Category Archives: Career Advice

Three tips for surviving corporate life.

surviving corporate life

Sunset Girl via Unsplash

Sometimes the corporate world can feel like career Heaven, with loads of challenging projects and an awesome benefit package.  And sometimes it can feel like cubicle Hell, where you endlessly grind away at something you don’t believe in and are powerless to change.

Maybe your career priorities have shifted over time, or maybe this gig is just a pit-stop on your way to better things.  Whatever has put you in corporate survival mode, here are 3 things to remember to help you get through the days:

You are not your job.  Of course you want your work to align with your personal mission and beliefs, and maybe this isn’t exactly the career you imagined.  But sometimes it takes awhile to get there.  In the meantime, focus on who you are outside of work.  Good health, positive relationships and engaging interests are just as important as your day job.  Volunteering also has surprising time and energy benefits.

You are in control.  Maybe not every minute of every day, but unless you work on the production line, there is likely some flexibility in how you arrange your time and activities.  You definitely control when get to work, how you look, what you do during breaks and lunch…you get the idea.  You chose to be here (yes, you really did) and you get to choose how each day will go down.  Choose wisely.

You are here to learn.  You are in the best place to observe organizational dynamics and to absorb how businesses really work.  Bureaucracies can be mind-numbingly slow to change, but the upside is that it gives you a chance to learn what really moves the needle.  At the task level, having a variety of departments around you gives you the opportunity to explore what interests you and start growing your skill set accordingly.

 

How about you?  Are you in corporate Heaven or Hell?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

P.S. Are we Twitter friends yet?  Find me @TheMgmtMaven

 

How to make time for the work that matters.

how to make time

Sonja Langford via Unsplash

Stop for a minute and think of all the people you work with.  Who would you say is the busiest?

I bet one person pops into your head immediately.  Because every office has that one “busy” person – the person who always has too much to do and makes a big, passive-aggressive production about it.  The person who responds to tasks with a resigned sigh but, because they have a lot of institutional knowledge, are respected and even seen as an expert at their job.  Which isn’t surprising, since they’ve been doing that same job for years.

So why hasn’t the Busy Bee been promoted?  Because being busy is career quicksand.  You can work yourself silly, but if it’s not right kind of work, you’ll never get anywhere.

In order to move up, you have to do the kind of work that makes you management material – understanding your industry, effectively prioritizing, creative problem solving, learning to lead a team, and so on.  You have to do more than just your core tasks.  You have to take on the projects that will help you grow as a professional

But how?  You already have a full day of assigned duties and you can’t simply stop doing them, right?  Of course not.  I’m not suggesting you neglect your work.  You have to do your job and do it well.  But leaders identify ways to get what they need.  If you need more time, you’re going to have to create it.

Waste is a concept I became familiar with during my time in manufacturing.  Every process we do is full of waste – actions that take time and energy but don’t create real value.  Maybe it’s moving material from place to place.  Or sitting idle while you wait for your next task.  Or finding a defect and having to scrap your work.  Eliminating waste is key to reducing costs, improving quality and decreasing production time.

You probably don’t work in manufacturing but I believe the concept of waste is valuable in any field.  If you look closely at your day, you’ll likely see that you expend time and energy on things that aren’t really necessary.  If you can reduce or eliminate that waste, you can get more work done in a shorter amount of time and, in essence, create more time.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

Are your tools in the wrong place?  The things you use to do your job should be readily accessible, when and where you need them.  If you find yourself reaching, stretching and searching for things you need, you’re wasting time and energy.

Are you in the wrong place?  If your tasks are repeatedly taking you outside your work area, consider whether your workspace should be closer to the people you support.  Think in terms of process flow rather than department or function.

Are you doing more than is necessary?  By this I mean adding extra administrative steps for no reason – like printing reference copies of things that are readily accessible online.  Save your energy for going above and beyond in ways that actually matter.

Are you reworking things that weren’t done right the first time?  Sometimes things come to us broken and we just fix it as part of our process.  Taking extra time now to address the problem at its source will save you time over the long term.

Are you inconsistent in your processes?  Find the best way to do a repetitive task and stick with it.  The speed and accuracy you gain will free up time to do more glamorous work elsewhere.

Each of these individual examples may seem trivial, but considered together, they add up to a significant amount of wasted time – time that you can be using to do the right kind of work for your career.

 

Have you been favorited?

star-struck bokeh by Neal Fowler

If you’re advancing quickly in your department, being given more responsibility and added authority, then you may hear rumblings of favoritism – accusations that a superior has given you preferential treatment for one reason or another.  Is it just sour grapes?  Or could your ability and integrity truly be in question?

