Bode Miller is Very Zen – Self Evaluation and Pride

February 20, 2010

I was struck this week by the Winter Olympics. Athletes spend the better part of their young lives training for these events, some of which you get one shot and it takes less than 2 minutes. You couldn’t blame a person who had a shot at winning for being focused on their result.

So I was struck by Bode Miller’s comments after his down hill bronze-medal run. I am paraphrasing here (can’t find precise quote), but his comment was something like “When I finished, I closed my eyes and thought ‘am I happy with that run?’ and I was. Then I looked at the time.” He was going to be OK with the “result” on the scoreboard having self-assessed the run as a success.

To me, that demonstrates a level of personal and professional maturity that I wish for people. I encourage people to develop their own sense of what “excellent” performance looks like for them. We are so often externally motivated that you can get too hung up on the result and lose a sense of perspective. You can also lose track of what you can control vs. externalities that are beyond you.

In an interview I was reading today, Miller notes that he looks back on many of his crashes and DNFs (did-not-finish) with affection.  Based on his break-neck style, I assume this comes from the spirit of “I was going for it and didn’t get it, but went down swinging”.  So this week on the downhill he determined that he let it rip down the hill and his place was his place, but he did his best.

A former boss liked to point out a 2X2 matrix with “result” as one axis with “good/bad” as the two options and “process” as the other, also with “good/bad”. So the resulting payout grid had 4 options. His point was often that the “good process/bad result” was generally a better one over the long term than the “bad process/good result” one. The rationale being that good process you can control and doing the right things will generally lead to better outcomes. You can do things poorly in the short term and get a decent result, but that’s probably not sustainable. It also helps point out that you can’t control everything, so control what you can.

This ties back to what I was saying about Miller. He trained relentlessly and wanted to go fast. He pushed himself, risking potential crashes to be fast. He also impressed with his willingness to risk all. He wasn’t holding back. Fearless, he went for it. Having gotten to the bottom, he reflected on his own self-assessment of “process” before he checked to see “result”. The result was excellent (note – not 1st place), but he was personally satisfied first.

If you can develop an internal sense of excellence and be sure to satisfy yourself first, you can deflect a lot of heart ache along the way. If all you care about is the outcome – you’ll be very invested in a lot of things beyond your control.

Nobody likes to lose or not do well, but it’s a competitive world. Sometimes you do your best and the other person is better. Sometimes you win.  Internal pride and sense of perspective will help you perform well and weather difficult results when they occasionally occur.

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Dealing With Ambiguity and Murky Questions

January 2, 2010

One of the biggest differentiators I see among people is their ability to deal with ambiguity. We coach people to work with clients or bosses to understand what expectations are, but I worry that we go too far or the message is taken too literally. A professional that wants a dynamic career has to be able to balance understanding expectations with an ability to create a path on their own.

I really struggle to articulate what I mean because there certainly is an “it depends” quality to this discussion. What I’m talking about here is the ability to face a murky situation and make headway. I am NOT suggesting people ignore or not seek feedback on direction. But often you are being asked to figure it out because people don’t know the answer. If they did, they wouldn’t be asking you.

I want to talk about several different ways this struggle can play out.

Thought Process

First there is the situation where people really want to put effort into the problem, but there are cognitive reasons they are floundering. I would cluster the “flounderers” into two broad (and unscientific) categories, linear and abstract thinkers.

Linear thinkers want to know the straightest line to the answer and put together a clear Gantt chart and work plan to grind out the answer. The problem is often that the question isn’t even clear. There’s a natural iteration and struggle in projects or situations that are fuzzy. You have to be willing to work the situation, material and people through some fuzziness and not know exactly what the output will look like. You have to be willing to remain patient and positive while working through rounds of starts and stops etc.

The abstract folks are often the opposite of the linear gang. They are so focused on all the interesting combinations and permutations of the problem space or the situation that nothing ever gets committed to print and lots and lots of interesting conversations result in little if any progress. There’s often a reluctance here to “commit” to any specific path because we might not know and there could be a “better” or more ideal answer etc.

So what’s the solution? Recognize your own style and that of the group/team you’re working with. Commit to putting your ideas in print, but recognize that it will iterate A LOT the more ambiguous the question. I’ll talk more about iteration below. My generic answer to most of these situations is to put a timeline on it and start committing ideas to print and circulating them to others for iteration.

The iteration cycle is critical and often where people fall down. They mistake being asked a question with needing to answer it by themselves. Getting good thoughts in front of people early leads to more cycles of improvement and depth in the final product.

