Thursday, January 27, 2011

7 Tips to Boost Your Memory

Blogs such as The Cynical Girl (by Laurie Ruettimann) have generated some entertaining -- and informative -- discussions about what older applicants should wear to an interview. The consensus seems to be that hair dye is a no-no (only professionally-applied highlights, please) and turtlenecks only call attention to your slacking neck skin, not hide it.

But beyond trying to look vibrant and not two years older than Moses, what are older workers or job seekers to do about those dreaded "senior moments" that might happen on the job or during an interview? Try to bluff their way through the fact they can't recall the name of a former boss when asked?

If older job seekers and workers are going to go to the trouble to get highlights, then I figure they may need a little help with what is going on inside their heads, as well. Here's the column I did for Gannett/USA Today:

There's no lack of jokes about "senior moments" — those times when you reach for something in your brain and, well, it's not answering the call.

While referring to your own child as "what's his name" and calling anything technological "that thingamajig" may prompt laughter and plenty of teasing from friends and family, what happens when you have a brain glitch at work — or during a job interview?

At a time when more people say they plan to work into their 70s because they want to — or because of financial need — how will signs of aging affect a career or job hunt?

Dr. Gary Small, director of the University of California-Los Angeles Center on Aging, says that older workers need to focus on what they can bring to the workplace that makes them special — not obsess about senior moments or their inability master all the new technology.

"The good news for older job seekers, for example, is that their brains know more. They have more life experiences and their frontal lobe functioning makes it easier for them to read people better, to have better face-to-face interactions," he says. "These are all things that can be emphasized to an employer."

Still, for those who expected before the economic downturn to be retiring — and are now looking at working another decade or more — the idea of remaining competitive in the workplace with younger workers can be daunting. Small says the key is taking steps to remain mentally sharp as you age.

For example, he suggests:

• Get physical. A brisk walk every day even for 10 or 15 minutes can help stimulate blood flow to your brain, and walking with a friend or spouse is even better because it helps relieve stress. Stress can cause more "middle-age pauses" when we can't remember things like where we left our car keys, so practice meditation or tai-chi so that you stay calm at work, he says.

• Eat well. Get plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and fish at least twice a week. Cut down on alcohol and nicotine.

• Be mentally stimulated. Studies indicate that mental stimulation — such as crossword puzzles or card games — can lower the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Small says any move to "flex your brain muscle" is a good idea, so stay active with mental and social activities outside of work.

• Create mental snapshots. If you have trouble remembering names, Small recommends using mental imagery. For example, you might envision a dollar bill when you meet "Bill," which will help you recall his name later.

• Give up multitasking. "Multitasking doesn't work for anyone — regardless of age — and can lead to mistakes." Small says it makes more sense for older workers to set aside blocks of time to accomplish certain tasks, such as answering e-mail. The focus on one task at a time will lead to greater efficiency and fewer errors, he says.

• Take mini-vacations. Small suggests tracking the number of hours worked daily compared with the number of hours devoted to leisure activities. While it's important to take vacations lasting several days to recharge your batteries, it's just as important to take needed breaks during the day. He says older workers should strive to balance their work and leisure time, so they keep their mental abilities fresh.

• Learn new things. Older workers should embrace learning new skills and seek training on new technology. This can be especially important for older job seekers to show they're capable of handling the evolving technological demands of the work force, he says.

Finally, Small says that if you're concerned that your senior moments aren't amusing — and may be the sign of something more serious such as Alzheimer's disease — see a doctor.

"Worrying about your memory can just make it worse, and there's nothing wrong with seeing a doctor," he says. "We know that starting treatment early (for Alzheimer's) can lead to better outcomes," he says.

Do you think "senior moments" can hurt a career?


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Uh-Oh: What To Do When You're in Trouble

Would you hire an ex-convict? Would you work with one?

There's a story today in The New York Times about how some states are helping ex-cons find jobs in the hopes it will keep them from returning to prison.

It's no secret that finding a job these days can be difficult, but can you imagine what it's like if you have a criminal record?

That's certainly something you have to worry about if you get into trouble with the law. But what about if you have a job when you get arrested, even for something like DUI? Will you automatically get fired? Should you try and cover it up and just hope and pray the boss never finds out?

Most bosses, I think, would say that he or she wants all the facts involved before deciding to fire someone for an arrest. Management will probably also take into account the company culture before taking action.

