some thoughts on professional etiquette because some of you really need it (part 1).

Death_To_The_Stock_Photo_5

People, we need to talk. About your etiquette, or lack thereof. I’ve been in offices for over twenty years, and I went from an intern who filed papers in metal cabinets to an executive who built businesses and lead teams. I graduated arrogant and over time I became humble. At the beginning of my career, Morgan Stanley sent me to “listening classes” and now I’m the sort of person who simply doesn’t listen just to wait for my turn to speak. I went from ferociously networking to becoming more strategic and thoughtful about the kinds of people I wanted in my life. I used to work with the crazies and now I’m too old for the hysterics. Although I started my career in an environment where the internet was a novelty and have since adapted to the rhythm and pace of what people term the “digital age,” there’s something to be said for good old-fashioned etiquette, because technology is not an excuse to disrespect people or waste their time. If anything, we live in an attention-deficit economy, and the more you create value for yourself and others, the more you’ll prosper.

Since I’ve become a consultant, I’ve had to contend with income instability (love that deal flow), expensive health insurance costs, but I also have control over my projects, can run my errands on a Tuesday morning, and can spend time with the people who matter most. This life has made me abundantly present, and as a result I’ve become more aware of wackness. There are many people who are not acting right, and I’m planning a series of brief posts on professional pet peeves and business etiquette.

Also, the cookies I made for the blog post I intended to write for today didn’t turn out that great, so there’s that. Instead of cookies you’re getting gospel.

1. The Very Nebulous Pick Your Brain/Be My Mentor Request: Can I pick your brain for 3 hours and 15 minutes in exchange for a $2.19 cup of coffee? I want to figure out my life! You seem to have it figured out, even though we’ve only met once! Then, can I milk you for all of your LinkedIn contacts? Then, can you mentor me? I can write a whole treatise on the ubiquitous “pick your brain” requests and why so many people are failing miserably. Let me pause here and say that although I’m an introvert who prefers to reside in the confines of my ultra-warm apartment (would you leave in 1F temps?!), I have lunch or coffee with at least one person a week whom I mentor (formally or informally). These are people with whom I have a vested relationship–they’re either former colleagues or people I admire in some way–and I know how they think and work.

My mentor lives by this axiom: Be brief. Be brilliant. Be gone. When I receive vague requests or long-winded emails, it tells me you haven’t done your homework and you’re looking to me to fill in the blanks and assemble the pieces. It also tells me that you don’t understand that time is the most valuable commodity we know of. Every request need not be met with hours spent in a coffee shop. Sometimes all it takes is a phone call, a Skype session, or an email connection/gchat. I’ll always help someone when they send a brief email outlining specifically what they want. Don’t underestimate the smallness of a request because specificity will make inroads faster than me issuing a team of private investigators to decode your email.

For example: a friend (and peer) recently made a dramatic career shift, leaving one industry for a not-yet-identified other. The friend sent me an email asking that I connect him with people who might be able to help him. I was happy to do it but I didn’t know who would be of value, so I wrote back and asked for more specificity, and he ended up taking the path of having conversations with a group of smart people across various disciplines. He knew that being around people who loved what they do might inspire him on his path, and then at that point I could offer him a more specific connection.

In short, don’t waste anyone’s time. Offer to reciprocate in some way beyond the coffee (of which I always pay for, especially if the person whom I’m meeting is younger–I’m old-school that way, I suppose). Over the past few years I’ve experienced the value of reverse mentorship, and sometimes I’ll send g-chats or notes to people who were my direct reports asking about the latest technology, changes in Facebook algorithms or to get their POV on a cultural trend. Even if you don’t know how you can help someone, tell them what you’re good at and offer to recip down the road. Even if I don’t take you up on it, I think it’s pretty cool that you want to help me, or someone I know, too.

