Congratulations to the Class of 2010!

May 15, 2010

As another school year wraps up, current students head off to summer and you are graduating. I wanted to share my sincere congratulations and a few hopes for you.

First – the congratulations. You have worked hard for several years to complete a difficult course of work. You and your loved ones should heartily celebrate a job well done and degree earned with a lot of hard work and long days/nights.

Second – Thank you! I always feel privileged to get to work with smart, energetic young professionals early in their career. Your energy and enthusiasm continues to inspire me. I also want to thank you for your sustained efforts over the last year and a half. Your work has helped your clients be more successful, build the school’s reputation and build your skill set. It means a lot to them, but in particular to me.

Now, my hopes & wishes for you

Be curious – Don’t stop exploring. You won’t find your passion sitting on the couch.

Be courageous – Refuse to “settle”. Stretch yourself with challenges beyond what you think you can do. Regrets are terrible and some of the biggest start with “I always wished I had…”

Take the long view – Things play out over time. Don’t get too hung up on keeping score on short intervals.

Keep learning – When you stop learning, you stop growing.

Be flexible – Change is constant. Don’t fight it, be it.

Be true to yourself – Do what you think is right and live with the consequences. Don’t let others dictate the terms of your existence.

Work hard, but have fun – Life is too short to be miserable, so have fun. By the same token, few things worth doing are easy, so don’t be afraid to roll your sleeves up and work hard.

Build strong relationships – As one of my favorite country music songs says “it’s a long trip alone”.  You’ll live longer and be happier if you do.

Be useful – I think you’ll be surprised at how many things work out for you when you focus on helping others first.

I wish all of you the best as you move on to bright futures. Please stay in touch and let me know what I can do for you. It’s been a pleasure working with you.

Regards. Phil


Jeff Bezos’ “Regret Minimization Framework”

March 4, 2010

A friend (Thanks Morgan!)  just passed this great video of Jeff Bezos talking about his thought process when deciding to leave his “good job” to take a flyer and found Amazon.com. I love the way he frames it. Essentially, when I’m 80 and looking back, how can I minimize my disappointment with paths not taken? Stated differently, how do I follow my heart? If I do that and it doesn’t work out I may be OK. But if I go counter to my heart and it doesn’t work out, I’ll be bitter.

Take a look.  Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwG_qR6XmDQ


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.


Figuring Out What You Want – Part 2

October 31, 2009

So how do I begin to figure out what I want?

First, let’s start with the premise that everyone has a different cognitive/intellectual style. Some want a process with clear steps to run through (ie: “5 steps to clarity”). Others don’t want to be given such specific direction, but rather are looking for some high level advice. To each their own. I’ll try to be at least a little helpful regardless of style. 

I think of this process as finding or discovering your calling.  As I mentioned in my earlier post on traps we fall into, we can easily fall into a variety of positions that have little to do with our own dreams and desires.

Let’s assume I’ve determined to begin to really dig into what I want. How do I even break the problem down?

Step 1 – Think (What does that little voice inside your head say?)

The first thing I would suggest is to take some time to actually think. This sounds obvious, but how much do you actually explore your wants? I find that most people I counsel tend to have surface goals that are “clear” to them. But they can’t often articulate a deeper connection. Their explanation of their goal doesn’t resonate for them or to a listener.  

I have a recent example that I think illustrates the point. A super talented student of mine didn’t feel like they were doing well in job interviews. They had been interviewing for what I refer to as “template” jobs. In a business school there are many well defined positions and companies are seeking relatively homogeneous candidates for them. Happily in this case, my student was able to self diagnose their lack of interest in positions.  They really like something that isn’t “conventional” for MBAs from my program. This student is now off on an off-roading expedition to find a better fit.

So take the time to listen to yourself. For me this means quiet, uninterrupted time away from everyone. Often this takes place at a coffee shop with headphones on listening to music. Other times it’s the wandering of my mind while I’m exercising. It’s challenging. Even when exercising, so many of us put on podcasts etc. I am definitely not thinking about deeper issues when I have the PTI podcast on.

So consciously create a useful place for you to think. But what should I think about?

I propose a few high level questions:

1 – What do you like to do?

