One of the books on my nightstand right now is Tribe of Mentors by Timothy Ferriss. In this collection of “mini-interviews,” Ferriss poses a series of 11 thought-provoking questions to more than 100 successful performers, athletes, writers, and entrepreneurs and compiles some of their answers in a quick-read fashion that lands with impact. While I’m enjoying the respondents’ answers, what I’ve found most powerful are the questions themselves. A few that resonated for me were: How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours? What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? (Could be an investment of money, time, energy, etc.) In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life? As the parent of a teenager, I found the first question particularly compelling. It’s sometimes easy to forget how much struggle and heartache many of us must experience before we arrive at a place in life where we can have a “favorite failure.” It can take years to learn how to stop fearing failure and being consumed by regret at the thought of it and instead recognize how setbacks have led to an outcome even better than we’d originally hoped for. If I could give my son a gift, it would be the ability to skip the “failure-resistant” phase of life and move straight to Ferriss’s outlook, which is that, while you can’t avoid failure, you can avoid failure without reward. When we find out the hard way what doesn’t work, it only helps us get closer to the things that do, in part by uncovering our strengths and weaknesses. As Ferriss puts it, “You don’t ‘succeed’ because you have no weaknesses; you succeed because you find your unique strengths and focus on developing habits around them.” Reflecting on my own experience returning to the workforce after many years of staying at home with my family, I struggled with multiple disappointments as I navigated applications and interviews and several kind but disheartening rejections! “We appreciate your interest, but we’ve decided to go in another direction” and “We’re unable to move forward at this time” and a number of other polite messages seemed to scream failure and no hope of ever overcoming the gap on my resume. While perhaps not gracefully, I did learn something from each rejection. I took note of questions and comments during interviews and spent hours tweaking my resume to highlight things interviewers seemed interested in. I found people with experience and insight and sought their advice to help prepare for interviews, learning how to emphasize the heavy volunteer work I’d done over the years to keep my skills sharp and relevant. Within a couple of months, I finally landed a job, and a good one at that! Not the “dream jobs” I’d set my sights on originally, but one that ended up being even better because it brought me to an organization where I found unique opportunities that I wouldn’t have had elsewhere. Three personal strengths that helped me get through the painful process of reestablishing my career have also played a direct role in the exciting opportunities I’ve experienced since. They aren’t particularly unusual or impressive—strong writing skills, work ethic, and drive to build relationships—but it wasn’t until I tapped into them and started building on them that I finally began finding success. Those characteristics may sound like fluff on a resume but applying them consistently over time in the right setting with the right people allowed me to set myself apart, show my potential, and establish key connections that ultimately helped open doors for me. What personal strengths have you built upon to find success? What setbacks helped reveal them to you or, as Ferriss would ask, what’s your favorite failure?
All of us have things we love to do outside of work that keep our attention rapt. How great does it feel to get so involved in what you’re doing that time flies and you can think of nothing else! In this month’s newsletter, we’re going to talk about finding that same intensity of focus in our work. Making space to be creative Before we dive into the concept of a “flow state“ let’s make space in our schedules for being creative. Here’s why: the most optimal time for reaching deep concentration and originality is when the challenge at hand is compatible with your competencies. Cleaning the junk out of your email inbox, for example, is unlikely to inspire the greatest contributions to your work. That’s because deleting blinking ads and coupons is annoying but not very hard to do. Try to automate mundane tasks that keep things orderly but don’t require a lot of heavy lifting. In the case of email housekeeping, you could tidy your inbox at the same time every day. Set a 10-minute timer to avoid overthinking the process. Make folders for things you aren’t ready to delete but shouldn’t be distracted by right now. Perhaps email isn’t your easiest task but take the effort to decide what is. To isolate the items in your workload that can be compressed into automation, make a list of your departmental responsibilities. Put them into categories such as “simple”, “moderately challenging”, and “complex.” Tasks that don’t take up too much brain power shouldn’t overstay their calendar time either- even the ones that are tedious. Plan your approach for these tasks, be prescriptive in how often you’ll tackle them and how long they should take, and then slide them in your schedule at regularly occurring intervals. “The Secret to Happiness” Now that your daily routine is a little airier, it’s time to talk “flow state.” First, some background on the topic. Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi gave a Ted Talk on what he claimed to be “The Secret to Happiness.” Growing up in post-war Europe, he was surrounded by hopelessness. He noticed that some of the adults around him remained devastated by WWII and couldn’t find their way around the sadness. He began considering what makes people truly happy and quickly realized it wasn’t money. He zeroed in on creatives such as artists and musicians because of the devotion they have for their craft even without the promise of “making it big.” What would make someone work that hard for such little reward? His years of study revealed that all kinds of people take on hobbies and sports they find so satisfying that they lose all sense of space and time when doing them. Their contentment is their reward. Csikszentmihalyi says we can all access our creativity and retreat into this intuitive mental state or “flow.” We’re not talking about things that are a cinch (please see section on automating tasks that come easy to you!). The idea is to find yourself so deeply focused on whatever you are doing, that nothing- not your phone, fiddling with the music, or wondering how long until lunch- is going to distract you. It’s being completely present. Not only is regularly dipping into a “flow state” satisfying, if we can access this process at work, flow can help us to be productive, motivated, and even foster an appreciation and sense of loyalty for our organizations. Finding your flow state It’s true that you can’t totally manufacture the flow state. Often, getting in the zone is most powerful when it happens spontaneously. But you can certainly optimize the chance of finding your flow by following these steps: Choose the right task. We already decided what’s too easy. A recent article in BBC Worklife warned, alternatively, against choosing something unfamiliar because the process of learning something new can be too frustrating. You can’t get the flow going if you’re irritated. - Pick something you’ve done before, and you find a little bit challenging but isn’t so unfamiliar that you get stressed either. Just like you did with the simple tasks in your workload, try making a list of the exciting components of your job. When do you feel most invested? What captivates your attention? What do you find meaningful about your work? Ready your work environment. A quiet, orderly workspace, with minimal distractions is best. Put your phone away and close your calendar. Put on a sweater if it’s chilly. Some people like working with quiet instrumental background music, others prefer stone silence. You might also try a “brown noise” playlist on Spotify. Brown noise is a low-frequency sound that is meant to provide a feeling of calm and focus. Set a clear goal. This step is very personal, of course. Start broad- what is the overall purpose of this exercise? To improve upon a certain system? From there, continue fine tuning your thoughts to establish your desired outcome, how to measure your success and report your results.
