Category Archives: Personal Development

Personal development, growth, and educational issues

A Real Resolution

Calendar from 12-31 to 1-1

People often make New Year’s Resolutions — personal goals to remake themselves. Most often these involve quitting smoking (as I did 30+ years ago) or losing weight (as I need to) or other self-improvement goals. But they almost never involve their work life. I’m here to beseech you otherwise.

This seems like the best possible time for me to stress the importance of taking stock of your work life and to prod you to fix what is broken. This is an exercise that most of us never do, and the arbitrary ticking of the calendar is as good a time as any to prompt you to do so.

Most of us who work in organizations recognize what is wrong: we roll our eyes as the same silly mistakes get made year in and year out, we chuckle knowingly at every Dilbert cartoon wondering how Scott Adams was in our last staff meeting, and we marvel that the same idiots continue to ply their trade without being called to account. Yet who is the bigger fool, those who continue the folly or those who participate time and again and expect a different outcome?

Who is the bigger fool, those who continue the folly or those who participate time and again and expect a different outcome?

I can’t begin to imagine what is wrong in your work situation, but unless you are very lucky, something is broken. Perhaps the problem is a lousy boss. Or a terrible co-worker. Or a failing project. Or just a job you hate. Now is a great time to deal with the problem.

Here are some suggestions on concrete actions you can take:

  • Speak up when someone behaves inappropriately
  • Personally take on a failing part of the project
  • Call attention to things that are broken
  • Challenge stupidity in all its forms
  • Never contribute less than your personal best
  • Get another job

These are hard. They take personal strength. Some require almost heroic effort. All require resolve (hence the term: resolution). But they can all make a distinct difference.

Life is too short to hate what you do, or to settle for second best. Take the opportunity of a new year to fix what’s broken in your world. Don’t let another year go by in a situation you will regret. What’s the point of quitting smoking if all it does is have you live longer in a job you hate?

Never Expect Change, You Won’t Be Disappointed

It’s an ancient theme of comedians, as old as comedy itself. It goes something like:

  • A woman marries a man expecting he will change, but he doesn’t.
  • A man marries a woman expecting that she won’t change, and she does.

It’s told many different ways, but the essence is that many people have a very different expectations of change.

In the workplace, I have often encountered managers with unrealistic expectations of change. So often that I have developed a really simple rule of thumb with respect to change:

Never expect anyone to change, you will never be disappointed and you will be occasionally pleasantly surprised.

Rather hash, yes. But it has never failed me.

I have seen a hundred managers who overlook, or proactively ignore, repugnant behavior in employees. It seems they hope that some miracle, or a passing visit from Dr. Phil, will get the employee to see the error of their ways and make a wholesale change in their life. It doesn’t happen.

Now I’m not talking about people who won’t make a new pot of coffee when they drain the last cup, or who break wind in the elevator. I’m talking about more serious things. Like people who treat others like they are put on this earth for their convenience. Or can’t construct a sentence let alone a convincing argument. Or are so criminally disorganized that they can’t find anything on their haystack of a desk.

Expecting people to change their essence is just asking for a letdown.

No, these things are at the core of who these people are, and they simply can’t change them. Expecting people to change their essence is just asking for a letdown.

What’s worse is when people hire people with clear, fatal flaws and delude themselves into thinking they will fix them. “Not to worry, I’m a superhero manager, I can fix that.” Betcha can’t.

I ought to know. I did it myself… more than once.

In one case, I took a superstar individual contributor, a true unmitigated genius — one of the smartest two or three people I’ve ever met (and I’ve met some of the smartest people on the planet) — and promoted him to be a manager for me. He is really a special intellect, you see, so I was more than intrigued to see if I could get him to grow out of his quite abusive behavior of others, and his incredibly condescending tone, and his unrealistic expectation of others, and his subsurface misogeny, and … you get the idea.

