Posts Tagged ‘workplace’

Shoes of Confidence

I wonder if this is a girl thing….

I just finished up a presentation I’ll be giving tomorrow morning to my General Manager and his staff.  It’s going to be contentious.  I’m speaking the truth, but there are emotionionally charged comments and face-saving words that will be hurled my way.

I’m now thinking about what shoes I’ll wear tomorrow.  You see I usually where practical shoes- cute, but comfortable wedges.  I can walk fast in them and they are closed-toe lab appropriate.  However, tomorrow I might wear heels.

Why?  Because there is a certain confidence that always comes to me when I wear heels.  Maybe it’s the click they make when I walk across the floor.  Maybe it’s the way they make me stand up straight and take deliberate steps.  Maybe it’s just the nicer clothes I’ll wear with them.  I am not exactly sure why.  I do know that when I walk down the hall towards a my meeting in those heels, I’ll feel like I can take on anyone.  I’ll already feel successful and put together.  It’s a power rush…and one I’ll need to take the world head on tomorrow in my 8am throwdown.

Looking for New Challenges Along All Coordinates

I’ve been working on a presentation for the region SWE conference on Career Management in Difficult Economic Circumstances.  One of the topic areas is around what to do when you feel bored and stuck in your job.  With the lack of promotions in the corporate world lately, and people afraid to get new jobs themselves or even retire, there are not nearly the number of “higher” positions available.

Sometimes, though you look up at your manager and your manager’s manager and think, I don’t want that job.  Either way, the question is, what do you do?

Well, you look to the side and you even look down.  I’ve made a few lateral transitions.  One of my transitions was continuing to do project management, just on a different product in a whole new business group.  I was able to use my same set of project management skills, but expand on a whole new set of technical skills.  I also got to work with new people in a new environment.  It kept me challenged and happy.

I have not personally moved down the hierarchy to find a new challenge, but I know a few people that have.  They said initially accepting the fact that they were going to be “a low run in the ladder” again was tough.  After a year, and a steep learning curve, they were each back at or above the level they were when they moved down.  Not too bad.

When you reach that stuck spot, I think there are 5 options for you:

  1. Move up (if available…though I’ve found this one can be tough as the number of openings is always smaller than where you are)
  2. Move laterally (best if you can use some skills you’ve mastered and build new ones)
  3. Move down (best for moving to entirely new area,and typically ends up with you moving up again after a year or so)
  4. Stay where you are (and convince your manager to give you some different things to work on- requires a manager who will help you out)
  5. Move out (sometimes the only option to stay happy really is to leave the company)

The key to any of the moves above is make sure you know what will make you happy and make the company money.  You need to figure out the intersection of your passions, your skills, and the business need.  When you can do that, you’ve got a nice template for the job to go after.

For me, that intersection has been project management.  I didn’t reach the conclusion on my own- I needed the help and advice of some mentors to help me see the intersection.  It has served me well for the past few years.  As my skills grow and the business need changes, I’ll need to re-asses that intersection and see if it has changed.  I think I’m about a year away from needing another change.  Better start thinking about it…

Retaining Your Individuality in the Corporate Hairball

I am traveling to New York today and doing some reading catch up on the plane.  I am part way through a great book called “Orbiting the Giant Hairball- A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace”, by Gordon MacKenzie.  It is fantastic!  (and a fun, fast read)

The books is really tips and insight into keeping your creativity and individuality and not getting sucked into the bureacratic norm that is most companies.  It focuses on how you can be happy and productive and creative by orbiting around the bureaucratic hairball, instead of being stagnant stuck in the middle of it.

I highly suggest it to anyone who works in a big company!  (warning, it took me awhile to get it.  I ordered it off of Amazon in December and got it about 6 weeks later)

Here is a quote out of the book, that is my inspiration for this Monday Morning.

When you come into an organization, you bring with you an arcane potency, which stems, in part, from your uniqueness.  That, in turn, is rooted in a complex mosaic of personal history that is original, unfathomable, inimitable.  There has never been anyone quite like you, and there never will be.  Consequently, you can contribute something to an endeavor nobody else can.  There is power in your uniqueness- an inexplicable, unmeasurable power…

Bug if you are hypnotized by an organizations culture, you become separated from your personal magic and cannot tap it to help achieve the goals of the organization.  In losing connection with your one-of-a-kind magic, you are reduced to nothing more than part of the headcount.  Deep inside the Hairball.

