Thursday, April 30, 2009

What Your Boss Really Wants to Hear in Your Next Performance Evaluation

Tests are often the bane of every student's existence -- they hate them and often don't consider them a true evaluation of what they know.

Fast forward many years, and you're once again facing a test. Only this time it's called a performance evaluation and once again, you don't believe it's a true reflection of your abilities.

The problem with tests and performance evaluations is that the power is often in the hands of the teacher or the boss. You don't really know exactly what you're going to be asked, and so may then do poorly when put on the spot.

But what if I told you that there may be a way to figure out what you're going to be asked in your next performance evaluation? Or, at least have answers prepared that will keep you from freezing like a third-grader who doesn't know his state capitals?

All bosses want the same thing. They want employees who are going to make them look better and smarter. And always, always, always, employees have to help them make money. It's the same thing, in other words, that their bosses want.

If you understand that your success depends on helping the boss get what he wants, then you can structure your answers to make sure you meet those goals. This is what you should always keep in mind when heading into a performance evaluation:

1. Find ways you make him look better. Do you review materials before they are sent to clients to make sure there are no errors? Do you follow up with unhappy customers to make sure they have a positive image of your company? Do you forward him key industry news so that he is prepared when he meets with his boss? Helping the boss look better to his boss, to customers and to peers helps the boss see the worth of having you around. Sprinkle examples throughout your meeting, so that he is reminded of how good you make him look.

2. Show that he's a genius. If you can find ways to streamline a process to save time and money, then you're going to please the boss. The boss's boss is probably breathing down his neck to find ways to cut costs and work more efficiently, so anything you can do in that area will score points. Can you come in under budget on a project? Is a new technology you discovered going to bring in more customers? Give examples of how your work travels up the ladder -- you take pressure off him because you're such a smart cookie.

3. Look for bottom-line results. Did you find a mistake from a supplier that shows your company was overcharged? Have you thought of a way to attract a new client? Have your networking efforts resulted in a new strategic partner? Companies are under enormous pressure to bring in new business in a difficult economy, so bosses are going to be even more focused on bringing in additional revenue. Always be sure you mention how your actions show you're watching that bottom line at all times. Because he sure is.

What are some other ways to help a performance evaluation go smoothly?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Using Stories to Demonstrate Your Personal Brand

If you want to see a group of children get quiet very quickly, just let the teacher pull out a book and proclaim it's time for story hour. Nothing seems to hold the attention of a bunch of wiggling little bodies more than the magic of a good story.

Several months ago, I blogged about the power of telling a story in your career. That prompted some great responses, including a book from Katharine Hansen called "Tell Me About Yourself."

I interviewed Hansen, curious about how job seekers and current employees in this tough and very competitive job market could learn how to be better storytellers.

While it is tough to tell a story in a resume, there are many more opportunities, Hansen told me, such as a cover letter than tells a story of your career interest and determination or stories about solving a problem.

Or, there are the opportunities to tell stories at networking events, or when you've got some time with a boss. He or she will be much more interested -- and you will be more memorable -- if you can tell a story about your ability to work with a difficult customer or why you are interested in a big project. (Remember no story should be more than a couple of minutes long.)

In her book, Hansen also advises people to use stories to communicate their personal brand. "Take a minute to write down what you are most known for," Hansen says. "In what area(s) can you offer yourself as an expert?"

She adds that while you may consider yourself an expert in a certain professional arena, "hobbies and interests can be fair game."

Once you've written your branding statement, then you can consider what stories would support it. Some examples Hansen gives:

* A story demonstrating your passion about your field.
* A story that shows your understanding and experience with your audience's needs.
* A story that demonstrates a pioneering idea you've developed.
* A story that shows how you fit in with the history of your field.
* A story that illustrates alliances and partnerships that support you.

The key, I believe, is knowing the difference between telling a story that makes sense to your audience, and holding them "hostage" while you ramble on about something they don't understand or care about. Practice your delivery and work on telling your stories to trusted colleagues until you believe you've developed your skills enough to use it in other professional contexts.

One final note: Be truthful with your stories. These are not fables for you to spin in front of a campfire. These stories are to be a testament to your abilities, to strengthen your career and make you memorable.

What are some other ways to use stories to help your career?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Is Credibility on the Job Becoming More Rare?

I know a lot of people are afraid to tell the truth right now. They're afraid if they don't "embellish" their credentials they won't get the job. They're worried if they say what they really think at work they'll alienate colleagues and be accused of not being a team player. They're concerned that in order to be interesting in today's hyper 24/7 world, they need to be something they're not.

