Monthly Archives: March 2008

//March

Are you successful?

In my blog just before the Easter holidays I wrote a light hearted piece on 'the absolute secret to success' and shared some useful tips I learnt a long time ago. But what is success? How should we measure it? Can anyone ever achieve it? In short "How Succesful are you?" This week I want to explore the topic a little further

Firstly, how should we define success? There are so many different ways, but it is my conviction that the only measure of success worth paying attention to is how we measure ourselves. If, when we look back, we see that our achievements match (or exceed) the ambitions we had when we began our careers, and if we are truly happy, then we may consider ourselves ‘successful’. However, this is for many people far too simplistic.

In my opinion, the only truly successful people are those who can honestly think of themselves as successful, who are doing what they want to do, earning an income they are content with, and who thus want for little more from life. There is no reason why a bus driver working in the rainy north of England cannot be just as successful as the CEO of a medium-sized business in southern California. This argument is not a trendy copout; it is an appreciation of the fact that our own feelings are the only ones that truly matter.

When judging our own success we might be tempted to compare ourselves with former classmates, comparing job titles, wage packets, holiday destinations, etc.. But although they may have similar socio-economic and academic backgrounds, their personalities and expectations may vary enormously. One may always be striving for more money, power or fame, while another may be perfectly content with a modest family car and a comfortable 25-year mortgage.

Life partners can be notorious when it comes to reminding us of our shortcomings and can thus make us feel like a failure, even when others consider us to be highly successful. Sometimes a reality check can be distinctly useful, but if your partner’s reminders become habitual they may eventually bring about the downfall of your relationship or become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is unless you are so mentally strong that the criticism is like water off a duck’s back. But to be honest, I have met few people who are that thick-skinned.

However it never ceases to amaze me how many of us have elaborate ambitions for the future, but never take the time to make a detailed plan as to how to achieve them. In business, forward planning is evolving into ever shorter time frames, nowadays even the three-year plan of a CEO can be cut very short if he or she fails to hit their year one targets. Similarly we all need to have a plan that we can refer to that covers a minimum of a three year period.

Therefore in our personal careers we need to look at least two to three moves ahead, especially if we work on a project basis or if the nature of our work changes frequently.

Knowing what you want in life is a blessing, because it is then possible to construct a detailed plan on how to obtain it. But with no real vision of the future, too many of us drift on the ocean of life like flotsam, waiting to either sink or be washed ashore at someone elses bidding. Without a life plan we are not in control and our destiny lies far too much in the hands of others.

In my book 'Making a Difference' I show how you can build your own personal life and career plan and offer some other exercises on the topic of 'success in careers' that many have found very useful. 'Making a Difference' is published by Lannoo in both English and in Dutch and can be purchased here: Buy Making a Difference

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The absolute secret to success

When I was a young man, fresh out of college, I was undecided as to how best to earn a living. In 1978, my dreams of being a singer songwriter were fading fast and an impending income tax bill for my student earnings were both forcing me to make a quick decision. One afternoon I stepped into an employment agency in London to see what they had on their books. After challenging me with a number of questions the recruiter suggested I apply for a position with the agency itself. Three interviews later, I found myself taking part in an intensive training course at the Brook Street Bureau academy. During the following five days I learnt everything from employment law right down to how to answer the telephone.

The amazing thing about the Brook Street Bureau course was that, thirty years later, I still apply a number of the lessons learned every working day.

Key learning’s:

1. People are both surprising and flexible (they often do not actually want what they ask for, they just think they do)
2. A warm and friendly phone manner will open many more doors than you can imagine
3. Smiling, although it can take some effort, is a prerequisite to a happy life and a successful and happy office environment
4. Always end your correspondence with a friendly but courteous closer
5. Never ask “can I help you? but always “how may I help you?”

But that’s not all, in that classroom of ambitious dreamers, I learned the absolute secret to success. Imagine the scene:
The head trainer was deep into her let’s get them motivated routine when she rose the tempo and excitement level to the absolute highest possible pitch, at that precise moment she asked: “What is the absolute secret to success?”
Silence fell in the class room, we were tense and excited waiting for the one piece of wisdom that would make us rich and successful. Two rows behind me, a young man, a little older than the rest of us, muttered a reply; “don’t’ get caught!”
“Pardon?” demanded the trainer, “don’t be shy speak up, share your answer with the group”. Obviously, when the very embarrassed contributor reluctantly repeated his answer, the effect was very unwelcome and his cynical comment ruined the trainer’s flow. However it did get a rather nervous laugh from some of the audience, including me.
“No, no, no!” the trainer retorted, “The absolute secret to success is: Do it now! Don’t put off today what can be done tomorrow but DO IT NOW! Follow this simple rule and you won’t go far wrong in your office or indeed in your entire career.”

