Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The one about professional behavior

So, one of my colleagues comes into my office today and tells me that an academic advisor has asked for copies of our handout on professional behavior. We do not have one. So, I responded, "Well, what does she mean by professional behavior?" The ensuing conversation careened across the landscape as follows.

I know you think you know what I mean, but I don't think I mean what you think.
Pretty cut and dry here. We have the full range of recruiters and companies visiting campus. Some are incredibly laid back, wearing polo shirts and chinos, while other sport $500 suits. What one sees as professional behavior, the other sees as overly casual behavior. Yes, there are a few standards that we will discuss below, but the fact remains that the range of meaning surrounding the term "professional behavior" is broad to the point of ambiguity. My recommendation to any erstwhile candidate is that he or she become familiar with the culture of any company or organization with which they might interview. This is where all that gnarly networking is so important.... knowing people that know the culture is primo.

There is no such thing as fashionably late... there is just late.
Let me start by saying that I drive my entire family crazy by my desire to be not just on time, but a few minutes early. Let me add to this, I hate waiting in line for anything. Fifteen minutes is my limit, even at a 5-star restaurant, so you can imagine how I feel when someone is late for an appointment. Once, a client with a 30 minute appointment showed up 20 minutes late and said, "I hope I am not too late." I replied, "Not at all, there's still 10 minutes left." We went to my office where I talked about the impact of being late on job interviews and first impressions. I don't care how casual the recruiter or hiring manager might be, the last thing that you want is to be one of the top two candidates and have your competition remembered as "the kid from Orange County" and you remembered as "the one who was late." Bottom line: It is professional behavior to be on time no matter where you work.

Excuse me while I take this call.
Back in the day, when cell phones were the size of shoe boxes, I would watch folks screaming into their cellphones and I remember thinking, "If you are THAT important, why aren't you important enough to have somebody that answers your calls for you?" Perhaps if there is anything that upsets me more than someone who is late for an appointment, it is someone who answers their phone during an appointment. I will say that it is probably okay to have your phone ring and apologize while cutting it off, but it is never (Get that NEVER) okay to actually answer the phone.

A friend told me about being in an interview with his boss. The candidate's phone rang and he said, "Excuse me," and then said to the caller, "I need to call you back. I am in a meeting." A few minutes later, the phone rang again. He once again said, "Excuse me," and this time said, "Let me call you back in about 30 minutes, I am in a meeting." The boss stood up and said, "Nah. Go ahead and take the call, because the interview is over." Take it from me and the poor slob in this story, whether it is an interview or business meeting, cut off the phone.

Yo, dude. How's it goin'!
I live in California, so I call a lot of folks "dude" and I get called "dude" a lot as well. I still remember, however, the first time a subordinate called me dude. It was followed throughout the day with "homes, brah, and man" occasionally prefenced by "Yo!" At the end of the shift, I told my young charge that I would prefer it if he would simply call me and the other supervisors by our names. His reply? "Sure, dude. No problem."

The other vignette that falls under this rubic occurred when I taught in Alabama. In the halls and in talking with students, I almost always referred to my colleagues as Dr. Martin or Dean Roberson or Ms. Young. In their offices or when we were in meetings, they were David, Terry, and Jenny.

How you refer to people with whom you work is important and is a direct reflection of your respect for them and the organization. Follow the lead of those around you. As a safe rule of thumb, think about it this way. Most people do not mind being called Mr. Jone or Ms. Lopez, but some will object to being called "Cuz."

Here, let me get that for you.
Being at a university is sort of like be in a giant sociological fish tank. There are always crowds of animated, bright young adults moving from one location to another underwritten with incessant chatter and lots of laughter. The most intriguing things that I have noticed occurs at the ingress/egress of buildings. You know, doors. I have two experiences, one is holding the door for a student or students who blow right past without a word... like I am the doorman. In fact, that is not exactly correct because when I enter or exit a building that has a door person, I always say "Thank you." While this behavior is not unique to Gen-Y'ers, it does seem to proliferate in that group. I will guarantee you that if you are on an interview or the new person on a job and someone holds the door for you, they will remember if you do not say, "Thank you." Not the way you want to be remembered, dude.

