Are You Climbing the Right Ladder?

Climbing

If you’ve been following along with me these past few months, then you know that together we’ve been exploring how you can discover your niche – your true purpose.  To do so, I proposed that you consider three things: your strengths (things you are good at AND enjoy doing), your passions (topics, causes, people, etc. that you are deeply motivated and moved by), and finally, what other people will pay you to do.

Too often, I find that people focus solely on the financial aspect of choosing a career.  They learn about what the highest paying jobs are, read lists about the fastest growing careers, pick one, and then obtain the necessary skills for it.  The problem, as was previously discussed, is that skills are different than strengths.  It is possible to be good or even great at something that you don’t like to do and are not motivated by.  Therefore, if that is the approach you take, it is possible to end up in a career that pays well but leaves you feeling dead inside.  In the famous words of Stephen Covey,

“Most people spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to realize, when they get to the top, the ladder has been leaning against the wrong wall.”

For example, a few years ago, I was working in a position that I was quite skilled at but that did not align with my strengths or passions.  I was in a role that was more administrative in nature: overseeing event planning and registration, scheduling coaching and training sessions, and producing and putting together training workbooks.  I performed so well in my role that I was promoted to Program Director and given a 20% raise.  I even had a lovely office with a view of downtown Pittsburgh.  Despite all this, it wasn’t enough.

I wasn’t inspired.  The work came too easily to me – I wasn’t challenged or passionate about what I was doing.  I was bored.  I felt myself longing for something more.  I was longing for the chance to put my curriculum writing and facilitation strengths to use while investing in next generation leaders.  So, I left my comfortable, well-paying, full-time job to pursue what I was passionate about – developing a leadership training program for middle school and high school girls, Blossom and Flourish.

That choice represents the only solution to the problem of climbing the wrong ladder – choosing the right wall to climb in the first place!  To do so, cultivate a deep sense of personal awareness around your strengths and passions before performing an examination of financially stable careers.  Instead of looking at a list of well-paying careers and choosing one to prepare for, examine your strengths and passions, and then consider how you can create value for others out of that uniqueness.  In what ways do your strengths and passions equip you to offer a valuable service or product to others?  What types of fields would let you pursue that?

It’s important to note that while you still might have to “pay your dues” in a few roles before you reach your “dream job,” at least you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you are working in the right field – you are climbing up the right wall.  You also might have to be content with earning comparatively less than you would have in a different position or field.  Less than ideal jobs or paychecks become bearable, however, if you know that they are preparing you for the next step along your life of purpose.

If we revisit my example, I can tell you that when I left my full-time job to start Blossom and Flourish, it meant that my husband and I gave up a large chunk of our disposable income.  I can also tell you that we don’t regret it.  We found that we were both happier with a lower combined income and the knowledge that I was working out of my purpose, than we were when I was dissatisfied five days out of the week.  Even if that meant we had to give up eating out at fancy restaurants every weekend and switching from cable to Netflix.

So, what are some practical ways you can identify a purposeful career path?  After understanding your strengths and passions, do your research!  Thanks to the internet, the world is at our fingertips.  Go on job boards and see what types of jobs are available in different fields.  Join local networking groups or organizations.  If you are still in college, take advantage of your career services department and ask them to help you explore the possibilities.  If you aren’t already on LinkedIn, join it.  Search for companies, job openings, and individuals who work in jobs you are interested in.

Then, when you meet someone who does something you’re interested in learning more about, connect with them.  Message them, email them, or call them.  Tell them they work in a field you are interested in and that you would love to know more about their career path and how they got to where they are today.  Ask if they would be willing to meet with you and give you some advice as you pursue your career goals.  In my experience, most people are impressed by that type of initiative and are flattered by such an invitation.  Connecting with others like this does two things: a) it helps you learn more about a potential career path and b) it helps build your professional network. 

Last fall, Karen emailed me out of the blue.  She introduced herself saying that she had recently graduated from college, had an internship at a small, girl-serving non-profit, and was hoping to pursue further work in that field.  She said she found my email address through Blossom & Flourish’s listing on the Girls Coalition of Southwestern PA Member Directory, and asked if we could connect.  She attached her resume and cover letter.

I was so impressed with her resourcefulness that although Blossom & Flourish wasn’t currently hiring, I wanted to help her as much as I could.  Long story short, we’ve met a few times now, and I’ve been able to: help her revamp her resume to better highlight her strengths, give her interviewing tips, suggest some good networking groups for her to join, and serve as a reference for her when she applied for a part-time position at another organization that I had previously worked with.  She got the job.  And that job has served to qualify her to apply for a new full-time position that has become available through that same organization.  It all started with her initiative and a request to connect.

