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Ten Things You Should Be Saying to Your Boss

One of the questions that my team members and potential employees have asked me a lot over the last few years is "what are you looking for in an ideal employee?" We just finished a performance review cycle here where I worked with a few members of my team on their development plans for the next year. I've also been spending some time identifying and interviewing potential new team members and holding regular mentoring meetings with the members of my team. This is all on top of leading the annual performance review process for more than 600 people while I was still with Booz Allen. Over the course of all those interviews and development discussions, I found that I've repeated a lot of things.

Here are ten of those things that I've said repeatedly over the last few years that I think any employee should be regularly saying to their boss. 

  1. "How am I doing? How did I do?" Ask for feedback early and often. It shows that you want to improve and that you want to know how to do things better. After every presentation you give, report you complete, article you write, etc. make sure you ask your manager if he/she has any feedback for you. And don't let them get away with just telling you that "you did a good job." Ask them specifically what you could have done better. Seek the negative AND the positive feedback.
  2. "Don't worry about it – I got it." One of the things that all managers love is to be able to cross something completely off of their to-do list because they know that someone they trust is taking care of everything – from beginning to end. From doing the actual work to keeping the right people informed, the ability to take something entirely off your manager's plate and do it well is something that will be much appreciated. It will also give you some great experience in showing him/her that you've got what it takes to move up to the next level as well. 
  3. "I just read/watched/heard…and it got me thinking that…" Learn how to look at everything you read/watch/listen to from a work/client perspective. I want people who are constantly on the lookout for newer, better, more efficient ways to do things and who can apply them to their current work. You should be bringing new ideas to your boss at least as often as he/she is bringing them to you.
  4. "You know how we've been doing X? Why do we do it that way?" Question the status quo. Don't just accept things because "that's the way they are." If you're curious about some process or rule or regulation, ask for the background on it. You'll be surprised to discover how many things we do for no other reason than that's the way it's always been done and no one ever bothered to ask.
  5. "I don't think that's the best way to do that. How about we do it this way instead?" Please, don't be a yes-man/woman. Disagree with me. Don't just assume that what I say goes. Sometimes, I have no idea and am just throwing ideas out there and want some honest feedback on them. When I was first given a team, the first person I approached was a good friend of mine whom I knew would be candid with me and tell me when I was wrong. I knew that she'd tell me about an awful idea long before it made its way to the client.
  6. "Here's what I'd recommend and why." If I've asked you to work on something, don't just send me your research. I want to know your thoughts on it too. You're the one closest to the research. Give me your recommendation and your rationale for it. It shows me that you can think critically and that you can back up your assertions.
  7. "Here's what I learned and how I'll do it better next time." Learn how to be your own worst critic. One of the best things you can do is become self-aware. Know where you're strong, know where you're weak, and know where you can improve.
  8. "You gotta see/read/listen to this – I know you'll love this." It doesn't always have to be about work. Don't be afraid to send your boss the latest meme if you think he/she will enjoy it. I like to know my team's interests outside of work, and I want them to want to get to know mine as well.
  9. "Do you know who I can talk with to understand this better?" If you're struggling with something, I will NOT think of less of you if you ask how you can get smarter on the topic. I'll be impressed that you were self-aware enough to know what you don't know and confident enough to ask about it. I may not know the answer either, but I'll be sure to help put you in touch with someone who will.
  10. "What can I do to help? Be proactive. Don't wait for other people to task you with something. Ask if you can help with something. Or better yet, refer to numbers 3 and 4 above.  

Now don't get the wrong idea here – while you may have thought this post was targeted toward more junior employees, these are all things that I try to regularly talk with my boss about as well. These aren't just for entry level or mid-level employees – at no point should you feel that you're too old or too high on the org chart to ask for feedback or to challenge the status quo. If you're a manager now, start asking your employees to think about these things. Likewise, look internally and ask yourself if you've been been doing the same with your boss.

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Establishing a Vision and Then Getting Your Team to Buy Into It

As I wrap up my first week in Chicago, I've fully realized the advantage of working with the same people for years – they knew exactly how I thought about PR, social media, communications, and branding. They knew what I looked for in their work, what questions I would ask, what points I wanted them to make. Over the years, they had heard me say the same things so many times that they had all bought into the same approach to our work. This wasn't because it was mandated  or because I beat it into them (I don't have, what you might call an intimidating presence), but because we were worked together to form these axioms and bought into them collectively. 

The "Follow Me" statue in Infantry Hall at Fort Benning, GA

This past week however, has been a bit of a trip back in time for me as I again have to not only share my unique approach to our work, but also get my co-workers to see the value in the way I do things and buy into that approach. This is one of the differences between management and leadership. Can I get my new team to buy into my approach not because they have to (they don't) or because they'll get fired if they don't (they won't), but because they believe it's the right way? 

