Archive | Work

The Value of Paying It Forward

I, You, Me, We Group Silhouette by Geralt via Pixabay

I got a call the other day from a friend who’s looking to change careers in midlife. Knowing that I was a fellow traveler, she wanted to set up a time for us to talk so that I could give her some advice.

I probably get a call like that at least once a month. And I always take them. I usually follow up those conversations with book and podcast recommendations. I also suggest exercises that can help inch them towards their ideal day.

Finders Fees

Someone once suggested that I start charging for those services. After all, I’m serving as a quasi-career coach. But that thought has never even occurred to me.

For starters, they’re friends. And friends don’t charge friends for advice. But I feel the same way about finders fees. Clients call me fairly regularly for names of people who can provide this or that service. Whenever that happens, I always provide the names of colleagues whom I know, trust and can do the work.

The last time I did this, the colleague I recommended asked me how much of a cut I’d like for sending business his way. I said “nothing.”

What goes around comes around

Call me naive. But I’m of the “What goes around, comes around” school of thought. If I ever needed advice from one of the friends I routinely advise on career change, I’m confident they would return the favor.

This happened just the other day. A sticky situation had presented itself at work. So I called a friend who ran his own consulting business for 25 years and asked him how he’d manage it. He patiently spent at least an hour on the phone with me, carefully walking me through a series of scenarios.

Unbeknownst to him, his daughter called me shortly thereafter to help her rewrite her cover letter and CV. I readily obliged. To my way of thinking, there’s a certain reciprocity there.

Ditto those colleagues I’m tossing work to every so often, without expectation of a finder’s fee. I fully expect that at some point, someone will offer them a professional opportunity that’s not in their wheelhouse. Or that they’re simply too busy to take on. And when that happens, they’ll think of me.

And even if they don’t refer me work, someone else in my professional circle will. I’m a big believer in this concept of “paying it forward.” It refers to a situation where the beneficiary of a good deed repays the kindness to others, instead of to the original benefactor. It’s another way of saying “what goes around comes around.” Where my work is concerned, I fully believe that in some larger freelance eco-system cosmos, it all evens out.

Networking as We Age: The Power of Altruism

To me, that’s why networking is useful, particularly as we age. It’s not just that we know more people who can advise us professionally – the proverbial “dinner table of confidantes” I’ve written about before. It’s that you can help a wider circle of people.

As Jonathan Rauch notes in his brilliant book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 – as we age, our brains are wired to be more altruistic. We possess a much greater ability to re-direct our focus away from ourselves and towards our community. That’s also the message in another wonderful book called The Go-Giver. Its basic premise is that you don’t succeed in life because you take more away from other people; you succeed because you give back.

To my mind, that’s a wonderful feeling – to be able to share one’s expertise and, in turn, to learn from others. How about you? When you give a referral, do you charge a finder’s fees? Do you ever give free advice? And how does it feel?

This post originally appeared on Sixty and Me.

How To Work With The British

british weather
Image: British Weather by Hakan Dahlstrom via Flickr

I’ve lived in the UK for 14 years and now hold dual American and British citizenship. While I’ve not yet braved the wilds of the famously challenging UK driving test, I’ve gotten to the point where England’s 4 pm winter nightfall no longer fazes me.

But while it’s one thing to adjust to life in the UK, it’s another thing altogether to adjust to the work environment here. If you’re a newly minted American working over here, here are five things you need to know about working with the British:

Read the rest of this post over on the Clearwater Advisers website

How Employers Must Adapt to an Age of Longevity

older worker with hoe

I absolutely loved The 100 Year Life, a book by two London Business School professors, Lynda Gratton and Andrew J. Scott. It was one of the first books to examine how our ability to live longer lives will transform the world of work. Whenever I encounter middle aged friends who feel stuck in their job/career/marriage/fill-in-the blank, I say “Read this! You’re going to live to be 100. Make the most of it!”

If you’re familiar with The 100 Year Life and/or the related research on aging and the future of work, the first two-thirds of the book’s sequel – The New Long Life: A Framework for Fourishing in a Changing World – covers familiar ground. There’s a lot more data in the second book, and an explicit focus on how advances in technology intersect with ageing trends.

