Receive WorkStrong by email. To sign up, click here.

The Ineluctable Euphoria of Solving Your Employer’s Problems

31st March 2014 by admin No Comments

Arthur C. Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, made an interesting observation in this Sunday’s New York Times.  He wrote, “Problem solvers are happier than bystanders and victims of circumstances.”  It could have been an aphorism for Career Activism.

Career Activists face two kinds of problems: those which occur in the course of their own career – the bigoted bosses, the automation of some or all of a career field – and those that develop on-the-job.  I’ve talked a good deal about the former, so let’s spend a little time on the latter – on the problems we face while working for our employers.

Crises seem to be an integral pattern in the fabric of contemporary work.  Whether it’s an unexpected rush of new orders (a happy problem) or the sudden departure of a coworker (a difficult one), they create extraordinary situations that require extraordinary performance.  And, for of us, at least, they pose a choice.

We can sit back and absolve ourselves of any responsibility for solving our employer’s problems because, after all, doing so isn’t a part of our job description.  We don’t get paid to deal with their problems, just to do our jobs.  So why put ourselves out and, especially in today’s unforgiving environment, take on the risk of failure and the possibility of harming our own wellbeing?

Or, we can take the exact opposite view and see solving problems as an unwritten but integral aspect of our job and act to address them as soon as they occur.  That’s not to say that “normal work” isn’t important, but rather to acknowledge that abnormal situations aren’t irritating disruptions but precious opportunities.  They are a rare intersection of chance and challenge that enables us to test ourselves and demonstrate our capacity for excellence.

For Career Activists, then, the decision to solve an employer’s problems isn’t a choice at all.  In our view, such situations are stepping stones in our career.  Managers may evaluate an employee’s reliable dedication to doing normal work as Above Average or even Superior in their Performance Appraisal, but they will most rapidly advance those who can best deal with the abnormal on-the-job.  They value that person’s contribution the highest and reward them accordingly.

But, as Brooks points out, there is another reason for making the effort and, yes, taking the risk to solve our employer’s problems.  The voluntary commitment of one’s talent in an extraordinary situation closes the synapse of happiness.  It connects us with that sublime feeling of ultimate self-expression – the ineluctable euphoria of being our best as a person – that comes from confronting a test we have chosen to make our own.

Thanks for reading,

GUI Careers

28th March 2014 by admin No Comments

Income inequality is higher now than even during the time of Great Gatsby and the Titanic.

And yet, according to a recent CareerBuilder survey, just 21 percent of today’s employed workers say they plan to make a move in the next year or two.  That’s far below the historical norm for a recovery when workers are prone feel as if their employers have misused them during the preceding recession.

Similarly, according to a recent New York Times article, economists can’t find any evidence that income inequality is bad for individual workers or the economy in general.  You’ve got to be kidding!  Maybe the incredible shrinking paycheck doesn’t affect academicians protected by tenure, but it pinches pretty sharply for everyone else.

So, why aren’t workers leaving their employers?  Some opine that it’s the fear of the unknown in an unpredictable economy.  Maybe that’s true for some, but I fear there’s another, more troubling reason that’s holding a lot of people back.  I call this phenomenon the GUI career.  Sadly, we’re getting used to it.

We’re getting used to having to look over our shoulders constantly, as we worry about whether our job is secure.  If you have any doubt about that, take a trip to the beach this summer.  Two-thirds of those lying on the sand next to you will be checking email from the office on their cell phones.

We’re also getting used to salary increases that don’t keep up with the cost of living.  We take out second mortgages to send our kids to college while our employers book record profits and the corner office crowd has made the golden parachute obsolete.  These days, they’re paid so much, they don’t need a parachute.

And, we watch the idiots in Congress turn our government in to a “de-mock-cracy” even as we’re told that our kids will be the first generation in American history to look forward to a standard of living that is lower than their parents.  We have Government departments in the country that invented high technology that can’t launch a Web-site or make it a priority to oversee the Internet, the largest single channel of commerce in history.

How can you protect yourself in the face of such madness?  Don’t get used to it.  Be at the top of your game and then be indignant if your pay doesn’t race ahead of the cost of living.  Bring your talent to work with you and then be unwilling to work for employers that pay the CEO big bucks while fighting the addition of a buck or two to the minimum wage.  Deliver excellence on-the-job every day, but be loud and in the face of inept corporate leadership.  In short, be a Career Activist.

