Category Archives: Career management

Get ahead of yourself.

I Have a Great Career; Why Should I Get an MBA?

You are sailing along, in a job you love, with a terrific and successful company, the envy of your college friends and the pride of your loving family.  Every day is a good day, every meeting is energizing, every challenge results in a confirmation of your skill and a testament to your hard work.  So why would you head back to the classroom, why polish up your quantitative skills, why take the GMAT, and why find a way to spend your formerly spare time on homework, research, and papers?  Why commit to a challenging multi-year advanced business education?  Here’s an even dozen reasons why:

  1. You will learn, practice and master new and important skills that are (not surprisingly) relevant to your commercial life.  Even if you already have a lot of business experience, you will gain new depth and new perspectives.
  2. You will learn a new language.  Words you thought you understood take on new meanings and you participate in conversations at work with new filters and new comprehension.
  3. It provides you with a competitive credential that will have value for the rest of your career.  The MBA credential makes a very big difference in who you are, in the talent marketplace.
  4. You will discover talents, interests, skills, and aptitudes you did not know you had.  I promise you that you will uncover at least three things that you did not know about yourself that will probably change you in ways you did not expect.  And maybe change your life.
  5. And… you will discover things about yourself, surprising deficits, that you know you must change in order to be successful in the career you want.
  6. You will make new friends.  Friends.  Are.  Your.  Network.  I don’t know how many times I have to say this, but there are no LinkedIn, Facebook, or Spoke  connections or contacts that can ever replace—or help you as much as—your real friends.
  7. You learn what working in interdependent groups really means.  Whether you are the strong team player or the weaker one, or anywhere in between, you get the same lesson:  your fate is in the hands of the team.  It is a very important lesson.
  8. It is just so darn much fun!  Unlike jobs and workday work, school is organized around you and your need to learn.  That’s nourishing and pleasurable, even when it’s difficult.
  9. You will gain esteem for yourself and confidence in your capability, for having risen to and met a major intellectual challenge.  And if you get really good grades, you will really have a new perspective on what you can do.
  10. There is an important humbling element to realizing that you don’t know as much as you thought you did.  If you are exceptional at workplace politics, if you are popular for just being you, if you are an accomplished specialist, if you are a fast-rising star, or if you are merely brilliantly creative, an MBA program is a great place to locate your limits.  We all need to know what we don’t know and may never be able to learn.
  11. You will approach everything that happens in business more objectively.  You find out that what you thought was true, wasn’t; it was just your opinion, which you liked a lot.  This place of understanding comes through in your behavior and conversations, and people realize that you know things.  This is good for your career and for your leadership role.
  12. In the end, if you can do it, do it just because you can.  Opportunities don’t come along every day, and there is no time like now.  If you have space in your life and the means or support to take on the challenge of an MBA program, just do it.  If your employer is willing to support you in this endeavor, know that such support is like cash compensation, and willing employers who do that for employees are rare and getting scarcer.

Full disclosure—I went back to school to get an MBA in 2006 (shout out to Stetson University and my classmates) and I was pretty much older than everyone when I did that.  I loved it.  It was one of the best things I ever did; I just wish I’d done it sooner.

Throughout your career, when it comes to advancing your education, know that it gets harder to justify the time when you have the money.  And harder still to justify the money when you have the time.  Don’t wait as long as I did.

Strategy and Execution: Hand in Hand

Off you go down the career path you’ve chosen!  First order of business: find the right job.  That way you can use all the pent up passion and energy you’ve been stockpiling, the knowledge you’ve gained, the skills you’ve acquired.

And then it doesn’t happen.  You get no leads, you get no action, you don’t get past the gatekeeper, you don’t beat the competition, you don’t get to do what you thought you would be doing right now.

There may be many specific reasons, but they will fall into at least one of two categories and maybe into both.  You either have a faulty strategy or a faulty way of executing it.

