Friday, June 14, 2019

Definitive Guide on Boosting Careers: How to Find Stretch Assignments

Previously, I discussed why you should pursue stretch assignments to boost your career. Today, I discuss how you find stretch assignments to maximize your career boost. A recap: One takes on stretch assignments to learn new skills. Should you pursue any assignment for your career? Of course not. You take on rotations that allow you to drive your career towards a desirable direction. If you want to become a manager, take on rotations in engineering leadership, program management, or in first line management. If you enjoy developing cutting edge technology, take rotations in the Science, Technology Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) fields. One you have a general idea where you want to move your career, how do you find the best stretch assignments? I'll explain below.

You must develop a reputation for outstanding work

It's simple: Why would anyone want you in your organization if your reputation stinks? You must complete your current tasks to the best of your abilities. Even if you dislike your job, and job dissatisfaction represents a valid reason for career changes, you must put your best efforts forward. Whether you work for a small or large company, people talk. If your peers and management know you for excellent work, people will want you on their teams. To market yourself effectively, you need to let your managers know when you do outstanding work. This can be in person or via email. I suggest an email first to keep written records of your achievements. You should follow-up with your manager in person to make sure he or she received your email.

Tip: Work in your current position for at least three years first

Unless you find yourself regretting a move into your current position, you should stay in that position for a minimum of three years. This will give you sufficient time to get used to your role and work on at least one project. Remember, your reputation matters, and reputations take time to develop in business. No one will know you if you get in a company, and you want to switch roles immediately after starting at the company.

Does this rule apply to everyone? No. Some companies have entry-level Leadership Development Programs (LDPs), and new employees can apply for these programs within the first year of employment. If you truly find yourself unhappy in your career, you can speak to your manager about a position change. However, you should first address the reasons for your dissatisfaction in your current role. Have honest discussions with your manager first, and you consider rotation assignments as a final option.

Update your resume

 This sounds counter-intuitive at first. Because stretch assignments are temporary, you will not formally interview for them. Formally represents the key word here, as you will speak with managers and project leads about potential assignments. Your resume is your calling card and your introduction. You will use it, along with an introductory email, to introduce yourself to these people. Even if they know you personally, they do not know your accomplishments. Sell yourself by keeping your resume up to date. You can brag about your accomplishments, yet you should never lie.

Keep your resume accomplishments relevant to the positions for that you will inquire. You can add personality by listing hobbies provided they relate. If you seek assignments in leadership, you can list volunteer activities if you hold a formal position, and you've held that position for a year or more. If you use a chronological resume, make sure you list your most recent accomplishments first.

Develop your short-term, mid-term, and long-term career plan

If you don't know your destination, how can you get there? You must create figure out your career goals and determine your strengths and weaknesses before you can find the best stretch assignments. Your career plan will consist of the following sections:

  • Short Term: 1 - 5 years
  • Mid Term: 6 - 10 years
  • Long Term: 10 years and beyond
Your career plan represents where you see yourself in those time frames. Is your plan set is stone? Of course not. You should revise your career plan once a year. However, once you calibrate your path, you should assess your strengths and weaknesses. Perform a gap analysis to learn what skills you need to develop, so you can achieve your goals. If you find your soft leadership skills lacking, consider leadership positions that force you to develop your skills. If you want to become a software developer, and you find you know little about configuration management, pursue positions in software development. My point is this: You cannot select stretch assignments that take you outside your comfort zone if you do not know your boundaries.

Discuss your career plan with your manager

You cannot pursue stretch assignments in a vacuum. Your manager can assist in developing your career. Of course, this assumes that your organization's culture encourages professional growth, and I will not discuss what to do in these cases here. It behooves managers to help people develop their careers and get promoted, as that reflects positively on them. That said, you should arrange a face-to-face meeting with your manager, and discuss how you see your career flowing in the coming years. Speak to your interests and what makes you uncomfortable. You want assignments that challenge you and push you to your limits. That is how you grow professionally and personally. You will not achieve lofty goals without taking risks. Yes, you might fail, yet you should see those as career paths that you should reconsider for your long-term plans.

Your manager is your coach. He or she can offer suggestions on what rotations best fit your goals, and what positions will challenge you. They should know what managers have positions that need to be filled for the next 9 to 12 months. Take advantage of these openings: Write down names and descriptions of the positions. If your manager suggests that you review internal job boards, follow-up on that suggestion. However, they should have established a network within your company's management structure, so your manager should know who has openings.

