Corporate Mentoring Series: Job Qualifications

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You may have noticed that in the corporate world, the required qualifications stated on a job description are not actually the qualifications required for the job. In fact, in many cases, actual capabilities of any kind at all are not even necessary. As long as your resume makes you look like you know what you’re doing and you aren’t drooling during the job interview, your career is secured. To illustrate my point, here are a few actual examples of blockheads that populate the business world.

Consultant: Dictionary.com defines the word consultant as a “person who gives professional or expert advice.” This definition is complete nonsense and proof that this free internet dictionary is of substandard quality (you get what you pay for).

With the exception of my two consultant friends and any of the readers of this blog who happen to be consultants, I have found that consultants are neither professional nor able to give expert advice. They are, however, skilled in assembling pretty spreadsheets and making meaningless recommendations while giving the appearance of being knowledgeable. Don’t be deceived into believing they know anything, just because they use sophisticated terms like “recalibration” and prepare important-sounding documents like “heat maps.”

Before paying their astronomical bill, take a close look at the information actually contained in the spreadsheets they produced for you. I once found this unintelligible (not to mention grammatically challenged) statement in an analysis for which my company paid an obscene amount of money:

The workflow process for the critical staff are in place to provide guidelines on the information collection process.

If anyone reading this is a consultant and knows what this sentence means, please leave the translation in the Comments.

Marketing Specialist: While you might think that one should have an English degree or at the very least have a decent command of Standard English to create marketing materials, this is not the case.

Marketing is a creative pursuit and, consequently, marketing employees take the liberty to apply their artistic tendencies to the English language. In the corporate world, this entails creative use of past and present tenses, colorful spelling and punctuation, and unique phraseology.

For example, I reviewed a draft Happy Holidays card to be sent out in early December to our company’s clients. The card expressed the company’s hope that the card recipient had had a happy holiday season. (Who cares about this year’s holidays? Given the use of the past tense, it’s apparently last year’s holiday season that’s important.) The card then went on to spread the word that “In the spirit of the new starts, we have made donations to a number of local organizations…” The new starts? Even my first grader knows that while Santa is alive and well, there is no such thing as “the new starts.”

Facilities Supervisor: This person is responsible for organizing moves to new buildings but, surprisingly, organizational skills are not truly sought after when hiring this person. Nor is the ability to communicate key pieces of information to affected employees…such as the ones who are being relocated.

When we moved to another office building across town a few years ago, the employees were given the new street address. However, the actual location of our suite somewhere within the 11 story office building was left off the communication. Not a big deal, since there was certainly a company directory in the lobby. There was indeed a company directory, and it contained the name of every company in the building….except ours.

It took about 2 hours to figure out which door was ours and another 2 years before our company was added to the directory (making mail delivery entertaining). In an attempt to help new hires and others find us while we were (literally) off the grid, employees would put hand-written signs on the door. Unfortunately, these signs were promptly removed by the building management company who required professional logos on plaques as opposed to company names written with Sharpies on large post-its.

Before our next corporate move, I will suggest the company hire a consultant to recalibrate our relocation process using a heat map.

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Power-Hungry Art Coordinator

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In my previous post The Volunteer Part II, The Art Docent, I discussed my role last year as a volunteer art docent for my oldest daughter’s class. This proved to be a fascinating experience, particularly because, much to my surprise, the behavior of a room full of elementary school students was not all that different than the antics I’m subjected to in company meetings.

This interaction was close enough to my corporate comfort zone that the kids can consider themselves lucky I didn’t break out a bunch of Excel tables and start lecturing on the importance of using the correct variables in your statistical regression models. (I’m not actually a statistician, but I work with one and have figured out how to imitate him well enough to sound considerably more intelligent than I really am. Look people, it’s all about perception.)

With this school year came a unique opportunity. The son of the volunteer lady who coordinated the art docent program was switching to the local school for smart kids. This meant her position was open. Since no one else wanted the job of coordinator (which should have been a sign to me), I jumped at the opportunity. After all, as coordinator couldn’t I wield my newly-gained power across not only the art docent program but maybe even the PTA? Who cares if I didn’t get paid? Since I had no actual power at work (and zero power at home with my kids), my dictatorial cravings would finally be satisfied.

