Thursday, July 31, 2008

Ten Things They Never Taught You in School But you Gotta Know in Order to Survive on the Job

Most new parents I know say that can't believe the hospital just let them walk out with their newborn child. The panic sets in as they realize there is no owner's manual to accompany such a momentous event in their lives.

The same could be true of the workplace. Sure, some attend years and years of school, but nothing really prepares you for what the workplace is truly like.

That's why I've put together this list. Tuck it in your pocket. Post it on your refrigerator. E-mail it to yourself. Just don't forget these lessons that you need to know when you work for living:

1. Learn to read upside down.

2. Always carry two pens.

3. Never talk about bodily functions at work. This includes hormones, flatulence and constipation. Only share those events with someone related to you by blood or marriage.

4. Clean up after yourself. Maids work at the Hilton, not your office.

5. Hold the door. The smallest niceties often have the greatest impact.

6. Just because someone is lower than you on the company totem pole doesn't mean they can't retaliate if you wrong them.

7. If you keep up only with your industry or job, you'll be royally screwed when you're booted from both.

8. You are replaceable. Ten people could fill your job tomorrow, and a couple of them are within a few feet of you.

9. Look out the window. Taking your nose away from the grindstone often brings about the greatest insight, clarity and creativity.

10. Be careful of anyone who takes your side in an argument. Their commiseration can cause you to say things you'll come to regret.

What else do we need to know to survive in the workplace?


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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What You Can Learn from a Turkey Buzzard About Striking Out on Your Own

I often describe my job these days as being a turkey buzzard.

This is not something I am proud of. Well, maybe. A little bit.

That's because at a time when journalists are being laid off by the hundreds and the freelance writing market sometimes resembles a sweatshop operation, I have managed to survive.

How? I've learned to take what others might term "road kill" and turn it into a pretty decent meal. And you can do the same with your career.

First, in order to become a turkey buzzard, you've got to learn to see the beauty and possibility of a bird that scares the bejeesus out of most people, or at least invokes a shudder. My friend, Kathryn, at Plant Whatever Brings You Joy, once wrote a wonderful piece about these birds. I thought she was kinda crazy, but then I decided that maybe there was a lesson in there for me.

The lesson was this: Sometimes what looks ugly on the surface can really be pretty cool once you open your mind to other possibilties.

We all like to think that we're going to get the biggest piece of pie, the best promotion, the corner office or the juicy pay raise. But sometimes our careers don't always go as planned, and before we know it, we're staring at a dead carcass, known as our job.

That's where the turkey buzzard mindset comes in. Instead of seeing a dead career, you look at it from a buzzard's point of view and see.... opportunity.

In this tough economy, with industries undergoing great upheavals and more people facing layoffs and downsizings, it's the person who creates something from what others see as nothing that will survive.

So, let's talk about ways to prepare for the day you need to be a turkey buzzard:

* Learn to pick through the bones. Many companies these days are streamlining operations, or cutting out services because they're too expensive. But if you see there's still real need for those services -- just on a more limited basis -- you can create an opportunity for yourself.

My first freelance job was for a financially struggling publisher where I had once worked. I approached them, outlining what I could do for them, and how I could hit the ground running because I was so familiar with their business. They took me up on it and I think it was a great solution for everyone. It gave me a steady stream of income while I got the rest of my business underway, and they were able to get a qualified writer for less money that a fulltime writer, and didn't have to pay benefits.

So, if you are let go from an employer, consider if there is a service at your company that is being cut because it is too expensive and too far-reaching -- but you could provide it on a limited scale for less money. The employer would be more willing to contract with an employee familiar with the operation, whether it's coaching services provided by a departing manager, or a laid off worker becoming a virtual assistant.

* Look for hidden goodies. What others may ignore because they believe it's not worth the effort is a golden opportunity for you. The project that was ditched because no one had the time to devote to it, or the difficult (but lucrative) client that was avoided are just the kinds of challenges you can take on when you're on your own.

I don't know how many times I've heard people say: "I can't believe my employer doesn't see this opportunity. We could make lots of money on it, but there's too much red tape."

That's exactly where you come in. You've seen those chances for growth and can now go after them without being hampered by long chains of command and paperwork that would put the IRS to shame. Another advantage is that many times these opportunities are with people you've already met through your former job, so your path should be smoother when you pitch them your idea.

