What, You’re Leaving? Lessons in Communication.

For four years, I worked for a mid-sized law firm with approximately 45 attorneys in the local office. My first few years there were fantastic. I was on top of my game and headed in all the right directions. My last eight to ten months there, my work load dwindled . . . and dwindled . . . and dwindled, notwithstanding my responsible, diligent requests for more work. I checked in with partners in their (often empty) offices, left voice messages, and documented my efforts through email. Usually, I got no responses. Not a good sign.

Not surprisingly, I failed to meet my billable hours requirement that year. The firm had a strict rule that no one who failed to meet the billable hour requirement qualified for a bonus, ever. Surprisingly, I got a great review and an unexpected bonus, with just one comment that my hours needed to come up (which I agreed with!). I was told the discretionary bonus was a reflection of how much I was appreciated.

Uh, confused.

As the months progressed into the next year, I continued to ask for more work, and my work continued to dwindle. I could not figure out what was going wrong, despite my efforts to find out. What I did know was that a ton of work was coming into the firm, so this kind of drop in my work load had to be nothing short of a “silent firing” common to law firms. I am not dense and had seen it happen to other associates, so I got the message. I was still confused though, because I had gotten the bonus. Law firms do not give discretionary bonuses to people they want to fire. Ever.

In one last effort to resolve my suspicions and demonstrate my continued diligence, I emailed an equity partner who I had done a lot of work for, and who was always pleased with my work, and who I knew would shoot straight with me. I asked him if I was being sent “a message” with the loss of work (i.e. “Should I be looking for another job?” or “If you don’t send me work, I will be looking for another job whether you want me to or not.”). Equity Partner assured me there was no bad message intended for me, and that he would direct more work my way.

Two more months passed, and Equity Partner had not made good on his promise. I was well on my way to another year of miserably low hours. At this point, there was no way I could catch up on my hours, nor did I want to put in the kind of time it would take to make up that kind of deficit, since nothing and no one indicated to me that the deficit was my fault.

A few weeks later, a recruiter called with an opportunity at a bigger, higher paying firm next door. Refusing to become a victim of poor management, and knowing that my career is my responsibility, I jumped at the opportunity for more work, more growth, and more pay.

I gave my resignation at the mid-size firm. To my utter disbelief, Equity Partner and others I had worked for could not believe I was leaving. I was told that some partners even took my leaving as a personal rejection.

Are you kidding me? What just happened?

Did the partners’ surprise make me regret my decision? Now that I knew where I stood, did I want to make another go of it with my current firm? No, because what just happened was poor management and a systemic lack of basic communication among professionals, which left me in a state of professional chaos.

I cannot believe this has to be said, but if you manage or supervise associates or other employees, or if you have customers or clients, you must communicate with them – often and effectively. If there are conflicts, you must deal with them directly. The test of effectiveness of your communication will be in the resolution of conflicts and accomplishment of goals – your goals, your firm or company’s goals, your client’s goals, and the thresholds required of your employees. We all must take responsibility for the fallout from, and costs of, our own ineffective communications. This is basic stuff.

You may think you are too busy making money or meeting deadlines to listen or respond to certain requests. Wrong. You will be suprised by outcomes if you do not communicate with people. You will lose money, goodwill, reputation, good employees, customers, and clients, if you do not communicate with people. Sure, it is time-consuming to review 100+ incoming emails and twenty or more phone calls each day, and to decide which ones warrant a response. However, busyness is not an excuse for failure to communicate on matters that reasonably call for your attention or could cost you money for failure to respond (and if you get less than 50 or so emails a day, there is no excuse for you).

Granted, some employees, customers, or clients may demand your attention at some inconvenient or inappropriate time or frequency. At other times, it is difficult to discern between reasonable and unreasonable requests because they all run together. This can be mitigated by learning how to respond concisely, delegating, and effectively communicating (and enforcing) your boundaries and requirements with people.

