Stay on the Main Road

The local Trappist Abbey near McMinnville, Oregon is a peaceful retreat for contemplation, surrounded by a beautiful forest and some great hiking trails. Even though the Abbey is nearby, I had not gone there before, so my husband and I set off to explore the woods at mid-day.

Wouldn’t you know it, we had not gone a mile into the woods before we got lost. We dug out the map and turned it upside down and sideways trying to find our way. Yes, we had a map and still got lost! We were on a tiny side trail. We could not find the main road!

All the trails seemed to lead up the mountain, where a shrine is situated overlooking a bucolic valley, so we wandered on.

We slogged upward, through the muck that was a stream running down the middle of the path.

We trekked through the thicket where poison oak was lurking.

Finally, after traipsing up what was essentially a Billy goat trail, we found a spot that matched the map. We were only a third of the distance to our destination, and we had wasted time and energy. It was January, so the sunlight would not last long.

Do you remember in the movie The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy is advised to “follow the yellow brick road?” Or do you remember in The Hobbit when Frodo Baggins wanders off the main trail and is captured by giant spiders? In folklore, we are frequently admonished by the sages to “stay on the main path.” Why stay on the main road, though? Isn’t all the adventure in blazing your own path and being an iconoclast?

Of course, there is a business metaphor here. In the business world we frequently hear about the merits of blazing your own path—and I believe that advice is sound, because mistakes and mishaps help build business savvy.  To do something great and truly break through may require you to chart your own course.

But it’s useful to reflect on when you want to blaze you own trail and when you want to follow a proven path. Here’s my advice: When you want to differentiate your services and products from the competition, blaze. But in areas—such which office tools you use—that are not as critical, visible or of high-value to your customers, follow the main road.

After this hiking adventure, I can confirm that by staying on the main road, you can:

  • Get to your destination sooner. Oh, sure, there are shortcuts to quick riches offered daily, but, at least in my experience, you really do have to put in the hard work and long hours in order to gain real insight.
  • Ask for and receive assistance. This is because there are others who are on the main road. It’s reassuring to see fellow hikers coming down the hill as you come up. They’ll tell you “Just a little farther,” or “It’s worth the effort,” and you’ll re-double your efforts.
  • Avoid unnecessary dangers, like poison oak and washouts. When you get off the main path, there are unknown dangers that can slow you down. We came across someone out letting their dogs romp off the leash, eager to jump up on us.
  • Have the safety of guardrails, traffic signs and exit ramps. When you leave the main trail, you may be confronted by a fork where there are two equally bad options. On the main trail, you have the peace of mind of knowing where you are going. You can focus on the beautiful scenery, instead of worrying about if this fading trail is going to end at a cliff.
  • Continually orient yourself to the map. When you leave the trail, you are making it up as you go. On the main road you know where you are and you have less stress.

It’s true that simply doing what everyone else does is not always the best course. A fresh perspective, a new approach, or an alternative viewpoint is often valuable. On this adventure we had an enhanced feeling of accomplishment when we found the shrine at the top and drank in the view, knowing that we’d done things a little differently. We certainly gave ourselves a bigger challenge. But I’m not sure you could argue that we added value, and that’s the question that sparked this post.

 

Library Drove Massive Revenue Increase in ’90s – Lesson Applies Today

Author: Mike Reid
Storyteller: Jim O’Conner, Head Librarian, Kennametal in ’90s

True Story – Several years ago, the CEO of Kennametal, a company with advanced metal cutting technology, had dinner with the CEO of General Motors. This was during the time that the Saturn automobile manufacturing plant was being established. In the course of the meal, Kennametal’s CEO said that he could guarantee in writing that none of his competitors would ever have metal-cutting technology more advanced than Kennametal’s.

The GM CEO was stunned, as this was such a strong and unequivocal claim and he asked the Kennametal CEO how he could be so sure.

The response was as strong as the claim. The CEO explained that his corporate library had:

  • Huge databases with scientific and technical peer-reviewed literature, grey literature, technical reports, patent information, and more, all updated monthly or faster.
  • Automatic “Current Awareness” services that let information professionals monitor the latest technical advances with full access to the right information.
  • The latest thinking from world-class experts collected from technical conferences around the world.

