The return of the office Christmas party

Raise your visibility for the right reasons!

Raise your visibility for the right reasons!

The festive period is now upon us.   After several years consigned to the doldrums by diminished, recession ravaged budgets,  I have it on good authority that this year, with the green shoots of recovery the good old office party is back in full force.

With an optimistic outlook about an upturn,  many organisations are going back to hosting their annual office Christmas knees-up.   A simple Google search on the topic produces almost one million results in 57 seconds would testify to this hearsay.   The physical reminders are all around us. Tacky earrings, seasonal ties and notices about Secret Santa gifts.

Post recession

For most companies the lavish pre-2007  budget, with no expense spared events at restaurants or hotels are still history.  I’ve only ever read about  the ones  featuring ice sculptures,  flowing Veuve Clicquot and cabaret artists that people have  actually heard of.  My experiences, especially in my early career,  have been more centred around parties characterised by Micawber like frugality:  a few mince pies thrown together in the staff cafeteria,  accompanied by a solitary glass of something singularly and poisonously unpleasant. My first ever boss invited me  for Christmas lunch,  ordered two cheese and onion sandwiches, before knocking back five double G & Ts and then going on to eat my leftover onion to take away the smell of the gin.

But for a great number, these renewed office festivities are a return to the dread that they faced prior to the economic crisis. This is synonymous with being forced to make small talk with the boss (or worse still his/her partner) eating limp canapés and  drinking inferior plonk with co-workers they would prefer to spend less time with, not more.

Super party-ers 

However,  there are always the super office party goers who regardless of the economic climate subscribe to the theory that if the drinks are on the house they are most definitely going to make the most of it.  These are the ones whose drunken aberrations (which  they don’t remember happening and have no wish to recall … ever)  provide the high-octane fuel of office gossip, well after the half-year results have been published.


For the savvy networker they can represent a great and unique opportunity to raise internal visibility and make strategic alliances. On what other occasion is the whole company brought together under the one roof,  at the same time?

By that I don’t mean chasing the co-worker who figures in their sexual fantasies around the photo copy machine with a sprig of mistletoe.  Or slurring to a senior executive that a box of cereal contains more strategic elements than the latest sales plan. That is a true story.  Nor obsequiously trying to ingratiate themselves with executive Board Members who wouldn’t recognise them in a line up thirty minutes later.

The office party can be a great opportunity to look into your own organisation to simply identify the people whom it would be great and useful to know. How can you best help each other and work together?

Research them.  Introduce yourself and tell them exactly that!

Have a great time!

10 Barriers to successful promotion

careerI see many people in transition who struggle to advance in their careers  internally within their own organisations, in almost the same way as if they were involved in an external job search.

Today,  many companies have very rigorous internal promotion processes which can be as daunting as looking for a position outside a current organisation.

However,  there are many common elements and they require the same structured approach to achieve success. Just like an external  job search,  the process can take up to a year, further complicated by competition against colleagues,   some of whom may have become friends. Some companies even go to the expense of conducting external executive searches to benchmark the quality of their internal talent pipeline.

Over the years I’ve noticed what has become an all too familiar pattern with ten barriers to success:

