What Are They Saying About You?

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You are not in the room for the conversations that impact your career.” Farley Price

I was having dinner with an old friend and colleague.  We were talking about the arc of our careers and the events that brought us to this point.  Farley remarked that we are rarely present for important conversations that affect our careers.  We are not there to explain, clarify, or tell our side of the story.

I thought about this for a moment and recognized that this is absolutely true.

As an employee, I felt the hidden hand that propelled my career—for both good and bad.  As a manager, I observed how formal performance management processes, and more importantly, informal conversations affected employees and their career trajectory.

Our performance, behaviors, and sometimes even our personal traits and characteristics are discussed by others in our organizations.  These conversations and comments both subtly and explicitly impact how we are perceived, the opportunities we are given, and ultimately the arc of careers.

We need to recognize that these conversations occur and view them as both opportunities and threats.  As we would with any risk, we should strive to enhance the opportunity and avoid or mitigate the threat.  In this article, I present some considerations to manage this aspect of our career progression.

People are Talking

It is human nature for people to talk about others.  Children talk about their friends, teachers, and classmates.  As we grow older, we still talk about our friends as well as our colleagues and managers.  Managers talk about their managers, peers, and staff.  These conversations are both formal and informal.

The performance review is the most visible example of a formalized process.  Most employees do not realize that our annual review is not performed in a vacuum and is only the only the tip of the iceberg.  Throughout the year, our managers receive data about our performance through hundreds of informal conversations.  These may be quick chats in the hallway or performance discussions.

Many organizations still use a forced ranking or calibration framework as part of their performance management process.  This is a formalized process where successive management layers review and rank their staff.  While this process is controversial and has been abandoned by many organizations, our manager and often one or two levels up are talking about us and how we are doing.

Be aware.  Recognize that people are always talking about you—positive and negative.  We are not present for these conversations.  We do not have the opportunity to tell our side of the story.  So, we need to actively manage the image we are creating.

Understand the Landscape

Our direct manager is an important, but not the sole contributor to the assessment of our performance.  Our bosses are influenced by others in their ecosystem and work environment.  Many people are talking about us: our peers, internal and external customers, and other managers and leaders in the organization.   All of these people are our stakeholders.

To understand this ecosystem, we should sketch out the landscape to understand who may influence our manager and their perceptions.  Next, we should validate our assumptions.  Often our initial expectations are wrong.  This is a long-term process.  We may ask our manager questions to understand who influences them?

You may be surprised.  Several years ago, a director in a distant part of the organization went out of his way to tell my boss’ boss what a good I was doing. I only met with this director once and would not have expected that he would have such a positive impact on my career trajectory.

We can develop a personal stakeholder engagement plan.  List our stakeholders and then begin to understand them:

  • How and when do we interact with that stakeholder?
  • What is their level of influence on our manager and other leaders in the organization?
  • What is their current perception our performance? If possible or reasonable, ask.
  • How can we influence them either directly or indirectly? In other words, who influences them?

Be aware of the organization’s performance management process.  If your organization does peer calibration sessions, who is in the room?  Who, besides our direct manager, will be our advocate?  Who may be detractors?

Make Friends

Friends and allies are always good to have.  Make friends.  Not enemies.

In his book “Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success,” Wharton Business School professor, Adam Grant describes three archetypes—givers, takers, and matchers.  Takers try to tilt every encounter to their benefit—their goal is to win.  Givers believe in succeeding by helping others.  Matchers look for reciprocity and try to match giving and taking. “If you help me, I will help you.”

Based on empirical research, Grant found that givers, that set reasonable boundaries, are in the highest performing cohort.  Givers can set boundaries by using the “five minute favor rule” popularized by uber-networker, Adam Rifkin.  If we can help in less than 5-minutes, we should.

Grant has a short quiz  that assess whether we are a taker, matcher or giver.  As a speaker and instructor, I always offer to share my experience with my audience and students.  I have found that paying it forward is the best way to generate new business.  By the way, my score is 57% giver and 43% matcher.

Wilson Mizner was a playwright, gambler, and raconteur and was famous for saying, “Be nice to people on your way up, because you’ll meet them on your way down.”  We cross paths with people many times in our lives; and they will be happy to reciprocate—either favorably or not how we treated them.

Game theory and the prisoners’ dilemma teaches us that for a single interaction, we may gain by exploiting others.  But, in the long-run, collaboration is the dominant strategy.

Do small favors.  Help people out.  Look for ways to support colleagues.  Make friends.  Pay it forward. The benefit may not be immediate, but it will come.  And, you may not even be able to trace the source.

Always Be Your Best

First impressions  are critical.  Your most recent accomplishments are what people remember most.  And, everything in between is part of your permanent record.  In other words, everything counts.

Head & Shoulders shampoo popularized the expression,  “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”  We are often judged by first impressions.  The first few seconds of an encounter are critical.  First impressions can be lasting.  Remember that we are always selling ourselves—introduce yourself, make eye contact, shake hands, be professional.

Our recent performance is also critical to how we are viewed.  The old expression, “What have you done for me lately?” is true.  When managers assess our performance at year-end, our recent accomplishments or mistakes carry a more weight than what we did earlier in the year.

We do not know what activities or actions will make a strong or lasting impression.  So always perform at your best.  Focus on delivering what is valuable to our stakeholders and customers.

Avoid the Oops

There is an old expression that, “One oops can erase 1,000 atta’ boys or girls.”  We are remembered more for our mistakes and mis-steps than we are for our successes.

We make mistakes.  We make bad decisions.  Accidents happen.  Things do not go as planned.

Avoid the self-inflicted wound.  Do not make a bad situation worse.  Do not double-down on a bad decision.

Apologize.  Say, “I am sorry.”  Take responsibility and ownership from the mistakes.  Do not blame someone else.  Learn from the mistake.

Years ago, I was managing a major program.  I needed to present a project change request to the leadership council.  We were planning to reduce the project’s budget by several million dollars.  I thought this would be easy, so I did not request that my executive sponsor attend the meeting.

The leadership council did not ask questions about the change request.  Rather, they wanted to revisit the justification for the entire project.  I was not prepared.  I took a thrashing.  Afterwards, I sheepishly went to the sponsor and said, “I apologize.  I was not prepared for that meeting.  I should have had you there.”  He said, “We won’t be making that mistake, again.  Will we?”  And, I didn’t.

A lesson I learned long before that event is when you make a mistake, own it.  Don’t make excuses.  Don’t blame someone else.  Apologize and take responsibility.

Recognizing that important conversations about our careers often occur when are not present may reveal a blind spot.  In most work environments, we are always “on.”  This is not a failing of our organizations, culture, or the management styles of our leaders.  It is human nature.  This knowledge  creates the opportunity to be more thoughtful and intentional about how we choose to show-up and engage.

Good luck!

© 2018, Alan Zucker; Project Management Essentials, LLC

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