Research Careers Blog

What to do when your trusted employees defect to the competition

Editor’s note: James Pooley is an attorney and the author of Secrets: Managing Information Assets in the Age of Cyberespionage, San Francisco Bay Area, Calif.

nondisclosure agreement In today’s competitive global market, managers know that employees (including really valuable ones) are likely to change jobs every few years or so. Like it or not, employee mobility has just become a fact of life. But even worse than the cost of recruiting someone new to fill the vacancy when a key employee leaves, there’s one big, looming worry that’s sure to ratchet your anxiety up to critical levels: “She knows everything!”

The fear of an ex-employee sharing your vital secrets with her new employer is, indeed, a well-founded one. In the hands of the competition, information about your products, processes, strategies and client base can dull your competitive edge and hurt profitability at a time when every penny counts. Sometimes it can even bring down a company.

For employers whose main capital base is intangibles like goodwill or know-how, the thought of losing employees who have access to information assets is an absolute nightmare. After all, HR can get back a departing employee’s keys and laptop – but they can do nothing to remove the valuable knowledge in his or her head.

At the extreme end, situations like this can threaten a corporate empire. For example, when an executive with knowledge of the Thomas’ English Muffins “nooks and crannies” recipe left to join a competitor, he was stopped by a court. Every business, whether or not it has a secret recipe or highly specialized technology, almost certainly has information that gives it a competitive advantage, and it usually has to be shared with employees who may not be around tomorrow. The good news is there are ways to mitigate the risk.

Having recently completed a five-year term as deputy director general at the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva, where I was responsible for management of the international patent system (PCT), I am very familiar with the fields of intellectual property, trade secrets and data security. My new book Secrets, which explains how to recognize and mitigate the risk of information loss that’s so prevalent in our hyperconnected world, is a must-have guide for executives and managers, knowledge workers, consultants, security professionals, entrepreneurs, investors, lawyers and accountants – anyone and everyone who works with information.

Here, I share nine ways for employers to minimize the risk associated with departing employees:

Realize that no one – not even your protégés – will stay forever. One mistake leaders often make is assuming that, because of either loyalty or gratitude, the employees they’ve trained and closely mentored will stick around indefinitely. But the truth is that all employees – even protégés – come and go. And if care isn’t taken to prevent it, they can leave with sensitive information.

Many years ago, a client complained to me about an employee who left his company after he “taught him everything he knew.” My client was caught off guard – he expected that the employee’s gratitude for teaching him the business would fuel a permanent loyalty. In the real world, and especially the business world, it rarely works out that way.

Know what the law does – and doesn’t – protect. The law protects only trade secrets, not employee skill or general knowledge – but what’s the difference? The skill a worker acquires practicing her craft over time is hers to keep. The same thing may also apply to techniques and information she has learned over the course of her employment. However, if any of those techniques or pieces of information give her employer a competitive advantage, are not generally known and are safeguarded to a reasonable degree by the company, they are likely to be considered trade secrets.

If that explanation sounds confusing or open to interpretation, that’s because it is. Trade secrets can range from unique processes for creating goods – such as the legendary Coca-Cola formula – to seemingly inconsequential details, such as a key client’s favorite wine. There simply is no hard-and-fast distinction between these types of assets. However, if a piece of information – no matter how minute – is privately held and gives your particular company an edge over the competition, chances are the law will treat it as a trade secret.

Clearly convey your expectations to job seekers. Applicants probably aren’t thinking much about trade secrets but it’s still a good idea to be clear about your expectation that they will not bring with them information that could get you in trouble. A pre-employment interview agreement that spells out what prospective employees can and can’t use or disclose from their previous jobs is an indispensable precaution against inadvertent information theft.

Make it abundantly clear to new recruits that their previous employers’ private information must stay private. Promoting a culture of respect for others’ information rights reduces the chances of becoming involved in costly legal battles. Remind workers that there are no advantages to bringing competitors’ trade secrets with them, only risks.

Proactively re-recruit your best knowledge workers. Of course, the best information retention strategy is also an employee retention strategy: Hold on to your key people whenever possible. Proactively incentivize them to stay with your company by ensuring that they remain happy, appreciated and well compensated. Yet also keep in mind that money usually isn’t the primary driver for loyalty.

Happily for business owners, research has consistently shown that creative employees are driven by factors other than money. The motivation to innovate – and to stay put while doing so – can come from a desire for personal recognition, intellectual curiosity and even the wish to advance the interests of the company or the industry. If an employee produces a valuable idea or invention, make it known. Focusing on ways to keep the talent happy will almost always lead to better outcomes for your business.

Take advantage of nondisclosure agreements. As their name suggests, these documents legally bind employees not to share certain information assets (often trade secrets). Employees are less likely to compromise confidential information when they know it’s of such importance that the company has tied it to a document. Likewise, competitors are less likely to encourage new employees to divulge information acquired from previous employers if a nondisclosure agreement exists.

