Knowing which side is your bread buttered on

March 14, 2010

I’ve seen lots of people lose site of who the client/boss is. Whether it’s a consulting situation or merely your boss, it’s important to maintain focus on who it’s (relatively) most important to please. Particularly early in their career, professionals can get hung up on what’s “the right” thing  to do, presenting “the right” solution (as if there’s just the one) or naively misunderstanding what gets rewarded and punished. My point is not that idealism is wrong, but rather to keep perspective on priorities and understand “which side your bread is buttered on”.

(Caveat: There is a whole separate set of topics around this on “getting what you want” and “being politically astute”. For the sake of clarity, I am not talking about these things. We’ll focus both on pleasing the boss and understanding the consequences of not pleasing him/her. There are certainly times when we decide to do what we think is appropriate and that has consequences. That’s for another post.)

First, let’s be goal oriented. As reward seeking individuals, we want to do well. This can be defined financially (won another sale, increasing my pay), reputationally (I was praised publicly, increasing my social capital), emotionally (I did good work that was important, increasing my satisfaction) and in many other ways. To get any of these you need influential people to decide you did good work.

So what’s the pecking order of who we need to please? With clear exceptions and understanding that “it depends”, I would propose the following hierarchy:

Level 1 – Your boss. You MUST please your boss. Even if your boss is ineffectual and weak, if they don’t advocate for you you will have a hard time in reviews and salary discussion. Make your boss look good and you are well on your way to good reviews.

Note: I get that some bosses are crappy and treat you poorly. In this case you need to manage a move without pissing them off. Whether you like them or not, you don’t want to turn them into career terrorists for you. Also – getting a reputation as someone who can work with anyone is a plus.

Level 2 – Your boss’ boss and chain of command. Collectively, these executives will have a big influence over your fate and your work presumably directly affects their performance. You want them to A) definitely know who you are and B) have a positive impression. Generally speaking, they will be the ones who decide whether you get other opportunities, not your boss. This is usually because they have greater span of control and more influence.

Note: They have more power, but are second on the list because your boss will still be more immediately relevant in your review, compensation etc. If your boss kills you in a review, you’re dead.

Level 3 – Clients. This could be either internal or external.

I have them third because in any individual interaction, you need to understand your boss’ priorities as you evaluate and prioritize your activities. In the long term if you piss of your clients, you’ll have a short career. I am not saying clients are less important than your chain of command. Without clients, there is not business. What I am saying is that for an early/mid-career professional, never forget who’s in charge.  For example, sometimes you need to aggravate your client to meet a firm goal in the short term.

If you are a consultant working for a client or working cross-functionally on a team outside your department in a large organization, it’s important to understand several things clearly.

First, who is actually paying (or reviewing) you? Stated differently what budget line item is your fee coming from and who is the actual decision maker? Never confuse that with “who do we deal with the most” or “who is assigned as our liaison” etc. Understand where the buck stops.

Second, you need to understand their political position. Are they internally powerful? Are they internally weak? This matters because you want to be smart about navigating a client’s environment. Whether it’s being clever in support of your primary client and their agenda or not overplaying your support because you want to win future work and they aren’t in a position to buy, you need to understand the landscape.

Managing across levels. Sometimes you have to piss someone off. Be strategic and don’t always make it the same person/group. Spread the pain and make sure you “make good” at some other time.

I’ll give a few examples I have seen in my career:

  • Partner tells you to do something that doesn’t appear in your client’s interests.
  • Client staffer (but not your “paying” client) you really like is going to get hosed by a pending decision.
  • Your boss’ boss asks you to do something not in your boss’ best interest.

How would you handle these? There’s no “right” answer, but I’d encourage you to think broadly about how to prioritize and always remember “which side your bread is buttered on”.

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Go abroad if you can

January 23, 2010

I just returned from a great two week stay Guangzhou, China teaching a graduate seminar and have been reflecting on the time my family and I spent in Shanghai when I worked for 3M, as well as other international experiences I’ve had both in school and during my career. My conclusion (which is probably obvious) is to take any opportunities you can to get outside your personal bubble and go struggle in another culture for awhile. You’ll learn a lot of things, some of them surprising. Any trip is good, extended stays are better.

