Career advice from Mom, seriously

From time to time, I’ve chatted with my daughter about work and career.

I’ve given her advice and she, rather than quickly changing the subject, has actually listened and said things like “Good idea, Mom.”

But I feel you wondering, “Career advice from Mom? What kind of career are we talking about? Cooking advice, maybe, but career advice?”

OK, just stick with me here! I have decades of experience in the public sector (in government) and the private sector (in an engineering consulting company). Along the way I’ve learned some invaluable lessons.

Strong communication skills will set you apart

Take engineers, for example. They all have the basics—an engineering degree, engineering skills, usually a fair amount of engineering experience. But that’s not enough! Most engineers need to write reports and other documents. They need to make presentations, in some cases before a large international audience of experts.

And many of them are not good writers or good public speakers because they get no training or, what’s worse, inadequate training. I’m using them as examples because in my career I’ve worked mostly with engineers. But nearly every job requires strong communication skills.

Examples from the Real World of Work

  • I’ve reviewed so many draft documents which were unclear, rambling, unorganized, repetitive, or lacking vital information. I can’t pick just one or two. The fascinating part, though, is that–when I went to talk to the engineer who drafted the document–he or she would be articulate, thoughtful, organized, clear, and concise. He obviously understood the subject matter and could explain it clearly to someone who was not an engineer, but when he sat down to write, something got lost.
  • I had a job that required off-site training, focused mainly on public speaking. As is too often the case in the public sector, it was of the one-size-fits-all variety. By the time I took the training, I’d had about 3 years of Toastmasters and was a pretty fair speaker. One of my classmates, however, was an engineer who was obviously quite nervous during his presentation. When asked afterward by our instructor how nervous he was on a scale of 1 to 10, (ten being practically hysterical) he said “at least an eleven.”

The sad thing is that this man was competent, motivated, and personable. He didn’t get the help he needed to become a more confident public speaker; all he got was a check by his name showing that he’s received the mandatory training.

My advice

If you are a good writer and a good public speaker, you will really stand out. If you want to improve your skills, be proactive. To become a better public speaker, join Toastmasters. You’ll learn a lot, have a lot of fun, and meet many wonderful and supportive people. To find a club near you, do a search at

The path to becoming a better writer is less well defined. I think that a person learns to be a better writer the same way she learns anything. That is, by finding a mentor and going through successive cycles of these steps:

get some instruction–write a short piece–get feedback–rewrite based on the feedback–get feedback on the revised piece

Finding a mentor is probably the hardest part, so try this baby-step: Ask a good writer at work to review a draft for you (just one) and give you some feedback. Rewrite the draft and ask him to look it over. Thank him profusely. Think about asking him another time.

Becoming a life-long learner can pay big dividends

Things change, and one of the things that’s very likely to change is that you find yourself managing a team to get a project done. And then another.

Examples from the Real World of Work

#1.  I heard a terrific presentation once, called “The Accidental Project Manager.” After some time on the job, the presenter (let’s call him Arnold) was asked to manage a project and then another and another. He learned from his experience by observing what seemed to work and what didn’t work so well.

The technical term for this approach is “trial-and-error.” A little is OK, but there comes a time to learn from the accumulated experience of others.You don’t need to actually make every possible mistake; you can save a lot of time by just reading about them.

So Arnold applied to a Certificate Program in Project Management at the University of Washington. Such programs generally last for an academic year with evening classes several nights a week and, of course, papers and assignments along the way. This is a significant commitment of time on top of a day-job, a family, and other commitments. It may also be a significant investment of money, although some employers reimburse the tuition.

#2.  I have a certificate in Technical Writing and Editing from the same university. I applied to the Certificate Program at the height of the dotcom boom in Seattle when the newspapers had page after page of job listings for technical writers. I hoped to get a job paying an obscene amount of money. As it turned out, though, the dotcom boom abruptly turned into a dotcom bust. Ultimately, however, I did get a job as a technical writer. And even though I’d had lots of prior experience writing technical documents and reports, I’m convinced that my certificate is what got me the job. Sometimes people need to see a piece of paper that says you can do something, even when you’ve been doing it (and doing it well) for a long time.

My advice

Certificate programs and other such training can be a great help whether you’re looking for a job or you have a job and your duties are changing or you’d like to change careers. Investing time (and perhaps your own money) in your career makes good sense.

If you’re going to be a Team Player, be sure you’re on the right team

Here’s where it gets more controversial. No one is likely to object strongly to my first two pieces of advice. They are really win-win suggestions: you gain stronger job skills and your employer gains a more skilled employee.

But these days being seen as Not a Team Player puts your job, perhaps your entire career, in jeopardy. When a business (public or private) is operating legally, ethically, and morally, being a team player is easy, natural, something you barely need to think about.

The WaMu story

But what if the business is taking shortcuts or ignoring safety requirements or doing things which put its customers, its own employees, perhaps the whole economy at risk? What if the business is pressuring its employees to put aside their principles, their core beliefs, for financial gain? What if they are laying off employees who object, who are Not Team Players?

Think Washington Mutual Bank  (WaMu as it was called in Seattle). For a long time, it was just another bank. Then it starting growing bigger and bigger. Its CEO started pushing lots and lots of risky sub-prime mortgages, ignoring the protests of the bank’s risk-management group and some of its other employees.

WaMu made a ton of money while it lasted, but it didn’t last. And in October, 2008, it failed–the largest bank failure in U.S. history. And all the Team Players lost their jobs and health insurance and, in some cases, their life savings. I suspect that some also lost their homes. All they have left is resumes showing their many years at WaMu.

Advice to rocket scientists

I’ll close with an eloquent warning on this subject called “Advice to Rocket Scientists: How to be Successful and Happy in a Career Where Science and Politics Often Clash.” (By J. Longuski, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2003). It’s directed to engineers but has meaning for all of us:

You can not fool Mother Nature. You may receive orders from the top of your company to do otherwise. A great deal of money may be involved. The President may be giving an important speech. But you know better than to confuse political reality with physical reality.

Some day you will be tested. It may be on a minor matter or it may be of great significance. This is when you will need all the courage you can muster. This is when you and others will learn about your character.

You will not be alone. You will have Galileo and Newton and Euler and Lagrange on your side. You will have your fellow engineers behind you.

Do not be afraid to make the right decision and to stand by it.

I welcome your comments and any other additional advice you’d like to offer.

Photo by franklin_hunting

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Madeleine Kolb 07/19/2010, 9:30 pm

    Most people certainly have the basics to do their job, but having
    good communications skills and the discipline to learn new skills will bring so many opportunities.

    I appreciate your comment.

  • Aileen 07/19/2010, 4:02 pm

    This is a really great & timeless post! I love the humorous title too!!
    Strong communication, life long learner & Play on the right team – these are golden!
    .-= Aileen´s last blog ..It’s Mid-July- Are You Experiencing Summer =-.

  • Madeleine Kolb 03/17/2010, 12:29 pm

    Thank you, Justin. I’m glad that you’re going to try Toastmasters, and I’m sure you’ll get a lot out of it.

  • Justin Dixon 03/17/2010, 11:50 am

    This is a hard post to follow up with a comment; you covered every topic so well that its hard to add anything to it. I’m supposed to be going to a toastmasters meeting here in about a week. It will be my first one, and it is due to coming to the same conclusion as your first bit of advice. All of this is well said.