Let’s Chat About Professional Etiquette
We may live in the age of technology, but old-fashioned manners still apply
People, we need to talk about etiquette.
Over the course of 22 years, I went from an intern filing papers in metal cabinets to an executive building businesses and leading teams. I graduated college arrogant, and over time, I became humble. At the beginning of my career, Morgan Stanley sent me to “listening classes” after I called my boss a bitch during my performance review. Now, I’m the sort of person who listens — without waiting for my turn to speak. I’ve also learned that yelling at your boss probably isn’t the best way to get a promotion.
I used to work with the crazies, and now I’m too old for them. My career is so long I’ve had to shave years off my LinkedIn profile. I remember a time when I had to print resumes on outrageously expensive bond paper. What I’m saying is I’ve been around the block and back, and I have a few lessons to impart.
Everyone likes to talk about how we live in an attention deficit age in which our mobile phones have become appendages and the idea of getting lostmakes us feel like we’re in an episode of Black Mirror. But there’s something to be said for good old-fashioned etiquette. We’ve architected a world that is nothing if not automated, convenient, and dare I say hacked, yet we still crave connection. The tension between that desire for community and the disconnectedness of technology, on which we’ve become frighteningly dependent, is palpable.
Let me make one thing clear: Technology is not an excuse to disrespect people or waste their time.
Five years ago, I left a job that was slowly killing me. It’s taken me that long to find my way back to myself. Since I’ve become a consultant, I’ve had to deal with the terror that is income instability, expensive health insurance, and clients who think it’s appropriate to ask you to build a marketing plan for $250. But I’ve also done the best work of my career. I’ve learned that while I love people, I can’t be around them in an office for 12 hours a day. I have control over whom I work with, and I have the privilege of being able to shape my days. I’m present for my friends, and I show up for them in the moments that matter most.
It’s as if I’ve been asleep for years and I’ve finally woken up. All of a sudden, the volume is turned up. What had been hazy and sepia is now vibrant and clear. Being awake changes you, and it also makes you aware of how you, and those around you, act. As a result, I’ve become more aware of wackness.
Some of you are not acting right. Some of you need to be taken back to school, and I’m here with my lesson plans, prescription glasses, and chalk on the blackboard.
The Nebulous ‘Pick Your Brain’ Request
Can I pick your brain for three hours and 15 minutes in exchange for a $4.19 cup of coffee? You seem to have it all figured out, even though I’ve only read a handful of your tweets and possibly stalked you on LinkedIn! I didn’t come prepared with questions. Well, maybe one: What should I do with my life? Then, can I milk you for all of your LinkedIn contacts? Can you review my resume, portfolio, thank you note, etc.? By the way, can you be my mentor?
I could write a whole treatise on the ubiquitous “pick your brain” requests and why so many people are failing miserably at them. Although I’m an introvert who prefers to reside in the confines of my apartment, I meet up with people whom I mentor on a weekly basis. We have Skype calls. We share a meal. I have them come over and demand they play with my cat while I dole out career advice. These are people with whom I have a vested relationship — they’re either former colleagues or people with whom I’ve cultivated a relationship.
My mentor lives by this axiom: Be brief. Be brilliant. Be gone. When I receive vague requests or long-winded emails, it tells me you haven’t done your homework and you’re looking for me to fill in the blanks.
Don’t be the hot mess in someone’s inbox.
It also tells me that you don’t understand that my time is valuable. Every hour I’m not working is an hour I’m not earning income. Every request need not be met with hours spent in a coffee shop. Sometimes all it takes is a phone call, a Skype session, or an email or text. I’ll always help someone who sends me a brief email outlining a specific ask. Don’t underestimate the smallness of a request because specificity will make inroads faster than me issuing a team of investigators to decode your requests.
