(Re) Starting Your Career #4 – Learn the Math

The advice has been pretty standard so far: network, learn to speak in front of others, volunteer to develop leadership and team-working skills. So stay with me while I give you an example from a recent client about how maths is good.

The client is a speciality B2B manufacturing and wholesaler where demand is unpredictable and being out of stock is unacceptable. They’d lost one of their biggest clients two years ago, and it kind of freaked them out. They’d been forced to compete on price, giving discounts and putting up with late and delayed payments. They’d put up with all sorts of abuse and made lots of effort on behalf of their “best customer”. And their “best customer” cut them lose when somebody else with a better price came along.

A year later they were making more money. More. Without the client they worked so hard to keep. They had lower gross revenues, but they had higher gross margins and profit. They were actually taking home more money for less work. They did get out an get more sales from other clients, but only because they had more time to spend to go out and get sales from other clients because all their time wasn’t being spent on just one client.

In hindsight, of course, it’s easy to say they should have cut that customer loose instead of being bled dry. Lesson learned for them – they now they look at more than just the revenue for every client, and they certainly look at the gross margin and return on investment for all of their stock and individual customers to figure out where they’re actually making their money. Which allows them to make intelligent decisions about where their opportunities really are instead of just guessing.

None of the maths is rocket science. It does take a little critical thinking, understanding how statistics and probabilities work. Lots of statistical theory and application come out of the analysis of human behaviour, including economics, so there’s that. It just requires a little weekend reading, some thinking about your business model, and some scepticism and testing about about how that business model really works.

Two books I’d recommend to get you started (links to my Amazon store, just so you know):

Freakonomics
The Drunkard’s Walk

p.s. The client they lost two years ago? The old client coming back to the high margin items because the low-cost competitor’s inventory and delivery times suck. And they’re getting paid in a timely manner. So I guess the other lesson from this example is the advantage of keeping healthy, respectful boundaries about the value of the product or service you’re providing.

p.p.s. If you’re not a business owner, then think about what value you provide to the business or organization you belong to, then focus on doing that really really well.

(Re) Starting Your Career #3 – Volunteer

When I’ve been asked for career advice, whether somebody is stuck or just starting, there are a couple of things I always recommend, including keeping up your professional relationships, and learning to speak coherently in front of a group of people

At some point you’re going to need to put your learning into practise. Not many jobs will allow you the daily practise of doing your job and preparing for the next one. Unless you’re very lucky, have a great boss, and the ideal situation. In which case why are you wasting your time reading blogs? Don’t you have better things to do?

Volunteering meets your needs. It allows you to network. It allows you to practise leadership, teamwork, negotiation, public speaking. You’ll get training you wouldn’t get otherwise. And last but not least  it’s good for the soul.

Personally I had a great time being a Scout Leader. I have a great time volunteering for PMI. Both together led me to the business consulting I know and love today.

So find something that helps you give back to your community or the world, and if it helps you become a better person, then it’s win / win for you and the world.

(Re) Starting Your Career #2 – Learn to Speak

Going to school doesn’t teach you to balance your cheque book (does anybody still balance cheque books?). The point being there are other things you need to learn to have a successful career / life than what they teach you in school. Like making  and keeping professional relationships (networking), volunteering, and that thing that . . .

What Most People Hate

Some people say they would rather die than speak in front of a group of people? If you’re one of those people it’s not funny. I had one project coordinator working for me who actively avoided having to get up in front of a group. Which is fine, but it held her back. She could have been a good project manager, but presenting to your bosses is a part of having a leadership role. She was never taken seriously because she never lost her “worker bee” label.

Public speaking not something you need to do be world-class at, but it helps if you can speak coherently in front of a room of your peers, make your point, or even persuade.

On Being Competent

Being nervous doing something badly for the first time  is natural. Doing something important badly the first time is avoidable. With practice and feedback you can get better at public speaking (or whatever skill you’re trying to acquire).

So get yourself down to a Toastmasters meeting, or find other opportunities to practise (debate club – do they still have debate club?), and get better at it, before you need it.

And remember, you don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be a little better than your competition.

(Re) Starting Your Career #1 – Keep Up Your Network

File:ParisCafeDiscussion.pngI had the privilege of taking a group of Mount Royal University students out for breakfast a couple of weeks ago. They had “won” me as part of the Clean Tech Challenge last semester. (I’m the judge at the front left). I really had no agenda when we scheduled the brunch. I was thinking about what these smart, hard-working students went through together in their intense 24 hours together, how they had bonded, and how they stood on the cusp of their careers. Most are now in their last semester and are making plans to move and get their first “grown up” job.

I was thinking about what unsolicited career advice I would want to share if asked. What might they want to hear and be able to use at what might well be their last breakfast together? The answer was sitting in front of me. It was them. They group and their connections were the answer.

