It’s frustrating because I’ve had a lot of good ideas for posts, but by the time I get around to writing them, I can’t summon up the energy I originally had that made me think of them in the first place.  Especially from this last project.  Trying to tease apart anything valuable from the entire experience is really difficult.  And a lot of the concepts overlap.  Meh, I’ll just riff for a bit and hope for the best.

I’m a consultant, which means I do a lot of number crunching or power point work that’s been directed by someone above my level.  These responsibilities fade the higher up you go and get replaced by more “higher level” duties.  Those could be developing the overall approach, presenting final deliverables etc etc.  Being at the bottom shapes the way you look at problems.  Everything becomes bottom up.  You’ll think of details, how they combine to form parts and how those parts fit into an approach that’s been designed by a partner.

We will get back to the above in a second.  Keep this thought in mind while running parallel to the above paragraph and the one below.  There are no right answers in consulting.  Just because you have an approach doesn’t mean whoever designed it knows it’s the correct one.  Everyone is still figuring out what right or correct looks like as they go.  Also keep in mind that that’s ok.

That perspective of specific to general is the complete opposite of how the client will receive your work and how the partner will understand your message.  Anything that has to be explained is automatically wrong.  It should be self-explanatory.  If you’ve made an excel table where the point of the table isn’t readily apparent – you fail.  I’ve been in meetings where this has happened.  It’s awful and crushing.  Doing a huge amount of work just to have someone throw it back in your face, not because it was wrong, but because you couldn’t explain it succinctly is very frustrating.

You eventually learn how to talk to executives/partners/some-high-up-person after fucking it up a few times.  For instance, always use a picture instead of words.  If your work is a culmination of an approach or decision tree – draw the tree, do not try to explain it.  Make sure you can answer any question that could possible be asked.  Don’t let anyone ask you another question if you haven’t answered the first one.  That’s important.  If someone asks you something, you pause, and then they ask you a follow up question – you’re fucked.  You’ll be trying to answer the first, while the person will already be down a rabbit whole thinking out loud about potential answers to the second.  Now your credibility is blow because you don’t have an answer and as an extension of that they’ll assume you don’t know anything.  This will be followed by whoever you’re speaking with to promptly say “go back and figure it out.”  Now you have to go back, re-work how you’re going to present your view and hopefully book a meeting later in the today.  Congratulations, you’ve fucked up a question that now cost you an entire day.

This stuff is hard to figure out.  Even if you know that these problems exist and you’ll have to plan for them, it doesn’t mean you will succeed in planning correctly for them.  But being aware is definitely a big first step.  It also elevates your thinking from bottom up to top down.

Back to the concept that there are no “right” answers in consulting.  Getting to the point where you haven’t screwed up your summary is a major milestone.  Now it’s possible to have an actual discussion about the direction of the work.  Did whatever it was that you just spent a week doing have any value?  That’s slightly scary.  In consulting there is always the chance – because there is no correct answer – that you will have wasted your time doing something that has absolutely no value to anyone.

Let’s assume that it did.  Now you get to battle, which is fucking awesome and really intense.  You’ll be in a meeting room with 2-4 other people discussing how to finish this project and how all the pieces you’ve been working on fit together to make a finished deliverable.  This is very difficult to do.

The only way to “win” here is to think faster than anyone else in the room.  And you don’t even really “win.”  I’d say it’s closer to “not losing.”  You lose when you can’t follow the conversation.  Then it runs away without you and catching up can sometimes feel impossible.

Ok, I think that’s enough.

Posted by: LYF | December 16, 2011

Dealing with stress

Viktor Frankl compared stress to a gas and that comparison has always stuck with me.  No matter what type of container you put a gas in, it will diffuse evenly and occupy the entire space.  Stress is a lot like that.  It doesn’t matter how big or small the stress is, it has the ability to occupy any space.

I was going through the same process almost every day for 3 months.  I would get asked to do something, that I didn’t know how to do, to be done as soon as possible.  I would get stressed out, stop sleeping and become overwhelmed.  Finally a few patterns started to emerge.

