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“Good Enough” Skill Building

I’ve been thinking more about this post. The one where I wrote about how competencies in specific tools are already starting to go by the wayside (and will only get worse). Then I think about the short term (and terrifying) consequences of becoming an expert in anything fluid like certain social media tools.

Look at an Amazon search for MySpace books. People invested hundreds (if not thousands) of hours into books chasing that tool. And thousands bought them to try to find the answers to their questions about MySpace. They were using tool specific manuals (some of them written as little as two years ago) and now they’re worthless. I take that back. Once winter hits, you can use the pages to help start a nice fire. That’s worth something, right?

Then there is this idea of good enough. It’s the idea that you can build something that is, let’s say, 80–90% there and launch it. After that, you can slowly change or improve it or you can divest yourself eventually without investing a ton of resources in something that may or may not work. In programming, it is a fairly common practice because the good enough features might take 200 hours to program while the one’s that get that last 10–20% might take another 1,000+ hours.

Whenever I’ve taught about specific tools, I’ve always taken a good enough approach to learn them. Twitter is something that I figure I’m good enough on and most people can be good enough on too. Post regularly, share new things that are interesting, retweet things that are interesting, respond to and converse with people, don’t spam and follow those who interest you. That’s probably 90% of the real value of Twitter right there.

Can I tell you when the best time to tweet is? Can I tell you what the best tool is for using Twitter? Can I tell you the top subjects that get retweeted? No.

And why should I? You should tweet when you have something interesting to say, share or converse about. You should try different tools and find out what you like or dislike. You should tweet about things you like, even if only a couple dozen people actually care. That’s a hundred different things to a hundred different people.

Here’s the real question: what skills will actually stand the test of time? Where are you investing that time?

I spend more time reading and writing long form text than I do consuming and writing social media content. My hope is that I’ll continue to be prepared for what comes next because it will still likely involve written communication (and it still makes me better in how I communicate 140 characters at a time).

Certainly, there will be people who chase those fluid aspects of life and try to become an expert in them (if even for a fleeting moment). I knew a guy who made a bundle designing custom MySpace designs. He chased every last dollar out the door and at the end of the day, he ended up getting another job just like the one he quit years ago.

Even if you decide to chase the next Google Wave book, that doesn’t make you exempt from the fact that you have to develop skills that last much, much longer. Can you leverage that social media book into more writing opportunities? Can you develop skills that will move needle elsewhere? Can it propel you to learn more about what’s coming next or for an exit into a different field?

Good enough is all about intent. It is about how you choose to spend time and what skills and goals you choose to pursue. There is no shame in being good enough in many areas of life. The more important consideration is asking yourself what you do want to develop and become better than good enough.

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Simplify Everything

My buddy Chris Ferdinandi and I chat throughout the day about what’s going in HR, social media and the world. Now I don’t know about anybody else but I work from home. So I’ve got a crew of co-workers, colleagues and friends that I keep in touch with throughout the week. Chris is on that list for sure.

We always talk about ways to simplify processes, explanations and solutions. The fight for simplicity is difficult though because you’re not only fighting against people who have skin in making things more complicated, you’re also fighting against your own natural tendency to make things more difficult than they deserve.

So I’ll tell someone that being great in HR is really simple. If you have great talent, get out of their way. If you don’t, fix it or get out.

And then someone will ask me how do they get out of their no-win scenario using these principles. Like it’s a game of stump me or something. Look, if you have a situation that is going to suck no matter what, pick a side and move on.

And people will ask me how to start a blog. So I’ll tell them pick a platform, write and connect with people who write about the same things as you.

Then someone will ask me about SEO and specific platforms and comment systems and how to set strategy?

Someone will ask me the best way to do a resume. I’ll tell them to compel the company to hire you by aligning your traits and skills with their need.

But then they will ask me about cover letters or typos. How many jobs or pages should it be?

Or someone asks me how to use Twitter. So I’ll tell them to start an account, start tweeting and following other people who you think are interesting.

Questions are asked about timing, how often, how much, retweets and…

Step back for a second.

