Friday, June 26, 2015

Joining a Board: Questions to Ask

Ever been on a Board? Not the fancy corporate kind, but the common small organizations run as nonprofits and associations? It can be a rewarding experience- learning and using business skills, making contacts and working with a new set of people, furthering the organization’s mission from a strategy and tactical perch. 

It can also be a major time commitment, usually unpaid! 
Aside from meetings and subcommittee meetings and assignments related to core membership duties, Board members (especially officers) are often pulled into day-to-day management activity. Best case, the org has a strong management company in place or an effective Executive Director. The Board will provide oversight, conduct transitions and monitor progress. Worst case (yet quite common) the management function is dysfunctional, and Board members may need to run daily operations, conduct accounting and payments, answer the mail, coordinate Board and staff activity, and more. This can quickly become too much.

There are also fiduciary duties and liabilities that apply to Board members, so learning what’s going on with the organization before joining is important. It’s much harder to extract yourself elegantly from a bad situation once you are in it. I’ve been on a few tough Boards with too much transition and poor financials- learned a lot each time, but I avoid these now unless it’s part of my employment responsibilities.

To size up an opportunity before you say yes, here are questions to ask.
1.     What has been the recent turnover rate in Board membership and officers? (if high, why?)
2.     Is there D&O (Directors and Officers) insurance in place?
3.     How much is in the reserve fund? Are monthly expenditures covered by incoming revenues?
4.     How is the relationship between the ED/management company and the Board?
5.     What are the formal duties (they should have a document setting them forth)? What are the common other expectations?
6.     Is a financial contribution required or expected from the individual or his/her host organization?
7.     What’s the estimated time commitment monthly/quarterly? (starts with monthly 4 hour meetings plus all-day strategic planning sessions on a few Saturday? yikes!)
      Congrats if you do have an opportunity to help lead an organization. It is worthwhile.. but choose carefully! Pictured: a rooftop bar, the type of venue you may enjoy decompressing at after lengthy Board meetings.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Weekend Spots: Montreal

Dear Montreal,
Could you be any more delightful in the summer?
So lovely. 

What makes a place pleasant? On business in Montreal the past few days, I could not help but think about what combination of qualities create the perfect atmosphere.

Geography. Are there natural features of beauty or visual interest? If a location lacks water or varied topography, the built environment can add aesthetic appeal.

Charm. Quaint buildings, interesting architecture, narrow streets? Yes please.

Safe and Clean. Low crime, drinkable water, fresh air? Super.

Food. Quality, variety, local specialties? Yum. Cafes a plenty? Happy.

Walkability. Are there pedestrian-only areas? Can I wander around different areas on foot?

Weather. Can I be outside comfortably most of the time? Not unbearably hot or cold?

Montreal nails it in all of these during the summer. Plus the people are stylish and out in full force enjoying life. While *most* of my time was spent in conference rooms, I got out for a truly gorgeous walk to the Atwater Market, a cool Art Deco landmark building surrounded by flower vendors, along the Lachine Canal crossing its light green iron bridges, back through Little Burgundy for a languid dinner at a darling cafe on Rue Notre Dame in Griffintown. I got the seat just behind the bike pictured here.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Summer Work Wear… 2015

What are this year's trends in what is okay / not okay for women at the office during summer? Meaning not fashion, but 'rules'- what is acceptable in office cultures.

Now on either extreme end of the spectrum, the answer is… extreme. Tech company with young demographic in staff jobs: anything goes. Fancy law firm or bank: still wearing pantyhose.:(

For the rest of us who work somewhere in the middle… what are you seeing? At my office, an F500 company headquarters with a traditional vibe and older workforce, I see a mix of bare legs and pantyhose, lots of ankle pants, dresses/skirts, usually sleeves of some sort when inside. Rarely socks with shoes. The usual sedated colors with some bright ones mixed in, jewel tones and the occasional pattern. Cotton and silk blouses.

The more relaxed feel of summer dressing is very welcome. Basic rules still apply… for example nothing too revealing or see-through. Prioritize fit and fabric. Choose lined bottoms. Avoid outfits that might seem too girly or distracting. Be comfortable, have fun, and be glad us women are not stuck in pants and button ups (or worse, ties) all summer! Pictured- one of my favorite summer tops- DVF silk found at a consignment shop a few years ago.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Two Skills Good for Everyone to Know

Project management and contracts are two great skills to be comfortable with and proficient at, no matter what field you are in. No need to do either of them full time as jobs- basic familiarity and some experience can help you at work and home.

