Sunday, November 6, 2011

On Work and the Workplace

The workplace is constantly changing.  Technology evolves, roles change, and expectations are fluid, but even though desks now have computers where typewriters once lived and people gchat instead of talking on the phone, some things remain the same.  The way you navigate through the office is critical.  You spend roughly half your waking hours (and sometimes more) in this environment, the money you earn from your job pays your bills and for many people, work defines who they are.  With that in mind, here are some lessons I have learned after more than fifteen years in the work force:

Be the indispensable person.  This is the first lesson I learned well before downsizing, outsourcing and efficiencies allowed companies to trim their workforces en masse.  This doesn't mean you take on everyone else's job, but rather, have your hand in the air when volunteers are asked for, or, better yet, be the volunteer before the request is made.  Your willingness to go outside the four corners of your job will ingratiate yourself with supervisors, and, more importantly, put your name in their head the next time some special project or assignment comes up.  Lastly, if layoffs occur, you won't be on the chopping block because your role is so critical to the overall success of the organization.

Figure out the bureaucracy.  This works hand in hand with being the indispensable person.  You, or someone you work for, invariably needs things - you might need to know something big, like who has sign off authority in another company/business/agency for your proposal or who can short circuit a long process and get your travel request approved, or a smaller thing, like how to get your friend's resume to the top of the pile or figure out why your security card is not working.  Being able to make these things happen quickly and cleanly is a skill that, if developed, is invaluable.  Of course, reciprocating those favors where you can and thanking the people who are doing them for you, goes without saying.

Do not undervalue institutional knowledge.  Guess what?  Unless you got in on the ground floor of the start up that is now the next Google, there are people who have been in your company a lot longer than you have.  They are very valuable resources and should be treated as such.  You may want to blow up the organization chart or fire Larry down in accounts receivable, but before you do, talk to some folks who have been there a little while.  Chances are, they can explain the way the company works and give you some helpful tips before you go making a fool of yourself.  Also, see above.  It is highly likely that the person who can facilitate things without going through traditional channels is either one of these people or knows someone who is.  

When you are the "new guy/girl" keep your mouth shut and listen.  Whether you were hired as the Senior Vice President or a summer intern, you are joining a family already in progress.  Sandy the receptionist was there 10 years before you got there, and she'll be there 10 years after you're gone.  If she doesn't like buzzing people in, make sure you have your badge when you leave the office.  In meetings, observe, see how they are run, how people interact, and what the rules of the road are.  Is your boss a stickler for time who expects everyone seated and ready at the appointed time or does s/he let people stroll in 5 minutes late.  Are smart phones on vibrate, incessantly thumbed, or is the use of all technological devices verboten?  Be mindful of the fact that overwhelming your new colleagues with your personality, the smells from your lunch or the decor in your office are all sure fire ways to get ostracized.  Be low key, don't make any waves, and allow your transition into the group dynamic to happen naturally and you will be fine.

Be judicious with your comments in meetings.  Once you are acclimated to your new surroundings, you might be inclined to dazzle your co-workers with your brilliance or pick apart weak Power Points with your cutting wit and incisiveness.  Avoid these temptations.  In the same way the pushy/loud/bossy person is always one of the first people voted off "Survivor," so too are know-it-alls in the office.  If your comments advance the conversation, identify (or better yet, solve) a problem and show creative thinking, a lone comment will have far more power than a 5 minute disquisition that makes you sound like a bloviating jerk off.

Anticipate your boss's needs.  Is s/he a technophobe who uses the one finger "hunt and peck" typing technique?  Does the sight of an iPhone or Blackberry make them recoil in horror?  Are they morning people or roll in late (and expect you to do the same?).  If you're in a support position, and let's face it, whether you're a junior associate in Big Law or that associate's secretary, you support someone else.  It's in your best interest to know who they are, how they tick and help them do their job more effectively.  One of my bosses was a quintessential "big picture" thinker who could rally a room to run through a wall, but left the niggling details to me.  After a working for her for a little while, I began to prepare before meetings for what the likely takeaways would be, edited, without comment or quibble, her drafts, which were sometimes just free form association of ideas and I listened, intently, at what she wanted that "big picture" to look like in practice, not theory, and learned how to effectuate her vision.

Avoid the office bully.  Every office has a bully.  Avoid this person at all costs because there's usually one of two reasons this person is allowed to be a bully: (1) The bully is one of those indispensable people I am suggesting you become (but also happens to be an asshole) and therefore, management is reluctant to get rid of him/her; or (2) The bully is protected either because of some personal relationship with a very senior person in your organization or some connection (family, personal) that makes them untouchable.  Either way, it is in your best interest to not be on this person's radar screen unless absolutely necessary.  If you must interact with the bully, do it deferentially and with as little interaction as possible while getting whatever it is needs to be achieved, done.  If the bully is your boss, my condolences.  Unless you have a high threshold for pain, your tenure in the bully's department is likely to be short.

Respect the assistant.  Administrative Assistant, Secretary, whatever you want to call the person who supports the person you need to/want to get access to, be nice to them.  Granted, being nice to others should be your general default conduct towards everyone, but this is particularly true with the gate keepers, schedule keepers and helpers who can grant or deny you the help you need.  Learn their names, treat them with respect and be courteous and you will be amazed at how much easier they can make your life.

