure that some people reading this will identify with this position, and here is a suggestion for you.  Delegate something on the home front.  You will get some relief from that which will help you at work.  Relief anywhere in the system helps

 By delegating, I mean have someone else do the task, using any means that will work.  Hire, barter, trade, call in owed favors, indenture your children, whatever it takes.  There is always something more you can delegate. 

Have you had an experience like Ellen’s?  Do you have an anecdote about a time when you used delegation to move things off your plate and expand your bandwidth?  If so please share in the comments!

 

14 May 2013

About Leaning In

If you missed the flurry of public conversation that took place right after Lean In was published, this post gives you a taste of it.  [Background: the book was written by Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer (COO) at Facebook.]  You can get the gist of the book’s overall message in Sandberg’s Ted Talk.

She essentially looks at why there are so few women leaders (CEO’s & heads of state, for example) and what can be done about it. 

She’s largely speaking to young, ambitious professional women about what she’s learned about women’s career advancement and leadership.  Her strongest recommendation to women is to “lean in,” meaning to be fully, 100% committed to working hard and getting ahead, and to assume their “place at the table” whether or not they feel they belong there.  To the women who shy away from the fast track because at some point in the future they want to cut back to raise their children, Sandberg says, “Don’t leave before you leave.” 

Here are some of  the best posts from right after the book came out:

Why Sheryl Sandberg is Beside the Point, by Amy Gutman.
Start here because Gutman lays out beautifully just how and why the book elicits such strong, polarized responses.

The Retro-Lean-Back Snow Day, by KJ Dell”Antonia (in the Motherlode column of the NY Times).
Dell’antonia, from deep inside a snow day at home with her kids, makes the case for a modified career plan that allows for snow days and sick kids.  The strategy is imperfect, it requires flexibility, and it’s the right answer for many professionals with young children.  This piece links to several other juicy posts/columns on the subject. 

Why Lean In Makes Me Depressed, by Morra Arons-Mele.
She writes, “Sandberg asks women to lean in, but social and cultural institutions haven’t caught up with her, so we feel confused and perhaps disappointed.”  Aarons-Mele writes about the challenges that 20- and 30-somethings grapple with.

Why I’d Rather Stand Straight Than Lean In, by Kristin van Ogtrop, editor of Real Simple magazine.
Van Ogtrop makes the case for a more balanced approach: “Here’s the thing: I don’t want to be striving for bigger/better/higher/more every minute of every day. I don’t always want to have a larger goal.”  Sometimes she stops to enjoy a clementine.               

Enough With The ‘Leaning In,‘  by Tiziana Dearing.
This is more of a response to the buzz than to the book. A CEO herself, Dearing writes, “Who died and made the top of the ladder God?” She makes the case for each individual navigating her professional path in her own way.

 I Had to Take a Xanax to Read Time Magazine This Week, by Penelope Trunk.
She writes, “The high performers in corporate life are so much more focused than everyone else in the workforce that it’s time we stopped selling a false bill of goods; almost no one can be so singularly focused to get to the top of anything. Including corporate America. Yet we keep talking to kids and each other like anyone can do it.”  Trunk often says things no one else is saying. I don’t always agree with her, but boy, she is one interesting blogger. And smart. 

He Hasn’t Had it All Either, by Michael Winerip in the Booming section of the NY Times.
Winerip opens with this: “I have had a lot. I feel lucky to have had a successful career as a journalist and author while being the primary caregiver of our four children for a decade.  But I definitely did not have it all.  And unlike most people written about in the media who don’t have it all, I’m a male who didn’t have it all.”  This is a very sane, grounded piece, and an interesting look at an egalitarian marriage.

You Can’t ‘Have It All’ & More of Feminism’s Outdated Phrases, by Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute.
Galinsky “loathe[s] the terms of the debates . . . [because] these seemingly innocuous words invariably hamper, not foster, change.” She takes 5 of these terms and suggests more appropriate ones, such as “fit” instead of “balance,” “thriving through it all” instead of “having it all.”

And now it’s your turn.  Did you read the book, and if so, what did you think?  And, whether or not you read the book, what do you think about its message?  Please leave a comment.

25 March 2013

Your Work Experience: So Much More Than the Resume

A client sent me a link to terrific little article  by Lou Adler.