* Gather strength from the rest of the buzzards. Just look at the blogosphere to see the number of bloggers who have joined forces to create powerhouse destinations. These are people who have learned that combining the different talents of various people makes their product stronger. When you decide to create something new, make sure you maintain a strong network. Many of those strong connections will be from your former employer, possibly others who are looking to grasp a new opportunity.

* Scope out new territory. While the pickings at your former employer may be great, don't fall into the trap of only getting your meal from one source, or feeling like you owe them more than anyone else. Former employers can provide a good way to get your new venture off the ground, but you've always got to be scavenging for new sources of income and protecting what you've created.

Do you have a plan in place to propose to your employer should you lose your job?

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Watch Out for That Wrinkle -- It May be a Career Killer

Recently, a friend told me about a party she attended called "Botox or Bangs." For those of you unaware of this trend (as I was), it means that when you get of a "certain age" you can either cut bangs to hide the wrinkles in your forehead, or you can get Botox to freeze your forehead so it doesn't move for months and it looks unlined.

My friend opted for the bangs -- and the Botox.

When I asked her why she would ever willingly let another person stick a needle in her face, her answer was this: "I just got a new boss -- and she's younger than me."

Yeah, so?

"Well," my friend says, "I know it may sound stupid, but I don't want to be the 'older employee' in my office. It's very competitive these days. I consider it to be an investment in my career."

OK. Well, silly me. I always considered an investment in a career to be attending a training session on PowerPoint presentations or taking a class at the university. But needles? Never crossed my mind.

My friend -- always very honest -- also confided that she was contemplating an eye lift, which I assume means even more needles and a couple of knives.


"Because," she explained slowly to me as if I were a 3-year-old wanting to know why I couldn't shave the family dog, "the people I work with are getting younger and younger. I don't want to have to look for another job at my age. I've got to hold onto this job, so I need to be as 'fresh' looking as possible."

I realize some of you are not going to be surprised by this in the least. After all, we see television programs that promote the young, the nubile and the unlined. We watch reality shows on everyday people becoming "swans" after undergoing plastic surgery, and books on how not to look old are bestsellers.

Still, it's disturbing to think that older workers believe they are no long viable unless their faces resemble something out of Madam Tussaud's wax museum. Back fat, jiggly arms and crow's feet are now career liabilities?

According to the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, about two thirds of its members say that men and women are requesting cosmetic surgery because they wanted to remain competitive in the workplace.

Earlier this year I interviewed Dr. Gordon Patzer, founder of the Appearance Research Institute, and he told me that employers consistently hire and promote the best-looking candidates in a pool of equally qualified people. At the same time, he talked about the ugly downside of a society obsessed with youth and good looks, noting the rise of unhealthy body obsessions.

My friend assures me that she knows what she's doing, and won't end up looking like Priscilla Presley. The Botox, bangs and impending eye lift are not just for career reasons, she says, but also because they will help her feel better.

"I just want to look as young as I feel," she says.

I understand, believe me. But I can't imagine where this country would be without people like Benjamin Franklin and John Adams and Eleanor Roosevelt and Mother Teresa, all people who didn't look that "fresh" during some of the most productive years of their lives. Would bangs have meant they had even more impact? Would Botox have meant they were smarter or could earn more money?

I don't mean to sound naive. I know in this world many people have "procedures" and feel great about it. But I can't help but wonder if a few lines on the face, a bit of gray in the hair, and perhaps wisdom and experience conveyed in the action of a worker wouldn't be of value to a younger manager.

If not, then maybe the newest employee benefit offering should be a payroll withdrawal option for "Botox or bangs."

Are older workers feeling more pressure about the way they look? What should they do about it, if anything?

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Friday, July 25, 2008

A Teacher's Final Words to All of Us

Note: I wrote this post last September, and wanted to re-post it as a tribute to Randy Pausch, whose death was just announced.

For those of you who haven’t seen Randy Pausch’s final lecture to his students at Carnegie Mellon University, I urge you to take some time and watch it.

In the lecture, Pausch, who is dying of pancreatic cancer at age 46, speaks of all the things he wanted to do in his life, and all the things he has managed to accomplish.

