Monthly Archives: August 2011

Thoughts on loyalty

Loyalty is an interesting concept to think about in the world we live in today.

Professional sports have clearly shown us that loyalty today is very different than it was years ago.  Athletes generally go for where they can get the top dollar (LaBron James even had a ESPN special to show how disloyal he was, when he announced that he was leaving Cleveland).  We also see many bandwagon fans (I have seen my fair share this past year, being a San Francisco Giants fan since I was 3 years old, finding now that a lot more people I know are “big fans” of the Giants in the last year).

(Although in a less flashy manner) We see the same thing with our careers nowadays.  Gone are the days where you work at one company for 30+ years and retire with a pension (very few companies still even have a pension).  In fact, I feel pretty weird that I am one among very few people I know who have been with the same company since graduation (6+ years).

Why has this loyalty disappeared?  In the corporate world, sometimes it is about the “big bucks” that we can get elsewhere, but I think a lot of it has to do with variety.  As Gen Y’s we are used to things coming in 4 year increments.  We go to High School for 4 years, and College for 4 years (the last year of each is spent looking for the next step- college or finding a job, respectively).  Because of this we are conditioned to want to do something new every few years.  This one (of a few) reason(s) why I have seen many people I know go back to graduate school, in part because they need variety and also because they have no idea what they want to do in their careers.

In order to keep the attention of young professionals, companies need to find ways to create this variety.  I know at my company, AT&T, managers are able to get experience in many areas of the business. Even at the highest level, our CEO was previously COO and CMO, even though most of his early career experience was in finance.  Since joining (and partially because of a rotation leadership program), I have worked in sales operations, customer service, marketing, network operations, business development and sales.  This variety is one of the primary things that have kept me with the company.

The other thing I realized about loyalty was how closely it is tied to an individual over the entire company.  At the end of last year my boss of 3 years moved from California to take on a position in Texas.  He had been a great role model, mentor and leader.  He always looked out for me and because of that I worked hard for him.  He rewarded me with exposure to the “higher ups” and put me up for sought after recognition. I was very committed to my job.  When he left and a new boss stepped in his place, I realized how much of my loyalty and dedication was because of him.  Previously I wouldn’t have imagined finding another position in the company, let alone leaving the company to work for another firm.  As soon as he left, I found that my eyes and thoughts began to wonder a bit more, and I started actively looking for something new.

Loyalty is important.  Not only for our own senses of accomplishment and belonging (since it makes us feel like we are part of something and can reward us handsomely) but also with other people.  Once you foster loyalty within others (them being loyal to you), then they will work harder and be more motivated to work with you.

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The key to a good reputation

For those that remember the classic late 80’s/early 90’s Head & Shoulders Commercials…

Their slogan (while corny), was pretty true. You never do get a 2nd chance to make a first impression.  Well, very rarely, if at all.  While initial impressions is a cornerstone for laying the foundation of a good reputation, the real key to having a great reputation is longer term and focuses on what NOT to have… BUTs!

I recently was promoted at work.  It was a pretty rigorous hiring process and I really had to convince my new boss to take a risk in hiring me. After being selected for the position, my boss mentioned that besides the quality of my interview (and of a couple assignments he had me complete), the thing that set me apart from the other candidates was what other people said about me when he went around asking.

To this day I am not sure who all my boss spoke with.  I do know that it was more than just previous supervisors and people I put down in references… sometimes hiring managers will investigate with people you never thought they would.  In the process of doing this, my boss mentioned that he uncovered one unique thing about me:  that there were no BUTs.  He explained that normally when investigating a candidate he would hear things like, “she is a fantastic strategic thinker and leader, but…” followed by some kind of issue (whether big or small).

Despite their positive traits, it was the BUTs that really hurt them.  Besides coming in different sizes, BUTs can come from many places. They can come from old bosses, peers, direct reports, human resource managers, administrative support, even someone you worked on that one company community service project.  The key is to make sure that you leave a positive impression of yourself with everyone you come in contact within a professional environment (although you should note that sometimes it goes beyond people you have come across in a professional setting, you could have mutual acquaintances from your social circles).  This is easier to do than you think… You don’t need to formalize a plan to impress everyone, just be professional, be courteous and be yourself.

Plus, make sure to monitor any BUTs that may surface. If you see a possible issue, address it with that person; no matter who the party is so that rumors don’t fester (which generally leads to exaggeration).

