Click here to ask me a question or to expand on any of my answers. Read below for questions and answers on the following topics:

Working to improve a bad relationship with your boss

I don’t get along with my boss. Our personalities don’t mesh well at all. At times if I ask a question, I get this long drawn-out answer that basically tells me that I shouldn’t even have asked the question. How shall I deal with being put down and feeling like I am not worth anything?

First, think about why you clash with your boss. What is it about him that you find hard to work with? Is there anything you can do to improve things yourself – maybe, approach him differently or at different times of day or even talk to him directly about what you’re trying to accomplish and ask him straight out how you can be a more valuable employee? Try to put yourself in his shoes and see if that helps you figure out how to have a less difficult relationship with him.

Second, when you ask questions, are you asking sincerely so as to better understand how things work? Or might your boss think you’re really just trying to criticize or complain? Sometimes, the way a person asks questions can provoke a negative or brusque response even when the questions are sincere. Remember what you’re trying to accomplish – better understanding, a better reputation for yourself and your contributions, whatever – and make sure your questions are helping you rather than hurting you.

Third, be careful not to ask questions about things you can find out on your own. You don’t want to make your boss feel like he has to do your work for you. Think and explore and think some more, then formulate questions that show you’ve done that first.

Fourth, don’t take things too personally. Lots of people at work just act the way they act, without thinking about how their comments and attitudes will affect other people. This isn’t ideal and it definitely makes things difficult, but it might not be directed at you personally at all. If it isn’t, try to work around it instead of letting it make you feel bad.

If all this doesn’t help, then you might have a situation you can only improve by moving on. But do try it all first – honestly and by trying to think like your boss so as to get the best response – before you give up.

Answering pre-interview questions about your salary expectations

I just received an email relating to a job I’ve applied for, but not yet interviewed for. All the email requests is my salary expectations. How should I reply?

That is a totally inappropriate question at this stage of the proceedings. It essentially asks you to negotiate against yourself. If you specify a salary higher than they have in mind, you likely won’t get an interview even though you might be perfect for the job despite the lower salary. If you specify a lower salary, you might end up not getting paid what you should (and what they’re willing to pay the right candidate) for the job. It’s not the candidate’s responsibility to set salary; it’s the employer’s. Companies should have established market-range salaries for all their positions, and they should place you, once hired, at the spot in that range that is commensurate with your experience.

I understand that this question gets asked frequently, despite its inappropriate nature. It’s probably a stratagem used by the lazy to cull through a lot of applications without actually having to read them. I would suggest responding to the email as follows:

Thank you for your email. My salary expectations are flexible; I expect the salary for the job to be within a competitive market range and my placement within that range to be commensurate with my experience. I consider salary to be only one element, and my decision will be based more on the job responsibilities and working environment than on any particular salary. This certainly sounds like a good opportunity, and I’d very much like to pursue it further with you.

If they persist and you feel you have to specify something, I would suggest offering a minimum salary expectation.  In no event should this be less than your current salary (assuming you’re not changing career arenas altogether).  

Setting meaningful performance goals and benchmarks

I’m due for a meeting with my new boss in a couple of weeks to set performance measures and professional development goals for the coming year. My former boss had a very relaxed attitude toward performance reviews (we would generally discuss what went well and what I learned in the previous year and leave it at that), so I’m not very practiced at this.

I have some clear ideas about professional development: I’d like training in coaching and facilitation so that I can get more hands on with the delivery of our programs, eliminate the need for outside consultants, lower our costs and increase my own job satisfaction. But I find I’m at a loss when it comes to establishing “performance goals” for myself.

I tend to measure my success by the perceived success and satisfaction levels of the volunteers I work with, and that’s difficult to quantify. Can you recommend an approach to establishing some benchmarks that will be recognizable for me and for my new boss?

You’re already most of the way there! Articulating your professional development ideas is the first step to establishing performance goals. Ask yourself where you’d like to be a year from now (assuming you do performance reviews annually) relative to your professional development ideas and then think about what will have to happen in the next year for you to get there. The goal is where you’d like to be; the benchmark is how you will measure whether you got there.