This recent trip was such a joy in part because I had some China experience and most people on the trip had not been before. I got to re-experience learning a lot of things. It was fun to smile to myself as someone made some personal discovery and to see the students (both American and Chinese) piecing together a more nuanced view of the other culture.

In my undergraduate management class, I often make a point about learning in theory versus learning in practice. For the “in practice” part, there’s nothing like diving in. You can read all you want about another country (and you should if you’re interested), but the experience of how people actually live, work, think etc. is so much richer. And it forces you to confront basic realities that are not always well documented in the literature. It also puts you in situations where you have to be more personally resourceful than you would normally need to be in your life at home.

Here is my unscientific list of reasons why it’s worth doing:

It’s interesting.

You never know what you are going to see or learn on a given day. You may see a famous piece of art at the Louvre (and believe me it’s better to see it live than in a photo) or see unexpected everyday joys. Often it’s the mundane that becomes a joy. Street food in many countries can be a revelation. If you have a curious mind, any trip to a foreign country

It’s hard.

You’ll be challenged to overcome obstacles that are never an issue at home. Figuring out another city’s Metro, ordering dinner in another language, getting around if nothing’s in your language – all of it builds confidence and character. You’ll end up in situations that create more hardships than is common at home. You always figure something out, even if it’s “suboptimal” and you survive. Best, you get a new story.

You’ll learn to think differently.

People don’t see the world in the same way or through the same lens. I’ve come to realize that the base cultural assumptions about the world and what matters are very different around the world. Again, this may seem obvious. But there’s a difference between reading a concept and knowing it in your head and being surrounded by the other culture and experiencing the differences. I am a big believer in making your self a minority somewhere. The biggest cultural learning experiences in my life have all been immersive experiences where I was one of a very few (or the only) white, American males.

I teach about “high and low context cultures”. Well, you’ll understand this difference if you spend time immersed in the one that’s the opposite of yours. You have to adapt. No matter what you do, you will have “Lost in Translation” moments. But you will get better at avoiding them or at least realizing they have happened.

An example from this trip involved basic thought process. The student teams I had were posed a series of case questions by Lenovo (the computer company). The American students took a very analytical, top down logical approach. As one of the American students observed in a wrap up meeting, the team was headed straight down this path in looking at how to evaluate power in OEM/Supplier relationships in the PC/laptop industry when a Chinese colleague suggested maybe the team was missing something important. What followed was a brief description of guanxi and the importance of relationships in supply chains in China and the Pearl River delta. The team learned both an important local business concept (and as an instructor I was pumped that it was “emergent” learning) and a cultural one. The team had been steamrolling ahead and had to slow down to allow broader input from a team member from a “high context” culture. By the way, both approaches are “right”. They collectively reached a much better recommendation to Lenovo than they would have achieved independently. Cool.

The world gets bigger/smaller.

Whichever way you think about it, you will have a connection to and at least basic understanding of events around the world. My wife wasn’t that interested in China before we lived there several years ago. Now we have a running dialogue about every China headline. Whether it be political (information control – Google is the latest) or quality of life (health/food safety – heavy metals in toys is the latest), we both have an opinion based on experience. It has enriched out relationship and our kids view of the world.

You’ll have a clearer perspective on your own country.

I think we learn as much or more about our own culture when we travel to others’. You are forced to confront basic assumptions and compare/contrast. Often we assume where we’re from is “normal” or “how things are”/ These base assumptions rapidly dissolve when you see how differently other culture live.

For Americans visiting Western Europe, there’s the stereo-typical work-life balance debate as well as the role of government in everyday life. Another common realization I see among people is the realization of how wealthy the US is. The average American has a lot of stuff and (by world standards) a very nice home/living situation. I usually come home appreciating what I have even more than I already did. But you also see possible alternate realities.

You’ll be better at what you do.

