Having a Career – Where That Education Led Me

dogbert  call center drone

 

 

 

“To love what you do and feel that it matters–how could anything be more fun?”
– Katharine Graham

The place was Ohio Northern University (ONU), Ada, Ohio, the year was 1984, and there I was in my cap and gown with my new diploma in hand ready to conquer the “professional” world. I was both excited and nervous at the same time. Having work experience and having supervised people gave me an advantage, but at the same time I also had the disadvantage of venturing into the uncharted waters of the office environment.  So it was with some trepidation that I began interviewing for positions with local CPA firms. As I commenced the interview rounds, I saw a small posting in our local paper for a position with a local Accounting Software company.  I diligently sent a cover letter along with my resume. Within a week I had two interviews lined up.  The first interview was at a large local CPA firm that supported the majority of the businesses in our community preparing their taxes, giving financial advice, doing their payroll, etc. The second interview was with the Accounting Software Company for a Customer Support Representative. I don’t know which was more exciting, just getting the interviews or the fact that they were both in areas that were very interesting to me.

The interview at the CPA firm came first. I thought it went well. During the interview I found that the offices were plush (by 1980’s standards) and the dress codes as well as the work environment were very professional. I would need my high heels and hose for this job. The only downside was that the owner was an older gentleman who chewed on his cigar during the interview and called me “girlie.”  I can live with that, I thought.

Then came the interview with the Accounting Software Company.  I drove past the office a few times before I realized it really was that pole building in the middle of the corn field just outside of town. The building also served as the offices of an Engineering firm.  I later found out that one of the initial investors and founders of the software company was also the owner of the Engineering firm, so it made sense for him to “donate” office space to this fledgling software company.  The offices were not plush by any standards, but were typical for a small privately held company just starting out in the business. The dress code, while still professional, became a bit more relaxed after you entered the section that housed the programmers.  But I was interviewing for a Customer Support position, so my dress code would be a bit more like that expected at the CPA firm.  The atmosphere was where everything differed. The founders, the managers, and the entire staff were young and excited to be a part of this little company. While everyone did work long hours, they all seemed to be happy to be there and having fun.  Several of the systems programmers even were alumni of ONU.  I felt at home.

After a few days of chewing my nails and waiting for the phone to ring with an offer, it finally did ring and twice. I was offered both positions. So I did what I normally do when making a big decision. I started a list of pro’s and con’s. On the side of the CPA firm the two big ones were Pro- it was extremely professional and was focused on my first love Accounting, but on the Con side I’d be greeted every day with “hey girlie.” The list for the software company was a bit different. The Pro – an exciting and energetic place to work was balanced by the Con side it was sitting, answering phones and listening to customer complaints all day.  Even today my husband is still amazed that I chose the software company. He knew that I hate sitting all day, I especially hate the telephone as a means of communication, and don’t even get me started expressing how much I hate to hear customers complain (remember those darn frozen turkeys). But I did choose the software company and I am extremely happy that I did. My only concern was that when I started work I found out my “office” was a small room shared with my manager and three other support staff and to top it off they ran out of real desks so mine was a makeshift desk made up of two sawhorses and a door thanks to the engineering firm owner. However, the shiny new computer on my desk more than made up for my office and desk.

So that’s the short story of my entry into the professional world and the door to it was opened by my degree. That paper was worth all of the hours spent gaining it. While I left that first software company behind many years ago, at the time I left it was receiving a lot of positive press and awards for the features and quality of the products I had helped produce.

What I learned from all of this is that sometimes what you think is not the perfect job may lead to that perfect job in the future. In my case, I am happy to say that is what happened. I am grateful for those early years and all of the things that I learned both personally and professionally from the founders, the management, and staff at that small software company.

