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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Do you Dread Opening Your Office Mailbox?

What thoughts cross your mind when you walk into your office in the morning, switch on your desktop or laptop and log into the mailbox? Do you feel excited and happy? Or do you feel afraid and anxious? Or do you dread opening your office mailbox?

If you dread opening your office mailbox, then welcome to the community of those who receive “negative” e-mails. These negative e-mails are almost always from negative and unprofessional colleagues in the workplace.

Following list provides an indicative list of characteristics of negative e-mails. This list also gives a clear insight into those who send such emails.
  • Email points fingers at you for something that was a miss or a mistake from your side in a very crude, sarcastic and demeaning manner. The persons sending such emails would essentially try to act smart in their emails. After few emails of such nature from such persons you will know the ‘smart types’ in the system. The way an email is worded goes a long way in creating positive energy and vibes. However, such persons fail to realize this and are driven by a strong desire to undermine others efforts and contributions.
  • Email is written with a hidden agenda to prove a point with a mischievous intention or show the sender’s superiority in a certain sense or to show you ‘your lowly place’ in the organization. After few emails of such nature from such persons you will know the ‘trouble makers’ in the system.  Such persons carry a grudge on their shoulders. This grudge could be purely against you at the personal level (they might secretly hate you for something you may not even be aware of) or such persons have attitude issues and they are like this with everyone else or they have personal issues which have over flown into their professional lives.
  • Email is written with it being copied to additional people who may not be relevant to the context of the email. Such persons have the habit of always marking someone higher up in the hierarchy or someone you report into in a strange, abrupt way (while trying to rationalize why they did so).  Another strong reason for them to do so is their being highly conscious of their designation or position – how can they communicate with employees lower in designation to them but communicating to them as if they are at par with them in terms of designation. After few emails of such nature from such persons you will know the ‘hierarchy conscious folks’ in the system. 
In any case, one needs to exercise extreme care and tact when dealing with such ‘smart types’, ‘trouble makers’ and ‘hierarchy conscious folks’ in the system. Whenever an email from such persons lands in your mailbox your first reaction would always be “trouble on the way” or “did I miss anything” or “did I do anything wrong”.

That’s why it is all the more important that while dealing with such negative and invariably unprofessional persons you stay extremely positive and professional. It is a fact that such persons will be a constant pain in your neck (and many more necks) and would certainly make you dread opening your office mailbox.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Is Your Current Job Demeaning Your Intellect and Self-respect? Yes? Then You Got to Go

All working professionals should ask this question to themselves as part of the quarterly self-review of their career. Asking this question confirms that one indeed is on the right track and with the right organization.

The sharpness of competencies and experience that one has picked on the way while moving along one’s career can get blunted if one works with the wrong organization for more than the tolerable span of time. Interestingly, an organization which is wrong for someone can be the right for someone else. In addition, an organization which is right when one joins it might become wrong at a later point in time. The quarterly self-review is a good method to determine this.

The association of a professional with an organization depends on the career aspirations and objectives of the professional vis-à-vis the organization’s ability to help that professional achieve those. Certain organizations especially with a father figure leading a founding team of loyalists and lifers may be exception to this rule. In such organizations the loyalists and lifers work like a slave to the father figure and the father figure is a like a corporate king.

The loyalists and lifers will not move out even if the job they do is demeaning to their intellect and self-respect due to following reasons:
  • They will not get another job outside as they won’t be able to demonstrate that they can survive elsewhere. Even if they manage to move on they will come back in no time when they realize loyalists and lifers can’t survive in a true professional set-up.
  • They would form a closely associated coterie which has mutual admiration for each other due to the loyalty for the father figure but their performance and competencies might be extremely low. However, for some reason they will naively assume all the loyalists and lifers together have great brain power.
  • They will have created a comfort zone and become frogs in a well and hence lost the ability to accept new and differing ideas. The father figure would leave the pack of loyalists and lifers by showing reluctance to even hear about new ideas. As per them, things can be done only their way.
Professionals who are unfortunate to be a part of such organization would realize to their dissatisfaction that such organizations are non-professional at the core, believe in loyalty over performance, promote coterie culture, not allow new ideas to come in and artificially sustain the hegemony of the father figure and the old boys club.
True professionals in such organizations, which definition strictly excludes the father figure and the pack of loyalists and lifers, would often encounter humiliating, frustrating and unfair situations which are demeaning to their intellect and self-respect. Such professionals got to go and quickly at that.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Taking Care of Your Career

Getting opportunities to learn and chances to grow both laterally (to expand your horizon) and vertically up (to reach senior positions) is an important ingredient of professional success. You career growth and the jobs you hold on the way to professional success are important elements to ensure you are able to provide and sustain a certain standard of living for yourself and your near and dear ones. Hence, you owe it to yourself to take care of and navigate your career.

