Tip of the Month

Tip #1: Deliver on time or make a lot of noise trying.

Deadlines and project delivery dates shine a spotlight on your performance. If you consistently meet deadlines, it will eventually get noticed. Unfortunately, if you miss only one, that will get noticed.

For any project, large or small, write a task schedule that takes into account your (or your team’s) available time.  If the regularly scheduled, non-project, workflow takes about 50% of the time, then a 2 week project will take you 4 weeks on the calendar.

Ideally, you should plan to have 80% of the project completed in the first 20% of the allocated time – yes, really. The last 20% of the work, which includes the unforseens, the conditions beyond your control, and the tough details, will take 80% of the time. The less-than-ideal plan is to have 80% of the project completed after 50% of the allocated time has elapsed. With this plan, the risk of a missed deadline is higher.

If the delivery date is in jeopardy after 50% of the time us gone, start to make noise:

  • make sure that the project team is aware of the situation;
  • explain delays to management and ask for the necessary resources to get back on schedule;
  • propose project modifications to fit the schedule;
  • report progress and give modified delivery times to the client.

Some people avoid asking for help because they fear that they will look less competent. Consider that management likely places higher priority on the on-time delivery to the client than on the cost of extra resources.

“Making noise” should not sound like complaining. It should be timely, factual communication to those with a stake in the project. Provide updates until the project is back on track.

Once the project is delivered, there is another reason to make noise. This communication is for the project team, appreciating their efforts and highlighting the successes. Copy management to remind them that you got the job done.

Tip #2: Document, publish, file.

Document means write a report on every significant project or sub-project that you do, to record what you did, the result, the impact, and especially the problems. This report is for you; the report for the client is in the next paragraph. The most important, and most difficult time to create this report is right at the end of the project, in the midst of deadline fatigue or result celebration. The report must be complete and coherent, but not necessarily polished. It could be simply an annotated version of the project report. Include copies of the relevant data files.

Publish means meet all the reporting requirements of the project (e.g. the report to the client or to your senior manager), and claim credit for your contribution. Even if there is no formal report required, provide a short report to your supervisor and other senior managers who might be interested (either in the topic or in your talent). Whenever reasonable, and respecting confidentiality requirements, publish outside your organization.  Propose a news item to the PR department; give a technical presentation to your professional organization; or invest some time and submit a paper to your professional journal.

File means keep a copy of all of the above reports in an organized and accessible system. They can be useful at a later date for your own reference (how did we measure that?), to substantiate your contribution to a result (mention in an interview that you can provide a report on that work), or, and hopefully not often, to get you out of trouble when an associate makes a blame-everyone-but-me claim. A dated document carries a lot more weight than a defensive statement.

Tip #3: Off to a good start

The first five years of your professional life set a pace and direction for career development. During these early years, you can be a rookie: ask questions, admit inexperience, and look for mentors. By the five year mark, your resumé should show evidence of experience and accomplishments. Hence the first five years are not a free ride; they are the time to collect those resumé items.

Are you past the first five years already? (Where does the time go?) You may still want to consider this tip. Many people make mid-career direction changes. Use your current situation as a navigation waypoint. Do a career assessment and reset the clock. The next five years are the first five years of the rest of your career.

Collectible items for the resumé:

  • Deliverables. Nothing says competence like getting the job done. As a junior engineer/technician/scientist, you may not have the opportunity to lead major projects. If you are part of a project team, take responsibility for a distinct task or sub-project with its own deliverable.
  • Experience with a story. Claiming that you ‘worked on’ something, without a deliverable, does not move you to the top of a list of candidates. However, if there is something unusual or challenging about the experience, for example, ‘maintained operations throughout the power outage’, then it adds spark to the resumé.
  • Publications – look at the Tip on Document, publish, file.
  • Professional references. For significant career shifts, you will have to provide the names of people who will act as references. Keep a current list, and work on mending the gaps. When leaving a work unit, ask the manager or a senior colleague if they would b a future reference. Ask a satisfied client to provide a written comment on the work you did.
  • Courses – suggestions in the Tip on Career Lubrication.

The Career Lubrication Tip says to review your career plans at least once a year. However, during the first five years, life moves quickly. Consider an update to the resumé every six months.

Tip #4: Getting heard and recognized at meetings

One of the frustrations most frequently expressed by early career women is the difficulty in being heard at meetings. It shows up in a variety of ways:

  • She does not get a chance to speak because louder, more aggressive voices take the floor;
  • She gets interrupted while speaking;
  • She makes a point and someone else gets the credit.

