Professional development while unemployed

I’ve written a lot about what we as fellow avid doers can do to manage our careers and progress professionally, and while I’m a strong believer that with the right attitude anyone can manage their career with confidence, it struck me that there may be a group of people that feel as though this blog doesn’t apply to them – those who are currently out of work.

Now this post doesn’t go into the ins and outs of being in between jobs. The reasons for being out of work are specific to each individual.

Sometimes it’s voluntary, sometimes not. Sometimes it’s a happy experience, sometimes it’s not.

You may be on a career break or maternity leave; you might have been made redundant or left to pursue a career change; you might have decided to spend more time at home to look after your children or might not be well enough at the moment to be working.

So with the multiple reasons and viewpoints on unemployment, I couldn’t possibly begin to write about them.

What I can do though is remind you that if you are in between jobs at the moment, this blog is absolutely for you.

Granted there are a couple of posts that walk you through presentations or writing a business case that you may not be able to put into practice immediately but these are still soft skills that you can put in the bank if and when you return to work.

The majority of the posts can still benefit you. I want to dedicate this post specifically to those who are in between jobs at the moment to explain what you can do to manage your paused career.

Keeping up with the industry

If you are keen to get back to work whether in your current field or a new one, keeping up to date is absolutely essential.

Keeping your finger on the pulse and being kept in the loop with the industry keeps your interest fired which is at risk of dwindling if you’re out of work for too long. You’ll understand what the hot topic du jour is (which can change on a daily basis these days!) so that if you return to work you’re not out of touch either in the workplace or at the interview stage.

Community

Adjacent to the above point, surrounding yourself with the industry’s community while proactively maintaining your spot in it will help you combat the loneliness that comes with being out of work.

As social creatures we need to be surrounded by people, or in career terms, our ‘tribe’. Even us introverts need this (just in different quantities) so by maintaining a strong position within your career community and contributing to it via social media or networking events, you get to have this same social interaction as if you were at work.

As with being part of any ‘tribe’, doing this will also keep your perspective broadened as you hear people’s opinions and experiences on industry matters.

Volunteering

A step further from the previous point is keeping your skills and social interaction sharp by volunteering.

Now, when I heard ‘volunteering’, I used to immediately think of working in a charity shop which doesn’t really float my rubber duck. By no means am I saying this is a bad thing at all; I’m suggesting that many others out there may be thinking the same and feel as though that’s their only option.

It isn’t.

There may be many volunteering opportunities in your local area and the first port of call should be Do-It, the UK’s national volunteering database. You simply enter your postcode or town, the distance you’re willing to travel, and hey presto, you have a list of all your local volunteering opportunities.

I live out in the sticks and a 10-mile radius search for me brings up 238 results.

Don’t want to travel? No problem – select the ‘Do it from home’ option and you’ll usually find even more results.

Be sure that you don’t want to forego the opportunity for the social interaction volunteering provides though as this is something particularly important when you’re out of work. Missing out on socialising that you would normally find on a daily basis at work can lead to mental health issues like depression or low self-esteem.

The volunteering opportunities cover all sorts of skills, requirements and experience. For example, this can be from administration support to being on a board of directors.

There are other volunteering databases out there that focus specifically on the community and your local area, for example Volunteering Matters.

Volunteering is particularly great for those who lack certain experience, for example managing people, but have the correct aptitude for it; these opportunities may allow you to become a volunteer people manager (for a project, or wildlife excursion for example) and thus bring something new to your CV, skillset and future employer.

Being heard

If you enjoy writing, you may want to consider starting an industry-related blog, or if you’re a born entertainer, a vlog, or have a silky smooth radio voice, a podcaster, etc.

I’ve written about this before in my post on developing professional credibility – it’s such a boost to your professional development as you learn a lot about yourself and the industry.

You should have the intent of being heard as a profession contributor rather than looking for a money-maker.

Figuring out new and interesting content can be hard work but it’s also really rewarding. You’ll find yourself researching new topics to strengthen your content, learning heaps from the blogging/vlogging/podcasting/etc. community, as well as demonstrating to new employers your dedication to the profession and your career.

You can find LOADS of tips out there on YouTube and the like about starting any one of these up, but nowadays I’ve discovered that it’s important to remember 4 things:

  • You don’t need to be an expert – you’re perspective is uniquely your own
  • You don’t need fancy equipment – despite the shininess…
  • It’s incredibly easy to set up – technology today makes this ridiculously easy now
  • Procrastination is your enemy – just get it out there and stop faffing with the tiny details!