The content of this month’s newsletter is harvested from a diverse crop of inspiration; a keynote speaker, two recent college grads, and one great tag line. I attended an industry event last month, and “Go before you’re ready” … was on a slide in the keynote presentation by USAF, Lt. Colonel Dan Rooney. Dan Rooney, call sign, “Noonan”, is a USAF fighter pilot, a golf pro, a man of devout faith, a dedicated patriot & philanthropist, and the founder of Folds of Honor. Folds of Honor is a foundation that gives scholarships to the children of fallen and disabled veterans and first responders. While I picked up lots useful and thought-provoking content, being the parent of two recent college graduates, and a mentor to a handful of young work associates, “Go before you’re ready”, struck a chord that still resonates a month later. The soul of the Lt. Colonel’s presentation was about chasing dreams, how we can help people chase their dreams, and the importance of not waiting. He spoke about living a full life, finding purpose for yourself and for others, and chasing that purpose, those dreams, and that fulfillment. The message is one that I truly believe applies to anyone who is starting their career, thinking about changing careers, or even for someone looking to make any kind of positive change in their life. The message I hope to convey to my children, my mentees, and all of you who took the time to read this newsletter, is that I truly believe our vocational and personal possibilities are practically endless. As fluffy and perhaps naïve as it may sound, you need to believe that in today’s world, you can be anything you want to be. The key word in that last sentence is want. It’s not easy to be anything you want to be. It’s actually pretty difficult. Because we live in a world where anything is possible, sometimes the most difficult part is figuring out the what. What is your potential? What are you good at? What do you want to be good at? What do you love to do? What is your dream? What is stopping you? When you figure out what your dream is, what your want is, you start to get clarity on how you’re going to chase it and achieve it. When that want becomes stronger than your discomfort, you figure out the how. It’s important to understand that there will be some discomfort along the way. In most cases, if the personal journey were easy, the destination is probably not going to be that great. It takes courage, it takes patience, it takes belief, and it takes a little bit of caution… but just a little!! Another great line from Dan Rooney’s presentation is, “Courage and comfort can almost never co-exist”. Allow yourself the freedom to change your mind, but don’t change your mind, or give up because it’s too hard. When Gina Davis’ character (A League of Their Own) wanted to leave the team, because things were becoming “too hard”, Tom Hanks’ character says, “Yeah, it is hard. But it’s the hard that makes it good.” Chasing dreams, fulfilling passions, reaching your best potential, would not be nearly as fulfilling if it was easy. The only awesome thing in life that’s easy is a hot fudge sundae… even then, you have to heat the fudge. Figure out your dream. Discover what you’re passionate about and turn that dream into your reality. Okay, now let’s say you found that dream, that want … that passion. Is it realistic? Not to the rest of the world, is it realistic to you? The check list is short: Is it your dream? Is it someone else’s dream for you? If it’s someone else’s, does it come from a place of love, support and caring? If so, does that dream fit? Do you believe it makes you better, happier, fulfilled? If the dream fits, chart your course!! Better put, chart your own course! Don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do, but it never hurts to listen to the advice and counsel from people who you trust have your best interests at heart. This is where great mentors come in. It’s important to realize that there will be doubters and naysayers along the way, even from family and friends. It’s sometimes just human nature to ridicule or try to downplay someone trying to improve their situation. Maybe they’re jealous, maybe they’re afraid of being passed up, or left behind… maybe they just don’t understand. When you are chasing YOUR dream, you must find a way to block that out. It’s important to consider any advice that comes from a positive place, and to weed out the junk. You owe it to yourself to chase the dream, you owe it to the people who believe in you to chase it as well. You owe the naysayers nothing. There is a great quote by James Baldwin: “Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by those who are doing it.” When I started writing my blog page, ‘The Large Man Chronicles’, a lot of people asked why I thought I could do something like that. It was as if I didn’t have the right to write! (See what I did there?) My only answer was that it was just something I wanted to do. I travel a lot, I see funny, beautiful, and interesting things along the way, and I thought people would enjoy reading about it. I believed I had stories to tell. I believed I had something to say about the human condition, and I believed that I would find an audience of readers who could relate… and so I did. My want to tell a story, and to explore my creative side, was greater than the discomfort that came with the criticism I received. Maybe I wasn’t ready to be a good writer, but I wanted to tell stories, so I wrote them anyway. If you are chasing a dream, reaching for the stars, trying to reach your full potential, and you wait until everything is just right; the right time, the right place, the perfect financial situation, you’re likely to spend the whole journey just waiting. Please, don’t do that! Very rarely do the stars perfectly align. “Go before you’re ready” doesn’t apply to skydiving, but it fits your personal and professional goals and dreams like a tailor-made suit. Of course, you need to be responsible, you need to own your stumbles and mistakes, but go before you are ready! Ask a mentor: There are stories told every single day about amazing people who chased a dream and accomplish remarkable and awesome things against incredible odds. Make one of those stories about you. Share your story with your mentor: What are your goals, dreams and aspirations? Talk about your strengths and how your vision might be a potential benefit to the organization. Share any fears or obstacles that are holding you back. Ask your mentor about their experiences: What are/were your dreams? Did you see them through? Can you tell me about the journey? What roadblocks did you encounter?