But I was mainly interested in the final third of the book, where the authors stop identifying challenges and start talking about solutions. There are loads of actionable ideas in here for how we adjust work, school and public policy to accommodate longer, more productive lives. In an earlier blog I explored why it’s in the interest of businesses to adapt to embrace an ageing workforce. Here, I’ll zero in on the potential changes we need to see in the workplace to support this age of longevity:

Read the rest of this post over at The Oxford Institute of Population Ageing blog

Why Coaching Is So Meaningful As We Age

writing coach

writing coachI ran into a student just before lockdown whom I’d worked with a year ago. She was in the office of a local university where I coach PhD students on how to write their dissertations. She was there to pick up her diploma.

When I first met this woman, she’d been trying to write her thesis on and off for a decade. Her original academic advisors had long ago left the building. She was on her own now, with a newly assigned advisor who wasn’t even in her field, and struggling with debt, deadlines and concomitant mental health issues.

“Working with you was transformative,” she told me when we met. “You were the first person to talk to me about my work for more than 15 minutes  in ten years.” She was beaming. The slouching person near tears I’d worked with a year earlier had morphed into a confident and accomplished vision of health.

Coaching as Empowerment
I’ve written before about why I enjoy being a writing coach. Unlike editing, where you basically fix a person’s writing, coaching is about cultivating that ability in the writers themselves.

This support can take all different forms. One client I worked with was an undiagnosed dyslexic. We spent six weeks going over the basic rules of grammer, devoting one entire session to the comma. Another client wanted help crafting essays for his business school applications. The schools wanted him to tell stories about himself, but he’d never written in the first person before and felt uncomfortable.

Most of the people I coach are at some stage of writing their doctoral dissertations. With them, it might be about helping them re-think their introductions so that these provide a roadmap for the entire paper. Or showing them how construct a literature review that won’t bore the reader. Most of the time, it’s simply about asking them a series of questions to help them articulate their core argument in one sentence and why it matters.

As you work together over time, you don’t just help clients with their writing, of course. You help them to feel confident about doing all these things on their own.

Coaching During Lockdown: The Power of Connection

Lockdown has intensified my relationship with the people I coach, especially the students.
Writing a PhD can be a very lonely process. Most of the time, you’re holed up in a library, poring over a bunch of obscure texts and trying to make sense of them. Occasionally, you go visit your advisor for feedback. Their job is to make you feel even worse about your writing. (Here, I paraphrase any number of famous people who’ve been credited for observing that “the politics at universities are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”)

But during lockdown, students are stuck in their bedrooms. They can’t derive comfort from an impending coffee break with their friends or from the shared struggle of looking up and seeing a hundred other people tapping on their keyboards in a library. Worse, most of the feedback from their advisors now arrives via email.

So when I talk to them, it often feels like I’m the first human being they’ve spoken to in ages. This connection is good for them. But it’s also good for me. I’m finding that one of the silver linings of lockdown is how much I’m enjoying my daily, face-to-face connection with students. It’s become a high point in my day.

Giving Back as We Age: Wisdom and Crystallized Intelligence

I wonder  sometimes if I would enjoy my coaching work as much if I were younger. I doubt it. A recent episode of Adam Grant’s fantastic Work Life podcast probed the difference between “fluid intelligence” and “crystallized intelligence.” The former refers to the ability to solve problems in novel situations and tends to peak when you’re young. The latter is the ability to use knowledge acquired through experience, which emerges when you’re older.

I think the reason I’m enjoying coaching so much right now is that it affords me this ability to transfer the knowledge I’ve acquired about writing through 30 plus years of experience. As someone who’s spent a fair bit of her life in a classroom, the rush is no longer so much about how I come across to the students or how I perform. It’s increasingly about what they take away from our interactions.

Research suggests that the difference between older and younger managers is that whereas younger managers are all about self-advancement, older workers are much more other-directed. They are more collaborative, more empathetic and more inclusive. They listen better and delegate more.

I think this is what Jonathan Rauch calls wisdom in his book The Happiness Curve:  Why Life Gets Better After Midlife. Wisdom is not only, or even primarily, about knowledge and expertise. It’s about cultivating a greater ability to focus away from ourselves and towards our community.

