Thursday, May 24, 2007

Becoming a Good Story-Teller

In a very real sense, the single best way to advance in your career is to be a good story-teller. That probably sounds strange, so let me explain what I mean. I’m not saying you should become one of those people who can manipulate the facts and talk their way in and out of situations with no regard for anyone other than themselves. We have enough people like that in the world already.

Instead, I’m suggesting you become a good story-teller by truly appreciating what you have to offer, understanding how it relates to what people need, and finding the most effective way to communicate your potential to succeed. That is not nearly as easy as it might sound.

I’ve been working with job hunters for more than 15 years. In that time, I have yet to meet anyone who can, within the first 45 minutes, clearly articulate their most compelling accomplishment as it relates to why a potential employer might hire them. This is a HUGE problem when you consider that most interviews are only about 45 minutes long. The reason most people don’t communicate their accomplishments effectively is usually pretty simple: they have no idea what they are. People might think they know—and they might be far more insightful than most—but they still miss an unbelievable number of opportunities to share their true capabilities. In other words, they aren’t good story-tellers. Why? Because they don’t know the whole story.

What it Means to Be a Good Story-Teller
To be a good story-teller, you must first be a great marketer. For those of you who are more logical and process-oriented by nature, this undoubtedly sounds like bad news. The truth is, logical, left-brained, analytical, and process-oriented thinking may be what makes you successful in your job, but it isn’t what you need in the job market. If you aren’t careful, your most valuable professional asset—the way you think—could easily become your greatest liability.

Remember, the job market is just that—a market. Like any market, if you choose to participate, you have to think like a marketer. That means right-brained, creative, marketing-oriented thinking. If you are a hard-core IT or financial person and this isn’t how you think, don’t worry. You are not alone. We’ll explore a few options that may help you think more creatively about your experiences, but don’t be embarrassed if you struggle with the concepts. Just find a coach who can help.

A Quick Lesson in Marketing
Job hunters in general—and left-brained types in particular—miss most of the opportunities to leverage their experiences because they don’t understand the difference between an attribute and a benefit. Even high-profile marketers aren’t always clear on the concept as the example below illustrates.

For years, Castrol Motor Oil has been running commercials focusing on the product’s ability to prevent “engine viscosity and thermal breakdown.” Unless you are a mechanic, that probably doesn’t mean anything to you. This is a great example of a company selling an ATTRIBUTE rather than a benefit.

For people at Castrol, the thinking stopped at what the product does. A benefit, in contrast, takes into consideration what the product does FOR YOU, the consumer. Otherwise, it’s meaningless. If you don’t know what “engine viscosity” or “thermal breakdown” is, I’d be willing to bet you aren’t waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat thinking, “Oh no. . . it’s happening. Thermal breakdown. Engine viscosity. I’ve got to do something about my car!” It’s certainly not keeping me up at night.

Instead, let’s look at the BENEFITS. For the purposes of this example, let’s assume that by using Castrol Motor Oil you’d lower automobile repair expenses by $400 per year and your cars would last, on average, five years longer. If true, that would be the BENEFIT of using Castrol. It might even convince you to use the product.

Now, apply this thinking to the pictures and stories you create as part of your own marketing communication. Your ability to use Java or C++ and your proficiency with Oracle databases are ATTRIBUTES. People who possess the same basic skills are EVERYWHERE. That’s not why people are going to hire you. True, companies are looking to hire people with those skills, but there’s more. Much more. What really matters is what you have done with those skills. That’s where you’ll find the BENEFIT!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Reframe to Manage Stress

Reframing is the process of consciously removing unhelpful thought patterns by introducing new facts that challenge--and change--the way you view the world.
Since these new facts literally do not fit within the frame of reference associated with the situation, a new or expanded frame is required—hence reframing.

To show how this works, let’s imagine you have a friend named Steve who routinely shows up late. Against your better judgment, you invited Steve to be your guest at a banquet and accept his offer to drive. The event is particularly important to you because your coworker is going to be honored in a surprise ceremony at the beginning of the banquet.

Looking at your watch, you realize Steve is a few minutes late. You do your best to assure yourself that you will arrive in time, but after 20 minutes pass it is looking less likely. With each passing second, you feel yourself getting more and more upset. Horrified that Steve could be so inconsiderate you think, “He only cares about himself. If he truly valued my friendship, he would know how important this is and he wouldn’t be late. I can’t believe he would be such a jerk.”

Before long, you start reliving all the other times Steve has been late or disappointed you in some way. But now, you are not just mad at Steve. You are also furious with yourself for giving him another chance.

Just then, his wife calls to let you know that Steve witnessed a serious traffic accident. Because he stopped to help, he was able to save the life of a child inside the car. Unfortunately, he is running at least 45 minutes late.

Your situation hasn’t changed. You are still late. You will probably miss the most important part of the evening. But the real question is: how are you feeling? Are you still mad at your friend?

While you may be experiencing a range of unpleasant feelings—disappointment, frustration, sadness—there is a good chance that these new facts have either alleviated some of the anger or caused you to view the situation, and your friend, in a completely different way. In this particular situation, the new facts that allowed the situation to be reframed appeared naturally as the events progressed. But you can take these same steps consciously as well.

