Self-Solving Dynamics: No More Superhero Managers

super-managerDependence-Based Management

My office in the lower level of the department store was the first one in the executive office suite and I kept my door open most of the time because I had no windows. And as the head of HR, I was the one everyone came to with all kinds of issues, from advice on how to deal with an underperforming employee, to where to access keys to the storeroom. At the time, I was one of the most proficient with the new computers that were slowly taking traction, so I was also the Help Desk and printer-unjammer. I admit, there was a part of me that enjoyed being so important! They say knowledge is power, and as the one who interacted with virtually everyone and every aspect of the store, I knew a lot!

But I was finding myself working long hours to get all of my work done due to the constant interruptions. I’d shut my door for a while to have a few minutes of focus, but it wasn’t long before I heard a knock on my door, or sometimes a full-fledged barge-in, and I’d find myself shifting gears to help the person in front of me.

Often I would try to schedule time with the interrupter so that I could finish the task at hand, but that wasn’t always an easy solution, especially in a multi-shift, 7-days-a week retail environment. Something had to be done or I was always going to find myself behind on my work and resentful for the interruptions.

I began to switch my approach from giving the answer immediately and spending time explaining the details to asking questions to make the other person think through the options and the best course of action, or to discover their own solution. When employees came to me to complain about each other, I pushed the resolution back on them rather than solving things for them. I had to let go of that feeling of being “in charge” and pack up my superman cape (or at least hide it under my suit jacket!) and allow folks to think things through on their own.

At first it’s very difficult to resist the temptation to be the hero with a fix, or at least a scapegoat for those who don’t want the accountability of making a decision. I had to get used to making it their problem, not mine. And they had to get used to coming up with their own solutions.

Empowerment & Accountability

There is a need for empowerment and accountability in the way we lead staff. These are not new concepts, yet are often weakly applied by well-meaning or, sometimes, controlling managers who step in to direct the behaviors of their employees. Empowerment – putting the power to handle situations on another – means I have to release that power so that the other person can pick it up.

Accountability shifts the responsibility for outcomes to the right person(s). If a manager holds themselves accountable for solving interpersonal issues on the team, or directing day-to-day activities (a la micromanaging), then employees will never hold themselves accountable. So it requires that I, as a manager, change my mindset to place accountability with the individuals involved, whether the issue is communication, task performance, or tactical decision-making.

We know, logically, that empowerment and accountability make sense, but between our need to control, a mistrust of our staff, and a mindset that says, “it’s easier to do it myself,” we build dependence that is both time-consuming and debilitating to our direct reports.

Self-Solving Dynamics

The idea behind self-solving dynamics is to shift responsibility to the people impacted by the outcomes. Instead of the boss fixing problems from operational setbacks to interpersonal challenges, self-solving dynamics places the burden of a solution on the shoulders of those who identified the problem (or opportunity) in the first place.

Self-solving dynamics takes a commitment by management to resist the temptation to be a fixer and instead be an enabler. I don’t mean enabling in the negative sense of allowing codependent behaviors, but in the opposite sense of allowing independent behaviors that lead to self-efficacy. If we want a workplace in which individuals at all levels are cognitively engaged, applying their whole being to not only attain organizational objectives, but achieve personal fulfillment as well, we have got to let go and trust that people will figure it out.

Students of leadership will remember the Theory X and Theory Y models presented by Douglas McGregor. Theory X managers see followers as disliking work, avoiding responsibility, and need constant supervision. Theory Y managers, on the other hand, view followers as individuals who seek and accept responsibility and want to solve work problems imaginatively.

It requires a Theory Y leadership mindset to allow self-solving dynamics to flourish. But with a workforce that has been victimized by poor leadership and mistrust, it takes intentional commitment to training, coach, and developing followers to gain confidence and skill. It also requires managers to reflect on their management style and asking for feedback from colleagues and direct reports.

 

Self-Solving Dynamics Defined

Self-Solving Dynamics is the practice of shifting responsibility for solving problems in from the manager to those impacted.