Image: Writing by Alan Cleaver via Flickr

Note: This post originally ran on Sixty and Me.

Action Learning in the Age of Corona

learning

learningOne of the many things I’m grateful for in the wake of the Corona virus are my multiple and varied networks. On the personal end of things, I’m reconnecting with friends and relatives from all over the globe and from different phases of my life. That’s fun and enormously comforting.

On the professional end of things, I’m discovering that at a moment when it’s vital to be flexible and agile in how we approach our work, my network is furnishing me with new opportunities for growth.

I was reminded of this the other day when a call went out at one of the consultancies where I work. Overnight, this company – which specializes in leadership development – was transitioning its content from face-to-face workshops to webinars. The CEO suggested that the 50 or so affiliated consultants sort ourselves into small “action learning groups” of four to six people to help navigate this shift into the Wild West of online delivery.

I’m new to action learning, which has been described as a process of “insightful questioning and reflective listening.” It’s essentially a group coaching methodology that brings together small groups of people from different areas of an organization to solve real issues in real time.The idea is to use group dialogue to disrupt the status quo and generate innovate solutions.

My group defined its problem as “Sharing our collective insights from the field to learn about super powers of adaptability in shifting offline to online learning in tough times.” Our Slack channel is #superpowers. (P.S. Love!) Because all six of us have very different backgrounds – ranging from journalism and academia to executive coaching and learning and leadership – we all bring different perspectives to this joint endeavour.

The first week, one member of our group gave a short presentation on how to engage audiences with online learning tools. I already knew how to use polls, chats and break-out rooms to facilitate participation using Zoom. But in conversation with my Action Learning group, I was delighted to discover that document sharing, What’sApp and live video recordings could also be utilised to stimulate learning.

The following week, we talked about the advantages of running webinars through other platforms like Google Hangouts and Prezi. We also talked about how to flip the classroom, the potential advantages of shorter “bursts” of instruction and how to fold one-to-one tutorials in alongside webinars to personalize the learning experience. Next week, I’ll facilitate a discussion around “voice,” and how to become a thought leader using social media.

I’ve written before about why it’s important to have a group of people who can offer advice as you move through your career, rather than relying on one, sole mentor. This diversity enables you to draw on a range of viewpoints – and skill sets – that complement your own. I’ve also championed lifelong learning as a way to cultivate curiosity as we age.

What’s wonderful about this new group I’ve joined is that I feel like I’m doing both things. I’ve got some new guests at my metaphorical “dinner table” who are helping me to develop professionally. And during a period in my life when I’m mostly  stuck indoors, it’s great to stay fresh and learn new skills.

What are you doing during this difficult time to accelerate your learning curve?

Image: Questions fear learning book by Mohammed Hassan via Pixabay

 

Working Remotely: The Importance of Active Listening

Ear

EarAs we collectively settle in to a long stretch of working from home, we’re quickly adjusting to a host of new challenges. Seemingly overnight, we’ve all become experts in using “gallery view” on Zoom. We’re gradually working out which headsets will best enable us to drown out the sound of barking dogs and screaming children. We’re even figuring out what counts as an acceptable Online dress code, somewhere between pajamas and suit.

One challenge that’s harder to surmount virtually, however, is the art of people skills. If you’re in a sales role,  it’s absolutely vital that you pick up signals about when to pull and when to push the client along the sales journey towards “yes.” This is especially important if you’ve never met that person before. Equally, whether you’re leading a team or managing up, you need to establish some sort of personal connection if you’re going to persuade the person in front of you to move towards your desired goal.

There’s no question that it’s harder to do all three of these things when there’s a computer monitor between you and your interlocutor. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

One useful strategy in these circumstances is to practice what’s known as active listening. ‘Active listening‘ means, as its name suggests, actively listening. It requires concentrating intently on what is being said, rather than just passively ‘hearing’ the message of the speaker. This means listening with all senses – so that you can read the subtext of what the speaker is saying.

You might, for example, pay attention their body language. Are they leaning forward in their chair, ready to pounce, when they ask a question? This can suggest an aggressive sub-text. Or are they chilled out, relaxing back into their chairs, which might imply a more supportive, or at least neutral, question? How about their tone? Is there a decided hint of hostility in what they say? Are they trying to be helpful? Or are they simply curious?

