Focus on the task at hand

Years ago, when my kids were little, we took a trip to Florida to visit some relatives and while we were there one of the things we did was watch the Disney movie, Finding Nemo. Now I’ll be the first to admit I am kind of a buzz kill when it comes to Disney movies- I really do not care for them. (I know, there must be something wrong with me.) But there was one scene that stuck with me all these years, and maybe you remember it to.

It is funny where you can find profound wisdom if you keep your eyes and ears open to it. When Marlin- the main character whose mission is to find Nemo, his son, who was fishknapped- starts to stress out and lose hope, his friend Dori has some great advice. “Just keep swimming.” I love that line, and I have used it as a personal motto ever since.

To often we get caught up in the imensity of what we are involved in. Whether it is a big project at work, raising our kids or looking for the next step in our career, there are a multitude of steps and side projects and duties and tasks. If we try to focus on the entirety of it we can easily become overwhelmed.

But we don’t have to. We just need to keep swimming.

Every project, no matter how big and intimidating, is made up of many smaller pieces. So when I start to get overwhelmed by one I take a step back and jot down the next few steps. (Sometimes literally in a notebook, sometimes just mentally while taking a deep breath). Then I tell myself that all I need to do is take the next step. That is it. I don’t have to worry about the end goal, other people’s contributions, how the project will be received or even whether it will succeed or fail. I just have to deal with what is next.

Invariably what is next is much easier to deal with than the project as a whole, and so I take that step, and then the next, and the next. That goofy fish from the cartoon movie that I didn’t really like shared the wisdom of the ages with me and anyone else who was listening. All we ever have to do is just keep swimming.

So the next time your job search, home renovation project or work project starts to stress you out, try to remember. You do not need to make a giant leap, you only need to take the next step.

Adversity Builds Character

In times of stress look for the why

Ever have one of those weeks where everything just seems to be falling your way. You sleep great. The kids actually seem to be behaving. Nothing in the house breaks down or stops working. Your colleagues are agreeable and your boss notices the solid work you’ve been doing.

These times don’t happen often, but when they do we feel like we could take on the world. In fact, it is often times like these when our very best work comes out. Most people can perform well when everything is going in their favor.

But how about when the opposite is in effect. How do you perform when the kids are sick and you’re sleeping five hours a night? Can you still deliver when your boss gives credit to another team member who is only riding your coat tails? Is your performance still on target when you are worrying about how to pay for that leaky roof?

It is in times of adversity that we reveal who we really are. I for one often find myself lacking. It doesn’t take a lot to throw me off my game and when it happens I can almost stand outside of myself as an objective observer and see it happen. But that doesn’t change the fact that stress does a number on me. So I know this is something I know I need to work on.

What I try to do is to personify adversity. I look at it like a teacher. This isn’t a new idea. People like Plato, Marcus Aurelius and even Yoda have taught the same. But tried and true methods become cliché because they work. When I see adversity as a teacher I can more easily pull myself out of the situation and look at it as a lesson that I can learn from.

For instance, if a client is really unhappy with a given piece of work even though I have provided exactly what they asked for, I look at it as a lesson in patience. I could get a bit upset and explain how I am delivering on our agree upon project. But instead I step back and realize that as someone who works with people looking for work, I am also working with people at their most vulnerable. Sometimes when people lose control of one aspect of their lives, in this case their job, they try to exert control over something else: our project. When I look at it from this perspective I can see the why, not just the what of the client’s actions.

This is just a small example, but I think it illustrates the point well. When we look at adversity as a teacher trying to help us build character it causes us to look for the why when trouble happens. Why is this happening to me now and in this particular way? What can I learn from it? If nothing else it helps you break the cycle of stress and look at the problem from a different perspective. And for me at least, any strategy that lessens stress is a good one.

What Legacy Will You Leave?

I was watching TV the other day and came across a movie from my youth, Roadhouse. It’s a Patrick Swayze film about a bouncer who cleans up a bar. Basically it’s testosterone gone wild with pretty girls- just the kind of film that appeals to a 16 year old boy, which is what I was when it came out in 1989. Re-watching it now is pretty funny; it’s not really a good movie at all, but nostalgia wants what nostalgia wants.