Moving Toward Self-Solving Dynamics

To make the shift to self-solving dynamics requires a realization that followers have been conditioned to ask the boss to solve problems, especially interpersonal or inter-team problems, and that bosses, for a variety of reasons, have obliged. To make the shift…

  • Be aware of your tendency to solve problems for others, and the motivations behind those tendencies (power, self-importance, expediency).
  • Practice asking questions when people come to you for solutions, rather than jumping in immediately.
  • Be comfortable with mistakes; allow followers to learn by doing (just like you probably did!).
  • Be available for consultation, but leave the burden with the one(s) with a problem. Allow them to own the solution. Coach, but don’t solve for them!
  • Ask them to prepare a “lessons learned” summary, which will help them hone their self-solving skills and allow you to celebrate and coach more specifically.

So the next time an employee knocks on your door and wants you to solve a problem for them, tuck your superhero cape back inside your shirt and use the principles of self-solving dynamics to make them a superhero that can soar on their own!

 

Making the Pieces Fit: Right Person-Right Job-Right Organization

A couple of years ago, when I was managing a group of trainers for a large financial services firm, I needed to backfill a position when a trainer was promoted within the company. We lacked internal bench strength, so following the culture of promotion from within wasn’t a viable option. I would have to hire externally. Personally, I welcomed this opportunity because I felt we needed some “new blood” in our organization.

As I sorted through dozens of resumes and began narrowing down the candidates, there was one individual who stood out to me as unique. What he lacked in industry experience I was confident he could overcome with his ambitious, unconventional perspective. I wanted to shake up the rest of the trainers, and I was committed to hiring a diverse team to broaden the perspectives of the group and encourage them to learn from one another.

So I ignored the concerns of a couple of people I had invited to participate in the interview process and went with my gut. What I learned is that sometimes your gut needs to listen to the guts of others!

Jerry was probably the worst hire I have ever made! Almost from the beginning, when he was a participant in the training class, he began stirring things up, but not in the exciting, positive way I had envisioned. Over the next two years I coached and disciplined him until it was obvious we needed to sever the relationship altogether.

What I now know is that company fit is a two-way street. An article published in 2005 by researchers at the University of Iowa (Kristof-Brown, Zimmerman & Johnson, Personnel Psychology, 2005) addresses Person-Environment fit. Fit can be considered from various angles, such as person-supervisor fit, person-organization fit, person-workgroup fit, and so on.

Recruiters and hiring managers may have some instinctive knowledge, and maybe even some formal training, in screening individuals for organizational fit. There is a desire to find out if someone will be a good fit for the culture as well as provide the necessary skills and experience to do the job. Often, though, organizations do what I did with Jerry – they fail to look at things from multiple perspectives, so they miss things that could become a problem down the road.

The most useful person-environment factors to consider are vocation fit, job fit, organization fit, and workgroup fit.

Vocation Fit

Remember the career interest inventory you took your senior year in high school? Your results showed a laundry list of possibly occupations based on what you selected as most and least desirable in the assessment. I think some of mine included funeral director, teacher, librarian and zookeeper. Often there is little personal counseling that goes along with these assessments so you spend a lot of time trying to figure out what you might want to be when you grow up!

We assume that individuals have figured this out before they start applying for jobs, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked why someone wants a particular job and they respond with “I really like to help people.” That’s great! But why help people through this job? Why does it satisfy you? Why is this career of choice? I ask my college students what they plan to do after graduation and most of them say “get a job.” Minimal effort seems to be put into discovering strengths, passions, interests, and vocational fit.

Job Fit

Assuming the individual has made a thoughtful vocational choice, the next step is to consider job fit. My wife used to laugh at me early in our marriage when I would look through the want ads and circle jobs (yeah – remember the days when you had to get the Sunday paper to find out who was hiring?!) that I didn’t have the credentials for but was convinced I would be a perfect choice for! Or I would apply for jobs at companies that I would not enjoy working in.

As job seekers we get into the desperation trap of “I just need a job – any job – and I’ll keep looking if its not the best one.” With bills piling up we quickly jettison the idea that we need a job where we can thrive – we’re just trying to survive. We become overly optimistic and let the dollars guide us.