You should also pay attention to where they place their emphasis in a sentence. The phrase, “Did you do this?” is utterly distinct in meaning from “Did you do this?,” as well as “Did you do this?” Try to read these subtle, verbal cues.

Another reason active listening is vital – particularly in an online environment – is that it shows that you are actually paying attention to what’s being said. Interest can be conveyed to the speaker by maintaining eye contact, nodding your head and smiling, or saying “Yes” or simply, “Mmm hmm,” to encourage them to continue.  By providing this feedback, the person speaking will usually feel more at ease and therefore communicate more easily, openly and honestly.

The last thing in the world you wish to convey in a business meeting is that you are thinking about something else. So don’t. This skill is particularly vital in an online meeting where you may be tempted to sneak in a quick peak at your email or your social media account. Nine times out of ten, if you pull your attention away from the speaker, you’ll fail to hear the question properly and – consequently – subtly convey that someone or something else is more important that what’s happening in front of you. Think about the message this sends when someone does it to you.

Above all, when you listen carefully to what someone’s saying, you’re much better positioned to address their needs and interests. And at the end of the day, that’s what effective sales – and management – is all about.

So work at being fully present. It’s one of the most powerful tools afforded you in the virtual age.

Image: Ear by Hana Ticha via Flickr

 

 

 

 

Portfolio Careers and the Corona Virus: Risks and Opportunities

webinar

webinarIn the wake of the outbreak of the Corona virus, there’s been much speculation on how it may affect the global economy. Former Economic Council Chairman Austan Goolsbee wrote an insighful piece in The New York Times last weekend about  what the virus my portend for the U.S. economy. He pointed out that the American economy is likely to be particularly hard hit by the virus because of the size of its service sector (think restaurants and gyms), its sports-related economy (which hinges on large events), and its health care expenditure (which may dry up as people become more reluctant to undergo non-essential medical procedures).

I run my own small business as a communications consultant in London, one that relies heavily on face-to-face interaction in the form of workshops and one-to-one coaching. In the last week, my entire business model has been upended by the virus, and I’m not alone. This state of affairs has caused me to think a lot about how this virus is affecting small businesses more generally and what we can do to mitigate risk. Here are five direct impacts I’m already experiencing:

a. Cancellations are on the rise. I’ve had three workshops cancelled in the next month, two in Germany and one here in London. All three involved people flying in from different parts of the globe and all three were considered too risky to hold right now. That was to be expected. Less expected was an an offer run a large, lecture-style workshop to a large group of undergraduates at a London university, which was rescinded within a few days of being floated. Apparently, only three people signed up for a similar lecture that was meant to be held today – intended for 300 people. So the organizers decided to cancel my planned workshop as well, before we even formalized the terms. I’m lucky. All four of these events will be postponed, not outright cancelled, and three were already paid for before awareness and panic around the virus reached its current level. But I can’t expect that trend to continue.

b. Travel restrictions also creating new opportunities. At the same time, the travel restrictions now kicking in have also created opportunities for my business. Late in the afternoon on Friday, I received a call from a client at Oxford University where I routinely deliver workshops. Because the academic department in question had to abruptly cancel an upcoming trip to Africa, it is now scrambling to deliver something worthwhile for their students on campus. So they called me up and asked me to deliver two workshops on short notice. With my newly open diary, I said “Yes, please.” That was a good phone call to receive.

c.  Virtual offices have their upsides. I’ve written before about the ups and downs of working from home. But man, am I glad that I have a virtual office right now. One of my coaching clients, with whom I normally meet face to face, agreed that the next session would take place over Skype. Not having an office also means that I’m not wasting money on overhead to run an empty office right now. I’m also saving money on transport, meals out and other business expenses. Mostly however, I just feel safer. I’m also helping others with more compromised immune systems stay healthier by not exposing them to any germs I may be unwittingly harbouring.