If you’re genuinely concerned, start by asking yourself why you might be the “favorite”.

Is it because you only tell your boss what he or she wants to hear?  Because you highlight your own achievements while downplaying the work of your teammates?  Because you enjoy playing politics?

Or… is it because you work hard and consistently add value to your team?  Because you’re eager to learn and are willing to take on new tasks?  Because you have a positive attitude and are generally pleasant to be around?

If you’re in the latter category, relax.  You’ve likely earned the recognition you’ve received. And you’re probably perceived as well-liked because…well, you’re likable.

If you objectively feel that your manager doesn’t have any ulterior motives, just keep doing what you’re doing.  Focus on your job and make a point to recognize the hard work of those around you.  Be generous with your praise and share the limelight whenever possible.  Eventually, any unfounded grumblings will fade away.

 

(Photo by Neal Fowler via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

 

Thoughts on finding a job you love.

thoughts on finding a job you love

Martin Dörsch via Unsplash

Back in 2000, I didn’t have much of a career plan but I did know that I wanted to do something like write, or teach, or work in a museum.  I had no desire to work in accounting, but I needed to pay off my school loans, so I accepted an Accounting Specialist position at a tech company.  I put my head down, did the work and by 2005, I had gotten my MBA and was leading a team within the credit department.  But I felt like I’d gone as far as a wanted to go at that company.

So I quit, thinking I’d write, or teach, or work in a museum.  But being unemployed was scary and after a month or so, I took a job as a Project Manager at a manufacturing company.  I learned the ins and outs of manufacturing and along the way, led the implementation of the company’s new accounting software.  Which then made me the go-to person for accounting questions and, before I knew it, I was being groomed for a controller/CFO position.  Yep, there I was, back to accounting again.

But I still wanted to write, or teach, or work in a museum.  So with an MBA, more accounting knowledge than I ever wanted and a lot of experience managing teams, I decided to jump again.  But this time, I actually had a semblance of a plan.  With a Master’s degree and a good chunk of experience, I could teach at the college level.  I found a small non-profit that offered a nice benefit package and worked as their Business Manager three days a week and I taught as a part-time adjunct at a vocational college the other two.  It meant a pay cut and a shitty commute, but, after eight years, I was finally doing one of the things I set out to do.

Why am I telling you all this?  Because I hope you’ll be touched by the inspiring tale of my climb down the career ladder?  No.  It’s because I know what it’s like to be in a job that doesn’t match what you imagined for yourself.  And I want you to know that, as hard as that is, it doesn’t have to be permanent.

But – and here’s the bad news – you also have to realize that there isn’t going to be a silver bullet solution.  Sure, in your daily browsing of Craigslist you may stumble upon something that interests you.  But will you be qualified for it?  Will the hiring manager be able to see why you’d be a stellar fit, even with no related experience?  Maybe.  But more likely, finding your dream job will take a series of incremental moves, each one building up your skill set.

Using this job to set yourself up for the next one means finding ways to stretch yourself – taking the trainings, getting industry knowledge and accumulating those resume bullet points.  It also means getting your finances in order and building a savings cushion.  And most importantly, it means finding ways to be seen as a leader and taking on a management role, even if you know you haven’t drank the organizational Kool-Aid.  It doesn’t matter if you hate the field you’re in, people management is the most transferable skill you can acquire.

So, as you’re working your way to you a job you love, focus on what you’re gaining now that will serve you in the future.  And remember that sometimes the only way out is through.

 

Dealing with the dreaded “what do you do?” question.

what do you do?

Björn Simon via Unsplash

When you were a kid, did you want to be a butcher, baker or candlestick-maker?  Maybe.

Policeman, firefighter or astronaut?  Probably at some point.

Doctor, lawyer or teacher?  Sure.

Accounting specialist, administrative coordinator or client services professional?  Hmmm…maybe not.

But that’s where a lot of us find ourselves.  And it’s hard.  Because we want to be able to talk about our jobs – they take up a big chunk of our life, after all – but it’s not always so easy to explain what we do.

Professional titles are our conversational shorthand.  When someone asks “What do you do?”, a title immediately puts us in a category and tells the listener something about who we are – at least in theory.  And we’re drawn to titles that make it clear how we add value.

Baker?  Done.  We know what that person brings to the table.

Teacher?  Yep.  Clear value proposition.

But if you’re a generalist, it’s not really that easy.  You have to work harder to explain what you do and what you care about.  And you know what?  That’s actually a good thing.

Who are your customers?  What are they struggling with?  What problems do you help them solve?

