Building Support

September 28, 2008

A question I get asked a lot is some version of “how do I get noticed and promoted?” There are a number of outcomes or goals I would group into this. How do you get the assignment you want, how do you get called for job opportunities and how do you do the most you can to consistently receive excellent performance reviews all qualify.


The key is building broad based support.


What do I mean by support? For the sake of this post, I am limiting the scope to within your current company or organization. My definition is “developing a group of people at multiple levels and in different areas of your organization who will actively help you and/or sing your praises to others”.


Why is support important?


1.      It improves your ability to get things done. You will NEVER be able to get things done on your own in any organization. Everything requires some level of cooperation and approval from others. It’s a lot easier if those people already know you and value you. This logic applies, up down and across in an organization.


2.      Your “promotability” increases dramatically if you have managers beyond your seeing you as a valuable commodity. Your internal leverage improves if jobs come your and/or when your manager wants to take care of you and every other leader says “they’re a star, get it done!”. You are also partly inoculated against a bad boss if others see you positively.


3.      Useful information and opportunities may “find you” if you are connected and valued. You may get asked to serve on a key committee, help with some special project or be offered some other activity that allows you to “differentiate” yourself.


So, what do you need to do?


1.      Build a network


It is absolutely crucial that you develop meaningful relationships.  There is no substitute for this. I defer a deeper discussion to its own post.  Reference my earlier post on Levels of Knowing You for discussion on qualitative measurement of your network. This is a rich topic with much more to be said.


2.      Be useful & help others


Why would someone in your network have a positive impression of you? A major reason is often “usefulness”.  Just use your head and go beyond glad handing people and talking a good game. Actually do something for them.


At a peer level, this could be as simple as introducing them to another colleague or coming in on a Saturday for an hour or two to help them with some small project. This accomplishes two things. First, they are naturally grateful. Second, they are now inclined to reciprocate with a favor of some kind.


Make this mutualistic. Do it to the extent you are comfortable and when asking for help in return, NEVER make it seem like the other party “owes” you. People will respond in different ways. Not all will do back for you precisely as you have done for them. But most will help in some way. This is a version of the Chinese concept of “guanxi”.


When being useful to a superior or senior person not in your chain of command, think about what they find of value and offer some solutions. You can find this out several ways: ask them, do a little research or make some assumptions based on what you know.


Once you have determined a target that is important to you I suggest you set up an informational interview or take a little time to create an opportunity to interact outside your normal work context. Take your time, you don’t need to force these things and certainly don’t want to appear needy.


Once you have created the “touch” ask a few questions to understand the other person’s needs and goals. Based on that and your availability or interest, make an offer that might assist the target.  For example, if you are good quantitatively you might take on some data analysis for them as “church work”. You might create an informal group to work on solving an office issue or raising morale. Whatever. The point is to identify the opportunity and most importantly doing something about it.


I think you’ll be surprised how little effort it sometimes take to get a big return on these types of time and energy investments.


3.      Create out of normal process social interactions


Try your best to create potential interactions at non-work meeting venues. These opportunities allow more personal insight and discussion. They also tend to remove some of the implicit hierarchy from work. At the Habitat for Humanity day, everyone is in jeans and working on a common cause. You get the idea.


These are great times to understand people and have casual discussions about work topics. Take advantage of them.


4.      Be strategic in what you take on


Don’t try to “boil the ocean”.  Do small, discrete types of favors for most. Most of the time, you can take one or two bigger things on. Choose things you feel strongly about or projects you can clearly see will impress or improve a senior person’s work situation.


Also, don’t be an “over-committer”.  You know them. They promise all sorts of things, but never get anything done.  


5.      Be humble & generous


You don’t need to toot your own horn if you are impressing others. They’ll do it for you. As a corollary, when someone helps you be generous in praise and assistance in return.


Interviewing Basics

September 20, 2008

As a part of my program at the Carlson School, I end up supporting my students in their job searches. A big part of that is coaching and practicing effective “behavioral” and “case” interviewing skills. For most positions, behavioral interviewing, or asking you questions about yourself and your experience, is the dominant format. Here is my high level advice for presenting yourself most effectively. I’ll develop a few of these in more detail in later posts.


1.      Have a plan


Make sure you have a clear idea of the 3-4 themes you want to convey about yourself.  I am capable, I am a good fit, I work well in teams, I am a leader are the types of themes I mean. EVERY example you use should relate clearly in the interviewer’s mind to one of these themes.


2.      Have bank of well rehearsed stories that you are comfortable with


You need to have stock stories examples nailed so you can focus on interview rather than figure out what you’re trying to say. Each story could relate to multiple questions. You can predict what a number of questions will be based on the type of position.  


3.      Tell a story, but keep it short and to the point


Don’t just tell me what you’ve done. Stories have a beginning, middle and end. They also engage a listener and make a point. Do more than move me through your experiences.


One effective technique is the STAR method. It stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result. The point is to make sure you have framed your answer to a question (Situation & Task), described what you did you resolve (Action) and clearly articulate the outcome (Result).


Keep answers to 2-3 minutes.


4.      Find common ground and build rapport.


They are hiring you, not your resume. You need to connect your personal stories in a way that engages the interviewer.


In building rapport you also want to make an effort to make a personal connection if possible. If appropriate, ask about how they came into their current job, talk about the weather, anything to turn the “Interview” into a “discussion”. You can glean details to use in reflecting back values the interviewer has expressed.


5.      Make sure you have meaningful questions. Nothing detracts from a positive impression than a dumb question or no questions. Be prepared for 1-2 good ones (even if you think you know the answer, let them talk).


6.      Ask for the job. Never forget to say you are excited about the job and want it. This is a simple, but often overlooked detail. Same concept as “asking for the order” in sales.


