Measuring Your Career Through Nervous Excitement

Are you taking the right risks in order to progress your career and your opportunity for learning?

When looking back at your career, can you remember the times where you were nervously excited because of a decision you had to make? Originally, I was going to call this post “measuring your career by gut wrenching moments” but I wanted to make the clear distinction between the negative insinuation of gut-wrenching vs. the positive excitement of nervousness, even though the right level of nervousness can still make your stomach churn.

When I’ve switched roles in my career I experienced a wide range of nervous excitement that occurred with every opportunity–all the way from zero to that feeling you get when you are sitting in the first car of a roller coaster and are about to take off.

Looking back, I can say that the times where I’ve had the highest levels of nervous excitement are the opportunities that generally led me to places of great learning and growth.

At first, it was hard to make decisions that generated a positive uneasy feeling. That feeling made me question the opportunity and take a harder look. Over time–thanks to the impact, learning, and growth from those decisions–I’ve learned to embrace that feeling and take it as a good sign.

Secondly, I examine what it is about certain activities, jobs, or project opportunities that generates that feeling, compared to the seemingly same activities or opportunities that don’t give me that feeling so I can be more aware of what motivates and interests me. It’s interested to discover which opportunities initially interest me vs. ones that don’t. I’m learning more about what drives me and where I can have the most impact.

So, how many times have you been nervously excited by an opportunity? How did it turn out?  Even if it didn’t work out great, did the learning from that help in the long run?  Could you base your next career move off of what scares you?

Being Positive or Negative in an Interview

Did you ever get the type of interview question that asks for your opinion on what that company could do better or what you would change about XYZ product?

As I’ve asked that question to someone I’m interviewing and have been asked that question as the person being interviewed, I’m always interested to see whether the answer comes across as positive or negative.

And I still debate in my head about which one is “better”.

Don’t get me wrong, when I’m interviewing someone I don’t want them to be all pie-in-the-sky and disingenuous and say everything is perfect and we should just keep doing what we’re doing (too positive), but when I’m answering the question and going into detail about things I would change I can’t help but to feel like I’m too negative.

Once, an interviewer from Amazon asked me how I would change a particular category at Amazon. Instead of commenting on the actual things that were implemented (both ideal and not ideal), I described how I would try to make the category better through entirely new services and offerings.  In this case I felt like it was a win-win because I wasn’t necessarily critiquing something that existed but it was something to improve overall. Maybe it wasn’t perfect, but it seemed to work at that moment.

What’s your strategy when answering those types of questions?  What do you prefer to hear when you’re asking those questions?

Accelerate Your Career Growth by Understanding How Promotions Happen

When you start to analyze how and why people get promoted in any large organization you can see that interesting patterns have developed.  The important part in understanding those patterns is making sure that you are using them as you develop your career plans. I imagine every organization is different to some degree, but there must be some universal truths as well.

Can you accelerate your next promotion or opportunity within the same company?

Note: I’m not commenting on the topic of how to do it by moving out and around other companies.

Here are some thought starters on the topic:

  • Which matters more–your skills and track record or the actual role? Look around, are some positions geared towards faster advancement opportunities just because of the role itself and not even the skills or work you might be able to do within that role?  Yes!  Sure, it does even out over time, but if you can get it to work in your advantage earlier it could be a good bet.
  • Do certain groups seem to be have a better track record for advancement?  If no one from the group your in has been promoted within in the last few years, how much harder would it be to work out for you? Go where it’s more normal.
  • Can who you work with help or hurt your advancement?  Not just the team, but what business partners are you working with and do those groups generally aid in your career development in some way?  For instance, supporting or collaborating with other groups that are fast-growing and expanding probably give your position a better chance of advancing vs. collaborating/supporting a group that is historically stagnant or declining.
  • Are the skills you’re learning in that particular role going to help or exponentially accelerate your growth to the next level?  Finding a role that helps is not nearly as transformational as a role that will accelerate exponentially. Of course, the latter type roles could also bring about a bigger risk as well. One good example: my company (this is public info) recently had a mid-level job posting for a person to work directly on a deep and daily basis with one of our new Executive Members that has an amazing track record of success. I’ve never seen a role like that and the things the person would be exposed to and get to interact with, not to mention the networking aspects, would be almost even a level above exponential acceleration.  Seek those types of roles. (For those of you wondering if I follow my own advice – I didn’t even try because of the 60% travel requirement and I was a new father at the time. Sometimes life decisions easily outweigh career decisions.)
  • What can you create to completely change the career growth trajectory curve?  Who says you absolutely have to follow the traditional trajectory through each level of your company’s hierarchy? What can you create or do that is so amazing that it helps you radically jump through the organization?