You would typically enter the workforce at around 20-25 years of age and can continue to work till 60-65 years of age which means you can have a career span of 35-45 years. However, surviving this long is not easy with so many challenges on the way – companies closing down, organizations downsizing due to business decline, reduced demand for one’s skills in the market, lay-offs due to industry-wide recession, getting fired for various reasons and difficulties on the personal front (terminal illness, debilitating diseases, incapacitating accidents).

Many professionals carry the impression that the manager you report into or the company you work with owe you a favor since you are working to make them successful. The reality is far removed away from this impression and quite harsh. No one actually works for the company, instead they work for protecting their interests - the manager works for protecting her interests till she is around, the executive management team works for protecting their individual and collective interests till they are around, the shareholders (especially those who are founders, promoters, owners) work for protecting their interests till they stay invested.

Hence professionals should also work with the same orientation - work for protecting their interests till they are around. Never expect the manager you report into or the company you work with to help you learn and grow. This is something which must be owned and operated by you solely as you are the one who gets directly and severely impacted at the end of the day.

If you are a founder-type professional you should hold your control on the company (never dilute equity beyond a certain percentage). In such a case you can work on and on as you wish, literally until the day you die, and hand over the reins to the next generation and this can go on for many generations. As long as the company’s business model adapts and stays relevant your future generations will remain founder-type professionals. In the unfortunate event of the company going turtle you won’t need to bother as you won’t be there to know about it. It is also interesting to note that founder-type professionals would have vested interest in creating an army of loyalist-type professionals who man key positions with the founder as the father figure at the top.

If you are a loyalist-type professional, chances are high you would be manning a key position in a company (such companies rely on creating an army of loyalists who man key positions with a father figure at the top). In such a case you might want to continue as long as you can. However, be careful in case the direction of wind starts changing and the ship starts sinking. Remaining with the organization at that juncture might jeopardize your career. One example when this can happen is the company getting acquired by another company. The father figure and his protégés will be the ones who will be sent home with hardly much time for packing their bags when the new management team takes over.

If you are a normal professional you should act like free agents. You should work with an organization as long as you are adding value to yourself and to the company you work with at that point. The moment you sense learning and growth is blocked, it makes complete logical sense to move on. In case you are in a company with many loyalist-type professionals, many of whom are lifers, you will generally find that it is difficult to join the group of loyalists as the father figure at the top will never trust you, no matter how competent you are and how well you perform. Moving on would be the only choice left with you after you stay with such a company for a certain duration. If by chance, you are included as part of the group of loyalists you might want to stay put while being constantly watchful of the direction of wind. In troubled times, the new loyalists will be sacrificed for the old and original loyalists.

People with Attitude Problems at the Workplace

It usually leaves a bad taste in the mouth when you hit upon people with attitude problems. In personal life, you have the choice to completely ignore such people to a large extent (unless they happen to be your next-door neighbor). However, in the workplace, it may not be possible to ignore people with attitude problems