It ranged from winning giant stuffed animals at various carnivals to working for Disney as an imagineer to floating weightless. He spoke of how he not only got to live many of his dreams from childhood, but was “able to enable” the dreams of others.

While refraining from speaking of his wife and three young children in order to keep the lecture from being a pity party, Pausch delivered a funny, insightful and inspiring talk to some 400 students and colleagues that provides lessons for all of us.

I’d like to draw from some of his comments and ask you to think about your own life and career:

“Permission to dream.” Pausch says that while he wanted to play for the NFL, that wasn’t a dream that was destined to come true. Still, by playing football as a child, he learned important lessons of perseverance and teamwork that helped him in his other career pursuits. What are you doing in your life to enrich you career in important ways? Are you looking for opportunities to do something you enjoy – not just to earn money? What key lessons have you learned from something you feel passionate about that you can apply to your career?
“Brick walls are there for a reason.” While Pausch thought his Ph.D. would gain him entrance to Disney, he notes that they wrote him the best “go to hell” rejection letters he’d ever seen. Still, that didn’t stop him and he eventually realized another childhood dream and became an imagineer for the company. “Brick walls stop people who don’t want it bad enough,” he says. Have you let a dream die because it seemed too hard? When you were a child, what did you want to do when you grew up – and is there a way to make it come true? Are you letting too many brick walls come between you and what you really want in your career?
"Have specific dreams." Even as a child, Pausch understood that with his poor eyesight he couldn’t be an astronaut. That didn’t stop him from wanting to float in space, another dream realized when he became older and was able to be in NASA’s “vomit comet” for about 25 seconds. Maybe you have a career goal, but have made it too broad to be realistic. I once knew a man who wanted to be a professional baseball player, which wasn’t going to happen. Still, he used his accounting skills to become an accountant for a minor league baseball team, keeping him close to the game he loved.
“Be Captain Kirk.” Paush admits that he revised that dream to “meeting Captain Kirk,” which he did. More important, he says that he learned that while Kirk wasn’t the smartest person on the ship, “he no doubt had great leadership skills to be learned from – plus he had the coolest damned toys.” Who is someone you admire for their leadership abilities? What can you learn from this person? How can you use those skills to help yourself and others on the job?

During his lecture, Pausch showed a beautiful, new brick home, obviously large enough to contain the energies of his young family in the years to come. He said he and his wife recently purchased it because that is what is needed for the future, one that will probably find his children growing up without him.

At the same time, it appears that Pausch left us all with something that we need. A reminder to remember our dreams and go after them.


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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

How to Know When It's Time to Take Your Job Off Life Support

You can't exactly put your finger on it, but somehow your job has started sucking the life force out of you.

Every day you feel a little more depressed, a little more like maybe you should just call in sick and sit home and watch "Cash Cab."

Still, the thought of looking for another job is even more depressing. There's the business of writing the resume. You know you'll face rejections. You'll have to go on interviews, and that ranks right up there with with having someone wax your entire body.

OK, maybe things aren't that bad at work, you think. Maybe you will somehow pull yourself out of this rut. After all, it's better to keep bringing home a paycheck than try to get another job when millions of others are trying to do the same thing, right? Who knows...the next job might be even worse.

Not so fast. It may be it's time to consider what your gut is trying to tell you, and it's this: Your job is headed down the toilet.

How to recognize that it's time to get the resume together? Consider these signs:
* The paper trail. I'm always amazed when people don't understand that a case is being built against them whenever they start getting those snarky memos from managers, using words and phrases like "failed" and "falls short" and "not up to standards" and "missed deadlines."
* The "whammo" performance evaluation. Sort of a Whack-a-Mole game for managers, where everything positive you bring up is slapped down. Another sign a case is being built against you.
* You have tread marks on your back. Those are signs that others have been running you over on their way to promotions that should have been yours. Missing a couple of opportunities may not be a big deal, but more than that means you're on the fast track to Doomed.
* You repel money. Pay raises? Forget it. Your budget is reduced or put under the jurisdiction of someone else. You're not part of a project that is expected to bring in big money or spend big money. The office manager always seems to lose your request for new equipment.
* Everyone is too busy for you. Your calls are not being returned, and your e-mails seem to suffer the same fate. You're not included in key meetings, and no one stops to shoot the breeze with you anymore. While you may think this is OK, it's really a sign that others perceive you as someone on the outs.