  1. Lack of expertise in self-promotion:  many are unused to dealing with this type of process and are simply confused. This is compounded by a refusal to ask for help. Many in established positions have no idea how neutral input can make a difference to the outcome. Very often organisations will fund transition coaching especially at a senior level. Ask, and if they say “no”,  don’t hesitate invest in yourself.
  2. Lack of self-awareness: most people make very little time to think about themselves – their skills, goals, achievements, vision and passions. Those who are still employed are equally as guilty as  job seekers of this, perhaps more so because they know the organisation and the players.  They think they can ” wing it ” on the day.  A thorough inventory of achievements and skills should always be made as part of any on going career strategy. Internal candidates quite frequently have less interview exposure than externals so their self presentation skills can be more rusty.
  3. Stuck in “yes / but” :  Many want to make a change and explore new methodologies but get stuck in self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviours. They are unable to make that paradigm shift to get there.  As Einstein pointed out “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different  results.”
  4. Avoidance strategies:  transitioning professionally takes a lot of work and many are not prepared to run the hard yards.  They get caught up in the cyber black  hole of “busyness” , unproductive work on computers of all sizes,  convincing themselves they are working effectively, when they are clearly not.  Business plans have to be prepared, strategic value to market statements must be created, plus whatever other activities organisations demands  (personality and psychological testing for example.)  All of this is time-consuming.
  5. Low self-esteem and or anxiety:  these two psychological states are frequent bed fellows which feed on each other to produce the  “busyness” above. Fear of failure maybe at the root of these dangerous emotions or perhaps there have been some missed  or failed opportunities in the past. Falling into the low self-esteem cycle undermines productivity and ultimately success. Find a coach, a mentor or a neutral friend or colleague to support you.
  6. Poor time management: whether in employment or on a job search a structured approach to time management is critical. Goals should be set, plans made and implemented and time planned.
  7. Failure to set goals: internal candidates are well-known to their management which has  both negatives and positives. It’s not enough to pitch up, suited and booted to give a brilliantly polished performance on the day. Strategic preparation over an extended period is critical, including professional image management. If your appearance look like a sack of spanners most days in the office,  a one day transformation for the interview will not be enough.
  8.  Lack of both mentors and sponsors: for the necessary support. Implement some visibility raising strategies to  raise your profile within your company. It is really easy to neglect an internal network. Create some strategic alliances.
  9. Failure to evaluate the competition.  Is your manager sponsoring you? If so, is he/she also sponsoring others for the position? Find out what you need to do to get full and unqualified support. Be aware of who the other candidates might be and their relative strengths and weaknesses.
  10. No Plan B: in very  competitive internal processes which might have long-term career impact,  as part of the planning process ask yourself what you want to do if you are not successful.   Having a “Plan B” is key – will you stay on and try again? Does this mean your career will have stalled? It’s important to understand what your next steps will be and create a plan in advance. Knowing that a potential key resource may leave an organisation can be a factor.  Make sure your external network is in place too,  as your ” just in case” safety net.

So whether an external or internal candidate,  the career transition process carries many common elements! What would you add?

Good luck!

Maternity leave – then what?

Maternity leave:  then what?
Maternity leave: then what?

Making decisions about going back to work after maternity leave is always challenging.  D-day looms large and is unavoidable. Decisions have to be made eventually. The period leading  up to the return to work can be one of great stress.

What goes on for the new mother?

  • Guilt and angst : this plays a massive and understandable role. The arrival is a bundle of joy who has become the centre of your new-found universe. You love being with your new-born and are fearful of missing major moments in your baby’s life.  You worry about his/her well-being, developmental needs and even safety if you make other childcare arrangements.  Only you can make that call. It might be helpful to put this phenomenon of a full-time stay at home Mum into historical perspective. The notion of a stay at home mum whose sole activity was to focus on children and home is rooted  in the post World War II  demand to keep jobs open for soldiers returning from the war and a need to increase a decimated population. At the same time we saw a distinct separation of work and home and the development of a child centred culture.  However, throughout history children have been raised by many people other than their mothers,  or by their mothers who took on  economically related tasks. In lower income groups women always worked and the upper classes farmed their offspring out to wet nurses and nannies. So this “mummy” dilemma in the overall historical scheme of things is relatively new.
  • Too much work: it is a lot of work. There is no other way to say this. But with good organisational skills and outsourcing low value work then there are ways  to prioritise. Many couples now use workplace practises in their homes.
  • Cost of childcare: there is a real need to be strategic and think long-term. Childcare costs are indeed high and women should campaign for tax breaks to defray expenses. If governments are serious about encouraging women to return to the workplace, they will make sure that happens and also cap childcare costs. But the short-term burden of childcare expenses should be benchmarked against the longer term impact of lost salary, career gaps and reduced future pensionable earnings caused by opting to work at a lower level or part-time to accommodate childcare responsibilities.
  • Lack of support network: women express concern about managing the responsibilities of career and family. The workload does increase exponentially with children. But very often the toughest negotiations are needed within the woman’s own home and relationships. In most developed economies where women make up 50% of the work force and are the most qualified, they are still carrying out 80% of household chores. There is something wrong with that picture.
  • The partner will have an affair with the nanny:    Any number of high-profile husband’s have had dalliances with their nannies: Ethan Hawke, Jude Law and Tiger Woods to name but three. But  if  the thought of finding the father of your baby in flagrante in the playroom is a real deterrent to returning to work, then that might suggest serious reflection is required.    Although it’s normal for any new Mum to feel a little insecure after giving birth, there are lots of hormones whizzing round.  Retaining your professional self  and financial independence is even more important long-term with divorce rate impacting as many as 50% of marriages.
  • Paternity leave: there is a growing movement to encourage men to take parenting leave to share the load.  In Sweden studies by the Institute of Labour Market Policy Evaluation suggests that higher levels of involvement by both men and women in childcare result in stronger earnings potential for women and a reduced divorce rate. What we are seeing is the pendulum swing and the emergence of the ” daddy factor” where men are acknowledged  for soft skills related to  parenting. Women of course are not generally afforded the same recognition.
  • Exploring new options: for many women, motherhood is a catalyst for other career transitions to find that elusive work life balance with as many as 33% leaving the corporate workforce never to return.

