Getting things done: Do more, talk less

walt disney

My last two days were spent in a workshop, where we were tasked to generate new ideas to keep our business ahead of the competition. The participants were super excited and energetic, exclaiming “Oh! We should do this! And that! And this as well!” With ideas plastered all over the conference room, it finally came to creating action plans to ensure these project ideas come to fruition. All of a sudden, the energy faded. Nobody wanted to step up to lead and execute. There were some soft murmurs and offers to support, advise, or consult, but no one wanted to DO.

In my experience, we spend way too much time talking about what we want to do, why we want to do it, how we want to do it, and what could go wrong if we do it. After hours, days, months, or even years of talking, nothing is done. As the Texan saying goes, it’s all hat and no cattle. Or, as Thomas Edison, who invented the electric light bulb and held over 1,000 U.S. patents, eloquently stated:

Vision without execution is hallucination.

When you’re working in the business world, you simply can’t afford to have endless meetings and consultants talking about what should be done. If you don’t do anything, then your competitors will. And eventually you talk yourself out of a business.

The business school education system exacerbates this problem. As this Harvard Business Review article astutely points out, business schools focus too much on creating and publishing scientific research rather than equipping business practitioners with practical skills. When I was in business school, there were no classes on sales, which is the oldest and most useful skill you need in business. However, there were a ton of classes that studied philosophies regarding investment techniques or strategy development. Professors tend to get tenured because their research is widely published rather than because they built successful companies. Students are encouraged to write several iterations of their business plan before actually starting a business. On top of that, most MBA grads go into jobs in consulting or investing, which involve talking about what a company should do or about which company they should invest in. More business school grads should actually run businesses, whether they are the CEO / co-founder in a start-up or a product manager in a giant tech company.

On a daily basis at work, how can we focus on getting things done? How can we talk less and do more?

1. Eliminate useless meetings: For me, this is the biggest time suck. If someone schedules a meeting without clear objectives and agenda, press the decline button. If someone schedules a meeting with too many people for an effective discussion and decision-making, press the decline button.

2. Reduce consultants: This includes internal and external consultants. I was on a project last year where there were 6 consultants and only 2 doers. That is ridiculous and a complete waste of time for the doers. Move the consultants, so that they either become doers or they are simply informed. You have to earn your right to be involved.

3. Ask for forgiveness rather than permission: People spend alot of time talking because they are afraid to make mistakes. They need to make sure all of the relevant stakeholders are aligned and agreed with the decisions, and then they start to execute. The problem is that often it’s too difficult and time-consuming to align ALL stakeholders. The longer it takes, the less competitive you become. Therefore, once you have the few key stakeholders on board, just go for it. If some people are peeved, then so be it. You did what you thought would be the best for the business and your customers.

4. Just do it: Ok. I recognize that even writing this blog post I am talking about doing something. Therefore, whatever it is you want to accomplish, as the famous Nike slogan goes, just do it.

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How to cold email (and get a response)

i just met you

Yesterday, I received a cold email that went something like this:

“Hi. My name is __________, and I am a student at Harvard Business School. I would like a job as  a _[INSERT vague job title]___ at your company. Attached is my resume. I would like to chat about this opportunity. I look forward to your response.”

I think this is a great example of what NOT to do with a cold email. First of all, I don’t know you, so why would I want to give you a job right off the bat. Second, this generic job title doesn’t even exist at my company, so it’s clear that you haven’t researched my company.

There’s nothing wrong with cold emails. In fact, I get quite a few cold emails from eager and ambitious MBA students and alumni. My response rate thus far is 100%. However, there is a good way and bad way to reach out, and how you reach out can affect how likely and willing someone is to help you.

What NOT to do:

1. Give too much or too little information: In my last company, an anxious student wrote to one of our partners saying that he had a dream last night. He wandered around the corridors of our office and suddenly found himself in front of the partner’s office. He was so excited and eager to enter until he found himself completely naked. Can you believe he wrote that in a cold email?!? Creepy….

Alternatively, giving too little information is also counterproductive. I’ve gotten emails with as little information as: “My name is ______. Give me a job______. Reply to me soon.” I don’t talk to people or refer them to my contacts because I get paid to do so. Therefore, your job in a cold email is to give me a reason to be interested in you. Why should I want to talk to you? Why should I refer you to one of my contacts?

