One time I worked on a project team that was co-located with the client. That was a trip I think every admin person should experience (for that matter, anyone working in the A/E/C industry). It’s so very different from having your clients based offsite where they only come to your office every so often, or you only see them by phone. There’s a certain protocol you need to adhere to while working alongside your client, versus not having your client in your office 40 hours a week. I’m not saying that in your office in which there are no clients, that protocols are looser or should be looser; I’m just saying that when you work in the same office space as your client, things change, such as:
The conversations you would normally have in your client-less office. While you and your office colleagues are in your client-less office discussing project concerns and brainstorming ways to alleviate those concerns before presenting solutions to your client, there’s no way you’d be able to comfortably have that same open discussion if you were in the co-located office sitting next to your client-cubicle colleagues.
The culture of “we’re all one happy family.” Let’s face it—it’s rare (I think) in which a co-located team (the client and its consultant) doesn’t have one or more team members wondering about the reasons for the space planning decisions (“Why does that consultant get her own office and I have to sit in a cubicle?”). Or a team member wondering why they are precluded from certain team actions (“Why does our client get to leave early on Christmas Eve and I have to work the full eight hours?”) Sometimes the happy family morphs into (on occasion) the dysfunctional family, with the typical behind-the-scenes grumbling about each other (collectively or individually).
The decision-makers for overall office-related items. Who gets to decide which standard desk-top supplies get ordered and stocked, or whether or not the office gets a cool, multi-function printer in which you can send copies direct to your e-mail inbox?
I think, however, the biggest thing that changes (or should change) is how you present yourself while working in that co-located office. Think of it as being with your family at dinnertime versus being with your professional group for a dinner in town. Can you picture that?
If there ever is a time to reinvent yourself, it’s when you are suddenly working side-by-side with your client. I blog on this topic because I think some admin staff breeze along merrily in the same way, in the same vein as they have been doing, without giving any thought to perceptions, appearances, or attitudes (think the right match). They haven’t been fired, and their performance appraisals are not going downhill, so why change?
While you may have become use to the way you act in your regular office, and no one is giving you feedback about changing things up a bit (or a lot), that complacent behavior and attitude won’t help you or your team that is now working under the same roof with the client. Will it hurt you? Maybe not, but it could in the long run. A former client who is now on the consultant side as a project manager once shared, “The client never forgets.” I happen to believe that, and I have seen it in action. I have seen where a client has specifically asked for a particular admin person to be assigned to the next team, because that client interacted with that admin on a previous project. Clients want the best team for their project, and if they have to speak up about certain team members being on or off their project team, they will. Wouldn’t you?
So, reinvent yourself. Change things about yourself. Make others see you in a new light. Make yourself memorable (in a positive way, of course) to others.
I’ll share with you some of what I’ve observed while working on different teams and in different offices (some co-located, some not). Hopefully my recollections will inspire you to take a deep look within and around, and reinvent yourself—for yourself or for your professional growth, whether it involves living with your client during the 40-hour week, or not.
Negative perceptions from others
- If the team’s dress code is the standard professional, don’t show up for work in farmer’s overalls. Don’t do it even if the team observes casual Fridays. Please, don’t wear those to work. And, if your team’s dress code is the standard professional, that doesn’t mean super short dresses or skirts, or really low-cut blouses or tops, or blue jeans, tennis shoes, and T-shirts. I don’t care if you are a Gen X or Gen Y—if the office atmosphere/culture/rules or whatever dictates professional attire, adopt those practices. (When I first started working in a professional services office, I didn’t think I could live up to the suits and dresses atmosphere, let alone want to have to get dressed like that every day. And then I started noticing women who held interesting positions and those that were promoted. They stayed true to that professional dress standard. I decided if they could do it, so could I.)
- While you might be able to get away with frequent, long chats by the water cooler in your office, others, including your clients, will perceive you to be wasting their time and their budget. This includes standing by one’s cubicle or office and chatting about non work-related stuff. You don’t need to put an immediate stop to chatting with your co-workers, but be very careful of the perception by others of your time management practices.
