Be Careful What You Say

One good thing about introverts is that we tend not to share workplace gossip with every stranger we meet.  Workplace gossip is disruptive at best and dangerous at worst.

Today, I received an e-mail from my dear friend Beth who is a cashier in one of our stores in the next state.  She mentioned that her store had been visited by Jack, one of our managers who is on a team that goes around to help new managers staff their stores correctly when sales decline.

Jack is a very gregarious fellow, and Beth will talk listen to anyone.  But neither one was aware that they both know me, as I worked for Jack for a couple of months a few years ago when he was on a temporary assignment.  During the visit, Jack mentioned to Beth that it was his last stop as a team member, as he’s taken over management of a store closer to his home.   The official reason that has been given out is that he’s tired of the 90 minute (one-way) commute.

Although they had never met before, Jack gave Beth an earful about how toxic he feels the district office environment is, and how much he dislikes the district manager.  While Jack is entitled to his opinion, he picked a poor choice in expressing them to a stranger.  Jack has no idea that Beth and I worked together many years ago, and that we’ve remained in touch ever since.  I would hope that he would not have said anything if he knew, because he does know that I am on a team that meets weekly with the district manager.

There is nothing to be gained by my repeating this information to the district manager, but not everyone would feel that way.  Some people might repeat this to make themselves look good, building themselves up by tearing down a colleague.  Others just enjoy sharing a bit of juicy gossip.

Be careful what you say and who you say it to.  You never know who their friends and relatives are, or who might overhear the conversation.

Leaping Outside Your Comfort Zone

What do you do when you have to take a huge leap outside your comfort zone?

Last week, I wrote about taking small steps outside your comfort zone.  But there are times when life or work forces you far away from what you’re used to.  How do you handle it then?

Several years ago, I was offered a temporary assignment as an auditor.  My assignment was to visit our retail stores throughout New England to ensure that they were following proper procedures.  All I had to do was to fill out a simple 40 question checklist to verify that everything was in order, and e-mail the checklist to the district headquarters.  I’d be given a company car and a list of locations to visit.

My boss had been tasked with filling this assignment, and he had already decided that I was going to do it.  To sell me on it, he waxed eloquently on the benefits: a flexible schedule with weekends off that would allow me to be home when my kids needed me; a desk at the district office so that I could get to know the district staff and the new district manager, which would surely lead to a promotion; and the chance to impress people with my analytical skills.

What could be the downside?  My extrovert manager couldn’t see one.  I could see a million of them.  I had only been a retail manager for a couple of years, and felt that every other manager in the company must know more than I did; how could I audit them and be taken seriously?  What if the new district manager found out that I was a fraud?  This assignment was light years outside my comfort zone.

Ultimately, I took the assignment in order to spend more time with my children.  As a retail manager, I was required to work a couple of weekends a month; the auditor assignment would exempt me from that, and allow me to flex my work schedule around the kids’ doctors’ appointments, music lessons, sports practices and games, teacher conferences, and the rest of the activities that every parent juggles.

My boss arranged for a brief training session, and scheduled my first audits to be close to home, at locations where I either knew the retail manager or the location was smaller than mine and I felt comfortable assessing their performance.  Still, it was a bit unnerving, walking through the back door (if it was unlocked) of a strange store and announcing I was there to perform an inspection of retail practices.

I did audits locally for a couple of weeks and became comfortable with the format.  And then came the Murphy’s Law day.  You know, the one where everything that can go wrong will, and at the worst possible moment?  I was scheduled for 3 audits an hour away from home.  Things went downhill from the moment I programmed my GPS, which took me off the highway onto back roads.

At the second location, I went in through the back dock; the door was ajar, not good for building security.  I found a clerk working in the back.  I also saw 3 well-dressed people in the back; two men and a woman.  The clerk couldn’t identify them.

I nervously went through the audit, trying to ignore the others.  But at one point, I crossed paths with the woman, close enough to read her corporate identification.  Oh, no.  Instant panic as my career flashed before my eyes and disappeared.  This woman was our new district manager!  I wanted to crawl under a rock, or have Scotty beam me somewhere; anything to get out of this situation.  But there was no avoiding her now.  I swallowed my fears and shook her hand and introduced myself.

She left shortly after our introduction; she had been in the area for a funeral and had stopped by a random store afterward.  Later, my boss assured me that meeting the district manager during a field audit was a good thing.

As I spent more time in the job, I became more comfortable with the audits, and was glad that I took the assignment.  The district manager grew to rely on my opinion.  Oh, and I did get that promotion I wanted at the end of my assignment.

Have you ever been forced far outside your comfort zone?

Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone

Have you moved out of your comfort zone recently?

I’m not asking you to take extreme measures, like greeting every single person at a networking event and getting their business card.  I am suggesting that you take one or two steps outside your comfort zone to help you grow as a leader.

Reflecting on my career, I can see where I took steps outside my comfort zone that brought me to today.  For example, last week I gave 3 presentations on deficiencies in customer service that our retail audits have identified.  The smallest group had 23 people in it and most had less experience than I do.  The largest group had 58 people in it and several of them were senior managers, and others run huge mall stores and are above my pay grade.  My new boss was present at 2 of the 3 meetings.  Yet I felt completely comfortable as a presenter.

When I was a new supervisor, there was no way you’d have convinced me to give a talk to any of those groups.  In fact, if I’d attended at all, I wouldn’t have asked a single question for fear of sounding foolish.

So how did I get to the point where I can give presentations to senior managers?  It started by stepping out of my comfort zone when I was a new supervisor.  Each supervisor was expected to give one group talk a week.  After watching my fellow supervisors, I decided that the safest time to give my talk was Saturday night.  The junior employees worked on Saturday nights for the most part, and were less likely to heckle my talks.  The senior supervisors were also off, so I would not face as sharp a critique.  Most importantly, I decided that the junior employees were the ones who could most benefit from training and were less likely to have more knowledge than I did.

Eventually, I worked up to speaking to the employees on a week night, and I did have to deal with the hecklers.  Each time I survived them, it got a little easier, and I found that most of the senior supervisors were supportive when the hecklers got under my skin.

My first presentation to a group of managers and supervisors was also outside my comfort zone.  Once again, there were things that I looked for to make my first experience easier.  I had been trained as a subject matter expert on the topic of the presentation, which was handling on the job injuries, and I was confident in my knowledge of the topic.  I have found that confidence makes a huge difference in how far I have to step out of my comfort zone.  I was able to have a co-presenter, so we were able to help each other get through the presentation, making the transitions between topics easier and providing the answers to questions that the other stumbled on.  Finally, since we would repeat the same presentation several times, I scheduled our first presentation for supervisors on my own shift.  This was a group that I felt comfortable with, who knew me and whose respect I wouldn’t lose from one bad presentation.

What have you done to step out of your comfort zone?

What is an Introvert?

Much has been written recently debating whether introverts fit as leaders in business and society.  One thing to note is that the traditional social definition of introvert is not the same as the psychological definition.  If you search dictionary.com, the first definition of introvert is “shy”.  Merriam-Webster.com refers to introvert as “broadly - shy or reserved”; while an extrovert is “broadly – gregarious or unreserved.”  Yet in psychology, the spectrum of introverted personalities is wide.

My dear friend Annie is an introvert, but you’d never know it at first glance.  Annie is the picture of gregarious and outgoing.  She is the consummate party hostess, welcoming everyone into her home whether coworkers, friends of her children or her husband’s work associates.  She is adept at putting her employees at ease, and she’s the first one to volunteer to participate and share in meetings or brainstorming sessions.  She attributes most of this to being the youngest of seven children.

But once you get to know Annie, you can see her introverted nature.  Mind you, it takes awhile to truly know Annie, and that’s just one of her introvert tendencies.  She has many acquaintances and people who consider her friendly, but only a handful of people who she choses to spend time with.  I remember when we worked together, when she needed to recharge, she would close her office door.  This allowed her a few minutes of privacy to regroup to face whatever the next crisis would be.  This withdrawal from everyone in order to recharge is one of the key signs of introversion.

I, on the other hand, tend to follow the traditional definition of introvert.  I am definitely reserved, especially among strangers.  I am not an easy person to get to know.  As a teenager I was often called shy, and it still shows sometimes, although I have overcome much of that as I have gained confidence in my abilities and technical knowledge in my field.

What is your definition of introvert?  Where do you fall in the introversion spectrum?

Handling False Accusations

How do you handle it when an employee unjustly accuses you of wrongdoing?

Last weekend, my young friend Ron called me.  He is a relief supervisor at our main distribution center, which means that he works different shifts every day to cover different supervisors’ days off.  On Saturday, he came to work and found that the electronic time clocks were down.  He spoke with each employee and manually recorded their start times to ensure that they would be paid promptly.

He was stunned when a few hours later, an employee, who I’ll call Jane, accused him of falsifying another employee’s time.   I‘ll call this employee Tom.  Jane claimed that Tom actually came in half an hour late, and warned Ron that he could be fired for entering the time that Tom said he started.