Reframing Exercise

Whenever a situation is causing you stress or anxiety and you’d like to reframe it, use the following exercise to uncover the facts and create a more positive explanation.

What are the FACTS of the current situation? List as many as you can.

How are you interpreting these facts? What are you making them mean? What have you made these facts mean about you? How do you feel? List the emotions you are currently experiencing.


Reframe the External Situation (Find ways to reinterpret the facts)
Does X have to mean Y? What are some alternative interpretations of the situation?

Create a Counter Example
Has X ever NOT meant Y?

Reframe the Future
What is going to happen to your mental health if you keep thinking this way? What will your life be like in one month, three months, and six months?

Taking Steps on Your Own

If you struggle with negative or pessimistic thoughts, read Learned Optimism by Martin Seligmann, PhD. This book describes a variety of interesting methods you can use to literally change the way you think.

Whether you do it on your own or work with a therapist, it is important to release the grip of negative emotions in your life. The anger, resentment, and hostility you feel about outsourcing or other less-than-optimal situations will, over time, drain your energy and weaken your spirit. This is true whether you express your anger outwardly or not. Either way, negativity will seriously hinder your ability to come across as the positive, energetic person you can be. Not coincidentally, it is your positive, enthusiastic, energized self that companies are looking to hire.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Avoid Artificial Performance Measures

Having specific, measurable goals in place, along with agreement on what happens when the goals are achieved does more than help you track your success; it helps you avoid the heartache of artificial performance measures.

Some companies, for example, are more preoccupied with tenure than performance as my friend Ross discovered. The company he’d been interviewing with extended an offer, but Ross didn’t accept it immediately because didn’t have a clear picture what his path within the company would be. The hiring manager told him that people in his position typically get promoted in 12 months. Being a hard-driving, energetic guy with a track record of rapid promotion, Ross didn’t like that answer so he asked: “What, specifically, do you expect that person to accomplish before they reach the next level?”

The conversation continued until Ross learned the specific, measurable goals he needed to achieve. At that point Ross said, “I know myself well-enough to know I can achieve all of those goals in 6 months.” He proceeded to back up his claim with examples from previous positions and asked, “When I achieve these goals in 6 months, what happens then?”

Unmoved, the hiring manager said, “No one has ever achieved that in 6 months. Even if you did, it would still take the full year until you were promoted. That’s just the way we do it.”

After a somewhat spirited negotiation, the hiring manager begrudgingly agreed to write up a formal letter stating that if Ross achieved the goals at any point before the first year of his employment, he would be promoted immediately. Not able to distinguish talent and confidence from arrogance, the hiring manager went on to say she didn’t think he could do it. Nevertheless, Ross accepted the offer.

Six months later, after achieving all of the goals, Ross went to his supervisor and proudly requested his promotion. His supervisor told him a promotion at that point wouldn’t be possible because he had only been with the company six months as opposed to the 12 months dictated by company policy. Even with the a written letter of agreement, the company didn’t want to promote Ross because it would appear he was getting preferential treatment relative to other people in that position. The company eventually honored its agreement, but not without a fight.

The morals of this story should be clear:

1. Agree on the specific, measurable results—and outcomes—BEFORE you accept a job, promotion, or additional responsibility.

And, of course:


Calculating Your Value
Take the time to establish, in advance, where the company is and how the value might change through your efforts. This information will help you justify performance-based compensation beyond whatever salary was budgeted for the position. A helpful book in this regard is Value-Based Fees by Alan Weiss. The book, which was written primarily for consultants, describes principles and strategies valuable to anyone who wants to be compensated for the value they bring to the organization.

According to Weiss, for a business relationship to be truly successful, the person who received the service has to be able to say: “That was a terrific investment” while the person who provided the service has to be able to says: “And I was fairly paid for my efforts.”

Through my coaching and speaking, I have met countless people who have contributed far more value than they ever received in return. One executive, for example, saved his company more than $5 million over a 16 year career through strategic investments in automation, real estate negotiation, and other initiatives. Many of these accomplishments went well beyond his areas of responsibility and the standard metrics used to evaluate the performance of a person in his position.

For purposes of illustration, we’ll ignore the value he created in other areas and focus exclusively on cost savings as if it were the only measure of success. In this are, he contributed, on average, more than $312,500 annually to the company’s bottom line. Yet during the same period, his average annual compensation was under $140,000. Arguing for performance-based compensation isn’t about being greedy; it’s simply about being rewarded for the legitimate value you contribute. If you can save a firm over $300,000 every year, you are worth a lot more than $140,000. It’s up to you to see that you get it.

If you take the time to quantify your accomplishments and understand the expected value of your efforts, you will be in a far better position to avoid the inequities above—tight labor market or not.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

"Fine" as a Four-Letter Word

For the last few days, I’ve been thinking about something William Arruda, the Personal Branding Guru, said when he addressed the University of Michigan alumni in Chicago. Arruda made the bold statement that “fine” is a four-letter word and should be stricken from our vocabulary. To make sense of what seems like an odd statement, let’s start with the dictionary definition:

Of superior or best quality; of high or highest grade: fine wine
(Source: Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © 2006)

So, what’s wrong with "fine"?