The runners are at the starting line.
My other experience with doorways is what I call the cattle chute. The cattle chute occurs when two (or more) people approach a doorway at the same time and one (or more) of them try to squeeze through. (The variation on this is when one of them speeds up a bit so as to hit the portal first.) I would have to say that the generally accepted behavior is to give right of way to the other, even if it results in "You go first. No, you go. No, you go." Again, you will be remembered for your courtesy. BTW, as an old dude, I think you should always let us go first, because old dudes almost always say something witty like, "Nah, you go first. I'm in no hurry to get to work." I might add that you should NEVER EVER say, "Age before beauty." Not simply because is has not been funny since the Eisenhower Administration, but us old dudes are pretty sensitive about that kind of stuff. The easy take away here is, hold the door and wait for others to go through.

Répondez, s'il vous plaît
This is what RSVP means. It is French for "I need to know if you are going to be here and if you say you will be here you have made an actual commitment to come, so be there or let me know if you have to cancel." That is a loose translation. I have been very surprised at the number of people who seem to believe that RSVP means, "Hold a place for me in case I decide to show up." We always (Get it? ALWAYS) hear from employers when students who have reserved spaces do not show up and do not cancel. Most places ask for an RSVP because they are planning food or there is limited space. If you decide to no show, they spend money on food that goes to waste or someone does not get a seat to the event. It is so not cool. Sure there are exceptions to this rule, but they involve hospital stays and alien abductions. I know no other way to say this than to say if you reserve your place for an event... SHOW UP.

Hmmm. I've seen that somewhere before.
Does any of this sound familiar? It should because it is the same stuff your mom and your kindergarten teacher tried to jam into your brain when you were five. Professional behavior is, quite frankly, mostly common courtesy. Listening when others speak and not cutting them off. Being respectful of others. Observing organizational and cultural norms. Referring to others with formality unless they give you permission to do otherwise. Opening doors. Saying please and thank you. Recognizing others achievements. The list goes on. It really is not rocket science. Doing the professional thing is generally doing the "nice" thing.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The one about tough times....

I work in a university that operates on a quarter system, so we are just starting to be deluged by returning students. My colleagues who work on the semester are about three weeks ahead of me when it comes to responding to the chaos of the current marketplace, but I am not sure that they are any less overwhelmed than my shop... nor do I think the coming months will make thinks appreciably better. This has put me by way of think about what students can do that will help them weather the next (probably) two years while the economy gets better.

First, as I indicated in an early post (Look Now), now is not the time to relax. Career Centers have seen an interesting phenomenon over the last few months... fewer students are coming for services. While the number of first and second years seeking part time jobs has picked up noticeably, third and fourth years have dropped off. The feedback we have been getting is that they have decided that "because there are no jobs, there is no sense in attending events." This is exactly the wrong approach. Students (and alumni) should be availing themselves of every opportunity to get information, grow their network, and create the possibility that they might find a "hidden" opening. That cannot be done hangin' in da crib with your buds. It requires energy and enthusiasm along with a modicum of forethought.

Second, what you do now directly affects the options you have in the future... both near-term and far-term. Students, in particular, should be willing to convert Xbox and PlayStation time to additional time for volunteering or a pro bono internship. Come on! You are already not making any money, so which do you think will impress a prospective employer more: those extra 14,000 zombies you knocked off in Gabby's Revenge or the fact that you helped organize a symposium for the History Department. (I'm going with the History nerds here.)

Third, ask anybody who has been on the job market recently and you will likely find that it took them two or three months to just to settle into the "looking" process. There is actually a pretty steep learning curve regarding how to construct a well-tailored resume, what jobs are actually viable, how to answer that "Tell-us-a-little-bit-about-yourself" question, and how to handle rejection. Waiting until you need a job in three weeks is a painfully bad idea in an economy that requires three months for a well-run job search to bear fruit.

Fourth, please do not listen to anyone about the job market... maybe not even me. I have found that most people are either too optimistic about the economy or far too pessimistic. Neither side of the coin will be helpful. Get your own information. Read the Wall Street Journal and CNN Money. Talk with decision makers in business and industry. Develop some savvy about where market segments are headed and either get on or get off the train they are own. (For instance, if I were majoring in communications right now, I would be preparing myself for internet-based career paths as opposed to print journalism)

Fifth, if you are thinking about hiding out for a couple of years in graduate school, think again. Grad school applications are up and admissions have become more competitive. So, if you think the competition is tough on the entry-level job market, just imagine how difficult graduate school applications will be when you are competing with applicants who have been out of school for three or four years and have saved up enough money to actually pay their own tuition, and because they HAVE three or four years of experience, they will grab the plum jobs on and around campus.

