The World Will Take You at Your Self-Estimate

Taped to my refrigerator is a slip of paper, wisdom offered within a Chinese fortune cookie some years ago: “Think highly of yourself, for the world takes you at your own estimate.” 
 
This reminder is staged where I see it often–for a reason. The purpose is to nudge me to be clearer with others about my hard-earned knowledge, problem-solving acumen, and productivity. 
 

My childhood was shaped by hard-working, humble parents and I have modeled their hard-working, humble behavior most of my life. I cringe at arrogance in others and have a goal not to become a haughty rooster strutting my stuff in the barnyard. My parents are amazing, generous, salt-of-the-earth folks. However, after more years of living than I want to think about, I’ve been tackling the problems with this approach. 

 

The main problem with humility is that it promotes a tendency to under-sell my skills and stay quiet when others jump in to rattle off their countless virtues and flawless history. (Not to mention the fact that humility and humble have no desirable synonyms. One dictionary listing suggests that to be humble is to not be assertive–this isn’t what I want!) 

 

I was reminded of my intention to write about this fortune’s advice when reading an article that poses the question of whether a person who has been out of work for a while forgets his/her strong points (When you can’t find a job…do you forget how good you are?–thanks, Ronnie Ann at Work Coach Café, for inspiration). My hypothesis is it’s possible that job-finding difficulties in the current economy are harder on those who prefer to be understated.
 
In light of this economic climate–though I believe this statement is true at all times–I modify the fortune as follows:
 

Think optimistically and precisely about your working self,
for potential employers take you at your self-estimate.

 

This revised prediction applies to a jobseeker in many ways:


Résumé Content: You rarely get a do-over on résumé presentation. To get it right the first time, a jobseeker must make the document rich with repeatable results, transferrable skills, and a flavor of the person behind the résumé. I believe this document is not only an introduction to your expected future performance, but also an indicator of what drives you and how you engage with others in the workplace.

 

Cover Letter: Despite repeated advice from experts that a cover letter is key in convincing gatekeepers to read the attached résumé and consider you for an interview, it seems many individuals are unfamiliar with cover letter use or strategies. You can bring even more flavor to this document, but do not lose sight of its real purpose: To make a good case for why what you have to offer will fill their hiring needs.

 

If a jobseeker is presented timidly in either of these documents, the chances of scoring an interview or staying on file are diminished. As I once told a reluctant client, “It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true,” to which I now add “relevant.” Relevance is important in making a convincing argument, as is keeping the focus on what the employer needs (rather than your unabashed desire to be promoted and make loads of money).

 

Documents image 

 

Interview: For someone who has made it to the coveted interview, this is not the time to be shy. Nor is it the time to be abrasive, boastful, or out of rhythm with the interviewer. Treat the interview as a dance where the interviewer sets the pace and leads you to the next steps; follow the steps but take openings to present your case clearly and concisely. If you are well-prepared with specific examples, questions, thoughtful answers, and knowledge about the hiring company, then it will be easier to follow the cadence of the interview while still presenting your best case. Be confident and attentive, which is not the same as arrogant and domineering. (For tips on making a good impression in the crucial first minutes, see this article:  ”In hiring, first 12 minutes count most.”)

 

 

Follow-up Contacts and Networking: It is perfectly acceptable, in fact de rigueur, to promptly write a note or e-mail to thank interviewers and then to follow up within a few days. It is also acceptable to gently remind interviewers about the value you proposed in your meeting and any specific sparks you felt at the time. Further, it is recommended to talk with most everyone you know about your job goals and specific interests. Doing so will create links you did not know you had; a side benefit is the more you practice talking about what you are looking for and bring to the table, the easier it gets to do so.

Interview 

The circumstance of being unemployed or under-employed does not diminish your experience, ability, or character. While it may feel discouraging, it is important not to let that effect bleed through in every encounter. Potential employers and networking contacts may misread your sentiment as pessimism or, worse yet, as a clue that you have given up. If you convey a message of  “I’ve nothing to offer and no one will hire me,” you are sending the opposite message of what will spark interest with a screener or interviewer who is looking for a positive, contributing individual.
 
