That Voice Inside Your Head

I went for my usual Sunday morning run with my friend, Mary, and we had a beautiful morning: the sun was out, it was over 40 degrees and for the first time in months we weren’t in thick ice or snow. We catch up while we run, so Mary mentioned her maddening run the day before: one of those where “the voice” inside your head (aka “the gremlin” sitting on your shoulder)  is whispering and whining loud and long in a tone that just won’t stop.

In Mary’s case, the voice was a stream of “you can’t do this,” “who do you think you are trying to run 7 miles?” “you can’t even run 2 minutes without stopping,” “your legs are miserable…give it up!” and, of course, “this hurts…your back, knees, hips: stop you’re killing us!”  The beauty of Mary’s story is that she ran through the voice and did the very thing she had set out to do. It’s so easy to listen to the voice and go to the place of comfort–to give in, to stay safe–wherever that is.

Do you know the voice I’m talking about? It’s the one that keeps you from moving forward with challenging or new things–telling you that the comfortable place you’re in is the right one, the safe one, the smart one. It says that change–any change–is going to be scary, hard, will make you look foolish, and you’ll fail.

A former client, Susan knows the gremlin well. We met for lunch last week several days after she finished the last exam in her paralegal program. Susan was a client 18 months ago, at a time when she didn’t like the work she was doing or the industry in which she’d spent 12 years. After introspection and research, Susan determined a direction that would use her strengths and provide real satisfaction. Her internet search found a premier program at a local university–it was convenient, affordable and it fit her schedule.

Once she discovered that option, Susan’s gremlin plopped itself on her shoulder and held on for dear life.

“You haven’t been to school for 25 years.” “You haven’t done any kind of studying for almost that long.” “How will you keep up with the younger students? “You probably won’t make it.” “Studying will take up all of your time–you won’t have a life.” “They won’t accept you…how embarrassing will that be?”

After wrestling with her gremlin, Susan took a baby step: she made a call to get some initial information. The information intrigued her and made it easier to push the voice aside, so she decided to talk to an advisor, someone who knew returning students. She took one small step at a time: application, interview, wait for acceptance.

Susan was thrilled when accepted, yet the voice came back feisty and persistent, creating nerves and angst and fear as the program started. But Susan had a goal, and she trusted herself enough to pursue the satisfaction she wanted and the change she desired.

What Mary and Susan both figured out is that the voice inside your head is yours: you create the thoughts, so you can change them! You’re in charge. The thoughts are strong since they’ve become habits. While it takes persistence and focus, you too can change those habits.

Well, this is a blog about careers, so what is your voice saying about yours? That you have to stay where you are with the economy and all? That the only smart thing is to suck it up and be happy you have a job? That you don’t have the skills to do anything else? That you’re too old (or, too experienced or too invested or too whatever) to make a change? That finding work you love is for other people, not people like you?

If that’s what your voice is saying, then listen up: Bunk! This kind of thinking lets you keep yourself small and under the spell of fear.

And this spell is one that doesn’t make you excited about your work; it doesn’t allow you to use your strengths every day; and it doesn’t move you toward making contributions that matter.  If you’re stuck in this thinking,  you’re defaulting down the easiest path, following your gremlin voice.

You don’t have to default, you know. When you own your career and take responsibility for your direction, you don’t have to “settle” any more. A different take on your career path, yes, but a realistic one for the 21st century work place.

Investing with Eyes Wide Open

When you think ‘security’ what comes to mind? Your portfolio or your work? Given the sad state of financial portfolios, you’ll do yourself a favor by re-thinking and re-working your thinking around security.

Most of us spend 40 plus years in the workforce with little knowledge of how long a job will last. Industries used to have career ladders, back when industry was driving the economy. Businesses used to recognize the return on  investing in management development and skills training based upon steady growth projections. With today’s economy running on information, information that multiplies exponentially, organizations have stopped investing in development because…well… because if it doesn’t bolster the next quarter’s financial performance then it’s not worthy of investment. Short term only. And really, really short-sighted.

