Bad Networking Advice to Young Women Professionals & Seven Better Ideas


gear-67138_1280A young woman I’ve been mentoring for a few years told me about a women’s professional forum she recently attended. She is not the type who sees gender issues in every office interaction, and, in fact, she didn’t have much interest in attending this women’s forum.

I come from an earlier generation. As a young female attorney thirty years ago, I was glad of opportunities to speak with older women about how they had handled problems in the workplace and in balancing work and home activities. I appreciated the stories they told of how they coped—with clients, with colleagues, with managers.

The working world is a (mostly) easier place for women now than thirty years ago. But I still believe there is a need for senior women to mentor more junior women. We can all benefit from hearing how people like us have survived and thrived in difficult circumstances—and every career has its share of difficult circumstances.

But some of the advice given at women’s forums is appallingly bad. At the conference my young friend attended, there was a session on networking. Many of the young women in attendance expressed their discomfort with the small talk that networking requires and wanted to know what to talk about.

What were they told? Compliment the women on their hair and shoes; talk to men about sports.

Why would senior women perpetuate this stereotyped view of men’s and women’s interests? Why would experienced women professionals tell their younger colleagues to focus on women’s appearance?

It so happens that my friend is a better athlete than most of her male peers. It so happens that if men were given similar advice—talk to men about sports and women about hair and shoes—they would risk charges of sexual harassment.

Why are we still segregating men and women with the advice we give them?

Here are some much better conversation openers:

1. When meeting someone at a conference, ask what they thought of the last speaker. Or if the introduction takes place before the sessions begin, ask what they hope to get out of the conference.

2. Ask if they’ve ever been to this location before—depending on the circumstances, you could ask about the city, the hotel, or the conference center. Then ask follow-up questions about what they like or dislike about the venue.

3. Try to find shared experiences with the person you are trying to speak with. You can use their clothes as a clue—if you are a runner, ask a person in running clothes if they know of a good running route in the area. But I wouldn’t comment on the “cute top” they have on. If you’re not a runner, stay away from the topic. Remember, the point is to find shared experiences.

4. Another technique is to build empathy. If someone drops something, pick it up, and say, “They’ve given us way too much to carry here.” If someone looks like they’ve lost something, ask, “Can I help you find something?” Be friendly and helpful.

5. You can also find ways to let the other person shine—if they made an intelligent comment during a meeting, let them know, and ask another question on that topic.

6. Once the ice is broken, ask where they grew up. Perhaps you’ve been to that city or state and can take the conversation toward sights you’ve seen there. Or comment on what you’d like to see there. Or ask what they liked best about growing up in that location.

7. If nothing else, talk about the weather. It’s safe. Religion and politics are not, unless you’re at a meeting related to those topics.

But avoid conversation about hair and shoes and clothing and any other personal attributes. At least until you know them better.

Remember, if you couldn’t make the comment to someone of the opposite gender, it probably isn’t appropriate for any networking situation.

For a list of questions that might help (though some of these seem outlandish to me for a first meeting), try 48 Questions That’ll Make Awkward Small Talk So Much Easier, by Aja Frost at TheMuse.com. Even if these particular questions don’t work for you, it is a good idea to have some topics prepared in advance when you know you’re going to have to meet new people.

What bad networking advice have you heard over the years?

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Leadership—Expressing Gratitude to Your Followers


thank-you-515514_1280“Thanksgiving is not a day” Leonard Pitts, Jr., wrote in his November 23, 2016, column.

It certainly is not. The dictionary defines “thanksgiving” as the act of giving thanks. As we return from our family holiday, this point is worth thinking about in the context of our work organizations. Giving thanks should be an every day activity for everyone, but particularly for managers and leaders.

There is one month left in 2016, one month to achieve the remainder of your goals for the year. And how will you do that without your organization? You can’t. Your people will work better if you are appreciative. One month is still 8.33% of the year. That’s enough for your gratefulness for your followers to make a real difference.

Mary Jo Asmus of Aspire Collaborative Services, Inc., goes even further in describing the importance of giving thanks. She says “Gratitude is a verb.”

“When practiced on a daily basis, [gratitude] becomes a verb, with potentially significant impact on your leadership and your life.”

In a November 23, 2014, guest post by Neamat Tawadrous on the Empowerment Moments Blog, Ways In Which Gratitude Can Transform Your Leadership and Influence, the author says:

“Gratitude sees what is good and right with the world . . . . Leaders who see their followers through the lens of gratitude will always see the untapped potential in people and inspire them to achieve what others think is impossible.”