But after all the soul-searching,  the only people who can make those choices are the individual parents. For those that stay together they must also deal with the future consequences of those decisions. For those that don’t,  it is quite often the  single mother who faces those challenges alone.

The perennial chestnut: Childcare and interview questions

Angela Ahrendts

Angela Ahrendts

Interviewers need to clean up their acts

We are constantly inundated with soundbites from high-profile women such as Marissa Meyer, Anne- Marie-Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg  who vie for media attention in the business stratosphere.  Now we have the  ex-CEO  of Burberry drifting or jumping into the fray I’m not sure which.

Angela Ahrendts,  one of the highest paid female executives says she tries to lead by example   “We have a lot of women working here and I always tell them they are mothers first. Those children are their legacy and they have partners and that’s a big obligation.”

 This is all fine and dandy with a seven-figure salary and massive IPO pay outs. But let’s think for  a moment on what happens to mere female mortals in the trenches where balance takes on a different  more mundane form,  centred on the every day demands of family life. Grocery shopping, after school activities, homework, dinner.   How do these women handle their roles as mothers when they are grilled about it from the earliest stages in the hiring process?  Some are even questioned before they have children. 

Women and family planning

Many young women ask in interview coaching  what they should say if they are asked about their family planning ideas.   I always tell women:

  • Stay calm.
  • Ask for the question to be repeated or clarified. This gives the interviewer to reflect and hopefully withdraw realizing they have over stepped the mark
  • Re-frame the question  ” I’m not sure if I want children,  but I’m glad you asked me. Are you concerned that  if I have children it will reduce my commitment to ….. Please let me reassure you…

Women should also ask themselves if they want to work for such an organisation. Maybe not.

But what do women with children encounter?  The single mother, the divorcée,  the woman who can’t afford to lose her salary or a woman who simply wants to reach her potential?  

And the Dads? What are their responsibilities and roles? Isn’t the very phrase “working mother” rooted in an antiquated concept, when women now make up 50% of the workforce?

I  actually have no problem with the ex CEO of Burberry telling women they are mothers first. As long as she is giving  male employees the same line about their status as fathers.  I think an open dialogue on non workplace issues including childcare,  is an excellent idea at an interview or in the workplace.  That is if the idea is discussed with both male and female candidates or employees.

Discriminatory questioning

woman in interview

Yet, it would  appear that despite statutory regulations,  women  are still being asked  blatantly discriminatory questions in interviews about their roles as mothers. Even by other women.  One senior sales executive in the tele-communications  sector told me: “My husband is fifteen years older than me and now retired. I am the sole breadwinner. We have four kids between us in our blended family.  I was asked  what would happen to my kids if I was travelling four days a week.”  She went on to tell me  how difficult it had been to persuade the hiring manager that her husband and nanny could manage in her absence and without her salary they would starve and be homeless.”‘That seemed to work ” she said only semi- jokingly.  