The opposite happens with organizations and hiring managers. I’ve made desperate hiring decisions just to fill a position quickly, then regretted it later. In the call center world we called it “butts in seats.” In retail we had a similar approach – the “fog a mirror” test. The assumption is that its better to have someone…anyone…than no-one. Some industries just come to expect a certain amount of turnover.

But have you noticed the difference between the fast-food associate that is a good fit and the one who isn’t? They are in the right vocation – customer service – and in the right job. They smile, interact, and do their work with pride. In some ways its harder to measure this as people climb the ladder. They have the experience, skills, and credentials. But do they fit with your job?

Organization Fit

There are a few ways to look at organization fit. First, is there values alignment? Job seekers have to find out if what they believe about life and work meshes with what the company believes about life and work. Do they produce products and services that we think are harmful in some way? I once worked for a company that provided customer service for companies that sold adult videos, psychic readings, and online gambling sites. I didn’t know that until after I started working for the company, and it gave me some heartburn to be associated with such a company.

My first human resources job was for a century-old food manufacturing company that was hiring their first HR Manager in the company’s history. It took them at least two years to pull the trigger on posting the job. The average tenure of the executive team was about 20 years, so most of them started with the company right out of college and never left. As a young, ambitious, and out-of-the-box HR Manager, I was in for an awakening! I had a blast going in and setting up a new department, having the autonomy to create priorities and projects. But after about three years I had done all I could do because my desire for progressive programs did not fit the culture. They needed someone who would maintain what I had set in place.

As organizations become more active supporters of a variety of causes, from gay rights to immigration reform to global warming, job seekers have to do their homework to decide whether they fit with such an organization. It requires asking specific questions about values, priorities, and practices. Read articles about the company to see what may be below the surface of the company web site.

Workgroup Fit

At the workgroup level both the job seeker and the employer need to evaluate whether there is a good fit with a particular team. I’ve worked in large organizations that are a conglomeration of multiple sub-cultures. If the workgroup is in a location apart from corporate headquarters, how is the culture different? Is there dysfunction, infighting, or an “us vs. them” mentality when it comes to working with other departments?

When I worked for a regional department store chain I was in one of the premier stores in a large mall in a large city. I would visit our stores in smaller cities and the culture within the store was completely different. There is a different talent pool, with smaller towns typically having less turnover. I’ve often found that the less turnover there is, the more likely the workgroup is receptive to change and new ideas. This isn’t always the case, but it’s important to check out.

Over a ten-year career in retail I worked in or managed virtually every department. As a 20-something male, I was assigned to manage a cosmetics department of 30 women for a couple of years. What an experience that was. Talk about a challenging workgroup fit!  Why my boss thought this was a good position for me, I don’t know. And why I accepted it shows that I didn’t give much thought to workgroup fit!

Evaluating Fit is Everyone’s Job

Job seekers and employers both have a responsibility to evaluate fit. At the highest organizational levels processes need to be in place to ensure values and priorities are clearly communicated at every level and location of the organization. Human resource policies and practices need to promote evaluation of fit, with hiring managers receiving training on how to screen at the four levels of fitness.

With high unemployment and fierce competition for jobs it will be difficult for job seekers to honestly evaluate fit, especially at the organization and workgroup levels. Individuals will accept positions out of desperation, blindly hoping that they can push through the discomfort they may have with the workplace. It won’t take long for things to surface and productivity will likely suffer. Co-workers will be affected and HR will be called in to help fix the situation.

We will continue to see tension within our workplaces from a failure to consider fit from employer and employee angles. Misalignment of skills, values, personalities and priorities cause friction and misunderstanding. As an HR Manager I frequently had discussions with hiring managers over whether it was better to keep a position open longer, taking a risk with productivity, or to keep searching for the right person. It’s difficult in the moment, because there are lines of customers waiting to be helped, or projects put on hold, or machines running at less-than-capacity. But in the end, the productivity and positive ripple effects for the workgroup and organization when the right person is in the job typically outweigh the less-than-stellar outcomes of a poor fit.

Suggested Resources

Who: The A Method for Hiring

Order Who: The A Method for Hiring from the Minding the Gap Bookstore!

