A Memo to Aspiring Young Leaders

I’m going to tell you a secret. One that can have a profound effect on how you are perceived in your organization and – as a result – how quickly you advance. Are you ready?

The secret is that you don’t need decades of experience and a fancy title to be a leader. Regardless of your age, background or newbie status, you can build and exhibit your leadership skills through the simple act of community service.

That’s right. Good, old-fashioned, roll-up-your-sleeves volunteer work. And I don’t just mean picking up trash on the river every once in a while. I mean really digging in to a cause you’re passionate about and offering to lead a work team. It’s the right thing to do anyway, but there’s also an added career benefit. Namely, if you can successfully manage a group of volunteers, then those skills will most definitely translate to the workforce.

Think about it. Say you participated in a Habitat for Humanity build in college and were inspired by their mission to provide housing for low-income families. Your job is in marketing, so you contact the organization and volunteer to serve on their communications committee. After a few meetings, you’re asked to co-chair a fundraising event which allows you to network with potential sponsors (growing your contacts), pitch the media (growing your skills), and rally a team (growing your leadership IQ).

Opportunities like these also let you test-drive your management abilities outside your day job, meaning you can make rookie mistakes in a comparatively safe learning environment. You may discover, for example, that your raw passion for an idea doesn’t play well when the entire team must come to a consensus. Or that a failure to delegate has you doing the heavy lifting at the eleventh hour…again.

As you’re working with your committee, try to take a step back and objectively evaluate your performance as a leader. What are you doing right? What are your improvement areas? To use the examples above, how could you have obtained more buy-in for your idea or distributed the work more effectively?

If you really want to get the most out of this process, be sure to put your answers on paper and check in with your team occasionally as well. You don’t need to have a roundtable discussion, simply pull a member aside once in a while and ask how you’re doing. Let them know that you’d like to hone your leadership skills and you’re looking for honest, constructive feedback. Most people are happy to oblige.

Next, make sure the work you’re doing is high-profile enough to earn a few stripes with your “real” boss and colleagues as well. Perhaps you’re quoted in a newspaper article, given the opportunity to present at the local Rotary, win an award, or one of your committee members raves about you in front of your supervisor. Granted, most of these examples may seem outside your control but, trust me, if you work hard enough it will happen.

In fact, the more the momentum you can build behind your volunteer work, the higher your profile in the community and, as a result, the more valuable you become to your employer. You may even find that you are viewed with slightly more respect at work, i.e. you are no longer a mere rank-and-file associate, but a potential leader on the rise.

I call this “strategic altruism.” You can call it success from day one.

Note: This article was written for Volume 2 of Launchpad: Your Career Search Strategy Guide by Chris Perry of CareerRocketeer. Purchase the full guide on Amazon here.

The Attitude Test I Failed Miserably

I give a lot of career advice … and sometimes even I need to take it.

Case in point: On Friday I was pulled into a meeting at work. As it happens in corporate life, there were multiple people from multiple offices in this meeting, all coming together to make a decision on something as simple as – wait for it – what should go in a marketing folder.  

So there I was, sitting around the boardroom with a partner at our firm, a practice leader who was visiting from another office, and a spaceship (our code name for the conference phone) holding an industry marketing exec on the line.

It was the first time I had met the practice leader and I guess I wasn’t a bit concerned with making a good impression because not only was I late for the meeting but I actually rolled my eyes at something that was said over the phone. Yes, I admit that I was frustrated at the direction of the conversation but, last time I checked, I graduated from elementary school.

If you’re a follower of this blog, you know that I talk a lot about personal branding and being intentional about the impressions you are making on others. Seriously… what kind of impression did I make on the leadership of our firm, not to mention a notable guest in our office by being visibly disrespectful of their decision-making process?

Ugh.  

To be honest, I debated even sharing my bone-headed move with you, but two things convinced me to write this post.

1.)    I think it’s a good reminder that even people like me, who have studied and taught professionalism for years, screw it up sometimes.