What I particularly value in the article is a list of questions.  Although Adler offers these questions to hiring managers to use at an interview, I think they are an extraordinary sequence of questions for any job-seeker with 10+ years of experience to ask herself. 

AND really, I think any professional — job-seeker or not — would benefit greatly from asking herself these questions and giving herself some thoughtful answers. 

When looking back at your work experience, you may suffer from what I call resume-brain: you essentially think your work WAS the list of job responsibilities and accomplishments that are (or will be) listed on your resume.  While your work history includes what’s in your resume, it also includes SO MUCH MORE.  Adler’s questions get you thinking about the so much more.  And that’s where the gold mine is. 

Take this bundle of question from the article, for example:

  • What were the 3-4 biggest challenges you faced and how did you deal with them?
  • Where did you go the extra mile or take the initiative?
  • Walk me through the plan, how you managed to it, and if it was successful.

To this sequence, I would add these questions: What did you learn?  In subsequent jobs or projects, how have you been able to apply this learning? 

It’s typical for professionals with high standards to fault themselves for not having known certain things earlier in their career.  For example, the first time you had to work closely with an extremely difficult person, you might not have done very well in the situation — you might have suffered some injuries, the work might not have gone smoothly, and so forth. 

In retrospect perhaps you blame yourself for not having known better how to handle it.  But it’s extremely important to credit yourself with whatever you learned from that experience.  Perhaps the next time, or the 10th time you had to work closely with a person like that, you were able to manage yourself and the situation more effectively in terms of less pain, and/or more efficient work outcomes.  That ability to learn in the realm of relational or emotional intelligence is an extremely valuable asset!  Don’t discount it.

Similarly, it’s important for you to own when and how you’ve taken initiative, when and how you’ve championed one project or pulled the trigger on another, what it’s like to work with you, what brings out the best in you, what kinds of situations do you find the most challenging.   And so forth.  Know your history as the complex web that it is. 

Questions like these allow you to dig deep into your experience and mine some of the subtler aspects of your own work style and history. Not to mention all you have learned.  Whether or not you ever share your answers with anyone, whether or not you are ever asked any of these types of questions, it is extremely valuable for you to take yourself through them and have answers for yourself.  Because the process will give you a much deeper and broader sense of your own experience. 

Please leave a comment or ask a question.

 

© 2013, Sharon Teitelbaum. All rights reserved.

19 March 2013

Keep Your Self-Confidence Intact During a Job Search

The key to job hunting in the current environment is to view it as an endurance event which requires that you stay nourished and hydrated for the long haul.  One of the key ways for you to stay nourished and hydrated is to pay attention to and take very good care of your self-confidence.  The resume process, which forces you to revisit the professional work you’ve done and allows you to take more detailed and robust ownership of all of it, should help a lot.   

I recommend spending time with a voice recorder, a trusted friend, or a coach or career counselor where one job at a time, you explain ALL the ways you made a difference, all that you brought to the table and DID in the jobs you’ve had, how it made a difference for the clients you’ve served,the companies where you worked, and so forth. A coach or career counselor or perhaps a trusted friend will prompt you for details, and ask questions that will help you go deeper.  It’s extremely confidence-building and useful to have that fuller sense of yourself and your effectiveness with you every day as you do the humble endurance work of looking for work, which provides almost no validation, encouragement, or acknowledgement of your value.  

If you’re unemployed and looking for a job, it can be extremely helpful to find SOME way to be engaged in the work you want to do, on a part-time or short-term basis, whether it’s pro-bono or otherwise.  Why?  It will remind you, every time you do it, that you are good at it, HOW you are good at it, that you work well with others, that you are effective, personable, reliable, collegial, that you communicate well and really have some affinity for the work.  It might remind you that you have a good sense of humor, that people like you, that you have high standards, and that you can work quickly. 

All of this validation happens in real time as you do the work, and you absorb it, which keeps your self-confidence healthy. It’s hard to sustain self-confidence in a vacuum.   It might look like you don’t have time to be  job-hunting AND doing some kind of volunteer work, but for many people the benefits that come from the volunteer (or project) work actually give them energy and actually expand their bandwidth.    

Have you been able to sustain your self-confidence during a job search or other potentially draining process?  What worked (or is working) for you?  Please share your thoughts, strategies, and tools in a comment. 

