Tuesday, March 28, 2017

"Oh Yeah?!?" - How to Confront Confrontation

BLOGGER'S NOTE: Like clockwork, each week the same email from the same HR company selling the same services electronically populates my work inbox. Its topic: How to Deal with Confrontation in the Workplace. Instead of deleting or unsubscribing, I've collected these messages. Perhaps as a reassurance that when the day comes, I'll be well-prepared. For those who don't share my good spam fortune, I've written this post.

Let me get this out of the way. Confrontation is not my strong suit. Yes, it's in my professional closet but like wool on a warm day, I don't enjoy wearing it. If I had to venture a guess as to why, I'm certain it stems from a junior high incident where a notorious mean girl cornered me in the locker room and threatened to throw away my "crap" if I didn't move it. Though I'd envisioned responding with an Abby Cunningham of Knots Landing (a Dallas spin-off and popular nighttime soap at that the time) smoky-eyed smack down, what squeaked out of my mouth after an exaggerated pause was, "Oh yeah?!?"

Not only in this pivotal life's moment did I choke, I disappointingly realized that I wasn't an "Abby," the show's vixen of vengeance but a "Val," the kindhearted, goody-two-shoes minus the multiple personalities and frequent mental breakdowns. For those who've never indulged in the guilty pleasure that was "the Cul-de-Sac," I can say with absolute certainty that NO ONE wanted to be a "Val." Sure, she was a best-selling author, good neighbor, and friend but when it came to confronting those who'd done her wrong, and the list was long, Val was... How can I say this gently? A weeping willow of a woman, a doormat to the world, a pushover with a capital "P!"

Many years and nighttime soap addictions later, I've experienced my share of encounters requiring confrontation, especially at work. Though professional plot lines haven't been as wildly ridiculous as those of Val's decade-plus character-hood, their impact on my psyche has often felt just as sensational. What I've found to be a quasi-comfort, however, is the universality among conflict-causers. Regardless of professional industry, company, department, or team, I've consistently observed the same rotation of confrontation-calling scenarios play out. Cue the over-exaggerated, wordless stare, predictable crescendo of the "dun dun duuuun," and see a few of the most common below:

  • Credit Copping - Certainly not as devastating as a stolen husband, taking professional credit where it's not due still stinks. Pilfering hard-earned commendations, unfortunately, is not an uncommon occurrence in many office settings. Such a dishonorable act can instantly turn an upbeat, team oriented environment into an incubator for self-serving schemes and lackluster loyalty.
  • TM...E! (Too Much... Ewww!) - A drug overdose initiated by an ex-husband's new finance shouldn't be just another day, neither should overhearing the inappropriate work conversations of an audibly-challenged colleague. Tales of a weekend's conquests, alcohol-related or otherwise (and I stress the "otherwise"), should never be openly broadcast to an entire cube village.
  • What's That Smell - No one wants to be presumed dead, especially on a Friday, nor do they want to deal with the antics of a perpetual popcorn burner. Nothing kills office good will faster than noxious smelling food wafting from a communal kitchenette. And believe me, it's NEVER a good idea to reheat fish amongst colleagues.
  • Mum's the Word - Nothing ruins a day faster than having your twins kidnapped by a crazed doctor and subsequent nervous breakdown. I could say the same for dealing with an uncommunicative office environment, manager, or colleague. Nothing raises blood pressure faster than an information shortage surrounding clear expectations and deliverables. If mouths are closed during the workday, they certainly won't be during happy hour - an instant cocktail for failure.
  • Rumor Has It - The cul-de-sac was fueled by idle hands and gossip; the workplace shouldn't be. It's easy to get caught up in the anticipation of the latest IM "ping" when there's an undercurrent of hushed voices and closed-door meetings. Though the urge may be strong, participating in pointless speculation only distracts from the real task at hand; accomplishing goals and contributing to the bottom line.

Even as a superfan, I could only imagine what well-intended words of wisdom Charlene, one of Val's more dominate personalities, might share on how to effectively deal with confrontation, but here's my singular counsel: A first attempt at conflict resolution shouldn't include, unless necessary, a manager or HR's involvement. Undoubtedly engaging a third-party will expedite a resolution, however, it may not prove desirable or intended.

Managers have their own work and peer pressures to deal with and don't have the time or energy to play ring-side referee to their employees' battles du jour. In fact, such tete-a-tetes only demonstrate an employee's inability to proactively deal with conflict that, ultimately, could squash an opportunity for increased responsibility or promotion.

Without the help of a manager, what's a pushover to do? Have a capital "P" plan. Having a strategy to address and resolve conflict not only helps to expedite an outcome, it significantly decreases associated anxieties. A plan also enables us to avoid an emotionally-based reaction, always a big no-no, and stick strictly to the facts. Keeping the weeping-est of willows on a productive path. I'm certainly not saying that conversation will always go accordingly, but I do know that having a framework for addressing an uncomfortable issue will yield a far better result than telling someone to move their "crap." Below are several key components to a well-thought resolution roadmap.
  • Let It Go - Not every unpleasant workplace encounter warrants a sit-down. It's often effective to simply dismiss a coworker's petty behavior than go through the production of addressing it. Of course, it's not easy to tongue-bite, but the likelihood of a more important battle being right around the corner is highly probable.
  • Shift Perspective - If letting go isn't an option, take a colleague's perspective into consideration before lambasting them for their behavior: Were they having a bad day? Was a misunderstanding simply blown out of proportion? Did a breakdown in communication occur? More importantly, take personal ownership: Did I overreact? Could I have clarified? Should I have given them the benefit of the doubt? These are the types of introspective questions that should be asked before jumping to conclusions and down a coworker's throat.
  • No Email - It's okay to jot down some thoughts about a serious situation, but sharing them electronically is never a good idea. Sure email is an efficient tool for office communication. When it comes to addressing a highly sensitive topic or issue, however, electronic correspondence leaves too much room for interpretation. Such a message also could easily be shared with the masses and quickly become the center of inappropriate and unwarranted office fodder.
  • Namaste Now - Though the term may seem too new age-y for the business world, the sentiment is not. Always start a conversation regarding conflict in a peaceful and respectful manner. Come to the proverbial table not only with an unaggressive demeanor, but also with real examples of actions, attitudes, or behaviors in question. And those "I" messages we've all learned along the way? Use them to keep a conversation non-accusatory. "I felt frustrated when you told me to move my 'crap...'"
  • Self-Assess - The best way to get a different result? Start with a different action. After resolving a work-related conflict, it's important to evaluate results. When evaluating, think about what worked, what didn't, and how things could be handled alternatively in the future. I hate to burst any passive-aggressive bubbles, but the probability of a similar situation happening again during a career is high, so don't make the same mistake twice.
  • Make a Formal Complaint and Document - As I've mentioned in prior posts about persisting office conflicts or even harassment, it's important to keep on-going documentation. If there's been an attempt at conversation or reconciliation but the situation persists, it's time to call in a manager or HR to help facilitate a resolution. As I've also shared in previous posts, be aware that such a complaint could exacerbate an already volatile situation.