If your work is valuable, if you are a contributor to your employer then you must invest in yourself. Because if you don’t, you are really, really short-sighted.  If your work isn’t all that valuable, then it’s even more important that you invest in yourself since you’ll probably find yourself out on the street sooner rather than later.

What do I mean by investing? I mean paying for–spending money on— your growth, your development, a new skill, new knowledge, new competencies, anything that makes you more productive, more innovative and a stronger partner with your employer.  But invest wisely.

When you think of educating or improving yourself, you might automatically think a degree, maybe an MBA.  Degrees have a purpose, so make sure you do, too, before you decide that it’s the best place for you to spend your money.  A degree is an investment of several years of your time as well as thousands of dollars, and is a finite curriculum. So if you invest in a degree, it always says you have done the work, but it’s only current until the day you graduate.  In this information economy, staying current is the name of the game.

What does that mean? Estimates are that in 2008 we had 1.5 exabytes of unique new information available to us and that our technical information doubles every  2 years. This is what we have to keep up with, this is the “currency” we have to capture. So invest wisely.

Maybe an update in your computer skills, in new applications that will improve your efficiency is your best investment–this year. Maybe sharpening your collaboration skills so you can get more from your project teams is your best investment–this year. Maybe learning how to run a 20-minute meeting that produces big results in your best investment–this year.  Maybe learning to tap into your creativity is the thing that will improve your value–this year. Ask your manager, peers, and team mates about what would make you a better contributor in the workplace…they’re likely to tell you. And do it annually, better yet 2 or 4 or 6 times a year.  Review your value just as you do your financial portfolio; take responsibility for maximizing your value.

And, if you’re reading this and thinking “this is not my job,” “I don’t have the money to do this,” or “what I know is enough,” then get an executive or career coach to help you open your eyes to reality. Your belief systems are stuck in the last century and they are holding you back; they are threatening your security more than you know.

It’s always been a surprise to me that “career” isn’t considered the foundation of our financial security, and maybe in the 20th century with its stability, retirement parties and gold watches it didn’t need to be. But in today’s world, your investment in yourself and your career is the foundation for your security.

If you’ve abdicated, take it back. If you’ve never thought about it, begin now. Recognize that in today’s upside-down economy, you are your own stability…and investing in yourself is the wisest decision you will ever make.

Taking Responsibility

During President Obama’s inaugural address, these words struck a chord:

“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility, a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly.”

While his words reference our responsibilities as U.S. and world citizens, they also speak broadly to us as human beings perhaps more sharply during this challenging economy.  We are not in “normal” times, however we define it; the world is not the same one any of us older than 10 was born into; what once worked no longer does…in many cases through no fault of our own. Nevertheless, we are stuck with the results, the fallout, the upside-down events.  We need to pull out the old adage:  “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” But I don’t think we have much “tough” anymore. We have expectations that no longer mirror the world we live in.

We’re in the midst of a crisis: many of you reading this won’t admit that you really want things to be just like they were. You want the comfort of how things used to be, how they’re supposed to be. You refuse to recognize that the changes are permanent and that unless you adapt, you’ll die. You’re living in a fantasy world playing a victim.

Maybe our comfort with how things have been for any number of years is what’s in our way of being “tough.” Many of you reading this work for employers who tell you what to do, how to do it, when to show up, when to leave, and what you’ll be paid.  And, unless you really mess up, your paycheck comes like clockwork…whether you show up or not, whether you show up 100% or 75% or even 30%. You get a paycheck. Man, how comfortable is that?

That’s a pretty accurate view of how a lot of you see work, and a 180 from what today’s business needs. We decry the loss of the old employment compact while we don’t really keep up our end of things.  Many workers spend their days looking for a better job, a better place, one that pays more and has more perks.  Few spend their days making the current job better, developing new efficiencies and greater productivity, or pulling co-workers together to create a better customer experience.

And why? “My boss won’t let me.” “I’m afraid to make suggestions.” “I’m not appreciated.”  “I just do what I’m told.” And my personal favorite: “It’s not my job.” Irresponsible, victim language if ever I’ve heard it.

