Keep a Log of Project Successes

This sounds like obvious advice, but far too many people think of their project accomplishments only when it’s time to update their résumé, often years later. By then, important details may have escaped their memory. Keeping a weekly log of project accomplishments and challenges helps keep you on course throughout the journey through minor adjustments, rather than having to make a major “dead reckoning” midcourse correction or as the project comes to a conclusion.

Here are just a few reasons why you should maintain a detailed project log regardless of the size of the project.

  • A log of past project accomplishments not only helps with crafting an attention-getting résumé, but serves as a project history and reference guide for when you encounter the same or similar projects later.
  • A detailed project log helps capture your thought processes and how you assimilate, formulate, and execute your ideas throughout the project history.
  • When you need talking points for an annual review, promotion opportunity, or job interview, you have the details handy.
  • A detailed project log shows you the dead ends you may have been down once, and can avoid them in the future for similar projects.
  • It helps you frame your participation as a contribution to the higher strategic objectives of the organization rather than as a “task completion” if you update your résumé further down the road.
  • A detailed project log helps you calculate reliable quantitative data (dollars earned, costs avoided, percent improvements, etc.) that further demonstrates your value as a solutions provider to the organization.

Participating in internal process improvement initiatives can pepper your résumé with notable accomplishments.

My friend Stan Smith was part of a division publishing initiative at a former employer where seven people were charged with designing a new plan for creating, managing, and disseminating technical information to address emerging changes in the publications world. While the cost to implement the 18-month plan was between $1.5 and $2 million dollars (in 1998), the initiative was projected to save $2.3 million dollars in publishing costs and overhead each year after implementation.

Even though Stan wasn’t responsible for the entire initiative, his contribution is mentioned on his résumé. In fact, his detailed weekly log entries were a significant component of the final published study that was presented to upper management.

My wife  kept a project log of how she prepared for taking the exam for the “Certified Fraud Examiner” designation. During the lengthy practice test and study sections, she noted which sections were harder than others, and mnemonics she created to help her memorize key information, terminology, and formulas. Her notes were later published through the certified fraud examiner association website as a study tool for others to use as they prepared for the hugely comprehensive exam.

If you are in the habit of keeping a project log, keep doing it; if not, today’s a good day to start.

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Cultivate an Attitude of Being in Business for Yourself

Truly successful individuals always understand that no matter where the paycheck comes from, they really do work for themselves. Besides the skills, knowledge, and experience they bring to any job, project, or task, it is also the sense of project ownership, sense of project urgency, personal integrity, and helping others succeed that makes them “self-employed.”

Contractors and consultants know what being self-employed is all about but sometimes people in hourly or salaried positions lose sight of the fact that they are in a sense “self-employed” as well. No one keeps anyone on the payroll out of the goodness of their hearts; it is the daily application of both hard and soft skills that keep the paychecks coming on a regular basis.

And what happens if you lose your job even though you have been working diligently to the best of your abilities? You were looking for a job when you found this last one, right? In the high-tech world and other fast-paced environments, job turnover is a common occurrence and folks accept it as a way of life. “Reductions in force” (RIFs, as Human Resources calls them) happen for a variety of reasons, many of which are not tied to the overall economy.

Cultivating an attitude of being in business for yourself provides several advantages. It insulates you against negative self-talk by reinforcing a positive you-are-in-control self-image. Rejection feels less and less about you personally and is really more about external factors, many of which you have no control over. There is more empowerment in the feeling that “I work for ME” that propels you out the door each morning. That empowerment pushes you to become the individual who has the unique expertise that will be recognized by the right people, particularly if you know what challenges they are faced with, and how you can help them meet those issues head on.

Embracing an attitude of being in business for yourself alters how you approach every aspect of your job—from your interactions with others, to how you see the value you provide to the organization. As we’ve all experienced, sooner or later we move on to other departments within a company or to a different company altogether. When you jettison the “job” mentality for the being-in-business-for-yourself attitude, don’t be amazed at the opportunities that will come your way.

It’s one way to make yourself  “fireproof.”

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Don’t Underestimate the “Likeability Factor” of Job Interviews

Likeabillity graphicIn a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, researchers discovered a strong correlation between initial impressions of interviewers and their evaluations of candidate responses to structured interview questions. The initial impressions corresponded with candidate extroversion and verbal skills, with job qualifications being equal.[1] In other words, favorable first impressions created by candidates during the rapport-building stage of job interviews (that is, small talk) influenced interviewers’ subsequent evaluations.

