Confessions of a Mid-Level Manager

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I enjoy my job in corporate America, but my day to day life at work is somewhat different than I would have imagined in college. As a mid-level manager, my role consists of two main tasks: 1) leading meetings with people about topics I don’t understand and 2) creating PowerPoint presentations.

As to the former, here’s a snippet from a conference call I led yesterday with 2 statisticians. As you’ll see, by using a few well-placed, vague comments, I managed to pull off my role as meeting leader without being discovered for the fraud I really am.

Jim:  My concern is if  statistical formula , then   statistics 2  So, by including that set of values associated with variable X in our regression model, we’ll have the problem of perfect separation.

Me: I see.  (Actually, I have no idea what you just said.)  Steve, do you agree with this analysis?

Steve: Yes, Jim makes a good point. Let’s not forget, however, that  eetips_wrap1

Me: So, Jim, can you please refine the regression model based on Steve’s suggestions?

Jim: Yes, I’ll do that this week.

Me: Great, I’ll send out an Outlook meeting invite for Monday to circle back on this action item. (Phew, I made it through without completely embarrassing myself.)

Side note: Because I managed to use “circle back” and “action item” in the same sentence, I earned 2 bonus points on my corporate scorecard.

The bulk of my job, though, revolves around less frightening work – creating PowerPoints.  In fact PowerPoint is the main tool of communication at my company. We start a project, I draft a timeline in PowerPoint. We finish a project, I summarize the results in PowerPoint.  I have an idea, it goes into PowerPoint. I need to use the restroom, I take my PowerPoint. In other words, I live out my days in PowerPoint Purgatory (PPP).

As I’ve observed, to make it out of PPP you must either 1) rise to a higher level of management (the preferable solution) or 2) fail miserably and be forced to go back and join the ranks of the people actually doing the work described in the PowerPoints.

Since a pre-requisite to upper management is being able to sound like an expert in your area when you’re not even sure who reports to you, I’m hopeful that a few more meetings with the statisticians just might spring me from purgatory.

 

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Corporate Mentoring Series: Ask an MBA

 

QA

I was recently chatting with my friend Brenda when the subject turned to corporate life. We quickly realized that we were confounded by similar situations at work. After further discussion, we came to the conclusion that this gap in our ability to comprehend certain corporate phenomena was most likely tied to the fact that, while we each had a B.A. and 20+ years job experience, neither of us held an actual degree in Business. It was clear that if we were going to ever find resolution to our questions, we would need to corner someone with a bona fide business degree.

Enter our friend, Marsha. Marsha has not only earned an MBA from a top university, but she is also one of the sharpest, well-adjusted people I know. If anyone could save us from ignorance, it was Marsha.

Marsha graciously made time for us over lunch and we took turns peppering her with questions. As follows are the highlights of our Q&A session:

Question #1

Brenda: I receive daily news feeds in my Outlook inbox from my company. I appreciate the company’s desire to help me stay informed, but it’s challenging to find time to read everything they send me and still finish my PowerPoint slides by the deadline.

Marsha: Learn to embrace the delete key.

Question #2

Brenda: Who is crazier, me or IT?

Marsha: IT

Question #3

Brenda: How do I resolve this?

Marsha: Your best bet is to find someone who has the Flu and get them to sneeze on you. Then you can stay home in bed watching soap operas and drinking Nyquil instead of dealing with the crappy data IT sent you.

Question #4

Me: We used to have an office whistler who whistled loudly all day long. Her specialty was holiday tunes. Why was I the only person who found this annoying?

Marsha: People like holiday music, even in mid-summer. Too bad the whistler is gone or you could have connected her to the Marketing department to help bring in more business.

Question #5

Me: She showed up at this year’s Christmas luncheon, despite the fact that she left the company a year ago. Who invited her?

Marsha: IT

Question #6

Me: Why do companies hire argumentative customer service reps? Wouldn’t it be more efficient for the customer service rep to resolve the issue, so he/she can move on to the next call?

Marsha: Maybe, but you’re missing the point. In the corporate jungle, efficiency or even common sense don’t necessarily drive decisions. It’s all about “cover.” The guy running the customer service department may not be qualified for or capable of doing his job but is being covered by his senior manager. Chances are this senior manager has either never called the call center or, even more likely, doesn’t know there is a call center that reports up to him.

Question #7:

Me: How is it that the senior manager wouldn’t know that he has a call center under him?

Marsha: Most decisions affecting people are not well-communicated. Often you have to rely on an independent news source to tell you that you were actually let go three weeks ago. So, if your company’s stock price is tanking or you think you might have a call center reporting up to you, then you should definitely check out Reuters.com.

