Small Steps

Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus makes the point that we have more free time available to us than humans at any other time in history. One statistic that illustrates the point is that the amount of time we spend watch television continues to increase. What if we didn’t waste so much time observing and actually did something? What if we used some of this reserve brain power for some activity, rather than passivity?

I started working with a new client this past week. He is a young man in Los Angeles, and has accomplished much. He has not reached his 30th birthday. Getting to know him, I understand why. He has been entrepreneurial and has been involved in creating value, building businesses, studying and networking – and not wasting time – since he was at least 12 years old.

What are your dreams? How can you see your life better than it is today? Maybe you have a goal of helping other people, improving your relationships with your family or friends, getting fit or starting a business. How could you take your cognitive surplus and move in a direction that can improve your life? The answer does not lie in another reality TV episode, that’s
for sure. What small step can you take right now that moves you even the slightest bit towards your goal? Make the move and take the step.

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Just in Case

As the economy recovers and more news stories bubble up with messages about new jobs and opportunities – as opposed to the tales of despair to which we have become accustomed – more people are thinking about change. Rather than white-knuckled grips on their current gigs, no matter how miserable the conditions, some are allowing themselves to think that there are alternatives. Must I stay at this job because I need the benefits? I haven’t had a raise in two years, but what choice do I have? Those questions are being overshadowed by hope and dalliances to consider better choices. Green shoots, anyone?

So what happens when you get a call, text, tweet, email or invitation over lunch to send your resume? As in: “I know some people who are looking for someone with your skill set.” Do you shoot it over from your Android, ping them from your iPhone, or just mumble something like, “Yeah, so, I need to refresh it, so I will get it to you soon…”? Then you scramble, writing and editing through the night, ultimately serving up something that looks like yesterday’s leftovers.

Professionals who are serious about career growth are getting ready. They are preparing to market themselves in a way that reflects well on them and their accomplishments. They are ready just in case that next great opportunity comes their way. Are you?

Doing the Hard Work

Fair warning: this is about my wife Carin’s graduation today. It is an understatement to say that I am proud of her as she graduated from St. Vincent’s College in Bridgeport (CT) with a nursing degree. What started as a casual conversation about three years ago culminated in the walk across the stage, the handshake and the diploma.

Roll back three years.

Me: So, what kind of work do you think you might do after the kids are in school full time?

Carin: I don’t know.

Me: Have you ever thought about nursing? You are amazing with your hands, something I noticed when you have to care for the kids.

She took it from there. She inquired, applied, enrolled, got 75 pounds worth of textbooks, studied, studied and studied some more. And passed! But there is more to the story. As she was taking full time classes, she also worked in the medical center as a Student Nurse Technician, a title that really means Nurses Aid and amounts to bed pans, commodes, soiled linens and the other work that the nurses don’t want to do – or don’t have time to do – themselves.

She did that work, did it well and got noticed. She worked as if she already had the Registered Nurse job. She carried herself that way, treated her patients and coworkers well and responded in tough situations in a way that was above her title and pay grade. She was offered a Registered Nurse job.

I am amazed by what she has accomplished and by her demonstrated determination to succeed. She has worked hard and has earned the prize. Congratulations, Carin! I am proud of you and we can all learn something from what you have done. The world will be a better place with you caring for others as a Registered Nurse.

Out-Communicate the Competition

Knowing that clients, employers and the general public can spread news about you and your business in moments (think Yelp, Google Places, Kudzu, etc.), why do so many act as if the Internet does not exists? Two examples from this week make the point.

I heard from a new client this week. She had done some research to find resume writing services in the Better Business Bureau directory. I was fortunate to be one of the three businesses she called. When I spoke with her, she told me that of the other two, one never returned her call and the other was rude. To whom do you think she gave her business?

My wife and I contracted to have a big repair done on our house. The builder was recommended to us by a friend. We met with him, felt good about hiring him, and went ahead with the project. Here is where he could have done a better job: the project materials were delivered mid-week, and we never heard from him as to when the job would begin. As we went through the weekend, my wife and I were getting frustrated in that we hadn’t gotten a call about the project start day and we decided that we were going to call at 8AM Monday morning. The builder arrived and started tearing our roof off at 7:45. What was wrong? Nothing that a quick phone call wouldn’t have fixed. “Hey, I’ll be there Monday morning. See you then.”

Keep these stories in mind as you work on your professional reputation, either working for yourself or someone else. Are you hitting your deadlines, communicating effectively and thanking your prospects and clients for the opportunity to serve? Your creativity and effectiveness at keeping in touch with your people at every step is just as important as how you initially contact new employers, peers and customers. Do more to communicate and serve than your competitors and you will be rewarded with more business, a better reputation and a more successful career.