For example, one performance benchmark might be “Identify and attend 2 training programs in coaching and facilitation.” Another might be “Move in-house the XYZ function now handled by an outside consultant” or “Study the feasibility of moving the XYZ or ABC function in-house and prepare cost-benefit proposal for management review.” As for “increasing your job satisfaction,” what would that look like? If it would come from taking on additional responsibility, articulate what that would consist of (managing people? taking over a function?) and how you would go about accomplishing or laying the groundwork for it over the year. Or maybe it would come from having more or better access to volunteers or a more public face and reputation for yourself. Whatever the form you articulate, ask yourself how the outcome could occur and what steps would bring it about.

As you think this through, don’t get bogged down in obstacles and difficulties. Think about what you’d really like to accomplish and how you could go about accomplishing it. You and your boss will have a great conversation if you start up at this level and then work together to boil down the benchmarks that make the most sense for you and the organization.

You want to be realistic and set goals you can reasonably achieve, but also to challenge yourself. For the performance goals to be meaningful and to stimulate the kind of performance that will satisfy you, your boss and your organization, they can’t be too easy. They also can’t be too “pie in the sky.” Aim for goals that are measurable, meaningful to you and the organization, relevant to your job description, and that will spur improvements that matter.

A word about measurement: everyone loves metrics, but not everything can easily be measured with numbers. A salesperson who needs to increase market penetration may well set benchmarks like “Call on X new prospects each month” and “Get repeat business from Y percent of clients each quarter.” But someone like you who measures success by the satisfaction levels of volunteers would be better served by developing a volunteer satisfaction survey and getting the kind of feedback that will actually gauge your success in that regard and give you performance improvement ideas. Developing and carrying out such a survey might be a good benchmark for you for the upcoming year if you don’t already have an evaluation mechanism like this in place.

Don’t forget that there are two important categories of performance goals: personal and organizational. Write up an organizational goal or two as well as your own personal goals. Either give them to your boss in advance or take them with you to your meeting and be ready to brainstorm about them. The resulting discussion will clarify what you both agree are the most important goals for the upcoming year and help you settle on benchmarks that make sense for your particular situation.

How to communicate enthusiasm for a job during an interview without sounding silly or obsequious

One quick question for you about interviews. Based on the job description and the reputation of the company, the position I’m interviewing for tomorrow really seems perfect. Even if it isn’t, it might be as close to perfect as you get in this world. What’s the best way to let them know that I really want the job without sounding silly or obsequious?

There’s nothing wrong with coming right out and saying, “I want to be sure you know I really want this job. I’m looking at a lot of jobs and, honestly, this one seems just perfect – based on both the description and what I know of the company’s reputation.” You’ll have to tailor the words a bit if you get a very formal or stuffy interviewer, but I’m betting you’ll be able to say them pretty much as I wrote them to most interviewers. Fit them in near the end of the interview in your conclusory thank-you remarks, and, if possible, personalize them with something that came up earlier in the interview. Also, be prepared to explain – coherently and persuasively – exactly why the job seems perfect to you. As long as you are sincere and enthusiastic, you won’t come off as silly or obsequious. And really – what interviewer wouldn’t like to hear genuine enthusiasm for the job and company from a candidate? Think of yourself as the interviewer, who has probably listened to dozens of blah, by-the-book or overly formal candidates, and you’ll see what I mean.

Whether companies are getting more aware of work-life balance as an issue

Are you finding that organizations are becoming more aware of the work-life balance issue? Coming from a consulting company, they still based a large portion of their bonuses on percentage of hours, which I felt was crazy. I agree with your essay point that just because a person works 70 hours a week doesn’t necessarily mean they are any more productive than someone who works 50 hours a week. But, are you finding that there is more awareness in the job market about this issue, or not just yet?

