Career Coach takes your questions

Nov 09, 2011

With an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent, a little career advice never hurt anyone.

Career coach Joyce Russell discussed leadership in the workplace.

Want more? Read Joyce Russell's Career Coach columns and submit questions for the next chat.

Today, leadership issues are so critical to all of us since they impact our lives at work in so many ways. Thanks for joining me today as we address these issues. Let's get started with your questions.

I have been promoted to a new leadership position. This is my first time in a leadership type position. Any advice on how to ramp up when you are leading a team who has a mission that you are unfamiliar with.

Great that you are interested in learning how to be a more effective leader. You might check some websites that deal with these issues a lot such as or You can find lots of articles that might help you out and you may even want to join these professional associations to learn more. Another thought would be to make sure to take the time to get to know everyone on your team - sometimes leaders overlook this, and yet it is really important to take the time to meet each person and learn something about them. This will also enable you to learn more about who are the informal leaders in your group that you can rely on to provide good counsel and advice to you. Don't feel that you have to do everything alone. Make sure to collect input from your team - especially if they have been there longer. They will feel a greater sense of commitment to you as well. Good luck!

One of my project managers is relatively new to the workforce (she spent many years in school, pursuing her PhD.)--so while she is very smart, she has poor managerial skills. She frequently blames me for her mistakes, piles on work without giving me priorities and then gets upset when everything isn't done at the exact same time. She is often harsh with her words and criticism. I have tried to make things better, asking for prioritization of tasks, better communication, etc. but nothing has really worked. I don't want to just give up working on this project because that would look bad at my company. I feel that she is spreading her dissatisfaction with me throughout the company and its affecting my reputation. I have spoken to my direct supervisor about the situation as well...things go in waves. Sometimes they are better and others (frequently during high stress periods) are much worse. What to do??

I can understand this would be very stressful. Sounds like you have tried lots of different things with this manager. Speaking with your boss was a good idea. What does your boss say about this? It is not clear. Also, do you know any employees who seem to get along well with this project manager? Think about this. If you can identify some who get along better with her then maybe you can talk to them to find out how they succeed with her. Maybe they have some ideas. Another possibility would be to try to get to know her as a person. While this seems like something you really would NOT want to do (since you don't like working for her as it is), sometimes befriending a person by getting to know them, can really help the situation. It will be harder for her to be difficult to you if she likes you. Have you tried having lunch with her or coffee or just talking with her to get to know her better? I know this seems strange, but it often seems to work.

Best of luck!

I have a gripe, and I believe all I am able to do is gripe about it. Years ago, my boss and a co-worker decided to go to law school part-time. I was expected to pick up their work slack. Then, when they were done, I would be allowed to go to law school and the co-worker would return the favor. After they finished law school, our superior discovered what happened and announced that it had been unfair to me for me to be doing all this work. Therefore, we are no longer allowed to go to law school part-time ahd expect someone else to pick up the slack. Of course, the co-worker who went to law school got another position at a much higher salary. I feel cheated, but, I guess there is nothing that can be done about it. Go, instead, I will gripe to you and see if you have any advice, beyond the usual of just looking forward and forgetting about the past.

Well, I can see why you would be upset by this. What happened is rather unusual since law school takes years so this means you were doing all this extra work for several years if I am reading you correctly. If so, it seems that your superior should have known about this practice. I would consider going back to him/her and trying to see what assistance you can get to go back to school (in terms of  tuition reimbursement) as well as additional help at work. Sometimes, being a little persistent might pay off here. Of course, you have to watch how you present this case and really can't "gripe" about it. Rather, use a tone to ask the superior "what would you do if you were in my shoes now since I really would like to be able to go back to law school". Is there anything that can be done? Also, it sounds like your boss is still there (the one that you covered for). Isn't there any way you can appeal to him/her? Good luck with this one!

The Post used to have a career chat when the economy was good. I read it all the time. I would support this becoming a regular chat again. People move from job to job and career advice is always needed.

Great. We like this idea too! Thanks for supporting us!

Hi there, My stressful job is making me completely miserable. However, my husband will probably transferring out of the area in about 18 months, so I don't want to search for something locally only to leave soon after. How foolish would it be to quit and focus on going to graduate school to obtain more extensive skills for my next position, wherever and whenever that might be? I am worried about having another hole in my resume (it took a year to find this job when we moved here, but I've been here several years now).