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Can An Old Dog Learn New Tricks?

olddogsnewtricks

Walk tall because, as Dr. Seuss said, ” you have brains in your head – you have feet in your shoes – you can steer yourself – any direction you choose.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’ve been reading my blog this year, you will remember that my commitment was to share my life experiences and what I have learned from them.  When I look back over my posts I have mainly been true to this commitment. What I have not shared is the circuitous path that I have taken to get to where I am at today.  A high level view of this path is below.

  • Early Years  –  Having a mother who had a career      outside the home – March post
  • Formative Years – Choir practice with the Nuns – April post
  • First Job –  Fired for sitting down on the job – May post
  • First Professional Job – I.B.M. and the metal monster – May 17 post
  • Punching  the Clock – The job that put the food on that table – Coming soon
  • Back to  School – Seeking That Professional Career – Coming soon
  • Running a Small Business – The Agony of Defeat – Coming soon
  • Having a Career – Where the education got me – Coming soon
  • Founding a Non-Profit – The Legacy We Leave – Coming soon
  • What’s Next? – Can An Old Dog Learn New Tricks – This post

As you can see I am going to run ahead and go to the end of this path and then go back and walk you along with me. The reason I am jumping ahead is because I am experiencing one of those “significant emotional events” in my life. I have a new boss and for the first time in a long time I have someone who is going to give me some coaching to get forward momentum on my career.  The start of this coaching has me wondering if I can indeed change some the things that will help me to progress. When faced with a challenge you may realize by now that I turn to reading. This time is no different. I have purchased three books (I need a lot of help), “Reinventing You” by Dorie Clark, “What To Ask The Person In The Mirror” by Robert Kaplan, and” What You’re Really Meant To Do” also by Kaplan.

I am just starting to read these books, but one theme that they all have in common is the need to solicit honest feedback. They suggest 360 reviews from not only your peers, but in order to get a full perspective, that you include feedback from a subset of everyone that you interact with on a daily basis.   My “coach” has started this with my permission by getting some feedback. The focus of this feedback was what was seen as my strengths and weaknesses.  This feedback was welcome but at the same time a bit daunting and caused me to wonder if there are just some aspects of being me that I may not be able to change. Not that I really see myself as an “old dog,” but let’s face it I have been around for a long time and some of these things that may just an intrinsic part of who I am.

In her book, Dorie Clark writes about changing your personal brand.  She recommends that in order to start this effort you need to understand how you are perceived today and then determine how you need to be perceived in order to move to the next phase of your career journey.  Some feedback that I have received is that I need to be “less casual” and that I often give less informed input on “technical topics.”    I can rationalize both of them, but in the end it is all about how I am perceived. With that in mind, I am trying to determine if what my coach has said are “just small changes to my approach,” or are these really behaviors that will be much more difficult for me to change.

I would like to think that my casualness is an asset in that I treat all levels of the organization with equal respect, from the night janitor who I see often to the CEO who I see less often. I will continue to smile and interact in the same casual manner. As for the input on technical topics, I have found that it is very effective when in a discussion with highly technical individuals to ask a dumb question or make a seemingly less informed statement. This normally causes them to rise to the occasion and explain what is really happening in terms that any layman can understand. It challenges them to think and interact in a different manner. I call this “get the crayons out” we’re going to talk to Doris.

My commitment is to finish reading the books and continue meeting with my coach.  Once I have done that, I will then determine how I can make some changes in my behaviors and personal brand. I would like to invite you to give me your thoughts on my strengths and weaknesses. Please feel free to email them to me at doris.amstutz@sage.com. If you prefer to remain anonymous, just write them on a slip of paper and slip it under my office door.

Oh and to close the “old dog” comment, here is an article from Cathy Perme that I find puts it all into perspective. http://www.cmperme.com/pdf/cmp0513.pdf

Leading By Example

 

 

 

 

 

 

Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing. – Albert Schweitzer

Life would be so easy if we never had to deal with any difficult situations. How many of us can say that we never have had a challenge in our work lives? If you can respond in the positive to this question, then you are either oblivious to the world around you or living in Nirvana.  Over the years I have had many of these opportunities to flex my leadership muscles.  I put it this way because until you have faced a daunting challenge I don’t think you can really judge your strength as a leader. Most of us in leadership positions do a pretty good job when things go as planned. But how we react and interact during difficult times is what really tempers our leadership skills.

