Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Career Development 101

Whether you have just graduated, are stuck in a dead-end job, are switching careers or just want to move up the corporate ladder a little, career development is something a lot of people struggle with.  They are either under the illusion that it is something that “just kinda happens” or they don’t think it is possible for them.  Or maybe it just isn’t possible right now but whatever their mindset, they neglect to make a plan and look for opportunities to get them the career they have always imagined. 

Career development is not a passive thing.  It is active and ongoing and something that you are going to have to invest some time and energy into.  And it can be complicated but only if you make it complicated and are unprepared to handle the process.  But it is doable; the millions of successful people in the world are a testament to that, so don’t give me any excuses.  I’ve broken it down into five easy stages and though this isn’t an exact science, it should get you off on the right foot.

Know Where You Are
I am pretty sure I have said this before but trying to get somewhere in life without knowing where you are starting from is pointless.  Even Google maps realize this and won’t give you directions unless you provide the search engine with a Point A and a Point B.  My mother doesn’t understand this concept as she constantly calls me from the road, asking for directions, but since she has no idea where she is, I can’t help which is why we got her a GPS last Christmas.

The same is true for you with respect to career development.  If you don’t know where you are or what you have to start with, getting to where you want to be is a shot in the dark.  Make an inventory of your career related skills.  Did you go to school?  What courses did you take?  Do you have any previous related career experience?  Do you have any industry contacts that could point you in the right direction?  Why do you what to go into a particular career?  What motivates you?  These are all important things to consider when plotting your career development if for no other reason that your potential employer will care and you need to have the answers.

Also, when writing down your experience, make sure it is career specific at this stage.  If you have to stretch your imagination to find a link then chances are it isn’t a strong enough asset.  Building up your “relevant work experience” may lend you confidence, but you are only fooling yourself.  For example, when I was applying for a high school summer job at a coffee shop (Tim Hortons, if you must know), I put the fact that I had my lifeguarding on my résumé.  Unless people were going to be falling in and drowning into the ice cappuccino machine, this experience was irrelevant to my ability to serve a cup of coffee in 16.2 seconds to surely morning caffeine addicts.

Know Where You Want to Be
This makes sense if you use the direction analogy again because just like I can’t give my mother directions without knowing where she is, I also can’t help her get anywhere if she doesn’t know where she wants to go and neither can her GPS.

Where do you see yourself in one year? Five years? Ten years even… If you had the time, money and connections to find your dream job, what would it be?

Feel free to dream big here, however, also remember to keep some realistic expectations in mind.  Not everyone gets to be the Queen of England, Leader of the UN or the first person to land on Pluto.  But don’t let that intimidate you. Even if your dream job is outside of your current career trajectory, there is no reason why it still cannot work out.  You have options and there are very few limits that cannot be overcome (except for my mother’s inability to read a map).

Know What You Need to Get There
Time for a reality check.  You now know where you are and can compare it to where you want to be, the gap between the two places can now be measured.  This is not the time to be underestimating the difference because you will only be short-changing yourself.

Consider a variety of different ways to get where you want to go (sleeping your way there is not an option).  Do you need to go back to school?  Do you need to get some more work experience? Would an internship be useful?  Many people use internships to get their foot in the door somewhere they really want to work.  Are you willing to take a potential pay cut?  Is it going to mean travelling more?  Do you have the right contacts and if not, who do you need to connect with to make things happen?  What time frame are you looking at?

Knowing what you will need to bridge the gap between the “here” and the “there” is a critical stage because this will become your road map or in my mother’s case, the GPS.  And as long as you avoid driving into the lake metaphorically speaking, there is no reason why you won’t be able to develop your career as you desire.

Write It Down
After you are done all this planning and strategizing, write it down.  Writing it down will make your plan concrete and give you a visual representation of the steps and milestones you need to reach in order to get your dream career. 

A useful tool would be a work-back schedule.  If you are not sure what that is, feel free to click the link and read up on it some more but basically it is a schedule that starts with what you want to accomplish at the top and works backward detailing every single step needed to get there along with specific actions, tools needed and deadlines.  If you do it right, the schedule will look quite daunting.  However, by breaking everything you need to accomplish into tiny, manageable chunks and outlining what needs to be done to accomplish that small goal, you will be surprised how quickly things get checked off the list.

Having an actual list will serve the purpose of keeping you goal-orientated and on track as you can always refer back to it if you stumble, take a detour, or just need a reminder of what you are striving for.

Do It
And last but not least, you have to do it.  Many of us spend all our time planning and not actually doing.  It is great to have goals and an action plan but if you never get around to executing it, it isn’t worth the paper or hard drive space you wrote it on.

