Clear the Deck: Starting a New Year


Being an extroverted Introvert, I look forward to quiet time at the end of the year.  It could be any old time of the year, really, but the habit of reflection at the close of one year and the beginning of another is one I enjoy.
It’s a way to capture and timestamp the accomplishments and lessons from the previous year.  To mark a point in time, compare to a year ago and see how much progress has been made. Sometimes it can be a reduction in stress (“remember this time last year?  Glad I’m not there now”).
I like setting goals because of the way they direct progress. I know I won’t end up in the exact destination, it’s rather like when you get your bearings with a compass, pick the tree that’s due north, and head that way.  I like that goals keep working in the same direction I hope to travel.  A fine line between achievement-oriented (my natural tendency) and acceptance (a little Zen here, please!).
I recently participated in a goal-setting workshop by Matt Frazier of No Meat Athlete. He talked about setting big, ridiculous goals on a five to ten year time frame, ones that make you excited, and then looking at smaller, stepping stone goals to keep focus. I’ll share some of my stepping stones goals today, and let you speculate about the ridiculous ones.
My over-arching themes are Health, Family, and Career. Some of this year’s goals are:
  • Run the Hamilton Around the Bay 30K for the first time
  • Blog twice a month
  • Complete a continuing education course well outside my comfort zone.

I invite you to clear the decks with me and start anew. Look at the long term, then back to the short term and make sure they align. It helps me focus. Why not put something down on paper/on a blog/in a text file today?

What Are Your Career Aspirations? A Simple Way to Map Them Out

We might get asked this question in an interview, or an annual performance review.  What should we say?  What has the right combo of growth/drive/pragmatism? A seemingly simple question, and the answer reveals a lot.

We want to put our best foot forward, right?  Show we are open to growing, committed to putting in the work to reach our goals, want the same mutually beneficial relationship that the company wants.

Two things we should keep in mind: being honest is better than saying what we think others want to hear, and we don’t have to have our whole life mapped out.

By being truthful we set ourselves up for long-term success.  If we like research, we should say that.  Saying we want to be managers when it just isn’t true means that a) if someone invests in you and your actions are contrary to your stated goals, they will feel used and b) you will be frustrated and probably unhappy with the way things turn out.  It’s not sustainable to work against our natures for any length of time.

On the other hand, if you don’t know every detail what you want from your career, that’s OK. Life and work will always throw curveballs.  Better that we chart a course, and be flexible to the winds – it’s the forward momentum you generate that will lead to great things, not often the unrelenting quest after a narrow-focused goal. A general plan is best and know that’s OK if that plan changes, because it probably will.

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

So: be honest, and have a general idea of where you want to go.

“That’s great, Steph, but how do I actually answer the question?”

I have a few tips you can use to be more skillful in your response.  In management terms, there are three levels of strategy:  vision, strategies, and tactics.  Companies start with a vision, how they want the distant future to look. Strategies are medium-term ideas to drive to that vision.  Tactics are the short-term actions that are taken right now to work those strategies.

Business Planning as Career Development
Business Planning as Career Development

I suggest you state your career goals in a similar way.  Short term goals can be accomplished in one to two years: “Complete this project to develop skill X” “Obtain this certification” “Be accepted to into an MBA school” “Achieve X target through this initiative” “Start a professional networking group” “Gain experience through this cross-functional project”.  Medium term goals can be accomplished in three to five years, and could include an intent to be promoted (that could be a stretch, but a little ambition here is OK).  Maybe you want to finish that MBA, obtain a professional engineering designation, transfer to another department and broaden your company knowledge, etc.  Long term goals are five to ten years on the horizon, and should be a statement of your vision.  This could also include a promotion two or three steps above your current position.

I hope this helps!  If you have any suggestions, you can leave them in the comments below.  Everyone who has a stellar career goes about it differently, and they have great ideas beyond those above.

A note: I will be doing a few different series of posts this fall.  I have an interview series planned, and a series on reliability value.  I’ll try not to switch around too much, the topics will be in blocks of subject matter.  Thanks for reading, I’m glad you’re here.

The Windy City is Mighty Pretty: Three Things I learned from Leadership Training

Last week I participated in a leadership course in Chicago, and all the participants were women. I wrote about the general structure of leadership courses last week. After this experience, I have some takeaways and they are missing from that post:

1. I forgot about sharing stories and coaching discussions
2. I’ve changed over the years 
3. The PEOPLE.  Meeting new people, learning their stories and how they view the world, what drives them, what they strive for – it’s inspiring to say the least.

Stories and Coaching: Though philosophies are introduced, they don’t fully come alive for me until there are stories to connect to. For example, a workplace culture framework is useful to me only when I can picture people navigating within it.

When theories are applied to real life experiences, they stick better. The main difference between courses open to all genders and this one involving only women, wasn’t the theories or content, but the stories. The stories told here were told with a different lens, and there was an honesty and some direct questions that probably wouldn’t have been asked otherwise. I found some solace in the similarities between us. The benefits for me lay in the interactions between participants.

Carmen Lomellin
Guest Speaker Carmen Lomellin

Personal Growth: I’ve changed over the last 15 years. There are a few self-assessments I’ve repeated periodically (one since high school), and I’m almost 180 degrees different on certain scales.  My values haven’t changed – the core of my personality hasn’t changed – but I’ve shifted on certain axes.  