To recap: Be optimistic and specific about what you have delivered and your unique promise of future performance. Providing valid, relevant information about yourself is not boastful, but is instead vital for a successful job search.

 

Potential employers will only know how you turned around a failing business segment, solved a crippling problem, saved money and time with a clever solution, bridged a rift across corporate divisions, or learned a new software application and trained everyone in your work group if YOU tell them.

Decision-Making: Risk and Responsibility

With the advent of a recent ongoing disaster, I am feeling bewildered by the evidence for current and future implications. If I step away from the feeling of helplessness inspired by what is occurring in the Gulf of Mexico and shoreline communities, I am able to articulate my view of the art of calculating risks, making decisions, and being accountable for outcomes.

 

Risk: Risk is everywhere and cannot always be predicted. But in most situations of life and business, we are able to predict the “worst” and “best” outcomes of an action. Typically, the actual result falls somewhere between the end points of this spectrum we can envision. The rule of thumb I have adopted (and some change experts recommend) is to articulate the “worst case” scenario that might result from a proposed action. If you can tolerate that worst outcome—and have an action plan to mitigate it—then the choice may be within your acceptability zone.

 

Decision-making: For every option in a decision, risk can typically be approximated. The most likely outcome should be considered, to see if it will meet the desired end result. Expected result against desired outcome, likelihood of success, costs and benefits, and risk assessment are all part of weighing alternatives against one another. Also in play are the decision-maker’s risk and failure tolerances. In some decisions, there are also state or federal laws/regulations in the mix. Those regulations should not be circumvented or ignored in a business venture, if the business wishes to remain viable over the long term.

 

Consequences:  Outcomes and consequences are not the same thing. The initial outcome of an action may be desirable and achieve the stated goal. However, over time there may be an incident or byproduct of the action that creates other consequences. From an interpersonal standpoint we would say that a person “owning” the consequences of his or her actions would demonstrate maturity and responsibility. This ownership could involve accepting that someone’s feelings are hurt, that we left a job that it turns out was not so bad after all, or that we have lost support by moving away from the ideas/practices of our cohort.

 

In any case, a mature person will not try to blame others for having made the decision in the first place and, if there is cleanup to be done, will work toward a remedy and possibly seek help of skilled others in that effort.

 

 


Business Implications: For businesses, my take is that the equivalent of individual maturity is having a broad commitment to accept responsibility for both immediate outcomes and predicted consequences. Some companies represent a huge stockholder and employee base but have only indirect potential impact on the world at large. Other companies have both a huge interested party base AND deal in a risk-prone industry that has potential effects on the larger population. These organizations in particular must be held to a higher standard for risk analysis, evaluation of worst possible outcomes, and taking responsibility for the consequences of their corporate actions.

 

Managing Unexpected Results: To be fair, sometimes the consequences of a situation are far beyond what was predicted or planned to remediate. Maybe the mitigation plan for dealing with the risks involved was incomplete or not fully tested (hopefully not due to negligence). If we set aside for the moment the pre-decision evaluation and planning, there is still the matter of how does the person or organization respond when the worst-case scenario becomes reality.

 

Here are a few observations about how a person or corporation might handle the situation when a particularly bad or worst-case result arises.

 

  1. When the worst-case scenario occurs, first check the remediation plans that were devised before the decision was made to take the risk. As long as the circumstances have not changed since the remediation plan was devised, implement it quickly and carefully, measuring effects.
  2. If the remediation plan does not work, and it was recognized as being the best response available from the instigator of the action that caused the problem, then do not dilly-dally in securing the best professional resources to evaluate the problem.
  3. Do not lie about the observed effects/consequences. Especially if the event turns out to be ongoing and highly visible to the public, your deception will come to light. It is foolish to think that customers will flock to you if you have deceived them knowingly and brazenly.
  4. If experts and other parties offer resources that would clearly help manage the fallout, accept the offer. You can work out terms to keep the activity a fair exchange, but do not be so arrogant as to turn away reasonable offers of assistance.
  5. Remember the long term as well as the short term. Making short-term decisions to save money or face may not protect the viability of the company for the long term. Especially if millions of eyes are watching.

