The weekend I didn’t go to the shore…

About two months ago, my husband and I were supposed to spend the weekend on the Jersey Shore at the home of one of our dear friends’ parents.  Each “season,” our friend gets the house to herself for one weekend and hosts an event known as “Camp Chaos.”  The name sums up how the weekend goes down.

This year the shore was taxi/flight/taxi/drive rather than the Friday night road trip from the city of years past.  Two days before departure, I got sick.  Unspecified, flu-like sick.  We didn’t want to cancel and put off making a decision until the last minute.  Hours before the flight left, we decided to use the flight to NYC and have a quiet recovery weekend at my in-laws’ empty apartment.  Disappointed though I was, that weekend was a significant turning point for my consulting practice.

In the course of 48 hours as “tourist” in my home city, over long walks and talks and meals with my husband, I realized I was doing a lot of things wrong.  Removed from real life and alone, no one asked how work was going.  And without the pressure to give a pat, positive, response, I was able to answer that question honestly for myself.

I identified a few lessons and made a few promises that weekend, most of which I’ve stuck to.  The most critical lesson for me was about ignoring my instincts.  When I’m not at peak performance, my natural inclination is to redouble my effort and push through.  I’ve always believed that the combination of my work and will can make almost anything happen.  A sequestered, semi-sick weekend where I completely let go of the reigns shifted my entire mindset.  Which brings me to Lesson #1:

Don’t squeeze the bunny.

I asked a lot of smart people for advise when I started consulting.  Like the diligent bee I am, I did everything they told me to.  I went to networking events, created a drip list, sent articles to interested parties, (dabbled in) social media, had enough coffees to support a fair trade beanery.  The results weren’t there.  Because you can’t make someone need/want/hire you simply based on their knowledge of your existence.  All you can do is be awesome and generous, form real relationships (rather than networking “connections”) with people you like and enjoy spending time with, and let the need find you.

Step away from the screens.

In the absence of having a real job and/or enough consulting work to keep me occupied 60 hours a week in the spring, I replaced being busy with busyness.  Online, on email, digesting content constantly – it became a habit and a void filler.  Its so much easier to refresh email than go for a run.  Or pick up the phone and have a conversation.  Or write a blog post.  Or volunteer.  Making is harder than consuming – I also derive a lot more satisfaction from it.  I just have to force myself to do it.

Friends are the best wingmen.

My job is to listen and help people solve problems.  I do this for my friends all. the. time.  I always have and I hope they never stop asking.  Yet I used to think it important to separate my personal and professional lives.  What I realized that weekend is that besides my existing clients and former colleagues, my friends know best who I am and what I can do.  In the past, when friends wanted to recommend me for gigs or to hire me themselves, I was unsure.  Were they biased because they knew me? Were they giving me an unfair advantage? Yes and yes.  They also knew exactly what they were getting, that they could trust me implicitly, and that I would be honest with them.  Now when a friend presents an opportunity, I’m open to it.  If they didn’t believe in me, they wouldn’t do it.  Why would I say no?

Technology = Frenemy

Besides the compulsive relationship I was developing with my iDevices, I realized something that weekend away: sometimes, no, a lot of the the time, its better not to know what’s going on.  In this age of info overload, ignorance is even more blissful.  That Friday, I checked my email while waiting in line for movie tickets and read a message about an issue a client was having.  I then pondered that issue throughout the evening wondering if I could help, how and when.  This might make me a committed consultant; it definitely makes me terrible company.  For social media, this rings even truer.  Do I need to see an ex’s wedding photos just before I fall asleep? Or while waiting in the ladies room line at a concert? No and no.  I recognized that weekend, which was delightfully low tech, that I’d never considered the emotional toll that social media takes.  That if I engage on those platforms, my mood will necessarily be impacted, and so will the “offline” experience that I’m trying to have.

I realize I’m not exactly breaking new ground with these little lessons, but reframing my situation during a 48 hour break from real life changed how I work.  Since then, I’ve begun engagements with three fantastic clients (none of whom were known to me two months ago) and feel both relaxed and optimistic about the future.  When someone asks how work is, I can unequivocally  respond that its great.  We’re thinking about another weekend away.  Maybe St. Thomas in December.  You know, just to keep the momentum going.

The weekend I didn’t go to the shore…

3 hot tips on how not to annoy a recruiter….

I’m recruiting for 2 of my clients right now.  Recruiting isn’t something that I do very often; as a rule I’ll help with a strategic or difficult to fill role if I’m doing other work for a client and they’ve had challenges in the past.  Often this will go hand in hand with my teaching interview skills training and becoming, generally, the bouncer at the door that insures (or tries to) an issue-free pipeline.

Right now, I find myself talking to candidates every day.  Sometimes I virtually fall in love in the course of the conversation.  I became so invested in a candidate I placed a couple of weeks ago that I felt sure I would be more disappointed than she if my client selected someone else.  Someone I spoke to this week was so personable, so charming, that I welled up when I sent him a (personalized) “no fit” email.

