First Quarter

"The Skill that Industry Hires Need"

According to this post in Science magazine (geared toward PhD students and academics in science), industry employers particularly value project management skills in new hires, "including working in a team and delivering on schedule and on budget". I found this particularly striking because project management is perhaps the least used skill in graduate school. There is no timeline in submitting a research paper or getting a degree. Some doctoral students take five years to graduate; other take eight. There is little concept of a schedule to be kept, research-wise. In a way, not only are graduate students not taught project management, they are taught the opposite: it takes the time that it takes; what matters is the end result. No wonder then that graduate students with industry internships have an advantage over the competition when they seek industry positions.

(As a side note, this got me thinking about the skill that analytics students need the most, since I teach analytics rather than science. Of course project management is important for analytics students too, but based on my experience, students struggle the most with the idea that there might not be a single best model to be created from their data. You can create, say, a linear regression keeping only the coefficients that are significant at the 95% level, or you can focus on the 99% level, or you can have categorical variables, with some labels being very significant and others not as much, or you can have a logistic regression model and a classification tree model to predict a binary outcome, and each has its advantages and disadvantages. Students are disappointed sometimes when it feels like there isn't a unique best answer. But you create your models based on the data you have, and the process is necessarily imperfect. You can still get good insights from your model. )

Going back to the theme of this post, I think that undergraduate students learn more about project management through their capstone project at the end of their studies than doctoral students do. It makes sense, given that most undergrads go on to industry positions right after graduation (only a few get a Master's degree before starting work), but it is time to recognize the changed job prospects for PhDs too. Could we bring project management to academic research itself? Grant proposals ask us principal investigators to do as much, with budget justifications, deliverables and intermediate milestones, but graduate students are rarely involved in defining those. Maybe universities should provide more training on those matters.

Or maybe this could motivate a stronger emphasis on doctorate programs with time-constrained "praxis" capstone projects rather than dissertations, such as D.Eng. rather than PhDs. Perhaps it is even time for a renaissance of doctoral students that aren't PhDs in order to better meet industry needs, or the creation of an intermediary degree between Master's and PhDs. When I was at MIT, my department (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science) had a degree of Electrical Engineer, which was aimed at doctoral students who had completed all coursework in the PhD program: the All But Dissertation folks. Obviously most A.B.D.s don't plan on working in academia and maybe an advanced degree geared toward industry would be better suited for their career goals. This raises the issue of degree visibility and name recognition, if only a handful of universities deliver the new degree, but given today's pace of change, it'd make sense to introduce new degrees more suited to the needs of the workforce.

We could even imagine a system where students get credentials for each year of graduate study (or some number of credits to account for part-time students), with "Graduate Credential Level 1" being received at the end of the first year (maybe similarly to a Master of Engineering), "Level 2" at the end of the second year (equivalent to a Master of Science), and then adding "Level 3", "Level 4" etc, with the student being able to stop for a few years in-between if he so wishes. There is a lot of talk on campuses these days about continuing education, but it is unrealistic to expect these trends will fit neatly within existing degree programs. It is time for new graduate degrees.

First Quarter: Is your story limiting you?

I was chatting with some graduating seniors the other day and they asked about the ways I'd seen previous grads fall short of their potential. This is probably going to take several posts but one thing that came to mind is how people sometimes end up limiting themselves (or self-sabotaging) based on the story they have in their mind about themselves. This can take low-key dimensions: an A+ student is so used to being praised for doing a perfect job that he selects situations in the workforce where he will also be able to do a perfect job, not realizing that those situations require little growth and learning, which should be two primary considerations in work after college. Or a student who was used to getting good grades without much effort clings to assignments (or jobs) where he doesn't have to work very hard because he has no idea whether he can even succeed otherwise.

But this can also have farther ranging implications, especially given the importance of personal essays to get into college. Admissions committees often like seeing stories of resilience, and who doesn't want to be resilient, really? A student who has been able to defy the odds and overcome poverty, a single-parent family or various personal hardships had much to be proud of. At some point, though, it is important for those students who have defined themselves as outsiders to find their community and rewrite their story. At some point anyway, you realize that few people go through life without any hardships, whether those hardships happen early in life or later.