We’ve written a lot about the components of professional networking: actively pursuing new connections, working your network to leverage your career goals, developing an “elevator pitch” … This month we’re going to drill into the process of meeting new people and explain some basic rules of etiquette. What is, for example, the politest way to make an introduction? Do we shake hands anymore? Is it okay to follow up with them later? Emily Post, in her quintessential handbook Etiquette, wrote of introductions: “An automatic and easy familiarity… leaves us free to turn our minds to the more complicated arts of conversation and listening.” We want to set you up for a comfortable first meeting to alleviate nerves or the awkwardness you might experience when trying to build new professional relationships. “Use your best manners” sounds a little school marm-ish, but truthfully, if you are cognizant of protocol and expectations, the people you meet will see you as confident and capable. The Introduction. Back in the day, you would probably be making the most of your networking connections at a conference or happy hour. But today, many of us are as likely to meet a new contact through a zoom call in our living room as we are at a social event. Let’s go through the different ways you might introduce yourself depending on the space you’re in: In person- 1. Stay away from walls and corners. Work your way to the center of the room because that’s where you’ll meet the most people. And, if you end up in a conversation that you don’t want to be in, being in the middle makes it easier to find an escape route. When someone is droning on and on at you while you’re standing against a wall, you are quite literally stuck. You need to be free to work the room. If you’re holding a beverage or a plate of food, try to keep it in your left hand. Keep your right hand free to shake someone else’s or, if shaking feels too unsettling, fist bump or wave. Remember, not everyone has returned to handshaking and there’s a chance some of us never will. If you are a handshaker, watch the body language of the person you’re meeting for the first time. If you don’t notice a flex in their shoulder or if their hand remains tightly at their side, a wave will be sufficient. If you don’t like touching hands, but they put out theirs? You could quickly wave and smile with your eyes. Or maybe nod and keep your arm down at your side. If all else fails, we’ve been through a lot together as a society and you should never feel badly saying, “Sorry, I’m just not comfortable shaking hands.” Properly introduce yourself. Have something prepared. A lot of us can’t even remember our favorite movie if asked on the spot. Tell them your title, your main function (in one sentence), and maybe what brought you to this event if the reason isn’t obvious. This is not the time for your elevator pitch, you can go into deeper detail about your work once you’re a bit further into the conversation. Facilitate easy introductions for others. If you are speaking to someone of a higher rank and one of your contemporaries comes over to say hello, introduce the lower-ranked person to the higher-ranked person instead of vice versa. And then, say a couple of things about your colleague to get the conversation going for them. Here’s an example dialogue: “Hello, General Smith, this is my cubemate, Jane Jones Jane came to the agency from an internship at EPA in the city.” On a screen- Take a minute before the meeting to set yourself up for success. Check your background to make sure it’s neat and there’s nothing inflammatory in view. Do not sit in front of a bare window, being backlit will give you a shadowy, garish appearance. I like to pull the reading light off our piano and position it in front of my laptop so that it shines slightly above my head. I want others on the call to be able to see when I smile and notice my engagement in what they’re saying. It’s okay to be a little more casual. Since your full name likely already appears on the screen, and you were presumably listed on the meeting invite, you can be briefer with your greeting: “Hi! I’m Nicole. I don’t think we’ve met before! It’s really nice to see you.” You can tell them a little about your job and might ask them, “So how long have you been working here?” or “Tell me more about what you do at Patent and Trademark.” Do advanced research. Before you hop on the call look at the names on the meeting invite and try to read a little about what each does. Not only is this polite, but also brevity is key with zoom networking because often the only time you have is the few minutes before the meeting begins. It’s helpful if you can start your introduction a few layers in because you already know their division and their title. Listening is your main function. Whether making a new connection online or in person, you should be listening more than talking. It sounds counterintuitive because of course you want them to know about what you do and your value at the organization. But this is your opportunity to create the want for connecting with you again in the future. Stay present and ask questions about what they’ve told you, instead of planning what you’re going to say next. Mind your posture and keep eye contact. Give an occasional nod so they know you’re listening. The truth is, if you make a new acquaintance feel good because you’re engaged in their message, they’ll be more likely to remember you. You might even paraphrase or repeat something said, such as “I can’t believe you lived in Chicago!” or “So you have been working here since you graduated college? That’s amazing!” Conversation manners. Here are some other things to keep in mind while in conversation: Listen to them carefully and see if