Creating a Career Action Plan for Myself - Workopolis

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Top 30 "You-Gotta-Try-This" Cuban Vacations

Everyone wants to make sure they get the most out of their vacation.  After all, you have precious few vacation days to use each year and you don’t want to waste them on something as dull as your second cousin’s niece’s ballet school’s dance recital. (Go figure).  So if you do take a vacation and Cuba is your destination, here is a list of the top 30 things that you don’t want to miss out on.  
  1. Snorkeling at Pilar Beach (Playa Pilar), Cayo Coco 
  2. Sun bathing on the Varadero Beach, Varadero 
  3. Horseback riding in Valle de Vinales, Vinales 
  4. Learn Spanish at the University of Havana, Havana 
  5. Wind surfing at Playa Paraiso Beach, Cayo Largo 
  6. Photography in Old Havana, Havana 
  7. Ride a catamaran around Cayo Blanco, Matanzas 
  8. Jazz street music at Old Square (Plaza Vieja), Havana 
  9. Swim in the El Nicho Waterfalls, Cienfuegos 
  10. Art restoration at the Romance Museum, Trinidad 
  11. The Revolution history at the Mausoleo del Che Guevara, Santa Clara 
  12. Soak up the nightlife at Plaza Mayor, Trinidad 
  13. Traditional Cuba dancing in Plaza de la Catedral, Havana 
  14. Get a glimpse of colonial Cuba at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Cuba, Havana 
  15. Witness historical architecture at the San Pedro de la Roca del Morro Castle, Santiago de Cuba 
  16. Play with the dolphins at Bahia de Naranjo Natureu Park, Holguin 
  17. Catch a game of baseball at Estadio Latinamericano, Havana 
  18. Nightly water ballet shows at the Oasis Turquesa Resort, Varadero 
  19. Fire off a canon at Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabana, Havana 
  20. Tour the Christopher Columbus Cemetery, Havana 
  21. Hit the greens at the Varadero Golf Club, Varadero 
  22. Take a jeep tour through Saturno Cave, Varadero 
  23. Dig into literature at the Museo Hemingway Finca Vigia, Havana 
  24. Artists can spend the day painting the scenery at Josone Park, Varadero 
  25. Take in a theatre performance at Gran Teatro de la Habana, Havana 
  26. Mix up some cocktails and fun at Punta Gorda, Cienfuegos 
  27. Roll your own cigars at the Partagas Cigar Factory, Havana 
  28. Check out the sea turtles at the Sea Turtle Hatchery, Cayo Largo 
  29. Develop your own perfume at Chateau Madrid Perfumeria, Marianao 
  30. Classic car show in the Plaza Jose Marti, Cienfuegos

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Avoid Stepping on Thai Toes - Cultural Dos & Don'ts

If you do manage to wade through all the paperwork and travel details required for you to travel abroad for an extended length of time, (good for you by the way), be prepared because the hard part is not yet over.  North American’s like to believe that Western culture is predominant everywhere we go and therefore expect other to understand that being loud, boisterous and prone to colourful language are just some of the innocent ways in which we express ourselves.  And while the locals might to a certain extend understand that yes, that is just the way foreigners are, remember that you are a guest in their country and are obligated to adhere to their way of life and not the other way around.

Therefore here are some cultural dos and don’ts for visiting Thailand.  Get them wrong and in many cases you risk offending someone.  Worst case scenario, you go to jail.  Consider yourself warned.  (dun, dun, dun.)

The Dos of Thailand
  • Smile.  It’s that simple.  Thai culture teaches that any issue can be resolved with a smile so even if you are having trouble with negotiating a price with a vendor, just smile and remember that being polite will often get you much better results.
  • Leave your shoes outside. There are some exceptions to this rule such as large shopping centres but traditional Thais will always remove their shoes before entering a room.  This is especially enforced when you are entering someone’s home or a temple/religious place.
  • Eat with a spoon.  This may sound a little odd but Thai people will use the fork to push food onto the spoon and then eat from the spoon.  Asking for chopsticks will just get you a funny look.
  • “Wai” when greeting people instead of a handshake.  The “wai” is a traditional Thai greeting done by giving a short bow from the waist with your fingertips pressed together near your chest or face. Traditionally, a person of lower rank will “wai” first with their hands closer to their face as a sign of respect.
  • Another sign of being polite in Thailand is to ask questions about age, salary or marital status.  These types of questions might sound too open or even rude to tourists but they are actually very common among the Thai people.  You don’t have to answer, just tell them that it is a secret or ‘mai bok’ (not telling).  And always remember to smile.
  • Buddhism is the dominant religion in Thailand and almost all Thai people practice this religion.  You must take extra care to avoid offending their religion.  Wear appropriate clothing when entering a temple – avoid sleeveless shirts, flip flops, short shorts or skirts or any clothing with crude statements.  Remove your shoes before entering.
  • Try to learn some of the local language.  Even learning a simple greeting will impress the Thai people with your openness and willingness to try to bridge the language barrier. It will earn you metaphorical brownie points.

