The Doctor Is In: Managing your Email Inbox

Lucy-van-pelt-1-Any Snoopy fans out there? Yes, I know, I’m dating myself, as Snoopy was en vogue back in the 70’s. But I’m sure those of a certain age recall Lucy and her psychiatry booth. She charged a whopping 5 cents per question. As a software product manager my advice appears to be free, but comes at a very high cost.

Lately, I’ve begun to feel like my entire job is about dispensing guidance; maybe not always psychiatric guidance but close enough. I receive inquiries from every corner of the company, about every imaginable topic that might have something to do with your product line. Some people even think that you can make miracles happen, which is flattering and disturbing all at the same time.

Working at a global software company means that every morning I wake up with (at least) 30 new requests for guidance in my email inbox. This means I spend a disproportionate amount of my day focused on ministering to the masses, who struggle with the perceived complexities of my product line. In some cases, I am doing activities that are not exactly my job, but are really the requestor’s job. Huh. It also means that I need to somehow maintain an encyclopedic knowledge of EVERYTHING that has to do with my product, corporate license, contract and pricing policies, and oh so much more. I find that there is very little time left for any type of product planning, product research, market research, or anything else that a product manager should really be doing. What’s a product psychiatrist to do? What would Lucy do?

I have a couple of radical ideas. One is to abolish email entirely. Yeah, that’s not going to happen. So scratch that, and try idea number two: don’t respond to any emails except for 1) requests from upper management (they REALLY need your guidance), 2) emails about critical sales deals that are on the path to being closed. And, never respond to emails where you are only on the CC line. In fact, really gloss over those bad boys, as those are usually delivered to 20 people selected at random (scatter gun approach). My theory is that anybody who desperately needs to speak with you will pick up the phone and call you. And those who can get their act together to answer their own question will do just that and you will not hear from them again. I know that your instinct is to answer ALL those emails and be a hero to everyone and save the day! But you need to let that hero thing go, because nobody ever got promoted for answering all their emails, whereas people do get promoted for having fabulous product ideas and making the company lots of money with their product line.

I have done some trial runs (dare I say a PoC?) and find that the smart requestors do indeed call me. For the less intuitive, I have advised them with comments like, ‘I get over 100 emails every day, if you want a fast response, try the old fashioned way and take the time to dial my number and CALL me.’ Ok, perhaps not phrased exactly like that, but you get the picture. I must warn you that there is a drawback to this method; you may be labeled as ‘unresponsive’. And some are quite vocal about their displeasure with unresponsive product managers. But on a scale where one end is being a great product manager and the other end is being everyone’s favorite Girl Friday – I am willing to take the risk. Especially because it is far more painful (and potentially career limiting) to be labeled as ‘unproductive’ where your product is concerned, and there is danger of that if you get stuck in the psychiatry booth.

PTO(D): Paid Time Off (Debate)

I’m at the tail end of a vacation. As I sit here on my flight home, I’m dreading the first day back at work.

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While the time off was a welcome reprieve, I realize there are a lot of emotions that occur when it comes to taking time off from work: 1) undeserving because you’re too new, have too much work to do, or no one else has taken vacation 2) anxiety that your colleagues realize they can handle your work and don’t really need you OR 3) even a feeling of greed that you want to bank as many days as possible for a big payout when you leave. . .for those that still have annual vacation day allocations and are continuing to chase the eternal carrot as discussed in a previous week’s blog.

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In Silicon Valley, it’s becoming ever more rare to find companies that still have vacation day allocations. Many have learned that the vacation days end up as a liability on the books–lack of accurate tracking or user-friendly systems or lax tracking policies and enforcement tend to mean vacation days can stay on the books for some time.

The “unlimited vacation day” policies have been adopted by a lot of Silicon Valley start-ups. I’m still undecided as to whether these are a perk or a genius ploy. While you don’t want to have to count your hours of PTO accrued, without a defined policy I wonder whether employees feel they can take vacation at all. The statement, “vacation is good; we think you should take it,” is one I’ve literally heard as a start-up’s official vacation policy. I appreciate the simplicity, but it doesn’t give you the warm and fuzzy feeling that they’d like you to take time off.

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There’s also the other side of the time-off equation–what other employees are thinking while you’re out. If it’s just one day, you’re definitely interviewing. If it’s two days, you’ve flown somewhere to interview. If it’s more than a couple of days, you’re actually taking vacation, but there may be some resentment about it. I’m not saying everyone speculates about others taking vacation days, but given the job-hopping that’s so common and been mentioned in fellow blogs, it’s not inappropriate to assume.

I’ve worked at both types of companies–those that have defined vacation policies and those that have “unlimited” policies. I’ve always made sure to take time off, but admittedly I run through the gamut of emotions mentioned above. I’ve seen companies where the “unlimited” time off goes completely unused and I’ve seen the defined vacation policies where no one tracks their days off. Both situations are frustrating.

