Leveraging your strengths is the ultimate workplace synergy

two exercise dumbbells

This post is part five in a series about factors I have found best enable success in the workplace. Click here to see the other articles in the series.

Introduction

My experience has demonstrated that the keys to enabling success are: never stop learningalign yourself with great mentorsembrace change, work hard, and leverage your strengths. To these I always add good fortune / luck, since like it or not, it has a role to play. Writing on the theme of workplace success has caused me to reflect on my entire academic and work history. That has helped me draw some new realizations, the latest of which are on this topic. Most of us pushed to the task, can identify our key strengths and weaknesses – though we may not always want to admit to the latter! However, I suspect few of us take the opportunity to consider how much they impact our careers. Whether deliberately (which I recommend) or otherwise, it’s vital to consider our strengths and how we can best leverage them to succeed in all pursuits.

A critical realization in graduate school

As I mentioned in my last post, I elected to leave my originally intended path of medicine to pursue an academic one, and went to graduate school for Biology. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had a very positive experience there, something I have learned from so many colleagues is far from an assured thing. Honestly, I loved my lab. I got along great with my fellow students, the lab technician, and my advisor / lab head very well. Quite honestly, my advisor was the first of the strong mentors I encountered as an adult. Our research group had fun together, I learned tons from them all, and felt productive most of the time – not to discount the constant and wholly normal struggles of science, of course! My selected project provided me with lots of avenues to investigate, and many different technical approaches to learn and master. All that said, it was in the second year that I started to question my chosen path.

I don’t recall how it started, but I realized I was not destined to become an academic i.e. finish grad school, do one or more postdocs, and embark on the path to hopeful professorship at a university. It wasn’t that I thought I was “bad at science”. On the contrary, I was skillful and efficient in the lab – something my advisor praised me for regularly. I was good at designing experiments and sufficiently insightful (I call it “being a good guesser”) to narrow the scope of work to the areas most likely to succeed. This meant my work often advanced quickly. I was also adept at learning new tools and techniques and figuring out how to improve upon them rapidly. However, I realized I didn’t have the drive I was certain was needed to succeed in academia. Sure, I enjoyed teaching and guiding undergraduates. I liked lab work quite a bit as you can no doubt tell. But I lacked the passion to undertake areas of new research, and perhaps didn’t have sufficient creativity to formulate and explore new scientific questions. Without these things I didn’t think I would be terribly effective in leading an academic lab.

A second major shift in “what to do when I grow up”

OK the seeds of doubt had been planted but what to do about it? My gut was to see graduate school through and figure it out later. Enter one of those fortunate chance occurrences in life that helped me decide! A former labmate had joined a biotech startup a few hours drive away. She suggested I should come interview there – it would be a free trip after all, and she was sure I’d think the technology was cool. I put together a talk on my research and took the interview. Needless to say, I was blown away by the experience. When I took time that evening to reflect on my day, I realized that a job there would be a perfect fit for what I truly loved about science and where my strongest skills lay. The role would provide endless opportunities to develop new technology as well as to optimize the existing approaches being used. The pressure was high, timelines short, but I would have access to cutting edge tools to get the job done.

As you have likely guessed, I left my PhD program and took the job. Suffice it to say, my grad school advisor was shocked when I told him the news. He was pretty concerned that I’d regret this decision years later, while also confident the job was as good a fit as I thought. It wasn’t a trivial transition, as they needed me to start in the new role fairly quickly. I ended up writing a Master’s thesis on evenings and weekends while working. I also had to drive back to campus a few times to wrap up some loose ends in my research. This was far from ideal, but that approach enabled me to take this next bold step needed to better leverage my skills. Was that first job perfect? Absolutely not. Did I ensure that I learned a tremendous amount, and did it set me on the course to a very successful career in biotech and eventually early retirement? Without question, it did.