This author says leaders should practice gratitude because gratitude develops success, leads to opportunities, brings peace, and increases trust. For me, this last point is most important:

“When we show others that we value their hard work and contributions, their trust in our leadership and direction increases.”

As leaders, we cannot achieve success without the trust of our followers.

Tom Stevens at Think Leadership Ideas wrote in a post on November 25, 2013, entitled Gratitude Leadership, that

“It’s willing followers who manifest acts of leadership. . . .

“No individual, no leader, does it alone. Great accomplishments, great organizations, and great endeavors exist due to the efforts of multiple people. Often lots of people. Savvy leaders not only feel gratitude, but communicate it effectively.”

We all know that. We just forget sometimes.

To help us remember, Mary Jo Asmus suggests choosing one person to focus on each day.

“Ask yourself, what is it about this person that makes you grateful? Be specific about what you observe.

“What do you sense in yourself as you consider the gratitude that you feel for this person?”

Do this exercise daily, and repeat it when you have run through your entire organization. You are likely to find new insights each time you think about a person. Moreover,

“As you practice this exercise, you may find yourself noticing your gratitude for others in the present moment as you go about your day. You may also notice that you see them differently, and that your relationships with them strengthen. Gratitude for others may begin to become a part of your life.”

Then, once we realize our gratitude for those around us, we must express it. As Ron Thomas wrote in Leadership 101: The Most Powerful Words You Want From Any Leader on TLNT.com on October 1, 2012,

“Thank you! These are welcome words to all of us. . . . an expression of thanks can make all the difference in a business relationship.”

He suggests being specific in your thanks, and using a handwritten note to provide a personal touch to your appreciation.

As for myself, I am thankful for everyone who reads this blog. I first posted over on Blogger in November 2011. I moved to WordPress.com in November 2012. So as November ends, I’ve been blogging for five years. I’ve made new contacts and found old ones through blogging. Along the way, I wrote a novel, which many of you have read and even reviewed. I am grateful to each one of my readers, and especially to those of you who have chosen to follow this blog.

Now, go thank the people with whom you work, particularly those who report to you.

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Favorite Firing: Not All Objections to an Employer’s Practices Are “Protected Activity”


 

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Photograph by Honza Soukup on Flickr

Today’s favorite firing case comes from California, which labor and employment attorneys know is a pro-plaintiff venue. But in Dinslage v. City and County of San Francisco, et al, the employer won a lawsuit because the plaintiff could not proof a prima facie case of retaliation. The case involved the distinction between retaliation for opposing discriminatory employment practices and for opposing other allegedly discriminatory practices of the employer (in this case, practices directed at the public).

 

The Facts: David Dinslage worked for the Recreation and Parks Department in San Francisco for over thirty years until he was laid off during a reduction in force. His duties included overseeing programs for adults and children with disabilities. His group in the Department organized special events for people with disabilities.

During the last few years that Dinslage worked at the Department, his managers made changes to the programs he handled. The primary change was to shift the focus from providing separate, segregated programs to people with disabilities to ensuring all programs were accessible, so that the programs were more inclusive, which the Department believed was the current “best practice” in providing services to the disabled. Therefore, many of the segregated special events Dinslage had organized were eliminated.

In 2009-2010, the Department was reorganized to focus more on inclusion, and also to meet budget reductions and eliminate some staff. Dinslage disagreed with the program changes and ultimately refused to accept and implement the changes his superiors envisioned, resulting in him receiving a lower performance rating.

When his position was eliminated, Dinslage applied for a new position in the Department, but he was not selected. After his forced retirement, he and other employees sued San Francisco.

Dinslage claimed age discrimination, retaliation, and harassment in violation of the FEHA (Cal. Gov. Code §12940, subds. (a), (h), and (j)). He alleged his termination and other adverse actions were based on his age. He also claimed retaliation and harassment based on his age and in retaliation for his objections to the Department’s changes in programs for people with disabilities.

The Moral: The Department and the City won their motion for summary judgment in the Superior Court, and Dinslage appealed. The California Court of Appeals upheld the summary judgment for defendants on both the age discrimination and the retaliation claims. On the retaliation claim, the Court of Appeals held that plaintiff failed to make out a prima facie case, because his opposition to the changes in how the Department offered programs for the disabled was not directed at an unlawful employment practice, and therefore could not support a claim of retaliation.

