Mission Accomplished… Or Is It?

I tweeted this yesterday… but I thought I’d post a few more thoughts today.

I am now – officially – an MBA.  My master’s degree is done.  Like, really for real done.  Sure, class ended a few weeks ago, and I’ve been enjoying the generous expansion of my freer time in the evenings.  But now I have the paper that says it.  Now I have the stamp of approval.  Now I can truly say I’m done.

Well.  Not done, really, am I?  Because every milestone is just that: a measure of progress towards some greater destination.  They don’t call it “commencement” because it’s the end of something, now do they?  That would be more like a “concludement” or something. 

 That means, ideally, this is a time not merely of reflection but a time of anticipation, a time of looking forward, a time of planning.

For me, that will mean a lot of things. Continue reading

A Farewell, Hieing for New Opportunities

I’ve mentioned here before that I am near the end of my MBA.  In fact, my last class was last week, and all that remains now is to collect my sheepskin.

Getting an MBA was always about how best to provide for my family, how best to take my career in a direction that would allow me to be the best father I could be.

That means a lot of things, to me.  But one thing I have known it would mean, most probably, is a change in employment.

Friday past was my last day at my previous employer.  Yesterday was the first day with a new employer, and a new post-MBA career.   It was difficult to make this decision.  On one hand I knew I needed to make a career transition in order better to provide for my family – both now and in the future.  On the other, I was working with a great team of folks – including a boss who’d lent me his own copy of The Silmarillion to read.  (I didn’t quite finish it before I had to give it back on Friday.)  It’s difficult to part ways with a team where you feel welcomed – especially when your boss is a fantasy reader and you happen to be a fantasy reader and writer yourself. 

But my family comes first.  And so I made the best decision I could.

I’m very excited for the new career prospects ahead of me.  It should allow me to take the skills I’ve developed – both those in my career and some of those in my MBA – and apply them in a new and interesting way.  I’m really looking forward to the new opportunity.  It’s really going to be a fun job.  And while I try not to disclose too much about the companies I work for, I can tell you this: there is a non-zero chance that you – yes you – will enjoy the benefits of my handiwork in the coming year, based on this new job.  That’s what’s really exciting about it: clear and direct results that I can trace directly to what I do.

Of course, that does mean there’s going to be a bit of a transition period for me.  So I won’t be able to say for sure whether I can settle on a regular blogging schedule until I have a better feel for the work-load and balance with this new direction of my career.  That’s just a potential caveat to you regular and regular-ish readers.  (No, the blog isn’t going away, that’s not what the “Farewell” in the title refers to.)

So, it’s an exciting time for me.  I’m really looking forward to where things go from here.

Whatever happens next, though, one thing is for sure: I’ll still be writing.

Rocks in a Jar

I haven’t talked much about writing, lately.  Nor have I said much of anything that touches on the primary theme of this blog: balancing a busy life of work, school, family, and church to find and make time for writing.

I’ve been thinking about that theme lately.  It’s one of the reasons I started this blog.  I was about a year and a half into 3-year MBA program, and I hadn’t done any writing except for reports and term papers.  And even before I started on my MBA, I hadn’t done any creative writing since the disaster a little over a year earlier.  But the itch had returned with a vengeance.  I felt the need to be writing creatively again.

And so, the idea for this blog was born Continue reading

Personality Tests: “Birkman” for Writers (Part 1)

Note: this is part one.  Read Part two here, and an additional addendum here.

Personality Tests

One of the interesting sidelights of the MBA experience, for me, has been my new exposure (and newfound appreciation for) Personality Tests.  Most of you have heard of the Myers-Briggs test, and the different types.  Most of us even use Myers-Briggs terminology when we describe ourselves: that being whether we are an extrovert or an introvert (though we typically use the terms differently from the way Myers-Briggs means it).  

I don’t know about  you, but I personally have a love-hate relationship with the Myers-Briggs.  I find the concepts intriguing, but the execution and classification to be dense and misleading.  Considering how popular it is, the somewhat misleading nature of the test can be dangerous if employed in the workplace, for instance.  It’s also been my experience that the Myers-Briggs is not, shall we say, as fixed as the creators would have you believe.  I’ve seen my MBTI-type change over time, depending on my mood at the time of the test.  There is just something left to be desired by this overly simplistic classification system.

Introducing the Birkman

So, I was initially skeptical when introduced to the “Birkman Method” in connection with the MBA program I’m in.  It’s just another way for someone to think they know me when they don’t know me, I reasoned.  But, I’ll be honest again, with my Birkman report in hand, I think I’m converted to the potential value of tests like this.  I can even see how this would be useful if deployed within a proper context within the workplace.  I can even see how I can use this tool as a writer. Continue reading

Who Wants to be a S.T.A.R.?