What then can you do amidst all this doom and gloom? Well, first, be serious about steps one through four, then think about the following.

  1. Whether you are a first year or fourth year, do one "career-related" thing each week. That can be as tangential as looking up "careers in glass-blowing" on the Internet to something as direct as going to a career fair or signing up for your school's On-Campus Interview program.
  2. Talk to your peers about what they are doing about job-hunting. Not subtly. Try something like, "Dude, I'm freakin' because the parents are gonna cut me off soon and I was wonderin' what you were doing about find a job." (If they say "Nothin' Dude, I'm gonna go to grad school... point them to this blog.) Find out what people are doing and steal their best ideas.
  3. Talk to your family. Let them know what you are thinking about. Most parents are more than willing to help motivate and sustain you as long as they know you are doing something. (A helpful hint here... now is not the time to be too proud to accept help, if your mom when to school with Warren Buffet's daughter, allow her to introduce you or at least forward your resume to her.)
  4. Everything in moderation. I have posted many times before that the worst mistake that job hunters make is putting too much energy and time into the job hunt. Understand your limitations and work within them. For some folks, pursuing leads and completing applications three or four hours a day seven days a week may be doable, but most of us are likely to need time and space for other activities. A couple of FOCUSED hours four or five days a week should suffice.
  5. Persistence pays. This is the corollary to the above. Having a schedule and pursuing it consistently is most likely to pay off. This is primarily because a consistent schedule helps you (and your support network) hold yourself accountable and actually measure how much you have done.
Yes, times are tough, but challenges are what provide the sparks for growth and it is time to grow.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The one about not working...

After far too long a hiatus, I have returned. There is a good explanation for my absence that has to do with new domains, websites, etc., but ultimately I needed some time, so I took it. During this interregnum, I thought a bit about the ways that not working seems to help working... just like not blogging was supposed to help my blog. Today's post is about not working.

First, you should know that for years, we have know that rats engage in a behavior known as "play fighting" in which juvenile rats tussle and spar with one another. Likewise, it seems that most, if not all, mammals do this. If rats are prevented from play-fighting, they typically suffer from serious deficits in social behavior, have more stress-related problems and appear... well, depressed or anxious. (For the record, males play-fight more than females, but I will let someone else carry that standard forward.) As the rats mature, they play fight less and less, I suppose because the grind of the old ratty 8 to 5 begins to squeeze out play time. In a over-simplification of hundreds of articles, it would appear that playing (and play-fighting in particular) as a juvenile makes a more stress-resistant and social adult rat and makes it more likely that the adult rat will engage in playful behavior which inhibits stress.

Everybody needs a Saturday... even on Wednesday.
I am sure that many people are like me with regard to the weekend experience. Friday evening is a time of rapid decompression. Almost like someone has let the air out of a balloon. Saturday begins with virtually no thought of work or work-related issues. We have projects or destinations or uber-naps to undertake. By mid-day Saturday, there is no work, there is only Saturday. At some point in the afternoon, work begins to creep back into our consciousness and by Sunday evening, we are beginning to mentally rehearse our schedule for the coming week. Imagine life without a weekend. Brrrr. I don't even want to go there. The simple fact, however, is that many folks have that condition. Intriguingly, when I was a college professor I lived life without a weekend. One of the disadvantages of having a flexible schedule is that it seldom contains specified, sacred time off and I believe that expectation of time off is as important as the time off itself. One of the tricks that I learned was that I had to "designate" a day off... even if it was Wednesday. I measured time between Wednesdays and sometimes when I was grading a stack of papers and tests on Sunday, I knew that Wednesday was only two days away. Set aside a day. Make it inviolable.

Sleeping is not playing.
A few years ago, I said to my wife, "My sleep thing is broken."

She looked at me a bit quizzically and I added, "You know, that part of your brain that lets you sleep until 11 or 12 on Saturday. I can't do that anymore."

She smiled and agreed that, indeed, her sleep thing was broken, too. I assumed that this was a normal function of aging, until I began to discover that there were people who managed to stay in bed well past mid-morning on their days off. When I questioned them about it, they generally indicated that they were "recharging" their batteries. I'm pretty sure this doesn't work. First, sleep is not cumulative, so there is only so much sleep that one can get in a specified amount of time. It is not restorative to live on five hours of sleep a night Monday through Friday and then try to jam in an extra eight hours on Saturday and Sunday. Likewise, sleeping through the morning erodes the amount of time that one has left to play. Get up. Do something.