That's one of the big things I'll be working on over these next few months. So what are those things? Here are a few of the things my old team probably heard me say a million times:

  • Ten actions that will define how you look at PR – Too many PR practitioners have become so focused on the message that they have totally forgotten the relations part of public relations. Let's not fall into the same trap.
  • It's not about the technology, it's what the technology enables – Something I've said ever since I started using social media. All the bells and whistles and new features are great, but don't get distracted by the latest tools. Stay focused on our clients' goals and objectives and if the latest tech will help achieve that, then great. But don't try to use Pinterest, Highlight, Path, and Google+ just because you saw some social media nerds saying it's the "next Facebook!" Use them if and when they can help your clients achieve their communications goals.
  • Be you and be you all the time – Don't try to act/dress/talk like someone else just because you think that's what you need to do to get promoted  or to be accepted. Know your strengths, know your weaknesses and be confident in your unique abilities.
  • Don't be afraid to take risks – If it's been more than a few months before someone had to pull you back from an idea or you got scolded for pushing the envelope a little too much, you're probably not doing your job as well as you could. Don't be afraid to take calculated risks, but don't be reckless. Have a rationale for your decisions and try new things. I'll trust you and provide you with the top cover to take those risks. 
  • Don't become a social media ninja – use social media to become a better… – Social media technology offers tremendous tools for PR pros, and yes, I think we all need to be aware of their impact on our industry. However, I have no desire to create a team of gurus and ninjas. Instead, I want my team to understand how to best incorporate social media into their PR strategies and tactics. Social isn't the be-all, end-all of communication.
  • Don't forget that you're a human being so remember to talk like one – The Cluetrain Manifesto said it best – "In just a few more years, the current homogenized "voice" of business—the sound of mission statements and brochures—will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court." Remember that your goal is to develop and strengthen relationships with actual people, not just to sell something to a faceless, nameless customer.
  • Let's not look for "established best practices" for our clients – let's create the practices other people call best practices – You should absolutely continue to research what other companies and agencies have done or are doing. See what you can learn from their successes and failures, but don't identify a best practice and then try to replicate it. Use these best practices and lessons learned as source materials and then come up with your own idea, an idea that no one's ever thought of before. Sure, maybe 90% of your ideas will end up on the cutting room floor, but that one idea that makes it will be ten times better than if you had taken the easy route and followed the best practices laid out in the PR person's handbook. 
  • Be a trusted adviser – Your relationship with your client should be a partnership, not a dictatorship. Learn how to do more than just do what your client says. Build your relationship with them so that you can be candid (both positively and negatively) with each other.
  • Nothing is more important than your people – If you need something, I will get it for you. If you're interested in something, I'll do my best to give you those opportunities. If you ask me a question, I'll get you an answer. If you send me an email, I'll reply as fast I can.

I'm sure there are many more that I've forgotten here (if you've worked with me before, what else would you add?), and many more that I'll learn along the way. I'm excited to find out how these views fit into the culture here, and how they might adapt over time.  Until then, I guess it's time to go annoy a whole new group of co-workers with my little sayings 🙂

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What Steve Taught Me

The following is a guest post from some of the people who worked the closest with Steve over the past 4+ years at Booz Allen. His impact on the firm and individual people within the firm will be realized for many years to come. We’ve captured a few of the top lessons learned from Steve that we will carry with us in our work and life forever.

Steve taught me…
·         …that fortune favors the bold and fearless. Specifically, he taught me that creative, thoughtful ideas that have the potential to transform and disrupt should never be held back.  —Michael Dumlao
·         …that you don’t have to wear a suit jacket to play with the big boys!!! —Mike Robert
·         …how to navigate in a large consulting firm after spending my whole life in the education & research world –Don Jones
·         …the power of empowering others to build something new by boldly leading –Don Jones
·         …that great ideas can change powerful institutions, even when their tendency is to remain in stasis –Don Jones
·         …that be willing to speak up and shake the status quo can pay off –Don Jones
·         …that you can take the boy out of Pittsburgh, but you can't take Pittsburgh out of the boy –Don Jones
·         …that people come first. Time spent developing your "second team" is the most strategic investment you can make in your career. — Jacque Myers

  …to lead by example. Don't tell people what they should do–show them, and then empower them to take the lead. –Jacque Myers

  …to take risks, but choose your battles. Sometimes you have to ruffle feathers to get things done, but make sure it's truly necessary. Don't be a rebel for the sake of rebelling. Work within the system, and if it's something worthwhile that can't be accomplished the traditional way, blaze trails. –Jacque Myers

  …to network, network, network. I can't even count the number of times Steve would say to me, "You know (so and so) right?" He has a way of identifying people that matter and then building – and sustaining – relationships with them. Fortunately, he freely shared that network with me. One of my biggest challenges (and opportunities) moving forward will be to expand my own network in his absence. –Jacque Myers

  …If you believe in something, don't stop until you make it happen. Steve had a vision for transparency and collaboration in government long before the Open Government Directive and the #gov20 hash tag, and he would talk about it to anyone who would listen. He found people who shared his vision, and he worked with us to challenge our clients and transform the way they do business. His vision has been realized, and now it's time to move on to new opportunities and new challenges. Steve – Best of luck to you as you begin this new chapter! –Jacque Myers