What Karen did, anyone can do.  You just have to know what your strengths are, what you’re passionate about, and do your homework.  It may take time and effort, but I promise you, it will be worth it.  Certainly earning a large paycheck is nice, but is it worth ending up in a job you don’t belong in?  Too many people live for the weekend and dread Monday morning.  They might be earning a lot, but at what cost?  Dare to be different.  Dare to discover your niche and chase after it.  Dare to live your life on purpose.    

Are You Living a Strong Life?

maya

Last week, I wrote a post asking you to consider whether you were truly living your life on purpose. That post, the first of a new series, explored why so many of us are settling for jobs and careers where we find ourselves counting down the minutes until the weekend. I asked why so many of us are settling for a life we enjoy only 28.6% of the time – 2 out of 7 days of the week. The answer it seems is that many of us have sadly traded financial security for bold, daring, purposeful living.

In contrast to this path of soulless security, I proposed a new path – one that would require creativity, innovation, and hard work but result in greater satisfaction and fulfillment. Taking this path does not require us to cast aside the practicality of having to earn a living, but instead positions financial security as only one of three considerations when choosing a career path. The other two areas to consider are your passions and your strengths, and where the three come together, that is your niche – your purpose. It’s only when we are functioning out of our niche that we truly come alive and unleash all of our creative potential.

Today my question for you is, are you living a strong life? Do you know what it means to live out of your strengths? Do you even truly know what your strengths are? Unfortunately, too many of us are not great at understanding and articulating our strengths. Someone asks us what our strengths are, and we either offer a vague response or we list off a couple of things we’re good at.

“I’m a people-person.”
“I’m good at planning.”
“I have strong organizational skills.”

But have you ever talked with someone who truly seemed to be working out of their niche? Someone who seems to be living an intentional life of purpose? If you ask people like that what their strengths are, their answers are different. They’re articulate, precise, and confident.

“I’m good at building relationships with many different people and building bridges between them. I help others better communicate across department lines, so we can all work together to solve problems and try new solutions.”

“I enjoy looking at the big picture and then breaking it down into specific strategies and goals that we’ll need to pursue in order to achieve our goal. I’m good at seeing how all the different pieces and parts connect together and thinking through projected outcomes.”

“I’m good at providing structure to spaces and processes. I have a strong eye for how a person, space, or process can be better designed in order to improve efficiency and effectiveness.”

How then can you develop better answers to the question, “What are your strengths?” The first thing to do is cultivate a correct understanding of what a strength really is. Too often, we think a strength is only something we are good at. That’s not really true though, is it? I’m confident that there is something you are good at, but you hate doing. For me, I’m excellent at math. Not to brag, but I’m pretty sure the lowest grade I ever got in any math class throughout my college career was a 97%. And yet, I never considered a job in finance, accounting, or as a math teacher. Why? Math didn’t inspire me. I might have been good at it, but to me, it was boring and tedious work.

A strength is not just something we’re good at then. That’s only part of the equation.A strength is something that we are good at and we enjoy doing. It’s something that leaves us feeling energized and fulfilled after we’ve been doing it – even though we might feel physically tired. And often, when we are working out of an area of strength, we “get in the zone.” Minutes and then hours just seem to fly by. There are times I’ll get inspired and start designing new curriculum or planning for a keynote around 9pm, and the next thing I know it’s 3am! My body then reminds me that I’m tired, and I need to go to bed, but overall I have a sense of excitement and fulfillment. That’s how you know something is a strength.

With this in mind, I’d like to offer you a few ways to start identifying your strengths. First, there are some great resources available like StrengthsFinder 2.0 that offer you an online strengths assessment. While a powerful tool, especially if you feel completely stuck when it comes to thinking about your strengths, it’s not enough. A strengths report is a great starting point, but it doesn’t help you clearly see how those strengths are lived out in your daily life.

The next two approaches to identifying your strengths are much more personalized and require you to set aside time to intentionally consider and reflect on your experiences and abilities. While similar, one is focused on the here and now while the other focuses on your personal history.

In regard to considering your strengths in the here and now, strengths expert Marcus Buckingham suggests carrying around a small “strengths notebook” with you for a week a two. Every time you find yourself doing something that you enjoy, feeling as though you are performing quite well, or experiencing a sense of satisfaction from a job well done, write it down. Then, at the end of that week or two, make time to review your journal and examine what you wrote down. Are there any common themes? Do you see any patterns emerging? Those are your strengths.

