How “Now-I-Get-It” Discoveries Expand Career Savvy

Careers are mysterious. We skip naively into them, assuming that our generally optimistic assumptions about the company, our boss, and coworkers are true. Then wham, the gilt flies off the lily.

That’s okay, actually. Careers teach us to pay attention continuously.

A pulse exists below the surface of every business. It may be:

  • Unseen or foreign to us
  • Outside our understanding
  • Separate from the work we perform daily

That pulse drives business all decision-making, actions which include both simple and wildly complex variables.

Directly or indirectly, that business pulse impacts us in ways we either like or don’t. When we “get” what’s going on, we’re better positioned to respond or react in ways that are good for us, building our savvy.

What you see v. what is

Marketing is the juice. The business markets its goods and services for profit; we market our capabilities for reward.

We are also marketing targets even when it’s not obvious that we are. When we feel the pulse of it, we’re likely on the verge of a “now-I-get-it” moment.

Consider this: I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but several colleges have stepped out lately  in some wild, new football uniform styles and designs—from helmets to jerseys to shoes.

Journalist Mo Rocca did a piece for the CBS Sunday Morning Program (January 8, 2012) featuring the gridiron wear of the Oregon Ducks who won the Rose Bowl. Rocca’s piece described the Oregon Ducks as looking “less like football players and more like comic book superheroes, sporting mirrored ‘special edition’ helmets that had never been worn before.”

In fact Rocca reports:

This regular season alone, the Ducks wore eight different jerseys, six pants, five helmets and four different shoe and sock colors . . . a staggering number of possible combinations.

The Oregon football team isn’t the only one sporting snazzy new unis: Notre Dame and the University of Maryland did too.

On the surface, you would think the change to more high-tech gear was strictly for on-field performance, safety, and durability. Well, as Coach Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friend!”

ESPN’s Paul Lukas explains to Rocca the story behind the new uniforms move:

…when you and I were kids, you couldn’t go and buy a jersey. That market didn’t exist…They hadn’t figured out that someone would drop $200 for a polyester shirt.

And…now that they know people will do that, ‘Well, you already bought this year’s jersey. Well, what if we change our jersey next year?’ You’d go and buy another one.

The “now-I-get-it” discovery is that this change was about merchandizing and not just great TV optics.

Savvy up

There’s a secondary story about most everything in business, that’s why you need to be savvy to the underlying pulse and needs of the company you work for.

Think of the last time you didn’t get hired or promoted. It’s likely the decision wasn’t all about you. The successful candidate may have been:

  • Representative of an under-represented constituency
  • Identified for a growth assignment
  • Someone’s favorite
  • Passed over once before and due a second chance
  • A non-controversial choice

We all want to think hiring is purely about talent and capabilities, but that would deny the existence of the pulse.

Human beings create and lead businesses in service to other human beings who buy from them. The human element creates the pulse. To succeed ourselves, we need to keep our fingers on it!

Photo from Monica’s Dad via Flickr

Winner, Loser, or Also-ran? How Attitude Defines You

Attitudes reveal us—what we value, how we think, and what we’re after. They’re the stuff of statements like:

  • “With an attitude like that he’ll be an obstacle on our project?”
  • “We don’t need a supervisor with an attitude like hers?”
  • “I can’t give him a good rating with that attitude.”

People observe our attitudes and then define us through their own attitude-shaded lens. Like it or not, we’re locked in an inexorable cycle of labeling.

Attitudes revealed

Attitude is defined as either a positive or hostile disposition or state of mind. Our feelings, thoughts, and points of view form our attitudes.

No matter how we come by them, attitudes become features like traits and characteristics that can work for or against career success.

We live in a fast-and-loose labeling world. There are labels for everyone in every profession and walk of life.

Politicians will label you as a conservative, liberal, moderate, progressive, or independent even if your viewpoints don’t fit their label for every issue.

At work, you’re put into attitude boxes like team player, go-getter, troublemaker, or bullier even when your attitudes are situation based.

Attitude labels stick, so we need to understand how we’re attracting them and how to turn them around when they’re a liability.

Look at yourself

Your attitude is the one thing in life that you always control. So if you’re displaying attitudes that are causing you problems you don’t want, change!

Start with some self-appraisal:

  • Make a list of the positive and negative words being used by others to define your attitude.  (Reread your last two performance appraisals for insights. Listen closely to what your boss and peers are saying to or about you.)
  • Next to each word, write 3 situations where you remember doing or saying something that triggered it. (If you can’t remember, ask a trusted coworker or your boss for help.)
  • Talk to a family member or friend about how you come across in certain circumstances. Chances are your attitudes show up in you personal life too.