Lack of “Appropriate” Effort

The second scenario is when people either aren’t really trying or don’t know what “trying” looks like.

A common situation that I see is a basic lack of understanding of how hard it is to get things done and the level of effort (my “appropriate” above) truly required. People often want to know the straightest path to “the answer”, not understanding there are no straight paths. You will burn up a lot of time on some paths that don’t play out, but that is unavoidable. We can use tools to limit it and improve productivity, but the iteration I talk about is staying on the problem and continuing to push even as some solution paths don’t pan out.

Generation and iteration are the keys here, along with having a personal sense of stick-to-itiveness. You need to be unwilling to settle for weak answers. I see people stop at the first obstacle or early on when there are ways over, under or around the obstacles. Merely finding some web content and pasting it into PowerPoint isn’t what I’m talking about. You have to challenge yourself to keep asking why does this matter?, what are the implications? etc. You’ll often have to go create data and analysis.

I’ll conclude with those who don’t really try and dismiss them summarily. If you aren’t committed to a problem or situation, you won’t solve it, the end. So you need to decide are you in or out and owe teammates or colleagues clarity if you’re not in.

So, how this can play out in career path?

Most people I work with say they want to be challenged and have lots of responsibility, but often want to be told what/how to do it. In my experience it rarely works that way. You need to be comfortable with charting a course if you want success in organizations. There is rarely an algorithm to spit out answers to difficult situations. People who succeed regularly solve these problems by sticking to them in creative ways. Get to the point where you are open to feedback, but in lieu of it are able to proceed confidently on a course of your own devising and sticking with it until the problem is solved.


Performing When the Lights Come On

May 3, 2009

This week we began our cycle of final client presentations and I was reminded of the importance of performing well in the meeting. This is another “obvious point from Phil”, but let me elaborate.

You can have the most dynamic, data driven and compelling story in the world. But if you don’t sell it and respond credibly to questioning in the meeting then you’re dead. Don’t forget that your audience is not just buying into your content. They are deciding whether they buy you.

So what can we do to improve our likelihood of success? Let’s break it down into components:

The Presentation

I won’t spend too much time here as I think this is an entire multi-post series. However, a few important points are worth making.

1)     Make sure it looks professional – If you couldn’t take the time to make it appear decent, why should I take time to listen? 

2)     Be sure to have run it by stakeholders for vetting and input (as appropriate) – You don’t want to be surfacing “new” or controversial information in most cases. You want people to be saying “I agree” and “that will work” etc. Particularly if you are looking for a decision in the meeting you need all “Ts” crossed and “I’s” dotted. Any doubts will send you to “take another look at that and we’ll re-consider this…” hell.

3)     Have organized it logically to tell the story you want to convey based on your audience – Make sure the story flows and builds sensibly. Your audience won’t all be at the same place, so be careful to ensure you’ve given enough context or background. If you are building to one conclusion you organize differently than if you have a series of decisions etc. Never jam up your material with lots of junk slides. Feel free to use your appendix liberally. A general rule of thumb on slides is that if you don’t have 2-3 minutes of discussion per slide (on average) then you should push it to the back.  I’ll write more on this in the future.

4)     Don’t fall in love with your research/data. There is a phenomenon called “the curse of knowledge”. It essentially states when you know something too well you have a hard time summarizing it simply for novices. Never forget you have spent hours, weeks or months thinking about some of your material. Your audience has 30-60 minutes. Bring it up to an understandable level of summary. Also exclude unnecessary charts or data that are “cool” but not relevant to your central story. The appendix can be huge and is great for this content. You certainly want people to understand how much work has been done, but don’t want to distract.

The Delivery

As I mention above, if you deliver your content poorly it will die. You may not get eaten up, more likely you will just be ignored. Your ability to “stand and deliver” will have a big influence on your effectiveness.

1)     Be confident. Lack of confidence is a killer. It makes everyone in the room less sure of what you are telling them and raises unnecessary doubts. If you are not in fact confident, figure out how to seem so. As they say, “fake it ‘til you make it”.  The more you do it, the more comfortable you are.

2)     Understand your goals and be disciplined in what you do/don’t say. You can’t be trying to make 26 points. Pick your 2-3 major storyline elements and hammer them. You should not get to the end and have people say “that was great” and not know what they need to do.