Anything that broadens your perspective and forces you to think differently enhances your ability to think critically as well as relate to others. In my view, creativity comes from having a broad perspective, being able to see patterns and metaphors and being able to extrapolate or apply them in totally new ways. Travel and immersion is one path to this.

From a pure business perspective, you’ll better understand how radically different markets are. The Chinese consumer is not the same as the American consumer. Value chains look different and are more or less mature etc. My students were amazed by how manual many processes were in China. Even at the Honda plant. All sorts of macro-economic lessons about labor vs. capital became much more tangible when observed.

(Kidding…sort of) Your view of what is edible will expand.

Not too much needs to be said here. Suffice it to say I’ve eaten jellyfish, salamander, duck tongue/feet/colon, parts of a pig we don’t eat at home and all sorts of other delicacies. J And the longer you stay the more you’ll have to concede. A buddy of mine just had to “eat local” because he literally couldn’t find any of his go-to foods.

There are lots of other great reasons, but that’s my list for now.

A few other closing thoughts:

  • Any international/cross-cultural experience is valuable. Do what you can to have them.
  • Be brave and an explorer. I have a former student who was conflicted about high profile consulting career vs. passion for travel and culture. In the end he’s lived in Germany and is studying Mandarin to go teach English in China for a year. What an adventure!
  • The more immersive the better. The longer and more “local” you can get the more you’ll learn.
  • Don’t be afraid of language barriers. I am a lazy/sloppy student of languages. I think I have disappointed every instructor I’ve had. Latin, French, German and worst of all – my poor Chinese tutor (I think I embarrassed my whole country in addition to my ancestors. Sadly, I think she took it as her personal failing.). Despite that I have had great times and no major problems travelling all over the world. As I say above, you figure things out, satisfice and make do.
  • People are warm and friendly in most places. I have never been anywhere that people weren’t curious about Americans and at least generally warm and helpful.
  • You’ll be surprised at the joy you will take in small victories. Just figuring out the lay of the land, or how a bank transaction works in another language become epic accomplishments to be celebrated.
  • Take chances as they come and jump on them. Your life situation changes. Sometimes you have time, sometimes you have money. Use what you have when you have it. Take a semester abroad in college, do a church mission trip to build homes, take a foreign assignment…but do it. I have been fortunate to have work opportunities that helped enable mine and my family’s’ experiences, but there are tons of ways outside of work to get it done.

Networking Principles

October 11, 2009

Many people ask me about “networking”. One of the basic observations I make is that “networking” isn’t useful unless you are doing it WITH CONTENT. (A friend of mine heard this concept from a mentor many years ago and I have adopted it.) Without content, you are simply annoying people. There’s nothing to talk about other than what you want from them. That’s not networking, it’s begging. I’ll give a specific example that frustrated me this week and then give a few words of advice.

I just received an email from a friend describing a recent experience they had with students at a career conference. The students were networking for potential job opportunities and potential employers were there scouting talent. I had such a visceral sense of frustration from the feedback that it’s making me post immediately on this topic (over the “figuring out what you want” post promised last week).

So what happened and why was I aggravated? (head shaking…)

Here’s the paraphrased and summarized feedback: I really wanted to help these students, but they did a few things that made it impossible to support them. First, they hadn’t prepared. They simply didn’t know anything about my company. Second, they wanted an informational interview but expected to set it up and conduct it while I was working an event. Third, several students represented to my colleagues that they knew me well when in fact we are not close.  

I have a few snarky rhetorical questions based on the feedback:

1 – How can you possibly think that not researching your target company will work?

Networking with content means actually having something to say. You don’t need to be teaching targets something. Simply understanding their company and asking smart questions about how you might fit or what their major issues are can be enough.

That assumes you’ve done some basic homework.

By the way –I bet there were candidates at the conference who did do research. They made better impressions. In many of these situations, recruiters are going to see hundreds of resumes to make 5-15 offers. In normal hiring situations it’s for 1 position. You don’t even get a second look if you mess up basics.

2 – What do you hope to gain from asking a target to go out of their way to help you?

