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Embrace your daemon: Write the next chapter of your life story

A few years back, I led a change to the way MBNA America — at the time the world’s largest affinity credit-card lender — negotiated with its partners (and ultimately with each other inside the bank).  At the heart of it, we learned to prepare more effectively and taught people that the best way to get what they wanted was to help the other side get what it wanted (for both internal and external stakeholders).  It’s my primary accomplishment…and a key component of my professional narrative. 

Since being laid off 15 months ago, I’ve focused on consulting while still looking for a challenging full-time position.  The reality is the job market is awful and there’s a growing trend toward building a portfolio career of 1099/consulting projects.  I’ve been helping companies sharpen their brand and strategic messages, primarily through the creation and/or refining of value propositions, RFP responses, and annual reports.  But I keep running into executive-level job seekers — many of them terrific, talented former peers — who are worried that their biggest success is behind them…and feeling their self-esteem slipping away in the absence of traction in their own job searches.

I invite you to watch this video in its entirety — it’s about 20 minutes and talks about dealing with these kinds of concerns, about wondering whether your best is behind you and about channeling your creativity in a positive way.

I’ve long believed that one thing that distinguishes successful people is their ability to consistently “show up.”  I also generally believe in the “daemons” that Elizabeth Gilbert describes.  I do believe you need to put distance between yourself and your creativity — partly because believing in daemons makes it difficult to give yourself  too much credit) and partly because I don’t want to run the risk of alienating them.

Over at ChrisBrogan.com, Chris is talking about the importance of story in people’s lives, urging readers to read Donald Miller’s new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.  For me, I harken back to A Chorus Line: “I’m a dancer…And a dancer dances.”  The foundation of my story is my ability to communicate quickly and clearly (my ongoing challenges to simplify my own personal brand notwithstanding).  Blogging — something I never had the time to do before leaving the bank — enables me to do what I love…and the research and effort to generate ideas helps me work through my angst.  On my professional side, it can be challenging (but gratifying) to create for someone else, to capture their true voice and deliver something that the client can “hear” and feel as if they could have written or said it.  And yet the thing that led me away from business journalism in the first place was my sense that I could be just as effective in business as the people whose lives I was chronicling.

But how do you keep delivering?  How do you surpass your past successes? If I didn’t appreciate one thing before the past 15 months, I certainly do now:  Creativity takes order and process.  You need to eliminate distractions to give the “daemon” room to enter your consciousness.

There are times when I miss the hermetically sealed corporate offices where I used to work.  As I sit at home today, it’s 80 degrees, sunny, with a nice breeze flowing through my home office.  I’m resisting the urge to stop typing to go shoot some baskets or kick a soccer ball with my kids because I have deliverables.

The truth is, I probably will not resist those urges.  But that break will enable me to create something better this afternoon because I freed my mind and let the daemon in.  I now keep a little notebook to write down ideas when they hit.  In my current situation, I don’t sit through long, pointless meetings and I can try to turn neat ideas into business opportunities (although that poses its own sort of distraction away from the dual goals of feeding my family and doing something meaningful).

I have always worked in a world of real-life deadlines, budgets, and conflicting goals.  I’ve always been successful at balancing multiple priorities and executing on great ideas.  But life is different today than it was 15 months ago and I have a much greater respect for the process.  I thank Elizabeth Gilbert for reminding me that my greatest successes are not behind me…that the path to even greater ones requires me to keep showing up, respecting my daemon, and seeing them when I see them.

How about you?  How do you maintain your confidence that your next great success is just around the corner?

Must Read: Linchpin (the book)

Seth Godin straddled a tough line in his new book, Linchpin.

“Shut up, just shut up. You had me at hello.”

Seth Godin had me at “hello” in his new book, Linchpin.  And there’s so much to love in the book that I’ll start with that.

I’ve documented my struggles to establish a memorable brand for myself, even though my professional success has been based on creating clarity in the face of complexity.

Linchpin resolves that challenge.  It’s on the inside front cover flap:  Linchpins “invent, lead (regardless of title), connect others, make things happen, and create order out of chaos.  They figure out what to do when there’s no rule book.”  OK, I now have the foundation for crystallizing my own linchpin brand.

Here are the seven traits of linchpins:

  1. Providing a unique interface between members of the organization.
  2. Delivering unique creativity
  3. Managing a situation or organization of great complexity
  4. Leading customers
  5. Inspiring staff
  6. Providing deep domain knowledge
  7. Possessing a unique talent

There’s an interesting dynamic at play.  Linchpins are people who, by definition, make themselves indispensable to an organization and therefore should be safe from layoff.  But I suspect many organizations don’t properly recognize their linchpins and might very well let them go in favor of keeping people who don’t rock the boat.  And the linchpins will, in the long run, be better off for it.

The challenge — if you’re a job-seeking linchpin — is figuring out how to highlight those traits in a way that gets you past the gatekeepers whose job it is to eliminate people who don’t perfectly fit the job description.  And linchpins rarely do, because the things they do well aren’t in the job description.

