Teamwork, Mentors and Success

 

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How many people have an official mentor? Someone who is an expert in an area that they have weaknesses in? I haven’t met too many people with mentors, however the vast majority of people I’ve met with a mentor have been very successful. While having a mentor is not a guarantee of success, not having one will likely ensure that you have to work harder to achieve what you are trying to accomplish.

Most of my life I did not have mentors. I simply didn’t come from the kind of background where I was taught to seek out the guidance of those who are more successful. It was an unspoken rule that these people are “too busy for you” and you shouldn’t bother them. As a result, I have always had to figure out things on my own, from the simplest tasks to the more complex situations like learning to navigate the highly political culture of corporate America as a woman of color and career planning.

However, ever since I started working in real estate, I have forced myself to break out of my shell and make the right contacts. Developing the skills required to talk to everyone, even those I considered to be out of my league, has been critical in helping me acquire new clients as well as transition out to of a bad real estate firm ran by a dishonest broker who misappropriated escrow funds. I had to learn that no one would think I belonged in the room or that I was entitled to their time if I did not believe it myself. I had to have the confidence that showed them that I was worth the conversation, the introduction, the contract.

With that new found confidence, I accidentally stumbled into a mentor relationship with someone who wants to partner with me and help me acquire more business. While her extensive experience will make her my mentor, we have agreed to work as a team to bring in business and I am projected to do 5 times more sales this year with her help than I could achieve on my own.

I could have very well observed her success and determined that seeking her help would be bothering her. But being open to networking and realizing that I had a lot to offer myself, gave me the confidence to approach the broker for a formal introduction. That introduction has led to a mutually beneficial relationship that will reflect a tremendous increase in my income, getting me closer to my goal of financial freedom, first through debt repayment and subsequently through investments in activities that will generate steady and reliable passive income. Because I built up the necessary confidence to market my skills and show myself to be a valuable team player, someone with the ability to help me succeed determined: I like you! I want to work with you so I will guide you.

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Networking for the Introvert: Through Volunteer Work

Networking might sound like a cliche buzzword as much as it’s  thrown around, but in today’s world, you won’t survive without a strong network. Technology has managed to achieve making the world both big and small. Our interconnection has made the world a much smaller place since anyone can now reach out to anyone else via the internet. Just look at twitter for example. We can now have the ear of any politician, movie star or athlete. They may ignore us, but we can contact them. At the same time, the world has become gigantic in the sense that your competition pool has expanded all around the world.

No longer do people in your town have to settle for the skills of the smartest person in a 5-mile radius. They can now offer relocation packages to any bright mind around the world who speaks the language. Are you the sharpest butter knife in a drawer full of blunt tools? You could have gotten a job back in the 70s. Today, not so much. The candidates are the best and brightest and if they’re willing to move on their own dime, even better. Who you know still matters greatly. Humans are social animals and a personal connection with the right person will give you an edge all else being equal.

Everyone tells you that you need to network but no one how best to do it. There are various ways that range from the laziest form of networking which we favor since it doesn’t actually involve talking to people (LinkedIn), to the most involved forms. Personally, I am starting to favor the get-your-hands-dirty approach. I think that the most involved approaches to networking have the most successful outcomes. Sure, you won’t make 50 connections in minutes our hours, but you should appreciate the quality of your network over the size of the network.

But how do you do it and why is it more effective?

Starting out is easy. Non-profit organizations are short on resources and are always looking for free help. If you demonstrate strong leadership and work ethic early consistently over time, you could very well find yourself “rising through the ranks” and end up serving on a board. Whether you are the boots on the ground or one of the trustees, you are likely going to rub elbows with some important people. Volunteering aka free work is a luxury that few can afford. Those who are successful and feel the need to give back to the community and/or those who are independently wealthy and can afford to dedicate a great deal of time to making the world a better place through philanthropy are exactly the kind of people who you want to know. You also then have common ground to start a conversation.

