Don’t Be Afraid To Let Go

woman scratching head, thinking with brain melting into lines question marks

Nuture your company’s culture without being taken advantage of.

I often see posts and articles that focus on how a company should take care of its employees; they are to be nurtured, encouraged, and trusted. This is an ideology that I completely support and practice. However, there are inevitably some employees who masterfully take advantage of their employers, and even co-workers. So how does a business recognize and manage employees, even the “best” employees, who manipulate a flexible work culture for only their own benefit?

Recognize the simple signs of being taken advantage of.

It usually begins with seemingly innocent and unrelated occurrences. In a reasonable work environment, it’s not a big deal to be a little late here and there. But when here and there turns into three days a week, which turns into every day, it’s time to intervene. The same thing applies to the end of the day. Understandably, we all have to leave early every now and again. But advance notice, and the simple, respectful act of asking first, should be expected from your employee. And again, if the employee’s need to leave early becomes habitual, have a frank conversation about the root cause.

This also applies to absence; the morning emails and texts. Someone is sick? Completely understandable. But is that same person sick every other week? Or perhaps it’s a lack of child care. It happens. But does it happen often? Does it seem to always happen after a long weekend? Be aware of emerging patterns. Communicate any concerns you have over what seem like excessive absences, or absences that seem to occur in repeating sequences. Gain an understanding of what’s causing the excuses for not showing up to work, or at least gain the ability to predict them based on past behavior. A bigger conversation may be warranted.

Be wary of requests made by employees with a history of habitual tardiness or absences.

A good employee typically works hard and has reasonable expectations from an employer. It’s reciprocal and benefits both parties. There are also, however, those high-maintenance employees who tend to push harder for what they want, regardless of what is best—or even just least detrimental—for the business. These employees typically produce above-average work; and, if so, they know it and they have no problem letting you know they know it. As a manager or business owner, you naturally want to hold on to your heavy hitters and work to accommodate their needs. But is the heavy hitter also a high-maintenance employee? Are they late for work often? Do they need to leave early more than other employees? Is there a history of excessive excuses for being absent? Consider these things when said employee wants to discuss alternate work arrangements. Said arrangements would likely benefit them but not the company. Before you approve any such arrangements, THINK IT THROUGH.

Example: you receive a request from an above-described employee to discuss the possibility of telecommuting. As opposed to a more productive day, it may very well result in delayed email responses, calls that go to voicemail, and work that doesn’t get turned in on time. Now the manager not only has to deal with an employee who is consistently tardy or absent, but in addition has to monitor and hound the employee to simply just do their job. What seems like a simple, reasonable compromise that you make as a manager may actually result in a more complicated situation. Is this employee really working, or are they just checking their work inbox in between personal errands? Who knows? But now it’s up to you to find out. Yet again, another conversation to be had.

Your other employees are your best barometer.

People talk. Listen. If having a candid conversation isn’t possible (co-workers of manipulative employees often hold back on speaking freely, especially when the employee in question is higher-ranking), keep your eyes open. People don’t always speak with their voices, but instead it’s “the look” or “the sigh.” No matter how valuable you may think your top-notch employee is to the company, they’re most likely not worth ruining a well-cultivated company culture. Nor are they worth losing other employees who also produce good work, but are grateful and respectful of the company’s policies and values.

Don’t be afraid to let go.

Protect your company’s culture. It succeeds when it works for both your employees AND for your business. Should you find yourself scratching your head, asking “am I being taken advantage of,” you probably are. High-maintenance employees, who manipulate the systems you have in place, also tend to be egotistical and believe that they are irreplaceable. They aren’t, so don’t be afraid to let go.

Owning Your Own Business…and Trying to Take a Vacation

Let’s face it: after being ingrained in the nine-to-five grind five days per week, fifty weeks per year, it’s hard for anyone who has regular work responsibilities to truly get into “vacation mode.” Typically, you finally feel like you’re starting to unwind the day before your vacation ends. Owning a small business is stressful–sometimes VERY stressful. If you are a small business owner, you know it’s not easy to a) find the time for a vacation, and b) actually take, and fully enjoy, one. Just like everyone else, we small business owners need time away to recharge, experience quality family time, and just cut loose. But after the hard work establishing and maintaining a business, it’s difficult to break the habit of reaching for the iPhone, just wanting to take a peek at emails to make sure everything is alright back at the office.

When there was only one set of footprints, that was me running away.

When there was only one set of footprints, that was me running away.

So how do we do it? What is the way to “responsibly vacation” when you own your own business? Is there such a thing? After years at the helm, I am still trying to figure that out. Here are a couple of observations from my recent family trip, and a couple of ideas on how I hope to improve my approach when taking the next one.

Observation one: I am a worry wart, and a bit of a control freak, so I’ve allowed technology to sabotage my relaxation with nagging thoughts like “dare I look at my email?” “Should I check in?” “Am I a bad business owner and employer if I don’t look?”

I am fortunate to have a wonderful staff that is more than capable of handling things while I am away, yet I often insert myself into work situations by giving in and picking up the phone, checking emails, etc.

Idea one: Go somewhere where there is no cell service, completely isolated from the evil internet, allowing me to avoid falling into my own trap of insertion. Or use a second phone, without email set up, to which only the people who really need to reach me (family, one emergency contact at the office) have the number. And leave the work phone at home.