But this book is terrific for that group of people because, I suspect, they never defined themselves as linchpins; they just did the job.  It’s full of great tips on how to be better at it.  And Godin’s passion for the subject is burned into every page.

The problem — and this ties back to my use of the Jerry Maguire quote — is that Godin, who has rock-star status in many corners, is preaching to the choir.  He had me at hello, but it took 48 pages or so to get to the chapter on Becoming a Linchpin as he tried to convince me I needed to become one.  The reviews have been terrific; the adulation virtually unanimous.  But I wonder if the people who would buy this book wanted less convincing and more linchpin “tools.”

But that said, it was worth the wait.  This book is jammed with great stories — at times he could have edited more ruthlessly — and I feel I’m on a streak of three books that are changing the way I’m approaching the next chapter of my life (Switch, this one, and The Checklist Manifesto).

If you’ve read the book, how do you go about convincing a prospective employer that they should make room for a linchpin like you in their organization?

Find a URL that reflects your brand

Have you synched your brand across your various contact points?

As an increasing number of people consider consulting as an alternative strategy to their job search, they’re finding that their business cards don’t serve both purposes (i.e., their “job search” cards are not entirely “on message” for their consulting strategy). 

A friend asked me for my reaction to possible names and taglines for his new consulting practice.  At first blush, they didn’t excite me.  This is a guy whose job search is focused on finding himself a role as an “Innovation Executive.”  Clear and to the point.  When I see job postings that use those words, I think of George and forward them.

So we spent some time talking through what he loves to do and what kind of consulting projects he expects to get.  As he talked, I captured his words (because I now think he can strengthen his 30-second commercial) and typed in possible domain names (I know, I know.  I wasn’t demonstrating great listening skills but I told him what I was doing).

We found something that will work  for people Googling (Binging) his unique value proposition, particularly if he focuses on using other keywords in his blog and on his website.  His company name will work with both his job search and his prospecting for consulting clients.  All in all, 30 minutes well spent and we pledged to talk again in a few days about the taglines.

I took this same approach with my brand.  Once I got comfortable with the bulldog concept, I found a domain name that leveraged the brand.  And then I created this blog  using the same approach.  All in all, I think the three sync up pretty well, although I’m sure I could be doing better.

Is your brand consistent?  Could people find you fairly easily if they were having problems spelling (or remembering) your name, or if they were looking for someone who has your unique skills?

Portfolio Careers: Is consulting in your future?

If you're at a fork in the road between consulting and your full-time job search, keep in mind that consulting is no walk in the park.

So you’ve been out of work for far longer than you — or anyone else in the family — ever expected.  You had — or more correctly, have — something special but nobody seems to be seeing it.  You keep hearing that good jobs that seem to fit you perfectly attracted 200+ resumes in three hours.  And nobody’s calling back.

And now your severance is gone.  Or will be soon.  What’s next? 

Assuming the issue is not your failure to develop a compelling personal brand or effectively help recruiters and hiring managers find you,  for many people, the answer to the What’s Next? question is exploring consulting or 1099 work (and there is a difference, but that’s a different post). 

The New York Times says we’ve lost 8.4 million jobs in this recession and many of those jobs aren’t coming back.  As many as 23% of U.S. workers are operating as consultants, freelancers, free agents, contractors, or micropreneurs, according to the Wall Street Journal.  The percentage of unemployed workers starting companies rose to 8.6% in 2009, a four-year high, with the biggest increases among people 55 and over, according to the Challenger, Gray & Christmas outplacement firm.  The underemployment rate — which counts people who have given up looking for work and those who are working part time for lack of full-time positions — has been hovering over 17% for a few months now.

The trend toward “portfolio careers” — where employees cobble a career together from multiple consulting (or 1099) engagements is growing and demand for high-end temporary business talent is not focused on cost-cutting projects but on driving innovation.

But not so fast.  Even with a great value proposition or skill, it’s not that easy.  First you need to think through whether you have the temperment for the ups and downs of this strategy.  Then you need to think about company structures, the sales process, and a myriad of other things.

Recapturing what you used to make may not happen for years, if ever.   The percentage of new projects you capture will be much lower than you might expect.  You can’t do aa full-time job search and consult at the same time…at least not effectively. For many people, the process of selling yourself is more daunting than a root canal and may require skills that are somewhat alien to those you had when your company was giving you direction.

On the other hand…

The best way to find a full-time job may be through an “audition strategy,” where you demonstrate your value to a full-time employer prospect through a short-term project.  Many people think that’s the best way to separate themselves from the masses these days.

And this may be a way to pay the bills and prevent you from taking a job that will make you miserable.

In the weeks to come, I’ll be blogging on some of these considerations and assessing the market for offering services that help people like you (the ones who have read this far) make the decision.

So two requests.  First, let me know what concerns you about making the leap to consulting.  What do you need to know before making the decision?

Second, if you’d be interested in learning more and finding resources that will help you make the decision or be more successful if you do pursue consulting as a full-time career choice or a short-term bridge to something else, please send me a note at peter@bulldogconsultant.com.

I look forward to hearing from you.