I have good days and I have bad days. The questions for me were simple. What decides the difference and how can I make every day, a good day?
Why do we end some days feeling balanced and accomplished while other days conclude with stress, anxiety and dissatisfaction (imbalance)? How can we end every day with a balanced sense of accomplishment? It is my belief that at the root of these questions lies the increasingly popular- yet ever elusive- concept of “work-life balance”.
When I look at each component of work-life balance, it is much easier to feel a sense of accomplishment in the “work” component as this is defined and prioritized by the employer through job responsibilities, tasks and performance goals. The “life” component is where things get tricky as this unique sense of accomplishment is defined on an individual basis and must be prioritized by the individual. Through my experience, I believe that the “life” component of work-life balance creates the imbalance and subsequent feelings of stress, anxiety and dissatisfaction. This component cannot be defined or provided by an employer but must be identified and pursued on an individual basis. This blog will focus on tips to define and prioritize the “life” component of work-life balance based on my personal experience.
When I prioritize the “work” component of the work-life balance, this imbalance diminishes my sense of “life” or personal accomplishment which negatively impacts my work. Through trial and error I have recognized there are certain personal tasks/activities I must complete each day to strike the appropriate balance and end each day with a sense of accomplishment. I discovered this balance through defining what the “life” component meant to me and prioritizing “life” in my schedule. By prioritizing “life”, I have found my work productivity to be more sustainable in the long run while creating/maintaining a sense of personal accomplishment. When I strike the appropriate balance I can perform more consistently in work and life.
I have identified two steps that served as a framework for me in my quest to achieve an appropriate work-life balance which I believe anyone can apply.
1). Define “Life”: What are the activities/tasks I need to complete daily to achieve a personal sense of accomplishment.
2). Prioritize “Life”: Where do I fit each activity/task in my daily schedule.
First, each individual must define the minimum tasks/activities to complete each day to feel a personal sense of accomplishment. This is where the trial and error comes into play. To identify the minimum tasks/activities you must experiment with different combinations and gauge your sense of accomplishment. In other words, define the minimum requirements. Personally, I have identified these tasks/activities through the lens of the personal goals most important to me. For example, in 2019 I want to live a healthier lifestyle and learn more about financial planning. Based on these goals, I have identified three daily tasks/activities that will best help me to reach these goals- go to the gym, complete meal prep and read a financial planning book for 30 minutes. When I complete these three tasks, I end each day with a sense of accomplishment. What are the personal goals most important to you? Next, identify tasks you can complete each day that will help you to reach these goals. If completing these tasks creates a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day, you have defined what the “life” component of work-life balance means for you.
Second, now that you have defined the tasks/activities that bring you a sense of accomplishment, you will need to find time in your daily schedule to complete each task. Personally, I have found the best time to complete these tasks is in the morning before work begins. When I complete my three tasks in the morning, I start my day with a sense of accomplishment. Then, any extra physical activity or reading I am able to complete throughout the day feels like “extra” progress towards my goals and only increases my sense of accomplishment. Also, if my workday runs late, I am at ease knowing I have already satisfied my “life” component and struck a balance. We cannot always control how late we will stay at work. However, we can control how early we get up. Perhaps, in some cases, finding the appropriate work-life balance requires sacrificing sleep. Though this can be a touchy subject, from my experience, the sense of accomplishment and balance leads to more productive and sustainable work than an extra two hours of sleep ever could! Our employer schedules the time we must spend prioritizing the “work” component but it is our responsibility to schedule and therefore prioritize “life”.
To create/sustain an appropriate work-life balance, each individual must define and prioritize the “life” component. If you feel guilty, just remember- there will always be more work. Instead, by prioritizing “life”, we are able to produce better work for a more sustainable period of time. Though I will not claim to have struck the perfect work-life balance I will say that I have increased the number of days I feel accomplished both personally and professionally which has led to a more balanced existence.
Work-life balance is not a perk to be provided by an employer, rather, it is the responsibility of the individual to define and prioritize “life”. If we sit back and wait for a work-life balance to be provided to us, we will be met with stress, anxiety, dissatisfaction and ultimately, imbalance. But, if we take accountability for our work-life balance by prioritizing “life”, we can end each day with a sense of accomplishment that will lead to a more sustainable, productive and balanced existence.
