What do you do? Crafting an answer of identity @work

It’s the icebreaker question, ‘What do you do?’ It seems like a simple question, but it’s often difficult to explain our life’s work to strangers. Our workplace is defined by acronyms, our comfort zone is among our peers who share a common language.

It was the dilemma writer Elizabeth McCracken expressed in a 2014 tweet.

“21 years into a publishing career & I still have no idea what to say when someone says, “A writer? Have I heard of anything you’ve written?”

Maybe it’s not just the question, but the response we get when we attempt an answer. It’s the incorrect assumptions folks hold when they have a passing familiarity with a career.

Lincoln Michel used the query to imagine ‘If Strangers Talked to Everybody Like They Talk to Writers’.

“There is something unique about the way people talk to writers. Strangers seem very willing to offer career advice — “self-publishing is where the money is!” — literary advice — “People love vampires!” — or to oddly ask you to guess what work they’ve read in their life and if any of yours is among it. It got me thinking about what it would be like it people talked about other professions in this way.”

“Huh. A chef. Do people still eat food?”

“An accountant? Wow, I haven’t even looked at a number since high school.”

“Software programmer? Like, for actual computers sold in stores or just as a hobby?”

It’s not just writers. Most of us have embarked on career paths that carry with them a variety of inaccurate stereotypes.

Is it possible to craft an answer that informs, clarifies and avoids unsolicited advice?

Yes, and it’s storytelling without revealing the ending.

First, decide what you want to share about your work. Then imagine you are describing what you do to aliens. Finally, think function, product, audience and benefit.

Let’s go back to the writer, who may want to keep their work confidential, and avoid unsolicited feedback.

Authors are familiar with providing ‘soundbite’ summaries of their work to ‘sell’ a book proposal, and can employ the same technique to describe their work. For example: “I’m a writer and I recently completed a memoir that will be released in the fall. My next project is a profile for a weekly magazine which involves travel to Austin, Texas next week. Have you been to Austin? Can you suggest any good restaurants in the area?”

This sample response answers the question without divulging confidences, describes the work in familiar terms and redirects the conversation to connect on another, recognizable topic, food.

Who knew writers accumulate frequent flyer miles, get stuck in long TSA lines and patronize fashionable restaurants?

In crafting your response, consider your audience. How likely are they to be aware of your work? This is not about ‘dumbing down’ an answer, but about connecting through shared language and experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The week@work: Inequality on stage, Apple@40, ‘job crafting’ & odd interview questions

As the economy continues to improve, and include workers who had given up, playwrights are staging works that reflect the continued struggle and inequity in the workplace. This week@work we celebrate Apple@40, take a look at ‘job crafting’ as a way to reimagine work and pose a few interview questions.

Nelson D. Schwartz and Neil Irwin reported ‘Jobs and Wages Notching Gains Long In Coming’ for the New York Times.

“Companies have been hiring in recent months at a pace not seen before in this century. Wages are rising faster than inflation. Joblessness is hovering near the low levels last reached in 2007 before the economy’s downturn.

And perhaps most significantly, the army of unemployed people who gave up and dropped out of the job market is not only looking for work, but actually finding it.

“Wages and participation are where the rubber meets the road,” said Michael Gapen, chief United States economist at Barclays. “We will take our cue about the overall strength of the economy based on that.”

At the same time, the chasm widens between the average worker, still trying to recover with modest wage gains, and the quantum leaps in compensation for the wealthy.

It’s this divergence that is reflected in several theater productions, under the heading ‘Haves and have-nots: Putting America’s financial inequality on the stage’. The Economist article reviews ‘The Humans’, ‘Hungry’, ‘Hold On To Me Darling’, ‘The Way West’, ‘Dry Powder’, and ‘Red Speedo’ to illustrate how the economy and work are inspiring a generation of playwrights.

“There is something familiar about the Blakes, the American family at the centre of “The Humans”, a new play by Stephen Karam that is now on Broadway. Anyone who has navigated the emotional minefield of a family meal will recognise the affectionate way they bicker, their barbs softened with tenderness. But something else about this family will also resonate with a growing group of Americans: each member is struggling financially.