This question is about what activities or types of things do you like to do. It’s NOT about what you aspire to BE etc. Take a little time and reflect on where you get energy. Do you like puzzles, talking to people, organizing things at church? Don’t edit yourself. If “talking to people” is what you like, then write it down or put it in your mental file. The point is to come up with a list of more than a few things you genuinely like spending time on.

Asked differently, it’s what do you do for free in your personal time?

2 – What are you (demonstrably) good at? (note: these are NOT the same question!)

We all have skills and talents. What are they? Write them down. There are assessments that can help you with both this and determining what you like. I am not a big believer in putting too much weight on them (the are indicative, not deterministic), but there’s nothing wrong with using them to help articulate ideas if you are struggling. Here’s a definition of MBTI which will tell you something about your preferences and here’s a strength’s finder tool from the author of the popular Now, Discover Your Strengths.

After coming to some of your own conclusions, go talk to others you work with and/or who know you well and ask their opinion of what you are good at and write that list down.

If those lists are the same, great. You’re done. In my experience, you’ll find some major gaps. These differences are a source for reflection. “I thought I was great at X and my co- workers didn’t list it. But they did list Y which I hadn’t thought of as a strength.” This can be a major source of insight and open up career avenues you hadn’t perhaps considered.

Many of us are intensely self-critical and so undervalue some subtle strengths we have. Conversely we can overvalue something we are proud of that others don’t appreciate. It’s only an actual/useful strength (in my opinion) if it’s valued by others. Then there’s a “market” for it.

3 – What do you value in life?

Values are different. Is family most important to you? Career progression? Travel? Faith?

Whatever it is, write it down. The list may be long. The longer it is, the more you’ll have to decide about relative priorities at your current life state. For example, I have always valued family but it takes on a different meaning after you have your children. As former boss once told me “you can have it all in life, just not usually at the same time.”

Step 2 – Get feedback (Have others tell you what they hear)

Synthesize what you have thought about and try to organize your thinking enough to have a conversation about it with a small group of friends and mentors. (I discuss the concept of a “personal board of directors” in a prior post.) This type of feedback is invaluable. Others can often see patterns or inconsistencies in your thinking that are invisible to you.

Talk to a diverse group. For example, I get really different feedback from my minister than a former boss who runs a large business. Both are important. Neither is “better” than the other. I wouldn’t want only one of their perspectives.

I’d use this opportunity to reach out to old friends who’ve known you for awhile, as well as a chance to find a few new mentors. Most people will be willing to listen to you over coffee when you have a good set of questions and a sense of what you are exploring.

Definitely avoid seeking out people to whine or complain about things. We all need to vent sometimes, but separate it from your exploration. When exploring, stay positive and focused on where you are trying to go. In this case the destination isn’t necessarily a “job”, but rather clarity and some self-awareness.

One of the hidden benefits of going out to others is that they will have all sorts of ideas that never occurred to you. These can be tremendously valuable when you are in the right mental place to receive the input.

For example, I have a friend who was debating whether to leave their job at a very prestigious firm. As we chatted over coffee, I threw out a few ideas for how I saw them and their skill set and all the people I thought would be fascinated by them.  We also talked about ways to make different personal economic models work.  In the end, that sparked a whole different thought process than the track they were on and they resigned. They have several different business ideas going now and are thrilled with their prospects and freedom.

The point is to let yourself be open to others’ ideas. Some may be perfect, some irrelevant. They are still worth hearing.

Step 3 – Brainstorm list potential options (Develop a concrete list of possibilities)

Having looked inside and looked outside, what seems interesting? Develop a list of potential ideas. I don’t have any more advice than simple to put it down in print and don’t edit yourself. I think getting too specific or critiquing too severely too early takes interesting options off the table unnecessarily.   You may have interesting interconnections between likes and skills that play out in unpredictable ways.

These numbered steps are artificially clear and linear. Recognize that there is a continuous feedback loop in them. I don’t actually think about it this way. For me it’s much more organic. But each of these steps is definitely a part of the process, in whatever order you choose to do them.

Next post will be about taking action on the list of ideas you develop.


Figuring Out What You Want – Part 1

October 4, 2009

I’ve had a lot of conversations lately that end up being about helping people think through what they actually want. I thought I’d hit on a few themes that I think are important and seem to be consistent across these conversations. I’ve written about this in past posts, but my thinking has evolved over time. I want to dig a little deeper.