 

I have never made decisions that have significant local or regional effects. But I do make decisions every day about how I treat my customers and manage outcomes I have produced. From a consumer perspective, I choose where to invest money and which businesses gain my patronage.

 

To sum up my position: Courting arrogance and denial as a corporate head is not a business-winning strategy. Especially when ill effects of a decision can be projected decades into the future, the issue is no longer about reducing penalties, hiding reality, or protecting short-term stock prices.  

 

Note: Since I wrote this article, BP executives have met with President Obama and I watched the post-meeting press conference. The BP Chairman states that the BP Board of Directors does care about this crisis and the people affected; the company hopes through upcoming actions to regain trust for the long term. We shall see if the upcoming weeks tell a different story as compared to the story told so far.

 

Ongoing article in New York Times, updated on a regular basis: Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill 2010 (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/o/oil_spills/gulf_of_mexico_2010/)

 

Spring Cleaning: What to Let Go Of, What to Put In Its Place

We have about three weeks until summer begins, so maybe it is not too late to talk about spring. This season, despite the allergy challenges, is often cited as a favorite because it generally represents rebirth and renewal. The growth cycle manifested on a natural level can become a metaphor for how we transition our thinking.

 

The interesting thing about the natural cycle is that most plants are dormant over the winter. The previous year’s flowers and leaves are shed, and after a period of inaction the new year’s growth springs forth. The new blossoms do not usually push out the old. Rather, the old blooms drop off ahead of time, saving resources for the plant’s core and setting the stage for the next cycle of renewal. Pruning a rose bush has a similar effect, in which the roots and main growth are protected through the winter and new growth begins in spring.

 

What if . . . we let go of tired, withered ideas and activities to build energy reserves and allow for new growth?

 

Could we have a mental parallel to “spring cleaning,” where we discard what isn’t working anymore and make space for ideas and goals that are more salient?

 

Spring cleaning assignment #1 – Reevaluate our limitations. We carry with us through life notions about what we can or cannot do, and things we should never try. How old and tired are some of these notions? Part of the problem is our all-or-nothing mentality. We become convinced that if we cannot be perfect at a task we should never start. This is a silly Western notion and has nothing to do with being in the moment and learning how to express ourselves.

 

So in this case, the thing to be shed is the little voice in our head that says, “I can never be a dancer” or “I can never learn how to do pottery” or “I am stuck and it would be impossible to make a career change.”  The new voice might say something such as: “The community college has an introductory dance class I can try” or “The shop down the street offers by-the-hour pottery classes” or “Maybe I could explore this idea I have about writing and being paid for it.”

 

 

Spring cleaning assignment #2 – Reassess our resources.  Jumbled into the self-limiting thoughts is the idea that everything we might want to do requires time or money, and we are in short supply of both. It is true that resources are often required to pursue growth and renewal, but we make choices every day in how our resources are “spent.” Often the issue comes down to making choices to redirect. This means taking time or money spent on something else and allocating that resource to a new cause. Examples: Taking three hours a week that would be spent watching television or surfing the internet, and spending that time to take a class or research an interesting occupation. We might also need to take a look at time that is spent out of obligation—taking that third complaining phone call in a week from a friend whom we believe we are supporting by taking the complaints.

 

I made a decision a few years ago to drop the magazine subscriptions for publications I did not have time to read anyway. In doing this, I saved both money and the guilt for having magazines I wasn’t reading! (Though I still feel behind on the pubs I do receive.) The decisions can be much more complicated than these examples, but my point is we gain a sense of control from capturing time or money that is not producing a return, and using it another way to take small steps toward important goals. Reduce investing in unfulfilling experiences so you have the resources to pursue new growth. 

 


Spring cleaning assignment #3 – Send roots out to our sources of nourishment. No matter how well-intentioned, some people in our lives will discourage any action we take to do or learn something new. Changes we make may disturb the patterns they are used to and this makes them uncomfortable (even if they have no awareness of it). I am not recommending completely cutting off from people who are naysayers; after all, this could include your mother or close friends. However, it is possible to reach out and build connections with people who can see the possibilities and will support your growth.