This is a more effective way of meting people because you’re working along side each other and have unprecedented access to people you may not have been able to talk to otherwise. With the hierarchy gone, the conversation can flow. You also know that you have at least one common interest: the cause for which you’re dedicating your time and effort. If you’ve ever been to a meet up group, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. There are 50+ people in a room with nothing in common and are focus exclusively on getting the attention of the highest ranking person in the room. They have no ability to showcase their skill and sometimes, if you’re unlucky enough, they’re trying to sell you something as part of a pyramid scheme. You walk out exhausted having to talk to all these people and compete with them for attention. You leave with more frustrations than valuable connections as you start walking from group to group ruling people out that you’d never want to connect with. On the other hand, you can be productive, do something for the greater good and rub elbows with potential mentors who have similar interests as  you. Seems like an easy choice.

 

Are You Maximizing LinkedIn?

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When I first heard of LinkedIn some years ago, someone explained it to me as the “Big kids’ Facebook”. That made me think of it as a social networking site for older people who have “adult” things to talk about. I promise that I don’t mean that in the XXX-rated sense. It did not take long for me to join the site before I realized that this was a simplistic view of a powerful platform that helps connect professionals all over the world.

Unlike Facebook, your ability to lurk on LinkedIn are limited to connections at the 2nd or 3rd levels. The controls in place also limit who you can contact and connect with, which is an attempt at curbing those who might want to artificially boost their network by sending out random connection requests. The website has matured tremendously since I first joined. You can now search and apply for jobs directly using the information on your profile, the recommendation feature has been enhanced, as well as users ability to build their portfolio through articles, posting media and publishing prior writings.

However, despite all the positive changes, many have not found LinkedIn to be as useful as it proclaims. Although I do not have any complaints about the site, I don’t think it’s fair for me to dismiss their claims. After all, I am not looking for a job, so if no one contacts me, I don’t see a flaw in the system. And even though I am not looking for work, I still receive “InMail” approximately every 3 months from recruiters with offers that I kindly turn down every time.

So for those who are looking, how can you position yourself to be noticed by all the right people?

Your Picture

Have a professional picture. Unlike a resume that does not require a picture, your LinkedIn profile is not complete without one. To someone who has never met you, this is their first impression of you. Your picture should portray you as you would look in a job interview. Your attire should not be too casual, your hair should be neat, your posture should be appropriate, and your face should be groomed adequately (no heavy night-life make up for women, no edgy facial hair on men).

The Headline

A headline is defined as: “denoting a particularly notable or important piece of news“. Your headline is not your life story. It should tell the reader the first and most important thing you want them to know about you. Don’t make jokes (unless you’re a stand-up comic), don’t leave it blank, don’t write about your childhood. Keep it short and to the point. Anything more or less shows that you can’t follow instructions. For example: “Oncology Nurse Practitioner with more than 15 years of experience.” is a much better headline than “Every day for the past 15 years, I’ve looked at death in the face through the eyes of my cancer patients. I have wanted to do this since my best friend died when I was 13.”

Summary

The name says it all. You are supposed to write a summary of your background and what makes you a valuable asset. Recruiters have a lot of prospects to consider. They will not look at every section of your profile unless they are very interested in you. You should write your summary with that fact in mind. Your goal should be that you say as much as possible to catch the reader’s eye and entice them to keep reading, but doing so in as few words as you can get away with.

For example, “I am an attorney in Massachusetts at a full service business law firm, located in Boston. Areas of expertise include real estate financing and development, including affordable housing development and financing. Projects include those with public funding sources and multi-tiered financing and tax credits.” is short enough for us to scan through it very quickly, however, we know a few key things about this person: s/he is a lawyer admitted to the Massachusetts Bar, with experience in business law and a focus on real estate, including affordable housing. If s/he started by telling us why they attended law school, we would have been bored and might have moved on before getting to the most relevant parts.

Experience

Your most recent job should have the most detail. While your past experience is relevant, they don’t care as much about the job you did 5 years ago unless it was a stepping stone that helped you transition to a higher position. If you used to be a teller and now you’re a lawyer, your reader will not put as much weight on your customer service skills as they will put on your litigation skills.

Connecting

Don’t be afraid to connect with people. If you’ve met someone and you had a meaningful professional conversation with them, chances are they will remember you, as long as you do it shortly after you had the opportunity to talk to them and they still remember you. For example, my 3 most recent connections are with people who I talked to at length about things we were passionate about, then within a week I received request from all of them. LinkedIn is the 21st century business card. It is the best way to stay in touch. I happily take someone’s card, however, eventually it starts to pile up and create clutter and I am tempted to recycle them. However, I can have 500+ connections and never have to worry about having to find a way to maintain tiny rectangular cards in a drawer or folder. This will help you build your network and will make it much easier for you to reach out to people if you need to.

