leadership dot #2538: outlining

I spent my three-day weekend writing an 80-page federal grant. The hardest part? Creating an outline of what I was going to write.

We had been talking about this project for weeks and I had input from numerous collaborators on what content should be included. The government provides a proposal outline of course, but my challenge was synthesizing all the ideas into a cohesive outline to follow when writing. It took four sheets of flip chart paper with two columns each and a full day to compile but in the end, it made the writing process so much easier.

By outlining, I don’t mean a rigid sequence or the use of Roman numerals, rather a bullet list of points to make in the anticipated or approximate order. It becomes liberating instead of restrictive.

When faced with a large project, it’s often tempting to jump right in. That may work for some people, but my time is better spent investing in the front end. Once you have an outline, it’s like punching in the GPS coordinates to your destination – much faster to follow a route than to get lost on the way.

leadership dot #2516: small stuff

I had an interesting conversation with someone who has just made a career change to become a Realtor. She described the extensive training that went into the process – courses online and in multiple cities, several tests and licensing in different jurisdictions.

I asked what surprised her and she had two answers: 1) that there was a lot of math, “as in a lot” and 2) when she finished, she still had not been taught how to do a listing. She could calculate the area of a plot of land and been tested on zoning regulations but was never shown how to put a property up for sale.

I think that our onboarding processes are sometimes like this – we get so caught up in explaining the big picture that we forget that new employees need to know the most mundane set of details as well: where do I get a key and ID, who do I call if I can’t make it into work, how do I buy things, what is the password for the computer, where do people eat lunch, etc. It is by understanding these small tasks that a new employee feels like they belong and are less of a rookie.

Even before they arrive, anticipate the questions a new staff member will have for Day 1: when should I arrive, where should I park, where should I go when I arrive, what is the typical dress code, what type of HR paperwork do I need to bring, do people eat lunch out or bring theirs in, etc.

If you find yourself in a new situation, the details are what help you build a solid foundation from which you can do the higher-level thinking. Don’t overlook the small stuff when welcoming someone new to your organization.

leadership dot #2266: user manuals

After you have worked for or with someone for a while you learn their work style – and the quirks and preferences that comprise it. But why make people wait or make your colleagues guess how you do your best work?

It is becoming more popular to provide a “user manual” as part of the onboarding or transition process to help others know how to most effectively work with you. User manuals are frequently compiled with information from someone other than you – by asking current people who report to you what it is really like as one of your direct reports or colleagues. A user manual shares information about how you prefer to work with people and preferences that may help new staff to know about your style right from the beginning rather than after months of experience.

An example of some of the comments from a direct report that are included in my user manual:

  • She believes that nothing is sacred…meaning that just because we’ve done something a certain way, it’s encouraged to ask why or offer a new solution.
  • She makes decisions…sometimes too quickly, which can be frustrating when it’s not the decision you want. However, you can make your case and she will listen. 
  • She is extremely organized, and always follows through. I have NEVER met someone who follows up like she does. If she asks you to do something, she will hold you accountable to it.

Wharton professor Adam Grant wrote about compiling a user manual and suggests asking others these questions when you are gathering information:

  • What brings out the best in me?
  • What brings out the worst in me?
  • What do you see as my strengths and weaknesses?
  • What are my blind spots?
  • If tomorrow was your first day working with me, what information about my personality would help you work with me more effectively?

 Overall, compiling a user manual is an enlightening experience – it’s both fascinating to hear how others describe your style and illuminating for new colleagues to have their expectations more closely aligned to the reality of working with you. Take some of the guesswork out of your working relationships and share the good, bad and even ugly up front.

For additional information and examples, click here.

leadership dot #2248: rangers

The Gateway Arch grounds cover 192 acres, making it difficult for the Park Rangers to be visible and present at all times. To help expand their presence, the National Park Service instituted a Bark Ranger program where trained volunteers and their canine companions can walk the grounds provide service and observations when the official Rangers are unavailable. At the Arch, Bark Rangers monitor the ground and answer questions for tourists. At Glacier National Park, the Bark Rangers keep visitors away from the goats!

