Thursday, October 28, 2010

The wonderful nightmare of 3.5 million career choices

Time to read this post: 3 minutes (no dawdling)

Sally: I'd like the chef salad please with oil and vinegar on the side, and the apple pie a la mode.
Waitress: Chef and apple a la mode.
Sally: But I'd like the pie heated, and I don't want the ice cream on top. I want it on the side, and I'd like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it. If not, then no ice cream, just whipped cream, but only if it's real. If it's out of the can, then nothing.
Waitress: Not even the pie?
Sally: No, just the pie, but then not heated.
When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Sometimes we make life too complicated. I was the team leader at my strategy consulting firm, working for one of the world’s largest technology companies on their telecom strategy. Our client wanted us to evaluate every opportunity for them by geography, by carrier, by user type, by step in the value chain, by product, by value proposition. There were over 3.5 million opportunities to consider. And we only had six weeks. I calculated that if we assessed one opportunity per minute it would only take us seven years to complete. Assuming we didn’t sleep (which was a reasonable assumption).

Of course, being strategy consultants we managed to reduce the entire project into a decision for the client between three strategic choices. 1) Make a bold acquisition 2) Try and do something dramatic on your own  3)  Keep calm & carry on (but miss out on lots of $$).   I don’t mean to belittle our work, I actually think we did a first-class job at tackling that issue, what I am more interested in is the issue that our client was in – that of being overwhelmed by choices.

In psychology circles, this circumstance is known as the ‘paradox of choice’. Barry Schwartz wrote quite a good book about it and like everyone these days, spoke about it at TED.

Businesses face a paradox of choice over which consumers to target, which products to supply. Consumers face one when it comes to signing up to the right mobile phone plan. And we all face it when trying to choose between different career paths. Whatever job or career we choose, we fear missing out on all the other choices that we are implicitly turning down.

Personally I faced it last week when trying to decide where to go travelling with my wife and daughter. We opened the atlas and, it turns out, it’s a big world out there with lots to see and experience. This was clearly a good problem to have.

What I find interesting is that when faced with an overload of permutations & combinations, we often don’t make the wrong choice. It’s more subtle than that, instead we hit the snooze button on the choice and simply do nothing. This explains why people don’t sign up to retirement plans in their 20s. By selecting from the plethora of financial options out there, we risk picking the wrong one. Instead why not just agree with ourselves that we’ll come back to it in a year. Which of course we don’t.

A good friend of mine, Dan is one of the most talented strategic minds of his generation. He got a top first from Oxford, went to BCG and then Harvard. He is extremely calculating about everything he does, every career move that he makes. But as his friends, we tease him about how long it takes him to make a decision. After his MBA he decided against going back into consulting because he wanted to figure out the optimal career move. Four years later and he had drifted between part-time consulting work and then landed a sub-optimal strategy job while he waited to make the perfect decision. Upon reflection he told me that he wished he had just made a “good enough choice” straight after his MBA and got on with life.

Dan was trying to optimize between 3.5 million career choices. But by the time he had computed the answer to this ultimate question, the world had moved on and then there were 3.5 million new choices to optimize against. Perhaps what we all need is to borrow a lesson from the strategy consultants and consider what are the big three strategy choices that we are faced with. And then we can get on with living and enjoying life.
Tough questions
- What are the 3 strategic career choices that you need to choose between?
- If you have no idea, who can help you frame them one a single sheet of paper?
- How will you make your decision?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Mentoring mistakes

Time to read this post: 6 minutes.

“Always two there are, no more, no less: a master and an apprentice.” – Yoda

My first mentor chat was intimidating. It was week one in my new graduate job in strategy consulting when I met my officially assigned mentor. After shaking my hand, he looked at his watch and announced “I’ve got eleven minutes, let’s make it quick” and we marched across Trafalgar Square to a coffee shop that he liked. I don’t remember much about our conversation or the coffee but he said something that I’ve always remembered. “Look I’ve got two pieces of advice on how to succeed at your job. First, if you ever drive to a client in a rental car, always put the rental car receipt and papers in the passenger side glove compartment; that way you always know where they are even if you are in a rush to return the car. And second..” he raised his eyebrows “…don’t ever fuck up”.