Match: A Systematic, Sane Process for Hiring the Right Person Every Time

Order Match: A Systematic, Sane Process for Hiring the Right Person Every Time from the Minding the Gap Bookstore

What Color Is Your Parachute? 2012: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers

Order What Color is Your Parachute? 2012 from the Minding the Gap Bookstore!

Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type

Order Do What You Are from the Minding the Gap Bookstore!

 

 

Developing Curiosity with Purpose

Curiosity May Have Killed the Cat, but It Could Mean Living With Purpose for You and Me

Most of us are curious about something from time to time. We turn the page, peek behind the curtain, or ask the question to give us a glimpse into something we are intrigued by. A lot of the time we have a random curiosity about things that don’t really matter. But putting curiosity to work for us can reveal purpose.

Blind curiosity can lead a cat, or a person, into dangerous territory. Beast or boy can follow a rat and quickly find himself the prey. But curiosity with a purpose, or intentional curiosity, can lead to great discoveries.

The word “curiosity” comes from the Latin “curiositatem,” meaning “desire of knowledge, inquisitiveness.”

Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”

There is a big difference between random curiosity and purposeful curiosity. Undirected, our curiosity may be entertaining, interesting, even educational. But when we intentionally guide our curiosity toward a particular end, by focusing our questioning along a special path, we can benefit greatly.

I apply this principle of purposeful curiosity to my work in human performance improvement. I become a performance sleuth, looking for clues like Sherlock Holmes, trying to see the barriers and signs that no one else sees. Intentional curiosity about the system as a whole brings into focus issues that may normally be overlooked.

Intentional curiosity works best when we start at a thirty thousand foot view, then begin to zoom in to specific things through meaningful questions. A well-known technique that can be applied is the “5 Whys” which, as the name implies, consists of asking a series of why questions to uncover the source of a problem, or the heart of an opportunity.

Here’s a simple example of the 5 whys in action:

  1. Why did I lose my job? Because the company had too many employees.
  2. Why did the company have too many employees? Because they lost business during the recession.
  3. Why did they lose business during the recession? Because customers had less discretionary income.
  4. Why did customers have less discretionary income? Because they didn’t save enough when times were better.
  5. Why didn’t they save when times were better? Because they didn’t imagine that the economy could get this bad.

There are, of course, many possible answers to each question, so you can explore those possibilities and test various hypotheses to see how valid they are. Still curious about the Five Whys? Visit MindTools.com for more details.

Another great tool to use is appreciative inquiry, which leads you down a positive path toward a desired future built around a positive core.  In other words, you come up with a series of questions that guide your thinking around what has been successful, meaningful and life-giving in the past. By digging into the positive core, you can identify what you want to see more of, what you want to move toward in the future.  A central question to get you started in appreciative inquiry is:

 “It’s five years in the future; you go to work and discover that your life is the way you always wished it would be.  You are experiencing success in your job, feeling fulfilled and clearly in your “sweet spot.” Your family life is energizing, your home a place of peace and joy. You have meaningful friendships and have found a place to serve in the community that gives you a sense of giving back.” Now, describe how you got there. What specific things did you do to achieve this ideal life?

More samples of AI questions for a variety of applications can be found at the Appreciative Inquiry Commons.

Whatever tool(s) you choose to aid you in you in applying intentionally curiosity, be sure to identify your purpose and ask “what’s possible?” Intentional curiosity is ultimately about moving you toward your goals, helping you make positive progress in some area of your life. Being intentionally curious will lead you to useful discoveries that help you bust through walls that have hemmed you in. You never know, there just may be a great prize behind that door that you’re nervous about opening!

Go ahead…take a peek!

Recommended Resources:

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day
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Here We Go Loopty Loop: Learning Through Introspection

Double-loop earning

Chris Argyris says, “People consistently act inconsistently, unaware of the contradiction between… the way they think they are acting and they way the really act.” This is the basis for Minding the Gap, my blog that strives to uncover what we say we want from the way we actually behave.

