Change the Game

There is an old fable that gets shared about a girl who was undertaking a journey across the desert to another town, the journey itself is next to impossible – she is faced with extreme weather conditions, dangerous natural threats in the form of deadly animals, and to add to it a hostile environment often traversed and monitored by bandits.

The story goes that she set out on a week long journey with nothing more than a day’s meal, a cloak, and a staff.

Throughout her journey she came across reptiles, a group of travelling bandits and a large wall that barricaded the bandits’ territory

A week later, she walked into the other town – unscathed.  Upon finding out where she’d come from, people wanted to know how this girl made it across the deadly terrain?

Her response was a lesson in resilience

They asked: Why did you only pack a day’s meal?

She said: To hunt for my next meal – knowing that I will encounter predators along the way I wanted to see them as my prey

They asked: How did you elude bandits?

She said: I didn’t – I wore a cloak of sand and walked across the desert.  I traveled in patterns towards the sunlight – from behind I can hear them but they cannot see me, from far ahead I could see them before they could see me.

They asked: How did you survive the night?

She said: I tented my cloak on my staff tightly enough to barricade myself from predators

They asked: how did you get above the wall?

She said: I used the sand to create a mount which I dug my staff into and I leaned it on the wall using it as a branch to climb just high enough to reach the edge and pull myself over.

Lastly they asked: Why did you succeed (with far less) when many before you have failed (with far more)?

She said: I did not attempt to avoid the challenges facing me, for my survival I made them a necessity.

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What Networking and Your College Room mate have in Common

Allow me to start by asking you whether you’ve been approached before for some “change” by someone at random. Maybe they needed it to call someone, or buy a meal or perhaps gather enough for a bus or train ticket.

Has that ever happened to you?

Here is where it gets interesting, can you remember the thought(s) that was/were running through your head at the time? Do you recall how you felt when you were asked? And if this happened to you more than once, how many times did you actually have change in your pocket?

Its important to preface this next bit with the disclaimer that everyone is different and these scenarios often times bring out the best or worst in people, our goal is to simply focus on the emotional psychology that most people go through before they even make the decision to offer or withhold change.

I went to school in downtown Toronto and this scenario has often occurred several times in a single day for me – my initial reaction was fear, I wasn’t sure if the man was asking or demanding but as time went on and I began to experience it more often – I honestly can’t say that I have become “use to it”.

It’s deeply troubling when you see a person that is in apparent need, so it wasn’t “easy” to just walk by even if they didn’t really “need it”.

But consistently and in every case, I felt uncomfortable.

I worked evenings and weekends to finance my education, and when I didn’t I was studying as hard as I could to excel in it. It wasn’t easy – it was brutal! It was hard, and it hurt like hell. I knew that the road will be tough, I knew it would be hard but I was brave enough accept the challenge.

So every time I passed by a person asking for “spare change” I felt like they wanted the end result of my sacrifices. I was also very distressed and bothered by the fact that they really didn’t care who I was, they just wanted the spare change. They didn’t really care if they got it from me, an 80-year old lady on disability or an 8 year old girl who just dropped her allowance money – they just wanted the end result – the change.

At no point did we mention that this “person in need” is of a specific type in society, this could be the man on the corner of Yonge & Dundas or your college roommate who is asking for money. I did this for a reason – the person asking for change is of little relevance, what’s important is how the person being asked feels when this is happening.

…Why?

Because if we understand how asking people for something, without knowing them, working with them and establishing a relationship with them, can make them feel then, perhaps we can be better at …Networking.

I hope I haven’t lost you.

Networking in a professional setting is where a bunch of people, diverse in professional and cultural backgrounds get together for the goal of building and expanding their network of professional relationships.

People who do not know one another, have not worked with each other, and do not have any existing relationships or ties.

Networking events were always a hotbed for professionals seeking opportunities. Even in corporations today, internal networking events or sessions are often (but not always) frequented by those who “want-something-from-somebody” and see it as an opportunity to “get close” and “go in for the kill”.

