Category Archives: Human Resource Management and Supervision

The earlier you start on this, the better for your career

Procrastination exacts a heavy price. And there is one area of life in which delay is particularly costly.

Stephen Covey writes of “quadrant two” activities in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Quadrant two is the area devoted to those important things in life that we never really seem to get around to doing. They are important, but they are not urgent.

Planning and goal setting are good examples of quadrant two activities. What could be more important than defining a vision of success and knowing where you’re going in life? But most of us do not take the time to plan our career and write down goals.

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How to Keep Idealism from Ruining You

“Scratch the surface of most cynics and you find a frustrated idealist–someone who made the mistake of converting his ideals into expectations.” -Peter M. Senge, “The Fifth Discipline” (p. 146)

A number of years ago I noticed a distressing pattern in my life. Despite my best efforts to “make things happen” in business settings, relationships, and other areas, I was continually disappointed. Nothing seemed to work out as I had hoped.

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The Power of Simplifying

I was recently talking with a professional who was trying to sell me a service. She showed me how it could potentially save us a modest sum of money.

The main thought I came away with was, “Will this make life easier for me? Will it increase or decrease the workload and burdens that I have to bear?”

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Read Broadly to Open Your Mind to New Ideas and Become a Leader

I am putting together a “reading list” for the year. Having a blog about career development, coupled with a desire to advance in my profession, gives me motivation to read voraciously. I can learn from a broad array of authors and genres. I can write reviews. I can apply the insights I gain. I can follow up with additional blog posts about my successes and lessons learned.

My reading list includes books about the 80/20 principle, which states that 80% of our results come from 20% of our efforts. A corollary principle is that 80% of our efforts are rather wasteful since they only produce 20% of our results.

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Integrity Breeds Credibility and Builds Relationships

I once sent my resume to a potential employer who posted an “Accountant Wanted” ad. Specifically, the ad stated that the employer was looking for a Controller, which was a job I was interested in at the time. There were a few other details that caught my attention in the ad, and it looked like a good potential opportunity.

The owner of the business called me, and we set up a time to meet. The weather was cold and snowy, but I was excited to have the interview.

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To Get Good Advice, You Have to Ask for it the Right Way

One of my teachers once said, “I always think I’m right, but I don’t think I’m always right.”

Think about this for a moment.

Each of us tends to believe, at any given point, that our thoughts and actions are correct and justified. That said, we have to acknowledge that we have been wrong or mistaken at times.

I recently sought advice from several people on how to deal with a challenging situation. Gratefully, I chose to follow the advice of the person who essentially told me to be calm (rather than tense), objective (rather than making assumptions and jumping to conclusions), straightforward (rather than playing games), and proactive (rather than passive) in seeking a resolution. The advice was bound to work very well, and I’m grateful I followed it.

We can be wrong for various reasons — our judgment can be clouded by blind spots, tunnel vision, or negative emotions — and it is wise to seek a wide array of counsel. The more important the decision, the broader and more sophisticated the counsel should be. In business contexts, good counsel comes from attorneys, accountants, bankers, and other advisors. In career contexts, good counsel can come from professionals with more experience who have successfully navigated the path you are treading and avoided pitfalls along the way.

Word to the wise: I have avoided disasters by seeking and following advice. And yes, I have gone through painful “learning experiences” by foolishly presuming that I was smart enough and didn’t need to heed counsel.

That said, getting good advice is not merely a matter of asking. You have to do so correctly.

Overcome your counselor’s resistance to sharing candidly. Personally, I follow the simple rule of avoiding giving unsolicited advice. If someone does solicit my advice, I try to discern whether the person is serious about receiving my real opinion. Often people are seeking affirmation for what they have already decided to do, in which case it is counterproductive to share insights. I avoid entangling myself in pointless arguments with unteachable people who are already persuaded of their course of action.

I am not the only one who follows these simple principles of giving advice judiciously — they are commonsense for anyone who understands human nature — so make sure you convey sincerity in seeking advice. If you do not, the person you are asking will probably discern that you are not serious and will not give you real advice.

Give all the necessary background information. Do not succumb to the temptation to slant the scenario in such a way that the counselor is inclined toward giving the opinion you hope to get. Be sure to give all the relevant details so that you can get the most benefit from the opinions of an objective outside party. For example, if you are asking how to resolve a conflict and you only share about the faults of the other party in your conflict, your counselor will not be able to advise you appropriately on remedying your own faults. You have to demonstrate a level of humility, honesty, and integrity that conveys you are serious about getting to the truth — even if that means admitting you were wrong in the past.