So whenever you feel your head being pushed down onto an organization’s chalk line, remember the challenege is to move out of the way, to choose not to be mesmerized by the culture of your company.  Instead, find the goals of the organization that touch your heard and release your passion to follow those goals.

It is a delicate balance, resisting the hypnotic spell of an organization’s culture and, at the same time, remaining committed from the heart to the personally relevant goals for the organization.  But if you can achieve that balance and maintain it, you will be out of the Hairball and into the Orbit, the only place where you can tap your one-of-a-kind magic, your genius, your limitless creativity.

Smiles don’t always mean good feedback

I’ve been behind in blogging this past week because it is review season at work.  Our reviews consist of a self-assessment and a set of 360 reviews.  Typically you suggest 3-5 people who have worked closely with you during the past year year to provide feedback through a form to your manager.

As a program manager, I get quite a few requests for 360s.  For many people, I am one of the few who work with them on a consistent basis and are not part of their immediate managerial chain.  This year was a record though, as I was asked to complete 39 360s.

I was wondering this weekend about why I had so many to do.  There are other program managers on my team who are not asked to fill out nearly as many.  I decided it probably came down to my demeanor.  As previously mentioned, I enjoy working with others, coaching and mentoring, and have a positive outlook.  I think it is my smiles that win me the 360s.

People believe that because I am nice, I will give them a good review.  I can say that just because I am nice, doesn’t mean I only have nice, kind things to say.  I have a knack for seeing what motivates and drives people- where they are strong and where they are weak.  (When I was younger, I moved around a lot and my ability to quickly figure out what made someone tick became a survival skill as I went from school to school).

I am not mean in my feedback.  I am truthful about the things that hold a person back, the areas and skills they need to focus on improving to become a more valuable member of the team.  Over the years, I have learned not to hold back, even when giving feedback to people more senior that myself- mangers, senior technologists, and architects.  I guess that means I am a good person to give feedback to all 39 of these people.  For some, though, I have a lot more improvement areas than strengths to list.  I have a feeling those are the ones who just bank on my smile.

The Exodus…elephant in the room

My post about the exodus article generated quite a few conversations.  I thought I’d follow it up with some more thoughts.

When you read the article, you can’t help but think there is an elephant in the room that no one is talking about – women having babies.  It’s hard to say that women having babies is the reason for so many leaving the technical/engineering work force because women in all career fields have babies and we don’t see similar exoduses.

What is interesting about the age range where women start leaving en masse, mid thirties to forties, is they have usually already have a few children.  The study doesn’t call this out, but I can speak to what I have experienced and seen during my time working ,  listening to results of similar studies as well as anecdotal stories.

Most technical women do return to work after their first child.  I think most come back after their second as well.  What I’m not sure about is whether the drop off happens due to the number of children- once you get to two or three children balancing the demanding engineering company lifestyle starts to wear on you.  Or is it not the number of children, but the age of those children.  At some point they start getting involved in extra-curricular activities and require more help in getting them to after school events.   Once again, balancing the demanding, fire-fighting, long hour engineering life style becomes increasingly more difficult.

Society makes it ok for women to step out and stay-at-home.  Whether you like it or not, there are many more societal pressures on men to continue working when they have families vs women.  At some point women decide the work of switching off and trying to maintain a sense of balance is not worth the stress.  It is easier to change the job environment you are in- either by staying at home, changing industries, or even taking on entrepreneurial ventures.   With these other choices, women have much greater flexibility in the hours and times they work.  The family balance becomes much easier.

I also believe that a majority of women engineers and scientists are actually talented in more than just math and science.   Most women who pursue these careers are very well rounded.  As a result it is easier for them to do non-engineering jobs as well.  They are not one-sided, but multi-talented.  We can spend 10-15 years doing a highly technical engineering job, then take on a second career as a teacher, and maybe a third 10 years later as a real estate agent.

I believe that one of the keys to understanding the exodus lays around children, not just having children- that’s not the issue, it’s more around balancing life as your family grows and diverges.  It is amazingly difficult to get part time engineering jobs.  Until women feel there are more options, and see other women using those options to remain technical and continue to advance, the exodus will continue.