Tip: Join a Leadership Development Program (LDP)

If you want to spend the next two or three years in your career in stretch assignments, I would advise that you join a LDP. I briefly mentioned LDPs aimed at entry-level professionals. There exist LDPs for mid-career individuals who want to boost their careers in different directions. These LDPs often aim to place people into leadership positions. However, if leadership roles do not interest you, you do not need to place yourself into a management spot. I would take advantage of these programs anyway, as all professionals can benefit from developing leadership skills. Even if you decide not to become a manager, you could find yourself leading teams. Why not develop your leadership skills? You can boost your career by showing management that you successfully lead teams to success.

Of course, LDPs often require employees to have excellent yearly reviews. If you focus on performing with excellence, this should not be a problem. You will shine, and the LDP Manager will want to bring you into the program. Once you are in a LDP, meet with the LDP manager and get their advice on possible rotations. This manager will get to know you through one-on-one meetings, and they have contacts within your company who will show interest in you. Take detailed notes during your meetings, and make sure to follow-up. LDP managers will want to make sure that you find a good rotation.

Meet with Rotation Managers

Now that you have contacts, reach out to them with your resume! Write short emails that do the following:

  • Tell the manager who you are
  • Explain a few key skills that match their position
  • Tell them why you are interested in joining their group
  • Request a 30 to 60 minute meeting with them
Do not forget to include your resume. Recall, it is your career summary, and the managers will need it to understand you as an individual. Sometimes managers do not respond immediately. Wait one to two weeks to follow-up, and follow-up gracefully. Remind them of your interest in the position. Suggest a date and time, and ask if that works.

Once you schedule meetings, make sure you are on time for those meetings. Always bring a copy of your resume, and dress professionally. You do not need to dress formally, as this is an informal interview. However, I advice that you do not wear casual Friday clothing. When you meet, you should be prepared to tell the manager about yourself. Make sure you have a thirty second elevator pitch. Explain why you want to do a rotational assignment in that manager's group. You should be confident in yourself. It is OK for you to be nervous, yet remember that you are interviewing for a temporary position within your group.

Quite often, people forget to have questions for the rotation manager. This is an area where you can steer yourself off course. You should ask the manager the following types of questions:
  • Why is the position open?
  • What do you expect from an employee in this role?
  • What is your management style?
  • What skills would you need to develop during the training phase?
  • What is your team like to work with? How would you describe your group's micro-culture?
  • Optional: Do you plan on retiring in the upcoming year?
  • Optional: Does this position require travel? If so, how much?
You can ask other questions. Just make sure to give the manager time to explain the position to you. The last two questions are optional. If the manager is far in their career, you should know if they will be there to support you throughout your rotation. If they leave the company, will they have an alternate who can guide you? If the position requires traveling, you will need to know especially if you have a family. You might be unwilling to sacrifice time and relationships if you will be on the road most of the time.

Summary

You must take responsibility on finding the best rotations for your career. When making your decisions, make sure to follow your gut. If something seems off, do not take the rotation. I've done this myself, and I found myself having to find another one. It was painful. Yes, I found a rotation that suited my career better. However, I would have found that rotation sooner had I followed my intuition that said something was wrong with the rotation.

Remember, you need to follow up with the managers. Thank them via email for their time. If you decide not to take a rotation in their group, politely let them know. Of course, you need to let your manager know of your decision. (This applies to your LDP manager if you are in a LDP.) Remember, the rotation is not permanent, so you will need to decide at the end of the rotation if you will go back into your original assignment, or if you will make that rotation permanent. Communication is key throughout the entire process. It will help you boost your career because you will find stretch assignments that guide you along the career path that you want.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
You can achieve your career goals in business through a combination of knowledge, support, experience, potential, and expert assistance.


Sunday, June 9, 2019

Accelerate your career through stretch assignments 2019

Do you feel stuck in your career?  You can accelerate by taking on stretch assignments. Take on roles that challenge you. Look for career opportunities requiring skills you want to develop. The point is to get out of your comfort zone. If you have strong technical skills, look for opportunities that challenge you to develop soft leadership skills. You can think of these assignments as lateral career moves. Instead of moving up the ladder, you move across in a different role that forces you to learn new skills. You can move up by applying these freshly minted experiences.

What do companies consider as stretch assignments? Employees take temporary assignments in different areas within their field. A hardware engineer might take on a 12 month assignment as a systems engineer or as a software developer. A financial analyst could rotate into accountant roles. A software engineer can stretch into an engineering program management position. These positions can be temporary, or they can evolve into more permanent positions. They must challenge the employee.

