When Good Luck is Bad for Your Career

EPSON scanner imageIn the first grade, I wore cat eyeglasses and an eye patch, had chipped buckteeth and a pixie haircut with cowlicks. And in the first grade, I wanted to model when I grew up. Buckteeth and an eye patch, and I was certain Vogue Covers were in my future! Sorry, I have no pictures of me with the eye patch; my mother would not allow it. Yet, had a Vogue Cover ever happen, I’m pretty sure luck would have been the reason, not my six-year-old self’s confidence. Or should I say delusions?

Women often attribute their success to luck and so do others. Sure luck plays into all of our lives. As Oprah says, “I believe luck is preparation meeting opportunity. If you hadn’t been prepared when the opportunity came along, you wouldn’t have been ‘lucky.'” She’s not the first to have this opinion. The philosopher Seneca is attributed with originating it. Yet somehow, many women forget that preparation part of luck.

Perhaps one of the reasons some people credit luck instead of their ability and preparation is because they know about their missteps along the way. The stories are pretty common: the entrepreneur who opened three businesses before the fourth one succeeds; the start-up that triumphs with its third product, not it’s first; and Oscar winners who went to hundreds of auditions before getting the first small bit part. In a recent study on corporate innovation the “only thing that correlated definitively with consistently successful innovation was the amount of times a company tried.” That’s a nice way of saying the successful innovative companies fail multiple times for each achievement.

“Won’t employers expect the same if I put specific results on my resume? I don’t know if I will be that lucky again.” I paused for a moment the first time I heard a client say such a thing. By now, I’m used to it. I hear versions of this all the time.   The problem is that employers hire known entities. You can establish yourself as known by giving specific examples of results. Sure, future employers will expect you to accomplish similar results for them. They really don’t care if you luck into them; white knuckle your way to them; or calmly and steadily progress to them. Employers want results and candidates need to sell they can bring results. So if luck is keeping you from owning your achievements then luck is also keeping you from progressing in your career.   Try letting education, training, ability, experience, talent, and determination join luck as reasons you triumphed. That mindset will help you succeed even more.

Lessons Learned from NOT Leaning In


Leaning In Photo from IStockPhoto

Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead is causing quite the stir.   The book has been met with joy, anger, hope, interest, more anger, disbelief, and amazing sales.   Much of the criticisms of her book are about her and not about her message.

I’m in the middle of reading the book that was published last week and am finding it a good read.  Although Sheryl specifies that the book is not on career management, I am finding that to be one of the strengths of the content.   Whether your ultimate goal is to lead or not, every woman does need to develop career management skills so you can lean in at the times that will help you achieve your goals.

I have missed some opportunities to lean in.  There are more but for this post I will leave it to three examples.  I offer them as examples from one of the 99 percenters, an average Jane, a person whom you may find more in common than Ms. Sandberg.

Being a Friend Instead of a Career Counselor

Years ago, a close friend was upset because a coworker was named the new manager of her department and she had not been asked to interview for the promotion, a promotion she wanted. I was younger and more stupid then so  I shared in her pain, listened to her, and probably bought her a drink. Instead, I should have woken her up from her dream of the business world.

Although we all know many times when work does feel like high school getting a promotion is not one of them.  Bosses won’t be your girlfriends encouraging you to try out for the senior musical because you have an amazing voice.  Everyone who wants to be promoted needs to tell the right people at work.  The right people include the hiring manager for the job you want.

Silently Stood By

I was a presenter at a Women in Business Conference last fall and the keynote speaker ended her talk with “work hard and you will be rewarded”.  At the time, I thought about standing up and challenging her.  Working hard while not stating interest in new challenges will not result in new challenges.   I did not want to be that person but I should have been.  Here was a room full of college girls and professional women.  The college girls may have bought into the concept before they even started their careers.  That is starting one step behind. You don’t need to do a thing more than your job…. it’s absolutely wrong.

