The Art of the Follow Up Question

follow up questions

I can’t emphasize this enough.  When an interviewer asks you if you have questions, you need to have questions.  Once they have answered them, PLEASE delve further with a follow-up question.  Further inquiry shows you listened to what they said, processed it, and are genuinely interested to hear more.  Always engage with a follow-up question. This is where the meat of any conversation is, and it is how you build meaningful relationships.  Think of it like a tennis game with a good friend.  The rally is the best part of the game.  There is joy in the ball going back and forth. You don’t want to drop shot your friend and finish the point unnecessarily abruptly.  Use the follow up question – the who, what, when, where, why and how questions are easy to think up on the fly and interject – to perpetuate the dialogue and really get to know the person, the company and the job.

Use this technique in informational interviews as well. You should prepare 10-20 questions to ask, but you won’t have the rejoinder questions prepared.  Those will come from listening deeply to their answers and being genuinely interested to hear more.  And if you aren’t interested, be polite, fake it, and pay attention – this may not be the job or line of work for you if disinterest is your response as you talk to several people in a certain field.  Better to know this now than make a career choice based on an ideal you had about a certain career path. Listen to others, but know yourself.  Two big factors in career success for the long-term.

 

Great…the Enemy of Consistently Good…

shichimitogarashimacro_1

When parenting children and coaching new graduates in their jobs, I try to emphasize good as the goal – good as in good enough — as in your things are on time, reasonably clean, and your mind is clear and your conscience is unblemished. “Great” is like those Japanese salt/sesame/seaweed mixes – it’s a seasoning – you sprinkle it – you never let it overwhelm your commitment to good – you will work your whole life to get that balance.  Consistently good trumps sporadically great every time.

Do You Control Your Time or Does It Control You?

hourglass

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Mee-high Cick-sent-mee-high) is one of the most famous psychologists studying the basis for happiness.  His break through work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, draws from the works of Carl Jung, Epictitus, Viktor Frankl and other great thinkers who have pondered what aspects of our psyche control our thoughts.  A major determinant of “flow” is taking on challenges that are “just right”–neither too complex and potentially demoralizing, nor too easy and likely to be boring.  Of course, as we master just right tasks we can increase the complexity and grow in our mastery.  Managing our time is a major factor in taking on these exercises in flow. In the current state of the world, most of us spend an awful lot of time feeling like we are trapped in a batting cage with tasks coming at us as if they are being delivered by a major-league pitcher.  We must fight our initial resistance to managing these inputs in a reactive way and instead set up some system that allows us to break down the tasks into their most basic components, prioritizing and tackling our commitments to free up blocks of time where we can get into flow.

A system I have advocated for decades is taking the time to break tasks down into meaningful but manageable “chunks.” This is a time-honored technique for tackling tasks…particularly those that are too complex and overwhelming.  If you find that you are easily overwhelmed, it is very likely that you are not breaking a project down into small enough chunks.  Try it! Faced with a job search? Go micro – commit to getting just the paper for your resume, then design the header. Leave it for a day and go on to other things. Come back to it and chunk a bit more, maybe you can do your education bullets or accomplishments from your first job. Additionally it helps to think in terms of categories of tasks you need to tackle regularly: computer-based work, phone calls, tidying, spreadsheet updates.  To get more things done without a feeling of overwhelm, pick an item from each category and get it done rather than trying to work on multiple items from one category. The variety will alleviate your feelings of oppression at the magnitude of the work. And again, if you have a sense of fear or foreboding, your tasks are probably a compilation of too many steps and you need to “chunk” these tasks into smaller more achievable components.

Fielding incoming to dos, analyzing what needs to be done, and then calendaring your commitments is the bedrock of productivity. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, offers one of the better systems out there for freeing yourself from reactivity and owning your time as you pursue your projects. There are many summaries of his work, but the biggest takeaways I find are:

1) stress comes from knowing what to do but breaking that commitment to yourself and others; stress rarely comes from a lack of actual time.

2) Filing each and every to do in an accessible  system that you review at the appropriate moment is a critical component of managing your work and life.

3) Items that are not in a place where you can access them effectively and have no next action decided AND attached to them will weigh on your mind.