Wake up, People…it IS your job. It’s your job to see where and how and how much you can contribute to make sure your employer is still in business this time next year, or even next month. It’s your responsibility to know what’s happening in your industry and among your company’s competitors. It’s up to you to investigate what will keep your customers not only happy, but returning. It’s up to you to do everything you can to get expenses down and revenues up. How you align with what your organization needs is your security–your only security. It’s also career ownership.

In our current economy, to think this responsibility falls to someone else–the leaders, your boss, anybody else–is foolhardy at best, and suicidal at least. You’re a victim as long as you shirk your responsibility; a contributing partner when you take it on.

Who are you choosing to be?

About Learning

What a great week! I’ve spent half of the last 4 days in professional development events–a real treat. And my clients, my friends and I are all better for it…I truly love to hear other perspectives that challenge and expand my own. How else will I get myself unstuck from the past?

On Sunday I was in the Ohio National Speaker’s Association audience to hear a legend in the business, Jeanne Robertson.  Jeanne is a humorist and has been speaking for almost 40 years… and she’s a hoot! (For an enjoyable break in your day, check her out on youtube.)  What I really learned from Jeanne is that she continues to improve her work every single day. She is wildly successful and she chooses to learn…because staying current is so critical to that success.

Following Jeanne’s session, Fred Gleeck, an information product expert, gave us more about using the internet in a couple of hours that I would have thought possible. Did you know that at you can find good domain names? And that does competitive analysis? Fred provided great information and also left me with a couple of significant learnings: “Done is better than perfect.” and “A confused mind always says no.” Both important reminders for those of us whose business depends upon our marketing savvy.

Yesterday I spent the morning with Jim Canterucci and a host of great panelists at the Personal Brilliance seminar hosted at the OSU Leadership Center.  How easy it is to forget that we are all OK just like we are–we don’t need to be fixed; and that cultivating creativity to produce innovation is a process…it’s the focus and repetition that retrain our brain connections so the process becomes more natural. Great reminders about how learning isn’t about “fixing” us, it’s about growing and becoming more comfortable with our talents—so we recognize and use them!

One thing Jim said really started my thinking about this post: he noted that some in attendance were taking great notes to share with their co- workers…almost like the small investment ($89) in the seminar made by their employer would only provide a return if the information could be shared with 5 or 10 others. I know that sharing learning is wonderful, yet minimizing the importance of learning’s value to an individual is still an incredibly short-sighted view! I’ve spent enough of my life inside organizations to know that this is not an unusual perspective, and that learning dollars are spent sparingly and grudgingly: “Man, I hate to spend it here because we have 17 more important budget lines.”

I simply don’t get it: in an economy that demands brains and innovation and connection with customers, how do organizations continue to see learning as extraneous to their success?

I’m also befuddled as to why every employee doesn’t develop a clear path for their own learning, their own growth, especially knowing that organizations seldom do.

Help me out, please! Here’s my question to you: do you have a learning path for yourself? If so, how did you decide to create one and how are you pursuing it? And if not, what’s holding you back? I’d love to have your thoughts on your learning…and of course it feeds my own!


Everyone can (and should) own their career

I generally try not to ‘should’ people, but in this case I will. Who’s a career owner? In short, anyone who takes responsibility for his or her career and its direction.

We think of business owners and entrepreneurs as owning their careers, but everyone can…if they choose to do so.  I’m passionate about helping people who are inside organizations as employees define their talents and best direction.  Why? Because as renters of their work, employees today are not contributing, not satisfied and not emotionally connected to it.  And when most of us spend at least a third or more of our days, weeks and months at work, why not make it something not so…well, work-like? Something that gives us energy, allows us to use our talents and makes us significant contributors to our organization’s success?

I do clearly remember my Mother saying “It’s not supposed to be fun…that’s why it’s called work!” But that was in the middle of the Industrial economy, where values reflected the not-so-distant depression era and World War II. Work was manual labor in factories, fields, manufacturing facilities and mechanical shops.  Not so today: there’s limited manual labor driving our economy, computers dominate almost every industry sector,  and continual skills improvement and education are required to stay on top of a changing world.