There’s also great insight to be gained from reflecting on your past. Research has shown that although we mature and our values and beliefs may change, the core of who we are tends to stay consistent over time. If you loved competition as a child, you’re still going to be competitive as an adult. When I was in sixth grade, there were two fourth grade girls on my softball team. I loved encouraging them and helping them learn new softball skills. I also remember talking to them and giving them advice about fourth grade, and more importantly on what it would be like when they got to fifth grade and had to change classrooms and teachers twice a day for the first time. I still love mentoring and investing in others.

So, grab a piece of blank paper, turn it side-ways, and draw a time-line across the bottom (five year increments usually work best). Then, start filling it in. What things were you good at growing up? What did you enjoy doing as a kid? What are your most energizing memories? Think back as far as you can. What did you love doing in kindergarten? Elementary school? Middle school? High school? College? When you’re done, once again look over everything you came up with – are there any common themes? Are any patterns emerging? Your timeline is the story of your strengths played out throughout your life.

Now, there are a few of important things I want you to keep in mind while you complete either the notebook or timeline activity. First, suspend judgment. Don’t over think it! You’ll get to analyze the data later. When you are first writing things down either in the moment or that you remember, don’t edit yourself. Just acknowledge it as a moment where you felt strong and fulfilled. Then, at the end, go back and look over what you wrote down with a more analytical eye.

The second thing is write down whatever comes to mind. Don’t discount anything; nothing is too small. One of my earliest strength memories is coloring inside the lines with my grandma. While seemingly insignificant at first glance, when you look at my whole timeline, you’ll see that it’s the start of a pattern of striving for excellence and spending one-on-one quality time with the people I care about.

Third, consider experiences from all areas of your life not just work. Don’t limit yourself to experiences in a professional setting. Our strengths are not just evident at work. They are a part of who we are, so they come out in all areas of our lives – our relationships and experiences with our family and friends, school experiences, hobbies, house projects, volunteer work, etc. Like I mentioned earlier, I was naturally mentoring my teammates and friends long before I knew what “mentoring” was.

Finally, consider sharing your results with some you trust and who knows you well. Perhaps that’s a spouse, friend, mentor, colleague, parent, or executive coach. Sometimes we are blind to our own uniqueness. Sometimes a strength comes so naturally to us that we don’t recognize how special it is. That’s why getting an outside perspective from a trusted source can be helpful.

Overall, while this process is fairly simple, it can provide tremendous insight. Just like most things in life, however, you get out what you put into it. So grab a notebook and a pen and make it a point to pause throughout your day. Then set some time aside one evening or weekend to work on your timeline. Reflect, reminisce, review. Recognize what it is that you do well and leaves you feeling fulfilled. Realize your strengths. Put them to work. Live a strong life.

2013–A New Year & A New Start

2013– a new year and the perfect time for a new start.  

This concept is nothing new.  For as long as most of us can remember, people have been using this time of year to set their “New Year’s Resolutions.”  However, for most people, those resolutions are broken as quickly as they are made.  Anyone with a gym membership will tell you gym traffic typically doubles during the month of January before slowing down to its usual flow around mid-February.  So why are we so bad at following through with our New Year Resolutions?

Most of our resolutions tend be made in the moment with lots of emotion but with little consideration and little planning.  For example, we look into the mirror on January 1st, see the results of our holiday merry-making, and adamantly declare–“I NEED to lose weight!  I will start working out!”  This example highlights another problem with many new year’s resolutions–they tend to be reactive and not proactive.

The many problems begin shortly after we join the gym.  We don’t actually know what exercises we should be doing–are we just trying to lose weight or build muscle?  Or maybe we should be trying to tone muscle.  Then, real life hits, and suddenly it is hard to fit going to the gym into our busy schedules.  And finally, we haven’t actually made any changes to our eating habits, so even though we are going to the gym a bit more often, we’re not seeing the results we want–and before you know it those problems add up and we stop going to the gym altogether.  Have you ever experienced anything like this in your own personal or work life, and what can we do about it???

Most resolutions fail because they are not linked to a broader vision.  Instead of standing alone, personal and organizational goals should support our personal or organizational vision.  Therefore, identifying the vision becomes the first step.  We’ve already discussed the “Key Aspects of a Great Vision” before, so we won’t go into all the details about it here.  But, we will remind you that quite simply, vision paints a picture of the future state you/your organization wants to achieve.  It defines what success looks like.  If we go back to the weight loss example, a strong vision statement would be, “Living a healthy lifestyle that includes a regular work-out program and a nutritional diet.”

But sometimes, having a big vision can seem overwhelming to a leader.  We have these big dreams—how are we ever going to achieve them?

