Doilies and Your Mother’s Dishes

April 10, 2016

“When did you get so concerned about doilies and your Mother’s dishes?”, Gandolf asks Bilbo in the first movie instalment of The Hobbit, at a point where Bilbo is looking for an excuse, any excuse, to avoid joining an adventure.

At this point in the story, Bilbo is just the other side of young, tending towards fat and quite please with his life, thank you very much. Why rock that boat?

Sound familiar?

There was a time in our careers (and life) when adventure was what we wanted…and we could drop everything and up and go. Whether it is a spur of the moment vacation, an invitation to a party or to help a friend move, there was no question that we would just head out the door and take part.

Career-wise, when we were younger, we did work that no one else wanted to do (we may or may not have realized that at the time), or we did the “Joe-jobs” that are reserved for the very newest of employees. ‘Things’ were less important, partly because we couldn’t afford them, and anyway we didn’t need them! We had discovered a world that has so much to offer and were just dipping our toes into that world. We were out there ‘doing it’ and though we didn’t mean to be, we were creating those memories that we look back on and consider ‘the good-old-days’.

But once we left that hump behind us and had started to move up at work and settle down at home, things start to change. We started to like where we were, we like and love those who we had met along the way and we started to collect and keep things we like. We start making commitments – children, careers, debts (good and bad) – and so on. In short, by good luck and good management, eventually we created something to protect and preserve.

There is only one word for where we are: “congratulations”!

So why do we often look wistfully back at the good old days? How do we get that feeling back? How do we take the thrill of the unknown from feeling like it is too risky to being something that is fun and that energizes us again?

Here are three small things that can make a big difference:

Trust: there is a fine line between the caution borne of experience (wisdom) and outright cynicism, and we all need to examine where we have drawn that line. Lack of trust can save us a lot of grief but it can also cause us to not seek new friendships or to destroy existing friendships. People hurt us and that hurt is real. If we forgive those people and those circumstances, we free ourselves from carrying around the pile of hurts that can weight us down and stop us from acting.

Things: there is a common saying that when you own too many things, they start to own you. Have you ever hesitated doing something because you did not want to risk making a mess or breaking something? I have! Sometimes it is hard to remember that we bought things to use them and not just to clean them!

Try something new: taking a risk might just mean stepping out of your door and interacting with people: help a friend at a charity; go back to church; take cooking lessons; make an effort to talk to a troubled colleague or start or finish working on that big project that has been gathering dust on your desk.

In The Hobbit, Bilbo crosses half a world and fights dragons and in the process becomes a new and more confident person. By the end of the story he accomplishes great things by making changes in his life, (as opposed to trying to change others).

Our commitment and obligations to the people we love and our work really do keep us from selling up and tramping around the world seeking excitement, and that is not a bad thing (and no, our families and friends are not holding us back)!

But slaying the figurative dragons (small and large) in our own lives in our own small corner of the world can be no less adventurous and can be life changing, if we choose to see it that way.

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The Biggest Sin

June 5, 2015

In my experience, the biggest issue I have seen is not fraud or evil, the biggest sin (in business) is incompetence.

That is not to say there are calamitously horrible decisions being made daily, everywhere, but there are some for sure, and small instances of incompetence add up.

Incompetence comes in many forms. Unskilled or stupid people will manifest incompetence in short order.

I think that we all face the risk of incompetence, and it is not from stupidity or lack of skill, it comes from complacency, and two kinds in particular: inattention, and failing to remember why you are there in the first place.

Inattention is a problem we all could face. Everyone is busy, and if you show even mediocre skills, you are often assigned more and more work. You eventually get so busy that you stop looking at some details…and you miss something. If it is big enough, you lose the confidence of management and you could lose your job. Is it fair to call that incompetence? Is it fair to blame you? Well, incompetence is often judged by the outcome, and blame is usually attached to those immediately involved, which could very well be you, and the underlying cause is likely never examined.

The second type of complacency, failing to remember why you are there in the first place, is a form of arrogance. People focus on their awesomeness based on past successes, and forget that they are there to do a job – whether it is to monitor quality of products or services or watch some set of numbers, sometimes people think that their presence is enough to keep the big machine working smoothly. Something gets missed and you have a “situation”.

