All posts by - sheila

My Life in an Electronic Vacuum: Seeking Balance

The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.

Have you heard anyone say this?  Finding a work/life balance is getting harder and harder, and the paradox for me is that the tools which are intended to convenience me, are the reason why I am losing my ability to carve out personal time for myself and my family.

Outside my back door is the raised vegetable garden I built by hand.  It is beautifully constructed, if I do say so myself, and this summer it has produced a dizzying array of produce. In these waning post-season days I can look out my second floor office window and see that there are cucumbers still on the vine, eggplant galore, and lettuce that is overgrown, and if I had the time I would go there to pick them, clean up the garden, ready it for winter.  Did I say that the garden is only steps from my back door?  Are you asking yourself why I haven’t tended the garden lately, or have you figured it out already?  Stuck in my office, I have many reasons why I do not visit my garden and enjoy its abundance, and all of them are electronic.

Are you tethered to your gadgets?

My day begins with several activities, in this order:  Turn on the computer, pour a cup of coffee, return to the computer and read my email – from all five email addresses.  I have two email addresses for the online school I attend, and from which I will soon have earned my M.B.A. in Internet Marketing; I have two personal email addresses, one that I have owned for 20 years and a newer one to which I am beginning to direct traffic – if for no reason other than every spam artist in the world has found the first; and finally, I have an email address for work.  Sometimes, between the time I go to bed and the time I begin reading the emails, 100 or more communiques have landed in their respective boxes. Once I am finished reading, deleting, or responding, I move on to the cell phone to check for text messages, and from there I check my two calendars, one for work and one for school, so I can begin to map out the day. At this point I am into the second or third cup of coffee.  I take a short break, maybe play a field or two on Angry Birds, and I begin the next phase of the morning. The rest of the day is spent at the computer, moving from program to program, to fulfill work and school commitments.

Online education is not easy, mostly because of the heavy reading and writing loads.  It is not unusual to be assigned a couple of hundred textbook pages to read each week plus case study research, and a heavy writing schedule to boot.  Then there is the blog project, for which this post is designed; it also takes time and thought. Research on the computer to verify the accuracy of information we share on the blog is necessary to maintain the integrity of the project.

My job carries its own burden of responsibility and thankfully I have a very understanding boss, who happens to teach online classes and therefore understands how tough it can be to manage one’s time effectively while maintaining good grades.  My job is with an online marketing firm which provides pro-bono services to non-profit groups in need of sustainable, capacity-building systems to manage their organizations.  I work in a virtual environment, with internet-connected teams of people, and often have direct contact with clients, too.  This means that we meet frequently online, in a virtual office environment, we share documents, and apart from these activities we are each responsible for blogging about social change initiatives, and we monitor and generate social media campaigns through the use of online digital dashboards.

Throughout the day I continue to monitor and respond to emails, intra-office messages, contribute to discussions on client projects, and answer telephone calls.

My day typically ends when my husband arrives from work around 9PM, and for the hour or so we spend catching up or watching a TV program, I am returning text messages and monitoring emails from my cell phone.  The last thing I do before turning in for the night, is check the computer one last time.

I joke about the day when I am finally free of school and working at a full time marketing job; I say it will feel like I am on vacation.  Secretly though, I fear that the time vacuum created by graduation will be filled with some other online, smartphone, blog, or tablet-based activity, and the cycle will continue, the electronic noose will grow tighter, and the concept I currently hold about what personal time is will no longer be a reality,  only a fond memory.

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Online Education: Older Students Learn to Fit In – Virtually

In my college career I have spent equal amounts of time in brick-and-mortar universities and online universities. Today I am nearing completion of an M.B.A., with a concentration in Internet Marketing, the wave of the future, and a world wherein virtual offices are common.  I mention this because it is important to understand the benefits of online education, beyond the obvious convenience factors.

If you are over 50 and still in school, this story might resonate with you.

Make the right decision the first time:  Getting into law school is no easy feat; students with degrees from lofty universities are turned away each year, unable to score high enough on the LSAT or to pass the scrutiny of admissions boards.  I was one of few lucky applicants who made it through the vetting and gained a seat.      Like any other prospective student I was anxious to see and feel the schools I applied to, and in the year leading up to my admission I toured campuses and spoke with law school admissions representatives.  You are probably saying, “So?  What is so unusual about this?” The answer is that in every face-to-face encounter I had with admissions folk and other prospective students, it was assumed that I was a parent, not an applicant.  Despite my carefully colored hair, and my hip-for-campus-yet-still-appropriate clothing, there was no hiding the fact that I was decades past the typical age of someone seeking new, relevant credentials with which to gain employment, which was my aim, indeed my need, as I passed through mid-life into my golden years.  If I did not already suspect I would not fit in, it was made very clear when, speaking with an Assistant Dean of Admissions from a prominent Texas law school I was told, “You can get through law school, but you won’t be able to practice in the area you are attracted to – because of your age you will not only be denied the job, but you probably won’t even get the interview.”  I was floored.  Did he really say that to me?  Is it legal to say that?  Needless to say, I did not get into that law school, despite having a GPA of 3.98 and excellent references.

 Has anyone ever tried to hold you back from your dreams?

Ironically, after fighting so hard to gain admittance to law school, once there I hated the curriculum and eventually withdrew. I was not a good fit, for all kinds of reasons, but chiefly because I could see my future in the legal environment through the course studies, and I dreaded the idea that I would be stuck there forever; I loved law, but I didn’t want to become a lawyer.

