Manage your manager

manage your managerI had a bit of a difficult day at my current contract today.  It dawned on me that I wouldn’t be working on the contract that I’d signed on for – it’s been mis-sold to me in terms of work, hours and environment.

There isn’t anyone at work I can discuss this with, being fairly senior in the current team.  And the recruitment consultant that placed me there is away for a couple of weeks.  So for now at least, I will have to carry on as I am.

Part of the problem is that the manager I am taking some of the work over from is young, single and works from eight in the morning until eight or nine in the evening.  He works weekends too.  Which is fine for him – he’s a permanent member of staff, wants to get ahead and has something to prove.  That’s not where I am though.  I’m a contractor, doing this whilst I build up my own business.  I also have commitments at home, so I can’t and don’t want to devote the hours to a role I am only in temporarily.  It’s an unusual perspective.  But I don’t think it’s necessarily an unusual problem.

I’ve found over the years that a lot of the managers I have worked for have had very different objectives and expectations of me than they had described.  When I was younger, I didn’t stop to think about that expectation gap.  I just thought I should get on with what I was being asked to do, however unreasonable it was.  I would never speak up and point out that a manager had said one thing but was then expecting something else.

As I grew more dissatisfied, I started to become a little more vocal.  That was ok in that at least I’d spoken up, but it still didn’t always help.

What I’ve found works even better than that is to actually manage your manager as much as they manage you.  So in my recent contract roles I have been much stricter about sticking to the brief I was given, and much stricter in pushing back where I don’t feel I can give them what they’re asking for, or where I’ve felt they asked for one thing and are now expecting something else.  You might have found it yourself – being briefed on a task, given a deadline and then finding that the goalposts have moved and no-one has bothered to tell you.

This is where managing your manager comes into play.  Next time you take something on, whether it’s a one-off project, or a regular task, sit down and get as many of the details as possible agreed up front – deadlines, report formats, expected hours, involvement from others, assistance available – whatever the factors are that you’re aware of.  Ideally, if you can, once you have all that, put it all down in an email or spreadsheet and mail your manager with your understanding of the project, new regular task, or method of working and how you’ll achieve it.  And then at regular intervals, keep them updated.  This way, if things start to veer off track, you have early warning.  You’re also stating expectations up front, so if things change, you can highlight this as a mitigating factor for any adjustments you have to make.  It gives your manager an up-to-date idea of where you are, demonstrates how proactive you’re being, and shows you’re taking responsibility for your project.

Perk up your office posture

office postureAs I was sitting at my desk today, about mid-morning I noticed that I was almost nose to screen, and slumped over my desk, shoulders hunched, arms tense, eyes glazed over.  It’s not a surprise that at the time I was trawling through a mind-numbingly detailed and boring spreadsheet, with very little enthusiasm.  My body was simply mirroring my brain.  And as I looked around at my colleagues, I noticed we all had the same slumped slouch going on.

I got up, walked to the water machine, gave myself a bit of a shake and sat back down, but this time with a little more ooomph and ooh la la.  And it made a difference to the way I dealt with my work for the rest of the morning.

Which makes sense.  Your body and brain are hard-wired to connect particular postures with particular feelings.

So if you’re struggling to shift the feeling, you can cheat a bit and change the posture first.  The feeling will follow – it has to, cos it’s hard-wired that way.

Here’s a sneaky tip to perk up your office posture any time you feel yourself hitting a bit of a slump.

Try it, right now, sitting at your computer.  Just push your shoulders back and lift your head a tiny bit.  It;s not a huge change, it won’t look odd, and it’ll feel lovely.  And I promise it’ll make you feel a bit better.

It works any time, anywhere, sitting, standing, walking, whatever.  Although it might be a small physical change, the physiological shift of sitting taller, standing taller, walking taller will also shift the way you feel, your state.  And as you feel better, you’ll find your office day becomes a little easier too.

Try it out and let me know how you get on!

Dealing with the office chatterbox

office chatterboxPicture the scene – you’re sitting there, head down, ploughing through your work to meet a tight deadline, completely engrossed in your work.  As is everyone around you.  Silence, progress being made, deadlines looking achievable.  Suddenly someone pipes up with a loud exclamation, and launches into a monologue.  You make the mistake of looking up and catch their eye, which only encourages them.  Now they think they’re in a conversation.  Before you know it, everyone is half looking up, half-nodding, half ignoring the monologue machine.  Finally, ten minutes later, they wind down.  Work resumes.   Until twenty minutes later, they do it all again.  Yep.  You’re working with the office chatterbox!

So how do you deal with the office chatterbox in a way that won’t upset them but will allow you and the rest of the team to work without disruptions every half hour?

