Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Make the Right Career Move by Rachelle J. Canter

Two years ago when I was going through my last job transition I forked out some of my own money and got one of those personality/aptitude profiles done by a business psychologist. It was a helpful experience—giving me some additional insight into my own natural tendencies and helping me identify some areas that would likely always challenge me. The deal included an unspecified number of future follow-up visits with the psychologist if I wanted to discuss or explore possibilities associated with my results.

Well, last month I took them up on their offer and went to go see them. I think they were a little surprised to hear from me after two years, but honored the deal and made the appointment. I was looking for someone impartial—impartial and with detailed knowledge about me and my professional profile—to respond to some thoughts I've been having about my future career direction. I'm not looking to make a job change anytime soon, but I've always wanted to know what road I was traveling on and, for the first time since choosing association management as my profession, I've been feeling like I'm not sure what my next logical step is.

Among a lot of other things we discussed, the psychologist recommended I read Make the Right Career Move by Rachelle J. Canter. The recommendation was really, I think, just for the book's first section—which talks about how to define the best future job for yourself—and not the rest of the book—which talks about how to write a resume, interview properly, and land that job. But you know me. Once I start reading something I just can't put it down until it's done. I made it through The Silmarillon, after all, and only gave up on Juneteenth because it was an audio book.

So, how was Make the Right Career Move? It was all right. A lot of the stuff I read in the part that wasn't recommended to me echoed a lot of the advice I used to give people when I worked in outplacement. The book is clearly and unabashedly geared for CEOs, high-powered attorneys and other societal movers and shakers. Most of the time this perspective was refreshing. It assumed the reader had the gumption and gravitas to make things happen in their lives, and that makes it different from a lot of other books in this genre. But, sorry to say, sometimes this perspective just got downright funny. Case in point, from the section about setting career goals:

Identify conflicts or dependencies among the priority goals: Is reaching one goal at odds with reaching another, or is reaching one apt to increase the chances to reach another? For example, a career goal of being CEO of a Fortune 500 company is likely to conflict with a relationship goal of spending nights and weekends with the family, but may be likely to increase the chances of learning to play golf well.

Not everyone will find this funny. After all, there are people in the world who have life goals that include: (1) Be CEO of a Fortune 500 company; (2) Spend nights and weekends with the family; and (3) Learn to play golf well. But I'm not one of them.

But even if the examples got kind of entertaining, I think the underlying process Canter describes for identifying the characteristics of your ideal job—based on your skills, goals, and satisfiers and dissatisfiers—is a good one. I would probably attempt to use it to help me get a better handle on my skills, goals, satisfiers and dissatisfiers, if I hadn't just done Marcus Buckingham's strength exercise from The Truth About You.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Truth About You by Marcus Buckingham

This is not a book. According to its own cover, it is a "revolutionary toolkit" that includes an "enhanced DVD, interactive book, and ReMemo Pad to reveal your strengths."

I forget where I heard about this. One of the blogs or listservs I follow, I think. I've read First, Break all the Rules, and I've seen Buckingham speak at a conference I attended, and I was pretty impressed each time with his non-traditional approach to many business issues. So when I heard he had written a book about how to identify your strengths and bring them more into play in your work life, I decided to try it out.

There are certainly some old ideas here—old, at least, in the sense that Buckingham has voiced them before. Like the fact that you'll never turn weaknesses into strengths, so you should stop trying to do so (for either yourself or your employees), and instead invest that energy in trying to apply your strengths as often and as productively as possible.

But an interesting new idea—new, in the sense, that I haven't heard it expressed before—is that strengths are not what you're good at and weaknesses are not what you're bad at. As Buckingham explains in both the "enhanced DVD" and "interactive book":

Don't you have some things that you're good at, but they bore you, drain you, or frustrate you? You are certainly capable of doing them, and because you're capable of doing them, people keep asking you to do them—in fact, they come to rely on you to do them—but if you never had to do those things again it would be too soon. What do you call activities like that?