An MBA candidate with a scientific PhD and strong commercial  experience recounted how hard it was to convince potential employers that her husband would be willing to re-locate to follow her career.  She was  quick to report that they have never asked her partner the same question.  I always ask candidates whether male or female to discuss with their partners any assignment where re-location would be an issue.

Another candidate explained how she and her husband interviewed at the same company   “How will you manage childcare if you take this job ” they asked her. The same question was not posed to her husband. Her husband was offered a position, she was not, and her husband went on to refuse the role.

In fact in the many years I have been  involved in executive search, I recall few occasions when men were questioned  in any detail about their child care arrangements . One was a widower,  in a critical function, with five kids.  I always wonder if a single mother would have been afforded the same consideration.   Others were focused on package negotiations for school fees and housing allowances.  But these men had already been offered the positions.

Keeping pace with cultural shifts

There are wider cultural shifts taking place and organisations need to recognise those developments.   Life is becoming more complicated for many, with two career or two income families becoming the norm with a rise in the divorce rate  impacting career flexibility.  By 2025 the majority of the workforce will be Millenials.  It is well researched that they have different career expectations.

I am not actually  in favour of outlawing discussion on childcare in the interview process. I think it adds value –  as long as it is a question posed to all.   I would be delighted to hear from any men who have been quizzed about their child care arrangements.

A Sheryl Sandberg quote which most resonated with me  is “Give us a world where half our homes are run by men and half our institutions are run by women.” 

 When will we use the expression  ” working father?” 

Career opportunities for seniors

More worried about running out of money than death

More worried about running out of money than death

Old dogs do want new tricks

Change is a bit like a sneeze. You know it’s coming but you can’t do anything about it. And, if you are anything like me (borrowing from Bill Clinton)  you  will have more yesterdays than tomorrows,  then struggling to adapt can be a challenge.

Two things came to my attention last week. An article from 2010 sourcing a study from Allianz Life Insurance, suggesting that Americans considered running out of savings to be a fate worse than death.   This was followed by two calls from retired connections who wanted some advice about getting part-time jobs.  They were both in their mid 60s and happily in good health,  so could easily contemplate a return to the workforce.

For different reasons their retirement funds were inadequate for their needs and  both wanted to find an activity to supplement their incomes.

Upper end

One of the greatest challenges for ex-professionals is the possibility that they will not be able to work at their previous level of seniority.  At the upper end of the post retirement market, there are always senior consulting assignments for well established specialists.  The nature of their qualifications and experience will undoubtedly influence the availability of opportunities.  I know one executive who has a number of non executive director positions and claims to be working harder than she did when she was in full-time employment.  These are the type of roles that are usually obtained via an established professional network, built up over a long period.

As with most things in the job search sector it’s better to plan ahead and position yourself before retirement.The seeds for these types of opportunities are usually planted way in advance.  However, for many, events (or recessions)  have overtaken them, ruling out any strategic preparation.They are left to explore more creative solutions.

In fact, many organisations  do hire seniors, valuing their work ethic and old school communications skills.

Here are the suggestions  I came across:

    • Investigate freelance work:  consulting, editing, translating, accounting, tax services etc. –  check out job boards and local employment offices.
    • Ad hoc or seasonal work –  house sitting, dog sitting, house keeping ( post school – 4.00 p.m. to 7.00 p.m.) child minding,  taxi driving, retail positions, travel and museum guides. Many of these roles are advertised in local recruitment agencies or the equivalent of a government job centres  or employment offices.
    • Anti-social work  – with work/life balance being so sought  after,  check out companies and positions that are associated with hours that no one else wants to work: help desks, call centres, night receptionists, security positions,  all come to mind immediately. Who offers 24/7 service in your area?
When old dogs want new tricks

When old dogs want new tricks

  • Re-train – what could you do that would generate some revenue and be in line with your interests and abilities? I spoke to someone who had been  a specialist in chemical safety prior to retirement who retrained as a medical chiropodist. Now this is not everyone’s idea of fun but a pretty savvy decision.   Feet are a  mass market opportunity. Everyone has feet. With an aging population, an increasing number need help in old people’s homes and hospitals.  Not only that, it’s a skill that travels and he is able to work – pretty much anywhere.  Another friend retrained as a roof thatcher. Caveat: he is exceptionally fit and heights don’t faze him.
  • Elder care –  Your back might go out more than you do, and although these gentleman are retired, they are still 20-25 years younger than many. What opportunities exist in this field? Many healthcare recruitment agencies offer part-time carer or support service roles.