It's a weird sort of phenomenon: At a time when we use "transparency" and "authenticity" with abandon, some of us seem to be moving further and further away from it. It's as if these buzzwords have killed the simple art of telling the truth.

I hear from employers every day who say that one of the things they are most concerned about with job applicants is that these people are who they say they are -- that they actually believe the views they espouse and they have the skills they claim.

At the same time, employers worry that current employees may be hurting the company's credibility if they're not behaving in a trustworthy way with clients and customers. They fear they are one Twitter away from having their reputation trashed by some employee's bad behavior or judgment.

I think one of the solutions may be that we all go back to basics. We need to remember that what we say and do has power -- the power to destroy our credibility or the power to establish it.

Let's consider some ways to stay on the up-and-up:

* Don't exaggerate. Cable television and the Internet have certainly increased the rhetoric regarding certain subjects, but sometimes it descends to the cesspool level. Don't try to "one up" yourself or the competition with words or ideas that belong in a soap opera. If you worked on an award-winning project as part of a team, then it's fine to say so. But don't stretch the truth by saying that you headed the project or did it all by yourself. It's easy to verify your role, and once you're caught in a lie, it will be difficult not to be labeled as an exaggerator -- or worse. Keep in mind that once you're known to over-dramatize the truth or cry wolf too many times, others may simply give you an eye roll and ignore anything you have to say in the future.

* Follow through. We've all said, "I'll call you" and then forget. If that happens, say so. But don't say "I'll call you" and then have no intention of doing so. Don't offer to help with a project, and then not respond to an e-mail requesting that help. It's important not to make promises you can't keep. These days, I think everyone understands, "I'd like to, but my plate is really full right now." Or, "I just don't think this is a good fit for me right now, but I appreciate you thinking of me." It's humiliating to be the person who has to keep trying to chase you down for an answer as if you're the Queen of England and we're trying to get an audience.

* Give respect to get respect. If you're known as a gossip, as someone who is unkind, self-centered or grumpy, don't expect anyone to value your input. Your attitude is likely to be delivered back to you in the form of disrespect and a lack of trust. Your credibility is shot, and in your career, that's a critical element for success.

* Don't rush. If you're new to a job or position, it may take you time to gain credibility among your peers or customers. But if you try and push yourself on others too fast, it can backfire because they may mistrust your motives. Credibility isn't something you can make happen. You will have to earn it through your consistent actions and words. If you make a mistake, admit it and move on. In fact, messing up sometimes may gain you more credibility because you're seen as human and more likely to be understanding of another person's mistakes.

Finally, look at your credibility as your responsibility. If you don't work to establish it in a real and honest way, it won't be able to withstand tough times. Building it with care will be something that will pay off in your career for a long time.

What are some ways you build your credibility?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Secrets Revealed: What They're Really Looking at When You're a New Employee

It's your first day at a new job. Everything seems to be going well, but then... (ominous music) ...then you eat a doughnut at your desk.

You can feel the change in the atmosphere. People try to hide their shocked expressions, but you see them anyway. A few pitying looks are cast into your cubicle, even a few smirks. Suddenly, your Dunkin' Donuts chocolate cake doughnut tastes like sawdust in your mouth. Crumbs drift down the front of your shirt, and the chocolate you were about to lick from your fingers is now hastily wiped on a napkin.

You don't know exactly what has happened, but you know without a doubt that your "new kid" jitters have just been ratcheted up to a level you haven't felt since you performed "Thriller" for your school's talent show.

Welcome to the pitfalls of being the new kid on the block. Because while the human resources department may have provided you with two days worth of training and given you an employee handbook as thick as the Trenton phone book, you've just screwed up in a way you never imagined: You ate at your desk.

How were you supposed to know? you wonder. No one told you that it's not OK to indulge in a harmless doughnut when you hit that mid-morning slump! But now that it has happened, people just look at your differently. You begin to wonder if you've damaged your professional reputation before you've even learned how to use the phone system.

Recently I interviewed several employers who told me that it's often the little things -- like eating at your desk when everyone always eats in the break room -- that can trip up a new worker. By not being observant of the culture in a company, new employees can find they have a more difficult time of not only meshing right away with a new team, but of impressing a boss.

"It's the little things that often put a stink on you for the rest of your career," says Maureen Crawford Hentz, manager of talent acquisition, development and compliance for Sylvania in Danvers, Mass. "Then you have to work twice as hard to erase them."

If you're taking on a new position, here are some things to consider in your first days on the job:

* Learning appropriate ways to communicate. Can you question a boss in a meeting? Is it OK to Twitter at work? Should e-mails be formal? Is it OK to address everyone by their first name, or does it depend on their title? "Spend time walking around and watching what people do. Do they talk casually with one another, or do they use formal e-mail?" Hentz says. "These are the things people don't tell you, but you need to figure out on your own."