Figure out what works for you and do it. If that doesn’t work, try something else. Or don’t.

There’s no set of “best practices” for your life. Stop over-complicating things and just live a bit.

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Not Everything In Life Is A Lesson

I watched the NBA Finals on Sunday night like a lot of people. As a Portland Trail Blazers fan, watching the Lakers win was like watching Lex Luthor (Kobe Bryant) take down Superman (Dwight Howard): the villain won. As I watched as the Lakers celebrated and the Magic sat there with glazed over eyes, I was looking for a lesson I could share with you about HR or about organizations or about your career. Maybe I could talk about the fall and rise of Kobe. Or how Dwight catapulted himself into the national spotlight. They were stretches but not any worse than what I have done in the past. Then I decided:

Not everything in life is a lesson.

I think bloggers are particularly guilty of this but it is a very human trait. We seek explanations for everything that happens in life to us. We try to extract more meaning from every little thing. We laugh in the face of microscopic evaluations. “Please! Give me more detail!”

Can I tell you what happened in the NBA Finals this year?

The best team won. The other team was great too but it wasn’t enough. There’s no secret lesson to tell you about. No insight beyond the minutia. The most talented, skilled and experienced team won the series. It happens in life all of the time:

  • You don’t get the job because the other person had more experience.
  • A candidate rejects your job offer because his wife was given a big counter-offer to stay.
  • You got the sale because they talked to you first and just wanted it done.
  • You get a great deal because the other person just got a call to clear everythng out.
  • You stumbled upon a great candidate through a chance encounter.
  • You pick the slowest line at the grocery store.

We have become so programmed to look beyond routine happenings and try to replicate the good and eliminate the bad. When we can’t replicate results or eliminate negatives, we figure we just interpretted it all wrong.

Sometimes there is nothing to interpret. As my good friend Rasheed Wallace used to say, when “both teams played hard” and you still lose, there’s nothing to take from that.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose and sometimes there is nothing to learn from either one.

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We Don’t Live In A World Of “Should”

If you haven’t guessed yet, I am a pretty action oriented. Not to abuse my self-imposed limit of one sci-fi reference per year, I subscribe to Yoda’s adage from Star Wars, “Do or do not. There is no try.” This isn’t an “A” for effort world here folks. Winners celebrate. Losers go home. I love my Portland Trail Blazers and I think they tried their heart out to win their playoff series but they didn’t make it happen. Meanwhile, I think the Charlotte New Orleans Hornets mailed it in, content with the fact they weren’t going anywhere against a hungry Denver Nuggets team. The Blazers should have won (logically at least, they were higher seeded and have more talent than the T-Mac depleted Rockets). Hornets should have put up a better fight.

Guess what? They both lost. There may be some moral feeling of satisfaction that you tried hard and failed but let’s not beat around the bush: that doesn’t mean jack in the real world.

Now that I’ve dropped a sci-fi and sports reference in the same paragraph, back to my point. The should’ve, could’ve, would’ve excuses you’re dropping on your HR guy isn’t working. I want to hear what you did, what you said, and what happened. I can make all of the suggestions in the world but if you don’t take them, if you don’t take the should and make it a reality, my suggestions mean nothing.

That’s why struggled so much with my last post about spelling mistakes on resumes. There are three realities that I know:

  1. Many well qualified, detail oriented, fantastic employees have had a resume with typos or spelling mistakes on them.
  2. Many well intentioned HR professionals are so irritated by the fact that there are spelling errors when it is so easy to correct, they routinely disqualify candidates for it.
  3. Both problems are easy to fix but neither party is willing to come to a common ground on the situation.

Now some people can’t come to grips with this reality and that’s fine. People can’t get over the fact that looks may play a role in hiring or promotions so I certainly don’t expect them to get over the fact some excellent employees are awful spellers. And really, berating job seekers over spelling mistakes on their resumes isn’t something I am going to do here. It is just awful. If you don’t understand that everything you bring to the table as a job seeker is up for examination, you aren’t in the game.