Also, realize that trying to land the most seasoned professional as a mentor may not be your smartest bet. While I can counsel people on strategy, business, management, leadership, there are a lot of things for which I’m not equipped to mentor. I’ve often forgot about what it’s like to manage a direct report for the first time, or navigate a shady team dynamic, so sometimes it’s better to find someone who’s been where you’ve been in the not so distant past. Someone with 3-5 years your tenure can be more valuable than someone like me, who may have 10-15.

This isn’t Moby Dick. Catching the big fish may not be the soundest strategy.

2. The Blind Intro: Hey, Felicia! Meet my friend, X. She wants to work in marketing and since you work in marketing, I thought you’d hit it off. She’s also looking for a job, FYI. Attached is her resume.

Don’t do this, ever. I mean it. Never do this. Are you listening? I don’t care if you’re my closest friend–I will end you if you send me a blind introduction. It’s the professional equivalent of a group chat ambush because no one is really thinking about the person who’s being asked for a favor, rather, they’re thinking of themselves and their own self interests. Blind intros put people in an uncomfortable position of fulfilling a favor they either don’t have time for or simply don’t want to do. No one wants to appear as if they don’t want to help, and blind intros capitalize on this social tension. Why put someone you respect in an awkward position unless they explicitly say they don’t mind blind intros?

People know that when I email them with an inquiry for an introduction, I’m not wasting their time. They know that I’ve done the legwork to assess how both parties could mutually benefit from the connection. In an email I outline the specific ask, share some details about the recipient of the favor (LinkedIn link, blog, etc), my assessment of the situation and how I think this connection could be valuable–if not now, but in the near future.

If I get a refusal I harbor no hurt feelings because I get it–my email is yet another to-do and sometimes people just don’t have the time. Also, I’m strategic about my requests and how often I make them. Quality > quantity, always.

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3. The Let Me Scan the Crowd for Someone More Connected Than You: Felicia, it’s so great to see you! (whiplash ensues, neck resembles that of an ostrich). I want to hear everything that’s going on in your life (neckbrace now required), but first I have to say hello to X.

Recently, I tried to make an introduction between a good friend of mine and a friendly acquaintance, and the acquaintance had her sights set on a more attractive prey. The introductions were brusque, all eye contact avoided, and my friend, who had considered my acquaintance for a project, in the end decided against it.

There’s a special place in hell for people who are predominantly consumed by those who are “good to know.” People who want to be part of a specific crowd without understanding the appeal of a crowd or “It” person is ephemeral. Playing the long game is tantamount. Befriending people because they have integrity, are kind, smart, and honest should be valued above any perception of equity or popularity. In short, playing the cool kid game makes others feel demonstrably less cool, and how would you feel if you were ignored for the bright shiny object just beyond your reach?

When I was in my 20s, my first mentor was a man named Bob who spent the greater part of his career at AT&T. He was old-school, and was the first person to shape my career. He told me once that I’d better be nice to everybody. Stop and talk to the receptionist, thank the people emptying your bins, and be graceful to your direct reports simply because it’s the right thing to do. Be good to everyone because you never know when you might encounter them again, when the power dynamic might shift against your favor.

I don’t care about your blog’s popularity or if you were on the cover of a magazine or on some ridiculous 30 under 30 list. I don’t care that you spin with that VIP person or you know everyone worth knowing. If I can’t endure a meal with you I don’t want to know you. If you can’t look me in the eye, I don’t want to know you. If you can’t give the people I respect and admire the time of day, I don’t want to know you. If you’re with me and scanning the room, looking to better deal, I don’t want to know you. Because there are plenty of people like me who only want to surround themselves with people they respect, admire and trust, and feel that those feelings are reciprocated.

An extension of this, I’ve learned, is try not to be an asshole to people. I’ve learned this the hard way having burned some bridges earlier in my career and finding people from a previous life suddenly reappear in a present one. We’re all human and prone to bad days and rage-filled outbursts, but apologize for your mistakes, try to be kind, and make reparations when you can.

