Hitting The Books

hit books

Over the years we all have a few life changing moments. One of mine came to me around the tenth year of quartering yet another frozen turkey. It was right after I finally came to the realization that they were never going to promote me to Head Meat Cutter no matter how many times our department came in first in the Zone in sales nor how many times I smiled as I sawed up those turkeys. But I can say that I never would have had the courage to go to college if my family had not pushed me to make that first uncomfortable move.  It started with just a few evening classes at the local technical school. I thought I would turn my love for math and managing by the numbers into a lucrative skill. Little did I know at the start that this would lead to a lifelong love for learning and a fascination with computers.

Two years flew by while attending night classes and working full-time still cutting up those turkeys, but now I was focused on funding my education. On graduation day I wore that cap and gown with pride as I receive my freshly minted Associates Degree in Accounting. I was ready to conquer the professional world! Much to my dismay the jobs for me with my new degree were few and far between and none of them could compare with the wages I was making as a part on the Union.  It would have been even more disappointing if I hadn’t taken that last computer class and discovered that I had a knack for programming – in COBOL – but hey it was still programming. I took exceptional pride in the fact that when I loaded my deck of punched cards into the hopper my code ran first time every time with no errors. It was with the memory of this that I decided to continue to invest in my education by attending a local college and getting a degree that would open doors for me to travel beyond the frozen turkey days. So again with my family’s support, I now start school during the day and switched to nights and week-ends for the turkey travails. Other than a full course load and many stops at school for lab after work, those days included doing the nightly clean-up of the Meat Room. I think I hold the record for the fastest time breaking down the slicer and the band saw and hosing the whole room down with disinfectant and yup you guessed it putting it all back together again just to quarter another frozen turkey. Did I mention that in between times I did my homework standing up in the meat room shifting from one foot to the next trying to stay warm in that 40° room.  Thanks to many cups of black coffee I never fell asleep at the wheel on the drive home.

The next two years went by in a blur, maybe some of that was from the steam in the Meat Room. Now I was really armed and ready to launch into a professional career. So long turkeys! I bought a suit and the requisite nylons and heels and started the interview rounds. After a few weeks I was faced with one of the biggest decisions of my life. Should I take the job at the CPA firm doing taxes? Or should I take the job at the business software startup where I would answer the phones and listen to customers complain? To this day my husband still can’t believe that I chose the latter. I remember him saying,” you hate to hear people complain, you hate the phone, and you really hate sitting all day, now tell me why you took that job again?” The answer was easy. I would have my very own bright and shiny new computer and I could play with software all day long.  Except for the complaints, the phone, and the sitting, it was a job made in heaven. Lucky for me and the customers, my management talent (or simply maturity since I was the oldest employee in the office) and my penchant for breaking the software made me the perfect candidate to start the companies first ever Quality Assurance Department. I’d love to say that was my brain child, but in reality it was due to a critical contract with IBM (the real IBM this time) that required having a QA group that led to my move into management.

It was also around this time that I decided that to really get ahead in the professional world I needed to have some initials after my name. During my senior year at college I had sat for but not passed all parts of the CPA exam. Never to be one to leave something unfinished, I kept on studying and passed all four parts on the second and third tries. One night, fueled I am sure my much black coffee, I applied for and was accepted into an Executive MBA program. It was back to night school I went for more black coffee and rubbing elbows with “C” level wanna be executives.  After a few years I now had CPA and MBA after my name. It doesn’t get any better than that!

So what might you ask did I learn from all of this hard work and study? Let me sum that up for you. It pays to have a loving and supportive family. It’s one thing to get an education but quite another to apply it well in the work environment. And lastly, doing it at light speed like I did, you have to be a little crazy and that comes from drinking too much black coffee!



It’s Not What You Said, It’s What They Understood That Matters.

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Use anything you can think of to understand and be understood, and you’ll discover the creativity that connects you with others. Martha Beck



Last week I had the privilege of having dinner with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law, two people I very much admire. They live in Mexico where they, along with a few local staff and numerous volunteers, continue to run the Genesis International Orphanage Foundation, GIOF. It is always fun to hear the latest stories about the children and the adventures they share that are a part of the day-to-day life for GIOF. One story hit home for me as being applicable for all of us in how we communicate.

