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5 Ways To Counteract Those DC Stereotypes

Photo of the National Archives Building by WallyG via Flickr

For those of us in the metro D.C. area, it's sometimes hard to see ourselves "outside-in." As in outside the Beltway, in New York or California or Florida or the Midwest.

You might not actually care about perceptions of Washingtonians naturally. Except there are a few reasons to do so. For one thing, bias against the federal worker ("lazy, overpaid, incompetent") means automatic negative judgment when budget times get tough.

For another, it just doesn't feel good to be laughed at. Hey - we Feds are people too!

It occurs to me that maybe we government employees don't know how to fight those stereotypes. It's not - to me - about saying what we're entitled to but rather proving our worth every single day. A totally different paradigm than what people are used to hearing from us.

Here are a few ideas:

1. Think private sector. Dress & think corporate. Get that MBA or at least read the business journals.

2. Air things out a little with partnerships. Federal, state, local is only part of the story. We should be working with the private sector, engaging entrepreneurs, bringing in the interns. D.C. should be an open door for the rest of the country to get engaged in government.

3. Make customer service our #1 priority. We are paid by the taxpayer, we serve the taxpayer, we ought to be delivering on what they need. Similarly inside our Agencies we ought to be falling all over ourselves to help out our colleagues - let's get the work done. No more "I don't handle that" type of talk. If you get called about an issue, it becomes your issue, even if only to direct someone to the person who really ought to help.

4. Be a living brand ambassador for good government. There are always going to be things going on you disagree with. You're a citizen too. But that has nothing to do with your commitment to doing public service the right way. In every interaction take the time to explain what you do. Do this in terms that make sense to the person you're talking to. You don't have to proselytize for Administration policies but rather for the concept of a highly functional civil service.

5. Be yourself on social media. All of us government employees are specialists in subjects that have both public and private sector applications. Yet we are all part of a special family as well. (Don't laugh when I say "special" OK? I hear you.) It's important when you're out there "branding yourself" to establish your professional expertise, that you also are unafraid to stand up as a proud member of the civil service. Of course you have to follow the law and ethics rules - you don't ever want to speak for your Agency, for example, unless you are a designated representative. And you should use a disclaimer - "all opinions my own." But nothing prevents you from making it clear that you have a lot of value to contribute. Go ahead and do it, in a positive and direct way.

There will always be snots who throw those "Walmart is more efficient than government" emails your way. But a lot of that has to do with jealousy and frustration.

If you are a "govie," hold your head high. You're worth it.

Toughen Up

That's right. I'm tough. Like Hilary Swank in "Million Dollar Baby.

Once when I was a little girl I scraped my knee and started crying.

"Turn off the waterworks," my mother said. "Toughen up."

As a tween I went to a new summer camp one year and got bullied.

"I want to come home," I sobbed into the phone. "I HATE these people. They're horrible."

"Forget it," said my mom. "You're not sitting in your room all summer. Handle it."

I had a boss once who was particularly cruel. "I'm going for that promotion," I told a coworker, referring to a job opening we both knew about and were qualified for. "I deserve it after all of this."

"Oh yeah?" the coworker responded. "I've been here for thirty years putting up with that crap. Get in line."

All of us fall, all the time, every day. And we figuratively punched in the face too. By people who sense weakness and respond to it with blows.

It stinks but at some point all of us are ignorant, or innocent. And somebody else makes us pay. "Open your eyes or open your wallet."

What can we do to protect ourselves? Or to recover after the fact?

I saw a friend the other day. She said, "How's it going?"

"Fine," I said. "Why?"

"Because last time I saw you, you had me worried."

"Oh," I said. "Which crisis was that?"

And then I explained why I seemed so serene.

"This thing that was worrying me," I explained, "I had nightmare after nightmare about it. Literally."

"And then what?" She leaned in close.

"And then I woke up one day and I just didn't care anymore."

It was true. I just reached the end of my worrying capacity. I was free.

"Wow. I've got to try that."