4. The I Won’t Respond Because Your Request is Beneath Me/I’m Way Too Cool for You: Over the past two years, I’ve received offers to help a startup build their Instagram channel or manage their Facebook page–even though I’ve built brands, businesses, and have been working for nearly 20 years. Do I give attitude or get all huffy? Absolutely not, because at least people have been kind enough to think of me. And if my pipeline is horrifying (this hasn’t happened yet, knock on wood), I’m not beneath anything to pay the bills. Often, people don’t know the extent of your service level or offering, so they’ll just send you whatever sounds like a fit for you. I always graciously thank the person for thinking of me, politely pass with specificity on the kind of projects I’m taking, and an offer to help find someone to take the lead. Not only does this help in terms of me paying it forward to other freelancers, but I’ve helped someone who was generous enough to extend me a potential project. Often I’ve received, as a follow-up, more appropriate offers because of my specificity and humility.

In short, don’t give attitude. Get over yourself. Don’t act like you’re above anything, because you never know when you may need the work and people always remember that one freelancer who had the TITANIC EGO.

5. The Failure to Thank: Nothing, I mean, NOTHING, enrages me more than ingratitude. This year alone I’ve helped two people secure big contracts and neither of them have said a word of thanks for the intro or for the sizeable project they acquired as a result of my connection. Always be graceful, always be thankful. If someone makes an intro, thank them. If someone gets you a project, thank them. Even if you didn’t take on the project, thank them. I don’t need a meal; I don’t need your gratitude tears; I don’t need a % referral–I just want to know that I didn’t recommend an entitled asshole. Send me an email with these five words: Thank you so much, Felicia!

Karma has your direct dial, people. Don’t feel like you’re entitled to connections and projects. Send an email, a handwritten note or a creatively-sourced cat image. I can’t believe I’m even telling people about basic Emily Post please-and-thank-you etiquette, but apparently ingratitude feels more like the norm than abnormal, and that frightens me.

Photo Credits: Death to the Stock Photo

freelance life + careers pick my brain

0 comments on “some thoughts on professional etiquette because some of you really need it (part 1).

  1. Great post! A few years ago, as a birthday gift, my friends paid for mentor for me at a rate of $150 an hour. I keep that in mind when people I don’t know ask for my time and advice for coffee or nothing. I’m happy to give advice to close friends and family, but time is too precious to give away to people you don’t know.

    1. You know, someone on my FB feed mentioned the same concept. Years ago, I saw a piece in Mashable about how a guy was bidding out his time to review business plans and the like. While I’m happy to spend time with people with whom I’ve worked and know, I tell people that you start to get into the trap of diminishing returns — the more time you spend away from your own creative, the less you create. Then, how are you helpful?

  2. what a wonderful post! It is getting really disheartening that kids these days dont know the value of work or discipline. They rather take short cuts, get someone else to do their work for them, or credit for work they didnt do. (Just as an example)

  3. This post resonates. I often get asked to coffee by people that would like my business. It drives me crazy. If you’re good at your job, I’ll refer you business all day long. You do not need to buy me a coffee. Just be excellent! It’s so simple.

  4. You remind me of an old professor I had that I seek mentorship from. She called me lazy and that her time was too valuable for lazy people like me. I was 22 at the time so it stung, but it resonated. You’re words come off harsh, but they resonate.

    1. I’m not sure I’d call someone lazy :), however, I think we could all value from a bit of cold truth and honesty. My mentors have had to give me tough feedback on my management style and I’m the better for it. As long as criticism is given in a way that means to help, I always think people should at least listen and take what works for them.

  5. Wow… what a great article! Your account is so true, we’ve all encountered people that have made us feel inferior and insecure.
    I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog entries and your recipes look amazing.
    I happened upon your blog as I was trying to resurrect mine…ugh!!

  6. Well said Felicia! I’m just reading a book called the Power of Nice at the moment and rings so many of the same bells about consideration and gratitude. Love your work.