Thanks for reading,

Good (Career) Literature Deserves Some Respect

26th March 2014 by admin No Comments

There was an engaging article about book clubs in this past Sunday’s New York Times.  As a writer, I was thrilled to learn that there are still millions of Americans who not only sit still long enough to read a book, but they then invest an hour or two of their time to discuss it with friends.

My first thought, of course, was to wonder if these clubs ever read a book about career self-management.  Now to be clear, I’m not talking about job search books, but rather, those that deal with the principles and practices of managing a career successfully.

All of the examples in the Times article involved groups that focus exclusively on fiction, and, more specifically, on what might be characterized as “great literature.”  And sadly, at least to this point, that leaves out books about how you derive more purpose and meaning from the one-third of your life you spend at work.

Yes, I realize that makes me sound just a bit cynical.  But come on, I was an English major in grad school, and even I realize that there’s more to learn than what can be gleaned from the pages of Middlemarch or Ulysses.  Especially in these times of epochal change, wouldn’t it be interesting, let alone helpful, to explore how we can turn employment survival into prosperity?

I suspect that this unwillingness to spend time with a career book derives from the conflicted state of our minds.  Many of us are walking contradictions these days, at least when it comes to our work.

On the one hand, we’re apparently pretty satisfied with our own situation.  A recent survey found that the majority of American workers are happy with their job and employer.  In fact, just 21 percent said they intended to make a change this year or next.  That’s a much lower figure than in other recent recoveries from a recession.

On the other hand, different surveys have found that there is a high level of anxiety among the workforce.  And why shouldn’t there be?  Job security?  It’s gone.  A rising standard of living?  Not since the 1970s.  A better life for our kids?  The middle class is now being squeezed into a faint memory.

Every assumption we’ve held about work for the past forty years has now been overthrown.  If you’re a Baby Boomer, for example, you thought that you’d be pretty well set by this time in your career.  And if you’re a Millennial, you were convinced that a college degree would provide a well-paying job.  Those convictions have turned out to be pipe dreams, not for everyone, of course, but for far too many Americans.

Which brings me back to my original question.  Why aren’t book clubs even occasionally reading a book about the exciting possibilities and very real dangers of today’s hyper-morphing workplace?  If we read “great literature” for the insights it can give us about life, wouldn’t a book that can give us a better understanding of our careers qualify as at least “good literature?”  And, doesn’t good literature deserve at least a little respect?

Thanks for reading,

Separating Yourself From the Shadows

24th March 2014 by admin No Comments

I came across an interesting word in the newspaper the other day and was struck by how little we talk about it in conjunction with our careers.

The word was “interiority.”  In today’s obsessive concern with the externality of our careers – with the push to make more money or to find greater security in our jobs – many of us ignore or lose touch with its interiority.

The dictionary defines interiority as “interior quality or character.”  The interiority of our career, then, is the essence or fundamental nature of the endeavor to which we devote one-third or more of our lives.  It is the answer to the question: what will be the legacy of our work?  In the end, what will it mean … to those with whom we have shared those thirty or forty years and, more importantly, to us?

On one level, of course, we would like to think that we have been good at what we do and can take pride in what we have achieved at work.  Similarly, many of us would like to feel that our work has also earned us recognition and respect from those whose opinions matter to us.

On another level, however, interiority can indicate the quest for something deeper, something more substantial even than pride and respect.  It can signal that we are engaged in probing the unknown extent of ourselves – not as a metaphysical investigation of our humanity, but as a very personal quest to understand who we are as an individual.

A focus on the interiority of our careers can be our pathway to self-knowledge.  It can open us up to learning what we are capable of.  It can give us permission to test the limits of our capacity for excellence, to discover how must greater those limits are than what we had assumed or had been led to believe.  When we value the interiority of our work, we come to understand the fullness of ourselves.

Pride and respect produce satisfaction, but only self-knowledge yields fulfillment.  Satisfaction comes from a sense of accomplishment, from having done good work.  Fulfillment comes from a sense of peace, from having comprehended the substance that separates us from the shadows.  Both are worthy outcomes of interiority, but fulfillment alone is the preeminent state.

