Project Management

Helping Project Managers to Help Themselves

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Your Swiss Army Knife Skills

The Scenario: 

  • Samir had a reputation for being the best in his field.
  • Samir could solve any customer’s problem with adeptness and speed at a fair price.
  • Samir enjoyed his reputation and relished solving his customers’ problems.
  • Over time, fewer and fewer customers visited Samir.
  • Samir was dismayed, “I know this product better than anyone, yet my business is declining!”
  • Samir tried everything--more advertising, special price promotions, but nothing seemed to work.
  • With bills mounting, Samir decided he had to close up shop.
  • On March 1, Samir’s Typewriter Repair shut its doors for good. He had to take a job he hated just to pay the bills.

The Message: Over the years, the Swiss army knife has become a figure of speech for having the right tool for the right situation. The tools, which can include a nail file, large blade, wood saw, scissors, and screwdriver, are designed to solve a range of problems. Similarly, a well-balanced professional will have the right mix of skills to fit the needs of their current (and future) jobs. Those who understand and intentionally pursue the skills needed to advance their career know exactly the tools needed in their career Swiss army knife. They understand which tools are well-defined, those that don’t exist, and those that need to be sharpened to function well. A Swiss army knife that only has a screwdriver won’t do well when a saw is needed; similarly, skills that are applicable to a specific function (like the typewriter repair skill), may not be applicable to more pressing problems (like computer repair). Your job is to know what your Swiss army knife needs to contain and how to build the skills to complete your own Swiss army knife.

Give these eight tips a look to see how you can intentionally build your Swiss army knife skills:

  1. Create your pro forma resume – Think about what you’d like to be known for as a professional then write a pro forma resume that demonstrates your achievements. By all means, be aspirational but also be realistic enough to motivate yourself.
  2. Match your current skills to your pro forma resume – Identify the skills needed to achieve the pro forma, then categorize them by those you’ve already mastered, those you still need to work on, and those you don’t at all possess.  
  3. Create your plan - For skills that you have yet to master, articulate experiences you need to address the skill gaps, such as new jobs, additional training and certifications, or volunteer work. Know what you still need and put things in motion to address the need.
  4. Leverage a skill to learn a skill – This is something I did a lot in my career. For every new job I took, I brought something into the job that was of value to the hiring manager, knowing full well that I would build new skills to take out of the job.
  5. Commit you’ll get out of your comfort zone – Learning new skills means hard work, increased potential for failure, and possible uncomfortable interactions with those who have mastered skill areas you’re still working on. Joyfully embrace being out of your comfort zone; it’s worth it.
  6. Don’t set yourself up for failure – Getting out of your comfort zone is good, so long as you have aligned expectations between yourself and your leader on what you do and don’t know. I’ve seen too many people oversell themselves to get a job only to crash and burn because the leap was too great and the expectations too high. Be transparent with what you do and don’t know and ensure your leader is willing to work with you to grow those skills you have yet to master.
  7. Realistically execute – When given the opportunity to master a new skill, do all you can to capitalize on it. But, it’s crucial to know upfront your level of desire and ability to take on that opportunity. For example, someone with significant out-of-work activity, like a new baby or ailing spouse/partner, may not be able to take on significant skill-building and keep life-balance. Don’t compartmentalize your life; look at everything you’ve got going on and decide how much change you can accept.
  8. Periodically review your Swiss army knife – Samir had two issues; his Swiss army knife was dominated by one tool that over time became obsolete. Make it a point to periodically review your Swiss army knife skillset to avoid going the route of the typewriter repair person.

The Consequences:  By not being mindful of the skills you need in your Swiss army knife you risk the following:

  • Wasted time and effort – You squander opportunities either building skills you don’t need or not building skills you desperately need to achieve your pro forma resume.
  • Obsolescence – Your market value diminishes because you possess yesterday’s skills that don’t align with today’s problems.
  • Career dissatisfaction – Your career aspirations nosedive because you’ve chosen not to grow with the times and equip yourself with the tools you need.

The Next Steps: 

  • Create your pro forma resume.
  • Articulate the skills you need to achieve your pro forma.
  • Be realistic about skills you possess and those you don’t.
  • Put a plan in place to get the skills you need.
  • Use a trusted advisor or colleague to help you on your Swiss army knife journey.
Posted on: June 02, 2022 12:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

Stresspensation: Evaluating the Impact of Stress in Career Decision Making

Brad was an incredibly bright young executive with a very promising future. Ever since graduating college, he seemed to take on increased responsibilities in his company like a duck to water. He married his college sweetheart, Nancy, right after graduation and has two small children.

