As we grow in our profession, we naturally pick up things here and there which aid us in operating as a professional. These little nuances of professional life often times can’t be learned in a class room setting or text book, especially when it comes to behavioral tips like how to handle yourself in certain situations, shaking hands and introducing yourself at a networking event, overcoming challenges, etc.
Over the course of my career one of the best sources for information and perspective have come through mentors. I’ve been blessed to have four (4) mentors throughout my adult life, each of them providing a different perspective and approach that I’ve been able to utilize to craft my own personal style of ‘me’. For what it’s worth, I’m grateful beyond words to these four people for instilling in me valuable lessons about life, family, work and relationships.
Through these relationships I’ve learned a vital lesson that I will carry with me throughout my career, which is:
The only person responsible for your career is YOU.
Each one of my mentors have preached this lesson, using their own approach to reinstate the fact that we [you and I] are ultimately in charge of our own careers. No one else. Not our parents, not our teachers and certainly not our bosses. It’s a universal truth I’ve tested now dozens of times and I still get the same outcome – it’s up to us, not them.
When we develop a mindset of self accountability we learn that it is in fact up to us [you] to drive our careers in the direction we want them to head.
When people aren’t responsible for their own careers it shows up sounding like the following excuses: “my boss didn’t do anything for me”, “that’s not my job responsibility”, “I didn’t know I could do that”, “no one told me that was possible”, “that mistake wasn’t my fault” and on and on.
Casting aside the multitude of excuses we can drum up, once we learn it’s our ultimate responsibility to drive our careers it then becomes easier to ask for help while navigating the many facets of a career. Once we ask for help and start getting it we remain in the drivers seat asking questions, following up and initiating conversation. As a result we take responsibility for the outcomes. What comes from this type of mindset and approach is an increasing attitude and desire to improve, learn and grow.
Key Take Away:
Asking for help and guidance is a big step. It means you want to improve yourself, congrats as you’re already ahead of many people around you. When you ask for help from someone, whether that be a mentor, boss, teacher, friend, it’s up to you to drive that interaction. It is your responsibility to drive the communication, follow up and request for direction. Don’t sit back and wait for that person to do the work. They are there strictly as advisors to give feedback and perspective, you must put in the time and effort.
Spend some time in a quiet place thinking about your own career and how you’ve gotten to where you are. Happy with the present circumstances? If you still have more you want to achieve go get yourself a mentor asap. A good place to start is www.micromentor.org. It’s a free service, one I wholeheartedly endorse.
Assumption is the KILLER of opportunity.
When we assume we make stories up in our heads about what our experience or expectations should be. In business the act of assumption can lead to major loss of opportunity simply because many of us aren’t aware we’re making the mistake in the first place.
Many of us do this, including me!
Last week I had the opportunity to attend an interesting workshop put on by Mark Leblanc, small business guru, author and keynote speaker. Marc’s approach to success in the small business world was straight forward – take things one step at a time and measure your success constantly.
Throughout the morning Mark covered a variety of topics ranging from the 9 best small business practices to high value activities. As the morning came to a close I caught myself laughing as I had recently committed one of the simplest mistakes people can make in business. I didn’t just do one of them, I did both on Mark’s list which he refers to as the ‘Two Deadly Business Sins’.
Are you an assumption sinner?
Business Deadly Sin #1:
If my customer wrote me a check once they’ll call me if they need me again
Business Deadly Sin #2:
If my customer wrote me a check once they automatically know all that we can do for them
(note: the word ‘customer’ is meant to reference an actual external customer however it can also be considered an internal colleague, cross functional team or business unit if you do not interact with external customers)
The first of our two delightful sins points at the assumption that if we’ve done business with a customer once they will “of course call us back the next time they need help”. This couldn’t be farther from the truth yet so many of us in sales, services, entrepreneurship, small business, you name it, fall victim to this fallacy.
Mark further shared with us that it’s not uncommon for our customers to think “Matt hasn’t called me in a couple months, he must not want to do business with us any further.” The assumption on Matt’s end that the customer will just call him when they’re ready furthers the issue as Matt doesn’t follow up leading the customer to believe he’s no longer interested in their business. For Pete’s sake! That couldn’t be farther from the truth it’s just Matt doesn’t know it yet.
The second deadly sin addresses the assumption that if you’ve done business with a client once they should then automatically know every aspect of your business, where you can help them and where you can’t.