2. Misspell contact’s and / or company’s name: This is one of the worst mistakes you can make, but the easiest to prevent. Last year, I referred a student to one of my contacts because I thought she had a great background and seemed quite sharp. Things were peachy until she referred to my contact by the wrong name, even though his name was in the email address and I spelled out his name clearly in my prior exchanges with her. Nothing says I don’t care about you more than messing up their name. Also, misspelling the company’s name shows that you just don’t care enough about the company. Double check. Triple check. Just make sure this does not happen.

3. Spelling and grammar mistakes: I tend to be more forgiving if someone is a non-native English speaker, but I’m probably an exception. Use spell / grammar check or a grab an English-speaking friend. These simple mistakes make you look unprofessional and incompetent.

4. Ask for a job straight away: It’s good to indicate what you’re interested in. However, demanding a job in the first cold email is too much. It’s like asking to marry someone on a blind date. You don’t do it. In the cold emails, the primary goal is NOT to get a job straight away. The goal is to get the other person interested in you. Once I am interested, then I will want to spend my time talking to you. In a phone conversation, your goal is to get me to trust that you are a capable individual with great IQ and EQ and could be a good fit in my company. Once you gain that trust, then I will be more likely to refer you to one of my contacts. This is a marathon not a sprint.

What to do: 

1. Give them a hook: Cold emails should provide a reason why the contact should be interested in you or would want to talk to you. The reason could be anything. It could be giving the contact an opportunity to talk about themselves and how fabulous their career trajectory has been (people love talking about themselves). It could be that you joined the same student clubs or have similar backgrounds, so the contact feels some sort of invisible tie to you.

2. Offer a (reasonable) next step: Instead of asking directly for a job as the next step, you should ask for something that is still relatively non-committal. Ask the contact for a 30 min chat. Make sure that the chat is for you to learn about them and them to learn more about you.

3. Personalize the email: I hate receiving emails where you can clearly tell someone used a template and just changed the recipient’s name. It feels like dating one of those douchey guys that just call every girl “Sweet Cheeks”.  It’s shallow and repulsive. You don’t want to convey either of those feelings. Therefore, it’s important to make it seem that you’ve done your research on not only the company but also the person you need a favor from.

What happens when your career is stuck?

stuck spiderman

Recently, a friend of mine quit her job. She had been in the same position for 4 years without any prospect of moving into a new role. She had tapped her manager and her internal network for years, but nothing came. In her mid-thirties, she knew she needed to take action before she became truly stuck.

Unfortunately, my friend’s case is not unique. Especially in the 30’s / post-grad school level, I’m seeing quite a few talented, young business professionals getting stuck. They are stuck because 40 and 50 year-old’s in the next level are also stuck, creating what is being coined “the grey ceiling” and backing up the talent pipeline along the way. They are stuck because the company doesn’t get rid of under-performers but simply “repositions” them.

As a result, the following scenarios usually play out when young professionals are stuck:

1. You work longer and harder. To vie for that one promotion (because someone finally retired!), you compete with at least 10 smart, capable, driven co-workers for that golden spot. As a result, you try to get an edge by gluing yourself to the office. If you do end up getting the promotion, then the question is will you have to go through this all over again?

2. You keep moving laterally. You squeak long and often enough to your manager, your manager’s manager, and anyone who’s willing to listen. As a result, the powers-that-may-be answered your prayers for a new position, but it turns out that it’s not up but sideways. The good thing is that at least you get a holistic perspective trying out different job roles. The bad thing is that years later you still find yourself moving in a crab-like fashion.

3. You’re bored. This is the worst scenario because you’re young, good looking, and ready to do something meaningful. At this point, you’ve invested a boatload of money and time into your education, so the worst thing that can happen is that you waste all that potential by sitting idle at your desk, pretending to work while surfing Facebook / Instagram / Twitter. 20 years later, you find yourself still sitting idling but at a desk in the basement with the same job title (and stapler).

4. You’re bored but enterprising. This is basically Scenario #3 but instead of surfing social media sites, you end up using that idle time and potential to start your own gig. Another friend of mine has been doing this for months. He wakes up early every morning, goes to work to fulfill the minimum requirements, and focuses his energy on his start-up. He’s about to quit his corporate job and launch his start-up full-time. Good for my friend, but not so good for his company.