·         …how to say yes enough to earn the right to say no.  –Tracy Johnson
·         …that getting your hands dirty almost always pays off. –Tracy Johnson
·         …that being a great leader has nothing to do with a title.  –Tracy Johnson
·         …how important it is to be a champion and mentor for other colleagues. I can’t thank you enough for being my champion over the past 3 years. Your support and encouragement has changed my career and life for the better. –Tracy Johnson
What has Steve taught you? How did it change your career or life? Please share your thoughts and well-wishes for Steve’s new adventures in the comments section!
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Time for a Change

Eight years ago, I left my job(s) delivering pizza and operating a crane in a steel mill in West Virginia to become government consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton. Consulting. For the government. I can honestly say this was something that never even entered into my mind while I was majoring in Public Relations at Bethany College, and here I was picking up and moving further away than anyone else in my family to do it. My plan was to move down to Northern Virginia for a few years, get some experience and then move back to Pittsburgh where I’d get a job in public relations.  This Wednesday, more than 3,000 days later, will be my last day at Booz Allen. This week I'll be moving to Chicago and then on March 19th, I'll be joining Cramer-Krasselt's PR team as a Vice President, Management Supervisor. 

My first day with Booz Allen was October 6, 2003. To give you some idea of how long ago that really was, consider this:

  • Facebook didn’t exist (it wouldn’t launch on Harvard’s campus for another five months)
  • The #1 song in the country was Beyonce’s Baby Boy
  • The #1 movie at the box office was School of Rock
  • The Red Sox defeated the Athletics in the playoffs and would go on to play the Yankees in the American League Championship Series (the Aaron Boone game was 10 days away). In the National League, the Cubs and Marlins were about to play in the National League Championship (the Steve Bartman incident would happen on Oct. 14th)
  • The most popular TV shows at the time were NCIS, Two and a Half Men, Fear Factor, Chappelle’s Show, and Survivor.

Things never really work out according to plan, do they? What happened? For one, I never expected to still feel challenged after so long with one company; I never expected to have even half the opportunities that I’ve had here; I never expected to enjoy working hand in hand with our clients as much as I did; and most of all, I never expected to love working with the people here so much. Over the last four years especially, I felt as if I was at the tip of the spear when it came to things like social media policy (this blog and my Twitter account were the first transparent, employee-owned, external social media properties), Enterprise 2.0 (I created our now 6,000 member+ Yammer community more than three years ago), and Gov 2.0 (I was on the Programming Committee for the first Gov 2.0 Summit). It was exciting to be among the leaders in the burgeoning social media community in the DC area, and I had a lot of fun in these roles.  That’s one reason why I enjoyed working here so much – my proclivity for challenging and changing the status quo was encouraged and often rewarded.

Eight years at one place is an eternity anymore though, and over the last year or so, I found myself itching for a change and a new challenge. For a long time, I really enjoyed the role I was playing here, disrupting things that are being done “because that’s the way they’ve always been done,” and helping create new roles, processes and policies for my colleagues. However, as I've alluded to here before, being a change agent at the tip of the spear can be exhausting. I was spending just as much time, brainpower, and energy trying to make changes internally and take the organization new places as I was on the client delivery and marketing tasks that I was being paid to do.

You know how you feel when you feel when you’ve been dating someone for a really long time, but don’t want to get engaged because you're not ready to commit for the long-term? How you end up breaking up because you’re not ready to settle down yet?  That’s how I felt. I came to Booz Allen right out of college and have been there ever since. It was time for a change. It was time for me to move on to something new, something different, something that would help broaden my experience beyond the federal government and something that would strengthen my communications skills. It was time for me to experience something entirely different.

It's not without mixed feelings that I say goodbye though. At every step of the way over these eight years, no matter what crazy idea I had, there were always people supporting me and making me better. Sometimes that was my leadership giving me the top cover to take a risk (I wouldn't be where I am today without my mentors, Grant McLaughlin, Terry Mandable, and Jim Hickel). Other times, it was one of our Vice Presidents challenging my ideas and forcing me to back up my ideas with data instead of assumptions. It was people like Jacque Myers pulling me aside after a meeting to tell me very candidly that I was going too far and needed to pull it back a little. It was seeing people like Michael Dumlao, Tracy Johnson, Anna Gabbert, Don Jones, and Mike Robert help me not because they had to, but because they shared my vision and passion for social media and the potential it had to impact our business. Seeing them progress in their careers, get promoted, win awards and develop their own teams is one of the things I’m probably most proud of. I'm excited to see where they take social media after I'm gone. I can't wait to see how they develop their own teams and the next generation of leaders following in their footsteps – people like Margaret Lahey, Matt Allen, Colleen Gray, Amanda Sena, Emily Springer, Liz Helms, and so many others behind them.

I'm looking forward to my new job, employer, colleagues, clients, city, and of course, all of the new friends that I'll be meeting in Chicago. At the same time, I'm really going to miss DC and all of my friends and colleagues out here. Ultimately though, I'm think I'm most excited for the start of something new.  While I'm at C-K, I'll continue to blog here about social media, PR, advertising, and branding as well as my experiences in the PR industry – I hope you'll continue to read and engage with me here. 

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