Please don’t conduct a conference call from the blanket fort: How to find and vet great freelancers, Part I

When I told my longtime freelance clients in February 2004 that I had taken a full time job at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as a deputy business editor, most of them told me that I’d soon find how hard it was to find and hire great freelancers like me.

How hard could it be? I had plenty of great freelance friends who were always happy to take on new clients.

Very hard, it turned out. I had flaky freelancers who took assignments and disappeared, never again responding to phone calls or emails. I had arrogant freelancers who took assignments and turned in what they wanted, and who wouldn’t change anything about their barely publishable copy.

My favorite freelance nightmare story happened just a couple of years ago. I hired a mom of young children who said she loved the research topics and who definitely needed the work. So I agreed to pay her by retainer and asked her to log her hours and progress in a cloud-based collaborative workspace.

She was always “on it!’ but somehow, ‘it’ never really got done. For two whole months, she didn’t even log in to the online system, while reassuring me that she was “on it!” (To be fair, that was over the Christmas holidays, but still..Christmas doesn’t last for two months. Yet. )

With the deadline approaching and no copy or work materializing, we had a status call. She allowed that she was behind and needed to really ‘get on it!.” I told her that needed to happen, indeed, posthaste.

After the call I checked my Facebook account. And there was a fresh post from her, stamped with the exact time we’d been on the phone: “Nothing like talking to a client from the blanket fort in the living room!”

Ha, ha.

Let’s just say that she’s not working with me any more.

This freelancer was, fortunately, the exception. Since I toughened up my process, I’ve found freelance researchers, writers and editors who are smart, organized, responsive, and great collaborators. Oh, yeah: they’re terrific at writing and editing, too.

Here’s how to find great freelancers, excerpted from the handout that accompanied the Content Marketing World panel I participated in on September 9, 2015.

Go where smart, experienced freelancers hang out online. They stick together, so you can find them here:

  • American Society of Journalists & Authors Freelance Search service – contact Alexandra Owens, director, at director@asja.org; ASJA also offers one-on-one meetings with writers and editors at its annual and regional conferences. ASJA is where I’ve found my best freelancers. And, I’m a member, too.
  • Society of Professional Journalists, Society of American Business Editors & Writers; and other specialized sources.
  • Journalism school alumni online forums.
  • Specialty sources such as ProBlogger.net.
  • Content management firms that integrate freelance sourcing with copy flow, such as Ebyline.com, Scripted.com.

One caveat: lots of former staff journalists are going freelance because their jobs don’t exist any more. Unless that former staffer has a significant portfolio of freelance work separate from her staff job, you’ll want to proceed with caution.

Staff journalists often are terrible time managers, getting their work done only because a mean managing editor is standing over them. As well, the traditional (often mythical) wall between ‘church and state’ – i.e., advertising and the newsroom – means that many journalists look down their nose at dirty business functions like corporate approvals for copy; working with marketing staff; managing clients; and not operating under cover of the First Amendment.

Just because you’re familiar with someone’s byline and just because they’ve covered your company in what you believe to be a positive light doesn’t mean the relationship can successfully transition to freelancer-client. Hire freelancers who are experienced as writers, editors and project managers and in the business of freelancing.

Equity Analysts Are Looking for Diverse Pipelines

At June’s Morningstar Investment Conference, financial advisors learned that the latest research proves that when women are part or all of a management team, a company’s returns are just a bit better. Now, money managers are looking at companies’ talent pipelines through a pink lens. It’s not enough any more to have lots of smart people coming up. A decent proportion of those people need to be women, and ethnic minorities, too, to ensure that the company has managers who reflect emerging markets.

Something has shifted. Last year, you could say that your company was all for women employees, women in leadership, women customers, women investors.

Now, those women want you to prove it. Men want you to prove it, too, because the evidence that women reap better results just keeps piling up and up. More women means more money, because women tend to buy and hold, not buy and then sell for a quick win.

Panelists at the Morningstar conference reported that they look at companies’ presence (or absence) on ‘Best Place to Work’ lists as at least a rough validation of their workplace culture. Increasingly, analysts are analyzing company results from a gender and diversity perspective. Managers, it seems, must be prepared to explain not why they do have a diverse pipeline, but why they don’t.

Why news stories might present a false image of how well a company treats women

You’d never go into a job interview without reading up on recent news about the company. As you scan the news, your antenna are up for the presence and prominence of women at that company: how do women represent the company’s operations? Do they seem to be in positions of power? Would you like to work with the women quoted in stories about the company?

In fact, you might even get the impression from the women quoted in the company’s news stories that it’s a terrific place for women. They’re happy, aren’t they?

