career development

Finding mentors: an easy how-to guide

Now that you know how important mentors are to career success, you may be wondering how you can find one of these scarce resources. Good news: they’re not scarce at all!

If you think you cannot find a mentor, you’re looking in the wrong place.  Or more accurately, you aren’t seeing what is already there. We are surrounded by potential mentors and it is up to us to make the most of these resources. Here’s a quick how-to guide:

Find informal mentors

Look around and see who you’d like to emulate. Perhaps they’ve done well and moved up the organization to the highest level.  Perhaps they’re an amazing public speaker, business developer, project manager or whatever.  Ask for a little bit of their time.  It’s easy to reach out and say “I really admired the work you did on X.  It’s something I’m working on developing myself.  Would you be willing to share some insights with me?” Then schedule a 15 minute call, or lunch, or coffee…any time together will work!  Then, when you get that time, be prepared and be curious.  The conversation will flow easily.

Identify mentors-from-afar

This is what I like to call people who you can learn from even if you cannot get one-on-one time with them.  I have many, many of these in my life and career.  I’ve never said to them, “will you mentor me?” I’ve simply noted what I admired about them and tried to absorb some of it. For example, a CEO I worked with from whom I learned to be a better public speaker.  Or the HR director whose motto was ‘never make a decision for the manager, but never let the manager make the wrong decision.’ Boy, I learned a lot about influencing skills from her. Even my mother-in-law, who could strike up a conversation with anyone, anywhere, anytime.

How can you do this? Say you observe someone in your organization who is great at leading productive meetings. The key word is observe. When you are in a meeting with them, watch and listen to them very closely.  Pretend you are a scientist.  Where do they sit? How do they sit? What do they say? When are they silent? What facial expressions and body language do they use?  Dissect everything.  Now, think about what would happen if you incorporate some of these behaviors into your own style.  Sure, you may have to tweak a little; some you may try and throw out, but I’m absolutely certain you will learn and grow as a result of this.

Allow your manager to mentor you

This may sound obvious to some, odd to others. I cherish almost every one of my past managers as mentors as well, starting with the wonderful woman who gave me my first opportunity in HR and taught me the ropes. In my experience, most managers really want to do more than tell people what to do all day. They enjoy seeing their team members develop and generally get a lot of satisfaction being instrumental in that.  Don’t wait for the once-a-year development discussion.  Continually ask for feedback, suggestions and opportunities to try out new skills.  If you do this in addition to maintaining your normal high performance, your manager will love you and become one of your biggest career advocates.

Raise your hand for formal mentoring programs

We don’t want to forget the formal opportunities that do exist. Find out if there are any formal mentoring programs in your organization, professional association, in your school, in your community, in your church. You might be surprised at what is out there.  Then, find out the criteria for involvement and if it fits, raise your hand!

Now that we’ve adjusted the lens a little bit, are you seeing mentors everywhere? Congratulations!  The next step is easy: name at least one.  I challenge you to take the next 10 minutes and identify at least one person who can be a mentor to you – formally, informally, your manager, or a mentor from afar.  I’ll bet you can do in 1.  Make it a personal goal to learn something demonstrable from them in the next 30 days.  And, let me know…did you do it? What did you learn?  Comment below to share your experience.

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Your most important asset: your reputation

What do people say about you when you’re not there?

If you are in a job search, or looking to move up in your career, it makes all the difference.  I speak regularly with professionals who are looking to move up or move on in their careers.  Some rake in referrals to new contacts, informational interviews, and job leads like leaves in the Fall.  For others, it’s like they are walking through a Winter wasteland.

