career

never too late

Do you remember when it mattered? When your dreams burned within and it was painful to not accomplish them right then.

Do you remember when your entire life was potential? When you thought you could go anywhere and do anything and you wanted to go everywhere and do everything.

Do you remember when you had ideas? Ideas for businesses you wanted to start or ideas to save the world or ideas of the kind of life you were going to live.

Do you remember when creativity was at the center of your dreams? The books you were going to write, the songs you were going to play, the art you were going to make.

Do you remember when the world was fascinating? So many things to do, people to meet, and places to explore.

Do you remember when you couldn’t wait to get started on your life? When the wonder of who you were going to be and what you were going to do had you anxious and impatient to get going.

Do you remember when you were going to be bold? When the thought of living a life of resignation and quiet desperation was what scared you the most?

Do you remember when you were going to be great? When your career was going to shine and you would be revered for your incredible talent.

Do you remember when work was fun? When you couldn’t wait to get up because every day was exciting and different and you were learning at a ferocious pace.

Do you remember the day all that went away? Do you remember waking up one day and wondering where it had gone? Or had you forgotten all about it?

Do you remember when thriving became surviving? When standing out became hanging on? When hopes and dreams became reality TV? When the life you were going to live became the life that never quite happened?

Bigger question: what are you going to do about it? Your life looks different now, of course. Security, stability, and comfort pushed aside passion, desire, and excitement. You have constraints and responsibilities and obligations you never had back then.

You also have resources you never had. A sense of who you really are, not just who you thought you wanted to be. Wisdom, judgment, and patience to know what needs to be done and see it through. People you can count on as much as they count on you. The foundation and options a steady income provides. A sense of mortality pushing you to get things done today rather than waiting for “someday when.” The toughness that comes from getting through the downturns of life. The awareness you won’t be the next superstar or change the entire world and that’s ok – you just need to be the best you and make a difference where you are.

I don’t know what your dreams were or where they went, but I know it doesn’t matter. Yesterday’s dreams are for yesterday. Today’s dreams are what matters.

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should you become a manager, part II

Part 1 was a teensy bit tongue in cheek. I get concerned that we often only see the Hollywood aspect of leadership – power, money, cars, Donald Trump – and miss the daily, grinding realities of it. Being a leader is difficult and comes with a lot of downsides. Leadership also comes with several upsides that don’t get much press. They aren’t flashy and aren’t for everyone, but they are important.

1. As a leader, the culture of your team is up to you. It gets established and reinforced daily just by how you show up, how you interact, and how you make sure work gets done. You can make it a great place to be where people want to do their best.

2. You are crucial to your employees’ growth and development. Sure, they have to actually do the learning, but the tone you set determines how much importance they’ll place on development and what they get out of it. You also have a perspective they don’t have and are in a position to coach and foster their strengths and build on their, um, not-so-strengths. And, how you champion them in the company determines a big part of their career trajectory. Leaders with a reputation for developing great talent tend to stand out.

3. You determine the customer experience. Whether your customers are internal or external, how your team treats those customers will be a direct reflection of two things: 1) the expectations you set, model, and reinforce; and 2) how your employees get treated by you. I’m a firm believer in the adage: the customer experience rarely exceeds the employee experience. It’s easy to tell who has a great manager just by how the customer gets treated.

4. You get to solve bigger and more interesting problems. The TV version of leadership shows your problems getting smaller as you move up in the company. NOT TRUE. Everyone’s pay is ultimately based on the problems they are expected to solve. The bigger and more complicated, uncertain, and ambiguous problems you solve, the more you get paid. And, the more you get paid, the more challenging the problems are. For example, entry-level positions deal with problems that are simple and have pre-determined answers (e.g., scanning a product and giving change to customers) and executives deal with huge problems affecting the entire company where there aren’t obvious answers (e.g., determining the best balance of stability, profitability, and growth over the next five years and the best way to achieve that balance).

5. Leadership is knowing and working with people. Although leaders do deal with technical problems, the leader’s job has people at its core. Business gets done for, through, and by people and people are logical, irrational, funny, bitter, kind, mean, caring, apathetic, generous, selfish, and a whole bunch of other paradoxes operating at the same time. As a leader you are at the center of all that, juggling a thousand things, and trying to make sense of it all. Every day is different and every day brings fresh challenges.

The best part is you don’t need title to do any of this. Leadership is about influence; about bringing out the best in those around you. Some days a title helps, but there is nothing preventing you from setting great examples, treating teammates and customers well, encouraging other people’s development, and becoming known as a problem solver.

