Golden Years

This week I turned 60, which in the Chinese Zodiac means this is my Golden Year (I’m a Metal Rat, to be precise). Despite the global pandemic, and the challenges of having spent the best part of the last 7 months in Melbourne lock-down, I would say that this year I have been more fortunate than many others. For which I am grateful.

Golden Years – Image sourced from Discogs

But with more time for reflection on what this milestone might signify, I have been thinking about the circumstances in which I find myself – whether it’s true that “60 is the new 40”, or is it all downhill from here?

My own father left full-time employment before he was 60. And although he had planned to do some part-time consulting work in his semi-retirement, he ended up volunteering for numerous not-for-profit organisations, for the next 25 years. This included lengthy stints serving on various boards and committees, at times almost a full-time job in itself. I’m sure he found this work to be fulfilling and rewarding, alongside his U3A classes and other social activities, but I’m not certain it’s how he intended to spend his retirement. It seems like he fell into this type of role, and since he was good at it, people kept asking him to do more, and he couldn’t always say no.

On the other hand, my paternal grandfather, who ran a small building company, died before he was 50, so I never knew him. While my maternal grandfather had an erratic employment history (not helped by the 1930s depression and war-time disruption), and was still working in manual jobs until he passed away in his late 60s.

I left my last corporate job when I was 50. At first, I thought I would look for a new full-time role, but the combination of the fall-out from the GFC and an implicit age barrier made that less likely the longer I looked. Some of the job interviews I attended revealed a significant prejudice towards older candidates: either their experience represented a threat to incumbents; or their past seniority meant they were unlikely to be hands-on, and/or less adaptable to new technology and new working practices.

Realising I was heading into self-employment (comprising part-time, contract, temporary, casual, freelance and consulting roles) I decided to reorganise my affairs, in order to sustain this new lifestyle. A key reason for seeking another full-time corporate gig would have been to service my mortgage, which didn’t really make sense. I was fortunate that I was able to restructure my finances, and effectively live debt-free. This gave me the flexibility to do some retraining, and to venture into the start-up world, which is where I was able to apply my skills and experience more creatively than in a corporate environment. This is how I came to encounter new technology and new opportunities in the form of FinTech, Blockchain and Cryptocurrency. And the rest is history (thus far…)

I appreciate that not everyone has the same opportunities; and working in disruptive industries or joining a start-up is not for everyone, either. But I also know that if I hadn’t made similar or significant career changes (and personal choices) over the past 35 years, I wouldn’t be in a position to be enjoying a golden period of my life right now.

Next week: Startmate Virtual Demo Day

Revisiting Purpose

Enforced lock-down thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic has provided ample opportunity for each of us to reflect on our “purpose” – especially if we typically identify our purpose with going to the office or other workplace (and the time spent on our daily commute).

In addition to the mandatory furlough, the inability to do the everyday things we usually take for granted can create some sort of existential crisis. So even though many of us continue to work from home, there is a very practical purpose in having a structured routine (including the all-important daily exercise allowance!) – for both physical and psychological needs.

But this time of reflection also provides an opportunity to reassess our priorities, and re-calibrate what is important to us, once we get through the pandemic. It feels that the paradox of having more time on our hands, but fewer options as to what to do with it, might mean we should be jealously protective of how and where we spend it once we get the chance.

So some of the factors we may consider in deciding how we spend our time and how we define our purpose might include:

  • what have I really missed, and what can I do without?
  • what will sustain me, and what will be a drain on my resources?
  • what can support my personal development, and what will hold me back?
  • what can I do independently, and what will require collaboration?
  • what has engaged me, and what has bored me?
  • what new skills have I had to learn, and what will continue to be relevant?
  • what do I wish I had done more of (or less of) before the lock-down?

While “time spent” shouldn’t be the defining criteria of our purpose, as a valuable (and finite) resource, how we allocate our time should be a significant measure of what is important to us, and what enables us to pursue our purpose.

Next week: Three Wise Monkeys

“How do I become a business strategist?”

I was recently asked for some career advice, specifically on how to move from a technical role to a more business strategy role, within a corporate environment. Like a lot of the questions I receive regarding career development (especially on LinkedIn….), the initial question was quite broad, a little bit vague, so I needed to frame it before responding.

At the outset, I should stress that I am neither a qualified career counselor (although I have done some related coaching work), nor an organisational behaviorist/industrial psychologist (but I have some formal experience of using personality profiling tools, and trained as a counselor very early in my career). Plus I have had a varied career path and some in-depth corporate experience to draw on!

I have never worked in a full-time Business Strategy role – rather, Business Strategy has been integral to the whole of my corporate and consulting career, whether I have been working in product management, market expansion, business development or start-up roles. So while Business Strategy can be defined (and practiced) as a specific discipline, from my experience it’s just another management component or business tool everyone needs to understand and apply, especially on a practical level.