Even though the job market is rebounding and there are about 4 million jobs filled each month in the US, it can take time for that just right opportunity to appear and for the offer to come.  But job seekers who are not getting referrals or warm introductions or never make it past the first interview need to carefully assess the reasons.  In particular, they need to be brutally honest with themselves about their reputation. Here are some of the issues I’ve seen poison reputations:

  • Talking at people rather than with them.  You can’t build a relationship on a one-way street. When you don’t listen to others, they feel you don’t care.  Plus, this is just annoying, and people don’t like to help or hire those who annoy them.  Remedy: listen twice as much as you talk. The old adage about having two ears and only one mouth is an old adage for a reason.
  • Being a user.  If you only reach out when you need something and never have anything to offer in return, even something as simple as information, you may get what you ask for, but you’ll never get more than that.  It is okay to ask for what you need, but you also need to show willingness to give.  Remedy: Ask “How can I help you?”
  • All talk and no action.  If you have a habit of overpromising and underdelivering, or contributing tons of ideas and leaving others to do the work, they may be only too glad to leave you out of the loop now. Remedy: Roll up your shirt sleeves and start making good on your promises. Consistently.
  • A Debbie Downer attitude.  Wah-waaah.  You know the old Saturday Night Live skit.  Debbie is the person who can find the rain in every rainbow.  Who tells you all their personal problems. People find this draining and are only too glad to get away when they have the chance. Yes, sometimes critical analysis and worst-case-scenario thinking is needed.  But it’s not needed all the time, everywhere. Remedy: Outside of your sacred circle of trust, only communicate the negative when it will actually add value. Otherwise, keep it to yourself.
  • Instability. This one is tough but it’s real whether we talk about it or not. If you drink too much, use illegal drugs or abuse prescription medication, and think it doesn’t show, stop fooling yourself. Not everyone may be able to identify what the exact issue is, but drug and alcohol abuse causes behaviors that tell people something is “off”.  Things like absenteeism, emotional outbursts (this includes anger), or poor memory.  Others will be very reluctant to stick their neck out for you when they see these behaviors. Remedy: Seek professional help. Now. You will need to act differently for people to see you differently. Others have done it and you can too.

If none of these describe you, your reputation is probably working for you, just like a good investment. However, if any of these sound uncomfortably familiar, it may be time for a course correction. The good news is, you have the power to change, starting today. The bad news is, reputation repair takes time.  Just because your intentions change and even your behavior, it will take time to show – like a Polaroid picture slowly becoming clear.  Keep at it.

Investing in your reputation is like saving for tomorrow – it compounds and can pay amazing dividends down the road.

We’re asking the wrong question

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Early career planning

Did anyone ever ask you that?  Certainly, when you were a child.  Maybe even last week.  The problem is, when we ask the question that way — “what do you want to be?”– we are forcing a choice defined by title only.

As children and adults alike, we are generally very limited in our knowledge of all the roles available to us.  So, we pick from those of which we are already aware: teacher, computer programmer, accountant, firefighter.  Our interest in them is generally based on what we can see from the outside.  The superficial.  Perceived status, financial reward, glamour and more.  Unfortunately, these things do not guarantee happiness in our work.

When we work, we are in the act of doing.  When we are doing something we enjoy, it can be quite delightful.  When we do something we are good at and we enjoy?  That’s a recipe for success.  On the other hand, I know plenty of attorneys who invested a lot years and a lot of dollars preparing for a career with a certain title, only to find that they don’t enjoy actually doing the work.  What would they be doing now and how satisfied would they be if they had instead focused on what they liked to do?

Titles come and go.  Twenty years ago, there was no such thing as a Search Engine Optimization Specialist.  But there were plenty of Secretaries.  By tying ourselves too closely to one title, we can spend years preparing ourselves for a role that is becoming obsolete, or entirely miss another role that could have been a perfect fit.

By focusing on what we like to do, it leads to exposure to other things we’ll like too, and if we are constantly pushing forward, we can end up with quite a portfolio of skills and knowledge which enable us to make a living doing what we enjoy.

So, the next time you’re talking to a child about their career interests, don’t ask them “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Ask them, “what do you like to do?” And, as you’re thinking about your next career step, ask yourself the same question.