Working is not playing.
I know what you are thinking, but this has to be said. This past weekend, I put together a kayak to store my boats outside, I built a lattice screen to protect me from the prying eyes of my neighbors (or them from me), I designed a raised bed for strawberries, made a huge pot of gumbo, and cleaned out the garage. The only part of this that I considered work was the cleaning the garage part. The rest was recreative and restorative. The first thing that I did this morning was to go to the patio to look at my lattice screen. These days email and other electronic tendrils can creep into your weekend and create stealth work. You barely know you are working until the project has consumed your whole weekend. Do not work. Ever.

Scheduling inhibits playing.
Simply put, you gotta have down time. Most of us run by wire from Monday through Friday. I will be the first to admit that I have zero idea where I am supposed to be an hour from now without consulting one of the three electronic calendars that contain my schedule. It is not unusual for me to be sitting in a meeting and have my cellphone gently buzz in my pocket alerting me that I need to be somewhere else in 15 minutes. When I set up my electronic calendar a few years ago, I selected the preference choice for "Start Week on Monday" and "Do Not Show Saturday and Sunday." Part of this was to make the days larger so that I could see them without my glasses, but part of it was philosophical. Saturday and Sunday are my MY days and if someone if silly enough to schedule work on those days, I don't even want to see it.

In one of the little ironies that life supplies from time to time, I broke my watchband on a business trip and have yet to have it fixed. I have discovered that during the week, I am pretty tuned in to the time, but on the weekend, not only do I lose track quickly, but the days seem to be a little longer. The clear message to me is that being on the clock is working and not fun, while being off the clock is playing and (usually) fun. Don't schedule anything. Except restaurant reservations.

Playing hooky is not playing.
In my rather lengthy work history there have been only a small handful of times that I have used the infamous "mental health holiday." It's not that I am particularly ethical and honest, rather I think that I had judiciously used my time off on weekends and vacations to recharge and recreate. Generally speaking, when I am supposed to be at work, I am at work. When we "play hooky" we spend most of the time we are away from work thinking about how much work sucks. Contrast this with meaningful, productive planned time off, during which we seldom even think about work... let alone think about it with dread and dismay. If you are routinely using sick leave to sneak away from work, you should reconsider your vocational choice.

There's little else to add here. Let work get on without you for a more than just a weekend. Don't "hang out" at the pad. If you cannot afford to get a cabin at the mountains or a condo at the beach, then go to a museum, travel to another city for lunch or dinner. Order a Pawley's Island Hammock, go to Home Depot and buy some concrete mix, a precast footing, and a couple of 4x4's. Plant those suckers in the ground and string up your new hammock. Buy a used bicycle from Craislist and spend the week rehabbing it and actually ride it somewhere. Google "state historical markers" and the name of your home state. Guess what? Almost every state has an official site and there are dozens of unofficial ones. Put together a day tour that takes in three or four markers and lunch at an out of the way bistro or tavern. (Turns out that there are 24 within 30 miles of my home!) If you haven't taken an extended vacation, do it.

Go away and play, so that work is palatable.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Advice from Dad about grad school

Okay, this is not completely blogriginal. It was a contribution to another online community that I habituate, and someone asked that I blog it. Since I have been struggling to finish two other entries, it made perfect sense. So, here it goes.
My oldest son is graduating from UCLA in a few weeks and will be entering graduate school in the fall in Musicology/Ethnomusicology. He understands well the bleak job market for PhD’s in the humanities and also understands that a career in higher education is fraught with problems in the best of times. My wife and I are both proud of his accomplishments thus far and are pleased that he had several graduate programs from which to choose. Following is the advice that I gave him as he prepared applications and then made a decision about which program to attend. I hope that it will be of help to those of you who are still in programs.

1. Do not leave undergraduate school for a humanities degree without substantial training and background in quantitative research methods. I deal with PhD students and graduates who have not taken a course in math or statistics since their sophomore year in college. I recently worked with a newly graduated PhD in English who had not taken a math class since her junior year in high school which was in 1996! She had NEVER taken a statistics course at all. She was frustrated that many of the higher ed administrative jobs she was considering wanted a background in data analysis. My son decided to double major in Music and Sociology because the Soc major would give him access to two research methods courses he would not have otherwise been able to take as a Music major.