Who's Karen?
Through patience, practice, a plan, as well as several awkward "Oh, yeah?" moments, it's certainly possible for a Val in a world full of Abbies to effectively confront confrontation. Though my own professional approach is more "Can't we all just get along?" than, "You want a piece of me?!?," over the years I've learned to deal with the unavoidable yet often necessary clashes of workplace wills. For the most part, I've overcome the discomfort that proceeds confronting a colleague about their inappropriate or offensive behaviors. On the flipside, as there always is one, I've become more receptive to feedback on my own questionable attitudes and actions.

It's taken time and lots experience, but I've resigned myself to the fact that I'll never be an Abby (Sign...). I'm, however, certainly no longer a Val (Wooh!). Actually, I'm starting to think that after all these years, I'm a Karen (Who knew?), the show's understanding, efficient, and resilient neighbor and best friend to Val. The type of person who would decide enough is enough and delete all those duplicative sales emails. She'd probably even unsubscribe. I think she just did.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Internships Are No Joke

BLOGGER'S NOTE: As a college graduate with a degree in political science, I've heard them all. All the unamusing jokes about my post-graduation job prospects. Here are a few of the most memorable:

  • How do you get a political science graduate off your porch? You give them $20 for the pizza.
  • A political science major exasperated by his job search said to his dad, "If I don't find a job soon, I just may consider a career in organized crime!" His dad not missing a beat responded, "House or Senate?"
  • A grad with a science degree asks, "Why does that work?" A grad with an engineering degree asks, "How does that work?" A grad with an accounting degree asks, "How much does that cost?" A grad with a political science degree asks, "Do you want fries with that?"

Even with the greasy chips stacked against me, hairnet on standby, I started my first professional job in my field two weeks after graduation. The ingredients in my secret sauce?  An internship.

Photo Credit:  Minnesota State University Moorhead
Seeing all the precious back to school pics posted to social media this month, I can't hide my shock that so many friends have college freshmen. "Where has the time gone?" I comment on their posts. Hoping my choice of silly, wide-eyed emoticon will suppress my real thought, "Are we that freaking old?!?!" 

Their fresh, optimistic faces inevitable make me reflect on my own college years. There was no place I'd rather have been on a fall day than campus. Time spent reconnecting with classmates against a backdrop of changing leaves and animated conversations about non-academic summer adventures was my world. For years to come, moments like this would serve as the quintessential college snapshot for my classmates and me.

Engaged in such a moment, I shared with friends tales of my own summer adventure, a three-month internship in D.C. As we talked, my thoughts enviably turned to the year ahead. As a senior, I'd experience many things for the last time - classes in my major, countless hours in the student senate office, and making as many memories as I could fit into my always over-scheduled days. Leaving the secure, four-year cocoon I'd devotedly spun would be bittersweet. My internship, however, had forever changed me, and I no longer could deny my overwhelming desire to propel myself into adulthood long before it became an actionable verb.

In today's post-academic environment, the rationale for participating in an internship has remained much the same as when I was in school. Below are the top three reasons internships are more important than ever before:
  • Career Competition
  • Professional Networking
  • Mutual Test Drive

Career Competition
I certainly won't downplay the excitement of living and working for the first time in a new city. In all transparency, it wasn't by my calculated design, rather a byproduct of pursuing a major in which meaningful and paying jobs are geographically limited. If I wanted a job in my field, I needed an internship that could provide an edge over my peers graduating from bigger schools with higher GPAs and more well-connected families.

For today's grads, the competitive landscape has only intensified. In response to ever-increasing college enrollment and subsequent above average graduation rates, the uncomplicated "You're hired!" of years past no longer exists. Employers now more than ever before expect grads to have prior work experience and in some cases, an advanced degree. Leaving many students WTFing, "If I don't have experience, how do I get it?" Luckily, this classic chicken and the egg conundrum has an answer and it's an internship.

Though the work world long has understood the advantages internships provide, it has taken a while for academic attitudes to catch up. I distinctly remember my department chair's begrudged sign off on the 16 credits, an entire quarter, that constituted my internship. The hushed word in and outside the classroom was that a majority of the department's professors didn't see any value in internships.

Nowadays, innumerable departments on college campuses are highly encouraging if not requiring internships. While some schools proactively are sending weekly emails to students highlighting internship opportunities, others have formed partnerships with local and national companies to provide their students with post-academic career paths.

A more anecdotal example of the shift in internship viewpoints is best demonstrated by a conversation I had  a review and a few professional pointers. Noticing that he'd completed an internship, I commented, "Looks like you've done an internship. Was it a requirement of your major or did you do it on your own?  His dumbfounded expression and slow appeasing response, as if talking to his 75-year-old grandmother, said it all. "Ahhh, most schools requirement them..."

