Even though I rarely tell you about the letters I receive from readers, I do receive a lot of mail. Almost all of it is thoughtful and intelligent, and the mail does influence what I choose to write about. Many times I answer questions directly, but today I'm going to answer a reader email in the column. My hope is that if you see how I answer a question, then you can answer your own questions using a very basic but tried-and-true Penelope formula.
The woman, I'll call her Darcy, wrote that she is a PhD who was hired to do research and present numbers to the Board of her company. The letter is much longer than that one sentence, but the basic point is that the board was getting inaccurate numbers from a lesser-qualified person so the board hired a PhD to make sure the information was completely accurate. Fair enough, especially in the wake of Enron and Aon and all the other number-hiding companies that crashed in recent history.
The problem is that, according to Darcy, the board is frustrated by Darcy's inability to come up with a way to present the numbers that the board likes. And Darcy is frustrated by the board's need to have numbers that are not exactly what she comes up with. After all, wasn't she hired to come up with the truth?
Here is some insight into how Penelope thinks: I look at the letter and say to myself, why is this Darcy's fault? You might think, Penelope you are so unreasonable to always blame the letter-writer. But face reality: You are not going to make a board change. You're not going to make a boss change. The people who write letters to me are generally having trouble with people who are not going to change. So there's no point in saying, “Wow, you sure do work with difficult people. Sorry. Love, Penelope.” Or, worse yet, saying, “Yes. This is a very bad situation. You should quit. That'll really teach your company a lesson. Good luck with unemployment. Love, Penelope.”
The best advice I can give is how the person with the problem can solve the problem herself. In the case of Darcy, she needs to recognize that she has an impossible job. There's a reason why very few Ph.Ds are CEOs. The former is all about detail and accuracy. The latter is all about big-picture and spin. Not that both titles don't require big picture AND accuracy, but very few people can focus on big picture and accuracy at the same time.
Probably, Darcy is never going to be able to re-jigger numbers for public relations spin. My first advice would be for her to extract herself from the spin part of the job — give the numbers to a public relations person before the numbers go to the board, for example. But maybe Darcy really wants to step up and deliver the numbers in a way that the board wants. In truth, people who can juggle details and big-picture go very far in corporate life. So maybe Darcy can do this, but then she needs to stop complaining about what the board wants, and learn to deliver it. Let the board decide if it's proper or not. (Note to ethics mavens: Darcy is definitely at the beginning of her career and in no position to be questioning her board's ethics. She would be ignored and then fired.)
But let's take a step back. Because almost all of my “What should I do?” emails from readers are like this one. When you have a problem with how other people in the office are treating you, figure out how you can change. When you have a problem with how people want you to do your job, change your approach, or change your job description, but don't blame someone else for what they want. This is not going to get you anywhere.
People in corporate life get promoted for their ability to take control of a problem and solve it. If you cannot take control of problems within your own job, you are not going to persuade people you can take care of corporate problems. So on some level, you have to look at your problems like I would look at your problems: Blame yourself first.