The fix for both of these is really hard to pin down. You could say “better management” is the solution, and you would be right. Except that is where incompetence usually appears. As an underling, what can you do?

There may not be a lot you can do, but you can do your job, do it well. Maybe try to do a bit of their job too, if you can. You might spot an issue that would otherwise get missed and at the same time rise in the estimation of your superiors. It is a tough situation to be in when you are not in the driver’s seat…you may just have to keep your eyes open for “other employment opportunities”. You wouldn’t be the first!


Service Culture, Please?

April 5, 2015

Perhaps this falls into the category “what is wrong with people today”, but that is not my intent. But I have a beef. Best to explain with an example:

As part of a review of internal procedures, I asked a consultant to send me a list of penalties for violations of certain regulations. He send me an 8-page excerpt from the law (in 8-point font) and provides no direction on where I can find information on the one issue we had discussed.

What was the impact of his action? Well, first, I questioned the “consulting” part of abilities, and second, fearing more of the same, we plan not to engage his services for the work we were tendering. Note that we have not told him this yet, and after 6 weeks, he has not even called once to follow up. Not the guy for the job.

Imagine asking for a set of financial statements and being presented with a printed copy of all general ledger transactions. The message is: here it is, you sort it out because I can’t be bothered.

I am not a high-maintenance manager that demands customized service. I am, however, someone who tries to add value, and most of the time that means serving others, and that means going the extra mile.

Whether we are in credit or not, if we sit at a desk, we are information/knowledge workers. In order to add value you need to provide information and not just data.

Let me rephrase: we need to provide usable information.

The best employee I ever worked with, Julie, was great at this. Not only would she prepare everything accurately and clearly, when she ran into something she did not understand, she studied it, found a solution, and brought the solution to me and asked if she was right. And she almost always was right.

As a result of my and others’ increased confidence in her, she was given greater and greater responsibilities. We treated each other as equals out of mutual respect, and we knew we had each others’ back. Our work lives were easier and more enjoyable as a result.

What I have learned is that when asked to provide information, if I do not know what the end use of that info is, I ask. If I cannot ask, I make a guess and then provide context to the recipient of what I did and why.

Even if my guess is wrong, I have communicated two things to my boss:

  • I could provide more value if I have better information
  • I serve notice that my brain is on when I work

A wise person told me: people are the way they are for a reason. You do not have to fix that problem, but you may have to give them a reason to be something different.

Twenty percent of staff take eighty percent of your time, likely because they need it. Invest that time and show them how to add value.


Service, and Talking Nice

April 5, 2015

You may not be aware, but the CIC is standardizing its email services for all Chapters using a company called Constant Contact (www.constantcontact.com). This newsletter was prepared using this new service. Why I mention this is that when I was testing out the service and set up a trial account, I received great customer service.

And all they did was phone me…not email, phone. Are you thinking ‘so what?’…Well here is so what:

First, the call told me that they have an organization that is large enough to call a small account in a small city in a small province, and that they thought that I was worth the call.

Second, they were letting me know that when I signed up and gave my contact info that a real, live human being noticed it and did something about it (in fact, within 25 minutes of my setting up the account).

Third, they listened to what I planned to do to test it out, spoke to me like what I had to do was important, let me know that I can always call if I need help. Then they told me that they will be following up to see if they can do anything better, and offered me a $50 template-design service, for free.

Why is that all so awesome?

  • Because I am telling you about it, and have told others.
  • Because the other email service that I have used for the past four years has never once called me. Not once.
  • Because I am part of other organizations that need email services.
  • Because I felt instantly connected to this company through this genuinely friendly voice. I thought ‘now here is a company that has its stuff together’.
  • And while this service is slightly more expensive, I felt right away that it will be worth it.

I then started to think how could I lever this experience to work with my own job? I am an accountant and work in the accounting department. I am not typically a front-line service provider to our customers.

Are you thinking ‘so what?’ yet?