Should you be a leader? Yes, every day. Should you accept a job with a leadership title? That one’s up to you.

high performance disengagement

I’ve been trying to go to the gym a bit more regularly lately, not that that’s unusual. Compare the number of gym memberships to the number of people who consistently go to the gym and it’s safe to assume that almost all of us are trying to go to the gym a bit more regularly lately.

That said, there are regulars – folks with impressive self-discipline and dedication who show up nearly every day. But, not all regulars are the same. The majority are focused and pushing themselves through workout after workout. Some are really fit and some are trying to get there, some are young, some old(er), some men, some women.

Look close, though, and there is a second group of regulars. I find this second group really interesting.

It’s always guys, mid to late 20s, who look superfit. Lean and muscular, you’d think they give their all every day. But… they don’t. They do a set of weights, then they get a drink at the fountain. They walk around. They chat with others. No sense of urgency, no sense of purpose, and no apparent plan. If they actually get a workout in it must take four times longer than necessary. Yet, even though they don’t appear to workout hard (if really at all) there are two crucial points to remember: 1) they are at the gym religiously; and 2) they are clearly very fit. What’s happening here?

My best guess is they played sports in high school and college, built up a fantastic physique with coaches and teammates pushing them forward, continue to eat pretty healthy, and with the metabolism of a 20-something are able to maintain their fitness without too much effort. Today, the gym is a part of their lives so they show up, but they’re really coasting on past effort and yesterday’s success.

Sound like anyone you know at work?

I’m really intrigued by the idea of high performers who become disengaged and are now just going through the motions. Chances are, they are still performing higher than average, just far below their potential and past performance. I guess what interests me is that most of the high performers I’ve known have moved on to other companies when disengagement started to set in. They were curious, focused, and had an enormous desire to do great work. If that wasn’t possible, if they felt hemmed in or started to get bored or became cynical about the company, they were gone. On to the next exciting opportunity.

So why would a disengaged high performer stick around? Why would they start pursuing mediocrity instead of excellence? Why would they stay in a position where they weren’t able (for whatever reason) to give their best instead of actively seeking a situation where they could? And if they have become ok with disengagement, why keep pretending to be committed instead of giving up entirely? Remember, we’re talking about high performers with established track records – they have options, they could change jobs – so they’re not just gutting it out because they have to.

I’ve lots of thoughts, but what thinks you?

 
Photo Credit: Patrick Feller via Compfight cc

real world champion

What I do today matters. What I do every day matters more. Our reputations, our relationships, our lives are the sum total reflection of every decision, action, and event.

Observation shows it’s pretty easy to live an OK life. Get to work on time, pay your bills around the due date, say “please” and “thank you”, give other people the respect and courtesy you’d like to receive, don’t commit felonies, etc. Nail the basics and an average life is yours without too much effort. You probably won’t have a fulfilling life but you won’t be too miserable either.

The jump from OK to fantastic appears much more difficult. When we look at those we admire, words like “focus”, “discipline”, “integrity”, “unique”, “dedication”, “enthusiasm”, “responsibility”, “honor”, “vision”, and “purpose” start coming to mind. No one creates excellent results in any aspect of their lives with a mediocre mindset or average actions.

Interestingly, few people declare that what they want most in the world is to be mediocre. Few dream of average. Seldom do children hope to grow up and become dull normal. What if we stopped thinking about just getting through life and started thinking about becoming champions in our lives?

It probably feels weird to even answer. Seriously though, what does “champion” mean in the areas of life most important to you? What would it take to be a champion parent, spouse, or friend? What does being a champion salesperson, manager, HR pro, teacher, etc. look like? How does becoming a champion change how you think about your day?

Moving beyond ordinary requires asking better questions of ourselves. “How can I find a job I like?” is a much different question than “How can I become one of the best in my field?” “How can I argue less with my kids?” is not the same as “How can I build a close and enduring relationship with my kids?” Likewise, “Why am I fat?” produces different answers than “What do I need to do to get fit?”

Being champion requires applying what we already know (and learning all we can as we go along) with consistent, focused effort. It means risking failure – oddly if we give it our all and it doesn’t work out we tend to think of that as more of a failure than if we don’t try at all (LIE!) It means breaking free of the herd and finding our own vision and our own destiny. And that probably doesn’t fit in well with those content with marginal.

Champions design their lives so every aspect supports what they are creating. One of the biggest challenges you will face in being a champion is simply that most of the effort isn’t very sexy or fun. In the movies we see a cool three minute montage with an upbeat song when the hero takes control of their lives and turns thing around. In real life, it requires continual, unceasing effort. It means getting up when you don’t want to get up, taking action when it would be easier not to, having uncomfortable conversations that you’d really rather avoid, and standing out when you’d rather fit in.