I think organizations have become hyper-aware of the work-life balance issue. They know it significantly affects performance and retention. But they are still struggling with how to address it in a competitive and economic context and also with traditional policies and attitudes that don’t lend themselves to either balanced lives or easy change. We’re right, for instance, that a person who works 70 hours a week is not necessarily more productive than one who works 50 hours a week. Based on my experience, it’s pretty likely that the former is less productive than the latter from a personal productivity standpoint. But in an hourly billing context, if those 70 hours can be billed and collected, then the first person is more productive from the corporate standpoint – at least for the week in question. Over time, the person with the balanced life who bills 50 quality hours week-in and week-out is obviously a more valuable employee than the super-biller who either burns out or opts out. But business results continue to be measured on a snapshot GAAP basis rather than over longer time horizons. Businesses continue to mortgage the future for current results. And that mindset gets in the way of creating and maintaining work environments that facilitate balance.

My friends and former colleagues who follow these things tell me that generational differences in particular are pushing organizations, even hourly billing-based outfits like law and consulting firms, to find ways to address the balance issue more effectively. The generations following baby boomers simply aren’t interested, apparently, in working until they drop. Their ambition takes different forms, over both the short term and the longer term. Companies and other traditional institutions, on the other hand, were originally developed by and for men whose only “home” responsibility was to bring home the money to pay for the bacon, and then driven and reshaped by baby boomers who saw both the need and the potential to achieve no-holds-barred success. In order to survive and flourish now, however, these institutions require a healthy flow of new entry-level people. They also need to retain their valuable mid-level people. Since the people available for or currently in those entry- and mid-level jobs are insisting on more balanced lives, the institutions do recognize, I’m told, that they will have to change.

Last week, the head boss (I’ll call him Bill) explained to us that we’re not working fast enough. My immediate boss (I’ll call him Ron) works out of the office and wasn’t there for this meeting. Ron often holds us up by turning in shoddy work, and I’m not sure Bill knows that. I have one coworker who seems to agree that this is a large part of the problem. Should we tell Bill about this? If so, what’s the best way to go about doing that?

There’s usually no percentage in going around the chain of command in a hierarchical work environment. Even if Bill were to appreciate the heads-up about Ron’s less-than-ideal work ethic and performance, he would very likely disapprove of your lack of respect for your immediate boss, both on general principles and in terms of what your actions tell him about the loyalty he and other bosses can expect from you. So, no, you shouldn’t tell Bill about your problem with Ron. (Strictly speaking from a chain-of-command standpoint, Bill shouldn’t have met with Ron’s subordinates for this purpose without Ron, either.)

The better approach is for you and your coworker to have a conversation with Ron in which you tell him what Bill said and brainstorm ideas for speeding things up. Without calling Ron’s work shoddy to his face, you should be able to give him an example of why a certain project wasn’t completed fast enough for Bill, using the corrective work you had to do as the reason for the hold-up. You’ll have to be diplomatic about this, of course, but it should help Ron understand that he’s part of the problem – all in a positive context where you and your coworker are taking initiative to address Bill’s concern.

Working with mostly men v. mostly women

How does working with mostly men compare to working with mostly women? It seems that the closer the balance gets to 50-50, the better the working environment.

More of my experience has been working with mostly men than with mostly women, but I have had some experience that allows me to contrast the two environments. I’m inclined to agree that the more balanced the ratio, the more balanced, and better, the working environment. Men and women tend to bring different skills and approaches to the table, and when the skill base, the perspectives and the approaches are broader and more diverse, the work experience is more well-rounded and stimulating. Even absent discrimination, an environment weighted too heavily toward one gender or the other can make the minority gender feel unwelcome or so out of the mainstream that contributing becomes an exercise in courage. Of course, there are also benefits to being the only woman in a roomful of men (and, I presume, vice versa) – early in my career, that happened often and no one had any problem noticing or remembering me. Learning to view my differences as advantageous differentiators and using them accordingly was a big part of how I succeeded.