So what? Here’s so what: this lack of connection with work is costing employees a healthful environment for much of their lives, huge amounts of self-confidence and the motivation of making satisfying contributions; it’s also costing organizations over $375 billion annually in lost productivity.  Given this number (and Gallup has been publishing this information for years), it’s amazing to me that organizations do almost nothing to change this…because it costs money.

So, rather than waiting any longer, employees can choose to take responsibility (i.e. ownership) for their careers, increasing engagement in the work they do, their contribution and their belief-in-self at the same time. When workers’ hearts are connected to their heads and hands, everybody wins: workers, customers and the organization.

The ‘heart’ connection is an emotional link and it comes most often from using strengths and talents, being really satisfied and content with the work.  The emotional link feeds the ‘head’ so there is a clear recognition of the value of the work and its outcomes, and this in turn feeds the ‘hands’ so that excellence in results becomes the standard.

What organization wouldn’t want workers like this? An amazing number, apparently, based upon those that provide no growth opportunities or career options and choose to focus on employee weaknesses.

So it just makes sense: the time has come for everyone who works to take on career ownership. The process to accomplish this is simple, but not easy…takes work on the part of the employee and takes some time to pull the pieces together. But once you own your career, you always own it. Your security belongs to you, you call the shots, and you determine your growth direction. It’s a tremendously smart direction in today’s challenging world of work.

Over the next weeks and months I’ll define the process, the pieces on how to take career responsibility. It’s something you can do on your own, within your current organization, with or without organizational support.  With even a bit of internal support, you can implement growth and career direction within your current workplace. And even without support, you have some certainty around your most satisfying work and best career direction.  So you have information upon which you can choose to take action…or not.

Is your 2009 career direction satisfying or stifling? Stop back, and we’ll help you make sure that you’re doing the choosing.

Career Owners in the Customer Space

I’ve had several recent encounters with customer service people and each of them made clear how their job ‘fit’ them: as a renter or an owner.

My first was with my personal trainer, Tami, who is always fully focused on each client. She has the ability to walk that fine line between making me sweat and making me whine. No complaints, always a positive thing…I don’t like the work, necessarily, but I do appreciate her awareness of where I am both physically and mentally. (She’s with Equivita, a terrific place by the way!) Tami owns her client focus and tailors it beautifully.

Customer service for captive customers!

Customer service for captive customers!

My second encounter was in the McDonald’s drive through. I know what I’m in for at most fast-food places, and I often find the “window” folks to be personable and engaging. This one was an exception— the employee never made eye contact. Normally I wouldn’t think much of it, especially when the transaction is bolstered by conversation, but this one wasn’t. She said 3 words to me: $3.86, and thank you. She wasn’t rushed and she wasn’t taking another order…she just looked away and didn’t respond to me at all. My sense was that the sooner I left, the sooner she could be anywhere else. Definitely renting the space behind the cash register.

And then, back in my office, I took a call from Staples—don’t know why because I was juggling 3 or 4 things—and 23 minutes later we were finally finished.

I spent that time with Victoria who not only did her “job,” but she raised the level of Staples’ credibility and customer know-how by about 120%! Her first order of business was to give me, as a Premier Customer, my choice of a 4th category in which to save 10% on all purchases…and, of course, an appreciation call is a fine thing. [In the interests of total disclosure, I expect that I’m a premier customer because my trips to Staples are like many people’s trips to ice cream shops—fun in the short haul, but we’re caught in the end! For me that ‘end’ is paying for the cart full of goodies that I couldn’t pass up.]

She gave me the name of the manager at my local store and told me about him. She gave me her name and contact number and repeated how important getting to know customers was to the Staples culture. She asked me about my company, CompassPoint Coaching. And, through the whole conversation, I never once felt that she wanted to be talking to the next customer on her list—and I expect she had a long one.