Standing by and not challenging such nonsense is as culpable as bystanders endorsing bullying.  If we are asking our fifth grade students to stand up to bullying  than I should have the courage to do it as well.  I partially failed that day.  I say partially because during my session I did address my disagreement on the topic.  I know it was a day late and a dollar short on that occasion.  It won’t be in the future.

Automatic NO

I was lucky. I learned to lean in early because of the first time I did not.  As a senior in college in 1985 I worked part-time at the local office of Congressman Joseph Early of Massachusetts.  It was before desktop computers and voice mail so I filed, answered phones, took messages, and once in a while actually talked with a constituent.  I must have done a good job because one day in May when the Congressman was in the office he called me in to speak with him.  I can still see him sitting in the big leather chair as I stood anxiously in front of his desk. I don’t think I had ever said more than hi to him before.   My first real conversation with him, and the Congressman offers me a full-time job in the D.C. office! I declined.

I declined so quickly it shocks me when I think of it now.  I know I did not consider the offer seriously.  I know it would have resulted in a different career path.  I may have been right to decline the offer because I was offered another job in government 12 years later and declined that job as well.  That time I knew why.  Where I was wrong was in not indicating interest and asking questions about the job until I could make an informed decision.  That is what someone who is managing her career does.

Since that job offer, I have never said an automatic NO again. To me, leaning in means developing my own career challenges and considering career challenges that are pitched to me. Some I have accepted and some I have declined.  Neither has been made from fear or lack of information.  When I have accepted challenges they have been interesting, rewarding, eye opening, and have moved my career forward.  I look forward to the new challenges I will accept.

Have there been times when you wished you leaned in?  I would love to read about them.  I’m sure the other readers would benefit.

© Katie Donovan 2013

Job Interviews Should Support a Higher Starting Salary

iStock_000018829752XSmallYou arrive 15 minutes early with resume in hand and looking like a million bucks.  You have answers to the classic job interview questions and the craziest job interview questions ready.  You are set to nail this interview and get the job.

Or are you?  Do you have ready concrete examples of how you have earned or saved your previous employers money? Can you quantify the amount of money earned or saved?  Being able to seamlessly use these specifics throughout your interview will make you stand out from the crowd to get the job.  Also, it will support your argument for a higher starting salary when the time comes to actively negotiate your job offer.

Q: “Tell me about a recent accomplishment.”

A1: I improved customer satisfaction by reducing call wait time by approximately 20% through implementing new procedures.

A2:  I decreased cost of customer support phone lines by $1,000,000 per year through implementing new customer support procedures.

A3:  I increased incremental sales from current customers by $1,000,000 a year through implementing new customer support procedures.

All answers are good but which will have the most impact on your interviewer?  Which will have the most impact on your salary negotiation?

A1 is from an actual resume but customer satisfaction is not the end goal of any company.   The reason companies care about customer satisfaction is that it has a direct tie to customer retention and referrals.  A1 is good but it does not take the accomplishment to the absolute end.

Answer A2 is a stronger answer. It ties the improvement to money saved.  One can guess that some money was saved since the call waiting time was decreased due to procedural changes and not new hires.  Savings are good.

Answer A3 is the strongest answer.  It connects the improved customer satisfaction to revenue gains.  That shows an understanding of why a company cares about customer satisfaction.  It also shows that companies much prefer to be in growth mode than cost savings mode.  Companies much prefer to improve their net profits because sales grew instead of costs decreased. Show your future employer that you understand that sales keep a company afloat.  Then show them in hard numbers how you contributed to it whenever possible.

Ultimately, showing the amount you have minimized costs or generated revenue for your employers illustrates the value you will bring to the company like no other examples.  Highlighting this value during the interviews will be the perfect set up to your salary negotiation.  You will not need to introduce new information during the salary negotiation.  You will simply refer back to your interview and the $1,000,000 revenue example.  Is it worth an additional $15,000 to your potential new employer to have you do the same for them?  Most likely you will hear the answer YES!