I had an opportunity recently to observe one of our senior leaders reacting to a difficult situation. I believe what this leader said was they knew they were not treating some individuals very nicely, but that was just the way it was going to be due to the stress of a situation that was taking their focus away from the day-to-day to concentrate on resolving more pressing issues.  I am usually never at a loss for words, but I was struck speechless when I heard that this leader thought it was okay to treat people poorly due to stress at work. Now the moment has passed and I am still looking for the right way to bring the topic back up so that I can do a bit of “upward mentoring.”

This incident got me thinking about how I behave when I am under a lot of stress. As you may know from my earlier posts, I am a self-avowed Tasmanian Devil when the doer in me kicks in, but how do I behave when there are challenges here at work?  I love the quote by Schweitzer and think that it speaks volumes. If I keep this in mind when I feel the urge to “Tas out,” it restrains me. The most impact I can have on a daily basis is to set a good example for those I work with especially when under stress.  As long as I remember the examples that I set by my actions become the behavior of those around me it keeps my inner Tas under control. I have only to envision an office full of Tasmanian Devils whirling around and the lowering of productivity with missed deadlines that results to restrain my doer Devil mode.

Now how do I approach the topic of setting a good example with the leader I mentioned above?  Fortunately I am not the one being treated badly, but if I were it would almost make this crucial conversation easier.  I know I need to pick the time and my approach carefully so that my comments will be heard and received. This is not the type of conversation I like to have over lunch, nor is it effective at the end of another difficult day. Perhaps I’ll take the donut approach and invite them for a Starbucks walk across the street?  I find that walking improves the atmosphere for talking. Maybe I’ll share a “story” about one of my Tas experiences and how I handled it effectively? Or maybe I’ll just wimp out and see if they read this post?  Whatever I choose to do I need to do it this week because the more time that passes the more difficult this conversation will be.

As you can see, a lot of thought and reflection has been going on this week.  When I observe less than stellar leadership behavior, it does help me to become a better leader. It reinforces for me how it is much more difficult to be an effective leader under pressure. These times are the true test of leadership skills. All I have to do is see the reaction of others to this leader to know how I do not want to behave.

We are all a work in progress. Leadership in my mind is first setting a good example for those around us and second being a servant leader. Wish me luck with my crucial conversation. I welcome your thoughts on how I can approach this effectively.

Leading Through Change

“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”
Winston S. Churchill

When chatting with one of my management friends the other day, he expressed the sentiment that the staff was frustrated by the constant change. Changes in our organization structure, changes in our product direction, changes in our project plans, changes to our insurance options, you name it, if it had “change” in the sentence it was a source of frustration.

While I empathized with the confusion that change can cause in the short-term, I expressed my thought that it is up to us as a leadership team to be able to understand, explain, and stand behind the reason for these changes. Most change is a response to the current business climate and/or our customers changing needs. We all live in a world of constant change and that change is coming faster than ever before. As a leader it is our responsiblity to be able to articulate and paint the vision of the future so that our staff can understand where we are headed.

In an effort to find others who thought as I did, I used my friendly tool Google, and I found the following blog on leadership during change. I’ve include the link along with a short excerpt. http://www.greatleadershipbydan.com/2012/04/how-leaders-can-build-change-friendly.html

“..Think Sherpa. Leaders today need to focus less on traditional methods of strategy and more on preparing people for a very different kind of technical climb: Achieving and sustaining competitive advantage amidst short life cycles. The climb requires more than good equipment. It’s mental as much as physical. A storm or unpredictable conditions can strike at any moment. Leaders must exhibit fearlessness to show people how to expect, notice and respond to anything…”

In this blog the authors outline the five characteristics that leaders must have in order to build a culture that embraces change; Clarity, role models, right-sizing empowerment, bias to act for the customer, and procreate DNA. This last characteristic is not about selection of the right spouse in order to have the best and brightest children, but it is about your company culture. Building a culture that is “change-friendly” and then systematically passing that on in the DNA of the business culture is important to the continued success of your business.  In order to do this, we must consciously build a positive workplace culture and pass that along to the next generation of leaders.