This conversation resembles countless others across the country, as Americans try to make sense of an economy in which working hard is no longer enough to afford a comfortable life. Parents who assumed that their children would surpass their own accomplishments are now startled to find so many of them sweating over rent and saddled with college debt. What does it take to get ahead? Why does the system create so few haves and so many have- nots?”

This past week marked the 40th anniversary of Apple. In his commencement speech to the Stanford class of 2005, co-founder Steve Jobs recalled the journey from start-up to his firing by the Board of Directors.

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“I was lucky — I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents’ garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4,000 employees. We had just released our finest creation — the Macintosh — a year earlier, and I had just turned 30. And then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started? Well, as Apple grew we hired someone who I thought was very talented to run the company with me, and for the first year or so things went well. But then our visions of the future began to diverge and eventually we had a falling out. When we did, our Board of Directors sided with him. So at 30 I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.

We know the rest of the story. Jobs returned to Apple in 1997. David Pierce and Michael Calore identify ‘Fifteen Products That Defined Apple’s First 40 Years’.

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#1 the iPhone

“If you want to understand the iPhone’s importance to Apple, just look at its earnings. But it’s not just that: Without it, our phones might still look like BlackBerries. We might never have learned to pinch to zoom. We might all carry point-and-shoots. It’s almost impossible to overstate the revolution the iPhone started in 2007, which has touched and connected billions of people around the world.”

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If you prefer to digest ideas via podcast, add NPR’s Hidden Brain to your subscription list. Last week’s installment featured host Shankar Vedanta in conversation with Yale’s Amy Wrzesniewski on finding meaning in our work.

“Why do you work? Are you just in it for the money or do you do it for a greater purpose? Popular wisdom says your answer depends on what your job is. But psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski at Yale University finds it may have more to do with how we think about our work. Across groups such as secretaries and custodians and computer programmers, Wrzesniewski finds people about equally split in whether they say they have a “job,” a “career” or a “calling.” 

According to Wrzesniewski’s research “people who see work as a calling are more satisfied, engaged, and better performers”. These are folks who “go beyond notice” to craft the boundaries of their job to make work more meaningful.

The last story from this week@work is about interview questions. File it under the query, ‘What was the oddest question you were asked in an interview?’, from recruiting site, glassdoor.com.

Here’s a sample:

“What would the name of your debut album be?” (Urban Outfitters)

“What would you do if you found a penguin in your freezer?” (Trader Joe’s)

And here’s one that we should all be prepared to answer.

“If you were a brand, what would be your motto?” (BCG)

Think about it, and have a great week@work.

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond competence; resilience is the new competitive advantage

When we talk about failure, we have to talk about resilience. It’s the companion piece that measures our ability to become successful again after something bad happens. It’s not the mistake we value, it’s the recovery.

it’s what J.K. Rowling was talking about when she addressed the Harvard Class of 2008.

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“The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”

In a recent interview , U.S. transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx, prioritized resilience over all other qualities he seeks in a potential candidate.

“What I’m trying to understand is whether the person, if things get really tough, is going to stay in there or fall apart. I’d rather hire somebody who’s maybe not a genius, but they will dig in on any assignment. I’d rather have resilience than almost any other quality. Competence is obviously critical, but a lot of people who are really smart actually end up walking away from some pretty tough assignments because they’re worried about whether they can do them or not.”

How do you demonstrate this new competence to a potential employer? How do you offer examples of your own ‘phoenix rising out of the ashes’ moment?

Andrea Ovans provides some hints in her article ‘What Resilience Means and Why It Matters’. Her survey of recent research on the topic broadens the definition of resilience to include adapting well to change, and pushing through in adversity.