you can find any commonalities (“You run marathons? or “You like to grill?”) Keep your hands out of your pockets. Instead, you can bend your elbows and clasp them in front it you, rest one on the back of a chair, hold something like a notebook or a coffee, or use them to emphasize your words. If you think there’s a chance, you might need to pick up your phone, tell them ahead of time- and it better be a good reason. (“Sorry I’m holding my phone, but my son got a flat tire and I’m just waiting for him to let me know AAA got there.”) If they’re a good conversationalist, maybe they’ll even leverage your honesty to point out something they have in common with you (“How old is your son? My just got his license last week!”). Follow up. It’s hard to meet people! Don’t let your efforts go to waste. Follow up quickly before the person has time to forget how much they enjoyed talking to you and be conversational to avoid sounding relentless or enterprising. In these modern times, email or text is sufficient. Mention something from your conversation, suggest meeting again, and offer your help too. Be specific about what you might be able to do for them in the future. Here is an example: “It was nice meeting you this evening. After hearing about your trip to Toronto, I’m dying to go! Let’s keep in touch and maybe meet for coffee next month? Would love to hear more about your divisional work. And if you ever have a question about the legal end of your project, call me.” Ask a mentor: We’ve shared broad etiquette strokes, but the culture of your organization will determine other rules you should keep in mind. Ask your mentor to help make a list: How specific should I be about my job when meeting new people? Is it okay to follow up with very senior leaders if we happened to meet? When I meet someone new, outside of my division, how should I keep the relationship going?
What is a leader? Buffy Van Brocklin was a customer service representative at a manufacturing firm. Buffy answered phones, entered customer orders, helped with technical product questions, and was a “go to” guy, both within the organization, and outside the walls with customers and vendors. I don’t know how he got the nickname, Buffy, but he was affectionately referred to as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” I never saw a problem that Buffy couldn’t solve. His tools were patience, some technical prowess, an unquestioned work ethic, and a passion for helping people. While I’m sure it was not anyone’s plan, Buffy’s daily habits created a “can do” culture within his company, and that culture remains in place today… several years after his retirement. Buffy wasn’t anybody’s boss, in fact, being a manager was never something he aspired to. Buff (for short) was content to do a great job, and help his co-workers and customers do the same. And while he was not technically a manager, Buffy’s presence was critical to the mission of the company. Almost all his human interaction was over the phone, and yet, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was “the face” of his company. That’s a leader. Definitions for leaders and leadership vary from resource to resource. I’ll offer up my simple description: A leader is someone who gets things done. At work, at school, at home, and in our communities, a leader sees a need, and fills the need. It's that simple. Not everyone aspires to have a title, not everyone has the need to be a boss. But I believe most of us want to contribute in a positive way, make a difference, and be appreciated for our efforts. So here are a few things Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and others, have taught me about leadership on my professional journey. A lot of it comes down to good intentions, self-awareness, and some good old common sense. It also helps to have a good leader or mentor to model those leadership traits. 1) Be Reliable Show up every day, on time, and ready to work. This “common sense” habit is not just noticed by your managers, it’s noticed by your co-workers as well. Being a reliable teammate is one of the first steps in leadership recognition. The best ability is availability. Be there. 2) Be Flexible There should never be a job, that’s “not my job”. If you can do it, do it. I worked for a gentleman who owned an industrial supply company that did $50 million in annual sales. Simply put, he was rich! I came back to the office late one night, and he was emptying the office wastebaskets. When I jokingly asked if he had been demoted by his business partner (his wife), he laughed and told me that when they started the business, they knew the key to being successful was to “never be too important to take out the trash.” The cleaning staff had an emergency and couldn’t make it in that evening, and he did what had to be done. This was such a great lesson for me as a young professional – both in flexibility and humility. 3) Become an Expert Know the job. Know the mission. Know what the end result is supposed to look like. You may have responsibility for a small part of a bigger project, but whenever it’s possible, know the whole project. Becoming an expert shows interest and initiative. Being an expert makes you someone that others can turn to for help. Showing interest in the bigger picture creates value. Expertise is always valued. 4) Share the credit… own the blame This is sometimes a tough pill to swallow, but it’s what great leaders do. In the professional world, we rarely win completely on our own. Whatever the end result is supposed to look like; a workspace realignment, a new product design, a World Series championship…the program analyst, the engineer, or the closing pitcher did not win it on their own. Good leaders will always acknowledge the team before themselves. This is always true. But sometimes you don’t win, you don’t get the deal, or the project fails to meet its expectations and it may have had nothing to do with your efforts. Good leaders own that blame, and never “point fingers.” This is always true. (And it’s always tough!) 