Clarifying your career’s direction through volunteering

I get frustrated with the tired advice of ‘what could you do for free?’, given to those who are seeking clarity on their career’s direction or specialism. With a lack of focus on money-making skills, and more attention on unrealistic daydreaming, this exercise can sometimes provide very few practical solutions.

Applying for a volunteering role takes this exercise a step or two further, and it’s interesting to see how this commitment can really help you be specific about the skills you want to offer.

Careers blog The Muse talks about how:

“[…]volunteering helps you find clarity about the things you love (or don’t) in your career[…] Long story short, the more experiences you give yourself, the better chance you have of learning about the type of work you love doing and the types of environments you excel in.”

This, to me, makes sense. When making your application to volunteer, you’re committing yourself to take on roles for free. You will be accountable to do those all…for free.

As such, you’ll put yourself forward for only the things you can do (your existing skills and experience), the things you will like to develop (a good understanding but having a desire to develop a skill) and within the environment you’re most comfortable (your preferred place of work).

So I’ve given this ago myself for my local CIPD branch – with absolute commitment – and was surprised to see the selected skills that made it through to the final cut in my pitch email.

Give it a go! Are you surprised by the skills that make it through to the final cut? Are there fewer/more than expected?

A new word for ‘weakness’

We are often told we need to work on our weaknesses in order to develop our skills and progress our career; or at least traits that are labelled as ‘weaknesses’.

This isn’t the case. At the very least the word ‘weakness’ in this context needs to be re-defined to something more accurate. By way of example, a ‘weakness’ of being a poor public speaker is not a weakness. There’s a gap there – of confidence, skill, knowledge, ability, trust, authority – rather than a weakness.

A great Medium article I recently found on this topic talks about how weaknesses and strengths are the same thing, and warns us of the damage that may occur when we try to see them as two separate traits. Umair Haque writes:

“When we try to divide them, that is when we fail at both. We are principled, so we try to be less judgmental. And now we are not even principled. We are compassionate, but easily hurt, so we try to be harder, but lose our compassion.”

I thoroughly recommend reading the entire piece.

This takes me back to when I completed the 16 Personalities test, a free online test that’s based on Myers-Briggs testing (I don’t buy into the criticism that MBTI testing is similar to horoscopes – like most things in life, the results are only as strong and true as your input).

The results of the test are compiled into comprehensive lists by topic, including your weaknesses. Two of mine, as an ‘Advocate’ (INFJ, FYI) for example are: needing to have a cause in something I do and; being too sensitive.

Do these not contribute to my strengths, which, according to my results include being determined and passionate? Could they not therefore be considered as standalone strengths? Are my labelled ‘strengths’ not jeopardised if these weaknesses are worked on?

I’m interested in looking further into re-wording ‘weakness’ in the context of skills development.

In the meantime, focus on your strengths, the things you’re good at, and don’t bother too much about your ‘weaknesses’ until they have been correctly reworded.

The Avid Doer 2.0

Thanks for holding! It feels really good to be back after a couple of weeks of rejigging The Avid Doer. As you will notice, the site has had a bit of a makeover in terms of design and content.

As mentioned in my post before the brief redesign, the focus of The Avid Doer will still be on career management and the world of work, but from an entirely new perspective. Not necessarily my own comings-and-goings – this isn’t going to be a diary.

Instead of me providing advice from a (supposedly) ‘learned’ point of view, I will be sharing insights into the world of work, career development and independent learning from a ‘learning’ point of view.

If you haven’t already, check out the ‘About’ page which explains this concept much more comprehensively.

To give you a taster of the ‘feel’ of the content going forward, I’ve uploaded four new posts in one batch (well, I have to make up for lost time!)

New posts will be added more often but not to a specific schedule unlike the weekly posts before. So what better opportunity to ‘Follow’ the blog! Wink!

The neuroscience around change

“If someone is finding change hard, it’s not a sign of weakness, but their brain registering discomfort with something it is not designed to like” so says Hilary Scarlett in her article for HR Zone “The impact of organisational change on the brain.”

HR Zone is a good, trusty spot to read up on other HR professionals’ insights and advice (and I’m not just saying that because I write for them too!), and my latest fix is this beauty of an article. What hits me the most is that the concept of change on a neuroscience level, which is quite comprehensive, is explained so clearly and accurately, sans jargon.

