What can you do?

There are lots of things I’d like to change, ranging from my personal appearance, to my team’s results, to the political situation in pretty much most countries in the Western world. I have views and opinions and desires that in certain circumstances I may express, but on the whole, I know are broadly ineffective  I can’t change my genetics or the abilities of the players in the team, I don’t have a direct line to the Prime Minister or President.

A lot of our working life is like this. In work, as in the rest of our lives, there are things that we might like to change, that we might not be absolutely happy with, our job role, our team, our leadership. I’d hazard a guess that the vast majority of complaints about working life fall into one of these categories – probably only adding in “the commute” and “the canteen”.

There is one school of thought that simply says, that’s your lot. You are a cog in a machine and you need to accept your place. Keep your head down, go through the motions, do what needs to be done (and no more) and get to the end. That’s a pretty compelling strategy if you believe in an afterlife, for those that don’t it feels…somewhat  pointless.

On the other end of the spectrum you’ll have the tree- hugging, granola eating brigade who will tell you to find purpose in even the most meaningless task, that joy and eternal peace await you if you could only change your way of thinking. My experience is that these people generally work from home in their pyjamas, have jobs that no-one would notice if they didn’t exist and last did a meaningful act when they evacuated their bowels in the morning.

So let me give you another view. I might not be able to change my appearance, but I can do the best I can with it. I can dress well, go to the gym, look after what I eat and take feedback on what looks good and doesn’t. I can’t make my team better,  but I can go along to the match and cheer from the first to the final whistle, doing everything I can to provide another positive voice. I can’t phone the prime minister, but I can get involved, I can vote or join a political party, I can campaign or stand as a representative.

I can’t do the whole, but I can do my part.

Life is about choice, but it is also about the acceptance of those aspects in our world that are uncontrollable. We might not be able to impact a new system being implemented, a new work routine, a change of CEO or a reorganisation. But we can absolutely choose how we interact with them, what we bring to them and how we want to be. If choice is about freedom, then this understanding is about peace. Being at peace with the things that we can and can’t influence and putting our energy where it counts the most.

7 tips for my younger self

I was talking last week to someone about the advice that I wished I’d had as a younger professional, the things that I’ve learnt over the years that if I’d had a mentor or advisor would have been really helpful counsel. Would I have acted on it? Who knows, I would probably have been too head strong to listen. I guess when you look back with hindsight and experience, things seem so much simpler than they feel in the moment.

Should they prove any use to anyone else, here’s the advice I would have given myself:

  1. Confidence isn’t competence – You’ll come across people in the workplace who have (or display) a confidence that can be overwhelming. They tend to rise faster, but not necessarily further. Confident delivery will only get you so far, don’t confuse it with competence. Don’t be put off by those around you that shimmer with this veneer.
  2. Curiosity is king – Be inquisitive, seek to learn, ask questions and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. You’ll be surprised at how many meetings I sit in where people (including myself) nod and opine without really understanding the detail. Don’t be afraid to ask as you learn, you’ll be amazed how much people will share.
  3. Always have a plan – No matter how long you’re in a job or role, you always need to have a plan. What do you want to get out of the role? How long are you staying for? What is the next step and when are you going to take it? Nobody else will be managing your career, so make sure you are all over it every day.
  4. Learn to suck it up –  As you progress your career, you’ll encounter situations and people who make you want to scream. Learning how to navigate these situations and managing these people will serve you well. See it as a challenge, see it as a project, whatever it takes to make sure you learn and will never repeat.
  5. Just say yes – Everyone is busy, everyone is up to the eyes. But saying yes to opportunity might just give you the inside track to something more exciting. Every bone in your body will want you to lower your head and avoid eye contact, but the reality is that as you move up, you need to stand out.
  6. Don’t steal the limelight – Similar to the confident ones, you’ll meet people who are brilliantly adept at being at the right place at the right time to claim success – often yours. Don’t be tempted to follow their example, they’ll get caught out soon enough. Delivery is key, so focus on making sure you’re doing the hard yards.
  7. Have fun – As well as this being your career, this is also your life. And you won’t get these years back. So make sure you’re enjoying yourself, having fun and sweating the right stuff. For most of us, nobody dies if we get things wrong. So taking life with a pinch of salt and learning to enjoy the ride is key.