Maximize Yield

I met with a brilliant scientist last week who took time from her schedule to explain her work to me and some of her success measures. An important measure is the yield realized from the various steps in her processes. Each step needs to deliver the most usable product for the next, so there is something valuable at the end of the chain. Avoiding explosions is good, too.

This effort is very similar to the work the people do when they are looking for new jobs. The seeker’s mission is to increase the probability that she will make it through the long and painstaking hiring process by maximizing the yield of everything she does. This means taking nothing for granted and working harder than everyone else to secure a job offer. Here are a few reminders on how to do this.

Customize your Communication. Every job opportunity needs communication that is tailored to the message’s recipient. If you will not take the time to customize your cover letter, resume and all other correspondence, someone else who is willing to do the hard work will get the offer while you stare at your not-ringing telephone.

Network in Person. LinkedIn is great, but it doesn’t replace face-to-face relationships. If you can’t meet in person, make a quick phone call. Have a pre-written message to deliver to voice mail.

Thank You. Mom taught you to say it. Do it every time someone is generous enough to give you some time. Did a contact take your call? Follow up with a thank you email. Did you get an interview? Send a well written thank you note or letter by snail mail. Don’t overlook this step. It shows that you follow through and pay attention to the details. Many of your competitors will not do this.

Ask for Feedback. Should you be fortunate enough to get an interview but not the job, and you talk with a person about the decision, ask for feedback about your interview and what the hiring decision makers thought were your strengths and weaknesses. You may learn something that will help you next time.

Just as my scientist friend works to maximize yield at every step of the way, think about how you can maximize the yield of the work that you are doing. Are you doing everything possible to increase your chances of success? Or are you taking shortcuts and inviting a potential job search blow-up?

Leadership: Royals & The Rest of Us

Friday, April 29, 2011 was an important day in the United Kingdom and provided some escapism for over two billion people around the world who watched some or all of the coverage of the royal wedding. William and Kate fulfilled their roles perfectly, giving the world an opportunity to share fleetingly in their lives, courtesy of high definition television and world wide media coverage. It was fun.

William and Kate and the rest of “The Firm,” as the royal family is sometimes called, clearly live a life much different than us commoners. For one, we don’t have an army of aides ready to fluff our dress or hold our gloves. Though they have a leadership role in their country, and have a vested interest in keeping the monarchy alive and well, that lifestyle is not one that we should expect in any leadership position to which any of us might aspire. Quite the contrary.

Leadership in our world, as we carry out our activities at work, in our homes, in civic and religious life, or in any other pursuit you might mention is better defined by our service to those we lead, rather than the servitude we might mistakenly expect from our followers. If you are a leader who expects curtseys and bows as you walk down the hall, I’ll bet that your list of followers is small.

The most successful leaders, leaders that we want to follow, are those whom help us reach our potentials by challenging us, encouraging us and helping us secure the resources we need to be successful. The body of work on servant leadership is enormous, and it doesn’t describe anything that we see as “Royal Watchers.” Enjoy the fairy tale, but leave it as that: a fun story that someone else gets to live. Now get back to leading your followers by helping them succeed.

LinkedIn: Don’t Beg

If you are not using LinkedIn, you probably have heard about it and considered how it can help you. There are many great resources available on this growing site, and you should be on it even if you are not looking for a job. One thing you shouldn’t do, though, is beg for a job. I have seen many postings in different groups that are nothing more than people pleading for jobs. The postings sound desperate and the writers seem worthy of sympathy, but are those qualities that attract potential employers? No.

Here are ideas on how you can start using LinkedIn in meaningful ways that will bolster your reputation. If you optimize your profile with great, truthful content, recruiters will find you.

Groups: Start with natural groups that complement your experiences, careers and interests.  Think about college alumni groups, trade associations and other broad interests and pursuits. Participate in the groups you join.

Skills: Use this section to detail the skills you have to sell that employers want to buy. Are you skilled in financial auditing? List it.

Answers: Actively participate in Answers, a tool for you to help others by sharing your expertise. You will develop a reputation and keep your skills sharp.

Reading List: Another fun tool! Tell the world what you are reading and write a review. This can illustrate your commitment to life-long learning and my spark a conversation.

Remember: Don’t beg. Maintain your professionalism and participate with confidence. Good luck!

What Papa John Says

You’ve seen the ads. Papa John’s Pizza advertises with the tagline telling us that better ingredients make better pizza. The same idea applies to our careers and the reputations we earn as we live our professional lives. Better accomplishments and results lead to a stronger history, a potentially superior résumé and a more valuable professional reputation.

How can you be sure that you are doing everything possible to create this scenario of outstanding accomplishments that go into a sterling résumé? Begin with the end in mind. If you want a résumé that will open doors, you have to do the hard work to have the accomplishments and results you will need. Here are a few thoughts on how you can make it happen:

Working with Others: Are you respectful and demonstrate a willingness to work hard to advance the goals of the organization, or is it all about you? People will appreciate your partnership and support. They will also see through phoniness and self-centeredness. For which attributes do you want to be known? Who is going to give you a reference? What will they say?