5) A good leader praises publicly and loudly, but critiques and corrects quietly and privately. On this point, we could substitute the word, “leader” with “person.” Find a way to make somebody feel good about who they are, and what they are doing, and bring it to other people’s attention. A good organization has no unsung heroes! However, if something (or someone) needs improvement, or an all-out change of direction, remember to do it privately and with as much compassion as possible. This point applies anywhere in an organization’s hierarchy. If you take nothing else from this article, take point #5 and the understanding that everybody is entitled to their dignity. 6) Show Passion Being reliable, and showing up are important, but showing up is just a part of the leadership recipe. Being an expert at your craft, and at the team’s mission is also important. But being passionate about being there is vital to your success as a leader. Passion is infectious (but in a good way!!), it’s how you affect and improve a culture. And while I don’t know everything about anything, I do know this: If you can’t be passionate about what you’re doing during the 8 or more hours of your workday (1/2 of your waking life!), then for your own sake, do something else. Be your own leader. Make passion your personal brand. Leaders come in lots of different and diverse packages, and many of those packages are not accompanied by a title. You don’t have to be “Division Manager” or “VP of Marketing” to be a leader, you just need to care about what’s going on and show that attitude and passion to others. You could be a supply clerk, you could be a regional sales rep, you could be a dude named Buffy the Vampire Slayer…You DON’T have to be a “boss” to be a leader! Ask a mentor: At your next mentoring meeting, share with your mentor your definition of leadership and ask them what skills, qualities and attitudes make a difference. Some questions you might ask: What is your definition of leadership? Do you have an example of someone who was a natural leader? What most struck you about them? Are there areas where you see a need for leadership at all levels in your environment? What does it take to become recognized as a leader in your field?
Whew! We’ve made it! To the midpoint of the year, I mean. This is a good time to check in on yourself to see how you’re doing with the goals in your performance plan and any personal improvements you set when making resolutions six months ago. In this newsletter, we want to give you some strategies for a mid-year professional check-in including evaluating where you’ve been, letting the right people know of your achievements, and setting yourself up for a successful second half of the year. Conduct your own mid-year performance check-in Set aside time to brainstorm the milestones you’ve met this year. Consider writing a formatted list to help you visualize where you’ve achieved the most milestones and what areas need more focus for the remainder of the year. Here is a sample: Connect your achievements to your goals Look at the formal goals you set for this year in your annual performance plan. What were the measurable components of the plan you set? How do the achievements you’ve made this year line up with those objectives? Follow these steps: Review your goals: Assess which has been achieved, what is still in progress, and which might require adjustment. Consider how they align with your current job priorities. Specifically address progress: If you haven’t already, break your goals down into smaller bites so that you can attach achievements to them. See if you can correlate a milestone to each goal in your plan. Identify obstacles: Is there anything getting in your way? Consider time restraints, lack of resources, and know that recognizing them will help you determine what other support might be needed and ask for it. Now that you have a full picture, tell your supervisor about your progress If your organization does not have a formalized process for a mid-year performance review put a meeting on your supervisor’s calendar to do it on your own. This is your opportunity to let your manager know how well you’re doing, ask if you’re on the right track, and garner advice for positioning yourself for success in the second half of the year. When speaking to your manager you might: make a list of your specific contributions over the past 6 months. highlight any training or mentoring you’ve had. offer a specific anecdote for how you handled a challenging situation. Ask for feedback Ask for feedback on your current progress and what you could do better moving forward. Let your manager know how motivating their guidance is for you. Are there areas where they’ve seen specific improvement? What about areas that could still use a little work? Essentially, “Do I need to change anything to achieve my goal?” Decide what you want to do next Pick a few wins that you’d like to be able to say you made by the end of 2023: What skills would you like to have by the time of your next review? What new responsibilities do you want to take on? Do you have a sense of where you’d like to be three years from now? Do you need to shift your goals? If so, what needs shifting? Ask a mentor: How do you stay on top of your career goals throughout the year? Do you meet with your manager midway through the year? Do you initiate conversations with key leaders to let them know of your goal progress and recent wins?