I’m not saying you should use promotions merely as a way to guide your career planning.  In fact, I’ve taken some interesting steps back or sideways in my career to learn different skills that have proved to be absolutely more valuable in the long run.  What I am saying is that you should understand the different ways advancement happens if you hope to continue growing through your career.

The Most Valuable Skills a Co-op or Intern Can Learn That You Help Create

What’s the most valuable skill you can learn as a college co-op on a six month assignment at a big company while you’re still early in your college career?  As a leader, what’s the experience you hope your co-op gets while they are in your group for those six months?

Let’s talk quickly about these types of positions then I’ll tell a quick story about the most important skills.

First let’s explore a few factors.

  • Co-op positions are great ways that both the student and the company can benefit.  Because they’re generally longer and have more depth than an internship there is the opportunity to develop, contribute, and learn more.
  • Co-op and intern programs are great ways that companies can start to develop future talent and build its incoming talent pipeline. Students with already in-company experience through internships and co-ops can sometimes hit the group running even faster because they have some prior experience in that type of environment.
  • Finally, co-ops generally provide a great resource for the team because they can help balance the workload of the other team members and take on lower level, yet important, work that would of usually been handled by more senior resources or just not done at all.

All that being said, would the most valuable skills that the co-op learned over her/his time be the day to day how to do this particular job skills?  No.

Would the skills and experience of “being professional” and working in an office environment and things like email etiquette be the most important? Good, but I don’t think they’re the most important.

The most important skills came to light for me thanks to a recent experience.  During the final week of a recent co-op’s last assignment (let’s call the co-op Bob for privacy’s sake) I had the fortune of having lunch and saying good bye to Bob. We talked about all he had experienced during his time at the organization, what it was like to be on certain teams, and what he thinks he learned during his time here.

After listening for a while I couldn’t stop smiling.  Not one of the things he talked about had anything to do with the particular day-to-day aspects of his job. He didn’t talk about how he now knew the internal homegrown system we used to track support requests and how happy he was to learn this random system. He didn’t talk about how he learned to use our conference room booking software and how excited he was to now use that software wherever he went. He did talk about things like learning about how big companies do things and about some important more tactical or traditional lessons, so that covered us on the common sense aspects.

The things he talked about that had me smiling had to do with what he learned about himself and what he was capable of.  He talked about gaining confidence and trust in himself and also about seeing the world in a whole new way.  He also talked about being given the seemingly impossible (in his mind) and working on making it happen.

He recounted examples of being given some ridiculous-sounding challenges (oops, opportunities) like “see if you can find a radio station in this particular area that we can take over for 4 hours with content of our choosing, 4 days from now, for free.”  Or, “it’s December and we need one of those jersey shore type banner trailing planes to fly right next to one of the busiest airports in the country with a customized message, while the sun is coming up.”  Now, to put this in perspective, co-op Bob’s role was for website-related stuff.

The way he summed it up was that when he was asked to do those ridiculous things (note: they were “business necessary”, just in an odd way that would take a whole different post to explain) he originally thought to himself “I have no idea what you’re even talking about, how the hell am I supposed to do that, where do I even start?”  By the end of his six-month experience, he said he felt like he could do anything.

He had been given the experience and, more importantly, the expectation of taking something seemingly ridiculous or impossible and making it happen. Thankfully, he also connected the last dot when he said “if I can do that, I feel like I can do anything.”

Learning about yourself and pushing the limits on what you’re capable of, building confidence and trust in yourself, and pushing to make the impossible happen are important skills for co-ops and interns early in their professional lives. Important things to make sure you’re trying to create for those you work with, with a safety net if things don’t work out completely.

I wonder if working on those types of skills would also be important for yourself as you progress further and further in your career?

Realizing vs. Recognizing The People You Work With

Do you take the time to realize who you’re working or interacting with?

In the business and Corporate culture there is lots of talk about taking the time to recognize and reward the people you work with and/or your employees. However, there’s hardly any talk about taking the time to realize who you’re working with.

Realizing who you’re working with is tough.  It demands that you don’t wait till the end of a project or to see if the expected outcome is delivered, and it requires that you get to know the people you’re working with and really pay attention to them.

Realizing who you’re working with has many more benefits, too.

By taking the time to understand the potential of someone you get to work with (or lack thereof), you can help them achieve greater than what was originally asked.  Or, you can realize that the best thing to do is to stay out of their way.

In my own experience, realizing a few of the truly gifted people I got to work with (and some I still do) has allowed me to learn so much more than I otherwise would have and has hopefully allowed them to rely on me in a different way.

