Self-limiting beliefs – Not for Cathy Hughes!

One of the biggest obstacles to success is having self-limiting beliefs. I’m definitely a victim to self-limiting thinking. Often I’m caught myself in doubt due to my age, lack of education, my mental health issues, financial situation or whatever else I can find in the dark recesses of my mind.

I came across a wonderful podcast today on How I Built This. This episode featured Cathy Hughes . Cathy is the founder of Radio One. She is now 70 years old and has a net worth of over $500 million.

I won’t go into every detail of Cathy’s story and recommend you listen to the podcast and read Wikipedia. The major points that I took from Cathy’s story is that she had no self-limiting beliefs. She had a goal and had no doubt that she would achieve it.

However, Cathy had several potential obstacles that many would consider insurmountable to achieve even minor success:

  • Lived in housing projects as a child
  • Was a single mother at 17
  • Is an African American woman
  • Lived in middle America
  • She started her career in the 60’s and 70’s, which I understand was a less enlightened time in the US for African Americans (I’m from Australia, so I wasn’t there to experience it)

Cathy apparently faced discrimination in her early days but again, she maintained focus on her goal and never doubted she would succeed.

Again, I won’t go into her whole story but one story she recounted was approaching financial institutions for a $1 million loan with only $10,000 in the bank. She went to 32 banks before getting the loan. 90% of people would give up after 2 or 3 banks but not Cathy. She said that she believed in the law of averages that every ‘No’ is one step closer to a YES. It is not hard to believe that she would have gone to 100 banks if she had to.

What if we all had the same confidence as Cathy that we would succeed despite self-imposed limits? Very few will achieve the success that Cathy has. Without question though, the person that follows a passionate goal without thought of failure will be far more successful then the one that finds reasons they can’t.

If you don’t have the right skills, have the right attitude

‘Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference’

Winston Churchill

I’ve never started a job with the skill level to hit the ground running. My education level is moderate at best and I haven’t any specialised qualifications. Therefore, I generally start a new role with minimal real ability to perform the duties.

What I do have however, is the right attitude. I start every new role with enthusiasm and with a learning mindset. In some ways, my lack of knowledge is an advantage as I don’t go in with a ‘know it all’ attitude. I don’t know what I’m doing and any opportunity is a chance to learn.

My current role serves as an example. If someone asked me to deal with an aggravated customer, I get onto it immediately without complaint. If I’m asked to clean up vomit or a particularly nasty toilet incident, I go and do it immediately. If I’m stuck with a full shift or just standing at the top of a broken escalator to perform customer service, I’m there.

These examples are not especially complex but they are not everyone’s idea of a good time. The point is, I do them and take the opportunity to learn. I might learn some strategies to manage the aggravated customer to use the next time. I get to use my communication skills with the broken escalator. I might not learn a lot while cleaning up a messy toilet but it is a mindless task that allows me to reflect on ways to make money or for other productive thought.

I have applied the positive attitude to every role I have held for the last decade. This attitude has given me the reputation as someone that is reliable and can be counted on to assist when needed. This has resulted in many opportunities being offered to me that were definitely beyond my education level and skill. Many times, these offers have been made ahead of people with considerably more experience in the role then I had.

It surprises me that I see many long-term and new starters that are reluctant to undertake tasks and make excuses. I get it, no one wants to clean up a blocked toilet. It is smelly and unpleasant. I won’t lie, there have been times I have been dry retching while cleaning up.

You know what though, when it’s time to offer an extra shift, overtime or a spell at a higher role, they will be asking the guy with the right attitude, not the guy that complains every time they are asked to do something.

High-volume customer service – The 15 second relationship

The majority of my career has involved some level of customer service. Some has been intensive, long-term case management, where you have the opportunity to develop working relationships with customer over a period of time.

Currently, my customer service exposure is high-volume. A normal shift will involve interactions with 100’s of people. The trick in high-volume is to provide value to the customer, while still being efficient. My view is that each interaction with a customer is a relationship and you have 5-15 seconds to maximise the experience.

Following are some tips that work well for me in terms of customer involvement and the business objective:

Smile – It amazes me how many people in customer service fail to smile. They work efficiently without expression. The service is provided but fails to engage the customer. In high-volume customer service, you only have one chance to make an impression. A smile is so simple and if you really enjoy customer service like I do, it is genuine and comes easy.

Greet the customer – Again, such a simple thing. Just say ‘Hello’, ‘Good morning sir’, ‘Hi’, or even ‘Gidday’. Accompany a greeting with a smile and the customer will usually respond in kind.