As it turns out I couldn’t change him. He was a disaster. I narrowly avoided a lawsuit from an employee. With the advice and assistance of my HR person, I wrote a special note for his personnel file that read, in short: “This person should never be allowed to supervise others again”. [Note: He was recently mentioned in a national publication as a future CEO of a Fortune 500 company — but I digress…]

Fire them and move on.

The key point here is that I know of what I speak. There is a great deal you cannot change in people. Never expect them to change, and you won’t be disappointed. If you try once and there is no change, don’t keep beating your head against a wall. Fire them and move on.

In closing, I’m reminded of the great W. C. Fields when confronted by a woman who proclaimed “Sir, you are drunk!”. His response: “yes, madam, but you are ugly and in morning I shall be sober.” Some things just can’t be changed.

How do I get in the door?

Picture of a résumé

In the world of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) to me, one of the most frequent is “how do I get a job at Microsoft?”. If I had a dime for every time I’ve been asked it, at parties, on the street, and especially when I post comments on the internet, I’d have… probably a couple of hundred dollars.

Microsoft is not that much different than most large companies with respect to getting in the door. The keys remain the same: apply for a specific job not just “any job”, work to make yourself stand out (in professional ways), and, if possible, leverage any kind of personal connection you can make.

The things that make MS different are things that only make these more important — they have thousands of hiring managers, many thousands of open positions, and tens of thousands of applicants.

At Microsoft, the crush of tens of thousands of applicants a month meant that we resorted to “data management” to get the pile under control. If you simply add your name to this pile, your odds of getting lost increase exponentially. So, just like at other companies, the need to become an individual, not just a résumé, is paramount.

So what does that mean? Sure, you can submit your résumé through the web. In fact, you should do that. But don’t expect this “shot in the dark” to work. Your résumé will be scanned into a huge database, searched for keywords, and maybe, just maybe, will get pulled up by the recruiter trying to fill the job for a hiring manager as a potential candidate. But the odds are, literally, 10,000 to 1 of that happening.

It means you need a great résumé, and I’m sure you’ve worked on yours.

It means you need a great résumé, and I’m sure you’ve worked on yours. I’m working on a post that will help with that. I’ll update this link when I get it completed. A great résumé helps you get it out of the pile and onto the short list.

It also means you really should decide exactly what you want to do, or at most a couple of jobs that are what you want to do. Search the career site, and narrow your application to just a couple. Huge “anything you’ll take me for” kinds of applications are just ignored. You clearly don’t have any meaningful goals, you just want in. That’s not interesting. So research heavily what the jobs are, and what you want to do.

Be realistic, don’t apply for a higher position than one for which you can be an obvious candidate.

Be realistic, don’t apply for a higher position than one for which you can be an obvious candidate. You want to be a clear consideration, not a stretch and not “overqualified”. So apply perhaps just a tad low. There are a million jobs at the company, people move around all the time, so just get started in a job you can be great at, then move on to your dream job from there.

But, the best way in is with some recommendation, or at least some contact with someone in the company. Résumés that come in from someone in the company (even if just with a note that says “I don’t really know this person, but…”) come in the system through a different pipe and have a better chance of spending 10 seconds on the desk of someone who can move it on to a short list. Coming in through the normal channels just gets it into the massive pile with everyone else.

You should leverage any contacts you have.

This means you should leverage any contacts you have. And before you ask, I’m sorry to tell you that I don’t have any direct contacts any more. At one point I was a super contact. As VP of HR, I could virtually guarantee that someone who cared would look at your résumé. But that time has long passed.

So, if you know anyone (and I mean anyone) who works at the company, buy them a drink, ask them about working there, and ask them if you can send them your résumé for them to forward on to their HR person, and maybe a manager they might know who would be hiring. Most people will do it, and most people provide just enough added emphasis to get your résumé read.

I can guess that your best friend doesn’t work there, or you wouldn’t be asking me for help. But, I’m sure you know people indirectly. You’ve met people at parties, or someone lives down the hall in your apartment complex, or you have a friend who knows someone.

