Saturday, August 28, 2010

Building your personal brand

[A broken arm has slowed my postings somewhat - but only temporarily.]

This post applies to mentors and mentees alike.

Like it or not unless we work in a silo we each have a brand at work - a "personal brand". Some folks may interpret this as "reputation" or "track record" or "popularity". But I think our personal brand is all that and more. Ultimately it is what is evoked in other people's minds when they see or hear our names. Think of someone at work whose name simply being mentioned makes you cringe. Now think of someone (perhaps your mentor) whose name makes you smile or relax or energized. There are a set of actions and communications that have occurred from and around that person that have etched these intangible associations, these feelings, in your brain. I believe that successful people actively manage this aspect of their work presence much like brand managers apply "marketing techniques to a specific productproduct line, or brand. [Brand management] seeks to increase a product's perceived value to the customer and thereby increase brand franchise and brand equity. Marketers see a brand as an implied promise that the level of quality people have come to expect from a brand will continue with future purchases of the same product." The product here being the person him/herself - you!

This may all sound a little too capitalistic but when "personal brand management" is done with integrity it can actually propel someone forward and allow them to achieve goals more easily. Once your brand is established you'll find people naturally helping you maintain that brand image.

This is not a new idea at all. In fact there is a great article about this topic called "A Brand Called You". I just don't see many people advancing their careers in this way yet. I like to suggest this approach to mentees who feel stuck in their careers.

Here are some thoughts and steps to personal brand management and it all centers on open and honest communication:

  1. Say what you are going to do and do what you say. Keeping commitments is critical and many people do that well but that's only half the equation. Perfectly good, trustworthy people hestitate to make many (or sometimes any) commitments. You have to first make commitments in order to keep them which in turn builds your track record, trust and your brand.
  2. Be "out there". A key first step to brand management is brand awareness. People have to know you exist before they can formulate and store an opinion of you. Even if that means taking on an extra project, writing a white paper or presenting at a conference.
  3. Be open and honest with the challenges you face and invite feedback from all corners to help you with these challenges. Make sure to give credit and share the success when you've overcome these challenges. When folks see your gratitude and your public acknowledgement of help most will want to help you even more in the future.
  4. Keep communication channels open and running. Don't be shy about including folks in your communication especially around successes. Note: There's a line of diminishing returns here as too much broadcasting may end up being perceived as 'spam'. You need to find the right balance for your team and organization. I've found though that 95% of the time people tend to under-communicate rather than over-communicate.
  5. Be competent - know what you are talking about. You can't be a trusted brand if you haven't mastered your area sufficiently.
  6. Never be arrogant. That will kill your brand. It will put your brand in a place that's extremely hard to recover from.
Here are some additional thoughts and questions taken from the article mentioned above:
  1. "Start by identifying the qualities or characteristics that make you distinctive from your competitors -- or your colleagues. What have you done lately -- this week -- to make yourself stand out? What would your colleagues or your customers say is your greatest and clearest strength? Your most noteworthy (as in, worthy of note) personal trait?"
  2. "Do you deliver your work on time, every time? Your internal or external customer gets dependable, reliable service that meets its strategic needs. Do you anticipate and solve problems before they become crises? Your client saves money and headaches just by having you on the team. Do you always complete your projects within the allotted budget?"
  3. " Ask yourself: What do I do that adds remarkable, measurable, distinguished, distinctive value? Forget your job description. Ask yourself: What do I do that I am most proud of? Most of all, forget about the standard rungs of progression you've climbed in your career up to now. Burn that damnable "ladder" and ask yourself: What have I accomplished that I can unabashedly brag about? If you're going to be a brand, you've got to become relentlessly focused on what you do that adds value, that you're proud of."
  4. "If you want people to see you as a powerful brand, act like a credible leader."
  5. "No matter what you're doing today, there are four things you've got to measure yourself against. First, you've got to be a great teammate and a supportive colleague. Second, you've got to be an exceptional expert at something that has real value. Third, you've got to be a broad-gauged visionary -- a leader, a teacher, a farsighted "imagineer." Fourth, you've got to be a businessperson -- you've got to be obsessed with pragmatic outcomes."
I agree that this is an overall touchy subject because this can feel like pure "marketing" but it's actually not. Pure marketing of yourself without the substance behind it and the integrity and partnerships that build it will get you nowhere past the initial flash. Personal success that does not in turn lead to team, divisional, company and business success will also get you nowhere. My belief is that thinking of yourself as a brand and carefully managing that brand will lead to a "win-win" situation for everyone.

I'll end with one more article quote: "A career is now a checkerboard. Or even a maze. It's full of moves that go sideways, forward, slide on the diagonal, even go backward when that makes sense. (It often does.) A career is a portfolio of projects that teach you new skills, gain you new expertise, develop new capabilities, grow your colleague set, and constantly reinvent you as a brand."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Motivation Part II: Elements of Motivation

What motivates you?

What motivates your mentee or employee?