A faulty strategy means that somewhere in your planning process, you made an assumption, drew a conclusion, or set a goal that may not be reliable or achievable.  For example, you chose a job objective in a field crowded with competition, or a field with a diminishing market, diminishing number of jobs that you want.  Or both (uh-oh).  In this case, perfect execution is absolutely critical–you will need to have it all: grades, credentials, work ethic, attitude, flexibility, humility, recommendations, and the best connections.

A faulty execution means that your strategy is sound (enough) but you aren’t executing it effectively.  “Effectively,” when applied to an individual, means that your individual effectiveness in some aspect of the process is lacking.  You aren’t doing enough of something, you are doing too much of something, or what ever you are doing, you aren’t doing it as well as others.

Is anything ever perfect?  Not for long.  But you can do better, you can make better choices, and you can go back and review your plans and your activities.

First, review your strategy.  This may mean all the way back to who or what you want to be, and where you planned to be.  If you chose a profession with serious limits on its market growth (let’s see, maybe aerospace engineering, maybe newspaper journalism?)  it might be time to retool your strategy.  On the other hand, if you have exceptional credentials or can acquire them now, you may be positioned to be competitive even though it will take exceptional  execution.

How do you know if you need to correct your strategy? If the following are true for you:

1.  You did not get good grades in your chosen field.  I said good grades, not top grades.

2. You cannot articulate why it is the most important thing in the world for you to do every day.

3.  You did not check to see how many other people in the place where you intend to live are doing it, and how many people or companies  are willing to pay anyone at all to do it every day.  You see articles about large numbers of layoffs and job shortages in your field.

4.  You checked the above, but didn’t believe it would apply to you.  For some reason.

5.  You are now angry or upset with the economy or the labor market, for which you blame for your problems. (Okay, that one will be true for execution flaws as well.)

6.  You wish you had chose a different path, which you can now see that you might have done with good results.

7.  You have researched this, and you know that there are other places in the country, state, or region where you could do what you have been trained to do.

8.  You have not done any research at all; you chose the field because it seemed like a good idea at the time, or you listened to either your parents, your spouse, or your friends, who also did not do research on the field but thought “you’d be good at it.”

To correct your strategy, you must change your plans.  You will either have to do something different, or do your thing in a different place.  For people who are extremely committed to a profession–it is the only thing they can imagine doing–it’s easier to pull up the roots and take the garden with them.  For those who love where they live, the soil beats the roots every time.  They fertilize and nurture whatever flowers are willing to grow. (I am not riffing on “Bloom where you are planted.” Honest.)

But you might have an execution problem, not a strategy problem.  If so, the following are likely to be true:

1.  Your friends are being hired in the field, in the same community where your search is being conducted.

2.  You get interviews, but not second interviews.

3.  You are answering ads on job boards, as your exclusive avenue to consideration for the jobs you want.

4.  You see articles about talent shortages in your field.

5.  You have been given negative or positive feedback or advice on your appearance, your presentation skills, your attitude, your work ethic, your personal habits, your friends of your network (or lack of), your understanding of the job seeking process, your confidence, your manners, your ability to say what you mean, or your distraction with one or more of the above.  You have failed to heed the advice consistently.  Yes, you have to heed the positive feedback; it may not mean what you think it means to your search. (next blog)

6.  You have very active Facebook, Twitter, and Linked In accounts.  You say whatever is on your mind, quite a lot, and if that isn’t enough, you add the defining photo.  And you have no idea how all that privacy stuff works, or you understand it but you don’t care.

7.  You are now angry or upset with the economy or the labor market, who you blame for your problems.  Or your Career Services department, if you are fresh off of a campus or still on one.  (And by the way, this is not just a young careerist’s problem.  Many of us return to school to change careers, not bothering to solve the problems that plagued us in the first one.)

8.  You aren’t making execution mistakes because you aren’t doing anything.  At all.

You can solve either kind of problem, but no one can solve either kind of problem for you.  You have to be in control of your choices, whether they are your strategic career choices or the kind you make every day when you decide what to do, who to do it with, and where it belongs among your priorities.  You can always change your plans; sometimes you must.  And how you spend your time and what you think and say about it really makes all the difference in strategy execution–the rest follows your lead.