Accept the fact that you may not get the recognition you think you deserve.  You stayed late and found that killer language from the case nobody bothered to research that persuades the judge to rule in your favor.  You color coded the exhibits before the big deposition.  You fixed the copier machine and replaced the toner cartridge without even getting an ink stain on your shirt.  You worked three Saturdays in a row.  You brought in the big account or fixed that error in the letter to the client that would have really ticked them off.  Congratulations.  Don't expect a parade, a promotion or a pay raise.  If you get any of those things, it's gravy.  Work has to be its own reward or you will chase your tail waiting for the gold star that may never come.

Put people over.  On the other hand, when you are in a position of authority or supervision, make sure the people who work for you and do a good job are recognized, not just by you, but by the people *you* report to.  Unless you're the CEO or the head of the agency, you have a boss.  When you come into contact with that person, let them know how others contributed - be specific, give a name (or names) and, when you can, put a face to the name.

Be generous with the little things.  Similarly, consider the value of small things.  It takes 2 minutes to compose a department-wide email acknowledging the hard work of a person (or persons) who went the extra mile for you (and your company) and you can get a nice Friday spread of coffee and donuts for about $20 to recognize a colleague or underling's achievement.  While we all understand that the two ways people receive true recognition are pay and promotion, those things don't happen everyday; however, the morale boost that people feel when they are recognized is important.  It guards against the feeling that a person's effort is not valued and also shows that you are paying attention to who is doing good work.

Deflect praise and accept responsibility.  Conversely, you should not be doing an end zone dance when something goes right and you should take the hit when something goes wrong. Rarely is anything that happens in an organization, no matter how small, the result of a single person's effort.  There's *always* someone who helps you accomplish some task.  If you are the person in charge, give credit to your team.  Even if you worked on the substance of a project or assignment yourself, an assistant, intern or volunteer probably contributed some administrative role that helped get it done.  Thank him or her and let their supervisor know how much you appreciated their help.  When something goes south, take responsibility, do not get defensive or attempt to justify why things went wrong.  Also, don't point fingers or try to deflect blame.  Showing a willingness to throw others under the bus will only get you the reputation of being untrustworthy and a poor leader.  Instead, be ready with a "lessons learned" takeaway of how things will improve in the future.

Don't be a chazer.  In Yiddish, a chazer is a pig.  I think of the word as more like someone who takes and takes without knowing when they have crossed the line into inappropriate.  To me, people like this are the people who make a "to go" plate at the office party after a nice spread has been laid out (and paid for) by someone else, take sick days for phantom (or minor) ailments and otherwise game the company system in small ways that erode morale.  No boss wants to be bogged down in the minutiae of your "special" vacation request and your co-workers don't want to be reminded that you always show up late (or leave early) because your office is located in a remote location that few people visit.

Save requests for important things. The fewer waves you make, the more you put your nose to the grindstone and foster a reputation for competence and ability, the greater the chance when you ask for something, you will get it.  For example, I once worked in an office that had a notoriously bad secretary.  She was one of four in our department and when my secretary (who was great) left, I was re-assigned to her.  When I found out, I went to my boss, and since I could preface my request to *not* be assigned to her with the words "you know I never ask for anything" he switched me to one of the remaining assistants with a better attitude.  That "chip" was much better spent on getting the right secretary than asking for every other Friday off in the summer so I could go to the beach.

When the right opportunity presents itself, go for it.  If you are respected and well thought of, someone else will inevitably come looking for you. If that someone (and something) is the right opportunity, move heaven and earth to get it.  Like those little favors you should only ask of in limited circumstances, if there is a "dream job" within your reach, go all in and get the people who can help make it happen to advocate on your behalf.  You can't abuse the privilege, so be sure it's what you want.

Have an exit strategy before it is needed.  Look, sometimes things don't work out.  Sometimes you work for a horrible boss or your company downsizes or you say the wrong thing to the wrong person or hey, you just hate your job.  It happens, but rarely overnight.  If you start to get an inkling that things are going south, that's a great time to update your resume, transfer contact information from your work computer to your personal one, network and otherwise assess what the job market may hold.  If things are not going well, it is better to jump to a new job than be pushed into unemployment.  Oh, and if possible, make sure you have that "emergency fund" the financial experts always tell us to have but few people actually create, handy.

Don't take a job based on the paycheck.  This is my last lesson and one that is easier said than done, but  has never steered me in the wrong direction.  I know, there is always an exception (I'm a lawyer, I make my living off of finding exceptions) like true financial need due to unemployment, but all other things being equal, you cannot make decisions about where you work based on what it pays if happiness and fulfillment are things you want out of your work.  The best jobs may not pay the most money and the jobs that offer the most money may not make you happy.  Given a choice between the two, the former is far more desirable than the latter because there is nothing worse than hating what you do everyday or feeling miserable or depressed when you wake up in the morning and have that feeling be due to the fact that you have to get dressed and go to work.  Even jobs that fulfill us will sometimes make us unhappy, frustrate us or cause us take a "mental health" day; however, if the core of what you do is meaningful, it makes getting up everyday for work that much more tolerable.

Good luck out there. 

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