Commit to an attitude management plan:

  • Identify actions you will take to retain positive attitude labels and fix the negative ones.
  • Identify triggers that bring out your negative attitudes and how you will manage your actions and words when they appear.
  • Schedule a meeting with your boss to discuss your commitment to improving attitudes that need work.
  • Share your plan for change and solicit your boss’s support. Be as specific as practical.
  • Make good on your plan by sticking with it.

The harsh reality is that attitude is more important to career success than talent. No one wants to work with a gifted leader or technician with a bad attitude. Good results are more likely to come from those with average talent who are happy working together.

The consequences of inaction

Negative attitude labels that go uncorrected can crush a career. Winners showcase can-do attitudes, collaboration, courage, and trustworthiness, even in the heat of battle.

The also-rans (ah, yes, another label) are those who go unnoticed. Their attitudes are often unrevealed, other than their willingness to just go along with what’s asked. They don’t make waves and they don’t progress much either.

Employees with negative attitudes often resist direction, find fault with all decisions, bully co-workers, and/or obstruct progress. They perceive they’re winning when their careers are actually in free-fall.

When our attitudes are on display, observers reinforce the labels they’ve assigned to us, until one day their labels have replaced our names. We become known as the:

  • Obstructionist or Problem Child
  • Hard-ass or Power Monger
  • Team Player or Advocate

Negative labels can be dangerous. Just watch a political campaign and see how labels about what a candidate believes are turned into weaponry through name-calling and pigeonholing.

You need to protect yourself from unfair attitude labeling by renewing efforts to manage your attitudes effectively. If where you work doesn’t fit your nature, do the smart thing: Employ attitudes that serve you positively each day while you take steps to make a career change. You can do this!

Photo from Ayleen Gaspar via Flickr

Jobs with Baggage and What to Do About Them

Like it or not, we’re labeled by our jobs and the organizations that employ us. When we say what we do, people form an opinion based on job stereotypes. 

That can work in our favor when we have job titles like engineer, nurse, technology expert, or entrepreneur. More often than not, the marketplace buzz around those jobs casts them in a good light. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. 

Your baggage claim 

Some job titles and the industries that assign them come with a not-so-stellar history. The titles themselves can make a job seekers blood run cold like: 

  • Car salesman
  • Insurance agent
  • Call center rep
  • Retail clerk 

Today there’s also baggage around jobs in banking, investment services, government, law, and the media to name a few. How we regard certain jobs depends on our individual experiences, values, perspectives, and knowledge. 

It’s easy to generalize and presume that anyone or everyone who works in a certain field fits a negative stereotype. As a result we’re likely to steel ourselves for a bad experience, often adopting an attitude that will provoke it. 

Negative brands around jobs and industries are difficult to break, especially when they have taken deep hold of the marketplace psyche for many years. 

Break the mold 

At some point in our careers, we’ll likely have a job that isn’t held in high regard because of its title. Our challenge is to turn negative perceptions into positives through our actions.

Recently, after driving my car for 14 years, I decided to buy a new one. I don’t do this often because I dread the whole dealing-with-the-car-salesman thing. Here’s what I was expecting: 

  • Pressure to buy more car than I needed
  • Back and forth negotiating, made complicated by the trade and/or financing
  • Not really getting the best deal
  • Fast-talking plus bait and switch promises
  • Being left hanging when I had questions after the sale 

I brought this baggage to the experience, something, Jeff, my salesman, had to overcome. So here’s what he provided: 

  • Patient listening and attention to what I wanted
  • Information about the best-fit model for me and its features
  • A clear statement about the sticker price and discussion about what I wanted to pay
  • An upfront trade price so I could decided if wanted to sell my old car privately
  • A meeting on the features while sitting in the model, resulting in a chance to get to know each other
  • A sense of humor, respectfulness, and advocacy (I didn’t want to be “sold” any warranty and undercoating extras, so Jeff kept that from happening.)
  • Availability to answer questions anytime after I’d taken the car home 

My experience with Jeff was so good that I talked to him a bit about the negative label that comes with being a car salesman. I learned that prior to this job, he and his brother had owned a couple of fitness businesses where he had developed his customer service skills, practicing his philosophy about dealing fairly and ethically with people. 

