Tag Archives: know yourself

Designing Your Work for Dummies

If you peruse the online booksellers, or wander into a bookstore, you’ll quickly find volumes from one of two series, labelled either “(whatever) for Dummies” or “The Idiot’s Guide to (whatever)”. These two lines — which started as a way to produce manuals you could learn from rather than the incomprehensible ones delivered with computer products — now cover everything from cat care to knitting, fixing outboard motors to baking.

So, with chapeau doffed in admiration to the concept of making complicated things simple, let’s talk about designing your work.

Notice I didn’t say “find a job”. It may be that the design you come up with leads you down that road (it’s hard to be in certain roles without fitting into an existing societal structure). But if you start by thinking about your future in terms of designing around the work you’ll do, you will have a lot of the thinking necessary to consider creating your own job.

The person who is employed by someone else can find themselves out of work because of external events that cause the enterprise they’re a part of to cut back or fold — or they can be on the street (or never hired) because of the pique and incompetence of a manager (as sketched daily in Dilbert by Scott Adams). The person who creates their own situation is still at risk of the first — but is unlikely to fire themselves in a malicious way.

The tool I’d like to point out to you is called a business model canvas. The million-copy seller for designing a business is Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Generation. Its counterpart for designing an individual’s life-work plan is Tim Clark’s Business Model You. The latest improvement to the concept is Antony Upward’s “Strongly Sustainable Business Model Canvas”, built around triple bottom line concepts (Antony has a number of interactive presentations, YouTube videos, and a LinkedIn group available on the web; the process of turning his dissertation into a friendly book is underway).

All you need is a hunk of wall. Some people draw the canvas outline on a white board, others tape up butcher paper. Get some post-it notes.

What the process of working with a canvas asks of you is to identify the answers to questions. When using it to design your life’s work, you can start with what you’re good at, or needs you’ve seen that could be fulfilled, or connections you have. When you use a canvas to design an enterprise (creating your own job), you do the same questions but with more business-like terms such as customer segments, value propositions, key partners, and the like.

It’s decidedly simple stuff, but powerful. Four people gathered toward the end of February to think through the creation of a new not-for-profit organization to promote local business webs in a major city. None worked in the field (although all were running their own enterprises). None had training in the use of the canvas. Two hours later, the wall was absolutely covered in post-it notes, real reasons why people would pay to join such an organization had been identified, its staffing needs had been uncovered, and so on.

If you take away the right conclusion from that — hey, I don’t have to be an expert on business to do this — good for you. You don’t. Which means you could work on your canvas with friends, with family, with anybody. You move the post-it notes around, you throw some out, you add some new ones. Collectively, they tell a story about what would work for you — or how this new business would feed you.

Although Tiffinday wasn’t built using one of these canvases, it was thought through the same way. Tiffinday is a company that delivers hot, fresh lunches in Toronto’s financial district. The containers are reusable. The food is prepared by mothers with children in school. It’s put together in the mornings using a parter — an evenings-only restaurant whose kitchen was free (there are laws about food preparation). A bicycle courier company delivers the containers, then picks up the empties after lunch for cleaning. Everyone’s home again in time for the kids to come from school.

Would you have thought to provide an ever-varying menu to workers in cubicle land, employ people who would likely not work because they’re only available between 9 and 3, partner to use underutilized resources and avoid having to capitalize your own using all the traditional “follow your passions” business development advice? Canvases can see all sorts of opportunities that traditional methods don’t.

This is just one of the way Personal Due Diligence advisors work with clients to expand their opportunities. Are you ready to expand yours?

Getting started on a non-career career

Careers are everything. Jobs are somewhat looked down upon. At least, that’s the way it’s been through most of my adult life (yes, I’m a dreaded baby boomer).

Career-primacy is what’s led to the notion that everyone ought to have letters after their name — and lots of them. When I entered full-time employment in 1974, Grade 12/13 (depending on which province you graduated in) was more than good enough. By the early 1980s, you needed to have a Bachelor’s degree — any “B” was fine, and many had three-year BA or BSc degrees. Later in the 1980s it became the four year degree only, and specifically one in the field that mattered. (This is when the disdain for the Humanities really started to seep in, along with the “job readiness” movement in academia.)

Today? A Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree, some industry certifications — these are the price of admission. Keep adding to the pile throughout your lifetime, as the requirements will keep going up (and with computers scanning résumés, there’s no one to argue that your thirty years’ experience more than makes up for not having more letters after your name).