5. You quit. Sometimes, you gotta get out to go up. As much as you may like your company, if there’s limited upward mobility, then sometimes the best thing you can do for your career is to look elsewhere. Another friend of mine did just that. He went from years of being individual contributor to a job at another company that was willing to give him people and a budget to manage. The company and your manager may have the best intentions to help you progress, but sometimes you have to be very keen about what is possible and what is probable.

 

Managing work during stressful times

working cat

For the last couple of months, work has been killer. My former boss moved onto a new position and took a long leave before the new boss arrived. During these transitional times, I not only inherited work from my old boss, but also continued with my primary responsibilities while on-boarding my new boss.

All of a sudden, more emails, deadlines, and meetings all started charging my way. People from all sides needed decisions / recommendations / input while I was still trying to figure out what was the issue at hand. Meanwhile, a large, hot spotlight was on my back as I had to continue running our group before my new boss was fully onboard.

My first reaction was to bang my head against the desk…repeatedly. After discovering that head-banging did not resolve any issues, I then proceeded to take deep breaths…until my desk neighbor thought I was becoming asthmatic. Finally, I took some more sensible steps to manage (and attempt to reduce) my stress.

  • Prioritize: I turned to my tried and true method for dealing with “ALOT of stuff.” I listed all of my work tasks and prioritized each item based on urgency and importance. What do I need to do NOW? What can I push back on? What can I delegate? What can I ignore? I think this is critical from transforming a large blob of work to manageable tasks. 
  • Focus: My inbox has been overflowing with emails. While sometimes I find it irresistible to check every single email that comes through, the key to getting things done is to focus on what you are doing. I started scheduling specific times to check email. I’d tell myself, “OK. You will work on this for 45 mins and check your email for 15 mins.”
  • Negotiate: I find many times what people request in emails can be very different than what they actually want. Investing in a 5 to 10 minute phone conversation to figure out what they really need can be such a time saver. A request can go from “I need every competitor product sales for the last 5 years” to “I just need these 3 product sales for the last 5 years”.
  • Decide: Indecision can generate more workload. A decision may be held up because more information, analysis, and stakeholder buy-in are needed. However, the longer a decision is stalled, the greater the ripple effect on other people’s work. When time runs out, the indecision manifests itself into a series of painful fire drills. Therefore, I find that action generally trumps inaction when running a business. Sound and efficient decision-making can save yourself and others a tremendous amount of work later on.
  • Step Out: Sometimes, you find out that the sky is falling and then more bad news follow, pushing you to the brink of a heart attack. When this happened to me recently, I shoved my computer away and went for a walk (without my phone). It turned out to be a great move. The walk allowed me to not only calm down but also helped me put the situation into perspective.
  • Celebrate small wins: I relish the feeling I get when crossing out an item on my to-do list. I can actually feel a small rock removed from my shoulders. Crossing out items also signifies that you’ve made progress. You set out to do something and you did it. I think it’s important to celebrate these small wins to encourage yourself to keep moving and progressing.
  • Stay Healthy: The automatic reaction to stress tends to be sleep less, consume more caffeine and carbs, and cut out exercise. However, I find myself utterly useless when I’m sleep, nutrition, and exercise-deprived. Forcing yourself to sleep, exercise, and eat vegetables are actually better for your productivity.

Completely cutting stress out of your life is near impossible. Instead, I think the key is how to manage stress and perhaps even turn it into a positive trigger.

2013 Resolution Reflection: Juggling Work vs. Fitness

stronger than excuses

Before making my 2014 New Year’s resolution this year, I took a hard look at my 2013 New Year’s resolutions I set exactly one year ago.  I had five resolutions which were a mix of performing well at work, calling mom, dating my husband, keeping in touch with old friends, and staying healthy (specifically, exercising 4 -5 times a week).

For most of the resolutions, I made a commendable effort with room for improvement. However, I really knocked the staying healthy one out of the park! For almost every single week in 2013, I exercised at least 30 mins 5 times a week. At the beginning of last year, I was a bit nervous about this resolution since I had just started my job, traveled for business about 25-30% of the time, and worked 60+ hours a week.

So for 2014, I’m definitely renewing this resolution and would like to reflect on what worked well to juggle work with working out.

1. Plan Ahead: My goal was simply to exercise 4 – 5 times a week, but it didn’t matter on which days (e.g., Monday or Friday). Given this slight flexibility, I would examine my calendar in the week ahead to identify which days would be difficult to work out and designate 2-3 of them as rest days. For example, if I were traveling to rural Indonesia on Thursday and Friday, then I would designate those days as rest days and workout Monday through Wednesday and the weekend.

