Photo credit: M. Kamran Meyer
I received a heartfelt request for help in my inbox this week. The writer has switched from a scientific field into account planning/strategy in the newer digital department of a well-known agency. He’s been in the role less than half a year.
Sadly, as you well said at the beginning of your book, employee development plans are non-existent. I was promised mentorship and that’s not really happening. It’s very frustrating because I made a big change and I just want to learn, not play around.
He goes on to ask what would I do if I were in his shoes and what kind of training he might look into to improve his skills in lateral thinking, strategic thinking, presenting, and creative writing.
What would you advise? Please add to the conversation in the comments below. This person will be reading and deeply grateful for our help.
So here goes, writer-friend; since you asked, here’s my advice:
From my perspective, while painful, I do think it’s best to stay in the role for one year. Our business moves fast and it is often surprising how quickly time flies when we are constantly under deadline. Your supervisor probably feels like you just started a few weeks ago.
Plus, I can say from my experience that this strategy stuff takes a load of time to get the hang of. I was more miserable than not when I started. And then slowly it began to suck less and less. Or suck in new ways so at least it was novel. Here’s a pertinent quote from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic (page 150):
I recently read a fabulous blog by a writer named Mark Manson, who said the secret to finding your purpose in life is to answer this question in total honesty: “What’s your favorite flavor of shit sandwich?”
What Manson means is that every single pursuit–no matter how wonderful and exciting and glamorous it may initially seem–comes with it’s own brand of shit sandwich, it’s own lousy side effects. As Manson writes with profound wisdom: “Everything sucks, some of the time.” You just have to decide what sort of suckle you’re willing to deal with. So the question is not so much “What are you passionate about?” The question is: “What are you passionate enough about that you can endure the most disagreeable aspects of the work?”
Now, while you chew the shit sandwich on your plate at the moment, I do think an honest conversation with your supervisor is in order. Instead of complaining that what was promised has not materialized, start the conversation with an honest assessment of anything you think you have learned so far coupled with your sense of where you need to improve. Use the session to map the priorities of your clients and the agency. What one skill should you focus on next? When you can both agree to one skill, it will make it easier for your supervisor to keep it in mind when development opportunities (new projects on clients you are not working on, friends of the supervisor who might be able to teach you a case study, great video talk online, etc.) present themselves.
And on your side, with this laser focus, you can pursue people, books, talks, and conferences in your limited free time so that you will show demonstrable progress. When we pursue too many areas of development we gather scraps here and there that don’t add up to much. Have a look at this video of Josh Kaufman where he posits that we need to put in just 20 hours to bust through the frustration barrier of incompetence in learning anything. A lot less daunting than the whole 10,000 hours thing.
While I do recommend sticking it out for at least a year, I also believe we shouldn’t invest any more than a year making no progress. If you have the conversation with your boss, get aligned on your learning priority, make the extra time to pursue it, show demonstrable progress and then don’t get any additional interest shown or mentorship extended in your direction? Time to move on.
Now, on your specific requests, just keep in mind I am not recommending trying to tackle all this at once. That’s the boil the ocean strategy to learning, as the cliché goes. I’m an advocate of the elephant eating strategy, as in: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Here are some resources I would look into divided by skill.
Lateral thinking – This one is my favorite because ANYTHING you do that is not your daily grind will help. Have a read of Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From as a primer for creativity then follow your curiosities wherever they take you: scroll through meetup.com and pick something you wouldn’t normally attend, take up a personal project like creating a podcast on a subject you want to know more about, sign up for the next class you hear about, no matter the topic. Be open to serendipity as well, even if you’re not that interested in a topic, but someone else wants you to explore it, like I was when my husband insisted I learn how to play video games.
Strategic thinking – This one is harder because I believe it comes from the hard slog of working through problems over and over. Studying ways of working, as in reading books, can help. My favorites include: Good Strategy Bad Strategy, Cultural Strategy, The Lords of Strategy, and Clay Christensen’s Jobs to be Done methodology. One less sloggy top tip: Attend a session of House of Genius. All types of people from the community come together to advise start-ups in an anonymous salon format. You will witness first-hand how a diverse group of people see a business challenge differently as well as having the opportunity to offer your advice to a fledgling business. And at the end when you learn who everyone is and what they do, you’ll want to meet each other based on the caliber of your ideas, not what’s on your business card. The number of people who want to talk to you is an instant metric of your strategic chops.
Presenting – Again, another area where you just have to practice. I was terrified to speak in front of senior people when I first started out. I found getting into karaoke was a good way of tackling the shaky knees phenomenon. Then, once you’ve conquered straight-up fear, learning how to organize your thoughts and how to rehearse is crucial. Luckily, if agencies are going to pay for any training, this is often an area they are willing to invest in. I’ve been through four different presentation skills seminars and they were ok. You’d be surprised what you learn simply by watching a recording of yourself and learning to take feedback from your peers. But I have recently learned about a company called Oratium that conducts a workshop that is supposed to be great and I hope to attend. Last, I’ve been exploring Improv classes and stand-up comedy to improve my dexterity with humor, which is my natural style. Oh, and check out a Pecha Kucha night if there is a chapter in your city. It’s a great way to be both exposed to many different disciplines and ideas (for your lateral thinking) as well as presenting styles.
Creative writing – Last up – creative writing. While I have an English degree and thought I was a decent writer, I know that working through the process of writing a book and especially working with an editor has made me a much better one. Write for your own blog, guest blog, submit articles to publications, or start writing a book even if it’s a long-term goal. But no matter which path you choose, hunt down a pro-editor and invest in having a piece of yours revised. It took me four tries to find Marissa van Uden, and then she chewed through my whole book twice. If you can find the right tough love, you will get better.
That’s my starter for ten, dear anonymous strategy friend out there somewhere. Now I’m curious to see what the rest of our brilliant tribe will add.