When you stretch, you will feel comfortable. You will find difficulties in your new role. You could feel like you'll fail miserably. You might wonder why you bothered. If you find yourself feeling this way, you must persevere especially if seek promotions into management. Stretch assignments will test your tenacity. They will make you question your abilities. A key note: good stretch assignments push you outside of your comfort zone, so you can learn and apply new skills.

I can attest this personally. I'm in a leadership development program (LDP) where I work. I've been through it twice. First, I rotated out of systems engineering into software engineering. Although I have a minor in computer science, it had been years since I programmed in C++. I forget many constructs related to object oriented software development. However, my team helped me, as I quickly learned a non-technical skill. You can ask others for help. In fact, you always need support from your team. They know their craft, and they want you to succeed. I recalled software engineering tenets including unit testing, configuration management, and test driven development. When I felt unsure, my team members pointed me to materials to hone my software engineering skills.

Not every skill you learn focuses on technology such as software development. If you intend to become a leader, you develop soft skills. Communication, time management, people management. Think of them as are forms instead of science. You will make mistakes. What ever you do, you must not become complacent in your role. Your team and program management depend on you to see your project through its next milestone. In leadership roles, you must learn how to manage your team, and you must communicate their concerns up to program management. Keep track of tasks and responsibilities, as your reputation will precede you. You should develop a reputation as a leader who can get through challenges. Your team and project management must rely on you.

How do stretch assignments accelerate your career? You volunteer for challenging assignments, and you lead them to success. You learn new skills that you transfer into promotions. I've been told that receiving a promotion is a matter of having the right skills at the right time. You must develop broad skills that you can transfer into higher levels. If course, you retain your central expertise whether in engineering, business development, or finance. Challenging stretch assignments broaden your skills because you lack skills you need for new roles. You develop new skills through on the job learning.

I give you my second personal example. I'm currently in a product engineer role. I own a software product my team develops. Ownership exists in a figurative sense. I own the software configuration management, software problems database, and the documents pertaining to the software package. Where do the challenges exist? First, I quickly learned the product: how to maintain it, compile it, install it, and test it while keeping track of customer delivery deadlines. Second, I must communicate status to program management while leading my team of software developers on an Agile schedule. This requires communication and commitment to keeping track of software problems and the software development solutions. Software products inherently exhibit complexities. Communication can lack quickly, so I must keep the problem database maintained at all times. I must communicate customer needs through project management down to the team. All this while keeping to the schedule.

Are stretch assignments worth your time? Absolutely! They can feel daunting, as you take on responsibilities in new fields. However, you will push through the difficulties. You will develop a reputation for excellence. You will learn new skills and master them. By broadening your skills, you will be ready for opportunities whenever they arise. You will accelerate your career because you learn more in short periods of time by taking risks. You take risks by taking on assignments outside your core area of knowledge. You develop new skills because you do not want to fail in your new endeavor. In the long run, you prove yourself worthy of promotions. You do this faster than peers who chose their comfort zones over trying new things. If you have an opportunity to take a stretch assignment, go for it. You will learn much about yourself and where you want to point your career.

Accelerate your career through challenging stretch and rotational assignments
Grow your career through challenging stretch assignments



Want to learn more about career advancement and leadership? Please read my prior posts on the subject:

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Show your Pride by Joining Ohev Shalom’s Third Annual PRIDE Shabbat


Ohev Shalom of Bucks County announces with exuberance its third annual Pride Shabbat on Friday June 14th at 6 PM at our Synagogue located at 944 Second Street Pike in Richboro, PA. Please join us as we welcome LGBTQ Educator and Activist Jamie Joy for an engaging and interactive discussion on gender diversity, trans identity, and building an inclusive Jewish community. This year’s PRIDE Shabbat is sponsored by J.Proud, a JFCS Initiative through the Jewish Philly LGBTQ Consortium.

Ohev Shalom and our congregation believes that every person deserves love and respect. We welcome all peoples to our synagogue, so please join us for this special Shabbat to celebrate our Jewish LGBTQIA+ brothers and sisters.

For more information, please visit Ohev Shalom of Bucks County. We look forward to seeing you at our exciting and musical Pride Shabbat services on June 14th!



Monday, June 3, 2019

How to Market Yourself for Larger Paychecks and Promotions

Engineering students often learn all the technical details behind the engineering jobs we begin after graduation. Unfortunately, they rarely learn business aspects behind their roles in companies including marketing and sales. One aspect that students rarely learn is the importance of marketing oneself. The underlying key means understanding that companies exist to make money. Some companies make money for their investors. Others make money to support local communities. In order to earn larger raises and promotions, you need to prove your value to your manager. In this post, I will give on advice on how you can do that.