Keep in mind that your silence is a form of communication – passive communication. People around you will act on your passive communication as much as they do your active communication. People act on the information they have and – correctly or incorrectly – will fill in the blanks for themselves on information they do not have. Many will not try more than once or twice to encourage you to active communication, because you are responsible for your part on this two-way street. Do not ignore people unless you have no other viable option, perhaps as in the case of having already made your position clear, and the other person is unconstructively arguing with you. But you must first make your position known!

If you want to have a say in something – like, I don’t know, how much work your employees have – say it. And then act. If someone is trying to tell you something, listen. And then act. Otherwise, don’t be surprised.

Reinventing Miss America

So, I’m curious: can anyone name the current titleholder of Miss America …without using Google? Yeah, I couldn’t either nor could any of my friends and coworkers I surveyed over lunch. But if you keep up with the latest goss then you’re familiar with Miss South Carolina Teen USA (thanks, YouTube), know that Tara Conner almost lost her 2006 Miss USA crown to partying, and have read recent headlines posing a possible twist in the Miss Puerto Rico pepper spray incident. It would seem nowadays being a damsel in distress is a surefire way to make an impression on the public conscience, but what of being a contestant on the once highly-rated Miss America pageant?

I used to be a fan. Up until the age of 8 or 9, watching the Miss America pageant on television generated almost as much excitement as the annual airing of The Wizard of Oz or The Jerry Lewis Telethon. I thought those girls were soooooo beautiful with their big hair, sparkly gowns and perfect smiles. I loved being on the edge of my seat cheering for my favorite states to win the crown. But it wasn’t long before I lost interest, and apparently I’m not the only one. Due to a significant drop in ratings, ABC stopped airing the pageant in 2004. It was briefly picked up by Country Music Television (CMT), and now its latest home is on The Learning Channel (TLC) where it makes its debut this January.

It may seem like an unlikely topic for a Damsels in Success forum, but I have my husband to thank for my current musings on the pageant system. He’s currently an editor for Miss America: Reality Check—a four-week hour-long special leading up to the pageant that promises to give Miss America a facelift “you have to see to believe”–and it got me wondering how other damsels feel about this nearly century old beauty contest.

A quote from the Miss America website reads: “Miss America represents the highest ideals. She is a real combination of beauty, grace, and intelligence, artistic and refined. She is a type which the American Girl might well emulate.” At one time it seems this was true, but do women today really look to Miss America as a representation of the best in beauty, talent, and intelligence? If my very unscientific lunchtime survey is at all indicative, it would appear they don’t.

I’m pretty sure we can all probably name a handful of beautiful women deserving of a more modern version of the Miss America title: working moms with a talent for juggling family and job responsibilities, academics teaching the next generation of intellectuals, entrepreneurs taking great risks for great ideas, and creative mavens making their mark on our cultural landscape. Unfortunately those damsels don’t often get the media attention or recognition generated by her sisters in sequins and sashes—but they should! Maybe some of the women jockeying for the Miss America crown do represent these ideals, but we wouldn’t know it from the stereotypical pageant smiles and answers we see on television. I think if the contest allowed the viewers to get to know the character and motivations and accomplishments and dreams behind these women instead of just showing us an assembly line of perfectly poised and rehearsed mannequins, we might care a little more about the competition. If Miss America is meant to represent our highest ideals then it needs to get off the stage and into the real world to find the most beautiful, talented, and intelligent women our country has to offer. And if some of you damsels decide to go for the crown, let me know because I will totally tune in.

Jaye Fenderson is not competing for Miss America, but she is making a documentary film called First Generation.

Warning: This May Blow Your Mind!

This time last year I was in the middle of making an important decision for my career and life. I had to decide whether or not I would resign from a corporate job that looked fabulous on the outside to write on a full time basis. To begin with I had national management responsibilities and was the youngest member of the executive team in a multi-million dollar startup. I was working with like-minded people and reporting to a female CEO worthy of imitation. My pay package was quite competitive and I had a 20-minute commute in mild traffic – and across Sydney’s Harbour Bridge which offers a stunning view of the Opera House.