Hilary says that while some parts of our brains have evolved, there are other parts that haven’t, and these are the areas triggered when there’s a change a-brewing at work. The brain actively seeks out threats that may or may not exist in order to convince yourself that change is dangerous, and it even impairs our memory. This is a scary time for the brain.

Focussing your efforts on explaining the change to employees at an early point, and on an ongoing basis, helps these thoughts become informed. Even if it’s bad news, Hilary says “To the brain, bad news is better than no news.”

If you’re starting to get an interest in neuroscience in the workplace, I think Hilary’s article is an excellent first port of call.

Writing about contemporary art

I have a book of Gilda Williams’ (correspondent for Artforum and lecturer at Goldsmiths College and Sotheby’s Institute of Art) called “How to write about contemporary art”.

I bought this during my art days before my umpteenth career change, but have rediscovered its relevance to my career now, not just in my writing, but in HR as well.

It promises (and delivers) a helpful, no-nonsense approach to structuring written pieces, avoiding common pitfalls, developing concrete research and close thinking, and positioning language effectively. It’s incredibly helpful for those who need to articulate their internal chatter concisely and accurately, and generally be a better communicator.

It never ceases to surprise me how often skills and supposedly-niche advice can transfer into other sectors, other roles, and complementing other skills.

Thinking back to your previous careers or fields, do you still find relevance for ‘specialist’ guidance?

Free agents

“It is generally recognised that humans have a need to experience themselves as free agents, and are not just entities to an ordered environment”. Eugene McKenna wrote this back in 1994 in a beast of a book I’m reading ‘Business Psychology and Organisational Behaviour’ (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Ltd, 1994), and it’s interesting to see this rally for individualism in the workplace was still in swing 24 years ago.

I’m giddy with a specific pivoting word in this quote which almost goes modestly unnoticed – “just”. It suggests we need to be free agents and “are not just entities to an ordered environment”.

To some organisations “free agents” would spark absolute horror. This quote however notices that an ordered environment is still needed to facilitate this freedom, which sounds oxymoronic but makes sense if you see the order as warranted and well-thought out parameters.

We do need to let the workforce make more decisions and have freedom in how they work, within the safety net of pragmatic and nurturing order which we as people still need.

The inventor’s paradox

I’ve come across George Pólya recently who defines the ‘inventor’s paradox’ as the increased likelihood of finding a solution to a specific problem by finding a solution to a general problem, which tends to be easier to find and simpler to implement.

So in other words, finding a general solution to a general problem can be much more efficient than finding a specific solution to a specific solution. Two birds, one stone.

Initially concerned with mathematics and programming, this approach can be applied to most sorts of decision making – where applicable of course.

I sometimes see being overloaded with information and heavily relying on data, which essentially only displays a small portion to an issue, too costly with regards to time, money and resources. Weighing up the risk associated with taking the inventor’s paradox approach is the first step followed by an understanding that this isn’t cutting corners; it’s making efficient use of time relative and comparative to the desired solution.

Have you been thinking too much on a specific solution that solves a specific problem, when a more broad and general approach can solve this, and many other problems?

The Avid Doer Revamp

I have often written about how important it is to assess your progress towards a professional goal in order to make sure you’re on track, or ascertain if the goal has developed into something new.

I’ve also written about how beneficial extracurricular activities can help you develop professionally, and how these help you learn in an environment outside of work, as well as proving your dedication to the field.

I’ve been assessing where I’m at with The Avid Doer for quite a while now, and how it’s helping me reach my professional goals. Doing this in my free time as an extracurricular activity means that time spent on it has to be the most efficient.

As such I’m excited to let you that the site is going to have a revamp.

The look, the content, the layout – all updated and refreshed.

I’m chuffed to bits with how far this has come and how it’s built a strong worldwide readership.

I just need to tweak the core message slightly in order to help those who visit the site, as well as help me learn and develop as an HR/L&D professional.

When the curtains have been lifted to reveal the revamp, I’ll tell you more about what its new aims are but rest assured it will still focus on skills, learning, development and career management.

Time wise, I’m not too sure how long it will take but there will be a slight pause for a bit with my weekly articles, just so I can get it right.

I’ll still be over on LinkedIn and Twitter in the meantime so hop on over there if you want to say hi.

Stay tuned and I’ll see you in a couple of weeks!

 

Gracefully disruptive

Disruption is essential in the workplace when it comes to challenging the status quo (for the right reasons of course). Practices and methods become engrained into the team, into the organisation, and over time these are met with reluctance to change.

