Dude…lead thyself – leadership with a lower case “l”

A few months ago I was asked to sit on a “leadership panel” to discuss lessons learned as a career development leader in NC. I felt like such a poser. The panelist to my left had a PhD, twenty years of experience, his own business, and a gazillion other killer accomplishments on his resume. He introduced himself right before I did…when he was done, the audience looked at me to introduce myself. I just started to laugh…I didn’t know what to say…the first thing that came out of my mouth was, “The man to my left is a leader with a capital “L.” I, on the other hand, would describe myself as a leader with a lower case “l.”

leader vs. Leader? At the time, I wasn’t quite sure what I meant – I was just put on the spot, and as I said, was feeling like a poser, and in true extrovert style, I stated the first thing that came to mind. But that idea has stayed with me, and I’ve thought about it a lot over the past few months. I don’t know about you, but I hear the terms “leader” and “leadership” thrown around all of the time. What exactly do these words mean? Is it simply about guiding and developing others and an organization? Is it a status thing, all about power and controlling (rather than leading)? What if you don’t want to run a huge organization or manage others – are you a leader?

Like I said, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. And I’ve determined, that for me, leadership starts with oneself. What is your mission/purpose?  What guides you and serves as your compass when making decisions? Self-reflection and awareness is so important; finding your voice. Living your life everyday based on your values versus what others think you should do.

The concept of purpose and meaning comes up a lot in career counseling (as it should). Brain Pickings, my favorite blog, has a fabulous post with Hunter S. Thompson’s advice on finding purpose and leading a meaningful life. His advice: first determine the life you’d like to have, and then pick a career that fits that life. I LOVE IT! That’s where this “lower case ‘l’ leadership” idea comes in for me. Simply put, I’d like a simple life, where I can connect with people and help them, spend time with folks I love, and make and design stuff (right now I’m super into photography).

I had a career counseling appointment this morning with a rising sophomore who is having trouble selecting his major. The poor kid was completely overwhelmed by all of his choices, his family’s expectations, the influence of his friends and classmates…he felt he had to pick the perfect major that would land him the perfect job, so he could become a “leader.” The two of us went through every single major offered at our institution; he narrowed it down to seven choices, but was still overwhelmed. I asked him to forget about choosing a major for the moment, and instead to describe the life he wants to have five or ten years down the road – after college. This question really resonated with him – he started talking about his values, hobbies, love of travel and that job flexibility would be important for him. The life he wanted became the anchor of the conversation and his decision-making, not a specific college major. Trusting in what he knows about himself, versus doing what others think he should do – this to, to me, is leadership at its most basic. Leadership with a lower case l.

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No scrubs.

I just finished reading Sheryl Sandberg‘s “Lean In.” The book is a good read, with some interesting thoughts on women in the workplace – she also gives some killer business advice. One insight Sandberg provides has been stuck in my head the past few days…“The definition of success is making the best choices we can, and then being okay with them.” I’ve been thinking a lot about the choices I have made in my life. I’ve come to realize that many times I don’t make a choice because I’m overwhelmed by so many options. BUT by not making a choice, I’m still making a choice. In my career for example, there are a gazillion routes I could take professionally – career advisor at a college, private practice career coach, consultant, writer, director of a career center, etc. As of this time, I have NO idea what I want to do long-term. I seem to have an interest in everything…I’m like a career path slut. So…how do I make a decision? More importantly, how do I feel okay with the decision I make? Right now, since I don’t have a specific career goal, I’ve decided my goal will be to learn. I want to learn about new industries, new client/student populations, becoming a better writer, and how to be a better mentor and leader. So…how do I feel okay with it? I have colleagues and friends getting higher titles, bigger salaries, getting published, and working for high profile organizations. Sometimes it is hard not to feel like a…scrub*.  So, how do I feel okay with my choice? For me, I remind myself that I made a conscious choice and that I’m participating in my professional life versus being passive (and making a choice by NOT making a choice), and that the choice I made will provide meaning as I learn new things and connect with good folks (two of my highest values). I’ve got to curb the part of my personality that compares myself to my peers. No scrubs, y’all. Choices are hard, but being ok with them can be even harder. Here’s to making (sometimes non-traditional or risky) choices, and sticking to our guns!