My true struggle was that my argument was a question of what we should be doing without doing much to acknowledge the realities of today nor the reality of the difficulty of change. Because yes, many companies aren’t as forgiving of spelling mistakes as I am. And yes, it is going to take a lot of work to change the perception that attention to spelling on a resume doesn’t always translate to on the job performance (no matter how much some would like to be able to do that across the board).

That being said, I don’t suggest things to my managers, my peers, or people that read this blog that I haven’t tried or I haven’t been involved with on a very close level. This isn’t Doctor Frankenstein’s laboratory. I am not trying stuff out in my own fun social experiment. I think some people that blog in this space do that too much. My “should” posts are a collection of things I’ve tried and I think you should too.

Talk is cheap. Let’s do something.

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What Is Your Greatest Weakness?

Have you ever received that question in an interview? First, let me apologize. Most of us in HR who ask this question don’t even know what we’re asking, why we’re asking or what we’re supposed to get out of this question. Furthermore, candidates are usually so poorly prepared for this question that it usually defeats the purpose of asking it in the first place.

I know all of the cool people in HR think the question is bogus. They have a point but there are thousands of bogus questions getting asked daily that we never address. If you aren’t preparing yourself for this stupid question, than you aren’t preparing yourself for the other stupid questions that will come your way. It is easily one of the more common questions still asked today.

Here’s what I’ve figured out from asking this question (or being in interviews where this question is asked): If you answered the question quickly, you are either well rehearsed or you are extremely self-aware. If you can’t answer the question quickly or you give me some bullshit response, you’re either ill-prepared, not at all self-aware or a liar. Well, you’re probably all liars when it comes to this question which is why I don’t ask the question much.

Even if you don’t choose to give me a straight answer on this question, your glaring deficiencies should be on the top of your mind. No matter how good you become at anything, your weaknesses will hold you back. If you are the best salesperson in the company yet you neglect your spouse, it will hold you back. If you are the best number cruncher in the government but you can’t speak to other people without stuttering, it will hold you back. If you are a great speaker but you can’t ever execute a plan, it will hold you back.

When important people in your organization are talking about you, they are using “but” statements. “He’s a great welder but he can’t get along with people.” “She’s a great CEO but she is a liability with the press.” Those “but” statements point to your perceived weakness.

My weaknesses are pretty simple ones:

  • Impatient — If you tell me I can’t do something now, I either figure out a way around you or I lose interest in it completely. Getting married has helped this immensely but I am sure my wife would say it still needs improvement.
  • Lacking detail orientation — Terrible weakness for a HR person in the current legal climate right? Absolutely. At my first job, I said I was good on detail orientation and simply made it happen. Yes, I have to work twice as hard on it but I can make the big picture stuff happen more quickly to make up for it.
  • Laid back — I couldn’t ever say this in an interview (because it would sound like BS) but my laid back attitude has definitely impacted my career negatively. Being approachable helps in HR but it is a pain when it is time to lay down the law and people don’t understand why the attitude has disappeared.

What I can say is that working on all three of these has made me not only a better employee but a better person. Which, you know, sounds corny.

Some people have advocated just focusing on your strengths and letting them compensate for your weaknesses. Unless you are wildly successful (like top 0.01%), focusing on your strengths to compensate for your weaknesses isn’t going to get you anywhere. Maintain (or slowly build your strengths) and focus your energy on your deficiencies instead.

What’s your greatest weakness and what are you doing to improve it?

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The Best Interview Advice You’ll Ever Read

As a HR professional, I get inundated with questions about interviews. Most of their questions are pretty standard ones and fall along these lines:

  • How do I answer the “Greatest strength/weakness” question? (Be honest, focus on a non-critical weakness and spin the positive on it)
  • What kinds of questions should I be prepared for? (Who knows? There are literally thousands of permutations that can be asked)
  • How can I feel more prepared for the interview? (If you don’t feel prepared to interview, how do you feel prepared to take the job?)

