Getting the most out of work

There are several truths we’ve come to accept about professional life. First, we learn that you can’t get experience without a job, but that most jobs won’t hire people without experience to learn the job. The second is, you don’t go to most jobs to be a standout, but to conform and fit into a specific mold.

If you found a better way to innovate the burger making process at a burger factory, chances are, you’d be told to get back to your station and do your job because it’s not your job to figure those kinds of things out. For a lot of folks that’s a difficult thing to accept, because we all spend time in the field learning better way to do things and improve processes, but those ideas don’t always see the light of day. In the cubicle farm, this is even more pronounced because the more wrapped we get into the internal politics of who wants what when, where and how, the more disconnected we get from the real world that’s happening around us.

Conferences and other professional activities can help, but they’re not a panacea. It’s incumbent upon those of us who want to grow to reach out and stretch our capabilities. When you feel like you’re not learning where you are, you need to make a plan to 1) adapt your talents to better extract what you need while doing your job well or 2) find somewhere else to be. Communicating your desire for growth is a good strategy in some environments, because good leaders will often put people they value in a position to thrive, but aren’t always aware of your short or long-range goals and how they mesh with the workplace. Doing your own internal assessments will help you better make a pitch with your supervisor for being positioned to do the kinds of things that’ll enable you to enhance your own skillsets.

Make a (belated) resolution 

No one is going to advocate for you better than yourself. It feel weird to tout your own accomplishments, but you don’t need to be hawkish about selling your greatness, just recognize the value you bring to the table and keep a record of it. Try writing down one thing you’ve accomplished each day. Chances are, if you do you’ll encounter a few other things you did throughout the day, too.

You have to be invested in your own growth, if you expect others to see where you’re headed. It’s not the biggest stars that shine bright, it’s the ones that are closest to us.

Be your own star.

Managing what you don’t understand

I give a lot of talks during the year. Often at the end of those talks someone will come up to me and say some variation of,

I really enjoy your talk. It resonated a lot. How do I make my web person understand this?

I have to be honest. Until the past year, I was not aware of how badly some place were struggling with their ability to integrate the web into their marketing units. Now in some places, this entire conversation is a form of blasphemy, but we’re going to operate in this paradigm for at least the rest of this blog post for simplicity sake.

Here’s the thing. The first thing you need to understand about strategic integration is you’re not going to understand all of it. There are going to be things you won’t get and that’s okay. The key is finding people who can explain it to you like you’re not an idiot AND who you trust to 1) empower to make smart decisions that you will support OR 2) to give you the data and analysis that you can use to make informed decisions yourself. That’s it. Those are your options.

At a certain point in your career, it becomes clear that within some organizations that you can just BS your way through interactions with people who won’t be able to keep up with your pace and thus allowing you to make bad decisions within a vacuum. If I tell you something costs millions of dollars and you don’t understand it and I flub those millions through bad decision-making, who is going to call into question the whole enterprise when no one really understands what we’re doing?

This is really about leadership, but for a lot of people it’s about just how much they can throw in your face statistics that bolster their claims. Outthinking your opposition when they’re bad at chess isn’t really a feat to be proud of, it just means you’re going to lose when you face a more formidable opponent.

The Website is your problem

The idea that senior leaders can ignore the web and leave it to people within the organization is over. As a 21st century leader, you need to have dexterity of understanding how social platforms and websites impact your company’s bottom line.

For years, I’ve worked within highly matrices organizations and often had a direct reporting line to the President. In the early days of the web, websites often ended up in marketing shops where brand officers who didn’t understand the web would rely on the technical expert to relay the critical information to senior leaders.

Coming up on the web during the formative years of its presence in the enterprise left me with unusual opportunities for a junior person to rub elbows and learn from senior leaders. A funny thing happened in those early years, those leaders listened to me! Imagine my shock when a college President says “let’s listen to Ron.” This gave me incredible confidence in my abilities from the start. Having spent time in the military gave me respect for the executive suite, but the beauty of my time on active duty was how much people senior to me would elevate me to situations where I had to learn and lead — even if I felt like I didn’t know the answers, I learned and improved steadily.

The problem in 2015 is the web and digital space is so complicated that even small organizations are recognizing the inherent difficulties associated with how to manage and cultivate a digital presence. Senior leaders at the VP level need to be actively engaged not just in the message, but in the tools used and methods which we measure our impact in the digital space.

I’m not going to turn you into a digitally savvy leader in one article, but here are some key questions to ask of the people leading your digital & web presence:

1. What social platforms are we currently on? What was the process for choosing them? Is there an underlying strategy behind our approach? Does it align with specific strategic goals?

