Book Review: Your Career Game

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I recently read Your Career Game: How Game Theory Can Help You Achieve Your Professional Goals by Nathan Bennett and Stephen A. Miles. Based on the title and reference to game theory, I expected the book would be a technical read and perhaps one that I only scanned for practical insights. What I found, was an easy to read book filled with many pages of interviews and practical straight talk about career progression. It was a definite value-add to my career journey and I found myself wishing I had read something like this in my twenties.

The interviews in the book are conducted with a diverse set of leaders from multiple industries. They are insightful as they dig deep into topics like mentoring, education, influence, political skill, and social intelligence. The business leaders reveal how they approach their career and the decisions they make. I found a few common themes within their responses. Most of them looked to expand the breadth of their experiences across different functional areas of a business. Many of them worked internationally, or saw international experience as a good opportunity to learn the core workings of a business. All of them had a close network of mentors to assist them with guidance in their maturation process.

Additionally, the authors go through several success factors for your career:

Understand the game better

If you consider the model that your career is a game, you need to seek to understand the game better. Just like a sports player must seek to understand the rules of their game to become a better player, professionals must  understand rules of the career game to better navigate its progression. This includes elements of self-knowledge, people skills, motivations, and intentions. There are are more players in the game than just yourself and there are rules from within and external to the organization that could effect the game.

Understand how different moves will affect your career

In game theory, the premise is to first understand all of the players in the game which may include co-workers, executives, your boss, and even your family. What are the interests of each of the players in the game? What do they hope to achieve? Once you understand the different players in the game then you can simulate the game based on the types of moves you believe they will make. As with a chess game, the best players think and simulate moves into the future rounds.

Improve you career agility

Your career agility is based on elements of your core make-up that allow you to react, plan, and make decisions based on your career. As I understood the author’s points in this section, you need to be agile in order to react to unseen circumstances and game elements that you didn’t anticipate.  Elements of your make-up that comprise your career agility include emotional intelligence, cultural intelligence, self-monitoring, influencing-up, resilience, empathy, authenticity, decision making, and political skill.  The bottom line is you need to understand yourself and you need to understand how to relate to others.

2 lessons learned in my career and I’m not done learning

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If you’ve ever spent anytime inside a youth baseball dugout you’ve probably noticed that sometimes the boys tend to fixate on the unimportant things in a game. Most often, it’s the results of their individual performance. When this happens they can lose focus on their future plays and the greater context for how they fit on the team.  As adults we can be blinded by the same weakness related to our career performance and growth.

I’ll admit, that just like gaining a larger perspective on sports, it’s taken me some time to gain a larger perspective on my career.  Learning and maturing is a process. It involves successes and failures and while not always easy to go through, makes one stronger.  Here are 2 lessons learned in my career and I know I’m not done learning.

Accomplishments are only part of the equation

In school, our success is based on our individual performance. The system of receiving a grade teaches us that if we work hard then we’ll be rewarded with excellent marks and moved to the next level. If we make superior marks then we could receive additional rewards. As I look back, I came out of school deeply in this mold. I made good grades in high school and developed good study habits. In college, I worked hard and finished with a 3.6 GPA. This led to a good paying job right after graduation.

In the early years of my career, I believed that as long as I continued to perform worthy of an “A” that I would advance to the next level. For a few years, this continued to work for me. Eventually though I hit a ceiling and it took me some time to realize that I wasn’t progressing any longer despite my additional efforts.  When I stopped long enough to observe the environment around me, I found there was an another dimension to growing and maturing that they didn’t teach me in school. More than what I can contribute as an individual, I needed to learn to contribute with other people through team work and influence.

It’s about other people

In so many ways career maturity and advancement is about relationships with other people. In many of the books I’ve read, senior executives admit that their advancement in an organization was about being prepared and having a little luck. I’ve seen what they’ve written within my own organizations. People who advanced and matured were prepared because they worked relationships with people as much as they did their individual accomplishments. They learned about their emotional and social intelligence and how to use it to strengthen bonds with others. They learned how to influence-up 2 or 3 levels beyond their manager. When the timing worked in their favor, they were prepared and ready to move up to the next level of responsibility.

Working people relationships is like seeing the bigger context of the baseball game. You learn how your actions affect the overall progress of the team trying to achieve its goals. You learn how to strengthen others so that they can achieve their objectives. You learn how to influence others through your knowledge and authenticity. You learn how to serve others. It’s the team player philosophy. It’s about becoming a leader as much as a doer.

Now, as I’ve come to realize all this, it doesn’t mean that I’ve perfected it. But recognizing something is usually the hardest part of making a change. I think I’ve got some momentum in this area and I’m glad I’m still learning.

Innovation process?

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Earlier this week I had lunch with @Cjack_HC, @ElliotLeson, @Westdene64, and a few others. I joined the lunch late as the group was in the middle of a brainstorming session on creating names for business card designs.  Sounds easy, but I found the task pretty challenging.  It made me think of the age old question “Is creative accidental or thoughtful?

Innovation Process
I'll be happy to give you innovative thinking. What are the guidelines?

Today, during drive time commute with the carpool gang, a similar question was asked. “Can you have a process around innovation?” At first thought the two words seem to contradict each other.

Merriam-Webster defines process as ” a series of actions or operations conducing to an end; especially : a continuous operation” while innovation is defined as “the introduction of something new.”

So an innovation process would be a series a actions conducing to an end that introduces something new.  The rub is that process implies a repeatable action. Process provides for a constraining framework that limits non-standard results. Yet innovation is the ability to create something new and implies a change in thought. Innovation isn’t constrained by boundaries. Innovation encourages failure so that future ideas are stronger, while process requires following a series of pre-defined actions and penalizes failure to do so.