After reviewing the characteristics, I would substitute the “right-sizing empowerment” with “build smart trust.”  This week I listened to a dialog with Steve Covey, Jr. on this topic  detailed in his new book, “Smart Trust.” This book sits on my iPad and as I write this I am looking at it’s predecessor “The Speed Of Trust” on my book shelf (pre-iPad days).  The speed of trust topic is around why trust is so important from a business level and how having trust can speed the decision-making process, speed time to market, and ultimately contribute to profitability for the business. Covey details the five types of trust; self, relationship, organizational, market, and societal.  In the second book, “Smart Trust” he goes on to discuss the balance that we as leaders must strive for between the risk and possibilities, character and competence when we increase trust within our organizations. I think both of these books should be required reading for anyone in a leadership position.

Back to the conversation with my management friend, when faced with staff members who are frustrated, I would suggest that first you should be glad that your staff is comfortable coming to you to discuss the issue and then second make sure that you understand the real source of their frustration.  If it is change in general rather than a specific change that has impacted them in their personal or work life, then ensure that you understand and can present the reason for the change in a positive supportive manner and at the same time use this as an opportunity to discuss the changing climate that we live in today. If on the other hand the change is specific, then depending on what the change is, determine how you can help them deal with that change and support them as they come to terms with the impact that it is having on them.

For myself, I have seen more change in the last five years of my professional life than I have in all of the prior years combined. I too have been frustrated at times, but I can say that having clarity around the reason for these changes and understanding the vision for the future did ease if not banish the frustration.  When reflecting on the quote above from Winston Churchill, I now just look at all of this change as my opportunity to work  toward perfection.

Being A Doer

 Last week I said I should title this “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” but decided that this would not do justice to the strengths of the Doer.   I did, however, want to pay homage to the nick name (Taz) that my daughter gave me many years ago.  After yet another stress filled morning getting three teenagers off to school, did I say they were all girls? My daughter started calling me Taz. This was probably due to my frenzied flinging of school books, lunch bags, cans of hair spray, and various articles of unmentionable clothing that were strewn about the house. All of this as I had to fight for the bathroom to get ready for work and eat my breakfast on the run. You can easily see how I earned my name and of course why my pants were often on backwards.

 I would like to say that I am different in my work life than I am at home, but when the pressure of work projects looms out comes the Taz in me.   As you know from my earlier blog, we Doer’s get a lot done, but sometimes at the expense of dead bodies left in our wake. 

When brought to our attention that we may have caused a bit of an issue as we voraciously chewed through a problem, we Doer’s are usually confused as to why anyone is upset because after all we did get the job done. And very quickly at that! So all Doer’s be forewarned while you may accomplish a lot you need to keep the battlefield clear of bodies.

ImageNow in case you think that I am a real “piece of work,” please remember that I am not a Doer all of the time just when I am under pressure. When I am working along as I am today just getting things done at a normal pace, I am really a thinker. I had plenty of time to get ready for work this morning (the girls are all grown and gone) and my pants have that knife-edge crease in them. I am operating in my best thinker mode pondering all the different detailed ways to write this blog and get my points across. As you can tell, I do love pictures and still identify with the Taz.

ImageI’d like to also add that when the conditions are very favorable I can switch into my Feeler mode.  This is when I walk around the office and chat with folks and find out how they are doing, what their children are up to, and maybe even invite someone to walk across the street for a Starbuck’s. More on this next week as I share a bit about the Feelers among us. Perhaps I should dub them more politically correctly and call them the “Connectors.”