2. Do not leave graduate school with a humanities PhD without substantial training and background in quantitative research methods.
At some point after his first year, he has to decide on straight musicology vs. ethnomusicology. I have encouraged the ethno choice largely because a certain amount of ethnographic research training is mandatory in the program. I have pointed out to him that he will likely have gobs of tuition credits during his time and he should avail himself of that funding to take classes in multivariate analysis, assessment, and research methods from either sociology or psychology. (I used some of my “free” tuition to take courses in the MBA and social work programs)

3. Do not leave graduate school without some sort of “external” experience. He will be attending a program in Southern California and there at numerous museums, social agencies, and business/industry opportunities around. I am pimping internships/part-time jobs in market research or business development in the recording industry along with summer fellowships in federal and state agencies.

4. Demand to be taught to write and publish. He is still ambivalent about whether or not he wishes to become a “professor” upon completion of his degree, but he realizes that the training is largely geared to produce faculty and the missing component in almost all disciplines is mentoring in the process of producing academic publications. We discussed this two years ago while he was still an undergraduate and he approached two faculty at UCLA, before the third agreed to mentor him. It has been a good two-year apprenticeship that resulted in a published article and an understanding of what it takes to give birth to one, tiny published piece. He has already begun to hint to the faculty who have not officially seen him that this is one of his primary goals.

5. Always know where you are and never get too concerned about where you are going. One of the frustrations that I have in working with any client, but especially PhD’s, is that they cannot stay grounded in the present. They are always “out there” in the future. So much so that when the future gets here, they are not prepared for it. The way that I put it to him was, “Don’t spend all of your time planning for a job or future that may not exist when you finish. Grab opportunities that interest you now, even if they may entice you to leave your program or change your mind about what you want to be.” I shared that the best thing that ever happened to me was doing an internship in a hospital while in my religion graduate program that convinced me that I wanted to be a counselor or psychologist and not a priest or philosophy professor. I left the graduate program and eventually ended up where I am today.

6. Have an active Plan B. I have a clinical license that I have seldom used recently, but it was great in tiding me over when fellowship money was tight. During my last two years of graduate school, while my classmates were eating ramen noodles and living on $15,000 a year, I was working as a contract therapist eight hours a week on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings for $50 an hour and providing clinical supervision at a community clinic for another 4 hours at $75 an hour. I was able to give up my TA assignments in the last year of my program so that I had much more time to write and collect dissertation data. He has already lined up gigs with public music entities which will pay a modest amount and give him contacts in arts commissions in SoCal and he will complete his teaching credential next month.
So there you have it, more useless advice from Dad.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Career Development Made Easy!

I will readily admit that I am not a big fan of books that have the purpose simplifying the complexities of life. Whether it’s Fulghum’s “Everything I needed to know I learned on Star Trek” or Blanchard’s “One Minute Emperor of the Universe” or Covey’s “Seven Habits of Reasonably Laid Back Slackers.” Before we go further, I would like to add that I have, in fact, read multiple titles by all three of these guys and from time to time recommend them to emotionally and cognitively stable people who will not believe them to be the distillation of centuries of consciousness. They do not, however, substitute for being an acute political and sociological observer of your workplace. Today’s post.

Shortcuts may get you there quicker, but that simply increases the chances that the waiting room will not be open.

This may sound like my post from a few weeks ago about slowing down, but I assure you it is not. Human beings are very interesting creatures who are constantly looking for quicker, simpler way to do things… particularly repetitive tasks. Albert Einstein became famous for his seminal work in physics in trying to develop a formula for everything. It is important to note that he also became depressed, withdrawn, and just a little bit whacky later in life trying to find achieve this goal. So, I am here to tell you that there is no unified theory of career development. No golden plan that will assure your dominance in the world of work. No easy way to the top. I can, however, offer to you, a few variables that you should attend to in charting your course.

There are no foolproof systems, because fools are so damned ingenious.

Elegant solutions are like good software. That is, they are the product of extensive study, intensive engineering, and thousands of lines of highly detailed programming code. The result, however, is a pretty little piece of technology with a very simplified interface and the more simple the interface, the higher its “user-friendliness” rating. Decision-making within an organization often functions the same way. That is, a committee will devote time to looking at many possible outcomes, survey stakeholders, pilot several programs, before recommending a protocol.