* Not watching the clock. Don't be late and don't rush out the door as soon as the clock says it's time. You want to make it appear to others that you're happy to be there.

* Maintaining a professional workspace. "There is a difference between the workplace and the front of your refrigerator," says Bob Horst,head of recruitment and professional development for Nelson Levine deLuca and Horst LLC. "I like to see a tasteful family photo because my family is important to me. But I don't want to see a whole bunch of your child's artwork all over the place. It is a workplace."

* Keeping socialization under control. "It's important to fit in, but your main focus should be learning your job," says Linda Matzigkeit, senior vice president of human resources for Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

* Listen and learn."No one wants to hear the new guy endlessly spouting advise and wisdom on his first day. And I don't want to hear about how you used to do things at your last employer," Horst says.

* Understanding the difference between policy and reality. "Yes, lunch is 12-1 (p.m.), but do people really go? Is it acceptable to eat at your desk?" Hentz asks.

Hentz says that while it can be tough knowing what to do and what not to do, new workers can always go to human resources to get the inside skinny on the new workplace.

"Sometimes there are no hard and fast rules," Hentz says. "You just have to understand what's happening and then make your choices."

What are some other good guidelines for new workers?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Critical Considerations When Jumping to a Small Employer

If you've ever worked for a big company, you know the advantages: everything from a comprehensive employee benefits package to a great holiday party every year. Letting go of those goodies can be tough, but what if you don't have a choice? What if your large employer has kicked you to the curb along with the thousands of others who have been laid off?

One of the options to consider is going to work for a small company. But hold the phone -- jumping from a "battleship to a fishing boat" as one small business owner put it may not be that easy. For one reason, you may not like doing without all the corporate-world goodies (including the salary), and for another, a small employer may not want you.

That may be a hard pill to swallow. Not want you? Who wouldn't want your big MBA degree or your prestigious pedigree from a top corporate firm (even if it is limping like a three-legged dog) and everything you have to "teach" the little guy?

In interviewing small business owners for my Gannett ContentOne (formerly known as Gannett News Service)and column, I discovered that there is some trepidation about hiring "big company" employees.

“There’s a tremendous fear when you hire someone from a large company that they won’t stay because we can’t offer them the same level of benefits,” says Greg Redington, of REDCO Engineering and Construction Corp. “It’s a big stumbling block to hiring these people.”

While Redington has hired several people over the last three years to work for his 15-employee company in Westfield, N.J., he says the key is finding those workers who are willing to let go of their “corporate mindset” that is “completely contradictory” to a small business.

“If the phone rings here four times, then that means the receptionist is doing something else and you need to pick up the phone. If we need toilet paper in the bathroom, you need to go get it from the supply closet,” he says. “If you come from a big company and consider that an insult, then you don’t understand working for a small company.”

Steve Jakes, owner of Drake Co. in Chesterfield, Mo., which employs 22 people, agrees.

“The key is understanding the culture. In a small company, it’s sort of like family in a way. You need to be able to mix and mingle and interrelate with the other people. There’s no room for silos,” he says.

So how does someone from a large employer land a job at a small company and be content with the change?

Kathryn Kerge, president of New York-based Kerge Consulting, which provides human capital strategies to small businesses, says that those making the leap from what Drake calls the “battleship to the fishing boat” need to focus on the positive aspects of working for a small employer.

“It’s going to be obvious to any hiring manager if you are going in with any trepidation,” Kerge says. “If you’re not 100 percent sold on the idea of working for a small employer, then they’re going to know it.”

Currently the Census Bureau estimates there are 27 million businesses with fewer than 100 employees. A recent survey by Network Solutions and the University of Maryland found that of 1,000 small businesses surveyed, 69 percent made a profit in 2008.

Kerge says one of the big advantages for those seeking small business employment is the opportunity to have interactions with company leaders, and to have a greater influence on the decision-making. “At the same time, the skill set you will acquire will be incredibly more diverse, you will learn strategies much faster and see results much quicker,” she says.