Thanks for reading,

For Security at Work Be a Poet

19th March 2014 by admin No Comments

We’ve all heard the news reports about the rise of machines in the workplace.  In the past, robots did manual labor; today they do professional work.  Stock analysts, nurses, telemarketers, even journalists are now being handed their pink slips thanks to some pushy machine.

So, what should a Career Activist do?

The experts suggest that you avoid routine jobs.  Machines thrive where work can be organized into a series of repetitive tasks, whether those tasks involve turning screws on an assembly line or sifting through thousands of previous court cases looking for legal precedents or taking your deposits and even making loans at your local bank or selling you an airline ticket and processing your boarding pass for a business trip or entering new customer data into a computer for an insurance company.

So, thanks for the suggestion, but in reality, there isn’t a job in today’s workplace that doesn’t have at least some routine some of the time.  Unless, of course, you’d like to be a poet.  But then again, that’s probably not an especially good alternative, at least if you want to feed your family.  Which brings us to the hard truth: there is no job today that is inherently safe from automation.  The only way to achieve security, therefore, is to work differently at whatever job you have.

What does that mean?

Refuse to let your employer, your position description or your boss force you to act like a machine.  Despite the examples above, the world will always need assembly line workers, lawyers, bankers, airline customer service reps and data entry people, but the humans who do that work must do it with imagination, insight and wisdom.  In short, they must be poets on-the-job.

Poets use their talent – their inherent capacity for excellence – to do what machines can’t:
•    Be creative – think up new and original ways that your employer could make higher quality products or operate more productively;
•    Think ahead – look at how your employer’s industry or business is evolving and suggest ways for it to leverage those changes to its advantage;
•    Connect the dots – find new and more effective ways for your employer to connect coworkers, business units, or suppliers and vendors.

Thankfully, machines are pedestrian thinkers.  They don’t have a single inspired wire in their boxes.  So, to be secure in today’s increasingly automated world, don’t imitate them.  Be yourself – tap the Shakespeare who lives within.

Thanks for reading,

The Muscle of Your Success

17th March 2014 by admin No Comments

We all want to know where good things come from.  If we know their origin, we are better able to revisit the source and get more.  That’s why I was intrigued by a statement in last week’s Time magazine.  It noted that Mark Twain once said good ideas begin in the muscles.  He was both wrong and right.

There are good ideas and there are your best ideas.  Ordering take-out might be a good idea this evening, but it’s hardly a memorable insight or decision.  Your best ideas, in contrast, have a real and important impact on your life and work.  And at least as far as your work is concerned, your best ideas come not from your biceps or obliques, but from your talent – your capacity for excellence.

Oddly enough, however, your talent does operate like a muscle.  It enables you to push your career forward by lifting more than your fair share of the load at work.  It empowers you to climb up the career ladder to ever greater heights of achievement and reward.  And, it gives you the occupational strength and endurance to weather the storms that pop up occasionally in every career.

Moreover, the similarity doesn’t end there.  Like a muscle, your talent will atrophy if it’s not used each and every day.  A muscle oxygenates fats and carbohydrates to generate power.  Your talent consumes ideas and insights to generate your best ideas.  If you stretch a muscle and then give it time to rest, it will reliably perform at its peak day-in, day-out.  If you express your talent each day at work and then let it recuperate afterwards, it will reliably propel your career forward toward goals that are meaningful to you.

But how exactly do you use your talent at work?  In the best of circumstances, the tasks you are to perform on-the-job are the expression of your talent.  That would occur, for example, if your talent is the ability to communicate complex ideas so they can be understood by everyone, and your work is to write technical manuals for new products.  In such cases, your best ideas are an integral part of what you were hired to do.

In truth, of course, we all aren’t that lucky.  Our job is not the application of our talent, but rather the use of a skill we’ve acquired.  If that’s your situation, are you precluded from contributing your best ideas at work?  Absolutely not.  But to do so, you must define your job as a role larger than that specified by your employer.

You must look for ways to employ your talent by thinking and working outside the limitations of the position description.  For example, if your job is to sell a service for your employer but your talent is the ability to organize diverse individuals into a high performing team, you might volunteer to lead an ad hoc group studying ways to increase productivity in the sales team.  In these cases, your best ideas are an add-on to what’s required and expected of you on-the-job.