Professional Networking
I've said it before and I'll say it again, it's not what you know, it's who. Internships provide an excellent foundation on which to build and expand a contemporary professional network. I know countless grads who've secured first career opportunities through connections made during their internships. In fact, this is exactly how I landed my own post-graduation job.

Aside from building ever-important in-person relationships, it's never too early to start online networking efforts. As mentioned in previous posts, LinkedIn is the predominate professional social media platform for career connections. Students shouldn't wait until graduation to start linking-in." Throughout college, efforts should be made to connect with professors, peers in the same major, as well as  already working in like areas of study. LinkedIn also serves as an excellent vehicle for securing and showcasing beginning of career references, as more employers than ever are using the online platform to find and vet candidates for their opportunities.

Mutual Test Drive
Much like cars, rented power tools, and dating, an internship allows an employer the opportunity to try before they buy. This means evaluating a student's work performance and cultural fit before entertaining a possible job offer. For this reason, it's important that internships are taken seriously. Even if the work is administrative or a bit repetitive, positive and diligent efforts go a long way. Not only does such an attitude show an employer respect, it demonstrates maturity and the ability to be a team-player. If a job offer is not made, it's not the end of the world. The potential for a positive reference is well worth the experience.

For students, an internship provides a first-hand opportunity to experience a chosen career path outside the classroom. Specifically, it exposes interns to the dynamics of a professional environment that cannot be taught from a textbook. Here's an example: A college friend did an internship with a CPA firm.  After a few months of working with numbers all day, every day, she realized she didn't enjoy accounting as much as she did in her classes. At the internship's conclusion, she decided to change her major to a more general business track.

Photo Credit: Minnesota State University Moorhead

When it comes to finding the right internship opportunity, it's important to do some research, as a one-size-fits-all approach may not yield the greatest results. The best way to get the process started? Talk to classmates within the same major who've already completed their internships. Not sure what to ask?  The questions outlined below should provide an excellent starting point.

Internship Questions
  • What was the application/hiring process like?
  • What daily duties were you asked to perform?
  • What activities did you like and which ones didn't you?
  • What was the office dynamic - fast-paced, chaotic, helpful, friendly, etc.?
  • Did your classroom work prepare you and if so, how?
  • What were some of your unanticipated challenges?
  • Was compensation or a stipend offered?
  • What is the one piece of advice you'd give someone looking for an internship?

As a result of colleges across the country making internships a requirement for graduation, there now exists a heated debate on many campuses whether or not students should be required to pay for credits associated with unpaid internships. Though I was fortunate to be compensated with a stipend that covered most of my living and commuting expenses, I knew others who weren't so lucky. It's true that the long-term payoff may be a job, but how do already financially strapped students pay for credits when they aren't getting paid? With no real answer to this important question on the immediate horizon, students must take this into consideration when choosing a school and declaring a major.

My college BFF and me after graduation.
What do you call those who make jokes about others' career choices? You don't. You just hang right up on them. You don't need that negativity in your life!

Though it's been many years and career iterations since I've worked in my field of study, I remain tremendously grateful for the experience.Without it, I truly believe I would never have discovered my true passion - helping professionals find their next adventures.  


Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Gamble of B*tch-hood

BLOGGER'S NOTE: I've wanted to write this post for quite some time. What's prevented me? A mental tiptoeing around of a potentially offensive and alienating topic. What recently changed my mind, however, was a listography touting the 15 traits of brazen and blatantly women sent by a dear friend. This friend, brazen and blatant herself, suggested that I share its inspirational sentiment with my readers. Never one for card games, I surprisingly offered to see her pair of "Bs" and raise her another "B," one that's unfortunately, yet often associated with these successful women. With such unapologetically high stakes, I could no longer afford not to play my hand. For those whom gambling and reality offend, I'd respectfully recommend sitting this hand out. 

We all remember our "first time." Mine happened early in my career, a few years out of college while working on Capitol Hill. Perhaps a bit cliche, but I do remember like it was yesterday. I was standing near my cubicle bantering with a colleague when our conversation took a serious and unexpected turn. He'd asked my opinion on some work he'd done and I shared a constructive, or so I thought, alternative approach.

When he saw that I was serious, his response a bit frustrated and flustered, "You're such a..." My attention instantly tweaked, I stared directly at him anticipating his subsequent word choice. He quickly reconsidered and continued, "You're so... Aloof!" "That's not what you were going to say!" I countered. "Say it!" I taunted with a measure laugh. "Say what you were going to say!" As if relieving a grown pressure in his head, he exploded, Okay! You're such a B*TCH!" Knowing this comment was intended to put me in my place, a place of apologetic submission, I unaffectedly smiled, looked him in the eyes and said, "I know." then walked away.

Though it was an isolated incident and we remained friends until I left the Hill a few years later, to this day I have conflicting feelings. Sure his verbal slap stung, but it also felt oddly empowering. Empowering in a way I wouldn't understand until writing this post.

Let me be perfectly clear when I say that the "B" word is:
  • Never an acceptable or appropriate way to define successful women
  • Not a derogation exclusively used by men to minimize women's achievements

Never An Acceptable or Appropriate Way To Define Successful Women
Most of us already are aware of the misogynistic dichotomy that exists between successful men and women, but for those still in need of some education, the comparison is simple: successful men are assertive, ambitious, confident, opinionated, tough, and smart. Successful women who possess these exact same attributes, more times than not, are b*tches.

The double standard is clear. Our society convenient yet carelessly packages these attributes together and allows them to define and minimize women's passions, ambitions, and accomplishments. For years, we've enabled the gross preservation of the mindset that successful women are scary, angry, and even unfeminine. This constant massaging of words and actions has made it difficult, sometimes impossible, for women to openly and without regret celebrate their achievements.