d. Investing in virtual tools. Given that I deliver workshops for a living, I’ve been asked many times whether I offer webinars. Delivering virtual training has long been a goal of mine, but until now, it was a back-burner issue for me – something I’d like to get to, once I have time. Now, in full-on risk management mode, it’s become a front burner issue. While it’s difficult to teach public speaking effectively via webinar (at least if you’re going to use a camera, which in my view is optimal), that’s not true for teaching writing. So as the old adage has it, necessity has become the mother of invention. I am going to begin developing a webinar ASAP. I may also opt to do more editing, something I’d side-lined in recent months because I felt I could afford to do less of it. This is a long way of saying that having a portfolio career is proving to be a real asset in the wake of this unforeseen crisis.

e. I’m writing more. Part of my portfolio career – mainly the unpaid part! – is my writing. Only a couple of weeks back, I bemoaned the fact that I’ve been so busy this year with work that I’ve not given proper pride of place to my writing. That’s no longer true. Now that a large chunk of my calendar has been cleared in the coming month, I’ve discovered – much to my delight – that I have time to write again. And that makes me incredibly happy. The trick is to take this unexpected bonus and turn it into a long-term benefit once, God willing, this epidemic passes.

I’ll be eager to see the UK government thinking actively about how to help small businesses during this crisis, particularly those of us in the gig economy.

In the meantime, I’m going to lean into my portfolio and see what happens…

How about you? How is the Corona Virus affecting your work?

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Image: Webinar by Nick Youngson via Picpedia

Tips for Adulthood: Five Tips for Speaking to Slides

PowerPoint

PowerPointFor those of us who give a lot of presentations, Powerpoint is like an extension of our body. An economist friend of mine put it best. He stood up to deliver a talk at a conference many years ago, only to find that the projector wasn’t working. Forced to speak without his slides, he quipped, “I feel like I’m standing up here with my fly down.”

I knew what he meant. PowerPoint has become synonymous with “giving a talk.” Have deck, will travel.

But while PowerPoint has revolutionized our ability to deliver an engaging talk, this tool can often do more harm than good. And that’s because when you think about your talk in terms of slides, you forget the key point about public speaking:  you are the message. So anything that gets in the way of that message by definition dilutes it.

Here are five suggestions for using slides more effectively:

a. Write the talk first, then design the slides. Yes, I know. That sounds counter-intuitive. But it’s the right way to go. If you design the slides first, your natural inclination will be to create ever more slides to narrate your message. Before you know it, you’ll start creating slides for words like “it” and “the.” In contrast, if you write the talk first, you can be much more selective about where and when you use slides. In particular, you’ll learn how to *only* use slides that add value, rather than as filler.

b. Less is More. Remember that as soon as you put a slide up, you are competing with it for the audience’s attention. So the less text, the fewer bells and whistles (read: videos, animations, sounds, etc.), the better. An employee who creates slide presentations at Microsoft for a living put it like this: “Draw eyes where you want, when you want.” Otherwise, in a battle against even an ugly slide, you will invariably lose.

c. Separate out listening and reading. The reason you need to be so spare in your use of slides is because people cannot read and listen at the same time. We all think we can  – “Sure honey, I’ll do the dishes,” we say, while scrolling through our smart phones. But we’re only half listening. (Little wonder the dishes still remain in the sink, unwashed, an hour later.) And that’s because of a concept called cognitive load. We’ve all got a limited amount of working memory. So when we have to handle information in more than one way- say through simultaneous auditory (spoken) and visual presentation of text – our load gets heavier, and progressively more challenging to manage.

d. Shift away from text to images. The upshot of the previous point is that the less reading that’s going on, the better. One way to avoid overdoing text in your slides is to shift to images. A picture paints 1,000 words and all that good stuff. If you’re addicted to bullets as a way to bring people along with your argument, try replacing your bullets with images

e. Don’t use Powerpoint at all. Whaa?? Perish the thought! If you don’t believe me, watch how Bill Gates – the inventor of PowerPoint – has come to deploy slides over time:  sparingly, or not at all. Try it. You might like it.

Image: Slideshow via Wikimedia Commons

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Why do you Work?

growth

growthI woke up on January 2nd this year in a complete state of panic. I’d slept poorly – having a version of my standard “getting lost” dream. (This time, I was on a bus you couldn’t disembark.)  And then I proceeded to have the normal re-entry freak-out that occurs when you take a vacation, amplified by the fact that it was a new year, with all the attendant expectations.