  7. You are spot on with it all! I am in a bit of a struggling situation with my schooling and jobs, so it is refreshing to see a professional comment on how they feel. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say or how to approach a business type of situation, and this post definitely had great tips. THANKS!! 🙂

    1. Jane,

      Thanks for the warm words! I’ve definitely been where you’ve been and with a lot less resources (I sent paper resumes in the mail!). However, I think if you do your homework, make your requests succinct and relevant, and offer to recip in some way, people would be really receptive.

      I just read this post today that was so incredibly helpful. If you’re looking for a mentor, you might enjoy it: http://awesomelytechie.com/how-to-find-a-mentor/

      Warmly, Felicia

  8. This was the most informational, amazing and ballin outrageous, if you don’t mind I would like to share a link to this on my own blog and will of course be sharing it via Twitter, etiquette is everything indeed.

  9. Love this, even though I’m afraid I might have been guilty of some of this during my most recent job hunt. Networking is such a fine, and sometimes really painful, art and nothing drives me crazier than people who are only looking out for themselves when it comes to making professional connections.

    1. Kayla,

      When it comes to networking, I don’t think people see the long game. They don’t understand that the true value lies in establishing real relationships. It might take longer, you might have fewer contacts, but I’ve found that quality always wins out over quantity. And remember, we all make mistakes when we start out–I’ve definitely violated some of the above–but it’s more about learning from the tumbles to be a better professional, and heck, a better person. 🙂

      Also, did you catch this piece in The Economist on networking? Fascinating: http://www.economist.com/node/21639500/

      Cheers, Felicia

  10. Seems like the Felicia in #2 (“Don’t do this, ever. I mean it. Never do this. Are you listening? I don’t care if you’re my closest friend–I will end you if you send me a blind introduction.”) should have a quick chat with the Felicia in #4 (“In short, don’t give attitude. Get over yourself. Don’t act like you’re above anything, because you never know when you may need the work and people always remember that one freelancer who had the TITANIC EGO.”).

    That said, I like most of this advice! I just think your reaction to the offending behavior in #2—which, though often obnoxious, is just as often well-meaning—is a bit over the top.

    1. Fair feedback, David. In all honesty, I meant this in jest. The tone of the post was meant to be lighthearted, yet I wanted to drive home some important points based on my experience. I’m not a fan of the blind intro, but I wouldn’t actually end a friendship because of it 🙂

    1. A few people mentioned charging for consulting time, as I honestly think that this is in the realm of consulting. I’ve no problem mentoring or helping people I know, but I do get a lot of inquiries from strangers and ultimately, it’s about time and money and output. The more time I set aside for “free” work where someone else gets value, the less time I have to devote to work that actually pays my bills and ensures that I create and succeed so I CAN continue to mentor.

  11. I have been hesitating to take up a friend’s offer to be my mentor, because I couldn’t think of an appropriate way to compensate her. I’m a first time visitor who just happened across your post, and am overwhelmed at the synchronicity of finding the answer in it!

    *Thank you so much, Felicia!*

  12. Thank you for penning this down! You know, recently, I’ve had second thoughts on being nice always, if it’s even worth it. After reading this, second thoughts = gone! Keep posting awesome stuff! 🙂

  13. #5. #5. #5. Yes. Nothing makes you feel more used, that you wasted your time, advice, connections. It’s not just me, sounding like an old fogey — so many others of my ‘vintage’ (20+ years in the business world) remark on this phenomenon in the younger generation, a complete obliviousness to professional behaviour. Is it generational? Does it mean they are OK with others treating them this way and this is what they expect?

    1. Janie,

      I’ve had this happen to me a lot, and I don’t think this is just a millennial thing (as I’ve engaged with many millennials who are smart, thoughtful and eager to recip)–I’ve been seeing people my age fail to thank and act with entitlement, and the shift from courtesy to entitlement is baffling.

      I’m so conscious that my email is my agenda in someone else’s inbox so I’m always surprised when people fail to see beyond their own needs.