Greg was sharing how he was working with the Niño’s cleaning up the dishes after dinner. He was using this as an opportunity to work on his Spanish, the product of many books, tapes, classes, immersion, and exposure daily to the language. He was doing very well. He said, “primero raspar los platos” (first you scrape the dishes), “luego te lavas los platos” (then you wash the dishes), and “y luego te desnudas” (and then you rinse). Now, when he got to the rinse part, he was a bit unsure of the proper word to use for ‘rinse’. Greg asked Gabriella, the GOIF director who is a local, how to pronounce ‘rinse’ in Spanish to which she responded “de enjuagar.” Greg then pronounced it the way that he heard it, “te desnudes.” All the children stopped what they were doing and, with mouths open, just stared at Greg. If that wasn’t enough of an indication that something was wrong, the red flush and look on Gabriella’s face as she came up beside him and said, “Oh no, you will need to apologize to the orphanage director”, was even greater.  Greg said, “Why? What? I just repeated what you told me.” Gabriella quickly replied, “No Greg. What I said was ‘de enjuagar’. You said ‘te desnudes’, which means to get naked!” Of course, by this time the children were all laughing and repeating in sing-song fashion, “now they would all get naked.” You know how impressionable young children are and they never forget and always repeat everything. Oh wow, what had Greg done?

Let me stop for a minute and give you some background information. GIOF works with many orphanages and indigenous groups throughout Baja Mexico. All of them have religious affiliation and can often be considered conservative by American standards.  This particular orphanage could be considered more conservative than most and Gabriella and Greg had been working very hard to have GIOF leave a good impression. I am sure that as Gabriella heard Greg tell the Niño’s that after they washed the dishes then they should “get naked” she swiftly saw all of that hard work being flushed down the drain of misunderstanding.  Fortunately, the orphanage directors had a sense of humor and understood Greg’s unintended transgression from his translation. I think the swift apology helped.

After I finished laughing at Greg’s story, I started thinking about the many times I have made unfortunate misses in communication myself. I just don’t have the excuse of translating from English to Spanish.  While I do try to get verbal confirmation that what I said or meant to convey was heard and understood, it is easy to assume that the receiving party is on the same page. The final step of hearing them confirm back with the action they will take often times gets missed. This is especially important when working with someone for the first time. There are so many subtle ways to interpret things that until you have worked together for a while it is difficult to ensure that what you said was really what they heard. This is especially important for those of us who live in a world of technical terms, local jargon, and of course the ever-present acronyms.

It was a pleasure to reconnect with Greg and his wife Patti and to find that no matter what you do every day we all can, at times, face the same challenges in communicating effectively. So when I am working with someone for the first time, I will from now on think of Greg and his “get naked” faux pas.  This will be a humorous reminder to me to make sure that I get confirmation that what I said was indeed what they heard and what I intended to communicate.

For more information about GIOF visit http://www.giof.org/support_giof.html

Keeping The Squirrel’s Tamed – Staying Focused

As I was reading my 500th email the other day, I came across this blog http://blogs.hbr.org/bregman/2012/04/coping-with-email-overload.html by Peter Bergman the author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done.  I did like I usually do and stopped everything to not only read his interesting tips for how to better manage my daily glut of emails, but also to read the first chapter of his book and download it to my iPad. While doing this I kept on reading other emails that had piled up since I shut down the evening before at 10 p.m. and did I mention that I also had started to read my emails from home at breakfast at 6 a.m. that morning?

Don’t we all love this information age where we are inundated with so much valuable information that we can’t get anything done? As I was doing all of this triple tasking, (did I tell you I was working on a project at the same time?) I came across another blog that talked about Agile Development – we use this here at Sage – and the need for the teams to be able to stay focused. In this second blog, I noticed a section headed “Squirrel” that immediately caught my eye. Right about now you’re probably asking yourself what the heck is she leading up to and why can’t she stay focused? Well, that’s because every email that comes in dings and for me that is just like yelling “Squirrel!” at your dog. You know, when you are out for a walk and he sees one of these bushy-tailed creatures and he immediately breaks from his “heel” and goes nuts trying to catch that pesky critter.

The light came on for me, not only was I responding to that email ding like my beloved dog responds to squirrels, but I was also guilty of shouting “squirrel!” to the team during our sprint reviews. For those of you not familiar with Agile, a sprint review is conducted after a pre-defined period of intense work. For us, this is every three weeks. The sprint review is where the team gathers to show what they have accomplished and celebrate meeting their goals. As it would happen, my epiphany came on a Monday morning right before we had our Product Owner/Managers meeting – another Agile driven meeting – and this gave me the opportunity to ask for feedback and explain that I thought I probably was guilty of getting the teams distracted by yelling squirrel. They of course were very nice to me, but did give me some great feedback — in my heart I know I am guilty of the squirrel gig. What we worked out was a process for me to give the feedback at the right time to the right person so that the team would not be distracted.

Now it’s time for you to do some introspective thinking. When have you yelled “squirrel” to your team? When have you jumped up and responded to the squirrel call? Both are equally bad as the first distracts others and the second is personally worse because it keeps you from being focused and productive.

I would encourage you to read Mr. Bergman’s blog and put his suggestions to the test. As for yelling “squirrel!,” make sure that if you do it is because he is really as dangerous as the picture at the top of this post.