Recommended Reading – Networking

There are a number of books that I find myself regularly recommending to clients, friends, acquaintances and so on…I just find them so universally of value that I end up mentioning them quite frequently.  As such, I realized that I really should share them with you. In this post, I’ll start with my top two on networking:

 
The Fine Art of Small Talk by Debra Fine

This book is a must for people who are terrified of networking.  In addition to the play on words in its title, the content is quite engaging.  I love this book for two reasons: first, because it is practical – full of specific, tangible examples of what one might say in various situations; and second, because it is written from the point of view of someone who is not a natural at all of this networking stuff but learned.  Because she had to learn it step-by-step, she can, and does, explain it clearly.  Not all the examples will fit for all people, but there are so many, you are sure to find some that work for you.  This book, I have actually mentioned in a previous blog but it bears repeating.

Click to see this book on Amazon:
The Fine Art of Small Talk: How To Start a Conversation, Keep It Going, Build Networking Skills — and Leave a Positive Impression!

Make Your Contacts Count by Anne Baber and Lynne Waymon

Looking at networking from a different angle, this book illustrates the strategy around networking. With no strategy behind it, your networking may be enjoyable but could result in many wasted opportunities. That was my situation several years back, before this book was recommended to me by a colleague whose networking skills I admire. Now, I love being in a position to help others and I love it when they ask me. In return, I don’t hesitate to ask for what I need because I know we are in it together. Don’t look back with regret at what you “could have” done – apply these concepts and enjoy the effects of building long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships.

Click to see this book on Amazon:
Make Your Contacts Count: Networking Know-how for Business And Career Success

Both of these books are relatively short, easy reads. If you add at least one business book to your summer reading list, consider these.  What are some of your most recommended business books?  Comment on this post to share your recommendations with other readers!

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.

From hobby to career

Many people are considering a major career change these days. Some by necessity, others driven by factors such as wanting a “retirement” career, wanting to balance child or parent care, or just a desperate wanting to get out of a career that is sucking the life out of them. Fearful souls will ask them “Why would you do this now? Look at the economy! Look at the job market!”

If you have a hobby that you would like to potentially make a career, do not let these nervous nellies dissuade you. Now, that does not mean leap before you look! There are many factors you must consider objectively to determine whether you are ready. But let me tell you about a woman I know — we’ll call her “Sue”:

Sue had worked for many years in a technical field, in a large corporation. Overall, she enjoyed her work. But she also enjoyed creative projects – primarily sewing and jewelry making. She did it for fun, but she worked hard at learning, constantly growing her skills because she enjoyed it so much. She sewed for friends and family and even did a few projects for pay over the years and recently began selling her jewelry at craft shows.  She really wanted to pursue her passion, and find a job using her creative skills but because she didn’t have any “real” experience in it, she thought no one would hire her. What she did have is creative skill and knowledge, people skills, passion, a steady work history and strong work ethic. After focusing on these key selling points, we re-packaged her resume and verbal messages. She began realizing it was possible. She got energized and began presenting herself to target companies. Four days later, she called me to say she had already received interview opportunities!  

Would she start at the top? Could she walk in at the same salary she had before? No.  But she had arranged things in her life so that she was able to take this step back to do what she loved. These may not be the “right” opportunities ultimately; that will depend on many factors.  But it proved to her that the experience she gained in her hobby is worth something in the employment market. 

If you are considering making a career of your hobby, you have to ask yourself a number of questions including:

  • whether your skills in this area are sufficient (sometimes we love doing something but we’re not very good at it)
  • if you have a financial situation or can adjust it so that you can take a step back in pay in the short term (or longer, depending on where you are coming from and going to)
  • if this is really something you want to do as a career (or will it lose it’s luster when it is no longer a ‘choice’?)

If the answers to these questions are “Yes”, go ahead and at least explore.  It seems ironic, but now can be a good time to change careers even though there is a glut of “talent” in the market.  Yes, some companies are looking for only people with deep experience in the particular field or industry, but many companies are frustrated with the same, tired talent they’ve been seeing – with great experience but no passion.  And that is regardless of age.  They don’t want a bored 25 year old any more than they do a bored 52 year old. 

