Your Reality Checklist

Five new realities and seven mindset shifts to get you work-ready

Source: The Cowl

Dear graduates,

You have amassed incredible book smarts in the last four years. Now it is time for you to build professional smarts. For me, as a first-generation Jamaican American, I didn’t have many examples in my private life of how to navigate the professional settings I ended up in — finance and strategy consulting firms. I had to learn that hustle, diligence, and many other things that I thought I’d learned in school all look quite different in a workplace. Below are five key differences I observed, and seven mindset shifts I had to undergo to effectively adapt.

Five new realities of how school differs from the workplace

1. The role of analytical skills

In school I gained the impression that I could think, plan, or brute-force my way into almost any opportunity I wanted. In retrospect, these tactics worked well because I was either undertaking something entrepreneurial, like starting a student group, or operating within a well-defined system, like a class scoring rubric. Most workplaces, by contrast, are somewhere in between. Systems are loosely-defined, with unspoken rules and silent expectations. Consequently, communication skills and other “soft skills”, like people skills and team collaboration, are more “make or break” than the analytical skills you learn at school.

2. The belief in objectivity

In academic courses, every attempt is made to set an objective grading rubric, to pre-define standards of what “right” is and what “good” looks like. While some companies try to come up with a trajectory map that emulates this specificity of standards, I have never seen one that wasn’t wide open to interpretation. Phrases like “produces consistent, high-quality work” on qualitative rating systems where the highest score is “exceeds expectations” are typical. These are vagaries layered on moving targets. Thus, it becomes your responsibility to manage not only your own performance and development, but also how you are perceived.

3. The idea  — and relevance — of a “right answer”

When a teacher poses a question to a class, more often than not there is a right answer ready to hand. Not so in business. More likely than not, the question is being asked *because* there is no ready answer. In strategy consulting (which is essentially project-based problem-solving for companies), I’ve found there can be multiple, equally valid answers to a question. Which answer you should lead with is context-dependent. The expansive number of unknowns also means you can expect to be wrong more often in the working world. In finance, peers often told me “as long as I’m right more than I’m wrong, I’m in good shape” — and these were peers putting other people’s money and, thus, livelihoods on the line with their decisions. Still, they were confident enough to take action and take responsibility for the consequences.

4. How you engage with authorities

Without a right answer at the ready, and with a lot of subconscious expectations, many managers struggle to give explicit guidance. Instead, most managers provide general guidance and are prone to make corrections after the fact. It is up to you to figure out what you don’t know you don’t know, so you have a comprehensive understanding of your development areas and how to meet or exceed expectations. This requires you to build rapport with and learn from peers and authorities alike. You build rapport by taking an interest in how they operate and what you should emulate. Figure out how you can make your boss’ life easier and also how to gracefully communicate your and your project’s needs.

5. How you define success

In school, there is a fairly narrow path to “success,” defined by grades and how advanced or complex the subjects you study are. By contrast, career success is deeply individual. Choosing your major in college may seem overwhelming but is finite compared to the unlimited number of career choices you will have. These choices will be multifaceted. You will need to balance your goals, financial needs, passions, and strengths. Rather than be overwhelmed, you simply need to be informed about the implications of each choice for your future opportunities, and to accept that you may not have the exact perfect job all the time. Indeed, a perfect job may be mythical, as no one likes their job all of the time. 

Seven mindset shifts to get “work-ready”

The above differences may sound straightforward on the surface, but they require a number of mental shifts to psychologically prepare for the working world. Below are seven “From / To goals” that will set you on a strong footing for your foray into the working world.

1. Thinking of work tasks as “assignments” Big-picture thinking about team objectives

Rather than thinking of your tasks as things to tick off a list, you need to think carefully about how your work will be used. Questions you might ask yourself include: Who is using what I am making? What will they expect to see? Are there examples or precedents I need to model my work after? How much of this is custom content vs. standard content? How can I simplify things to make this immediately usable or actionable?

2. Perfectionism Growth mindset

Rather than investing an infinite amount of energy into a project, you need to learn to invest the right amount of efforts to get the job done. There is no time to examine every alternative or to leave no stone unturned. This means you have to let go of any fear of being imperfect or wrong, as you calibrate with and for your team or client.

3. Expecting a roadmap Learning to navigate

While there may be a few examples to learn from that help you make a preliminary plan or guide for your work and career, some aspect of your work will include uncharted territory. You will have to develop the skill of navigating as you go, in a way that progresses your objective as new information becomes available.

4. “Big reveals” Bringing people with you as you produce work

Just working hard won’t necessarily win you appreciation or reward. Hoping people notice your work without sharing your progress or involving others also leaves you at risk of going in the wrong direction. Rather than revealing all your hard work when it’s done, validate your approach with your boss and pick up tips from your peers along the way. Involve your team in your journey.

5. Assuming people think like you Listening to and managing people

Eliminate the word “should” from your vocabulary when thinking about others. Empathy is your most powerful tool for understanding coworkers and managing your boss, your teammates, and other co-workers.