Kennametal’s CEO continued to explain he had created a culture where materials scientists, physicists, and engineers were all closely aligned with his information professionals.  The information professionals were expert in efficiently finding and delivering relevant content to help avoid known problems. The information professionals help select optimal development paths, and allow the company to be “smarter and faster” from design through development, to product delivery, maintenance, and operations.

The Kennametal CEO was pitching the impact and value of the library to the CEO of General Motors.

From this interaction, Kennametal successfully won the only “sole-source” contract for GM’s Saturn plant. As the only cutting tools vendor for the Saturn, Kennametal’s revenue growth was in the tens of millions of dollars.

To truly be Future Ready, you need an information professional. It’s that simple.

Direct Your Career Progression

Take an active, hands-on role

To effectively direct your career, you don’t want to always trust “the universe” to provide an invisible hand that guides you. Yes, your boss may love your work and give you a boost when you need it, but what happens if that boss moves, transfers, or retires? Then you have to prove yourself all over again.

To maximize your professional development, you need to plan for the next phase of your career. I like to think of career development as a double funnel, because it provides a useful model. The idea behind the double-funnel is that there are a lot of different paths into a profession and, once you have a few years of experience, there are opportunities to continually re-invent your career.

This model holds true whether you are a graphic designer, web developer, technical writer, engineer, etc.

Consider the graphic below

On the left, the funnel points in, showing there are lots of different paths into a career. I’ll use a library career as the example. Put three librarians in a room and you might have three different paths into the profession: a volunteer, a teacher, or literary agent, for example, could each become a professional librarian.

Funnel #1

When you launch your career at the junior level, you’re in the pipeline and can reasonably expect to keep moving through the pipeline by taking on additional responsibility. There is a clear, discernible progression from Librarian I to Librarian II and III. Life is good. Early on, you are developing your substantive expertise, learning the ropes, and building your organizational muscle. You don’t have time for a lot of career angst as you are getting a grasp of  how the levers and pulleys of your profession work.

The good news is that after you’ve been employed in this progression for some time, you’ll have a deep understanding of the technical components of your job. You’ll understand how to be effective in your organization, and you’ll invariably have some wins under your belt. Eventually though, you’ll get a little restless, and anxious to move into new challenges. Remember how alive you felt when you were learning things every day and really pushed yourself?

Funnel #2

When you reach the middle of the pipeline, you’ll begin to see additional challenges that you could take on, with some additional effort. At the middle of the pipeline illustration, you’ll see three key words: training, school, or volunteer. These are the three classic ways to get the credentials you’ll need to emerge on the right side of the funnel into your new position. If you start early, you can make the change happen.

For example, do you need an MBA to become a manager in your organization? Go back to school and earn that degree. Need leadership experience? You could become active in in your professional organization and gain valuable networking and leadership expertise that way. Or, you could vacuum up every management training opportunity at your workplace. Personally, I took the route of volunteering in SLA and have benefited with a much wider perspective of my profession.

Maybe you want to be an entrepreneur? While you are in the pipeline, reach out for the networking, training, or education that would steer you there. Perhaps a mentor could help you pick the courses you need, or steer you to different experts that can help. You’ll definitely want to talk to the Small Business Administration.

Now, because of your vision and focus, you’ve graduated to the right side of the pipeline as a manager, director, business analyst, project manager, specialist, etc.

A new funnel

The power of the double-funnel model (patent pending!) is that you will find that you’ve graduated to the left side of another pipeline–that is that you are at the inception of another progression. And now you know what to do – dig in, learn the ropes, and expand your network!

Get Yourself Into the Race

 re·sil·ience

Pronunciation: \ri-ˈzil-yən(t)s\

Function: noun

Date: 1824

1 : the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress
2 : an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change

In anticipation of a presentation I will be giving, I talked with Kim Dority about the essential ingredients for a successful information professional. Without hesitation, she said “resilience.”

I nodded to myself and added it to my PowerPoint presentation. But since then, I’ve been thinking: what does resilience really mean? It could mean that, like a punching clown, when you get knocked down, you have the wherewithal to get back up again. Certainly, this is a good trait as it takes character to “get back in the race”, but when you are down, you know there’s got to be a better way. 