If you’ve ever had a customer say “Gosh Jillian, I didn’t even know you offered that type of service. We would have loved to work with you but we just signed up your competitor because we weren’t aware you could help us in that area.” It’s like getting slapped in the face with a wet leather belt which leaves a welt for weeks. Your customer, who self admittedly loves working with you, went to your competitor for help simply because they didn’t know you could help them. Ouch. (and yes, I’ve actually done this more than once)
So how do we remedy this?
Let’s start by focusing on never assuming about the relationships you may or may not have with your customers or what they know about your product or service. It’s always better to pick up the phone and call rather than wait for the phone to ring on your end. Take the initiative!
When speaking with your customer ask questions about how their business is doing and which areas they need help in the most to best determine how your product or service can be a value add to their pain points. Remind them often about what you do and how you do it. Be consistent!
Last week I had an opportunity to do lunch with a long term client and friend, a lunch I always look forward too. My lunch comrade, we’ll call him ‘Johnny Appleseed’ for the sake of this article, is an engineer by trade and currently in a management role overseeing a technical design team comprised of a diverse group of folks with a variety of skill levels, career tenures, abilities and attitudes. Let’s put it this way, he’s one smart bloke.
The reason I enjoy our conversations is because we talk as real people. Titles and experiences are set aside. There’s no fluff, no PC, just straight talk, feedback, challenge and of course light hearted banter.
During lunch Johnny Appleseed inquired about how our business has been coming along. As I shared with him the great experience and opportunity I’ve had with the business we found ourselves weaving into a topic that really caught my interest. Mainly, Johnny Appleseed’s response to the topic.
Which are you – the Apple or the Seed?
I shared with good ole Johnny Appleseed that the consulting and coaching business has broadened my horizons on business leadership, strategy, operations and a plethora of other titillating things. Some of which I’d rather not deal with but, hey, that life. 95% of it has been great so I’m happy to deal with the other 5%.
I then brought up a situation to collect my good friend Johnny Appleseed’s thoughts. Have you ever noticed there are people out there that say,
“What I wouldn’t give for an opportunity to do that. I’d jump at it in a moments’ notice. When can we begin?” ‘That’ references a new opportunity, a calculated risk, a chance to step outside the box and do something spectacular. In our conversation ‘that’ referred to the number of conversations I’ve had with people throughout the years, especially recently, where they initially talk a big game, but as time goes on reality sets in and the same person who was so excited at first doesn’t follow through on their word, or even respond at all. Heck – maybe the underlying factor is me? Certainly room for debate there.
Which are you – the Apple or the Seed?
Johnny Appleseed gave me a delightful smirk and laughed as I shared this with him. We both knew what I was sharing with him was nothing new. People all over the world say one thing and do another all the time. I’m certainly not experiencing anything new as I’m sure you all have experienced this for yourselves at one point or another.
Yet – this was and still is different.
As I shared more, I told Johnny Appleseed that these people I’m engaged with come to me first, more times than not. They ask for my advice, suggestions or ideas on how to get to the next level, make a career leap, overcome a challenge, etc. When I share with them my advice they respond with cheers, high fives and knee slides, often times wanting to act immediately with great enthusiasm. Yet as time goes on their inspiration eventually goes by the waste side. Months go by and they’re still in the same rut they were in before. Same rut, same agonizing complaints and issues.
Which brings us back to the original question. Which are you – the Apple or the Seed?
Johnny Appleseed politely stopped me during my rant and said the following:
“Travis, it’s the classic example of the Apple vs. the Seed. People initially look at the apple and think, ‘I know apples, they taste good, make great pies, etc. Sure, I’d like an apple, matter of fact, a whole truck load of apples. Give me whatever you’ve got.’ You could give them a bunch of apples but that will only hold them over for a limited amount of time.”
Here’s where the brilliance of Mr. Johnny Appleseed comes in…
He continues, “what if we gave them a sack of apple seeds instead? They could eat apples the rest of their life, not have to worry about running out and even make their own business out of selling apples and apple related products. Sure, it will take some back breaking work to get the apple seeds planted, the trees fully developed into a thriving orchard, and so on. The end result is you’ve accomplished something great.
By taking an opportunity, you’ve then managed to build an apple empire and it was a direct result of your sweat equity – which is what you asked for originally.”
(By the by, Stemilt Growers, LLC ranked the largest apple produce company in the US and has an estimated $667 million in total revenue annually, predominantly off the sale and distribution of apples. That’s a lot of Pink Lady’s!)
As the conversation continued we both had a good laugh at the absurdity of the analogy, yet we both knew we couldn’t ignore the basic truth that came of it.