Getting heard matters; it lubricates your career (see TIP #2). If you find that you have no one to talk to at coffee breaks and lunch, it is an indication that you are not getting heard. Here are some actions to address this situation.

  • Be prepared for the agenda. Document your preparation. Have questions, data, reports and proposals composed and at hand (paper or digital) during the meeting.
  • Sit where you have line of sight with the chair. Try to get his attention when you want to speak – eye contact, wave, stand up.
  • Get the chair to manage speaker order. Do this subtly by thanking him/her for doing so, or directly by asking the chair to recognize raised hands and maintain the speaker order. If chair is totally clueless, tell him/her why you are making the request.
  • When you speak, speak professionally (see TIP #1).
  • Sit directly opposite the person most likely to interrupt you. The first time he does it, glare at him; the second time, give him a ‘stop’ hand signal, and say, “That is the second time that you have interrupted me”.
  • Review the minutes, or equivalent follow on-documentation. If your contribution is ignored, send your documentation to claim credit to the writer of the minutes and the chair of the meeting.

These ‘claim your space’ actions may feel uncomfortable at first, but they will increase your confidence when you do them. If they surprise some of your colleagues, then it is more likely that they will give you the floor at subsequent meetings.

Tip #5: Career Lubrication

Career Lubrication helps to keep your career moving smoothly forward, and helps to protect you against feeling stuck. The main lubricant is a review of your career plans, to be applied at least once per year, by you. A number of career maintenance actions can contribute to the lubrication. Here are some examples.

1. Take at least one professional development course each year, preferably at company expense. This keeps your resumé alive and keeps you on management’s radar when they have to approve the course. Choose courses that assist your career plans (of course), but do not overlook courses off the main career track that might have other benefits, such as networking with a different part of the company. Side track courses include: Health and Safety (who can object?), Quality Management, and Environmental Impact Assessment. If management is in your career plan, take an Accounting course. It will not only give you the vocabulary to discuss financial statements; it will help you to understand the software that produces the statements.

2. Make the performance review work for you. Prepare for it, document it, and refer to it frequently. Some managers handle reviews of their employees’ performance  well; many do not. In the former case, you will get fair assessments of how your work has contributed to achieving the manager’s objectives (remember, yours roll up into his), and you can discuss how you might assist in the coming year. In the latter case, you will have to get in there and push. Ask for information on the manager’s or the unit’s objectives, and position yourself to take a significant role.

3. Put yourself on the alerts list for new positions in your organization. Even if you are not ready to move, a quick glance at the latest postings broadens your knowledge of what is available, and it reminds you to refresh your career plans.

Tip #6: Speaking Professionally

Speaking professionally could be a 1 minute comment at a meeting, a 30 min presentation to a client, or a job interview. There are three keys:

  1. Posture: head up; hands down.
  2. Voice: volume up; pitch down.
  3. Words: be prepared; be direct.

Here is background to those three keys.

 1. Posture – Stand or sit up straight and keep your head up to look at the audience. Nerves sometimes induce people to stare at their notes; if this is you, make your first note, “LOOK AT THE AUDIENCE’. Lack of eye contact with your audience suggests lack of confidence in your topic. Keep your hands down, away from your face, your hair, your scarf, etc. Nerves again – they seem to take women’s hands right to their face without the speaker being aware of it. Men jingle the things in their pockets.

 2. Voice – Increase your normal speaking volume, so that you sound as if you mean what you say, you demand attention, and you can be heard. Turn the pitch of your voice down; a lower voice projects more authority. This is especially important for women with naturally high voices.  Do not, under any circumstances, allow your voice to rise, as if with a question, at the end of a sentence. Those ‘question sounding’ statements seem to be asking for permission or approval.

 3. Words – Think before you speak. Choose the words to suit your audience and to make the message clear. Avoid long explanations and preamble. Women use these to befriend their audience; men are just waiting for the point. Do not say: “you know”, “like”, “really”, “I mean”, or “I was just thinking”. If you cannot avoid all of these when you start (with practice, you can), at least eliminate the first two.

Practice these three keys. Record your practice efforts. Watch a video for the hand gestures and listen to the audio for the authority of the voice.