“Resilient people possess three characteristics — a staunch acceptance of reality; a deep belief, often buttressed by strongly held values, that life is meaningful; and an uncanny ability to improvise. You can bounce back from hardship with just one or two of these qualities, but you will only be truly resilient with all three. These three characteristics hold true for resilient organizations as well.…Resilient people and companies face reality with staunchness, make meaning of hardship instead of crying out in despair, and improvise solutions from thin air. Others do not.”

It’s about confidence, ownership, continuous learning and an ability to adapt to a continually changing reality.

Resilience is not new. Robert Waterman, Judith Waterman and Betsy Collard were offering advice to workers and organizations over twenty years ago.

“By a career-resilient workforce, we mean a group of employees who not only are dedicated to the idea of continuous learning but also stand ready to reinvent themselves to keep pace with change; who take responsibility for their own career management; and, last but not least, who are committed to the company’s success. For each individual, this means staying knowledgeable about market trends and understanding the skills and behaviors the company will need down the road. It means being aware of one’s own skills—of one’s strengths and weaknesses—and having a plan for enhancing one’s performance and long-term employability. It means having the willingness and ability to respond quickly and flexibly to changing business needs. And it means moving on when a win-win relationship is no longer possible.”

What is new? Resilience is now a core competence, not an option. When an interviewer asks about a time you failed, respond with a narrative of strength and grit, and seize your competitive advantage.

 

 

The week@work: ‘idea debt’, interview questions & women@work: #pledgeforparity & the downside of being a trailblazer

‘Idea debt’, emotional intelligence, International Women’s Day, and lessons from the ‘girl next door who loved sports’, headline our survey of stories this week@work .

Are you a ‘wantrapreneur’? Journalist Oliver Burkeman debunks the belief that thinking about doing something is doing it.

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“I hadn’t seen the problem clearly until the other day, when I encountered the illustrator Kazu Kibuishi’s term for it: “idea debt”. You run up an idea debt, Kibuishi’s fellow artist Jessica Abel explained, when you spend “too much time picturing what a project is going to be like, too much time thinking about how awesome it will be… and too little time actually making the thing”.

Just as the accruing interest on a credit card makes it harder and harder to get back on your feet financially, idea debt impedes action. The more glorious and detailed the pictures in your mind, the more daunting it feels to start making them real.

As Gregg Krech writes in his book The Art Of Taking Action, external reality remains exactly the same after your decision to ask someone out, to write a book, or leave your job. What matters is “creating ripples”, as he puts it – actions, however tiny, that alter things in the world outside your head.”

What are the questions employers ask to determine if a job candidate possesses a solid set of ‘people skills’?  With her article, ‘7 Interview Questions That Determine Emotional Intelligence’, Carolyn Sun not only provides tips for interviewers, but explains the rationale behind the questions for potential hires.

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Here’s one example:

“Can you teach me something, as if I’ve never heard of it before? (It can be anything: A skill, a lesson or a puzzle.)
A job candidate’s answer to this question can reveal several qualities:

Whether the person is willing to take the time to think before speaking.

If the candidate has the technical ability to explain something to a person who is less knowledgeable in the subject.

Whether the candidate asks empathetic questions to the person being taught, such as, “Is this making sense?”

On March 8, International Women’s Day, the Economist “created a glass-ceiling index”, to show where women have the best chances of equal treatment at work. It combines data on higher education, labour-force participation, pay, child-care costs, maternity rights, business-school applications and representation in senior jobs. Each country’s score is a weighted average of its performance on nine indicators.

purple-woman.jpgTo no one’s surprise, Nordic countries come out well on educational attainment and labour-force participation. Women are also relatively well represented in their parliaments; Finland and Sweden were among the first countries to allow women to vote and stand for election. Yet even there women are paid less than men for similar work. In Finland and Sweden the gap is close to the OECD average of 15%, though in Norway it has fallen to 8%.

At the bottom of our index are Japan and South Korea. Too few women there have jobs, few senior managers or board members are women and pay gaps are large—in South Korea, at 37%, the largest in the OECD. If, in the UN’s words, “equality for women is progress for all”, both countries have a long way to go.”