This is a story you do not know that taught me to crave criticism in a way I never expected.
The summer before Kemba Walker was to lead UConn basketball to the Maui, Big East and NCAA Tournament Championship on his way to becoming a first round pick in the NBA draft, he was the new leader of a young team that entered the season unranked. Although he had demonstrated flashes of brilliance in the past, Kemba’s speed was out of control leading to poor possessions in transition. As a program that thrived off transition basketball- with Kemba the primary ball handler and decision maker- the coaching staff had to eliminate poor possessions, costly turnovers and unnecessary fouls that out of control play can bring. At the time, I was working as a video assistant with the men’s basketball program, tasked with compiling game clips of Kemba, coded by play result.
If you are unfamiliar with New York City point guards, a New York City point guard is defined by grit, tenacity and a desire to get to the rim under any circumstance. Not only was the criticism Kemba received from the coaching staff critical, it was critical of the style of play he was built on. Fast forward one year and if you follow me, you are now well aware of how this story goes. UConn won three tournament championship’s and Kemba produced one of the best seasons of any college athlete, ranking among the nation’s best in many statistical categories. When you analyze the stat line in the context of the criticism received, Kemba’s FG% improved while taking more shots, his Free Throws Attempted increased, and, his Turnovers and Personal Fouls decreased while playing more minutes. This is a stat line reflective of better possessions and decision making, or, the intended improvements in the criticism from the coaching staff.
I saw that even when faced with critical feedback of a career-changing nature, Kemba received the criticism, identified the lesson and made the intended improvements. Criticism led to improvements which transformed an unranked team into Champions.
This experience caused me to reflect on my own response to criticism. I immediately knew my reaction would have been much more defensive and I assume many others out there can relate- critical feedback of any variety can be devastating. But, after witnessing firsthand the success that originated from criticism, two questions kept popping into my head.
What criticism was I not receiving and what type of success was that keeping me from?
This story taught me to crave criticism as you cannot lose by receiving criticism. It is actually the only way to win…
Translate Criticism into Improvement
“The best way to prove yourself is show you are willing to improve yourself.”
We often find ourselves in disbelief when a quarterback throws an interception on consecutive possessions or, in the case of my mom, when a basketball player consistently misses free throws. It outrages us to the point where we question their ability and suggest a benching or even release. Are we open to the same criticism we give out? Are we as emotional about our own performance when we receive the same score in the same categories on a yearly evaluation or continue to commit the same weekly errors on the same weekly reports? Most importantly, are we improving?
If it hasn’t already the current digital transformation will soon create disruptive changes to industries that will have a significant impact on the future employment landscape, critical job functions and skills in demand. According to the World Economic Forum, in many industries and countries, the most in-demand occupations did not exist 10 or even 5 years ago. The same report estimates that 65% of children entering grade school today will work in a job that is yet to exist. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly which industries these nonexistent jobs will infiltrate, but it is impossible to ignore the possibility.
In times of change, improvement is key. Change brings competition and improvement is necessary to stay ahead. The ability to receive feedback- whether that be from a manager, colleague, market or industry trend- and make the intended improvements will help decide who wins. Here are three common roadblocks to translating criticism into improvement and how to start addressing them.
We can’t receive criticism…
Criticism, or critical feedback, can help us develop the humility, awareness and reflection necessary to become professionals in our field and reach our goals. Unfortunately, far too often it is absolutely devastating to receive criticism. Your face gets red, you start to sweat and your mind races. According to one study, our ego can become so defensive in these situations that it controls the flow of information to our brains. Let that sink in, our ego can actually censor what we hear. I am sure we can all painfully recall our reactions to these moments, it is our inclination after all! But if we never hear criticism, we never improve. Although this inclination may not be your fault, you can counter it. You can change your response to criticism from defensive to open or take the “critical” out of critical feedback if you will. To start, let’s redefine our definition of criticism to manage the negative emotional reaction.