* Scrub – An inferior person. Most often refers to social or professional standings, i.e. anyone who isn’t The Big Jock or similar (resource: Urban Dictionary)


New guy.

I recently started a new job, and I’m very excited about it. Not only because I’m around new students, faculty, and staff, but because I’m the “new dude” at work. I forgot how exciting and awkward it is to be new. It is hard to go from knowing everyone and how to do everything, to barely knowing anyone and feeling like a dumb ass most of the day – ha! Feeling challenged is good though, it means you are learning. I read this great article on Lifehacker on being new, and I thought I’d add a few other tips I’ve learned the past few weeks at my new job.

Remember your strengths.

At my new gig I’m working with STEM students. At my old gig I worked with COM students. These two student populations are very different, and I was worried the STEM students would call my bluff as I’m still learning a lot about their industry. I had to force myself to remember that my role is to teach my new students to tell their professional stories and connect with others to learn and network – basically to teach them to inform and persuade. Those are two COM skills. I have to remind myself everyday that the skills they need the most I can teach them, and teach them well. As long as I stay focused on my strengths, I feel a-okay.

Remember who you are (your values, yo!).

As a new person you are walking into a brand new culture, with its own set of rules. It will take some time (about a year if you ask me) to determine who is who. As you are building relationships, being asked for feedback or ideas, or discussing your future goals, remember who you are and make sure that it is consistent with what you are saying. Over a year ago I wrote a post called “Be your own beatbox” – it reviews the life rules my good buddy and I came up with on our long commutes to work (my old job). Know who you are, and create some life rules for yourself. These rules will help you make decisions, friends, and future plans.

Stay connected with your old colleagues. 

At my previous job I met some wonderful and talented professionals that became my friends and mentors. I make it a point to check in with at least one of them a week. The emails are brief. I give them the skinny on how things are at my new gig, ask them about their life/work, and let them know I miss them. Easy. This is great for me personally and professionally.

Turn fear into opportunity. 

Like I said earlier, I’m working with STEM students (totally new to me). My students are also all graduate students and half of them are international. I had little to no experience working with international students in my previous jobs, and though excited, was nervous about working with this population at my new gig. I had some anxiety and fear, y’all. BUT, I decided to geek out on the topic. In sessions with international students I asked them about their cultures, about what the job search looks like in their home country, and how their transition has been to the US. I read articles online about international students and their challenges, I attended a couple of focus groups on the needs of Indian and Chinese students when coming to school in America, and I plan learning more about social media popular in other cultures (e.g. Renren). I may not know much now, but in a couple of years I plan on being an international student career development Jedi!


And finally…

“I don’t know” is a-ok.

This is easier said than done. I hate feeling ignorant, but I have learned it is best to say “I don’t know” rather than try and bullshit. People can smell BS, and I honestly think people respect you more when you are honest and admit that you don’t know (probably because they wish they were brave enough to say those three words).

Totally crushed out.

In my experience, the hardest part of the job search for young professionals is deciding what they want to do and where they want to do it. Because this is so hard to figure out, many times I get the “I can do pretty much anything and can move anywhere…I’m really flexible”. This is not a good answer because if you don’t know where you’re going, how are you going to know how to start? How will you know when you’ve arrived? Knowing what you want to do and where serves as your compass – it guides your path and informs you when you are off course. It also reduces some of the anxiety that comes with the job search.

I remember when I started my job search during my last semester of grad school. I was applying to jobs in residence life, multicultural affairs, leadership, career services, teaching opportunities…I was applying to EVERYTHING. I was also applying all over the country. I felt overwhelmed. I felt I had no control. I had no compass. I was miserable.

I decided I needed to make a plan…and answer the “what” and the “where” of my job search. The “where” turned out to be more simple than I thought. I’m a NC boy, born and raised in the Bull City (Durham, NC). After some thought, conversations with friends, lots of list making, and a good old fashion financial reality check, I decided I wanted to live and work in the Triangle or Triad areas of NC. The “what” was more difficult. I love all things student development, but in the end felt I had more skills in career services and a stronger desire to learn more about career development.