I wonder if everyone that worked with Steve Jobs in the very early days knew they were working with such a great mind, especially if his legendary personality rubbed them the wrong way.

I wonder who you’re working with right now that has an even greater mind and all you have to do to help let it flourish or learn from it is make the effort to realize.

Dealing With Random Senior Leader Requests

Have you ever received a request or task from someone higher up the leadership chain that, at first glance, seems to make absolutely no sense to you? Have no fear, everyone above you is much smarter than you and you should just shut up and get it done.

OK, hopefully you’re reading on to know that I’m joking. Let’s face it, those requests come every now and again and it’s important to think through how to deal with them. Here are a couple ways:

  • If it’s something with an incredibly short implementation time and has no impact on anything else long or short term, just do it. Much like the rules of GTD.
  • Ask probing questions. Try the ‘5 Whys’ trick to get an understanding of what you’re really being asked to do. Maybe you’ll develop an entirely different solution than the one being requested, or be able to better understand it and recommend something already in place. The other benefit is that with all of your questioning maybe the requestor will just get tired of answering the questions and cancel the request.
  • Hurry up and wait. Lots of time these requests are merely reactions to something urgent. Giving lots of attention immediately and outlining a plan lets the requestor know that you’ve heard him/her and respect the request. That being said, when you understand it, wait a little while before you actually do it. Sometimes (you’ll get better at understanding which ones are which) the request will actually go away and you’ll get a note that it’s not needed anymore.
  • Inform others up the chain of command. The more people you tell, the more people that will either back up the request or agree that it’s not necessary. If they agree it’s not necessary, without you telling them that of course, usually they’ll be the ones to go back to Senior Management. If enough people agree with the request it’s probably worthwhile.

Take a minute to think through these types of requests, just please don’t be a robot and do it because some senior leader asked. If they’re any good they’ll usually appreciate the fact that you thought it through first.

Improving the Annual Performance Review with Linkedin

As part of many companies’ annual performance review process, employees are asked to submit the names of people they have worked with so their bosses can ask for feedback. Cross-pollinating that with the Linkedin recommendation section may be an interesting way to add value or participation to the overall experience.

How would using a recommendation-like process and making the business partner feedback public on Linkedin as part of an annual review process

  • change how the employee works with that partner all year?
  • change how well or thought through the person giving the feedback comments?
  • change how much the employee takes and acts upon the feedback provided?
  • change the conversion rate of people asked for feedback vs. actually provided?
  • change the overall value of the recommendation section on Linkedin for people searching for potential hires?
  • change the type of people that wanted to work in your organization?
  • change if it’s viewable to all others that person has worked with that year vs. public?

It seems like an interesting experiment to increase the overall value of the feedback process for everyone involved. Of course, it might have some real pain points in the short term but if it doesn’t get “gamed” it could work out very well in the long run.

Does Interest In Your Career Influence Your Outcomes

How much does interest in your career influence your performance or rewards? Can you really be effective if you’re not interested? Over the lifecycle of your career, how has your level of interest coincided with what you were doing or what moves you’ve made or your general performance level?

To demonstrate this, take out a piece of paper and make a graph:

  1. The x-axis is the timeline of your work history.
  2. The y-axis is your interest level from low to high.
  3. Determine some key milestones in your career (big new projects, new bosses, promos, job changes, etc) and list them on the x-axis of your work history.
  4. Graph your career based on how interested you were (in your career) as you’ve progressed through the years. And make sure you don’t fall into the trap of correlating interest to hours. Being interested in your career is about being engaged and excited, it has nothing to do with hours. 

I’ve played this with many people and it’s been interesting to uncover the insights gleaned from seeing their career according to this graph. Are they more interested in the months or year leading up to a promotion, or right after? Were they more interested working in group X vs. group Y, and why?

Also put in some life events to see what that might have done to your interest level. Did moving to a new house, with that great new home office, make you even more interested? When you were doing that hobby a couple years ago, did it make you more interested in work too? What could you do in your personal life to continue to be more interested at what you’re doing professionally?

Is the secret to high performance just being interested in what you’re doing?
With what you learned from the patterns in the graph, how could you become more engaged and excited by what you’re doing?

Making Decisions With Your Internal Board of Directors

Companies use them as sounding boards for big decisions so isn’t it time that you developed your own Board of Directors? Running your decisions by a group of people you admire and respect and who could look at things from various angles could yield amazing insight.

In order to get the best Board of Directors to help you, take a different route than companies do when they hire their Board. Instead, look to anyone that you’ve met, read about, or heard about and create an internal Board.  It doesn’t matter if they’re dead or alive, or even if you’ve ever talked to them directly before – you can learn from and weigh decisions with an endless supply of great leaders just by asking yourself how they would approach the question.

