Capitalizing on Strengths

June 13, 2015

Do you feel “stuck” in a job? Even before the workday is done, can you hardly wait to get out of the office? If so, you may be in the wrong job. 

Feeling stuck may be a sign that you are not using your strengths on the job. If you aren’t using your strengths, resentment builds and frustration ensues. Not only that, you are not being productive on the job – think “deadwood” and you’ll get the idea! Let me explain.  

Let’s say that you’re a decision-maker by nature. But you find yourself in a job where you neither contribute nor make organization-wide decisions. As a result, you second-guess the organization’s decisions and you start resenting its decision-makers. On top of this, you start to dislike your boss and co-workers because you see them as part of the problem.  

You might say that you can’t help it – you need to work somewhere. Fair enough – most of us end up in temporary jobs that are nothing more than a way to pay the bills. But for long-term career happiness and productivity, you need to understand your strengths.  

In addition to identifying our strengths, we need to understand how we work best. And how we work best depends on our personality.  

Our personality determines how we perform, no matter what it is that we do – from how we organize our breakfast in the morning to how we process our daily tasks to how we relate to people. Each of us has an inherent capability of how we manage our “to-do’s.” 

But consider this fact:  While our habits can be modified, few (if any) people can outright change either their strengths or habits. Instead, what we can do is identify our strengths and habits and then choose to improve both in a way that moves us further in our careers. 

Here are five ways that you can improve your strengths and use them to catapult your career to the next level. 

  1. Pay attention to feedback. What do others say about your strengths? What do they notice about you? Sometimes, we instinctively know what we’re good at, but for whatever reason, we become blind to our strengths. It may take several people to point out your strengths before you start to pay attention.
  2. Tune in to your performance. How do you produce your best work? Is it by working alone or in teams? Do you prefer to learn through reading, listening, or viewing? What time of day are you most productive and why at that time? By understanding “how” we work, we will be able to understand the unique characteristics of what comprises an ideal work day for us and when we are most productive.
  3. Notice what gives you energy. When working on a task, does it make you feel tired, bored, overwhelmed, interested, or is the work challenging? Does the task motivate you to work even harder to get the job done? Do you feel alive? If the work makes you feel so energized (even if you’re physically tired), then that’s the type of work you need to be doing.
  4. Do not comprise your values. The place where you work must reflect your own values. The organization’s policies should be in line with their practices. In other words, the organization should practice what it preaches. If your beliefs are in line with the organization’s culture, then you have a match made in heaven.
  5. Contribute like there’s no tomorrow. Based on your strengths, work on improving the organization’s systems, processes, methods, policies, and other practices. This will serve to not only make a positive difference to the organization, but also to help you feel a sense of accomplishment. If you can feel as if you have accomplished something, you know your strengths are serving you well.

Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Substitute “career” for the word “luck” and you can see how our strengths can be used to build happy and productive careers.

 

 

 

The Value of Analysis Done Right

May 24, 2015

Recently, I “re-discovered” that analytical skills are not common. In fact, a recent assignment demonstrated that many people tend to skim the surface and propose recommendations without doing the necessary analytical work.

Now, this may sound like a really good thing – why go through all the trouble of analyzing when you know what needs doing? The way I see it, there are several problems with this approach.

The first problem is that providing recommendations without investigation and evidence will result in “band aid” solutions. What organization wants to mop up the spill without finding and fixing the leak?  

The second problem is that without an examination and explanation of the situation, there is a lack of clarity about what constitutes a problem. Even more important, the root cause of the problem may be missing. 

The third problem is that recommendations built on instinct are not valid. While your judgment may be accurate, not everyone thinks like you do. That is why careful examination and explanation of the situation is required to draw meaningful recommendations.  

Applying analytical thought requires one to look at a situation objectively. Analysis goes beyond describing what is occurring (many people are good at this part). It provides both an examination and explanation of the situation. And examinations and explanations require asking and answering several questions about the situation. The most common question is “why.” 

There are several ways to conduct an analysis, but here are a few simple steps that can help you “collect” your thoughts for easier review. The steps also provide a basis for solid analysis.

