“What’s the biggest challenge in your career right now?”

I recently asked that question and many people responded with their challenges and questions.

So, today I’m kicking off a series of Q&A sessions with these challenges:

What to Do When You Have Competing Priorities

QUESTION:

“I’m dealing with a very demanding job as a senior executive while also trying to meet very challenging family and social commitments. What do I do when I have competing priorities?”

ANSWER:

In this case, the person has family member with depression.

Focus on where you have impact

The first thing to do when you have competing priorities, all of which are really important to you, is to figure out where within those priority areas you are going to have impact.

You don’t need to be all things to all people at all times, and you can get help. The key is to focus your energies on those few areas where you are going to make the biggest impact.

Define what success looks like

Within each of those impact areas you’ve chosen, you need to define what success looks, feels, and sounds like.

Instead of having perfection as your goal in each of these areas, try for “good enough”. As a recovering perfectionist, I know good enough sounds terrible. It seems like a very low bar to those of us who want to do everything we can. But good enough is sometimes the optimal, because then you then still have time and energy left to satisfy some of those other impact areas.

So, figure out what success – or good enough – looks, feels, and sounds like in those impact areas.

Refrain from guilty feelings

Now that you’ve identified your impact areas and what success looks like, you can let the chips fall where they may. This is all about refraining from guilty feelings, because guilt is contagious.

Thinking back to when my kids were little, if I had said to them, “Oh, Mommy’s so sorry Mommy has to go to work and leave you here. I feel so sad.”, they’re going to play on that guilt. And that guilt will infect everybody.

The same thing could happen at work if I said, “I’m so sorry I can’t stay and help everybody, but I have to go to my daughter’s basketball game.” People are more likely to get swept along by that guilt-based framing and feel resentful.

Instead, I could position it as, “Hey, I’ve done x, y, and z. I will work my part later, but right now I’m going to go cheer my kids on in their basketball game. It means so much to them.” And everybody else is more likely to get pulled in by the positive framing and say, “Wow, good for you.”

So, refrain from the guilty feelings and move forward positively, which then brings me to the fourth point.

Create a support network

Make sure you surround yourself with people who are going to be your support network. And most importantly, people who are going to advocate for you.

You are most likely to be busy helping everybody else whether at work or at home when in reality you also need to take care of yourself. That’s why you need to have at least one person, and preferably a group of people, around you who are going to advocate for you.

What to Do When Your Skills and Interests Do Not Align with Your Job

QUESTION:

“I’m trained as an economist, but in my country the only jobs available are in insurance sales, and I’m struggling to close any deals. What should I do?”

ANSWER:

Well it’s always tough when your skills and interests are not in alignment with your job. The best thing to do is to look for ways to align those two things.

Go beyond the label

In this case, the first thing I would do is go beyond the label of the training that you’ve had. Go beyond the title of economist.

Based on what you’ve said, people aren’t looking to hire economists. No one’s going around going, “Hmm, I wish I had an economist. I wonder where I could find one?” If that’s the case, then let’s look at the skills and strengths that your training has given you.

Maybe it’s about being strategic. Maybe it’s about analyzing lots and lots of data and making sense of it. Maybe it’s about extracting themes from the data and advising on policy issues, or on where insurance salespeople should be targeting their efforts.

It might even be in the very organization that you’re in, but in a different role and using the underlying skills that you’ve developed as an economist.

You have to focus on what those underlying skills and strengths are. The ones that you have and really want to use and will shine at.

Market yourself

Once you’ve done that, the second thing is to start to market yourself. Not as an economist, which is just a label, but as someone who solves the kinds of problem using the kinds of skill sets that you have.

There’ll be lots of different industries and types of companies that could use skills like strategic analysis, trend identification, policy recommendations, and so forth. It could be in government, it could be in non-profits, it could be in financial institutions, it could be in consumer products goods as part of their marketing analytics team. So, start to market yourself in that way.

Build and leverage your network

Then the third is to really focus on your network and building out that network of relationships, because that’s how people find jobs and new opportunities these days. And the initial job could be a stepping stone into that perfect or ideal job in the future.