Finally, keep in mind that even though the job market is tough right now, it's much better to be looking for work on your terms. It's always easier to look for a job when you have a job. Don't wait until it's too late and you're forced to join the unemployed masses.

What are some other signs a job may be in trouble? Is there a way to recover?


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Monday, July 21, 2008

Going Over the Boss's Head: Like Swimming With Sharks While a T-bone is Strapped to Your Butt

Before I get into discussing the issue of whether you can -- or should -- go over your boss's head, I'd like to share a little story with you....

Once upon a time there was a young woman named Letitia Hood. Because her hair was a vibrant auburn color, and she was a bit vertically challenged, she was known in her office as Little Red Riding Hood -- or "Red" for short.

Red was a diligent worker. So diligent, in fact, that she felt she deserved a promotion and a raise. But her boss, Jack Wolfson (know as "Wolf"), believed that Red still had some work to do before he could grant her wish.

One day, Red became very frustrated with Wolf, and decided to pay a visit to Granson Mayer III, who was Wolf's boss. She thought that if she just explained to Granson Mayer III (known as Grandma) that Wolf was being short-sighted, she could get the raise and the promotion, and everyone would live happily ever after.

But Grandma, having been in the business world a long, long time, knew that he couldn't grant Red's wish because that would be breaking the management code of honor, which states that no employee can ever, ever go over a boss's head. (It just isn't done.) He did not, however, share this information with Red.

"Thank you for coming to see me, Ms. Red. You've given me a lot to think about. Please return to your cubicle. I need time to ponder your request," Grandma said.

Red, believing she had victory close at hand, nearly skipped back to the elevator that would take her to the lower levels where employees labored. But as she left the elevator on her floor (13), Wolfson emerged from his office.

"Well, hello Red! How are you today?" he said, grinning widely.

Red noticed that Wolf's teeth seemed a bit larger on this day, but she felt so optimistic from her meeting with Grandma that she smiled in return and said, "Well, Wolf, I'm just terrific! Thanks for asking!"

As she started to continue on her way, Wolf said, "Wait, just one minute, Red. Can I see you in my office for a moment?"

At this point, Red felt her beautiful auburn tresses begin to stand up on the back of her neck. But she ignored the feeling, and instead said, "Sure!"

She entered her boss's office, where he gently -- but firmly -- closed the door behind her.

Later that day, a co-worker went looking for Red to ask her a question. But he could not find her. He searched the lunchroom, the conference room and even asked another female employee to check the women's restroom. But no one could find Red.

Days later, Red still was missing. Her lunch remained uneaten (and frankly, began to smell) in the offfice refrigerator. Her frumpy sweater, used when the air conditioning chilled her delicate shoulders, hung forgotten on the back of her chair.

After a while, someone new moved into Red's cubicle, donated her sweater to charity and dumped her wilted ficus into the trash. Her rancid lunch was swept away, and her e-mail bounced a "recipient not found" to anyone who tried to reach her.

Soon, no one mentioned Red's name aloud, referring to her only in hushed tones and usually only late on Friday afternoons when the bosses had already left for their golf courses and lake houses.

It was often the new employees who would bring up Red's name, having heard whispers about her. Older employees would tell the tale of Red, how she had visited Grandma with her request and then been lured into Wolf's office. The moral of the story, the elders warned, was this:

"No one goes over the boss's head and lives to tell the tale."

Red's story is just that -- a story. But it is one that rings all too true with many people who have tried to go over the boss's head and ended up losing.

Why? Because managers -- even if they don't really like one another -- will stick together. They won't tolerate an employee trying to "undermine" their authority. Such mutiny is seen as not only detrimental to the management ranks, but disloyal to the company as a whole. So, as in Red's case, trying such a strategy can be extemely risky.

Sort of like jumping into shark-infested waters with a T-bone strapped to your butt.

But if you do decide to go over your boss's head, make sure you have a very clear idea of why you're doing it and what you want to accomplish.

You're going to need documentation to take to your boss's boss to prove your point, and you're going to have to be very clear, professional and unemotional.

