Put Yourself to Work (Pay it Forward)

As published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

One of the things that can happen as you progress in your career is the feeling of a sense of distance from where it all started.  A few years in the corporate world can seem much longer, and as roles and responsibilities change and careers advance, it can be easy to forget what it was like back in the day, when you were sitting in that trench (oops; cubicle).  Wow; putting yourself to work, through things like professional development, volunteer opportunities, and workplace assignments, has really helped to move you forward from where you were just a few years ago.

Remember how frustrated you were when the “people at the top” didn’t seem to have any appreciation for the front line working folk?  “They don’t know how difficult it is down here!”  “It was so much easier to get ahead in their day.”  “I work like mad and no one seems to notice, much less appreciate, my efforts.”  Many people starting their careers and trying to get ahead have felt this way, and probably swore they would do things differently if given the chance.

Now that you are one of the “people at the top”, you have that chance; to take the put yourself to work attitude and pay it forward by creating the business environment that you always wanted to be a part of back when you were just starting out.  Remember that employer that you left behind because they didn’t create an environment that fostered achievement and career development?  Take a good look around and make sure that you are not contributing to creating a similar environment.  You can take steps to create a workplace that motivates staff members to perform at their best, stay engaged, and move forward.  How?  By putting yourself to work; this time, on the employer and leadership side of the equation.

Put Yourself to Work:  Pay it Forward

  • Be a learning organization: companies that encourage continuous learning through events such as workplace seminars and training not only keep their staff members up to speed, they also attract high performers who value this type of environment. Staying on top of industry, product and service, and regulatory developments not only makes good business sense, it also creates a shared responsibility to be in the know (just think, no more of that “it’s not my job to know about that” attitude).
  • Promote achievement through professional development programs: encouraging staff members to complete relevant designation programs and other types of courses and rewarding those who are successful is a great way to enhance your corporate knowledge base and motivate at the same time. Companies that fail to recognize the importance of professional development put their business at risk in terms of losing high potential staff members, as well as being less competitive in the marketplace.
  • Encourage meaningful workplace assignments: it’s often been said that education is only half of the mix, when it comes to becoming truly skilled in a particular area.  The other half of the equation is practical experience.  Workplace assignments can take the form of temporary responsibilities, special projects, cross training, and job rotation.  Whatever the approach, both the company and the staff member win: through enhanced skill, depth, and interest level.
  • Be a mentor: remember how it felt when a more senior person took an interest in you and your career development? You probably learned lessons through their experiences that you couldn’t have otherwise accessed at your current level of development.  Benefit from taking the time to be a mentor; you might just be surprised what you learn from your mentorship partner.
  • Encourage volunteerism, both internally and externally: it might be hard to believe, but there are actually people out there who don’t volunteer or even stop to think about the benefit of doing so. Translate this attitude into an organization and you can end up with a pretty uninspiring place.  Encouraging volunteerism, either through in-office campaigns or external postings not only motivates staff members, it also provides the opportunity to develop new skills, particularly in the area of leadership.  And one of the really great outcomes is that the company, the employee, and “the cause” all benefit

Congratulations, you made it!  You put yourself to work and made a number of promotions your own.  Now, you have the great privilege of creating an environment to put the next generation to work.  So, do it.

Does your CEO Successor have the Right Stuff? Avoid these 5 candidate types when selecting a potential successor

Published by Divestopedia

For many reasons, business leaders can find themselves at a loss when trying to identify a potential successor.  Part of this could be due to the founder having started the business many years ago and building the leadership role around himself.  Similarly, a particular business can be so synonymous with its founder, that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else actually taking the company forward.  Sounds typical, right?

What does this mean in practical terms, when a business leader is in the process of seeking a potential successor to assume their role?  Financial and transactional issues aside, ensuring that potential leadership candidates are truly CEO material is a key issue; one that often gets clouded by other matters, leaving the business leader in a state of confusion.  Combine this with probably not allowing sufficient time to undertake the succession planning process and watch the desperation begin to appear.  Suddenly, potential successors start to look a lot more ideal than they actually are.

Here’s the reality of the leadership role: CEO’s require the ability to oversee a company across all functional areas, including administration, sales and marketing, finance, products and services, as well as liaising with various external parties, such as financial partners, customers, and regulators.  As a result, a CEO is not typically on the “front line” of delivering services; rather, they reside a level or two above the action so that they have the right sightline to oversee all key areas and resources.

So, if you’re not sure who your successor should be, start off by understanding who the next CEO shouldn’t be.  The following types of candidates typically don’t represent a good choice:

Can’t let go of the detail—some people work at their best on the front line, analyzing information, understanding detailed problems, and perhaps working directly with customers. Their focus is narrow (i.e., departmental, as opposed to organizational), and they might even regard tasks that fall outside of their direct area of focus as an interruption or annoyance.