The answer is simple; we need a plan.  The key lies in translating the vision into multiple, smaller goals.  When we do this, it is very important to write these goals (or resolutions) down.  Writing them down creates personal accountability, because now, we have a list that we can go back to and measure ourselves against.  However, don’t just take my word for it…

According to Dave Kohl, professor emeritus at Virginia Tech (as quoted in Five):

  • 80% of Americans say they don’t have goals.
  • 16% of Americans have goals, but they don’t write them down.
  • < 4% of Americans actually write their goals down.
  • < 1 % of Americans write down their goals on an ongoing basis.
  • People who regularly write down their goals earn 9x as much over their lifetimes than those who don’t.

So, don’t wait.  Make this the year you get serious about your resolutions.  Take the time and identify your vision and break it down into smaller goals to achieve that vision.  Then, write those goals down.  You’ll be amazed at the difference consideration and planning can make.

Referenced Works:

  • Zadra, Dan. (2009). Five: Where will you be five years from today?. Seattle: Compendium, Inc.

Thanksgiving Leadership Lessons

Thanksgiving has come and gone, and we at Inta-Great hope you had a wonderful holiday filled with family, friends, and maybe even some time to relax and rejuvenate.

We also hope you had some time over the holiday vacation to reflect on what and who you are thankful for—in both your personal and work life.  So here’s our question, did you let anyone know what you are thankful for?  Did you let anyone know you are thankful for him/her?

Thanksgiving serves as a good reminder about how important it is to express gratitude.  Good leaders are appreciative.  They understand that an encouraging word and a sincere “thank you” can help motivate others and create a positive work environment.  After thirty years of research,leadership experts Kouzes and Posner concluded in their latest book, The Truth About Leadership, that:

“the highest performing managers and leaders are the most open and caring…They are more positive and passionate, more loving and compassionate, and more grateful and encouraging than their lower performing counterparts.” 

Why does being grateful and encouraging make such a difference?  It’s quite simple really.  We all work harder and smarter for people we like, and we tend to like people who appreciate and encourage us.  This is often clear in our personal lives.  Most of us would not settle for a spouse or significant other who did not appreciate our efforts or encourage our personal development—and the data shows us that most of us will not settle for a boss who does not appreciate our efforts or encourage our personal development either.  A Gallup poll of more one million employed U.S. workers concluded that the number one reason people quit their jobs is a bad boss or immediate supervisor.  And, a separate study by Florida State University found one of the main reasons someone is labeled as a “bad boss” is for “failing to give credit where credit is due.”

Not only do people work harder for bosses they like, they are also more willing to take smart risks.  Recently, we wrote an article about the importance of courage and risk-taking when it comes to leadership.  As a leader and manager, you should strive to cultivate leaders at all levels of your organization, and this means giving employees the freedom to take risks.  Innovation will not take place if your employees are afraid to leave their comfort zone.  Knowing they work for a positive and encouraging boss makes employees feel safe enough to be courageous and innovative.

That is why it so important for leaders to not only be appreciative, but to express their gratitude as well.  Don’t let this overwhelm you.  Expressing gratitude doesn’t mean you have to develop a new, complex HR policy about employee recognition, it just means you have to say “Thank you.  Kouzes and Posner put it this way, “recognitions don’t need to come in the form of elaborate events or expensive awards.  In fact, the more personal they are, the more impact they can have.”

So, if you haven’t already, take a moment and reflect on who and what you are thankful for this year.  Maybe you’re thankful for the many ways your spouse has supported you this year.  Maybe you’re thankful for how your employee managed that high profile project.  Maybe you’re thankful for the dedication and loyalty someone has shown to the organization.  Perhaps you’re thankful for someone’s positive attitude and enthusiasm   Maybe it’s even something “little” like everyone pitching in to keep the office kitchen clean.

Then, once you’ve identified who and what you’re thankful for, let them know it.  Send them an email.  Add a personalized thank you note to those Christmas/Holiday cards you hand out every year.  Or better yet, tell them in person.  For many leaders, end-of-year or mid-year employee performance reviews are coming up—those are great opportunities to let your employees know you appreciate them.  In the end, we promise you’ll be thankful that you did. 

Referenced Works:

  • Kouzes, J.M. and B. Z. Posner. (2010). The truth about leadership: The no-fads, heart-of-the-matter facts you need to know. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Be the Best You

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Michael Phelps has been quoted as saying, “I simply want to be the best Michael Phelps.”

While you may not be the most-decorated Olympic athlete of all time, you do have unique strengths and gifts. Ask yourself, “How can I be the best ME there is?”

