Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Beware the tipping point when an honest mistake becomes a dishonest cover up

Our blog has moved. You will find this blog post and fresh content on our new Global Engineering Jobs blog.
Businesses can be a lot like soap operas in one important respect – a secret never stays secret forever. It’s only ever waiting in the background today to become tomorrow’s main plot line.

One of the most common forms of secrecy in the modern workplace is the concealing of mistakes – it is this small and unnecessary crime that results in more dismissals than any other kind of misconduct. People make mistakes; it’s a natural part of being human. Immediate acknowledgement, combined with ideas for fixing the problem, will always be the best course. 

Everyone makes mistakes; people respect colleagues who admit to it and get to work on making it right. Whatever the situation, we are usually presented with a fork in the road, where the obvious need to face the music conflicts with the immediate ability to suppress the problem.

There is a crucial tipping point when honesty becomes dishonesty.

In this instant, if you choose the wrong path, your integrity flies out the window along with most of your chances of walking back your mistake. There’s always a point where you get to make a call on what you’re going to do:  either pull over, admit you've got a flat tire and ask for help; or keep driving, hoping nobody notices and guaranteeing reduced performance and damage to the car. You won’t be able to drive forever, but every yard you drive is foolishness, and you’re undermining your credibility every minute. 

Long ago, at another company in the UK, a colleague of mine chose the wrong path. In a moment of carelessness, an otherwise capable and valued employee, failed to inform his customer about an additional cost for which they would be liable under the terms of the contract they were signing. He missed it; He just got the math wrong on a busy day - something to do with the overheads on raw materials. Later on, when the customer good naturedly refused to pay the cost, assuming it was an invoicing mistake, my colleague agreed and just assumed on a multi-billion dollar project that the mistake would be lost. The contract  was immediately rendered unprofitable. In a moment of foolishness, my colleague buried the mistake. He was trusted, He owned all contact with the customer – who remained happy with arrangements, ignorant of the whole problem which they assumed to be an error made in good faith on the first invoice. He was able to hide the mistake for weeks.  Nobody noticed until further down the line that the arrangement was actually burning money.

At that point, the right questions were asked and the details emerged. Angry exchanges, apologies and packed boxes followed. And why? Because He didn't walk into the Project Director’s office five minutes after realizing the mistake, face the embarrassing truth, and get the support he needed to fix the problem – which in this instance would almost certainly have been a frank conversation between his boss and the customer, a compromise, and a reduced - but still profitable - margin.  No big deal. All will be forgiven within a week, maybe there’ll be some closer oversight next time.

We write frequently about how seemingly trivial events can dramatically affect your career.  These stories include careless texting mistakes that corrupt vital data security, career moves that seem to happen by accident, and here, the little white lie of omission.

The last few years have provided no end of evidence to support the notion that fessing up now will save a lot more trouble later. It is true on a corporate level; it’s true on a personal level. The tangled web begins with a very simple individual decision, taken at the tipping point where incompetence becomes malice. It ends with a global financial crisis, a Ponzi scheme, the collapse of a great career, or more likely – just the loss of a job.

Disgraced Olympic sprinter Marion Jones was shown a small vile of liquid and asked if she had ever seen it before. This was her tipping point. The truth would have been painful, but a lot less painful than the eventual prison term, which resulted entirely from her lie to federal investigators in answer to that very specific question. The truth – as she must have known then in her heart of hearts, was coming out all the same.

Ironically, it is Lance Armstrong who appears to have made a far more sensible decision. Perhaps, having seen the writing on the wall, he chose a path that will leave whatever he has done in the realm of athletics, where Marion Jones must surely wish she had left hers. The criminal investigation into Armstrong remains closed.

Ultimately, the question that fascinates a great many people when it comes to the cyclist is simply this: How could he possibly have thought that those hidden things would remain hidden? If the conspiracy touches as many people as the USADA’s 200 page report claims, it’s incredible to believe that anyone involved in the alleged activities could possibly have thought they would remain secret.  

The only way three people can keep a secret, says the Chinese proverb, is if two of them are dead.  When the time comes for you to face that fork in the road, plan on a full disclosure approach. Take responsibility; start moving past it there and then.