The Exodus

Courtesy of the Harvard Business Review

I volunteer a lot of my free time to organizations focused on encouraging women of all ages to pursue & stick with technical engineering and science/technology related endeavors.  (one of the reasons I started this blog)  I was recently invited to an invitation-only luncheon with some senior women in my group at work.  The goal is to get us networking with each other and talking to the GM.  It made me think about an article I had read awhile back by the Harvard Business Review about the Exodus of Women in Science & Engineering fields.  A quick google search later- and an article to share with you, which I think is still relevant today, even though it was written a year and a half ago.

I find the article to be pretty much spot on from what I’ve heard and experienced during my 7 years working as an engineer.

The article argues that there is a lot of science and engineering talent already in the US that is underutilized because they have dropped out of the technology arena.  Who is this enormous pool of talent?  Women in their mid-thirties and beyond.

HBR’s research showed that 41% of young engineers, scientists, and technologist are women, but that over time 52% of these women quit their jobs.   Instead of quiting on a slow linear scale as they get older, women tend to hit a key turning point in life and leave.  I can tell you from my experience- this is true.  It is not hard at work to find women engineers in their twenties.  Pretty much every team has a few.  By contrast, it takes quite a bit of effort to find experienced women who have stuck it out, especially for any length of time after having kids.

Why?  Let’s go through the articles reasons, with some comments from what I’ve experienced…

  1. Machismo & the hostility of workplace culture. I don’t really agree with this point.  Most of us with engineering degrees have been friends with and interacting with groups of men for long time.  We’re used to their comments, their machoism.  In my mind it comes with the territory.  I feel like it’s a victory of acceptance when they don’t change their mannerisms or language when I’m in the room.  I’m accepted as just another guy.  That’s not to say I act like them.  It’s important to be genuine and authentically you.  To be accepted as you are.  I find the unhappy women- the ones who complain about always being around guys are typically attempting to act differently around them.  I think if you’re you and you don’t let their machoism mannerisms bother you much, then this should not be any reason to leave the work force.
  2. Dispiriting sense of isolation that comes when a woman is the only female on her team or at her rank. I can tell you I’ve felt this isolation.  I’m a very competitive person by nature.  The first few times I found myself in room of men, typically the most junior in the group on top of that, I felt the adrenaline rush of success.  “ah ha, here I am, representing women.  I’m so smart & capable that I’ve been invited into this group of more senior guys.” Most of the time, I am the only woman in these groups of men.  I stopped recognizing I was the only women.  Periodically I’ll be on a team with another women, or even a few other women, and I’ll feel this amazing sense of connection and relief.  “wow, another woman!  Cool, ok we’re going to make eye contact, encourage each other, support one another’s good ideas” I didn’t think it affected me so much, but it does.  You can only sit in a room with people dissimilar to you so much before you start to wonder if you really do belong.  Having other women there, even a few, really does make a big difference.
  3. Strong disconnect between women’s preferred work rhythms and the risky “diving catch” and “firefighting” behavior that is recongized and rewarded in these male-dominated fields.I never thought too much about the firefighting behavior in which I work until reading this article.  For me, this one is probably number one item driving my daily frustrations.  I seem to work in an infinite loop of reactively dealing with issues and problems.  I work day in and day out against this tide- focusing on risk management and planning.  More often than not, I feel I’m the only one leading the team away from this behavior.  Sure, my peers pay lip service to it, but at the end of the day, they still do the diving catches themselves and reward each other for addressing issues only after they occur and thrashing the team around.  It is almost solely this behavior which makes me consider leaving and taking on a different career.
  4. Long work weeks & punishing travel schedules  (esp because most women in two-income families still bear the brunt of household mgmt) I have had jobs where I travel alot and some where I travel little.  In pretty much all of them, I’ve worked some pretty long weeks.  When I look up the ladder at women who are foraging a path ahead of me, I see a lot of travel and long week.  I’ve had long talks with many female co-workers about what these senior women go through in their jobs.  Most of us agree we would not want to slave away like that and do the constant travel.  It just takes you away from family too much.  The few women that I do see who take these vice-president paths have amazing family structures and support.  Some have stay at home husbands, others have mothers, sisters, and in-laws who live with them and take on many household responsibilities.  It is certainly a trade off, and one I think only a few women are willing to take.
  5. The mystery around career advancement, lacking sponsors, and being unable to discern the pathway that will allow them to make steady upward progress. This is a big reason for the discouragement that many women feel.  I go to many conferences and listen to lots of panels with highly successful men and women.  Almost all of them will comment about how a few key people sponsored them and mentored them through the ladder to the positions they hold today.  Most will also talk about their career plans, how they set specific goals to hold particular jobs, attained them, and consequently moved up.  It all sounds great until you try to do it yourself.  How do you find a sponsor?  How do you make a job-jumping plan that will work?  How do you execute this plan?  It is a mystery.  I believe it is a mystery to both men and women though.  I know plenty of men stuck in the same situation.  This one is a numbers game- more men out there, a few of them will get into “the club” and get sponsors & pulled up.  It’s a proven fact that people are attracted to those similar to themselves.  By default men at the top will pull up other men.  With fewer women up top, fewer women are pulled.  Sometimes men will sponsor women, but it doesn’t happen at the same rate as men sponsoring men.

