Thursday, August 16, 2018

Have Some Attitude!

** I'm porting over some of my old posts.  Enjoy! **

During basic training, there is an event I doubt any soldier ever forgets. The event is popularly called shark attack. For me, shark attack started as we arrived at our new barracks in an old, almost functional school bus. As we exited the bus, Drill Sergeants were screaming different and often contradicting orders at us. The were banging loudly on the bus, the equipment, and from time to time a soldier or two. One Drill Sergeant (I later found out it would be my Drill Sergeant) broke a window because I wasn't moving fast enough. It was confusing, loud, and a bit terrifying. Each time you disobeyed an instruction, physical punishment was issued, immediately, and with zeal. There was no way around it, but at least everyone was bullied equally. Everyone that is, but one man.

Private “D” was smiling from ear to ear, responding to questions calmly, and taking the whole thing in stride. As the Drill Sergeants pushed us to our limits, young “D” was out there pushing, and asking for more. “Can’t smoke me!” he would call out as Drill Sergeants would take turns inches from his face, selecting exercise after exercise for him. After what felt like days, we were all sent up to our barracks to get settled in. All that is, except Private “D”, who remained behind for more instruction. He had to have pumped out a thousand push ups, and still kept a grin on his face. Still challenging the Drill Sergeants to do their worst. Twenty plus guys stumbled into the barracks on rubber legs, trying to cling to our duffles long enough to drag them to our bunks. Many, like me, wondering just how big a mistake they had made by joining up. We watched out the window as Drill Sergeant after Drill Sergeant dropped to do PT with “D”, or just scream at him, inches away from his head. When they sent him upstairs, he ran through the downstairs door, and up… half a flight of stairs. A few guys went out to get him, dragged him into the barracks, dropping him at his bunk. Moments later when the Drill Sergeants walked through the door, “D” sprang up, and grinning, welcomed them in. I don’t know if the Drill Sergeants loved him or hated him (I suspect a bit of both), but his attitude became infectious.

“D” kept this pace up all through Basic and AIT. Every night, the Drill Sergeants would call for lights out. Every night “D” would say good night… often throwing in an “I love you Drill Sergeant” just to ruffle feathers. We would all get a silent chuckle out of the exchange.

Basic Training is about breaking down weak people, and building up gung-ho, and willing soldiers. Private “D” was no exception. Near the end of basic, we found out that he had been running on a fractured foot for weeks, maybe months. Although that was the worst, it wasn't the full extent of injuries he was ignoring. “D” wasn't a super-soldier (OK, maybe he was a little awesome). The big difference between “D” , and the rest of us was how we had framed basic training.

Private “D” came to Basic Training to be made into a soldier. He had his eye on the ball the whole time, and was excited to get the process going, and keep it going. The faster the better. We all had ideas of why we were there, some better than others. Some came for the free training, and when you frame shark attack as the price to free training, well it ain't free anymore. Some chose the military because they needed a job, the military will find a place for just about anyone. Many came to the military because they want to serve. Some have a combination of these reasons and others.

Me I wanted to serve something bigger than myself. I wanted to figure myself out… I may also have wanted to follow in my Grandfathers footsteps. Framing the military this way was petty and didn't prepare me for Shark Attack. It didn't prepare me for the gas chamber, or the marches, runs, PT, and what passes for food some days. The lack of a proper foundation made things far less enjoyable for me, than I think it did for “D”. He was there for the soldiering, and I wasn't. As we continued through basic, we all caught a bit of the bug “D” had from the start. I won’t pretend I ever asked a Drill Sergeant to do his worst, but there was a time or two I pushed back with a trademark “Can’t smoke me”. In the end, I think we were all smiling through to mile 5, in the rain, when it was a hundred degrees out.

Every team, and every company needs attitude. They need people who know why they are there, and can look through the confusion, and the noise, and provide direction. But attitudes are infectious, so we need to be careful what attitudes we project. A positive attitude can make a team come together and excel. It can uplift those around you. It isn't easy though to keep a positive attitude going in tough situations. I can’t image it was easy, even for Private “D”. In trying to imitate him over the years, here are a few of the things I focus on:

Positive Statements: Grandma always said “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” There are times when we have to speak up, but I try to make sure it is always coming from a positive place. Focus on the person and how they can improve rather than on their inability to get it right. This goes for situations also. When the server goes down, and the backup failed losing a week of work, days before a delivery, it doesn't help to complain. All you can do is your best, and that includes putting a smile on. But taking that a step further, and seeking out nice things you can say about others, and about situations is important. Even if you are putting out a single silver lining, it makes others a little more positive.