Courses

Enrolling in a course – whether it’s paid (local college course or distance learning), or free (check out MOOCs out there like FutureLearn) – is another way to keep your skills sharp, while also learning new ones.

If you haven’t already, check out my post on training courses here and here which explain this in more detail.

Re-assessing your career

Taking a breather from work from whatever circumstances gives you an opportunity to think with a clearer head.

In this new headspace you may want to consider a career change and decide which new direction you might want to take.

Transferring your existing skills into a new field is easier when you break the components down and clearly define any skill gaps that need filling.

Check out my 5-post series on discovering which career is right for you. Start with this one and then click ‘Next’ at the bottom of the post until you’ve worked your way through the 5 part series.

(Have you noticed this post has a lot of plugging for my own posts? Told you this blog was relevant to those out of work….#JustSaying)

Starting your own business or side hustle

Spending time out of work may be an opportunity for you to explore starting your own business. This could become a side hustle if you decide to return to work to fund the business until it’s providing enough income, or if you’re happy working on both within a portfolio career.

I realise I say this in such a blaze way – I understand it isn’t easy. I’ve made a go of it a couple of times and it can be demoralising when things don’t happen the way you want, whether that’s not enough money, not enough confidence or losing interest in doing something that sounds fun as a hobby but is torturous doing it all day every day.

I would recommend learning from people who have made a success of it and especially from those who made a number of failures beforehand. These can be found all over the internet and local bookshop.

How to take this forward

By this point hopefully you should be getting a clearer picture on how to keep your career wheels turning even when you’re out of work.

As an added bonus, these are all perfect examples of professional dedication and career management that you can demonstrate in interviews. There may come a point in the interview where you will have to respond to their questions on a job gap.

Usually, this can make people feel uncomfortable but by following the above suggestions, you’ll be able to give them the full itinerary of all the things you’ve been doing while in between jobs. They’ll see someone very self-aware, very busy and very determined.

I must add a huge disclaimer here though before you do anything: check with the appropriate people/officials that any of these activities do not contravene conditions set on your employer’s policies (if you’re on a type of leave) or those set within your receiving of benefits/jobseekers allowance. Please seek professional advice if you are in doubt of these conditions.

 

 

How to write a business case

Articulating an idea in a way that illustrates the benefits for the business usually takes its first formal format as a business case. This is used to set out the key solutions, advantages and a practical roll out plan to senior or executive leaders who must be sold on the idea without too many criticisms or concerns. 

There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to layout – you might find that your company has its own particular and preferred layout whether it’s an unspoken obligation or a mandatory template.

Or you might get to choose your own layout – just try not to be too creative about it as it needs to have some sort of degree of formality to be taken seriously. Unless of course it’s a case study that the business needs to be more creative then by all means have at it!

Whichever the layout, this post explains the key sections a good business case should have to make sure everything is covered. You don’t necessarily need to stick with the title of the sections but make sure the nature of each section is included.

Introduction

The first section should introduce the business case that covers the current situation ie the problem or situation your plan can solve. At this point you don’t particularly want to touch on your proposed solution – reveal this too soon without the background story and you risk the leaders being turned off too soon.

When people hear a controversial or seemingly outlandish idea without having worked through the motions to understand why the idea can actually work, no amount of explanation can convince them to change their mind once it’s been made too soon.

The introduction would normally stick to what is happening right now in a way that suggests that an answer or resolution is needed to stop this happening.

Implications

This section broadens the introduction or current situation. The introduction has acted as a hook, the beginning of the story that convinces and sometimes shocks the audience to pay attention.

This section covers the implications of what the current scenario is producing and takes the shock further. It’s essentially telling them to look at the things that are happening as a result of this problem.

To help you with this, stick to cold hard facts and figures, any that will help you portray the issue accurately.

It’s important not to put across your own agenda, which is easier said than done, but keeping to the figures and facts, and what they’re telling you is a good start. You shouldn’t be selective with this either, omitting certain facts from the case purely because it doesn’t fight your case very well.

On the contrary, you should include these not only to prove the integrity of the business case (by being transparent with the data) but to also help pinpoint exactly where the issue lies.

For example, if you’re trying to prove that your team’s performance is dropping due to lack of wellbeing initiatives, but miss out two team members whose performance is actually increasing, including these in the case can actually help your point.

The point isn’t that the team’s performance as a whole is declining, it’s that there are localised issues, and being able to see the differences between the high and low performing members can help your case if you’re providing a specific rather than general solution.

