Go where your skills are valued.

When I started working in the business world, I quickly learned that one thing I loved doing was mentoring my co-workers, both those who reported to me and others in the company.  I would help them develop their skills, advance their careers, and generally increase their contributions to the company.  I quickly became quite good at it.  The only problem was, the company I was working for didn’t put much value on developing its employees, so when it came time for my performance reviews, all the hard work I had done mentoring wasn’t taken into account.  My mentoring skills were helping the company, but the company didn’t recognize their value.

Once I realized what was happening, I began to take this problem into account as my career progressed, and steered my future job searches towards companies that valued and rewarded mentoring.  And eventually I founded Core Allies LLC, which is all about mentoring and helping people with their careers.  Finally, I had found a company that put a high value on my strongest skills – even though in my case I had to create the company myself.

Find a company or client that values your skill set.

Different companies and clients value skill sets differently, even in the same industry.  Consider your own position, and ask yourself what skills your company or customers value.  Look at the people being promoted, and observe what got them the promotion.  Examine who is being hired, and figure out why.  Does your boss and other people in management respect or value your skill set?

If you find there is a disconnect between what you contribute to your company, and what your company values, you might be happier finding a new company that puts a higher premium on your skills.  And certainly when you are looking for a new job, you should find out if a potential employer really values all your skills before accepting a position.  Even if you don’t go as far as creating your own company, if you can find a good fit you will have a happier and more successful career.

I had one client at Core Allies LLC, a software engineer, who came to me after constantly being passed over for promotion.  As we reviewed her fit at her current job, it became apparent that her company did not value her greatest strengths.  She was highly talented at tackling difficult programming problems and coming up with elegant solutions.  Unfortunately, her company just wanted her to write code quickly, even if the result was sloppy – they valued speed over quality.  With this insight, she researched other companies that would value her abilities.  After a hard search, she found a new position in a company that didn’t put a short-sighted value on speedy coding.  In her first year at her new company, she earned a valuable employee award.


Is Consulting for You?

I love to take photographs.  Where ever I travel, I always carry my camera with me, and take pictures of everything – Masai warriors, Haitian shanties, Jamaican beaches, and  Serengeti wildlife.  There’s a real joy for me in taking the pictures, and that joy comes through in the pictures themselves.  So when a friend asked me to take the pictures for her wedding, I leapt at the chance. 

But when I started photographing the event, a funny thing happened.   Usually when I’m taking pictures, I lose myself in the process, shooting intuitively without conscious thought, creating photographs with a strong sense of composition and content.  Now that I was taking pictures for someone else, I was constantly worried about what my friend wanted, as if there was another person looking over my shoulder through the camera’s viewfinder.  The resulting pictures lacked my usual joy and spontaneity, and in the end pleased neither me nor, I suspect, my friend (though she was too polite to say so).  I learned that just because I’m good at something in one context doesn’t mean that I’ll be as good (or as happy) using the skill in a different context.

The same principle applies to business.  Many successful business people decide to take their considerable business skills and become consultants, making their skills available to a variety of clients.  For some, becoming a consultant is exactly the right decision, as it constantly exposes them to new challenges (and can be quite lucrative).  But others aren’t cut out to be consultants, and soon become dissatisfied with their careers.  As with my photography, the problem usually isn’t that they don’t have the necessary skills to be consultants.  Rather, being a consultant forces them to use those skills in a different context, one they don’t find as satisfying.

Clients bring in consultants when they have a business problem, and once the consultant has provided a solution, that’s often the end of the consultant’s involvement.  The client may shelve the consultant’s solution in favor of an inferior one, or may implement only half of it, or may implement it fully.  In any case, it’s out of the consultant’s hands.  Some people aren’t bothered by this lack of involvement and control, but for others, who are used to following through and overseeing the implementation of their ideas, it can be a rude shock.

If you are a person who likes to see your ideas carried through to their successful conclusion, consulting may not be for you.

I had one client at Core Allies, LLC who had been the CEO of a successful start-up.  Looking for new challenges, she decided to try consulting.  However, she was unhappy with her first couple of projects as a consultant.  At first, she thought the problem might be that the subject areas of the projects were outside her previous experience, or that she didn’t have quite the right set of skills.  But in going over the projects with her, and also looking at what had made her happy as a CEO, we discovered that a key ingredient for her was seeing her ideas come to fruition.  Not having that ability as a consultant was incredibly frustrating for her, and resulted in her dissatisfaction with consulting, and it wasn’t going to change if she could just find the “right” project.  So instead, she started a new venture, where she is successful and happy.