If you have ever played sports (or hopefully read the introduction) you can understand the value of reviewing film with coaches and teammates- it keeps us honest about our performance. In 2014 Microsoft reached an agreement to add Surface Pro tablets to NFL sidelines providing instant video feedback/analysis to coaches and players (among other uses). At the time I was working with the Pittsburgh Steelers, on the sidelines for the debut of the tablet, responsible for distributing the tablet to players and coaches for review after each possession. No, I did not interact with Ben Roethlisberger aside from one particularly intimate moment when he overthrew a trash can and hit me with a piece of tape (I actually got a picture of this encounter, it’s at the end).
Surface Pro with Clip
Steelers using Surface Pro
Think back to the last NFL game you watched. How many times did the camera pan to players huddled over a Surface Pro, watching clips from the last drive? It is a familiar scene but it’s important to acknowledge why they are glued to the screen. Critical feedback. Athletes at the highest level have trained themselves to receive feedback to the extent that it’s instinctual once they return to the sideline. Professional athletes are constantly seeking critical feedback, evaluating their performance and making improvements- this is how they continue to perform at a professional level. They accept criticism as the only means to improvement and more than just crave it, they seek it out. When you witness this scene in future NFL broadcasts it will hopefully serve as a reminder of the new definition of criticism.
If we recognize the importance of reviewing game tape, why don’t we do the same at work? If our objective is to be the professionals of our industry, why do we automatically become defensive and passive when presented with criticism? Work to redefine criticism as necessary to improving yourself to stay ahead of the competition, becoming the best version of yourself or reaching your potential. If you are competitive, view it as a challenge to improve. For those who are particularly bad at receiving it, expose yourself to more of it. The more feedback you are exposed to, the better you will become at managing the negative emotional reaction and translating that criticism into a lesson and improvement. Once you train yourself to accept that negative feedback leads to positive outcomes, you will begin to enjoy it and eventually crave it. You just need to be open to receiving it.
We need criticism. If we never hear criticism, we will never improve- it can be as simple as that. Athletes at the highest level have trained themselves to receive criticism due to the nature of their profession. We bear witness to their constant adaptation of critical job functions to win the next play or beat the next opponent. If they fail to receive criticism and make the intended improvements, they are replaced. Our industry could experience a similar need to adapt critical job functions to compete in the not-so-distant future. Would we survive in that competition, or, would we be replaced? Improvement starts with receiving criticism. Redefine it to manage the negative emotional reaction and expose yourself to more of it.
We aren’t getting criticism…
There are studies showing that when co-workers criticize us, we tend to avoid them. It is much easier to go straight to those who agree with us to receive reassurance. This is known as our support network. Organizational Psychologist Adam Grant has worked with organizations such as Google, the NBA and the U.S. Army on improving success at work. He suggests we take advantage of a different network, a challenge network. This network is the group of people who push us to get better by giving the feedback we don’t want to hear, but need to hear. This process of self-discovery leads to what is actually true, not what we believe to be true. The hard truths. When we become aware of how bad is the bad and how good is the good, we now have information we can work with.
Self-discovery starts with the challenge network. Try to find the smartest people in your life who disagree with you to understand their perspectives, the self-discovery of what is actually true. Begin to build your challenge network in the office, odds are you probably know the exact individuals. Leverage that challenge network into self-discovery. Make today the day you no longer avoid them but start to hear them. It is important to note that a challenge network is only beneficial if you are ready to listen and receive criticism.
We don’t know what to do with criticism…
A habit we can all develop is what psychologists call the second score. In this context, I like to think of it as your reaction score. When someone gives you feedback, they have already evaluated you- it’s out of your control. Instead, every time you receive feedback, rate yourself on how well you took the feedback- your second score or reaction score. Remind yourself that regardless of the content of the feedback, the major element to grade is whether you are open or defensive.
For example, you cannot control the C you just received on your performance review, however, you do control the current grade you receive for how well you took that C. When your second score proves you are open to criticism, you can then act on the intended lesson and improve. Practice the habit of hearing criticism and immediately asking yourself “what’s the lesson?” The answer leads down the path to improvement.
The dynamic, evolving world we live in is marked by the digital transformation. In fact, the Surface Pro example discussed earlier represents a digital transformation in the sports industry. This transformation is constantly reshaping how we live, learn and work while creating disruptive changes to business models that will have a profound impact on the future employment landscape, critical job functions and skills in demand. The ability to receive feedback -from a manager, colleague, market or industry trend- and make the intended improvements will help decide who wins.