If they don't, they may only relate to, say, other people from poor backgrounds without realizing that maybe their supervisor with the fancy car has overcome much personal struggle as well, or overly focus on another employee as a father figure because they grew up without one. (While mentoring is an important component of personal growth, my take on failed parental relationships is that you never find a replacement for good parents outside the family, there is much potential for meaningful personal relationships among friends of all ages - just not surrogate parents.) They may also focus on minor issues that trigger them because of their childhood, or may be taken advantage of by people who want to get ahead without being quite technically competent for it but have the street smarts to detect weaknesses in others and exploit them.

You can tell if you're clinging to a story if (1) you bring up the same components of your past again and again to people, who gently comment they've heard this before or (2) the same things or people keep annoying you, to a degree far disproportionate to the actual offense or (3) different people keep providing the same feedback to you and you keep finding "excellent" reasons why their advice doesn't apply in your case. 

If you think you might be in this situation, I'd say you should first honor the story you've told about yourself so far, because it has helped you bring you to the point you are at. Then you have to focus on changing your self-image and telling a more empowering story about yourself, to match your new situation. Pick a new affirmation, like "I relate well with all kinds of people" (instead of only connecting with only outcasts who match your story of outsider-ness) or "I display grit and resilience at work" (instead of coasting through assignments by giving them your minimal effort), and find 5 things to do each day to express this new truth about yourself. If you want to relate better to others, this might be as simple as replying promptly to an email from someone you view as the quintessential insider. If you want to learn grit or resilience, you might simply take a colleague for coffee and ask them how they worked through this high-stakes project you've been hearing about, or watch 1 video on a topic you know you should learn but don't know how. You do not have to volunteer for a make-or-break-your-career assignment this very minute. Pick 3 easy things a day, then 1 slightly more difficult thing, then 1 thing that stretches you more. And of course you can do fewer than 5 things a day, but each thing can be short and part of a bigger whole, and 5 little things will help you reinforce your behavior from different perspectives.

Beware of friends or relatives who want to keep you in the role they have known you. Often people are very comfortable with the role you have been filling and have some personal interest in keeping things the same. (For instance, if you've coasted through college, then your old roommate might want you to stay the same because he's worried about having to display grit and resilience himself and it's safer if he keeps you down in the pits with him.) Sometimes you have to loosen old ties to make progress. Finally, it helps to pick a symbol of the new story or identity you're trying to create, and keep it somewhere you can easily see it.

What made you successful in college isn't necessarily what will help you succeed after it. Plenty of outside factors explain why a promising career might get derailed: a company that suddenly declares bankruptcy, an egomaniacal boss, an important project that fails for reasons outside your control but brands you "bottom line poison" for a year - don't add your own inner issues to it. 

First Quarter: Lesson in Success (It's the Little Things)

This is going to seem like a minor post, but the matter is important nonetheless because it affects how you are perceived and the post gains weight toward the end. I swear it does. But first, the minor part. All together now: It's the little things. If you are sending an email to someone, don't reply to the latest email they sent you (the one that has a totally different title and subject than the one you're writing about). Create a new email, with a title that matches what you're writing about (so that they know if they're busy whether they should click on it now or not, and how they should file it, and they will have a much easier time finding it later when they scroll through all your emails). Just replying to the first email of that person that you can find even if the topic is wildly different just makes you look sloppy.

Also, while we're on the subject of little things, if you're given instructions on how to submit, such as "the title of your project report should be titled Report_YourFirstName_YourLastName.docx", and you upload "Report.docx", then the recipient may not make a comment but won't think more highly of you because you made that person's task more difficult in actually finding your report next time she looks for it. So now she has to rename it for you the way she wanted it. Always put yourself in the shoes of the person you're communicating with. 