Whether it’s an integral part of or an add-on to your job, your talent is the muscle of your success … but only if you flex it each and every day.

Thanks for reading,

Act Like Pi in Your Career

14th March 2014 by admin No Comments

Today is March 14th or what mathematicians call 314 – Pi Day.  It celebrates the world’s most famous irrational number – called that because it never falls into a repetitious pattern, but instead is always changing.  That’s a great description for how we should now manage our careers.

Pick up any newspaper, let alone a business publication these days and you’ll see a universal refrain: the world in which we live and work is undergoing constant and disruptive change.  For better or worse, we are enduring one of those periods that will subsequently be viewed as an elbow in history – a time of radical transformation.

Many of us look at all this change and conclude that it’s best to stand pat.  And, indeed, sticking with the tried and true is definitely the rational course of action.  It’s comfortable because it’s familiar and it’s sensible because it’s always worked for us in the past.  In a world experiencing frenetic change, however, it also makes us OBE – overtaken by events.

Now, clearly making change for change’s sake isn’t smart either.  So, the Career Activist adopts a special “change management strategy.”  It works this way:

First, you adjust your outlook.  Admittedly, this step may be the most challenging, but it is also absolutely necessary.  Many of us harbor the belief that all of the change in today’s workplace will affect everyone else but us.  Or, we’re so intimated by that change, we don’t allow ourselves to consider it.  Career Activists recognize that change is discomfiting, but accept that it is now a universal condition which they must manage to their advantage.

Second, you become a change watcher.  In today’s always on, information saturated culture, it’s not hard to stay abreast of developments and trends affecting our career field and industry.  What is hard is figuring out their implications.  So, change watching isn’t a spectator sport; it’s a contact sport.  Career Activists find a circle of colleagues with whom they can explore what is happening in their career field and industry and what it could mean for each and all of them.

Third, you act irrationally.  Nobody’s crystal ball is perfect, so the key to success is to “adapt without prejudice.”  Having made the effort to ferret out the possible impacts of change, we have to act, but be willing to react as events unfold.  Career Activists adjust their on-the-job performance or their skill set or their priorities or their goals or whatever else is appropriate to maximize the benefits and minimize the harm of change AND then they readjust as they gain a better understanding of how change will unfold in their career.

From a 20th century perspective, acting and reacting to change is irrational.  In the 21st century, it’s a prerequisite for a full and healthy career.

Thanks for reading,

Your Brain is More Than a Meat Computer

12th March 2014 by admin No Comments

Michio Kaku has been described as a “popular scientist.”  It’s a term used for really smart people who can talk about esoteric subjects in a way everybody else can understand.  His latest book, The Future of the Mind, takes us into the inner workings of the brain – an exhilarating frontier that is only now beginning to yield some of its secrets.

For example, Kaku prophesizes that what we are now learning about the “connectome” – the geography of the neural connections in our brain – will revolutionize how we see ourselves and our species.  This effort to map the pathways of our thoughts, he asserts, may someday enable us to upload our entire brain to a computer, so it can do our thinking for us.  Not my idea of a happy development.

Anyway, there are those who critique Kaku’s view of the brain as a “computer made of meat.”  They argue that the brain is actually composed of what we can see and measure – those neural connections – and what we can’t – what we usually describe as “the mind.”  It is the mind which captures the experience of being, enabling us to be more than simply human – a body – but to be, instead, a human being – a body that senses life and a spirit that appreciates it.

Most than most people, Career Activists are aware of this experiential aspect of our species.  In fact, we believe human beings are able to experience not one, but two beneficial states in our lives.  The first is joy – an emotional state that we achieve from the relationships we build with our family and friends.  The second is happiness – a cognitive state that is derived from being the best we can be in a challenge we find meaningful and fulfilling.

Career Activists also know that the single best venue for achieving happiness is the workplace.  It is the one sphere of activity where there are genuine opportunities to express our capacity for excellence – our talent – in endeavors that have measurable and vital outcomes.  Yes, work requires that we use our brain, but equally as important, it gives us a chance to touch the magic of our minds.