Ask open ended questions and listen for answers. Be ready for surprising answers and words that you do not want to hear. You might have to reexamine your assumptions and change your course of action. If you are not ready to do this, don’t bother wasting your words and others’ time by asking for counsel.

Are You More Persuaded by What You See or What You Hear?

We all know the expression, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

However, I used to operate on the assumption that verbal communication (the specific content of words and speech) was often more impacting than nonverbal. In other words, I thought, “I’ll believe it when I hear it.”

I now have a better understanding that we believe what we see, as the saying goes. There are good reasons to say “I believe what I see” rather than “I believe what I hear.”

A recent life experience helped “open my eyes” to this. I was sitting next to a friend who happens to share the same first name as mine. Another person in the room looked at him and said his name.

If that person had looked at me, I would have expressed that the person said my name. If that person had looked at neither of us, we would have simply been confused. However, what happened next did make us both confused.

Instead of looking at my friend, saying his first name, and letting us assume (correctly) that he was referring to my friend rather than me; this person tried to specify the person to whom he was referring by mentioning the last name.

The problem is that he used my last name on accident.

He was looking at my friend, but he used my last name to specify which one of us he was addressing.

At that instant I knew he was referring to my friend and that he simply slipped on the last name. Simple mistakes like that happen to the best of them, especially when someone has a lot on his mind.

The lesson I learned was that I believed what I saw. I did not believe what I heard. I actively doubted it. Sure, I was confused for a brief moment until the person cleared up the misunderstanding and we all simply smiled about it and moved on. But even in the midst of the confusion, my mind believed the sincerity of that person’s nonverbal communication — his expression and his eye contact with my friend.

Take notice of your nonverbal communication. Others are noticing, whether consciously or subconsciously. People believe what they see more than what they hear. We have all heard this demonstrated by various theories and studies of communication. My experience is just one example.

You will be a more effective communicator if you make your nonverbal messages consistent with your verbal. We often think the most about the words we will use in communication, but we should spend as much time on the tone we will set through body language and nonverbal cues.

What I Learned from Tutoring a Friend in Accounting

I once had a friend contact me out of the blue to ask for help with an accounting class. Although I had not seen this friend in several years, I was happy to oblige.

He said he had to pass the class in order to graduate, and he had struggled with the class during a previous semester and decided to drop it. He said he would pay me anything if I would help him pass, and we agreed on a reasonable tutoring fee. (I wanted to help him, but I knew that charging a modest fee would conserve my time and give him motivation to make the most of our tutoring sessions.)

I was grateful that he did pass the course with a decent grade. However, I cannot take credit for his success. After all, my goal in our tutoring sessions was to work myself out of a job. I simply told him that he absolutely had to buckle down and work through the practice exercises in his textbook. He had to spend hours of study time on this. He had not previously been willing to do this, but I convinced him that this was the only way I had passed similar classes and the CPA exams on my first attempt.

Discipline was the key to his success. I was simply there to tell him what he needed to do. My advice was simple and straightforward, and he was sufficiently motivated to follow it.

My friend would ask me about concepts related to cost accounting. The exercises in his textbook would be “tricky” so as to test the student’s knowledge of the concepts. Rather than working a straightforward problem, the textbook would require students to solve problems upside-down and backwards. For example, the textbook writers would include irrelevant details in the scenario to test whether the student would be thrown off track or cut through the nonsense and stick to the point of the problem.

I would explain the concepts the best I could, and I would work problems with him. The bottom line is that he would not solidly grasp the concepts until he had worked through the problems on his own.

I must have sounded like a broken record when I would tell him to work the problems, and when he got stuck, refer to the appropriate portion of the textbook that explained the concept with which he was struggling.

He initially seemed to think that the concepts came naturally and easy for me (after all, I was a CPA) and that I could somehow mysteriously let him in on my secret shortcut to success. I convinced him that there was no shortcut. I had to spend hours upon hours trying to understand the very concepts with which he was struggling. I think this made him feel better about putting in the necessary long, hard hours of effort.

I enjoyed tutoring. I saw my role as that of a coach. My friend had to be ready for the game. I could not score the touchdowns or make the tackles for him. I was there to make sure he exercised and practiced sufficiently so that he would be prepared.

I essentially explained this to him. If he was looking for someone to hold his hand and make it “easy,” it wasn’t going to work. I was there to help him learn how to learn on his own. He caught on, and the experience was a success for both of us.