Alternatively, what might have happened had I just stayed the course and finished my PhD? Of course we cannot know for certain. What I do know: my coursework for my degree was already completed and my research was proceeding well. By my advisor’s estimatation, I was on track to finish in another two years or so. More importantly, what would have followed? Honestly, I suspect I would have been an “OK” academic at best. Perhaps I would have done some interesting postdocs that would set me on a good course. But I have doubts that my own research program would have been stellar. I certainly might have struggled for funding, like so many do. Perhaps in the end I would have ended up in industry anyway? I certainly would have been leveraging far fewer of my strengths had I stayed in academia. So I would have far less of a leg up on others vs. the path I chose instead – that means no benefit from skills synergy, no career kickstart, and potentially a very different outcome in the end.

Applying this valuable lesson going forward

I never lost sight of what this experience taught me, and found myself coming back to it often in my career. When considering taking on a new project, an expanded role, or a job change, I often asked myself: “how will this leverage my skills, and is there something else that would do a better job of that?” I believe that evaluating this is vitally important. We all have things that are of interest to us, and possess skills to varying degrees. But to learn most efficiently, to have the biggest impact, and to advance quickly, you need to take advantage of your strengths. Applying as many of these as you can in a given role surely provides tremendous acceleration to success!

When I reflect upon the reasons for each job change in my career, I come back to two concepts without fail: I left a given role because I wasn’t learning enough, or I felt that a different position or company would better leverage my skills and interests. Quite honestly, I never left a job simply for a pay raise or a better title. Rather, my motivation was always to keep growing and to succeed in the workplace to the best of my ability. If you have aims to retire early, this is doubly important. Working hard is essential, of course. But like any of these keys to workplace success, it isn’t enough on its own.

In conclusion

I hope you have enjoyed this series. It has been a rewarding experience for me to reflect upon my career and what I have learned from it. I am humbled that anyone would take time to read about this, and I am grateful for the feedback that has been shared with me. I’ve updated these posts along the way, so please consider revisiting them. I believe that there are lessons for all within this series, irrespective of your field of choice and your tenure in it. I hope that you are able to apply something found within to facilitate your own success, whether or not it includes the goal of early retirement. I wish you all the best in your journey. Please don’t hesitate to share your own experiences from which we can all surely learn!

Postscript: It took about eleven years, but my grad school advisor did eventually agree that it had been a great move for me to leave academia for industry. I saw an opportunity to collaborate with him while at one of my companies, as I had access to tools which could answer a key question of interest for his research. Our project turned out incredibly well, and the findings provided a capstone to some fascinating work he had carried out in recent years. We ended up co-authoring two manuscripts as a result of this project. As I told him afterwards, I felt like I had finally repaid some of the debt I owed him for being such a great mentor and positive influence on my career!

image credit: “strength” by ~Pawsitive~Candie_N is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Advance by working smarter, not merely harder

sign: work smarter, with "harder" crossed out

This post is part four in a series about factors I have found best enable success in the workplace. Click here to see the others in the series.

Hard work is the difference between dreaming and achieving.

-Anonymous

Introduction

“Work hard” seems rather simple by comparison to the other four keys to success in the workplace: never stop learning, align yourself with great mentorsembrace change, and leverage your strengths. However, there is much more to this element than meets the eye! My conversations over the years have led me to conclude that many people believe that simply working hard is sufficient to gain recognition and to get ahead in the workplace – not so, as many of us have found! Yes, it is vital to be a hard worker. But it’s also essential to make sure you get as much leverage from that hard work as possible, so that it leads to career advancement and personal growth. There are a lot of things that fit with this important concept, and I will focus on three broad areas in this post.

Work hard in the right roles, for the right people, and for the right reasons

Most people will readily identify that working hard to achieve and exceed your stated goals is an important element of getting ahead in the workplace. A related point is that you must also work with those who will value your efforts and take your achievements into consideration when it comes to identifying future opportunities for you. This post isn’t one about the power of aligning yourself with great mentors, but this concept warrants mentioning again here. If your boss or your company culture doesn’t value the hours you put in, your many successes, and recognize you accordingly, it’s time to change that situation! Never stay in a job that fails this basic requirement.

