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A few months ago, I read a book on career development called, “Smart Like How.” Unlike other books on management, entrepreneurship or business, “Smart Like How” fundamentally challenges traditional assumptions on how to advance in the workforce. The author recognized that people who accelerate through the first stages of their career, are excellent at creating opportunities for themselves, among other things. But how do they do it? He breaks out subtle skills that speed up the process of moving up for people just starting out in their careers.
I truly believe if you read but one book on career advice, it should be this one.
Here are a few tidbits of its contrarian career advice.
Stuff they Didn’t Tell you in College
Be a smart consumer of education. Too many of my friends simply followed the herd to grad school with no clear choice of career or the financial impact of student loans on their future lifestyle. Given the high opportunity cost of higher education, I truly believe there are alternative routes to further one’s career.
Schools offer two core services:
Providing you with knowledge
Certifying that you learned something
It is key to understand the value of certification versus knowledge.
When knowledge is most important:
If you are looking to advance your role by taking on new knowledge, certification matters less.
When certification trumps knowledge:
If you’re part of the product (i.e. selling yourself or credentials), certification and school brand matters more. (e.g. my financial advisor graduated from Harvard).
Bottom line – approach education like any business decision and don’t let vanity get in the way. Track record is the ultimate certification, “Jenny closed a six-figure deal,” trumps, “Amy has an MBA from Stanford.”
Hard Work Paradox
The hard work paradox states that even extreme effort and sacrifice is not enough to guarantee career success and how differentiating yourself from the get-go works.
The Hard Work Paradox acknowledge two truths about professional life:
There is a finite limit to how much you can possibly work.
People who work really hard gravitate toward industries, then companies, and ultimately teams where everyone else works really hard too, ultimately diminishing their ability to set themselves apart from their peers.
Takeaway – professional advancement can ultimately be determined by quality of work, making the organization better, and getting authority figures to entrust you with some power and responsibility of your own.
Developing a Positioning Map
A positioning map is a simple mental exercise of understanding the competitive landscape of your company, it’s industry and your competitive advantage within it. A positioning map is more than simply the company’s elevator pitch, but doesn’t need to be the bottom of the ocean either. All you need is an understanding of your company and its place in the industry today. The positioning map could be more than a comparison of different companies, but deeper picture into service or product lines, market share and in-demand tools/skills utilized for each. Distilling the challenges of your current company within a competitive landscape allows you to be able to think seriously about tough, subjective decisions that business owners are grappling within right now.
After understanding why a position is valuable and intentionally structured within an organization, it becomes easier to then as an employee, to layout a roadmap for how to implement the vision.
Additionally, most people don’t know how to use data to implement their vision. If you’ve been working a while and trying to find something out, there’s a good chance someone else probably asked the same questions at some point. The data is likely there, but there’s a good chance that it is just sitting idle with no real reason for why the data is being collected other than to be reported at yearend or within board meetings. Valuable information can be found in CRM systems, market research reports, internal presentations, online reviews of a product or custom satisfaction surveys. Often useful information is not used to improve a business simply because it gets lost in the shuffle in an inconvenient format.
Persuasion and Adoption of Ideas to Prove your Value Proposition
Ideas need to be more than just interesting to be heard by the right people. Here are 6 steps for driving acceptance of your message within an organization.
Step Back – There’s no excuse or subsititute for doing your homework. Anticipate objections and make your idea easy to swallow based on the audience.
Put it in Writing – Jeff Bezos is famous for requiring senior managers to present ideas in six-page memos that the team reads in silence to start meetings. Writing forces you to sharpen your thoughts. For Bezos, “Full sentences are harder to write. There is no way to write a six-page memo and not have clear thinking.”
Identify Stakeholders – Figure out the first person who needs to be on board from the start and will provide good input. This makes the iteration process easier.
Chose the Right Format – Every person processes information differently. Having a mixture of visuals, reading and a verbal presentation ensures a broad array of people will absorb the information.
Engage in Person – Work a little harder to make a memorable impression. Follow-up over different mediums. Just had an in-person meeting? Follow-up with a phone call or email, etc.
Secure Next Steps – Always take ownership of the next steps and seek to control the momentum.
Work is a Means of Fulfillment
Finally, Smart Like How comes out and dispels the elephant in the room – the fact that we, in a modern society tie up a significant portion of our identity in our jobs. The fact that it is nearly impossible to go ten minutes into a conversation with a stranger without asking each other what our job is shows the weight we attach to work. That’s fine, until you consider that many of us aren’t in the jobs that we really want to be in and nearly half are still grappling with uncertainty around what the right job would be.
Considering that we spend approximately 2,0000 hours per year tied up in our work, should we really spend that time sub-optimally (i.e. not fully utilized or in work that we are apathetic about)?