Marketing Yourself via Pixabay
To many engineers and technologists, the concept of marketing oneself feels foreign and uncomfortable. Many of us exist as introverts: We enjoy spending time alone or among other nerds who share our common likes. (Think about the last time you hung out with fellow engineers to watch The Big Bang Theory or the latest Marvel movie. Did you hang out with any managers?) The idea of bragging to managers scares introverts because they might fear judgement or rejection. At this, I once felt this way. A good manager is a leader who wants their team to succeed. An excellent employee wants to see their manager succeed by showing them positive results. They help the manager move up in the company. Senior Managers look for managers whose teams win contracts, sell products, and make their customers happy. When you show your achievements regularly, you make your manager look good in their managers' eyes. This will reflect positively on you.

Here are several ways you can market your achievements to your manager:

  • Regular status reports
  • Monthly One-on-One Meetings with your manager
  • Communication with Program and Other Managers
  • Achievement Emails
  • Yearly Reviews
Regular Status Reports

These are often known as Items of Interest or IOIs. Most managers request monthly status reports, and others request them bi-weekly. If you intend on marketing your achievements, you must take your IOIs seriously. Yes, status reports can be a major pain in the butt. However, you must complete them sufficiently if you want your manager to consider your for higher raises and promotions. You might want to give weekly status reports to stay on your manager's radar. According to Veli-Johan Veromann at WeekDone, "weekly reports are an efficient way to communicate all projects, tasks and progresses during a week." They note that reports must be accurate and brief to keep your manager's attention. You could communicate the following topics:
  • Major customer presentations given
  • Quantitative results including dollar cost savings or product sales
  • Contract wins with dollar amounts
  • Efforts to fill in any gaps you have
  • Achievements that show leadership such as achieving a major team milestone
Quantify your results as much as you can especially if you can show that you brought money into your company, or you saved your company a significant amount of funds. For example, suppose you implemented a process improvement. It might take four hours for a test engineer to test Major Electronic Manufacturer High-Tech Wireless Widget, and your process improvement brings that down to an hour. Per device, this might appear as an insignificant event. However, suppose the test engineer costs the company $25 / hour in labor fees, and your company will sell one million electronic devices. By trimming three hours off the testing time, you just saved your company $75 million! You achieved an awesome achievement, and you must communicate that to your manager during your regular status report. Market yourself!

An important reminder: Keep your regular status reports brief. New employees reason that every achievement matters no matter how small. I should know, as I used to report minor achievements myself. It will take time for you to understand what you should report. If you are unsure, find a senior employee and ask them for advice. You can ask them to review your status report draft. If they agree, get their feedback and trim accordingly.



Monthly One-on-One Meetings

To market yourself, your manager must know you and your accomplishments. Although you will email your manager (a.k.a., boss) your status reports, emails can seem impersonal. You must follow them up with in person meetings. Sometimes, your manager will schedule monthly one-on-one meetings. If they do not, it is your responsibility to get regular time on their calendars. According to Bruce Tulgan, of RainmakerThinking Inc., "The fundamental goal of one-on-one meetings is communicating with your boss about the work you are doing for him. With each boss, decide what to focus on at each meeting." Tulgan suggests that you ask yourself the following questions during each meeting:

  1. What problems have not been anticipated?
  2. What problems need to be solved?
  3. What resources do you need to complete your tasks or your manager's goals?
  4. Is there anything that you do not understand? Any instructions or goals that need clarification? 
  5. What things have happened since the last meeting that your manager needs to know about?
  6. Do you have questions for your manager?
Clear communication is a major component of employee to manager meetings. You want to communicate your achievements, that is true. However, you must communicate any mistakes or errors you made and steps you have taken to correct them. Employees are human, and humans make mistakes. You will make mistakes. The important thing is that you learn from them and make sure you put steps in place that prevent them in the future. Managers expect their employees to screw up from time to time. What they don't expect is for employees to be proactive about their slips and falls. Catch your mistakes early and often, so they do not get repeated one million times and cost the company millions of dollars.

You can express concerns during one-on-one's with your manager. If you feel your performance slipping, meet bi-weekly. Your manager can coach you into better performance. According to Christine Zust at Kent State University, "a good coach recognizes the gem that lies beneath the surface. The coach can often see things that the protégé can’t. If you are helping your protégé to become a greater leader, then make an honest assessment up front. See where the gaps exist. Work with the protégé to create an action plan for improvement. Support the protégé’s goals and action plan." A novice employee might think that reporting bad news to a manager will poorly reflect in their yearly review. I argue that the opposite is true. You must give yourself an honest assessment, so you can communicate skill gaps to your manager, and your manager in turn can offer advice for you to close those gaps. (Click to Tweet). You want to communicate this during in-person meetings well before your yearly review. You give yourself time to improve and show how brightly you can shine in challenging situations. Otherwise, your manager will give your a poor review.

