Managing Your Priorities Over Time

February 28, 2010

I was reconnecting with good friends and former colleagues this week and was struck by a few common threads. I got a few blog post ideas from them, but the one I’ll focus on is the impact of stability versus change as well as different categories of priorities in your personal and professional life and the impact your life stage can have on your emphasis.

In three different conversations in one day with executives running significant operations, all had personal commentary on where they were in their life and had thoughtfully come to their own conclusions. Each was trading off effort and engagement in career with personal career goals beyond current job and also against their life & family realities.

I see the same thing with my students. Some people have tremendous career ambitions, some merely want good work and fair compensation to fund their lives and goals beyond work. Many haven’t decided where they fall on that continuum. That’s part of the struggle. And by the way, the answer is different at different points in your life.

The tough part is sometimes we have to choose. Advice that looks like “you can have it all” strikes me as a partial truth. First – “all of what?” I’ve written on defining your goals before. Suffice it to say, you have to actually decide on some priorities along the way or circumstances will decide for you.

I’m going to avoid all my “what do you want” and “will that make you happy” commentary and focus on thinking specifically about how many moving parts do you have in your career and life at one time.

Balancing Priorities

A former boss once commented “you can have it all, but usually not all at once”. I think this is exactly right. We go through cycles in our career and it’s important to recognize that most people can’t be “cranked up” all the time. You’ll burn out.

I’d personally group needs into:

A) Career/professional (job, promotion, pay etc.)

B) Personal/Emotional (family, friends, health etc.)

C) Meaning (spirituality, community, impact beyond yourself etc.)

D) Intellectual (learning, growing, excitement etc.)

This mirrors other writers (I just can’t remember who I’m parroting).  Anyway, the categories are roughly MECE and broadly representative. I visualize these as a “stacked bar” chart representing energy (not the same as time) applied to these 4 categories and the distribution changing over time. (OMG – this sounds so much more new-agey than I mean it to).

So let’s deconstruct me as an example. I have definitely “red-lined it” a few times and dialed it down at others. There have clearly been reasons that I switched roles or jobs that went beyond “career”.

  • After undergrad, I pursued a History PhD. I’d say that was a bit about career, but much more about intellectual. I also married Michele here – so personal was pretty high as well. We had a nice quality of life. I had things I had to find out, but was able to do it without much “sacrifice” (beyond income).
  • MBA was much more about career and “growing up”. All the materials was new, we moved to MN and I worked really long hours to get up to speed. We did move closer to family though, hitting a bit on personal.
  • Consulting was definitely about career and involved very long hours, travel and lots of sacrifices. But I learned al lot as well. I consciously chose the challenge precisely because I thought it would stretch me and expose me to many situations I would never have seen otherwise or at least do it in a lot less time. Mission accomplished.
  • Coming back to the Carlson School to help launch the Consulting Enterprise was more about personal and intellectual. We were starting a family and I wanted more control of my time. Also – for me the meaning category runs through most jobs I’ve had. I enjoy situations that involve teaching, coaching and working with people on their development.
  • The move to 3M was about “the itch” in career. I was still career progression, compensation and corporate challenge oriented. An opportunity to work on interesting things in corporate strategy at a highly regarded global corporation was too much to pass up. I got to work on cool business problems, hire and develop MBA talent and ultimately run a global business. I had more control over my life than in consulting, but was losing it as I had larger responsibilities. In my last year at 3M I hit a personal life “red-line” with the birth of our 3rd child and the deaths of both my parents in a 6 month period. Lots of things became clearer to me in terms of priorities.
  • The move back to Carlson was about turning up the dial on meaning, personal and refocusing the career basket. I probably do better on intellectual too. I’m happy as a clam with where I am right now. I can coach youth soccer, be at home for dinner most night and enjoy diverse work. Also – the challenges in my work environment don’t bug me that much. Frustrations are muted when you like what your doing and can sleep at night.

The point of the walk through time is to show how differently the priorities were over time and how out of whack you can get. I have had extended periods where I was definitely “draining the tank” and others where I was filling my tank” emotionally.

Each of my friends had come to terms with their need for some emphasis of the personal over the career either in terms of time away to refill or an emphasis on intellectual needs. They were also managing to put things into motion to do this, rather than sitting back and complaining.

So are you conscious of how you are spending your energy and is it what you want it to be?

How Many Learning Curves Are You On?

I think many of us struggle with the balance between external challenges (and the professional satisfaction and recognition that comes from them) and personal feelings and needs (like family, private time, relaxation etc.). When you are ambitious it is often hard to achieve balance. Every new problem or work situation is interesting and could be career advancing. Similarly, we tend to prioritize the more “urgent” things and put off things that aren’t screaming for our attention. Things like working out, going to the doctor, taking a long lunch with a loved one.