About half way through I started to get a little bored to be honest and so I went on IMBD (internet movie database for the uninitiated) and looked up the film. I tend to do this a lot with older movies to see the trivia or check up ad see what the minor characters went on to do with their careers. What I found was a bit shocking.

Half the cast had died. And two of them, Swayze and Jeff Healy died fairly young. Swazye in his 50’s, Healy at only 41. Philosophers often talk of memento mori- reminders of death and mortality. They say it is useful to remember we all end up the same and that our time is short. This IMDB page certainly had that affect on me. In my mind the actors were all still in their 20’s and 30’s, not passed on.

This got me thinking about the idea of legacy. What will be left when I’m gone. My children certainly, but when thinking about my career and what I spend most of my days doing, is their any lasting value there. I think this is probably something healthy that we should all do from time to time. Just sit back and evaluate where we have been, where do we see ourselves going, and what, if any, lasting value it has.

Fortunately most careers have an element of service in them and if we are looking at our jobs as more than simply gateways to buying a nicer house or car we can see that. Here are 3 things I did that got me thinking about my own legacy.

–I made a quick list of people that I have helped along the way
–Counted how many times I’ve let someone have the lion’s share of credit for a group project
–How many problems have I solved for people?

I’ll admit some answers were better than others, but I suppose that’s the purpose of doing this sort of exercise. It puts into stark relief the things I should be doing more of. So I guess I have Roadhouse to thank for the philosophical wake up call. Who knew?

Sometimes the Big Picture is the Enemy

There is a big deadline on the horizon.

The is a possible disaster looming in our personal lives.

We have a huge project with multiple levels of possible catastrophe.

What usually happens in these situations? Well, if you’re like me you start to dwell about everything that can go wrong along the way and the feeling of impending doom becomes pretty crushing. Sometimes it gets so bad you can just sit spinning your wheels over a variety of possible, but not even probable, outcomes.

I talk to job seekers who fall into this trap all the time. The process of looking for new work is complex and can be difficult. There are people to meet, documents to create, research to be continually performed, interviews and more interviews to prep for. It is easy to get swamped by the details.

Clearly, this situation is not conducive to getting anything done, or making any kind of progress. Intellectually, I know this, and so do you, but that awareness is often not enough to draw the curtain on the play of follies that is constantly running in our mind’s eye. So what to do?

Focus on the now. That is all there ever really is.

No matter how large the project or how difficult the task, you can only deal with what is in front of you. All those future worst-case scenarios have not happened yet, and may never happen at all. And even if some of them do, do you want to suffer them twice? Once before they happen and then when they actually do?

I have written before about the importance of a good plan and schedule to order your professional life, whether during a big project, or even more importantly, when you are between jobs. Plans and schedules help you see the big picture and make steady progress towards a goal. So yes, there is a time to look to the future. But, and this is a big but, when the planning is done, stop dwelling on it.

A good plan allows you to forget it and just focus on the task at hand with the confidence that when all the daily tasks are performed the end result will be what you want it to be. Follow your daily to-do list and stop dwelling on possible futures. The real future will be here soon enough and then you can deal with that as well.

Believe me, I know this is easier said than done. Sometimes I feel it is my life’s goal to master this one simple lesson. However, just because it is hard to do doesn’t mean that it is wrong. In fact, I’d argue just the opposite. Mastery of self is hard work. We should do it because it is hard. We should do it because once we are able to put the big picture out of our mind and focus on the present everything becomes a little easier.

All we ever have is the now. The future hasn’t happened and the past is already over. Be here now.

A Behind the Scenes Glimpse into the Life of an Executive Resume Writer

I wasn’t sure I really wanted to write this post, after all, resume writers are not celebrities. No one is lining up for my autograph when I take my family out to Appleby’s. Who would really care how I do my work? But then I thought, maybe if people understood what kind of work goes into creating an executive resume they could take those lessons and run with them. At the very least it would clear up some misconceptions about how we work.