Smile: I have been accused of not being emotive enough. Some have had difficulty reading my facial expressions. Because of this, I try hard to remember to smile. I also laugh more at work then I used to. In the early days of my career, I thought when you were at work, you had to be an emotionless robot that churned out widgets. I have grown to find that we spend too much time at work to have separate personalities. When you have fun at work, show it. Doing so not only relaxes you, but it sets a tone for those around you. How many times have you heard someone laughing in the next room, or around the corner and smiled? It works.

Goal: Set a goal, and keep focused on it. If you don’t know what you are working towards, it is much harder to maintain a positive attitude. As long as you are making progress towards your goal, it is easy to celebrate small wins towards your goal. … and celebrate you should. These celebrations can keep the good spirits rolling. It also helps you identify, and ignore the smaller things in life.

Good Friends: No one is an island. Surround yourself at home, at work, or anywhere, with people who also have great attitudes. Keep each others spirits up. As with anything it is easier when peer pressure is on your side. Beware the negative attitude. You may think you can “fix” them, but don’t let them bring you down. When someone is gloomy, or complains a lot, you should reach out to them. Share your positive attitude, but take regular breaks to recharge your batteries.

Be Inclusive: Try hard not to let people slip through the cracks. This goes double for those who might get left out by others. It doesn't do any good to ostracize someone. Spend time with them one on one if necessary, and help bring out their inner attitude.

Do you have suggestions for projecting a positive attitude? Comment below!

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Mom's lesson to her son

** I'm porting over some of my old posts.  Enjoy! **

Growing up I was a bit of a nerd.  My favorite activities included Band, BMX bike riding, and roller blading, but my favorite by far was Dungeons and Dragons (D&D).  My mom worked at a McDonald's in Stillwater Oklahoma, home of the OSU Cowboy's.  Being a college town, many of the people who worked with her were students (both college and high school).  Being a bit of a latch key kid, I spent a good amount of time around her at work in the summers.  She would drive me into town, and go to work, and I would walk to the Library, or the Dark-Mave (a coffee shop that catered to "my people"), or some other hang out.  I'd be back for lunch, and then the trip home.  During these visits I had struck up a conversation with college students, and managed to wrangle an invite to an all weekend D&D session with them.  The friend who invited me, we'll call him Jack, made it clear he wanted to hear my mom say it was OK before he would let me join.  She was OK with it, and dropped me off Saturday morning before her shift.

There was a knock at the door, and looking at the clock it was 7 o'clock.  We had been playing all day, and had lost track of the time.  Jack answered the door, and there stood my mom.  She had bought us a ton of pizza's, claiming she "knew how us boys could be when in the zone".  She asked if I would come help her unload the car.  I jumped at the offer of pizza, as I realized I was starving have skipped lunch.  When we got to the car, and as she was loading me up with pizza's, she asked if everything was OK.  She told me if I had any concerns, she would tell them that the pizza's were really an apology and that she wasn't ready for me to be hanging out with college kids yet, and that she was taking me home.  She would take the brunt of their displeasure.  She even offered to let me pitch a fit to make it clear I was not to blame.  I assured her I was fine, and having a great time.  The guys where all cool, and treating me like one of gang.

We went back up stairs, and she dropped off her half of the pizza's and left with a waive and a gentle chide not to eat all the pizza tonight, as we would need breakfast too.  As soon as the door shut, Jack without looking up from the quest book we were playing out of asked "Checking in to be sure we weren't corrupting you?"  I nodded... "You have an awesome mom." he replied.. and that was it.  You see, he recognized the reason for her concern.  Everyone there had a beer but me, and there was always the potential for it to be something worse than beer at a college get together.  Add to that the concern many at the time had, thanks to the Movie Mazes and Monsters, that D&D was harmful to the psychology of children, and the college element.  It was natural for her to be concerned.  Jack however was impressed by the way in which she checked up on us.

My mom had observed through many games at the house that we would get lost in the game, and forget to eat.  She used that knowledge to check in as unobtrusively as possible.  Providing me an escape hatch if i needed it.  Providing her reassurance we weren't dancing in our underoos in a cloud of pot.  Protecting Jack and his friend's dignity.  It probably didn't hurt that there was free food involved either... maybe the bribe statement went beyond "if" I left...

