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29 October 2010

Meeting Minutes and Other "Menial" Tasks

A.S. asks,
How many [technical writers] record meeting minutes for electronic distribution. In other words, perform duties of a secretary or stenographer? There are places where people view technical writers as slightly more expensive secretaries, in which you're expected to take meeting minutes. In most of my jobs, however, it hasn't been my responsibility nor do I think it should be considered part of the core set of expectations. It becomes a burden and takes away time from my normal writing and editing responsibilities. I'm encountering it more and more in job descriptions.

However the one recurring opinion I have developed from taking meeting minutes is that there are so many people who do not know how to conduct a meeting and manage the time.

I empathize with A.S. regarding the stress of having yet another serving of work laid on your already full plate.

He actually raises two issues:

  • Should technical writers' duties include taking minutes?
  • What should our attitudes be about unexpected duties?
Taking Minutes

Do not underestimate the challenge and prestige of recording minutes.

Producing useful minutes takes a familiarity with the players, the meeting topic(s), and the history behind the topic(s). Some meetings, such as department meetings, have topics that everybody understands. A summer intern could handle those minutes. However, other meetings, such as a corrective action board or a design review, require backgrounds far above what any secretary or stenographer has.

Stenographers take dictation. That's fine if you want everything said in the record or want someone at a higher level to edit down their transcript. It's similar with secretaries. In a technical or management-level discussion, neither has the expertise to decide what to include, and getting participants to stop and dictate during a meeting is nearly impossible.

Personally, the more content-rich the meeting, the more I struggle with taking minutes. I miss too much information when I stop listening so I can write. (I've never been able to listen and write at the same time.) Fortunately, since too many conflicts arose over what was said, I was allowed to use a recorder in my last job.

  • Good: Recordings created objective evidence that settled a few disputes. 
  • Better: The presence of objective evidence prevented many disputes. 
  • Best: It freed me to focus on comprehending the flow of information presented by the subject matter experts so I could record not just what was said, but what was meant.
Taking minutes creates the wonderful benefit of turning each meeting into a course. Using a recorder, you get to listen to subject matter experts twice. During the second hearing, you already know the context, so discussions make more sense. Not only does the repetition increase retention, but so do the transcription, editing, and reading of the information.

Serving at the core of meetings lets you into the inner circle. You get to know the experts and managers -- and they get to know you -- as you interact to ask for clarification or to gather presentation packages during preparation. (Maintaining a library of those presentations can make you quite a resource, too!)

The learning element has another advantage in that, over time, you become the historian on many subjects. Our vice president constantly looked to his board facilitators (who recorded the minutes) for background on different issues. This not only gave us visibility, it also gave us influence.

Depending on the meeting, producing useful minutes both adds to your value and creates value -- and visibility -- in which you can take pride.

Attitude toward Unexpected Work

For perspective: Many leaders do work that subordinates ought to do. If something inconveniences you, a contributor, it inconveniences leaders even more. Tasks belong at the lowest competent rung of the ladder. As indispensable as you think you are, the time of those paid more than you has even more value.

If the job descriptions includes taking minutes, then it is one of your "normal writing and editing responsibilities." On the other hand, employers do not chisel job descriptions into stone (unless you work for a union). If your supervisor approves the task, then it is one of your "normal writing and editing responsibilities." If that overloads you, pass the responsibility for what does not get done to your supervisor by laying out your goals and tasks and asking him or her to prioritize them.

If my supervisor weren't available and I did no want the task, I would answer the organizer, "I'll be happy to take minutes this time, but next time, could you pass that through [insert your supervisor's name here] so he can adjust my priorities?" This will preserve your image as flexible, cooperative, and supportive while protecting you from future disruptions to your scheduled workload due to poor planning on the meeting organizer's part.

A.S's observation about meeting owners lacking skills for conducting meetings is true. It is also an opportunity. If you have (or can acquire) such skills, you could offer to moderate and facilitate. (By moderate, I mean act as an MC to keep things on track. By facilitate, I mean coordinate preparation and follow-up.) Of course, you need the meeting owner to agree to back you up. Moderating a meeting and taking minutes forms a package that will portray you as a leader and benefit your career.

22 October 2010

I Hit a Deer

I hit a deer. I slowed to miss a fine, 3-prong buck. As he stopped on my right and turned to look back at me, I started out again. Suddenly, from my left, a doe trotted onto the road, only a few feet in front of my car, following the buck. I braked, but we collided. She tumbled into the dirt, but scrambled to her feet and ran away.

I saw no scrapes on the doe and my car shows no damage. But I learned that, where there's one deer, instead of focusing on it, I should look around for others.

And in life, when you avoid one danger, you should look around for other dangers.

15 October 2010

Four Unconventional Job Search Strategies

Has your job search made you feel under-qualified and obsolete? 
AP article* hints that it may not be your fault.