Evaluation is happening all around us in the workplace. We look for feedback on programs, conduct “lessons learned” meetings at the end of a project, and complete annual performance appraisals all in an attempt to determine if we are on track and identify what we can do better next time.

But when it comes to self-evaluation, looking within to see how we may have contributed to any missed opportunities, or even a complete derailment of a project, we suddenly get defensive. Argyris says this tendency is especially prevalent amid highly successful smart people. Success leads to an inability to objectively scrutinize where we may be in error. He says,

Because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure.

Argyris identifies two types of learning:

Single-loop: One-dimensional learning that provides a response based on the undesired action. For instance, a thermostat kicks in when the temperature falls below the desired (set) temperature.

Double-loop: Reflective learning where people evaluate why something went wrong. It is a root cause analysis that includes introspection.

And others have gone on to identify a third loop, which Argyris was sceptical about:

Triple-loop: Described as “double loop learning about double loop learning,” this type of learning seeks to understand the learning process itself and about our beliefs and perceptions.

To be truly introspective, to discover why we may be contributing to a problem and admit our own mistakes, takes a huge dose of vulnerability and humility. This is why it is so difficult for successful people – they don’t want to look foolish. It’s much easier (safer) to analyze the external reasons for something going wrong than to ‘fess up to our contributions.

Argyris suggests the best place to start to develop double-loop learning is through simple case studies. Here’s what it might look like:

  1. Identify a persistent issue – a real problem that needs to be dealt with.
  2. In 1-2 paragraphs, describe the situation.
  3. Write out a script of how you might discuss the situation with other stakeholders (employees, co-workers, bosses, etc.).
  4. Write out any thoughts or feelings you will likely have about others’ responses.
  5. Now you’re ready to analyze the issue and include stakeholders in the discussion.

Some things that may be discussed are group dynamics, priorities, blind spots, roles & responsibilities, and other factors that sometimes limit our ability to objectively evaluate your own behavior and biases. Introspection is not always pleasant. We like the idea of being reflective, but only when we see our overly-optimistic view of ourselves. When our motivations, limits and contributions look ugly, we want to quickly gloss over them. Having a humble and teachable spirit, an ability to see the truth about who we are but not letting that truth overwhelm and discourage us, is the key to learning the way Argyris describes it.  

Suggested Reading:

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Be the Change

Gandhi during the Salt March, March 1930. Fran...

Gandhi during the Salt March, March 1930. Français : Gandhi pendant la Marche du Sel, mars 1930. मराठी: महात्मा गांधी दांडी यात्रेत. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am a quote-collector. I have a database of hundreds of quotes that I’ve collected over the years: everything from pithy statements about life, profound thoughts on leadership, and inspiring words that reflect truth in a compelling way. It amazes me how putting the right words in the right order make a message quotable. Some seem to have the gift of saying really insightful nuggets of wisdom in just the right way – our attention is aroused and we compelled to write the statement down…or more likely copy/paste.

Probably one of the most popular quotes of our age is

“be the change you wish to see in the world,”

spoken by Mahatma Gandhi. It’s a good one! They are deep words that call us to action – we can’t just wish change to happen, we have to put ourselves into it. And we know that Gandhi did just that, ultimately losing his life because of the changes he wished to bring about.

What is powerful about this quote is that we can apply it immediately in small ways within our own worlds, as well as in large ways by initiating or joining large-scale change efforts.

“Be the change” applies to the workplace, the family, the community, and the global stage.

  • I can be the change in my home – setting an example of healthy communication that can have a positive impact for generations to come. 
  • I can be the change in my workplace – instilling high ethical principles into my decision-making that build trust, collaboration, and progress.
  • I can be the change in my community – by getting involved in service projects and actively supporting associations that make a positive impact.
  • And on the global level, I can be the change by becoming a citizen of the world – someone who learns about other cultures and joins causes that raise people out of poverty and hopelessness.

Once you know your values and passions you can begin to look for opportunities. How can I be the change in my dysfunctional family? What new traditions can I create? What new ways of talking and behaving can I initiate to begin building the legacy I want to leave? Go through this same exercise for your workplace, church, places where you volunteer and places you read about. A great resource to help you with your values inventory is The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes & Posner.