Spring is in the air, and with it, a sense of new possibilities. The scene is perfectly set for mentoring partnerships to narrow in on how the mentoree can grow and prepare for future opportunities. Pairs can revisit the mentoree’s long-term professional ambitions and delve into the skills, experiences, networking, and planning that can help them get there. Skills. What technical skills will the mentoree need to develop or hone to be competitive as they advance in their careers? Identifying educational requirements, professional training, or development opportunities the mentoree can build into their plan will set them on the right path and provide a roadmap to the future. Beyond technical skills specific to a certain field, mentorees can also work to build transferable skills that are not specific to a single job but can be adapted in different roles. For example, an employee’s communication skills can be a huge help or a huge hindrance. These skills are used constantly in most workplaces and strongly impact how an employee and their work is perceived. Does the mentoree speak effectively and write well? How do they fare at influencing, negotiating, and persuading others? Are they comfortable listening and providing feedback? How confident are they delivering presentations or providing training to others? Considering the position the mentoree hopes to achieve, identify other skills they will need to be competitive for and successful in that role, such as leadership, project management, or planning and research. Experiences. Experience is an important but tricky thing, especially for those early in their career. As many graduating college students lament, you need a job to gain experience, but often struggle to land a job without experience. While those already in the workforce don’t face quite the same predicament, it can be challenging to compete for advanced positions without the experience those positions would provide. However, mentorees can proactively seek opportunities now to build experience they will need later. To gain technical experience, they could ask to assist with organizational projects or working groups, arrange a recurring shadowing opportunity that would expose them to a certain process or operation, or identify an external volunteer opportunity that would provide relevant experience. For example, if a mentoree needs project management experience and isn’t able to identify an opportunity at work, they could seek out a community volunteer opportunity that would allow them to lead and manage a project, not only gaining that experience but learning dos and don’ts they can carry forward to future professional projects. Networking. Regardless of a mentoree’s professional field or objectives, building a strong network is one of the most important things they can do. Networking is more than collecting business cards from everyone they meet—employees can develop strategic business relationships with people at all levels and positions in the organization. Who could potentially help them gain experience, visibility, or credibility? Developing a targeted list of potential connections and designating time to network with them could be instrumental in laying the path for mentorees to move forward in the future. Many organizations have committees, working groups, or extracurricular opportunities, like Toastmasters. Mentorees should familiarize with opportunities in their agency to get outside their team and interact. And if the opportunity to connect with a key contact isn’t available through those means, reaching out to request situational mentoring is a great way to start a professional relationship! Planning. The bulk of career planning involves the mentoree preparing for their next role. And it begins with understanding realistic career path timelines that will help them to backward-plan and ensure they hit milestones along the way. Looking at the average career advancement in a given field, mentorees can assess how much time they have to gain the skills, experience, and networking connections they will need to help assure their continued progress. From there, it’s a matter of identifying opportunities to achieve the necessary growth in each of those areas and getting to work! It’s never to early to start thinking, planning, and acting ahead. Ask a Mentor Here are some questions mentoring pairs can discuss to ensure a well-rounded mentoring experience. Discuss the roles the mentoree would like to hold in 5 years, 10 years, and the position they ultimately hope to reach. How long, realistically, does it take to achieve those roles? What technical and transferable skills will they need to build along the path to each of those three roles? What are some ways the mentor has honed those skills? What specific experience will they need to acquire to compete for those roles? How has the mentor gained needed experience they weren’t able to get directly in their role? What are some strategic connections the mentoree should develop? How might the mentoree go about networking with those individuals? Does the mentoree have a long-term career plan? Does it incorporate steps to gain the skills, experience, and connections that will help them move forward?
In Poor Richard’s Almanack, Benjamin Franklin coined the saying as “The rotten Apple spoils his Companion.” We’ve come to know it as, “One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch." But what about the good apples? Can a good apple have an equally opposite effect on the produce stand? How much influence can someone with positive energy, attitude and presence have on a team or working environment? If there is a Crabapple in the bunch, can a Honeycrisp apple help everyone overcome the Crabapple vibe? That’s a lot of questions, and the answers can vary with each situation, but in general terms, the answer is, YES! Absolutely! In my 40 plus years in the workforce, I’ve seen the damage that a negative co-worker, or manager, can bring to a team. But I’ve also seen the impact of what sincere, positive energy people bring as well. It seems to be more difficult to bring morale and energy up, than it is to take it down. We all need to be mindful of this. Patience, and persistence is the key. If you find yourself in a situation where a co-worker is creating a negative or hostile environment, the most important thing (and sometimes the most difficult thing) to remember is that responding with equal or greater amounts of the same emotion almost never works. Snapping at someone or chastising someone who is already in a bad place emotionally, will usually just aggravate the situation, and create more negative energy. Picture a pendulum that swings back and forth, negative to positive, grouchy to fun, mean to kind. A forcefully applied response or demand to a bad attitude may fix a hostile or tension filled moment, but it rarely solves the problem, it just swings the pendulum to a more negative place. Understand that there is strength in patience and great power in kindness. In ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, my favorite habit is #5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This book was written to