My mom really impressed me that day, as she did on so many other days.  She took great pains to consider my feelings as well as the feelings of my new friends.  I strive to imitate her in that.
In business, as a manager, there are a lot of potential situations that can leave an employee feeling embarrassed, and/or angry.  Here are the ones I try hardest to avoid:

Reprimands:  Reprimands should never be made publicly.  I'm not going to lie, there have been times when someone has acted in a way that infuriates me.  I have wanted to grab them by the arm, and walk them out, yelling the whole way.  I have never done that, however I have slipped with angry retorts.  Invariably I have regretted those later.  It never does any good to respond to someone angrily.  Especially in front of a group of their peers.  It just upsets them more, and makes you look unprofessional.  So what should you say when faced with an unruly employee?  I found what works best for me, is buy a little time.  "Let me give that some consideration and get back to you."  Then, when you get back to them, do so in a more appropriate setting.

Chewing: Mistakes are not dog bones, so stop chewing on them.  There are some mistakes that can stay with a person for far longer than it really should.  I have seen people leave a company due to one mistake they made that no one would get over.  It is important that everyone recognize, and respond to mistakes.  What I try to avoid is harping on them well after the lesson is learned.  Most people know when they have messed up.  It is OK to point out the issue, and help them identify how to keep it from happening in the future (in private... see above).  It is even OK to remind them of their new process (not the mistake, but the process) if you see them slipping.  But bringing the mistake up every time you talk to them isn't going to motivate them to do better.  In fact it is likely to make them give up on improving.  "He'll always remember me for XYZ, I'll never live that down.  No use in trying."

Fired/Laid Off/Quit:  I always get the question "What happened to ..." after someone leaves.  Employees get to know one another, and they are concerned.  However, commenting on someone's departure is a bad idea.  Setting aside the legal ramifications for a moment, it can be embarrassing to the employee if they were fired or laid off.  And by process of elimination if you tell people when person X quits, but won't say anything about person Y... they probably didn't quit.  My policy is to stick with suggesting they reach out to the individual if they are concerned.  Regardless of why the person left, it can be gratifying to know you are missed enough for a co-worker to reach out.  Is there a chance the employee will bad mouth you. Yes.  It has happened before.  I hope that I have built up enough report with my team that they are well armed to make their own decisions.

Awards (Birthdays/Births/etc..):  I am a fairly outgoing guy.  I love to receive recognition in front of large groups (I originally wanted to make a living on stage, and recently got back into it at a small local theater).  It was very difficult for me to grasp that some people are morbidly afraid of being pulled up in front of a group of people, even to be recognized for something they have done right.  Generally speaking there are some people I'll call out in front of the group, and others I'll take aside.  It is difficult sometimes to look at someone and know.  Unless it is blatantly obvious which group then belong in, I'll simply ask them.  "I wanted to thank you for XYZ in front of the team so they will know you went the extra mile for our success.  How do you feel about that?"  Usually the ones that don't want to be publicly recognized will immediately look uncomfortable.  Sometimes the best thank you is a heartfelt and hand written note that is hand delivered.

What pitfalls am I missing?  What else should we try to avoid in order to keep from damaging our relationships with others.

Interview Mistake

** I'm porting over some of my old posts.  Enjoy! **

I was interviewing a young lady for a client facing development position some time ago.  She had a very thick accent, and although I could initially understand her, she progressively spoke faster and faster.  As her speed increased, I had more difficulty in understanding what she had to say.  I explained that I was having difficulty understanding her, and pointed out my observations that as she gained speed, it became more difficult to understand what she was saying.  The poor woman couldn't help herself, I truly think her nerves got the better of her.  After two attempts to calm her and slow her down, we completed the interview, and I had notes on half of the questions.  We had run out of time, and I had another meeting I had to run to.

Nerves are what they are.  They are hard to control.  But an interviewer usually only has so much time with you before they need to move on.  Sometimes the best way to make good use of that time is to take a deep breath, and answer their questions slowly, and clearly.  Use the time to your benefit.

I had another interview with a young woman who was very thoughtful with each question.  After each question she would pause for a solid two seconds, clearly composing her response.  This allowed her to clearly, and confidently answer my questions, and she rocked that interview even though we had to stop a few questions short of the list.  She made excellent use of our time together.