So we try in fits and starts, but one effort, one time, one day doesn’t do much for us. Johny Hendricks, one of the very best mixed martial artists summed it up: “If I’m going to be a champion, I’ve got to act like a champion every day.”

Starting today.

success secret? (not really)

There are all sorts of books and blogs about the “Secrets of $uccess”. Sadly, they tend to overcomplicate things or make it sound like success is outside the reach of most people, or attainable only through the authors 10 step program. Yet, as I look around, one thing that really sets people apart in their careers (and lives) is an insistence on doing things right. Very few set out to do things wrong, but most seem to strive to do “just kinda ok enough” (that’s a technical term). The number of people striving to do things right is so small that they immediately stand out. Be that person.

To be clear… Right isn’t a moral term. Right doesn’t mean perfect. Right isn’t “my way”. Right is not a generational issue. Right has nothing to do with position in the organization.

Doing things right means:

  • Holding yourself to a higher standard. It’s making decisions and taking actions with the intention of exceed the standards given versus doing just enough to not get fired.
  • Correcting things as soon as you notice they are incorrect or below standard. Mistakes happen, things get overlooked, and sometimes it just doesn’t work out like you expected. That’s a given to living on planet Earth. The bigger question is do you fix it?
  • Making decisions. There is such a difference in outcomes between making a conscious decision based on understanding and weighing the pros and cons of a situation and a “decision” made by not doing anything until it’s too late. It’s one thing to intentionally choose to do something at a bare minimum standard because you decide to focus your time and energy on higher priority items and quite another when do something at a bare minimum standard because you’re lazy or simply don’t care.
  • Accepting (embracing) responsibility for your outcomes. People striving to do things right rarely get caught up in playing the victim, blaming others, or using convenient or glib excuses. This rarely works in the long term and often does nothing more than damage your reputation.
  • Asking questions, seeking feedback, and finding ways to improve.

In short, “right” is simply caring about the outcome. There’s no secret to it. Nothing mystical, esoteric, or complicated. No system or program. Just caring.

Ken Blanchard said it so well: “There’s a difference between interest and commitment. When you’re interested in doing something, you do it only when it’s convenient. When you’re committed to something, you accept no excuses; only results.

success is easy…

Photo: Success is easy...I have a quote written on my whiteboard from Hugh MacLeod (@gapingvoid): Success is easy. All you have to do is learn to use your career the same way Hendrix used his guitar.

I don’t know what Hugh meant by that, but I know what it means to me and it is one of my all-time favorite quotes. Here’s my take on it:

Jimi Hendrix used the guitar as an extension of himself. He was unconstrained by the idea of “this is how you play guitar” and completely shattered the boundaries of what others thought was possible or useful or even musical. He was a master with thousands upon thousands of hours of practice and experimentation, continually trying to find new sounds. Hendrix did things different and sought the sounds that pleased him, not what he thought would make him popular. He disliked being categorized as any musical genre and was so far ahead of the curve other masters noticed and promoted him well before being followed by the general public.

From Wikipedia: His Rock and Roll Hall of Fame biography states: “Jimi Hendrix was arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music. Hendrix expanded the range and vocabulary of the electric guitar into areas no musician had ever ventured before. His boundless drive, technical ability and creative application of such effects as wah-wah and distortion forever transformed the sound of rock and roll.”

So, just do that with your career. Become a master of what you do for the sheer love of it. Go your own way even if it means you’re not understood or popular at first. Push, push, push the limits and then go push them some more. Have the type of bravery to be different, challenged, and misunderstood. Take your career exploring in the places where there aren’t maps because you’re the first one there. Redefine how things are done in your field.

That’s a tall order few can do. Maybe the place to start for most of us is simply using our careers as an outlet for joy and creative expression. Striving for the top for no reason other than a love for excellence. Then see where that takes us.

Today, I’m leaving you with two videos. One is of Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. The other is of the 2CELLOS playing the legendary Hendrix song, Purple Haze. Why? Because everyone knows that guitars and cellos don’t make those sounds. And everyone knows you can’t do that with your career. Better to play it safe and stick to the maps and the 10-point programs for $ucce$$ and try to get ahead by doing things exactly like everyone else.

What thinks you?

 

linearity is a lie

Us humans so want certainty and security in an uncertain and insecure world that we’ve created this myth – a lie – of the importance of living a linear life. Life in a straight line, always stepping forward, never getting sidetracked, each movement building on the past – it sounds so great.