The longest the stress would last was two hours.  I started measuring the amount of time from when a person asked me to do something to when I stopped freaking out.  The max was two hours.  That was a good start.  I also noticed that it usually took me about 10% of my original estimate to complete the task.  This was a huge eye opener.  If I thought something was going to take an hour, it usually took 10 min.  Ten fucking minutes!  Who cares about ten minutes.  Chamomile tea worked well too.  It made intuitive sense after I started drinking it.  Most people drink Chamomile tea before they go to bed because it helps them sleep.  I’ve done this before and it works pretty well.  The relaxing sensation can also help if you’re feeling stressed about something.

Getting worked up everyday is exhausting so I had a real incentive here to figure out how to deal with this.

The realizations I had along with some of the practical steps I put into place helped a lot.  If I started feeling overwhelmed, I immediately knew a few things.  First, the longest this feeling would last was two hours.  Knowing how long I would be in a bad mood made it easier to cope with being in a bad mood.  Second, whatever my estimate of the time it took to complete the task, I knew it was completely overestimated.  That helped my mood a bit too.  Then I would go buy a large chamomile tea to calm myself down even more.

This gave me enough perspective to work without putting a personal handicap on myself via freaking the fuck out, which created a great feedback loop.  The more I used this approach, the less stressful these situations became and the easier things got.  This is the closest I’ve gotten to being comfortably-uncomfortable.

The biggest takeaway I’ve had from this whole experience is the following; document how you feel under different circumstances, analyze the triggers that made you feel that way and brainstorm different ways to manipulate those triggers.  Otherwise it’s really hard to make any behavioral change.

Posted by: LYF | November 16, 2011

Some soft skills

The Inception

Hard to pull off but very effective.  The goal is to slip an idea into another person’s mind unnoticed.  For example, if you’re on a project that will be wrapping up soon, start talking about the more difficult parts with your manager.  Then ask for feedback on a piece of the project where you know you performed well.  Two things will happen.  One, the high degree of difficulty will be placed in your manager’s mind and two your manager will remember the high quality of your work.  The end result being a good performance review.  This may seem like a crude example, but inceptioning people is a very important skill to have.

I started reading Thinking, Fast and Slow yesterday and learned that this process is actually called “Priming.”

Tucking a compliment into a request

This is useful for when you want someone to do you a favour.  As you’re asking the favour be sure to give them a compliment.  “Hey, can you do this analysis in excel?  I know you’re really good with pivot tables and the last report you gave me was really well received.”  This works surprisingly well.

Hand on the shoulder technique

If you want to increase the likelihood of someone doing something for you, put your hand on their shoulder when you ask.  It puts you in a more powerful position.

Dress better when you don’t know what you’re talking about

A friend of mine told me a story about someone he knew who worked in medical sales.  During his first week this person bought a new Mercedes (which he couldn’t afford) because it gave people the impression that he was knowledgeable.  We have to “sell” everyday.  Dressing well helps you sell yourself.  And when you don’t know what you’re talking about, it can give you that extra ounce of credibility when you need it.

Shit sandwhich for constructive feedback

Tell the person something positive they did, followed by constructive feedback and finally sandwiched with another positive.  The first positive gets the person receptive to your feedback and the last one keeps them happy – making them more likely to retain what you’ve said.

Horizontal push-back

Passing off work to someone at your level.

Don’t email people bad news if you can avoid it

People sometimes use email as a way to record conversations.  If you have screwed something up, or promised something that you can’t deliver, share that information in person.  It won’t prevent someone from sending an email describing how you screwed up, but it will put you in a better position to defend yourself going forward.

Posted by: LYF | October 20, 2011

People in Canada Cannot Walk Properly

This is very much a Canadian problem and I notice it most when I’ve been away for a few weeks.  It may have to do with our polite culture – I’m not sure.  But it’s still a problem.