As quoted in the Court of Appeals opinion, the Superior Court found:

“Defendants have met their burden to show that Plaintiff did not engage in protected activity under the FEHA,” because the “evidence shows that Plaintiff did not speak out against the Defendants for engaging in discriminatory conduct directed at Defendants’ employees.” The court found Dinslage’s evidence “only shows that [he] spoke in public forums regarding his concern that the . . . Department’s reorganization would cause layoffs and the potential negative effects the reorganization would have on members of the public who have disabilities.”

Thus, the trial court found Dinslage had failed to establish the first element of his retaliation claim, because he had not shown he had engaged in protected activity under the FEHA.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court that Dinslage had not stated a prima facie case of retaliation. The appellate court stated:

“For protection under the ‘opposition clause,’ an employee must have opposed an employment practice made unlawful by the statute.”

The employee can state a claim for retaliation

“not only when the employee opposes conduct that ultimately is determined to be unlawfully discriminatory under the FEHA, but also when the employee opposes conduct that the employee reasonably and in good faith believes to be discriminatory, whether or not the challenged conduct is ultimately found to violate the FEHA.”

The employee’s belief must be both subjectively and objectively reasonable.

But the Court of Appeals found that Dinslage’s objections to what he considered to be unwise and/or improper actions by the Department were insufficient to allege that he had opposed activity protected under FEHA. The Court of Appeals cited cases involving plaintiffs who had complained about police conduct against the general public and about their employer’s environmental practices. Because these were not employment practices, objections to such practices could not state a claim under FEHA.

Thus, the Court of Appeals said,

“Neither the ‘unlawful practice’ nor the ‘good faith belief’ requirement is satisfied where the practice complained of was not directed at employees but, instead, was directed to individuals who are not in an employment relationship with the defendant.” (citing Taneus v. Brookhaven Memorial Hosp. Medical Center (E.D.N.Y. 2000)).

The Court held that Dinslage could not

“reasonably have believed his actions constituted protected activity, because there is no dispute his opposition was not directed at the Department’s employment practices.”

This case is good news for employers. It clarifies both that the only activities that can support a claim for retaliation under FEHA are objections to employment-related practices, that the plaintiff must reasonably believe that he or she is opposing a discriminatory practice under FEHA, and that the plaintiff’s belief must be both subjectively and objectively reasonable.

Have you ever dealt with a retaliation claim where the Dinslage holding might be helpful?

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After the Election, Let’s Hope for Reconciliation, Not Gridlock


Well, the election last Tuesday didn’t produce gridlock, as I had hoped for two weeks ago. Frankly, when I wrote that post about gridlock, I fully anticipated a Clinton victory. I wasn’t eagerly awaiting that outcome, but that was what I thought would happen. I hoped for gridlock to contain the continued Democratic excesses I think have occurred in the last eight years.

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Donald Trump, photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr

Now that the President-elect is Donald Trump, do I still hope for gridlock? No. I am no more of a fan of Donald Trump’s than I was before the election, but I now hope for reconciliation.

I hope Republicans can develop a reasonable agenda. Not an agenda that pushes too far right. Not a wacky foreign policy that abandons our nation’s position in the world. But an agenda that earnestly works to improve the economic standing of all Americans.

I hope Republicans preserve the freedoms they value—religious freedom, gun rights, and a broad interpretation of the First Amendment—while also preserving freedoms for Americans who do not typically vote Republican—Muslim Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, non-Christian minorities, the LGBT community, and others who feel marginalized by the election results.

I also hope the Republican majorities in Congress will reach across the aisle to pull in Democrats’ ideas on solutions to the thorny problems facing our nation. Many Trump supporters only have to remember how they felt after the excesses of the Obama Administration to understand how Clinton supporters feel now. I hope Republicans learned a lesson from how they felt in 2008-2010, when a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate permitted Democrats to enact laws (including Obamacare) without any input from Republicans.

“Turn about is fair play” is not a good governing strategy for Republicans now.

I’m not optimistic. Not about the Republicans’ ability to work together within their party, nor about their ability to compromise with Democrats. I still would not be surprised to see gridlock. Perhaps not in the traditional sense of placing the Presidency and Congress in the hands of different parties. But Democrats in the Senate are likely to use filibusters and other procedural rules to retain a minority check on Republicans. And the Republicans will probably have difficulty uniting around an agenda. Gridlock is still quite possible.

Still, I hope I’m as wrong in my pessimism as I was about Hillary Clinton becoming the 45th President.

What is your hope for our nation in the next four years?