So, you know what I do when I’m not at work on the day job crunching numbers, in class learning MBA-ninjutsu, at home studying MBA-ninjutsu, or fulfilling my role as a husband, father, and provider?

I write stories!

But these days, it’s not the kind of stories you think, mostly.  Instead of winged mythical beasts, young heros answering the call to adventure, sage advisors, evil warlords, and fantastic magical journeys, the stories I’m working on are a little more mundane, a little more personal, and a little more pertinent to my immediate future.  I’m writing “S.T.A.R.” stories.

What’s a “STAR” story, you ask?  Why, I’m glad you asked, for it is the purpose of this blog post to answer that very question.

STAR, I learned, stands for “Situation, Task, Action, Resolution”.  It refers to the preferred format for answering certain kinds of “behavioral interview” questions.  That’s the kind of question you get in an interview that starts out like “Tell me about a time in your last job when you had to do X…”

Answering a question in STAR format means you summarize the experience in an easily digested nugget that gets to the heart of the capability you’re trying to demonstrate.  Need to prove you can handle difficult customer interactions?  There’s a STAR for that.  Need to demonstrate that you can meet the needs of high-powered corporate execs?  There’s a STAR for that. 

The way you do this is to start by giving a very short, 15-second run-down of the “situation” you faced.  This is the set-up of the story: the background details. You take the interviewer’s “Tell me about a time when X…” and you run with it.  “X happened when I faced Y situation.”  Then segue into “Task”: this is what you had to do in order to deal with X problem in Y situation.  This is just a quick primer, kind of like foreshadowing, to tell the interviewer where you’re going with this.  Then you get down to the meat of the story, your “Action”.  This is where you describe, in some detail, what you actually did to handle that situation.  In a 2-minutes-or-less interview response, this is where you’ll spend most of your time, 30-seconds to a minute, most likely. And it has be to specific to what you did, not what your team did or what your boss ordered you to do or anything like that.  Spin it personal (but keep it factual).  The action is your story’s climax.  Finally, you bring the story to it’s denouement, by revealing the “Result”: what happened as a result of your action.  Did what you do bring about a change?  Did it have a financial impact?  Did it impress your supervisors or peers?  Did it land you a promotion?  Quantifiable results are better.

These STAR stories are much harder to write in practice than they are to describe.  Frankly, most of us don’t keep detailed notes about what we did on the job, and when.  Some of us have just enough foresight to be regularly updating our resume with our current job duties.  But unless you’ve been trained to look for these sorts of story-worthy experiences ahead of time, you’re not keeping track of them.  And by the time you get around to remembering and writing these stories in preparation for interviews, it’s usually too late to dig up some quantifiable impact measures.

This is the place in which I find myself.  I’ll be expected to master the STAR format before impending Alumni Mock-Interviews (where we will practice our interviewing skills).  If I show poorly… well… that’s not good for me.  But I’m having a lot of trouble with these stories.  I realize that I need to write them ahead of time – partly because I’m a better writer than I am an off-the-cuff speaker, and partly because it’s been tough to come up with viable examples from my work and educational history that can work to answer some of these questions.  Preparing in advance is the only way this can work.

But, then I sit and I think and I ponder, and I just can’t figure out how to answer a question like “Tell me about a time when you failed.  How did you handle that?”  It’s a barbed question, and you know it’s barbed from the get-go.  The interviewer isn’t setting you up to look like an ass – they just want to know that you can learn from your mistakes and improve the next time.  But… sometimes our mistakes aren’t so easily distilled to a 60-second soundbite.  And what we learn from them can fill volumes.  And, more often than not, those mistakes are personal, and not professional in nature at all.  And most mistakes… well… you just can’t talk about them in polite company.

A lot of time is spent in MBA school learning a lot of the hard “quant” skills that MBAs are so famed for.  But the hard stuff isn’t really, well, the “hard” stuff.  The really difficult things that you learn are these supposed “soft” skills.  They’re so tough to master because there’s no formula for getting the right answer.  But really, there is a right answer.  And there’s a wrong answer.  Good luck finding your way there, because the only way to find it is to learn it by experience.

So… Alumni Mock Interviews are coming up soon – on July 31st.  I better get cracking!

The Sum of All Midterms

It turns out, only one of my midterm exams was this week.  The other, for my Wednesday class (“Leading People and Organizations”) won’t be for another couple weeks.

That’s actually kind of nice.  Only one test to cram for in a week.  I’m not sure how well I did on the test for Managerial Accounting – I mean, I think I did well, but I’m not sure how well.  As in… did I do very well or just okay?

