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.

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Is the juice worth the squeeze?

April 6, 2009

I’ve always been coached and offered the advice to people to be careful when they take certain actions. Make sure it’s worth it. I recently got a great summary of it when reconnecting with a former boss. He said where he grew up this is called “is the juice worth the squeeze?”

 

In difficult situations, there’s always a temptation to respond impulsively or do what feels good. Whether it’s an email, a “witty” response in a meeting or a significant political position…think it through and make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.

 

A common misperception I see people make all too often is that there are no, or limited, consequences to just saying what we think. This is soooo wrong. There’s a great scene in the godfather where Sonny blurts out a disrespectful and revealing comment to Sollozzo. Don Corleone’s dismissal of Sonny is “Santino, never let anyone outside the family know what you are thinking.” In this case it ends for Sonny at a toll booth in a hail of bullets. I’ll summarize in saying the juice was definitely not worth the squeeze.

 

Obviously, most of our lives are not as dramatic. Nevertheless there are many opportunities to make a poor choice along the way. I’d encourage you to think through in certain situations WHY you would be responding or acting the way you do. My point here is to separate ethics from ego. A few that come to mind are:

 

1)    Making yourself feel better. This is entirely ego and almost always a bad idea. You’ll feel better for seconds…until you feel worse. The downside is generally worse than the few seconds of cleverness you get to enjoy. Not much upside here. The classic example here is emailing angry. Bad choice.

 

2)    Speaking truth to power regarding a likely poor decision. This is more complicated. Ego and ethics can get co-mingled and both sides can believe they are doing the right thing. My counsel is to think carefully. You are probably more able to be somewhat assertive as you are (hopefully) data driven in your concerns, have a fact base to argue from and are smart enough to frame disagreement impersonally. Just think carefully before speaking.

 

3)    Speaking truth to power regarding an ethical concern. This is where things get stickier. You need to think hard before responding and consider whether you completely understand the situation and the implications of acting. Making a major ethical stand can be heroic…or foolish.

 

First, assess the situation. MAKE SURE you have your facts straight and that you are on firm ground ethically. Lots of things can be gray. Being black and white in a gray world can be problematic. Second, be sure you are willing to leave or be marginalized if things go badly. When you fall on your sword, you are impaled. You may not survive so be sure you understand this.  Third, make sure you have assessed the bigger picture. Could you have a bigger impact by swallowing hard, staying and keeping other things on track?

 

4)    Acting in your own vs. others’ self interest. In the end everyone will know if you take care of yourself over others. Your reputation will suffer. Consider the implications before acting.

 

So think through how to respond in difficult spots. I’ll write my next post on how to handle some of these situations wisely to create scenarios where you can do what you think is right without blowing yourself up.

 

There isn’t a right or wrong answer in these areas. It’s up to you to do what’s right for you. Just think it through and make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.


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.


Orbiting the Giant Hairball

March 4, 2009

 

Ever wonder how you survive to innovate in a larger company? Gordon MacKenzie’s Orbiting the Giant Hairball; A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace is a fun and useful read. MacKenzie worked for Hallmark for 30 years and has compiled a sometimes whimsical, sometimes profound summary of his experience a learnings.

 

The “Hairball” is any organization that has put in place departments, rules, processes and standard operating procedures to systematize its existence. “Orbiting” is the art of staying relevant and attached to said hairball without flying off into space (or irrelevance). He calls it “responsible creativity”. Orbiting creates all sorts of desirable outcomes because it allows an individual to use the resources of the hairball while not being completely tied to the routinized and standardized processes inherent in it.

 

The book is produced creatively, with drawings, poems and art used throughout. It’s also a quick read.

 

A few of his key points that lined up with my way of thinking:

1.      If you truly can’t stand the hairball, leave it. Note he remained at Hallmark 30 years despite fighting aspects of the company’s culture for years.

2.      Be proactive. I call it “don’t be a victim”. If things aren’t working, what are you doing to try and change them?

3.      Responsible creativity means risking being wrong, but ultimately being aligned with the organizations broader goals. For him, you had to working towards making money selling greeting cards. The battles were around HOW, not WHETHER to do this.

4.      He had great metaphors and stories about corporate life that offer wit and wisdom on coping and overcoming absurdity.

5.      Figure out what matters to you. It won’t be clear at the beginning, but keep asking and challenging yourself.

 

“If you go to your grave

without painting

your masterpiece,

it will not

get painted.

No one else

Can paint it.

 

Only you.”