2.)    I read an article in SmarfBrief recently that discussed how our “true selves” come out in moments when we are tested. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, it’s not in times of calm that others see what we’re made of, it’s in times of struggle.

I’m not really comparing one bad meeting to the civil rights movement… just saying that I was tested, and I failed. Fortunately, I had a better meeting that afternoon at one of our biggest clients, a manufacturing facility headquartered in Japan. While on a tour of the production line, I noticed signs and listened to employees refer to the art of “kaizen.”

In case you’re wondering – as I did – what on earth is kaizen, it’s the Japanese art of continuous development. This client attributed a large portion of their success (including a masterful navigation of the recent auto crisis mind you) to perpetual improvements in their products and service. If they make a mistake, they take the time to stop – right then – and fix it.

And so will I.

Can One Hour Boost Your Personal Brand?

By Skip Lineberg

My business partner and I returned from a sales meeting late in the afternoon one recent Thursday, just prior to a three-day holiday weekend. The meeting went well. The prospective customer expressed openness toward our proposed idea. We were very pleased with her response.

She asked that we check back with her on the following Tuesday. And that’s precisely what most people would do.

At our company, we have a sacred rule about sending Thank-You notes. We always send one, and it’s always handwritten. An e-mail Thank-You note simply isn’t sufficient. It’s too easy, too convenient and too impersonal. By contrast, a handwritten note is highly personal. The recipient sees your handwriting, your greeting, your signature…and gets an impression of your personal brand. It takes time and effort. And in our experience, it creates a noticeable difference. The handwritten note communicates an important message: we care, we customize and we go the extra mile.

At four o’clock on that Thursday, it would have been easy to just call it a day. It would have been easy and commonplace to end the day by basking in the glory of a good sales call and heading home to celebrate. And that’s precisely what most would do.

Yet instead of calling it a day, hopping in our cars and tending to the handwritten Thank-You note on Friday, we stopped and thought about the opportunity and the timing. There was no doubt that we would send the note. If we sent it the next day (on Friday), our prospective customer would not receive it in the mail until Tuesday. However, if we went back to the office, wrote the note and got it out in Thursday’s mail before five o’clock, she would get it on Friday—prior to the three-day holiday weekend.

And that’s exactly what we did. We spent the extra hour…even thought it took extra time and energy…at the end of a busy day (when we were tired and hungry) to make certain that our prospective new customer received our personalized, handwritten Thank-You note the very next day (which she did).

How do you think she felt when she got her mail the next morning? I can tell you that when we spoke to her again on the following Tuesday, she responded even more positively. I contend that our incremental effort in spending the extra hour from 4:00 to 5:00 on Thursday created a strong impression. That one hour boosted my (our) personal brand and very well may lead to a sizable contract with a new client.

The importance of a Thank-You note can never be underestimated. That’s the incremental edge that is required to brand yourself as conscientious, eager and attentive. One hour can, indeed, change your personal brand!

Toot Your Own Horn… at Your Own Risk

By Skip Lineberg

Seen recently on social media networks (editorial comments not seen but likely thought by thousands of viewers):

“I’m being interviewed on Channel 8 News tonight!” (Yayyy for you! Aren’t you a bigshot? And I should care because ….?)

“John Doe says you like John Doe. Click here to become a Fan of John Doe.” (How presumptuous and arrogant!)

“Be sure to come to our event.” (What’s in it for me?)

If you are constantly telling the world how great you are … or how important you think your stuff is … what does that make you?  At the least it makes you a noisy and borderline-annoying chatterbox.

That creates a real quandary, though, doesn’t it? We all want to leverage the power of social media to brand ourselves, yet no one wants to become THAT annoying person.

How do we remain humble and stay relevant while communicating self-related content, news and accolades?

There’s a subtle, simple solution: get others to say it for you. It is far more credible and powerful when someone in your social network touts your expertise or spreads the news of your latest award or accolade. Referrals and testimonials are two of the most powerful tools in marketing. They’re just as powerful in the personal branding arena as they are in commercial or retail marketing.