So, focus on building that network and getting the word around in terms of what your skill set really is, the kinds of problems you solve, and the kinds of industries you might want to apply that in.

Create your own projects

Then the fourth thing is, while you’re doing that, it’s always helpful to create your own projects. Maybe you could do some consulting projects on the side. Maybe it’s even for the university that you graduated from with your economics degree.

Do some research, publish some articles, and start creating a platform for yourself as somebody who’s using those skills that you really want to deploy, those skills that you learned as an economist.

How to Manage a Difficult Team Member

QUESTION:

“I have a team member that challenges me in public. I had a serious talk with the person six months ago and they really withdrew and hardly said a word. Then we talked some more and they said, ‘Well, I’m just very emotional. You should ignore it.’ But the problem continues to persist. This person is very talented and is my right-hand person. What should I do?”

ANSWER:

In this situation, I have three thoughts.

Are they worth it?

The first one is, is this person really worth it? Because sometimes people can be really great performers in one sense, in terms of the results they achieve, but they can also be a lot of hard work, so a negative drain on your energy. They could also be negative in terms of their influence on the rest of the team.

When you net those two things, you got to figure out whether the person comes out negative or are they still in the positive range. Think about whether or not this person’s really worth it.

Link behavior change to aspirations

The second thing is if you really want to help the person change, then the bad news is people don’t change unless they want to change. And people don’t want to change until they see that there’s either something really bad that happens if they don’t change or something really great that happens if they do. In this sense, I would invite them to share with you what their longer-term aspirations are.

If they say something like, “I’d like to be a very senior manager in this organization” or “I’d like to be the CEO one day” that’s great because then you can tie the need for behavior change to that higher aspiration.

You can rightfully say, “Well, for someone to make it to that level requires that they not only are self-aware, but they also can self-manage in the moment.” That could be the impetus they need to say, “Yeah, I better change this behavior or else I’m not going to get that future role I want.

Then, in addition, you could further offer the help of a coach. You could offer to hire them a coach to help them make this change. But I wouldn’t offer the coach unless your team member wants to change and wants to be coached.

How might you be contributing?

Then, the third thing is to take a real hard look at how you may be contributing to their behavior.

When we are really great leaders, then that means that we are both consistent in our behavior towards others and we’re timely in the way that we flag things that people need to do differently or flag things that they’ve done really well.

As leaders, we get the behavior we accept. Frankly, it’s true in all of life. It’s true with our family members, it’s true with our colleagues. Hey, it’s even true with my dog! So, take a hard look at how consistent, and timely, and constructive you are being.

Be constructive and direct

You also asked whether you should take the soft approach or the hardball approach. Well, the truth is, it’s very dependent on the individual that you’re working with.

Often, it’s really something in the middle, which I call being constructive and direct. And make sure you’re consistent and timely in the areas you’re going to help them with.

Should You Stay or Leave When You Can’t See Where Your Role is Going

QUESTION:

“I’m in a senior but internal leadership role at a professional services firm. I have a good role in a good firm, and I’m doing well, but I can’t see where it’s going. I don’t want to plateau either in terms of development or in terms of earnings. They don’t give development opportunities unless you’re a partner, and I’m wondering, should I stay or should I leave?”

ANSWER:

I have five thoughts for you.

Ask

The first one is, when you’re not sure where things stand or where you stand, then the best thing to do is just ask. I’d start to have a series of conversations. You can make them really positive and constructive. I’d start with your boss, and then figure out who else you might want to talk to, maybe some of your sponsors, some of your mentors.

It could go something like this: “I really love the firm. I love what I’m doing, yet I want to make sure that I’m doing everything I need to do in order to advance.”

Then share with them your aspirations. Get clear on what your aspirations are and let them know. People aren’t mind readers. Maybe they don’t realize that you have those aspirations. Talk about the desire for development and see what happens from there.

The first thing is to have those conversations. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t be left wondering.

The implications of being in a line vs staff role

Then, the second thing is, you want to think about the difference between your internally facing role, and the client, frontline facing role of the fee earners that you mentioned.