If you are interested additional reporting on #pledgeforparity and IWD,  Washington Post journalist Danielle Paquette wrote two stories this week for Wonkblog:

‘It’s 2016, and women still make less for doing the same work as men’

‘Pay doesn’t look the same for men and women at top newspapers’

The next story falls into the category of ‘you should be safe when you pursue your dream job.’

When sports journalist Erin Andrews graduated from the University of Florida in 2000, she began a career that eventually brought her to sidelines of college football at both ESPN and Fox Sports, and the dance floor; first as a finalist and now as the co-host of ‘Dancing With The Stars’.

Sarah Kaplan, reporting for The Washington Post summarized what happened next.

“In 2008, Michael David Barrett, who served 2 1/2 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to interstate stalking — said he chose to target her because she was popular and trending on Yahoo.”

“Erin Andrews wanted to be “the girl next door who loved sports,” she said.

“And now I’m the girl with a hotel scandal,” the Fox sportscaster tearfully told a Tennessee courtroom Monday.”

The trial and jury verdict in her favor last week is just one story of ‘The Dangers of Being a Female Sportscaster’ described by Richard Sandomir and John Branch for The New York Times.

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“Female sportscasters have unparalleled reach in an age of round-the-clock sports broadcasting and the widespread dissemination of their work across social media. There are more of them now than ever, across multiple channels and websites.

The stories Sandomir and Branch recount serve as a guide for all women@work, not just those with a high profile in social media.

“I’ll try to avoid ever being in the hall of a hotel by myself,” said Kim Jones, a reporter for NFL Network. “And I’ll allow whoever is behind me to pass me before I put my card or key in the door. You have to be so aware because unfortunately that one time out of 10,000, something can happen.”

Alyssa Roenigk, a reporter for ESPN the Magazine who also appears on the air, primarily covering action sports like the X Games, said she had rarely given her security much thought. For years, she usually walked from venues to her hotel, even late at night. But as she began to do more television and was recognized more often, she was told by her bosses to start taking the courtesy car provided by the network.

“At first I thought I was getting special treatment, and I don’t want special treatment,” Ms. Roenigk said. “It’s not special treatment. It’s being safe.”

Stay safe this week@work, create some ripples and start reducing that ‘idea debt’.

 

#TheGreatListen 2015

What if you could capture a generation of American lives and experiences in one holiday weekend? That’s the vision of StoryCorps founder, Dave Isay, and he plans to fulfill his mission this Thanksgiving weekend through a combination of an app and an educators toolkit to enable DIY interviews to gather the wisdom of others. It’s the #GreatThanksgivingListen and you are invited to attend.

StoryCorps recently celebrated twelve years of conducting and recording oral history interviews, beginning with a booth in New York’s Grand Central Station and later taking the booth on the road to all 50 states creating the largest single collection of human voices ever gathered. The next step is to grow the archive of 100,000 to tens of thousands.

Dave Isay and his organization are the recipients of the 2015 TED Prize, and it was in his presentation to the annual conference in April that he outlined his proposal for a “national homework assignment”.

Here’s the plan. Download the app, select ‘helpful hints’ for a short tutorial. Select ‘browse’ to view previous StoryCorps recordings. Go to ‘my interviews’ to outline and record your interview. You can choose  from a list of sample questions by categories. Next step –  record!

“Who are they? What did they learn in life? How would they like to be remembered?”

And here’s the magical part. You can keep your recording for yourself or opt to upload it to the StoryCorps archive at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Imagine the story of your family intertwined with other American voices building upon a historical record of their time.

In his April TED talk, Isay described the power of “…everyday people talking about lives lived with kindness, courage, decency and dignity…it sometimes feels like you are walking on holy ground…”

If you believe that you learn from the wisdom of others, this holiday offers an opportunity to join “…a global movement to record and preserve meaningful conversations with one another that results in an ever growing digital archive of the collective wisdom of humanity.”

 

 

Has social media rendered ‘Tell me about yourself’ redundant?