When it comes to the mechanics of getting third-party assistance, there are two ways to go about it. The indirect method follows the Golden Rule of Social Networking: Tweet, comment, Like and favorite unto others, as you would have them do unto you. Simply put, what comes around goes around; so if you lead by touting and publicizing others, they will reciprocate. Note: this takes time and is not an immediate tactic… so start today!

The direct route involves coming out and asking a trusted friend within your social network to communicate on your behalf. This works if you do it sparingly. I have a half-dozen Friends and Tweeps with whom I am able to make such requests (very infrequently) and from whom I am always happy to receive similar requests (periodically). When I have important news to spread, or when I want to promote an event or a website, I’ll send a link to one of them along with a courteous request. “Would you mind to Tweet this event out for me?” Or, “Could you pop up a short blog post with a link to this news clip?”

Now, let’s re-imagine our opening examples … having originated from third-party sources:

“Can’t wait to see John Doe on Channel 8 News tonight! Tune in at 6:30 if you happen to be in front of the tube.”

“The new John Doe Fanpage is excellent. Check it out if you’re looking for some great info, ideas and entertainment options.”

“I’m really looking forward to the John Doe event next Thursday. Will you be there too? http://events.JohnDoe.click

Refreshing, isn’t it?

It’s NOT Impossible!

Don’t let the title of this post fool you. I’m not going to tell you that you should aim high and that if you can dream it, you can do it. Naturally, I believe that, but this piece has two solid feet on the ground and stems from a situation I had at work recently.

Long story short, I needed note cards for an important dinner. And these weren’t just any note cards. I needed them to be free-standing with a very specific look. And this wasn’t just any dinner. This was for 175 VPs in my firm who expect high quality.  

Shouldn’t have been a big deal.

Unfortunately, by the time the designer told me all of the ways it COULDN’T be done and why, I was pretty discouraged. In his opinion…

…it was too complex.

…the size was wrong for the job.

…the local printer wasn’t good enough.

…it was a ridiculous idea I never should have recommended in the first place.

Okay, so I made up the last one, but – based on the other feedback – he might as well have said it!

Not that it mattered.

I had committed to note cards, so it was my responsibility to deliver note cards.

After I sent the file to the printer and resigned myself to an afternoon of gluing the cards together (the only way it would ‘work’ I was told) – lo and behold – the phone rang. It was the printer calling to say they can handle the project turnkey.

In other words…

…I didn’t have to glue.

…the size was fine.

…I’m not crazy.

And when they arrived, they were perfect.

But this isn’t a post about note cards. It’s about trusting your gut and planning ahead. In other words, just because someone else says it’s impossible, doesn’t mean it is. Second, if I would have just called the printer in the first place and said, “Here’s my idea. What can you do?” I could have saved myself a lot of unnecessary stress on the back end.

THAT’S the point.

As the loyal readers of this blog know, we’ve just wrapped a series where my coauthor Skip Lineberg and I challenged each of you to become rock stars at work. Many of the posts were on high-level career strategy so, in our next series, we’re getting “Back to the Basics.” Like the post above, we’re going to show you – specifically – how to correct, maneuver around, or avoid sticky situations at work. This isn’t the view of your office at 30,000-feet. This series will dive in to the ‘little’ things because – as we we’ve said before – little things can be very big indeed.

A-Z Career Challenge: Z = Zero Sum Game

The other day Skip and I were interviewed by an NPR affiliate in Oregon. We talked about much of the advice covered in this series, e.g. minding your –ilities, Gene Kelly Dance Steps, the subtle art of interpersonal skills, and a lot more.

As I was reviewing my notes post-interview, I realized I had left out one of the key points I really wanted to stress. So… I’m going to write about it here.

It’s called “Showing up.”

When you read that, you may think about the infamous Woody Allen line, i.e. “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

This simply isn’t true.