But have you noticed, as well, that the word “job” — which for about 40 to 50 years indicated a “second-class citizen” of sorts (plumbers had jobs, “real people” had careers, with steady advancement in title to show for it) — has made a comeback?

That’s because more and more of us don’t work in organizations. We either start one (the entrepreneurial or small business route, and, yes, they’re not the same thing) or we become a freelancer — a contractor, independent consultant, or the like.

One in two people in Toronto (Canada’s largest city, and North America’s fourth-largest) doesn’t work in an organization. They have a “job”. Think about that. Careers are slip-sliding into history to return to their former percentage of the whole world of work.

Now, on top of being Ms. or Mr. BA, MPP, MBA, CMC, CHRP, CGA (or some such chain of alphabet soup) and seriously considering a PhD to “stay competitive” (while finding that the number of slots for ‘part-time’ or ‘executive program’ PhDs can be counted on the fingers of one hand), getting your résumé read and past the robots in charge (unfortunately, human recruiters increasingly deal with the sheer volume of enquiries by acting like their computerised scanning program counterparts) also requires that you have an unbroken track record of advancement in name-brand organizations. The real world, where your career has been fractured by acquisitions (and layoffs occurred to meet financial requirements, without reference to your contribution), bankruptcies (the average length of time a company stays in the S&P 500 is now around 15 years, and falling), outsourcing, offshoring, etc. cannot be allowed to intrude.

No wonder so many end up as consultants! There, what matters isn’t your unbroken career, but the projects you’ve done and the references you can provide from satisfied clients. (This, too, is far more like a plumber than the pathway to mahogany row.)

So, newly-minted graduate or seasoned pro trying to remake themselves, how do you start on a non-career career?

Well, first, you decide whether you’re setting up shop as an entrepreneur or as a small businessperson. (Even in “Me, Company of One”, this difference persists.)

Entrepreneurs are out to change the world. The firm may be small and never get large, but its eyes are always on the global market. A friend of mine went to Thailand, acquired some technology from its creators, partnered with an immigrant to California, and has started building a business with an eye to becoming the equivalent of a German Mittelständ company, outrageous market share globally in a mid-sized company. He runs this from Vancouver, is financed from New York, and life is spent on airplanes and in hotel rooms. The thought of putting the whole thing together in one location has never entered his mind, since his plans involve a global footprint anyway.

Instagram was at 20 people when Facebook paid a billion or so for it? That’s the entrepreneurial raison d’être: global reach, and the payday at the end (either from growing to go public, or from vending the firm to deep pockets).

The small business, on the other hand, seeks to provide its owner with a job, but without grandiosity. It’s the consultant who prefers to sleep in her or his own bed much more than gaining hotel points. It’s the creator of a neighbourhood fish & chips or coffee shop that doesn’t have dreams of franchisees lining up to “replicate the success story”, but is happy with making this location a place you come to, thanks very much.

There is no shame and great reward in either track, but first, know which one you’re on (because in the early going they look an awful lot alike). Obviously, your small business outlook won’t keep you, when you’re establishing yourself, from living in a hotel room and doing a gig out of town (you need early positive client references and you need to have an income!) but unlike the entrepreneur, a global “thought leader” brand isn’t why you took this project on. The entrepreneur consultant might still take that same project, but they’re gathering material for the keynote speech, the book, the articles in the trade journals, and the other tools of acquiring a global name for themselves.

As your references grow, your non-traditional résumé becomes less and less of a factor. So, too, do the letters after your name — some certifications or professional association programs can be helpful, but few are asking after the multiple graduate degrees (unless you’re the entrepreneurial consultant, who will need them for various visas). That “keep reality at bay” motif of modern corporate hiring means that your life of demonstrated independence makes you unemployable in BigCo on the corporate track anyway (at least, until you can be parachuted in near the top as a saviour, as often happens to senior consulting types or academics in business schools). But that — like being the “fix it executive”, going from one broken situation to another — is consulting with benefits, golden handshakes, stock options and other perks of top end corporate life, and nothing more.

So here’s my bottom line on this: always be thinking about whether you’re an entrepreneur or a small business type (know yourself) even if you’re on the corporate career ladder right now. Keep mulling over ideas for ventures so that you don’t fall into contracting or consulting out of despair.