I’ve written about the value of continuous learning and embracing change as growth drivers, and these are indeed vital. However, it is also essential not to only look ahead to your next opportunity, treating your present role as merely a stepping stone. Ensuring that you work to gain the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in your current job will result in a strong foundation to build upon for the next challenges to come. In my experience, at least two years experience in a given role is a good starting point. Be sure to go beyond merely “putting in your hours”, and make sure you learn and grow as much as you can while in each role – something I’ll cover in the next section.

On a related point, make certain that you aren’t chasing titles as your primary motivation versus choosing roles that truly advance your abilities, leverage your strengths, responsibility level, etc. Unfortunately, this is a trap into which many people fall. I once very nearly turned down what ended up being an amazing career opportunity solely because “I felt” it should be a Director role vs. the Senior Manager role I was offered. In the end I took the role with a compromise solution of “Associate Director” and about a year later I was promoted to Director. In hindsight I can’t imagine missing out on such a great opportunity over something as insignificant as a title! Equally bad if not worse is the time I was strongly considering taking a C-level role at a small company even though I could tell that the place was a train wreck, was not very interesting technology, and would otherwise not advance my career. That title (and compensation) was just so darned attractive! Thankfully I wisely moved on to other opportunities, ones that truly leveraged my strengths, and accelerated my path to financial independence and early retirement. I’ve seen far too many people take jobs that do not advance their career progression nor their abilities, simply because they thought a given title was important unto itself.

Constantly seek opportunities for growth

I’ve already written about the value of continuous growth and learning. One way to ensure you are working smartly and not only hard, is to take deliberate steps to make certain that this growth happens for you. Yes, great mentors will help you in these pursuits. But even then you are not relieved of the responsibility to be your own best advocate. There are many ways to do this. Put your hand up when special projects come around that are of interest to you, even if this may mean “more work”. Seek opportunities where you can work across teams or with other company sites. It’s amazing how much you can learn simply by getting out of your typical work environment. This will also demonstrate your willingness to learn new things and to grow to those around you.

I have always appreciated team members who put in the required hours (and more). All good managers value hard work. However, I appreciated it even more when employees independently sought opportunities to drive improvement. Some of my most successful team members have shared the same attribute: when they see something that can be made better, they don’t simply raise it to their manager’s attention. They also came with a proposal for how to improve it, whether or not it would benefit them personally. Managers may not always agree with such ideas, or the timing may not be right to take action, but I can think of many times where I approved these kinds of projects. These can provide great learning opportunities for you, as well as to demonstrate your capabilities to your manager and others with whom you work. Be known as a problem solver and one who understands everything can be improved! This only helps build a strong network who will aid you on your journey, which is the topic of the next section.

Gain massive leverage from your network

If there is one lesson I took from biotech, it is that it is a small world. Despite the many thousands of people working at so many companies around the world, “everyone knows everyone”. Most industries are like this, particularly once you work at a certain level of responsibility. You simply can’t have a conversation with someone else in your industry without realizing how many contacts you share. Why is this important? It is shocking to me how many times that simply knowing someone at a given company has opened a door to me. Getting noticed is half the challenge when it comes to finding great jobs, right? Leveraging your network is a sure-fire way to ensure you aren’t lost in the noise. Having a large network also can help you find great candidates for roles on your team. So I assert that you should always be building your network. How?