Project management perspective is valuable in any setting. Clear objectives, plans, tactics, schedule, deliverables, assignments, tracking metrics and visuals are helpful whether done at a detailed level or quick approach- it's an organized way of thinking. Getting a certification requiring cost and time isn't necessary unless you want to do it as a profession. There are tons of books, websites, short courses and other resources out there that anyone can use to learn the basics. Knowing how to interface well with the concepts and practitioners is a good thing.

Contract skills are also useful because they come up so much in life. Whether you are lining up vendors, managing consultants or partnerships, procuring services, conducting property transactions or any other key transaction, there is likely to be a contract at some point. Being confident in your ability to review it, get the right inputs and ultimately nail down a solid result is a core business skill. Again this does not mean you must be a contracts specialist. Just take every chance you get to help or lead negotiating a contract. The more you do, the more the terms and process will be comfortable. It's a satisfying process- not always fun in the midst of the details, but getting to the end has a nice sense of closure. Learning how to calibrate- when to push, hold back, compromise- comes from experience. And online signing tools like Docusign have made the execution process less painful now- long overdue!

A colleague was deciding on two job offers recently: one in sales contracts, the other in project management/business development. He asked for my advice. I thought about each and what they might mean for his career path. I said I thought both were excellent business skills that would serve him well-  true nuts and bolts needs for most organizations so would help his marketability. He took the PM job, based on level, location and travel schedule.

A relative of mine recently lost his job and is weighing what to do to boost his credentials while job searching. He is going to do a project management course. We talked about this being a more portable skill than specialized certificates or industry-specific classes- better to open up a wider pool of job opportunities.

What other skills do you think are good solid notches on the belt? I'd add basic programming, but that's a longer topic for another post!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Weekend Find

A favorite summer activity on the west coast: tide pooling during minus tides. This is when the water scoots back to reveal areas that are undersea all but a few hours a year. I love poking around to get a glimpse of the crazy world under there. No wetsuit or breathing apparatus. No sharks. Thousands of tiny fascinating creatures.

Being a nerdy nature type, I mark the minus tides on my calendar at the beginning of each summer. There are only a few during the day and on weekends, so without planning it's unlikely to see one. I hadn't done it yet this year but happened to check yesterday morning and got to catch one in the afternoon.

Highlight: found 2 opalescent nudibranches. These are extremely cool tiny sea slugs with glowing colors and bizarre shapes. Tough to find. I just stared into various tide pools watching for movement and lucked out this time. Here's a pic, wish I'd taken a video as this one was very active doing acrobatics with the seaweed.

For much better photography and variety, this National Geographic slideshow on nudibranches is gorgeous.

Consider Decoupling Passion and Personal Economics

This blog post Why Passion is More Important than Personality in Your Career on Inc. offers some fresh ideas about how being an introvert vs. extrovert relates to career choice- interesting! On a related note, it is usually advised that following one's passion is a great thing to do, because if you are excited, you will be motivated to work hard, so results will follow.

I'd like to play devil's advocate. For many people, might it be better to decouple your passions from your earnings, at least initially in your career? Do whatever makes enough money to create a financial safety net. Then work on those passions from a perch of economic security. Choose projects based on what they are and your role in them rather than the salary, benefits, commute, or other factors not directly related to the passion. Manage your own economics vs. daily satisfaction levels like a business case- with a cool head analyzing the facts, risks and opportunities.

Not saying it can't be done, doing what you love under ideal conditions- plenty of wild success stories out there. Yet too often when pursuing a passion people find themselves at dead ends. It's happened to me, family, friends. Specializing in narrow subject matter area or function can result in a very job limited market. This is a risky position to be in- being dependent on a few niche employers (or target market, if small business) may mean unemployment, underemployment, having to move to undesirable locations, low earnings for many years, lack of growth opportunity, having to travel too much at times it conflicts with home obligations, or other pitfalls.

Focusing too narrowly on passions might also result in overlooking great opportunities to build skill sets, earnings or contacts that could be quite relevant to succeeding at the passion down the road. Or being so invested and passionate that judgment and business acumen may be less than optimal. Why not at least have one economic hedge, whatever it is? While this may sound easier said than done, there are so many fantastic opportunities today to make high earnings online, at a startup that does well, or even at 'regular' jobs.

What has been your experience?

