Thursday, July 14, 2011

My work has been published!

Yes, my first article just got published on WeekendNotes. Check it out, and feel free to leave a comment or subscribe to my future posts.

Edit: actually, my second and third have also been published. One of them has a pretty major grammatical error, which slipped past the editors but not past Matt. Can you find it?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

It wasn't a day off at all

Hi there, and thanks for dropping by.

I've just submitted my first article to WeekendNotes and I am eagerly awaiting the editor's response. (Yes, of course I will link to it once it goes live, and you can subscribe to my future reviews.) There's another review that I want to write for the site tomorrow.

I stumbled across their job advertisement on SEEK and decided to apply as a paid writer. The application process was incredibly simple and practical. While I won't get paid a huge sum per article, it will certainly be greater than (or equal to) what I'd earn posting the same review on my blog. My main motivation, however, is that the editors are going to provide feedback on my writing and how it fits with their submission guidelines, which will be very valuable experience for me.

I'm also working on a website for a friend (and I won't post it until it's done, lest you think the current state of the site was my doing) and I've been to a couple of job interviews. So, it's all moving along quite well, I think.

But, yes, I will post something a bit more creative in the coming days. I can feel it building.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Mission critical: why employees stay

An infographic in Fortune inspired me to seek out the original document and explore its implications for companies lacking a clear mission.

The Center for Creative Leadership and Booz Allen Hamilton teamed up to survey 1133 workers in the US between July and October 2010 in an attempt to understand what motivates employees to stay in their jobs. The question they asked was: "Are you in your current position because of the mission of your organisation, because the job furthers your career, or because you are stuck and have no other options?" They also asked about their perception of the organisation and their commitment and satisfaction. They published their results in March and I found the responses fascinating.

In the private sector (including for-profit and not-for-profit organisations), 53% of respondents claimed they were motivated to stay in their role primarily because of the organisation's mission; 25% said they were staying mostly for the career opportunities; and 22% were staying primarily because they felt they had no other attractive options. Results were very similar for federal government employees: 52% were staying primarily because of the mission; 27% for the career opportunities; and 21% because there were no other attractive options.

Here's their graph, which I've clipped directly from the full report (available on their website):

It goes on to discuss how employees that are motivated by the mission show higher levels of job satisfaction (compared to those who are in it for the career opportunities), which is related to reduced absenteeism and better organisational citizenship. As you'd expect, the employees who felt stuck showed less commitment, motivation and satisfaction.

So, what does this mean for a company that has no clear mission?

I once worked in a company where the senior executives were absolutely committed to not having a mission statement. Aside from being a little odd, this made it challenging to see the big picture, especially from the perspective of an employee at the bottom of the organisational hierarchy. (That's if you could find the bottom of the structure: the org chart was another taboo.)

With no clear understanding of our ultimate goal, we set our course and hoped we were on the right bearing. Middle managers tried to devise their own mission from the subtle feedback they were given; something more inspiring than the common consensus: "Make truckloads of money." Our team of honest, intelligent workers were unable to speak up about our poor navigation, because no one knew where we were meant to be.

That was never a problem in my time with the Army Reserve. (The mission, that is. My navigation still had its shaky moments.) Everyone knew and understood the mission; it underpinned our every decision and empowered us to act. We could be flexible in rapidly changing situations because we knew the part we played in achieving our commander's intent. We knew where we sat in the big picture.

I don't know whether the same survey conducted with an Australian sample would yield similar results. The closest I found was a November 2006 survey by the Australian Institute of Management, published on their website. Of the 22.5% of respondents saying they would leave within 12 months, 53.7% claimed it was because "there are no career advancement prospects". Of the 61.2% of survey participants that indicated they would not leave their employment for 12 months or more, 61.9% said it was because their job held "a sense of purpose and meaning". (Don't be alarmed by my mathematics — some respondents were just not sure!) I can't directly compare that with the US results, but one point stands out clearly to me: workers want to know what they're trying to achieve.

That's got to be scary for a company with no mission.


Jeffrey L. Herman, Jennifer J. Deal, Ph.D., Jamie Lopez, Ph.D., William A. Gentry, Ph.D., Stephanie Shively, Ph.D., Marian Ruderman, Ph.D., Lori Zukin, Ph.D. (2011), Motivate by the Organization's Mission or Their Career?, Center for Creative Leadership and Booz Allen Hamilton,, retrieved 8 July, 2011.