Sorry to hear about your stressful job. That can really take a toll on you! If possible, it would be beneficial to look for another job while you are currently employed (unless you don't really need the money at this time), rather than quitting and then looking. You always look more attractive to employers if you are already employed. 


About going back to school - it really depends on your career field. Going back to school will not look like a hole in your resume - it will look like you are making  yourself have stronger skills which is a good thing. I still think it might be a good idea to stay employed while you are waiting to hear about getting into school, unless you can afford to drop this job. You may not get into the grad school you want right away and then you would have a gap in your resume.


You say your husband will probably be transferring in 18 months. How strong is that possibility? If it is very strong, then you may consider getting a degree online in graduate school so that you can continue this degree work if you move.


You have lots of choices to make - if your job is really stressful, then getting another job or going back to school will be much better for your health and future. Good luck!

Hi, what advice do you have for someone who's not particularly comfortable being a stereotypical manager, especially when it comes to micro-managing and "playing boss." Are there ways to lead subtly without being overbearing, or is that a complete oxymoron? How can people who are not typical manager-types find their leadership style?

Sure, and I appreciate your question. In fact, I bet your employees would also appreciate it since most of them do not want to be micromanaged or "bossed" around. You are referring to "legitimate or position" power which is effective at getting people to do things, but not nearly as effective as when they respect you and admire you (we call this being perceived to have "referent" power). There are lots of great resources on leadership out there - check out books by Kosner and Posner such as The Truth about Leadership and Leadership Challenge. Both are excellent and argue for exactly what you are saying. There is also a lot written about using persuasion and influence tactics in an effective way. Hope this helps!

Hello, thanks for taking my question. I've been in the workforce for 10 years, have my masters, and am considering going back to school for a doctorate. Can you suggest any resources for questions I should be asking myself in terms of not only school but life considerations? Thanks.

Sounds like you have some great ideas for your future. I would make sure to talk to some PhDs in the field you are interested in purusing - some faculty and some PhD students to get a better understanding of the job market possibilities for your field. You can also learn a lot from them about what the programs are like, what you will have to juggle and give up, and what possible career fields look like. This will help you figure out what you really want to do with a PhD. Do you want to teach, do research, consulting, work internally for a firm? There are lots of options here. Definitely talk to those in your field to learn more about the career possibilities at this point in time. Best of luck to you!

When the economy went bad, my husband was laid off from a big architecture firm job 3 years ago, and the company closed after a few months. After 10 months he got a job in a small family-owned architecture company but his salary was 30% below what he was getting making. He has not received any pay increases yet,  so he is thinking of shifting to a different career like IT (where I work). How can he start he do that -- go back to school, attend trainings? I think we know the answer but we want to hear from an expert like you. Thanks.

Good question. Yes, he would need to get additional training to totally switch career fields. Getting technical training in IT (it could be from a college or technical school) would be a good idea to make him more marketable. Then, he also needs to explain (in his resume) why he switched career fields. 


One other thought - what about looking at other jobs in the architecture field? I am assuming he has tried that already. There are no other possibilities to use the skills he has? If he has worked at a big firm, then he clearly has marketable skills that another big firm (maybe a competitor) might be interested in ? Might be worth checking it out. Plus, what are all his old colleagues doing? Does he have any contacts from them that he can pursue? It might be good to see what they are all up to these days. Maybe some of them got jobs with other firms and can put in a good word for him.


Best of luck,

How do you get busy leaders to notice you? I've been in my position for over a year and want to set myself apart to superiors. Any advice?

Great question. You didn't mention whether you were more shy and introverted or more extroverted. If you are more introverted, there are some great tips in a book by Ancowitz called Self-Promotion for Introverts. It addresses exactly what you are talking about. If this is not the issue, then I would suggest making sure that you are working on projects with high visibility, spending time networking with your colleagues and bosses, and volunteering for the firm's community projects (if they have any). It's important that you know what specific projects the leaders of the firm feel are most critical and then making sure to be involved in those projects. Showing initiative and volunteering to assist on these projects is also valuable. Good luck!

Thought I would get your view on this. I recently attended a diversity training program at my job with other emploees - all ranks, including management. I noticed that the only ones that were asking questions were the lower level employees. The management level were all quiet. A couple of my co-workers noticed this. So we were wondering were they afraid, and to suceed at your job, the best thing to do is to keep quiet? We noticed that management is always hard to read, as if what they say would be misconstrued.