Life is a network, leverage it. Get an introduction, strike up a conversation, and enlist their help. If you are kind, earnest, and sincere, it’s almost impossible to people to resist helping you.

If you don’t know anyone who works at the company, fix that.

If you really don’t know anyone, fix that. Find out where people go have lunch or go after work, and find a way to introduce yourself. Look for the telltale employee badge and find some way to strike up a conversation.

“What’s it like to work there?” “How long have you been there, do you like it?” “Wow, it’s always been my dream to work there, how do I get in?” Just listen, and be interested. Everyone is human and likes to be listened to, and even though you may strike out, eventually someone will be a friend and will help you get past the door.

Don’t paper the place with your résumé. Don’t send in hundreds, don’t ask everyone you’ve ever met to send in one, and don’t play games (like “cute” or “trick” résumés). They will notice. And will immediately put you on the (informal) black list. It’s not a game, don’t treat it like one.

Once you do get a call from a recruiter, make sure you hit the ball out of the park. You are likely to only get only one shot at it. The recruiter is doing a phone screen and will get a feel for who you are from that phone call.

While they are probably calling about one specific job, they have more power than that. If you are interesting, and someone worth following up on, they will consider you for other openings they are working on, or even pass your resume on to a colleague. In any case, really work on making that phone call the best you can make it.

Interviews are never fun, and for some reason Microsoft seems to delight in beating people up.

If you do get called in for an interview, be prepared for a really lousy experience. Interviews are never fun, and for some reason Microsoft seems to delight in beating people up.

There are books about it (one example is: “How would you move Mount Fuji”), and lots of anecdotes on the internet. It all should be taken with a grain of salt, but like most things they are based in some fact. In any case, the results are a day that is not a joy, but can be worth the pain.

Whatever you do, don’t exaggerate your experience or your skill set. They will check up on it, and during the interview, they will test you on it. Don’t be overly modest, it comes off as insincere. Be confident of your abilities, but be careful about blowing smoke as people will detect it immediately, and that will be the end of it. As in most things, a good balance is hard to find, but when you do, it will feel right and will seem sincere. Practice these conversations, it will pay off.

Remember that your goal is to get in the door, not to get the perfect job. Just work on that, then once you’re in, you can get what you really want in the long term.

As I said in the beginning, Microsoft isn’t that much different than most other companies, so most of this will apply to other companies as well. Best of luck in your search.

How important is a résumé?

Resume

I get asked this question frequently. Why is my résumé so important? Why can’t I just impress the hiring person in the interview? Why can’t people see past my rough résumé, and see me for who I really am? In this internet day and age, does a silly old, outdated piece of paper truly hold that much value?

When I get this question, I tell them that building a great résumé is the single most important thing you can do when searching for a new job. Here’s why:

It takes four basic steps to get a new job: finding the right opportunity, getting considered seriously by the hirer, selling yourself, and closing the sale. I will have a great deal more to say about the first and last of these, but right now let’s consider the middle part – the “sales process” of getting the job. It helps to put yourself on the other side of the desk and consider what it takes to make you the top prospect for the opening.

Assume for a minute that you’re the one doing the hiring. You somehow get out the news of the opening (more on that here), and sit back and wait for the prospects to roll in. They invariably come in the form of a résumé, or CV (curriculum vitae) as some call it. [Side note: why is it that the two names for this document are French or Latin? Why don’t we have a good English word for this thing?] Yes, you may get some emails, and certainly you’ll get a few referrals from friends and associates. But even these will eventually end up coming down to looking over the résumé.

Why? Because we all need some kind of shorthand way to represent who we are, what we’ve done, and most importantly, why we’re a great fit for the job opening. Certainly the hiring manager could do a long parade of auditions like the American Idol circus. But even there, some filtration happens. Some lowly producer sifts through the tens of thousands of people and decides who among the throng will get their chance to be embarrassed on national television. Simon Cowell and company simply can’t be expected to see thirty or forty thousand applicants.