Maybe the credit staff could call their AP staff and introduce themselves and thank them for their business and let them know that if they have any questions about our invoicing or product that we will always be a phone call away.

That strategy worked very well for Constant Contact because they are an email service provider that helps companies market themselves to their own customers – so they should be good at this sort of thing.

How much more powerful would it be if we finance types surprised our counterparts with a friendly welcome-to-our-company call? Perhaps establishing a good relationship with their AP department might only spread a bit of warm-fuzzy. But one day when money is tight for a customer, their AP department might just fondly remember us in their cheque-runs!

A friendly call to a customer might just be an action that takes us financial types right out of our comfort zone…it is definitely a stretch goal, but credit professionals live on the phone. How hard can it be?


There Can Be Only One. Of Each.

February 5, 2015

For the last two years I have been hammering away at two articles for this newsletter. One on the use of social media, and another on online services and mobility. But I have not been able to make either work (and with the speed of technological change, I have had to start over a couple of times)!

I have three issues I am trying to write about:

  • Why do I have so many online services?
  • Do I really have that much to say anyway?
  • What do I wish I knew back then?

Online Services 

I don’t think that I am an electronic hoarder, but it is starting to feel that way. I have a lot of online services. A lot (about 90), but in my defence I have been looking for a one-stop shop for my needs, and that means trying out new things. Right now, for online storage, I have seven different services: Box; Dropbox, Google Drive; OneDrive; OneNote; Evernote, and a more secure cloud service my work provides.

I also have a number of email accounts, social media accounts and other more specific services like Google Sites for the websites I manage (don’t ask).

What I wanted was one place to either manage or see all these services.

I will save you the trouble, it does not exist.

Aggregators, software that brings different platforms together, are not the answer. They held out a lot of promise for sure, but many that started up a few years ago are now out of business. There is no service that would bring social media and cloud services, email accounts, and so on, together with an interface that allows you to use it.

I am on all of these services because at one time or another I needed them, or someone else shared something with me on one of these services so I had to join. For now, that is the way it will be, I guess.

What do I Really Have to Say?

OK, so I have lots of online services. But I do not have an agenda that includes communicating to the world using these services, even on an infrequent basis…so since I was not planning on building something, why did I go out and buy so many hammers?

Aside from this newsletter, I have no other reason to post my thoughts to the wide world. I am not someone who over-shares via Twitter or Facebook. I really set up my accounts to get a handle on these things before my kids get too into social media (and they have blown past me long ago in terms of what they are doing online).

What I Wish I Knew

  • What I wanted/needed…planning for technology change is fruitless. My kids have the social media accounts I set up for them, but they now use other platforms, and I am still playing catch-up (and adding more social media services).
  • I do not need to spend a lot of money on devices.
  • My equipment’s limitations (if I knew that the Blackberry Q10s did not support my main cloud services, I would have done something differently).

Recommendations

  • Figure out what you want. If you have a far-flung family, Facebook is likely the best for sharing pictures and planning get-togethers: just about everyone has (or can get) an account, and it is easy to use. You do not need private websites or 12 different social media platforms.
  • Once you have that, figure out what you need (need, not want) to do. The only thing more expensive than an electronic device is multiple electronic devices. If all you do is surf, a tablet is great. If you type a lot or work on spreadsheets, get something that supports a keyboard and a mouse. If you use your phone only as a phone, don’t buy an $800 smartphone.
  • Plan for change. Buy more memory than you need. Make sure your device is long for this world (sorry, BlackBerry). Companies like Apple ,Microsoft and Samsung are likely going to last, and will have apps for most of the things you want.

You simply cannot expect to have one program, social media account or device that does everything…and that is OK, since very likely, you are not going to do everything! But you should know roughly what you will be doing.

Recommendation: focus, plan, spend…and then stop spending!


Ignoring the Help

October 5, 2014

A year ago I took an unusual holiday – my kids were attending camp for a week, so my wife and I volunteered to work in the horse corrals for the week. It was very different work, tiring, rewarding, and relaxing in its own way. What I did notice was how easily I was ignored by the campers.