When I was at Balcor, I frequently worked with an all-female group. Virtually all the departments were headed up by men with a woman as second-in-command. After I was promoted to the senior management team (where I was the only woman), I had the chance to observe how differently men and women, at least in that work setting, approached meetings. When the women met as a group, the meetings were invariably during working hours. We would get down to business without fanfare or even hellos and the discussions were all-business, with no repetition or other comments that didn’t move the agenda items along. Someone watching might have thought we barely knew or maybe didn’t like one another. Once we concluded the business of the meeting, though, those of us who had extra time would chat about kids or shoes or some recent work development. The men’s meetings were exactly the opposite: they were invariably after 5:00, they began with at least 20 (and often many more) minutes of “How ’bout those Bears?” and other let’s-get-comfortable-with-one-another type conversation, and there was off-topic commenting and joking during the business portion of the proceedings, too.

Although it was plain that the men felt less pressed for time, I didn’t find one style or the other better or worse. It was more a matter of recognizing the different rules and figuring out how to contribute and succeed in both cases.

Posting resumes blindly

Does anyone actually get a job by posting their resume on monster or similar sites, or by sending it blindly to a company? Some of the large companies offer to let you submit a resume online without applying it to a particular position. This seems easy, and therefore I assume it’s a waste of time. Is it?

It’s probably not impossible, but I don’t know anyone who got a job or even an interview by posting a resume on monster or similar sites. I can tell you from my experiences working for actual companies that the chances of anyone (HR person or hiring manager) actually combing through thousands of online resumes to fill a job are almost certainly right around zero. HR departments may use some sort of keyword searching tools to pull up resume possibilities from these sites, and it’s probably harmless to post your resume there, but I wouldn’t count on getting interviews or jobs using only this approach.

I have a more encouraging view on submitting your resume to a large company without applying for a particular position. If companies let you do it, they probably do have some protocol for storing posted resumes and then reviewing them when job openings arise. This is doubtless less sure than applying to an actual person for an actual posted job opening, but it’s also harmless and I don’t think it’s a waste of time.

How to schedule job interviews when you already have a job

What is the best way to schedule job interviews if I already have a job? Does it make sense to try to fit them into my lunch breaks during the week or should I plan on taking a day or two off?

Potential new employers know you already have a job and they are often willing to schedule interviews for first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon. I think these times tend to work better than a squeezed lunchtime interview, although that’s also a possibility. If you start work at 9:00, you can meet an interviewer at 8:00 not too far from your office and still get to work on time. Ditto with leaving work at 5:00 or 5:30 to meet an interviewer. Even if you have to come into work slightly late or leave slightly early (with advance permission if your job requires that), it won’t be too obvious that you’re looking for another job so long as you don’t do it too often. Interviews that will take longer than 30-45 minutes or that take place very far from your office probably will require taking a day off.

How to follow up on job applications

What is the protocol for following up on a job application? Calling is better than email, right? How often should I contact someone if I don’t hear a response? And when should I call it quits?

Calling is more personal than email, but email is less intrusive. Calling would be great if you could count on speaking to the actual hiring manager or HR person, but too often you end up leaving a message anyway. A spoken message left on voice mail has the potential to be less professional than a well-crafted email; a message left with an assistant may turn into nothing more than one of those pink message forms with your name (likely unknown by the hiring manager) and number on it. A succinct email, on the other hand, says what you want it to say and allows the recipient to read and respond on her schedule rather than yours.

Here’s my suggestion: start with a call simply to verify that your application was received and to find out when you can expect to hear something. If you can’t get an actual human being on the phone, don’t leave a message. Instead, try again an hour or two later. Hint: many busy people are easier to reach via phone before 9:00 or after 5:30. If after 2-3 days you still haven’t reached the person despite a couple of daily tries, leave a nice, short message stating that you want to make sure the company has your application and to find out when you should follow up. Include your phone number and your email address in your message and state that either form of response is fine. If this doesn’t produce a return call within a week, resort to email.

Once you’ve verified that they have your application and gotten a date by which they expect to get back to you, wait until that date has passed before you communicate with them again. Once it has passed, send a succinct email reiterating your interest in the position, mentioning that it’s been the two weeks (or whatever) they indicated, and stating your eagerness to hear from them. If a week goes by and you get no response to your email, try a call. If you have to leave a message, make it short: “Hello, this is Debra Snider. I’m calling to follow up on my application for the XYZ position. I’m very interested in the position and would love to hear from you. You may reach me by phone at … and by email at….”