Career Activists are determined, therefore, to wring every last drop of happiness out of their work.  And, the only way to do that, they know, is by giving their career conscious and careful leadership.  They don’t rely on their employer or on the fickle hand of fate to show them the way, they make it their job to go to work with more than a meat computer.

Thanks for reading,

Avoiding Career Cardiac Arrest

10th March 2014 by admin No Comments

Have you heard of the new tag on the Internet?  It’s tl;dr – which is Web-speak for “too long; don’t read.”  While it’s most often used to describe an article that challenges today’s gnat-like attention span, the critique actually reflects a much larger challenge.  As one columnist recently described it in The New York Times, “The problem is one of limited time and energy meeting limitless content.”

We all know that we have to keep up with our professional reading, but in today’s high demand work environment, there’s never enough space to fit it in.  As a result, it is, to use a pre-Web acronym, almost always OBE or “overtaken by events.”  Like a New Year’s resolution, we start out with good intentions and then life – or rather work – gets in the way.

In the past, slighting your professional reading was no big deal.  New ideas and developments arrived at a relatively leisurely pace, so you could get around to learning about them on the occasional business trip or long weekend.  Today, however, they come and go in the workplace with the regularity of a heartbeat and ignoring them can put your career into cardiac arrest.

What’s required, therefore, is a new kind of career pacemaker.  You see, the cause and effect of career cardiac arrest are one and the same.  Employers no longer countenance obsolescence among their employees, yet it’s the workload of employers that forces their employees into obsolescence.

The only way to correct this irregular behavior is to explain the benefits of doing so in terms employers will appreciate.  In their jargon, you have to make the “business case.”  Employers routinely spend millions on technology because they understand what it can do for them.  Now, you must use the same strategy for your professional reading.

Rather than using ethical arguments (it’s the right thing to do) or an HR rationale (it’ll improve your morale), acknowledge that including professional reading among the recognized tasks of your job is a corporate investment.  It costs the company money (in terms of reduced or delayed output).

Then, like any good technology salesperson, focus on the return your employer will earn on that investment.  Will it, for example, enable you to improve the quality of your performance or your productivity on-the-job or your ability to bring more creativity to your work?  Whatever the benefit to the employer, emphasize that.

Of course, professional reading is just one aspect of your personal development, but with occupations evolving at warp speed, it can no longer be shoved aside with tl;dr, it must now be prioritized with lt;rd – “learn today; read daily.”

Thanks for reading,

Silent Layoffs

7th March 2014 by admin No Comments

You don’t hear much about them these days.  With the economy improving, layoffs have slipped from the frontal lobes of most cable news anchors and newspaper reporters.  They haven’t disappeared, however, and that’s what makes them even more dangerous to Career Activists.  Like hypertension, silent layoffs are the career killers that sneak up on you.

What causes silent layoffs?  Over the past couple of years, it’s been corporate Darwinism.  The strong are consuming the weak.  Yesterday, it was Safeway being gobbled up by a private equity firm.  Last week, it was Mattel buying its rival Mega Bloks.  And last month, it was LinkedIn snapping up the technology company Bright.

Once the hunter has acquired the hunted, the green eye shade gang takes over, and their first act is to cut costs.  Since the biggest line item in any company’s budget is labor, that’s where the axe falls first.  Given our viral culture, however, every executive is now hyper-sensitive about bad PR, so what happens next is a silent layoff – hundreds, sometimes thousands of hard working professionals are given their walking papers and nobody hears about it.

What should Career Activists do?  Recognize the dangers that lurk in today’s “improving” economy and ready yourself to deal with them.  Listen to the news reports about mergers and acquisitions that may involve your employer.  And, if you see something about to happen or if you figure there’s even the possibility that something might happen, take steps to prepare.

First, get realistic.  Even if you maxed your last performance appraisal, don’t assume you’ll be safe.  In fact, assume exactly the opposite – that you will be negatively affected by what happens.  Second, get ready.  Start laying plans to have a parachute available to you.  Develop an exit strategy that will protect you and then implement it if the danger becomes real.

Silent layoffs are just as harmful to a career as public ones.  In fact, they may even be worse.  The lack of publicity can lull you into a false sense of security, and that makes you even more vulnerable to the consequences of corporate Darwinism.

Thanks for reading,