Maximize Your Learning in Short-Term Assignments

January 14, 2018 § Leave a comment

The number of short-term assignments in companies has been increasing, and the trend is expected to continue. Within large corporations, secondments, short-term transfers, and functional or geographic management rotation programs often thrust full-time employees into short-term jobs. Many companies employ temps or interns to supplement those working full-time. Even consultants may engage with a client for a period of weeks or months.

For individuals who take advantage of them, these positions can be rewarding development opportunities. These workers are rapidly introduced to new geographies, functions, and cultures. They meet new colleagues from whom they can learn and with whom they can connect. And there’s never enough time in the job for learning to stagnate.

But short-term assignments can also pose daunting challenges. Typically, short-term positions come with little or no training. Sometimes managers lack the long-term incentives to set clear development goals for short-term employees or to offer them reviews or feedback. So, learning in these contexts requires dedicated effort on behalf of the individual taking on the assignment.

As someone taking on a temporary role, how do you take advantage of short-term assignments for your long-term learning and professional development? I recommend four tips for creating a learning environment in the context of a short-term role, based on written responses from around 20 professionals ranging from mid-tenure to senior in a variety of fields, a review of some of the management literature, and my own professional experience. Of course, each environment, firm, person, and job is different, but this advice should serve as a starting point as you seek to create a learning experience.

Set short-term goals. HBR author Dorie Clark mapped out how establishing professional development goals each new year is essential to focused and effective growth. The same principles apply to those charting goals for short-term assignments. At the beginning of your experience, sit down and write out what you hope to accomplish during your tenure—both the instrumental (e.g., receive a permanent position) and the personal (e.g., develop expertise in my industry). Think through how you will reach those goals and the success factors to make them possible. Ryan, an executive in a large municipal government advises, “Set three tangible goals, no matter how simple, and track your progress relentlessly.” Alison, an executive at a small technology firm, adds, “Hone in on one or two skills — not all of them. Maybe work on a known weakness but then continue to really improve and develop ‘expertise’ level in an area that you excel in.” Importantly, these goals should align with the longer-term goals you’ve set for your career—either those you set annually or those you’ve thought through on a 5-10 year basis that lay out what kind of person and professional you’d like to become. Maintaining this alignment between the short- and long-term can assure focus and continuity. « Read the rest of this entry »


6 Ways to Make the Most of Your Internship

January 14, 2018 § Leave a comment

Around 75% of college students, at some point, work in an internship. These experiences can be tremendously valuable, providing young workers the opportunity to build skills for their resumes and meet people who are working in their preferred industry. Increasingly, they are the likeliest route to full-time employment and are even offered year-round rather than only during summer months. But they can also be difficult adjustments for young people who have little to no experience in professional offices. It can be hard for someone to stand out and make the right impression during a three-month stint spent adapting to such a new environment.

How can interns learn what they need to know, impress those they work for, and secure a job recommendation or full-time offer in such a brief period of time? I consulted 20 professionals who have worked with or supervised interns in higher education, business, law, and nonprofits, and compiled the most valuable advice for interns from their stories, my own observations, and management literature. This advice won’t cover everything, but it does offer a starting point for interns.

Start with relentless punctuality. Show up on time (or early) in the morning, arrive for meetings before they begin, and complete tasks by their deadlines. When I asked professional contacts for their advice to interns, they consistently listed punctuality as a critical success factor. Ryan, an executive in a municipal government, says, “Always be on time. Summer internships are for a short, defined period of time, so give it 100%. Be willing to get to the office early and stay late.” As an intern, you are both a guest in a new environment and a colleague on whom others must rely — make sure that you respect those colleagues by being on time. « Read the rest of this entry »

Why Businesspeople Should Join Book Clubs

January 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

One of my favorite regular activities is participating in a book club called Six Pillars, hosted by my friend Stan. Stan initiated the group several years ago to convene friends, diversify his own reading habits, and make new connections. Six Pillars is so named because each year we read six books in six key disciplines. The group meets every two months, Stan hosts and cooks dinner, and for two hours in a group of 10–12 people we discuss the book we’ve read.

Of course, we’re not unique. From Oprah Winfrey’s famous club to popular online sites like Goodreads, book clubs are all quite common. Because book clubs are informal, it’s hard to know how many exist, though one source estimates that more than five million Americans are in one (not including online groups).

Reading is an essential component of leadership development. I’ve argued the benefits of reading extensively at HBR – broad and deep reading habits can sharpen intelligence, make you a better communicator, and improve emotional intelligence, among other benefits. For business leaders, the most impactful reading extends beyond explicitly “business” books to include histories, biographies, novels, and even poetry. The best lists of “must read” books by leaders in business are often incredibly diverse.

But reading is often viewed as a solitary activity. Can leaders benefit from the book club wave? I believe they can. Book clubs are a uniquely effective way to enhance the benefits of reading and come with a number of additional benefits. These benefits can be reaped by businesspeople who join book clubs composed of friends and community members, as well as those who join clubs composed of professional colleagues at work.

« Read the rest of this entry »

How Couples Can Cope with Professional Stress

January 31, 2016 § Leave a comment

With Jackie Coleman

Most of us are familiar with the cycle. At work, the pressure to be “always on,” to meet deadlines, to serve the demands of colleagues or customers, or to deal with a difficult coworker can create stress that leaks into our personal lives. This stress can cause us to be impatient with romantic partners or kids or to neglect our duties at home, creating a vicious cycle of anxiety outside the office that makes work stresses even harder to face.