Last week I heard a sustainable energy engineer talk about “building resilience into a system.” He was saying that rather than optimizing a system, you could increase strength and increase the possibility of success through building alternative pathways. Alternative pathways to success –now that is very relevant to the information professional right now. 

So, I asked Kim for a little more insight on her version of resilience, and here’s her take on it: 

“The ability to “get back up” is a part of the definition of resiliency, and especially speaks to issues of character and determination and confidence. But I also think that an ability and willingness to learn from our experiences, good and bad, is what turns the “getting back up” into making forward progress toward wisdom, and greater success, however one defines it.”

 Resiliency to Kim means:

  • Ability to get back up when life knocks you for a face-plant
  • Ability to accept setbacks as a natural and welcome part of growth, rather than as a sign of failure – it means you’ve got the courage to try new things, which is requisite to achieving anything in your life
  • Ability to move beyond comfort zones in order to respond to new opportunities
  • Ability to manage our usual reaction to change – i.e., fear or defensiveness – and instead embrace the adventure
  • Ability to see obstacles as momentary delays, for which you will seek alternative solutions. The engineer’s “alternative pathways,” are an on-target analogy

Kim continued with a good metaphor: body surfing, which has passive and active components. “I liken resiliency to body surfing, where your goal is to use the energy of the wave to achieve your goal. Everything I need to know I learned bodysurfing in Southern California… 

  • Anticipate
  • Position for opportunity
  • Paddle like crazy
  • Enjoy the ride, but know it will end
  • Don’t take the sand in your suit personally
  • Know that a new wave is always on the way

 That’s kind of how I think about resiliency! I think its critical issue for information pros!”

Phenomenal results

In a fit of New Year’s reflection, I’ve been wrestling with how to make a more positive impact, you know, on the world. I’ve been a vegetarian (technically, a pescetarian—the fish-eating kind) for thirty years, because that diet is lower on the food chain and  therefore better for the earth. So, I’m committed. But, I’m also an American and Americans use 25% of the world’s resources.

Possibly like you, I’ve been taking a few tentative steps to see what more I can do in terms of sustainability, but I’m nervous about the the guilty feelings of living in an oil-dependent world and having to adopt a reduce, reduce, reduce mantra. But the more I read about it, the more I see sustainability as an opportunity—with an upside for leadership, creativity, collaboration, and the economy. The gut-wrenching downside of our carbon-hungry world is still there, especially if we don’t act. I’m determined to participate—not just in awareness but in action—toward being part of the solution.

Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded states that “green is the new red, white and blue.” It’s a great turn of phrase that he uses to mean that the US has an opportunity to be a global leader in the green revolution. We CAN reduce the negative impact of our current culture. If we act, and start innovating, we can go a long way toward helping the US re-establish its leadership in the world.

To find out about local opportunities, I hooked up with Darcy Winslow, the principal of Design for Sustainable World Collective. She was previously the general manager of Sustainable Business Strategies for Nike, where I first met her. Darcy, in turn, pointed me to the Sustainable Enterprise Certificate at Willamette University that Anne Murray Allen directs.

And this is the stuff I really wanted to blog about! Anne and I talked about “creating a shared vision for people to enlist in.” Anne and two additional co-authors are working on a book about achieving phenomenal results. Phenomenal results—that’s what sustainability needs. Results that are “greater than the sum of our explanations.”

According to Anne, “we need to approach sustainability through first exploring how social well-being is created, supported and expanded.” Assessing and establishing social well-being precedes technological solutions. An increase in social well-being will lead to an increase in financial well-being.

Anne and I discussed how to gain momentum for the sustainable enterprise through the development of shared meaning and a shared point of view. People desire to belong and to contribute. In fact, the two feed on each other: the more people belong, the more they want to contribute; the more they contribute, the more they belong; etc. etc. Then, leadership emerges from contribution.

From that you have a collective wisdom that builds shared meaning that leads to coordinated action that moves mountains.

See what I mean about new opportunities in sustainability? This stuff is exciting!