I also came up with a plan…two steps.

1. Apply to jobs in career services, even if they were out of state (I wanted to cover my bases), and just accept that most times my resume would enter the black hole never to return. Simply applying to jobs only has a 20% success rate.

2. Come up with a killer networking plan to land a career services job in NC. Creating a plan with tasks gave me a sense of control and reduced my job search anxiety. Also, networking has a success rate of 80% when used in the job search.

So…how did I hatch #2 of my plan? Researched colleges and career services offices. This research was so helpful. I developed “crushes”* on certain colleges and career services programs based on their philosophies, programs, and professional development opportunities. Crushing out on these offices made it fun and exciting to find out more, talk to professionals in those offices via information meetings, and stay connected. I learned so much and met some great people that have since become colleagues and a part of my professional ecosystem. During my information meetings people could feel my enthusiasm, and they could tell I had done my research…this made me very desirable to them as a possible future employee.

Your job search doesn’t have to suck. Parts of it can be fun and engaging, but you have to do your research and find your company crushes. Work hard to discover your “what” and “where” – this will make the job search less ambiguous and offer you more control, and peace of mind.

*Thanks to Ruth Eckles for the “company crush” term!

Good branding tool for social media geeks that are not developers or designers.

About.me is a great online resource for branding if you are interested in a career in social media community management or strategy, and are NOT a designer or developer. Check it out!

Salary. Know your worth!

I remember getting a call from my first employer informing me they wanted to hire me – I was SO EXCITED! The call lasted about 60 seconds, and it went something like:

Employer: Ross, we are thrilled to offer you the ______________ position with us! Do you accept?

Me: Yes! Thanks so much!

Employer: When can you start?

Me: Is June 1st okay?

Employer: June 1st is fine. Our salary offer is $___________. Does that sound okay?

Me: Um…yes, that sounds fine.

Employer: I’ll follow up next week with the contract and other info. Glad to have you on board.

I hung up the phone and thought, “Oh snap. I think I could have gotten a higher salary.” I was so caught in the moment and unprepared to talk salary that I automatically said yes. Never do this!

Many new professionals (fresh out of college) are doing interviews, reviewing job offers, and sending the dreaded “salary request”. The salary request question seems to send folks for a loop, and I can see why. Job seekers spend so much time updating self-marketing materials, networking, and preparing for interviews, that they don’t take the time think about their worth. This is very important!

So, let’s step through the process, shall we?

Step One: Research

It is important to know average salaries for your industry and your region  – a public relations assistant account executive will make less in Gibsonville, NC than in New York City. CNN has a great cost of living calculator where you can see how far $40K a year will get you in Gibsonville vs. New York. It is important to understand that you’ll make more for the same position in NYC because it costs more to live there.

Below are some great resources for researching salaries by company/organization or by region:

At Glassdoor.com you can click on the “salary” tab and search by company – they have TONS of companies, including colleges and universities, to search. Salary.com allows you to search for salaries by city, state. Jobs in digital or social media may be a bit more difficult to nail down, but you can find similar types of jobs and “guest-imate” an equal salary.

Ask around. Hopefully informational meetings have been a large part of your networking process. Reach out to those in your network and ask them to provide salary ranges for positions in their field. Asking for a range rather than a specific salary will make your contact more comfortable providing you information.

Step Two: Set your Boundaries

It is very important that you decide a desired salary as well as your rock bottom salary. These numbers will be chosen based on your research, cost of living of the region, and other budgetary issues (e.g. college loans…ughhh). Some of the best advice I ever got was, “never take a salary your unhappy with – you’ll start your job not only angry with the company, but angry with yourself, and that is no way to start anything.” Makes sense/cent$ right?!

Step Three: Sending your Salary Request

I always think it is a good idea to send a range rather than a specific amount. $5K-$10K is a good range. So, if I were sending my salary request for an assistant account executive position in Raleigh, NC, I would say my range is between $36K-$41K. Giving a range allows some wiggle room for you and the employer. Remember to never go beyond that rock bottom salary you gave yourself! If an employer really wants you, they will be willing to negotiate.