If you're employed with a company that promotes family-friendly values, for example, you might immediately be placed on administrative leave until an investigation is concluded. If you work for a smaller employer, you might get more leniency since mom-and-pop operations are often closer to workers and may be more understanding and supportive of you.

Still, no matter who you work for, the best thing to do when you've been arrested for an offense -- even it seems minor to you -- is to get legal advice before you say anything to an employer. A lawyer can help you figure out if you've got to fess up to the boss under company rules, or perhaps be able to fly below the radar and keep management from finding out.

Of course, the problem with staying mum about your trouble is that the boss may still find out -- and do you want him to hear the news from you or the office gossip?

Even if you do decide to come clean, don't post it on Facebook or blab about it in the break room. In some cases, whatever you say to someone else can be used in your trial and possibly seen as an admission of guilt, depending on what you spill to others.

One bit of hope you can hang onto if you're arrested is that if you're a valuable employee, the boss may be more tolerant of your legal problems and be willing to give you a second chance.

The boss also may be more tolerant of an arrest if it just involves poor judgment on your part -- such as being caught peeing in an alley after a Super Bowl party -- rather than smacking your roommate over the head with a lava lamp. Charges of violence can make employers nervous, not to mention fellow employees.

How would you feel working with someone with a criminal record?


Friday, January 21, 2011

Is It Time to Prune Your Rosebush?

I do not call myself a gardener, because that seems to intimate that I have some level of proficiency at planting and growing stuff. Based on the number of plants, trees and bushes I ripped out last fall because they were dead, dying or just looked like crap, I'd say P. Allen Smith's job is safe.

But in the story I did recently for Gannett/USAToday, I realize that sometimes I may need to use more of my "dump it and start anew" strategy for other areas of my life.

For you, it may be that you need to make some career decisions. Read this and decide for yourself...

Is it time to quit your job?

Contemplating such a thing even six months ago may have seemed unfathomable. But as companies begin hiring by the thousands, it's a thought that will cross the minds of more workers in the year ahead. Might now be the time to jump ship and find another job?

After all, workers are burned out. Many haven't gotten a pay raise in years, and others even have taken pay cuts and seen their benefits slashed to stay employed. Faced with more tasks and responsibilities every day, many employees are going to work feeling unhappy and trapped. The future they envisioned for their career seems to no longer be there.

That's why it's time to consider whether it's time to bring things to an end, Henry Cloud says.

"People are at the point where they think there's got to be something better than this — or mad as hell and not going to take it anymore," says Cloud, a leadership coach and author of Necessary Endings (Harper Business, $25.99).

He says workers contemplating a change need to recognize what's worth fixing in their career or job and what needs to come to an end. For example, he suggests asking yourself several questions, including, "Do I want this same reality, frustration, or problem six months from now?"

By defining where the pain is coming from, by realizing that being miserable doesn't have to be the new normal, then people can begin to grasp that they do have control.

"They can learn to take control of the things they can change that are making them miserable. They can begin to learn new skills. They can network with others. That's empowering," he says.

No one should be afraid of endings, Cloud says. Endings always happen in life and that includes those in a career.

Teams, co-workers, companies and jobs will end, but new ones will begin, he says. If we can't learn when it's time to bring things to a close, then we can stagnate in a career and become destined to repeat the same mistakes over and over.

Workers should prune their careers, much as a gardener would with a rosebush.

That means workers must get rid of tasks or duties that take away from the thriving parts of their career.

"Over your career, you generate more projects and relationships, but you can't really succeed if you don't prune away some things so that you can give time and focus to the things that matter," he says.

One of the best ways employees can make sure their focus and energy stays on important tasks is to make sure they don't take on extra duties without giving something up.

"When the boss gives you something new to do, you say, 'What is it you want me to take time away from in order to do this?' " Cloud says. "This helps keep the boss focused on where the resources should go. You're helping the boss to prune, as well."

Workers also should focus on the thriving parts of their career — just as a gardener wouldn't keep trying to save a sick plant when everything has been tried or try to revive something long dead. "Ask yourself, 'Is what I'm doing today in line with what I want tomorrow?' "

Finally, Cloud says that to ensure you move forward, make sure you create a sense of urgency by "getting close to the misery."

