How to take time off

When I started my first job nearly a decade ago, I thought that the best way to get things done at work was to plough right through tasks and keep going until the work was done. After all, if it had worked in college, it would work in the real world, right?

It took me years to realize that this approach was the fast track to burnout. When you’re in college, you have defined end points, be they mid-term breaks, semester breaks, or of course the end of the program.  That’s not how work works obviously.  If you kept going till the work was done, you’d never stop, until you crashed. There are always special projects to complete and must-hit goals or deadlines to meet. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t stop or take a clear break.

No matter what stage of your career you’re in, you need to set up pre-defined breaks and rest. The rest helps in a variety of ways:

  • Giving you new perspective and a fresh eye to catch errors you may have made at the job.
  • Putting you in a better mood, which probably makes you a better colleague!
  • Reminding you to be grateful for the things you do at work—being away from it gives you appreciation for what you have.

Here are some tips for planning your leave:

  1. Start planning early: At the start of the year, look at your upcoming year and identify existing holidays that you can piggy-back on to take a longer break. This could include Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, etc.
  2. Use your existing break to plan your next one: Nothing makes you more eager to plan your next break like enjoying your current one.
  3. When you take time off, let everyone know that the only way they can reach you is via phone/text: this limits the desire to check your email all the time to keep up with work. People will call/text only if they have to versus email, which we all use much more casually.

As the new year approaches, make a resolution to take more time off. It doesn’t just benefit you personally; It will make you a better employee.

I wrote  a version of this post here, a few years ago. I wanted to reshare an updated version, above.


Consultants: Read this before you pitch me

As a marketing director in a DC nonprofit, I get pitched on a regular basis on a variety of products and services, from web development and database management, to data analysis, general marketing and social media analytics/implementation. Some go better than others– and most go mediocrely. So here’s my advice to every consultant:

1. Don’t bother coming to me first– start at the top: At the director level at least in my nonprofit of under-50 employees, I’m less likely to see value in your new product/service because it likely costs more money than I have to spend. If you really want me to listen, get a C-suite person at my company to like your idea, so you at least get a pitch meeting. If you come to me directly, I will ignore you.

2. Prior to our meeting, learn everything you can about my organization’s (and possibly division’s) business problems: If you did step 1 above, you should get this information. Make sure the info you learn is reflected in your presentation. In one presentation I attended, the company’s founders spent 20 minutes talking about themselves or about case studies they did at other companies, rather than talking about us. Why am I giving you 30 minutes to hear about your life history, why you quit your job, etc?

3. Don’t be slick: Nothing is more off-putting than consultants who seem smirky, self-important and use the word “ideate” in a non-ironic context. You may not even know you’re doing this, so try practicing your presentation in front of your family or someone who doesn’t work with you. Find out what they think. You’re aiming to sound genuine, curious and confident. When you talk like a consultant, I tune you out. Jargon doesn’t make me think you’re an expert– it makes me think you use fluff to make up for your lack of real results.

4. Share metrics that matter to me and case studies that are relevant to my industry: I’m tired of consultants telling me about how they’ve done social media marketing for free events, when I want them to market my paid event– that’s an example of a case study irrelevant to me. I’m also tired of hearing about views, clicks, and shares. I’m more interested in conversions and revenue. If you researched me a little better, you’d know this. If you can’t find out before the meeting, ask me (and everyone else) during the intros how we measure success and what we’re hoping this meeting will provide us. That way even if your prepared pitch isn’t geared to me, you can tweak it as you talk.

5. Give your tech guy a starring role in the pitch: For whatever reason, most of the sales/business development people I’ve met, give off a smarmy, fake, say-what-I-have-to-to-get-your-money vibe. I know, I know, it’s what they do. But still. If you want me to listen, let your tech guy talk (if tech is a component of your product/service). In my experience, tech people can explain the use case and product/service the best, are the least irritating to listen to, and tell compelling stories.

6. Spare me the PowerPoint– try whiteboarding: I only put this in here because I think it would be interesting and make me pay attention. Too often we spend half the meeting looking at your dull deck about past projects I don’t care about. How about this– come in, tell me what you understand my business problem to be, and tell me how you’ll fix it. Then I’ll pay attention. If letting go of the deck scares you, at least tailor your deck to me, so that I feel like it’s about my business and our problems (and your solutions), not your product and how wonderful you are.

Hope this helps every consultant I’ve ever met, and every consultant I’ll ever meet. I’m happy to “consult” with you to improve your presentation to me!