See: "The Top Complaints from Employees About Their Leaders" Published on HBR.org by Lou Solomon on June 24, 2015


In short, you must meet with your manager regularly. Not convinced yet? According to Lou Solomon at the Harvard Business Review, "data shows that the vast majority of leaders are not engaging in crucial moments that could help employees see them as trustworthy." From the graphic above, the top complaint about managers is that they are "not recognizing employee achievements." Regular face to face meetings with your manager give you opportunities to close these communication gaps. If your manager is not proactive in meeting with you, you must insist on arranging those meetings. Your career depends on it!


Communication with Program and Other Managers


What is the fifth employee complaint according to Solomon? Managers who take credit for their employees' ideas. How can you overcome this? Meet with other managers. If you work for a small company, it might be difficult for your manager to steal your ideas because ideas spread quickly in small groups. However, it becomes difficult to prove origins of ideas in larger companies if employees do not speak up. Your direct manager assigns you to work on specific projects or programs. You report to team leads, project managers, and program managers. Talk to them as much as you can! They speak among themselves, and your ideas cannot get claimed by someone else if you tell multiple people about them.

If your employer uses a stakeholder based feedback system, you might list your program manager as a stakeholder who gives feedback to your manager. You want to make your program manager happy. Establish face to face / one-on-one meetings with your program manager especially if you are a team lead. You want to ask yourself the same questions that you asked before meeting with your manager. Who knows, you might take on a position under that program manager. Although you will make mistakes, and the relationship might sour at times, you want to communicate any issues you face during the project cycle. Do not be scared of getting negative or critical feedback from your program manager. Instead, think of it as opportunities to improve yourself. Set goals to report improvements back to your program manager, so they know you heeded their warnings and advice.


Achievement Emails

Often, we receive kudos from program managers for milestone achievements. Perhaps, you led a team to a successful software delivery. You gave an important presentation to a customer or client, and you pleased them with your results. You helped the company win a multi-million dollar contract with a major customer. Whatever the achievement, forward the email notice to your manager. If possible, mention this achievement in passing when walking through the office, and make sure to include them in your regular status reports.

Your manager can list your achievements in status reports to their managers. Remember, you want to make your manager look good. Your manager wants to show positive results because they reflect positively in their yearly reviews. Help your manager succeed by showcasing your success. Do not be afraid to toot your own horn. You achieved something great, and you have the right to tell people about it. This is a key to marketing yourself.


Yearly Reviews

Few employees enjoy yearly reviews, and surprisingly few managers like giving yearly reviews. However, fewer managers show willingness to do away with them. (An alternative to yearly reviews are 360 reviews as discussed in Performance Reviews Are Dead. Here's What You Should Do Instead by Thomas Koulopoulos, Founder of Delphi Group.) Until that happens, you must summarize your yearly accomplishments during this review. Focus on major accomplishments. Go through your monthly or bi-weekly status reports. You saved them, right? Look for the biggest accomplishments in each of the areas your company's yearly review process ranks its employees. Keep it short and sweet. Do not repeat yourself because you want your major accomplishments to stand out. Remember, do not make your diamonds hard to find by hiding them in the mine. Put your diamonds on pedestals and shine bright lights on them!

If you continually meet with your managers, you will shine bright during your yearly reviews. They should be an informality, yet you must not neglect them. Many companies still use yearly reviews to rank their employees and to decide how much salary increases go to each. You will compete with your fellow employees. Many of them will be friends. This does not mean that you throw them under the bus. In fact, if you are in an engineering leadership position, it behooves you to help them succeed and showcase their success to their managers. A good leader looks for employees with potential, and you summarize yourself during the yearly review to maximize your potential for growth and value.


Summary

It will take time for you to achieve a promotion. If you are a new hire, it might take several years to achieve a promotion. However, if you communicate your achievements with your manager regularly, you do not allow them to forget you as a person and employee. You put a face to the name, so your manager sees you as someone valuable to the organization. Do not fear discussing setbacks or receiving negative feedback. If you meet with your managers regularly, you will have opportunities to correct your errors well before they become issues. You will succeed because your manager will coach you to success. You must get out of your shell and be willing to market yourself by consistently communicating your efforts and successes. You will get used to marketing yourself, and you might find yourself writing about it!