His view was that, since he enjoyed people and selling cars, he would be the kind of car salesman that broke the negative mold. Clearly there are many Jeff’s out there, and each one will gradually lift the negative baggage off the car salesman title. 

Lesson learned: The positive behaviors that we demonstrate in our jobs re-brand them. 

The power of one 

Shunning a job because the title comes with baggage makes no sense, particularly if it provides opportunity and growth potential that helps you build a satisfying career. When it’s your job, you own it. That means you put your stamp on it, making it represent the values, standards, and ethics that brand it positively. 

Jobs are about productivity and relationships. By adding value and delivering high quality service, you’ll showcase what a job well done really means. Each one of us makes a difference and there’s true power in that. 

Photo from via Flickr

First Impressions—What’s Behind Them? | The Making of Brand Identity

We all know the adage: “You only have one chance to make a first impression.”

The first things we say or do in the company of a recruiter, hiring manager, new boss, coworkers, and customers trigger what they initially think about us. And it sticks.

First impressions are about expectations.

The problem with first impressions is that we don’t always know what’s expected at first meeting. Consequently, what we give off is likely a reflection of what we’re really about.

People reveal a great deal about themselves without even knowing it.

A first impression shows us either an authentic or an artificial self. Our challenge is to figure out what we’re actually seeing.

When we do that effectively, we’re more likely to enter into business relationships that will turn out well. When we don’t, we may get burned along the way.

What do you see? 

I’ve had some memorable first impression moments that were particularly revealing. I’ve categorize each by the personal brand label that I attached at the time. I never had reason to change any of them. What do you see? (I’ve changed the names.)

Ego-centered bully—I met Charlie, the guidance counselor, after I backed into his motorcycle. I’d just finished my job interview at a local high school where I was parked, with two other cars, in a small front lot. It was August.

After the interview I was preoccupied with my thoughts while walking to my car. When I started to back out of the space, I felt something against my rear bumper. I looked in my rearview mirror and saw handle bars falling to the side.

It turns out that I had unknowingly parked in Charlie’s space. To “show me,” he parked his bike with its front tire against my bumper. When I reported the incident to the principal who interviewed me, I was introduced to Charlie, who proceeded to, now verbally, “make his point,” as absurd as it was to me under the circumstances. Right then, I had his brand identity pegged. That was important since I got the job.

Caring professional—Carla wanted to grow her professional practice and  hired me to help her develop a marketing strategy and also focus her employees around her values.

We met at her kitchen table and talked about possible approaches like presentations to professional groups, advertising, public events, networking, and activities for existing clients. We also covered incentives for employees, roundtable discussions, and training.

Everything Carla accepted or rejected was about her clients first. Would the initiative make them feel more or less a part of her practice’s community? Would it make Carla more or less available to serve them? Would it mean the staff would be more connected with clients or not? Carla has never wavered from her values, truly her brand identity. 

Phony manipulator—Brent was a manager in charge of the customer service department’s interface with the IT department. His role was to define system needs and project-manage implementation. I was his new manager. He’d been passed over for the job.

Our first meeting was an opportunity for him to provide an overview of existing and pending projects and for me to “get educated” about his function. He spoke to me in acronyms, vagaries, and system jargon. When I asked about the status of deliverables, priorities, and resources in business terms, Brent’s answers were evasive.

It was clear to me from the get-go that Brent had no handle on the work but knew how to cover that up. His intention was to keep me befuddled, avoid accountability, and manipulate all the players. His first impression with me was consistent with what others told me later. Others had his brand number too.

What’s your experience?

What do you think your first impression is? Is it or isn’t it working for you?

Who has made a lasting first impression on you? What was behind it?

First impressions aren’t trivial things. They are a window into our natures. We can improve them or ignore them. That’s an important choice and our long-term brand identity is built on it.

Photo from Stephan Modry via Flickr

Workplace Friends and Foes—Your Forever Network

Ever been to a high school reunion? Some former classmates look the same. Some you only “recognize” if they have a name tag. 

It’s not how people look that flips our memory switch. It’s their names that get us to remember how each person has been preserved in our minds: 

  • How they treated us (and we them)
  • How smart and/or accomplished they seemed to be
  • How they behaved alone, in groups, and with those they dated
  • If we trusted them, could confide in them, or could rely on them

What we remember is how they branded themselves. The same is true for us. 

Behavior traits stick. 

It’s tempting to blow off our high school image as not the real us. After all we were young, developing, and learning how to be grown-ups. 

It’s usually not what we did but the perceptions about “why” that stick for a long time. People remember. 