That last one is funny because I received an e-mail from a reader an hour before his interview. He was freaking out because he was unprepared for his interview. You can’t get prepared for an interview you aren’t ready for in a week, much less an hour.

Now this is on top of general advice like having a strong handshake, great eye contact, a properly formatted resume, don’t ramble, sit up straight, speak confidently and all of that minutia. Some who sell career advice may advocate doing some sexier things like start by interviewing them, err on the side of cockiness rather than confidence and so on.

Bad Advice Hurts Good People

All of this is well and good but it won’t get you a job. In fact, you could follow this advice to the letter and you may not get a job for months in this economy. And if you do land a job after reading this sort of advice, it won’t be because of it. In fact, I would argue it would be in spite of it. If it were as easy as a handshake to get a job, business wouldn’t be suffering, it would be failing.

The only advice you need to follow is:

Answer their ultimate question at every point possible: how do you uniquely fill their need and meet/beat their expectations for the position?

This isn’t earth shattering stuff. The world will continue to rotate after reading this advice. The best advice isn’t complicated or brilliant. It is easily understood, followed and successful. Peddlers of boring, unsuccessful career advice may deride it as simplistic, stupid or even (if they’re really foolish) completely incorrect.

My career advice? Don’t listen to them. These people want to sell you on handshakes, eye contact and a confident voice. Guess what? I had that at 12 years old but I wasn’t getting any jobs because of it. People who sell handshakes want to make you feel good about yourself while being unemployed or unhappy in your current role. How else will they sell their stuff to you?

Interviewers Are Looking For The Win/Win

Here’s a little secret: people on the other side from the interview table lack the confidence (and often times, the ability) to pick the right person. They know hiring is an inexact science. They’ve been burned. They’ve had to tell their prize hire that they are going away and never coming back. This is one of (if not the greatest) failings of managers. And at every turn they want to be reassured:

  • This person is right for the job
  • This person will make me look smart
  • I am confident with this decision

So those questions about your greatest weakness, your past experience and how you would handle a typical workplace situation? Forget about them. The only question they are asking is “Will you fill the need and meet/beat expectations?” They are just phrasing it 30 different ways.

Want To Get Started?

  1. Understand your unique value. What do you bring to the table? If you can’t answer this if I interrupted your nap, you don’t understand it well enough.
  2. Tweak your thinking. It is subtle change to understand what interviewers want. Just continue to reinforce it at every question.
  3. Adjust your resume and interviewing appropriately. Now that you know the ultimate question, everything should be crafted around that.
  4. Do all of that other stuff (handshakes etc…). Now you know why you really need to do it. It is about setting the correct expectation and feeling confident in you.

A Final Note — Honesty

You have to answer the ultimate question honestly. If you are having a hard time doing that or if your answer isn’t passing the sniff test, you really have to wonder when you (or them) are going to figure out that the position isn’t the right one for you. Is it going to be before the first interview? During the final interview? After you’ve been hired on?

When you manipulate yourself into a position, it hurts your career. That is, if you can even pull off answering the question successfully in the first place.

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You Don’t Lose Passions, You Just Gain Perspective

I was on twitter and reading people’s updates about the Democratic National Convention in Denver. It was interesting hearing things from the multiple sides out there. What’s really great about twitter is being able to see a stream of conciousness from so many different perspectives as it happened. Disappointment, elatement, anger, and apathy. From the people who were updating once every 30 seconds, they all had one thing in common: passion.

I thought about how I used to be very passionate about politics. That’s fairly easy when you’re in college though. I could debate non-stop about all sorts of issues. Everything from major policies to whether gaffes in speeches were relevant. I blogged about conservative issues in 2004. I moderated several conservative communities online during the time as well and I enjoyed it.

Likes Versus Passion

Then I stopped caring.

Some may mention that it became very difficult to argue the conservative cause when a lot of things were not going our way (with 2006 mid-terms a stamp on that point). Nobody mentions the fact that it was still fairly difficult arguing conservative causes in 2004 and that’s when I hit my peak.

