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Career Change Lessons From a Potluck Dinner

Aug 20, 2008
Someone I'll call "Gloria" told me this story:

"At a recent potluck dinner, my friend Brian brought a six-pack of his special cider. We had more beverages than we needed. At the end of the evening, Brian went into the refrigerator and grabbed his untouched cider. He took it home.

"Our hostess, Nancy, was furious. She wrote Brian a strong email, claiming he had insulted her"

My sympathies are with Brian. To me, a potluck means you bring a contribution to the party, not a gift for the hostess. And I avoid those events whenever possible.

So...what's the relevance for careers?

Clients often call me when they're puzzled by events in a new job ("Why would I be asked to edit this report when I'm a senior manager?"). Or maybe they've got a new employee and they're tearing their hair out, wondering, "Why would anyone skip a meeting when we specifically said attendance was expected?" And more.

It's all about fitting into a new environment -- whether you're new to a job, career or even service where you're the customer.

(1) Don't get mad -- get inquisitive.

A prospective client asked if I could edit some content. I explained that I don't do editing. I don't tweak other people's words, commas and paragraphs.

But I discovered she used the word "editing" to mean "writing copy starting with a written discussion of our target market."

So "edit" might be a polite way of saying, "This report is worthless. Just start over."

And some folks distinguish between "expected" and "required."

(2) Study the lunchtime lingo.

Groups have norms about teasing, dressing up, initiating conversations, writing memos and lunch.

Some people see an invitation to lunch as the closest thing to a marriage proposal, especially if a male invites a female or vice versa. (I wish I were kidding.)

Some groups have norms about bringing lunch, eating out, and skipping lunch to work out.

I once heard about a department where bringing your lunch meant you had taken yourself off the fast track. I heard about another where nobody ate at all: the "in" crowd went running. A consulting firm took seriously the maxim of "Never eat lunch alone." Associates were expected to sacrifice their waist lines by taking clients to lunch several times a week. I suspect doggie bags were a big no-no.

If these issues are important, you can usually find out before you get hired.

But if you really hate meetings, you might get a pass by feigning ignorance. When asked why you didn't show, you say, "I though 'expected' meant 'lightly suggested.' So I skipped the meeting and took a client to lunch."

Use at your own risk...once.

(3) Avoid the old-timer trap.

Every time I changed jobs, even in the same career field, even in universities with similar structures, I bumped up against new cultures.

What do you ask the admin staff to do? Where do you get coffee (and when)? And if you miss a meeting or turn down a lunch offer, are you branding yourself as a maverick?

Inevitably I made mistakes. And I watched other newcomers do the same.

The reasons were innocent. If you've asked a staff assistant to make copies or calls for the last 5 years, you'll automatically do the same at your new job. You probably won't even stop to wonder, "Should I do this?" unless you've been made aware that customs might vary in that particular area.

But old-timers (who can't imagine any other way either) tend to assume the worst. When I became an old-timer (or at least a medium-timer), colleagues would ask rhetorically, "Who does he think he is?"

It took awhile, but over the years I learned to say, "He thinks he is a lost, confused newcomer. Let's explain that we need to go have coffee and it's a non-negotiable right now."

Returning to the potluck example: I suspect Brian's friends always took home the leftovers -- their own and maybe everyone else's. It never crossed his mind to leave his cider in someone else's refrigerator.

That's my own favorite part of a potluck. The folks who know how to cook never want leftovers. More for me.
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