Provide value – Even if you are dealing with a large volume of customers, you can still provide additional value. For example, I am often asked for directions for a particular train. I could respond quickly and just say ‘Platform 9’. I have done my job but it takes me possibly 5 seconds more to quickly turn to check the monitors and say ‘Platform 9, Springfield Train in 5 minutes’. Little things make a big difference.

Become knowledgable – In line with the previous point, having knowledge of your business is very important. In my case, what trains are on what line, what stations are on what line, where is the lost property office, where are the toilets, where the taxi rank is; etc. All simple things but important so you can move traffic through quickly while still being informative.

Develop short scripts – I don’t sit down and write out scripts for each situation but I take notice of what responses are effective with customers with respect to being clear, concise and achieve a positive customer response. A quick example would be directions to a platform. Instead of saying ‘Platform 9 up the end’ (which admittedly, I have said), I say ‘Platform 9, 3rd stairs on your left’. The customer walks away confidently instead of looking back at me with blank eyes.

Close the transaction quickly – For a lot of regular commuters, efficiency is key. I still apply the engagement techniques but I retain efficiency. Some customers are oblivious to how busy it is and are inclined to stop in chat. This is fine during quiet periods but not when there are 20 people in a queue. My goal is to engage the customer and move them on in a courteous way. Scripting plays a part here. Using the previous example, I will say ‘Platform 9, 3rd stairs on your left. Thank you, have a good day’. This sums up the interaction in a pleasant way and allows me to divert my attention to the next customer without being rude.

No jokes – Unless I am comfortable with a customer, I don’t consider that jokes, more like clever quips actually, play a part in high-volume customer service. A lot of my colleagues rely on amusing comments. I find these unnecessary and don’t add value to the customer experience. I’m not particularly funny anyway, so I don’t want to force something and be disingenuous.

Don’t do it unless you love it – In terms of work, customer service is my passion. I do it because I genuinely enjoy it. The more customers I can serve and get positive feedback, the better my day is. Sadly, I see many, many colleagues performing the job without passion. They are either transitioning between jobs or stuck in the role so long they no longer enjoy it. My view is, if you no longer enjoy a job, move on. You are doing yourself, the customer and the business a favour.

Look professional and smell nice – This applies to any customer service role. How you present yourself is a reflection of the business. I consider it also a demonstration of your respect for your customer. Make sure your clothes are clean and pressed. Be clean shaven or at least have facial hair neat. Shoes should be clean. Brush teeth/ Wear deodorant! I recall a podcast from How I Built This.  1-800-GOT-JUNK?: Brian Scudmore In this episode, Brian stated that a priority was for his staff to be neatly presented. This is a role where they will be carting away rubbish and will get dirty. Brian still recognised the importance of how the customer perceives someone who looks presentable, versus someone that turns up in dirty overalls and smells like a goat.

These are my thoughts on what works for me with high-volume customer service. In some ways, I’m not the most confident person and understate my ability. Customer service is not something that can be easily measured as but when you’re good at something, you know.

‘When the learning curve expires’

I was listening to the latest podcast from How I Built This How I Built ThisWeWork: Miguel McKelvey

In this episode, Guy interviews Miguel McKelvey, one of the founders of WeWork, a company that provides shared workspaces for freelancers and startups.

Miguel was discussing a previous job he held with an architectural firm. When asked what prompted him to leave his response included ‘when the learning curve expires’. The phrase stayed with me. It perfectly describes my career for the last decade. When I achieve a point when I can no longer learn or make improvements to the role, I move on.

This was not always the case. From the age of 25, I spent the next 17 years within varying but very similar roles within government. The only real difference in the roles was the level of responsibility and staff managed. Occasional adjustments were required over the years with new managers and legislative changes but realistically, I consider my ‘learning curve’ expired in the first 5 years of employment.

At that time though, I lacked the drive and confidence in my ability to move on to new things. I walked through each day in a cruise and spent more time developing social networks than anything else. I was stale but it was only through hindsight that I realised this.

I’ve worked with countless people who have reached their own ‘learning curve’ expiration but have failed to progress further. In fact, I find that many people actually go backwards in their skill levels. I equate this to exercising at the same level day after day, year after year. The body adapts and rather than improve, it starts to decline. You have to keep progressing to make change.

The point I take from Miguel’s comment is that when you have reached your maximum capacity in a role and the role is no longer challenging, it is time to change. This may mean a career change, finding ways to improve the functionality of the role or seeking learning opportunities to increase your potential for advancement.

Whatever you do, don’t stagnate. This is where you become less capable to adapt to change and limit your options.

Do what you love. Not always a good thing.