When I asked her how Staples does training and leadership development, she said a most interesting thing. She said that before training comes hiring—and that Staples wants to make sure they do the best hiring and get the right people on board. They look for quality and don’t hire a body to replace a body, or to fill a spot—it’s important to Staples that their employees connect with their customers to establish ongoing relationships.

And then, after hiring, they teach and reinforce their culture. She mentioned that she was reading about emotional intelligence and how important the emotional connection of employees is in order to develop the relationships that create the emotional connections with customers. She told me about her background, that she’s been with Staples for several years and that the culture is one focused on coaching employees to improved skills and competencies. I didn’t have to ask her if she liked her job—she was doing work she loved!

We talked about using social media for hiring, research, and other great things, and that while computers are said to take away the personal connection, intentionally-used social sites actually allow for an often more-personal connection…kind of a counter intuitive thing.

While we were talking she went to my websites, and asked about how I found my clients and if the economy was having any effect on that. We discussed coaching results and the coaching environment of Staples. She never once sounded forced, bored, phony or like she was “just doing her job.” It was probably the most “fun” I’ve ever had with a cold customer call from a supplier. I’m still not sure why I answered the phone when the caller ID registered Staples, but I’m glad I did. What great observations I’ve had on the scope of customer service and how refreshing to know that I do business with several—Equivita and Staples—that do it right!

Within 15 minutes of finishing my call with Victoria I had an email follow-up from her with the details of the “business” part of our conversation, and a second email with an invitation from her to connect on Linked In! A few days later she helped me navigate my research into a new pc.

How refreshing to work with someone who believes that customers are indeed a critical part of the business model and treats them as such. Career owners see the long term, and recognize its importance. In this quantum physics (v. Neutonian) world, that long-time connection creates a very comfortable place to return.

Career owner in the making

During lunch with two friends today, we caught up on current work mindsets. Sue was feeling great—she just returned from a four day renewal in Vegas; I was eager and energized by a new project; and Laurie was up in the air. She was about a month into a new position and was ok with it but not excited. Turns out that she was moved into a position that doesn’t use her strengths, and she was making the best of it. Her question: what do you do when the organization moves you in a direction that isn’t where you want to go?

Laurie had actually interviewed for a position a few months ago that was aligned with her desired direction but didn’t get it. It was one that would have taken her back to the field, where she is experienced and has done great work. So she’s stuck in her thinking: she wanted to go one way and the organization moved her in another; she is looking at her current spot as “a learning experience,” but that’s putting her best spin on a challenging situation. Thus, her question.

She’s been with the organization for 15 years, so has accepted the culture and how things get done. She knows her talents very well, and knows where she can make an impact. She has, maybe, 60% engagement in the work she’s doing…and it’s at that level because she’s still on the learning curve. Once she gets more comfortable with the work, her engagement will decrease and she’ll still get the job done. It works that way with most employees every day.

What kind of contribution could she make if she were completely connected to her work, if she were using her talents and aligning her intellect and her commitment to the organization?

Laurie knows very well and is going after that very thing.

She is re-energized about defining her path inside the organization…she loves the industry and knows how she can make a difference. She is reviewing her professional development agenda created several years ago during her MBA program. She is looking around to see how and where she can use her strengths, and is focused on doing so. She is renewing connections with past mentors and looking to clarify her knowledge of the organization’s growth plans. She is seeking to identify a sponsor or two, and get included in projects that will challenge her, grow her skills and use her talents to make a difference. Along the way, she is building and making her business case for strategically-defined career moves.

Laurie has the beginnings of a plan for invigorating her career direction, one that is a true learning experience…where her emotional connection will intensify the learning such that the organization will reap tremendous results. She is electrified by the possibility that she can own her career, that she can set direction and see positive results for both her and the organization.

How about you…are you stuck? Going in a direction that doesn’t quite fit, or that you don’t care about? What’s holding you back, keeping you from going after your best work? Let me know and we’ll take a look at what’s getting in your way and, if you’re willing to do the work, how to intentionally move beyond it.