The first thing I do when I get a new client is to carefully read over all of their original materials- resume, cover letter, and LinkedIn profile. Often there are a few supplementary pieces of information they send along as well. This information digestion is important, because this is how the client sees themselves professionally, and if I am going to accurately represent them I need to keep this in mind.

Next, I spend some time looking at the job listings of one to two different positions that they have expressed interest in applying for. Most times their experience and education match their intended target, but not always. If it is a match then I spend my time focusing on the exact wording the company uses to describe the skills they are looking for. We’ll need to use these in all of the application documents. If there is not a match I have one of two tasks ahead of me: either tease out some additional skills and experience from the client, or explain to them why they may need to change direction a bit if they want this job search to be as successful as it can be.

So far the job of a resume writer has not involved much writing. That now changes as I go from research mode to writing mode. The first piece of writing I do for a new client is to create a branding statement. This is a one to two sentence declaration that explains exactly who they are and what they offer. It is meant to be the lens through which the rest of the resume is read. This is a key component both in terms of the client’s job search and in terms of the writer-client relationship. If I can really nail down the branding statement the client then knows that I understand them and what they are trying to achieve. Because of this I spend quite a bit of time on this relatively short piece of the larger resume/personal branding puzzle.

Once the branding statement is done and agreed upon we move on to the core competency list. This is a list of 12-15 skills that serve two different purposes. First, they trigger the ATS (an automated program that scans resumes looking for certain keywords. Only if the resume passes this first test will it move on to a human reader). Second, they act as a short hand, ‘skimmable’ summary of the client’s abilities. The employer or recruiter can scan the list and instantly see if this person has the necessary skills to do the job. One of my most important jobs as an executive resume writer is to make this as easy as possible on the reader. We don’t have a lot of time with them, so the easier they can digest the client’s info the better.

Now I can finally get to the meat of the document, the work history. There is of course some standard information that needs to be included such as the job title, company name and location and the years employed there. Then come the job details. One mistake many job seekers make is to list their job responsibilities, what they were in charge of in each particular position. Or worse, they cut and paste their job duties right from their company’s handbook. This is not what a recruiter or employer wants to see. They need to see quantifiable accomplishments. In other words, what were you able to do for the organization. In order to show this, I often have to tease out more detail from the client by asking some probing questions about their time at each company. Then, I refer back to those core competencies. By tying in the skills we stated above with the history listed below we can create a document that flows and tells a story.

For instance, if we listed Process Improvement as a competency and then can explain how when you worked for ABC Corp you were able to redesign the IT department to decrease downtime by 30% we have proved your skill. This is what an employer needs to see. How you performed and created margin for your previous employers.

The last piece of the work history section that can sometimes be a struggle is the overall length. This is especially hard with executives who have a long work history that they are justifiably proud of. The cold, hard truth is however, most employers have a very “what have you done lately” attitude. Rarely do you need to go beyond 10-15 years of history. Sometimes this takes some convincing on my part.

Now come the easier parts, the education, technical skills and what I’ll call miscellaneous info (languages, certifications, publications, presentations, professional development). These pieces of information can be presented more or less as lists and should be completely “skimmable” for the reader. They need to be there, but should take as little space as possible.

Depending on the responsiveness of the client during this whole process, it usually takes about five to six days for me to complete a resume, from initial information gathering to finished draft ready for sending out. Then I move on to the other pieces of the client’s package which can include letters, reference sheets, LinkedIn profiles and coaching pieces. But after the resume is done these other items move along much more quickly. The resume always does the heavy lifting.

So now you know exactly how an executive resume writer works- or at least this one.

Career Resiliency: Plan for the worst

Things happen. It’s the way of the world. As much as we’d like to be able to go back in time and remake the world according to our likes and preferences that just isn’t possible. (At least not yet. I’m sure Elon Musk must have something cooking along these lines.)