The most important factors will be to: keep up to date, look after your health, maintain a professional image.

As George Burns said “Retirement at sixty-five is ridiculous.When I was sixty-five I still had pimples.”

Don’t forget to read my posts:

The hard truth about soft skills

The hard truth about soft skills -they can make or break your career

Great quote from Peggy Klaus – The hard truth about soft skills they can make or break your career

Hard skills are the foundation of a successful career.  But soft skills are the cement.

Five years ago it was normal to have a line at the top of a CV just stating a professional objective. What we are seeing now is a marked shift. Most companies are less interested, in the early stages of a hiring process at least, in what a candidate wants personally.

Hiring managers are more focused on the needs of the organisation. What does this candidate do well and can he/she do that for us? Usually followed by  “how quickly?”   To successfully convey that message  a succinct synthesis of your career path is required, joining the dots between hard and soft skills distilling it into a coherent story with a snap shot of any achievements.

I read hundreds of CVs and professional profiles a week. It is my job to identify potential talent behind quite often poorly written presentation.  Even though I have many years’ experience  I am sure I miss excellent candidates. Others who are less experienced and don’t know what to look for can do this consistently.  It’s not that there are typos ( those resumes are immediately cut) but these profile simply don’t tell a compelling story, giving their background and career coherence.

Usually, they have no professional summary linking hard and soft skills.

Hard skills

Their resumes will come to my attention (or other executive search specialists) probably because of the high incidence of hard skills in the text which will carry a heavy weighting in terms of keywords. This could include: education, job title, professional training and so on.  That CV would make the 3% of CV which are read by a human eye.  But unless that resume or professional profile tells an engaging account, the chances of the phone being picked up are slim.

If you do get lucky and speak personally to someone in the hiring process, but are not able to articulate those success stories verbally, you will not continue through the  remainder of the process.

It is therefore imperative to bring clarity and show coherence around your career story as early as possible. You should be able to do this effectively both in writing and orally.

But like a wasp at a picnic the question keeps re-occurring  – why don’t people do this?


  • Lack of self insight  – they simply don’t do the hard yards and take the time to look into their own careers. It’s a lot of work and probably the most significant career management  exercise anyone will do. Ever. It’s a life skill and once mastered can be used regularly as part of an annual career review and goal setting exercise.
  • Arrogance  – this is not what they have always done.  The “old way” might have worked well once, but times and expectations are changing.  Panic sets in when  a problem  is encountered (e.g. job loss, professional disappointment)
  •  Fear of bragging  – many simply don’t want to appear to brag. This is very common but particularly  noticeable with women. I coached a woman recently and based on her CV I thought she was   “communications counsellor”. The reality was that when she retold her story personally and somewhat circuitously,  this is not her function at all. She is actually a senior political media and government relations strategist,  and in one role  launched and led communication campaigns for one of the world’s most renown leaders. This tapped into a whole host of soft skills she is still in the process of naming.
Soft skills cement a career

Soft skills cement a career

Risks of not doing this

Candidates who fail to pull their career history into a coherent story suitable for delivery in writing can appear to have what one senior HR Manager in Belgium  recently described as ” a collection of short-term moves, which can be a symptom of professional instability and/or lack of ability/willingness to make and hold long-term commitment to a team/company and/or to a mandate with a set of heavy challenges requiring significant time investment into a definite position“.

This takes on greater significance if in a five generation workplace where Boomers, very often in hiring roles,  struggle to understand that for younger candidates,  the length of time spent in any position is shorter today than it was thirty years ago. Economic circumstances have also resulted in general churn between 2009 -2012 and will need explanation.  One CV was recently cut from a process for having seven positions in fourteen years. Some see that as job hopping for others this is strategic career advancement. 

There is no short cut to being able to perfect this process. It requires insight to pull the threads of a career together and present them in the best possible light. Hard skills also date over time. So although they tend to be the foundation of a successful career, it’s the soft skills required to achieve results that provide the cement.

