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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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.

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.

The Office Dodo Bird is Not Extinct

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When I visit one of my company’s other locations, the only available desks in my department’s allocated territory are located in dimly lit cubicles around the corner and down at the end of the hall, in an area I affectionately refer to as the Dungeon. In keeping with its name, the Dungeon is devoid of plant life or natural light, is decorated in a drab gray / dirty beige color-scheme that is best described as “office camouflage” and, until recently, had no telephone connectivity for visitors.

When I first found myself relegated to the Dungeon, having been displaced from the office I usually occupied by more important people, I did not immediately notice anything odd. Like any other morning, I settled in with my cup of coffee and began reading through e-mails, which usually consisted of a mix of industry news and internal communications from IT explaining why the data I had requested was impossible to provide.

As I moved on to the next phase of my morning, deciding on whether to throttle IT or proceed to a less controversial task like writing a report, I noticed a strange sound emanating from the other side of the cubicle wall. Click, click, click, BZZZZ, click, click, click, BZZZZ. As quickly as it had started, it ended. I looked around to see if any of my adjacent Dungeon-mates had noticed; they were busily typing away, unaware of anything out of the ordinary. Concluding it must be nothing, I went back to drafting my strategy to prevail over my IT archnemesis (which was much more fun than report writing).

Approximately half an hour later, just as I was taking off my office avenger mask and moving on to less sinister duties, I heard it again…click, click, click, BZZZZ, click, click, click, BZZZZ. What in the world was that? The mysteriousness of it was going to drive me insane. I nudged my colleague Brenda. Sure enough, this time she had heard it as well and was equally puzzled.

I decided it was time to gather some intelligence. I rose from my chair and walked slowly over to the nearby photocopier, stealthily surveying the area from which the sound had originated. What I saw stopped me dead in my tracks, for it was more stupefying than anything I had imagined…it was an artifact from decades long gone; something I had heard tales of but never actually observed in the corporate wild.

My mouth went dry. Could it be true? I adjusted my glasses for a better look. Yes, indeed; to my left, on the other side of the cubicle wall from where I had been sitting was the office equivalent of the dodo bird:  a 10-key adding machine, complete with paper roll.  I watched in amazement as the lady seated in front of the adding machine tore off the paper containing her latest calculations and attached it to a file. Frozen in place by the scene before me, my mind debated if it would be more appropriate to contact Ebay or an archeologist.

When the shock subsided and I had gathered my wits, it became clear to me that the nickname Dungeon was more appropriate than I had imagined. While I was able to leave the office at night and go sit in traffic, these poor employees hadn’t been set free in years. This explained why, when I visited this location, they were always there when I arrived in the morning and were still sitting in the same spots when I left in the evening. With that kind of confinement, of course they had no idea that Excel had been invented. It seemed that the humane thing to do would be to enlighten them, but before I could act, an even deeper truth rocked me. I realized that by living in a time capsule free of the burdens of modern technology, this group didn’t have to continually devise creative schemes to outwit IT. Obviously it was I not them who needed to be enlightened.

As I snuck back to my seat on the other side of the wall, I felt newly invigorated. There was a solution to my data issues after all. The next day I started searching the internet for an adding machine of my own.

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Cheaper Than Botox

image4In June, Elizabeth’s fourth grade teacher nearly got me fired. As if that wasn’t enough, I almost dragged several of my friends down with me. To be fair, it wasn’t really her teacher’s fault. She certainly had no idea that an innocent cell phone app would lead to a dereliction of MS Office duties and general loss of productivity across several companies.

Let me explain. I had helped out in Elizabeth’s classroom one day and was chatting with her teacher after school. At some point during the conversation, she introduced me to Bitmoji, an app that allows you to create a detailed avatar of yourself. I was immediately fascinated.  (I also couldn’t help but wonder why none of my elementary school teachers had fun stuff like Bitmoji. Instead they threw chalk at us.)

While the concept of an avatar was hardly new, when you have young kids, “new” takes on a different meaning. This is because, beginning with the birth of your first child, you are on a perpetual five year delay when it comes to anything hot off the press. To my point, I didn’t even see the 2009 film Avatar until 2014.

The next day at work, the PowerPoint presentation I was drafting crashed my computer. Sadly, similar to drafting a PowerPoint presentation, restarting my computer can be a painful and time consuming process. IT attributes this to the software I run, however, I’m fairly certain the true reason is that the computer I was issued is so old that it shouldn’t be running anything more modern that Microsoft Works. IT was most likely instructed under threat of death not to reveal the truth of the matter.

In any case, since my computer was obviously out of commission for the near future, I came to the logical conclusion that downloading Bitmoji on my cell phone was the best use of my time. I opted against the other option, surfing Facebook, since “liking” anyone’s status at 10am on a weekday would at best be perceived as suspect and at worst a performance issue.

Once Bitmoji was downloaded I realized how much better it was than I had realized. There were countless options to personalize my avatar. Not just hair and eye color, but even things like eyebrows, face shape and body shape. I was completely intrigued with the possibilities. In fact, I was soon so busy trying out haircuts and shades of lipstick on my fake self, I had completely forgotten about real life, including my technologically-challenged computer and my half-finished PowerPoint.

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About 30 minutes in, I discovered I could make myself taller, a feat which has defied me in real life. I was barely able to contain my excitement; this avatar was cheaper and better than either Botox or plastic surgery. Since my life is spent in one of four places – behind my computer screen, in traffic, at home, or at Target – I never see anyone I know in person. Consequently, the chances were slim that anyone would figure out my new avatar was not a completely honest representation of me. I began madly texting my friends these images of my new self. They seemed to share my philosophy, because the next thing I knew they had ditched their spreadsheets and PowerPoints and were texting me back images of their new Bitmoji avatars. Corporate productivity had decreased across Southern California.

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I truly don’t think I’d been that excited about advances in technology since moving back to the U.S. from Switzerland in 2000 and learning that you could get “cash back” at the grocery store. [I had been living in Switzerland for a number of years, and while the Swiss were obviously superior in many areas (watches, Army knives, direct Democracy, cheese with holes), the idea of getting cash and chocolate in the same transaction had not made it to the Alps.]

When I finally regained my senses, I realized that I had been hunched over my cell phone in front of a dark computer screen for at least an hour. I got my computer up and running and frantically checked my Outlook calendar for any meetings with my boss I might have missed. Next, I scanned the halls for any sign that my idleness had been detected. All was calm; I was met only with the faint sound of productive employees typing on their keyboards. It appeared I had dodged the bullet this time, but if I wanted to keep bringing home a paycheck, it would probably be a good idea to embrace my wrinkles and delete Bitmoji from my phone…

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