Take That Down!

I’m way too unreliable to keep a journal.

The last time I consistently kept a journal (of sorts) was when I blogged while studying abroad—and then I had the fact that my family was worried for my well-being to motivate me. I’m just not one to record my day-to-day life. Time always seems to slip away from me.

Don't tell Cleo.

Don’t tell Cleo.

But when it comes to knowing my stuff—both what’s relevant to my professional goals and to my personal interests—I am very consistent. Keeping a record of things that are important and storing the records in an easily accessible place has become an indispensable part of my professional and personal growth. My little black notebook has saved the day many times.

Anyone who knows me well knows I carry my little black notebook around with me pretty much everywhere. I keep a record of anything I read or hear that I find to be important or particularly poignant in that notebook. I never thought something so simple would make my life so much easier and more organized, but now I’ll never look back.

The great thing about this method of thought organization and documentation is that it can be modified to fit pretty much anyone’s preferences or needs. Here are my basic tips for keeping your own idea journal.

Gather your supplies. Before I went to a really important conference last spring, I bought a hardcover, well-bound, black notebook. At the time, I mostly wanted something that would look sleek and professional, but I’ve since realized that anything else wouldn’t have worked. If you want to keep track of things in a notebook, you’ll want to find one that’s durable. My poor little book gets thrown into every bag, dropped on the ground, shoved off my bed—I’m notorious for spilling food on things, so I’m just awaiting the day when that happens. Get something that’s going to last. You won’t regret it.

While you’re at it, go get some pens and toss one in every bag you carry, and in the pocket of your jacket/coat/blazer/etc. Learning something good and not being able to write it down is the worst.

Keep good records. Before I start writing down something I learned, I like to make some notes about the context. Check out these notes I made on a post from Beyond the Elms blogger Mia last month! This is a good example of the average entry in my notebook.

Always good to keep in mind.

Always good to keep in mind.

Start writing. At first, I thought I would just pull out my notebook when something interesting happened. I would wait for the occasion to arise and then whip it out to start writing. Now, I see it as a way to challenge myself to find innovation in places I wouldn’t always expect. Here are some things to get you going:

1. Facts & Figures. The easiest place to start is to write down important hard information and statistics you encounter. When you read studies or listen to lectures, jot down the argument made and try to learn as much of it as you can. This way you can whip out those percentages and other figures when you need them.

2. Not Just “What?” but “How?” To dig a little deeper, try to take a step back from the message and look at the messenger. How are they presenting their information? What makes them convincing or not? Does the layout of the fact sheet they give you work? Are their visuals useful? Is the meeting or conference space conducive to the work they’re trying to do? Write down what they do that works—or doesn’t. You’ll be grateful you did.

3. Day-to-Day Bits of Wisdom. What can I learn from a discussion my coworkers have about how the seating at an important event should be organized? What wisdom can I glean from my coworker who always brings treats and snacks to the office? How does the way my manager talks on the phone help her accomplish her goals? It’s easy to jot down straight information, but you can also push yourself to get more out of a situation by looking for off-the-cuff wisdom and innovation.

4. Good Advice. Whenever you get the chance to sit down and get advice from a superior—your boss, manager, mentor, even someone who has been at the company longer than you have—take out your notebook and write down good advice they give. This way you can always look back on your notes later to make sure you remember their suggestions correctly, but more importantly, taking notes shows your advisor that you’re really listening and take their advice seriously. Win-win!

5. Must-Reads. Always having your notebook handy is great when people are constantly recommending books for you to read. I probably have 10 or 15 in my notebook, and they will be wiring patiently until I find the time to sit down and read them.

6. Powerful Words. I was at a town hall a few weeks ago where I got to hear my lawmaker speak candidly with folks who had concerns. I had my notebook at the ready whenever I was sitting down, and I was really excited about getting to write down soundbites and wise words from my boss and from folks who spoke up. Keeping a record of important themes will help you better remember details of what happened on the day.

Analyze. As you can see, keeping a record of things to remember not only helps you remember what happened, but also what’s important about what happened. Numbers 2 and 6 in particular suggest that writing down wise words will also help you recognize who’s really running the show in a given space. If someone’s words keep falling flat, try to figure out why—are they badly or under-informed? Do they lack the passion that others possess? Are they being spoken over or ignored? Are they disorganized? Try to get a sense of the dynamics of the room and figure out what’s happening that isn’t being said.