A professional summary that can be delivered in writing and person is a vital tool, not just in today’s job search market but as part of a long-term career strategy.


LinkedIn: leave those kids alone!


In an attempt to attract younger users to a new university section of the website, LinkedIn has reduced its minimum age limit for members from 18 years to as low as 13 years of age in some geographies. Coming into effect from September 12th, the age limits will vary according to statutory requirements  in different countries:  14 years old: United States, Canada, Germany, Spain, Australia and South Korea, 16 years old: Netherlands, 18 years old: China.

13 years old: All other countries

A number of measures have been taken to “safeguard the experience of LinkedIn members under the age of 18″ with additional precautions for privacy. Their profiles will not appear in search engines and neither will their ages be published in the public domain.  Profiles will be displayed   “first name, last name initial, and general region”.

This has produced a flurry of debate in the blogsphere and amongst the Twittererati.

Is this a good thing?  The jury is out.


There are many who think having an influx of 13-18 year olds will dilute the professional content of the site. Concern that high-flying execs will be bombarded by a veritable flood of text speak about  dates, discos and school projects is anticipated.  Just a short conversation with my 16-year-old neighbour made that possibility seem remote.  The signature simultaneous rolling of eyes and raising of eyebrows, to the unspoken “whatever” pretty much said it all.

It has been some years since my kids were 13, but chances are that Mum and Dad saying  “go and complete your really fun LinkedIn profile after you’ve done your homework ”  will be met with equal derision.

Will we see a deluge of disruptive teen activity on LinkedIn in the next months?  I suspect not. I have to plead with MBA candidates to set up a professional profile and they are generally more than twice their age,  let alone Year 7 or 8th and 9th graders.  Kids are hardwired to rebel against anything parents think are cool or necessary. That is the whole point of being a teenager.  This is their time to hang out,  have acne and find their own way.  My nephew is 13. Do I think a priority in his life should be his online professional presence or crafting a succinct value proposition?

No I don’t.  Not unless it relates to the U14 cricket team. His response to whether he would like a LinkedIn profile was ” What’s LinkedIn?  Is this about jobs and stuff?”


I suspect that much of this will be centred around the parents.

One dad told me “My son (13) can have a professional profile when he knows what to do with it and how to handle the process appropriately.  At the moment he doesn’t understand the implications of online activity or the  potential repercussions of any mistakes.  He’s simply too young.”

Another spin-off of this development will be that its taps into the essence of that ever-growing demographic:  the pushy,  helicopter parent. I have no doubt that whole hosts of  “yummy mummies” and “driving dad’s”  will be creating adult style profiles for their coddled offsprings in an effort to create a perfect CV.  Will the next dinner party conversation be centred around the number of hits their kids have had on their junior LinkedIn profiles in the last seven days? I’ll put money on it! These are the kids who will be offered a rotation of internships with the friends of their super connected parents by the age of 18 to build up impeccable credentials. That is on top of their funded trips to dig wells in Africa and build homes for underprivileged families in Eastern Europe.

The aim of the new ‘University Pages’ feature  is to give prospective students access to information about colleges, plus the ability to connect with other students and alumni.  That is all fine.  I am all for a more strategic approach to careers and definitely think university is the time for this to kick in.

But for me 13 is far too young.  How many thirteen year olds go to university anyway? The last two years of high school allows plenty of time to start being a career-focused grown up.

Let them be teenagers

Protecting kids from inappropriate internet activity is fine and dandy but most are on Facebook anyway,  so I’m not sure what difference this will make.   Teenage years should be spent worrying about kissing with braces, debates about who to take to the prom and thinking your lab partner is a nerd. With a bit of luck there might be a passing interest in grades and homework.

Their mission at this point in their lives is to be embarrassed by their parents. Not attempting to be their clones.  This is how it absolutely should be. Just as crawling before walking is a vital developmental function, this is a rite of passage and a necessary part of the maturing process to independence.

This is before we even start to explore the impact of the gap created between teens who don’t have professionally savvy parents, who will get left even further behind.

What do you think?