      Cheers, Felicia

  14. I agree with many of your points. Say thank you; be gracious; be humble. But your post also has a slightly bitter tone. If someone doesn’t thank me, I let it go and try not to pass too much judgment. Maybe they had a sick child, or maybe something else came up. If future opportunities arise though, I usually remember those who were gracious first.

    1. Hi Mindy,

      Thanks for your comment, much appreciated. I’m not bitter, at all. This is my sense of humor and I understand that it doesn’t resonate with everyone. I would also say that the points I make are valid ones, regardless of tone. Be kind, be humble, be thankful, be mindful–everyone should follow these basic rules at work, and frankly, in life.

      And yes, sometimes things do come up and people don’t immediately express thanks, however, it is always important for people to express gratitude for receiving help whenever they’re privileged to receive it. It may not be immediate, but it should happen, and I stand by this point-of-view.

      Cheers, Felicia

  15. Working in Human Resources, I receive dozens of requests per week to assist with job searches, review resumes/cover letters, and provide generalized career advice…all on top of my full-time job. I am usually happy to help, but my goodness–the gaps in etiquette and common sense are astounding at times, so thanks for articulating this!

    I receive so many requests that I’ve taken the time to put together template emails with broadly applicable words of advice, recommended networking events in the local community, and links to other helpful resources. I’ve found that many requests can be handled this way (usually with a little tweaking), which allows me to be responsive and add value without consuming much additional bandwidth. I’m still happy to meet with people if there’s a valid reason or if a face-to-face conversation makes sense, but I’ve found that oftentimes the template email gets someone pointed in the right direction.

  16. Brilliant! This brand of etiquette can easily crossover to any field. Now, on to your recipes 🙂 That is my bonus after a great read.

  17. I cannot begin to tell you how much I appreciated your comments and can tell you I’ve experienced all of this. Years back I was a web designer and still do the occassionbal freebie for friends, but people just think because it’s “what you do” and you do it well that you can just crank it out and hand it to them with no thanks and no type of repayment at all. I’ve had friends with businesses request entire websites, with multiple, annoying changes, and not offer a cent or more than a “thanks, it looks cool”. In those instances, when I’ve stayed up til 2am on several nights to make your changes, I need more than a “thanks”. How about some of YOUR time? I mean, take me to dinner, give me a gift card, something! And now I’m in that rut that I’m the bitch because I say no to them when they ask for more free work. If being a bitch gives me back my time and space, I’ll deal with it.

  18. As someone in the middle of a massive career shift (medical/allied health to education/writing) this proved an amazingly helpful read. It’s also going to be helpful with the several volunteer groups I work with on a regular basis.

    Good old-fashioned manners and respect for knowledge? That’s a refreshing thing to see. Learning to value people’s time in this rushed world is a lost art. Nice to see someone emphasizing it! Excellent post and I look forward to reading more.

  19. These are valuable lessons, especially for young professionals. People should just be themselves and be genuine. I work my ass off and that’s the only way I intend to move up, hard work and integrity.

  20. I’ve worked in magazines for over a decade, and if I had a quarter for every time I get #1 and 2…well, let’s just say I wouldn’t need said opportunist to buy my $2.19 coffee for me 😉

    Now, I ask you: Is it rude to start replying to all aforementioned emails with just the link to this post? 😉

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  23. Hi Felicia,

    Thank you for writing this post. I’m one of the young ones who enjoy making connections and pursuing relationships with people I admire, but I sometimes catch myself pursuing relationships just for the tangible benefit of a beneficial conversation or the possibility of being considered for a better job, etc. I constantly need to be reminded to act with grace and courtesy not only with people of my own status, who I interact with much more frequently, but especially people many tiers above me that I get the honor of interacting with on occasion.

    -LS

  24. Hi Felicia, really like your post. When you have mentioned Bob, first person to shape you for business, just remind my dad – the first to shape me for business – saying the same. My dad usually says “great shake-hand, look them in the eye and smile. And be nice to everyone. Specially the receptionist, cleaners, drivers, they are invisible people and it is nice to recognize them just because it is” Have a great 2016!

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