As it turned out, I opened the test to look at the first problem, and was stumped right away.  I thought I had prepared well.  But there it was, the first question, mocking me.  “There are two different ways to calculate X.  Calculate X using both methods.”  Wait.  There are two ways to calculate X?  Crap.  I only remembered one way to do it.  No matter.  After a moment of thinking, I tackled the problem logically.  First, let’s calculate using the way I already know how.  Then, let’s break the problem down to decompose what the other method must be, and do that.  I still wasn’t sure, though, so I later went back and recalculated the problem a third way, just to check my work.  When the third method turned out identical to my second method, I felt more confident that I had done it right.

But the knot of worry that the first problem put in me stayed with me the whole test.  Most of the other problems failed to stump me quite so thoroughly as the first problem, but I was wary.

Anyway, it’s over, and now the waiting game.  My goal this semester has really been to get top marks again.  I haven’t done that in several semesters.  In fact, I think the last time I got top grades in both my classes for that semester was in the Spring of 2009 – so it’s been over a year.  Like I’ve said before: I’m in a different caliber of school, here.  My program is chock full of really smart people.  And being a really smart person among a cohort of really smart people kind of means you’re suddenly average, in a way.  At least as far as the people I’m interacting with, this now holds true.

Even though it’s my goal to get top grades in both classes this semester (honestly, that has never not been my goal, but I’ve grown accustomed to knowing I have to do with second-best grades most semesters), I am reminded from time to time that my real goal needs to be focused on preparing myself for post-graduation.  Obviously I didn’t start working on my MBA in order to remain in the position I have now.  The purpose of this education is to position myself for advancement in my career.  But the education alone will not make that happen.  There’s a lot – I mean a lot – that needs to be done if I’m to take advantage of the opportunity getting this degree provides.  And the time when those things need to be done is now.  Or… in some cases… yesterday.

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Weekend Assignment: Thief of Time

This week’s Weekend Assignment asked the question: what activities do you have to do that take up your time and prevent you from doing other important things that you’d rather be doing?

My gut, instinctual answer, of course, is: well yeah, my day job!  That’s not really fair, though.  It’s no secret that my current field is not the field I want to pursue for a long-term career, and I don’t mean that because I’d rather be able to write for a living.  Writing for a living is a great gig, if you can get it, but I have a realistic, pragmatic point-of-view on the matter.  Sure, I’d love to write for a living.  And I’m good at it, even if I can’t say that I’m great at it.  Written communication, in general, is one of my strongest skills – both in interpreting written communication and in crafting written communication.  (As evidence of this, I could point to my GMAT scores; I took the GMAT twice, because my GMAT math scores were not stellar and I knew I could do better.  But the first time I took the GMAT my verbal percentile score was already well into the high 90s.  I didn’t see much improvement on the retake, simply because when you’re already in the 99th percentile, there’s really no “up” left.  My written essay scores were similarly high both times.)

But being good at writing and making a career of it are two very, very different things.  Could I be successful at it?  That remains to be seen.  But in the mean time, I have a family to provide for.  And I take pride in my work, whatever it is that I put my effort into.  I take pride in adding value to the company I work for.  So for me, the problem is that more and more I find that Finance is not a field that is really “value-added” for most companies (unless it’s a Financial Firm, which is another story entirely), and that leaves me feeling dissatisfied when, at the end of the day, I can’t say I’ve done something that is truly meaningful or valuable for the firm.  If you’re not doing something that’s really useful to somebody, it starts to drag on you mentally.  That’s partly why I’m working on my MBA, and partly why I anticipate shifting careers in the future out of Finance and in a more marketing or stategically-oriented direction.  Those are skills and fields within a company where I can mentally trace a direct line between the tasks they perform and the value added to the firm.

So, that’s quite the aside, vis-a-vis the topic of the writing prompt.

So, a perfectly fair answer to the question is commuting.  Except for NPR, I hate my commute.  (And since I usually finish listening to Morning Edition at work, anyway, on my mp3 player, I really can’t say that’s a good part either.)  It’s an hour each way, so that’s 10 hours a week basically wasted that I could be doing something productive.  In fact, I’ve turned down a job offer for a job that was farther away, even though they paid more, in part because of the longer commute issue.  Giving up another 15 minutes each way every day is too great a price to pay when I’ve already paid so much.

What would I do with the extra time, if I had it?  Ideally, two things.  Of course, I’d want to spend time writing.  As it is, I don’t have much time for that at all.  If I could pencil in an hour a day each week, that would really boost my story-writing productivity.  The second thing is also an easy one.  Spending time with my family, especially to be more helpful around the house.  There so much around the house that needs to get done, and I never feel like I have enough time to do it all.  There’s the yard and garden, where neglect has caused weeds and things to run wild.  There’s the broken door jamb on the kitchen door.  There’s all these little things, and I feel like a slacker husband that I haven’t already done these things.

Here’s hoping you can find the time.  Happy writing.

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