Three Brilliant Lattice Strategies from People Who Move Stuff

Great minds sure think alike.

While I was toiling way on The Career Lattice, Hector Jaramillo was arriving at some of the exact same points, from a completely different route.

I met Jaramillo, who’s a manager with NACCO Materials Handling Group, in October 2014. I was part of a panel about new career paths at the annual conference of the Materials Handling Institute. (That’s the industry that gets the stuff you need to the right place at the right time, in one piece.)

Hector’s an engineer: left brain. I’m a writer: right brain. His challenge was to redefine career paths at NACCO so the company could better attract and retain employees, especially professionals.

He did it by applying Six Sigma principles to the problem of straightjacket career ladders. (Six Sigma is a rigorous process of analysis that quants love, love, love. I’d link to a Six Sigma resource but I have no idea which one is the best. Just search on “six sigma” and choose the info graphics for a digestible outline of what it’s all about.)

Jaramillo realized that it wasn’t just a matter of telling people to do different jobs. He had to clear the path by showing the lateral moves that made sense in engineering language.

Jeff Redmon, a high-ranking human resources executive at Caterpillar, had a similar lightbulb moment. He advocates for cross-functional assignments and career paths that better align with industry cycles and long term growth trends.

Here’s what Jaramillo and Redmon are doing right:

  • Framing classic lattice principles in terms and processes typically used by their industries to solve problems (i.e., Six Sigma). They are using familiar tools to introduce an unfamiliar concept.
  • Showing both the medium and long term implications of lattices for continual growth. A lattice doesn’t stand on its own. It leans on its industry.
  • Infusing the process and conversation about lateral moves with transparency. Lattices offer many directions. Many directions means that people have to make decisions. They need information about the skills they need for a move, and the likely implications of making that move. The more information they have, the more powerful the lattice.

It was a tad humbling to wait my turn – third in line – as Jaramillo and Redmon outlined the lattice strategies they got in motion before they met me. Or heard of me. Or read my book.   But then I remembered: this movement is bigger than me and bigger than them. When a journalist and two engineers arrive at the same conclusion taking different roads from different starting points, it’s hard to deny that they haven’t all figured out something important to everybody.

How Latticing Is Like Jazz

In October 2014 I was part of a panel about new career paths at the annual conference of the Materials Handling Institute. (That’s the industry that gets the stuff you need to the right place at the right time, in one piece.)

The industry desperately needs new ways to attract, retain and advance people – all people.  Eager engineers tend to flock to Silicon Valley, not to warehouses. But as I watched keynote John Kao play the piano as he explained the difference between innovation and creativity, I realized he was talking just as much about re-inventing career paths as he was about re-inventing big-scale processes and data handling and such.

Kao’s main point: Innovation blends skill and opportunity, to forge a new way of thinking or doing something. It’s flexing at the moment of inspiration – flexing with well developed skills.

Basically, you have to have muscle memory so that when the moment emerges, you can seize it. Kao illustrates this by improvising jazz on a piano right in front of the audience. He knows the keyboard and chords so well that he can smoothly riff on a theme. That, he says, is innovation.

Latticing is also innovation.  It’s career innovation that you craft when you see a chance to move over to gain experience, business skills or new technical skills.  But  it takes finesse to make lateral moves. You can’t just jump from one log to another in a moving river. You have to keep your balance.

Just as practicing the piano enables Kao to spin out jazz improvisations, you need to practice lateral moves so you are confident in the skill of latticing. You don’t want to lose a plum lateral opportunity because you weren’t able to make your case, win buy-in from peer influencers, and step into the new role.

Don’t Reinvent. Retread Instead

Reinvention is the biggest misconception about late in life career shifts.

As I point out in this article for AARP’s “Life ReImagined” website, you just don’t have time to abandon everything and everyone you know.

Retread instead. Gain traction by changing your grip.

Here’s one way to find a niche big enough for income and small enough to become a major player, quickly.  What expertise or service would remove the thorn in the side of just one department or function?

Instead of thinking in terms of solving a swath of problems for a whole department, consider a single pain point. So, instead of positioning your encore career as a supply chain consultant, slice the possibilities into you-sized bites: would you rather work on supply chain strategy or become a negotiations coach for supply chain executives?

Your goal is to get to cruising altitude quickly and efficiently. When you believe you have the right angle, offer to lead a committee or research project on that topic for an industry group. You will vet your concept while cementing connections that you just might convert to clients.

Lattice On Out: One Brilliant Move That Will Make Them Sorry You’re Gone

Sometimes, it’s time to lattice out, then over.