2. Are we measuring traffic to our website in something other than Google Analytics? Can you show me a visual comparison of traffic during key times this over the last three quarters? Are there trends we can extrapolate from that traffic to make assumptions about our customers?

3. If a person in a random office somewhere (not an executive) within our organization needed something added to the website would they know who to contact? Do we have a web governance structure? Does only one person have the keys to our web presence? Do we have a plan if that person leaves or is otherwise unavailable?

The key to these questions is, you might not always understand the answers when they’re told to you and it doesn’t really matter if you do. The exercise of being exposed to this infrastructure is what matters. If you ask your physical plant director about the HVAC system, you’re not concerned about the hows and whys of its inner workings — but you’ll know if it’s not working if people are complaining about being too hot or too cold. The digital space works the same way. You won’t notice there’s a problem until it’s not working or something goes wrong.

After years of advising college presidents and business owners on the strategy of the web, digital infrastructure is a blind spot for many unless they have experience with technology prior to their ascension to senior leadership. As a result, organizations spend millions of dollars making bad decisions about technology based on poor information, lack of leadership or failure to fully understand the complexities of how decisions made about the web impact all areas of the company.

By taking an active interest and gaining better understanding of the digital infrastructure, senior leaders can make more information decisions and trust the information provided by those entrusted with these responsibilities.

Finding your inner superhero

Hit Girl from Kick Ass

Seems like these days, a lot of people are looking for mentors to help them navigate the waters of professional life. Who can blame them? It’s a scary world out there and it seems that for every person you know who makes it, a dozen more step out on faith and despite the Facebook & Instagram feed that says all is well, a more intensive glimpse at their lives would say others. Even if they’re doing great, we can all too often benchmark ourselves against what others are after in their own lives. This negates our own desires, goals and things that are motivating us towards whatever we really want to be doing.

If I had a dollar for every time I thought, “If I knew then what I know….,” I’d have a lot of dollars. The thing is, I’m less interested in going backwards as I am trying to move forward employing what I’ve learned to help me make better decisions now and in the future. So long as I do that, I don’t think past failures are all that bad. My dad always says — and I agree — it’s about making different mistakes not about making the same ones over and over again.

With that being said, I’ve been reflecting a lot about work lately. Talking to friends the past few years and hearing their own challenges, it’s pretty clear to me that lots of us are wrestling with many of the same insecurities, worries and wonders.

The thing I’ve learned more than anything, is nobody is going to save you. All of the advice in the world doesn’t make it any easier to act, if you’re not sure where you’d really like to be. I re-read most of “Escape From Cubicle Nation” this week. I read it a few years ago, but I wasn’t as ready for it. Because as I read it this time, I felt like it was written for me. All I did is shake my head vigorous as I got through the first few chapters. Reflecting on it a few days later, I’ve realized that my struggle is feeling that the uniqueness of my circumstances weren’t like anybody else’s.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that my mistakes were worse than everyone else’s and all of that somehow made me unfit for the future I wanted for myself.

I’ve been canvassing a lot of my friends and professional colleagues lately to bounce off of them how they ended up where they did. So much of our destiny is about the confluence of events that lead us to where we are at a certain point. More than that, it’s about choices. I think sometimes it’s easy to romanticize the amount that fate plays into our decision-making process, but when I think about everything that’s led me to this point right now, it’s really about a series of choices. Some of those choices happened twenty years ago, but nonetheless, there were choices.

When I set out to write this post, my goal was to come away resolved with a pact to write everyday for the next few days. Every time I read people who are involved in writing for a living, they talk about the commitment to the process. That no one is too good for practice and that sort of thing. All of this is instructive, except my job isn’t to write. It’s not even my passion, it’s just one of the most effective ways for me to reach out to you strangers and friends among you.

I’m less interested in doing things for the sake of doing them in 2015. It’s really about embracing a mantra of consciousness action. I want to do things that matter, while realizing that not everything I do will matter to anyone else. And I want that to be okay.

In a world full of ninjas, rockstars and gurus, I just want to discover my own inner superhero. I know he’s in there, because half of what’s propelled me here is driven by a spirit that’s far bigger than anything I can contain. The problem is, superheroes hide. We don’t see them all of the time, because if we did, they’d be the kind of fallible heroes that we don’t acclaim until they’re lost forever.

My goal in the coming days is to use this space and others given to me, for exploration of a different sort. I think we have a lot of power within ourselves to affect change in small ways and in big ways every single day. For too long, I’ve personally succumbed to the whims of whatever was around me for a fear of being perceived as something I’m not. In the process, I’ve masked my superhero and kept him out of situations where he could truly help.