Sometimes when applying for jobs they will ask you to send a “salary history”. QuintCareers.com has some fabulous resources and tutorials on this topic, including how to respond to a salary request in a cover letter. Quintcareers.com also has really great salary negotiation resources.

You don’t want to start your career making less than you are worth…it is really hard to catch up, and you don’t want to spend the rest of your career regretting your first salary. Know your worth, do your research, and get paid what you deserve!

Sunday cooties + ecosystems.

I love Sundays for 2 reasons:

1. The CBS Sunday Morning Show – I’ve been watching this since I was a kid…I always learn something, and it takes away the “Sunday cooties” (dread and general icky feel of the fast approaching Monday).
2. Brainpickings Blog – I learn about 10 things every time I read this blog, and I get incredibly inspired.

Today I was reading Brainpicking’s post on content curation and combinatorial creativity and it got me thinking about networking…this quote from Kevin Kelly especially:

“…We’ll come to understand that no work, no idea stands alone, but that all true and beautiful things are networks, ecosystems of intertwingled parts, related entities and similar works.”

I’ve never been a fan of the term “network”. To me it feels cold and methodical. Many times I get the sense from young professionals, that they perceive their network as something they turn on to get a job and then turn off when they have landed a job, something temporary…they don’t see  it as an ever evolving resource for growth, inspiration, feedback and guidance.

The term “ecosystem” really resonates with me. Here’s the definition of ecosystem: a system formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their environment. I really like the idea of creating a professional ecosystem rather than a professional network. Ecosystem sounds more enduring, interactive, supportive and natural to me. Creating a strong professional ecosystem should be a daily part of life, because the more intelligent/amazing people in your field that you know, the more experiences you have, the more conversations you have, the smarter you get and the better you get.

I’ve recently recognized this in my own professional life…I’ve been building a professional ecosystem without even realizing it! I’m a career development professional advising (interactions) students and alumni (community) focusing on media and communications (environment), so by default, I’m surrounded by new ideas and concepts everyday as I talk with students, faculty and professionals about media (community, interactions, environment), and after awhile, as my expertise in the use of social media and career development grew,  I started to be asked to present workshops (interactions)  to local associations (community) specializing in media and mass communication (environment). Through these workshops I met new people and was exposed to new knowledge that grew my understanding and ideas in media and mass communications.  The more I interacted with my community in our natural environment, the more lasting relationships I built,  and the more I learned and got inspired. AWESOME, right?!

So…here is my challenge. Create a meaningful professional ecosystem for yourself! Who is or will be your community? In what environment do they live? How will you interact with them to share and gain knowledge and inspiration? And yes…being a part of a professional ecosystem comes with learning about job opportunities (I knew you were still thinking about that -ha!), but that combinatorial creativity and growth that emerges from geeking out with others in your field, is the best part of being in a professional ecosystem. To me anyways.

You bettah work! Grad school?

Okay. So you are in your senior year of college, or recently graduated with a year or two of the “real world” under your belt, and your thinking “I have no idea what I want to do with my life”. Option one is to try a couple of jobs, or even careers, on for size to learn more about what is important to you and how you can contribute your skills and talent to the world; or option two…go to grad school.

Option One

How the hell is anyone supposed to know what they want to do for the rest of their life so early in their life? Right?! It seems almost impossible.

To me, it all comes down to purpose. What is your purpose? How can you figure out your purpose, when you are just getting to know who you are? How do you get to better understand who you are? By living…by life experiences. I studied acting as an undergrad and I loved it. At the time, I thought it was because I loved to perform. While that was a part of it, the actual reason was because I loved the community, and I learned about myself that being a part of a small, creative, inclusive, and vibrant community was very important to me. It took me my college major, a stint in documentary, living in Chicago and NYC, and a couple of years working in digital media to figure this out…a total of about 5 years (not including college). I learned from those experiences that I loved stories, and getting to know what makes a person tick, and how they set and achieve their goals (I also learned about diversity, and that each culture understands and creates their lives based on their culture…for the most part). Finally, I learned I liked helping people, one-on-one in a coaching/counseling format. This came to light for me as I worked on a documentary about the slave trade and white privileged, where diversity facilitators interacted with the subjects of the film. I saw change happen in the lives of the folks in the film…and I wanted to be able to help others in a similar way. Through all of these experiences I began to understand my purpose, helping people understand and meet their potential, and with that came concrete career options.