The chances are you’ll be disclosing everything in the end anyway, but from a very different position.

Richard Spragg writes on various subjects including global engineering jobs, staffing and marketing in the technical sector.

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Monday, October 15, 2012

Your career is an accident. Don't make a plan, get a helmet.

Our blog has moved. You will find this blog post and fresh content on our new Global Engineering Jobs blog.
We are driving our careers. That’s what we are told. We are sitting behind the wheel, looking at the road ahead, changing gear when we want to, making decisions about how fast we want to go and ultimately which direction we take. Mirror. Signal. Maneuver.

It’s a comforting metaphor. It’s a pity it’s bull.

So often, the mistake we make as professionals is to look back on our career path and see a logical progression. It’s easy to do this when you look back on things in retrospect. It’s easy to believe that this led to that, which led to the other and so on.

But this is all post hoc ergo procter hoc. Seeing a thing as the result of something else, simply because one followed the other.

Let’s call me John Q. I was working as an assistant manager at Circuit City from 2005-2007. I was made the manager in 2007 and held the position for two years before moving to join Best Buy as the regional sales manager. Obviously I’ve done well for myself; my career shows a clear progression. A consistent, linear progression from junior to senior, from low wage to middle management.

Well done me.

I’m leaving some things out of the story though, things that have been edited out of my career history. These were random catalytic events that shaped the whole thing. Because they’re not on my resume, they’re not part of the accepted narrative of my career – but they change everything.

Firstly, I became assistant manager at Circuit City almost against my will. I was young and ideological. I’d only taken the gig so I could get the rent paid while I was trying to get a job in music. I reluctantly accepted the extra responsibility for an extra five bucks an hour. It wasn’t a career decision. Nor was it a career decision a couple of years later, when the manager I worked for suffered a heart attack and retired early, effectively disappearing in a puff of smoke on a Tuesday morning leaving me to take over. I took the job and I did it well, I expected to retain the management job for a few more years. But then, as we all know only too well, Circuit City went to the wall. Suddenly facing the prospect of redundancy, I was forced to put myself out there again, talk to a recruitment company and put my resume online. The result was a great offer from rival Best Buy, to effectively take the level above the one I was working in. I wound up with 20% more money and some stock. It turned out to be a great thing for me. ‘Turned out.’

Now my sensible linear career progression looks like what it really was – a series of random and uncontrollable events that bounced me around with no care for my plans.

Because the truth is that there is no such thing as career management. There is no such thing as ‘planning your career.’ From the time you first walked into the career councilor’s office at school and were told you should be a chef because you admitted to being slightly hungry, through to this morning when you surfed the internet for jobs for ten minutes because one of your colleagues annoyed you. Your vague intent to push your career in the right direction combined with your occasional decision to act when you were unhappy or undervalued, do not constitute a career plan.

Your list of companies you would most like to work for and your sense of what job title you probably ought to have, and in what time frame, are worth nothing to you.

We spend too much time trying to shape our careers and not enough time trying to create the rounded professional identity that will increase our chances of making progress when the inevitable random catalyst presents itself.

Instead of sucking up to your boss, make an effort to be respected by everyone around you. When her kayaking vacation down the Nile ends in tragedy, it will be your peers and reports who are asked what they think of you as a manager, not her.

Instead of surfing for jobs and blasting out your resume, build a strong relationship with a good recruiter. They can be your eyes and ears while you focus on your job.

Instead of chasing the money, chase responsibility. The more you take on, the more qualified you become for more advanced jobs and ultimately more money. Especially if nobody sees the vacancy coming.

You can’t know what will happen, and you can’t control when or where fate will strike. But you can create a solid foundation that will see you right no matter what happens.

Strategy is not about predicting the future, it’s about having a sensible framework around you so that you can respond to anything. Experiences, references, training, qualifications – there’s a reason these things tend to be headings on the resume – it’s because they’re things you actually need. Take these things off the resume, and think of them as real things that you arm yourself with to create a promotable, hirable human being, it won’t be long before you’re adding another level of advancement – whatever it is you want.

Richard Spragg writes on various subjects including global engineering jobs, staffing and marketing in the technical sector.