The funny thing about superheroes is they’re usually normal people. I call them Clark Kent Tendencies. They bumble and are usually the last people you’d expect to save the day in their normal work clothes. It’s not until they put on the mask and go to work, that people become believers. Except, we don’t know who they are in real life and that’s part of the mystery. I have a lot of those Clark Kent Tendencies, but when I’m giving a talk or interacting with other smart people, I almost have an out of body experience because I don’t always recognize myself.

“Who is that guy? Wait, maybe I do know what I’m talking about!”

I remember thinking at a certain point last year, that I didn’t want to live the rest of my 30s doing things I didn’t really want to do or living places I didn’t want to live. I’m really cognizant of how important each day is and this is just my opening salvo towards living, working and doing better.

It starts by rediscovering my inner superhero.

Cooking Up A Routine

This morning I made breakfast. It was the first time in a while that I’d been home on a weekend day and decided to do it. Earlier this year, I was renting a different place and had this really great kitchen. In fact, the only reason I picked the place was precisely for the kitchen. Anyway, I would make this elaborate meals for myself in the kitchen because it was too nice a kitchen to let sit idle. In my new place, the kitchen is fine but just feels like that old place. I’ve always been busier since I first showed up here, so when I am in town for a rare weekend, I’m far less inclined to cook.

I like cooking because it gets me out from in front of a screen. There’s a payoff in the form of eating well and it lets me experiment in ways that usually turn out okay or at least, you can learn from for the next time.

I’ve been experimenting the kitchen for years now and I recall sometimes when I’m constructing something about the days of my first apartment in college where I would try to fashion together things and fail somewhat miserably at it because I just didn’t know what I was doing. I had no idea that a decade later I’d consider kitchen prowess among my top ten attributes.

The thing about routine is finding the intersection of where your goals and time meet together to keep your aligned. It’s easy when other people are setting the agenda, because you can run around for ages like a chicken with your head cut off. But when you’re the one making the commitments and when there’s nothing truly binding you to whatever it is you need to do next, I find it’s routine that helps center me in ways that no alarm clock can do.

Without thinking much about it, I woke up this morning and chopped some potatoes and put them into a pan and make this rosemary potato dish that I like. It’s fast, it’s easy and it tastes good. But it’s really less about the meal and more about all of the stuff that went into the process of getting me there that brings me the real satisfaction. As if, there were a dozens of other choices I could’ve made — not just today, but weeks and months before — that led me to this place where I’m making this breakfast at this particular time for myself. Music playing in the background helps too.

I’ve spent a significant part of the past seven years living by myself. One of the things I find satisfying about being alone with your own thoughts is using that time to envision the world you want for yourself in the future. It’s a bit of fool’s errand — you have no idea what’ll happen to change the landscape of your decision-making — but I like thinking about how whatever I’m doing at the moment will be useful later on. Whether it’s cooking or an Excel spreadsheet that I built five years ago or acting on a conference idea that took seven years to bring to reality, I’m a big fan of seeing the process work itself out.

All of that starts with having a process to get you places you want to be and being consistent about that.

Web professionals as washing machine installers (Or explaining what we do)

I don’t know about you, but I’m often confronted by lots of people who don’t know what it is I do for a living. I can’t count the number of times that someone in my life — my mom, a friend or someone else — has said, “I just told them I know you do something with computers…with the internet…but I don’t really understand it.”

A few months ago, I was driving home and ended up behind an espresso machine repair service. With the tons of coffee shops that have cropped up in recent years, this makes a lot of sense. But I’d never before considered how the market for espresso machine repairmen have problem increased pretty substantially in recent years. It’s not a job anybody needs a four-year degree for and I imagine for the first ones to hit the market in certain communities, it’s a gig you can parlay into a lot of work if you build up a clientele.

I have a bit of an elevator pitch I’ve refined in recent months when explaining my current work. Invariably, people are impressed because I’ve synthesized it to the point where it kinda makes sense, but I realize that in saying, “I lead an in-house web team for a large college system,” it’s not really saying anything because the difference between me and say, the guy I saw on the way home who was parked at a neighbor’s house since he’s a washing machining installer; is not many people would be confused about what he does.

I’ve been saying some variation of this message for months now, but so long as people view web work as magic and not real work, we’ll never get anywhere. Maybe it’s not necessary for ordinary people to have a handle on the jobs. People are making lots of money without anyone having any idea what they’re up to. But it’s not a sustainable pathway to the future.