Here’s why that impression might be misleading. Women are chronically under-represented in news stories about business and technology. Even when women are quoted as expert sources in a story, it’s usually in the company of men.

News decisionmakers (editor, producers, reporters and so on) are keenly aware of the fact that women are scarce in business and tech coverage, even though women are half the American workforce and nearly half of all management and professional workers. And news decisionmakers want to have stories that engage women readers, women representing a rather significant demographic.

Thus, women have an edge in getting picked to be quoted in news stories. Faced with equally qualified experts – one man and one woman – a smart news decisionmaker will think, ‘I’ll quote the woman because our coverage needs to better reflect reality – and women need to see themselves in our coverage.’ “

Smart companies know this. They prepare key women executives and experts through media training and introduce them to news decisionmakers. When these women are quoted, it not only speaks to the topic of the story itself, but also helps create the impression that the company is hospitable to talented women – after all, here’s one woman who did well enough to get quoted…right?

Don’t make assumptions about a company’s culture regarding women based on what one or a few women say in news stories. Look at the company’s overall statistics as well.

Facebook is a great example on both points. Who hasn’t heard of chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and her terrific book Lean In, which has become a movement?   Facebook has been great for Sandberg and vice versa.

But what are your chances of doing well at Facebook? How do women fare overall at Facebook?

Fortunately, Facebook has set a strong example by disclosing key diversity numbers. (Many companies don’t.) At Facebook, women comprise: 31% of all employees; 15% of tech employees; 47% of non-tech employees; and 23% of senior executives.

What that means to you depends on the kind of job you want, your skills and your goals. As you size up your opportunities at a potential employer, look beyond the women that the company wants you to see and look for the numbers that provide context for your potential future there.

 

How Does MOVE Know What’s ‘Best’?

‘The best:’ not just good, not just better, but actually The. Best.

If you say it, you’d better mean it. So how does the MOVE Project methodology define ‘best’ when compiling its 2015 Best CPA Firms for Women list, which is the industry standard for public accounting? (Track the CPA Move Project @MOVEProjectCPA)

It’s a blend of demographics and qualitative data. First, firms need to be at least even with the MOVE average (over 47 participating firms, for 2015) of 22% women partners and principals. (Overall, women comprise 19% of CPA firm partners, according to the AICPA, the profession’s biggest association, and that proportion is eroding.)

MOVE also looks at excellence in the four categories of workplace practice and culture that are essential for advancing women: M (money, or pay equity); O (opportunities, or leadership & professional development); V (vital supports for work-life) and E (entrepreneurship & supplier diversity). It’s not enough to have loads of policies filling up manuals. MOVE looks for evidence that the policies turn into strong practices, and that accountability translates those practices into actual cultures that pave the way for women to move up.

If those practices and cultures really work, then more women stay at those firms, and more women should be promoted…right? That’s exactly what we see at firms where the MOVE factors are hitting on all cylinders: more women stay. That bumps up the number of women partners and principals at those firms. More women in leadership means that there are more women positioned to advocate for rising women. As women gain power and influence, workplace policies, practices and culture evolve.

That’s the cycle that MOVE accelerates. Most firms start out with something good happening. Joining the MOVE Project helps them get better. And as they reap the rewards of gaining more women at all levels, their numbers and cultures achieve the best.

Could this work for your industry? Let us know!  @MOVEProjectCPA

3 Ways to Craft Your Career Story to Inspire & Lead

Every senior woman in accounting has been asked how she did it. How did she manage work and family? How did she crack the code of business development? How did she speak up when she felt she was being overlooked?

move smallWith women comprising only 20% of partners at public accounting firms, according to the 2014 Accounting MOVE Project report, the personal history of each senior woman resonates more powerfully than the individual stories of male leaders.  Men’s experience is helpful, but only to the degree that women can translate the context of male success to their own situations.  Women crave insight and empathy from other women.

Your personal career history – your story – becomes part of the history of your firm and of the women you mentor, sponsor, guide and inspire.

Your history is more than your resume with some verbs thrown in. Here are three ways to build a lasting impression with a few short, energetic stories about career pivot points.

Give them what they want, not what they ask for. Listening between the lines is essential for good client service. Do the same when choosing a couple of stories that address often-asked questions.

At nearly every women’s conference (across all kinds of industries) that I’ve attended, a young woman from the audience has asked a high-powered woman presenter not about career strategy, but a nuts-and-bolts question about how she managed family and work.  Until a couple of conferences ago, this annoyed me. Why ask an industry leader about how she handled carpool, diapers and tax season? Then I realized: these young women are not after parenting advice. They crave reassurance from someone who’s now past the parenting-young-children-stage: are you at peace with your decisions? Did it turn out ok, now that you are looking at those years in your rear-view mirror?  When you craft a story that addresses deeper issues, you build rapport.