Question #8:

Brenda:  How can we keep people focused, so that they don’t waste everyone else’s time during weekly meetings?

Marsha: Keep a log of the amount of time each person has wasted. At the end of each month, make a PowerPoint chart and pass it out. Explain that the results will be aggregated at year-end, and using the below formula, each time-waster will be forced to pay out a portion of his annual bonus to all meeting attendees made to listen to him drone on about irrelevant topics.

Since no one will understand this formula (or want to risk looking stupid by asking how it works), the group will be terrified into compliance.

statistical formula

Question #9:

Brenda: What if an executive manager is one of the time-wasters?

Marsha: Whistle holiday music when you hand out the chart. Three weeks later google your name on Reuters.com.

Corporate Mentoring Series: Job Qualifications

job description

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.

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.

Corporate Dream Careers

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In Elizabeth’s elementary school yearbook, the pictures of the graduating sixth graders are complemented by a blurb stating each child’s anticipated profession.  Some common ones are movie star, football player and astronaut. While certainly great dreams, these aren’t necessariy the most realstic goals, statistically speaking. I fear that when these children compare their yearbook blurbs to their actual jobs in 30 years, there may be some disappointment.

To avoid this outcome, there should be a better understanding of all the dream-worthy, yet realistic, jobs out there that kids can aspire to. Elizabeth is only in 5th grade, but to help her and her friends understand the true breadth of fascinating professions before it’s time to commit to their dream jobs in 6th grade, I’ve put together the following descriptions of some positions found in the corporate world:

Facilities Manager

This is a multi-faceted position. First, you are in charge of the physical assets of the company. In hopes of getting promoted, you will spend hours tinkering with the broken photocopier before giving up and calling the professional repairman.

You are also responsible for figuring out how to save space by reducing employee cubicles to the size of a hamster cage. To minimize employee frustration, make sure the now smaller cubes are each outfitted with a hanging water bottle and salt lick. Put an exercise wheel by the printer to encourage a healthy lifestyle.

Lastly, you coordinate entire office moves. As long as you act important, no one will question you on why it took a week to move the coffee machines to the new location and another whole week to move the coffee.

Career Tip: Instill fear among co-workers by holding a clipboard and walking around with people in suits. If you speak in a low voice and point animatedly to various cubicles as you mumble words like “headcount” and “bottom line”, everyone you pass will start boxing up their belongings as they wait for the call from Human Resources.

Call Center Representative

This is the ideal job for those who both love to talk and have a sadistic streak. You are the first point of contact and a stringent gatekeeper. You will enjoy further frustrating already annoyed callers by insisting they don’t need to speak with a supervisor, even though you’ve tried unsuccessfully for an hour to resolve their problem. For added pleasure, put callers on hold every time they threaten you with legal action.

Career Tip:  Increase your performance bonus by changing your voice and posing as the supervisor you finally agreed to transfer the caller to.

Accounts Payable Clerk

This position requires a high attention to detail with little tolerance for error. Your daily mission is to review and process department bills and employee expense reports for payment. As protector of the company’s coffers, you take your job seriously and are careful to reject business trip reimbursements of tips to hotel valets and bellmen without a paper receipt.

Career Tip: Wield your power by routing invoices that don’t meet your high standards to a holding queue. For added fun, don’t  mention this to the person who needs the invoice paid and act surprised when he/she questions you in a state of panic.

IT Manager

This is a job which requires strong technical and no people skills. You are saddled with budget cuts but rather than admit this, you assert haughtily that you can resolve every problem, even finding the coffee that Facilities lost in the move.

Career Tip: Stay ahead of the game by pretending to be extremely busy and hiding behind voice mail, so you can never be held accountable for these untruths. While you will be well compensated for your technical savvy, if you get hit by a bus, no one will send you flowers…though this might be because Accounts Payable won’t reimburse sympathy gifts.

IT Support

This is an entry-level position with a steep learning curve. Although you will be hired for your many degrees in computer science, when you hit the real world you’ll receive no training on how to deal with end users in a live production environment.

Career Tip: Be sure to figure out ahead of time who you can blame when you accidentally remove users’ access and delete their files.

Marketing Director

This is a job for high energy, goal-oriented individuals who don’t let rules stand in the way of a good idea. You’re tasked with coming up with creative strategies to get new customers. To do this, you do your best to alienate the legal and compliance experts who have to sign off on your wacky ideas, by acting like you know how to do their job better than they do.

Career Tip: Make everything a “marketing emergency” so no one will have time to realize how bad your idea really is.