As an introvert, Ron’s first instinct was to retreat inward emotionally, as well as retreating to his office physically.  But that wouldn’t solve his problem with this employee.  Ron called me for advice at this point.  He felt that he had done his best with the timekeeping; since it was Saturday, none of our timekeeping experts were available for advice.

As we talked, I found out that Jane’s work performance that day had been poor, and Ron had suggested that she pick up the pace in order to meet daily standards.  It was about half an hour after this that Jane accused Ron of falsifying time, but he had not put the two incidents together until we spoke.

Sometimes, it takes a mentor or trusted friend to help us see clearly in an emotional situation.  Ron had been unjustly accused, and the fear that the accusation might be taken seriously limited his ability to effectively supervise Jane.  Once we spoke and discovered that her threat was retaliation for Ron’s criticism of her work performance, it was easier to come up with an action plan.  Ron took notes that recorded his version of the incidents, and met with his manager on Monday to make her aware of the situation.  This helped to protect him should the employee decide to make a formal complaint against him.  Both the shift manager and the timekeeping manager assured Ron that he had handled the broken time clock problem correctly.  And Ron was now more comfortable facing Jane because he knew that her accusations were unlikely to be taken seriously.

Do you think he could have done anything else in this situation?

Introverts Make Strong Leaders

Many people think that introverts are not good leaders, because leading is about relationships.  And introverts are horrible at relationships, right?

Wrong.  We all have relationships with those around us, with our family, friends, coworkers and even our customers and other business associates.  Let me give you an example of relationship leading from my life.

Four years ago, I took a temporary assignment as manager of one of our larger stores in Massachusetts.  I am a confirmed introvert, and it takes awhile to get to know me because I’m quite reserved.  I’m not one to go out drinking with my employees on a Friday night, or even to have long casual conversations with employees when business is slow.  I was there for just over a year, and built solid working relationships with the employees.  I kept in touch with a few employees after I left, but didn’t want the new manager to feel I was interferring with her operation and kept contact to a minimum.

Last week I received a phone call from one of the employees.  I hadn’t spoken with Charlotte since I left.  She wanted some career advice, and she plainly said, “I called you because when you were our manager, we always knew that you cared.  It didn’t matter whether it was a question about a sale, or a training procedure or our life insurance coverage.  You cared enough to get us the answer we needed, and I know that I can trust your answer now as well.”

I didn’t have to be an extrovert to win Charlotte’s trust and respect.  All I had to do was show that I cared through my actions, in how I treated my employees on a daily basis.  Actions do speak louder than words, and that is one reason introverts make strong leaders.

What do you do to earn your employees’ trust?

Thanksgiving for a Small Family

How do you celebrate Thanksgiving when you have a small or distant family?  This was a puzzle that my mother faced many years ago.  My grandmother had passed away the previous June, and the nearest sibling that either of my parents had was a 5 hour drive away.

She had another friend, Ellen, whose mother-in-law had recently passed away, leaving just Ellen and her husband Don.  So Mom and Ellen decided to have a joint celebration.  Don and Ellen’s house was larger than ours, so we brought the side dishes and Ellen cooked the turkey.

But Mom and Ellen didn’t stop at just our two families.  They invited people from work who might not have any place else to go.  Ellen invited a teaching colleague who was single.  Mom invited a fellow League of Women Voters’ member and her father.  We went from two families totaling five people to over a dozen people, and a holiday tradition was born.

Over the years, I remember an Australian couple whose husband was on a six-month assignment to the United States; a family friend who had just gone through a difficult divorce; a recent widower who was one of Dad’s bridge partners; a friend of mine from high school whose parents were on an anniversary cruise.  Some were coworkers of Don, Ellen or my parents; others we met through church, school or clubs.  Some came for one year; others became permanent fixtures.

The celebrations extended to other holidays; we had the same type of celebration for New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July.  Memorial Day and Labor Day picnics became popular, too.

Mom and Dad, Don and Ellen are all gone now.  For many years, I celebrated with my husband’s family, but then our celebration dwindled down to our own family unit.  Now my children are older, and one of my adult daughters is spending Thanksgiving with her boyfriend’s family this year.

So I’m already thinking about continuing Mom’s tradition with my circle of friends and acquaintances.  Maybe next year I’ll have Thanksgiving with my girlfriend whose family has moved to Arizona, or the coworker whose son just moved out of the house, leaving her alone.  I can come up with several people to invite.  And of course my children are welcome, too, but I won’t fret if they have other commitments.

How do you celebrate Thanksgiving?

Should You Take a Temporary Assignment?