Every person who’s crossed our path is in our network. Right now, we either are or aren’t tapping those relationships. 

Your network grows every day through your interactions at work, in the community, among family, and on-line. Every impression you make sticks. 

When your name is mentioned and someone recognizes it, s/he has an impression or perception to share. That’s often how conversations start. Each mention, just like the @ on Twitter, reinforces perceptions. 

Everyone is a link to someone else. The degrees of separation keep shrinking. Just spend an hour exploring Linkedin and you’ll see the power of that. 

The multiplier effect of impressions is staggering. So if we want to succeed, we need to be mindful of how our behavior is perceived. 

Choosing to be friend or foe 

We work in competitive environments. Our companies compete to be profitable. We compete to be recognized, rewarded, and/or advanced in our careers. 

Everyone we work with is competing too. Often we’re competing for the same things: 

  • The boss’s attention or approval
  • A promotion
  • A big raise
  • Recognition or an award 

We might compete in a way that: 

  • Overshadows others, diminishes their efforts, and/or undercuts them
  • Engages others, showcases their efforts, or recognizes them
  • Presents an optimistic, can-do attitude or a self-important, hard-nosed one
  • Bullies our coworkers or motivates their enthusiasm to get work done
  • Panders to the boss or showcases our principles 

The way we compete brands us: Everyone watches. 

You at work is like you back in high school only older and wiser, hopefully. Everybody you work with remembers what you’ve done in their world and passes their perceptions along. Were you someone whom they trusted or someone they doubted? 

Networking is about your network. 

Like it or not we are brands. Everyone is labeling us, including ourselves. 

People who tell me they hate networking often presume it means connecting with new people and then developing some kind of tit-for-tat benefit. 

New people are valuable, but there are hundreds of people who already know you that you should be (re)connecting with to enrich your career. The question is: Why have you let those relationships wane and what’s keeping you from rekindling them? 

Is it because you’re unsure about how they see you and have let so much time go by? Remember: that answer goes both ways. 

Take stock. 

Periodic self-assessment is smart personal and professional planning. We learn by seeing ourselves through the eyes of our colleagues. If you have a chance to take a 360 degree assessment, that would be a great start. 

Otherwise, ask your coworkers their perceptions of you. Okay, that can feel uncomfortable for you and them, but you need to know. If you were a box of cereal, you’d want to know if your customers thought you tasted good enough to keep buying. 

Remember: Everyone you work with is in your network in some way forever. It’s good form to treat them well.  Be nice. 

Photo from CapitalK buy design via Flickr

Working From the Heart? Check Your Pulse! | Spirit and Drive as Brand Boosters.

Jobs are what we make them.  When we bring nothing, they become nothing. When we use them to unleash our spirit, they become an adventure.

Jobs give us a chance to show what we’re made of, what we stand for, and what we care about. When we take them to heart, there’s no hiding it. We do the work with an eagerness that spills over to others.

No spirit. No drive. No fun. 

I’ll grant that a lot of employers do all they can to take the joy out of working. Creative, enthusiastic employees with a “can do” attitude and the energy to go with it are told to:

  • Stick to the formula
  • Follow the pack
  • Slow down
  • Be more careful
  • Know your place 

These companies see employees like machinery. Only robots need apply.

We aren’t androids. We come with a beating heart and an active mind. Our life history, our sense of self, and our world view are high octane motivators. So it’s important for us to keep our spirit and drive alive as we build our careers.

A personal brand is more than credentials, skill sets, and performance. If you’re not sure what your brand is, ask people the first word or phrase they think of when they hear your name. Will they say you’re someone who will:

  • Say, “Yes, I can do that”
  • Volunteer in a pinch
  • Defend and/or do what’s right
  • Accept a risky assignment
  • Stretch yourself 

Every day we show what we’re made of by the way we approach our jobs. An effusive, uncontained, and generous spirit drives a vigorous career and strengthens us.

Let your heart be your guide. 

Nothing’s better than an “I’m going for it” spirit. I thought you might like to meet a few folks who have it as the centerpiece of their personal brand:

Carla was the new executive director of a high visibility, non-profit child care agency in dire straits. She was a fearless, undaunted advocate for disadvantaged children, determined to increase public awareness, improve services, and stabilize funding. Nothing was going to stop her.

She became a national voice for these children, built a high-performing organization, expanded services, ran a capital campaign to build a multi-million dollar facility, and didn’t rest until the needs of these children were served.