Throw open closed doors.  When you become a partner, you suddenly join the club. Until then, you have wondered how decisions are made behind closed doors. To the extent that you can, tell rising women how things work in the meetings they can’t yet attend.  Men often get glimpses in casual settings that don’t include women.  So call out the impenetrable to those on their way. Explain how decisions are made, what kind of give-and-take happens among partners – and help them envision themselves as part of the story.

Be the heroine. One woman partner recently told me how she braved a skeptical panel of male colleagues when she advocated for her firm’s first-ever women’s initiative. “I told them, what if all the women leave? Who’s left? People who aren’t as bright, and it will take us longer to get the work done and we’ll make less money,” she said.

You can picture the surprise on their faces when she showed up wearing her Superwoman cape.  And you won’t be surprised to hear that she walked out with six-figure funding for the initiative.

Take center stage in a few key stories that illustrate pivotal moments in your career. Show yourself in action. Sketch the reaction. And tell what you did to convert that moment to real change. That’s how you convert career history to career legend.

This post was also published on March 12, 2015, by the Accounting & Financial Women’s Alliance. 

Let’s Pick a Fight With an Opinion Writer!

Doesn’t that sound like a winning strategy – to pick a fight with a contributor to the opinion pages of the tenth largest newspaper in America?

Yup, it just happened. To me. Over this.

Stein InnThat’s right. Someone read my Chicago Tribune personal essay about bed and breakfasts. My main point was that I’m not a fan. I think it’s a strangely co-dependent business model.   Fawning over the host’s recipes and decorating decisions is part of the price of admission. I prefer an anonymous room in an anonymous hotel. B&B’s are too close for comfort.

There’s a trade group for everything, and the executive director of an association of purportedly upscale inns decided to ream me out for my lighthearted essay.

Here’s what landed in my inbox:

I read your opinion piece about your unpleasant stay at some unnamed B&B in Northern Vermont.  Having represented the B&B industry for a long time, I hate to hear about negative experiences.
But, may I ask, what was the purpose of your piece?  Why did you feel compelled to use such a high profile opportunity to be so negative?  This isn’t a rhetorical question – I’m truly curious about the motivation or reasoning behind the publication of it.  You are a communications specialist who flexed her mastery of the English language in such a negative way.  It was surprising.  
Let’s unpack his assumptions:
  • I have a secret agenda for writing about a personal experience (after all, I was ‘compelled’; I have a ‘purpose’; and I have a ‘motivation’)
  • I’m “negative” X 2. He didn’t just disagree with me. He made a character judgment.

Here’s the truth: I had fun writing about a series of similar experiences at a particular type of establishment.

That’s it.

Here’s how I responded:

The point of a personal essay is to convey personal experience and a personal point of view. That’s what I wrote, and that’s why my essay was published in Perspective, the Tribune’s opinion section. 
You seem to think that B&B’s exist in a protected bubble and should be immune from comment. Nothing is – or should be – immune from comment in newspaper opinion pages.  
Of course, that didn’t end it. He continued to bray and I tried to wiggle away from his scolding and finally I just deleted his emails.
How my critic views bed & breakfasts

How my critic views bed & breakfasts

    Here’s a guy who represents supposedly the upper crust of an industry category that I think can be dusty, and sometimes crusty.
How I see bed & breakfasts

How I see bed & breakfasts

He had a chance to persuade me to think differently. Instead, he was petulant and paranoid. He could have simply introduced himself and his organization and said, “If you ever consider giving our industry a third chance, please let me know and I can help find the right fit.” That would have been gracious. And, to the point of his professional responsibilities, it would have turned his annoyance with my piece into a tiny step towards relationship.
Instead, he wrote what he did. I wrote this. And you’re reading it.

How to Use Your Hobby to Build Your Reputation through Media Mentions

I love to quilt.

Yes, I sewed this!  A few years ago, while scouting candidates for a big feature about women leaders at Fortune 500 companies, I found myself discussing quilting with another avid quilter.

IMG_0417

She was in charge of driving sales for desktop color printers. While her engineers geeked out over the number of buttons and slide trays on the machine, she realized that the ability to print a full-color quilt pattern  at home changed everything for quilt designers. Instead of spending thousands of dollars printing, distributing and marketing printed patterns, they could sell their patterns as digital downloads. That could translate to more creative time and better cash flow.  Her insight resulted in a powerful marketing campaign that sold hundreds of thousands of printers.