Although they often excel in their current role, these people, by their very definition, typically don’t make good CEO’s.  The reality is they lack the skills or interest to oversee a company across various functional areas and are at their best when working in a specialized area, such as product development, sales, or technology.  Lots of businesses make the mistake of promoting this type of person to a broader, more senior role than they can handle, when they probably should have been left in their current position.

Winner by popularity alone—taking the approach that being a CEO is all about being popular and liked might be more common than expected. The reality is, CEO’s often have to make tough decisions that won’t be popular, but are in the best interest of the company.  Selecting a successor because “he’s a great guy” or “people will like her” isn’t a good approach.  What a potential successor can bring to the role is what really matters, so don’t get caught up in polls and popularity contests.

Winner by family alone—family businesses bring an added layer of complexity to the succession planning process, and if the goal is to have the company survive for the long term, being a family member isn’t reason enough to be its next leader. Again, skills, experience, and what is in the best interest of the business should prevail, unless you want to be one of those companies that doesn’t last for generations.

Thinks the product is the business—although products and services are an important component of any company, they do not represent the whole company. In the absence of cash in the bank, the ability to invoice and receive payments from customers, a qualified sales force, reliable distribution, and sound operating systems, the product or service alone, in relative terms, isn’t worth much.  Good successor candidates understand how a company as a whole operates and all of the pieces that are needed to operate a business, as opposed to just focusing on products and services.

Doesn’t have a long term focus—leading a company requires the ability to see not only where you are, but also where you are going. Real growth typically doesn’t happen in the short term, and with business cycles fluctuating over time, a good CEO needs to have the patience and ability to ride it out and take the company forward.  Potential successors that are not able to do this typically lack the long term commitment and stability that are required in the CEO role.

Surprised by this list?  The reality is that many business leaders don’t think about succession from this perspective; it’s more about “who do I know?” or “who is the best fit from what we currently have?”.  Instead, it’s best to take a more strategic approach and seek out candidates who really have the right stuff to thrive in the CEO role, now and well into the future.

Put Yourself to Work (What to do when it “isn’t working”)

As published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

So, you’ve been busy, busy, busy; volunteering your time with non-profit organizations, taking on extra work assignments, and helping out with the office social committee.  You have enrolled in a professional designation program (completed the first two courses with flying colors!) and thanks to your persistence, have been able to convince your CEO neighbour to meet for mentoring sessions once a month.  You are Putting Yourself to Work like a house on fire!

Compare this to your workplace cubicle mate, who doesn’t seem to do much more than the job at hand (who, me, volunteer?) and manages to spend weekends out with friends without a care in the world.  The assignments you get are no better than his (and might even be a bit worse at times), despite all of your efforts and the talent you are developing.  What’s more, annual performance reviews were last week and your appraisal was nothing out of the ordinary: an awkward meeting with your boss, the clichéd “keep this up and you will be promoted soon”, a handshake, and you’re adjourned.  Not exactly what you had in mind, given all the extra work you’ve been doing.

“Isn’t anyone paying attention around here?” you wonder, passing your co-workers on their way out the door for afternoon coffee.  You’ve been doing everything you can to expand your skills, show initiative, and position yourself for a more senior position, with no real progress (except for your own).  What’s happening here?  Times like this are ideal for having a good look at the situation and taking stock.  Here’s how.

Put Yourself to Work:  What to do when it “isn’t working”

Despite all of your efforts, your lack of progress could be due to a few things:

  • Not enough time has passed—although you’ve put your nose to the grindstone for what seems like forever, how long has it been really? The busier you are, sometimes the longer it seems you have been working (in fact, you are accomplishing more, which is a good thing).  Step back and determine how long you have been “in development”, and if it’s only been a few months, a bit more patience is required. Putting yourself to work is an investment and is actually a progression to developing a new mindset, so recognize that it might take a year or two to see the progress you desire (remember that it did take you longer than this to complete your university education or professional designation.  Although the tactics might be different here, but it still takes time to make tangible progress).
  • You might be off-course—sometimes we can get so busy that we don’t take the time to step back and determine if we are focusing on the right things (think of how some tasks just seem to lead to other, more obscure tasks). Ask yourself if you need to make some adjustments to focus on activities that are directly related to where you want to go and, if so, get back on track.  If you are having difficulty identifying the key issues, your mentor could be a great resource to provide a more objective viewpoint
  • You might not making the impact you think you are—now, this is the time to take a good, hard look in the mirror (which can sometimes be difficult to do). Although you might be working hard, are you really getting the necessary results to demonstrate that you are mastering the task at hand?  Sometimes, we take on so many tasks that we don’t have the necessary time and energy to truly excel.  Remember, “quality” is more important than “quantity”, and you’re better to establish the reputation of excelling at whatever you do, as opposed to taking on many things with less than stellar results.
  • You might not be in the right environment— the previous three areas have given you the opportunity to have a good look at yourself and your progress. This area requires you to look around at your workplace and ask the question if it is one that is receptive to achievements such as volunteerism and professional development.  Although it might be difficult to believe, some workplaces don’t fully appreciate the benefits of these enrichments.  Look at the achievements of the leaders in your workplace to determine if they are actively involved in these areas and to get a sense of their attitudes in this regard; it just might be that you’ve progressed to a point where you should consider your options.  Should you decide to do so, be sure to evaluate any potential employers in terms of the value they assign to areas like professional development, volunteerism, and mentorship.