This actually also crossed my mind at the wonderful Alpha Omega Epsilon panel discussion a few weeks ago. One of the AOE ladies asked about work-life balance, and three of the panelists started expounding at great lengths, with minor variations, on their awesome husband who cooks and helps with child care. Well... my guess is that the AOE ladies ranged in age from 18 to 22. While it is wonderful to hear about happy marriages with shared responsibilities, it would perhaps have been more helpful to answer from the perspective of a 21-year-old. If you want to talk about relationships, then I guess something along the lines of "be careful not to get into a pattern of doing all the chores at home for your boyfriend in addition to trying to succeed at your job" might have been more suitable for that audience. Then one person started praising organization, but in the context of child care and her husband picking up the kids when she has a faculty meeting. Which is a very valid and important point for that person, and perhaps not something the audience could implement right away.

I'm the one who threw a wrench into the whole pretty picture by saying something along the lines of "you know, work-life balance is always going to be tough, and of course it matters to be organized because if you aren't you will struggle mightily for sure, but it's a matter of picking your fights because you won't be able to do all the things you want to do." And then I said more, but there needs to be an advantage to being a AOE sister and taking part to the actual panel discussion, so I won't share everything here. Plus, the AOE ladies sent me a wonderful thank you card signed by all the sisters, which I put right away in my Box Of Important Things (this is how free-spirit me manages my organization.) All this to say, it is hard for everybody to put herself in other people's shoes, even long past college age. I also do it sometime. It is a tough skill to master but if you do, you will be ahead of the game!  

I also would have wanted to turn the question around and asked the AOE sisters how they thought professors perceived their work-life balance. One point I made was that I wished we professors knew more when students had a lot of school commitments because it is hard to know otherwise whether people are spending their time surfing the web or trying to finish the assignment for another class. Some other panelists seemed to be of the opinion that students would be on Facebook or

I am of the opinion (being a goody-two-shoes at heart, of the kind who believes that most people start nice and then become mean and bitter when life disappoints them, although someone argued convincingly the other day that some people are just mean at heart and show their meanness when they get power, even when they're not old yet, but more on that some other day) that students try to enjoy college and also do well in school and when they're in class they might try to finish other assignments or projects or email about an event they're organizing as extra-curricular activity, in addition to answering their texts on their phone.

Of course, part of the reason I think that is that if students actually use in-class time to surf Facebook or buy stuff on Amazon, I wouldn't think very highly of their self-discipline, and the Stanford Marshmallow Project has shown that such students don't do very well in life later on (although admittedly the SMP studied the consequences into adulthood of self-discipline for four-year-olds). 

This is all about thinking about the image you want to project and seeing yourself from the perspective of the other person to evaluate whether s/he perceives you the way you want. 

First Quarter: Q1 2016

Today marks the end of the first quarter of 2016. Yes, I'm probably the only person in academia who notices things like that. But I've been reading books on onboarding for the "First Quarter"(insights for new grads on taking a good start in the workforce) part of my blog, and the business focus in The First 90 Days has convinced me to try planning my goals in terms of quarters. I like the concept because 3 months is long enough that you can have concrete, meaningful achievements, but short enough that you - hopefully - see a clear path to get there from the beginning. Fear not, this is not going to be a post where I drag you through my to-do list and give myself public kudos for how many items I've crossed off (although I was tempted - it's been a very good Q1!). But if you haven't tried planning your year in quarters, you might want to try. Then you can break your big quarterly goals into smaller monthly mini-goals, and even smaller weekly micro-goals, and maybe even daily nano-goals. The quarterly goal might be something not directly in your control, such as get promoted, but the daily and weekly goals should be things you can control. The quarterly horizon allows you to stay focused on a goal that is both meaningful and achievable.

Because so many (all?) universities have their fiscal year start July 1, the end of Q1 also means there is only one quarter to go before the end of the year in higher ed, and while just about every media outlet will talk about New Year resolutions when January 1 approaches, I haven't seen anything about New Academic Year resolutions. Why would you want to have July 1 resolutions if you're not in academia, you might ask? Because (1) late November and December are usually so full of family drama or celebrations (your pick) that many people don't have the energy required on January 1 to start tackling high-impact change projects and (2) people usually take some time off over the summer too, so they might be better able to take a head start on tackling their resolutions. And if you've just graduated and only starting work in the fall, this might be the longest vacation you'll have in many years to come. Make it count. 

