ambition

Career resolutions 2011

As promised, I am making some career resolutions this year.  To be honest, I reassess and make new goals throughout each year, and usually ignore the January 1 milestone.  This year, though, it provides a needed opportunity to reflect and plan.  So, here are my resolutions for 2011:

  • To consciously connect – it’s essential in my work to stay connected with a wide variety of people, from business leaders to job seekers to thought partners and mentors; I will consciously guide my outreach during the year to ensure I connect with those that I should
  • To write more – because it’s something I love, a skill I want to keep building, and it allows me to connect with people more, which, besides providing enjoyment, provides more work opportunity
  • To give myself a pay raise – yes, that’s right, only not in the way you think.  I’m not on salary, but I can influence my pay in a number of ways.  Though I will work to increase my overall revenue this year, my primary focus here is on what I make per unit of time.  So, I can do a number of things including: raise my rates, schedule more efficiently so that I have less “downtime” in between paid work, work faster on fee-based projects, and focus on higher rate work.  I will actually employ all of these to some degree
  • To maintain balance – I know, “balance” has almost become a dirty word it’s so cliche’, but one of the reasons I love what I do is that it provides an opportunity for balance that was almost impossible in my former life.  Looking back over last year, I did pretty well.  I need to keep it on my radar and I know I can do it again this year.  My key tools are: aggressive prioritization and the willingness to say “no” at the right times

Sounds like a pretty heavy load, huh?  Not really.  All these are essential to my continued career and personal well-being, so I need to be doing them anyway. 

Now, to be really effective, resolutions must have some detail or they lose their bite.  Though I haven’t laid out the details here, I am doing this for myself.  I hope you are too, and I wish you the very best in achieving all that you resolve to this year!

The calculus of power

When I was in college, I took Calculus for the first time.  Math was never my strongest subject and in Calculus I was completely lost. Now, I realize I just didn’t have the context I needed to understand what it really meant.

Recently, I was reading a book on women and power.  It included advice on behaviors women should incorporate more into their own modus operandi in order to appear more powerful — behaviors which send unconscious messages about relative power.  One such behavior is interrupting.  Once you start looking for it, it’s easy to see: people who come across as powerful often do interrupt others, and no one seems to mind (even though we were all taught as children not to interrupt.)  So, one can generalize that if you interrupt more, you will be perceived as more powerful.   As specific advice, though, this is tricky isn’t it?

Which brings us back to Calculus. 

As I was considering this advice about interrupting and how that would translate for one of the young business leaders I coach, I realized the complexity of the equation. You cannot simply tell someone to interrupt more. So many factors play into the situation that can completely change the output — the difference in organizational level between the two parties, the setting, the organizational culture, and more.  Imagine an intern interrupting the company president in a board meeting within a stiffly hierarchical organization.  Career suicide, right?  Okay, I know that is an extreme example.  But the point is, this is a very careful science, the wielding of power. 

In Calculus, a derivative is the measure of how a function changes as the inputs change.  In wielding power also, the function, i.e. the behavior, must change as the inputs change.  These changes may be so minute it is hard to put into words.  This is why the best teacher is experience.  Through experience, one can detect and adjust to changes so small they can’t even be articulated well.  However, there is a certain amount of benefit in providing some construct, some theory, some advice as a foundation.  For those of us who guide others, we can at least describe some limits.  In Calculus, limits capture and describe small scale change.  As coaches, we can describe certain small changes and their likely effect.  After that, the individual must rely on experience to learn the balance. 

Boy, who knew 20 years later, that subject would finally start making sense!

To degree or not to degree

Help Wanted: Degree required. 

Seen this lately?  If you’re seeking a job, I’m sure you have.  And in the not too distant past, if you were my client, I would have advised you: “Don’t let that stop you from applying.”  Because I knew, firsthand and through much observation, that due to the war for talent, companies often ignored their own guidelines.   Now, however, the tide has turned.  Companies are sticking by their guidelines much more closely.  Why?  Because they can.  

So, what does this mean for you as a job seeker?  First and foremost, it means that if the kind of jobs you are interested in consistently require a degree, if you already have some college hours under your belt and have any means at all to go back to school, run, do not walk, to the college of your choice and complete your degree as soon as possible.  If you have taken no college classes, this is a bigger decision, but still one you should very seriously consider. 

Take night classes?  Yes.  Miss out on family events?  Yes.   Strain your brain studying again?  Yes.  Why?  Because the (seasonally adjusted) unemployment rate for people over age 25 with a Bachelor’s degree or higher is currently 4.4%.  Do you hear me??  4.4%!  For people over age 25 with some college or an Associate’s degree, it is 9.1%.  That is still below the national average, but significantly higher than 4.4%.  Which odds would you like to have in your favor?  And if the national average is 9.6%, what do you think the rates are for high school graduates with no college, and those who did not complete high school? 10.0% and 15.4% respectively.  (All information here is based on the September 2010 Employment Situation report and supporting tables available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics at www.bls.gov). 