Be honest with the misery you feel instead of trying to medicate yourself with alcohol or drugs to avoid the pain of your workplace situation. Confront the reality and how you will deal with it unless you make changes, he says.

"Feel your vision, smell it, see it. See the reality that could be if you would only end what is," he says. "And see the reality of your future if you don't. That will get you moving."

What strategies have worked for you when making difficult career decisions?


Monday, January 17, 2011

Can Meetings Sabotage Your Career?

“The brain will absorb only what the butt can endure.”

-- Anonymous

Who hasn't sat through a meeting and wished there would be a fire alarm (false, of course), just so the torture would come to an end? Raise your hand if you feel like you attend too many meetings, but fear proposing an end to endless meeting would lead to more meetings to discuss the issue?

Still, meetings can be important in ways you haven't considered. Alliances can be made or broken in meetings, power structures can be built -- or destroyed -- by the dynamics present in a meeting.

Next time you attend a meeting, consider:

  • Looking the part. If you show up looking disorganized, trailing papers like bread crumbs and appearing as if you slept in your clothes, others may think you're not ready for the meeting -- not someone who should garner attention or respect.
  • Being more than a lump of human clay. OK, we know you don't want to be at the meeting, but don't sit there with a mutinous look on your face, tapping away on your Blackberry or shooting irritated glances at everyone in the room. You're a grown-up, not a 13-year-old who has just been made to go to Aunt Sissy's 85th birthday party. It's OK if you don't have anything relevant to say, but at least look interested and pay attention.
  • Don't be the silence-filler. If there are silences in the meeting, let them be. These are the times when you don't want to open your mouth and add to the problem by starting a discussion about something off-topic and inane, like who stole your tuna sandwich out of the office refrigerator last Friday.
  • Spit it out. No one likes someone who rambles when making a point, so make sure you've given some thought to what you'd like to say before the meeting so you'll say it as concisely as possible. On the other hand, don't let someone interrupt you or you'll set the tone that others can do the same. If someone butts in when you're in the middle of a thought, say something like, "Please let me finish..." and then keep going.
  • Don't always be the "devil's advocate." It's valuable to express other opinions, but it's annoying as hell to everyone if you're always the one setting off little bombs in a meeting just to get people riled up. People who constantly say, "I hate to be the devil's advocate," really love it. We know it, so just stop doing it.
  • Bosses don't like surprises. If you've got a big idea, it's best to run it by your boss before a meeting. You don't want to embarrass yourself -- or the boss -- with an idea that's a politically touchy one.
  • Always thank others. Do you think you're the only one who hates meetings? Your co-workers often feel the same way, so show your appreciation for their thoughts or ideas. Stop colleagues briefly after a meeting and express your appreciation for their comments, even if you don't agree. That's a great way to establish rapport and strengthen connections with others -- and that will be a big help if you ever need support for an idea in the next meeting.

What other meeting suggestions do you have?

Friday, January 14, 2011

4 ways to Boost Your Standing at Work

I can't tell you the number of people in the last two years who recommended to me that workers should just "hunker down" or "keep their heads down" while the job market was in such turmoil.

The thousands of people who were left shaking in their cubicles -- wondering if they'd receive the next pink slip -- reminded me of the old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes.

But times are improving, if slowly. I thought it was time to look at what workers can be doing now to prepare for better times.

Here's the column I did for Gannett/USA Today:

By now you're probably launching yourself full-throttle into a fresh start for the new year: a new exercise routine, a healthier diet and a commitment to get the garage organized.

So while you're on the road to a fresh start, what are you going to do about your career?

While for the past two years you may have been content to just hunker down and try and survive, now is the time to poke your head out of your foxhole at work and consider how you're going to move your career forward. Because as economic conditions improve and employer optimism grows, you want to make sure you're part of any new plans that will expand and grow your job — and your paycheck.

"It's time for everyone to stretch themselves. The economy is starting to improve — there is going to be more hiring and promoting going on in companies in the coming year, and you want to make sure you're one of the first ones recognized," says Steve M. Cohen, president and partner of Labor Management Advisory Group Inc.and HR Solutions: On-Call, both based in Kansas City, Mo.

That means employees need to be primed to show themselves off to their employers and to prove to bosses they've got the right stuff to be moved into key positions or garner rewards, he says.