Track Your Accomplishments

It’s easy to tell what a baseball player has accomplished.  Baseball fans love statistics, and everything a player does on the field – every hit, every strikeout, every walk, every stolen base, every run, every catch, and every error – is recorded.  When the Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz comes up to bat, the bottom of the screen will show his batting average, total home runs and RBI for the season; much more information is easily found in reference books or online.  All this data must be a great help for Ortiz when it comes time to negotiate a new contract; he can easily demonstrate how much he’s contributed to the team.

It isn’t so easy for the rest of us to measure our accomplishments, and most of us don’t even try.  Because we don’t record them, our accomplishments can fade from memory over time, as we turn our minds to new challenges and forget the details of what we’ve done in the past.  Where a baseball player has a permanent record of exactly how many hits he got two seasons ago, we may only remember the broad outline of the big project we worked on two years ago, and have a hard time recalling everything we contributed to making it a success.  And if you can’t remember your own accomplishments, you can be sure your boss and co-workers won’t remember them either.

That’s why you should start keeping a running list of your accomplishments.  Start the list today, and every time you accomplish something, add it to the list.

You can keep the list in a day planner, a notebook, a Phone, or a computer – whatever you find easiest.  Write down not only what you accomplished, but the measurable result for your employer or client, the more specific the better.  How many “runs” did you bat in?  How much money did you save for them?  Exactly how much did you increase their return on investment?

Accomplishments can be big, special projects – your home runs – but they can also be your normal, day to day work – your singles.  For those, just keep a running record of what you’ve done (“balanced company check register to the penny – 5th month in a row”) and how it’s helped the company.

This list of accomplishments will be invaluable during your next performance review, or when you seek a promotion, or when you need to convince someone to hire you, either as a consultant or employee.  It will give you a huge head start when it comes time to write or update your resume.  And when you’re feeling overwhelmed and useless, you can read your list to remind you of how much you’ve done.

One of my clients at Core Allies followed this advice and maintained a list of his accomplishments.  Three years into one job, a friend called to tell him about an opening in another company that would be his dream job.  The catch was that he needed an up-to-date resume by the next day.  No problem.  Using his list, he quickly updated his resume by adding three key accomplishments.  He got the job, but still maintains his list.  As he says, “You just never know.”


Do You Know Your Superpowers?

I believe that everyone has superpowers. For me, superpowers aren’t the powers in comic books, like flying. Instead, they are the set of activities and tasks you really enjoy and are really good at. Some superpowers appear to be innate, like someone born with the love of puzzle-solving that makes her a great software developer. Other superpowers are developed, such as a musician whose “genius” comes in part from tens of thousands of hours of practice.

Knowing your personal superpowers can be the secret to a happy and successful career, making you a better leader and helping you find a job where you will thrive. But discovering your personal superpowers can be difficult. Since your superpowers are activities that you are especially good at (and thus, might find easy) and enjoy (and thus, might not think of as “work”), it can sometimes be hard to realize that others don’t find the activities as easy or enjoyable, and that you bring something special to such tasks.

One of my favorite exercises to help people discover their superpowers is to ask them to write a Top Ten list of when they have enjoyed an activity. The activities don’t need to be work-related, and I suggest including at least two activities from childhood. Why don’t you try it now? 

Start finding your superpowers by making a list of activities you enjoy.

Once you have your list, the next step is to look at each item and ask yourself some questions about why the item is on the list. You can do this step by yourself, but you will often find additional insights if you share the exercise with another person. The questions you should ask include: What did you enjoy about the activity? What skills did you uniquely bring to the activity? And what made you uniquely able to succeed at the activity?

If you answer these questions for each item on your list, you may start to see patterns and repetitions that can point you towards your superpower. And even the answer to a single question can start you in the right direction. For example, three different people might put “riding a bike” as one of the activities they enjoy the most. On the surface, they might seem similar. But when asked why they like riding a bike, there might be three quite different answers. One might say “I love the competition, I love to win, I love practicing every day to get better and better.”  The second might say “I love the feel of the cool rush of wind on my face, hearing the crunch of the pine needles under my tires, and range of smells in the outdoors.” Finally, the third might “Well, actually all my friends love riding bikes and I love hanging out with my friends and so I ride my bike.” 