Whatever your analysis reveals, recognize this: you have made achievements that are an investment in yourself and this store of value will follow you wherever you go.  That’s the whole point of putting yourself to work.

Put Yourself to Work (Validate your Value)

Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

One of the biggest questions that people in the workplace have is whether or not their level of compensation is fair.  Am I being paid enough?  Why is she being paid more than I am?  He got another raise (at least, I think he did); what about me?  Anyone who has been employed for a while will be very familiar with these nagging questions, on both a personal and workplace level.

The reality is that, left unresolved, these questions can actually impact how you view your job and your level of performance, and simply put, that’s not good.  Couple this with all of the effort you have made to invest in yourself, perhaps through taking on workplace assignments, professional development, or volunteer opportunities, and you really have a need to better understand what your value in the marketplace actually is.

Although some might protest that this is “too much work” or “not worth the trouble”, if you really want to resolve any compensation related uncertainties and obtain the information you need to move yourself forward, this type of research is a must.  End the ambiguity by taking practical steps to understand and validate your value.  Here’s how.

Validating your Value

Compensation should be considered both in internal (i.e., within the particular company) and external (i.e., in the marketplace, including similar positions) terms.  What a specific position is “worth” can also be impacted by other factors, such as geographic location, industry type, and size/complexity of the organization.

Put yourself to work

  • If you are not already familiar with the various positions in your department, take the time to understand what the various jobs are, the order of their seniority, and where the typical career progression paths are.
  • Ask your manager what the salary range is for your current position, as well as any variable compensation components, such as bonuses or commissions. Organizations should have a salary range for each position, which will give you an indication of the earning potential for your current job.
  • Ask your manager to provide you with an indication of the skills and experience that are required to progress to the next level. It is also helpful to know whether or not there will be a promotion opportunity available in the foreseeable future and the length of time that is typically required for a staff member to achieve promotion status, based on typical circumstances.
  • External (or market) compensation levels should also be investigated, to help understand how your current earnings and the salary range for your position compare to that of similar positions at other companies. Some of the sources to seek out include:
    • Salary surveys, which are typically conducted by professional associations or human resource companies;
    • Current job postings for other companies, which can be accessed through employers, recruitment firms, and online job boards;
    • Research sources, such as governmental agencies and companies that follow particular industries or types of jobs; and
    • Networking, with people that work in similar types of jobs or organizations
  • Compile the external information you have gathered and try to get a sense of how your current compensation and salary range compares. You might find that your compensation is lower than market (or be surprised to find out that it is higher than market levels; so much for complaining!), but should resist the temptation to react emotionally to this information.
  • Prior to taking any further steps, it’s a good idea to get a second opinion on your findings from someone who is more experienced in this area; perhaps a mentor or person that has human resources or senior business experience. Compensation is a complex area with many factors, so it’s important to take the time to understand the information before taking any further steps.
  • If, after conducting this process, you are comfortable with your level of compensation, rest in the knowledge that you have gained information that has validated your current value and have identified the process to do so in the future. Knowledge is power and is a must in taking control of your professional future.
  • If you still have concerns or questions about your compensation, request a meeting with your manager to discuss the matter. You must, however, plan for the meeting, including laying out the information you have gathered to logically demonstrate your concerns (this includes highlighting achievements you have made to increase your personal value, including all of the areas discussed in this series).  Do not take the approach of complaining without substance.
  • Going forward, stay current with internal and external compensation developments and use the information to evaluate both your earnings progression and career development priorities.

Knowledge provides choices: to stay, to go elsewhere, or to rise to the next level.  This approach is so much better than being caught in the cycle of uncertainty and ambiguous information.  So, break that cycle!

Put Yourself to Work (Volunteer Positions)

Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

One of the biggest challenges you might face when building your career is a plain old lack of experience.  Although you probably have taken lots of courses and have a great deal of education, in the business world, experience matters (in a huge way).  As seasoned business people will tell you, it takes years to gain the experience and professional judgement to successfully ascend the ranks, and perhaps more importantly, to know what to do when you get there.  As a result, junior level staff members are limited in terms of how far they can progress, as experience is required to effectively undertake the decision making and problem solving that is so critical in more senior roles.