How do you know when it’s time to make that big move?  “10 Signs It May Be Time to Quit,” which was published Oct. 25, 2013, by Hearst Magazines’ Women@Work, sums up the key warning signs pretty well (including my own advice, of course: when you’re being ignored in meetings, you’re invisible, and if you’re invisible, you may as well not be there, soooo….)

But before you go, make sure they’ll be sorry you’re gone. Here’s how.

Offer to mentor a rising star. Today’s bosses are annoyed (generally) by millennials.  They’re so demanding! But all you see is potential! From the safe distance you’ll gain by not being in the same workplace, you can offer a younger worker some valuable insight about your industry and your soon-to-be-former employer.

The best part is, this rising star will rave about how great you are. He or she will tell her friends. And tweet. You’ll have planted behind an internal advocate — invaluable for polishing your reputation retroactively. And if this star is rising as fast as you think it is, today’s menthe will soon become tomorrow’s boss…or client.

Journalists Seeking Career Change: You’re Now “the man,” and Two Other Truths for Shifting Career Gears

With the traditional business model for newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets crumbling like autumn leaves in the gutter, thousands of journalists are trying to transition from ink-stained wretch to ….well, they’re not sure what. Here are three strategies for journalists who are need to lattice from the newsroom — and its mindset — to digital content. (If you are reading this before Nov. 7, 2013, consider joining us at Content Connections, the new conference that introduces freelance writers and editors to the digital content marketing folks who need those writers’ skills.)

Advertising and marketing money is thundering to content that is created by and for  corporations and organizations. As I learned at last spring’s Custom Content Council conference, some big companies, like McDonald’s, even have bona fide corporate newsrooms and daily editorial meetings to surf the crest of the content tsunami. Besides pushing out content through multiple channels for actual marketing, they are trying to reach influencers through soft-sell narratives and videos. And, they must be ready to respond to breaking news that changes the context for their content.

Gee, that sounds an awful lot like the traditional news function. And, in fact, corporate communications directors are considering former journalists for these internal positions.  For instance, Software Advice outlined many of those hiring considerations in this comprehensive article in The B 2 B Marketing Mentor. 

I made this transition when I moved from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where I was deputy business/real estate editor, to senior content producer on the business side at Tribune Digital. What I learned in the process helped frame my book, The Career Lattice.

These three strategies work for journalists with all types of backgrounds and with all levels of experience.

As you network and interview, present your experience in terms of the goals you accomplished, not just the number of words or stories you produced. Talk in terms of how you collaborated with others in the newsroom and with sources to achieve a thorough, accurate and relevant package. This will position you — to yourself and others – as a team player who respects everyone in the news gathering and production process. Everybody admires cowboys in fiction. Nobody wants to work with one in real life.

Create a portfolio that includes more than your staff assignments. Show how you identify, pursue and produce ideas and stories outside the daily list of assignments you negotiate with your managing editor. Yes, finally, volunteer and creative work counts! So does freelancing — big time, because it illustrates your scope of style and subject matter expertise. Your secret journal of poetry actually might illuminate a talent for writing tweets and PowerPoint copy. (Bonus! Now you can write off all those calico-covered journals!)

Finally, face up to the reality that that you’re not capitulating to ‘the man.’ News flash: you’ve ‘the man’ all along. Unless you worked for a completely self-funded publication or website that had no accountability to a board, funders, or investors, you have been part of a capitalist organization. You might like to think of yourself as a maverick, an iconoclast, beholden to no one. But if at the end of your week of iconoclasting, you cashed  a paycheck, you were not exactly the rebel you thought you were.

The truth is, journalists are accountable to editors, the editors to publishers, and the publishers to advertisers and shareholders. To readers who did not share your point of view, and who felt unheard and misunderstood, you were part of an impenetrable, frustrating institution. You were ‘the man’ and they were the outsiders.

When you think about it this way, the shift from one for-profit, word-producing organization to another isn’t quite so dramatic, is it?

The brave new world of content is a new universe of opportunities for former journalists. You don’t have to leave yourself behind when you make the career shift. Bring the best of yourself to your new position. You’ll find just as many characters as you enjoyed in the newsroom, and you’ll also find a new and equally engaged audience.

The Six Words That Derail Any Career, on The Lattice or The Ladder

Gender miscommunication started in the Garden of Eden and has been tangling understanding ever since. When your career is at stake, it takes on a whole new dimension.

Through the Accounting MOVE Project, which measures and supports the advancement of women, the Wilson-Taylor team listens to women accountants who don’t understand what they don’t understand about making partner.