Detriment of taking no action

The ‘Implications’ section focussed on the facts and figures now, the result of the current issue. This section looks at the detriment of inaction and projects these facts and figures into the future.

These predictions highlight the potentially escalating nature of the issue, bringing home the big message that essentially says “this is a big problem and if we don’t do something about it now, it’ll only get bigger.”

At this point graphs that illustrate a trajectory of decline and/or peril will help the audience digest the information quicker.

As I talked about in this post about presenting data using graphs is a good way to show the overall picture without the need of specific numbers, or in other words, all the lines are going in the wrong direction and that’s bad.

So far, the business case has looked at the current situation, the implications of the situation and what will happen if no action is taken. We have them at the edge of their seats for a solution!

Proposed solution

And lo you have a solution. Not only does your solution correct all the wrongs of the previous three sections, it details the proposed approach.

It’s all very well in saying, for example, employees will be rewarded for their hard work to resolve an issue of lack of engagement, but it’s not enough to support your case.

In this section, you need to detail how your proposed solution will be rolled out, anticipating any questions you might expect the audience may have. These need to be written in clear actionable points, which will in turn essentially be the specific requests you are asking the audience to agree on.

They should know exactly what you will go away and do by them agreeing these points, as well as the consequences of them, i.e. resolution.

This can be helped by referring specific actions to specific people or teams from the previous sections, to the point where if you were to read back over the problem sections, they can be ticked off one by one as “sorted”.

You could have a separate section for Results but by doing so you run the risk of subconscious disassociation between the proposed solution and the results.

As such, I recommend keeping them together, as a single unit of solution and results rather than two separate points to consider.

You may also have a number of solutions up your sleeve and want to run each of them by the audience for their preference. In which case, it’s good to have some sort of clear comparison to the options, the strengths and weaknesses of each, and your recommendation with reasons.

Conclusion

The concluding section will consist of a summary of the case and a formal request to consider it as a whole as well as agreeing those actionable points.

Where applicable, it can be helpful to use this section to direct them to any appendices or annexes* that helped you with your business case, or any extensive and comprehensive pieces of data that aren’t necessary for the business case but still available should it be needed.

This basic structure is a good starting point when constructing your business case. It almost follows a story format: this bad thing is happening, causing all of these problems, and they’ll only get worse, until help comes along to solve the issue and as a result good things happen…

Very crude way of putting it but you get the gist!

Hitting the right note is your aim, particularly if you’re in front of a tough crowd to please.

* Ever wondered what the difference between an appendix and an annex is? An appendix is additional content relevant to the main body of text that you have put together but is better as an aside, for example case studies or tables of data. An annex is a supplementary document that has been put together by someone else but still helpful for reference or part of your research, for example a report on performance by the CMI, or a relevant article. 

 

How to present HR data

Retrieving and disseminating HR management information is one thing but presenting this data to various audiences that engages and informs them, without sending them to sleep, is a different thing altogether. Understandably, the topic of statistics doesn’t tickle everyone’s interest even though we understand that they are crucial to inform decisions, measure impact, and project trends.

So how do we relay metrics to key decision makers and tell them what they mean without losing their attention span within the first 10 seconds?

The answer can be summed up in one word: illustration.

Illustration, in all manner of meanings, can help audiences understand not just what the stats are, but what they’re illustrating. This can be done literally through illustration, that is presenting the data in pictorial format with graphics and charts, or figuratively, that is illustrating the idea of what the stats are saying.

Death by PowerPoint

It’s almost customary to include some sort of PowerPoint-bashing in an article about presenting, and this one is no exception. Granted there are times when PowerPoint or other similar and just-as-useful programmes are appropriate and necessary, and indeed for presenting data in person. But I want to bash the generic, almost primal use of slides that present data in a cold and useless way. White background. Bullet points. Comic Sans. Word-for-Word reciting. Cringe.

Have you ever sat in a presentation when so much data is displayed in monotonous charts, accompanied with labels and figures, and then the presenter reads off each and every single piece of data that is already on there, one by one, as if it adds value to what is already on the screen? Don’t do this. This is a sure way to kill what little attention people might have had prepared themselves for, for a notoriously tedious topic.

What’s worse is that this way of presenting data is also a time killer. This style of presentation could be done by email – the presenter doesn’t need to be there as essentially they will only read off of it anyway. The audience’s attention will in fact be MORE engaged reading it from an email as they don’t have the robotic narration in the background.

So how can we illustrate data and metrics?

The first thing to ascertain is the purpose of this data; how is this data being used? You might have several answers for several audiences from the one set of data, so by determining context before illustrating your data, you as the presenter can add so much more value than reciting numbers and percentage points.