Keep Up Your Network

When I say “network”, I don’t mean the used-car-salesman-exchanging-business-cards at some after work networking function, a staged networking post-conference pre-dinner event, or building a LinkedIn following. I mean maintaining friendships with professional people whom you know and like because you have an authentic, energizing relationship with them. People with a proven track record of contributing positively to your life, who you actually enjoy spending time with who also happen to be somehow connected to your career.

Your real network is that set of people who you feel comfortable asking questions and favours of, and whom you enthusiastically would answer questions and do favours for without expectation of return.

The friends you make in school, your volunteer work, your first jobs are the friends that are going to help you get that next job, promotion, or perfect recruit for that job you’re trying to fill or company you’re trying to start. You want them to think of you when they’re reaching out to people to solve a problem, so that they’ll think of you when they’re trying to do you a favour. Sometimes those things aren’t mutually exclusive.

So why ignore them until you need them? That’s just awkward. Yes, some of us believe we should be able to get things done, persuade others, or find work based on the merits of our work or the basis of facts. But it doesn’t always go that way.

People make decisions based on their gut and emotion, which means people they trust – right or wrong – have a greater influence than people they don’t trust. Trust built over time and with regular contact. Is it fair? Maybe not, but it’s reality. And I’d rather deal with reality than whatever ideal construct I have imagined in my head.

Start Now

Try this thought experiment: you’re suddenly looking for a job. Or maybe not so suddenly. Who are you going to call, write, have coffee with? Who are you going to send your resume to?

Now, do you feel comfortable dropping those people a line today and asking them for a favour? Have you kept in contact with them, asked them how they’re doing, taken even two minutes to write a note every once in a while? Do you have a real relationship with them?

If reaching out to your friends and co-workers feels awkward when you need them, then the time to reach out to them is now, and regularly from now on.

Next week: Learn to speak in front of an audience

I Get To Say No, and So Do You – Ten Things I Know To Be True #10

traffic officer

I get to say no to things that make me feel uncomfortable, or I just don’t want to do. And I don’t have to justify anything. 

That’s my part of the relationship. I get to put my gas mask on first. I get to take care of myself. I might even be taking care of myself for you – so I can show up authentically and honestly as me.

You get to say no too, and I should thank you for taking care of yourself for me. I promise not to take it personally, even if I’m disappointed. I’ll try to remember to be happy for you.

My Value as a Human Doesn’t Depend on My Job – Ten Things I Know To Be True #9

imagesMy value as a human doesn’t depend on my job, or my things.

It depends on my kindness.

My happiness depends to my friends, my family, and those closest to me. My success is not measured by material wealth, but by my contribution and connectedness to the world. What I give away for free. My volunteer-ism. The kindness I show when I shouldn’t or can’t.

As unselfish as I strive to be, helping others without judgement or expectation of gratitude always pays off. Always. At the very least by feeding my soul and allowing me to feel grateful, connected, and human.

8 Simple Ideas To Make Meetings Better – Part 2

This continues “8 Simple Ideas to Make Meetings Better” 

c1fcd419b28af8ea964352198d3fbb01_w731_h600Use a Parking Lot

Important topics that aren’t part of the agenda can and will come up. You can stop them from de-railing your meeting by putting them in the “parking lot”. This means writing them down on a list that everybody can see, and reviewing that list near the end of the meeting to decide what to do next.

Hint: The “parking lot” cannot be a “I’m writing this down over here because I want you to shut up” list. In order for this to work, people in the meeting have to know and trust that it will be reviewed, and the items on the list are disposed of (make a decision, put on another agenda, have a separate meeting, etc.) properly. Otherwise the “parking lot” becomes ineffective.

Take Notes

Taking notes is what professionals do. Taking notes in any professional situation instead of relying on memory, or other’s memory, increases your organizational effectiveness by an order of magnitude. It’s worth the moments it takes to write things down in situ. Time you’ll save later trying to remember what was decided or having the same discussion with the same people again. Your memory is s not as good in the future as you think it is now.

Hint:  It is difficult to take notes, keep track of time, and take part in the discussion and decision-making simultaneously. If you’re doing one or even (if you’re really good) two well, another will suffer. It’s okay to delegate note-taking or time-keeping out to somebody else if you can.

Review Actions

Take an appropriate amount of time at the end of the meeting to check decisions and action items. The first time you do this it will take longer than you think it will, but that’s okay. Pinning down exactly who is going to do what by when is really really valuable.