3)     Pace your content appropriately for the level of thought and discussion required. If you have 63 slides and need several contentious decisions made then 60 minutes isn’t enough. Sometimes you are asked to recommend, sometimes to facilitate discussion. These are very different goals and require different structure of content and delivery of material. Plan accordingly.

4)     Be prepared for challenges. It’s important to have thought through who will be in the room (stakeholders) and what each person’s likely interests and objections are. Ideally you’re on top of this enough to have adjusted your slides to address this, but either way you need to be able to respond in real time.

5)     Plan potential responses. For the top likely challenges you can build well formulated responses, even including specific appendix slides. It’s very compelling when you can specifically address these types of challenges. First, you demonstrate that you thought of the issue. Second, you carried the thought through to analysis and built content around it. Third, it potentially allows you to show respect to opposing points of view. The act of building content can convey open-mindedness.

My experience is that if you are well prepared for key lines of questioning then you will receive fewer challenges as the presentation progresses. Basically, they’ve bought that you know your stuff and allow you to proceed. If you can’t address the first several challenges…ouch. It’s going to be a long day.

6)     Understand the room & setting you are in. You need to be prepared for all the little details of staging. Are we around a table, are there 5 or 50 people etc.? There isn’t a universal rule for “what’s best” . But you do need to understand the environment you’ll be in to effectively plan your delivery.

7)     Be respectful in responding. If you lose your temper or are casually dismissive of any audience member you severely limit your effectiveness.

8)     Practice. If the first time you’re going through your material is in the moment then you won’t have anticipated many of the pitfalls inherent in your content. Several dry runs turn up both flaws in logic, as well as slide/content mistakes.

9)     Manage your nerves/Have fun! I personally enjoy the “joust” of presenting and persuading, but I still get nervous. Practice helps this. In addition, I’d encourage you to take the attitude that this is your opportunity to show all your work.

There are many other subtle tips to offer, but if you actually work at the advice above you’ll have less pain and more success. A disproportionate amount of career success comes from how well you deliver in these key situations. You want to be building a positive reputation.

Let me know if you have questions or would like me to dig into any of these areas more.


Job Searches in Tough Times

March 14, 2009

I’ve really never seen anything like this job market. It’s cliché at this point, but no one I know has either. So what do you do about it? I’m going to focus on searches for students in this post.

 

First, take the long view.

 

We all have hopes, dreams and expectations. They can relate to career path, personal satisfaction, salary or all of these and more. I have written on this in prior posts. I encourage you to not lose sight of your long term dreams as you work through the current situation.

 

Second, confront reality and assess where you stand.

 

If you have no current position, nothing in your hopper and are “career shifting” then at this point the conventional summer of full time position through career services isn’t likely to work out for you. (It might, but the odds have dropped at this point).

 

So, you know how talented you are and yet no one has externally validated this with an offer yet. What’s going on? A few ideas to balance here. One is “don’t freak out”. It’s the worst job market in decades and so there are certainly external factors working against you (ie: you are still a talented person with prospects, but it’s going to be tougher than you had planned on). The other is don’t let that paralyze you. Some people are getting jobs and regardless of the environment, the clock is ticking and you need to get something going.

 

A few common situations I’ve been seeing include:

 

Situation: “I can’t get interviews”

·        Is it your resume? Have several people review your resume. If no one will talk to you, something is going on.  I have written on resume basics in the past and you can reference my earlier post for deeper thoughts on this.

·        Is it you? This doesn’t mean you are defective. Rather I’m asking you frankly to assess your likelihood of getting certain competitive positions relative to competition in this tight market. You may have the sweetest resume in the world and are trying to switch careers, but as an employer I just don’t see it yet. My advice on how to handle will follow. Fundamentally you need to develop alternatives.

 

Situation: “There’s nothing available in my discipline/target company/industry”

·        Really? My first thought here is that I don’t believe you yet. What is your data for this assertion? Nothing listed at the career center isn’t a credible answer. It isn’t representative of the broader market. Many more companies DON’T come on campus than do.  “I’ve talked to 50 alumni at 25 companies and they all say there’s nothing” is a much more credible answer.

·        What if there really isn’t anything? You need a combination of creativity, flexibility and relentlessness to dig up or manufacture something.

 

Third, DO SOMETHING, ANYTHING!

 

Do you feel better making progress, any progress or sitting on the couch worrying? This is supposed to be a rhetorical question. I’m often surprised by what people perceive as “adequate effort”. I’ve written on “starting strong” and “it’s your career” in the past and the same principles apply.