For example, a friend was planning a dramatic career shift from book publishing to online marketing. He asked that I connect him with people who might be able to help. But what does that even mean? I wrote back and asked if he wanted to meet with recruiters. Was he in the exploratory phase or was he looking for inroads to specific companies? Did he want to meet with peers who were doing paid social, content management, or influencer marketing to get more information about what they do? Did he have an industry preference? What was he looking to get out of these coffee catch-ups? How did he define help?
Later, he told me my questions made him think about his strategy and the fact that he had none.
What You Should Do Instead of Rewriting the Odyssey
Develop your strategy and break it down into components. I’m a big fan of mind-mapping, which is essentially an organized brain dump. I used the Goggle Chrome extension to map out all the things I had to consider when I quit my job and started freelancing. It’s not an all-inclusive list, but I wanted to give you a visual showing how you can use this to identify who can help at various stages of your journey. I would create one master mind map with offshoots for various stages in going freelance, i.e., “the exploratory phase” versus “ready to pitch.”
Using the below example, I’d need to connect with a lawyer to understand the differences between LLC and S-Corp, for example. I could connect with peer freelancers and ask them how they’re pricing services, or I could just join a private Facebook group. When I have my services defined and pricing ready, I could meet with my mentor and ask for feedback and introductions to potential clients.
See how I’ve done my homework and am prepared for my coffee/Skype/email meetings? Don’t be the hot mess in someone’s inbox.
Find people who can help with a specific component. Have a few potential helpers in mind for each component in case someone is busy or declines your request. Also, it helps to get a few different perspectives so you can distill what makes sense for you.
Send a short email and give options. If you’re sending the request to someone you know, the email can be informal. Let the person know the context for the request, why you’re asking for assistance (flattery is still in fashion), and offer options (email/phone/Skype) to connect. Remember, this isn’t about you and your schedule, so be accommodating.
Offer to reciprocate. You’d be surprised how far a closing line like, “And let me know how I can help you in any way” goes. First of all, many people don’t offer to reciprocate because they think since they’re asking for help they don’t have anything of value to offer. That couldn’t be further from the truth. When Snapchat first blew up, my initial impression was that it might as well have been the Riddle of the Sphinx. So when a college graduate invited me out for lunch to talk about career moves, I asked if she could teach me how to Snap.
Be on time. I don’t care how many Bustle Instagram posts about being late you’ve double-tapped; when you’re meeting with someone who is giving your time, you’d better show up on time. In fact, be early.
Send a thank-you note. Write your note of thanks, but do not do the Question Pile-On: The Sequel. Do not give the person who graciously helped you homework.
Also, realize that trying to land the most seasoned professional as a mentor may not be your best bet. While I can counsel people on strategy, business, management, and leadership, there are a lot of things for which I’m not equipped to mentor. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to manage a direct report for the first time or execute a Facebook ad campaign, for example. Sometimes it’s better to find someone who’s been where you’ve been in the not-so-distant past. I have a revolving door of mentors — some have been long-term advisers whom I tap into for an occasional question or help, while others are ephemeral. I believe in cross-mentorship and the value that millennials bring, so I have a cadre of young smart friends who help keep me relevant while I help guide their career.
This isn’t Moby Dick. Catching the big fish isn’t always a sound strategy.
Ryan Holiday penned an exceptional post on mentors. He writes:
No one goes out and straight up asks someone they’re attracted to to be their boyfriend [or] girlfriend — it’s a label that’s eventually applied to something that develops over time. A mentorship is the same way, it’s a dance, not a contractual agreement.
A mentorship is an informal arrangement, not a mainline into someone’s brain and contacts folder.
Beware the Blind Intro
Hey, Felicia! Meet my friend, X. She wants to work in marketing and since you work in marketing, I thought you’d hit it off. She’s also looking for a job, FYI. Attached is her resume.
Don’t do this, ever. I mean it. Never do this. Are you listening? I don’t care if you’re my closest friend — I will end you if you send me a blind introduction. It’s the professional equivalent of a group chat ambush. No one is thinking about the person who’s being asked for a favor; they’re thinking of themselves and their own self-interests.