3)Deciding on and then noting down the next step you must take for each to do will alleviate ruminating and significantly reduce your angst.

4) Take each to do through a decision-tree process: upon receipt if it takes less than 2 minutes to complete, do it immediately. Otherwise, decide: does it get delegated or deferred? If it gets deferred, either calendar it if it has a specific do date OR place it on a list of to dos with a specific next step written next to it.

4)Make a regular time to review your lists daily and commit to stop breaking your commitments: make a time to do those things that are due.

When you free time up for flow by establishing tasks in chunks that are manageable to complete and then field and file future to dos in a calendar system that works for you, you will free yourself from much of the worry associated with managing your time. At that point YOU will control your time — it will cease to control you.

 

 

 

Strengths vs Weaknesses -Where Should You Concentrate Your Efforts

rope pull

Forbes says forget the weaknesses, go full tilt and maximizing your strengths: (https://www.forbes.com/sites/actiontrumpseverything/2013/07/10/forget-about-working-on-your-weakness-play-to-your-strengths-your-overwhelming-reaction/#13da9c1d7765)

Harvard Business Review says just the opposite, that coaching has taken the “strengths” thing too far, that there is no scientific data to back this up, and that weaknesses must be attended to: (https://hbr.org/ideacast/2016/01/stop-focusing-on-your-strengths.html).

As the HBR article points out – toxic office behaviors are at the root of much of corporate dysfunction.  Bright people are often the biggest perpetrators.  So, what to do?  From the research, it looks like making a conscientious effort to work on weaknesses truly can help a person function better at work to the tune of 30-40% more effectiveness at their jobs.  The major reason this approach has fallen out of favor among coaches and self-help guides is that, “let me help you fix your faults” is not the sexy message that sells coaching and books.  However, it is what keeps workers employed, and ultimately it is the work that will remove the road blocks that keep an employee from promotions and raises. Bosses are loathe to comment on weaknesses.  Gone are the days of a manager who just manages others. They are busy with their own deliverables and unpleasant conversations derail their flow.  Often they ignore the telltale signs and only address problems after the issues have built up for a while.  You know what also builds up? Impatience and anger at the employee, such that many times by the time feedback on negative behaviors is shared, the manager has already demoted the employee in their mind. This makes it much harder for the employee to have a positive impact when they do address problems and change. Like a halo effect, the manager is carrying around the baggage from the pileup of infractions which comes with emotions that are fraught.

What’s the quick way to rectify this? An honest positive relationship with a manager.  Your willingness to start your first few weeks at a job encouraging the manager to give all kinds of feedback – positive and negative – will put him/her at ease.  You can even go into your weekly meetings (hopefully you are having those) with your own self-aware critiques to share.

You don’t want to over do the negative – start with items from your list of weekly accomplishments, intermittently bringing up difficulties and challenges – maybe 25% of the discussion can be about challenges?  The conversation will feel a lot like the point in an interview when they ask, “What are your weaknesses?” As I’m sure you know, the formula for the weakness answer is, “here is something I find challenging,” (give a real example). Follow up with, “here is how I am attempting to work on it (give examples).”  Unlike in an interview, you will take this one step further.  Add, “do you have any ideas how I could get better faster on this issue?”  This kind of dialogue, said in a positive and collaborative way, will get you far better input than just focusing on accomplishments.  And if your manager is not receptive, try it with a colleague with a communications style you really appreciate.  A, “really level with me” conversation with a trusted colleague or boss can make the world of difference, particularly if it is interwoven into a broader conversation that brings up your strengths.

 

Therapist or Coach/Mentor?

 

paths

Do you want to forge a new or improved path in life but feel you have the basic building blocks under control? Or, do you feel you have major life events that act as stumbling blocks and need resolution?  While therapists are licensed and coach/mentors are not, they both provide valuable input when you are stuck or have self-limiting patterns.  To make the determination of whether you need one or the other, you will want to figure out whether deeper unresolved issues are holding you back. Or, is your path forward cloudy because of either a sense of not knowing your options yet or not being motivated to stick to a plan. Coaching operates in a framework where the basic assuption is a client is healthy and whole, therapy involves the assumption that the client wants/needs healing of some sort.