Keeping a record of important things in your office is also really useful for better understanding how the workplace functions. Everyone has official roles which they play based on their job descriptions, but everyone also serves a role the dynamics of the office. Taking notes of useful things people in the office say will help you understand how people work the way they do and how best to approach a situation where you need something. Either way, writing things down in a handy place helps you dig deeper for a better understanding of what you’re learning as you go through your professional life. Best of all, those of us who can’t keep up with a diary will still be able to look back on ourselves and our growth as long as the notebook decides to stick around.

Darn kids.

Darn kids. Think they know everything.

Do you keep a journal like mine? What do you suggest keeping record of? Let me know what you think!

Hello, my Name is…

People always call my boss by her first name.

I took a call from a man a few weeks ago who had a question about her view on something–he started out by calling her by her official title and last name, but then interrupted himself: “You know,” he said, “I just don’t feel like I can call her Sheriff Jones. I just have to call her Jessie.”


(Note: No, my boss isn’t a sheriff, and no, her name isn’t Jessie Jones. But she would be awesome at it if she was.)


Then again, I’d probably never hear the end of it.

Then this week, one of my coworkers noticed something. “When did they start writing ‘Jessie’ on our newspapers?” The folks in the main lobby keep our daily newspapers for us when they arrive in the morning, and I pick up our copy on my way up to the office. They write each office’s name on the front page so we know which is ours. When I first started, they were writing “Jones” on the front page, like they were doing for the guys in the office, Senator Butcher, Representative Baker, and Mayor Candlestick Maker. But sometime in the last week or so they stopped writing “Jones” and started writing “Jessie.”


I’ve even heard folks refer to her as Jessie and others by their last names in the same sentence–”If I don’t get a response from Jessie, I’ll be contacting Butcher, Baker, and Candlestickmaker too!”


Now, being, well, me, I was immediately skeptical of all this. Why only use her first name? She’s the first woman from our state to hold her current position, and she was also the first woman to hold several prominent positions prior to her election to this one, and it’s very obvious that she’s popular, at least baseds on the calls I get to the office.


But is it a sign of disrespect that folks call other leaders and politicians in our community and state by their title or last name and my boss by her first?
My boss herself doesn’t think so. The coworker who noticed the newspaper thing told me that she asked our boss if it bothered her. She replied that no, it didn’t bother her–in fact, she loved it. She loves that people feel comfortable enough with her to call her Jessie.


The more I think about it, the more I have to agree with her. While calling her by her title is certainly respectful (I definitely call her that in person), the fact that people call her by her first name does not put her at a disadvantage as a politician–who would you rather vote for, Mayor Candlestick Maker or your best buddy Jessie?


As I’ve said before, this part of the country can be a funny place. I’ve had men call me “sweetheart” on the phone before (and he was not a 90-year-old man thanking me for helping him with something, either–he was a 40-something guy who asked me whether he “needed to repeat his phone number, sweetheart”). And, full disclosure, we’re one of those states that currently has lawsuits pending because of our gay marriage and abortion laws. But at the same time, folks out here have a reputation of being friendly people (if not always the most forward-minded), and I think that my boss is right to take it as a compliment.


In fact, that’s my career advice for the week, folks–if you’re representing people, you need to make sure they like you. A lot. Enough to vote for you and maybe even donate some of their hard-earned money to your campaign. Or, if you’re managing a company, follow you and not despise you. It’s a delicate balance, though–people might not take you seriously if you don’t take yourself seriously. But my boss is really good at striking this balance: people take her seriously because she’s smart, speaks directly, and doesn’t back down from the principles she promised people when she ran for office. But she is also a casual, friendly, smiley person who is as quick to crack a joke with you as she is to hit you with a hard question when she needs to. So if you’re doing your job right, you might as well take the compliment and run with it.


Thoughts, folks? Would you rather be called by your first name or title? Is one more respectful? Does it depend? Have a good week!

Perception and Professionalism

This post was prompted by a discussion with my mentor, who was also on the panel for my phone interview. She was describing why they chose me, and made a comment that unnerved me a bit. She said that at first it seemed strange to do just a phone interview, but she saw now that in some ways it was more fair.

