Put it in writing

When I was growing up, my mother insisted that I write thank you notes for any presents I received.  Although I loved getting presents, I always dreaded the day after my birthday and Christmas, when I would have to laboriously write out notes to all my relatives whose gifts I had eagerly opened the day before.  To teach me how to write a proper thank you note, my mother would first write each one for me, but I would then have to copy it in my own handwriting.  The one bright spot in the ordeal was that she would add some humor to the drudgery by signing each of her sample notes with the name of a different cartoon character; for some reason I found it hilarious to read a thank you note signed by Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck.

My mother probably just thought she was teaching me proper etiquette, but it turns out she was also teaching me an important business skill.  There was a time when a hand-written note was the normal follow-up to a job interview, networking connection or meeting with a prospective client, but in today’s environment, where most people use e-mail if they bother at all, such a note can really make you stand out and create a favorable impression. 

Send a hand-written thank you note after any job interview, networking connection or meeting with a prospective client.

Part of me still hates writing the notes, so I do everything I can to make it as painless as possible; I don’t want to have any excuse to put it off, since I know that any delay means I will probably never get around to it.  I keep a box of note cards on my desk with stamped envelopes and my return address already written out.  The first thing I do when I return from a meeting is write the note, seal it, and put it out for the next mornings mail.

I gave this advice to one of my clients who was applying for a new job, and after the first round of interviews she wrote a note to each person who had interviewed her, with a sentence or two about what they had discussed.  She made it into the second round of interviews, and was ultimately hired.  Six month later I happened to see her again, and she told me that she had become good friends with her new boss, who had told her that she had almost not made the cut for the second round, and it was her thank you notes which had pushed her over.


A winning “Success Formula”

One of the games I liked to play as a kid was Careers from Parker Brothers, which prepared me for such typical jobs as astronaut, uranium prospector, and Hollywood star (though I’ve noticed that today’s children, playing the latest edition of the game, have to make do with conservation, teaching, and entertainment).  The game’s twist is that before starting, each player secretly chooses their “Success Formula” – some combination of money, fame, and happiness.  You win the game by being the first player to achieve success as defined by your formula.

Though not a terribly accurate portrayal of adult life, Careers does capture an important truth: everyone has their own idea of what it means to be successful, and you can only “win” if you are successful on your own terms, and not someone else’s.  One person may measure success by the size of her house, while another person measures it by how many hours he gets to spend with his family.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to forget what’s most important to you, and mistakenly feel like a failure.  Our society, and especially our business culture, tends to emphasize measures of success related to money and power, so that many people put undue emphasis on their salary and job title, ignoring other equally valid measures, such as the number of times they smile each day, or how many books they read.

Figure out your personal “Success Formula.”

One of my clients felt like a failure when he came to me.  He and his best friend had both started their careers at the same time, but while his friend’s career had really taken off – he was already a vice-president with a large salary – my client’s career was stalled, with little prospect of advancement.

To help my client get some perspective on what was most important to him – what his “Success Formula” was – I used a favorite exercise of mine, and asked him to write the eulogy for his own funeral.  Reading the eulogy, I noticed that nothing in it had anything to do with his career; it was all about his family.  I pointed this out to him, and it helped him realize that for him success at work wasn’t really about having a big title.  Rather, it was about being able to provide for his family, spend time with them on vacation, and put his kids through school.  Far from being a failure, by his own formula he had already won his personal game of Careers.


Mi nah no

Jamaicans have made the English language their own, and when I lived in Jamaica for a year, it was fascinating to have to relearn the language I had grown up with.  One phrase I heard repeatedly during my stay on the island was “mi nah no,” which could be the answer to just about any question.  Eventually I figured out that it means “me not know” – in other words, “I don’t know.”  Not that I’ll never know, or even that I might not have known in the past, but right now I don’t have an answer for you.

Too often in business, we’re afraid to say “mi nah no” or the equivalent when a client, customer, or prospective employer asks a question and we don’t have an answer ready.  To avoid appearing ignorant, we’ll hem and haw while trying to think of something, or give a partial answer, or desperately attempt to change the subject.  By refusing to admit ignorance, we come off seeming foolish or unresponsive.

When you encounter this situation, instead of trying to hide your ignorance, you should acknowledge the question and say directly that you don’t have an answer at the moment, but also make it clear that you will get an answer as soon as possible.  After all, if you asked someone a question, wouldn’t you prefer an honest admission of ignorance (followed by an eventual answer) to someone who didn’t admit ignorance but never got around to answering the question?

Sometimes the answer will only take a bit more thought, and you can provide it by the end of the conversation.  Other times the answer will require facts you don’t currently have, and you’ll need to contact the questioner once you’ve had a chance to find the answer.  In either case, the important thing is that you let the other person know when they will have an answer, and then actually get it to them.