Anyone who might have access to your trade secrets should sign a nondisclosure agreement at the beginning of the relationship. For new employees, the best practice is to provide a copy of the agreement to review and sign before the first day of work. This will eliminate any question of whether the agreement was signed voluntarily, and whether adequate consideration was given in return for the employee’s promise.

Use noncompete agreements with care. Increasingly unpopular with judges (not to mention employees), noncompete agreements can be expensive to enforce and sometimes backfire. The terms of this kind of agreement can range from compensating workers for not seeking employment with any competitor to simply prohibiting competing for a certain period of time within a particular geographical area. (This is in contrast to nondisclosure agreements, which allow ex-employees to continue working in the field so long as the confidentiality of their former employer’s trade secrets is respected.)

Noncompete agreements are controversial in comparison with nondisclosure agreements. Some suggest that they interfere with the advancement of industry, because certain levels of growth and innovation are impossible to reach when employees are restricted from moving freely between jobs. Judges sometimes hesitate to enforce noncompetes because they impinge on the free movement of labor. On top of all this, workers can easily perceive them as roadblocks to the advancement of their careers, hurting company morale. In general, it’s best to find a balance between caution and fairness to employees.

Be sure to directly address the digital risk. While departing employees have always been able to take secrets with them, the chances of this happening have increased dramatically for many companies in the digital age. It’s critical for employers to be aware of the particular risks posed by employee-owned devices, the cloud, file sharing and more.

It’s likely that a social media mindset is present in most of your staff, meaning that they see information sharing as positive and normal. But what’s acceptable in their personal lives can be very dangerous in a business context. Technical controls like mobile device management and network behavior analysis software do help but aren’t sufficient on their own. The best way to mitigate the digital risk is good old-fashioned people management. In addition to the other tactics listed here, technology-specific training and messaging – as well as enforcement that’s visible – will reduce problems.

Take potential security breaches seriously. If you think one of your staff may have violated your confidence, don’t hesitate to determine what trade secret information he regularly had access to and whether there is any evidence of unauthorized access. Investigate whether the employee has exhibited any unusual behavior such as excessive copying, downloading, emailing or erasing of records.

If permitted by company policy and law, make a copy of the employee’s hard drive. Review his files, e-mails and telephone records to determine what (if any) company information has been disclosed outside and, if so, to whom. Only after gathering this information and consulting with legal counsel should you confront the employee.

Your main focus at this point should be discovering where the information has gone, not prosecuting the worker. The most important thing is retrieving the property and preventing it from further distribution. After that, legal counsel will advise you on how to proceed with the employee issue.

Never skip the exit interview. Even with voluntary departures, it’s important to share your concerns and learn about the employee’s plans. The potential for harm isn’t limited to stolen data – simple misunderstandings can also lead to distracting, expensive litigation. If there is no reason to believe that the departing employee has any intent to breach company confidentiality, simply arrange a meeting to learn more about her decision to leave and to reinforce your concerns and determination to protect the organization’s interests.

It’s possible that others may be involved, and a group departure is inevitable. If this is the case, you should seek legal advice as soon as possible to investigate and properly react to the threat a mass exodus could represent.

Profitable secrets falling into the wrong hands really can spell doom for a company – especially in a time when the vast majority of information is shared across the global network of the Internet. It’s essential for any organization that deals in information to actively protect its intangible assets from the watchful eyes of competitors. Fortunately, with responsible practices, secrecy is still possible in the online age.

 

Posted in Employment Tips, Employment Trends, For Employers, Research Vendors, The Business of Research | Comment

10 tips for newbie networkers looking to make hot connections this summer

Editor’s note: Alaina G. Levine is the author of Networking for Nerds and president of career consulting firm Quantum Success Solutions, Tucson, Ariz.

Dining together at a table in a gardenSchool may be out for the kids but for adults, summer is one of the best times to learn networking essentials. With all the time you’ll spend at the pool, backyard barbecues, baseball games and other summertime events, you’ll have plenty of chances to meet new people, discuss possibilities for collaboration (or even employment) and move your career into the stratosphere.

The hottest time of year offers some of the hottest opportunities to network. Summer events give you the perfect opportunity to make new connections, rekindle established relationships and share what you’ve been working on.

Here’s the best news for reluctant networkers: This is one of the easiest – and least utilized – times of year to network. Many industries do tend to slow down in the summer, giving you time to chat with people during their least busy time of year.

And thanks to the summer break itself, most people are in a good mood. They’re also thinking about what they’ve accomplished so far in the year and are making plans to hit the ground running when the pace picks up in the fall. They’re primed to respond positively if you ask to have a casual conversation about exploring the potential to collaborate.

My new book, Networking for Nerds: Find, Access and Land Hidden Game-Changing Career Opportunities Everywhere, offers concrete insight and step-by-step instructions to help even the most hesitant connector craft professional networks that are mutually beneficial and that support the advancement of career goals. Here, I share 10 networking principles to keep in mind during the summer social season:

Look for positive partnerships. Don’t think of networking as schmoozing or something slightly sleazy (like selling a used car). Successful networking is about crafting win-win partnerships that bring value to both parties – it is never about trying to extract something from someone.

