My colleague Chad Sakac does great with his "Santa Chad" giveaways, but -- alas -- I don't have the budget for that sort of thing. Besides, he's pretty good at it anyway.
After a bit of reflection, I thought I'd do what I could to share the not-so-obvious career lessons I've learned along the way. Looking back, I wish someone had shared some of this thinking with me 30 years ago when I set out in the working world.
Then again, I was so darn stubborn back then I probably wouldn't have listened to any of it anyway ...
Take this as unsolicited advice from someone who sees himself as moderately successful.
Make of it what you will.
#1 -- Enjoy What You Do
If you enjoy what you do, there's this wonderful feedback loop that goes something like this: you tend to spend more time on stuff you like doing, so you get better at it, so you end up spending more time at it, and you get even better at it ... well, you get the idea.
If the things you like to do end up being important to the company you're working for, it's a great virtuous cycle.
Worked for me, anyway.
Conversely, if you're not enjoying what you're doing, better fix it before too long. Here's why: if you don't like what you're doing, you'll spend less time and effort at it, which means you'll get even worse at it, and so on. The spiral can work both ways.
Personally, I discovered that I didn't like to run large organizations: staff meetings, planning calendars, complex budget, internal negotiations, HR issues and all the rest. I've done it all more than once before, and I know how to do it, but it wasn't something I enjoyed doing. Fortunately, there seems to be plenty of talented people around who do seem to enjoy such things, so I leave it to them.
That frees me to do stuff I really like to do, which over time makes me really good at what I do, which motivates me to do more ...
Part of this is making sure you're working with people you like: both internally and externally. I am quite fortunate; I generally like working with the folks I encounter both inside and outside the company. They're smart, passionate, ambitious and very conversational. If I didn't have that, I probably wouldn't like what I'm doing.
I also have come to realize that -- if I'm not enjoying what I'm doing over a decent period of time -- I'm probably doing the wrong thing, or doing it for the wrong people. The joy and enthusiasm I bring to the workplace is an excellent diagnostic that I'm doing the right thing with the right people.
#2 -- Always Be Curious
It's a truism that the world is constantly changing around us; what most people may not realize is that the fundamental rate of change is itself accelerating. The consequence is substantial: unless you're always learning new things, your knowledge and perspective can get dated -- and much less valuable -- in a matter of months.
Structured classroom settings and formal education techniques don't work well for me, by the way.
My antidote? Always be digging around trying to learn interesting stuff that you don't know. The internet is a wonderful asset, of course, but so are the people around you. If a customer or co-worker mentions something I'm not familiar with, for example, I'll stop and ask for a quick explanation. At night, I'm cruising the internet looking for interesting reading and perspectives: some on topics I'm familiar with, many with topics I'm not.
That curiousity extends to trying stuff outside your comfort zone -- just for the heck of it. As I list off all the different things I've done in the workplace, it's ended up being pretty broad. Some things have worked out well, others haven't panned out, but I'm always up for getting out there and trying something new -- just because it'll offer up a new experience to learn from.
I don't think we should ever stop learning. Maintaining and encouraging a healthy level of curiousity (and adventure!) has always worked well for me.
#3 -- Be Persistently Patient
Early in my career, I tended to get impatient and frustrated a lot. The company was moving too slow, things were too difficult, getting agreement on obvious issues seemed to take too long, and so on. As I meet people, I often see that same frustration bubble up over one issue or another.
What I've learned to appreciate is that substantial change takes substantial time and effort. Nothing good is easy, nothing easy is good.
The key learning for me was expanding my time horizon: when you go from measuring things in days or weeks to quarters or years, a very different perspective can emerge: consistent progress towards a set of significant goals and meaningful outcomes. People tend to forget how far they've come; it's always helpful to remind folks of just how much progress has been achieved.
You also tend to realize that there's a lot of legwork involved in building a consensus around bigger issues and deeper approaches. Try to bypass this time-tested consensus process, and you won't be happy with the results.
I call the perspective "persistent patience" -- always be pressing forward on the things you think really matter, but give people the time they need to orient around the new perspective.