I realized in that moment that if I were merely to pick up where I left off at the end of 2019, I was going to have yet another year that left me busy and stimulated, but also frazzled and depleted.

Setting SMART goals

When I teach project management in my Life Skills for Offices course, I encourage my students to set SMART goals for projects. SMART is an acronym which stands for:  Specific. Measurable. Achievable. Relevant. Time-bound. According to this approach, the more you can make your goals conform to these five principles, the easier they are to implement. So, for example, instead of setting a goal for yourself like “Read More,” you change that to “Read 10 pages per day.”

I decided to see if setting some SMART goals in my life might help to manage my anxiety. I began with a brain-dump, writing down all of the big-ticket, top-line things I wanted to achieve in the coming year. When I finished the list, I was relieved to see that they sorted neatly into three categories:  work, writing and personal life. So far, so good.

But here’s the kicker. My writing and personal goals were crystal clear – and readily lent themselves to becoming SMART. But what also came through starkly on the page was that I didn’t actually have an over-arching professional goal.

When I tried to come up with a SMART goal for work, all I could think of was: Keep Working.

What do I want from work?

In some ways, this lack of a goal where work is concerned is entirely understandable. I launched my own business about 18 months ago.  The first year of any new job – but particularly one where you are in charge of all sales, delivery, marketing and content development – is grueling. Moreover, because you are trying to build a name for yourself, you tend to take on any work that comes your way:  You need the income, you need the “social proof,”  and you need the experience under your belt.

18 months in, I wouldn’t say that I’ve “arrived” as an entrepreneur. But  I’ve certainly begun to amass some of those markers of success. What doing that SMART goal exercise laid bare was that it was time to sit down and ask myself a question I find incredibly hard to answer:  What do I want from work?

How much work is enough?

In his book, Company of One: Why Staying Small is the Next Big Thing for Business, Paul Jarvis argues against the idea that business needs to be about infinite growth. Instead, he begins with the proposition that you should first decide why you work and then decide how much you need to do in order to support that goal. In Jarvis’ case, he works to support his life. He frequently takes a month or two off from his software design business to go hiking in a remote location. So he deliberately limits the number of new customers he takes on in order to facilitate that lifestyle.

The key takeaway here isn’t that there’s an optimal amount  of work you ought to be doing or an optimal size for a company. The key, as Jarvis explains it is that – particularly if you are self-employed – “You get to define what’s important. Maybe growth and hiring a team to divvy up the work is important to you. But then again, maybe it’s not. And if it’s not, then maybe growth at all costs in all directions isn’t the best thing for you either.”

It’s such an obvious idea and yet I’d never thought about it with respect to my own work. How much work is enough for me (over and above paying the bills)? I have to confess that it was really scary to ask myself this question. Because it meant thinking about work as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

My new work goal 

I wish I were at the point where – like most of my self-employed friends – my work goal had a concrete target, like a dollar figure or a certain number of days per week. But if I can’t identify why I work, I don’t think I’ll ever know how to devise the appropriate metric.

So now I have a new goal where work is concerned. By the end of this financial year – which in the UK ends on the 5th of April – I will have figured out an answer to the question of why I work.

A year and a half ago, I vowed to try and replace all my micro-goals with one, over-arching macro-goal: that of achieving peace within.

I’ve utterly failed in that endeavor. Maybe now I can finally make some progress.

Image: Growth chart map graph arrow via Pixabay

 

 

How to Thrive in the 21st Century: Upgrade Your Soft Skills

communication skills training

communication skills training

As the curtain falls on yet another World Economic Forum, discussion naturally goes to the future of the world economy and its concomitant risks. A crucial risk that wasn’t discussed in Davos this year was the future of work.

According to a landmark McKinsey report on the future of work published in 2017, automation could displace as much as 30% of work globally by 2030. Activities most susceptible to automation include physical ones that rely heavily on routinized behavior, such as operating machinery and preparing fast food, as well as collecting and processing data in professions such as accounting and paralegal work.

How all of this ultimately plays out in terms of employment is still unclear. Some jobs will disappear. Some new positions will emerge. And rather than lose their jobs, some workers will simply re-tool. But three important trends are already identifiable.

Read the rest of this post over on Clearwater Advisers

Image: Communication skills training via publicdomainpictures.net

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