So think about how much pressure you’re putting on yourself in how many different areas. I describe it sometimes as answering the question, “how many learning curves are you on at once?” If I take a new job in a new industry in a new city – a lot. If I’m moving into a new role in the same group I’ve been in for 2 years – one. Big difference in how much time and energy get expended. So be conscious of this and manage it as best you can. Don’t take on too many changes all at the same time if you aren’t really prepared for it.

Also – some may be imposed on you. My parents passing away certainly wasn’t a choice but it imposed estate planning, long-distance real estate transactions and emotional trauma when I already had a full plate. Still had to manage my P&L and be around for three small kids and Michele. Something had to give. It was sleep and my health.

Never forget to be open to living life as it comes, not in the future. Whatever plan you have will have to bump up against the reality of other’s plans and the universe. The act of planning and thinking some of this through will help you better respond to unplanned opportunities as they come along.

So I encourage you to think about the categories I suggest or come up with your own. Be conscious of what you’re trying to get out of the activities you engage in along the way. You can’t get time back and sometimes put yourself under unreasonable pressure to maximize everything at once.

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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.


The Good Life

August 26, 2009

A good friend of mine who works here in the Carlson School’s career center sent me a link to a nice video parable titled “The Good Life” last week as we were preparing for the 1st year MBA class to arrive. I shared it during what we call our Career Leadership Academy as a part of my presentation on career planning.

 The basic premise of the video and what I tried to convey to the new MBAs was to figure out what actually matters to YOU. Focus on your own goals and priorities. There are lots of ways to get to certain goals. It just might be (as in the parable) that you already have a lot of it. Or not…but decide for yourself.

Anyway, I thought it was a nice reminder of balance, perspective and wisdom.

 

I thought


Let It Go: Don’t let Anger or Frustration Derail You

July 12, 2009

In the last month I’ve chatted with a few folks who were grumpy or bitter about some situation in their work life.  I find myself giving the same advice over and over. “Let it go.”

My kids have a great book Zen Shorts, about Stillwater the panda bear and his three new friends Michael, Addy and Karl. Stillwater shares a story with each child based on a typical issue they are dealing with. For Karl, it’s anger at his older brother Michael over various slights and bossings around.

Stillwater relates the story of an elder and younger monks’ journey in China. At one point the older monk stops to help a wealthy lady across the street. She is haughty and ungrateful for the help. Hours of brooding later, the younger monk says to the elder, “That woman back there was very selfish and rude, but you picked her up on your back and carried her! Then she didn’t even thank you!”

The elder monk’s reply? “I set her down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

Hanging on to anger isn’t effective in the long term. It may motivate you in the short term, but probably not to a useful outcome. It also diverts attention from your own journey.

I’m not saying don’t be frustrated or get upset. These are normal human emotions. You need to learn to control them and help them empower you.

Why are you angry?

First, think about what is making you angry. Is it a personal slight, unjust treatment of others, poor performance of a work group or individual? Context matters.

How do I deal with it?

Did someone hurt your feelings or embarrass you? DON’T respond in anger.  Most of the time, the clever retort or blunt email will come back to haunt you. Try to develop a thicker skin. You need to learn to control how you reveal your emotions. Manage them or they’ll manage you.

1 – Vent. As a venting mechanism (because we need help letting it go), I try to do two things. One, have a good friend you can let it rip with to get it off your chest. I’ve peeled wallpaper off the walls of conference rooms sharing frustrations with some of my close colleagues. Then I try to put it in a box and tuck it away. Catharsis is good if it moves you forward.

Another strategy is making sure you’re exercising and in decent health. My ability to regulate my mood and patience is greatly improved when I’m exercising.  A long run or time on the elliptical runner help me think clearly and let the endorphins go.

2 – Do something about it. Frustrated because something is unjust or a work situation is bad? Work to make it better, rather than simply ranting and becoming a crank.  Nobody likes the “angry” person. Be useful and channel your frustrations into action.

I am also not saying “turn the other cheek” or ignore people if they are trying to attack you. But responding angrily will go badly. Respond coolly and be disciplined in how you manage the situation. In Godfather terms, be Michael, not Sonny. He dies shot up in a toll booth because he was a hot head.

I’ve heard it called “personal mastery”. Whatever you call it, get it.

As the buddha said:

“You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.”


Career Choices

June 6, 2009

I’m often faced with an advice seeker who is very clearly either stuck in an infinite loop trying to figure out how to not make a personal choice in order to extend their period to make that choice (the deferrer) or is in a hurry to make a rash choice to move to something “better” than what they have now (the jumper). Both tendencies are destructive. I’ll comment on both and offer some advice on how to be Goldilocks (& get it just right).