What is a Career Plan?

It sounds so formal, a little daunting, the kind of thing you’d like to put off, maybe forever.  When you are in the middle of something active and important—like making the best of a great job opportunity, or preparing to take the bar exam, or planning your wedding, career planning seems out of place.  But in fact, everything you do in your life has a place in your career.  You just have to link it all up, once and for all.  You can change your mind, revise any and all of your plans, or chuck it all in the manner of Eat Pray Love (which was, by the way, a very well-planned plan).  But you have to start with something.  Yes.  Sigh. Even–or even especially–in a recession.

A career plan starts with your life strategy, and includes your life partner’s strategy if you have a life partner and you intend to walk any part of the path ahead together.  Or if you prefer to holler at each other from different paths from time to time.   You can all change your minds—stuff happens—but articulating who you are and what you are about makes your intention real, and renders it far less debatable.  It is, for the record, who you intend to be.  Here are some examples of 21st century adult life strategies, useful in some parts of the world:

  • Raise a large and well-adjusted family
  • Retire as early as I can
  • Travel the world
  • Start a family business and spend all of our family’s time together
  • Dedicate our lives to our church
  • Make as much money as I can as fast as I can
  • Change the world in a specific way
  • Get the best education I possibly can; then give back
  • Restore health and wealth to our community
  • Give our children everything we can
  • Seek adventure
  • Make amazing art
  • Serve my country
  • Save enough money to buy a house
  • Build our own house with our own hands
  • Start a band
  • Work from home

Everybody is different.  I know that Daniel Pink doesn’t think about planning quite the same way that I do.  But you don’t have to do what everyone else does, do it in a suit, do whatever you want to do on a timetable that makes sense to anyone but you, or make a lot of money at it.  You do have to take responsibility for getting yourself where you want to go, and understanding that if you don’t head somewhere, it’ll be just your luck not to end up where you want to be.

I know people who have planned their lives and careers around things like staying sober, having day to day access to their parents, children, and grandchildren, building a substantial bankroll for an early retirement, writing a novel, and driving expensive cars.  Whatever works for you, and you don’t have to apologize to anyone, or tell a living soul your reasons.  The point of the plan is the alignment of your decisions with the place you want to be.  The plan amplifies and highlights what is important, and sends background noise to the background where it belongs.

On to your career plan—how will you fund your life strategy?

Your career represents your economic life—if it does not produce income (or sustenance, as a missionary or cleric who has taken a poverty vow might receive) whatever you are doing is an avocation or a hobby, or maybe even an internship.  And it may be important to your career or the ramp up to it, but it isn’t your career, at least not yet.

Your career plan answers three main questions:

Where do you want to go?

When you look toward the future, what do you see yourself doing, every day? The physical geography of where you want to do whatever you see yourself doing is part of the question. If you are committed to a profession or industry, you will want to be flexible about where you live. If you are committed to a community or region, you are better off being flexible about what you do.  It’s not easy to become a movie actor while living in Pittsburgh, as an example.

What is on and along the road ahead?

Is yours a highly competitive field? Do you live in an expensive and challenging community with few jobs? Are changes in the industry or region expected in the future? What will it take to get your ticket punched in the field? What are the implications of age and experience in your field? Is travel or frequent relocation likely to affect the career or plans of your loved ones? To do strategy right, you have to look down the road and anticipate the terrain, the traffic, and the other travelers.

How will you get there?

This is the key question. It addresses the choices you make, the ones you are likely to have to make, and the things you will give up. Your timing, your family and friends, your health, your age, your financial resources, and other factors play a part in how you proceed. It’s important to establish your career identity. In doing so, you are best served by being clear and focused, so that there is no confusion about your values and what you stand for. Your career itself, similarly, should be an unambiguous series of decisions that sets forth and provides context for your unambiguous identity.

Strategic career planning is a process of identifying the big picture, and then illustrating to yourself how you will manage the details in order to make the picture real. Ideas can be energizing, dreams are important, and affirmations are helpful, but actively managing a series of steps will bring you results.