21 December 2012

Stress Management: Have That Difficult Conversation with Your Boss

Imagine this. You’re utterly flat out at work, painfully aware of how close you’ve come lately to dropping balls (or maybe you’ve dropped a few). You’re stressed from what seems like working all the time, but you don’t know any other way to address all that’s on your plate. Then you get another big assignment that puts you over the edge: now this really is impossible, even for you (with your hard core work ethic and ability to muscle through whatever-it-takes). Sound plausible? Familiar?

Here’s what productivity guru David Allen writes about this in a recent newsletter:

The good news about this overwhelm is that it’s forcing people to make executive decisions that they never felt like they had to make before. “I need to do everything that comes my way.” No, you can’t anymore, sorry. You are going to have to do triage. That means you are going to have to have a conversation with your boss. You are going to have to show up with a list of everything he or she has given you and have a conversation. “Gee, thanks for these new things, can we talk? Because I am not going to be able to do them all.” It’s forcing those kinds of conversations.     Read more. . . .        

For years I’ve helped clients have conversations like these with their bosses (and with their own direct reports when they initiate it). Most find it helpful to talk through how to position the conversation, how to language what they need to say, and how to sustain a constructive dialog without complicating it by getting defensive, lashing out, or feeling bad about themselves.

Here are my top 5 recommendations:

  1. If this is your first time having a conversation like this, don’t wing it.You stand to benefit hugely from doing some preparation.
  2. Keep the conversation about the work.  It’s not about you, and it’s not about your boss. Assume the mindset that you and your boss are on the same team whose mission is to get the work done. 
  3. Keep the language neutral. Don’t paint yourself as wrong, bad, or ineffective. Don’t paint your boss as wrong, unreasonable, or mean (even if you think she or he is).
  4. Ask for clarification about priorities. “I thought you wanted me to keep A as my absolute top priority because it has such a tight schedule and so much is riding on it. Now you’re asking me to also work on B. Please help me understand — has the priority changed? Do you want me to let some of the A deadlines slide?” “Would you help me re-prioritize what’s on my plate, given the new assignment?”
  5. Go into the conversation with a written bullet list of what’s on your plate. This can be a strategic visual to have with you, particularly if you’re going to ask for help in re-prioritizing. It takes the pressure off you (and your boss) to remember everything that’s on your list.
  6. Anticipate the emotions (defensiveness, low self-esteem, anger, frustration) you might experience, and have a plan for how to deal with them so that they don’t sabotage your conversation. For example, if you’re likely to feel defensive about not being able to do everything, be prepared to recognize it in real time and deploy a tactic to restore your levelheadedness, such as anchoring or a silent affirmation.  

On a related note, if you suspect that your work habits are truly inefficient, address this issue.  For example, consider taking one of David Allen’s seminars. Many highly effective people swear by them.  

In short, if your to-do list has really become an impossible list, either get some help in optimizing your performance, or get some help from your boss. Or both. Either one is likely to reduce your work stress in the short term and lead to an all-around better situation for you in the long term. 

13 December 2012

Take a Break

“If you think working overtime, skipping your lunch hour and staying chained to your desk will make you more productive, you need to cut yourself some slack and take a break.  Working non-stop without taking a break can increase your chances of weight gain, heart disease and worse.”   So begins a powerful infographic the creative folks at Learnstuff.com developed.   Check it out here: http://www.learnstuff.com/take-a-break/.  In fine print at the bottom, they include the data sources for their bold statements and strong suggestions

They offer disturbing statistics about how many hours most of us SIT at work (guilty as charged), how bad it is for us, AND how easily we could turn it around.  For example, getting away from sitting at the computer even for 5 minutes at a time can make a difference.  Standing for 1/2 hour burns 50% more calories than sitting

I recently had a pinched nerve in my neck that produced numbness, tingling, and pain in my right arm.  It didn’t get better on its own and started keeping me up at night. I consulted my chiropractor who did some work on me that helped, but he said the main cause of the problem was that my posture was terrible: I didn’t sit or stand straight.  He said my poor posture was causing premature wear and tear on my cervical vertebrae, and I would continue to see pinched nerves and the like unless I improved my posture.  Who knew? 

So I started paying attention and was appalled at the collapsed, crumpled-up way I frequently found myself sitting in front of my computer.  But when I noticed it, I could pretty easily straighten up.  After 2 weeks of my noticing and straightening, the chiropractor actually saw changes in my neck from better posture.  That was so encouraging and motivating!  Small changes can have big impact, I thought.  How lucky is that?