Knowing the kind of behaviors and actions you can expect from people with attitude problems at the workplace is quite helpful in becoming aware of such people and being careful when interacting with them.
Here is a list of behaviors and actions you can expect from people with attitude problems at the workplace:
  • Their response to any request made to them which they resist would be “I will not do it. You can talk to anyone you want to including my boss” or “I am quite busy and working on something very urgent for the business. Your thing can wait, right?”
  • They would write an email highlighting trivial aspects in case someone misses something with a sarcastic and demeaning tone “people are laughing at this” or “these guys spend their life doing a certain thing” or “how do I answer to such an email” or “I have no words to express what I feel” or “to say the least”
  • They would neither accept nor decline any meeting request sent to them. You have to call them always and when you call them they would then tell you, as always, they won’t be there “I won’t be attending as I have got something more important to do”
  • They would not read and respond to your emails and meeting invitations but expect you to read and respond to their emails. And if you don’t, send an email marking your manager “awaiting response”.
  • They would never discuss anything face-to-face and send mails after mails requesting you to perform certain actions. They would then send mails after mails “as discussed, this was supposed to have been done by so and so date, please let me know the current status”. They would chase you over emails never bothering to pick the phone up or walk across to you.
  • They would not send an email directly to you even when fully knowing that you are taking care of a certain area. They would come through your supervisor as if otherwise the work would not have happened. They do it deliberately to massage their ego or to show that you are nothing and know that the supervisor would be as good as a post-master and would just forward the mail “please help as requested”. The idea is to demean, devalue and belittle you and show that you are nothing.
  • They would send the response to emails sent by you to them to your manager instead – “you can share with the concerned”. The idea is to belittle you or show you your real place in the organizational hierarchy, basically showing that you are nothing.
  • They would always copy their response to the emails sent to them to your manager also as if dealing directly with you is below their dignity. The idea is to demean, devalue and belittle you and show that you are nothing.

Accepting the Offer for a Leadership Position at an Organization

Accepting the offer for a leadership position at an organization is a crucial decision in any professional’s career. Getting an offer for a leadership position at an organization is tough but making an exit from such a position is many times tougher. Hence it is important for those seeking a leadership position at an organization to gather information on certain aspects before accepting the offer.

At the time of hiring, companies and recruitment consultants show the position is all rose with no thorns. The following questions can be helpful to gather information on the thorns that come with the rose. These will help in making an informed decision when the offer for a position is made by a company:
  • Who all will I report into? This gives good idea about reporting effort and complexity. This is quite important in matrix organizations.
  • Who all will report into me? This gives good idea about team handling effort. There may be more than one team reporting into a role.
  • Who will be my peers? This gives good idea about influencing power in the position being offered. Being placed lower in the hierarchy as compared to others with peer-level responsibilities will impede effectiveness.
  • What is the company’s latest revenue figure? This gives good idea about how big or small the organization is, especially in case of privately held firms.
  • What is the company’s future growth plan and outlook? This gives good idea about where the organization is likely to be in a few years hence and the longevity of the stay with the organization one can look forward to.
  • Who will handle the budgets for the area I would be responsible for? This gives good idea about the existence of old boys’ club culture in the organization.
  • What next position can I look forward to? This gives a good idea about the career growth path and possibilities or lack of it.

How Weak and Incompetent Managers Drive Motivation Out of a Team and Eventually the Team Out of the Organization

Reporting into a weak and incompetent manager can be a nightmarish experience for anyone. Those who have ever been in such a situation in their workplace would very well understand how energy-draining reporting into a weak and incompetent manager can be.

First and foremost, it is useful to understand how organizations place a weak and incompetent manager into his or her position. Some of the reasons are listed below:
  • The manager is placed by another weak and incompetent above him or her - This is the case in an organization where the top management layer is like frozen ice which allows no new and novel ideas to get in. The top management folks act as a mutual admiration club with a glorified impression of their competencies and capabilities. This is similar to being a big frog in a small well with a strong but utterly foolish belief that the well is the world.
  • The manager is placed due to him or her being a part of the old boys club - The manager is asked to artificially manage an area he or she knows little or nothing about and to ensure this doesn’t impact work in that area a professionally competent manager is also hired and assigned to do the real work. It’s like having a guy with a PG in a subject being forced to report into a guy with a KG in that subject just because the KG guy has strong credentials in the sense he is a loyalist of the top man and a part of the old boys club. Such a reporting relationship is not likely to run for a long time as the professionally competent manager will soon figure out the top man’s hidden agenda.
It is worthwhile to note the point that in professional organizations chances of this happening are far lesser than in the non-professional organizations.

Such incompetent managers are generally weak managers also. They will never take a stand and never defend the professionally competent manager and her team on technical grounds as the weak and incompetent manager would not only not know what to do but being a “yes sir” man of the top man offer inane reasons and suggestions . And in fact, oppose the professionally competent manager in most of the discussions.