I think the biggest part of this is the candidate's mindset.  I can't help but think that the first candidate was a little less sure of herself than the second.  I think everyone has something to bring to the company, the only question is "will the hiring manager see it?"  If this company doesn't see how they need you, then your job is to relate to them what you bring to the table.  Help the hiring manager see why you are the solution to their problem.    In order to do this you have to understand your strengths, and be prepared to "sell" them.  If you don't see a clear link between your capabilities and the company you are interviewing with, then you shouldn't put in for that position.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Executives are people too

** I'm porting over some of my old posts.  Enjoy! **

My first conversation with an executive was one I will never forget.  I had risen to my position of Supervisor more quickly than usual, and my manager at the time was very supportive.  These facts made me a bit more comfortable with my position than was probably wise.

When I found out I had gotten the promotion, I ran out and got "desk supplies" so I would be ready for my first day.  That morning, the boss noticed I had a new pencil holder on my desk.  He inquired where I had gotten it.  Turns out the company would pay for such things if you request them through procurement.  (A new concept for me given my previous experiences hadn't included a desk, or even a stationary work space.)  For the rest of the day we made a running gag out of it.  "Oooo... nice bic pen, I need one of those!" ... "Can I interest you in a shiny new paperclip?"... etc.
That night, while surfing the web, I found the chair to end all chairs.  This thing rotated with the sun so you would never have screen glare, the entire station reclined as a single unit, and was designed such that the screen and keyboard were optimally place no matter what angle you sat at.  It had a soda cooler installed and had a specialized vent system to air condition your bum.  All of this for the low price of $5k.

Now, at this point I should let those of you who don't know me so well in on one of the worst kept secrets among those who do.  I'm a bit of a wiseguy.  So the next morning, I obtained a procurement form, and filled it out for one of these specialized, ergonomic chairs, and left it on my boss' desk for his signature.

Nearing the end of the day, I went to ask him about my "little request".  Without missing a beat, he informs me he approved it, and sent it on to the Director for signature since it exceeded his signatory limit.  The pit of my stomach clenched up, the world around his office swam just a bit, and I wanted to cry.  Having so recently (and quickly) been promoted to supervisor, it didn't take a genius to realize how bad this was likely to end.  The Directory was a very traditional man.  You didn't speak to him unless you were spoken to, or you were above a certain pay grade within the company kind of traditional.  Above all, no one ever saw him smile.  I was as good as fired.
I returned to my desk, and about 15 minutes before I usually left, I got the call.  The Director wanted to speak to me.  I stuffed a few key belongings in my pockets, and slowly walked across the building to his office.  I knocked, and received a curt "come" as my welcome.  I entered his office, and took the seat he waived me too.

The director sat in an office that was in my opinion more of a closet.  It was the smallest office in the building as far as I was aware.  The storage room was larger by a good 2 feet.  His desk took up almost the entire room, and you could only sidle sideways into a chair, of which there were only 3.  The walls were mostly bare, and the desk was neat and orderly.

In front of him was my request form.  My boss' signature blazoned across the bottom in Bic blue.  He looked down at the paper, and began the conversation by acknowledging the features of the chair, followed by the price.  He didn't sound particularly upset.  He then asked me what value purchasing this chair would bring the company, and then came the longest, most pregnant pause in a conversation I have ever taken part in.  There was no value in this chair.  It was a joke, and I had no idea how to tell this man, who at the time I was convinced made more in an hour then I would make in a lifetime, that the request was never meant to go this far.  Having been raised to take your lumps however, I eventually dove into my explanation to the very imposing man behind the desk that the request had been intended as a joke.  Grim faced, he rose, sidled over to the door, and opened it.  This was it, I was being let go.

On the other side of the door was my manager, red faced from his struggle to contain his laughter.  The director then explained that my boss had showed him the chair, and explaining our running gag.  The director it seems had decided to incorporate our little joke into his normal welcome to management talk.  We had a laugh, then sat back down, and got back to business.  After that, I was made to feel very welcome in my new position as a manager.

This worked largely because my manager recognized my sense of humor ran deep enough that I would take this as a welcoming gesture.  I don't know that I would ever recommend doing this to someone unless I was 110% sure they would share in the humor.  In the months that followed, both of these men checked in on me, and there were a few more practical jokes thrown in for good measure.  But that "little chat" really drove home for me that everyone, at the end of the day, are just humans.  The persona we see in our manager, or exec is not the entire person.  They are just trying to get through the same messy world as the rest of us, some even have a sense of humor about it.  Since then I have been less fearful of having conversations with someone at the top.  Some are still scary, and I still worry at making sure I'm prepared.  That's only common sense.  But I try to get a sense of the underlying person.

I wish more execs that I've met since had shown their human sides, even those who aren't pranksters.  I think doing so provides an approach-ability that so many of today's leaders lack.

Have you ever had an encounter that changed your perceptions?