But here's the most important point: Never take this step unless you are prepared to lose your job. Because that is a very real risk. You might not lose it immediately, but once you've gone over the boss's head, there is a real chance that your boss will not want to have a thing to do with you -- and neither will any other manager in the company. So, you may find yourself on a career track to nowhere in that company. In other words, even if you win the battle, you may lose the war.

Of course, anytime your boss is doing something unethical or illegal, you really have no choice but to take it to the next level, leave, or do both. Not only is this a professional obligation, but if the boss is doing something that serious, then you don't want to be associated with it.

The decision cannot be made lightly. Some people have done it and gone on to be productive employees. But remember: You've got to make sure that what you might lose isn't greater than what you might gain.

What do you think about going over the boss's head? Can it be done?

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Ten Rules Guaranteed to Cause You Less Stress

It's Friday. TGIF, right? You've put in some long hours, dedicated yourself to the job and figured out a way to whittle your lunch tab down to $1.25 (ketchup put into hot water makes tomato soup, right?).

I know you're stressed. That's why I'm here to tell you that it's really OK if you:

1. See that when you're the only one getting on the elevator with the top boss you suddenly say: "Oops! I forgot something! You go ahead!" Some days you just really don't want to do the whole elevator-pitch thing, ya know?

2. Claim you already gave to the latest charitable cause for which a colleague is collecting money. You're not a bad person, but if it comes down to saving the sea turtles or a latte, well...

3. Don't watch "The Office" because it depresses you. It cuts a little to close to the bone. "Dwight" has inhabited the cubicle next to you for three very, very long years.

4. Are determined to best your personal record of 17 straight spins in your chair. You brought some WD-40 to work, and are waiting for everyone to leave before trying for your personal goal of 35 spins.

5. Have scoped out a future retiree's larger, more private work space and are already schmoozing the office manager to make sure that when the time comes, that baby is YOURS.

6. Claim you didn't get the phone message from your boss over the weekend because your service sucks. And the e-mail? Same thing.

7. Show up for the company potluck with your personal, extra-secret recipe for chocolate chip cookies. Good thing Mrs. Field's is near your house...

8.Have written an entire novel in your head during a human resources presentation on "Know Your Company, Love Your Company."

9.Paid the snotty parking lot attendant all in pennies on the day he reported you were parked in vacationing employee's spot.

10. Offer your opinion on the latest business books, although you didn't actually read them. But those reviews are so helpful, aren't they?

If you want to add to this list, feel free. It's Friday. It's OK.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Five Reasons No One Wants to Listen to You at Work

While we spend a lot of time these days using electronic communication, we can never forget the importance of that face-to-face communication that is so critical to our success.

People make a snap judgement about you the minute you meet them. They check out what you're wearing, how your hair looks, if you smell good (or at least, not bad) and then they wait for you to open your mouth.

And that's when many of us really screw up.

So, let's consider the some of the ways we make others wish we'd never speak again:

1. Upspeak. "I am so glad to meet you? I have a lot of good information for you regarding your marketing campaign? It's going to bring you lots of publicity?"
Well, is it or isn't it? For goodness' sake, when you express every thought as if it were a question, you sound like a junior high kid working a bake sale. This was a bad trend started decades ago, and it has stuck around longer than most marriages. Dump it. It makes you sound unsure, immature and unprofessional. Got it?

2. Like. I like ice cream. I like getting a pay raise. What I don't like is anyone using "like" too much. This also used to be only a speech pattern associated with 13-year-old adolescents sporting a mouthful of braces. Unfortunately, now it's permeating cubicles.
"I, like, didn't even get, like, a chance to give my report to like, the client?" you say to your boss.
So, now the boss is wondering: Did you give the report or not? Sprinkling "like" throughout your speech pattern a little bit may be OK, but it's a hard habit to break and can become a big problem. It's time to drop the "likes" from your speech. It makes your message muddled, and is annoying because, like, it takes you like, about, like forever to spit something out. If you're not sure you're guilty of it, record a phone conversation and see if you have developed this unlikeable habit.

3. Using words inappropriately. Do you say "acrossed" when you mean "across"? Or say "for all intensive purposes" instead of "for all intents and purposes"? If you have any hopes of rising through the ranks of your profession, nothing makes others snigger behind your back more than you mucking up words or phrases. Check out online sites that can help you spot some of your goofs and improve them.