So who in their right mind would even consider resigning from a job like that? Before you judge me too harshly, know that as good as my job sounds, it was not meaningful to me. It was the role I was aspiring to for years but was ultimately unfulfilling – and that did not feel good inside.

Maybe you’re thinking that I’m asking for too much. I think it’s quite the contrary. I left looking to give more, not receive more.

“How so?” You ask.

I reached a point in my career where I’d taken enough. Among other things, I had the flashy title and the salary I set out to achieve five years earlier. It was time for me to give back.

In this, my final post for 2008, I share with you the questions I answered and the guidelines I followed that led me to discover what I really want to do with my life.

Read – at your own risk – if you’re also looking to lead a more meaningful life.

Start with the end in mind. Begin by asking yourself: “What do I need to achieve in the following five years to feel fulfilled with my life?” When you answer, allow yourself to dream huge. Craft your answer around ‘and’ not ‘either/or’ terms.

If you don’t know what you want, start by writing down what you don’t want, or want less of in your work life. In my case I knew that I wanted to contribute in a more meaningful way. But I did not know what that meant exactly. I knew that I had to do something that was genuinely me. Not follow a ‘me-too’ path. I also knew that selling insurance and managing a team were not what I called ‘contributing’.

Fill your goals with meaning.
 Now ask yourself ‘Why?’ “Why do I want to achieve my goals?” Identify what it will mean to you, the ones you love, your community and the world in general once you achieve your goals. Take time to look inside. If you find it hard to answer this for a particular goal, be open to the possibility that it could be because that goal is not as important as you originally thought. If that’s the case, don’t be discouraged. Instead use this as an opportunity to identify a more meaningful goal.

Knowing the real reasons why you want something so much will help you stay committed to your goals and focused. For those very reasons, this is the most important step in the process.

Develop a plan. Finally, ask yourself: ’How?’ In other words, ask: “What do I need to achieve my goals?” Focus on the resources that you’ll need. How much time and money will you need? Do you need to up-skill? More education? Experience?

Then take time to think through the obstacles that may come across along the way. Take it a step further and come up with at least two solutions for each obstacle. Make sure not to confuse real obstacles with your fears. To tell the difference, test your thoughts against reality. Are you being catastrophic? Or are you generalizing?

It took me a few days to complete this three-step process, but I guarantee that the time I spent working through it has been one the best investments I’ve made on my career.

May 2009 be a meaningful year for us all.

Take a deep breath – with a little smile.

*Rash decisions may lead to career suicide.

Can You Describe Yourself in Three Words?

Last week I was asked by a potential client to describe what makes me different from everyone else… in just 3 words. I blew it. And I’m so annoyed with myself for that.

I was in the car when the phone rang, the baby was crying, the traffic was jammed and I wasn’t fully present. I probably shouldn’t have taken the call but when the name flashed up on the screen I couldn’t help myself. I really want to do work with this woman! And in my eagerness I may well have stuffed up any chance of that!

We hear all time how important it is to have an elevator pitch and to be able to explain what it is that we do for a living. I’ve heard it said that men are better at this than women, but I don’t think this is necessarily true. Maybe it’s tough for women to resist being verbose – it has been said after all that women speak three-times as many words every day as men. But other studies say this isn’t necessarily true either.

In any case, I do believe it’s important to be able to describe what we bring to the table in a succinct and clear way. I just didn’t realise I’d ever be asked for just 3 words! So I hadn’t ever given this much thought. I have now though, so I’ll be prepared for next time. Just like I’m prepared to ask a question at every meeting I go to so that I appear to be interested and to have a view. One of my favorite mentors (a man) taught me years ago to do this, when I was just starting out in my career, and it’s advice I always pass on now to the women I mentor. It works a treat in building a reputation as a do-er.

So how do you come up with just 3 words? I looked back through the feedback and testimonials I’ve received as a consultant and speaker and looked for the common themes. You could do this to by asking people you work with for just one word to describe you. It feels good when you’ve come up with the three – sort of liberating to be able to get down to the essence of who you really are.

For the record, I’m practical, refreshing and real. And who are you, in just 3 words?