Signs of an Unhealthy Probation

Years ago, I mistakenly worked for someone I shouldn’t have. Since then, I have wondered: could I have foreseen what transpired? Were there early warning signs I overlooked?

Abundant research shows that employees don’t leave companies; they leave bad managers. We need look no further than the outgoing White House, with its record high turnover, to find an outstanding example. Many high-profile staffers depart (and have left) amidst a storm of tweeted insults.

I had a manager who did the same: publicly bad-mouthing me to others long after we had parted ways. Since then, I have scoured my memory to determine what the predictors of an unhealthy relationship with a boss might be. After all, if I could see them happening in real-time, I could confront them, knowing that they never go away by themselves.

Anyone who is considering a new position can do the same. For most jobs, companies offer a probationary period to test an employee’s suitability. In their eagerness to please, few new hires consciously realize it’s also a unique opportunity to ask: “Are there early warning signs of an incompetent manager who will eventually make my life miserable?” While these aren’t easy to pick up, here are three red flags you should look out for on your next assignment.

1. Being Liked

Arguably, it’s a natural desire to want to be liked, but becoming a competent manager involves outgrowing this everyday tendency. Over time, good managers learn to place the welfare of others and the mission of the company above their own need to be accepted.

In this context, a probationary period is a chance to see what your manager does under stressful situations. Will they stick to principles, or give in to the weakness to say and do things which are popular, or avoid getting themselves into trouble…all in order to be liked?

If you witness your manager “throwing people under the bus” i.e. blaming others in order to be liked or accepted, watch out. It’s safe to assume that the worst treatment meted out to others will one day be directed at you.

But this doesn’t mean that your manager is a “bad” person. They may be very well-intentioned…and completely clueless. Your task in this phase is to uncover the raw truth about their competence and act accordingly, setting aside any wishful thinking so you can take decisive action.

2. Looking Good

Another faulty behaviour to watch out for are those intended to make a manager look good…at all costs. There are many variants of the theme: some focus on physical objects such as their clothing, cars and houses. Others try to show off using their kids or spouse. A few lord their intellectual or artistic achievements.

It all amounts to a relentless campaign to compete with, defeat, and dominate those around them. As a new employee, if your manager uses you as a tool to further his/her ego-based objective, it’s corrosive.

Why? The moment will eventually come when you make a mistake. If your manager’s reaction under pressure seems bombastic (i.e. out of proportion), he/she may be putting the welfare of others in the back seat. Instead, their efforts to avoid looking bad include a tendency to become abusive.

3. Not Stepping Up as the Owner

As a new employee, perhaps the most difficult (but important) trait to detect in your manager surrounds taking responsibility. It’s a skill many managers struggle with, finding it to be unnatural. After all, it flies in the face of self-protective human behaviour which is so essential to our basic survival.

In fact, holding oneself publicly accountable equates to putting oneself in harm’s way…at risk. The act of doing so on a continuous basis is the very definition of a capable manager.

Yet, it remains a tricky behavior for employees to flag, especially early in their careers. Here’s a useful shortcut: observe if your manager apologizes sufficiently when he/she makes a mistake. You’ll be able to know by measuring the degree to which the apology restores the trust and goodwill that existed before the error was made.

In fact, if you work for a manager who publicly apologizes for a mistake you (not him/her) made, pay attention. Their resistance to the temptation to hang you out to dry, may indicate that you have a true winner.

This positive “warning” sign may mean that you shouldn’t leave. However, if all you can sense are the other incompetencies listed above, consider your probation a success: you have detected a manager you should probably quit.

Are you falling behind on LinkedIn?

To many, LinkedIn is just another social network like Facebook and Twitter, with a bit more business emphasis. This view understates its importance. COVID-19 has helped make the very opposite true today: as a professional you cannot afford to either be outdated on, or missing from, the platform.

To whit: around this time last year, I viewed LinkedIn as an annoying requirement of modern professional life. I didn’t like using it, but reasoned that I needed to do so in order to keep up. Now, by contrast, I engage in regular weekly practices I simply couldn’t imagine doing a few months ago.

But these aren’t routine tasks I could do elsewhere. In fact, they can only be done on LinkedIn at scale…nowhere else. This exclusivity means that you must consider the app to be part of your professional arsenal. Here are a few examples why.

1. Online Advertising as a Novice

In 2020, I discovered that, contrary to my US experience, advertising to Caribbean audiences on LinkedIn was quite inexpensive and effective. For example, if you want a way to promote your services to “female technology VP’s in St Kitts”, paid outreach on LinkedIn is by far the best way to reach this narrow segment.

I also learned that the platform’s ads do more than “sell” – they build relationships, an all-important ingredient in the

Caribbean. In other words, these promotions allow you to create bridges to people who don’t know you personally, and construct the “weak ties” research shows are critical in business.