College Degrees and Careers

I was in my thirties when I confronted the beast that was my education to that point.   There I was, in a management  job  I loved (Director of H.R. for a large diversified manufacturing and marketing firm), without the usual college degree.  I’d attended a big university for nearly five years, unable to settle on a suitable major.   Or, unable to sit in a seat in a classroom and focus, depending on how you view my bad decisions.  Or, if you view them as my parents did, more interested in social opportunities than educational opportunities.

Some of us do better in jobs than classrooms; I was one of those.  I liked working with others; professors back then tended to view collaboration as cheating, which meant you didn’t hear your profs say “Break up into your groups” as often as you do today.  Once I was employed, I enjoyed the constant feedback of the workday.  I loved the noise and interruptions of the workplace, the novelty, the chance to solve a real problem for someone, and, I’ll admit it, the drama of operations.

And apparently I did well enough to be moved up a few times and there I sat, missing a critical credential, when it became apparent that the fortunes of my employer were heading south, and the trend was picking up speed.

Having a job without all the usual punches in your ticket is not that unusual or difficult.  Replacing that job if you lose it can be not only difficult, but can take a very long time, if you can even do it.  Careers take place in two forums, What You Can Do, and What Other People Will Let You Do.  Others are less likely to trust you if you haven’t got all the usual ticket punches for the job you want.

Human Resources professionals and other decision makers work with a concept known as the Bona Fide Occupational Qualification.  BFOQ derives from and is outlined in federal equal employment rights laws and is set forth with the intention of prohibiting employers from establishing standards of selection that adversely affect protected minorities.

A college degree is a common BFOQ.  It is almost always required for management jobs, and you will increasingly note graduate degrees as a requirement, too.  The complexity of both the workplace and the world are creating increasingly higher standards for employment.

But, you say, what about Bill Gates?  Mark Zuckerberg?  Well, if you start your own business, you can do what you want.  But if you want to be employed by someone else, you have to be competitive.  Basic ticket punches are required.

So, here is my advice:

1.  Start by acknowledging that you can do this.  Get out of your own way by just making the decision that you will, and that it will change your life for the better if you do.

2.  Make the economic changes that you must.   If money is the issue, find a community college–most classes are arranged for the working professional.  You can take classes online, and you can’t afford not to, if you think about it.

3.  If you are employed, let the folks around you know that you are serious about this; do not hide either your goal or your reason.

4.  Be serious about this.   Do well.  Get top grades.  Attend class regularly.

4.  Celebrate your discipline and let it bleed over into other aspects of your life.  Rearrange your priorities and recalibrate your attitude.  Take things less personally; view the world around you from a different path.

5.  Meet new people and connect with a new network.  Make new friends.  Take the opportunity to remove yourself from the rut.

Education is only one aspect of the credential gathering that a career entails; there will be others.  Most people you meet in your day to day job may not realize that you haven’t gone to college, or finished college.  But you know it, and you know that it’s a critical element in your many next steps.  In the long run, it’s really easier to just do it, get the degree, finish (or start) your education, than it is to rationalize why you shouldn’t have to go to all this trouble for just a piece of paper.

It isn’t just a piece of paper.  It’s your career.

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 is Job Search Research and Why is it Important?

If I told you that in order to develop a useful career plan or job search strategy, you would have to do some research, what picture might show up in your mind’s eye?  A visit to several databases, a trip to the bookstore or library, a day with a search engine?  Research is how you get answers to your questions, so you need the questions first.  Your questions might be big and fact-oriented (What is the size of ABC’s primary market?), or simple and relationship-based (Would I like working at XYZ?).  Either way, asking questions and finding out the answers keeps you from misleading yourself by making wrong assumptions.

You can research from at least two directions:  1.) What are characteristics of/facts about the company I’m considering, and 2.) What are characteristics of/facts about me that would affect my job or career there?