I talk with hiring managers in companies regularly who understand there are a lot  of people looking for new directions, who have some related skills and knowledge if not the formal experience,  who are open and flexible.   They are interested in these people if they have the most important factor – an authentic interest that they can articulate and which is backed up by their actions.  More than ever, companies are not just looking for a body.  They are  looking for someone who will make a difference.

Introverts’ natural strengths in networking – part II

Okay, you’ve successfully entered a networking conversation. It’s going well. Hooray! Now it’s time to leave.
“What??” you say, “But I’m just starting to get comfortable.”

Exactly. Networking conversations are meant to be short. If you are starting to get really comfortable, the conversation may be starting to run long. You really shouldn’t need more than about 5 minutes, tops. Remember, you are making a business contact, not reconnecting with a long lost friend. As a gracious networker, you must allow the other person to connect with other people and achieve their aims for the evening. So, you need to leave the conversation. Here’s how:

1. After the other person makes a statement or observation, resist the urge to say “Really?”, or just mumble “Mmhhh”. This is an inadvertent prod, and will cause them to continue talking. If you say anything like that, immediately jump into step 2.

2. Instead, let them know you have enjoyed the conversation and, if you have been listening well, you have probably identified an opportunity to follow up with them. Let them know you’d like to follow up, and get their assent.

3. Offer your business card and ask for theirs

4. Thank them and reference the next touchpoint you expect to have with them. Perhaps you have an article you are going to send them, or you will likely see them at the next meeting, or they have offered to connect with someone on your behalf.

It doesn’t have to go in exactly this order, but should include these elements. The conversation might look something like this:

Them: “We’ve had fairly good success so far this year increasing our brand awareness in the local market.”

You: “That’s fantastic. It’s been such a pleasure to meet you. (Extend your hand to shake theirs). I’d like to catch up with a former colleague of mine who’s here, but I’d love to continue our discussion another time. May I send you the link to that article we discussed, and perhaps we can arrange to meet for coffee early next week?”

Them: “Sure, that would be great.”

You: “Do you have a business card? Here’s mine. (Exchange cards) Thanks. Enjoy the speaker tognight.” (Walk away).

As someone who used to be paralyzed at the thought of walking into a group of strangers, but now loves it, believe me when I say “you can do this”. Heck, you might even enjoy it someday.

Finally, I will leave you with a book recommendation:

    The Fine Art of Small Talk

by Debra Fine. It is a short, extremely practical, how-to guide and the best bang for your buck out there.

Now, get out there and put these tips and your natural strengths to work. Happy networking!

Introverts’ natural strengths in networking – part I

I talk with a LOT of people about their career. Getting promoted, finding new jobs, developing their executive presence and so on. A success factor in all of these areas is the ability to network. Already some of you are recoiling. Specifically, those of you who label yourself introverts. I know, truly I do – the idea of walking into a room of people you don’t know and finding someone to talk with makes you very, very uncomfortable. You may even wear this as a badge of honor, as in: “Eww, I hate networking!” *emphasis on networking as if it’s a dirty word*

But what if I asked you – do you like people? Most of you would say “yes”. However, if you are an introvert you can most likely be described as selectively social, in that you like to develop deeper relationships with fewer number of people than an extrovert would.

Consider this: there are attributes common to introverts that can actually help them network effectively.

1. Introverts are often very observant

2. Introverts often like to listen

3. Introverts value connecting with people on a deeper level and need to feel there is a shared purpose to value the relationship

4. Introverts often are sensitive to/don’t like to make others uncomfortable

If these things are true for you, you may actually enjoy networking a bit, once you’ve learned the basic mechanics and how to leverage your strengths. The most important mechanics (and which may trip you up and/or terrify you) are entering a leaving a conversation. But first, getting your attitude right is important. It is imperative that you approach networking from the perspective that:

1. It may be mutually beneficial. You are not just asking or taking, you are giving too. You have more to offer than you think.

2. It is your responsibility to carry your share of the load. This means initiating conversation. If you make the other person do all the initiating, you are making them do the lion’s share of the work. And that’s not very gracious, is it?