This will be a multi-part column with the first post focusing on the traps I see people fall into. Part 2 will discuss how to think through your actual goals.

The Trap(s)

There are a number of common traps that I see people fall into.  Almost all of them come down to some form of getting caught up in externally driven expectations.  It’s important to name some of the common traps to help identify WHY you are perhaps off track.

1 – Others’ expectations – Anything that is driven by your perception that other’s goals for you matter more (or even as much) as your own.

Examples: My parents (or family) have certain expectations of me.  I can’t major in (fill in the blank) because it isn’t what I’m supposed to do. They won’t pay for that. What will other people say?

2 – Competitiveness (ie: I have to “win”) – Any motive that is driven by your need to be “the best” if it is in an area you don’t have personal passion around. Competitiveness is perfectly fine if it’s directed purposefully into things of your own choosing.

Examples: I’m going to get that position because it’s the hardest one to get.

3 – Cultural Influences (ie: Keeping up with the Jones’) Decisions driven by your perception of income levels, standard of living or “coolness”.

Examples:  It’s the best paying position I was offered. That career path is what I’m supposed to want (everyone else wants it). If I take that I can afford a new Acura.

4 – Laziness (ie: Path of least resistance) Any decision predicated on the fact that you haven’t worked at generating more interesting options. You’re following the well trodden path because it’s easy, not because you want to.

Examples: I just applied for the positions that were posted. I don’t have time to go meet with people outside the company given my busy schedule. I don’t have time to think about what I want.

5 – Our own illusions – Sometimes we haven’t re-thought our own goals in awhile and are holding on to some path for reasons that are no longer valid.

Examples: It’s always been my dream to do x (except it really isn’t anymore and I won’t let myself off the hook).

Conclusion

I want to make two points in closing out.  First, we all get caught up in other’s expectations to some degree. The point of this post is to get you to think through your motives and make sure there is a big part of the direction you’re headed that is YOU.

Second, any of the above reasons may be a perfectly appropriate motive if it is in line with your own internal compass. It’s great if you and your parents and friends all want you to be a doctor. BUT, if everyone wants you to be something that feels like the wrong track to you then I would start thinking through your direction.

My next post will be about ways to think about what YOUR goals are.


Managing Personal Career Risk

September 6, 2009

Several conversations I’ve had in the last week made me want to capture some thoughts on how I think about risk in your career decisions. So many decisions come down to some version of “what’s the upside” versus “what’s the downside”? I’ll run through a few concepts I try to impart and then use an example or two to illustrate how differently things can play out from the same situation. This post builds on a few ideas I laid out in an earlier one entitled “Career Choices”.

How do you perceive risk?

One lesson from my grad school experience (Yes – I actually learned something!) was a simple psychological one. Our professor challenged us to think about the question “how comfortable are you with different types and amounts of risk?”

He then loosely categorized personalities as:

  • “risk averse” (ie: any loss is painful. Will settle for more certain outcomes)
  • “risk neutral” (ie: ambivalent about risk and thus able to weigh both upside and downside and go with best choice.
  • “risk seeking” (ie: willing to bear tremendous losses in search of big gains.)

Personally, I’m risk neutral. I’ve been willing to take some creative fliers in my career and make big changes, but always felt they were calculated risks with limited downside. Or least bearable downside. I’ll discuss one example later.

So, how comfortable are you with risk in your career and what works for you? A few questions that I ask people (and myself) when faced with significant decisions include:

(Note: Major assumption for this is that you have gone through some thinking about what you want. I have written about this in prior posts and will try not to repeat myself here. )

  • What can you/can’t you live with? Some things may have great aspects, but some of the tradeoffs simply won’t work. Simple examples could be “great job, but pays half of what we need to be viable” or “Perfect position, but I can’t re-locate right now.”
  • How bad is the worst case? If you completely blow it, how bad is it really? There’s a big difference between “I move back into Mom & Dad’s basement for a few months” and “I lose the house and can’t cover the kids’ private school tuition.”
  • How big/exciting is the best case? If everything works out, how cool is the upside? If the upside is your life-long dream, it may trump all other considerations.
  • What’s you’re most likely outcome? In a probabilistic world we all know you can’t count on a specific outcome, but given what you know what do you think is likely?
  • How many of the outcomes are attractive (or at least acceptable)? Again getting at probabilities.