When you’re in an entry or even mid-level position, it can be a challenge to have the opportunity to practice skills that are of a more managerial, decision making, or strategic nature.  Guess what?  You’re in luck!  There are many organizations that depend on volunteers to support their efforts, including board and committee members.  The benefit to you is that these types of opportunities can give you the chance to do things that you are not able to do in your current job, such as helping to plan and run events, serving on committees that analyze information and make recommendations on particular issues, or learning how a Board of Directors operates.

Volunteer positions represent a real opportunity to get involved and start increasing your knowledge, experience, and personal value.  Thus far in this series, we have considered the benefits of in-house seminars, training, & networking, professional development, work experience & assignments, and mentorship opportunities.  Here’s how to make the most of volunteer positions.

Volunteer positions

Although volunteer positions are a great way to make a contribution to your community, choose well and they can be the gift that keeps on giving.  But, in order to benefit, you have to get started.

Put yourself to work

  • Boards and committees provide the opportunity for gaining an excellent level of experience, but also involve a considerable amount of responsibility. This is not a bad thing, as long as you focus on getting involved with a strong organization that provides the real potential for getting a good level of experience (so, choose carefully!).
  • Start paying attention to the non-profit organizations in your community, as many make it known when they are seeking volunteers. Professional associations also represent a good volunteer opportunity.
  • Let others know that you have an interest in volunteering and approach organizations that are of interest to you.
  • It pays to do your due diligence before agreeing to serve; meet the principals of the organization, understand its state of affairs (including financial position), and the current issues and challenges. Inquire about Directors’ and Officers’ insurance, indemnities, and financial obligations.  Ask around to ensure that you would not be entering a “troubled organization”; if board member turnover is high, for example, there may be reason for concern.
  • Find out who else is on the particular board or committee, as it’s a good idea to surround yourself with experienced people who can transfer knowledge to others.
  • Be realistic about the amount of available time that you have and work within it. Over committing too often results in not being able to fulfill the role, and it’s better to make no impression than to make a bad impression.
  • Expect to start at an entry level (if you don’t have any previous experience), but hard work gets noticed and can create opportunities to move up to more senior roles.
  • Those with a business background (accounting, in particular) are valued for the ability to serve on Finance and Audit Committees. Given that this is typically an area of short supply, it’s a good way to get involved (and one of the easiest ways to learn about an organization is to start by understanding how and where the money flows).
  • Once you get involved, ensure that you fulfill your role well, through thorough preparation and thoughtful contribution to meetings. When you are getting started, it’s a good idea to listen carefully to become acquainted with the organization, instead of spending too much time talking.  Seek to impress, and offer to take on additional roles or tasks only once your initial responsibilities are fulfilled (and only if you have the time).
  • If things are not working out, trust your instincts and consider moving on. If you find yourself in this type of situation, it’s advisable to seek advice from someone with a good level of board experience who can assist you in making a professional exit.

Remember that the benefit to you is the opportunity to get the experience you need to move forward in your career.  It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t gained in your “day job”; what matters is that it’s on your resume and you did it!

Put Yourself to Work (Mentorship Opportunities)

Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

At times, getting ahead in the business world can be far more difficult than most would imagine.  Building this type of career requires one-part education, one-part determination, and three-parts experience (at a minimum; no wonder you feel so tired!).  But the age old “how do you get experience if you don’t have experience?” question often represents a problematic conundrum that can threaten to stop many a young business upstart in their tracks.  If only there was someone to ask; someone who could help to find doors to walk through when all you see are brick walls.  The good news is that help is available, and perhaps, only a coffee date, phone call, or text message away.  Welcome to the world of mentorship.

Mentorship is just one of the many ways to take action in building your own personal value in the business marketplace.  Thus far in this series, we have considered the benefits of in-house seminars, training, and networking, professional development opportunities, as well as work experience and assignments.  Here’s how to take an active role in making mentorship work for you.

Mentorship opportunities

Given the high experience component that is integral to building a successful business career, it’s no wonder that the concept of mentorship has fared so well in the corporate world.  Staff members who are just starting their careers or are looking to move into a new area can benefit from finding a mentor who has “been there” and “done that”.

Mentors can provide a better understanding of the requirements to move forward in a particular job or functional area and make suggestions as to how the development process could occur.  They can also be a good support when the going gets tough (and it will), as well as someone who can provide assistance to help you get back on track when needed.  Since they have been in business for a while, they can also have a great network of contacts to share, where appropriate.