At least companies are become aware of the exodus phenomenon.  Awareness is the first step to putting a solution in place.  It’ll take time and effort on the part of the companies and women both.  I have faith we’ll get there.

Unrelentingly Positive

I drug myself out of bed this morning for yoga and an hour later, was happy that I did.  Some yoga classes have themes, this on did- unrelentingly positive. Turns out a fellow yogi put a comment in the comment box earlier that week thanking the teachers for always being unrelentingly positive.

It is really hard to be grumpy around a positive person.  Now I admit that sometimes the overly bubbly in-your-face happy person can roll your eyes and walk away.  But the majority of the time, a positive person makes you shed some of those discouraging thoughts.  The power of a smile, a laugh, and some optimistic outlooks can improve any situation.

Those who know me would probably classify me in that unrelentingly positive category.  It’s true, I’m an eternal optimist.  I smile all day.  I try to make people laugh when they are taking themselves too seriously.  I pretty much believe that ever person and every situation can make a turn for the better.

I just wish more people tried being unrelenting positive periodically.

Emotions and outlook are one of those herd mentalities.  I see it at work every day.  You get a few team members complaining about something- say the number of issues in the software for a new product.  They complain to a few people in the halls.  They mention how buggy the software is in meeting.  Next thing you know everyone is complaining about the poor health of the software.  Then I start hearing more people, different people, make comments “There is no way in hell we’ll hit a product schedule”, “I heard the software team has no idea how to even solve these issues”, “Wow, we’re going to be working late nights for months”.  Suddenly I am surrounded by a team of 30 Debbie-downers.

It’s pretty hard to motivate a team of Debbie-downers to be creative about solving problems when they think there is no hope for the project.

There is hope to turn these negative emotions into positive ones.  It takes the a few leaders to role model positive thinking.  To speak up in the face of negativity. “The software team is making great progress.” ” They are on the brink of a break-through. ” “The extra time has allowed us to make our part of the product even better”.

Just like the herd mentality that got everyone stuck in negativity.  A few positive people can lead the team in the opposite direction.  You work better when you’re happy.  You look for ways to improve your contribution.  The team likes to get together and talk about the opportunities.  As a result, the product out the door is ultimately better and everyone wants to work together on the next one.

Give it a try…be unrelentingly positive for a day.  Then try to keep it going for a week.

You’ll be amazed at the impact.  You’ll be happier and people will enjoy working with you and for you.  People won’t be able to be grumpy around you- which means you’ll be surrounded by more positive energy.  A win for everyone.

We Wanted to Hunt Too

A friend of mine went back to work on Monday after having her first baby.  It was quite the day for her.  She dropped off her baby at day care, worked until about 3:30, then picked her up, went home, made dinner, washed bottles, re-filled bottles, and cried all night.  Her husband was not quite as supportive as he should have been on this first day back, partly because he had gotten used to her being home all day for the past 4 months.

I was talking with a mutual friend about the situation and she asked me “whatever happened to the days where women took care of the kids and home base and the men went hunting?  It seems like that would be such a simpler,  lower stressed lifestyle.

My response?  “Women decided they wanted to go hunt to”.

I imagined one day the men came back with less meat than expected.   Or maybe a few women got bored with their care taking and decided they wanted to  go out and explore the land.  So those women strapped babies to their chests and went out with the men.  The first career women.

Ok, so maybe it didn’t happen exactly like that.  I think throughout history small groups have women have run with the men.  Only in the last 40 years has it truly become main stream.

In the seventies and eighties it was all about being like the men- playing their game.  Women wore suits and ties.  They were true “career” women who typically put climbing the ladder a priority over other family obligations.  The younger generation followed these role models, but decided they had deviated from traditional family & mother roles too much.

