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6 Habits of Effective & Influential People | Lessons from a South African “Domestic”

A few months after we relocated to Johannesburg in January 2003, the buzzer at our front security gate sounded. I looked out to see an elderly South African man wearing blue coveralls (typical uniform of manual laborers). I walked out and we greeted. He worked as a gardener for neighbors a few houses down, and wondered if we, too, could use outside help. I quickly discovered he was speaking on behalf of a son, Eddie.

This gate-side conversation initiated a relationship with a Northern Sotho young man and his family, which spanned eight years, and would have continued until “death do us part,” if not for my family’s emergency need to relocate back to the United States. As it is, we speak by phone twice a year.

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This blog is too insufficient a tribute for this young man who gifted mine and my family’s life. A meaningful friendship was improbable, really, because Eddie spoke and understood little English and I/we knew no Pedi (Northern Sotho), his mother tongue. We communicated in either hand gestures, several word sentences, or when something was really important and required detailed instruction I would solicit translation help from a friend.

An example of a typical communication between us is detailed in my blog “Post Office Memories and Cultural Apropos Uses of the ‘F-word,'” part of which I repost below:

One morning I went outside to water the garden and could not find the water hose attachments. I asked Eddie if he knew where they were. His face told me “yes,” but the difficulty was telling me where and what happened to them.  Eddie spoke hesitantly, communicating a short, crystal clear message: “dogs . . . fucked up.”

You see, in South Africa “f#@ked up” is an expression that unambiguously communicates that something or someone is beyond repair. Eddie was telling me that our dogs, who were capable of destroying even a purported to be indestructible dog bed made out of sisal, were the culprits responsible for destroying my hose attachments.

We laugh when we recall how Eddie informed us that his day’s work was done, and that he was leaving for home. Typically my wife might be busy in the kitchen cooking dinner, unaware Eddie was either in the doorway or right outside the kitchen window. He would startle her by loudly, almost shouting, “I GO!”

Unlike many, whose talk exceeds their walk, Eddie, in the absence of a command of English communicated by life example / demonstration. What follows are six habits, or disciplines of Eddie’s that daily communicated a highly effective, highly principled life, which I imagine Stephen Covey would agree with.

First, slightly different from Mayor Bloomberg’s Secrets of Success of “arrive early, stay late, eat lunch at your desk,” Eddie demonstrated a work ethic of “arrive on time, eat lightly – healthily – drinking only water (during work hours), work steadily and persistently, and leave on time so as to prioritize self-care and family care.”

I’ve known no harder work in my life than Eddie. Instead of motivating him to work, I had the opposite problem – getting him to take a break, or take an afternoon or day off.

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Second, break down or divide the oft-times near-overwhelming mass or totality of a large job or assignment into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Of the three locations we lived during these eight years, Eddie always established a routine for each task at each place for each week, resulting in a showcase yard and a pristine house.

Third, one’s perspective / attitude is everything!

Depending upon which study or news source you read, upwards of 71-percent of working Americans are dissatisfied with their jobs, and some of us are without jobs.

Despite officially being defined as a “domestic” – defined in South Africa as anyone working 24-hours or more per month for a household – Eddie demonstrated pleasure and pride in each day’s work, irrespective of how menial the task might be. He’s especially been my inspiration these days, since assuming my family’s many daily and so-called menial tasks of home management.

Fourth, be willing to assist the organization and/or your colleagues when necessary (without complaining or drawing attention to self) by doing or getting involved in tasks that technically either lie outside your own job description or that seem beneath your status or dignity to perform.

Initially I hired Eddie to work outside in the garden. Upon relocating to Pietermaritzburg from Johannesburg, our inside house-helper was unable to relocate with us. I felt it would be disrespectful to Eddie to ask him to assume inside duties, in case he viewed this as “woman’s work.” After moving, my family initially went about doing all household chores. No more than a few days passed before Eddie insisted on assuming both inside and outside responsibilities – insisted by simply doing, before we were able to; never a word being spoken.

He did what needed to be done. He did it without complaint. He worked as if striving for perfection.

Fifth, choose teachable moments to demonstrate or communicate desired change in leadership or organizational process, rather than reacting by engaging in embittered backbiting or lobbying.