  1. Collect data about the situation and place it in an “issues template.” A spreadsheet is useful for this purpose.  
    1. Give your template four headings: Issue, Possible Causes, Other Relationships and Impacts, Possible Resolutions.
    2. Based on your data, list all the issues you uncover under the “issue” column. When completed, start “analyzing” one issue at a time and complete the related columns for that issue – i.e., possible causes, other relationships and impacts, and possible resolutions.
    3. Group your issues into major categories, as appropriate. (You may have main issues and sub-issues).
  2. Using your “issues template,” examine and explain the following (this will comprise your report).
    1.  Situation. Discuss the situation where the issue exists. Use evidence from your data to support your discussion about the situation(s).
    2. Relationships and Impacts. Based on the situation discussion, include possible relationships and impacts that are influencing the situation. As well, discuss how the situation is impacting (or potentially impacting) other areas of the organization.
    3. Needs/Recommendations. Based on your discussion of the above and taking into consideration possible causes and possible resolutions for the issue, discuss what needs to happen in the organization to correct the issue.

If you are able to support your recommendations with evidence from your analysis, then it is easier to convince readers that your recommendations are valid. In the words of Edward Deming, “In God we trust, but for everything else, bring data.”

Before You Buy That New iGadget

April 25, 2015

Recent promos for the latest new technology gave me pause. And it should give you pause, too.

There is no doubt that we are a society of “must-have-the-latest-new-toy,” but have you thought about what happens to your old technology – those smartphones, laptops, printers, and other energy-emitting devices that you no longer wish to use? What is your old technology doing to Mother Earth?

You might say that you are responsible and recycle your old electronics. Good for you. And I bet many recycling depots do a decent job of ensuring safe recycling practices. But some old electronics may fall through the cracks.

In August 2009, CBS revealed some startling evidence (as only 60 Minutes can!) about old electronics being shipped illegally to countries like China where the dismantling of the equipment is hurting (understatement) the people and the environment. You can see the show here: http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/the-wasteland-50076351/.

If the 60 Minutes investigation does not give you pause, perhaps the following might.  

A report by Liam Young and Kate Davies of the Unknown Fields Division traces the supply chain of the global economy in reverse. Their research brings the point home (literally).

After the 60 Minutes expose aired, the Chinese government tried to clean-up Guiyu’s booming e-waste operation. However, Young and Davies state “that what really happened is that it went underground – or more specifically, inside.”

“Actually what happened is that the industry has moved from the street and into peoples’ houses,” he says. “So now this new form of mining is now a domestic industry, where a circuit board bubbles away to refine the copper next to a pot of noodles in someone’s kitchen.”

“It’s too easy for people to sit in an air conditioned flat in New York or London, tweeting on laptops and talking on their phones about the horrors of the rare earth mining industry or cheap production and exploitative labor in China,” Young says.

The reality is much worse.

Young and Davies collected some of the toxic mud created from recycled technology and created “lovely” toxic sludge vases. These vases are part of an exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London which opened on April 22, 2015.

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan summarizes the journey of the vases in a report titled “These Vases are Actually Made From Liquefied Smartphone ByProducts.” Here’s an excerpt:

“The mud that makes up each of these vessels was carefully drawn from a toxic lake in Inner Mongolia, where the sludge from the world’s most prolific Rare Earth Element refineries ends up. It was brought to London, where a ceramicist in a hazmat suit worked to turn it into actual pottery, representing the waste created by a smartphone, a featherweight laptop, and a car battery. Starting today at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s exhibit What Is Luxury?, you’ll be able to see each vase in person—a stark visualization of exactly what’s involved in building your electronics.”

After reading Campbell-Dollaghan’s report, I learned that our smartphones each have about 380 grams of toxic and radioactive waste. Think about that the next time you go to answer or make a call on your smartphone.

The questions before us are simple: 

  1. How much newer-better-luxury stuff do we really need?
  2. At what point will manufacturers take responsibility for killing the planet?
  3. What can be done now to reverse the damage?

The answers to the questions are probably not as simple.

Best Time Efficiency Hacks for the Generations

April 24, 2015

How do you save time? This depends on who you speak to and their age. Each generation has an affinity for different efficiency tools and techniques.

Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, tend to opt for multi-tasking because they believe that doing more than one thing at a time saves time. Truth is it doesn’t. Multi-tasking is counterproductive and decreases efficiency. Perhaps Boomers’ nonconformist ways make them stick to their beliefs. In fact, Boomers labels of themselves range from “self-obsessed” to “stuck in their ways” (Jane Holroyd, Sidney Morning Herald).

To improve efficiency, Boomers are unlikely to put in the effort to change their habits at this stage – unless they can buy it and it’s easy to assemble.

Gen Xers, born between 1965 and 1976, are often labeled as the “slacker” generation. They appear to be uncommitted, unfocused and disorganized. They tend to move between jobs frequently, preferring a balanced lifestyle over the financial comfort that their parents craved.