Approach networking with the fundamental idea that you are seeking to find out what people need or what problems they have that you can help them with. Right off the bat, this will help you shed your reluctance to approach others with your projects and ideas.

Make sure your umbrella drink is half full. On the spectrum of summertime activities, networking should be on the fun side (with pool parties and fireworks), not a dreaded chore (like mowing the lawn or treating that poison ivy rash).

Think of it this way: It is always a privilege and an honor to have the opportunity to discuss topics that you and the other party are passionate about. So take pleasure in the gift of meeting new people and seeing what can come from the new exchange.

Stay on the sunny side. When you are networking and you meet someone for the first time, discuss only positive topics and steer clear of potentially controversial topics like politics and religion. You want to make a good impression and ensure that your new contact equates you with happy thoughts.

RSVP to professional events with a “yes.” Although many regions host fewer professional networking events during the summer, mixers and receptions don’t come to a grinding halt. There will still be people in town attending, even if they don’t arrive in droves.

If there are fewer people attending an event that can mean better networking ROI. Think quality over quantity in terms of networking. And don’t stress about having an opening line. Just walk up to someone and introduce yourself. The more you do this, the easier it gets – I promise!

Keep some business cards in your beach bag. Don’t hesitate to attend pool parties and barbecues in your region. While you’re splashing around, you never know who you’ll meet. And remember to bring business cards with you to every affair.

While the focus of these events is on fun, do carefully consider the way you dress and behave, as people are watching and making decisions about your brand. Perception equals truth in the minds of the public. If you’re looking for career opportunities, this is not the time to be three – or even two – sheets to the wind.

Host a summertime networking fest. If you’re really feeling adventurous, offer to throw a summertime meetup for people in your industry. Use Meetup.com and LinkedIn to promote the gathering.

You’ll get a chance to make new contacts and hone your skills in event planning and marketing. In addition, people will truly appreciate your initiative to bring everyone together and will take note of your expertise.

Volunteer your time. Since summer can be slow, especially with people leaving town for vacation, charities are often on the lookout for volunteers who can make sure that their mission doesn’t lag behind.

Summer is often the best time to find a volunteer opportunity, which – you never know – might later be converted into a paying gig. As a volunteer, you are able to give back to your community while making new contacts, showcasing your talents, honing new ones and learning about new industries.

Find a fun new group – and keep your eyes peeled for opportunities. While you are taking advantage of all summer has to offer, consider joining new clubs or taking classes in subjects that interest you. What better time to join a kayaking club, take an evening pottery-making class or begin learning a new language?

Any aggregation of people presents an opportunity to make new friends and to network. And since you are all engaged in an activity that you enjoy, everyone will be in a good mood and more open to making and solidifying connections.

Use social media to be social…and to network. In between posting pictures of your family’s summer activities, don’t forget to keep up your networking momentum by contributing value to professional conversations on social media sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

Use your summer break to explore these sites in depth and unlock their hidden potential. For example, take a tour of the underused “Find Alumni” feature on LinkedIn. You might be surprised by how many alumni are in your region or industry. Sharing an alma mater will likely make these individuals more willing to connect with you.

Explore sunny new horizons. As you network this summer, be open to connecting with people who are not in your industry or who seemingly don’t have anything in common with you. Remember, the six degrees of separation theory says that we are connected to every other person on the planet by no more than six degrees – and it’s surprising how often it’s proven to be true!

So, for instance, there’s a very large chance that you know someone who knows someone who knows the head of HR at a company in which you’re interested. Additionally, you never know what information you are going to learn until you engage someone in conversation. By networking, chances are you will leave with ideas and inspiration to solve your problems or navigate your career in novel ways. This has happened to me many times!

Hidden, game-changing career opportunities are everywhere, but even in the bright summer sun they won’t magically reveal themselves. The only way to access these clandestine gems is via networking. So even if it’s not your cup of lemonade, leave your comfortable lounge chair and do some mingling. Tapping into a new opportunity or creating a fruitful collaboration will make a great answer when people ask, “So, what did you do this summer?”

Posted in Corporate Researchers, Employment Tips, For Employers, Research Vendors, The Business of Research | Comment

Attracting new talent to MR

As part of a Quirk’s-hosted and Deltek-sponsored Webinar in May, 2015, Joe Rydholm, Quirk’s editor, moderated a conversation with execs from three research firms that explored some of the issues they’re facing running their companies. Panelists were Jim Bryson, CEO of 20/20 Research, Nashville, Tenn.; Duncan Lawrence, CEO and president of Morpace, Farmington Hills, Mich.; and Scott Young, president of Perception Research Services, Teaneck, N.J.

Young woman shaking hands with a representativeWhile the panelists answered questions around many topics – business efficiencies and profitability; technology; winning new business – some of the Webinar’s main highlights came from conversations focused on gaining talent and creating a positive and sustainable organizational culture. The overall message: marketing research firms are having good luck finding good people.