All skills, knowledge, and experience being equal among candidates, most hiring managers will hire the candidate that makes a memorable impression on a professional and personal level. In other words, if you present yourself as a likeable person during the interview, people tend to be more interested in what you have to offer.

However, if you do not connect on a personal level—regardless of your skill set—it will be more difficult to get an offer from a hiring manager. Strong interpersonal skills, excellent verbal communication skills, and a friendly personality help set the stage for your receptivity by the hiring manager. At the same, those who hint at being a high-maintenance employee are often the ones who upset an established, positive working team dynamic. Creating rapport and a positive connection is what opens doors for others to see and hear to what you have to offer. If there is no connection, it is likely your job hunt will continue.

[1] Barrick, et al. (2012) “Candidate characteristics driving initial impressions during rapport building: implications for employment interview validity”. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, Vol. 82 No. 2 pp. 330-352.

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How to Convert a Task/Duty into a Strategic Contribution

Current employment lifecycleTime and again I receive résumés from individuals who confuse task completion with accomplishment. The task completion is an expectation of your job; an accomplishment is most often above and beyond the expectation of your normal role and responsibilities. For people who load up résumés with one bullet list after another of “duties and responsibilities,” the only way to really get noticed above other candidates is to convert that task or duty into a strategic contribution that has higher value to your employer or organization. It’s a way of thinking beyond the day-to-day trench duties you are involved with; it’s assigning purpose to your efforts.

I came across a great example of this shift in thinking in a book by financial guru, Dave Ramsey, and it involved three different bricklayers:

Once a journalist happened upon a construction site where he noticed a group of bricklayers going about their jobs. As the journalist observed, he became intrigued by the various manners in which the workers performed their duties. For instance, one fellow moved as slowly as possible and looked extremely bored with his work.

“What is it that you are doing here?” the journalist asked.

The bricklayer glared back at the journalist, looking disgusted that anyone would ask a question with such an obvious answer. “What do you think I’m doing?” he bristled. “I’m laying bricks.”

The journalist noticed another worker who seemed to be enjoying his job more than the first man. He had more enthusiasm and seemed to work with more skill. When the journalist asked this man what he was doing, the worker squared his shoulders and replied, “I’m building a wall.”

A third man caught the journalist’s attention. This worker was a joy to watch. One could almost imagine a symphony playing in the background as the craftsman fluidly picked up each brick, prepared it with mortar, and swung it into position. With tremendous pride, he smoothed the extraneous mortar around the edges of each brick, careful to make sure that each brick was placed with precision. It looked as though he thought the entire building would stand or fall according to the way he did his work.

When the journalist asked the third man what he was doing, he stood up with pride and smiled broadly, “I am building a magnificent cathedral to the glory of the Lord,” he replied.

Same building, same job description, what the men were doing was the same thing, but the men had different “whys” and that changed the way they approached their daily work.

(Dave Ramsey, How to Have More Than Enough, p. 83)

So, in your day-to-day work are you laying bricks, building a wall, or doing something more magnificent? As a hiring manager, which attitude do you want to bring onboard?

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Let’s Talk About Building Your Platform

platform builderYour platform, very simply, is the expertise you have developed that gives you visibility, authority, and a proven influence within a targeted population (profession, market, or field).

Let’s break down that broad definition to its components:

Visibility: Who knows you? Who knows your work or accomplishments? How do you communicate to others outside of your immediate job what it is you do or you’ve done? How many people are aware of it? How does your visibility get distributed? What communities (online, professional associations, etc.) are you a member of? Basically, where do you make waves?

Authority: How solid is your credibility? What are your credentials? (it’s not about how many you have but whether you have the right ones for the right field of work).

Proven influence: Don’t say you are an “influencer”; show where your work has made an impact and provide demonstrable proof of that impact (quantitative measures such as $$ or % really help out here). Oh, and please don’t use the term, “thought leader.” It’s such a cliché in marketing and there’s no way to demonstrate how many thoughts you’ve led.

Target population: Are you most visible to the most appropriate targeted audience? In other words, is your work helping to build your brand within the circles where you already have visibility?

Building your platform is all about putting in a consistent effort from one year to the next–not by calling attention to yourself, but by extending your network of people who are drawn to your brand (your expertise, your personal values, and your professional reputation). It’s building the platform to a point when it starts speaking for who you are (personal values), what you do (expertise), and how you do it (reputation).

Platform building is synonymous with creating and promoting your professional brand, and is an organic process that evolves over time and with circumstances. I read a great article on how authors create a platform (I used some of those ideas here because they parallel most other professional positions), and the author stated that

Your platform should be as much of a creative exercise and project as the work you produce. While platform gives you power to market effectively, it’s not something you develop by posting “Follow Me!” on Twitter or “Like Me!” on Facebook a few times a week.