First, my exposure to business strategy really began when I was in a product management role. So I it was part technical (requiring some formal qualification and subject matter expertise), part production (understanding the design and manufacturing processes), part strategic (managing the commercial, financial and market dynamics). That framework continues to inform my approach to business strategy, even in my consulting work – and helps in understanding my clients’ business.

Second, business and management tools come and go; some are mere passing fads, others are the result of changing technology or market conditions – so there is little point in trying to grapple with each and every one, or whatever happens to be in current fashion. Rather, I believe that we should each identify some core models and frameworks that work for us, which can also be adapted to different situations either organically or by analogy. For example, even the over-used Johari window and SWOT analysis can be useful techniques for mapping out markets, customer segments, or growth options. And having some basic accounting, legal and risk management ability is really useful!

Third, a key personal skill is being curious, and remaining open to possibilities. Simply asking the right questions (Q “Why do we do it this way?” A “Because we’ve always done it this way”) can uncover opportunities for improvement or alternative solutions. Without being a perpetual rebel, it is possible to constructively challenge the status quo, to find ways to do things better, more efficiently, more ethically, more environmentally friendly etc.

Fourth, if there was one thing I had understood better before entering the corporate world and management roles, it is the function of teams, the role of team dynamics, and the importance of open communications, pro-active stakeholder engagement, and bringing people on the journey with you. Never underestimate how stubborn, stupid, wilful or malicious some people can be – but often, they are acting out of a position of fear, ignorance or weakness. It’s rarely personal (it’s just business, right?), but it can feel that way. So, whether you are managing up, down or sideways, be prepared to overcome objections, present solutions (not just problems), and get buy-in early on. Making the team collectively and individually responsible for decisions means that they are personally invested in the outcomes. It’s also a way of empowering people.

Fifth, this leads me to the whole issue of decision-making. Companies will always make some poor decisions – but worse is sub-optimal decision-making. Partly this comes from not having appropriate systems and oversight (proper matrix processes, clearly delegated authorities, well-defined mandates, strong governance frameworks, transparent and accessible policies, and documented audit trails, etc). Partly this is a lack of cognitive skills (empathy, self-awareness, communication). And partly it is an absence of informed decision-making (e.g., understanding any inter-dependencies), and the misalignment of goals and incentives.

As a follow-up question, I was asked about some of the tools I have found useful for being successful in my strategy roles. Personally, I think the jury is still out on the value of an MBA vs gaining hands-on experience, or learning as you grow into a role. MBAs have their place, but they are not the Be all and End all of a corporate career.

I’ve also been dipping into a few of the “leading” business text books of their day, that were recommended to me over the past 15-20 years or so (Blue Ocean Strategy, the Long Tail of markets, defining Metanational companies, etc.). While they all provide some insights, and even some practical examples, they feel very dated in terms of current technology, business models, and market environment. Hence my comment above on passing fads…

Even though I worked for major multinationals for over 20 years, I think I’ve learned a lot more from working with and for startups and entrepreneurs over the past 10 years – and to me, that’s where a lot of the more interesting stuff is happening, notwithstanding the challenges of founding a new business. But I realize it’s not for everyone as a career choice.

Finally, no doubt there will be huge lessons for business and corporate strategy as we come out of lock down and it’s how we apply those lessons that will determine the next generation of success stories.

Next week: “There’s a gap in the market, but is there a market in the gap?”

 

Fitting your own oxygen mask first

Before I get into this week’s article, I want to stress that my reason for posting it is not intended to be self-serving, or self-aggrandising – I’m fully aware of such pitfalls, as captured wonderfully in The State of LinkedIn on Twitter. Instead, I hope it’s received as an example of paying it forward. And all starts with some advice I heard a number of years ago.

My erstwhile colleague, Dale Simpson, likes to use the following analogy when coaching his clients on career development, leadership and directorship:

“Be sure to fit your own oxygen mask first”

The reason being, how can you help others if you don’t take care of your own needs first? It’s not about being selfish, but about being present and able to serve others. It also recognises that in order to be useful, we need to work from a position of stability and resilience ourselves.

Dale also likes to use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in his work. Both Maslow and the oxygen mask have clearly entered my own vernacular. A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a neighbour at my co-working space talking about the work he was trying to do to help others become more resilient and overcome trauma. As the conversation went on, it was clear that his own circumstances were challenging, due to insecure accommodation, erratic income and other factors. He had also had to overcome a great deal of adversity and other challenges in his life.

I asked him if he had heard of Maslow – he hadn’t. I suggested that he consider what his own needs were, so that he would be better able to help others. A little while later, I went back to my desk and found the above note he had left for me.

I’m sure once he manages to sort out his own circumstances, he will be a fine coach and excellent mentor, because he was very certain of his purpose – he just needed to adjust his own oxygen mask first.

Next week: Steam Radio in the Digital Age