One of the constants in my adult life has been going to the gym. At a minimum I attend the gym 4 days a week and have done so for 30+ years. It has become such an important part of my life that when I move house, I make sure I buy near a gym. I love how I feel after a workout, I love the noise of clanking weights, I love the feel of iron in my hands, I love challenging my body, I even love the smell of the gym. I just love going to the gym.

In my early 40’s, I was having a bit of a career crisis. I was really going through tIMG_3741he motions in my job. The only job satisfaction I had was when my pay went into my account. I needed a change.

I came across an advertisement promoting a fitness trainer course. I could undertake the course after my day job and after 6 months I could be a certified Fitness Trainer. I loved going to gym, so surely this would be the perfect career fit for me.

I signed up and started the course with nervous excitement. I loved it. I learned a lot of the more technical aspects of fitness training and physiology in addition to improving my repartre of workout methods. I was also surrounded with like-minded fit and healthy people.

One completion of the course, I very quickly secured a job as a Personal Trainer with a private studio. This was the dream! I would have one-on-one sessions with clients and be involved in changing their bodies and lives.

Though I continued to maintain my full-time work, I was able to train clients before and after work. The studio would allocate me clients, so I immediately had a client base to work with. I utilised my free time to create individualised training programs to meet the goals of my clients. I would also find time to fit in my own workouts along the way. I was busy but having fun!

Move forward 6 months. I was getting up at 4:30AM, train clients, go to my day job, do my own workout at lunch, then go to the studio after work to train clients until 8:30PM. I normally a client or two on Saturday and then had Sunday off. I was tired.

Being tired wasn’t the problem though. The problem was that my clients didn’t love the gym as much as me. Gym was my passion. To them, going to the gym was a chore and only undertaken only because they had to. I would approach each client with enthusiasm and put in all my energy to construct interesting and intense sessions. I would train my clients hard but I was seeing no results.

It became clear that my clients were not training with the same intensity outside of our session…or not training at all. One client attended an afternoon session stinking of alcohol. It seemed every day I would hear more excuses about why they hadn’t been training or couldn’t attend a scheduled session.

As my clients were not demonstrating their commitment to the gym with the same passion as me, I lost the passion to help them. My sessions became little more then recycled, generic workouts. The majority of my clients just wanted to talk, so that’s what I did. If they started to sweat, it was due to the temperature, not the workout.

I stuck with the job for 2 years with the hope that I could somehow develop a reputation as a specialised trainer that could afford to pick and choose their clients. This would never happen though as I was barely making an effort to be a great trainer. As with my day job, I was going through the motions. Though the extra income was great, I decided to leave the job before I lost my own passion for my own training.

Though I posted Saving dollars & cents – Do what you love will follow, I don’t necessarily consider that doing what you love is a good thing. If the customer doesn’t share your passion, it can reduce your enthusiasm and it can just become a job.

Do work that is important to you and provides value. If you are emotionally attached to the work though, you risk losing your own love for what you do. Maybe some personal passions should stay that way.

Taking opportunities…and feeling tired

I blogged recently in Obstacles to the dream – Options and opportunities that I had been reassigned to a work location that provided little in the opportunity for shift penalties and weekend work.

In reaction to this, I sought out any chance to work additional hours to make up lost income. An opportunity was posted for staff willing to work the following two Sundays. I responded quickly, and soon received confirmation that I had been allocated the Sunday shifts. Double time work, happy days!

Shortly after this, I was contacted by HR to advise that I could return to regular work locations that provide more penalty shifts and weekend work. Another colleague was keen to work at the Monday to Friday work location, so in exchange, I was provided her shifts.

This was a blessing but also came with strings attached. My colleagues shifts were primarily 1-2AM finishes. Obviously, after getting home, going to bed at 2 to 3 AM is not ideal to get a solid sleep and I end up feeling slightly fatigued most of the time. In itself, this is not a big deal as the shifts usually last a few days and then I get a day or two off to recover.

However, as I had already taken on the Sunday overtime shifts and my colleagues shifts were not aligned to a Monday to Friday week, I find myself working 10 days straight. By this Friday, I will have actually have worked 17 days with only 1 day break. Subsequently, I’m dragging my feet a bit.

I reflected on this a moment though. How many successful people work Monday to Friday and have weekends off? I would be confident in saying it would be close to zero. Successful people are aware that when they aren’t working, some one else will be working and potentially they will be losing business to them.

I thought of the new immigrants to Australia that run small business. I used to frequent a supermarket close to home when I lived in Sydney. The Asian owner was there, 7 days a week for 12 hours per day. Obviously, these hours are not ideal for family time but they pave the way to success.