Of course you have to show up. That’s a given. The hard part, however, is the follow-through. In other words, lots of people show up. It’s endurance that matters.

As we bring this series to a close, I want to remind you how important it is to follow-up and follow-through on the commitments you make. When you don’t, it’s a zero sum game. You lose and the person you’ve committed to loses as well. Either way, it sucks.

If you want to know how to avoid this scenario, it’s really as simple as a two-point plan.

  1. Be responsive. Whether it’s email, text, calls…whatever. Return them all and return them promptly. Even if all you have to say is, “I don’t know” or “I’m working on it”, trust me, that’s enough. Otherwise, people feel ignored and disrespected. Eventually, this will turn into frustration and – if left unchecked – anger.
  2. Do what you say you’re going to do. Either buckle down and keep your commitments, or raise your hand and ask for help. The worst thing you can do is nothing. (See #1.)

I want to leave you with an excellent piece of wisdom from CAREEREALISM founder J.T. O’Donnell. I was chatting with J.T. not too long ago about the advantages and challenges of being an “emerging” author in the very crowded career field. I’ll never forget her response. “When you’ve been in any business for a while,” she said, “you’ll realize that most people come into it with tremendous ambition and gusto that quickly fades away when it comes to actually rolling up your sleeves and getting the job done. The best will survive. They always do.”

 Note: This is Part 26 in a series called the “2010 Career Challenge: Becoming a Rock Star from A to Z” by Emily Bennington and Skip Lineberg, co-authors of Effective Immediately: How to Fit In, Stand Out, and Move Up at Your First Real Job.

2010 Career Challenge: Y = Your Brand (Beyond the Web)

By Skip Lineberg

Building a personal brand is a marketing process. The hallmarks of a well-constructed brand include consistency, authenticity, specificity and all the customary brand parameters (as presented on Brand-Yourself). Following that lesson, let’s remember the first law of marketing: perception is reality. What this means in the context of branding yourself is that success is more about how others perceive you than what you say about yourself.

In the arena of personal branding, there’s too much talk about the technology. There’s scarcely any talk about content. The technology is fine. We all need to understand the technology behind social networking and social media.

Moreover, we should leverage the opportunities afforded by social technologies. Build a great web presence—absolutely! And by all means, use social networks to connect with people who can inform, advise and amuse you.

But never forget this: technology is just the medium. And what really matters when it comes to branding yourself is the message. I’m talking about the content behind your personal brand. A personal brand is just a front, a façade, if it’s not solidly backed by content. From the perspective of your audience (those important individuals whose perceptions truly matter and can affect your career and your future opportunities), those who are truly interested in you (to hire you, to evaluate you, to reward you, to recommend you, to promote you and to include you in exciting projects and cool, new ventures) will drill down beyond your branding into your content. Back to the first law of marketing, the practice of telling is largely ineffective because people learn by discovery.

So, what will people find when they drill down into Brand You? Invariably, they will examine the following:

Your traits – are you reliable, likable, trustworthy, motivated, driven?

Your credentials – degrees, professional certifications, GPA, etc.

Your accomplishments – what have you completed, led, generated, invented, improved?

And what if you are already employed? How does personal branding translate in your workplace? In my opinion, it matters greatly—as much or more so than when you are seeking a job. If you worked for me at my marketing firm, you would be evaluated annually on your performance across several key measurements including: reliability, teamwork, productivity, leadership, communications, concern for customers, creativity and community service. All of which is about content.

Use personal branding to attract favorable attention. Have a great content to back up the branding. If you want to succeed in your career, don’t stop with the technology. Focus intently on goal-setting, striving, improving and achieving. Because that’s what truly matters.

Note: This is Part 25 in a series called the “2010 Career Challenge: Becoming a Rock Star from A to Z” by Emily Bennington and Skip Lineberg, co-authors of Effective Immediately: How to Fit In, Stand Out, and Move Up at Your First Real Job.