Friday, December 31, 2010

Tips for Combining Business and Personal Travel

I've joined my husband on business trips -- both with and without the kids -- and I can tell you it's a lot of fun. But it can also be a bit stressful if you don't plan ahead. I thought since many of us are always searching for ways to make business travel a bit more rewarding, some road warriors could share their insight on how they do it. Here's the column I did for Gannett/USA Today:

Business travel is expected to pick up in 2011 after two years of cutbacks, which could put even more of a strain on employees who struggle to meet all their work demands, find time to spend with families or just recharge their batteries.

For some road warriors, the solution comes in combining business travel with family vacations or a chance to pursue private interests. Still, juggling on-the-road work duties and some private fun time isn't without a few hitches, and those who have done it successfully say it requires some planning.

Robert Barnwell, who was employed by the Royal Bank of Scotland in 2007, was sent on a six-month assignment to London and figured out a way to take his 4-year-old daughter with him.

"I was able to find a nursery school for her just a couple of blocks away from where I was staying," he says.

Now a City University of New York professor, Barnwell says taking his daughter along was made after full consideration of the assignments he would be facing. He recommends not taking a child on a business trip "if you're going to bring them along and just ignore them" or if a client or company is "not family friendly" and perhaps wouldn't look favorably on having a family tag along on a trip.

"You just have to realistic. If I know I've got an urgent project with a lot of demands, it wouldn't be fair — to my family or the business — to take my family," he says.

Adam Keats, senior vice president of digital communications for Weber Shandwick, says that his wife has joined him on business trips, and he has taken the opportunity to visit places such as Istanbul and Beijing when he's traveling internationally on business.

"I think it's really better if your family joins you at the end of your business trip, because that's typically when the pressure of your job is over. If I had to give a presentation or something, that would be on my mind and I'd want to get that over with before I took some time off for other things," he says.

If you're considering taking your family along on a business trip or carving out some time for private pursuits, consider:

Doing your homework. Call the hotel where you're staying and see if they offer kid-friendly options such as playgrounds, swimming pools, in-room game systems or even free kid's meals. Some hotels off babysitting services. You also can ask if they have safety features for children such as outlet covers.

Checking the location. Choose a hotel that's close to entertainment such as museums, zoos, parks and restaurants. Ask if the hotel has a shuttle to nearby attractions.

Setting a schedule. Let your family know you're going to be working specific hours so they won't be disappointed when you can't join them for all their adventures. If you're traveling alone and looking for some private time, let your office know when you're going to take your time off.

Being realistic. Hauling small children halfway across the world for a week-long conference probably won't go well if they're not used to traveling. Don't be too ambitious with your first forays into combining business and family travels. Think about a two-day conference to start until you know how the experience will work.

Combining forces. Sometimes you'll be traveling with colleagues who also would like to bring along children. Think about offering to exchange babysitting time, so you and your spouse can have time alone.

Keeping clear records. Make sure you keep track of business and private expenses, so it's clear you're not billing your client or employer for costs associated with your family vacation. If you take side trips for pleasure, make sure it doesn't add to the company's costs. If it does, pick up that extra expense yourself and clearly show you footed the bill.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What You Need to Say in an Interview

Sometimes I really feel for my kids. As a career columnist, I've been full of advice -- from how to behave at work to how to choose the right career -- since they were about 3-years-old. But the reason I feel so strongly about giving them as much information about the workplace as possible is because I hear all too often from employers who have unbelievable tales about young people who come in for interviews and say, "So, what is it you do here?"

Or, when I talk to college classes and ask, "How many of you know that what you post online will be checked out by an employer?" -- only a smattering of hands go up.

That's why I hope this column I wrote for Gannett/USA Today will provide some insight for parents and their children...

Those graduating from college soon may have only one request of Santa this year: Bring me a job.

As employers remain cautious about hiring because of concerns over taxes, health care and the global economy, graduates are facing some dismal conditions for finding work. Competition for jobs is even tougher as many graduates from last year still search for full-time employment, and more experienced job hunters are striving for jobs that the inexperienced once filled.

Still, some employers are hiring college graduates, and you can gain their attention.

Garrett Miller, president and chief executive of CoTria and former recruiter for Pfizer, has some advice for college students in the job hunt now or those who may soon join it. He says the key is showing employers you have the traits most of them are looking for: work ethic, humility, integrity and maturity.