While those magical, sparkly, matchmaking conversations are why I do this work on occasion, they are not the norm.  And so for your benefit, job seekers of America, I present three foibles from this week.  And, my suggestions for not irritating a hiring manager or headhunter and, hopefully, landing a sweet gig.

1.  The Salary Range.

Many pros will disagree with me, but really.  Would you walk into the Whole Foods and say,”I’d like to pay somewhere between $1-$3 for this apple”? No you would not.

If you want $80,000 a year, don’t say $70,000 – $90,000.  I’m not going to offer you $90 when you’ve told me you’ll take $70.  Just say “I am looking for a minimum base salary of $80,ooo” and then stop speaking.  Trust me, if I want you and my client can afford you, you’re getting $80,000.  If I want you and can’t afford you, I’ll lowball you.  Don’t tell me what your lowball number unless that’s the offer you want.

2. Premature eThankyouation.

There is something that feels disingenuous about receiving a thank you email twenty minutes after the interview has concluded.  In my 20s, after a date in NYC, it was sweet to have a text pop up when I emerged from the subway.  Its less endearing to get an email sent from the elevator as a candidate leaves the building.

Speedy thank you’s often don’t contain commentary specific to the conversation we have just had and feel, instead, like formulaic politeness (do you keep a draft saved?).  If you’re going to write the thank you email, best to wait until the end of the business day and write something that demonstrates insight and reflection.

3.  Answer the question.  And by “the,” I mean “my.”

Interviewees often have stock answers, anecdotes and examples that they want me to hear. Practiced responses are acceptable if they answer the question posed, but they rarely do. When I ask someone to tell me about a time they have had a difficult team member and how they dealt with it and they respond with a story about the biggest deal they have closed, I begin writing a grocery list in my head.  It has fixed priced apples on it.

Go forth, don’t be annoying, get hired.

3 hot tips on how not to annoy a recruiter….

On performance management….

I was recently asked to submit an article on the do’s and don’ts of performance management.  It doesn’t appear that article is going to be published, so I thought I’d put it up here for your reading pleasure.

Performance evaluation and its trappings can be a nasty little beast.  You have your top performers, who can hardly wait for the opportunity to get into a room with you to recount their accomplishments and hear your praise.  You have your under performers, who debate how to spin their shortcomings into a palatable yarn and dread the conversation.  Then you have the middle, many of whom will merely comply with the exercise and may find it stressful or useless.  This is also the group where self perception and manager evaluation are the most likely to be misaligned, producing further angst on both sides….

Some executive teams and HR thought leaders believe evaluations are going the way of the fax machine, but I believe they’re still relevant and useful if done properly.

Too often, the performance review process becomes a box-checking exercise for managers and employees alike.  A form is filled in, ratings are assigned, a conversation may or may not take place.  This is a missed opportunity for managers to create a narrative for each of their employees and to communicate an honest and holistic picture of how someone has performed and what the implications of that will be.

An annual evaluation process with a semi-annual “check in” works well. This means that an in-depth written evaluation happens annually, but every six months there is a conversation that sets expectations for what that evaluation will cover.  It ensures that bad news isn’t collected for 12 months before being shared.

My preferred process is to have employees fill in a self evaluation that includes examples and evidence to back up their assessment and provide this to their manager.  The manager then writes her evaluation, including feedback from other managers who interface directly with the employee.  The manager provides the whole document back to the employee a day or two before their review conversation is scheduled so the employee has a chance to process the information before the discussion.

The review discussion should be a dialogue that covers: past performance, areas for improvement, professional development goals for the employee, and upward feedback for the manager.  They should be in person where possible, but phone, Skype or video conference sometimes has to suffice.

Here’s a list of Do’s and Dont’s I put together a training I recently delivered.

Have a two way conversation, don’t lecture the employee
Be specific in your feedback, refer to prior conversations or issues
Focus on examples rather than conclusions
Prepare for the conversation – have an overarching theme that you want to get across
Consider your audience before the meeting and spend time thinking about your tone and messaging.  Is the employee sensitive? defensive? ambitious? angry?
Talk about behaviors, not just skills
Use the opportunity to tie together examples into a narrative
Inspire people to continue great performance, or to improve

Use adjectives like “be more proactive” “be less negative”.  Use real examples and specific ways you want the employee to act on the feedback.
Talk about money, vacation, or tangential issues.  Save that for a separate conversation – this is the employees’ time to talk about themselves, not about larger company issues.
Give critical feedback on things they can’t control, for example “new to role” “don’t know product” “client was slow or uncooperative” etc. This takes accountability away from the employee by blaming an external factor.  It also robs them of the ability to act on the feedback.
Bring new expectations into the conversation.  There should be no surprises in a performance review.
Allow comparisons – the bar is not set the same for everyone.
Give fifty pieces of feedback.  Prepare for the meeting and choose the key points that you want them to hear
Get into an argument.  If you and an employee disagree, listen to his side.  If you don’t believe that his perspective is correct, tell him why, and move on.