Now whether you are new grad attending a networking session in hopes of pitching yourself as a strong candidate for a new role or an existing employee hoping get face time with a senior executive to market a question or an idea or even a concern. I want you to think about the feelings that are generated when complete strangers ask you for something. First impressions are extremely valuable, because they will be the ones that determine whether you will be remembered after you turn around and walk away.

My personal success at networking has always come from my desire to know more about the person I’m networking with, to understand them a little better and to perhaps get a view into what drives them, what keeps them moving. I don’t do this as part of an illicit scheme or strategy, I do this because I genuinely care about understanding the person I’m networking with and more importantly taking an interest in them.

When you take an interest in people, something strange happens – they start to take an interest in you. It’s in this special phase of the networking relationship that people start to help each other – it’s because they begin to care. You no longer become someone seeking a service, or a favour. You no longer become a person seeking to cash in on their years of service that have gotten them to where they are today, and perhaps more importantly, you become the type of person that cared enough to seek a connection when you didn’t necessarily require or need anything. That my friend is rare! It is sadly rare.

So my advice is to keep networking, keep smiling, keep building connections and keep taking an interest in others and learn to enjoy this process even if you don’t tangibly benefit because by doing so you are establishing yourself as a very rare commodity in today’s world of business – and rare commodities tend to have very high value.

Know how to say No!

We all know how exciting it can be when you first start out in a new role, especially one that you like and enjoy.  There is this great sense of satisfaction coupled with the determination to ‘prove yourself’ and prove that you are capable of doing the job at a high level.

During this time you may find that you’re more likely to accept the volume (and nature) of work that comes your way – after all, who wants to say no to something after just starting out?  Not the best strategy career wise.

This ‘thing’ that forces us to say ‘yes’ early on in our career is also attributed to our need to belong and be liked by our peers.  We try to over-please and over-deliver so that we can earn our stripes so-to-speak and are included and recognized among our colleagues as people of value.

Its equally true that as we grow into our role, and progress in our careers we become (ideally) better at saying ‘No’ to the things we cannot do or the things that put us above our capacity – and its great that we are able to identify what we can and cannot deliver based on our capacity, because this translates into a healthy work-life balance but we must be careful in how we do this.

Suppose you’re working at 100% when your manager approaches you about taking on an additional task, they say that its very important and they need your help to get it done.  What would you say?

Well, here are your options:

1)      You can elect to say ‘No’ I am already working at 100% and this would keep me in the office longer than I want to be.  I have been working non-stop these past few months and this is too much! So NO! I can’t do it.

Let’s assume you choose this option, its well within your right to provide this answer and it may very well be a 100% factual description of your state at that time.  But first you have to ask yourself, what am I trying to achieve? If I’m trying to convey that I am not planning on staying in the office any longer or a sacrificing personal time to do this, then you may have achieved your objective. 

But what other effect does this statement have?  It may tell your manager that you are unable to manage additional work and perhaps reached your capacity within your role.  It may also communicate that you’re not a person that can be relied on in key situations or that perhaps you’re not someone they consider to be a problem-solver, someone that works around obstacles to achieve what is required.

You may not necessarily agree, and you may even object that such conclusions can be drawn from that statement, but these are possible conclusions, and if your managers come to any one of those conclusions they may not be enablers or positive reinforcement to your career.

Well then, how can we communicate our message of not wanting to work overtime without leading our managers to have a negative perception about us?

2)       We could say “Sure! No problem, it sounds like you really need to get this done so we better focus on it.  In the meantime I’ve been working on the weekly metrics report and the vendor project to meet this week’s deadline, which one do you think we should move-out to give me some time to work on this?

Ah! This response does 2 things.  1) It certainly communicates to your manager that your bucket is full and if they want to add something to this bucket then what are they willing to remove or takeaway? 2) It puts the decision back on your manager, now your manager must decide “is this something that really needs to be done now or can it wait until the other priorities are completed?”  In either case, you won’t have to work beyond your capacity.

This option also gives your manager the impression that you’re always willing to help, and you’ll always find ways to get things accomplished.  Even if your manager ends up deciding that your current priorities are more important, they will be the ones making this decision but at the end of the day you will come away from this situation as the person who was willing to help.  We didn’t change WHAT was communicated; we changed HOW it was communicated.