Not a Derogation Exclusively Used by Men to 
Minimize Women's Achievements 
There's no doubt that men bare the b*itch-calling brunt. Their historic power, influence, and cultural dominance makes this so. A conversation a few years ago with a staffing agency colleague newly out of college, however, gives me hope that attitudes are changing. Specifically, he relayed a conversation about salary expectations where a candidate matter of factly told him, "Well, I'll definitely need to make more than my wife. Gotta be the bread winner!" Visibly appalled by his recollection, my colleague rhetorically asked me, "How ridiculous is that? Shouldn't he be happy and supportive that his wife is successful? What is this, the 90s?"

Throughout my own career, I've actually found women to be significantly more critical of their female peers than men. Working mostly in female-dominated offices and several industries, I've seen and heard first-hand the rampant gossip, "She botched a presentation big-time last week! I hope she's fired. She deserves it! She's such a b*tch!"  Also the self-serving, why-her-not-me mentality, "Why would our boss promote her? I'm sure she's doing special favors for him.  What a b*tch!" Instead of supporting one another at work, women often create a competitive, reality TV-style environment where the last woman standing gets the proverbial rose (accolades, raise, promotion) and also the undeserved b*tch label.

To me, it's unfathomable that women who so intimately relate to one another's professional obstacles and challenges openly and without apology bestow this label. I'm embarrassed to say that from time to time, I've participated in this behavior.  And though it might have seemed warranted in the moment, the use of this word certainly said more about my insecurities than anything else.

For this reason among so many others, we need to better understand and address motivation. In my experience, there ultimately seems to be an overarching question of self-worth, a lack of confidence or power, among those who so flagrantly spew the "B" word. Not sure what I mean? Here are a few examples of the emotions that prompt the word's use:
  • Jealousy - "Why is she getting more attention than me? She doesn't deserve it!" I've been working here longer than she has!"
  • Insecurity - "What if she knows more than me? What if our boss promotes her and not me?"
  • Rejection - "She thought my idea was stupid…  She made me feel so embarrassed!"
  • Intimidation - Okay, Miss Know-It-All, I'll show you!"

When a "B" word accusation is unexpectedly made, it's difficult to be prepared let alone armed with a cunning comeback. Since the initial shock oftentimes feels unrecoverable, it's important to know how to respond. Below are several ways to handle such a situation with professionalism and tact.
  • Ignore It - The reason most use this word is to get a reaction from their target. If there's no gratification, instant or otherwise, they generally will stop.
  • Say, "Thank you!" - There's no better way to deflate an insult regardless of size than with a polite acknowledgment. As Gloria Steinem once shared (yes I'm going there with a feminist quote) when asked the best way to respond to the "B" word, "Say thank you. It totally disarms them. They don't know what to do."
  • Confront The Culprit - It's always better to address a professional issue with someone directly before taking additional action. Letting someone know that their behavior is perceived as offensive can be an eye-opener.
  • Make A Formal Complaint - If the accusation in ongoing and no longer can be ignored, it's best to let a third-party, ideally HR or a manager, intervene. Before doing so, make sure all incidents are documented. Be aware that such a complaint could exacerbate an already volatile situation.
And a few considerations for coping:
  • Seek Support - Reach out to women who've been pinned with the "B" badge.  There's strength in numbers, so talk to others and gain their backing.
  • Never Use The Word - Though it's tempting, at times, we're better off remembering the golden rule - treat others as we'd want to be treated. Also, there's nothing worse than a hypocrite, so don't be one.

While writing this post, I came across an online article 
in which its writer made a statement that
instantly resonated with me, "Being a b*tch is immensely more powerful than simply being a bystander." Thinking back to the incident so many years ago, I now realize something important. Thought I wasn't able to articulate it at the time, the rush of empowerment I'd felt came from not backing down, apologizing, or "simply being a bystander."

Truth be told, I gravitate towards women who aren't bystanders. Not because they are bossy, bratty, rude, snobby, or mean but because they have opinions, speak their minds, aren't afraid to ask questions, and don't accept less than they deserve. No fragile flower myself, I strive to emulate these qualities on a daily basis, so women who see me as a role model, mentor or leader, know they don't have to cave beneath the word's suppression. Instead of caving, we need to change the conversation around the "B" word's meaning. Though it will take time, I know those burdened with the badge of b*tch-hood are up for the challenge.

A BIG shout out to Kenny Rodgers for the iconic Gambler lyrics.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Clean Closet & Compelling Cause

BLOGGER'S NOTE:  This post, not my typical professional observations, advice, and RANTS, 
was written to purposefully inject some attention-shifting content into our current social media ethos seemly saturated by negativity (of a political nature). My message certainly won't change long-standing viewpoints or halt hate-filled rhetoric but if it makes someone reflect fondly on the innocence of childhood, think about and achieve an overdue goal, or simply smile at a stranger then I'll consider it a success.

Long before iPads and high-definition gaming systems prompted the imaginations of children, my older sister and I played our share of made up games. One that quickly became our favorite was conceived after a babysitter, unbeknownst to our parents, introduced us to Mommy Dearest on a newish channel, one we weren't allowed to watch unsupervised, called HBO.

The game was simple and exciting. In our small shared bedroom, we'd reenact
the now infamous movie scene where Joan Crawford, played by Faye Dunaway, finds wire hangers in her daughter Christina's closet. We took turns chasing each other around, across/under, our beds and in our most wild-eyed Faye Dunaway channeling Joan Crawford imitations, crazily would scream, "NO MORE WIRE HANGERS!!" then breathlessly giggle.

Certainly not the most educational of weekend activities, our mother at the time a 4th-grade teacher, was mortified that we found this so entertaining. At our young ages, we absolutely had no comprehension of the movie depiction's real-life severity. Mom well aware and finally having had enough, burst through our door yelling (she never burst or yelled), "No More 'NO MORE WIRE HANGERS!'" My sister and I so engrossed in our inappropriate fun stopped, looked up, and both wondered,"Does she want to play?!?!" Following that afternoon, we were prohibited from this favorite game and not so coincidentally, from our favorite babysitter.

