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Cubicle to Corner Office: The Ultimate Survival Guide to Your First Job!

Mike Halpert

Mike Halpert

Mike Halpert is a product management executive with over 20 years of experience at technology firms such as Walmart ECommerce, Google and Thrasio. He has an MBA from the USC Marshall School of Business. In addition to his day job, Mike enjoys coaching and mentoring Cubicle to Corner Officeearly career talent.

Professionalism and soft skills are applicable whether you are in a Fortune 500 company or working for a small non-profit. These foundational skills ensure that everyone on your team is effective and accountable to each other to get the job done.

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The Interview Transcript

s0:01 – Hugh Ballou Welcome to the Nonprofit Exchange. This is Hugh Ballou, founder and president of SynerVision Leadership Foundation, where leaders create synergy because of the clarity of their vision. Today, we’re talking about hiring or getting a new job, or how do you, when you get into a job, what’s the elements that are gonna help you be successful, whether you’re the person in the seat with the new job or you’re the person hiring. This is a real difficult channel. And my guest today has got a book about this and he’s gonna share his wisdom today.

0:41 – Hugh Ballou So Mike Halpert, welcome to the Nonprofit Exchange and tell people a little bit about who you are and your background and why you’re doing this work.

0:49 – Mike Halpert Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here. So I have been working in the tech industry for about 20 years and I’ve been managing groups of people for about 10 years now. And I just noticed that I was having, I was seeing some consistent patterns, particularly with new people on my team. So I’m a product manager, product leader. So we work very closely with engineers and designers. And I found that regardless of specific roles, whether people are product managers or designers, whatever it may be, there were just a lot of common patterns in the way that people either learned about or more specifically had gaps in things like soft skills and their teamwork and abilities.

1:35 – Mike Halpert And it didn’t matter what kind of organization this is from So I’ve worked at Google. I worked at Walmart e-commerce. I worked at a big agency called Huge. I worked at a startup called Gracio. So I worked at all these different kinds of places, but the patterns are pretty consistent, I find, with new hires. And I put together this book because I just had a lot of conversations with friends and colleagues of mine who work in all sorts of industries and law and finance and nonprofits.

2:04 – Mike Halpert And they were seeing very common patterns with their new hires as well. So I thought, oh, you know, like, there’s so many resources out there. That help people land an interview or get through the interview questions and things like that. But there really aren’t that many that help you succeed once you’re in the job. And the ones that are written are for people who are much more seasoned in their careers. So I wanted something that would give you a primer from day one. When you get into that job, what are you expected to do?

2:34 – Mike Halpert How are you expected to behave?

2:37 – Hugh Ballou In 35 years of working with leaders in all sectors, our audience here is mostly nonprofit leaders and clergy, but it’s also the people on their boards that are corporate leaders. But I see across the board, there’s some dysfunction in the hiring process. Then there’s really not much of an assimilation process, and there’s not much in the place of retention. Whether it’s people on a salary position and non-profit, you have volunteers, which is the same pattern. You want to have people doing meaningful work, but they’re doing it for passion.

3:14 – Hugh Ballou You’ve got a book out and people listening can’t see it, but people watching, it’s behind you. Tell us what the name of your book is and what inspired you to write that book.

3:24 – Mike Halpert Yeah, so it’s cubicle to corner office, the ultimate survival guide to your first job. And I think what inspired me is just the amount of time that I spend coaching young people on my team, I think was really the source of inspiration. And like I mentioned, I started seeing kind of repeatable patterns over and over again in terms of what people were struggling with, things that they needed to learn. I was giving people similar lessons over and over again. And I just realized, hey, I don’t think any of this is written down.

3:55 – Mike Halpert So maybe it would be useful to put it together in some kind of easily digestible format.

4:02 – Hugh Ballou Wow. David, we see this a lot. It’s amazing. This is almost 400 interviews, Mike. It’s amazing. We’ve not had anybody talk about this in nine years, isn’t it?

4:14 – Unidentified Speaker No.

4:15 – David Dunworth It’s amazing to me that, like he said, there’s so many books out there that will teach you about interview skills and what are the right ways to approach and dress for success and all this other stuff. But they don’t talk about the challenges that new graduates or people who are seeking a new Higher position with a different company. There’s no books like that, and I’m glad to hear that he’s come up with one. So maybe, could you give us some examples possibly of what you’ve encountered that are pretty routine challenges that graduates are facing and hiring managers by the same tone are facing as well?