Great insight on your part to notice this. It is hard to say what they were thinking. Might be good to actually ask one of them - maybe one you feel would be inclined to give you a candid answer. I have taught some of these courses before and sometimes managers are quiet in order to make sure to allow employees an opportunity to share their ideas and ask questions. In fact, we often counsel managers to be quiet in these types of sessions to enable employees to have an opportunity to talk. So, as you can see it is really hard to know what their reasons for being quiet were. It is possible they wanted to allow employees an opportunity to talk. Sometimes if managers do the talking first, then employees feel inhibited to speak up at all. Thus, allowing for some silence is often helpful in these types of forums. But, you'll never know for sure unless you ask them. Best of luck.

My experience has always been that my bosses tend to work much longer hours than most employees.. especially now, when companies are understaffed. My question is, am I doomed to 12- or 15-hour days if I want to hold a leadership position?

Good question. Yes, it does seem that many leaders work really long hours, but this is not always the case. It's interesting that some leaders understand the importance of getting enough rest, spending time with family and leisure pursuits, etc. In fact, you will find that when looking at the Best Companies for Parents or those that ASTD has rated as some of the top firms, that more of them are considering the importance of time off for their employees. I think you just have to find a firm that has that type of culture. These firms do exist and are more common than in the past. I would check websites like or or Fortune's best places to work since they are listed as some of the best places to work. Find a culture that better suits what is important to you!

When applying to a former employer, when is the right time to notify your previous supervisor? I'm finding that i'm not happy with my current employer and wondering if some of the problem is simply that i haven't received a raise in 3 years while my boss and his direct reports continue to receive bonus payout. I'm an EA at fortune 500 company

I think you are asking when you need to notify a current employer that you are leaving the firm? If this is the case, it really depends on the precedent that has typically been set. What have others done? In many cases it is about 2 weeks, but it really depends on the job. Some people give a month's notice if they are pretty high up in the firm and they know it will be difficult for them to find someone else to take the job.


About the pay issues - unfortunately in this environment this is all too common and often people have to leave a firm or get an alternative offer in order to be given an increase. 

Recently, I held a session with the Executive MBAs at the Smith School of Business and we talked about how leaders are held accountable for behaviors by their managers and employees, particularly in the area of employee harassment. We discussed how they need to be aware of what kind of environment (whether it is harassing or not) that exists for their employees. Given recent scandals in the football world (think Penn State), this issue has surfaced again. So, readers, how can we ensure that leaders at the top know what is going on and take appropriate action to ensure that their employees, students, etc don't experience a "hostile" or "harassing" environment. Any thoughts?

I plan on moving to a large city where I know nobody within the next year. I hear that job hunting when you don't live there (and since I can't fake a local address) is pretty much pointless and not going to work, even if you tell them you are moving on your own by a certain date. Should I just not waste my time job hunting until I am down there?

Good question - you can actually start to job hunt now. Maybe scope out the major firms you are interested in or do some research on the area. It is true that it is much easier once you are actually onsite to look for jobs. But, I would certainly encourage you to do any research now. This will help you get a better sense of the area and the possible opportunities. Also, if you can travel there you can also learn better areas to live and work - this will help you out as well. Best of luck!

I am a retired elementary school principal from a large district in Northern Virgina, and am looking to start a new opportunity but have had no luck. I have excellent presentation skills as well as great experience with observations and evaluation of staff and programs. I aslo have a keen sense of humor. What advice can you offer me?

These are important skills that you have. Have you ever considered the field of training? Given your great presentation skills you would be perfect for this field. Are you a member of American Society for Training and Development If not, I would consider joining this professional association (which is very large and has lots of great tips for you) as well as

Another possibility might be to look at teaching as a lecturer or adjunct in a college. They are often looking for people with good skills like you have and you can work part-time. Good luck!

I'm a relatively new leader in my trade association, and one of the difficulties I'm having is getting my team -- some of whom are quite experienced in our industry -- to offer their own input and suggestions. I don't know everything, and these are good and talented people. But I find they want to sit and wait back for me or others to describe the strategy, rather than offering their own thoughts. This even after I've said time and time again, I want to know what they'd advise we do. How can I combat this over-aggressive deference?

Great question and very common. It is possible that they are used to seeing the previous leaders give all of their own thoughts or not use their thoughts. Thus, they may be used to not giving input. I do agree with you that it is critical for you to get their views since they have great previous experiences. Did you ever read the book "Death by Meeting" by Patrick Lencioni? It offers some very useful tips for running meetings, and it very easy to read and practical. I think you would find it useful.