If you're in academia, then it makes sense to have New Academic Year resolutions because you're probably starting a new year of employment with your university and a new year on your clock to promotion, tenure or reappointment - if you started work during the summer like most faculty - and because your students (especially the doctoral students on your research team) also count their seniority in terms of academic years, so your plan would be aligned with their development. 

While you can never plan your life according to a rigid timeline (unless your work doesn't involve you interacting with other people in any way...), reviewing quarterly and yearly goals helps you remember what you want to achieve instead of getting distracted by low-value daily commitments. It is easy to get sidetracked and hard to get back on track.

The best part of making monthly, quarterly and yearly goals, I think, is to keep all those lists together and review them periodically to see what you have accomplished and how your objectives evolve over time. I have sometimes carried to-do items over from a monthly list to the next several times in a row, and when I just can't manage to get something done, there is usually more to it than a simple time management problem. So it is worth also using the lists to take a step back and wonder if you see a pattern in the things that you just never get around to getting done. 

Finally, I'll end this post, since it is part of my First Quarter series, by mentioning the David Allen bestselling book Getting Things Done. Often the time management systems students have developed in college aren't enough to handle the variety of projects and tasks they have to tackle in the workforce, and it might be worthwhile thinking about better systems to put in place before you start. Getting Things Done will prove full of excellent ideas in that regard.

HBR on Learning to Learn

What is it with Harvard Business Review that it publishes lots of beginner-level articles these days? The feature in the March issue of HBR on "Learning to Learn" is a very basic feature advocating for aspiration (wanting to learn), self-awareness (understanding your level in the skill you want to learn), curiosity (trying something until we succeed) and vulnerability (accepting you may be bad at something for months). This is the sort of cutting-edge thinking that get you published in HBR these days.  

Here is what I would've added to it, taking a manager's or would-be manager's perspective, since after all this is HBR's target audience. First, do you really need to learn the skill or are you reacting like the employee you were in your previous role? Maybe you did a lot of data analysis before you were promoted to manager, and now your direct reports are talking about R and Python. Do you actually need to learn the software, or are you just a little nostalgic for your old job? Let's assume you actually need to learn a new skill for your new job. There will be two types of skills you have to learn: (a) skills you know you don't have or have a lack of, and (b) skills you don't realize you don't have, like those people who think they have amazing interpersonal skills because they ask their employees how they're doing once every six months.

Obviously, identifying (b) skills is tricky. So you should make a list of the top skills you (and anyone you use as sounding board - mentors, advisors, former colleagues, new boss, new colleagues) think you will most need in the new job, and evaluate your blind spots. Why did the person who used to have your job (in case of a promotion) succeed, or fail? What are the skills you didn't need as much in your previous job? We often develop skills to the level we need to function in our current role, and not much above. (Unused skills tend to atrophy.) Where will you need to stretch? Are you really that good? What stories are you telling yourself that may no longer serve you? For instance, you may work in Division A, where the one thing you know for sure is that Division B is full of the people no other division wants and everything wrong in the company is their fault. If you're promoted to leading Division A and the role calls for a close interaction with Division B's manager, you will achieve whatever goals you have a lot more easily if you change the story you tell yourself about Division B to something more empowering.  

As you move up the ranks, learning shifts away from technical to personal/interpersonal content, from tactical to strategic issues, from direct contributor to delegator, from one-way communication (to one's immediate supervisor) to matrix collaborations with one's team and other units. If you can't think of a skill you need to learn, think about situations in your work life that keep repeating themselves. That will probably give you a clue.

For instance, if you were very successful early on when you took the helm of a company in trouble, but have been struggling with getting your team to follow you now that the company is on surer footing, maybe you have a "savior" leadership style that works well in times of crisis but not as well in less troubled times, where employees seek more autonomy. (This also begs the question: do you need to learn more consensus-based leadership styles, or do you need to find another company in trouble?)