Develop a sense of what to ask for and when to ask. I always coach people to ask for help. Most people will want to help reasonable requests when they can. Make them reasonable. In the case I cited, people who were planful could have reached out in advance, had a phone conversation etc. Rather, they were last minute and trying to bend their target’s schedule to their needs. That is NOT how to win friends and influence people.  It smacks of lack of preparation and opportunism. It’s shallow.

Genuine interest is shown through proper due diligence, professionalism in communication and cementing that impression in excellent live conversations.

By the way 2 – shallowness in networking is patently obvious to the targets. Authenticity is as well. Be authentic.

3 – Do you think that overstating a connection to get play will work out well in the end?

The prior two are attributable to laziness or lack of common sense. This one leans towards ethical issues. NEVER misrepresent your relationships to gain an advantage. It will kill you eventually.

Do you think people at companies don’t talk? If you drop a name, you better be sure that person will back you up.

Enough said.

Conclusion

In closing, my advice is networking 101 but apparently needs to be regularly re-enforced. 

First – Network with content. Be prepared and have some good (open ended, conversation starting) questions prepared. Make sure they reflect a basic understanding of the company. DON’T try to be “too cool for school” and act like you really understand the company. You don’t work there yet, so you don’t. But do show that you’ve thought about the target in some detail and are genuinely interested. Lacking this, you will appear shallow and merely in search of whatever you can find.

Second – Be planful and respectful. Your targets are doing you a favor. They may be very generous and open, but they are still giving up their time to help you for no immediate return to them. So MAKE IT EASY! Meet them where they are on their schedule. If they have 5 minutes on the phone while at the airport, then you make that work. If you don’t understand why this is important, talk to someone who can explain it to you. (Sticking tongue out…)

Third – Don’t be a tool. Nobody likes them and being one will destroy far more value for you than it creates.

 I want to reinforce how valuable and fun networking can and should be. Just remember to use common sense and good judgment when doing it.


Competence

August 15, 2009

Never underestimate the power and value of competence. You could substitute “professionalism” here probably, but I like competence better.

I have to vent a little, as I’ve has a string of personal frustrations lately that their heart are issues of people either not caring or not taking the time to get things right.

Case 1: I return from my lovely vacation at the beach and take my puke-stained mini-van (my 6 yr old couldn’t handle 24 hrs in the car!) to the high end car detailing shop. I wanted the car strip cleaned…I mean really nuke it. I paid >$50 for the interior detail package.

I’m in a hurry, as we had just gotten back and I had to get dinner and run other errands before getting home. I wait 45 minutes, which doesn’t bother me as it’s a big job. I get the keys returned to me and drive home. It turns out the back wasn’t vacuumed (sand everywhere) and a few other visible defects were obvious.

Should I have checked while there? Sure. Should I have to? No.

Competence…

Case 2: We just sold our old house. After a drawn out sales process given the economy, we finally had a buyer. While we were on vacation the check from the deal didn’t clear with me 1500 miles away and relatively helpless to move other money around. I have NEVER in my personal or professional life been so angry. I went crazy with my real estate agent and our closing agent. I ended up unavailable later in the day when people returned my calls, so my wife had to spend 3 hours on the phone with 3-5 different parties to get it squared away.

It turns out the title company mis-printed every check that day. The real issue to me isn’t the mistake. We ALL make mistakes. It’s that we had to literally yell to get any response and that no one in the process would own the case.

Competence…

I hear so much talk about the need to be a “star” and a “leader”, all sorts of aspirational descriptors of wonderfulness. Well, in large parts of my career I’d have settled for people just doing what they were supposed to do.

I want to be clear, that in my world “competent” does not mean average. It means “good” or “professional”. It describes the colleagues who understand their role, do their best most of the time, are practical and focused on the end goal, don’t get too caught up in the silly stuff and (most importantly) are NEVER going to bail before the job is done.

In my program at the Carlson School, I have 5-7 student consultant teams every semester. Teams all do well and we have happy clients, but there’s always “turbulence” on a few teams. I would say the #1 gripey feedback people have about others when things go poorly is lack of commitment and/or follow through. It’s rarely that someone couldn’t do their work, rather that they DIDN’T. And in the worst cases, without any advance notice. Often, all it would take to at least buffer the problem is a little warning and then doing some make-good helping at some later point.