Blind intros put people in an uncomfortable position of fulfilling a favor they either don’t have time for or don’t want to do. No one wants to appear as if they don’t want to help, and blind intros capitalize on this social tension. Why put someone you respect in an awkward position?
People know that when I email them with an inquiry for an introduction, I’m not wasting their time. They know that I’ve done the legwork to assess how both parties could benefit from the connection. In an email, I outline the specific ask, details about the recipient of the favor (LinkedIn page, blog, etc.), and how I think this connection could be valuable. Also, I never make intros for people I can’t vouch for. If I haven’t worked with you or assessed your level of sanity or competency, I’m not putting my reputation on the line to foster an intro.
If I get a refusal, I harbor no hurt feelings. I get it. My email is yet another to-do, and sometimes people just don’t have the time. Also, I’m strategic about my requests and how often I make them. Quality > quantity, always.
Playing the Cool Kid Game
Felicia, it’s so great to see you! (Whiplash ensues, neck resembles that of an ostrich.) I want to hear everything that’s going on in your life (neck brace now required), but first I have to say hello to X.
A few years ago, I tried to make an introduction between a good friend of mine and an acquaintance, but the acquaintance had her sights set on one of the cool kids in the room. The introductions were brusque, all eye contact avoided, and my friend, who had considered my acquaintance for a project, ultimately decided against it.
There’s a special place in hell for people who are consumed by courting those who are “good to know.” People who want to be part of a specific crowd without understanding the appeal of a crowd or “it” person is ephemeral. Playing the long game is tantamount. Befriending people because they have integrity, and are kind, smart, and honest, should be valued above any perception of equity or popularity. In short, playing the cool kid game makes others feel demonstrably less cool, and how would you feel if you were ignored for the bright shiny object just beyond your reach?
When I was in my twenties, my first mentor was a man named Bob Watson, who spent the greater part of his career at AT&T. He was old-school, and he told me once that I’d better be nice to everybody. Stop and talk to the receptionist, thank the people emptying your bins, and be graceful to your direct reports simply because it’s the right thing to do. Be good to everyone because you never know when you might encounter them again, and the power dynamic might shift against your favor.
Don’t be an asshole. I’ve learned this the hard way.
I don’t care about your blog’s popularity, or that you were on the cover of a magazine or on some ridiculous “thirty under thirty” list. I don’t care that you spin with that VIP person or that you know everyone worth knowing. If I can’t endure a meal with you, I don’t want to know you. If you can’t look me in the eye, I don’t want to know you. If you can’t give the people I respect and admire the time of day, I don’t want to know you. If you’re with me and scanning the room, looking for a better deal, I don’t want to know you. There are plenty of people like me who only want to surround themselves with people they respect, admire, and trust — and feel that those feelings are reciprocated.
Also, don’t be an asshole. I’ve learned this the hard way, having burned some bridges early in my career and finding people from a previous life suddenly reappear in a present one. We’re all human and prone to bad days and rage-filled outbursts, but apologize for your mistakes, try to be kind, and make reparations when you can.
Get Over Yourself
Over the past two years, I’ve received offers to help startups build Instagram channels or manage Facebook pages — even though I’ve built brands and businesses, and have been working for over twenty years. Do I give attitude or get all huffy? Absolutely not. Who says no to income? And at least people were kind enough to think of me. And if my pipeline is crickets, I’m not beneath doing anything legal or hygienic to pay the bills.
People don’t know the extent of your service level or offering, so they’ll just send you whatever sounds like a fit for you. I always graciously thank the person for thinking of me, politely pass with specificity on the kind of projects I’m taking on, and offer to help find an appropriate freelancer. Not only does this help in terms of me paying it forward to my peers, but I’ve helped someone who was generous enough to extend me a potential project. Often, I’ve received more appropriate follow-up offers because of my specificity and humility.
In short, don’t give attitude. Get over yourself. Don’t act like you’re above anything because you never know when you may need the work. People always remember that one freelancer who had the Titanic ego.
