The importance of soft skills

This post is dedicated to all of you consultants, and consultant-types out there (i.e. like half of my social circle). It’s a Dale Carnegie type of advice, I would like to give you, for when you leave out your power-point factories and step into the corporate world, where not everything is defined by the consistency of font color schemes and text box alignments.

These days I’ve been working on a very large project at work, that is somewhat conceptual, trying to refine our strategic mindset, incorporating ideas from my MBA classes, and consolidating know-how and opinions of the group (20+ people). A colleague of mine, suggested he made an introduction to some folks in the Toronto office, which I am visiting next month, that could give me some valuable input as well. Of course, I was more than happy to, since I am such a corporate social butterfly. I set up a meeting, and when one of the attendants asked for some background materials, I spent a couple of hours collecting relevant information and sent it to him, just for reference. Three days later, I get an e-mail back, which is about 2 pages long of criticism, of anything and everything I sent. Copying my manager, and the director of that person. Just to give some background he is an ex of a top three consulting firm, who has a name for the arrogance of its employees. Lets call him the Terminator. The Terminator is also new at my company and is not of high rank.

The Terminator went slide by slide telling me what he doesn’t like about each of them – in terms of formatting and content, failing to notice that some of these slides came from the official company materials, recently approved by the board of directors, and were there just as  reference.

His comments read something like:

An intro paragraph starting with saying he doesn’t understand the purpose of the work at the first place, and then followed by 50 bullet points along the line of :

slide 1: blah blah

slide 2: this makes no sense

slide 3: get rid of it

slide 4: I think we’re overreaching with the slide title. It’s very confusing.

slide 5: don’t like this slide

etc etc

Recap moment: I never asked The Terminator for feedback.

Now the conclusion part:

In my adult life I learned a very important lesson. One would meet people who are extremely smart stand-alone and might have all the best credentials in the world, but they can be super-boring, self-centered, immature, and in general with very little emotional intelligence. In the business world, it’s the emotional intelligence that can get you much farther, as you have to build a coalition of supporters that will back you up not necessarily because you finished at the top of your class, or developed the most sophisticated financial model or what-not. They will back you up because they  like working with you, because they can trust you, because they don’t see you as a threat, etc. etc. The Terminator may be a very smart guy who got a lot of praise in his prior over-achieving environment (something I am not too sure about as he is not there anymore, right?), but he completely missed the big picture. He wasted a good chunk of time analyzing irrelevant details (like slide titles), focused on pointing out faults in something he has no background about, alienated myself and the entire corporate strategy department, and embarrassed his friend who was just trying to be helpful in making an introduction. I was telling this story to a friend in another department, who said the Terminator pulled a stink bomb on him as well. Now, whenever the Terminator asks for something, my friend just pretends he’s busy and never helps him.

So, before you run to criticize someone’s work,

*Check the background of the situation and do your homework before you tell others how to do theirs,

*Ask yourself if your feedback was solicited in the first place,

*Think of not just what you’re saying but how you’re saying it (especially to someone who doesn’t know you or your style of communication),

*Do a little risk assessment and think if both parties gain more than they lose from your involvement or commentary and lastly

*Think if what you’re saying is meant to help the other party or is it something you’re just saying to make yourself sound smarter (this particular advice I’ve been really focused on developing in myself )

When faced with such a person, stay cool, be polite and professional, and let them dig their own hole. This is exactly what I did, politely replying and thanking him for his input. Needless to say, I got ample support from my boss and colleague and The Terminator ended up looking like a complete fool in front of all the people he chose to copy irrelevantly.

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Learning about Learning

In my eternal quest towards knowledge accumulation (why? I am not sure.), I decided to read some presentation about the mineral law legislation in Brazil. I figured I could get some useful data out of it, to better understand how things work in the country. The presentation was in Portuguese and by the time I got to slide number 4, I still had no idea what I was reading about despite the fact that I deciphered all the words I didn’t know with my faithful Google Translate. I was also wondering why did the power point look like it was produced by a high school student in the late 90’s? By that time, my colleague arrived to work and said: “Why are you reading this government presentation, it’s such crap and says very basic things in a super convoluted way. ” The rest of the presentation was processed in 5 minutes was put to rest in the garbage bin. Lesson learned: when faced with a government produced presentation, don’t try to understand anything – read the title, refer to Wikipedia and move on with your life.

I then proceeded to read some more forecasts about China growth story, got bored and decided that I need to find another way to add value. And so I spent about 30 mins making a new employee guidebook, trying to help future generations of innocent newcomers avoid some of the pitfalls of my disorganized process . Example: “Recommendation 1: welcome new employee and get them an entry card to the building so that (a) they know what floor they work on (b) they are able to reach that floor”. Or: “Tell the employee about the customs inventory list requirement before they actually pack and ship their stuff to Brazil.” I think I’m going to start a relocation company or come up with the next six sigma framework for this industry…  No wonder my french friend always tells me with so much disdain: “you Americans, are just SO practical.”

Baby steps

It’s interesting to observe how I’ve managed to lower my expectations since I’ve arrived here.

I was super happy this week, when I finally got a dock for my laptop (now, it cannot just be stolen), and a cabinet with drawers for my desk. It was a huge surprise since I’ve been previously told that I will be able to request them only next year (to receive who knows when..).

Also, I get really shocked when someone responds right away to my e-mail. Especially, if the response is actually related to the questions I asked in the e-mail. I’ve been having quite a few of those incidents lately..

I imagine that many people started hating me, as I was actually following up on things that I was promised and not waiting for miracles to happen (such as getting a laptop on my start day instead of a month later..).

