Someone I know shared the following two questions when I asked her about her favorite pieces of career advice – “First, are you going after hard problems? And, second, would most of the folks who work closely with you now want to have you on their team when they go on to their next gig?”
I love the two question format of career advice. I’ve found myself mulling both questions and frequently asking myself if I am going after hard problems since that conversation.
Questions are powerful. Good questions can be game changing.
Our work won’t speak for itself. On a good day, it may just do 70% of the talking required. But, it still needs us to make the effort to package it and make the case for it.
But, it bears repeating – it won’t speak for itself. And, even if we build it well, they may not come. In fact, unless we put in the effort to sell it, they most likely won’t.
A useful assumption, then, is that quality work will do half the talking. The rest is up to us.
The world and the places we work seem fairer places once we internalize that and do the work to make sure our efforts count – after we do the work.
PS: The note to self version of this started with – “To my intense disappointment, I’ve come to realize that our work alone won’t speak for itself.” :-)
In a conversation with a friend who is in the midst of building out a team, I asked about the the top skills he was looking for. Two observations –
1. The top three skills that he spoke about at length were – attitude, mindset, and self awareness (especially about blind spots).
2. We spoke about a few skills which were contenders. But, not one was a “hard” skill – analytics, problem solving, etc.
I was reminded of a post by Seth Godin to stop calling skills “soft” just because they weren’t easily defined. This conversation reminded me that it is these “real skills” that matter – they make great organizations and noteworthy careers possible. Or, as Seth put it –
Imagine a team member with all the traditional vocational skills: productive, skilled, experienced. A resume that can prove it.
That’s fine, it’s the baseline.
Now, add to that: Perceptive, charismatic, driven, focused, goal-setting, inspiring and motivated. A deep listener, with patience.
What happens to your organization when someone like that joins your team?
Here’s an idea for today/Friday. Take 10 mins – or maybe 30 – today and just invest in connecting the dots for yourself or others.
What does connecting the dots even mean? We are, for the most part, working in places that are matrixed and cross-functional while dealing with problems that are multi-faceted. So, you can think “dots” as the people in these places or ideas that constitute the many facets of the problems we face.
Here are some examples –
People: Find time to get to know two colleagues you work with personally, block an hour to have a get-to-know conversation with your manager (under the pretext of career development if needed), or organize a lunch or activity for your team.
Ideas: Take the time to delve into a hard problem, map out your development goals, start a monthly internal newsletter sharing insights from your customer conversations, or interview someone who is either insightful or productive.
Start with a small idea today. Then, rinse and repeat next week and the week after until connect-the-dots time is a fixture on your calendar.
Every one of our workplaces and jobs thrives on connection – between people and ideas. These connections make workplaces more collaborative, productive, and smart. While it might seem like we’re spending time on “extra-curriculars,” it is the unsaid bullet in all our job descriptions.
And, tiny, consistent investments in making these connections can transform our outputs and outcomes.
This weekend, I’m reflecting on a vintage Seth Godin blog post from this week – profitable, difficult, or important? I hope you take the time to go read it.
Seth talks about two talked about trillion dollar companies – Apple and Amazon – who’ve each gotten to where they are by doing work that is “profitable” and “difficult” respectively. They made a choice, stated a promise, and kept it. It is commendable.
He then goes on to make a powerful point about “important” work.
“But the most daring and generous, those that are often overlooked and never hit a trillion dollars in the stock market, are left to do the important work. The work of helping others be seen, or building safe spaces. The work of creating opportunity or teaching and modelling new ways forward. The work of changing things for the better.
Changing things for the better is rarely applauded by Wall Street, but Wall Street might not be the point of your work. It might simply be to do work you’re proud of, to contribute, and to leave things a little better than you found them.”
I’ve observed that very few careers combine profitable, difficult, and important. The best most get to is a combination of two of them.
And, it is on us to work toward the combination that fits how we will measure our lives.
Most early career advice revolves around finding what we want to do. While picking that mix of industry and function is important, it matters that we also invest in understanding who we want to be.
We may occasionally find a role that is perfect for us at a given period of time. But, if we don’t do the work to understand our motives, values, and long term life priorities, it gets harder to make the sort of career decisions that help us shape both our careers and our lives.
Work is an important part of our lives – but, for most folks, it isn’t life. So, fitting life decisions based on career choices instead of the opposite is an approach that has it backwards. Anyone who has tried it knows that any success you experience will feel incomplete. And, the most predictable outcome of this approach is burn-out at work and unhappiness at home.
This isn’t an either-or choice. We can’t have who we want to be figured out when we are 21 and then start on a career that is a perfect fit. Instead, it is a constant, iterative, process that we need to invest in parallel. With intentional investment, thought, and time, these paths will begin to converge.
And, when it does, the juice will feel well worth the squeeze.
We spend a majority of our days working in our job. This involves doing what we are, at least on the surface, hired to do. For many of us who have the privilege to work in offices, it is some mix of problem finding and problem solving, bringing people together to solve those problems, and selling – lots of selling.
Working on our jobs, on the other hand, is all about taking the time to get direction right. Are we investing in the right products? Are we developing the right skills to operate in our workplaces, build and sell these products? Are we set up to work on the stuff that matters? Are we building the relationships that help us working “in” our job better? Are we making directional progress in our careers?
Working in our jobs vs. working on our jobs is analogous to efficiency vs. effectiveness and managing vs. leading. Our natural bias tends to favor a focus on activity, busy-ness, and efficiency. That’s why it matters that we force ourselves to carve out time every week to ask ourselves the effectiveness questions.
As Peter Drucker wisely reminded us, there is nothing as useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.