Put Yourself to Work

  • The best mentorship relationships are those that are not forced or imposed upon the parties, but rather, develop naturally.
  • Places to find mentors could include people who already know you (think relatives, your parents’ friends, and neighbours who have known you for a long time and have experience in an area that is of interest to you), business or professional associations, or a more senior person in your department.
  • Take the time to get specific about where a mentor could help you the most; career planning, dealing with problematic situations, and networking assistance are all options. A bit of pre-planning can help you to get the most out a mentoring relationship.
  • Identify a convenient approach for accessing your mentor. Meeting up for a meal, coffee, or Sunday jog are all options; find what works for you so that you can develop a relationship.  Although emails and text messages can provide helpful information in a pinch, it’s a good idea to go beyond the media and spend some time face-to-face.
  • Go into the relationship with an open mind. Although you don’t have to agree with everything your mentor tells you, do take the time to give the message some thought.  Feedback should always be professional and respectful, but remember that a mentor might tell you things that others won’t (and this constructive criticism is intended to be given in the spirit of helping).  Step back and consider the source before deciding whether or not the feedback is of use.
  • Unless otherwise agreed, mentorship relationships should always respect confidentiality, in terms of the information shared and the arrangement, in general. When seeking guidance, no one wants to feel like their privacy has been violated.
  • If you are unsure or uncomfortable with the advice you are getting or if you just don’t feel that relationship “click”, consider finding another mentor. It’s not uncommon for a mentor to provide guidance in a particular area, and once the issue passes, you may need to tap into a different kind of expertise.
  • A more “passive” approach to mentorship can be achieved by working hard and getting noticed by senior staff members, both in your current department and in those you might work in temporarily. Learn from their example and knowledge and use it to build your own skills.
  • Plan to give back. Learn from the relationship so that you can take on the role of mentor to a more junior person (perhaps, a student that is just starting out) or at some point in the future.

One of the exciting things about mentorship is that it’s a two way street; mentors can also learn from those they mentor.  Tapping into the expertise of someone whose experience is beyond that of your own can help you to gain skills and insights that you don’t have (or wouldn’t have) at your current level of development.  This benefit can, in fact, create the opportunity to make real progress, at a rate much quicker than that of your peer group.  That’s worth the time and effort.

Put Yourself to Work (Work Experience and Assignments)

Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

We’ve all been in situations where the latest staffing crisis quickly becomes the news of the day.  This type of topic seems to possess the ability to spread like wildfire (everyone loves a human interest story), rapidly becoming the focus of workplace talk:

“Did you hear that Melanie left for a better job?  She did everything in that department; how will they manage?”

“Doug got hurt downhill skiing and is going to be off for six weeks.  He handles all of our receivables!”

“Kelly is off on stress leave and her manager is reviewing her workload.  Did you hear that her job is going to be divided into two positions?”

Although these types of newsflashes can provide a topic of discussion for lunch breaks and elevator rides, this hot-off-the–press information can actually be put to much better use.  Those who are looking to advance their career should view these situations as opportunities: to learn new skills, to put themselves in challenging situations (and succeed!), and to simply help out when needed.

When thinking about career development, it’s important to understand that making real progress is not about the length of time spent in a particular job; rather, it is about understanding the idea of putting yourself to work and taking responsibility for moving yourself forward.  This type of “Me Inc.” perspective means taking the lead role in developing your skills and experience, not just at the beginning of your working life, but also as your career progresses.  Instead of depending on an employer to recognize your abilities, it’s about making a conscious effort to invest in yourself, which, in turn, increases value; your value.

There are lots of ways to take action in building your own personal value.  Thus far in this series, we have considered the benefits of in-house seminars, training, and networking, as well as professional development opportunities.  Work experience and assignments represent another way to increase your personal value; here’s how.

Work experience and assignments

Businesses almost always need help; be it assistance to keep up with routine tasks, investigate and launch new projects, or fill in for staff members who are off sick or on leave.  Given that most organizations are continually challenged to do more with less, staff members who are willing to step up, increase their knowledge, or cross train are not only welcomed, they are valued.  This approach can be a win-win for both parties, enabling staff members to better their skills and abilities, while the company is able to develop a more talented and flexible workforce.

Put Yourself to Work

  • Keep a close watch on what’s going on in all aspects of your company. Networking and paying attention to in-house newsletters, job boards, and announcements are good ways to identify opportunities to develop new skills and vary your workload (a great way to maintain your interest level, too).
  • Make the effort to learn about all departments within your organization and what the main jobs are. It’s surprising how many employees have knowledge of only their own department, which is a sure-fire way to miss career development opportunities.
  • Be flexible, in terms of the tasks and roles you are willing to consider. Although no one likes to “go backwards” when it comes to career development, it is sometimes necessary to take a short term step back (or parallel step) in order to move forward, especially in a new area.  A flexible attitude and willingness to do what is necessary to get the job done can set you apart from other employees.
  • Take advantage of the opportunity to get to know your coworkers during work assignments. Learn about their career paths and how their department operates (you might be surprised to find differences from your own experiences).
  • Make the effort to link professional development opportunities to the new skills that you learn. This approach can help to reinforce your new areas of knowledge and, perhaps, identify a career path that you have not considered.
  • Consider work experience and assignments as an opportunity to broaden your horizons. Think about it; a broader range of knowledge can only be good.
  • Keep a record of assignments and areas of new skill development. You will be surprised how quickly your competency level and range of ability increase.