4:59 – Mike Halpert Yeah, David, I think it’s a great question because I sort of see them as the inverse of each other, right? The success of the manager is only as good as the success of the team. So just things like, you know, how to set appropriate deadlines, how to set goals effectively, or sometimes I see people struggling with how to communicate with senior leaders and There’s all sorts of other little day-to-day interactions that I cover in my book, which are just like, you know, if you’re going out with clients or maybe you’re, you know, going out with somebody, you know, the larger donor of one of your nonprofits, like, what is appropriate?

5:39 – Mike Halpert What’s not appropriate to discuss during dinner? Who picks up the check? Like all those kinds of questions, like, you know, a lot of this stuff is straightforward, but until you’ve experienced it once or twice, you don’t know what the appropriate protocols are. And that’s all I tried to just spell out. It’s just like, what are appropriate protocols for, doing everyday activities.

5:58 – David Dunworth That’s a good point. Good point. Something comes to mind that says this is like etiquette school for doing fitting in and excelling in your position. So that’s great.

6:13 – Mike Halpert Yeah, exactly. What do you think?

6:15 – Hugh Ballou Don’t put your dirty fork on the place, Matt. That’s it. And there’s a lot of subtle things that are sort of hidden. We talked a little before we went live about millennials coming to the workplace, but there’s multiple generations now. Don’t let on, but David and I are boomers. But boomers pretty much are leaving the workforce and then trying to transfer. So there’s not much of a communication system in many places where we’ve been. I don’t care if you’re new in the job, if you’ve been in the job, if you’re in charge or you’re trying to do your best.

6:51 – Hugh Ballou So what about communications do you speak to in your book?

6:56 – Mike Halpert Yeah, so I think, you know, communications come in lots of different formats, and I think. It becomes even more challenging as you work in a larger organization, right? Because you’re not just communicating with your direct manager. Sometimes you’re communicating with partner teams, you’re communicating with clients, you’re communicating with customers, you’re communicating with. Leadership, you’re communicating with other teams who are supplying you with data or all sorts of other things.

7:20 – Mike Halpert So what I tried to cover in my book is a bunch of different things. And I tried to start with the basic fundamentals. And the reason that I’m starting with things as simple as how do you appropriately make a phone call or use text messaging at work is because a lot of those things aren’t they’re not really taught in the classroom, right? So you have people who are incredibly bright, who learned all sorts of advanced skills in accounting or engineering and all sorts of stuff, but they’re really missing the fundamentals because they grew up communicating differently with their friends and they don’t know what is and isn’t appropriate.

7:56 – Mike Halpert When is it appropriate to text your manager? Can you text them at nine o’clock at night? All those kinds of things that aren’t really expressly covered. And I thought it was important to include those things because what I found, particularly over the last couple of years, is that a lot of those things are little soft skills that you pick up when you’re in an internship or something like that. And because the world has gone so remote and virtual during COVID, and you have all of these hybrid work schedules and things like that, a lot of college kids were just robbed of, you know, the opportunities to have in-person interactions and to learn these things in the office.

8:32 – Mike Halpert So they’re trying to pick it up and These things from home, but without explicit guidance there, they’re making a lot of mistakes. So I think that that’s those are some of the simple ones, right? Like, what is appropriate. You know, telephone protocol, how do you leave voicemails with enough information appropriately all those kinds of things, but then it gets a little bit more nuanced with how do you use. Tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams for group messaging? How do you know what’s appropriate for an email versus a Slack message?

9:00 – Mike Halpert How do you think about, um, you know, what gets sort of permanently documented versus what’s more of an impromptu, um, you know, conversation. So I think I see conversation as a spectrum, right? Like some things are very ephemeral and you get to the point where things are, you know, concrete and written, but there are different tools for every, every level in between. And I wanted to, make sure that people knew like, hey, if I’m working on a document, it’s okay to work on a rough draft and to send out a rough draft and have people edit and contribute to that rough draft because collaboratively we’re making a better product, but here’s the appropriate way to handle that.

9:36 – Mike Halpert And I still see that as a form of communication, right? I think all of those are different types of communications. And I just wanted to make sure that people understood the context and appropriate usage for all of them.