For many, this message is a breath of fresh air after years of experiencing the struggle of attracting new people to the industry. “Marketing research has a challenge because a lot of other industries are looking for those same talents and skill sets and research can be at a disadvantage because it doesn’t come across as the most exciting career – until you’re on the inside,” Lawrence said. “But once we have a chance to get them on the inside and show them some of the things that are available to them, then it’s a different situation. We’ve had a good run in that area, bringing people in from different backgrounds, and we’ve found that some of our best recruiters are the people on our own staff.”

Panelists discussed their successes in finding the right candidates and the attributes that are the most important for new MR hires to possess. Unsurprisingly, each of the firms find a broad skill set, inquisitive mind, interest in consumers and people skills to be top qualities to consider when hiring. “We look for talents, of course,” Bryson said. “But we look more for personal attributes as well, who a person is more than just what they can do.”

Lawrence echoed this sentiment during the Webinar, highlighting the role curiosity plays in making a firm successful. “You can teach people a lot of things but if you are not curious, if you don’t want to learn, if you’re going to sit on the sidelines waiting for someone to tell you what to do, things aren’t going to happen,” Lawrence said.

Technical skills and a mind for data analysis where not overlooked during the conversation. Panelists made it clear that the ability to understand and take on the challenge of creating actionable information when handling data overload is what separates the strong candidates from the weak. “You are looking for someone who can take a sense of data overload and turn it into a compelling story tied to a set of recommendations and actions,” Young said. “That’s the kind of thing that separates the people who are quote-unquote doing their jobs from the people who are truly taking it to the next level. I think sometimes some of the younger workers may default to wanting to give the client everything, for fear of leaving something out, but the challenge is much more, ‘How do I take this information and turn it into something that is manageable and actionable?’”

To hear more on attracting applicants, weeding out candidates and other topics the panelists explored, check out the event recording at http://bit.ly/1KGbBd1.

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9 quick tips for a successful interview

Editor’s note: Gimhani Gunasinghe is head of marketing and communications at London School of Marketing. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared here under the title, “Start your career with a winning interview.”

Every career starts with an interview. And while it may only last for an hour, it could become the deciding moment in your marketing future. First impressions make a world of difference, so we offer top tips to help you get over your first major career hurdle.

Be prepared

A little research goes a long way. Don’t wait to be questioned on your knowledge of the company you are interviewing with. Drawing links to the company in each answer you make will impress your prospective employer, proving you have looked into their company and carefully considered the position you are applying for.

You are hired!Be courteous

Candidates are often prepared to show their best face to the interviewer, without considering that they are making an impression as soon as they walk into the building. Interviewers know that individuals are more likely to show their true selves before and after the interview, so be courteous to everyone you meet. After all, if all goes well, these could be your future colleagues.

Be confident

It is easy to get carried away with the fact that you need to impress your interviewer. While confidence is good, remember that boasting is not an attractive trait. Keep in mind the true extent of your achievements, and be realistic about the positives you can demonstrate without exaggeration.  Also remember one of the most frequently asked questions in interviews: “What are your weaknesses?”  Come prepared with an answer that shows your human side without compromising your ability to do the job.

Be professional

Your appearance speaks long before you do. Aside from maintaining good personal hygiene, be sure to dress professionally. Different companies have different attitudes towards attire: some prefer a laid back approach, while others are more formal. The research you have conducted into the company culture should indicate the appropriate style you choose for your interview. If you are uncertain, err on the side of formality.

Be inquisitive

At the end of the interview, you will usually be asked if you have any questions. This helps the interviewer to assess where your priorities lie. If your first concern is about holidays or salary schemes, you may give the wrong impression. You should ask at least one question regarding the work associated with the role, before asking about anything else. Also limit the number of questions you ask, and consider the manner in which you ask them. Show interest, but do not interrogate.

Be prompt

Punctuality matters. If you arrive late, it shows a lack of respect for the company and its employees. It also indicates that you are not able to meet deadlines on time. In order to prove that you value the time that has been set aside for you, aim to be five minutes early, ten at most. Make sure you know in advance where the interview is being held and account for traffic.

Be willing

A new role means there will be new things to learn. It is always important to demonstrate that you are keen to do so. Even if your competitors are more experienced, you can make a strong case for yourself by showing your willingness to learn and adapt. For example, if you are enrolled or are hoping to enroll in a CIM qualification, mention this. Your commitment to your education is sure to make a good impression.

Be calm

It’s normal to be nervous. The trick to controlling your nerves lies in proper preparation. Find out as much as you can about the interview process to familiarize yourself with it. Write down possible questions the company might ask and consider how you might answer them. This will be much easier if you know someone working in a similar role, or at a similar company. Your friends and fellow students may be going through a similar experience, so share notes with them.

Be observant

While at the interview, observe the company environment. If all goes well, you will receive a job offer, so pay attention to the details. If staff seem happy, this suggests a positive company culture. If everyone seems stressed, it could suggest poor management. Simple observations will tell you if this is an organization that you want to work for. After all, this is a two way agreement: you need to want to work for the company as much as they want to employ you.