With this vivid childhood memory simultaneously making me smile and cringe, I recently prepared to unpack my bedroom closet. Certainly not how I wanted to spend my Saturday morning, I'd made a promise to myself upon move-in to not allow my clothes to majority-rule my new condo. In a post-doughnut sugar high, I also decided to finally get rid of the remaining wire hangers, or wire hangers on, from my once upon a time dry-clean-only lifestyle.

Exhibit I: Pre-Closet Cleaning Dramatization

To say that I have a lot of clothes is well, ask my mom, sister or anyone who's ever helped me move, a bit of an understatement.  I've never met a black pair of pants I didn't find flattering or a pencil skirt, even without a No. 2 body, that wasn't a "timeless" must-have.  

In my defense, I no longer enjoy the space of a 1,500 square foot apartment. I'll never forget when I first saw the closet space; mirrored doors sliding on what seemed like a forever track. I fell to my knees, palms to popcorn ceilings, and loudly proclaimed, "I'm home!"
Exhibit II: Pre-Closet Cleaning Dramatization

Though I've significantly pared down post-Taj Ma "closet" hal, for sentimentality and a deeply ingrained I'll-wear-it-again stubbornness, I just couldn't get rid of among so many other treasured pieces the understated yet elegant gown I wore to my first and only inaugural ball or the denim Marc Jacobs peacoat with the big caramel colored buttons and over exaggerated stitching I bought but never wore when I first move to New York (a welcome to the city gift I knew then Major Bloomberg would want me to have). AND I cannot forget the geisha-inspired silk skirt I found in a Brooklyn boutique that only sold garments of reconstructed vintage fabrics (sigh).

After what felt like countless hours (accordingly to my watch about 45 minutes) of making amends with my unintentional childhood misbehavior, I realized a few things: My love for the color navy is therapy-worthy and Tory Burch could captain my shoe squad. Less sarcastically and more importantly, I reminded myself of another promise I'd made upon moving - to volunteer for an organization that supports women. Though my mom and sister unconvincingly tried to justify their need, I knew exactly what charity should share the reward of my intense and a bit traumatic closet unpacking and reorganization - Dress for Success.

For those not familiar, Dress for Success is a non-profit organization with a mission dear to my heart: "Promote the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional attire, a network of support, and the career development tools to help women thrive in work and in life.

Exhibit III: Newly organized closet!
As a woman who's had her share of professional interviews and now interviews professionals, I well understand the confidence and empowerment the right attire provides. When we look good, we feel good and project the confidence necessary to convince a hiring manager, "I'm the best candidate for the job!"

Thinking about how my clothing donation could make a difference felt great. Knowing, however, that an outfit alone cannot end the cycle of poverty experienced by so many of Dress for Success' female clientele, I wanted to do more. This is why I've decided to reach out to a local chapter and find out how I can share my professional resume writing, interview prep, and networking expertise.

I deeply value the knowledge, confidence, and financial security my career has provided me and want all women regardless of their life circumstances to experience the same. Specifically, I want them to land in a job, career, or professional adventure that they're passionate about just as I have and to help others along the way.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Five Ways To "Hang Tough" on A New Professional Block

BLOGGER'S NOTE: I've never considered myself a boy bander. That fanatic fan who pledges their undying love for one or all members of a music exec conceived and A&R incubated group of perfectly manscaped "boy" archetypes (the cute one, the young one, the actor, etc.) with questionable musical aptitudes and an even more suspicious absence of instruments. Sure I was part of a corporate marketing team over ten years ago that created a national NSYNC bobblehead promotion (You're welcome and I'm sorry); and ironically in the same year while staying at a hotel on South Beach with girlfriends, randomly met and had breakfast with Jordan Knight, "the cute one" of NKOTB fame (he still was cute also polite and disarmingly shy), but boy bander?  Ahhh, NO.  

When I found myself humming, "Hanging Tough" while curating this post, however, I seriously had to consider the possibility of an unacknowledged affinity for all things Ron, Bobbie, Ricky, and Mike. (Millenials readers substitute Louis, Niall, and Liam - RIP Harry and Zayn.)  

After receiving a recent LinkedIn message from a Resume RANTS reader sharing how he's missed my posts, I realized just how surprisingly long it's been since I've last written. What's felt like a short, few week hiatus in reality has become a long-term career advice sabbatical. Had I finally listened to my mom and stopped being so "bossy" about other people's professional business and started handling my own? Kinda...

Minus the bossy, I had considered my own career counsel, packed up my entire life, moved cross-country, and started a new professional adventure. Based on the past eight months, I've been reminded of just how:

  • Much I've missed the East Coast
  • Unequipped certain cities are for snow removal
  • Daunting starting a new job can be
Though I honestly can say that my now, not-so-new employer rolled out the red carpet for me, I know from prior experiences, as well as through countless anecdotes of others about the stress and even anxiety of starting a new job. Sure, the first few weeks a new employee is treated like a shiny penny - the one everyone gets to know, takes to lunch, and even helps with the overly temperamental copier. A few months later and no longer so shiny, that same employee is taking up too much space in the communal frig, parking in someone's unassigned but regular spot, and still not able to make copies.

It's tough being the new kid on a professional block, but certainly not insurmountable. With the help of the five boy band archetypes below, any office newbie will be hanging tough in no time.

It's not about cute, it's about culture; company culture. In the first few days and weeks of any new role, an employee should make a conscious effort to observe their professional environment. "When does everyone get in and leave for the day, are lunches typically taken at desks, how much non-work related socializing is acceptable?" are all questions any office newbie should immediately seek answers to.

Some cultural cues are more obvious than others so when in doubt, it's always good to befriend a colleague who has seniority and some patience.  Someone willing to share unspoken but exacting organizational nuances, as well as be a resource for questions even the dumb ones. 