Hint: Decisions without actions (work) are merely wishes and of no value. Action items consist of three things:

  • Who (one person accountable, even if more than one person is doing the work)
  • Is going to do what, specifically
  • By when, specifically

Corollary: “Make hay while the sun shines” applies here. If you’re assigned work, then get it done as soon as possible. Don’t leave it until the last minute. If something does comes up at the last minute, which it often does, you’ll look like a jerk for not doing what you promised.

Publish the Notes

Publish the notes as soon as practical after the end of the meeting. Not moments before the next meeting. That is useless. Also really unfair to expect people to complete their work when you publish the official record of the meeting and associated actions five minutes before they’re due. That’s an asshole move.

Hint: Take your own notes during other’s meetings, especially whatever work was assigned to you. Other’s ineffectiveness is not an excuse for your own sloppy work.

My Definition of Success – Ten Things I Know To Be True #8

lucky-pennnySuccess, however you define it, is never guaranteed.

I could be the smartest person in the world, and there will always be somebody not as smart, or talented, or inspired as me who is more successful. For whatever value of success I care to choose, I may be the hardest working person in the world, and there will be others who are more successful than me.

The reverse is also true – I will be more successful than some people who are smarter or harder-working than me. Just by being born in Canada I already won the life lottery. What I do with it after that is up to me.

I believe making good choices and working hard are prerequisite to success. I can’t take advantages of the opportunities when they come along if I don’t make good choices and word hard . But that doesn’t mean they’ll come. I can’t control what opportunities come, or even if they’ll come. No matter how deserving I think I am.

Does this mean I should give up? No. It means I design my life a different way. Instead of measuring myself against others, I get to do the hard work of figuring out what I want for myself. Instead of collecting things, I get to connect to people. Instead of time controlling time me, I get to decide how to use my time.

…and if one day I am the best in the world at something, then I’ll count myself very lucky. In the meantime I’m going to design a happy life, connected to people, with a healthy parts of compassion, prosperity, joy, and dignity.  If I achieve that, I will count myself very lucky.

That, for me, is success.

8 Simple Ideas To Make Meetings Better – Part 1

pmo-meeting-agendaIf you’ve ever felt like you were wasting your time in a meeting, you were probably right. And you shouldn’t tolerate it. Especially if you’re the one who called the meeting. So stop doing that.

Here’s some tips from 30 years of being in, chairing, and making meetings useful. I haven’t always run good meetings, but I get easily frustrated with in-efficiencies, so I’ve picked up a couple of things that work for me over the years:

Have a Reason

If you can’t think of why you’re having the meeting , or what you want to get out of it, then don’ t have it.

Hint: Showing everybody who’s boss by making them come to a meeting held by you doesn’t count as a reason.

Have an Agenda

Which should line up with your reason to have the meeting, and helps you decide whom to invite. An agenda is not just a list of talking points. It is:

  • a list of topics,
  • the time you plan to spend on each one,
  • who the champion / presenter  for each agenda item is, and
  • in the order you’re going to discuss them

Hint: You can arrange your agenda in a couple of different ways (and these are not the only options):

  • go from involving the most people (general announcements kind of thing) down to the least (specific discussions involving limited people), and let others leave the meeting early
  • have “guests” or subject matter experts come in at specific times (like for a training)
  • I like to arrange my meetings in priority order so that the most important discussion happen and decisions get made first if we do run out of time

Invite the Right People

By “right” I mean people who can contribute the to discussion and decision-making, and have a proven track record (as far as you can) of delivering what they promise. Having deadwood (people who can’t or don’t contribute) is a waste of your time and company resources.

Hint: If it’s a regular or standing meeting, don’t be afraid to prune the invite list every once in a while. They tend to grow over time for some reason. Most meetings are effective for active and engaged decision-making when there are fewer than eight people involved.

Corollary: Don’t be afraid to prune your own calendar once in a while either. If you’re attending meetings just to be in the loop, consider just getting the meeting notes instead.

Start on Time, End on Time

The best way I know to start and end meetings on time is to actually just start and end them on time. No matter who is there or isn’t there. And don’t go back to review things for late comers. Being late for your next meeting because your last meeting went long is a self-fulfilling, self-damaging habit that should and can be broken.

Hint: If you do have to go long, and sometimes this is unavoidable, stop before the scheduled end time and ask if everybody is okay with going late. Getting consent is an acceptable way of handling this situation. Of course, if not everybody that needs to can stay, you should respect this and find a different way (like scheduling a follow-up meeting) to handle it.

I Am What I Pay Attention To – Ten Things I Know To Be True #7

If I control my focus, and how I spend my time, and I will control my life. How I spend my moments adds up to the totality of my life.

I will figure out what kind of life I want to live. Figure out what I need to do it make it happen. Then do that, day over day. A little at a time. Spending my time the way I want to.

Habit and repetition have power. I am what I do over and over again.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

Part of my Ten Things I Know To Be True series.