Be on the lookout for next week’s post. In it I will give you some examples where being too focused might limit your creativity and at the same time let you know what scotch tape, sand paper, golf clubs, and smart phones have in common.  For those of you who are creative types and have the answer to this feel free to comment here on your thoughts about the commonality.

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.”

Working with a Pure Thinker

Last week I wrote about my experiences with a pure Innovator (Intuitor in some camps), but this week I’d like to focus on my friend the Thinker. What comes to mind for me is the statue by Rodin, with his thoughtful expression and solid cut in stone appearance. The Thinkers among us are sometimes characterized as being organized, structured, conservative, analytical, rational, controlled, etc.  In an earlier post, I summed this up by saying that you can tell a Thinker by his pants being pressed with a knife-edged crease (actually I believe I said it would cut butter).

When I think of someone I work with who fits the model of a “pure Thinker,” I remember a recent team building exercise. The Thinker was on my team and since it was raining I of course went into my “Doer” mode and wanted to complete the event quickly, while my teammate the Thinker was keeping the notes in dripping detail.  After we finally slogged back to the comfort of the office with our soaking shoes and clues – this was a CSI crime solving team event – the Thinker then proceeded to catalog the clues in excruciating detail. It seemed that each individual hair needed to be accounted for by its length and color or at least that is what I thought the Thinker was doing constantly handling each hunk of hair over and over again. When it came time to solve the crime, our team was last to submit our clues and solution and even then we did not win!

The team building was not really about winning, it was about learning about each other. I certainly learned that the Thinker was a perfect fit for their role as a Project Manager where the devil is in the details and it also reinforced a bit about me as well – the Doer rushes to the conclusions which are not always the right ones.

Learning about the different styles, hopefully lets us appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of each. If we take a few minutes and do a bit of introspective thinking, we can probably determine which style most fits our daily lives. With this in mind, we can then view others by their dominant styles and interact with them accordingly.

I appreciate both the Innovators and the Thinkers for their strengths and definitely want both of them on my team because they have valuable traits that are needed to provide the creative complex thinking and the detailed steps so that nothing is forgotten as we get the job done.  This last is the Doer’s specialty and I will share with you more about my predominate style under stress next week. I think I will call that post “the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

Working With A Pure Innovator

Early in my management career I had the great pleasure or perhaps better put misfortune to work with a pure innovator. As I said in my post last week, most of us are usually a blend of several styles but predominately one under favorable conditions and another one when under stress. With that in mind, it is rare to find an individual who exhibits the same style under both conditions and even more rare, thank goodness, for that one style to be an Innovator.

The person I am referring to, who will remain nameless to protect the innocent, was the most brilliant individual that I have to this day ever met. He could come up with an overabundance of new ideas, could imagine how they would be built and could even envision exactly what they would look like. He was a deep well of software architectural knowledge, could expound on any subject, would work day and night on the next innovation, and always be seeking out new approaches. He was highly valued for his new ideas so of course he was put in charge of the entire software engineering team. He was brilliant and it stood to reason he should be in charge, right? Well, as those of us who have had a few years of management know, you don’t put someone in the manager’s role just because they are the smartest technology guru. Putting this pure innovator into a people and project management position was like asking the cat to kiss the dog. It was a recipe for disaster.

To sum up his project management skills, everything was easy and would be finished tomorrow. His people skills were nonexistent. He thought that everyone should work all day and night just like he did, no mentoring or people engagement here, he was brilliant after all and always knew all of the answers and could of course do it much faster himself.

I am sad to say that it took several projects that never saw the light of day and the loss of multiple valued staff for someone to finally see that this just was not the proper fit.  A niche was carved out for this brilliant individual where he could operate in a “think tank” mode and come up for air periodically to share his project ideas and then return to his pizza box and toy strewn office for another round of extreme innovation. He was much happier in his new role and the rest of us were certainly much happier having him in this role.

As you will remember from last week the outward signs of an Innovator are:

  • Head in the clouds with lots of great ideas.
  • Always looking for new ways to accomplish things.
  • Stays at high level – does not live for the details
  • Anything is possible and it’s all quick and easy
  • Toys all over their desk
  • Might forget to put on their pants

I can’t say that I ever saw him without his pants (and probably wouldn’t tell you if I had), but I have seen him asleep on the floor of his office under his desk after putting in yet another all night siege to find the way to software nirvana.

In case you think that I still work with this individual, let me be clear, that even though we did find him a different role, his self-esteem was harmed by his unhappy stint as a manager. It was a rare occurrence for him to have failed at anything and not easily tolerated by someone with an Innovator style. He has since gone on to a much different career and I believe he is now mining sugar from salt mines, but happily working alone in this entrepreneurial endeavor.

Next week, my experiences working with a Thinker. I call this one how to examine every little detail over and over and over again.