Friday, 30 October 2009

Owls and Larks

It seems to me that more CEOs are owls than larks. Over the years I've heard countless business leaders describe their horrendously long work weeks in “last car out of the car park” terms. It's an existence of flickering fluorescents; take-out dinners, and the clatter of cleaning staff emptying trash. As these leaders sit nodding over their stacks of reports, the day's stresses, frustrations, and failures hang in the air around them like stale smoke.

I prefer to burn my candle from the front end. That's because I love offices at dawn. I want to be there as pale light washes slowly over the utilitarian landscape of desks and computers. I enjoy the hush that plays prelude to the soundtrack of workaday activity.

I like to miss the traffic, make the first pot of tea, drink the first pot of tea; then pretend I didn't and start another. You don’t want to be doing that at the end of the day with the prospect of an hour in the car!

The very early morning is the best time to go desk-browsing. During the day no one spares more than a glance for their colleagues' workspaces. Yet many desks are made over into miniature museums of collectibles, galleries of beloved images, scrapbooks of rich family lives. Such exhibits powerfully evoke their curators. As you peruse the idiosyncratic display on a desk, you find yourself looking forward to its occupant walking through the door.

If you walk by an office where a colleague or employee labors after hours, it seems natural to poke in your head and commiserate. But often commiseration devolves into passing the time; and after hours another's time is not yours to pass. In the early morning, by contrast, no one is yet late for anything and so conversation is relaxed. During work hours I have argued and gossiped and traded stiff pleasantries with office mates. But my best true "chats" have been with fellow early risers.

When I gaze out the window at night I see my face floating in a dark pool. In the morning I see the world. And I am reminded that everything I do that day will contribute to it.

I'm sure that you know your company better than anyone, that you love it more. Still, try going in some day at dawn and wandering around in the silence. To watch the office wake up is to see it fresh.

Private, broad and serious

It should be nice to receive praise but I’m not comfortable with praise it makes me feel embarrassed. How should praise be used in the work environment? Some people are addicted to praise, if they don’t get it they go into a decline, if they do get it they hold it up to the light and asses its worth. They may then get a brief praise rush but quickly need more.

Praise is surprisingly difficult to get right. Even good praise looses its power if there is too much of it. It can be ruined in any number of ways. A surprised tone of voice wrecks it, whilst any hint of negativity wipes out all the positive impact. As with all addictive substances there is a level of safe use, after which it gets dangerous. Two units of alcohol a day are deemed safe, two units of praise is far too much. If one is praised every day you quickly stop experiencing any rush and any reduction leaves one feeling de-motivated.

In my view the correct praise “dosage” is gender dependent, as with alcohol. Men take praise on face value and so are sustained by less. Women reject half the praise as being insincere, misdirected or offensive so need more to get by on. I’m not sure where that puts me with my aversion to praise, a house cat maybe!

It is not only the quantity of the praise but the quality that is hard to get right. There are three pieces of advice often given to managers to make their praise more effective.

  1. Praise must be public: this is down right irresponsible, whilst it is never certain that the praise will make the person feel any better. It is always certain that public praise will inflict heavy collateral damage on everyone else who hears it.

  2. Praise must be specific: I thing that this is poor advice as the detail chosen by the manager may not be the thing that the recipient wants to be commended for. They might be praised for their eye for detail, when in fact they’d like to be praised for their creativity.

  3. Smile when praising someone: this is also a bad idea. The point of good praise is that it should look deadly serious in order to seen as sincere. If it comes from some grinning fool one knows to disregard it all together!

In my opinion praise should be private, broad and serious.

Friday, 16 October 2009

A Trusted Advisor

“Nowadays we seem to put a price on everything and you think you only work or do something if you are getting paid for it and I do think that in recent times a lot of people know the price of everything and the value of nothing. I have always been passionate about community and people having a sense of place." Benjamin Zephaniah, Poet

I’m fortunate to have a rewarding career that has been centered around working with other people. Recently I’ve been looking for a way to use my business skills to support the community that I live and work in. I’m already working with the Small Charities Coalition and the Portsmouth Business Champions. This has led to an opportunity to act as a volunteer mentor with Mentor-Net.

There seems to be a lot of confusion about what a mentor is. My understanding is that, in an employment context, a mentor is a person with skills and experience who counsels an individual and helps guide their thought processes. I suppose that a mentor relationship is one where the outcome of the relationship is expected to benefit all parties in the relationship for personal growth, career development, lifestyle enhancement, spiritual fulfillment, goal achievement, and other areas mutually designated by the mentor and partner ( I’m not sure about the word “Mentee”). The dictionary definition is “A trusted advisor”.

A few times in my life, I’ve had someone see potential in me, and give me advice on a continual basis. I considered these people mentors, although at the time I would not have used this title. I believe a true mentor sees potential in someone by taking a personal interest. They will advise and motivate, celebrate and commiserate, but never control. I suppose they are your critical friend

So what are the characteristics of a mentor? I think of a mentor as a role model, a teacher and a companion. They support you by listening to your ideas and concerns. They will boost your self-esteem and encourage your efforts, whilst introducing you to new people, places, interests, ideas, or suggesting new sources of information or ways of doing things.

Perhaps I’m being too idealistic. Do you have a mentor? Could you see a mentor being beneficial to you? What do you think a real mentor provides?