Skills

Include your skills in your profile. Updating your skills not only allows users to see who else shares their skills, but it gives your connections the ability to endorse your abilities.

Be Professional

LinkedIn is not Facebook. Your ability to restrict what others see is limited. In fact, the website controls it as part of their marketing to get others to sign up. However, your profile and activity are relatively wide-open to thousands of people you don’t know. Do not post anything that you would not want your boss or potential boss to see. Stay away from political conversations, don’t discuss religion and do not complain or vent. It is important to understand your audience when you interact on a professional networking platform. Your reader is looking to learn more about your skills and network, either because they want to hire you or they want to connect with you. If you appear to be unstable, controversial, or vengeful, you will not get a lot of positive attention.

These are just some of the things that I can think of that will help improve traffic as well as the quality of the mail you reach. Take the time to review your profile and see what changes you can make today to get the right call tomorrow.

Work-Life Balance for the Type A Personality

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We all know the one: never late, always busy, own toughest critic, etc. If you don’t know that guy or gal, s/he is probably you. People with Type A personalities tend to be successful academically and career-wise. They usually have a lot of the characteristics that make them excel. Unfortunately, they also have characteristics that might make their personal lives suffer. If you have that ambitious spirit and competitive nature driven by high energy that is making your family and friends miserable, here are some ways to curb your bad habits:

Trade perfection for practicality: Learn to be ok with doing things right rather than doing things perfectly. If you are that driven, you are smart enough to know that chasing perfectionism is futile. Human nature simply won’t let us be great. The opposite of perfection is not mediocrity. Find the balance and relax a little.

Delegate: I should take my own advice in this area. But there is no greater insult to your team or your partner than to refuse to let go. You’re sending one of two messages: “I don’t trust you” or, “You are incompetent”. Learn people’s strengths and weaknesses and delegate accordingly. Should you have the most introverted employee go to a client meeting? Maybe not. But that person might also be the most organized and could thrive in an assignment that allows them to use that skill. You don’t have rearrange all the cabinets, and coordinate catering, AND meet with all the clients, AND pick up the kids from school, AND chaperone the girl scouts’ trip etc. That’s why there are employees, interns, assistants, spouses, grandmothers.

Take a break: I get it. Being smart and successful makes you feel invincible. But you aren’t. You need sleep, adequate nutrition and love. You also need time, and unfortunately we only get 24 hours, which aren’t even promised. There is always something to be done and if you don’t force yourself to stop, your duties will seem endless, because they are. Value your mental and emotional health as much as you value your success and schedule time off for some self-care.

If none of these sound appealing, consider the fact that people with Type A personalities are at a higher risk of a heart attack. If that’s not motivation, I don’t know what is.

Don’t Count on a Paycheck

A Little History

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We live in an uncertain world and we have for a long time. Those of us who are millennials don’t even know what job security is outside of something we heard or parents and grandparents discuss as part of the “good old days”.

As a young adult of the great recession, my introduction to job uncertainty came early given that I graduated in 2007 and launched a financial services career. While I landed a full-time job within 2 weeks of graduation, I did not have a chance to celebrate my 1st anniversary when Bear Sterns crashed and lay-off started quietly happening. Initially it was nothing to worry about as upper management targeted poor performers and those with questionable attendance records. However, as 2008 progressed and interest rates went on wild roller coaster ride, the Lehman crash came a few short months later, things got real.

The stock market crash increased the urgency to mitigate losses and the leadership began to run out of bad performers to terminate. It seemed as though every week, someone would get a tap on the shoulder early Monday morning and we’d never see them again. Things got so bad that I would talk to my mom on Friday afternoons and I would say: “Another week, another paycheck. I don’t know if I’ll survive next week, but they at least owe me a week’s worth of work.”

Even then it didn’t hit me that something was wrong with the way I was living and that I had to make a change. I was preoccupied with saving for a house, establishing my career and working on building relationships. However, once I bought my first home, I knew that I had to do anything I could possibly do to keep it. I invested a lot of money acquiring the house and I was moving away from a less than desirable living situation. That really opened my eyes to the changes I needed to make.

