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Tips on Career Strategies

Q&A With Erika Andersen
Friday, November 11th, 2011
erika andersen

Erika Andersen is the founding partner of Proteus International (www.proteus-international.com), a consulting and training firm that helps client organizations clarify and achieve their envisioned future. She coaches and advises the senior executives of leading companies including GE, Time Warner Cable, Madison Square Garden, and NBC Universal. Erika authored ‘Growing Great Employees: Turning Ordinary People into Extraordinary Performers’, and ‘Being Strategic: Plan for Success; Outthink Your Competitors; Stay Ahead of Change’. She is the author and host of ‘Being Strategic with Erika Andersen’ on Public Television, and she blogs at erikaandersen.com and at blogs.forbes.com/erikaandersen/. She gave this exclusive interview to Victor Fic, our correspondent for economic and political issues.

You observe that the US’s 9 percent jobless rate is causing many young professionals to forgo career planning. Why are they reluctant?

I believe they assume – incorrectly – that the high unemployment rate implies that there “aren’t any good jobs out there,” and so it’s futile to think about creating the future they want for themselves. They assume – again wrongly – that their only option is to hold on to the job they have.

You warn them against making negative assumptions that reinforce a bad situation -- meaning?

Let me expand on my previous ideas. If you assume that the high unemployment rate means that looking for a new or better job is a worthless effort, doomed from the start, then you’ll stay in your low-end job, or not look for a job if you’re out of work. If enough people make these assumptions, it will tend to keep unemployment high, and workforce skill levels low.

So the nation feels the collective impact of the persons who give up?

Yes, I think that’s right. In fact, I think it’s one of the ways in which the media coverage of the recession has hurt us. Economic difficulties make for more compelling stories than economic successes, unfortunately, and so that’s where the media tends to focus. People believe what they read and hear, and it affects their behavior as I’ve noted above. And I think it also affects company executives who are deciding whether or not to expand their operation. They think — “Wow, if the economy is so bad, I’d better not hire or invest.” It can actually extend the negative conditions.

Your method starts with psychological techniques such as self talk... what is this?

Self-talk is a simple name for that interior monologue inside everyone’s head. You know you talk to yourself, right? Don’t be embarrassed — everyone does! Sometimes our self-talk is harmless: “I’m tired of standing in this line,” or “Wow – that guy is tall!” But all too often, it’s not. It can say negative things that sabotage our confidence and efforts. For example, say you’ve decided to ask your boss for a raise. Imagine as you prepare to enter her office that your interior voice warns: “Don’t be ridiculous – who are you to ask for a raise? You’re just not that good. And in this economy, there’s probably not any money in the budget to pay you more anyway. Cancel the meeting!” Now, if anyone else repeated that, you would not consider that person your friend! But when we say those words to ourselves, we tend to believe it. And imagine having that monologue in your head during your conversation with your boss. It would be nearly impossible to remain confident and calm. You’d most likely be nervous, distracted, and apologetic. Negative selftalk all too often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: you tell yourself you won’t succeed, which causes you to behave in suboptimal ways so you fail.

So how to break that downward spiral?

Fortunately, you can manage your selftalk and not be its victim. In the raise situation, when you notice you’re saying those negative, self-defeating words to yourself, you can talk back. You can think to yourself, “Wait a minute. My boss has told me I’m a valuable employee. I have a lot more responsibility than I did when I started – and they’re still paying me the same wage. I’ve helped our company show a profit, even during the downturn. I deserve a raise.” I predict with that self-talk you’d walk into your boss’ office with a quiet pride and confidence much more likely to create the outcome you want.

Does it help to first concretely identify one’s achievements at the company as evidence and to make that the center of the pitch? How about sending in a memo first that quantifies or directly shows one’s successes before asking for the discussion?

Thinking through your work accomplishments ahead of time absolutely helps before asking for a raise. It will support your revised, hopeful self-talk. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest sending the memo first, though. It could come off as confrontational or aggressive. In most situations, I think it is more compelling to talk through your achievements faceto-face with your boss.

You stress the idea of self-direction and creating the career you most want -- is that the most important attitude?

I don’t know if it’s the most important attitude, but in my experience it’s very important indeed. I’ve noticed that some people take the time and the effort to clarify what’s important to them professionally, what they’re good at and most passionate about. That clarity allows them to take the best advantage of opportunities because they recognize when a particular chance will move them where they want to go. There’s a wonderful quote from a guy named Branch Rickey, who was the US Commissioner of Baseball in the 1930s and 40s: he said, “Luck is the residue of design.” Meaning, we look at some people and think, “Wow, that person has all the luck – great opportunities just fall into his lap!” But it’s more likely that person has “designed” his life, getting clear enough about what he wants so that he can recognize and take advantage of opportunity. But to others, it looks like luck.

Map-making seems to enter the picture because you must identify your starting point.

That’s a great insight – knowing the future you want is like map-making. You get clear about your starting point: what’s important to you, what skills, knowledge and resources you have – and what you lack. Then you determine what a successful future would look like: that’s like the destination on the map. After that, identify the obstacles between you and your destination. Finally, you define a path that will take you from the present to the future you want, going around the obstacles.

How about writing up an action plan when at a company and sharing it with the boss after determining his needs?

This could work really well or badly, depending on your boss. Some managers find this a wonderful demonstration of initiative and smarts. Others might see it as an indictment of their approach or their own planning process. Before doing this, I suggest you carefully note how your boss reacts to ideas presented by others on the team.

How about making a matrix that lists one, three, five, and ten years across the top, and income, security, and job satisfaction down the vertical side and plotting job moves on it as a one glance for an overview taped to a computer screen or bathroom mirror for daily focus?

I’d recommend a slightly different approach that has the same outcome of daily focus. Often, when we do personal vision and strategy planning with clients, we encourage them to make a laminated card with their vision – the key elements of the career they want to create – on one side, and the strategies they’ve determined for achieving that vision on the other. My concern about plotting job moves on a matrix is that it may not be realistic. You don’t actually know the specific opportunities that may arise. You can however, keep moving toward your vision – and that, in my experience, is the place to put your focus.

Some warn against discussing career planning with colleagues and bosses because it can expose your confidential information or help competitors. Some advocate identifying colleagueallies with shared values and aspirations to trade ideas and assistance. Do you agree?

I agree in principle. In any work situation, it’s important to identify your allies, adversaries and the fence sitters. Allies trust and agree with you and support your success. Adversaries neither trust nor agree with you. Fence sitters don’t have a strong point of view about you and probably won’t either support or hinder you. In general, it’s best to build your allies by being their allies. And they are definitely the folks with whom you’d share career planning info. Fence sitters can sometimes be converted to allies if you can create a strong positive relationship of mutual benefit. With adversaries, the best approach is to neutralize them: limit their impact on you by building other strong relationships around them and not sharing sensitive information of any kind with them.

Joining forces with your allies to build a great future together is an excellent way to take best advantage of positive relationships in the workplace.

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