In both scenarios above you will have effectively communicated that you are busy and running at 100% but only 1 of those scenarios positively reinforces your career in the long-term.

The biggest misconception that people make is that we need to have big career aspirations to communicate the way we did in Option 2, but that is simply false.  Option 2 reinforces your character as a team-player, a person whom others can rely on, a problem-solver and someone with a positive outlook.  Regardless of Career aspirations we all want to be regarded as supportive people, who are approachable and well-liked by our peers much like that day when we first started. 

Take ownership over your career and continue to build yourself regardless! 

“People will not remember what you did, but they will remember how you made them feel.”  

The Art of Listening and why so few have it

Just so we’re all clear, I would like to start by saying that I have not mastered the Art of Listening nor am I suggesting that I have become a guru in the topic. In fact, if my wife happens to be reading this right about now, she will be as shocked by those statements as you would in learning that a Double Big Mac is not a healthy alternative to Salad.

Mind-Boggling, I know!

Having said that, I understand first hand how important this is, not only as a skill but as a prerequisite to management and leadership.

This topic has been written about in countless journals, magazines, blogs, books, white papers and even thoroughly discussed in the fields of psychology as well as business. The consensus? We all suck at it!

Have you ever tried to get someone you’re arguing with to just listen to you? What happens when you stop talking? They start up again, as though they simply hit the pause button on whatever they were going to say and when you finished they pressed the play button again!

This is widespread, while I don’t have any scientific evidence I am almost tempted to call this an epidemic based on what I see around me.

Everyone is so concerned with being heard, everyone wants to have it their way, nobody wants to “back down” or “let someone else win!” and this is affecting our professional lives and our personal lives.

There are among us those who believe that they have every right to be stubborn in an argument because “they are right”. That they don’t have to listen, or compromise or back down because they know that the facts are on their side. So they will argue their point, and if the other person doesn’t agree, they fall back on their support structure. In business, this can mean escalations, complaints, filing grievances, etc…

The fall back mechanism is to walk away from the person you are having a disagreement or argument with and recruit as many people as you possibly can to your side, for the sole purpose of re-launching another offensive that will forcefully (through ultimatums, or power hierarchy) get the other side to “listen” to them.

This also happens in personal relationships, and its not uncommon for people to “check-out” or stop talking to one another until enough time passes for them to simply ignore or put-aside their disagreement – without dealing with it.

The term ‘Listen to me’ or ‘Listen to what I’m saying’ has now morphed in meaning to “Do as I say or else…”

If you ever worked with or know someone who happens to be a great listener you will find that they have a specific kind of character trait about them. They are more interested in achieving a win-win scenario, they are not only interested in “getting their way” they want to make sure that the other person is equally satisfied with the decision as they are.

Great listeners don’t come to the table with an agenda, or with a specific message that they plan to enforce onto others. Yes, they may be forced at times to deliver directives from higher up – we see this a lot in business – but they are quick to ask others how they feel and what they can do to mutually deal with this situation so that impact (if negative) is mitigated as much as possible.

This is why it’s so difficult to be a great Listener. It’s because it requires people to be as equally concerned in the other person’s interest and well-being as they are of their own.

In brief, great listeners are not selfish or self-absorbed, they truly believe that life is not a one-way street, and while the compromise maybe longer, harder, and less convenient than your way, it is ultimately the way that will lead to mutual understanding, happiness and respect. Qualities that I’m sure we can use a little more of nowadays.

Learning to fail properly

Thomas Edison is a great inventor and an important figure in our history. Remarkably, his greatest asset (beyond innovation) was how he viewed failure.

Its been said that in his attempt to create the incandescent light bulb he experienced close to 10,000 failed experiments. Half way through his attempts to innovate this “miracle” light source, the local newspaper decided to write a satirical piece about Mr. Edison in an effort to depict him as the wacky and perhaps senile man whose failures to that point (close to 5,000 failed attempts at the time) have taught him nothing!