Although it might mean an increased workload in the short term, prove that you are able to get the job done and you will win in the long run.  What’s more, you will be recognized as a “go to” person in your organization; someone who is flexible and has the ability to help out when needed.  Now, that’s real value!

Put Yourself to Work (Professional Development)

Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

Building a career is something that involves many facets: an undergraduate degree here, lots work experience there, new and challenging responsibilities, an avalanche of overtime hours, a seminar or two to fill in the knowledge gaps…and around it goes.  Over time, the pieces start to meld together into the career you are building, one that is uniquely your own.  At times, you may wonder how to keep it all moving forward.  It’s important to understand that making real progress is not about the length of time spent in a particular job; rather, it is about understanding the idea of putting yourself to work and taking responsibility for moving yourself forward.  Call it a “Me Inc.” attitude.

Having a Me Inc. perspective means taking the lead role in developing your skills and experience, not just at the beginning of your working life, but also as your career progresses.  Instead of depending on an employer to recognize your abilities, it’s about making a conscious effort to invest in yourself with the objective of becoming the right candidate to move up and onward (think of it as viewing yourself as a talent to be managed and improved upon, which, in turn, increases value).

There are lots of ways to take action in building your own personal value.  In the first installment of this series, we considered the benefits of in-house seminars, training, and networking.  Actively pursuing professional development opportunities is another way to increase your personal value.

Professional development (and maybe even the cash to go with it)

Many businesses have professional development programs that encourage staff members to improve their skill and knowledge level, by taking courses, attending conferences, or even getting a designation (and in the case of those who already hold a designation, they are often required to complete a specific amount of professional development activities each year).

In order to qualify for a professional development program, courses typically have to be relevant to a staff member’s job or career path (and may require approval in advance) and the costs may be reimbursed, in whole or in part, often upon successful completion of the course.  Although some may be discouraged by the prospect of “more school”, a Me Inc. attitude sees the benefit in having the chance to gain knowledge and competency at a reduced cost, and perhaps, for free.  All you have to bring is the effort.

Put yourself to work

  • Find out what your company’s professional development program includes: time off to attend courses, partial or full reimbursement, specific requirements to qualify for reimbursement? Understand the guidelines before moving forward.
  • If your company does not have a professional development program, it is still an area to pursue. Seek out seminars and events that are free of charge or within your budget and utilize your lunch hour or after hours time to attend.  Think of it this way: you’re still investing in yourself, regardless of the cost or who pays (and you take that investment with you wherever you go).
  • Ask around to see what courses or designations others in your company have completed, especially in the case of staff members who are working in areas that are of interest to you. Researching the career paths of others can be just as useful as researching courses and programs.
  • Take a long term view, but recognize that you have to walk before you can fly. Think about where you ultimately see your career heading, but be realistic about the professional development and work experience steps that are required to get there.  And get started!
  • Spend some time online to identify and learn more about available courses and programs. Take the opportunity to attend information sessions to ask questions and network with those involved.
  • Set yourself up for success, not failure. Be realistic and ask yourself what type of professional development activities would best fit within your interests and time constraints.  Are you willing to make the commitment to complete a designation or are short term courses and seminars a better approach?
  • If you are considering embarking on an area of study that is new to you, start with a general course to introduce yourself to the topic area. Getting too specialized too quickly can backfire (and you might find that you don’t even like the topic!).  A more general course provides a digestible introduction to further study and is always of value, even if you don’t pursue the topic area any further.
  • Once you get started, look for opportunities to put into practice some of the knowledge you have gained so that it is retained, not lost.

Having your own personal professional development program is an integral aspect of the Me Inc. attitude.  Before long, you will have developed a base of knowledge that builds on what you already know and can set you apart from others in your workplace.  Not only that, active professional development can create a whole new network of knowledgeable and well connected resources, and you just never know where that might lead.

Put Yourself to Work (Seminars, Training, and Networking)

Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

Unfortunately, most of us know what it’s like to feel passed over for a promotion or opportunity for advancement.  You know the feeling: you’re sitting at your desk scrolling through your email box, only to see an announcement that a colleague down the hall has been promoted.  You stare at the screen and wonder how this could have happened, given that you both have a similar amount of time on the job and your skills and experience are at about the same level.  To make matters worse, maybe you didn’t even know that there was a promotion opportunity available at all.  Not a great way to start off the day!