Now this was memorable though not especially helpful advice. Since then I’ve had my fair share of advisors (some incredible, some…well not so much). In this post I want to describe three common mistakes that I see young professionals make with regard to mentoring.

Mistake 1: Searching for ‘the one’. Obi Wan. Mr Miyagi. Dumbledore. Watching movies and reading fiction gives us the deep impression that we should be seeking some Gandalf-like figure in our professional lives. They will pop-up occasionally in our work to pass on sage wisdom. Whispering pithy guidance in our ear, we will go on to triumph & glory. We expect mentors to speak like Yoda. Instead we end up having coffee with an exhausted executive who it turns out has a couple of good ideas and a bunch of neuroses. We expect one person to embody everything we want to become, advise on all areas of our work and life and then it turns out instead we’ve been paired with a human being instead. How unfair.

So instead of seeking one perfect mentor, I strongly advocate getting a “Board of Advisors”. Seek out a selection of mentors who can offer guidance on a specific topic. Want great advice on work-life balance, career goals, navigating politics, professional growth, building a network, influencing senior management? It’s unlikely that you will find one genius that gives you everything.Mr Good To Great Jim Collins writes about finding seven tribal elders who can acts as your Personal Board of Directors. He reflects:

“The best personal boards contain a diverse spectrum of backgrounds and perspectives. Members of my own personal board have come from many walks of life—an expert on personal creativity, a founder of a corporation, a fellow professor of entrepreneurship, a former Vietnam POW, and a public servant. Personal-board members should not be selected primarily for their ability to help you attain success in your business. Every board member should pass this litmus test: "If I were in a totally different profession or business—indeed, if I were not in business at all—would I still have this person on my board?"

Mistake 2: Needing to make it official: Senior executives I have spoken to say that they fear the junior employee who asks them to be their mentor. They worry that they don’t have the time, that it will involve having to go for long dinners in trendy places with loud music. They’d prefer to be playing tennis, or spending time with their friends & family.

Some of the best mentoring I have had has been in the backs of taxis, during small talk at the end of work meetings and at friend’s weddings at drinks before the long dinner. The other person probably doesn’t see it as mentoring, just a friendly conversation with a young face. The key here is to remember to ask for informal advice. Try this: “In your experience, what mistakes do you see people like me make?” or how about “What career advice to you have for someone like me?”. They might pause, think and then come up with a couple of gems. I did this last week to a very senior executive and he quipped “you rise and fall to the level of your peers”. I found this rather profound and helpful. Cultivating unofficial mentors is the way to go.

Mistake 3: Confusing Mentors and Sponsors. I just finished “Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women” by Herminia Ibarra in the September 2010 of HBR. It’s a goodie. While the article focuses on differences between the mentoring that men and women get, the key insight is that there is a big difference between a ‘Mentor’ and a ‘Sponsor’. Mentors offer “psychosocial” support for personal and professional development, plus career help that includes advice and coaching. On the other hand, sponsors actively advocate for your advancement. They give protégés exposure to other executives, they make sure their people are considered for promising opportunities and challenging assignments. I had a housemate who went to work for Price Waterhouse Coopers, in his first year the PWC office head took him aside and said “I see a lot of me in you. You could run this place in due course. I’d like to help you.” Now the office head might have said that to everyone who started but I don’t think so. Now that’s a sponsor. Do you have anyone who is actively fighting for you?

So back to my coffee in Trafalgar Square. I asked him if he had any other advice. He said, “sure, succeeding at work is 10% about knowing how to do your job, it’s 40% about doing it fast & getting it right first time; and it’s 50% about getting on with people”. As I look back over the last twelve years, I think he might have been right. Not Yoda, but still better than trying to figure it out on my own.
Tough questions
- Who are the top seven people who could be on your Personal Board of Directors?
- What question can you plan to ask senior people who you respect?
- Do you have a sponsor who has your back and fights on your behalf?

And finally:
"Well, as an older mentor figure, the most likely scenario is that I'd return only to be randomly killed by an enemy of yours so that you can cradle my dying body while swearing revenge — so don't take it personally if I say that I sincerely hope we never cross paths again." — Julio Scoundrél, The Order of the Stick