Still, that's not always easy when workers may be resentful of the treatment they've received in the last couple of years. They may have faced reduced pay or benefits, or asked to take on more duties without extra compensation. But Cohen says if employees want to be at the front of the line for the good things at their company, they've got to leave behind any "surly manners" and behave in a way that shows employers they're committed and enthusiastic.

"You cannot be apathetic," Cohen says. "You've got to engage yourself and show that you have a company's best interests at heart."

Often, that means doing something as simple as showing up for work bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, decked out in professional garb with an attitude to match, he says.

Cohen says some ways to get noticed as being a positive performer who can help the company grow include:

• Behaving with integrity. This can mean everything from making sure you contribute your portion to the office coffee fund to refusing to gossip about co-workers. It means you don't show up late for work and you don't try to sneak out early. You don't "borrow" office supplies to take home, and you don't pad expense reports.

• Being a go-getter. Show up for meetings prepared, and make sure you contribute by asking questions or providing useful information. Playing Angry Birds on your smartphone instead of returning phone calls promptly won't help you get ahead. Read industry reports so you're ready to offer suggestions on how your company can best position itself as the economy improves.

• Stepping forward. Don't hang back and hope someone else will volunteer for a difficult project. Even if it requires you to learn new skills, the chance to show you're not afraid to face new challenges can be a key sign to your boss that you're ready to help your company meet new goals this year.

• Expressing optimism. Pessimism was rampant during the Great Recession, but now is the time to cast off negative vibes and express hope for the future. Don't be negative or critical about your colleague's ideas, and look for ways to support others. Offer ideas to enhance a project or expand the business.

What others steps should workers be taking for this new year?


Monday, January 10, 2011

Are You Aware of Your Rude Workplace Behavior?

Do you think other people in the workplace are rude? If you have a pulse, the answer is probably "yes," or "hell, yes." I've yet to talk to someone in the last 20 years who doesn't think workplace manners could be improved.

A recent story said that some concerned parents -- and even embarrassed employers -- are paying up to $400 an hour because young workers are committing so many social blunders in professional settings. Of course, we all know that texting is as common to young workers as breathing -- but others see it as rude.

Still, young workers aren't the only ones who are exhibiting rude behavior in the workplace.

So, I'm going to save you $400 an hour and give some etiquette pointers that anyone -- of any age -- should take to heart.

1. Don't leave the room in the middle of a presentation. Unless the kidney you've been waiting for has just arrived, stay put. The speaker has spent time and effort putting together the information, so you're obligated to stay in your seat.

2. Leave your cell phone off the table. You don't get to claim you're the next Miss (or Mr.) Manners just because you put it on "mute." We can see you darting your eyes to the screen to check for calls.

3. Be aware of confined spaces. If you're sharing a cab, riding in an elevator, traveling via airport tram, etc., be aware that others aren't interested in listening to you gab on your cell phone, whine about your bad knees or review the latest Johnny Depp film. The greatest gift you can give others who are jammed in a small space with you is some peace and quiet.

4. Keep moving unless asked to stay. Don't stop by a co-worker's cubicle and sweep papers off a chair so you can plop your butt down and dig in for a nice long chat. People get possessive about the their 4-square-feet of office real estate, and you should respectful -- don't even sit your coffee cup on their desk unless you've been asked to hang around.

5. Watch your posture. No one wants to look at the bottom of your dirty shoes when you plop your feet on a desk or table, nor do they feel comfortable when you're slouched in your chair like a drunk on a three-day bender. They also don't want to see you curled up in your desk chair, swaddled in a comfy sweater big enough to serve as a tent and looking like an 8-year-old.

6. Keep your shoes on. Seriously. Even if you're sitting at your desk. No one wants to look at your ratty socks or smell your nasty feet.

What are some other etiquette tips you'd like to see people follow?

Friday, January 7, 2011

7 Ways to Become a Better Writer

Writing is easy for me. Figuring out how to work my food processor or keep the cats from chewing on plastic bags until they puke is much tougher.

Fortunately, there is help for those who struggle with writing. (And anyone who can figure out how to work my food processor is welcome to buy it at my next garage sale.)

If you want to become a better writer, check out this column I did for Gannett/USA Today:

Have you ever written an e-mail or report that uses phrases like "multiple regression analysis" or "internal training indicatives"?

While you may not have used those exact terms, if you do any writing in the business world, chances are you've written something equally as confusing and mind numbing.