 

Deal or No Deal?

When I started work, I don’t remember thinking I was due anything other than a pay cheque at the end of the month. I’d received my contract and terms and conditions and I accepted the deal  – the amount of holiday, the level of pension and the protection for sickness. That is about all there was in those days.

I figured that if I worked hard, put in the hours, managed to show a bit of intelligence and initiative that it would help me. Not to get a promotion, but to get experience and ultimately a good reference. Because when I started the job, my director had been very clear – I wasn’t going to stay.

It wasn’t that he was a hire and fire them character – far from it – but he had taken a policy to hire young, eager, recently qualified professionals and to give them a chance in the world of work. In return he realised that he got good quality people, but one’s that would want to move on pretty quickly – and he was ok with that. That was the deal.

Throughout my career, I’ve heard reference to “entitlement” more and more. It really wasn’t a term I was familiar with back in the mid 90s. And whilst I’ve worked with some people who truly believe they were the most entitled on the planet, “we’re unicorns, Neil, that’s what you need to do if you want to hire unicorns”, I’ve met more who’ve been disappointed that a promise they were led to believe, hasn’t materialised.

The thing about a deal is that it has to work for both sides, and yet as organisations too often we want to pretend we have something greater than the reality, in the belief that what we actually have wouldn’t be appetising. The implication of this is we don’t believe that job applicants and employees are capable of making an assessment based on facts and acting in accordance with their best judgment.

So instead we talk about nebulous concepts such as career enhancement, progression, development opportunities and stretch, which are easily misinterpreted and can be unintentionally disingenuous. Frustrations normally kick in at about two years into the employee journey, when people start to realise that their interpretation of the phrase wasn’t the same as the organisation’s.

There’s nothing wrong about a straightforward deal at work, in fact I’d argue there is something pretty refreshing. “If you come here, you’ll be working with good people to do your job, we will look after your health, safety and wellbeing, we will pay you x and give you y on top. You’ll learn and hopefully enjoy yourself and in the future, who knows, you might find something else here you like or you might choose to move on. And we understand and respect that”.

Deal, or no deal?

Everyone needs a career plan

Most of us are going to spend the vast majority of our lives in work. If you start at 18, you’re probably going to be going for around 50 years. Depressing, isn’t it?

Whilst not everyone wants to be CEO, given the amount of time you’re going to commit to your working life, don’t you think you’d better have a plan? I’m not taking about the, “by the time I’m 30 I want to be xx”, but understanding what you want to be doing, where you want to be doing it and what makes you happy.

It may not always feel like it, but the simple truth  is that you have ultimate control of your career decisions. We all need to pay the bills, we all need to be economically productive, but most of us in work have choices that we often fail to see. (NOTE: NEET, long-term unemployed and areas of low social mobility are topics for another post.)

When I speak to employees who are seriously unhappy at work, more than not I can  track it back to a feeling of being “done to” on one level or another. And when you discuss it further, there is usually a choice or decision that has been overlooked or disregarded. Part of the importance of having a plan is that it puts you in control, it makes you conscious of the work decisions that you are making.

Let’s say you have a new boss that you’re struggling to get on with, you have a choice. You can put effort into building rapport, you can try to adjust your style to adapt. Or you could decide that you just can’t get along and look to move team or leave the business, that’s the ultimate choice. Which route you choose should relate back to your plan. Is the company in the right place for me, am I doing a job I want to do, is this part of a longer term career path?

What often happens when people don’t have a plan is they sit, react and get resentful. They defer responsibility, “I didn’t appoint them”, “they’re an arse”, “things use to be so much better”. And whilst all of these points are probably true, it doesn’t really matter because they are the circumstances you’re in. So what are you going to do with it?

Having a plan gives you forward energy, it gives you control and it makes you beautifully responsible for your own happiness. If we’re going to spend so much time in the workplace, it feels a shame to spend it feeling angry, sad and powerless. So take a little time, reflect and spend it on yourself and ask yourself the question, where do I want to be?