"Employers are dying to hire phenomenal people, and most kids have what it takes — they just don't know how to package it," says Miller, author ofHire on a WHIM (Dog Ear Publishing, $14.95).

Garrett says you can grab the attention of employers several ways:

• Show you make the grade. While some managers may demand that a student make a certain grade-point average to be considered for a job, others are looking for those who have demonstrated they're ready to enter the world of work.

"I have always looked at students who have been busy with a purpose," he says.

That means if you were active in a fraternity or sorority, a sports team or club, talk about how these activities required motivation, self-improvement and purpose — a work ethic. Talk about how working a job while going to school taught you important lessons.

"Employers are looking for those who worked hard for something, those who have a 'put me in coach mentality,' " he says.

• Tell your story. Don't just recite a list of your grades, clubs, hobbies and job interests to employers, Miller says.

"Tell your story with excitement. Sit on the edge of your seat and say, 'I'm really glad you asked me that question,' " he says.

Don't be afraid to talk about how you failed or were disappointed in a certain situation — such as receiving a poor grade — but always frame it as a lesson learned and something that helped you to grow, he says.

Showing humility to employers is important, he says, because many millenials "are getting beaned" for not being seen as "teachable," Miller says. "A lot of recruiters are shying away from young people because they think that this generation can't take criticism or direction."

• Step up. Employers also are looking for young job seekers to show they understand what it means to have integrity, Miller says.

Job candidates should share a story about how they took responsibility for a failure in their life and how they faced a moment of "moral ambiguity," he says. Employers also will be watching for those who seem to blame others for their travails, such as someone who says, "I would have gotten an A on that project if it hadn't been for my classmate."

Miller says employers want those who are willing to accept responsibility for outcomes.

• Demonstrate maturity. Don't just show up for an interview and say, "So what is it you do here?" Do your homework.

Look for information online about the company or read trade articles mentioning the company or the industry. Have questions prepared to ask.

"This shows your engagement and interest and that you're curious and willing to learn," Miller says.

He also suggests being open about personal experiences that may have shaped you into the person you are today — and the person you hope to be years from now.

Any other advice for young people you'd like to share?


Thursday, December 16, 2010

4 Ways to Feel Better When Your Career Sucks

Everyone in my life knows not to talk to me for the first 30 minutes I'm awake in the mornings. And sometimes the last hour before I go to bed. To be honest, sometimes the middle of the day isn't such a great time, either.

I don't always have the sunniest demeanor. After being a journalist for many, many years, I have seen the best -- and the worst -- mankind has to offer. That's left me with a sort of cynically realistic outlook that doesn't allow optimism much room to maneuver. I am not the giggly sort. I don't necessarily look at the glass as half empty, but do keep a sharp eye out for someone to grab the half that remains.

So, when I interviewed Shawn Achor about being more optimistic, I was a bit skeptical. Still, after reading his book and listening to the brain science behind positive psychology, I have to say I've been making some changes in my life. So far, so good. Read this column I did for Gannett/USA Today and see if you might want to do the same:

It's pretty tough to stay positive if you've been out of work for a while — or have a job but your boss makes your life miserable.

Science has shown it is possible to maintain an optimistic frame of mind even in these difficult situations, and even the most negative people can "rewire" their brains to focus on happiness and positive thoughts more often.

Shawn Achor, founder and chief executive of Good Think Inc. and a leading expert on human potential, says the key is that we must stop thinking that happiness can be achieved only after we've reached a goal such as a new job or a promotion. Instead, Achor says research in psychology and neuroscience shows that happiness is what leads to success — not the other way around.

For example, if you're hunting for a job and feel negative as time passes, then your thoughts become mired in those thoughts and you begin to drag through your days.

You see fewer possibilities as your brain underperforms in its negative state. And even if you do land a job interview? Your unhappiness and negativity can be perceived by others, Achor says, and your chances for landing the job plunge.

But if you work on having more positive thoughts, "then your brain becomes more resilient in the face of challenges and you see more possibilities," Achor says, leading to more opportunities for success in finding a job.