This week I’ve interviewing language schools for my private Portuguese lessons. I guess it never occurred to anyone that before prepaying like $10,000 worth of classes, one should AT LEAST know the study program of the school requesting the immediate advanced payment. I am changing this. My company has this incredible system of vendors they work with, that charge them absurd prices for zero service, with no one ever checking the quality of those services (for example, HP for IT products, really?? or IBM for Lotus Notes, or useless shipping companies that don’t ship your cargo for 2 months because they are waiting for some approval they never requested). .

Today I also learned to make payments via the bank ATM (seems like you can pay ANTYHING and ANYONE this way). My colleague was shocked to find out that in the US we pay bills with checks (if you think of it, we should be too. So archaic..). So far, I have not seen any checks since I’ve arrived here but I am told by my bank manager that one could get some of those. Not sure how, however. A bank account here doesn’t come with a list of services.

 

More on my life in Brazil

My morning routine highlighted an interesting thing I’ve discovered about Brazilian construction standards: the internal courtyard. In many buildings, including my hotel, certain parts of the apartment face an internal yard, which allows Brazilians to be collectivistic even in their most private moments. As I was brushing my teeth this morning, the sounds of music came into my bathroom from its window, which is facing the internal courtyard. One of the guests was singing in the shower. Just now, as I am writing these lines, another neighbor’s whistling is keeping me company in my solitary evening (kitchen window is also facing the same courtyard).

This morning also reminded me of a very famous Israeli poem, “Dira Lehaskir” (Apartment to rent), which goes through the apartments in one particular building and lists all the different neighbors… which also reminded me of a Russian poem about 44 birds that lived in one apartment (one was a dishwasher, another a housewife, another a cook, etc. etc.).

Sometimes it feels like all these neighbors are like these loud birds that live inside my own apartment..

 

Back to my point from a few posts ago, it was once again proved that there is something about me that inspires confidence. Today, on the train back home, I was reading my book and minding my own business, looking as anti-social as ever. In short, my standard public transport look. Then the guy next to me asked me how many stops is it to the one he needed to go to. I replied quickly, trying to minimize the amount of words I use, and thus the potential of detecting my foreign accent. Of course, this attempt failed. The guy started asking where I am from, and what am I doing here. Again, I tried to keep my answers short, so that I don’t have to discuss the story of my life on a public train. Based on my previous experience, I thought that perhaps I get into long discussions because I am too much of a cooperative conversation partner and if I just nod and not say anything, people will give up. NOT SO.

Without me asking, the guy decided to tell me the story of HIS life. He used to live in Botafogo. He is dentist for people with special needs. His son is deaf but studied 2 degrees and now is working in whatever. He followed with the history of special needs dentistry in Brazil, etc. etc. Thankfully, his stop came quickly and he got off the train (not before telling me to add him on Orkut). I feel bad, but at 8pm, after a full day of work, the last thing I want to do is be someone’s sounding board. I think I really need to work more on my anti-social expression.

 

Speaking of work. Today  I was also grateful for Brazilian’s lack of concert rules, when browsing my phone helped me escape the task of patiently seating through a 2 hrs presentation with never ending Q&A, all in Portuguese. I either have to perfect my Portuguese, or download more interesting apps for my phone.  I also could imagine how corporate America used to be in the 1960’s, when today’s speaker was explaining how to incorporate into the company’s strategy concepts from MGMT 101 , to the great awe of the guests present. Corporate Brazil seems to be  a gold mine for the top american consulting firms. This is an interesting opportunity….

Day 3 – Bureaucracy, Bureaucracy, Bureaucracy

Today was one of those days that would have made my old-self pull her hair out. But the new zen me is coming to Brazil with “open heart and open arms” (as suggested by my HR contact), and was instead dying inside, while sporting a big smile and my most positive charming attitude.

The day started at 7am at some sort of medical office which administers the Ministry of Labor requirements for employee medical test. As advised, we came super-early as I had some other bureaucratic appointment afterwards and were told I will get admitted for an X-Ray “rapidinho”, which means super fast. One hour later, the number of attendees in the office grew from 3 to 15, as it was some sort of special queue, FINO (“first-in-never-out”). Most of the people looked very low income but were super quiet and waiting patiently despite the dismissive attitude of the attendant nurse. My relocation consultant (thankfully) decided that this is not an appropriate treatment for our social class and standing and made a big mess with nurse and her supervisor, 5 minutes after which, I was allowed to do my X-Ray. This was brilliant, although I did feel bad for taking advantage of perceived status. Oh well, such is life.

Next appointment was at another government office, to get the equivalent of a social security number. I then became and orphan, as the lady there could not match my mom’s name on her ID to my birth certificate. How do you explain a governmental ignoramus about the usage of patrenomes in Russia? So it was decided to proceed with ‘mother missing’. So silly.

I also learned more things about social status. Here everyone (including every official form) asks you for your profession, which means what you studied in undergrad and also educational level. Apparently, it helps them analyze your ‘psychological profile’ (according to my consultant). I think it’s more of a status thing here, which I find really strange. You could have been an abstract artist, who studied engineering 15 years ago or something, but they will still refer to you as an engineer.

When I finally arrived to the office, of course the HR contact was not there. I found out that I cannot get a work pass, login, or anything else before I get an employee ID, which I cannot get before I get some other federal ID, called RNE, which will take a few more weeks. I was actually pleasantly surprised to find out that I did get a laptop. Of course, it didn’t work. I guess I might get a new one tomorrow.  Not that it matters, because I cannot login anyways. And  so I spent the whole day reading the company’s annual report, various presentations and chatting with my new colleagues which are actually awesome. Very nice, well educated, young people. So I guess all the other torture is worth it.

Tomorrow I will have cultural training. I am really looking forward to it. I think it will provide great writing materials.