Michele Woodward is one of the 10 finalists in The Washington Post Magazine’s @Work Advice Contest.
About me: Totally going for the hometown girl vote, let me shamelessly say that I attended Wakefield Forest Elementary School in Annandale (let’s hear it for the blue and gold) and Robert Frost Intermediate in Fairfax (shout out to all those who chose the road not taken – you rock!) and W.T. Woodson High School (Wilbert Tucker to those in the know). And Hokie-Hokie-Hokie-hi is my personal theme song, having graduated from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., before the football team was really any good at all. So now that I’ve established my hometown cred, let me tell you about my career: corporate, politics, White House, dot-com start-ups, full-time parenting, self-employment. In other words, if you can get a paycheck for it, I probably have done it. Right now, I work as an executive coach with clients all over the world. I train coaches how to work with people and their careers, write a career strategy blog, and have written two books with a third in process. I’m a single mom of two teenagers – yes, I know – and have two small dogs whose deepest desire is to be carried in a purse. That dream has yet to be realized. But they hold out hope.
Why I should win: I’m a coach who became a writer in order to help more people — not a writer who reluctantly took on career advice because that was the only job available at the paper, with the hope to move up to obituaries really soon. I’ve worked with hundreds of people all around the world figure out how to have those difficult conversations, how to deal with a toxic boss, how to get that new job, how to actually thrive at work. My orientation as a coach means that I bring the benefit of all my training and experience to the advice I give. Plus, I understand what it’s like to work in the federal government (not for the faint of heart) and corporate America (a challenge on the best days) and small business ownership (want to see my QuickBooks?) So I will know where most readers as coming from, and can relate in a personal and powerful way — and give them guidance to make it through even the toughest situations.
Work mantra: “Play to your strengths. Serve your values. Enjoy yourself. Keep your edge.”
My workplace anecdote: I was coaching a woman this morning — she’s small business owner — who told me about her effort to have more work-life balance. She had attended a weekend event with her husband and some friends, and she took on the role of Group Leader. She made a plan, a schedule, and reminded everyone to put on their shoes, brush their teeth and more or less walk single file. She wondered why she had a miserable time. I asked, “Are you their friend, or their mom?” Tears. Then a breakthrough. Then a new plan.
On the contest entry form, we offered five sample questions (submitted by real readers) and asked applicants to answer the two of their choice.
Q: Correcting my boss: In conversations with customers, he regularly misuses a relatively common word. It hangs in the air of the conference rooms we visit and I squirm when I see the audience make the “Huh? What did he say?” face, then the “Oh THAT’s what he meant” look of embarrassment. Is there an appropriate way to correct him?
Woodward: Two words to remember: Direct. And, discretion. A zillion studies have been written on how to change someone’s behavior but they’re boring (except for the footnotes, which are surprisingly racy) so let me summarize them for you here: Bad behavior calls for immediate, direct correction. But correcting your boss in front of others – especially clients - risks possible humiliation for everyone in the room, and bad juju. So, the second d-word – discretion - is called for. You could follow your boss into his office right after the customer meeting and say, “Sid, you know I’ve got your back, right? And you would want me to tell you if you’ve got spinach in your teeth before a client meeting, right?” Once he’s nodding his consent, directly and discreetly say, “You often say ‘aperitif’, which is a before dinner drink, when I know you mean to say ‘appetizer’. I think the clients were confused in there a minute ago.” See? You’ve shown that you’re on his side, you’ve saved his skin and you’ve been kind. Take the rest of the day off.
Q: Colleagues or friends?: I’m at my first job out of college and many of the other young people in the office are friends, hang out after work and even party together at each others’ apartments. I like them, but I always thought you should keep some professional distance from fellow coworkers. I’d enjoy going out to lunch with these people but probably wouldn’t want to take shots with them. What do you think -- and what do you think senior management thinks?
Woodward: That first job! How well I remember my first job out of college – in the beer business - and every day featured beers, bars and banter. I had no choice but to socialize with my colleagues because that was the nature of the beast. What’s the nature of your beast? Does senior management encourage socializing? Is it more or less required, like in the beer business? You could find out by becoming Nancy Drew and observe senior management - do they socialize with one another? Do they socialize with junior staff? Do they rib your colleagues about last night’s partying, and this morning’s hangover? If so, then senior management may be more than fine with the after-hours socializing, and might even encourage it in the guise of team building or client retention. If you don’t see any wink-wink, nudge-nudge, perhaps the partying is unique to your friends, and that’s when you get to decide how you want to behave based on your own internal guidance system. What works for you? What suits your temperament? What will build professional alliances? What will get the job done? What will bring you to the attention of the bosses and get you a promotion? Focus on those things, and then decide how your social life can best support your work.
What the judges had to say:
Carolyn Hax: Good, spirited advice, particularly the read-your-workplace emphasis on office partying. She talks down to reader ever so slightly, but I’m interested in seeing more.
Eric Peterson: Very sound advice. My one (admittedly) minor quibble was with “direct” and “discretion.” Using two adjectives (direct and discreet) would have given her response more punch than an adjective and a noun.
Douglas LaBier: Good, solid responses, and good touch with a sense of humor.
Sydney Trent: She’s one of my favorites — well-written and insightful advice. But: She should have prompted the writer of “Correcting my Boss” to review her relationship with the boss in the same way she prompted the writer in the second question to think about the workplace culture. And: I don’t like references to studies, no matter how generic.
Lynn Medford: Answers with enthusiasm! I like her energy. Her the-problem-isn’t-so-huge tone puts the issue in perspective, plus it’s entertaining reading.
Meet the @Work Advice Contest’s 10 finalists