Achor, author of "The Happiness Advantage" (Crown Business, $25) emphasizes that this "positive psychology" does not say someone should be happy to be unemployed but rather encourages those going through a difficult time to put aside bad thoughts and instead think about what actions are open to them to make themselves feel better and have a more positive outlook.

Some of the ways a person unhappy at work or now unemployed can achieve a more positive outlook:

• Do something that makes you happy. Called a "happiness booster," it can be anything from writing down three things a day that make you grateful to exercising.

He says that one of the quickest ways to get your brain on a positive path is by sending a two-sentence e-mail expressing gratitude to another person.

"It stops your brain from being paralyzed by the challenges you have. Your brain can't do two things at once, so it can't scan the world for the negative when you're using it to express what you're grateful for," he says.

• Take control. "Positive psychology is about being a rational optimist. We don't expect people to be Pollyannaish, but you can focus on concrete action that is within your control," he says.

For example, instead of sending out big batches of resumes in one day — many for work that a job seeker may not feel confident about — send one resume for a job where the person feels success is a possibility.

"If you keep goals small and manageable and very concrete, then the brain short-circuits that emotional hijacking that comes when you feel overwhelmed," he says.

• Change your viewpoint. If you hate your boss, for example, don't compare your situation to a workplace with a good boss.

Instead, compare your situation to someone who doesn't have a job, Achor says.

"We've found in our studies of companies with bad bosses that while some of the employees were miserable, others found ways to be optimistic," he says. "The difference is that the optimistic people found other things to be grateful for."

• Seek social interactions. If you've got a rotten manager, find ways to invest more in your relationship with colleagues, he says.

"Social support is the single greatest predictor of our happiness and success during a time of challenge," Achor says. "So a social investment can be an antidote to a bad boss."

He also suggests spending more time with family and friends and keeping a photograph of loved ones nearby to remind you of those positive feelings.

Achor says that for many of us, negativity is our default position.

But our brains can be rewired by spending 21 straight days focusing on positive aspects in our lives, he says. At the end of that time, you will find that positive thoughts come more easily and quickly, instead of negative ones.

As a result, you will become more successful and productive, Achor says.

"The key is that we're not saying that bad things — such as not having a job or a bad boss — are good things," he says. "But given that you're facing such a challenge, you can use a positive brain to get you through."

Do you have ways you get through tough times?


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

5 Things You Must Know Before the Office Party

I've written about the workplace for a long time, and I know that when the calendar hits December there's going to be a flurry of advice about what you should and shouldn't do at the office holiday party.

Among the do's:
* Dress appropriately
* Network with people you don't know

Among the don'ts:
* Get so drunk you puke in the parking lot
* Dress like Lady Gaga

I think it's a time we got real. Most of us know not to get drunk at office parties, but some of us do it anyway. For those of you who do this, your career is probably headed for the toilet anyway, so I won't waste my breath telling you to lay off the bourbon shots at the party.

What I'm going to focus on in this post are those more subtle things you need to know about holiday parties. Here they are:

* Don't wear a holiday sweater. Anyone who wears one -- man or woman -- ages another 20 years. Wait. Make that 30 years.

* Have Tic-Tacs in your pocket or purse. After munching on cheese and crackers and knocking back a few beers, your breath could peel the paint off the walls. If you want to have a friendly conversation with your peers and business colleagues, you don't want to send them into a coma with one exhale in their direction.

* Eat before the event. There's nothing more off-putting than the person who bellies up to the buffet with the single-minded focus on trying to pile food in a pyramid that rivals something in Egypt. The party should be a chance to mingle and talk to people, so eat beforehand if you're starving. That way, you'll pay more attention to conversing than nabbing more cold cuts.

* Prep your guest. If you're taking a spouse, chances are this person has had to listen to every bitch, moan and complaint about everyone at work. Chances also are good your spouse has forgotten who you said was sleeping with whom, and why you don't want to sit next to Bob (who has never heard of Tic-Tacs -- or mouthwash.) So, the car ride to the party is a good time to go over a few things before arriving so you're on the same page.

*Leave problems at home. If you've had a fight with your teenager before the party, the dog peed on your new carpet or your new girlfriend cancelled coming to the party with you at the last minute, don't share that information at the party. It's a chance to let people see you away from work, to have fun and relax. Don't be thought of a party pooper.

What other suggestions do you have for this year's holiday party?