Questions about the company to which you might want answers:

What business is the company in? Looks simple and straightforward, but isn’t.  I once worked for a medical device company, but not that many of the folks I interviewed for jobs there knew a.) what that was, and b.) why it was important.  Do you?  Many industries are regulated, and that limits their choices about marketing, sales, and accounting, among other things.  Your interview performance may depend on knowing why this company does things the way it does.

Is the company a division or subsidiary of a larger company?  If so, where are the headquarters and what is the operating strategy? Your day to day life is heavily influenced by this piece of info.  If you were the top accounting dog at your last company and this looks like that job but at the division level, you might check into that.  Matrix structures. . . .reporting relationships. . . . all give new meaning to who really provides your performance feedback, if any.  And, your interviewer will be looking to see how your past reporting relationships will fit into their structure.

What constitutes financial health for this company? I keep hearing, for example,  that many new entrants into the unemployed or soon to be unemployed ranks declare that they are ready to “give back” and put their for-profit skills to work in the nonprofit arena.  I can assure you that nonprofit companies are complex, under-resourced, and on most days,  competitive places to work.  “No margin, no mission” is both overused and underapplied.  And, a lot of nonprofits are government contractors in disguise, with important regulatory obligations, thin contract margins, and a scary amount of direct responsibility for human lives.  How your target company earns its organizational living, in detail, is not a small matter.  Who pays for the product or service is material to the organization’s well-being.

What is it like to work there? This is one that I should have asked, more than once.  And, it’s the one I always told the candidates the truth about (especially those about to plunge into a difficult or crisis situation).  If you get different answers from different sources, find out why.  If universally, your sources say exactly the same thing, check the web site for the source of the Kool-Aid they drank, or the spin.  If there is spontaneity and joy in the source, press for the reasons.

Those are questions about the company.  What about you?  What do you need to know–not just affirm–about yourself?

Who are you? Just like a company has a brand, a leader, and a plan to deliver a product or service, so should you.  Know your value and be specific about what you really want in return for your efforts.  What is important to you will come through your interactions and priorities every day; plan for a good fit, not a forced march.

What do you want to do each and every day? Jobs have to give something back at regular intervals, not once every few months or so.  The hours you spend on the job have to provide you with some kind of satisfaction.  It’s one thing to be a teacher, another to actually get to teach every day.  If you don’t like negotiating, don’t go into human resources.  It’s all those folks really do (IMHO, sorry, friends, it’s just the way I see it).  If airports, cars and hotels aren’t your favorite hangout, don’t ignore the fact that the job is 75% travel–that’s three full weeks a month.

How much feedback do you need and want? Do you want other people to like and admire you or are you more about results. . . and do you realize that the two might be mutually exclusive?  If you are hungry for recognition, you might be more short term oriented, as an example of the importance of the question.  Do not fool yourself into thinking that this is not material.  Your expectations around rewards and recognition are powerful forces in your work life.

What makes you happy? For some people, this might be as simple as summers off with the kids not in school.  For others, it’s as complex as saving a corner of the world, a life, or a million dollars to spend on a cool retirement.  Whatever it is for you, be sure that whatever you do is going to get you there–if not now, then somewhere along the line.

Research–like everything else–can’t live just in your head.  Document your questions, and add the answers or working hypotheses as you come upon them.  You won’t be tempted to gloss over a truth just because you wish it weren’t true, if you pursue the answers to your questions in an objective way.  Building a plan for a good career or getting a good job is not a matter of luck; it’s a process of learning, growing, and strengthening your value.

Next time:  Research Methods

Organizing Yourself

Regardless of your age, capacity for remembering important details, or improvisational skills, there are cardinal rules for career plan organization and  management.  They are:

1.  Your written and detailed strategic career plan must have at least two homes: a digital home (on your hard drive, with back ups, a cd, a zip drive, or an online venue of your choice) and a paper version, in a binder or organizer file.  You will need access at times when you are not plugged in, I promise you.  You can ask someone whose name you can’t quite connect to the right opportunity or company to wait while you reach for the binder and turn to the right page, but you cannot ask someone to wait while your Office 2007 fires up and runs the antivirus software you have set to automatic.