Let’s just be clear: the staff and kids at the camp were wonderful – grateful, fun, friendly – the campers were reasonably indifferent, though respectful and friendly when we interacted with them. I am not complaining, this is what anyone would expect with 12-16 year-olds, or anyone really (especially since we were mostly shovelling horse manure)!

What this experience caused me to notice was how many people were serving me during this week (someone cooked my meals, washed my plates, cleaned my room, etc.), and I had really not noticed until I started to think about it.

But this is not a lecture on being grateful (hopefully it does not seem like a lecture at all!). What I think we do is to define “the help” relative to our own role – clerks, receptionists, junior managers, subordinates – and then how we often ignore them. And this despite the fact that we ourselves may be defined as “the help” by someone else who is ignoring us in turn…to our great displeasure!

I will leave to you any potential connections from treating “the help” better for improved customer service, staff morale and personal growth (and promotion prospects). I suspect that those links are pretty strong. Certainly I know that when I feel valued and appreciated I feel that I am making difference, and I work harder as a result.

What can you do for your “help”? Personally, I like the three “F”s – be friendly, make it fun and occasionally provide food. If those aren’t for you, type in ‘how to appreciate your staff’ in any search engine and see if there is something that works for you there.

Attention ladder-climbers: people will not remember you for that report you got in on time, rather they will remember you for the type of person you were. And in 50 years, they likely won’t remember you at all. Make your time, and theirs, something more!


The Importance of Laundry

August 13, 2013

One thing that I have learned is that no matter where you are, eventually you have to do your laundry.

One evening I went for drinks with a friend of mine whom I had not seen for a number of years. In course of discussing his travels and work life (which had taken him to China, Japan and France) he rather uncharitably summarized my life to date for me. He said: “you were born in Winnipeg; live in Winnipeg; married a girl from Winnipeg; went to school in Winnipeg and you work in Winnipeg”. Now, I don’t recall the point he was trying to make, but certainly I took his meaning: I have not really “lived” my life. I recently read a very entertaining blog post, which tried to make a (less personal but) similar point: if you are living a predictable life then you are not living.

Humbug.

The facts of my friend’s argument are true: while I have worked out of the city for a few summers, I am, was and very likely will be a life-long Winnipeg resident, and I feel no need to defend that or make any arguments to “prove” that I have indeed lived a life, (and a rather enjoyable one, thank you very much!).

What struck me about my reaction to my friend’s comments and the blog post was that I immediately thought about laundry…and shopping, cleaning, cooking, bathing…the sundry logistics of living. My point: no matter how glamorous or sexy the place where you are, you don’t want to smell!

So what do observations in laundry have to do with commercial credit or the price of tea in China? Strictly speaking, nothing, except for this: no matter how big the organization, or how high or influential your position, to succeed, you’ve always got to do the basics of your job – your professional laundry – and do them well – if you want to stay at your job.

In his book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There”, author Marshall Goldsmith argues that you need to make some changes to yourself in order to move ahead. He does not say that you have to reinvent yourself, but rather just change some annoying habits. He outlines 20 habits that you need to break. Take note: not one of the items in that list says to work less diligently, let your professional development lapse, or travel the world!

Both my friend and that blogger defined success in life as having moved on or “broken free” of some of the ties that bind. I guess I define success differently, maybe I have relationships that I want to hang onto, or perhaps I do not have anything to run away from. But I know my friend did laundry because his clothes didn’t smell.

My only point and observation here is that as a professional we need to keep our focus and not forget why we are here. If you are “stuck” in a job where you do the same thing day in and day out, well, you are luckier than those who have no job and you have some flexibility to look for other work. If you are happy with your work (and your life) then you are luckier than many. Don’t let someone else’s definition of success bring you down…they are essentially tricking you out of your enjoyment of your life by telling you that the “grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”.

It is true that a change is as good as a rest: you can take a week off to volunteer in a totally different environment; join a gym; go on crazy holiday; paint your living room; get a pet…do anything you want, but don’t forget to be the professional you always intended that you would be. And don’t forget to be the person that the important people in your life love…that is something to hang onto!