Some people just never get this. They also fail to anticipate the future reputational consequences. You want to be the person everyone wants on their team, not the person no one wants.

I sometimes wonder in what universe it’s OK to just not do what you said you would.

At some point in the murky past my uncle, a successful small town businessman, offered the following (paraphrased) advice. “Stay in one place and be competent and you’ll never have to look for business.” His point was that most people move around too much and/or aren’t as reliable as we might want them to be. (How bad is it that my wife is in love with our deck builder because he returns calls and shows up when he says he will?) If you put both together, you’ll do OK.

It comes down to acting the way we all know we should and yet a lot of people can’t seem to muster:

  1. Do what you say you will.
  2. Follow through. Most of the time, it’s as simple as returning a call.
  3. Be good at what you do.
  4. Care about the result.
  5. Care about the impact of your work & commitments on others.
  6. Be respectful to others.

I could go on, but will stop. I’d encourage you to think about how important it is to be “competent” if you strive to be a star or a leader…or even if you just want respect.


Always be nice to gatekeepers and staff…

April 11, 2009

…or you don’t get through the gate.

 

I am continually amazed by some people’s lack of both pragmatism and grace in various business situations. One of the most obvious ones is dealing with individuals who are obviously “gatekeepers”. To me a gatekeeper is anyone who is clearly standing between you and an individual or group you want/need access to.

 

Why should I care?

 

In my undergraduate management class we talk about “power” and its sources. They include things like hierarchical position, control over information, network of allies and several other attributes. A gatekeeper almost always wields a deceptively large amount of power and influence for several reasons that relate to these power bases.

 

First, they are often very close to the principal in question. If they are their admin or adjutant they are typically intimately aware of their boss’s goals, needs, opinions etc. This person is usually personally chosen by the executive and has the executive’s interests at heart. Their success is bound up in their boss’ (at least at some level). They have “referred hierarchical authority” from their boss.

 

Second, because they aren’t a senior executive (or at least are less senior than the boss), they are more accessible and thus are privy to scuttlebutt and gossip their boss may not be. This puts them at the center of information networks with “insider knowledge”.

 

Third, due to both these things bosses often put a great deal of value on their assistant’s view of others. Why? These folks see others in less formal or guarded settings than the boss does. Most of us can control ourselves in obvious power situations where a superior is watching us. How you act when no one is looking is much more revealing. Gatekeepers tend to have a better view of this aspect of us. I have seen people lose six figure opportunities over subtle office issues around how candidate treated staff in situations the hiring manager didn’t see, but heard about.

 

Fourth, these people are often the ones charged with creating order in their bosses hectic worlds. Most senior execs are out of control and the admin manages this as best they can. They can lock down a calendar and completely deny you simply based on schedule and (your lack of) priority.

 

In my experience, a bad run in with an admin or exec assistant can actually be more damaging than a bad run in with the boss. Why. I can forgive you jousting with me, I might even give you credit for standing up for yourself if professionally done. Treat my assistant badly and you’re just a bully. Same as going after my son or daughter. No quarter will be given. View the offer as gone if you were an intern or the promotion off the board later in your career.

 

Conversely, being favored can yield special access, quiet behind doors praise, special knowledge of information others (even senior execs) don’t have access too. This can be as simple as getting 5 minutes to brief the exec on an idea while others are rebuffed. But this access is precious.

 

How do I develop support?

 

So, given the importance of gatekeepers, how do I develop rapport and influence without coming across as craven and just a brown-noser? This is just a specific case of applying concepts on building support from my earlier post. Read here for general guidance.

 

My point in this post is to focus your attention on how important gatekeepers are in the general scheme of things.  In many cases, simply treating them nicely (not even going above and beyond) will go a long way. Showing interest in someone whose whole job is to serve someone else who is the center of attention can be very comforting. You’ll be surprised at how much people will tell you if you simply demonstrate respect and make time to hear about their day.