Keep up this ’email, then call’ approach on a 7-10 day basis for a month or so. I’d be inclined to give up after that – who wants to work for an employer so disorganized or rude as to be unable to respond for a month to six weeks after its own estimate?? But if you really like the way the job sounds, keep up the email/call approach with more time (2-3 weeks) between rounds. I know people who’ve heard back on applications over six months later, so some employers really haven’t lost your application or decided against you – they’re just not in a hurry.

What “strategic productivity” means

You often use the term “strategic productivity.” Would you explain exactly what you mean by it?

I use the term to distinguish between what I consider real, sustainable productivity – the kind that lasts and doesn’t burn people out – and its weaker sister, mere cost-cutting. Strategic productivity is about doing things better, not merely doing them more cheaply. While doing more with less is the goal in both cases, I don’t believe real productivity can be achieved simply by eliminating cost. Superhuman efforts don’t work over the long-run. And a cost eliminated today without a clear, goal-oriented and long-term-focused strategy may well lead to higher costs tomorrow.

Strategic productivity is about building a better model. It’s about putting the right people in the right jobs, building sensible reusable tools, and focusing on what matters most – personally and organizationally. Whether the organization in question is a company, a department, a committee or any other sort of group, strategic productivity will flow from:

  • a compelling mission and vision that everyone on the team can buy into and really believe in
  • a highest and best use approach to staffing that plays to people’s strengths and gives them work they enjoy
  • intelligent, goal-oriented outsourcing and vendor management for functions better handled (for expertise or cost reasons) outside the group
  • process and resource efficiency
  • honest, fair, well-understood and mission-oriented compensation and promotion protocols and practices
  • encouragement of leadership behaviors throughout the ranks

Strategic productivity will result in cost-cutting, but it will also give the organization and everyone in it lots of other benefits, too – today and over time.

Being an individual/looking like a professional

I hear your message about learning the rules of the game, but I am concerned about losing my identity in the process. On substantive matters I am still learning so it is easier to defer to those from whom I am learning. But when it comes to more personal issues – i.e., what I wear, how I spend my free time – I feel a bit out of place and/or more hip than others. For example, I am fairly fashion-minded – not overly trendy but not old school either – but sometimes I feel out of place because other, particularly older, professionals at work are much more conservative in their dress, etc. I take my career as a lawyer seriously, but I just don’t want to lose my vibrancy. Thanks in advance for your input!

You absolutely shouldn’t lose your vibrancy or stop being an individual, but I do think it’s important to recognize what’s involved in being taken seriously as a professional. You’re building both your expertise and your credibility. Your appearance is an important part of your credibility, particularly as a young woman. People will get first impressions and make assumptions about you as soon as they see you, and these will depend more on how you look and act than on what you say. Clients and law firms being what they are, hip and trendy (even if not overly trendy) probably aren’t the best adjectives to be bringing into people’s minds. You want to be aiming for “smart,” “capable,” “impressive,” and “someone who will get the job done well.”

That said, I’m not a believer in conforming to some conservative external standard. I think it’s more important to be comfortable and an individual in the context you’re trying to succeed in. For example, I never liked the way I looked in skirt suits, so I never wore them. Even in the most traditional context I worked in, I usually wore separates. I love unusual jackets; mine often got noticed, which made me feel unique, but in a positive way. And I hate pantyhose, so I usually wore pants. When I did wear skirts, I wore long ones (often with boots) or shorter ones with tights. I also have thick, curly hair, which I love, so I wore it the way I liked it even though it’s far from “corporate.”

I don’t think you have to be a clone, but you do have to present the appearance that the people you’re trying to wow will find familiar and appropriate – and not distracting. Think of it this way: you wouldn’t wear a bikini to the opera or a tuxedo to the beach. Appearance issues go both ways: it is as inappropriate to wear big diamond earrings and a $2,000 suit to a meeting with government regulators or a nonprofit group you’re doing pro bono work for as it is to wear an outfit suitable for Saturday night bar-hopping to your office.