help create success in business, but this is a habit we should saturate our daily lives with, at work, at home, no matter where we are. I like to journal in the morning before I start my day, and the first line in my journal is born from #5: Take a breath. Nothing that happens in my day can make me lose patience. Patience is MY virtue. Seek to understand. Imagine a co-worker, we’ll call her Rebeca Ann Finkleheimer, or just Becky. Becky has days where it seems like she responds to every question with a sarcastic remark, or a sigh of impatience. This is just, “who Becky is. The team has gotten used to it, and obviously, it can be frustrating, but Becky isn’t going anywhere, so they avoid her as much as possible, and make the best of it. This is NOT a great strategy. A good apple might ask Becky to join them for a cup of coffee and simply ask how she’s doing. This might sound overly simple, and maybe it is… but would it hurt to try? Over a cup of coffee, ask about Becky. You might be surprised at what you find out. Becky may have been grouchy for so long that the rest of the staff just ignores her. She feels isolated, she feels like she’s not part of the team, and she may even feel that the “bad apple” is the role she’s supposed to play. It is very easy to fall into a pattern. Maybe a Good Apple can interrupt the pattern. In my career, I have worked with several highly successful salespeople. One of the most successful is an industry icon. He has worked for a handful of organizations, and every place he’s been, he has improved the business across all the measurables, and made positive changes to the culture as well. That’s how one becomes an icon! Icons can be a bit self-centered and can lean towards prima donna behavior (my personal favorite!!). We’ll call my “Icon”, Beauregard, or Beau, for short. Over a short period of time, Beau had become extremely disrespectful to other members of our team. He was short tempered, he hurled insults, and he never started a fresh pot of coffee after he poured himself the last cup. Come on man! This team needed to collaborate daily, and while Beau was not the boss, he was looked up to by the team. Consequently, his behavior had negatively affected the team’s unity, and created a culture of tension and even a little fear. The other team members began to just avoid Beau. Obviously, avoidance doesn’t work in an environment that requires collaboration. Take a breath… seek to understand. Beau was leaving the sales division, and going into operations to finish out his career. I didn’t want his behavior to influence the rest of our team, and more so, I didn’t want that behavior to have a lasting influence on his legacy as a sales professional. I reached out to one of my mentors, explained the situation, and asked for a little coaching on how to address this without putting Beau on the defensive. I was advised to put the reason for Beau’s grumpiness on me: “Beau, we’re looking at a new role for you, as you reach the finish line of an amazing career. You have become one of the most influential leaders in an industry stuffed full of great people (all true). I feel like these last several weeks, you’ve been unhappy, and the rest of the team feels that way too. Have I done something to create some aggravation? Am I doing something that triggers this unhappiness? This opened a floodgate emotional dialog. Beau is terrified by the thought of a role change. Beau doesn’t know who he is, if he isn’t Beauregard Aloycius Von Hammershmidt of the A.C.M.E Flour & Packing Company (these names may, or may not, be fictional). So consequently, Beau had a bit of the blues. Oftentimes, when a real human person has the blues, their personality will turn red. Beau didn’t want his legacy tarnished either (remember, prima donna). When his behavior was brought to light, he could look internally, and understand that he needed to make changes. As his manager, I could keep an eye out for triggers that created the emotional responses from Beau, and began navigating the transition to his new role much better. The Rebecca Ann Finkleheimer, and Beauregard scenarios are general examples, “mosaics” of different people I’ve worked with, but these examples are common. In both cases, the Crabapple was affecting the barrel, the bunch, the team. This is where good leaders and simple acts of kindness and maybe a pinch of seeking to understand, can make all the difference. You don’t have to be a boss to be a leader. Good apples can make a difference! ASK A MENTOR The next time you meet with your mentor, plan to share what you both have experienced in the work environment when a negative employee can bring down the morale of the team. And discuss whys you can prevent or manage them. Consider the following: What strategies do you employ to keep calm in stressful situations with a negative co-worker? What are your best practices for addressing negative behavior that is creating tension and fear in the work environment? What conversations do you have with others to understand their point of view?
January is a clean slate. The starting point for our newly set professional and personal goals. It’s possible, however, to be overzealous in planning our intentions for the new year. When the expectations we place on ourselves for doing new things and seeking fast results become too cumbersome, we often fizzle out. This month, we want to encourage you to take a slower approach to your resolutions. Here are some strategies for building the lasting power to accomplish them. Develop a progress mindset Understand that achieving your goals might take some time. Approaching your professional goals is similar to taking on a new fitness plan. The best results happen when you work new habits into your already existing life routine and keep them going over a long period of time. It would be unrealistic if a person who doesn’t normally work out could suddenly find four extra hours every day to do nothing but exercise. Even if they could sustain such rigor, that kind of regimen might lead to burnout after a while. But if that person instead decided to pick three mornings a week to go to the gym or committed themselves to a 10-minute walk every day after lunch, they might be more likely to stick with it and then start to see real results. Keeping a progress mindset is similar. The results won’t be instantaneous, but intentional, well-planned changes spread out over time will put you on a path to longer-lasting success. *A Progress Mindset Trick* Don’t forget that all movement is progress, even when things don’t seem to be going your way. Even when you make mistakes. You might even develop a calculation to retool things that don’t go your way as symptoms of progress. For example: “That presentation didn’t go very well. Okay! Now I know that this team needs more data for evidence. I’ll be ready next time.” Or “My supervisor seemed frustrated when I didn’t have a status update on that project. Okay! Now I know that status updates are very important to my supervisor and can plan to have them ready weekly.” Break your goals into smaller bits Try organizing each of your goals as an outline. Attaching actionable steps to each