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Are Face-to-Face Meetings Obsolete? April 24, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication, International management, Management & leadership.
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I’ll get right to it: no, they’re not. Yes, we have the technology to communicate instantly with people all over the world, whether by voice or text or even video. We can share files and review the same presentation in real-time. If a project has been parsed into reasonable chunks, we can multiply our productivity by “following the sun.”

And yet, the technology does not guarantee effective communication. Faster worldwide access to co-workers or customers or suppliers will not necessarily overcome distrust, misalignment, ambiguity, and confusion. Communication requires not just a channel, but also a sender and a receiver where the signal is processed into usable information. It’s that signal processing step that we overlook when we focus only on speed and accessibility.

I believe it’s important to establish a professional relationship with distant partners before relying on electronic communication. This is going to sound bad, but it’s easier for me to ignore someone’s e-mail or voice mail if I’ve never met them face-to-face and spent time with them, ideally over a meal. This is especially important if I live in a different country than the other person. Differences in language and culture can be very hard to overcome without a foundation of trust.

I understand that business travel costs money, and this is yet another situation where we try to balance real costs in the present against hoped-for benefits in the future. Travel budgets are always an easy target during times of expense reductions. I don’t have the numbers to build a financial justification, but I still believe it’s worth it, at least at the start of a new relationship with remote co-workers or a supplier. Periodic travel after that helps to maintain the relationship and head off any sources of confusion or deviation.

Expanded wireless access and faster speeds will enable better video conferencing, but I doubt it will ever provide a substitute for the informal and spontaneous communication that happens when people are in the same place at the same time. I love the new technology, but in the end it’s people who do the work.

 

 

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Focus on Projects, Not Jobs January 24, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Organizational dynamics, Project management.
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I’ve been doing a lot of professional networking these last few months, particularly since my most-recent transition from the corporate world. I’ve met a lot of new people, and re-connected with many former colleagues. Everyone wants to know how the job search is going, and what I’m looking for in my next job. The more I think about those questions, the more I wonder whether I’m really looking for a “job.”

Yes, I do want to be compensated for my work, and I prefer having some degree of stability and continuity in my work life, and (like most folks, I suspect) I have associated those things with a full-time position that doesn’t have a pre-determined end date. In other words, a job.

Lately, however, I’m starting to believe that there’s really no such thing as job security, at least in the traditional sense of staying with a single employer for an extended period of time. At-will employment seems to be the norm these days as companies emphasize staffing flexibility over long-term commitments. Those who have been laid off complain that there’s no loyalty any more, but I think that cuts both ways. More employees seem to be accepting this new reality, and getting laid off doesn’t have the same stigma that it did before.

If there’s little assurance of a long-term relationship with a single employer, any security is derived from the varying market demand for your skills and experiences. A career is a series of jobs, or maybe even just a series of projects. The company has a need, you’re hired because you’re the right fit for that need, you work until the company doesn’t have that need any more, and then you’re available for the next opportunity (which might be at the same company, but more likely, not). If your skills and experiences are in-demand, you won’t have to spend much time “in transition,” although you may have to be willing to relocate.

Look, everyone is different and has different needs. I enjoy learning new things, and I like the feeling of accomplishment that comes from solving problems that need solving. I just need to learn how to be better at the transitions.

2013 Year in Review: Lessons Learned December 17, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search.
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Another year is coming to an end, and it’s a natural time to reflect on the events of the last twelve months. Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned, or re-learned, in 2013.