Not only that, the weak and incompetent manager will represent that area in the important forums and discussions (since the professionally competent manager will not be allowed to represent as part of the hidden agenda of the top man and old boys club) and make illogical and utterly stupid commitments to other stakeholders. For every suggestion he will say yes without knowing what it takes and how it will be done. This would frustrate the professionally competent manager and the team as well.

The weak and incompetent manager will also try to outdo and outsmart the professionally competent manager in email communications with the top man. After realizing that he or she is working in a non-professionally organization the professionally competent manager will participate in such email communications with a clear understanding of the uselessness of offering a differing view.

Such a situation can be highly de-motivating and demeaning to a professionally competent manager and her team. As a result the likelihood of the professionally competent manager and the team leaving the organization is very high in such cases. Weak and incompetent managers drive motivation out of a team and eventually the team out of the organization.

What Every Professional Should Know About Mid-Career Crisis?

The career growth path in any organization is like climbing up a cone, slippery along the way and with just one top. What that means is only one professional will get a chance to reach the top. Many will reach the second, third and levels below to stagnate there until they get retired or fired.

One typically enters the workforce at the age of 20-25. By the age of 35-40 one would reach the first mid-career crisis and if one is lucky to get above into the management ladder well and good otherwise one would flame out there itself. Again at 45-50 one would reach the second mid-career crisis and get a chance to move into senior management ladder and in case that doesn’t happen one can flame out there itself.

The First Job

The excitement felt after landing the first job is an amazing experience for all of us. At that point “getting a good job” means everything in the world. Good in this context means a job with a branded company with a high salary and a seemingly exciting role. Besides, the feeling of finally becoming financially independent of your parents is an awesome one.

For few weeks and months all seems to go well in the first job. Very soon, however, reality strikes in an “on your face”, harsh way. There might be issues one would actually experience or get to understand from a closer angle, such as:
  • limited opportunities to learn and grow
  • monotonous and predictable work
  • unclear performance expectations and vague, infrequent feedback
  • lack of alignment with the organizational culture
  • friction with other team members
  • low motivation caused by an intimidating supervisor
  • low motivation caused by a weak manager
  • loss of faith in the organization’s future caused by uninspiring leadership
  • unclear, confusing directions and signals from higher ups
  • brush with power plays and group dynamics intended to preserve the political structure
  • deliberate exclusion by higher ups from important communications
  • illogical reporting structure intended to preserve control by the top man and his club of boys
  • clash with strong personalities with bloated egos in powerful positions in the hierarchy

The First and Subsequent Moves

So the thought that would eventually cross the mind is, “let’s move on”. After moving on and settling into another job in another organization, the above cycle would get repeated in a few years time. And so on it goes, another job in another organization, and then yet another until one reaches 10-15 years of experience and starts expecting a senior position.

At this point, mid-career crisis strikes and moving on becomes increasingly difficult for reasons listed below:
  • Acquired experience would be in a specific industry like pharmaceuticals, automotive
  • Acquired experience would be in a specific functional/technical area like sales, administration
  • Openings available for a certain experience will be limited in terms of number of positions and companies that need that experience
  • There might be mismatch between current compensation and title with what is on offer 
  • Those who will do the hiring will look beyond functional/technical competencies into cultural/political competencies. Some examples of this are:
    • A hiring manager will not hire someone with stronger qualifications and credentials
    • A hiring manager will consider the political environment in which a candidate will have to work while assessing her suitability for a position
    • A hiring manager will bring his bias in recommending a candidate

Mid-Career Crisis

Mid-career professionals are in a career transition mode and must remain calm and positive as they go through it. In case they fail to progress to higher levels (and as hard as it may sound, many would fail), they should absorb the failure in a clinical and philosophical manner. At this point in one’s career one should be highly self-aware about one’s strengths and weaknesses and in a way come to an honest admission of the fact that “one simply doesn’t have what it takes to go higher” and the fact that “it’s perfectly fine if you stand no chance to become a CEO one fine day”.

Organizations need highly specialized, deep expertise to develop next generation products and services and will align with the market changes rapidly. This might, however, take a toll on the professionals with highly specialized, deep expertise in an area as they will need to constantly and quickly learn something new, unlearn it and learn something else new. Such professionals can easily ride over the first mid-career crisis and the second one with extreme difficulty.