It's important, however, to stay above the office fray and not align with the ever-disgruntled colleague with a track record of complaints and not accomplishments. There's no quicker way to tarnish a professional reputation than to associate with a negative workplace Nelly, Nancy, or Neil.

Regardless of familial ties, in a new professional environment it's important for an employee to work as if they're still engaged in the interview process because, technically, they are. From a hiring manager's perspective, the first 60 to 90 days of a new role are probationary and set the tone for an employee's future advancement and tenure. During these critical months, professional energies should be focused on gaining work momentum and showing results.

A mistake I've seen first-time, as well as seasoned professionals make is getting too comfortable too quickly. Respect and workplace flexibility are not handed out with security badges during orientation. They are earned over time through consistent and positive performance.

We've all heard that old saying, "fake it till you make it." In a new job, these are words to work by. I guarantee that any new employee's hiring manager is expecting the same confidence and professional prowess as demonstrated during the interview process. This doesn't mean that questions cannot be asked or minor mistakes made. It does mean that managers, as well as colleagues are expecting a high level of competence or as I call it, the figure-it-out factor - the ability to assess what needs to be done regardless of circumstance and make it happen.

Age ain't nothin but a number. This might be true in many areas of life, but I'm sorry to say, not when it comes to knowing it all at work. Though eager to contribute, new employees should use caution when doling out direction and advice to their tenured colleagues. "Well, when I was president of my college's creative writing club, we would..." is not a statement anyone wants to hear in a post-collegiate environment. In fact, it's the comedic equivalent of, "When I was at band camp..."

I'm certainly not picking on recent grads. A know-it-all is annoying regardless of career longevity and should, as an HR colleague often says, "know your lane." It's imperative that all new employees understand what is and isn't appropriate in their individual positions and within a company's hierarchy (and yes, there is one). Though I personally cannot vouch for the happenings at band camp, I do know that giving suggestions and providing solutions goes a long way in building respectful workplace relationships.

WHO (The Boy No One Ever Remembers)?
The most underestimated but truly impactful advice for any new employee is this: it's not who, it's what and that's coffee! There's no better way to win the often fickle hearts and tired minds of coworkers than with a strong cuppa joe. Trust me, great conversation, professional and otherwise, happen while caffeinated. Making a quick stop at the company coffee cart or to an around-the-block Starbucks provides an excellent opportunity to bond with team members and forge workplace alliances.

Navigating the dynamics of a new workplace takes time and often a fair amount of self-deprecation. New employees should not compromise building the right reputation, one that denotes professional accountability and respect, for instant yet fleeting notoriety with colleagues. A slow and steady approach will not only win the race, it will provide job longevity and admiration among peers.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

3 Reasons Why Hiring Managers Should Provide Interview Feedback

BLOGGER'S NOTE: With summer now past its mid and most anxiously absorbing as much sun and fun as their days will allow, I sit in a fluorescent lit office contemplating the biggest and most unaddressed frustration of job seekers. Perhaps it's me who needs a little more R&R but for now, I'll write this letter highlighting some talented professionals looking for their next career opportunities.

Dear Hiring Managers:

I hope this letter finds you enjoying your respective summers and taking some well-deserved vacation time. On behalf of job seekers, I am writing to bring to your attention the collective confusion and frustration associated with the lack of post-interview feedback and overall follow up pervading their professional searches. To better illustrate this widespread issue, let me share the story of one such job seeker who I'll call "Ann," as her experience so universally captures the sentiment of those looking for their next career opportunity. 

Ann, a stellar marketing professional with excellent digital and content management skills, recently reached out wanting my perspective on her search. Specifically, Ann was seeking my opinion on why she hadn't been getting much, if any, feedback on her interviews even those she thought had gone exceedingly well. 

Wanting to first make sure Ann was setting realistic expectation on whether or not her experience was inline with the jobs she was applying for, I carefully and respectfully asked, "Have you gotten the sense that you just might not be the right fit for some of these roles?" She responded as if anticipating my question, "Believe me, I've thought about this." She paused and continued, "I know a few of the roles might have been a stretch, but the last three...  It seemed like the job descriptions were written specifically for my background! When I interviewed for these roles, I hit it off immediately with the hiring managers and they were eager and excited to move the process forward even shared next steps."

Already knowing where our conversation was headed, I delicately asked, "So what happened?" "Nothing." she flatly responded. "I never heard back on any of the opportunities - not a call, not an email, not even a rejection letter, but I suppose those aren't sent anymore, are they? The only way I found out was through my professional network and searches on LinkedIn." 

Trying to remain composed, Ann continued, "It's just so incredibly frustrating and discouraging... You find not one but several great jobs that you know you're more than qualified for and hit it off the with hiring manager then absolutely nothing!" She again paused and said, "I just wonder if they [hiring managers] understand how hard candidates work to prepare - the copious company research; countless hours of practice; strategic time off work and constant anxiety of meeting someone new and knowing that they're making a decision about your future within the first five minutes of meeting you. I mean, its exhausting. Worst than dating, and we all know how horrifying dating is!"  

As I'm sure you've experienced at one point in your own careers, and as Ann so clearly articulates, the job search is a daunting and sometimes arduous process.  It can be filled with significant stress and anxiety and more then everyone's fair share of self-doubt. For these and countless other contributing factors, below are three compelling reasons hiring mangers, such as yourselves, must provide interview feedback. 
Sandy Kotyk, Facilities Administrator
#1 It's A Job Seeker's Market
Contrary to what many companies still believe, it is a job seeker's market, specifically in highly technical fields. If a business' HR team and hiring managers aren't staying actively engaged with potential candidates, they'll lose them - for good. Even if a candidate isn't a direct fit for a role, but overall possesses the professional skills and background a company generally looks for in new hires, it's critical that they receive interview followup. This, unfortunately, is where so many companies' recruitment and new-hire strategies fall short.