Brad's talent didn't go unnoticed in the industry, with several competitors approaching Brad about his willingness to join another firm. He steadfastly resisted, that is until the offer of all offers came his way.

ACME Corp, a larger and more prominent competitor to his current company, wined and dined Brad and ultimately offered him a VP position with a higher salary and better benefits. The offer was too good to pass up so Brad talked with Nancy about the job and they both became enamored with how this was going to advance Brad's career and what they would be able to do with the extra money. Brad joyfully accepted ACME's offer, gave his current company two weeks' notice, and started in his new VP role.

Within a year of joining ACME, he noticed some unexpected side effects of his new position. He was required to be in weekly global executive virtual meetings which could happen at any time of the day or night. He was routinely working 60+ hours a week, missing dinner with Nancy and the kids.

He traveled at least once a week, many times to put out fires at clients. His eating habits were horrendous and he wasn't exercising due to his schedule. He began putting on weight. Nancy was frustrated with him not being around and his kids missed their daddy. The stress was unbearable and led to Brad one day grabbing his chest and collapsing during a customer meeting.

While the above story about Brad is fictional, each one of us knows of a Brad (or perhaps is Brad) who made a career choice without considering the effects of the extra stress. The American Institute of Stress (yes there is such an organization) has quantified the cost of stress to employers at $300 billion annually due to things such as absenteeism, accidents, turnover, diminished productivity, and medical costs.

Add to that the personal costs of stress (i.e., poor health, weight gain/loss, sleep deprivation) and the relationship costs of stress (i.e., fractured relationships, friends or loved ones alienation, missed school plays), and you have a perfect storm of negative factors which make any kind of work-life balance virtually impossible to attain.

In my 30 years of working with career professionals, stress typically takes a back seat to compensation and when considered, it is usually only a slice of the true stress level that the professional will endure. In the first ten years of my own career I saw stress as a given and gave it no consideration when evaluating career alternatives.

This was a big mistake and a lesson I learned the hard way. Fortunately I learned it early in my career and was able to make some positive changes. However, some professionals never get it.

To help the professional evaluate the impact of stress when deciding on a career change, I've defined a comparative increase/decrease method to evaluate the impact of stress, based on three stress types:

  • (a) Relationship Stress
  • (b) Work Stress
  • (c) Personal Stress

For each stress type, a qualitative degree of stress is defined as follows:

  1. Minimal Stress
  2. Moderate Stress
  3. Significant Stress

In evaluating the impact of stress, each of the three stress types is assigned a value for the current and new job alternatives, then a comparative increase/decrease assessment is derived for each stress type. Let's put this to an example.

Lets say that a systems analyst (I'll call her Ann) is currently in a job paying $90,000/year and she's been offered a new position paying $100,000/year. On the surface, Ann likes the idea of a $10k raise and looks at the three stress types for each job, as follows:

Current Position

  • Relationship stress = 2 due to infrequent evening meetings only.
  • Personal stress = 1 due to ability to keep up with personal interests without sacrifice
  • Work stress = 2 due to some tight deadlines

New Position

  • Relationship stress = 3 due to evening meetings and four international trips/year to work with offshore developers
  • Personal stress = 2 due to having to alter exercise schedule, and having to drop book club
  • Work stress = 3 due to mission critical deadlines and regular status updates to senior management

When you look at the three stress types the following pops out about the new position:

Ann is now faced with the following decision: Is the salary bump of $10k worth the incremental relationship, personal and work stress she'll endure? Depending on whatever other decision criteria Ann factors into her decision, the answer could be yes or no. Whether or not she takes the job is still her decision; what the process has done is forced her to consider the three stress types and derive data points in which she can use in her overall decision-making.

There are a number of important considerations for you to digest in using this methodology:

  1. First, this is not an autonomic decision-making tool where the numeric answer is the sole job determinant. The impact of stress methodology is meant to bring relationship, personal, and work stress factors to the forefront of your decision making process.
  2. Second, you need to be realistic about stress levels. "Wishing down" a stress level doesn't make it go away; it just sets you up for a letdown (or worse) after you've made your decision.
  3. Third, you need to let your friends and loved ones come up with the relationship stress value and not assume a value for them. The real benefit in the methodology is the thought process and discussions you have along the way. Don't shortcut how your stress type values are determined or you'll miss out on some valuable nuggets.
  4. Fourth, the methodology applies to any type of career change which involves new or different responsibilities, including promotions. Most of us are wired to blindly accept promotions without regard for the additional stress which may accompany the promotion.
  5. Fifth, there will likely be stress in any job change; make sure you look at your steady-state stress level versus the "learning curve" stress level.