Remember when an employer’s first impression of a candidate was formed in a face to face interview? Today a recruiter will probably make an initial judgement on applicant potential from an online social media presence. Does this mean that some of the traditional interview questions are redundant?

In the past, many recruiters would initiate an interview with the traditional ‘tell me about yourself’. This was either a cover for the fact they didn’t have time to review your resume or a sincere effort to encourage an applicant to tell their story in their own words.

Today, even a cursory effort at data mining will provide a significant amount of information about a candidate. The good news, if you have made it to the interview you have passed the initial screening. Your challenge, is to recapture ownership of your story and make the connections between the job requirements and your experience.

How do you do that?

Manage your social platforms to convey a consistent, professional image.

Create a professional narrative that links the information on your social platforms to your answers.

There is no shortcut to managing your online presence. Establishing your credibility as a candidate begins with a quick inventory of how you are presenting yourself to the world beyond friends and family. Consider your postings from the perspective of a future employer. Does the content add competitive value to your application?

Next, visualize yourself as a productive member of the team you hope to join. What does that look like? Craft your narrative to tell the ‘short story of you’ with your first year in the new position as your next chapter. Connect the dots from your online content to your ambition to be hired.

‘Tell me about yourself’ is not redundant.

It’s an icebreaker. In a formal interview it gives a potential employer the opportunity to listen to you. You are being asked to provide a general framework for discussion. You set the stage for follow-up questions addressing various aspects of your academic and work life. It’s your opportunity to set the tone for the rest of the interview.

Throughout the interview an employer is seeking an answer to the question ‘Why should I hire you?’ Even when the question is not asked directly, your responses should create a successful argument in your favor.

Here are a few ideas to incorporate into your story:

What are the top five things you want an interviewer to know about you? (Focus on academics and experience.)

What are your strengths?

How will these strengths contribute to the success of the organization?

How does your current situation lay the groundwork for the next step in your career?

The ‘deer in the headlights’ interview question: What do you do for fun?

The interview has been going well. You have been ‘on point’ with your answers about education and skills, and then from out of nowhere comes the curve ball question: What do you do for fun?

What? What do I do for fun? Are you kidding me?

No, it’s actually a very serious important question. How you answer demonstrates the added dimensions you will bring to the workplace.

This is my ‘personal favorite’ interview question. My intent is not to ‘catch’ folks off guard. My goal is to determine if you will succeed as part of an organization. Are you a fit with the other members of the team? Do you have the potential to build successful relationships with clients?  It’s one thing to be driven and intense. It’s a totally other thing when you scare colleagues and customers with that intensity.

The ‘perfect resume’, relevant work experience and great references unlock the door to the interview. Once the interview begins It’s critical to let your humanity shine through. Folks will be spending a lot of time with you in the workplace. A sense of humor can go a long way to diffusing tension. A conversation about interests offers a bridge to developing trust.

I am astounded by how many people are totally sidelined by this question – lots of silence before a stammering attempt to come up with the ‘right’ answer.

There is no right answer. This is the question about who you are outside work. This should be the easiest question to answer.

I know I have the right candidate when the question diffuses tension and a smile transforms a previously sober candidate into one who is sharing a passion that may have no perceived relevance to the job description.

And this is where the majority of candidates get it wrong. Your passions outside of work inform and energize your life at work.

Think about your answer – not too much. Your response should be spontaneous, but you shouldn’t be surprised.

Who should I ask for a reference?

It was a great interview. As you start to leave the office, your potential employer asks you for the names of two references. Who do you ask? What is an employer looking for from a reference?

This is not a passive process, let to the whims of friends adding comments to your skills on social networking sites.

If you are applying for a job or completing a graduate school application, at some point you will have to ask someone to provide a recommendation. Whether you are starting out or advancing in your career, selecting the perfect reference should confirm an employer’s intent to offer you a position.

As a student, your list of references should include a faculty member, preferably in your major and an employer reference from an internship or part time job. Most graduate programs will require two faculty references and perhaps a non-academic reference.