I contrasted that with what I am really passionate about currently:

  • Good food, wine and beer. Especially the beer here in Beervana (Portland, OR)
  • Being outdoors in tall trees and beautiful mountains
  • Playing guitar and creating music
  • Spending time with my wife, family and friends
  • Football and Basketball season (currently watching college football)
  • God and the fellowship of others who also believe

I made sure to think about things that I normally wouldn’t associate with my passions and added two more:

  • Writing in general and blogging/social components specifically
  • Human Resources as the most critical component of business

What Causes Us To Lose Passion?

I enjoyed talking about politics because I was good at it and I liked playing the consistent devil’s advocate. When that thrill grew old, my passion left it. I was not fundamentally interested in politics. There was just an aspect of it I sort of enjoyed. I can still talk about it and if you force my hand, I could talk about it enough to sound interesting. It doesn’t live up to my listed passions here.

Embrace Your Non-Traditional Passions

It is easy to be passionate about some of the great wines you can find here on the US West Coast. It is also easy to be passionate about sports (my neighbors can vouch for that). It is hard to say that “Hey, I really love HR.” I could go on and on about what I love about HR but this blog exemplifies both of my passions fairly well. I try to make sure my passion about HR floods through in every post I write. It is the difficulty in both writing and embracing it that I have troubles with at times.

How can you understand me through my passions? Hopefully by the fact that I have maintained a blog consistently about a very niche issue and that most of my blogging relates to the non-stop running commentary in my head about how HR relates to everything.

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Having a Job Doesn’t Make You an Entrepreneur

There seems to be this mythology floating around that, regardless of the facts, you are an entrepreneur. For anyone who has been in HR, you are familiar with these sorts of theories that are supposed to make everyone feel good about themselves. One class during college focused on how everyone was a leader in their own special way. I don’t do fuzzy HR and not everyone is a leader. There may be a potential for everyone to become a leader (or an entrepreneur) but not everyone is a leader.

This sort of mythology bugs me because it minimizes the impact and the responsibility of good role players. The laser focus on leadership as the end all in business kills me. Even if you are a great leader, you have to be a great role player to be successful because you will have to be deferential at some point in your career.

What really sparked this frame of mind was Jason Alba’s post about entrepreneurship. I thought it was thoughtful and it made me take a step back. Jason is a textbook case of how an entrepreneur is born. Thrown into crappy circumstances (he was fired) and not having success doing the traditional job hunt, his despondence turned into business opportunity and he made a conscious effort to risk money, health and career on the opportunity in front of him.

So for Jason to say that people who stay at their miserable job for the (false) financial security, cheap health care and the advantages of following a traditional career path are as much of an entrepreneur as him? Yeah, that got my attention.

I understand the point but it doesn’t seem like that’s entrepreneurship to me. He says “You are CEO of Me, Inc.” That just seems to be a self-empowering statement (you are in charge of you). Just because you are in charge of your life doesn’t make you an entrepreneur.

I do think he truly meant what he said but I think he may be overly humble about what he had to go through to get to the point of writing a couple books, getting speaking engagements and so on. I think it is remarkable, just as remarkable as seeing my own family members go through the same struggles, near to complete failures and successes of entrepreneurship. It is hard to fathom that many employees have gone through the same tribulations and taken the same risks as entrepreneurs.

To end this in a semi-comprehensible manner, I believe that arguing that all people are entrepreneurs doesn’t recognize the value that both entrepreneurs and non-entrepreneurs bring to the table. In your career, sometimes you need to be an employee. There is nothing wrong with being non-entrepreneurial. It’s a choice that is made (whether consciously or not) and it shouldn’t be considered a bad thing.

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Following Happiness: 60% Of The Time, It Works Every Time

Brian Fantana: They’ve done studies, you know. 60% of the time, it works every time.
Ron Burgundy: That doesn’t make sense.

Anchorman (2004)

Last week, I was lucky enough to sit in on a conference call with Penelope Trunk. She was putting it on for members of Brazen Careerist (Gen Y career-ish oriented blogs) and I was extremely impressed with the overall call. Many people have a visceral reaction to Penelope (if you read through her comment sections, you’ll begin to understand) but despite my disagreements, it always seemed like she was interested in contributing to the overall careers discussion in a positive way. The hour long conference call solidified my feelings on this.

