What I Learned From My First Seven Jobs

static-playbillThere’s a meme making its way around the web in which people name their first seven jobs. Such recollections often involve typical teenage ventures like mowing lawns and selling lemonade. Sometimes people even brand them as ‘my first entrepreneurial journey,’ or claim to have gained great insight from the experience. I won’t. Because the fact is, I really did not want to do any of my first seven. I didn’t do them for love. At the time, I was strictly in it for the money.

That doesn’t mean I can’t recast them now, in the light of how I might have (with stress on ‘might’) learned something that’s now indispensable to my business self. Can’t say with any honesty that any of these jobs were truly meaningful, to me or the world, in any way. Certainly none of them were even remotely as soul-fulfilling as what I’m doing now.

First job: Babysitter. I was thirteen, and ‘teen’ was my primary qualification. Well, that, plus my ability to play the gender card. Babysitting, perhaps the only job in which girls were the preferred candidates over boys, was easy to get…especially in the summer. It consisted mainly of sitting on the porch, swatting mosquitos, reading trashy novels, and hoping that all the kids stayed asleep – and I stayed awake – until the parents came home.

Lesson learned: Taking care of other people’s kids is boring. Note to self, do not try to manage interns when you can get someone else to do it.

Second, I was an office girl. That is not a misprint. It was an actual job title. The office girl was the one who was expected to answer the phone and smile. She was not expected to lift packages or get within a mile of any heavy machinery. Ok, so there are tradeoffs in everything. I did learn the fundamentals of bookkeeping, pre-QuickBooks.

Lesson learned: It is important to know who the real boss is. In family companies, it’s the guy whose name is on the papers in the locked file, not the one you report to who you call ‘Mister’ and everyone else calls ‘Sonny.’ Unless, that is, his name really is Sonny.

Third, I was a bookkeeping assistant. Now, to dissuade anyone who’s thinking, “Aha, she really knows how to build a resume,” I want you to know I got this job because the overworked bookkeeper was my aunt. (Side note: the previous job was gotten because a friend of mother’s wanted to take whole the summer off. They really wanted her to come back, so they agreed. I don’t know what she told them about me, but I suspect she added a few years to my real age – fifteen at the time.)

Lesson learned: If you make a bookkeeping mistake, you absolutely, positively, have to correct it. Because in some areas of business, there are no secrets. (I learned some other stuff in that job too, about boys who were planning to be the Sonny in their dad’s business, but that stuff is not for this publication at this time.)

So I had gained real experience in the world of business. I knew how to calculate taxes and manage a payroll, where the most important thing was getting the right amount in each pay envelope. I knew how to write a deposit slip for my bank account, which paid interest. And I knew that I needed to graduate college because no way was I ever going to learn to type.

My fourth job really wasn’t much of a job, in that it had no other requirement than being a college freshman. But it brought in more money than babysitting, so it counts. The job consisted of being an experimental psychology subject. And here I came away with more than just cash. I figured out their trade secret!

Lesson learned: No matter how authoritative someone looks, do not believe them until they have proved themselves to be unassailably trustworthy. (This was quite useful in a time when ‘question authority’ and ‘don’t trust anyone over 30’ were wildly popular slogans of youth culture.)

Fifth job (so soon?):  A couple of college instructors had a side gig finding smart young people to do intensely boring work that required high-level reading ability. The job was called ‘Survey Answer Coder’ and yes, I qualified. In fact, I was probably close to the edge of being overqualified, at least in the reading dimension.

Lesson learned: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. Because life is short, and bored is a terrible way to live. Even for a four-hour shift.

Next in line – I took on the job of a nanny, making my sixth job the first one I ever accepted, knowing I would hate it. Now if you have been reading attentively, you know that I was not a great match for babysitting. But I was in college, I needed money, and I was still a girl. Who couldn’t type.

Lesson learned: Job title does not matter. How you are expected to interact with other people, including children, matters. A lot.

Mercifully, I finally graduated. My major in psychology qualified me for two jobs. One was ‘research assistant,’ which meant I would have to type at least 35 words a minute. (Apparently most non-typists could do this, as long as they knew the alphabet.) I ended up doing the other one because it paid more and typing was optional.

And so my seventh job was as a social worker in a major city with more than its share of social problems. I don’t think I solved any, although I know that in some people’s minds, I probably added to them. Turned out that social change or benefit really wasn’t even on my employer’s agenda, so I joined the union and helped organize.

Lesson learned: The lesser of two evils is still evil. And nothing is more evil than not being able to make meaningful contributions to something bigger than yourself.