Excited at the thought that people would finally listen to me, I immediately set goals, made a PowerPoint, and met with the school principal to align on said goals. I could barely wait to begin assembling my team of minions, um, I mean volunteer art docents.

Despite my and the principal’s enthusiasm, I quickly learned that running a volunteer program is not an easy task. This is primarily due to the fact that an astonishing number of volunteers are flakes with a limited sense of responsibility and urgency. In all fairness, I suppose this shouldn’t have shocked me, since they aren’t getting paid; even a number of salaried people at my corporate job are neither accountable nor timely for anything not directly related to a department potluck. (People love food…organizing it, making it, talking about it, eating it, etc.)

After the Back to School Night volunteer sign-ups, I had at least one volunteer for each of the 15 classrooms. However, as time passed and the first art lesson was only a few weeks away, half of the parents had stopped responding to my e-mails…and I suspected some of them had even changed their identities.

While I struggled with the concept of grown-ups signing up for something that they weren’t actually interested in doing, it occurred to me that the reason these people had gone into hiding may have something to do with the fact that they realized they would actually have to stand up in front of 30 kids and try to teach them something.

Having attended numerous official company meetings where adults spent most of the hour ignoring the agenda and competing for laughs (kind of like an episode of “Last Comic Standing”), I was used to free-for-alls and teaching unruly kids, while at times frustrating, was only marginally more frightening.

Sadly, there was no room for power-wielding despotism. To keep the program intact, I couldn’t afford to lose any more parent volunteers. There was clearly only one solution.  I was going to have to schlep the group to a series of meetings at my company…and follow it up with a potluck.

The Volunteer Part II, the Art Docent

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In the Volunteer Part I , I had ventured out of my corporate comfort zone of meaningless statistics and mind-numbing Excel spreadsheets to tackle volunteering at my then fourth grader’s Thanksgiving party. As I doled out someone else’s scalloped potatoes to a stampede of hungry 9 year olds, I found that these kids weren’t any scarier than the lunatics I deal with on a daily basis in the asylum…I mean business world. In fact, by the end of the party I even felt comfortable enough to accept the challenge when the room parent called out “Anyone want to volunteer to do the class art lessons?”

As I soon learned, this volunteer role had the official title of  “Art Docent” and required me to teach a series of 4 lessons in art history along with an accompanying art project for each. In other words, for most of the lesson I had to talk loudly to a bunch of unruly people about a topic they weren’t really interested in, while attempting to direct their attention to the accompanying PowerPoint slides. This was definitely familiar territory. I wondered if I would get business cards.

It turns out I didn’t get business cards, but at least the lesson materials were already prepared. All I had to do was edit the heck out of them for “better clarification,” which was a key management technique I’d observed in my interactions with our senior leadership team. (“Leadership Team” is pretentious corporate speak for the people that dump an urgent project on your plate and then immediately go on vacation somewhere without cell phone network coverage, leaving you to work through the holiday Christmas party to meet the deadline. On the positive side, at least you get to miss the crappy White Elephant exchange…)

As anticipated, there really wasn’t much difference between a classroom presentation and a business meeting. In fact, the cast of characters was very similar, which is probably due to the fact that many school kids grow up to be corporate folks.

Here are a few of the personalities I encountered during my lessons, which are also typically present in the business setting:

The Royal Pain: Puts his hand up every time you ask a question, even though he has no idea what you’re talking about and has been holding a sidebar conversation with the kid next to him since you started the lesson. When you move on to the next topic, his hand is still up.

Defense Tactic: Aside from slapping him, which would be illegal, there’s not much you can do. Take comfort in the fact that when this guy gets to the business world, he likely won’t make it out of the mailroom.

The One-Upper: This is the kid who, after you talk about Italian art, tries to impress you with his vast knowledge of Italian pasta shapes.

Defense Tactic: Since you used to live in Italy, continue the lesson in Italian for the next five minutes. Your Italian is admittedly a little rusty these days, but he won’t know if you confuse the word for faucet with the word for toilet.

The Politician: This girl sweetly reminds you how fun it was when you two sat together on the bus during last year’s class field trip. Unfortunately, this is also the same kid that nastily announced at the class holiday party last week that she re-gifted the Secret Santa present she received from your daughter.

Defense Tactic: Sweetly remind her back (in a low, sinister voice), that you know what she did last Christmas…

The Attention-Seeker: This brat complains the whole time that the art project is too difficult. Somehow, despite her complaints, she manages to complete the project within the given timeframe.