 

My best friend lives in Northern California, which may as well be a continent away. I see her once every five years or so, and we talk a handful of times each year. But what occurred to me when I spoke with her recently is that she is an unflagging cheerleader for me. She knows my strengths and has seen me at my worst. Despite that knowledge, she has unconditional faith in me–and believes that no matter where I go or what I try to do, I will always find my center and come out all right.  How great is this manner of shoring up my dreams and pursuits?  This supportive attitude is the kind of nourishment that a person needs when trying to shift his or her life into a different gear. Pay attention to those who ask the good questions and discuss options, as opposed to those who immediately cringe and describe worst outcomes.

 

Rather than pull back from the naysayers, you can choose to limit your discussions about your ideas of new growth until you have things sorted out a little better and have a plan in place. The worst thing to do is take a sapling idea and throw it down in front of someone who carries only a dream-ax. It is a tragedy to stifle your own growth because someone else is afraid of how it might alter your servicing of their needs.

 

Certainly with a life partner you need to have these discussions, at every step of the way, about decisions that could change financial agreements and time commitments. But you now have permission to maintain a level of privacy with those who may not be able to see past their own needs to consider someone else’s objectively.

 

To wrap up this idea: “Tap in” to those who shed light on your considerations and promote your self-discovery. These may be people you haven’t met yet–classmates you meet when trying the introductory dance class or someone you contact for an information interview when exploring a new occupation.

 

 


As with the changing of seasons, the opportunity to make choices and replace old with new is ongoing. This is not a call to make a huge leap now, but I do encourage you to find the resources to plant and nurture something new in your life. You never know what the sapling might become.

How to Make Your Own Luck

Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.

In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.

                                                                                             ~Louis Pasteur

 

This entry is part book review, part philosophical musing. I have been reading a book by John Krumboltz, Ph.D., who proposed a seven-step approach to decision making for career and other life choices. I like his decision making model, and was prompted to read more about the concept of “happenstance.”  This term describes an attitude of planning (having and executing an action plan) while also staying open to chance meetings or events that may tie in with interests and career planning.

 

Dr. Krumboltz and co-author Dr. Al Levin wrote a book dedicated to this idea of staying open to opportunities, and in doing so creating your own luck (1). Luck Is No Accident is not only a catchy title, but also has an interesting basic premise: Be prepared to use unplanned events to your advantage, whether in life or career choices. This short, friendly book is filled with examples of people transforming casual meetings, chance events, or even presumed failures into new opportunities. The book also has exercises for working through assumptions about success and failure, as well as identifying options for exploration.

 

Why write about this topic?  Well, there is a general message here that goes beyond the nuts and bolts of planning while paying attention to new circumstances.  Krumboltz and Levin call us to embrace a general openness toward life, an approach that is less hung up on previous plans and outcomes and more tuned into “How does this person or event relate to me right now?” The corollary to this approach is having a willingness to re-think previous decisions and commitments. There is a fine line here, but the message is not to allow total distraction or being taken completely off track by new circumstances.  Instead, the attitude is to accept twists and turns and think about exploiting them if new goals/outcomes are possible.

 

The Light Bulb has to Want to Change

Q:  How many counselors does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Just one . . . but the light bulb has to want to change.

 

A friend and mentor shared this counseling inside joke with me a few weeks ago, and it has haunted me since. Not haunted as in making the floor creak or casting shadows on the wall, but revisiting me with its obvious relevance to career advisement. No matter how strong my or any other advisor’s desire to help someone with career evaluation or transition, we are largely dependent on the characteristics and activities of the client to achieve a successful outcome.