Your Go-Dos
When faced with your next career decision, follow these six steps to assess your impact of stress and help you decide on your career choice course of action:

  1. Ask a lot of questions about the job and the degree of relationship, personal and work stress entailed in the job. Seek out others who may have done the job before or others who have some inside perspective.
  2. Look at the job responsibilities (both stated and those you derive through interviews) and determine how much stress each of the responsibilities will create for you. Decide on a 1-3 work stress value.
  3. Write down the personal activities and goals you have (i.e. exercise 4x/week, sleep at least 7 hours a night) and determine how the career choice would impact each of the activities and goals. Decide on a 1-3 personal stress value.
  4. Openly discuss with your friends and loved ones what the career choice would mean in terms of impact to relationship time (i.e. not being home for dinner, availability to help with homework) and ask them to decide on a 1-3 relationship stress value.
  5. Derive the increase/decrease in stress for each of the three stress types.
  6. Decide how you're going to factor the impact of stress into your overall decision.

Remember, the real benefit in utilizing the impact of stress methodology is in the discovery process you'll go through to understand relationship, personal, and work stress drivers for different career choices. Be real with yourself as to how a career choice will affect you and those you love.

Posted on: November 19, 2021 10:46 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

Retirement Redefined: Eight Tips to Creating a Sustained Lifestyle

In 2004, I left Microsoft so Patty and I could homeschool our son Trevor. He was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at age five, and we decided as he was entering seventh grade that he would need more help than what his public school could offer. I was his math and science teacher for two years until he re-entered public school in ninth grade. After my homeschooling stint, I decided to focus on writing and consulting, and later Patty and I starting a publishing business. From that point until now, I have regularly been asked if I’m “retired.” At first, I would respond with a strong “no” due to my opinion that retirees spend their days on the golf course or playing bridge. Over time, though, I recognized I had to come up with a better description of what I do as a profession. It’s not a choice of either the golf course or the 8-to-5 grind. For me, it’s something I call sustained lifestyle.

So, what’s sustained lifestyle? Here’s the definition, then we’ll unpack it:

Sustained lifestyle is when you have a high sense of achievement accompanied by a low degree of stress, making it something you can sustain for a long time.

First let’s talk about achievement. This is about doing something meaningful that accomplishes a desired result which gives you joy. It could be delivering a project on time, helping people in need, or coaching lesser experienced professionals. It’s about getting something done that matters to you and seeing the fruits of your labor.

Next is stress. This is the degree of mental, physical or emotional strain undertaken to achieve a desired result. Delivering a project on time with high-pressure executive meetings, project team infighting, and an unreasonable customer is much more taxing than one with cooperative execs, project team members, and customers. The end result is a completed project, but the execution was like pedaling uphill in tenth gear.

When stress and achievement are combined in the context of lifestyle, one of the four results are realized:

A frustration lifestyle is the result of high stress accompanied by low achievement. Think burning the midnight oil on projects that get cancelled last-minute or never used.

A boredom lifestyle is the result of low stress accompanied by low achievement. Think getting up every morning with nothing to do.

A burnout lifestyle is the result of high stress accompanied by high achievement. Think successive strategic projects with demanding customers, a dysfunctional team, and irrational management.

A sustained lifestyle is the result of low stress accompanied by high achievement. Think volunteering for a cause you’re passionate about on your work terms.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m in no way saying that a sustained lifestyle means no stress. There are certainly things in life that crop up and cause great stress. However, a sustained lifestyle gives you margin to handle unexpected stress more effectively than if your stress bucket were already full.

