Interview with Sheldon Cooke

InterviewSheldon Cooke is a customer service professional and regular reader of this blog who’s recently become manager of a team in a dot-com startup. I asked Sheldon to do an email interview to get his ideas and tips for creating a happy department.

When I wrote the questions I knew that Sheldon has a strong commitment to happiness at work, but I didn’t know how strong or the personal reasons behind it. It all comes out in Sheldon’s amazing story below, along with some great ways to create a happy workplace.

Q: Sheldon, could you start by telling us a little about yourself and your work?
Well, I have recently entered a leadership position in a retail dot com startup in the Support team. I’ve worked all my career (getting close to a decade!) in customer contact centers, some world class, some not so. I consider myself a customer service professional, rare in an industry with a very high burn-out rate.

Q: What were your expectations and goals going into that position?
I wasn’t completely sure what to expect – I was warned that I had a department consisting of one person, a gigantic backlog of work that was discovered after the employee responsible for it had quit, plus outdated workflow and backlog of general support inquiries.

Sounds scary, right? But the opportunity was too good to pass up – I knew that I was more than capable for the task, and I knew the business model was more than sound. I guess my expectations were that I would get in there and dive right in and demonstrate that this wasn’t an insurmountable task for me or my department.

I did feel very intimidated about it, before I started. I was wondering what I could do to immediately boost morale and productivity, and get the ball rolling to a better functioning department.

Then, one day, I was surfing a friends’ blog. It led me to another blog, and that’s where I discovered a link to positivesharing.com. It was followed by a flurry of bookmarking posts (I still haven’t had a chance to go through them all in detail!), and I knew what my goal was – to instill a culture of happiness!

Q: I know that happiness at work matters a lot to you personally? Why is that?
Happiness is my first and foremost goal in life. Let me relate to you a very personal story as to why.

Just about two years ago, I sat in shock in my doctor’s office as he told me I had type 2 bipolar disorder – a disorder that is characterized by long bouts of depression followed by mild periods of mania (hypomania). A very hard mood disorder to diagnose (as it is often mistaken for depression), I had been functional, but not particularly happy or motivated. I was mired in dead-end, entry level jobs and a dissatisfying personal life. I had resorted to finally talking about it after a devastating event in my personal life, and had a friend recommend this doctor to me.

With the help of my doctor, who was one of the few locally who had experience with this disorder, I immediately began a treatment of a mood stabilizer and an anti-depressant. It was a dangerous treatment (the mood stabilizer has the potential to be highly toxic), but it was the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

Within weeks, I started feeling the most exceptional thing – a certain feeling of normalcy. My self-esteem started to grow, and motivation entered my life. With some work, and some adjustments to my anti-depressants, I also started feeling something that I thought I understood, but it was then clear to me that I truly was beginning to understand it – happiness.

Now, although sometimes I get down in the dumps or a bit too hyper for my own good, I am more than just functional, I am highly productive. I have accomplished more in the past two years than most people do in a decade. Things have been falling into place – the efforts of a year ago are now paying off in spades. My friends continually tell me how proud they are of me and what I’ve done.

Some days I feel like I’m on top of the world.

I have a better understanding of what happiness is and I don’t take it for granted – and since I spend 40-50 hours a week at work, why should I be miserable there? My life goal is to be happy in all aspects of my life – and work is just one aspect of it.

Q: What makes you happy at work?
-Accomplishing goals

-Hearing my boss tell me that I’m on the right path and doing a great job

-Laughing with my employees

-Getting customer compliments

-Hearing that the CEO has been saying some very nice things about you

-Being comfortable in my space – I spend more awake time here than at home, why should it be sterile?

-Being able to create a culture from scratch

Q: Going into this job, what were some of your greatest challenges?
This is my first leadership role, and I am still fighting trying to be Mr. Nice Guy all the time. Unfortunately, there are times where as much as you try to promote happiness, there will be incidents where lack of respect for the culture or the leader leads to conflicts and must be handled in a less than ideal manner. I try to keep it as positive as possible, but sometimes you have to be firm and clear to resolve differences.

Some other things? Realizing that people pay far more attention to a team lead (I can be introverted at times). Being far more organized than I’m used to. Oh, and being more of a morning person. I love to sleep in.

Q: You’ve been following this site for a while. What ideas and tools have you been able to take away and how have you used them? (Yes, this question is wholly gratuitous :o)
-Environment is key – I loved your post on the top 10 cool workplaces. Our office was dingy and cluttered with old broken desks and other miscellaneous items. it’s much more productive now that it’s cleaned up, we all have ergonomic workstations, there are some things on the walls, and we even decorated for Christmas! I’ve been trying to get my guys to decorate a bit, to some success, but I’ve threatened them with Ricky Martin posters by their desks if they didn’t put something up! (They are lucky I can’t find any Ricky Martin posters).

-Having a sense of humour is key. Laugh. Lots. There’s a lot of dialog and banter in our team, and it’s all light hearted and I even get good natured ribbing from the gang. It’s all in fun, and we keep it in line

-Finding key attributes that will help us all identify with each other – we all love video games, and we’re saving up for a Wii for the team by handling the recycling at work! It’s an identifiable goal for all of us, something fun, and we are looking forward to having one to play with on our breaks!

-Productivity is linked hand in hand with happiness – you say it again and again, and as things improve here and we are not dealing with angry and upset customers anymore now that our backlog is gone, we are even more productive!

I have so many other things to try, and now that our holiday rush is over, I look forward to taking some time to further engage my gang in workshops and other tidbits that I’ve picked up and will continue pick up from you!

Q: What has worked best and what results did it get you and your people?
-Well, our Wii fund is up to $75 (I’ve tossed in a few bucks here and there as incentive), and we are all very excited about it! We still have about $200 to go, but we are already due for another trip to the recycling depot.

-The change in environment not only helped our team, but it was noticed throughout the company and people were commenting on the renewed energy and positivity in our team in less than a month of me arriving.

Q: Based on your experiences, what are your major tips to other new leaders?
-Be prepared to make mistakes. In fact, your success depends upon learning from your mistakes, so embrace the opportunity they present. No one is perfect. (and if you aren’t making mistakes, then (although this sounds like an oxymoron) you’re doing something wrong)

-Although there is a line between a manager/leader and his/her employees, it doesn’t mean that the leader stands apart from the team. The team cannot survive without a leader; the leader cannot survive without a team. The old paradigm where a leader is an authoritarian “dictator” is dead and should remain that way. A truly effective team is one where the division between leader and team isn’t pronounced, but blurred

-Always have a basic understanding of specific functions. Not knowing how something is done, or at least not demonstrating a willingness to learn, is a key way to lose respect and effectiveness as a leader. It is the best way to demonstrate empathy for your team

A great big thank you to Sheldon for agreeing to do the interview and for sharing his personal story and ideas.

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