The corporate world is often built on standards and processes, designed to develop an employee group of people with similar abilities and competencies.  Employees, however, are individuals that develop and progress at varying levels. Beyond that, there is something more that can make the difference between moving forward and staying put: it’s not length of service or time in a particular job; rather, it is understanding and investing in the idea of putting yourself to work.  Call it a “Me Inc.” attitude.

Having a Me Inc. perspective means taking the lead role in developing your skills and experience.  Instead of depending on an employer to recognize your abilities, it’s about making a conscious effort to invest in yourself with the objective of becoming the right candidate to move up, perhaps, into that job you’ve always wanted.  Beyond that, it’s viewing yourself as a company or talent to be managed and improved upon, which, in turn, increases value (your personal value, in fact).

Taking action to invest in yourself can be very fulfilling, and as you start to experience the benefits of gaining new skills and abilities (and being recognized for doing so), you will be surprised how motivated you will become to keep going.  Not only that, taking action to invest in yourself will become second nature, something you will do without even thinking about it.

But, how do you get started?  Chances are there are a number of opportunities to invest in yourself that are right in front of you.   In this series, we will consider some ideas to increase your personal value, with the goal of putting yourself to work.

In-house seminars, training, and networking

Many businesses host in-house seminars and training programs as part of their normal operations (these types of sessions are typical in the world of accounting and other professional services firms).  In-house sessions can cover a wide range of areas, including technical training, new service offerings, and guest speaker presentations.  Given that they often take place before or after the regular workday, attendance can be limited, in some cases, which represents an opportunity missed.

Put yourself to work

  • Make the effort to attend these types of sessions, not only to gain the knowledge of the content, but also to “see and be seen”.
  • Don’t limit yourself to sessions that are only within your department or particular functional area. If a session is open to all in the organization, make the time to attend; this is a great way to learn about new areas and build relationships.
  • Network with those in attendance, not only to find out what they are doing, but to also make others aware of your skills and interests.
  • Look for opportunities to participate directly in these types of sessions, such as helping to organize or host, providing assistance to speakers, or acting as part of the presenter group in areas where you have sufficient knowledge to do so. You might be surprised by how often these types of events are in need of volunteers.
  • Look for opportunities to put into practice some of the knowledge you have gained so that it is retained, not lost.
  • Spreading the word and encouraging others to attend shows a good attitude and an effort to help the organization be successful. Good managers recognize leadership among their employees, and know that it can be present (or absent!) at any level.

Keep this up over time and you will be recognized as part of the group that “shows up”, as opposed to those who don’t.  And showing up is easily half the battle.

Go Big or Go Home: What does it take to build a great company?

Published by the Canadian Venture Capital Association in Private Capital

If early stage companies know little about the expectations of venture capitalists (see Bridging the Gap, Spring 2011 edition of Private Capital), they probably know even less about the working relationship between the two parties post-investment.  While VC’s might see the next steps as obvious (“let’s go and build a great company!”), early stage companies may be exhausted and overwhelmed from the due diligence and closing process and may simply be wishing for things to return to normal; but will their world ever be “normal” again?  Most VC’s certainly hope not.

If the devil is in the details, the challenge is in the goal: taking a largely unproven, early stage business and building it into a great company.  To a VC, this means the elusive “big win”; the company that grows from mere obscurity to sales of $50 million, $75 million, or more.  Beyond the cash that is generated, these winning companies are leaders in their markets, innovators in their industry, and perhaps, most importantly, they share in this powerful vision of top tier growth.  They too want to build a great company, and will take whatever assistance and valuable insight they can find in order to get there.

If a journey begins with a single step, where do you start?  Surprisingly, there may not be a lot of magic in terms of starting the relationship with a new portfolio company off on the right path.  As with the preparation for raising early stage capital, the fundamentals also matter when building a business.  Although strategy is important, what can be even more critical is successful implementation (i.e., getting it done!), while being in tune with the industry and market to know when to shift gears and make the necessary changes.

Investee companies need to take the necessary steps to build the business to support future growth, and not get caught up in the status quo.  And while distractions often arise, it is critical to focus on the fundamentals and the ultimate goal, a discipline that can be difficult for young companies.