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Despite your vacation policy type, there are a few rules I like to follow when it comes to time off:

  • Long weekends can be just as good as 1 or 2-week trips. One long trip a year is always good, but don’t discount what a 3 or 4-day weekend can do for your motivation and mental psyche. . .even if your colleagues may think you’re interviewing.
  • If you are a people manager, set an example and take time off. If you show you value the time away from work, your employees will take time off and will likely be happier for it.
  • Don’t be an *sshole and take vacation right after you give notice. You will burn a bridge and that’s just bad etiquette. Period.

Any other unwritten rules on vacations? Opinions on which policy type is better? The grass is always greener for me–I currently have a defined vacation policy and wish I didn’t. The PTO math can be exhausting. I have just 6.5 days left for the rest of the year. Maybe a few more long weekends and a nice New Year’s? Or save up for a big trip in the Fall, but no extra holiday time off? (sigh)

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Survival Tools for the Silicon Valley Mom

I’m a working mom, the specific breed of working mom with “young” kids.  Two kids that still need help with EVERY thing – tying shoes, putting on jackets, going potty and pretty please eat your veggies!   It can be overwhelming at times, simply because I need more hours in the day.

But I love my career and I get a ton of satisfaction from working, or I wouldn’t do it.  It just means that I, like other working moms, must find ways to keep it together even if the best case scenario is chaos with a cherry on top.  I have a few key tools that help me survive, but I wondered how other moms around me cope – do they have a secret sauce?  I set out to do some research.

I posted on my mother’s group message board, and then asked 6 of my working mom friends.  I’ll start off by mentioning the things I didn’t hear about, because it was a little surprising.  We live in the mecca of digital and social media, websites and mobile apps like UrbanSitter – where you can find babysitters your nearby Facebook connections have recommended. Or consider Homejoy which makes hiring a housekeeper quick and cheap.  Evernote which organizes your life.  Online grocery delivery. The thousands of productivity and calendaring mobile apps.  Heck, even toddler apps that 100% of the time will turn temper tantrums into peace and quiet (ummm, use sparingly.)

But the number one response was – cutting straight to the chase  – A Supportive Spouse.  Surprise aside I’m very happy with this answer because it means we’re living in more equal times. A working mom’s biggest deficit is personal time – time which allows us to recharge, get fit, feel better mentally, physically and emotionally.  If our partner is willing to take over,  take shifts so to speak, it will allow us to better mothers and employees.

The other life savers they mentioned:
  • Working out – improves our mood. Run faster you won’t hear them crying!
  • Flex time / Empathetic employers (kids get sick a lot, have doctors appointments, dentist appointments, school plays or the nanny cancels on you)
  • Flexible child care.  Work meetings run late, traffic sucks, you know the drill.
  • Date night.  Allows you to get away from the children AND the household stresses, an important combo.
And lastly, these were unique and touching:
  • Learning to “let go”.  There’s no way to be at 100% all of the time, to be the perfect employee, mom and wife.  In the working world that’s why we specialize at some point in our careers.  But you can’t specialize as a working mom – leaving any of them behind would likely cause some issues.
  • Becoming a planner.  Before kids, I scoffed at planning.  But one mother mentioned she:  planned dinners for a week, made lunches the night before, planned date nights way in advance, booked regular Skype calls with Grandparents, set late nights at work, and calendared EVERY single event in case she forget to tell hubby.

So although our number one survival tool is not very digital, techy or “Silicon Valley” at all, it just goes to show that human support and love reign supreme – and no fancy wearable or mobile app can compete with that.

How to Get S&*t Done in 5 Steps

Posting for Guest Author: Alyssa Simpson

productivityI think one of the most under-valued and important quality in evaluating candidates for a new position is measuring their ability to “GSD” (Get Shit Done) or even better GSDR” (Get Shit Done Right). It’s not about how smart you are, what you’ve done in the past, who you know, or even being in the right place at the right time. It’s how much I think you can accomplish with the least amount of guidance and overhead.

1. Know what’s important – and what isn’t important.

Most importantly – know where the goal posts are. How will you know that you are checking items off the list if you don’t know what is on the list to begin with? In starting a new role, or evaluating how to succeed in a current position, make sure you know what is important to accomplish and how you know you will have achieved it. Most positions aren’t as clear as hitting a sales quota – having a clear direct conversation with a manager can quickly put you on track to hit the right targets and leave you both feeling reassured and aligned.

2. Don’t be afraid of trying and failing.

So the goalpost might be really far away – and daunting. It is easy to feel overwhelmed. You need to start somewhere. Breaking up big items into smaller items will get you closer to checking items off. Start small and don’t worry about not getting everything exactly right. It’s okay to get it wrong the first few tries. Recover quickly and move on to a better plan.

3. Ask for help

Teamwork is by far the easiest way to accomplish anything hard. These days most anything of value comes from the hard work and dedication of a strong team – no one individual. Be clear on what your value is, and where you need help from others. Don’t be too proud or embarrassed to ask for help – everyone needs help.

