Help me be the best consultant I can be
August 22, 2012 6:22 AM   Subscribe

I am in a great position (professionally speaking) and I don't know how to best take advantage of it. Please help?

I don't know how to phrase this question in such a way that isn't absolutely dripping of unearned privilege and things, but anyway:

I am an IT consultant with a global corporation. I joined as a graduate just under 2 years ago, and despite some rocky patches, I'm now in a role I feel is wonderful and supportive and where I can form a great professional bedrock on which to build my future career. I might, if I played my cards right, go quite far.

The problem is, I have no freaking idea how to do it.

Here is what I think I have going for me, as well as my thought processes so far:

1) My boss is supportive, likes me, and thinks I have loads of potential. He hasn't said so in as many words, but he's said on a couple of occasions - which I remember because he's sort of reserved generally - that he thinks I'm doing really well. I have a lot of autonomy and am trusted to drive things with minimal direction, and I think I'm doing pretty well. But maybe I could do more.

2) Said boss is about to go away for two months. This is (and he's told me so, in no uncertain terms) my chance to step up. I've been working with him for a few months now, I can perform my role well and without supervision, so I know this is true, only - what exactly should I do? Argh.

3) This company in general is pretty good at professional development and mentoring and things, but - and this is a gigantic but - you have to proactively seek it out and ask for it, and I have huge issues with asking for help. Yes, this is ridiculous. Yes, I'm working on it. Tips are appreciated. (Even asking this question is hard for me.) I even have an assigned mentor, and I barely go to him for anything.

4) My aunt is fairly senior in this industry, as in executive-level senior. She lives in a different country, works for a different corporation, and I don't know her all that well ... but she's said a few times that she thinks it's wonderful that one of her nieces is in science/tech (I am the only one; the rest are in arts/finance), and has once kindasorta offered to chat with me about my career. But I don't know what to ask, what I can ask, what I should ask - and so I never really have - and this is despite knowing she would help me if I just went to her! Yes, I have issues, I realize this.

5) I'm pretty smart; I pick up things fairly quickly and am capable of running quite far with them once I do. In fact I'd say one of my biggest weaknesses is not running far enough with things, once I've grasped them - I tend to wait for permission rather than forge ahead and ask for forgiveness later. Maybe this is a confidence thing, I don't know. Moreover I am in a speciality that (a) I really like and am good at, (b) is quite high in demand, and (c) requires fast adaptability to changes, so being smart and a quick study is very helpful.

6) Thanks to some early exposure, I'm pretty good at the meet-and-greet part of networking and people tend to like me at said networking events. I have the spiel down pat. I'm really bad at following up, though, and I think that is (again) down to my asking-for-help issues.

7) I am female. I actually think this is an advantage in IT because there are so, so many supportive programs and things available to women in IT that aren't available to men, because they want more of us to stay in this industry. I am perfectly aware that this is because there remains a lot of entrenched sexism in the higher levels of IT because older people have older prejudices, and that will work against me, but my peers have all (thus far) treated me with perfect equality so I have a good feeling about things, generally.

I think I like and am good at what I'm doing. I think I want to make a career out of it - and I think, if I wanted to make a career out of it, I could make it quite far up the corporate ladder. I think, in 20 years, I could be where my aunt is now. I think I want to see the world and do interesting things with big data in fascinating places, and that this path might just enable me to do so.

But I don't know how. I feel like I have all these building blocks and I want to turn them into a tower but all I know how to do is shove them into a pile and stare.

So I suppose my question is ... what would you do, if you were me?
posted by Xany to Work & Money (7 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: What helped me was to establish a "work" personality. I'm not talking about a change in your ethics/morals - but work on being the "work" person that you need to be. This mean, BE the person that forges ahead, BE the person that follows-up, and BE the person that actively uses the mentoring that's available (either at work or your aunt). When you walk out your door in the morning you're not your "home" you, you are your "work" you with all the positive that that entails. Regarding the time you have now while your boss is away, personally, I would, before he leaves, mutually agree on a prioritisation of your tasks - and then make sure that he looks good based on the results you have by the time he returns. As I started out with, this is my own opinion based on what has worked for me. You seem to have all the job abilities you need, now you need the "career" personality to blossom. Good Luck.
posted by alchemist at 7:04 AM on August 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

I wouldn't worry about point 6 right now. It's only a generalization of points 3 and 4. You've just now named two people who are interested in talking with you about your career. Conveniently, you just made a list of career-related things you're worried about. Hey, that looks like a conversation waiting to happen!

