career growth

Stretch Your Rubber Band

One of the concepts I often share with my coaching clients is that of ‘stretching the rubber band.’ rubber band

You know how when you are going to use a rubber band, you stretch it first, making it bigger than it needs to be, before placing it where you actually need it? You can also use this concept when you are trying to develop new skills or stretch your existing skills. Before you are in a situation where you actually need that skill, practice stretching it way beyond where it needs to end up.

For example, let’s say you want to become more concise in your speaking habits. Rather than just trying to reduce a little (which is hard to measure), take a situation you commonly find yourself in, or that you know you have coming up, and think about what you would say if you could only say three words in that situation. Or, for one whole day, practice speaking to people only in sentences of no more than six words.

If you struggle with engaging with others, give yourself a day to run errands and commit that you will make eye contact and say hello to every person you pass on the street, or stand in line with at the grocery store.

If you want to be a better listener, use verbal mirroring all day for one day (you’ll be exhausted, trust me!) Verbal mirroring is repeating literally every single word the other person is saying, generally done silently in your head.

These all seem like silly examples but that is the point–they are extreme. By getting the feel of a behavior that is more extreme than what you actually desire in the long run, it provides perspective. When you later use the behavior you actually want to use, it won’t feel nearly as uncomfortable.

Think about it–what are you working on and how can you stretch that rubber band in a safe environment before you have to really perform? Now, get out there and try it.

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CWC #9

What new work experiences have you had in the last 12 months?

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions but I do identify aspirations.  This year, one of them was to be uncomfortable as often as possible. Seems weird, I know. Except that being uncomfortable almost always means doing something new.  And when I do something new, I learn.  I grow. I add to my toolkit.

If you can’t remember the last time you experienced something new in your work, you have stagnated.  It’s time to raise your hand, take on that project, ask for that new stretch assignment.  What can you do that’s new?

What is a goal without a dream?

At this time of year, we are usually bombarded with well-meaning advice on how to improve our lives.  Usually this advice is along the line of sticking to our resolutions, making very tangible goals that can be measured and so on.  This kind of practical activity has its place in creating a better future for ourselves and I wholly endorse it. There’s just one drawback, and it’s a big one: often these goals are build upon foundations of “shoulds”.  Not what we want, but what society or our friends or our family tell us we ought to want.  And when we build our goals on foundations of shoulds, we have a mighty hard time sticking to them.  Our plans look like oceans before us and we have no wind in our sails.  We find ourselves in the same place the next year, declaring the same resolutions all over again.

Today, let me humbly suggest that you forget tangible goals just for a little while.  Instead: dream.  What does your gut say you would love, love, to do or achieve?  Maybe this year.  Maybe next year.  Maybe twenty years down the road.

Finish these sentences:

  • I’ve always wanted to: ______________________________________.
  • I wish I could:_____________________________________________.
  • Someday, what I’d really love to do is: __________________________.
  • The person whose job I really covet is: __________________________.

If your stomach doesn’t clench, you aren’t digging deep enough or thinking big enough.  Keep going until you hit that spot.  What I’m talking about here is in the context of work, but this can really apply to any area of your life.

Many of the big dreams I’ve had for myself professionally have come true in the past year or two.  And, although there are certainly small steps which I’ve taken along the way, without recognizing and honoring my dreams, I would never have taken these steps.  I would have stayed on another path.

Soon enough, you can create a solid plan with timelines and milestones and checkmarks.  But for now, dream.

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!

Resolution check-in

So, how are you doing with your 2011 career resolutions?  Me?  Um, well…

Okay, I’m probably being a little hard on myself because I haven’t written much over the past couple weeks.  On the other hand, I’ve made progress on scheduling my time more efficiently.  Which is good, because I’ve been busy.  So keeping balance has been hard.  But I’ve been doing pretty well on connecting with people.  That brings us to two thumbs up and two thumbs down by my count. 

Now that I put it down in black and white, I feel a little better because I realize this is probably very reasonable.  We do not make steady, even progress every day, every week.  Growth and progress are made of fits and starts.  Taking a breath, and then moving forward again is the key.  Persistence = patience plus action.    And persistence is the key to success.   We’re a little over a month into the year.  If your efforts have been uneven, or perhaps trailed off altogether, now is the time to stop, take a breath, and then start again.

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!

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.

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.

Liz Dolan’s modern career

A number of years ago, I read an article in Fast Company (one of my very favorite magazines). It was about balance, that elusive devil. Liz Dolan had written an essay, reflecting on the all consuming nature of her job at Nike, as Vice President of Global Marketing, and how she had come to the decision to leave it. “Instead of having one big job, I now divide my work time into thirds: business consulting, public service, and creative projects,” she wrote at the time. One of those creative projects was the development of a talk-radio program. I had never heard of Liz Dolan at the time, but within a few years I had come to know very well who she was. That talk radio program turned out to be the Satellite Sisters, which became an award-winning show and led to exposure through the Oprah Winfrey media empire.

She made a difficult decision, and took a risk, jumping off the traditional career track. But she had a clear idea of why it was worth it to her at the time. And it seems to have paid very good dividends. She got to limit her clients as a consultant to a level she felt allowed her balance, she got to work with her sisters on an exciting creative venture that turned out to be one of the most successful radio talk shows for women and, just one year ago, she was offered an opportunity to go back into a more traditional corporate role – a Chief Marketing Officer position. She took it. Where? OWN – the Oprah Winfrey Network. Why? I don’t know and would love to ask her. But there is no doubt that this opportunity showed up on her path because she was willing to take a risk and do something different than what was expected, rather than in spite of that. In seeking balance, I think she found much more.

This path – traditional corporate to entrepreneurial, creative back to traditional – is an illustration of the modern career. Few of us, from Gen X on, will experience the lifetime employment with one company that our parents and grandparents experienced. And that has the potential to be a really good thing. (For me personally, it’s a huge relief – I can hardly imagine anything more dreadful). But how good or how bad it will be for each of us has to do with how actively we are willing to drive and direct our transitions. As long as we are driving that bus ourselves, not sitting in the backseat, just along for the ride, we can create a challenging and rewarding career.