The local journalist asks Mr. Edison “After failing to create your incandescent light bulb 5,000 times, at what point will you realize that this innovation is simply an impossibility”

Mr. Edison responds in what perhaps is the most telling statement about his attitude to failure “Oh but you are mistaken Sir, I have not failed 5,000 times for I have discovered 5,000 ways in which the incandescent light bulb does not work!”

To Mr. Edison failure was a critical part of innovation because he viewed his failures as discoveries! They did not discourage him, de-motivate him or cause him to quit – this is evident by the remarkable number of failures he incurred not only in creating the light bulb but in every other innovation he had made from the Electrographic vote recorder, to the motion picture.

Thomas Edison knew how to fail properly. He understood how absolutely essential it was to fail, he accepted it, he embraced it but most of all he made sure that every failure was a stepping stone towards greatest.

We’ve all experienced failure at some point in our lives but the most telling trait about you is how you’ve responded to those failures.

Some of us are so adverse to failure that they are not willing to try anything or risk anything that might lead to failure. “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.” J.K. Rowling

I was one of those people, I felt that my life will only be defined by the successes that I gain and soiled by the failures I experience. I soon found myself doing nothing. I was not challenging myself; I was not growing or developing my capabilities. I simply existed day-to-day, taking refuge in my false sense of “success”. The key here is that I was not challenging myself.

To challenge yourself is to grow, and to grow is to fail! This is an inevitable reality, this is what Thomas Edison understood so well, failure is a basic and fundamental ingredient to success.

This principal is so important to understand because it applies to every part of your life both personally and professionally.

I have made a habit out of asking to be assigned to the toughest and hardest projects at work – projects that others were running away from! I can tell you for certain that there have been many times where I experienced failure, but I did not fail, I grew in ways that surprised even myself!

Never give up on yourself, keep pushing, keep battling! It’s not easy but the best things in life never are. You never know, maybe one day you’ll find yourself in the company of Success … but only if you hang on long enough!

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up” Thomas Edison.

Office Gossip: How to stop it from spreading, and look good in the process.

I was recently asked by a very observant colleague “How do you handle gossip in the workplace?”  She was growing increasingly frustrated and demoralized whenever she participated in meetings or discussions where others began to gossip about other coworkers, colleagues and managers – not even executives were spared the verbal lashing!

The most frustrating part for her is perhaps knowing that when she was absent from these calls or meetings, she was the victim of their verbal onslaught.  After all, “if it’s being said about someone else, it’s probably being said about you”.

I’m sure everyone has dealt with this at some point during their career; some may have even participated in it so it’s fair to say that regardless of what we do people will not stop gossiping.

This doesn’t mean that we should become hopeless, give up and accept this reality.  At the same time, I am not so naive as to suggest that you should disengage from every discussion that includes some form of gossip because 1) this will not stop gossip from happening, and 2) it will quickly alienate you from your colleagues and will only promote this habit from happening behind your back. 

Instead when you hear your colleague(s) gossip about someone in the office, try to balance the discussion by pointing out something positive about that individual.  For example, if you heard your colleagues complain about Susan and how she’s perpetually late getting to the office, you might want to say “Yea, I definitely noticed that but I know that Susan drives her kids to school in the morning and commutes in to work, she’s also in the office very late after everyone’s left for the day.” 

By saying that, you’ve acknowledged the reason of their gossip (Susan being late) but you’ve countered with a comment that perhaps makes it harder for them to continue gossiping about Susan’s lateness. 

But let’s be fair, some times we may not have anything substantial to defend our colleagues with, we may not know enough about them or we may find that the gossip has some sort of merit.  In this scenario I would acknowledge that the behavior is “out of character” and that perhaps “they are experiencing some difficulties lately”.  This comment essentially says “I know my colleague did something to cause some frustration or anger or disappointment, but I am not ready to write them off and discount their character just yet.” 

Remember that it is never beneficial to engage in gossip no matter how justified you maybe, it may endear you to a certain group of people, it may even help you vent but it doesn’t solve the problem and in doing so you are always chipping away at your own character.  In the end you have the choice to raise the moral standard of those around you or to go with the flow hoping that one day you are not the target.