How are you building your platform? What’s in your toolbox?

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New Year, New Direction…and Phone Screen Interview Success

I hope everyone had a great New Year and Christmas/holiday season…

The new year for me brings about some exciting changes. In addition to the career strategies speaking, consulting, and training I do, I have “re-hung” my shingle as a Independent Business Communication Professional in response to increasing requests from individuals over the past few months. I will be providing corporate, marketing, and technical communication collateral for companies in the earth/space sciences, environmental sciences, software development and microprocessor design fields. The day I launched the website promoting this business, I received my first contract.

For this post, I’m broadcasting a response to a question I received awhile back about knowing what questions to ask a hiring manager during a phone screen. I think the best strategy for asking questions involves the focus of the type of work you’ll be doing–especially if you’ll be brought in to work on a critical project or deliverable. You have to think like a consultant and NOT a potential employee for the strategy to work as a selling point to getting the hiring manager to hire you.

Here’s an actual recent example from a phone screen with a hiring manager for a contract technical editing position. The hiring manager began the conversation by providing an overview of the project and the documentation needs. I took a lot of notes, which helped me frame my own questions for later.  Rather than bore you with the details of the exchange, my questioning was along the lines of determining how much of an editorial effort the project would require. I have worked on so many such projects for companies in the software development and microprocessor design fields, that the questions I needed answers to fell into a long queue in my head. This happens to everyone–whether you’ve built microprocessors or you’ve built barns–you just know which questions to ask and even in what order to ask them because your knowledge, experience, and skills all come together as expertise.

Such questioning also communicates to the hiring manager the level of your expertise. Your line of questioning gives the hiring manager insight into your thought process, your strategy for assessing the merits and potential issues of a project or problem, and your approach for enacting a solution. That conversation may turn into an invitation to come in for an interview or it may result in an outright job or contract (as it did for me). Because I was able to sell the hiring manager on my solutions to his problems over the phone, I got my hourly rate and I was able to work from my home office after spending the first few days at the local facility to familiarize myself with content providers and the work environment.  This approach helped put a frame of reference around the scope of the work I would be doing.

Phone screen interviews are your opportunity to shine in the eyes of the hiring manager. You should be committed to one of two outcomes: either a request to come in for an interview with others on the team, or a direct job or contract offer.

Failure is not an option.

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How to Make a Cover Letter Address Hiring Manager Needs

guy reading letterIn the many years I have advised individuals on creating attention-getting cover letters, the one thing that is most difficult for them to grasp is how to turn a statement about themselves or their expertise into content that addresses the hiring manager’s needs. Too many people still think of the cover letter as formal business document when in fact, it’s most effective use is as a sales letter that promotes your skills, knowledge, and experience as a service you are offering to the hiring manager. Forego much of the stodgy style between the salutation and the close of the cover letter and use a little self-promotion language. You have 5 to 7 seconds to grab the hiring manager’s attention…if you do and he or she reads your cover letter, you have set the hook for them to then look at your résumé.

Here are a few examples of how to take statements about you and turn them into statements directed at the hiring manager’s needs:

  • Throughout my career, I have been able to save both capital and man hours with my proven ability managing design and simulation optimization.
    New version: Your organization will benefit from proven expertise  managing design and simulation optimization–saving your organization capital expense and man hours.

Notice how the new version removes the “I/me/my” tone and replaces it with “your.” Rather than “me” saving capital and man hours as part of a past accomplishment, the hiring manager’s organization becomes the beneficiary of those savings in the new version.

  • Not only do I know how regulators view and approach issues but I also understand the challenges that corporations face in remaining competitive while meeting their regulatory and control requirements.
    New version: You will need someone who knows how regulators view and approach issues, and understands the challenges your organization faces in remaining competitive while meeting regulatory and control requirements.

Not a bad statement in the original, but simply taking “I” out of it and redirecting the tone toward the hiring manager (“you/your”), it becomes a more powerful selling statement for the candidate, and edges the hiring manager closer to looking at the résumé and perhaps setting up an interview (especially if the candidate takes control of the next contact in the closing paragraph of the cover letter).

  • My time spent on audit engagement provided me with experience for assessing internal controls, analyzing financial statements, and honing my professional skepticism.
    New version: You will need an expert experienced with audit engagement, internal control assessment, financial statement analysis, and sharp professional skepticism on your forensic accounting team.