One thing you could do, if it’s possible, is try and work out why the guilty party feels the need to talk constantly.  In one of my contracts a while ago, the most senior member of my team was known to be a serial chatterbox.  I used to dread him coming over to my desk to ask a question.  One question could knock my schedule out by half an hour!  But after listening to him I realised that he was very insecure and his chatter was always related to showing how much he knew, how long he’d been there, how many contacts he had.  So I decided the easiest way was just to acknowledge that up front, with the hope that he would feel less insecure, and less likely to want to give me his whole CV again.  And it worked, to an extent.  I got less CV and more work information.  He didn’t change completely though.  And that’s where trick number two comes in handy…

If you have someone who is being a chatterbox just because they like being the centre of attention (something I came across at a recent contract, with a very junior team member, who constantly behaved as if we were all at a social event together) then you need a different tactic.  And this is where your computer screen and Outlook come in very very handy.  Once you realise you have a social butterfly type office chatterbox on your hands, you need to take away the thing that feeds the chatter – your attention.  So when you hear that exclamation, don’t look up, don’t make eye contact, don’t engage at all.  Keep your eyes glued on your computer sheet as if your life depends on that spreadsheet you’re working on.  If the chatterbox tries to engage you directly, use Outlook and set yourself a little alarm, to go off in a minute or two.  You can then exclaim that you need to get something urgent done and stop the conversation.

And finally, if all else fails, there is still one trick in the book – excuse yourself to go to the loo!  Obviously you can’t do this every time you need them to stop talking, but it’s a useful last resort!


Did I just say no to extra work?

I started at a new number-crunching day job today.  It was an interesting day, and as first days tend to be, there was an induction, a lot of information to soak in, no computer or access to the systems, and therefore not much actual work completed.

just say noBut my new employer did have one interesting conversation with me.  They are running some training courses in a particular area of the system and they asked me if I would like to attend.  The training day itself would involve several hours of travel, around a normal 9am to 5pm working day, and it is unlikely that I would get either the time in lieu or payment for those hours.  And once I am a ‘superuser’, there would be additional responsibility and hours involved – quite a lot of extra work, in fact.

My initial reaction was to say yes.  Because that’s what you do when your boss asks you to do something, especially something extra.  I also wanted to say yes because we all like to be liked, and by saying yes I guess my boss might like me more, might see me as an enthusiastic, valuable member of the team.  And i wanted to say yes because I was grateful to be seen as someone who they felt warranted investing additional training resources in.  But I didn’t say yes.  I said I’d think about it and let him know.

And I have thought about it.  I have thought about the reason I have taken this role in the first place – it’s close to home, so I have less of a commute and more hours at home, it’s a relatively straightforward role so I can bring my efficiency to the core and ensure I work as close to the core hours as possible and it pays the bills whilst I build up my real vocation into a full-time career.  So actually, saying yes would go against my personal agenda, and would nullify some of the reasons I took on the role in the first place.  And whilst my employer may be disappointed, I know and they know this project is not my core role, they will find someone else who really does want to take it on, and balance will be restored.  Although it is possible that it may affect the way they see me.  But that’s fine, I’m not looking to progress up the career ladder here.  I’ve considered all the options and I’m choosing what’s right for me.

So next time you are asked to do something in addition to your normal work, just take a moment to think about it.  Ask yourself if it really benefits you.  Does it move you further towards your own personal career goals?  Or does it detract from them?  Make your decision based on what’s right for you, not just on what you think people want to hear.  Don’t say yes just for the sake of it.  Be brave – say no to extra work you don’t need to take on!

Coping with the interview

I was out with friends today and the subject of interviews came up.  Which led to us swapping stories of good and bad interviews and interview questions.

interviewWhen you’re the interviewee it’s naturally a nerve wracking process.  You know you’re being assessed, measured, judged – not just against the requirements of the role, but also against other people up for the same position.  You spend hours swotting up on the company, its results, your new department.  You highlight relevant bits of your CV, you read up on anything relevant in the media.  Its a bit like cramming for exams except you don’t necessarily know the questions.

All of this intense activity and thought is stressful.  And stress is not a great accompaniment on your interview journey.  It can make you nervous, sweaty, unable to construct a logical sentence together.

I’ve been in the position of interviewer and interviewee, many times.  As have the friends I was with.  We agreed that actually, as interviewer, we don’t have time to waste on candidates who won’t fit the bill.  So if you’ve been offered an interview, then it means we already think that on paper at least, you’re a contender.  What we’re really looking for in the interview is that you stack up in person to your paper version, that you’re a good fit for the rest of the team, that you’re someone we can work with, someone who wants to be there.

