What I Learned from My Most Recent Corporate Gig

I kind of hate that phrase, that buzzword-worthy label “corporate gig,” but I don’t know what else to call it. Office job? Large company employment? Anyway, I thought I’d take a bit to reflect on my last one and share a few things I learned.

Where Am I Coming From

I left my last job as the Senior Director of Product Engineering. I oversaw 4 project teams consisting of 14 developers. The products supported thousands of customers and were responsible for millions in revenue. After 2 years, I decided to call it quits and move on.

Looking back, I’d do a lot of things different. But on the flip side, I don’t think I’d want to trade this experience. I learned a lot. Maybe you’re in a similar position or experience. Or maybe its upcoming for you in your career. Looking back, there are a few things I knew before that would have made this an easier experience.

First, Take Notes

I don’t know if its hubris or the fact that in previous roles I didn’t deal with as much information, but I never took notes. I could remember everything. This position proved to me that at a certain point, you have to take notes. There are a few reasons why I started taking notes. And not just taking notes, but reviewing them afterward.

Just Plain Memory and Detail

With the position I was in, there was a lot of information that passed through me. I had to remember details, give advice, look for patterns, share information to different groups, etc. Perhaps I was not eating healthy or the frenzied world of a start up was just too much for me to keep all in my memory, but I was slipping.

So, I decided to take notes. At first, I used a tool called nvalt which was pretty cool. It allowed me to write notes, sort things, search things, etc. But, then I realized I needed icloud sync and a lot of other things, so I migrated over to Ulysses. I created notes based on meetings, dated them at the top, included participants and took details down. This saved me a bunch of times when I had to look back and see who shared what with me, did I share it with other people, what did we decide during that meeting, etc.

Improvement Plans, Mentoring and Career Growth

I paid close attention to the career growth and aspirations of my employees. I tried to ask them pointed questions, give them suggestions to try and questions they could ponder until our next checkin. Because I had a number of them, I had to start taking notes. I explained to them that I wasn’t ignoring them or doing emails, I was taking notes on the conversations.

Then, the next checkin I had a nice set of notes to refer to and follow up with them. While their growth was important to me, I couldn’t remember all of the details. This really helped me stay connected with them and focus my brain power on the actual mentoring and advice, not wasting it on the mechanics of memory.

When employees needed to do a better job, I tracked their failures in notes as well. I then could use that historical record to justify an improvement plan. If you have an employee that is ‘doing it wrong’ but you can’t describe what ‘it’ is, with measurements and expectations, then you are doing it wrong. So, keeping notes like this helped me review them, aggregate them, and then build an improvement plan.

Termination

Speaking of improvement plans, sometimes a termination was required. When you approach HR about this, the first thing they’re going to ask about is documentation of the issue. If you’ve been keeping notes, this reduces the stress right away and you can just pass on the notes. Its never easy to fire someone, so being prepared can help you quicken this departure. The worst thing is knowing its time for this person to leave, but having to keep them on longer to develop a stronger, documented case.

CYA

Very rarely, you might have to review your notes for a case of CYA or ‘cover your ass.’ It’s good to have notes on things when you disagree with outcomes. Or, perhaps you’ve had an experience that was contentious. It’s good to document this stuff as soon as you can. Hopefully you’ll never need it. But, just in case you do, you’ll now have your “side” all documented. It’s much easier to take your word that has documentation behind it versus someone who is just remembering it, through their memory and feelings.

Plus, if you pay real close attention, you’ll see this happens all over the place. You’ve heard of notes and memo’s being shared, revealed, leaked in many fortune 500 companies or high ranking government officials. Whether you agree with their choices or philosophies, you can learn from their mechanisms.

Protecting Your Time

As my teams and responsibility grew, the most important and valuable thing I had was time. I started feeling some burn out. During work, I was working. After work, I was working. Before work, I was working. I was having a hard time not feeling the drain. In fact, I found it difficult to make appointments to go and take care of common household things. (That time I went to the DMV I was freaking out the entire time.)

Block Off Work Time / You Time

The first thing I was coached to do is to block off a big portion of time, once a week, for me. That could be time I wanted to do stuff for work that I didn’t want to be bothered. The other thing it could be used for is just to do something you wanted to do, outside of work. I was already working more than my 40 hours, 60 hours sometimes. So, sometimes, if you plan it, it’s ok to leave during the day and do something else. That’s how you don’t drain yourself. So, I alternated between tuesday and a thursday, 3 to 3.5 hours off, where I ended up going for a walk, doing errands or just doing a quick programming task. This was well-worth it, and I still put in additional time afterward, but I felt more energetic again.

Schedule Your Must Haves

The turning point for me was when someone scheduled my last half an hour of the day for another meeting. I had meetings from 8:45a to 5:30p. I started complaining that no one left me time for lunch. But, the response to that was “are people supposed to know when you want to take lunch? Are they supposed to look at the details of each one of your calendar items?” I realized I was expecting a lot, and also that I was assuming something that was tradition, but not requirement or fact. To top it off, we have employees in multiple timezones, so lunch time wasn’t always lunch time.

I started blocking off my lunch period - from 12:30 to 1p every day - with a note that said lunch. Normally, I still had a little wiggle room around it, too. Only once, after months, did someone ask if they can schedule over my lunch period. I was luckily able to move it to a different time, and then I agreed.

Another thing I started doing was scheduling when I wanted to “leave the office” (which is weird to say when you’re remote) - as a meeting invite. That way, people wouldn’t try to schedule my meetings past my initial work time. I wanted to take a break, walk, eat, shower, whatever. I might come back later, but certainly not for meetings.

Use your calendar, is the tldr; basically here.

Transparency

My previous employer had a set of tenets that were used to help guide the business decisions. One of these was transparency. (Now, that became very interesting when they were purchased by a publicly-traded company). I learned many times how this is done, misunderstood and misconstrued.

Transparency is Nothing Without Context

One of the reasons why some leaders hold back details is because there is a lack of context. If you share upcoming things, things being planned, things that might be discarded, it can cause panic. “Are we losing our job?” Those type of questions can happen when radical transparency is executed. However, the solution to this is not to just lock down information.

Providing context is important. Transparency is more than just “here is a statement.” It involves investment and explanation: context. If you share information, as you should, then you may need to add more context. Otherwise, people will fill in the blanks themselves. It’s important to provide more than enough information and context if you’re going to be transparent.

Transparency Exposes you

Transparency builds trust. Perhaps I’m guilty of some mis-steps, but I’ve tended to share information with my teams sooner than later. This transparency helped build their trust in me. I was willing to trust them with information, and therefore they trusted that I always was looking out for them. I didn’t have secrets, so they felt they could trust and invest in me as well.

But, transparency sometimes exposes your failures. When you share more details, people will see when you make mistakes, when you’re not right. Perhaps you don’t have enough time to cover and smooth over your misunderstanding of a scenario and have to recant. Other times, you can speak about something you don’t fully understand in an effort to be transparent. You could say that these are failures, but I think it is something else. It shows and exposes humility. When you can be transparent, and acknowledge flaws, you not only have built a trusting relationship, but one that’s respectfully equal, tempered with humility. This is the best way to get what you need, in my opinion.

Final Thoughts

As I finish this entry, I realize I could have framed this better. These are things I learned from my last office job, but that doesn’t mean they’re restricted to that. This last experience in my career has taught me something that I think is useful in any setting, moving forward. I hope you find it useful, too.

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