Just as software is subject to obsolescence when new operating systems arrive, so too, our decision-making templates at work become obsolete as new challenges arise. One caution here… In the software world, applications will simply refuse to work when confronted with a new operating system. Humans, however, are much less likely to recognize that the system in which they are working has changed.

A great example of this is a department that I worked for a few years ago which kept reams and reams of paper application forms filled out by students long after the forms had migrated online. Students would fill out the forms online and then highly paid professional staff members would complete several blanks in the form by hand. Duplicates of the forms were kept in another office in another building and each office maintained seven years of these forms, even though the institutional document retention policy had changed to five years, either online or in hardcopy. Once a year, the two departments would get together and spend several days reconciling paper files because from time to time there were differences in the forms. At the end of the year a report to the funding agency was required. This report was generated from the online forms with the push of a button. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, the paper forms had not been used for the report in several years. After these changes were pointed out to the two offices and their personnel it still took over six months to eliminate the storing of seven years files, the annual reconciliation meeting, and the maintenance of paper copies.

Look for evidence that inertia, not good sense, guides decision-making in your organization and seek to change it. Remember, however, that it will be an uphill battle and by the time you change things, there will be other things that need attention.

I go to school, but I never learn what I want to know.

This was uttered by Calvin back in the days when there was a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip and life had actual meaning. It is reminiscent of something that happened in my first teaching job. I had put the Fall Semester to bed and was beginning the process of prepping lectures for the Spring. Walking through the administration building one day while students were still on break, I heard my name being called by the provost.

Darryl, Darryl. Student class evaluations are in. Can we talk for a moment?

Uh. Sure. When?” I replied in a tone that clearly communicated my fear. What on earth could I have messed up this time.

We walked the long, dark hall to her office and entered a room that had stack upon stack of manila folders full of class evaluations. She surveyed the piles for a moment and eventually located the “psychology” stack. After few seconds, she found it.

Here it is!” she said as she thumbed through the evals. “Here. Read this one. Pay particular attention to question seven.

I breezed by questions one through six and focused on question seven. I forget exactly what it said, but the gist of it was, “What changes could the instructor have made that would have enhanced the learning environment?” On the particular evaluation that she had handed me the student had written in a very precise, symmetrical style,

Dr. Stevens was not fair at all. He expected us to learn stuff we didn’t already know.

I looked at the provost who was smiling broadly and said, “I suppose this is a good thing, huh?

Yes. It is a very good thing.

Folks, here is my ultimate wisdom for the day. Not knowing is the beginning point for knowing. The primary reason that I hear for wasteful or stupid procedures at work is “We’ve always done it that way.” If I am ever the absolute monarch of my country, I plan to make it a capital offense without appeal to say, “We’ve always done it that way.” (WADITW) Here’s the deal. Somebody you work with is going to say this to you. You may even slip up and say it yourself. Spend some of your time at work ferreting out the WADITW situations and begin a subtle, compassionate effort to change them. Understand that WADITW is highly resistant to change and WADITW adherents will tend to see you as an invading force when you recommend change. Do not expect to be successful. Pick your battles by reaching for the low-hanging fruit first.

It’s only work if somebody makes you do it.

Okay, Calvin and Hobbes aficionados will realize this is my second quote from the strip today. I’m generally a bit more low-key with such stuff, but it fits today’s thread. This will be quick and to the point. If the only thing you ever do at work is what you are required to do, you will hate it. Like many other geezers my age, I have gotten to the station in life where I can simply start a project because it interests me. When I was younger and I realized to my horror that I would be doing this work stuff for another 40 or 50 years, I freaked out. Luckily, I worked with a guy who had been around for a long time and he gave me the best advice I ever had. It went something like this:

Every once in a while, look around at work a make two lists. The first list should be things that obviously need to be done, but no one is doing them. The second list should be things that other people are doing that they obviously hate doing. Choose one thing from each list and ask if you can do them.

Over the years, I have developed a small arsenal of skills that include website design, network maintenance, statistical methodology design, report-writing, event-planning, etc. all because I asked. The best part was that these were things that either nobody else wanted to do or nobody else knew how to do, so I was seldom bothered and was allowed to develop things in my own way. A side benefit has been that I am generally seen as an independent worker who can be trusted with complex tasks. Sometimes, I feel a bit like Brer Rabbit begging not to be thrown in the briar patch. Ultimately, if you step up and ask to do the things you like doing, it will squeeze out more of the things you do not like doing.