When were you last wrong? If you can't remember when you were last wrong, then you have the issue you need to learn served to you on a platter, because no one is never wrong, and being convinced you're never wrong will only stifle dissent and discourage your colleagues or direct reports to be honest with you. If you've had even a moderate amount of success in your career so far and been promoted at least once (or been put on the fast track to promotion), it is also worth thinking about who might be wanting you to fail. People have the most irrational reasons for wanting others to fail, and people who succeed have such a different outlook (focusing on improving themselves, seeking role models, etc) than people who try to make others fail (obsessed with pulling others down to their level) that you might not identify potential troublemakers by reasoning alone. Yet, those people leave clues - they badmouth you to others, or make subtle digs at you. Lyndon Johnson is famous for saying that you don't belong in politics if you can't walk into a room and say immediately who is for you and who is against you. Once you start moving up the ranks, this is true of the business world too.  

Finally, you need a learning plan. What will the outcome look like when you have achieved your learning objective? Say you want to learn a new language because you're being transferred overseas. Do you want to have a basic conversation around the water-cooler on Monday morning, speak enough to go and buy groceries, be fluent enough to understand your new colleagues when they speak in their mother tongue? What are reasonable time commitment and timeline to achieve your objective? Has someone done something like this before? Who will you enlist to achieve your goals? What are your intermediary milestones and your weekly goals? 

An issue with academia is that new Assistant Professors get hired at research universities on the basis of their research but are expected to also teach. Quite a few, at least in engineering, have not taught during their doctoral studies and were only Teaching Assistants. These professors have to be "good enough" teachers to get tenure, but not exceptional. Hence, some of them don't see the value in learning how to be a great teacher given the time pressure to produce enough high-caliber research by the time they come up for tenure. They make the calculation, unconscious or not, that on-the-fly teaching (the "let's get the slides from my colleague and hope for the best" approach to teaching) will be good enough. They have few role models beyond the professors they remember from their early years in graduate school (later years are usually devoted to research), since professors rarely attend each other's lectures.

Learning to be a good teacher then is something that only professors genuinely interested in how to make their students best learn the material (whether for the good of their students or as an intellectual challenge but not primarily out of desire to gain tenure at a research university) learn how to do. This doesn't mean that professors who aren't good teachers don't want to be good teachers, but they may not find the time to become good ones - or they may be delusional about their abilities, as the HBR article suggests, in the one interesting stat the author quotes: in a Cornell study, "94% of college professors reported that they were doing above average work." (We will note that median and mean aren't the same thing, which the HBR article doesn't point out, and that the stat isn't solely about teaching-related work.) 

For my readers serious about developing their leadership skills, I recommend the unfortunately titled Primal Intelligence: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, which is a must-read. I also highly recommend The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, where I first read the LBJ quote.

First Quarter: Book Review of New Leader's 100-Day Action Plan

51F3dWKdgyL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Today's post is a review of another well-known book about "onboarding", i.e., transitioning into a new job: "The New Leader's 100-Day Action Plan: A Comprehensive Onboarding Strategy for Leaders at Every Level" by George B. Bradt, Jayme A. Check and Jorge E. Pedraza. What I like most about the book is the specificity of the questions the authors ask and action steps they recommend - because so many business books are puffed-up magazine pieces that drum up revenue for the authors' consulting practices, I tend to prefer books with concrete, tangible advice that demonstrates clear knowledge of the subject matter on the authors' part. The New Leader's 100-Day Action Plan delivers. Not only is it full of valuable content for the leader "at every level", the print version of the book has many fillable forms that are also downloadable for free on the Internet. 