Understand the purpose of the data and you can paint them a picture. By way of example, let’s assume you are presenting on the effectiveness of training, beyond attendee feedback:

Instead of saying:

“15 staff went on line management training in the last quarter, compared to 7 in the previous quarter”

Say:

“The amount of managers developing themselves has rose by more than double in the last quarter than that of the previous.”

These sentences are very similar and I could be accused of being pedantic. But the second sentence explains the data in words that people understand. “More than double” is more easily comprehensible compared to hearing two lots of numbers. Of course 15 is more than double of 7 but the more you recite numbers, the more they lose meaning.

With the above example, you could take the stats a bit further, providing you have the information available:

“Formal grievances raised have reduced by 25% in the same time period suggesting that line managers are more confident in managing conflicts before they escalate.”

This adds relevance to your presentation and adds another measurable dynamic to your illustration. This illustrates the impact behind the figures; there is a possible correlation between the increased uptake in manager training and the decrease of grievances. Although it’s a number, including the figure “25%” adds a quantifiable impact that is easier to mentally digest than reciting numbers like “the number of grievances have reduced from 76 to 57.” When first hearing this, is that a lot, is that a little? They don’t need to know the numbers, just that the numbers have been reduced by 25% – that’s instantly quantifiable.

If they need to know the numbers

When illustrating your data, the objective isn’t to eliminate the numbers entirely – without these there is no presentation. All you’re doing is explaining what the figures mean so the audience is informed on what to do next or assess retrospectively. However keeping these numbers to hand during the presentation means that your presentation is backed up by cold hard statistics when challenged or questioned. They’re handy to have in the background but they’re not necessary to be shared. If the data is being presented through a report or paper, and in other words you’re not there to have these figures to hand, supplying this hard data as an appendix means it’s readily available for those who want to see this but is separate from the main body of the report.

Infographics 

I have written before about my love for infographics. They are the older, much cooler sibling of the pie and bar charts and take data presentation to a new level.

Using infographics to present your data contributes to the relevance of the figures, as touched on above. Depending on how the illustration is put together, it can be easy to instantly portray the impact and effect of figures on a number of variables and other metrics.

Infographics can also skip the unnecessary commentary and narrative as the pictures will speak for themselves in a way that the audience can immediately identify and put into a bigger picture context.

You need to think creatively when jazzing up a cold subject like data so using infographics to present the data gives the audience a break from seeing the same presentation-by-bullet-points they’ve grown to loathe. There are a number of sites that allow you to create infographics in a variety of styles and designs that require no payments, licenses and attributions. There are paid options available but they’re unnecessary for the likes of what you need them for.

Stop reciting!

I cannot emphasise this enough. This advice can be applied to presenting in person in general – do not recite word for word from the slide that is already in front of people if you are presenting the data verbally. If a visual representation of what you are speaking aloud is in front of someone, they are much more likely to read what is in front of them than hearing what you are saying. Worryingly, they are also reading ahead which means assumptions are already being made on something you have yet to say and you lose the impact. Similarly, resist the temptation of swapping or skipping words in an attempt to look like you’re not reading it word for word. Everyone knows what you’re doing and you’re more than likely to stumble over your words.

You can resolve this by using the slides purely to prompt and illustrate what you are saying. As mentioned, data can be a tedious subject to explain so keep the words to your commentary and keep the data on the slides.

Know your audience

After discovering the joys of creating infographics can bring to your life, you’ll be tempted to use infographics for every presentation. Although this can be informative and more useful, certain elements of infographics might not be appropriate for very serious and traditional audiences. Presenting data to a management board for example should be done in a slick and simple manner, almost to the point of being cold. They really want the cold hard facts and although you may want to illustrate the impact etc. in an innovative way, sometimes this can be done simply with a bar chart or diagram.

So now you know there is another way of presenting data, you should be able to add impact to your presentation or report without boring the audience or reader. As long as the illustration is appropriate, your cold data is made available, and the digestible data hasn’t been skewed in the process of making it easier to understand, your data and metrics can go far beyond than just numbers.

 

 

Preparing brainstorms in 3 easy steps

Brainstorming, blue skying, thought showers, idea mills…call them what you will and find least offensive, they are a powerful tool and I’m a huge fan. As a bubble of productive creativity, they are a safe hub of generating ideas that tackle a particular problem, decide how to get a particular outcome or direction for a particular project, plan a particular event – I could go on.