4. Laughing. At everything. This can take on a couple of different forms. There's giggling and there's the laughing "huff" that is supposed to be a self-deprecating maneuver on the part of the speaker, but just becomes weird after a while.
Some examples:
"I couldn't get the client's office because I forgot to bring the directions." (giggle, giggle).
"I told him what a bad idea that was since we didn't have near enough time to redesign the website (huff, huff), and especially since I was short handed (huff, huff).

By this time others listening to your giggling and huffing are thinking: What's so funny?
Often the constant giggling, laughing, huffing, snorting, etc., are protective gestures that come about because the person is nervous about communicating a message. The key is to learn to take a deep breath when speaking, and to use your hands more when talking. This is an old trick that will help you keep your breathing even, and keep you from talking too fast and resorting to huffing and laughing your way through a conversation.

5. Saying "I think." Always begin your comments with authority, and saying "I think" makes it sound like you're somehow not 100 percent sure about your opinion. So, instead of saying, "I think we should contract with that company because they're progressive and innovative," you say, "That company is innovative and progressive and would be a great partner for us."
See how that sounds much more assured, more authoritative? You now give off the vibe that you know what you're talking about, that others should believe you and you're an authority on the subject.

These are all pretty simple fixes, but could make a huge difference in the image you present to others. Talk to friends or family about what could be some of your speech "crutches" or record yourself and look for ways to improve. It's worth the time and effort to make sure others are listening to what you have to say.

What other bad habits should people break that hurt their careers?

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Monday, July 14, 2008

What's So Bad About Being No. 2?

As Barack Obama and John McCain try and decide who should be their vice-presidential running mate, let's take a look at what's so great about being No. 2.

OK. Hmmmm...

1. You're not No. 3.
2. You usually get a good parking spot.
3. See reason No. 1.

All right, all kidding aside, is it really so bad to be No. 2? Well, it can be kind of tough to proclaim that you're really proud to be second-in-command in this country. After all, aren't we programmed from an early age that we want to be -- no, must be -- No. 1?

Our children must go to the top preschool, elementary school, high school, college, etc. No one, after all, holds up those foam fingers at football games that proclaim "We're No. 2!" Companies proclaim they have the No. 1 laundry detergent and we must be the No. 1 sales team before we get our bonus from the boss.

But what if your life's aspiration is to be No. 2? Does that make you a loser?


The No. 2 can wield enormous power. Just look at Dick Cheney. (OK, on second thought, let's not.)

Let's instead look at all the reasons that being No. 2 isn't such a bad gig:
1. It's action-packed. While No. 1 gets to make the final decision, it's the second-in-command who puts it into play. If you like facing challenges, being the go-to person, this may be a job you love.
2. You can be a fly-on-the-wall. People pay a lot of attention to No. 1, and may carefully watch what they say or do around him or her. But the No. 2 can often sit back, observe and learn. Seeing people in their unguarded moments can be a fascinating adventure.
3. You learn from No. 1's mistakes. It's called second-mover advantage by game theorists: No. 2's gain an edge simply by observing what the first mover has done.
4.You get to keep your head on your shoulders. When times are tough, people are looking for someone to blame. That usually is No. 1. And No. 1 usually is asked, or forced, to take a hike.
5. You get a great parking spot. Did I already mention that?

Of course, there are downsides to being No. 2. In a sort of "kick the dog" syndrome, the No. 1 can take out frustrations most often on the second-in-command. Or, it can get frustrating seeing No. 1 taking credit for your hard work. And, when you're No. 2 sometimes you have to do things you don't agree with, but you have to because your boss is -- you got it -- the boss of you.

But if you can get past some of the frustrations, some of the blows to your own ego, No. 2 these days may be the best position on the field. You can be exposed to important people and jobs, you can have a real impact on a company's direction and outlook and you probably won't take the hit if things go south. If you have problems saying you're not No. 1, just remember the words of Margaret Thatcher: "Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't."

Do you think being No. 2 is a good thing? Why or why not?


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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

You're Such a Total Dumb**s for Not Taking That Promotion....Or Maybe Not...

If your boss walked up to you today and offered you a promotion, with quite a substantial pay raise, would you take it?