6. Thinking a role is too good or not good enough Focusing on learning and strong execution

Knowing how to execute simpler tasks inside and out means you will be competent enough to teach others and to find efficiencies. Taking on “stretch roles” that are beyond your current experience or knowledge is equally important. Don’t be afraid to take informed risks. Be confident in your capacity to learn, adapt, and step up.

7. Always sticking it out Recognizing if an environment is unhealthy or just a bad fit

Only you know your tolerance-level for unhealthy work environments, which, unfortunately, there is no shortage of. If staying is important to your next professional or financial goal, you may stick out a job with a terrible boss or insane hours for several years. But notice how it’s impacting your sense of confidence and sense of self, and consider if there are alternatives that get you to the same place. And make sure you find a mentor or peer to talk it out with.

With that, class of 2020, I welcome you to the “real world.” I wish you a strong start, many adventures, and the confidence that comes with knowing that all of my friends from school have pretty much found their happy places.

The Index Card Summary of “The First 90 Days”

For those who just started new jobs this past summer or fall, you may be closing in on the end of your first quarter. As someone who came from a liberal arts background and spent college summers working at non-profits or on my own initiatives, I recall my first corporate job being something altogether different than any setting or challenge I had encountered to date. Standing on the threshold of my first office, I realized that the system I was joining was a whole new kettle of fish. Whether you’re joining a new sector or a new company, the way you prepare and get smart for a new role is distinct to the business context and requires some focused, diligent attention. This summary walks through the key actions for leading your own transition.

Michael Watkins’ The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter gives guidance on how to position yourself for success in a new role. While the target audience is new managers, he identifies challenges common to all new employees and provides a structure for recognizing and addressing the types of challenges that come with differing organizational contexts.

First off, why 90 days? The author posits that the first quarter is a good time to get judged, as people’s impressions and perceptions are starting to solidify. The faster you can get up to speed and move from a “transition” period to having ongoing positive impact, the better. Watkins recommends taking the following steps.

The index-card summary

  1. Out with the old assumptions and habits, in with the new skills

  2. Understand your business context

  3. Manage up: show your boss you can achieve their priorities

  4. Collaborate with your team

  5. Identify influencers

The detail

  1. Out with the old assumptions and habits, in with the new skills

    Leave behind old assumptions and habits tied to your old role. A new company has its own culture, dynamics, and norms. Focus on attuning your mindset and your skillset to your new role. Recognize that you will need to perform at a higher standard than your last role.

    To begin, construct a learning agenda in which you identify competencies to upgrade and skills to gain. Develop a learning schedule in which you summarize your learning needs. Then, figure out the best way to learn, including questions that you need to ask. Create a support network with mentors to support your transition.

  2. Understand your business context

    Identifying the business context you are operating in will aid you in identifying what will be valued in terms of activities and outcomes. Common business situations include Startup, Turnaround, Accelerated Growth, Realignment, and Sustaining Success — or STARS. Each situation will have a different emphasis on learning vs. doing, offense vs. defense, etc. and, thus, will differ in what must be done to secure an “early win”.

  3. Manage up: show your boss you can achieve their priorities

    You will need to establish credibility with your new boss. This means taking on your boss’ objectives and definitions of success as your own. You can then define goals relevant to your role and find opportunities to demonstrate your ability to achieve success by pursuing a few early wins.

    As you identify a path forward, it is your responsibility to keep your boss posted and ensure that expectations are communicated. No surprises is the best policy in working with your boss. You must also adapt to your boss’ style rather than assuming you can change them. Your relationship with your boss is your responsibility. By aligning on your priorities and defining your strategy, you can create a shared vision and establish a clear direction of progress.

  4. Collaborate with your team

    You must align you strategy and vision with your teammates. Assess their strengths and weaknesses, in a non-judgemental fashion. Establish the right structure for speed and effectiveness. Identify personal and team timelines for analysis and action planning. Don’t make decisions before you are ready.

    Develop a common language of communication. This will speed up action and remove misunderstandings.

  5. Identify influencers

    In an ideal scenario, you win the respect of people whom your boss respects. Beyond your immediate teammates, identify and understand the influence of indirect stakeholders, who may impact your goals.

The quick take

I like that this book focuses on what is in your control, and the importance of being proactive as well as receptive to the new environment. It’s worth underscoring that the most important thing you control is your mindset. What I am less convinced by are the tactical tips about quickly identifying all facets of success and converting them into an action plan. Watkins makes it all sound easy. The reality is, it isn’t always easy. In a new work environment, particularly the large ones, I’ve often found my senses on overload, not knowing what’s true vs. what’s marketing, and finding advice from different veterans inconsistent or even at odds. In the end we all have to make our own foundations by choosing how we define success in the context of our careers, beyond just a single job.

The Index Card Summary of “Deep Work”

Does it ever feel like your brain is overheating from fragmenting attention between too many things, flitting back and forth between tasks, with sometimes little progress to show for it? Well you’re not alone, and Cal Newport is going to be our Dr. Phil of attention, helping us to improve our quality of work and quality of life. The following summary of Deep Work walks through his advice on how to build our ability to engage deeply with our activities.