We created the lie and we’re suckers for believing it. Buy into the lie and we’ve undermined our own success and fulfillment. Believing in the Myth of Straight Lines leaves us asking why our life isn’t that way; it leaves us unhappy and wondering what we’re doing wrong. The reality is simply LIFE IS NOT LINEAR. It rarely moves in straight lines. It leaps forward, sideways, backwards. It zigs, it zags. Sometimes it does nothing at all. Dumb luck, random events, accidents, disease, decisions that made sense at the time, poor choices, and timing conspire to ensure life is not straightedge precise.

Life is sloppymessy. Zig Ziglar once advised us to: Prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and capitalize on what comes. It appears that those who play big and make a difference understand this and can work with it. They have the end destination in mind but are flexible about how to get there and even willing to accept a different destination if a better one reveals itself along the way.

Consider the possibility that when we buy into the lie of linearity and are unwilling to deviate from the straight line, we are generally unable to accept setbacks and failure as a part of the process. Unable to risk creativity or innovation or simply trying something different. Perhaps even unable to recognize how strong, how unique, and resourceful we actually are. We might miss how much we’ve actually done, the difference we’ve made, and the success we’ve had.

What thinks you?

 

flashback friday: playing it safe is too risky

[Flashback Friday: this was originally posted on June 29, 2012. Enjoy!]

Beige sells. Average sells. Vanilla sells. The comfort of conformity sells. Meeting most of the needs of most people builds big businesses.

All the marketing books tell us we need to differentiate our products and stand out. Build that brand image. And then 95% of businesses try to stand out by fitting in. The word “innovation” is thrown around these days as the holy grail of business success, yet from the customers’ point of view it often just means:we’re as leading edge as all our competitors.

Similarly, there’s a lot of talk of authenticity lately. We’re told we need to be authentic leaders keepin’ it real while we bring out the authentic best in our teams so we can sell authentic products to our authentic customers. A nice thought, but a hard sell. There are very real social and business costs to being authentic. The biggest is that some people will not like you, some people will reject you. So we try to be “authentic” in a way that everyone likes. (hint: that doesn’t work)

Being all things to all people is the fastest, most direct route to mediocrity. Vanilla products sell because they fit the needs of the most people, but no one is passionate about vanilla. It becomes a commodity. They buy your vanilla product today, but there’s nothing to keep them from replacing it with a competitor’s vanilla product. When you have a commodity you are only competing on price.

Being all things to all people creates a bigger customer pool. But we forget that it also attracts more competitors. I recall an interview with an actress years ago. She had some acting success as a teenager, but her appearance was non-Hollywood so she was only considered for a few parts. Wanting more parts, she had plastic surgery done, bleached her hair, and voilà  she now looked just like every other wannabe actress. She blended in and faded away.

Here’s my test for authenticity: Are you willing to turn down business because what’s being asked is not what you’re best at? Are you willing to turn down 1,000 potential customers who are kind of interested in your product or service so that you can focus on the 100 customers that are deeply interested?

As an individual are you willing to turn down or leave a job that doesn’t fit who you are and how you want to affect the world? Are you willing to be known for your uniqueness? Are you willing to be known for who you are? Are you willing to define yourself and bring every ounce of greatness, passion, and soul to your work?

You don’t have to, you know. And I don’t fault anyone who doesn’t. Authentic has risks. Different has risks. Standing out has risks.

But so does blending in. So does being average, beige, mediocre. No person or business will ever attain greatness by being one of a million. It’s only done by being one in a million.

 

flashback friday: do you have a job or a career?

[Today’s flashback is a short piece I originally posted on September 5, 2011. Enjoy!]

I was watching Chris Rock’s “Kill the Messenger” the other night and was really struck by one of his comments. I’m paraphrasing, but he basically said that you know you have a career when there’s never enough time. You look at your watch and it’s already after 5pm so you plan on coming in early the next day. With a job, there’s too much time. You look at your watch and it’s just after 9am and the day stretches out ahead.

Absolutely brilliant! It doesn’t matter if you’re overpaid or underpaid, hourly or salaried, educated or uneducated, or what field you’re in or company you work for: if there’s never enough time to accomplish all that you’re excited about getting done, you have a career; if time is your enemy, you have a job. There’s a lot of people with college degrees in high paying jobs and there’s a lot of people just getting by (for now) who are forging their career.

So, what’s the scoop? Do you have a job or a career? If you have a job, what would it take to get a career?