I’ve identifed as introverted since I learned what that was, but I’ve demonstrated increasingly extroverted behaviour.  Perhaps that is because, by and large, extroverted behaviour seems to be rewarded in our business culture.  However, in the time I’ve developed extroverted behaviors, I’ve also learned that introversion is not a flaw but a strength.  I still make calls that I’m uncomfortable making, purely because they make me uncomfortable.  I still need time to stare at a wall and clear my head so I can re-enter the busy extroverted place I work.  But I’m much more open and relaxed than I used to be.

Too much? Or, how I used to be...
Too much? Or, how I used to be…

The PEOPLE:  This is the magic. I like to meet new people, particularly people who are so invested in work and life.  Where did they come from?  How did they get here?  What are the strengths and experience they bring to the table?  What do they do for fun? (That one is always a great answer.) I’m not reaching when I say I was in some fantastic company.  So, thanks to you, Ladies!

In closing, I had very specific objectives for this course, and I’m happy to report I came away with the strategies and actions to work on those items.  But I came home with so much more.

Have you ever experienced a time like this – when you have a basic set of goals, and come away with much more? Met people who inspired you? What was it that made it memorable?

Leadership Training: What to Expect

Note: none of the links in this post are affliate links, I’ve personally found value in them

This week I’m traveling to Chicago to participate in a Leadership course – specifically a “Women in Emerging Leadership” course. (That’s the early morning Toronto skyline from the airport.)

Leadership courses are my favourite type of training because of the opportunity for personal growth. The good leadership courses make us take a hard look in the mirror at what we do well and could craft into a strength, and where we have blinds spots and are tripping ourselves up. And there is always something I could do better.

Quality leadership training involves a great deal of introspection. Here are the elements of leadership courses that I’ve gotten the most benefit from:

Generate data: There are two ways to generate data to drive introspection: inventories and external feedback.  Inventories involve filling out questionnaires, and using the answers to look for trends or preferences and grouping you into categories with like-minded individuals.  This attempts to give you insight into how you operate, see yourself, and how you interact with others.  Then you can consider if this information gives you anything you want to work on or develop.

Exernal feedback is another data source (the best being 360 degree where you gather data from direct reports, co-workers, and senior leaders).  This could be an anonymous questionnaire.  The benefits are anonymity and a report may be generated to show trends (and you know I love data). Drawbacks: you rely on the written word.  Face-to-face feedback gives you more body language; you can prompt with additional questions and explore themes, but it’s more direct and negative feedback may not be shared.

Analyze the data using context, and frameworks: Once you have all this data, you need to figure out what it means.  Leadership training will give you context.  There are two general ways I’ve experienced: a comparison of your performance to leadership traits, or how you fit into a framework.  Again, either can be useful, because it’s the insight you gain that is valuable, not subscribing to any one school of thought.  A good list of leadership traits are actually behaviours, because leaderhip is not about any one personailty type – all can be effective if used with skill.  Behaviours will describe how well you communicate or resolve conflct, for example.  A framework is more about categorization, and how people like you, in general, can be effective.  This can be as simple as introverts using the written word to communicate, as they do it better that way.

Determine actions: How do you put all this into action? Often there are specific scenarios that you can name that you want to approach differently or more confidently.  A detailed action plan, or strategy for dealing with upcoming or difficult situations will help you through them.  Then you either adjust based on what happens or you become more confident and repeat the same things next time.

Becoming a better leader never finishes.  You get feedback and decide to develop your skills – this takes time. You have to practice.  Sometimes you won’t get the opportunity to try out a skill very often and only being put in a pressure situation will you know how you will react. You can always learn something new – you may be interacting with new people who respond differently to your style.  Work or life challenges may be different and that causes you to react differently (though better to not react at all but to choose your response with care and thought).

I have never been in a woman-specific leadership course before.  I understand the value of targeted learning so I hope I learn some specific ways I can be a better leader.  I’ll report back next week.

Have you ever taken leadership training?  What were the most useful insights you received?

Why I Got an MBA…and Why I’m Glad I Did

When I was a teenager, I cavalierly decided that “I’m going to school for Engineering!”  I had no clue what engineering was, or if it suited me, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.  It turns out I’m utterly suited for engineering and that was almost total luck. I had the benefit of attending a co-op program which gave a real taste for what I’d signed up for, and I grew into the idea as I grew to understand what engineering meant.

Fast forward a few years, and I had another idea: why not an MBA?

The reasons I signed up to get an MBA and the reasons why I’m glad I did are different.

I thought that an MBA was a good idea because: I’m mildly ambitious, I enjoy school and learning, it was subsidized by my workplace, and I wanted to differentiate myself from other young engineers.  I started out in my career feeling inexperienced, and when you’re brand new, it seems like everyone else has loads more than you.  And they do, but it’s a temporary situation.  Besides making the most of the early days, you can train in a complementary discipline.

I worked through the first year courses – finance, stats, HR, etc. and liked most of them well enough.  It wasn’t until I got to experience the second year courses (where I took primarily startegy-based ones) that I really started to appreciate what was on offer. 

Why I’m glad I did it: I found out that I love it.

Like anything else, it’s in the doing of the thing, more so than the having of the thing, that is valuable.   I’m glad I got my MBA for reasons other than the ones above: it helps me be a better coach, I understand and appreciate the business better, I learned about myself and what I was capable of – how to manage stress and prioritize effort.

The most important benefit from that degree, though?  Learning a new language – the language of business.  Market forces, early adopters, strategic plans, supply chains, communication…leadership. It gives me a more holistic view of what’s at play. When senior leaders talk, I can understand more.  Just as an engineering degree gives you a new way of seeing the world, a new language, so to does an MBA.

And always, it’s what you do with this new knowledge that counts.