Tip #7: It’s About the Money

The decisions that shape the science and engineering working environment are made by people who may or may not appreciate the technology, but they understand the financial statements. Learn how to read the financial reports that are relevant to your work unit. Make a habit of reviewing them monthly.

Different statement types answer different questions. For small work units, the key financial information is usually cost. The report is expenses versus budget, and might include labour costs. The first thing that you will learn is that you cost more than you are paid. For service providers, a revenue versus expenses report is important. What else is included in the financial reports for your unit? Is it year over year growth? Particular financial ratios? Return on investment (ROI)? These reports tell you what the decision makers are using as performance measures for your group.

Following the financial statements will open up windows in your understanding of your organization. For example, the financials may help to explain some of your manager’s decisions. One gruff but effective manager would occasionally redirect efforts in the development lab by saying, “I don’t care how many clever things we have invented; I only want to know how many dumb things we have sold.”

Also, an appreciation of the financials can lead to insights into where you can add value from the organization’s perspective. This might be a small action, like a cost comparison in the course of a project, or a special assignment outside the normal scope of your job.

Is learning about the finances interesting? Consider taking an accounting course. It will explain accounting principles and provide an introduction to the software packages that track the data and build the financial reports.

Tip #8: Networking Is Not About Your Family

Keep your private life out of conversations with new business contacts. Of course you have a life outside work, but in male-female conversations, non-work topics invariably derail the business communication.

New business contact conversations usually open with a comment about a current event, e.g. the luncheon speaker, followed by an open question about the business sector. When men are networking with men, they will look for common business interests, experiences, or acquaintances. If none are found, they will switch the discussion to sports.

However, when a man is in that introductory conversation with a woman, he will often ask her about her family, or he will tell her about his daughter who wants to be an engineer. If this happens to you, it is likely that you are speaking with a man who has little experience conversing with women in a business context. Hence he switches to cocktail talk.

You can help your new contact by giving a brief response to his query, and then, before he has a chance to ask the follow-up question, bridging quickly to a business topic. The reason is not that you want to keep your family life a secret, but that if the conversation starts there, then the conversation that you want, the one that will help you to build your network, is unlikely to take place. Furthermore, what will he remember about you? It is more likely to be your personal information than your technical specialty.

With contacts that you know and trust, you can show your multi-dimensional self, and be open about how important your family/sport/hobby is to you.

Here is a further tip for steering the networking conversation: ask, challenge, tell. You start by asking about his business. Now you face the possibility that he will continue describing his achievements until the lights go out. Be prepared to challenge. Ask provocative questions, be assertive, and apply your own knowledge in doing so: “Why do you rely on an overseas supplier for such a critical component?” Then you have the opportunity to bring your own business into the conversation: “We have found a way to produce those in-house for less than the cost of purchase, and we have inventory control.”

Tip #9: Sharing Online

With Linkedin, decide what goes in; with Facebook, decide what stays out; with Twitter, consider the value added. There are many other sharing sites, but these three give us the opportunity to point out some things to keep in mind when sharing online.

It is true, though not universal, that recruiters use Linkedin. They apply sophisticated filters to extract a very few from the very many, and so key words in your profile are important, e.g., “financial” or “field experience”. Employers also understand the ways in which users can pad their own profiles by soliciting recommendations, so don’t bother. Linkedin is unlikely to land you a job offer, but it works as a specialist networking site. To attract attention, use blogposts, which Linkedin can push to every member of every group you are in. The content you post must be well written, present fresh ideas, and stand up to professional criticism. Otherwise, it will diminish, not build, your reputation.

With every Facebook post, think about how a prospective employer or the person across the negotiating table from you could use this information. Choose your privacy settings carefully. Refrain from liking and reposting content from others, particularly political humor and weird videos. You can enjoy these without making them look like your own. An employer may use any public information to assess a recruitment prospect. Facebook information has sometimes led to warning flags in the “trustworthy” column.

With Twitter, the information it conveys about you is mostly through metadata. The individual comments are less important than the quality and the originality of your tweets, and the subject areas in which they cluster. There are software tools that do that analysis very quickly. However, it is also true that out of thousands of postings, one single message can be sufficient to change a career prospect. Recently a federal election candidate had to withdraw after revelation of the contents of two 4-year old tweets embarrassed her political party.

One final caution on sharing. A recent data hack at an infamous “dating” website revealed that the stored data included not just names and email addresses, but number of connections, physical location at sign in, and contents of messages. Most sharing sites log similar data.

