Is Your Professional Development Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty?

One of my favorite former managers, whom I am now fortunate to call a friend, used to say that “hindsight is the only option in the absence of foresight.” Perhaps that’s the reason I can now look back on the first 1.5 decades of my career and offer some insights about personal development.

In our careers, and perhaps in life, we progress through phases:

  • thinking that we know everything
  • realizing we know very little about anything
  • demonstrating that we know a lot about something (or for the fortunate, a small number of things)
  • accepting that we can never really be certain about anything, while remaining curious about everything
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What is an Executive, you ask? Usually I reserve sidebars like this for comedic asides, but US tax dollars commissioned the Occupational Outlook Handbook (http://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/top-executives.htm) and I want you to read it. Someone actually went to work over a series of hours to weeks and wrote this sincerely for the benefit of the US Economy. So please stifle all laughter when reading in the presence of public servants.

Previously I have written about specialization and capability development in career progression. In summary, as we follow a single career track our knowledge and proficiency become deeper and narrower, until we jump across to another track. Recently I realized two opposing corollaries to this concept.

The farther we progress on a single career track, two things arise

Pessimist’s view: the number of capabilities that you need to develop in order to advance gets smaller, and the chances that you have to practice or demonstrate them become less frequent. In my first year out of college, I was terrible at everything; pick any one skill and I would have 10 chances a day to practice doing it better (let’s start with “never hitting reply all“). Let’s say you are an executive with 25 years experience in the top decile of your industry, by some generally accepted scorecard. Maybe the thing at the top of your professional development list is “maximizing shareholder value from acquisitions.” Those are going to come along, like, once every 3-5 years? Even if you are in Private Equity or advise on deals you might only be personally responsible for a handful in a year. So the stakes become higher and the at-bats become scarcer. Pretty bleak.

Optimist’s view: your capability profile is positively differentiated from other professionals with equivalent tenure on other tracks, giving you an advantage in “disrupted” organizations. So if you are risk-tolerant enough to jump onto another track after developing significant capabilities, you are likely to find yourself in high demand (and it’s never too early to prepare a transition). Let’s say that on average, across industries, job descriptions for a given equivalent seniority level (e.g., “Vice President”) have 12 qualifications. If you are a top performer in, say, Marketing for a Software firm, and you see that there has been a major disruption in another industry, say, B2C Media or Telecom, you could find yourself in a situation where your skill set is a scarce and valuable asset compared to the incumbents who have been dutifully advancing their proficiency in the set of skills that was most valuable for the previous decade but is now less relevant. Will an executive search committee offer a prominent and strategically important role to an industry outsider in a time of disruption (read: crisis)? That will have to be the subject of another post!

So if you have managed to get this far in the post and are asking yourself, “What does this mean?” Here are is my advice, take it or leave it:

As you advance in your career, stay aware for opportunities to hone your craft, because the most important ones will become less frequent. At the same time, be willing to switch specializations because what is common in one organization could be rare and valuable in another.

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Which of these 4 traps makes you work longer hours?

In today’s “always on” business world, containing the workday becomes increasingly difficult. For many people, the concept of a 9 to 5 job is a fantasy, as projects, meetings, and inbox wrangling can easily consume nights and weekends if left unrestrained.

But blaming your boss, colleagues, or clients for having to work longer hours provides false satisfaction. Which of your own work habits are the cause? Watch out for these four traps:

  1. Goal not defined clearly: if you are the type of person who immediately jumps into a project or task without stopping to define the outcome, this trap is the most likely cause of your long work hours. Even if you “begin with the end in mind,” you must take the time to think about your work product and deliverables from the perspective of your customer (or manager, or peer; whoever is the recipient of your work). What does success look like from his or her perspective? What problem are you working to solve? What are the acceptance criteria? For larger projects, it is worthwhile to outline your answers in a few concise bullet points, and review them with your customer before beginning work.
  2. Process to achieve the goal not well understood: Once you understand the goal, you must understand how to get there. Often re-work and delays arise when the process of getting from point A to point B is undefined. If the work is new to you, but not to your organization, invest a bit of time in researching the group’s documentation for the processes you will follow (examples: procurement, maintenance, software release management). Then, talk to people you trust to understand the “tribal knowledge” that isn’t captured in any formal document. If the work is new to everyone, take a few minutes to sketch out a swimlane diagram (see basic and advanced examples) to clarify who does what, when.
  3. Time not reserved to do the work: Block out a few hours per day in your calendar with working time to discourage people to invite you to meetings for for whole day. If you don’t you’ll find independent work time creeping into your nights and weekends (in many organizations, the meetings will too, sadly).