Though a personal approach is recommended whenever possible, a simple response can go a long way in keeping the peace with job-seeking professionals. Yesterday, I sent such a response to a woman who wasn't a direct fit for the role she'd applied. My follow up was generic, however, it did let her know that though she wasn't a fit for the role, her professional skills and background are what my clients regularly look for. I also encouraged her to apply for future opportunities that are a better fit. She appreciatively responded, "Thanks so much for the response. I have been looking so many places that don't even send a response such as yours, even getting an automatic response is nice to see. I appreciate you keeping me in mind for future opportunities."

Lisa Carlson, Marketing Communications
#2  Job Seekers Are Customers
With the philosophy "everyone's a customer" in mind, it's important that companies and their hiring managers maintain a positive post-interview experience for candidates. Just as consumers share their negative service experiences (four times as many bad than good) so do job seekers. In fact, the transparency of social media enables those looking for their next professional opportunities to instantaneously share negative experiences with hundreds in their professional networks. And believe me, they do. A recent online survey found that more than 64 percent of job seekers share their interview experiences on social media, and only five percent of these professional post positive commentary.

Companies may not immediately feel the effects of such social transparency, however, failing to provide a positive customer experience to job seekers will, if it hasn't already, diminish their brand loyalty and equity. Not only do I see such negative chatter online, fed up candidates relaying frustration along with unflattering takes on corporate tag lines, I hear it directly on a daily basis. "A former colleague interviewed at X Company at least six times and after his finally meeting, three months later, he never heard from them again.  I'm definitely not interested in a process or company like this!"

Karen Schultz, Business Development
#3 Makes Hiring Easier
Even when constructive, giving others criticism is difficult and generally not something any of us enjoy doing. When it comes to candidates, I've found that not only do hiring managers dislike providing feedback, they often don't know exactly what to say or how to say it.  I've been asked for advice on everything from "How do I tell him that his personality is too abrasive?" to "She has the skills, but her breath almost made me pass out.  How can I share that?"

This type of feedback definitely is uncomfortable to relay, but when companies' HR and hiring managers work with professional recruitment agencies, providing follow up is pain-fee. Even better, working with such professional organizations ultimately cost much less in interview time, as their recruiters often specialize in providing industry-specific talent. Yes, I have a horse in this race, but working with good recruiters will allow a hiring manager the peace of mind in knowing that they are getting quality candidates minus the stress of the awkward, "No, it's not me, it's really you…" conversation.

Let me make it clear that the intent of this letter simply and sincerely is to create awareness of a highly preventable problem that with minimal effort will impact so many in positive way. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Respectfully Yours,

Gretchen Stanford

Senior Recruiter and Resume RANTS Blogger

If you're a job seeker looking for additional exposure in your professional search, send a professional bio, black/white photo and answer to the question, "What is the best professional advice you've ever received?" to http://www.linkedin.com/in/gretchenstanford12resumerants. GOOD LUCK in your search!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Imperfection of Perfectionism

BLOGGER'S NOTE:  Several weeks ago a high school friend, who I reconnected with last summer at a Paul McCartney concert, forwarded me an interesting opportunity. The Huffington Post, with whom she's celebrated recent publishing success, was asking bloggers to share their stories of how letting go of perfectionism ultimately enabled their personal or professional grow. Knowing of Resume RANTS, she thought I'd jump at the chance to share in 650-850 words my thoughts and advice on perfectionism in the professional world.  She was right. 

According to Stanford family lore, one morning on the way to school, kindergarten or first grade I'm told, my ever-doting dad stopped to pick up donuts for breakfast. When he handed me what I'd proclaimed on multiple prior occasions to be "the best food on the planet," I started to cry. Confused by my reaction, he asked what was wrong.  I looked up with big brown eyes, or so the story goes, and distraughtly declared, "The hole isn't big enough!" And so began my relationship with perfectionism.

Thirty-plus years and countless imperfect donuts later, this relationship remains a work-in-progress. Where I now find it most often rearing its unforgiving head is in my career. Like so many professionals, I regularly find myself struggling to resist the temptation to procrastinate, work more and self-criticize - all perfectionism prerequisites. Truth be told, my long-standing propensity toward "perfect" is the ironic and disappointing reason I didn't share my story with The Huffington Post.  It is, however, the reason I've written this.

Just as our society has elevated the importance of busy to an epic level, we've put perfectionism on a pedestal. Our collective preoccupation with "perfect" has us subscribing to an all-or-nothing mentality that's quickly leading us down a narrow and unproductive path both personally and professionally. When it comes to our professional lives specifically, this go-big-or-go-home cultural mind-set not only is causing significant amounts of anxiety and stress, it's paradoxically preventing us from achieving success and in extreme cases, ruining careers. Regardless of its consequences, however, we continue to wear perfectionism as an expensive accessory proudly adorning our 9-5 attire.

As someone who works with job-seekers, I can attest to perfectionism's perceived importance in the search process. It's generally used as a catchall affirming work styles and philosophies, as well as career approaches. Seldom is perfectionism negatively associated with an inability to succeed or achieve. Much to the contrary, it's expressed as a back-handed compliment or humble yet direct nod to an infallible work ethic.

"Yes, I single hole punched, collated, color coded and versioned by employee over 1,000 presentation handouts for the last all-company meeting, and it only took me every evening after work for a little over a week! What can I say, I'm a perfectionist!"

When looking for new jobs or careers, professionals often are reminded to put their best foot forward. I certainly agree with this timeless advice, but it's important to know these words of wisdom aren't a proclamation encouraging perfection. Hiring managers, at least the good ones, understand that no one is perfect and, ultimately, perfection is not what they're looking for. They don't need to hear, "My biggest weakness?  I'm a total perfectionist!" Hiring managers do want to better understand where in job seekers' careers they've encountered challenges, how they were resolved and what positive results were achieved. This allows them to get a detailed understanding of professionals' abilities to problem-solve and thrive in real workplace situations that are relevant to the role they're hiring for.