People walk into you all the time in Canadian cities.  This happens so often that most Canadians don’t realize it’s a problem or that it isn’t even normal.  If you’re walking, with no one around you and someone is walking towards you, if you’re in Canada that person will try to walk into you.  It doesn’t make any sense, yet it happens all the time.  Worst case is when someone is walking ahead of you – the last thing on your mind is walking into someone that’s walking in the same direction as you- totally forgets where they are on the earth, stops abruptly, looks around 360 degrees and somehow decides to walk in your direction.  Think about that.  Someone is 10 feet ahead of you.  They stop.  Look in every direction.  They choose the direction with a person in it.  Then walk directly into that person.  That’s fucked.  And it happens every day.

Even more frustrating, if you try to get out of this person’s way, they will choose the side with the smallest margin to get around you.  So if there’s 20 feet to your left and a wall 2 feet to your right, they will go wall 100% of the time.  Like I said above, maybe it’s our polite culture?  They choose the smaller path because it’s more respectful – i.e. they are giving you the larger area to pass.  Who knows.  What ends up happening though is an awkward electric-slide-two-step-sidewalk shuffle with every person you meet on the street.

Canadians also suck at walking with umbrellas.  Specifically, those who decide to use golf umbrellas in dense metropolitan areas.  Are you kidding me?  These people guillotine everyone they pass because they don’t have the common sense to either buy a regular human sized umbrella or raise the damn thing a foot higher to avoid it’s stranger neck slicing action.  Maybe it’s complete obliviousness.

If you’re like me and have noticed this problem, the only way around it is to avoid eye contact with everyone on the street.  If you walk through a crowd without making eye contact, people will get out of your way.  Try it.  It’s crazy how effective it is.

And I’m not even going to get into the fruit stands at Spadina and Queen or couples who hold hands (it’s like playing red rover with strangers).

****

Here is a list of amazing walking cities in no particular order – i.e. people are self aware.

1) Madrid, Spain

2) Reykjavik, Iceland

3) Buenos Aires, Argentina

4) New York, USA

5) Tel Aviv, Israel

6) Bangkok, Thailand

…as you can see these cities = the rest of the entire world.

Posted by: LYF | October 4, 2011

Managing your life on the road

This so so fucking crucial.  When you’re on a project and you’re away from home, you won’t have time to think about all the little details or errands that you’ll usually have time to work out or accomplish in a typical day.  It’s really hard to explain this to people who aren’t in consulting.  When you’re on a project, you are on a project.  It can consume your life.  Especially if you’re in another city.  So I’m going to break down step by step how to keep things efficient, to avoid going crazy.

Get your email right

I use gmail, so all these tips will be exclusively related to getting the most out of it with the least amount of effort.  First, set up “rules.”  If you’re getting emails from similar sources, group them together and have them automatically sorted to the same folder.  If you’re a CA, this means sorting all your ICAO, CICA etc. etc. emails to an accounting folder.  But it doesn’t stop there.  If you get linked in notifications sort those to a networking folder.  Then create a parent folder called “career” and nest the former two underneath it.

You really have to be ruthlessly efficient.  As I’m writing this I have 7 emails in my inbox.  And none of them are from today.  That means they are there by choice because they require some sort of action.

It’s critical to take a step back and see what part of your life takes up the most amount of time in your email account, create folders for those things, group similar folders and ensure all your mail is being sorted.

Next, get to the settings option in gmail and go to the “labs” tab.  Enable the following;

1) Flickr previews in mail (preview pics without leaving gmail)

2) Google Docs previews in mail (preview docs without leaving gmail)

3) Message Sneak Peek (right click on messages to get a quick preview while staying on the same page)

4) Message translation (translates messages to English automatically)

5) Message Gestures (by holding the mouse button and sliding your mouse you can navigate emails, which is faster than clicking)

6) Picasa previews in mail (preview images without leaving gmail)

The combination of filters, folders, nested folders and these 6 options will greatly enhance the efficiency of your email experience.

Also, start taking notes in gmail.  Open a draft email and use it like a notepad to remember important things – details of people you just met, your rewards program #’s (i.e. aeroplan and spg below) etc.  If you have an iphone, use the notes app!  I can’t stress this enough, it synchs to your gmail account.  You should never have a reason why you forgot something important.

