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Close Quarters

Book Review of: Close Quarters

A Woman's Guide to Living and Working in a Masculine Environment

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Review of Close Quarters, by Author (Softcover, 2013)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer:

This is a great career book for anyone. Not just for women in male-dominated fields. And not just for women generally.

In most of the particulars, yes, this book is for women in male-dominated fields. But the principles behind those particulars apply to all women and to men also.

It would help men to read this book to understand the particulars from a woman's perspective. Men will benefit even more by reading Close Quarters with an open mind to the underlying principles that they can apply to their own situations. Over my own career, I have seen the same types of improprieties, miscues, and cluelessness acted out by men as well as by women. I have made some of the same stupid mistakes myself, getting an education via the school of hard knocks (or, in some cases, repeating the lesson a few times).

Career advice authors typically miss what I personally consider to be the important things a person needs to know. Captain Messer-Bookman hits on these points in her book. I consider these things important because they are what will make you or break you, but nobody tells you these things unless you have an unusually astute and brutally honest mentor.

At least in my own case I learned partly by doing something stupid and experiencing the consequences. In a few cases, I was astute enough to watch someone else stick their finger in the flame and conclude that wasn't a good idea. I also had a few excellent mentors who taught me both by example and by directly telling me things. I suspect that others who were more successful were probably better at picking up the cues their mentors were sending them.

The difference between the typical career advice and what you find here is the difference between learning hard skills and developing what Daniel Goleman calls emotional intelligence. The hard skills are fairly commoditized. You can easily find 10 programmers who can do what needs doing for a project, but you might not find one among the ten who is easy to work with. That's the crux of the problem that good executive recruiters solve by finding the right candidate.

What she's talking about

Without parroting what Captain Messer-Bookman wrote, let me give you an idea of the kinds of things she's talking about in this book. It seems to me that Captain Messer-Bookman mostly focuses on the behaviors that show good emotional intelligence. And I think it is these behaviors that determine what decision makers higher up on the food chain will think of you.

Let's take, for example, how you dress. I don't understand why anyone would think it's somehow OK to show up to work in shorts unless you're working in, say, a recreational capacity. A gym teacher in shorts is one thing, an office worker in them is another (and it's unacceptable). Something like that is so basic that even the very obtuse among us should get it (yet, many do not).

Back in the mid-90s, the company I worked for instituted Casual Fridays. The guys over 30 saw this as meaning you could go without a tie or even wear a short-sleeve shirt. I don't know how women over 30 saw it, but that's how we guys saw it.

So on the first Casual Friday my boss and I chuckled because each of us had on a polo shirt with a logo from the same professional association pertinent to our industry. Isn't casual great? But some of the 20-somethings showed up in shorts and sneakers. They were sent home to change clothes. Later, the company just went casual--which again meant (for men) no tie required. It never meant wear blue jeans or shorts to work.

If you have your head on straight, you realize that every day on the job you are effectively interviewing for a promotion. Or for surviving the next layoff. Dress accordingly.

If you get it on the shorts thing, don't pat yourself on the back yet. Wearing clothes that are in ill-repair or that are better suited for doing household chores is a sure way to mark you as a loser to the people who can influence your career. Yet, how many guys take the time to ensure their shoes are always shined? How many women consider the professionalism of their attire rather than how cute they look?

Keep it clean

Any kind of slovenly behavior sends signals that you do not have your act together. Similarly, as Captain Messer-Bookman points out, you send this message if your car is slovenly. Think you'll be taking your boss to lunch? Then detail your car interior so it looks as new as possible inside. Visit a used car lot to see where to set the bar on this, if you don't know. In fact, if you drive your car to work keep it "boss ready" at all times. You just never know.

Your home should also be clutter-free and clean. Note to single guys: put your vacuum cleaner on blow and "air wash" your walls, ceilings, ceiling fans, lights, etc. Then after the dust settles vacuum it up. Don't entertain your boss in your home until it's presentable.

How clean and organized you keep your office (and your home) reflects upon you. The excuse of the slovenly that "a clean desk is the sign of a sick mind" simply is not true. A messy desk is a reflection of a messy, disorganized, inefficient mind. What impression do you want to make on the person who decides what raise you'll get or even if you'll keep your job?

Diction, articulation, and word choices also matter. Lazy speech is a reflection of a lazy mind. Again, what impression do you want to make? Related to this is the idea that Captain Messer-Bookman raised about ensuring you take the time to be well-read and reasonably well cultured. It all matters.