Well, if you're Marcus Buckingham, you call them weaknesses. Any activity, no matter how good you are at it, that leaves you feeling weaker after you do it, is a weakness. Just as any activity, no matter how inexperienced you may be at it, that leaves you feeling stronger after doing it, is a strength.

I found this perspective both refreshing and compelling. Inspired, I decided to give the interactive parts of Buckingham's book a fair try. This meant carrying the "ReMemo Pad"—i.e., a little notebook with a blue cover on one side and a black cover on the other—around with me for two weeks. For the first week, any time I felt myself looking forward to something, any time I found myself in the zone with time going by quickly, any time I found myself jazzed and energized, I was supposed to scribble down in the blue half of the notebook the activity responsible for these feelings. This I faithfully did, and at the end of that first week I read through all my blue pages and, as instructed, tried to identify the common behaviors and practices they revealed so I could write my three strength statements. And here they are:

I feel strong when:
1. I write words that contain truth.
2. I capture ideas and communicate them effectively and in entertaining ways.
3. I strategize around difficulties and solve problems.

According to Buckingham, these are my true strengths, and they should serve as my roadmap for moving my job and my career forward. And you know what? I feel pretty good about them. I have good opportunities to employ them in my current position, and if I can build more such opportunities into my future I think I will find even greater reward and satisfaction.

The second week I was supposed to engage in a similar exercise, but this time scribbling down in the black half of the notebook any activity I found myself wishing someone else would do, where I found myself struggling to concentrate, where my mind wandered, where I wished it was simply over and done with. These would in turn reveal my weakness statements, and I would be able to use them in a similar fashion to my strength statements, avoiding them the same way I tried to embrace my strengths.

Funny thing, though. After a week I had only one thing written down in the black half of the notebook. It had to do with confronting a political situation, and I never had the drive or energy to codify it into a formal statement of weakness. I think I felt so busy—and excited—moving forward on the strengths, that the weaknesses really had no appeal for me.

There were plenty of other tips and tricks in this little book, but I feel like I've kind of moved past it now. I'm actively working on bringing my strengths into greater play in my professional life and I'm beginning to reap some of the benefits Buckingham speaks of. On that level, this may be the most useful business book I've read.

Friday, January 2, 2009

1776 by David McCullough

I was about halfway through this one and I was still thinking that McCullough had simply phoned this one in, that he had done something similer to what Joseph Ellis had done with Founding Brothers or Stephen Ambrose with Nothing Like It in the World—he had simply slapped something together out of bits and pieces he had collected while writing his more serious work. But as I started working my way through the second half I began to realize what McCullough was doing and that he was taking a fresh subject seriously.

1776 is his title, but his subject is really George Washington and the army he led. It's called 1776 because that's roughly the period of time that's covered—from the Siege of Boston to the Battles of Trenton and Princeton—but I'm not sure that's the best title for the book. The Strengths and Weaknesses of General Washington would have been more appropos, because that's what it seems to be about. His success at Boston, his failures in New York, and his successes again in New Jersey, supported throughout by his loyal and capable lietuenants and the Continental Congress. It was a good read primarily because it was able to penetrate the myth that surrounds Washington and present him as a real and flawed human being.

And, as usual with good history, it also shattered some of the historical "truths" we are all mistakenly taught in school. This time, it was most obviously that of the drunken Hessian soliders that Washington surprised on Christmas morning at Trenton, still sleeping off all the carousing they had done the night before.

Far more, however, would be said later and repeated endlessly of Hessians who supposedly, on the morning of the attack, were still reeling drunk or in a stupor from having celebrated Christmas in the Germanic tradition. But there is no evidence that any of them were drunk. John Greenwood, who was in the thick of the fight, later wrote, "I am willing to go upon oath that I did not see even a solitary drunken soldier belonging to the enemy."

Major James Wilkinson, the young officer who had been present at the capture of General Lee and who also fought at Trenton and later wrote an account of the battle, made no mention of anyone being drunk.

Goes to show you can't believe everything they teach you in school.