As part of this process, a number of key areas require careful and consistent attention, including:

Fundamental Area Critical Success Factors
Aligned Objectives Management buy-in to the short term and long term objectives, as well as the exit strategy.  Willingness to use experienced resources/advice to grow the company.  Consistent focus on what is in the best interest of the business
Product Focus on sustainable competitive advantage. Strong understanding of industry and market developments to guide future product development efforts.  Ability to deliver new products and product enhancements on a timely basis
Market Demonstrated ability to reach and penetrate target market(s) through an appropriate strategy (i.e., pricing, advertising, promotion, distribution, etc.).  Strong focus on competitive landscape and market developments, making necessary adjustments to grow market position
Management Management team includes those with aligned objectives, the right skills and expertise, and strong implementation skills.  Problem areas are addressed on a timely basis
Financial Results & Capital Requirements Timely and accurate financial information that is used to track progress and make adjustments where needed.  Established short term budgets and long term financial targets, as well as the necessary capital to achieve results
Exit Strategy Well developed strategy, including estimated timeline, key milestones, and exit approach.  Should consider market and industry trends and outlook

Given the importance of building the business to support future growth, management may lack the experience to do so, but can gain valuable assistance from the expertise that VC’s bring to the table.  In order to raise the likelihood of success: (i) management needs to be receptive of this type of assistance; and (ii) VC’s need to take an active role in providing it.  Although it is a given that VC’s don’t run companies, this process can mean that early stage investors might have to roll up their sleeves more than they would like, particularly when difficulties arise.  Failing to do so could result in a company that never really reaches its potential, falling well short of “great”.

Beyond providing assistance with the fundamentals, important problem areas for VC’s to play an active role in resolving include the following types of situations:

When the founder flounders Just because a CEO has what it takes to start a business and manage it in the early days does not mean that they have the skillset and desire to build a company.  It’s been said that many high growth companies have at least three CEO’s during the course of their history: one to start the business, one to grow the business, and one to position the company for exit.  All of these situations have a different focus and require different skillsets.  Chances are that all of these skillsets do not reside within a single CEO, so a change in leadership as part of the strategy should not be surprising.  It can, in fact, represent an opportunity to drive growth in each stage of development.

Where the issue can become really problematic, however, is with a CEO who is truly out of their element.  This situation can be typical with early stage companies, where: (i) one of the founders was arbitrarily put in the CEO position, but clearly lacks the necessary skillset; or (ii) the investee company hired the best CEO they could afford, on a very limited or part time budget, and got what they paid for.

In any event, VC’s need to recognize situations where the “CEO has to go” and take swift action.   Weaknesses at the top normally don’t turn around, and sub-par performance results in opportunity that is forever lost.  Although CEO recruitment is often a time consuming process, leadership is beyond important and maintaining a poor CEO and hoping for improvement does not represent a strategy for resolving the problem or for generating solid financial results.

When financial management gets no respect Many young companies underestimate the importance of the finance function, including the critical nature of timely financial information as a management tool, as well as in terms of attracting capital.  Companies with a significant technical or intellectual property component, in particular, tend to put the majority of their resources into technology or product related areas, while downplaying the need to hire a qualified Controller or CFO.

It is often up to the VC to drive change in this area, as they truly recognize just how much a good CFO can do for a company, especially when there is more capital to raise.  VC’s need to ensure that companies build a finance function that can support future growth and create the necessary level of confidence to attract future investors.  The bottom line is that sound financial management is always critical, and you simply won’t build a great company without the right resources and systems in the finance function.

When the culture isn’t a learning one Building an early stage business can be an isolating process and the founders and their team can become overly focused on internal activities.  Growing a business requires a more balanced approach, with sufficient focus being paid to customers, competitors, and market developments, as well as to internal matters.  CEO’s who tend to rest on their laurels and what they already know, without upping the knowledge ante, can be a problem, as well as a sure fire way to get stuck in the status quo.  Successful businesses are always learning, from the CEO’s office throughout the ranks, and building for growth requires new knowledge and skills.

VC’s can be an important catalyst in this regard, setting expectations for CEO’s to actively network and stress the importance of continuous learning throughout the company, as well as seeking out collaborative relationships, perhaps with other investees.  VC’s have almost constant access to industry events and professional development opportunities crossing their desk, and taking a moment to invite portfolio companies along can help to set these important expectations and fuel growth.

When the company needs more help than a VC can provide Early stage companies often lack the experience to address issues that arise, while maintaining forward motion.  This is often the case in “business as usual” situations, so imagine how much of a skill and knowledge shortfall could occur when building a company to support significant growth.  Assisting an investee company in this area could become a full time job for a VC, and that’s just not workable for the long term, given that there is an entire portfolio to manage.

Hands on advisors can be a real help in this type of situation, and VC’s should play an active role in making it happen.  Early stage companies may lack the experience to fully understand the type of resources they need to assist with a particular situation, and as a result, are often not well equipped to identify the type of assistance they require.  VC’s, on the other hand, have typically seen the same situations many times, understand what is needed to support growth, and can be in the best position to diagnose the problem and suggest a handful of qualified advisors who can help; they just need to make the effort to do so.

Helping portfolio companies go from good to great is not just about the big moments; it’s also about paying careful attention to the fundamentals and taking timely corrective action when needed.  Setting expectations of disciplined implementation, seeking out the right resources for assistance when needed, and not tolerating sub-par performance can help to make the most of investment opportunities.  It could be the difference between a breakout company and those that just plod along.

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