Conversely, if I don't see any sort of meaningful progress being made on something I deem important, the ball is back in my court: accept it, change it, or move on.
Ranting and raving at people doesn't work well -- trust me, I've tried it.
#4 -- Learn To Really Listen ... And Really Communicate
OK, for those of you in IT, it might help to think of each of us as a walking, talking computer with verbal I/O channels. Listening in, spoken words out. Even a modestly powerful computer can be very effective if it has great I/O :)
When someone is speaking to me, I spend about 5% of my attention on the actual words they're using, and about 95% trying to figure out what they really mean, why they're saying what they're saying, what kind of mood they're in, what they're not saying but should be, the specific context they are working from, what sort of pressures are they dealing with, and so on.
If I don't have a clear enough picture, I ask a few clarifying questions until the mental image achieves sufficient resolution. I rarely dive in with an approach until I'm mostly sure of what I'm dealing with.
I think a great analogy is IBM's Watson playing Jeopardy. The actual words of the clue are only the tip of the iceberg, it's the processing of the 95% contextual information that really matters.
I didn't get really good at listening until later in my career. I tended to focus on the actual words being used, and substituting my personal context for theirs. When I learned to avoid those traps, things got much, much better.
The same sort of skill is useful on the output side as well.
Dumping tons of detail on someone isn't communication, it's confusing and irritating. Once the big ideas are communicated, understood and agreed, it's much easier to come back iteratively, adding more detail, etc. -- while still keeping the handful of big thoughts in mind.
I try very hard to boil all the complexity swirling around in my brain down to a few key thoughts before opening my mouth, hopefully expressed in conversational and direct English vs. an obscure dialect of Obtuse. A colorful analogy doesn't hurt, either. If there's interest, I can share the next level of detail, and so on.
The more you practice doing both, the better you'll get at it, the more positive feedback you'll likely receive, the more you'll be encouraged to get better at it, and so on.
#5 -- Be Yourself, Not Someone Else
For some reason, a lot of people tend to struggle with this, especially earlier in their careers. I think the assumption is that there is this Perfect Role Model out there, that -- if successfully emulated -- will grant the practitioner career success.
While it's great to watch what other people do, and try to figure out what makes them successful, trying to be an artificial clone hasn't worked for anyone I've ever met.
We're all unique individuals, and we bring different strengths, talents, experiences and perspectives to the table. That's an incredibly powerful asset. You tend to lose all of that when everyone is trying to win the Corporate Clone Competition.
You'll also find you'll have a lot more fun when you're being yourself (and not someone else), which means you'll enjoy what you're doing, so you'll be better at what you do, and so on.
For example, I am at my best (or perhaps worst) in large, stiff and formal meetings. I will use any opportunity to break up the mood a bit and get people to lighten up, say what's on their mind, interact freely, etc. I'm sure that doesn't make me 100% popular with everyone, but I can't help it.
Now, claiming you're "being yourself" is no excuse to avoid identifying counterproductive behaviors, accepting critical feedback, trying to improve and so on. But don't do that at the expense of what makes you unique and special.
And, if you're working for a company that doesn't appreciate that uniqueness, consider finding a situation that does.
#6 -- Learn To Think Big
Imagine five people in a room, discussing something. Four of them think discuss the issues -- and potential solutions -- within the small confines of the usual constraints that are so typical in the working environment: budget, headcount, politics, etc.
However, the fifth person takes a moment and says "wait a moment, imagine if we could ..." Maybe that big thought never comes to pass, but at least you've shined a bright light on what could be: that is, if people decided it was important enough.
That particular "think big" skill becomes even more effective when you learn to communicate effectively. How many managers have you known who weren't able to articulate a vision for their group? Or CEOs who couldn't articulate a vision for their company?
There's an important related behavior: trendspotting.
My company (EMC) tends to care about all sorts of trends: technology, customer, industry and so on. That's good.
However, if you work in a "show me the incontrovertible proof from an independent source" company, you can end up being very late indeed to a lot of interesting trends.
When I started pointing out important trends to people early on, I didn't get listened to a lot. I kept at it, and -- more often than not -- people learned that I had a decent predictive capability.
