First Impressions Fast

Our instincts are surprisingly accurate when it comes first impressions.  It’s that deep ‘friend or foe’ hardwiring we have now operating on high alert in this era of high speed. While we used to say it took 5 minutes to form an impression, executives say they can do it in 30 seconds (flashes of – professional integrity, well spoken, confident & intelligent).

ImageFor HR specialists who interview constantly it would be curious if they didn’t form quick impressions (sense of – gets to the point easily, builds rapport with people, organized & precise). We gather up fast bits of information, verbal and non, and we then test out our assumptions over the next few minutes.  While our first impression is still malleable and will add new data (technically sound, sense of humour, problem solver) generally it magnifies what it has already glimpsed.

So here are some ideas for you to boost your own first impression –

  • Get your professional image lined up (clothes, shoes, haircut – hair is what most people remember)
  • Tasteful is the watch word (for women jewellery, makeup, colours, fashion trends, purses)
  • Grooming is critical (it counts even more than you already think)
  • Slow down the clock.  Pause and make a mental note that this matters and focus on the introduction.
  • Be positive, genuine and look ‘em in the eye (long enough to notice their eye colour)
  • Get the handshake right (extend your arm and return the grip style and pressure)
  • Repeat their name plus a comment (Gerry, Good to see you here.)
  • Make a positive statement (We’ve got lots to discuss today, I know.)
  • Have 3 pieces of positive small talk at the ready –a local event, news item, recent trip
  • Share a smile (the best non-verbal communication) & add a point of agreement early in the exchange
  • Pause and listen to what they are saying with 100% attention, adding a nod if you like
  • Respond to their comments clearly and briefly (so the interaction rolls on)
  • Pay them or their company/staff/product/service a compliment (only if it is sincere and truthful)
  • Make a direct reference to why you are there (the opportunity, the speaker, the meeting, the event)
  • Ask a short question about them (What brings you here today?  What kind of work do you do? )

The next time you’re in a group setting, take a bird’s eye perspective and watch objectively to see how people engage with others to set up that positive impression – or perhaps how they don’t.  You may be surprised at what you notice.

Graduate SOS

When clients touch base these days it’s sometimes about the launch of their daughter or son’s career, rather than the priorities of their own.   It seems the torch is being passed from the obstacles of the workplace to the obstacle of getting started in the workplace.

New graduates are certainly frustrated with hiring roadblocks resulting from pressures such as –

  • Reduced numbers of entry level jobs overall
  • Hard core screening processes
  • Unrelated, part-time service jobs predominating applicant resumes
  • Requirements for industry specific experience
  • Higher workload distribution so fewer new hires needed
  • Lack of orientation and training to succeed in new jobs
  • Increased expectations of new hires to hit the ground running
  • Boomers staying in jobs or phasing in work/retirement options – (had to include this)
  • Let’s stop here, the list gets too long – (and I appreciate that it applies to non-graduates as well.)

Essentially grads lack that crucial 2 to 3 years of experience need to start climbing the career ladder. Yes, volunteer and summer work over several years adds up, but the fundamental business track record is missing.  It’s the old frustrated question of “How do I get experience, unless I’ve got experience?”

The answer is you start where you can with what you’ve got.  Pay your dues – even out of your chosen field – and gather your transferable skills so you have something of value to package up and market to your next employer.  Don’t wait for the perfect job.  Your first one may be for an unknown company with less than glamorous working conditions and more hours and less pay than you could imagine.  (On the other hand, the hours could be short, say a 3 month contract at 24 hours a week?) Hard to believe this is what you went to school for.

Humble beginnings are the roots of careers.  While it can take ruthless determination and escalated connections just to land one, they start out small.

Then you dig in your heels and start learning all over again.  New personalities, policies and politics.  Clients, products, systems and services.  Be smart.  Pitch in.  Stay organized.  Win supporters.  Deliver results.  Keep your promises.  Ask questions.  Grow relationships.  Build teamwork.  Stay positive. Show initiative.  Work hard.

Once you’ve got that first job experience and your references are strong, start looking for work that is more aligned with what you really want to do, and make a move that brings you closer to that.  Consider your first job as a launch point and you’ll be amazed at where it can take you.