And in the same way, instead of seeing an interview as a test, maybe look at it as a conversation.  You’re scoping out your prospective new employers just as much as they’re scoping you out.  You have skills and attributes they want – the interview is just an exchange of ideas, a confirmation that you make a good fit for each other.  In fact, just scrap the word ‘interview’, replace it with ‘meeting’ and it’ll take away some of the stress instantly.  Go in to the meeting with an attitude of curiosity and notice how much more interesting, honest and easy it becomes.

Good luck!

A small step out of my comfort zone

Today I want to share with you a little something that I’ve done, which is kind of related to my work as a writer, but also related to my journey, in life, in general I guess.

Yael Farber Old Vic The CrucibleI fell in love with the theatre again last year, after years of being away from it or just going to see musicals (not that there’s anything wrong with musicals – I loved The Lion King!).  But last year I went to see a play called Mies Julie, by the extremely talented director Yael Farber.  It was extraordinary.  Powerful, emotional,  raw – uncomfortable viewing.  it was not about the feel-good factor but it definitely and defiantly made me FEEL.

And since then, I’ve been having a little bit of a love affair with a particular type of theatre, the kind that isn’t easy to watch, that leaves you feeling churned out and an emotional wreck, but that leaves an impact on your psyche.

And the effect has been multi-layered – it hasn’t just made me feel, think, discuss.  Its inspired me to start writing again too.  Even though it’s a completely different media, and genre to the work I’ve enjoyed and you wouldn’t necessarily connect the two things, for me, her work has inspired me to do something, to put myself out there, in my own way – to be a little bit braver, to share something of myself and to write ‘Coping with the Horroffice’.

So you can imagine how excited I was when I heard she was putting on another play earlier this year, Nirbhaya.  Sadly it was a short run and I couldn’t make it.  And then, wonderful news – she was staging her interpretation of Arthur Miller’s classic, The Crucible, at the Old Vic!  As soon as they were available, I got tickets – I decided to go to the closing night, which is a few weeks away.  But by a little stroke of luck I wound up with a very cheap ticket at the start of the run too.  And yet again, she doesn’t disappoint – the play is amazing, it’s raw, visceral, and out there.  I loved it all – the staging, the actors, the fact that it’s in the round, the relevance of the underlying themes – it delivers a powerful, potent punch.

So I did something I have never, ever, done.  I wrote a letter to Yael.  I wanted to reach out and tell her how much her work has touched me and moved me and inspired me.  I realise it doesn’t sound like that big a deal, but I don’t do the whole ‘fan’ thing.  I have never reached out to someone I don’t know in this way.  So for me, it’s a step out of my comfort zone.  A tiny step, maybe, but still a step.  Even though I won’t see her reaction when she reads my letter, I’m still nervous about the reception it will get.  But it’s important for me to share with her the profound effect her ‘putting it out there’ has had on me.  And I hope,someday, I’m fortunate enough to pay it forward, and make a difference to someone else by putting it out there myself.

Say no to ‘busy’!

So I’m keeping it brief today.  I’ve had various emails from family, friends and colleagues all trying to arrange lovely meet-ups in the last few days.

But because these days everyone has such busy diaries it’s been a little bit difficult to get everything to work with everyone, at times to suit everyone.

Stop being busyAnd although it goes against the grain of modern life and current trends, I’m not really a fan of ‘busy’.  I like to have a mix – a few things booked in as well as lots of free time to do with as I want, and to allow things in at the last minute, or to enjoy doing nothing in particular at my own pace.  So all this cramming in of stuff feels a bit hectic for me.

And I think it’s like that at work for me too.  There’s a trend for wanting to appear busy, frantic even – almost as if this proves to everyone around you how valuable you are, how instrumental to the company.   You have so much to do, you must be so integral to the running of the company that they’ll never manage without you, right?

Honestly?  Wrong.

Without wanting to trample on any egos, it’s just not true.  I think it was one of the partner’s at the audit firm I worked at years ago who told me that no-one was indispensable, anywhere, ever.  It’s not a new concept.  But it is an important one.  Companies will go on with or without you.  Look at Ford, still here decades after its founder passed away, or more recently Apple, still going without the iconic Steve Jobs.  So if these giants can survive without their leaders, what makes us think our company won’t survive without us?

Keeping busy, being frantic, having a ‘manic’ in-tray isn’t a guarantee of a job.  It could even be perceived as a lack of efficiency if it means you aren’t delivering what you need to, when you need to.

And it’s not good for you to be so frazzled all the time either.  Frazzled isn’t the head space where strong, rational decisions come from.  It’s where panic and fear start to breed.

So nip all of that in the bud now.  Don’t add anything unnecessary to your work schedule or home life.  Stick to what you need to get done at work, learn to say no to things that clutter up your desk, in-tray and brain but don’t add anything to your goals, or work satisfaction.

Just say no to ‘busy’ and see how much more easy your working day becomes.

Work smarter – declutter your desktop!