9:47 – Hugh Ballou So David, I heard him say that he didn’t make this stuff up. He worked in the trenches managing a team. And I bet Mike, you spent a lot of your time putting out fires and doing things you shouldn’t have been doing, because these things were missing.

10:04 – Multiple Speakers Is that true?

10:05 – Mike Halpert From time to time, yes. Yeah, you could say that.

10:08 – Hugh Ballou What do you think, David?

10:10 – Multiple Speakers Well, you know what?

10:11 – David Dunworth You’re right, Hugh, in that there’s always that kind of thing that has to happen. When I was going through from military to the secular world, it was different for me, but I can see that there’s a lot of misconceptions or because of those unwritten rules, there’s probably some immediate tentativeness of the hiring person, there’s tentativeness of the recruit and, you know, How do you iron those things out? Mike, have you got any suggestions for us?

10:54 – Mike Halpert Yeah, I think what’s tricky as a manager is, particularly when you think about some of these social skills and things like that, is we tend to assume people know or have mastery over things that we understand. And it’s very hard. It’s kind of like riding a bicycle, right? In the sense that once you know how to do it, it’s hard to unknow how to ride a bicycle. But if somebody comes up to you and says, how do I do this? Your thoughts are like, well, what do you mean you don’t know how to ride a bicycle?

11:31 – Mike Halpert I thought we talked about going from point A to point B together. And I think that that’s actually probably the biggest misconception of managers. We talk about things superficially, using social media, being able to complete these kinds of projects or submit these kinds of files. But I think that until you actually get down to nitty gritty and you can figure out ways to evaluate whether people know how to develop a certain kind of spreadsheet or know how to put together a certain kind of report or are exceptionally good at sending out status updates until they see maybe some examples or templates of how other people have done this successfully.

12:07 – Mike Halpert I think it’s dangerous to assume that somebody knows what they’re talking about, even if they seem smart.

12:13 – Hugh Ballou That’s a good point. Some of the things you’re talking about have nothing to do with whether you’re smart or not. It’s those intangible things that are missing so often. Now, you’re targeting people coming out of college getting their first job with the book. I would offer a perspective that is probably good for people even changing jobs or people that are leaders that are hiring somebody in a new position, whether they’re right out of college or not. I think a lot of these things, remain hidden to leaders in corporate America.

12:48 – Hugh Ballou And it’s compounded when you have somebody paid on a staff of a nonprofit and they have to relate to a volunteer board of directors and a whole bunch of volunteers on committees. So that communication you thought talked about is amplified in this situation. And it’s really a whole lot more difficult than it is in the corporate sphere. What do you, any of that trigger some thoughts for you?

13:12 – Mike Halpert Yeah, I think comes to mind, my wife works at a non-profit. She works in marketing helping get the word out about this animal preserve that she works at and I would say like I think one of the more interesting things is how they do goal setting and some of those activities and then how they actually you know do status updates and check-ins and things like that because you know, it’s hard to say. It’s like, well, do we have a rigorous method for how we set goals the way that, you know, a Google or an Amazon would set goals through like an OKR process?

13:49 – Mike Halpert Or are we just trying to sound, you know, like we’re being very ambitious, but then once, you know, you get closer to those deadlines or to those goals, like, did we perhaps oversell our capabilities? I think that’s probably very common in the foundation world. So, like, even thinking about those kinds of things, like, what is realistic? How do you you set realistic targets in the context of what your organization can do based on past data and all those kinds of things. I think I try to cover a lot of these different topics.

14:18 – Mike Halpert I know it’s a pretty wide swath of things to cover, but I think that’s one of the things I see quite a bit in the non-profit world.

14:29 – David Dunworth One of the things that come to my mind from the new onboarding position that hiring managers and recruits are faced with is the difference in the tools that are used from company to company. I know that because I’m not thoroughly trained in computer software or anything like that. I’m a user. But everybody that I come across uses different tools. Some people will use Monday, some people .com, some people will use another type of project management software. There’s Slack, there’s all those other things.

15:18 – David Dunworth Do you find, or you know, when you’re researching them, putting your book together, did you find that there’s a convoluted onboarding process that people do differently everywhere they go?