  • I started the year “in transition,” but interviewed for several positions in January and February, ultimately landing a job as the director of quality for a mid-sized company in northern Colorado. The preparation and the interviews themselves provided a great opportunity to re-assess my skills and experiences and test whether those really have value in the marketplace. Ironically, despite all the time I put into local networking in southern California and building connections at my target companies, I got the job in Colorado after submitting an on-line application with no insider help. What I learned: staying patient during job search, and trusting that there really is a good fit out there somewhere.
  • The new job started in March and I commuted from my home in San Diego until relocating to Colorado in June. I re-read a couple of my previous blog posts for advice (See: 30-60-90 Day Plans and  Managing Remote Teams), and generally spent my time learning about the people, processes, and products at the company. My team was spread over multiple sites and I made several trips to introduce myself and align expectations. Managing the relocation was a significant distraction during that period, but I received very positive feedback about my ability to quickly establish credibility and make an immediate impact. What I learned: making strong first impressions and achieving early results are critical during the first weeks in a new job. That’s a topic for my next post in 2014. 
  • In June I moved to Colorado, returning after exactly 20 years. Work kept me extremely busy, but I made it a priority to personally re-connect with former colleagues who I’d kept up with over the years. I also started the process of establishing a local network by attending meetings of networking groups and professional chapters throughout the area. I didn’t know it at the time, but those connections gave me a head start when I re-joined the ranks of the unemployed later in the year. What I learned: it may be hard, but it’s important to maintain professional relationships and continue networking while employed.
  • From July through November I focused on the job, consolidating and building on the early successes, and expanding my influence in the organization. It was an exciting time for our growing business, with a game-changing new product coming to market and a significant international acquisition. That all came to a sudden and unexpected end after a corporate reorganization left me without a chair. What I learned: there’s no such thing as job security; the security comes from your network, your relationships, and your skills and talents.
  • For the last several weeks I’ve been reviewing my job search strategies and evaluating new ones. I’ve returned to blogging after a lull during the summer and fall. I’m working on a personal web site (scheduled to go live in January) to present some of my methodologies and accomplishments, and I’m considering other channels to help promote my personal brand. I’m once again looking for consulting and teaching opportunities to stay active. I’m meeting some great people and sharing my lessons about networking and social media. I’ve decided to focus on learning one language for a year instead of playing around with several languages at the same time. What I learned: keep learning, keep growing, stay active.

It’s been an emotional roller coaster, but never boring. I have no idea where this is going next, and I can’t wait to get there.

2012 Year In Review: Lessons Learned December 23, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Management & leadership.
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It’s that time of year when many folks look back to review the events of the last twelve months. I’d like to believe that I’ve somehow improved myself, if only slightly, during my time traveling around the sun once more. Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned, or re-learned, in 2012.

  • In January the company I worked for filed for bankruptcy. That set in motion the chain of events that ultimately led to the end of our local division, but in the weeks immediately following the filing we had no idea what parts of the company would survive the restructuring. For the product development team I was managing the biggest immediate impact was to our planned expenses, which were essentially re-set to zero. Believe me, it’s not easy to do hardware design, prototyping, or testing when you can’t spend any money. What I learned: how to lead innovation and product development under a tight budget.
  • From February through March I was one of many managers in our company trying to keep up the team’s morale while we waited to learn the fate of the division. Senior management did a great job keeping everyone informed about all the filings and proceedings, so it didn’t come as a complete surprise when the announcement was made that a workforce reduction plan would be implemented in early April. What I learned: how to maintain morale and communicate with honesty and integrity in tough times.
  • Unfortunately my team was among those designated for the workforce reduction in April. I’ve been laid off before, but for many other folks this was their first experience. I’ve been in perpetual job-search mode, or at least “open to all possibilities,” since 2008, and I guess some people consider me to be a knowledgeable resource about effective strategies (even if those strategies haven’t necessarily worked for me). What I learned: the importance of helping your team, “paying it forward,” and maintaining professional networks after you’re no longer working together.
  • I’ve been actively networking throughout the year, but that became even more important after being laid off earlier this year. I’ve met a lot of great people who have generously offered advice and connections, but what I’ll remember most about the networking events this year is an excellent presentation by Cita Walsh (http://citawalsh.com/) about applying traditional marketing techniques to job search. What I learned: why it’s necessary to create a personal brand and use social media in ways that reinforce that brand.
  • This year I’ve had a number of phone screenings and job interviews across the country, including one with a company in China. It’s been a frustrating experience, especially for someone like me who’s interested in feedback to improve my performance. More often than not I don’t hear anything after the interview, much less constructive criticism. What I learned:  I’m a unique collection of skills and experiences, a purple squirrel; and although I really need to be working right now, I’m going to stop wasting time applying for jobs that I don’t really want.
  • I haven’t just been waiting for the phone to ring for the last few months. This blog has provided a great way to channel my thoughts about how I would start a new job in product development, quality engineering or program management (See for example my posts “Starting a Product Development Team,” and “Designing a Quality System.”). In September I decided to get certified as a PMI Project Management Professional (PMP), and I passed the exam in October. I’m scheduled to take the ASQ Six Sigma Black Belt exam in March 2013. And, I’m in the interview process for a teaching position at a local campus of a nationally-known for-profit university. What I learned: it’s important to acquire new skills and maintain the old ones throughout your career. Continuous improvement applies to individuals as well as businesses.