The other day, I received a phone call from Gary, a young introvert who I’ve been mentoring.  He had been offered a temporary assignment as a supervisor after his last assignment ended.  That temporary job fell through, and he was being offered a temporary assignment as a training technician.  This job will not pay as much as a supervisor position, but will pay more than his regular job as a clerk typist.

Gary wasn’t sure if the training technician was the right move for him.  He thought perhaps it would be better to wait for another supervisor assignment, either temporary or permanent.

I pointed out to Gary that the pros might outweigh the cons, and together we made a list of each.  For Gary, the cons were the lower pay and the fact that he would have to learn a new position, working for and with new people at a job that, while within his skill set, is something outside his experience and comfort zone.

Pros include the chance to learn new things that will increase his marketability for future promotions, as well as exposing him to different managers who will assess his abilities and learn his value.

One of Gary’s concerns was whether the manager of the most recent temporary supervisor assignment would give him a good recomendation in the future, since the assignment has only lasted two weeks.  I pointed out that the manager had recommended him for the training technician position, when he could have simply let him go back to being a clerk-typist.

What career decisions are you facing?  Have you listed both the pros and cons to help you make a decision, or do you rely on your gut feeling?

Why You Need a Mentor – Part 2

As I wrote in my last post, I can’t overemphasize the importance of having a mentor.   Yesterday, I looked at how a mentor helps navigate office politics.  A mentor can also provide advice and perspective.  Many supervisors and managers are the highest authority in their office or store, with their boss or any
other manager miles away.

I’ve called my mentor for advice about everything from the yearly budget to how to handle employee disagreements.  Sometimes she has referred me to a specific
resource; other times she has shared advice from her mentor.

I remember calling her once about a supervisor who was working for me.  Tom was a model manager when I was around, but the second I left, he was abusive and controlling to the employees.  One Saturday I received a call from an employee who told me that he was calling me rather than quit his job because of this supervisor.

My mentor coached me through the investigation and disciplinary process, as well as telling me who to contact in HR for assistance.  She explained the advice
that her mentor had given her the first time she dealt with a supervisor
unwilling to follow instructions, which is a bit more complicated than dealing
with an employee, at least in our business.

Another time, I had two employees at odds with each other.  The women were driving me crazy, each one in turn running into my office to make wild accusations like “she followed me to the coffee maker so she could overhear my conversation”.  I was tied up in knots worrying how to deal with these two.  When I told the story to my mentor, she laughed and said, “Are they in junior high?” That helped me gain a little perspective and distance myself from their conflict so I could address it.  Then she also explained why I was having trouble reaching our workplace intervention coordinator for assistance.

How do you find a mentor?  Some companies have formal mentoring programs.  Others may have informal programs.  Before my organization established a formal mentoring program, we had several informal groups such as the Women’s
Program and the Latino Manager Network that provided mentoring.  If your  company doesn’t have any of those things, pick a manager that you respect and admire and ask them for career advice.

Where have you successfully found a mentor?

Why You Need A Mentor – Part 1

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of finding someone to mentor you, especially helping with office politics.  A good mentor can prevent you from making fatal mistakes, or at least help you recover from mistakes you’ve already made.

For example, Gary, a young man I’ve been helping, called me in a panic last month.  He has been on temporary assignment as an assistant manager at one of our stores.  He had heard rumors that the position was going to be filled by an assistant manager from one of the stores that we’re closing, but had heard of another nearby store whose assistant manager will be out six months for surgery.  The store manager who he works for was on vacation, so he sent an e-mail message to the manager of the nearby store inquiring about the vacancy.

Unfortunately, in our organization, that was the wrong thing to do, politically.  The manager of his present location could view Gary as being disloyal by abandoning the store or searching for another job behind his back.
Additionally, the rumor about a replacement was just that – a rumor –
and not grounded in fact.

I explained to Gary that the preferred way to do things is to warn his immediate manager before applying for another position, even a temporary one. Additionally, if Gary had asked the manager for guidance first, the manager could have dispelled the rumor that Gary’s current assignment was going to end.

But the deed was done, so now as a mentor it was my job to help Gary do a bit of damage control.  I advised him to meet with the manager when he returned from vacation and explain the situation.  Gary did this, and the manager was understanding and able to put the rumors to rest.

A mentor can also introduce you to people who can help your career, or help you adjust to corporate social situations.  I’ll never forget my first management  awards banquet.  There were over a hundred managers from our region in the banquet room, and I didn’t know most of them – not a comfortable situation for an introvert to be in.  My mentor saw me come in and waved me over to her table.  She introduced me to everyone at the table and later suggested which of our dining companions would be good to keep in contact with for career assistance.

What type of situation have you been in when a mentor’s advice would have been helpful?