4. Have perspective

So the goalposts moved half way through…bummer but no sweat! The world is changing fast – being accommodating and flexible to new ideas, goals, and requirements makes it easy to move on quickly to the new goal. It’s okay to change course (hopefully not every time) and re-evaluate a plan to meet accommodate an unforeseen obstacle or success.

5. Be grateful

Don’t be afraid of accomplishing more then you set out to accomplish. Often your goal will creep up on you from behind and remind you that you just knocked it out of the park and achieved even more then you set out for. Be grateful to those who helped along the way, and don’t forget to celebrate the win as a team!

 

 

Startup Marketing Madness

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Standing room only for sales and marketing startup advice.

Two weeks ago I attended an event targeted at startups. The content focused on how to model sales and marketing organizations in a growing company and who to hire. There were a few items that I found really interesting.

  • The VP of Marketing role is the most difficult hire for a small company.
  • Demand generation is the core competency for hiring criteria.
  • It will be difficult to get seasoned professionals, so look for someone to grow into the role.
  • If the person hasn’t shown results in 6 month, it’s probably time to make a change.
  • No one is mentoring the next generation of marketing leaders.

Revisit the last three bullet points. You need to grow into the role but you only have 6 months to be successful.  Wait .. what???  I guess we all need to be ready to take a leap forward without any resources for help. l always did like a good challenge.

So how do you make sure you put yourself on a successful path? I’m still learning but these are the things I’ve found important.

Build your own network of mentors.

I’ve been fortunate to have incredible bosses and colleagues with different marketing competencies. There’s been more than one occasion where I’ve called my network for advice on strategy or an area where I was light on experience. These people can make a world of difference on  important projects.  I also have access to our corporate advisor who provides great executive perspective on the really difficult problems.

Align priorities with the executive team.

You can be walking into a firestorm of issues and in a small company you can’t  fix them all right away. Assess the impact of all the work needed to be done, prioritize projects and get agreement with the executive team on the things that need to be done.

Realize not everything will go right.

This has been pretty hard for me. I had the same role for about 10 years with very little change.  I was really good at it. Now, I have more responsibility for areas in which I don’t have a lot of expertise. Things don’t always go right. The most important thing is to recognize when things go wrong, admit the issues and correct course..  The great thing is that I’ve learned more in the last 6 months than I have in the last 5 years.

The buck stops here.

I still find myself pulling reports or looking at data  as if I were preparing a recommendation for someone else. Then my internal voice says, “wait you have to make that decision now.”  I pull the data again and make sure I have all the information that I need to make the best decision.    After that I double  check the data against what my gut is telling me.  If I’m stuck, I’ll go out to my network for opinions and then usually run tests of the things I’m unsure of. (The best part about being in marketing is getting to test your theories)

Hire smart people.

With a small team, I don’t have a lot of time to correct mistakes or micro-manage projects. I need direct reports and vendors that can articulate needs clearly and manage my input on the projects that they own to meet deadlines. I’m pretty honest with these people  on my expectations so we can all be efficient on what are usually very busy days. This is how I’ve always managed my projects, but now I include mentoring my staff  toward taking that next step forward.

When do you take the next step?

When I last looked at job opportunities, I went on about 30 interviews in 2 months. My decision to take on more responsibility boiled down to one thing. With a lot of people, I felt like they were bringing me in to solve the same old problems. I wanted some new challenges to take on and I am fortunate to have been given the opportunity.

Everyone is a Journalist

by Guest Author Amy Kweskin  –  www.amykweskin.com

Teaching marketing and management to college students is like a scientist running a lab experiment while simultaneously living in the petri dish. For today’s class, Public Relations and Promotions, I invited a team of guest speakers from onpublico.com to introduce their recently launched collaborative news site. In search of Interns, Santiago Corredoira-Jack and Michael Hines engaged the students in an earnest discussion about news content creators and content aggregators.

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Santiago and Michael gracefully presented a lecture on PR that eventually migrated into advertising. They explained contextual, native and targeted advertising and the advantages of Internet users being active in determining the content they want to see as opposed to passive receivers of data. This is where I felt like I was in the petri dish in an experiment of news objectivity. Who is curating content for whom and where does journalism end and advertising begin?

Their site is built on the premise of “news for the people, by the people” and as they spoke I kept thinking, “is social media content so seamlessly intermingled that news, PR and advertising are equally credible sources of information? As users of social media we can literally break the news. Yet waiting on the sidelines, and creeping into the editorial content, are advertisers eager to deepen our brand experience.

Here is the quiz question I asked my students after Santiago and Michael departed:
“In the age of the Internet and social media, “everyone is a journalist”. How do social media platforms affect public opinion? Additionally, how could you, as a budding Public Relations professional, utilize onpublico to influence public opinion about your client?

I was intrigued by the quiz responses. While I thought that the students would only see the social side of media they understood the advantages of commingling of messages and images to sway public opinion. Nearly every student proposed strategies for encouraging user generated content as a tactic to engage targeted publics. I realized that the next generation of marketing professionals is fearless about reseeding the marketing mix.