Peggy was a marketing supervisor for a technology company bought out by a giant. She was considered an outsider after the transition and didn’t like that one bit. She knew her marketing creativity and leadership skills were strong but not being utilized.

Knowing that she could do more, she set out to showcase her talents by asking for high visibility assignments. Each time she stepped out, more higher- ups recognized her. She put herself out there as a speaker, executive event planner, global representative, and marketing manager. Her respect for her talents and drive to serve the company earned her executive status.

Mark was an entry-level hire with a degrees in English and government at a Fortune 500 energy company. As a non-engineering employee, his career growth opportunities seemed limited. But Mark has an exceptional ability to learn and understand business and technical operations.

He also has an uncontainable desire to make a difference and a strong commitment to employees. By saying “yes” to some ugly assignments, Mark succeeded in saving the company tens of millions, fixing major process failures, and building the company brand—all a reflection of his willingness to take personal career risks for the greater good. He has never lost his drive. 

Let your spirit be your guide. 

We need to do all we can to nurture our spirit as we work. That inner drive that lets us know we’re doing something that matters is served by each heartbeat. Business fitness starts by understanding what kind of success we really want. Our heart tells us that. Our spirit and drive make it happen. And the beat goes on!

What drives you in your career? Still searching? Your discoveries and your questions will be helpful. Thanks.


Any Lines You Won’t Cross? | Integrity Matters

Business is about survival. If you don’t make a profit, it’s curtains. Every day, we make decisions that can make or break our companies, often testing our ethics and integrity. It‘s a reality I had to face.

You don’t really know how a business works until you’re in it. 

For 17 years, I was a commercial horse breeder. I knew absolutely nothing about breeding, foaling, racing, or selling when I started. I learned a little each day.  

The horse business is like no other and staying solvent is a struggle for most players, like me. 

Anyone can buy a horse to get started. That’s not the problem. It’s knowing what to do next. After all, a horse is a fabulous animal that needs a career that matches his/her abilities. (Sound familiar?) It’s our task to prepare them for a good job at a good place. That’s the challenge. 

You don’t have to be rich to be in business, but you’d better be savvy. 

I owned a well-bred yearling colt that I’d worked with for a year until he was ready to move on to his next training stage. He was a handsome, strapping chestnut horse with lots of promise. 

I took him to a swanky thoroughbred race horse auction where there were lots of quality buyers who could help him develop his potential. 

My crew and I were eager to show him to prospective buyers who would come by for a preview. We’d take him out of the stall, walk and jog him back and forth, showcasing his beautiful movement and conformation. We did this repeatedly until it was his time in the auction ring. 

I was so confident walking him in the prep ring. Here I was with a great looking colt showing tons of pedigree. This was going to be our moment.

The valet takes my horse onto the auction floor. The bidding starts. I know it’s someone from my crew. It goes in fits and starts. My heart is pounding. In less than five minutes, the hammer comes down. The final bid was less than what I’d paid for him over a year ago and I know that my crew, by instruction, had bought him back.

 I was dumbfounded. It was a long and quiet ride home. 

If you want to know the hard realities of a business, talk to the insiders. But you may choose not to listen. 

My phone rang the next day. The caller had advice to share.

 He told me that I hadn’t handled things right when I was showing my colt to prospects. This is what he explained: 

“When a buyer’s agent comes by and asks how much you expect to get for your horse, give him/her a price. Explain that you are prepared to split the difference between your price and final bid price if s/he is the successful bidder.” 

See how this works? The person with the money to buy has engaged his trainer or agent to pick the right horse for him. Since each horse there has high potential to be successful, it’s in the agent’s best interest to buy the one that is the best “deal” for himself. Of course, the buyer doesn’t know this. (I still don’t believe this is a widespread practice, but who really knows.) 

I thanked the caller for the information and announced to my crew that I would not play that game. End of story. 

Integrity is the underpinning of your brand. Once you compromise it, it’ll haunt you forever. 

The life blood of every business is its relationships and reputation. So here’s what we all need to do:

  • Build and sustain a brand based on integrity
  • Deepen our relationships with customers, suppliers, employees, and community
  • Always deliver on our word
  • Surround ourselves with quality people who endorse us
  • Make sure all our dealings are fair

 That horse sale taught me a priceless lesson: To continue doing what I loved meant finding and building relationships with quality horse people who shared my values, and there were many. If anything helped me get business fit, the horses did.

Have you every had your integrity tested? Ever watched someone compromise theirs? What stuck with you?