Monthly Archives: September 2010

Do What You Love or Do What You Must, or Both?

It would be great if we could always get the job, career, or compensation that we wanted, for doing something we love to do every day.  Or even work at something that we deeply believe in, for a cause that lives in our hearts.  When I see the words “Do what you love and the money will follow you” I cringe just a little, because I’d like to believe that.  But it isn’t completely true.

You have to work at marketable skills.  You can make the best product or provide the best service on the market, but if your sales and organizational skills aren’t up to par, or if your labor market tanks, or if your personal stamina, strength, or conviction falters at a critical moment, you won’t get far.

Most people don’t like entry-level jobs.  There is a reason; they are not at all like the exciting, uplifting, challenging academic life we just left.   Entry level jobs are worse than being a freshman again, but without the decent faculty, social opportunities, and sense of freedom that accompanies leaving home to go to college.  This is more like leaving college to go home, and sometimes that is actually what it is.  And it’s made worse if you have to endure unpleasant living conditions, hand over your clothing budget and walking around money to pay off your education debt, and watch some of your friends do something with their education that you think is more desirable.

Look at it differently and you will see the error of your thinking.  To an employer, you are a net liability for a while.  You have to be taught to do whatever it is that has to be done.  The smarter and more clever and rational you are, the less sense the work will make—to you.  After all, you didn’t go to school to do mind-numbing paper filing when you know perfectly well that OCR-ing and maintaining an electronic filing system would work so much better and then you could use that education of yours while showing everyone your stuff.   Of course, you don’t yet know what you don’t know.  There is a good reason for everything in an organization, and eventually it will become clear.  One very marketable skill is restraint.

There are others:

  1. Patience. With yourself, your employer, your supervisor, your co-workers, your parents, and the newbies who showed up after you did.  The one thing that gets noticed in workplaces around the world is the willing, smart, helpful one who somehow gets things done because he or she is just like that.  Another thing is the identity of those who aren’t happy and make it known.
  2. Organization. One thing you learned in school is how to organize your stuff, whatever it is.  Make a budget, make a list, make a schedule.  Teach yourself to seek the higher ground and organize the world around you every day.  That will not only give you less time to complain, but will effectively teach you management skills for life.  Organization shows through everything you do.
  3. Optimism.  You think you are on the road to hell, don’t you?  This is the worst.  You will never get out of this pit.  These are all affirmations, and they aren’t good ones.  I hear them from everyone every day—there are no jobs, it’s a jungle out there. . . .blah blah.  Be the one who sees—and self-reports—the value in everything.  You want to be the optimistic one.
  4. Strategy. Choose your strategy and stay with it.  No one gets the exact thing that they want right away.  It’s a long life, if you are fortunate, and both good and bad things will come your way.  You don’t have to follow a traditional path, and there will be lots of times that you have to change course to accommodate luck or disaster.  Just be prepared and alert to opportunities.
  5. Agility. Once you are up to your ears in debt and lifestyle, you can’t be quick or travel light, so you lose opportunities to those who have less baggage.  Go basic.
  6. Resource management.  Resources are: time, money, information, relationships, physical assets and materials, and above all yourself.  If you cannot do this, you will lose opportunity to those who can.
  7. Sales: Listening for Need.  You think Sales is about the listing of attributes of a product or service.  But really, it’s about starting a conversation that leads you to understand how you can meet the needs of another.  Maybe not today, but someday.  Learn to listen between the lines.
  8. Leadership.  It means being the first one in and the last one out, being punctual to meetings and respectful of the people who give you the paycheck.  It means not playing Plants v. Zombies where anyone can see you, and not trying to use the office computer to send your resume.  IT knows when you do that by the way.  And HR sees your material out there on the job board.  And everyone sees your Facebook posts.

You can learn and practice these skills anywhere, and they are worth working on.  You only get so much time in a lifetime, and your education on campus is only one aspect of your professional career.  That said, while you are on campus, it is in your best interest to maximize every minute of every day, and to establish a plan for your next steps as soon as you can.  If you are on the “just getting by” plan, if you are not getting your money’s worth from every single minute of every day, that is your own choice.

It is true that the value of your education will fluctuate throughout your life, and for the first few years you may not use anything you learned on campus.  Or you might, it depends on what you learned.  If you learn to be a great resource, helpful to others, leaderly in your approach to whatever task you are given, and accountable for the decisions you make, you will always have choices.