If everyone used “fine” as an adjective meaning “superior” or “high quality”, there would be no problem. But that isn’t what happens. Far from it.

“Fine” is one of the most common one-word answers to the question, “How are you?”

In this case, when people say, “Fine”, they don’t mean, “superior” or “top quality”. They typically, mean “about average”. Average is a long way from top quality.

Apparently William Arruda isn’t the only one who feels this way. One of the other participants mentioned that a famous Chicago restaurant owner has instructed his staff to NEVER ask any question about the food or service that could be answered, “Fine.” He simply doesn’t want to link the restaurant experience with anything that could be interpreted as average. It’s all about image.

The next time someone asks you what it is like to work on a particular project, what it is like to work for a particular boss, or how you feel about the performance review process, think twice before you say, “Fine.” Instead, challenge yourself to fine a more descriptive, more accurate way to answer the question.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Finding Your Passion

What If You Haven’t Identified Your Passion?

This is a very real issue for many people. If you truly aren’t sure what you are passionate about, think about all the projects you’ve been involved with as well as your related accomplishments. Then, ask yourself these questions:

• When did I feel the most energized?
• When did I feel the most drained?

The key to a happy and fulfilling professional life is to find a career in which you can do more of what energizes you and less of what drains you. No doubt, this sounds like common sense. Nevertheless, it’s amazing how many people don’t think in these terms. But, most likely there are certain projects in which you can immerse yourself and completely lose track of time. There are other activities—including some at which you excel—that you may absolutely dread doing. For this reason, it’s critical to look beyond your skills to your actual interest level.

A Reason to Believe
Once you’ve traced your passion and you can describe the origin of your interest, you have completed the first, critical step in the self-assessment process. But it doesn’t stop there. Your next challenge is to show what you’ve achieved as a result of your passion. In other words, what have you done that gives a potential employer reason to believe you will be successful in your chosen field?

Creating a Journal
To answer the question above, it’s important to create an inventory of specific experiences you can use to support your case. It may take some time to remember details of those experiences, but the good news is you only have to do it once. After that, you can add to it as you go along. This way, keeping the journal just becomes a matter of maintenance.

Keep Your Journal on the Job
The need to quantify your accomplishments does not end when you get a job offer. Quite the opposite. In order to earn raises and promotions, it’s incredibly important to keep track of your accomplishments on an ongoing basis. Keep a list of every project you work on and highlight the ones where your efforts had a direct, positive impact. It may sound like a lot of work, but it really isn’t. Just keep your journal nearby and jot down the key details. That way, you won’t have to rely on your memory a few months or years from now when the facts won’t be quite as clear.

The first entries in your journal will address the following:

1. Make a list of any time you have ever been recognized for an accomplishment. Go back as far as you can.
• What, specifically, did you do?
• If you received an award, how many people were eligible?
• What was special about your performance or achievement?
• How old were you at the time?

This is an important category because it forces you to acknowledge yourself for the accomplishments that others valued. For example, if you were elected or appointed to serve in a particular role, it says a lot how people view you and your performance. Or perhaps you earned a promotion faster than anyone else in the company’s history. If so, that can be a selling point on its own because it gives people a favorable comparison between you and other people who received the same promotion but took more time to earn it.

The recognition you receive from others is tremendously valuable because it provides a third-party assessment of your skills and abilities. It’s like having the person in the room telling the interviewer what a great job you did. Better still it’s factual. You don’t have to say how great you are when the facts speak for themselves.

2. When friends, family, co-workers, and others come to you for advice or assistance, what, specifically, do they need?

If you don’t know the answer to this question, start keeping track. Friends and family are almost always better at recognizing our talents than we are. By opening our eyes to the way others already see us, we are forced to acknowledge our unique contributions. The more we do this, the better able we’ll be to counteract all those years of programming in which we denied and doubted our abilities. Thus, building an awareness and appreciation of our gifts is an important step in developing the unshakable belief in ourselves that we need to speak confidently, using relevant, believable examples, and without worrying about bragging. In the words of legendary Major League pitcher Dizzy Dean, “It ain’t braggin’ if you kin do it."

3. Think back on all the projects (work-related and personal) on which you’ve been involved. What is different because you were there? What did you bring to the table that otherwise would never have occurred?

In other words, how is the result better because you were on the team?

I like to think of this as the “It’s-A-Wonderful-Life-Approach” to the self-assessment process. In the movie, George Bailey, the main character, was given the chance to see how the world would have been different if he had never been born. In a very real sense, that’s exactly what I’m asking you to do. It’s the best way I know to get people to think about—and acknowledge—their achievements. As an added bonus, you’ll get a much-deserved boost in confidence because you’ll see just what a difference you actually make in this world. Later, when you’ve built a substantial inventory of contributions, matching your specific experiences with the needs of a particular employer will be easy. And, you’ll be that much closer to convincing an employer of the difference you can make for their company.