Here’s hoping for a another year of learning in 2013.

Establishing Credibility When You’re an Unknown September 9, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search.
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Here’s another thing I’ve learned during my current job search: it’s harder to convince people that you’re qualified for a job and deserving of consideration when you’re just another faceless applicant. I’ve written before about networking as a way of distinguishing yourself, and specifically why it’s important to create and maintain connections with people, ideally with those who have experience working alongside you (see The Value of Networking). A recommendation from a former or current colleague carries a lot more weight than almost anything you include in your resume about experiences and accomplishments.

However, the recommendation is more significant to the recruiter or the hiring manager when it comes from a known, reliable source. If they don’t have a personal or professional connection to the person who’s vouching for you, then that recommendation may not have a big impact.

Which brings us back to your resume. It seems to me that there are really only two things in your resume that can help establish your credibility as a job applicant: what you know, and what you’ve done.

What you know is represented by your degrees and certifications and other credentials. I realize that there’s a wide range of intelligence and capabilities in the population of alumni from any degree or certification program, but successful completion of that program does imply that you’ve acquired some specialized knowledge. A job description includes education requirements because the person who occupies that position is expected to have that specialized knowledge. Completion of the program also means that you set a goal and achieved that goal, which I think is an under-rated feat, especially for those who had to struggle with financial or other personal barriers.

Quick aside: I could be wrong about this, but it seems that professional certifications are becoming more important and meaningful than academic degrees for job seekers, possibly because certifications are considered more practical in the real world of business.

What you’ve done is your experiences and accomplishments, but here’s the catch: a lot of what you’ve done doesn’t matter. You might want to argue that your accomplishments can be generalized to many different kinds of jobs and organizations, but if you make it hard for the recruiter or hiring manager to make the connection between what they need and what you’ve done, then you can forget it. You have to customize your application and resume and cover letter to put a spotlight on the subset of things you’ve done that are relevant for this job.

So, that’s what I’m trying to do now. This reminds me an advertising campaign that relies on television commercials. You have to create a message that appeals to your target audience.

Hired Because of Talents, Not Skills August 26, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Management & leadership.
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During my current job search I’ve been thinking a lot about the previous job transitions I’ve made during my career, looking for patterns and best practices that might be helpful this time around. There were times when I got a job by applying for a position after reading a job description and deciding that my experience and qualifications were a close match for the published requirements. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, applying for jobs that I’m highly qualified for, but there are a lot of qualified people looking for jobs these days and it has become hard to stand out in the crowd.

There were other times when I was recruited by people who found me, either from word-of-mouth referrals or, more recently, from my public profile. That’s the networking strategy for job search: leveraging your network of friends and former co-workers, and getting out there to make a good impression on new people who might introduce you to other people who know other people, eventually leading to a job offer from out of the blue.