Building Streams

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The Roommate: I knew that I could live on the money I was earning because I made sure to not over extend myself with the house purchase. However, I also knew that I had way more space than I needed and I should find a way to maximize it all. My first order of business was to get a roommate. After negotiating on rent, we settled on an amount that totaled 45% of the housing costs (mortgage, HOA dues, all utilities). She did not know that as she was simply negotiating what was in her best interest, but it worked out very well for me. I was the sole owner of the house, building equity, reaping tax advantages of home ownership and paying less than 60% to enjoy all of that.

Retail: But the roommate benefits did not end there. Shortly after, I found out that she was the manager of a retail store that sold expensive items (I’m being purposefully vague). She had a lot of personality issues (she turned out to be a total bitch) and had constant turn over on staff and I saw an opportunity there. At the time, my then boyfriend (now husband) was in the military, stationed a few hours drive away from me and we were limited on when we could see each other. It did not make any sense to just be at home all day doing nothing. There are so many times we can get on Facetime with each other just say “watchu doin’?”. Her and I talked and I got myself a side gig at the store. I was grossing between $700 and $1,000 a month working Saturdays, Sundays and the occasional holiday. I got a buck over minimum wage plus commission.

Having a paycheck that was going right into savings was addictive and I was hooked! That was the missing piece from my life back in 2009-2010. The peace of mind that an extra stream of income brought really changed my perception of money.

Marriage: My roommate and I eventually clashed as she did with everyone else at the store and I lost that source. She also moved out within a month of me quitting and I also lost that source of income. But by then, I had built up a nice cushion of savings and I was well on my way to bringing my bank account back to pre-down payment levels. However, 2 months after that departure, my husband turned in his DoD issued equipment and drove a U-Haul bursting at the seams down to Massachusetts and just like that I had a dual income household. When he came, he brought 2 streams of income with him. He not only got a job within 3 weeks of leaving the military, he also collects payments from the VA.

Rental Income: Not long after we got married, we found a good deal on a house. The elderly couple who was going through a divorce, simply wanted to shed the last thing they had in common and we took full advantage of that. But that wasn’t our only big decision. We still had to decide what we would do with the condo if we couldn’t qualify for a loan with the condo loan on my credit report. Through some miracle, we were approved and decided to rent out the unit. I began advertising the condo for rent as soon as the closing date was set. On the morning we closed, we came home with both our integrated loan disclosure and a signed 1-year lease for a rental amount that was $300 more than the operating costs to maintain the condo. Not only could we continue to reap the benefits of home ownership, on one of our properties, someone else will be building up the equity for us.

Investments/Savings Dividends: We are certainly very diversified in our investments. We have money in real estate, stocks, mutual funds, high yield CDs, peer-to-peer lending. We are finally starting to see small cash payments from our non-retirement investments unrelated to real estate. Recently we started seeing some cash dividends from various sources being deposited in our accounts.

Raises: While these don’t count as additional income sources because they are from the same source we’re looking to reduce our reliance on (9-5 paycheck), their power cannot be denied if used wisely. We both were blessed enough to receive material raises over the past year and what we have chosen to do with that income has made a great deal of difference in our lives. Instead of inflating our lifestyle, we used the funds to accelerate debt payments, mostly my student loans as they are the ones with the highest interest rate. While I don’t consider pay increases from our day jobs as an additional source of income, I believe that the way we used them to reduce our debt and increase our savings rate should have a similar effect on our peace of mind by reducing our burdens and giving us one less thing to worry about.

Although I will stop there, this is not the end of the list. I will come back with Part 2 to reveal additional income sources, how we got them and how we’re putting them to good use.

 

The Lesson from For-Profit Colleges

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In case you’ve been in Antarctica with limited cell service, you’ve heard of the disgraceful collapse Corinthian “college”, the corporation that has been mascarading as a higher education institution for several decades, preying on low-income, usually minority, individuals promising them a way out of dead-end jobs, while having inadequate accreditation and saddling them with absurd amounts of debt.

The reason why that organization was so successful at tricking and trapping students is because we have all these proven studies that show college graduates earn way more than those with high school diplomas over a lifetime. This company used that information to lure students and convince them that paying for useless training was an investment in their future, even when they knew that their own job placement and salary statistics were overstated/misleading.