So let me pose two examples that I see quite often. The first is a student coming out of school with several choices available to them and the second is a mid-career professional (in this case me) debating a move.

Soon to be graduate

This candidate has a good job offer at a stable, respected company. They are also pursuing several very competitive and prestigious positions. They have an “exploding offer” from their summer employer, meaning that they will have to decide on the “bird in hand” before they have any input on the prestigious “birds in the bush”.

So what do you do?

Well, it depends. I’ll paint two different scenarios that I think are entirely reasonable based on your risk profile.

Scenario 1: The good offer I have now is OK, but I just can’t see myself doing that for the next 2-3 years. The work is too easy for me and as a result I think I will stagnate.  I’m going to roll the dice and see how the more exciting path works out.

In this case, my push back includes:  “Do you really understand the position?”, “Can you make the position more than it is on paper?” “Are you OK if other alternatives don’t play out as you hope?”

Scenario 2: The good offer I have is OK, but not my dream job. There are other roles I am more excited about, but I can see myself in this job.

Here my pushback is focused on probabilities and comfort level with getting to the end of recruiting and having no offer. I’ll also ask whether they have explored the position and can they make it more than it is.

After I grill people and make them play out the scenarios they have to make a choice. In the last several years I have seen people go both ways and think that they are usually making a good choice for themselves. It comes back to how good or bad will you feel based on where you land on the payout matrix. If you are comfortable taking the risk and the offer in hand makes you depressed then turn it down in good conscience. But if you can’t bear the thought of not having something, then take the offer and focus on being excellent at it and making it more than it is by going beyond the role.

The point is to be thoughtful about your own sense of self and career. Own the decision and then move on and make the most out of whatever path you take. My point to students coming out of school is that they are so early in their careers that almost any choice they make that authentically reflects their values will work out. They have nearly infinite time to adjust.

Mid career

So now you have more mileage and have accumulated commitments; family, house, expectations…

I’ll give an example from my own experience. In a prior life at 3M I had an opportunity to leave a stable, prestigious position that I enjoyed for a different position within 3M that I felt was more entrepreneurial. It also was treated within the HR system as a “project” which meant it wasn’t tied to an existing product P&L. That means if the project doesn’t go well, you’re on the “unassigned list” and on your way out the door unless something unusual happens.

My prospective boss was someone I knew and respected and he’s still a good friend today. I was frank and said I knew the risks, but was really interested in the autonomy and the specific industry so I was committed to making the move even if it didn’t work out in the end. He told me something to the effect of,” don’t worry. If this doesn’t work out we’ll find something for you. “ I told him I appreciated the sentiment, but we both knew full well that neither of us could control the outcome if things didn’t go well.

At the time I had two kids and a mortgage. I weighed my personal goals, career aspirations etc. against the downside risk fairly carefully. I decided that the risk of NOT taking it was larger. You only get so many good pitches to swing at and this seemed like a great one. I felt fairly confident I could find another job in the Minneapolis market in 3-6 months and had a sufficient cash cushion for longer than that.

In the end it went well for me, but had it not I was OK with the downside. And for me personally staying where I was had more risk because I get complacent if I’m not stretching myself. I also got to move to China briefly, travel globally and learn a ton. So the potential payouts were well in my favor and the downside risk seemed acceptable.

As evidence that it can go wrong, a similar venture started at the same time in the same business didn’t go as well and a number of people were “unassigned”. Many found internal positions, but many didn’t. It can go either way. Often for reasons entirely beyond your control.

Closing Thoughts…

Let me offer a few platitudes that are mostly true in my experience.

