Month: October 2009

Being Strategic – The “It” Factor

I have often worked with professionals who are on their way, climbing the corporate ladder.   They’ve done everything right – taken the right jobs, worked harder than the people around them, developed good relationships with their leaders, and so on.   And then…they hit a wall. 

“You need to be more strategic,” they’re told. 

“But what does that mean?!” they cry.  And, often, they get very few specific answers. 

Being Strategic seems to be like the It factor for a performer.  People know it when they see it, but it is hard to pin down and put into words. 

If you are struggling with this, consider:

Strategy – deals with  the longer term,  asks “where are we going and why?” and perhaps most importantly “where should we be going?”

Tactics – deal with the details of how to get there

To use another analogy. think of driving a car.  

You can drive a car and reach a specific destination, even if you don’t know what that destination is, as long as someone navigates for you.  You make tactical decisions and take action to brake, turn, and accelerate in the right places.   Your ‘strategic partner’ is your navigator.  They know where are you are going – literally ‘seeing the bigger picture’.  If you do not know where you are are going, are you going to be able to add anything of value to a discussion about what route to take?  No.

But, if you do know the destination, and have a broader knowledge of the world around you, you can say, “It would be better to take the 108 because there’s construction on the beltway.”  Or, “There’s a better place that’s closer.  Let’s go there instead.”

So, in the business world, if a key factor is having a broader view, how do you gain it?  Here are some tips:

#1:   Get to know more about the business world outside your company. 

You have no excuse for not doing this.  There are innumerable free or cheap resources.  You have instant, online access to the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, the BBC.  A  forward-thinking periodical I absolutely love is Fast Company, and they have online access as well.   There are a bazillion blogs and websites out there.  Do you have an iPod?  Go to iTunesU.  You can download presentations from pre-eminent business leaders – for free.

#2:   Pay attention to what is going on in your business community.

Again, there are many free or low-cost, easy-to-access resources.  BizJournals operates Business Journals in 40 cities in the US, and have online resources, some free.  I get a daily email blast of headlines and selected stories for my local area.  It takes me probably less than 10 minutes a day to stay on top of what’s happening.   If you have an Economic Development Commission or similar entity, they are usually excellent sources of information on what’s growing and changing in the area.

#3:  Keep up with leading research in your field.   

I’m not talking about the re-hashed stuff you see in most professional association journals. (Sorry, but it’s true, unless you’re in a medical/research/academic field.  I do think they have their use, but it’s not in this arena.)  Subscribe to a peer-reviewed academic journal or just search them online and buy copies of only the articles that interest you.  Or, see the note above about iTunesU.  Researchers from leading schools, including MIT, Stanford and Cambridge openly discuss their research – for free!

#4:  Talk to others in your company outside of your department.

It sounds simplistic, but it’s astonishing how narrow most people’s views are!  You know what I’m talking about – the silo effect.  You’ve probably complained about it before.   But, if you take the initiative to learn how your actions affect other departments, or what they are working on that might affect you, how do you think that will affect your decisions? Your actions?

When you implement the above practices, you are in a much better position to be a ‘navigator’, to get your head out of the day-to-day ‘how do we get there’, to speak up and influence the direction of your team or your company.  Then, you are on your way to being Strategic. 

Coming next…Strategic Self-Presentation

Your Career Vision

One thing successful artists have in common is “vision”. Having a vision is absolutely essential to an artistic career because it’s generally such a self-directed endeavor. Successful artists know exactly how they want the music to sound, what the painting should look like, how the dance should make it’s audience feel. Because they see or hear it themselves in their head. They feel it in their gut. I recently saw the movie This Is It. No matter what you think about Michael Jackson, he was an artist with a vision. He knew what he wanted his audience to experience. He shared that vision with his collaborators, using language that had a visceral quality, so they could help him make the vision come to life. “Let it simmer,” he said of one measure, instead of saying “hold that a beat longer”. He could see it. He could feel it. And, as a result, others could too.

Artists do not have the luxury of having a nice, neat corporate career path laid out for them. You do, but is that really the best thing for you? If you follow that path, will you look back in a few (or many) years and realize you have a skill and knowledge set that is someone else’s dream (for you or for themselves) instead of your dream? Do not get lulled into this. That is not to say that there are not fulfilling, long-term careers in the corporate world. There are. But the most fulfilling ones are those that are self-directed.

Do you have a career vision? Do you know what kind of work you want to do next month? Next year? Now, at year-end, when we take stock and make resolutions – this is a good time to spend some time thinking about our career vision, and what we can do over the next year to live that vision, or at least move toward it. And perhaps even writing these things down. It’s amazing the power putting something in writing has. Even if you are not (yet) ready to share it with anyone else.

Start today. Remember, you are the author, the painter, the choreographer of your own career.

Parallel careers

Is the idea of a career path dead?  Not yet, but for some of us who talk with people in transition every day, it sometimes seems so. 

There are still people who will begin their career in a carefully chosen field or profession and slowly work their way up the ranks, earning promotions, greater responsibility and higher pay.  The difference today vs. yesteryear is that you can no longer count on this certain future.  To many people, having to veer off the predictable path is a scary prospect.  But there are some to whom the idea of staying on one path their whole lives is less appealing than snacking on a handful of crushed glass.

A colleague of mine recently spoke on the topic of generations in the workplace.  She described a concept on the rise in the employment market being led by Gen Y: parallel careers.  As a part of Gen X, I always expected to have multiple employers and multiple jobs, but in succession, not at the same time.  Simply put, parallel careers means having more than one job at a time.  

Now, there have always been people who have more than one job at a time out of necessity.  What we’re talking about here are most often young professionals who also run businesses on the side.  In many cases these are busineses made possible by the Internet.  The barriers to entry for microbusiness are lower than ever now thanks to the web, smartphones, social networking tools and other advances that did not exist a decade ago.  This generation is a creative, entreprenerial generation that sees no advantage in putting all their eggs in one basket just to have the basket taken away suddenly in a corporate reorg.   My friend Jason Alba blogs about the idea of personal income security instead of job security on his website  Check it out on my blogroll.  It’s a perfect example of the way the younger generation is thinking now (though I confess I don’t know if he’s Gen Y or Gen X.)

The cool thing is that Gen Y may be leading the way but they are not alone.  Other generations are getting on the bandwagon.  More Baby Boomers are taking advantage of the financial freedom that comes with having a liveable nest egg, cutting back on big corporate jobs, and starting businesses.  They are finding they value the same things the younger generations do – quality of worklife and more freedom and control over their future.  

Imagine that – together the youngest workers and the oldest workers are changing the face of the employment landscape and the idea of career path as we know it.