Career Advice from Industry Experts – Winter 2014

A Touch of Humility Goes a Long Way
Robb Mulberger (Parent ’13), CEO of NRI Staffing Resources

I claim to be a simple individual liable to err like any other fellow mortal. I own, however, that I have humility enough to confess my errors and to retrace my steps. —Mohandas Gandhi

Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in the blood of his followers and the sacrifices of his friends. —Dwight D. Eisenhower

You never know who you are gonna meet on the way down that you treated poorly on the way up. —Street-smart people

Effective leadership can’t be possible without a good dose of humility. All successful people have it. All effective leaders must have it.

Eisenhower

Eisenhower’s appointment as supreme commander to lead the Allied invasion of German-occupied Europe during World War II was due largely to his great ability to get along with people. Eisenhower needed to manage the immense and overpowering egos of Prime Minister Winston Churchill and British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and have them accept him as supreme commander. Eisenhower’s sense of humility was the key to a personality that paved the way for his success.

Eisenhower’s quote above applies to anyone who achieves success due to the efforts and sacrifices of others—and that means every successful manager of people. It is the subordinates who do the real work, make the deadlines and achieve the plan the boss put together. People will work long and hard for a variety of reasons, but will usually balk at doing so for a boss who is arrogant, doesn’t appreciate their efforts and generally doesn’t treat them well. (In other words, someone without a sense of perspective regarding his or her own importance—a lack of humility.)

Grant

Ulysses S. Grant—our 18th president and the general who won the Civil War for Lincoln—had an overriding sense of humility, and for good reason. Grant, West Point Class of 1843, was forced to leave the Army in 1854 for allegations of drunkenness. He then failed at every effort after that—farming, bill collecting, selling firewood on the streets of St. Louis. He finally became a clerk in his father’s leather goods store. When the Civil War broke out, the North needed experienced officers. Grant rejoined the Union Army and quickly came into his own. Having failed to support his family in civilian life, he found great success leading men in battle. Why? To a great deal, it was how he treated people—friend and foe alike.

A general’s greatest accomplishment is the capture of an enemy army, which is what Grant did in February 1862, when his troops captured the Confederate Army defending Fort Donelson on the Tennessee River. Customarily, such an event would call for a ceremony where the surrendering general would offer his sword and sidearm to the victor. When a subordinate asked Grant when and where the surrender ceremony would take place, Grant replied, “There will be nothing of the kind. Why should we … injure the spirit of brave men, who after all are our own countrymen and brothers?”

Grant could have celebrated or gloated, but he didn’t. Just as one of the first things discussed with Robert E. Lee at Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House was Grant asking if Lee’s men needed rations. This is another example of Grant’s humility and thoughtfulness.

hu-mil-i-ty (noun): a modest or low view of one's own importance; humbleness

It’s important for all to keep in mind as we go through life, dealing with people and facing adversity. And perhaps one of the greatest lessons each of us can teach others!

Recommended reading for more about Eisenhower and Grant:

Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President by Geofferey Perret (Random House)
Eisenhower: Soldier and President by Stephen Ambrose (Simon & Shuster)

New Year, New Schedule
Marcelle Yeager (C’02), president of Career Valet

It’s almost the New Year. Are you thinking about improving your work/life balance? These days, there are a lot of options when it comes to flexible work arrangements. Before you propose anything to your employer, you need to have a clear picture of what you want and how you propose to maintain productivity and high performance. The key is not to focus solely on you. Attempt not to use the words  “I” and “me” during these conversations. You want to convince your boss that it’s in his or her best interest and that you’ve considered how it will work for him or her. “We” is the mindset you need to have and the term to use as you have these discussions. They won’t be as interested in the “why I want to do this” as the “how I plan to maximize my time.” The most important question to keep in mind as you develop your strategy is: “How will it benefit the company?”

There are different ways a flexible arrangement may benefit the company. For example, if the organization has space constraints. Are there others who work part time or from home with whom you could propose sharing a workspace?

If your company expects you to be on conference calls early in the morning or late in the afternoon, maybe eliminating your long commute makes sense. You will have more time to prepare for the meeting and will not risk being late due to traffic or issues with public transportation. This equals higher productivity.

The company may be looking to expand or contract. You can offer to take on an additional responsibility. However, you must convince your manager that the role matches the flexible schedule you propose. For example, if you want to work from home, then don’t volunteer to be the social activity coordinator. However, you could volunteer to draft new business proposals with your additional time at home versus spending the extra time on the road commuting to and from work.

Before you start planning your strategy, talk to any co-workers with a flexible work schedule and ask about the advantages and disadvantages of their schedules. Also, how did they obtain agreement from your employer?

Here are some options to consider and how to prepare to present them to your employer:

 

  • Working from home. It’s more than likely that your company will not approve working from home full time if your job requires you to be in the office for meetings and face-to-face interaction. However, you may consider asking to work from home one day per week or one day every other week. Provide your boss with specific information about your office at home to assure him or her that you will be available whenever necessary despite being in a different location.
  • Working part time. If you want to scale down your hours, you should have a feasible written proposal prepared to present to your boss. It should include your desired schedule and how you will fulfill your tasks without compromising work quality or creating more work for others. I recommend stating that you will be available for important meetings, even outside of your time frame proposed as long as that is true.