Do you take something complicated and make it simple?  Do you turn something boring into something fun?

Do you make your team better, stronger, faster?

So many people bemoan the lack of meaning in their jobs, but what if we shift our focus away from title and onto simply how we add value every day?  Beyond making your cocktail party banter less awkward, it may actually provide some career inspiration as well.

So tell me, what do you do?

 

Six things to do when you don’t know what to do.

Sylwia Bartyzel via Unsplash

Sylwia Bartyzel via Unsplash

Tell me if any of this sounds familiar:  You’re not happy in your current job but aren’t sure what else you’re qualified to do.  You’re not making enough money but you can’t afford to quit.  You want to do something meaningful but you haven’t found your “passion”.

Go back to school?  Start your own business??  Join the circus??? 

If you’ve become paralyzed by indecision, the best strategy may be to stop, take a breath, and come at the problem from a different direction.  Here are some ideas to get you moving:

Dive deep into a new subject.  It doesn’t matter what it is.  Pick something that interests you (work-related or not) and start learning everything you can about it.  Explore it from different perspectives and thru different mediums.  Follow footnotes and interesting asides.  See where it takes you.

Get an activity tracker and start walking.  Feeling aimless drains your energy and you may find yourself in a sedentary rut.  An activity tracker (I like the FitBit) will help you focus on getting up and out.  And walking will clear your mental fog and get you thinking big thoughts.

Declutter.  Our physical space and our mental space are deeply entwined.  Clearing our  material baggage has a magic way of clearing our psyche as well.  Purge ruthlessly and then examine what’s left.  It may hold clues to what really matters in your life.  (Marie Kondo’s book on the magic of tidying up explores this in depth.)

Keep a time log.  “I don’t have time.” is probably the biggest excuse we use for not moving forward.  But you probably have more than you think.  Track everything you do for a week and see where your time is really going.  Then evaluate what you can change to make time for something new.

Start a blog.  Pick something that interests you and start writing about it.  It doesn’t have to be ground breaking stuff, but commit to writing something on the regular.  Explore other blogs and start connecting with people online.  Be open to the process and again, see where it takes you.

Volunteer to work with someone from another country.  Volunteering is good experience in general, but working directly with someone from another culture – tutoring a non-native speaker, for example – is an excellent way to put your own life in perspective.

 

How about you?  Have you ever felt aimless?  How did you deal with it?

 

(This post contains affiliate links to Powell’s Books.)

Ready to quit? I’m not here to stop you…but try these things first.

Boots by Phil Roeder

I’ve quit a lot of jobs.  And not just burger-flipper kind of jobs.  Real, career-level jobs.  With nothing lined up to take their place.  Do I recommend this as a career strategy?  Um…no.  But, my chronic dissatisfaction has taught me to tell the difference between real job issues and me just needing an overhaul, mentally and physically.  If you’re feeling burnt-out and uninspired in your job, try these before you throw in the towel:

Get some exercise.  Doing this is a constant battle for me, even though I know I will feel 10x better if I move my body regularly.  So I get that it’s extra hard when you’re unhappy in your job.  But you’ve just got to do it.  Exercise releases endorphins, which improves your mood.  It improves flexibility, something you’ll appreciate if your desk job is leaving you an aching, contorted mess.  And it gives you the energy and stamina to do other important things, like professional training, strategic volunteering or pounding the pavement for your next gig.

Find a hobby.  Find something outside of work that lights you up.  It doesn’t matter what it is, but you need something to look forward to at the end of the work day.  Having something to think (and talk) about besides your crappy job will make you happier and easier to be around.  And connecting with people who share your personal interests is a non-greasy way to network and can lead to unexpected professional opportunities.

Take stock.  When you’re feeling beat up, the temptation is to jump ship and hope for the best.  But the “anywhere but here” approach often sets you up to be just as unhappy in the next gig.  (Trust me, I know.)  Think hard about what it is that you really dislike about your current job.  It might not be what you first think.  And consider what parts of it you actually enjoy.  These are clues to where you might want to go next.  Then take an honest look at your skill set and decide if it fits a career trajectory you can be happy with over the next 5-10-20 years.  If it doesn’t, you have the starting point for crafting your next move.

 

(Photo by Phil Roeder via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

 

Your job is not about doing your tasks.

construction vehicles

We all know smart, hard-working people who have been individual contributors for years.  And we also all know smart, hard-working people who have quickly jumped from entry-level to management, seemingly overnight.  So, what is it that sets these fast-trackers apart?  They have figured out one of the fundamentals of career momentum:

Your job is not about doing your tasks.

