Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Breakout Career Moves: Are you ready for a big leap forward?

By Jo Miller

I’m reminded of the phrase, “mind the gap.”

Many of us know those words as a note of caution, telling us to watch for the empty, potentially treacherous space between station platform and train. But when you think about it, “mind the gap” is also a great metaphor for the responsibility you need to take while journeying from where you are to where you’re going. Your chances of moving forward (and as an emerging leader, upward) increase when you know what that gap is while you’re crossing it.

Our latest webinar shared the insights of two emerging women leaders who made their own breakout career moves to get where they are today. Listening to Nehal Mehta, Director of Quality Assurance at NetApp, and Sara Sperling, Facebook’s Manager of Diversity and Inclusion, it’s easy to see that their approaches differ as much as their roles, but the care and passion they invested in evolving as leaders is a common factor.

Sara had come to Facebook in a learning and development role, and became known for her interest in diversity, even building their first employee resource group. Executives would come to her with diversity-related questions despite her official role and training in a completely different area.

“I was a Math and Economics major,” said Sara, acknowledging that there is “no direct link to that and leading and starting the diversity and inclusion at a company like Facebook. So, as Sheryl Sandberg says in her book, I “leaned in” and I went for it. And here I am.”

Nehal had been laid off during a time of re-organization. When a job showed up for which she had many skills, but not all, she was able to negotiate a consulting role while they searched for another candidate. “It was a win-win because, for them, I could come in with some core skills that they needed to grow the small company while they may have continued to look for this other candidate.” From there, she moved onto her current role at NetApp.
For both women, creating their own opportunities was a necessary step. Nehal views any current job as having a job description, an established path, and emerging leadership needs to show willingness to go further. “You need to do your job well. You need to do it really well… but then see what else you’re interested in and go seek that out.”

Sara agreed. “I really think that people want to wake up excited about where they’re going to go for most of the day.”

That excitement is exactly what might fill the gap separating you from professional fulfillment – and one way to define your best career opportunities is to identify your ideal career niche, by answering these three questions:

• What are you passionate about?
• What are your skills and talents?
• What does your company/industry need and value?

Don’t assume you know what your company needs. Your best bet is to constantly stay in the loop. “I feel you should network, network, network,” says Nehal. “You have to network inside your company and outside your company. You will find opportunity through your network.”

Sara agrees, emphasizing the opportunities that truly resonate and the people willing to offer support. “What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Do that! And then, let others pull you up. Find those people. Let them pull you up.”

“Those people” are often mentors, coaches, sponsors, and connectors such as recruiters and good friends, what Nehal calls her “personal board of directors.”

Making the leap
Now, I’m about to share with you quite a checklist of criteria, but I guarantee your career advancement goals will be well-served (and possibly shaped) by considering each of these factors before taking on new, forward-thinking responsibilities.

Say “yes” to projects, roles and assignments that…
• Fit your “ideal career niche” – because you’re more successful when you’re in your sweet spot.
• Allow you to demonstrate your ability to deliver results – because value is heightened with visibility.
• Are in a business that is growing, and not shrinking – because you’ll see greater opportunities for growth.
• Are in a revenue center, not a cost center – because doing something that makes money for a company, rather than spends it, invites greater opportunities.
• Directly support the organization’s strategic plan and goals – because you’ll be moving in the same direction as the company.

Where you get to…
• Improve the ‘bottom line.’
• Perform a specific, not general, role (if you’re on a Technical track).
• Broaden exposure to a new department, function or area (if you’re on a Management track).
• Push the cutting edge in your field of expertise
• Make your work visible to key leaders
• Grow your business acumen and leadership skills.

There’s a definite symmetry to this list, a balance designed to show your strengths while addressing the needs that you can fill. I also want to add that this checklist comes from me, as a coach. During our session, Sara and Nehal offered their own criteria for assessing new career opportunities, sharing different ways to mind the professional gap that worked for them.

Sara’s method is simple and heartfelt. “Am I going to be excited to walk in the door every day? And can I make an impact on somebody?”

Nehal takes an analytical approach, starting with a “state of the union” assessment of the organization or product, knowing the strengths you can leverage for the opportunity, then asking yourself, “what are the areas that I'm going to need to grow in? What are the areas that I'm going to need to learn? Are they go-to people? Who are my go-to people? You also need to assess:  Am I going to be set up for success?”

Whichever approach, and whatever route you take, remember that you are the one stepping onto that train.

“It is your career,” says Nehal. “You would have to own, build, grow, reinvent, reposition, manage, and steer it to be successful.

“Take gigs that feed your soul,” adds Sara. “Don't worry about going straight up the path. Go to the sides like it's a jungle gym. Don't worry about taking the straight path to your career. Enjoy it.”

Your next stop, whatever it is, awaits you. Step up, mind the gap, and you’ll get there.

Listen to the entire conversation with Nehal Mehta and Sara Sperling in the webinar “Breakout Career Moves”.

Members, log in now to view the webinar recording.
Not a member yet?
Join now for immediate access to the webinar.

Emerging Leader Spotlight: Li Chen, Microsoft

    “I want to be a role model for my kids so I always do my best to make a positive impact on my group, my product, and the people around me.”

Name: Li Chen
Current title: Principal Development Lead
Company: Microsoft Corporation

What is the most important thing you have learned that has been critical to your career success?
For me, it’s finding my purpose in life and focusing on the “right things”. After I had kids, I realized suddenly that my time is precious. Understanding this has forced me to reprioritize things; many of the things that I thought were important are not as important now. I want to be a role model for my kids so I always do my best to make a positive impact on my group, my product, and the people around me.