 

Develop alternatives

 

I am definitely NOT saying give up on plan A. However it’s important to develop plans B through Z in this environment. So sit down and think about what kind of alternatives come to mind (FYI – these are not mutually exclusive and should be considered in common).

 

Categories might include:

·        Re think your role expectations: same job different industry, same industry, different role, same everything, smaller non traditional employer

·        Re-think your expectations on compensation: take a part time position or project role, take an unpaid role, put multiple things together to be covering your expenses but still advancing your career goals

 

Dig deep & wide

 

Be resourceful. If you are not communicating with >10 people per week at this point, what are you doing? It’s a numbers game. You need to generate a decent idea hopper. Go to the alumni database, go to the career center, search linked-in profiles, use your pre-existing network…Whatever you need to do to develop a contact list to connect with in search of opportunities.

 

This isn’t a “blame the victim” theme. The current job environment sucks, but it sucks for a lot of people. What are you doing to advance your prospects?

 

View this as an opportunity to build a foundation for life-long relationships. You ought to be regularly creating new relationships and nurturing existing ones. Develop the discipline now.

 

It’s always amazing how “lucky” people who grind appear to be to others who don’t understand their effort level.

 

Don’t be put off by rejection

 

You will hear a lot of “no’s” from people. From each encounter, develop a sense of what the market is looking for and continually refine your story and be more creative in finding scenarios that are potentially appealing to employers.

 

Be pragmatic

 

You want to shoot for the opportunity or situation that best aligns with your goals, but you need to get something.  

 

·        Realize what strengths you have in your background and leverage those in creative ways.  Understand that you are more likely to get placed in things that look more like what you have already done. This doesn’t mean “settle”. It means understand the dynamic here for potential employers and be clever. Try to create hybridized positions that allow you to take partial steps towards your destination while leveraging your strengths.

·        Having said that, it is most important that you get SOMETHING relevant that either creates a long term hiring opportunity or is clearly aligned with your future placement goals. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. I see too many people looking for “perfect” when they actually don’t have enough experience or context to know what that is. If it’s good and relevant, jump on it. You can shape it only if you get it.

 

So, keep your chin up and keep moving forward.

 

Please share good examples you have that have been successful for you or your friends or any questions you have regarding more specific advice.


Answering “so, tell me about yourself…”

March 7, 2009

An almost universal interview question is some version of “tell me about yourself” or “walk me through your resume”. Despite this being entirely predictable and a softball question, I see way too many interviewees butcher it or at least under-deliver on it. An earlier post on interviewing basics outlines how to handle the overall interview. I want to dig into how to handle what is likely the first question.

 

Build a Framework

 

Always remember that you are trying to convey several main ideas to your interviewer. Every story or example you offer should re-enforce these themes. In the Consulting Enterprise program we discuss storyboarding and building your logic “pyramid”. This is simply a specific application of the concept. Note: Barbara Minto has written a detailed methodology on building effective communication frameworks (pyramids) that I’ll describe in a future post.

 

I tend to recommend breaking your communication goals into 3-4 categories. Two things you are absolutely, always trying to get across are 1) you can do the job and 2) you are a good fit. The other categories (leadership, teamwork, etc.) will vary by firm and position and require you to do a little research.

 

Capability

·        General capability. Convince me you are a “do-er”, that you have overcome obstacles, are smart and have progressed in your activities etc.

·        Specific capabilities. This relates to the position in question. For a financial analyst job, can you describe relevant coursework or experience? Do you respond well to probes about your thought process?

·        Fundamentally, this is an “am I impressed with you?” category.

 

Fit

·        Cultural fit. Are you one of us? Do you seem to understand our culture? Are your goals aligned with what our organization can deliver?

·        Likeability. This is the “airport test”. Are you someone I want to be on a team with? Did we build rapport? It sounds like “cultural fit” but is subtly different. There may be people you really like who are a bad cultural fit and vice versa.

·        Likelihood to accept. Given the competitiveness of recruiting in many situations, recruiters have to gauge actual interest. Have you convinced me that this is really what you want?

 

Other categories

·        What other major themes do you need to hit. Decide and break down into sub messages.

 

Strategy

 

When launching into your self-description, you need to focus on a few key things.

 

·        Keep it concise. Depending on your career stage, this should be 2-5 minutes. For students, 3 minutes is a decent guideline. Also, always remember Mark Twain’s quote to the effect that he apologized for writing a long letter, but he didn’t have the time to write a short one.

 

Don’t hit on every thing you have done. BORING. Only touch on one or two key things from each position or phase of your experience that relates to your bigger themes. Part of the test is showing that you know what’s important.