I’m quite sure Eddie thought my family and I were wasteful, as in spending needless money on “extras” that we had no real need of. After all, you don’t develop a habit of counting pennies unless you need those pennies.

We had several hunter green, plastic patio chairs. Being plastic and relatively cheap it wasn’t uncommon for them to break. One day I tossed one chair in the trash because the arm of the chair broke in two, length-wise. I took little cognizance one day of what Eddie was painstakingly doing. Later that evening when my wife and I sat outside on our patio (verandah) for a cup of coffee together, as we routinely did, I noticed that Eddie had taken an ice pick, plus copper wire, and had effectively sewn the chair’s rip up. He first poked a series of stitch holes along each seam of the crack, then he took the wire and sewed the two pieces together. The finished result was not only a stronger-than-new chair, but also a lesson to me to be less wasteful and more resourceful.

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Sixth, never be too busy or self-absorbed that you are insensitive to the needs and struggles of others within your circle of concern.

Develop the discipline of sharing time and showing kindness (respect) to the least visible, lowest profile (status) people within an organization – even to their children, or especially to children.

Eddie and his family, will always be to my children and our family the 9th to 12th members of our now blended family, yet who just happen to live in South Africa. All the more so, since Eddie named his second child after me!

We feel such affection toward Eddie and his family because he/they invested time, effort, hospitality, laughter and meals with us, and especially with our children – this, despite having negligible disposable income, plus their total home space being no larger than most moderately affluent Americans’ master bedroom.

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20 Do’s and Don’ts of Assisting the Jobless

Do you care enough to help the jobless?  If so, at what level are you willing to help – Maze Help or Mentoring Help?

Let me explain how I view the difference.

Finding work, or helping someone find work, is often likened to simple navigation of a maze, consuming as little as 15-minutes of your time, but certainly less than a few hours at best.  This short expenditure of time and effort I call “maze help,” aka –  charity help.

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If you intend to contribute meaningful help to someone seeking re-employment, then the analogy of mentoring a visitor or immigrant in acclimatizing to his or her new environment is more apropos, I believe.  The reason being that joblessness is frequently a seismic crisis, precipitating significant life adjustments.  Helping someone through and beyond job loss could possibly consume tens of hours of your time spread across days, weeks, and in a recessionary climate, even extending to months.

I have experienced both analogies.

As job seeker, I have been the recipient of well-intentioned friends or acquaintances, who offer “maze help.”  Regrettably maze help is most common, and I define it as snippets of time and energy, requiring minimal personal inconvenience, and often assumes the form of verbal or written statements such as – “I really don’t know of anything at present, but I will certainly let you know if I do hear of a position that might be suitable for you.”

“Maze helpers” seem to view the act of helping as simply an act of charity, as Jon Picoult notes in his article “The Jobless Won’t Forget Your Help.”  Promises of help are made by well-intentioned individuals, who either don’t want to be troubled beyond the time and energy it takes to write a reply email or make a phone call, or who feel insecure and ill-suited to help you for whatever unknown reason.

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An example of “Mentoring Help” occurred in 2008, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.  A local non-profit I worked with gladly accepted the offer of an unpaid, six-month German intern.  As national director of a newly funded USAID training project, I was not charged with orienting this intern, nor did I feel I had the time to do so due to project compliance requirements.  Nevertheless, shortly after this intern’s arrival it was apparent that we had not done enough in helping him acclimate to our city and country.  I could have simply offered him “maze help” in the form of an email or phone call or a quick cup of coffee, sharing condolences about his struggles but little else, yet I knew this wouldn’t suffice, nor was it the right and decent thing to do.

He needed mentoring/orienting help.  So for the next few weeks, plus periodically, then, over the next four months, I invested time and effort in helping him make a positive transition through the attending acclimating-to-South-Africa crisis.  I picked him up and took him to the bank, helping him transact money.  I drove him to town where he bought an A/C adaptor for his laptop, as well as groceries.  I invited him for several meals, and facilitated a doctor’s appointment when he became ill.  I informed him of “safety tips” (turn your cell phone off during taxi rides, so you don’t advertise it to would-be-muggers), and acted as his sounding board when he was lonely, frustrated, and processing more information and newfound experiences than his single brain could manage.