 “...I now believe that one’s positive thoughts are powerful magnets that attract health, wealth, and happiness.”

What tools or resources have you used that have been crucial to your success? I read books and have attended a few training sessions that have been important to me. I would recommend the book, The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. I was skeptical about the concept at first but I now believe that one’s positive thoughts are powerful magnets that attract health, wealth, and happiness.

I have attended many powerful trainings, but the one that stands out is the most is the Manager Foundation Training that Microsoft conducts, which is a very intense five day off-site session. In the training, we formed teams, completed projects, and gave each other candid feedback. That training freed me from my worry of grammatical errors and other small things and it has enabled me to be more engaged and productive in meetings.

“I value trust a lot...Without trust, we would not be able to have a cohesive and productive team.”
Have you experienced a career or leadership challenge recently that you have overcome? Recently I had an incident with my coworker that caused trust issues between us. I value trust a lot, and lack of trust is the first of the five dysfunction of a team as taught by Patrick Lencioni. Without trust, we would not be able to have a cohesive and productive team. There are things that both of us learned from this incident, but still I wondered “how do I repair the trust?” I wanted to resolve this but was reluctant to take action because I was afraid of making the situation worse. Finally, I took a leap of faith and initiated a follow up discussion with the other person to resolve our differences. The trust is not completely restored yet but it certainly is improving.

“I have served as chair of Cloud and Enterprise Women’s Leadership Council (WLC) for the last two years...I’m honored to have such an opportunity to help build this community for women in our organization...”
What professional accomplishment or result have you achieved in the past year that you are proud of? Last year, my team shipped a hybrid solution for our existing SCCM customers to use Windows Intune service to securely manage modern devices including WP8, Windows RT, and iOS. We delivered that solution in a drastically shorter time than our previous 3 year shipping cycle.

I have served as chair of Cloud and Enterprise Women’s Leadership Council (WLC) for the last two years. WLC is a grass roots organization that has 390 members. I’m honored to have such an opportunity to help build this community for women in our organization, which has been created to help women connect with each other, as well as facilitate professional and personal development.

Monday, September 9, 2013

From the Article Archive: Why You Can’t Afford to Ignore Office Politics

Question: Do you feel you must engage in office politics in order to be considered successful?
Jo Miller answers:
In a webinar on the topic of office politics, one participant asked our guest speaker, Nina Simosko, “Do you feel you must engage in office politics in order to be considered successful?” Simosko, who is responsible for leading the creation and execution of Nike Technology strategy and operations world-wide, responded, “Politics are a reality and one must not ignore them or do so at their own peril. I am not a fan of politics, but I have learned that ignoring them can have negative consequences. I believe that we all must understand the nature of the politics within our respective companies and participate to the extent necessary.”

In an article titled Seven Career Killers, careers author Erin Burt points out that refusing to engage in office politics can be a career-killing move. “Avoiding politics altogether can be deadly for your career. Like it or not, every workplace has an intricate system of power, and you can — and should — work it ethically to your best advantage. To get a promotion, avoid downsizing or get a project approved, you need co-worker support.”

Burt went on to add that it is crucial to identify your workplace’s hidden pockets of power. “On paper, a certain person may be in charge, but you need to know who else in the office has influence.”

When moving into a new role or a new team, Nina Simosko will fast-track the process by seeking out key people. “To quickly learn about the politics of an organization, whether I am simply a new employee or coming from a different culture/country, I would ask others who have been around for a while and seek out those that seemingly have influence within the group or company. People like to be sought out for advice or guidance and generally are willing to assist."In a recent article, Getting the Lay of the Land in a New Role, I wrote about ways to quickly pick up momentum in a new role, by identifying key people, creating a plan to connect with them, and setting yourself up as a go-to person in your area of expertise. I call this skill ‘organizational savvy’, and it is also the most important skill for navigating office politics in a positive and effective way.

Become a savvy observer
To identify those hidden pockets of power, pay attention to how people interact with each other in meetings, in the hallways, at lunch, or virtually. Become a savvy observer of the communication and relationships that surround you in your organization. Notice who gets along with whom (or does not), and see if you can understand how that relationship was formed (or became broken). Did these individuals work together in the past, or do they have a common background or interest? What is the glue that maintains the relationships? Asking yourself those questions will point you toward ways to navigate more effectively with those individuals.

Pay attention in the same way to coalitions: groups of people that work together effectively, and freely share information, resources, and opportunities. Notice who the “key influencers” are in a coalition, and try to build a relationship with them first. Aligning yourself closely with these groups is a fast-track way to gain a supportive, collaborative network.

If you meet someone who seems to navigate the environment well and is well-connected, ask them to mentor you on company culture. Nina Simosko explained, “I love to exercise and when traveling on business, I regularly use the gym facilities in or near the hotels that I stay in”, she explained. “It is purely coincidental that a very senior executive within my company also likes to exercise and use the facilities when traveling. So, it is somewhat often that we find ourselves on treadmills or other exercise machines that are right next to one another and we are able to strike up conversations which often relate to business issues.”

Connect authentically
If you think it seems inauthentic to go around trying to build relationships just for the same of furthering your career, think again. According to Simosko, one of the very best ways to connect with people is to offer to assist them in some way. “Especially in these challenging economic times, there is no shortage of people who feel overwhelmed and could use some assistance”, she explained. “If you are able to authentically connect with and assist folks with things of importance to them, then they will want to repay the favor and will be available to you when needed. Surely, if it is perceived that you are only reaching out to help yourself, this will not achieve the best outcome. Your efforts to connect with others must be authentic.” 

To hear more from Nina Simosko, watch the webinar “Winning at the Game of Office Politics”.