Staying healthy

Check to see if your hotel has a gym in it.  If it doesn’t look for the closest YMCA or Goodlife.  If you’re into crossfit, then look for the closest crossfit gym (you’d be surprised at how many there are now) and email them about coming to train.

Since you will be in a hotel it becomes super easy to have a great sleep.  Make sure your blinds are closed, turn down the thermostat to 16 degrees celcius and turn off all your electronics a half hour before bed.

And make sure you’re stretching each morning or doing some kind of mobility work.  I highly recommend getting a travel roller (I take this on every trip).  And doing some foam rolling in the morning after a hot shower.  Flying back and forth each work destroys your body over time.

Rewards programs

Sign up for all the rewards programs you will be using.  At a minimum sign up for SPG and Areoplan.  Then sign up for go miles.  This is a really cool site that lets you track your air miles across different carriers.  It also shows you new air miles promotions if you feel so inclined to start travel hacking.

You really need to have these programs locked down.  They’re part of a process that will be working in the background while you’re flying and staying in various hotels.

Flights

Use your phone to check-in before your flight and only bring carry-on luggage.  Also, find out who among your group is an elite or super elite.  If you go with them, you can bypass almost every line and get access to the airport lounges, which have snacks and open bars.

And if you have the option always choose seats C or D.  These are aisle seats and are the most comfortable since you’re guaranteeing yourself at least one arm-rest.

Hotels

When you get to the hotel ask to be upgraded to a suite.  Will you get the suite?  Maybe?  Most likely, they will say something like, “oh we don’t have any suites available but we can give you [insert second best room in hotel here].”  This is usually akin to a double or triple upgrade from your original booking.  You could ask for an upgrade, but you will be anchoring the discussion at the lower range of what’s available.  Why not shoot for the best and end up at second best?  That’s what happened to me last night.  I went from two double beds to a king with an adjacent jacuzzi.  There is an actual jacuzzi in my room, not the washroom (where I have a huge shower with a bench and double shower heads).  I can take a bubble batch and watch Every Day Italian with Giada DeLaurentiis at the same time.  Baller.

Housecleaning

The last thing you’ll want to do after a long week away from home is cleaning.  Hire a cleaning lady.  Most people our age live in apartments that are relatively small, which end up being surprisingly affordable to clean.  Get them to come over Saturday around lunch.  Go grab some food/read a book/whatever and come back 2 hours later to a sparkling clean home.

Reading

If you like books, then invest in a kindle.  Taking books with you when you’re traveling can quickly become a nuisance.  Amazon just released a new kindle for under $100.  Go buy it.  Apart from saving space, all of your highlights and notes get uploaded to your personal kindle home page so you can view them later.

That’s all I can think of.  If I figure out some more time saving tips I’ll pass them along in a future post.

Posted by: LYF | September 27, 2011

Consulting so far

I’ve been going back and forth between well rested and manic for the past month now.  We’ve been working on this project at a break-neck pace.  I’m too manic to even organize my thoughts.  Here are some things I’ve learned so far.

Staying healthy is a real effort. 

I’ve had to interrupt conversations to tell people I need to eat something or that we need to leave the office to give ourselves enough time to sleep.  I wouldn’t be able to survive if I didn’t have my vitamin d, fish oil and travel sized foam roller.

Social skills are really important

Recognizing how someone is sitting in a chair at the beginning versus the end of the meeting to gauge how receptive they are to what you’re saying is really important.  Other things I catch myself thinking of – degree and amount of eye contact, fidgeting, tone of voice, and pace of speech.  Sometimes I even get worried that people are going to notice me thinking of this stuff when I should be focusing on the meeting instead.

Boldness is rewarded

If you have the choice between doing something bold and holding back, bold seems to be the best option.  It’s important to note that I’m not saying “stupid.”