It is difficult to pinpoint the impact of the digital transformation on job functions and anticipated skill needs. However, with the pace of change accelerating, we must recognize this trend to stay on top of it. In times of change, improvement is key. The most effective way to improve is by opening yourself to receiving criticism, identifying the lesson to be learned and translating that feedback into improvement.
As we learned, criticism led to the improvements which transformed an unranked team into Champions. But the story doesn’t end here, continued criticism and improvements have transformed an ex-college champion into a present NBA franchise scoring leader and future perennial All-Star.
You cannot lose by receiving criticism. It is not just the only way to win, it’s the only way to continue to win.
See you in the future.
Problem: We can’t receive criticism…
Redefine it to manage the negative emotional reaction and transform it to a focus on positive outcomes.
Expose yourself to more of it.
Problem: We aren’t getting criticism…
Identify and form a challenge network.
Leverage challenge network for self-discovery.
Problem: We don’t know what to do with criticism…
Focus on your second score.
Develop habit of asking “what’s the lesson?” when criticized.
Let’s face it, whether you are fresh out of college or a young professional, the job search is not something we look forward to. After recently switching industries, I wanted to develop an efficient, measurable process to guide my job search. The following strategy was compiled through feedback I gathered from career planning experts. This strategy can be used for those seeking an entry-level position as well as anyone looking to change jobs or industries. I hope this information can serve as a roadmap to help you reach the next step in your career- whatever that may be- while developing strong networking habits and learning to advocate for yourself in a professional manner.
Employee referrals have become the most valuable tool in hiring. An employee referral is an internal recruitment method where organizations identify potential candidates through existing employees’ social networks. HR professionals rate employee referrals as the No. 1 source for quality hires. It makes sense, with so many similarly qualified applicants competing for the same position, submitting your application through an already established current employee (as opposed to a traditional online application) gives you immediate credibility that provides a competitive advantage over the rest of the applicant pool. Therefore, the goal of this post is to help you win an employee referral at the company you desire. Below is an outline of the steps.
Prepare by identifying a best-fit company, conducting research and practicing your story.
Network in your industry of choice and maintain a list of connections.
Leverage your connections into an informational interview.
Win an employee referral through the informational interview.
First, before you begin, it is important to get yourself in the right state of mind. The job search can be a daunting and discouraging process. It can be helpful to change your mindset and dig into whatever motivates and inspires you. I am a competitive person who is motivated by competition, so I have reframed my mindset accordingly. I approach every step in the process with the effort necessary to be more prepared than the rest of the applicant pool with the final goal to “win” the referral. This works for me and I would encourage you to discover what motivates you and employ whatever strategies tap into that motivation.
This is the most important stage as it sets the tone for the rest of the process. Prepare your story of why the company/industry is a good fit at this point in your career and practice speaking that story out loud. Similar to how you are looking for a best-fit company based on what you value, companies are looking for a best-fit candidate based on what they value. The more research you conduct and more thought you put into your search, the more clearly you can communicate why this particular company is the most appropriate next step for you in your career. This reflects well as your search strategy will come off as targeted instead of random.
Always keep your LinkedIn profile up-to-date. Make sure it accurately reflects your achievements, awards and work experience as it relates to the position you are looking to obtain. Write a summary that allows others to gain a sense of where you have been, what you have done and how that relates to what you are looking for at a quick glance. You should treat your LinkedIn with as much precision and planning as you treat your Instagram or Snapchat.
Tip: Practice your answer to the interview question “tell me about yourself”. This answer should be a concise summary of your experiences/achievements as they relate to the position/industry you are seeking. The answer to this question is “your story” and you should be able to give this answer at a moment’s notice. An inability to answer this question raises immediate red flags as it shows a lack of thought/research. You can consider this answer your personal elevator pitch.
Network, network, network. Attend job fairs, join a professional organization, utilize your college career center- talk to any and everyone who may have connections to the industry/company you are interested in including family, friends, mentors, college alums and professors. Always conduct yourself in a professional manner as with practice, it becomes habit. Exchange contact information with people of interest that you meet. Connect on LinkedIn with those you have networked with directly after meeting them. Include a note such as “It was great to meet you at x event, I look forward to staying in touch in the future.”