Jumping back in the time machine, and putting it another way… Don’t be like Sir-Mix-a-Lot. Don’t like BUTs (whether “big” or not)- “I cannot lie” about that. Your BUTs could be the difference when you’re up for that promotion.

Sharpening Your Sword

I can still hear the advice from Joan, the regional head of the Leadership Development Program (LDP) at AT&T when I first started with the company… “Don’t forget to continuously sharpen your sword.” … it’s not what you think, I wasn’t a part of the “fencing” department… She was referring to always remembering to be a student, taking time to develop your skills and continue learning.

With all that goes into the day-to-day of our jobs it is hard to set time aside to improve our skills, and often when we get busy with work or our personal lives this learning is the first thing to falls by the waste-side.

This “continuous learning” can come in many shapes and sizes.  For some it is going back to school part-time to get a graduate degree, but (since that is a major commitment) you don’t have to go to that much of an extreme.  The first step is to figure out where you have skill gaps but also where you have strengths. Then look for resources that will fill the skill gaps and others that will take a strength and turn it into something you can build your brand behind.  For example, if you struggle with interacting with your boss, find a book on managing your boss and read it, taking note of techniques you can incorporate into your relationship with your boss. If you feel you are a solid speaker, join a toastmasters or find a way to go back to your college to talk to a group of students. This will allow you to become a master at speaking, which will lead others to see your skills in the area of public speaking (more on the importance of building on your strengths later).

For me personally, I remember that I struggled with remembering my list of “To Do” items each day and lost a good number of great ideas I came up with because I didn’t have a good way to keep track of everything.  Around that time I was reading Richard Branson’s autobiography (Losing my Virgininity, a great and pretty entertaining for a biography, book) and he talked about how he had this notebook that he carried around with him to write down his ideas and keep track of his day (clearly nothing revolutionary, but effective for him).  I decided to give this a shot (in the form of one of those small Moleskine notebooks) and it has worked wonders for me keeping track of my list of action items and ideas that pop into my head throughout the day.  While there are many other electronic tools that can do the same, actually putting a pen to paper really worked for me.  Now a have a part of my bookshelf full of these notebooks that I have filled out over the last couple of years.

Here are a few more ideas of ways to “sharpen your sword” to be a constant learner:

  • Take a Local/Online Course (if, for example, you do not feel comfortable with finance, find a course or materials you can review to improve your comfort level)
  • Join a Professional Organization (related to your industry or just an area of interest or around a skill-set like Toastmasters for public speaking)
  • Reading a book on the topic (or magazine or Harvard Business Review-like article)
  • Reading Blogs/RSS Feeds (part of sword sharpening is keeping up to date with your industry)
  • Find a mentor who is an expert that you can ask questions to and bounce ideas off of

Just remember the old adage that if a lumberjack has one hour to cut down a tree, he will spend 45 minutes sharpening his axe and 15 minutes actually chopping.  In this analogy we are generally coming in with a pretty sharp axe (from our college educations) however a lot of the sharpness (1) doesn’t translate to a corporate environment, and (2) goes away after we chop (i.e. work) for a while, so we need to keep resharpening.

If you have any other ideas of ways to “sharpen your sword” feel free to comment.

Until next time, Mr. Biz OUT.

How to be more engaged at work

A couple posts ago I mentioned that it was important to take ownership of your own engagement at work. I would be remiss if I didn’t offer some suggestions on HOW to do this.

The best way to be engaged is to create variety and comfort for yourself.  As a young professional we are used to action happening all around us.  Working on a report with pandora in the background is just like how we studied during college while IMing and watching a movie at the same time.  Have these extra stimuli will help generate a more comfortable environment.

Next, you can create variety by changing up your schedule.  Don’t always sit and do the same thing every day or at the same time each week.  Break projects into pieces of a couple hour increments.  If you need to make a report, complete an analysis, and make some phone calls to get important questions answered, break each task up and rotate what you are doing.  Then you can also sprinkle in some of the necessary things you have to do (reading up on relevant news, checking email, doing admin stuff).

The best way to be more engaged, though, is to come up with your own projects.  Find something you are passionate about and set time aside to research and work on that project.  At Google they require employees to spend 20% of their time (1 day/week’s worth) on something new and innovative.  Since most of us don’t work at Google, odds are we won’t have this formalized, but as long as you fulfill all your other job responsibilities well I don’t think many bosses would have a problem with you going above and beyond to create your own project. It will make you feel refreshed and motivated and it will also make you look like a proactive go-getter.