The same is true for most jobs. Some level of filtration happens at every step. Perhaps it’s some HR person or recruiter who takes the first cut at the pile of applicants. Perhaps the hiring manager themselves goes through them looking to separate the wheat from the chaff. Or perhaps the software that the hirer is using allows them to do some filtration.

Building a great résumé is the single most important thing you can do when searching for a new job.

As another aside, don’t kid yourself, the use of software to filter résumés isn’t just for huge corporations. It’s being used more broadly with every passing day. If you use Monster, they filter your résumé to prevent clearly unqualified people from clogging the mailboxes of hiring managers.

When I led Microsoft’s HR world we got over 30,000 résumés a month, and we had two, sometimes three, shifts of people who did little but scan them into sophisticated software to build an extensive candidate database. There is simply no way to handle these kinds of volumes without some assistance. And as this software comes down in price and is more accessible to smaller companies, you bet they are using it.

In any case, the first step in hiring someone is filtering out the high-quality prospects from among all the candidates who apply. You have to come down to a manageable list (perhaps 5-15) that you can seriously consider, and perhaps interview. There is no better way to do that than by reviewing the résumés.

This means that, to most hiring managers, you are really little more than that one piece of paper. (Yes, it needs to be one piece of paper, more on that when I get to telling you how to create a great résumé, stay tuned.)

If you really want to be one of the people who gets that precious interview, this one piece of paper better be the best it can possibly be. It is the first step in selling yourself into the job. You can’t get to the interview, where you are so sure you’ll shine, without getting out of the pile and onto the short list. The thing that drags you out of the hoard is that lowly piece of paper.

I will carefully discuss each of these steps (finding the opportunities, getting on the list, selling yourself, and closing the sale) in future articles. But right now, get to work on your résumé.

Your résumé is probably the single most important element of your job search, and as such it deserves a great deal of your time and attention.

How do I get a raise?

Fistful of $10,000

This is by far the most common question I get asked by employees. In my experience, there are only three ways to get a raise (in decreasing order of success):

  • Excel at what you do, and don’t look like you want/need/care about a raise.
  • Have a very carefully orchestrated conversation with your immediate supervisor.
  • Hold the organization hostage.

As I noted, these are in decreasing order of potential, with the first being successful about 90% of the time, and the last being successful about 10% of the time.

Excel at What You Do

This is the easiest, most effective, and most rewarding way to get a raise. You simply what you do extremely well, focus on making the organization successful, take on important problems without being asked to, make yourself indispensable, and don’t look like you want/need/care about a raise.

Most managers are not very creative in the ways they reward people. So they throw money at them.

Perhaps the best way to look at this is to put yourself in your manager’s shoes. What do they want and need from an employee? Someone who is really good at what they do, doesn’t complain, solves problems for them, and always keeps the organization’s best interests up front. When they get that, they naturally want to reward it. And, most managers are not very creative in the ways they can think of to reward people. So they throw money at them.

If you think about it, someone who behaves this way is a gem, someone they want to keep happy, motivated, and on the team. It’s just good business to give them the one thing they know how to give — money.

How you react is an important part of this. You should be surprised, and very appreciative. Not drippingly appreciative, but honestly thankful. And this is also a good time declare your loyalty. It doesn’t have to be “I’m never leaving”, but a good, solid “I like it here, this is fun”, works wonders.

Now, this doesn’t help if you want a raise today, but I promise, if you keep this up, it works. And if you do it consistently, you’ll notice that each time the money increases in frequency and amount. It gets more fun as the game goes on. It works for them, works for you, works for years… it’s all good.

Have a Careful Discussion

This is less successful and effective, and is extremely hard to pull off correctly. But it can work. The key is to sit down with your boss and have a meaningful discussion about you and your value to the organization, with a subtext of how underappreciated you feel. It is hard to have this conversation without sounding like Dagwood Bumstead going to Mr. Dithers. But if you are truly going unnoticed, and the above isn’t working, this is an option.