After thinking on this a bit more, I believe an innovation process is more of a system that combines a structured framework to help achieve ideas conceived in an unconstrained environment. But there’s a catch.  The innovation in the system applies not only to the ability to think of new ideas in an unconstrained manner, but the ability to implement those ideas through incremental improvements or adjustments to existing processes. By definition, an innovative idea is something new. So it’s possible that implementing the new idea won’t fit in the boundaries of an existing process. That said, process has a definite place in business and adds value because of its repeatability. The process provides for a system of performance excellence. A company will need to use elements of its predefined processes for optimal achievement of innovative ideas.

I believe an innovation process is something that can be used as a value proposition for client relationships. A company can prove it has an innovation process in place by showing a regular pipeline of  both ideas and implemented ideas. This is valuable to clients and prospects because it shows a well rounded company that contains a base of stability with an edge of creativity. It’s the sign of a company that keeps a fresh set of products and services entering the product life-cycle.

So back to those business cards. What do you think? Is creative accidental or thoughtful?

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ross/63787005/ CC BY-SA 2.0

Practical tips for making client presentations

What makes for an effective client presentation? I often reflect on this question because I give presentations to clients on a regular basis. As with anyone who does this, sometimes I feel good about them and other times not so great. Typically, I feel good about a presentation when I find a rhythm in the presentation of content, audience participation, and time allowed. The three factors that most commonly disrupt my rhythm are a silent audience, an audience member that derails the presentation by changing the topic, or when the time allowed is not adequate for the material.

But for the content of a client presentation, I’ve learned a few things over the years that are worth sharing and documenting in my professional journey. There are three main questions to answer in the presentation. How you answer them is left to your creativity and speaking.

Why are we here?

The best way to set the stage for why you are making the presentation is to state a business need by telling a story. Now that’s a broad statement, and there a many ways to tell a story. For example, you might tell a story by showing a customer experience on a web site that ends with an undesired consequence. You could also tell a story by showing a financial trend-line that isn’t meeting expectations. The point is to state the business need in a such a way as to answer the question why are we here? It’s about the business problem for the client, not about you.

Where have we come from?

Where possible, give the client a historical perspective of related events. This is especially important for a long standing active client. Show them information related to the business need and purpose. Frame the issue with factual data. Tactical tools for this piece of the presentation are time-lines and trended graphs. Remember, it’s about the business problem for the client, not about you.

Where do we want to go?

The last section of the presentation is reserved for your solution. How you proposed to solve the business problem stated earlier. Good presentations are like good movies. There’s a conflict that needs to be solved and then a resolution at the end. This is the fun part of the presentation because its the section where you get creative and show innovation. Common elements are mock-ups, best practice results, process changes, prototypes, or even suggested ideas to pilot. Yeah, even where you want to go is about client, not about you.

Following these three steps will engage the client.  Show them that you know and understand their business. Focus on the people involved in the business problem and how they benefit.  The presentation is sall  about the business need of the client. Don’t boast in yourself, boast in solving the need.

Organizational learnings after a merger and acquisition

If you’ve ever been employed by an organization that has either bought another company or has been bought, then there’s a good chance you have witnessed organizational culture meshing. I think of it as the company culture melting pot.  In some cases a purchased company is left alone as an independent business unit and may function outside the boundaries of most of its owning parent.  However, there could still be culture shifts in either company related to best practices and cultural norms of the other.

I’ve worked in organizations that have acquired other companies and I’ve worked in an organization that was acquired by another company.  I’ve witnessed and lived all types of cultural shifts as a result and I thought I’d share a few of my observations.

“Legacy” is redundant

The term “Legacy xxxxxx” is often used to designate a previous brand or company name. Sometimes we use it in systems speak to designate a system that pre-dates the current system.  As I think about it though, it’s really not needed as a prefix because in the context of conversation or written document the name/brand of the element it modifies is unique.  I won’t go so far as to say that legacy implies a fully negative feeling of the name/brand it precedes. But it’s often used in context to mean:

* That was then and it’s out dated

* We have to live with it

* That was the archaic way. Someday we’ll turn it off

Here’s the deal though. The historical elements in your organization whether company, process, or program are all now part of the existing portfolio of what makes your company unique. Sure the purchased company may not exist any longer, but you don’t need to say Legacy CompanyABC. CompanyABC itself will suffice and gives due respect to that name/brand for the value it holds in its historical context.

Bust silos with assignments that cover the entire portfolio

Nothing creates silos of thought and turf wars faster than keeping people assigned to specific programs and processes within previous companies. So if Joe worked on Program A at Company A and Bob worked on Program B at Company B then they’ll see each other somewhat as competitors in discussions about their respective programs. The way to relieve this organizational strain is to give them both responsibility over programs A and B. In this way, they will create work that is for the betterment of the organization and not their respective silo. Often times programs A and B will be redundant. The way to remove the protectionist feelings is to get the entire team involved in the entire portfolio. It’s good for career growth as employees are allowed to learn new areas and given increased responsibility.

Promote unique functions where they exist

Sometimes as organizations merge together there is a functional area in one company that didn’t exist or was outsourced in the other company. If the company leaders decide to keep that functional area in-house then promote that to the broader organization as one of the advantages of the newly combined company. So often employee morale is hit because redundant areas typically mean job losses as the new company looks for economies of scale. So where there is no redundancy, promote it and the benefits that group brings.