I am, of course, a lot older now. And maybe even a tad wiser. There have been a lot of jobs between number 7 and the one I have now. While those lessons learned in my youth are still valid, I now have a much bigger context in which to put them. That context is teaming: understanding it; doing it; and sharing it.

The lessons are simple. And like many good things, they come in three.

1. People do best what they like best and they like best what they do best. No matter how smart and talented you are, you are still not an exception.

2. If there is not enough excitement in what you do – or if there is too much, in which case you will feel it as stress – you will neither enjoy it nor be able to give it your best.

3. The more your job requires you to interact with others – whether they be managers, fellow employees, customers, or other stakeholders – in ways that don’t feel right, or that you do not value, the less you will feel good about yourself.

Keep these three lessons front and center, and you’ll likely discover the secret of happiness. Because if you’ve never had them all going for you, maybe your real job is being an entrepreneur.

Being SMART may not be so smart after all. 

christian-rosswag-154067Did you make any New Year’s resolutions this year? If so, I’m guessing that some of them are still in the works, such as those involving goals for the entire year. Are they making you frustrated? It’s no secret that, along with performance evaluations, goal setting is one of those things people never quite learn to love. And yet, setting goals is one of those things everyone (particularly authors and bloggers) expects successful business people to do, despite the fact that successful business people often hate doing things other people expect of them.

But tradition is tradition, so on January 1, I sat down, pen in hand, to jot some notes. And all I could think of was the old organizational command to make your plans SMARTSpecific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound. Back in the day, these were supposed to be the delimiters of sure-fire goal setting. If your goal couldn’t stand up to those, it just wasn’t making the grade.

But this is now, and now is the age of innovation. And, being a lover (and creator) of innovation, I asked myself whether I should still be following the processes of an earlier era. Here’s what emerged…

Specific stayed, because if a goal isn’t specific, how do you ever figure out where you’re headed?

And I kept Measurable, because although I don’t like rating systems, I do like to have some idea of how far I’ve come, and whether I’m still on track.

Relevant made me think hard. When you have a very broad range of applications, or you’re trying something completely new, then relevance may not be known at all during the planning stage, and can only emerge from the process. (For the fashion-aware, consider the problem of ‘orphan’ accessories. I once had a fabulous, but useless, beaded belt that I kept around for ages. Then one day an ensemble appeared in my closet that just screamed for turquoise beads.) Sometimes a thing will make itself relevant just by chance, which is a good reason for having a looser definition of the word.

Then there was Time-bound: a no-brainer because I was thinking ‘goals for 2016’ rather than the next decade or millennium.

Which brought me back to Attainable. That, too, seemed obvious…until I did a quick check in an online dictionary and learned that Attainable things are within your reach.

‘Within reach’ suggests that you can get what you want without a whole lot of stretch or effort. Now, if you keep a scoreboard that you like to decorate with a lot of wins, put plenty of ‘attainables’ on your to-do list. But if innovation and change are what you seek, then SMART goals need a warning label: DANGER: Attainable goals may be damaging to your organization’s ability to innovate.

Focusing on attainable goals could also be a turn-off to the very people who are most capable of handling risk, making discoveries, and creating innovation! Those are the people who rarely ask if something is possible or not. They just go for the goal – asking bigger questions, covering more ground, trying harder, and stretching further.

In Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’ books, there was the White Queen who said, “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!” No one would accuse her of SMART planning – and yet, believing the impossible to be possible is a sure way to bypass the barrier of achievability. Can you imagine what might happen if your goals didn’t need to be achievable? I can.

  1. You’d have nothing to lose. With no one expecting sure-fire success, you could feel free to take some wild-ass swings. Sure, some will be whiffs, but you might just knock the ball out of the park. (Believe it or not, fear is the biggest cause of failure.)
  1. You can still go for simple solutions. If they don’t work, you’ll be right: your goal wasn’t achievable. But you’d be primed to succeed, so you’d try an alternative path. And another, and another. And should you eventually get there, so much the better! (Being right and winning are not the same – but they’re not mutually exclusive.)
  1. You’d forever leave the ranks of the narrow-minded; the people who put the ‘no’ in innovation, joining instead the ones who bring positive change and brighter futures.

May your ‘impossible’ of 2016 become your successful innovation of 2017!

Branding Yourself – without the pain in the…

Okay, so I have to start by admitting that when I first heard the term ‘brand yourself’ I thought of baby cows. As in, baby cows receiving the very painful and permanent imprint of someone’s logo on their butts.

That image went away when I started hanging out with real branding experts. Corporate branding, I mean, where no animals are harmed in the making of the marks.