7.      Manage your body language & relax! Don’t have body language that distracts from your message/story. Have some fun with the process. If you display discomfort or uneasiness,  you are diminishing your impact.


8.      PRACTICE! There is no substitute for this. You will be more relaxed and able to perform if you are comfortable with most of what you are likely to say already.

Seeing Clearly

September 12, 2008

This post is intended to: 1) give a little personal context on my experience and perspective 2) perhaps give people who’ve taken some personal blows that things can and will get better 3) offer some advice on thinking about what you want and 4) talk about the intersection of life and career.


Sometimes it helps to get hit really hard to stop and think. About 18 months ago I started this blog with high hopes. It’s been my goal to write on career and business topics for awhile, but our life was hectic and there were always a few more emails to deal with at work or a kid’s bath or story to read. But, finally I had sat down and begun writing and got over the “just start” hurdle that’s so often debilitating.


Then my Mom got sick. And my next post followed 18 months later.


It turned out to be late stage pancreatic/liver cancer and she only held out a few more months. I’m an only child and live far from my home town. I had tremendous support from my immediate and extended family, but was travelling home to Connecticut every weekend to see Mom and do what I could. My daughter (Abigail “Abby”) was born 4 weeks before Mom died and I had recently been given a new position and team at 3M. In the prior year, our family had moved back and forth to China and my father had died of cancer as well. In addition our boys were 2 and 4. Put it all together and it was a lot.


Soooo, I felt stress levels I had never experienced in my life. I am unbelievably fortunate to have a warm and supportive family. There really is no value you can put on that. Everyone in my family and at work was wonderful. But, in the end it’s you alone on the couch in the basement at 3am looking at pictures unable to let it go, unable to sleep and wishing for just a little more time with your loved one (and for me at least crying a lot). It’s not an exaggeration to say that I slept more than 5 hours maybe 10 nights all year.


As all this was unfolding in my personal life, work continued. I still had customers, a boss, staff, collaborators etc. And everyone is sympathetic, but there’s still business to be conducted. I think I did a good job of not having things affect my work in any noticeable way (although I’m sure it did). My year end evaluation bore that out, we had a good year in tough conditions. But it sure took a lot to get myself motivated to go into work every day. Brief aside – a dear friend of mine was going through a similar loss and we shared a lot during this time. He referred to what we were doing as “playing hurt”. As in,” the team needs me, so I have to play hurt.” So we both did.


What the entire experience crystallized for me in the end was that I was doing well at work, but wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do. In my “Dreams” post last year I commented on the need to reflect and pursue your heart to the extent that circumstances allow. So I did. An opportunity arose to return to teaching and I made the move in January. (Details on my  “who am I?” page). I enjoy every day and wake up excited to go to work, see my clients and students. I think my parents would be both happy and proud. I don’t know if I would have made the changes if we hadn’t gone through the personal travails we did. Maybe we would have. Who really knows? But either way, though I’m still sad I am a lot more content in my day to day existence.


You could say the light at the end of the tunnel wasn’t another train, but bright daylight.


Closing thoughts:

– All of our choices and decisions are informed by our experiences

– Things really do get better if you keep moving forward

– Sometimes positive change can come out of tragedy (think rebirth after forest fire)

– You can’t separate your personal and professional life. They are inextricably tied. You only have one brain and it’s living the entire experience.

Levels of Knowing You

September 6, 2008

I often get asked about meeting people and building a network. There is a lot to talk about on this topic, but for this post I’d like to focus on what I think of as “levels of knowing”.


For things to happen for you, you have to have a relatively active network that proactively and unprompted comes up with your name as a network connection that could help them in some way.  This is my threshold question: “Are you consistently contacted by others for help, advice or with opportunities?” If not, then you really don’t have that active a network…or your network sees you differently than you may want to be seen.


Examples of this include:

– I have a great position open and (you) would be a great fit. (Picking up the phone to call you and chat).

– I need some advice on XXX and (you) could probably help me. (Opening a new email to send you a note).

– I have a friend who needs advice on XXX and (you) could probably offer them some insight. (Sending a note to friend with your contact info and high praise for your usefulness, intellect and skill…)


I think you get the idea. There’s knowing someone and KNOWING someone.


Here’s my personal list of “levels” (they are cumulative):

1 – I know you

2 – I like you

3 – I respect you

4 – I can articulate what you could do for me


I know you – This simply means someone can place a face w/ a name and might know a detail. Little more. It is highly unlikely that any sort of passive activity will come from here.


I like you – You’re doing better. This might generate casual social contact that creates other interesting connections. This could lead you further up the ladder…or not. In and of itself this isn’t as powerful as respect. Why? How many people do you like to hang with that you wouldn’t ask for advice?


I respect you – Getting warmer. At this level you are known and valued by someone for your judgment and/or knowledge. This is a great place to be and opens up all kinds of possibilities. It requires someone to have had enough interaction with you to think highly of your experience and knowledge. But will they call you?


I can articulate what you can do for me – This is the pinnacle. To get here you need to be respected, but also have added “useful” and “accessible”. Many people are respected, but don’t consistently have people reach out to them. For that to happen you have to have enough of a service orientation to want to help people (even if there’s no obvious short term benefit to you). If you consistently are useful, your possibilities for building a supportive, proactive network increase exponentially.  (BTW – Don’t ever make this “tit for tat” or “quid pro quo”. That’s not service, it’s using leverage. It won’t build you genuine support in the long run.)


Closing thoughts:

– Don’t mistake the number of facebook or linkedin connections you have for how solid your network really is.

– If you consistently help others in a meaningful way, good things will tend to come back to you in the long term.