Speaking of real, a more genuine definition of perfectionism comes from Wikipedia not Webster. "A personality trait characterized by one's desire to strive for flawlessness and set excessively high performance standards; accompanied by over critical self-evaluations and concern regarding others' evaluation." Though we generally associate striving for such flawlessness and excessively high performance standards with professional athletes, award-winning actors or Nobel prize-winners, it's important to understand that perfectionism isn't a personality trait synonymous with the highly successful nor a prerequisite for propulsion into professional greatness.

Contrary to popular belief, we don't need to be perfect to be a perfectionist. Case in point: Me. Those who see me walking to work on mornings when the humidity already has reached its high (full on summer hair, I don't care), certainly aren't telling themselves, "There goes a winner, a real perfectionist I tell ya!" Why? Because only in 1950s musicals do people talk like this but more importantly, I don't leave my house on such hot days obsessed with how others will perceive me. Though I certainly may not like my massively untamable lion's mane, I throw it up in a bun and matter-of-factly remind myself, "It is what it is." Now when I get to work, that's a different story. Often when my derriere hits the chair, self-criticism and not my coffee jumpstarts my day.

It also conflicts with society's current messaging that perfectionism isn't synonymous with excellence. There actually is a significant difference between the two, and as one writer so excellently (not perfectly) says, perfectionism is about doing things right while excellence is about doing the right thing.  Based on this simple yet impactful delineation, below are several comparisons illustrating the difference between perfectionism and excellence. (Yes, the Tom Selleck/Conservation reference is random.)


The Red Cross
Tom Selleck

It's embarrassing and somewhat telling just how many current and former coworkers eagerly asked if they could attest to my perfectionistic tendencies when I shared the topic of this post. Even my manager, one of my biggest professional cheerleaders, said in a sorry/not sorry tone, "Let me know if you need any direct quotes." So what behaviors are exposing perfectionists to their workplace peers?  A coworker just might be a perfectionist if they:
  • Know-It-All - Let me rip the Band-Aid right off. Perfectionists can be know-it-alls and know-it-alls are annoying. Perfectionist desperately are afraid to be wrong, so much so that they sacrifice professional learning and growth to always have the right answers.
  • Procrastinate - Ever work on a project with a colleague who constantly needed to add "just one last thing" before it was complete?  Perfectionists often have a hard time finishing work, as they've set personal standards so high that regardless of how hard they try, they never meet them.
  • Work More Than Necessary - First one in, last one out. Because perfectionists set such impossibly high standards, they work more and unnecessary hours doing and redoing their work.
  • Self-Criticize - "I've been working on this report for weeks and still don't like how it's laid out. I'm just so bad at this!" Perfectionists may not say this out loud, but they constantly are attacking their own abilities and over exaggerating their faults, generally as a destructive way to self-motivate.
On the surface, perfectionism seems like an appealing personal attribute, and one to which we all should aspire. Who doesn't want to be a better version of themselves? Perfectionism, however, doesn't make us better. It, adversely, allows us to set unachievable goals that ultimately, as I mention above, lead to stress, and anxiety.  In more serious cases, those constantly seeking the unobtainable "perfect" experience depression, compulsive behavior and sometime even attempt or commit suicide.

For me, the worst part of perfectionism is the way it severely inhibits my creative abilities and process. When I allow perfectionism to dominate my mind-set, it takes weeks to finish what might seem like a simple post. I write and rewrite sentences and paragraphs as if my aspiration is to win a nonexistent prize; perhaps the first-ever Pulitzer prize in blogging.  Yeah, not going to happen.

So how can we avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism?  By remembering the simple yet effective advice below:
  • Don't Obsess Over Mistakes - We're humans and humans make mistakes even at work. What most professionals don't realize is that our workplace errors, faults and gaffes are what ultimately help us grow and succeed.
  • Stop Micromanaging (Ourselves) We need to accept that we can't do it all. We must empower others to help take responsibilities and tasks off our professional plate and squash the guilt associated with our workplace superhero complexes.
  • Shout Back - When our inter-critic starts to yell, "You're not doing it right!" or "You're not doing it fast enough!" we simply must shout back, "SHUT UP!!!!!" This will allow for a much needed break in our negative train of though and, hopefully, get us back on the right mental track.
  • Laugh - The only way we'll make it through life, and this next work week, is by not taking ourselves too seriously. There's no better way to do this while significantly raising our dopamine levels then by laughing. Laugh at yourself, laugh with your coworkers, laugh at your coworkers, laugh with your boss, laugh at your...  Well maybe not.
  • Take a Break - When we need to recalibrate our bodies and minds, having a quick convo with our cube-mate, grabbing lunch in the cafeteria, or going outside for some fresh air can give us an entirely new perspective on what might seem like an insurmountable work challenge.
  • Accept Good Enough - When our t's are crossed and i's dotted, its time to call it a day. We should always keep the 80/20 rule in mind - 80 percent of our outcomes come from 20 percent of our inputs. Trying for 100 percent generally isn't a good use of our time or resources.
Though I still have my moments, my relationship with perfectionism has come a long way. Writing and publishing this blog is a testament to how I'm fighting that battle one word, sentence and paragraph at a time. Since I need a constant reminder, on my desk is a worn and faded Post-It Note with the following quote from Brene Brown, famed author, speaker and my favorite shame researcher (because what perfectionist doesn't need a favorite shame researcher), "Vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation and change.  It's also the birthplace of joy, faith and connection. To create is to make something that has never existed before.  There's nothing more vulnerable then that."

And... in the same vain as my favorite introvert-themed meme, "Introverts of the world UNITE! SEPARATELY, in your own homes," I wrap up another imperfect, but perhaps excellent post with this: "Perfectionists of the world UNITE! And STOP trying to be so DAMN perfect!