Failure to Thank
Nothing enrages me more than ingratitude. Always be grateful, always be thankful. If someone makes an intro, say thank you. If someone gets you a project, say thank you. Even if you didn’t take on the project, say thank you. I don’t need a meal; I don’t need your gratitude tears; I don’t even need a finder’s fee — simply send me an email with these five words: “Thank you so much, Felicia!”
Karma has your direct dial, people. Don’t feel like you’re entitled to connections and projects. Send an email, handwritten note, or creatively sourced cat GIF. I can’t believe I’m even telling people about basic Emily Post please-and-thank-you etiquette, but ingratitude feels more like the norm these days, and that frightens me.
Don’t Disrespect My Time
If I can find a post that lists 300 free resources for entrepreneurs and startups, you can learn how to master Google Calendar. Hypothetical scenario: You send a succinct, specific email to someone you admire, inviting them out for a coffee or a light bite. You arrange the time. You send a calendar invite, and you even pick the meeting point and time. The person whom you admire shows up on time, finds a spot, and scans the room. Then the text or email arrives: So sorry! I’m running 15 minutes late! My car stalled! My dog has depression, and I had to refill his meds! (Insert additional excuses blaming a third party).
Let me get this straight. You email me at the precise time we’re supposed to meet, telling me you’re going to be late. At any point before said time, did you maybe suspect you were going to be late? Subways do stall and sometimes traffic is truly an abomination, but those instances are rare if you plan right.
Time is a valuable commodity.
If you are someone who is chronically late for everything, understand that you’re not meeting up with a forgiving friend, who accepts your lateness as your only flaw because you are this amazing human. You’re meeting up with someone who barely knows you, and your first meeting will form a crucial first impression. So get right with your life and leave earlier than you normally would. If you start to see traffic en route, pull over and text immediately. I’d rather know that there is a chance you might be late than wait around hoping you might arrive before the coffee shop closes.
This may sound absurd, but I have few professional pet peeves and lateness is one of them. In the 20 years that I’ve been working, I’ve only been late a handful of times. I realize that time is a valuable commodity. If I’m asking for someone else’s time — time that will take them away from their life, family, friends, and paying work — I better respect that time. If anything, I arrive early for meetings and busy myself with emails or window shopping nearby.
The same applies to the person who reschedules a meeting 35 times. I’ve been guilty of this, so I know life is hard and things happen. We are busy, double- and triple-booked, bombs explode in our lap at the very last minute, and every meeting carries an opportunity cost. Every moment, whether we realize it or not, we’re making a cost-benefit analysis (value of meeting A vs. meeting B). However, someone rearranged his or her schedule, taking time away from other priorities to meet with you.
I now employ a three-strikes rescheduling rule: If you reschedule three times, you no longer get a meeting. I’ll do an email or Skype session or call. If I’m the culprit, I’ll offer to bring dinner to someone’s office or a place that is conveniently located for them, or I’ll gift them something lovely as an apology.
Forgetting Where You Came From
Years ago, I published a literary magazine, Small Spiral Notebook. It was a time before online journals were ubiquitous, and after six years of publication and some minor fame, I folded the journal in pursuit of other projects. I was humbled to have published great writers, many of whom went on to publish books and win prizes. I edited and published their first stories — stories written before they had found their voice.
A few years ago, Leigh Stein tweeted, with jubilation, that I’d published her when she was 19. Leigh is an acclaimed writer and feminist whom I admire, and I smiled reading that tweet. It told me that she appreciated the whole trajectory of her career, not just from the time when she had “made it” and onward. Every publication, rejection, feedback, and interaction brought her to where she was at this moment. She understood the power of the big picture and how it shaped her writing and career.
Maybe I’m projecting, maybe she wasn’t thinking any of these things. But I see so many people hide or discredit their failures, or distance themselves from people they used to know who may not be in the fancy set they run with now.