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The Magic of Mediation


cloke-coverI recently attended a presentation by Kenneth Cloke, author of The Crossroads of Conflict: A Journey into the Heart of Dispute Resolution (and other books). Mr. Cloke is also the Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution. His presentation was for mediators, and he asked the audience of practicing mediators and students of mediation whether any of us had experienced the magic of mediation. Many hands went up, including mine. There are times during a mediation when a corner is turned, the impasse is broken, and the parties shift from argument toward resolution.

Then Mr. Cloke asked if we knew how to create the magic—to make it happen every time. And, of course, none of us did. Not really. We just knew that sometimes it happens, sometimes it seems that we did something that helped, and sometimes the parties get there with little or no assistance from the mediator.

In fact, Mr. Cloke said he didn’t know how to create the magic either. Not reliably. But, he said, there are things that mediators can do to increase the likelihood of the magic happening.

The first time I experienced the magic of mediation was not as a mediator, but as an attorney. The mediator in that case moved the plaintiff employee in a discrimination lawsuit from wanting to be promoted to agreeing to resign, in exchange for a reasonable severance payment and a few other terms. Although most of the work was done in caucus with the plaintiff, the mediator convinced this employee it was in his best interest to leave our company and start working in another field where he could pursue his passion. Hard work for the plaintiff and for the mediator, but I’m sure the man benefited from the change—we are all better off when we work in a job we love with people who think we are doing a good job.

That case was what convinced me of the value of trying mediation in almost any dispute. If a mediator could help an individual move so far in a single day (albeit a long day), then it is worth trying to resolve any lawsuit through mediation.

  • During my years as a mediator, when I have seen the magic happen, it has usually been when the parties stop talking to me and start talking to each other.
    In one case, two branches of a family realized their family relationships were more important than the money one owed the other. They focused on preserving their relationship, and the plaintiff gave up her monetary claim, leading the defendant to make non-monetary concessions the plaintiff needed.
  • In another case, two long-term friends realized that litigation over a transaction between the two of them had gone bad was not the answer. They acknowledged that their friendship was probably over, but they decided it would be better if they just walked away from the dispute. I had proposed that as the only answer I saw—they were beyond being able to agree to the facts—but I was surprised to hear first one and then the other of them agree to this solution.
  • And in a third case, parties to a business dispute, who had not previously discussed settlement, were both able to discuss the matter rationally as soon as they got together. My presence was superfluous, other than to require them to be in the same room for the mediation. I wondered why a lawsuit had been filed in the first place.

Sometimes, a mediator can contribute to the magic, but usually all the mediator does is to help the parties look inside themselves and think about what is most important to them. When people realize that their dispute has taken over their lives, when they would rather be focused on other things, then the case can settle.

A mediator mostly helps by listening. A few guiding questions can get the parties talking and thinking. Questions such as:

1. Why is that important to you?
2. What did you expect to happen that would have avoided this conflict?
3. What would you like to have happen now?
4. Why do you care about this problem at this time?
5. Will you ever convince the other side you are right? If not, when will you stop trying?
6. What will happen if you don’t resolve your dispute?
7. What will change if you do resolve your dispute?
8. What are you not talking about that you still need to discuss?

The types of questions that can promote dialogue between the parties are endless. The point is to probe beneath the accusations and judgments that are where the parties begin. Often, these patterns in communication have gone on for years, so it might take time to get beyond them. Still, I wait in every case for the moment when the parties turn to each other. Then, maybe the magic can happen.

Mediators, when have you felt the magic of mediation?

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The Best We Can Hope for Is Gridlock


vote-stars1In some states, voting has been underway for weeks. For the rest of us, we have to endure this presidential election campaign for another eight days. A truly ghoulish proposition this Halloween.

For almost all of us, it has been a miserable year. We have two of the least liked candidates for President in our nation’s history. Both have flaws as candidates, with the flaws evident in their personal traits, in their histories in public life, and in their positions on issues. New evidence of their flaws surfaces almost daily, with the latest being the FBI’s announcement on October 28 of its renewed investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.

I’ve written before about the difficulty of choosing between two bad options. I keep remembering the quote from Thomas Merton I included in that earlier post: “an evil choice can never have wholly good consequences.”

The more we have learned about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump over the last year, the more difficult the choice has become. I’ve made my decision. I’ve considered the four candidates on every state’s ballot. I’ve considered not voting in the presidential race (but I’ve rejected not voting at all, for reasons described below). I’m not going to disclose here how I’ll cast my vote in the presidential race, because this year in particular there is no good decision, and I do not fault anyone for reaching a different conclusion than I do.