"Well, duh," you might think. "Of course."

Now let's say that your boss offers you more money, but you will also be required to relocate -- or work more hours or perhaps take on tasks you don't like.

So, do you still take the promotion?

That's the dilemma many people face in their careers. While it seems a no-brainer that you grab a promotion and the extra cash with no hestitation, the decision is often not so clear-cut for some people.

In the early part of our careers, my husband and I relocated five times in 13 years for promotions. Was it easy? Nope. We moved away from family and friends and put in long, long hours. We endured enormous stress that came with moving up the corporate ladder, but we didn't complain.

Until, of course, we did complain. We looked at our lives and what we had (money, stock options, prestige), and what we didn't have (nearby family, a humane work schedule, a balanced existence), and decided we had had enough. So, we stepped off that ladder and have never regretted it.

But it's a hard decision to turn down a promotion. Most people will agree that if you do so, you've dealt a serious blow to your career. The boss may not offer again. You may be seen as not being totally committed to your employer. Others will see you as a slacker.

On the other hand, people do turn down promotions and go on to live happy and productive lives (see above). But there is some delicate footwork that needs to be done if you decide to take that road, so it's important to give it careful consideration.

Let's look at why you should accept a promotion:
* More money. Enough said.
* It's a chance to grow your skills and become more valuable.
* You will get more opportunities to meet higher-ups who can offer you even more chances to climb the corporate ladder.
* Exposure to new ideas, places and people.
* More money. (Did I mention that one already?)

Now, let's look at why you should not accept a promotion:
* It is too big of a stretch. You're bound to fail in a truly spectacular way. Think Evel Knievel going over the Grand Canyon.
* You would be working with people you don't know, don't want to know -- or know and don't like.
* Moving away from friends and family. Or, asking family members to be
uprooted from everything they know and love. If you have teenagers, this can mean lots of slammed doors.
* The job doesn't interest you in any way, shape or form.

The decision can be tough, but the good news is that some companies are more accepting of someone turning down a promotion. The trick is that you've got to frame your refusal in positive terms, such as "Gee, I'm so honored that I was offered this job, but I've thought a lot about it, and I just don't feel like it's a good fit for me right now. I've really got a lot more I want to accomplish in my current job, and am excited about where I'm headed."

Then, you've got to hope your boss accepts this gracefully. One more thing: Don't plan on turning down a promotion more than once. That truly is a good way to knock yourself off the career ladder.

Do you think someone always has to accept a promotion? Can you turn down a promotion and not hurt a career?


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Sunday, July 6, 2008

Warning! Have You Become a Toxic Sponge?

I once had a job where the boss was a toxic leader. You know the kind: arrogant, small-minded, belittling, etc. (In short, what Bob Sutton refers to as the "asshole boss.")

But no matter how miserable she made my life, no matter how unhappy she made the lives of everyone in the office, I kept a smile on my face.

"Good morning!" I would chirp at the beginning of every day to my co-workers. "How are you? Great day, isn't it?"

I would listen to others whine about how the boss was piling work on them, about how the boss yelled and humiliated them in front of others, about how the boss called them at home over the weekend and made them come into work for some bogus reason.

I would nod sympathetically, offer some encouraging words and then try to get my work done. But of course, the boss would get on my case about something, and I would try to just stay calm and not let her rattle me. I always thought, "Well, if she's yelling at me, then she's not yelling at so-and-so. I can take it."

By the end of the day, I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. I had spent eight hours or more reassuring co-workers, making them smile or laugh, trying to instill a sense of calm in a workplace that resembled an asylum. I did all this, of course, because I felt like I was the stronger one, that I was grace under pressure. I was made of sterner stuff than others, I thought. The truth was, I felt like a nice breeze would knock me over.

Reality was catching up with me, and the reality was this: I had become a toxic sponge.

I was taking on not only the unhappiness of my own situation, but that of others. I absorbed the mental and emotional blows of a workplace gone bad, trying to shore up each co-worker's battered self-esteem as well as my own.

I'm sure you can guess the outcome. I developed bad headaches and could hardly get out of bed in the morning. The things that used to give me pleasure no longer had much meaning. On Friday nights, I would often fall asleep soon after I got home from work and not wake until late the next morning. By Saturday afternoon, I began to get a sick feeling as I contemplated that Monday was only a day-and-a-half away. Forget the Sunday night blues. I was depressed by noon on Saturday.