15:35 – Mike Halpert I don’t know if it’s a convoluted onboarding process. I think different companies are better at different parts of the onboarding process. So I would say some just kind of throw you into the abyss and say, hey, sign these HR forms and you’re off to the races. Some spend quite a bit of time integrating you into the company culture and teaching you about their leadership principles. Giving you some foundations on the key software that’s used what’s funny about some of the tools that you mentioned like like Monday and slack and things like that.

16:09 – Mike Halpert I actually find giant companies unfortunately have. They have many versions of tools that they use that are often competing with each other. So it’s not so much like, is Teams better than Slack? I would say for the most part, they’re 85% same. There’s just inconsistency as to who gets to use what. And that in itself creates a ton of confusion because the marketing department is on one tool and the sales department’s on another tool and the engineering department is using a third tool.

16:39 – Mike Halpert So as they all try to communicate, it becomes very confusing. I don’t know, in those processes, I would say the better companies are better at eliminating choice, if that makes sense. I think that they’re all close enough in the fundamentals, but the more you can keep things consistent, the less you get this proliferation of tools that do the same thing.

17:05 – David Dunworth Well, yeah, and Hugh, you know, we talk a lot about communication and how those different types of approaches to the onboarding process and operations when tools are spread out and different things. That causes a lot of frustration. What do you feel about that?

17:24 – Hugh Ballou It does. It does. And it’s in every sector of the workplace. I think the big thing that’s coming to my mind now, I don’t know if this is your question, David, but it’s, Mike, your book is more valuable to any kind of industry because replacing an employee is a lot more expensive than we realize. It’s like, oh, we’re just going to hire a new person. But you think about all the factors. It’s very expensive. So your book actually helps people save a lot of money. What do you think?

18:00 – Mike Halpert Yeah, I hope so. Because I think particularly with, you know, I think I wrote my book a little more so with the concept of high potentials in mind. You know, people who went to good schools, who have always gotten good grades, who You know, want to advance up the ladder, things like that. So I just want to make sure that they were. Well, equipped, but I think your point is spot on. Being able to. Concretely explain what growth means to those people, I think. For instance, on my team, so I lead a product team and I have a skills assessment that I run with people every year that we do as part of their.

18:42 – Mike Halpert Annual evaluation, and it covers both technical skills and soft skills. So in technology, it’s things like, how good are they at market research? How good are they at writing technical specifications? How good are they at designing prototypes for the kind of tools that they’re building, which I would say there are slightly more of the hard skills. But then for the soft skills, how good are you at collaborating with stakeholders? How good are you at working with engineers? How are your presentation skills?

19:12 – Mike Halpert All those kinds of things. And when you start laying them out concretely in all these different buckets, you give people a pretty clear formula for what growth actually means in their role. And the way I think about promotions and things like that is that a promotion is not given, it is taken. And what I mean by that is when you start operating at the next level, you have to be able to demonstrate, hey, these were the expectations of people at the most junior level. Here’s the expectations at the next level.

19:48 – Mike Halpert I’m clearly checking the box here, here, and here. Other people would agree with that assessment. Don’t you think it’s appropriate for me to be promoted? So I think that’s generally how I try to approach promotion conversations on my team. And I think being able to show people clear growth like that or coach them towards the skills that they need to develop to have growth is what keeps people motivated and excited and helps retain them. If you don’t show them a path towards that, then I think that they become demotivated.

20:19 – Mike Halpert And that’s when they look, they’ll take a $5,000 or $10,000 raise as a reason to jump ship and go to another company. And in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that much money, to your point, to retain somebody and not have to go through training and do all those kinds of things. So I think it’s important to give people a clear path.

20:38 – Hugh Ballou Yeah, and downtime for the person that’s mentoring them, and the downtime for the hiring process, and, and, and So, we’re not here to sell books, but if people are getting their first job, I’m going to suggest they buy two books, because you need to give one to the person that’s hiring you. Because, you know, how will this help people who have a dumb boss, who is dysfunctional, and it’s really a challenge, and they’re the ones that need the upgrade?

21:03 – Multiple Speakers Or maybe you don’t want to go there.

21:05 – Mike Halpert They’re a good question. I think it’s, I don’t know, what do you guys think? I don’t think it’s rude to suggest books and have like reading clubs like that at work. I think if it’s more so that, you know, you don’t just give it to your boss, but you say, hey, I think that this book would be really helpful for my whole team. And you pick up five copies and you give it to everybody and just say like, why don’t we all check in in a month and, you know, review what we learned.