So there you have it, the answer to the absolute secret of success. Pick one of the two, or take them both: ‘don’t get caught’ and/or ‘do it now’. I took the second and so far, it has worked fine for me…

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In My (humble) Opinion ….

We seem to be most opinionated when we are in our mid to late teens and then again in our forties. Opinions are our way of expressing our take on life. At 18 our opinions are often fired against injustice and aimed directly at either ‘the establishment’ or our parents. It is a kind of blind anger coupled with the optimistic belief that somehow everything can be fixed by someone else. By the age of forty our opinions are, more often than not, directed to exposing inefficiencies. Over the decades we seem to gain the inner belief or arrogance (however you like to see it) that we could somehow do things better ourselves, if only we had the chance.

However, over opinionated people (especially managers) who have difficulty in regulating their outbursts are usually very unpopular. They might not know this because they tend not to listen to, or notice the effect they have on, those around them. I believe that many of us simply get into the habit of giving our opinions on almost everything, without even knowing it. Whether our opinions are requested or not we enjoy bashing them out, it makes us feel important and wise but more often than not we simply look foolish and insecure.

The problem in management is that strongly opinionated people become so over powering that none of their subordinates dares to challenge them. They either try to ignore their opinionated manager and do what they believe needs to be done behind their manager’s back, or (even worse) they simply give up bothering.

In my opinion, (deliberate use of the phrase) managers should not share their opinions too widely. They should encourage creative thought and this happens least in the presence of a strongly opinionated person. (That’s why I tend to leave the room when I lay down the challenge to my team to solve a particular problem).

So my message this week is: If you find yourself saying ‘in my opinion’ more than once a day, then you probably have a problem. Instead of broadcasting your opinions you must learn to ask, ‘are you asking for my opinion or my advice?’ The two things are very different. Advice guides the receiver into drawing their own conclusion, while an opinion (especially from a superior in the workplace) sets down the fundamental position or belief of that person. Thus the only way that a subordinate can move forward is either to accept the opinion as fact or dare to try to challenge it. In any case opinions result in personal battles and fierce arguments whereas ‘suggestions’ and ‘ideas’ are open for debate and creative thought, without the need for direct confrontation.

I challenge you to see if you can get through a whole week without saying ‘in my opinion’ even once. For many people it will be far harder than eating a jam donut without licking their lips!

End note: There is only one thing worse than begining a sentence with ‘in my opinion’ and that is with ‘in my humble opinion’. Our opinions are seldom humble and when we consider them to be, we are at our most hypocritical!

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” Ours is the age, that is proud of machines that think and suspicious of men who try to think “

Mumford Jones

I once saw this quote as a tag line at the bottom of a project manager’s e-mail signature. It certainly grabbed my attention and at first sight made me think that perhaps it conveyed a deep seated truth. So when this week I overheard a lunch conversation where someone stated that the most common cause of house fire in Finland today was Sauna’s catching fire by people who were switching them on remotely via their mobile phones (forgetting that they had left clothes or towels in them), I asked my self is this something anyone should be proud of?

It seems that mobile phones are now able to control multiple devices all over the world and as long as they hook up to some kind of domotic device almost anything is possible… Yet I was wondering if it might be the case that this technology could add any useful advantage to project and interim managers? And the more I thought, the less convinced I became.

If you have ever had to manage teams of people remotely, you will know how hard it is to ‘read’ the current status of a project, you have their words, via the phone and timesheets via e-mail, but it is almost impossible to actually get a feel for the real status. For example, when the remote team are in their office in Connecticut or Calcutta (or wherever they might be) are they actually working constructively, or are they fooling around or even debating all day?

It is hard enough sometimes to adjust to different cultures of companies (some like to debate every fine detail) others seem to just get on and delegate, putting the sole responsibility on the shoulders of the executor. So any device, to assist the remote control of projects would be great, but all we seem to be focusing on is knowing how warm our fridge is or to program the TV. There must be better applications that can help company managers perform more efficiently?

This week I am switching my preferred communication protocol for remote project meetings to Skype video conferencing, I am a late adopter it seems? I am curious to know how effective it will be or whether I will be shortly switching back to landlines, planes and mobile phones?

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