Tip #10: Your Online Profile

Tech savvy women understand that everything that you do in the corporate Information Management (IM) environment is monitored and cached. That includes on-line shopping, Facebook posts, and time spent on games of all sorts. What the IT team knows about personal on-line activity could make many people uncomfortable.

What is wrong with using your work computer for personal business? And what does it have to do with your career success?

To address the first question, personal activity on corporate computers costs the company in personnel time. This cost can be as high as 50% of deployable time when a group of employees gets involved in in a group activity like a fantasy game. Furthermore, a high level of engagement in the non-corporate activity pushes aside engagement in the company projects , thus robbing the company of creative and problem solving potential.

The career implications of personal activity on the company system are both obvious and subtle. If someone is spending 25% of her time on the personal stuff, then a 3 day task will look like it took 4 days, so there is an obvious negative effect on performance. The deeper question is why is this happening? Does she feel compelled to check Facebook before reading the boss’s memo? Before tackling a difficult project? Before meeting with a colleague to resolve a conflict? What is she avoiding?

Do an honest examination of the extent of your personal on-line activity during work, and the reasons for it. If there is an avoidance factor in there, then it is time for a career self assessment.

Some personal business must take place during the working day: making medical appointments and travel bookings for example. Maintaining a work-life balance requires that you deal with these in a timely manner. To minimize your exposure to the corporate IM system, consider keeping a private email account, but do not put it on your company phone – that might run through the company server. Put it on your private phone and your home computer.

Tip #11: Meltdowns

There is nothing wrong with crying. In fact, it has become a regular feature in apologies by public figures, everyone from politicians to sports heroes. There are times, however, when a public meltdown is not helpful in resolving a difficult situation.

Sometimes the meltdown pushes its way in when you do not expect it, but there are some common contributing factors. You have been working hard and under stress. You are worried about something outside of work. Your boss, also under stress, speaks sharply. Someone shouts at you. Then your throat tightens and your breath quickens. You really want to stay in control of your reactions, but you are about to lose it.

Take a few slow, deep breaths. Focus on a point beyond the other people in the conversation. Consciously step outside yourself and become the wise observer. The wise observer sees everybody, including you, from a safe distance. Instead of the inside view (he is yelling at me), the observer sees: he is angry and raising his voice; she is feeling defensive.

Then use the observer view to address the situation in a neutral manner. “Ok, Harry, I can see that you are angry. Let’s calm down and assess the actual situation. Perhaps you do not have all the information.” The very act of taking control of the conversation helps you to regain control of your tear ducts.

This shape-shift to the position of wise observer takes a bit of practice. Try it in tense but not meltdown situations. It helps to move you from a defensive position to one that is managing the conversation.

To repeat, there is nothing wrong with crying. But if it will interfere with what you really want to do, which is to manage or take charge of a situation, then call in the wise observer.

Tip #12: Exceptional, Useful, and Visible Projects

Because of gender schema, women get evaluated differently from men at work. When she is doing her job satisfactorily, it is taken for granted. This is so even if, at the same time, she is assisting colleagues and averting crises regularly. When he is doing any one of those things (job, assisting, crises), he gets recognition, and probably the next promotion.

The people who are doing this genderized evaluation are probably unaware of what they are doing. If challenged, they will offer other reasons, for example, “But I thought you liked your job.” The woman needs a way to shake up her managers’ assessment of her. This can be done through exceptional, useful and visible projects.

An exceptional project will be remembered, and cannot be compared to an older standard. In a conservative work environment, it will also be seen as rocking the boat, so introduce it carefully.

The project must be seen as useful by the managers who matter. Once again, workplace culture influences your choice. In an innovative workplace, you could come up with a whole new product line. In a conservative culture, look for ways to address the acknowledged pain points.

To get recognition, the project must be visible. Do not hesitate to promote the project in your workplace. You are, in effect, promoting yourself.

The way that you execute a project can strengthen the exceptional, useful and visible features. For example, if you organize a process in a new way (exceptional), then write a simple report on the outcomes, and present the report (visible) to the people who were affected by the changes (useful).

If you are taking on an extra project, you will have to manage your time accordingly. This probably means eliminating the extra work, like regularly assisting colleagues and averting crises. If this has an effect on your workplace, then you have found another way to shake up your manager’s assessment of you. If stepping back from the extras has no effect, then why were you doing them?