Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ten Old-School Tips for Keeping a Job, Even in Hard Times

When I started my very first job more than 20 years ago, my father gave me one piece of advice – be the first one in the office in the morning and the last one to leave at night.  Although he had spent most of his life working in factories, he knew this to be true and in all of my jobs since then, including managing my own business, I’ve never gone wrong with this mantra.

In addition, here are ten more tips for impressing your bosses:

1. Listen more than you talk – You may know some stuff but you don’t know everything.  If you’re starting out in your career, you have a lot to learn from others who have been doing it longer.  If you don’t understand a particular decision or strategy, ask for the rationale so you can learn.

2. Don’t worry about your co-workers – Unless they are jeopardizing a project, don’t spend a lot of time complaining about your co-workers.  You may think you work harder than they do but you don’t know if they take work home at night or come in on the weekend.

3. Learn how to manage your time – Most offices open at a set time and everyone should be there by then with no excuses. If you find it hard to arrive at the office on time, you will miss out on opportunities and it is unlikely that you will be promoted.  Similarly, arrive at meetings on time and ready to contribute.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask for a raise – but be prepared to explain what you have done to deserve it in documented detail. 

5. Don’t forget where you came from – Promotions usually mean more work, not less.  Yes, you can now delegate tasks to more junior employees but you are still responsible for the final product.

6. Become an expert – although you should have a working knowledge of all the facets of your business, become the ‘go-to’ person on at least one thing.  Devote yourself to becoming the most knowledgeable person in the office in this area and you will always be in demand.

7. Get organized – Keep your office space neat and tidy.  If your boss asks you for something, she will not be impressed by watching you rifle through unruly stacks of paper.

8. Be informed – Read at least one source of news before you arrive at the office but preferably more.  You should never find out important news from a client.

9. You are not above anything – No matter what your qualifications, experience or intelligence, you are there to simplify the lives of your managers.  Perform every task with enthusiasm and impeccability.

10. Don’t be a troublemaker – Nothing is more toxic to a workplace than a person who is trying to stir up dissent.  If you are truly unhappy, take your case to your manager or find another environment that better suits your needs.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Why You're Luckier Than You Think

Everything I know about life I learned from Warren Buffett. Well, not quite, but they don't call him the sage of Omaha for nothing. One of the things I love about the legendary investor is his acceptance  of the role that luck plays in his life. Despite his undeniable brilliance, proficiency with numbers and unparalleled discipline over many years, he maintains that his success is due to being in the "right place at the right time with the right skills".

Although there's a pervasive mythology that he's entirely self-made, his father was actually a stockbroker who was elected to four terms of the United States Congress. Had Buffett's father been an uneducated coal-miner, would he have risen to the same heights? Perhaps, but he never underestimates the role of good fortune in his life.

Buffett's approach appeals to me not just because it's incredibly gracious but also because it's in such stark contrast to the opinions of many mildly and fabulously successful people who believe they are 100 per cent responsible for everything they have. This phenomenon is not limited to the super-rich. It exists at every strata of society, including that lowest rung on the ladder of success, reality show "stars" who have parlayed being born into privilege into a "career". In fact, it seems to be a particular human failing that, once some people achieve any kind of success, they start to believe their own PR and before long, they're telling everyone how hard they've worked to get where they are. Maybe they have worked hard but that doesn't mean they haven't also been lucky. Luck is everywhere and everyone benefits from it whether they realize it or not.

I have spent many years working with and managing other people, seven of those running my own business. Most of the people who have reported to me over the years have been hard workers and some of them are so talented, adaptable and resourceful that they would excel in any situation. Others did well but part of their success was due to the efforts of managers who set them up for success by playing to their strengths, giving them assignments they could handle, rearranging their office hours to suit their family demands, and so on. And now that I have some perspective on things, I can look back and see the many ways that the stars aligned for me in my career even though at the time I believed it was all down to me.

Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell explores the importance of luck in his book Outliers,claiming that "the biggest misconception about success is that we do it solely on our smarts, ambition, hustle and hard
work". Gladwell delves into the background of several of the world's most successful people, and reveals factors, unrelated to innate talent or hard work, which greatly benefited them. As an example, he states that the majority of high-level Canadian hockey players were born in the first few months of the year. Since youth hockey leagues are organized by calendar years, kids born on January 1st play on the same team as kids born on  December 31st, which means they are often stronger and faster, pegged as promising athletes early in life and more likely to be chosen for advanced teams. He also reveals that, not only did Bill Gates come from a wealthy family, he was also fortunate enough to attend the only middle school in the entire country
with a computer lab. Gladwell doesn't suggest that Gates wouldn't be successful without that early benefit but wonders if he would be worth $50 billion if he didn't have access to a computer at a time when they weren't commonplace.

When speaking of luck, Buffett often talks about the 'genetic jackpot" whereby "the right endowment of vocal chords, anatomical structure, physical strength, or mental powers" can result in massive success or wealth.   And while we're on the topic of anatomical structure, is there anything more annoying than a supermodel who shares insights on how she is personally responsible for her achievements?  If ever there was a profession based on pure dumb luck, it's that of the supermodel.

One such creature, stunner Gisele Bundchen, frequently infuriates ordinary women with her pontifications such as this post-pregnancy quote: "I think a lot of people get pregnant and decide they can turn into garbage disposals. I was mindful about what I ate, and I gained only 30 pounds." She was back to a fabulous, pre-baby figure and strutting on the catwalk just weeks after delivering her son. I'm sure she did eat healthy. I'm sure she exercised and did yoga and all of that stuff but guess what? Millions of women do that and they don't look like her.  Wouldn't it be wonderfully refreshing if someone like her said, "I am extremely fortunate that I have become a millionaire based solely on things that are completely beyond my control and I get to live this life through sheer luck".

Regardless of how hard you have studied or worked in life, luck has played a role in small and large ways. Here are some ordinary ways you might have been lucky:
  • You were born and/or raised in Canada. This alone gives you more opportunities than most of the world's population.
  • You have ever gotten a job without going through the application process
  • You have a parent who used connections to help you get an "in" somewhere
  • You have been given a car, home or home down payment as a gift
  • You don't have student loans
  • You grew up in a large city 
  • You showed early proficiency in something (e.g. music, art, sports) and your family had the financial resources to help you explore your talents
  • You are more attractive, tall, intelligent, etc. than most people
  • You grew up in a household where you were loved, nurtured and encouraged
  • You have parents/in-laws who are willing/able to provide free childcare relieving you of a huge financial burden
These are small bits of luck that people in this country experience every day.  They might not seem like a big deal but they have helped give you an edge.  Luck is good. We all have some. Some have more than others and we all go through periods where we seem to have nothing but bad luck.

So next time you're feeling unlucky or congratulating yourself on being totally self-made, think about the role of luck in your life and show a little gratitude.  The more you appreciate your good luck, the more of it you'll have.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Saying Goodbye to a Classy Guy

I watched a sitcom episode years ago in which the main characters decided to write obituaries for themselves, even though none of them were facing imminent death.  The idea was, if you wrote your obituary in the tone you want to be remembered, you would live out your life accordingly.  Each character wrote a lofty obituary filled with praise and laudatory statements about how they made the world a better place, lived a life of integrity, and so on.  At first, they tried to live up to the words they had written about themselves but after a few weeks, it proved too cumbersome and they were back to their old spiteful, petty selves. Hilarity ensued!

Yesterday in Canada, Jack Layton, a lifelong politician,
died after a battle with cancer. A state funeral has been organized and long obituaries and tributes will dominate the media today.  All of those obituaries will describe him as a passionate, optimistic, tireless advocate for the downtrodden, a man who truly did dedicate his life to improving the world for others, a person who never waffled on his beliefs, a downright classy guy and a decent human being.  And unlike the fake obituary writers in the TV show, Jack will deserve every word of the praise posthumously
lavished upon him because he genuinely lived his life that way. What's more, many of those tributes will come from 'enemies', voters of all political stripes.