For if there’s one truth, it’s that BigCo isn’t secure. Not anymore.

A world without career ladders

Suppose you’re hiring. There’s a stack of résumés waiting in your inbox. What qualifies one to move to the “interview” queue, and another to hit the “discard” pile?

If you’re similar to most of us, you’ll tend to favour “orthodox” résumés over ones that are a little bit different.

That means you’ll have a preference for people who have moved around — somewhat, but not too much. Mostly they’ve moved up within their employer. They’ve climbed a career ladder, in other words, and every eight to ten years, changed employers for an obvious jump up the overall ladder to the top.

They’re likely to have stayed in the same industry, or a close cognate to it, as well. Someone who moved from a chartered bank to an insurance company is okay; someone who went through broadcasting to manufacturing to mining to insurance is questionable.

You’ll want to see ever increasing responsibility, authority, headcount and budget control, and accomplishments that grow over time, so that where you at the beginning delivered thousands in benefits you now deliver millions and tens of millions.

The person who took five years out to fix a family business, stepped off the ladder for another four to do a start up, and spent a few years as a consultant with a mid-sized firm, while working in three to five different industries and in two or three different functional areas?

Despite all that experience, that ability to flex and succeed, the weight of evidence is that that résumé will find its way to “discard” most of the time.

Similar things happen with education. Project managers are expected to have the PMP (the Project Management Institute’s designation). They may have taken the subject as a part of their Master of Information Studies degree, but those three letters — PMP — had better be there, or it’s “discard” time. (I have seen a manager discard a résumé for failing to have a PMP when looking for a project manager despite the fact that the résumé disclosed the candidate taught project management for the local university’s continuing studies program, a course used by people preparing for the PMP exams. The candidate had never bothered with a PMP themselves, after twenty years of project management experience and an Masters’ degree that had contained project management education.)

Well, perhaps when most of us worked for largish organizations that were relatively stable these were foibles we could all live with.

Not today, though. The typical young person coming out of school goes through internships, contract positions, part-time work, and projects (some for pay, some volunteer, some supposed to be paid but the start up goes under before the cash flows leaving the worker with shares in nothing much) rather than getting on a career ladder. Their résumé, in other words, is geared toward a “discard” disposition if we don’t rethink how we deal with candidates.

Today, too, the typical person in the mid-fifties and above who got tossed off the career ladder — whether by merger & acquisition, downsizing, forced early retirement, a move to offshore production, or whatever — finds themselves, in just a few years, with a résumé that looks painfully much like that young person’s résumé. Filled with experiences in a variety of settings, but not a career ladder any longer. It, too, tends to find its way to the bin rather than the interview.

This is why the inscription found on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (home of the famed Oracle), “know thyself”, is so important in handling your own personal risks and doing diligence on situations.

If you’re the sort of person who is uncomfortable with a life of one project, then another, then a short stint somewhere only to have the gig fold out from underneath you, then more volunteer work to fill your day while looking for the next thing to do, then you must gear your life to staying on the standard ladder for as long as you can — or (if you’re willing to be your own boss) take up a venture of your own that survives the ups and downs of the economy nicely.

Ever wonder why so many recent graduates eschew business and go get a job at a not-for-profit? It’s knowing their own tolerance for ambiguity well enough to know they need a “regular job”, and a not-for-profit is about as secure as anything gets these days. (Even more so than working for the government.)

But, as this decade concludes and the next one starts, the number of career ladders of old will continue to decline. The ones that remain will be more perilous: there will be less room to hide, doing a good job but nothing spectacular. When even WalMart can’t make its quarterly numbers (because it’s losing too much business to dollar stores) there’s not much room left for just getting by.

If you can tolerate the ambiguity, you can also deal with a world where there’s lots of work, but not always lots of certainty. If you can tolerate the risk/reward stress, you can also deal in a world where new innovations, new startups, can find their place.

If you’re hiring, remember to question your own unstated assumptions about what “good” is when you’re weeding résumés (and don’t let a machine or HR do it for you: if you’re in management, finding quality people is a key part of your job) so that you don’t miss out on a budding star.

And, if you’re one of those who can’t stand not knowing where you fit on the ladder, talk to us. We can’t guarantee you’ll never be pushed off — but we can help you put your best claws onto the ladder to hold on, and your best foot forward if the unwanted happens and you find yourself having to be someone you’re not.