This discussion should focus quite clearly on your value to the organization, and the quality and importance of your work to the firm. Keep the focus on your work, your value, and your recognition. Don’t bring up money at the beginning, and don’t make money they only solution to the problem. Trust me, it’s one of the few tools managers have, so they can think of money as a solution without your help.

It has to be a discussion about value given for value received.

You perhaps can include some discussion of comparable wages elsewhere, but never discuss salary surveys, and be fully prepared for this to fail. Discussions about other organizations end up sounding like a discussion with your mother: “if Billy Johnson jumped off a cliff, would you?” Situations are different, and you are different. As often as not, using this kind of tactic takes the discussion irreparably to other places you don’t want to go (like your performance, or your competition, or…).

Absolutely never make the discussion be about why you need the raise. The company doesn’t care anywhere near as much about you as a person as they care about you as a resource. And it’s difficult to say how much you need it without sounding trite or like a cliché. Also, you open yourself up to the manager thinking: “hey, I’m underpaid too, what makes you so special?” So never, ever say: “but I really NEED this raise”. It’s a quick path to not getting it.

Remember, this isn’t a supposed to be a discussion about money, it has to be a discussion about value given for value received. You need to show why you are so valuable. Always try to take it back there, to the organization, to the wonderful work you do.

It is rare that your manager will say: “gee, you’re right, you are underpaid”.

However, to be honest, most of the time they know what you do and how well you do it, and they have consciously chosen not to give you a raise for some reason. It is rare that your manager will sit back, think for a minute, and say: “gee, I guess you’re right, you’re far more valuable that we’ve ever thought, and you are underpaid”. Most of the time, they know you, and your work, and they feel they are doing just fine by you, thank you.

But every now and again, you’ll point out things they didn’t know, and you’ll make a case. Even more rarely, they will see that you are concerned and try to fix it, but that usually falls under case #1 above.

This conversation is incredibly hard to do without sounding either cocky or that all you care about is the money. But it can work if done right.

Hold the Organization Hostage

This is by far the riskiest strategy, and it backfires as often as it works. In fact, I can’t recall the last time I saw it work in person. But I’ve heard that it does.

It goes like this, you get another offer for more money somewhere else, and go into your manager with “match it or I’m out of here”. The offer can be from another company, or better yet, from another part of the company you are in right now. Obviously an offer in the same company is much better, you can check on the validity of the offer more easily, it demonstrates to your current manager that people they know think you are worth more money, and you don’t have to change health care plans…

It absolutely has to be a bonafide offer, and one that you really would accept.

Wherever it is from, it absolutely has to be a bonafide offer, and one that you really would accept. For three reasons: 1) your manager may well check up on the offer, 2) if you do get a counter offer and it turns out later to have been a lie, you are in deep trouble, and 3) you may well need the offer if they fire you on the spot.

This usually backfires (see my post on the manager’s side of this here) and when it does, it’s usually not pretty. One way I’ve actually seen it backfire is for the manager to steal the offer from you, and take the job themselves. Really. Amazing, but true.

But on occasion this hardball tactic works. However, I strongly recommend against this unless you are a) a major league sports star or b) really willing to leave. I usually fired people who tried this on the spot…

Other Ways

All the other ways, especially demanding a raise, trying to wave salary surveys in peoples’ faces, or joining together with others to protest (or a union), usually just get managers ticked off and looking for ways to lose you. This sounds trite, but again, put yourself in your manager’s shoes. They want and need good resources who make things easy for them. Squeeky wheels who make things difficult are not what they want or need. Good managers will find a way to lose them quickly.

So, in summary, getting a raise is a lot like getting a loan: they give them most often to people who don’t need them (or at least don’t seem to need them). The best and most effective way to get raises, and lots of them, is to be really good at what you do, take things off your manager’s plate, and never look like you are only working for the money. It will come in waves.