More on what you can do to help your grad land work in upcoming blogs.

What’s Your Wow?

When the choice between one candidate and another is a narrow one, employers scrutinize carefully. What are those mysterious elements that can tilt the balance in favour of one over another? Better yet, how can you become a leading candidate right from start of the selection process?

The simple answer is to write an outstanding resume outlining the relevant skills and qualifications you have. The right answer is to expand that foundational resume into a compelling career narrative that not just defines your value to the new organization – but also clearly sets out the added abilities and attributes that only you bring to the table. You want to demonstrate that you are unique and uniquely qualified. (A fantastic cover letter doesn’t hurt either.)

Here are the kind of things that can identify you as top talent and grab an employer’s attention.   You…

• Have taken or are taking a course as part of a plan that leads to a relevant certification
• Are completing the final course in a new designation, i.e. CMA, PMP
• Have received awards or recognition from employers or communities for your contributions
• Have chaired a fundraising Committee that raising a record-breaking $$$$
• Have been a Project Lead on a national initiative, rollout or technical upgrade
• Acted as a key resource on a company-wide cost-savings or efficiency project
• Were selected to a community position where you influenced local events
• Shown leadership in a critical or crisis situation where the results were visible
• Participated in the selection, hiring and mentoring of new staff
• Developed and delivered training workshops or seminars for employees
• Met or exceeded any targets or (sales) goals on a consistent basis
• Delivered under budget or deadlines on complex, multi-phase projects
• Were recently selected as the prime contact for major accounts or customers
• Increased revenues or profits in any definable way
• Set up new systems or process improvements that made a difference in business operations

If you are systematic about it, you can probably come up with more ways you’ve added to the organizations you’ve worked with. Think about customers, clients, new business, senior management, projects, vendors, stakeholders, staffing, internal initiatives, promotions, pilots, launches. Consider your part in innovations, change management, sales and team development.

Looking at your career this way, you may be more valuable than you think. (Now that’s a positive thought.)

Office Confidential

If your office could talk, what would it say about you? Modern, sleek, organized and focused or cluttered, dated, piled up and overwhelmed. Take an honest 360 and see how the signals from your ‘home away from home’ are being read.

I have to tell you I have seen an astounding array of stuff stacked on desks and squirreled away in cubicles and everything tells a story. Some stories are great like recent awards and certifications. Also good – visuals and charts on products, services and info that places you on trend. Leadership, management and communication books tend to stand out, along with the technical ones that keep you current.

Some office items tell a less favourable story. What would you think of messy spaces that are choking with –
• An oversupply of scraggly plants or artificial flowers
• Family photos in frames galore…is this the living room?
• The kid’s artwork, the kid’s artwork, the kid’s artwork
• Multiple novelty mugs or desk toys– it’s not a playground
• Any stuffed animals especially in collections or motifs of any kind – think frogs
• Old cartoons, especially ones with Dilbert-style cynicism
• Too. Much. Paper. – shouldn’t this stuff be on your computer?
• Mugs of Pens – needed maybe for all that paper?
• Stress Balls – you’re handling it well, right?
• The Staples Easy button – Are you overwhelmed?
• Stuff on the floor, gym bags and shoes – use your trunk for this
• To do lists in plain sight – are you running behind?
• Bowls of candy – a little dated and unnecessary

At the very least run a purge of what’s around you and turn that haphazard array into crisp organization. Your space reflects does reflect you so have it say ‘professional’ in capitals. Make a positive impression with carefully selected items to create a polished personal statement. This will improve how others perceive you and boost your overall workplace brand. More on branding in future blogs.

The Behaviour Gap

The Behavior GapI had the pleasure of being invited recently to a PWL Capital event www.pwlcapital.com where the featured speaker was Carl Richards, CFP, author and a New York Times contributor. www.behaviourgap.com

His new book The Behaviour Gap – Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money, is primarily focused on financial investments.  It also explains the confusing gap between what we think and feel, and what we actually do.  These highly transferable life lessons that were not lost on the young urban crowd that attended. 