Again, rethinking the core essential information in the original statement and slanting it to the hiring manager’s needs makes this expertise more directly pertinent to the hiring manager. The three instances of “I/me/mine” in the original that highlight the past have been replaced with two instances of “you/your” that address the hiring manager’s needs going forward.

Reminders (see previous posts for details):

  1. Don’t use “please” or “thank you” in a cover letter.
  2. That first sentence MUST grab the hiring manager’s attention for him or her to continue reading.
  3. Avoid stating the obvious: “I am writing to you in response to…” or “I have enclosed my résumé…” or “Feel free to contact me at the number below.”
  4. Take control of the next contact: Avoid “I hope to hear from you at your earliest convenience…” “I am available for an interview at your convenience.” Instead, tell the hiring manager when you’ll be calling to follow up…don’t think “cover letter”–think “sales letter.”
  5. Standard close is “Sincerely,” not “Kind regards” or “Yours truly”

This will be my last post for the year. Wishing you and yours a blessed Christmas and New Years…see you in 2014.

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It’s that time of year…..for layoffs and promoting your brand equity

layoffOver my entire working career…starting in 1972, I’ve been laid off 8 times: twice as a house carpenter in south Florida (the first time right after my daughter was born) when the building boom busted; once as a geologist in the oil business when the oil boom busted in 1986; 5 times in different marketing/technical communications positions in the high-tech industry due to reorganizations or the economic state of the industry/company. The quality of my work or my professionalism was never a factor in those layoffs. I survived my share of layoffs as well, but–except for one instance–I came out of every layoff with a better position and higher salary.

But of the high-tech layoffs, three of them occurred within two weeks of Christmas. The last layoff was the “easiest” to get through for a few reasons: (1) the severance package was a very good one (got paid for the remaining 2 weeks of the year plus a week of unused vacation; another 4 months’ worth of salary, and company-paid COBRA for a couple months); (2) my family was in a very good financial position that minimized the effect of losing my job even after the severance was depleted; (3) the company put on a good outward face to investors and analysts but internally was run like a Chinese laundry, so there was no separation regret, sorrow, or anxiety.

The downside of this last layoff had a few elements as well: (1) I missed working with a great team of individuals who had been together for several years; (2) I was a couple years away from retiring (i.e. = working on my own projects of interest) and wasn’t able to walk away on my own terms; (3) I lost several thousand Restricted Stock Units that I had been granted as rewards for past annual performances because they had not vested yet; and (4) I still had to work through the emotional kick in the stomach–regardless of whether I hit the Powerball Jackpot the day before. Being laid off–even if you have millions in the bank–can’t remove the blow to your ego or self-esteem for a day or so because you never hear the real reason why you are being let go. The closest you’ll get is corporate speak that sounds like, “The company regrets to inform you that it no longer has a need for your services.”

(I thought about just hanging it up and “retiring” a few years before our goal; however, it would have meant that we would have fewer and less frequent vacations for awhile, and traveling is what we love to do as a family. So, I made the decision to see if I can fill the remaining two years with contract work.)

The whole scenario of being let go from your job is uncomfortable. Either your manager or someone from security is watching you pack up your personal belongings in a scrounged-up cardboard box as others around make themselves scarce because they don’t know what to say or hover uncomfortably nearby–like buzzards near roadkill ready to scavenge what you leave behind in your cube. Your email access is likely already cut off so you can’t send out that last farewell email to your peers and c0-workers, and can’t go the bathroom without someone letting you back in the office because you had to turn in your security access card immediately.

Yes, you still have to deal with the emotional kick to the gut, but I can assure you: as you mature in your career, it gets easier. You have a wider network of contacts to alert for potential job openings or contracting positions; you may have a monetary cushion–a rainy day fund–to help you deal with such unforeseen contingencies.

A strategy I used throughout my career was to build relationships with people I worked with; whether I was a member of a team, an individual contributor, or a team manager, I tried to always display a servant’s attitude. I made it one of the features of my professional brand. A servant attitude over time becomes an expertise that others will seek you out for. You will be seen as a resource, an expediter, who can connect people with other people or people with other ideas. Zig Ziglar wrote that “if you help enough people get what they want, eventually you will get what you want.” In that order: help others first, but do it without any expectation of reward or favor. Do it because it’s the right thing to do and it will pay off huge dividends.

I remember the day before my last layoff, I received a LinkedIn request from a friend I had worked with for more than a dozen years. We had worked together at two different companies and on the same projects. After I got home on the afternoon of my last layoff, I responded to his LinkedIn request and sent him a message that the company had just handed me my walking papers and that after the first of the year, I’d be looking for some contract work, so if he heard of any opportunities to please let me know.

