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


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.


Go abroad if you can

January 23, 2010

I just returned from a great two week stay Guangzhou, China teaching a graduate seminar and have been reflecting on the time my family and I spent in Shanghai when I worked for 3M, as well as other international experiences I’ve had both in school and during my career. My conclusion (which is probably obvious) is to take any opportunities you can to get outside your personal bubble and go struggle in another culture for awhile. You’ll learn a lot of things, some of them surprising. Any trip is good, extended stays are better.

This recent trip was such a joy in part because I had some China experience and most people on the trip had not been before. I got to re-experience learning a lot of things. It was fun to smile to myself as someone made some personal discovery and to see the students (both American and Chinese) piecing together a more nuanced view of the other culture.

In my undergraduate management class, I often make a point about learning in theory versus learning in practice. For the “in practice” part, there’s nothing like diving in. You can read all you want about another country (and you should if you’re interested), but the experience of how people actually live, work, think etc. is so much richer. And it forces you to confront basic realities that are not always well documented in the literature. It also puts you in situations where you have to be more personally resourceful than you would normally need to be in your life at home.

Here is my unscientific list of reasons why it’s worth doing:

It’s interesting.

You never know what you are going to see or learn on a given day. You may see a famous piece of art at the Louvre (and believe me it’s better to see it live than in a photo) or see unexpected everyday joys. Often it’s the mundane that becomes a joy. Street food in many countries can be a revelation. If you have a curious mind, any trip to a foreign country

It’s hard.

You’ll be challenged to overcome obstacles that are never an issue at home. Figuring out another city’s Metro, ordering dinner in another language, getting around if nothing’s in your language – all of it builds confidence and character. You’ll end up in situations that create more hardships than is common at home. You always figure something out, even if it’s “suboptimal” and you survive. Best, you get a new story.

You’ll learn to think differently.

People don’t see the world in the same way or through the same lens. I’ve come to realize that the base cultural assumptions about the world and what matters are very different around the world. Again, this may seem obvious. But there’s a difference between reading a concept and knowing it in your head and being surrounded by the other culture and experiencing the differences. I am a big believer in making your self a minority somewhere. The biggest cultural learning experiences in my life have all been immersive experiences where I was one of a very few (or the only) white, American males.

I teach about “high and low context cultures”. Well, you’ll understand this difference if you spend time immersed in the one that’s the opposite of yours. You have to adapt. No matter what you do, you will have “Lost in Translation” moments. But you will get better at avoiding them or at least realizing they have happened.

An example from this trip involved basic thought process. The student teams I had were posed a series of case questions by Lenovo (the computer company). The American students took a very analytical, top down logical approach. As one of the American students observed in a wrap up meeting, the team was headed straight down this path in looking at how to evaluate power in OEM/Supplier relationships in the PC/laptop industry when a Chinese colleague suggested maybe the team was missing something important. What followed was a brief description of guanxi and the importance of relationships in supply chains in China and the Pearl River delta. The team learned both an important local business concept (and as an instructor I was pumped that it was “emergent” learning) and a cultural one. The team had been steamrolling ahead and had to slow down to allow broader input from a team member from a “high context” culture. By the way, both approaches are “right”. They collectively reached a much better recommendation to Lenovo than they would have achieved independently. Cool.

The world gets bigger/smaller.

Whichever way you think about it, you will have a connection to and at least basic understanding of events around the world. My wife wasn’t that interested in China before we lived there several years ago. Now we have a running dialogue about every China headline. Whether it be political (information control – Google is the latest) or quality of life (health/food safety – heavy metals in toys is the latest), we both have an opinion based on experience. It has enriched out relationship and our kids view of the world.

You’ll have a clearer perspective on your own country.

I think we learn as much or more about our own culture when we travel to others’. You are forced to confront basic assumptions and compare/contrast. Often we assume where we’re from is “normal” or “how things are”/ These base assumptions rapidly dissolve when you see how differently other culture live.

For Americans visiting Western Europe, there’s the stereo-typical work-life balance debate as well as the role of government in everyday life. Another common realization I see among people is the realization of how wealthy the US is. The average American has a lot of stuff and (by world standards) a very nice home/living situation. I usually come home appreciating what I have even more than I already did. But you also see possible alternate realities.