Of course, not every single piece of advice the authors give will be applicable to the new graduate or entry-level hire. This is because the entry-level hire won't have any subordinate, or "follower", so how to deal with direct reports and related topics such as how to craft a burning imperative for one's unit and communicate the vision to one's team don't apply. Yet, many of the tasks the authors recommend for the new leader would be of benefit to the new graduate, in particular (I've put my comments in italics, the rest is from the book):

  • Define your new role (map and avoid the most common land mines, do your due diligence with a risk assessment checklist before accepting the job)
  • Choose the right approach for the business context and culture you face (while the entry-level grad won't define the strategy or the mission, understanding culture and context can only help her do her job and position her for advancement.)
  • Craft your message. (Obviously, the message an entry-level hire wants to communicate won't affect the direction of the company the way the CEO's message would, and it will be inner-focused rather than oriented toward the company as a whole. Yet, it is always good to articulate this message clearly so that you can then run everything you do against it and check if your actions are aligned with the impression you want to give of yourself. If you're at a loss for what your message would be: I am a team player who remains calm under stress and gets the job done by the deadline and within specs while maintaining and fostering good relations with my colleagues.)
  • Deploy an information gathering and learning plan. 
  • Make a powerful first impression on your first day. (Think carefully about how you are going to spend Day One. Pay attention to signs and symbols.)
  • Embed a Burning Imperative by Day 30. (For an entry-level hire, this burning imperative will most likely be a goal she alone has to achieve, rather than something a team must execute, but it is possible the new hire would enter a company with a whole cohort of new entry-level colleagues and would take the lead among that group.)
  • Exploit key milestones to drive team performance by Day 45. (Most likely a team of one for a new hire, but on some occasions, new hires have shown enough leadership potential to be given someone to supervise, such as a co-op or intern.)
  • Overinvest in early wins to build team confidence by Day 60. (I can't praise early wins enough, especially for entry-level hires, i.e., people with no track record in the workforce. Early wins show your boss, who often has very little information about you unless you interned for him the previous summer, that he was right in hiring you. Once you have shown he made the correct decision, you will have established yourself as someone who belong in the company. You will be more easily considered for the next step up or forgiven for your mistakes. First impressions matter, and that means first achievements matter too.)

The book's appendices alone more than make up for its price (at $14.28 on, the book is already a steal).  I particularly recommend the six basic elements of leadership, the situational assessment using the 5Cs framework: customers, collaborators, capabilities, competitors and conditions and the toolbox on how to be a great communicator.

Just go and buy the book already!

The Anti-Role-Model: Richard Nixon

51n0nJ0YHSL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_I recently finishing listening to the audiobook of Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas. I like reading biographies of past leaders for the lessons on leadership they provide, and the life of Richard Nixon is particularly rich in such lessons. In fact, because such a rich historical record exists of recent political figures, they can be scrutinized to an extent that is rarely possible for their business counterparts. What better moment to learn from their example than when you have just started in your job, before you have heavy responsibilities similar to those that made them stumble or represented the crucible of their leadership?

Ever since I listened to, rather than read, Robert Caro's The Passage of Power (LBJ volume 4) read by Grover Gardner, I have particularly liked to get heavy historical tomes as audiobooks for my car drives. While excellent, Being Nixon doesn't quite rise to Caro's LBJ books, through no fault of the author. In contrast with LBJ - a clear doer and a masterful politician who enjoyed human interactions - Nixon during the Presidency was quick to feel wronged by his treatment in the press, even after triumphs such as the trip to China. His brooding gets a little repetitive after a while, although of course this played a key role in Watergate and his subsequent downfall. But Being Nixon also provides spellbinding accounts of Nixon's youth and rise to power, and the end of his presidency. While the book is less gripping in the middle, it remains a very worthwhile read.

It is well-known by now that Nixon suffered from a deep sense of outsider-ness, social awkwardness and a feeling of isolation from the establishment. His downfall was brought about by his lack of self-awareness and his failure to ask hard questions from his staff. He shied away from difficult conversations to a spectacular extent throughout his presidency. (He could also be evasive with good news: Henry Kissinger at first didn't know if a convoluted conversation with Nixon meant he had been offered a post in the cabinet.) Regarding Watergate, according to the book it seems that he had no specific prior knowledge of the break-in but created a culture in which his subordinates thought that was what he wanted, and then failed to realize the mess he had gotten himself in.