These people are really interesting, because you can dish about the stuff you buy, and they can tell you why you’re buying it. (Sometimes, of course, an incredibly soft pair of black leather riding boots are just for keeping your legs warm and your feet dry in winter…while looking sensational with the bag you scored in an online sale, and the fact that both are from Cole Haan is just a coincidence. But I digress.)

We live in a blizzard of branding, so it was a surprise to hear from my friends Dr. Natalie Petouhoff and Laura Walton that brands are having a hard time these days. Apparently it’s becoming increasingly difficult for them to deliver on their brand promises.

One thing I’ve known for a very long time is that delivering on promises is pretty important. I hadn’t given much thought to making promises via an abstract intermediary, but, as Dr. Natalie and Laura pointed out, brands are very much like people, in the way that companies are sort of like people…in the legal sense. So it follows: sometimes companies make promises, and if the promises aren’t kept, trouble ensues. Often, that kind of wrangling happens in a back room – or a courtroom. But when a brand makes (or carries with it) a promise, and doesn’t keep it, the whole mess can happen right out in front of everybody, via Twitter, on Facebook, in the blogosphere, and in the media.

Now, having been raised to a new level of branding-awareness, I asked the esteemed legal advisor and intellectual property expert, Fred Wilf about promises. (Fred, by the way, is the guy who put the ® in Teamability®, for which we love him forever. And although he’s an attorney, he speaks in a way that the rest of us who aren’t can readily understand.)

Sayeth Fred, “In the legal context, a promise is a statement or declaration of intent. It can be written or oral. A written promise can be signed or unsigned. It can be unilateral or bilateral/multilateral (mutual). It can be made in exchange for something of value or the promise of payment of something of value (‘consideration’). It can be made in exchange for another promise that does not include payment. Under the law, whether a promise becomes an enforceable contract depends on each of these facts, and a few more.”

And as it always happens, Fred got me thinking about things I hadn’t been thinking about, to wit, what if all brand promises had to meet the legal standard? What if what my brand – what I promise you – was an enforceable contract?

So, for any one of you who have taken the widely recommended advice to upgrade your image to a brand, I just want you to know one thing: Your brand promise may be the most important promise you ever make – and keep.

Keeping your brand promise isn’t just a directive, a script, or a process. It’s more like a world-view. You need some way of building and sustaining a living model of what you are and what you stand for. For organizations, that’s usually called culture, but for a brand – or a person with a brand – there just isn’t enough time to get something that big into a small package. Business or person, there’s only one of you – and nothing to hide behind.

Your brand – and your brand promise – will stand or fall based on credibility. And despite all those assurances of privacy and confidentiality made by top-level-friends-and-followers-only infochannels, this is a social media world. There are no secrets.

So whether you’re maintaining a company or a personal brand, you must maintain currency in keeping your promises, because people are watching and deciding all the time. Including me…and Fred.

Here’s some basic advice:

First, make sure you know what you’re promising.

I’m going to be blunt here. If you borrowed the concept for your brand promise from someone’s website whose product is ‘pretty similar’ to yours, you blew it before you even got out of the gate. Promises – at least the good ones – arise from the heart and survive through integrity. (Perhaps you are old enough to remember the inherently equivocating “Promise her anything, but give her Arpége” campaign. If so, you’ll understand why it drove me to use any perfume BUT that brand.)

Second, make sure you are promising the right promise: the one your potential customer really wants.

Begin by drafting your promise; then reflect on it, and then air it out through your preferred channels. Are you promising a starry night where the earth moves? Something that ends happily ever after? Or is it just your ‘thing’ that’s helpful and reliable? Before you set the promise in stone, you had better be sure of its connection – and its connotation. Remember the 5M rule: Mixed Messages Mostly Make Messes.

Finally, figure out how you’re going to convince your potential ‘consumer’ that you really will be keeping your promise.

These days, few people take time to read all the copy. It’s your brand that gets you up close and personal, and it’s in that very tight space that the truth comes out. Not just with your followers and not just with your Facebook friends, but with everyone.

Adopt a platform of respect, appreciation, and gratitude – and make sure that the people on your team treat each other that way. If your brand gets mixed up in any one or more of the fifty shades of miserable management, you’ll soon be sporting a danger sign that glows in the dark.

Brand credibility is something you have to earn on the shop floor, in the board room, in the middle of the late night scrum session, in every conversation, every text, and every face-to-face, every day.

No matter how hard we try to connect with our customer, if we can’t first connect with each other, no brand – personal or otherwise – will ever rise to the standard of being a promise.