Not only is poor writing difficult to wade through, but it also leads others to make poor decisions when they're unable to grasp truly important elements mired in bad prose.

In other words, your poor writing can lead to real bottom-line consequences for companies whose decision-makers base their strategies on your faulty or confusing writing, Jane Curry says.

Curry, a business writing consultant, says many companies pooh-pooh the idea that they need to provide more training for employees who need to improve their writing skills.

"The perception is that writing is a 'soft skill' that anyone can do," she says. "But employees — young ones especially — struggle with how to use language in business functions."

At a time when companies must compete globally — and communicate mainly through written communications with remote workers — not addressing the poor writing issue is a mistake, she says.

"The corporate landscape is littered with lost opportunities and ideas not allowed to see the light of day because of poor writing. You can't assess the true worth of something when you fail to make things clear," Curry says. "And many people just don't even question something they've read because they don't understand it in the first place."

In a new book, Be a Brilliant Business Writer with Diana Young, her partner at Curry Young Consultants Inc., Curry points out a number of ways to improve business writing. Among them:

Make sure your first sentence passes the "so what?" test.

If you begin with an item that has your readers saying, "so what?" then you're on the wrong track.

"Your readers pay attention to the first sentence or two of every paragraph, and then they drop like flies," the authors say. "In fact, by the middle of the second sentence, most readers are already thinking about whether they can last another hour without a plate of fries."

Include only relevant content.

"Just because you know something doesn't make it interesting or valuable to other people," Curry says. "Become your readers. Think of what it is they need to know. "

Make it visually appealing.

Most readers give only about 4.5 seconds to an e-mail, letter or memo, so grab their interest by using bullets, subheadings and graphics.

Keep it simple.

Don't use a word like "aggregate" when "total" will work just fine and is more easily understood.

"Simple diction announces that you respect your readers and understand that they live in a hard place between pressing responsibilities and too little time," the authors write. "Abandon the common misconception that if it sounds erudite it must be profound."

Use an average sentence length of 15 to 28 words to ensure the writing flows better.

Put the subject and verb early so the sentence moves from the simple to more complex information.

"If you place the subject and verb early in a sentence, you guarantee that your readers will immediately understand exactly who is doing what, and you improve flow and coherence," they write.

Don't forget transitions.

Effective transitions can keep your writing from being "choppy," they say. Some transitional words to keep in your writing arsenal include "also," "similarly," "although," "to illustrate" and "to sum up."

Drop the buzzwords.

"When you're writing for customers, you don't want to create obstacles," Curry says. "Don't use some kind of internal company vocabulary that no customer is going to understand. Don't just regurgitate language without care and respect for other people."

What other ways can people improve their writing?


Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The 1 Word Every Successful Career Needs

Here's my 2011 gift to you: I'm not going to write a list of new year's career resolutions. I'm not going to come down in favor -- or not -- of setting goals for yourself this year. (If you'd like to read such a post, there are about 62 million out there floating around on the blogosphere. Take your pick.)

Instead, I'm going to offer you a simple way to know if you're doing what you should be doing this year for your career. One little word is all you need.


I think "so" is a pretty powerful word. Say you propose a new idea in a meeting, but there are others ready to shoot it down. "So?" they say, when you voice your proposal.

But you've already asked yourself this question and are ready with, "So, if we implement this new practice, we'll save money and improve productivity. I have a spreadsheet that shows how it can happen."

Or let's say you're busy and a co-worker continually interrupts you. You let it continue to happen, because you don't want any bad feelings. Now it's time to ask yourself: "So?" may discover that if the interruptions continue, you're not going to meet your deadlines, your boss will be angry and you could risk your job.'s clear you need to speak to your co-worker and make it clear you would be happy to chat during lunch, but you need to focus on your work.

Maybe this is the year you'd like more flextime, working at home a couple of days a week. So....what does this mean for your boss and co-workers? It means you need to set up a schedule that shows work won't be disrupted, outline how you will communicate, etc. Before you even present your idea to the boss, before he or she has a chance to ask you "so... how do you plan to make this work?" you've already come up with a list of solutions.

Next time you're trying to figure out what to do at work, how to get ahead in your career or what bad habits you need to drop, just ask yourself "so...."

Keeping your focus on what really matters will help you be more successful in your job and aimed toward accomplishing career goals.

And then you can say I told you so.