Here’s the thing: they lean in till they are nearly falling over, but when they simply ask their sponsors or mentors “What do I need to do?”, they inevitably get back a cryptic, opaque response: “Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

In this piece that ran August 2, 2013 in the Chicago Tribune’s opinion section, I tell the bosses of America what they need to do to turn this conversation around.

But here’s what women need to do: be more specific. It’s not much more risk to get a lot more information. Ask, “What specific skills or experiences do I need to master to fill in the gaps that qualify me for partner?” or for your next critical career step.

When you ask a detailed question, you get a detailed answer. And just like that, you understand what you need to do next. Then, of course, you need to do it.

Keep Your Telecommuting Deal!

Never go on automatic pilot — especially when you are the only one in the car.

Telecommuting deals are much-coveted for a reason (just ask the Yahoo employees about to start the daily slog into the office):  You can use little breaks throughout the day to get housework and errands accomplished; you don’t have to commute, freeing up two productive hours a day; and you can get a lot done.

But you have to make sure your telecommuting arrangement works just as well for your boss as it does for you.

As outlined in this RetailMeNot article, the single most important factor is — surprise — communication. That’d be communicating with your boss and communicating with your co-workers. We’d all like to think that others notice all the work we shovel, but when you’re sweating it out in the privacy of your home office, they notice the results, not necessarily the effort.

And the effort counts. That’s where we bond with co-workers — over the shared frustration and small daily triumphs. Yes, document your results to your boss. But be sure to share daily with your co-workers, too.

Give It Up to Get Ahead

In this New York Times magazine profile, Wharton professor Adam Grant comes across as a compulsively generous guy who has fueled his professional advancement with a mixture of altruism and wisdom.

The brilliance of his approach goes beyond calibrating generosity to help others while stoking your own sense of satisfaction and self-worth. Grant’s research also exposes what truly motivates people at work: a mission that actually makes a measurable difference.

When people see that their work genuinely improves someone else’s life or situation, they are deeply moved to strive for similar results.  They are both more productive and more satisfied with their work. Because their work means something.

We got at this dynamic in the 2012 Accounting MOVE Project, which showed how community service advances women’s careers in accounting. Women who merged volunteering aligned with strongly held personal values, with professional development, not only created their own fast tracks for advancement. They also reinforced the core meaning of their work, making for a fulfilling balance.

 

Inc yourself a new career

Desk jockeys and cubicle dwellers yearning to go free, start your own companies now.

Yes. While you’re still employed.

In fact, ramping up while you’re still staff gives you the advantage of choosing a niche that has long-term potential, instead of just running from a tedious or odious job. Minda Zetlin outlined my Career Lattice strategy for managing this transition in her January post at Inc.com.

The strategy pivots on mining your remaining staff days to understand how you can leverage your industry knowledge and skills in a new direction that will be more apt to support some of your other priorities, such as flexibility or working remotely.

The key dynamic is one that you’ll keep using once you are on your own: tracking trends and interpreting them as market opportunities. If you aren’t sure how to do that, you’d best figure it out while you are still employed. And if you do know how to do that, now’s the time to start creating and connecting the dots that convert trends to  clients.

 

And if you live within 150 miles of Chicago, consider signing up for the “Lattice from Staff  to Entrepreneurship” workshop I’ll be leading later this year at Chicago’s Women’s Business Development Center. 

Go, ERG!

In a recent webinar  on latticing I presented for Canadian Women In Communications, a participant asked how to detect good lateral opportunities within her company.   Her question is a common one;  opportunities can be opaque to rank-and-file workers, according to the most recent Accenture Skills Gap study.  While bosses presumably have a bird’s eye view of short and longer-term lateral assignments,  it’s frustrating to hear about them only after they are filled.

Here’s the silver bullet: the Employee Resource Group, or ERG.  “Affinity groups” took root about 15 years ago, mainly as a way for women and minorities to find each other in large organizations.  Smart companies realized that ERG’s were built-in focus groups. Smart employees realized that the horizontal nature of such groups meant that they had a great chance of meeting higher-ups with whom they already had something in common, as recently explained in the Wall St. Journal.

As I outline in The Career Lattice, ERG’s are a rich lode for self-promotion, especially if you need to cultivate skills that are outside your official job description.  Here’s how to aim the silver bullet that is an ERG:  look for new connections in adjacent functions or departments.  These are the folks with whom you will naturally intersect on a project at some point.  Use the ERG to get to know them before your work responsibilities collide – so you can be each other’s friends in lateral places.