Push-back is an art form

You end up being asked to do lots of things that are unreasonable given the amount of time you have or your current level of knowledge.  It’s really hard to say no to people, especially when you’re trying to impress everyone.  But taking on responsibilities that are over your head will usually lead to low quality work.  So sometimes you have to push back.  You have to give a plausible reason why you can’t do the thing you’re being asked of.  It also helps if you give an alternative solution too.

Posted by: LYF | August 2, 2011

How to disagree with people

Disagreeing with people isn’t something I’m very good at.  If I’m listening to someone and they’re not making sense, my immediate reaction is to tell them they’re wrong.  I learned how to hold back that gut reaction, but then the problem became my face.  People could tell when I didn’t agree with them  – I would stitch my eyebrows together, scrunch my forehead and slowly shake my head back and forth.  I had no clue I was doing this until someone pointed it out.  Afterward I learned how to relax my face and keep my head still.

But in my mind, I was still faking it.  I wasn’t listening.  So then I had to train myself to really pay attention.  “Maybe they’ll be able to convince me?”  I had to turn down the volume on my own thoughts and focus on what this person was trying to tell me.

By this point I had come a long way.  I was actively listening and I wasn’t waiting to jump in with my opinion as soon as the other person was finished talking.  My point of view still needed some work though.  Well not so much my point of view – I didn’t have one.  It would be more accurate to say I needed to develop a point of view.  Like, “what do I want to get out of this?”

Learning was the best one I could come up with.  If you disagree with someone in the context of learning, disagreeing fades to the background because you’re trying to uncover something.  Different opinions are part of the process.  Then most situations become a matter of guiding the conversation – trying to point people in a direction that’s most likely to uncover an answer.

This leads to comments like, “have you thought about doing it this way?” “have you tried this before?” “how did you come to that idea?”  These are directional comments.  They lead you along a path that may give you some insights into a problem.

Then I ran into another problem – trying to keep track of tangents.  One person may think the problem has to do with x, while another may agree with the logic, but points to cause y.  A third may agree with both, assuming the problem is a combination of both x and y together.  How do you guide that?  Do you even need to guide it at that point?  Those are things I think about now when I’m at work.

We’re all listening to each other.  We all want to solve the same problem.  Everyone is giving insight.  How can I help?

Posted by: LYF | July 26, 2011

What it’s like being an accountant

I’ve tried really hard many times, to describe what it’s like being an accountant.  I’m in the middle of The Castle and came across the best description so far;

…there was nothing to further his goal, though one could probably take advantage of certain things to improve our family’s lot.  For up there everything, except for the whims of the servants, is quite modest, and since ambition seeks fulfillment in work and the task itself becomes paramount, eventually all ambition disappears; there is no reason to indulge childish wishes there.  Still, Barnabas was convinced, he told me, that he coudl clearly see how power and knowledge were wielded even by those rather dubious officials whose rooms he could enter.   How they dictated, quickly, with half-closed eyes and brief gestures; how, only with their index finger, wordlessly, they dispatched the surly servants who, breathing heavily at such moments, smiled happily, or how they found an important passage in their books, pounded on it, and the others, insofar as this was possible in the confined space, ran up and stretched their necks out toward it.  Such things gave Barnabas exalted ideas about these men and he had the impression that if he advanced far enough to be noticed and could exchange a few words with them not as a stranger but as on office colleague, if only of the most subordinate kind, then it would be possible to obtain unforeseen benefits for our family.

Posted by: LYF | July 20, 2011

What’s being a consultant like

I love being a consultant.  This is the first job where I can truly say I love doing what I do.  It’s so god damn intense and I love everything about that.  People give you work you won’t know how to do, with timelines that are completely unreasonable with the expectation that you’ll produce without any complaints.  The work pace is extremely rapid and iterative.  You’ll get an assignment at 9 with the expectation of an outline after lunch to make sure you’re on the right track.

“Yes, sir.  No Sir.  Three bags full Sir.  You know who the sir is?  The client.”  That’s how one partner capped off a conversation with me as we finished our coffees.  Then he got up to leave because he had a meeting with [big name CFO].  “Hey do you have a problem working in another province?  No?  Hmm, maybe we’ll send you out to Vancouver for a few days.  I’m going to cc you on some stuff.  You might not get the work, but read everything I send you anyway.  It will be a lot.”