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Supporting Others During Tough Times- What to Do and What Not to Do

Sheryl Sandberg’s post about her experience grieving is so moving, and her willingness to share her thoughts far and wide is admirable. Reading the responses it has gotten has been touching and inspiring. On the off chance any of my lessons learned on this topic help someone else, I'll share what I've found works and what doesn't when trying to support someone going through tough times. The below is a summary of what I wrote while going through some awful life events, full excerpt linked at bottom. I found that asking close friends how to interact with me during these times was important… I did not want to react poorly to well-meaning words that upset me, and they did not know what to say or how to help but deeply wanted to. I also realized how many times I had said exactly the wrong things to others over the years, so wanted to capture what I observed and felt. In short:

Do say: That stinks. Can I help? If so, how?
             (or 'this sucks so much,' or any other way to acknowledge the Bad Situation)
Then, listen. Respond to the answer. Bring takeout. Hang out together somewhere pleasant. 

Don’t point out problems. Don’t offer verbal solutions or lecture her about what to do (“You should try counseling.” “Why don’t you just fight back?” “Start dating!”).  Don’t criticize or state the obvious (“You look tired!”). Don’t pepper her with questions (“What happened after you got to the hospital? Did the police arrive before or after that?”). Don’t pressure her to do what she doesn’t want to do (“Let’s go to the bar and party!”). Don’t minimize or dismiss the problem ("It’ll blow over!" "There’s a silver lining!"). Don’t speculate (“Maybe he is gay.”). Don’t paint the situation as extreme and horrible, even if it is (“What a nightmare!”).  Don’t make light of it (“It’ll be better soon!”).

If this seems like a lot to avoid, it is. When we are going through very tough times, we are sensitive, vulnerable, and go through unpredictable emotional cycles. Offer simple, caring support. Less words, not more. It is better than trying to swoop in trying to help, but risk causing hurt or frustration. Be in the present moment with the person rather than causing her to dwell on the problems or trying to solve them (which you almost certainly can’t do with words). This avoid list may be overly cautious. But just asking if you can help is a nice way to reach out first, and go from there. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Morning and Daily Habits… Plus Kid… Different but Doable!

Both this post from The Muse and this post from Fast Company came across my screen today. Similar content, all good habits to do in the morning or throughout the day. I noticed the absence of how to kick off a day well if you are a parent (and an entrepreneur, or executive, or any career). Thought I'd share a few observations on how the routines are different when Small People are involved.

Quiet, still, undisturbed meditation right off the bat is off the table! I get woken up early by a darling little voice calling "Mommy! I am up and want to go downstairs! Get up!" If I don't respond within a few seconds, a darling little body jumps on top of me with an eager, excited face ready to start the day.

We do a big hug and kiss as a ritual before going downstairs. I still make that perfect cup of coffee, in a regular drip machine. In fact, she helps me, and loves scooping out the grounds. If I take a shower, she takes advantage of this by getting into my makeup, so planning the day in the shower is out- too busy cajoling her to please play with toys instead of ruining stuff and making a mess. The recommendations on drinking water first thing and eating a healthy breakfast are ones I can do better on. I check email and make early calls if needed while she eats breakfast (after I make it while drinking my coffee) then clean up before getting dressed (learned that important order after one too many oatmeal splotches on suits while running to a meeting).

Yet, I do prioritize well, find time to *try* to be more centered, practice gratitude, and other ideas in the linked blog posts. I reserve time to get organized while at the office after I've dropped my girl off at school. I plan for the next day before leaving work and scan the week ahead. I keep priority and action lists. I do some personal reflecting after my child is asleep at night. Guided meditations are great for falling asleep to. I don't get exercise in every day, but do when I can. Chasing a kid is exercise too, lol. (no really, it is). I do have a journal by my bedside with different goals and tracking exercises. And I credit myself for doing plenty enough for one human in a day. I do a whole lot.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Take a Retiree to Lunch!

Do you work at a place with a wave of people retiring? Younger demographic tech companies aside, many employers are in the middle of the baby boomer exodus. We've heard about it for years… opportunities will open up for the mid-level and younger set, things will fall apart… then the boomers stuck around for more years to make more money for retirement.

I've said goodbye to several close colleagues retiring so far this year. I was able to take a few of them to lunch a few days before they left. What a great experience. I enjoyed telling them how much I liked working together and appreciated them. I asked each for guidance or wisdom- what they think now at the end of the career arc. General work and life perspective, not issue or current team specific.

One executive said: know yourself. If the others want you to conform to behavior you know is nonsense, move on. He said not to be afraid of finding happiness, not to settle or wear misery like a badge of honor. Another said speak your mind. This was interesting to me. Their top-of-mind takeaways were to be more individual, less of a foot soldier. Yet, not conforming and speaking up often backfires at the lower and mid levels in big organizations. Did they regret playing along? Did they see more room for challenging the status quo as they moved up?