Now, when I call a trend, people tend to listen. If I really believe in a trend (e.g. cloud, big data analytics, social, etc.) I throw myself into it with little regard for the current organizational structure or outcome. Personally, I really enjoy making that sort of contribution, which makes me really like what I do, which makes me better at what I do, and so on.
Both skills take a fair amount of courage and persistance, because -- as always -- people don't always react positively to ideas and suggestions that aren't in their current frame of reference.
That's their problem, not yours :)
#7 -- Share Freely
I invest serious time in sharing. I expect nothing in return.
I blog frequently, hand out advice when I can, offer to help out when I can, do a lot of mentoring and career coaching, volunteer for all sorts of things inside and outside the company, and so on. None of this is in my job description or incentive plan. It's just something I do -- and wish I could do more of.
Why? Three things are going on here.
First, the more you give freely, the more you get in return -- at a high level, it's simple transactional dynamics. I can't tell you how many times my investment in sharing has led to things that I thought were pretty cool. I never expect any sort of specific outcome, but all sorts of things tend to come my way as a result.
Second, the act of sharing always exposes you to new experiences and interactions. Add in a healthy dose of curiousity and you'll learn a ton in the process.
Finally, it makes me feel good that I was able to help someone out in some small way. That makes me like what I do, which makes me better at it, which makes me want to do more ...
#8 -- Encourage People
Just this morning, I was chatting with Wayne Pauley who is one of the prime moving forces behind some of the cooler EMC Education content now coming out: cloud architect, data science associate coursework, and so on. He observed (as I often do) that he frequently encounters people who don't realize how good they are at something.
The only pragmatic suggestion I could offer was "encourage them". Take the time to pull them aside, share what you've observed, and offer some friendly suggestions. Nothing more, nothing less.
It seems that there's no shortage of feedback when we're not so good at something, so we can make corrections. Doesn't it make sense that we should also get plenty of feedback when we show a skill or talent at something, so we can make additional investments if we choose? There's something rather dysfunctional about many corporate cultures in this regard: ladle on the criticism, but withhold the encouragement.
So I've learned to do what I can to compensate.
When I see a flash of rare talent or brilliance, I take the time to let someone know that it was (a) observed, (b) recognized as special and (c) they might want to look at doing something additional with that talent. This isn't merely acknowledgement of a job well done (I do that too), or performance review feedback which I also do.
This is reaching out to people who are on the verge of something great, and giving them that small boost of confidence that might get them to take the next step on their journey.
#9 -- Be Optimistic
In many business settings, it's easy to get caught up in "negativity storms" -- the natural human tendency to focus on what's not working. The problem is that it can be self-reinforcing behavior, resulting in a dire perspective and a complete lack of motivation or direction.
While I'm no stranger to challenges, obstacles, problems, etc. -- I do tend to be somewhat optimistic. Problems are rarely as serious as they might appear; good people have a way of figuring things out, get a few key things right and the rest follows, and so on. I am no cheerleader, just an experienced observer of what teams can achieve when they get focused and start chipping away at a problem.
You want to try to be that person that doesn't succumb to gloom, frustration, despair, etc. There's always a path forward, and it usually involves the people in the room.
Help them find it.
#10 -- Life Is More Than Work
OK, I'm now 52. In my mid-to-late 40s, I started to see a lot of people my age start to self-destruct. Failed relationships, job burnout, health issues -- you name it. Whatever they were doing, it wasn't working well for them.
In most cases, I thought these people tended to focus more on their work than their life outside of work. They didn't invest in their relationships. They didn't invest in their health. They didn't invest in creating a meaningful life outside of work.
They became unhappy, and -- when you're unhappy -- the rest starts to unwind pretty quick.
I count myself lucky that I have avoided the majority of those mid-life land mines. I have great relationships and all sorts of fun things going on outside of work. As a result, I could experience a major career setback, and it wouldn't really knock me around all that much.
Unfortunately, I see people all around me who are heading down a bad path. They pour everything into their work life, and far too little into their personal life. At some point, it catches up with them. There's a crisis or two, and it's never pretty.
I do what I can to help people along these lines, but not everyone is always listening.
You can always get another job.
It's a lot harder to get another life.