A manager pushes you.  Then you push back.  Five emails come in about a proposal.  You forgot you set up an info meeting to understand some software.  You answer the emails.  It’s now 30min later and you have to start on the work for the manager you pushed back on.  There’s no way you’re making that info meeting.  Cancelled.  The proposal is in limbo until after lunch.  That gives you the rest of the morning to work.  Then you realize it’s almost noon and you had lunch scheduled with colleagues.  All done to daft punk with one headphone in.  Boom.

At the moment I’m working on two presentations that will be given to upper management at a leading Canadian Hospital.  Do I know anything about health care?  Nope.  Am I a pro at power point?  Haven’t used it in two years.  Do I have enough time to get it done?  Three days seems unreasonable.  It’s like when someone tells you you can’t do something and you look back and say fuck you and get it done in half the time.

Life is good.

Getting the job was tough – I’ll be doing consulting for large multinational corps.

Before I even had my interview my contact told me very plainly that my resume and cover letter sucked.  That I should re-do them or I wouldn’t have a shot at all.

The hard part about that isn’t re-doing the work.  It’s understanding who you’re dealing with and trying to visualize the finished product they have in mind, so you can give them exactly what they want.  I tried to put myself into my contacts mindset by drinking a double espresso, listening to some rage against the machine and watching this clip a few times.  I needed that attitude, to create a product, that would make my contact think “that’s what I was looking for!”  I was sort of surprised how well that strategy worked.

Then I had to set up the interviews.  This was an issue all by itself.  My first interview got scheduled with only 24 hours notice.  That felt like a huge power play.  I was bit out of sorts on what to do.  Do I just go along with whatever these guys say?  Will they find me “difficult” if I say I can’t make it?  I ended up emailing the hr rep to let him know I couldn’t make it and that I would need to reschedule.  That turned out fine too.

The interviews were very intense.  I was getting double teamed by two, very bright senior managers in the first one.  Both were very type A too.  I managed to get through that by being honest, direct and concise.  And if I didn’t know the answer to something then that’s what I told them.  For example, they asked, “can you describe what it is our group does.”  So I said, “No not really.  All the literature I’ve found gives a very high level description of the services this group provides (I listed a bunch).  But I know that I can be useful in those areas because I’ve been doing work that requires a similar skill set – (I gave a bunch of examples).”  I think that helped me a lot.

It’s also good to mirror the body language of the most dominant person in the room during the interview.  You can tell how well you’re doing if you switch positions and they end up matching you.  I don’t know why this happens or why it works.  I just know that whenever I’ve gotten to the point where someone is mimicking my body language good things usually happen.

The second interview I had was with a senior partner.  He was very easy to get along with and had a really nice I’m-a-friendly-grandfather-who-gives-worldly-wisdom disposition.  We clicked right away, which made the rest of the interview feel very relaxed.  Thinking back on it I’m pretty sure he was a big help in getting me the job.

I didn’t realize it at the time but the purpose of all the interviews was to figure out if these guys could see themselves spending a large amount of time with me without going crazy.  I met all the technical hurdles – university grad, CA designation.  I think they just wanted to see for themselves whether or not I would fit in with the rest of the team.

The last issue was calling the hr rep and explaining that I had just been fired.  That really scared me.  “Oh you’re wondering whether or not you should hire me?  Well I just got fired.  How does that make you feel?”  Crazy enough my contact apologized to me.  He thought that my employer may have found out I was going to leave and decided to let me go instead.  I never even thought of that.  That conversation happened March 4th, the day after I got fired and the day I also received my offer package.

Now, because I had already booked a trip to Buenos Aires May 18-31 and another trip to Iceland June 10-18 they didn’t want me to start until the 20th.  That’s tomorrow.  I’ve been off for three months.  That’s a lot of time for a lot of fun stuff.

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