If you had to point in the direction of progress, which direction would you point? If you had to draw it on a piece of paper, what would it look like? It might look like an arrow pointing to the right, or diagonally up and to the right. Forward. Onward. Upward.
Alison Levine, a woman who has climbed to the highest peak on every continent and skied to both the north and south poles, thinks differently. Alison was sharing some of the leadership lessons she learned from climbing Mount Everest at yesterday’s Invent Your Future conference in Silicon Valley.
There are multiple camps along the path to the summit, but Alison explained that climbing to the top is not a matter of starting at the bottom and then progressively climbing higher and higher, stopping at each subsequent camp. In fact, it looks more like this.
So, even though the objective is to climb to the top, a significant proportion of your time is spent going back down to basecamp. The first time you reach one of the camps, the purpose is to help your body acclimate itself to the altitude. But, at that altitude, the human body begins deteriorating, so you need to go back down to base camp in order to rest and regain your strength to climb even higher.
“Even though you are going backwards, you are still making progress.”
This is a difficult lesson to digest for those who are used to always moving onward and upward. My clients often talk about how they are dissatisfied with their lack of forward movement, want to make the best use of their time, or don’t want to waste their time.
It may sound counter-intuitive to have to climb back down the mountain after reaching each camp. But it is only counter-intuitive if you think that reaching the summit is the singular objective. However, there is another, more important objective in play: to stay alive, both before and after reaching the summit. When you bring that objective into focus, taking the time to keep climbing back down to basecamp makes sense.
Sometimes we Type-A folks forget that there are other objectives in play. It’s easy to cling to objectives that are visible and measurable, like ascending titles, degrees earned, or salary. It can be more difficult to retain a focus on other objectives like health, fulfillment, and nurturing our relationships with loved ones, until we are sick, unhappy, or painfully absent.
So, if you don’t feel like you’re moving forward, I encourage you to take some time to examine your objectives. Ask yourself:
1) What is the objective you don’t feel like you’re making progress against?
Is the way you’re currently spending your time helping to make you better able to achieve that objective? (If not, then ask)
2) Is that truly the only goal you are working toward right now? What are the other things that are important to you?
Is what you’re doing now fulfilling these other areas of your life that are important? (If not, then ask:)
3) What can you do right now to nurture your ability to achieve any of these objectives going forward?
“Progress is not just one direction. It can happen in many different directions.” It really depends on your objective, that thing which you are trying to achieve. And, it depends on what you need personally to cultivate the strength to go after your goals.
Want to read more about Alison’s lessons learned from climbing Mt. Everest? Check out her book, On The Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership
For years, I refrained from disclosing details about my education unless asked directly. I was always afraid someone would think I was “bragging” and wouldn’t like me if I mentioned that I have an engineering degree from Stanford and an MBA from UC Berkeley.
It wasn’t until I attended a conference in Lean Startup principles that I decided to do something different.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were younger than you must be.”
It was the thousandth time I’ve heard that. Over the course of the conversation it came out that I had earned my MBA four years ago, which would put me in my thirties, instead of the barely-drinking-age that I look.
My neighbor was telling me how she finally decided to take a sabbatical from her job.
My neighbor: I knew things were bad. Really bad. I was working crazy hours, I was stressed out all the time, I barely saw my partner or my kids, and when I did, I wasn’t really there with them. The stress of my job would follow me home. I dreamed of leaving my job, but I didn’t. How could I? I was C-level exec at a major pharmaceutical company. It wasn’t until my doctor told me that my job was slowly killing me, like literally, my health was at stake, that I decided I had to do something different. Continue reading
The goal of any university’s career counseling centers is simple: ensure that students find a job after graduation. But what happens after students get that first job? What do they need to do to next?
Thank goodness the first company I worked for had a week-long orientation for new hires in order to help set us up for success once we started work. Yet, despite the 40+ hours of training I sat through that week, the most valuable training I received came to me at the happy hour at the end of the week. One of the managers gathered a handful of new hires around him to tell us exactly what we would need to do to move up in the company.
Mentorship has been popping up in my life a lot lately. In the past two weeks, I’ve attended the 10-year anniversary for Stanford’s alumni-student mentoring program, met with my own mentor of 16 years, had dinner with my mentee of 6 years, and volunteered to be a mentor at UC Berkeley’s Women Empowerment Day.
It was at that last event that one of the young women asked a great question: In the absence of formal mentoring programs, how do I find a mentor?
“Knowing what you know now about the skills required to do your job, what would you advise students to learn while they are still in school?”
I was at an alumni-student networking event geared toward humanities and science majors who were interested in careers in the public service sector. Most of the other people in the room had studied things like psychology, history, biology, and literature. I felt a little out of place, as the lone engineering alum in the room, but I had come as a representative from industries that do hire humanities majors.