A third said to forgive everyone along the way and make peace with your path. He was not retiring by choice, but a result of a reorganization. Each conversation was fun, insightful and touching. Each person opened up in ways they had not before. Take a retiree to lunch- a great chance to absorb some rare open feedback and express gratitude! Plus it's summer (at least in northern hemisphere)- outdoor cafe season! Picture is of a pleasant one I happened upon in Dubai on a business trip.

Can we all please avoid the Office Face Time trap?

At work today, a colleague told me he was now subject to daily 7am "Stand-Up" meetings. Every day. This is a corporate office, not an ops facility. His kids are grown and gone, so he is able to beat the traffic and get in early as assigned. For working parents, though, this is awful. It doesn't matter if you have backup by way of spouse or family nearby, early-opening daycare, etc.-- getting children up and out the door early enough to get to an office by 7am is too early. If there is a good reason for it, okay, that brings up questions about whether the position is a good fit for current life stage.

In this case, the manager calling the meetings is a good guy. He is a peer and friendly colleague. He does not have kids, but he has his own challenges and a busy personal life. The group he is leading is under a lot of pressure to show results. I can only guess that he is requiring these daily dawn meetings to make a showing of commitment and action. Unfortunately, it may render the jobs reporting to him somewhere on the range of difficult to undoable for parents. I may ask him about it if the right moment comes up. Though if the culture of long hours is so strong, it is risky to raise questions.

Have others seen good people come up with unnecessary practices that make it harder to manage work and home life? Have you found any approaches that work to take it on? Have you moved on from a job because of the Office Face Time Trap?

Monday, June 1, 2015

Learning and Maintaining Languages When You Don't Have Time

Does anyone else love learning languages? Do you have goals to become fluent in at least one or more, but life's other priorities make it so that you can't devote time to lessons or learning vacations? For me, Spanish is the one I've had that goal of being fluent in forever. I lived in Miami… where my Spanish got worse for three years. I was able to get away with Spanglish and did not go deeper on grammar or writing it.

At the beginning of each year, I craft a set of goals. The top ten are the most critical to me, and the ones I map out strategies and tactics for. Numbers 11 through 20 are the backburner goals- ones I have chosen not to put resources into because I want to execute well on the priorities, but I work on them as I can- without compromising the core priorities. This year, seeing my ill mom as much as possible is a big one, and of course keeping my little girl safe and healthy. Little else will rise to that level of importance. And time is very limited between working, single parenting, and priority side projects like writing.

But I still have a strong desire to maintain and grow my Spanish! So I listen to Latin music a lot. While making dinner in the kitchen, dancing with my daughter for a few minutes. On the way to work. Music is my favorite way to incorporate other languages into life… I get to sing along and it's a no pressure thing. And it is a double benefit- listening to music daily is a great for mental health, a constant daily tactic to reduce stress and increase joy.

I tried audio lessons in the car during my commute a few years ago, and it just felt too packed- from get-ready routine to 'class' to work- there was not enough mental decompression time or fun. I practice speaking it whenever I can. I read the Spanish versions of articles in airplane magazines then compare my translation to the English versions, but this gets tiring after a few articles. (Again- need to include some rest and fun while in transit). What has worked for you to keep up with language learning even if it is not a top priority?

The 15-Minute Rule

Years ago I read a great tip and have been sticking to it ever since. If you can not figure something out yourself in 15 minutes, stop. Go find a resource that can. Do not waste time going in circles. This practice has saved me countless hours, gifting back free time or productivity in return.

For example, if you are trying to fix a tricky formatting issue in a Word document- let's say there is a horizontal line that you can not delete no matter how many times you try, it just keeps moving around or coming back. Stop. Do a quick web search on "how to delete line in Word" and scan the first few sites that pop up. Going to another source- one with expertise already formed- will almost certainly be more efficient. Nearly any thorny IT issue has been experienced by other people, and has solutions posted online.

Same with Powerpoint formatting- suppose you cut and paste another slide into a presentation deck. Now it does not match the sizing of the main deck and looks awful. Ask a colleague to help. Maybe an administrative person, or someone strong in business operations. A few quick clicks from someone who knows the template ropes will be faster then fiddling around with it yourself for long.

When it comes to configuring smartphones and modern gadgets, ask a millenial!:) Facetime won't work on an Apple device? There are a handful of accounts that have to be connected.