If you want to think in terms of a sports analogy, therapists treat deeper issues much the way a physical therapist, orthopedist, chiropractor, or acupuncturist might treat an ongoing injury such as tennis elbow.  A coach/mentor will act more like a workout or sport coach, giving you tasks and monitoring your progress while providing you feedback and motivating you as you improve.  I have seen students who employ both therapy and coaching together. While this approach can be costly, it is quite effective.  Likewise, I have seen folks who use these two modalities sequentially – some start with therapy, resolve issues, potentially are medicated for any mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, and then move on to coaching. Others start with coaching and if they fail to meet their objectives, they move on to therapy as a way to uncover and resolve emotional issues that are blocking their progress.  The key thing is that a reputable coach or mentor is just that, a coach/mentor, and does not handle psychological issues.  Both approaches can bring life long value and are worth exploration.

To know yourself better, you can do a short exercise where you write down five goals you have for your future. Under each goal, write down what is holding you back. If the issues seem to be tactical in nature such as motivation, lack of contacts to help you, dissastistaction with concrete tasks and commitments you have in your life, a desire to move or to get a promotion but a fear of breaking down and executing on the detailed steps that will take, then a coach may be the best approach. If your mind focuses on deeper and more generalized fears – fear of failure, sadness around lack of love or happiness in your life, unresolved issues with family or friends, then therapy may be a great place to start.

How To Know What You Love So You Can Go Out and Do It In The World

 

5ws
The 5 Ws photo by KNILT, Albany NY

“Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.” Paul Graham, Founder of Y Combinator

Think about this for a minute.  Let it really sink in.  If you start from the premise that your life’s work should be about doing jobs that please others?  Where does that leave you?  You will be crafting a whole life based on a false you, and that will create all kinds of problems in your life.

So, start early.  Have conversations.  Use the classic 5 Ws that are taught in basic journalism and investigation/research classes. I have adapted them here for the young job seeker.

  • Who?  Do you want to work with (ok that should be Whom?!) (people your age? people smarter than you are? in a big group? by yourself?)
  • What? Do you want to be doing most of the day. (talk to people, manage others, sell, make spreadsheets, proofread, handle lots of details, work with money or animals or children or the elderly?)
  • Where? Do you want to be when you are doing this work (inside? outside? in a team? solitary? in a city? in the wilderness?)
  • When? Do you want a regular schedule, do you want to travel which might involve nights and weekends, do you prefer evenings or mornings? And then the big one…
  • Why? What makes you think these things are true about yourself (get really honest about this to yourself)?  What are supporting data? Have you really looked at how you act now and how you think you will want to act in the future?  Have you ever been able to change a behavior you don’t like? Or, are there things that are just part of what makes you “you,” and you will need to accommodate those traits in order to succeed in your career (NOTE: this is a key factor in being successful, workarounds are crucial as we cannot be good at everything)?

Going back to Paul Graham’s quote above, what is driving you to say all these things? Is it really your opinion, or are you trying to appease or please friends, family, professors, coaches, or society-at-large?  And if you are, then please re-do your 5 Ws until they truly reflect you, without the influence of wanting to please others.

It is not to say that you can not make a lifetime of work into a success by massaging what is truly your preferred path so that your career pays well.  Maybe you know you really want to live in an affluent community and will need a certain income.  But, you would be surprised how finding satisfying work will often take you to communities where you are very happy — often you are then surrounded by like-minded people.  You can then augment your desire for life’s nice things outside of your job, rather than design a whole career just to get those nice things.  Most of us spend more time at work than doing any other activity.  Remember that when you decide on a job solely to provide you with a certain upscale lifestyle.  You may not have time to enjoy the lifestyle you can now afford.

Bottom-line, your career needs to contain kernels of the real you, based on your answers to the 5 Ws.   Knowing this early will save you a great deal of frustration, altercations with peers and bosses, failure in the work place and in your life, and the heartache and huge waste of time that all these issues brings a person.

If you truly have no idea where to start, then talk with close adult family friends, teachers, and family.  Ask them about your best traits.  Then ask them what kind of careers would utilize those traits.  This is the beginning of networking and an essential step as you hone your path and seek jobs that let you flourish.  Certainly you could read any one of hundreds of career books like, What Color Is Your Parachute?, the classic by Richard Nelson Bolles. But you don’t have to.  Merely working through the 5 Ws and separating out what is a good match for you vs. what you think will look prestigious will get you very far, in a much shorter time.