Posted in Corporate Researchers, Employment Tips, Employment Trends, Research Vendors | 1 Comment

Young adults look to experience more with their careers

Editor’s note: Paul Abbate is the senior vice president of Ipsos Public Affairs’ Omnibus Services business in the U.S. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared here under the title, “Can’t get no job satisfaction? Think again.”

Eighty-five percent of Americans are satisfied with their jobs; however most would change something if possible, or at least this is what a recent survey from Ipsos Public Affairs’ Omnibus Division recently uncovered. In the May survey, U.S. Work Place Satisfaction, it seems as if most workers are satisfied with their job but would like a more appropriate salary (27 percent, with women 34 percent), and benefits (17 percent, with women at 19 percent). What would I change? Well probably a more comfortable chair, room with a view, access to more K-Cup coffee machines and an ability to walk on water.

But if these requests cannot be satisfied, maybe it’s time to take action and change jobs. Forty-one percent of Americans think it is likely they will change jobs in the next 12 months, and Millennials top out at 56 percent. Are Americans really fickle, or looking for a change? Whatever happened to the dawn of The Organization Man, William Whyte’s seminal work from the ‘50s, where Americans graduated high school, got a job and then parked their bottoms at a desk or assembly line, and didn’t move until Mr. Pension-profit-sharing-palooza was dumped in their laps enabling retirement in Sarasota, Fla. until dust-to-dust sets in.

We also asked, “If you found out tomorrow you were financially able to quit work, would you?” Only 40 percent said they would stop working, and the remaining 60 percent said they would prefer to continue working.

Say what? That’s not my American dream. Powerball will set you free! I live by this motto. Even my financial advisor admitted under oath that you can’t beat the return on investment from a $2 winning ticket, and all you have to do is throw caution to the wind with the 175,223,110 odds for winning.

The tongue and cheek aside, here is what we can glean from the findings from this omnibus survey research:

  • Employers have satisfied employees but to build retention and maintain greater longevity and loyalty with employees, fair pay and benefits go a long way to mitigating work force migration.
  • Younger up-and-coming workers (Millennials) are looking to move and experience more with their career, and they will be the toughest to retain regardless of fair pay and benefits.
  • There is a genuine desire to work in the U.S. when 60 percent say they would continue even after they are financially well off. Uncle Sam can feel proud.

 

U.S. career satisfaction infographic

Posted in Employment Tips, Employment Trends, For Employers | Comment

How to stop an unwarranted bad job reference

Job search button on keyboardLeaving one job and moving to another can be a challenge but sometimes opportunity presents itself and you find the job that’s a fit.

Imagine having successfully navigated the demanding pre-screening process: You nailed your interviews and perhaps even received assurance that an offer was imminent but then you never hear from that prospective employer again. Clearly, something went awry – but what cost you that job?

At this point, consider that one of the final phases of the hiring process – the employer check of your references – may have been your undoing. “A majority of the references we check are for job candidates who suspect negative feedback from former employers,” said Jeff Shane, President of Allison & Taylor Reference Checking, a firm that offers professional reference checking services, in a press release.

Despite the fact that many companies prohibit managers from providing references, Shane notes that people most likely to provide negative references are former supervisors. “Perhaps a position of authority makes them feel that the company reference policies don’t really apply to them – or that there is no way that their former employee will ever become aware that negative feedback about them has been given out,” said Shane.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the overtly negative references that can be problematic. A vague answer or a simple “not eligible for rehire” from Human Resources can also doom an applicant’s prospects for future employment.

The most reliable way to ensure that your references are responding appropriately to employment inquiries is to conduct a reference check(s). If a reference check confirms negative or inappropriate feedback, you have the ability to take action to prevent further harm to your employment opportunities. One of the foremost options is to have a cease and desist letter issued that will help ensure that the transgressor will stop their actions out of fear of corporate reprisal.

A single bad reference could keep you unemployed indefinitely. Be proactive with your references and have them checked to ensure they are not costing you that new job.

 

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Preventing the jerks at work from dragging you down

Do your co-workers inspire and motivate you or do they bring you down, making it a difficult to walk into the office each morning? It’s no surprise that dealing with jerks at work can be challenging on an emotional level but new research from Michigan Ross Professor Gretchen Spreitzer shows that having toxic co-workers also affects your work quality.

In this short video, Spreitzer provides real-world advice for dealing with difficult colleagues.

Read more about Spreitzer’s research and the consequences of having de-energizing work relationships at michiganross.umich.edu.

Posted in Corporate Researchers, Employment Tips, Employment Trends, For Employers, Research Vendors | Comment

Are you wasting time developing your strengths and weaknesses?

Editor’s note: Thuy Sindell is co-founder and president of Skyline Group International’s coaching division, a San Francisco-based human capital solutions company. Milo Sindell is president of Skyline Group.