Australian Institute of Management VT (2006), What keeps employees engaged with their workplace?,, retrieved 8 July, 2011.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Reading is research for writing

I subscribed to Fortune magazine's Asia Pacific Edition a few months ago, when I thought it might contain some useful articles for an "important business executive" like me. (Yes, that was a joke. I never really fit that image. In fact, I even paid for the subscription out of my own pocket, rather than company funds.) I found the magazine highly entertaining, but I don't think it was very relevant for my role, which may be why I kept the subscription after I left. 

Then again, maybe I kept it because I'm a bit of a data nerd. The Chartist is a one page infographic spread of information about the topic of the day. In the July 4, 2011 (Number 9) magazine it's a really cute illustration of the growth in e-marketplaces that is driving bricks-and-mortar to bankruptcy. I'm one of the iTunes and Amazon users causing that change, and I felt somewhat responsible today as I saw the Angus & Robertson staff at Post Office Square clearing their bookshelves for the last time.

I'm really looking forward to reading about career makeovers, but first I'm going to write about a little tiny snippet of information they've thrown into The Briefing — in another blog post.

In closing, here's another recommendation I posted. It sounds very formal, and is not nearly as lovely as the recommendation that someone gave me. (You know who you are.)

Regarding Ms W

W sets high standards for her own work and consistently achieves them. An excellent researcher, she seeks opportunities to expand her knowledge base and learn new techniques. This enables her to develop the best possible solution for a problem, which she will present clearly in the most appropriate way for her targeted audience to understand. She is both a great team contributor and a strong individual worker.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Words and meanings

Posted today, with genuine concern for their poor advertising efforts:
Dear Recruiter
Thank you for taking the time to clarify those requirements that I did not satisfy — this will help me when applying for other roles, and I appreciate the feedback.
As a writer, I'd like to offer you some feedback also. Your note below that the client is "seeking candidates with construction and heavy engineering experience" has a very different meaning from what was posted in the job advertisement: "If you have previously been exposed to documents relating to engineering this will be advantageous." The former implies a strict constraint, whereas the latter implies that some flexibility exists.
Kind regards
I don't think it quite qualifies as a rant, because I was attempting to give them some useful feedback. I even resisted the urge to explicitly point out that their lack of attention to detail in the listing meant that I had wasted my time applying and the recruiter had wasted his/her time reading my application.

I haven't received another response from that recruiter.

He/she has confused me somewhat, because my prior experience has been that recruiters tend to overstate requirements. For example, I was recently interviewed for a role requiring an "extremely capable and experienced Technical Writer" (which I clearly am not).

What goes up must "bum-slide" down

Living on the northern side of Brisbane means that the Glass House Mountains are only an hour's drive away. Matt told me that he wanted to climb a mountain this weekend and, taking the word "climb" quite literally, I headed straight for Mt Tibrogargan. Our guidebook described it as a precipitous climb that only experienced scramblers should attempt. I had last climbed Tibrogargan about seven years ago and I remembered it as being steep, with a few short sections that were more like rock climbing than scrambling. My memory served me poorly. 
The first few hundred metres of the track were steep, sandy switchbacks that lulled us into a false sense of security. Before we knew it, we were on all fours, climbing up a simple but near-vertical wall of rock. This is the first of several bail-out points. If you can't face this section with a positive attitude, it will get really tough higher up. Above this climb, we got our first spectacular glimpse of Tunbubudla (The Twins), Mt Coonowrin (Crookneck) and Mt Beerwah, and (of course) we paused to capture it on camera.

Meandering a little higher (on something that actually resembled a track), we soon arrived at another slab. I don't like that word, because it sounds safe, like a flat concrete foundation. This wasn't flat, so I think the term "cliff" would be more appropriate, although it was a little less steep than the previous climb. Some markers had been painted on to guide us more safely up the rock, and there was a nice ledge just to the side of the route to stop, catch our breath and convince ourselves we could keep going. And, once again, take some photos.

Once again on a real track, conversation was reduced to exclamations of "Below!" as we sent showers of stones tumbling down onto the climbers below us. After one last slab, we were back in the tree-line and scrambling for the summit. After all of that, the view from the top required some searching and was somewhat of an anti-climax, but the sense of accomplishment was enormous. We stopped for a short picnic of nuts, biscuits and liquorice before descending.

The most popular technique for getting down the slabs is the “bum-slide” and it needs no explanation. In some places, such as the first climb described above, it is easier to face the rocks and climb down, feet first. But overall, it is a lot easier than climbing up, especially if you do what we did and accidentally take a small side track that avoids the highest slab and joins up halfway down the next one, near the photo ledge.
If you finish Mt Tibrogargan and find you still have energy to burn, copy us and visit Mt Ngungun as well. A real track winds up the mountain, past a cave, and stops just short of the summit. A mostly flat scramble will take you the rest of the way. The bare rock summit offers expansive views of the other Glass House Mountains and Moreton Bay. It’s a simple climb for all ages and a fantastic picnic spot.