Apparently, many downtown residents routinely walk their dogs throughout the park, and this is an ingenious way to capitalize on their willingness to be a resource. For the price of a bandana and t-shirt, the Park Service unleashed dedicated fans to help them. Who is using your service already that you could more formally deploy to assist your organization?

leadership dot #2237: left side

I often draw a line down the page in my notebook that allows me to create two sections upon which to take notes. In the right column (approximately two-thirds of the page), I take traditional notes about the content of the workshop or meeting that I am attending. But in the left column, I make notes about the process of what is occurring. For example, if it is a training program, I may make notes about exercises to use in the future or training techniques that were utilized; at a meeting, I may note related ideas that the content sparks such as following up with someone about a comment they made or a dot idea that the discussion inspired.

This note-taking method has served me especially well at times when my mind is not stimulated by the content at hand. It causes me to pay more attention and to push myself to consider other implications about what I am hearing – even if that means theorizing about why the gathering is not going well.

I think this method can also be applied to the interview and hiring process. The traditional job description will outline things for the “right side” of the page – whether or not the candidate has the skills to accomplish the basic responsibilities. But a truly great employee needs to contribute on the “left side” of the page as well – providing unexpected insights, making connections and showing a fit with the culture of the institution. The two-column method can heighten your listening and make you more aware of whether the candidate does or does not possess the intangible traits that will distinguish them as an employee.

The next time you find yourself in a situation where you are taking notes, push yourself to do more than write down an abbreviated transcript of what is spoken. Use your second column to critically reflect and make meaning of the time you are spending in the session.

leadership dot #2170: excavating

At the La Brea Tar Pits Museum, there is a working paleontology laboratory that manages the sorting, classification and archiving of the bone and plant remains that are found in the tar pits. Rather than be hidden in the bowels of the building as some behind-the-scenes functions are, this lab is glass enclosed and the work is in full view of the visitors.

People can see the scientists painstakingly sorting through deposits with a small artist’s paintbrush, looking for the bone remnants that may be found within them. The facility has over 1 million specimens from 650 species logged and categorized with the specific date and quadrant in which they were found.

I watched the sorting process for about a minute and already was bored. I can’t even imagine a job where you peer through a microscope dusting off a handful of sediment looking for a bone chip with a paintbrush. Then I learned that those performing the tasks are volunteers! The lab only has three paid staff with the remaining work done by those who willingly donate their time to do it.

The La Brea Tar Pits are a great example of matching interests with needs. They have developed a way to recruit and train those with an interest in their work, and to do it at a consistent enough level to run the operation.

There is a job for everyone. How can your organization excavate the talent pool to pair the work with those most interested in performing it – even if they are doing it for free?

leadership dot #2160: for us

“Do you have any questions for us?” It’s a common question in the interview process and one that trips up a surprising number of candidates.

There is a fine line between asking questions to which you really want to know the answer (like “how much is the pay?” and “is my boss-to-be a jerk?”) and asking questions which advance your candidacy and establish you as a professional.

I believe that most questions at this juncture should be job-specific. Hopefully, you have done enough research to know more than a surface level about the organization and can ask questions that show your insight. It has often been said that you should think of your interview as your first day on the job, and so it is appropriate to formulate your inquiries in a similar way. Ask about the “why” regarding certain things or seek clarification where you have conflicting information.

A key rule for the questions you ask: they should not be something you could know without asking. In other words, don’ ask anything that you could have found out on your own if you had invested the time.

To help you from being tongue-tied at this crucial interview moment, I have developed a list of 25 questions that the candidate can adapt to ask the employer. You should have a written list prepared; some specific to the interviewer and others where it is good to ask everyone and compare responses.

Don’t discount the importance of asking good questions. The insight that candidates showed through what they asked has made the difference for many hires.