Belinda in HR

“Carpe Diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
— John Keating, Dead Poets Society, 1989
To what degree will you go?


I’m a professional with experience. Should I get a degree, say an MBA? 

That’s the question a few friends and I were discussing this weekend. I know plenty of people who have had satisfying careers, earned good money and have achieved their personal goals. Some of these people have University degrees and some do not. Some have had other professional skills training, while others read - a lot! All of them have experience in their chosen field.  

To answer the question of should I get a degree, you should ask yourself why you want one. What would it bring into your life that not having one doesn’t? If it’s in the belief it will enable you to earn more money, Jeffrey Pfeffer (a notable Professor at Stanford University) warns that this may not be the answer you’re looking for “It’s become unclear whether it makes sense to overburden yourself with (university) expenses and loans in order to secure the possibility of a greater salary in the future,” says Pfeffer. (http://bit.ly/xlKzGB)

But there are other reasons you might want a degree - to share in the university experience; to secure a post that requires it (and won’t accept less); to learn more about your field; or perhaps as was in my case, to formally validate the years of practical and professional management experience I had behind me to enable me to take a sideways step in my career into another professional area.

If not having a degree stops you from having what you want, and there isn’t a more suitable solution, then the answer is probably yes; yes, you should get a degree. An appropriate degree that delivers on what you want - it doesn’t necessarily have to be the most expensive school or fanciest degree title. All it needs to do is help you achieve your goal.

Winning in the Employment Game

In the spirit of the 2012 Olympics, consider yourself an athlete, an athlete in the game of good employment.

An Olympic athlete chooses their game, based on what they are good at – their skill. This may be that they can run fast or jump high; their strength is perhaps that they have incredible stamina meaning they can train for the hundreds of hours it takes to be a top class athlete. 

So it is in the employment game. Your skill is what you can do; your strength is how you do what you do. You were hired because of what you can do - your skill is an expectation. How you do the job, is what will maintain or even increase your employability and the associated financial and non-financial rewards. Like an athlete though, you need to build on both your skills and your strengths to stay in the game. How do you do this?

  • Build on your knowledge and skills – achieving qualifications and completing skills training are important (but they are only part of the solution!) 
  • Immerse yourself in your industry or area of expertise – become a prolific reader on your subject and network with your peers. Understand the fundamentals as well as the trends of your subject.
  • Find yourself a mentor – someone you respect for what they do and how they do it. A mentor is someone you regularly consult with, not for them to train you, but for them to give you their opinion on your ideas, solutions and actions based on their experience. 
  • Take on projects and work that play to your strengths. Your strength could be something that you do (that gets results), a technique you use (that works), your way of thinking about things (that contributes a unique perspective) or your attitude to something (that motivates you to act in a certain way).
  • Help people develop their own strengths by taking on a coaching or mentoring role. This rapidly matures your own strengths and puts you in a position to influence.
  • Gain experience in other areas of the organisation by getting involved in cross-team projects or working on another team for a while. A broader perspective on challenges, constraints and perspectives enables you to apply your strengths in many different situations making you versatile.
  • When tackling a project or a problem, pause to think how your strengths might contribute to the solution. Be creative; don’t be restricted to thinking about your strengths in the same way all the time. 

"My bad" - how to deliver bad news

Your manager doesn’t know yet, but trouble is brewing

You’re going to miss your sales numbers, miss a deadline, or lose a client or maybe you just sense that your manager doesn’t think you’re a strong contributor. What should you do? 

If you suspect that you will miss a clear goal/deadline, you need to talk to your manager. Bad news rarely gets better with time. It often gets worse. Engaging your manager or team early on, even if it doesn’t make you look good, gives you the opportunity to get help to potentially avoid the bad outcome or reduce it. It’s much better to deliver the bad news early, when there’s a chance to address it, than surprise your manager with the bad news when nothing can be done. 

How do you give the bad news? 