For directions to the Glass House Mountains and the latest park updates, see Detailed track notes can be found in any edition of Take a Walk in Queensland's National Parks (Southern Zone) by John and Lyn Daly.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

There's one in every class, isn't there?

You know who I mean. That person. The one who always sits close to the front, so that his or her raised hand will be clearly visible to the speaker. The one who will raise that hand every time the speaker asks for audience input, and at any other opportunity.

It's not you, is it?

My first encounter with this person was in first year cell biology. It's a very general subject, covering an introduction to plants, animals and bacteria. As someone who took biology in high school, I don't think I gleaned any new information from this course (except maybe that I wasn't suited to continuing in the field). I think it's a reasonable assumption that anyone else who took biology in high school would have had the same experience. It's almost certainly true to expect a similar experience for a girl who took the same senior biology subject as me — at the same high school, with the same teacher, in the same year. I'll call her Andie, because I don't know any women called Andie, so she won't know I'm talking about her.

Andie's recollections of senior biology seemed to differ greatly from mine. From what I can gather, she was finding new information in our cell biology lectures, and making fresh links to her fond high school memories.  Unfortunately for the other 399 students in the room, she felt the need to share these insights: "So… only plants have a cell wall. Animals have the cell membrane, but no cell wall, right?" "DNA is a double helix, whereas RNA is only a single helix." Yes, Andie, that is correct, as you well know, because you passed high school biology.

The lecturer encouraged her by agreeing with her statements and starting with, "That's a good question," on the odd occasion she actually asked a question. By week three, a barely perceptible groan would resonate through the auditorium when Andie's hand went up. By week five, it was substantially more perceptible. I overheard comments like, "That girl is such a know-it-all; I wish she'd just shut up." Or, "Everyone knows that, man, what private school did she go to?" I'm usually quite proud and vocal about being educated in the public school system, but on these occasions I'd just cringe and pretend I didn't know her.

As I progressed through my studies, I encountered more people like Andie. They were less obvious in my physics subjects, most likely because no one knew what the lecturer was talking about. I remember getting into an argument with a lecturer about whether I understood the material. I was blunt: "I don't get it. Can you please explain it again?" 

He tried to tell me, "Most people, having gained your level of understanding, would presume to understand the subject matter completely, whereas you, in you need for deeper understanding, require further information to fully integrate your learning."  Ignoring the fact that I didn't understand his sentence at all, I was still pretty certain that I didn't get it and he wasn't explaining it well. I told him so: "No, I just don't get it. Explain it properly." Was he accusing me of being the know-it-all? (Rumour has it this lecturer was quite scared of me. I have no idea why.)

I've wondered whether there is a clustering of these types in certain fields of study or work. I don't have any hard data, so I can only speculate. Last night, I added a couple more points to my tiny sample.

I was at a professional development seminar on complex systems thinking, aimed at leaders and business executives. It was a fantastic seminar. The lecturer was incredible, speaking for exactly the right length of time and ensuring that he only covered as much of the subject that we could take away and use after one short session. He also had a knack for dealing with our interruptor by acknowledging, "Yes, you're right," and moving straight into the next sentence before they could speak again.

So, our interruptor… Bob (who was not really named Bob) proudly introduced himself as a public servant, perpetuating that stereotype. Yes, that stereotype. He offered us his insights by raising his hand and shouting it out, not waiting for the speaker's permission. I suspect this is a trait he picked up to ensure he gets heard. His comments started out as embarrassingly obvious conclusions but they became less and less relevant as the night went on. Was he genuinely trying to find out if his conclusions were correct? Or was he just trying to show us how smart he was. If the latter, I got a very clear picture. Tsk, tsk.

Matt, on the other hand, spoke to the presenter after the session was over and asked whether he shared the same views. It made for a great conversation, with none of those cringing moments I had suffered when listening to the interruptor.

Bob wasn't the only interruptor on the night, but I think the others were silenced, or perhaps even flabbergasted. I suspect that Bob served as a timely reminder to keep one's mouth shut unless one really has something to contribute. I shouldn't complain, though. People like Andie and Bob have helped me to repress my know-it-all tendencies and become a less annoying person. 

I said I added a couple more to my data sample. Yes, another interruptor made his way out of the woodwork at the end of the night, and shared his insights with the only audience he could find. Unfortunately, that included me. Matt later confirmed that he had attended lectures with this man, who was a regular interruptor. I'm not sure whether my groan was audible, but something in our clear lack of interest seemed to scare him off in a real hurry.

Don't let it be you.