There are countless examples of couples driven to the edge by work-related stress. Andpsychological studies have shown that outside stressors — particularly stress at work — can push relationships to the breaking point. But they don’t have to. The vicious cycle of work-home stress can become a virtuous cycle when partners learn to cope with stress together. We are social beings who tend to be happier when connected to others. Our romantic partner is, almost by definition, the person on whom we rely to provide support, and recent research has shown (PDF) that partners who practice dealing with stress together early on can actually strengthen the durability of their relationships over time.

Below are a few thoughts on how couples can cope with professional stress.

« Read the rest of this entry »

Lost and Found

January 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

The old building is situated along a busy road, and its doors open directly onto a treeless street lined with an old tire shop, potholes, and stores fronted by barred windows. But Hogar San Jeronimo Emiliani, a Catholic orphanage in the very poor “Zona 1” of Guatemala City, is clean and well cared for. The sisters who have dedicated their lives to orphaned and abandoned children pour love into each and every one. Including Edy.

Born to a teenage mother in 2003, Edy was a typical, healthy little boy. Unfortunately, he ended up in the care of someone who abused him so violently that he suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him permanently and severely mentally disabled. His grandmother, who was raising children herself, eventually found him. There was little she could do for the boy, so she took him to the hospital and left him in the capable care of the nuns of San Jeronimo.

Sadly, Edy’s story isn’t an anomaly. Tropical and bordering four neighbor states in Central America, Guatemala is by area a little smaller than Pennsylvania. For much of the 20th century, the country was locked in a cycle of civil war, terrorism, and violence. It is a difficult environment—especially for children—and an estimated 370,000 orphans are in the country, including 5,000 homeless children living on the streets of Guatemala City.

When Edy arrived, there were about 100 children in the orphanage at any given time. And while the orphanage remained poor, the children were loved. They were bathed and fed every day, played with often, and offered cookies in the afternoon.

Thousands of miles away, the Nelsons—Steve, Ellen, Cate, Lucy, and Josh—lived in Belmont, a quiet suburb of Boston. Their street was quaint and tree lined, with kids everywhere. It was something straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, one of those neighborhoods where people plant roots and you can watch generations come and go.

Please read the rest at InTouch magazine.

Use Storytelling to Explain Your Company’s Purpose

January 2, 2016 § Leave a comment

The idea of “purpose” has swept the corporate world. Encouraged by evangelists like Simon Sinek, myriad firms like Nike, Adidas, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola are devoting real time and attention to explaining why they do. The idea of purpose was central to a book I co-authored.

But activating purpose is impossible without storytelling, at both the corporate and individual levels. As I’ve written previously, while purpose is essential to a strong corporate culture, it is often activated and reinforced through narrative. Individuals must learn to connect their drives to the organization’s purpose and to articulate their story to others.

This is hard for most business leaders. Great leaders are often humble and reticent to speak about themselves. This impulse is admirable, but it falls short of what’s needed to inspire people to join in the purpose of an organization. And many businesspeople feel more comfortable with waterfall charts and P&Ls than with telling their own stories. Only narrative can do that. Storytelling is a skill that leaders can — and should — hone.

I learned this lesson, most acutely, from Marshall Ganz, who teaches what he calls “public narrative” at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Ganz argues that for people to inspire others with the mission of their organization or cause, they must first link that mission to their own motivations, and then connect it through story to those of the people they are hoping to persuade. Ganz has developed a simple framework for those hoping to develop a narrative approach to their purpose-driven organizations: “Self, Us, Now.”

« Read the rest of this entry »

Create a Conversation, Not a Presentation

January 2, 2016 § Leave a comment

When I worked as a consultant, I was perennially guilty of “the great unveil” in presentations—that tendency to want to save key findings for the last moment and then reveal them, expecting a satisfying moment of awe. My team and I would work tirelessly to drive to the right answer to an organization’s problem. We’d craft an intricate presentation, perfecting it right up until minutes or hours before a client meeting, and then we’d triumphantly enter the room with a thick stack of hard copy PowerPoint slides, often still warm from the printer.

But no matter how perfect our presentation looked on the surface, we regularly came across major issues when we were in the room. These one-sided expositions frequently led to anemic conversations. And this hurt our effectiveness as a team and as colleagues and advisers to our clients.

The last-minute nature of the unveiling meant that our clients (or internal teammates to whom we were presenting) did not have time to fully understand the information and were not prepared to participate in discussion. This made our problem-solving, and consequently, our solutions worse. Group intelligence typically trumps individual intelligence, and the insights our clients and teammates could have added with further reflection would have improved our results tremendously.

The great unveil—particularly when unaccompanied by careful pre-discussions with the members of the client team—would also lead us to make interpersonal and organizational mistakes. Team members, seeing a controversial solution for the first time, would become defensive. We’d miss problems, or solutions that had already been tried and failed, and if someone brought these up in the middle of our presentation, we’d end up distracted and confused.

When we created a perfect solution in isolation and made it “ours” to present, we ignored the fact that each individual needed to arrive at the conclusions independently to really understand it, to believe in it, and to be willing to work hard to execute it.

And frankly, relying entirely on the presentation made for boring meetings. No one wants to sit and listen to another person present for hours on end. People want to ask questions and to provide their own insights. They want to problem-solve and debate.

We’re all familiar with these issues, and yet the tendency toward “the great unveil” presentation style persists. If we want to foster conversations rather than presentations, what are some effective ways to do so?

« Read the rest of this entry »