I considered also the brave men and women that have fought in war. Years can go by where they are involved in active combat. I’m fairly certain that in the World Wars, there was no cease fire called on weekends. They essentially worked 7 days a week and often 24 hours a day, primarily for the reward of serving their country and hopefully coming home alive.

Putting it all in perspective, working 10 days straight is no great accomplishment or even hardship. I have obviously been softened by decades of Monday to Friday work and need to harden up to succeed in order to achieve my dream of early retirement.

The best career advice I ever received

In 2009, I moved from Canberra (possibly the dullest capital city on earth) to Sydney. Sydney was the polar opposite of Canberra. It has a vibrant, exciting and cosmopolitan culture, with a never-ending amount of sights to see and things to do. I was really excited about starting my new life in Sydney.

I arrived to a new role in recruitment. Within only days, I realised that it was not a job for me, so I started to furiously send out applications for other job opportunities. I applied for jobs where I had experience and could perform confidently.

After a couple of weeks, I secured an interview for a role in payroll. Unlike most interviews I had attended, I found that I was not particularly motivated prior to the meeting and had undertaken almost zero preparation.

The interview got underway and I started to answer the questions but again, I was struggling. I didn’t have that nervous energy that I almost always have in interviews. My answers were satisfactory but flat.

After 20 minutes, it seemed the interviewer was sensing that, while I was responding reasonably well, I just wasn’t into it. He paused, then asked ‘Why did you apply for this role?’. I normally have a formulated response that demonstrates my interest in the role, the opportunities it provides, how it utilises my skills…blah, blah, all that sort of stuff. This time, I hesitated, then blurted out ‘I need a new job and I have experience in payroll work’.

After such a response, I am surprised I wasn’t escorted out the door with a kick up the ass for wasting his time. However, he reflected for a moment and said ‘What sort of work do you want to do?’. I looked back with blank eyes and said ‘I don’t know’. Was that important??

His next comment was simple advice but completely changed the way I have looked at work from then on. ‘Look at your CV and every job you have ever done. Work out what is the one thing about every job that you enjoyed. Find that and follow it.’

I left the interview feeling confused. I had always applied for jobs where I had the experience and capabilities that met the advertised role. I had never applied for a job where the main criteria was, do what you enjoy.

That night, I reviewed my CV, which had developed into the size of a small phone book with the number of jobs I had accumulated. I looked at every job. What did I enjoy about each job. It didn’t actually take long for me to realise that what I enjoyed was providing customer service. Customer service where I genuinely helped people with no benefit to me to be exact.

I started my job search with a new purpose. I sought out jobs where I could help people. Roles were somewhat limited as a lot of customer service roles had a sales component that didn’t appeal to me. However, I did eventually find one role that provided services to people with dust diseases (I will explain this another day). I was excited! This was the feeling I wanted. I researched the role, the company, the relevant diseases and drafted up an application for the role and sent it off to the company.

Shortly after, I was made redundant from my job at the recruitment company. After a couple of hours of feeling miserable as I hadn’t lost a job since I was 15, I felt great! The job was unhealthy for me and I could now focus on looking for a positive job. I had a few thousand dollars saved and could access unemployment benefits, so I calculated I could survive a few months without finding myself out on the street.

I picked up a couple of casual hours of work here and there over the next few weeks until I received a call asking me in for an interview for the dust diseases job. Over the next week, I started furiously studying everything I could and creating hypothetical questions they may ask.

The interview day came. What a difference from the payroll job. I was excited, confident and enthusiastic. I answered each questions with detail and great examples. When they asked me the same question about why I applied for the job, I responded with an answer that was honest. The short message being, I wanted to help people. I walked out confident I had the job. Luckily I didn’t know at the time that 160 people had applied for the job or my confidence may have wavered.

Over the following weeks (and months it turned out), I barely even looked at other jobs. I was so sure I had secured the dust diseases job and just had to wait. I waited so long that my unemployment benefits were going to be withdrawn but I was barely concerned. I would get the job.

And I did. My first pay arrived literally days before I was totally broke.

I loved the job. Every day I coordinated services for people with terminal diseases to provide quality of life up to their death. Depressing for some, rewarding for me. I stayed with the role for 5 years and other than management going in a new direction with the role, I would still be there today.

The pay wasn’t great to be honest but I was doing what I enjoyed. I didn’t struggle to get out of bed to work each day. I worked hard every day but rarely felt drained. I usually left for the day thinking about how many people I could help the next day and how I could do my job better.

That advice I received (from an unlikely source) has led me in the roles I seek out now. Do what you enjoy. Money is necessary but surely being happy about what you are doing is at least as important.