If you are not being criticized, you may not be doing very much.

I cannot believe that I am going to end today’s post with a quote from Donald Rumsfeld! He is, however, correct. I am quite suspicious of anyone who manages to go to work 40 hours per week 52 weeks per year and somewhere in that mountain of 2080 hours of work does not get at least a little blow back from something done poorly. We all begin our careers from a position of ignorance and ineptitude. If all goes well, we move from being criticized and questioned fairly often to being criticized and questioned less often. I make it clear to the folks who work for me that I expect that if they are trying new things and taking risks, I expect a reasonable number of setbacks.

Think about these things.

If you are avoiding potential failure, you are also avoiding possible success.

If you are waiting for others to tell you what they want you to do, you are never doing what you want to do.

Doing things the way they have always been done assures you will never learn anything new.

Simple solutions only work for simple problems.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The 59th Street Bridge Career.

I am old enough to remember the tune "The 59th Street Bridge Song" as a Simon and Garfunkel song. There have been several covers over the years, so folks in their 40's will remember it as somebody else's song. The twenty and thirty-somethings will only remember it if they happened to catch the Simpson's episode that featured it. For those that remember it in any of its many incarnations, one phrase stands out...

"Slow down, you move too fast.
You got to make the morning last.
Just kicking down the cobblestones.
Looking for fun and feelin' groovy."
While I don't begrudge the fast charging, high achieving types, there is some wisdom in slowing down just a bit as a way of solidifying your career development. I won't guarantee that you will be feelin' groovy all the time, taking time to consolidate the things that you are learning will act to instill personal self-confidence in your skills and abilities.

Renovate or Innovate?

A few years ago, I was working with a colleague who was a few years younger than me. I was in my early forties, she in her mid-thirties, but about 10 years of experience in the field separated us, even though we were peers within the organization. She was bright, focused and driven and most often a pleasant collaborator. At some point, she came to me with a question about a project she was working on that just seemed to get no traction and was not yielding the kind of results she (we) had expected.

As we discussed why she was approaching things the way she was, it became increasingly apparent that she had been a part of a similar project only once and, therefore, had only seen it done one way before. She had taken the template from a similar project and was renovating it to fit our needs. Eventually, I convinced her to take some chances and try things from three or four similar projects that I had done over the years and synthesize them to fit her needs. I only say about three reasonably intelligent things each year, so I pretty much remember every credible statements I have ever made. This was one. I told her, "When you are doing a major project, your choice is always to renovate what was done the last time or actually innovate and do something new."

Later in the week she came to me again and said, "Thanks so much. You're really smart with this stuff."

I was wise enough to accept her thanks, but to also add, "I'm not that smart... I've just been doing it for 12 more years than you. Give it time. It will come."

I see this in college students in two ways, both of which can be very destructive to one's self-confidence. The first is what I would call the “Expectation of Elevation.” This occurs for the student who has always excelled in the classroom. You know the type. Student body president, good athlete, 4.2 GPA in high school. The first shot to the ego in college occurs when they are surrounded by a veritable sea of 4.2-president-athletes. If they recover from not being the only one to know the answer in class and do reasonably well in college, they are then faced with entering the job market with the expectation of a $50K to $60K salary and a management position, only to find out that sea of 4.2-president-athletes has transformed into an ocean of students who did reasonably well in college. (I'm sure I don't need to add that the economic downturn has exacerbated this situation.)

I am not saying that these students would have been better off to adopt a slacker approach to life. Expect less and avoid disappointment. Rather, I am suggesting that mentors should be sensitive to young professionals who are comparing themselves unfairly to seasoned veterans who have been at it for decades. Likewise, young professionals should remind themselves that the best project management assessments that we have tell us that the design, construction, and final inspection of Rome exceeded a day's expenditure of effort and energy.

Guidelines for Career Development Sanity.

Take a day for yourself.

One interesting phenomenon that I have witnessed routinely over the years is people, who have copious vacation time, taking a sick day that is very “wink-wink, nudge-nudge.” Everybody knows they are not sick, but nobody actually says it out loud. The problem with this is that when one returns from the one day junket, they are forced not to talk about any really cool stuff that they did because, remember, they were sick. I would hasten to add here that I think this also becomes a habit over time and people forget that they can just take a day because they have earned. That, in fact, gives us the subtitle to guideline one, “Take a day for yourself: You've earned it.”