Its almost July, which means that now is the perfect time for a semi-annual check in conversation.  Go to it!

On performance management….

Everything 101

When I was in high school I had a boyfriend who was adorable and funny and later became a quasi-famous actor.  One morning, he came to my house unannounced.  I was in the midst of getting ready to go rollerblading (shush, it was the 90s).  He tried to convince me to bag it and head to the beach, and I tried to convince him to join me and try rollerblading for the first time.  He declined, and when I pushed for a reason he simply said “I don’t feel like learning something new today.”  I laughed at the time and relented.  But all these years later, I think of that quote often.

Because I spend a fair amount of time meditating on my internal thought processes, I have pinpointed the emotional arc that I experience when embarking on learning something new.  Whether its teaching myself to use the sewing machine I received for Christmas, play Hive, or navigate WordPress, the story is the same.

First I procrastinate until the amount of effort I’ve wasted avoiding the task is greater than the effort of doing the task.  Then I dip a toe in; skimming an instruction manual, doing a bit of online research, or posing a question to friends with expertise.  This leads to feeling overwhelmed at which point I divert my attention to something I know how to do (checking email, snacking).  Eventually, I tackle the unknown for real and push through, exhausting myself and sucking all the fun out in the process.  Then, I recover, and eventually repeat a reasonable version of the effort until I’ve gained some mastery.

The fact that I’ve finally dissected this arc enough to understand my reticence at acquiring new skills has, in itself, been somewhat helpful.  Recognizing in myself how, when, and why I derail in the face of new challenges has helped me devise a few ways to overcome my bad habits.

1.  Git ready for learnin’

Once I’ve decided to try something new, I set aside time the day before to prepare.  This might mean digging out my sheet music, setting up my music stand and tuning my cello but not actually playing.  Or, it could be unwrapping and registering my Rosetta Stone DVDs, calling customer service when they don’t work, and testing the mic on my laptop but not actually completing a lesson.  The nasty bits of administrivia that lead to the lesson can be derailleurs in and of themselves.  Taking care of those as a separate exercise means they won’t muddy the fun of the activity itself.

2.  Early bird special

Tony Schwartz says in this article that the time to tackle your most difficult challenge is the first 90 minutes of your day.  Although not a morning person, I find I’m most creative and intellectually flexible before I’ve started to engage with the world.  I liken it to how humans are taller when we wake up in the morning than at the end of the day when gravity has compressed us toward the ground.

Whether you’re going to create a new system for organizing your email or try a spin class, do it first thing.  You’ll have less time to talk yourself out of it and more mental agility to absorb the experience.

3.  Buy vs. build

Are you really going to teach yourself Ruby on Rails or might you need to attend a course? Is your fluency in Russian on track or would a conversation partner help it along? Have you been doing your daily pull-ups or would a personal trainer kick you into gear?

In my professional life, I help clients think about what to outsource vs. do themselves everyday.  My consulting practice is based on the idea that it can pay to outsource aspects of a business.  But how often do we make the same calculations with regard to personal growth? Estimate the investment you’re willing to make in learning a desired skill.  Then consider that doing it for free (e.g. on your own) may result in not doing it at all.  Calculate.

4.  Fro-yo

When I complete a milestone that I want to achieve, I reward myself with a run, an Amazon order, a TV show, or frozen yogurt – all things I enjoy and serve as deserved time away from the rigors of self-education.  Note to teacher (that’s you): completing half the module does not entitle you to half a “30 Rock.”

Those are my hot tips for today.  Now I’m going to speak some Spanish and reward myself with a yoga class.  Class dismissed.

Everything 101

How to sell yourself.

If someone knows, by all means give me a ring.

Since starting my own business, I’ve solicited a lot of advice from people who know more about doing this than I do.  Smart people have told me to network, network, network.  Write, write, write.  Speak, speak, speak.

But what no one told me is how much harder it is to get the work than to do the work.  I’ve worked for two organizations since graduation and was at each for more than five years.  I made a faster-than-usual climb up ladder and received a lot of head patting and back slapping along the way.  I had gold stars on my forehead, the right cards in my wallet, and a mind half stress, half swagger.  Now, I’m writing to people I’ve not met, attending networking events, talking about myself and asking for things.

I don’t like asking for things.  I like being asked for things.  But here I am.  Those who know me professionally reaffirm that I’m special, that I’ll make a go of this, that it just takes time.  But what it also takes is an appetite for rejection.  For being ignored.  For allowing that it doesn’t matter how capable I am if I only have two clients.

I will continue down this path and push until I succeed.  But for those at the head of the path, be warned: it seems so easy with the first clients.  Work life is better in every way than when you were at a big company.  But the path isn’t lined with flowers.  For every pointless meeting you had at your corporate job, now you will attend a useless webinar about branding and social media.  For every client call you didn’t want to answer, now you will hope that the potential client is the one answering the phone.

The work is all its cracked up to be.  Unfortunately, this business is about more than doing the work.


How to sell yourself.