For years I was convinced I knew the answer especially for those in technical fields. Generally people are primarily motivated by 1 of these 3 categories of things:

  1. The kind of work they do/projects they have
  2. Money
  3. Recognition

Figure out which is their primary category and give them as much of it as you can and that will make for a happy and productive person. If you have someone that gravitates towards highly visible projects then make sure to mention their name (or better yet, have the division head or CEO mention their name) at all hands meetings. If you have someone that is motivated by the latest technology then put them on bleeding-edge type projects or give them some extra research assignment that requires a new technical direction.

But more recently one of my favorite authors, Dan Pink, wrote a book called Drive which studies human motivation in depth. Through his work I discovered that those 3 categories are only part of the equation and not even the most important part! For the kind of work that is beyond the purely mechanical and requires even rudimentary cognitive skills and creativity the 3 elements of motivation for the 21st century are (with definitions from Mr. Pink):

  1. Autonomy - "the urge to direct our own lives"
  2. Mastery - "the desire to get better and better at something that matters"
  3. Purpose - "the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves"

There is a superb TED Talk where he introduces this concept and makes a case for all of us to rethink the elements of motivation. This video is absolutely worth your 20 minutes. After watching consider if and how you would change your approach to motivating people.

Dan Pink talk here.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Learn = Teach

"The best way to learn (about a subject) is to teach (it)."- Frank Oppenheimer, physicist

The words in parentheses were added to the original quote sometime later by someone else but it rings true for me. There's a strong element of teaching in mentoring. But as I've said before it's a mistake to approach mentoring as only a one way activity. So many mentors I know learned so much from their mentees that it was sometimes hard to know who was playing what role. Usually someone seeking out a mentor is in need of filling a certain gap. My experience has been that within the corporate world many mentees seek out mentors who are in a professional role they would like for themselves. And that's great. The best part however is when the relationship deepens and expands past that initial goal.

"When the Pupil is ready the Master shall appear." - Unknown

I did not seek my first mentor out. My first mentor happened to be my manager at the time. (This is not the most optimal situation as many times you'd like to talk about your manager with someone else.)  I was hired as a technical lead but my team required a Manager - someone that would build a vision, set objectives, make and deliver on commitments, write performance reviews, etc. - a People Leader. I was only a Task Leader - and a perfectly content one at that.  After several months of working together instead of his hiring someone from the outside my boss felt I would be a good person to take on that leadership role. This would allow him to pursue more strategic activities for the division. To say I was reluctant at the time would be an understatement. First off I was perfectly happy to be doing what I was doing - which was working with computers rather than people. Secondly I was scared! "How could I possibly lead people especially those who were older than me?" was just one of a hundred questions that mystified my brain.

But somehow my manager knew I was ready. He asked that I try the role out for 6 months and if I didn't like it I could easily return to an individual contributor role with no ill effects. In fact he would see it as a positive thing that I at least tried it out. Just that one act alone, his creating a safe space for me to take my first tentative steps towards becoming a leader and later a mentor myself, was enough for me to consider him a master at this mentoring craft. That one act alone taught me so much of what it means to grow people including: 1. recognizing when someone is ready or almost ready for a new role, 2. bringing that opportunity to that person, 3. encouraging a person to try it out, 4. creating that safe space for them to try it out!

Although I had this great blueprint for how to grow people I didn't really "get it" until years later when an opportunity arose for me to mentor a direct report into a manager himself. I had to evaluate if he was ready. I had to get over my emotions over his advancement in particular his possibly moving laterally out from under me to another team. I also had to learn how to let go of things and allow him to really manage his folks his own way. At the same time I had to teach him exactly what I was finally able to fully put into practice which was how to grow folks on his new team. It was only when I had the opportunity to teach someone else this particular skill that I felt I graduated myself. In the teaching is the culmination of the learning. And so, seek out to teach what you most need to learn because you will be forced to learn and excel in that skill. Perhaps that's why many of us choose to be mentors in the first place! It is certainly a key reason for me.

"You teach best what you most need to learn." - Richard Bach, author

PS: I'd like one day to invite my first mentor to guest post an article here and hope that he'll accept! :)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

How do you know when you've been in a position too long?

A mentee once asked me: "How do you know when you've been in a position too long?".

Great question! The good news is that there IS an answer for every person although the answer varies from person to person. Granted this is a tougher question to ask and act upon when the economy is poor and folks are just plain lucky to have a job. Even when ultimately the person stays in a position solely for economic reasons it's still important to know if their job has gotten "stale" and, if appropriate, take action to improve that situation. There are 3 core questions worth asking the mentee whose answers will point one way or another. Here we go:

1. "Do you have a lot more to learn in this position either from the work or from the folks you work with or from your manager?" This is a trickier question than it appears. A corresponding question could be "have you gotten comfortable with your job?". Generally "comfort" indicates there's little left to learn. The person is treading the same ground and doesn't need to think or engage as much as in the past when the work was novel and more exciting. As mentioned in an earlier post when our brains encounter new things one of the chemicals that is produced is dopamine which gives us a "good" feeling. It's interesting how we can feel uncomfortable and yet have a general good feeling at the same time. (Sounds contradictory but one word used to describe this could be "exhilarating".) This is when we are really learning a lot and hopefully we're on our way to 'mastery'.