2.  Date and time stamp everything you do.  I mean that figuratively, of course, but you can do it with electronic and digital media and you should do it with the notes you write by hand while on the phone or in a meeting.  Write the date and time on everything, or attach something with the date and time on it if you don’t want to violate or make a mark on an original document.

3.  Do not play with your computer or other digital or electronic stuff while talking to anyone about anything.  It’s tempting to take notes while interviewing or networking.  It’s fine to write them longhand.  But tapping on your keyboard, while it may seem efficient to you, is very different from an open pad and pencil or pen on the table.  For one thing, your guest can’t reach for it and say, here, let me write down a few names and phone numbers for you, or let me sketch that out, or here’s the map.   Second, it’s not clear what you are doing and it has an unpleasantly isolating effect.  If you are both tapping, it’s just weird.

4.  Just like you pay your bills on the same day of the month, or review your budget, or call your family, or go to yoga class, you have to make time for your goals and to do lists.  You can’t do the audit checklist once and walk away.  Even if you don’t have time to revise, even if you just want time to think through a passing encounter with an ambiguity or anomaly you just thought of, you have to go there.  Make a note.

5.  You must have an organized workspace in your home.  If your home is 300 square feet and you share it, you still have to have a few square feet—it might do double duty—where you store, review, and update your plan, and ponder the possibilities.  Place is a powerful and important trigger for ideas, thoughts, and feelings.

6.  Don’t bring your career plan to work.  I’m pretty sure this requires no explanation or elaboration, but here it is anyhow.  Sharply separate, physically and administratively, your present circumstances and your future prospects, simply because it is the right thing to do.   But, you say, the recruiter (my friend, my mentor, the names sourcer, the president of the company I really want to work for) called me (or emailed me) at work.  No—you happened to be at work when they called you.  You may now say, “What is a good time for us to reschedule this conversation?”  It is never ever appropriate to take yourself and your cell phone or Blackberry outside and return the call from the sidewalk.  Please. The same principle applies to texting or emailing from work or a work-related activity.  It is not done that way.

7.  Do not fib or lie, about anything.  It is not worth it.  It sticks to you and makes you feel bad.  Then, it makes you look stupid, which is almost as bad.

8.  Thank people a lot, much, much more than you think is enough.

9.  Remember things.  Especially little things about other people.  That’s why we write them down.

10.  Take time off from thinking about and acting on your career.  Go away from it, take your focus elsewhere for a time—scheduled by you, for as long as you feel you need.  But write a goal on that subject and schedule your timely return, and resume your progress.

Remember–whatever it is, it isn’t real unless it is written somewhere.  The things that live their whole lives in your head are just dreams.

The Importance of Cover Letters

The June issue of Inc. magazine contains a great article by Jason Fried, co-founder of 37 Signals and co-author of Rework.  Fried and the hiring managers at 37 Signals ignore resumes, maintaining that “Resumes reduce people to bullet points, and most people look pretty good as bullet points.”  I’d add that most bullet points look alike, since there’s a limited supply of action verbs that can be used on a resume, and only so many relevant things in a job or a company that you could have done by yourself. You’d be surprised at how obsolete those things look after a few short years, too.

But, says Fried, “Cover letters say it all.  They immediately tell you if someone wants this job or just any job.” Yes, I say, yes!   And therein lies the magic of career planning.  It helps you identify and intelligently and confidently communicate what you want, why you want it, and what you offer in return for the opportunity you seek.

If you don’t know anything about a company, you can’t write a cohesive letter explaining why you want to join it.  And as for the sadly shallow advice to parrot the bullet points in a job posting with your own bullet-pointed section illustrating you’ve “been there, done that,” how many of those letters do you think might be sitting in that file?

A career planner doesn’t wait for the posting. If you know what you want, why wait passively for some sort of perverse permission to ask for it?  If you don’t know what you want, how can you make a good case for yourself as the best candidate for anything?