Friday, December 10, 2010

How to Find a Professional Mentor if You're in College

When I was in college, I relied greatly on the advice of my school newspaper advisor, who had just left a bureau job for UPI to enter the college teaching arena. I found his advice invaluable -- much more so that some of my professors who hadn't been in the "real" working world in more than two decades.

Many college students today feel the same way. While they value the knowledge their professors can give them, they're also hungry to hear "in the trenches" stories and advice from professionals. That's what this organization I wrote about for Gannett/USA Today aims to do:

Saquoia Lewis, 21, says she's always wanted a mentor.

Coming from a family where no one has graduated from college, Lewis says finding someone to help her make educational and career choices was difficult.

"I just didn't know which direction to go," says Lewis, now a College of Southern Nevada student.

That's when Lewis found StudentMentor, a nonprofit organization that matches college students with volunteer mentors for free. Lewis says she's found a professional not only willing to help guide her with college decisions but someone who understands what she's going through because of a similar background.

"I've learned a lot from her," says Lewis of the human resources professional she now e-mails at least twice a week with questions. "She has had an interest in psychology, just like I do. We spend time talking about our families, but she also encourages me to not procrastinate and to stay in school."

Ashkon Jafari, co-founder and executive director of StudentMentor, says the mentoring organization was launched because while students in grades K-12 have plenty of programs to find mentors, college students often don't have anyone to guide them.

Jafari, 24, says he received critical advice from a professional while in school regarding his career path and college classes and believes others students should have the same kind of mentoring experience. Many students, he says, need networking and career advice, especially as they face a tough job market upon graduation.

At the same time, more professionals are willing to be mentors to college students, Jafari says. He says many unemployed professionals are looking to fill their time with a worthwhile cause, and some 300 mentors have signed up since the site was launched in October, he says.

"Our program also is different because we don't put people through tedious sign-up processes," he says. "If you're a student at any college, anywhere, all you do is sign up and you'll immediately see a list of possible (mentor) matches. You review their background, click on the person you like and then you'll be able to message them."

So far, professionals who have signed up to be mentors include doctors, lawyers, retired business executives and midlevel workers across a wide range of industries, he says.

"We even let upperclassmen — like those in law school — serve as mentors," he says. "They can offer a lot of advice about what classes to take."

Jafari says both mentors and mentees can have multiple contacts, and it's OK for those involved to end communications if they believe it's not a good fit for some reason. "The mentorship lasts as long as they want," he says, adding the organization checks in with those involved in mentor relationships to monitor progress and solicit feedback for making improvements.

After six months, the mentorships are automatically "closed," but can be continued if the mentors and mentees desire, he says.

StudentMentor is hoping to attract corporate sponsorships to stay afloat, and right now is being run with the help of dozens of volunteers, many of them right out of college.

"We know there is a huge need out there. Many students don't have access to professionals, or they go to schools where it's harder to get connections, for example, with someone working on Wall Street. This is a way to find out how to get yourself on that path, if that's what you want," Jafari says.

Jafari quit a full-time, well-paying finance job for a high-tech company to launch this venture. He says he is just one of the "idealistic individuals" who see StudentMentor as a chance to help other college students.

"This is what I want to do," he says. "I want to work for a nonprofit, and we want to help other students find what it is they want to do."

Says Lewis: "My mentor understands me because she was in the same boat, working for little money and going to school. But she now makes a lot of money and has a career. That motivates me."

Have you had a great mentor in your life? What made them so special?


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Stress and Slushies

The news that Pfizer's 55-year-old CEO has decided to retire because he is burned out and over-stressed by the job probably struck a chord with many people.

Probably millions of people.

The difference, however, is that while Jeffrey Kindler is likely to retire with enough money to buy an island and have a personal slushy machine, the rest of America's workers -- including those older than Kindler -- will continue working.

In a Wall Street Journal story, a company spokesman noted how Kindler put "110% into his role."

Hmmm.....I guess this means he probably worked long days and weekends. He probably had trouble sleeping, with all the work on his plate. His family life probably suffered, and his wife may have begun to worry that the job was taking a physical toll on him.

I think while we may not be able to buy an island -- or even afford a slushy -- we can identify with Kindler. Who among us has not gone through a lot of stress in the last couple of years? Who hasn't wished to retire and get away from it all?