I wasn’t sure what she meant–was she referencing my height, my disability… or even my nose piercing? I knew the sentiment underneath was positive–that they loved my phone interview, and that my supervisor was very happy with my performance–but I was scared, and even slightly shocked by the implication that I would not have gotten the job with an in person interview.

I don't wear this dress to work. But the rest of me, professional or not, is pretty inescapable.

I don’t wear this dress to work. But the rest of me, professional or not, is pretty inescapable.


It never seriously occurred to me that my persona–tiny, quirky, and as I tend to say, vaguely disabled, could be dragging me down. I think of myself as professional: I try to be tactful, appropriate, and focused at work. I don’t show lots of skin, debate politics, or talk about wherever I danced or slept the night before.

At the same time, I want to be me, not bland corporate worker #237. I do have a nose stud, I dye my hair, I’m politically active, and I was raised with an ethos that many would describe as hippie-dippie. Of course, I know it’s not professional or appropriate to bring all of my experiences and identities to every situation. I try to walk that line as best I can. I don’t want to sabotage my reputation professionally or academically, but I’m also critical of the homogeneity of “professionalism”. A lot of advice to young people about being professional really seems to be telling us to hide who we are if we fall at all outside the norm.

Right now, the way I’m handling this is to be politely myself. I wear appropriate clothing, but my business casual is perhaps slightly on the earthy side (I have a lot of scarves.) I’ve tried to wear more makeup and sheath dresses, but I feel uncomfortable and less confident when I don’t look like myself. And ultimately, my professional strength depends on my confidence. It doesn’t matter how great my ideas are if no one hears them. And to my surprise, despite all of the ways I don’t resemble a generic young professional, people listen to me at work because I know what I’m talking about. They see that I work hard, that I ask questions, and that I speak with clarity and confidence.

I’m getting to know myself pretty well–my weaknesses (real and perceived by society) and my strengths. I can compensate for my weaknesses and capitalize on my strengths. That doesn’t stop me from freaking out occasionally, but it helps.

For Posterity

Leaving instructions and guidance for future holders of your position is something all employees should be thinking about. What advice can you leave for them? What things weren’t explicitly mentioned during training that you had to learn over the course of your time there? What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started?

The intern before me left me notes for me everywhere—on the computer, on sticky notes, in note pads—and she even stopped by the office after I started to give me as much guidance as possible when I was just starting out. She told me a lot: everything from where things are stored in the office and where important files are located to what to do when someone hostile calls and what our boss’s favorite drink is (so I can stash some in my bag if I get to travel with her).

When I googled the word “posterity” the first hit was John Adams. Happy 4th, everyone.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about what I can pass on to the next person who has this job. Doing so may seem a little premature. Why would I already be thinking about the next intern when I’m not even a month and a half into the summer? Well, I’m realizing that there are things I can be doing throughout the internship to make my successor’s (and my own!) job easier. Curious what I mean? Here’s some tips that I’ve rounded up so far!

1. Get samples of good work and save them in a convenient place.

Pin this on your lapel. Everyone will know what you mean.

Whether you’re working on correspondence (as in my case) or some other process that changes from situation to situation, it’s a good idea to get some examples of the job done really well. Lucky for me, everything our office sends out gets saved into a database that I can access. It’s also a good idea to ask your supervisors for samples of strong letters that they’ve written and stash those somewhere handy. I also save copies of documents my manager or our office director have edited and revised for me (including my original copy with the changes tracked!) to that folder so that future interns have an idea of how to do it when they’re starting from scratch.

2. Learn the technology and processes related to your job better than you have to.

If you find this button, ALERT US ALL.

In this job, I’m working with legislative software that isn’t always especially user-friendly. I was lucky to get good training on the everyday basics of the software, which meets my needs about 90% of the time. But every once in a while I need to do something different than what I’m used to, so I call our tech support folks for help. They can do whatever I need remotely if I ask, but instead I always have them walk me through it and take detailed notes of the process as they describe it. This way our office has a permanent copy of these notes and won’t need to call tech support every time, and training new interns will be just that much easier.

3. Keep things organized.

“You can get ALL this for just THREE easy payments of $19.99!”