3. Being nervous is about you, not them. I don’t remember where I heard this gem, but I absolutely love it and it has helped me tremendously over the years. Focusing on being nervous puts the emphasis on how you are feeling, not on how they are feeling. Magically, if you focus on them and putting them at ease, you will find yourself more at ease.

Okay, back to the mechanics. To enter a conversation:

1. Identify someone who is standing or sitting alone (here is where you’re using your power of observation)

2. Approach them (remember – by taking the initiative, you are taking the burden off them, and making them more comfortable which they will likely appreciate)

3. Introduce yourself – “Hi, I’m Susan” or “Is this seat taken? (Pause and sit) Hi, I’m Susan.” (smile)

4. Always shake hands if it is a business setting

5. Select one of a few questions you have identified in advance as conversation starters – “Are you new to this group?” or “Have you been a member of this group long?” or “I believe Daniel Pope invited a number of new people to this event. Did he invite you?”, etc.

6. Be prepared to make a follow up statement and ask a question that is more open ended and likely to result in a longer/deeper answer – “You’ve been a member for ten years? Wow! You must value the group. What have you found the most valuable?” or “What advice would you have for a new member like me, in order to get the most out of my membership?” or “You’re a new member too? What interested you in joining?” (Now you are leveraging your strength in listening and your interest in other people.)

Everyone at an event has chosen to be there for some reason. Focus on finding out why those you meet are there. This alone can lead to some very fruitful discussions. It will help you uncover common interests and perhaps even ways you can help them (here’s the mutually beneficial part).

Now, a word about distance. If you are selectively social, you don’t want to become best friends with everyone you meet. And the good news is – you don’t have to. But you don’t have to ignore them either. There is an in-between ground. If you follow the steps above you will get there, more easily than you might have imagined.

As a good networking conversation is brief, it will soon be time to exit the conversation (perhaps to your relief). We have already bitten off quite a bit today, so I’ll give you a chance to digest the above and I will address exiting in my next post.

Career wellness checkup complete!

We did it! We made it to the end of our career wellness checkup (via Twitter). That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news: now we actually have to do something with it. Because, of course, it doesn’t make much of a difference if we don’t…

Just like in my team development sessions, I love the intellectual exercise of conducting assessments and reviewing the results with the team, seeing the “aha” moments. In the right setting, I could talk about the theoretical all day. But in these team sessions, the underlying assumption is that something will actually change as a result. (Can you imagine??) And since change is a verb in this context, that means we actually have to do something. I get rabid about making sure we schedule ample time in my sessions to identify stop/start/continue items and leave with commitments. And, happily, I’ve seen the results that follow from folks making good on these commitments.

Alas, since we are not sitting in a room together, and I am not controlling your schedule, I must leave it to you to review your own answers to the checkup questions over the last several weeks, and identify your own action items. My primary guidance is this: Don’t try to do it all. Pick just a few items – maybe three, tops. Perhaps you recognized a theme to the areas you need to work on. My questions generally revolve around a few themes – knowledge and skills, organizational savvy, network and career direction/vision. If you have recognized that one of these areas needs more work than the others (say…you’ve recognized your skills are not up to date and you haven’t kept up with the latest knowledge in your industry or field), consider building a few action items around that area. Here are a few examples:

-Need / *Action item

– to increase knowledge within industry / * find relevant blogs and subscribe to their free auto email updates

– to increase broader business knowledge / * download free podcasts through iTunesU from top universities

– to learn a new skill / * find someone with that skill and ask to observe them

– to build my internal network outside my team / * connect with other employees through LinkedIn; comment on their status updates or posted discussions

– to build my network outside my company / * attend networking event or ask a well networked friend to invite you to their next networking lunch

– to build a better relationship with my leader’s leader / * volunteer for a special project which will give you exposure to him or her

These are just a few examples. Some actions could require a serious time investment, but many won’t. Think small. Be creative. But whatever you do, don’t wait. I’ll be doing this myself and will update you in a future blog.