While every politician needs to possess the drive to succeed, a strong competitive instinct and a love of the spotlight, over time, most of them become consumed with those things and in their rise to the top, are more focussed on their own self-importance than the needs of their constituents.  Jack didn't seem to succumb to this plight.  While I did not support his political party, I always believed that he was 100 per cent engaged in what he saw as the fight for justice and equality and that he believed his destiny lay in helping advance the causes of those who didn't have a voice.  It has made me think about how lovely it would be to live life in such a way that even those who disagree with you, remember you fondly.

Just before he died, Jack wrote an open letter to Canadians in which he asked them to remember that "love is better than anger, hope is better than despair, optimism is better than despair".  Classy words from a classy guy.

RIP Jack Layton.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Does Your Movie Theatre Etiquette Deserve an R-Rating?

I am at a stage in my life where I attend a lot of kids' movies.  My kids are old enough to sit through a movie without getting restless but still too young to go on their own so I spend many Saturday and Sunday afternoons in theatres with other parents and their offspring.  Once in a while, if the filmmakers have inserted some smart adult in-jokes, it's enjoyable (Megamind).  More often, the humour appeals only to the kindergarten crowd and I'm just passing the time (Mr. Popper's Penguins) and sometimes, the offerings are so dull, even the kids are bored (Legend of the Guardians).
Iearned early on that movie theatre etiquette, already struggling to survive in adult-themed movies, is almost non-existent at screenings of kids' movies.

Some relaxing of the rules is to be expected.  By their nature, kids are louder, clumsier and messier than most adults and they are still learning the rules of appropriate social behaviour, (presuming their parents are bothering to teach them at all).  They rustle candy wrappers incessantly, loudly guzzle drinks and chew popcorn and, need to get up and visit the facilities more often than their adult counterparts.  And their childlike innocence and sense of wonder is on full view when they exclaim out loud that the anthropomorphic car is in trouble or the princess needs to run away.  I don't have a problem with any of this.

I have however, noticed a disturbing trend taking shape at these screenings and it has to do with the chaparones.  Some of the adults at kids' movies seem to think that since they're not there to see a movie of their choice, they are allowed to behave in ways they would never dare if they were out to see an adult movie.  At a recent screening of CARS 2, I was seated next to a woman and her daughter of about five. She yapped loudly on her cell phone right through the credits and once the movie started, pulled out a paperback novel and used the light from the device to illuminate the pages.  As anyone who has ever sat next to a movie theatre texter knows, this is extremely annoying.  After about ten minutes, I attempted to initiate a polite conversation. Here's how it went:

Me: Excuse me, would you mind turning off your cell phone?  
Rude mom: I beg your pardon? (delivered in a snarky tone)
Me: Could you please turn off your cell phone?  I''m finding the light very distracting.
Rude mom: I can't believe you would even notice it.  Why don't you mind your own business?
Me: It's hard not to notice when you're sitting right next to me
Rude mom: If you can see the light from my cell phone then you're focussing too much on me.  There's no way you should be able to notice this.

Despite her rudeness, I must have gotten through to her on some level because 15 minutes later, she turned it off and took to holding the book up at an angle that would reflect the light from the movie screen and craned her neck so she could read it that way.  Nevertheless, I spent the rest of the movie with my head firmly facing front, lest she accuse me of "focussing on her too much" again.  There was an incident later on where her daughter repeatedly kicked the head of the man in front of her and when he complained about it, he was treated with the same disdain but I won't get into it here.

As someone who believes in civility, it's not uncommon for me to politely ask someone to refrain from rude behaviour in public.  And, since I'm often rebuffed, ignored or told to go do something anatomically impossible, I have developed a thick skin around it.  What makes this situation disturbing is the poor example parents like this are setting for their children.  This woman's daughter heard the whole conversation and at a young age, might conclude that her mother's behaviour is appropriate, that there is no need to respond to polite requests in kind, and that it's okay to go through life doing whatever she wants, regardless of its impact on others.

So, is it realistic to expect silence during a screening of a children's movie?  No, of course not.  But, when you take your child out into public, it behooves you to behave like an adult and set a good example.