Option Two

In order to transition from a career in media production to a career in career development and higher ed, I had to get my graduate degree. A graduate degree was a necessity. I knew what I wanted to do with my degree, and so I knew how to find the best program, and once in the program, maximize it. Again, this comes down to purpose. Since I knew I wanted to work on a college campus in career development, I focused on getting relevant assistantships and internships that would help me get a job later on. I didn’t spend time floundering and wasting time because I was unsure of what I wanted to do. I saw this floundering in many of my classmates…they came to grad school right after undergrad without really thinking of why. A couple of them came to grad school because they were “not ready for the real world”. Bad idea. To me, grad school is not a place to figure life out, it is a place to make life happen (because you know what you want…you know your purpose). 

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you have to know EXACTLY what your purpose in life is to go to grad school…shesh, I’m still figuring a lot of that out (because we are always evolving)…but what I am saying is, don’t go to grad school because you are scared of the unknown or the “real world”, or because you think being in a program will magically tell you who you are and what you should do with your life. I think it is a better idea to save yourself the time and money and let life put some stank on ya as you work for a couple of years, have new experiences, meet new people, etc. I know if I had not had those first few jobs, and lived in those first few cities, and met some incredible people (who became some of my best friends) I would not know so much about myself, and be helping others in a way that is very meaningful to me. So, if you ask me, YOU BETTAH WORK first – ha!

Everyday I’m hustlin’ – Work/life balance

Work/life balance. I struggle with this in my own life. I love my job and my co-workers, but many days, by the time I get home, all I want to do is put on my “comfy pants”, close myself off to the world, drink a beer, and watch a heart warming episode of “Intervention” or “Hoarders”. And this becomes my life outside of work. Ugh.

For me, and for most folks I bet, work life is tightly woven into real life. Lots of my friends are people I met at work (and many times when we hang out, we talk about work). My job is typically one of the first things on my mind at the start of my day and at the end of my day. My job is a big part of my identity, and if I do well at work, I feel good about myself. I like to succeed, and get positive feedback…I get these needs met at work too.

BUT…then comes the feeling of burning out. I get easily frustrated, I get sick and tired of wearing a tie everyday, and the thought of attending another mind-numbing meeting makes me want to fake my own death and start a new life…someplace tropical. I find that, along with burn out, I’m lacking two things : 1. feeling like “old Ross” (the guy that loves music, cooking/burning food with friends, and brunches), and 2. inspiration.

Here are some of my ideas, and I think they can be extra helpful for those that have moved to a new city to start their career, and haven’t had the chance to meet a lot of non-work peeps.

Get inspired!

This is critical for me. I find that if I can create an afternoon of looking at, reading, or listening to some kind of art, I get inspired. I remember when I lived in NYC, I’d grab the Village Voice to see what cool things were happening for free during the weekends. I would also check out the free/donation days of museums and visit during those times. One time in particular I remember visiting the Met, and spending a couple of hours walking around with my headphones on listening to Panda Bear …it was awesome! Also, I love design blogs like DesignSponge or pop culture/smarty blogs like BrainPickings. All of these ideas are super cheap or free, and can be done with friends or solo. Getting hyped on some good art always rejuvenates me (and gives me good ideas for work).

Get Involved!

Love puppies? Volunteer at a local animal shelter. Passion for civil rights? Volunteer with the HRC or your local church. I admit, at first, the thought of spending more time “working” was not exhilarating for me…but you just feel so good after donating some of your time and talent. AND you meet some cool new friends that have similar interests. It is a win/win. As you decide how you want to donate your talent, think of things you naturally enjoy and that you are good at. God bless those Habitat for Humanity home builders, but spending the day in 90 degree heat hammering nails sounds miserable to me; I really enjoy working with folks one-on-one advising them or just listening to them, so volunteering for Hospice for a substance abuse rehab center would be a better fit for me.