"Yeah, well I don't think you can bring on nightmares like homeopathy."

"Nah. Probably not."

And we sat back and reflected together.

"How come you never eat anything at lunch? It makes me uncomfortable."

"I'm worried I am gonna get fat."


Have a good weekend everybody. Stay cool.

The Unit of Work Is The Project (Email = Dangerous Crutch)

Even the most creative solo endeavors are really projects. Photo via Wikimedia.

Just wanted to take a minute and share briefly the kinds of conversations I'm having lately, about how the nature of work is changing.
Basically there seems to be a growing recognition that organizing your work around email is not the best way to go.
This is because email, in government, has become a kind of crutch for communication. Think of all the things it does:
  • It documents conversations in case there is an argument later
  • It gives us a kind of dashboard where we can see all the fires we have to put out for that day
  • It enables us to communicate without having to go through the labor of listening (as most people prefer to talk than have to sit there while someone goes on and on)
At this point, in the government, it does not seem that the faster mode of communication (instant chat) or the more efficient one from a knowledge management standpoint (Sharepoint and the like) have caught on. For the following reasons, again this is just my observation:
  • Younger people (e.g. Millennials and Generation Z) have Baby Boomers for bosses, mostly, and Boomers intensely dislike chat. Intensely.
  • Sharepoint seems cumbersome compared with the speed of email - this is true for everyone.
  • Project management software and Gantt charts are intimidating.
  • There is near-universal lack of literacy with the principles of knowledge management. People don't think about tagging their data, for example, archiving and indexing it...the more advanced among us tend to create file folders in the collaboration space, containing documents that we hope others can access later.
There are of course solutions where you can integrate chat, social networking, document management and knowledge management but this is not yet part of the mainstream discourse at government agencies. It's all sort of theoretically interesting, but puzzling both in terms of the thinking (work is fun?) and the policy (how would we write it)?
Complicating everything is the new world of mobile. Many of us already live on our devices, but whereas the Blackberry model was linear and simple (answer your email, it's saved in Outlook) the iPhone/iPad model gets more complicated, simply because you can do a lot more things on the technology and there is more crossover between work and home if you're using your own device for work.
The main thing I'm trying to communicate to people in this transitional time is that you can master your time by changing the way you think about work. Instead of focusing on answering the email as so many of us do - simply because there is an urgency to everything - focus on treating each instance of work as a project. 
Don't think that you can't understand Microsoft Project. Nobody can.
Rather, think about work the way consultants do. As follows - and thanks to KM expert Margaret Harrelson for helping me to figure this out and especially #5, which is the key to the whole thing:
1 - Who are your clients
2 - What are your clients asking you to do
3 - Each time your client asks you to get something done it's a project
4 - Every project gets a dedicated "task" line in a shared environment (like Sharepoint)
5 - The "task" line is associated with a file folder in a shared environment - and contains a hyperlink to it
6 - You work in your own personal environment as usual most of the time
7 - Documents for circulation are posted in the shared environment and the hyperlink to the document shared
8 - Comments and changes go directly into the shared document
9 - Someone is the keeper of the task, and that includes the shared docuent
10 - Once a week or so, at significant milestones or at the end of the project you archive the work - by subject, month, year.
This is of course a very broad sketch that depends on a lot of telephone and in-person communication and collaboration to make it real. But the essence of it starts with a change in thinking.
Hope this is useful and please share any comments or tips.

5 Components Of A Good Awards Ceremony

                                            Generic photo of employees posing with awards by ZSRLibrary via Flickr

Today I attended my first annual awards ceremony at work.

It was great to be recognized but what surprised me was how good the actual ceremony was.

Let me quantify that with specifics:

1. Leaders' speech was spontaneous, and sincere - engaging people, boosting morale by lending meaning to the day-to-day work.

2. Speakers gave remarks full of substantive information about wide-ranging aspects of the organization - good training.

3. There was extensive inclusion of the field offices through video - very unifying.

4. Leaders took time to praise employees in specific enough terms that we learned what behaviors are valued - good training.