You can also improve your level of engagement by becoming involved in extra-curricular activities. Many companies have groups (based on age, geographic location, job function, ethnicity, etc) that have different purposes from professional development to community service.  Get involved in one of these, or create one yourself.  There are also many outside of work that are great.  I am passionate about education and mentorship so I am involved in both Junior Achievement (http://ja.org) and Big Brothers Big Sisters (http://bbbs.org).

One last point about staying engaged.  We have been trained over most of our schooling to view periods of our life in 3-4 year increments.  Middle school was 3 years, high school was 4 years, college was 4 years (except for those out there who were super seniors at one point :)).  That said, it is natural to start to get bored after 3 years of doing something and start to feel like it is ready for the next step (just like you start to look at colleges at the end of your junior year/beginning of senior in high school, and start looking for a job at the beginning of your senior year in college).  Many decide to go back to grad school (partially because most of us don’t have a clue what to do with our careers and this generally looks like a good way to go, more on that later…) and other find a new job.

Not saying that this is right or wrong, it just is what it is. More importantly, we should be aware of this and make sure that we are looking in the right places for the next step (since sometimes it is at the same company you are already at), or finding a way to stay engaged in things by getting involved in something new outside of work.

That’s all I got for now. Until next time… Mr. Business, OUT.

3 Quick (and Easy) Tips

I think we all have heard some derivation of the old saying that little things make a big difference.

In this spirit, I wanted to share a few quick things that I do that have helped me in getting promoted faster and building strong relationships both within my company and with other professionals.

  1. Nice to “see” you: This is a simple one, but it’s effective. When most people are networking and meet someone new they say, “nice to meet you.” While this is the automatic response for most of us, it can be really disastrous for building relationships if you had already met them but forgot.  Imagine this, you are at a company networking event, talking to a colleague about how you had a great conversation with an executive at your company.  And let’s say you also had presented something to the executive as well, so you are not just anyone.  Now you and your colleague go up to this exec and say hello and he replies, “nice to meet you.” Oh no, he doesn’t remember you at all… granted execs talk to a lot of people every day, but at the same time he has made you look terrible in front of your colleague. That is why it is best to say nice to “see” you instead of “meet” you. Sometimes you can’t remember that you had met someone for just a second a couple years ago as you were heading out the door from an event.  Don’t make anyone else feel the way the exec made you feel.
  2. Emailing at all hours: The nice thing about email is that there is no “business hours” limitation like there is when you have to call someone.  Generally I work during the day, hang out with friends/grab dinner/go to an event in the evening and then come back late at night and work a little more (I guess the night owl that college brought out of me has stuck around).  Because of this habit I have sent out many emails in the middle of the night to my bosses and colleagues.  Originally this was unintentional but as time went on I saw that doing this made my co-workers and boss think that I was a harder worker than anyone else.  Now here is the key: whether you are actually working or not, you should wait to send some emails out late at night.  Draft the email earlier in the day, finish up the project before going home, but wait until 11pm or midnight to send it to your boss.  Trust me, it impresses people and the best part is that you don’t even need to be actually “working” to send the emails out.
  3. Handwritten Thank You Notes: This is a BIG one.  I cannot stress it enough. I would venture to say that sending out a handwritten thank you note is a lost art. With the ease of email and general distractions of our lives, common courtesy has often been thrown out the window.  I used to hate how my mom would nag me over and over to write thank you notes as a grew up;  to friends and relatives for birthday gifts and to teachers or other adults who had helped me with things.  I despised writing them, but today I can say that there are NUMEROUS times when the extra note has helped my career.  I can recall at least one of my promotions where I sent a handwritten note to the hiring manager after my interview and he mentioned it made the difference between me and another candidate.  Plus a thank you note is tangible and physical, not just one of 100 emails coming into the person you’re thanking’s inbox.  It does take a little more time, but it is worth it.  Just find a way to get person’s mailing address (internally look at a company directory, if the person is not from your company ask for their business card).  I have sent thank you notes to bosses and to mentors for teaching me good lessons, among others. I am sure that when my boss was determining who got the best raises, the thank you notes I had sent (that almost anyone would keep somewhere, because most people keep cards people send them) didn’t hurt me… and my paycheck is evidence of that.

I know these were a bit off topic, but I wanted to share.  Next post I will get back to the topic from a couple posts ago: how to take ownership of how engaged and successful you are at work

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