Own Your Results: Every organization has a scorecard. For-profit or non-profit, there are key metrics that measure and define success. If you are in charge, you own the numbers. Do they tell the story of a high-achiever? Do they say something less?

Lifelong Learning: Our economy is knowledge based. Think about the work that you and your friends and relatives do every day. How many of them work as laborers? How many work in jobs that require thinking, planning and cutting-edge knowledge? Are your skills fresh and valuable?

Professional Affiliations: Almost every field has an associated professional group. Seek out the best one in your industry and get involved. This relationship can also help you stay on course to achieve your learning goals. 

Think about the quality of the ingredients in your career history. If you want them to be more significant, make changes. Unlike a bad meal that goes in the trash, you can make changes today to change the mix, the story and your career success. But it’s up to you to make it happen.

You’re Batman? So What.

Pretend you are Batman for a minute. Maybe an unemployed Batman. I know, Batman is very entrepreneurial and makes his own success, but hang with me for a minute. You’re lounging around the Batcave one day, thinking about how you are going to pay the fat mortgage on this hole in the ground, and think about getting a paycheck. Being a savvy masked superhero, you hit the job boards and search to see what is available in Gotham City.

It’s your lucky day, because the city is advertising for a superhero just like you to take a bite out of crime. You know you have the talent and you are the perfect person for the job, so you send out your resume and your standard cover letter and wait for a call. Or an email. Or maybe even that bat-shaped spotlight. But none of it happens. Why not?

Could it be that you haven’t sold yourself in your cover letter? Did you fail to connect the dots for the HR person in city hall who sent your resume to the “thanks but no thanks” folder?

The job posting said that the successful candidate would have the ability to significantly reduce violent crime in the city, especially crime perpetrated by criminals with colorful costumes and weird MO’s. Did you remember to tell the hiring people that you have created an ingenious strategy to capture and successfully prosecute these bad guys, and that you look forward to sharing your skill with the good people of Gotham? Did you mention that you can get it done without the Gotham police officers being in harm’s way? Did you sell yourself?

Enough of the Batman story for now. When you are presenting yourself for opportunities in your current company, for a new job, or when discussing your performance with your boss, are you discussing the benefits that you bring – or will bring – to the organization? If not, you are failing to sell yourself by showing the buyer – your boss or potential employer – a compelling reason to put you on the team. You can remove the pain. The benefit you bring will be much greater than the paycheck you receive.

Nobody will care about what you do unless you can show how you will do it for the organization and how you are worth the investment. Gotham won’t hire Batman unless Batman can persuasively sell the idea that he will be locking up the Joker. Quickly.

Branding, Business & Bragging

Everyone knows that businesses love teamwork. Higher education loves teamwork, as anyone who has ever interviewed a college student knows. “Tell me about a time when you had to give someone critical feedback” usually leads to, “I was working on a team project, and John wasn’t doing his share.” We are taught to work and play in teams from the beginning. It’s codified into corporate mission statements, culture statements and recruiting messages.

We also are taught that bragging is to be avoided, and we seem to take pleasure in others failing. We enjoy seeing the infallible fail. There are the occasional celebrity flameouts (Charlie Sheen), the athlete who fades in dramatic fashion (Tiger?) and the business manager who gets what’s coming to him (anyone remember Chainsaw Al?).

So how do you balance the need to build your personal brand while balancing the needs of your team – regardless of your position on it – while also avoiding the fate of the arrogant? Carefully. Also, consider how you can – and should – make “team player” part of your brand. Here are a few tactics to start using and practicing now:

Ask how you can help. This could go in any direction. If you aren’t at the very top or bottom of your organization, your offers will go up, down and laterally. You get the opportunity to build great professional relationship – and maybe personal ones – while advancing your organization and your network. Oh, yeah. Don’t forget to deliver on what you’ve offered.

Give meaningful recognition. Subordinates will value it. Peers will appreciate you noticing. Just don’t patronize. Be real.

Practice talking about yourself. Many are uncomfortable with this, and for good reason. Done poorly, talking about your accomplishments can sound self-centered or worse. Done well, you can put your fingerprint on work you have done while also giving credit to those who have earned it. Your boss will ask you, “What are you working on?” Be ready.

The goal is simple: Be a real human who does good work in a team environment, who valuable and would be missed by the organization. Be able to discuss what you bring to the group while being gracious and willing to share the credit. Do some of these basics and you will be someone others want to work with and know, and you will bolster your brand.

Note: for a valuable article on the benefits and pitfalls of personal branding, see this article from Fortune.