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After reading this blog I hope you still want to help!  Jobless people need your help, yet not if they feel your help is merely acts of charity. “Charity help” merely accentuates your fortuitousness of economics, life, education, inheritance, et cetera, and makes people in need feel correspondingly more shameful (=failure).

Below are 20 suggested Do’s and Don’ts on providing practical assistance to jobless individuals. Please feel free to contribute additional ideas, or to add commentary to those listed.

DON’TS:

1.  Don’t assume anything.

  • Don’t assume a person doesn’t want help simply because they haven’t asked for it.  If you have an interest in helping, don’t wait for the jobless to ask you. Take the initiative.  Risk investing 30-minutes to an hour of your time and the price of two cups of coffee (Yes, be sensitive to their curtailing of expenditures and buy them a cup of coffee!).  Your initiative will be appreciated and remembered.
  • Don’t assume the jobless will tell you exactly what they need.  After all, they, like you, have self-respect.  They feel awful being in need already; don’t make them beg for your assistance if you’re already willing or in a position to help.  Rather, ask if and how you might be of help.  Cite specifics within the parameter of your kindness and willingness to help:  e.g., tuition assistance for continuing studies or merely meeting once monthly for coffee. 
  • Don’t assume a person’s joblessness is due to laziness, ineptness, or any other self-made mistake.  Think the best of a person until fact proves otherwise.

2.  Don’t assume every job seeker’s reason for unemployment is the same.  I list this separately because it is purported that, despite the illegality of discrimination against job applicants for a status of “unemployed,” it is still widely practiced.

3.  Don’t “false promise.”  Offer help only if you will keep your promise.  Otherwise, candor is preferred – e.g., “I’m sorry.  I would like to help, but I don’t feel I’m in a position to do so at this time.”

4.  Once committed to helping, don’t disengage without informing the person, preferably with an explanation and in person.  Disengagement without explanation, leaves open the question of “why,” and risks further adding to a job seeker’s unwarranted, yet shameful sense of not measuring up, or of somehow being deserving of one’s predicament.

DO’S:

5.  Assess your motive for helping prior to offering help.  If you don’t, it’s possible you will communicate a patronizing (=treat with an apparent kindness that betrays a feeling of superiority) versus compassionate attitude.

6.  Think sensitively before asking questions, because the questions might merely transfer additional anxieties on to the job seeker.  Examples: “Did you manage to secure any job interviews last month?  No? Really!”

7.  Allow individuals to vocalize frustrations and struggles without correcting or criticizing them.  Strive to provide a “safe place” (a figurative place of trust that is free from ridicule) where the jobless can air any and all feelings of insecurity and struggle. Listen. Affirm their feelings. Occasionally offer their words of struggle back in the form of a question – e.g., “So, what I hear you saying is that you’re struggling with the reality that your wife will ‘better you’ in terms of pay and position?”  Talking is cathartic.  Often time answers to problems and a willingness to re-engage life arise from those emotional outbursts.

8.  Offer the jobless unused air miles for airfare purchase toward job-related trips.

9.  Offer to help offset expenses related to continuing education or skills training.

10.  Offer gift vouchers to coffee shops or restaurants, which they can use toward job search purposes, such as informational interviews.

11.  Offer or help them find a temporary work opportunity, even if it’s a more volunteer than paid type situation, which will help mitigate discrimination as an “unemployed” candidate when submitting job applications.

12.  Offer to review resumes, cover letters, and provide input on job search strategy.

13.  Invite and accompany them as your guest to Rotary and such meetings.

14.  Offer to be their elevator pitch recipient.

15.  Offer to role-play the interviewer.

16.  Write them a LinkedIn recommendation and/or endorse their skills.

17.  Offer to assist with expenses of enlisting a top-recruitment firm.

18.  Assist and affirm them in identifying their transferable skills.

19.  Offer to teach them basic skill sets of yours (e.g., Excel, web page development).

20.  Offer to child-sit for job interviews, or merely to provide a self-care outing.

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