Thursday, March 5, 2009

Five things you can do to "enhance your career." (Day Five)

In college, I was that guy who asked the annoying questions right at the end of class when you were ready to bail and meet your friends for an afternoon or evening of whatever stuff you did when you got out of class early. I know you didn't like me, I could tell by the way you rolled your eyes and sighed when you saw my hand go up. I'm not gonna apologize because I was not doing it to keep you from a post-class rendezvous. I actually, really wanted to know the answer. If it makes you feel any better, when I was a professor and right at the end of class when I was ready to bail and meet my friends for an afternoon or evening of whatever stuff I did when I got out of class early and a student raised his/her hand for a last minute question... I would roll my eyes and sigh.

My point (and I DO have one) is really about one of those classic dichotomies of human existence. You know. The ones that start, "There are two kinds of people in the world..." and then trail off into something that seems to be intuitively correct. I will add to the pantheon of intuitively correct dichotomies by saying that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who ask questions and those who don't. A word to the wise here... as much as I hated those who asked questions in the last five minutes of class, inevitably they were the ones with the "A's" at the end of the course.

In case you haven't guessed by now, today's thing that will enhance your career is "asking questions."

Them what asks, gits.
My father used to say this all the time, so I thought he made it up. I googled it and found out that Capt Otto F. Unsinn, USCG should get credit for it. My dad was in the Navy for over twenty years, so I assume that is where he picked it up. At any rate, this was the answer my father always gave when my siblings or I complained that someone had gotten something that we hadn't.
"Did you ever ask for it?"
"Uh, no."
"Them what asks, gits."
It has become very clear to me that this is true in the work world just as much as it was true in the why-did-my-sister-get-a-new-bike-and-all-I-got-was-my-brother's-used-bike world.

Sometimes you are at the front of the line. You ARE the line.
A quick story here. When I was in graduate school, I overheard a student in another program talking about a grant she had received. Being that I am just as comfortable asking a stranger questions as I am asking questions at the end of class, I did just that... ask her what grant she was talking about and how much it was and how she applied for it and how long it took. (Yep, you've got it, I annoyed her, too!) I went to Financial Aid and asked even more questions, but found out that they gave two grants of $1500/semester to each of the five colleges on campus and if no one applied from Liberal Arts, but three were eligible from Natural Sciences, then they would award the "extra money" to a Natural Science student. It turns out, however, that eligibility was based on a combination of need, academic record, and a recommendation. While not wealthy, I knew I would not qualify on need alone. As you have figured out by now, I am not likely to qualify for anything based on being smart, but I did have a recommendation. At one out of three, things looked grim. So, I asked the question.
Last year, how many students applied for the grant?
I was startled to find out that 13 students had applied for the 10 grants. I assumed that meant I had a slim chance. I completed the paperwork and got a letter from my mentor the next day. A few weeks later, I was informed that I had been chosen for the $3000 grant at $1500 a semester and 25 years ago that was big bucks! When I went to sign the paperwork, I asked how many people applied and was told that I was the sole applicant from Liberal Arts. When my classmates wanted to know how I had scored such a windfall, I said, "I asked for it."

Here's the deal. Over the years I have asked for and received raises and promotions. (I have also been turned down.) I have asked for increased responsibility and decreased responsibility. Once, when I wanted an extra week of vacation and was told that vacation leave was firm institutional policy and could not be changed, I then asked if I could have a week of "informal educational leave" which was granted. It has never occurred to me to simply take what was offered.

Question Authority... but be willing to listen to the answers.
A couple of years ago, someone who worked for me asked for a raise. I told this individual that the quality of his/her work was good, but not particularly better or worse than anyone else in the unit. I also explained the budget situation and how it was unlikely that anyone, including myself, would be getting a salary increase. I was a bit surprised at the response, which was, "Okay. Thanks. No harm in trying." I was surprised because I would have asked, "Okay, what do I need to work on to separate myself from the pack?" or "What things can I do in the next 6 months that would be of enough value to justify a raise?"

If your question stops at the first level, you will stay at the first level. People who are natural born questioners will continue ask for direction when initially turned down. Non-questioners will walk away disappointed. Those second level questions have to be focussed. Note my thoughts above. If turned down for a raise, your second question cannot be "Why?", it must show that you are committed to the mission of the organization in some nominal way. "What can I do?" is much less threatening that "Why?" It also makes the person being asked feel like they are dealing with an adult rather than a petulant child.

A tip for those uncomfortable asking questions.
I have often found that people who do not ask questions have given up because they did not get what they wanted or they got a completely unexpected response. Those of us genetically programmed to ask questions are unperturbed by the unexpected. Non-questioners sometimes rehearse what they believe will occur when they ask. The rehearsal goes something like this.
I will ask for a new computer and then the boss will ask what kind and then I will say a new iMac and then the boss will say 20" screen or 24" screen and then I will say to save the company money that I will take the 20' screen and then the boss will tell me ok and the next day I will get my computer.
News flash, folks! It is never that straightforward and if it is you don't need to rehearse for it. If you are a non-questioner, preparing to ask for a raise or tuition reimbursement or a promotion or a new office chair, plan what you will ask if you are turned down... not what you will say if you are accepted. It's like the Lotto. One of my co-workers once asked me what I would do if I won the $75 million jackpot. I said, "I haven't really thought about it. I figure things will somehow work out if I have $75 million. I can, however, tell you what I am gonna do if I stay poor."

Bottom line. Ask questions. It's just that simple.

1 comment:

  1. Capt. Otto Unsinn's son. I asked him what the essay was about when he moved in with me at the end of his life. I had found it on the internet. Unfortunately he couldn't remember the essay so I couldn't find out what he had written. He had a lot of things to say which were along the same mode