- Speaking of time management practices….a manager once told me how glad he was to see that I didn’t spend project/billable time walking the birthday card/get-well card/requests for charity donations around the office from cube to cube, and instead, I put the birthday card/get-well card/requests for charity donations on the counter at my desk and sent a message to everyone asking for their participation. (I would never have guessed that was his preference until he shared that with me. I didn’t do the walk-around only for the fact that I was busy with client deadlines, and it felt like the right choice and the best decision for me to not do the walk-around.)
- Are you the “official” devil’s advocate? Stop that. People don’t like that from someone all of the time. I’m speaking from experience here. Unfortunately for me (and my reputation), when I first started getting more involved with SDA at the local and national level, I thought by playing devil’s advocate; it helped others take a different look at the issues at hand to see if we thought of everything before rolling out some new initiative. What I was actually doing, was making the other committee members groan when I started speaking. They were tired (and I’m sure more than mildly annoyed) of having to listen again to the devil’s advocate in the room, and especially when that devil didn’t readily hand out well-deserved kudos. I’m sure someone on that one committee still reminisces about me pounding my fist on the table during that meeting. So I had to learn to rein that devil in way more than I would have preferred (I happen to like someone to play the consistent devil’s advocate in any meeting in which I am involved with trying new initiatives, but I think I’m in the minority on that preference). Just for the record—that was the only time I ever pounded my fist on the table during a meeting.
Positive perceptions from others
- If you want to be seen as a manager-level type (for example), then start acting like a manager. Seek out one of the managers who everyone seems to respect and admire, and start role modeling him/her. You don’t know what helps a person get to manager-level? Start educating yourself. Read books. Read blogs. Follow leadership-type tweets. Invest in seminars, workshops, brown-bags, or webinars/webcasts. Ask for a sit-down with a manager (but don’t ask the mediocre manager) and pick his/her brain on what soft skills a manager needs. Take a bold risk and ask three to five other colleagues to give you their first impressions of you (but don’t select only your friends, unless they can give you honest, direct feedback). I attended a conference focused on leadership skills and one of the homework assignments was to go back and do this very exercise. I selected my manager, plus one of the senior engineers, plus a couple of our clients. (Was I nervous about what they would say about me? Not at all, because I have been following the third of The Four Agreements for a very long time—you remember what that third Agreement is, don’t you?—and I was actually eager to hear their feedback. I also knew I would learn from them and would work hard to apply what I could to reinvent myself some more. By the way, my manager was impressed that I followed through on this homework and that I was comfortable seeking feedback from others. I’d have to go back and look, but I seem to remember him making note of it during my performance appraisal).
- Get involved with team/client activities. I know, I know; you don’t like to be laughed at, or you are reluctant to be the center of attention, or you are scared to death of speaking in front of a group. But, participating and having fun with the team really does let others know you are a team player—and that you play well with others. So while it may be hard for you to be the one to get the pie-in-the-face, suck it up and do it for the team at least once. I attended a team pie-in-the-face event and while I was hesitant to be a pie-thrower in front of everyone, I sucked it up and tried throwing a pie. Of course, my throw resulted in the pie falling way, way short of the face, which caused the entire room to laugh at my expense, but I’m really glad I was able to look silly for them for a short while. They had fun; I had to admit I had fun; and they saw me in a new, different way (funnier than they usually saw me during work).
- If you want to be seen as a (more) professional admin person, start acting like one. What does professional mean to you anyway? To me, there’s the standard admin-type attributes: Dependable, accountable, confidential, plays well with others, great attitude, flexible; you get the picture. But I would add to that mix a host of other soft skills to bump it up to another level, and….you reinvent yourself. For example: You are more organized, more focused. You have high EI (emotional intelligence). You are a visionary. You are coachable. Others ask you to serve as their mentor. You are a role model. You are not a drama queen/king (not at work anyway). You respect others, and you respect diversity. What else? Oh yeah…you are fully aware you need to change some of your ways in order to reinvent yourself. You are aware—you don’t need someone else to tell you that you need a tune-up.
So there you have it. Reinvent yourself. It will (it should) open new doors, new avenues, new paths. And hey, if you consider yourself a top-notch professional admin who needs little to no reinvention, I’d really like to network with you! Please drop me a line or reply to this post.