Popular culture is obsessed with extremes. Whether it is fast cars, bizarre foods, extreme sports – bigger, faster, spicier, riskier – extremes are compelling. Our t-shirts even boast our pride in extremes: go big or go home. Our attraction to extremes comes naturally to us and our own base brain responses are composed of two extremes: fight or flight. We are naturally attuned to extremes because of the clarity in the polarities of black and white, fight or flight, etc.

This same attraction to extremes is prevalent in the world of leadership development. A great deal of effort is spent knowing and polishing one’s strengths while attempting to improve one’s weaknesses. Once again we act on our attraction to the clarity of extremes, “I am good at this, therefore I’ll keep doing it.” Or, “I’m bad at this, I better work on improving.”

You can make the argument that focusing on your strengths is good for your self-esteem, effectiveness and career. According to a February 2014 Gallup.com business journal article, this is why the point continues to be reinforced. That’s been the whole basis for the strengths movement.

What about the argument for focusing on your weaknesses? Besides a long and outdated tradition of teachers forcing us to focus on our weaknesses, what is the point of that? It doesn’t get you anywhere significant or fast. Meaning, if you focus on getting better at details, you will only marginally get better. If you focus on getting better at being neat at home, it will only last for a few days until you are back into your old habits again.

Where our minds don’t naturally go to is the middle. It isn’t sexy. For some reason we forget about the middle, whether it’s the middle child or middle schools. The first born child and youngest child get all of the attention. Similarly, primary school and the early years are instrumental in child development and high school years are pivotal to getting into college.

What opportunities lie in the middle? The Sales Executive Council (SEC) reports that when you spend time focusing on your middle performers you see a higher return due to the sheer volume of people benefitting from it. Specifically, in 2000, the SEC demonstrated this point by running the numbers on 625 sales reps across 11 different organizations. The median sale was $4.5 million. When they took the high performers (who made up 20 percent of the population) and calculated their sales, the final figure came out to $158 million across these 11 companies. Five percent more would have yielded $7.9 million. The SEC looked at the middle performers (who made up 60 percent of the population) and found them only to be producing $271 million (not quite double the revenue). If this group had achieved 5 percent more, it would have yielded $13.5 million. While high performers achieve much higher sales individually, if you try to squeeze another 5 percent out of them, you are not going to see much. If you go after another 5 percent from middle performers, you get 70 percent more revenue.

We don’t naturally gravitate toward the middle. Take another example of the neglected middle: your skills. Most people will naturally default to leveraging their strengths or putting a significant amount of time into correcting their weaknesses. This happens daily to millions of company leaders when they get their 360s or performance reviews. They immediately focus on their weaknesses and what they need to do to fix them.

Also, in the last decade, organizations and leaders have been pushing more for leveraging strengths and ignoring weaknesses. While this strength-based approach is appropriate when we are looking at whether we are in the right jobs or roles, when it comes to growing and developing ourselves as a professionals and leaders, we often overlook the huge pool of development opportunities found in the middle – the skills that aren’t the tried, true and overused strengths and aren’t the things at which we will never get much better.

Research by Michael Lombardo, Robert Eichinger and many others has shown that effective leaders evolve and grow throughout their careers, whereas failed leaders get stuck in a pattern of overusing their strengths to the point of staleness. We have found the greatest source of individual development comes from the majority of skills that you have in between your strengths and weaknesses – skills that fall in that middle range in which, with some investment, can quickly become learned strengths.

We still need to leverage strengths and quickly triage weaknesses; however, spending too much time on both of these extremes is not going to help you grow as a leader. Overly depending on strengths is not going to make you stronger and is especially risky as the business landscape changes, whereas focusing on your weaknesses will only cause incremental improvements over time.

 

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10 job search tips for 2015 graduates

Editor’s note: Peter K. Studner is president and senior consultant at Los Angeles- based outplacement services firm Peter K. Studner Associates and the author of Super Job Search IV. – See more at: http://researchcareersblog.com/#sthash.WP9kjcM7.dpuf
Editor’s note: Peter K. Studner is president and senior consultant at Los Angeles- based outplacement services firm Peter K. Studner Associates and the author of Super Job Search IV. – See more at: http://researchcareersblog.com/#sthash.WP9kjcM7.dpuf
Editor’s note: Peter K. Studner is president and senior consultant at Los Angeles- based outplacement services firm Peter K. Studner Associates and the author of Super Job Search IV. – See more at: http://researchcareersblog.com/#sthash.WP9kjcM7.dpuf

Editor’s note: Peter K. Studner is president and senior consultant at Los Angeles- based outplacement services firm Peter K. Studner Associates and the author of Super Job Search IV.

College seniors, rejoice: According to a new study from Michigan State University’s College Employment Institute, employers will be recruiting more college graduates in 2015 than they have in well over a decade.

ResumesWith hiring for bachelor’s degrees increasing by 16 percent from last year alone, it’s true that finding your first job may not be the monumental quest it has been for grads in recent years. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put just as much thought and effort into the job search process as they did. After all, your professional future depends on this next step.