5. There was appropriate humor sprinkled throughout - keeping it real. This builds a bond between leader and led without crossing the boundary into overfamiliarity or buffoonery.

I walked into the event expecting a self-congratulatory waste of time, like many corporate events. I walked out joyous, uplifted, more educated about the mission, and appreciative that my own professional brand is linked with that of my employer.

(Note: This is a personal blog - as always all opinions my own.)

What's Hot Right Now

1. Webstagram

2. Playing games on iPad

3. Remote controlled toy helicopters

4. Massage chair recliners instead of couch

5. Seaweed flavored like potato chips

6. Monster diet lemonade - energy + vitamins + taste

7. Neon sneakers

8. Mary Janes

9. Fringe


Profitability In A Facebook Economy (Why You Can't Afford To Be Antisocial)

Today, people do business with their friends. Friends are a known commodity. Strangers may have the technical skill but are un-trusted - unless highly recommended through word-of-mouth.

At a coffee shop I overheard this conversation:

"So what are we going to do for dinner tonight?"

"I don't know, I'm sick of Chinese."

"After this next interview, let's just get out of here. We have to check the house."

The walls have ears, and those ears in the coffee shop were me: Was this a couple I was listening to, or the co-owners of a computer repair business?

From the sound of it, the answer was "both."

The concept of "the clubhouse" is as old as time. As little kids we built them literally, or turned back-to-back chairs into living room forts. High school kids form cliques, that morph into tribes. Friends become romantic partners, then live-ins, and sometimes marriage. Men withdraw to man-caves and other female-free hangouts; women go to coffee, lunch and the mall. Mother and daughter - shopping partners, confidantes, friends.

But in the past we did not go into business so incestuously.

Sure we had work connections. We segmented ourselves into mini-groups of allies. Like on the show Survivor, we would physically keep watch and mentally watch each others' backs, because nobody can survive alone.

That same dynamic is even more intense now.

In the past - unless you were in a family business - there was an invisible line. There was "work" and "home," "my professional self" versus "my family self," and "me." There used to be "work spaces" and "eating out spaces" and "home."

Now it's all one big blur.

Our workmates are our friends. Not only for professional survival. But actual friends.

Our friends become our roommates, our business partners, co-parents.

Our homes are partially workspaces, and work happens everywhere, anytime and all the time. Before bed, and the minute you wake up: check the email.

Coffee shops are centers of commerce: I can't count the number of meetings and interviews I've seen take place at various Starbucks' and Paneras.

Our companies exist internally, in the mind: Everyone's a self-made success, the "CEO of my own life."

This isn't a social commentary. It's business advice: Introverts are at a vast disadvantage, because 75% of your professional capital rests on interactions with others.

Today, you need people - you must be able to listen to their words, read what they have written, get along with them on a team, socialize with professional contacts. Because each and every one has a wisdom or a skill or a connection you cannot possibly have mastered. A knowledge base you will never duplicate.

Physical strength - useful then, not so much now, mostly irrelevant.

Technical mastery - meh, it's alright. Computers can do almost everything.

The one thing computers cannot do now is socialize intelligently. Identify a range of data sources, human and mechanical - to develop the kind of insight that enables strategic navigation toward a focused goal.

And change the social grid as the focus changes.

The goal today is influencing people to the point where you are identified as an expert, and recruited to join a team. Normally temporarily.

(Power today is NOT overpowering people as in the past and then declaring acquiescence.)

The movies show genius like Russell Crowe in A Brilliant Mind - isolated man in an isolated workplace thinking isolated thoughts that nobody else can think.

The real genius is more like the stay-at-home mother. Who typically combines appointments, shopping, housecleaning and the like; homework/homeschooling; get-togethers with friends, family outings; PTA; telecommuting and/or freelancing; running her own business, selling real estate or catering, etc; studying for a certificate or degree; and helping husband or partner in his own business.

We are living in the Facebook economy - where the capital flows to professional friends.

(Photo by me.)