If you are interested in working for a small company, those interviewed for this story suggested you should:

• Remember that every day is an adventure. In a large company, it’s often pretty clear-cut what your duties may be and how and when you should do them. In a small company, “our future is directly impacted by your present actions,” Redington says. “In a large company, it’s more like an assembly line and you just pass the stuff off to the next guy when you’re done. In a small company, something could stop and die at your desk if you don’t follow through. What you do every day can be life or death for us.”
• Be realistic about your needs. Maybe you had a Blackberry, a travel service, a car and an espresso bar at your big company, but that isn’t likely to happen at a small company. While Drake doesn’t offer a 401(k) plan, he does offer health benefits. “I talked to my employees about whether they’d rather have higher pay or health benefits. They said they’d rather have the health benefits, so that’s what I do. It’s what’s important to them.”
• Speak up. Maybe you can corporate-speak with the best of them, but small employers are looking for employees who can do more than talk. To emphasize how your skills could translate, Kerge suggests telling a small business hiring manager how you were “first” do something for your employer, or how you took a grassroots approach to achieving success with a project or team.

What other considerations are there when you switch to a small employer?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Has Praise in the Workplace Gone Too Far?

"You're great."

Who doesn't like to hear those words?

Most of us enjoy getting a pat on the back, especially at work. Complimentary words give us confidence, they motivate us and they help us believe that what we really do matters.

Still, there is nothing worse than praise that rings false. You know the kind:

"Oh, your presentation was fantastic! The best I've ever seen! And I mean, EVER!"

"What about when I fell off the stage? Or when the guy in the front row fell asleep and started snoring so loud even the back row heard him? Did you not see those 25 people leave after I'd been speaking for only 10 minutes?"

"Like I said: Fantastic! Now, I was wondering about your relationship with Bill Smith. I understand you know him and I'd just love to shoot him over a resume and was wondering if you might call on my behalf..."

Like I said, flattery is nice, but it can also backfire. If not done sincerely and at the right time, it can have the same impact -- possibly even worse -- than criticism. Why? Because it's humiliating to know that someone thinks so little of you that they would believe you would fall for such hollow words.

Believe it or not, offering praise that really counts for something takes some thought. If you think offering a compliment is no big deal, then maybe you need to reassess how and why you offer such words.Because if you're going overboard, it could just be that people will start to wear hip waders when you come around, just to get through the river of bullsh*t you seem to spew.

Let's look at some do's and don'ts of how to give praise that really matters:

* Don't be manipulative. Don't offer words of praise right before you make a request, such as the example provided above. Not only will the recipient of your false compliment not appreciate it, but it also can damage your reputation with others who won't appreciate your manipulation.

* Don't go overboard. Be specific when you offer a compliment. Instead of saying someone gave the "best presentation ever," cite an example: "I thought what you said in your presentation about green alternatives will really spark some innovation, which is what this company needs right now." Don't get caught up in saying "good job" for everything that passes your way. Take a minute and think about why it was a good job, then offer the compliment: "You really helped calm that customer down by not getting upset and by focusing on finding a solution. You really helped keep him as a customer."

* Don't give back-handed praise. "That was really a great idea you had for the new advertising campaign. Not bad for a guy who nearly lost us a big account last week." Compliments should not be used as a diversion for sticking a knife in someone's back.

* Do take the time to do it right. As I said in the beginning, sincere forms of flattery can not only motivate you, but give you confidence. Why would you rush through something so meaningful? If you're going to give a compliment, take the time to do it right. Look the person in the eye and make sure you have their full attention. And remember: Sometimes it's especially nice to give words of praise in front of others.

* Do understand that everyone likes praise. Some people at work are quiet and seem to exist in their own world. You can't imagine that what you think would matter to them. Or, there are the brash employees who constantly proclaim they don't give a dead rat's ass what anyone else thinks. No reason to worry about complimenting people like that, right? Wrong. Everyone likes to hear kind words. It's a form of nourishment for the spirit that is especially important during tough times like these in the workplace.

What are your thoughts on offering praise?

Monday, April 6, 2009

What Hiring Managers Think About During an Interview

No matter how prepared you are, a job interview can be tough. You try to appear confident -- yet excited. You want to show you're enthusiastic -- but calm. You give answers that you hope are detailed -- but not boring.

But wouldn't this process be much easier if you could just read an interviewer's mind? While I can't give you that power, I can give you some insight into what interviewers are thinking from their side of the desk.

At the forefront of their minds is....

1. Can you can really walk the talk?

“Right now, there is a level of desperation among candidates and that means they’re exaggerating their qualifications when they apply for a job. The fear for hiring managers is that when the economy turns around, these people who are overqualified for the jobs they accepted are going to jump ship,” says Scott Erker, senior vice president of Development Dimensions International (DDI).

Q VanBenschoten, director for human resources for Intertek, agrees, saying that while her company is being presented with a lot of great talent, the dilemma is whether hiring them may be a mistake in the long run. “The question always is: Are we going to be able to keep them or are they going to get bored and leave?”

And that brings us to another concern...

2. Are they missing something important?

Van Benschoten says that there has been a 30 percent increase in the number of job applicants for positions at her company. She says she’s getting resumes from those now unemployed – and those who obviously are concerned they may be in the future.