Another quote that is humorous while at the same time profound is, “If nothing changes, nothing changes. Think about it!”

Designing Your Provocative Career Path

A few years ago I volunteered at a community Career Center. Many of the clients had been in their positions, or at least with the same company, for 15-20 years or more. Then something changed and they found themselves unemployed or laid off, dazed and confused in a land they hadn’t prepared for. There were office workers who didn’t keep up with automated office technologies, computer programmers who didn’t see the end of the mainframe coming, and laborers who didn’t see their skills becoming obsolete before their eyes. They were devestated, which is an understandable response to job loss, but unable to wrap their minds around the changes their new reality would require. Those who learn to proactively design their careers will have a much easier time adapting when change happens.

Another interesting thing I noticed as I counselled Career Center clients is that it is really difficult for most of us to define our vocations apart from job descriptions. Try it. When someone asks you what you do, is your immediate response to give your current job title? I’m a blah-blah-blah for so-and-so. So what!? What does that tell me about who you are and what you do? In order to have agility amid rapid change, we need to rethink the way we define who we are. That way, if our current position goes away or morphs into something else, we are prepared to adapt.

Most of us won’t land in our dream job by going with the flow. We have to take control of the rudder as we navigate the seas of the marketplace or we’ll end up on a shore we didn’t really want to be on. To have fulfillment & significance, we must create the future we desire using what we learned about ourselves in our Discovery and Dream exercises.

In Design we move from “What” to “How,” putting our career strategy together and identifying what training, formal education, network connections and vocational stepping stones will get us from here to there.  While the Dream phase allows us to have our head in the clouds, the Design phase keeps our feet planted on the ground of reality. Not that we discount our dreams, but we realize dreams don’t become reality overnight and they require a lot of work to make them real.

One activity that’s part of Cooperrider’s AI Design model is writing provocative propositions. As you identify the themes and strengths that make you who you are, write out what is most important to you. What are the key ingredients to your desired future and what process will pull everything together? Paraphrasing Cooperrider’s idea of what provocative propositions look like, they should

                …stretch, challenge and interrupt the status quo

                …be grounded in reality – have possibility

                …be stated in affirmative and bold terms

                …be confirmed by those closest to you

Provocative propositions provide a clear, shared vision for…[your] destiny. (Cooperrider)

As you work on the Design of your career plan, be positive and courageous. You’ve come this far – don’t give up. Yes, it’s hard and possibly overwhelming if you have decided to take a new direction. But embrace a long-term perspective and see the months or years of preparation as brief as you move toward greater satisfaction and purpose in your work. Have fun with it!

Dreaming Your Way To Your Professional Future

Times of transition make great opportunities for us to dream. When I was laid off in mid-2010 I took the time to think about what I wanted the next chapter of my life to look like. I resisted the temptation to apply for every job that came along and instead spent time reflecting and dreaming. As we look at taking an appreciative approach to managing our careers, this stage of dreaming is essential. It’s the place we stop to really consider what we want to see more of in our professional lives.  It’s important that we ask ourselves questions like,

  • If I could do any job, regardless of pay and experience, what would I do?
  • What do I do really well and enjoy so much that it hardly seems like work?
  • What do I want to keep doing, let go of, or do differenlty?
  • How did I define success? What will it look like if I’m successful over the next five years?
  • Review the questions from Part 1 and think beyond your immediate answer.

Cooperrider (et al) says, “the Dream phase is the time to push the creative edges of positive possibilities and to wonder about [your] greatest potential (Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, 114). Imagine your future without limitations and create your own opportunity map. Once you have articulated a dream for the future you want, you can begin the Design phase.

Consider how your industry is changing and how you want to position yourself within your field. Have you lost your edge? Then dream of a new way to hone your skills, or find a niche where you can utilize your knowledge in a meaningful way.

As I allowed myself to dream during my period of unemployment, I took advantage of career transition assistance, completing several assessments and inventories to help me think through my professional story and the direction I wanted to head. I considered pursuing a non-profit direction to tap into my idealist nature, then swung back to “working for the man” to earn a dependable paycheck. In the end, my dream led me to start my own consulting practice where I could do what I do best in the area of performance improvement & organization development, but also spend some of my time doing pro-bono work for non-profits.