Office life can be overwhelming.  And your disorganised desk might be causing some of that overwhelm.  If you’re drowning under a deluge of paper, it might be time to have a little desktop declutter and reclaim your workspace!

desk clutter

  • Don’t hoard all your gadgets on top of your desk.  Split and store them by frequency of use.  Things you need all day, every day (pens, notepad, stapler maybe plus laptop/pc and phone obviously) – these should be on your desktop – they’re your family and best friends!  Things you need occasionally during the week or month (hole-punch, spare staples, bull-dog clips, month-end check list, reference books) should be within reach but shouldn’t take up desk space.  And things you never use, but need to hold on to (monthly files perhaps) can easily go somewhere else.
  • Prioritise your paperwork.  Have a system in place so you can locate what you need, quickly and easily.  Whatever works best for your needs is fine, but here’s a possible suggestion.  Have an in-tray for all new items.  keep a separate tray for work in progress, that you need to keep referring to.  And have a separate tray for completed paperwork that needs to be filed.  At the end of each day, if you have anything that can be shredded, do that.  It’s a nice way to finish off the day with a clean slate!
  • Clear out your drawers.  We’ve all been guilty of it.  Shoving that piece of paper in a plastic file, and sticking it in a drawer, out of sight and out of mind.  But if you keep doing this, it won’t take long before your drawers are overflowing, and you have to start using your precious desk space.  And then your desk becomes overcrowded and you;re back to your disorganised overwhelm again.  Once a month, take an hour at the end of the day (I used to do it on a Friday afternoon after month-end chaos was over) and go through the paperwork in your drawers – if you don’t need it, bin it.  If it needs filing, file it.  And if it needs action, put it in your work in progress tray so you don’t forget about it.


Office newbies – a help or a hindrance?

So one of the things I touch on in Coping with the Horroffice is the different types of work colleagues you’re likely to encounter during your working life.

office junior photocopyingThe office newbie or office junior is one of them.  And they need to be handled with care.  If the office newbie is also the office junior then use extra care!


Firstly, it’s all about first impressions.  Whilst you’re busy sighing heavily and exaggeratedly because they forgot to photocopy the other side of a double-sided document (this happened to me when a newbie was helping me pull together twenty sets of accounts that needed to be ready for the courier within the hour – it was not pleasant), they’re also judging you.  Not intentionally, but it’s something we all do.  We make a judgement based on our first impressions of people all the time.  We might alter it later, but that takes time and effort.  So think about the impression you’re making on that impressionable young colleague standing in front of you (probably feeling very silly for making the mistake in the first place).  When I found the mistake from my newbie, I laughed it off, telling them I’d done much worse when I was a newbie.  It helped relieve the tension.

Secondly, you want to build up their self-esteem, their judgement of their own abilities.  Yes, if they make mistakes (as we all do when we’re learning) you need to show them how they can improve.  But simply criticising every little thing they do might not be the best way.  Maybe try giving them a ‘feedback sandwich’ – this is where you sandwich the training (please check you’ve photocopied both sides of the document next time) in between two positive traits or outcomes (Thanks for volunteering to do this with me, I really appreciate it.  You handled that client really well.)

Thirdly, remember that the people you meet when they’re on their way up might also be people you meet when they’ve a few rungs higher than you – and you don’t want to burn any bridges unnecessarily!

I hope that helps next time you’re in charge of the newbie.

Email schemail

no emailIt’s 4pm and you haven’t got a single thing done from your to do list (which has also managed to expand to double it’s original size since this morning), and you resign yourself to another late night at the Horroffice because there’s that one thing that you absolutely have to get sorted before you can go home.

We’ve all been there (far too often, sadly).  It sucks.  Literally and metaphorically.  It drains the lifeblood from you, leaving you physically exhausted, and it sucks away any shred of enthusiasm you might have had left.

But what can you do about it?  How can you make things better?

It might not be the answer to all your problems, but here’s something worth trying.

When you get in, don’t log in to your email, at least for the first hour.

It’s hard to actually do this.   We’ve become conditioned into checking our emails every five minutes at work, and even checking them on our mobile when we’re away from the office.

But here’s why you should give it a go.  The first thing everyone does in the morning is check their email.  And often that throws the whole day, because there’s something on there you need to sort, and you start working on that.  Your own priorities and projects go out of the window.  And then you’re on your usual roller-coaster day, dealing with whatever is thrown your way.

But if you don’t check email for that first hour, and if you know exactly what you need to or want to work on for that hour, you can spend that time on the most urgent or important thing in your day and you’ll get a lot achieved before anyone comes calling for your attention.

Why?  Because everyone else will still be busy dealing with their email box.

It might not clear everything down, but at least when you hit 4pm, you’ll have one thing knocked off your list, and you might be able to leave on time for a change.

Worth a try, surely?