Write Down Your Roles, Responsibilities, and Expectations

Most of us are probably accustomed to thinking about our work in terms of “job titles” and “job descriptions.” If someone asks me what I do, I tell them I’m a controller. If I were to create a description of my job I might start with the purpose, then list duties, and round it off with skills and qualifications.

Another way to think about jobs and work is with the concept of “roles, responsibilities, and expectations (RR&E’s).” These are explained in The Science of Success by Charles Koch, Chairman and CEO of Koch Industries, Inc.

RR&E’s are intended to “define general areas of responsibility and accountability.” Koch explains, “A person is accountable if he or she will bear the consequences (good or bad) of a decision. Both the person making the decision and the person delegating are held accountable” (p. 129).

Supervisors are expected to ensure that RR&Es maximize the employees’ contributions to the organization. Importantly, employees must take ownership to “ensure his or her RR&Es are current, accurate, and effective” (p. 129). No matter what type of management style exists in your organization, it is wise to take ownership of your role and your broader career development and progress.

Koch defines roles, responsibilities, and expectations, as follows:

  • “A role is a description of the position held and the functions performed by an individual” (p. 129).
  • “Each role has an associated bundle of responsibilities. These responsibilities clearly define the products, services, assets or processes for which we are accountable” (p. 130).
  • “Expectations are written statements specifying the results required of an employee if the business is to achieve its objectives” (p. 130).

A potential employer would expect to see your resume if you were applying for a job. Similarly, you should expect, at least in general terms, a written description of the potential roles, responsibilities, and expectations for the job you are thinking of pursuing. That way you can determine whether you have the appropriate skill sets and whether the role fits with your career plan and goals. New hires should work their their supervisors and take ownership of the job by documenting their specific RR&Es within the business.

Koch says, “Expectations should always be clear, specific, and whenever possible, measurable” (p. 130). They should challenge employees to take ownership, reach higher, and be creative.

Get it in writing. Just as agreements, goals, mission and vision statements, and policies should be documented in writing; an employer should come to a mutual understanding and document the roles, responsibilities, and expectations with each employee.

Five Ways to Develop Business “Street Smarts”

Are “book smarts” or “street smarts” more important? Although there is a place for both, we can tend to err on one side or the other. Young professionals with high GPAs tend to be noted for their “book smarts.” Several years into their careers they discover the necessity of developing “street smarts” that some of their peers might have come by more naturally.

Early in my career I tended to trust people and share a lot about myself. Perhaps, I reasoned, if everyone laid all their cards on the table, it would be easy to figure out how to create win-wins.

Do you notice any problems with this approach?

For example, in one of my early jobs I played a team-based game of business strategy that involved negotiation, sharing information, and trading. Much to my unpleasant surprise, I learned that not everyone shared my approach of making helpful information readily available. (Imagine that!) I learned that, although win-wins are often needed in order for people to advance, ultimately people are more interested in their own success than in mine.

Gratefully, getting a dose of reality can shake deluded idealism from a person fairly quickly.

Over time I learned that some of my assumptions, behaviors, and habits were flawed or at least needed tempered with a dose of realism. There is a place for being savvy or “street smart” — for example, “knowing how to close a sale, when to walk away from a deal, when to remain silent, and how to select winners as employees or colleagues.”

Whether street smarts are skills or attitudes, learned or inborn traits, a financial professional who aspires to a position of organizational leadership should seek and develop these attributes.

Here are five categories of street smarts drawn from Dr. Tony Alessandra:

  • Heightened awareness – Understand your surroundings and don’t allow yourself to be blindsided. Military and law enforcement personnel utilize a “color code of mental awareness” that ranges from “condition white” (total oblivion) to “condition red” (all-out fight). In the context of business, finance professionals do well to routinely maintain “condition yellow” (comfortably alert to one’s surroundings). To put it simply, don’t be paranoid but do watch your back and maintain situational awareness.
  • Confidence – I wrote previously about the importance of confidence, the role of preparedness in boosting confidence, and seven ways to develop confidence.
  • Healthy skepticism – Take measures such as getting your agreements in writing so that people don’t take advantage of you. I wrote previously about professional skepticism, which is an officially recognized and required mindset within the audit profession.
  • Resourcefulness – Be quick, persistent, prepared, flexible, adaptable, and connected.
  • Risk-taking – Choose when to accept, avoid, reduce, or share risks. Don’t let fear hold you back, but learn from you mistakes.

Learn the theories. Develop “book smarts.” But never underestimate the importance of lessons from the “school of hard knocks.” Develop discernment and become increasingly savvy by carefully analyzing your experiences for lessons learned.