Especially with someone like your aunt, the point of mentoring is not that you ask for help with a problem, is that you have someone you trust, that you're willing to open up to about things you're worried about, and unlike all your drinking buddies, this person actually has all the context of the industry to be able to process your worries and give you relevant advice. I think that it's great that you have your aunt as a resource. It might help you to keep in mind that you're not "asking her for help". What you really want from her is the same thing you've just asked a bunch of internet-strangers for: a bit of time, a bit of listening, a bit of feedback. She's just in a much better place than we are to say something helpful. The thing is, conversations are almost always much easier than we think they're going to be. You don't really need to make a list of questions to ask her, the whole conversation is going to flow just fine. You'll start explaining what your workplace is like and how your job is going, and talking about your relationship with your boss, and by the time you get to saying that your boss will be gone for a couple of months, the question "what do you think I should do?" is implied. The only reason to make a list is to calm yourself down and help you feel organized enough to pick up the phone.
posted by aimedwander at 7:14 AM on August 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

OP, Not really in your field, but I've struggled with asking questions in the past and sometimes I still struggle with asking people for things (for different reasons than you, but the underlying anxiety for me is I can related to that). I also was finally able to get what I wanted out of 2 previous jobs, so I think that I can give some suggestions that are helpful to a general place and you can go from there.

This company in general is pretty good at professional development and mentoring and things, but - and this is a gigantic but - you have to proactively seek it out and ask for it, and I have huge issues with asking for help. Yes, this is ridiculous. Yes, I'm working on it. Tips are appreciated. (Even asking this question is hard for me.) I even have an assigned mentor, and I barely go to him for anything.

This is how I was finally able to deal with this:

• Make a list of all the things that you want to learn (I don't know your field OP, so forgive me if I make it make it simplefor want to learn to do X,Y, and Z. The goals of what you want to learn should come from you --but it can be tied to the company if you plan to stay there. Anyway, make a list of people who do X, Y,and Z. Maybe everyone says that Bob is the best at X. Maybe two people do Y.Maybe the entire department of widgeters do Z.

• This was what I had a hard time with but it applies to you too. People love to help one another and do favors. It is even a way of bonding. Some people may also have different goals at a work place (i.e. to be acknowledged, rah rah company team, etc.) If your coworkers are busy, they may not have hours available to show you X,but they could should a file, best practices, etc. But keep this in mind when you approach people.

• Approach people on your list. For Bob, part of it could be "Everyone says that you are the best at X. Would you have X time to show me the procedure?" Offer to have it be during lunch or accommodate their schedule if need be. To save time for these people (and you) ask if there are files on the server, etc. Make sure to cap the amt of time that you work with people (I once was approached to help someone with a task at a company and they wanted me for hours...don't do that (it doesn't sound like you would).

• IF there is something a department does that you do not know and lots of people at your company could benefit from it, ask if you can have "lunch and learn" activities. Basically you identify what you want to know. Ask someone at the widget area if they would want to present it . Ask if your team is interested. If there is high energy/interest, get a blessing from higher up....I think that it really helps. Now meet at lunch and learn about how to do activity Y in a manner that the widgeters will now love/like what you give them.

• Acknowledge people later on. If your company is acknowledged by another company for a "Great job on doing X,Y, and Z!!! Best EVAR!" and it is sent to, with thanks and praise, send it to other people at the your boss, the peers that helped you and say "client X LOVED this project, thank you so much Bob, team Y, etc for your help in making our company successful." This looks silly and weird to do this action, but...I've noticed it done at companies all the time...especially by people who are higher up.

Not sure about the mentoring part (I was assigned mentors at work places too), but I did better when I viewed everyone as potential mentors to help teach/acquire new skills.

Not sure where you insecurity is from asking questions, but dropping this here because it applies to me and it helped. I didn't approach people for a long time because of my own (shyness/anxiety/etc). You can use other tools to connect (i.e. ask if they would meet with you by is not as overwhelming...they can agree or ignore if if they anxiety on your side, it is a polite email.