You’ll be better at what you do.

Anything that broadens your perspective and forces you to think differently enhances your ability to think critically as well as relate to others. In my view, creativity comes from having a broad perspective, being able to see patterns and metaphors and being able to extrapolate or apply them in totally new ways. Travel and immersion is one path to this.

From a pure business perspective, you’ll better understand how radically different markets are. The Chinese consumer is not the same as the American consumer. Value chains look different and are more or less mature etc. My students were amazed by how manual many processes were in China. Even at the Honda plant. All sorts of macro-economic lessons about labor vs. capital became much more tangible when observed.

(Kidding…sort of) Your view of what is edible will expand.

Not too much needs to be said here. Suffice it to say I’ve eaten jellyfish, salamander, duck tongue/feet/colon, parts of a pig we don’t eat at home and all sorts of other delicacies. J And the longer you stay the more you’ll have to concede. A buddy of mine just had to “eat local” because he literally couldn’t find any of his go-to foods.

There are lots of other great reasons, but that’s my list for now.

A few other closing thoughts:

  • Any international/cross-cultural experience is valuable. Do what you can to have them.
  • Be brave and an explorer. I have a former student who was conflicted about high profile consulting career vs. passion for travel and culture. In the end he’s lived in Germany and is studying Mandarin to go teach English in China for a year. What an adventure!
  • The more immersive the better. The longer and more “local” you can get the more you’ll learn.
  • Don’t be afraid of language barriers. I am a lazy/sloppy student of languages. I think I have disappointed every instructor I’ve had. Latin, French, German and worst of all – my poor Chinese tutor (I think I embarrassed my whole country in addition to my ancestors. Sadly, I think she took it as her personal failing.). Despite that I have had great times and no major problems travelling all over the world. As I say above, you figure things out, satisfice and make do.
  • People are warm and friendly in most places. I have never been anywhere that people weren’t curious about Americans and at least generally warm and helpful.
  • You’ll be surprised at the joy you will take in small victories. Just figuring out the lay of the land, or how a bank transaction works in another language become epic accomplishments to be celebrated.
  • Take chances as they come and jump on them. Your life situation changes. Sometimes you have time, sometimes you have money. Use what you have when you have it. Take a semester abroad in college, do a church mission trip to build homes, take a foreign assignment…but do it. I have been fortunate to have work opportunities that helped enable mine and my family’s’ experiences, but there are tons of ways outside of work to get it done.

Seeking & Accepting Feedback

November 21, 2009

One of the greatest gifts someone can offer you is honest feedback. Truly. Most of the time, people will try to varnish the truth or avoid it altogether. Since it’s so rare a gift, it’s only right to treat it as such. Often you have to go get it, as not everyone will be forthcoming if you don’t ask for it.

So ask, but not too often

Identify a set of people whose feedback you want on a regular basis. Then go get it. It’s that simple. Don’t over think it. I see a lot of people get nervous about how and when they do it, asking themselves about the appropriateness of the request. Don’t worry about it. It will be immediately obvious to you if the request is making someone uncomfortable. Then it’s up to you whether you push on through or let it go. Below are a few considerations in asking.

Be diverse in the inputs you seek. Don’t just get your boss. Get colleagues, people in other departments etc. In particular, seek out people you think might have uncomfortable feedback. If you feel threatened by people you currently work with for political or evaluative reasons, then mine old co-workers.

Be specific about what feedback you are looking for. Don’t ask for people to comment on broad open ended questions. It will make them uncomfortable (more like evaluating you as a person than commenting on your communications skills) and lead to areas that may be off point.

Example: “Is there anything I can improve on?” isn’t as helpful as, “I’ve been wondering about my communication skills, have you noticed anything in my emails or presentations you think I could improve on?” The latter is more specific and likely to yield actionable feedback.

Ask for examples. Don’t settle for generalizations. Drive for enough detail to understand, evaluate and take action.

Example: “I don’t think you present well” isn’t that helpful. Get them to say “You just read the slides and never see if your audience is following along.” That is specific enough to understand what the action plan might be.

