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.

Making Things Happen

August 19, 2009

I just had a link to this ebook sent to me by a friend. Read this and tell me you can’t get going on a search in tough times.  http://charliehoehn.com/2009/07/14/announcing-my-first-e-book/

Charlie paints a compelling picture of clear strategies for getting connected to great work. It’s about being assertive, showing value and making people offers they can’t refuse. The traditioanl process works for some, but if it’s not working for you, don’t be a victim. Re-frame and get going.

I was really proud of my students this summer who took “non-traditional” (ie: unpaid) internships. Many of them ended up with work that was as good as or better than they would have normally and as this ebook points out, it was more on their own terms.

I disagree with his point about the value of graduate degrees (I’m biased I guess, I teach in an MBA program). Not everyone is equipped to be as entrepreneurial as Charlie is and need some structure and support on their journey. Grad degrees are great for the people they help and a waste for people who aren’t interested or are self-sufficient.

But that’s quibbling, the principles here are important ones and I encourage you to take a look.


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.


Resourcefulness

November 23, 2008

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

 

Theodore Roosevelt

 

One of the biggest assets you can bring to your career is resourcefulness. It’s easy to say you couldn’t get something done because you didn’t have what you needed. How much better an impression do you leave when you just get it done?

 

I am continually amazed at how effective some people are at just getting it done (and well). I see several key elements in most resourceful people.

 

First, they are all “grinders”. They have the energy to keep going even when it seems like they can’t succeed. These folks aren’t generally satisfied with a “no” or “it can’t be done”.  They just take this as a challenge.

 

Second, they are creative in their own way. Too many people think of creativity as some abstract ability that professional artist, writers and musicians have. To me, any time you solve a problem in a way other wouldn’t have thought of you are being “creative”. You can be a creative administrator if you know how to maneuver through the system to get things done.

 

Third, they generally aren’t whiners. In keeping with the kindergarten motto “you get what you get, so don’t pitch a fit”, they tend to understand context and constraints and don’t complain about things that can’t be helped. (Note, I draw a distinction between “venting” and whining. We all need to vent sometimes, whiners do it all the time.)

 

So let me give you an example.  You are a senior manager at a consulting firm and you have two new consultants.

 

The first one is nice and an OK performer. They come from a top school and had great grades. However, everything they do seems to need a little more correction than seems appropriate. They don’t come to you on a regular basis for feedback and when they do, it’s for questions you think they’ve already answered. They also are very concerned with getting more strategic work and feel they aren’t compensated quite fairly.

 

The second person is a persistently hard worker and asks lot’s of questions. But rarely asks the same one twice. They sometimes make mistakes, but never on things like spell checking or making sure the math in their spreadsheet model is correct. Their mistakes are more creative. They also seem to figure out how to get stuff done. Rather than say “our professional development model” isn’t right, they bring you an idea and say “can I help with this”. They also tend to push your own expectations of your self. You find yourself saying “I wouldn’t have thought of that” when noting how they got something done.

 

Who would you rather have working for you? Or for that matter being working for?

 

Don’t always act like you need more or that someone else needs to help you.  Do the best you can with what you have. “Promotable” people understand context and know that there isn’t usually more budget or time.

 

I am NOT saying never ask for help or more resources. Rather, just understand that they may not be forthcoming and resourceful people get it done regardless of circumstances.


GEMO…

November 15, 2008

…or “good enough, move on” is an important concept to master in your career. It takes awhile to develop the judgment to understand which questions or activities are most important and then based on that ranking determining how much time and detail is required to complete them acceptably.

 

I often describe this as the difference between being “accurate” and being “precise”. Think about these examples:

 

If I’m responsible for landing the Mars Rover, I probably need extremely precise calculations to ensure accurate launch and trajectory of the delivery vehicle as well as incredibly detailed and accurate algorithms running the rover. Even then, I may be off slightly and blow the mission. This effort needs “precision”. Slight mistakes yield Very bad/or terminal consequences for an expensive mission.

 

If I have to determine whether a business opportunity is worth at least $100MM then the only thing I need to ensure is that I am comfortable that it is well over than. Whether it is $153MM or $210MM doesn’t matter based on the question we’re trying to answer. This needs ”accuracy”. I can be ”imprecise” by a lot and still be directionally accurate.

 

In the instance above, I determined that our 2-3 largest markets added up to more than $150MM. I was done. No need to understand the opportunity Turkey represents at the early stage when you’ve determined China and India get you there alone. In later development stages you’ll want more detailed information, but to answer the “100 million dollar question” we had enough information.

 

It is important to focus on getting to the necessary level of detail to adequately answer the question, but don’t waste your time going much further. Sometimes we get bogged down because we lose sight of what’s important. Other times we spend too much time on things we’re good at or like because we’re procrastinating and avoiding work we don’t want to do.

 

This does NOT mean be shallow in your analysis. A bad job is a bad job. It means understand how detailed you need to be to satisfy the needs of the situation. Also, don’t mistake this as advice to not produce decent charts or communication device. If your slide looks crummy, they’ll assume the analysis is.

 

This IS advice to use your judgment regarding time and effort. You can’t answer everything perfectly and most of the time you don’t need to.