In short, it’s a dedicated session to dump ideas and provoke discussion and debate on feasibility, practicality and follow-up concepts.

If you have been asked to lead or facilitate a brainstorming session, you may be wondering how to go about it. Without resorting to brainstorming the ways in which to facilitate brainstorming sessions (although this is do-able), here are 3 steps to help prepare your session.

Step 1 – The objective

The first thing you need to be clear on is the brainstorm’s objective. Without being absolutely clear on this, you cannot effectively steer the session to the desired outcome. The three questions you should be asking yourself are:

  • What events have taken place to warrant the brainstorm – understanding what has happened for there to be a need for a brainstorm, as opposed to a meeting, round-robin email etc., will give you some background to the reasoning behind this. This should be included in the introduction to the session (look out for next week’s post on leading brainstorms) as it sets the scene for the attendees.
  • What are the desired outcomes from the brainstorm – ideally you should have been given a clear outcome for the brainstorm. If you can answer the first question, the outcome should be in context with the reason for the session.
  • How will the outcomes be presented after the session – how do the end users (this could be the person asking you to do the brainstorm or for another team who will take the actions away) want the information to be presented. Rarely will you be able to get away with presenting the crude pieces of paper the group dumped their ideas on, so you will need to determine before collecting the ideas how they will be cleaned up and summarised smartly to the end user. This should still be done at discretionary effort if the end user is happy to see the crude pieces of paper.

Step 2 – Additional information

Once you know the objective of the brainstorm, decide what additional information you will need. Being prepared will increase the effectiveness of the session, as well as avoiding any embarrassing questions you cannot answer in a room full of people, making you feel a little more confident. Additional information could include: the background; statistics or figures that help illustrate a problem; information from other people or teams that are not part of the session but will help with how the attendees come up with ideas; an agenda, explaining how much time will be spent on introductions and each topic; or case studies from other teams, departments or external organisations on how they approached a similar issue.

You’ll especially need to know who the attendees will be (or decide who they should be if you can) and what their experience, background and potential perspective will be. If you know them personally, it would be helpful to know if there are too many strong/weak vocalists. This will also help you to decide how to format the session.

Step 3 – Format

Now you know why the brainstorming session is needed, what its purpose is and all other additional information including who is attending, you will need to decide the format of the brainstorm. This needs to be appropriate to the audience, the objective and the time you have to conduct the session. You’ll also need to consider the strong/weak vocalists, for example, if there are more loud people than quiet, a big group session might not be the best option as the quiet’ns might not feel comfortable competing to be heard. As long as you can create and develop productive and usable ideas, there is no wrong way about it, but there usually is two or three ways that work the best. There are more and more ideas on different types of brainstorming – far too many to list and link to (but I’ve listed my favourites below) – so have a search on the number of formats and pick the best one that caters for the audience, objective and time. A few to mention are:

  • Old-fashioned brainstorm – a group of people giving the objective and begin to create, challenge, develop, imagine, and (hopefully) applaud ideas.
  • Individual and group think – similar to above but the objective and additional information is provided to the attendees well in advance. They all then individually start generating ideas before the session. They then take it in turns to share their ideas to the group on the day of the session. Not only does this really help for time-sensitive meetings, it also allows the attendees to do their own homework and gather their own additional information that would help the session.
  • Sticky notes – this is particularly helpful for ideas that aren’t too lengthy or complex and normally consist of 1- to 5-worded answers. The attendees are each given a sticky-note pad and use one note per idea (they can work on their own or in separated groups) and then stick these on a big board at the front. The group then discuss the ideas and can rearrange the positioning of the notes if there are a sequence of events. This is usually called storyboarding.
  • Stepladder brainstorm (1992 Rogelberg et al) – this is a new one for me and have only recently heard about it but it’s an interesting concept. Essentially the attendees are asked to leave the room bar two people. These two are then given the objective and so begin to create and discuss ideas. Then one person from the group that left is brought in to join the two people and given the objective. The one person tells the two people their ideas before the two people tell them what they came up with. Then another person joins the 3 people and so on. It’s a great way to steer away from ‘groupthink’ yet allows each person to have their say while also benefitting from the group’s thoughts.
  • Talking stick – this is a method where each member of the group provides an idea and the thoughts around it individually and in turn. The name comes from schools when children could only speak with they held the talking stick (my school had a wooden spoon). Props are optional…

So, preparing the brainstorm session is half the battle. But making the effort into this side of the process will make the other side, ie leading the session, a lot easier. Next week I share 5 easy steps for leading and facilitating a brainstorm session.