 

 

Will Online Courses Create Employer Support for a Certification Culture that Disintermediates Higher Ed?

Photo by Avi Richards
Photo by Avi Richards

Ryan Craig, education venture capitalist and author of the 2015 book, College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education, walks us through the Utopian scenario of a whole new class of teaching institutions that will unbundle education. These new organizations will provide another more cost effective option for a large number of students, sparing them from the expense of the classic ivy covered wall setting of the higher education. They may give up the typical bells and whistles of the undergraduate experience, but instead they will gain concrete measurable skills in demand from employers. THe learning opportunities will be delivered inexpensively online or to large groups and may happen in a more institutional setting like a classroom in an office park.

Sajith Pai, an employee of The Times of India (India’s largest media group) and well-known blogger who specializes in learning on his blog,  reviewed Craig’s main chapters and calls out three key developments that may prove a boon to future generations of learners (and may mean extraordinary success to the company that can also deliver these services to larger economies like China or India):

“Competency-based learning or education (CBE): This starts with capabilities required by employers and works backward to build assessments to judge / measure capabilities, and then determines the required curricula. Done well, CBE reduces the cost of delivery of online education by half. It is also higher on efficacy as it replaces the credit-hour model where you have to demonstrate mastery in an arbitrary period of time.”

Companies  like Coursera, Udemy, EdX, Kahn Academy and hundreds of other smaller players have already flooded YouTube, Facebook, and Google with their training modules. Married together with an assessment revolution among American employers, where they truly review candidates based on certified skills, these sites could be the key to a true upheaval in the intersection between higher education and employment, with significant consequences for old-line colleges. For now, these courses are wonderful add-ons to a job seeker’s resume, showing engagement and skills, but they are certainly not going to substitute for a degree program in bricks and mortar institutions…for now.

Add to this interactivity in the learning environment. Right now we already have algorithm-driven “smart” testing platforms such as Testive where questions grow ever harder as the learner becomes more competent in answering. Also called “Adaptive Learning,” Sajith Pai has this to say about a platform that sharpens the curve as the learner improves:

“Adaptive learning: Combining adaptive learning with CBE is the killer app of online education. While adaptive learning is distinct from CBE, it usually accompanies it. Adaptive learning allows students to learn at their own pace by varying each future lesson in accordance with their performance or progress thus far. Adaptive learning is seeing a surge thanks to the availability of telemetry data due to tablet / phone usage. Telemetry data includes stuff such as movement in tablet, is student switching in and out of the program, ambient noise etc. Factoring in this data enables better program and delivery design.”

We can imagine that if testing can be leveled, automatically, then human resources departments may begin to take these online certifications more seriously because the system can then deliver a consistent level of  significant rigor in the learning process.

Lastly,  Ryan taps into the preferred environment of his audience: gaming and media.  21st Century learners have grown up with attention spans that respond directly to how engaged they are with imagery and movement of text and pictures in any given app or site or program.  So, he feels that along with interactivity, “gamification” will also drive the future of learning online. As Sajith Pai summarizes:

“Gamification: In video games, players are able to focus energies due to interactivity and competition. Thus integrating rewards and recognition such as badges, leaderboards, challenges into curricula can help enhance student engagement and improve outcomes.”

Lastly, Craig insists that models that allow learning to happen in chunks of intense focus are more appealing than the typical short “credit-hour” model.  When a student is engaged, an arbitrary stopping point based on a bell ringing and class “letting out” can be replaced with an online system that can enable a learner to choose duration of study, by what Pai calls a state of, “flow, or a zone of intense focus on learning. This can be done by enabling an environment of challenging work that stretches the individual, with clear goals and consistent feedback.”

In upcoming blog posts, I will review online certification programs such as those that Microsoft and Google currently offer.  These are certainly worthwhile endeavors that while they do not currently substitute for a degree, certainly can support your candidacy in a number of entry and mid-level jobs.  Already, these certification programs are coming into their own.

To read Pai’s full summary, visit here: http://sajithpai.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/College-Disrupted-a-summary.pdf