Before the recession, 18 unemployed people competed for every 10 jobs. Now, there are 46.*

Unemployed workers surfing the job market face a string of towering waves.

More competition. The most obvious wave is the number of other applicants. As with recent tsunamis, however, this is only the first wave in a chain.

Stiffer competition. A Widget Technician (WT) competes against other WTs. As the population under the Bell curve increases, it includes a greater variety of WTs, including those who are less experienced or competent and those who are more experienced or competent. Obviously, the WTs who convince ACME Widget Manufacturing that they have the better skills will get the jobs. So the first wave of better-qualified competitors results from the larger pool.

Competition from above. Since Master Widget Technicians (MWTs) compete for fewer MWT jobs, more of them remain unemployed. More MWTs, therefore, apply for lower-level WT positions. The WT has to compete not only against other WTs, but also against more experienced and skilled MWTs.

Job consolidation. Employers down-size not only due to a lack of business, but also to increase their ability to compete in a shrunken marketplace. They cut workers and expect remaining workers to take up the unmanned tasks and work harder, longer, and smarter. ACME Widget Manufacturing wants a Master Widget Technician who also has internal Widget Technician Trainer experience and Lean-Six Sigma Black Belt certification. When the former MWT from Consolidated Amalgamated looks at ACME's job descriptions, he faces not only a scarcity of jobs and a surplus of competition, but also a much higher bar.

Stricter requirements. The push for efficiency drives employers to minimize learning curves for new employees. To achieve this, they want greater experience, a better match between the resume and the job description, and greater familiarity with the company's way of doing business. As a result, more employers cross-train and reassign their groomed, existing employees.

Down-shifting openings. Promoting people from within has an unfortunate side effect of shifting openings to lower levels. When ACME trains a WT to fill their MWT position, a WT position opens. The opening has shifted down one level. If ACME replaces the Widget Technician with a Widget Assembler, the opening downshifts yet another level. Eventually, the job description locks out the laid-off WT from Consolidated Amalgamated because he's over-qualified.

Inflexible qualifications. Whereas hiring managers previously considered an applicant qualified with an 80% match between the resume and the job description, employers now hold out for a 100% match. Human resource specialists say employers who increasingly need multi-skilled employees aren't willing to settle for less. They'd rather wait and hold jobs vacant.*

Fear of commitment. U.S. employers not only ship jobs overseas for cheap labor, but increasingly contract work out to staffing agencies.** Using temporary personnel reduces costs of benefits and makes getting rid of people easier and less expensive if they don't work out or if the economy does not support the position. As a variation on outsourcing, employers increasingly assign lower-level tasks to avoid losing high-value employees.

Deteriorating opportunities. Available jobs pay less. The National Employment Law Project claims that higher-wage industries represent 40% of jobs lost during the recession but only 14% of new jobs during the recovery.***

Advice for the Job Search

1. Give your resume writer more ammunition.
  • Take advantage of seminars and training programs that your unemployment agencies offer. If you can afford it, pay for your own training. 
  • Look for free Internet tutorials, podcasts, and videos. 
  • Hit the Interned and the public library. Read everything you can to increase your workplace skills. 
  • Collect wallpaper. Professional certifications or degrees not only make you compete better, they also open up new options.
  • As you study, write it up. Taking notes and writing reports make more of what you read stick in long-term memory. As you can create a portfolio of blog entries (as I am doing) or e-books, you position yourself as an expert as a side benefit of increasing your skills.
2. Working out issues, increasing your faith, and strengthening your character will increase your confidence during that job interview, keep you motivated during your job search, and make you a more valuable employee.
  • Study self-help books.
  • Take time for introspection. What personality traits or character flaws may have put your managers more in the mood for putting you in the lay-off list? What can you do about it?
  • Go to candid friends, family members, former managers, and former co-workers and ask for the top-five issues they wish you would work on. Before you defend yourself, just bite your tongue. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful. (Proverbs 27:6)
  • Go to church to network -- not just professionally, but also socially and spiritually.
3. Volunteer your best skills.
  • Employers want applicants who don't just sit on their butts.
  • Getting out into the community keeps you balanced, gives you purpose, and boosts your mood -- a valuable benefit during that next employment interview.
  • Staying involved with other people builds your networking and your social skills.
  • Exercising your workplace skills keeps you fresh, widens your perspective, and might even lead to a different and more rewarding career.
4. Change your focus. Working to increasing one's qualifications requires time and energy, takes away from time to look for a job, and repulses some people.
  • For a quick transition back to employment or if you just can't stand learning, aim low. Since the job descriptions have changed, you may find your match in a lower level position. It's not fair, but the set-back in pay and grade will cost you less than continuing unemployment; and during the next interview, it will help you avoid embarrassing questions about gaps in your employment. 
  • Since many employers offer training benefits, a lower-level job will give you a better chance to broaden your skills and get back to your previous level once you have a job.
  • You may find another occupation to which your skills will transfer and that might be far more satisfying.
Standard advice for the unemployed focuses on finding jobs, networks, and personal branding. The job market, however, pressures today's job seekers to undertake far more substantial and challenging strategies: changing who you are.