So now what? If we can’t rid the world of accidents, mishaps, back luck and utter catastrophe, what do we do?
Rather than remake the world, it is in fact far easier to remake ourselves. We need to become resilient. This way when the inevitable happens, as Seneca would say, we can “let fate find us prepared and active.” That’s all well and good you may say, but how do we become resilient? Luckily there are concrete steps you can take, especially when it comes to your career.

The first step is to imagine the worst. What are some horrible things that could happen to you in regards to your career? The most obvious is losing your job entirely, but what else? Demotion? Transfer? New boss? New mission? New vision for the company? Make a nice big doom and gloom list. Once you see it in black and white in front of you it will be easier to prepare.

Next, imagine how you’d deal with each one. Remember, we are thinking about what we can actually accomplish, not what we wish we could do. We may wish we could get upper management to see they should never have reorganized our division, but that won’t happen. What we can do is learn the new game and play it as best we can. We may wish we could turn back the clock and not be let go. But we can call on contacts to get an interview in another firm. Sketch out a quick response to each career catastrophe.

Now, prepare for the worst. Some career hiccups are easier to prepare for than others. A new boss for instance requires a shift in attitude and perhaps a little relationship building. Being prepared for that is more about keeping your state of mind open. Losing your job and thus looking for a new one is a large undertaking and there are things you can- and should- have in place well beforehand. [References, well developed connections, a ready-to-go resume etc.]. Create your plans and then get to work. If you need to write your resumes then do it. If you need to save a month’s salary to put aside, then do it. Even if it takes a long time to have your contingency plans in place, the very act of working towards them will strengthen your will if anything should happen. The more prepared you are the better your reactions will be.

This is where resiliency really kicks in. You’ll never be caught flat-footed because you will have thought about this before. You thought about, acknowledged it, prepared to deal with it and put a plan of action in place. If you have a plan in place for all the possible worst-case scenarios then when some of them inevitably happen you’ll be ready and prepared to meet that fate with action.

Not loving your job? Then focus on what you can control

Ever had a bad day at work? One of those days where your colleagues are annoying; the clients need babysitting or the boss is pressing you for what amounts to busy work- or sometimes all three?

Me too. We all have. And if you’re not careful you can start to string days like that together and pretty soon you have bad weeks, bad months and ultimately you end up hating going to work every day. No one wants that. Ideally, you want to enjoy what you do. But sometimes you have to recapture the joy and You are not in control of the world, you are only in control of how you respond to it. Choose to respond well.ambition you felt when you took those first faltering steps into your desired career.

So how do you get back there? Take your cue from ancient philosophy and act like a stoic.

Stoicism is experiencing a bit of a revival lately and for good reason. It is a simple way of looking at the world that allows you to zero in on what matters and feel more satisfied no matter the situation. In brief, stoicism says that the path to happiness is found in accepting that which we have been given in life, by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desires or fears, by using our minds to understand the world around us and to do our part in nature’s plan.

In other words, we cannot let the things we cannot control dominate our thoughts and therefore our lives. There is no sense having anxiety over the weather since there is nothing you can do to change it. A stoic would respond to a beautiful sunny day them same as cold and rainy one. He is alive and he has things he needs to accomplish and he simply gets on with it regardless of what the world may throw in his way.

This concept can be really handy when applied to your career.

A stoic wouldn’t worry about gossiping colleagues, or a demanding boss. He would simply see his day as a series of tasks that he can ether perform or not perform. Seeing as performing them would be doing his part in the overall plan for the organization (company, business, school etc.) he would do them to the best of his ability. He would not concern himself with the things he could not control, like his co-worker’s attitudes or problems that were someone else’s responsibility.

Everyone has their own path, so walk yours and try not to concern yourself with how others choose to walk theirs. I’m not saying this is easy, but with practice you’ll be able to start to see the benefits of focusing on what is in your power and leaving the rest aside. You’ll find yourself less concerned with the little annoying aspects that are part of everyone’s job. You’ll instead see the benefits and the good that comes from your own individual contributions.

You are not in control of the world, you are only in control of how you respond to it. Choose to respond well.