"It’s tough. You’ve got to look at resumes quickly and start making decisions about who isn’t qualified, who doesn’t meet the minimum requirements of the job,” VanBenschoten says. “A year ago, we may have looked at people who didn’t have the exact requirements, and we may still look at them. But they’re harder to catch because we’re going through so many resumes.”

And for good or for ill, some hiring managers are relying on...

3. What is their gut telling them about you?

Recently, DDI did a survey of hiring managers and found that two out of three hiring managers fear they’re missing “red flags” about candidates, and two-thirds of them believe it will come back to haunt them.

“Interviewers have to be prepared to see through the line of b.s. job candidates will give them,” Erker says. “But to be honest, a lot of companies are relying on making million dollar (hiring) decisions based on practices that are appalling.”

Specifically, Erker says the survey found 44 percent of managers rely on their “gut” to make a hiring decision. Nearly half of interviewers reported they spent just 30 minutes or less making a decision about a candidate after the interview.

“That’s a big mistake,” he says. “Managers – especially senior managers – are overconfident regarding their judgment. Interviewing is a skill. It takes practice. You’ve got to be able to ask questions – and follow-up questions – that really help you understand why the person chose a certain path. You’ve got to go deep.”

VanBenschoten says that five years ago she was making hiring decisions based on her “gut,” but has learned her lesson even if other hiring managers have not.

“I discovered that when I went with my gut, the person I chose ended up not being the right fit,” she says. “Now I use behavior-based interviewing. I’m looking for how a person handled a problem or an issue, and if their response would fit what is required in a position here.”

Further, VanBenschoten says she often will run a job candidate’s answers by other managers as a way to check her “assumptions” to make sure she’s selecting the best person for a job.

“It’s like falling in love and everything seems so perfect. But sometimes you need to get someone else’s take on it, see how they would approach the situation,” she says.

What else may a hiring manager be considering during an interview?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

5 Steps to Making "Excitement" Your Middle Name

Perhaps until now you've been content with watching people's eyes glaze over when you speak. Perhaps you haven't minded too much that people continually check their watch, their Blackberry or whether they have something in their teeth when you give a presentation.

But it's time to get real. If "exciting" or "riveting" or even "interesting" has never been connected with your name or what you have to say, then it's time to realize your communication skills need some help.

Because here's the deal: If you can't get people to listen to you, then you could be in real trouble. In today's hyper-connected, hyper-competitive work environment, you've got to make sure that people understand why you're valuable. And the only way to do that is to make sure they think what you're saying is worth listening to.

First, find out the size of the problem. Ask some trusted colleagues or even a mentor if you are an effective communicator. Do you have a tendency to ramble? Do you have a reputation of being boring? Are you seen as uninteresting? If these or any other issues are cited by friends or co-workers or even bosses, then you've got to make some changes.

Here are some ways to add some excitement to your communications:

1. Look in the mirror. It sounds trite, I know, but no one is going to listen to you if you are physically a mess. It's important that you dress so that you fit in with the company culture, but you should also pay attention that you don't fade into the wallpaper. An attractive hairstyle, wearing colors that flatter your skintone and standing up straight while making eye contact is the first step to getting someone to pay attention.

2. Talk, don't lecture. No one wants to feel like they're back in classroom, held captive by a boring professor. If you give a presentation, don't read directly from your notes. Know the material well enough that you can "talk" to your audience. Don't bury people in statistics -- present written material to the audience and just hit the highlights, inviting questions. If you're just having a casual conversation, don't revert to data-speak. "I can send you those figures in an e-mail, but let's talk about why they're important for you." Conversations are always more interesting.

3. Look for warning signs. If people start to fidget, yawn or check their watch, then you need to pep things up. Ask a question or solicit an opinion. "What's been your experience with this?" "Is there anything you would do differently?" "What are your concerns?" People respond positively when they feel like you've got an interest in their opinion.

4. Ask for help. "I get excited about this stuff, but I know that may not be the case for everyone. Just give me a sign when you feel yourself going numb...." This enlists others to help you out -- they become an ally in helping you be more interesting.

5. Practice. Maybe you sound much more interesting when you're at home practicing in front of the mirror. But when you have face-to-face conversations at work, or are in a meeting, you are the very definition of "boring." Do what the professional communicators do -- come up with some great lines that will help others understand you better. Comparisons and similes are great, as are a reference to current events. "Trying to install this new system by next month is like the Detroit Lions winning the Super Bowl next year. Definitely tough and definitely challenging -- but not impossible."

What are some other ways to become more interesting when you communicate?