Defense Tactic: Give her the attention she so desperately craves by challenging this kid to a game of tetherball at recess. Then, wipe the court with her. If it looks like she’s going to win, however, claim sudden dehydration and explain that you urgently need a drink from the toilet.

Secret Santa Sucks

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My fifth grader Elizabeth had a Secret Pal gift exchange the last day before winter break. Although more politically correct in name, it sucked just as much as the not politically correct Secret Santa.

I had not played Secret Pal-Santa in years and unfortunately for both Elizabeth and me, I did not make the connection between Secret Pal-Santa and the trauma that can be inflicted by its nefarious relative, the White Elephant.

The original White Elephant gift game was not only a fun and comedic bonding experience, but it provided a convenient opportunity to transfer the clutter in your house to someone else’s house. Hate both that ugly statue that your mother-in-law gave you and the lavender perfume from Grandma? Put ’em together in the same bag. Problem solved.

Lamentably, the White Elephant took a turn for the worse about 10 years ago, when people were either too attached to that Chia Pet or too lazy to dig it out and wrap it. Instead folks went out and bought gift cards, food or alcohol, leaving the recipients of the true White Elephant gifts depressed and bitter.

This problem has been slow to be recognized by party organizers across the nation (or at least the state of California) who are in denial and still insist on calling it a White Elephant gift exchange. Most people have enough social cognizance to realize that, despite the name of the game, it is unacceptable to bring a White Elephant gift, particularly when the instructions include spending guidelines.

Still, there’s always that one person who refuses to conform and puts a damper on some poor participant’s holiday cheer. At work, this is usually a temp with nothing to lose or the guy in IT who is using the gift exchange as a means to extract revenge on you for bugging the heck out of him all year.

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Three years ago, thanks to one of these people I was the proud owner of a previously-enjoyed Queen CD box set. Not that I have anything against Queen, per se, and if it had been Queen singing the holiday hits, I may had felt differently, but who wouldn’t have preferred the Moose Munch / Jack Daniels gift set?

Familiar as I am with the perils of the White Elephant, I had regrettably not applied this knowledge to Secret Pal-Santa. When Elizabeth came home with a bio sheet on her gift recipient (favorite color, animal, hobby, book, etc.), we put our heads together. The directions were vague, but certainly we were supposed to spend some amount of money on something cool. I took a cue from my friend whose son is in the other fifth grade class and hit the 99 Cent Store, where Elizabeth and I had fun picking out a pretty little box and a necklace and candy to fill it with.

When the Secret Pal-Santa exchange day finally arrived, I couldn’t wait to finish up my PowerPoint, so I could get home from work and hear all about it. As soon as I walked in the door, I sat Elizabeth down to debrief her. She was not very enthusiastic about sharing the details, which I guess had to do with the fact that after all our effort, she only got a miniature cupcake that was suspiciously missing half the icing.

To add insult to injury, the recipient of Elizabeth’s gifts was not impressed with her 99 Cent store treats and was happy to share this fact directly with Elizabeth. In retrospect, I should have paid more attention to the fact that this pretentious little 10-year old’s bio stated that she loved shopping and iPads. Clearly chocolate and cheap fashion jewelry weren’t going to impress her.

Luckily, there is always revenge. Since I teach the class’s volunteer art lessons, I’m considering what kind of public humiliation I can subject this kid to during the next lesson. (This is why they should screen parents before allowing them to volunteer.)

The key to White Elephants and Secret Pals-Santas-Reindeer-Whatevers is, like most things in life, managing expectations. I think I will suggest that in future years the teacher add a disclaimer and note at the bottom of the instructions stating something to the effect of :

Kids: don’t get your hopes up; your Secret Pal’s parents might be emotionally-unavailable tightwads. If you get more than a crappy pencil drawing with a lot of erasure marks and your name spelled wrong, consider yourself lucky.

Parents: if the recipient of your kid’s Secret Pal gift is a snot-nosed brat, feel free to be an emotionally-unavailable tightwad. Better yet, give that kid a Queen CD box set.

Good Parents Don’t Play Monopoly

 

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It’s a universal truth that I am a crappy parent. I yell; I have little patience; I sometimes use bad language when I’m yelling with little patience; and the biggest of all telltale signs of a bad parent, I played Monopoly with my kids…and was ruthless.