And then there were a few times when I was offered a job that was completely different from anything I had ever done before, when my experience up to that point was clearly and objectively a poor match to the published requirements. I had never worked in marketing, and then I was hired to be a product marketing manager. I had never worked in software, and then I was hired to be a software quality manager. I had never worked in a factory, and then I was hired to be a factory quality director. How did that happen? And what, if anything, can be learned from those career discontinuities?

I can only guess the reasons why I was asked to take a job when I seemed so unqualified on paper, but I think it’s because in each case the hiring manager saw something that wouldn’t have been flagged by a keyword search on my resume. In First, Break All the Rules (Simon & Schuster, 1999), Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman make this distinction between skills and talents: skills are things you can learn, talents are things you are born with. “A love of precision is not a skill. Nor is it knowledge. It is a talent. If you don’t possess it, you will never excel as an accountant.” (Page 85)

The people who hired me when I wasn’t qualified valued my talents, not my skills. They knew I would have to learn certain specialized skills in order to achieve success, but they also knew a person without certain talents would not succeed. Your talents may be visible and meaningful to those who have worked alongside you or know your reputation. Unfortunately they’re harder to discern and generally irrelevant to companies that are focused on hiring the best match to their job description. When there’s no allowance for a learning curve, there’s no tolerance for lack of knowledge or skills.

For job search, I think the lesson is that the people in your network who understand your talents might surprise you with a suggestion that seems inconsistent with your past experiences. I’ve had an interesting career, in-part because of the variety of jobs and experiences. My worry is that a career path with discontinuities that relies too much on “talent recognition” has turned me into a purple squirrel. More on that in a future post.

The Value of Networking July 5, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search.
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I’m back on the job market. I’m not sure I ever really left, but now I’m actively pursuing a new position, not just idly looking at new postings on the internet job boards. The best resources for any job seeker are their personal connections and extended network (see my previous post Job Search Lessons Learned), and learning how to leverage those relationships can make the difference between getting an interview and being discarded in the circular file. To that end, job seekers are encouraged to go out and meet new people in order to create new connections. The ultimate goal of all this networking is a referral to a hiring manager or other company insider who is willing to review your qualifications, either for an advertised job, or one of those jobs on the “hidden market” that are waiting for the right person to come along.

I don’t know how often it actually works that way, but you’ve got to be realistic about the likelihood of finding a job through someone you’ve just met. A recent acquaintance who you’ve shared a cup of coffee with really has no basis to recommend you, except perhaps their first impressions about your sociability and speaking ability. The best you can hope for is an introduction.

My point is that the valuable part of your network isn’t made up of people you’ve just met, it’s those people who have direct experience working with you in some capacity. Obviously that includes co-workers, suppliers, and service providers from your previous jobs, but it can also include people you’ve worked alongside in volunteer roles or non-profit organizations. Regardless, these are the folks in your network who can provide a meaningful recommendation because your time together is more relevant to those who are trying to assess your skills.

If you’re currently “in transition,” you can expand your network by attending meetings and introducing yourself to new people. It’s also important to create a more effective network by finding opportunities to help others understand what you can do: volunteering, teaching, writing, speaking. The introductions you get from people who really know you will be much more effective.

As for my own job search, I’m feeling optimistic today. It’s my birthday.

Managers Who Aren’t Leaders, And Vice Versa December 30, 2011

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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This recent post by Linda Hill and Kent Lineback from the HBR Blog Network got me thinking: “I’m a leader, not a manager”. One highlighted quote from that post: “Both leadership and management are crucial, and it doesn’t help those responsible for the work of others to romanticize one and devalue the other.” The authors suggest that the emphasis on leadership starting in the late 1980s and early 1990s came about in part because “traditional management as practiced by U.S. businesses didn’t promote change and innovation.” This has led to a devaluing of the skills traditionally practiced by managers — including “steady execution and control” — and a romanticizing of leadership.

It does seem that the practice of leadership has come to represent a noble endeavor in the business world. I think it’s pretty widely-understood that you don’t have to be a manager to be a leader. One could even argue that a leader who isn’t burdened by the administrative responsibilities of personnel and expense management might be more effective in building cross-functional networks, organizing others to execute plans, and driving change. I would go further and say that a person should be considered qualified for a management position only after they have demonstrated their ability to do all these things in a non-management position.