During COVID-19, this method has become a requirement.

However, there’s catch. Online advertising on social networks is no easy task. While I had done some testing in the past, this year I finally invested the time needed to move beyond the novice stage.

I experienced a painful learning curve. For example, I had to figure out how to focus on the handful of features which are required vs. those which are nice to have. This is a big challenge given the barrage of options you face as a beginner.

2. Events and the Changing Limits

In 2019, I couldn’t say if LinkedIn offered event management. Fast forward…and by the new year, I will have sent 10,000+ individual invitations to webinars and conferences.

What happened?

By a stroke of luck, I stumbled across the platform’s revamped event feature, which at one point allowed me to invite as many connections as I wanted. Now, the company has caught on and imposed a limit of 1,000 people per occasion. While this has cost me dearly, they have added a new element – bulk invitations – which makes the task easier.

This free function is perfect for these pandemic times in which all of us need to up-level our skills, via online methods of learning. Today, we just don’t have a choice if we hope to remain relevant.

As such, through its events feature, LinkedIn offers a unique, scalable business service.

3. Networking

Old-style networking involved meeting people in person and handing out business cards in the hope of being remembered. COVID-19 halted this approach.

Today, there’s no easier way than LinkedIn to build a trusted network. Furthermore, exchanging useful information for mutual benefit becomes a fruitful game to be played over decades, leveraging the platform’s ability to create relationships at scale.

Unfortunately, if your account is out of date or you don’t even have one, you risk sending a silent message: “I don’t care about building relationships.”

While you may think that the way you use LinkedIn is a matter of style, the effect of your actions has now moved out of your hands. Whereas a preference not to employ that platform could have been a personal quirk a few years ago, today it’s fast becoming the digital equivalent of “never carrying my business cards” or “not believing in resumes.”

In other words, it’s weird.

The fact is, all the practices I have mentioned above are new norms over which you have little influence. Everything you do online (or fail to do) sends a message. Consequently, I have personally declined to refer colleagues for opportunities with serious people due to a missing or mismanaged profile. I just pick someone else and keep moving.

My fear is that if you have decided LinkedIn isn’t important, you may not be paying attention to the latest developments. If so, stop falling behind and get into the game, setting aside any tired pre-conceptions. Instead, adapt to an emerging reality you can’t afford to ignore and take the necessary actions to bring yourself up to date.

How to Persuade an Audience Productively

Do you have the challenge of persuading an audience in either a speech or the written word? Here’s a useful outline I have adapted for use in the background of my talks and articles, including this one.

Psychologists tell us that when people are being influenced by ideas, it’s just not a random activity. Instead, they follow a rather predictable process, especially in live gatherings. The core notion is that a group being influenced journeys from one psychological space to another, almost like running around the bases in softball, hitting each of them in sequence. Following this theory, here are four major phases to use, inspired by speaker-trainer Pete Vargas.

Hearts

The first phase of persuasive communication is designed to address an emotional need. Usually, at the very beginning, an attendee is preoccupied with a “Why should I listen?” question. While it can be logically explained, the best speakers/writers evoke an emotional response, starting with their very first words.

Some begin with a question designed to spur curiosity. Notice that I used this approach in this article; it happens to be the one I use most often. Others give a startling statistic or quote. A few are brave enough to tell stories.

Unfortunately, too many stammer out irrelevant pleasantries to “break the ice”: thanking various people, introducing themselves, dropping anecdotes. They mistakenly believe that it’s impolite to start with a bang.

Yet, this is the best moment to make a heart-to-heart connection, before phones take away people’s attention. If you can follow your opening by evoking their experience of the problem, and how you have struggled with it, all the better.

Finally, Jamaican listeners and readers yearn to connect with each other. Find a way to bridge the gap between members of your audience, taking away the anxiety of feeling as if they are alone.

This first phase ends when the emotional connection has been made. It could occupy 25% of the time available.

Heads

The next question people ask is related to your Big Idea – the “how”. This is the logic behind your thinking – the new approach you are advocating that they have never heard.

Here, you are building a fresh case. Use research data, historical facts, and stories to share ideas that can pierce their logical minds. Assume that they are usually a bit cynical: quick to dismiss your message to the “same-old-stuff” category.

Try to spend about 40-60% of your speech in this phase – it’s the one people will share with others and use to justify their future course of action. They may not mention how you made them feel, but they will remember data such as the percentages I have quoted in this article.

This phase ends when their heads are nodding with understanding, showing they are ready to move on.

Hands

Arguably, your call to action (which takes place in this phase) is the most practical part of your communication. Here, you appeal to your audience to act to fulfill the promise of your Big Idea.

As such, this is not the time to be subtle or obtuse. Instead, create a picture of their future selves and ask them to make a concrete, visible commitment. It could be an altar call, a book purchase, a website download or something that doesn’t involve you at all, such as a sequence of steps.