‘This is how it’s always been done’, you’re told. ‘It’s worked fine without anyone sticking their nose in’.

‘Don’t fix what ain’t broke’…and all that carry on.

In order to progress – whether it’s professionally, entrepreneurially, or at work – there needs to be disruption. I deliberately use the word ‘progress’ too, as opposed to ‘get ahead’.

Many people can get ahead without disruption. Indeed they use the status quo to their advantage by seemingly playing the safe route to get ahead.

However, by choosing this option, they miss out on the opportunities to broaden their mind, develop existing skills, and be open to new learning experiences.

Where’s the problem-solving? Where’s the creative thinking? Where’s the approach that’s right for you?

This route is too narrow, having been formed probably years ago, and one that once worked either appropriately to the time or the individual (or both).

By being disruptive, you ensure that unexplored territory is identified, examined, assessed and tried out. And with such big risks may come big rewards.

So what do I mean by disruption?

Being disruptive is not about talking the loudest or stamping your feet the hardest. It’s about applying curiosity and inquisitiveness into questioning already-mapped-out procedures, career paths, processes, ways of working, even thought processes, and seeing if there’s a better way.

‘Rocking the boat’ sounds almost destructive, and we’re not rocking it to be awkward. Where a boat rocks comes ripples that could have a detrimental impact to the ecology and banks of the river for example. Without forward thinking, this could ruin any sort of credibility to going against the status quo again.

The term I much prefer is gracefully disruptive. It’s challenging status quo with grace, with forethought and thorough consideration.

So how do you become more gracefully disruptive?

Firstly, you need to understand why you want to be disruptive, and understand when you shouldn’t be disruptive.

The latter is probably the best starting by process of elimination. When you shouldn’t be disruptive is where emotion plays a heavy part in the decision making.

Using emotion to steer your disruption won’t be graceful. Of course emotion can be the foundation of the decision-making, the stimulus that urges you to react for a greater cause or better way to do things, but you mustn’t let it rule your actions.

Emotions, most times, are temporary. Your actions can be permanent. Tread carefully – or better yet let your head determine your actions.

Having decided to take a more emotionally intelligent approach, you can move on to why you should be disruptive.

Why bother?

The very act of being gracefully disruptive itself will provide you with strong leadership capabilities.

This isn’t necessarily leadership over people (although it can be); it can be leadership over processes, your career, your fate, your confidence – anything that is within your control that you have found, over time, slowly but surely, has been consumed by the status quo, or by other people’s assumptions that their way is best.

‘You need a degree for a good job’, they say, ‘that’s the way it’s always been done if you want a decent job.’

Not true at all; you can be successful without one (while also not drowning in tens of thousands worth of debt).

‘You need to do this particular process in this particular way because that’s how it’s done.’

Not necessarily; when was the last time this process was questioned? Is there a better way we can be doing this? Isn’t it time that this process is assessed for efficiency? If new ways haven’t been explored before, isn’t it narrow minded and dismissive to insist that this one way is the way?

‘You have to stick with one job with one interest in order to do well for yourself, nobody likes a job-hopper.’

Not the case; portfolio careers have proven successful for many professionals now and indeed may help them stand out from the crowd. New learning and new experiences have led these to the point where they have a unique set of skills that play off of each other and open up new, more effective ways of doing things.

Avid Doers v The Naysayers

This is where we avid doers can do so well in. We refuse to accept that one way of doing things is the way of doing things.

We have the stubbornness and can-do attitude to make things happen, and adopting a gracefully disruptive approach to our endeavours can only lead us to things quicker, more efficiently and more effectively.

Unfortunately there will be (and are) naysayers who like things mainstream and consistent with solid, trustworthy practices, and see avid doers as being awkward or sometimes even clueless. They don’t ‘avidly do’, they passively do, and therefore dismiss any sort of alternative ways of thinking.

Let’s question how things are done. Let’s disprove that the one way is the only way.

Let’s explore new ways of doing things that are right for us and our career and developmental needs.

Think of the learning and development opportunities that would go amiss if we didn’t question what is already in front of us and instead decide what is right for us by being gracefully disruptive.

Agile concepts for avid doers

Agile. It’s a term that’s being used quite a lot recently as industries, other than software programming from where it began, are beginning to adopt its methodologies. 

For those who are quite new to the concept, Agile is a methodology that was first created formally in software programming in the early noughties. From my passive understanding of it, it’s essentially an incremental delivery of a product that evolves as a living thing that can be adapted, revised and improved on, so to be produced on time and on budget.