What’s more, the beauty of Carl’s approach – and how his artwork became featured in the Parsons School of Design in New York – is that he distills the concepts in his book into deceptively clear line drawings that deliver the whole message.  If Carl can’t fit the idea on a cocktail napkin, he’ll work at it until he can.

So what did Carl have to say about financial investing that can be extrapolated to people, patterns of behaviour and careers?  Here are just a few:

  1. We can decide what we really want out of life.  So the more you know about yourself, the better you can align your actions with your goals.
    1. Overconfidence is a serious problem.  The ones who are most overconfident are least likely to recognize it.
    2. We can embrace uncertainty.   Change isn’t always a problem if we can be flexible rather than locked in.
    3. You gotta be you.  You need a strategy that’s made specifically for you.
    4. Happiness is more about expectations and desire than it is about income.
    5. Anxious people tend to get stuck in the past and seek comfort in familiarity.
    6. Good things happen too.

Every summer needs a good book. So, if you’re a reader, enjoy.  If you’re visual and just want see the concepts in sketch form, head to his website, they’re all there.

Where’s Your Tribe?

So often we talk about finding your life’s work or following your passion. What if you just followed your people?
We spend some heavy duty workplace time with our co-workers so it makes sense that the more connected we feel, the better we function. And that’s directly linked to our enjoyment of the job and the quality of our work.

Who you work with in many cases can be almost as important as what you do.

As one client told me, “I’d like to work with the kind of people I’d be happy to have a beer with – after work.” They weren’t looking for pub-mates, but that they wanted peers that were savvy, smart and interesting. Genuine workplace relationships with like-minded folks. In other words – “my kind of people”.

Those you work with are also another good way to assess your fit with a current or future employer. Does this group have the kind of energy and direction that keeps you going or do they drag you down?

Realistically we don’t get along with everyone all the time. In fact there may be only a few bright lights on the team that really make the difference, but they can make all the difference.

I’ve met clients who’ve had only a few regrets about leaving an employer or even their line of work, but I do hear that there are people in the company they will miss. The ones that made their day, appreciated their work or shared their interests.

Find your work, find your passion – and find your tribe.

Stuck in the Status Quo

By the time people call me they often know that the job they have is not the job they want – and they want out. The reasons are plentiful – a micro-managing boss, a stagnant culture, less than challenging work, overwork to the point of burnout, or a commute that just gets longer by the day… the list goes on.

When you line up the disconnects there seems to be a compelling argument to leave. Yet it can be hard to break up with your job. The dis-comfort zone prevails and inertia sets in.

The #1 reason I hear why talented people stay in untenable positions is that there is simply no time to get a job search underway. Being super-busy at work gets your employer’s needs met at the expense of your own. Exhaustion at the end of the day and diving for downtime over the weekend adds up to little time or energy for your personal priorities.

My encouragement is that any effort you make on job search will help you feel in more in control. If it takes a month or more of ‘bootleg’ time to get your resume organized, acknowledge that you’ll never have the clear chunk of time you want, and get on with the ‘bits and pieces’ approach. You can update your LinkedIn and set up some career alerts on job boards using incremental time. Likely you can get out for lunch at least once in a 4-week period, so plan ahead and make it a networking lunch.

Your ability to gather up your resources and make change happen despite constraints is one of the biggest personal gains you can make in managing your career. Tenacity counts.

Write it Right – 7 Tips to Jazz Up Your Work

In job search and on the job you are what you write. Flawless in logical thought, persuasive and well-crafted, your writing reflects you at your best. Every cover letter, email and project summary you do carries your signature style.

So let’s take a look at some quick hit ways to improve what you already do.

1. Strings of things lose their power. Avoid long laundry lists of items – especially dissimilar items. Group like items in 2’s and 3’s in separate sentences.
2. Duplication is boring. Review how many words are the same, i.e. strong, proven…or variations on the same word, e.g. strengths, and tap into your creativity for fresh expressions.
3. Watch the number of sentences that begin with the word “I” – one of the biggest bloopers in cover letters. The most I’ve seen in one letter? 13.
4. Make your sentences short – a line to 2 lines at the very most. It keeps you on track and your reader engaged.
5. Make your paragraphs shorter than usual. Four to five lines will do it. Even throw in a single 2- line paragraph for emphasis a couple of times.
6. Optics count – so balance the page. It should look elegant and appealing to the eye. A page that is overcrowded is not more powerful but less effective.
7. Showcase relevant numbers, facts or details that prove your key points effectively. This alone moves your material from general to specific and gears up the professionalism of your work.