Captain Messer-Bookman addresses a litany of such impression-making behaviors, in this book. Since she speaks primarily to females, here's something for you guys. Read what she wrote and translate that to guy behavior. What kind of posture, speech, dress, and conduct do you think will best convince your bosses that you are a professional they can count on? Lose the macho stuff; the message it sends is that you are insecure. Also note that excessive nose hair, neck hair, and ear hair isn't macho. Nor is the "prison look" with pants hung low. These deficiencies in personal presentation speak volumes about you, and what they say isn't good.

Tattoos and piercings are problematic, as well. If you don't understand why, Captain Messer-Bookman explains some things that people who disfigure themselves this way seldom realize until it's too late (then they bear the consequences the rest of their lives0.

Romance

An issue that Captain Messer-Bookman brings up is on the job romance. Her advice clearly applies regardless of gender. Many a career has been ruined by not understanding how to handle such a thing. If you're attracted to someone at work, this book can help you avoid mistakes that you'll still be paying for many years hence.

And that brings me to the guy's viewpoint on how women should behave in the workplace. From what Captain Messer-Bookman advised women, it is clear she understands the guy's viewpoint. She gives good advice. Not only do I say this from the guy's viewpoint of what makes me uncomfortable, I say it from the viewpoint of a guy who has worked with many women who comport themselves very professionally. Such women have the respect of their male coworkers, except for the small percentage who are creeps (and aren't respected by the other guys).

In my personal view, it's usually harmless for women to flirt a little with guys and most women mind when guys flirt a little with them. But exactly where the line is drawn varies by individual. And it may change from hour to hour depending upon what's going on. This is tricky territory. What is to be gained from a little fun flirting that you are willing to take the risk that an innocuous remark can cause problems on the job? Thus, it's best just not to go there. Don't even flirt with coworkers off the job.

Anticipation

Another issue that Captain Messer-Bookman brings up is the idea that if your boss suggests something don't take it as optional. "Can you do me a favor" isn't really asking for a favor. I'm really glad she brought this up. It's a major sore spot with bosses.

I was a corporate boss for many years, and I run my own company now. I hire contractors and also work as one. The job of the employee (or contractor) is to make the boss look good and to help the boss meet the boss' goals. That's why you were hired. You were not hired because your boss needed someone to babysit, chide, or stress over.

If you want to be less prone to layoff and more prone to getting career opportunities, don't force your boss to play hardball with you. Be as self-directed as possible, so your boss does not have to waste time worrying over you. Try to anticipate your boss' needs. If you're unsure, ask. Your asking, "Would it be helpful if I contacted Bob Jones over at ABC company about this project?" is a way of showing your boss that you care about your job and about the goals of your department.

If you have to be told what to do before you do anything, you have a serious career problem. And you need to get a handle on that.

Contrary

Even in the military, it is not necessary for a boss to issue orders every time he or she wants something done. Nor are people rewarded for sitting around on their hands until told exactly what to do. I don't know of anyone who acted that way toward a superior and got by with it. Can you imagine such conduct on an aircraft carrier? It would be total chaos!

In environments such as the one where Captain Messer-Bookman spent her early career, everyone has a job and is expected to do it. If you embrace this philosophy in your career, you'll have a huge advantage over your competition. Of course, you need to keep your boss apprised of what you intend to do, what you're doing, and what you did. You want a boss who is apprised, not surprised. But do the apprising in a way your boss is comfortable with.

A fish in different water

Because of her particular experiences, Captain Messer-Bookman provides advice on such things as international travel. For most folks working in the USA, this may seem not to apply. But again we're at the principle thing. You may not visit a foreign country in the course of your career (though the likelihood for the typical worker is greater today than ever), but you will often find yourself in "foreign" situations.

For example, you get tapped to present at a meeting of executives much higher up than yourself. The customs among these people are entirely different from what you're used to. Don't make assumptions about what's OK. Find out what the unwritten rules are (the written ones, too).

Or maybe you visit various job sites. This is something I did for many years, when I worked in construction and maintenance. Yes, the engineering work for instrumentation systems at a refinery is very similar to that at a paper mill. But the rules for how to behave in the two places are starkly different. In addition to different norms for industries, there are different norms for each company and locale.

Apply the principles

I found much solid advice in this book. Even where it didn't apply in the particulars to my own experiences, I found myself nodding in agreement over the underlying principles that I saw in play in those experiences. The book is geared toward women working in fields that are male-dominated, but it's far from being limited to that demographic.

This book consists of ten chapters occupying 125 pages. Captain Messer-Bookman writes in a direct, accessible style and relates things from her actual experiences. She also taps a few outside resources as needed.

 


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