Monday, July 04, 2011

A (not-so-) little update

I want to start out today's writing effort by thanking Dennis Connor. He is a kiwi friend of mine who has been living in America for some time now. He is supposedly working over there, but I think that's just a cover for his true agenda, which is to convert America to the metric system. That's a noble cause, but that's not why I'm thanking him. He's holding me accountable and making sure that I write daily.

Therefore, I must confess, I did virtually no writing on Friday. Instead, I attended INITIATE The Future at the University of Queensland. The conference is aimed at young leaders. I'm pretty sure I used to fit into that category, but now I wouldn't use either of those words to describe myself. I found the website while searching for Writers' Festivals (a very tenuous link, I'm afraid) and sent it to Matt to see if he was interested. His work deemed it appropriate professional development, so we spent the day together at The University of Queensland (UQ).

The agenda looked very interesting on the website and it didn't disappoint. I particularly enjoyed Professor Patrick McGorry talking about youth mental health issues. Some of my closest friends have suffered mental health illnesses in the past and I find the stigma surrounding it particularly frustrating. We don't hear much about the effects; are there many people who aren't seeking the medical help they need, because they are worried about public opinion? We hear a lot about all the work being done to open up conversations about AIDS, HIV and safe sex in the developing world. We understand the benefits of preventative medicine with infectious diseases. We acknowledge that visiting your health professionals for regular checkups can help prevent (or detect and treat) all sorts of illness such as heart disease, cancers and even back pain. So why the double standard when it comes to preventative measures for mental illnesses? Why doesn't your doctor give you a mental health checklist along with the physical health checklist? [end rant]

Another highlight of my day was seeing Bob Ansett. Back in my good old corporate days, I looked into getting Bob to speak at one of our retreats, but we decided to go with something a little more customised. I was delighted to see Bob on the program and signed up for his talk straight away. He has a famous surname but it's actually his father who founded the airline; Bob's mother took him to America when he was young, and he grew up learning a lot about hard work and big dreams. He founded Budget Rent-a-Car at a time when Avis had a monopoly on airport car hire and there were numerous other small hire services available in cities. Budget did something a little differently, though: they told you how much it would cost, up-front. I guess we take it for granted these days, but that was new for an Australian car hire company. They also did everything they could to get you a car, even hiring from Avis to supplement their fleet (which Avis took almost five years to pick up on, he told us).

We also saw Professor Ricardo Altimira Vega from IE Business School. He spoke to us a lot about the steps of entrepreneurship from the idea stage right through to the start-up. I found it interesting, but I'm still not sure any of my ideas would make it past the market study. He asked people to share some of their ideas, especially if we already had a business. Meaghan Vosz spoke up and told us about her company that provides professional writing services to community organisations. I love the idea of this business, so I grabbed the chance to talk more with her about her background and experience after the session. She hasn't had much chance to market herself, but community organisations are only too keen to get help with their grant writing, so Get It Write is doing well. It's nice to see someone profiting while helping community groups to do their work.

So, that was my Friday.

In stark contrast, I actually did a fair bit of writing on Thursday — I just didn't publish it on my blog. It took the form of finalising my CV on LinkedIn and SEEK and (gasp!) applying for a couple of jobs. Yes, I really did. I was so motivated that I even wrote a letter of introduction to a recruitment agency over the weekend. This probably raises the question of why I'm not publishing my wonderful CV where everyone can see it. My reason is simple: I've spent the last ten years procrastinating. I did lots of very productive work, but it wasn't important work. I worked very hard on things I didn't care about very much and achieved great results and salaries for it but little personal satisfaction.  As a direct result, my CV is full of very impressive nonsense. (For more information on how procrastination can look like work, see Structured Procrastination by John Perry.)

Speaking of procrastination, I have several writing ideas right now. I'd like to write a few restaurant reviews, as well as a summary of our mountain climbing on the weekend. Unfortunately, the reason I'm so motivated to write so many things is that I've left another task a little too long. I really need to go sort out the pile of junk building up in my rented storage space. (It will also be nice to collect my winter coats before summer rolls back around.)

As for my CV, I'm working on that — I have started setting up some larger projects that I hope to list as experience. On Wednesday night I went running with some friends at Mt Coot-tha and came home with an opportunity to redesign a company website and rewrite its content. More on that in the coming weeks, I guess.  I also had an idea for a short story touching on depression, that I think will be incredibly challenging to capture beautifully. I will be interviewing a friend to get some ideas.

Actually, if you happen to have a writing project that I could help with, please let me know. I'm keen to get experience in all types of writing so I can have a real résumé. Whether you're itching to have your memoirs recorded, want help with a race report, need some work on your website wording or just want a report finished, I'm up for the challenge.