Above all – Proof, Proof, Proof and Reproof – so many things can slip through the cracks when you are writing. You may be excited about the ideas or in a hurry to meet a deadline – either way errors find ways to creep in. Grammar, punctuation and sentence structure count. Even missing words can turn up when you do a close review. Keep your editorial eye sharp by reviewing with an objective perspective a few hours ,or even the day after, you write. Opportunities for improvement may leap off the page.

(The most overused phrase? Well, let’s say if I had a loonie for every time I’ve read ‘strong interpersonal and communication skills’ in both job postings and cover letters, I have enough change for parking meters for a long time.)

Triple Play

Networking. Exercise. A smart update for your resume. Why wait? Sign up for a fundraising walk this spring.

Choose a cause that is near and dear to your heart– and perhaps significant in your industry. Financial sector? Think CIBC Run for the Cure on Sept 30, 2012. http://www.cbcf.org

Healthcare? Try Walk for Life Cardiac Health Foundation of Canada. http://www.toronto-charities.ca/walk-of-life-2011 For Prevention, Education & Cardiac Rehabilitation 3 km & 5Kkm walk, 5 km run & 10 km cycle, May 27, 2012.

You can also combine causes – international + Non-profit = Running for Wells on May 26th in Burlington http://www.toronto-charities.ca/run-for-wells-burlington-2012 . A 5k and 10k run as well as a 3k Walk with Water. All proceeds go to HOPE International Development Agency to bring clean water to those who need it.

You can touch base with your professional community by contacting key members of your network for pledges – combined, of course, with a personal check in on how things are going for them at the moment. Perhaps you’d like to go a step further and create a walking group from your colleagues and contacts. You can also volunteer to help plan the event or participate on run day as an organizer.

Update your online presence with news of the run and share positive messages about the results you achieved. Then add the event to your resume under ‘Volunteer Contributions’. Employers and potential employers often support community causes as part of their social responsibility platform. When they see you are like-minded it helps to strengthen the values and mission bond between you.

And while you are at it, why not expand on the triple play by taking on a couple of walks in the spring. The results could be exponential.

What have you done for me lately?

We all need a little TLC now and then – some would say we thrive on it – and your career is no different. Maybe it’s become a little neglected as you’ve prioritized your job, your job search or even your personal life.

When you’ve been in one role or one company for a while it’s easy to fall behind on what’s happening in your industry. We lose sight of the bigger trends while we chase the day-to-day details of simply getting things done – and some days that means just getting the priorities to march along to the deadlines.

One of the best ways to stay ahead is to read – and I’ll go out on a limb here by saying ‘Read books’. Yes, the online world is incredibly rich in information and available instantly. That’s why it’s the default source.

My suggestion is that you be different. Enhance your online frame of reference with some deeper reading materials. By all means read with technology – your e-reader, iPhone and iPad can be invaluable for two reasons. First they’re fun and portable ways to get books into your life. Second, they’ll help you find the time to do it. (Just divert the time you’re already spending on them into a little sustained non-fiction reading). Want books free? Use the library system to download them. Want to keep them? Purchase online. The point is to get started.

What should you read? Anything related to your work and written by an expert that grabs your attention and builds your knowledge base. Try books on leadership, global trends, technology, management, finance, marketing, teamwork, time management, communication, corporate responsibility, fundraising…the list goes on. Here’s one site that will show you just how much selection there is http://800ceoread.com/attribute/show/1-The_Business_Book_Bestseller_List

Also on the plus side, in your next interview when they ask you “What top 5 books have influenced your thinking and how?” you’ll know the answer.

(I’ll share some of my favourite reads in upcoming blogs – feel free to send your reccos along too.)