The 7-Step Process for Giving Great Feedback

This is another of my LinkedIn posts, which I’m cross-posting here. 

One of the biggest challenges new managers face is giving effective feedback. While most of us are comfortable giving positive feedback, many people struggle with giving constructive criticism that improves outcomes. Here are some approaches that should make things easier:

Step #1:: BEFORE you give feedback, objectively identify the problem. What performance metric isn’t being met? Is the issue causing measurable harm to anyone or anything? Is your feedback based on doing things “your way” or is there something objectively incorrect about the issue you observed?

Step #2: BEFORE you give feedback, understand the recipient’s motivation and how they receive information: Is this someone who takes feedback well? Is this someone ambitious (and possibly opinionated) or quieter and more subdued? How will they react to feedback? You will need to adjust what you say based on how the person receives information.

Step #3: BEFORE you give feedback, give yourself a sense of perspective on the issue at hand:

  • Does this happen all the time?
  • Some of the time?
  • Is this a one-off?
  • Is it a “once is reason enough to talk” type of situation e.g s/he said something unprofessional/inaccurate to a client or senior manager?
  • How big a response do you want to make? Does this conversation merit a separate meeting or does a quick by-the-way during your existing meetings work?

Once You Actually Meet:

Step #4: Give specifics: Objectively state the facts, i.e. the specific occurrence, the number of times this happened, etc. E.g.”You were late three times this week.”

Step#5: Give context: Explain not just what happened, but when, why, and how it became an issue. e.g. “It matters that you were late because it affects our clients’ ability to get their questions answered and use our service more easily.”

Step#6: Identify what change in behavior or action you want. Again, specifics matter. “Don’t be late next time” isn’t enough in some cases. It’s better to say “I expect you to be at your desk by 9am everyday so that you can provide the best service needed to our clients.”

Step#7: Provide feedback on why this behavior harms his/her reputation, work and success: Sometimes people aren’t motivated enough to change for the good of the job; but they usually are motivated to change for their own success.

Bonus Tips:

How to handle pushback:

  • If they’re arguing with your facts, make sure you have proof.
  • If they’re arguing with your perception of the situation, ask how their view differs.
  • If they turn around and blame you for what happened, ask what you can do to better support them. Also remind them that you’re their biggest advocate and you can help them succeed. 
  • In all the above cases, make sure to refocus on the impact of their actions. Even if they didn’t intend to do something that inconvenienced someone else or harmed the bottom line, the impact of their actions was just that. Delineate the difference between intent and impact.

Things to avoid:

  • Vagueness: The employee can then avoid the problem on the ground that you weren’t specific enough. 
  • Comparisons: “Employee X does this so well- why can’t you?” is an ineffective approach. It makes the employee shut down or get defensive or both. 

In short: be specific, provide context, refocus on the impact of the employee’s actions and remind them that it’s in their best interest to improve performance.

How to Manage People Who Used to Be Your Peers

An LinkedIn influencer post of mine that I’m cross-posting here.

Congratulations new supervisor! Not only did you get promoted, but now you’re supervising a couple of people too. Here’s the catch: the people you’re managing used to be your peers. Some of them have more experience than you or came in at the same time as you did. Whether they say it or not, they’re probably wondering why you got the title and they didn’t. Here are some tips for navigating this tricky situation:

  • Understand the motivation of each supervisee:
    • What motivates each person? More money? A promotion? Being team lead on an initiative or project they like? How can you use their motivation to improve your project/program? Perhaps Employee A who likes working on special project X can serve as team lead on this item. Perhaps Employee B who is motivated by a raise or promotion can be given a rough understanding of how s/he can earn that next promotion. Analyze individually, making notes if needed.
    •  Decide what carrots you can offer. What’s in your control versus out of it? Don’t ever make a promise you can’t keep (or that you’re reliant on others to keep).
    • Who do you perceive is open-minded about reporting to you? Who may resist? What are the reasons they’d be supportive or resistant?
    • Don’t assume that your analysis is accurate– it’s subjective and based in part on selective observation and your “gut” feeling. That said, having a rough frame of mind of where someone falls is partially helpful. You may be correct that employee A will be resistant– but your thought as to why there is resistance might be inaccurate. 
    • Based on your (probably limited) observation assess one main strength and weakness of each supervisee, with a  clear example to back it.
  • Ask yourself- why did I get promoted? You clearly had some skills that helped you get here- whether it’s superior analytical abilities, better problem-solving, etc. Identify for yourself what those skills are, and include clear examples. Write it down if you need to. You may need to share some of this with your new supervisees at the right time/place.
  • Ask yourself: what kind of boss do I want to be? Which past supervisors did you like working for and why? Which ones did you dislike and why? What management styles are you going to replicate and what gets relegated to the management garbage bin? How would you describe and define your management style? Think about it and reduce that to a workable statement you can share with your people.
  • Divide and conquer- meet one-on-one with your employees: Meet one on one with each supervisee, and tell them you’re excited to work with him/her in this capacity and you know this partnership will lead to great benefits to them and the organization. Make sure to meet OUTSIDE the office– either for coffee or lunch. A neutral setting makes people more relaxed.
    • Tell them that you see them as being a real asset in XYZ area. Ask them what they think about it. Remember that they’re feeling you out as you’re feeling them out.
    • Once you sense what they’d like to do on your new team, ask them what their concerns are, how they like to be managed, concerns they had with prior managers etc.
    • Reinforce why your new job is an opportunity for them to have improved management and opportunities. Remind them that you can’t be successful without them.
    • Show why you got promoted and how it’ll be useful to this person and the team now. e.g. “You know, one of the things I can do to be more helpful to you is provide more guidance during an unpleasant customer interaction. I know in the past some of us have felt that there should have been more support for that. I think senior management recognized this, which is why I’m in this role.” This subtly reinforces why you got the job rather than X.
    • If you sense resistance, ask about it: e.g. “I sense you’re concerned. Could you tell me what worries you about this?” Give them a chance to voice an opinion even if all they give you is  politically correct BS. It’s better than nothing. Then follow that up with “I understand your concerns and I want you to know how much I value your work and what you bring to the team. We need someone with your experience and knowledge in Area X.” (Be specific. Vague compliments are clearly flattery. Specific ones are a sign of how observant you are).
  • Accept that as you transition into the role of manager, you WILL feel awkward or uncomfortable at times. Just don’t show it. Management is as much about authenticity as it is about a strategic display (or concealment) of your feelings. Even if you feel insecure about this change, don’t show it. Don’t hover over people’s desks, or try to be overly friendly. Simultaneously, don’t change your behavior drastically now that you’re boss. There’s nothing that people notice more than a sudden change in behavior. Stay as neutral as you can. For a few weeks, this will feel like a trial, almost as if you’re watching everything you’re saying or doing. That’s normal– you’re settling into the new skin of being a supervisor.
  • Be thoughtful about any feedback you RECEIVE in the early days– you’re not obligated to accept all of it or make any drastic changes, but you are obligated to show that you’re curious and willing to learn.
  • Also be thoughtful about what feedback you GIVE in the early days– is someone doing something wrong that will objectively harm the bottom line or are they just doing it in a way different from you? Assess before correcting. Also provide objective data when correcting someone’s behavior, e.g. “Please re-do this report because it misses X, Y and Z field. We need those fields to be able to assess if the program is successful or not.” is better than “Don’t do it that way– it’s wrong.” Be specific, with clear logical reasoning. It’s not about you OR them. It’s about the work. 
  • That doesn’t mean coming down hard on people to prove you’re boss: Are people chatting in groups like they always did? Now that you’re managing them, should you tell them to focus on the work and stop yakking? In general, no. Pick your battles. Only intervene if it’s affecting work quality/output. Most times, you’re better off starting with honey rather than vinegar. Show yourself to be relaxed, open-minded, confident and curious. Focus on the work at hand.

Other Tips that are useful for ALL managers, but are especially helpful to you now as a new supervisor:

  • Constantly show your team how you’re taking their work and making it better. Or how their work is being used.
  • Do something they’d be afraid to do- present to a senior leader, give bad news. The true mark of leadership is whether you delegate challenges or own them yourself.  Earn respect by implementing the tough things yourself.
  • If you don’t know, ask: Just because you’re boss, doesn’t mean you know everything. Ask questions, learn new things, compliment those who taught you.
  • Accountability starts with you: you can’t hold others accountable for mistakes if you don’t own up to your own. Employees appreciate a supervisor who admits mistakes.
  • Cultivate trust: People do their best work when they feel safe to  try, make, and iterate. If they’re watching their backs and lack trust in their team or supervisor, you’ll get shoddy work because of lack of info sharing, collaboration etc.

Managing people who used to be your peers is a challenge, but focus on the opportunity that is. You’ll be a better manager for it.