The point is to convey an impression of credible professionalism. Here are some ideas for doing that without losing your vibrancy or individuality:

  • Favor quality over quantity where clothing is concerned. That is, spend the same amount, but buy better stuff and fewer items – if everything in your closet makes you look and feel great, it will be much easier to get dressed every day and to expand your wardrobe seasonally and annually without having to replace everything
  • Fabrics found in nature are preferable to synthetics – they look better and classier
  • Buy great quality shoes – your back and your feet will thank you, and good shoes last longer and look better; they also let you express some individuality without creating the wrong impression
  • Limit your hip, trendy items to accessories – but use these freely to set yourself apart in a good way
  • Get a good haircut – the time for hair that worked in junior high school is over
  • Keep your clothes cleaned and pressed

As for how you spend your free time, that’s entirely up to you. My only suggestion is to take some care in who you talk to about your outside activities. Your more radical, unusual or controversial views and interests are probably best not discussed with work colleagues who don’t share them.

Dealing with sexual harassment at work

As young interns at elite investment banks/law firms/PR firms, etc., women are often made to feel as if a favor is being done for them. We are supposed to feel lucky simply to be there. Imagine on top of this dynamic, a manager who is constantly making overt sexually charged comments at you. You don’t want to jeopardize a potential offer from the firm so you’re scared to speak up. No one has seen the manager’s advances – he’s very careful about doing his dirt when no one is around. What do you do to put him in his place without ruining your own reputation, or losing a great job opportunity?

You don’t have to – nor should you – put up with this kind of behavior. You have a right to have the harassment/hostile work environment issue addressed. Moreover, I don’t see keeping quiet about the situation as an acceptable alternative. Choosing to be powerless and to suffer in silence exacts an enormous personal cost. It also effectively makes us collaborators in allowing the harassment to continue. Unfortunately, however, there are no cost-free alternatives to addressing the situation. Deciding how to go about getting the unacceptable behavior stopped is a very difficult cost-benefit analysis that will vary from situation to situation.

Here are the alternatives as I see them:

  • Option 1 – File an official report
    • No doubt, the firm has an official mechanism for reporting inappropriate behavior. This may well be the most effective way to get the behavior stopped and to make some real change in the overall environment, but it is rarely anyone’s first choice because the costs to the whistle-blower can be very high. Filing even a confidential report can cause the complaining person to be labeled a snitch, someone who can’t be trusted or even a liar or a vengeful spurned lover. Retribution can also occur, if not directly then subtly or at evaluation and compensation time.
    • Taking the official approach isn’t certain to solve the problem either. The perpetrator may receive only a slap on the wrist or the complaining person may get reassigned as a way to handle the issue. Neither of these actions addresses the underlying abuse of power issue and both end up being demoralizing. Still, the official procedures are designed to help create a civil and inclusive work environment, and you should make an intelligent, informed decision about whether or not they’ll work for you.
  • Option 2 – Confront the perpetrator
    • Think about whether you could directly and firmly tell him that his remarks make you uncomfortable and ask him to stop making them. There are some people, amazingly enough, who still don’t get that overt sexually charged comments are unacceptable in the workplace. If the manager falls in this category, you’d be doing yourself, other women, and him a favor by waking him up. If you decide to confront him, you should take a witness with you to protect yourself and to convey that you’re serious and won’t be bullied. The costs here are, similarly, the potentials for retaliation and for being labeled negatively (by the manager and possibly the witness as well).
  • Option 3 – Ask someone else to help you
    • If you don’t think the direct approach will work – or you’re concerned that it has too much potential to blow up in your face or it’s just not your style – then look elsewhere in the office for someone to confide in and ask for help. Another woman, a peer of the manager making the inappropriate comments, or a higher level manager are all possibilities. (This is the approach my character Jane chooses when faced with a harassment issue in A Merger of Equals.) Chances are pretty good that most, if not all, of your other colleagues do not want to be part of a work group that makes talented young women feel unwelcome and preyed upon. Most people feel sexual harassment in the workplace is wrong, whether or not they actively address instances of abuse.
    • Another woman may have experienced something similar; even if she hasn’t, she may be able to offer useful advice about how to address the issue in your particular environment. A peer of the manager’s may be willing to tell him confidentially that his behavior is unacceptable without triggering too much awkwardness. A higher level manager must formally address the issue – failing to do so creates liability for the company – but may be more effective without the pressure of an internal investigation triggered by an official report. As before, these alternatives also have the potential to damage your reputation and/or to lead to direct or subtle downside where compensation, evaluation and future opportunities are concerned.
    • If you honestly believe that trying any one of these approaches would make you too vulnerable, then I think you have to ask yourself how great the potential opportunity really is. The job and the salary may look great, but there’s no percentage in working in a situation where your only realistic option appears to be tolerating harassment. Leaving the opportunity on the table is obviously a cost of a different sort, but there will be situations in which it is the best option. If this is the case, the best thing you can do is find a different opportunity and leave – making sure to disclose clearly in your exit interview exactly why you’re leaving.
    • I’d also like to note that, while I too have experienced the phenomenon of being made to feel as I’m being granted a favor by being “allowed” into a previously all-male domain, the reality is that companies and firms need women at every level, including among their leaders. As a corporate policy matter, this isn’t in dispute. Hostile work environments and discrimination on the basis of gender are impermissible as a legal matter, and they make headline news that significantly and negatively impacts stock value. I also believe that more people than not understand the competitive, retention and revenue benefits of inclusivity and diversity. My advice is to ignore the “they want us to think they’re doing us a favor” vibes, focus on adding value and building work relationships, and remember that they need you at least as much as you need them – probably more.