Instead, the purpose of this post is to urge voters to make independent and thoughtful decisions when they select their choices for all races on the ballot. This is not a year to blindly vote a straight party ticket to avoid making choices in down-ballot races. Whatever the reasons a voter has for choosing a presidential candidate—or for not choosing anyone in that race—there are separate reasons to consider Congressional, state and local races.

Our Constitution deliberately sets up checks and balances on each branch of the federal government. The framers must have considered the potential for unsavory candidates for President. Frankly, having Congress and the Supreme Court as checks on the presidential candidates we have before us this year sounds like a good plan to me.

We’ve had gridlock in Washington for the past six years since Republicans gained the majority in the House of Representatives in 2010. The split deepened in 2014 when Republicans took control of the Senate as well. And it hasn’t been all bad. A lot of people fume about nothing getting done in Washington. But getting nothing done is certainly better than getting the wrong things done. Witness the problems with Obamacare and Dodd-Frank after unfettered Democratic actions between 2008 and 2010.

Those of us who were extremely frustrated at the lack of any effective conservative voice in opposition to President Obama between 2008 and 2010 were happy to see gridlock for the remainder of his presidency. Yes, there are important issues that have been kicked down the road for future leaders. That isn’t good, but again, it is better than resolving these issues in the wrong way.

At this point, the best outcome I see for the next four years is continued gridlock. Because I do not trust either of the individuals likely to be our next President to act wisely (meaning, usually in accordance with my beliefs), I hope that Congress and the Supreme Court will continue to check actions that do not appeal to the majority of our nation or that go beyond the Constitutional powers granted to the President.

I might hope for compromise between divided branches of government, and perhaps that is possible. But I would be satisfied with gridlock, given the alternative.

So choose your candidates for the House and Senate with care. If you don’t have a good option for President, perhaps you have reasonable men and women to vote for in these other federal races. And choose your candidates for state and local races thoughtfully also—these elected officials have a tremendous impact on your daily life, and we can hope that the best of them will be our next national leaders as well. Choose people who will represent you better than the presidential candidates we have.

Whatever you believe, vote on or before November 8. Make your choices thoughtfully and deliberately in every race on the ballot.

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Planning and Leadership: You Get What You Plan For


leadership-1714497_1280The title of a recent TLNT article caught my attention—“Leadership Takes a Plan”—so I read it. The article was good (most of the TLNT articles posted on eremedia.com are good), but I was surprised at the direction author Randy Hall took in “Leadership Takes a Plan.” I had expected recommendations for how leaders should communicate with their staffs and organizations.

The leaders I worked for focused on communications, and that has been my focus also. I think of leadership as a hierarchical thing, while Mr. Hall focused on leaders as mentors and developers of people—a very important aspect of leadership. I was somewhat embarrassed to realize how narrow my first reaction to the article’s title had been.

In the article, Mr. Hall says that leaders need a plan for how they will mentor people. Leaders should schedule their mentoring, have a strategy or process for developing people, and measure the results of how protegés develop. All valid points.

I’ve written before about the importance of discretionary time, and I come back to the concept over and over again as I plan my weeks and months and as I make daily choices in how to spend my time. Like Mr. Hall, I believe that if you don’t put things on your calendar, then they must not be important. Scheduling planning time is important to me. I schedule daily (or at least weekly) time to work for long-range projects. And, as Mr. Hall says, it’s important to schedule time to meet with people you are mentoring. Do you have regular meetings set with your protegés?

The strategy for developing people may be more difficult. You probably need individual plans for each person you are actively mentoring. Some might need work on their communications skills, so getting together before and after presentations or other major communications opportunities might be important. Other protegés might be working on their project management skills, so periodic check-ins to discuss their project plans might be needed. And sometimes protegés might not even know you are actively focused on their development (though transparency will probably have a bigger impact), so regular meetings with no set agenda might work.

Lastly, Mr. Hall recommends measuring results. With people development, that can be a difficult task. Still, there are ways to set measurable goals—a certain number of opportunities to present, readiness for the next promotion, favorable reactions from certain managers and executives on a presentation, etc. The point is to think about what success looks like on the person’s development, and then plan your plan to reach that result.

As I’ve reflected on his article, I’ve realized that the point Mr. Hall makes—that you need to plan how you will develop people—is crucial in everything we do. Yes, it is important for developing people. But it is equally important for corporate communications—where I thought initially he was taking his article. And planning is important for accomplishing long-range projects. And for everything else.

With everything you want to get done, you need to articulate what you want to accomplish. Then put it on your calendar, have a strategy, and measure your results.

What do you need to spend some time planning? Do you need to focus on scheduling it, developing a strategy, or measuring results?

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