In the eighties and nineties the mood changed a little.  Most women were attempting to achieve super woman status- trying to balance career and family.  I go to numerous conferences and talks and panels each year and “work life balance” is always a big topic.  I think the concept generated from these super women.  They tried to do it all.  The younger generation following these women saw the super women burning out.  The constant strive to do everything left little time for sleep and self-rejuvination.

So now in the first decade of the 2000 I see career women making trade offs.  They start off on a career track.  Then when it’s time to have a family they’ll step off the ladder a little, focus on building their families.  They build up an infrastructure of support, and when ready, step back on the ladder for a bit.  I see them climb on and off the career progression depending on how their family is doing.  I also believe this generation may be the one where we see more men coming on and off to and taking on the lead for family responsibilities.

Hopefully we’ll learn to take turns hunting, rather than trying to drag the homestead with us.

Pulling a Fast One

I had a great mutual complaining chat on Friday with a co-worker about a two members of our project team who were attempting to pull a fast one over the rest of us.  Here’s the context…

We are simultaneously working on two products- Product A and Product B.  A is the money maker for our division and flagship product of 2010.  B is a strategic product being developed in parternship with another company.  They share some common development peices.  Each one is very important to the organization, but at the end of the day, it is all about making money in 2010.  It’s about being a sustainable, money making organization.  As a result, the priority if we have to make tradeoffs between the two is Product A.

Here is where the “fast one” comes into play.  One of the lead engineering managers is actually prioritizing B with his team, in hopes that no one will really notice and he’ll still get A out on time.  Unfortunately, his manager knows this and is in on it.  Whenever anyone else on the team questions him about the priorties, he always says A first.   We can’t really prove he isn’t telling the truth, but you can sense it by the program updates.

Why does he feel he can do this?  Does he really think he’s smarter than the rest of us?  Does he just think he can get away with it?  It’s not really a problem if both products get to market on time and adhere to their schedules.  It does add unnecessary risk to product A in several ways- less ability to compensate for slip ups and unknown issues we encounter, other functional areas of the product have to work extra to compensate, and general lack of transparency within the team.

In my company pretty much everyone is an engineer.  What I mean is that our marketing team- they’re engineers, our manufacturing team- engineers, our project managers- engineers, our people managers- engineers.  You get the picture.  Engineers think they can do everything.  We’re the people who think we can do it ourselves better than almost anyone else can.  We know we’re smart and think we can learn fast and execute well.  For the most part we can- though sometimes it’s alot better to have someone with expertise and skills in that area.  (that’s a whole other post…)

Part of thinking we can do everything also means we typically think we’re smarter than those around us- even fellow engineers.  So some believe they can pull a fast one over the rest of the team.  They really can’t though.  You look at their body language, the words they use, you poll their team- it’s pretty obvious what is going on.

The sad thing is how much this single action affects both product teams.  Without transparency, and with the engineering director supporting this manager, not correcting him, other people will start to follow suit.  They will start saying one thing, and doing something else.  Pretty soon, the whole team suspects everyone else of not telling the complete truth.  We start pointing fingers and blaming each other.  We spend more time covering our own asses than working together to constructively solve problems and get products out on time.

It’s a vicious cyle that sadly starts with just a single pair, thinking they can sneak something past of the rest us.  That they’re just a little smarter.  That their great engineering skills will enable them to solve their way our of whatever issue this priority change will get them into.  I just hope our team confronts them and are able to change it before we become completely dysfunctional.

Engineering, the voice of reason

This pretty much sums up the day I had today.  (Kudos to my friend Deb for sharing) Sometimes my team gets a little over zealous in their commitments and doesn’t think through the technical details and dependencies in putting a system level product together.

My Day Today

A few years ago when I left my individual contributor engineering role and became a project manager I was scared of losing my engineering.  I felt like I had worked so hard to get that engineering degree that I had better use it to do true engineering design and test work.

What I found out is when you are a good engineering, those good engineering skills shine through.  I’m a good project manager because I’m not afraid to get into the technical details of problems or brainstorm creative work arounds to pull in schedules.  My first year as a project manager I wanted to tell people “hey I’m an engineer”.  I just somehow felt so much less technical.

As that year went on, I gravitated towards technical discussions and wasn’t afraid to share my technical opinions.  Now, a few years into it, and even with a whole new team, people by default think of me as an engineer first and project manager second.

I’m happy to know that when it comes down to making products, engineers are the voices of reason.  We look at the data, we have open discussions, we’re objective, and we often can recommend alternatives.