 

Also, save the detail on your good examples for later. Just give the “takeaway” at this stage. You don’t want to distract from the flow of your story.

 

At a certain level, you simply need to get through it…

 

·        Tell a story. Stories have a beginning, middle and end. You need to bring the listener along with you. Develop a story “through line” that logically connects your experiences and development and leads to you sitting where you are, very much wanting the job the interviewer is evaluating you for.

 

·        Anticipate concerns.  We can often predict the gaps people see in our experience. Take time to subtly rebut them with your examples and story. Example, you are interviewing for a job requiring quantitative skills, but are a history major (I faced this). Then emphasize examples of success dealing with quantitative problems. Could be A’s in Finance or a project etc. But get out in front of it.

 

·        Ask for the job. Make clear to me from the beginning that you are excited about the position. You need to be strong on this. I see a lot of people visibly waffle and show their uncertainty. That is deadly. Your competition isn’t wavering (at least the smart ones).

 

Example (Abbreviated for space and annotated for commentary)

 

I often try to model an answer back for people. I’ll try to do a simulation here in print. Imagine me interviewing for a management consulting job coming out of MBA. I had a graduate degree in history and no direct work experience.

 

Question: “So Phil, why don’t you walk me through your resume…”

 

Answer: “Thanks so much for the opportunity to interview. I’m really excited about Ernst & Young and consulting.”

 

“I think I’ve always been interested in business and problem solving. My grandfather was a corporate senior exec and we always talked business and politics. He even gave me a subscription to Kiplinger’s when I was in middle school.” (Connecting interest to my past, explaining logic of transition from academia to business).

 

“I grew up out east, but decided to take a chance and go to school a long way from home at Rice in Houston, TX to study history. I think I was curious about how events unfolded and created our world.” (Demonstrating independence and willingness to take risks and willingness to move for opportunities)

 

“In school, I was convinced that I wanted to be a history professor. I took a heavy load in Poli Sci and History, while also holding a lot of leadership positions. Probably the most significant was being one of the founding justices of my school’s University Court. We had to figure out a lot of internal process and develop institutional credibility. I was fortunate enough to be elected Chief Justice my senior year.” (Leadership, work ethic, process orientation. Limited examples to one. More data is on resume and remains to be used for questions and probing.)

 

“I decided to pursue my PhD in History and followed that path to grad school. Along the way I realized what I liked was the debate and intellectual interaction of the classes and seminars, as well as the teaching. What I didn’t particularly enjoy was writing books and that is ultimately how you are evaluated and promoted. I also better understood the economics and determined business school was a better fit for me. “(Explains transition in terms consultant will probably understand, connects interests to consulting relevant skills like rigorous debate and explaining concepts.)

 

“Here at Carlson, I have really focused on developing more tangible experience and skills. I have taken a broad course load and done well with it. In addition, I have held internships during school at 3M in strategy, last summer at Malt-O-Meal and currently am taking the New Product Development class which requires 15-20 hours a week of my time to develop a business plan and working prototype of a piece of microprocessor test equipment for a local company. In particular, I’d note my summer internship. My boss had not had an intern before, so I was assigned a broadly defined goal and was forced to scope the project and get it done while also doing detailed market analytics on a daily basis in support of the business. It really forced me to get efficient and clear.” (Showing hard work, ability to sustain effort, ability to take on technical tasks)

 

“And now I’m looking for a management consulting job. I think it’s the most challenging and interesting opportunity out there for me. I’ve consistently sought bigger challenges wherever I’ve been and this is the best path for me. My wife and I have discussed the lifestyle and demands of the position and we are committed to the requirements. She has a demanding job that requires travel and so understands. What else I can I tell you?” (Hit on desire for job, understanding of demands and thoughtful decision that it was a good fit)

 

What did I hit on?

·        Capability: multiple examples of skills required in consulting, teaching/team work, regular engagement in extra-curricular activities, several clear examples of quant work etc. I gave them plenty to probe on while (hopefully) instilling initial confidence.

·        Fit: Likeable? I don’t know…But I hit on the rest. Lifestyle, travel and work demands are all at least partially addressed.

 

Is this perfect? Of course not, but it’s not bad. I encourage everyone to practice your story. If nothing else, it forces you to figure your story out! J

 

You also never know when you’ll need to deliver it. It may not be just in an interview. Or better stated, remember that you are ALWAYS interviewing. You never know where your next opportunity will come from.