Let’s be honest, Monopoly is not for the faint of heart. It’s a high-stakes, cutthroat game. You purchase as many properties as possible with the ultimate goal of staying out of jail while building a bunch of cheap, plastic, substandard housing units and bankrupting the heck out of everyone who is forced to pay you rent.

My 10-year old, Elizabeth, who is a sweet kid and naïve to the ways of economic power plays, discovered my dusty old Monopoly game from the 1970’s a few months ago and embarked on a campaign to convince me to play it with her.

This is not a game that children should play with adults. Actually, it’s not a game that adults should play at all. If you get pleasure financially ruining those around you, you most likely have a prosperous career in Corporate America and don’t need validation through the board game. You don’t have time to move a shoe from Marvin Gardens to Pennsylvania Avenue. In fact, you already missed three important calls in the time it took you to tell your kids to take a hike.

 If you need validation through the board game, you were probably passed up for that last promotion and are passive-aggressive. Go directly to Therapy; do not pass Go and no, you can’t collect your $200. Well, at least that was what you got in the 70’s; no idea what inflation has increased the payout to in today’s version.

If you are neither of the above but have a highly competitive nature, resist any temptation to play Monopoly. Instead, use your powers for good (e.g. to brainwash your colleagues at work into believing you know what you’re doing and following your lead.) Whatever you do, do not let your kids persuade you to play “just this one time.”

For weeks I endured plea after plea, which increasingly characterized me as a negligent parent who deprived her children of important family bonding rituals like game nights (where the game is, of course, Monopoly). This was worse noise pollution that the compulsive office whistler who worked at my company last year. Unfortunately, I couldn’t fire my kids or even send them to Human Resources for a warning.

Finally, beaten-down, guilt-ridden and in a state of weakened common sense, I gave in. Giddy at their victory, my kids pulled out the game and immediately started arguing over who got to be the dog. We settled the issue with a dice roll, which Elizabeth won and then promptly forfeited; after all that, she decided she’d rather be the car. Go figure. With the initial drama of the game behind us, they helped me set up the board as I explained the rules.

For the first hour of the land grab, it looked like my little 6-year old, Corinne, was going to mop the floor with us. She had wisely purchased several key properties and had a continuous inflow of rent. I beamed with pride at my offspring’s prowess. Although she wasn’t able to obtain all the properties of any one color and therefore couldn’t properly inflict financial doom on us, she clearly had potential.  I nurtured a secret hope that she might be our meal ticket when we hit retirement.

By the end of the second hour, the tide had turned in my favor. I had, without cheating, managed to secure Park Place and Boardwalk. I put three houses on each, sat back and waited for the inevitable. With my opponents’ (I mean, kids’) bankruptcies just around the corner, I almost turned into the office whistler myself.

To her great misfortune, Elizabeth landed on Boardwalk almost immediately. Sans sufficient cash on hand or enough property to mortgage in order to pay me the rent due, I made her an offer that she couldn’t refuse. She did refuse. The evening just took a turn for the worse.

Now, to be fair, I didn’t put the head of a horse or even the head of her favorite stuffed animal in her bed. I did, however, pick up my cell phone and pretend to call my “hired help”.

 In retrospect, I suppose I went a little too far. While Elizabeth sobbed at the table and I apologized profusely for my cold-blooded collection tactics, Corinne smartly decided she was getting out of the game before I took her down too.  As the scene progressed, my husband shook his head knowingly and explained that he had endured a similar fate while playing Monopoly with his father when he was Elizabeth’s age. He sympathized with her plight.

I finally managed to convince Elizabeth that my Godfather-esque offer (to take 2 of her properties and most of her money) was a well-meaning effort to allow her to stay in the game rather than flat-out bankrupt her. I conveniently left out the part about the perverse pleasure I got from dragging out the game when I was ahead. As her crying subsided, I realized that before ever playing another game of Monopoly, I should go directly to Therapy; do not pass Go.

 

5 Ways to Improve Your Corporate Communication Skills

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Appropriately expressing one’s thoughts and ideas can be challenging in the business world. In light of certain communications I’ve recently been subjected to, I feel compelled to share with you some DOs and DON’Ts which will hopefully help you climb the corporate ladder more quickly and do so without getting on your colleagues’ nerves any more than necessary:

1. DON’T sign your e-mails with your initials unless you are high up on the corporate food chain. These are the only people who have earned the right to save precious time by signing with two letters.