Your job, no matter what level you’re at, is about helping the organization achieve its goals, realize its vision and fulfill its mission.  The tasks on your job description are only important to the extent to which they enhance organizational performance.  Fast-trackers get this.

Now, one of my favorite Secrets of Adulthood is that the opposite of a great truth is also true.  So, yes, your job is about doing your tasks.  The foundation of any career is doing the work and doing it well.  You have to start there.

Then it’s time to explore how your work fits into the bigger picture.  Look for ways to streamline and optimize.  Find synergies between your tasks and the tasks of other team members, work groups or departments.  Share your ideas.

Look up from your task list, shift your thinking from how to why, and prove you have the big-picture vision of a leader.

 

 

How to stand-out on a cross-functional team (and leverage that experience to grow your career).

Odd duck by Don Graham

Most of us build our careers as specialists.  We get really good in one area and then we get promoted to managing other people in that area.  But at some point, growing as a manager requires a shift from being a functional specialist to a organizational generalist – from being a subject-matter expert to a leader who can understand how the business functions as a whole.

Early in your career, being assigned to a cross-functional project team can put you on the fast-track to management.  It introduces you to new people, sets you up as the go-to person in your department and increases your visibility within the organization.  It is also a great way to start making the shift from specialist to generalist.

Here’s how to make the most of the experience:

Do good work.  This should be the foundation of all career advice and directly applies here as well.  Make sure you’re contributing to the success of the project.  Meet deadlines.  Do more than required.  You’re representing your functional area and will be the go-to person, so always deliver.

Learn from other team members.  Respect that the other people on your project team are the experts in their own areas.  Defer to their knowledge.  Ask questions.  Dig into what their jobs are really like and how they impact the company.  Use the opportunity to learn their metrics, process flows and problem areas.

Don’t complain (but be sympathetic when others do).  You’re using this project to build your career capital, so you should see extra work as an investment.  But others on your project team may not feel the same way.  Show them that you understand how busy they are.  Commiserate, and then use your new cross-functional knowledge to alleviate their pain points.

Be a meeting rock star.  Knowing how to manage a meeting is key to a successful project outcome.  Be attentive, take notes and ask smart questions.  Most importantly, don’t get bogged down in the details of your specific task.  Understand the higher level problem the team is trying to solve and stay focused on the company-wide impact.

Project confidence but stay humble.  You want to be seen as smart, capable and well-rounded.  But no one likes a know-it-all.  And no matter how good you are at your job, being liked is important.  You’re building relationships that you will draw on as you move up in the organization, so build them wisely.

 

How about you?  Has working on a project team helped you grow as a manager?

 

(Photo by Don Graham via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

 

5 Ways for Students to Gain Management Experience

First Student #281 (cropped) by ThoseGuys119
You don’t need to be a business major to benefit from gaining management experience.  With a BA in Anthropology, I speak from experience when I say most of us don’t end up using our specific degrees in our careers…at least, not directly.

It’s hard to know what you want to do with your life while you’re still in school.  And who knows what the job market will look like in 10, 20 or 30 years anyway?  So the smart money is on building skills that will open up the widest range of options for yourself in the future.

Whatever industry you eventually choose, the ability to effectively manage a team will put you a step ahead of other entry-level professionals.

Here’s how to get that management experience before entering the workforce:

Mentoring and Tutoring
Being a mentor is a great way to build interpersonal and coaching skills.  Tutoring will teach you to train, motivate and evaluate individual performance.  Take it a step further and start your own mentoring or tutoring program to gain experience building and managing a team.

Event Planning
Putting together a conference, lecture series or movie night allows you to demonstrate your ability to effectively coordinate people and resources.  Events are perfect for learning how to delegate, resolve conflict and work with service providers.

Volunteering
Volunteering for a good cause is rewarding work experience and many organizations are looking for someone willing to take on a specific project.  Create your own management training by putting together a project team and motivating them to succeed.

Industry organizations are also a great opportunity to volunteer for outreach or other service projects.  They also often have elected leadership positions that require management skills (meeting facilitation, financial management, etc.).

Entrepreneurship
Starting your own business is a great way to learn any number of management related skills.  Solopreneurs won’t gain much people-management experience, so create a business plan that requires you to bring on team members.

Student Government
Student government can offer many leadership opportunities beyond just running for class president.  Start a club or organize a service project.  Coordinate campus tours or create a mentoring program for incoming students.  Student government is also a great way to hone your public speaking skills.

 

And remember…employers are always thinking about how to manage and motivate the next generation of employees.  Experience managing your peers has put you a step ahead, so highlight that in your resume, portfolio and online profile.

 

(Photo by ThoseGuys119 via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)