If you can’t take simple risks, like being daring in a class assignment in school, how will you ever take them when you leave? I would challenge you to be more daring, but we are who we are. It’s OK to be OK with what you have. As a student of mine pointed out just today, not everyone wants to be a leader or run everything. That’s an important realization. Just don’t expect the benefits of running everything if you’ve made choices to settle for less.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Having a tangible opportunity is very valuable. It gives you a platform to perform on and earn invitations to bigger things. No one will know how good you are if no one sees you work. I think people become too enamored with “the hardest thing to get” and prestige. There are lots of ways to achieve your goals, don’t get too locked into only one path. I also think people fail to adequately explore or understand the “cool” things they want assuming the coolness will overcome the difficulties and hardships. As a friend of mine once put it, “The grass is always greener, but all lawns have to be mowed!”

Don’t worry too much about individual choices. Most things will work themselves out in the long run if you are patient and diligent. Much success comes from “mistakes”.

Don’t have regrets. I don’t know many people who regret things they did. But I know A LOT of people who regret things they didn’t do. The Marines call this making “errors of commission” (ie: proactively learning). These are usually good mistakes. You learn. “Errors of omission” are things you didn’t bother to do or take action on. Bad. Passivity leads to victimhood. Also, sometimes the risk is not taking a risk.  This can cut both ways though.

Calibrate the consequences. Losing the house is different than losing 6 months early in your career. Scale of potential mistake is a big deal. I don’t mean to minimize it. This is why its so important to understand your own comfort with risks.

Timing is everything. When can you afford to take risks?

So think through what matters to you and come to terms with your comfort level with career risks.

Related posts:

On making career choices: https://philscareerblog.wordpress.com/2009/06/06/career-choices/

Starting transitions: https://philscareerblog.wordpress.com/2008/10/04/exploring-interests/

It’s your career: https://philscareerblog.wordpress.com/2007/03/19/its-your-career/

Dreams: https://philscareerblog.wordpress.com/2007/03/11/dreams/


Sharks Sink

August 30, 2009

…if they stop swimming. I know this because I have 3 children under the age of seven and have become incredibly knowledgeable about sea creatures, dinosaurs and transformers. It turns out that they don’t have swim bladders like most fish. If they stop moving they sink.

I think many people (including me) are a lot like sharks. Some people are content to be in an entirely stable, relatively unchanging situation. That’s wonderful if you are one of those people. I’m not and I know I have a lot of company. For the rest of us, we’re usually looking for some new challenge. It may be personal (learn the guitar) or it could be professional (achieve a career goal), but whatever it is there tends to be something.

Having stipulated that many of us are seekers and often restless in our desire for something new, I want to hit on a challenge I see a lot of people face as they try to achieve these dreams. Many mistake “dreaming” for getting off the couch and making the dream happen.  If you find yourself thinking “I really wish that…(fill in the blank)”, but can’t think of anything you’ve done in the last few weeks to make that wish more likely then you’re not working at it. You’ve stopped swimming and are sinking.

So swim.

I’ve written in the past about exploring interests and beginning transitions. All that advice still holds. It can be as simple as calling a mentor and asking advice. Don’t have one? Then find one by asking for some introductions to people that seem interesting. Most people will give you a little time if you are polite and flexible about their schedule. 

I also think that if you can’t get yourself going on something you should reflect on whether it is either important or useful for you. I tell students of mine that when you’ve been told what to do to achieve some goal and can’t get yourself to do what you KNOW you need to do, then you’ve answered an important question. You must not have wanted it that badly.

Another important outcome of action is wisdom. I am a HUGE believer in active learning. You can read, meditate, think and do all sorts of wonderful mental activities. Ultimately to progress, however, you have to actually do something. Young people tend to undervalue the importance of grinding. Sticking to a problem and following it through is what yields comprehensive knowledge and wisdom.

I see so many want to do a 4 month project on some business topic and then be an “expert”. Guess what? Until you’ve lived through the consequences, struggled with the client impact and had to adjust course based on more data you haven’t really learned. Or at least not the right lessons.

I love this quote from Dr. Frank Crane, a Presbyterian minister and author of a series of essays early in the 20th Century.

“Out of action, action of any sort, there grows a peculiar, useful, everyday wisdom.  Truth is rarely found by the idle.  Nor is it the result of deep and long study.  It is a sort of essence that is secreted from a concrete deed.”

So if you are fully content with where you are, awesome! (I mean it). I am always admiring of people who have found their place. For the rest of us, if you have things you want to get done then you need to swim. Otherwise you’ll sink, falling short of whatever dreams you may have.