If you truly want to be great you can’t be the apple. The apple is already grown and on its decline to death in your belly or back to the ground where it will dissolve and be never more. The apple represents the hard work and determination of another person who patiently nurtured those apples so they could grow up to be great and delicious. That persons’ dedication, love and care is what brought about those apple and they’ve now sold it to you at a minor cost. You bought that apple because you knew what was in store – a tasty little treat.
But that treat only gives you a moment of gratification.
The seed on the other hand represents opportunity. It represents what is possible with some hard work and good ole fashion belief that you can accomplish anything if you put your mind to it. The seed represents far more opportunity than the fully grown apple ever could amount too.
All too often I see people talk as if they are going to be the next great thing however once they find out how much work and dedication it really takes to get there they have a tendency to relinquish their dreams and settle for their current realities. It’s a damn shame.
The moral of the story, thanks to my good friend Johnny Appleseed, is if you want to be great in your career, you have to take a leap of faith and create your apple farm, orchard, what have you. Simply taking an apple (someone else’s hard work) won’t get you to the promise land.
Dreams can come true. That’s what this country was founded on and I believe that DNA still exists in the very fabric of who we are today. Each of us has that fabric woven deeply within us. Let’s leave behind all the excuses, entitlements and ‘what-ifs’ and go out there and create our own apple farms. It’s perfectly okay to still buy other people’s apples but don’t expect to become great off of someone else’s hard work.
I humbly thank Mr. Johnny Appleseed for the lesson and great reminder on what it takes to be great in this world – you’ve got to be the seed!
Adversity comes in all shapes and sizes in the workplace. No matter how hard you may try it is darn near impossible to escape adversity in the workplace as it’s not ‘if’ but ‘when’. Adversity comes in the form of dealing with a bad boss, company politics, a negative coworker, challenging deadlines or having a work load on your plate enough for three people. While these are only but a few of the typical challenges we face at work they all have tendency to lead to one area
employees being unhappy at work.Apparently there’s a lot of unhappy people at work because recent stats show that employees average job tenure is 4.4 years, with Millennials being half that. With people jumping ship so quickly in their career it makes you wonder if they ever really think about their decisions before they make them and what the impact will be down the road.
Which reminds me of my own story dealing with this exact issue.
Three years into my career I managed to hit a major roadblock. The company I worked for had hired me before I even graduated college and trained me from the ground up. As a result I was fortunate enough to get promoted and find myself in a management role very early in my career, which above everything, taught me a lot about myself and working with others.
As time went on I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated at work as expectations seemed to be mounting by the minute and my performance was beginning to suffer. Sunday evenings were the worst as I would slip into a mild depression about the thought of having to start a whole week of work all over again. After several months of feeling bad for myself I decided to peek my head out into the job market and see what else was out there – perhaps a greener pasture was waiting for me. I interviewed with several companies over the course of a month or two but in the end decided to stay with my current employer to ‘stick it out’.
The reason I decided to stay was because I felt like if I were to leave at that point I wouldn’t be able to say “I gave it everything I could, it just wasn’t the right opportunity for me.” The reality of my situation was that I was spending more time focused on my frustrations rather than focusing on how I could kick ass and take names, figuratively speaking.
What I didn’t know then but certainly know now is that the decision to ‘stick it out’ with my then current employer would prove to be a crucial decision in my career and personal life moving forward.
What I learned from this decision:
As we deal with adversity and challenge in the work place how often are we really doing our best to improve the situation before we decide to move on from it. Just as important, do we take into consideration the things we’re missing out on by making a decision, especially one as important as a new career.
While not all challenges and work place adversities can be bested it’s important we’re honest with ourselves on where the source of our frustration comes from so that we can truly understand how to combat it. If we don’t, we run the risk of having those same issues at our next place of employment which could then begin a nasty habit that follows us for a life time.
“Life is a storm…You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes. You must look into that storm and shout 'Do your worst, for I will do mine!' "
– Alexandre Dumas
About the Author
Travis Smith is the founder and managing director of Square-1 Engineering, a life sciences consulting firm, providing end to end technical project services to companies which design, develop and or manufacture products in Southern California. He successfully served the life sciences marketplace in SoCal for over 15 years specializing in engineering services, consulting, project outsourcing and leadership development. In 2019 he was recognized as a ‘40 Under 40’ honoree by the Greater Irvine Chamber of Commerce as a top leader in Orange County, CA.