Note that aspiring managers can learn resource management skills in a program/project management role that does not include accountability for the performance of subordinates, what I sometimes call “management with a small m.”

Management (with a capital M) is clearly an important practice in any organization, and it’s hard to imagine how a business can succeed with leaders and no managers. That being said, I recall an interesting HBR case study from my MBA years involving W.L. Gore & Associates and their flat organization structure with no formal chain of command and “associates” who follow leaders rather than “bosses,” but this is an uncommon model that has not been widely adopted (Why? Is it too risky or “unnatural?”).

Managers are vested with authority for work assignments, performance reviews and administration of HR policies, however managers who are not perceived as leaders risk becoming marginalized as bureaucrats who strictly follow established processes and are not open to new ideas. Managers who feel threatened by leaders from outside the chain of command may use their positional power to maintain the status quo and resist needed change. Businesses need effective leadership and effective management (small m or capital M), and a culture that balances and values both practices when they’re exercised throughout the organization.

Raising Visibility During a Job Search November 8, 2011

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I was taught that it’s a virtue to be humble; keep a low profile, don’t blow your own horn, and wait for others to notice your talents. That’s not considered an effective strategy when you’re “between jobs” or otherwise actively looking for a new position. At a local networking meeting I attended in early 2009, one of the facilitators stood up and asked how many people were “in sales.” A few people raised their hands. The facilitator shook his head and repeated the question. A few more people raised their hands, but now he had everyone’s attention: “If you’re looking for a job, you’re in sales.”

The thing is, not everyone is suited for sales, and it can feel particularly unnatural when the thing you’re selling is you. The idea is to leave a favorable impression that ideally gives people some insights about your talents and what kind of contribution you would make. You want to be recognized as knowledgeable and authoritative, someone worth listening to.

For those who are reluctant to blow their own horn, here are three suggestions:

1. Certainly it’s important to attend networking events and meetings of professional societies, and the informal “cocktail party” conversations with the people you meet there can hypothetically give you a lead on a job, but the odds are against you. It’s unlikely that you’ll have a 1-on-1 with everyone in the room. You can increase your visibility by asking a question in front of the entire audience during open Q&A sessions, such as those that typically follow a presentation by a guest speaker. Raise your hand, stand up, walk to the microphone, and introduce your question with a passing reference to your credentials (“When I worked in China …”), but resist the temptation to answer your own question. Listen, follow-up with another question that shows you were paying attention, thank the speaker, and walk back to your chair.

2. LinkedIn is a great networking resource, and unless you’ve been under a rock for the last five years you’re already active, but there’s a little known feature that can help enhance your online reputation. Under the “More” tab on the main page is a pull-down menu that includes “Answers.” LinkedIn members submit questions in a wide range of categories, and anyone can answer, regardless of whether they’re connected. What makes this useful is that your answer becomes part of your LinkedIn Profile (which should be already referenced in your resume). Choose questions that give you an opportunity in your answer to demonstrate your knowledge and credibility, illustrate your thinking process, and even show your writing skills.

3. Speaking of writing skills, consider blogging, especially if you’ve got some time on your hands. Write about the things you’re passionate about, not just the things you know. There’s something about blogging that reminds me of the journals we used to keep back in college, and your reading followers might not be a very large group, but it’s a fairly safe and controlled way of sharing more information about who you are, and isn’t that really what “selling” yourself is all about?

Job Search Lessons Learned December 30, 2009

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Recently several people have asked me for tips regarding job search strategies in the current economic environment. I’m not sure how valuable my advice is given that I was out of work much longer than I wanted to be, but job searching was a full-time position for me during that time and I guess I did learn a few things along the way.