I'm pretty good at the meet-and-greet part of networking and people tend to like me at said networking events. I have the spiel down pat. I'm really bad at following up, though, and I think that is (again) down to my asking-for-help issues.

Not good at meet and greet, but I do meet people at companies and some for several years. So this is what I've observed....Also, don't laugh, I have a client who I will do flips for because they successfully used some of the below on me...

• Keep notes on the people that you meet. Jan's birthday is in January and she is passionate about exports. Gary wants to get a job at google.

• Drop off small emails when things are applicable. Happy birthday Jan.Did you see the article on exports (attached). Congrats on winning the bid on exports! So you touch base with them in a positive way (view them as you can help each other).

• Connect. If you meet someone hiring at google, introduce them to Gary if applicable. Do some of this groundwork.

• All the above(asking questions) still applies....if they are experts in something, can you pick their brain at some point.
posted by Wolfster at 7:19 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Try and wrap your head around what it is that your boss does, that you haven't so far had to do. In addition to the technical issues you probably deal with on a daily basis, he's got to deal with larger organizational and political issues while insulating you from them so that you can focus on your technical work. All that tech work you do takes place in a context that is shaped by non-technical economic, interpersonal and political issues. The better you understand those larger issues, the more insight you'll have into where you're headed and what you ought to steer towards.

Your aunt sounds like a great resource. Ask her, 'How did you transition from a technical role into an executive one?"
posted by jon1270 at 7:20 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: On stepping up while your boss is gone: you don't say exactly what your role is, but I'd say if you keep things running smoothly and deal with problems that come up, that's stepping up. This means you will need to make decisions on your own and overcome your tendency to ask for permission before doing something. Another piece of this, depending on what you do, is likely to be team/interpersonal skills and managing people. I would ask your boss for some details about what he does on a daily basis and what you should be looking out for while he's gone. I think a good measure of whether you're doing a good job "stepping up" is if you're handling everything and your boss can come back seamlessly, without a huge pile of work waiting for him.

On your aunt, assigned mentor, and networking in general: Think of it less as asking people for help and more as just meeting people who you might like, who you have something in common with, and who you could learn from. You can always ask questions like: what has your career path been like? How did you get where you are today? What are your favorite and least favorite things about what you do? Do you have any advice for me, as someone just starting out? For your assigned mentor, this person may or may not actively want to help you (depending on whether they signed up to be a mentor or were recruited into it), but you could always ask them the questions you just asked us. And if you're not comfortable doing that at first, maybe just say, "Hey, you're my mentor, let's go out for coffee and get to know each other better," and then you can chat about work or ask them the questions above.

Many people like to help others. It makes them feel good. And nearly everyone likes to talk about themselves and give advice. You're not imposing on them.
posted by chickenmagazine at 7:41 AM on August 22, 2012

An off the wall suggestion: perhaps there are software solutions to this? LinkedIn is of course an example of a SaaS solution to keeping up with, and track of colleagues, but perhaps you could rig up some kind of decision tree/goals thing in Visio (or whatever the cool kids are using nowadays - I personally find mind mapping software to be more helpful.)

The idea is that by reframing these issues as issues where you have to deploy the appropriate appliance you might stumble upon some falsifiability and/or testable methods for addressing your concerns, whether those solutions are ultimately software solutions or not.
posted by digitalprimate at 10:44 AM on August 22, 2012

Best answer: I'm not in IT or a big corporation, but it seems to me that the best people to ask about what you should do during your boss' absence are your assigned mentor and your boss.

Consulting others, like your designated mentor or your aunt, is not asking for help in the "please do my homework for me" way, it's more like "let me interview you for my project" - you will learn from them things you can't learn from others, books or the Internet. It is also good/useful for mentors to think about their history/experience in a different way by talking to a mentee, so dont think its a one way relationship. My advice is to give them some context about the issue(s) you are facing/contemplating and ask open ended questions.

The chance to step up means the chance to stretch and demonstrate what you can do, but you also don't want to over reach or step on toes. I would imagine that dealing with the unexpected will be part of it - but it will also be knowing when to consult others.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 6:48 PM on August 22, 2012

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