Decide what your ideal situation is before you ask your employer. Is it working 40 hours from Monday through Thursday or working from home one or two days a week? Ask for more than what you want as a starting point. This way you can work down from there. For example, if your ideal situation is working from home one day a week, then suggest working from home two days a week. If your employer says no, then suggest one day a week. In each case, explain how it will benefit the company. If they say no to working from home, you could suggest working Monday through Friday one week and Monday through Thursday the next.

If they disagree with your suggestions, then perhaps it’s time to look for a more flexible job. These days, many companies—big and small—are amenable to such arrangements. Best of luck!

Practicing Mindfulness: Your Competitive Advantage in a Stressed-out World
Janice Levitt (EML’12), founder of Savor Wellness

People working in all sectors of the modern economy face an array of stresses and pressures they could scarcely have imagined when they were first entering the workforce. Globalization, rapid technological change, the deluge of information and the need to assess and assimilate it quickly, relentless competition and the ever-present drive to do more with less all combine to leave most people feeling stressed out more or less constantly.

For those of us in leadership positions, where our decisions affect not just our organizations, but the lives of our employees, their families and the communities in which we live, the stakes are higher and the stresses all the greater. Figuring out how to manage stress and remain both happy and effective across our many roles in life is quite possibly the greatest and yet least appreciated challenge we face in our careers.

We’ve all heard the expression “stress kills,” and in many ways the saying is absolutely correct. Stress produces physiological reactions in the body that not only impair our ability to think clearly, but also reduce our ability to fight off illness. The results: more burnout, increased absenteeism, reduced productivity and higher health care costs. Stress also takes a tremendous toll in our personal lives, including in the relationships with those we care most about. It erodes the quality of our lives and leaves us feeling unbalanced and depleted.

Many of us respond to stress by engaging in behaviors that do not serve us well in the long run (e.g., mindless snacking, skipping meals, smoking or replacing a good night’s sleep with a cup of coffee or a sugary snack). These behaviors actually make the stress cycle worse and we rely more and more on the unhealthy substances to make it to the next deadline.

Understanding stress and, more importantly, the ways in which we as individuals react and respond to it is a central part of the work I do with my clients. At the core of this work is helping people to bring the practice of mindfulness to their everyday lives.

What is mindfulness? Mindfulness is about noticing. It is the ability to pay attention to what is happening in the present moment. The good news is that mindfulness is a learned skill, not an innate quality. Anyone who is willing to devote 5-10 minutes a day to regular practice can reap the benefits.

When you are stressed out, it is impossible to bring your best self to any situation. How can you be fully present with your employees, your clients, your boss or your family when your mind is focused on whatever is causing you stress? How can you really listen when your mind is already working on a response while someone is talking?

Mindfulness techniques offer you a way to recognize that your mind is just doing what it does. In essence you say, “There you go again,” you notice it, and bring your concentration back to your work. In doing so, you become fully present for the person you are with.

Stress also causes us to react rather than respond, and often we later regret our hasty speech or actions.  Through a momentary pause as you bring your attention back to the present moment, you actually have the opportunity to choose how you respond rather than be at the mercy of your emotions. In just a moment of mindful awareness, watching the mind do its thing and observing your breath, you have the opportunity to redirect intense emotions and reframe your response in a clear, constructive manner.

One simple way I teach my clients to begin to engage in mindfulness is through simple breathing techniques. You’d be amazed at how you can reduce your stress and transform your experience just by paying attention to and slowing down your breath. I teach my clients a “5-2-10 breath,” where in any given stressful moment during their day, they can pause and engage in conscious breathing for a few minutes. Simply inhale slowly and deeply for five counts, hold for two counts and exhale slowly for ten counts.

Our regular breathing during the day is extremely shallow. To be able to relax and to think clearly, we really need to be breathing deeply and fully, taking in more oxygen. Making the exhale twice as long as the inhale in this type of meditative conscious breathing will help you to engage the parasympathetic nervous system and trigger the relaxation response. Practice this daily, and it will transform your workday and your relationships.

I also coach my clients to engage mindfulness practices to help them develop healthier, more effective and more sustainable outlets for stress instead of turning to sugar, caffeine and alcohol. Bringing awareness to what is going on in the moment gives you a lot more control over how you respond to your experiences. In this awareness, we can develop healthy behaviors that nurture and support our bodies, our minds and our leadership skills for the long haul—rather than drain them.

I work with a diverse array of clients—lawyers, small business owners, single moms, senior executives and even people who can’t disclose exactly what they do. After all, this is Washington, D.C. I enjoy helping all of them identify, work toward and achieve their personal wellness goals. And I mean wellness in the broadest sense—better balance in their lives, better physical and emotional health, higher levels of personal satisfaction. And in all of the health coaching I’ve done in my business, Savor Wellness, I have never told someone they need to work harder or more quickly. In fact, what I often tell them is just the opposite. I teach people to slow down and to apply the techniques of mindfulness. And above all, to bring awareness to what’s going on in the mind and the body. If you can master the art of noticing, then you’ve got a career advantage that few possess.