2. Convenience Matters ALOT: I am lazy. I hate packing a small suitcase to travel to a faraway gym. The less work I have to do, the more I likely I’ll actually do it. Therefore, I try to make it as easy as possible for me to work out.

  • Clothes: My pajamas are workout clothes. That way, I can wake up in the morning and immediately start exercising. It saves time and effort.
  • Workout Activity: Running is my go-to activity. It’s so convenient because you can do it almost anywhere. Wake up, put your running shoes on, and head out the door. Another activity that I’m absolutely addicted to is these Insanity DVD’s. (If you haven’t heard of this program, then you need to drop everything and get them. These are a series of interval training workouts. Think exercises like jumping jacks, squats, and push ups for a minute each at 3-4 minute intervals for a total of 45 to 60 minutes.) They tone you up in no time. You can pop in one of these DVD’s and start jumping around like a mad man. The best part is that you can take these videos with you anywhere, including business trips.

3. Designate time: During week days, I work out only in the mornings. My workday and workload can be quite unpredictable, so evening workouts are hard to keep. I also keep morning workouts during business travel as evenings may be occupied by lengthy business dinners. It’s important to figure out what works for you and your commitments and then designate specific times for exercise.

4. Keep going: On some weeks, hell just breaks loose. Your inbox explodes, all deadlines under the sun converge at one point, and your mother and mother-in-law visit you at the same time. If you’re not able to meet your goal that week, then the inclination is to quit altogether. What really helped me was to have a “keep going” mentality. If I screwed up 1 week, it’s okay because next week is a brand new one!

5. Remember how good you feel: Waking up at 6am to run for 45 mins is excruciating, but I found it super helpful to remind myself of how good it feels after the workout. At work, I find my mind thinks more clearly and a whole lot quicker (even without coffee!). I also feel stronger, energized, and more confident. Therefore, the next time I wake up feeling like a zombie, I just need to think 45 mins of agony in return for a day feeling like superman.

Personal Branding: In and Outside the Office

trust-me-im-wwcf2b

Last Friday night, I somehow won best female costume at our company’s year end party. The theme was rock / pop stars, and I attempted to be Katy Perry with a blue wig and cupcake bikini top tight pink dress (a slightly more conservative approach that still mildly resembles my character’s wardrobe choice). My victory was solely due to the non-existent competition as only 30% of the total attendees made any attempt at wearing a costume.

While I accepting my prize and company-wide recognition, I had very mixed feelings as I stood on stage under the hot lights. I couldn’t help but think: While this is technically an outside the office party, how does this affect my personal brand inside the office?

As I twirled my fake, long, blue hair, I thought: Do people think I’m fun, or do people think a little trashy? As I adjusted my tight pink dress, I thought: Are people focused on my looks now, or do they still think I’m competent and (mildly) intelligent at work?

I contrast this recognition with that of another colleague of mine. She is the head of our company’s running club. Each week, she organizes fellow runners to a marathon training session. Prior to the race, she even ordered and distributed run packs which includes a running shirt, gel, and Cliff bars. On top of that, she finished her first marathon in incredible time!

Through the running club, she’s expanded her network and created wonderful PR for herself through running. Perhaps others attribute positive qualities to her professionally because of this extracurricular activity. I, at least, think of her as reliable (as she trains with club members weekly), goal-oriented (setting time objective for her race and achieving it), organized (creating and ordering the race packs), and team-oriented (as she manages the club).

Perhaps winning a costume contest as Katy Perry doesn’t quite create the same positive branding effect as leading a running club…

The lesson learned here is: be more selective and thoughtful about activities outside the office to excel at and attract attention for. Preferably, choose activities that highlight your strengths and build upon desirable professional qualities.

On the bright side, at least I didn’t wear this (well, at least the part below the neck)…

katy-perry-cupcake-bra

How to find and do work you love

What an inspiring TEDx Talk by Scott Dinsmore! It’s completely worth 18 mins of your time. 

1. Become an expert on yourself: Understand yourself. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, then you’re never going to find it.

2. Do the impossible and push your limits: People don’t do things because they tell themselves they can’t or other people tell them they can’t. Make incremental pushes to prove yourself and others wrong.

3. Surround yourself with inspiring people: “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” – Jim Rohn. Be with people that inspire possibilities.

Thanks to Everyday Power Blog for directing me to this.