Let's just hope that employers start to figure out that the stress and overwork is taking a toll on all of us. Not just CEOs. Everyone from entry-level workers to senior managers can't keep up this pace and expect to produce the kind of quality work needed to compete in today's global marketplace.

In the meantime, let's hope Kindler buys the island and invites us all for some time off. I'll even make the slushies.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

How To Keep Your Good Ideas From Being Shot Down at Work

Long before Debbie Downer ever came along -- or Michael Scott or Dwight Schrute hit the airwaves -- there have been naysayers in the workplace.

You know exactly who I'm talking about. Those people who shoot down your good ideas before they even get off the ground. The negative co-workers or bosses who always seem to have an argument as to why your plan won't work.

Sometimes, the only way to get past these people is to leave your job and take your good ideas to a more positive environment. But with unemployment so high, it's not likely you can just pack up and leave as you once may have considered.

So, how do you get your good ideas past the Debbie's and the Michael's and the Dwight's of the world? It's a subject I explored for my Gannett/USA Today column:

If you've ever had an idea shot down at work, you know it's not a great feeling.
You may feel frustrated, or angry, or both. You think about how short-sighted the people in charge must be and think maybe you'll just quit your job and take your creative genius to a company that appreciates good ideas.

But here's the problem: If you don't learn to do a better job of presenting your ideas, chances are good the same thing will happen over and over, no matter where you work.

If you can't learn to deal with all those people whose aim it is to knock your ideas out of the arena, then you're going nowhere in your career, says John P. Kotter, a Harvard University professor and leadership expert.

"I wouldn't be surprised if 9 out of 10 good ideas are killed off," Kotter says. "But we need good ideas more than ever because the world is moving so fast we can't do things like we did yesterday. We have to come up with new ideas on how to do things."

Kotter says as the competition for jobs has heated up, many of those in the workplace — perhaps unconsciously — will try even harder to shoot down the ideas of others in an effort to protect their jobs and their turf.

"We don't even know how many people decide to give up on offering ideas because they figure it's never going to fly after they've had so many ideas shot down," Kotter says. "They may decide they're willing to take one more (negative comment) — but then they're going to shut up."

In a new book with Lorne A. Whitehead, "Buy In," (Harvard Business Review, $22), Kotter explains the kinds of attacks that dismantle good ideas — and how to deal with those issues so that your good idea can move forward and get the support of others.

Specifically, the authors outline 24 common attacks, and how you can deal with them to keep your idea alive. Among them:

1. Why change? When someone questions why there is a need to alter a course that has worked in the past, then you should respond with, "True. But surely we have all seen that those who fail to adapt eventually become extinct."

2. Money should rule. When your idea is dismissed because money is the "real" issue — and your idea isn't about money — you can say, "Extra money is rarely what builds truly great ventures or organizations."

3. It's a trivial pursuit. If your idea is attacked for not being important, don't give up. Respond with, "To the good people who suffer because of this problem, it certainly doesn't look small."

4. It's too limited. Being accused that your proposal doesn't go far enough, you can answer, "Maybe, but our idea will get us started moving in the right direction and will do so without further delay."

5. No one else is doing it. If you're questioned as to why someone else hasn't already implemented your good idea somewhere else, point out that "there really is a first time for everything, and we do have a unique opportunity."

6. It didn't work before. Shooting down your idea by saying it's been done before is a common tactic — whether it's true or not. Just say, "That was then. Conditions inevitably change — and what we propose probably isn't exactly what was tried before."

7. Delay, delay, delay. You may be told that now isn't the "right" time for your idea, and it should be put off until something else happens, or changes. Don't be fooled by the person pretending to like your idea, only to try and squelch it. Say something like, "The best time is almost always when you have people excited and committed to make something happen. And that's now."

8. It's too much work. That's a genuine concern because most people in the workplace today really are overworked and underpaid. To battle that argument, respond with "Hard can be good. A genuinely good new idea, facing time-consuming obstacles, can both raise our energy level and motivate us to eliminate wasted time."

"These kinds of arguments are targeted at everyone from the 23-year-old entry-level workers to the executive vice president," Kotter says. "Even CEOs go through this. But if you understand the arguments that will be made, then you can gain the self confidence you need because you're using common sense to fight them."

What other ways can you get your good ideas heard?