If there is any question as to whether you are high enough up on said food chain, check your title to see if it can be reduced to a 3-letter acronym starting with the letter “C” (e.g. CFO, COO, CIO, CTO, etc).

  • If the answer is “yes”, you may begin signing with your initials.
  • If the answer is “no”, as disheartening as it may be, you must go back to signing with your full first name. Don’t be sad; at least you will no longer come across as a self-important douchebag to your co-workers.
  • If you are uncertain if your title can be made into an acronym, ask Human Resources.
  • If Human Resources informs you that you are the CEO, you may sign with just your first initial.

2. When responding to someone in writing, DO find a way to sound professional without using big words which do not belong together. For example,

  • DO say: I have spoken with John to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
  • DON’T say: I have spoken with John to circumvent recurrence.

If you are circumventing recurrence, you might want to look for another job that doesn’t require you to write anything.

3. DON’T try to get cozy with executive management over the lasagna at the holiday party. This will be seen as a last minute attempt to increase your bonus when you should have been working longer hours all year long. If you aren’t sure who at the party is an executive manager, check everyone’s title for one of the previously mentioned acronyms.

4. If you work in IT and manage to single-handedly, irreparably crash an application people need to finish their time-sensitive projects, DON’T pretend the application works fine on your end. Instead, beg their forgiveness and find someone to do your job who actually knows what they are doing.

5. When you are responsible for leading a meeting, DO make a reasonable effort to prepare first. While you are undoubtedly extremely busy, it will be a colossal waste of time to those who are forced to watch you think out loud as you try to figure out why you called the meeting it the first place.

If, despite the above, you still insist on not preparing for your own meeting, you must take the following steps to ensure your face doesn’t end up on a dartboard in someone’s cubicle.

DO:

  • apologize profusely
  • bring snacks or otherwise bribe your colleagues to not stand up and leave
  • promise to circumvent recurrence

 

Note: For an explanation of common terms used in business discussions, please refer to my previous posts on this topic: Corporate Lingo – the Key to Success in the Corporate Jungle and Heteroskedasticity.

7 Office Tips for the Holidays

With the holidays approaching, it’s important to treat your colleagues at work with kindness and respect. This is particularly critical if you are relying on them to 1) cover for you when you’ve ditched your afternoon meetings to go holiday shopping 2) put in a good word for you at year-end bonus time, or 3) wash their hands before baking you Christmas cookies.

Don’t be a victim of some of the pitfalls in the corporate jungle. Instead follow this list of DOs and DON’Ts to ensure you stay in the good graces of your co-workers.

When scheduling a meeting:

  • DO remember to actually invite the key participants. (Unless of course this is a secret strategy to have time to finish designing your Christmas cards while you wait for those participants to “dial into the call”.)
  • DO make certain your guest speaker knows he/she will be expected to say something. You might think preparation is for wimps, but that attitude will get you blacklisted by corporate Santa.
  • DO ensure everyone has time to eat lunch. If the main speaker has back-to-back meetings until 1pm, DON’T force that person to join your crappy meeting at 1pm, because you are trying to accommodate the 2 invitees in other time zones who have better things to do and won’t be attending anyway.
  • If you ignore my above advice about lunch, DO provide food. Failure to do so will ensure your speaker has low blood sugar and is incoherent. Five minutes into the meeting, that person will be deemed incompetent and wheeled away in a stretcher; you will then be expected to take on that person’s responsibilities without the additional pay or title change. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Other holiday activities:

  • DON’T bring a Queen CD box set to the department holiday gift exchange. The only acceptable gifts are alcohol (the harder, the better), gourmet food and gift cards. Anything else will cause you to be labeled not a team player. You will then be banished from participating in any future reindeer games.
  • If you overreact to some data from analytics and cause a corporate emergency in the middle of the holiday party, DON’T suddenly disappear from the premises, leaving everyone else to clean up your mess. They would rather be eating the store-bought chicken and macaroni salad at the potluck lunch. (There’s no budget for an actual company-paid meal.)

  • DO slap the office whistler who insists on whistling holiday classics for the entire month of December and has even started taking requests. You might end up in HR, but rest assured that your colleagues will thank you for taking one for the team.