Don’t set aside or ignore your old mentors and peers in favor of The Shiny Object Syndrome. Level the playing field and continue to practice kindness
I recently read an article that reminded me how much we have to run toward failure in order to succeed. Failure implies that we stood on the precipice of something big and made the decision to leap. Yet people all too often equate falling with failure, and think failure is something to rub out, hide. I talk about my failures often and with pride, focusing on how they led me to where I am today.
For example, I was under so much stress at my last job that I ended up becoming, for a brief time, the leader I never wanted to be. I was abrasive, noxious, and my words gave an employee of mine undue stress. A few years later, I wrote her a note of apology for my failure as a manager and leader. Now, we’re partners in a new venture. I used that failure to step back and evaluate the life I’d been leading and the example I’d been setting for others.
Don’t set aside or ignore your old mentors and peers in favor of The Shiny Object Syndrome. Level the playing field and continue to practice kindness, because again, you never know when people you used to know may come back into your life.
Be cognizant, honest, and humble about how you got where you are — it’s that easy.
The plague of arrogance is deep, real, and true. I started blogging in 2001, and much has changed since then, including egos. At some point, an invisible line developed between the echelon and the plebeians. These stars (whether self-appointed or cultivated by their community) were, at one point in time, small. They didn’t have much traffic, readers, or experience, and they worked (or didn’t) to get to a point where they could stand behind an invisible rope and wave to all those clamoring for entry. I’ve seen many who cling desperately to their minor fame, becoming suspicious or resentful of anyone with the potential to threaten that fame. What they fail to see is that we win by allowing others to shine. We’re successful if we’ve played a selfless role in someone else’s success. There’s no nobility in hoarding your success.
Once you’ve achieved some semblance of success, you need to pay it forward. This can take on a myriad of forms: mentorship (one-to-one, Twitter chats, site Q&As, and videos that answer questions on a broader scale), donation of your time or services for pro-bono passion projects, participation in conferences where you give advice to those just starting out, or content you’ve created that is selfless in nature. I mentor a lot of people in varying stages of their careers, have read manuscripts in nascent stages, and have donated hours to give free advice on passion projects.
Apologizing isn’t a sign of weakness or frailty. Rather, I see it as a remarkable sign of strength.
Recently, I had a tough day. I sat in front of a computer for 12 hours. I missed my workout, my salad, my walk, all the self-care stuff. I turned down a proposal for a project because I knew the client would be an utter nightmare. But I also didn’t have any new projects lined up.
The old me would have been morose and bitter. However, in the midst of all of this, I typed an email to 20 inspiring women — some acquaintances, some close friends — and I offered up all the education I had procured online. A purely unselfish act that would benefit them, it instantly made me feel better. The volume of my rage dialed down to a respectable level. More importantly, I returned to the feeling of hope. Not positivity. Hope. Hope that my good vibes will make other people rock out. Hope that my hard work will turn this ship around.
You may not have all the time at your disposal, but make a point to allocate some of it to those coming up in the ranks, much like how someone helped you get to where you are today. Much like how someone dressed your wounds when you were hurting.
Excuses Instead of Apologies
There is a certain breed of people who just can’t apologize — even when they know, deep down, they’re wrong. They’ll displace blame, they’ll talk about how they’re sorry you were offended or hurt. Apologizing isn’t a sign of weakness or frailty. Rather, I see it as a remarkable sign of strength. Years ago, I snapped at a direct report in a meeting. She approached me afterward and told me that the way I’d treated her was wrong, that I shouldn’t have been cross with her so publicly. Without hesitation, I said she was right. Not only did I apologize for it during our team meeting, I apologized to the team for how I’d mistreated that direct report. My behavior was not an example that should be followed.
Several years ago, I read a succinct and smart post on why talented employees jump ship. The piece has stayed with me. Stacy-Marie makes many salient points, but at the core of her article are the concepts of responsibility and accountability. How managers own up to how they treat employees and, quite frankly, themselves. We could all be more honest, humble, and apologetic.
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