Here are eight tips to create a sustained lifestyle that’s enjoyable and fulfilling for you:

  1. Run to a vocation – Creating a sustained lifestyle entails having a post-career plan that you work to once you’ve left your job. The plan could be to discover your sustained lifestyle vocation or, if you already know what you want to do, how to make that sustained lifestyle a reality. Painting a picture in your head of what it will look like will help you get excited about giving it life.
  2. Be clear on your decision criteria – Deciding on what your sustained lifestyle looks like means being very honest with yourself on your decision criteria. Is a continued income important or necessary? Will you need something that continues to feed your ego? Is the flexibility to say no to things important? No right or wrong answers on the criteria, but be deliberate about defining it. This Excel-based assessment tool will help you think about your criteria using nine crucial contentment elements. 
  3. Make each day purposeful – I have a theme for each weekday that focuses on some aspect of my vocation; Monday is Amazon book ads day; Tuesday is article writing day (Yes, I’m writing this article on a Tuesday.); Wednesday is mentoring day, etc. While I may move things around based on schedules, I know what my core activities will be on each day of the week.
  4. Agree on the guiding principles with your spouse/partner – Patty and I have several guiding principles on our sustained lifestyle, the most important being the freedom to do what we want from wherever we want. We enjoy travel and regularly do winter treks to warmer weather. We can continue publishing books and I can write regardless of where we are. Having an understanding between you and your spouse/partner about what is important and what you want to protect is crucial to a happy sustained lifestyle.
  5. Have at least one goal you’re working toward – After my father-in-law sold his locksmith business, he took on other hobbies which kept him growing, most notably photography. Having goals not only keeps you learning, but also satisfies the need for a sense of accomplishment.
  6. Be accountable – I am a member of a men’s business group that meets twice a month. Three of us want to drop some extra pounds, so we agreed that before each meeting we will share our current weight with each other. It’s amazing how much more I think about what I consume because I don’t want to report poor progress to my colleagues. Having accountability to someone else helps you focus on your goal and work harder to achieve it.  
  7. Be mindful about what stresses you out – Keeping a wide distance between achievement and stress means being honest with yourself about what stresses you out and putting things in place to keep stress to a minimum. Know your stressors and keep them in check.
  8. Create a comfortable space – I have a standup desk in our den with three monitors and a large screen TV on the wall. Every morning, after getting my first cup of coffee, I go to my workstation and use it throughout the day. It’s a very comfortable setup that I enjoy and don’t mind spending time at.

Whether you’re at retirement age, close to it, or merely thinking about it, keep the concept of a sustained lifestyle front and center. Think high achievement and low stress.

Posted on: February 12, 2021 09:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (16)

New job, now what? Create a practical 100-day plan to start your new gig on the right foot

So after you've celebrated that new job or promotion, the reality of what you've gotten into sets in. Now what? Where do I start? Who do I talk to? What are the most important things I need to address? Who can I impact if I do something wrong? Who can impact me if they do something wrong? The question list goes on, adding to the stress of taking the new job. Random execution not only translates to focusing on the wrong things, but also dramatically impacts your credibility with your manager, team, and stakeholders. The answer is not to arrogantly come into the job with all the answers, but to come in with a plan to understand the environment, draw conclusions on the most important things to focus on, and develop an execution plan to act on those conclusions. The answer is a 100-day plan.


First things first, your plan may not take exactly 100 days to complete. Depending on your situation it may take fewer days, or, if you are stepping into a major crisis, you may have to expedite the plan or do it concurrently with addressing the crisis. Generally speaking, your plan should not take more than 100 days to complete. The rationale is simple; you want to be viewed as someone who takes deliberate, thoughtful action, not someone who takes forever to figure out what needs to be done. If you can get it done faster and do quality work then by all means do so; just be deliberate in your action.

My 100-day plan focuses on six steps as shown in the graphic below, followed by more detail:

  1. Develop a 100-Day What/Who/When/Asks Plan
  2. Identify Who Informs, Concurs, and Decides
  3. Understand What Works, Is Broken, and Could Be Better
  4. Develop a What I Learned Summary
  5. Create a What Actions Do We Need To Take? List
  6. Develop an Execution What/Who/When/Asks Plan

 

Note: click on each graphic to see a larger, easier to read picture

100 Day Plan

The 100-day plan's purpose is designed to help you do the following:

  • Understand who the key stakeholders are in and around your organization and the roles they play
  • Identify what is working, not working, and could be working better in your area of responsibility
  • Summarize what needs to be done and when it needs to be done by
  • Communicate a clear execution plan of the most important things to focus on, who needs to do them, and when they need to be done by.
  • Establish credibility with your manager, team, and other stakeholders as someone who listens and seeks to understand before taking action.


Following is an explanation of each of the six steps comprising the 100-day plan with an example of how the deliverable should look.