    Meetings are productivity eating zombies if not tightly managed.
    Meetings are productivity eating zombies if not tightly managed..
  4. Unproductive during work time: There are three main causes of low productivity during the time you’ve blocked out to work independently. First, you can be distracted: phone calls, drop ins (different from hop ons), reading mildly informative blogs and other unrelated interruptions (for starters, just close your email client!). Second, you can have relatively low domain knowledge: “newbies” in any industry will be less productive as they learn new vocabulary and concepts (although they may find novel solutions without suffering from the same constraints as the veterans). Third, you can have low process proficiency. In plain English, you are slow to complete tasks despite having both process and domain knowledge.

Everyone makes different choices about how much time to devote to career and how much to family, friends, and hobbies. If you’re interested in reclaiming more of  your weekly hours to non-working pursuits, check whether you are susceptible to any of these four traps. Leave a comment if you have other feedback, questions, or ideas!

image credit: myconfinedspace.com

Stressed? Here’s the MBTA Approach

With the recent ongoing snow storms in Boston, we’ve all been feeling stressed. There are many stress management techniques to choose from, and I thought looking at the MBTA as a case study would provide another perspective. Hey, they are a $1.8b revenue company that managed to turn a profit last year, so they must be doing something right…right?

The Onion recommends a similar technique to improve health and professional satisfaction
The Onion recommends a similar technique to improve health and professional satisfaction
  1. Pretend nothing’s wrong while your performance suffers. This includes telling people about problems long after they’ve happened, providing hopelessly optimistic expectations, and general denial that anything’s wrong.
  2. Shut down completely. Give people a few hours’ notice, and then just stop doing your job for a while. Maybe you will take the opportunity to resign from your job. If, however, you’ve chosen a temporary shutdown, continue to step 3.
  3. Resume underperformance combined with abject denial of any problem. Maybe you’ve drawn inspiration from the thought that every crisis in life is temporary. Maybe you’ve realized you are a publicly funded monopoly without any real consequences for failure. Either way, keep your head high while you flail!

We can learn from any case study, whether it is a success or failure. Hopefully you’ll find a more effective stress management technique on your way to career fulfillment. Have any suggestions? Leave a comment.

Is your job as hard as you want it to be?

First: a Veterans/Remembrance Day moment of appreciation to all military veterans out there. The rest of us will never actually understand the level of service and sacrifice that you made. Thank you, truly.

Now, some of that leadertainment you came here for. Many people find themselves restless at work, struggling to find balance. If you are, like me, a modern day corporate Goldilocks seeking professional balance that is “just right,” perhaps this framework will be helpful to you.


  This is not what I meant by “hard.” Entertaining, though, on a few levels.

What I’m proposing is that a job can be hard on you physically, mentally, both, or neither. Ok, I won’t wait up late for the Nobel phone call, but perhaps you haven’t taken stock of your job this way before, or thought of ways to change the balance.

Why is your job hard?
Why is your job hard?

Once you’ve placed your current job on the matrix, ask whether the role fits what you want from your career at this stage. Maybe your commitments at home are growing and you’d happily take on some career Atrophy for more bath time with the kids and date nights with your spouse, or the flexibility to start volunteering. At the other end of the scale, perhaps you are a recent empty nester and are ready for the Exhaustion of a tough growth challenge with a startup organization. Many of us are very happy with Heavy Lifting or Deep Thinking roles, once have found the right match for our strengths.

In an upcoming post, we’ll dive in to the concept of purpose at work. For now, think about why your job is hard, and whether you are satisfied with the answer. If not, collect your thoughts and reach out to your manager, your peers, and your team, and make a plan to change it for the better.

Three dimensions of career specialization

For all of us professionals who made the mistake of getting a college degree instead of learning a skilled trade, over the course of a long career we face many decisions about which roles with which organizations will be most rewarding–however you choose to measure rewards.

Once you’ve chosen which of the four job types is for you, at some point in your career you will begin to specialize. If you’ve reached the point in your career where you’re wondering what’s next and preparing to transition to a new role, think about the dimensions below. Sometimes deciding what you will not do next can simplify the search for what you will do.

specialize in a function, industry, or growth stage and gain flexibility in the other two

As you advance professionally, your choices for successive roles will enable you to specialize by:

  • Function: by choosing a functional area (e.g., operations, finance, sales, etc.) of expertise, you can bring best practices across industries.
  • Industry: deep knowledge of a single industry (e.g., B2B software, upstream petroleum, auto insurance) is an asset that allows you to move between companies or functional roles.
  • Growth stage: the problems that confound businesses trying to break above $10m in revenue are very different from those at the $1b revenue threshold. There are many stages of growth (e.g., expanding to a second country or continent, going public or private, etc.).

Building a track record of success in one of these dimensions will lead to flexibility in the other two dimensions as organizations that require your expertise will seek you out as a valuable asset.

I’d be thrilled if my daughters grew up to be welders, plumbers, or electricians. If they don’t I hope they at least read my blog as they navigate their professional careers.

Thanks to Bernardo Menezes for sparking this idea.