First, the bad news:

1. Applying to jobs on-line: slightly better odds than the lottery, but not by much. With unemployment still running north of 10% in most markets, hiring companies and managers have a very large pool of highly-qualified candidates to choose from. Of course “you can’t win if don’t play,” but you have to be realistic about your chances of landing an interview based on an on-line application, regardless of how well-written your resume and cover letter might be.

2. A pretty good fit is nowhere near good enough. With so many applicants per position, hiring managers and their helpers are looking for ways to quickly weed out candidates. These days it’s not enough to meet most of the job requirements with proven ability to learn and contribute in a new environment. A lot of people get eliminated from consideration because they don’t have direct experience in the target industry. It has nothing to do with how hard it is to learn, but right now managers can afford to be picky, and any learning curve can be seen as a liability, regardless of your long-term potential.

3. Third-party recruiters: how much can they really help? Honestly I’m not sure what the future is for third-party recruiters in the current job market. I believe that hiring companies are having no trouble finding qualified candidates just by posting positions on their own internal job boards or the popular sites like CareerBuilder, Yahoo HotJobs, Monster, and The Ladders. I’m sure there are some specialized positions that can benefit from a focused candidate search, but otherwise I don’t think recruiters provide much value. On the job seeker side, I don’t believe there is a “hidden job market” that only recruiters know about. The last few times I heard from a recruiter, it was about a job I had already applied to. If you’re seriously looking for another job, you’re probably have the same information the recruiters have.

Look, don’t get me wrong, I’ve met some great recruiters, very hard working people who are dedicated to helping job seekers. I just wouldn’t sit back a wait for them to do all the work.

4. Save your money, don’t pay for job search. I got the big pitch several times: pay us several thousand dollars (“an investment in your career, you’ll earn it back in no time after you land your next job”), and we’ll re-write your resume and give you access to our exclusive job listings. I understand that some people may need help with their resume and “marketing plan.” In my case I got some great advice from an outplacement service that was included in my severance package, and my support group of fellow job-seekers helped a lot as well. Recruiters should be paid after they help you land a position, not before.

OK, so what should you do instead?

5. Marketing plan: do your research and sell. More than ever this is the time to target your job search and learn how to sell yourself. You’ve got to be ready to convince someone that you’re exactly what they’re looking for, the perfect fit. There are many on-line resources for researching industries and companies to help you learn more about their culture, history and likely future needs. Figure out who your target companies are and why they should hire you. I attended a networking meeting with other job seekers earlier this year where the host started by asking how many people worked in sales. A few raised their hands. The host shook his head and asked again, eventually helping us understand that we were all in sales.

6. Network: it really is all about who you know. This might be hard if you’re an introvert, but you have to get out there and make contact. Everyone you’ve ever known is a potential lead, and most people understand that what goes around comes around, and you might be in a position to help them someday. After all your friends and former co-workers know you’re looking for a job, it’s time to meet some new people. Ideally you’re trying to meet people who work at your target companies. It doesn’t matter if they have a job posted or not, you’re trying to make a strong impression that could lead to something unexpected, whether now or further down the road. I’m convinced that this is how almost everyone gets a job these days, although obviously it often takes longer that we would like.

7. Get support: everybody needs somebody sometime. Job search is tough emotionally, and friends and family might not be enough to get you through. I regularly attended networking meetings with other job seekers, sharing leads and strategies, and sometimes just crying on each others’ shoulders. After awhile it felt like an AA meeting: “Hi, I’m Tim and I’m looking for a job. It’s been X months since my last pay check,” but believe me, it works.

8. Sharpen the saw: use the time to learn and give back. My dad used to say “there’s a time to fish and a time to cut bait.” This is a great time to take classes, get that certification, and generally build your skills, if for no other reason than to be able to answer the question: “what have you been doing with yourself since your last job?” In my case I wish I had done more with my “off-time,” but I always thought that next job was right around the corner. I’d also recommend looking for ways to help others, whether volunteer work or consulting at non-profits who can benefit from your experience.

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I hope that helps.

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