21:30 – Multiple Speakers That’s an appropriate way to do things.

21:32 – Hugh Ballou Oh, David, that’s brilliant.

21:34 – Mike Halpert I’m not doing that to try to sell more copies. I’m just saying, you know, whether it’s my book or any other topic, I think that’s an appropriate way to get people on the same page. And if your boss is not responsive to that, then then you have a bad boss and it’s time to look for anyone.

21:47 – David Dunworth Well, that just fills in that little phrase that you see on LinkedIn and other platforms that people don’t leave a company, they leave a bad boss. So yeah, you’ve hit it on the head there. Those book clubs, I have seen in other organizations and I’ve participated in them as well. And I believe if the manager is involved in it, He’s setting a good example, and it’s actually gets people on the same page. And I would say that that’s a pretty valuable thing to accomplish. So your book is great stuff.

22:27 – David Dunworth Hugh, don’t you think that that, like you said, works for both the new person or the person coming to a company that’s trying to step up into a newer position, as well as the hiring people. So, thanks, appreciate that.

22:43 – Hugh Ballou A number, there’s just a number of good uses. So that, you know, that idea that you just put out there with the book club, you know, I have been in groups like that and the leader was part of it. Now, it so happened that leader was the one that initiated it. But hey, we could go to the boss and say, hey, I think this is maybe a book that would help us be a better team and support you better. Would you lead a discussion around this? And maybe each person on the team could take a chapter and report on it.

23:19 – Hugh Ballou That’s model I followed. You just do it over multiple weeks and each person has a term. Yeah. So let’s talk about the book. Your website is, let me give people the URL, because some people are not watching. They’re listening on a podcast like they’re supposed to be. And you might be listening to this podcast. We’re in the starting the second quarter of 2024 in April, but you might be listening to this some other year. And I bet you the problem is going to be the same. So this book will be out there and be a multiple bestseller.

23:52 – Hugh Ballou But you can find Mike’s website at first And I’m going to suggest, if we’re all thinking about a new job like it was our first job, because there’s a lot of similarities when you change companies. So Mike, you’re offering a free chapter here. Is that right? What will they find when they get to your website besides that?

24:12 – Mike Halpert Yeah, so there are some blog articles and just some other simple resources, but you can download a sample chapter that you get in PDF. And I also link you to some sites where you could purchase the book, whether you want to buy an e-book or a physical copy this fall. Sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble.

24:35 – Hugh Ballou Great. And you’re going to be on his list. If you don’t want to be his list, click on subscribe. But, you know, get on there, get the book. He’s a good guy. He’s going to give you some good ideas. And that’s free. His email is there, too. And he already said if somebody wants to email, ask questions, you would you would reply personally, correct? Absolutely. So first job out of college, which is more of a universal topic than I realized when we started this journey. So, Mike, in 25 minutes, you’ve given us a lot of good things to think about.

25:03 – Hugh Ballou So, how do you want to leave this? What do you want people to do differently as a result of this interview?

25:12 – Mike Halpert That’s a great question. I think for all the leaders out there, I think It’s important to step into the shoes of people who are starting at your companies or your nonprofits or other organizations. And you should think about, you know, when I’m in this person’s shoes, what does it take to be successful? And what are the different skills that I need to develop or, you know, whether they’re hard skills or soft skills and things like that. And I just want you to know that there are resources out there that can help with even the simplest of things that may be, you know, causing some challenges on your team.

25:53 – Mike Halpert Like my book, but you know, there’s other great websites and things like that out there. So yeah, just I would say overall, just recognize that coming into a new job, even if you hire smart people, There are just experiential things that people need to learn, that they need to go through a couple of times until they’ll get it. Doesn’t mean that they aren’t smart. And you should just be patient and you should try to help guide and coach them towards that success. And the more tools you have to give them frameworks and things like that to get them there, the better off they are.

26:28 – Multiple Speakers Good advice, huh, David? Yeah, good stuff.

26:31 – Hugh Ballou Thank you. Mike Halpert, thanks for being our guest today on the Nonprofit Exchange.

26:36 – Mike Halpert Thanks for having me.

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