Remember who you are and what makes you, you!

As an undergrad I studied acting, and I loved it! I have not acted in over 10 years. I miss it. I’ve decided that this summer I’m going to take an improv class, and I’m so excited. I feel like it is a step towards getting back to “old Ross”. Back in the day, when people listened to cassette tapes, I used to make mix tapes for my friends – I love to share music. I still make mixes for my pals…it is kind of an art form to me and it makes me feel more like myself. Also, schedule time to hang out with your friends, even if it is for a quick call. Connecting with your core buddies reminds you of who you are and what life is really all about (relationships).

There is a blog I like called Tim’s Strategy – here is  a post with an activity about making an “everything I’m doing list” and an “everything I want to be doing list”…good for reflection.

And finally…

The most important thing to remember is that you want your identity to be more than just your job. Think of yourself as a table – the more legs you have to stand on the stronger and safer you’ll be. If your a table standing on one leg (your job), and that gets kicked out from under you, it will be devastating (and you’ll find yourself on your ass). Create other legs for yourself, it makes for a happier life.

Degree does NOT = great job.

I read this article recently and it really got me thinking. Unemployment has gone global in a big way, and is greatly affecting our young professionals. Working as a career development professional in higher education I see students that think: degree = great job. Not necessarily true. And even if one does gain a great job based on a degree: degree does NOT = keep great job. The degree is just the start, and our job as educators doesn’t end with the review of book chapters, the sharing of good job sites, and techniques for writing a killer resume. To me the real “learning moment” comes in teaching young professional the art of life-long learning. Professionals, these days, will rarely get hired by “company x”, stay with that company for 50 years, garner an awesome pension, and live happily ever after. In reality…you work for yourself. Your current employer is simply renting your time and talent…if your talent does not grow with technology or current trends…why would an employer need your services any longer? Young professionals need to stay “rent’able”…and learn how to maximize and grow their skills and talent to get a really high rate for their hourly pay!

Here are some things I’ve learned about staying relevant, appealing to employers, and scoring a sweet “hourly rate” (salary):

1. Stay current. What is the latest in your industry? What is the next “big thing”? Who are the movers and shakers in your industry? What is a need that can be  filled in your field? All of this is a MUST KNOW as a professional. So…how do you stay on top? There are many ways. Professional associations. LinkedIn groups. Blogs. Not sure how to find these resources? Well…there is this thing called Google, and if you type in a search, it will give you relevant info – ha! For example, if you are looking to find some thought leaders in journalism on Twitter, you can type in “journalists, Twitter” and Google will give you some great places to start. No lie. I know this sounds obvious, but I spend a lot of time answering questions from young professional that a quick Google search would have answered.

2. Stay connected. This directly relates to the “stay current” rule. If you meet or collaborate with others in your field, you are absolutely going to learn something. Not only will you learn industry specific info, but you will also learn of other professional opportunities that can help you grow (and maybe even grow the green in your wallet).

Who are your professional advisors? Mentors? Don’t have any? Make some! Every company has a board of directors to help guide them and set goals. You should too! These advisors will be able to provide resources, advice, and encouragement. If you love your company, but feel there is nowhere to grow, connect with a leader in your company and ask her/him to grab some coffee for a quick info meeting. Pick his/her brain! How did s/he get started? What resources do they use to stay on top?

3. Have Enthusiasm. This is pretty simple. If you love your work, you will be excited about it. That excitement, that enthusiasm, will shine through not only in your attitude, but in your passion to learn more and grow in your field. Other professionals (ESPECIALLY YOUR BOSSES) will notice this, and trust me, everyone loves to work with someone that is not only good at their job, but enjoys it. If you can’t find the joy in your current work…maybe you should strongly consider doing something different.

4. Have a killer work ethic + don’t be a hater. I don’t know about you, but I know the folks at my job that come in late, leave early, turn in crappy work, and spend their lunch breaks complaining about how much their job sucks. DON’T BE THAT PERSON. No one likes a hater. Want respect and autonomy in your job? Make sure you work hard. Again, if you like your work this will come to you pretty naturally.