You also might consider having different people work in teams to be in charge of various parts of your meetings. They may be quiet at first, but if they see that you really are silent and waiting to hear their input, they will start to offer more ideas. Often leaders don't do this - they jump in and criticize ideas so quickly that employees learn that it is not worth it to share their ideas.

Good luck!

I'm having trouble finding jobs on my level (mid-level manager) at companies that don't require more experience than I have (6 years). It seems like to move out, which I want to, I'd actually have to move down to a coordinator or associate manager level. Have you noticed companies increasing the experience required for positions since they arguably have more candidates to chose from in this economy, or is my situation unique?

This is a possibility and yes I have seen this happening more.  Or course, it depends on the type of work you are doing. It may also be because firms are flattening out their organizations and having fewer levels of managers. This makes them have more lower and mid level positions or project manager roles. I would encourage you to keep looking at your level. There are some great websites for higher level positions that you mgith want to check such as You might want to look at some salary sites to see what you are best suited to. If you use or you can learn what your own worth should be at this time. Good luck!

My husband just retired after 25 years in the Army. He was of course relatively high up the chain and had "the last word" much of the time. People with higher rank than he had would solicit his advice because of his experience. Now he is retired from the military and working for a civilian company in a related field. He went from being the go-to guy to being the low man on the totem pole and it's been very difficult for me to see him go from someone who loved his job (except the multiple deployments, which were the reason he finally retired) to a "cube rat" who spends half his life waiting for other people to do their part of the job. Any tips for how he can endure this transition until he gains some seniority in his new job?

Great question and one that I have seen a lot. It depends on his job. Maybe he needs to be in a consulting type career - and there are plenty of opportunities for this in our area of DC/VA/MD. As a consultant, especially with the defense industry, his views would be taken into consideration in a much bigger way. I have also known some retired military to go back to school to get an EMBA to help to level the playing field in those jobs they have. Often this will give them more "credibility" in the civilian world.  I personally think retired military have an enormous amount to offer and often undersell themselves. Maybe he is at a job that it below his real capabilities. I think a career coach or someone to talk to him about his job and future prospects would be helpful.

Good luck!

What's the best way to deal with managers who seem to play favorites? There are some bosses I've worked with that make it very clear who they like, and who they don't. What can you do to change their mind -- or at least have a professional relationship -- if you're in the second category?

This is tough. Of course, managers should not have favorites but the reality is that they generally have a few people that they feel closer to or trust more than others to do the work. This is less of an issue, although we encourage them to expand their pool of "trusted employees" to bring everyone into that pool.


If, on the other hand, they are just playing favorites based on personality, I would say you might want to spend a little more time as least getting to know your managers. Some people view this as "just playing the game", and yet it really is important for you to have  a good working relationship with your manager. If possible, set aside some time to have coffee or lunch just to get to know your manager. Or, maybe he or she has hobbies you can chat about. Generally, I advocate that this is the manager's job, not the employee's job, but if they are not showing the initiative to do this, you can. I have know many people who did this exact thing. One person I worked with actually had a phone call set up each week with his manager just to try to get to know him better. It worked and they developed a much better relationship.


Good luck!

I'm trying to switch career fields, but don't have a clear idea as to what it is I want to do. All I know is that I want out of my current job. This poses a problem when I'm writing my cover letter, as potiential employers usually want to read why you want to work for them, not why you don't want to work for someone else. In a perfect world, I could wait until I figured out what it is I wanted to, and then apply, but I don't have that luxury. I need to make a change now or go crazy. Is there any good way to communicate to employers that I'm mainly just looking for something different?

This is more common than you think. First, you need to figure out why you want to move out of your current job - is it the work itself, the location, the people, etc. You really won't know what you want to do differently until you figure out what you don't want in your current job. Another thing to think about is to reflect on your career (all the various jobs you have had since youth), and think about what job made you feel best about yourself. Then, think about the characteristics of that job - was it work being done alone, work in a team, work outside, at a desk, etc. Once you do this, it will give you an idea of what you might be interested in purusing. Also, look at Bolles' book (comes out each year) called What Color is your Parachute? Gives some great tips for thinking about these things. Good luck!



Thanks for your great questions on leadership and careers. Please join me next month on December 7th from 12-1 as we tackle how to keep employees engaged and motivated at the workplace as well as any other career questions you may have. 



Joyce E. A. Russell, Ph.D.

Thanks so much for joining us!


You can submit questions for next month's chat here.

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