Getting Your First Real Job: How to Begin

This is not what I was going to do this morning, but yesterday I had the privilege of participating in a meeting that caused me to halt in my tracks and think about young people and what they need.  I believe the most important graduation gift you can give to yourself is a plan.

If you are a student about to leave the academic world, there are lots of opinions on whose job it is to get you a job.  Let’s start right here—it is your own responsibility to sort through advice, make mistakes, make good friends who you trust and who will help you, master the use of reliable basic tools, and above all to care about, think through, and reflect on your decisions along the way.  You are accountable for yourself and all of your actions.

But how do you begin to organize yourself so that you can evaluate your own performance?  First, you have to create a plan; your plan has to be written.  It is not real if it is not written. As you know by now, documents are easily revised, so plans can be changed, but you do have to have one and it has to be real.   Until you have a plan (and a plan is much more than a job objective), you are a bit anchorless and untethered, and that’s how you are going to look to others.

Your plan reflects your career strategy.  A strategy is simply what you want to do with yourself and your resources.  A career strategy, however, has to be integrated into your other plans and other things that you want for your life.  A career strategy speaks to how you will fund your life and your purpose, whatever it is. Career is your professional, commercial, or economic platform.

Supporting  that platform are your professional or commercial competencies and skills, political competencies and skills, social competencies and skills, and your resource management competencies and skills.  When you go to school, much of what you learn in the classroom and via planned learning experiences is in the commercial arena.  But the other platform support areas are just as important, and at times even more important.  Career management and job acquisition depend heavily on social, political, and resource management competencies, which are far less likely to be taught, designed, or structured for you in the course of your formal education.   If you don’t have an adequate supply, acquiring the right competencies should be one of your plan objectives.  This is your plan: put into it what you believe is important.

The strategy part of your plan should answer three questions:

  • Where do you want to go?
  • What is on the road ahead?
  • How will you get there?

Not easy questions, I agree.  And you may change your mind tomorrow; no argument from me.  But you have to have a distinct career identity and some clarity around your values in order to convince others to support you on your journey; “I don’t know” is not as good as “I believe” or  “I think” or “I like” when the subject is what you want.

The rest of your plan should include:

  • An appraisal of where you are right now; this is your starting point.
  • Acknowledgment that the past is past; you’ve let the past go in specific ways.
  • An inventory of your personal resources, assets, and attributes.
  • A list of your allies and advocates.
  • A description of your purpose and your values: what you will and won’t do.
  • Your strengths and weaknesses as you understand them.
  • Obstacles in your path or in your head.
  • Three things that you absolutely must do to be successful.
  • Long and short term goals.
  • Performance measures and a timeline.

Notice that your resume is not on this list.  There’s a reason.  Resumes send our vision backwards, and tend to make us want to cling to our past accomplishments. You will need a resume, most certainly.  But the best resumes are accompanied by forward-thinking and forward-looking cover letters that tee up the resume contents by pointing out what they mean for the future.  You can’t do that very well until you know where you are planning to take yourself, and how, and why.

The most important part of the career development process is the plan; the plan leads you to an understanding of yourself.  You can’t shortcut the plan, it’s like leaving the directions behind when you head for a place you have never been.

Does this look like a lot of work?  It is.  And most of you want to mention that no one you know has such a plan and they are getting exactly what they want (or exactly what you want).  Now is exactly when you should turn off the Friend-O-Meter that makes you look around to see what everyone else got that you didn’t. It simply doesn’t matter, it isn’t a race, and you don’t have to run.  What you do have to do is be prepared when your own opportunities pop up, and that is the function of a good, solid, well thought out plan that is all your own.

What are You Currently Paid?

I can defend the question, “What is your salary requirement?” but I’m not really able to offer reassuring advice on how to answer a question about your current pay.  Personally, I don’t believe it’s relevant to anything at all, and for those of you with a little bit of HR background, you know that the question has a potential problem associated with it.  If you use current salary to establish a starting salary for a new employee, you may be perpetuating illegal pay discrimination.  So I would never ever ever ask it.  But I digress.  Let’s say it is asked of you.

Here are your choices: answer truthfully or don’t answer. Both come with risks.

The risk of answering truthfully:

The information is confidential, and it won’t be for long if you tell it to anyone. Applications, interviews, all that HR stuff that is supposed to be confidential?  It isn’t always so.  There are no guarantees; people talk, and phrases and numbers are flung about in lunch conversations in the cafeteria and all over town.