Gen Xers, you can improve your efficiency by:

  • Closing all applications on your computer other than the one that you’re working on. This will help you maintain focus.
  • Do work in small manageable chunks, rather than tackling the whole project at once. This will help you reduce overwhelm.
  • When something needs doing, do it right away. If you think about it for too long, you may procrastinate and not get the job done properly (or on time).
  • If a task is boring or frustrating, think of something else that you might be doing that may be worse. Then use that comparison to start working on the task at hand that now does not seem so bad!
  • Every hour, take a ten minute break to refresh. When you do, you will have more energy and focus to attend to the task.

Generation Y (also called “Millennials”), born between 1977 and 1994, are the largest cohort since the Baby Boomers. They are labeled as lazy, debt-ridden and programmed for instant gratification. They are portrayed as demanding and unrealistic in their career aspirations. They also tend to be Internet-addicted and lonely.

Millennials don’t mind working hard, but they want to be judged on their output and results, rather than the total number of hours they put in. Their time efficiency hack is leveraging technology to help them gain greater work-life balance. In other words, whatever can be automated to save time, should be!

Here are some efficiency hacks for millennials by millennials:

  • When not in a mental state to work, hit the gym or go running. Don’t forget to shower before returning to work!
  • Return phone calls while waiting for the bus, taxi, airplane, or ferry.
  • When you have an idea, chase it until you figure it out. If you don’t, the idea may drive you nuts and lead you to procrastinate and be overwhelmed.
  • Instead of a computer, use an e-reader for reading books – the lack of multitasking actually helps you maintain focus because you cannot switch between windows with a browser.
  • Make friends that can save you time – for instance, if your friends love to browse online for the best deals, get them to tell you when they find a great deal. Then, all you have to do is “click” to buy. The homework has already been done for you.
  • Allocate one hour each and every day to handle e-mail and other “to-do’s” that you need to clear off your list. This can be either at the beginning or end of the day. This is a must for saving time!

Generation Z, those born between 1995 and 2012, grew up with the Internet. They are incredibly technology-savvy and can be labeled as the iPad generation. These kids are just entering the workforce and you can bet that whatever efficiency hack they use, it will involve technology.

Generation Alpha, those born from 2010 onward, will likely be the most formally educated generation in history. They began school earlier (think pre-school or daycare at the age of two or three) and will be studying longer. These children are from older, wealthier parents with fewer siblings and they are already being labeled as materialistic (Baby Boomer déjà vu?).

Regardless of which generation defines you, the best way to be efficient is to rest when you need to, get over overwhelm, don’t procrastinate, plan your days in advance, and use your “to-do” lists to monitor your progress toward your goals.

Improving Productivity by Working from Home

April 14, 2015

Does working from home improve productivity? A Stanford University study of a Chinese travel agency concluded that it does. 

The study found that employees working from home: 

  • Were 13% more productive (9% worked more hours, taking less breaks and fewer sick days and 4% had higher performance rates per minute – hypothesized to be due to quieter working conditions).
  • Had 50% less attrition.
  • Reported higher feelings of work satisfaction.

Total factor productivity increased between 20 and 30 percent (the increase was due from two sources – efficiency in calls per minute and capital input). In addition, the company estimated annual savings of $1,900 per employee.

The learning from the experiment included the following:

  1. Working from home improves performance.
  2. Allowing employees a choice generated a far greater effect than requiring employees to work from home.
  3. A large sample of treatment and control employees allowed the firm to evaluate the impact on different types of employees.
  4. Management was surprised by the dramatic drop in attrition.

In addition to benefits to employees and employers for working from home, society as a whole sees benefits. These benefits include people choosing where they wish to live (instead of close to the employer’s office), less pollution and traffic congestion from work commutes, and an overall better family and community life because of the flexible hours.

However, improving productivity and saving money by having employees work from home does not work (pardon the pun) for everyone. People need to be able to recognize in themselves whether they have the discipline to perform as well as, or better than, working in an office environment.

Also, some individuals need the socializing that comes with working in an office – these individuals cannot thrive in isolation. For others, a careful balance must be struck.

As John James Jacoby (proclaimed lover of naps) writes: “For me, home was always where cool stuff happened, and the office was where I spent time waiting to go home to make more cool stuff happen.”  

Self-control and pride in one’s work is mandatory for working from home. An ability to complete tasks and communicate effectively with others is also a requirement. Trust is also a big element when working from home – employers need to trust that their employees are doing their best, but they also need to respect schedules and expectations.

I work from home most of the time and I cannot be happier about this arrangement. In fact, my most rewarding client work is done at home. This is likely because I am disciplined and have the necessary self-control about my work. It also helps that I love what I do.