Step 1: Develop 100 Day What/ Who/ When/ Asks Plan

100 Day Plan

Step 1 is articulate your 100-day plan tasks, who will be performing those tasks, and when you anticipate the tasks being complete. Being "aggressively realistic" is important here; meaning you move the work forward as quickly as you reasonably can while ensuring a quality end product. Once you've determined the what, who, and when of your tasks, articulate any specific requests to your management to help you get the plan executed. Does your plan require travel which requires expense approval? Do you need your manager to provide an introductory email to some stakeholders informing them of your new position and that you'll be contacting them?  Think through what those "asks" are then do a plan review with your manager for concurrence and approval.


Step 2: Identify Who Informs, Concurs, and Decides

100 Day Plan

Step 2 is the development of an internal and external list of stakeholders who you want to interview as part of your current-state understanding. Internal stakeholders are those who are within your direct organization including direct reports, extended team members, and other people who impact or are impacted by the work your organization does. External stakeholders are those outside your organization who may or may not be impacted by your work but can provide good information on the current state. External stakeholders also can include experts outside of your company who provide information on industry trends, best practices, or other data points which could help give information about your future direction. For each stakeholder you should identify whether the stakeholder informs you (provides advice but is not directly impacted by your execution plan), concurs with you (doesn't formally approve your execution plan but you want/need their buy-in), or is a decision maker (formally approves your execution plan). I also think it's important to do a checkpoint with your manager as she/he may have additional stakeholders who are functionally or politically important to include, along with their appropriate inform/concur/decide status.


Step 3: Understand What Works, Is Broken, and Could Be Better

100 Day Plan

Step 3 is about interviewing your stakeholders to understand what is currently working, what's broken, and what might be working but could work better. This step is vital to not only understanding the current state but to establish a reputation with team members and stakeholders as someone who listens prior to taking action. I've found it helpful to focus on four areas in your works/broken/better discussion: organization strategy, people, processes, and technology. Depending on your situation these areas may be different. The last question I like to ask is, "If you were sitting in my chair, what are the top three things you would you do?" This is particularly effective not only in understanding items stakeholders think are important, but the priority they place on those things they identify. You may customize what you talk about depending on your stakeholder, but it's better to have a structure to work from then alter as needed, rather than totally winging it. Remember to interview your manager to understand his/her top priorities and perspectives.


Step 4: Develop What I Learned Summary

100 Day Plan

Step 4 is about taking what you've learned through your discussions and documenting trends and important facts that will influence execution plan actions. This is not an audit trail of everything you heard in every discussion; if you do that then you're likely to come out of the exercise with an unwieldy an non-actionable list. Conciseness and clarity are important here as this sets the stage for what you will focus on in your execution plan. You'll also want to do a checkpoint with your concur stakeholders to confirm you are focused on the right working/broken/better items and underscore that you've listened to what others have told you. Again, this is a crucial credibility builder with those you will be working with.


Step 5: Create What Actions Do We Need to Take? List

100 Day Plan

Step 5 begins the translation of what you've learned into what needs to be done to fix what's broken, improve upon what can be done better, and not disturb things that are working well. Each action includes three descriptive pieces of information: why it needs to be done, what the consequence if it isn't done, and when it needs to be done. Through articulating these factors you begin to develop a prioritized list of actions that comprise your execution plan. Do a checkpoint with your concur stakeholders prior to completing your execution plan.


Step 6: Develop Execution What/ Who/ When/ Asks Plan

100 Day Plan

Step 6 is about taking the actions in step 5 and creating a what/who/when plan which facilitates you working on the most important actions and getting them done first. It's totally reasonable to divide your actions up into phases, with your first phase of actions having a more detailed plan and subsequent phases being done once the first phase is complete. I can't stress enough the importance of focusing on the most important items from step 5 first and not getting distracted with trying to plan out all of your actions. In this step you'll do a concur checkpoint to ensure their buy-in prior to doing a decision maker checkpoint. You want to make best efforts to secure concur stakeholder buy-in and avoid having dissenting stakeholders discredit your conclusions and plan.


As mentioned throughout, your situation may require compression or expansion of the above steps. What doesn't change is the understand/conclude/act cycle that you'll need to go through to understand what you're getting into and determine what you need to address, while building trust and credibility with your stakeholders and management.  Next time you take on a new job, use this model as a framework to help you execute a practical 100-day plan to get you off to a good start.

Want the PowerPoint slides used in this article? Message me.

Posted on: June 07, 2020 10:12 AM | Permalink | Comments (15)
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