Observation two: I like to cross things off my list. Additionally, I don’t like the idea that a task is waiting on me for its completion. If you’re like me, you understand how it creates anxiety about returning to the office. Before you even leave for vacation, you’re already thinking of the things that won’t get done until you return.

Idea two: Plan vacation time around the pivotal points on current projects. Avoid sending out any invoices, estimates, or communications that may vie for for your attention while you’re away. Do your best to find a time to vacation that gives you a little break before and after your travel days.

Like I said, I am still learning how to have a guilt-free vacation. Next vacation, I’ll try my new ideas, track my progress, and keep you posted–but I’ll try not to dwell on it too much until I’m back in the office.

A Woman’s Survival Guide to Sitting at the Big Table with the Big Boys

Welcome to the Table

Welcome to the Table

I tend to work in male-dominated fields, therefore my client base is 90% male. Of course, that percentage rises as you move up the food chain into the executive levels. This means I often find myself the only “skirt” in the room when the door closes and the high-level meetings begin.

Through the years, I’ve learned a few things about how to make the most of my presence in these situations and defend my territory. There are tricks on how to balance fitting in, garnering respect, holding your own, and maintaining your composure, even through heated conversations.

 

1. Be prepared. Know the topic, study the details, and do your homework. This will ensure your confidence and your ability to answer a question promptly and correctly. Executives like straight answers. CEOs want you to respond like a calculator when numbers are in question.

2. Be on time. Rather, be early. Set up your computer, iPad, whatever you may have. Set the tone for the room with your presence, chat with colleagues you may know. If you are late, be sure you discretely apologize, take a seat, and do not offer details. No one wants to hear it. This especially pertains to having a sick child, or other “female” reasons, no matter how valid. It will only diminish your position amongst the audience.

3. Sit at the big table. There are times a conference room gets overfilled and seats are brought in, forming a perimeter around the room. Do not sit in one of those seats; sit at the conference table, as this is where the big boys will sit. There will always be a spot saved for the CEO and the President at the conference table. Arrive early and get yours.

4. Do not fidget; keep your cool, even under pressure. Especially under pressure. There is nothing more compelling and impressive than someone in control when the heat is on. Remember that body language says everything, even more so than a straight face and calm voice. It’s the whole package that gets noticed, especially as a woman in a room full of men. If a point arises where conversations get heated, do not raise your voice, but rather interject your comments and opinions when the conversation has settled. No one hears anything when everyone talks at once, and a raised voice can infer an emotional response rather than a pragmatic one.

5. If you don’t know the answer, don’t make one up, especially if it is a question regarding money. Never, ever just blurt out a figure as a proposed cost, even if you’re assured, “I won’t hold you to it.” Yes, they will. Women tend to feel like they have to oblige instantaneously. Avoid this urge, and oblige only after being fully prepared and informed.

6. If you are wrong or at fault, own up to it. Should the meeting be about your businesses’ performance, progress on a project, or lack thereof–be honest. Next, offer a solution; or, better, discuss the progress on the solution that you have already put in place. Don’t let the situation devolve to bullying, and don’t take any more crap than necessary. Be respectful and take responsibility where you own it, but be careful of any “enemies” who may take advantage of this situation to rant or expand the situation to belittle you or your business.

7. Never, ever cry. Period.

 

These bullet points may sound a bit stoic, but it is important to be seen as an equal in these situations. In business, someone may not like you; but, if they respect you, that can be even better.

You Own a MacBook Pro? You Must Be a Designer…

You have to have a license to drive. You have to have a license to run a business (well, you should). People have to be certified to drive forklifts, cut hair, and even paint nails…but anyone can buy a MacBook Pro, change a font color, learn how to draw a square, and voila: instant “designer.” Never mind the years spent learning art: art history, color theory training, 2D design, etc.

Experience? Ha! Who needs it when you’ve got YouTube tutorials? Please…

So here’s my beef: this downsizing-to-save-money bit has become quite commonplace in the corporate world. The mindset of “pink slips for some equals new titles and more work for others” has become the accepted norm. Each worker’s burden gets heavier, and the quality of the output suffers. On the agency side, we feel the effects as well. We lose work–hard-earned and long-sought-after work that professional, respected designers are actually trained and qualified to do–when clients decide to “consolidate.” Mind you, “consolidating” refers to, “well, we have an employee who’s dabbled in design…and we think if create a support team…and invest in a MacBook Pro or two, (after watching some YouTube design tutorials) we will have an internal department that should be able to take on this responsibility. And think of the money we can save!”

If it’s not obvious, I can honestly say I am not impressed with this ignorant mindset. The lack of respect for design as a true profession is both shameful and concerning. From a business perspective, this approach is ultimately a death sentence for the corporate client, as the lack of intelligent innovation through design will take its toll on the company’s ability to compete and profit. It certainly doesn’t help the agency pay its bills, either, as this scenario also creates a struggle for the professional design agencies to survive and hold onto their talent.

As a business owner, I value–and greatly respect–the fundamentals of running a lean practice; but there is a point at which “cutting the fat” becomes cutting into the meat. Before long there’s no substance left, which is something that even the best designers can’t simply photoshop into place–let alone some accountant and his new Macbook Pro.