Nixon's refusal to understand the gravity of his situation while the Watergate scandal was gaining momentum gave me pause. How do people lose so much touch with reality? How do they not see they're going to hit a wall? How do they not see they contributed to that culture in the way they behave with their underlings and the actions they take (such as installing a secret recording system in the Oval Office)? 

I didn't know that part of the reason why he indulged in "dirty tricks" was that the Kennedys themselves had indulged in those at his expense during the 1960 campaign and deeply wounded him, so he felt it was fair game to do the same. I also hadn't realized that Nixon's relationship with Kissinger was as complicated as it was, although it makes sense in hindsight when you think of how hard Kissinger has tried to position himself as an intellectual in the limelight rather than an adviser in the shadow. Finally, I was pleasantly surprised at the close relationships he seemed to enjoy with his family.

In the end, although he had some accomplishments during his presidency such as the opening to China, Nixon's inner wounds were his downfall. Too much outsider-ness led in his case to a feeling that others (like the Kennedys and the press) were out to get him, which brought out the worst in him. He is a sobering tale of what happens in a rags-to-riches story gone wrong.

First Quarter: On Mentors

Dear college graduates, whatever it is that you decide to do during your first 90 days in your first job, do NOT ask anyone to be your mentor. In fact, do not EVER ask anyone to be your mentor. Even typing  that question makes me cringe. If you only remember one thing from the many posts I write, be it that you should see things (and yourself) from the perspective of the people you interact with.

If you had been working at a company for several years with enough success that entry-level hires viewed you as a potential role model, and a just-hired twenty-two-year-old you had had no previous interaction with asked you to be his mentor, would you accept? Would you really want to give advice to an admiring youngster you can't vouch for (potentially wasting time, effort and human capital on an incompetent nonentity, a loose cannon, or who knows what else), or would you want to be more discerning regarding the people you take under your wing? 

Do not even try to find mentors before you have a track record that would make your would-be mentors want you as a mentee. (This is something PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi also emphasized at the 92nd Y panel I attended back in September; read my blog posts about it here and here. Mentors find mentees, not the reverse.) And when you are ready for mentoring, I would advise to avoid that big word - mentor - and instead phrase questions in terms of behavior, such as: I am facing an issue and I'd love to have your input on the way I could handle it, or: did you ever face that issue when you were in my role, I can't quite figure out what to do, would you mind talking it through with me?

Not only is the term "mentor" over-used, but it also betrays the ambition of the people who want to be mentored without saying anything about the (real) benefits the people who do the mentoring gain from the interaction. Most people like to take under their wing youngsters who remind them of themselves so that they have at some level the impression of helping their younger self, but no one wants to feel used. The word "mentor" also suggests that the mentor has achieved a "perfect" state of all-knowing wisdom that the mentee strives to achieve.

This discourages a more realistic assessment of the more senior employee: most people have weaknesses, blind spots, flaws but those who are successful in their career compensate for those in a way that delivers value to their boss and their team. It takes a particularly self-aware and self-secure mentor to point out his own weak spots to a mentee so that the mentee doesn't emulate those aspects of his personality. In some cases, the mentee may even believe that the weak spots (such as, say, a tendency toward autocracy in leadership in this day and age) brought the mentor's success about when the success happened in spite of them. 

In summary, "will you be my mentor?", especially asked by someone who has just started his first job, is a naive question that smacks of amateurism and a lack of basic understanding of psychology. (Also, it doesn't allow the person being asked for a graceful way to say no.) If a more senior employee has a track record in an area where you'd like to succeed, observe him and ask him questions about the specific behaviors what you've observed. He'll be glad you've taken the time to think about it first and care to ask for his perspective. Or ask for help in brainstorming an issue, but make sure you have prepared a couple of ideas first to show you value their time and can take yourself of the "basic stuff".

If you'd like him to send opportunities your way, then what you need is a sponsor, not a mentor, so you might as well get the terminology right first, but the same issue remains: why would he send opportunities your way if he doesn't know you and can't vouch for you? Show them you'll be worth their time. Then they'll put your name in for new opportunities without you even having to ask.