Ask people who can actually answer. This sounds obvious, but think about the type/category of feedback you’re looking for and make sure the person you’re asking has seen enough to have a “qualified” opinion. Another thing to think about is how observant or thoughtful the people you ask are. Sometimes, non-obvious folks are very wise and can offer keen insights. Political advice is often very useful from this type of connection. So target wisely.

Example: Asking someone you haven’t worked directly with about your leadership style won’t lead to anything useful.

Don’t get overly aggressive about seeking feedback. It’s great to want feedback, but seeking too much represents either lack of confidence, understanding or disingenuousness. All bad. I’m not saying don’t be assertive in seeking out advice. I am saying don’t check in too often. Use some judgment.

Listen & don’t argue

Having asked for feedback, actually let people offer it. It is perfectly appropriate to ask thoughtful follow up questions and to play out scenarios, but don’t debate. You’ve asked for a gift, it is being given. Don’t be ungrateful. As my grandmother would say, “that’s not attractive sweetie.”

As I mentioned, asking follow up questions is part of the process. As mentioned above, if someone is too general, feel free to ask for examples. A specific example can then be fodder for re-playing the scenario to explore and learn.

For example: You receive constructive criticism on how you handled a meeting. It’s good to ask your fellow participant how they felt, suggest alternative approaches you might have taken to get their feedback and understand how participants perceived the situation. It’s NOT OK to say “I totally disagree, Sally was way off base and I don’t see how I could have handled it differently”. You just made it worse. If this is how you plan to approach feedback, better not to ask.

I bring up the graciousness part because I see the lack of it with a consistent minority of people I give feedback to. I suggest that for those of you who wrestle with accepting feedback learn to bite your tongue. If someone actually cares enough to give you feedback, they care at some level. Don’t turn them off. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t invest the time in you.

Say “thank you”

I won’t belabor this given my comments above. Suffice it to say that gratitude and graciousness are far more compelling than indifference or rudeness.

Reflect & evaluate

Take time to think about what you have heard. If you don’t reflect, the act of asking and receiving is partly wasted. It only matters if you turn inputs into insights that  drive action.

After one or several discussions, it’s time to determine your sense of what’s important. Each perspective you hear is valid, but they may not all agree or be of central importance in your development. You have to decide what strengths are worth reinforcing and what improvement opportunities merit time. You can’t rock everything, so pick and choose based on your judgment and bandwidth. Think about what you agreed with, what was new, how could I work on that etc.

I do suggest you develop a plan for key areas you are working on. It can be as simple as 3 bullet point reminders on a post it about how to kick off a meeting, or as involved as a multi-year development plan for an involved skill set. But put it in print and track yourself.

Closing thoughts

 Asking for feedback is crucial to your development. Many leadership studies cite the ability to seek out and utilize feedback as one of the most important traits great leaders possess.

 Seeking out feedback and acting on it also comes with soft benefits. It demonstrates self-awareness, maturity and a drive to improve. It also exposes you to people in ways that might not come up in the normal course of work. It also opens deeper mentoring possibilities. It’s a win/win as long as it’s done sincerely.


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.


Advice from a CEO

August 11, 2009

A former student sent along this great interview with Gary E. McCullough, president and chief executive of the Career Education Corporation from the NYT. I thought this was a great summary of many themes I try to convey in my teaching and writing. Be good to others, have a plan but be flexible in manging your career etc.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/09/business/09corner.html

I’m back in the saddle after a nice vacation and will be posting regularly starting this week…


What should I read?

April 19, 2009

I get asked for a lot of reading advice from students and friends, so I’ve decided to add a permanent page to the site. It  lists what I think are classics that stand the test of time and that I have found influential in my thinking or development. The list will continue to grow over time.

This list will remain short, however there’s a longer list of ideas you need to understand. You just don’t have to read the whole book to get the idea. There are sooo many business books that are essentially articles with a lot of anecdotes added that I tend to avoid business books. Read the HBR article or the Fortune Magazine exerpt and you’ll get the idea.  

Stay current to stay relevant, just avoid wasting your time. You can subscribe to podcasts like Harvard Ideacast (on their site or through iTunes) that often summarize recent articles or get brief synopses of books from getAbstract.