Some of the people on the call talked about some of the difficulties they faced in maintaining their blog or understanding the limit between what should be written about and what should be left behind. There was also an in depth discussion on what should be written about as far as interesting content. It was definitely relatable because I felt those same issues when I started blogging.

One of the things I took away from the call (that wasn’t mentioned but lit up in my head) was the fact that people should write about things that they are good at writing about in order to be successful bloggers. Anybody can write about things in a way that makes them happy. It is a low standard to hit. My first adventure into blogging involved a LiveJournal account that was full of emo lyrics and poorly thought out political stances. This sort of blogging made me happy but nobody cared what I wrote. It wasn’t well executed and writing about things in a way that made me happy turned my blogging into an unfocused disaster.

When you write about things that you are good at writing about (that’s a mouthful), you can hone your skills and actually become successful as a writer. Of course, being successful (usually) makes people happy and that’s what most people want.

Of course, I couldn’t help relating it back to careers. People often pursue (or desire pursuing) the thing in life that makes them happy. They often assume that what makes them happy makes for a good career. That seems entirely unreliable to me. My dad likes working on his 1950 Chevy but he wouldn’t like it as a career (and that would make him unhappy). Doing something you do well is a more reliable way to ensure happiness. It utilizes your strengths and it builds pride in yourself. And to me, that is much more important than following happiness.

Follow success and happiness will follow you.

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Inspiring Yourself With Music (Or Something Else)

I can’t go to sleep. I spent my entire Memorial Day weekend either sacked out or in heavy interaction with other people. The ebb and flow of it all is incredibly interesting, I just wish I didn’t have to deal with or think about it at midnight before work the next day.

I went through this phase in my life where I was incredibly inspired by music. Sometimes all it took was a little guitar riff to let an emotion wash over me. Sometimes a lyric could tell my entire story. My personal journal was full of written down music lyrics that I thought defined the moment. I was consumed by music though. I could easily spend all day listening to CD’s (or later on, MP3’s).

Looking back on it now, it seems very artificial to be pining for the days when music meant a lot to me. It seems like a lot of people find their way through their formative years with the help of music. Whether it be through rebellion or inspiration or love. For the record, my first tape I hid from my parents was LL Cool J. My first CD, Green Day’s Dookie didn’t come out from a classical music CD case until my junior year in high school. For inspiration, I turned to a worn out Boyz II Men tape. My first girlfriend and I had a “song” by K-Ci and JoJo. I had to Google the name of that band too.

The funny part about it all is that I didn’t lose that love of music, it wasn’t a phase, and it doesn’t seem artificial. 10 years ago, I picked up a guitar for the first time. I didn’t become a superstar but I became good enough so that when I pick it up, I can actually enjoy it. Every time I play (which I do with a decent frequency), I feel more tightly connected with music. I don’t know if it has anything to do with feeling the frequency of the notes resonating through your fingers.

I think the biggest breakthrough for me came when I realized that music didn’t have to emote me. The revelation that music could be used to reveal emotions I was feeling or the mood I was going through was a big deal. The more practical application was that I could correct bad or ineffective moods very easily with music.

So to the practical part of this post: a couple of days ago, I was stressed out. When I drove to work, I put in my Coldplay album instead of listening to sports talk radio (which is really for the better with all of the baseball talk). Half an hour later, all is better. It is a clever manipulation, one that initially made me angry. “Nothing changed, stupid,” I said to myself coldly. True enough.

In the end, it didn’t matter because that clever manipulation helped me perform better and ultimately did make the real change happen (albeit not directly, not that it matters). You have to use your inspirations to help you out in real life. If that means using your inspiration to leverage career success or using it to just get through your work day, do it.

So my inspiration is music which I guess isn’t all that unique but it works. Do you have a particularly unique inspiration? How do you use it to become successful?