The Beauty of Dreams

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“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”  
– Eleanor Roosevelt

What are your dreams?  What solutions do you have to offer the world?  Believe that you can make a difference.    

Live like Today is the First and Last Day of Your Life

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“Stop pointing out problems and become part of the solution. Stop repeating the past and start creating the future. Stop playing it safe and start taking risks. Expand your horizons. Accumulate experiences. Enjoy the journey. Find every excuse you can to celebrate everything you can. Live like today is the first and last day of your life.”
– Chase the Lion

How can you make a positive difference where you are right now?  In what areas of your life have you grown cynical, and how can you start to overcome that?  If you knew you could not fail, what would you do?  What are you currently thankful for?    

Don’t Forget to Live

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“Men for the sake of getting a living forget to live.” – Margaret Fuller

Who/What are the most important people/things in your life? Don’t forget to live.

Principles of Mentoring

Are you mentoring someone?  Thinking about mentoring someone?  Are you being mentored?  The importance of mentoring is regularly discussed, but often, there is little practical advice about how to go about it.  Here are some key principles to keep in mind during a mentoring relationship.  

(The video below contains highlights of keynote address delivered by Kathy Coder and Valerie Faust to the PA Federation of Republican Women on May 19, 2012.)

Importance of Leading Oneself

Leadership is about influence, service, and transformation.  First, leadership does not come from positional authority; rather it is based on influence.  Second, it is the leader’s job to serve the people.  For as leadership-expert Larry Spears states, “True leadership emerges from those whose primary motivation is a deep desire to help others and see them grow” (1998, p. 3).  Finally, successful leadership is about transformation—the transformation of individuals, organizations, and even broader culture.  It is in this transformation piece where professional development plays a key role.

Transforming culture requires transforming organizations and institutions, and transforming organizations and institutions requires transforming individuals.  Therefore, culture cannot be transformed without individuals being transformed.  As Peter Drucker (1999, p. 11) writes, “The need to manage oneself is therefore creating a revolution in human affairs.”  Essentially, one must effectively lead oneself before attempting to lead others.

Once one has taken the time to understand oneself: personality, learning styles, strengths, weaknesses, etc., one has the responsibility to understand that others are just as unique.  Then, instead of rejecting those differences, one is able to see them as complements.  It allows one to create and lead a team where others’ strengths balance one’s own weaknesses.  Or, in the words of strengths-expert Marcus Buckingham (2008), “A great team player volunteers his strengths to the team most of the time and deliberately partners with people who have different strengths.”

The important question then becomes, how does one lead oneself?  One important way one can learn to lead oneself is through professional development.  Some professional development tools we use at Inta-Great include: the DiSC Profile, The 360 DiSC, StrengthsFinder 2.0 and Strengths Based Leadership, The Truth About You, and a listening profile—among other things.  All of these assessments are meant to help individuals understand more about themselves and the way they think, feel, and act.  On top of these tools, identifying personal values, writing personal mission and/or vision statements, setting SMART goals for one’s life, and developing a relationship with a mentor are all great professional development exercises.  And more formally, professional courses/seminars and advanced education also constitute professional development.  And yet, professional development is not only confined to resources outside of oneself, for as Donald Schon (1983) is quick to point out, the reflective practitioner is a resource onto himself.

The reflective practitioner is one who engages in reflection-in-action as a means of professional development.  Reflection-in-action takes place when one thinks about what he or she is doing while he or she is doing it.  This allows one to conduct mini-experiments, apply theory to a situation, and, in real-time, evolve the theory until the desired results are achieved.  This reflection-in-action allows one to recognize the tacit understandings which have been guiding one’s actions, perhaps even hindering one’s effectiveness (Schon, 1983).  Schon (1983, p. 68) sums it up when he says, “When someone reflects-in-action, he becomes a researcher in the practice of context….[he] constructs a new theory of the unique case.”

Overall, professional development, through both external resources and internal reflection-in-action, is the foundation of self-leadership.  Then, self-leadership is the basis for personal transformation.  And finally, personal transformation is “the breath that sustains our ability to lead others” thereby transforming organizations and institutions, and ultimately culture (Manz, 2001, p. 16).

Resources:

  • Buckingham, M. (2008). The truth about you: Your secret to success. [Video]. (Available from Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, TN)
  • Drucker, P. (1999). Managing oneself. Harvard Business Review, 77(2), 64-74.
  • Manz, C. (2001). The leadership wisdom of Jesus. San Francisco: Brett-Koehler.
  • Schon, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. NY: Basic Books.
  • Spears, L.C. (Ed.) (1998) Insight in leadership. New York: Wiley.