Once they have been asked to act, you have set the stage for a powerful ending.

Hearts

The final 10% is a return to emotions. This is where you can continue a personal story or ask them to envision the person they’ll be once they take action. If you are able to create a connection to the feelings evolved at the start, even better.

The point here is to summon the emotional commitment needed to be successful going forward. After all, you are setting them loose to try your Big Idea in the real world full of resistance, resignation and cynicism – even if it’s their own. They’ll need to be strong to avoid the friction and distractions involved with the introduction of anything new.

Consider this to be a serious challenge. At the heart of your need to persuade should be an authentic commitment to make a life-changing difference. As someone who has stepped up, hold yourself accountable and be a contribution.

In other words, don’t commit the error of “just” giving a “small speech” or a “few remarks”. Every time you stand in front of a microphone, or put pen to paper, you have a sacred duty. You are not just a noisemaker.

Instead, honour your wildest dreams in which your words help people transform their lives, even if you’re only delivering a wedding toast. After all, you only need a single person to respond postively to know that it was worth the effort.

Will Your Church or NGO Survive the Pandemic?

Are you concerned that your church or Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) may not survive the combined punches of a pandemic and a recession? You should be. But there’s much you can do to intervene and turn things around.

Most of us can appreciate the devastating impact of COVID-19 on industries such as education, entertainment, hotels and restaurants. But there are other effects being felt in two sectors which have traditionally drawn strength from live gatherings of volunteers. Now that large assemblies have been banned, churches and NGO’s are threatened as never before by recent, unstoppable trends.

The Threat to Churches

While your church is primarily seen as a place of worship, let’s assume it’s also an organization subject to the same requirements as others: it needs manpower and funding to maintain its operations.

In particular, the Saturday or Sunday morning service plays not only a spiritual role, but it also serves a commercial activity: fund-raising. Traditionally, this has been driven by donations from live attendees.

In any recession, its elders would expect a dip but this one is different. Their primary channel of creating value has been severely and indefinitely curtailed.

This has led to a dramatic change in behaviour on behalf of would-be congregants, particularly those who are lukewarm – the majority. Now, instead of putting on their Sunday best and sitting on a pew for the better part of the day, they are engaging in alternatives.

Some are watching their home church’s services online. Via Google Search, others have switched to more fulfilling broadcasts in other parts of the world. More than a few are simply distracted by social media, the news, exercise, giving the children extra lessons and other activities.

The fact is, they are all picking up new habits which will become quite hard to disrupt once the ban on assembling is lifted. Consequently, your church’s recent drop in donated income may not be temporary. Neither is the reduction in attendance. And, even when the bans lift, your elders will still have a recession to contend with.

The Threat to NGO’s

The challenge many NGO’s face is a bit different: it includes their leaders. They don’t have the benefit of a permanent pastor and probably elects new executives every year or two.

Traditionally, each incoming leader body learns its function from the one prior, primarily via face-to-face meetings. Its regular activities and fundraising events have also always been in-person. So has its AGM where dues are collected and elections are conducted.

COVID-19 has taken all of these away. Now, the leadership must engage using unfamiliar online tools like Zoom. In many NGO’s, retirees play an important role but they are least likely to use such tools.

Unfortunately, the sum of these shifts threaten the existence of many churches and NGO’s. Some have not responded well, going into hibernation; a wait-and-see approach. Their hope is that things will return to “normal” someday soon.

Hopefully, your organization realizes this urgent, existential threat and plans to devise a new strategy. Here are some steps to take.

1. Craft New Commercial Strategies, Abandon the Old

While your church or NGO may have built its existence on long, stable traditions, consider this a call to re-think everything. A mission of “Continuing our Tradition” might need to be replaced.

Now, you must define a fresh destination, one that will appeal to a highly distractible audience wary of in-person gatherings. This should mean looking 5-10-30 years to the future to craft the details of a vision in which you are unique in meeting your followers’ needs.

Once your end-point has been defined, fill in the steps to be followed over the time period. On the commercial side, use metrics such as members, donations and special event income to show where your growth will come from. Include milestones along the way which describe the path to follow.

2. Draft New Skills

If your board lacks the skills necessary, co-opt younger persons who have them. For example, if none of your leaders have regularly attended a range of virtual services, include someone who has. Ask them for help in defining new ways to add value which appeal to Millennials and successive generations.

Time is of the essence. Don’t delay because of pride. Instead, assume the worse: that Jamaica won’t have a vaccine or achieve herd immunity until after 2021.

To save your organization from extinction in the meantime, forsake any wishful thinking and embrace the fact that there are irreversible trends at play which are moving against you. Rally your members and show them that this isn’t about a temporary convenience but an entirely new way to fulfill your mission.