Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Response to a Young Professional

I received a poignant note from a young colleague who said his last few years at work have been difficult. His former boss and mentor left because of health issues and was replaced by “an inexperienced interim head.” He and his new boss, he said, “do not see eye to eye on most issues.”

“Anyway,” he wrote, “I was hoping you could do an inspirational piece for the young people out there. We could use some optimism. Can you comment on the job market out there? How can we use our knowledge of technology to help us be successful at what we do, and when is using technology appropriate or not appropriate? It seems as though everything is handled electronically these days, and I was hoping you could comment on its cancerous effect on relationships. “

I am deeply complimented, and feel most fortunate, to receive such a note. I will do my best to be helpful.

First of all, this young professional is far from alone. At my conferences I hear often about dispiriting working environments -- about bosses who do not do what they demand from others, the application of mindless performance metrics that belie a stated commitment to relationship building, high performance expectations unaccompanied by vision, direction, content and other forms of support, or the absence of priority setting so that people are always being asked to do more or please yet another claimant. At some point in our careers, most of us will encounter these kinds of conditions, if not worse.

So, what do we do? Let me share advice I received early in my career that proved invaluable. I had been complaining to a mentor about the glaring deficiencies of my boss. He listened with patience, expressed his empathy and then said, “But this situation presents you with a great opportunity, if you become what your boss is not.” In the nicest possible way, he told not just to complain but to manifest the qualities I saw lacking in my boss. In so doing, he said, I would come to be, and be seen as, a leader. It was a profound piece of advice, one that allowed me to grow and succeed. While we may never fully compensate for the weaknesses of a particularly poor boss, and may even engender the boss’ envy or ire for trying, it is nonetheless a good strategy for character and career building. You will always have the comfort of knowing you tried to contribute what was missing and many will appreciate your efforts.

In the face of frustration, we can be tempted to leave. We don’t want to labor on where our talents are wasted. Each of us has an obligation to seek the highest and best use of our abilities. But we don’t want to take a new job just to get out of the old one. Our eagerness to get out may blind us to what we’re getting into. We may move only to find ourselves in a very similar place. I have made that mistake. And we must be realistic. We’re in a stalled economy. We can’t expect to see a raft of opportunities in advancement open up any time soon, maybe for three or four years. The best strategy, then, is to develop and pursue our own growth plan.

Think of your growth plan as two-pronged. One part should focus on the development of your core skills, as if you are preparing for a greater opportunity even if that opportunity is not in immediate sight. But believe that opportunity will come if you continue to prepare. It will. Good work is never for naught. That which is undervalued in one place or time may prove of great worth at another time and place. The second part should be the pursuit of kindred spirits. If you just gripe and grouse, you will fall in with grumps and grouches. Good luck growing there. But if you share your ideas of what can, might or should be, you will find yourself increasingly in community with constructive, forward-looking souls. When I was young, I thought myself completely peculiar and kept my deepest beliefs to myself. With a little seasoning, I found the courage to give them voice and was met with enthusiastic affirmation from many who had been harboring similar feelings and thinking themselves alone. I came to realize I would never learn to truly listen, and thereby understand others, if I did not first share my soul. A leader, be it in thought or deed, must display courage to encourage others.

And, finally, I would urge young professionals to focus on content development but adjust to the ever-changing channels of communication. I have been praised for my writing and speaking skills but I’m sharing this with you on a blog, a channel of communication that did not exist when I began my career. And, my voice can be heard on webcasts, webinars and vodcasts -- all relatively new vehicles. But the reasons that others avail themselves of my words, in whatever form they take, is because of the content and delivery, not the particular technology employed.

Technology facilitates dissemination. We live in a world where the speed of dissemination outstrips our capacity for content origination and creative germination. We have ever more television channels but not much more worth seeing. We have more access to knowledge but we use technology to skip over the surface of much of it, much like the frenetic tourist who rushes from country to country to say he’s been there but gains no real insight into the people or culture along the way.

All societies throughout time place the greatest value on the rarest elements. It is no wonder, then, that in a world of mass communication and rapid dissemination, of pseudo personalization, that we now place the greatest value in having our calls answered by a real person or being thanked with a hand-written note. And, does it not stand to reason, therefore, that the most successful organizations, in good time and bad, will the those that deliver the greatest value to their clients, customers and constituents? Yes, each new wave of technology turns our heads and causes us to think that it is the answer unto itself. But the nourishing of minds and the touching of hearts will always require genuine depth of thought and feeling. The real answer to creating greater value will always arise out of authentic expression, assiduous effort, and genuine commitment to building a stronger human family.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the most successful technologies in past decade, and some of the most rapidly growing companies, have been those that allow us to better communicate on an inter-personal level, and those that make it possible for us build and sustain relationships across the globe. For institutions and the professionals responsible for the relationships with the market place, the most important emerging technologies and companies will be those that allow them to track the buying and affiliating behaviors of their customers and constituents; in short, to listen and respond. Too many institutions have lost touch; the consequent disillusionment has been noted in poll after poll. A majority of Americans have come to see the majority of institutions as bloated and moated. Crisis looms for those that fail to listen while great opportunity awaits those that do. Vehicles and channels of communication that have been used by institutions to promote their virtues, or to solicit, must be converted into systems that receive, not just transmit; to elicit the opinions and promote the well-being of those that support them.

So, to this young professional I say don’t be discouraged. Focus on delivering content to your job that arises naturally and uniquely from the content of your character. Build and guard your own brand. Be consistent and considerate. Never be complicit in anything mediocre or mean. Plan for a better day and believe it will come. It will. The course of any single career never runs smooth throughout, but who speak from and listen with their heart, who value and develop the abilities of others, who are grateful and giving, will not go unnoticed or unappreciated. They will achieve the most satisfying of successes, of spending more of their days working with good people toward good causes.

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