 If you don’t have an answer right now, say so, and then follow up.

Once I was helping a client practice for a job interview for a marketing position at a consumer products company.  Playing the part of the interviewer, I asked him what he would do if I wanted him to do a line extension for the company’s bottled water product.  For some reason this question completely threw him, leaving him at a loss for words.  So I called time-out on the interview and explained to him that if he didn’t have an immediate answer for a question it was okay to say so, as long as he provided an answer as soon as possible.

In the actual job interview, my client was again asked a question which floored him – “Why would your last boss not hire you?” – but this time he knew how to handle the situation, and replied that he didn’t have an answer right now, but would by the end of the interview.  And by the end, he did have an answer, and he explained that he was initially thrown by the question since he was quite sure his last boss would hire him, if given the chance, but after thinking about it he realized the question was meant to find out what his weaknesses were, and he proceeded to list them (since everyone should go into a job interview with an answer to the “weaknesses” question).  By admitting he didn’t have an immediate answer, and then following up, he had managed to save the interview.



Plan your next step now

The story of Macbeth is often presented as a warning against the dangers of ambition, but I see it as an instructive case study of how to succeed in today’s business environment.  Macbeth was vice-president of a major Scottish corporation.   He was a good worker, and his good work was recognized by the company’s CEO, Duncan.  Because of Macbeth’s  impressive handling of the Glamis account, Duncan took the floundering Cawdor account from another vice-president and gave it to Macbeth as well.

Despite this apparent success, Macbeth was dissatisfied.  He didn’t particularly enjoy being a vice-president, and had no interest in taking on the Cawdor account.  Like many of us, he had simply drifted through his career, taking whatever job was offered without thinking about where he really wanted to be or how to get there.  With such lack of planning, it’s not surprising that he didn’t like where he ended up.

But then Macbeth took the positive step of meeting with a trio of career consultants, who helped him figure out that his ideal job was as a CEO.  With that clear goal in mind, he started looking at what steps would be required to achieve the goal, and when the opportunity for advancement presented itself, he seized it, urged on by his supportive wife.  If Macbeth had not had his career goal clearly in mind, he would never have recognized the opportunity.

Ultimately, Macbeth’s story ends badly because of his involvement in a couple of minor ethics violations, but we can still draw a useful lesson from his career.  Few people are lucky enough to work in their ideal job, yet most people have no plan on how to move from their current, unsatisfactory job to a job that better meets their needs.  They simply take whatever job is available, and accept promotions or new assignments as they are offered without considering how the new job will help them reach their goal. Similarly, many sole proprietors take whatever clients come along without planning ahead for what kind of work they would like to be doing

Don’t drift through your career; figure out what you want next and prepare for it.

Figuring out where you want to end up can help you get there, because you can start seeing opportunities to move in the right direction, and you will also recognize obstacles that need to be overcome.

I had one client at Core Allies,LLC who had held a number of marketing positions in the food and beverage division of a multinational corporation, but had not taken charge of his career or made any conscious attempt to guide it.  Working with him, I helped him discover that the position he really wanted was as a brand manager in a foreign office. 

With that goal in mind, he began to observe the other overseas brand managers at his company, and noticed what skills they possessed, and what made some of them successful and others less successful.  This observation allowed him to realize that he needed more knowledge of foreign languages to secure his ideal job, so he took night classes in Spanish.  By identifying a goal and working towards it, he was soon promoted to the brand manager job he wanted; if he had continued to drift, it would have taken much longer, if it had happened at all.


Get an outside assessment of your strengths

It’s notoriously difficult to view yourself objectively from the outside, and the ability to do so is highly prized.  As the poet Robert Burns wrote:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

While complete objectivity may be hard to achieve, there is a simple exercise you can do that goes a long way towards it and can give you some useful insights into how you are perceived by others.

Make a list of your top three strengths, and ask five other people to list what they consider your top three strengths.

Ask people who know you well, and include a mix of co-workers and friends.  Once you have all the lists, compare them – you may be surprised at the result.  A major business school where I consult has its students perform this exercise, and they are often shocked at how different other’s opinions are from their own.  The shock is sometimes unpleasant, when students learn that what they consider their greatest strength doesn’t even make the lists of outside assessors.  But the shock can also be pleasant, when they learn that something they considered unimportant or easy is perceived by others as a major strength.  What they learn about how “ithers” see them helps as they position themselves in the career marketplace.

I had one client at Core Allies, LLC who was a wiz at coming up with creative financing for deals.  But he didn’t think of it as an important skill because it was so easy for him; he assumed it was equally easy for everyone.  I had him do this exercise, and he learned that on the contrary his skill at financing deals was highly regarded.  This new information changed his work life.  By focusing on his strengths, both in his projects and his yearly review, he became much happier at work.