No one starts with a huge network when they enter the workplace. It must be grown from the ground up and nurtured along the way. There are likely many ways to do this. My primary recommendation to you is simple: be someone with whom people want to work! Be that coworker who is regarded as reliable, who always puts in the effort needed, and is a pleasure to work with – someone people will seek out when they need help. While this isn’t difficult, many people seem to struggle with this. I’m sure you’ve known coworkers who were technically competent but who had some attribute that made you avoid them – maybe they were a bully, a know-it-all, or one never willing to compromise. These people may find a way to advance but it is far less assured and may take a lot longer. Rather, you must act in ways that make people remember you for positive reasons – it’s that easy. I once worked with a rather prickly programmer. I got along with him pretty well despite his grumpiness, and had taken the time to figure out how we could best work together. As a result when I needed help he was generally very willing to support me. One day he pulled me aside and said “You know, Jason, I figured out what really bugs me about you: you’re probably the most liked person at this company! Not the most likable, mind you (ha!). But you’re easy to work with and get along with everyone – and that really annoys me.” Do you need to be friends with everyone at work? Of course not – that’s impossible. Just carry yourself in the right ways, be gracious while being your genuine self, and I assure you that people will respond well.

Another simple thing is that you need to put yourself out there and actively build your network. Make sure you introduce yourself to colleagues at your company, key vendors, and customers. Seek opportunities to attend conferences and meetings where appropriate, and get the most out of those events. Attend the cocktail hours, dinners, and workshops and try to make good contacts at each. You aren’t there solely for fun, right? Will every conversation be a great one? Of course not. But I’m surprised by how many people I have met at these events who have turned out to benefit my career at some future date. Of course you have to keep up relationships to stay top of mind. These days, tools like LinkedIn, industry forums, and others make this much simpler. If you worked with great colleagues in a previous company, make sure you reach out to them periodically to find out how they are doing. I landed one of my best jobs simply by asking someone with whom I used to work out to lunch. Not only did that role give me great startup experience, I met my future wife at that company!

There is a flip side to all of the positive things I mentioned regarding network building. You must also remember that your reputation follows you. If you are someone regarded as difficult to work with, a slacker, or otherwise with challenges, your network will freely share that information. People talk, and when it comes to considering candidates for jobs, they will unbeknownst to you, use their own networks to vet the fit of someone for a role. Make sure that conversation can only go in a positive direction!

Conclusion

Working hard at any job is stable stakes – you’ve simply got to do it. I’m sure that’s not a surprise to anyone! But there are some relative straightforward things that I recommend that will allow you to work much more smartly as well. The leverage you will gain from that can accelerate your success in the workplace. What “working smart” tips have you found to work for you?

photo credit: “Work Smarter” by JuditK is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

The power of strong mentorship

Mentor and college student talking

This post is part three of a series about factors I have found best enable success in the workplace. Click here to see the others in the series.

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

-Isaac Newton (1675)

Introduction

This is a quote I’ve referenced before, and it’s among my favorites – though I am admittedly a Newton buff. (If you don’t know much about Sir Isaac outside of stories about falling apples, James Gleick wrote a great biography that I think you will enjoy). The acceleration in one’s development and career advancement that results from strong and diverse mentorship is one of the pillars in my “how to succeed in the workplace” approach that I’ve introduced previously. In short, my experience has demonstrated that the keys to enabling success are: never stop learning, align yourself with great mentors, embrace change, work hard, and leverage your strengths. To these I always add good fortune / luck, since like it or not, it has a role to play.

Strong mentors are a key driver of your development

One of my favorite pieces of advice regarding knowing when to consider a company or role change is that you should be getting at least as much from your employer as your company is getting from you. For me this is about personal growth and development, and the advancement of skills – not merely the compensation and titles that so many focus on. The former is far more valuable in the end. One key factor I have found that drives this growth is the influence of great mentorship. For me, these mentors have often been direct managers – but do not underestimate the value of peer mentorship as well. What matters is that we learn from the diverse experiences gained by others in their own careers to further our own advancement and ability to contribute. This is the core of the Newton quote!