Jumpers. Early career and aspirational people are often trying to get someone to define the path to “certain” success for them. They will network aggressively, seek influential mentors and generally invest a lot of time in trying to get the right answer. In addition, they tend to get very invested in what progress (both in position and pay) their peers are making. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact I strongly encourage networking and mentoring.

The problem comes when people mistake the path for the journey. Each person’s path was based on their specific skills, opportunities and choices. Everyone will offer you advice with good intentions. What you can’t always understand or see in their advice are the subtle, implicit assumptions and deeper experiences underlying them. You have to actually go do things to really learn them. So don’t underestimate the value of genuine learning and development.

For pay and status jumpers, make sure you understand what you are getting into and what you are giving up. Don’t leave a position you are really growing in with support from management for a “bag of beans”. I see a lot of people jump for 10%. Your future is worth more than 10%! If it’s truly “better” then it ought to clearly align with your career and development goals.

Deferrers. Many of us always want the “perfect” position. We also tend to want to be able to wait for enough information to come in to make a better, more data driven decision. Unfortunately this is often more of a crutch to avoid taking a decision than it is a responsible strategy for improving decisions.

The problem comes when it’s used to delay decision making in the belief that there is only one path or a “perfect” job and neglects doing hard and good work to earn the success sought. There is no one path and you can massively over-think the planning.

My buddy’s “fallacy of infinite possibilities” rule is essentially that time wasted or deferred is making choices passively. Some doors close simply because you waited too long. A corollary is that the waiting is often in vain as you haven’t pro-actively engaged in choosing your own path. Essentially, you’re letting things happen to you. In this case, you are missing paths you aren’t even aware of because you aren’t moving or progressing.

So what to do? My personal observation is that most people are both more passive and too active in their career management than I would advise. Here’s my advice:

First – Be thoughtful about what you want. I’ve written about this in prior posts. Do you seek life balance, interesting work, high compensation etc.? What are your goals and how do you prioritize them?

Second – Work on implementing your dreams. Do all the things active professionals should do: networking, seeking mentors and advice, building your skills…A dream that you aren’t working on is a pipe dream.

Third – Recognize that there is no “perfect.” Too many people focus on “one step” moves when their desired position is logically a multi-step jump. Ask yourself when some new opportunity comes up “is this moving me in the right direction?” If yes, consider it even if it’s not perfect.

In my experience, many of the non-obvious opportunities turned out to be the best ones. I see many early career professionals agonizing over decisions that in the long run aren’t as momentous as they seem. This is not to say don’t think about it, just don’t lose perspective or get paralyzed.

Fourth – Be patient (but not too patient). You need to actually develop expertise in things. If you always jump around, you are not doing this. Weigh how much you are developing in a current role (skills, leadership and specific subject matter knowledge) before jumping to a new one for a few more dollars or a job grade bump. Make moves for the right personal reasons.

Many exciting career opportunities are “emergent”. They weren’t predictable or knowable to you before they came about. For example, my job didn’t exist until it was created. I don’t mean the position, I mean the job. The combination teaching, consulting, mentoring responsibilities I have as Professional Director for the Consulting Enterprise is relatively rare. However, I knew I liked teaching and consulting, stayed engaged in the school, pursued positions at my prior employers that related to these interests and so was well positioned when the opportunity came up.

My final advice: be true to yourself and make purposeful moves that build in your chosen direction.

As always – I’d love to chat or write about specific cases, so please feel free to follow up with me.


Book Recommendation: The Adventures of Johnny Bunko

February 7, 2009

Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind) was recently recommended to me by a friend and former classmate. He feels Pink hits on an emerging trend towards different kinds of work and skills emerging. Then I put it together. Pink had also written The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, a manga style graphic novel on career management that I had seen reviewed in a few places. I decided to pick it up.

 

It’s great.

 

Pink lays out an entertaining, sometimes funny and most importantly brief overview of some core career management concepts.

 

Pink uses Diana, a magical career coach/sprite, to deliver the key themes in a step by step process. While torturing Johnny as he bumbles through trying to advance his career, six key themes are revealed as summary lessons learned from each “chapter” of the book.

 

1.      There is no plan

2.      Think strengths, not weaknesses

3.      It’s not about you

4.      Persistence trumps talent

5.      Make excellent mistakes

6.      Leave an imprint

 

For those who have read some of my posts or know me you can probably guess why I appreciate this piece. The positive, engaging, “find yourself” message that Pink delivers while also encouraging activity and progress lines up with my world view.

 

I have given a copy to all of my students and they all have said it was a fun and quick read. I recommend it to those who have grown up reading comics or who groan at the thought of reading hundreds of pages to understand a few key principles.