 

In the end, do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.


Is the juice worth the squeeze?

April 6, 2009

I’ve always been coached and offered the advice to people to be careful when they take certain actions. Make sure it’s worth it. I recently got a great summary of it when reconnecting with a former boss. He said where he grew up this is called “is the juice worth the squeeze?”

 

In difficult situations, there’s always a temptation to respond impulsively or do what feels good. Whether it’s an email, a “witty” response in a meeting or a significant political position…think it through and make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.

 

A common misperception I see people make all too often is that there are no, or limited, consequences to just saying what we think. This is soooo wrong. There’s a great scene in the godfather where Sonny blurts out a disrespectful and revealing comment to Sollozzo. Don Corleone’s dismissal of Sonny is “Santino, never let anyone outside the family know what you are thinking.” In this case it ends for Sonny at a toll booth in a hail of bullets. I’ll summarize in saying the juice was definitely not worth the squeeze.

 

Obviously, most of our lives are not as dramatic. Nevertheless there are many opportunities to make a poor choice along the way. I’d encourage you to think through in certain situations WHY you would be responding or acting the way you do. My point here is to separate ethics from ego. A few that come to mind are:

 

1)    Making yourself feel better. This is entirely ego and almost always a bad idea. You’ll feel better for seconds…until you feel worse. The downside is generally worse than the few seconds of cleverness you get to enjoy. Not much upside here. The classic example here is emailing angry. Bad choice.

 

2)    Speaking truth to power regarding a likely poor decision. This is more complicated. Ego and ethics can get co-mingled and both sides can believe they are doing the right thing. My counsel is to think carefully. You are probably more able to be somewhat assertive as you are (hopefully) data driven in your concerns, have a fact base to argue from and are smart enough to frame disagreement impersonally. Just think carefully before speaking.

 

3)    Speaking truth to power regarding an ethical concern. This is where things get stickier. You need to think hard before responding and consider whether you completely understand the situation and the implications of acting. Making a major ethical stand can be heroic…or foolish.

 

First, assess the situation. MAKE SURE you have your facts straight and that you are on firm ground ethically. Lots of things can be gray. Being black and white in a gray world can be problematic. Second, be sure you are willing to leave or be marginalized if things go badly. When you fall on your sword, you are impaled. You may not survive so be sure you understand this.  Third, make sure you have assessed the bigger picture. Could you have a bigger impact by swallowing hard, staying and keeping other things on track?

 

4)    Acting in your own vs. others’ self interest. In the end everyone will know if you take care of yourself over others. Your reputation will suffer. Consider the implications before acting.

 

So think through how to respond in difficult spots. I’ll write my next post on how to handle some of these situations wisely to create scenarios where you can do what you think is right without blowing yourself up.

 

There isn’t a right or wrong answer in these areas. It’s up to you to do what’s right for you. Just think it through and make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.


Book Recommendation: The Adventures of Johnny Bunko

February 7, 2009

Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind) was recently recommended to me by a friend and former classmate. He feels Pink hits on an emerging trend towards different kinds of work and skills emerging. Then I put it together. Pink had also written The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, a manga style graphic novel on career management that I had seen reviewed in a few places. I decided to pick it up.

 

It’s great.

 

Pink lays out an entertaining, sometimes funny and most importantly brief overview of some core career management concepts.

 

Pink uses Diana, a magical career coach/sprite, to deliver the key themes in a step by step process. While torturing Johnny as he bumbles through trying to advance his career, six key themes are revealed as summary lessons learned from each “chapter” of the book.

 

1.      There is no plan

2.      Think strengths, not weaknesses

3.      It’s not about you

4.      Persistence trumps talent

5.      Make excellent mistakes

6.      Leave an imprint

 

For those who have read some of my posts or know me you can probably guess why I appreciate this piece. The positive, engaging, “find yourself” message that Pink delivers while also encouraging activity and progress lines up with my world view.

 

I have given a copy to all of my students and they all have said it was a fun and quick read. I recommend it to those who have grown up reading comics or who groan at the thought of reading hundreds of pages to understand a few key principles.