Make a list of people that could provide some type of insight next time you have to make a decision. Make sure the list is diverse and not just a few people from the same place, time, or focus area. Include people from your personal and professional life, as well as anyone from the history books or current new stories.  You can make your Board of Directors filled with anyone you want.

Want some examples?  

Let’s say you’re starting a new job or new business.  So what would the following people ask you, say to you, or how did what they do resemble what you am looking at doing here: Abraham Lincoln, Oprah, P.Diddy, Tony Robbins, Jack Welch, Serena Williams, Tim Ferris, Bruce Lee, Ghandi, Ariana Huffington, Ben Franklin, your super ‘successful’ Uncle who owns a smoothie stand on the beach, your social worker sister, that blog you read everyday because you think it’s great, your high school teacher that helped change your life forever, or any of your friends that might have something you know they would say that would give you something to think about.

The act of thinking how your Board would view the decision you’re facing and envisioning what each of your Board Members might say could yield you absolutely what you need in order to make the decision and set up yourself up for success.

Lessons From A Think Week: Taking A Personal Retreat

I tried something that I’ve heard has worked wonders for many people in the past, including BIll Gates. Think Week. 

The legend as I remember it, was that for two weeks every year Bill would shut out all communication with the outside world, have his assistant slide grilled cheese sandwiches into his office a couple times a day, and he’d spend all day and night taking in information and thinking. Apparently, it was during those two weeks when many of the key strategies to how Microsoft built its initial successes were created.

Well, I only had a 5 day week and my initial Think Week didn’t yield quite the results of Bill, but it did teach me a few things about setting up a successful Think Week.

Why a Think Week?

Let’s start with a different question: when was the last time you spent a significant period of time to reflect, think, and envision or work out plans for the future?  Short spurts of time everyday don’t count–I’m talking about multiple days of deep self-interaction.

If you think that kind of time would be valuable, you need a Think Week.

Here’s some tips on setting up your own:

  • Start a folder in your email or tag in evernote to start storing all of the “stuff” you want to spend some time on during your Think Week, like amazing articles, one line “to-do” reminders, or anything that crosses your path that you really want to think on. Of course, action is better in many of the items, so if it’s something that can be finished in less than 10 minutes – do it now.
  • Spend the first day or two just getting some things off your to-do list that have been there so you get that feeling of immediate accomplishment. This will also make sure you don’t have that thing in the back of your mind the next few days.
  • Ensure you have ample amount of time set aside. It takes a day or two to get out of your typical mindset and start getting your mind ready for the really deep thinking. By the time you get going you don’t want it to be coming to an end, 3 days is probably too short, so aim for at least 5-6. Of course, if you can do 2 weeks, that’s great too.
  • Turn off or schedule communication.  This is your Think Week, not your catch-up-on-email or call-that-friend-you-haven’t-called-back week.  We’re strangled by our communication devices enough on our regular time, get off the grid.
  • Gather your supplies.  Coffee, whiteboards, paper, books, music playlists, whatever you think you might want during that week–have it ready beforehand.
  • Don’t tell anyone.  Don’t start telling people too far ahead of time, they’ll just give you advice you don’t need and/or try and figure out ways to schedule something during that time because they know you’ll be “free.”
  • Move around.  The intellectual and creative benefits of exercise are obvious. Get your blood flowing during some points of your day even with simple 20 minute walks outside or a hardcore workout that gets you energized and excited.
  • Go somewhere different.  This one depends on whether or not you can focus better when you’re somewhere you don’t normally go or if it’s better where you normally work.  Experiencing new places surely helps with your creativity because of the new experiences and connections it builds in your brain, but this is about which place will help you focus best. For me personally, that means not sitting at my normal desk because there I get sidetracked thinking about the more immediate things and itch to do them.
  • Act. Build momentum if you can, or at least get started on something you come up with. This way it won’t end up going on your “after Think Week to-do list” and then never get done.
  • Reflect.  At the end of the week make sure to evaluate your week, what you would do a different and how to make the next one even better.  Then, schedule your next one before the week’s through. If you’re going deep enough this isn’t something you’ll have to repeat every month or even every six months, but once a year at least seems like a good time period.

Open your calendar and schedule your first think week right now.  The most important thing is to schedule it or else you’ll end up going day-by-day like you are now.

How powerful can you make your Think Week?  Go.


Also to note: a Think Week could work for specific projects too, but that’s almost more like a Hackathon-type week. This is about thinking on broader range topics, areas and should not (at least) initially be focused on one particular tactical project.