Fried doesn’t hire people when 37 Signals doesn’t have a need to fill, and 37 Signals doesn’t go looking for new needs in order to justify a hire.  But clearly when it’s time to hire, they think through the offering that shows who has been readying himself or herself for such a career opportunity.

“The Unemployed Will Not Be Considered.” Why?

I read Laura Bassett’s recent post on The Huffington Post with great interest.  It was only a few days ago that I advised someone who is in a period of extended unemployment to relax: there’s plenty of company in that boat, and employers are generally pragmatic.  My bigger concern would be getting a fair shake during salary negotiations, when the assumption is that a lowball salary offer is better than none.

However, it appears that some employers are unabashedly posting warnings on their job board postings that they will not—or their client will not—consider candidates not currently working.  I’m going to skip over the part where I would otherwise say that this isn’t necessarily true: “Do Not Believe Everything You Read on a Job Board” is begging to be blogged.  And I’m going straight to the real reasons for the apparently short-sighted and heartless warning.

  1. The search firm that is usually behind the “anonymous client” doesn’t look very helpful if all they can come up with are unemployed candidates that are already in the client’s database.  Search firms profess to have access to special candidates who are not in the market.  Producing those gets them paid; producing slates full of unemployed people doesn’t.  I’ll go further.  While big companies can usually put spider technology to work ferreting out the qualified from all the others, smaller search firms and placement firms are less likely to have such sophisticated and expensive tools.  So they just tell you to keep your material to yourself.
  2. The search firm—or HR department—may not be able to deliver candidates who are actively in the job market. The length of time it takes a company to get from one end of an assignment (approval of the position) to the other (new incumbent start date) is, at times, too long to sustain the average unemployed candidate who wants to work NOW.  The end client is the actual department where the job gets done, and neither the search recruiter nor the HR staff likes to look ineffective, as they do when the top candidate evaporates in mid-stream.  Ergo, a preference for the passive job seeker, which is what everyone who isn’t unemployed can be called.
  3. Unemployed job applicants hit the send button a lot.  Often, they know little or nothing about the company, business unit, market, brand, profession, or job.  This doesn’t make them insincere or any less capable, but it sometimes makes them seem less prepared.  I’ve been unemployed and I’ve been that candidate.  Unlike the candidate for whom the advertised job is a carefully contemplated career move, the job for me (after a few months of pavement-pounding) was more of a commodity, a lifeline, or a two-year gig in which I might wait out the economy. I wasted a lot of HR folks’ time before I wised up.

In short, it’s not a matter of candidate qualifications, as usual.  It’s a matter of job-seeking behavior—the politics of the process, amplified and placed front and center.   When you lob your resume over the transom, which is what job board recruiting encourages and what you should not do, you lose control of your image, your brand, and your fate.  That’s why you feel bad, when you read in the Huff Post that these meanies don’t want you, just because you don’t have a job.

In Bassett’s article she quotes various HR folks who maintain that it’s a skill set issue, that it takes a lot of time and HR-power to sort through the files, and yada yada.  That’s HR speak for “we do it because we can and because we want to.”  And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, unless, as Bassett hints at, the employer is perpetuating illegal discrimination.  I don’t think it’s good HR policy, but that’s just my opinion.

Here’s the rest of what I think:  if you are unemployed (or even if you are employed, actually), you shouldn’t be blindly throwing your resume (your surrogate self, if you spent any time at all crafting it) at lines and names on a job board, anyway.  You should be spending your time cultivating contacts at the companies and in the communities where you want to work.  Your resume is not even relevant to your friends and contacts until you are asked to supply it specifically to someone who can get you into a conversation with a decision-maker.  If you read on a job board that there is an opening you want, go looking for someone who can help you pursue it.

The purpose of a posting on a job board is multifold—but no one should regard it as an invitation to apply.  It is first and foremost an artifact of an administrative system which serves the HR department or equivalent, an announcement that a position is open, a listing of job requirements so that all employees and all others can see what the incumbent will do or be expected to do, and finally, evidence that a company can rely on that shows it notified everyone who might have interest that it intended to fill that job.  An invitation would be more . . . inviting.