 

In response to the lists of what to select for in hiring a coach/advisor/counselor, here is my initial take on a list of attributes to be aware of in individuals seeking guidance. Assessing the strength of these attributes may help guide the advisement process, by tailoring activities to match a person’s strengths or openly discussing less-robust areas:

 

1.  Willingness to Rethink Long-held Assumptions and Beliefs. This attribute is desirous in most types of advisement, but in the career arena an individual must be willing to revisit assumptions about personal competence and presumed “roles” in life. From childhood, we form opinions about ourselves based on what we hear from others in conjunction with personal experience. Often, these notions are founded on someone else’s hopes and fears, or may just become outdated as skills and experience increase over time. Even if a person is initially reluctant to shift on long-standing opinions or self-limiting beliefs, attribute two can provide a powerful offset.

 

2.  Abiding Curiosity. This characteristic can go a long way in fueling a person’s search for information, both about the self and about the big wide world of occupations and career options. If an individual shows clues for investigating world issues, the local job market, or even researching a vehicle that meets personal requirements, then redirect this curiosity to career exploration efforts. A desire to learn can trump prejudgments about a particular occupation or way of working.

 

3.  Awareness of Support System. While some folks may be basically going it alone in their quest for a more fulfilling working life, typically there are support systems that should be engaged in the process. It is helpful if an individual accepts the general support offered by family and friends. I say general support because sometimes your best friends think they are magically imbued with expertise in interest assessment or resume preparation. On the one hand it is important to recognize the support factors, and on the other it is important to notice and limit the influence of naysayers. Let’s give people permission to lower the volume on those nay saying voices during the coaching process.

 

4.  Desire. This is where the light bulb wanting to change really comes in. Presumably a person seeks help because of a deep-seated desire to make changes. Something has prompted the contact for help. I have often heard the phrase: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I think it’s quite the opposite. Teachers are around us all the time, ready to help unleash our latent possibilities. When a student is ready, he or she will seek out a teacher. The strength of this desire can make the difference between plodding or active exploration.

There is No Career Fairy

I was working with an individual over the weekend about considering a job move, as he is feeling “in a rut” and knows his potential is not being tapped in his current position. Not meaning to be unsympathetic, I gave him the bad news first—and then the good news.

 

The bad news:  There is no Career Fairy. I have often wished there were such a helpful fairy, flying around wielding a powerful magic wand to transform dull and unsatisfactory working lives into dynamic and fulfilling ones. I have needed this fairy a few times in my life, but have found no sign of her or traces of fairy dust (drat!).

 

The good news: You are the closest thing there is to a Career Fairy. What it distills down to is that each of us is responsible for each position we take in our career journeys. This is true both for planning the longer view and for negotiating the next work role.

 

We are the agents with the most knowledge of what we like and dislike doing, how we like to work and with whom, and in what areas we would like to grow. Assessment tools and advisors/coaches can clearly inform us while on this path; I offer these services now and have been on the receiving end of career counseling and executive coaching at various points in my life. However, in the end it comes down to me and you to clarify what elements are important about the next steps we take.

 

 

So, what at first seems like a negative reality is really a positive truth. Work satisfaction will not be bestowed upon us, but it is within our power to define what it would mean on a personal level and then relentlessly pursue that satisfaction.

 

Happiness includes chiefly the idea of satisfaction after full honest effort. No one can possibly be satisfied and no one can be happy who feels that in some paramount affairs he failed to take up the challenge of life.     - Arnold Bennett

Recipe for Blogging

This entry was originally posted 3/31/2010 – reposted to new blog 4/11/2010

 

 

In my last entry, I was evaluating time or, more specifically, how to manage my own more effectively. Although it has been a while since I posted, it happens that blogging was not floating to the top of my priorities list. In that regard, I’ve been embracing the custodial role for my minutes and hours.

 

I do want to be more active in this venue, however, and decided to develop some simple rules. After reading many articles on “how to blog”—including a few that did not seem blog worthy—I have developed a recipe for testing in my blog kitchen:

 

B – Bite off an idea or topic that is small enough to manage in a few paragraphs. Time is presumably precious to the reader, and there are a few hundred more blog pages to be encountered (for good or bad). I am setting a limit of 12 paragraphs. This seems doable, though I might have to break the rule I read recently about only two or three sentences per paragraph. As is often recommended, I agree that the entry’s purpose should be embedded in the title to allow the reader to make a quick decision about whether to stick around.