Think Free… Think Gray

This past week I’ve been reading a new book, The Contrarian’s Guide To Leadership, by Steven Sample. After reading a few chapters I posted the think free think gray phrases on my white board. These were a personal reminder. Yesterday when a respected peer asked about what these phrases meant I told him that they were reminders to me to not jump to a conclusion or make a quick decision. Now that is so unlike me, that he just smiled and shook his head. Well one can hope that as I have read, leaders are made not just born, and that I can learn a few new habits. The habit I am working on first is “artful listening.”

More along the lines of thinking gray, artful listening, is listening attentively without rushing to judgement. This allows gathering a fresh perspective and not being bound by pre-conceived notions. I have been praised for being able to think and act quickly. While there is a place for that in “fight or flight” situations these are not often present in the software development world– while it might seem like it is when a customer calls with an urgent issue, it is still better to gather all of the facts before racing to make a decision.

However, thinking gray and thinking free are much more than just artful listening, but I’ve got to start somewhere. Given  my proclivity for rushing to resolve problems I think artful listening is enough for me to tackle initially.   Then after I think I have somewhat mastered this art I will move on to the next learning opportunity.

I am finding this book a wealth of thought-provoking information and encourage anyone in a leadership position or who wants to move into a leadership role to read this book and start to practice some of the principles prescribed by Mr. Sample. I’ve included an excerpt from a particularly well written summary of the book below.

“…If nothing else, Sample’s gift in this book is the notion that there is no tried and true formula for good leadership or for becoming an effective, let alone good, leader. Should we aspire to doing leader, as opposed to being leader (in which we like the trappings of office but don’t want to dirty our hands with the day-to-day, not-always-pleasant requirements of actually doing the job), we are encouraged to break out of conventional thinking, cultivate some tendencies that diverge from what we may have learned, and take responsibility for our own and others’ actions. As Sample says, if you’re not willing to do what it takes, stay out of the leadership business altogether.

A few Contrarian principles suggested in this book include:

  • Think gray: try not to form opinions about ideas or people unless and until you have to. Sample calls this “seeing double,” and “the ability to simultaneously view things from two or more perspectives.”
  • Think free: train yourself to move several steps beyond traditional brainstorming by considering really outrageous solutions and approaches. Too often we rush to judgment or give in to the naysayers who only focus on how or why something cannot or should not be done.
  • Listen first, talk later; and when you listen, do so artfully.
  • Experts can be helpful, but they’re no substitute for your own critical thinking and discernment.
  • Never make a decision yourself that can reasonably be delegated to a lieutenant; and never make a decision today that can be reasonably put off to tomorrow. But then, Sample also says…
  • Shoot your own horse. Don’t make others do your dirty work.
  • Ignore sunk costs and yesterday’s mistakes. You can only influence the future.
  • Reading Machiavelli can help make you a more moral leader.
  • Work for those who work for you. Hire people who are better than you and help them succeed.
  • You can’t really run your organization; you can only lead individual followers, who then collectively give motion and substance to the organization you nominally head.
  • You can’t copy your way to the top; true excellence can only be achieved through original thinking and unconventional approaches….”

Sample is also a huge proponent of something he calls “open communication with structured decision-making,” which allows the freedom to talk informally with anyone in the organization but doesn’t undercut the authority and responsibility of line administrators and managers.  I particularly like the example he has in the book that deals with a successful business leader who stopped by and had a chat with one of his engineers and asked a few questions. A few days later the engineers manager complained to the leader that he had redirected the work of the engineer. The leader felt terrible because all he did was ask a few questions. However, it wasn’t clear to the engineer that while there was open communication the decision-making really needed to follow the structure already in place.

If you really want to avoid micro-managing and if you truly want to empower those who work with and for you, this type of approach is critical. You might say it’s contrarian leadership at its best!