I’m used to answering this question for students interested in pursuing a career in the fields in which I have experience, consulting, marketing, general management, and non-profit. However, there were students at my table who were interested in paths I had no experience in, like healthcare and research. I quickly tried to think of an answer that would be relevant to this particular audience. The next alum to speak, agreed wholeheartedly that the skills I mentioned were extremely useful in her daily work. This surprised me, as her work as a mental health counselor is very different from what I do on a daily basis as an operations manager. Maybe I really had hit on some universally useful skills. Here is what I had told the audience.
There are a handful of skills that have served me well throughout the different jobs I’ve held in the past 10 years:
Listen to what people need. Dig for the issues that really matter. Know how to break big things into smaller manageable pieces. Be able to communicate with people outside of your peer group.
These are some of the basic blocks of problem solving. No matter where you go, nor matter what you do, you will encounter problems. And at some point in time, someone will look to you to solve them. Regardless of what type of problem it is, taking the time to hone these skills will help you in your career.
Listen to what people need. Most of the time, you will need perspectives other than your own to comprehensively evaluate a situation. Talk to others to view the problem from multiple different angles. What are the pain points they face? Solutions are of no use if the don’t address actual needs felt by the people involved.
Dig for the issues that really matter. My college advisor once told me, “What people say they want and what they actually need are not necessarily the same thing.” Often it’s because it’s impossible to give everyone what they want. But it’s much more feasible to get most people what they need. Zoom in on what’s really important.
Know how to break big things into smaller manageable pieces. If the problem feels overwhelmingly large, it’s difficult to move forward. Divide it into chunks. The pieces will be easier to tackle, because you can either take them on one at a time by yourself or delegate them out to others.
Be able to communicate with people outside of your peer group. More specifically, learn to communicate with the folks two levels above you. There will be times when you will seek their input, approval, and/or recognition, and you will need to present your case clearly and concisely.
Shortly after I started working, someone gave me one of the most useful pieces of advice I received early on in my career:
If you really want to please your boss, make their job easier.
Being recognized as a good employee takes more than just working hard and doing what you’re asked. This became especially clear to me when I became and manager and had different kinds of people reporting to me. As your manager, my job is to provide you with the guidance and resources you need to produce quality work, which I am ultimately responsible for. Sure, you could be a hard worker.
But if I have to expend a lot of time, effort, and extra thought to get you to do the job I need you to do, you can be a pain to manage.
So, how do you become the worker that is pleasant to manage? There are a few things you can do.
Save them time. Do you have regular check-in meetings? Come with an agenda. Have a lot of questions? Consolidate them into a list and get them answered all at once instead of peppering your boss with questions throughout the day. If you’re accompanying them to a meeting, offer to take notes. Record major points made, key questions raised, and next steps, then send them your notes. Your boss is a busy person, and they will appreciate your organization and efficiency.
Tell them what you need. Your boss is ultimately responsible for the quality and completeness of your work. If you aren’t making adequate progress, identify what’s holding you up. You could need more clarification, guidance, training, input, feedback, or a decision? It’s better to proactively ask for what you need than to leave them wondering why you haven’t gotten the job done.
Come with an answer. Where possible,offer a hypothesis and ask whether they agree instead of asking open-ended questions. For example, “I think I should do x,y,z. Do you agree?” is a lot easier to answer than “What should I do?” By coming with a point of view, you relieve them from the burden of having to fully think through something from scratch.
Keep them in the loop. If something has gone wrong, or if you think you won’t hit a deadline, raise the issue sooner rather than later. Your boss will be a lot more forgiving when they have enough time to react to problems rather than when it’s too late to do anything.
Speaking from a manager’s point of view, if you are the employee who makes your boss’ job easy, you become the person they enjoy working with. You are the one they always want on their team. You are invaluable. There’s a high likelihood that they will do what they can to keep you happy, so that they can keep you. And that’s a good place to be.
***DISCLAIMER: The following dialogue is a dramatization, and in no way reflects how much whining my boyfriend did in the early stages of his job search.***
“Arrrrrrrrrgh! I don’t know. Why do you keep asking me that?”
My boyfriend, now employed, told me that getting him to answer that question was the single most helpful thing I did during the months I coached him through his search for a full-time job.
“So, what kind of job are you looking for?”
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I just want to find a job.”
Well, babe, it’s kinda hard to find something when you don’t know what you’re looking for. More importantly, it’s especially hard for someone to help you find something when you can’t define what it is you want to find. Continue reading
About a month ago, my little sister came over to hang out and tell me “something big” about what she has planned for this year.
“So, how’s your job?”
“It’s great. I’m loving my job!”
“You’re loving it? But, aren’t you back working the same job you quit 6 months ago?”
“Yeah, but it’s a little different. It’s always different when I come back from quitting. They change all of the things I didn’t like about the job before I quit.”
This was the third time my sister has quit that job, and the third time she’s gone back to it. She’s really good at her job, and her boss knows it. I’m not sure he would know what to do if she were to quit for real.
“Ok, so what’s you’re big news?”