This is the reality of the world today.  People who have been displaced from jobs they were successful in for 20 years or more are now not able to land those same exact jobs – because they lack a degree!  Do I agree with this?  NO.  Employers have become lazy and begun inserting “Bachelor’s degree required” as shorthand for “needs to be able to write a paragraph that actually means something and isn’t full of errors” or “needs to be able to use logic and sound decision-making skills to solve problems”.  If only having a degree meant that!   Sadly, it often doesn’t.  But that is a topic for another post.  

As a side note, I urge employers to say what they really mean in job postings and go back to using the phrase, “degree or equivalent experience”.  But, back to my primary message, I will again, urge you – if you have not finished your degree but have ever wanted to – do it.  Make the time.  Find the money.  Seek grants, scholarships and loans if needed.  Pick a decent, reasonably-priced school and go.  It truly is an investment in your future and the future starts now.

Strategic Self-Presentation

In the last post, I discussed ways to develop a more strategic view in business. Now, what if you already think strategically but you still have an image that says you don’t?

One of my colleagues had this issue in a previous role. When told by a trusted leader, “You need to be more strategic,” she was flabbergasted. When she started telling this person all the work she was doing that was truly strategic and affecting the direction of her division, the realization hit that nobody outside of a few people in her division knew about it. She had to start thinking strategically about who knew what she was doing.

I mentor through a fantastic leadership development program called WOMEN Unlimited. There’s a saying they use: it’s not what you know, it’s who knows you know. This is so true. Too many people hide their light under a bushel. Women in particular do this a lot, though in my career I’ve known plenty of men who do it too.

Let’s say you are thinking strategically, or adding strategic value to the business. Who knows it? Do your leaders one or two levels up know? Do people in other divisions know?

Some of you are starting to cringe and think “office politics–ewww.” I don’t call it office politics. It’s not empty glad- handing. It’s taking the time to think about and having the confidence to do something about sharing information with those who want to know and who may likely benefit by it. Your leadership team benefits by knowing what fantastic work you do. It may be something they want to implement elsewhere. It may be something that can help them highlight the value of your team (and that’s pretty important in today’s world of job cuts and what-have-you-done-for-me-lately?)

Is one of those people who will benefit by it You? Yessiree, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. Each of us must take responsibility for the part we play in creating our own professional brand. That means thinking strategically about how and to whom we are presenting ourselves.

What are you doing strategically to create yours?

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

Is Fear Driving You?

What is driving your career choices right now? I know a lot of people for whom fear is the driving factor. It’s understandable, given the current headlines. Record unemployment rates since the Great Depression! Recession proof your job!  they scream.  These headlines are designed to excite our interest and they do.  But at what cost?

I talk to a lot of people about their careers, and I’ve seen an interesting dichotomy crop up over the past year or so.  On one hand, I see people staying in jobs they are unhappy with, their commitment and their skills getting duller and duller with each passing day, because they are too afraid to raise their head above the ground.  Hunkering down in their cubicle like the proverbial foxhole, they stay out of the line of fire.  They also stay out of the line of opportunity.  They don’t learn; they don’t grow. 

I once worked with someone who had done this for several years only later to realize how much he had stunted his career.

“I don’t have six years of experience,” he exclaimed bitterly. “I have one year of experience six times.”

On the other hand, I frequently see people intentionally running in the opposite direction from an industry they love because they want “something more stable”.   Unfortunately, their definition of stable often means “anything other that what I already know.”  They leave so much accumulated knowledge at the door, and end up in a situation that can offer them no more security than they had to begin with.  It’s sad.

Both of these situations describe overreactions based on fear.

Sometimes, however, fear is a rational reaction.  If you are in a rapidly declining industry, in a role that relies on growth (sales, for example), with no room built into your personal financial situation for a down quarter-or year-you may have reason to fear.   For those who have lost their jobs, the effects of the current unemployment picture in the U.S. are very real.  The length of time on average that it takes to land a new role has risen to around six months.   For some, this can be devastating, financially and otherwise.  

The fact is, though, that even in this time of economic crisis-turned-ennui, most of us will not lose our jobs.  We will continue getting paid to use our talents, whatever they may be.  Just like making smart financial investments, we need to make smart professional investments.  We need to have long-term goals and constantly be taking small steps toward those goals.  Will we have mis-steps sometimes?  Sure.  But we won’t be too far off track, if we have been mindful.

If fear can help you in one way, let it be this: to motivate you to ask yourself “Where do I want to go in my career and what am I doing to get myself there?” 

Define that future, then lay a brick each day.  Build your own path.