Of course, I finally got out of the job and learned a valuable lesson. I could not take on the woes of everyone in a workplace. The reasons behind me becoming a toxic sponge were noble in the beginning, but to continue down that path was dumb. And yet, how could I not be there for the people who obviously needed me?

I see many people in this exact situation today. As companies cut jobs for the sixth straight month, it's rough out there. Despair, anger and even hopelessness have hit many workers, and so the toxic sponges are stepping up their efforts.

These sponges can be rank-and-file workers -- as I was -- or they may be in management. But few will acknowledge they have fallen into this role. They like to think of themselves as optimistic, or upbeat or supportive, or some other term besides toxic sponge. But the reality is that they are absorbing much of the stress in the workplace for others and they cannot keep it up.

So, as a recovered toxic sponge, I'd like to offer a bit of advice:

* Talk about it. Get a mentor, either professional or personal, and let them know what's going on. What you need is an acknowledgement that your efforts are appreciated, but that you're going to harm yourself if you don't get some distance. A mentor can help you see different ways to offer support without taking on the world's woes.

* Learn to say "no." Don't step in every time someone needs help. Saying your plate is full or that you're overloaded and simply can't help at this time is not a federal crime.

* Take a break. It's critical that you physically remove yourself from the situation. If you can't take a vacation, take several long weekends. It will help you regain your footing and help you focus on things that make you happy or help you relax.

* Focus on your health. You will be especially vulnerable to physical ailments if you are under intense emotional strain. The thing that saved me during my toxic sponge days is that I had to walk quite a ways to the bus and subway to get to and from work, which helped release some of the stress. Make sure you focus on exercise, eating right and getting enough rest.

Could you -- or someone you know -- be a toxic sponge?


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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

If You Were a Salad, What Kind of Dressing Would You Be?

Anyone searching for a job knows the excitement of finally landing an interview. But just imagine how you would feel, after prepping for hours to make sure you're ready to answer questions about why you'd be great for the job, to have a hiring manager lean earnestly forward and ask:

"If you could compare yourself with any animal, which would it be and why?"


Welcome to the whacky new world of interviewing.

Lynne Sarikas, director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University in Boston, recently filled me in on some of the, er, creative interview questions being asked of job applicants:

* If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be and why?
* If you were a car, what type would you be?
* If you had only six months to left to live, what would you do with the time?
* If you could be a super hero, what would you want your superpowers to be?
* How do I rate as an interviewer?

OK, I think I see the point. The point is the try and rattle the job candidates a bit, because if they've followed the advice that I and others have given them over the years, they've done their homework and prepared good, solid answers to many of the standard (sane) interview questions.

But ever since the high-tech companies started asking questions designed to evaluate how a person thinks (why is a manhole cover round?), interviewers are starting to push the envelope in coming up with off-the-wall questions.

Sarikas says the key is not to panic. There really isn't a right or wrong answer to these questions, but the point is to see how you react when asked to think on your feet. The first thing you do is take a deep breath, so you don't blurt out something like, "Are you kidding me? What kind of crap is this?"

The second thing is to give an answer, even if you feel like an idiot. So, when the interviewer asks, "If you were a salad, what kind of dressing would you be?" answer it to the best of your ability.

"Why, ranch of course," you say. "I go with just about anything, and am favored by most."

Still, if you're feeling it's time to turn the tables a bit and see what this employer is thinking, maybe you could ask some creative questions of your own:

* If your CEO were an animal, what would it be? (If they mention hyena, turkey buzzard, boa constrictor -- you might want to head for the exit.)
* If you could have one person in this company on a deserted island with you, who would you pick? (If the interviewer can't name one person, you may want to reconsider the lack of friendliness within the ranks.)
* If you were asked to compare the supervisor for this job with a food, what would it be? (If a lemon, prune or lima bean is mentioned, be careful in accepting this job. Very careful.)
* If a book were written about this company, what would the title be? (If "Loserville," "Eaten Alive" or "Insanity" is mentioned, again, head for the exit.)

Do you think these kinds of questions being asked of job candidates are fair? Do they serve a purpose?

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