Here are 10 things that 2015 college graduates should keep in mind as they search for employment:

Your first job is more important than you might think. As you send out résumés and applications, you should focus on finding a job that allows you to learn about working in your chosen field. That may seem obvious but some graduates are in such a hurry to get placed that they don’t take the time to consider where they want to be in three, five or 10 years.

Your college degree will never be more valuable than it is right now. After you accept your first job offer, you’ll receive promotions and new opportunities based primarily on your accomplishments, not on the diploma hanging behind your desk. The point? It’s important to consider your future goals and leverage your degree in a way that sets you up for a successful, fulfilling career in years to come.

Consider your skills when choosing a field. Yes, all college majors naturally correlate with certain career fields, and you should definitely consider applying to positions in those areas. But it’s also worth your while to spend some time independently considering your skills – both academic and otherwise – and think outside the box when identifying potential career paths.

Many job seekers with whom I’ve worked over the years have been surprised by the field in which they ended up, albeit pleasantly so! Spend a little time using the Job Skills Transfer Assessment Tool (JobSTAT) at the Minnesota Department of Labor’s Web site, PositivelyMinnesota.com. The tool matches your experience, skills and knowledge with possible careers, and lets you know where your skill gaps might lie. Although the actual job openings listed on the site are in Minnesota, JobSTAT is an excellent way to learn about careers that align with your current skills.

Look for opportunity, not salary. Many graduates have large debts to pay off and are understandably tempted to go for the highest salary offered (perhaps you can identify!), but that course of action could be a mistake. High salaries come with high expectations. And if you don’t have enough experience, you could be setting yourself up for failure. Furthermore, the position that pays best now might not be the one that helps you achieve your long-term goals.

Your first job should not necessarily be the one that pays the most; it should be the one with the greatest opportunity for you to learn – not only what to do but also what not to do. Observing a really bad role model in action is one of the most valuable work experiences you can get.

Don’t overstate your experience. Perhaps you held one or more jobs before you graduated from college. Even if those positions were in line with your career path, think carefully about the claims you make on your résumé. What did you learn from those jobs? Can you honestly present yourself as an experienced employee, or will you have to fake it during your interview and hope that you catch on quickly once you’re hired? Will you be squandering an opportunity at a top-notch company by overstating your experience?

It may be wiser to take a less lucrative position where you can admit what you do not know and openly express your desire to learn. Your attitude going into your first “real” job must be positive and proactive. Remember, the organization you’re joining will depend on you. No matter how small your role, you should be able to do your part – and then some.

Make sure your résumé tells your story. You have spent up to 8,000 hours acquiring your degree – don’t drop the ball now. Put as much effort into preparing your résumé as you did into crafting a crucial paper for an important class. Too often, job seekers (whether they’re recent grads or experienced workers) send out hastily written résumés assuming that hiring managers will be able to read between the lines and see how amazing they are. Newsflash: That never happens.

Poorly prepared résumés and other collateral materials will rule you out, even if you are the most qualified candidate – and you’d be surprised by how often this happens. Make sure your résumé does a good job of highlighting your skills, accomplishments, work history (if applicable) and education. You’ll also find helpful resources and hundreds of model résumés at SuperJobSearch.com and on the SuperJobSearch app, which is available for Apple and Android devices.

Prepare (and then prepare some more) for your interview. While the number of job opportunities is increasing, only candidates with outstanding presentation skills will get the plum jobs. Like it or not, most jobs are secured or lost in the interview stage, so put more effort into preparing for interviews than you do into any other part of your job search campaign.

Putting prior thought into how you might answer both standard and tricky interview questions can help you avoid disaster and gain an advantage over the competition. Be sure to rehearse your responses out loud, too. The more comfortable you are talking about yourself, your skills, your accomplishments and your goals, the better impression you’ll make on your interviewers.

Choose a company that aligns with your values. You may not have thought about how your personal values might – or might not – align with your career. But this is essential to consider before accepting a position, because the values factor will impact your performance and your personal fulfillment. When considering an organization, consider questions such as: How do they treat clients? Team members? Might my success come at a cost to someone else? What are their priorities? Will I feel proud or ashamed at the end of the day?

Do your homework. This is one area where negative information can be more valuable than positive. As you interview, learn from the people you meet about the success they have achieved. Their comments can provide you with clues as to how you might feel and perform in years to come.

Be sure to check out GlassDoor.com, which lets you read reviews of companies from current and former employees. Also, Barron’s magazine is a good source of information about many companies. To subscribe, check student magazine discounters (www.MagazineLine.com) for low-cost rates.

Make sure the company has a solid future. Independently, make sure that your research includes forecasts of the company’s activity, product or service. Bear in mind that the products and services they are offering today probably didn’t exist five, 10 or 15 years ago.

Does the company appear to have a solid plan going forward? Are there new products or services in the pipeline, and do they strike you as being viable? Even though you probably won’t stick with the same employer for decades, you don’t want to be caught short without a transition planned.