Typically, professionals seeking to be quoted in media stories assume that what they bring to the party is their technical expertise. If you specialize in international taxes, that’s what you’d talk about with a reporter, right?

Yes, but it’s not all you bring. Your interests, volunteer work, life stage (new parent, empty nest),  and relationships (child, parent, sibling, friend, co-worker and so on) can be invaluable for reporters seeking ‘real life’  experiences that inject color, personality and humor into stories.

As I explained in Susan Weiner’s blog on smart writing for financial professionals, these angles are an often-overlooked way to build relationships with reporters. Additional benefits to being quoted about ‘who you are’ include:

  • Gaining confidence with on-the-record interviews.
  • Feeding search results with media mentions, which are given top priority in search algorithms. (Google doesn’t care if you were quoted about adopting a puppy or the nuances of merger law; it only cares that you were quoted by an independent news outlet.)
  • Building a reputation as a caring, interesting, three-dimensional person, thus creating context for current and potential clients.
  • Pushing out media mentions through your social networks.

Finding ‘real people’ sources can be frustrating and difficult for reporters. Solve that problem, and you are on your way to becoming a go-to person for the technical quotes and commentary that directly build your professional reputation.

The One Thing Your Company Can Do to Get Better Financial Results by Advancing Women

Slowly, the dots are being connected.  Study by study, analysis by analysis, we’re figuring out what it takes to get women to to the top.

The latest in the string of revelations is that confidence is built when skills training is put into action. A new report from DDI and the Conference Board correlates corporate financial performance with higher proportion of women leaders and women high-potentials.

The top 20% performers in the study’s sample of global companies counted women as 37% of all leaders, and as 12% of all high potentials. But at the bottom-performing 20%, women accounted for 19% of all leaders and 8% of all high potentials.

One of the key factors:  leadership development programs don’t exist in a vacuum at the top-performing companies. Instead, programs are blended with real-life experience. It’s boots-on-the-ground experience that turns book knowledge to financial results.

Programs that make that link drive real results. That’s how accounting firm Rothstein Kass captured $6.5 million in top line revenue growth from its Rainmakers Roundtable program, designed by Melissa McClenaghan Martin of M3.

Mentoring and sponsorship are important, but it’s results that deliver direct return on advancing women. Skills training, put into action – and yes, that means taking calculated risks as women (and men) stride into new territory – might be the final missing link.

Reinvent vs. Retread: Why the Odd Metaphor Wins

Reinvention is the biggest misconception about late in life career shifts.

As I point out in this article for AARP’s “Life ReImagined” website, you just don’t have time to abandon everything and everyone you know.

Retread instead. Gain traction by changing your grip.

But wait! Doesn’t ‘retread’ have bad connotations? Retread tires are likely to shred after a few miles. They’re not a good deal. Isn’t it ‘reinvent’ better?

‘Retread’ is better, in the context of shifting into an encore career, for two reasons.

  • A ‘retread’ only has to get you a few more miles, just one last version of your career really only needs to get you over the retirement line. Most late-in-life entrepreneurs don’t want or expect to build a Fortune 100 company. They want a steady income stream from satisfying work, with a sunset in view. Those factors, which are all wrapped up in the ‘retread’ connotation, make that term a better fit than the open-ended, sunny-with-ambition ‘reinvent.’
  • Secondly, ‘retread’ carries just enough surprise factor. It starts out like “reinvent,” but goes in a different direction. It’s a twist on a term that has become a cliche.

You don’t have to reinvent every metaphor. Sometimes, a retread works turns out to be a better fit all the way around.

 

 

“We Love Women!” Ok, Prove It!

Employers love to brag about awards, especially awards that help them attract women and minorities to boost diversity. But how can you see past the self-congratulations to the real deal…especially if you’re interviewing and hoping that you’ll be able to take advantage of such programs?

The current issue of The Glass Hammer cuts through the rhetoric and gets to the point: Yes, if the company is bragging about its wonderful awards, then it’s perfectly in line to ask them to explain how those awards translate to a daily culture and work-life blend that you might experience if you worked there.

Among the great sources for this piece (yes, including me and the Accounting MOVE Project) is Risa Lavine, one of the smartest human resources people I’ve ever met. Her common-sense advice: when you’re scouting a potential employer, simply keep your eyes open. Are women well represented in higher ranks? Does the company back up its happy talk with women taking key roles at all levels?

Both men and women should advocate for the advancement of women. If men do all the talking and the numbers don’t back them up….well, you might have your answer right there.