  1. Be direct and forthcoming. Let them know where you are in the project and what you still need to get done.
  2. Acknowledge your role. Do not make excuses. “I didn’t allow enough time”, “I mis-read the client’s intentions..” 
  3. Provide solutions. Do not just communicate the problem. “I have A, B, and C remaining to complete. My plan is to focus first on C and then B as those are more important to the final result.” Or “To make sure I am not surprised by other business partners, from now I will do bi-weekly check-ins with each client and follow-up personally with any issues that arise.”

Adapted from: http://gottamentor.com/viewAdvice.aspx?a=344

And what are your weaknesses?

                                   

Why do interviewers insist on asking this question? You’d be tempted to say that they relish the opportunity to assess how you squirm or your ability to spin or even how you demonstrate your mental dexterity by successfully avoiding an answer altogether. In some cases you wouldn’t be wrong. However, it is a great question to explore your level of self awareness (that key leadership trait again), your modesty and honesty and even whether you have the skill to articulate your answer convincingly. So it must be asked.

Most people would advise you to prepare for this answer by identifying a generic weakness that you turn on its head by impressing the interviewer with how you mitigate against it by drawing on a particular strength of yours. This tactic has merit and does work for the most part.

I think however you’re passing up a valuable opportunity to influence what the job will be like should you be the successful candidate. Let me illustrate what I mean. My own skill and motivation is in generating ideas, creating solutions and implementing processes. I do not however enjoy routine and so the maintenance of those processes … in other words doing them day after day … is my idea of hell. That’s just me though. So I don’t want a job that requires me to spend most of the time maintaining existing processes. Don’t get me wrong, I can do routine. I’m quite skilled at it – I just don’t like it.

Therefore I would answer the weakness question by saying just that - that my weakness is in maintaining focus when doing routine work. I wouldn’t offer a mitigation strategy initially. If I’m pushed, I would answer that I understand that most jobs have an element of routine work and I’m comfortable with it, so long as it doesn’t make up the majority of the job.

I’ve basically set out my stall about the job; I haven’t compromised the interview with fumbling around with justifying a weakness. If the job I’m interviewing for is one that is high in routine activity, it’s not really the job for me. The interviewer will identify this and may decline to pursue my application. No harm done as I wouldn’t enjoy the job anyway. If however they know the job isn’t mainly one of routine, I haven’t talked myself out of the job.

If you’re desperate for the job despite for example in my case the nature of it, then I suggest you do your homework before you go in to the interview and use the tried and tested way of answering the  question. If you can afford however to be selective or you don’t want to waste your time by being successful in the interview only to get bored 6 months later and back on the job market, I suggest you use the opportunity presented to you to influence the makeup of the would-be job.

What are your strengths?

Almost without fail this question in some guise or other is asked in every job interview. We all know it’s coming and if you’ve done any level of preparation for the interview, you’ve prepared your answer. Any interviewer doing a credible job would ask you for an example of when your strength came to the fore.

At this point you try to remember a real example that takes you far too long to explain and so you leave (most probably important) chunks out. In the end you give a somewhat satisfactory account that most likely sounds like a lie to the interviewer. Either that or you’ve used up way too much of the interview time to explain. Either way, you didn’t do yourself justice.

So here’s another way of dealing with the inevitable question.

The next time someone compliments you on your work or how you get things done, make a note of it. Write it down, email it to yourself… whatever works for you … making a note of who said it, when and in what context. You only need a few of these (keep it up to date though!). When you’re preparing for an interview, revisit your notes and give thought to what characteristics they highlight.

So when the interviewer asks you what your strengths are, you impress them with something along the lines of: 

“During a post project evaluation session about two months ago, the Operations Manager asked me to chair the meeting. When he asked me to do it, he mentioned that he felt that I was very good at making sure everyone gets involved. Reflecting on it, I believe it’s because I probe assumptions and ask people for their opinions at various points in the discussion. I use this technique to shift the focus from someone who is dominating the conversation to the less vocal people in the meeting.”  

In these few lines, you’ve provided third party evidence (that can be validated through references), you’ve highlighted a strength and how you use it and you’ve also demonstrated controlled application and self-awareness. This last part is a key leadership trait!

So that takes care of your strengths. However, this question is more often than not followed by “and what are your weaknesses?”.  I’ll address this in my next post.