While we know that college graduates do earn more on average, that doesn’t change the fact that a degree is not a universal guarantee of high earnings. Other factors are crucial in determining your earning potential, such as your grades, your major, the industry you choose, the reputation of your Alma Mater, your professional network/contacts, the overall strength of both the economy at the national and local level. Matriculation is only one of the necessary steps.

But this is for those who want to go to school. What about those who don’t want to go to school? Those for whom traditional schooling isn’t possible either because of their limited capabilities or their lack of interest in lengthy papers, class presentations, and final exams? Should we as a society simply accept that they won’t be high earners? Even if we settle for that, it doesn’t mean they would. That unwilllngness to settle for minimal wages due to lack of formal training, combined with our complacency at creating non-traditional educational paths to help them develop useful skills contributes to turning these poor students into prey.

Our society doesn’t respect or value non-traditional schools. We don’t place any value on trade schools or alternative secondary education as we should. Not long ago I found out that my cousin may not be on track to graduate on time and may have changed majors for the third time in 3 years. He also made some comments that a discerning ear would understand that he is suggesting he’s not interested in traditional schooling. As someone with a graduate degree, I know that few people will make it far in life if they limit themselves only to a high school education. That is after all why I sacrificed my time and invested thousands into going back to school even with a full-time job on my plate. However, I would not dare ask him to explore alternative options as I know this would upset my family greatly and, while it sounds extreme, might even ostracize me.

While my cousin doesn’t attend a for-profit school, if he does not graduate, I do not see how the results will be much different. He will still be saddled with debt from 3 years worth of tuition attending a school to appease his family, while having no worthwhile degree to improve his earning potential. If anything, this might even put him in a less favorable position. These questionable schools have a track record on preying on students and they subsequently lost their accreditation and have been filing for bankruptcy left and right since 2015. Unlike them, he attends an accredited school with acceptable retention and graduation rates. He will not get the same sympathy victims of Corinthian Colleges got. He will not be able to sue, he will not get his loans pardoned and he will not be given the benefit of the doubt.

So what could he have done? Not going the traditional path would not necessarily doom him to predatory for profit schools. He could have done full-time sales, started in real estate, became a contractor, etc. Although these have the potential of being good paying jobs for those who are dedicated, they don’t have the “prestige” of saying you have a bachelor’s degree. They don’t put you on a path of becoming a physician or attorney. And to those who still insist on valuing people based on 1950’s standards, they will impose restrictions on their children that drive them to make life ruining decisions.

2016 Massachusetts Conference for Women

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“Lead. Follow. Or get out of the way.”

Earlier in November, I received an invitation to the 12th annual Massachusetts Conference for Women. Although I had never attended before, a friend and neighbor who is a bright and ambitious woman, was once on a discussion panel at a previous year’s conference, therefore I knew all about the event and the potential it had to give me invaluable insight. As a result, I accepted  quickly and without hesitation.

On Thursday December 8, 2016, I sat in the Boston Convention Center in awe, along with more than 10,000 other business and entrepreneurial minded women (and a few men) as we watch these accomplished, hardworking and confident women on stage talk about their challenges, successes, struggle to be accepted while fighting to maintain their authenticity. We listened to stories of sexual assault, self-doubt, sexism and racism they faced to overcome and get a seat at the table.

It was amazing to see women mentoring each other and supporting one another. Women who have achieved what the rest of us can only aspire to be for now, taking the time to equip us with the tools necessary to discover our power and wield it from any level of our organizations. Pearls of wisdom that have the potential change lives. The diversity of ideas, backgrounds,  and industries was encouraging as it demonstrated that the paths to success are many. My toughest choice there was having to decide which break out panel session to skip while I attend another, as they all seemed to be competing for attendance, not with marketing gimmicks, but with the quality of presentation and the credentials of the speakers.

I know that in an uncertain world where, despite our strides, we continue to face discrimination, physical violence, high barriers to entry in leadership roles, it is easy to forget how truly amazing we can be. However, if you take the time to listen to the stories of the sisterhood, you will realize that there is a global village of trailblazing women who have already worked to lessen our own burden.