Look for paid internships. Understandably, most college graduates set their sights on full-time paid jobs. But don’t assume that internships are behind you.

Paid internships, which might last for six months, a year or even longer, are sometimes available to college grads. They’re a good place to learn what goes into becoming a top performer. (These are different from the internships offered to students in return for college credits.) Check out Job-Hunt.org for internship listings in your area, including those at Fortune 500 companies.

Be an active learner. Yes, you’ve successfully obtained your college degree but that doesn’t mean your education is over. In order to build a successful career, you must become a life-long learner.

Don’t assume you know it all – or even that you know enough – now or ever. Just as a company must keep reinventing itself in order to meet new market demands, you must keep developing your skills throughout your career. Those who keep learning new skills on a continuous basis will be the real winners in the long run.

Savvy graduates will take the time to prepare for their transition before actually going out on the job market. You’ve worked hard to get to where you are today – so make sure your focus and self-presentation complement, instead of detract from, the education you bring to the table.

Posted in Employment Tips, Employment Trends | 1 Comment

The benefits of fun in the workplace

Editor’s note: Nat Measley is the CEO and managing partner at The Fun Dept., Philadelphia.

fun in the workplaceTo have fun or not to have fun? That is the question.

Are you curious how companies like Google, Zappos, Southwest and others develop those winning workplace cultures, with such high productivity and profitability? Regardless of the industry, there is a common thread running through the highest performing companies: the inherent or stated culture of fun. Among companies denoted as “great” in Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For, a whopping 81 percent of employees say they work in a fun environment.

If you look closely at the highly successful companies mentioned above, they incorporate fun into the fabric of their culture. Fun at work may not be a silver bullet that produces superior results on its own but a workplace environment that prioritizes fun will rise above the competition. With stout leadership, dedicated management and strong company values, company-wide fun can take you over the top.

Prioritizing fun in the workplace will have a direct impact throughout your company in a myriad of ways but there are a few specific areas that can be highlighted.

Organizational health

Everyone would agree that a healthy and happy employee is a more productive employee, right? Fun can be an important component of emotional wellness. Often, fun is used to encourage participation or bolster existing wellness programs. The attention on emotional intelligence in the workplace and its impact on the bottom line is rapidly gaining momentum. For most organizations human capital is the largest asset and the single largest expense. It seems like a natural place to focus on, considering it will have the largest impact on the bottom line. We have already seen the biggest advances in technology and those investments today are producing marginal returns and impact on productivity. The next revolution in the workplace is culture.

Productivity

Secondly, let’s explore productivity. Do you ever get a break? Are you expected to work eight hours per day, straight with no breaks? Fun can offer great breaks and distractions – not wasting time but true valuable break time. As an example, there is a national call and customer service center that offers its employees a unique schedule. They have broken up their average daily time commitment into on-phone time and quick breaks (dubbed “shorts”). These shorts are sprinkled throughout any of the call center employees’ days. They last 15 minutes or less, during which time employees can play ping pong, take a walk outside or do anything they please.

Look at Google. They give their employees 20 percent of any given work day to simply do what they want to do. And no, that time does not have to be work related. Why? One reason is for the sake of productivity of their work force. They realize that their people are working hard. The breaks are meant to enhance productivity of employee on-time.

Relationships and loyalty

Relationships and loyalty (sometimes retention) go hand in hand. A staggering 79 percent of companies believe they have a significant retention and engagement problem. Losing an employee can cost up to four times their salary, depending on the position. What about attracting the next generation of great talent? The tides are shifting and given the choice most people – especially Millennials – will choose culture over pay. Culture and fun is a differentiator that will give you the competitive advantage.

Engagement

How can engagement be affected and in turn, affect the bottom line? In human resources, one very popular metric is employee engagement – an employees’ emotional and active commitment to the success of the company. Engaged workers are enthusiastic about their jobs. And disengaged workers are not. According to a Gallup survey a company loses $2,246 per disengaged employee per year. Why? Disengaged employees take more sick days. They arrive late, miss deadlines and are more likely to instigate customer complaints. In all, they drag people and business down.

Fun can help. Fun has a 68 percent correlation to employee engagement scores. In other words, if someone perceives their work environment is fun on a survey, their individual engagement score will be affected positively by 68 percent. In other studies, 75 percent of companies observed who incorporate fun into their culture and operation who also currently measure engagement report increased or maintained scores over time.

Yes, it’s true. Fun at work is builds solidarity, connections and an outlet for workplace stress. When designed and delivered at regular intervals with forethought and understanding about what your staff needs.

OK, you get it. So, how do you get started? Remember this is a cultural change not a single event or two so it takes time. Start by assessing your culture. Ask yourself if you see value in fun fitting in and then explore how the fun can become a part of your operation. The next big revolution in the working world is focusing in on culture. Enlightened leaders recognize that the old hierarchical ways of doing business and treating employees like numbers, not people, are no longer effective. You will be glad you considered fun, and so will your employees and your business!

Posted in Employment Tips, Employment Trends, For Employers | Comment