Top executives, knowing well that such professionals are a necessity for their business will cultivate such professionals and keep them motivated by titles such as Chief Engineer, Fellow and Distinguished Engineer.

Mid-career professionals who possess highly specialized, deep expertise in an area are viewed as rock stars in an organization until the time the market needs for such an expertise exist. However, in case of a demand shift in marketplace such professionals might find themselves out of favor unless they quickly migrate to highly specialized, deep expertise in another area. Those professionals who fail to cope will flame out from the corporate world.

Organizations need generic, wide-ranging expertise to run business operations smoothly, handle the day-to-day usual stuff.  Business is not as simple as developing a product and selling it to customers to make money. Any business needs to navigate through the expectations of its various stakeholders – government bodies, regulatory agencies, investors, customers, competition, employees, etc. The demand for such professionals tapers off while moving up the organizational hierarchy. Such professionals can easily ride over the first mid-career crisis and the second one with some difficulty.

Top executives, knowing well that they also had taken this path to the top will cultivate such professionals and keep them motivated by titles such as General Manager, Vice President, Senior VP, Executive VP.

Mid-career professionals who possess generic, wide-ranging expertise as functional and resource management are viewed as necessary evil for running the business operations smoothly. In case of troubles in business operations such professionals might find themselves out of favor unless they are working in areas to do with legal compliance and supporting business operations in a direct way. Such professionals will, however, be easily able to find employment in other organizations. Those professionals who fail to cope will flame out from the corporate world.

Managing Mid-Career Crisis

Our careers are an important part of our existence and not moving up and getting stuck or getting fired and shown the door may seem as a personal insult and a question mark on our individuality and importance in our own eyes and others that know us. It need not be this way.

Career progression depends on both individual competency, performance and how various factors play out in the career of a professional. In all situations, however, it is a truism that all but one professional will reach the top. It is also a truism that the professional at top can also slide down in no time (CEO firing is not as uncommon as one would wish it to be). 

Keeping in view some of the above aspects what can a mid-career professional do? Can he really do much or anything?  Can mid-life crisis be managed? There are some aspects which can be managed and many more which can’t be. Knowing which ones can be managed and which ones can’t be is as important as effectively managing the ones that can be managed and hoping for the best for the ones that can’t be managed.

Worst are those mid-career professionals who are in small organizations as they may have limited opportunities to learn and grow and in case they are made redundant will find it very difficult to get another job. Small organizations are generally managed by an old boys club which would be reluctant to induct a mid-career professional as part of the club. And mid-career professionals, especially those in the midst of second mid-career crisis, will not find it easy to get into a bigger organization since they will lack the understanding of scale and complexity of business in a big organization (as compared to a small organization).

Such professionals should try to move back to a bigger organization, join the rat race to reach as high as possible, and the moment they realize they will not be able to reach the first, second or third level and become redundant in the next organizational restructuring, put a plan to move back to another smaller organization at a level or two up at the bigger organization or get into a startup or get into consulting, etc.

Slightly better are those mid-career professionals, especially those in the midst of second mid-career crisis, who work in a bigger organization as some of the second level professionals might move into a smaller organization and become the top man. Many others who move out or forced to move out can end up starting their own consulting or advisory firm. Some others may float start-ups and designate themselves as the founder and top man. However, most of these professionals end up realizing very soon that this movement is generally one way with a slim chance to return to a bigger organization.

Such professionals the moment they realize they will not be able to reach the first, second or third level and become redundant in the next organizational restructuring should put a plan to move back to a smaller organization at a level or two up at the bigger organization or get into a start-up or get into consulting, etc.

Far better are those mid-career professionals who are founder and owner of a small or medium sized organization whose business model has potential to grow further. And best are those whose company becomes big by the time they enter mid-career.

Such professionals should try to ensure the survival of their organization as they will not find it easy to work for others in case their business fails for any reason. Some of such professionals might sell their business to another organization in a life-time deal and then retire.

They will not need to work for money any longer but may pursues many ideas purely for the kick one may get from them. However, they will need to stay focused on avoiding living on the edge as that can wipe their wealth rapidly in no time.

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