To stay organized, make an Excel list of everyone you know who works in the industry or has connections to the company where you seek employment. Search the company you are interested in on LinkedIn. Browse through current employees and compile a list of 1st degree (friends) and 2nd degree connections (friends of friends) you have at that company. Add these names to the top of your list.
3). Leverage your connections into an informational interview.
Informational interviews are conversations designed for a prospective employee (applicant) to learn more about the company/position from a current employee. Browse over your list and identify the most relevant connections you have to the company/position of interest. For example, if you are interested in marketing at Amazon, your marketing contact would be a more relevant connection than an engineer. You should explore the more relevant contact first.
Next, you will need to reach out via email (if available) or LinkedIn -whichever is more appropriate- depending on your relationship with the connection to ask for an informational interview. If the individual is local, it is appropriate to ask for an in-person informational interview where you would treat them to coffee or lunch. More commonly, a 20-30 minute phone conversation is also appropriate. Remember, though the goal is to win a referral, use the informational interview to determine if this the right company/position for you. After speaking with a current employee you may realize you do not jive with company culture!
It is not professional to directly ask for a referral, rather, you must “win” the referral through your research and thoughtful responses. The informational interview must be treated as advertised so the individual you are speaking with does not feel misled. Here are broad examples of how to ask for the informational interview with both direct connections and friends of friends.
Direct: “I am interested in working in marketing. Through my research I have identified your company as somewhere I could see myself working. Do you have any time in the coming week for a brief phone call where I can learn more about what it is like to work at your company?”
More frequently, you will be connected to your company of interest through 2nd degree connections (friends of friends). In this situation, though you are not directly connected to an employee at the company, you have a friend who is. In this case, depending on your relationship with that friend, it would be appropriate to reach out for an introduction to the employee at the company of interest.
“I noticed you are connected on LinkedIn to John Doe at Amazon. I have identified Amazon as a company I would like to work for and I am interested in learning more about John’s experiences. I was wondering if you would be willing to introduce me to John so that I could have a brief phone call to learn more about what it is like to work at Amazon.”
4). Win an employee referral through the informational interview.
Although the purpose of the informational interview is to learn more about the company, the true value is to build a professional contact. The conversation should end in one of two ways, either a referral or an introduction for a conversation with another employee. Depending on the quality/flow of the conversation, it is up to you to determine which ask is most appropriate.
During the informational interview, ask broad questions to encourage dialogue that flows as a conversation. Some examples of good questions to get the conversation started are, “can you speak to your experience at the company”, “what do you like most about working at the company” and “what is the day-to-day work like in your position?” Make sure your questions reflect the research you have conducted. If asked, you will want to concisely state your story for context, however, it is important to listen as much as possible out of respect for the time this individual has given. If they do ask you to expand on your story, use the opportunity to impress them by preparing and practicing thoughtful answers beforehand.
At the end of the interview will be the ask. If a referral seems likely, approach the topic in this way, “after hearing your experiences, I am very interested in your company- do you have any advice on how to apply?” Hopefully, if the conversation went well, that individual will offer to refer you to a position. Another way to approach the referral would be, “do you think I would be a good fit for this position? If so, would you be willing to refer me to this position?” Most importantly, you want to maintain this individual as a professional connection. If you do not feel it is appropriate to ask for a referral, continue to build out your network by asking, “is there anyone else you think would be beneficial for me to speak with?” If they were impressed by your preparation during the conversation, they should be willing to connect you to another employee, giving you another chance to win the referral. Ultimately, it is up to you to gauge the quality of the conversation and insert a natural ask accordingly.
As uncomfortable as this process may seem, it is essential for your career to learn to advocate for yourself relentlessly. No one else will, it is your responsibility to take control. We are fortunate to live in a digital age where networking tools such as LinkedIn are right at our fingertips. This allows anyone who is willing to put in the work to gain a competitive advantage with only a smartphone. There are plenty of qualified applicants in the job market, however, few are willing to commit to the process to gain a competitive advantage. As always, those who are willing to put in the work will reap the rewards.
If you have specific questions about this strategy as it relates to your unique search, please feel free to contact me using the information below. I would be happy to help however I can.