Contact management systems

Have you worked with a contact management system that you are happy with? How do you keep track of return call/clients and all the other things that are important to running a successful business?

I haven’t worked with a contact management system per se, although I have used the contact management capabilities of Outlook, my iPhone, gmail, etc. From my limited knowledge of “real” contact management systems (the ones used by sales and business people at the companies I’ve worked for or represented), they seem to be better ideas than tools. I recall a lot of complaining about how busy people found them too complicated or irritating to keep up-to-date.

I use a smartphone, which I like very much, and all my email accounts forward to it. It’s also my Rolodex. I always post new contact information to the phone as soon as I get it. That way, I have all the information I need at hand whether I’m in the office or on the road. I’m careful to back up the phone info not less than once a week, so I always have a current backup file too.

I’m also a big fan of to-do lists. I find that once I’ve written something down, I don’t forget it – and I don’t waste time worrying about forgetting it either. I keep a running to-do list electronically and print it out daily when things are hectic and as needed when things are calmer. Then, I update the printed copy with handwritten notes and revise/print a new one when the old one gets too crowded with notes. I’ve never kept separate to-do lists for separate projects or, for that matter, for work projects and home or other life projects. I like to have everything in the same place. I do, however, keep ongoing client or project materials in separate binders. I used to use folders, but I find it more convenient to use 3-ring binders and to stock my printer with 3-hole punched paper so I can easily print and file emails, speech notes and other documents in the right binder. The binders are easy to divide into sensible topic areas with dividers (so I can quickly put my hand on the right piece of paper while on the phone or in a meeting), easy to carry around, and easy to file and retrieve when the project is completed.

Finally, I never let backlog accumulate. I have a rule about returning emails and calls within 24 hours, which I’ve stuck with for over 25 years. I don’t keep anything in my email Inbox or Sent Mail folders except what I have to pay attention to today. Once handled, items get deleted or filed in an appropriate electronic folder. When I get something that can be done in 5 minutes or less, I do it immediately. When I get something that needs to be done in, say, 2 weeks, I put it in my tickler file for the date I need to look at it again and forget about it until then. Every morning, I look at what’s in my tickler file for that day and deal with all of it, whether by actually handling it or putting it back in the tickler for another day if it can wait and other, more important, items have come up in the meantime. This approach makes it possible for me to be responsive and focus on what matters most every day.