goal not only powers them with momentum but it also converts them from a broad, overwhelming idea in your mind to something that you can actively tackle over the course of the year. Consider this example of a goal that has been broken into measured pieces. Goal: Secure a senior project manager position. Update resume Shadow a colleague already in this role Connect with supervisor about openings Ask HR for list of needed competencies You might drill into each step further with additional incremental tasks and even firm dates. Like this: Update resume Add current role- Feb 2 Read resume examples on LinkedIn- Feb 9 Updates/edits/condense oldest job description- Feb 16 Ask a friend to review- Feb 23 While it takes effort to think though each goal in such detail, breaking big ideas into small morsels makes things seem more possible. And, if you attach dates, you will practically be putting them on autopilot. No decision-making fatigue or wondering “what should I do next?” (Which sometimes results in doing nothing at all.) On February 2nd, you know to add a paragraph description of your current role to your resume. Revisit your goals throughout the year Pick a few times throughout the year to evaluate your goals and the progress you’ve made toward them. Maybe even set a quarterly calendar reminder. Take a minute with each individual goal and ask yourself the following questions: Why is it important that I meet this goal? How would meeting this goal make my job more fulfilling? How does this goal bring me closer to achieving my overall career plan? Refreshing your memory of why you are working on certain corners of your career will reinforce your own belief in yourself. And, from a pragmatic perspective, if your priorities have changed because a teammate has left, or you have been assigned to a new project- whatever the circumstances- checking in on your goals periodically will assure their relevancy. Ask a Mentor Talk to your mentors about the strategies they have used to make sure they stick with their goals even after the sheen of the new year has worn off. Some questions you might ask: How do you plan goals with accountability attached to them? Do you set deadlines for your goals? Do you have a system for evaluating progress? Is there anyone you talk to when needing career support or encouragement?
Each of us carries individual qualities and talents that make us uniquely gifted. However, not everyone recognizes these strengths within themselves or knows how to discover, develop, and share them. The season of giving offers a timely opportunity to reflect on what special gifts you have to offer and how and where you can best use them to contribute. Discover your gifts. Discerning what makes you an asset to others around you can be more difficult than it sounds. For many folks, it is easy to see what makes other people stand out, but much harder to pinpoint what sets us apart. This is made even more challenging by our propensity to second-guess ourselves and compare ourselves to others. Many of us fall into the trap of trying to imitate the greatness we see in others rather than tapping into our innate abilities. But every team needs a variety of talents and abilities to be successful. Some, like leadership and vision, are obvious. Others, like writing or interpersonal skills, are less evident but equally important. After all, what good is a vision if you can’t communicate it or persuade others to buy in? Figuring out where you shine and how that can be useful to your team means putting aside modesty and self-doubt and asking yourself a few key questions. What do you know how to do that you excel at with ease? During your daily tasks, pay attention to where you contribute the most to your team or have your best results with the last amount of effort. Also ask yourself what you enjoy doing (or, if you find this difficult to answer, think back to what you most enjoyed doing as a child)? What have others asked for your help with or told you that you are good at? If you’re drawing a blank, ask people who know you in different areas of your life. Ask your friends and family, who know you best and may share some out-of-the-box feedback that wouldn’t have occurred to you. Ask your peers and colleagues, who have the unique perspective of working with you on projects and day-to-day operations. Ask your supervisor, who assesses your performance regularly and can provide candid feedback about where they’ve observed natural aptitude and how you benefit the team. And, of course, ask your mentor, who can offer you objective feedback based on their observations from your interactions, but also from their own experiences of what different gifts have helped make their teams and projects successful. Develop and share your gifts. Discovering your gifts and developing them takes more than thought and feedback—it requires action! Whatever gifts you’ve identified in the discovery phase are only going to make an impact if you use them and use them well. Legendary musicians and athletes are great in part because they were born with something special, but also because they practiced and then practiced some more in order to perfect their craft. They didn’t settle for being naturally talented—they worked diligently and consistently to refine their gift. Look for opportunities to flex and build your unique talents. If your superpower is attention to detail, perhaps you could use that gift by attending all project-related meetings to take notes and take charge of the list of tasks and deliverables for your team. Or perhaps you should be the last set of eyes on any document going forward for approval. If you excel at critical thinking, you could ask to be involved in reviewing proposals or reports. If you’re a gifted communicator, are there opportunities for you to present, facilitate, or pitch? If you don’t see an obvious place to put your gifts to work on your own, tap into your deepest reserves of creativity and courage and make a space! Challenge yourself to seek opportunities by consulting your supervisor to ask outright to handle certain duties or by paying attention to areas in your work unit’s processes that have room to improve and considering what solutions you could offer. Teams thrive when every member is engaged and actively bringing their talents to the table, and we all feel better about ourselves and our work when we feel like an important, valued, and contributing part of our team. We don’t have to compare and compete with our colleagues; we can focus instead on leveraging our unique gifts in a way that benefits the team and contributes to the mission. Ask a Mentor Here are some questions mentoring pairs can discuss to uncover and highlight your natural gifts: What would you say is my special gift, or which of my strengths have you observed that could be useful to my team? What opportunities do you see for me to share and apply those gifts/strengths? How do you think I could further develop my gifts/strengths? In your experience, what are some “behind-the-scenes” gifts that may be less obvious but contribute greatly to a team’s or project’s success? What are your gifts and how do you use them?