These three different answers to a single question gives three different areas to investigate in the search for each person’s superpower.  The first likes mastery, and will do well when challenged to get better and better, and needs tangible goals.  She might want to look at project work where she can get those needs met while developing mastery of a subject.  The second person speaks of experiencing the world in a very kinetic way.  So he should look for tasks that use his five senses, and should avoid sitting at a desk all day.  The third person is influenced by the people around her.  She needs to make sure she chooses a workplace with people she will enjoy.

While looking at a single answer isn’t enough to discover these people’s superpowers, it is already giving insight into the careers they need. Looking at the answers for all ten activities, and seeing the themes that develop, can often provide the insights you need to discover your superpower. And once you have that, you can start putting it to work, by looking for a career path where you can be a superhero and shine.



What does your client or boss really need?

My husband recently changed careers and became a librarian, which involved returning to school to earn a master’s degree in library science.  One of the courses he took, called “Reference/Information Services,” was an introduction to being a reference librarian – the type of librarian who traditionally sits behind the reference desk and answers inquiries from library patrons.  Much of the course was an introduction to the many sources, both online and in print, that a librarian can use to find answers.  But he also learned about the “reference interview” – the process librarians use to understand and clarify the questions they are asked.

In library jargon, as my husband explained it to me, library patrons have “information needs” that drive them to the reference desk in the first place.  But the patrons may not be able to fully articulate their needs, and it is the goal of the reference interview to elicit further information to fully understand the need.  For example, in a college library it is fairly common for a student to ask for an “article” on a particular topic.  A lazy librarian could appear to fulfill this request by quickly finding anything on the topic.  A more conscientious librarian would first ask a series of questions to discover the underlying need that led to the question.  Does the student need the article for a particular assignment?  Does it need to be from a peer-reviewed academic journal, or a popular newspaper or magazine?  Does the student need an article written at an introductory level or something more advanced?  Does the student really need an article at all – perhaps their real question could be better answer with an encyclopedia, a book, or a web site?  Only after the librarian understands the student’s information need can he or she fulfill that need.

This idea of finding out and giving people what they really need rather than what they ask for doesn’t just apply to libraries; it’s a useful skill in many areas of business.  If you are a consultant hired by a client for a particular task, you may not be able to fully satisfy the client unless you dig deeper and find out what need led them to seek your help – simply giving your client what they ask for may not be the best way to keep them happy.  Or if you are an employee, your manager will usually tell you what you should be doing, often by setting formal goals and objectives.  But if you can find out what your manager needs – often by finding out what measures upper management is using to evaluate your manager – you are more likely to be able to keep your manager happy.

 "Find out what your client or manager needs, not just what they ask for."

A colleague of mine recently told me of an experience that is a perfect example of the importance of a “reference interview.”  She is a Customer Response Management specialist, meaning she is an expert on setting up call centers – the rooms full of people who answer the phone when you call a company’s support number (assuming, of course, you manage to talk to a real person).  Not long ago she was contracted by a growing consumer electronics company to create and hire staff for a new customer call center.

Although my colleague had been hired to create a new call center, before doing so she talked to people in the company to find out why they needed the new center.  She found that the company’s products were so successful that their current call center was swamped with calls, resulting in long waits and frustrated customers, and the company wanted the new center to help handle the load.  Looking closer at the volume of calls, she discovered that most of them were being handled quickly, and a relatively small number of calls were holding everything up.  The call center staff spent a disproportionate amount of time on the few really difficult customer problems – often having to put the customer on hold and track down one of handful of people in the call center who were really experts on the products.

Instead of a costly new call center, my colleague solved her client’s problem by reorganizing the existing call center.  Using automated screening, difficult customer queries were routed directly to the call center’s small core of experts, while standard questions went to the rest of the staff.  Simply by instituting this two-tiered approach, wait times were dramatically shorted, and the number of calls the center could effectively handle was greatly increased, at much less cost to the company than staffing another whole call center.

By conducting a “reference interview” to find out what her client actually needed, as opposed to what they told her they wanted, my colleague was able to do a better job of solving their underlying problem, and saved them a lot of money in the process.