Entries in Knowing Yourself (16)


Taking stock on anniversaries

Many large corporations have institutionalized management techniques that are beneficial in theory, but detrimental in practice.  One example is the annual performance review.  It sounds like a great idea – at least once a year, managers and employees should sit down and talk about what they’ve done in the past year, discuss what worked and what didn’t, and make plans to improve things in the future.  If approached in the right spirit by everyone involved, it can be an extremely useful exercise. 

But in too many companies, the review process has turned into a burden for overworked managers and employees, who have to take time out from getting things done to compose elaborate “goals and objectives” documents that are already obsolete by the time they are approved; the process becomes one more distracting bureaucratic hurdle standing in the way of getting your job done.

Still, the idea if not the typical practice of an annual review is a good one, and whether you work for a company with a dysfunctional review process, or are self-employed or otherwise free of an imposed review, you should schedule time with yourself to consider what you have done in the past year, and what you want to do differently in the coming year.

Periodically review your accomplishments and opportunities, and decide what to change.

This self-review should look at what went right and what went wrong in the past year.  Sometimes you can do it all by yourself, but often you will need to solicit feedback from people you work with or who are affected by what you do – your co-workers, your manager, your clients, or your customers.  Based on what you learn, you can then decide what changes to make for the coming year.  Unless you discover you are completely on the wrong track, these changes don’t have to be numerous or large -- often small, incremental improvements are best.  And remember to schedule time in another year to look at things again, and see if you actually carried out the changes and what impact they had.

You don’t need to review everything you do at the same time; often it makes sense to consider different projects on their own.  For example, September marks the first anniversary of this newsletter, so now is a good time for me to look back at what I’ve accomplished with it, what problems I’ve encountered with it, and what changes I want to make in the future.

Overall, I’ve been quite pleased with how it has gone.  I’ve had favorable comments on the newsletter and simply getting twelve issues of the Positioning People for Success Newsletter out in a year meets the goal I set for myself when I started.  But timeliness has been the biggest problem; you may have noticed that issues have been slipping later and later in the month, and the August issue was so late in the month that some of you received copies that were accidentally labeled “September.”  So my resolution for the next year is to get the newsletter on a firm schedule, with issues going out on the 2nd Wednesday of every month.

However, I can’t really objectively review my own creation, and I have to turn to my readers for help.  Send me an e-mail to let me know what you think of the first year--what I’ve done wrong, what I’ve done right, and how I can improve it in the coming year to make it most useful to you.  Then next September we can both look back and see how I did.


Back to School

September marks the traditional start of the academic calendar after the long summer break.  The importance of this date depends on your relationship with school.  If you are a student, of course, it is a major event, as you catch up with old friends or make new ones, and begin a fresh year of studies with new classes and new teachers.  But once you’ve graduated, unless you become a teacher yourself, your life becomes largely uncoupled from the academic calendar, as one year fades into the next without the abrupt changes every September. 

Still, there are always reminders of the yearly academic cycle.  If you have children, their school schedule becomes a part of your life, and you may be heaving a sigh of relief as the start of school gets them out of the house.  Even if you don’t have children, there are flurries of advertisements for back-to-school sales to alert you to the season.  Some reminders take surprising forms.  Here in the Boston area, there are so many colleges and universities that most apartment leases run from September to September to fit the academic schedule, so that September 1st the streets are clogged with moving vans on the unofficial holiday known as “Moving Day.”

Despite these reminders, thoughts of school gradually fade.  But one time you should think of school is when you are looking for a new job or new clients.  Many colleges and universities have excellent career centers that provide services such as job listings, workshops, networking, resume assistance, and career counseling to current students and alumni, usually for free.  Even if it has been many years since you graduated, one step in your job hunt should be your school’s career center; thanks to the internet, it usually only takes a few minutes to find out what services they provide.

It’s never too late to use your school’s career services to help you find a job or a prospect. 

Obviously, career centers will be most useful if you still live in the same area as the school, since you will be able to drop by in person, and they are more likely to have good leads on local jobs.  But even if you now live across the country, they can still be useful. 

One of my clients did her undergraduate work at a major southern university before moving up north to get her MBA and work.  When I was helping her find a new job in business, I suggested that she contact her old university, which had a well-regarded business school.  Even though she had only attended as an undergraduate and never took classes at the business school, as an alumnae she was allowed to draw on the business school’s career services and use their exclusive job listings database.  The database had a national scope, and through it, she was able to make a contact in her own area that ultimately led to a job.


What are you worth?

Most of us wish we were paid more than we are.  I had one client who wanted a raise.  She worked for a small company as an environmental analyst, and had the nagging feeling that she wasn’t being paid what she was worth.  I suggested that before approaching her boss and asking for a raise, she should do some research, and discover the going rate for someone with her skills and job description.  She searched online, talked with trusted colleagues, and consulted her alma mater.  Sure enough, she was being paid about ten thousand dollars under the market salary.  This information allowed her to make a persuasive case for a raise, and her boss agreed to bring her up to the industry standard – her company wasn’t trying to shortchange her, they were simply unaware of what she was worth since environmentalism wasn’t their primary focus. 

Find out what your skills and experience are worth

There are a large number of sources for such salary information; the best ones to use depend upon your field.  Many professional organizations issue reports on salaries in their field; their web sites are a good place to start.  Browsing job listings is another approach.  The U.S. Department of Labor has a guide to occupations, including salaries, at  Some of the other sites used to assess salary expectations include,,,, and And as with most information, a reference librarian at a public or academic library should be able to help you.

If you are self-employed, comparing salaries won’t do you much good.  But the same principle applies – you should know what is typical compensation for the services you provide you clients.

If you find that you are underpaid, then you are in a strong position to negotiate a raise (or possibly to look for a new job), or to increase what you charge.  If your compensation is about right, then at least you know where you stand, and if you still desire more income, you will need to find a way to increase your value.  And if you find that you are overpaid, you can keep quiet and count your blessings.

Of course, there are a number of factors that can influence your expected salary, including location, education, skills, experience, and job description.  This complexity can complicate the process of finding what you should be paid, but it can also be an opportunity, since you may find that getting a degree or applying your skills to a different area can increase your earning potential.


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.