Rather than wait for the T’s to be crossed and the I’s to be dotted, getting something workable out there on time and on budget means that work can continue on a manifested product and much more collaboratively.

This has many benefits, too many to go into, but I wanted to focus in on my particular favourites:

  1. There is a product produced on time. As someone incredibly impatient and more of a big thinker rather than a detail-delver, I like to just get things out there. No dillying. No dallying. No faffing with minute details that, in the grand scheme of things, aren’t worth delaying a project for. Where things are produced that aren’t polished, the end users are of course made aware of this. Which leads me to my next favourite benefit…
  2. When the product isn’t polished, there’s room for improvement and collaboration. An idea looks great on paper but when it comes to life, you spot new flaws and gaps that couldn’t have otherwise been picked up. So if the end result was delayed drastically for the irrelevant finishing touches, it becomes absolutely superfluous if it’s not fit for purpose or the end user notices something that needs sorting. Having it out there means it is a live demonstration, one that can be adapted, amended and revised. It also means it can evolve in its natural habitat, ensuring it’s fit for purpose. The time spent on dallying can instead be spent on improving.

This can be seen as a sort of beta test, trying out an unfinished product to identify flaws and receive feedback.

The agile concept was formalised in the early noughties, as I’ve mentioned, but I’ve found a reference to the particular elements listed above many years before this.

In the book “Training needs analysis and evaluation” by Frances and Roland Bee (1994, Institute of Personnel and Development), there is a delightful analogy that demonstrates an agile approach to addressing an issue. This isn’t word for word but goes a little something like this:

The Town Planner

A town planner was given the task to place a park in the middle of the town that had a pathway and flowers. Previous designs involved paths being in pretty symmetrical patterns or where the skilled planners felt most appropriate. The problem with previous attempts though was that pesky walkers would ignore these carefully thought out paths and walk over the grass and flowers, creating their own shortcuts.

This town planner felt a bit rebellious though and tried a different approach. They placed the park in the centre of the town, as agreed, and then opened the park to the public. No flowers and no paths. 

With a bit of scepticism, they were left to it and after a couple of months the town planner returned to their park.

They discovered the walkers and town folk had worn down their own paths that they felt were the best way to get from A to B.

The town planner then proceeded to put down paths based on the town folk’s worn down paths.

This is a great example of getting something out there and seeing how it goes when producing something is far more important if not more beneficial than having it polished first.

It’s not a cop out; it needs to be sensible and able to improve itself by being ‘alive’ and out there. Off of paper and into the real world in order to learn the practicalities from living its purpose and evolve.

So what does this mean for you in the workplace?

I anticipate more organisations jumping onto the Agile bandwagon; it’s practical, it keeps momentum, and it contributes to delivering results.

If you were to start practising this methodology in the work that you do, you should be able to demonstrate the benefits it has to your team and your organisation if they haven’t already adopted it.

Figuring out when to apply the approach though is something you will need to assess per project or task. Weigh the positive and negative impact on producing what can be seen as a half-finished product on time, with producing a finished product out of time.

Sometimes it’s necessary to polish things off before producing it and the extra time that needs to be negotiated will make sense and be more beneficial.

However, make sure this isn’t an anti-Agile mindset. For those who like to take a disproportionately long time faffing with small details won’t like this new approach so you will need to pick the right tasks to demonstrate the benefits of Agile.

Start with baby steps and with products with minimal impact that are ‘semi completed’. It may be a new concept for you too so make sure you get comfortable with it and record the positive impact and benefits it has before spreading it wider.

Career management

You can also apply this mindset to your career planning and management. You might not necessarily know the specifics of your end goal (ideal career choice, the niche for your own business, progressing your career, leaving a job) but you can begin to take steps in the right direction.

A squeaky polished career plan can be edited, revamped or even completely trashed as you progress through it, and decide to change your end goal or your efforts, as I’ve written about before. This is usually as a result of having taken those first baby steps into the plan, bringing it to life from just a sensible-sounding idea on paper.

Yes, you might change direction, but the skills and the things you have learnt during those initial stages not only set you up to the correct path (even as a process of elimination!) but they’re also transferrable to the correct path.

It’s essential to begin this evolution process. This can only begin with a half-finished product that has room to grow and developments without the restrictions of a polished final product.

Whether this is a project at work that seems to be stuck or your career plans that are putting your actions on hold, begin with the first few steps and see how they evolve to the final product.