Your compensation cannot be reduced to one number. If you are asked for the number you want, that’s one thing.  But reducing the value of your entire compensation package to one quick response is not only risky but  inaccurate on most days.  Don’t forget your 401K, your upcoming bonus, your disability and life package, your car allowance, your cell phone, and so on and so forth.  The inability to answer accurately is a reason not to answer quickly.

It doesn’t have anything to do with the job you want, and therefore it can’t help you. Pay is usually a function of both the value of the work of the job to the company and the value of the incumbent’s experience to the organization. The longer someone has been in a job, the more he or she is likely to be paid. Your tenure at your last job will not be taken into account by a prospective employer who is establishing your new salary, unless it is to tell you that you seem to be a bit overpaid.  Nor will your last employer’s values, workload, complexity, or other variable.  Companies mostly care about their own work.  And the third leg of the pay stool–market value of a particular skill or profession–isn’t a matter of what you have been paid, necessarily.  The company does its own studies and makes its own decisions about leading or lagging the market.

The risk of not answering:

It’s awkward. Usually the person you are talking to or the anonymous staffer who sees the incomplete materials is not in a position to evaluate a nonresponse accurately.  A refusal to answer will be interpreted as either poor corporate citizenry, a critical lack of agility, or worst case, hostility.

It’s situation-dependent. If the question is on an application, and the screen won’t budge without your numerical answer, you’re done.  If you are in an interview or phone screening, you might be able to nonanswer, and still be accurate (“I’d have to check with my accountant, to be completely accurate.  XYZ Company, like you guys, has a lot of different kinds of comp.”)

It takes you out of the running. Once again, if you have thrown your resume over this transom, it’s a first line staffer who has to have all the dots and lines on the form who is establishing your fate in this process.  So you aren’t in a good place to begin with; there are candidates in there with advocates.  Everyone at ABC Co. has forgotten why this question is important, but the first line staffer’s boss doesn’t want to see incomplete reports.  Kind of like the Office Space TPS reports; more dialogue about compliance than substance.  But there you are with an empty space where your current salary would otherwise be.  In the Incomplete or the No pile.

Here’s what you can’t do:

  • Lie or fudge or fake the number in any way.
  • Become indignant about the very question.
  • Give a speech.

But try this, if you are in interview or phone screen situation.  Ask a question, to clarify what is needed and imply that this is not that simple.  For example:  “Do you mean average annual compensation?”  “Do you mean total compensation? In estimating that, I usually include the value of the 401K match, incentives, the value of other plans.  That is what you mean, right?” “Do you mean year to date?”  “Do you include the value of stock options in that?”  And then, “That’s not something I keep on hand, as it varies, and everyone calculates it differently.  If it becomes critical I can look into it and discuss it then.”

Of course, this whole matter hits sales representatives and sales managers the hardest.  In that case, you are more likely to be tested up and down on compensation, because it is assumed that your compensation is a direct function of your sales performance, and therefore your anticipated value.  You are also more likely to be asked to produce a w-2 showing your recent year’s earnings.  I really hate that practice, but I know it is done.   And I know you are done if it turns out you fibbed.

Once you are really in the running for something, your current pay is more likely to be used to negotiate against you, which is the main reason you want to be careful from the very beginning.  If you aren’t earning much, a lowball offer is assumed to be better than your current pay.  but this is where things get tricky, if:

  • You got a large sign on bonus in the past, to make up for some lost previous perq, or the fact that you could not be brought up to a higher level because of internal equity issues.  Meaning, no one there was paid anywhere near what they would have had to offer you.
  • Your last company paid for a move you wanted, that had exceptional value to you.  You pay tax on some of these things, on other things you don’t.
  • You own equity in your present company.  You regularly get stock options, stock, or the equivalent.
  • You previously received substantial bonuses and your pay was higher five years ago. And are therefore looking for new worlds to conquer.

This is why the question of pay cannot be reduced to a box on the form.  Be careful to present a professional front in all matters of compensation; do not give in  easily to the notion that the employer holds all the cards.  Keep your info clear and accessible, but don’t negotiate against yourself by failing to define terms, set boundaries, and manage yourself at all times.

What is your Salary Requirement?