 

The Premise

Newport argues that in the modern economy there will be three types of winners: 1) those with access to capital, 2) those that are the best in their fields, and 3) those who work well with increasingly complex machines. The most viable route to economic success for must of us will be Path #3.

To work well with ever-evolving machines, you must be a great learner who can do deep work, i.e. focus intensely. Fun fact: intense focus triggers the same brain cells repeatedly and builds up myelin, which bulks up that neural pathway. Sort of like body building for your brain.

 Deliberate practice of a task bulks up the myelin in the related neural pathways
Deliberate practice of a task bulks up the myelin in the related neural pathways

The approach

1) The measure of deep work is time spent x intensity of focus. That’s what you want to maximize!

2) Deep work can be done bimodally (days to months as a time); rhythmically (several blocks of time each day); or like a journalist (whenever you can squeeze time in on the go)

Note on Technique: for those with less control over your schedule and less recent practice with deep work, the Pomodoro Technique may work best for blocking off deep work sessions followed by shallow work sessions or breaks. For example, 40 minutes of deep work followed by 20 minutes of shallow work 6 times a day can still achieve the target of 4 total hours of deep work per day. These shallow work periods may end up as over-flow buffers initially as you train yourself up to longer, unbroken periods of time.

You need to have 10 consecutive unbroken deep periods of a given time increment, as short as 10 minutes, before you start building up to longer periods.

3) Set up a systematized ritual – create a time bound, distraction free environment with all the right materials and enough food/energy

4) Avoid frequent task switching, as this leaves “attention residue”, a state of semi-attention as you’re still thinking about the last task when you start a new one

5) Choose to work on “the wildly important”

6) Collaborate with others in a way where you still break off for independent deep work

 

Pitfalls and solutions

1) Switching to an easier thought task – avoid this by structuring the path forward

2) Looping, i.e. reviewing what you know already – avoid this by consolidating gains upon which to build

3) Shallow activities – cut these out without excessive apology

4) E-mail – lay out a ‘path to closure’ to open-ended e-mails by laying out all steps to completion in one fell swoop

Note on E-mail: we’ve all rattled off quick replies that we know will generate three or more back-and-forths. Nip this in the bud by laying out everything you know will be discussed, including your availability for meetings requested, or any further information you will need. Add “no reply expected” or “I will consider your reply a confirmation” to minimize future e-mail traffic.

The path forward laid out by Newport is a call to action, with the knowledge that this means dragging our brains kicking and screaming. Our brains are seekers of distraction yet, paradoxically, convey the most satisfaction to us when we hit the “flow state” associated with deep work. Like eating your greens or hitting the gym, your body and mind will thank you for the deep work exercise you put it through. So pull out that weekly schedule or that Pomodoro timer, block out that time or set that target daily hours tally. You can start sculpting that focused mind today. (I say this having written this post with only one coffee break and two 5 minute side chats in between. We’re all a work in progress 🙂

 

 

 

The Index Card Summary of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”

Cal Newport incisively speaks to the millenial heart that has been somewhat misguided by the role models of our day with the prompt to “follow your passion”. We’re told to just identify something we like doing, that we’re good at, and that people are willing to pay for. Simple, right? But if it were simple, college kids would not be picking up every single leaflet at every job fair. There would not be nearly so many applying to strategy consulting jobs. We’d all be on “a mission from God,” Blues Brothers style.

 The
The “happy place” in the middle is what popular guidance tells us to seek…

In fact, it seems to be the vast minority of people who have charted out a specific interest from a young age and don’t miss a beat on the way to med school or engineering. The secret truth is, most of the highly successful people we know didn’t experience the ven diagram above simultaneously, but sequentially. The order is 1) Develop a talent, 2) Prove out market demand, then 3) Experience the passion that comes from being skilled and the autonomy that comes with carving out a market niche. Here is how Cal Newport breaks it down.

  1. Passion comes from being good at something, not the other way around

  2. Being good at something – which we’ll call having “career capital” – comes from deliberate practice

  3. Deliberate practice requires continuous feedback, clear standards and goals, and stretching beyond your current abilities

  4. The Law of Financial Viability: Your skills must be something people are willing to pay for

  5. Think small, act big: have a mission, and identify “the adjacent possible” to push boundaries and inject meaning into your work

  6. Know your market: success requires that you knowing what kind of “game” you’re playing – is it an auction market, or winner-take-all?

Once you achieve exceptional skill, you can then command more autonomy, an essential element to satisfying work. Unfortunately Cal Newport observed in his research that this is typically they point when employers push back on unique demands from the highly skilled, since it means ceding more of the value generated by the employee to the employee. But the uber-skilled seem to win out in the end.

So the moral of the story, as Lin Manuel Miranda attributed his success to, is to pick a lane and start running ahead of everyone else.

Ready? Set? Go!