Watch a more experienced colleague do their (your) job.
I had the good fortune when I entered the counseling field to be a setting in which I spent a great deal of time with Bruce Crawford. Bruce pretty much my age, but he had been doing counseling for a decade by the time I walked into my first therapy group. The goodest part of my good fortune was that Bruce naturally understood that whatever skill advantage he had over me was solely a matter of experience and practice and he reminded me of this constantly. There was a great deal of “Trust the Force, young Skywalker” early in our relationship. Most of what I know about counseling I did not learn in my graduate training... I learned it just watching him. Thanks, Bruce.

Volunteer to help with a coworker's project.
Seriously. Offering to do something on a project will give you cred with your colleagues, but it will also allow you the freedom not to have any freedom. Does that make sense? I hate it when I am in charge of a project and I cannot leave until it is done and the end is drawing near and I have four or five people who have pieces of the project and they are behind schedule because they have other things to do and those things are more important to them than the stuff they are doing for me. The Nerve! Working on somebody else's project and doing it their way may not build leadership lines on your resume, but it will take some of the pressure off and give you some insights about how those around you work. It will probably make you a bit more understanding about others' limits of endurance when they are helping you. An additional benefit is mentioned above... they will owe you.

Say No.
Yeah. I know it will make the boss like you more, but take it from me. Say No once in a while. It's that simple and doesn't need explanation, right?

Un-schaden Your freude Once in a While.
Do not even try to tell me that you NEVER feel some satisfaction when somebody get it. You know you do. Remember when Katie Couric left all those folks on the Today Show and took the big bucks to read the news for CBS? Admit it. You were a bit tickled. Here's the deal. Be a good sport. Walk down the hall and congratulate your biggest rival on his/her latest successful project. You'll survive. You don't always need to be #1. (Okay... so you DO need to be #1. Give it up for a day.)

Ask for advice.
There is something about asking for advice that scares the beejeebers out of folks. When I was a professor, I remember lecturing about dense, complex constructs with nary a query about the nuances of the lecture. Nobody wanted to appear stupid. Of course, many of these students would come to me after a test and complain that I had not addressed this or that in the lecture, to which I would reply, "When I did the lecture on physiological responses to threat, I ask if anyone had any questions and no one did." Asking question may jeopardize your reputation for omniscience, but actually having the answers may serve you well later.

Slow down.
This is where we started. Slow down. Do not except the fact that you must ALWAYS work overtime. Act as if you do not believe that the organization will crumble without you. Take an extra fifteen minutes for lunch once a month. Go for a short walk in the afternoon. Make a personal phone call on occasion. Relax. You'll last longer.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The West Coast Early Morning Tease.

Okay, the holiday weekend turned out to be more action-packed than anticipated. Generally, I have three or four posts sketched out by Sunday. I did nothing this weekend. However, yesterday after my Advanced Resume Workshop, one of the participants walked back to the Center with me and we talked about his career plans. More on that later today. He did, however, ask one of those simple questions that has a simple answer that changes every time you think about it. Here is my first hit on the question and I would like to encourage everyone to leave a comment/answer or send the answer to me at 17.things@cox.net.

The Question: How did you know when you had finally found the right career?

My first answer: It was the day that I realized that I was no longer simply looking for a better-paying job, but was trying to figure out what steps I should take to move towards my boss's job.
To be a bit more explicit. I worked in the insurance industry for almost four years. I then went back to school with a coin-toss decision to become a priest or a lawyer. Somehow, along the way I ended up working at a large group home for gang kids from Southcentral and East LA because I needed a temporary job to pay graduate school expenses... I never intended to stay. In my previous jobs, I had spent most of my time planning my escape, but in this job I started thinking about the things that I could do that would change how the program was run day-to-day. Likewise, instead of vacillating between studying law or philosophy, I began to think about getting more training in counseling.

The biggest single difference, however, has been that most of my job dissatisfaction since that time has been situational. That is, due to budget or staffing shortfalls, changes in management or resources, or the realization that I need to be doing more. In my earliest jobs, I simply wanted out.

You might say that in my earliest jobs, I too busy trying to get out to spend anytime appreciating the surroundings. I knew I was on the right career path when I started picking up the litter on the side of the path.