There it is on the online application—the question no one can figure out how to answer.  It is usually accompanied by: Do Not Leave Blank, and if you are online, this is a required field that will not allow the screen to progress unless you fill something in.  You are stuck.  And in your mind, screwed.

Why do they need to know this?  For many reasons, most of them not helpful to your end of the negotiations that you  imagine have begun.  You think you have opened what will become a negotiation process:  “You give me this job and I will give you something of value,” is the message I assume you want to convey.  Answer this question wrong, in your mind, and the negotiation is over before you get to really offer the value.

It is not a trick question.  At this stage, the employer is not in negotiations.  The employer isn’t looking for a few words that suggest you are willing to take whatever the job pays because it is your only goal in life to get this amazing opportunity.  The employer just wants to know the part of the value equation that is not on your resume.

Time, money, information, humans are all scarce resources in organizations, and spending time, money, information or humans on you has to be justified.  If your salary requirement is out of the ballpark, it’s over.  But “out of the ballpark” is an interesting issue.  Recruiters are paid to spot value, and if your requirement is high, and your offering is exceptional, you might get a call asking you how firm that requirement is, and seeking at least a phone screening.  Employers know that pay is not one number.  They have the means to work with you, if you are chosen and if you choose them.

On the other hand, if you price yourself so far below the market that you look strangely out of sync, you will be assumed to be puffing up your resume, or desperate, or uninformed, or not worthy.  In this case, you are less likely to get a confirming call.  Applicants who undervalue the job by reporting that they have low expectations are not as desirable as those who overestimate the needs of the company.

The reasons for asking the question are:

  • The employer (or recruiting firm) wants to validate that you are in the labor market that was targeted for this job, and the pay point is a good clue.
  • Your expectations are material to the question of whether or not you are worth the time it will take to court you, meet you, evaluate you, present you, keep you interested, and get you hired.  The farther above the employer’s highest number your own number resides, the less worth the effort you appear to be.  If you turn down the job after a long process, it affects the morale of all involved, and that really is important to the organization.
  • The employer wants to validate that you and your resume are legit.  Organizations study compensation and they know what jobs pay and what industries are leaders or laggers.  If you are off in a corner doing everyone else’s work for nowhere near what the job you say you have should pay, it’s going to look like something is wrong.  Wrong looking things aren’t appealing to someone who is seeking to mitigate as much risk as possible (i.e., a first line recruiter).
  • The employer wants to manage turnover.  Sure you know you were overpaid.  Sure you would be willing to accept less.  Sure you know that job is three levels below where you last sat in the org chart.  And you also know that your decision to pursue a lesser job is part of a deliberate decision to do things differently, right?  Take less responsibility, work fewer hours, don’t bring the problems home, enjoy life more, give your spouse a turn at the wheel, live each day to its fullest.  To some employers, that represents probably turnover.

How to handle the question:

  • Research the industry, job, geography, the company, and any other special circumstances.  Know how pay works, and target the number that makes sense to you based on all the things you know.  Stay focused on the company, not on the cost of your commute, the pay you got on your last job, or what your roommate or spouse is making.
  • Provide a real number, not an excuse for a number.  Don’t insert the word “negotiable,” it just takes points off, and could get you relegated to a maybe pile instead of a follow up file.  It only takes a few competitive apps to get you knocked out of the running for something silly.
  • Pick a round number, one with zeroes in it.  It looks more negotiable than the word negotiable.
  • Do not establish a low-ball number because you think it will make you look competitive.  It makes you look ineligible.
  • Do not report that you are only working for benefits, whether you are young, older, or the member of your family that isn’t self-employed.  This is not a good idea.  I will do a whole blog on this subject, but not today.
  • Tell the truth.  You do not have a leg to stand on if your answer isn’t somewhere close to the actual truth.  Eventually you won’t remember what you wrote down, and then you will be in an interview, and the issue will come up, and you will say something that isn’t what you wrote.  On this subject, the truth probably is that most of us don’t really care about the hair splitting number, but we do have a big rounded-off number in mind.  Use that one.

My last words of advice on this are what I usually say.  You should not be blindly completing online applications unless someone who already has your resume and your back has directed you to, at which point you’ve been given the answer to the question already.  When you see a posting or learn of a job, think of whom you might know in that organization.  Your real challenge is to get into a conversation with a decision-maker who can and who wants to help you elevate your candidacy before you have to answer the questions in the boxes on the application.