Between the chiropractor and the information from Learnstuff.com, I also find myself making other changes.  This was my week to send out holiday gifts and cards to my clients and colleagues.  I usually do this sitting at a desk with everything I need in front of me.  But this year I did it while taking a break from sitting.  I walked around my office to assemble each person’s card and/or gift and wrote out the card and label while standing.  As I finished up each one and stamped it, I walked it to the growing stack of items outside my office door.  I actually felt energized by it.   

My big challenge going forward is to remember these things.  I printed out the graphic (it’s long but looks great) and hung it where I’ll see it daily. 

So what about you?  I encourage you to find ways to take breaks from sitting, and to find other ways to heed the warnings about being chained to the computer.  Make some changes.  Apparently a little can go a long way.     

 

28 November 2012

Coaching at the Massachusetts Conference for Women

Next week, on December 6, 2012, I’ll be coaching at the 8th annual Massachusetts Conference for Women, in Boston.  In partnership with the Conference, The New England Chapter of the International Coach Federation (ICF) selected 40 credentialed coaches to provide individual coaching sessions with Conference participants who want to schedule one.  I’m thrilled to be one of the chosen coaches, and I’m very much looking forward to the event.

Do you live in the Boston area?  Or can you get to the Boston area on 12/6?  If so, consider going to the Conference.  It promises to be an exciting day.  The expected 7000 participants will have the opportunity to hear from a wide-ranging and huge list of speakers.

If you get to the Conference, sign up for one of my coaching sessions, or come over to the location of the “Mentor Match” (what the coaching program is called) and say hello.

If you’ve been to other conferences, conventions, or seminars of this size, you probably know what to expect.  If you’re an extrovert, chances are you’ll have a great day, and you’ll come away energized, inspired, and happy.  If you’re an introvert, you too may come away energized, inspired, and happy, but you might also come away drained and exhausted in a way that your extrovert colleagues are not.

For many introverts, participating in a conference of this size and scope can be personally taxing.  Here are some suggestions for how to get the most from the day with the least amount of damage to your sanity or well-being — try one of two of them:

  • Drink plenty of water throughout the day.  Seriously.  It will keep you grounded.  (And yes, it will also keep you running to the ladies’ room, but hey, each time, it’s a couple of moments to yourself, right?)
  • Take a break from the Conference sometime during the day — just go off for 15 minutes and collect yourself.  Breathe, acknowledge yourself for getting to the Conference and for stretching out of your comfort zone.   You might call a friend or colleague and just check in.  Or you might call your work phone and check in with yourself (leave a message).
  • If (when?) you start to feel overwhelmed by all the high-energy input, know that in the days that follow, you will decompress.  Even more important, know that all that you are learning will unpack itself in the days ahead, and consciously or not, you will integrate what you need to integrate from this, and your next steps will emerge.
  • If you think of any next action steps you might want to take, write them down!  These ideas have a way of disappearing over the course of a high-stimulus day, so harvest them as soon as you’re conscious of them.  You can always discard later.
  • When you meet someone you think you might want to follow up with, ask their permission to contact them later.  In the cold light of the next couple of mornings, go through the names (or cards) of people you met and decide whether and how to follow up.  You don’t have to do everything on the fly.
  • Remember that you’re not the only introvert there.  We’re everywhere!

If you identify as an introvert and read this far, you might enjoy reading this post from earlier this year.

I hope to see you at the Conference!

19 November 2012

Productivity Tips

Here’s an interesting blog post that offers 6 excellent productivity tips.  While I think all of these tips are great ideas, the one that seems the most elusive to people is the one about setting boundaries.

Many of us have segments of our jobs that can only be done effectively in large blocks of uninterrupted time.  When I was a database designer and developer, I did my best designing and coding work alone in my office with the door closed.  (Yes I had an office with a door — it was a long time ago.)  In my current job as a life coach, I write a newsletter, I write this blog, and I do other writing as well.  I can only write in uninterrupted blocks of time.  If I take phone calls and read email while I’m trying to write something — it doesn’t get written.

It turns out that uninterrupted is also the most satisfying way to do this kind of work.  Nice, huh?  Another good reason for good boundaries.