I was fortunate in that I had several strong mentors right out of college. The first of these was my graduate school advisor, and the second was a manager at my first post-graduate job. When I consider what was consistent between these two leaders, it is that they knew the balance of when to steer me and when to let me stumble around to let me grow by doing – the most powerful learning tool. Each had strong and diverse experience in their field so that the potential for me to learn was great. The key factors that also needed be present were their deliberate mentoring mindset, patience to allow me to grow and not merely tell me what to do, and creation of an atmosphere in which I could succeed without fear of failure. They knew how to leverage my strongest skills!

A specific example comes to mind – after only a few months of working for this manager, an opportunity came up for a leadership role on his ever-growing team. This would mean stepping up to oversee a group of people who had previously been my peers. I knew the laboratory work well, but the opportunity was to learn management, as I had only been an individual contributor before. I couldn’t have asked for a better first experience. My manager seemed to always know the right balance of observing from the background vs. engaging directly with me. The positive atmosphere he fostered also meant I felt comfortable coming to him with questions at anytime – and he was always willing to make time to talk with me. As a result, I learned so much about people and group management in that next year. Having such a positive experience out of the gate definitely served as a jumping off point for a career that would eventually take me to positions where I led organizations of hundreds of people. Consider the alternative scenario – I am put into a role wholly new to me, and I receive little to no guidance. I struggle with the very first conflicts I encounter and I have a terrible experience, and then stay away from management for years to come. Vastly different outcomes, right?

How do you find good mentors? The interview process is one path. Really try to understand if your future manager is one from whom you can learn. Leverage your network if you can and find out what it’s like to work with that person. If you’re at a company you like but aren’t getting the mentorship you need, consider a role in another group with a stronger leader from whom you can learn. Aligning yourself with strong mentors is essential for growth, and it’s worth the effort it may take to find them.

Mentorship doesn’t only come from your manager

Not all managers are created equally when it comes to the potential to be a strong mentor. In addition, you might be seeking growth in an area that is not a core competency of your direct supervisor. This is where peer mentorship comes into play. A peer mentor doesn’t necessarily need be at a similar level in your company – they can still be a superior outside of your own management line. The point is that you can ask someone to be a career mentor for you. Somewhat embarrassingly, I didn’t even know this was a possibility until I was more than halfway through my own career. You may be surprised how willing many people are to serve in this kind of role, meeting with you once a month to provide career coaching. You can even write this into your development plan. All of us benefit from the opportunity to bounce ideas off someone, learning from their experience. Peer coaching can be a very safe way to get that guidance without any concern about looking inexperienced (or needy!) to your direct manager.

A request – please do consider if there is an opportunity for you to mentor others. They may not come to you and request this of you. But do consider if this is something appropriate to offer up to a junior colleague who shows potential, and with whom you enjoy working. You may end up having immeasurable positive impact on their career, and of course you will grow through this process as well. And who knows? Maybe some day you’ll end up working for them! ?

Further reading

A few recommendations to share: First, I absolutely recommend “Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferris. Particularly if you aren’t familiar with Tim’s podcast, this is a convenient way to get the collected wisdom of a very diverse group of world-class performers, most at the very top of their field. Not all the interviewees were of the same interest level to me, but with more than 200 of them, you’ll surely find many who resonate with you!

Second, my very favorite book about how to lead and coach development – one that taught me more about how to be a mentor than anything else: “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Pat Lencioni. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Pat speak and it was very impactful for me. This book, and the workshop it teaches you to run, can transform how you manage people and take you from “boss” to “leader” quicker than you would imagine. It’s an easy read, using a simple workplace fable as a backdrop to lay down the principles of Pat’s method. This is the only management book I have re-read many times, and there are other tools and books available to support this method.

Finally a bonus recommendation: harkening back to the quote, “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” by Stephen Hawking is a fabulous collection for the science-minded. This book represents a look at the discoveries that altered our perception of the world via a compilation of seven classic works on physics and astronomy. His choice of landmark works by some of the world’s great thinkers – including Newton and Einstein, traces the evolution of science and shows how each figure built upon the genius of those who came before them. I really enjoyed it.

photo credit: “Mustang Mentoring 2011” by bujiie is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0