Seek Progress, not Perfection: I am going to digress here and go back to the time I attended brick-and-mortar, over age 40, and anxious to complete my education.  For 3 ½ years I commuted the 5 hour round trip drive to earn the degree I finally was awarded – again with honors – and the experience was a nightmare.  Older than all of my colleagues and many of my professors, I was shown again and again, how I didn’t fit with the college norm.  One professor suggested I think about whether I wanted to endure the rigor of starting a new career at my age, and the students simply shut me out – I was not someone they could relate to, and because my age near their parents’ age, they didn’t want to try.  It was a lonely time, and a younger student confronted with these non-too-subtle roadblocks might have quit; I did not, I had the same goal then that I have today, and I am hell bent to reach it.  In that regard my age probably works for me, because peer pressure becomes less of an issue when we age.

I successfully completed the undergraduate program I described above, and I don’t count the left turn I made into law school because I recognize that my ego was more in play than I was willing to admit at the time.  Still, I wasn’t finished gaining the education I need to compete in today’s high pace, technology-driven world.  When I examined my options after leaving law school, it was obvious to me that I should pursue a field I have experience with – I have a background in advertising – and I should do so through a college or university that would provide me with the best educational options, and the fewest social hurdles.  I chose another online program, this time offered by a tier-one university, known for its superior research training, and where all of the professors hold doctorate degrees or a PhD.

Keep an eye on the future: Online education is, in my opinion, far more demanding than brick-and-mortar. A side benefit is that everyone is on a level playing field – age is a non-issue.  The self-discipline and time management you must employ to succeed, indeed to meet deadlines each week, are more exacting than any you have encountered in traditional universities.  In my program the reading can exceed two hundred pages every week, and the writing is detailed, formal and scholarly, requiring a fine-tuned, efficient, and organized approach to synthesizing data.  The graduating M.B.A. today has learned about the new office culture: the adoption of virtual office environments and the corporate norm of virtual team project management. Both of these disciplines are employed in the online education environment.  As such, it is my belief that a student graduating from a respected university’s online program will be better prepared for the corporate culture of tomorrow, than will their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

Please join the conversation:  Do you have an opinion about how online education prepares you for the office of today and tomorrow?  

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Learning to Lead: Advice for New Managers

Experience is a great educator; nearly everything I know about being a manager I have learned from the mistakes I have made, or the successes I have stumbled upon. To help a new manager avoid some of the pitfalls I have fallen into,  I want to talk about what it means to be a manager and what it takes to be a leader, two very distinct identities.

I do not believe that you have to be a manager to be an effective leader.  On the other hand, I do not think you can be an effective manager unless you are an effective leader.  I read once that the difference between the two is that a leader is born, and a manager is trained.  Do you agree with this?  I don’t.   I think it is possible to learn how to lead – look at the military if you don’t believe me – but in military environments the option to not follow orders does not exist, and therein lays the rub.  This is not true in a non-military environment, and by many accounts, it will often be the most talented of your team who will be least inclined to accept directives.

New managers are sometimes challenged with learning the nuances of leadership through trial and error, as I had to learn them. When a new manager is confronted with the unanticipated push-back from the staff, the new manager is left to wonder why.   In what can seem like a live ammunition testing ground, a new manager’s authority, judgment and decisions will sometimes be undermined or ignored, and more often than not, it is the manager’s fault.

New managers must reject the notion that their title confers authority, although it might seem counter-intuitive to the newly minted manager. That the manager can produce results and exhibit competence is more important to the personalities in his department than his professional title.  In an adaptation of the “Wall Street Journal Guide to Management” by Alan Murray, published by Harper Business, Harvard Business School Professor Linda Hill also emphasizes that a manager’s title confers nothing, and that earning trust and respect is more important than the business moniker he is assigned.

So where does effective leadership begin?  It begins with inspiration and motivation – of yourself and others, but especially others.  Leadership takes time to develop, if it happens at all, and a leader is not promoted into the role.  The leader is the person to whom others turn for guidance, encouragement, and reassurance.  The leader is the person who, through deed or personality, as gained the trust and the confidence of the team.  Leaders do not manage, they lead. Simple enough to say, but the details are in the execution, and all too often the person charged with managing a group is not, in fact, the leader.  Most assuredly it isn’t the newly minted manager.

There are a multitude of reasons why the new manager is not likely to be accepted as a leader right off the starting line.  First, a new manager is simply that – new – and “new” hasn’t been there long enough for anyone to know him, let alone trust his competence, strength of personality, or commitment to his team.  Next, the new manager is learning on the job.  It is a stressful position for someone without many tools in his managerial toolbox; it is fraught with career dangers.  The manager is in the unenviable position of high scrutiny – from the top and from the bottom – and not unlike walking a tightrope, he has to find his balance or risk falling.  There is also the human factor, which occurs anytime a new personality enters an established culture, the equilibrium is upset and it takes time to right it.

If you are a new manager I offer this advice:  Take it easy.  Don’t wear the manager label like a badge of authority. Try to understand the disruption your presence brings to the norm, and work to establish relationships, without focuses so much on establishing a hierarchy.  Help your staff get to know you, help them learn to trust you, and find a way to fit in; it is, after all, their office too, and they were there before you.  If you do all of these things with confidence, integrity, and honesty, you will begin to earn trust and eventually a loyal following.  At the point when that happens, you may even begin to become a leader.

 

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