* Rugaber, Christopher S. Unemployed find old jobs now require more skills. Associated Press. Posted by bestlogicstaffing. October 12, 2010, 5:16 pm.
** Madden, Kaitlin. Who’s Hiring This Week, you missed it we got it. The Career Guide. Wednesday, October 13, 2010.
*** Anonymous. Data Brief: A Year of Unbalanced Growth: Industries, Wages, and the First 12 Months of Job Growth after the Great RecessionNational Employment Law Project. March 4, 2011.

Copyright 2010, Richard Wheeler

09 October 2010

Quote: Choice, not circumstances, determines your success. But to what degree?

Choice, not circumstances, determines your success. So goes a famous quote from an unknown source.

The quote incorrectly assumes an either-or, cause-effect relationship.

Luck is a pattern of circumstances that seem non-random. It is a pattern of values falling outside the expected limits.

Circumstances result from chance, previous circumstances, and choices that exercise partial control over the creation of future circumstances. Luck, therefore, is a seemingly non-random pattern resulting from unusual, random chance (coincidence), a lack of change to the circumstances, or control resulting from choices made.

Luck is an interpretation of current circumstances. Neither can be changed. Choice can be uneducated and driven by emotion, or it can be informed and considered. The quality of a choice (the selection of one option from two or more) can be controlled.

Since true coincidence is more likely to end than to continue, it disappears from the equation.

Two things result in a greater likelihood of "bad" luck: adverse circumstances and uneducated choices. Two things result in greater likelihood of "good" luck: favorable circumstances and educated, considered choices. Educated, considered choices can change circumstances or can prepare to expand the impact of advantageous circumstances when they occur.

We cannot control circumstances. Choice, however, influences future circumstances.

I disagree with the literal sense of Choice, not circumstances, determines your success. It ignores that success or lack thereof depends on both circumstances and on choices.

The quote also ignores the process of setting the goals that define success. We can choose either probably attainable goals, unrealistic goals, or no goals at all.

Circumstances set the most probable default outcome, but our choice of goals and our choice of actions to change or take advantage of circumstances influence the probability of success.

We are not responsible for circumstances' effects on our degree of success, but we are responsible for our choices' effects. Choose realistic goals that will define you as successful. Change the circumstances that you can. Prepare to take advantage of favorable circumstances.

We may receive from the hands of others the clay with which to create our victory cups; but the cups are ours to design and to shape.

For persons of faith, I will draw out another factor that I silently lumped in with circumstances, above. I believe in a personal, planning Creator. I don't believe in a universal fatalism, but I do believe that the Creator intervenes to bring about certain things.

Most of us set goals for ourselves first in this world, and after that for the next world. The Creator prioritizes goals for us first for the spiritual dimension, and after that for the physical world. If we don't achieve our goals, we must cut ourselves slack because we may have attained the Creator's greater goals without knowing it.

We who value the will of our Creator should strive to align our goals with what we know of the Creator's goals and to allow for unexpected ones. Victory cups of His making outshine any that we could ever design.

Copyright 2010, Richard Wheeler. Free to use for non-profit purposes.

02 October 2010

Correcting Thoughts that Limit Your Career Development Careers and Worklife
Posted September 30, 2010 at 2:14 pm
Downloaded 2 October, 2010

Excellent article, but the style is appropriate for print, not for the web. I strongly advise unhappy workers to read the linked post. I offer, however, this abstract to make the reading a bit easier.
The #1 barrier to achieving career success is you.  You stand way of your own success with negative distortions. It is impossible to think negatively and have healthy career development. These eight thought patterns can derail your future.

1. Absolute Thinking about your job or about yourself.

2. Blaming someone, something, or yourself.

3. Over-generalizing past failures into a future failure or into a failed life.

4. Negative Thinking, a self-fulfilling inner dialog of gloom and doom.

5. Discrediting positive accomplishments, strengths, achievements, attribute.

6. Forecasting that the worst will happen.

7. Over-exaggerating the importance of negatives to the exclusion of positives.

8. Self-Sabotaging creates mental barriers that manifest themselves in negative words and self-defeating behaviors.

All your career problems are in your head, and fortunately, that’s where all the solutions are.
The author explains the negative patterns and gives advice about positive steps to take. My favorite was this:
If you wouldn’t call your kids or your friends a loser, then don’t say it to yourself. Ask yourself, “What advice would you give to your kids or best friend?” Take that advice yourself and model the way for others.