First Quarter: The people side of career success for college grads

514ZCU5271L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Today's post is on one of my favorite business books, which has a terrible title and an even more terrible cover (who designed this, really?) but is packed with excellent information sure to prove highly valuable to many college grads: Secrets to winning at office politics by Marie G. McIntyre. Get your parents to offer you this for Christmas. 

The book highlights 4 political types, based on how their behavior affects their personal and business goals: (i) the Winner is someone whose behavior helps both personal and business goals, (ii) the Martyr is someone whose behavior helps business goals but hurts personal goals, (iii) the Sociopath is someone whose behavior helps personal goals but hurts business goals, and finally (iv) the Dimwit is someone whose behavior hurts both personal and business goals.

McIntyre explains how to develop political intelligence and emphasizes the importance of leverage rather than an obsession about a mythical "fairness" sure to derail your career. She writes: "Perfect fairness is both impossible and irrelevant." Instead, she argues that "leverage [not fairness] is the key to getting what you want," whether it is more money for your division's projects, increased access to top decision makers, faster advancement, or whatever metric you use to define success.

You'll have more leverage if you have results (a documented track record), specialized knowledge (that few people have), the right attitude (friendly and cooperative), empathy (genuinely trying to understand other people's problems), networks, inclusion (including others in your decisions for greater buy-in) and detachment (don't be too emotionally invested in your job).

Further, McIntyre warns against leverage miscalculations and discusses leverage shifts. Use your energy wisely: don't waste it on whining, gossiping, scheming and other low-impact, less-than-impressive behavior. "High-leverage people focus their energy on producing results and building relationships. They concentrate on positive goals and things they can control."

Elsewhere in the book, McIntyre explains how to identify allies as well as adversaries (anyone who stands between you and your goal, whom she classifies into three groups: focused, emotional or vengeful), and what to do about those. She highlights something I have found to be particularly true in my own life and that many students don't realize: "all behavior has a purpose", meaning, people do things because they get a pay-off from those things. It is too easy to say that this person is dumb because she did this or that, which makes no sense to you. But to her it made sense. And if she continues to do it, it is only because it makes a lot of sense to her. You will be at an advantage if you can figure out why. It is worth remembering, in McIntyre's words, that "The way you respond to the people you find aggravating is often a good measure of your Political Intelligence."

McIntyre goes in detail over power games ("Power Game players are either trying to acquire more leverage or flaunt the power they already have... All Power Games are designed to give the initiator some type of advantage over other people"), which are categorized into Suck-Up Games, Control Games, Shunning Games, Superiority Games, Put-Down Games, In-Group Games, Scapegoat Games, Avoidance Games. She also provides helpful hints of a toxic workplace, including "power struggles and power plays are common and ongoing", "management egos need to be stroked on a regular basis", "executives are primarily focused on increasing their power or fattening their purses."

She also warns against committing political suicide by becoming "the problem" (uncontrolled emotion, seeing yourself as the victim), and describes the warning signs of political trouble with various levels of gravity. She further makes the distinction between position power and personal power. To assess the power of one of your colleagues, she suggests questions such as "do people listen when they speak?", "what meetings does this person attend?", "with whom do they have lunch?", "could the CEO find her office without a map?" and more.

McIntyre also suggests diagnosing power relationships through a tool she calls the power grid, developed using two dimensions: level of position and degree of influence. This leads to Power Players (high position, high influence), Persuaders (low position, high influence), Empty Suits (high position, low influence) and finally Weaklings (low position, low influence).

To increase your chance of political success, McIntyre recommends analyzing your work life over the following:

  • How can you improve your leverage position? (Power assessment)
  • How can your work make the business more successful? (Performance)
  • How can you enhance your reputation, especially with those who can help you achieve your goals? (Perception)
  • How can you increase your network of allies and supporters? (Partnerships)

She discusses how to sharpen your influence skills, manage your power relationships (thinking of upward, lateral and downward influence), and develop your political game plan. The book is full of helpful tests and quizzes throughout that will help you evaluate your level of political intelligence, assess weaknesses and strengths, and develop strategies to improve. This is a must-have for anyone serious about his or her career.