He responded two minutes later: “I was thinking about you for some time now and hoping to connect you with my team. I have some connections to the XYZ project team and you would be a great resource to tap. I will gladly buy you lunch to catch up anyway.” The next week, we had lunch and I received a very nice contract after the start of the new year.

True story. I have no doubt that the years I spent learning how to foster relationships up and down the corporate ladder, helping others succeed, and strengthening the quality of my professional brand were instrumental in getting back on my feet quickly.  Once your professional brand has been established, others will “polish” it (promote it) for you, as my friend did, and that led to that great contracting opportunity.

I would be remiss here not to state that after having fretted about losing my job and threats to my family’s financial security early in my working career, I have learned the lesson of I Chronicles 16:34, which states, “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.”

And serendipity played a role here, too, by turning that severance package into an opportunity to add to our investment portfolio, which helped shorten that two-year gap to about 18 months.

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About the November U.S. Jobs Numbers…

minimum wageThe November jobs numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that 203,000 new jobs were created. That figure is higher than what experts had predicted, leading every cable news talking head to exclaim, “more proof the economy is improving.” Really? Let’s look at those numbers more closely.

Most of us who worked in fast-food/minimum-wage jobs in our youth (minimum wage was $1.65 when I was in high school) recognized those jobs as part-time in nature, providing us with employment on our journey to something bigger and better. In fact, that is the business model of the fast-food industry and many others that pay minimum wage is the recognition that such jobs are transient by design, usually less than 40 hours per week, and function as transitions to better paying jobs with more of a future for advancement. Let’s be clear: there never was any thought or intent by anyone using the minimum-wage business model of creating a position for someone as VP of French Fries or Hot Apple Pie Division Manager.

Yet, the unfortunate result of the recent recession has forced many older workers or overqualified workers who have been unemployed for many months into the fast-food/minimum wage environment. Jobs are slowly returning, yet for many, rebounding back to where they where before being laid off is difficult if not impossible. For most, those professional positions are gone, having either been eliminated or filled by someone else. So, today we hear the demand for a “living wage” from fast-food/minimum-wage workers–and yet 60% of all minimum-wage workers are students. Nearly doubling the minimum wage to $15 an hour means your Big Mac will cost you $8 or $10; your grande skinny latte may run you $9 to $10 or more; and “Big Gulp” is more a reaction than an oversized fountain drink. When you refuse to shell out that much money for these items, businesses will close down; people will get laid off.

Attention fast food/minimum wage workers: Your positions were never meant to be career positions where you can eventually earn five or six-figure incomes. You have to escape the fast food/minimum wage mindset and jobs by getting an education (community college, four-year college, trade or business school)–that’s how you earn a living wage.

So who do you think is to blame? The small business owners who employ most people? Republicans? Democrats? The fast-food/minimum-wage business model? Even President Obama is calling for an increase in the minimum wage, so what’s the story?

Virtually every major initiative of the Obama administration – from taxation and regulation to monetary policy and (especially) Obamacare–oops, I mean the “Affordable Care Act” – has been promulgated with little concern for small business. Not surprisingly, 60 percent of business owners surveyed by Gallup expressed opposition to the administration. Small firms represent 99.7 percent of all employer firms and have generated most net new jobs over the past 15 years, according to the Small Business Administration. The Affordable Care Act has forced many employers to cut back on hours of employees, creating a part-time workforce so they can afford to stay in business. Nearly everyone will agree that part-time hours is better than NO hours.  Small business owners–the McDonalds/Burger King/Kentucky Fried Chicken/Starbucks franchise owners–provide from 60 to 70 percent of all new jobs, but tax and monetary policies and federal regulation prevent the job conveyer belt from helping people move onward and upward who are stuck in fast-food/minimum-wage jobs.

Forbes reports that although the unemployment rate has steadily dropped since of the beginning of the year, “the decline hasn’t been solely driven by the creation of high-paying full-time jobs.” That affirms the premise that more people are being compressed into the part-time minimum-wage job market/conveyer belt, adding to poverty levels. Businesses are sitting on large piles of cash waiting for government tax/economic policies to ease so they can expand, upgrade infrastructure, and hire people for full-time higher paying jobs.

The job ceiling has been lowered for these people by the actions of the current administration, which are really regressive policies by an administration that sees itself as Progressive. I find it ironic that the President is supporting the call for raising the minimum wage, which will only stuff more minimum-wage workers into an already over-crowded room.

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