 

L – Leaven with a personal story or opinion, to make it clear that the text is written by a living, breathing person with a well of experiences from which to draw. I do enjoy concisely written articles, especially those that are filled with useful suggestions and interesting turns of phrase. But I am finding that the blogs which resonate most deeply are spiced with personal experience and opinion.

 

O – Ostrich . . . as in: Don’t be an ostrich and bury my head in the sand (although ostriches apparently do not do this, the phrase provides a mental image for the familiar notion of avoiding unpleasant things). This ingredient represents allowing authors to tackle difficult issues, without always measuring against popular opinion or, um, following the herd.

 

G – Garnish with one or more useful tips or references; not necessarily sound bites, but a bit of information or a resource link that can lead to other investigation. Adding (relevant) links increases blog value.

My recipe seems a little short, but it’s in keeping with a close friend’s rule that recipes should contain five or fewer items. (She also has a rule that meat and fruit should never be combined; I do not honor that restriction.) For now, I conclude with what I believe is an excellent blog example, Curt Rosengren’s “7 Questions for Every Career Changer” post on U.S. News & World Report’s Money site (7 Questions).

 

Bon appétit!

© 2010 Pontus Consulting, LLC

Time is Running In – Rethinking Time

This entry was originally posted 3/5/2010 – reposted to new blog 4/11/2010

 

I have decided to turn my concept of time upside-down, or maybe inside-out (or outside-in?). What I mean by this is, I have started to feel the pressure of passing time. Whether it’s due to getting older or getting wiser about my inevitable end, I don’t know; but I do know that I find myself trying to cram more activities and productivity into every day. This is not inherently a bad thing, but it is causing more perceived stress.

 

In my attempts to be more productive and realize new dreams but not be over-stressed by the effort, I am revisiting Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” (1) I had read this book several years ago, shortly after it came out, but never listened to the audio version. Now Stephen is my companion in the car, at least for a while. (Does this count as two-or-more carpooling in the Georgia HOV lanes? Oh , all right–clearly not.)

 

Regardless of whether you like Stephen Covey’s style and terminology, his message is admirable: Identify the things that are most important (first in your life), and allocate time to the activities that support those “firsts.” He hits the nail on the head that life throws urgent stuff at us all the time, which interferes with our attending to the things that personally matter the most. This creates a sort of time tug-of-war.

 

The Best Defense is a Good Offense

This entry was originally posted 2/7/2010 – reposted to new blog 4/11/2010

 

In the spirit of the day (it’s Super Bowl Sunday after all), my inaugural blog is to muse on this quote. I was curious about origins of this phrase, but could not seem to find an exact source. No matter; what is clear is that the phrase is commonly used in sports and games. In a difficult economic time–with even the (presumably) safely employed looking over their shoulders—I would argue it can be a useful adage in the world of work and careers.

I really like this Merriam-Webster definition of defense: “means or method of defending or protecting oneself, one’s team, or another.” Using this definition as a springboard, I believe there are several ways to protect yourself and your job today. Of course nothing is foolproof, and as we all know many companies issue dictates from the top to the bottom to cut headcount with no remorse or discussion. But that is not always the case in smaller businesses, and for companies who have already cut deep we hope the lay-offs are subsiding. Some suggested plays are as follows:

 

 

1. Make yourself more valuable to your employer. There are several ways to do this, but one of the easiest to is to raise your hand the next time someone needs to be covered while on vacation or a task/responsibility needs to be backed up. If you are already working to exhaustion then of course you have to be careful about what you take on. But if you have the time and are willing to learn, then keep your eyes open for the opportunity to learn new things and be involved in other areas. (Sort of in line with not keeping all your eggs in one basket.)

 

 

2. Keep track of your accomplishments. It’s widely suggested to have your accomplishments documented and at the ready when you meet with your manager in preparation for a performance review, but I do not actually see this often firsthand. When you complete a project or assignment and get a verbal or written recognition for it (or even if you don’t) write a brief, factual summary of the accomplishment. Build a file of successes and do not be afraid to share this information when it is time to be reviewed or if another opportunity comes open within your organization that you think you might be suited to.