The role you have now sounds like what I would call a staff role versus the job of the fee earner, which is a line role. The line roles are the ones that represent the core of what the company does – in your case, it’s the ones that are client facing. The staff roles are the ones that support the people in line roles as they go about making the money or talking to the clients or the customers.

When you’re in a staff role, you’re right, that’s a different kind of platform than when you’re in a frontline role. You just have to be comfortable with it and recognize both the positives and the negatives that come with each one, and figure out where you want to be. You can always go back and be that fee earner if you really want to, but it’s a different kind of job.

Watch out for golden handcuffs

Then, the third thing is, on the stay or go front, one of the things that I would pay close attention to is the concept of golden handcuffs.

That’s when everything’s really comfortable. You’re doing well. You’re getting paid well. You can do your job with one hand tied behind your back, or you’ve got the job in a box. It’s something that you have under control.

That’s exactly the time that, when you linger too long in those kinds of roles and enjoy the nice warm water, that you might discover that a year from now you’re living with regret of not having gone for that next step when it was time to go for that next step.

There’s nothing wrong with staying in the comfortable warm water, but just be conscious as to whether or not those are actually golden handcuffs you’re going to regret not unlocking a few years down the line.

Keep investing in yourself

The fourth thing is you mentioned that you’re investing in your own development by paying for it, and also seeking out projects outside the firm, of a volunteer type. I would encourage you to keep doing that.

Every investment you make in yourself is worth it because you will always get the benefit. It’s portable. It travels with you wherever you go. So, keep investing in yourself and see if the firm will reimburse you for some of the investments. Maybe you can make a case and be the exception.

Try to make it work on your terms

Finally, back to the stay versus go point, I will give you the advice that I was given many years ago, which has been the best advice I’ve ever gotten: You are not allowed to leave until you have tried to make it work on your own terms and discovered that you can’t.

How to Supplement Your Income

QUESTION:

“My job is satisfying to me except for the paycheck. I work in academia so I’m not alone. I need $25K more per year. How do I tease out what’s best in the options that I have? I can afford to go three or four months without income and need healthcare insurance coverage.”

ANSWER:

Then this person listed five options, two of which involve leaving the university, and three of which involve staying at the university and adding something on the side.

Focus on your sweet spot

When you’re looking at these options, I always think that it’s so important to focus on doing things that you’re great at doing and that you love to do.

When you’re looking for that new role or that side hustle, you want to still make sure you’re doing things that are really in your sweet spot. With that said, I think the decision-making filter that I use with my clients might be just the thing to help you here.

Use a decision-making filter

The way I work with my clients is that I ask them to do some thinking and some research. Some thinking about, what are the really important things for them. The criteria that will be important to be true once they’ve taken on this new role or new package of roles. And then to list those criteria on a decision filter.

In this first column, you’d write down what criteria are important to you. For example, “must help me make $25K more”, “must have health insurance”, and maybe there are some other things, like “no commute”, or “uses my analytical ability”. Whatever the criteria might be.

Then, you want to figure out how important each criterion is to you on a scale of one to ten, ten being highest, one being lowest. That way, you can do a weighting for each of the criteria.

Then you lay out your five options, or how ever many you have, and assess each of the options according to the criteria. Again, rating it on a scale of one to ten, ten being the highest. Then you can do a score at the bottom.

In fact, if you’re an academic, you’re probably going to do a weighted average score. And when you get the score for each option, you can compare them. You can also decide if there’s a minimum score that must be met in order for the option to even be considered further. That’s one way for you to decide which of those options really makes the most sense to continue along with.

Do experiments

Now, once you do this analysis, then I urge you to do what I call experiments.

So, if it turns out that setting yourself up to be an independent consultant and leaving the university all together turns out to be the best option on paper, you don’t want to just make this complete switch from A to Z all at once. Make sure you try it out a little bit and make sure you’re right about some of the assumptions that you’re making. Maybe you’ll love it, maybe you’ll hate it. But, it’s hard to know without trying it.

See if you can do what I call the small experiments, which is the smallest action that you can take that still gives you relevant information about whether or not you’re on the track with that option. So, go do some experiments before you go jump in and dive in at the deep end.