You never know what’s going to happen or whether you’ll have time to clean things up before the next person steps in. You might be scrambling to tie up all your loose ends before departing, or there may be days when someone needs to take over your work because you’re gone. Making everything organized and easy to find will make sure your successor (or substitute) can do their job efficiently. Label files, documents, and folders, and try not to tuck things away in mysterious places. Lists are also everybody’s friend. Before I leave for the day, I try to make a list of what I need to do the following day. This jogs my memory when I get in garishly early in the morning, and it provides a potential substitute clues about what I’ve been up to. The previous intern left me with a brief list of projects she hadn’t been able to finish before she left, and this gave me a place to start when I was still learning the ropes, and make for a smoother transition from her to me.

4. Keep a record of everything.

You may want to type up your notes if you’re not sure people will be able to read them.

This is in the same vein as #3, but a little more specific. Luckily for me, the documentation software we use allows for users to record pretty much everything we do and makes it available for anyone to see. If I’m working on a case for someone and can’t finish it, someone else can open the file in the program to see all my correspondence with them and any notes I made about what I was doing. The more detailed I am, the more useful my notes are to everyone involved. If you don’t have such a system in your office, make one for your work. For whatever you’re working on, make a list of things you need to do, and check tasks  off as you do complete them (rather than crossing them out). Save the list even after you’ve completed everything you need to do. Store the list in a place where it will easily be matched with the project it goes with. This little bit of maintenance will save the day for anyone who wants to access your work later—whether they’re trying to pick up where you left off or just wanting a good example of what to do in a similar situation (think of #1!).

5. Leave your contact information for your successor.


The previous intern and I exchanged information when she stopped by to show me the ropes. It’s been so comforting to know that she just a message away in case I have any questions or concerns I don’t feel like I can ask my manager. Getting to know people who have held or will hold your position isn’t a bad idea either, especially if you’re just starting to work in your target area. In the short time we chatted when she was in the office, my predecessor clued me in to a couple of other really interesting internships in the area and talked with me a little about her decision to go to law school. Don’t pass up this opportunity to get to know to other young professionals with similar interests!

Do you think there’s value in planning ahead to help your successor? Or does it detract from getting your own work done? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

All Organizations Are the Same

I’ve had wild flashes of deja vu during meetings at my internship this summer. The intense discussion of detail, the intricate dance of stepping up and back, the subtle alliances revealed in body language and tone…they all bring me back to an experience that should be worlds away from my formal internship at a big serious organization. When I was in high school, I was deeply involved in my religious organization’s regional youth group. The denomination itself was wildly liberal, and the youth organization was created to be empowered, intentional, and essentially self-governing. I held a succession of leadership roles starting at age 14 or so, first at events, and eventually on our governing body. These roles haven’t been on my resume in years, but they have so much to do with how I approach the professional world. It turns out the same dynamics exist in discussions with managers and executives about software development, and between 10 teenagers deciding how many gender-neutral bathrooms to have at overnight events. Effective participants make arguments based on principle balanced with logistical practicality. They reference and agree with people with similar arguments to build coalitions. Effective facilitators make the objective, agenda, and rules of a discussion clear. They try to draw every stakeholder into the conversation, focus on decisions and action without cutting off needed discussion, and keep the meeting running efficiently. I’ve had several more formal experiences of public speaking, argument, discussion, and facilitation–in debate, as a youth commissioner in local government, and in class presentations–but the basis of all my instincts for meetings come from the extremely casual district church youth council. Sometimes I get nervous about formal business etiquette, but I’m never afraid to speak up when I have a legitimate opinion based on my knowledge and the organization’s values. That’s a gift I owe to a bunch of teenagers with firm beliefs and ripped jeans.

Organizing discussion groups. We used markers; some businesses would use powerpoint.

Organizing discussion groups at a youth conference. We used markers; some businesses would use powerpoint.

It’s not just meetings, either. All of the organizations I’ve been involved in–from church groups to small museums to government advisory bodies to large organizations–are ultimately made up of teams of individuals. People are people, regardless of business culture or whether you’re talking about decisions that affect youth overnights or huge software projects. When I talk to people about their career path, I often hear of unexpected changes across role and industry. The reason they can pull off these changes is that organizations and problem-solving are very similar wherever you go, even when the problems themselves are very different. It’s a fun feeling, to be reminded of my 15 year old self when in a meeting or just talking about a problem with adult professionals. It’s also reassuring for someone as career-indecisive as me.  I’m grateful that what I have learned and will learn in the future about human dynamics, problem-solving, organizational change, management, and really great meetings will apply wherever I end up.