Develop a list of 5-6 people who are potential references. Qualify each of these professionals in respect to your relationship. Is this someone who knows you well because of your participation in classes and who can comment on the academic quality of your work? Can they adequately predict your ability to succeed? As a former internship employer, will your reference be able to cite specific projects along with an assessment of your performance?

Arrange an appointment to meet face to face with each of the people on your list. Be prepared. Bring a copy of your resume and the job description or graduate program brochure. (Do not text a recommendation request with a link to a website.) Create a short list of why you are pursuing this job or graduate program and talk to your potential reference about what you would like them to emphasize. Does the employer require good communication skills? Ask if the faculty member could cite your final paper and presentation as an example of your skill match. Is the graduate school looking for people with a commitment to their community? Suggest the reference  mention the time you spent tutoring in the local elementary school.

As a seasoned professional, changing jobs or changing careers you need support from colleagues and managers who can speak to your skill set and adaptability.

Develop a list of people who can comment on your abilities related to each element in the job description. An employer is trying to determine if you will ‘fit’ in an organization. Do you have the skills that complement other team members? Will your approach to problem solving facilitate collaboration? This is where your sense of an organization’s culture helps you narrow your potential field of references.

It’s good practice to nourish your list of references over time. As you advance in your career, your roster of possible references will expand relative to your experience. Choose one or two key folks from your list who are credible in the eyes of your potential employer. At the point an employer is having conversations with a reference, they are trying to differentiate you from other qualified finalists for the position. Your reference is a key part of that decision.

Selecting a reference takes time. You may have someone say no. Or, you may have someone agree and not follow up. Always have a back up. People forget. Provide deadlines and enough lead-time to avoid last minute panic. This is not a time to be shy. This is part of your marketing strategy. Your references should feel confident with both the information you have provided and their direct experience with you to provide a recommendation without reservation.

A great resource for anyone seeking work today is the Corner Office column in The New York Times. Adam Bryant summarizes his conversations with CEOs from all sectors, exploring their values and how they hire.

Jana Eggers, CEO of Spreadshirt, a maker of personalized clothing, described how she solicits feedback from references, not only the ones on the list:

I’m also going to see how they treat the receptionist. I always get feedback from them. I’ll want to know if someone comes in and if they weren’t polite, if they didn’t say, ”Hello,” or ask them how they were. It’s really important to me.

I also check references myself. One question I ask on references is, ”Where should I spend time coaching this person?”

Best Work Day Ever

Is there one question we can ask that will help us figure out what we want to do with our lives at work?

It may not be the only question, but asking ‘What was your best day ever?’ serves a variety of situations:

You have an interview tomorrow and you need a question to ask the interviewer to get a deeper sense of their work.

You are an employer and you have a slate of candidates to interview and you need to find someone who will commit to your organization’s goals.

You are meeting with a networking contact and only have a few minutes to gain some understanding of what it takes be successful in their chosen profession.

You are just trying to figure out what you want to do with your life.

In an interview, asking a potential employer about their best work day will tell you quickly whether they enjoy their work and give an indication on how they fit into their organization’s culture.  You can then compare the answer to your own priorities. Is this a place where you could be successful?

Lew Cirne, the chief executive of New Relic, a software analytics company based in San Francisco described his process for interviewing candidates in an interview with Adam Bryant for the Corner Office column in The New York Times. “One question I ask more often than others is, “Describe a day where you’ve just had the greatest working day of your life. You’re driving home and you’re on cloud nine. What was it about that working day that made you so happy?” If you’re doing what you love to do and it gives you that tingle down your spine, you’re going to execute at a high level.”

If you are considering a new career or a new organization, talking to people engaged in those careers and organizations is an important source of information in your research. Asking each person about their best work day ever will give you a sense of what they love about their work and the tradeoffs they have made to achieve success. It provides a hint of who they really are and why they do what they do.

Ask yourself the question. Better yet, ask a friend to ask you the question. And after you have answered, ask them to tell you what you said. Where were the smiles in your narrative? What were you describing when the energy changed? What did they hear that told them about your values and priorities?