What’s your professional dream? What limits are you putting on yourself that you need to work through? Dreaming isn’t practical, but it’s important. In the next installment we’ll talk realistically about how to bring your dreams in line with your circumstances and map out a future that gets you closer to your ideal professional future.

Self-Discovery Critical to Managing Your Career

Part 2 of An Appreciative Approach to Career Management

Getting out of the default mode of career management means we have to do some soul-searching, stopping to really understand who we are and what we want out of life, specifically our work life. Some of us have a really hard time with this, especially if we feel we’ve missed opportunities, are somehow deficient in comparison to others, or believe that we have little control over our career trajectory.  Whether you feel hopeless or hopeful, you will benefit from some structured introspection. And an appreciative approach to managing your career will help you see the high points more clearly, and prepare the way for dreaming up a career path in which you will thrive.

The appreciative cycle of Discovery, Dream, Design & Destiny is easily applied to career management. Cooperrider and Whitney talk about the task of “disclosing positive capacity” through the Discovery phase. When it comes to managing and planning your career, an affirmative, appreciative method means you are looking for those things that make you feel most alive, the times when you’re at your best. There are many ways to do this exercise. You may want to spend some time in a quiet, peaceful place and think about those activities, accomplishments and successes you’ve had in school and work. Don’t allow negative filters cloud this process. This is your time to brag on yourself while also identifying what really makes you happy at work.

If you like structure, you can use instruments like Birkman On Demand (www.birkman.com) or Strong Interest Inventory (https://www.cpp.com/products/strong/index.aspx). It’s good to use a variety of assessments that help you find strengths, vocational interests, personality and other preferences. If you prefer, simply opening up a blank notebook and writing down what you think are your greatest strengths, attributes, interests, etc. Do what works for you. You might explore mind mapping, which has helped many people through career planning. A good example is at http://www.geekpreneur.com/managing-your-career-with-mind-maps.

Getting the most out of the Discovery phase requires dedication to the process. Have fun with it! To stay in an appreciative mindset, I’ve modified the Discovery phase appreciative interview process (Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, 2003) for career management:

  1. Understand the power of appreciative inquiry. Remember to ask yourself questions about when things were working best in your career. Focus on successes. Find your positive core – affirm the smallest successes and triumphs and build a positive image of yourself.
  2. Manage the negatives. Appreciative career management isn’t about burying your head in the sand, but you do want to reframe negative situations from your career history so that you can move forward positively. Use a separate piece of paper to write down things you want to think about fixing and don’t get stuck in regret. Highlight the things you’ve been able to do that you didn’t believe possible beforehand.
  3. Be specific as you write down summaries and stories. Probe deeply and intently – learn from yourself as you reflect on your past. Think about what, exactly, you were doing – what was the work environment like? What were the conditions? What was your role? Who were you working with and for? Consider both behaviors (what you did) and values (what you felt) while you were engaged in different projects and activities.
  4. Identify the “life giving forces.” How did the culture or work environment foster success for you? Think abstractly about what was present in the organization when your had your peak experiences. Then start to pinpoint themes that define the ideal conditions that put you at your best.
  5. Have fun and celebrate who you are! Remember to keep an affirmative spirit to this exercise of Discovery. This is your opportunity to get to know yourself better and you may surprise yourself with what you’ve accomplished!

Appreciative discovery should be a very positive experience as you articulate your history with a focus on your career and education. This is not the time to think of the “woulda, shoulda, coulda” times in your life. Reframe setbacks in light of what you learned and how you have changed. Consider who you really are, not what others want you to be. Bob Buford, in his book Half Time: Moving from Success to Significance, says It is discovering what’s true about yourself, rather than overlaying someone else’s truth on your or injecting someone else’s goals onto your personality. Whether your story is a drama, a comedy, a tragedy or a mystery, it’s your story and discovering who you are when you’re at your best is an indispensable exercise as you manage your career.