I said “Nay, nay.”
  • Never shout, lose your temper or cause a scene in public.  This goes with the first point but mainly the gist of it is that Thais do not ever want to been seen “losing face” and doing so is seen as disgraceful.
  • Public displays of affection, even between married people, are frowned upon.  Avoid acts such as hugging, kissing or even hand holding when out and about.
  • The head and the feet of a person are considered to be sacred and taboo respectively.  Do not touch someone on the head and never display the soles of your feet to anyone so avoid crossing your legs.
  • It is illegal to take an image of Buddha out of the country unless special permission has been granted by authorities.  Shops will sell you items but they may not tell you about this restriction.
  • Never show disrespect to the King or the monarchy.  The Thai people have a great respect and affection for their King.  In fact, not only will even the friendliest jest be considered impolite, it is also against the law.  You must also remember to show respect to all things that bear the King’s image.  Local currency falls into this category so it must never be stepped on, crinkled or mishandled.
  • Engaging in prostitution, illegal drugs, trafficking or gambling will land you in prison.  It is as simple as that so don’t.

Of course, this list only scratches the surface so be prepared to do your own research before travelling to Thailand.  If you have any more Dos and Don’ts of your own to add to the list, I want to hear about them so leave a comment and tell me about your experience in Thailand.  Travelling is a great way to meet new people and expose yourself to new cultures and perspective which in a world that is becoming more and more globalized, is extremely important.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Stretch those muscles and flex your culture.

Unless you work at your family owned and operated Italian restaurant, chances are your workplace is going to employ people from a variety of different cultural backgrounds.  There are very few places these days that you can go without encountering someone of a different ethnic, religious, cultural or gender orientated background.  I am a strong believer that diversity is something that everyone should rejoice in because even if you might not agree with someone else’s way of thinking, the chance to interact with people from other backgrounds is an eye-opening experience and a great learning opportunity that allows us to look at the world from a different perspective.

Cross-cultural training is becoming the focus of many multinational companies and even some smaller ones.  Ideally, organizations want to hire people that already have these skills, especially for managerial positions.  However, is culture sensitivity training enough? The following is an excerpt from The Rise of the Global Employee, published by the Australian School of Business:

Cross-cultural training and fluency in a new language are expected parts of the armoury of most multinational managers prior to being dispatched to work in foreign subsidiaries. Typically, they set out confident that they know what to expect and, importantly, that their behaviour will not offend. But preconceived ideas of how local staff members – host-country nationals – might behave in the "new" territory and how the manager might behave towards them are risky.

"People think every local working in a multinational organisation is a representative of the local culture, but that's not the case," says Dan Caprar, a lecturer in Organisation and Management at the Australian School of Business. "In China, for instance, foreign managers tend to assume all of the local staff will behave in a way that matches common stereotypes about Chinese people."

Back when all this globalization stuff was becoming mainstream, (a.k.a. managers finally realized that cultural differences needed to be addressed since they were offending people left, right and centre) companies were under the impression that they could lump all their employees into one big lecture hall, feed them some cultural stereotypes on what sorts of behaviours are deemed normal and acceptable and assume that everyone would get along just peachy after that.  After all, this was the Age of Information and Technology and you could take whatever golden piece of wisdom you found on Wikipedia to the bank.

Their newly trained employees remained ill-equipped to work in a multinational company.   This was due to a number of reasons however the main reason was that for all their cross-cultural training, employees were still unable to look at each individual as a person and not just a stereotype.

When people work for a multinational company, they too become multinational.  The Asian employees are taught to see things from a global perspective much like the Americans are.  According to the Business Spectator, “they see themselves as ‘global citizens’ – modern, cosmopolitan and sophisticated.”  They integrate themselves into a more diverse culture and become atypical of their country in many senses.  These employees will then proceed to get frustrated when they are labelled and treated as something other than what they are.

So is cross-cultural diversity training bad?  No, of course not.  Is it enough?  Once again, no.  An article from the Harvard Business Review (HBR) actually outlines a situation where diversity training actually made a situation worse.  If not done correctly, it can actually promote prejudices and stereotypes instead of teaching people how to work well with others from another background.  People begin to be seen by their culture instead of their individuality.  The article, which is titled “Diversity Training Doesn’t Work” goes on to suggest that instead of cross-cultural training and diversity session, corporations promote communication training as an alternative and teach employees how to listen and speak with each other as people.

My recommendation falls in line with HBR’s suggestion.  Communicate.  Talk to other people.  Go out in the world deliberately to meet new people and talk with them.  Chances are you will find it immensely interesting and rewarding as you travel the world simply to have a conversation.  Whether you are a student, a professional or recently retired, consider participating in some sort of international exchange program or internship.  You are guaranteed to learn at least a little bit about a certain skill and a lot about what makes people and their cultural backgrounds unique. These unique experiences will prepare you well for the globalized workplace no matter what industry you pursue.