2. "Do you see your current position as part of a 'career' or a 'calling'?" Or is it just a 'job' to you? This question will actually be the subject of a longer post in the future related to motivation. If the answer is "just a job", "pays the bills", "can't wait for the weekend" there's something to note there.

3. Finally and most importantly..."Are you overall happy?". What's the gut answer? If you have a mentee who likes to be more methodical than just answering from their gut let me share a good technique a career coach had me use when I needed to decide whether to accept a job offer. This technique also applies well when one wants to do a "check in" at their current job.

  1. First make a list of the 10 important attributes you need or would really like in a job. For ex. autonomy, work life balance, lots of responsibility, good salary, flexible work hours, learning new things, etc. etc.
  2. Rate each of these from 1 to 10 with '10' being a perfect match of what you want and your current experience of this attribute in your job.
  3. If you have rated 6 of your 10 attributes a '6' or higher then you are probably in a good place for the time being given what you want and need from your role. (If you are considering a new opportunity then if you have rated 6 of your 10 attributes a '6' or higher of what you'd expect from this new opportunity then you should seriously consider accepting that offer!)

If the mentee considers the 3 questions above and finds their answers are all "no" all across the board then an action to effect some kind of change is probably in order. Again, one should act prudently in these economic times. Luckily this "change" need not necessarily be a new position or a career change.

I'm a firm believer in an empowered employee who can and should, with their leadership's guidance and support, redefine their jobs to make it more valuable to the company as well as to themselves. Constructive, thoughtful pro-activity can bring dividends to an individual and a team. I would ask the mentee who needs to stay in their 'stale' position what they like most about their current role and have them consider how they could extend that aspect. Perhaps the mentee can start teaching others how to do what they do well which will extend the mentee's influence and visibility inside and outside of their team (good for getting promoted! See how do I get promoted?). Perhaps the mentee can find a more junior person on their team who is willing and eager to learn new things themselves and delegate to that junior member some of their less interesting work. This should free up the mentee's time to explore and take on something different and more complex. These are just a couple of ideas on how one can make their current work more fulfilling. There are many more.

Hopefully these provide you some guidelines and actions you can share with your mentee that asks the "have I been in my job too long?" question. If you have additional ideas or thoughts please share!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Empathetic Questions

I cannot overstate the importance of Questions. Questions are a very powerful, flexible tool for achieving a variety of objectives. It's the swiss army knife of language, if you will. One can use questions to gain knowledge, to guide, to intimidate, to mock, to attack, to provoke thinking, to probe, to clarify, to create a teachable moment and to search for the truth in partnership with others. You cannot have a great mentoring relationship without Questions and in particular without "Empathetic Questions" - questions which invite people to say what they really want to say deep inside.

At the outset of a brand new mentoring relationship both you and the mentee may be asking yourselves "what are we going to talk about?". You may also be asking yourselves "how much do I want to share?" As a mentor you'll need to create a space that is safe for the person to ask and answer all sorts of questions. The first step is to commit to complete confidentiality. A "nothing leaves this room" pledge is most certainly in order. The next step is to (if you wish) establish the scope of your discussions. Will it always remain in the professional realm or are discussions open to non-work related goals and issues?

At its core mentoring is a series of conversations. It's a series of 2 way conversations that are revealing, creative, expansive and thought-provoking. You'll quickly want to build rapport and build trust. One important way to do that is to exhibit empathy. "Empathy" is definitely a skill and some people come by it more easily than others. To be empathetic one needs to:
"Be sincere. This means to really care about what happens to the other person. This doesn’t mean that you have to approve of everything they do or even have to force yourself to like them, you just have to sincerely accept them as fellow humans who are struggling just like you. If you show this genuineness, people could sense it and respond accordingly. People will assume that you truly care and will accept your efforts."
(from "Is Empathy A Learned Skill? How to Develop Empathy")

Show interest in the person by asking "empathetic questions". Begin a "gentle interview" - one that starts to reveal a mentee's purpose for wanting a mentoring relationship in the first place. (Be prepared to be asked and answer why you want to mentor!) Put yourself in their shoes and keep asking questions, peel back the onion and just let the conversations take you both where you naturally need to go.

On there is an excellent talk entitled "The Art of the Interview" which covers Empathetic Questions. The speaker, Marc Pachter, describes how to use empathetic questions to be the "agent of another person's self-revelation". That is exactly what you as a mentor want to achieve! Through a series of conversations and questions you want to become the agent of a mentee's self-revelation. Marc Pachter created a Smithsonian program called the National Portrait Gallery in order to document great lives. In this talk he describes his type of interviewing and his use of Empathetic Questions to break down barriers and get legends to reveal some of their lifetime secrets for the audience. He records these conversations for posterity. Listen to the talk and figure out how you can engage in this type of conversation with your mentee as you both will reap rewards beyond your imagination.

Click here for Marc Pachter's talk.